Monday, May 4, 2009

Bad Sportswriting, but a damn good omelet

Like a lot of journalists, I worry about the future of newspapers. But as a writer and a reader, I've also begun to worry about the present of newspapers. Layoffs, buyouts, and editorial cut backs have decimated the ranks of skilled, careful editors, fact-checkers, and writers at every newspaper and magazine in the country, and, trust me, it shows. I offer as evidence two pieces from a reputable source: this Sunday's New York Times sports section.
...The first was the story on the Kentucky Derby upset, which was written by Joe Drape. I don't know Mr. Drape. Depressingly, his story now ranks as the "most e-mailed" sports story of the week from the Times--no doubt because of the sudden popularity of the gelding that won, Mine That Bird. Some of these emails, I'm sure, are being read by young, impressionable students, who will presume, quite reasonably, that Mr. Drape is a good writer who should be emulated. Just as frightening: maybe some of their teachers are thinking that this is what they should be teaching, since Mr. Drape writes for the New York Times. I sincerely hope not. This is what Drape wrote as part of his lead:
"Chip Wooley, Calvin Borel, and Mine That Bird, an improbable--no, impossible--50-1 long shot, did just that Saturday, running away with the 135th running of America's greatest race, The Kentucky Derby."
A competent editor takes that sentence and makes one simple change to save it: he removes the "no, impossible" parenthetical. Not only is it not impossible that a 50-1 long shot might win, it is so possible that people were betting on it to happen. And it did happen. Drape should have stuck with "improbable". That is precisely the right word.
....I wouldn't try to embarrass the man if he'd stopped there. But a couple of paragraphs later, Mr. Drape unleashes this beauty: "As soon as Mine That Bird" crossed the finish line, 6 1/4 lengths ahead of eighteen others, Borel's tears flowed with the warmth and power of Niagara Falls."
[Italics mine].
...Did they now? Has Drape ever dipped his toe in Niagara Falls in early May? The water would shrivel the balls on a polar bear. Plus, why the Niagara Falls cliche? The race was in Kentucky. And was the jockey really blubbering, his tears streaming down his face uncontrollably, waterfall-like, as he crossed the finish line? It sure didn't look that way as he was pumping his crop in joy and then giving his amusing and joyful interview while cooling the gelding down after the race. Yes, there were tears of joy. But Niagara Falls? Puh-leeze! I have a 16-year-old son, and if he wrote that drivel I would shake my head and demand a rewrite. That, my friends, is crappy writing in high school, never mind in the once-estimable New York Times.
....I moved on to another story to erase Mr. Drape from my memory: to a golf story written by Karen Crouse. I don't know Ms. Crouse, either. The tournament she was covering, Quail Hollow, was being played in Charlotte, North Carolina. This was her lead:
"Tiger Woods launched his approach shot on the 18th hole into an angry sky. His well-struck 7-iron was in flight for seemingly longer than Orville Wright on his first lift-off at Kitty Hawk." [italics: mine] I'm going to give her the "angry sky" cliche, though as we will soon see, it's not a very good choice of words. But Orville Wright? on his first lift-off at Kitty Hawk? Where does that come from? It's not like it was a theme that she returned to. Or as if Woods is a big Orville Wright buff. Nor does it fit geographically: Quail Hollow is in Charlotte, which must be 150 miles away from the Outer Banks and Kitty Hawk.

She continued: "Woods admired the ball. But at the last second, the wind, which had brushed the blue sky a slate color as the day went on, swept the ball up and deposited it in the right rough, 33 yards from the pin. [italics: mine]
...Okay, now we've got some real problems. First of all, call me picky, but "a slate color" does not convey an angry sky to me. Slate is cool, it is commonly gray, though there is also red and green slate. But the sky that day was cloudy, so I think Ms. Crouse was looking at a gray sky. The word she was looking for, I think, was "threatening." Then we have some problems with her verb tense: the wind "had brushed the blue sky a slate color as the day went on." "Had brushed" means it's already happened. "As the day went on" means it's a continuing process. Again, a skilled editor makes it all go away with this simple change: eliminate the crap about brushing the blue sky a slate color. So the sentence should read: "But at the last second the wind swept the ball up and deposited it in the right rough 33 yards from the pin." Accurate, clear, direct. Good sports writing, like all good writing, should be precise.
...It was enough to make me lose my appetite. Fortunately, I know how to make a damn good omelet, and I always have an appetite for a damn good omelet. You cannot find one, by the way, at any breakfast buffet in the country. In fact, I've never had a good one that I didn't make myself. At hotels, or diners, they're always overcooked, almost dry, and often are browned. They are to the delicate, finely prepared omelet what Joe Drape is to Red Smith. At the Marriot breakfast buffet, some guy in a chef's hat ladles some kind of egg goo onto heaps of peppers, mushrooms, ham, scallions--the more bountiful, the merrier--and cooks it to a fare-thee-well, smothering it with gobs of grated American cheese. Then just when you think it's done, he gives it a flip, cooks it another minute, then slides the cement concoction onto your plate. Hold on with both hands: it's thick enough to choke a cow.
....No thank you. An omelet should be as light as a crepe. It should be feathery. The vegetables should still have a nice little crunch.
...You need a good teflon pan and a good spatula to start. There's no substitute for those two utensils. If you don't have them, buy them. William Sonoma carries omelet pans for about $100. Here's what mine look like:
Prepare your vegetables by finely slicing scallions, red peppers, mushrooms, spinach, ham, tomatoes, green peppers, chives...whatever you happen to like and have in the fridge. My favorite omelet is made from red peppers, scallions and mushrooms. Put one or two eggs in a bowl--you don't need three, for god's sake--plus one tablespoon of water for every egg used. Beat till a uniform color with a fork. (Water makes them fluffy; milk or cream makes them creamy. I like fluffy.) Put a couple of tablespoons of butter in the omelet pan and melt over low heat.
....That is the key. Low heat. Do not cook an omelet over high heat, or even medium heat, or it will brown. We don't like brown. We like nice, fluffy, light, yellow, moist omelets. When the butter has melted, add the finely sliced vegetables and cook over low heat for a couple of minutes. Then add the eggs. Let them firm up at the bottom, at least one minute, then use the spatula to raise one side of the omelet. By tilting the pan, the uncooked egg batter at the top and center of the omelet can be poured to the open area of the pan, where it will cook. Continue lifting the cooked edges and tilting the pan until the egg no longer runs. If you want to add cheese-- and I love to add half a slice of Applegate Farms Monterey Jack with jalapeno flakes to my omelet--now is the time to do it. Use the spatula to fold the edges in, to form a cylinder-like shape. The cheese will melt in thirty seconds or so. If you want to show off, you can now flip the omelet with a flick of the wrist. (Do it over away from the stove, so if you have to dip to catch it, you have room.) But, frankly, if the omelet is properly cooked, meaning that it's not overcooked, it will sort of splatter when it lands in the pan. So don't flip. Rather, slide it onto a plate beside a couple of pieces of bacon, add some fresh cilantro if you have it, and Bon Appetit!


  1. A well done strunk & whitening on Drape & Crouse, Mr. Swift. And my omelet is better than yours.

    I suspect that over the years you have become a little complacent in your methods, basically using Sunday breakfast cheffing as an excuse to avoid yard maintenance before you go golfing. I'd like to help you. You are half way there already. You know the value of “light and feathery”. That's good. Now I will tell you how to fully achieve it.

    You see, it's mostly about the bubbles. No bubbles = heavy rubbery texture (just like the restaurant's and kinda like yours). Bubbles = exquisitely light & delicate texture (like mine).

    Chemistry, equipment, and technique come in to play here. When preparing the mix, use 1 teaspoon of water per egg, as you have noted. In addition, 1 brimming teaspoon of vinegar per 2 eggs. Vinegar like some fancy balsamic, right? Wrong. Distilled white vinegar is what you want, the stuff commonly used for stubborn stain removal and pesky yeast infections. Umm, tastes good, and in less than a minute the egg mix will become bubbly within and slightly frothy on top. Exactly what the doctor ordered.

    The heat source. It may be possible to make a good omelet using an electric burner, but I have never been able to. When poured into the pan on an electric range, my egg mixture always separates into yellow glop and clearish watery stuff. I get no bubbles, and the omelet sucks. Stick to gas.

    The heat. Low heat + long cook time = no bubbles = bad (again: just like the restaurant's and kinda like yours). Medium high heat + short cook time = fine bubbles = perfection (like mine).

    The pan. Use an omelet pan in which the egg mix sits about 3/16”deep. For a 2 egger, use a 12” pan. It will cook fast (40 seconds max) and be done before it browns.

    Okay, begin. A healthy splash of olive oil into pan. Olive oil tastes better than butter, and is less likely to burn. Heat pan almost to the point the oil starts smoking. Now pour in the mix, enjoy the brief sizzle, swish the still liquid egg up the sides of the pan, lay in the filling, and fold into thirds.

    Then slide this fluffy golden badboy safely onto a warmed home plate, savor the whole nine yards, and thank me as your tastebuds literally split the fairway in an explosive symphony of texture & flavor like a park-fed goose in Sully's starboard engine.

    Whoa. Now that's an omelet!

    PS: The filling. Obviously important, but non-structural and highly subjective. Kind of like interior decorating. I would never try to talk the sportswriter out of his mushrooms and red peppers. Ramps however? Maybe.

  2. Intriguing. We must have a bakeoff sometime. I use vinegar in my poached egg recipe (to come), so I'm not dismissing your somewhat arrogant comment. But I am suspicious of the 40 seconds in high heat. And I promise you there is nothing leathery about my omelet!