Thursday, December 20, 2007

101 simple appetizers


December 19, 2007
The Minimalist
101 Simple Appetizers in 20 Minutes or Less

YOU want good food at a holiday cocktail party and you want to impress people? You don’t want a caterer, you refuse to heat up frozen food, and you want to show that your expertise extends beyond buying perfectly ripe hunks of cheese and juicy olives? Then think about doing some cooking.

Here is a collection of party foods that are as easy to eat as they are to make. Each can be produced in 20 minutes or less. Many can be served at room temperature. And none require a plate. (Few people can juggle plate, wineglass and fork successfully, let alone gracefully.)

Most of these recipes are beyond minimalist: they never do in two steps what can be done in one, and they need no embellishment. As you scan these recipes for ideas, mostly think this: The ones you find most appealing are the ones your guests will like. Choose a few, spend an hour or two in the kitchen, and you’ll be in great shape.

On Bread or Crackers

1 Red peppers and anchovies: Drizzle piquillos or other roasted red peppers with olive oil, and top with a good anchovy fillet. A caper or two on each is not amiss.

2 Top rye flatbread with thin slices of crisp apple and pickled plain or schmaltz herring (not herring in cream sauce).

3 Sear skirt steak to medium-rare, not more than 8 minutes. Cut into chunks 1/2-inch to 1 inch, first with the grain, then against it. Spread bread with coarse mustard and/or butter. Top with steak and coarse salt.

4 Toss high-quality crab meat with minced shallots, a little tarragon or a lot of parsley and/or basil, and enough mayonnaise to bind. Also good on lettuce leaves.

5 Mash together best-quality tuna, minced anchovies, minced garlic, chopped oil-cured olives and olive oil as necessary.

6 New York comfort food: Spread cream cheese or crème fraîche on small bagels or bagel chips; black bread is also terrific. Top with sturgeon, sable or lox.

7 Slice soft goat cheese and brush with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and chopped herbs, then with bread crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees until soft, about 10 minutes, and serve hot.

8 Might not be the new ketchup, but great stuff: purée skinned roasted peppers or piquillos with some of their liquid, salt and olive oil. Serve alone or with other foods — a piece of cheese, even.

9 Top buttered bread with shaved country ham, prosciutto or regular deli ham and bread-and-butter pickles.

10 Chop shrimp fine, then sauté in a minimum of oil, or poach quickly and drain. Mix premade pesto with mayonnaise so that it is gluey. Combine cooled shrimp with sufficient pesto to bind; chill.

11 Tapenade: Combine about 1 pound pitted black olives in food processor with 1/4 cup drained capers, at least 5 anchovies, 2 garlic cloves, black pepper and olive oil as necessary to make a coarse paste. Can also be a dip. Use sparingly; it’s strong.

12 A kind of Moroccan tapenade: As above, but use good green olives with capers; olive-oil-canned tuna (instead of anchovies); garlic, if desired; and cumin.

13 Chop fresh mushrooms. Cook slowly in olive oil with salt and pepper until very soft. Stir in minced garlic and parsley. Cook a few more minutes until garlic mellows. (Especially good if you add reconstituted dried porcini.)

14 Mix together a bit of flour and good paprika. Cut Manchego or similar sheep’s milk cheese into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Dip in flour, then beaten egg, then bread crumbs, and fry quickly to brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels and serve hot.

15 Beef tartare: Carefully pulse good beef in food processor. For each pound, add an egg, a teaspoon dry mustard, a tablespoon Dijon mustard, a tablespoon Worcestershire, Tabasco to taste, 1/2 cup chopped scallions and a touch of minced garlic. Salt and pepper, if necessary. Amazing stuff.

16 Put a thick film of olive oil in a skillet over low heat with lots of thin-sliced garlic. When it sizzles, add shrimp along with pimentón. Raise the heat just enough to get the shrimp going, and cook until it’s pink. Stir in parsley. Spoon a little of the oil onto pieces of bread and top with shrimp.

17 Season cornmeal with lots of chili powder, salt and black pepper. Heat a thick film of neutral oil (or oil mixed with butter) in a skillet. Dredge shucked clams, oysters or chicken breast pieces in the cornmeal and cook about 2 minutes a side, or until crisp. Serve on bread with mayonnaise, or sprinkle with lemon or lime juice and serve on toothpicks. It’s almost convenience food when prepared with shucked mollusks.


18 Bruschetta is the basis for so many good things. Don’t make it too crisp, and start with good country bread. Brush thick slices with olive oil. Broil until toasted on both sides. While it’s still hot, rub with cut clove of garlic on one side (optional). Drizzle with a bit more olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and serve, or top with prosciutto or tapenade.

19 More than party food, and an amazing snack: Top bruschetta with white beans cooked soft (or use canned) and finished with minced garlic, sage, olive oil and salt.

20 One more level: Make white beans as above. Toss with good quality canned tuna and mash. Spoon over bruschetta.

21 Top bruschetta with chopped, well-cooked broccoli rabe or other greens tossed with minced garlic and olive oil while still warm. Health food, practically. Also good with a layer of Tuscan beans (above).

On Toothpicks

22 Cut pork tenderloin into 1-inch slices; broil or sauté until done. Cut each piece across into 3 or 4 thin slices, then pile onto round bread slices, toasted or not. Top with slice of Manchego and bit of piquillo pepper.

23 Cut chorizo into chunks. Cook in a lightly oiled skillet until nicely browned. Kielbasa is equally good (or better), if not as hip.

24 Portable Caprese: Skewer a small ball of mozzarella, a grape tomato and a bit of basil leaf. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and drizzle with oil.

25 A no-brainer: Cut slab of bacon into 1/2-inch chunks. Cook in a skillet, a broiler or a high-heat oven until nice and crisp. Skewer with a grape tomato.

26 Even jazzier: Cut just-ripe pears in 1/2-inch cubes; sprinkle with a little salt, sugar and cayenne. Spear with bacon.

27 Pair crispy bacon chunks with one cube of beet and one of goat cheese.

28 Angels on horseback: Wrap oysters or not-too-large sea scallops in bacon; skewer with toothpicks. Broil, turning once, until bacon is done.

29 You can call them devils on horseback: Wrap pitted dates (replacing the pit with an almond if you like) in bacon. Skewer with toothpicks and broil, turning once, until bacon is done.

30 Rumaki, a 1960s cocktail food that deserves reviving: Brush canned water chestnuts (or chicken liver halves, or crimini mushrooms, or pieces of portobello) with a little soy sauce; wrap in pieces of bacon. Skewer closed with toothpicks and broil, turning once, until bacon is done.

31 Wash mussels or littleneck clams well; steam open in covered pot. Let cool, remove from shells, and serve with aioli, flavored mayonnaise or vinaigrette.

32 Cook real bay scallops in hot butter or oil for just a couple of minutes. Sprinkle with lemon juice and parsley and serve hot.

33 Crab cakes: For each pound crab meat, add an egg, 1/4 cup each minced bell pepper and onion, 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons bread or cracker crumbs, salt and pepper. Shape into small cakes and refrigerate, if time allows. Dredge in flour, then brown in oil (or oil mixed with butter). Serve with lemon wedges, aioli or tartar sauce.

34 Meatballs: Combine 1 thick slice white bread with 1/2 cup milk; let sit for 5 minutes. Squeeze milk from bread and gently mix bread with 1/2 pound not-too-lean ground sirloin, 1/2 pound ground pork, 1/2 cup chopped onion, 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan, 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves and salt and pepper. Shape into 1-inch balls. (If mixture doesn’t hold well, add more bread crumbs and an egg.) Broil about 5 minutes, turning once or twice.

35 Cod cakes with sauce rouge: I’m hedging on time here, but you’re really getting two recipes in one: Combine 1 pound chopped boneless cod, an egg, 1/4 cup mayonnaise, a tablespoon Dijon mustard and some salt and pepper. Add bread or cracker crumbs until you can shape the mixture into cakes. If possible, refrigerate for an hour. Meanwhile, cook chopped canned tomatoes in olive oil with salt and cayenne until saucy. Shape small cod cakes. Dredge in flour, sauté in butter and oil until nicely browned. Serve hot or at room temperature, with sauce on the side.

36 The banderilla: The first tapa created, or at least that’s what people tell me. Skewer a crisp pickled pepper, an anchovy and a pitted green olive. Incredible with dry (fino) sherry.

37 Toss peeled shrimp with lots of minced garlic, pimentón or paprika, cayenne, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Broil until done, turning once, about five minutes.

38 Marinated mushrooms: Cut button mushrooms into chunks and toss with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Let rest five minutes. Spear two chunks with a piece of Parmesan about the same size.

39 Cut tuna or tenderloin of beef into bite-size pieces. Sear in hot pan until browned on one side; turn; smear browned side with dark miso slightly thinned with sake. Continue to cook another minute or two.

40 Flash-cooked squid: Marinate whole baby squid for 5 minutes in olive oil, a little sherry vinegar, salt and pepper. Sear on both sides in a very hot pan or broiler for less than 3 minutes total. Cut into pieces and sprinkle with more salt. You can do this with shrimp and scallops, too.

41 Soak a couple of tablespoons of black beans in sherry. Blast bite-size shrimp in a little peanut oil until just about cooked through; add minced garlic (and chili and ginger, if you like), then cook 30 seconds. Add black beans and their liquid, and toss. Turn off heat and add a little soy sauce. Serve on toothpicks.

42 Chicken meunière: Sounds fancier than it is, and works with veal, turkey, pork, oysters, clams, shrimp, etc. Cut boneless meat into bite-size pieces (not too small). Dredge in flour, brown quickly in a combination of butter and oil. Serve with lemon wedges.

43 Cut tenderloin or other tender beef into bite-size chunks. Toss with a lot of roughly chopped basil (say, 1 cup basil per pound of meat) and peanut oil. Stir-fry with garlic and red pepper flakes until rare. Sprinkle with soy sauce or nam pla and lime juice.

On Skewers

44 Chicken kebab, Greek style: Cut boneless, skinless chicken thighs into 1-inch chunks. Toss with minced onion, minced garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, crumbled bay leaf and oregano. Skewer. Broil, turning occasionally, until browned.

45 Chicken kebab, South Asian style: Cut boneless, skinless chicken thighs into 1-inch chunks. Toss with equal amounts ground cardamom, minced garlic, ground allspice, ground turmeric and thyme leaves; add a dash of nutmeg and peanut oil to moisten. Skewer. Broil, turning occasionally, until nicely browned.

46 Chicken kebab, faux-tandoori style: Cut boneless, skinless chicken thighs into 1-inch chunks. Toss with yogurt, chopped onion, minced garlic, minced lime zest, ground cumin, coriander, paprika, cayenne and lime juice. Skewer and broil, turning occasionally, until nicely browned.

47 Chicken teriyaki: Cut 1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken thighs into 1-inch chunks. Toss with 1/4 cup each soy sauce, sake and mirin, and a tablespoon of sugar. Skewer. Boil remaining sauce for a minute or so. Broil the chicken, turning and basting with the sauce after a couple of minutes.

48 Pork kebabs, West Indian style: Mix 1 tablespoon garlic, 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice, a pinch of nutmeg, a teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves, 1/4 cup chopped onion and the juice of a lime. Toss with 1 pound pork shoulder (you need some fat or these will be tough) cut into 1-inch cubes. Skewer and broil about 5 minutes.

49 Pork kebabs, Iberian style. Mix 1 tablespoon garlic, 1/4 cup chopped onion, 1 tablespoon ground cumin, 2 teaspoons paprika, 1 tablespoon grated or minced lemon zest and 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice. Toss with 1 pound cubed pork shoulder (with fat). Skewer. Broil about 5 minutes.

Finger Foods

50 The egg’s gift to cocktail parties: Hard-cook eggs, peel, and cut in half; carefully remove the yolks. Mash yolks with salt, mayonnaise, good mustard and cayenne. You can also add minced radish, snow peas, scallions (or any crunchy vegetables) or curry powder. Spoon back into the whites, sprinkle with paprika, pimentón or parsley.

51 Even more fabulous: Cook eggs as above. Mash yolks with cooked and minced shrimp, a little chopped olive, minced onion, parsley, salt, pepper and mayonnaise to bind. Spoon back into whites. Garnish with parsley or a piece of anchovy or shrimp.

52 Aioli with steamed cold vegetables: Make the mayonnaise yourself or flavor bottled mayonnaise with lemon, garlic, anchovy (if you like it) and a little saffron (if you have it) for amazing color. Serve with lightly cooked carrots, snap peas, purple potatoes, seafood, etc.

53 Shrimp cocktail: Combine ketchup with chili powder, pepper, lemon juice, Worcestershire, Tabasco and horseradish. Make lots, because people will be double-dipping. Serve with cooked shrimp.

54 Sprinkle rib lamb chops (rack of lamb, separated) or loin chops with good coarse curry powder, or any spice mix you like. Broil quickly, until crisp but not well-done. Serve hot, with yogurt mixed with same spice rub. These will go very fast.

55 Stuff Medjool dates with a piece of Parmesan or Manchego or an almond. Or fresh goat cheese. Or mozzarella, and bake until the cheese begins to melt.

56 Wrap small pieces of melon, figs and/or dates with thinly sliced prosciutto.

57 Buy the best anchovies you can find. Curl each around a tiny ball of butter. Eat.

58 Teeny tiny hamburgers: The hardest part is finding teeny tiny buns, but you can use toast squares. Make them small from beef mixed with salt and pepper. Cook quickly in a hot skillet and serve with ketchup and bits of onion and tomato.

59 Nachos: Yes, nachos. Top a layer of tortilla chips with grated cheese (something orange is traditional) and bake until cheese melts. Top with warm beans seasoned with chili powder, along with chopped scallions. Other possible toppings: jalapeños, sour cream, cilantro, tomatoes, olives.

60 Hot wings: Cut chicken wings into three sections; discard the tips. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and broil until browned on one side, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, melt butter with vinegar, garlic and hot sauce to taste. Pour off excess fat, baste the wings with hot sauce, turn them, baste again, and brown. Baste once more and serve, with napkins.

61 Sweet wings: As above, but melt the butter with Dijon mustard and honey or maple syrup.

62 Soy ginger wings: This time baste with equal parts vinegar and soy sauce, mixed with a couple of tablespoons each minced ginger and sesame oil. You can sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on the wings.

63 Put peeled raw shrimp in a food processor with garlic, chili, ginger, shallot or red onion, salt, pepper and cilantro; chop finely. Shape into small patties and shallow-fry or broil, then serve with napkins or on buns, with lime juice or spiced mayonnaise.

64 Gently cook raw nuts in oil or butter (or a mixture) with salt and spices — pimentón, chili powder, curry powder, ginger, sugar — whatever combination you like. When they’re fragrant, bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool or they won’t be crunchy.

65 Beyond simple: Buy decent tortilla chips; sprinkle with lime juice and chili powder. Eat fast, before they get soggy.

66 Coat good olives in olive oil mixed with crushed garlic, rosemary, thyme, and/or lemon or orange peel; spices, like chilies, are O.K. Let sit overnight if time allows.

67 Little pizza bianca: Cut prepared dough into small pieces and press out. Brush with oil, sprinkle with rosemary and good coarse salt. Bake at about 500 degrees until browned. Cut up to serve.

68 Quarter quail, rub with olive oil or peanut oil. Broil, skin side down, about 3 minutes. Broil, skin side up, until brown, crisp and cooked through, about 5 minutes more. Brush lightly with pesto or soy sauce and sesame oil, and serve hot or warm.

69 Popcorn parmigiana: Make real popcorn, pour melted butter over it, and toss with fresh Parmesan.

70 Cut baby back ribs into individual ribs; sprinkle with salt and pepper (lots). Broil, turning as needed, 10 minutes or so. Sprinkle with lemon juice.

71 Fill endive leaves with crème fraîche or sour cream and caviar or salmon roe. Or use drained ricotta mixed with chopped parsley, thyme, a little olive oil and a little minced garlic.

72 Steamed asparagus wrapped in prosciutto. That’s the recipe.

73 Cucumber and caviar: Take 3/4-inch-thick slices of cucumber. (The quality of the cuke is more important than that of the caviar; it has to be good enough to leave the skin on.) Scoop out most of the seeds, leaving the bottom of each slice intact. Fill it with a spoonful of yogurt, sour cream or crème fraîche mixed with dill, and top with caviar or salmon roe.

74 Boil frozen or fresh edamame in pods for 3 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle with coarse salt. For this they charge you eight bucks.

Dips and Spreads

75 Purée white or other beans (if canned, drain them) with garlic and olive oil in food processor, adding olive oil as needed. Stir in lemon juice to taste. Garnish with chopped scallions or red onion. You can add cumin or chopped rosemary with lemon zest.

76 Hummus: Truly one of the great culinary inventions. Mix four parts well-cooked or canned chickpeas with one part tahini, along with some of its oil, in a food processor. Add garlic, cumin or pimentón and purée, adding as much olive oil as needed. Stir in lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste; garnish with olive oil and pimentón.

77 Drain good whole-fat yogurt in cheesecloth for 15 minutes; squeeze to remove remaining liquid. Add salt, pimentón and olive oil. Thin with a little more yogurt to use as a dip, or serve on crackers or bread.

78 Mix four parts drained yogurt (as above), farmer cheese or cream cheese with one part sour cream, until creamy. Add thyme and chopped parsley (or any fresh herbs), minced garlic, salt and pepper.

79 Start by draining yogurt as above but do not squeeze; or use sour cream. Stir in chopped seeded cucumber, bell pepper, scallion, dill, then add salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste. Or use chopped arugula and/or cress, with some herbs. Or use horseradish and/or Dijon mustard, with or without vegetables. Or minced or puréed onion or shallots and chopped fresh parsley. Always taste for salt.

80 Drain yogurt as above but do not squeeze; or use sour cream. Add flaked smoked trout or whitefish, or minced smoked salmon, along with chopped parsley, cayenne and lemon juice. Or add minced onion with salmon roe or caviar.

81 Taramosalata: Take 3 or 4 slices good white bread, preferably stale, and soak in water to cover for a few minutes. Squeeze out water, purée bread with 2 or 3 cloves garlic, 8 ounces fish roe (tarama) and at least 1/4 cup olive oil, adding more as needed. Stir in lemon juice and pepper to taste.

82 Mix four parts cream cheese or fresh goat cheese to one part chopped walnuts. A little spice mix (chili powder, curry powder, whatever) is nice in here. Or, replace the nuts with roasted peppers, olive oil and minced anchovies.

83 Boursin: Maybe you have a few Ritz? Mash cream cheese with minced garlic (if you have roasted garlic, so much the better), pepper and small amounts of minced thyme, tarragon and rosemary.

84 Mix three parts cream cheese, one part minced cooked shrimp, a few mashed capers and pepper.

85 Mash four parts goat cheese with one part fig jam.

Little Sandwich Triangles

86 Layer cooked ham and cheese (Gruyère, Cantal or good Cheddar) on thin bread, then press and grill in a not-too-hot skillet with butter or oil.

87 Finding top-quality roast beef is worth a little legwork. Slice it thin and serve with horseradish on rye.

88 Dice cooked shrimp, toss with chopped onion and/or celery, and bind with aioli or well-seasoned mayonnaise.

89 Extra seasoning takes this egg salad higher: Toss chopped hard-cooked eggs with scallions, chopped anchovies and parsley. Bind with well-seasoned mayo.

90 Toss shredded or cubed chicken with minced shallot or red onion, chopped black olives, olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, pepper and chopped herbs. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve on slices of toast.

91 Cheese quesadillas: Use 4-inch tortillas; on each, put grated cheese, scallions and minced canned green chilies or chopped fresh poblanos. Salsa and beans are optional. Top with another tortilla. Griddle with oil, turning once, about 5 minutes.

You Might Need a Fork

92 This is easier than carpaccio: Cut trimmed filet mignon into 1/2-inch or smaller cubes. Toss with arugula, parsley, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

93 Make parsley pesto (parsley, garlic, oil, lemon juice) in a food processor. Sauté whole shrimp or small pieces of fish in oil. Arrange fish on small beds of the pesto. You can put this on bread and forget the plates.

94 Ceviche: Thinly slice — or cut into 1/4-inch dice — sea or true bay scallops (or any really fresh fish). Toss with a bit of peeled and minced bell pepper, some lime zest and about 1/4 cup lime juice per pound. Add salt and cayenne to taste. Garnish with cilantro.

95 Mock ceviche: Briefly poach a mixture of (for example) shrimp, scallops and squid, cut to bite size. Drain, then combine with olive oil, minced fresh chili, red onion, and (optional) garlic. Finish with lime juice and cilantro and serve in lettuce cups.

Soups and Wraps

96 Bisque: Heat shrimp, lobster, fish or chicken broth with minced onion and chopped tomato for 5 minutes. Add chopped shrimp or lobster to the simmering stock, and cook another two minutes. Purée, then add heavy cream or half-and-half, along with salt and pepper. Serve in small cups garnished, if you like, with a piece of cooked shrimp or lobster.

97 Avocado soup: Put 2 cups avocado flesh in a blender with 3 cups whole milk along with some salt and cayenne. Purée, then add fresh lime or orange juice to taste, and adjust seasoning. Refrigerate or serve immediately in small cups garnished with a piece of avocado or cooked shrimp.

98 Gazpacho: Chop 2 pounds of tomatoes and a cucumber; blend with a couple of slices of day-old bread, torn into pieces, olive oil, sherry vinegar, garlic (optional) and anchovies (optional). Add a little water (or more oil) to the blender, if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning, then serve in small cups. Optional garnishes include minced bell pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, a piece of anchovy, and/or parsley.

99 Buy roast duck and take meat off bones; toss with hoisin sauce and roughly chopped scallions. Roll in small tortillas.

100 Roll prosciutto and Parmesan in small tortillas. Bake gently to soften the cheese.

101 Broil a good hot dog, roll in a good tortilla spread with brown or Dijon mustard. Slice. You know everyone will eat them.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Doctor as drug rep experience


November 25, 2007
Dr. Drug Rep

I. Faculty Development

On a blustery fall New England day in 2001, a friendly representative from Wyeth Pharmaceuticals came into my office in Newburyport, Mass., and made me an offer I found hard to refuse. He asked me if I’d like to give talks to other doctors about using Effexor XR for treating depression. He told me that I would go around to doctors’ offices during lunchtime and talk about some of the features of Effexor. It would be pretty easy. Wyeth would provide a set of slides and even pay for me to attend a speaker’s training session, and he quickly floated some numbers. I would be paid $500 for one-hour “Lunch and Learn” talks at local doctors’ offices, or $750 if I had to drive an hour. I would be flown to New York for a “faculty-development program,” where I would be pampered in a Midtown hotel for two nights and would be paid an additional “honorarium.”

I thought about his proposition. I had a busy private practice in psychiatry, specializing in psychopharmacology. I was quite familiar with Effexor, since I had read recent studies showing that it might be slightly more effective than S.S.R.I.’s, the most commonly prescribed antidepressants: the Prozacs, Paxils and Zolofts of the world. S.S.R.I. stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, referring to the fact that these drugs increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical in the brain involved in regulating moods. Effexor, on the other hand, was being marketed as a dual reuptake inhibitor, meaning that it increases both serotonin and norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter. The theory promoted by Wyeth was that two neurotransmitters are better than one, and that Effexor was more powerful and effective than S.S.R.I.’s.

I had already prescribed Effexor to several patients, and it seemed to work as well as the S.S.R.I.’s. If I gave talks to primary-care doctors about Effexor, I reasoned, I would be doing nothing unethical. It was a perfectly effective treatment option, with some data to suggest advantages over its competitors. The Wyeth rep was simply suggesting that I discuss some of the data with other doctors. Sure, Wyeth would benefit, but so would other doctors, who would become more educated about a good medication.

A few weeks later, my wife and I walked through the luxurious lobby of the Millennium Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. At the reception desk, when I gave my name, the attendant keyed it into the computer and said, with a dazzling smile: “Hello, Dr. Carlat, I see that you are with the Wyeth conference. Here are your materials.”

She handed me a folder containing the schedule of talks, an invitation to various dinners and receptions and two tickets to a Broadway musical. “Enjoy your stay, doctor.” I had no doubt that I would, though I felt a gnawing at the edge of my conscience. This seemed like a lot of money to lavish on me just so that I could provide some education to primary-care doctors in a small town north of Boston.

The next morning, the conference began. There were a hundred or so other psychiatrists from different parts of the U.S. I recognized a couple of the attendees, including an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a while. I’d heard that he moved to another state and was making a bundle of money, but nobody seemed to know exactly how.

I joined him at his table and asked him what he had been up to. He said he had a busy private practice and had given a lot of talks for Warner-Lambert, a company that had since been acquired by Pfizer. His talks were on Neurontin, a drug that was approved for epilepsy but that my friend had found helpful for bipolar disorder in his practice. (In 2004, Warner-Lambert pleaded guilty to illegally marketing Neurontin for unapproved uses. It is illegal for companies to pay doctors to promote so-called off-label uses.)

I knew about Neurontin and had prescribed it occasionally for bipolar disorder in my practice, though I had never found it very helpful. A recent study found that it worked no better than a placebo for this condition. I asked him if he really thought Neurontin worked for bipolar, and he said that he felt it was “great for some patients” and that he used it “all the time.” Given my clinical experiences with the drug, I wondered whether his positive opinion had been influenced by the money he was paid to give talks.

But I put those questions aside as we gulped down our coffees and took seats in a large lecture room. On the agenda were talks from some of the most esteemed academics in the field, authors of hundreds of articles in the major psychiatric journals. They included Michael Thase, of the University of Pittsburgh and the researcher who single-handedly put Effexor on the map with a meta-analysis, and Norman Sussman, a professor of psychiatry at New York University, who was master of ceremonies.

Thase strode to the lectern first in order to describe his groundbreaking work synthesizing data from more than 2,000 patients who had been enrolled in studies comparing Effexor with S.S.R.I.’s. At this time, with his Effexor study a topic of conversation in the mental-health world, Thase was one of the most well known and well respected psychiatrists in the United States. He cut a captivating figure onstage: tall and slim, dynamic, incredibly articulate and a master of the research craft.

He began by reviewing the results of the meta-analysis that had the psychiatric world abuzz. After carefully pooling and processing data from eight separate clinical trials, Thase published a truly significant finding: Effexor caused a 45 percent remission rate in patients in contrast to the S.S.R.I. rate of 35 percent and the placebo rate of 25 percent. It was the first time one antidepressant was shown to be more effective than any other. Previously, psychiatrists chose antidepressants based on a combination of guesswork, gut feeling and tailoring a drug’s side effects to a patient’s symptom profile. If Effexor was truly more effective than S.S.R.I.’s, it would amount to a revolution in psychiatric practice and a potential windfall for Wyeth.

One impressive aspect of Thase’s presentation was that he was not content to rest on his laurels; rather he raised a series of potential criticisms of his results and then rebutted them convincingly. For example, skeptics had pointed out that Thase was a paid consultant to Wyeth and that both of his co-authors were employees of the company. Thase responded that he had requested and had received all of the company’s data and had not cherry-picked from those studies most favorable for Effexor. This was a significant point, because companies sometimes withhold negative data from publication in medical journals. For example, in 2004, GlaxoSmithKline was sued by Eliot Spitzer, who was then the New York attorney general, for suppressing data hinting that Paxil causes suicidal thoughts in children. The company settled the case and agreed to make clinical-trial results public.

Another objection was that while the study was billed as comparing Effexor with S.S.R.I.’s in general, in fact most of the data compared Effexor with one specific S.S.R.I.: Prozac. Perhaps Effexor was, indeed, more effective than Prozac; this did not necessarily mean that it was more effective than the other S.S.R.I.’s in common use. But Thase announced that since the original study, he had analyzed data on Paxil and other meds and also found differences in remission rates.

For his study, Thase chose what was at that time an unusual measure of antidepressant improvement: “remission,” rather than the more standard measure, “response.” In clinical antidepressant trials, a “response” is defined as a 50 percent improvement in depressive symptoms, as measured by the Hamilton depression scale. Thus, if a patient enters a study scoring a 24 on the Hamilton (which would be a moderate degree of depression), he or she would have “responded” if the final score, after treatment, was 12 or less.

Remission, on the other hand, is defined as “complete” recovery. While you might think that a patient would have to score a 0 on the Hamilton to be in remission, in fact very few people score that low, no matter how deliriously happy they are. Instead, researchers come up with various cutoff scores for remission. Thase chose a cutoff score of 7 or below.

In his study, he emphasized the remission rates and not the response rates. As I listened to his presentation, I wondered why. Was it because he felt that remission was the only really meaningful outcome by which to compare drugs? Or was it because using remission made Effexor look more impressive than response did? Thase indirectly addressed this issue in his paper by pointing out that even when remission was defined in different ways, with different cutoff points, Effexor beat the S.S.R.I.’s every time. That struck me as a pretty convincing endorsement of Wyeth’s antidepressant.

The next speaker, Norm Sussman, took the baton from Thase and explored the concept of remission in more detail. Sussman’s job was to systematically go through the officially sanctioned “slide deck” — slides provided to us by Wyeth, which we were expected to use during our own presentations.

If Thase was the riveting academic, Sussman was the engaging populist, translating some of the drier research concepts into terms that our primary-care-physician audiences would understand. Sussman exhorted us not to be satisfied with response and encouraged us to set the bar higher. “Is the patient doing everything they were doing before they got depressed?” he asked. “Are they doing it even better? That’s remission.” To further persuade us, he highlighted a slide showing that patients who made it all the way to remission are less likely to relapse to another depressive episode than patients who merely responded. And for all its methodological limitations, it was a slide that I would become well acquainted with, as I would use it over and over again in my own talks.

When it came to side effects, Effexor’s greatest liability was that it could cause hypertension, a side effect not shared by S.S.R.I.’s. Sussman showed us some data from the clinical trials, indicating that at lower doses, about 3 percent of patients taking Effexor had hypertension as compared with about 2 percent of patients assigned to a placebo. There was only a 1 percent difference between Effexor and placebo, he commented, and pointed out that treating high blood pressure might be a small price to pay for relief from depression.

It was an accurate reading of the data, and I remember finding it a convincing defense of Effexor’s safety. As I look back at my notes now, however, I notice that another way of describing the same numbers would have been to say that Effexor leads to a 50 percent greater rate of hypertension than a placebo. Framed this way, Effexor looks more hazardous.

And so it went for the rest of the afternoon.

Was I swallowing the message whole? Certainly not. I knew that this was hardly impartial medical education, and that we were being fed a marketing line. But when you are treated like the anointed, wined and dined in Manhattan and placed among the leaders of the field, you inevitably put some of your critical faculties on hold. I was truly impressed with Effexor’s remission numbers, and like any physician, I was hopeful that something new and different had been introduced to my quiver of therapeutic options.

At the end of the last lecture, we were all handed envelopes as we left the conference room. Inside were checks for $750. It was time to enjoy ourselves in the city.

II. The Art and Science of Detailing

Pharmaceutical “detailing” is the term used to describe those sales visits in which drug reps go to doctors’ offices to describe the benefits of a specific drug. Once I returned to my Newburyport office from New York, a couple of voice-mail messages from local Wyeth reps were already waiting for me, inviting me to give some presentations at local doctors’ offices. I was about to begin my speaking — and detailing — career in earnest.

How many doctors speak for drug companies? We don’t know for sure, but one recent study indicates that at least 25 percent of all doctors in the United States receive drug money for lecturing to physicians or for helping to market drugs in other ways. This meant that I was about to join some 200,000 American physicians who are being paid by companies to promote their drugs. I felt quite flattered to have been recruited, and I assumed that the rep had picked me because of some special personal or professional quality.

The first talk I gave brought me back to earth rather quickly. I distinctly remember the awkwardness of walking into my first waiting room. The receptionist slid the glass partition open and asked if I had an appointment.

“Actually, I’m here to meet with the doctor.”

“Oh, O.K. And is that a scheduled appointment?”

“I’m here to give a talk.”

A light went on. “Oh, are you part of the drug lunch?”

Regardless of how I preferred to think of myself (an educator, a psychiatrist, a consultant), I was now classified as one facet of a lunch helping to pitch a drug, a convincing sidekick to help the sales rep. Eventually, with an internal wince, I began to introduce myself as “Dr. Carlat, here for the Wyeth lunch.”

The drug rep who arranged the lunch was always there, usually an attractive, vivacious woman with platters of gourmet sandwiches in tow. Hungry doctors and their staff of nurses and receptionists would filter into the lunch room, grateful for free food.

Once there was a critical mass (and crucially, once the M.D.’s arrived), I was given the go-ahead by the Wyeth reps to start. I dove into my talk, going through a handout that I created, based on the official slide deck. I discussed the importance of remission, the basics of the Thase study showing the advantage of Effexor, how to dose the drug, the side effects, and I added a quick review of the other common antidepressants.

While I still had some doubts, I continued to be impressed by the 10 percent advantage in remission rates that Effexor held over S.S.R.I.’s; that advantage seemed significant enough to overcome Effexor’s more prominent side effects. Yes, I was highlighting Effexor’s selling points and playing down its disadvantages, and I knew it. But was my salesmanship going to bring harm to anybody? It seemed unlikely. The worst case was that Effexor was no more effective than anything else; it certainly was no less effective.

During my first few talks, I worried a lot about my performance. Was I too boring? Did the doctors see me as sleazy? Did the Wyeth reps find me sufficiently persuasive? But the day after my talks, I would get a call or an e-mail message from the rep saying that I did a great job, that the doctor was impressed and that they wanted to use me more. Indeed, I started receiving more and more invitations from other reps, and I soon had talks scheduled every week. I learned later that Wyeth and other companies have speaker-evaluation systems. After my talks, the reps would fill out a questionnaire rating my performance, which quickly became available to other Wyeth reps throughout the area.

As the reps became comfortable with me, they began to see me more as a sales colleague. I received faxes before talks preparing me for particular doctors. One note informed me that the physician we’d be visiting that day was a “decile 6 doctor and is not prescribing any Effexor XR, so please tailor accordingly. There is also one more doc in the practice that we are not familiar with.” The term “decile 6” is drug-rep jargon for a doctor who prescribes a lot of medications. The higher the “decile” (in a range from 1 to 10), the higher the prescription volume, and the more potentially lucrative that doctor could be for the company.

A note from another rep reminded me of a scene from “Mission: Impossible.” “Dr. Carlat: Our main target, Dr. , is an internist. He spreads his usage among three antidepressants, Celexa, Zoloft and Paxil, at about 25-30 percent each. He is currently using about 6 percent Effexor XR. Our access is very challenging with lunches six months out.” This doctor’s schedule of lunches was filled with reps from other companies; it would be vital to make our sales visit count.+

Naïve as I was, I found myself astonished at the level of detail that drug companies were able to acquire about doctors’ prescribing habits. I asked my reps about it; they told me that they received printouts tracking local doctors’ prescriptions every week. The process is called “prescription data-mining,” in which specialized pharmacy-information companies (like IMS Health and Verispan) buy prescription data from local pharmacies, repackage it, then sell it to pharmaceutical companies. This information is then passed on to the drug reps, who use it to tailor their drug-detailing strategies. This may include deciding which physicians to aim for, as my Wyeth reps did, but it can help sales in other ways. For example, Shahram Ahari, a former drug rep for Eli Lilly (the maker of Prozac) who is now a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco’s School of Pharmacy, said in an article in The Washington Post that as a drug rep he would use this data to find out which doctors were prescribing Prozac’s competitors, like Effexor. Then he would play up specific features of Prozac that contrasted favorably with the other drug, like the ease with which patients can get off Prozac, as compared with the hard time they can have withdrawing from Effexor.

The American Medical Association is also a key player in prescription data-mining. Pharmacies typically will not release doctors’ names to the data-mining companies, but they will release their Drug Enforcement Agency numbers. The A.M.A. licenses its file of U.S. physicians, allowing the data-mining companies to match up D.E.A. numbers to specific physicians. The A.M.A. makes millions in information-leasing money.

Once drug companies have identified the doctors, they must woo them. In the April 2007 issue of the journal PLoS Medicine, Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman of Georgetown teamed up with Ahari (the former drug rep) to describe the myriad techniques drug reps use to establish relationships with physicians, including inviting them to a speaker’s meeting. These can serve to cement a positive a relationship between the rep and the doctor. This relationship is crucial, they say, since “drug reps increase drug sales by influencing physicians, and they do so with finely titrated doses of friendship.”

III. Uncomfortable Moments

I gave many talks over the ensuing several months, and I gradually became more comfortable with the process. Each setting was somewhat different. Sometimes I spoke to a crowded conference room with several physicians, nurses and other clinical staff. Other times, I sat at a small lunch table with only one other physician (plus the rep), having what amounted to a conversation about treating depression. My basic Effexor spiel was similar in the various settings, with the focus on remission and the Thase data.

Meanwhile, I was keeping up with new developments in the research literature related to Effexor, and not all of the news was positive. For example, as more data came out comparing Effexor with S.S.R.I.’s other than Prozac, the Effexor remission advantage became slimmer — more like 5 percent instead of the originally reported 10 percent. Statistically, this 5 percent advantage meant that only one out of 20 patients would potentially do better on Effexor than S.S.R.I.’s — much less compelling than the earlier proportion of one out of 10.

I also became aware of other critiques of the original Thase meta-analysis. For example, some patients enrolled in the original Effexor studies took S.S.R.I.’s in the past and presumably had not responded well. This meant that the study population may have been enriched with patients who were treatment-resistant to S.S.R.I.’s, giving Effexor an inherent advantage.

I didn’t mention any of this in my talks, partly because none of it had been included in official company slides, and partly because I was concerned that the reps wouldn’t invite me to give talks if I divulged any negative information. But I was beginning to struggle with the ethics of my silence.

One of my most uncomfortable moments came when I gave a presentation to a large group of psychiatrists. I was in the midst of wrapping up my talk with some information about Effexor and blood pressure. Referring to a large study paid for by Wyeth, I reported that patients are liable to develop hypertension only if they are taking Effexor at doses higher than 300 milligrams per day.

“Really?” one psychiatrist in the room said. “I’ve seen hypertension at lower doses in my patients.”

“I suppose it can happen, but it’s rare at doses that are commonly used for depression.”

He looked at me, frowned and shook his head. “That hasn’t been my experience.”

I reached into my folder where I kept some of the key Effexor studies in case such questions arose.

According to this study of 3,744 patients, the rate of high blood pressure was 2.2 percent in the placebo group, and 2.9 percent in the group of patients who had taken daily doses of Effexor no larger than 300 milligrams. Patients taking more than 300 milligrams had a 9 percent risk of hypertension. As I went through the numbers with the doctor, however, I felt unsettled. I started talking faster, a sure sign of nervousness for me.

Driving home, I went back over the talk in my mind. I knew I had not lied — I had reported the data exactly as they were reported in the paper. But still, I had spun the results of the study in the most positive way possible, and I had not talked about the limitations of the data. I had not, for example, mentioned that if you focused specifically on patients taking between 200 and 300 milligrams per day, a commonly prescribed dosage range, you found a 3.7 percent incidence of hypertension. While this was not a statistically significant higher rate than the placebo, it still hinted that such moderate doses could, indeed, cause hypertension. Nor had I mentioned the fact that since the data were derived from placebo-controlled clinical trials, the patients were probably not representative of the patients seen in most real practices. Patients who are very old or who have significant medical problems are excluded from such studies. But real-world patients may well be at higher risk to develop hypertension on Effexor. +

I realized that in my canned talks, I was blithely minimizing the hypertension risks, conveniently overlooking the fact that hypertension is a dangerous condition and not one to be trifled with. Why, I began to wonder, would anyone prescribe an antidepressant that could cause hypertension when there were many other alternatives? And why wasn’t I asking this obvious question out loud during my talks?

I felt rattled. That psychiatrist’s frown stayed with me — a mixture of skepticism and contempt. I wondered if he saw me for what I feared I had become — a drug rep with an M.D. I began to think that the money was affecting my critical judgement. I was willing to dance around the truth in order to make the drug reps happy. Receiving $750 checks for chatting with some doctors during a lunch break was such easy money that it left me giddy. Like an addiction, it was very hard to give up.

There was another problem: one of Effexor’s side effects. Patients who stopped the medication were calling their doctors and reporting symptoms like severe dizziness and lightheadedness, bizarre electric-shock sensations in their heads, insomnia, sadness and tearfulness. Some patients thought they were having strokes or nervous breakdowns and were showing up in emergency rooms. Gradually, however, it became clear that these were “withdrawal” symptoms. These were particularly common problems with Effexor because it has a short half-life, a measure of the time it takes the body to metabolize half of the total amount of a drug in the bloodstream. Paxil, another short half-life antidepressant, caused similar problems.

At the Wyeth meeting in New York, these withdrawal effects were mentioned in passing, though we were assured that Effexor withdrawal symptoms were uncommon and could usually be avoided by tapering down the dose very slowly. But in my practice, that strategy often did not work, and patients were having a very hard time coming off Effexor in order to start a trial of a different antidepressant.

I wrestled with how to handle this issue in my Effexor talks, since I believed it was a significant disadvantage of the drug. Psychiatrists frequently have to switch medications because of side effects or lack of effectiveness, and anticipating this potential need to change medications plays into our initial choice of a drug. Knowing that Effexor was hard to give up made me think twice about prescribing it in the first place.

During my talks, I found myself playing both sides of the issue, making sure to mention that withdrawal symptoms could be severe but assuring doctors that they could “usually” be avoided. Was I lying? Not really, since there were no solid published data, and indeed some patients had little problem coming off Effexor. But was I tweaking and pruning the truth in order to stay positive about the product? Definitely. And how did I rationalize this? I convinced myself that I had told “most” of the truth and that the potential negative consequences of this small truth “gap” were too trivial to worry about.

As the months went on, I developed more and more reservations about recommending that Effexor be used as a “first line” drug before trying the S.S.R.I.’s. Not only were the newer comparative data less impressive, but the studies were short-term, lasting only 6 to 12 weeks. It seemed entirely possible that if the clinical trials had been longer — say, six months — S.S.R.I.’s would have caught up with Effexor. Effexor was turning out to be an antidepressant that might have a very slight effectiveness advantage over S.S.R.I.’s but that caused high blood pressure and had prolonged withdrawal symptoms.

At my next Lunch and Learn, I mentioned toward the end of my presentation that data in support of Effexor were mainly short-term, and that there was a possibility that S.S.R.I.’s were just as effective. I felt reckless, but I left the office with a restored sense of integrity.

Several days later, I was visited by the same district manager who first offered me the speaking job. Pleasant as always, he said: “My reps told me that you weren’t as enthusiastic about our product at your last talk. I told them that even Dr. Carlat can’t hit a home run every time. Have you been sick?”

At that moment, I decided my career as an industry-sponsored speaker was over. The manager’s message couldn’t be clearer: I was being paid to enthusiastically endorse their drug. Once I stopped doing that, I was of little value to them, no matter how much “medical education” I provided.

IV. Life After Drug Money

A year after starting my educational talks for drug companies (I had also given two talks for Forest Pharmaceuticals, pushing the antidepressant Lexapro), I quit. I had made about $30,000 in supplemental income from these talks, a significant addition to the $140,000 or so I made from my private practice. Now I publish a medical-education newsletter for psychiatrists that is not financed by the pharmaceutical industry and that tries to critically assess drug research and marketing claims. I still see patients, and I still prescribe Effexor. I don’t prescribe it as frequently as I used to, but I have seen many patients turn their lives around because they responded to this drug and to nothing else. +

In 2002, the drug industry’s trade group adopted voluntary guidelines limiting some of the more lavish benefits to doctors. While the guidelines still allow all-expenses-paid trips for physicians to attend meetings at fancy hotels, they no longer pay for spouses to attend the dinners or hand out tickets to musicals. In an e-mail message, a Wyeth spokesman wrote that Wyeth employees must follow that code and “our own Wyeth policies, which, in some cases, exceed” the trade group’s code.

Looking back on the year I spent speaking for Wyeth, I’ve asked myself if my work as a company speaker led me to do bad things. Did I contribute to faulty medical decision making? Did my advice lead doctors to make inappropriate drug choices, and did their patients suffer needlessly?

Maybe. I’m sure I persuaded many physicians to prescribe Effexor, potentially contributing to blood-pressure problems and withdrawal symptoms. On the other hand, it’s possible that some of those patients might have gained more relief from their depression and anxiety than they would have if they had been started on an S.S.R.I. Not likely, but possible.

I still allow drug reps to visit my office and give me their pitches. While these visits are short on useful medical information, they do allow me to keep up with trends in drug marketing. Recently, a rep from Bristol-Myers Squibb came into my office and invited me to a dinner program on the antipsychotic Abilify.

“I think it will be a great program, Dr. Carlat,” he said. “Would you like to come?” I glanced at the invitation. I recognized the name of the speaker, a prominent and widely published psychiatrist flown in from another state. The restaurant was one of the finest in town.

I was tempted. The wine, the great food, the proximity to a famous researcher — why not rejoin that inner circle of the select for an evening? But then I flashed to a memory of myself five years earlier, standing at a lectern and clearing my throat at the beginning of a drug-company presentation. I vividly remembered my sensations — the careful monitoring of what I would say, the calculations of how frank I should be.

“No,” I said, as I handed the rep back the invitation. “I don’t think I can make it. But thanks anyway.”

Daniel Carlat is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the publisher of The Carlat Psychiatry Report.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Turkey carving


November 21, 2007
Butcher’s Method Takes Carving Off the Table

BEFORE breakfast on Thanksgiving, as the first Americans rise to preheat the oven, the question of who is going to carve the bird starts to ripple anxiously across the land.

By mealtime, many cooks will be tired of hovering over the turkey and ready to unload it, but just try to find a taker.

“One year my 13-year-old nephew, Josh, was the only one willing to take it on,” said Nissa Goldstein, a retired teacher in West Hartford, Conn. “Of course, everyone was shouting instructions at him, and he ended up locking himself in his room and refusing to come out.”

It is generally agreed that the art of carving is in sad decline. The definition of the “man of the house,” who would traditionally assume the job, is increasingly slippery. Family members recognize the risks involved in taking a knife to a relative’s hard work; guests often decline such a high-profile role. Add the inherent drowsiness of Thanksgiving, a cold day devoted to a single huge meal, consider the tendency in many families to start in on the house cocktail as soon as guests begin to trickle in, and the general unwillingness to put blade to bird becomes unsurprising.

“One year the turkey took a long time to cook and I went to carve it after about 13 beers,” said Maurice Landry, who lives near Lake Charles, La. “The way I remember it, I bore down to take off the leg and the whole thing went shooting off the platter and knocked over the centerpiece.”

All of these are good reasons to adopt the high-yield, low-profile carving method described here. It involves a radically untraditional step — often followed by professionals, but new to many home cooks — that makes carving easier, if less spectacular.

“I don’t cut like a chef, I cut like a butcher,” said Ray Venezia, the meat director for the four Fairway markets, a third-generation butcher and one of the biggest turkey purveyors in New York City.

Instead of slicing the meat from the roast at the table, Mr. Venezia’s carving protocol calls for the biggest pieces, the breasts and the thighs, to be removed whole, then boned and sliced on a cutting board. “Trying to carve from the carcass is like trying to cut it off a beach ball: it’s all curved surfaces and it moves around under the knife,” he said. “Give me a flat cutting board any time.”

Roger Bassett, the owner of the Original Turkey in Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, uses the same method for the 30 turkeys carved and served at his store every day. “Cutting a turkey the traditional way, where you leave the meat on the bird and cut down, you can’t cut across the grain,” he said. “The pieces you end up with are all stringy because the fibers are long instead of short.”

Mr. Venezia demonstrated the method to me twice last week; I then tested it on two roast chickens, and met with howling success.

It is important to start with a turkey that has rested for at least 20 minutes; 40 is even better, so that the meat has firmed enough to cut cleanly. Mr. Venezia does not use a carving fork. (“Why pierce the meat more than you have to and let the juices run out?”) Instead, he holds the bird in place with one hand and uses the other for cutting.

He counsels against using a large or unfamiliar knife, like a wedding set carving knife. Since most of the cutting is done with the first few inches of the blade, a small, sharp knife that you know how to wield is a wise choice. For our demonstration he used an eight-inch boning knife with a plastic handle that cost, by his estimate, $10. He used a larger knife only for slicing. The skin can be removed or left on the breast, as a matter of taste and aesthetics.

At the end there was almost nothing left on the carcass: a turkey that weighed 22 pounds raw was reduced to a denuded two-pound skeleton and a platter mounded with thick, clean slices of breast and thigh and a few whole pieces for those who like the bony bits.

“You’ll find that people eat a lot more of the dark meat when it’s carved this way,” Mr. Venezia said. Still, he advises ordering a pound of turkey for each person and five or six pounds extra, to make sure there is enough white meat for those who will not eat anything else.

Mr. Venezia said this method was easier on the carver and more satisfying at the table. “I look at a turkey as I would look at any primal cut of meat,” he said, referring to the sides of beef and rumps of lamb that butchers break down into retail cuts. “I want to get the most meat off that carcass, and I want the meat to come off in nice, thick pieces. Not shreds, not chunks, and no ragged edges.”

The only disadvantage of this method is that it eliminates the opportunity for showboating. It requires counter space and is probably best done in the kitchen (although a roomy sideboard with a cutting board on top would be fine), making it ideal for less-experienced carvers. Mr. Bassett, who is used to carving with an audience, said he preferred to present the turkey in its whole, golden-brown, burnished state, then retreat to the kitchen to carve it.

“If you want the Norman Rockwell moment, this is not the method for you,” said Michael Darre, professor of poultry science at the University of Connecticut. “However, you will get a lot of meat off the bird.”

Although modern domesticated birds do not do a lot of flying, he said, the largest muscle is still the pectoralis major, the breast, which has the heavy job of pushing down the wing during flight.

“These days the breast can be dry because the soft muscle doesn’t hold fat and hemoglobin as well as an exercised muscle would,” Dr. Darre said. “But the payoff is that nice, mild turkey flavor.”

Even for the experts, carving the turkey is the most intimidating part of the day. Their advice to the anxious: don’t panic or start hacking away, even if guests are baying for turkey and the meat is beginning to cool. “Piping hot gravy will take care of everything,” Mr. Venezia said. “That’s your endgame.”

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Bartending history


October 31, 2007
The Bartender Who Started It All

IN 1863, an English traveler named Edward Hingston walked into the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco and stepped up to the bar. There he beheld a magnificent figure wielding two mixing glasses and “all ablaze with diamonds,” a jewelry display that included a clustered stickpin in his shirtfront, diamond cufflinks and an array of diamond rings. Just as dazzling were the drinks, unheard of in Britain: strange mixtures like crustas, smashes and daisies. Here was something to write home about.

Hingston was looking at none other than Jerry Thomas, “the Jupiter Olympus of the bar,” to lift a phrase from the bartender’s own drink book, the first ever published in the United States. In a cocktail-besotted era, Thomas was first without equals, an inventor, showman and codifier who, in the book known variously as “The Bar-Tender’s Guide,” “How to Mix Drinks” or “The Bon-Vivant’s Companion,” laid down the principles for formulating mixed drinks of all categories and established the image of the bartender as a creative professional.

Like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and Buffalo Bill Cody, he was the sort of self-invented, semimythic figure that America seemed to spawn in great numbers during its rude adolescence. More than a century after his death, he still casts a spell, a palpable influence on Dale DeGroff, chief animator of cocktail’s new wave, and his many progeny, from Eben Klemm of the B. R. Guest restaurant group to Audrey Saunders at the Pegu Club.

Thomas finally gets his due in “Imbibe!” (Perigee Books, $23.95), a biography and annotated recipe book by David Wondrich. Mr. Wondrich, a former classics scholar and the drink correspondent for Esquire, was intrigued by the often-puzzling recipes in Thomas’s book, and frustrated by Herbert Asbury, whose fancifully embellished version of Thomas’s life, presented in a reprint of the 1887 edition of “The Bon-Vivant’s Companion,” wraps sparse facts in a thick layer of myth, conjecture and purple prose.

Mr. Wondrich puts the drinks in context, with their ingredients explained, their measurements accurately indicated, and their place in the overall cocktail scheme clearly mapped out. At the same time, Thomas himself appears, for the first time, as a living presence: a devotee of bare-knuckle prize fights, a flashy dresser fond of kid gloves, an art collector, a restless traveler usually carrying a fat wad of bank notes and a gold Parisian watch. A player, in short.

“Before, especially coming from Asbury, I had a sense of Thomas as a magisterial, godlike creature,” Mr. Wondrich said in a telephone interview. “Now I see him as a sporty, Damon Runyon type.”

The sporty types can be hard to pin down. “Bartenders, then as now, were itinerant, and the sporting life was not big on documentation,” Mr. Wondrich said. “There’s only one bartender’s diary for all of the 19th century, and most of that consists of the author drinking a lot and being sick the next day.”

Mr. Wondrich tracked Thomas from his birthplace in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., to California, where he worked as a bartender, gold prospector and minstrel-show impresario, and back to New York, where he presided over a series of bars before going broke — probably, Mr. Wondrich theorizes, after buying bad stocks on margin. Along the way, Thomas plied his trade, by his own account, in towns as various as St. Louis, New Orleans, Chicago and Charleston, S.C. One newspaper obituary placed him, improbably, in Keokuk, Iowa.

As he wandered, he picked up on the latest developments in the art, inventing new cocktails and building a serious following for his particular blend of craftsmanship and showmanship, epitomized in his signature drink, the Blue Blazer, a pyrotechnic showpiece in which an arc of flame passed back and forth between two mixing glasses. At the Occidental, Thomas was earning $100 a week, more than the vice president of the United States. When he died, in 1885, newspapers all over the country observed his passing in substantial obituaries.

Thomas’s most celebrated bar was at Broadway and 22nd Street, occupying the basement and one bay of what is now Restoration Hardware. “They really ought to put some sort of plaque there,” Mr. Wondrich said.

On the walls of Thomas’s saloon hung caricatures of the political and theatrical figures of the day, many of them executed by Thomas Nast, including one, now lost, depicting Thomas “in nine tippling postures colossally,” as a newspaper reporter described it. Customers could look at themselves in fun-house mirrors that made them look fat or thin. By this time Thomas was middle-aged, with a wife and two daughters, and at 205 pounds one of the lighter members of the Fat Men’s Association, but still, undeniably, a sport.

Thomas’s life spanned the three great ages of the cocktail, the archaic, the baroque and the classic, a helpful chronology proposed by Mr. Wondrich.

In 1830, the probable year of his birth, the main American mixed drinks were punches, toddies and slings — nothing more than brandy, gin or whiskey sweetened with a little sugar. Thomas found his professional footing in an age of flamboyant creativity, when bartenders experimented with a bewildering array of ingredients and styles, and by the time of his death in 1885 he had seen the birth of the more streamlined modern cocktail typified by the manhattan and the martini.

It is the baroque cocktail that occupied most of Mr. Wondrich’s attention. Thomas, however, could be maddeningly vague in his recipes. Mr. Wondrich was able to determine that a wineglass, as a unit of measure, equaled two ounces. He also discovered that most of the gin recipes envisioned the strongly flavored, malty Dutch gin, not the style known as London dry, which did not take off until the 1890s. Sugar, in Thomas’s age, came in a dense loaf and was less refined than modern white sugar but not as raw as raw sugar (Mr. Wondrich compromises by using Demerara or turbinado sugar, pulverized in a food processor.)

Ice was an art. Bartenders, working deftly with a pick or shaver, went to work on a solid frozen block and, depending on the drink, extracted fine shards or large lumps or any size of piece in between.

Bartenders did not use cocktail shakers. Instead, they tossed their ingredients back and forth between two mixing glasses. They also used gum Arabic, an emulsifier, in their simple syrup, which added a velvety mouth-feel to certain cocktails. “It really smooths off the edges in all-liquor drinks,” Mr. Wondrich said. “They just slide right down.”

The universe of drinks, in the middle of the 19th century, did conform to certain patterns, reflected in the organization of Thomas’s bar book. The old-fashioned punches, often hot and mixed in large quantities for communal consumption, gave way to a variety of individual drinks, all of them iced, and all involving fruit: the Collins, the fizz, the daisy, the sour, the cooler and the cobbler. The punch, too, began appearing as an individual drink. The daisy, a sour sweetened with orange cordial or grenadine, merits special attention because in Mexico it encountered tequila. The Spanish for daisy? Margarita.

The sling developed complications, incorporating ice and bitters, and became the cocktail, which Thomas made in three styles, plain, fancy and improved.

To make an improved brandy cocktail, for example, you strained the plain version (brandy, bitters and gum syrup, plus one or two dashes of Curaçao) into a fancy wine glass, moistened the rim of the glass with lemon and added a twist of lemon to the drink. (Thomas’s book was the first to mention the twist, which replaced grated nutmeg as the final flourish to a drink.) In the improved cocktail, maraschino liqueur was substituted for Curaçao. Add fruit juice and the cocktail became a crusta.

From the basic cocktail repertory of Thomas’s youth developed the myriad mixtures that Mr. Wondrich calls evolved cocktails. Their name is legion, and most of them, in the inspired early decades of the baroque age, came from the West Coast, source of the zany drinks that astounded so many foreign visitors — cocktails like the fiscal agent and the vox populi. Thomas, a young man on the scene, picked up the new recipes and carried them back East.

Toward the end of Thomas’s glorious reign as king of the bar, a new kind of cocktail was emerging — lighter, less alcoholic and usually involving vermouth, a key ingredient in the manhattan and the martini.

The final, expanded edition of “The Bon-Vivant’s Companion,” published two years after Thomas’s death, trembles at the dawn of the cocktail’s modern age. The manhattan makes its appearance, as well as a cocktail called the Martinez, which has caused no end of confusion, since it looks like “martini” but calls for maraschino, sweet vermouth and the sweetened gin known as Old Tom. On the other hand, the original martini, often made with gin and vermouth in a 50-50 ratio, and almost always with orange bitters, does not look very much like the mercilessly dry vodka martini of the present day. But here we step into a world that Thomas never lived to see, even if he built its foundations. As Mr. Wondrich justly observes, Thomas, by departing from the code of the bartending fraternity and sharing his secrets, earned his place as “the father of mixology, of the rational study of the mixed drink.”

Dale DeGroff, who has done more than anyone to bring baroque standards back to the bar, encountered Thomas for the first time in the early 1980s, when Joe Baum, who wanted a different kind of bar for his new restaurant Aurora, directed him to “The Bon-Vivant’s Companion.”

It was a revelation. At a time when bartenders relied on powdered mixes, canned fruit juices and a narrow repertory of perhaps a dozen drinks, Thomas imparted a lofty sense of the bartender’s vocation. The recipes, embracing categories of mixed drinks and exotic ingredients not seen since Prohibition, opened up a dizzying range of possibilities that Mr. DeGroff explored at Aurora and, most influentially, at the Rainbow Room.

Mr. DeGroff, now a consultant, no longer tends bar, but the little revolution sparked by Thomas’s book continues to shake things up, carried forward by a new generation of bartenders inspired by his example and by a book written when Abraham Lincoln was president. Out of the remote past, Thomas’s finger still points the way to the future.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Perceptions of women vs. men - workplace


November 1, 2007
Life’s Work
The Feminine Critique

DON’T get angry. But do take charge. Be nice. But not too nice. Speak up. But don’t seem like you talk too much. Never, ever dress sexy. Make sure to inspire your colleagues — unless you work in Norway, in which case, focus on delegating instead.

Writing about life and work means receiving a steady stream of research on how women in the workplace are viewed differently from men. These are academic and professional studies, not whimsical online polls, and each time I read one I feel deflated. What are women supposed to do with this information? Transform overnight? And if so, into what? How are we supposed to be assertive, but not, at the same time?

“It’s enough to make you dizzy,” said Ilene H. Lang, the president of Catalyst, an organization that studies women in the workplace. “Women are dizzy, men are dizzy, and we still don’t have a simple straightforward answer as to why there just aren’t enough women in positions of leadership.”

Catalyst’s research is often an exploration of why, 30 years after women entered the work force in large numbers, the default mental image of a leader is still male. Most recent is the report titled “Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t,” which surveyed 1,231 senior executives from the United States and Europe. It found that women who act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes — defined as focusing “on work relationships” and expressing “concern for other people’s perspectives” — are considered less competent. But if they act in ways that are seen as more “male” — like “act assertively, focus on work task, display ambition” — they are seen as “too tough” and “unfeminine.”

Women can’t win.

In 2006, Catalyst looked at stereotypes across cultures (surveying 935 alumni of the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland) and found that while the view of an ideal leader varied from place to place — in some regions the ideal leader was a team builder, in others the most valued skill was problem-solving. But whatever was most valued, women were seen as lacking it.

Respondents in the United States and England, for instance, listed “inspiring others” as a most important leadership quality, and then rated women as less adept at this than men. In Nordic countries, women were seen as perfectly inspirational, but it was “delegating” that was of higher value there, and women were not seen as good delegators.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions. Joan Williams runs the Center for WorkLife Law, part of the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. She wrote the book “Unbending Gender” and she, too, has found that women are held to a different standard at work.

They are expected to be nurturing, but seen as ineffective if they are too feminine, she said in a speech last week at Cornell. They are expected to be strong, but tend to be labeled as strident or abrasive when acting as leaders. “Women have to choose between being liked but not respected, or respected but not liked,” she said.

While some researchers, like those at Catalyst and WorkLife Law, tend to paint the sweeping global picture — women don’t advance as much as men because they don’t act like men — other researchers narrow their focus.

Victoria Brescoll, a researcher at Yale, made headlines this August with her findings that while men gain stature and clout by expressing anger, women who express it are seen as being out of control, and lose stature. Study participants were shown videos of a job interview, after which they were asked to rate the applicant and choose their salary. The videos were identical but for two variables — in some the applicants were male and others female, and the applicant expressed either anger or sadness about having lost an account after a colleague arrived late to an important meeting.

The participants were most impressed with the angry man, followed by the sad woman, then the sad man, and finally, at the bottom of the list, the angry woman. The average salary assigned to the angry man was nearly $38,000 while the angry woman received an average of only $23,000.

When the scenario was tweaked and the applicant went on to expand upon his or her anger — explaining that the co-worker had lied and said he had directions to the meeting — participants were somewhat forgiving, giving women who explained their anger more money than those who had no excuse (but still less money than comparative men).

Also this summer, Linda C. Babcock, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, looked at gender and salary in a novel way. She recruited volunteers to play Boggle and told them beforehand that they would receive $2 to $10 for their time. When it came time for payment, each participant was given $3 and asked if that was enough.

Men asked for more money at eight times the rate of women. In a second round of testing, where participants were told directly that the sum was negotiable, 50 percent of women asked for more money, but that still did not compare with 83 percent of men. It would follow, Professor Babcock concluded, that women are equally poor at negotiating their salaries and raises.

There are practical nuggets of advice in all this data. Don’t be shy about negotiating. If you blow your stack, explain (or try). “Some of what we are learning is directly helpful, and tells women that they are acting in ways they might not even be aware of, and that is harming them and they can change,” said Peter Glick, a psychology professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

He is the author of one such study, in which he showed respondents a video of a woman wearing a sexy low-cut blouse with a tight skirt or a skirt and blouse that were conservatively cut. The woman recited the same lines in both, and the viewer was either told she was a secretary or an executive. Being more provocatively dressed had no effect on the perceived competence of the secretary, but it lowered the perceived competence of the executive dramatically. (Sexy men don’t have that disconnect, Professor Glick said. While they might lose respect for wearing tight pants and unbuttoned shirts to the office, the attributes considered most sexy in men — power, status, salary — are in keeping with an executive image at work.)

But Professor Glick also concedes that much of this data — like his 2000 study showing that women were penalized more than men when not perceived as being nice or having social skills — gives women absolutely no way to “fight back.” “Most of what we learn shows that the problem is with the perception, not with the woman,” he said, “and that it is not the problem of an individual, it’s a problem of a corporation.”

Ms. Lang, at Catalyst, agreed. This accumulation of data will be of value only when companies act on it, she said, noting that some are already making changes. At Goldman Sachs, she said, the policy on performance reviews now tries to eliminate bias. A red flag is expected to go up if a woman is described as “having sharp elbows or being brusque,” she said. “The statement should not just stand,” she said. “Examples should be asked for, the context should be considered, would the same actions be cause for comment if it was a man?”

In fact, Catalyst’s next large project is to advise companies on ways they can combat stereotypical bias. And Professor Glick has some upcoming projects, too. One looks at whether women do better in sales if they show more cleavage. A second will look at the flip side of gender stereotypes at work: hostility toward men.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Craigslist golddigger post response background


October 8, 2007
Acquisitive Craigslist Post Reddens Faces All Around

Last month on, someone who described herself as a “spectacularly beautiful” 25-year-old placed a personal ad seeking a husband who made at least $500,000 a year, because “$250,000 won’t get me to Central Park West.”

As her post hit the blogs, it received a scathing response from a man who said he fit her description and told her that her proposition was a bad business deal. “In economic terms, you are a depreciating asset and I am an earning asset,” he wrote, because “your looks will fade and my money will likely continue into perpetuity.”

Last week, this exchange spilled over into the e-mail world, where the it turned into a popular item to send to friends as a joke. The difference between this and other outrageous share-mail messages, however, was that instead of remaining anonymous, its ostensible author signed his name and the company where he worked, which happened to be the investment banking division of JPMorgan Chase.

This detail, which may have provoked nearly as much mirth as the contents of the exchange, made the correspondence either more or less credible. Would someone with a big job at a prestigious company really have linked his name to a message that read in part: “You’re 25 now and will likely stay pretty hot for the next 5 years, but less so each year. Then the fade begins in earnest. By 35 stick a fork in you!”

The man who is widely credited with writing the response did not respond to a voice message, but the media relations department at JPMorgan Chase confirmed that he worked there and said that he was not the author. Rather, a company spokesman said, he had forwarded the e-mail message to friends, and the signature setting on his e-mail accompanied the response when it wound up on blogs.

By this account, the employee was just an accidental sexist, the latest object lesson in the dangers of e-mail getting into the wrong hands — the Wall Street equivalent of a Pittsburgh Steelers coach who passed along an e-mail message with a sex video to the National Football League commissioner, among others.

“Your workplace computer does not exist as a tool for forwarding jokey things,” said Will Schwalbe, an author of “Send: The Essential Guide to E-Mail for Office and Home.”

As for the legitimacy of the original posting by the husband seeker, a spokeswoman for Craigslist wrote in an e-mail message that “it does look as if the post was made sincerely.” A message sent to the Craigslist mailbox seeking comment yielded no response.

Craigslist declined to say how many people responded to the personal ad (which asked, among other things, for names of bars, restaurants and gyms where rich single men hung out). And so far, the identity of the responder remains a mystery too.

“I wish we wrote it because I think it’s great,” said John Carney, editor of DealBreaker, a Wall Street gossip site that posted the exchange on Wednesday.

Mr. Carney said that he had received the zinger in an e-mail message from someone other than the author, and his source did not know who wrote it. (The response never appeared on Craigslist itself.)

On Thursday, Howard Lindzon posted it to his blog. After a commenter asked who wrote it, Mr. Lindzon responded “me,” but then said in a telephone interview that he had been kidding. The traffic the posting drew was serious, though. Mr. Lindzon usually gets about 3,000 daily visitors, but popularity-rating sites and linked to the item, drawing more than 100,000 visitors and crashing his server.

Brett Michael Dykes, a blogger notorious for fake listings on Craigslist, said he had received about 40 e-mail messages accusing him of posting the husband-seeking personal ad. But he said he had not written it and was stumped about its provenance.

“I’ve probably read it five or six times, and I go back and forth,” Mr. Dykes said. “Sadly I think it may be real. I have met in New York City that type of girl.”

By now, Mr. Dykes said, a blogger would have taken credit for the listing if it were a hoax, but “who would want to step from the shadows and say, ‘I’m the gold digger’?”

And Mr. Carney said he was not holding his breath that the Wall Street type would step forward. “In the age of ultrasensitivity to sexual harassment, people might think that this guy’s response about women being depreciating assets is not exactly how they want their firm to be perceived by the public,” he said.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Kids learning multiple languages--NJ


October 7, 2007
Diversity as Normal as Speaking Chinese


AT the ripe old age of 3, Sidney Kinsale is in her second year of learning two foreign languages. She attends a preschool here on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays where she learns Chinese. Then on Fridays, she goes to a second preschool in Scotch Plains where she learns Spanish.

“I’m not sure she’ll totally get it all,” says her mother, Carlene, whose college degree is in early childhood studies. “But our hope is she’ll have a love for language and continue Mandarin and Spanish until she’s fluent.”

The Kinsales are not alone. The Mandarin preschool here, Bilingual Buds, has grown to 110 students from 10 in three years. The Scotch Plains school, Little Lingoes, which opened 15 months ago, now serves 50 students, ages 1 to 8, teaching Spanish and Mandarin.

But while the Kinsales are delighted with the language training — Sidney was at a backyard birthday party recently, swinging and counting in Mandarin, when a Chinese-American woman commented on her “perfect” accent — that is not the only reason the parents like the two preschools.

Ms. Kinsale says that what she wanted for Sidney was a high-quality, nurturing, racially diverse school. At the two language schools, she has come to appreciate the mix of Asian, white, black and Hispanic children. “People who start their children on a language so young understand it’s a multicultural world and they want their children to be part of it,” she says.

Ms. Kinsale, 42, and her husband, Stirling, 50, an attorney with the state public defender’s office in Newark, live in Millburn, a predominantly white town. As a black couple, that has meant constantly working at finding the diversity they want for their children.

“I want my children to feel diversity is normal,” says Ms. Kinsale, who also has a son, Stirling Jr., 6. “I prefer my children do not recognize this early that there are situations when they’re the minority.

“If my son walked in and saw you,” she says, pointing to a reporter’s shirt, “he wouldn’t say you’re white, he’d say you’re a blue man with glasses.”

This is new to them, and they are still figuring it out. Until two years ago, they lived in Orange, N.J., a community that is three-quarters black. They were happy there, they say, with a nice house that they spent a lot of time renovating and a racially mixed group of neighbors. But when Stirling was 4, they began looking ahead to school and studied the state test results. At Orange High School, more than half the students did not pass the 2005/2006 state proficiency test in English, and three-quarters failed math. “I looked at the report and looked at my husband and said, ‘Do you mind selling this house?’ ” says Ms. Kinsale.

They were determined to find the best school district for what they could afford. “Taxes and real estate were so high,” she says. They pored over test scores and real estate listings in suburbs that were a reasonable commute to Mr. Kinsale’s Newark office and found a three-bedroom home in Millburn. At Millburn High, 98 percent scored proficient in English, 97 percent in math, and the school ranked first in SAT scores among the state’s public high schools.

For the Kinsales there was only one drawback: Millburn is 1 percent black. The public defender’s office where Mr. Kinsale works is racially mixed, and his colleagues who lived in integrated towns voiced their surprise. “Many of my husband’s co-workers live in South Orange or Maplewood,” says Ms. Kinsale. “A lot said, ‘You’re sure Millburn’s what you want?’ ”

They’re not. “It’s been two years, and I do question if Millburn is the right place,” she says. “My husband and I felt whatever we do, there are pros and cons, and maybe these are the cons we choose to deal with. Our hope is with church and different cultural events, our children will recognize who they are and not feel intimidated or self-conscious.”

Sundays, the Kinsales attend Bethany Baptist, a black church in Newark, and Thursday evenings, Mr. Kinsale takes Stirling to the church gym for a sports night. “It’s good that they see other black families, but it’s not perfect either,” Ms. Kinsale says. “They’re seeing either all white or all black, and I’m looking for diversity.”

This bothers Mr. Kinsale less than his wife. While she spent the first half of her life in Trinidad and Tobago and was not exposed to America’s racial divides, Mr. Kinsale grew up in Queens, attended virtually all-black Andrew Jackson High, then went to virtually all-white Williams College. “I’m malleable,” he says. “Williams was a big adjustment — a lot of classmates had trust funds that kicked in at 21. But I adapted and I survived and I enjoyed it.

“It’s a competitive world, and I want my children to be competitive,” Mr. Kinsale says. “If they’re going to be successful in a white-dominated society, they need to be exposed to this, and I believe they will excel.”

He says that while his wife focuses on how people will treat their children as part of a minority, “I’m more confident about their ability to fit in and assimilate.”

At Bilingual Buds, Sharon Huang, the owner, says about a third of the 110 children come from Chinese-American families who don’t speak Mandarin, but want their children to do so; a third are families of all backgrounds who have adopted a Chinese child; and a third, like the Kinsales, have no Chinese connection.

It’s total immersion — classes are taught by bilingual, Chinese- or Taiwanese-born teachers who speak Mandarin the whole time. Lessons are familiar, so children understand the context. One recent morning, the teacher, Jing Zhou, read them “Jin Fa Nu Hai Er He San Zhi Xiong” — “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” When Ms. Zhou showed them the book’s cover, Sidney said, “I have this book.” And when Ms. Zhou started reading, Sidney said, “I have the same pages.” In the room were white, black and Asian dolls, and even the three stuffed bears Ms. Zhou used to tell the story were diverse: Daddy Bear was beige; Mommy Bear, brown; Baby Bear, green.

The teachers are better educated than those at most preschools — half have a master’s degree — making Bilingual Buds more costly. Five days of preschool, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., is $12,870 a year.

Until now, Ms. Kinsale has been a stay-at-home mom, but last week she started working part time as an aide at another preschool and increased Sidney’s time at Bilingual Buds from two to three half-days a week.

“I’m not making much,” she says, “and most will go to the extra day for Sidney, but to me, that’s worth it.”

Sunday, October 07, 2007

England Red vs. Gray Squirrels


October 7, 2007
The Squirrel Wars

When you think of England, Rupert Redesdale is who you think of. He has a slanting forehead, a nose shaped like an adze and the pink face of an aristocrat from the Georgian era. But in fact his family is far older: it is one of five in Britain that can trace its roots directly back to William the Conqueror, the last successful invader of England, in 1066. “Our original name was Bertram,” he told me recently. “We were Normans.” Redesdale, a 40-year-old baron, can stand on a Northumberland hilltop and see the Rede Valley, with the Rede River running through it. He is able to say things like, “Our family had a castle in Mitford, but Robert the Bruce, the sod, knocked it down.”

I first met Lord Redesdale one day in August in the Lake District, about 80 miles southwest of his home in the Rede Valley. The Lake District, in the north of England, is on the front lines of a new Hundred Years’ War. It is a war between rodents. Since the 19th century, gray squirrels, an American import, have been overtaking Britain’s native red squirrels and claiming their territory. The grays have moved up from the south of England, thinning out the reds along the way. The reds now survive mostly in Scotland and the English counties, like Northumberland, that border it. The grays are larger and tougher and meaner than the reds. They can eat newly fallen acorns, and the reds cannot. They cross open lands that the reds are scared of. They are more sociable than reds, allowing for higher population densities. Although gray males cannot mate with red females, they often intimidate red males out of doing so. “It’s like: ‘That’s my girl. You move away!’ ” Redesdale said.

The situation has now reached a crisis point: there are only an estimated 160,000 red squirrels left in Britain, whereas there are more than 2 million grays. Without human intervention, reds could be gone from England in 10 years. The red squirrel is a national icon, and the British government is trying hard to save it. Deliberately killing a red squirrel or disturbing its nest, called a drey, is a crime. Last year the government set up more than a dozen refuges for red squirrels in the north of England. The country’s National Lottery granted £626,000 to a group called Save Our Squirrels to run the reserves. Save Our Squirrels, or S.O.S., is a who’s who of British conservation organizations, among them the Mammals Trust and Natural England. It has a toll-free number for reporting sightings of grays and reds and works to raise public awareness of the red’s plight.

Redesdale, too, has planted his standard on behalf of the red army. Last year, with a grant of £148,000 from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he founded an organization called the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership. The work of Redesdale’s organization is different from that of S.O.S. It shoots, or traps and then smashes on the head, every gray it can find. It currently has 20 core members, with another 150 or so irregulars.

The day I met Redesdale, he had broken off the long summer holiday from the House of Lords to try to enlist new recruits. A woman named Sue Southworth, the proprietor of the Squirrels Pantry Tea Room, was holding a meeting in her home in Cockermouth on the red squirrel. Redesdale had driven two hours to be there. He told me he knew the crowd would not be big, but his organization practices retail species elimination — he says he wants a trap in every backyard from Carlisle to Newcastle — and every pair of hands counts. He is enthusiastic and unapologetic about his work and does not use euphemisms the way the S.O.S. organizations do. “What is this ‘method of cranial concussion’?” Redesdale asked Southworth and the two other women who met him in Southworth’s high-ceilinged living room, quoting something he had heard at a red-squirrel preservation conference. “Why not just say ‘hit on the head’? Sounds better.”

Red squirrels evoke strong emotions in many Britons, especially in the north where people still grow up seeing them. And to be sure, these women, Southworth in particular, were passionate about them. There was a set of Beatrix Potter figurines on a shelf in Southworth’s living room, including one of Squirrel Nutkin, the eponymous red squirrel of one of Potter’s best-known books, and there were red-squirrel pillows and fleece blankets. Outside in her garden, Southworth had a red-squirrel topiary, with two bumps for paws, evocative of the Venus of Willendorf in shrub.

“Can I, um, suggest something?” Redesdale said to the three women. He was seated on a couch with a red-squirrel throw. “I was thinking . . . it would be great to form a sort of mobile kill group.” He explained: “We just knock on people’s doors and find out if there’s a gray and get them to put the traps in.” One person a day, he said, would go around and do the actual killings. The women gave Redesdale a “Candid Camera” look. Was this a joke?

Redesdale doesn’t travel alone. Always by his side is a man named Paul Parker. Parker is a professional pest controller from Newcastle. He keeps 300 dead grays in his freezer, seven of them skinned, waiting for the day he will have time to cook them. When I asked Redesdale how many squirrels the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership had killed to date, he said, “We’ve taken 2,000 whatsis. . . .” and Parker added, in his heavy Newcastle accent, “2,000 — 300 — 32.” They laughed like boys killing flies for sport.

“And then at the end of the week,” Redesdale continued, speaking to the three women, “we’ll probably have 1,000 squirrels taken out. If we do that, that will knock them back two years in their advance.” He added, “We’d get a lot of publicity.”

“And the fun of killing them as well,” Parker said. Parker and Redesdale laughed again, Falstaff and Prince Hal. This time the women smiled too, a bit nervously.

So did the women want to be part of the solution? Redesdale asked.

They hesitated. Redesdale and Parker seemed like pranksters. On the other hand, they were government-financed pranksters.

“Aye,” they said.

“Brilliant,” Redesdale said.

Parker took out his business card. The women looked a bit doubtful again. It had a three-dimensional image of a mole on it and the words: “Ants, Bees, Wasps, Bed bugs, Fleas. Cluster flies, Woodworm, Snails. Rapid response.”

The first gray squirrels came to Britain to amuse the rich, probably in the early 19th century. Landed gentry kept grays in cages as animal exemplars of can-do Yankee spirit. But in 1876, the gray passed from guest to resident in the British Isles. A Mr. Brocklehurst, who had brought over gray squirrels from America, released two on his property near Cheshire in central England. Many more releases took place. The wealthy had grown bored of the grays and set them loose.

They spread quickly. By 1910, they were spotted in Woburn, about 50 miles to the northwest of London, and they reached Wales, 150 miles away, by the mid-1920s. Few Britons were pleased, but little was done about the problem. It was the more numerous native red squirrel that was in the rifle sights of the time. In the early decades of the century, for instance, a hunting association called the Highland Squirrel Club killed 82,000 red squirrels, in part to protect the timber industry. (Squirrels damage trees by stripping off the bark.)

But over time the red squirrel became beloved in Britain. It supplanted the realm’s old icon, the lion, as the symbol of a gentler, more evolved nation. There was Squirrel Nutkin, Potter’s irreverent playful red, and also Tufty Fluffytail, the Safety Squirrel, a public-service creation whose warnings about danger on the road began in the early 1950s and lasted until the ’80s. As the red rose in popularity, the gray sank in public esteem. Potter’s attempt to follow up Squirrel Nutkin with a story about a gray squirrel, Timmy Tiptoes, did not achieve the same success. In 1922, a government permanent secretary was quoted in The Times of London calling grays “sneaking, thieving, fascinating little alien villains.”

A nationalist subtext attached to the objections to the grays. “I know of more than one patriotic Englishman who has been embittered against the whole American nation on account of the presence of their squirrels in his garden,” wrote the Oxford squirrel authority A. D. Middleton in 1931. When the Forestry Commission began an investigation in the late ’20s of the effect of grays, a New York Times article bore the headline “American Squirrel on Trial for His Life in England” and suggested a fair jury would be hard to find. In 1932, Britain indicted the gray: it classed it as a pest and made it a crime to release one into the wild. That meant there was only one way out for any gray caught in a trap. A National Anti-Grey Squirrel Campaign enforced the sentence.

Many bad things were said about grays at the time, but then as now, the heart of the English objection to the grays comes down to this: they outcompete the reds. They are simply better at the job of being squirrels. Britain’s taste for unfettered competition has always been fitful, and how much it tipped the playing field in favor of the reds varied. At first, the job of controlling grays was largely left to the private landowners who had first imported them. But as the grays pushed up England, the government got involved. Beginning in the 1930s, it offered half a shilling per gray-squirrel tail, eventually raising the bounty to 2. The arrangement was politically popular but flawed: farmers and ranchers had a good reason to kill gray squirrels but no reason to eliminate them entirely. In the late ’50s, the government called off the program after estimating that there were more grays than before. From then until the early 2000s, and especially during the Thatcher-Major years, when the British government re-enthroned competition in Britain, the gray was left alone, and it extended its range, at the expense of the red, from the top of Wales to the Scottish border.

Redesdale and Parker didn’t tell me there was going to be a gray squirrel in the trunk of their car. We were in the gift shop at the south end of the Northumberland national park, near the town of Hexham. It was the day after the meeting in Sue Southworth’s living room, and Redesdale had promised to take me to see a place where he had cleared out grays and the reds had come back in. He and Parker had been busy. The gray toll was now 2,353, up 21 from the day before.

Redesdale sat with Parker, who was dressed in the exterminator outfit he wears: toxic-green sweater and pants. With them was a local groundskeeper. They were looking at maps of Northumberland, seeing how the war was going. Redesdale explained the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership to the groundskeeper. “So you on board for being part of the killing team?” he asked the man.



Redesdale has a strained relationship with the main red-squirrel protection groups: they need him; they call him sometimes when they get a gray squirrel sighting over their toll-free hot line; but he takes up a lot of their time. Carri Nicholson, the project manager for S.O.S., told me that she thinks of Redesdale as a kind of naughty child. “If you can’t play nicely, you’ll have to go to your room,” she said she tells him.

Most of all, S.O.S. officials say they wish Redesdale would trap squirrels only where reds and grays are currently competing, in the north, rather than in areas more toward the south, like Hexham, which are considered a lost cause. “Lord Redesdale wants to get rid of grays all over Northumberland,” Peter Lurz, an ecologist at Newcastle University, told me. “I think it’s a tall order. You’re dealing with a rodent that has two litters a year.” He added, “Unless you remove 70 percent of the rodents you’re just making room for the litters.” He suggested that Redesdale’s efforts had only “psychological impact.”

Lurz was an architect of the plan for the red-squirrel reserves that the government established last year: 16 in the north of England. He based his plan on the observation he made in the field that because the red squirrel is smaller than the gray, it can live on less food. It does fine, for instance, in a conifer forest, without rich acorns and beechnuts; in such an environment the grays will leave for a better habitat elsewhere. As it happens, the large conifer forests in Britain are in the north, where the reds remain. According to the initial government plan, S.O.S. would monitor the red and gray squirrel populations in the refuges. The Forestry Commission would replenish conifer trees that make the habitat desirable for reds. And the government would establish buffer zones along the perimeters — places where it would encourage landowners to kill any grays they found. The reserves seemed a fitting solution for postcolonial Britain. The gray would keep what it had won. The red, like the British themselves, would content itself with a small homeland in return for peace.

The refuges might have held the grays back, at least for a while, but as they were being created, it became clear to Lurz that any contact between grays and reds — even the minimal amount occurring in the refuges — was going to be catastrophic. This is because grays have yet another weapon in their arsenal: they carry a virus, to which they appear to be immune, that kills the reds. The disease, called squirrelpox, is awful to see: it turns the soft tissues around their eyes, ears and nose to sludge. Death comes within two weeks. Last summer, Lurz, having carefully studied squirrel-population records, calculated that where infected grays mixed with reds, the reds very quickly disappeared. “It was too much of a coincidence,” Lurz told me. In fact, he noted, “dirty” grays took land away from reds at roughly 20 times the rate healthy grays did.

Lurz estimates that two-thirds of grays carry the squirrelpox virus. In light of Lurz’s work, it was clear that buffer zones alone would not save the red squirrels. The only solution was to start killing grays and to kill them quickly. Scotland, which has refuges that are administered separately from those of England and Wales, took up arms. It hired two culling officers to trap at key spots along its border with England. (I asked to meet with them but was told that “for their safety” I would not be allowed.)

In England, however, nothing similar happened. The blue-chip organizations associated with S.O.S. spoke passionately of saving the reds, but, sensitive to the opposition of animal-rights groups, they have not made trapping a priority. “They just keep faffing around,” Redesdale says. He calls them “talking shops.” In fact, the hands of S.O.S. are somewhat tied: its National Lottery grant specifically forbids using its funds to cull grays. “Until we can get better funding,” Nicholson, the project manager for S.O.S., says, “the most we can achieve is stasis.”

There may not really be any reason to do more: red squirrels, after all, are not scarce outside the British Isles. In fact, worldwide — reds live throughout Europe and Asia — they probably outnumber grays. It is only in Britain (and more recently in Italy, where grays were introduced in 1948) that the red is considered threatened. In addition, Britain is not a place where killing animals goes down easily anymore. Animal-rights advocates put themselves between the hunter and the fox he pursued until hunting with hounds was outlawed a few years ago after extensive parliamentary debate. Highways have toad crossings. Many people prefer to build little bridges for squirrels over roadways — the S.O.S. Web site provides a blueprint — than to spend their time killing animals.

This mood shifts only when an animal threatens the carefully set ecological dinner party that is rural England. I saw this force at work when Redesdale and Parker set out to convert a woman at the gift shop at the Northumberland national park. Like many people Redesdale talks to, she was at first surprised at what he told her. She said she thought she was part of the effort already: she supported Save Our Squirrels.

Redesdale clarified: “There are two organizations. They promote red squirrels; we kill grays. We just kill grays.”

“We just kill grays, that’s all,” Parker echoed.

The woman, who looked to be in her 60s, gave the “Candid Camera” look.

“But surely the two go together, don’t they?” she asked.

Redesdale explained why they did not. He said that to preserve reds you had to wage war on the grays without pity.

“We used to often see red squirrels, but I don’t think we’ve seen any recently,” the woman said.

Redesdale laid out the details of his trapping plan. “We can probably give you a trap today — we just have to get rid of the occupant,” Redesdale said, referring to the one in the trunk of his car. He and Parker laughed. Redesdale gave his handsome goofy smile, flashed his excellent teeth.

The woman held on: “It’s a shame because they are quite nice in a way” — grays — “when they are climbing the tree.”

Redesdale broke in: “If they weren’t wiping out the reds we wouldn’t be doing this. The other thing is they do wipe out the birds.”

This seemed to give her pause. Songbirds are popular in rural England. “I had a nice mistle thrush nesting at the bottom of my garden and the magpies came,” she remembered sadly.

Sensing his opportunity, Redesdale told Parker to give the woman his card.

She took it and read it. She looked like she had been tricked.

“We’ve got to get you a proper card made up,” Redesdale said to Parker.

In March 2006, the House of Lords debated the question of the red squirrel, one of its favorites. It was logical that the august body would be interested in red squirrels. Many members of the House own lots of land, their taste tends to be nostalgic and they themselves might be seen as endangered — the government has cut the number of hereditary peers in the House nearly 90 percent in the last decade.

Earl Peel rose to call attention to the decline in numbers of the reds and its significance. “To many,” he said, “the red squirrel represents an integral part of our woodland landscape — an iconic creature, immortalized by Beatrix Potter, through the charismatic character of Squirrel Nutkin.” But before turning his attention to Squirrel Nutkin, Earl Peel proposed conducting “a brief health check” of various other Beatrix Potter characters. “Starting with Tabitha Twitchit and Tom Kitten” — both cats — “they are truly on top of their game. . . . Let us now consider the status of Mr. Tod, the fox. On second thoughts, given that he has taken up 700 hours of parliamentary time, it would be somewhat hypocritical of me to prolong the debate.” He went on: “That brings me on seamlessly to the other really controversial character that graced the class of 1912 — and that of course is Tommy Brock,” Potter’s badger. “Hasn’t he done well?”

Peel continued: “Despite suffering from and carrying tuberculosis, he has successfully managed to establish himself in the hearts and minds of the nation as being more important than dairy cows or, indeed, farmers’ livelihoods, and like Mr. Tod, has managed to secure his very own legislation.”

Peel concluded his health check: “Squirrel Nutkin must look back on his alma mater and think to himself, ‘How could it have all gone so wretchedly wrong for me?’ ”

Redesdale rose to congratulate Peel. “My Lords,” he said, “I thank the noble earl, Lord Peel, for initiating the debate and commend him for his bravery. It takes a brave man to initiate a debate that had Radio 4 saying this morning that he would be calling for an immediate cull of gray squirrels. I hate to say that his postbag will immediately be filled with letters from irate people who love gray squirrels.”

He continued: “One of the problems in the public perception is that gray squirrels are the only squirrels they see. They see them in parks and gardens, and they are sociable and friendly animals. Yesterday, I walked through St. James’s Park and watched tourists feeding gray squirrels crisps by hand. In Regent’s Park, a gray squirrel came up to my son and me and actually climbed up my leg to look in my pocket.”

Lord Hoyle soon cut off Redesdale: “My Lords, perhaps they are friendlier in Regent’s Park than they are in St. James’s Park. One that ran up my leg bit me.”

Redesdale resumed: “Efforts involving buffer zones have been undertaken to halt the advance of the gray squirrel. It is unfortunate that in Northumberland, when there was talk of a cull of gray squirrels, there was such public outcry that much of that work had to be deferred.”

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, the 21st to hold that title in Scotland, then spoke to point out the inherent superiority of the red over the gray squirrel: “Red squirrels,” she said, “are rather like quiet, well-behaved people who do not make a nuisance or an exhibition of themselves or commit crimes and so do not get themselves into the papers in the vulgar way gray squirrels do.” She continued: “Red squirrels do not strip bark from trees; damage arable crops, market gardens and garden plants; dig up bulb and corms from recently sown seed; eat birds’ eggs; or eat telephone wires and electricity cables, as gray squirrels do.” Lady Saltoun suggested some research be done on whether gray squirrels tasted good. She foresaw a fight at the dinner table: “I have a nasty feeling that . . . children in particular would say, ‘Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly eat that,’ just as they say they cannot eat dear little bunny rabbits. But this is worth having a look at.”

Lord Inglewood concluded with a call to action. “We have been far too intellectual about this and tried to be far too clever,” he said. The matter was simple: “There has to be at least some killing of gray squirrels.” To Inglewood’s mind, British governments over the years, regardless of political persuasion, were guilty of “squeamishness.” And “as far as the red squirrel is concerned,” he went on, “squeamishness spells nemesis for this lovely and iconic creature. Those involved with trying to preserve the red squirrel in this country have adopted a policy of appeasement towards the grays. The red squirrels have had Chamberlains and not Churchills, but it is Churchills that they need.” Inglewood finished with a dark prediction: “Unless something radical and imaginative is done . . . Squirrel Nutkin and his friends and relations are going to be toast.”

The gray in the trunk of the car still awaited us. “We gray squirrels who are about to die salute you,” Redesdale said. We walked back to the vehicle, parked near the gift shop. Parker had said he wanted me to shoot the squirrel — that grays were in Britain was, after all, my fault as an American — and I did not want to. He had also asked Redesdale to shoot the squirrel, and he did not want to either. Now Redesdale seemed to be summoning his nerve. “We keep on being told by the bunny-huggers, you know the wildlife-trust people, I mean I’m all for — I mean killing things to me is bad,” he said. “I’m all for it but at some point you have to nail your colors to the mast.”

I had by that point learned more about Redesdale: he and his wife met at a human rights conference; he has mixed feelings about being a lord (“No one really cares if it’s you that shows up”); when he first sat in the House of Lords, at age 23, he looked across at a cousin who was the Tory whip and remembers thinking, “I’d rather eat warm vomit,” after which he joined the Liberal Democrats, a party that, he points out proudly, is to the left of Labor; and he does not like guns (“I don’t see the sport in hunting”).

All the same, Redesdale was the officer; Parker, the enlisted man. If Redesdale did not kill the squirrel, he would never be able to lead. And had his family not led for 1,000 years? So we drove to an isolated parking lot, and Parker took the cage out of the trunk. He put the trap — “it’s me killing trap,” he said — on the asphalt. This was the place this animal was going to die.

The squirrel, large and dark gray with just a hint of red to his fur, wheeled around the cage looking for a way out. Then it made a piteous noise, a whee-whee-whee sound. Parker handed the air rifle to Redesdale, and he pointed it.

“That’s the, uh, trigger?” Redesdale said.

“That’s right,” Parker said.

The squirrel paused. Redesdale steadied the barrel over its head. Then came the shot.

“You’ve got it,” Parker said softly.

But he hadn’t.

“Is it dead?” I asked stupidly.

The squirrel raced around the cage, blood dripping from somewhere around its mouth. WHEE-WHEE-WHEE. The same noise.

“I know it’s bad when they run,” Redesdale apologized. I thought I saw the warm-vomit look in his eyes.

The squirrel kept running and finally stopped when it realized there was still nowhere to go. Redesdale once more placed the rifle over its head. POP! The squirrel fell on its side and shook, scrabbled and shimmied twice around the cage like a break dancer.

“They’re dead when they do that, aren’t they?” Redesdale said, sounding more Macbeth than Prince Hal. Parker assured him it was dead: these were just the death throes. Parker put the dead squirrel — number 2,354 — and the cage back in the trunk, and we trooped out of the parking lot to look for reds.

Parker said he had done a lot of trapping in the area. Some of his traps are just cages on the ground, but here Parker had set one about two feet off the ground, connecting a blackthorn tree and a pine tree via a cross-strut. Some bird feed and a half a coconut dangled above. The gray was supposed to sample the coconut and feed and then come down the trunk and try Parker’s trademark hazelnuts, drilled for easy access, inside the trap. The smell of the grays caught earlier in the trap is supposed to keep the reds away. But today the trap was empty. An owl waited high in a tree, looking down at us from above its white-ruffled collar. Redesdale’s mobile rang. It was Sky TV. They wanted him to be on to talk about the new foot-and-mouth outbreak and were willing to send a van to his home. “Brilliant,” he said.

Then we saw movement in the blackthorn tree. There was a red-orange flash high off the ground. We drew together and watched a red squirrel from behind a stone building as it silently tumbled and turned. In direct sunlight, its plush tail seemed almost blonde. Other times it was russet. It stood on its hind legs.

This was the red-squirrel money shot, the one on the fund-raising postcards: rounded rump, fluffy russet tail curled up and over the back, almost to the point of touching the squirrel’s head. The head itself is inclined slightly, and the paws are brought together around the acorn or beechnut. In this position the red looks like a tiny country vicar giving advice to a young married couple or like a trusted servant who is suggesting gently that His Grace might wish to come to dinner. Seen in profile, the paws are where breasts would be and convey a sense of the delicacy and femininity of the animal.

I could see even from below how soft the red’s fur was. Its belly was white, giving it a two-toned Twenties sort of elegance. Its plushness made me think of bunnies or maybe even baby bears or lemurs. The red squirrel’s head was wide and gave the face a roundness, which combined with the huge ears suggested a newborn baby. There were no tufts on this one — reds loose their tufts in summer — but even without them, it looked like an old man who had rolled out of bed.

Like millions of Americans, I see gray squirrels in my yard every day. They have that helter-skelter, fritzed-out agitated and agitating quality, that urban jumpiness. They always seem to be watching you. This red, by contrast, was uninterested in us, benignly disdainful, like one of the spirits of the forest, the trolls under the bridge and the wise little sprites who appear on tree limbs to play tricks. It wanted to be there. It belonged there. But it was hard to believe it would be there long.

D. T. Max, a frequent contributor, is the author of “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery,” a scientific and cultural history of prion diseases, which is now out in paperback.