Archive for March, 2010

Cooking Noob: Fettucine And Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp

March 31, 2010 - 4:55 pm Comments Off

So, I learned a new thing this past week, which is that when I point to a recipe that says “that looks good, we should do that”, what this actually means is that I have volunteered to make the whatever and write it up. So instead of continuing to dither between making a yeast bread or trying crab cakes, this time you get a saucy pasta topped with bacon-wrapped shrimp.

This is actually Breda’s fault. She pointed Stingray at a recipe for ancho chile lemonade on a foodie site, he was intrigued and I was dubious, and I said the recipe for chipotle pasta cream sauce with bacon-wrapped shrimp sounded much more appealing. Inadvertent volunteerism in place, ingredients were procured at the grocery store. Here, with credit to the folks at feasting.in, is the entire monster:

Chipotle Cream Sauce
ingredients (makes 4-6 portions):

* 1-1/2 c. milk
* 1-1/2 c. heavy cream
* 1 c. aged parmesan, shredded (or other hard, sharp cheese such as Irish Cheddar or Asiago)
* 3 tbs. butter
* 6 egg yolks
* 1/4 tsp. chipotle powder (add more to taste)
* 1 c. frozen peas
* 1 c. mushrooms, sliced
* (4) cloves garlic, chopped
* 1 tbs. olive oil
* salt and pepper
* fettucini, prepared al dente

directions:

1. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat and then add milk and cream. Bring to a light boil, when small bubbles just begin to form, and then turn off heat. Stir in shredded cheese until melted and thoroughly combined.
2. Separate egg yolks into a small mixing bowl. Ladle in a small amount of the hot cream mixture and whisk to temper the eggs. Add to the pot of sauce and continue to whisk to prevent the yolks from cooking into a solid mass. Stir in chipotle powder and then cover pot to retain heat.
3. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and fry briefly, and then add mushrooms. Cook until soft and then add frozen peas. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper, and stir until peas are hot and cooked through, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir vegetable mix into prepared cream sauce. Serve over bed of fettucini, and top with bacon wrapped shrimp.

Bacon Wrapped Shrimp
ingredients:

* 2 dozen shell-on shrimp, peeled
* 6 slices center cut bacon, cut in fourths
* 1 tsp. seafood seasoning
* 2 tbs. butter
* pinch of salt and pepper

directions:

1. Wrap shrimp with bacon. Use a wooden toothpick to skewer bacon onto the body of the shrimp horizontally, starting where the legs were and pushing through to the other side. The body of the shrimp should be wrapped in bacon, and the shrimp should be able to rest on its side for cooking.
2. Add shrimp to non-stick skillet and place over medium to medium-high heat. Add butter to pan and sprinkle everything with seafood seasoning. Cook on one side until bacon and shrimp start to cook, and then flip over. Lift skillet and shake to distribute the butter and bacon fat evenly while cooking. Turn over shrimp to cook both sides.
3. When the shrimp is cooked (the shrimp will start developing bright red hues and the bacon will start to get crispy) remove from heat and set on a paper towel to cool. When shrimp has cooled enough to handle, remove toothpicks and arrange over pasta.

Our grocery store inexplicably does not carry powdered chipotle, just every other chile product under the sun, so I scrounged around and came up with a can of “chipotle seasoning” that I figured would work as long as I went easy on the salt. We also lack seafood seasoning since getting fresh seafood is such a dicey proposition up here, so I went with something from Stingray’s seasoning collection called “mural of flavor” mainly because it had a lot of bits of aromatic green things and no salt. The shrimp were frozen due to the aforementioned death of acceptably fresh seafood on the top of a mountain in the middle of a landlocked desert state. On to the cooking.

1. Track down the fettucine. No information is given in the recipe as to how long to cook it for “al dente” or how much to use, so just grab a third or so of the pasta in the package and go by the instructions on the side. Kick a pot of water up to a vigorous boil, squirt in some olive oil to tame foam, add salt, and then add the pasta, half of which will protrude awkwardly from the pot. Wait until softened enough to press down into a taut bow shape at the bottom of the pot, set the timer for “al dente” (twelve minutes, allegedly), and attend to your sauce.

In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat and then add milk and cream. Bring to a light boil, when small bubbles just begin to form, and then turn off heat. Stir in shredded cheese until melted and thoroughly combined.

2. The original recipe is for four and we’re bigger fans of the meat portions of pasta than the pasta itself, so halve everything in the sauce portion of the recipe. Flick on the burner, set to medium, and toss in the butter, which will melt while you’re pulling the milk and cream out of the fridge. Add the milk, then promptly back down the heat a bit because it achieves a light boil instantly. Add cream. Turn off the heat and add the cheese and stir. Optional: attempt to calculate in your head the percentage of the sauce composed of milkfat.

Separate egg yolks into a small mixing bowl. Ladle in a small amount of the hot cream mixture and whisk to temper the eggs. Add to the pot of sauce and continue to whisk to prevent the yolks from cooking into a solid mass. Stir in chipotle powder and then cover pot to retain heat.

3. Time to learn how to separate eggs! Since we’re not using the egg whites, this turns out to be mostly a matter of being willing to coat your hands in slime without breaking the yolk on the edges of the eggshell. Pass the yolk from hand to hand until most of the slime has departed. Place in mixing bowl. Try a second time. Reason that since there’s not exactly any such easily measured thing as half an egg yolk, losing some of it because you broke it won’t be too serious an issue.

4. Discover that, owing to heat departing food at accelerated rates at seven thousand feet, the hot cream is no longer hot. Turn the burner to simmer until it is again, then spoon some in with the egg yolks and whisk together. Do it again just to be on the safe side. Turn the egg yolks into the sauce and whisk frantically as the whole mixture goes through some existential identity issues regarding whether it is a thick sauce or thin scrambled eggs. Things will settle on the side of sauce- barely. Turn the heat off again, stir in whatever seems like a reasonable amount of “chipotle seasoning” (now with chunks!) and cover the pot.

5. The fettucine’s done by now, so grab your colander and drain the pasta in it. You can make some sort of concession to insulation if you like, but unless you put it in a thermos, at this altitude it’s going to be ice-cold by the time you’re ready to serve regardless.

Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and fry briefly, and then add mushrooms. Cook until soft and then add frozen peas. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper, and stir until peas are hot and cooked through, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir vegetable mix into prepared cream sauce. Serve over bed of fettucini, and top with bacon wrapped shrimp.

6. By this time we have learned to disregard measurements regarding how much fat to add to the pan to cook something, so squirt in whatever looks like a healthy amount to saute some vegetables with. Extract the bag of frozen peas from the freezer and bludgeon it mercilessly in order to encourage the peas to separate some from their unitary block, which will only work up to the point of producing a fist-sized collective that we might as well call half a cup. Now is an opportune time to discover that nobody bothered to put mushrooms on the grocery list. Swear.

7. Mince up a couple of cloves of garlic, throw into the pan, and turn on the heat. Cook briefly as instructed. Introduce the Pea Collective and introduce coercion to their little union.

8. Wow, the melting water really makes that olive oil spit! At this point, cooking becomes a race to separate and cook the peas before the garlic goes from “brown and slightly crispy” to “burned”, as burnt garlic will require you to start all over again. Next time maybe we better just take a damn hammer to the peas before we try cooking them with something that goes from flavorful to bitter vileness when over-heated. Transfer the whole mess as soon as seems reasonable to the cream sauce, stir in and cover.

Wrap shrimp with bacon. Use a wooden toothpick to skewer bacon onto the body of the shrimp horizontally, starting where the legs were and pushing through to the other side. The body of the shrimp should be wrapped in bacon, and the shrimp should be able to rest on its side for cooking.

9. You know what we didn’t think to do because the ingredients specifically call for shell-on shrimp? Peel the shrimp. You know what we really should have done before applying heat to anything at all? Peel the shrimp. Peel the shrimp, noobsauce. they are already deveined, so starting from the top and unwrapping in a single motion proves to be the most efficient method.

10. Slice the bacon into fourths. At this point you will have attracted every four-legged member of the household. Watch where you step, some of them are just dying to have their wounded paw recompensed with anything you have up there. Try not to slip in the drool.

11. Ransack the kitchen for toothpicks. Discover a mostly-empty box. Groan. Use these to pin shrimp as instructed. Discover that, the bacon being nearly as wide as it is long, this is actually much more difficult to do neatly than it looks. At some point you may abandon “neat” as long as everything operates as a single unit when manipulated by the toothpick. A pause to locate more toothpicks, possibly materialized by a merciful God, in the back of a junk drawer may be required. Optional: distribute excess shrimp to the madding horde. Watch your toes.

Add shrimp to non-stick skillet and place over medium to medium-high heat. Add butter to pan and sprinkle everything with seafood seasoning. Cook on one side until bacon and shrimp start to cook, and then flip over. Lift skillet and shake to distribute the butter and bacon fat evenly while cooking. Turn over shrimp to cook both sides.

12. No point in dirtying another pan, so add the butter to the skillet which contained the vegetables and kick on the heat. Even a quite large cast iron skillet won’t fit a full two dozen bacon-wrapped shrimp, so we’re going to have to do this in two batches. Distribute the first dozen and sprinkle on your salt, pepper, and “mural of flavor”. As you contemplate the potential doneness of the shrimp, you will begin to notice that a combination of butter, olive oil, and rapidly rendering bacon fat both smells very good and creates extremely vigorous pan grease, something that you will only come to fully appreciate when it comes time to flip the shrimp to the other side. Long sleeves are good, welding gloves would be better.

13. Transfer the cooked shrimp and bacon to a plate next to the stove you already thoughtfully lined with a paper towel. Put in the raw shrimp and bacon and arrange. Given all the bacon fat from the last batch, this one should cook quite a bit faster.

14. FIRE! FIRE! FUEGO! HOLY FUCK PUT IT OUT PUT IT OUT!

15. It is strongly recommended to extinguish the paper towel on the plate before the fire reaches the greasy parts. Then move the hot cast iron pan and the plate further apart from one another. Assure your spouse, when he comes in inquiring about the bloodcurdling screech and huffing noises, that the fire is out and you have everything under control. He may look a little dubious but there’s really nothing much more comforting you can say at this point.

16. Turn the shrimp. Assure spouse, yet again coming in about the noise, that it was merely a reaction to the very vigorous grease giving an ambitious leap and tagging the side of your neck and not another fire, burn requiring medical treatment, or other variety of inadvertent self-mutilation.

17. Remove the cooked shrimp and bacon to the somewhat charred plate, turn off the heat, and return your attention the pasta, which is not only predictably cold, but also somewhat congealed. Turn on the sink until you get good hot water, then wash and warm the pasta at once before distributing it more or less evenly between plates. Turn the likewise cold cream sauce and vegetables to simmer for a bit while you remove the toothpicks from the already-cooling bacon-wrapped shrimp. Contemplate moving to sea level.

18. Ladle the sauce, which is already starting to question its identity again, over the noodles, and arrange the shrimp over that. Forlornly poke at everything now achieving varying states of “chilly to room temperature” on its way from counter to table. Consume.

This was actually really tasty, even if I did have to serve it cold. (I somehow doubt this sauce would get along with a microwave.) Flavor-wise it was a complete success even if some of the shrimp from the first batch were a bit overdone. If/when we do it again, we’ll use the mushrooms, and probably things would go much better in terms of delivering hot food to table if two people were working on it- one person assembling the already-peeled shrimp and bacon while the other made the sauce, or else entirely constructing the shrimp before even starting on the sauce and noodles.

The bacon-wrapped shrimp, or likely bacon-wrapped anything, would be very good on their own.

The Sky Is…. Still There!

March 30, 2010 - 12:59 pm Comments Off

Well ZOMG and color me shocked. They fired up the LHC something fierce just the other day, and faith and begorrah we’re still here. So let’s just recap all this, hmm? First the world was going to be destroyed by black holes and dragons when they turned it on. Nothing happened, aside from a rather expensive lesson in “make sure you connected it properly.” Then it was supposed to really be killed by black holes when they turned on the second beam. Still ticking along, amazingly enough. Finally, in the only part where I could even remotely buy there being some danger, we were all supposed to be instantly (or in 14 years, depends on which flawed math you look at) sucked into a doomvortex of super-death when they crossed the streams.

Seeing as every molecule in my body did not simultaneously explode at the speed of light, I’m going to ask again: Where’s my $500?

Must-See

March 29, 2010 - 9:00 pm Comments Off

Yeah, you can pretty much tell from the timestamp I got nothin’. Again. So in the interests of somethin’, yet another “you should totally be watching this” pimp post. Most of what’s on TV follows Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is crud”), but we keep watching for the other ten percent.

Breaking Bad, coming out of, surprisingly enough, AMC. The premise is not particularly promising; the basic plot is that a high school chemistry teacher who’s led a very dull and overall “safe” life and has a recently pregnant wife, a teenage kid, and some debt issues is told that he has terminal cancer and maybe a year left to live. Desperate for something to leave his family, he starts cooking meth, with all the purity and potency someone with actual chemistry lab skills can apply. Hijinks ensue.

Like I said, not a terribly promising premise. What it has going for it are acting, and writing. The lead is played by Bryan Cranston, who had previously achieved such lofty dramatic heights as the bumbling dad on Malcolm In The Middle; he seems out to prove he’s been hideously underused, and he seems to be living up to it. The rest of the cast are not quite as standout, but they’re all good enough to convey quite a lot with slight changes in expression or tone, and very believably. Instead of the standard TV Clenched Jaw and dramatic music, scenes that are meant to be intense actually come across as intense enough to be unnerving to the viewer. The music itself, while used, is never made to do the work of conveying the emotion of the scene and instead exists to speed along show-don’t-tell scenes that would otherwise be relatively boring.

The writers themselves seem to be largely folks who made their bones in the X-Files showing what they can do when they don’t have to write in service of Chris Carter’s last weed-and-cheetos binge. While it’s possible to see the basic outlines of the plot just as a logical outgrowth of the premise, things vary between funny, tense, and dark as appropriate, and while the series starts off seeming like more of a black comedy than anything, things get very black at points without remotely veering into wangst or narm territory. What I like best is the characters- while we’re quite obviously meant to be most interested in the lead, even characters that initially seem one-dimensional or living plot devices get far more development than even the main characters in some series. It’s also nice in that we’re not necessarily meant to sympathize or demonize anyone just based on whether they’re likable or not; very often people that are profoundly unlikeable are on the right side of a central point of contention, or people we’ve been sympathizing with the entire time are deeply in the wrong. No plot-induced stupidity or out-of-characterness seems in sight.

Happily from our perspective, it’s also deeply local- it’s set and filmed in Albuquerque, and they go to tremendous pains to get everything right. Occasionally they jumble geographic details, but the local culture is spot on and we quite often spot examples shot in locations very familiar. Even tiny details such as last names that are common among native-born hispanics here but nowhere else in the US are attended to.

I don’t care for many dramas, because for the most part they can’t tell what’s dramatic and what’s just plain stupid, as well as the difference between someone who happens to be the protagonist and someone who is actually interesting on any level to follow. I do like this one, very much. If you want to see the genre done right, give this one a shot.

Tattoo Day Boogaloo

March 26, 2010 - 9:59 pm Comments Off

Finally found where my artist relocated to. He had my e-mail address typoed. Lulz.

So, in classic fashion, I’m zonked out on spent adrenaline, Stingray is zonked out on lack of sleep, and we’re both zonked out on having to beat back both of these to make raid time. No more tattoo days and raid nights on the same day.

Random thought of the day: In romances, romantic comedies, and soft touches in genres of all kinds, a kiss to your sleeping partner is a sweet and gentle way to wake them up.

So am I the only one who wakes up flailing in a panic because something touched their face while they were sound asleep? I mean, I think it’s sweet AFTER I’ve taken a swipe at his head and apologized for it…

Question Of The Day

March 25, 2010 - 7:00 pm Comments Off

Why is it people who are some species of -ist are always so incredibly defensive of their right to not only be openly bigoted, but to have their bigotry accepted as a valid lifestyle choice by people who decry the -ism in question? I realize that nobody likes to be constantly hearing what a scumbag you are, but when your entire thing is going on and on about what scumbags (category) are, it sounds more than a little weird to hear what boils down to “WHY YES I HATE ALL THOSE FUCKERS AND I’LL SAY SO AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY, AND YOU HAVE TO ACCEPT MY NOT ACCEPTING!”. The best theory I can come up with is that they’re painting the people calling them out as somehow hypocritical, but coming from a whole lot more hypocritical a position it doesn’t exactly carry a whole lot of sting.

Is it a “we’re here and we’re queer” sort of thing? Put a human face on bigotry, except from the opposite end? I know you’re here. If I didn’t know I certainly wouldn’t be ranting or referring disapprovingly to your ism. Putting your face on it doesn’t make it more appealing to me, it makes me regard you less well and start the countdown on my “how long I am going to put up with this person’s shit” clock. People who believe in universal tolerance of everyone’s traits and choices no matter what they are are actually quite rare- most people speaking up for some variant on tolerance are coming from the position that (category or behavior) isn’t actually their or your business and isn’t really hurting anyone, therefore it should be tolerated. Note that this is different from “should be embraced”- the principle of “whatever is not forbidden is mandatory” is for quantum physics, not human interaction.

The crusade for getting people to calmly accept your belligerent assholeness as just another pretty color in the human rainbow is one hell of a windmill to tilt at.

Related head-scratcher: people who can never stop going on about the crippling flaws of their home country but get really upset when someone calls them unpatriotic. If you truly dislike your country’s history, structure, and habits, how can being accused of not being proud and supportive of it be insulting rather than a neutral or pleasing description?

HCR-Free Link Salad

March 24, 2010 - 5:06 pm Comments Off

I am sick of talking and reading about health care in general and Obamacare in particular. Unfortunately, nobody else is, at least at my usual sources of inspiration. Therefore, News Of Other.

– More “science journalism as a game of Telephone”: you may have heard that anthropologists have recently discovered a novel species of hominid based on genetic analysis alone. You were lied to. The actual Nature journal article goes well out of its way to avoid using the term “species”, and for excellent reason; there are a lot of ways to get the genetic results they did without its needing to be a new species or even to determine which existing species of hominid it is. John Hawks, Actual Anthropologist, explains why in greater detail. For those of you worried that scientists are in the habit of “discovering” new species based solely on small bits of bone- and both the media and creationists depict it as such- anthropologists still do not actually consider a lone pinkie finger bone with interesting mitochondrial DNA to be evidence of a previously unknown species.

– Sometimes large carnivores exist to slaughter little furry animals. Sometimes they exist to eat shit. While the giant pitcher plant of Borneo is not technically a carnivore, it IS the largest species of carnivorous plant known. It was previously believed to feed primarily on small rodents, until one researcher noted that dead rodents are only very rarely found in the pitchers. (All carnivorous plants take a VERY long time to digest their prey and rodents should be even more of a chore than insects in this department.) As it turns out, tree shrew crap IS found reasonably often in the pitchers- and the pitchers are rimmed with rich nectar glands. The pitchers are also nearly perfectly proportioned to both support an interested shrew and be just about right in radius to catch anything it might leave. Given that nitrogen is the resource a carnivorous plant is actually after and there’s plenty of that in poop, it solves the plant’s resource issue quite neatly without it having to go through the massive hassle of digesting something that has *not* already been mostly processed.

– Title of article: Cat-calling Men Give All Men A Bad Name?. Premise of article: women who feel harassed by men on the street yelling derogatory things at them generalize their anxiety and anger to all men to at least some degree. Title of Hot Air link to said article: Beta Males Punished For Alpha Male Behavior.

I know Allahpundit’s being (mostly) tongue in cheek with his alpha-male/beta-male stuff, however grounded in pop science fantasy rather than reality it may be but seriously? Yelling asshole comments to random women is “alpha male” behavior for which “beta males” who presumably do not engage in broadcast misogyny are somehow disproportionately punished? I thought being treated poorly by random men was something that all women tend to resent regardless of status.

More Obligatory HCR…

March 23, 2010 - 4:23 pm Comments Off

Dispatched to my congress-fuckwad this A.M.:

Dear Congressman Lujan,
You voted in favor of the auto industry bailout.
You voted in favor of the stimulus package.
Now you have voted in favor of the health care reform bill.
Apparently this is your idea of how best to help the American and New Mexican public.
To that end: STOP HELPING. Stop helping before our economy is so trashed that Haiti is sending aid to us.
Remember, the next time you perceive a crisis in America that could require your legislative help, don’t just do something, stand there!

Sincerely,
Winston Simon Stingray Jester Smith.

Recent History

March 22, 2010 - 7:27 pm Comments Off

Electorate: “It’s broken! Fix it!”

Politicians: “If we fix it, will you like us a lot?”

Electorate: “YES!”

Candidate Foo: “I will fix it!”

Candidate Bar: “I will fix it too!”

Candidate Foo: “I will fix it so expansively it will blow your goddamn minds.”

Candidate Bar: “I’ll fix it more conservatively.”

Electorate: “It’s really broken. Foo, get in there with all your teammates and fix it a lot.”

Government: “Good news everybody. We’re going to put everything aside so we can work on fixing this.”

Electorate: “Eh? But nobody has a job and everybody’s defaulting on everything and shouldn’t you- oh, never mind, just fix it.”

Government: “How shall we fix it?”

Electorate: “That’s not our job, it’s yours. FIX IT ALREADY.”

Government: “We will ask everyone we know in the relevant fields how to fix it.”

Thing One: “Our industry is vital to handling this issue and we will give you lots of money if you let us help you fix it.”

Thing Two: “Our industry is vital to protecting Americans from abuse by Thing One. You must also let us help you fix it.”

Cat in the Hat: “If you don’t let us brush all of these fix categories off the table we will never give you mind-bogglingly absurd sums of money ever again. Also we’ll sue.”

Government: “Woah. I’d better listen to all of you then.”

Minority party: “WE HATE THIS.”

Majority party: “STFU YOU LOST.”

Minority party: “WE’RE STILL PART OF GOVERNMENT.”

Majority party: “DON’T NEED YOU!”

Large chunk of majority party: “Um, if we do this we’ll lose our jobs this fall. We like our jobs.”

Majority party: “Fuck.”

*time passes*

Electorate: “What the hell have you been doing for the last several months? How are you going to fix it? How much is it going to cost? When do I get my pony?”

Majority party: “We’re totally going to fix it- you’re going to love it, it made the Cat, Thing One, and Thing Two really happy- but a bunch of unpatriotic racists in Congress are stopping us.”

Electorate: “You have a big majority. Also I’ve never much cared for any of those guys and I don’t trust them. Or you for that matter. I thought you said you were going to fix it and it’d make us happy.”

Government: “WE WILL FIX IT AND YOU WILL LIKE US THAT’S WHAT YOU SAID WILL MAKE YOU LIKE US GOD DAMMIT.”

Electorate: “We’re not sure.”

Government: “YOU WILL BE. WE’LL LET YOU KNOW HOW WE FIXED IT ONCE IT PASSES.” *stomps off to Fortress of Solitude*

Electorate: “Fuck.”

Majority leadership: “Help us fix it and we will give you a bucketful of neat stuff to take home so they don’t fire you. Maybe.”

Wavering majority party members: “More.”

Leadership: “FINE.”

Minority party: “WE HATE YOU. AND THIS.”

Majority party: “WE KNOW. GO BACK IN YOUR IDIOT HOLE.”

Wavering majority party members: “I think I have some sort of principle this violates.”

Leadership: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Also you won’t get to sit with us at lunch anymore.”

Process: *repeats until sufficient majority-party yeses are gained*

Government: “THERE WE FIXED IT YOU WILL LOVE US NOW.”

Electorate: “Is that chewing gum? And Elmer’s glue?”

Government: “LET THE LOVE COMMENCE.”

Fashionable Just-So

March 19, 2010 - 3:05 pm Comments Off

Title of article, and just from it you just know the caliber of science journalism you’re in for:

Why Women Now Prefer Johnny Depp To Sean Connery

Actually, I could take or leave either one of them, preferably leave unless we’re talking desert island scenario. But they didn’t ask me.

Historically women chose manly men because features such as a square jaw, low brow and thin lips were linked to superior genes which would produce stronger and healthier offspring.

Oh, brother. Where to start with this one? I’d really love to know if this is the author’s assertion or something he got from the researchers the article’s about, or some mutant combination of both.

Okay, this is selection 101, we’re talking the sorts of evolutionary equations that can be represented with basic algebra. If genes that are linked to a square jaw, low brow, and thin lips are that soundly linked to “superior” genes that provide a clear fitness advantage, even one as small as .5%, those genes will become fixed in the population over time- to the exclusion of all other, less-fit variations. Within the generational time span represented in, say, the Bible, all men would become square-jawed, thin-lipped, and low-browed, and Johnny Depp would not exist.

But the choice came at a cost – as the more masculine the man, the less likely he was to help out nurturing his child.

Any backup to offer here? No? Well, maybe that’s the researchers’ fault, maybe just the reporter’s fault. But it’s a really “interesting” assumption to make in a species with extreme child-care requirements, in which fitness depends far more on successfully raised children that go on to become good parents themselves than it does on Robust Manliness genes. Even if Junior is a pencil-necked asthmatic who faints at the sight of spiders and gets hives when he eats peanuts, if his parents can manage to rear him to adulthood to find a nice neurotic girlfriend they, and he, have a massive fitness advantage over poor parents with “superior” genes.

One of the huge problems with this kind of research, that draws conclusions about superior genes based on mate choice, is that in any species with high child-care requirements, of which humans are the most extreme example, behavioral development quickly outstrips genetics in terms of which has the most effect on an individual organism’s fitness. Ted Bundy was by all accounts a handsome, healthy man. His tendency to murder his girlfriends rather than parent with them leads to his overall fitness being zero.

Now researchers believe that improvements in health care in wealthy western countries mean women do not have to worry about so much about the quality of their offspring – and so are picking more feminine looking men.

The researchers at the University of Aberdeen came to the conclusion after studying the preferences of 4500 women from 30 different countries.

They found a direct correlation between the quality of health care and the choice of male.

What does every good statistics professor say? Correlation does not equal causation. If you’re waiting for any point at which somebody is going to support the assertion that thin lips, a low brow, and square jaw equate to healthy offspring and a lack of interest in parenting, it’s not coming. Again, I don’t know if this is the researchers’ fault or the reporter’s. I’d really like to know how genes for resistance to tuberculosis, for example, are reflected in one’s jaw structure.

The most likely explanation is that they’re considering it a stand-in for testosterone levels and exposure in the womb, as digit ratio is used for. The problem is that testosterone levels don’t actually have much of an affect on nurturing behavior, levels of aggression, or overall healthiness. We like to use the poor hormone as a proxy indicator for pretty much every conception we have of “man”, but it just isn’t so; too little testosterone will affect your health adversely, but so will too much, and it supports some areas of health while being subtly detrimental to others. Estrogen is the same way. As for aggression, it makes a difference with very little, as in a woman or castrated man, or way too much, as with a bodybuilder that’s taken about ten times too many androgenic steroids, but within normal ranges of testosterone- which Johnny Depp and Sean Connery presumably both fall under- a man’s thoughts and actions influence his testosterone level far more than the reverse.

When it comes to testosterone and the immune system… well… currently the argument is whether lots of testosterone is or is not immunosuppressive, not whether it HELPS.

The result was that in Sweden, which had the best health care, most women (68 per cent) preferred feminine looking men.

In contrast in Brazil, which had the worst health care, the majority of women (55 per cent) preferred masculine men.

So, our two most extreme results, which we’re supposed to believe represent the innate genetic preferences of all women, and the results are “slightly more than half of one extreme preferred more masculine” and “two thirds preferred more feminine”. They’re definitely statistically significant results, but pardon if I’m not blown away by them. Judging by the photos in any women’s magazine, there’s still a major variety of tastes being catered to and assumed as “mainstream”.

“The results suggests that as health care improves, more masculine men fall out of favour,” said the lead author and psychologist Dr Lisa DeBruine.

Only if you assume at the outset that national health care results, measured by standards undisclosed, are a tight proxy for the sex drives of all human women.

Dr DeBruine said: “We found that women from countries with poorer health, which have higher mortality and increased incidence of communicable disease, were more attracted to masculine faces than women living in countries with better health.

“People used to think beauty was arbitrary and that different cultures have different preferences.

“However our research shows that preferences may instead be explained by responses to different environmental factors like a low level of health in the population.”

“Low level of health” is a catchall way to describe the fallout from everything from communicable diseases to cancer rates to smoking to rates of alcoholism to rates of social violence, and I’m not Dr. DeBruine but I’d be very fucking hestitant to conclude that square jaws correlated usefully to “more health” at the societal level. Or that there’s no cultural effects in play here.

Dr DeBruine said: “We found that women in countries like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico where the health is poorer were more attracted to masculine looking faces than women in countries like Belgium and Sweden, which have lower mortality rates and higher longevity.”

Interestingly, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico are all part of Latin America, in which cultural anthropologists have widely observed that the concept of machismo is an overwhelming cultural influence that makes the obsession with manliness in the USA look pretty weaksauce. I would not be remotely surprised that women in this culture would prefer men that look more like what everything in their culture reinforces a man is supposed to BE- though I actually am kind of surprised the majority is as low as 55%. Perhaps the innate human female variety in preferences is overcoming cultural influence.

Dr Ben Jones, who was also involved in the research said: “These new findings really do seem to show that preferences for different types of men in different parts of the world are linked to cross-cultural differences in health.

The effect remained even when we controlled for lots of other factors, such as cross-cultural differences in wealth.”

History, of course, was invented yesterday and will be dictated by standards of good research from that point on, so you can safely ignore that both male and female beauty standards have changed all the time historically within the same cultures, and in ways that cannot possibly be correlated to health care. I’m pretty goddamn certain that population health levels in Britain in the late nineteenth century were worse than they were in, say, 1955, but that didn’t make Oscar Wilde’s idealized-in-body male in Picture of Dorian Gray a square-jawed he-man rather than described as supernaturally beautiful. The idea of that example being the most attractive man imaginable didn’t strike a wrong note with the culture, either- or else the story would never have succeeded. If you want to go back even further, Michelangelo’s David has a soft jawline, full lips, and only somewhat qualifies on the “low brow” scale- and I’m fairly sure that Renaissance Italy’s health care was yet worse than modern Brazil’s.

If you want to tie an evolutionary incentive to a wildly variable and culturally and historically shifting beauty standard, it might be best to forget about an arcane process by which females identify .001% better fitness potential for herself in a male by any quickly recognizable superficial feature- which it’s highly questionable even female animals are capable of doing- and turn to one feature that isn’t necessarily genetically determined but IS very important to fitness: status. The popular narrative of “evolutionary” male-female just-so’s is that females are attracted to status while males are attracted to “beauty as an indicator of genetic quality”. In strict terms of the evolution of social primates and basic selection math, both bonuses should be of equal appeal to both sexes; if anything female status should be disproportionately attractive, given the big fitness bonus high-status female relatives give to both female primates in most social primate groups and mothers in hunter-gatherer societies. In practice, in “primitive” groups known, nurturing investment by female relatives is much more significant than that given by fathers. When you add in that female status in primates is usually hereditary, it suddenly becomes a very evolutionary attractive feature- even if it has no indicative value whatsoever for genetics.

As beauty standards for both sexes change over time, what DOES remain constant is that the highest status members are most able to meet its ideals. In a hungry society where food shortage is an issue, bountiful Titian style women are “high status” signallers because only the wealthy can afford to eat to the degree required to maintain. In a society where calorie-dense food is always bountiful and it’s having the time to exercise and money to buy very fresh and calculated ingredients is the issue, very thin becomes the status for women. Purple is the expensive dye? I hear purple is hot this season. And designer clothing and expensive vehicles are always a sound choice, even if they look different from season to season and decade to decade.

And so, for that matter, does the fashionability of basic physical features; some decades it seems to go to more stereotypically “masculine” or “feminine” in men and women respective, sometimes it’s for a little bit more gender-bent- and even if one “style” predominates, there’s always a healthy population of the other being a sex symbol to whoever’s got the “minority” tastes of the times. Interestingly, we’re not even unique in this respect; now that it’s starting to occur to some researchers to question some basic assumptions of mate choice in their favorite model, birds, they’re finding that lots of things they thought were timeless and unvarying appeals actually don’t seem to affect the fitness of their bearers- and that what’s actually most attractive will change over the course of breeding seasons*. Even peacocks are out as poster children of the classic sexual selection narrative- after a seven-year intensive study, turns out the females don’t actually care much about the males’ plumage relative to each other at all- and the selective pressure is most likely far more on her to be drab than on him to be showy, as she faces a much bigger risk of predation due to ground-nesting. So why the bright plumage and the tail? That’s now in “don’t know” territory, it’s just that the traditional explanation seems to be thoroughly wrong.

Before publishing an assertion that evolution now favors unthreatening wimps thanks to antibiotics and public hospitals, it might be a good idea first to check your own set of biological assumptions, and then walk into an art museum for an afternoon and check the historical ones.

*I WILL cite my source. Cornwallis and Burkhead, “Plasticity in Phenotypes Reveals Status-Specific Correlations Between Behavioral, Morphological, and Physiological Sexual Traits”, Evolution 62, 2008.

Why Wouldn't She Be?

March 18, 2010 - 10:09 pm Comments Off