Monday, May 31, 2010

Matt Plays Food Blogger: Bolognese Sauce

I'm probably the world's biggest fan of sauce. I don't even care what it's on--sometimes I'll make pasta just as a vehicle for eating sauce. Even as I type this post, I'm eating chips and salsa and realizing that the chips pretty much don't matter at all next to the salsa. And one of the world's great classic sauces is Bolognese sauce.

This is another dish that translates very well to the use of a slow cooker; authentic Bolognese is usually simmered over an afternoon and sometimes for an entire day. But here's the problem: "authentic" Bolognese seems to be ill-defined. Even worse, while some dishes (like tagines) accept or even encourage variation, there's a lot of touchiness about what makes a "real" Bolognese. I scoured the internet to try and reach some reasonable consensus.


  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 lb. pork sausage
    The general consensus was 1-2 lb. of some combination of ground beef and sausage. Some sites also suggested ground lamb or even veal as well. I'm sure those would be delicious, but they're not exactly compatible with the grad student budget. I think that shredded chicken thighs would be an excellent substitution, perhaps with a lighter wine. Finally, if you're going health-conscious, you could probably substitute turkey sausage and it would be just fine.
  • 3 slices bacon, chopped
    This one is optional for a "real" Bolognese, and usually it's pancetta instead. I didn't exactly have any pancetta sitting around the house, but I did have some bacon that looked like it needed to be used or thrown away... and besides, bacon is the best food in the world.

  • 29-oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 14-oz. can tomato paste
    The internet was indecisive on this one. Depending on who you listened to, I was supposed to add tomato sauce, or diced tomatoes, or imported Roma tomatoes that I was supposed to chop myself, or just tomato paste and no tomato at all. Using tomato sauce seemed sort of like cheating, so I went with the diced tomatoes, with a bit of paste as a thickener.
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
    I don't really understand the culinary purpose of adding celery--it has no flavor, and it loses its distinctive texture when it's slow-cooked for hours. But it seemed like every recipe I saw included a stalk or two of celery, so I added it anyway.
  • 2 (small to medium) carrots, chopped
    Apparently these are to increase the sweetness of the sauce, which makes sense. Most of the recipes I saw had carrots and sugar in various proportions ranging from 2 large carrots and no sugar to no carrots and 1/4 cup of sugar. I decided to go somewhere in the middle.
  • 1 carton (I think it was 1/2 lb.) "baby bella" mushrooms
    Another "optional" ingredient in "real" Bolognese is mushrooms. Porcini are recommended, but I couldn't find any of those.
  • 1/2 cup onion, choppped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
    Suggestions here were all over the place, ranging from 1 to 6 cloves. I decided for a more modest 2.

Herbs and Spices
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
    I had both of these handy in my awesome balcony garden! The basil was a little sketchy--we've had an unusually cool May, and basil thrives in hot, bright conditions, so it didn't have a very strong basil flavor. The oregano was fantastic, though.
  • 1 bay leaf
    Most of the recipes didn't tell me to add a bay leaf, but bay leaves are cool, so I decided to use one anyway.
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (see the carrot comment above)
  • Salt and pepper, added to the meat while browning

  • 1 cup half and half
    One of the most surprising consistencies among Bolognese sauce recipes is the use of some (relatively high-fat) dairy. The thought is that dairy enzymes break down some of the meat proteins. Recipes I found suggested volumes from none (which were instantly criticized as "not really Bolognese, just some meat sauce") to a pint, milk fat from whole milk to heavy cream. Once again, I decided to go somewhere in the middle.
  • 1/2 cup Zinfandel
    Some recipes suggested no wine, some suggested white, some suggested red. As this recipe was leaning toward "when in doubt, throw it in" anyway, and because wine is delicious, I decided to go with the wine. I didn't find out until after I made it that "most authentic" Bolognese uses dry white wine, and I thought that using Chianti in Italian cooking was too cliche, so I went Zinfandel.

Preparation and Cooking

Throw the meat in a pan with some of the garlic and onions. Sprinkle salt and pepper over it, and brown the meat. Drain and dump into a crockpot. Cook up the bacon (or pancetta if you have it), chop it up, and throw it in the crockpot. Now, throw the celery, carrots, and the rest of the garlic and onions (snazzy cooking tip: this is called soffritto in Italian) in a pan along with some olive oil and cook them. Dump that into the crockpot.

Add the herbs and spices, the rest of the vegetables, and the liquids. Turn the crockpot onto low, and cook for several hours. It doesn't matter, really, because you've already cooked everything that needs to be cooked. You're just getting the flavors to meld together.


This sauce was pretty delicious. It wasn't as salty or savory as I thought it might have been, and I think there are a few easy ways to remedy that. First, add a bit more salt to the crockpot in the "add the herbs and spices" phase. Second, add some more garlic--the garlic flavor wasn't really noticeable at all, which is a shame in an Italian dish. Finally, Zinfandel might not have been the best choice of wines--there's a reason that Chianti is a cliche for Italian cooking, or if I wanted to take the suggestion of using a white, I imagine a Pinot grigio or Pinot bianco would be good.

I should have chopped the carrots and mushrooms finer--they're meant to impart some flavor and character to the sauce, not to impose chunks of vegetable in the sauce as you're eating it.

I'm pleasantly surprised at how tomatoey the sauce turned out. I was a little unsure if tomato chunks plus tomato paste plus a bunch of less viscous liquid would turn into a real "sauce" consistency, but the diced tomatoes broke down enough and the paste thickened the liquid enough to get the consistency exactly what I wanted it to be.

Finally, I'll skip the added sugar entirely next time. The sauce didn't need it, and the carrots were plenty sweet enough on their own.

Currently listening: "Sleeping Lessons", the Shins

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lost Speculations and Observations: It Only Ends Once, Part Two

While Lost was always a show about its characters, and its artistic legacy will be for its characters, its significance to pop culture and the motive force for people to have watched the show through the years have been its mysteries. We've gotten plenty of answers, but naturally a show with the size and scope of Lost couldn't possibly hit everything. The mysteries that weren't specifically addressed on the screen generally fall into one of three categories: 1) mysteries that really were addressed, but that you have to read between the lines to understand; 2) mysteries that weren't addressed but then again don't matter so much to the plot, characters, or mythology; and 3) mysteries that weren't addressed but legitimately needed to be. Fortunately, there are only a handful in the third category. I'd like to go through several and explain why I thought the mystery was addressed, or didn't need to be, or was actually lacking.

Who were the Others? Honestly, this one couldn't have been more clear to me. Whether it was Richard's people in 1954, or the Hostiles in DHARMA times, or the Others that our people fought against, there has been a tribe of people living on the Island for at least half a century. They speak Latin, are advised by Richard Alpert, and ultimately proclaim allegiance to Jacob. From Jacob's "cork chat" with Richard back in 1867 that we see in "Ab Aeterno", we learn that Jacob has been bringing people to the Island for a very long time, but that he's not necessarily that great at interacting with them. Thus is born Richard's job of adviser to the Others and liaison between the Island and its people. Those people die gradually, but more are brought every so often as well. This amalgamation of people that Jacob has brought to the Island over the years 1867-present are collectively the Others.

How come we see Christian in the hospital and on the freighter? This one is trickier, and I think the answer does matter because it speaks to one of the core disputes in the conflict between Jacob and the Man in Black. The confusion is this: we know that every time we see Christian on the Island, it's actually the Man in Black. We also know that the Man in Black cannot leave the Island. Then, how is he able to go to the freighter or to Los Angeles? The freighter makes sense if you consider the water immediately surrounding the Island as part of the Island. It's Desmond's snow-globe; sure, you can sail away from the shores of the Island, but unless you know the magic bearing to escape the Island entirely, you're for all intents and purposes still on the Island. When the freighter crossed into the Island's "zone of influence", it became part of the Island, so the Man in Black could get to it. As for the hospital, it's a less fulfilling explanation, but chalk that one up to Jack's less-than-capable mental state and influence of drugs.

What's the deal with "mother"? I still say this one doesn't matter, because none of the main characters ever met "mother". The reasonable thing to conclude from "Across the Sea" is that "mother" is a pre-Roman or early Roman sea traveler who washed up on the Island, got curious about the Source one day, and became the Island's protector. (I still think she was also the smoke monster, but the evidence for that is much more circumstantial.) Her unequal treatment of her two assumed sons is probably the biggest influence on the prevailing sociological and philosophical opinions of Jacob and the Man in Black. That's all the story we need, because it's all the story that's relevant to our characters.

How did Jacob leave the Island? As the Island's protector, he of course knew the magic bearing that let him leave. Nothing was preventing him from leaving and instilling some small seed of purpose in each of his candidates at crucial junctures in their lives. The Man in Black, and most of the Island's inhabitants, weren't allowed to leave simply because Jacob didn't want them to. But Jacob, making his own rules, could leave any time he wanted. Yes, this is every bit as hypocritical as it sounds.

What ever happened to Annie? Doesn't matter. I like to think she left the Island when Faraday sounded the alarm right before the Incident. Or maybe she died in the Incident or in the Purge. The reason Annie was important was 1) to lay some foundation for Ben being so possessive of Juliet, and, more importantly 2) to show that Ben is capable of feelings after all. The Annie scenes (along with the Alex scenes) prove that Ben, while having done some truly terrible things, at least retains some of his humanity.

Why couldn't women have babies on the Island? The most reasonable pseudoscientific explanation here is that it results from the Incident. Massive discharge of electromagnetic energy plus massive dose of radiation equals less-than-hospitable environment for human procreation. A more spiritual explanation is that it's the Island's punishment to Ben's people for some of Ben's sins. As Ben's tenure as the leader of the Others became more violent and paranoid, the Island gradually rejected him. It denied him its healing properties, like we saw at the beginning of season 3 with the spinal surgery moment. Either or both of these explanations might be true: we know that Amy had no problem conceiving and giving birth to Ethan, and that was before both the Incident and Ben's accession to leadership.

Who built the Temple/Frozen Donkey Wheel/Four-Toed Statue/volcano plug? Ancient civilizations that were on the Island before our people's time. The Temple looks Mesoamerican, so Mesoamericans probably built it. The Statue is definitely Egyptian, so the Egyptians probably built it. The volcano plug has some cuneiform on it, so Sumerians probably built it. How did any of them get there? Likely the same way that Claudia and her people did, an unfortunate shipwreck. As for the Wheel and all the wells, it was the Man in Black and his adoptive village, like we found out in "Across the Sea".

What was the polar bear, and why was there a skeleton of one in Tunisia? The polar bears are definitely DHARMA experiments. The Hydra was their zoological research station, where they kept polar bears in cages. We know from "The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham" (among other episodes) that Tunisia is the "exit" from the Island when you turn the Wheel. DHARMA knew about the Wheel and about its time travel properties, if not necessarily about the exit, as we learn in the season 4 finale "There's No Place Like Home". It happens to be really cold at the bottom of the well, and it takes a lot of force to turn the Wheel. What's large, already on the Island, and comfortable in cold climates?

What about Aaron--was he actually "special"? Sort of. Aaron was special in that he was born on the Island and that Claire didn't seem to suffer any of the late-term pregnancy issues that the recent Others did. What about him being "raised by another"? That one is interesting looking back on it, because now we know that Kate raising Aaron is what "disqualified" Kate from being a candidate. The implication is that Jacob already lost "Littleton" as a candidate when Claire had Aaron, and he didn't want to lose a second candidate by Claire letting another person raise Aaron. Did Richard Malkin know any of that? Probably not; he admitted to Eko in "?" that he was a fraud.

Why did the DHARMA food drops continue? This is a relatively minor one, but a little explanation here might have been nice. DHARMA effectively stopped supporting its operations on the Island in the years between 1985 and 1987 (which we know from the blast door map and the Lost Experience), and the Purge occurred in 1992 (which we know from "The Man Behind the Curtain"). Although Alvar Hanso himself guaranteed that the supply drops would be made "in perpetuity", it would make little sense for the Initiative to continue them without Hanso's funding and without personnel on the Island to benefit from them.

What happened with that one time flash when Juliet shot someone on the outrigger chase? Short answer: we don't know. This came in the episode "The Little Prince", and the pursuers earned the nickname "The Other Others" from Sawyer. Again, this is a minor point in the grand scheme of the show's mythology and story, but it was an intriguing plot point that could easily have been answered in season 6, as part of the season's theme of connecting to all the other seasons.

Who was in Jacob's cabin? We see the cabin several times, and the answer changes each time. In "The Man Behind the Curtain" and "The Shape of Things to Come", there's some mysterious shadowy figure inside the cabin. Ben assumes it's Jacob, but then again he never actually meets Jacob until he stabs him in "The Incident". Later Ilana tells us that Jacob hasn't been using the cabin lately, so it seems that this figure is not Jacob at all. It could be an elaborate charade by the Man in Black, but then again the cabin is surrounded by a circle of ash. We don't know why or how, but we do accept that the Man in Black can't cross ash. And why would the Man in Black be pleading for help?

The "Cabin Fever" visit to the cabin is much easier to sort out. There's no ash circle this time, so the Man in Black has no problem entering the cabin and masquerading as Christian Shephard. He already has Claire under his control, and he manipulates Locke into using the Frozen Donkey Wheel by saying he can speak on Jacob's behalf. Undoubtedly, the Man in Black wanted the freighter folk (who he, rightly or wrongly, would have associated with Jacob) gone, and using the Wheel to move the Island accomplished that. But the reason the Man in Black insisted that Locke turn the Wheel was probably so he could kill two birds with one stone and discard one of Jacob's candidates by forcing Locke to take the "exit" from the Island.

What ever happened to Walt? This is the granddaddy of "poorly explained Lost mysteries". For two whole seasons, we're told that Walt is special, that he can do extraordinary things, that he's a very important person to the Others and to the Island. We even see some evidence of this: Walt communicates with the rest of the survivors both as an apparition and through the DharmaTel computers by means unknown. And then, when the 14-year-old Malcolm David Kelley gets too old to play the 10-year-old Walt, he's shipped off the Island and not seen again until season 5, when the time travel mechanics make it possible for Malcolm and Walt to be the same age again.

Internet speculation is that Walt was originally meant to be the Desmond figure, immune to electromagnetism and the ultimate failsafe in the case that everything goes to hell. But surely someone would have thought ahead enough to realize that Walt would out-age five or six seasons of the show? After the first third of Lost was so consumed with Walt's "specialness", to have the matter dropped entirely in its latter two-thirds just because of the aging of a pubescent actor is frustrating.

Agree? Disagree? Did I miss anything?

Next up is the long-promised "I make fun of all my bad theories" post, then finally, I'll spill my top 5 episodes of the series.

Currently listening: "Caring is Creepy", the Shins

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lost Speculations and Observations: It Only Ends Once, Part One

As a television producer, it is virtually impossible to make a final episode of your series that appeals to all of your fans. Some finales, like Seinfeld's, are largely disliked by the fan base, mostly because the show was so immensely liked over its nine-year run that it would have been impossible to give the show what its fans deemed a "proper" sendoff. Some, like The Sopranos', are polarizing and divisive. Others, like Fawlty Towers' and Black Books' (the trend seems to be prevalent in Britcoms), end with a mildly climactic episode that is good and serves as a fine season finale but lacks the resonance and heft that fans might prefer from the series finale.

Ken Jennings argues that the Lost finale is the third sort--he says it wraps up this season's arc involving Jacob and the Man in Black, and the flash-sideways, in a "pretty competent fashion". But, he's not convinced that it addresses important points from the entirety of the show. At least he's not the sort of fan who's disappointed that the release of the polar bear into the jungle and the construction of the four-toed statue don't show up on screen. But plenty of fans apparently did want that. That's why I think this finale will go down in history as the second sort, one that a large fraction of the fan base detests for one reason or another (with some even saying, ridiculously enough, that it "retroactively ruined the series"), and an opposing and equally large fraction adores and thinks it's the perfect finale to the series.

Why would some people dislike the finale? I don't think it's because of the resolution of the on-Island plot. Sure, it's nothing that we haven't seen before or couldn't see coming: Desmond uses his unique immunity to electromagnetic energy to do something special; Ben flops allegiances about a dozen times before he finally settles down on the side of "decent dude after all"; Jack has his fight scene with the Man in Black then makes a heroic sacrifice to save the Island. In fact, the final image of the series, Jack's eye closing as he lay in the bamboo field with Vincent, was so predictable and so symmetric with the beginning of the series that I don't know why I didn't think of it. But here's the thing: none of this predictability was bad. In fact, most of it was fitting and enjoyable.

Even so, I won't claim to have predicted everything that happened on the Island in the finale. Frank Lapidus back in action was a huge surprise, and definitely a pleasant one. Another surprise that I probably should have seen coming was the volcano finally making its appearance. We've known that there was a volcano on the Island ever since Olivia Goodspeed taught it to Ben's class back in "The Man Behind the Curtain". It looks like in addition to the metaphorical cork holding the Man in Black on the Island, there's a literal cork that keeps the volcano at bay. And I really didn't see Jack's tenure as protector of the Island ending so early, nor did I ever predict Hurley succeeding him.

Before moving on from the Island plot, I'd like to speculate on the Source a bit. As Desmond treks through the Source, we see several skeletons. Obviously people have been down here before--and not just the Man in Black, because his body is accounted for. I think this lends credence to "mother" and others having been the smoke monster before the Man in Black was. And I think if Desmond weren't uniquely resistant to electromagnetism, he would have become Smokey as well when he made his way to Shiny Golden Light Pool. Instead, he withstood the intense energy long enough to "decork" the Island.

It's important to note that neither Jack (Jacob's successor by this point) nor the Man in Black was correct about what would happen when Desmond reached the Source. This lends further credence to their equivalence--and it turns out that it was essential for Jack to interact with both of them to fulfill his ultimate destiny. No, the Man in Black is not a good man. Yes, he did some terrible things, and yes, he was the season's (and in some ways the entire series') primary antagonist.

But that doesn't make him the "embodiment of evil" like Jacob's man Dogen suggests--nor does it make Jacob anything close to "good". My final take on Jacob is much the same as it's always been. He's not special or mystical--just an average guy who became superhuman through the power of the Source and used his new-found immortality to conduct millennia of philosophical and psychological experiments to grasp at some truth about human nature.

In that case, did the Island and the Source actually need protection? Maybe. The Source does confer some unique powers and abilities--immortality, polymorphing, healing, and clairvoyance, to name a few--and in the wrong hands, that could be disastrous. Call me crazy, but I still don't know that the Man in Black's are the worst hands they could have been in. I legitimately believe that all the Man in Black was ever trying to do was make it off the Island--a goal that he'd had two thousand years to become obsessed with.

And it's fantastic that even with the body of the show over, and with as much predictability and finality as the Island plot line had, we can still have that debate. It's like I said at the beginning of the season--both the "Jacob is the good guy" and the "neither Jacob nor the Man in Black is really that good" sides have more ammunition for our arguments, but neither is really more compelling. That's yet another reason that I have to think most fans of the show were satisfied with the outcome of the Island story.

If not the Island plot, then, why would fans be disappointed? One reason would be that "not enough mysteries were answered." I agree--there were some big questions that were left unanswered. I disagree that many of them mattered. One of the other posts I'll make in the finale suite of posts will be about those mysteries--which of them were answered, but people don't seem to think so; which of them were left unanswered but don't actually matter; and which of them were legitimately important but unresolved.

Another reason might be that the finale wasn't "mythological" enough for some people. But like Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse have said over and over again, Lost is not really about the mythology. It's about the characters, and while the mythology is certainly intriguing, its function is as a vehicle to develop the characters and a motivation for us wanting to watch the characters and their interaction. Some fans have never understood that, so they balk when the last episode of a show about characters is about... the characters.

The more important reason that people would be disappointed is the resolution of the flash-sideways timeline and its impact on the entirety of season 6. First of all, let's make sure we're all on the same page: yes, the Island is real. Yes, everything that we saw over the past six seasons actually happened. No, the Island was not purgatory the whole time. No, everyone did not die in the crash. The "epilogue" scene that played over the end credits and showed the wreckage of Oceanic 815 alone on the beach was meant as reflection: we've come a long way from the pilot episode, and the crash of that plane had indelible impacts on both the plane and the Island... and everyone dies.

By the same token, the flash-sideways also matters and is very much real. When they had their chat in the Universalist Back Room of the church, Christian tells Jack that he sure hopes he's real, even though he was dead. The "afterlife" we see in the flash-sideways is not a series of throwaway scenes or a superfluous epilogue; it is actually the denouement of the entire story and the graceful resolution of the arcs of virtually every main character. In that way, the flash-sideways and the Island timelines were both necessary to define each other and give them both meaning: the Island without the flash-sideways is unfulfilling, and the flash-sideways without the Island just doesn't happen at all.

What, then, was the flash-sideways? "The afterlife" seems too simplistic; Christian's suggestion of "the place you all made to be with each other" is just a bit trite. My answer is that it's Jack's reward for having done what he was "meant" to do. It's like the "good ending" of a video game: had Jack pursued his destiny less thoroughly, or had he given up on the Island and just remained in Los Angeles after he was rescued, his afterlife would have been less positive.

That raises one last question: what is it that was Jack meant to do? Conventional wisdom might suggest that he was meant to defeat the Man in Black and save the Island from destruction. However, I'm going to take the existential route and argue that Jack was meant to come to the Island and discover some sense of purpose for his life. It's not an answer that appeals to the sci-fi/mystery elements of the story and the fan base, but it is a deeply fulfilling answer to the philosophical side of things. If everything until "The End" was "just progress", then Jack's time on the Island wasn't about what happened at the very end or his role in resolving the Jacob/Man in Black conflict. It was about the personal transformation he made in getting there, becoming a man of faith, being an agent for love, learning to believe in his friends.

When Jack finally gets there, we see the most emotional scene in Jack's entire story: his reconciliation with his father Christian. Probably the central theme of Jack's entire arc was him seeking acceptance, especially from his father. By fulfilling his destiny of finding a purpose in his life, Jack finally does something worthy of his father's acceptance, and Christian finally accepts something that Jack has done. That, and not necessarily saving the Island from its destruction, is what lets Jack "move on".

Jack's is not the only character arc that wraps up nicely in the flash-sideways. Cameos from just about every main character and a good many of the supporting characters from the rest of the story helped the core cast of characters each reach a reasonable and satisfying end. It was a real shame not to see Mr. Eko again, and I might have liked to see Frank and possibly Richard in the flash-sideways, but seeing Boone again and finally letting Francois Chau get some credit for his iconic portrayal of Dr. Chang almost make up for it.

The only character whose story retains a little shred of ambiguity is Ben's, fittingly enough. But it's not his usual good guy/bad guy moral ambiguity--the big push in "Dr. Linus" nudged him forever in the direction of decency. Instead, Ben's decision not to enter the church was him realizing that there's some responsibility that comes along with this whole "good" thing, and that he has some amends to make before he can "move on" as well.

It wasn't just Ben's story. The finale as a whole was a little ambiguous, and it required a lot of processing even for the most dedicated fans. But I wouldn't have had it any other way. For a show as deeply complex and multifaceted as Lost, the only fitting ending is one that doesn't just allow some contemplation even after the show ends, but practically requires it. An ending that tightly sealed the canon, allowing only one interpretation, would be deeply unfulfilling. As it stands, a final episode that stands up to as much discussion as the fans can throw at it is the greatest lasting tribute to the show's brilliance.

Finally, I have a few one-off observations, mostly humorous, about the finale:
  • I would totally watch the Detectives James Ford and Miles Straume spinoff starring Josh Holloway and Ken Leung. Turns out they're pretty excellent together--Miles as a straight man sounds odd at first, but we've seen that it works unexpectedly well.
  • The internet seems to be more in favor of a "Hurley and Ben as the new Jacob and Richard" spinoff. I don't know that I need any more canonical Lost (which is why I like the idea of the cop show better), but Hurley's presence in the church at the end does suggest that he either didn't accept the immortality part of the Jacob package, or that he relinquished his protectorship of the Island at some point.
  • For at least several years now, the producers have promised that Vincent wouldn't die--and he was the only character they were willing to say would live through the end of the series. Guess who didn't show up in the church? Hmm...
  • Absolutely loved the Target commercials that aired during the finale. In case you missed them, they were a shot of the smoke monster followed by an advertisement for a smoke detector, a shot of the Swan station computer followed by an advertisement for a keyboard, and a shot of the boar running through the jungle followed by an advertisement for barbecue sauce.

Next up: a retrospective on the series' many mysteries, taking about which (if any) of my theories were any good, and going through some of the most satisfying answers and biggest omissions.

Currently listening: "Into the Dark", the Juliana Theory

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lost Speculations and Observations: May 2010 Edition

Lost fans are inevitably drawn to the arena of speculation and prediction. And most of what we predict, we get wrong. Most of what we do predict correctly doesn't really matter. So when we get one right, it's a cause for celebration. I think a long-standing theory of mine was proven correct in "Across the Sea", the Roman origin of Jacob and the Man in Black. Roman Latin, check. (I have to believe that the switch to English three minutes into the episode was for the benefit of the audience and the actors, not a representation of a sudden linguistic epiphany on the part of Claudia.) Woman with a Roman name (Claudia) and Roman attire (toga and sandals), double check. Technology consistent with two millennia ago, check. And--unverified but my best evidence--Mark Pellegrino telling an interviewer that the episode took place in the year 43 AD, check. This one feels good, especially knowing that I got it on the variety of Latin alone. Thank you, Dale Buff.

(Don't worry--I've gotten many, many predictions dead wrong. After the finale, I plan to devote an entire blog post to all the screwy stuff I predicted that didn't even come close to the truth.)

"Across the Sea" was the mythological capstone of season 6, and arguably the entire series. It provided us with probably a dozen answers to mysteries as mundane as "who built the wells?" to ones as deeply significant as "where did the smoke monster come from?" Equally as importantly, it detailed how the Man in Black and Jacob came to embrace their particular philosophies. The Man in Black, with the limited sample size of twenty or so Romanesque dudes, observed that all of them were greedy, destructive people and (reasonably) concludes that every person is inherently like that. Jacob has absolutely no sample size whatsoever, just the ambiguous nature of the Source, and therefore concludes that every human has an innately ambiguous morality, tabula rasa, open to influence from their environment.

The Island continues to serve as a reflection on, and a symbol of, human nature. We see that any time two disparate groups of people appear on the Island, a Lord of the Flies-style "us vs. them" mentality emerges every time. Whether it's "mother" versus the hut-dwellers, or DHARMA versus the Hostiles, or our own people versus the Others, the Island's inhabitants are always drawn into conflict with each other. Maybe it's the desire to grow closer to the Source, to enlarge that spark of the divine in all of them.

The Source (radioactive-cheesy as it was) provides one united explanation for virtually every supernatural or pseudo-scientific phenomenon on the Island. The Swan station's "electromagnetic pocket", the strangeness of directions and passage through time, the healing powers, the magical mirror in the lighthouse, and even the spring in the Temple, are all probably effects of the Source's power. The Source also echoes a theme found in many world religions and philosophies. Judeo-Christian thought places a small measure of God in each one of His followers. Mormonism takes this a bit farther and teaches that everyone becomes a God in their own right after their death. The Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism) have a greeting that roughly translates to "I acknowledge the divine in you."


Once again, the clueless hippies of the DHARMA Initiative hit closer to the truth than they could have guessed. (See also their use of Egyptian hieroglyphs and their location of the stations right on the Source's pockets of energy.) But their attempts to control it--like those of everyone else who has ever tried--ultimately led to disaster. Pierre Chang and Stuart Radzinsky were brilliant men, but they were not candidates, not chosen by the Island, and thus powerless to control it.

"Across the Sea" reminds us that people have been on the Island, and attempting (to various degrees of success) to control its power, for a very, very long time. But it also chastens us not to expect answers about all of them. When "mother" tells Claudia that every answer leads to more questions, the narrative purpose is to get Claudia to stop being so nosy. But in the meta-narrative, the dialog between the storytellers of Lost and its audience, this is a way of saying that we're not going to get answers to every single question we might have. We've seen "every answer leads to another question" as a theme throughout the show, and I mentioned it last month as well: as soon as Tom Friendly becomes something less than mystical, we meet Ben Linus. Ben gives way to Widmore, then Richard, then Jacob, and DHARMA is peppered throughout for good measure.

Now that we have Jacob's "mother", the cycle ends here. The mythological "onion" of the setting is infinite, and we could keep peeling back enough layers to fill twelve seasons of the show, but we don't want or need to. The only thing the story of Lost is concerned with is what affects our characters, our people, and our plot lines. Jacob and the Man in Black certainly do; that's why they merited a centric episode of their own. Jacob's "mother", perhaps not so much. It doesn't matter where the woman who raised Jacob and his brother came from... but we might already know more about her motives and abilities than we think we do. The root of this theory lies in the pre-Jacob era of the Island's history.

Even by the Roman era, there were civilizations on the Island that had come and gone, the Egyptians chief among them. Perhaps one or two thousand years before even Jacob and the Man in Black arrived, some Egyptian civilization thrived on the Island, playing a little senet, and building a magnificent statue of one of their deities. But not everything was fun and games in the Egyptian era on the Island--the carving below the Temple that we see in "Dead is Dead" suggests they had their own smoke monster problem to deal with. Some entity taking the form of a pillar of smoke has existed on the Island as long as the Island itself has been there.

Is it possible that "mother" held the office of "smoke monster" before the Man in Black did? (This is one of those theories that I can't take credit for coming up with on my own, but many of the supporting details are mine.) She warns her adopted children never to enter the warmth and beauty of the Source (invoking the Pandora's box myth), suggesting that she knows very well what happens when you enter the Source. She destroyed Hut Village and filled in the Man in Black's well, which would be difficult for a middle-aged woman, but trivially easy for the smoke monster. Most likely, "mother" was a woman who washed up on the Island, entered the Source when she found it, and merged with some ancient protective entity already on the Island to become the smoke monster before the Man in Black. It's likely that even before her, the same fate befell a curious Egyptian.

Then the smoke monster is not inherently evil, nor is it inherently good or inherently moral at all. The disposition of the monster at any given time is more directly a product of the agenda of whomever assumed the role of smoke monster. When "mother" was Smokey, it was a paranoid, protective, and secretive force. Now that the Man in Black is Smokey, it's more destructive and vengeful. This suggests that if a truly good person enters the Source and becomes the next smoke monster, it may serve as a force of good itself.

Here's a screwball theory (almost certain to be featured in my later "litany of bad theories" post): Jack was always destined to become the next Jacob--social ruler of the Island and selector of candidates--and now he's finally agreed to it. So how about a reformed John Locke, restored to his humanity when the realities are reconciled, is going to stay on as the smoke monster, champion of the Source and guardian of the Island? In yet another nod to the Dark Tower, the story we've been following ends with the beginning of a new cycle of the exact same story... except this time, maybe things will finally work out, maybe we're one step closer to the ultimate "happy" ending.

I theorized before that Jacob and the Man in Black, while not exactly two halves of the same entity, were the opposing factions in a dualistic pantheon. Now it appears that they're something else close to both of those thoughts: inheritors of two different halves of Island power. Jacob got the ability to bring people to the Island and to pick his successors, while the Man in Black got the smoke monster power. "Mother" had both of these sets of abilities.

In the ultimate irony of the story, then, the Island actually intends the Jacob figure (that is, the person with the Jacob portfolio) and the Man in Black figure (the person with the smoke monster portfolio) to be the same person, or failing that, to work together to protect the Source and decide how best to use the power of the Island. Under the Jack/Locke theory, maybe the conclusion of the story is the reunification of these halves of the island-guardian force, if not to the same person, then at least to two people who will work together instead of opposing each other for two thousand years. It would be especially appropriate for that reunification to come at the hands of Jack and Locke, who have carried the torches for white and black, science and faith, for the entire time they've been on the Island.

The scene where "mother" literally passes the torch to Jacob is a powerfully symbolic one. "Mother" offers some wine to Jacob, saying "drink from this cup." Then I imagine every Catholic in the audience began to subconsciously recall the Eucharistic prayer:
"Take this, all of you, and drink from it:
this is the cup of my blood,
the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.
It will be shed for you and for all
so that sins may be forgiven.
Do this in memory of me."
Does the wine actually do anything, or is it merely a ritual? How you answer that question might depend on if you're a Catholic or a Protestant, but either way, it's symbolically relevant. Then, as if the Communion reference wasn't overt enough already, "mother" tells Jacob "now you and I are the same." This mirrors the Scriptural basis for Communion and the Eucharistic prayer: "whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him" (John 6:56). The Island mythology combines the Eucharist with another important Catholic tradition, apostolic succession. Catholics hold that the priesthood is sacred because every ordained priest was consecrated by another, and so on all the way back to Jesus. This succession and ordination is symbolized by the laying on of hands. In the same way, the office of "guardian of the Island" can be traced from "mother", through Jacob, and to his own "laying on of hands" on each of his candidates.

The Man in Black, of course, would prefer to disrupt this apostolic succession. His smashing the bottle of wine in "Ab Aeterno" gains a greater symbolic relevance, as it represents not only escaping his prison, but breaking part of the succession ritual. He very nearly succeeds in "The Candidate". If "Across the Sea" was the mythological capstone, then "The Candidate" is the narrative capstone of at least season 6, if not the entire series. Every plot development and character interaction--every science vs. faith moment, every power struggle, and every decision whether to leave the Island or stay on it--came to a head in "The Candidate".

So many of the recurring character arcs from the series are resolved in "The Candidate" that it's hard to list them all. Jack has accepted the mantle of "candidate", at last completing his transition from "man of science" to "man of faith". Jin and Sun, reunited at last, make the conscious decision never to be apart again, even if that means they die together. Sayid's toeing the fine line between redemption and succumbing to his lethal nature ends when he tips irrevocably toward "good" in the instant before he dies. With Ben's and Richard's arcs concluded in their own respective centric episodes, Ilana's abruptly over when the Island was "finished with her", and Desmond's tantalizingly close, it finally seems that the series is headed toward a conclusion.

Therefore, "What They Died For" becomes the linchpin to the entire series. It has the unenviable task of not only serving as the "prologue to the finale" (see also "Greatest Hits", "Cabin Fever", and "Follow the Leader"), but also integrating the narrative and mythological climaxes of the story into the denouement of the finale.

And amazingly, it succeeds. Mythology and character development are integrated beautifully with Jacob's fireside chat, where the answer to one of the greatest mysteries of all (second only to "what is the Island?") is finally revealed: why these people? We learn that it has to do with purpose, and with reason. "Maybe all of this is happening for a reason," many characters have suggested in one form or another throughout the series, but what we don't find out until the series' penultimate episode is that the Jacob job is the reason, the purpose they never knew they wanted or needed. We also find out why (besides death, of course) your name might be crossed off of the candidate cave: if you do find your purpose in life, then Jacob no longer needs you. The chalk line that struck through "Austen", for instance, is presumably the same one that struck through "Linus" (when he started raising Alex) and "Chang" (when he and Lara had Miles).

Jack has been accepting all of this little by little, beginning with when he tells Kate in the first flash-forward that they "have to go back." He formalizes his decision to inherit the Jacob job at the fire, but his mind was made up at the end of "The Candidate" when he saw his friends die. Jack barely hesitates when Jacob puts the decision of who to succeed him on the table. Then Jacob, having already laid his hands on Jack and ordained him a candidate, consecrates some water. Jack takes his communion, and now Jack remains in Jacob and Jacob in him. Then, fall Jacob.

It's Jacob's second "death"--of course, he is not really alive here, merely using his ashes and a little Island trickery to temporarily make his spirit corporeal again. His actual death came at the hands of Ben Linus in a very Julius Caesar moment. Ben has never been afraid of killing people, and he makes no exception in "What They Died For". His scheming, treacherous ways seemed to be at an end after his redemptive confession in "Dr. Linus", but here we see Ben once again playing the role of killer. And in a way, the Ben Linus in "What They Died For" is a culmination of every aspect of Ben Linus we've seen so far: the conflict that underscored much of the story (especially during seasons 4 and 5) is resolved with three quick gunshots; the Ben Linus that has played both sides of every conflict he's been involved in without mercy or remorse is once again trying to align himself with the stronger power.

But here's the thing: while Ben certainly shed no tears over killing his archrival of twenty or more years, revenge wasn't his sole motive. He killed Widmore with the intention of stopping him from divulging the secret of Desmond to the Man in Black. While Ben may not end the story on the side of "good", he at least must end it on the side of righteousness, or else the powerfully redemptive episode of "Dr. Linus" doesn't mean anything at all. Ben's killing Widmore--and his subsequent offer to kill people for the Man in Black--is just his way of manipulating himself into the Man in Black's good graces. Ben will never be truly heroic, and he will always be at least a little self-serving, but he has the chance to finish his story with his humanity reclaimed.

One interesting thing about Widmore: back when the Widmore-Ben conflict took center stage in the middle of season 5, I remarked that Ben and Widmore weren't very different at all--their approaches may have been diametrically opposed, but their motives, rhetoric, and attitudes were essentially the same. In his final moment, Widmore reveals one more facet to his personality that's exactly like Ben's, and ironically it's the most human one of all: love for his daughter. Ben's love for Alex was strong enough for him to question his entire existence on the Island when he failed to save her. Now, Widmore gives up his ultimate mission to the Island for the prospect of saving his own daughter, Penny.

The secret that Ben didn't quite prevent Widmore from telling the Man in Black is that Desmond is Jacob's failsafe, his electromagnetic means of destroying the Island--and thus preventing the Man in Black from reaching the Source--in case all his candidates were killed or declined the job. It doesn't look like that's going to be necessary, with Jack's accession to "protector of the Island" status. But Desmond remains an important player nevertheless, mostly because the Man in Black considers him so important. The thing that not even the Man in Black can comprehend is that Desmond is even more important in an alternate reality, where he is marshaling the forces of the Island to collectively "remember" their parallel existence.

Last month, I predicted that the big reunion was going to happen at St. Sebastian's, but now it appears that it's headed for the Widmore benefit concert instead. All our major players are headed there, and I suspect some minor but important ones (Juliet and Shannon for sure, like I mentioned last month) will turn up as well. And then? Desmond drops the "bomb", everyone suddenly "recalls" the Island, and that leads to the Man in Black's defeat? It seems a long way to go, but it has the makings of two and a half hours of an absolutely sensational finale.

Currently listening: "Sick Muse", Metric

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

3-Sentence Reviews: Music from the Past Few Years

Every once in a while, a list of music I've wanted to listen to and that friends have told me to listen to reaches critical mass, and I go on a music purchasing/ripping/"acquisition" spree. Here's the fallout (in brief) from the most recent one:

(What's the Story) Morning Glory?, Oasis (October 1995): It's tough to think I'd never listened to this album until now, especially because of its significance to Lost. The album is excellent from start to finish, and it has a clear Beatles influence throughout. Its only problem is that some of the tracks are too good--everything that's not "Wonderwall" seems like so much filler, even though most of them are very good on their own merit.

Romance is Boring, Los Campesinos! (January 2010): My impetus to listen to this album came from the Paste sampler, where I stumbled upon apparently the one listenable track out of fifteen. Nonsensical song titles, references to Americana, and a disregard of structural convention might invoke Sufjan Stevens, but there's a critical difference: Stevens' music is good. Instead, Romance is smug noise-pop that, go figure, earned an outrageous 8.3 from out good friends at Pitchfork.

Night Train EP, Keane (May 2010): Yes, you listened to this album correctly: this is Keane plays at Brit-rap and J-Pop . (The rapper in question, K'naan, is technically Somali/Canadian, and the Japanese singer in question, Tigarah, purportedly classifies herself as "Baile Funk", whatever that means, but it's all the same.) This sort of screwing around is fine for an EP, but it's a little close to "Chicago rapping" for my tastes; let's hope Keane reels itself in before its next full-length.

Fantasies, Metric (April 2009): If you've ever listened to Metric and thought "okay, this is pretty decent, but I bet it would be downright amazing if Emily Haines actually sang rather than talking rhythmically over music," then Fantasies is your chance to prove yourself right. There are a couple of weak tracks, and in general the album gets worse as it goes along, but the better parts more than make up for it. In many years, it would rate as "good to very good", but for 2009, it's retroactively in my top ten albums of the year.

The Flying Club Cup, Beirut (October 2007): It may sound a little disingenuous, less than three years on, to describe something as "so 2007", but give Cup's chamber-pop-meets-world-music a listen and tell me I'm wrong. It all goes by a little quickly, and there are fewer obvious hooks than I'd have thought, so I'm not entirely sure what my position on this album is after a first listen. I do know that I like the concept and the use of horns and the complexity enough to make second, third, and fourth listens happen.

Currently listening: "I Me Mine", the Beatles

Monday, May 03, 2010

Matt Plays Food Blogger: Crockpot Chicken Tagine

A few days ago, one of my lab co-workers (Mike) bemoaned the changes to Mark Bittman's blog. "Who is Mark Bittman?" I wondered, "and what is this tragedy that befell his blog?" He's a food blogger with the New York Times, and Mike was none too happy with the Times' reorganization of their online food articles to make Bittman's harder to find. When he did find it, he showed me a recipe for an "expedited tagine" to show me how awesome the blog was. It is a good blog: Bittman has a knack for stripping the crap off of good cooking to yield simple things that taste good.

I went back and re-read that article a little later. I was sort of familiar with the concept of a tagine more than the ingredients in it, and as I read what Bittman put in his, I found myself nodding along in approving agreement with each one of them. Plus, the recipe sounded at least moderately healthy--it contains fruit, vegetables, and lean proteins. I decided I was going to make Mark Bittman's tagine.

Then, upon noticing the phrases "slow-cooked" and "single pot", another brilliant idea struck me. Conveniently, I have a handy kitchen appliance that does both of those things! My new mission was not just to make Mark Bittman's tagine, but to adapt it to cooking in a crockpot.

Ingredients (Bittman's first, then my take on it)

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil: I kept this, spreading it on the bottom of the crockpot instead of the frying pan, but it's essentially doing the same thing.
  • 4 skinless chicken thighs: First, I like this Bittman guy already because he recognizes that chicken thighs are better than breasts. I ended up using a package of roughly 1-1.5 lb. of chicken thigh filets. A couple reasons for this: first, in slow cooking, quantity is much less important than amount. It doesn't matter if you start with, say, five chicken thigh filets; by the end, you're going to have "5 chicken thigh filets worth of chicken meat." Second, due to the vagaries of the Safeway club card system, chicken thigh filets were actually cheaper per weight than bone-in thighs were. And third, who wants to fish a bone out of a crockpot?
  • 1 large onion, chopped: I had half to two thirds of a truly massive onion sitting in my fridge. I'm not as big an onion-phile as I suspect many real cooks are, so it didn't bother me that I didn't get an entire onion in here.
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic: no change
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger: no change (This was my first time working with fresh ginger, and it was pretty cool.)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander: no change
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin: no change
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon: no change
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots: Bittman suggests you can use prunes, dried figs, or just about any dried fruit with a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern character here. I decided to get extra fruity and add figs plus apricots. I don't really know how much of each.
  • 1 cup chopped tomato (fresh or canned or boxed, with juice): see chickpea comment below
  • 2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas, drained, with the liquid reserved: Okay, this is where things got a little crazy. First off, I knew that liquid would potentially be a problem as I was slow-cooking. Second, you can't really find neat 1- or 2-cup cans of chopped tomato or chickpeas at the grocery store. My solution: use a 14.5-oz can of chopped tomatoes and a 14.5-oz can of chickpeas, and dump them both into the crockpot without draining.
  • 1 to 2 cups chicken stock, bean liquid or water, or more as needed: I added 1/4 extra cup of water just to be sure I didn't set my tagine on fire. (Chicken stock would have been better, I think.)
  • 1/2 cup bulgur: sure, Bittman. I have no idea what the hell "bulgur" is, and I'm not going to expend the effort to figure it out just so I can make this recipe. Bittman suggested that couscous or rice could be used instead, and from that context clue, I guessed it's probably a small grain consistent with use in Middle Eastern cuisine. If I could get this bulgur anywhere in America, it would probably be Berkeley, but I already know what couscous is, and I know I like it. I dumped in a box of stovetop couscous without cooking it. (Aside: this isn't as awful as an idea as it seems. I've done it before with rice, and it works fine. The grain cooks nicely, even absorbing some of the flavor of the dish, and it doesn't soak up as much of the cooking liquid as you'd might think.)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper: I left this out of the crockpot, which was more an oversight on my part. It's the least bad thing to leave out, because it can always be added back, but it definitely needed salt, perhaps 1/2-1 tsp., and maybe 1/4-1/2 tsp. pepper.
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, for garnish: "hmm, I think fresh cilantro from my awesome balcony garden might be good instead." And lo and behold! the last paragraph of Bittman's article mentions using cilantro as an alternative to parsley. It's almost like I know what I'm doing.


Start by spreading the olive oil on the bottom of the crockpot. Put the chicken in, then the onion/garlic/ginger on top of it. Add the spices next (with salt and pepper), then dump the couscous evenly over. Dump in the cans of chickpeas and tomatoes, juices and all, and add a little water or chicken stock. Add dried fruit on top.


Turn the crockpot on low. Let it do its thing for six hours. (This is my new magic method for cooking chicken dishes in the crockpot. Enough olive oil to over the bottom of the pot, and cook for no longer than six hours. At six hours, the meat was cooked through and already starting to fall apart. Cooking chicken for eight hours almost always makes it too dry.)


Sweet fancy Moses, this actually worked. I am so, so surprised that the consistency was spot-on. There wasn't a quart of soupy God-knows-what at the bottom of the crockpot (see: my first attempt at crockpot coq-au-vin), nor was anything burned or dried up (see: my first attempt at crockpot roasting pork for Cuban sandwiches). The couscous cooked through but didn't turn to mush.

I definitely should have chopped the apricots and figs finer, but the flavor in both was wonderful. It's a shame that the biggest exposure I've had to figs in my life is in Newton form, because they're quite tasty. Finally, adding salt and probably pepper is a necessity for next time I make this. Maybe even a little heat in the form of cayenne pepper would have been tasty. In sharp contrast to the salsa I reviewed a few months ago, this tagine is overwhelmingly yin, with all the cooling, sweet, fibrous effects of the figs, apricots, chickpeas, and tomatoes. Some salt, or just a little heat, would remedy that nicely.

Currently listening: "Elevator Love Letter", Stars