Saturday, October 26, 2013

VIT - and proud of it

Very Important Tweeps have trounced the grand old status of the Very Important Person.

Now, suddenly, smart social media marketers have clued up to the fact that the Twitterati are the communicators of the moment. We are not simply as good as our follower figures in spreading the world, but have limitless exponential potential according to the powers of the ReTweet.

It was the marketing person for the Cavalia horse spectacular, which is some offshoot of the Cirque du Soleil mob, who first called me a VIT. She was inviting me, in that capacity, to a free night of the horse experience.

The idea was to bring the VITs together and have them ecstatically Tweeting en masse.

That is a great idea.

As cruel irony would have it, when this invitation arrived, I was suffering the rare indignation of being muted on Twitter. Poor me.

I was overseas in the ricefields of Bali. The invitation leaked slowly down a third world internet connection which optimistically called itself 'wireless".

We VITs have a frustrating time when we're denied instant communications. We're VITs because we're communication addicts. I've been at it since before day one, so I can remember back to the early days of dialup. I never want to go back.

More prestigious by far than being a VIP is being a VIT.

But out there amid farmer women hand-threshing the rice crops in the field, one feels churlish about complaining that your spam is at a trickle, your email is queued and that your Telco has extortionate roaming fees which forces one to keep the phone off. I did the enlightened thing. I let go of the First World.

So I did not even try to RSVP to this wonderful invitation.

But I certainly thought about it.

Way to go, I thought.

Zeitgeist, I thought.

Once, as a newspaper theatre critic, I represented the immense power of mainstream print. Those were the days when people were eager for newspapers to come out with the precious first reviews of new shows. Now those are the olden days. Print media is shrinking. At the same time, the public is wary of paying for online subscriptions. And no one wants to wait for anything.

Social media has stepped up and usurped the old publicity machinations. Instant gratification meets the global parish pump.

And, I'd better Tweet this before it goes out of date.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Don't put your daughter on the stage...

The ire is roused by the sudden discussion on Adelaide's ABC 891 radio about a student actor turning down a semi-nude scene in a student production.

The girl's mother has come onto the radio to report anonymously under the name of Mary. Not once, but twice now.

She is in some degree of indignation that her first year drama student daughter, who also is to be anonymous, had been asked to perform in any way disrobed. Mother Mary said that the daughter was turning down a "plum role" in refusing to show her flesh. It sounded as if she thought the girl should have had the role regardless. She said her daughter feared she would not get "plum" roles because she had said no to nudity. She went on a bit about "plum roles" for her daughter.

That term, in itself, raises my hackles. Clearly the woman means "lead" or "principal" roles. "Plum" makes me think of casting couches and greed. It is not a term which sings "merit". But this is just me and my mindset.

Mother Mary, outspoken and protective as she is, seems not to be of thespian ilk. If she were, this tempest in a teacup likely would not be happening. A thespian mother would have told her daughter that she was quite right to turn down the nude scene if it made her feel uncomfortable. There are plenty of other roles.

I understand from the radio reports that the role the girl rejected was in a play called "Trojan Barbie". It was last year's student production. I wonder why Mother Mary waited until now to bring her indignation forth.

This year, the student play is "Don's Party". I've seen it quite a few times and, while it is about drunks and boors and cheats, it usually features no nude roles, let alone "plum" ones for girls.

Theatre is not about "plum" roles, in my view. It is about all roles. It is about actors embodying other people, sometimes even showing bits of the body. Some of the world's great actors have shown flesh in the name of the play. I remember Diana Rigg completely pristine in the West End production of "Abelard and Heloise", playing against the great Keith Michell. I vaguely recall the lovely Katy Manning, hot from the side of Dr Who, playing a part deshabille in a 70s Edinburgh Fringe show in the round at The Travers. Since the 60s, nude scenes have been unremarkable in the theatre and cinema. Think of "Hair" without its nude scene. My own son wore nothing but a policeman's helmet in a State Theatre production of "What the Butler Saw". Nude is part of the human condition and, in drama, it conveys vulnerability, sensuality and comedy.

Gratuitous nudity is another matter. Compulsory nudity yet another. Neither is at issue here.

That drama students be asked to confront the idea of nudity onstage seems reasonable. They can say "no", as this girl did.

Now the poor thing is notorious for it, albeit anonymously. And her Mother Mary has pushed the issue as one of propriety and of discrimination right through the media. This is where it gets into the headlines, onto the talk shows and up the noses of arts people. It's an issue in the public arena. It's gone national!

All from an anonymous phone call from a conservative mother who thinks first year drama students should not be exposed to such realities of the theatre.

It is my opinion that Mother Mary's views are at odds with the whole ethos of a university. I'd pop them gently in a church hall where they would sit comfortably within a censorious world view. If Mother Mary did not want her little girl exposed to the ever-controversial perspectives of the theatre and the issues it embraces, she should have recommended a convent for her.

In drama studies, that modest girl will be exposed to scandals of every form - from war, violence, murder, and cruelty through to questions of gender and under-age sex. And that's just Shakespeare.

"Oedipus Rex" deals with incest.

Beware the classics, children!

Oh, dear. Wasn't "Trojan Barbie" based on Euripides?

Monday, April 08, 2013

The Great Chili Cook-Off.

Enough with cooking competitions on the television. Sage Adelaide journalist Helen Covernton (below right) whisked Masterchef off the screens and into the domestic dining room to create the last, or first, word in fine, fun dining. The dinner party Cook-Off.

And so it came to pass that two of Adelaide's high-achiever Americans were pitted to showcase their mastery of their native gastronomic classics - Chili.

Chili Con Carne, generally known just as Chili, is an ubiquitious dish in the US. No diner worth its name has a menu without chili either as a main or side dish. Family restaurants, also. And, there are a gazillion of them in the US. Even the beloved hot dog often gets a garnish of chili. The dish has moved up from its Latin roots in Mexico, through southwestern America's Mexican cuisine and into the realm of culinary domestica.

Many are the expatriate Americans who quietly grieve for a fix of classic chili - just as Aussies abroad may yearn for a pie and sauce.

Helen Covernton knows two of them and set up the challenge for them to showcase that iconic dish in a cook-off.

Gale Carnes is an environmental scientist.

Bruce Blackwell is a physicist-cum-space engineer.

Both are chili cooks.

Helen Covernton laid down the rules. As many variations of chili as they wished could be prepared by the two cooks. There would be three judges. Herself. Arts supremo Cate Fowler. Food writer and critic, Samela Harris. The chili would be marked on Presentation, Discernible Ingredients, Chili levels, Flavour.

The competitors would be called upon to explain and background each sample.

The competing chilis were three.

The Cincinnati Chili - Carnes

TexMex Chili - Carnes

Classic Chili - Blackwell

Cincinnati Chili was presented on pasta with grated cheddar cheese. Carnes explained that this was the chili of her childhood, the common Cincinnati take-away, a strong cult version typical to Cincinnati only.

The judges found the pasta perfectly cooked and the cheese a nice complement. The flavours of the chili had them mystified. There seemed to be no tomato in this version. Nor beans. Red or black beans are traditional but this chili was dark and dense ground beef. Its level of chili heat was moderate. The judges found it pleasant. But they tasted the dish repeatedly to discern the other ingredients. There was a mysterious musky flavour. Very agreeable. But was it herb or spice? The more they ate, the more they liked it. Cloves?

They could not categorise it. They decided it must stand in another class of chili.

Classic Chili was presented on white Basmati rice with a dob of sour cream on top and a light sprinkle of fresh onion.

Blackwell introduced the dish as a derivation of the authentic south-of-the-border tradition, rich in soaked and pre-cooked red beans, its chili flavours achieved by layers of different varieties of fresh chilis and capsicum. This dish was beautifully-balanced with the chili flavors emerging both as an instant sensation and then a good, slow after-burn. "Deep chili", as it is known. There was also a light, healthy sense of vegetables with the fresh tomato base and the perfectly-textured beans. It was moist, the sour cream adding a smooth, luxurious further favour and textures. The meat also was light, being pork and veal. And the tiny, fresh crunch of the onion brought forth exclamations of delight. The judges were rhapsodic.

TexMex Chili was presented straight with nachos on the side and a sprinkle of cheese. Carnes explained that this was a more conventional variation, one she had learned while living in New Mexico. It contained kidney beans and tomato.

It was rich and dense with a very good level of chili fire - softer than the classic, but good with aftertaste. It was more a cayenne than habanero flavor. The nachos were crisp and novel accompaniments giving a very Mex culture and a very hands-on character to the dish. The kidney beans were fairly sparse and nicely textured. The judges could not stop eating it.

The judges repaired to the balcony to compare notes while the cooks re-arranged the table for an ensuing chili dinner for all.

The judges then delivered their verdict.

Cincinatti, it was agreed, required a category all of its own. Quizzed on the elusive flavours, Carnes acknowledged that clove was one of them and also a little Allspice. But the big secret ingredient and that which made it so dense and dark and delicious was chocolate.

The two more traditional varieties, the TexMex and Classic had scored 9/10 from all the judges. Both came first. Both cooks were awarded chocolate Bilbies. There might have been a third chocolate Bilbie to acknowledge the stand-alone winning qualities of the Cincinnati Chili - but it seems that it had already gone into the dish.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Choosing choices


It is a terrible thing to undermine our ability to choose - whether it be clothes, political views or groceries.

Hence, the big two supermarket chains of Australia are performing a profound disservice to the people with their campaign to swamp their shelves with own-brand.

It not only threatens the viability of smaller producers and manufacturers but also removes choice for the customer.

Already it has become hard to find Australian-produced canola oil. The globals are in ascent and with them, more and more foods and cosmetics prepared in China. In itself, this is scary, given China's history of contamination and corruption. I was very impressed with Woolworths when it led the way in trying to remove trans fats from its stores, starting with its home brand but, its marketing man in Singapore once told me, setting an example to all food manufacturers.

That fine stance looks a bit wobbly a decade later. I see China-produced confections for children clearly labelled as containing partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil. Lovely, tempting, delicious treats for Australian children - loaded with potentially damaging trans fats.

My respect for and loyalty towards Woolies now wavers. It has removed Evian water from its stock - never bothering to so much as answer my letter on the subject.

The water choices diminish - like all the stock choices.

Coles aisles, similarly, are less stimulating to peruse. The big excitement is seeing how many more varieties are turning up under their own label. There are knock-offs of everything. Just look at the growing range of own-brand flavoured tunas - which are the chic snack de jour - sitting there competing with the brands who may have brought such ideas onto the market in the first place but can't market it as cheaply. Long-term prognosis would have the cheaper brand killing off the original more expensive brand - and the choices declining.

America manages to run supermarkets where the choices are utterly daunting in their scale.

The first time I walked into an American supermarket the impression was definitely "super" everything. Even in small town outposts of New Hampshire or North Georgia, the supermarkets are consumer paradises of choice, variety and invention.

And nothing prepares one for Fairway, the supermarket to end all supermarkets. Like Niagra Falls, nothing can prepare one for its towering scale, its brilliant management, its endless variations on all themes, its fantastic hot and cold food prepared on the spot.

I found it in a rather dowdy old semi-industrial backstreet of Stamford, Connecticut.

Stamford, with its slogan "The city that works!", is not a huge city. With about 123,000 in population, it is only 8th largest in New England. It is an important rail hub servicing New York.

Fairway is a regional supermarket chain - there are other stores around New York. It's slogan is "Like No Other Market". How true.

One can design and have gourmet salads made to eat on the spot or take home for dinner. The supermarket has a cafe - in which I had what may have been the best clam chowder in the USA. Move over Legal Seafoods. The store describes its nearly 85,000 wonderful square feet of pure gastronomic joy as "an amusement park of food".

The aisles were so broad with such beautiful, well-stocked and maintained arrays of goods that one went almost into overload. But staff were on hand to assist and advise. Real, live, helpful, employed humans. "Service".

This is not to say that Woolies and Coles don't have fabulous, well-informed and helpful staff. The staff is one of the very best things about them.

But we Australian shoppers are being short-changed by their corporate policies and we need to stand up - or at least, walk away to Foodland and IGA.

They don't have the scale of Fairway but they give small companies a fair exposure to the consumer. They enable access to our gourmet producers, specialist products both local and imported.

They also listen to their customers and will endeavour to stock things which are requested.

We can't do things on the scale of the American model. But we can look at what the American model offers. And it is all about choice.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Twitter, you had parents, you know.

It is almost 20 years now since first I heard the ricochet tinkles of modem connecting to the Internet.

It was love at first flickering light, so to speak. From my desk in suburban Adelaide, I found myself meeting and greeting the world of invisible far-away people on Internet Relay Chat. And thus, instantly hooked, I fell into a crowd - one of the small groups of pioneer netizens, burning the midnight oil, fuelled by Jolt. Making friends, chatting, life-sharing, laughing.

Many of these people remain part of my life today, no longer on IRC but in retained fellowships on Facebook or Yahoo.

In the 90s, few people around me could comprehend what the hell I was doing. I had to explain the IRC and the Internet - which I did with missionary zeal.

Oh the dark and dangerous perils of it all. There were bots and baddies. There were predators. And porn. How swiftly they materialised.

But there were the good and outgoing folk, convivial and lively times. There were people who asserted themselves in ways their normal lives may never have allowed, arriving faceless online under a chosen nick. They assumed Ops, a status as channel operator, would throw their weight around, dominate the evolving communities on their channels. First "virtual communities" they were, drawn together by interests but not location. The borderless world had opened up. Out of Finland, believe it or not. And it was to explode exponentially.

There was Efnet at first and IRCnet - and then DAlnet arrived the Undernet appeared. We explored, regrouped. We hitched in through servers at universities in exotic places.

I navigated my way through the lists and lists of channels to some defined by age. Firstly #30plus, then #40 plus, then #41plus. They changed by breakaway movements. One could open any channel one wanted. With a friend, I created #Ageless and, later, #Greymatter.

Yep. #

Twitter thinks it invented the use of the hashtag.


IRC was your parent, Tweetipies.