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Ellen Shapiro

eGullet Society staff emeritus
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Posts posted by Ellen Shapiro

  1. So there I was driving Fat Guy and Momo around Gastonia, NC, in search of lunch, only to learn that all the places we wanted to go are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, when I spied this sign alongside the road:

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    Now read that carefully. It's so full of linguistic wonderment, I can't remember the last time I took so much pleasure from six (depending on how you count them) words.

    I cut off several large SUVs, pickups, a wrecker (see I'm learning the southern lingo) and a cement truck in order to make the right turn into the Super Buffet Hong Kong Lob-Steer Inn.

    We resolved to eat there, for storytelling value, provided it met a certain basic standard. A low standard even for a small-town buffet; we're not picky. We would do it, for our fellow eGulleters, under almost any circumstances.

    Our first hurdle was that, after turning into the shopping center adjacent to the road sign, we couldn't find the place. Finally, after driving around a bit, we noticed, suspended from a fence, past the TJ Maxx, this sign:

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    We navigated the back part of the lot and finally found the place.

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    Upon entering, it felt as though we had walked into a 20-year-old pu-pu platter. Unfortunately, the food on the buffet looked as though it had come from that same platter and been kept warm by sterno all that time. So, we just couldn't do it. Not even for $4.95 per person all-you-can-eat. Not even with the $1 off coupons that the cashier offered us in an attempt to sway us.

    So we did not get to have storytelling value. But, as a final bonus, we noticed the restaurant's logo on the side of the building on the way out:

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    Momo was unphased by it all:

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    Can you tell I'm bored?

  2. Some additional dishes:

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    Curry chicken popcorn

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    Corn on the cob

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    Egg and truffle

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    New England clam chowder

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    Tuna with crispy rice

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    Cauliflower in textures

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    Pineapple with cured salmon, avocado, and quinoa

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    Conch fritter with a liquid center

    Jose Andres, again:

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    Holding the foie gras cotton candy

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    Preparation and presentation of the "meat and potatoes":

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    Mango ravioli of trout roe with tomato seeds; to be slurped directly from the plate:

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    Hot and cold foie gras soup:

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    "Lobster Americaine," with a syringe containing the broth:

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    A couple of additional dessert items:

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    Mango soup with pop rocks

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    Petits fours

  3. Donk, you don't want to see them all! The conditions were less than ideal, photographing and eating something like 30 dishes in something like 2 hours -- and for the first part of that time there were 4 other people at the minibar so I had to avoid flash and couldn't move around much. But I will try to process several more photos. The problem is that we're on the road for the next couple of weeks using mostly dialup connections. So it may take a little time.

  4. There's nothing inside the lightbulb.

    To respond to your other comment, Hillvalley, the pics are from the Feb 20, 2004. We ate the same food that was on the printed menu, which is what was served to the other four people at the minibar, which was prepared by the same cooks. On top of that, we had one off-menu dish which will be on the menu soon: the light bulb. Jose and Fat Guy, who had never met before, engaged in heated conversation for quite some time, but the only thing Jose himself "cooked" was the light bulb. Nor was there any special advance preparation done: we had no plans to visit the minibar (we had already eaten dinner!), we hadn't been able to get reservations when we tried in advance, and we only made our reservation 20 minutes before the event because a party of 2 had cancelled at the last minute. We didn't even have to kill them, which was the original plan.

  5. A few additional Minibar photos, to add to the already excellent album that has been assembled here by Darren Vengroff & Co.

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    Cone with trout roe & cheese

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    Jicama ravioli with guacamole (right) and with tuna seviche (left)

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    Deconstructed white wine

    This is a forthcoming dish that Jose let us try. It's a "light bulb of flavor" made of thinner-than-paper sugar candy.

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    The light bulb of flavor

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    The light bulb is illuminated by a flashing blue LED

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    You are asked to place it directly in your mouth

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    Guacamole and tomato sorbet

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    The airy emulsion that tops the sea urchin

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    The sea urchin presentation

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    Jose, getting animated about the cuisine

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    "Wild pink" scallops

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    Sardines in a crust

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    Watermelon "air"

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    Presentation of the checks in a fortune cookie and an egg

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    If there is interest in seeing a photo of a particular dish, I think I have about 30 of them cataloged. I've posted just some selections here so as not to bury the thread in a mountain of jpegs.

    There should be some comments from Fat Guy later this weekend -- we have a long drive today and I've used the good computer all morning. For me, though, Jose's Minibar was one of the most amazing and enjoyable culinary experiences in which I've ever had the pleasure to participate.

  6. On Wednesday, February 18, Fat Guy dragged me to the Hunts Point Cooperative Market in the Bronx -- at 7am. He was doing research for his book. Specifically, he was investigating the creation of a new cut of veal.

    It occurred not at all to me why this would be a big deal, but when you think about it they've been butchering veal for gazillions of years and it's pretty impressive that at this late date someone could come up with a different way to utilize a part of the animal.

    Hunts Point is big. It is according to the Hunts Point Economic Development Corporation the world's largest food distribution center. There are 20,000 people employed at Hunts Point, and the facility occupies an outcropping of land in the South Bronx. On your way there from Manhattan you can get almost anything imaginable done to your car: you can damage it in a pothole, you can get it repaired, and you can get it washed afterwards. New hubcaps, used hubcaps, you name it. Also should you feel the need to visit a "gentlemen's club" there are several options en route.

    The facility itself, however, is modern and divorced from the dodgy neighborhoods you pass through on approach (although of course it benefits those neighborhoods greatly by bringing a steady flow of traffic through along Bruckner Boulevard). The whole Hunts Point operation is about three times as large as you might guess the world's largest food distribution center would be. If you saw any one of the three subdivisions (meat, produce, fish -- the Fulton Fish Market is in the process of relocating to Hunts Point and should be up and running there by fall) you would think it was the world's largest food distribution center. All three together, overwhelming.

    Our destination was David Mosner Inc., a veal specialist (technically a "packer") in Stall E-8. By "stall" they mean something the size of a small warehouse. And by E-8 they do mean that there are also buildings A through D (and also F) and that there are several of these warehouse-size operations in each of the buildings. Overall, the meat part of Hunts Point alone is more than 38 acres, and there are 700,000 square feet of refrigerated warehouse-size rooms.

    I should say I had a lot of reservations about visiting a veal butcher. I'm a recovering vegetarian and I haven't gotten up to eating veal yet. I'm still very much influenced by the notion of the poor little calves being confined in boxes. Spending some time with the Mosners, however, softened me considerably or at least helped me recognize that there are people in the veal industry who care very much about agricultural practices. The Mosners -- three generations of the family have worked there since the late David Mosner founded the company in 1957 -- specialize in hormone and drug free veal that has been raised with space to walk around, a method called loose confinement. The calves, mostly from Quebec but also from the Midwest, are larger and their meat is to my eye healthier and more robust looking than typical. Most of Mosner's calves have carcasses that weigh around 300 pounds.

    Chef David Burke, formerly of Park Avenue Cafe and the Smith & Wollensky restaurant group, has recently opened his own restaurant called davidburke & donatella. One of the items on the menu is called the "Bronx Style" filet mignon of veal, or the "Bronx chop" as they refer to it at Mosner. There is currently no other restaurant serving this cut, because David Burke invented it. This whole early morning adventure of ours was a result of Fat Guy not being satisfied with an explanation of the cut: he wanted Burke to show him how it is actually butchered.

    This could have been a 10 minute visit -- the actual butchering of the cut is only the final stage of a lengthy process that starts with a whole carcass. But the Mosners were extremely hospitable and offered to demonstrate the entire process. They offered to start with a carcass and end with a Bronx chop. How could we say no?

    I must say the Mosners were the nicest people one could ever hope to meet. And obviously smart businessmen. The president of the company (Michael Mosner, son of David Mosner -- he has a degree in agricultural economics from Cornell) gave us a general overview of the business, after which Ben Mosner, grandson of David Mosner, took us on the first half of our tour. David Burke and Philip Mosner (another son of David Mosner, his degree is from University of Georgia) joined us later for the actual fabrication of the Bronx chop (Philip is the guy who figured out exactly how to butcher this cut).

    ~~~~~

    We start in the intake area. All the areas on the main level (the offices are upstairs) are refrigerated to approximately 36 degrees, so we have to wear warm coats under our butcher's coats.

    The veal carcasses get delivered into this first room, covered in plastic sheeting. The room can hold hundreds of them and often does. The deliveries come three times a week or more. Much of the butchering for this day is already in progress but we still have our pick of several dozen carcasses. Ben Mosner starts to point out the various cuts of veal on the carcass and then asks butcher Robert Ross to butcher an entire carcass. We pick a nice 285.5 pound one.

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    Robert begins by removing the "foresaddle." This is the beginning of the process of getting things down to a manageable size that can actually be lifted and handled by an individual butcher. At this point, everything is suspended by hooks. The Mosners have had a special hook system designed for them that contains a hook on a lift, so that when the foresaddle is removed it doesn't take three men (as it used to) to lift it up onto another hook.

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    He then removes the center part of the carcass, which can be carried by one person, leaving the two larger sections (the ones with the fore and hind legs attached) on the hook system (the hooks slide on tracks on the ceiling -- they are not stationary).

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    All these pieces get moved around and kept track of somehow.

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    Before we move on to the Bronx chop, Robert shows us how he creates a rack.

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    Philip Mosner and David Burke join us in the butchering room, where several butchers are working on different cuts of veal with very sharp knives. There's a cool conveyer belt in the middle of the table that transports the meat away. The cutting boards, knives, and everything else all get repeatedly cleaned -- it's quite immaculate everywhere in the Mosner operation.

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    Chef Burke notices a blue plastic tub full of veal skirt steaks and starts to stare off into the distance -- he's trying to figure out how he can use them, and quickly decides he'll put them on the tasting menu today. Philip Mosner bags them up and we later take them, along with several Bronx chops, back to the city in our van. Normally, of course, the deliveries get made by truck by Mosner -- Chef Burke doesn't visit Hunts Point often, and indeed most chefs have never been there at all, no less for the purpose of actually working with the butchers to create a new cut of meat.

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    Finally it's time to create a Bronx chop. Philip Mosner and David Burke explain that, if one buys a whole hind leg of veal, there is a beautiful piece of meat at the top of that section, at the bottom of the tenderloin near the hip. Usually this section goes with the whole leg, but it is usually wasted by being cut up into medallions. Chef Burke felt this was arguably the best meat on the whole calf, though, so he implored the Mosners to help fabricate it into something that could be served as a chop. By inverting the leg and butchering it in an unusual manner (it is quite a contortion when you watch it), Mosner's butchers are able to extract this cut. It's a lot of work -- it starts on the butchering table and then there are several passes through the band saw to get to the Bronx chop.

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    This final piece of meat will be further trimmed by David Burke's prep cooks. He actually gets two pieces of meat out of it: a big chop from the bottom, with the whole bone attached, and a smaller boneless piece from the top, which is served at lunch.

    There are only two of these Bronx chops per carcass (one per leg) and Chef Burke is currently serving around 180 per week, with pistachio ravioli and wild mushrooms.

  7. Not that there's anything wrong with that! :laugh:

    Many forms of literature are relatively new as separate genres: the novel comes to mind as the most prominent example, and of course food writing itself is a new category. There is even a small amount of food writing targeted at children, such as the wonderful books by Grace Lin: Dim Sum for Everyone, and The Ugly Vegetables. I'd love to see more of that. It's also interesting that much of ancient literature -- e.g., Aesop's fables, Gilgamesh, even the Odyssey -- is often categorized as children's literature today, probably because of its didactic nature. The current adult penchant for children's literature may very well exist because of the dearth of great, colorful, didactic literature in the adult category.

    For the record: I'm in favor of childhood. :raz:

  8. I've always had a guilty conscience. So guilty, in fact, that it extends to such things as minor as sneaking food into movies. One of the first times I ever did this was my first year in college. Don't remember the movie, but it was opening night and the theatre was packed. I'd stopped and bought a large bag of M&Ms. After eating a few in the car, I stuffed the bag in my waistband and tried to be as nonchalant about finding a seat as I could.

    My friend and I were running a little late -- got there right as the previews started. Since the theatre was so full, we had to settle for seats in the middle of the theatre. As I was crawling across and over people to get to our seats, the bag of M&Ms slipped further down into my pants and fell open. M&Ms spilled out of my pantslegs and out of the holes ripped in the knees of my very cool jeans. I could hear them tumbling all the way down to the front of the theatre.

    I was horrified. I was sure I'd be arrested. Then the giggles started....

    If you hadn't had the cool jeans that were ripped in the knees you could have had some m & ms with AgaCooker's sock beers. Then again, if you had had your jeans tucked into your socks (as if it were, say, leech season) you could have eaten the m & ms out of your shoes.

  9. I grew up in a working-class family without the means to travel much beyond the annual trip where the whole family piled into our old Checker station-wagon and we drove out to the Grand Canyon. In order to travel overseas, I saved my babysitting money, I worked at Crazy Eddie's selling microwave ovens, and I sold chains-by-the-inch from a shopping-mall jewelry kiosk. So I've always been acutely aware of the economic aspect of travel -- it's not something I ever took for granted. I was always looking to get bang for my buck, but I also had a strong interest in the anthropological aspects of travel -- so going around Europe with a backpack wasn't the experience I was after.

    Arthur Frommer was the one who put it all together for me. His Arthur Frommer's New World of Travel was one of the most influential books I've ever read, not so much because of its style as for what it taught: that you can travel well and cheaply, yet get a far better cultural experience than those who stay in fancy hotels. Arthur was really the first significant author to publicize homestays, overlanding, volunteer vacations, cooperative camping, and the like . . . and I did them all.

    After two marketing jobs in book publishing (at Random House and Simon & Schuster, where I was manager of academic marketing), I took time off to travel through about 15 countries in Africa and to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. When I got home, I wrote to Arthur Frommer and told him about the influence he had had on my life and the way I travel. At that time, he was just launching his magazine, Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, and he hired me to be on staff. That was when I went from being a traveler to being a travel writer.

    Ultimately, working as a magazine editor and staff writer wasn't for me, so now I occasionally freelance for Arthur but I mostly work on books (my most recent book, about buying furniture in North Carolina, is based on an article I did for Budget Travel) and travel in between in the hopes of placing freelance travel pieces here and there. But my time at Budget Travel really established the framework for what I wanted to do with my travel writing career: I wanted to inspire people to travel in unusual, active, interesting ways -- much as Robb Walsh does, coming from a somewhat different direction.

    Stylistically, nobody has had more influence on me than Mark Twain. Not that I try to emulate his writing, and not that I could, but his powers of observation and irreverent outlook as displayed in, for example, The Innocents Abroad, were tremendously helpful in showing me the possibilities. One of my ambitions is to do a real-time travel blog from a ship, using the satellite Internet connections that are now available. It actually may happen next year.

    Possibly more than anything else, though, I'm influenced by children's books. I devour them. There's a purity of voice, language, and concept in the best children's books that is more sophisticated than much of what passes for grown-up writing. Those who write children's books need to be extremely careful about how they view and discuss reality, because kids are totally unforgiving in that regard. They won't overlook flaws. I've actually written a book about children's book publishing, and as a result people often ask me if I've written children's books. Which is a bit like asking a restaurant reviewer if he went to cooking school: it's not exactly the relevant qualification. But though I don't write children's books, I like to think they inform my style in that I always try just to tell it like it is. You can't fool kids.

    I read widely in the food press but haven't found many food writers who have made it into my top tier of influences. Calvin Trillin might be the only one, if you consider him to be a food writer. For me at least, I enjoy his other writing more. Like Twain, he's such a keen observer. For me, it's all about observation.

    I hope everybody -- not just those on the panel, not just those who write for a living -- will answer this question. Maybe it will help me figure out what to read on my next vacation!

  10. I'd also like to cast a vote for haute cuisine as memorable food experience.

    Right up there on my list of top food experiences ever was my first trip to France as an adult with the means to eat in Michelin-starred restaurants. We reserved at several and our first meal was at Maisons de Bricourt in Brittany, the restaurant from chef Olivier Roellinger. I remember being a bit fearful that the language barrier would be a problem and that the whole experience would be stressful in various ways. Instead, we were almost immediately put completely at ease by the waitstaff and soon came an avalanche of unusual and fascinating food in a multi-course tasting that seemed never to end (and that I didn't want to end). More importantly, what I had feared most -- that the Michelin-starred places would be Disney-fied versions of fine dining -- was decidedly not the case. Roellinger, and many others (Cote St. Jacques in particular), were in the final analysis family run restaurants that happened to be serving the world's finest cuisine. I also loved that, especially in the more rural fine-dining restaurants, a real cross-section of the population was dining there. Working-class French folk were there celebrating big birthdays and the like. I had not expected such a lack of pretentiousness at this level.

    The next couple of weeks took us through Brittany, Burgundy, Alsace, and Champagne. We ended the trip in Paris at Abroisie, which takes the term "temple of gastronomy" to its logical extreme -- you really feel like you're in a temple. I don't think I've ever dined so well so much in such short a time. Too bad 90% of my photos didn't come out. This was the one time in my life that a busted camera did me in. Try to get a Leica fixed in France on short notice. Go ahead, try.

  11. Agreed on that point, Russ. As an Angelino surely you appreciate Michelle Shocked's lyrics in Come a Long Way:

    "I've gone 500 miles today

    I've come a long way

    And never even left L.A."

    At the same time, as a travel writer and avid traveler, I have to speak out against the insularity and isolationism that can result from the extreme view of "I've got everything I need right here in my 'hood." And for me at least, it was through travel to other places that I learned how to look at my home towns through a different lens.

  12. Russ and Robb, it's interesting that you both mentioned community-based experiences as favorites. It reminds me that right now we're in the midst of a very special community: eGullet. In what other community group can you find Russ Parsons and John Whiting even though they're 8,000 miles away from one another? I hope, if you haven't already, that you both get the opportunity to attend some eGullet community events in your area. eGullet is both local and global -- a new kind of church or community group.

    One of my fondest recent food memories is of attending the eGullet pot luck on the New Jersey/New York border at the Bobolink farm. I only wish I could have made it to Varmint's Pig Pickin'!

  13. After asking this question I realized I might have to answer it, and that isn't easy. But I'm reminded of a trip I took right after graduating from university, when I traveled around the world on my own for about half a year. I had almost no money, so I participated in various programs aimed at students such as homestays, and I wound up living for awhile with a Thai family in Chiang Mai.

    At our first dinner together, the foods were all rather unfamiliar -- some I recognized components of but it was still hard to sort out. The food was served family style and you took just a little bit on your plate and then ate it. One of the dishes seemed to be a green vegetable with little white seeds, so I designated this one as "safe" and took some on my plate. I was then informed that the white "seeds" were actually ant eggs.

    For me this was pretty freaky, but it's not the point of the story. The punchline came after I had eaten a few leaves of the stuff. The father said, "Oh, you like the ant eggs? It's too bad you missed grub season. You'll have to come back next year!"

    I carefully noted the dates of grub season.

  14. For me it would have to be wherever the best chocolate comes from! But then of course I'd probably learn that the cocoa beans are picked thanks to slave labor and that nobody locally had ever tasted the fruits of their labors because all the cocoa is shipped to and processed in Europe where one bar is sold for more than a picker makes in a month. Thanks for ruining my day, guys.

  15. I'm assuming you gentlemen are all experienced travelers, and that you've encountered lots of people beyond the normal touristed byways, so I'm quite surprised at the resistance I'm reading to the people-are-basically-the-same axiom. It's hardly a recipe for cultural hegemony; if anything the attitude that "they're not like us" is the one to worry about from a policy and cultural-relations perspective.

    Perhaps it's just a question of perspective or emphasis, but I find that some attempts to focus on differences to the exclusion of similarities can be a bit sensationalistic, patronizing, and even dangerous. It is the differences that are most noticeable and overtly interesting, and thus they are the easiest and most immediately gratifying to write and read about, but I don't believe in characterizing people -- or cuisines -- by differences alone. When Robb crosses the cultural bridge by eating goat with such intense sincerity, I think he's connecting on a very basic level that transcends cultural differences.

  16. John I think you're illustrating exactly the point I'm trying to make: speaking from the writer's perspective, we need to understand that when we visit a farflung place and eat bugs, it's not about us eating bugs and being cool. Rather, it may very well be that the people in that area are eating bugs because they're the only source of animal protein available to the poor. When we travel and eat we must look at food as a vehicle for understanding.

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