Groupaya Brown Bag: The Secret Life of Groups

I’ve been knee deep in Groupaya work since launching a few months ago. It’s exhilarating to be creating something new with such great people. However, if you’re not careful, you can actually go too fast.

One of the things that often goes by the wayside when you’re in startup mode is learning. Sure, you’re learning by doing, but you’re not necessarily giving yourself the time you need for proper reflection.

We were wary of this happening to us, and the counter we came up with was to hold weekly brown bags. They’re for us to learn from each other and from our friends, and because we strongly value openness and community, we open up the brown bags to anyone who wants to come.

I’m particularly excited about this Thursday’s brown bag (December 15, 2011). Kristin Cobble will be sharing her secret sauce in working with groups in a session entitled, “The Secret Life of Groups.” She’ll explain how to apply David Kantor’s family therapy work to groups of all types, shapes, and sizes — project teams, leadership teams, a group of friends, you name it.

Please join us this Thursday at noon at Fiore Caffe in San Francisco. If you’re planning on joining, please RSVP in the comments of the blog post. Hope to see you there!

Close Encounter with Tule Elk

A few weeks ago, I went on what I thought would be an uneventful hike with Pete Forsyth. We decided we’d go up to Point Reyes to check out the Tule Elk Preserve along the Tomales Point Trail. Point Reyes is one of my favorite places in the world, Pete had never been, and Tomales Point Trail is a long, easy, and scenic trail, perfect for us since we were getting a late start.

I was worried when we arrived in Point Reyes, because it was foggy and cold. However, the weather patterns change quickly there, and it was sunny at the trailhead, and so we decided to push on for as far as it made sense. That turned out to be a great decision, even in light of the scary adventure that awaited us toward the end of our little jaunt.

The Tule elk were out in full force that day. I had been to the Preserve once before, but there were many more elk out and about, including many more full-horned bull elk. They grazed openly along the trail, no more than a few hundred yards away.

As we stared at the elk, I started telling Pete about a conversation I had had with a friend before a trip to the Boundary Waters last July. My friend and I had been joking about my lack of outdoor savvy when the conversation had turned to a recent grizzly mauling at Yellowstone. Those unfortunate hikers had come across a grizzly and its cubs along the trail. The hikers had apparently done all of the right things (although later reports indicated otherwise), but the grizzly ended up mauling and killing one of the hikers anyway.

My friend had suggested that the bear should have been euthanized, but I had defended the bear. “What are you going to do?” I asked. “You’re on its turf, and nature is not something to trifle with.” I told the story to Pete with a note of irony, given that I was standing completely in the open, a few hundred yards away from a few dozen bull elk, snapping away on my camera like a fool.

We continued to walk without incident, marveling at the natural beauty along the trail. Although we saw patches of fog, the fog always seemed to clear ahead of us, and we pushed along to Tomales Point, where we were treated to the raw beauty of the Pacific Ocean meeting Tomales Bay.

We lingered for a while at Tomales Point before heading back. Even though dusk was near, we knew we had enough sunlight to return before dark.

The walk back may have been even more beautiful than coming, as the late afternoon sun created wonderful hues along the hills. We passed some elk cows, lazily grazing along the trail, and we saw more fog starting to roll in from the ocean.

We were deeply immersed in conversation, and we didn’t pay much attention to the fog. Even as the fog encircled us, we still moved forward, unconcerned. We couldn’t see more than ten feet ahead of us, but it was still light, and the trail was not particularly treacherous.

We continued to press forward when we heard the sound of an elk bugling in the distance. I say now, with an air of confidence, that the elk was “bugling” (the mating call of a bull elk), because the noise sounded a bit like a bugle and because I looked it up on Wikipedia afterward. But the truth was that we had no idea what the sound was, and frankly, I still can’t say what it was for certain. We stood there for a few moments speculating, and we continued to walk.

A few moments later, we heard the noise again. This time, it sounded much closer, and it sounded like something had started galloping toward us. Now we were concerned. We couldn’t see anything ahead of us, but something was definitely moving toward us, and we had no idea what to do. Pete and I stayed calm and discussed our options. We decided to slowly backtrack to see if the galloping stopped. It did. Then we discussed our next move.

I couldn’t help but think of our earlier conversation about being on nature’s turf. Here we were on what we thought was a safe, comfortable trail, and we were suddenly thrust in a situation where we had completely no idea what to do. I was worried that a bull elk was trying to send us a message, and I wanted to listen to that message. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what that message was. That elk was standing between us and the trailhead. At this point, no one else was on the trail.

We briefly discussed going off trail, but we decided that staying on the trail was probably our best bet. We had seen elk on both sides of the trail, and we hoped that the elk considered the trail to be human — or at least neutral — territory.

Pete suggested that we forge ahead slowly, so we tried that. We moved about 20 yards when we heard the bellowing again, this time much closer and from both sides of the trail. We decided to backtrack again to higher ground and reconsider our options.

We still couldn’t see a thing because of the fog, and it was starting to get dark. We continued to maintain our heads, and we managed to joke about our situation, but I was scared. I had no idea what to do. We decided to check to see if our cell phones were working. Mine wasn’t (damn you, Verizon!), but Pete’s was (thank you, T-Mobile!). He decided to call his friend, Colin, who was an experienced hiker and camper.

Thankfully, Colin picked up. He suggested that it might be runting (mating) season, which might have explained the bugling, but he wasn’t sure what we should do. While his partner looked up the ranger station, he stayed on the phone and offered his thoughts. At one point, he asked if we had anything to throw. “Dude,” I responded, “we can find something to throw, but you’d better be damn sure that that’s the appropriate thing to do in this situation.”

At that moment, two hikers emerged from behind us in the fog, seemingly out of nowhere. They were locals walking home after an evening hike, and after hearing our plight, they assured us that they knew exactly what to do. Walk forward, keep moving, and the elk will leave us alone.

And so we did, this time with confidence, partially because they seemed to know what they were talking about and partially because if the elk did charge, they would hit the other two hikers first, leaving Pete and me additional time to escape. Having played basketball with Pete and having seen him run, I knew I would have a third buffer if necessary.

It was pitch black and still foggy. As we pressed forward, the bellowing stopped, and we moved quickly, mostly in silence. I kept my eyes on the trail, straining to see the path ahead, badly wanting to return as quickly as possible.

Suddenly, Pete nudged me. “Look!” he exclaimed. I turned my head in time to see one of the most surreal, hauntingly beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. A herd of elk was walking alongside us in the opposite direction. They were close enough to see through the fog, and they moved quickly and with purpose. We kept moving, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them.

I was awestruck by what we saw. I have never felt so exposed to something so wild, and while I was still scared, I felt blessed to be experiencing that moment.

We got back to the car without incident, and after a beer and the warm ride home, I almost felt normal again. Still, thinking back, I am struck by how many things we take for granted in the world, how disconnected I am to the world around us, and how much I still have to learn.

Ducking Thanksgiving Tradition

Thanksgiving is a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s an opportunity to give thanks, to be with family and friends. On the other hand, it’s a holiday that’s loaded with stress and unrealistic expectations.

Specifically, I’m talking about cooking turkey. In my family, that foul fowl is single-handedly responsible for raising the household holiday stress levels to undue proportions every year.

First, we go through the same dance every year trying to buy a small bird. Every year, the store takes our order, then calls us a few days before Thanksgiving and says that the turkeys are in. Unfortunately, the smallest bird they have is double the size of what we ordered. This happens every freakin’ year.

Then we have to clear out space in the refrigerator to hold the giant bird, which is just about mathematically impossible, given that you have about quadruple the amount of groceries in your fridge for the rest of your dishes.

Next comes the cooking. For the past 10 years, I have been bestowed with the responsibility of roasting that wretched bird for my family. I’m a good cook, and I’m especially good at cooking meat. And yet, every year, I somehow manage to butcher the bird, and not in a good way.

I’ve tried roasting it, brining it, barbecuing it, butterflying it, and braising it. And somehow, I’ve never managed to cook a good turkey. (Actually, braising works great, but I only braise the dark meat, so you still have to figure out what to do with the white meat.)

There are two things I hate more than anything: undercooking meat and overcooking meat. My little sister says that whenever I undercook or overcook meat, a little black cloud forms over my head. Yes, yes it does. Fortunately, it only happens a few times a year. Unfortunately, it happens every November.

Finally, there’s the eating. Despite the adversity, the bird has always looked good. And it’s always tasted okay. But why settle for just okay? It’s Thanksgiving, for pete’s sake! It should be mind-numbingly delicious.

The truth is that none of us even like turkey. We ate it every year, because that’s what society expected us to do. Well this year, after once again ordering a 12-pound bird and hearing once again (after our order had already been taken) that only 20-pound birds were available, we finally said, “Enough!” We decided that we’d eat duck for Thanksgiving instead.

It was shocking to realize how liberating this decision was. First, we all love duck. I mean, really, who doesn’t? Duck is a magical animal — all dark meat and hauntingly beautiful fat and skin.

Second, we never cook it. I had never even touched a raw duck before. So cooking duck would be special, perfect for such a festive occasion.

Third, preparing duck is an order of magnitude easier than cooking a turkey. It’s small, meaning that it fits in the refrigerator and that it cooks quickly. It’s all fatty, dark meat, meaning that it’s hard to overcook. And duck actually tastes great medium rare, which means that it’s okay to undercook as well.

Fourth, the Pilgrims ate duck at the first Thanksgiving. So we were still being consistent with tradition.

Win, win, win, win.

Armed with J. Kenji L√≥pez-Alt’s helpful guide to roasting duck, I decided to prepare two: a jerk-spiced duck and a Chimaya chile-coffee rubbed duck. I dried both ducks in the refrigerator for a day, then rubbed them and let them dry for another day.

We roasted the jerk-rubbed duck for Thanksgiving on a soda can so that the fat would render out. It took about 50 minutes to cook, and we let it rest for about 20 minutes. It was without question the most stress-free Thanksgiving ever. Cooking was a breeze. We all pitched in as usual, and we made plenty of delicious sides, but we didn’t have to do any extraordinary prep, nor did we have to get up at some ungodly hour in the morning.

As for the taste… well, did I mention that duck is a magical animal? This was unquestionably the best tasting Thanksgiving meal any of us had ever eaten. At one point, we were all eating in silent, focused concentration as we savored this delicious food. My dad, who is the most critical eater in our family, spent most of the meal with his eyes closed and a blissful smile on his face.

We actually thought that we would need the second duck for Thanksgiving, which was ludicrous. We barely had room to consume the first duck. We ate the second duck the day after, which was like having Thanksgiving two days in a row. It was as good as our first meal, only much easier to prepare, as all of the sides were already ready.

Furthermore, the ducks were gifts that kept on giving. We made sweet potato fries with duck fat (baked, not fried, so that we could pretend they were healthy), which made my dad smile even wider. We boiled the duck carcasses overnight to make a rich, meaty stock, then combined it with butternut squash, garlic, and habanero to make an unctuous soup. I was even able to restore the boiled duck meat from the carcass — which had been literally rendered dry and useless from the stock-making — with a little dollop of duck fat and salt. It had a pulled pork consistency and tasted like duck heaven.

So this year, I’d like to express deep, stomachfelt gratitude to one of the most wonderful animals in the world for restoring peace, harmony, and joyous food coma to my family this year. I hope other families can learn from our experience this year.

Tasting Exotic Foods Around the World

I like to travel, and I like to eat. Thanks to the pervasiveness of video cameras, I’ve been able to channel my inner Bourdain quite a bit over the years. Here are my tastings from the past year, including from my trip to Seattle last week.

Fried Kool-Aid

At the Fillmore Jazz Festival in San Francisco. Didn’t have to travel very far for this!

Wild Berries

Last July, I went trolling for wild berries with my friend, Ed, up in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota. We were definitely not experienced foragers, and we didn’t realize that tiny did not mean unripe (possibly missing out on the best strawberries ever as a result). Nevertheless, our search wasn’t entirely futile. First, we found a wild raspberry:

We later found tons of wild blueberries:

One of the recurring themes you’ll notice if you watch enough of these videos is that my commentary is often wrong. In this case, the blueberries absolutely were ripe; they were just miniscule.

Horse

My friends, Alex and Claudia, gave me a wonderful tour of Zurich when I was there a few months ago. During one of our many long conversations, they casually mentioned a funny story about some tourists who unintentionally ate horse at a nearby restaurant. “Horse?” I asked. “People eat horse here?” That predetermined our dinner destination for the evening:

It really does taste like beef… “but better,” as Alex would say. Alex’s commentary in this video is priceless. If you’re disturbed by the notion of eating horse, read these articles in GOOD, Slate, and the New York Times.

Shigoku Oysters

Tasting and providing commentary on Shigoku oysters at Taylor Shellfish Farms in Seattle:

These were wonderful — probably the best oysters I’ve ever tasted. Again, ignore what I said about plastic bags. They are indeed farmed in bags, but they are more permeable than plastic of course.

Geoduck

Also from Taylor in Seattle. I had actually eaten (and disliked) geoduck as a kid, but I had never had it so fresh, and certainly never raw:

Call of the Mountains

Great things are done when men and mountains meet. –William Blake

I’m a California boy at heart, and I’ve always been drawn to the ocean. But California has mountains too, and my last three work trips have reminded me how much I love them.

Truchas Peaks near Taos, New Mexico:

The Alps from Luzern, Switzerland:

The Cascade Range from Seattle:

I think the universe is telling me something.