Daily Archives: December 22, 2006

And Now a Bubble Burst . . . and now a Pencil

Scientific American explodes a Soviet myth:

During the height of the space race in the 1960s, legend has it, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in space. They needed to figure out another way for the astronauts to write things down. So they spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a pen that could put ink to paper without gravity. But their crafty Soviet counterparts, so the story goes, simply handed their cosmonauts pencils.

This tale with its message of simplicity and thrift–not to mention a failure of common sense in a bureaucracy–floats around the Internet, hopping from in-box to in-box, and even surfaced during a 2002 episode of the West Wing. But, alas, it is just a myth.

Originally, NASA astronauts, like the Soviet cosmonauts, used pencils, according to NASA historians. In fact, NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Houston’s Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in 1965. They paid $4,382.50 or $128.89 per pencil. When these prices became public, there was an outcry and NASA scrambled to find something cheaper for the astronauts to use.

Pencils may not have been the best choice anyway. The tips flaked and broke off, drifting in microgravity where they could potentially harm an astronaut or equipment. And pencils are flammable–a quality NASA wanted to avoid in onboard objects after the Apollo 1 fire.

Paul C. Fisher and his company, the Fisher Pen Company, reportedly invested $1 million to create what is now commonly known as the space pen. None of this investment money came from NASA’s coffers–the agency only became involved after the pen was dreamed into existence. In 1965 Fisher patented a pen that could write upside-down, in frigid or roasting conditions (down to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit or up to 400 degrees F), and even underwater or in other liquids. If too hot, though, the ink turned green instead of its normal blue.

That same year, Fisher offered the AG-7 “Anti-Gravity” Space Pen to NASA. Because of the earlier mechanical pencil fiasco, NASA was hesitant. But, after testing the space pen intensively, the agency decided to use it on spaceflights beginning in 1967. Unlike most ballpoint pens, Fisher’s pen does not rely on gravity to get the ink flowing. The cartridge is instead pressurized with nitrogen at 35 pounds per square inch. This pressure pushes the ink toward the tungsten carbide ball at the pen’s tip.The ink, too, differs from that of other pens. Fisher used ink that stays a gellike solid until the movement of the ballpoint turns it into a fluid. The pressurized nitrogen also prevents air from mixing with the ink so it cannot evaporate or oxidize.

According to an Associated Press report from February 1968, NASA ordered 400 of Fisher’s antigravity ballpoint pens for the Apollo program. A year later, the Soviet Union ordered 100 pens and 1,000 ink cartridges to use on their Soyuz space missions, said the United Press International. The AP later noted that both NASA and the Soviet space agency received the same 40 percent discount for buying their pens in bulk. They both paid $2.39 per pen instead of $3.98.

The space pen’s mark on the Apollo program was not limited to facilitating writing in microgravity. According to the Fisher Space Pen Company, the Apollo 11 astronauts also used the pen to fix a broken arming switch, enabling their return to Earth.

Since the late 1960s American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have used Fisher’s pens. In fact, Fisher has created a whole line of space pens. A newer pen, called the Shuttle Pen, was used on NASA’s space shuttles and on the Russian space station, Mir. Of course, you don’t have to go to space to get your hands on a space pen–earthbound folks can own one for the low, low price of $50.00.

The Russian Tea Room is Back, and Guess What?

It still sucks.

Some time ago, La Russophobe pointed out that Russian cuisine is a microcosm of Russia itself — that is, it’s a spectacular failure. Now, the New York Times reports that the defunct Russian Tea Room, most famous “Russian” restaurant in the world (and, dollar for dollar, one of the worst gustatory atrocities in world history) has returned, and it’s as bad as ever. Perhaps aware of our criticism, it seems that the Tea Room’s new strategy includes the theory that the less Russian it is, the better. But apparently, it’s still too much. The reviewer sums up his impressions as follows: “In terms of food and all else, the Russian Tea Room doesn’t add up neatly or quite make sense. Maybe that’s its way of paying homage to the motherland.”

It’s a safe bet that many visitors to the reborn Russian Tea Room won’t realize that it still serves chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, or at least interpretations thereof.

These dishes aren’t mentioned in the clear print on the dinner menu’s first three pages, which cover appetizers and entrees and seem to exhaust the restaurant’s savory offerings. They aren’t mentioned on any kind of specials card.

No, they’re relegated to a typographical Siberia: an italicized blur on the mostly blank fourth page of the menu, where diners are also told of holidays on which the restaurant will be open.

“We are delighted to prepare historical Tea Room favorites, including chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, on request,” reads the blur, which of course conveys the opposite message. If the Tea Room czars are so chirpily delighted, why not put the Kiev where people can find it?

That’s easy: because a torpedo of breaded chicken with a butter-filled cavity isn’t really what Gary Robins, a seriously gifted chef, wants to cook. Mr. Robins, whose new American cuisine at the Biltmore Room won him widespread praise, has a deservedly grander and less fry-happy sense of self.

His surprising recruitment to revive this wheezing institution has produced an engrossing tug-of-war: his culinary internationalism and contemporary sophistication versus the institution’s stodgy traditions and geographically constrained name; tataki of seared hamachi, which he sneaks onto the appetizer list, versus borscht, which he also dutifully includes there.

Some dishes seem not to have any firmer tether to Russia than the restaurant’s ersatz Chagall and Kandinsky paintings and golden firebirds have to conventional elegance. Other dishes blur the boundaries between Russia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and even the Far East.

By Mr. Robins’s reckoning, poaching Maine lobster in sour cream tugs it as close to Red Square as it needs to be, permitting him to round out the plate with pickled papaya and cauliflower flan. Putting dumplings made with tvorog, a Russian farmer’s cheese, next to slices of seared venison loin allows him to dust the meat with cocoa, a fate it doesn’t routinely meet in Moscow.

Make a concession, take a liberty — that’s how he handles his ethnic compass. It’s a smart approach, accommodating an impulse simply to do what feels right and yielding some very appealing dishes.

As best I can tell, goose breast carpaccio isn’t all the rage in St. Petersburg, but maybe it should be. Silky leaves of meat were sprinkled with toasted pistachio and crowned with baby arugula, tiny cubes of sour-cherry jelly and like-sized cubes of creamy foie gras.

If beef and noodles are all that’s necessary to claim a stroganoff, Mr. Robins satisfied the criteria while otherwise doing as he pleased. The beef was braised short rib, while the noodles were festooned with chanterelle and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. For the rich, zingy sauce that completed this terrific dish, he mixed whipped cream, sour cream, horseradish and whole grain mustard.

Adding sour cream or cabbage is one of his recurring strategies, as is pickling an ingredient. Slices of pork tenderloin were complemented by a version of stuffed cabbage — steamed and filled with ground pork shoulder and foie gras — that was out of this world. And the pickled cabbage beside a beautifully roasted fillet of turbot was a kraut to end all krauts, studded with pastrami and suffused with butter and olive oil.

Sumptuous appetizer crepes already had a Russian name — blinchiki — and thus a Russian pedigree, so Mr. Robins was free to stuff them with goat cheese, duck confit and yet more chanterelles. He didn’t toy around too much with the borscht, which had a brilliant ruby color and brimmed with fresh dill. And the potato pancakes with a fluffy lunchtime omelet were faithfully rendered and wholly on target, hitting that crunchy-oily bull’s-eye.

More than a few dishes weren’t so successful. Tea-smoked sturgeon had an acrid aftertaste. The chicken Kiev, unexpectedly straightforward, did a rubbery impersonation of airline food, and I mean coach. There are nearly a dozen kinds of caviar — foreign, domestic, wild, farmed — and several of the ones I tried had an excessively pasty texture, lacking any bouncy pop.

The kitchen was also bedeviled by inconsistency. Buckwheat blini that were golden and fluffy one visit were charred and leaden the next.

But this restaurant’s real shortcoming is its service, unforgivably poor in the context of dinner entrees that frequently exceed $40, appetizers that infrequently fall below $18 and 30-gram servings of caviar that cost as much as $300.

Outdated menus with erroneous information were put on the table. Drinks and food were ludicrously slow to arrive. Servers responded dismissively to complaints, one of them telling us that we shouldn’t bother him with questions about a fugitive bottle of wine. It was, he shrugged, the sommelier’s problem.

And what a problem. Although we had ordered a 1998 French Burgundy for $84, we got a 2001. We flagged the discrepancy, and for the next 15 minutes, as we ate our appetizers and thirsted for pinot noir, both the wine and sommelier were on the lam. When he showed up, he presented us with a similar 1998 — the listed one was unavailable — for $20 more. He paused, seemingly waiting for us to agree to spend that.

Then, in the manner of a car salesman, he said: “I’ll make you a deal. We’ll call it an even $90.”

Could he throw in cruise control? A leather interior?

He later dropped the price to $84, the right end to a wrong situation that typified the restaurant’s clumsiness.

Around since 1926, the Russian Tea Room has been teetering like an outmoded regime for more than a decade, its ownership repeatedly changing, its doors closing for years on end. Its last incarnation, which shut down in 2002, was rated satisfactory by William Grimes in The New York Times in 1999.

This incarnation, owned by Gerald Lieblich, opened nearly two months ago, and it looks like a vivid memory made real. Velvet ropes point you to a revolving glass door, which in turn leads you to the Santa-red booths and spruce-green walls of the ground-floor dining room, where every day is Christmas. (An upstairs dining room — the one with the translucent bear — remains under wraps.)

And at times the experience indeed feels like a gift. The desserts fulfill their sweet obligations, though apart from a pair of blintzes, they’re geographically unbound. That was truest of the best of them, a buttermilk panna cotta with lingonberries and hazelnuts.

To another chef’s stroganoff, it might be an eccentric coda. To Mr. Robins’s, it’s as logical a next course as any other. In terms of food and all else, the Russian Tea Room doesn’t add up neatly or quite make sense. Maybe that’s its way of paying homage to the motherland.

The Power of One

The Pine Bluff Commercial reports on a fine example of what just one Russian person can do to stand up for change in Russia:

Elena Kirillova is building bridges. Those bridges span from Yellville to her native country of Russia simply by words.

The 35-year-old sends American books to Russian libraries in hopes of helping her countrymen learn English. Her desire to provide books to libraries comes from her own struggles to find English books in Russia. Since March, Kirillova and her American husband, Pat Barr, have sent nearly 2,700 books and 350 magazines to Russia in a program they began with their own $500. The Ozark Book Connection, as they call it, collects donated books and mails them to 23 libraries in Russia that cannot afford to buy English books. “I think I’m helping my country,” she said, eyeing a stack of books ready to be mailed. “It’s not just my country. I’m building a bridge between America and Russia.” Kirillova said there is a great interest from the Russian public in learning English and about the cultures of the United States. “Everybody wants to learn English,” she said, an accent detectable. “Even in Soviet times people wanted to learn English. If you want a career, it’s good to have a second language.” Kirillova said she moved to the United States four years ago with her husband and still is improving her use of English. She said she learned the language from her mother, who spoke limited English, and the Russian school system. The avid reader of fantasy and fiction books said she often would visit libraries in Russia to gain knowledge of America and enhance her speech, but books written in English were hard to find. That’s why Kirillova said she feels it’s important to get literature to Russia. Barr also has a love of books that allowed him to embrace his wife’s program. He said it’s not uncommon for him to be reading four books during the same time period. “If I take a break (from farming), I pick up a book,” he said. “I even have a book in the truck. I can read 400 to 600 pages a day.” Kirillova said the response to the program has been overwhelming. More libraries are requesting books.

She said while it is expensive and time consuming to mail the materials, her payoff comes when she receives thank-you letters from library officials.

“They get excited about the books,” she said with a smile.

“They open them up and look through them. They are like children with Christmas presents.”