Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Dew Us A Flavor?


Like the swallows returning to Capistrano or the Monarch Butterflies to Pacific Grove, it seems Frito-Lay has decided to have another rendition of their Do Us A Flavor contest, where consumers come up with their favorite flavor concoctions. Some are old standbys (Chili Cheese or Spicy Taco), while others stretch the definition of a potato chip to new boundaries (Mountain Dew*).

Now that it’s been weeded down to four finalists, it’s up to us to have our say, and vote on which one will make it into the permanent lineup.

Alas, my Sizzling Shawarma hasn’t made it to the finals yet, no matter how many times I submit it. Still, I’ve been only so happy to cast my vote each year, after copious amounts of sampling.

This may be a marketing gimmick. But, it surely is a good one.

* * *

This year I tried them plain, as well as with some plain sour cream for dipping, just to see whether the flavors would stand up to a sauce.

Maybe it just happened by accident. But, I’m a little surprised that three of the four finalists chosen were in homage to meat-based dishes. Even if no animals were harmed in the making of these chips, it’s the general thought that’s going to put off most vegetarian consumers.

So here are my thoughts on this year’s four offerings.

KETTLE COOKED GREEKTOWN GYRO – I’ve been a fan of this Greek delicacy since the first time I tasted it during my college days at the University of Montana.

Succulent meat slowly roasted on a revolving spit, sliced thinly, and laid on lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and slathered with a creamy yogurt sauce made with dried dill, mint, black pepper and other spices.

With the first taste of the chip, my first thought was cucumber. Sort of like a Tzatziki sauce, if you’ve ever had that (and if not, get some at TJ’s when you go shopping for that Truffle Cheese!!).

Dipping these in sour cream actually had the exact opposite effect of the others; muting the Tzatziki flavors, which are so important to a Gyro.

This was this year’s kettle-cooked option, which means it’s a thicker chip. While I generally prefer kettle-cooked, it wasn’t nearly as important as it was to last year’s winner, Wasabi-Ginger.

NEW YORK REUBEN – Unmistakable aroma of rye bread could be detected when opening the bag. Flavor-wise, rye is also the first thing detected. But, that’s quickly followed by a tang of the sauerkraut, Russian dressing and then a cheesy goodness.

It takes some time. But, there’s even a peppery corned beef lingering in the aftertaste.

Dipping in sour cream made the spice flavors more pronounced. Still not a load of meat. But, perhaps that was the hope.

This one definitely has all the flavor components of a good Reuben Sandwich, and reminds me it’s been way too long since visiting Saul’s Deli.

SOUTHERN BISCUITS AND GRAVY – Another offering with a southern heritage. I have to be honest, I haven’t had real biscuits and gravy very many times. There’s just something so heavy about it.

But, saying that, these weren’t too bad. The flavor is most definitely heavy on the gravy part of the spectrum, with flour and pepper coming out in the end. The meat part that’s usually supplied by whatever has been fried is delicate at best (sausage?).

Adding sour cream in the mix was pretty much a wash. While it didn’t detract from the flavors, it didn’t really enhance either.

WAVY WEST COAST TRUFFLE FRIES – To me, this was the lightest of the four flavors.

Since these are supposed to be potato fries they’ve already got a leg up on the competition, which are trying to mimic some non-potato offering. Then you add to that the delicate flavor of truffles, that ridiculously expensive fungi originating in the Alpine regions of Europe, and there you have it.

If you’re not familiar with what a truffle tastes like (and not the chocolate candy which borrowed the name), you should seek out a cheese example, such as Trader Joe’s Italian Truffle Cheese. I think most people will be pleasantly surprised at the flavor.

I actually expected the flavors to get lost when it came to the sour cream. But, like the New York Reuben flavor, the cream actually enhances it; really bringing out the truffle goodness.  

* * *

This was probably the toughest choice since they started the campaign two years ago. I think one of the reasons for that is they dialed back the flavor strength.

Last year, there was no question when you tasted the ginger or the Cappucino, and the prior year they left no doubt that there was garlic on that Cheesy Garlic Bread.  While all four flavors were unique, and could be detected, it took a moment to pick them out.

My choice for the final flavor is New York Reuben! The spices aren’t overpowering. But, they’re strong enough to be recognized, and are unique.

People in the USA have until October 18th to vote for your favorite flavor at

And for those north of the border, there’s a Canadian version, which offers four – Butter Chicken, Montreal Smoked Meats, P.E.I. Scalloped Potatoes and Wavy Cowboy BBQ Beans! The Canadian deadline is September 30th.

* * *

*By the way, despite Lay’s passing on the Mountain Dew-flavored submission, someone somewhere thought the flavor combo might be a good idea. Pepsico is testing Dewitos; a soda with the flavor of Doritos chips, and the unmistakable neon orange color!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

And the Oscar goes to… (2015 edition)

movie_and_popcornHere we are again. The annual blog entry with my thoughts on the Best Picture nominations at this year’s Academy Awards!

Please note that, with the exception of seeing The Imitation Game in the theater, I watched all the films on DVD as they became available through the Alameda County Library System, so reviews were written over several months.

Comments are based on personal preferences, and don't take into account popularity at the box office.

So without further ado here are my thoughts on this year's Best Picture Nominations for the 2015 Academy Awards presentation.

american_sniper_poster AMERICAN SNIPERChris Kyle, is arguably the most famous service man of our generation, and holds the unofficial sniper record for most kills in combat during his four tours of service in Iraq, as well as furthest successful shot.

Bradley Cooper (Nip/Tuck, Hangover series, Silver Linings Playbook) did an amazing job of Kyle as someone with ice water running through their veins (an important trait for a sniper)

Throughout the film, Kyle pretty much kept a cool demeanor no matter what he was doing, except for one brief incident after returning home, which was a pivotal point in the film.

Those who crave war action are richly rewarded, with it’s realistic combat scenes. Not quite to the constant level of Black Hawk Down. But, not a sleeper either. If anything I wish there had been more screen time dealt with Kyle’s life post-Iraq, especially his relationship with fellow veterans.

I applaud filmmaker Clint Eastwood for not actually showing Kyle’s murder at the very end; instead choosing to fade-to-black with words simply stating the fact on the screen. He then used silence during the closing credits, magnifying the solemn nature of that event.

What’s unfortunate is they chose not to mention the death of fellow veteran Chad LIttlefield during the same incident that claimed Kyle. While it doesn’t ruin the film, it absence wasn’t necessary, and it would have added all of 20 seconds to the film.

birdman_ver3_xlgBIRDMANRiggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a veteran actor trying to break into Broadway with an original play, which he’s written, directs, and stars in. Unfortunately, it seems like he runs into roadblock after roadblock, including his biggest handicapped of the public knowing him best for playing a super hero named Birdman.

A varied stable of character actors (Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough) support Keaton in this endeavor. Unfortunately, none of the characters were likeable enough for me. Neither was Keaton’s character for that matter.

At times it was hard to figure what direction the film was taking, especially with the interjection of a gruff voice, which was supposed to be the Birdman character; first as a voice over, and then as a character on the screen.

I will give kudos to filmmaker Alejandro González Linarite (Babel, Biutiful), who decided to use a soundtrack made completely of a drum solo. The staccato injection of drum licks did add a grittiness to the film.

boyhood_xlg BOYHOODBoyhood follows the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a young Texas boy, from youngster to his leaving for college, and the challenges he faces along the way.

While the plot may sound like an ordinary film, Boyhood is not. Filmmaker Richard Linklater (Fast Food Nation, School of Rock) came up with the idea of producing his film over twelve years, so that they could use the same young actors, rather than try and get several actors that may look similar.

While I applaud the outside the box thinking by Linklater, the movie was just so so. I felt like I was along for the ride, with no particular place to go.

Patricia Arquette (Olivia) certainly earned her Best Support Actress nomination, spending quite a bit of screen time setting up things to come.

grand_budapest_hotel_xlg THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTELThere is no greater goal in life than to be the lobby boy at one of the many posh European hotels. At least, that’s the feeling of Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and his mentor Mr. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).

We travel along with Mr. Gustave and young Zero as they go about their daily lives, trying to survive military intrigue and those that would conspire to steal the hotel for their very own.

Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom) has another hit on his hands. The pacing is just right to keep the viewer interested, with costume and set design which draws the viewer into the film.

He was also blessed with a huge ensemble cast of some of the best actors in Hollywood and Europe.

imitation_game_ver2 THE IMITATION GAMEOne of the most important events, which led to the Allied victory in World War II, was the British breaking of the “unbreakable” Enigma Code.

The Imitation Game depicts the efforts of a select group of individuals, led by the quirky Alan Touring, and the eventual downfall of Touring, after he was eventually outed for homosexuality in the 1950s.

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a solid performance as Touring, eliciting feelings both of annoyance and sympathy for the character.

Set and costume design really brought the viewer into the era; especially Christopher, the machine which spins, clacks and pops on its way to solving the unsolvable Nazi code.

selma_xlg SELMASelma takes place during one of the seminal moments in American Race relations, and surrounds the famous march between Selma and Montgomery; a fifty mile stretch across the state of Alabama. The film is wrapped in the horrific brutality, which took place at that time, and which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. is absolutely stunning. He casts off his British accent, and captures King’s mannerisms to a tee. Yes, his voice is perhaps a tad higher in pitch than King, but, his cadence is spot on.

Unfortunately Oyelowo’s performance is somewhat diminished by the film’s pacing. It starts out with a literal bang. But, then slows to a glacial pace for nearly half the film, when the first march attempt takes place nearly 50 minutes in.

Tom Wilkinson (Shakespeare in Love, Batman Begins, The Kennedys) delivers a rather adversarial performance as LBJ, painting the 36th president as more interested in his legacy than what that legacy actually contained. At time I was like, “wow” while at others it was more like “Hmm?”

The portrayal of Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) seems to blow in the wind. Sometimes he’s the racist that history paints him, while at times there seems to be an underlying spark of the futility of it all.

Interestingly, the theme song by John Legend and Common is only used at the very end. While the rap lyrics would have been misplaced taking place though out, the strong sound might have breathed some sorely needed pep into other places.

theory_of_everything_xlg THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Some world renowned scientists are not commonly know by people, and stay that way for their entire life. Not so for Stephen Hawking, whose theories have revolutionized the way people think of things.

This film could have done the typical thing and followed Hawkings accomplishments throughout his life. But, they decided to take a different path, which made it more compelling to me.

The Theory of Everything gives us a brief glimpse of Hawking’s life. But, mostly concentrates on the period from just prior to a simple slip and fall brought out a diagnoses of what came to be nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

I particularly liked the way ToE concentrated on the human aspect of Hawking. Yes, they mention some of his theories. But, that was just a brief part of the film.

Eddie Redmayne gave a career-defining performance in the lead role. Playing famous people, especially living famous people, can be daunting. Throw in Hawking’s affliction, and it’s enough to challenge even the staunchest veteran actor.

whiplash WHIPLASH – Young Andrew (Miles Teller) has a dream in life. To be not just one of the best drummers, but the best drummer of all time. Standing in his way is instructor Terence Fletcher (played by fellow UM alumni T.K. Simmons. GO GRIZ!!) who seems to be part nurturer and part Marine Corp drill instructor, with little warning of which one is going to show up at any time.

Simmons may have only been the supporting actor. But, he stole the show. It’s a far distance from the Farmer’s Insurance guy, which many people, including Teller, only knew him as.

This one has a twisty-turny plotline that had me saying “WOAH!” several times. Just when I thought things were going one way, the film took me in a totally different direction.

There are a handful of slow times in the film, which just don’t stand up to the other 90%. Fortunately, the music is where it’s at, and you can’t help but watch the screen wondering what’s coming next.

* * *

So what would have been my choice for Best Picture?

The Grand Budapest Hotel

This year’s choice much harder than the last two times I made my choice for Best Picture. Three films really stood out, American Sniper, Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The latter won out because of its amazing cast, pacing that constantly moved the story along, the surreal colors in costume and set design, as well as the “feel good” feeling it left me with once the film was over.

As a side note, I don’t normally mention films that were not nominated. But, I can’t write this without mentioning The Judge, with Robert Duvall and and Robert Downey, Jr. It could have beat out any of the other films nominated, included Birdman; which actually won the award.

Previous entries:
And the Oscar Goes to… (2013 edition)
And the Oscar Goes to… (2014 edition)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Bridesmaid yet again


Buried amidst the more pressing matters in the World this week, the United States Olympic Committee decided who would be their official bid for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games.

It’s not San Francisco.

it stings to see us passed over yet again.

San Francisco first seriously flirted with the Summer Olympics when there was a move to bid for the 1996 Games. Atlanta was eventually awarded the Games despite a huge controversy since that was the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympic movement and many considered it a lock for Athens, the city which hosted the first Olympics of the modern movement.

With Atlanta winning the 1996 Summer Games and Salt Lake City being awarded the 2002 Winter Games, it was felt there was little chance they could win in 2004 or 2008. (By that time Athens had already been awarded the 2000 Games).

A San Francisco bid was one of the front runners for the 2012 Games, only to lose out to New York. (New York eventually lost out to London).

Not to be deterred, a bid was formulated for the 2016 Summer Games. This bid had issues, particularly revolving around where the main stadium would be.

Levi’s Stadium was not quite yet a glint in Jed York’s eye, and this was several years after the DeBartolo debacle had collapsed in a heap of ash. This would have brought a brand new stadium and hotel development to Candlestick Point, and kept the San Francisco 49ers in the City for decades to come.

This issue of a centralized stadium eventually caused San Francisco to be withdrawn from USOC consideration.

I can understand that. Consider the awesomeness that was the Bird Nest Stadium of the 2008 Beijing Games.

Now it was hoped this most recent bid (2024) would be the charm. In fact, if you’d asked people involved with the bidding process earlier this week, San Francisco and Los Angeles were considered the front runners. Alas, but we’re sitting on the side lines once again.

To be honest, I think the main stadium was, yet again, the Achilles heel. When will they learn?

The 2024 bid had plans for a $350 million pop-up stadium, located in Brisbane. This temporary facility would be dismantled after the Games concluded, presumably to be sold and shipped off to Lord knows where for reuse. But, that’s a fair chunk of change to be spent for such a short period of timed.

Before anybody says how they’re so happy because all that money could now be spent on better things…don’t bother. The plan was for the 2024 Olympic Games to be completely funded through private monies, unlike the 1996 Americas Cup Races, which cost the City of San Francisco and Port of San Francisco about $11.5 million.

I haven’t heard why Levi’s Stadium wasn’t considered. After all, the games could take place before the San Francisco 49ers NFL season. Perhaps it was the thought that the marque events, the Opening and Closing ceremonies, would be taking place in Santa Clara?

If that’s the reason, it must’ve really stuck in someone’s craw when a last minute suggestion would have placed those events across the Bay in Oakland, inside a new stadium built at the Coliseum Complex. That stadium would be permanent, and serve as a long-term home for the Oakland Raiders.

I’m sure the actual reasons will dribble out over the next few weeks. But, it won’t surprise me to hear that was a big part of it.

Congratulation to Boston. A nice thing about their bid is that it’s going to be fairly compact, with most events happening right there in the Boston metropolitan area.

Still, Boston 2024 is going to have some stiff competition. Cities have until September 15, 2015 to submit their bids. As of right now, Rome is the only city that has submitted it’s paperwork. However, bids are expected from Berlin, Paris, and Istanbul.

Additionally, there are at least a half dozen other cities from around the globe which have been rumored to be considering a bid.

Personally, I’m torn. As much as I’d love to see an American city get the bid, it would likely mean no San Francisco bids for at least another 20 years.

Next year’s Summer Olympics are taking place in Rio de Janeiro. They will be the first Olympics to take place in South America.

Despite having a handful of bids over the years, an African city has never hosted the Olympics. However, there has been talk of bids coming from Nairobi, Casablanca, Durban or Johannesburg.

If the money can be found to put forth a strong bid, it’d be wonderful to see that fifth Olympic ring represent the Olympics happening on the African continent, and not just that her athletes are taking part.

The winning city for the 2024 Summer Olympics will be selected in 2017, at the Lima, Peru International Olympic session.