Taste-of-ALL 2014 winners announced

tasteLast Sunday was Taste-of-ALL, when local restaurants and chefs face off for some pretty prestigious awards. Here is a list of this year’s winners.

Taste-of-All Charleston 2014 newspaper food writer’s awards

(Judges Steven Keith, “The Food Guy” Charleston Daily Mail and Judy Grigoraci, “From the Kitchen” The Charleston Gazette)

Overall Best Dish: Chicken and Waffle (Southern waffle, made to order, honey nut encrusted crisp-fried chicken breast, topped with candied jalapeno, pecans, and drizzle of sage infused maple syrup) – Black Sheep Burritos, Charleston

Overall Special Dish: Fire Roasted Tomato Soup with gouda, garnished with Gorgonzola Crouton – Four Points by Sheraton, Charleston

Honorable mentions:

Steven: Black Sheep pan-seared cashew and wasabi-crusted Ahi tuna “nacho” (served atop a fried wonton with sesame-ginger aioli and chili-mirin reduction) and Quarry Manor Senior Living’s fried green tomato BLT slider.

Judy: Housemade Sweet Potato Burger with Spicy Mayo – B&D Gastro Pub

FestivALL 10 cake contest in celebration of FestivALL’s 10th season winners

(Judges Sarah Plumley of Sarah’s Bakery; Lisa Dravenstott, executive pastry chef Distinctive Gourmet Civic Center and Cheri Godfrey, executive pastry chef Mardi Gras Casino and Resort)

Third place: Nicole Wolfe, Cross Lanes – Coconut Cream Cake

Second place: Rachael Shaffer, St. Albans – Red Velvet Cake with Almond Buttercream Frosting

First place: Jean Jones, South Charleston – Golden Apple Black Walnut Cake with Whipped Butter Frosting (her grandmother’s recipe)

Highest Sales Award

BrickSalt Bar + Kitchen (Marriott)

Taste of ALL “Chef Off”

Winner: Chef Andrew Quisenberry, Quarry Manor (Judges Bridget Lancaster, America’s Test Kitchen; Scott Maroney, executive chef for Mardi Gras Casino & Resort; Chef Paul Smith, Buzz Food Service; Don Wilson, Generation Charleston)

People’s Choice Awards:

Appetizer:

First – Adelphia, Deep Fried Feta

Second – B&D Gastropub, Dragon Bites

Third – Four Brothers Coffee and Tea House, Lobster Bisque Soup

Entree:

First – Quarry Manor Senior Living, Fried Green Tomato BLT Slider

Second – Black Sheep Burrito & Brew, Chicken & Waffle

Third – Black Sheep Burrito & Brew, Pan-seared Ahi Tuna

Dessert:

First – Distinctive Gourmet, WV Beignet w/ Vanilla Moonshine Sauce

Second – 5 Corners Cafe, Bread Pudding (3 votes separated 1st & 2nd place)

Third – Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream, Ice Cream

Drinks:

First – Four Brothers Coffee and Tea House, Four Brothers Blended Coffee

Second – Sweet Spoon Bubble Tea

Third – Huskey’s Dairy Bar, Milkshake

Chicken on the brain

Chicken
For the last few weeks I’ve been writing a series of stories for the Daily Mail about fried chicken, my idea of the perfect summertime food.

But I need your help to end the series. I need your recipes.

Week one kicked off with — what else? — breakfast. I spoke with chefs at Bluegrass Kitchen and Black Sheep Burritos about how they make their fried chicken and waffles.

The second story focused on family restaurants The Grill and Harding’s Family Restaurant, which employ simple recipes to make seriously delicious chicken.

This week’s story (look for it in Wednesday’s paper) will feature local wing joints Adelphia Sports Bar & Grille and The Cold Spot.

I’m going to conclude the series next week, just in time for the Fourth of July. Here’s where you come in.

Many of my most-memorable meals have not been in restaurants. They’ve been home-cooked efforts, shared with family and friends. So if I’m looking for the best fried chicken, I figure the best place to find it is at home.

I need your best recipes for fried chicken. I don’t care if you clipped it from a magazine or if it’s a recipe handed down from your great-great grandmother. I just want to know how you make fried chicken in your kitchen.

Send your recipes to life@dailymailwv.com, or (if they’re short enough) tweet at me.

Reaching for the stars

Legendary radio personality Casey Kasem was the longtime voice of “American Top 40” and “Casey Kasem’s Top 40” from 1970 to 2004. He died Sunday after suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy Body Disease, a form of dementia. (Washington Post photo)

I was saddened to hear of the passing of legendary radio personality Casey Kasem over the weekend, but I was already prepared given recent news reports documenting an apparent long, slow slide into dementia.

Still, that didn’t make the void created by his death any easier to accept.

I grew up as a radio-loving kid at the start of his heyday during the 1970s. His warm voice and upbeat persona made him a kindly companion to a boy trying to gain his footing in the pop cultural firmament — the stuff that gave you touchstones with other kids your age and gave this awkward adolescent an “in” to conversations or at least an understanding of what everyone else was talking about.

Looking back at his musical countdown show, “American Top 40,” with the eyes of a kid, I think I found an affirmation and validation of what was becoming my musical taste. It was kind of like picking horses at a racetrack; if a song I liked moved up the charts and all the way to No. 1, I win! (And everybody loves a winner right?)

My Top 40 years — from around 1973 to 1979 — were populated with artists as varied as Helen Reddy, MFSB, Paul Simon and Charlie Rich thanks to  WWNR-AM in Beckley and “AT40,” as Kasem would occasionally refer to his show. (Every so often, the radio station would hold giveaways of that week’s countdown on vinyl. It wasn’t until a long time after I grew up that I figured out that the broadcasts weren’t live.)

Since his show was simply a recounting of a week’s worth of sales and airplay, Kasem didn’t set the playlist; he was ostensibly an impartial observer. But he could still pick and choose which songs or artists had an interesting back story that he would share as introduction to a song. This kindled in me a real love for more than just the music, but the people and process behind it.

He was part of the soundtrack of my adolescence. Summers spent as kids with Barry Manilow — don’t judge — and Seals & Crofts and Elton John biking around the neighborhood and listening to transistor radios are a pleasant, carefree haze in my memory. (Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” and Kasem’s background story about it are forever linked with the summer of 1975.)

And maybe that’s why I’ll miss the man, or at least the memory of the man. He was one of the links to my childhood and probably marked the last real unifying element of radio as a medium. As audiences grow more segmented and mass media is splintered among television, online, mobile, terrestrial and satellite radio and print, there aren’t that many events that can hold the public together for long anymore.

But for those three hours a week, a good portion of the country could find something in common, listening for their favorite songs and following their rise and fall. Kasem’s passing marks the end of that era and a milestone in the medium.

Of course, no appreciation of Kasem’s life and career would be complete without his signature sign-off. I always took it as a sort of a combined caution and valedictory rooted in the turmoil and promise of the 1960s — just before his own star took off with his radio show in 1970: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”

Thanks for the memories, Casey Kasem.

Game of Thrones recap: “The Children” look to their future

 

There is a scene in “Winter is Coming,” the debut episode of Game of Thrones that premiered in 2011, when a young(er) Arya Stark spies the mobile court of King Robert Baratheon approaching her hometown of Winterfell. Wearing a helmet of unknown owner, she grins before seeming to remember that she should be somewhere else at the moment, specifically lined up with the rest of the Stark clan in anticipation of the court’s arrival.

She turns and runs back to her mother and father just in time, with Lady Catelyn Stark demanding to know where she had been, and her father, Lord Eddard Stark, simply wanting to know where she got the helmet.

In “The Children,” the season finale of GOT that premiered Sunday night, it is apparent that while Arya might be well on her way to being a full-blown psychopath as a result of her reaction to the death and destruction that have followed her in the last few years of her life, there is plenty of wonder left the kid, or plenty of kid left in the wonder.

Having secured passage to Bravos on a ship leaving a port village of the Vale, Arya’s is the last image we get of Season 4. Here, after looking behind and seeing the continent of Westeros getting smaller behind her, she races to the bow of the ship to look for Bravos as if it will appear at any time over the horizon. Actress Maisie Williams manages the same wondrous look on her face as in the series debut, though it lacks some of its original orneriness, which is replaced by a sense of experience.

Thankfully, Arya’s story does not get lost in the shuffle here, and we have HBO and show runners/writers D.B Weiss and David Benioff to thank for this, because make no mistake, there was plenty to get lost in during the episode. But instead of the season’s finale being GOT’s “Who shot J.R.?” as a result of its need to give resolution to the trial of Tyrion Lannister, “The Children” got to that page and a lot more in an episode that hit a reset button for several of the series’ most crucial story lines.

Last week’s “The Watchers on the Wall” episode provided this ability. Instead of jumping right into Tyrion’s fate immediately after watching The Mountain crush the skull of Prince Oberyn Martell into bloody pulp, viewers got two weeks to digest that scenario before seeing its outcome. In the meantime, the wildlings finally attacked The Wall, Sam Tarly grew up, and we were able to clear our heads a little bit (with all due respect to the Red Viper).

The finale was far more than just about Tyrion. The full-episode break from King’s Landing last week allowed “The Children” room to breathe and grow, without viewers tapping their collective feet shouting, “Get to Tyrion already!” at their televisions.

The episode, the longest in GOT history at 66 minutes, begins at the very point, “Watchers” left off, with Jon Snow setting out in search of wildling leader Mance Rayder. It is here that a plot point left dangling at the end of Season 3 finally gets addressed. At the point that it becomes apparent that Snow is in the wildling camp to kill rather than negotiate with the King Beyond the Wall, Stannis Baratheon’s legion storms into the North like the Romans hitting Gaul, and before you know it there’s dead barbarians everywhere until Rayder tells his men to stand down.

The resulting conversation between Snow and Stannis is one of the heaviest yet in the series. It is the closest Baratheon will ever come to being face-to-face with Ned Stark, the man who – way back in Season 1 when Ned still had a head – let it be known that Stannis’ brother Robert’s son Joffrey was not his own but the product of the incestuous relationship between Queen Cersei Baratheon and her brother Jaime Lannister.

Stannis commands Mance Rayder to kneel to him, as by right (if only by technicality and not by public recognition), Stannis is the King of the Seven Kingdoms. Rayder refuses and Stannis, in a show of rare deference for the character, takes Snow’s suggestion of how to handle Mance to heart.

It is, perhaps, the most kingly moment of Stannis’ story arc to date, and it comes at a time – as we saw by show’s end – that perhaps puts him in his most favorable position yet to convince the Seven Kingdoms of his political leadership ability, not to mention his legitimate claim to the Iron Throne.

The subsequent scenes involving Cersei, which see her confess her relationship with Jaime to their father, actually show more about Tywin than they reveal about the queen’s mental state, which has been unraveling slowly but steadily all season. At first, she cannot believe that Tywin does not already know of the relationship but then realizes that it makes sense he does not. Her line, “How can someone so consumed by the idea of his family have any conception what his actual family was doing,” she asks rhetorically.

The question was remembered later, as Tywin was having bolts from a crossbow pegged into him by Tyrion. Lord Tywin’s insistence on disregarding the thoughts and feelings of his children directly led to his doom as he sat on a toilet and was unable to refrain from using the term “whore” when referencing the love of Tyrion’s life.

Unlike previous season-enders, “The Children” does not contain a moment for the devout fans of Daenerys Targaryen to cling to for the next 10 months as a point of pride. The Mother of Dragons instead is faced with the realization that those dragons are too beastly to be allowed to have free access to the skies after a shepherd produces the charred bones of his 3-year-old daughter to Daenerys in Meereen, the product of Drogon’s fire and aggression.

We are left with a shot of Dany crying as she shuts two of her dragons – Drogon’s whereabouts are unknown – in the catacombs of Meereen. It is left to the viewer to decide if she was crying over locking her dragons away or for the plight of the man whose daughter was just turned to charcoal because of them.

Bran Stark’s meeting with the three-eyed raven he has sought for three seasons comes to a quizzical end, as well, that will certainly be explained in greater detail in Season 5. After being attacked by zombified skeletons of a long-ago army, Bran, Meera and Hodor are saved by the Children of the Forest (the literal source of the episode’s title). Although Jojen doesn’t survive the attack, it is revealed by the raven – who apparently is an old man who lives in a tree with the Children of the Forest – that Jojen knew what his fate would be for a long time before its occurrence.

The episode’s first character death jumps right to its second, as Brienne of Tarth and Podrick stumble upon none other than Arya Stark and the Hound. Here is perhaps the high point of the episode, though many will argue (and perhaps win that argument) that Tyrion’s murder of his father and subsequent escape from King’s Landing trumps it.

Both Brienne and Sandor Clegane have it in their minds that their duty is to protect Arya Stark. Neither one believes the other, and it is easy for most viewers to believe that the Hound is only in it for the money.

So was Han Solo. In any event, the ensuing duel between Brienne and the Hound is one of the series’ best and most brutal not in such a graphic sense – although Brienne biting off the Hound’s right ear was impressive – but in the effort put forth by each contestant. For Brienne, it was the outpouring of rage that had been pent up for the better part of three seasons that won the day, sending the Hound down a mountain where Arya eventually leaves him to die.

Ponder a moment on the story arc of Brienne. A woman in a medieval society who has learned to fight as well as the finest knights in the Seven Kingdoms, who has unspoken amorous feelings for Renly Baratheon, a homosexual man for whom she is charged with protecting. He dies with her in the room, and she is later charged by Catelyn Stark with the duty of returning Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing in the hopes of a prisoner exchange that will free Sansa and Arya Stark from the city after their father was beheaded. En route, the two are captured by the Boltons, and Brienne subsequently begins to develop feelings for Jaime Lannister through the trust he placed in her and as a result of his saving her from danger twice. Brienne then learns of Catelyn’s death, yet still maintains her quest to find her daughters.

That’s a lot of stress for one person to handle, and the Hound – already slowed by a festering wound to his neck – never had a chance.

But as interesting as Brienne’s long-awaited outpouring of rage was, so too watching the Hound face his end. One of the more transformative characters of the series, the Hound began life as we know it as Joffrey Baratheon’s muscle. He ended life pleading for Arya Stark to kill him, and the voyage from one point to the last was truly humanizing. If anyone tells you that they knew when he killed the butcher’s boy in Season 1 that his own end would be moving and empathy-inducing they’re lying or they’ve read ahead.

Speaking of endings, although it was the one that we were all waiting to see, Tyrion’s murder of Shae (did everyone just forget about her after the trial, I ask) and of Tywin sealed the dwarf’s fate in a sense that regardless of his prior innocence, made it certain he will never return to his prior status. Tyrion began the episode in a box of a room awaiting his death. He ended the episode in a box headed for Essos. In between, the familiar tune of “The Rains of Castamere,” which played as Tywin drew his final breaths, ushered Tyrion into his new life as an escaped convict.

Season 4 was in many ways a transitional season. After the Red Wedding of Season 3 essentially put an end to the War of the Five Kings as far as many viewers were concerned, new directions, characters and plot lines were needed, and in a hurry in order to maintain the public’s grasp on the story as a whole. “The Children” cemented many of those directions and it left us looking forward to Season 5 as  those new players and places come into their own.

Charley West’s Bonus Tracks: The Dread Pirate, Roberts

What do you get when you mix old-time fiddle tunes, bluegrass, gypsy jazz, bebop and 1940s swing? You get Charleston band The Dread Pirate, Roberts.

Click here to read more about the band. They’re playing tonight at the Bluegrass Kitchen but in the meantime, check out this video by my pal Marcus Constantino. He gathered the band at Fret ‘n’ Fiddle in St. Albans for a new edition of Charley West’s Bonus Tracks.

Click here to see more videos from the series.

Clay Center announces fall 2014 line-up

MichaelMcDonald_Toto_COL1The Clay Center announced its fall 2014 line-up Wednesday morning.

The performance center has again stacked its schedule with classic rock and blues artists, including:

  • Michael McDonald with Toto, Aug. 24
  • Three Dog Night, Sept. 28
  • B.B. King, Oct. 5
  • Ian Anderson, Oct. 24

The Charleston Light Opera Guild also will present “Fiddler on the Roof” on Oct. 31, Nov. 1, 2 7, 8 and 9. Comedian/commentator Bill Maher closes out the series Nov. 16.

Season tickets are on sale now at www.theclaycenter.org. Single ticket sales begin July 14 at 10 a.m.

My Turn: Talking ’bout my generation

EDITOR’S NOTE: I wrote this column back in March but, due to some website troubles, it seems to have disappeared from the main Daily Mail site. I’m reposting it here for posterity and, I hope, your reading pleasure.

I’ve been feeling a strange connection to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend lately.

Lots of people are talkin’ about my g-g-g-generation.

“Millennials” have been getting a bad rap almost since William Strauss and Neil Howe coined the term in the early 1990s (we’ve also been called “Generation Y,””Generation Me” and “the Net Generation,” along with other names that can’t be printed in a family newspaper).

Armchair sociologists have written for years about the narcissism and entitlement of people born between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s.

We’re the “participation ribbon” generation, where everyone made the team and everyone got a trophy. In the workplace, we expect immediate promotions and constant positive reinforcement.

We expect to be rewarded for our existence, not for anything we’ve done.

Or so I’ve read.

The latest wave of Millennial bashing came after Rachel Canning, a New Jersey teenager, sued her parents for financial support and college tuition.

Canning said she could not support herself after her parents forced her out of their home. Her parents, meanwhile, said she didn’t want to obey their rules and made the decision to move out on her own.

The case is over now — Canning moved back home and dropped the suit earlier this week — but that didn’t stop some people from trying to turn her into a Millennial poster child.

Spoiled. Narcissistic. Typical.

I’m certain there are lots of people under 35 who view the world like Rachel Canning, but attempting to paint an entire group of young Americans with that brush is as silly as thinking all the Baby Boomers were at Woodstock.

I know a few spoiled, narcissistic Millennials, but none of us like them very much.

I know a lot more twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings who are creative, hard-working, productive members of society.

There’s the go-getter young professional, the award-winning filmmaker, the shrewd-minded politico, the civil servant providing for his wife and children, the young teacher buying food to send home with her students.

And those are just the people on my Twitter feed right now.

They put in long hours and get their hands dirty. They do not expect rewards, but work for them.

So what if they take a selfie now and then?

There are plenty of other criticisms about my generation.

A recent Pew Research Center study showed that people between 18 and 33 are less trusting of others, compared to older generations.

More of us are unmarried. We’re also less likely to describe ourselves as “a patriotic person” or “a religious person.”

But that same study showed Millennials are more upbeat about the United States’ future than older generations.

Forty-nine percent of people under 33 believe America’s best days are ahead of us.

Compare that to 44 percent of Baby Boomers, 42 percent of Gen Xers and 39 percent of Silent Generation respondents.

That’s probably because Millennials know something our forebearers have forgotten.

Every generation worries the next one will mess everything up.

But if all of you turned out OK . . . well, I suspect we will too.

Game of Thrones recap: Keep your eye on nobody

(Note: While I do not consider them to be ‘spoilers’ as the show aired two nights ago as of this post, be advised that the content of this column reviews material from the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. If you wish to watch the episode before reading a review, please do so, then revisit this page.)

We’ve long passed the point where non-book reading fans of Game of Thrones stopped playing the “I bet he/she ends up on the Iron Throne” game with a newly arranged chess board after each new episode of HBO’s immensely popular fantasy series. At this point, with so many of the show’s early power players dead and disposed of, the real question has become not who “wins” but who will eventually replace and potentially surpass the likes of Ned, Robb and Cat Stark, Robert and Renly Baratheon, and yes, even that insufferable, sniveling psychopath Joffrey Baratheon in terms of capturing and holding our attention and rooting interests as the Seven Kingdoms continue to crumble apart.

Remember that guy, Kahl Drogo, with all the horses and all that? Yeah,  most of the time I don’t, either. That is how involving the show continues to be as new characters are introduced and older ones emerge from the shadows to the forefront of the complex story. After the penultimate episode of Season 4, “The Watchers on the Wall” aired Sunday night, a big, emphatic vote from this viewer in the “Who do we want to see emerge as a hero” election goes to Sam Tarly.

Sure, this was supposed to be the episode that highlighted the wildlings’ attack on Castle Black and the Wall, and it did so. But in the process of showing all the blood and carnage, it was Tarly – and not fan favorite Jon Snow – who truly shined. Snow had his moments, to be sure, and Neil Marshall’s direction (his first return to the series since the “Blackwater” episode of Season 2) was impressive in capturing a battle while not dehumanizing the characters fighting it.

Still, it was the writing of Tarly’s character by David Benioff and Dan Weiss, and its portrayal by Jon Bradley that carried the episode from scene to scene and provided it with its most human elements before Snow’s final meeting with former lover Ygritte near episode’s end.

Tarly’s wit and newfound sarcasm (remember, this is a character who steadfastly refused to fight in training exercises when he first arrived at the Wall in Season 1) set the tone in the very first scene. Standing on top of The Wall, he and Snow are involved – actually, it’s Tarly who is involved while Snow remains his pouty, distracted self – in a conversation about Snow’s wildling love interest that left him chock full of arrows from her bow at the end of Season 3.

Tarly asks what Ygritte was like. Snow replies that she had red hair. With more than a slight bit of frustration Tarly has a quick retort.

“Oh? How big were her feet?”

And we’re off, without anyone taking a single step. So begins Tarly’s greatest showing since he offed a White Walker to protect his own female wildling companion, Gilly, last season. He’s left Gilly in Mole’s Town in attempt to protect her from perceived threats from the men of the Night’s Watch at Castle Black, and just a week earlier (in show time) Mole’s Town was sacked by the oncoming wildling army. Sam’s feelings for Gilly have intensified in his own heart and mind since word of the attack reached Castle Black, and he’s understandably obsessed with her well-being in absentia, not to mention riddled with guilt for having unintentionally put her in harm’s way.

And he’s not about to be put off in his quest to know what love is by any of his buddy “Lord” Snow’s “I’ve got more important things on my mind” dismissals.

“I want you to tell me what it was like to have someone,” Tarly demands in the most earnest way the soft, unloved chubby kid on the playground can muster. “To be with someone. To love someone and have them love you back.”

The impetus for Tarly’s sudden demand for worldly knowledge comes in the continuation of the demand.

“We’re all gonna die a lot sooner than I planned,” he says. “You’re the closest I’ll ever get to knowing.”

This line says plenty. Of course, on the surface Tarly wants Snow to impart knowledge, and Snow is the only one Sam  knows that can or will tell him these things. There’s a deeper meaning here too. The bond between the two as friends and brothers of the Night’s Watch is not to be disregarded, however. Sam’s love of and loyalty to his friend is the closest thing – until now – that he’s ever known of the emotion.

Snow’s frustration in the barrage of questions lead to his statement that, “I don’t know, I’m not a bleeding poet.”

Sam’s confirmation that, “No, you’re not,” sets him on an episode-long quest of enlightenment and provides what could have been a bleak episode with a seed of hope. Sam carries the human element throughout the episode, providing the viewer with an answer to “what are we fighting for” with a small, individual example that the viewer is able to wrap his or her head around and identify with, without trying to process the repercussions of what happens to the Realms of Men if the Night’s Watch fails in its quest to fight back the wildling army.

It says far more about it than Ygritte’s monologue about how the North was taken and annexed into the Seven Kingdoms, providing the motivation for the wildlings to take back what they still view as their lands. That’s still too big for most viewers to understand, although it does hold an eerie similarity to the plight of Native Americans. Soon, however, her more personal motivation for the attack is revealed: she’s here to finish off Jon Snow, and if anyone else in the raiding party takes that job from her, she’ll kill them first, then Snow.

So, forgive us if Ygritte’s socio-political rabble-rousing isn’t convincing enough to make us feel for the wildlings. After all, she’s got a personal axe to grind.

Even Snow is rendered little more than a pawn on the chess board through most of the episode. Sure, his role is significant in the battle, and he eventually downs Styr, the leader of the cannibal Thenns after Styr delivers what in real life probably would have been a skull-crushing bash to Snow’s forehead by smacking it against an anvil. But it is Tarly who moves the action from one stage to another, right up until the episode’s final scene.

Sam’s library consultation with Maester Aemon is another bit of brilliance early in the episode. The maester, a Targaryan prince before taking his vows at The Wall, finds Sam seeking answers as to the nature of wildling treatment of captives from past accounts, and lets Sam know what even Sam is still struggling to accept.

“Love is the death of duty,” the maester tells Sam. “Which is why you’ve abandoned your watch atop the Wall, to come here and read about the terrible things that may have happened to the girl you love.”

Sam naturally denies the assessment at first, and never confirms his feelings to the old man. It’s no small coincidence here that Aemon is blind, for it’s even less humorous when those who can’t even see can perceive things about us that we ourselves cannot.

And when Gilly appears at the Castle Black gate in the next scene, there’s no denying it even to himself.

“Anyone who tries to throw you out will be having words with me,” he tells Gilly about her ability to seek asylum at the no-girls-allowed club at The Wall. “From now on, wherever you go, I go too.”

The words no sooner come out of his mouth than the alarm horn sounds that announces the Battle of Castle Black is set to begin, but not without a bit of  “it’s funny because it’s true” humor from Sam. Hiding Gilly in a basement store room, he is surprised when she accuses him of so quickly leaving her … again.

“I’m not leaving you,” he says.

“You’re going up there and we’re staying down here. That’s leaving,” she snaps back. “You said from now on we’d stay together.”

“I didn’t mean in the same room,” he half-pleads, half-scoffs, and after explaining his role as a Man of the Night’s Watch, they share a kiss that perhaps no one even realized they had been looking forward to as a viewer.

It might be the easy-to-relate-to exchange in the entire episode, for no matter how much we intend for our most important words to be taken to heart and embraced as conciliatory, there is always the possibility that they are not enough.

A word of respect here to Hannah Murray’s portrayal of Gilly. Watching the wide-eyed daughter/former wife of Craster come into her own as a survivor has been a nugget that often gets lost in the shuffle of the grandiosity of the series, especially since she’s been on screen so little this season. Her post-kiss, “promise me you won’t die,” line is one of the most honest and innocent lines the series has yet delivered.

On to the battle: the biggest bonfire the North has ever seen, indeed. Marshall directs the action both large-scale and small with expert quality, including one extended single shot that swoops around and through Castle Black. The big budget of the episode is wisely spent on cramming as much action into a comparatively small place as possible (as opposed to the “Blackwater” episode, to which “The Watchers on the Wall” will forever be compared because of their shared director and battle sequences).

Giants, mammoths, a fearsome scythe that shreds would-be climbing attackers from the facade of The Wall, fire, and more than a slight nod to The Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings are all included here. Through it all, though, is the humanity of Pyp’s ability to summon the courage to fight – encouraged by Sam, no less –  only to be shot down by Ygritte after his own first kill; the ability of Olly (the frightened orphaned village boy sent to The Wall by the wildlings earlier this season to inform the Night’s Watch of the oncoming threat) being able to shoot down Ygritte as she finally comes face to face with Snow; the grouped courage of Grenn and four other watchmen reciting their vows together in the face of an onrushing giant as they hold the castle gate.

It’s all there, and at the end of the day the wildlings are held off, if just for a day (or week as far as we’re concerned) to allow the next piece of the puzzle to come into play, and for Snow to venture out on his own again in search of wildling leader Mance Rayder.

But in sum, it’s an explanation to Pyp made by Sam at the start of the battle that could stand as the keynote to the rest of the series, as viewers continue to align and realign their rooting interests and as would-be heroes and villains are knocked off one by one.

Pyp asks Sam how he managed to kill a White Walker if he was afraid of what was coming for them on The Wall.

“If someone had asked me my name right then, I wouldn’t have known,” Sam says. “I wasn’t Samwell Tarly anymore. I wasn’t a steward in the Night’s Watch or son of Randyll Tarly or any of that. I was nothing at all.

“And when you’re nothing at all, there’s no more reason to be afraid,” he concludes.

When it comes to Game of Thrones, as in life, it’s best to pay closer attention to those who are “nothing at all.” They can be the most dangerous, and they can be the most helpful.

Thank you, Rik Mayall

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a special guest post from Daily Mail prep sports editor Derek Taylor.

 

Rik MayallThe name seen at the top of Twitter’s list of “Trends” on Monday was obscure to some and surprising to others.

Rik Mayall, a British actor/comedian who was perhaps known best by Americans for his playing of the title role in the 1991 comedy flop/cult classic “Drop Dead Fred” opposite Phoebe Cates, died at his London home Monday at the age of 56.

Before I go any further in this, my initial entry into the resurrected Nerd Living blog, let me note that what follows is not an exercise in “I know about this guy and you don’t so I’m better than you,” snobbery that all-too-frequently surrounds discussion of such lesser-known but massively important artists and entertainers. It instead is a celebration of what this wild-eyed, physically expressive and hugely influential actor who left us too early.

At the time of this writing, no official cause of death has been determined, although London police have stated the do not suspect foul play.

Mayall crashed into many American living rooms in 1985 as one of four housemates who shared a London home as college students in “The Young Ones.” Mayall played Rick (no last name needed, apparently), an anarchist who shared the home with Vyvyan (the punk, played by Mayall’s frequent collaborator Adrian Edmonson), Neil (the hippie, played by Nigel Planer) and Mike (the ‘normal’ one of the bunch, played by Christopher Ryan).

The concept seems simple, and it was. Throw four extreme (well, three plus a ‘control’ group) personalities into a house and watch hilarity ensue. But there was far more to it than what became a template for shows like “The Real World” on the very network, MTV, that began to broadcast the show after its run in the UK had ended.

The series, which ran on BBC from 1982-1984, actually consists of just 12 episodes. Mayall later had more wide-reaching roles in BBC comedy series such as Blackadder and Bottom that occupied most of his time into the mid-1990s, and did plenty of voice work in his later years, but it was those 12 episodes that made the biggest impact on folks like me.

In 1985, I was in the second semester of my eighth-grade year, which – let’s face it – is the absolute peak of entitled smart-assery for most adolescent boys. At the time, MTV – which aired “The Young Ones” once each weekend – was still not a basic cable network. Cable subscribers had to pay for it each month, and my family opted to not partake in such an expense for what they then perceived was something designed to contribute to my eventual dereliction.

Instead, I had to watch the show at my cousin’s house. Fortunately for my viewing tastes, we moved in March of 1985 to a new house that was just down the street from where he lived. It wasn’t long before “The Young Ones” was a can’t-miss event each week, and though I’m sure my teachers – or parents – weren’t happy with it, looking back now I don’t think my sense of humor ever recovered from that season.

And I couldn’t be happier for that fact. What “The Young Ones” in general and Mayall, particularly as far and away my favorite character on the show did was not so much show me a new way of communicating humor (as most redheads can attest, it’s easy to get cast as the class clown early in life, and such was the case for me as well) but a reinforcement of what I already thought was funny.

Mayall, as Rick (a character he created in the infancy of the alternative comedy scene in London in the late 1970s/early 1980s) was a hyperactive, overly sensitive, sarcastic, high strung would-be poet (“The People’s Poet”, as he referred to himself) who was often the butt of the jokes and chicanery of Vyvyan but – generally through his sarcasm – was often quite funny in his own right in his reaction to things both mundane and insane depicted in the era of Margaret Thatcher’s UK.

The show also included at times inexplicable, but never unwanted, drop-in performances from acts such as Motorhead, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Madness. It was a sitcom like nothing else I’d ever seen.

It was with no small amount of irritation that I realized that there were no more episodes for MTV to air after the one-season run in 1985. “Drop Dead Fred” was a welcomed reintroduction to him on U.S. screens, but without his housemates to play off, the hyperactivity of “Fred” was a bit much on its own to carry the film.

The kind of performance Mayall gave in “The Young Ones” particularly, also helped pave the way for the recent rise in popularity of British television in the states. The average Facebook user is 40.5 years old and the average Twitter user is 37.3 years old, according to marketingartfully.com. These sites have played significant roles in the increased popularity of such BBC shows as Doctor Who, Sherlock, Orphan Black, Doc Martin, Broadchurch and Torchwood.

There are plenty of other reasons to like British TV, but it’s hard to envision the rise in popularity of shows such as Doctor Who without the visual humor and gangly physicality of the 11th Doctor, Matt Smith. It wasn’t until Smith began work on that show in 2010 that its popularity skyrocketed on this side of the Atlantic. His departure (as well as the sparse number of episodes produced by the BBC in the last two years) has this fan wondering about the show’s sustained popularity, but that is something to ponder another day.

The fact is that the average Facebook and Twitter user, as far as age goes, was slightly younger than I was when “The Young Ones” and Rik Mayall jumped into our faces, and we did not forget how much it made us laugh.

As for me, the damage was done at age 13, and thanks to earlier exposure to Bill Murray through an array of films, my sense of humor was pretty much set in stone. It is what it is, and I laugh as much, if not more, than anyone I know as a result.

Thank you, Rik Mayall.

Hear Twin Forks in action

Today’s “Arts and Culture” section features former Dashboard Confessional front man Chris Carrabba’s new band, Twin Forks. They’re playing Mountain Stage this weekend.

This ain’t emo. Twin Forks makes foot-stompin’ acoustic music, in the same vein as indie folk groups like The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons (with a little of Carrabba’s signature melancholy thrown in for taste).

Here’s one of my favorite songs from the group’s eponymous album:

And, just because I love Gillian Welch, here’s Twin Forks’ cover of her song “Hard Times”: