2011 December at John Mackey's Blog



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  • December 26, 2011

    Christmas 2011

    This was the first Christmas that both AEJ and I have been mostly-vegetarian (I say “mostly” because AEJ is a “real” vegetarian, and as I showed in my over-the-top dinner at Next: Childhood [did you read that post?  You should!], I’m a little more wishy-washy about it), and vegetarian = a trickier Christmas Dinner. No turkey, no ham, no chicken? Hmm. So on Christmas Eve, we opted to make vegetarian chili.

    It starts with sauteed onion, green pepper, green chiles, celery, oregano, and salt.

    I’m skipping some steps here, but eventually: chili!

    For dessert, what says Christmas more than peppermint ice cream? This particular brand was tasty, but looked more than a little like a scene from Dexter.

    Christmas morning, as is our tradition: monkey bread!

    There were lots of fun presents this year, but the best one to feature here on the photo-heavy blog is the new Canon 100mm f/2.8 L IS Macro lens. (Thank you, Santa!) I shot all of the following photos with the new lens.


    And from the tree… PONY!

    Not only is December 25 Christmas Day – it’s also the birthday of Isaac Newton. (For those who don’t believe in science, Newton’s basically your satan.  Also, you’re a moron.) AEJ is taking a course called “The History of Science Prior to Newton’s ‘Principia’,” so it seemed only appropriate that her Christmas gifts would include a Newton finger puppet.  (She got other philosopher finger puppets, including Hegel, Galileo, and Kant.  Now she can do some awesome puppet shows for the neighborhood kids.  Kids love philosophy puppet shows about as much as we love kids.)

    Here’s a sprig of rosemary that David Rakowski brought to us a few weeks ago.

    Every year, AEJ gets me a Lego treat. This year, I found Lego Snowman in my stocking. He’s sort of weirdly menacing-looking with his evil Geordi La Forge visor.

    AEJ likes colorful things, and cozy things, so she got some.

    On Christmas Day, we made homemade cornbread (to accompany our chili), using one of Ina Garten’s recipes.

    Vegetarian? Okay. Vegan? No way.

    In case you can’t tell, this is corn meal.


    It’s very exciting to be aluminum free!

    Also essential to any cooking experience: a cocktail. This is a Pimm’s with ginger ale, and the Pimm’s is homemade by my long-time friend Kelley Polar.

    These are “eggs.”


    Jalapenos being friendly.

    Jalapenos, chopped.


    Scallions, chopped.

    Same, with cocktail in the background.

    I’m digging the shallow depth-of-field of this lens.

    Sharp knife.

    Jalapenos, scallions — and the “wet ingredients.”

    Not as pretty when combined.

    Same chili as earlier in the blog, but shot with the macro lens.

    With sour cream on top.

    What does one need after chili? A peach gummy from Japan. They’re super juicy.

    Cocktails: tasty. Also tasty: wine.

    This lens is fun.

    Gotta go. It’s puppet show time.  Call the kids!


    December 21, 2011

    Next: Childhood

    Before we get to the real reason for this blog post – the pictures from dinner at Next: Childhood – here are a few pieces of news from last week’s Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago:
    1) It was fun
    2) The Hilton bar has been remodeled, I think for the better (and not just because the new color scheme matches our house).

    3) “Foundry” won the 2011 CBDNA Young Band Composition Contest. Here’s a video – with the focus on the critical percussion section – from an incredible middle school band:

    But enough about work. Let’s talk about food.

    Two years ago, I had dinner at Alinea, which remains the most fun and exciting meal I’ve ever had. (It was blogged in detail.) This year, the chef at Alinea, Grant Achatz, opened a new restaurant, Next, also in Chicago. Next has an usual hook: each menu is thought of as a “show,” and each “show” has a theme which changes every several months. Like a Broadway show, you buy tickets for your dinner, and the tickets are all-inclusive – roughly $200 per person, but including food, wine pairings, and gratuity. $200 is a lot for a dinner, even with wine and tip included, but it’s not as bad if you think of what it would cost to see a Broadway show and get dinner beforehand. (It’s also a relative bargain compared to the cost of dinner at Alinea, which runs three times that.) Tickets for a dinner at Next are hard to secure, with the entire run of seats for a given “show” — all three months or so worth — go on sale, exclusively on the restaurant’s website, late one night, with little notice anywhere except via the restaurant’s Facebook page, and all tickets are gone by the next morning. Somehow, Jake Wallace – longtime friend and writer of my best program notes – secured four tickets.

    The “show” that Next was running last week was called “Childhood,” and as Achatz says in the note you receive when you sit down – a note printed in the color and font from an Apple IIe – they could have called the menu “Michigan, 1985.” This would be a three hour trip back in time to revisit the foods of Achatz’s Midwestern childhood in the mid-80s, but as interpreted today by a kid who grew up to be one of the greatest chefs in the world.

    Our first course was “a gift from all of us at Next.” What better way to start a meal during the holiday season than with a present?

    Beneath the wrapping paper was a box, and inside the box was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sort of. “Eat it all in one bite,” we were warned, and for good reason. Inside this little fried ball of yum was warm, gooey, delicious peanut butter. The box contained all sorts of crunchy goodness, including little red solidified hints of jelly. We had no utensils (this would be a running theme of the evening), so the only good way to eat those crispy sweet bits was to try to pour them from the box directly into your mouth. I think we were all covered in crumbs by the time we were done, but it was worth it.

    Course #2: chicken noodle soup, but with no noodles — “a noodle of chicken.” That little noodle-looking thing at the bottom is, in fact, a noodle made of chicken.

    The broth was insanely good, like the most deliciously concentrated liquid chicken ever. (It reminded me, in a good way, of the story my dad once told me about the time he tasted dry cat food. “It’s like a million fish exploding in your mouth,” he said. This was like that, only, you know, not nasty.) It probably didn’t hurt that I’d been avoiding most meat for the past 9 months or so, so any meat tastes good at this point, but this was exceptional. The noodle-of-chicken was an amazing texture, and the vegetables… Lordy McFly, the vegetables. Carrots of various colors (there’s a red carrot?!), and then, the onions, which were the size of pearl onions, but they were sweet like Vidalias, but they were red. No idea what they were, but I could live on just the broth and onions, even if it meant I’d forever reek of leek.

    Course #3: Fish ‘n’ chips, “drawn by a child.” Deconstructed, moving clockwise from top left: the sun is Meyer lemon, the fisherman is reduced malt vinegar, the ground is beer batter and caviar, the foam is tartar sauce, the net is potato with a piece of walleye caught inside (underneath the net, and out of view), over a cucumber sea. (Thank you, Jake, for taking notes.)

    This angle lets you see the walleye. This was not only fun, but delicious, with sashimi-quality fish, and incredible sauces (although it was kind of sad to mess up the drawing in order to eat it).

    A detail of the beer batter and caviar “ground.”

    Like I said, it was delicious. What I didn’t mention is that cucumber is one of my Most Hated Foods.

    Mac and Cheese over “a merry-go-round of garnishes.” The accompaniments (clockwise) were ham and arugula (out of view, behind the glass), apple, reconstituted hot dog (weirdly good), parmesan, tomato, Kraft Mac & Cheese (you can spot that one, I assume), and manchego custard.

    But how will I get to the macaroni and cheese? Ahhh…

    Spectacular. The best macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had. The accompaniments were a lot of fun (my favorite may have been the apple – or maybe the manchego custard), but the mac and cheese itself was insanely rich and creamy, and (unlike in childhood) cooked perfectly al dente.

    This next one was beautiful. Achatz is a poet when it comes to the use of smell to evoke memory (he did it with burning campfire embers at Alinea), and he’s done it again with this dish: “Winter Wonderland – A walk through a Michigan forest.” Crispy greens and mushrooms over a hollowed log with smoking juniper. This vegetarian (and nearly vegan, other than one dollop of sauce hidden beneath) dish tasted like, well, earth – the way mushrooms taste of earth. It was crispy but with splashes of moist relief (I’m going to call my next middle school piece “Moist Relief”), and the smell… Oh the smell…

    Here’s a shot of the fresh juniper that was beneath the glass plate. You can see the hot stones in the center, which heated the juniper to release the smell of winter. (It was like a Christmas tree on crack.)

    Did I mention that all of these dishes came with wine pairings?

    It was incredible, but it got to be a little much. Please don’t barf, Jake.

    Next up: Hamburger. “McDonald’s, Burger King, White Castle… no?” Like the fish and chips, this was deconstructed with all of the elements you’d expect – onions, mushrooms, ketchup, mustard, a “special sauce.” The beef, rather than being of the questionable White Castle “slider” variety, was lovely short ribs.

    And now: The Lunch Box.

    We all got different vintage lunch boxes. Jake observed that we all got “manly” lunch boxes, while the table of women next to us got things like My Pretty Pony. I traded lunch boxes with Dae so that I could have this one.

    Inside the lunch box… a note. Mine was from “Mom.”

    What did mom pack? A Nutella “snack pack,” Wagyu “beef jerky” (where was this when I used to eat beef jerky on road trips?!), an apple-brandy “Fruit Roll-Up,” a truffled “Oreo,” a homemade “Funyun,” and inside our thermos, a mixed-berry drink.

    Oh! And chocolate pudding!

    Mixed-berry drink. (Sadly, non-alcoholic, although I’m pretty sure I was beyond shitfaced by this time. Note the gradually degrading focus of these pictures as the evening progressed.)

    When drinking from a plastic thermos cup, it’s classy to point your pinky.

    The magic… of Lassie (and West Point conductor, Dae Kim).

    More dessert! This is “Foie-sting and donuts,” with the instruction to “lick it off the beater.” That’s right: no utensils provided. These were cider donuts with a beater covered with – get ready for it – foie gras frosting.

    Seriously. Frosting, made from one of the richest (and normally savory) ingredients known to man: fois gras.

    Me likey.

    Now in the home stretch, we have Sweet Potato Pie: “a campfire on your table.” Those are sweet potatoes.

    And THAT is the camp fire. The sweet potatoes just became campfire logs.

    Here’s the sweet potato pie.

    With the toasty, cozy fire in the background.

    If you have a campfire, and you have marshmallows, there’s only one logical place to go with that…

    Finally, hot cocoa with a side of cognac. The cocoa was great, but I was beyond full, so I drank little of it. The cognac was the only misstep of the night – harsh and kind of nasty after everything that had come before – but that’s easy to forgive.

    Alinea is a more elegant dinner in many ways, but it’s not without humor. (AEJ and I laughed more about the food during that dinner than any other meal I can remember.) Next: Childhood, in no small reason due to the theme of “childhood,” was light (in tone, not much else – blargh) and fun throughout. I also think the food itself may have been more delicious than it was at Alinea, but maybe I just remember more about Alinea than the flavors themselves. (Go read my Alinea blog post if you never have.)

    Thank you to Jake and Travis for making the dinner possible!


    December 9, 2011

    Temple University: That’s a new one

    I spent three days at Temple University in Philadelphia this week and had what can only be described as a memorable experience.  In a good way.

    Temple has a new Director of Bands, Emily Threinen.  Emily is young, extremely talented, fun to watch, and driven. Before she arrived, the band at Temple only performed in the spring, never brought in guest composers, and seemed to be a sort of anonymous ensemble on campus.  Emily is working to change all of that.  The band performs throughout the school year now, playing more than double the concerts they played in the past, and she’s bringing in two guest composers every year.  I was honored to be the first.

    Temple performed two of my pieces while I was there — “Hymn to a Blue Hour,” and “Harvest,” my trombone concerto.  The soloist on “Harvest” was Nitzan Haroz, Principal Trombone for the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Nitzan = rock star.  More on him in a moment.

    Emily is a great host, and the students work really hard under her direction. I stayed in Center City, a wonderful part of Philadelphia (basically across the street from the Kimmel Center, the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra). Meals were good (although three separate people took me to the same restaurant — where I am now a regular!  Great place, although their website plays annoying music when you click that link.).  I had a nice meeting with conTemplum, the Temple student composers’ organization.  (I did appreciate that I was allowed to speak to the student composers, since that, um, doesn’t happen everywhere…)  It was All Good.  The rehearsals were good, and Nitzan is a monster player.  Nitzan told me after one rehearsal, “I wish we could perform the piece several times.  I think people might be a little nervous the first time around.  I had more fun learning this piece than I’ve had learning any other concerto, and I want to play it in a way that reflects that feeling, but this performance might be a little nerve-wracking for everybody.  If only we could play it several times!”  “You should do it on a subscription week with the Philly Orchestra,” I believe I responded.  I mean, how else could he perform the piece multiple times in quick succession?  Ha.  Stay tuned.

    At the concert, the first half of the program went just fine.  The students gave a nice performance of “Hymn to a Blue Hour.”  Then, intermission.  So far, so good.  The second half started with a piece by Ned Rorem, whose music I liked until he dissed me at a performance at Carnegie Hall several years ago.  (I mean, come on. You have a piece right before mine, you get up to bow, then you go back to your seat — which was RIGHT BEHIND MY SEAT! — sit down, put on your coat, and leave the concert – seconds before my piece starts, and my piece was the last thing on the program?  You couldn’t wait 8 more minutes? Was there some big clearance sale on silk scarfs that you had to rush to?  Whatevs.)

    I spoke to the audience about “Harvest,” then took my seat to listen to the performance.

    It started just fine.  Intro: fine.  The fast music started going, and it was okay.  Everybody sounded a little nervous, but it wasn’t bad or anything.  Just… not as comfortable and confident as it could.  Nitzan is an incredible player, looking completely engaged in the music even when he wasn’t playing.  During the drum break, he’d bob his head and look back to the percussion section, smiling.  He played some more, and he sounded great.  There aren’t many places where he doesn’t play, but he stopped playing during the rests, continued bobbing his head, slid his page of music to the next page, and…

    He didn’t come back in.

    The accompaniment continued with its oom-pah jazzy thing, but there was no tune on top, because Nitzan wasn’t playing.  He was sliding his pages around on his stand.  Then sliding a different page. He still looked totally comfortable, as if nothing was wrong.  But something was very wrong.  His pages were out of order. He was lost.

    Were they going to have to stop?  Emily avoided looking at Nitzan, sensing that if they made eye contact, he would stop the performance and start over — and we were about four minutes into the piece.  Emily spotted a good re-entry point, prepped it, and cued Nitzan, who came back in.  I think he was probably only lost for about a dozen measures or so.  I suspect only three people in that hall knew that anything was ever wrong.

    The rest of the performance went just fine.  During the curtain call, Nitzan hugged Emily and said something to her, she said something back, he said something to her, she again said something back (I think she was saying, “no way in hell”), and Nitzan raised his hand to quiet the audience, and he stepped up to the microphone.

    “I’m sure you could tell what happened there,” Nitzan said.  “I got my pages out of order, and because of that, you missed the best part of the piece.  You all, and John, deserve to hear the piece the way it’s supposed to go, so we’re going to do that first movement again.  I need to go backstage for a drink — maybe a glass of wine — but in about 30 seconds, I’m coming back out, and we’re going to play the beginning again.”  He paused, then added, “you can leave if you have to.” The audience applauded, and Nitzan left the stage – but nobody else left.

    I’ve had a lot of performances where, as I sat there, I thought, “this isn’t going well.  I wish they’d do it again.”  The performance at Temple was not one of those performances.  Sure, there was no solo part for a few measures, but the piece still came of very well.  Everybody had sounded a little nervous throughout, just as Nitzan had predicted the night before, and the first movement sounded more tentative than party-like, but it was still very good.  Since everything had gotten back on track after a short time, we didn’t need a “do-over.”  But we got one.

    Nitzan returned to the stage, and he, Emily, and the ensemble repeated the first movement.  And it was… spectacular.  The nerves were gone.  There was a level of confidence and energy and fun that are rare in any performance.  It sounded, well, like a party, and it felt like one throughout the hall.  Whereas I’d sat nervously during the first performance, during this encore performance, I just smiled and enjoyed the energy in the room.  It was the most laid-back performance I can remember, but that level of informality made for a more exciting, care-free (but clean!) performance.  If only I could share it!

    Ah, but I can!  Somebody — I don’t know who — captured it on their phone, and posted it to YouTube.  Here’s the repeat of the first movement, starting with me telling the audience that a “do-over” really wasn’t necessary, but I wasn’t going to argue.  It ends a little weird (not surprisingly, considering they were only doing the first movement, which doesn’t have a set ending, but continues directly into the next movement), but I love it.

    Again, my sincere thanks to Dr. Emily Threinen, the students at Temple, and the absolutely bad-ass Nitzan Haroz. I guess from now on, I need to insist that the dress rehearsal be part of the actual concert, ’cause the result is confident, exciting performance.

    At the reception after the concert, a complete stranger named Renee joined our group because she “can tell who the most fun people in the room are.” (I guess she missed the pair of hookers in the next section.) She asked Nitzan, who is from Israel, “where are you from? Are you from Jersey?” I guess that’s where the exotic people come from. (Our upstairs neighbor is Albanian, and somebody once asked him if that meant he was from Albany.) Nice to meet you, Renee. (Surrounding her are Jay Krush, Temple’s tuba professor, and Travis Cross, he of great and often distasteful humor.)

    Jay, you don’t look as convinced as Travis.

    That’s more like it!

    Congratulations to Emily on her first semester at Temple — and thank you for having me on campus! This was a great trip. And Nitzan: any time you want to perform “Harvest,” even if it’s multiple times in a night, you have my blessing.