2009 August at John Mackey's Blog



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  • August 15, 2009


    A few days ago, for reasons I don’t need to get into so as not to alienate even more people, AEJ and I joined the Austin food co-op, Wheatsville. By joining, we’re now “part owners” of this grocery store (probably 1/10,000th), and it means that there’s now more than one John Mackey in Austin who owns a grocery store. It also means that this John Mackey just became even a little more of a pinko commie.

    Wheatsville is awesome. AWESOME, I tell you! It would never work as our only grocery store (they don’t sell Fritos or Barefoot Contessa cookie mix — and did I mention they don’t sell Fritos?), but when they stock what we’re looking for, the quality is great, and the prices are totally reasonable. Being a co-op, and being supportive of the whole environmentalist mindset, they buy from local farmers and suppliers as much as possible. We bought an onion that was organic and grown just a few miles from the store, and it was the nicest onion we’ve ever bought. I hate it when onions are all bruised and dented by the time they reach the grocery store, but if they’re just coming a few miles, they do much better. We also bought organic free range eggs, also raised on a fully sustainable farm here in Austin — 6 miles from the co-op. The chickens at this farm never see cages, and they only eat what grows in the field. The result is a crazy delicious egg, and it’s really not much more expensive than standard eggs, since they’re being sold by a non-profit co-op.

    Not everything is locally raised, of course. Our best discovery at Wheatsville was the Niman Ranch Beef. This beef is raised on sustainable farms and the cows are given no antibiotics (unless they get sick), no hormones, grass fed, and, compared to most beef ranches, is relatively humane. (Reportedly, “Farmers are asked to accompany cattle to the slaughterhouse so that the animals are not unduly stressed, and cattle that appear to be under stress are pulled from line until they can be calmed.”) Hippy-dippy? Yes, but I’m all for it. I’m never going to stop eating meat (me man, me like meat), but I feel a little better knowing the cows are raised and slaughtered as humanely as possible.

    So we had Niman Ranch beef, and we had this damn fine onion. We considered making the best sloppy joes ever, but opted to make burgers instead so we could really taste the meat.

    We’re old school when we cook out. It’s charcoal all the way.

    The coals are ready!

    Yeah, that’s gonna be good.

    AEJ caramelized the onion, following Ina Garten’s recipe. (Sherry wine vinegar! Who would have thought?)

    This was the juiciest beef we’ve ever grilled. If I slid the patty even a little, the juices poured into the fire and nearly caused me to nearly lose my eyebrows.

    The burger was soooo juicy, and tasted really beefy. It was an awesome dinner. (And no, not everything is homemade. Those fries are Ore-Ida “Fast Food” fries.)

    And now, back to the co-op. There’s probably a petition or something we can sign there. Pinkos unite!


    August 13, 2009


    Over the weekend, we went out to dinner and a movie (Julie & Julia — highly recommended) with Mr. & Mrs. JFJ.  It was JFJ’s birthday a few days before, so we obviously needed to do something fun and celebratory.  JFJ picked a restaurant called Zoot.  AEJ and I had never been there, but the menu sounded great, and JFJ has never steered us wrong, so Zoot it was.

    Zoot’s menu has lots of fun & tasty-sounding offerings, and there were really too many to choose from on our own, so we went with the 5-course tasting menu instead. Three of us ordered the “Chef’s Tasting Menu,” and AEJ ordered the “Farmer’s Menu.” (AEJ is the furthest thing from a vegetarian, but she often finds that the vegetarian option on these big tasting menus is a little more imaginative.  Once again, in several of her courses in particular, she was right.)

    Before we get to the pictures, a little disclaimer… It was really, really dark in there, and the light got worse as we ate (damn romantic mood lighting adjustments), and although I have good camera equipment, it can only do so much in the dark. I had to shoot everything at ISO 3200 or higher, and even with that, I only had frame speeds around 1/20 sec with no image stabilization, so it’s kind of a miracle that any of these shots turned out at all. That’s a testament to the Canon 5D MK II. Even still, the dim light, with a little candlelight, a little artificial light, and a little sunlight made the white balance go all over the place from picture to picture. I corrected a few, but they ain’t perfect…

    Things started with an amuse bouche. This is AEJ’s — melon with strawberry on top. The others were smoked fish with strawberry. AEJ’s was prettier, but since it was too small to share, I’ll have to take her word that it was delicious.

    AEJ’s first course was this: roasted peppers with squash, goat cheese, sunflower seeds, and sherry vinaigrette.

    My first course was this: seared scallops with king oyster mushroom, forbidden rice (ooo laa laa, how risque), and tom kha soup. I don’t know what tom kha soup is, but I liked it. The scallops were great. Sometimes I get little grains of sand in my scallop, and there isn’t much nastier than that, but these were perfectly cleaned and very tasty.

    Here’s the second course: melon and ciabatta salad with pickled shallots and blue cheese. I wasn’t too excited about the blue cheese — I’m not a fan — but if it was in there, I couldn’t find it. I think at best, it just added some tartness to the dressing. This was mega-tasty.

    AEJ’s courses included this: a basil crepe with roasted peaches, La Tur cheese, saba, and a walnut butter. Holy hell, this was the best thing out of all of the courses between the two menus. Unfortunately, because it was so dark in the restaurant, this shot isn’t very sharp, but the flavors were spectacular. I’d order this alone any day.

    This is the fish course: roasted snapper with celeraic brandade (I don’t know what that means), tomato confit, mantequilla olives, and herb broth. It was a very nice piece of fish, and it was cooked well. That tomato confit, in addition to being pretty, was great. I liked the juicy tomato next to the texture of the roasted fish.

    And here’s the meat course: grilled NY strip with summer potato puree, marinated peppers, and garlic jus (sauce). The meat was perfect — nice and juicy.

    Here’s AEJ’s dessert: lemon tart with cardamom berry coulis and whipped cream. It doesn’t look like much, but it was really good. This was the better dessert of the two.

    And here is the other dessert: goat cheese panna cotta with pistachio shortbread, honey, and fresh berries. It was fine. The panna cotta was okay — not bad, not amazing — but that honey was incredible. I’d pour that honey all over everything, if you know what I’m sayin’! ZING! Or ZOOT!


    August 12, 2009

    Does Not Compute

    I’m making some progress — some very, very slow progress — on this Trombone Concerto that I’m writing for Joseph Alessi. I’ve blogged in the past about my writing process, and the fact that I do everything on a computer. I have a good sample library, and although it can’t approach what it will eventually sound like with real people, I’m able to get a reasonable approximation of the music through the computer’s synthesized playback.

    I have two different sets of trombone samples — some from the Vienna Symphonic Library, and the other from a company called Project SAM. Combined, I have what I think are some pretty convincing trombone sounds. (You can hear one of my MIDI realizations here — the currently posted recording of “Aurora Awakes.”)

    I often end up writing something that’s playable on the computer, but just not possible in real life, and I make these mistakes because the samples make things sound possible when they just aren’t. The computer can play impossibly quickly, and any chord is possible on a piano or marimba or vibraphone or whatever, even if it’s not possible for a human to reach. My vibraphone samples specifically have caused problems before because the samples go up to high F#, but a real standard vibraphone only goes up to F. I wrote F#’s when I wrote the vibe part for “Mass,” but that note doesn’t exist on the instrument, so I ended up looking pretty silly at the first rehearsal.

    So if anything, the problem is that I sometimes initially write something that’s humanly impossible, because the computer lets me do that, and I’m not paying close enough attention in the moment when I’m writing that passage. Well, this concerto for Joe Alessi has created the opposite problem: He can play things that the computer can’t play.

    For whatever reason, all of my sampled trombones only go up to the high C above middle C. There’s a great piece in the New York Times about the “high C.” It’s the note that made Pavarotti famous, and it’s described, for a tenor vocalist, as “the absolute summit of technique.” It’s a pretty damn high note for a tenor trombone, too, so it’s not surprising that the samples — both from Project SAM and Vienna Symphonic — max out at the high C.

    But this concerto isn’t for a computer, it’s for Joe Alessi, the greatest trombone player in the US, and unquestionably one of the best in the world. And he can play higher than a high C, and as I wrote about a few months back, he can do it without even warming up.

    This meant I had to reprogram my trombone samples so they can play up to high F. I’ve only gone up to high Eb so far, but we ain’t done yet.

    So here’s to Joe Alessi, for besting the greatest trombone samples on the market today. The computer is great and all, but even it can’t match this guy.


    August 6, 2009

    Ponto presents… You Can’t Handle the Truth

    Robert Ponto, Director of Bands at the University of Oregon, posted a real gem on my Facebook page yesterday. Rather than share it only with the small handful of people who actually read all comments on my Facebook statuses, I got Robert’s permission to post it here, too. Imagine “A Few Good Men” meets… lord, I don’t know, but it’s brilliant. He posted it in response to my posting about judging a composition contest…

    Overheard during questioning of one of the composers:

    Mackey: I want the truth!

    Composer: You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that 12 pitch classes. And those 12 pitch classes have to be guarded by men like me and Allen Forte. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Mr. Mackey? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for tonality and you curse the serialist. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that tonality’s near death, while tragic, probably saved a lot of academic’s jobs. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves audiences from music. You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me at that matrix. You need me at that matrix.
    We use words like “set theory”, “interval vectors”, “hexachordal combinatoriality”… we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very tonal freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I’d rather you just said “thank you” and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a pitch wheel and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to!

    Mackey: Did you order the use of this all-interval row?

    Composer: I did the job you sent me to do.

    Mackey: Did you order the use of this all-interval row??

    Composer: You’re goddamn right I did!!

    And… scene.

    I really don’t have much to add, other than this picture of an orchid that we have in the kitchen…

    … and this picture of some cupcakes we baked the other night.

    Back to work, I guess. I have some material now for the slow movement of the Trombone Concerto. I worry that it might be too pretty. Holy Major7 chords in inversion… (Just in case you thought this entry couldn’t become even more music-theory-dorkified.)


    August 1, 2009

    Beef Burgundy and Sweltering

    The weather this summer is really just unfair.  It’s been over 100 degrees for more than 40 days this summer here in Austin, and that’s just miserable, unless you’re a huge bug.  And believe me, when it’s this hot for this long, the huge bugs love it — and they’re so excited about it that they want to bang on your sliding glass door to tell you about it.  One massive roach was so insistent about getting in — I really think it was trying to slide the door open — and the noise was so aggressive that I wanted to go out and kill the damn thing, but I don’t own a gun. Meanwhile, it hasn’t broken 90 degrees in New York, where it should smell of braised urine by now, but it’s instead been cool (but rainy). It’s like the Northeast has sent all of their degrees down here. I love cool weather. To me, 68 degrees is perfect. Hell, give me 60 degrees and I’ll bust out the sweaters. But 106? Not pleasant. I hate sweating. It’s awful for my hair. I now understand why most of our Austin friends vanish from town for the summer. We need to figure out a way to do the same next year.

    The weather has done some interesting things to the light outside. Everything turned pink a few nights ago at dusk. I couldn’t quite capture the pink, but here’s a shot of the sky.

    When it’s this hot, the deer all seek shelter under the trees in our back yard. The other day, there were no fewer than 10 deer in our yard. This shot only captures six of them, but you get the idea. We love the deer.

    Sometimes they peer longingly into my air conditioned studio.

    On the music front, I’ve been working on the trombone concerto, but most of it is still just “background processing.” Part of the problem is that I do my best work when I go running outside, but it’s too hot to do that right now. I go running on the treadmill at the gym, but the rhythmic noise of the treadmill is too distracting to do any real composing.

    I did get some administrative work done this week. This tends to be a very busy time of year, with directors placing their orders for early fall, and fortunately, that trend is continuing this year. I was worried that with the awful economy, nobody would order music, but so far, so good, although admittedly none of these orders are coming from the broke state of California. I’ve added the confirmed performances to the Performance List.

    Earlier this week, AEJ and I made beef burgundy, or, if you’re being all chichi-la-la, Bouef Bourguignon. (What’s better, when it’s 106 degrees outside, than beef stew?) We’ve made this several times using the recipe in the Cooks Illustrated cookbook, but this time we tried Ina Garten’s recipe from her cookbook.

    We love Ina Garten’s recipes. We’ve probably made a half-dozen now, and every one has been just delicious and reasonably easy, unlike, say, Alton Brown’s mac & cheese recipe, which calls for tempering an egg — WTF, Alton? — and ends up tasting like onion-flavored stinky cheese.

    Ina’s recipe for beef burgundy is supposed to cook for much less time than the one from Cooks Illustrated — 75 minutes vs. 3 hours — but in truth, we had to cook it for two hours to get the beef tender enough. Whereas the Cooks Illustrated recipe uses a bouquet garni (the chichi-la-la term for “bag full of vegetables and herbs that you remove prior to serving”), Ina leaves everything in the pot so you can actually eat it. I prefer it this way, since not much is tastier than carrots that have cooked in wine and beef juice for two hours. Here’s a shot of the carrots and onion, browning in beef and bacon fat. (Again, how could this not be good?)

    Ina’s recipe also calls for cognac.

    Before adding a full bottle of red wine (burgundy is the intended wine, since that’s the name of the recipe, but at $30 for a cheap bottle, we used something less fancy-pants), you first add the cognac — and you light that bitch on fire. “Stand back!,” Ina warns in the recipe, and she isn’t kidding. The flames shot up probably two feet.

    It burned for a surprisingly long time. You can see that some of the onion is slightly charred from the cognac flames.

    Here it is after braising for two hours. The onion slices had almost entirely disintegrated into the gravy. (Pearl onions are added at the end in their place.)

    Here’s the finished dish, served atop AEJ’s mashed potatoes (using the recipe from Union Square Cafe in New York — I swear to you, these are the best mashed potatoes I have ever had. You need a potato ricer, but the flavor and texture is insane, and how can it not be with a stick of good butter, a half cup of organic heavy cream, and a half cup of organic whole milk?).

    What to cook next? Well, tomorrow is Sunday, so I think pancakes are in order. I hope AEJ is reading this, since she’s the one who makes the pancakes… Hint… hint…