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Ben Picks Ten: Great Food Gifts November 12, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben loves food. And I love to get food as a gift. Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home I share with Silence Dogood in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, is not exactly a palace or, God forbid, a McMansion. Being enthusiastic collectors, we’ve filled about every square inch with stuff. We don’t need gifts that will clutter our living space even more—we’re doing a fine job of that for ourselves, thank you. But food—especially our favorite indulgences that are hard to justify splurging on ourselves—is a great and very welcome gift. We love it, we eat it, no clutter! It’s a win-win for us.

So today, I’d like to share ten (plus, of course, one) of our all-time favorite food treats. Silence already posted about great condiments, from fruity green organic olive oil to Wickles hot sweet pickles, in her post “Great gifts for people who like to cook (and eat).” I suggest that you check that post out for wonderful gift ideas for cooks. For my list, I’ve chosen food treats that we consider decadent delights, and that you can order online no matter where you live. (You can often also find them locally.) Our friend Ben suggests that you print out the list and send it to friends, family, and Santa with your picks circled in red. Can’t wait ’til the holidays? Hey, you can always “preview” a few by ordering them for yourself!

Every one of these food treats has been personally sampled by yours truly (many times) and qualifies for a One-Ben Award in the “absolutely fabulous gift foods” category. (For once, Silence even agrees.) So order and enjoy with confidence! And if I’ve omitted your favorites, feel free to let me know. I’ll add them to our Christmas Hints List! Without more ado…

1. Chocolate Bourbon Fudge with Pecans. Nobody made fudge like my mama, but these days, we’ve found a fabulous substitute in this luscious fudge from the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky (www.monks.org). The texture is just as it should be, rich and sugary, not gummy or syrupy, and the flavor is all natural and all authentic. Mama didn’t put bourbon or pecans in her fudge, but I know she’d have approved. Christmas would not be Christmas around here without a box of this marvelous fudge.

2. Sugarplums. While we’re on the subject of sweet treats, our friend Ben and Silence were intrigued last year to discover that one of our favorite catalogues, The Vermont Country Store (www.vermontcountrystore.com), was offering sugarplums in their Christmas catalogue. Having grown up with annual readings of “The Night Before Christmas,” where “The children were nestled all snug in their beds,/While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads,” and having never had a clue as to what the heck sugarplums were, we were thrilled to find an answer. Are these really authentic sugarplums? We don’t know. But we ordered them for ourselves and for gifts last year, and these pretty, sizeable candies made from “luscious plum compote and wonderfully rich, dark chocolate” were a hit with everyone. (Our neighbors actually wandered over last month to ask where we had gotten them, a sure sign if there ever was one.) The Vermont Country Store also offers vintage candies, including another of our friend Ben’s favorites, GooGoo Clusters Supremes. Made in my native Nashville, these gooey treats include marshmallow cream, caramel, and pecans in milk chocolate. They are totally addictive. As the ad says, “Go for a GooGoo, it’s good!”

3. Basil Pesto. Leaving sweets behind for a second, our friend Ben would like to recommend another favorite, Stonewall Kitchen’s Basil Pesto (www.stonewallkitchen.com). Silence and I enjoy pesto on pizza and pasta, but we often find pestos, even many homemade versions (sorry, people), to be bitter, oily, and/or overpowering. Stonewall Kitchen’s is the best we’ve ever had. It’s a perfect balance of flavor and texture. Delicious! Try spreading a spoonful over mushroom caps and grilling them as an accompaniment to steak or Pasta Alfredo, too. Our friend Ben will admit that I could eat this right out of the jar (but I don’t—Silence would kill me). Yum!!!

4. Honey Roasted Cashews. Silence and our friend Ben love nuts, but not all nuts were created equal. Spare us the mealy Brazil nuts, the oily peanuts, the bitter walnuts, please. But bring on the cashews. We love cashews salted and roasted, and would be delighted to receive them as gifts as well. But for a real indulgence, give us honey roasted cashews. Our friend Cole introduced us to his favorite source of cashews and all nuts, Nuts Online (www.nutsonline.com). You’ll find every kind of nut at this site, including (ahem) dark- and milk-chocolate covered nuts, as well as dried fruit and other temptations, all for very reasonable prices. By the way, we also love hazelnuts and almonds, in case you happen to be thinking of us.

5. Pecans. Oh, my. Our friend Ben and Silence grew up in the South, where the pecan is king. We pity you poor Northerners who grew up eating walnuts instead. Walnuts definitely have their place in savory dishes—pastas, stuffings, breads, salads (we especially love black walnuts in hearty winter salads, paired with frisee, roasted beets, and feta cheese or flaked Parmesan). But their oily-bitter taste is not well suited, in our opinion, to snacking and sweet treats. Give us pecan pie, pecans in our fudge and brownies, pecan logs, and sugared pecans, please. Pecans in our sweet breads, cakes, candies, and cookies. You can buy your pecans from Nuts Online, or get them direct from a grower like Pearson Farm (www.pearsonfarm.com). 

6. Citrus. Yeah, yeah, you can go to the store and get oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and the like. But our friend Ben says: Do you?! If you don’t eat your vitamin C regularly for breakfast (don’t drink it—high sugar and no fiber does a body no good), ask for an indulgent gift of citrus. If you’re not paying for it, you can enjoy the premium citrus without comparing it to grocery-store prices. Our friend Ben’s Great-Aunt Ethel gave gifts of citrus to all of us every year, and our Aunt Peggy has taken up the beloved custom. Both placed their orders with Pittman & Davis (www.pittmananddavis.com), and our friend Ben and Silence look forward to their ruby grapefruit and navel oranges every Christmas.

7. Ginger Babies. Say what? No, we’re not talking about tiny gingerbread men here. Our friend Ben’s father loves crystallized ginger, and our friend Ben inherited the habit from him. So I was thrilled when Silence, who adores the King Arthur Flour catalogue (www.kingarthurflour.com), discovered that they’re offering crystallized ginger in tiny gingerbread-men cutout shapes. A great gift for my father, who’ll enjoy them like candy right from the jar, or as decorative toppings for icing on cupcakes, carrot cake, apple pie, cheesecake, or other wintertime treats.

8. Glaceed Apricots. Our friend Ben loves these rich, honey-dripping Australian treats dipped in dark chocolate, while Silence likes ’em straight up. Either way, given their price, they’re not something you’re likely to eat on a daily or weekly basis, or (in our case) buy for yourself at all. Which makes them all the more appreciated as gifts. One source for these decadent delights is Williams-Sonoma (www.williams-sonoma.com), but our friend Ben also stumbled on an interesting site that apparently formerly carried glaceed apricots: JR Mushrooms & Specialties (www.jrmushroomsandspecialties.com). Check them out if you love mushrooms, truffles, and the like. 

9. Colorful, Flavorful Popcorn. Our friend Ben and Silence tend to regard the Lehman’s Non-Electric catalog (www.lehmans.com) as a great source of cooking implements rather than foods. Silence loves their canning equipment (get their Beginner’s Home Canning Kit for someone just starting out, or add some stocking stuffers to the experienced canner’s stocking from their wonderful canning helpers). Other useful kitchen tools include their ingenious Natural Peanut Butter Mixer and one of our friend Ben’s favorites, Our Best Nutcracker (trust me, it really works, even on thick-shelled nuts). But once cold weather hits, Silence and I get out our popcorn popper and start thinking about hot cider and buttered popcorn, and once again, Lehman’s comes to the rescue. No stale, flavorless popcorn there! You can buy bags of Yoder’s Amish popcorn (large, succulent yellow kernels grown locally since 1936) or Ladyfinger popcorn (a tender, delicious heirloom variety), or splurge on their Amish Country Popcorn Sampler, which includes bags of medium white, red, extra-large caramel type, rainbow blend, blue, medium yellow, baby yellow, and baby white popcorn. Our friend Ben says: Please get an extra box for me!

10. Native American Specialties. Our friend Ben knows this is stretching the point, but I can’t narrow our favorites in this category down to just one. Silence and I love the Southwest Indian Foundation’s catalogue (www.southwestindian.com), with all its amazing, locally produced treats. Like Lehman’s, it has local popcorn (in this case, Hopi Blue Popcorn), and like Pearson Farm and Nuts Online, it has pecans (you can buy chocolate, cinnamon praline, spicy chile, yogurt, and sweet & hot pecans, separately or in a gift assortment). But your options aren’t limited to those favorites. Southwest Indian Foundation offers an assortment of pistachio treats (including pistachio brittle and baklava as well as bags of nuts), salsas and hot sauces, Anasazi beans and Cliff Dweller Bean Soup Mix, Native American teas, and specialties like Pinon Nut Chocolate Chip Cookies, Indian Fry Bread Mix and Desert Blossom Honey, Hopi Blue Corn Pancake Mix and Prickly Pear Syrup, and Jalapeno Cornbread Mix and Jalapeno Pepper Jelly. If you know any fans of the Southwest or Native American Culture, this is a great site for gifts.

As always, our friend Ben has a bonus in my “Ben Picks Ten” category (not even counting the GooGoo Clusters):

11. Potato of the Month. In the age of orchid and other exotica of the month clubs, giving someone a potato sampler may seem ludicrous. But the lucky recipients won’t think it’s a joke if you’re giving them the Maine Potato Sampler of the Month from Wood Prairie Farm (www.woodprairie.com). This organic family farm offers an incredible assortment of the very best potato varieties, all grown by them, with three varieties in each month’s gift box, along with directions on how to use them (some are best for baking, others for frying, boiling, or potato salad) and Wood Prairie’s own potato recipe booklet. Know any potato-loving gardeners (does our friend Ben come to mind)? Get them one of Wood Prairie’s amazing seed potato samplers so they can grow their own, including the Red, White and All-Blue Seed Potato Collection and the Organic Potato Blossom Festival.


Ben Picks Ten: Things I’d Like to Be September 12, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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“What I’d like to be when I grow up” is such a fun game to play when you’re a kid. Our friend Ben thinks it still is. (Of course, some of us are more grown up than others.) So today, I’d like to give you ten (plus one, of course) things I think it would be really fun to be.

Note that defining criterion: fun. Maybe somebody thinks being a lawyer or a stockbroker or a titan of industry would be fun, but our friend Ben is not among them, so you won’t find the usual professions in this list. Our friend Ben loves life, so anything that increases the chances of my being separated from it, such as being a general, mountain climber, or explorer, is definitely out. Much as I admire Sir Richard Francis Burton, battling venomous snakes and insects, scorching deserts and tropical swamps, exotic diseases and ravening beasts is not for me. It’s enough excitement for our friend Ben to battle tomato hornworms, powdery mildew, slugs, and the occasional raccoon in the garden.

Ditto for that often-touted position, king of the world. Being king of the world, or any king, pharaoh, emperor, or what-have-you sounds like way too much work and no fun at all to our friend Ben. And there are always too many rivals lining up for the throne, with a cup of poisoned wine in one hand and a dagger in the other. World domination? Ugh.

Mind you, there are things that our friend Ben thinks would be a lot of fun that didn’t make the list, either. Winning the lottery, receiving a Nobel Prize (or two), and getting a MacArthur Fellowship spring to mind. Our friend Ben would be only too happy to receive any or all of the above. But these are things one gets, not things one is. Of course, you could always up the ante by putting, say, “Nobel prize-winning…” in front of any of the things that did make my list. Speaking of which, let’s get to it:

1. Paleontologist. Because fossils are so cool. Our friend Ben’s earliest memory is of sitting in my parents’ driveway in my diaper, separating out the crinoid fossils from the gravel. If we had that kind of gravel here at Hawk’s Haven, you can bet our friend Ben would be sitting out there today. Our friend Ben’s favorite fossils are trilobites, which are even cooler now that the actual paleontologists have found out that they were all bristly. I’m saving up for a super-bristly one.

2. Archaeologist. Our friend Ben actually almost became an archaeologist. I’d been fascinated by archaeology and the discovery of lost civilizations throughout my childhood, and had spent innumerable hours reading about the discovery of Mayan temples and the palace at Knossos and the city of Troy. I spent the summer after my sophomore year studying archaeology in England and participating in a dig at the Roman city of Verulamium, present-day St. Albans. Fortunately, it dawned on me just in time that archaeology was really just glorified grave-robbing. But I still love the idea of treasures in the earth, whether they’re geodes or onions or cities of gold.

3. Pope. Let’s face it, it would be fun to be the head of your own religion and be addressed as “your Holiness.” (“Vicar of Christ” has a certain ring, too.) Of course, our friend Ben doesn’t think it would be too much fun to be Pope these days—more like torture, probably. And there were plenty of other times when it wasn’t fun, either, such as during the reign of Henry the Eighth or during the Protestant Reformation. There was also the little problem of various rulers attempting to capture the Pope and/or the Vatican, a popular pastime among kings and emperors through the ages. But there were undeniably good times, too: the Renaissance springs to mind. It must have been amazing to have the greatest artists, architects, and composers of the day at your beck and call.

4. Artist. Speaking of which, our friend Ben envies anyone who can draw or paint exactly what he or she sees (in real life or in his or her head). Poetry, our friend Ben’s own talent, is an imprecise art at best: You create a work and hope that those who read or hear it are able to see what you saw. But with art, you can show them your vision unambiguously. Watercolors are a special favorite, and our friend Ben would love to have effortless skill with them.

5. Rock star. Yes, our friend Ben has the name of the band all picked out. Too bad I can’t sing, dance, or play an instrument, and especially not all at the same time.

6. Composer. While we’re on the subject of music, our friend Ben has always thought it would be fantastic to walk around like Bach or Mozart with glorious music filling my mind and pouring out of my hands. Our friend Ben is a poet, so I know the effortless ecstacy of pure creation, the gift of it, when you and your talent are single, not separate, one and the same. As Mr. Yeats puts it, “How can you tell the dancer from the dance?” When you look at what you’ve created and wonder where in you it came from, and you know, with awe, that you could not have been alone in that creation. I’m sure that natural athletes, the ones who don’t have to work at their particular skill but simply have it, are it, must feel like this, too, when they’re running or dancing or swimming or playing tennis or whatever it is they do, their gift. I would love to feel music that way.

7. Ping-pong champion. While we’re on the subject of sports, everybody has a favorite sport. Ping-pong (aka table tennis) is our friend Ben’s. Sadly, coordination is definitely not us, so you’ll never see our friend Ben in a ping-pong competition. I was never able to learn how to spin the ball, or counter an opponent’s spin. But games of aim are something I can do: hit the basket or the bull’s eye pretty much every time. Our friend Ben could send a ping-pong ball to any part of the table, have it touch down and ever so subtly slip off the edge, or hug the top of the net, then sidle down on the opponent’s side at the last possible second. Our friend Ben loves ping-pong because, unlike other sports I love, like horse racing and falconry, it doesn’t involve dominating another species. Yes, I would love to launch a falcon from my wrist, see it shoot up into the sky, and have it return to me, volleying down at warp speed only to pull up at the last second and settle gently on my arm. Yes, I would love to ride my own horse in race after race, breaking away from the field to win endless lengths ahead of all the rest. But I wouldn’t want to keep a falcon hooded and tied to its perch. I wouldn’t want to risk my horse’s life and limbs every time I raced him. Ping-pong is fun, and safe, and it still involves a show of skill. Now, if I could only learn to spin the ball…

8. Inventor. Our friend Ben loves to imagine the life of an inventor, with all kinds of games and gadgets and gizmos spinning around in your mind and taking shape in your hands. I often think of inventions myself, but since I’m completely mechanically inept, and not being a titan of industry, can’t command an army of folks who aren’t mechanically inept to flesh out my creations for me, I simply can’t get from A to B. My inventions are born and die within the space of my skull. But I admire all the folks whose inventions are born into the world and enrich our lives. While it’s true that many inventors have sold their wonderful creations to others for a comparative pittance, or have had to hand them over to the companies they work for and watch said companies become wealthy and powerful while they continue to slave away on their pitiful salaries, some lucky inventors have held on to their creations and reaped their just rewards. Rightly or wrongly, these are the ones whose names we all know: Edison and the lightbulb, Henry Ford and the Model T, Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, the Wright brothers and their airplane. But I like to think that all inventors enjoy tinkering so much that their work is its own reward, recognized or not.

9. Best-selling author. Our friend Ben is already an author, so I just have to get to the “best-selling” part. I can’t imagine a more delightful thing than writing novels for a living: doing something I love that brings enjoyment to others. Talk about fun!

10. Universal genius. Our friend Ben would love to be a towering genius like Ben Franklin or Leonardo da Vinci, totally engaged with life, interested in everything, excelling at everything. (We tend to picture Franklin as a portly old man, but in his younger days, he was a superb athlete on top of everything else.) The mind boggles. It’s interesting to our friend Ben that both these great men spent a good deal of their time and energy trying to make life better for the ordinary person. But it must have been a lonely life, living in a mind as far above those of the people who surrounded you as heaven is from earth. Still, our friend Ben thinks it would be worth it. 

And the bonus:

11. Cartoonist. To be able to capture the human condition with the stroke of a pen! If only our friend Ben could draw. Imagine creating Dilbert or Calvin and Hobbes or The Far Side or Maxine, or being Booth or one of the wonderful political cartoonists. It’s a talent most of us don’t even see, enjoying the cartoons without ever thinking of their creators. Our friend Ben never wanted to be a professor, but I would get a huge kick out of this gift, the ability to teach with humor in a painless visual medium.

So what did the youthful Ben want to be when I grew up, you ask? A pioneer, of course, like my hero Daniel Boone, or a Victorian naturalist, amassing huge collections of eggs and fossils and butterflies and mercy knows what-all, or the greatest poet of the age, since I came into that talent early (by age two). All told, I didn’t stray too far from my grand childhood ideals, either: I’m still a naturalist and poet, and am still living out my pioneer fantasies here on my one-acre Eden with my plants and chickens. My adult reality may not have achieved the scope of my childhood dreams, but I’m here to tell you, it’s still a lot of fun. How about you?

The One-Ben Awards August 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben loves awards. I love getting awards, like the Thinking Blogger Award our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders just received for our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac. I hope to win many more awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Nobel Prize or two, and the lottery. (Silence gives me endless grief for this, but our friend Ben remains an optimist. I say, why not? Somebody has to win, so why shouldn’t it be our friend Ben?) And I also love to give awards.

This is where the One-Ben Awards come into play. What are One-Ben Awards, you ask? They are simply acknowledgments by our friend Ben that something, or someone, is one of the best in its or their class. When I write my “Ben Picks Ten” posts, the top ten in any category, be they geniuses, Southern comfort foods, reggae artists, pirates, or inventions we need, automatically qualify for One-Ben Awards. But the awards can also be randomly handed out at our friend Ben’s discretion.

Admittedly, no monetary prize, press release, or blog award device for the winners is involved. But, since only our friend Ben can give out One-Ben Awards, at least recipients don’t have to agonize about passing them along, running three times around the room while tying their shoes and shouting “Huzzah!” backwards, or participating in a “meme,” whatever the hell that is. (And don’t think our friend Ben is about to hand out awards to people who use words like “meme” that nobody understands unless they happen to own a Scrabble dictionary.) Besides, it’s fun.

Here are some examples of categories and One-Ben Award recipients:

Places I’ve never been (but want to go). So many places, so little travel money. Currently at the top of our friend Ben’s “someday” list, the following places are conditional One-Ben Award winners. (If I ever do manage to actually go, and a place falls short of expectations, it will be ruthlessly culled from the list and stripped of its award.) Normandy: Our friend Ben’s ancestors lived in Normandy until they went Channel-hopping with Duke William and ended up in England. I’ve always felt an affinity for the old home place. Key West: Everyone from Hemingway to Jimmy Buffett and our friend Norman has loved Key West. Our friend Ben would like to go there and see why. Morocco: Our friend Ben would go for the food alone. Nova Scotia: It just sounds so beautiful. A summer getaway with the ocean but without heat and humidity. Aaaahhh!

Customer-conscious companies. Our friend Ben hates those horrible white tags that clothing and houseware companies feel compelled to affix to every piece of clothing, towel, washrag, bathmat, and etc.etc. to drive us all insane. It’s impossible to walk into the bathroom without being confronted with a white tag sticking out of the bath mat (no matter how many times you tuck it back in) or towel, making all of us look like the Minnie Pearls of home decor. Tags digging into your neck, side, or backside from shirts, underwear, and the like (Silence points out that bras are special offenders here) are ongoing miseries. And if you try to cut them off, unless you want to slice open the actual garment or towel along with them, you inevitably leave an inexplicably razor-sharp stub that slices your skin at every move. Yowch!!! Companies like Faded Glory and Victoria’s Secret that print their info inside their garments rather than tagging them get a One-Ben Award for (finally) putting the customer’s comfort first.

Fun festivals. Our friend Ben and Silence love to go to small, colorful theme festivals, especially when they’re relatively local. If the weather’s good, we can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend afternoon. Our favorites get One-Ben Awards for giving us so much pleasure. The Bowers Chile Pepper Festival: Coming up next weekend in tiny Bowers, PA, this festival is big in terms of flavor and fun. You can enjoy one-stop shopping for every kind of hot fresh and dried pepper and hot pepper mix on earth, salsas, hot sauces, hot pickles and relish, and pepper-themed foods of all sorts, as well as pepper-themed crafts, ristras and wreaths, and high-quality clothing, jewelry, crafts and exotica that transcend the pepper theme. Small but mighty! A can’t-miss. Celtic Festivals: Silence and our friend Ben love our local Celtic festivals, especially the Scottish-Irish Festival in Green Lane, PA, coming next weekend (Sept. 5-7) and the Celtic Classic in Bethlehem, PA, at the end of September (Sept. 26-28). Maybe it’s our Scottish and Irish blood, but we love the Highland games (especially the caber toss), pipe band competitions, glorious Celtic music, crafts, and Border collie trials. (Silence says that men in kilts are also a big draw. Go away, Silence.) The Kutztown Folk Festival: A celebration of the old Pennsylvania Dutch (aka Deitsch, German) life, food, and crafts in early June every year. Silence and I are heading up to the Poconos later today for the Pocono Garlic Festival. This will be our first time at the festival, being held at Shawnee just outside of East Stroudsburg, PA, today and Sunday, so we’ll see if it deserves a One-Ben Award. We’ll keep you posted!

See, it’s fun, isn’t it? If you’re of one mind with our friend Ben, I suggest that you set up your own awards. Or wait ’til you get one of mine! Like the MacArthur nominators, our friend Ben is out there, watching and evaluating. You just never know when your name will appear in lights (or, it would appear in lights if our friend Ben weren’t too much of a Luddite to work out the illumination). Meanwhile, if you have people, places, things, or categories that merit our friend Ben’s attention for One-Ben Awards, please let me know. I’ll be happy to check ’em out!

Ben Picks Ten: Geniuses August 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has always beeen fascinated by genius, or rather, by that kind of genius whose mind embraces everything, whose curiosity leads him or her to explore many avenues, to excel in many things. It is our friend Ben’s view that these are the happiest, luckiest people on earth, people who live in a perpetual ecstasy of thought, delighted by the world around them, thrilled by its possibilities, fully alive. “Boredom” is not a word these people would understand. “Limitations” is not a word that could apply to them.

So who are, or were, these people? Who were the greatest of them all?

Obviously, our friend Ben had to set some limitations in order to bring the number down to 10 (plus, of course, one). Here are the categories that didn’t make the cut:

High IQ. The intelligence quotient (IQ) may measure genius potential, but IQ alone doesn’t cut it as far as our friend Ben is concerned. Marilyn vos Savant is supposed to have the highest IQ of anyone living today; her IQ is 218, when 200-210 is generally regarded as the upper limit and only 1% of the population have IQs over 135 (“normal” is 85-115). So what has Marilyn done with her phenomenal gift? Written columns for Parade magazine? Use it (for the betterment of mankind and/or the world) or lose it, lady.

Prodigies. Folks like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bobby Fischer, and the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinavasa Ramunajan may have gone to the top of their class in music, chess, math, or what-have-you from the day one, and their genius may still create awe in their respective fields to this day. (And/or continue, as in Mozart’s case, to bring pleasure and joy to us all.) But these people were not what you’d call well-rounded, and their lives outside their sphere of genius have often been pathetic or (as in Fischer’s case) worse. No one could doubt their genius, but no way are they making my top ten. (Though if I were ranking great composers, Mozart would be #2 behind Bach.)

Writers. Yo, our friend Ben is a lifelong writer and poet, and I’m not about to put down folks like Homer, Shakespeare, Yeats, and the Greek tragedians, who often understood human nature and the human condition better than anyone else alive. And, of course, put them into a form that allowed the rest of us to understand them as well. Writers and poets have given our friend Ben more pleasure than anyone, with the possible exception of musicians and composers. So why am I ignoring them? Easy: There are simply too many contenders. And again, getting back to my ultimate criterion, their achievements tend to be one-dimensional. But God knows, I love them anyway.

Religious figures. Our friend Ben has no doubt that great religious leaders like Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad, and their great followers, people like St. Thomas Aquinas and Mother Teresa, were geniuses. But our friend Ben has no interest in ranking the Divine and the divinely inspired. Let others determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; our friend Ben is sticking with mere mortals in this list.

One-dimensional genius. As noted, what interests me is the type of genius that is engaged with everything. One- or even two-dimensional genius is therefore outside the scope of this list. Justly revered geniuses like Nikola Tesla, the Croatian-born inventor described as “the genius who ushered in the age of electrical power,” and Stephen Hawking, the great British physicist and cosmologist, fall into this category. So does Bill Gates, who has probably done more to change the parameters of our world than any person living. Sorry, Bill.

So who does that leave for our top ten list? Still too many contenders, and that’s not even including the many geniuses our friend Ben is too ignorant to be aware of! As you look through the list, you may be outraged to find favorites like Michaelangelo, Bacon, Goethe, Liebniz, Pascal, Descartes, Darwin, and Copernicus absent. It killed our friend Ben to omit some personal heroes, like the great linguist and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and the two-time Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling. And what of the great architects, like Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright? Where are the great philosophers and psychologists like Confucius, Voltaire, and Karl Jung, the great anthropologists and archaeologists like Louis Leakey and Heinrich Schliemann?

So many geniuses, so short a list. That’s why our friend Ben invites you all to submit your own lists. It’s open season on geniuses! I’m sure we’d all be fascinated to see who you choose, preferably with the rationales behind your choices. So don’t be shy! If I can stick my neck out, so can you! Which reminds me, I’d better get to that list. So without more ado, here are the top ten (plus one) that qualify for my One-Ben Awards in the “universal genius” category:

1. Leonardo da Vinci. This guy had it all. His inventions dominated every field, and on top of that, he was the greatest artist who ever lived. It doesn’t get more impressive than this.

2. Benjamin Franklin. My personal hero, Ben Franklin, has been acclaimed in our time as the greatest diplomat who ever lived. In his own time, he was the greatest and most famous scientist of his day, and he was, incidentally, also the greatest inventor, possibly of all time. He put his enormous genius to use for the good of all mankind, and to this day, the institutions he developed continue to benefit humanity and his practical, homespun maxims remain words to live by.

3. Sir Isaac Newton. It’s hard for us today to imagine the influence Newton had on his peers, especially given the old apple-on-the-head story that’s about all we’re ever told about him. We’re more likely to think of Fig Newtons than Sir Isaac. But back in the day, he towered over everyone, laying the foundations for modern science, making huge strides in physics, mathematics and optics (besides discovering gravity, he invented the telescope), and, like Einstein after him, continually searching for something more, for the Ultimate. Even now, it is stated unequivocally that Newton was “clearly the most influential scientist who ever lived.” That’s good enough for our friend Ben.

4. Aristotle. We can all thank Aristotle for bringing Europe out of the Dark Ages (his rediscovery by Aquinas and the mediaevals paved the way for modern science). Aristotle was the best kind of genius, interested in everything, determined to investigate everything. Aristotle is said to be “the last person to know everything there was to be known in his own time.” Our friend Ben would add that he was almost certainly also the first. Aristotle was a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great; the first to codify logic, and one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. His studies and discoveries extended into the realms of physics, biology, and medicine as well. It was he who discovered the circulation of the blood, 2,000 years before Sir Joseph Priestley was credited with the achievement. No wonder his name lives on. Thanks, Aristotle!

5. Avicenna. Avicenna, aka Abu Ali Sina, was a Persian scientist and philosopher. Though remembered today principally for his medical treatises, which formed the basis for modern medicine, Avicenna was what’s known as a polymath—someone who excels in many fields—and his achievements included being an (our friend Ben is quoting Wikipedia here) “astronomer, chemist, geologist, Hafiz, logician, paleontologist, mathematician, physicist, poet, psychologist, scientist, Sheikh, soldier, statesman, and Islamic theologian.” He was also a great admirer of Aristotle. ‘Nuff said!

6. Galileo. Galileo Galilei may be best known today for his ultimate triumph over the Inquisition, which claimed that the sun circled around the earth and that the earth was flat. Galileo championed the Copernican view that the earth circled the sun, but his genius and vision extended farther, to the extent that he has been called “the father of modern science.” Physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, Galileo spearheaded the scientific revolution that has enabled us to reach the scientific achievements of our own day.

7. Pythagoras. The first philosopher, Pythagoras is better known to us as the father of mathematics. Though our friend Ben still struggles with geometry, I can appreciate Pythagoras’s contributions to music theory and the philosophy of Plato, and thus to Western civilization.

8. Queen Elizabeth I. Let’s get a woman on the list, shall we? Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, was no slouch mentally, but it was through her mother, Anne Boleyn, that Elizabeth inherited her genius. Like Anne, Elizabeth had an effortless aptitude for languages, music, and academic subjects, but unlike her brilliant but ill-fated mother, she had a far better grasp of human nature. It allowed her to hold the reins of the English Renaissance, becoming the greatest ruler England—and perhaps the world—has ever known. Not too shabby!

9. Al-Biruni. Abu Rayham Biruni, aka Al-Biruni, is extolled as “one of the great scientific minds in all history” and “the father of anthropology.” This Persian polymath first popularized the experimental (as opposed to theoretical) scientific method, bringing science into the modern age over 1,000 years ago. And, as “polymath” implies, he was also a physicist, astronomer, mathematician, chemist, sociologist, historian, pharmacist, geographer, geologist, linguist, psychologist, theologian, and Islamic philosopher. Among other things. If you live in the West, as our friend Ben does, the name of Al-Biruni may be unknown to you. But East or West, we all owe this great genius a huge debt for his discoveries and scientific legacy.        

10. Albert Einstein. Einstein defines “genius” for our time, and deservedly so. Despite our friend Ben’s high-school struggles with his equation, E =mc2, and his theory of relativity, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize Albert Einstein as the father of modern physics. Einstein was honored with a Nobel Prize in 1921, and Time magazine named him “Person of the Century” in 1999.

And the bonus:

11. Sherlock Holmes. Yes, of course he’s not real, but Holmes is our friend Ben’s favorite fictional genius, so I’m including him in my list. So there!   

That’s it for me. Now it’s your turn! If you have a favorite our friend Ben has overlooked, let us all know your selection. Convince me. We could all use a few more role models!

Ben Picks Ten: Annoyances August 8, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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As our hero and blog mentor, the great Doctor Franklin, pointed out, the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Our friend Ben would like to add that they’re also the two greatest annoyances. But, let’s just say, I find that there are plenty more competing for the top ten slots. Those two aside, here are my top ten (plus one, of course)—at least, for today. Who knows what new aggravations tomorrow might bring to the top of the list?! Feel free to chime in with yours.

1. Stupid drivers. Our friend Ben’s top aggravation is the idiot who swings out directly in front of my car—even if there’s not another car behind me for miles—and then proceeds to crawl along at 5 mph. What are these morons thinking?!! GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR. Every time this happens, at it does with depressing regularity, I wish I had a James Bond car that could leapfrog the idiot’s car, or better yet, superpowers so I could flip their car over into the nearest ditch. And there are other driver-related offenses. I’m thinking of getting that bumper sticker that says “Jesus wants you to use your turn signals.” So does our friend Ben. How hard could it be, a******?!! Drivers who attempt to drink and/or eat with one hand while smashing their cellphones to their ears with the other also fall into the most-annoying category. Whatever happened to the good old days, when all you had to worry about was drunk drivers, and you could avoid them by staying off the roads late at night?

2. The living dead. There is nothing as annoying (after stupid drivers) as having a crisis, of whatever kind, frantically calling the number that’s supposed to resolve the crisis, and being unable to get through to an actual person who could help you. Medical emergency? Just try to get through to your doctor, a nurse, or even a receptionist. Ha! No internet connection? The roof’s falling in? The crown just came off your tooth? Your power went out? The toilet’s broken, heating fuel seems to have run out, lawnmower handle snapped off, cat’s throwing up? Ha. Try to talk to someone—anyone. Yeah, right. What am I thinking? That these people are here to serve you, since you’re paying for their services? Doh!!!!

3. Screech alarms. Oh, God, I hate these. And I don’t care what they are—the car alarm malfunctioning yet again, the smoke alarm going off because someone put too much cheese on the pizza, the seat belt or cell phone or pager beeper sounding endlessly—you name it, I hate it. In fact, I hate all loud, sudden noises, from fireworks exploding to balloons popping, truck exhaust backfiring, motorcycles roaring, alarms and timers going off, you name it. This is unnecessary and annoying. Stop… making… that… noise.

4. Commercials. I hate having a movie, program, or radio music interrupted by commercials. One minute, you’re engrossed in music or a plot unfolding. The next, you’re hearing all about HOWTOGETRIDOFGASORACIDREFLUXORCONSTIPATION or some equally inappropriate topic at the top of the pitch man’s lungs and as fast as he can possibly say it. We say, keep your personal problems to yourself, please. Discuss them with your doctor. But don’t subject us to them on TV or radio or anywhere else, for that matter. Gross!!!!! We’ve abandoned TV and radio completely—and with considerable regret—because we can’t take the barrage of grossness or time-wasting stupidity any longer. Now we watch movies courtesy of Netflix, and listen to our CD collection at home and while we’re driving. We get exactly what we want to see or hear, with no vulgar interruptions. Whew.

5. Billboards. Our friend Ben lives in a very beautiful area. Driving around looking at the gorgeous mountains, valleys, and rivers is a delight. Or it would be a delight, if the scenery weren’t obscured by endless billboards. I realize that folks, farmers especially, need ways to stretch their modest income to make ends meet, and that billboards—like cellphone towers—look like a source of free money. But oh, please! Couldn’t you all try to raise money by a different path—say, a “please prevent this billboard” campaign? Our friend Ben would be happy to contribute, and I’ll bet I wouldn’t be alone.

6. Late fees. Oh geez, it always seems like the credit card, electric, phone, cable, electric, and etc. etc. companies are out to get our friend Ben by slapping on late fees to their already exhorbitant bills, even if I pay them the day they’re supposedly due. Folks, listen up: Your original bills are about all any of us can handle. So cut us a break, please! Our friend Ben has a very simple solution to this situation: Please make all payments due the first of each month, rather than staggering them at compeletely unpredictable and easy-to-forget intervals. If we knew we had to pay all our bills on one easy-to-remember day, we could do it. Promise. No more missed payments, no more late fees. Is this rocket science? Hardly. So why don’t all the billing companies do it? Oh, wait, those late fees… free money for them! GRRRRRRRRRRRR.

7. Deadlines. Thinking about bill payment dates reminds our friend Ben of another hated annoyance, deadlines. Like many other professionals, from chefs to contractors, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are always working under deadlines. Get this in by this date, finish this by this date, write this by this date, edit by this date, proof this by this date. Literally thousands of deadlines later, we both feel if we never had to meet another deadline in our entire lives, it would be too soon. We fantasize about winning the lottery and never having to face another deadline. Really, we’re not lazy—we just love the idea of working on our own schedules rather than someone else’s.

8. Cartoon voices. OMG!!! Whatever made the creators of cartoons feel that they had to give their characters such unnatural, annoying, high-pitched voices that they’d shatter glass?!! Our friend Ben has always hated animated cartoons (with the exception of “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” and as opposed to newspaper cartoons, of course). It might be because my parents forced us to OD on Disney when we were kids. Actually, maybe this one should have been “Disney” rather than “Cartoon voices.” Please, puh-leez, don’t ever ever ever bring up Mickey Mouse or the Mouseketeers around our friend Ben. God have mercy!

9. Cold rolls. Okay, the poor rolls are standing in here for any food that’s served at the wrong temperature: cold or lukewarm entrees, sides, potatoes, pasta, pizza, etc.; too-warm whipped cream, ice cream, trifle, puddings, iced tea, salads, margaritas, and so on; any food, in fact, that’s served at less than its perfect temperature. Oh, yuck! Who wants to eat that?!! Sodden French fries; cold scrambled eggs; fossilized toast; tragically cold BLT or mac’n’cheese or… Food, every dish, has a temperature at which it is perfect, be it a salad or a curry or a pie or a simple cup of coffee. Please folks, let’s make an effort to serve and enjoy each dish at its peak. Too-cold food is annoying. Too-hot food is excruciating. Don’t do that to us!!!

10. Flimsy goods. You slip on a pair of flip-flops and they immediately break. Your new wine-bottle opener develops a fatal injury after a single use. Your earrings, CD, pen, lampshade, running shoes, food-storage container: zippo. You’ve spent good money on this stuff, and it’s let you down bigtime. GRRRRRRR!!!! Even if you stay out of Wal-Mart and the innumerable dollar stores, you’re bound to encounter shoddy goods. How annoying!!!

And the bonus:

11. Solicitations. If you have a problem and try to reach someone to find a solution, forget it: You’ll run up against the automated voice. But just try to avoid the endless calls begging for donations to this and that, or the other auto-calls that are trying to sell you something or otherwise get you to part with your hard-earned money: Oh yeah. Think you’re safe because you put your number on all those no-call lists? Ha ha ha haaaaa!!!! They don’t apply to “charities.” So when the Shriners or police or God-knows-what come calling, you’ll still be taking the call. This goes for door-to-door solicitations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, too. Leave us alone, please! If we want you, we’ll find you.

Your turn now! I’m sure there’s a whole dictionary’s worth I haven’t listed…

Ben Picks Ten: Veggie Pizza Toppings July 1, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Back in the day, our friend Ben’s favorite pizza was topped with black olives, anchovies, and pepperoni. But since meeting Silence Dogood, my pizza horizons have broadened, and now I enjoy veggie-topped pizzas as much (well, almost as much, but don’t tell Silence!) as my former favorite.

Last Thursday night, Silence and I were visiting our friends Delilah and Chaz, who had arranged a make-your-own grilled pizza party for us. Delilah and Chaz have a wonderful outdoor entertainment area, and when they do something, they do it. Their outdoor countertop was literally blanketed with yummy pizza toppings, from a jar of tomato sauce and a big bowl of mozzarella to platters of grilled veggies, chunks of sweet potato and oven-browned baking potatoes, feta cheese, raw veggies, fresh basil, and chorizo sausage and shredded chicken. (And trust me, that’s not the half of it.) They had also made and pre-grilled a platterful of pizza crusts, so all we had to do was grab a crust, load it with the toppings of our choice, and pop it on the grill.

Our friends Mary and Dave first introduced us to grilled pizzas, and let me just say, they are sooooo good. Perfect for summer. (Or anytime!) Delilah and Chaz even put unglazed tiles on top of their grilling rack and set the pizzas on the tiles to make sure the crusts crisped up just right. And of course they have a wooden pizza peel—the cutting-board-shaped, long-handled, thin wooden “spatula” that’s the best way to get the finished pizza off the grill.

Our friend Ben concocted such a perfect pizza that everyone demanded a bite and then oohed and aahed, which made me think I should share some of my topping combos with you all, pizza being, after all, one of my favorite foods. (Enshrined as it is in the pantheon of the four Ps: pizza, pasta, potatoes, and popcorn.) In honor of Silence and summer, all these use veggie toppings. Try ’em, you’ll like ’em! And please share your own faves with us.

1. Pesto pizza. After coating the crust with tomato sauce, add a layer of pesto before you put on the mozzarella. This gives a great flavor boost to the finished pizza without being as overwhelming as pesto alone sometimes is. Once you’ve added the cheese, use any toppings you like—any of the combinations that follow will work just fine (except for #10, the Indian pizza)—and finish with some shredded fresh basil to echo the pesto flavor.

2. Grilled veggie pizza. Coat the crust with tomato sauce, top with mozzarella, and add grilled rings of sweet onion (Vidalia, Walla Walla, or Candy type), strips of grilled red, yellow, and/or orange peppers, and grilled slices of portabella, baby ‘bella, and/or button mushrooms. Sprinkle with oregano, thyme, and coarse salt before sliding the pizza onto the grill.

3. Greek pizza. Coat the crust with tomato sauce, top with mozzarella, and add artichoke hearts or bases, black olives (sliced canned or seeded kalamata), and crumbled feta cheese. Top with fresh basil and/or fresh mint leaves. Simple but fabulous! To convert it to a Middle Eastern pizza, add crumbled falafel patties and diced grilled eggplant, with some yogurt cheese added prior to the mozzarella, and make sure you add the fresh mint leaves. Yum!!!

4. Pepper pizza. If you love peppers, this is the pizza for you! Coat the crust with tomato sauce and top with mozzarella. Add sliced button mushrooms and/or diced sweet onion (optional). Then top with strips of red, green, orange, yellow, “chocolate,” and/or purple bell peppers, jarred jalapeno rings, and jarred sweet pickled pepper rings to taste. Fanatics can season this pizza with a liberal sprinkling of crushed red pepper before putting it on the grill.

5. Mexican pizza. This is one of my all-time faves. Coat the crust with tomato sauce or salsa and top that with a thin layer of cilantro paste (available in tubes in the produce section of most markets). Add a layer of refried beans, a very thin layer of hot sauce (optional), and a thin layer of sour cream. Top with a mixture of mozzarella and the shredded “Mexican cheese” mixes you can buy at the store. Add diced red bell pepper, jarred jalapeno rings, sliced black olives, diced onion, minced garlic scapes (if available), and minced fresh cilantro. Allow guests to add sliced green onions, additional sour cream, hot sauce, and jalapenos, and more minced cilantro to their grilled slices before eating. 

6. Mushroom-lover’s pizza. If you really love mushrooms—if you’re one of those folks who has to make an effort to refrain from referring to them as “mushies” or “‘shrooms” in company—then this is the pizza for you. Marinate sliced portabellas in a marinade of tamari soy sauce, sliced green onions (including white part), minced garlic scapes (if available), and red wine (your choice; we usually go with chianti or whatever’s available) in the fridge overnight, shaking the container occasionally. Grill some button mushrooms over mesquite chips (or your favorite) and slice them. Saute sliced shiitake and oyster mushrooms, or one of the gourmet mushroom blends available in the produce section of most supermarkets, in butter, and drain, reserving the butter (it’s luscious on pasta; try it with sauteed sweet onions and roasted red pepper strips or arugula cooked just until wilted). Make a standard pizza with tomato sauce and mozzarella (a thin layer of pesto between the tomato sauce and mozzarella is delish on this pizza), then top with the marinated portabella slices, the grilled button mushroom slices, and the sauteed mushrooms. Add fresh or dried thyme sprigs and rosemary. Sprinkle liberally with coarse salt (we like Real Salt, but you could use sea salt or Kosher salt if you prefer), and add fresh-cracked black pepper if you wish.

7. Buffalo pizza. Bufalo mozzarella is actually made with the milk of water buffaloes, not milk from American bison (aka buffaloes), a most disappointing discovery on our friend Ben’s part. So much for the romance of the open range. But never mind, it still makes great pizza, and you can always put on a CD of Native American music and look at your favorite Georgia O’Keefe painting while you’re eating it. To make buffalo pizza, spread a crust with pesto, add tomato sauce, then top it liberally with rounds of bufalo mozzarella, sprinkle on minced kalamata olives, and position a fresh basil leaf over each mozzarella round. Grill just long enough to heat through.

8. Summer garden pizza. This sounds weird, but trust me, it tastes good! Spread tomato sauce over a pizza crust and top it with fresh basil leaves or pesto. Cover with mozzarella. Add fresh sweet corn cut from the cob, super-thin slices of yellow crookneck or straightneck summer squash, rings of sweet onion (Vidalia, Walla Walla, or Candy type), sliced button mushrooms, and diced yellow, red, or orange bell pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and oregano before grilling.

9. “Say cheese!” pizza. As faithful readers know, here at Hawk’s Haven, we love cheese, so of course this pizza is a favorite with us. Spread a pizza crust with tomato sauce. Embed fresh salsa (the tomato/onion/green pepper/cilantro mix typically sold in supermarkets in the produce section, or homemade) into the sauce by pressing it in. Splash on a little hot sauce (we like Pickapeppa, or try Tabasco Chipotle or your favorite). Top this with a mix of mozzarella, white sharp Cheddar, feta, and an Italian cheese blend. The fresh salsa adds some much-needed crunch to this cheesy delight. I like to add a liberal amount of dried oregano, basil, and salt to my slices before eating them.

10. Indian pizza. Our friend Ben suspects that this will be the most exotic pizza you’ll ever try. But yow, it is good! So be brave and take the plunge if you like curry. (Otherwise, stick to the first nine.) Saute black mustardseed, whole cumin, whole fenugreek, just a pinch of cinnamon, salt, garam masala, and curry powder in butter. Add diced sweet onion (Vidalia, Walla Walla, or Candy type) and saute until clarified. Add minced button mushrooms and saute. Cook down until the mixture forms a thick filling. Coat a pizza crust with a thin layer of chutney (mango, peach, or your favorite). Top with the sauteed filling. Top this with a very thin layer of mint-coriander sauce, and then cover everything with thin slices of paneer (Indian cheese) or fresh mozzarella (bufalo mozzarella would work well for this).

And the bonus:

11. Extra cheese, onion, and black olive pizza. This is what I inevitably order when eating pizza out, dumping on oregano and salt when it arrives at the table. If you haven’t tried this particular combination, check it out!

Ben Picks Ten: Classic Reggae June 19, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has been a reggae fan since back in the day—the grad school day, to be precise. I still remember how totally thrilled I was to discover Bob Marley, Black Uhuru, Yellowman, and the other reggae greats. I’ve never had any reason to change my views. Reggae is great feel-good music. But part of why it’s great (and why it makes you feel so good) is because it’s not just about kaya and partying and being laid back, it’s also about freedom and justice and faith and other great human qualities and aspirations. For every “Is This Love?” there’s a “Redemption Song;” for every “Waiting in Vain” there’s a “Buffalo Soldier.” And all of them are wonderful.

So let’s get down to it. It’s summer, it’s time to crank up the reggae and “blow them to full watts tonight!” Here are my One-Ben Awards for best classic reggae performers, with some of their recordings, including, of course, my faves.

1. Bob Marley and the Wailers. Bob Marley IS reggae to most people, and with good reason. His recordings are every bit as dynamic and meaningful today as when they were first recorded. But let’s not forget to recognize the contributions of the other original Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, who also have fine solo recordings, as well as later members of the group, notably Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, whose recordings as Sly & Robbie are Grammy winners (like both Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh). Sly & Robbie also invented the Rockers (pronounced “raucous”) style of reggae. Our friend Ben’s two favorite Bob Marley recordings are Babylon by Bus and Legend. Others I have and love are Natural Mystic, Uprising, Kaya, Survival, Songs of Freedom, Burnin’, Chances Are, Exodus, Shakedown, ‘Natty Dread’, and Soul Captives.

2. Black Uhuru. The career of this fabulous group was cut short by the untimely death of its lead singer, Puma, but its music is incredible and instantly recognizable. Even today, if I walk into a store or turn on the radio and hear Black Uhuru playing, I have that jolt of recognition that’s the hallmark of a really great group. My favorite recording is Chill Out, but check out all their work, including Black Uhuru, Anthem, Mystical Truth, Iron Storm, Now, and BrutalAnthem won a Grammy for Best Reggae Album in 1985, the first year the Grammys had a reggae category.

3. Yellowman. Yellowman is a law unto himself, working his name and persona into every song in the most audacious way. It cheered our friend Ben up no end to discover him duetting with Sting on an album a few years ago. Needless to say, he more than held his own. I love King Yellowman, but don’t overlook Freedom of Speech, either; both albums were nominated for Grammys for Best Reggae Album, and in our friend Ben’s opinion, both should have won.

4. Jimmy Cliff. Jimmy Cliff’s 1972 movie, “The Harder They Come,” along with Eric Clapton’s 1974 cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” took reggae out of Jamaica and introduced it to the rest of the world. I love The Power and the Glory, but don’t miss the Grammy-winning Cliff Hanger and Follow My Mind, I Am the Living, Black Magic, Breakout, Hanging Fire, Reggae Night, and Club Paradise.

5. Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. Many of Bob Marley’s children, his wife Rita, and his backup group the I-Threes have all made solo recordings since his death (not to mention his fellow Wailers), but his son Ziggy is his musical successor, and he doesn’t disappoint. Ziggy has won three Grammys, for Love Is My Religion, Fallen Is Babylon, and Conscious Party. My favorite Ziggy recording is a best-of, “Time Has Come…” And check out his others, Play the Game Right, Jahmeyka, One Bright Day, and Joy & Blues. Up there in reggae heaven, Bob Marley must be smiling. 

6. Toots and the Maytals. Toots has been there from reggae’s beginnings, making great music. His True Love won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album in 2005. My own fave is Live, and don’t miss Light Your Light, Ska Father, Toots in Memphis, and An Hour Live

7. Linton Kwesi Johnson. The reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson makes thought-provoking rather than feel-good music, but it’s still great music. Listen to Bass Culture, Forces of Victory, and Linton Kwesi Johnson in Concert with the Dub Band, and you’ll have to agree.

8. Burning Spear. The religious aspect of reggae—Jah and Rastafari—loom large in Burning Spear’s music, and that’s just great with our friend Ben. Reggae’s roots are in Rastafarianism, and to understand that is to understand reggae itself. Their Calling Rastafari won a Grammy for Best Reggae Album in 2000. Start with that or The Burning Spear Experience. If you like what you hear, check out Our Music, Free Man, Appointment with His Majesty, The World Should Know, Mek We Dweet, Live in Paris Zenith ’88, People of the World, and Resistance.

9. Steel Pulse. This British reggae group also netted a Grammy for Babylon & the Bandit. They may be far from reggae’s home, Jamaica, but they’ve produced a solid body of work in exile, including African Holocaust, Living Legacy, Rage & Fury, Rastafari Centennial: Live in Paris, Victims, and Steppin’ Out.

10. Gregory Isaacs. I love Isaacs’ Extra Classic. Don’t miss his Private & Confidential and Mr. Cool, either.

And the bonus:

11. Putumayo Presents: Jamaica. If you want an introduction to reggae to see which performers and styles you enjoy most, seek no further. You’ll find music by Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, Augustus Pablo, Black Uhuru, Peter Tosh, Culture, Rico, Joe Higgs, Israel Vibration, Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus, and The Gladiators. My favorite song on this album is Culture’s “Why Am I a Rastaman”—it’s extraordinary. Don’t skip Bob Marley if you want to know what reggae is, though—Legend or Babylon by Bus would be an ideal addition to this album as a great intro to this marvelous music. And for those who already know and love reggae, our friend Ben recommends Augustus Pablo’s album East of the River Nile as a must-get, too. 


Ben Picks Ten: Pirates May 20, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s pirate week here at Poor Richard’s Almanac! Picking up where Richard Saunders left off with his pirate quiz (see “A piratical post” to test your pirate savvy), our friend Ben would like to present my One-Ben Awards in ten (plus two) pirate-related categories. So without more ado:

1. Most ferocious-looking pirate. The One-Ben Award in this category goes hands-down to Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. Huge and burly, Blackbeard would have been intimidating in any situation. He was also armed literally to the teeth, bristling with cutlasses, pistols, daggers, and an assortment of other weapons. But his famous beard was his crowning glory. Long and thick, it was divided into octopus-like sections which were each tied with a red ribbon. In battle, Blackbeard must have looked to his terrified enemies like a fiend from hell, since he would put cannon fuses in his beard and set them on fire before charging, weapons ablaze, smoke and flames surrounding his head like an infernal halo.  

2. Best pirate treasure. Others may have had greater treasures, but our friend Ben is giving the One-Ben Award in this category to Captain Kidd, who is the only pirate actually known to have buried a treasure. It strikes our friend Ben as hysterical, given subsequent history, but where Captain Kidd buried his fabled treasure was not on some deserted island but instead was on Long Island! Though historically factual, Captain Kidd’s buried trasure has never been found. But it fueled an unquenchable legend for buried treasure and treasure maps when three of the most successful writers of their day, Washington Irving (Wolfert Webber), Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), and Edgar Allan Poe (The Gold Bug) used the legend of Captain Kidd’s treasure as inspiration for their works. These days, it’s sunken treasure rather than buried treasure that fires the imagination of contemporary treasure-hunters, as legendary ship after ship has finally been found with their cargoes of gold coin and other riches.

3. Luckiest pirate. The One-Ben Award in this category goes to Sir Francis Drake. The famous privateer and his ship, the Golden Hind, enjoyed the patronage and protection of Queen Elizabeth I, so rather than being pursued by the British Navy like other pirates, he could plunder with impunity—as long as he focused his efforts on the Spanish and gave a cut to the Crown. He was so successful that the Spanish, who called him “El Draque” (“The Dragon”), put a reward on his head that would now be worth 8 million dollars. Despite the enormous prize, no one ever collected, and Drake was knighted by the Queen and made Vice Admiral of the British Navy in recognition of his services to the Crown.  

4. Happiest pirate. Our friend Ben thinks Captain “Calico Jack” Rackham is best qualified for this award. While other pirates literally had a wife in every port—Blackbeard is said to have had between 12 and 14 simultaneously—women were generally forbidden on board pirate ships, so it was a long time between conjugal visits. Calico Jack, however, kept his mistress, Anne Bonney (or Bonny), at his side, on board and off. He even allowed another woman, Mary Read, to become a member of his pirate crew, provided she remained in disguise as a man.   

5. Best pirate flag. Blackbeard wins again. Though our friend Ben admires the flag of Calico Jack, with its paired cutlasses crossed beneath a skull—very clean, very much to the point, so to speak—for sheer terror, Blackbeard’s flag is unbeatable. It shows a horned skeleton with an hourglass in one hand, to show that time was running out for his unfortunate victims, and a spear in the other. The spear is aimed at a heart from which red drops of blood are falling. The eerie flag (black, of course) with its creepy horned skeleton would strike terror into anyone’s heart. Nothing “jolly” about it! 

6. Worst pirate enemy. The British Navy wins this one. Pirates may have wreaked terror on merchant ships and Spanish galleons, but if they ended up in a fight with a British Man o’War, it was likely to be their last. Many a pirate was finally brought down in an encounter with the Navy, including the greatest of them all, Black Bart, the Great Pirate Roberts. But we’ll get back to him in a minute.

7. Best time to be a pirate. Definitely during the Golden Age of Piracy, which lasted just a few decades, from the 1680s to the 1720s. It was during these glory days that Anglo-American pirates had their heyday, ransacking ships in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and along the Barbary Coast. Many pirates had been trained by the Royal Navy, but after Queen Anne’s War (the War of the Spanish Succession), they found themselves out of a job and took to the high seas. There was plenty of plunder to be had, and the pirates made the most of it. However, their behavior made them understandably unpopular with the British and American authorities, who eventually hunted most of the ringleaders down, bringing about the end of an era—but not the end of the pirate legend. 

8. Least likely pirate. Stede Bonnet was a Virginia gentleman who also owned extensive properties in Barbados. But the life of the landed gentry lacked excitement for Bonnet, so he took to the sea as a pirate. Unlike “real” pirates, who were generally seasoned sailors and typically acquired their ships as spoils, Bonnet bought his ship, and rather than luring sailors to sign with him on the promise of future treasure, he paid their salaries upfront. Despite his lack of piratical experience and his gentlemanly behavior, Stede Bonnet proved to be a success as a pirate, even partnering for a time with the fearsome Blackbeard. Perhaps the fact that his trademark was burning the ships he captured had something to do with his success.

9. Best-dressed pirate. The One-Ben Award in this category goes to Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, aka the Great Pirate Roberts. Black Bart was a dandy by anybody’s standards, the bad boy rock star of his age. Tricked out in furs and velvet, with a crimson vest, a red feather in his hat, and numerous jewels, including a huge diamond cross (originally intended for the king of Portugal) on a massive gold chain, Roberts’ appearance was as extravagant as any Elizabethan lord’s. He also loved the refinements of life, including music and dancing, and preferred a good cup of tea to the rum that most pirates drank as their due.

10. Most successful pirate. The Great Pirate Roberts also wins this award hands-down. In his career, Black Bart captured more than 470 ships. He was more feared than any other pirate—ships refused to even put up a token fight against him, fleeing if they were able at the very appearance of his sails. His vast treasure—which disappeared mysteriously after his death—dwarfed that of any other pirate. Though today, pirates like Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Jean Lafitte, and Captain Morgan are better known, nobody else even comes close. 

And the bonuses:

11. Most unlikely pirate fact. The expression “honor among thieves” may have originated with pirates, because, in fact, they had elaborate codes of honor. Both Sir Henry Morgan (Captain Morgan) and Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts drew up a Pirate Code of Honour for their men. Black Bart’s 11 rules included these: “Every man shall have an equal vote in affairs of moment,” “None shall game for money either with dice or cards,” “The lights and candles should be put out at eight at night,” “No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them,” “None shall strike another on board the ship,” and “The musicians shall have rest on the Sabbath Day.” The rules were clearly intended to preserve order and prevent infighting, and any violations were punishable by slit ears and noses, marooning, or death. (Roberts did allow the pirates to settle disputes by dueling, but only on land.) Shares of the spoils were also spelled out in the Pirate Code, both for officers and for “private gentlemen of fortune.”

12. Most successful posthumous pirate: Admiral Sir Henry Morgan, aka Captain Morgan, was a piratical success story even while he lived. He amassed a huge fortune through piracy and privateering, and was subsequently knighted by King Charles II for his depradations against the Spanish New World colonies and made an admiral, to boot. On his retirement from the High Seas, he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, and enjoyed a dissolute retirement until his death from natural causes. Quite a difference from the usual pirate fate! But his greatest success came several centuries later, when Captain Morgan rum was launched in 1944. Today, Captain Morgan is the third largest-selling spirit in America and the seventh worldwide. The money that’s raking in would make the avaricious old pirate drool. The legend lives on!   

Ben Picks Ten: Insomnia Cures May 2, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , , ,

A peek into our medicine cabinet would reveal that we’re a pretty healthy bunch here at Hawk’s Haven. You’d find a bunch of vitamins, some aspirin, and a just-in-case package of decongestant tabs (we rarely get colds, but our friend Ben has a horror of being unable to breathe). Oops, and a huge box of Band-Aids for the uncoordinated Ben’s many scrapes and scratches. Our general philosophy is that most things will cure themselves about as fast as you can cure them, and if you’re really feeling miserable, hot herb tea or a hot toddy and plenty of sleep is the best remedy. So far, our approach has served us well.

But what if being unable to get to sleep is the problem? We’ve all had those nights where wrestling with looming deadlines or looming bills or a looming performance review or some other waking nightmare has kept us tossing and turning. And as we all know, a sleepless night only adds to our worries the next day. Over the years, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have arrived at a number of ways to keep those demons at bay, and not one of them involves reaching for a pill. Next time you’re having trouble getting to sleep, try one. They’ve all earned their One-Ben Awards for effectiveness! (What are One-Ben Awards, you ask? See my earlier post, “Ben Picks Ten: Music,” and you can read all about ’em.)

1. Cut back on the caffeine. This one should be a no-brainer: If you’re drinking high-powered espressos, cappucinos, and French roast all day (and all night), do you really think you’re going to sleep well? Doh! Ditto for caffeinated sodas. Caffeine definitely has its place, but by mid-afternoon, it’s time to switch to decaf for the rest of the day. Give your body a break! Even decaf has some caffeine, though, so it’s best to stop drinking coffee, black or green tea, or any naturally caffeinated beverage after dinner to give yourself a chance to wind down.

2. Make a little noise. White noise, that is, the kind of low-key, repetitive sound that blocks out irregular noises like trucks roaring by, train whistles, and (our favorite) the kitty derby starting up at 3 a.m. as the cats chase each other through the house. No need for a fancy white-noise machine—a fan on low or the air conditioner does the trick nicely.

3. Drink your tea. Forget that “glass of milk before bedtime” stuff—the protein in milk is actually a stimulant. Instead, brew up a cup of chamomile tea. This gentle herb tea has earned its stripes over the centuries as a sleeping aid, and our friend Ben knows its effectiveness first-hand: within five minutes of drinking a cup, I’m out. But don’t add sugar, not even honey: It, too, is a stimulant. Our friend Ben thinks that if you can drink black coffee, you can certainly drink mild-flavored chamomile tea. But if you simply must add something, try a splash of lemon juice.

4. Or try something stronger. A glass of wine or a drink is a nice way to relax before bedtime. Port is especially warming on a cold night (our favorite is Sandeman’s Tawny Port, which has a wonderful flavor and color and isn’t syrupy-sweet like some ports). If you opt for a mixed drink, keep that bourbon or rum or Kahlua away from the coffee and cola, though!

5. Read a boring book. This one is our friend Ben’s go-to remedy, and it has never failed me. I first discovered it during an unfortunate encounter with emergency surgery that involved a hospital stay. As you know if you’ve ever been confined to bed for more than a day, it becomes increasingly hard to actually sleep, since your body isn’t tired. Fortunately, in this case, I had brought a huge, scholarly tome on the history of the Amish along that I was trying to get through. It was not, shall we say, riveting reading, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise: It could knock our friend Ben out every time within five pages. You must have a boring book lying around somewhere—an old textbook, a novel you couldn’t get through, a history or investment guide or something that sounded good but proved to be virtually unreadable. If worse comes to worst, go to the used bookstore or library discard bin and choose one to keep around just for this reason. But make sure it’s on a neutral topic—no murder mysteries or other graphic violence or disturbing stuff. The idea is to put yourself to sleep, not give yourself nightmares. (More on this in a minute.)

6. Count your blessings. Our friend Ben is embarrassed to admit that this works far better for me than any of those bizarre mind tricks that are supposed to numb you into sleep, like counting sheep or counting backwards from a hundred. Perhaps putting yourself in an attitude of gratitude simply creates a peaceful, restful atmosphere. But whatever the case, our friend Ben likes to end each day by giving thanks for all the good things the day has brought, and long before that list is complete, I’m sleeping as soundly as our cat Linus after he’s managed to shove our golden retriever, Molly, completely off her huge dog bed and gone to that wonderful place that all cats seem to find in their dreams. (Our friend Ben knows of nothing as relaxed and contented-looking as a sleeping cat. Just looking at one is enough to relax you, too.)

7. Get some exercise. It’s hard to get to sleep when your body’s not tired, even if your mind’s exhausted. This is yet another good reason to get out and get some exercise every day, whether you’re taking a walk, doing some gardening, or heading to the gym or the pool. Your body will thank you for all sorts of reasons! Just don’t exercise before bedtime. You guessed it: Exercise is stimulating, and you’ll be too pumped up to be able to relax into sleep.

8. Stop the clock. The mental clock, that is. Our friend Ben makes it a point to stop thinking about anything serious for at least a half-hour before bedtime. This is not the time to be worrying about the mortgage or having a gut-wrenching discussion or even thinking about something fun and exciting, like planning a vacation or, say, writing a blog post. Like a bulldog with a pork chop, the mind will seize on any stimulation and worry at it for hours on end. The good, the bad, and the ugly—it all needs to stop if you’re planning on sleeping anytime soon. Sweep the floor, do the dishes, clean the litterbox—mindless chores are a good way to shut yourself off.

9. Turn off the TV. I know this will be the hardest one for many of you, but watching the late-night news with its graphic gore and violence and its endless parade of bad news, or a shoot-’em-up or cut-’em-up show, or even hearing the screaming, shrieking, overloud and overhyped commercials that punctuate any show, is going to imprint violence, hysteria, and noise on your brain. And that’s not what you need when you’re trying to relax into sleep. An hour before bedtime, cut yourself off. Record or download your faves and watch ’em after supper. (Okay, sports fans, I know there’s about as much chance of your turning off the game as cutting off your own arm. Just self-medicate with beer so you can sleep when it’s all over.) Can’t tear yourself away from the screen? This is a good time to watch favorite DVDs that you already know and love; they’re less likely to get your mind overstimulated than something new. But go for the romances or the documentaries, not the blood-and-guts thrillers, if you really plan on getting to sleep.

10. Love the one you’re with. Our friend Ben aims for a PG rating for Poor Richard’s Almanac, but in this case, we gotta go for the X. There’s nothing like a good session of loving to—I was about to say, get the kinks out, but let’s opt for “relax those tense muscles and help you drift off to sleep” instead. And, as an added benefit, remember that scientists have found that the more sex you have, the younger you look! (Hmmm, we wonder how those scientists discovered that interesting fact. And people think science is dull!)

There are actually two more techniques that our friend Ben would like to add to the list:

11. Sleep cool. Turn down the thermostat a bit before bedtime. Our friend Ben won’t claim that this saves energy, since the extra cooling in summer probably balances out the money saved on heat in winter. But it sure helps you get a better night’s sleep! That’s because you warm up your surroundings as you sleep, transferring body heat to the bedclothes. If you’re perfectly comfortable when you lie down, you’ll soon find yourself overheating, which makes for a bad night of semiconscious thrashing and turning while attempting to cool down. If, on the other hand, you start out a bit cool, you’ll soon reach a perfect temperature for nightlong comfort. Just a bit cool, though—freezing is hardly what anyone would call a restful state.

12. Make sure your bed suits you. Our friend Ben has spent far too many sleepless nights as a guest on rock-hard futons and iron-hard mattresses to ignore this point. A mushy, saggy mattress is no one’s idea of comfort, but our friend Ben has to wonder what sadist or religious zealot thought up the board-hard bed. If you’re curvy like Silence, these boardlike mattresses are especially excruciating, since they don’t conform to your curves. Aaaarrrggghhhh!!! You might as well be sleeping on the bare ground, and in fact, it might be softer. Our friend Ben suggests that you ignore the experts and find a mattress that actually feels good. New bedding not in your budget? Check out the new generation of air mattresses. Our friend Ben discovered these while staying at a friend’s, and we now have two of them at Hawk’s Haven for the comfort of our own guests. You can inflate them to the exact level of firmness that feels right to you, and they’re as comfortable as any bed our friend Ben has ever known, and more comfortable than almost all of them. As an added benefit, they cost a lot less than a mattress, too! Don’t forget the pillows when you’re thinking about comfy bedding. The right combination can make all the difference! Our friend Ben prefers a foam rubber pillow on the bottom with a plumper pillow on top—the foam rubber has just the right amount of give combined with the firmer top pillow. Check out various combinations and see what works for you!    

And finally for the bonus:

13. Stop the snoring. There’s nothing like a stentorian barrage of snoring for keeping the non-snoring partner awake and homicidal. And it doesn’t seem fair to our friend Ben to punish the non-snorer by forcing her to wear earplugs while her oblivious partner snorts, gasps, and roars through the night. I read in a blog post not long ago (but too long ago, alas, for my feeble brain cells to remember whose blog it was) that those adhesive strips that you put on your nose to open the airways really work. Though, frankly, sticking tape on your nose every night doesn’t strike our friend Ben as appealing. But I guess it’s better than being murdered in your sleep. There are also a number of stop-snoring spray cans on the market. Our friend Ben burst out laughing the first time I saw these on a pharmacy shelf: I had an instant vision of the sleepless spouse firing off a macelike blast into the face of her snoring partner. That would stop the snoring, all right! And it might have an interesting effect on the relationship, as well. A closer look revealed that the snorer was supposed to spray a few blasts into his mouth; presumably keeping the throat from drying out will help stifle the noise. Maybe between the nose strips and the sprays, a couple could at least reach detente; our friend Ben can’t say for sure, but open breathing passages and a moistened throat sound like good signs to me. And of course, there’s always that white noise. Crank it up!   

Sleep gives our bodies and minds a chance to repair and restore themselves so we can face another day. It works far better than any other restorative technique, and it’s free and available to all. It’s far too precious a resource to lose to worry, caffeine, or TV. Our friend Ben says, reclaim your right to a good night’s sleep! You’ll live longer and better if you do. (Linus would like to add his two cents here: He says that you’ll always sleep better in someone else’s bed, but only if you toss them out first.) 

Now it’s your turn. Please share your sleep-inducing techniques with us!      

Ben Picks Ten: Tomatoes April 15, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening.
Tags: , ,

It has to be said: We gardeners have a thing about tomatoes. If the only tomatoes you’ve ever encountered are the hard, plastic, tasteless objects in the produce aisle, you may wonder why. But anyone who’s ever bitten into a thick, meaty, sunwarmed slice of tomato on a bacon-and-tomato sandwich (keep those napkins handy and your face over the plate!) or experienced the blast of flavor from a fresh-picked cherry tomato popped whole into the mouth doesn’t need to ask. If the sun had a flavor, “tomato” would be it.

It may seem a little out of sync to be focusing on tomatoes in April, especially if you live in a climate like our friend Ben’s where this morning’s temperatures are crawling towards the mid-thirties. But if you haven’t yet selected your tomato seeds for this year, or if you plan to buy transplants and would like to try a few new varieties, it’s not a moment too soon. It’s time for the One-Ben Awards for all-time best tomatoes! (What are One-Ben Awards, you ask? Check out my earlier post, “Ben Picks Ten: Music” to read all about ’em.)

Mind you, anything that inspires passion also inspires controversy. There are thousands of tomato cultivars out there, and (I’ll admit it) most of them are good, unless they were bred specifically to withstand the horrors of shipping. Our friend Ben has been fortunate enough to try a whole lot of tomatoes, both heirlooms and hybrids, over the years, but there are plenty I haven’t tried (yet). So of course this is a very personal “best-of” list. You will not go wrong with any of these tomatoes; in fact, if you plant all these “love apples,” you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled into the Garden of Eden before the snake got his bright idea. But for those of you who feel that I’ve unjustly neglected your all-time fave, please write and let our friend Ben know all about it. There must be room around here somewhere for a few more plants…

Okay, without more ado, I’d like to present Ben’s Top Ten Tomatoes:

1. All-time best flavor. It has to be ‘Brandywine’, a Pennsylvania heirloom variety. Our friend Ben is not the only one who thinks so—blind taste tests across the country have found ‘Brandywine’ to be the winner for flavor. This is what a tomato should taste like! But there’s one little problem: Would the real ‘Brandywine’ please stand up?! Some claim that the pink ‘Brandywine’ is the true variety, and our friend Ben agrees with that assessment. But there are also red, yellow, and black ‘Brandywines’, as well as regular and potato-leaved types. (And no, the leaves don’t actually look like potatoes. They look like the leaves of potato plants, thick and crinkly.) Our friend Ben has this to say: They’re all luscious, so don’t sweat it. Try one, try all, sit back, take a bite… yum!!!

2. Best yellow tomato. Okay, they’re really orange. And our friend Ben has a slight problem here, too, because I simply love yellow/orange tomatoes. I’m not sure I’ve ever met one I didn’t like. The competition is really tough in this category, too, with ‘Yellow Brandywine’, ‘Dr. Wyche’s Yellow’, ‘Amana Orange’, ‘Persimmon’, ‘Woodle Orange’, and ‘Golden Sunray’ among the contenders. Our friend Ben loves all of these and enthusiastically recommends them. But if I had to pick just one, ‘Dad’s Sunset’ would be it. Great flavor, great yield, great color, great keeper. 

3. Best paste tomato. Yes, our friend Ben has tried the marvelous heirlooms like ‘Amish Paste’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’, and the modern hybrids like ‘Juliet’, all renowned for their flavor. But my hands-down favorite is still ‘San Marzano’. The flavor is just unbeatable, and it’s every bit as delicious in sandwiches and salads as it is in sauces. (Our friend Ben loves paste tomatoes on sandwiches and in salads, at least when eating them in front of anyone else—no disintegrating slices or juice all over everything!) 

4. Best cherry tomato. Our friend Ben is going to outrage a lot of people with this choice, but it’s the simple truth: The best cherry tomato is the orange hybrid ‘Sungold’. Hybrids don’t come true from seed, so they have to be repeatedly purchased. This is disappointing to thrifty gardeners who enjoy saving seed, and it’s scary to anyone who’s concerned about preserving as large a gene pool of open-pollinated vegetable cultivars as possible. Our friend Ben agrees with both these groups; perhaps (hint, hint) someone could breed out ‘Sungold’ and come up with an open-pollinated version. Meanwhile, if you simply can’t stand the idea of growing a hybrid, try the red heirloom variety ‘Camp Joy’, a favorite of Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden because, unlike many cherry tomato cultivars, it has real tomato flavor. But if you pass up ‘Sungold’ because of its hybrid status, you’ll really be missing something. 

5. Best snacking tomatoes. Our friend Ben needed to sneak a few more little tomatoes in here, so I opted for “snacking tomatoes” because these aren’t round like cherry tomatoes. But boy, are they good!!! I have grown both ‘Yellow Pear’ and ‘Yellow Plum’ tomatoes every year since I first started growing tomatoes, because I just love them. Great flavor and prolific production over a long season, with pop-in-your-mouth ease. (Of course, they’re great in salads, too.) What more could you ask? If you can only choose one, go with ‘Yellow Plum’, which has a deeper flavor. But they’re both winners!  

6. Most beautiful tomato. Ack, this is another tough category. Our friend Ben thinks the striped tomatoes are the loveliest, and I favor red-and-gold striped over green-and-gold, like the famous heirloom ‘Green Zebra’. But there are plenty of contenders in the red-and-gold category: the paste tomato ‘Striped Roman’, ‘Red Zebra’, ‘Pineapple’, ‘Copia’, ‘Beauty King’. For flavor and that amazing striped color, though, our friend Ben is going with ‘Marvel Stripe’.

7. Tomato with the best name. Heirloom tomatoes have fantastic names, and our friend Ben loves them all: ‘German Lunchbox’, ‘Green Sausage’, ‘Banana Fingers’, ‘Arkansas Traveler’, ‘Royal Hillbilly’, ‘Deppe’s Pink Firefly’, ‘Henderson’s Crimson Cushion’, ‘Thai Red Turtle Egg’, ‘Mule Team’, ‘Bloody Butcher’, ‘Striped Cavern’, ‘Roman Candle’, ‘Pink Quartz’. What’s not to love?!! However, our friend Ben simply has to give the One-Ben Award in this category to ‘Radiator Charley’s Mortgage Lifter’. You can read an entertaining history of this variety by Michael Nolan at Tomato Casual (www.tomatocasual.com), a marvelous site for “all things tomato” in its own right.  

8. Best dark-fleshed tomato. Tomatoes in this category may be purplish or tend towards chocolate, though you often find them listed as “black.” Many tomato enthusiasts maintain that ‘Black Krim’ is the finest of them all, and yep, it’s a great tomato. But our friend Ben thinks ‘Paul Robeson’ is even better. (Wish I had one right now!!!) Do your own taste test at home by planting both!

9. Best tomatoes for home greenhouses. Our friend Ben is lucky enough to have a home greenhouse here at Hawk’s Haven, and it has an in-ground bed designed to let me grow peppers, tomatoes and other tender veggies and extend the season for fresh produce. If you do, too, here’s a tip: I’ve consistently found that small-fruited tomatoes produce wonderfully in the greenhouse—cherry, pear, and plum tomatoes—but larger-fruited types, even paste tomatoes, tend not to produce at all. Tomatoes are wind-pollinated, so even with good ventilation, I always shake the plants and flick the blossoms to make sure pollination takes place. If you’d like to grow greenhouse tomatoes, our friend Ben suggests putting a plant apiece of ‘Sungold’, ‘Camp Joy’, ‘Yellow Pear’, and ‘Yellow Plum’ in the greenhouse along with the ones you plant outside. When you’re still enjoying homegrown tomatoes in November, you’ll be glad you did!

10. Best big, fat tomatoes for sandwiches. Our friend Ben admits that topping a burger or bacon-and-tomato sandwich with a huge, thick, juicy beefsteak-type tomato slice has a lot to be said for it. (We love ’em on multigrain bread with Swiss and Muenster cheese, Romaine lettuce, grapeseed mayo, and Jack Daniel’s honey mustard, too. Homemade hot/sweet pickles on the side.) Our previously mentioned favorites, ‘Brandywine’, ‘Paul Robeson’, and ‘Dad’s Sunset’, are all great choices for sandwiches. ‘Henderson’s Pink Ponderosa’ is another option, as are ‘Yellow Brandywine’, ‘Chianti Rose’ and ‘Marvel Stripe’. But you might also want to give ‘Big Beef’ some space in your beds. After all, when you want a big, fat, flavorful tomato slice, you don’t want to end up asking “Where’s the beef?”     

And the bonus:

11. Chickens’ top tomato pick. Our friend Ben’s chickens are tomato connoisseurs. True, they never met a tomato they wouldn’t at least eat (unlike zucchini—our friend Ben can only sympathize), but it’s easy to see which ones they really like by how enthusiastically they consume them. And, just like people, their top choice is ‘Brandywine’ every time.

Where to look for these wonderful tomato varieties? Fortunately for gardeners, most veggie seed catalogs offer a wide list to choose from. Our friend Ben especially enjoys the selections at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com), Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), Tomato Growers Supply (www.tomatogrowers.com), and Renee’s Garden Seeds (www.reneesgarden.com).

If you’re lucky enough to live near Bowers, PA, you can also get heirloom transplants from Jim Weaver’s Meadow View Farm. (See my earlier post, “Scotch Bonnets and Dutchy gunpowder: a preview” for more about Meadow View.) But our friend Ben suspects that there are plenty of tomato enthusiasts growing heirloom tomato transplants for sale in other locations, too. And if you simply enjoy eating great tomatoes rather than growing them, consider joining your local CSA (consumer-supported agriculture) and patronizing your local farmers’ market. After all, there’s no such thing as too many tomatoes, especially now that they have the imprimatur of the health gurus as cancer-fighters. Our friend Ben says, a tomato a day (or two or three) keeps the doctor away!!!!