Monthly Archives: July 2012

Hellboy Sure Isn’t Sandman

I discovered comics (or graphic novels) late in life.  I never really enjoyed them as a child; I think it was because either I felt forever confused about which panel to read when or I never felt satisfied that the story would end after only a few pages, and I’d have to wait another week or more before I could obtain the next installment.

I dismissed comics entirely all through my teen years and never really gave them another try until I was in grad school.  The professor for whom I did graduate research taught a class on Art of the Holocaust, and she recommended I read the graphic novel MAUS.  I bought the story soon after that and found myself completely absorbed in the tale.  I found the story so moving and filled with great discussion points that I ended up including it on my own syllabi.  Afterwards, I thought I wanted to give comics another try, so I went out and bought another comic (one that, now, I cannot even recall).  I became instantly disenchanted, realizing that the comic’s story did not compel me in quite the same way as MAUS had.  I once again abandoned any thought of reading comics or taking them seriously, thinking that MAUS had been a fluke for me.  I didn’t think I could ever find another graphic novel series that I would find interesting.

Then, during my PhD program, I took a class in which I was assigned Understanding Comics.  I felt so annoyed by the assignment that I put off reading it until the night before class.  I was amazed by how informative the book was, though.  It truly gave me a new outlook on comics and how to perceive them.  Reading the book and discussing it in the class pushed me to give comics another shot; my only problem, however, was that I did not know what to try.

And then, I remembered Sandman.  My friend Jennifer had recommended the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman for several years, and I had put her off each time, telling her that comics just weren’t for me.  But after my positive experience in my graduate class with comics, I stopped by the local Borders and picked up the first volume.  By this time, the Sandman series had been long completed, so I knew I would never have to wait weeks on end to discover the conclusions to story lines.

I sat down that evening to read Sandman, and I don’t think I put it down until I finished it.  After completing the first volume, my time was spent going to the bookstore, purchasing the next volume, and devouring it the minute I got home with the collection.  In no time, I had read through the entire ten volume series and the two special editions.  

The characters of Sandman were so fully developed for me; the storyline was very taut, and everything had a purpose.  Situations that took place in the first or second volume would arise again in later volumes.  All the components of the story worked together in a masterful way; in many ways, I thought Gaiman might have developed the plot and worked out every aspect of it from start to finish before he ever began writing:  that’s just how well-crafted the storyline is.  Gaiman also gives the characters a true sense of life, a history, a believable dynamic with other characters–none of which I had ever encountered in other comics.  The stories in Sandman are so great that I’ve reread them all several times now.  I think the volumes Brief Lives and  The Kindly Ones stand out as all time favorites.

Unfortunately, my love for all things Sandman has created problems for my being able to enjoy other comics or graphic novel series.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  I’ve also asked friends for suggestions, but no one has been able to direct me to a series quite comparable to Gaiman’s work.  I did enjoy Red Son Superman, but that was a brief volume.  I gave several of Alan Moore’s works a try, but sadly, none of them held up for me–in most cases, I found the heavily altered movie versions of his graphic series more enjoyable.

Recently, I seemed optimistic about the Hellboy series.  I had seen both the movies–ok, the second movie was a total stinker–but the first film held all the elements that I thought could lead to a Sandman-like series:  a brooding hero struggling to make sense of himself; a sinister villain challenging Hellboy to discover more of his true self.  Needless to say, I had high hopes.  To my chagrin, Hellboy didn’t stand up to my Sandman expectations.  I really wanted Hellboy to succeed, but too much of the story was missing.  It read superficially; it lacked the questioning of motives and identity that had been so prevalent in Sandman–even prevalent in the movie version of Hellboy.  Halfway into Hellboy, I found myself not even caring about the situation at hand, but I was determined to finish reading, just in case the author might give me a glimmer of hope that more development occurred in the second volume.  But, nothing of the sort prevailed.

I’ve become disenchanted, once again, with graphic novels.  I’m beginning to worry that Sandman might have ruined my chances of ever enjoying other graphic series; maybe I read the best first and nothing else will compare to it.  I hope that isn’t the case, but I’m obviously not a seasoned reader of this medium.  If anyone has suggestions for me, I’d sure like to give them a try.


Food Stories and Orange Sesame Chicken

Orange Sesame Chicken over rice

Are there stories behind the food you cook?  Perhaps when you prepare a dish, or maybe even when you order a meal from a restaurant, do you find yourself reminiscing over the times in the past when you’ve had the same meal?  I’m not really sure that happens every time, but I do believe food and cooking tie into a lot of our memories from life.

I watch Food Network Star in the summer with my friend Keith, and we always make fun of the judges who insist the contestants tell a story relating to the dish they prepare; oftentimes, the “food memory” comes across as total BS because they think the judges want to hear a sob story about how a person made this dish with her grandmother, and this was how she first learned to cook.  (Really, the show most times is an utter train wreck, but that’s the joy we find in watching and rolling our eyes with every contrived episode.)

I had an episode of the show playing when I started making my Orange Sesame Chicken dish, and it definitely made me wonder if there are any stories behind what I’m making.  The dish itself is a variation of a recipe I found somewhere online because I’ve always liked the Orange Chicken they serve at PF Chang’s, but it always seems too dry.  As I began cooking, though, grating my orange and squeezing the juice into the pot, I thought about the first time I had Asian food.  It was actually the first ethnic food I’d ever eaten.  My mom had always been a finicky eater, so we typically had the modern American fare at home.  She was never really willing to try anything or experiment with food, but I think that was mostly because she honestly didn’t know how to cook very much.  Growing up, the only homemade dishes I can recall her making were barbecue chicken or cubed steak with mashed potatoes (my mom’s best dish, by far) and macaroni and cheese.  (I’m gonna totally ignore the fact that my mom’s idea of mac & cheese was out of the Kraft box here).  She could also make a decent homemade spaghetti sauce, but she’d gotten the recipe from my dad’s mother.

My grandmother, on the other hand, was completely different from my mom.  She loved to try new foods and was an amazing cook.  She loved to bake, and most of my earliest memories of her involve her in the kitchen.  When I was a kid and she made cornbread, she would sit me on the counter, wash my hands in the kitchen sink and put all of the ingredients for the cornbread in a large bowl that she sat beside me so I could mix it up…with my hands! I thought it was the most awesome thing ever to get to play in the food at the same time I was fixing it.  (Is that a Southern use of the verb ‘to fix’?)

As I got older, I don’t remember cooking with her like that.  My grandfather died when I was 6, and I think after that, she cooked less and less.  I do remember, though, when I was in 10th grade, I had to do a project for my Geography class on Greece, and students got extra points if they brought in food that originated from the country, so I talked to my grandmother about making baklava.  We spent a Saturday afternoon preparing everything together, and even though neither of us had ever made baklava before, it turned out really good.  She was always great with sweets, though–especially cakes and breads–so I knew it would be a success.  She died when I was 18, and this memory is one of the most vivid ones I still have of her, even today.

After the baklava, I don’t remember her cooking all that much except for sweet dishes.  When I visited her (which was almost every weekend) we would almost always go out to eat.  That’s how I experienced Asian food for the first time.  She took me with her neighbor to the Dragon Den.  I think I may have been 12 or 13 at the time, so you can imagine how exciting & cool I thought a place named Dragon Den had to be on the inside.  Well, sadly enough, Dragon Den had no dragons except for one artsy one that hung on the wall above a very cool waterfall.  I think my disappointment continued from there because I really didn’t know what to order, having never been to a Chinese restaurant before, so I got the same thing as my grandmother.  Big mistake! How was I supposed to know she was having an all-vegetable dish.  When I left, I said I’d never have Chinese food again.

But I did, of course.  When I got my first job (working in a government office as a file clerk to put myself through college), I went with the office Lunch Bunch–back to Dragon Den, no less.  This time, I had a better idea of what to order–something fried with sauce.  I am from the South, after all.  The sweet & sour chicken was amazing, and after that I was sold on Chinese food.  In fact, Asian & Ethiopian foods are probably my favorites.  I could probably eat them every day and not feel I was missing out on very much.

So, I suppose some foods do have a memory (of sorts) attached to them.  And guess what? Mine even included a story about my grandmother, the first time I made something with her, and the passion we shared for cooking, just maybe not the way the silly judges of Food Network Star might have wanted it laid out for them.  But I do think my grandmother would have tried my Orange Sesame Chicken.  She would have probably wanted more vegetables in it, though.

Orange Sesame Chicken Recipe

For the sauce:

  • 1 1/2 c. water
  • zest and juice of one medium/large orange (some pulp if you want)
  • 1/4 c. white vinegar
  • 1/3 c. rice vinegar
  • 2 1/2 Tbl soy sauce (I prefer the lite)
  • 1 c. brown sugar (packed if you want sweeter, loose if not)
  • 1 tsp. ginger (fresh minced or ground)
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • 2 Tbl. chopped green onion (optional but it definitely adds color)
  • 1/2 tsp. red chili flakes (1/4 if you don’t want it very spicy)
Combine everything above in a sauce pan and let it come to a boil.  Then set it aside to cool.  Reserve about 1/2 c. of the sauce.
For the chicken:
  • 1 lb of boneless, skinless chicken (breast or tenders) cut up into bite-sized pieces
  • 3 Tbl. cornstarch
  • 2 Tbl. water
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
After you slice up the chicken, place it into a quart-sized freezer bag and pour into it the 1/2 c. of sauce you reserved. Be sure the sauce has completely cooled before doing this.  Then place the chicken in the refrigerator to marinate for anywhere from 4 hours to overnight.
After chicken marinates, drain the liquid from your bag and then drop the chicken into another bag (I use a gallon-sized one for this) that has the flour, salt & pepper inside it. Shake it all up to be sure the chicken is coated well.  Once it is, you can either deep fry the chicken in a friar or dutch oven filled with vegetable oil, or you can shallow fry the pieces in some light oil and a cooking pan.  Once you’ve done this, place your chicken on paper towels to dry.
Pour your sauce into a large pan and reheat it on med-hi heat.  Once it’s hot enough, pour into it a slurry of the cornstarch and water, and stir this with a whisk until you see it thickening up.  As soon as it’s thickened up, drop the chicken in and stir to coat the chicken and reheat it if it’s gone a little cold.  Once everything is back up to temperature, serve the chicken and sauce over rice (fried or steamed) and sprinkle over with sesame seeds.  I like to toast my sesame seeds before sprinkling.  Enjoy!

Tough Cookies

I honestly didn’t think much about the Oreo cookie advertisement celebrating Gay Pride until I started reading all the negative press extending from it.  I saw the ad; I thought it was a nice gesture.  As always, some hate group would threaten a backlash.  I suppose a person gets used to some form of protest, possibly even becomes desensitized to it.  But then, a few days ago as I was reading through friends’ posts on my Facebook wall, I happened upon someone’s status update that read (in all caps):  NABISCO FOODS:  OREO…YOU DISAPPOINT ME…

I paused for a moment when I read the post, and I wondered if the writer was, indeed, referencing the Gay Pride ad. However, as I read through the comments to her post, I gathered that her other friends had assumed it was the Pride ad that had disappointed her so.  She never responded to the post to clarify, but given the timeframe of the post, I’m relatively certain the ad triggered her Facebook reaction, which definitely surprised me.  She and I had been friends in high school, and although we haven’t spoken much since then, aside from an occasional Facebook exchange, she had always seemed openminded and accepting.  In retrospect, perhaps I was too assuming of her position.

For several days, her comment weighed heavily on my mind because I could not decide how to react to it:  should I leave a negative comment on her post?  Should I unfriend her?  Should I just ignore it?  I also waited because I didn’t want to let my anger or frustration be the driving force of what I had to say.  My initial reaction to her post would have been a smarmy comment, taking a shot at her self-professed Christianity.  I thought of writing “yes, how disappointing that a company would want to offer a gesture of support and acceptance to another group of human beings.”  (I still may write that, actually.)  But the more I considered it, the more I was uncertain about the best approach.

Then, today, as I was perusing my wall posts again, I saw that she had posted some new photos taken over the weekend.  The pictures were of your typical family photos:  her daughter riding her tricycle in the yard; she and her husband standing side by side, holding their infant while their two toddlers clung to their legs; pictures of her mother playing with the children on a swing.  In all of the photos, my friend was smiling; her husband smiled.  They seemed happy.  They were a family.  I was happy for her.

But then I felt disappointed; here she was proudly posting her photos of the family she had made over the last 12 or 15 years since I last saw her, but she feels so threatened by the possibility that I, too, might wish to have a family of my own that she objects to a rainbow colored cookie presented to show its support of me and other people like me.  I don’t understand where the fear or the hatred comes from or how a gay person’s happiness would infringe upon what she has in these photos of her family.

I don’t care to get into a deeper analysis of her objection to the ad based on her (misguided) Christian principles, either.  I’m just disappointed to discover that someone I’ve thought of as a friend since I was around 14 years old can make a 6 word post to Facebook that completely changes my perspective of her.  Perhaps without even realizing it, she has alienated a friend, and all because of a photo of a cookie with 6 colored layers of cream filling.   I wouldn’t deny her the opportunity to be happy, or the right to have a spouse or have children, but if she can’t even tolerate an ad for gay pride, then how could she ever tolerate me?