I Want to Sell My Soul to HBO

I was in the bookstore yesterday and I noticed there was a new cover for Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Book publishers like to update their covers every once in a while, to keep them looking fresh and modern and on code, so this wasn't exactly a big surprise. But as I leaned closer, I got one.

Emblazoned across the top were these words: "Now an HBO original series."

I tell ya, HBO is all about the cozies lately. Less than a year ago they released True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris' wildly popular Sookie Stackhouse mysteries. Now they've fallen in with the traditionally-built ladies of Botswana's first all-girl detective agency.

Next year? Who knows. But all I'm saying is, if a bright young writer were to come out with something awesome... well, the sky's the limit.

Make Mine Sushi

Lately, I've had a real thing for sushi. I can't get enough of it. For dinner, for lunch... heck, I'd even eat the stuff for breakfast.

Problem is, you just can't get sushi cheap. So last Friday I got out my much-read-but-never-used sushi cookbook and decided to give it a whirl.

My sushi cookbook, I should mention, is entirely Japanese in character. It cares very much about aesthetics, technique, and Doing Things Right. As evidence, I submit the following quotes:

"Hold the rice ball up to the light. You should be able to see light filtering through it."
"The best way to grate wasabi is with a piece of sharkskin attached to a small wooden board."
"Thou must toast the nori for ten seconds, and the seconds of the toasting shall be ten. Thou shalt not toast eleven, nor shall thou toast nine (excepting that thou then procedest to ten). Twelve is right out."

I ignored most of this. Not because I don't appreciate the eternal Japanese pursuit of perfection (in fact, I dote on it), but because if I hadn't, the intimidation factor would have killed this project in the offing. I also had to pass on using actual raw fish, because I wasn't feeling ambitious enough to drive all the way to the Asian market across town, and I had this conversation with the girl behind the seafood counter at Kroger:

Me: Hi, I was interested in making sushi tonight. Do you have any tuna that's fresh enough for that?

Fishmongress: We have it, but it's frozen.

Me: (aside) I don't think you understood my question.

So, I was stuck with the following seafood:
  • smoked salmon
  • imitation crab
  • cooked shrimp
I also prepared the following roughage:
  • spinach
  • mushrooms
  • green onions
  • avocado
  • cucumber
And the following condiments:
  • homemade teriyaki sauce
  • soy sauce
  • pickled ginger
  • wasabi from a tube (my local Target was all out of sharkskin graters)
And, just to be original, a banana and some cream cheese. I assembled the ingredients, and then I rolled. And rolled and rolled. Overall, I was really happy with the results. The rice had a good texture, and the dressing seemed evenly distributed, though just a touch too vinegary. I definitely need to work on my rolling technique, which I plan to do next week with some real, legitimate fish. And next time, I might just toast my nori.

Cracking the Code

Whether you realize it or not, you know the code. The code of packaging. It's the code that tells you that chips that come to you in a muted-color bag are healthier than those in a bright one. That Milano cookies are a perfectly respectable snack to serve to adults. That Target's generic shampoo is exactly like Head & Shoulders, only cheaper.

Tropicana recently had to abort their latest packaging redesign when their sales plummeted. The reason? They were off code. Looking at it now, I can't imagine what they were thinking.

Tell me that doesn't look like a generic store brand: low cost, low quality (at least in consumer perception). Tropicana didn't look like a premium brand anymore. And the sales reflected it.

The code, of course, isn't limited to the grocery store. It ranges far and wide, touching everything we shop for.

Like, say, books.

Walk into any section of the bookstore, and you'll find a wealth of cover styles, each designed to attract the fans of different sub-genres. Take, say, the mystery section. Cozies have bright colors, cartoonish pictures, and punny titles. Historicals have muted colors.Serial killer thrillers love red, black, shadows, and serious-looking fonts. And femjep tends to stick to a dusky, wistful palette. (That's "female-in-jeopardy", y'all.)

One shelf over, in Romance, we see the same kind of division.

And we'd see it in Sci-Fi, YA, Literature, and Self-Help as well. I imagine it must be a constant challenge for cover designers to turn out something that is both eye catching and on code.

Code is a double-edged sword. It attracts readers who are predisposed to like your work, but it also has a way of limiting you. That cozy cover, for example, says, "Hey, girls, lots of laughs!" but also, "Men, keep walking."

This is why you'll see some writers with really excellent word of mouth go around naked (code-wise, that is). They've already attracted a huge fan base; the best the cover artists can do is avoid turning anyone away. Janet Evanovich gets codeless covers. So does Sue Grafton, though that wasn't the case when I first read Grafton back in the 90's. (That frame and font, by the way, are 80's-90's code for cozy.)

All this isn't really something for me to worry about. I won't be designing my cover, and my input might be minimal. But I think it's an interesting look into the world of branding and marketing. So the next time you pick up a bag of chips, ask yourself:

"Are these really healthy, or do they just look like they are?"

Man, I Didn't Know the Economy was THAT Bad

If you've ever been to Zaxby's chicken shack, you know what it is to get lousy customer service. Zaxby's is sort of the Anti-Chick-Fil-A; it is staffed almost entirely by stoned, sullen college students who evidently have a lot more important things to do than get me my food in a timely manner. But I keep going back, because the chicken is delish.

So you can imagine my surprise about four months ago when a Zaxby's employee greeted me with an expression that was not only alert, but also not unpleasant. Fast forward two months, and a drive-through clerk actually called me "ma'am."

"Maybe it's the economy," I theorized to Mark. "Workers are having a harder time getting jobs, so Zaxby's has a better pool of potential employees to pull from." In other words, people who previously wouldn't have touched a deep fryer with a ten-foot pole are having to lower their expectations, and Zaxby's is reaping the benefits.

But the real shocker came last night, when an older gentleman, obviously a new Zaxby's hire, took my order, told me it would be about five minutes, and then asked if I would like a glass of water while I waited.

Did you hear that? He offered me water. In a glass, no less. It was as if I had stumbled into the Mirror Universe from Star Trek, and was now standing in the Nega-Zaxby's. When I ventured forth, would I find that Chick-Fil-A had become apathetic, that Atlanta traffic was snarl-free, that I could get in and out of Wal-Mart in less than half an hour? Was my life about to be turned completley upside down?

No, as it turns out. Because at least they forgot the napkins. And I found myself relieved; there are still some things in life you can count on.

Three Things I Learned While Cleaning out the Fridge

  1. Pillsbury makes a pizza crust. Moreover, at some point, I bought one.
  2. My refrigerator drawers come out a lot more easily than they go back in.
  3. Yes, a jar of caramel ice cream topping can go bad. And the best way to test this is not with a spoon.