Bad taste

Boiled duck embryos, lobster foam, and freeze-dried steak wrapped in washcloth! Our favorite food writers relive their worst meals.

Published October 10, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Jane and Michael Stern have been eating their way around America for more than 30 years and are the authors of more than 20 books, including "Roadfood" and "Two for the Road."

The first book we wrote was about long-haul truckers -- not card-carrying Teamsters who lead orderly, normal lives but rather the wildcats and independents at the fringe of the trucking world. Scouring a truckers-only magazine, Jane spotted a classified ad inviting ladies to join the National Women's Trucking Association. President: Jean Sawyer. Location: Charleston, S.C.

She sent an application along with $2 dues. An NWTA membership card soon arrived sporting an engraved image of an 18-wheeler and the florid signature of President Sawyer. Jane's membership number was 2.

After trying unsuccessfully to telephone Jean Sawyer for an interview, we decided that the only way to talk to the president was to secure an audience in person. So we headed south -- and by the time we neared Charleston, the back of the car was packed with prizes from the road: a painting of a tearful Elvis on black velvet, a chenille bedspread of a multicolored peacock, and a case of Cheerwine, the North Carolina cola with a cough syrup taste. After checking into a motel on the outskirts of the city, we again tried to reach Ms. Sawyer by phone. But again, nothing. Fortunately, Jane's membership card bore the address of the NWTA.

As we drove to find association HQ, the landscape changed. Gracious antebellum homes gave way to split levels, which in turn gave way to dilapidated trailers and tumbledown shacks fronted by pockmarked yards with snarling dogs attached by ropes to stakes in the ground. When the road ended, we found ourselves facing a beat-up Mack truck parked in the dirt yard of a wood-frame house.

The president herself opened the screen door. She glared. "What do you want?"

Jane pulled out her membership card. Sawyer grabbed it, then softened in recognition. She spun around and yelled at her live-in boyfriend to move aside, motioning us through the door. She called her guy Dumbo -- we were never formally introduced -- but to our eyes, this sad, fat man was not nearly as cute as the cartoon elephant. She brought us to a kitchen table piled high with old newspapers, parking tickets, empty TV dinner tins, and Kool-Aid in a plastic pitcher.

"I would like to interview you for a book on the lives of independent truckers," Jane said.

Jean Sawyer's intense expression grew sharper. "That's a good idea," she decreed. "Y'all can stay for dinner."

As the next few hours rolled by, Jane was too flabbergasted to write notes. But her mind's eye and Michael's old Leica camera recorded the scene for posterity.

Let us tell you what Jean Sawyer looked like. Rake-thin, she wore rhinestone-bedecked cat's-eye glasses. Above the glasses was a blond bouffant that was some part her own hair, but in other parts a tangle of wigs and wiglets. She was unable to stay still. When she was not deep in a rant against her enemies in the trucking world (a diatribe so meandering and convoluted that neither of us could make sense of it), she kept busy styling and restyling her bouffant. She tossed hunks of blond acrylic hair into a plastic laundry bin, fished into the bin for others to apply to the top of her head, like a flighty bird building and rebuilding an enormous nest.

She led us to the backyard where her twin red 1961 Cadillacs were parked, bearing the vanity license plates Victim I and Victim II. With one hand steadying her hairdo, she tried to explain to us how the entire city of Charleston -- no, make that all of South Carolina -- was persecuting her. Late in the afternoon, the kitchen started filling up with adolescent boys, hers and Dumbo's. It was suppertime.

Jean Sawyer took a single, small, thin steak from her deep freeze. To this day, we are not sure what it was; before we had the chance to examine it, we beheld a fascinating food-prep technique. Sawyer ran tap water onto a grayish washcloth she took from next to the sink. She wrung it out and wrapped it around the steak. The steak was then placed in the oven, where it cooked for 40 minutes. That was to be dinner for us. For her and Dumbo and the kids, she grabbed a box of Hamburger Helper and started cooking that in a skillet on the stovetop.

A dozen hungry eyes watched as steak ` la washcloth was unwrapped for the esteemed guests. Feeling a little like characters in "Suddenly, Last Summer," we sawed at the meat and masticated as best we could. "Is it good?" came the plaintive whine of the youngest kid, who had already wolfed down his allotted Hamburger Helper.

"Have some," Michael said, cutting a hunk of the meat and reaching out to plunk it on the kid's plate.

Jean Sawyer's red-nailed hand swept in like a falcon coming down on prey. "Leave it be," she yelled. "Steak is for company. Where's your manners?"

There were no side dishes, no dessert, no coffee. As the children vanished from the table, Jean Sawyer's focus shifted. Her wigs and her fight with all of South Carolina lost their hold on her mind as she spun into an even more passionate harangue about men, women, God and the devil. We had no clue what she was talking about, so we gave up trying to understand. We stood, walked to the screen door and let ourselves out. Dumbo remained in his chair, smoking and staring into space. Jean Sawyer seemed not to notice our departure. As we drove away, we could see in her window, where she remained talking a mile a minute to no one at all.

Regina Schrambling writes about food and travel for the Los Angeles Times and other publications and on her Web site,

So I'm lying in a hospital bed in Italy thinking about how it has been 27 hours since my last meal. And what a last meal it was. We had gotten off the plane in Turin and gone straight to lunch at our hotel out in the Piedmont countryside. The owner was a wonderful chef and he brought a big laughing table of us excellent frittata and tuna-stuffed roasted peppers, a mushroom tart sitting in a pool of fonduta, veal-and-spinach agnolotti and then braised guinea hen, with a sort of apple torta for dessert.

I insisted on trying everything that was poured into a glass: a lovely white Arneis, Barbera d'Asti, moscato d'Asti and even the grappa so potent it could burn the hair out of your nostrils. And then my consort and I went for a walk in that gorgeous countryside and I tripped on a rough patch of road and fell and snapped my femur in the very worst place. One ambulance took me to the closest hospital and the next day another one took me to another hospital for surgery -- and no one ever fed me. And now here I lie, miserable and starving while my roommate in the knee cast chatters away with her visitor about sushi restaurants in Torino. Can't they talk about anything else but food?

My surgeon, who is one of the very few people I will meet in the next 15 days who speaks English, has been by to discuss my scary options and has also managed to inform everyone who will listen that I am a "giornalista gastronomica" from New York. I'm liking the sound of that. But mostly I am very ready for dinner.

Which turns out to be the saddest meal I have ever faced down -- and I have eaten at Le Cirque. It's Dickensian for the industrial age, gruel that arrives on a tray fitted with a pliable plastic sheet with indentations for each "course." One square holds a lump of what passes for Cream of Wheat. A second, larger one, holds a pasta that has the look of Cheerios in a slimy, almost mucousy broth. There is a packet of something processed and bland resembling cream cheese, a hard roll jacketed in plastic and a container of pink yogurt that is mostly sugar, but at least has one thing everything else lacks: a taste. Have these people never heard of spices, let alone salt and pepper? Adding insult to injury, there is nothing to drink with any of it -- but the tray is imprinted with a taunting little wineglass emblem. I muscle it down because I'm beyond starving, but I privately swear I will never, ever denigrate airline food again. It's five-star by comparison. How could they bring such slop to a giornalista gastronomica -- even one who is so immobilized that she has already learned that "padella" means "bedpan" and "tiralisu" is not a dessert but an order to "lift yourself up."

And then, long after the nurse has come and cleared the depressing detritus away, I look over on the bedside table and notice a sheet of paper lying there. It's a menu -- and it has been there since I was wheeled in. All I had to do was check off what I wanted for the week and, it turned out, I would have been given food at least as good as what the average New York Italian restaurant dishes up: turkey with rosemary, risotto milanese, cheesy penne with garlic, meatballs with black olives, spinach agnolotti, tortellini with sage, turkey pizzaiola. What I'd been brought first was just the equivalent of the standard invalid's meal anywhere in the world.

So the arrogant food journalist who never bothered to learn Italian missed the most important detail. And she swears she will never denigrate hospital food again.

I'm back to trashing what they serve on planes.

Steven Rinella is the author of "The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine" and a contributor to Outside magazine. He lives in Alaska.

As a writer, my biggest professional shortcoming is that I'm not very professional. I can't maintain objective distance from my subjects. Relationships that begin as interviews often morph into friendships, or the opposite of friendships. I've always known this habit of mine would lead to a bad end. But I never dreamed that end would involve eating a duck fetus.

Balut, as the dish is formally known, is a Filipino delicacy made from an embryonic duckling boiled alive in its shell, one week before birth. Not being a regular consumer of fetal fare, I'd never heard of balut until I traveled to the country to do a magazine story about an American rafting expedition down a remote river in the highlands of Luzon Island. The group I was with ranged from a purple-haired programmer to a soap-opera actor who thought that a wilderness adventure might help him give up the bottle. Our team leader was Gretchen, a tall, strong-willed woman who claimed to be sponsored by an adventure swimwear company.

From the start, the journey was cursed. First there was a snafu with customs over the importation of rubber rafts, then things got completely derailed when Maoist rebels closed the only road leading to the river. Tensions flared.

More specifically, tensions flared between Gretchen and me. Apparently, her sponsorship by an American corporation not only dictated that she constantly wear an assortment of bulletproof-looking bikini tops, but also that she enforce the strictures of "culturally sensitive eco-tourism" with the grim seriousness of a Sunday school teacher.

Without even trying, I violated most of Gretchen's rules. In the name of journalistic curiosity, I inquired about the cost of an elderly prostitute in Manila; I found a screaming deal on local rum and made a large purchase; I attended a cockfight; I wheeled and dealed with an artisan for a wooden phallus with an ashtray scrotum.

The situation came to a head when Gretchen and I got into a screaming fight about ugly Americans. She said I was the definition of an ugly American; I countered that the "Ugly American" is actually a good guy in the 1958 book of that title, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, which lambastes U.S. foreign policy. She'd never heard of the book, but that didn't stop her from suggesting that I was fucked up in my interpretation of it.

That argument unresolved, soon Gretchen and I were locked in a war in which we each tried to live out exaggerated versions of our own travel ideologies. She expressed moral outrage at poverty and scowled at artisans who peddled trinkets made of rare species of trees. I indulged a budding fascination for a bar called the Hobbit, which only hires dwarves and midgets and serves up nightly doses of British rock played by drug-addled expatriates.

Enter balut. It was the one thing Gretchen and I agreed on. Or, rather, the acceptance of balut was something we agreed on. Me, because I'd been bragging about how I'd eat anything the country had to offer. Gretchen, because any American who was worth his or her passport would never scowl at a token of international goodwill.

Our showdown came during a meal hosted by government tourism officials who hoped to make up for our thwarted rafting plans. Two duck eggs arrived at our table along with an explanation that it was the national dish. It was clear by the amused looks on everyone's faces that we were in for something interesting.

Eager to land the first punch, I followed the chef's instructions and tapped a hole through the shell. I poked through a gauzy membrane coursed with blood vessels, then sucked out the broth.

As the liquid met my lips, I overheard someone say "amniotic fluid." Nausea rolled through me with the image of a little duck fetus, curled up and sucking its thumb. Mind over matter, I told myself. Gretchen was still prodding her egg while I ripped into mine with gusto, blindly packing the brackish contents into my mouth.

I now know that balut has many powers: It's an aphrodisiac; it replaces lost sleep; it wards off Aswang, which are super-scary Filipino monsters that attack at night and suck out your guts. But at that moment, with balut in my mouth, I was aware of nothing except its wretched taste. A duck embryo contains 176 milligrams of phosphorous -- which, believe me, is plenty. It tastes the way the air smells after a night of fireworks have been lighted off.

The only thing that stopped me from regurgitating was the intense look of jealousy on Gretchen's face. My lips had curled into a grimace of disgust, but as I turned to face her, I stubbornly replaced that expression with one of enjoyment. I knew my face also had to show something deeper still: an enlightened awareness that traveling to a new land meant nothing unless you were willing to embrace it fully.

But the second phase of balut eating -- which involved sorting through the contents of my mouth with my tongue, isolating boney bits to decide which could be swallowed whole, which should be chewed first, and which should be plucked out -- threatened to compromise my carefully arranged expression. After discarding a section of beak and one leg, I struggled the duckling down.

Our Filipino hosts erupted in applause. It was all for me. I'd done America a good turn. Gretchen's egg was untouched. My intent was to let the applause die, and then go into the bathroom to purge. But Gretchen did something puzzling.

She passed me her egg. "You like 'em so much," she grinned.

To this day, I wonder: Did my charade so fool her that she buried the hatchet and surrendered her egg for my enjoyment? Or was she screwing with me? At the time, I didn't analyze it. Instead, I did what any trigger-happy, red-blooded American would do in a foreign land.

I choked it down. And smiled.

Julie Powell is the author of "Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously."

My mom insists that when she and my dad separated, when I was in fourth grade, she lost 20 pounds. Not me. I have never suffered from a mouth of ashes. I discovered the restorative pleasure of pimento cheese sandwiches at my grandmother's funeral. In my early 20s, after learning that my family's beloved golden retriever had unexpectedly died, I rolled a batch of enchiladas and sobbed into the chile verde. Years later, I eased the pain of my own trial separation by filling my tiny sublet kitchen with the comforting aromas of gumbo, cheese grits and, during the lonely weekend afternoons, untold bowls of stovetop popcorn with real butter; no doubt if that separation had ended in divorce I'd have marked the awful day with an enormous bowl of my granny's Three Bear Soup.

God knows, I wish I could lose my appetite. That would solve all kinds of problems, including how the hell I'll ever fit into my favorite vintage Lilli Ann suit again. But so far food has never proved less than my most reliable source of sustenance, both physical and spiritual. Perhaps -- no, certainly -- it's a reflection of my good fortune that no tragedy has yet been equal to my enthusiastic digestive tract. But it's worrisome that in thinking back on my life's small heartbreaks, more often than not my central memory is of something I had to eat.

Prominent in my recollection of my parents' separation is one particular meal, or rather a particular hamburger, that I ate over and over again during that dreadful year. Every Wednesday, my brother and I drove with Dad to Player's, a joint near the Univerity of Texas. I ordered my Player's burgers with nothing on them but mayonnaise -- no cheese, no tomato, certainly no pickles or mustard. I remember them being as big as plates, with thin, pleasantly greasy patties and innocuous buns that soaked up the moist mayo. We ate in a hard plastic booth while Dad sipped at his beer, and when we were done he'd give us quarters for the arcade games.

A couple of months into this routine, my mom asked me what we talked about at Player's. When I shrugged, confused, her lips tightened to a thin line and a mean glint flashed in her eye; that was my first inkling that those nights out were intended for something more than avoiding homework and hanging out with Daddy. The second hint came when, the next Wednesday, Dad sat us down with our trays in the booth and asked, in uncharacteristically solemn tones, How We Were. I took a big bite of my burger and fervently hoped the conversation would end before I was done chewing.

The autumn of my parents' separation also marked my first bona fide role in what would prove a busy adolescence in the theater. I played little Sally Cratchit in the yearly community production of "A Christmas Carol," and, my, but I was proud. After each performance I doffed my mob cap and rushed into the lobby, anticipating a throng of fans awaiting my autograph. I was disappointed, until one night I was met outside the stage door by a beautiful woman with long brown hair just like Crystal Gayle's. (I loved "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue." I had brown eyes, and I didn't want blue ones either, thank you very much!) "Julie?" she said, with a kindly, but mildly discomfiting smile. "I'm a friend of your father's. You were wonderful tonight. I brought this for you." And then she held out the biggest chocolate bar I'd ever seen.

I knew I shouldn't take it, and not just because taking candy from strangers was strictly taboo. But I did. And even as I greedily tore open the gold-wrapped chocolate and bit into it, rolling my eyes in ecstasy as a rich, obscenely adult ooze of caramel burst in my mouth and oozed down my chin, I knew who this woman was. I knew what she'd done to my family. In that instant, when my desire won out over my sense of family and loyalty and decency, I grew up -- in a small irrevocable way. I have never again tasted a Caramello bar. But I still long for it, from time to time. It's the most terrible, wonderful thing I ever ate.

Michael Ruhlman is the author of seven books including "The Making of a Chef" and "The Soul of a Chef," and the co-author of "The French Laundry Cookbook" and "Charcuterie."

In November of 1999 at Union Pacific, a celebrated New York restaurant run by Rocco DiSpirito, I had a train wreck of a meal. It came as a shock; six months earlier I'd dined there and found the food rivaled in quality and focus only by the French Laundry, considered by many critics to be among the best restaurants in the world. In fact, I was so impressed by my first encounter with DiSpirito that I proposed to write a profile of the young chef for Gourmet magazine. After several days in DiSpirito's kitchen, the meal under discussion, with a day of follow-up, was to be the end of my work -- and I arrived that evening with two friends in tow, whom I looked forward to treating to a swank night courtesy of Condé Nast. I'd more or less said to Rocco, "Feed us whatever you want -- let's see what you've got."

Rocco made no secret of his aim to impress and went completely off the menu, beginning ably, if slowly, with a flight of caviar and raw fish paired with a Riesling. Next arrived salmon with brown butter and sorrel paired -- daringly, I thought at the time -- with another Riesling. Then, if memory serves, a foamy soup -- a celery velouti -- with what I think was pear, shrimp and romanesco, accompanied by some sort of sherry.


Silent glances around the table.

Union Pacific was packed but the noise level was muted, and our service lived up to its three-star reputation. The silhouettes of chefs were visible behind a block-glass kitchen wall. Indeed, we had plenty of time to observe the surroundings. By then, my companions and I had been sitting an hour and a half. The room was growing oppressively hot, and conversation flagged as we waited and wilted.

Still, hope springs eternal with the approach of the sommelier. But wait -- another Riesling proudly poured -- and the ensuing course, rouget, a fishy fish, served with a fishy sauce. We were two hours in now, and the food was on the decline. "Let's get on to some meat here, for god sake," I prayed.

A third into what had become a purgatorial tasting menu, I began to ache for my guests. And they felt sorry for me. "You're writing about this guy?" one asked quizzically. But Rocco was cooking just for us, so we sat and swallowed it, hostages.

Then the skate with lobster foam appeared. And another Riesling.

Foam was trendy at the time; it had already appeared on several courses. But my opinion of it then was about the same as it is now: Foam is what you skim off stock and throw away, foam is what you stay away from when you're swimming in a lake. I don't want to eat foam.

But when a chef is cooking for you and you are not there to critique him, you eat what he serves. You just do. It's rude not to finish. So I tried to eat it. I really did. One of our plates had to go back clean. Still I could not bring myself to do it. None of us could. The lobster foam was low-tide nasty. Worse, the skate was so overcooked it had become mealy. I felt a pall of shame fall over the evening, on me, on Rocco, on this night. It was nearly midnight when I paid the $700 tab, and my friends and I fled to a nearby bar to seek some high-proof relief.

But the meal got worse.

The next day, when, dreading my task, I arrived at the restaurant to finish my reporting, Rocco and I more than didn't discuss the meal. Actually, the chef seemed to believe it had never happened -- and the whole experience made me profoundly uncomfortable. The guy could cook like a bandit, but it seemed to me then -- had seemed all week, I realized -- that his real ambitions had more to do with what people thought of him than the quality of the food or the pleasure of the customer.

My editors were unfazed. A chef tries to impress a writer, goes off the menu with dishes he's never tried, and it's a disaster. Don't worry, they said. Happens all the time.

So I didn't worry and I didn't mention the meal. Instead I wrote a straightforward profile of a vastly talented chef -- a characterization of DiSpirito that no one would have denied. Gourmet put him on the cover. He became a uniquely 21st century brand: the Sexy New York Chef. He landed a TV show. He got famous. Little if any of it was dependent on how well he could cook. And now he doesnt cook in restaurants anymore.

Seven years later, the memory of that meal remains sharp in my mind not so much because the food itself was a travesty -- everybody but a brain surgeon is allowed to have a bad day. But really our worst meals are ultimately about sadness, and for me the sadness that lingers on about that night is that it signaled the beginning of the end of an extraordinary talent -- a talent exchanged for the hollowness of celebrity for celebrity's sake. A loss that is even harder to swallow than lobster foam.

Robert Sietsema writes the weekly column "Counter Culture" for the Village Voice and is the author of "The Food Lover's Guide to the Best Ethnic Eating in New York City."

Tourists go to Havana for a variety of reasons: for the Malecsn's faded colonial splendor, for the pungent cigars, for the fine-sand beaches, or for a glimpse of revolutionary Cuba. I went for the food. Living in New York City, I was already familiar with the glories of the cuisine, from Cuban sandwiches annealed in the hot embrace of the sandwich press at humble lunch counters to garlic-laden pork roasts at fancy restaurants run by proud expats. Then there were the Cuban-Chinese diners owned by immigrants of mixed race, which offered Cantonese and Latin fare on the same menu, in a weird and spectacular collision of flavors.

Trouble is, I arrived in Havana to find a cash-strapped country where most arable land is devoted to tobacco and other agricultural products destined for export, a place where there is virtually no good food -- at least for tourists -- unless you're willing to lay out big bucks on every meal. Sure, there were restaurants that catered to visitors, but these offered a lackluster menu of bland baked chicken and fried fish filets that tasted like they'd been frozen since the revolution. At the upper end were a couple of places offering Vegas-style floor shows that furnished real Cuban food, where a meal before drinks and tips ran $100 per person and more. I opted out. Meanwhile, the ordinary citizen subsisted on carefully rationed white rice and black beans seasoned with pig skin, a combo called Moors & Christians. Luxuries like milk were reserved for children under 6.

There were a couple of ways to dodge this grim culinary reality, though, and as an adventurous eater, I was determined to find them. Once I stopped looking for boliche (a sausage-stuffed beef roast) and escabeche (whole fish heaped with pickled onions and peppers), I found that the food was better and more variable in Havana's small Chinatown, where the menus featured a smattering of meat and poultry, and local ingredients were used as fascinating substitutes for the original Cantonese ones -- a cooking style that arrived on the island with indentured Chinese field hands in the 1920s. Standing in for bean sprouts, for example, was finely shredded cabbage, which turned out to be virtually indistinguishable from sprouts. Carved swatches of kale imitated bok choy, and so on. Another resource was the embassies, which sometimes showcased their national cuisines in reasonably priced cafes. My traveling companion -- civil rights historian Philip Dray -- and I discovered that the Egyptian embassy offered a dark rug-clad eatery with a delightful selection of composed salads, bread dips and kebabs, fare that may be old news in New York, but was unique in Havana. One evening we were the only diners in the room while a belly dancer tried heroically to draw our attention away from the baba ganoush, which we sucked down like famished exiles.

Finally, in desperation, we turned to dodgy street food for sustenance. I'd eaten on the street in places like Mali, Ecuador and Jamaica, and had an inflated idea of my ability to distinguish healthy from unhealthy. But there wasn't much street food, either, and what there was had a furtive air about it. At the annual May Day parade, the biggest holiday of the year, I found the pickings particularly slim. Fruitlessly I searched among the flapping red banners and giant floats depicting the landing of the yacht Granma with Fidel aboard, marking the final phase of the Cuban revolution. Eventually, and in lieu of a real lunch, I bought a heavy, pipe-shaped pastry stuffed with figs, from a man who looked nervously over his shoulder and toted his wares in a burlap sack stashed under his threadbare jacket. It cost me one American dollar, and I gobbled it down immediately. Dense but edible, it had a funky aftertaste that made me want to brush my teeth.

Late afternoon and evening passed uneventfully, but in the middle of the night, my stomach began to rumble. I woke nauseated and bathed in sweat, and made a beeline for the bathroom, where I didn't know which end of my body to tend first. These were classic symptoms of food poisoning, which, due to a rapid metabolism, always attacks me precisely six hours after the offending substance is consumed. I'd had it three times before in a long career of eating everything I could find with wild abandon -- not a bad record. After two days of lying feverishly on the bed, green and groaning, my alarmed companion conducted me to a hospital a few blocks down the Malecsn.

Lucky for me, and in spite of a desperate shortage of drugs, Cuba has one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Within a few minutes, I was being tended by a young female physician in a spotless white coat with a stethoscope swinging around her neck. She sagely nodded her head as she took my temperature, looked in my ears and thumped by chest, then proclaimed in decent English: "I'm sorry, sir, but you've caught food poisoning somewhere. There's nothing we can do for you but recommend bed rest for another day or two. I hope this doesn't ruin your vacation."

We thanked her, and were delighted to discover the examination was free. Bless socialized medicine! And two days hence I was up and around and searching for grub again -- though I'd learned the hard way to avoid the street food. And I learned another thing, too: The Cuban food is a million times better in New York than in Havana.

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