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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 28, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


BBQ, Nyjer, Admission

I was in the Midtown Olive Press soon after Christmas, intending only to shop for oil; but the man working the counter that day was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the balsamic vinegars that I started trying them and fell in love and ... and I already wrote about that, weeks ago.

Now I'm going to write about that guy in the store.

His name is Mark Rosa, and as we got to talking it came out that he grew up in California, as I did, where his family was part of the cooking tradition called "Santa Maria Barbecue."

It's an open-pit barbecue -- lots of air on the fire, and a grill that you raise and lower over the coals. The tradition requires a cut of beef called "tri-tip," along with "pinquito beans, fresh salsa, tossed green salad, and grilled French bread dipped in sweet melted butter."

(I can't believe I just quoted from Wikipedia. My surrender to evil is now complete.)

This is very different from both North Carolina and Texas barbecue, but the results are as wonderful in their own way as any other barbecuing style.

Chef Mark Rosa and his wife, Mary -- who teaches at Greensboro Day School as her public identity -- have started a catering service called Burnin' Wood BBQ Company.

They bring the grill equipment to you -- your home, the clubhouse, the church parking lot, wherever you're having the barbecue -- and then they do the magic right before your eyes.

The result is tender, succulent meat. They offer plenty of meat choices when you're planning the event, but the heart of it is the beef tri-tip and I have to say this is the best, tenderest barbecued beef I've had outside of a Brazilian churrascaria.

And even though we have the best churrascaria in America here in Greensboro (Leblon at Market and Friendly, if you didn't know), they don't set up their fire in your back yard -- and they don't prepare Santa Maria tri-tip.

The only way you can get authentic, first-rate Santa Maria barbecue around here is either to learn how to do it yourself, including getting the right equipment, or engage Mark and Mary Rosa to cater the barbecue for you.

I speak with the authority of experience. In that conversation at Midtown Olive Press, I was very impressed with Mark Rosa. It was clear that he loved his work and knew what he was talking about.

It was olive oil and vinegars at the moment, but I came away from that conversation resolved to find out if Santa Maria barbecue was a good and unusual as he said.

We were already planning to have a party celebrating our thirty years in Greensboro (as of March first) with the friends we've known that whole time.

But as we began thinking about the guest list, we realized that we knew and like enough people that if they all came, and I barbecued salmon and tuna for them, I would spend the whole time cooking, which means I wouldn't be attending my own party.

Burnin' Wood BBQ Company was the answer, and once I had convinced my wife (it took about a minute and a half) we called up Mark and Mary and set things in motion.

They brought us a menu, and the selection and prices were very good. We chose to go with beef and chicken (not everybody likes red meat), along with a few skewers of vegetables (because not everybody eats meat at all).

They are prepared to put on the whole traditional Santa Maria experience -- pinquito beans and all -- but we decided to have them cook only the barbecued items, and we'd provide the salads and bread and drinks.

After all, it was our party, and my wife makes a brilliant salad and I make a brilliant punch and Great Harvest Bread Company makes great rolls and so we engaged the Rosas for the meat alone. This time.

They scouted the location in advance. Placement of the barbecue depended partly on wind. Last Saturday was cold and cloudy -- but nature cooperated, the sun came out, and it was very springlike weather after all.

(We had put our friend Andy Lindsay of Barking Shark Productions in charge of weather, and, as always, he came through; he isn't just the inevitable winner in our Oscar balloting each year.)

So even though we had tables set up for twenty-five or thirty people in the house, about half ended up eating outside on the patio because the weather was so nice and the firepit was so inviting.

Here's how things played out. Mark and Mary are charming, delightful people, but they're also professionals. They understood that this party was not about the food; it was about getting together with old friends and talking about old times.

So their service was dazzling in its efficiency and unobtrusiveness. Mark and Mary were charming when you spoke to them (Mary had taught in the same school with one of our friends, for instance) -- but most of the time, they simply brought food to the serving station.

If you wanted to see what they were doing, if you had questions, they welcomed you -- no snooty chef attitude -- but otherwise they let the party flow.

In short, the service was perfect.

But it all comes down to the food, and here's where the really good news comes: Mark Rosa talks the talk, and he walks the walk. The meat was perfectly seasoned and perfectly cooked.

Some of us like well done beef; some like it more on the medium or rare side. There was plenty of both, and both were equally excellent. The veggies were great.

The chicken was superb. I've never understood people who apply the seasoning to the chicken skin -- because civilized people like me pull the skin off and discard it anyway.

(Don't write in about how that's the best part; it's the "best part" only if you think the liver is the best part of the goose, or the chitterlings are the best part of the pig.)

Mark Rosa's chicken is cooked with the skin off. That's a brave thing to do over an open fire, because the skin keeps the moisture in. You have to know what you're doing to barbecue chicken in the open.

The result was that it was still moist and succulent, though fully cooked -- and, because the skin was off, all the seasoning was right there on the meat.

The seasoning is subtle, not overwhelming. In fact, if there's anything that Mark Rosa is proud of with his Santa Maria barbecue, it's the fact that you get the flavor of the meat, with the seasoning only as an enhancement.

They even tossed in the traditional toasted French bread, and it was wonderful.

Look, catering a barbecue like that is not cheap. Especially because they cut no corners -- they use the best cuts of meat, and the process takes time as well as skill and knowledge.

But the prices were competitive. In fact, I'm not quoting any of the prices because I think they're too low -- I don't think they can actually make enough profit at what they're charging.

Here's the real verdict, though. We ended up splitting the party in half, because if we had everybody over for dinner at once, we'd never have gotten a chance to talk to half of them.

So we're having the second half of the party, with people who became good friends in our second ten years in Greensboro (or later), in a couple of weeks. And we're having the Burnin' wood BBQ Company do it all again.

Only this time I think we'll have the pinquito beans and salsa, too, because Mark Rosa knows what he's doing and why not let him give us the whole experience?

I just hope that they don't get so busy that they won't have time to cater the family reunion we're having in August. Or the big church supper we're thinking of putting on in the fall.

Because the only way you can get Santa Maria barbecue of this quality in Greensboro, North Carolina, is from Mark and Mary Rosa.

You can email them at bwBBQco@gmail.com, or phone 336-554-6471.

Their pricing is based on the number of people you have coming, so if you have a smaller event than our thirty people, you'll pay proportionately less.

The quantities were generous enough that we had leftovers; most went home with guests, but we held on to one whole tri-tip. I had some of it cold -- it was brilliant and tender.

And then we thin-sliced and reheated the rest of it and served it to more guests along with my oven-roasted salmon at a party the next night. There was only enough for everyone to have a taste -- but the verdict the first night and the second was: Brilliant, and please sir, may I have some more?

For what it's worth, my wife's salad and my punch were also extraordinarily good, but we don't cater.

*

When you first get into feeding birds, you get the impression that finches just love those thin tiny black thistle seeds called "nyjer."

Yeah, right.

Here's the truth about nyjer seeds. Unless you buy them prekilled (i.e., slightly cooked), they sprout everywhere and you spend months pulling up fast-growing thistles for thirty feet around your feeders.

But more to the point: Finches hate nyjer seed. They'll eat anything else before they'll touch it.

I bought one mid-size bag of nyjer seed and it lasted for a year and I ended up throwing half of it away because, when given a choice, the birds devoured everything else before they deigned to touch the nyjer.

I filled one compartment of a four-compartment feeder with nyjer; I had to refill the other compartments over and over, but the nyjer never went down.

Even when I filled a tray with it and put it on the ground, even the squirrels ignored it. Only the doves climbed into the tray and ate. But they'll eat anything, and even they only ate it down about a quarter inch and ignored the rest.

What do the finches eat?

We had winter feeding flocks of fifty to seventy-five birds at the feeders in both the front and back yards (though to be fair, there was no way to tell whether they were the same birds in both places; after all, birds do fly right over the house).

At the peak of cold weather, we're changing huge bags of sunflower chips from Wild Birds Unlimited every week or so. Everybody loves sunflower chips. Even the worm-eaters stop by for sunflower snacks.

If you want finches -- and every other seed-eater -- skip the nyjer and use sunflower chips. If you want woodpeckers, you also want suet feeders, and if you want bluebirds, dried mealworms do the job.

Maybe somewhere in the world there are thistle-loving finches. But I think the only way they eat nyjer is if they're in the desert or the arctic -- a sterile environment where nyjer is the only edible substance.

(And before you write your letter, I did use nyjer seeds from several sources, not just that one bag. And I don't care if your finches eat nyjer. Only the most discriminating finches come to my yard; if low-class, uneducated finches eat nyjer seed from your feeders, I won't tell anyone of your shame.)

*

Movie comedy is really kind of lousy these days. There's dumb comedy -- spoofs like Airplane -- and there's grossout comedy -- Hangover or Bridesmaids, where you laugh because the other choice is throwing up -- and there's romantic comedy -- where you laugh, yes, but it's all leading up to crying because love is so beautiful.

Most of the attempts at comedy aren't funny the first time. Even those that are usually don't hold up when you see them again. Only a precious handful of comedies are so good you can watch them again and again.

The great comedies keep working because they don't depend on shock or even situation, they depend on deep human truth.

No, "deep human truth" is not how you sell a comedy; you sell comedy by making the audience think it's going to be really fun to watch.

More to the point, you sell comedy by letting the potential audience know which of these kinds of comedy they're going to see if they show up at the theater and pay the money.

Most comedies are really kind of pathetic -- a collection of not-all-that-funny stuff crammed together with as little time between laughs as possible.

The idea is that if you can get them laughing at all, then anything you do after that will get a laugh.

What happens, though, if you have a story to tell that's funny, yes, and clever, and has a little romance in it, but it's also kind of smart and requires that you know what "smart" even is.

In other words, how do you sell a comedy like Admission?

For that matter, how do you even get a film like this made? It began as a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, and it was not a comic novel.

It had comedy in it -- what good novel doesn't? -- but the core story in the book is of a woman coming to terms with having given up a child for adoption years before, and then having him come into her life as an adult.

But folks, that is not what they're selling in the movie trailers. Those are all about how hilarious it is when people struggle to get their kids into "good schools." And how kind-of-stupid-and-ugly the whole process is, because the "best schools" are only marginally better than the next best schools.

And even then, for many, perhaps most, students, the "best schools" aren't even good. They're terrible.

Tina Fey plays an admissions officer at Princeton who is brought into contact with an extraordinary young man who absolutely does not fit the Princeton profile, but whose mind is truly brilliant and original.

Now, here is where you have to set aside reality a little, because I know a few people who have minds like that kid's mind, and they don't belong at Princeton. The kid is an auto-didact.

He doesn't need college at all, except to get his ticket punched; he's much more likely to be able to create his own college experience at a small liberal arts school, or at a big second-tier public university -- think App State or UNC-G -- where he can slide around through the cracks in the system.

But an Ivy League school? Unless you look like you're going to be doing original research that brings grants to the school, then you better fit in with the stats that will make the university look good in the U.S. News college rankings.

This kid would bring down the averages. No way does he belong at Princeton. He would be in hell at Princeton. Because there's a desperate sameness about the people who are forcefit through the college application sieve. The very fact that they thought it was worth doing means that they are nothing like this kid at all.

So the central bit of fakery here is that this kid wants to go to Princeton, and the film acts as if Princeton were actually going to be good for him and important in his life.

In the real world, he doesn't make it through the first week of classes, because he realizes that he's going to learn way more all by himself in a library, and he doesn't find anybody he can talk to.

The movie is actually pretty honest about this, except for admitting it openly. When the kid is being interviewed, for instance, it's clear that the alumnus talking to him is not going to like him or even understand what he's saying.

Here's what's really brave about the movie: What the kid is saying is not "smart person" gobbledy-gook; it's actually smart.

This movie actually shows a smart "smart person."

This is only possible because it's a movie based on a book, and the book was actually written by a smart person. Yet somebody with real power in the making of the movie knew that it was smart stuff and kept it in.

Most movies leach away anything remotely resembling intelligence, usually because the director has no idea what it means and won't fight for it, and the executives either don't understand it or assume the audience won't understand it.

But Admission thinks that people in the audience will actually know that this kid is really smart, and not just movie fake-smart.

This is kind of obvious, but while smart writers can write stupid characters, stupid writers can't write smart ones.

That's the truth behind the old joke about the dumb person who explains how he gets through life. "I just ask myself, What would a smart person do? And then I do that."

So what do we have here? We have a situation in which a college admissions officer has a student who really doesn't fit the profile for Princeton, and yet is far more brilliant than anybody they're actually going to admit.

That's a recipe for a funny, smart movie, and that's the movie they're selling.

And because Tina Fey plays the admissions officer and Paul Rudd is the schoolteacher who brings this student to her attention, we also get a whiff of Romantic Comedy. They're selling that, too.

And both those movies are there. But it's not the story.

The story is about realizing you had the chance for parenthood and you gave it up and now you have a second chance.

I'm going to refer you to an interview with the novelist and the producer who put this film together, because it's really fascinating, because this is a good producer who really cares about the book and yet openly set about changing it like crazy in order to turn a serious novel into a comedy.

Here's the link: How the Admission Novelist Came to Terms With Her Book’s Very Different Film Version.

But in case you don't want to go read that, here's the key point: In the novel, you're more than 300 pages in before the main character finds out that this student is her son.

We find that out within a couple of minutes of the opening of the movie.

In one sense, it's not just the smart move, it's the only move. That's the situation that makes everything matter. Novelists have other tricks to keep readers going (but then again, it's not like it was a bestseller, so those tricks don't really work all that well). But in the movie, that key information had to be told early on.

But in another sense, it was a disastrous choice. Why? Because instead of Tina Fey's character being an admissions officer fighting for this kid because he's brilliant and Princeton needs him and he needs Princeton, she's fighting for him because she believes he's her long-lost son.

That makes a huge moral difference. It makes her actions kind of ugly and weirdly fraudulent. The movie even confronts this when the kid finally asks her, Was that why you fought for me? But her answer in the movie is inadequate, and it leaves a slightly nasty aftertaste.

But mostly they get away with it. Mostly it's a funny, truthful, moving story.

But it's not a comedy that fits any of the categories. It has some spoofy elements -- when was hear the application letters, the movie puts the actual kid on the screen as if he were standing right there, and then when the application is rejected, the student is dropped through a trap door.

Very funny, and a smart way of making those dry applications become real.

At its heart, though, Admission really is a serious story about lost opportunities, and how children really are the meaning of life, whether you raise them or someone else does, or whether they're yours or you simply come to love them and care about them as if they were yours.

There's lots of parenthood in this movie. Tina Fey's mom, played brilliantly by Lily Tomlin, is a mess of pretentious self-righteous ideological single-motherhood -- very funny.

And Tina Fey loses her longtime lover to a "Woolf woman" (an expert on Virginia Woolf, but the pun is intended) who snares him by getting pregnant.

Meanwhile, Paul Rudd's character has an adopted son that he took on almost by accident, but who is now rebelling against Rudd's peripatetic lifestyle -- though, ironically, the kid wouldn't even have the good life he's had if Rudd had not been the kind of guy who keeps moving to exotic places.

In fact, this story -- the movie and, presumably, the book -- is really extremely socially conservative. Everybody's living all kinds of politically correct choices -- the non-marriage marriage, the no-marriage mother, the no-marriage father, the whole We Don't Need No Piece Of Paper From The City Hall lifestyle.

And they all hate it and wish for stability and permanence and, let's admit it, faithful two-parent family life, where you can count on each other and everybody comes through.

Which is what the brilliant teenage boy had with his adoptive parents. They weren't as smart as him, but they loved him and allowed him to be who he was, and they were always there. He could count on them, as nobody else in this movie can count on anybody else until, finally, a couple of characters grow up.

The thing is, this isn't a hit comedy because it isn't even trying to be. It's a smart comedy overlying a story about loneliness and loss, about parenthood and missed opportunities, about the discovery of truth.

It's a kind of not-all-that-funny comedy and I think some audience members will be disappointed because they expected a "comedy" like 30 Rock or, worse yet, Bridesmaids, and this is nothing like that.

So forget the "comedy" label and forgive the fact that there are a couple of deep contradictions in the storytelling choice and just enjoy the fact that every now and then you get to watch a smart movie about smart people finding out true things that most smart people these days deliberately try to ignore because that's what smart-people culture requires them to do.

I liked it a lot.

Besides, it has Wallace Shawn in it, and he's delightful as ever.

And there's a smart kid who actually says smart stuff with genuine excitement, the way smart kids really do -- and that's a brave and glorious thing to see.


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