Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Seeking food inspiration

Two months without a blog entry? Have I no sense of shame?

Last week I finally started paying attention to the eruption of food carts here in Portland. One article I read reported that we had more than 200 now, scattered around town in "pods", which appear to share rent in an empty lot, along with utilities and dining areas. The familiar array on the Transit Mall downtown seems to be primarily Indian, Thai, Thai, Indian and Thai. Plus some Indian food. Elsewhere in town the diversity is much greater, and new pods appear constantly, requiring websites solely to track and review them.

Alex and Becky made a timely visit to Portland last week, and we chose the very new pod on Belmont near 43rd for our first exploration. So much to choose from! Mexican, Italian, Korean/Hawaiian, sausages, fresh produce, "comfort food", Thai, Middle Eastern... 

Although the Dawg of the Day was tempting, I opted for the pulled pork plate at Namu's Killer Korean BBQ, and the result was even better than expected. Shredded pork, slow-cooked with cabbage  was served along with sticky rice and a sauce (I chose creamy horseradish), and traditional Korean cucumber and spinach salads, and kimchee. Absolutely delicious.

Alex and Becky chose the Eurotrash cart and came back with equally delicious options.

Because we were having a late lunch, we almost had the entire site to ourselves. Based on observation at other locations, I'm guessing that the place is jumping during the noon hour and in the evening (almost all of these carts are closed by 10 pm). As pleasant as it was for us, on a cool summer afternoon, I have to wonder how well the carts will do in the Winter when the table umbrellas will offer little shelter. The Hawthorne pod has a big tent for seating, but most of the pods I've seen are highly exposed.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A perfect marriage

I have been a fan of Four Roses for about a decade, although it has long been a geographically-challenged affection. Up until a short time ago, Four Roses distributed their bourbons in Kentucky and nowhere else in the US; the primary market, in fact, was Japan. Even when I learned that they were reentering the US market, I figured it would be years before any found its way to Oregon. I was ecstatic when the Yellow Label, the Small Batch and the Single Barrel appeared in OLCC stores within the last year.

Four Roses has a unique approach to bourbon production. They maintain five different yeast strains (used to create the "beer" that will then be distilled into whiskey) and two different mashbills, with varying amounts of rye grain.To crib from their website:

All 10 of these recipes are gently aged undisturbed in new white oak barrels in our one-of-a-kind single story rack warehouses. All 10 recipes are expertly married together to create Four Roses Yellow. Four are married for Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon. Only one is hand selected for Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon. To the thrill of Bourbon connoisseurs and Bourbon collectors, from time to time, our Master Distiller will select an exceptional single barrel, or marry a few exquisite recipes, to create one of our highly acclaimed limited release Four Roses Bourbons.
I had no expectation of ever seeing the Mariage in Oregon, but a helpful bartender steered me to a liquor store with a few bottles in the back room. The 2009 Mariage combines 10 year old and 19 year old OBSK with 10 year old OESO whiskies. (If you want to know what the codes mean, check here.)

When it comes to reviewing beverages, I'm completely useless. My friend Ryan can bang out 200 words on a single wine in minutes, complete with (to me) obscure references to fruits and vegetables, and solid suggestions on how to pair the wine with food. In whiskey reviews, I constantly run across references to leather, pipe smoke, or granite. Or, as D G Compton titled a short story collection: Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Slides of Used Matchboxes, and Something that Might have been Castor Oil. So I will again crib from the Four Roses site, because it's as close as we're going to get to appropriate language:

Nose: Rich fruity aromas of ripened cherry and pipe tobacco, hints of lemon citrus and dried oak.
Palate: Ripe fruit and allspice with creamy layers of caramel and toffee.
Finish: Long and smooth.  
See! Pipe tobacco! What did I tell you?

The word I've always used to describe Four Roses bourbon is "soft," although I'm hard-pressed to explain why. The reference to the finish above, "smooth" pretty much defines Four Roses bourbons, all the way from the lowly Yellow Label on up. Any one of these bottlings might offer the perfect introduction to bourbon for people who "don't like whiskey", but I'm in no way implying that they are training-wheels bourbons. Mariage 2009 is warming, rich, and complex.If you can find a bottle, buy it.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Pomegranate YUM

Working backward: I was craving a Picon Punch and realized that some time back I had thrown out a critical ingredient: grenadine. Not the hideous red glop from Rose's, but real grenadine homemade from pomegranate juice. Digging around for recipes, I discovered that Jeffrey Morgenthaler had posted a recipe that looked considerably simpler and better than what I had used previously. That version began by reducing pomegranate juice by half and then adding sugar. The grenadine tasted OK, certainly much better than the fake stuff, but it was much too thick, especially since I was refrigerating it. Grenadine from that bottle slid directly to the bottom of the glass, looking like an unappealing lava lamp.

Morgenthaler's recipe simply requires dissolving the sugar in the juice, exactly like making simple syrup (or hummingbird nectar, for that matter) but then gives the grenadine an extra punch and richness with the addition of orange flower water and pomegranate molasses. Pome-what? Pomegranate molasses turned out to be easier to find than expected. In fact, Barbur World Foods not only had pomegranate molasses, they had multiple brands to choose from. Obviously, I've been missing something in the world food line or I would have known this. The grenadine was just as advertised: simple, colorful and absolutely delicious. (Shortcut hint: I skipped the "squeeze a pomegranate" and went for the pure juice.)

When I asked Morgenthaler what to do with the 12 ounces remaining in my bottle of molasses, he suggested I just save it for the next batch, but after tasting the stuff I decided he may have missed the boat on this one. This morning's breakfast included bacon, French Toast and pomegranate molasses rather than syrup. Jackpot! Further exclamations of joy and sensation! Not only is the pomegranate flavor a delicious change but the molasses has a delightful tartness to set off the sweetness of the fruit.

Maybe I should have washed breakfast down with a Jack Rose or a Picon Punch, but coffee seemed the wiser choice. Pokey, incidentally, is guarding a bottle of the grenadine.

UPDATE: Doing a little more digging, I found an interesting blog post about pomegranate molasses, with recipes. The barbecue sauce is definitely on my list.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A bit of cooking

One of my favorite Szechuan dishes is Steamed Pork with Mei Gan Tsai, which I discovered accidentally in an Oakland family-style restaurant. At the time, I lived on a ridge above the restaurant, where the kitchen fans blew up to the apartment in the evening. Needless to say, decisions about what to have for dinner often involved walking around the corner for Chinese food. Having become a loyal customer, I could get good advice and make unfamiliar choices. Moving away could have been traumatic, because it's not a commonly-offered restaurant dish, but Bruce Cost's excellent book on Asian ingredients provided the recipe.

It's a simple dish, with a time-consuming preparation. The first step is to boil a nice chunk of pork belly for about 45 minutes. The meat is drained, patted dry and rubbed with dark soy, then browned in very hot oil. Tonight's meat came from Fubonn market on 82nd Avenue, which has an excellent meat department. This is a particularly nice-looking slab with plenty of meat and fat.

Eight cloves of garlic, about four ounces of pickled mustard greens, dark soy and a half cup of Shao Tsing rice wine is sauteed briefly. The meat is sliced and placed in a bowl, with the greens and seasoning ladled on top. The whole dish then goes into the steamer for a good 2.5  hours, during which time the hard fat of the bacon will break down into soft yumminess and add lots of pork flavor to the greens. The process is essentially the same as the breakdown of fat through slow cooking in the best barbecue.
Pork on the left, Ma Po Bean Curd on the right. And, of course, there is rice.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Chicago with the Snobs, Day 5

Day Five was primarily a travel day for the remaining Snobs and, naturally, the weather was gorgeous after four days of gray and damp. Most of the group had either left on Sunday or had mid-day flights out on Monday, but Peter, Ryan and I had brunch at Heaven on Seven, a Louisiana-themed restaurant in the Loop. Excellent food, and Peter's introduction to a po'boy, which he handled with grace and style. Ryan and I had a daily special, shrimp and cheese grits with gumbo on the side. Yum.

After seeing Peter off to a few pints and his flight, Ryan and I had one last Chicago task, a visit to the holy shrine of hot dogs: the Vienna Beef factory store. Located in an industrial area not far from De Paul University and its lovely neighborhood, we reached it with a short trip on the Red Line and another short bus ride west. The "store" is also a diner and the company lunchroom, with plenty of other products on sale besides the essential hot dog--all sorts of meat goodness, packages of condiments, t-shirts--the works, as it were. Even though we'd been well fed at Heaven, Ryan got a hot dog at the Source. It seemed a fitting conclusion to all the days of excess in Chicago.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Chicago with the Snobs, Day 4

Four of the Snobs had invested in tickets to a Sunday ball game (excellent seats!) and had been viewing weather forecasts with some dread. Over a hot dog breakfast in the Loop, we watched the rain pour down, and considered options. We could abandon the idea entirely and find a warm dry nook with food and beer, or we hope for some periods of dryness and at least tour an unfamiliar ball park. For my own case, opportunities to see a Major League game come infrequently, and there was always the possibility that the visiting Mariners would avoid being swept by the White Sox. Not a strong possibility, but hope springs eternal.

Chicago makes baseball easy, at least on the South Side, as the Red Line stops a few hundred yards from the park. We were seated four rows back, on the first base line in right field. The stadium is built so that this meant we were virtually at field level with a great view. It was wet. And cold. Tarps were down over the infield and their removal was greeted with a roar of approval. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad! And just as the game began, it rained. Not for long, though, just enough to give everyone a good soaking in preparation for blasts of really cold air. For the most part, the rain held off for nine innings but the cold and the wind never did. We stuck it out, though, along with the thousands of happy locals whose team won this game, along with the previous two games in the series. Me, not so happy with the result, but very pleased we'd taken our chances.

CTA makes baseball easy after the game as well. Portable fare machines, lots of extra customer service staff directing fans down to the trains, which were frequent and capable of carrying far more people than the light rail trains I'm used to in Portland. Red Line into town, Blue Line up north and a quick bus ride to the Map Room, where we settled in for the evening. For the baseball Snobs, all this meant no beer until 5:30 pm! Clearly, we needed to work hard to make up for the delay. Dinner was take out, delicious Cubano sandwiches from a few blocks away.

I was tucked up snug in bed before midnight. Other Snobs, however, finished up with cheezborgers at the Billy Goat. No, seriously.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Chicago with the Snobs, Day 3

More food and less beer, more or less. Knowing that there would be a line at Hot Doug's, the plan was to arrive when they opened at 10:30 or as close to that time as possible, given the longish transit ride out to sausage paradise. Since it was The Snobs, naturally, the plan fell short at critical moments and we ended up arriving at about noon. There was a line. We stood and talked in that line for 90 minutes before reaching encased meat heaven. Thanks to the generosity of absent Snob, Charlie Gow, we indulged. Well, others did. I only had a Chicago dog, a corndog and an Uber Garlic Pork Sausage with Roasted Garlic Dijonnaise and Moody Blue Cheese. And duck fat fries. There were other sausages at the table, mostly from the specials section of the menu.

We packed our well-stuffed casings on to the bus and then the El (Chicago understands public transit as well as Chicago understands meat) and landed at Rock Bottom for many pints and many Chicago fans screaming as their hockey team won in overtime on multiple screens. (Chicago also understands sports, as one would expect of a city with two baseball teams, a hockey team and a basketball team.) Additional Snobs drifted in and then out through the afternoon. There was beer.

And then there was pizza. Five of us pushed off through the rain to Gino's East for excellent deep-dish pies, the crunchy polenta crust stuffed with cheese, meat, tomatoes and spices. Both pizzas were considerably better than in a visit seven years ago to a different Gino's, and the service was terrific.

Don't these guys look happy? (From left: me, Ryan, Steve, Andy, Dave.) Most fortunately, our server offered to take the photo before we started to eat. Damage to the food was considerable and certainly not pretty. Nothing to be done after all this but push on through the rain to the Billy Goat for Old Styles. No cheezborgers, though, at least not this night. I hear rumors that cheezborgers were consumed the previous and the following nights, in the wee hours.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Chicago with the Snobs, Day 2

Day 2, pretty much all about the food. And beer. But mostly food, at least at first.

This started with lunch at Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill, reservations for eight at the 11:30 opening--prompting Brit Peter to cry, "Who eats lunch at 11:30?" as though we were mad. The photo is of my "light entree", Cazuela de Pato: "slow-cooked Gunthorp duck carnitas with ancho chile, lentils, slab bacon and grilled pineapple. Crispy onions." Others at the table had barbacoa goat enchiladas or the daily special of lamb slow-cooked in some incredible sauce, or . . . these being served after the small plates and appetizers, primary among them the "Trio, Trio, Trio: a sampling of Ceviche Fronterizo, Ceviche Yucateco and Coctel de Atun Tropical.

Well-stuffed with incredible food, we pottered off to the El, and a brisk walk (to those not plagued with battered knees) to the Map Room, one of Chicago's best multi-tap taverns. I had remembered the Map Room as dark, smoky and packed but yesterday reflected the non-smoking rules, with lots of light and air and a truly fine selection of beers from around the Midwest. (More photos here.) Eventually, a somewhat rash decision was made to move on for food and a visit to Hopleaf. Certain members of the party elected to skip the food and arrange seating at Hopleaf for the other six. We will speak of this treachery no more.

The half dozen heroes cabbed over to Mr. Beef, which turned out to be closed (apparently not uncommon). Fortunately, Portillo's was close by and we were able to fall on Italian beef sandwiches (hot peppers and crusty rolls) and real Chicago hot dogs.

Another cab ride over to Hopleaf, which was packed, crowded, stuffy and offered primarily Belgian beers we could find anywhere civilized. No place to sit or even stand comfortably and very little I found interesting on offer. Ryan, Steve and I peeled off for what turned out to be a longish bus and train ride to the Clark Street Ale House, where we lucked into a table and a much more appealing list of regional beers. The pub was crowded and loud, but vastly more comfortable. Other Snobs eventually wandered in later, more beer and fun ensued and we got ready to push off to bed. Amazingly enough, most of the group elected to head out to the Billy Goat Tavern for cheezborgers (cue Belushi skit). I tottered back to the hotel on my own, spent entirely too much time waiting on the El platform and just barely made it to my room without embarrassing myself.

Time now to clean up and get ready to stand in line for lunch at Hot Doug's. I believe there is a pizza in my future sometime after that.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Chicago with the Snobs, Day 1

I am blessed with a group of excellent friends, loosely known as The Snobs who, perhaps unfortunately, are scattered across the US and beyond. For very special occasions we've been able to gather for a few days of in-person visiting, always involving beer. Two of the Snobs were born in 1970, the year of my majority, and we decided it was worth celebrating. Chicago has several advantages, not the least of which is centrality, so there are nine of us here from the West Coast, the East Coast and the UK. The only goals are consumption and badinage, both of which we're quite good at.

Five of us managed to arrive at O'Hare virtually at once, took the El into downtown and our various hotels, then began acquiring more Snobs as we moved from Rock Bottom (loud, crowded and quite decent beer) to Piece, serving non-Chicago pizza and house beers (OK pizza, eh beer). Piece was unbelievably crowded but by great fortune we were able to ooze into a table as acquaintances finished their meal and oozed out--one of whom was actually the Rock Bottom brewer responsible for my excellent pils. From there, we El-d a few stops further north to Revolution, a new brewpub serving exceptionally good beers. At this point, Lew Bryson was to have made a surprise entrance (him being in town for Whiskeyfest), which he screwed up by gabbing about on Facebook. Everyone was pleased, though, to have an Auxiliary Snob (with a very special flask) who is as much fun as Lew. There was some initial concern that Lew's laugh would get us 86'd, but the wait staff at Revolution was tolerant and the place was noisy enough to absorb the volume.

Chicago at night is so different from laid-back Portland that it's difficult to credit. Even well after midnight, the streets were bustling, the bars packed and the El trains well-filled with people. Lots of young people out and about, dealing with the chilly air in everything from skimpy skirts to parkas. A lot of bicycles in what appears to be a very un-bikefriendly town. And Chicago is a lot older than Portland, which is most obvious to me in the tunnels and platforms of the El, amazing constructions of iron and wood with furnishings dating back to the 19th Century. All, I might add, still functioning with surprising efficiency. Two in the morning? No problem, the train back to the Loop will be here in six minutes.

The best part? We just got here and don't leave for days.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The birds vote for Spring

I crabbed about Daylight Saving Time the other morning, but I have to admit it is nice to have some light in the early evening. It means I can actually see the grill without a flashlight, for one thing, but it also means some opportunity to get a better look at my new visitors.

I now have three feeders on the balcony, with the addition of a thistle feeder, intended to attract finches. To date, I have two regular and greedy Lesser Goldfinches, who visit the feeder over and over during the day and spend a lot of time pulling seed out through the mesh. On rare occasions, they will sing a full-length version of their song but more often it's a single falling note (which is included in the recording). It's not unusual for me to see one of them on the feeder, stopping between bites to call that note, and then I can hear a response somewhere off in the trees from the other bird.

All the sunlight meant getting a better look at my regular visitors: Bushtit and Black-capped Chickadee as well. A few more photos here.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I say it's Spring

According to the calendar, Spring is weeks off but here in Portland it's well ahead of time. It made for a nice walk today for Ralphie and I, especially along Sellwood Blvd, where I found my dream house (or houses). Not only is this a beautiful old home with a beautiful old cherry tree out front (along with a beautiful not-so-old resident), but it offers what might be the best view in Portland. Sellwood Blvd sits on a ridge overlooking Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge and the Willamette River, with a clear view of downtown. Far down below is a walking and biking path, part of the 40-mile Springwater Corridor. The steep wooded hillside between road and path is already packed with songbirds.

I'm just having a little trouble deciding whether the nice lady should give me her house, or if I'd rather have one just down the street, because the other house has a widow's walk and therefore even a better view.

And this house is right next to Sellwood City Park, a real gem tucked away from traffic, while still a short hike to the Bybee-Milwaukie stores and antique row. Maybe the people who live here should give me their house instead.

Ralphie doesn't seem to care, just so long as I shut up and let him walk.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Random Photo of the Day

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Chickadee comes to visit and very very quickly grab a seed. This is the first time I've had decent light on the balcony when shooting (through the glass) the bird feeder.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pulling the thread

One of the great joys of my life has been discovering new music. In the late 60s and early 70s, this usually meant trusting the judgment of reviewers at Rolling Stone, having a friend with similar taste put on an LP, or tracking down musicians as they left one band and joined or formed another. After 40 years or so, I have no memory of how I found the Keef Hartley Band, unless I followed up with him after his stint with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. All I know is I fell in love with the band largely because of the vocal and guitar contributions of Miller Anderson.

Eh, not the greatest video, but finding any good footage from that era is mostly just luck. As he was leaving the Keef Hartley Band, Anderson released his first solo album, Bright City, with a much more jazz and folk orientation than the blues rock the band had produced, except for one very bluesy track. The haunting title song would surface in my memory off and on for years, long after the LP had been stuck away with hundreds of others as I was seduced by the ease of CDs.

When I bought my first CD, I swore I wasn't falling into the trap of replacing albums I already had on LP--an oath that must have lasted a week. Instead, many of the CDs I bought were to replace old favorites that over time had been overwhelmed by the pops and skips of long use. Being able to clap on headphones and listen to something like Paul Butterfield's long East/West instrumental in pristine clarity was impossible to resist. Unfortunately, a lot of the music I'd acquired was simply not being reissued on CD.

Within the last decade or so, the recommendations from friends like Ryan and Charlie included music from "my" era, the late 60s and early 70s (before Ryan was even born) that I'd never heard, from a lot of musicians I'd never heard of. Much of the music came from overseas, primarily from the UK, music that hadn't penetrated our close-knit world of California.

Thanks to the Internet I discovered digital versions of much of it and eventually acquired the equipment needed to digitize my LPs--which is a lot of work. So much easier to track down files online or CDs issued by tiny record labels, many of them from Europe. I recently reacquired the Keef Hartley Band albums, and without much confidence did a search for Miller Anderson. It should probably have been no surprise that he's still working, still touring and still producing exceptionally fine music--with a website that included Bright City as a CD. Webmaster Ada responded to an email to tell me they still had a few copies and, if I wanted, she could have Anderson autograph one (see above). And so she did. I bought that and a copy of Bluesheart, a fine blues album from 2003. (Thanks to the Royal Mail and the USPS, the package took three days from Brighton, England to Portland!) The "exception" I mentioned on Bright City is a solid blues cut that appears to have become a signature for Miller Anderson. A version kicks off Bluesheart and I found a video of him performing the song in Moscow:

Before the CDs had arrived, I'd already picked up another recent album featuring Anderson, a Live from Glasgow recording by a group called The British Blues Quintet, five musicians who had been playing live and in studios, with a constantly shifting group of fellow musicians, since the 60s. The album "features" Maggie Bell, and a casual study made her sound very intriguing, with comparisons to Janis Joplin. In the late 60s, Bell had been the lead singer for Stone the Crows, yet another musical group I'd never listened to. I did have a faint memory that I'd heard of them, but only because of the bizarre death of lead guitarist Les Harvey, who had been electrocuted during a sound check. As far as I can tell, Stone the Crows had never made a dent in the American market and certainly hadn't surfaced on West Coast radio. Harvey's death finished the band, but not until they had produced some brilliant music--how had I missed them?

Listening to Stone the Crows brought me full circle--back to discovering "new" music from the late 60s, music I would have eaten alive back then which became something miraculous in 2010. And I'm pleased to report that Miller Anderson and Maggie Bell are still brilliant. (YouTube also has a three-part live Stone the Crows concert from Paris that runs over 20 minutes and makes the comparisons to Joplin a little more understandable.)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Random Photo of the Day

There is always a lot of tugboat traffic down on the Willamette. Sometimes we forget that the city began here to use that river as a highway and that it's still very much in use. Most of the time, the tugs I see are pushing big or even huge barges. Today, it looks more like someone has decided to move the house.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

We're Bushtits!!!

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On New Year's Eve, I bought two bird feeders from the nice people at the Back Yard Bird Shop on Fremont. I hung the seed and suet feeders on my balcony and waited a long time for any visitors. Now I'm getting two varieties of chickadee, a few sparrows, the occasional nuthatch and a cheery swarm of bushtits. It would be nice if I could get better lighting, but a few of these photos aren't terrible. Updated with more photos, including a nuthatch!
Bushtits in January

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pixar for Grownups

The animated film, Up, had somehow completely slipped past my radar when it was released in 2009. As much as I now regret missing it on the big screen, it's unlikely I would have made the effort to see it in a theater. I mean, it's just a cartoon, right? Instead, I watched the DVD last night, and it was so good it inspired me to wake my blog up to write about it. As my title suggests, I consider this to be the first Pixar film and one of the rare animated films created for grownups rather than for kids. I don't suggest that previous Pixar films and many other made-for-children animated movies can't be appreciated by adults, just that this may be one movie not particularly appreciated by kids.

The plot synopsis from IMDB is simple enough: By tying thousands of balloon to his home, 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream to see the wilds of South America. Frankly, that didn't inspire me much at all and it doesn't begin to capture the beauty of the story created by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and Thomas McCarthy. The first 15-20 minutes of the film, beginning in familiar territory with a small boy becoming captivated by a heroic explorer then moves through a montage of Carl's life that stands as a brilliant gem of animation all by itself. Beautiful and emotionally rich, that montage had me so choked up and damp-eyed I took a break from the DVD.

And then Pixar went into completely unfamiliar (forbidden?) territory: the protagonist is an old man! A really old guy, who creaks and groans just getting from bed to front porch, and who needs a walker to get anywhere. And what I love most is that the writers avoided the most obvious cliches to set up the adventure, because Carl is not a cranky, bitter old goat looking back on an empty life devoid of meaning or moment, ripe for redemption and enlightenment, but a 78-year-old man who has lived an emotionally full and joyous life. Well, he is a bit cranky, but I can relate.

The remainder of the film is "just" the usual gorgeous Pixar animation. The tone changes dramatically, with plenty of adventure and humor. You have to have great animals in a film like this, of course, and Up has several, including a (naturally) lovable dog named Dug, and funny bits for people who know dogs. Squirrel!

When recommending the film elsewhere, I wrote something like "While it's not the greatest animated film ever..." which then begs the question, what is the greatest animated film ever? And that turned out not to have a simple answer. When I was a child, I saw Fantasia in the theater and it lodged itself in my consciousness forever. According to Wikipedia, I saw it in SuperScope and stereo. Although it was a money-loser in early releases, Fantasia set the bar for animation pretty high. So had Snow White & the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio and Dumbo. These movies were beautiful, amazing stories brought to life by thousands of hours of painstaking work. I cannot imagine there is any dispute that they are at or near the top of any list (and here, I have to admit a gaping hole in my own viewing: Japanese animated films).

I struggle with a definition of "great animated films", beyond an obvious OhMyGod factor such as those Disney films possessed. Because of the nature of animation, there is also a HowDidTheyDoThat?! factor, usually the product of a technical breakthrough. If we award "great" based on that factor, we have to include Gertie the Dinosaur, which Windsor McKay reportedly created on a bet, and took on tour in 1914. And Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, which had sound! (I'm old enough to be astonished to learn that you can actually watch both of these films online, from the comfort of your own PC.)

There had been a few examples of mixing live action with animation, but never anything as thorough and as astonishing as 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which not only broke down the wall between toons and humans, but even walls between studios. A piano duet with Daffy and Donald ducks? That's just not possible! Judging from online lists, Roger appears to have fallen from view, but it remains a personal favorite.

Another favorite is Nick Park's brilliant claymation film, The Wrong Trousers, with Wallace and Gromit (and, honestly, other W&G films that followed). Besides being terribly funny, Park's work has always had a huge HowDidTheyDoThat?! factor going for it.

In 1995, Pixar pretty well nailed down the HowDidTheyDoThat?! once and for all with Toy Story. They've done it so consistently since then, in fact, that they may well have removed the wow factor of technology entirely from consideration. There's no more HowDidTheyDoThat?! left; we expect a Pixar film or any film competing with Pixar's product to have incredible graphics, and anything less would be a disappointment.

Which is not to say that great animation cannot be achieved without AmazingTechnology! Very high on my personal list is the 2003 French surrealist film, The Triplets of Belleville, which is an astonishing and original masterpiece of the art.

(That struggle to list the "greatest" animated film has, for the most part, assumed the answer was in feature-length films. Otherwise, mine would be an easy list featuring Chuck Jones, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny.)

When all is said and done, does Up make the list? I have no idea, except to say that it's a terrific movie and you should see it. Just be sure the pack your hankies.