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Robbed of my best friend

It’s been four months, and yet if somebody asks me about that day, my voice will crack. By “that day,” I mean the day I came home from work to find my Doberman, Red, splayed out on my bedroom floor, his head to one side, his body lifeless but still warm. It’s an image I can’t seem to shake, as much as I try.

I’m no stranger to death. I was a mess of anger and confusion when my father, suffering the aftermath of a stroke, took his last gasps one day in 1995, his children gathered around his hospital bed. And three years later, the death of my sweet, beloved sister Bonny after a withering battle with brain cancer was nothing short of heartbreaking. Yet somehow, and much to my distress, the death of my dog seems even harder. I haven’t felt grief quite like this since, well, the death of my previous dog five years ago.

How could the death of a canine possibly hurt as much as that of a family member? As the sadness lingers, part of my grieving process has been to try to understand the differences.

Researchers have long known that the animal-human bond is strong: A 1988 study in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling asked a group of dog owners to place symbols for their family members and pets in a circle representing each dog owner’s life. (The distance between the subject and the other symbols corresponds to the relative, real-life closeness of those relationships.) The subjects tended to put the dog closer than the average family member, and about as close as the closest family member; in 38 percent of the cases, the dog was closest of all.

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Montreal, sweet as maple syrup

By the time our waitress cut us down to size, we’d already eaten the following: fried sturgeon “sushi,” maple-marinated herring with potatoes, organ meat terrine with maple buckwheat blini, foie gras in puff pastry with bechamel and cheese, lobster souffle with potatoes and smoked beef, and a meat pie containing four kinds of pork — and “garnished” with three kinds of offal.

I was with two friends at the bar of Cabane au Sucre Au Pied de Cochon, 45 minutes outside Montreal, and each of those latter three dishes could have filled up six people, easy. But we’re professionals, and we know the power of pacing. We knew better than to come close to finishing any of them. So when our waitress said, “I hope you’ve saved room for the main course,” our hearts — and our stomachs — sank. That wasn’t the main course?

One roasted duck, two more forms of pork and a pot of beans (with more duck) later, it was clear: This place can make even the pros feel like rookies. And that was before dessert hit, and hit big, with maple syrup in so many forms we lost count. By the end of the meal, when locals were ordering up takeout containers by the bagful for all their uneaten food, we decided that rather than waste our bounty, we’d donate it to the couple sitting next to us. They planned to do the sensible thing and ring up a bunch of friends to come over the following day for a party.

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Austin, Texas, keeping it weird

How many Austinites does it take to change a light bulb? Four: One to change the bulb, and three to talk about how cool the old one was, before the yuppies came along and changed it.

That joke has been around in one form or another for decades. Even when I lived there more than 20 years ago, old-timers were bemoaning the loss of, well, old-time Austin. To them, "back in the day" meant the hippie-crazy 1960s or '70s. To my crowd, it means the '80s era captured by Richard Linklater's 1991 do-nothing film, "Slacker."

I dip into Austin every December on the way home to West Texas, and I'm as guilty as anyone of romanticizing all the things that made the city unique during the six years I lived there, especially the ones that closed after I left. The Varsity Theater, a dusty art-house cinema right on Guadalupe Street (a.k.a. "the drag"), where I saw "Wings of Desire" dozens of times, becomes a Tower Records? Say it ain't so. Las Manitas Avenue Cafe, just south of the Capitol, gets pushed out for a development that never occurs? There goes my annual stop for the vegetarian tamal of my dreams.

But nothing has topped the shock I experienced in the late '90s, when I drove through the West Campus neighborhood and saw that Les Amis, a funky place we'd nicknamed "Lazy Me" for its attitude toward service, had been leveled - to make room for a Starbucks. Goodbye, two-buck "peasant's bowl" of black beans, rice and cheese; hello, four-buck latte.

Still, I suspected that in joining the old-timers in singing the Austin-will-never-be-the-same dirge, I'd been suffering from nostalgic myopia. So 10 years after an Austin Community College professor coined the phrase "Keep Austin Weird," which has become the unofficial city slogan, I vow to spend a little more time, open my eyes a little wider and try to answer the question: As the city builds expensive skyscraper condos and battles choking traffic, has the weirdness kept pace?

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IPad apps that make you feel like baking

In the ongoing debate over whether recipes should be set in stone (see Cook's Illustrated) or mere guidelines (see Michael Ruhlman's "Ratio"), a new iPad app stands to take cooking instructions to a new level of variability, interactivity and, possibly, obsession. 

Cookulus, the brainchild of cookbook author Andrew Schloss and entrepreneur Max Minkoff, starts off with three master recipes. But then the program lets you choose just how crispy or soft, chewy or crumbly, thin or thick to make that chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin or peanut butter cookie, resulting in more than 1,300 unique recipes for each. Cookulus is an addictively powerful (or is it powerfully addictive?) way to geek out on a recipe. Even better, it works like a charm. 

Take chocolate chip, the iteration that Schloss and colleague Max Minkoff let me play around with last week, while they were waiting for approval from the Apple store. First I pulled up the master recipe, then started moving one of three sliders to get something softer or crumblier or thicker (or any combination thereof) and watched ingredient amounts, temperature and baking time change in response. I could save each variation, naming it and writing my own notes about it; I could choose among four ways to see the measurements, including metric weight; and I could scale the yield up by a factor of five. When I went for something pretty soft and chewy but a little thin, and made the recipe, that's exactly what I got. 

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Pet Airways tries for 'a better way'

As I drove Red the Doberman to Baltimore for his flight to New York, my mind was on some other canines: those poor puppies in Chicago. This August, seven of them who had flown in the cargo hold died after their American Airlines flight from Tulsa got delayed and the plane apparently sat too long on the tarmac. According to the airline's own policy, the day was too hot to fly pets, but American accepted them from a shipper anyway.

Such stories make headlines periodically, which is why I have never considered flying a pet: not my 6-year-old rescue dog, Red; not his goofy predecessor, Gromit; certainly not one of the many cats I've owned over the years. Not until now, that is.

Red and I were trying out Pet Airways, which, as its name indicates, is dedicated to animals.

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Rating the food trucks

A sampling of items from 13 of Washington's newest mobile street-food purveyors, ranked in order from my favorite to least favorite.

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Don't dismiss food truck 'ghettos'

In the battle between brick-and-mortar restaurants and the District’s mobile, tweeting food trucks, one suggestion caught my attention: a dedicated lot where the food trucks could park. The eaterati immediately denounced the idea. Linking to an item on Washingtonian's blog, Raphael Brion at Eater wrote, “Like a food truck ghetto?” You could practically hear the indignation as he typed.

I don’t like the idea of over-regulating the boisterous food-truck culture, and I hope the City Council approves new rules that help the mobile operations keep on truckin’. But to dismiss the idea of such a lot as anathema to the concept of food trucks ignores the fact that such “ghettos” have been at the center of some cities’ absolutely dynamic street-grub scenes.

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Walk, don't run, in San Francisco

From the pinnacle of a windy, chilly, foggy neighborhood that once was little more than shifting sand dunes, I think I can see all of San Francisco. More fog rolling in from the Pacific as if in a time-lapse photograph. The downtown skyline basking in the sunlight of an entirely different microclimate. Mount Sutro, framed by cypress trees. Golden Gate Park, a shadow of forest cutting between neighborhoods. Even the top of the Golden Gate Bridge.

My perch lives up to the name Grand View Park, and there's just one way to the top. Here in the Sunset District, you can drive to the base - more easily if your car has a stick shift rather than an automatic transmission - but unless you're privy to a helicopter, you need your legs to take you up the final winding series of staircases and trails.

That suits me just fine.

I'm in San Francisco to eat and to walk, my favorite combination of travel activities, partly because doing enough of the latter allows me to do more of the former. But that's not the only reason. I walk to see. In Venice, Paris, New York and other pedestrians-rule places, my favorite learn-the-city strategy has been to stuff a map (or, these days, an iPhone) into my pocket, wander off without an agenda, then use the map to find my way back to home base only after I've exhausted all curiosity, not to mention my calves.

I can't think of a city better experienced by walking - or hiking, depending on how you look at it - than San Francisco. The 42 hills on which the city was built can make for gear-grinding treachery in a car, and only the fittest of the fit dare attack them by running or, God forbid, biking. Sure, you can hop in a cab or onto a cable car to traverse neighborhoods quickly, but nothing brings you into closer contact with the city's ever-changing vistas and textures than your own two feet.

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DIY coffee: bean there, done that

Why on earth would you roast your own coffee, you say? For the same reason you'd make your own pasta or ice cream, brew your own beer, make your own vinegar or tonic water, or in fact create any edible or potable product from as close to scratch as possible, I say. Maybe you think you can do better than the pros. Maybe it's cheaper, not as hard as you might think, or somehow therapeutic. Or maybe you just think it would be a hoot to try.

Maybe you're just a coffee geek.

The jump into the rabbit hole of roasting can start with simple desire. Five years ago, when Petworth resident Joel Finkelstein scoured the Internet and thrift shops looking for old popcorn poppers that could heat up and turn green beans brown, "all I really wanted was access to really fresh coffee, and I didn't have that in Washington," he says. "No one was saying when they roasted their coffee, or how they roasted it, or in some cases even where it came from." Finkelstein ended up building his own roaster and even turning pro, selling his roasted beans at farmers markets and last year opening Qualia Coffee in Petworth, roasting six days a week. "Honestly," he says, "the reason I got into it was there was no shop like the one I eventually opened."

In those early days of his home roasting, one of Finkelstein's resources was Sweet Maria's, an online purveyor of green (unroasted) beans and roasting machines, whose owners had a startup story similar to his own. When Sweet Maria's started a dozen years ago, it was because co-owner Tom Owen couldn't find decent coffee in Columbus, Ohio, and couldn't persuade roasters to sell him unroasted beans for less than the cost of roasted ones. Business has increased by 15 or 20 percent every year since, says his wife and co-owner, Maria Troy, and now they sell more than 70 varieties of green coffee and dozens of roasters and other equipment.

So what's my excuse?

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