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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 15, 2011

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

App-lifting, Shops, Oil, Nuts, London Under

I have friends who won't go to R-rated movies -- and others who don't even look at the ratings.

Ever since they started allowing one F-bomb in the PG-13 category -- a ludicrous decision, which almost requires pretentious filmmakers to choose their lone F-word for maximum effect, so you feel super-F-ed -- I have friends who simply don't go to movies at all.

Even television isn't all that safe.

Recently, my older brother called my attention to "Mommy Bear Media," an online media store that carefully examines all the DVDs of movies and TV shows they sell: If it's for sale on their site, it's a family-approved show.

Located at http://www.mommybearmedia.com/, this store has a selection that's "surprisingly large and varied." Apparently there are more clean movies than we think -- they just get a lot less media attention and rarely get nominated for awards!

As my brother says, "Prices are extremely fair." I think this means "cheap but not free." Shipping is free.

It's not too late to buy Christmas gifts -- or gift certificates -- for other families that share your values.

It's also possible to go to their site and see what they recommend, then buy it somewhere else for less.

But why would you do that? How much will you save? A buck? Two? Isn't it worth paying a little bit more than the absolute lowest price on Earth in order to help sustain a store that provides such a careful guarantee of good decorum?

Which brings me to Amazon's new app that allows people to take their smartphones into a bookstore, scan the barcode of something they sell, and then see if Amazon sells it for less.

Then, if you buy it from Amazon -- right then, on your phone, while standing in the store that you actually saw the item in -- they give you a discount of five percent of the purchase price, up to five dollars.

If all you care about in this world is today's price, then this is a wonderful idea.

But think about this for just a few moments.

Where did you see the item? You found it in a bricks-and-mortar store. That's where you actually saw it on display, handled it, decided you wanted to buy it.

What will happen if you buy from Amazon? Next time that store won't be there. They'll go out of business. So where will you find the item you want to buy? Where will you see it, handle it, decide?

What you're doing, if you use this app, is becoming Amazon's corporate spy, allowing them to undercut the competition and kill your local store.

It's like carrying WalMart in your back pocket.

Now, keep something straight here: I'm a constant Amazon customer. I maintain a huge address list on Amazon.com and buy lots of things there.

But I don't want Amazon to be the only store in the world.

I have a personal stake in this. A few years ago, Amazon decided to force an ebook pricing policy on book publishers that would have destroyed their profitability. My publisher, Macmillan, balked and refused to go along.

So Amazon.com punished my publisher by refusing to sell not only their ebooks, but also their hardcover and paperback books.

This included most of my books.

The move backfired, because people simply went to Barnes & Noble (and, in those days, Borders) or other booksellers, local and online, buy books they wanted by Macmillan authors.

But what if there hadn't been any other store to go to?

Amazon.com is the second most vicious competitor in the retail world (Microsoft is still the worst, but they've passed WalMart and Barnes & Noble). Amazon's management apparently wants to be the only retailer in the world.

And what happens if they succeed? All the things we've valued about Amazon will no longer exist -- because if they're the only store left, they don't have to care.

It's already happening. We recently ordered eight glass pitchers, which were shipped by Amazon.

Amazon used to be very careful packagers. But that's just not true any more. Three of the pitchers arrived broken, with boxes full of glass shards and confetti.

The packaging had been so shoddy we were surprised that any of them were intact. Perhaps none of the packagers understood that glass is breakable.

When we called, the person at Amazon that we talked to suggested that when we ordered replacements, we order them one at a time, so each arrived in an individual package. Apparently even Amazon knew about its problem with bad packaging.

I've recently had books arrive from Amazon with bent corners, or thrown in a box with the pages of two books facing each other, so they shuffled into each other and bent and folded each other like a deck of cards.

Why have they let their quality slip so badly? Because Amazon is the big boy now, and they don't have to care the way they used to.

So now let's get back to that money-saving app. When you become Amazon's toady, undercutting and destroying bricks-and-mortar stores in order to save yourself a few bucks here and there, you are really guaranteeing higher prices and shoddier service in the future.

Because in all the history of monopolies, when competition disappears, corporate bloat ensues, and prices go up while quality goes down.

Capitalism always leads to monopoly, if left unchecked, especially when consumers put on their stupid-hats and let paltry price differences be their sole guides to purchasing.

So when you're in the store and you see someone app-lifting -- scanning barcodes with their smartphones, then ordering online -- they are damaging you more than shoplifters do.

You will pay for their "savings" by watching local stores close, forcing you to buy online -- which, more and more, means buying from Amazon, as Amazon buys up more and more online retailers.

I think it's perfectly all right to say, loudly, "Are you trying to put this store out of business? How dare you come in here to find what you want, then buy it from somebody else? That's like a guy going to pick up his date and taking her roommate instead!"

If they say, "It's none of your business," you can say, "If you put this store out of business, then it hurts me and everybody else who shops here. If you're going to buy online, then go find what you want online, too. Don't steal the service this store offers."

Am I advocating that you get in public arguments? What an un-southern thing to do.

In the South, I guess you're only allowed to sniff loudly as you pass the app-lifter.

Let's use this standard: If you would ask a smoker to stop smoking in a public place, then use the same level of politeness and boldness to ask an app-lifter to take his app-lifting outside.

And when stores adopt the policy of ejecting you for app-lifting, don't get irate. They have no obligation to allow you to buy from a competitor while standing in their store, using their displays to do your shopping.

Meanwhile, I just spent several hundred dollars at Amazon a few minutes ago -- buying gifts that I found at Amazon.com. I'm not against Amazon.com, I'm just against brutally unfair competition that will give them, or any company, a monopoly.

For another article on the same subject -- so you know I'm not alone in this -- check out the New York Times.


The first time I ever tasted olive oil in my life, I was in my thirties. My wife and I were in New York and my publisher took me out to lunch at a little Manhattan Italian restaurant.

They brought olive oil to the table and poured it into little dishes. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. My publisher showed us that you dip your bread into it, instead of butter.

As a lifelong fussy fearful eater, I tried it -- and fell in love.

Then, when I lived for a month or so in the south of France, I began to discover that not all olive oils are alike.

Most of the oils in the grocery stores are actually bland -- suitable only for cooking, not for actually tasting.

I began looking for olive oils with a real tang to them. I found some favorites at Fresh Market, which I've reviewed before.

But now a store called Midtown Olive Press has opened in Friendly Center, in the same building as Red Mango (which, of course, you visit regularly since I told you about their brilliant yogurts and smoothies a few months ago).

This mini-chain began in Raleigh; our Greensboro store is only their second.

They have a wide array of oils in vats, and you can taste them. There are pure oils with different flavors, which come from different regions. They are quite different, and while none of them was as peppery and robust as I like best, they were all very good.

They also have infused oil -- olive oils that have been naturally flavored with limes, lemons, garlic, rosemary, or other herbs or fruits or vegetables.

Purists look down their noses at such impurity, but not me -- the lime-infused oil is absolutely wonderful, and I've loved oils that were infused with peppers, oranges, or lemons.

The folks at Midtown Olive Press know their olive oils, and they'll advise you. When you've chosen an oil, they fill a small bottle with it, put a label on it, stick a cork in the top, and sell it to you.

They also sell good pouring tops for a few bucks, and I urge you to buy them and have them put them on the tops of your bottles instead of the corks.

Why? Because we don't own a corkscrew and, being non-wine-drinkers, we have no experience with corks. So we ended up with our first cork pushed down into the bottle. Not the best outcome.

Maybe experienced de-corkers won't have our problem.

What matters, though, is the oil -- and this stuff is good. They don't have every olive oil in the world.

At Campanile, one of our favorite Los Angeles restaurants, we have sampled some of the most wonderful robust oils from around the world. It doesn't make me a connoisseur -- I'm not -- but it did alert me to the wide variety of flavors and textures that come under the rubric of olive oil.

Midtown Olive Press can't carry every possible oil. But they have a good variety to suit most palates, and if you're just entering into the world of oils-for-eating rather than just for cooking, I can't think of a better introduction.

Speaking of olive oils, I suppose it's possible that few of you are so oil obsessed that you would leap at a chance to read a whole book about olive oil.

But Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller, is such a good book that it might well make an olive-oil aficionado out of you!

It starts with an account of an olive-oil tasting, in which a panel of experts judge an olive oil and rate it.

There are basically three grades: Extra virgin, virgin, and lamp oil.

Seriously. Most of the oils in American grocery stores, they say, are suitable only for burning.

And the "scandal" referred to in the title is the fact that even though the "extra virgin" rating is a matter of law in Europe, nobody enforces it. So unscrupulous dealers can cut their "extra virgin" oil with lamp-quality oil and there's no penalty.

So you have to search carefully to make sure that the oil you're paying extra-virgin prices for is actually extra-virgin!

As with the ratings of diamond clarity and cut, the judging is done by experts with experience and training. But even rank amateurs like me can taste the big differences.

Extra Virginity teaches you how to get a clear taste of an oil and what to look for. At first you might think that the descriptives -- "grassy," "nutty," "peppery," and so on -- are just menu talk.

After all, wine experts are famously unable to discern the quality of wines in double-blind taste tests.

This is not the case with olive oils. These differences are real and clear. You can taste them from the start. When an oil is called "grassy," you can taste it; and after a few experiences, you can taste this quality without any help from the experts.

You can also taste the flaws, which Mueller explains in detail.

He also talks about the meaning of "first cold pressing" and the fact that this is really outmoded -- in his opinion, at least, oil separated by centrifuge, which means it is never pressed at all, is often better than the pressed oils.

It helps that Mueller is a very good writer, and he ties his account to individuals -- mostly Italian olive farmers, in a nation that only recently started caring about its olive oil quality (the French have cared about it far longer).

Bad cheap oil and fake expensive oil tends to drive out the real thing, and that's the warning of his book -- unless we who care about good oils search for and buy the real thing, supporting those who maintain the integrity of their product, we'll end up with nothing but fakes and lamp oil.

Even in local restaurants in Greensboro, when you ask for olive oil, what you get is extremely mild oil (to the point of flavorlessness). I'm about to start taking my own oil, purchased at Midtown Olive Press, to restaurants.

When I lived in Brazil in the 1970s, I saw Italian-Brazilians doing exactly that, bringing their own olive oils to restaurants and then drizzling it on everything.

I'm not quite to that stage -- but I'm getting close.

Anyway, I loved Extra Virginity and I recommend it as a fascinating book, even for people who aren't oil aficionados.

And if, after reading it, you decide to see what all the hooplah is about, isn't it nice to know that Greensboro now has a store where you can try out your newly-learned oil-tasting technique?


As if Midtown Olive Press weren't enough, right next door -- between Midtown Olive and Red Mango -- there's another new store, Savory Spice Shop. (The Shops at Friendly Center; 3354 W. Friendly Ave., 336-676-4043.)

As with Midtown, they have large containers of a wide selection of spices, which you choose from and which they then put into smaller bottles for you to take home.

They even allow you to bring back the bottles for refills, saving you the price of the bottle on repeat visits!

If you think cinnamon is just cinnamon, think again!

Now, I've been a cinnamon fanatic longer than I've been an olive oil geek. Our Thanksgiving turkey has long been spiced with heavy doses of cinnamon; I put it in my American feijoada, in chili, and in many other dishes where most people wouldn't think of it.

That's because, except in Ferrara's Red Hots candy, we tend to think of cinnamon only in the context of cinnamon-sugar. We think of it as sweet -- as a component of sweet rolls or a coating on donuts.

But the richness of cinnamon is truly at its best in gravies and sauces, stews and soups. For one thing, the kitchen smells so good while you're cooking that people come in just to breathe the air.

It's in the tasting, though, that cinnamon shows its true colors. The only drawback is that it takes a lot of cinnamon to play a serious role in soups, stews, meats, and gravies.

That means I'll be visiting Savory Spice Shop a lot.

But there's a lot more than cinnamon at Savory Spice Shop. Why not stop in while you're at Red Mango for your weekly smoothie?


Peter Ackroyd wrote a huge history of London called London: The Biography. It's sitting near my bed, waiting for me to have time to wade in. So I can't review it, on the principle that I should only review things when I know what I'm talking about.

But now he has another, much shorter, downright tiny book called London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets, and the size and the topic made it irresistible to me.

He takes us through all the things that are now under London's streets and buildings, from archaeological sites to hidden rivers, from the London subway system to the sewers.

This is the kind of book that makes history fun. Really. Truly.

Oh, come on -- if you're an American born after 1970, you haven't ever had a history class in high school, not really, and so you don't know whether history is interesting or boring.

They stopped teaching history in any serious way decades ago; what you get now is so politicized and dumbed down that of course it's boring -- it's like drinking from an empty glass. It quenches nothing.

But a book like this is exhilarating because it's full of stuff you never knew and probably never would have imagined.

So if you have a friend or family member who actually likes to read, this is a superb gift book.

Yeah, it costs $25, which, for a book so small, will seem pretty steep.

But Amazon discounts it to $12.50, and if it's available at Barnes & Noble (it may sell out!), it's only a little more. (There are other online sites that undersell Amazon by an amazing penny!)


Years ago, I reviewed the specialty cashews called Yumnuts, which we were buying at a grocery store in the Outer Banks.

That store doesn't carry them any more -- but Wegman's, in Virginia, does, and you can also get them at Amazon.com. (See? I don't hate Amazon! I shop there!)

They are some of the best cashews you can find. Dry roasted, so you don't get a huge dose of fats, they also come in flavors that I think are amazing. Sea salt and honey are the obvious popular ones, but ...

The chocolate ones are amazing.

I'm a huge fan of chocolate-covered cashews (I'm wearing many pounds of the ones sold by The Peanut Roaster.)

But Yumnuts takes a completely different approach. Instead of smothering cashews in rich milk chocolate, they dust them with a hearty chocolate powder. The effect is at once minimalist and delicious.

I'm also in love with their coconut cashews -- my favorite way to dose myself with coconut, a flavor I love, without having to put up with the texture of shaved coconut, which I hate.

And the "easy cajun" flavor of Yumnuts is endorsed by a friend who grew up in Mandeville, Louisiana, and knows cajun.

They also have "spicy cajun" cashews and several kinds of almonds. Believe me, it's worth checking out, either to order as gifts or to enjoy for yourself. Because I'm not sharing any of mine with you.

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