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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Good Hamburger is a Damn Near Perfect Thing

Summer is just around the corner, at least here in Alabama. Late April, and the days are already hitting close to 80 degrees. When the days get longer and warmer, the kitchen moves outside to the grill. And one of the best things to throw on the grill is also one of life's great, guilty pleasures: a nice big, juicy hamburger! 
© 2014 Chris Terrell
Saw's Burger
There are as many ways to prepare great hamburgers as there are opinions as to what makes a hamburger great. For me, however, I like it simple, yet classic: lettuce, tomato, red onion, American Cheese, ketchup and mustard. Occasionally, I like to mix it up with blue cheese and bacon or swiss and sautéed mushrooms.

Louis Lassen
The hamburger is an American original, though its origins remain disputed. The “official” version, if there is one, comes from the Library of Congress of all places, which has officially declared that Louis Lassen of Louis' Lunch, a small lunch wagon in New Haven, Connecticut, sold the first hamburger and steak sandwich in America in 1900. According to the Library of Congress, a customer ordered a quick, hot meal, but Louis was out of steaks. Taking ground beef trimmings, he made a patty and grilled it and put it between two slices of toast. While this story sounds apocryphal, it nonetheless comports with our sense of American pragmatism and can-do spirit. 

There are burger joints in every town in America, each with its own legion of rabid fans. I’m not talking about the national chains, but the mom and pop joints. (Though everyone has their own favorite fast-food hamburger, even those who say they “don’t do fast-food.” Mine would probably be Five Guys, though I don’t really consider them to be “fast-food;” for true fast-food, I would have to go with Wendy’s.) 

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Saw's Soul Kitchen
Birmingham has some great hamburger joints. My favorite would have to be Saw’s Soul Kitchen in Avondale.  (The name comes from a nickname of the owner, Mike Wilson—“Sorry Ass Wilson.”)  

Avondale is an up and coming neighborhood; a casual culinary outpost in an increasingly foodie town. It’s nothing fancy, with maybe eight or nine tables inside and a few tables outside. Saw’s burgers are stacked high with lettuce, tomato, onion, and their special secret sauce. It is similar to other hamburger sauces you would find in Birmingham, slightly spicy and vinegary, similar to barbecue sauce. Hamburger Heaven, Demetri’s, and Milo’s have similar sauces.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
My version of Saw's burger.
So what makes a good hamburger? It is simpler than one would think. Here are my eight tips:

1. Buy ground chuck that is 80% lean and 20% fat. Please do not get the low fat stuff and don’t, unless you live in California, get ground turkey. This is not a low-fat endeavor, nor should it. The fat holds the burger together and gives it its flavor. Besides, it’s not like you eat them every day do you?

2. Form the patties with a minimum of manipulation. Using your thumbs, put a dimple in each side. This keeps the burger from turning into a blimp while grilling. Generously salt and pepper the burgers (that’s all the seasoning you need—trust me) and place in the fridge for about two hours before you put them on the grill. Do not let them come to room temperature before putting the burgers on the grill.

3. Get that grill has hot as possible. You want Three-Mile Island to look like a ski resort. 

4. Put the hamburgers on the grill. (OK, I know this one seems obvious….) Do not take your spatula and press down on the burger. This will force out all the juices and leave you with a dry burger.

5. If your grill has a cover, leave it open. If you close it, you will cook the burger before you can get a good char.

6. Now here’s the hard part. Leave the burger alone. He’s ok by himself. Go grab another beer and talk about the game with your brother-in-law. Once the burger gives a little without sticking, flip it over. Never flip more that once.

7.  At this point, place the cheese on the burgers and close the cover—you can even turn the eat down a bit.  Once the cheese is good and melted and dripping and about to cause a grease fire, remove and let rest for a few minutes. 

8. As for the buns. I like kaiser rolls that I’ve brushed with melted butter and toasted on the grill. 

Of course no hamburger is complete without french fries (more on that in a later post), but Lay’s potato chips will do in a pinch. Potato salad or even baked beans aren’t bad either. Of course, the drink of choice is a nice, ice-cold beer, preferably Miller High Life in my humble opinion. (Wine is never an option, even if it is a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc.)

I may run the risk of getting carried away here, but I think it is safe to say that the hamburger may be the perfect food. It’s inexpensive and easy to make. For most men, it’s the first thing they learn to cook, while they stand next to their old man with a beer in his hand who guides him in flipping that hamburger so carefully for the first time. Because the best hamburgers are made on an outdoor grill, they are best grilled in the summer. And when I shuffle off this mortal coil, the last sensations I will record, if I'm lucky, will be the sound of crickets in the early summer evening and the smell of hamburgers on the grill.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Missing In Action, Part 2: Lunch on a Random Tuesday Afternoon In France

© 2016 Chris Terrell
It is the morning after that first meal in our little Burgundian cottage—a simple meal of cheese, bread, and fruit. Now, with the light of day, I am able to get a better sense of where we have ended up. It is relatively early—the sun has not yet burned off the morning mist. I grab my camera to capture this ancient piece of France that we will call home for the next several days.
© 2016 Chris Terrell


Our village is called Saisy (say-SEE). To call it a village is like comparing Peoria, Illinois, with New York City. A dozen houses line up haphazardly on either side of a single, narrow street. And like every village in France, there is an amaranthine church that lies solidly at the center of the village, covered in scaffolding. Workers tend to it with Gallic indifference. There is a Mairie (town hall) that doesn’t appear to be open, even thought it is after 9:00AM.
© 2016 Chris Terrell
But nothing compares to the pale green pastures and fields that surrounded us, guarded by suspicious cows and indifferent sheep.

The owners of our little cottage are American expats. The husband is a former executive and his wife a former environmental engineer. They have apparently been living in, and renting, this place for many years, as evidenced by the wealth of knowledge they have put into the handmade guidebook that comes with the house. Looking for a perfect place to find lunch, a third of the way into the guidebook, I find their favorite restaurant. It is in the village of Nolay, a short six and one  half kilometers away. 
© 2016 Chris Terrell
I park our Renault on the quiet main street, the restaurant to our left, across the street from the Hôtel de Ville. We pay our respect to the WWI monument, with a WWII appendage—there’s one in countless villages and towns in France—before heading over to the restaurant. 
It’s a bit on the late side for lunch, even for France, and we find the restaurant empty except for a table of four men just finishing their lunch and their wine and having a good laugh about an unknowable topic. While a nearly empty restaurant back home would be cause for concern, not today. I’m confident the food is good. We are not disappointed. The food is traditional country French but plated with the flair one would expect in L.A.  
Escargot, salad, main course, dessert; and of course, a bottle of red wine. We take our time. 
© 2016 Chris Terrell
I’m thinking about those fields near our cottage. When you are surrounded by where your food comes from, you care a lot more about how it is grown; how it’s prepared; and the time you take to enjoy it. 
Maybe it’s the wine, but I’m really enjoying France.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

BBQ!


“Southern barbecue is the closet thing we have in the U.S. to Europe’s wine or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes.” 

     —John Shelton Reed  


©2013 Chris Terrell
Nothing establishes the culinary diversity of the South more than barbecue. Every region of the South—from the South Carolina Low Country to the mountains of Tennessee—has its own unique take on this delectable food. Southerners fight and argue over barbecue almost as much as they do about anything else, except maybe religion, politics, and football. Hell, most Southerners cannot even agree on the spelling. You will see BBQ, Bar-B-Que, barbeque, or barbecue! (My father, being an English major, was particularly offended by BBQ or Bar-B-Que.)

Barbecue begins with the Spanish conquest of the New World. When Spanish explorers moved into the Caribbean, they discovered native islanders roasting fish and game on a framework of sticks they called “barbacoa.” The word “barbecue,” which first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary around 1661, initially referred to such a framework and only later did the word “barbecue” come to mean the act of grilling or roasting meat on dry heat.  

The surest way in which to tell the difference between a Southerner and a Yankee is how the word barbecue is used. Up North, “barbecue” is a verb, as in “let’s go barbecue some chicken on the grill.” In the South, however, it’s a noun, as in “let’s go get us some barbecue after church… .” See the difference? 

In the South, the differences between regional barbecues can be found mostly in the sauce, and to a lesser extent the type of meat used. The barbecue of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee is almost always served with a sweet tomato-based sauce. The sauce in South Carolina is mustard-based. And the sauce of Eastern North Carolina is the simplest—a concoction consisting of only vinegar and spices. Nary a tomato to be found! Alabama is also known for its distinctive white sauce made of mayonnaise and vinegar and originating in northern Alabama. It is used predominantly on chicken. 

Most of the South uses pork as the meat-base for barbecue.  Texas, however, relies heavily on beef brisket, though you can find barbecue made with sausage or goat, because of Texas’s German and Mexican heritage. And in Western Kentucky, mutton predominates. A popular item in North Carolina and Memphis is the pulled-pork sandwich served on a bun and often topped with coleslaw. Pulled pork is prepared by shredding the pork after it has been barbecued.

Of all the various permutations of barbecue sauce I've tasted, the best will always be that of Eastern North Carolina. And for me, the perfect embodiment of this style of barbecue was “Midgett’s Barbecue” on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This was my first real introduction to barbecue; the best I will ever eat. Let’s start first with the name. It had nothing to do with the size of the people preparing the pig. It is an old family name. The Midgetts have lived on the Outer Banks for many, many years. (Many of them have served honorably in the Coast Guard rescuing folks from the stormy Atlantic coast.)

This place was not fancy. It was small. There was a front area with about six tables. And the place was decorated with “pig” bric-a-brac (piggy banks, pig clocks, paintings of pigs, etc.) In the back was a counter, behind which lay, in all its glory, a whole hog. Someone would take your order and Mrs. Midget would then take her cleaver and furiously begin to produce BBQ. Though she would never win a Miss Congeniality contest and the sanitary rating hovered between a C- and C+, we didn’t care. The ‘cue was divine. Since moving to Georgia and later Alabama, I’ve been on a one-man mission to convince my Deep South brethren that there ain’t really nothing like Eastern North Carolina barbecue nowhere! Don’t get me wrong, Alabama has some great barbecue. My favorites here in Birmingham are: Saw’s Soul Kitchen, Johnny Ray’s (closest thing we have to N.C.-style), Dreamland (for the ribs), and Full Moon. 

How does one determine whether a barbecue joint is legit? First, look at the name. Is it a family name? Most reputable barbecue joints are family-run affairs. (Because of the time it takes to make good barbecue, you don’t see a lot of chains—mass production just will not work.) What does the building look like? Is it a small, simple cinderblock building on the side of a winding country road just outside of a small town, next to a video/tanning-booth-store or a Piggly Wiggly? Also, are the tablecloths (if there are any) red-and-white checkered? And there should be at least some pig-related bric-a-brac or a pig on the sign! 

The menu should not be complicated. (For years, Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, served nothing but ribs and white bread.) The sides should be straightforward: coleslaw (some of us actually put this on the sandwich!), baked beans, Brunswick stew, sometimes french fries or potato salad. Drinks will be Coke (this refers to all matter of soft drinks or “soda”) and, of course, sweet tea. Dessert will usually consist of banana pudding—maybe even pecan pie if it is a fancy barbecue “restaurant.”


Finally, a good indication of the quality of the barbecue served is the diversity of the clientele. Despite the South’s ugly past, barbecue joints and their cousins, the “meat and three,” are some of the most socially egalitarian eateries on the planet. You will find bankers and lawyers sitting next to construction workers and truck drivers. Whites will be sitting next to Blacks and Hispanics. They are all drawn to the same love: barbecue. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Missing in Action, Part 1: The Return to France Begins

Yes, it’s been a while since my last post—serious writer’s block some would say. In all fairness, I’ve had a lot going on the last two months or so: house hunting; house buying; and house moving. Yes, I have decided to give up the downtown hipster thing and move into a house—the two-car garage, lawn-to-be-mowed, gutters-to-be-cleaned gig. I didn’t go far. I’m hardly in the ‘burbs—downtown is only a 10 minutes away. The new house has a great kitchen, and I’m looking forward to many dinner parties down the road. 

I had grand plans for my first “real” meal in the new house. It would be something special; something that Julia Child may have made when she first moved into her house in Provence. But my new grill beckoned. Laura, my friend Jim, and I sat out on the deck during a warm spring evening and complained about the never-ending election, while I grilled marinated chicken and asparagus. In retrospect, not a bad start.

And if you thought that I’m settled in and everything is unpacked, ship-shape and Bristol fashion, you would be seriously mistaken. I have boxes packed within boxes, with half of those boxes labeled “kitchen.” I love books, including cookbooks, until I have to move them. But the craziest, most insane, thing about this whole thing was that Laura and I left for France the day after I moved. 

It was not supposed to be this way. I was going to take the week my kids would be in Puerto Rico for spring break to unpack, organize, and get settled in. But after spending two weeks packing and schlepping boxes over to the house, Laura, during my birthday dinner at Highlands Bar & Grill, implored: “I’m tired of packing; can we return to our original plan and visit France for spring break?” So, within a few days, we had tickets on United to Paris, a rental car, a house in Burgundy, and reservations at some great French restaurants. 

Our foodie vacation started off with barbecue at the Jim ’n’ Nicks in the Birmingham International Airport (international in name only, though a flight to Mississippi could be considered a trip to another country). We figured this would be our last taste of home for over a week.


©2016 Chris Terrell
Nothing like an ice cream sundae at 35,000 feet!
After a quick layover in Chicago, we were off for a seven-and-a-half-hour flight to Paris. We flew first class, so the food wasn’t too bad, but United’s signature ice cream sundae cart is, as Larry David would say, pretty, pretty, pretty good.

We arrived in Paris on Easter Sunday, so dining options were limited. After a late breakfast at the hotel, a short walk, and a nap, we were ready for an evening in Paris before hitting the road for Burgundy the next day. Laura’s great find for the evening: dinner at a local cafe and a baroque music concert at Sainte Chapel. Dinner was in a jewel-box, art deco cafe right out of central casting.


©2016 Chris Terrell
The meal was your basic bistro fare: green salad, frites, and boeuf Bourgeon. And while the cafe may have been a bit touristy, it made no difference. It was perfect spring evening Paris and waiters were friendly and efficient.

The concert was not long, and so there was time life in the evening for a night cap at one of Paris’s most famous bar: the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz. The Ritz has been under construction for several years now, but we convinced the taxi driver to take us there, insisting that it was open. We should have listened to our taxi driver. The Ritz is…still…not…open. We then looked defeat in the eye and decided to try the Bristol, another landmark hotel with an equally beautiful bar that knows how to make real, American cocktails. I had a couple of damn good Manhattans and Laura, an equally well-made French 75.

At this point it was getting late, and we had a full day of driving the next, so we headed back to the hotel and called it a night, falling asleep to the iconic sing-song sound of Parisian police cars. 

The next day, Monday after Easter, is a national holiday in France. (I’m seriously starting to wonder if the name “France” in ancient French really meant “land of the three-day weekend.”) But today, I welcomed having a shut-down Paris because it made the drive from Hertz at the Gare de Lyon back to our hotel much easier than it otherwise would have been. (Paris  traffic is infamous and rivals Rome for shear insanity.) After stuffing our over-stuffed bags into our little Renault Captur, we were off. Pretty soon we were zipping down the A6 on the way to Auxerre, our first stop.

We had originally planned on eating at the Rendez-Vous, a restaurant mentioned in an episode of No Reservations but it was closed (French holiday), along with most of the other restaurants in the town. We finally come upon Le Bounty—the chef/owner certainly had a thing for all things nautical. It was crowded, and we were not sure if this was because it was good or it was the only place open. That we were the only ones speaking English was a good sign. We were not disappointed. It was good—sturdy Burgundian fare with good, yet inexpensive, wine. After touring the town a bit, it was time to hit the road.

The fields of Burgundy grew more green and beautiful as we traveled farther south. The landscape was slightly rolling with the fields meticulously divided by hedgerows. Every now and then we would come across an old Chateaux and tall, stark white windmills rotating calmly in the mist. Old and new France in the same scene.

We were staying near the small village of Nolay in an even smaller village called Saisy. It is about 30 minutes west of Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy. Thankfully I was aware of our cottage’s geographic location. I became increasingly worried as our GPS (dubbed Agnes because of her British accent) took us farther and farther south of Beaune. Eventually, we pulled over. I went old school and pulled out my Michelin map of Burgundy.  I’m not sure what happened, but Agnes obviously wanted to go to the French Riviera. With Agnes re-set, we were back on our way but not before a different problem kicked in.

Because this was a national holiday, and because we were in rural France, the chances of Finding a supermarket open, much less a restaurant, became a real concern. Thankfully we had the advantage of driving on one of the great road systems in the world. And as part of this system, it is required that every 20 kilometers or so, there must be a lair  which is a fancy rest stop with a gas station, a place to eat, and a handy-mart. But not just any handy-mart because you can actually put together a pretty good meal. This one happened to have a Carrefour, a ubiquitous, large supermarket chain in France. Here were found everything we needed for a light French dinner. They had several different varieties of cheeses, fresh fruit, baguette (of course), and Burgundian wine. Laura even found a packaged salad complete with a twee knife and fork and vinaigrette dressing in little plastic vial. 

We finally arrived at our cottage just before sunset. The owners of the cottage had left us a bottle of crémant, Burgundy’s answer to Champagne. And as we sat there at the kitchen table enjoying our wine and cheese and baguette, listening to the cows and mourning doves in the field behind us, we knew that even greater things awaited us in this beautiful part of the world. 

Stay tuned for Part 2…

Monday, February 15, 2016

Restaurant Review: Bamboo on 2nd

You enter Bamboo on 2nd through a large, glossy orange metal door and into a long space that has a cool, urban, relaxed vibe which is framed by exposed brick walls and a polished cement floor. To your left is a long wooden bar with stark white enameled metal stools where you can sit and sip a pre-dinner cocktail while watching old Jackie Chan and Godzilla movies on the TVs that hang over the bar.
At first, you might think that the service would exude some kind of Zoolander-esque "too cool for school" attitude, but you would be wrong. The service is friendly yet efficient. 

And the food doesn't disappoint. Self-taugh chef Abhi Sainju arrived from Nepal twenty years ago from Nepal. His love of Nepalese cuisine and his adopted home is certainly reflected in his moms: steamed Nepalese dumplings with ground turkey, vegetables, and spices, all bathed in an Alabama tomato vinaigrette. Another small plate worth trying is the "KFC," which is short for "Kathmandu Fried Chicken" lollipop with the house sweet sauce.

And the sushi is very good as well. My favorites are the "Wham Bam Birmingham" (shrimp tempura, avocado, cucumber topped with seared salmon, wasabi aioli, and eel sauce) and the "Sexy Lady" (seasoned tuna, avocado, and cucumber with aioli).

If sushi is not your thing, then try the skewers. I like lemongrass chicken with honey sriracha. And finally, there are several banh mi sandwiches to choose from. I recommend you go with seared Marinated pork belly.

If you visit Bamboo, be prepared for a wait unless you arrive early. But they will take your phone number and call you when your table is ready. Bamboo is also one of the few restaurants downtown open on Mondays. 

So, if you are looking for some casual pan-Asian food and good sushi in a hip environment, you can't go wrong with Bamboo.

Address: Bamboo on 2nd, 2212 2nd Ave. N., Birmingham, AL 35203; 205.703.055; www.bambooon2nd.com

Atmosphere: Modern and sleek with a mixture of metal, brink, and wood. 

Sound:  Moderate to loud.

Recommended Dishes: Momos, KFC, Wham Bam Birmingham, and Ramen Bowl

Price: $$ (moderate)

Open: Monday through Saturday for dinner.

Reservations: Not Accepted

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Journey of a Thousand Miles

Every four years the circus comes to town in America. It’s called the presidential election. And unless you’ve been passed-out drunk under a bridge, one big issue this year seems to be immigration. These days, nothing gets Americans more fired up than immigration.

But this is not going to be a post about immigration, or at least not directly. I am going to talk about the immigration—or more accurately, the migration—of food and what happens when it moves from one culture to another; how it changes and mutates.

Look at Italian food. Is there any other cuisine more closely associated with the tomato than Italian food? But the tomato is not indigenous to Italy, and for centuries Italian cuisine got along just fine without it. Tomatoes originally came from Central and South America. They didn't arrive in Italy until the mid-1500s. And, like many immigrants, they weren't exactly welcomed at first.  They were considered poisonous. One story, perhaps apocryphal, tells of Thomas Jefferson eating a tomato in front of the local townspeople to prove they were safe to eat. 

And then there’s the humble peanut, which is closely associated with African cuisine, but it tragically came to that continent because of the slave trade.

And many foods change when they migrate. The pizza and spaghetti we know so well here in America is nothing like that which can be found in its homeland. But perhaps my favorite food-migrant transformation is chicken tikka masala, which doesn’t even exist in India. How ironic that the former colonial masters of India consider chicken tikka masala the “National Dish of England.” For the record, chicken chow mein and chop suey are not real Chinese dishes either but the creations of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco.

And so back to America. That nation of immigrants we’ve all heard about since first grade. I’ve mentioned pizza already, but look at all the other foods that we’ve adopted that have become “American” simply through acclamation. Hot dogs, hamburgers, tacos, and burritos. We continue to bring in food immigrants every day. Asian food is the most recent member of our gastronomic firmament—Sriracha as perhaps the best example. Its founder is an immigrant from South Vietnam after the war. A small irony of history.

And so during this political season let’s not forget about the food when we talk about immigration. Most importantly—no one argues about food when it immigrates. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Oysters: The Foie Gras of the Sea

Three random thoughts about oysters:


No.1 We’ve all heard the expression, “It was a brave man who ate the first oyster.” Of course it was a man, because women have a hell of a lot more sense!. 

No. 2 Oysters are a lot like wine. They draw their flavors from their environment.  (There are 300 different oyster appellations.) They are sometimes sweet; sometimes briny; sometimes salty.

No. 3 Today, most oysters are farmed. They are affixed to tiles and raised out in the ocean. Later, after they have reached a certain size, they are transferred to what is deliciously called the “fattening beds.” These are always near the mouth of a river where the mixture of fresh and sea water induces the overgrowth of the oyster’s liver. Hence, you have “foie gras of the sea!”


***

I came to oysters rather late in life, or at least raw oysters. I would occasionally have fried oysters with cocktail sauce and fries during summer trips to the beach. My mom loved fried oysters, and my dad would eat them raw occasionally. But frankly I’m not sure how crazy he really was about them. 

About five years ago, I had dinner at Highlands Bar & Grill with some friends. Kyle suggested we get some raw oysters. Maybe it was the martini talking, but I said “sure, what the hell.” (One of my favorite scenes in Mad Men was the martini and oyster lunch between Don Draper and Roger Sterling.)

The oysters arrived in a large silver metal platter on a stand, the oysters nestled comfortably on a bed of crushed ice. There was also the obligatory cocktail sauce, lemons, and saltines. The fork was, of course, optional. After all, one of the joys of eating raw oysters is the slurping. If my memory serves me correctly, we had a selection of PEI (Prince Edward Island), Beau Soleil, Apalachicola, and Chesapeake. 

Ever sense, I’ve been a raw oyster fan, especially when I’m at Highlands Bar & Grill.

They say that the convert is the biggest zealot. I am when it comes to oysters, but my proselytizing has failed miserably.  Laura, half-heartedly tried one the other night at Highlands. She was gracious in response to my enthusiasm but, at the end of the day, not sold. This was my most recent failure at conversion. The first came during one weekend with my son Hampton, the pickiest eater next to Mikey. 

Hamp and I were at a soccer tournament near Mobile, Alabama. On the way home that Sunday, we stopped by Blue Gill for an early lunch. I ordered some raw oysters—fat juicy Gulf babies—and casually asked Hamp if he wanted to try one. I was shocked when he said yes! He put the whole thing in his mouth. I sat there, rapt attention and hoping that he may like them; a partner in crime!. And then his face contorted into a grimace. Crap!  















Hampton, then asked: “How are these cooked?” “They’re raw.” “What does that mean?” And my response—I should have known better—was: “not cooked.” 

I really thought the kid was going to toss his cookies right there in front of that nice family just in from church.

Damn! I thought I had a convert!