Monday, November 29, 2010

Training to be a cage-fighter, er, writer

(A re-post from our class blog A Tale of Ten Slugs.)

Among the lush pickings of memorable lines from the 2004 movie Napoleon Dynamite, one of the best is Kip’s to his brother:

“Napoleon, don’t be jealous that I’ve been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know that I’m training to be a cage-fighter.” (Video from Hulu, if you’re rusty on the scene, feel free to skip.)

Well go Kip, I say. This line bubbled to the surface of my mind today when I was watching an interview with Truman Capote, dating from the mid-60s.

By all means skip the video above, but this one (non-embeddable, unfortunately) which I found via a Twitter lead is worth the time. (Yes, Capote’s voice is obnoxious, but deal with it and it’ll be worth it.)

Capote discusses becoming a writer, his book In Cold Blood and how his writing style change over time. His opening sentence is especially wonderful to keep in mind:

“If you are going to have a genuine career in the arts, it’s exactly like being a prize-fighter or a concert pianist. It isn’t something that you just take up one moment and drop the next. It’s an act of continuous concentration on your work and building the thing more and more toward its larger possibilities.”

It’s easy to forget that even the most excellent writers had to develop their skills. I’ve been slowly working my way through listening to In Cold Blood on long car rides. Capote is capable of giving the reader a great deal of information through the choicest details. The book’s opening paragraph:
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveller reaches them.
For someone, like me, who reads this and thinks, “How did he do that? How can I do that?” His suggestion of training yourself like a prize-fighter is both a comfort and a rally.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

My piece from today's Monterey Herald: The science behind turkey magic

Courtesy of the  State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

The science behind turkey magic
Cooking the Thanksgiving bird a mix of physical, chemical reactions
Herald Staff Writer
Posted: 11/25/2010 01:30:43 AM PST
Updated: 11/25/2010 01:30:44 AM PST

In kitchens across the nation today, as cooks prepare the Thanksgiving bird, the oven will be the object of a near-magical transformation.
A raw, unappealing, plucked gobbler will go in. If all goes well, a tender, browned, aromatic wonder will come out.

The change is the result of a host of physical and chemical reactions. For the curious, an investigation into the science of cooking the grand old bird offers useful insights.

Ever had turkey tartare? Not likely. Meat such as beef and fish is tender and flavorful when rare. When prepared properly, these can be relatively clean as well. But undercooked poultry is a tough, bland, bacterial growing ground.

Cooking addresses each problem. High heat kills bacteria. Cooking unravels protein fibers making the meat more tender and easier to chew. Cooking — in particular, browning — creates wonderful scents and flavors that make our mouth water.

Banishing the bugs

Poultry preparation requires special vigilance. An uncooked turkey carries potentially dangerous bacteria on the outside and the inside of the carcass. When turkeys are slaughtered and eviscerated, their intestines are unavoidably punctured.

"When they are cleaned, some of their feces are spread around the inside of the bird, and the outside," said food safety expert Benjamin Chapman, from North Carolina State University.

"The inside of the bird is actually the most contaminated part."

Cooking your bird to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit will kill any bacteria. But, Chapman cautions, turkeys need to be cooled properly. He suggests separating uneaten portions in medium-size plastic bags and laying them in the refrigerator to cool. Leaving cooked meat around for longer than two hours will only invite other bacteria to grow.

"It's quite complicated to prepare a large meal for 10 to 15 people and to get the timing right for everything," he said. "Good safety is important to pay attention to, though, because we see a spike in food poisoning outbreaks around the holidays every year."

Tricky timing
While you faithfully cook your bird to 165 degrees, what is happening to it?

Cooking softens meat by unraveling coiled muscle fibers and connective tissue. But overcooking will squeeze out the moisture in the meat and congeal the muscle fibers, leaving it tough and dry.

Brining a turkey — soaking it in salty water — moistens the meat and infuses salt throughout the bird. Salt allows protein fibers to hang onto more water while cooking.

Cooks should be aware the temperature will continue to rise inside the bird a few degrees, even after it is removed from the oven. Heat from the hotter outside of the bird will continue to transfer inward, so it should be taken out 5 to 10 degrees prior to the desired temperature. A 20-minute "standing time" will redistribute the meat's juices and let some muscle fibers that have contracted under the heat to relax. The turkey is then easier to carve.

Infrequent flyers

One of the reasons the Thanksgiving roast is such a challenge is that turkeys have two very different types of meat — each needing slightly different cooking temperatures.

Turkeys spend most of their life on their feet. Their attempts at flying are rare and pathetic. Their leg muscles are stronger and tougher than the rarely-exercised light breast meat. This is because leg meat stores more fat and pigments. The primary pigment is myoglobin, which helps muscles store oxygen and results in a denser meat.

For full effect, the dark meat needs 180 degrees. Breast meat is best when it reaches approximately 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Alton Brown of the Food Network's "Good Eats" suggests a highly specific 161.
Cooks have several suggestions about how to achieve this temperature differential.

Food science expert Harold McGee, author of "Keys to Good Cooking," suggests securing ice packs to the breast meat while thawing so the different sections of the bird begin cooking at different temperatures. Brown recommends making an aluminum shield to deflect some heat from the breast. Some cooks prepare the bird upside down. The simplest method is probably to cut the legs from the body and cook separately.

Mysterious chemistry
The chemistry of what actually makes a browned bird taste so good is still a subject of some mystery. High temperatures cause proteins and sugars to break down and react with each other. By themselves, the molecules don't have any aroma — they are too large to escape into the air. Our sense of taste is primarily based on our nose, so if we can't smell it, we can't taste it.

But when the proteins and sugars combine under high temperature, they create hundreds of new compounds small enough that we can smell and taste them. Researchers have been cataloging the tempting molecules for more than 100 years. More than 500 have been identified in poultry, and there are new ones to be discovered.

To achieve a brown, tasty crust on your bird, McGee recommends starting out at a high temperature. After the browning is out of the way — and the flavors that make our mouth water have been created — turn down the heat to monitor the bird's internal temperature. Doing this in the reverse — slow cooking followed by high temperature searing — makes it easy to overshoot the target temperature.

Assuming you have achieved scientific perfection with your 20-pounder, pour yourself a large glass of wine. Inhale deeply. See how many of the 500 turkey flavors you can smell. Grab that knife and fork. And have at it. Enjoy!

Danielle Venton can be reached at 646-4358 or

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Family wisdom: How to write stories that sell

My mother gave me this wonderful old slip of paper hand typed by my grandmother many decades ago. It is a set of guidelines for “Writing Stories that Sell.” The advice proffered is still valid, so I wanted to share. The charming exception is the section detailing how to prepare your manuscript for submission. What is “pica” if I may ask?

My grandmother fancied herself a bit of a writer. She didn’t write full-time or professionally, however she regularly contributed to her community paper, the Sunland Village Journal. Apparently she even had a column called, “The Cook of the Month.” A surprise for a woman who resolutely shunned cooking. I can’t blame her, though, for taking every opportunity to write. Her specialty, my mom says, were features about decorating and travel. Oh yes, and Bridge, the card game of her obsession.

We have a book of her clippings in my family’s possession. I’ve never read these, though apparently I am mentioned in several columns. My mom said she’d let me take the book back to Santa Cruz with me after my visit this weekend. I can’t wait to deleve in to them.

In class today we reviewed the writing guidelines we’ve learned this quarter. I took notes faithfully. Possibly someday I’ll get to pass them on to my own grandaughter. For the record: 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Couple still very sweet, despite 'honeymoon from hell'

A fun piece I wrote for today's Monterey Herald. -DV

Honeymoon becomes the cruise from hell for Salinas couple

Couple booked passage on ill-fated Carnival Splendor
Herald Staff Writer
Updated: 11/18/2010 08:59:14 AM PST

John and Tannya Wallace hold a photo taken of them during... (ORVILLE MYERS/Special to The Herald)
John and Tannya Wallace knew married life would come with difficulties. They just didn't know how soon. 

"It was about 6 a.m. and the boat began to lurch. Then it just stopped," said John, 28. "A couple of minutes later we smelled smoke."

The Salinas couple had just left for their honeymoon the evening before. The ship encountered difficulties Nov. 8.

Their first cruise, aboard the ill-fated Carnival Splendor, was a trip Tannya, 22, researched extensively. She heard this cruise line, this specific ship, was the most fun. 

Read more

Of potatoes and pitches

(A reposting of my entry on our class blog:

Robot laser sharks, we hear, are super newsworthy (Image: Robb Gibbs)

Our class stories appeared on this week. I wrote about researchers who study cheetah fertility with ultra-sonography. It’s gotten me interested in other ultra-sound uses, beyond the realms of reproduction, as I hunt around for interesting story ideas. Any surprise that I came up with a food example?

Check out this wild study in the American Journal of Potato Research (not a joke, this is real), “Detection of Internal Defects in Potato Based on Ultrasound Attenuation,” published online November 11. Not being up to speed on the rapidly developing world of tuberology, I can’t possibly say if this is novel or a big deal for spud studies. What it does show, however, is the interconnection between multiple science branches and that, if you can measure it, you can study it.

Journalism is similarly constriction-free. Nearly everything can be written about, with a few caveats. You must be able to justify what you want to write about. This week I’ve run a few story ideas past editors and I’m learning that pitching is an elusive art! No doubt a very valuable lesson (along with patience). An interesting topic and the enthusiasm to pursue it is not enough. You need the maelstrom of news values.

How to give a spud a sonogram
Thus, “Researchers hunt rotten potatoes, image human embryos on the side,” is not necessarily a story.
But, “Potatoes capable of live birth, fed tomorrow to just-discovered robot laser sharks, in your backyard” would be a great story. (*Sigh*)

What I really want is a study titled, “Detection of Internal Defects in Story Pitches Based on Ultrasound Attenuation.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The wordy and nerdy luminaries of the science-writing world

My brain, personal network and Twitter followers were expanded over the weekend as I attended a science writing conference. An added perk -- I was invited as a guest poster on a Nature Education blog. Read my report from the conference:

At the Peabody

Guest Post: Learning from the Luminaries

This weekend, New Haven, Connecticut, glowed with the wordy and nerdy luminaries of the science-writing world. They were drinking coffee like water, exchanging business cards like blackjack dealers, and hobnobbing amidst dinosaur bones.

I was at ScienceWriters2010, a joint meeting of the National Association of Science Writers Annual Workshops and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing's New Horizons in Science Briefings, hosted at Yale University. While many of the names present were from the heights of the science writing, there were also more modest people like me (i.e., students).

Read more