All posts by Andrew Weiss

Bottomfeeder, hedonist, procrastinator. My slow descent into irrelevance can be witnessed here.

Tales of Culinary Madness: My Dinner With Lorelei

The “slow food” movement emphasizes careful preparation and choice of ingredients as a response to modern society’s self-destructive tendency towards instant gastronomical gratification. It’s a noble sentiment, to be sure, but there are many times when all one wants to do after a long day at work is to kick back on the couch, watch syndicated repeats of Gilmore Girls, and nosh on some nuke-and-forget delicacies while contemplating Rory’s astonishing resemblance to a Blythe doll.

(Creepy, isn’t it?)

When such occasions arise — 2 to 3 times a week, on average — I turn to the heat-and-eat cornucopia of my local supermarket’s prepared food aisle, where all manner of  food facsimilies can be acquired on the fly.  The best bang for one’s buck is the store’s iteration of popcorn chicken, sold in a repurposed smoothie cup for a quite reasonable $2.99.

Popcorn chicken is of the same culinary phylum as the clam “strips” served at most seasonal eateries along the New England coast — small slivers of meat used as an anchor for globs of seasoned batter and frying medium.  It’s a finger food, usually relegated to appetizer status, though with the proper accoutrements…

…like a tumbler of store-brand BBQ sauce, a can of Mello Yello, and a scale replica of a ’67 Plymouth GTX, it can serve as an entree unto itself.

The batter is acceptably flavorful, providing one finds “a shitload of black pepper and not much else” to be an acceptable flavor.  Those who expect their fried chicken product to have a degree of crispiness will be disappointed by the texture of the individual gobbets, as process of microwaving tends to make the meat a bit on the chewy side.  (I’m an old hand at the nuke-based bottomfeeding game, so meat that doesn’t have the texture and consistency of a grilled gummy bear raises suspicion.)

Despite some obvious limitations, Stop & Shop’s popcorn chicken does fulfill my basic requirements for crash-out fare:  It’s cheap,  it’s quick and easy to prepare,  it panders to the lower end of my palate, and — most importantly — it usually waits until Lauren Graham has finished with her witty rapid-fire banter before expressing its violent disagreement with my enteric nervous system.

Tales of Culinary Madness: Pink Turns to Blue

I spent a significant portion of my senior year of high school — a mythical time when Debbie Gibson electrified the nation’s youth and acid wash jeans were the height of fashion — tooling around Boston’s northwestern suburbs with my buddy Damian in his dinged-up subcompact beater. Most of these trips were videogame-related, made with the intent of seeking out and sampling the latest home console and coin-op offerings. One of our regular stops was a baseball and “non-sports” card shop in North Woburn that did a brisk side business selling and renting game cartridges.

Not only did the card store have a Magic Sword arcade cabinet, it also had an ample stock of the high fructose comestibles favored by the establishment’s regular clientele. These preludes to pancreatic failure ranged from familiar favorites to more enticingly exotic fare… Hubba-Bubba Bubble Gum Soda.

It was exactly what its name suggested — a carbonated soft drink that vaguely approximated the taste and color of its hyper-sugary chewing gum namesake — and I embraced its dubious charms with the earnest vigor of a true afficionado of trash cuisine.  (My teenage drift into punk rockerdom merely reinforced and validated my long-held bottomfeeding habits.)

This love between man and beverage was not meant to last, however.  Within the space of a few short months, the card shop closed down, I lost touch with Damian after he became a LARPer, and Wrigley’s discontinued production of Hubba-Bubba Bubble Gum Soda.   Despite the wistful realization that I would never again partake of the magical pink elixir’s unique combination of artificial flavors, I kept its memory alive in my heart…mostly as an anecdotal smart bomb guaranteed to nauseate weaker stomachs than my own.

Long after I had resigned myself to a world free of bubblegum-flavored sugar water, I happened to stumble across something unexpected in the “healthy” (read: “same shit, higher price”) section of my local supermarket’s soft drink aisle…

…a sale display well-stocked with bottles of Jones Soda Company’s “bubble gum soda.”

Blue bubble gum soda,” to be precise, and the beverage does sport a striking shade of azure that falls somewhere between the Blue Devil and the metallic finish of a 1971 Plymouth GTX.  While the soda’s hue adds a nice level of visual pizzazz, it may create conflicts with the imbiber’s deeply embedded parental instructions concerning the important differences between Windex and Zyrex.

So how does Jones’s product stack up against my hazy and overfond memories of Hubba-Bubba Bubble Gum Soda?   Terms like “better” or “worse” tend to become pointless when nostalgic versimillitude is the standard.  Jones’s bubble gum soda is certainly of a higher quality than Hubba Bubba ever was, but it’s also a very different beverage which just happens to share a similar flavor.

Hubba Bubba was carbonated to a fault, to the point where imbibing more than a sip at a time could lead to pulling a painfully caustic noser.  It was also fairly dry in nature, an experience akin to guzzling a lukewarm can of store brand ginger ale.  In contrast, Jones’s blue stuff is milder in terms of fizziness and richer (i.e. “more syrupy”) in terms of flavor.

The ardent fan of chewing gum flavored soft drinks (a demographic of one) really isn’t in a position to be picky.  Jones’s Blue Bubble Gum Soda does a pretty good job in delivering the “if only Dubble Bubble came in liquid form” goods, even if it falls — through no fault of its own — slightly short of my rose-tinted mark.

My memories of drinking Hubba-Bubba Bubble Gum Soda involve being seventeen years old and playing co-op River City Ransom with Damian on his NES.  My (much more recent) memories of drinking Jones’s Blue Bubble Gum Soda involve taking a long pull from an ice cold bottle and painfully realizing there was going to be a root canal in my near future.  That’s pretty much the definition of a “no contest” decision…

…even if the latter was a direct consequence of the former.

Tales of Culinary Madness: The Shortest Ribs of All

As a child I was a paste eater.  As an adult I lived an entire year on nothing but caramel bullseyes and canned ice tea. I have consumed many things in my lifetime; some of which even bore a remote resemblance to actual food.

The purpose of this occasional feature (besides getting that Ken Lowery dude off my back) is to chronicle my ongoing experiences with the lower end of the gastronomic spectrum, and share the pain and pleasure (but mostly pain) with you, my humble readers.

I’m going to kick off my adventures in bottomfeeding with a recent and unexpected favorite of mine.  When fellow Bureau Chief Benjamin Birdie informed me that Burger King had introduced BBQ ribs to its menu, I was both horrified and intrigued – so much so, that I headed down to the local franchise in order to experience these delicacies firsthand.

I went in expecting something along the lines of the McDonald’s McRib — extruded meat product pressed into vaguely rib-like shapes — but what I got were bona fide ribs-on-the-bone…

…albeit rather small ones, as illustrated by this visual comparison with a 1971 Dodge Demon Hot Wheels car:

Despite diminutive size of the individual ribs, the meat was tender, flavorful, and lacked the high levels of gristle and fat I’ve come to associate with cheapjack ribs.  Granted, it’s nothing that will impress any connoisseur of authentic BBQ cuisine, but what are the odds such an individual is going to hit a Burger King drive-thru in search of his or her carnivorous fix?

My only real issue with the BK rib meal package is its lack of more appropriate side options in place of the customary fries or onion rings.  I’m not certain I’d really want to experience the chain’s take on cole slaw or simulated cornbread product, but it would have been nice to have that choice to make.

Gaming at the End of the World: As the Hawk Flies

Rare is the person whose heart doesn’t harbor some deeply personal creative fantasy–be it writing the great American novel, transforming a run-down bit of parkland into a thing of beauty, or opening a small, meticulously managed movie theater. The vast majority of these dreams are destined to remain just that–objects of aspiration with no little to chance of fulfillment.

Occasionally, however, an individual will reach a point–such as having recently starred in one of the most successful action movies of all time–where he or she is in a position to make that fantasy become a reality. While there are many ways to spend that kind of creative capital, most sources agree that one should probably avoid bankrupting a major motion picture studio with a horrible trainwreck of a vanity project.

Even if the worst did occur, and one managed to blow $65 million on a subcontracted slice of cinematic fan fiction that ends up grossing less than a third of its cost, there should be no need to compound that shame by releasing a cruddy NES game to commemorate the event…

…yet that still managed to happen.

While the film version of Hudson Hawk offers a fascinating glimpse into both the dangers of creative megalomania and the limits of Bruce Willis’s imagination, Hudson Hawk: The Videogame turned out to be another generically awful side-scrolling platformer among the many shoveled into stores during the NES’s salad days. The one thing that set the Hudson Hawk game apart from its genre peers was its licensed link to one of the most notorious bombs in recent cinematic history, and it wore that albatross of misplaced optimism with the proud smirk of the truly oblivious…

…and when I say “smirk,” I mean that quite literally. The programming team at Ocean/Sony may have cut quite a few corners during the game’s development, but they didn’t skimp on capturing the title character’s smarmy swagger in full 8-bit glory. It’s all there, from the bitchin’ shades to the smug expression to the laughable attempt to mask a receding hairline — in short, the full package of forced coolness and tragic desperation that marked the Hudson Hawk phase of Bruce Willis’s career.

As for the game itself? I honestly can’t tell you, as the poor collision detection and shoddy jumping mechanics prevented me from completing the first level. (This also prevents me from reporting whether or not the game features a chiptunes version of “Swingin’ on a Star,” but I am perfectly OK with that.) What little I did play did appear to follow what passed for the movie’s plot. I’m not sure I recall the part of the film where Willis was savaged by a googly-eyed owl after getting chomped on the ass by a rabid dachshund…but then again my attention did tend to wander a bit whenever Andie MacDowell and David Caruso were onscreen.

Gaming at the End of the Universe

The recent installation of a home wireless network (motivated by my wife’s acquisition of a spiffy new netbook) put an end to two years of hotswapping our DSL modem between our PC and our Xbox 360. Prior to the upgrade, my online console gaming time was limited to specified, pre-arranged times so as not to deprive my better half of internet access. Now, however, I am free to game online to my heart’s content…providing the bandwidth isn’t being choked by a certain person streaming last week’s episode of High School Reunion upstairs.

The upgrade to wireless has given me a much better opportunity to explore the online components of many titles in my gaming library, both for the better (Ghostbusters) and the worse (Modern Warfare 2).  There was one game, though, with predominantly online components that I held back on fiddling around with, Sega’s 2006 MMORPG Phantasy Star Universe.

I bought a cheap used copy of PSU not long after I purchased my 360 console back in the spring of 2008.  I owned–and played the hell out of–both the PS2 version and its expansion back in the day.  As limited as the offline elements were, they did offer a colorful, anime-themed spin of Diablo’s loot-and-grind formula.  At the very least, having a copy of PSU for the 360 meant that I could indulge in periodic dungeon crawls whenever the mood struck me.  I ended up making it through half the story mode missions and unlocking the create-a-character free mode before realizing that the downloadable expansion was online (and paid subscription) only, losing interest and tucking the game on the far back end of the shelf.

My interest in Phantasy Star Universe was rekindled after it was announced that Sega was planning to shut down the PC and PS2 versions’ servers in a few weeks.  While the company restated their support for the 360 version, it seemed like a logical assumption that it was only a matter of time before that, too, closed up shop.  If I had any lingering morbid curiosity about what the MMO aspects of the game were like, I’d better cough up the ten-buck monthly fee and check them out now.

Thus was born Gideon…

…a human “fighgunner” (a subclass specializing in melee weapons and small arms) and my in-game avatar.

Having finalized his name and appearance slider options, the aspiring adventurer stepped forth into the Gurhal System to discover a once-thriving community fallen into terminal decline.  Having never played PSU online before, I can’t tell you how successful it may have been at its peak.  What I do know, however, is that of the twenty servers Sega maintains for the game, only two are actively populated at the present time–the one everyone tries to log into and the one players have to settle for on the rare occasions the popular one is at max capacity.

Finding a party in any of the regular mission lobbies is next to impossible, with the exception of the low-level intro missions where newbies cut their grinding teeth.  The majority of the players flock to the bonus-yield “event” missions for ad infinitum speedruns or simply hang out in the spaceport or Guardians’ HQ lobbies like so many chat-spamming day laborers.

Think of it as The Matrix, only with catgirls and set in a sci-fi iteration of Flint, Michigan.

Sega’s efforts to channel the players’ creativity have been in vain.  The tropical beach lobby intended to complement the introduction of swimwear costumes has been utterly desolate whenever I’ve passed though the area, as Speedo-wearing space elves find it much easier to public chat “UR SO GAY” to chicken-suited furries–excuse me, “beasts”–from the comfort of the spaceport stairwell.

I had a hard time figuring out how the in-game economy works, apart from the strange situation where legions of lobby hustlers either spend their gaming time hawking high-end items for insane prices or begging for handouts instead of actually embarking on missions.  Players are allowed to set up stores in their characters’ “rooms,” which in practice amounts to price cutting wars between absentee vendors operating with nothing even closely resembling a baseline.  (For example, one might be selling a rare weapon for 100k meseta, while another has it listed for 1.5m.)

If one has the patience to navigate Phantasy Star Universe‘s caption clouds of chat spam, there is a pretty solid and entertaining game underneath the entropic muck.  Solo play is a viable option for most regular missions, and it’s pretty easy finding a decent level-scaled party on the event mission boards.  As tempting and as tactically sound as it might be, though, I’d advise you to leave your headset unplugged (which is a sound protocol for playing any online console game).

I made the mistake of being drawn into player voicechat on two occasions.  The first time was by a pair of rather loud tweeners who were extremely fond of the f-bomb and casual homophobia.  The second time was by a feral pack of “doodz” whose preferred topics of conversation were:

1. Hot Pockets
2. The NBA
3. The hygiene of Mexicans, Russians, and Italians
4. Each other’s sex lives

Of course, going in with you headset unplugged is no guarantee against uncomfortable moments, as I discovered when I leveled up and the party leader’s congratulatory chat macro included an ASCII fist and the message “WHITE POWER!”  (I considered reporting the player for a TOS violation, but then decided every minute he spends pretending to be a magic-using wolf-person is a minute not spent burning down synagogues.)

This is the way a virtual world ends;  not with a bang, but with a neo-Nazi discussing knives with a ten year old ADD case as their Harajuku reject avatars team up to bring down a giant two headed dragon.