Monday, February 25, 2013
When you want to eat pizza, it has to be convenient. When visitors come to town, it's a point of pride to be able to suggest a place for pizza regardless of whether you'll be eating late at night after having drinks in Williamsburg, or if the idea is to grab a slice after shopping on Fifth Avenue.
I prefer Neapolitan pies, which became popular over the last seven or eight years. I prefer to go out for pizza rather than order it in. And when I do go out, I want to splurge a little and get a ridiculously good pie, not some dollar slice. I want fresh fior di latte. I want a crust that's been blasted in an oven so it's crisp with a dusting of char on the outside but pillowy inside. I want thoughtful toppings.
Here are some of my favorite places to get pizza in New York. I'll make a note of what kind of pizza is served (e.g., New York style, Neapolitan, etc.) and what to order at each place.
Roberta's (261 Moore St., Brooklyn)
Neapolitan style. Try the Bee Sting pizza with sopressata, chili, flakes and honey.
Motorino (349 E 12th St., Manhattan)
Neapolitan style. Try the Brussels sprouts pizza with smoked pancetta.
Paulie Gee's (60 Greenpoint Ave., Brooklyn)
Paulie Gee's has experimental pies, so order whatever special tickles your fancy, plus one Hell Boy pizza, which is similar to Roberta's Bee Sting in that it brings heat and honey into a beautiful fusion of flavors.
Michael Angelo's Pizza (29-11 23rd Ave., Manhattan)
A surprising and amazing New York-style pizza can be found at this little-known pizzeria and Italian restaurant in Astoria. Get the Michael Angelo's Special Pie with a regular crust, a sauce-and-cheese pizza which comes with sliced sausage, red onions, and several other classic toppings. With a group who likes garlic, get the Sofia Lorenz pie, too, but done with a thin crust. Also note that the pizza shown on the website is almost definitely not from the restaurant. That is purchased stock art if I ever did see it.
Kesté Pizza &Vino (271 Bleecker St., Manhattan)
Yet another amazing, hand-crafted, Neapolitan pie can be found at Kesté in the West Village. Follow your heart toward pizzas that show off high-end cheeses, shaved truffles when available, and vegetables and fungi.
Co. (230 9th Ave., Manhattan)
Co., pronounced "company," has nightly specials worth hearing and considering, but if you're undecided, steer toward any of the Neapolitan-style pies with meatballs, and you can't go wrong.
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Sullivan Street Bakery (533 West 47th St., Manhattan)
At this simple bakery, take out a slice of room temperature pizza, which here is little more than thin bread with toppings cut into rectangles, or nibble it while sitting at the window bench. Get the one with potatoes.
John's of Bleecker Street (278 Bleecker St., Manhattan)
Straight-up, old-school New York pizza, the kind that's at least 18 inches in diameter, is what you'll find at John's. The decor and quality are nothing to write home about, but when you're craving classic New York-style pizza with the toppings you want, go to John's.
Zero Otto Nove (2357 Arthur Avenue, Bronx; and 15 West 21st St., Manhattan)
I haven't been to the Zero Otto Nove on Bronx's famous Arthur Avenue, but I did try the one on West 21st Street. The pies are solid, if pricey, and come with toppings that ring true to American-Italian sensibilities, regardless of whether you'd find them on a pizza in Napoli: sopressata, mozzarella, porcini, pancetta. Great spot for a lazy lunch.
L'asso (192 Mott St., Manhattan)
Nestled on the border of Little Italy and Soho, and but a stone's throw from the Lower East Side, L'asso is where you go during a happy hour run to drop a few bucks for a pint and a slice of pizza that's really too good to be slapped by your drunk hands. Better than it should be, and also satisfying sloppy.
There are so many other amazing pizzerias in New York including Di Fara (which I sheepishly have had yet), Grimaldi's, and yes, I didn't even touch Staten Island! Feel free to contribute your favorites in the comments.
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Monday, February 18, 2013
First, I had to pull on the skull cap, which had slits in it where the all electrodes would thread it to attach to my head... except for the four electrodes that were affixed to the skin around my eyes instead. Next, the woman suiting me up used a cotton-tipped swab to scrub my scalp clean with a sandy paste mixture, which helped sure the electrodes stayed in contact with my skin. She attached all the sensors and told me to not scratch my face or make any sudden moves for the next 90 minutes or so. Finally, she seated me alone in a dim room. I was wired up, staring at a blank wall in one of the neurology department buildings at University College London, earning a whopping £5 per hour.
I was about to participate in a scientific experiment, although I didn't know at the time what was being tested. I had no idea what the experiment would entail, nor what was being studied, nor what I might have to do. I fit the basic criteria to participate, and that's about all I knew. As long as I could follow directions for the next hour and a half, and come back for a second visit about a week later, I was in.
Being a Scientific Subject
I found the study the way I found all the others: by combing the halls of various departments at UCL looking for cork boards with plain paper ads seeking subjects for studies that would pay me a little walking-around money. One half-hour study I did paid about £3 for a half hour's worth of "work," which in that case consisted of showing up to the psychology department, listening to a bearded young man with tattered jeans and a northern English accent pretend to hypnotize me, then get quizzed about everyday things and how I was feeling.
My friend Nick followed my lead and started doing experiments, too. He signed on for one particular experiment that paid more then ten times what I was making, but he had to be injected with some fluorescent colored fluid and given an MRI, while listening to a recording of words and responding after each one if it was "alive" or "not alive." I thought that sounded like the best gig yet (the study only wanted males, so I couldn't do it), but Nick said it was creepy and kind of hard because the words started out as "rock" and "dog," but grew more complicated: "language" (alive?), "love," "pflurregarin" or some gibberish (not alive?). Plus the IV wasn't so comfortable, he said. He also got a color printout image of his own brain scan when he was done. "I kind of want to put this onto a t-shirt," he said, "with an arrow pointing to that big black area that I can only assume is LSD damage."
The first day of this study, I arrived at the neurology department across town in a London neighborhood that I didn't know well. I found the address, went inside, and was minimally briefed on the experiment without being told any detail of what the researchers wanted to know. Could I commit to returning once or twice more if needed? Sure. And I knew this visit might last up to two hours, all told? Yes. Was I comfortable wearing a skull cap? Sure, I guess. And was I right-handed? You betchya.
No doubt I signed a release form of some kind. Then the researcher's assistant prepped my head.
When I was suited up and placed in the study room, one of the researchers entered to give me instructions. "You're going to see a number of objects. Each one will be set in an environment, a backdrop, but the object will be highlighted so you'll know what to focus on.
"I want you to try and make up a story about the object and its surroundings to help you remember it. Okay? Let's try one out loud."
He flipped off the lights, and a projection appeared on the wall. I'm not sure in hindsight what the example object and environment was, but it could have been a winter jacket in a tropical forest.
"Try and remember that object," he said, "and make up a story about why it's there."
I sat silent.
"Okay, tell it to me."
"A girl was walking thought the forest and she dropped her coat."
"Well..." He hesitated. "That's good, but see if you can make it more creative, more memorable."
Let me say here that in hindsight, it's clear the researcher wasn't able to put himself in my shoes. His instructions were vague. I didn't know what he wanted, but he didn't know that I didn't know what he wanted. He couldn't see it. But I might have figured out what he wanted if I had known anything at all about the study. Because I didn't know what I was supposed to accomplish as an end result in the study, I didn't know what kind of "creative story" he wanted me to make up. Is that what he and his colleagues were testing? My creativity? Would I be quizzed about that at the end of the experiment? Was the purpose of the experiment to track my eye movements and brain activity while thinking creatively? Or while looking at unfamiliar images? Maybe they would test my reflexes after I had been sitting still for one hour, and this was just part of a distraction technique. I had no clue.
All his instructions and guidance assumed I knew something that I clearly did not. If I had known that I was about to gaze on nearly two hundred of these images, and then later be asked to identify objects that I had seen among many more that I hadn't, I might have realized that he wanted me to come up with a method for helping me to remember the objects under that future pressure.
So I tried again. "Okay, the jacket came from a man who jumped out of a plane, and while he was parachuting down, his jacket snagged on the trees and got left behind in the jungle." I said.
"Good," he said. "Better. I want you to do that with each of the images you see, but try to do it faster. Try to only take a second or two."
I don't remember if I had control over the speed at which the images were shown or if the projector advanced automatically, but I remember feeling like the experiment was taking a lot out of me. When it started, I had no idea if I was going to see five images or dozens or hundreds. I didn't know if this was only one phase of a multi-part study, or if this was the whole thing. Without any expectations, I couldn't effectively prepare myself for the task or pace myself accordingly.
Oh... It's a Mailbox!
The only image I definitely remember, now 13 years later, was a mailbox. The background image escapes me, but remember the mailbox because I couldn't figure out what it was when I first saw it. I thought, "How am I supposed to make up a story about this object if I don't know what it is?" So I pretended it was a little space capsule or something.
The reason I couldn't t identify the mailbox is because it was a red British post box, and I had only been in the country for a few weeks. Simple as that. It was an object I didn't recognize when it was plopped in the context of a scenic cliff, or whatever it was.
Finally, after two hundred or so images, I reached my last one. My dry eyes sagged in their sockets. My brain felt like someone had just blind-sided it. And the skull cap and all the electrodes on my face and head were starting to itch.
The researcher returned. "Okay. Now you're going to see pictures of objects again, and I'm going to give you two buttons to hold" (the buttons looked like buzzers that contestants on game shows hold) "and when an object comes on screen that you've seen before, press the right button. If you have not seen the object before, press the left button. Got it?"
The pictures started and the first were easy. They were also set on backdrop landscapes, some of which I had seen before and some of which I hadn't. Some of the background were paired up with the same images, and some were new.
We began. I had definitely seen that jacket before.
It was the first image we practiced. And the duck (I don't really remember each object, but I'm making them up here to illustrate the point). Yes, the duck was also one of the very first images I saw, and I remember the story I made up for it. But, shit! I hit the left buzzer instead of the right one accidentally. Well, I thought, I have to keep going. Then some more images appeared that I definitely remembered seeing, and yet I hit the left button again. Shit.
The researcher spoke up from nearby. It was the first time I realized he had been watching me the while time. "Remember, right button if you have seen it, left if you have not."
"Sorry!" I shouted back without being able to see him. The electrodes on my head prevented me from turning my head toward him.
I continued, and still occasionally hit the wrong button.
Then the post box appeared, and I had my one true moment of recognition. "Oh! It's a mailbox," I said to myself. U.K. post boxes look like little red cylindrical towers. U.S. post boxes are dark blue, kind of squat looking, and are cubic on the lower half with a big round hump on top.
It amazes me that 13 years later, I remember the mailbox, and the electrodes, and how the study worked more or less, and participating in it at all. In my previous blog post, I mentioned that I recently read Joshua Foer's Moonwalking With Einstein, which discusses a lot if these same ideas. How is it that we English speakers have memorized 26 letters of the alphabet and thousands upon thousands of ways to combine them into words, but so few of us remember what's in our refrigerators day to day? Quantitatively speaking, there's way less stuff in the fridge than in the language, and yet language and literacy seems to become hardwired into our brains from a very early age. (The word "hardwired" comes up in some linguistic theory I've read. Another is "blueprint," in that all normal functioning people have a blueprint in their brains that's ready to accept a language, or two or three, before the age of about seven or eight or nine years.)
Foer tells us that among memory champions, that is, people who actively work to improve their memories and compete in memory sport by memorizing shuffled decks of cards or long lists of random binary numbers, have a few tricks for taking unmemorable things and making them memorable by associating them with things we know well, like the layout of one's childhood home, or a whacky story (or both).
Reading the book made me think about the study from 2000, and I started searching academic journals for a paper that might have been printed about it. I found one about recognition memory, and wrote to the authors to try and confirm whether I was included in the study (they answered that the records no longer existed, and that the data was anonymized anyway), but reading about it, I am almost certain I found the right one.
I'd like to know if I had been one of the subjects whose data was excluded for poor performance, given that I hit the wrong buzzer knowingly several times, but given that the data was anonymized, I never would have known even if I followed up with the researchers many years ago.
It would have been interesting to attempt the experiment after having read Foer's book and learning some tricks for how to make my memory stronger.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
But even before the mid-term, my grade in the Medieval Literature class hovered between passing miserably and simply embarrassing myself. The professor, appropriately named Dr. Payne, required that we not just read abhorrent amount of old texts, but also memorize much of their content. We had to know all the character names in Malory's King Arthur stories (Le Morte d'Arthur), all the names of the castles and villages, all the relationships and other motivating factors — basically, every detail that Malory gave.
Two jokes persisted about Dr. Payne. One was her name. The other was that she was old enough to have been on the journey for the Canterbury Tales. Her insistence that we memorize information struck me as very unlike an English literature professor. And while I know now this what I'm about to say is purely ageist, her attitude that we should develop perfect recall also seemed out of line with how old people usually wanted my generation to learn. I grew up believing that I should learn concepts, causes and effects, the big picture.
Dr. Payne wanted us to know much more than we'd ever learn through Cliff's Notes. As I read Malory, Njal's Saga, and the god-damned Nibelungenlied (PDF available here if you want to torture yourself), I was so tripped up by the language and style of storytelling that I had a hard enough time just figuring out what in the hell was going on. (I remember feeling the same way when I read the god-damned Faerie Queen. I hate the god-damned Faerie Queen.)
Payne would say things like, "People always think the memory has limits, that if you hit your capacity, you have to forget something old in order to remember something new. It doesn't! You can continue to learn and remember more and more. Even at my age, I can memorize new information.
Given her teaching style and reputation, students believed she was out of date and very old-fashioned, but then she'd drop a reference to the movie First Knight, saying that, sure, it's shitty, but there's some good stuff in the beginning about Arthurian legend, and you'd realize she'd been keeping up all along.
Technology Lets Us Forget, And That's Good
I write a weekly column about being organized (both through technology, like how to use technology to organize recipes, and with technology, like how to keep your computer organized). A lot of my basic principles for being organized have to do with getting thoughts out of your head — in other words, specifically not remembering them — and making technology responsible for them instead. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, holds largely the same belief. If you're doing the remembering, he says, what's the point of the technology? The technology should be doing the work, not you. Not remembering frees you and your brain for other more important things.
Technology should make our lives easier, and one way it can do so is to free us from having to remember. For example, I never worry about my to-do list because it's all written down. I log upcoming meetings in my calendar, and I trust myself to have set an appropriate reminder for the meeting before it happens. If I need to prepare for the meeting, the reminder will go off a day before. If I need to rearrange my lunch schedule for a meeting, a reminder rings sometime around 11AM, when I'm starting to think about what and where I'll eat.
I trust myself to follow the system, and in return I trust that the system will work.
No One Taught Me How to Remember
A huge reason I always loved literature and writing courses is because I'm good at them. Like I said, I have the discipline and ability to write well, quickly, and on time. I can give you the shape of an idea and tease out why it's important. I'm good at that.
But put me in front of a chemistry test, where I might have to draw molecular constructions, or a math quiz, where there is only one possible correct answer, and I'm screwed.
One time Boyfriend was watching me try to memorize a list of information (I don't remember what it was, but let's say for argument's sake it was French translations, because I took a French class a few years ago). He watched as I scanned and read through a stack or 50 or 60 flash cards that I had made. I asked him to quiz me. It went badly. Finally, he said "Why are you trying to memorize all 60 words at once?"
"What?" I said.
"You can't learn all 60 new words at once. You have to learn like six words today and get them down pat. Then tomorrow or maybe even the next day, you learn six more."
"You don't know how to study."
"No. No one ever taught me how to study."
In the course of my education, no one ever gave me skills for studying, taking notes, or memorizing things. I just flew by the seat of my pants and hoped that my high grades in literature courses would help even out any bad grades I got in other subjects. I actually nearly bombed English one time when I had a teacher who was stuck on building our vocabulary. I could usually figure out what new words meant in context, but this teacher gave tests that just had a word next to a blank space where we were supposed to write in the definition. He'd give us 25 or 30 words each week, and I never managed to learn more than seven or eight of them.
The teacher called my mother in for a conference and told her, in front of me, that I was giving up too easily and I was a quitter. I'm pretty sure I cried. It didn't motivate me, though. It made me feel stupid. The next week I learned more of the words through sheer willpower, but still didn't manage to learn all of them — not even close.
Memorizing Anything is Possible
I just finished a book called Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer that's about memory, and specifically, people who compete in memory championships and the tricks they use to burn information into their heads. How do they do it? How do they memorize pages of binary numbers or the order of playing cards in dozens of decks?
Isn't it interesting that, 13 years later, I remember Dr. Payne's name, some of the texts we read, and that the class was held twice a week in the basement of a building called Samuel Clemens Hall? The trick to memory according to the sources Foer cites, has nothing to do with being smart and everything to do with learning skills for taking unmemorable things and making them memorable.
No doubt, Dr. Payne learned the art of memory. Someone must have taught her how to study and remember things. I would be very surprised if she learned on her own. And she must have learned it so long ago and in such a normal context that she assumed the rest of us had developed similar techniques too.
Rest assured, I never had.
One of the take-aways of the book for me is that, yes, anyone can memorize pretty much anything — but what is worth remembering? I stand by my principles that certain kinds of information and tasks are best left to technology. There is no point in memorizing all the appointments on my calendar each week or each month. But memorizing recipes for the 15 things I bake most often would be entirely useful (I always consult my recipes for baking just to be sure I don't flub the amount of a chemically important ingredient, like baking powder, or forget that I like to put a dash of cinnamon in my chocolate chip oatmeal cookies). It would save me minutes and perhaps even hours of work over time to memorize about a dozen codes that I have to type at work over and over again. I actually keep a Word doc of my most commonly used codes so that I can open that document and cut and paste them whenever I need them, but being able to recall them from memory would be even better.
What I'm still working out is what is worth remembering? If the premise that we can remember anything we choose is true, then someone ought to think long and hard about what we should memorize first and what not at all.
[In my next post, I'll tell you about how I participated in a memory experiment in London, for money, in which I had electrodes stuck to my head and around my eyes.]
Saturday, February 9, 2013
Breakfast, the underappreciated meal, needs to be quick and convenient. I'm not talking about lazy weekend brunches, of course, but weekday meals, the food that should fuel you until noon or later.
The first meal of the day should be filling yet light, simple but not boring, and quick without getting repetitive week after week.
I tend to get into breakfast grooves, where I eat the same thing many days in a row because I like it: yogurt and half a banana, oatmeal with brown sugar, meusli with milk. My crutch is that I tend toward sugary breakfasts.
I need to shake things up. Here are three alternative and savory breakfasts that can be made quickly or prepared the night before.
- Polenta cake with butter. Make polenta for dinner the night or two before, and press the leftovers into a small ramekin. Reheat in a pan with butter if you have time, or just nibble it cold. This meal would work with risotto, too.
- Toast with ricotta. Simple and quick, yet elegant. Add sliced fruit, fresh or dried, or a swoop of honey to keep it sweet, or make it savory with sliced almonds, or chives or thyme and a drizzle of olive oil. If you have stale bread, prepare this meal first and then make your pot of coffee or tea so that the cheese can soften the bread while it sits for five or six minutes.
- Hard cooked egg with salt and pepper over grits (or toast). For when you want eggs, but you don't want to cook eggs, so you hard cook them the night before. You make grits the night before or cook quick grits in the same amount of time it takes to make oatmeal. See below for tips on cooking eggs.
How to Hard Cook EggsTo make hard-cooked eggs that do not stink like sulfur or taste like powder, start with a cold pot of water, enough to cover the eggs. Turn the heat on medium-low, and think to yourself that you are warming the eggs until they set. It's this mentality that turns out a bright, soft, luscious yolk. I let mine reach a gently boil and go for exactly three minutes, then I shut off the heat, let them sit another two minutes, and then move them to ice water.
Another method is to start with cold water, cover the pot, turn on the heat to medium, and when the water just barely boils, shut off the heat and remove the lid. Leave the eggs in the hot water for between nine and eleven minutes, and then immediately move them into ice water. Getting the time just right takes some trial and error to adjust for your pot size, heat source, how orange you like your yolks, etc. Boyfriend uses this method and takes his eggs to exactly 10 minutes.