Tag: Reviews

‘Lettice and Lovage” opens at Westport Playhouse

‘Lettice and Lovage” opens at Westport Playhouse

Peter Schaffer’s 1987 comedy, “Lettice and Lovage” opened last Saturday at the Westport Country Playhouse to a rapturous audience reception.  Directed by Mark Lamos, the play is about Lettice (actually her name is Laetetia) played by Kandis Chappell, who makes up fascinating and hilarious, but outrageously fictional “facts” about the stately British home where she gives house tours. Eventually her supervisor Lotte Schoen (Mia Dillon) finds out and sacks her.

Feeling guilty about firing her, Lotte comes to see Lettice with a recommendation for a new job she might like narrating a tour boat. They share an aperitif Lettice has made of vodka, brandy and lovage, (an aromatic herb with seeds that are similar to fennel seeds) and begin a tipsy friendship despite the huge difference in their personalities.  Lotte is straight-laced and bureaucratic, while Lettice is flamboyant and theatrical.

The comic virtue of Shaffer’s work lies in Lettice’s bizarre historical reimaginings as well as his elegant and beautiful language.

5_WCP_Lettice&Lovage_PaxtonWhitehead_MiaDillon_KandisChappell_byCRosegg_334aFollowing the development of their friendship as well their cleverly barbed exchanges make up much of the fun of this piece, but following intermission we meet the lawyer Mr Bardolph, played by the redoubtable Paxton Whitehead, who tried to tell Lettice this she is in a great deal of trouble and could end up in prison if she doesn’t cooperate with him and preparing her defense.  How this turn of events came about and the hilarious way it is resolved make up the highly entertaining finale to this delightful evening.

In playing Lettice, Kandis Chappell is very funny, very theatrical and extremely entertaining, and dominates the stage throughout. The role, originally written for Maggie Smith, is a challenge to any actress, bringing out the characters over-the-top theatricality without herself going over the top. In this, Chappell succeeds admirably, and the audience more than demonstrated their affection for her performance.

Mia Dillon as Lotte, plays sensibility against Chappell’s theatricality and is quite affecting when she finally reveals her history and the reasons for her hatred of terrible architecture.

Sarah Manton plays Lotte’s secretary with great aplomb against the stormy forces of Lettice and Lotte’s first confrontation.

Sometimes, theater has its own internal theatricality and Patricia Connolly who was supposed to play Lettice was taken ill just a week before the show’s opening and Kandis Chappel flew in from San Diego to take over the role on very short notice, arriving Tuesday, when previews normally begin. The Tuesday and Wednesday previews were cancelled and the first preview was Thursday, and the official opening just last Saturday.

In the opening scene, we see Lettice giving several versions of her fantasy version of history to a group of tourists, portrayed by local actors  Kara Hankard of Glastonbury, Travis James of Weston, Richard Mancini of Stratford, Michele S. Mueller of Rocky Hill, Robert Peterpaul of Darien, Hermon Telyan of Wilton, and Danielle Anna White of Ridgefield.

Despite the simplicity of the story, the sets created by John Arnone are stunning. The first British house scene is a huge wall of portraits and heraldry, and Lotte’s office is a small unit set that rolls on as the wall is flown out. But the major piece of the set is Lettice’s basement flat, which is cluttered and elaborate, and is  enhance by an entire brick building flat behind it and a stairway down to her flat’s entrance level.

“Lettice and Lovage” runs through June 17, and you won’t find a more entertaining evening than this.

 

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Cactus Rose in Wilton, revisited

Cactus Rose in Wilton, revisited

Cactus Rose has been in Wilton since 2011, although their building has suffered through two plumbing related floods that closed them in 2015 and again in 2016. They were able to retain their staff during this most recent shut-down and we went back to see how they’ve evolved.  In 2011, they started with a fairly elaborate menu, but when we revisited in 2013, their menu has been simplified, along with their service.

However, when we visited Saturday evening (always a challenging night for restaurants) the service was excellent. We had two servers, one who provided water and drink orders, and one who took the food order. Other staff delivered the food, but all of them were pleasant and hard working and genuinely interested in whether you were happy with your food. We arrived about 6:15, and by 7 pm, the restaurant was lively and very busy. But the service did not flag.

Our table was set with two square plates that might have been for some sort of appetizer. However, they weren’t for bread, as none was provided or on the menu. They eventually cleared them when our appetizers arrived.

There are now about 10 dinner entrees, priced from $19 to $29, some of them with a Southwestern theme such as fish tacos, black skillet fajitas, lobster enchiladas, and tequila chicken, as well as salmon, blackened tilapia, paella, baby back ribs, steak frites, littleneck clams and grilled vegetables on a mushroom risotto.

The appetizers included their “most interesting clams,” steamed in Dos Equis, and as we recall, it is very good. They also offer a number of appetizers ($7-$17) including taco and nachos, seared shrimp, lobster quesadilla, seared wild shrimp, and a number of salads ($7-$15).

In addition, they offered a separate menu card of “specials,” including carrot and ginger soup and grilled calamari appetizers, and Seared Prime Filet Mignon ($35), Wild Chilean Sea Bass ($35), Seared Lamb Chops ($30) and Organic Half Chicken ($23).

It is interesting to note that the specials were for the most part more expensive than the main menu items, except for the chicken which apparently had a number of takers. We generally don’t order chicken out because we have it so much at home, and try to avoid any dish labeled “organic,” which is just an excuse to raise the price on dishes that are otherwise identical to conventional ones.

beetsFor our appetizers, we chose the beet salad with candied walnuts, goat cheese,
arugula, cilantro, balsamic glaze ($9). They were happy to omit the cilantro in our portion. While the salad was good, there were more beets there than anyone needed, and we didn’t finish it.

quesadillaOur other appetizer was the Lobster Quesadilla ($17) which was four filled tortilla halves with goat cheese and lobster. There was also a side of some related cheese and some chopped tomatoes (pico de gallo). While there was indeed lobster in every quesadilla, the cheese dominated, and the result was a very filling appetizer that we didn’t finish.

We decided to splurge and order the Sea Bass shown at the top of the article, ($35) served with sautéed spinach and everybody’s favorite trendy vegetable, quinoa, along with a brown sage butter sauce. The fish was a huge tall piece, moist and with a bit of browned skin, but it was essentially unadorned and not all the flavorful.  And the mixture of spinach and quinoa into a sort of risotto was decidedly weird. It didn’t work very well.

Our other entrée were the Lobster Enchiladas ($29) which was really quite spicy, overpowering the lobster flavor. Incidentally, the presentation and amount of spicy sauce has changed substantially since our 2013 visit. This version had bell peppers, onions, jack cheese and chipotle cream sauce. Again, this was too filling to finish.

Their dessert menu was recited, and included crème brulee, churros, cookies, and a few other things, but none tempted us after this filling meal.

cotton-candyThey do still provide a little complimentary puff of cotton candy in a mason jar to finish the meal, and this will undoubtedly impress young diners.

Overall, the staff was uniformly friendly and the service very good. But the food could have been better, we think, and in this sort of menu, less is more. Our bill with 3 glasses of wine and tax, but before tip was $140.

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Gary Taubes says sugar is poison

Gary Taubes says sugar is poison

Science writer Gary Taubes has been writing columns everywhere promoting his new book The Case Against Sugar. He has written columns in The Guardian, and  The New York TImes among other places, and has been reviewed somewhat critically in The Guardian, Food Insight and The Atlantic.

Taubes’ central argument is that calories from sugar are not the only reason for obesity, but argues that sugar itself is uniquely toxic.

Taubes: “If the research community had been doing its job and not assuming since the 1920s that a calorie is a calorie, perhaps we would have found such evidence long ago.”

In a nutshell, the flaw in his argument is revealed in the above statement in the Times article. There must be more to sugar’s causing obesity than just calories, but researchers haven’t been doing their job!

And, in fact, despite Taubes’ persuasive writing, this is most of his argument. He cites no research in his articles (I have not read his actual book) or even mentions researchers who agree with him.

His thesis echoes that of Dr Robert Lustig, who makes much the same arguments in his book Fat Chance, and in the movie Fed Up but both Lustig’s and Taubes’ similar ideas have been debunked in articles, such as this one in Science Based Medicine. And Food Insight called this “blind fealty to correlation as causation.” Scientific American pointed out the fallacies in this argument in 2013.

In fact, while obesity continues to increase, sugar intake in the US actually decreased from 1999-2008, mainly because of decreased consumption of sugary soft drinks.

Taubes’ other somewhat distressing argument is that the sugar industry has been influencing research outcomes for years by sponsoring research. This suggests that not only that scientists are unethical but that the journal peer-review process itself is corrupt, and that is hard to swallow. The idea that research funding influences outcomes had been thoroughly debunked in this article by van Eenenaam, who notes that such corrupt research is a sure path to a short academic career.

He cites this PLoS One paper which reviews papers for their findings, correlating them with the source of their support. The authors suggested that papers with no declared “conflict of interest” are more likely(83%) to find that sugar sweetened beverages could be a risk for weight gain, but for those “disclosing some financial conflict of interest” 83% found that there was no such correlation.

The trouble with that paper is that there are only a few such studies: there were only 12 in the first category and 6 in the second category, and only 10/12 and 5/6 supported the author’s conclusions.

There are other reviews of sugar consumption that we need to consider. For example, Weed et al. studied reviews of health outcomes from sugar sweetene beverage (SSB) consumption, and rated the review quality using the AMSTAR review rating scheme, and found that most of them received moderately low quality scores, regardless of the conclusions of the paper. This would mean that the conclusions of these reviews are probably not entirely convincing, and basing Taubes’ sugar conspiracy theory on such weak data is not fully substantiated.

Moreover, this recent paper by Keller et al. reviews papers on sugar sweetened beverage consumption among children and adolescents, reporting that 9 reviews found a correlation between obesity and SSB consumption, while 4 did not. But that the quality scores of the reviews was low to moderate and that the two papers with highest quality scores reported discrepant (inconclusive) results.

The most important conclusion we can draw from reading Taubes’ many opinion pieces is we eat too much sugar, but that studies so far have not shown that sugar is more to blame than calories from any other source. No such research seems yet to exist.

Is Orgreenic Cookware a scam?

Is Orgreenic Cookware a scam?

If you are like us, you have been bombarded with ads for Orgreenic Cookware: we sometimes receive 4 or more E-mails a day from them. In addition, their ads are embedded in lots of web sites we visit. Other people report seeing their infomercials any number of times.

We set out to compare the Orgreenic pan with the 10” All Clad pan we bought at Williams-Sonoma in Westport.

If you try and get any information on these products, you discover that they have bombed the web with fake or almost fake review sites, all of which have very positive things to say about their cookware. There are some critical comments at Complaintsboard and at Chowhound.

These products are made to be non-stick without a Teflon coating, which many people prefer to steer away from. So their ads emphasize that you can cook “without oil, butter or grease.”

Based on the negative comments on the latter two web sites, we decided not to order directly from the company (Ozeri.com makes these pans). Too many people had trouble with credit card overcharges, and having an entire set shipped to them instead of the single trial pan. Further while the offer of the day is two pans for $19.99, you have to pay shipping on the second one, as well as on any “free offer” they also include.

If you go to their web site, you will find that they want your credit card number before they tell you what they are charging you for: never a good sign.

Instead, we opted to order the pan from Amazon. It is actually shipped from a company called As Seen on TV Guys (also called Telebrands Inc.). We paid $26.99, with no tax or shipping charges, and there were no hidden free offers. The pan arrived in two days.

Despite the picture on the Amazon web site, the pan came without any box or recipes, wrapped in bubble wrap and stuffed into a Tyvek Priority Mail envelope. Despite the indestructibility claims of the infomercial, there was a small dent and chip in the pan when it arrived. And the accompanying materials indicated that they would replace it but would charge a $7.95 shipping charge, which seemed rather unreasonable. Why should we pay for their mistake?

A small circular insert paper in the pan said that the pan should be seasoned before use. We’ve never had to season a pan before: a simple but annoying procedure. You are to pour a film of oil in the bottom of the pan, coat the sides and heat the oil until it begins to smoke. Then pour it out and let the pan cool. Wipe out the excess oil. You are supposed to repeat this twice yearly.

beaded-dropletsPouring a film of oil into this pan is actually quite difficult, because the ceramic surface is non-porous, and the oil tends to bead up instead of covering the pan smoothly. To make sure, we washed the pan with soap and water before trying again.

We then poured in enough oil to cover the bottom and heated it until it began to smoke. This can make quite a smell in the house, and you should open the windows or make sure your exhaust fan is running.

Now, when you season a cast-iron pan, you are really making a thin polymeric layer on top of the porous iron. In the case of these ceramic-coated pans it is not clear why we are doing this.

Further, you are supposed to hand wash the pan rather than put it in the dishwasher, which might spoil the seasoning. This was an annoying discovery, to say the least and certainly would keep us from buying more of them.

all-clad-vs-ogreenicWe weighed the pan, which is probably supposed to have a 9” diameter (but is unlabeled). It weighed in at 23 oz. By contrast our only slightly larger All Clad 10” pan weighed 37 oz. So the Orgreenic pan is a substantial light weight by comparison.

Now for the cooking

We first tried to duplicate the fried egg they show in the infomercial. We warmed the cool pan over medium-low heat, and added one egg. Once it began to solidify, we tried to see if it would “slide around.” While it didn’t, it was easily lifted and moved with a spatula: the egg did not stick at all.

However, as in the video, the top of the “fried” egg is essentially uncooked. We tried covering the egg with a lid, but without any steam or grease it didn’t really cook. We ended up flipping the egg and flipping it back again after half a minute. At this point some of the white stuck to the pan in a streak, but you could wipe it off when the pan cooled.

Now, an egg cooked without fat is essentially a baked egg, and it really doesn’t have a lot of flavor. In fact, the egg was rather tough, and when we flipped it over, we saw why: it had formed a fairly hard coating underneath. It wasn’t overcooked, just hard and not all the tasty.

 

baconWe also tried cooking a couple of strips of bacon, as one of the Chowhound comments remarked that the bacon stained the pan. We had no trouble: it cooked fine, and all the bacon debris was easily removed with a little soap and water.

The whole idea of cooking without any oil or grease is bizarre on the face of it. Flavors are carried in the fat. So, no matter how you use this pan, it is just a non-stick pan you can use whenever you need something that will fry or sauté something and clean up fairly easily.

The pans are fairly cheaply made compared to our All Clad pan (which is about $77) and it looks like it isn’t very hard to nick the coating, so it isn’t clear what the advantage actually is.

The Orgreenic telephone/web sales is very close to a scam according lots of commenters, but the pan from Amazon did arrive and was indeed non-stick. We really aren’t interested in pans we have to season every few months, though, nor ones you shouldn’t put in the dishwasher.

 

 

Consumed the Movie: a misinformed anti-GMO thriller

Consumed the Movie: a misinformed anti-GMO thriller

Consumed, a film by Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones stars Lister-Jones as a single mom barely holding it together as she tries find out why her son has developed mysterious symptoms. Needless to say, the cause turns out to be “GMOs” even though not a single verifiable instance of any human or animal reaction to transgenic crops has ever been reported. The film contains every single anti-GMO trope you have ever heard, all of them wrong.

The film begins in the dark at Danny Glover’s organic vegetable farm, as he sees people, cars and lights surrounding his fields. The story eventually develops that he is being investigated by Clonestra, the film’s transparent stand-in for Monsanto for planting unlicensed GMO seeds. This is hard to believe because Glover has been an organic farmer for years and has had his “organic certification” for 30 years. This is amusing, because the National Organic Program didn’t start until the year 2000.

The scene shifts to Sophie (Lister-Jones) waiting for her son outside his school, where she meets the hunky and charming Eddie (Taylor Kinney) who has a son about the same age, and who also appears to be a single parent. Sophie’s son Garrett (Nick Bonn) comes out looking and feeling droopy, and Sophie rushes him home to the house she shares with her mother Kristin (Beth Grant). Garrett gets worse and vomits in the night.

The scene shifts to India where Dan Conway (Victor Garber), the silver haired head of Clonestra is giving Indian farmers seeds to a new drought-tolerant variety of corn, along with “discount coupons” to purchase seed in future years. He and his entourage are chased off by some protesting farmers.

Concerned that Garrett may have developed a new virulent strain of the flu, Sophie rushes him to the doctor who reassures her, but strangely makes no mention of the advisability of flu shots, a typical prejudice of anti-GMO activists.

However, Garrett soon develops a red itchy rash all over his arms and torso, and neither her pediatrician nor a dermatologist can diagnose it. This leads to the rest of the story where Sophie desperately tries to find a cause and is involved in one crushing problem after another.

Sophie somehow gets the idea (this plot is really complicated) that her son may be allergic to “GMOs” and spend some time researching this possibility. Her mother works as a secretary to the head of the university’s “science department,” (apparently they only do one science there) and she arranges to talk with him about her fears. He is quite reassuring and tells of transgenic crop successes in preventing starvation.

In the anteroom, which also appears to be a small biotech lab, Sophie also meets Jacob (Anthony Edwards) and Serge Negani (Kunal Nayyar), his Indian colleague. Lurking in the background is Peter (Griffin Dunne) who overhears Sophie’s worries about her son and meets her secretively in the parking lot, saying that he is a scientist and there must be files somewhere showing the bad effects that Sophie thinks her son is experiencing. Sophie leaves her son with Eddie one afternoon and she and Peter sneak into the university science department (where it now seems to be night) using her mom’s keys. The files are missing and they are caught. It turns out that Peter is not a scientist, but the janitor. Sophie finds old news articles showing that Peter once was a scientist there, but had a nervous breakdown while “researching GMOs.” This whole episode seems pretty pointless and could have been excised.

Cut to the university biotech lab, where Connelly is giving what seem to be cash rewards to Jacob and Serge for their research on biotech chickens. It seems that all the biotech research Clonestra uses has been done under contract by the university science department rather than within the company. They said they used to get their funding from the FDA (really?) but now they get it all from Clonestra (not believable).

He later tells them their grant is terminated, their job is done and thank you very much, and that Clonestra owns all the patents. (What university development office would have agreed to this?)  Jacob goes home, asking Negani to see that the chicken cages are clean before he leaves so that they can turn them over to Clonestra in good shape.

Negani finds that all the chickens are dead, and begins searching Jacob’s computer for any information. He finds a great deal of incriminating information about the dangers of this project, duplicates it and carries it out to his car. He calls Sophie, realizing that this may be the answer to her concerns, although how development of unreleased biotech chickens has anything to do with GM corn is not explained. Sophie, fearing retribution, refuses to talk to him.

Determined to get the information to Sophie he sets out to drive it to her house. However, Eddie is shown drinking longnecks outside a bar with a couple of construction workers. Eddie goes inside and the two workers leave and chase Negani, bumping into his car and trying to force him off the road. In an accident, he is killed.

Learning of the accident, Sophie goes to see Negani’s wife, who tells Sophie that Negani’s father was a farmer in India who was growing GM corn, which gradually became less productive and too expensive, and he and a group of farmers committed suicide by drinking insecticide. While there are many things wrong with the thesis of this movie, this one is particularly offensive, because while there were Indian farmer suicides related to debt, they began taking place long before Bt cotton was introduced and decreased as they began to profit from the significant increase in productivity of the Bt cotton. There is no GM corn grown in India yet.

Sophie retrieves the incriminating papers from Nagani’s car just as it is about to be crushed, and crashes a press conference with Eddie’s help (did we mention he secretly works for Clonestra?), confronts Conway with the evidence, which had been kept from him. The biotech chickens are announced, but Conway resigns from Clonestra right after the press conference.

Our review

The movie ends with a somewhat heavy handed insistence that GM crops be labeled. No kidding. All that expense and all of Sophie’s misery and the death of both Danny Glover (heart attack) and Negani (car accident) for that? Oh, and Sophie’s mother spent several days in the hospital in a diabetic coma because she had ice cream with Garrett. Come on! Enough misery!

Wein describes his film as a “political thriller,” but “science fiction” might be a better label. The trouble is that good science fiction starts with actual science and extends it plausibly. This movie starts with bad science fears and continually hits you over the head with them. There has never been any reported evidence of any ill effect on humans or animals by any biotech crop.

The idea that ”GMOs” are an ingredient rather than a breeding technique pervades the movie. And the mantra that there have “never been any human tests” repeats several times. Foods are never tested on humans, (as Katiraee explains) because you cannot control a human diet the way you can control lab animals’ diets. The films also claims that there are only 90 day studies done and no long term studies have been done.  This contradicts the well-known study by Snell and Bernheim, which did review many long term studies and concluded the 90-day studies were indeed sufficient. And, of course, van Eenenaam and Young’s billion animal retrospective feeding study clearly show that there are no long term effects on using GM versus non-GM animals feeds.

Probably the most implausible part of the movie’s thesis is that only one child is affected with whatever this rash is (at the last moment Eddie’s boy gets it too). If this were a real problem we would expect hundreds of thousands of such cases, not just two. The rash is never diagnosed nor cured: that plot point which launches the story is left hanging. Probably because it has nothing to do with GM chickens, which haven’t been released yet anyway.

The idea that a company would knowingly be releasing products that would kill their customers is preposterous, and a bad business model. Now in the original Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson Batman, the Joker did release a product that killed customers, but he was a homicidal maniac, not a biotech company seeking to make a profit by selling better seeds. (Here’s a clip from that great Batman movie.)

In a peculiar analogy, Sophie mentions that tobacco was known to cause cancer in the 1950s but warning labels didn’t appear for 50 years. Drawing analogies to biotech, she supposes it will be 2040 before biotech foods are labeled. We discussed this crazy theory before, but the difference is that biotech crops are not known to have ill effects and in fact are the most heavily tested foodstuffs on the planet, with each new crop undergoing 10-11 years of testing before receiving approval.

While Danny Glover dies of a heart attack after learning that Clonestra will be suing him for growing unlicensed crops because of pollen drift, this has never happened and the real Clonestra, Monsanto has sworn in court that they will never do this. And such drift does not affect organic certification in any case.

While the film is gripping in many ways, it is essentially a fraud because it is based on popular misinformation that the writers have done nothing to fact check. This may be why the film has never found a  distributor: it is shown in various theaters around the US in presold private screenings to already convinced activists, who for the most part probably have not looked into the science either.

As reported by Klumper and Qaim, GM crops have increased crop yields by 21%, decreased pesticide use by 37% and increased profits by 69%. This is the real news the filmmakers should have pointed out. Labeling foods bred by one technique but nutritionally identical makes even less sense than this movie.