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The Big Cheesy

New York loves food. Every week I hear about some event with an unlikely combination of ingredients, and I’m on so many mailing lists by now that I think I could eat and drink my way to a heart attack just on samplers and tastings alone without spending a penny.

Now, New York may love food, and I do too, but the true way to my heart lies in coagulated caesin derivatives — cheese. This past Saturday was then, quite a treat, as a cheesemonger friend (the best kind of friend) kindly got me free entry to The Big Cheesy. Any food event in New York is going to be popular, but anything featuring cheese or bacon – and everything features bacon – is going to sell out quickly, and tickets for this event were snapped up within minutes of going online.

7 cheese shops – well, 6 cheese shops and a misguided entry from a sandwich place – were competing to offer NYC’s best grilled cheese sandwich, and the responsibility of judging their artisinal entries fell to myself and my fellow attendees. Some, including my overall favourite, Lucy’s Whey were confident enough to base their entries simply on a quality cheese with minimal trimmings, but others saw fit to go a bit further.

Nutella grilled cheese

Above, we have an entry from Say Cheese in which the only cheese was Mascarpone, complemented with a Nutella & chocolate sauce served piping hot from a pipette on a brioche roll. Obviously, this was delicious. After everyone had filled up on cheese and cast their votes, there was still a line to get more of these. But it’s really not a grilled cheese sandwich, and so, couldn’t get my vote.

Other entrants also tried to tempt we judges away from considering the quality of the cheese with more bacon, shallot jam, bacon-crusted brioche, shots of tomato soup and other such novelties, but in the end my favourites were those who kept it simple. Some bread, a couple of light condiments, and beautiful, sticky, gooey cheeses that I feel I can still taste today.

Big Cheesy

I should have felt bad for the chefs who for two days spent 7 hours in that cheesey, smokey room cooking more than 600 sandwiches in a day, but it was hard to do anything but smile when so many people were clamouring to feed me these treats.

Finally, as mentioned, one entry came not from a cheese shop, but from ‘wichcraft, which has sandwich booths in some large tourist areas of New York. Votes were cast by throwing ping-pong balls into a container on one’s favourite stand. Here, at the end of the show, I might have felt a little bad, as they stood in the corner (bottom left), ignored, with a mere two votes, but when it comes to cheese, my heart is not soft.

Big Cheesy

The moral of this story then; don’t enter a cheese competition if you’re a sandwich chain. I think we can all learn something from that.


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Super Size Me

For the past 9 months, a saccharine war has raged on the billboards, subway adverts, newspapers and televisions in New York. On the one hand stands the office of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and against him stand the temporarily united forces of Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola and Dr. Pepper Snapple, along with various bars, cinemas and other businesses that would stand to lose some profits. Having worked in many such establishments, and seen quite how many pints of cola can be made from a single $50 box of syrup, I can tell you there’s a lot at stake for them.

In the last year, Mike had a dream that no New Yorker would go out and consume any sugary beverage over 16oz. For those of you who don’t measure liquids by the weight they’d have if they were made of pure water (go America), that translates to 473ml, which is exactly one American pint, and is a bit short of a British pint. This doesn’t prevent refills, and still allows for supermarket shoppers to pick up 2L bottles, so it seemed quite bizarre to me that anyone would actually feel a pinch at this rather light legislation. After all, in France, Britain, Japan and Brazil (at least) a ‘large soda’, as defined by McDonalds, is about half the size of their ‘large soda’ in the USA, at around 450ml as opposed to 30oz (887 ml).

Soda Cup Sizes
Soda Cup Sizes

This isn’t Bloomberg’s first health kick. NYC was one of the first cities to ban indoor smoking, and in 2011 added most public outdoor spaces to that too. He pushed through the first law requiring fast-food restaurants to display calorie counts, which is now a federal law for any chains, and can be horrifically scary if you venture into say, KFC. He also banned trans-fats in restaurants and is looking at cutting back on sodium too.

Maybe thanks to Bloomberg, maybe thanks to continuous immigration from healthier places, or maybe just because they’re always so busy and don’t have cars, New Yorkers are already a healthy bunch. The average New Yorker, whilst maybe somewhat bigger than an average European or South American, is a generally fit and slim individual by American standards. A walk down the street shows nothing like the ~30% obesity rate that is generally given as the average for an American adult. My Portuguese teacher recently told me that she was surprised people were so thin when she moved here, after growing up seeing American TV and tourists. “Thinner than in Brazil?” I asked. She didn’t stop laughing for a good few minutes.

Bloomberg began with a campaign “Are You Pouring On The Pounds” which showed as graphically as possible just how much sugar is in one bottle of soda, iced tea, or even ‘Vitamin water’ and so on. Some of them were quite sickening, some wonderfully enlightening and none of them really felt too far from the truth. It worked, too, I went from the occasional fizzy drink to drinking nearly nothing but water, tea and fresh fruit juices.

Pouring On The Pounds

Not generally having access to TV, it was only very recently I saw that campaign at a friend’s house. In the ad I saw, three friends sit at a bar, two ordering a ‘cola’ and the third sitting there eating his way through sixteen packets of sugar. “You wouldn’t do this”, ends the advert, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the IT Crowd’s anti-piracy parody.

One major difference I’ve noticed about American advertising is that it’s very confrontational. Rather than a simple ‘enjoy our product’, advertisers are happy to call out their competitors by name and make hilariously selective point-by-point comparisons in the areas in which they have an advantage. In much the same style, the drinks companies quickly fought back with some very directed adverts of their own, such as the “Don’t let bureaucrats tell you what to drink” campaign. This, unfortunately, didn’t quite have the same impact because, let’s face it, it’s a pretty hard case to argue on the actual health merits being called into question.

That’s not to say it’s only rich companies arguing the point though. The papers today are full of quotes from ‘real New Yorkers’ in favour of choice, and in Mississippi, the state with the highest obesity rate of all, they’re going one step further. Not just content with avoiding having hippies like Mike Bloomberg (who is, lest we forget, number 13 on the Forbes Rich List), they’re actually looking to proactively pass laws protecting gluttonous consumption.

There may not be any need though. Today it was ruled that Bloomberg’s latest soda law will not pass because it is overly arbitrary, given the loopholes needed to prevent NYC stepping outside of its jurisdiction. So, it seems that for now, the great state of Mississippi, the obese activists in New York and soft-drinks companies are – per the American Dream – free.

The ruling “serves as a major blow to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s incessant finger-wagging,” said J. Justin Wilson at the Center for Consumer Freedom, created by restaurants and food companies. “The court confirmed what most New Yorkers already know: They don’t need a government regulator to dictate their diet choices. New Yorkers should celebrate this victory by taking a big gulp of freedom.”
~Associated Press

The large Big Gulp sold by 7-11 was recently reduced in size to a mere 50oz (1.5 litres). America, Freedom, Liberty…Fuck Yeah.


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Peanut Butter

Americans love peanut butter. I love peanut butter.

The National Peanut Board has some fantastic facts about peanut butter, including the facts that two previous US presidents were peanut farmers, that the average American child eats over 1,500 peanut butter & jelly sandwiches before finishing high school (a quick survey of my friends suggest that figure is, if anything, far too low); and that Adrian Finch of Australia threw a peanut nearly 34m to set a world record. Well done sir.

The fact I was looking for, however, was the amount of peanut butter consumed by the average American over the course of a year. The figure the NPB gives is 6lbs (2.72kg) of peanuts and peanut butter, and figures elsewhere suggest the raw figure for peanut butter is around 3lbs (1.36kg). The reason I was looking, is that I had just read that:

The average European still eats less than one tablespoon of U.S. peanut butter in an entire year.

From Europeans still think peanut butter is nasty

As the article admits, those in the UK and the Netherlands are starting to get the idea, but a few jars hidden away in the supermarket isn’t really the same as what New York can offer. I just picked up a Groupon for Peanut Butter & Co., a little shop in the East Village which sells nothing but peanut butter — in sandwiches, on fruit or by the jar, in a whole range of flavours.

Yet, that wasn’t even the most excited I’ve been about peanut butter in the last week. On a trip to Whole Foods I just came across this:

Whole Foods peanut butter machines

Make your own peanut butter. Make your own cashew butter. Make your own almond butter. Make your own hazelnut butter (and then combine it with some chocolate for ultra-tasty homemade Nutella). Even if I didn’t love all of these, I wouldn’t have been able to pass up the opportunity to play with new machines that have lights and noises and are able to crush things into a paste.

So, with the four jars from Peanut Butter & Co. side by side with the containers of crushing-machine almond and cashew butter now in my shelves, I’ve finally reached the level of addiction required to pass section 3 of the American citizenship test. By now, it’s only my half-remembered lingering British ideals of class and reserve that prevent me from eating the stuff out of the jar with my fingers in my underwear every morning when I wake up.

I give it about 6 months before that changes.


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The Nitehawk

Around age 16 or so, I decided that there we better ways to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon – or a date with a pretty girl – than sitting in near-silence for three hours whilst Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg blew things up on an oversized screen. It’s taken me ten years to rescind that viewpoint, and the reason is simple.


Your average cinema has some of the worst cheese known to mankind available. Even back in the UK, cinemas inexplicably try and give movie-goers a taste of the authentic American experience with hot dogs, gigantic Cokes and nachos available for purchase. I worked, briefly, at a spectacularly unsuccessful cinema – I was told, in all seriousness, to report to my first shift with a good book – in Cardiff, often ‘cooking’ and selling these snacks.

Whilst not as gastronomically hedonistic as the year I spent working at McDonald’s, my cinema job gave me nearly unlimited opportunities to experiment with the various foodstuffs on offer, and I can tell you with the kind of certainty that only comes from 8 hour shifts with less than 10 customers served that nothing, nothing is improved by the addition of the American Cheese that we put on the nachos.

I can also tell you that a large popcorn, retailing for around £4 back then, cost less than £0.02 to make; that a £50 carton of Coke syrup will make over 300 large Cokes (also about £4 a pop); and that eating the tiniest bit of this syrup will leave your mouth numb with sweetness for a good hour or so. I can tell you a secret known to customers of Scottish chip shops, that absolutely anything tastes better after being placed in the deep-fat-fryer, and a secret known to the management of McDonald’s Restaurants, Queen St, Cardiff: that three fryers can be completely taken out of service for days by a large container of M&Ms.

But I digress.

The Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg has a lot of attractive features. There’s a ground-floor café, an upstairs bar, a selection of new blockbusters, classics and arthouse films on offer and a very indie, laid-back vibe to the whole place. Instead of trailers, they played electronic music set to a psychedelic montage of all the Die Hard films, and used classic film to illustrate the cinema rules — no smoking, no sex and so on. The seating at Nitehawk is also amazingly generous, and every pair of seats has a table set between it.

Nitehawk Williamsburg

These tables, naturally, need something to fill them, and so waiters will bring a selection of cocktails, snacks and even meals at any time, moving silently between the rows to pick up handwritten notes from the audience with their latest orders. The food is as good as you’d get from any high-quality bar, the cocktails themed to the films currently showing, and the cheese from Stinky Bklyn, which is as far from the horrors of melted plasticy American cheese as possible.

There’s very few social situations in which I can acceptably eat cheese for three hours whilst not talking to anyone, and still be regarded as a good date or a gregarious friend, but I believe I’ve found one, and I intend on spending as much of the coming winter there as possible.


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Terra Blues are Purple

I’ve just arrived back from a week in LA for a massive, 5 day Capoeira event. I’ll talk about that later but my immediate thoughts are focused on blue potatoes and corporate sponsorship. Doubtless this has grabbed your attention, so let me continue.

I flew with JetBlue out to LA. They offer lots of legroom, DirecTV – brilliant for watching American Football on the flight back – and complimentary snacks. I opted for the potato chips (crisps) and was presented with a packet of Terra Blues, “Made from naturally Blue Potatoes”. Now, despite the best will of the Terra Group and JetBlue these crisps were clearly purple. But, easily observable facts and standard capitalisation conventions have never kept a good marketing department down, and the folks at JetBlue wasted no time in making these their official snack.

Terra Blues are Purple

The concept of ‘official snacks’ has always confused me somewhat. Maybe some people, presumably those who enjoy buying the X-Factor winners’ singles and reading anything advertised on the subway, need to be told what to eat at what event. Personally, I’m often drawn away from the mainstream and I’ll be out there looking for the grassroots, indie snack diligently working away on the sidelines; the snack for whom it’s really about the art, not the commercial success.

I understand that major events will be as saturated with sponsorship deals as their snack-partners are with trans-fats. I wouldn’t be the first to laugh about McDonald’s, Cadbury’s and Coca-Cola being the official snacks of the Olympics, but I have found a few more bizarre pairings as I browsed the world of official sponsorship. Coca-Cola is a goldmine of fun, being the official drink of a city in Maryland and a creationism museum in Kentucky. Kaenon is the official sunglasses sponsor of the US Water Polo team, a sport which pretty much requires its athletes not to wear sunglasses. And so on. My favourite story from all this research was that They Might Be Giants sponsored a Little League team that named themselves after the band, but this press release comes a close second.

Wise Foods, Inc., a leading regional producer of salty snacks, and the Boston Red Sox announced today that Wise has been named Official Potato Chip and Cheez Doodle® Sponsor of the team. In addition, David Ortiz, one of the most respected hitters in baseball, has been named the team’s ‘Wise Player’.

JetBlue however is, as far as I can tell, the only company or event with an official snack (as opposed to say, a promotional themed item of food) which matches – or at least claims to match – its company’s colour scheme, and, it works. Next time I see a clip from the Olympics I won’t find myself salivating for a Big Mac any more than I’ll be debunking Darwin whenever I see a can of Coke.

Show me a blue (or purple) potato though, and I’ll be telling you about JetBlue’s superlative legroom and range of complimentary snacks all over again.


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Ab Challenge Update

Eight weeks ago today, I agreed to join the Ab Challenge. What started as a throwaway email between a few capoeiristas in LA who were inspired by how shredded one of the girls in my class was, is now an organised, collaborative effort between some 200 capoeiristas around the globe. Although, it should be noted, the majority of participants are, in fact, based in LA or NYC, but as any resident of one of those two cities will tell you, the rest of the world doesn’t really matter too much.

My days now start with a glance at the Ab Challenge daily email, which generally comes with an inspirational quote, a story or message from one of the participants, and any updates to the suggested workout routine for the day. Once a week, the routine has been changing to encompass a different subset of muscles – the obliques, the transverses, or so on – or techniques, with specially-recorded video guides as reference. The leitmotif of the daily update is ‘Abs three times a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner’, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

For breakfast, I’ll have a banana, yoghurt, and at least 300 reps of abs exercises in my room, where I have a multi-purpose workout bar, a medicine ball, and a yoga mat constantly set up. I’m also taking the opportunity of having such regimented workout sessions to work on a longer-term goal of being able to do 100 pushups on a whim, and so doing an increasing number of these daily. I started being able to do around 20 or so consistently, with proper technique throughout, and I’m up to 55 right now.

After that, it’s a trip to the office, and it’s here that I’ve discovered that exercise is not just for the gym. I was initially very self conscious about doing so, but now I feel no qualms whatsoever about taking a few minutes away from work and doing a quick 100 reps or 50 pushups in the office. A few people have walked past mid-session, and a couple of them have commented, but no-one seems to really mind and, so long as I space out the exercises, I don’t end up sweaty and smelly at work. Food-wise, I’m always loaded up with fruit, nuts or trail mix, meaning I can eat smaller portions at mealtimes and never be hungry.

For lunch, I was originally taking things a bit too far, only eating green salads or veggies & protein, but after losing about as much weight as I could healthily tolerate (I started out pretty skinny), I’ve moved away from that and instead I’m just trying to avoid overly fatty or sugary stuff. No more trips to Chipotle or Five Guys for me, but I’m not going to obsess about having some rice, bread or potatoes with my lunch.

If it’s not a workday, I’m generally out at a park or beach, which provides a perfect location for a more prolonged workout, but, even if not, I’ve discovered that New Yorkers don’t look twice no matter where I work out. I’ve managed a full two-minutes of planking on a busy sidewalk, 100 bicycle crunches on the cleanest bit of ground I could find in midtown and so-on. I should be a poster-boy for the Make New York City Your Gym campaign that’s running.

In the evenings, the fact that I’m not drinking again definitely helps me to avoid a whole bunch of unhealthy crap – both the beers themselves and the inevitable cravings for greasy junk food – and, I’m working on it, but about 8 times out of 10 I manage to get a full workout done back in my room before I get to bed, no matter what hour I stay out until.

Naturally, all of this is in addition to Running Club – my effort to get myself and any local friends out running at 7am every morning – and Capoeira, which I’m training three-to-four times a week. I feel great. I feel healthy, and stronger than I ever have and, as there’s no-one else here to say it, thanks to this Ab Challenge I also look pretty great right about now too.

Time for a quick 100 crunches.


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