Ugly Delicious

David Chang and his “boyfriend” Peter Meehan return to the screen in foodie series Ugly Delicious. I feel a special connection to Mr. Chang as the google search “is david chang gay?” used to have my blog as the top hit [he is not, and we meet his lovely wife in this series]. Now it’s at the top of page 2. Unlike PBS sponsored The Mind of a Chef (which I reviewed hereUgly is a netflix original, which means Chang’s copious F-bombs and other vulgarities are not bleeped out.

I have mixed feelings about the new series. Chang has great stage presence, his bromance with Peter is fun to watch, and it’s addictive as ever watched Chang devour food. The cartoon segues concerning food history are cute. But the pacing is horrible- in the “Tacos” episode we are constantly jumping back and forth between Mexico and Los Angeles, and Chang’s ultra liberal politics are sledgehammered on viewers. In one scene Chang tries to convince a conservative Vietnamese American on open borders. The conservative Vietnamese American politely points out that if they followed the rules, why should not everyone else? Chang later sputters over his failure to “make people more open.” I don’t care what your politics are, but it is ALWAYS a mistake to “lecture” in a documentary. So I take points off for that.

I’ve watched only three episodes so far- “Tacos,” “Shrimp & Crawfish” [squeamish viewers beware, crawfish are cooked alive!], and “Stuffed,” but there is less cooking than in The Mind of a Chef which is a disappointment. There’s more talking in Ugly, mostly food experts and other foodies philosophizing on food and dissing commercialized food. In one scene Chang & Co snobbishly jaunt through a Taco Bell drive-thru, mocking the lowly fare they purchase. Other scenes are just stupid- the xiaolongbao VS tortellini “debate” felt like a badly produced middle school skit.

If I were to give Chang and Meehan documentary advice, it would be to slow the pacing down, focus mainly on the two of them visiting fewer restaurants/ food carts, talking in depth to the chefs and closely examining their kitchens. Drop the blowhard politics. The cartoon segues are cute but don’t overdo them. Stop the silly skits! And show more cooking, especially of Chang cooking.

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Among the Believers

Among the Believers is a 2015 documentary illustrating the ideological divide between Pakistani fundamentalists and the secular segments of society. While a decent documentary, I have my usual quibbles with pacing and stylistic measures. There is a lot of time jumping which I found irritating and the pacing is ‘off.’ Ultimately we are shown how the red mosque siege led to the horrific peshawar school attack, but by this point in the docu it is more of a footnote and not the meat of the film.

Remarkably we are shown extensive inside footage of life inside a red mosque madrasa. Children are woken an hour before dawn and then recite/ memorize the koran until night. That’s right: they spend full days doing nothing but reciting and memorizing the koran (which they don’t understand in arabic), with occasional food breaks; one former student claims they are fed just once a day. Indeed many of the young students look guant and undernourished, with sunken eyes and washed out complexion. It is a brutal existence but only slightly less brutal than what awaits on the outside. For the boys, harsh manual labor; for the girls, way too early marriage.

One of the more disturbing scenes is a brief interview with a red mosque pupil. With unfeigned confusion he asks: why is he considered a ‘terrorist?’ After all, he explains, he is a mujihadeen who kills infidels in the name of allah. He truly saw no connection.

As disturbing as the documentary was, something about it bothered me beyond the political fray. I couldn’t put my finger on it, until it dawned on me a few days later: politics, religion, foreign policy aside, what is taking place in these madrasas is child abuse. Forcing young children to do nothing for 10+ hours but memorize a single book (any book!) is abusive. There is no playing, no cerebral investigation, no nurturing. These children are being robbed of their childhoods, with no chance to be a kid.

The children, especially the younger children, are shown rocking back and forth as they recite koran. While I know rocking back and forth can be part of prayer- orthodox men rock back and forth while davening– this to me looked like a stress reaction. It reminded me of footage I’ve seen from eastern european orphanages where children rock endlessly back and forth in an effort to soothe themselves. And that’s basically what these madrasas are, ‘orphanages’ for the very poor whose parents- facing few options – surrender them.

Why the treatment of these children in madrasas isn’t considered a human rights issue on par with child labor is beyond me, and I wish it had been better addressed by the docu. The docu also overlooks the glaring class issues at play: secularists in Pakistan tend to be upper class and well off, while extremists tend to emerge from dire poverty. And given high rates of cousin marriage in Pakistan, this creates a de facto caste system that further cements the divide.

Among the Believers is available on netflix as of this posting.

One of Us

One of Us is a documentary about the plight of hasidic jews who choose to leave the enclave of their community. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady of Jesus Camp fame, we follow the lives of three hasidic jews who step outside the confines of community norms. Etty is a 32 year old mother of seven children who divorces her abusive husband; Ari is an outside-the-box teenager with a drug habit, and Luzer is an actor who abandons his wife and children to pursue his dream in California.

Etty’s battle to maintain custody of her children is particularly heartbreaking and exhibits the double standard New York courts apply to ultra orthodox women versus secular women. If a secular woman has a standing history of abuse from her husband and can illustrate as much in court, there is absolutely no way he will be granted full custody of the children. But what seems a given is an uphill battle for Etty. The entire community finances and supports her husband while relentlessly harassing her; she is more than once deliberately hit by a car and a letter is circulated around the community to solicit legal funds to save the children “from satan.” While I had heard stories of hasidic women treated horrifically in divorce and custody settlements, I never realized how perilous the reality could be for them.

This is a good documentary but not as good as Jesus Camp. The pacing is a little sloppy and some camera work sub par. I would have liked to have seen more of the hasidic community writ large, heard from some rabbis (one rabbi does give commentary later in the film) or learned more about other hasids who venture beyond the fold. Perhaps a broader scope was not possible given how insular and anti-media hasdic jews are: internet access is forbidden, as is the viewing of secular media. In one particularly painful scene Ari is approached by an older man asking if the park has wi-fi access. Ari initially misunderstands the question to indicate the man wants access, and offers him the use of his phone. What entails is an icy third degree and brief lecture on how Ari should repent for cutting his payot (side curls) and engaging in the secular world.

One of Us takes you on a tour of disbelief; disbelief that a thirteen year old has never used google. Disbelief that these individuals, born and raised in Brooklyn, struggle to speak standard english. Disbelief that a kind and loving mother would need to fight for any access to her children. Disbelief that Ewing and Grady even managed to produce this film in the first place! I have to hand it to them- given how deeply sequestered and guarded hasidic society is, these two women have some guts.

This docu gets two thumbs up from yours truly, though I came away slightly disappointed from a technical aspect. As I have preached before, interesting content but poor execution is the singular disease of the documentary world, and while well done, One of Us doesn’t quite hit the mark of Jesus Camp.

 

32 Pills

32 Pills is not the kind of documentary I typically gravitate to, but it kept appearing at the top of the HBO documentary list, perhaps because its title begins with a number which ‘alphabetically’ precedes A in some lists.

I started watching it when I was sick, but it was so sad and depressing I had to stop. When I regrouped my inner wherewithal a few days later, I finished watching.

The documentary is about the painful lives of Ruth and Hope Litoff, two sisters who grew up with privilege in manhattan in the 1980s and 90s. Both sisters are beautiful, intelligent, artistic, educated and well off, but manage to fall down the rabbit holes of mental illness and substance abuse respectively. After a lifetime of depression, emotional volatility and countless suicide attempts, Ruth kills herself at the age of 42.

32 Pills is the saga of surviving sister Hope trying to come to terms not just with her sister’s suicide but with the ghosts of their fraught relationship and painful family history.

More than once the documentary crosses the line from ‘documentation’ to exhibitionism. I struggled to see how so much public bandaid-ripping could in any way be healing to this poor woman, whose first drink in 16 years (double vodka on the rocks) is filmed via selfie cam. In another scene her beleaguered husband is following her around their beautiful apartment, camera in hand, while she frantically throws back drinks.

The quality of this documentary is not great. The pacing is weird and I disliked the endless montages of creepy, scribbly drawings from Ruth’s journals (montages, in general, get on my nerves in documentaries). In terms of execution I’d give this docu a weak 4 on a 1-10 scale; in terms of human interest I’d give it a 6 to 7. Unfortunately this is a common theme in the documentary world- interesting subject, poor execution.

I’m not sure I can recommend this documentary unless you happen to have some kind of personal connection to losing a loved one through suicide (I hope you don’t), or an interest in documentaries about drug addiction and mental illness. Just be forewarned it’s incredibly sad.

Cats Are Useless

Earlier this year I watched a documentary about cats. At one point a scientist type is interviewed and he explains that the concept of cats as rodent control devices is inaccurate. During times of severe rat and mouse infestations, specially trained dogs- not cats- have historically been used. This then poses the question: exactly what purpose do cats serve as part of human society? The answer, apparently, is none. Cats may be cute, funny, devious, cuddly, but in utilitarian terms… they’re completely useless. They’re not even good garbage disposals as they tend to eat only carnivore-friendly scraps. Even worse, cats can be notoriously picky and will refuse even the choicest meat scraps!

Case in point regarding rats is an odd video I came across courtesy of the Staten Island Advance (or as it’s called around here “the ADD-vance”). Apparently there is a group of NYC dog owners who in true historical fashion have trained their dogs- mostly terriers from the looks of it- to hunt rats. They are summoned to infested areas of the city and the rat hunt begins. Take a look for yourself:

Looks like a fun way to spend the evening. Rats weighing more than five pounds are termed trophy rats. There’s a joke somewhere in there about trophy wives, but I can’t find it.

Abortion: Stories Women Tell

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is an HBO documentary detailing the footing of abortion access in Missouri, a state where restrictive laws render it one of the most difficult states in the nation to obtain an abortion. Women often have to drive hundreds of miles to reach an abortion provider, and within the state are subject to a 72 hour wait period even if the baby is afflicted with a condition not compatible with life.

This is a good documentary, highly watchable, and it makes an effort to allow both sides to speak to the camera. Clinic security guard “Chi Chi” is a character unto herself, snidely telling off protesters- “I wish I could abort HIM!”- she quips of one, and castigating women who churn out babies for welfare (her words, not mine).

We are introduced to soldiers on both sides of the line: clinic escorts who usher shell shocked patients to and from vehicles, pro-life activists who make a veritable career from organizing pro-life events and protesting at clinics. At one pro-life dinner a teary eyed Susan Jaramillo takes the stage like a quasi rock star, telling her tale of abortion woe and destruction. Her books are for sale on a nearby table.

In the documentary numerous women describe their decision to seek out an abortion. Most cite financial distress, a few cite abusive husbands/ boyfriends, one woman sought an abortion when she learned the father of her child was married. A few women terminate pregnancies after the baby is diagnosed with severe anomalies.

I had a lot of sympathy for all people featured, yes, even the obnoxious preachers raining hell fire on bewildered patients stumbling into the clinic. I can see why people hate them, but having known militant pro-lifers myself, I understand where they’re coming from. They truly believe they are fighting the most heinous form of murder known to humanity.

My own views on abortion are not so clear cut. I’m unsure if I’m pro-choice or pro-life. I’ll tell you my views and maybe you can let me know what I am.

I absolutely believe the unborn baby is a nascent form of human life. How anyone could pretend otherwise, even atheists, I cannot understand. As my friend the atheist once said: Everyone who is for abortion was born. Not complicated right?

I also believe, that as a nascent form of life, the unborn baby is precious and deserving of protection.

However: I also believe forcing a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is tantamount to rape. Pregnancy and childbirth involve the penetration of the mother’s body, both of her uterus and vagina, sometimes other parts- even if the baby is going “out” the body is still being penetrated, sometimes horrifically (yes I know the “horrific” part firsthand). Penetration without consent is rape.

So on the one hand you have the taking of a human life- murder- and on the other hand you have rape. Forgive me if I can’t decide which is worse!

I have one other thought on abortion, and this is something pro-lifers refuse to acknowledge: women will always have abortions. It doesn’t matter how many laws you lay down. Women will seek and obtain abortions even where it is illegal.

Therefore, if you are faced with an inevitable abortion, and you can either lose one life (the baby’s) or two lives (the baby’s and the mom’s), you are ethically obligated to protect the one life you can reach- the mother’s! Why pro-lifers refuse to see this is beyond me. If they successfully outlaw abortion there will be MORE loss of human life at the hands of shoddy purveyors of abortion, not less!

While Abortion: Stories Women Tell attempts to be even handed, it comes out slanted for the pro-choice side. I’m not sure if this is because the pro-lifers featured are so obnoxious, although one pro-choice SJW type gives a pestiferous rant toward the end of the film, or if it was deliberate. Either way this is one of the better abortion documentaries I’ve seen, and I recommend it to anyone with ninety minutes to spare. It is available on HBO GO as of this posting.

Food Update

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. In browsing older posts I realized there might be some confusion to new readers as to what exactly I eat. Thus I would like to clarify (don’t worry, I know the world doesn’t hinge on what I eat, but I don’t want to confuse anyone).

Years ago I was a strict vegan. I truly believed this was the healthiest way for a human to eat. I made this decision based on books like Eat to Live, The China Study, and the various vegan websites out there like vegsource (I have no idea if they’re still around). Eating a whole food vegan diet, claimed these books, led to perfect health and slim waistlines.

I have always been thin but I was trying to improve my health- after my 4th child was born I began experiencing recurring and debilitating fevers. Based on testimonials of vegan converts I switched to a completely vegan diet.

It took a while but my health did improve. I didn’t eat only health foods- I loved vegan cookies and desserts, but I did eat mostly health foods, and I completely eliminated sugar from my diet 4 years ago.

Then I got pregnant with my youngest child and despite being low weight, gaining virtually no weight, and eating a “healthy vegan diet” I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. I was 190 mg/dL on the glucose tolerance test. I obtained a glucose meter and began testing my postprandial (post meal) blood sugar. I was horrified to find all those “healthy” whole grains and beans were spiking my blood sugar astronomically.

Then I remembered… in the back of my head… a documentary I watched ages ago. I thought it was funny back then but, as a strict vegan, believed none of it. That documentary was Tom Naughton’s Fat Head, where he eats both a moderately low carb/ high fat diet, and later a nearly zero carb/ high fat diet, and not only does he lose weight but his blood work improves significantly.

Against medical advice I immediately began eating low carb. I was concerned about going too low, given I was pregnant [note: I would no longer have this concern today], so I hovered around 50 net carbs a day. A typical day for me eating was as follows: I would skip breakfast then eat a huge lunch. I ate a tremendous amount of lamb and chicken thighs, and of course did not remove any of the fat. I would have a small amount of dried fruit for dessert (dried fruit and some veggies were my only source of carbs). For dinner I would have the same.

My blood sugar immediately normalized below 100 mg/dL no matter how much I ate, and my son was born 6 pounds just shy of 36 weeks. He did not require any NICU.

Well, when they gave me the glucose tolerance test a few months after his birth my numbers were even worse. I was 300 mg/dL! I was now officially diabetic, although it remains unclear if I am type 2 or LADA- adult onset type 1- since I am so thin it may likely be LADA. My well meaning but clueless internist advised me to “eat brown rice and potatoes.” I kept my mouth shut but knew some of my worst postprandial numbers resulted from precisely those foods.

I have been a low carber ever since, even going down to zero carbs for long periods, eating nothing but meat and fat. That’s right, I am still alive despite eating no fiber and eschewing all plant foods. My blood work is perfect. A1C is normal. I’m thinner than ever- not necessarily a good thing, but for those of you who need to lose weight, if it works at my low weight it would certainly work for you. When I was diagnosed with diabetes I was 135 lbs (at 5’9″). After a few months eating very low carb I went down to 120- slightly underweight for my height- and have maintained and even dipped below without trying.

I truly believe eating low carb has saved my life, and quite possibly saved my son’s life. So would I recommend low carbing to any dieters out there? HELL YES! The emphasis on fruits, whole grains and veggies in nutritional circles is ridiculously overblown. I’m not saying they’re bad for non-diabetics, but they are indeed terribly dangerous for diabetics and are not the golden key to weight loss the FDA would have you believe.

I’ve been able to maintain a normal A1C without meds, insulin, or exercise (I like to walk but don’t consider it “exercise.”) My blood sugar rarely cracks 100 mg/dL. So I would plead- yes PLEAD- with any diabetics out there to consider a low carb/ zero carb diet. There are countless resources online and just as many books. Atkins is a great place to start. I eat only foods from the induction phase, plus nuts.

We Should Have Stayed in That Cave

[[very mild spoilers season 1 and season 4]]

After much procrastination I finally am watching Game of Thrones. I tried watching the first episode way back when. I thought it was stupid and boring. Too many plot lines, too many characters, the costumes silly. I couldn’t keep anyone straight. So many dark haired men in leather armor! So many women in bad wigs and sumptuous gowns! Borrring.

Then my husband announced we have a temporarily free subscription to HBO, and with it HBO GO via roku. HBO! They have a lot of good documentaries! And indeed I watched a few, including one about a veterans’ suicide prevention helpline. Did you know a US military veteran or active serviceman kills himself at the rate of roughly one man per hour, every day? That’s more fatalities than the recent wars put together. Anyway it was very well done, very sad, but too short. I hate short documentaries. They always make me feel cheated.

But there is no dearth of Game of Thrones. Since I never watched it before I theoretically had six seasons to plow through. It was so stupid last time you watched it (I said to myself)! But maybe you would like it this time around (I also said to myself). After much inner deliberation I pressed PLAY.

I still thought that first episode was stupid, however, Tyrion (the amazing Peter Dinklage) snagged me in his dialogue with Jon Snow. All dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes. Such nuance, gravitas and wry humor in one man! Peter Dinklage, as they say in The Station Agent, is THE MAN! So I kept watching.

I still thought it was silly, perverted, way too violent. Could you please spare me yet another chopped off head? SO much sex. Gay sex, hooker sex, sadist sex, incest sex, underaged sex, interracial sex, rape after rape. I’m no feminist but I shudder to think how women would fare if George RR Martin ruled the world.

Yet… somewhere mid season one I was hooked. It wasn’t just about Dinklage anymore. I was asking my son (a rabid GOT fan) questions. How did Tyrion meet Ser Bronn? Why exactly did Daenyrus kill the black guy? I was in tears over the kidnapped baby dragons, and further along wept as Jon Snow cradled a dying Ygritte in his arms. We should have stayed in that cave Jon Snow

So would I recommend this series to my gentle readers? Uh, not sure. It ain’t exactly family programming, though apparently every family on the planet has watched it. It is a brilliant story, or rather a series of brilliant stories within other brilliant stories, the characters are beautifully villainous and multifaceted, but somehow I’m left with the same feeling as having eaten a sicky sweet, overly rich slice of cake when the credits roll. Gird yer stomachs men, and forward march!

First Comes Love

First Comes Love is a 2012 documentary from Nina Davenport detailing her desire to conceive a child sans husband, as she has failed to find Mr. Right by age 41. Having yearned her whole life for motherhood, she enlists the sperm of handsome gay friend Eric and we’re off to the races.

I watched this documentary twice. The first go-round it rubbed me the wrong way. Nina and her vast social network are cringeworthily solipsistic and emotionally stunted. I began to wonder how this small army of navel gazing intellectuals manage to pull their pants down in the morning to pee. And half of them, including Davenport, went to Harvard! I even stated aloud to my husband: “I can’t review this; it would be too cruel.”

Yet when I watched her film a second time I felt far more empathy for Ms. Davenport’s plight. Despite copious dating, no relationship grows to fruition. She even dates when she’s pregnant, to a charming film critic named John (note to Nina: if you ever read this review, get John back!). I had to wonder if these aging men and women, after so many years of ill-fated prospects, simply lack the ability to connect to one another long term. Nina even has to attend couples therapy with her best friend Amy to navigate their interactions.

Yet beneath Nina’s whiny exterior burns a bona fide desire to be a mother, and this is an urge none of us can criticize. After all, the maternal instinct is what transformed us from slimy fish to land dwelling mammals: concerned mother fish flopped in the mud for safer ground to lay eggs, and eventually that led to legs.

And oh does Davenport flop around. Between awkward conversations with the sperm donor, viscerally painful battles with her father- who perpetually hides behind a print New York Times and barks that she “Get an abortion!” after her pregnancy announcement- and her floundering sense of self, I began to feel maternal toward this poor creature and wondered if perhaps I could adopt her.

The filmmaking is choppy, neither here nor there, and the docu is fundamentally not about Davenport’s burgeoning motherhood, but rather her tumultuous relationship with her family of origin. In that respect I was disappointed to see details of pregnancy glossed over: she goes from taxi with sperm donor to suddenly third trimester pregnant, though the birth scene, which handsome Eric decides to avoid but later attends, is not to be missed.

All in all First Comes Love is a confused and confusing enterprise that nonetheless affirms the beauty of motherhood. And despite their flaws, Nina and Eric manage to produce the cutest baby in human history- but you’ll have to watch the film to see him!

Currently First Comes Love is available on Netflix streaming.

Amy

Oh, this is a sad one. Amy is a 2015 documentary by Asif Kapadia detailing the preternaturally talented Amy Winehouse’s rise to stardom and tragic plight with addiction. It’s currently streaming on Amazon.

This was a good but not great documentary, but as with so many less than perfect documentaries the subject matter is sufficiently fascinating to hold your interest. In this case it’s Amy’s wildly intense personality that shines through- by the end of the film it’s clear that when she felt something, she felt it purely, and felt it hard. Unfortunately for her this was coupled with profound alcohol and drug addiction, which the film sets forth in painful detail.

Stylistically it’s a patchwork of home videos (including one of a teenage Amy singing happy birthday) and interviews with her loved ones and associates, including her father and ex-husband Blake Fielder, with whom she shared an amour fou. Their passionate, tormented relationship was fodder for the famous Back to Black album and in many ways would be her undoing.

Another interesting point of the film is that Amy was, inherently, a “jazz snob.” This is perhaps why her music is difficult to categorize. It’s not quite jazz, not quite pop, and before her untimely death she was inclined to branch out to more experimental music forms. It’s quite tragic to imagine the unborn music that died with her.

Her eating disorders- certainly bulimia and perhaps anorexia- are also examined. Her weight fluctuated wildly but by the time she appeared in the United States she presents as all of BMI 16, and I believe she was even thinner when she died of alcohol poisoning. I had to wonder how the constant vomiting, alcohol, and smoking never seemed to impact her voice which was nothing short of a force of nature.

I realized after watching this film that I rarely hear Amy’s music on the radio. This surprises me as her music, while perhaps not for everyone, is timeless. If anyone has a theory for why this is, please share.

So all in all the film is highly recommended. Even if you’re not particularly interested in her life story, you will be once you’ve seen the film. The batterings of her life- family, love, loss, compulsion- are something we can all relate to even on a lesser scale, and illustrate her as quintessentially human beneath an extraordinary musical gift.