Posts Tagged ‘food’

A look at the turkey

November 23, 2011

As part of my occasional series titled “Lives of the Dead,” today’s post will look at the turkey.

This fabled American bird takes its place at the table with the likes of Christopher Columbus, Caesar Augustus, St. Patrick and Martin Luther as subjects of a DavisW’s blog profile. Not dead as a species but with plenty of specific casualties by this time tomorrow, the turkey becomes the first to be a living topic in this space. Let’s take a brief look at its history before we examine its innards over pumpkin pie and coffee at dinner Thursday.

In a way, it’s fitting the turkey be granted this exceptional treatment. As much as his species is appreciated as both a symbol of gratitude and a meat product, there have been no individual turkeys to rise above the rest and distinguish themselves. Other animals at least have had animated anthropomorphs to speak out on their behalf — Donald Duck, Porky Pigg, Sylvester the Cat, Fernando Lamas, the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). There’s never been a single famous turkey.

It’s probably due in part to what’s come to be known in zoology circles as the “K Factor”. The K Factor is that rule which says any animal with a “K” in its name is automatically funny and disrespected. Your monkeys, your donkeys, your yaks and your kangaroos all suffer from this syndrome and can’t get anyone to take them seriously. We laugh at the poor dumb turkey even as we enjoy his succulent thighs simply because it’s fun to say anything that rhymes with “jerky” or “quirky”.

The turkey first came to the attention of an increasingly hungry Western Civilization when 16th-century Europeans exploring America encountered a bird similar to their familiar guineafowl. Since their larger poultry were imported into continental markets through Central Europe from Turkey, they thought of calling the wild Meleagris gallopavo a “Serbian” but eventually settled instead on “turkey”. (That’s why we also get the word “grease” from Greece, and the word “chili” from Chile).

The wild turkey can weigh up to 100 pounds and has a wingspan of almost six feet. They can fly for short distances, mainly when they’re being pursued by predators. Turkeys have a distinctive fleshy wattle that hangs from the underside of their beak which, when combined with their huge breasts, make them resemble actress Pamela Anderson. (You can tell the two apart because the birds have too much sense to go anywhere near Kid Rock). They also have another protuberance growing off the top of their beaks and dangling off to the side called a “snood”. Links to recipes for these appendages, including the famous Wattle Supreme and the underappreciated Stewed Snood, will follow this article.

There’s a fairly extensive fossil record of the early turkeys, starting from the Miocene Epoch over 20 million years ago. Ancient remains have been found throughout the Western Hemisphere and, when they are, inevitably the wishbone is broken in two. The Aztecs called the creature huexolotl, and it was associated with their “trickster god” Tezcatlipoca when it wasn’t being killed and eaten. (Even then, the turkey was laughed at. Aztecs would’ve told each other “that wacky huexolotl and his pal Tezcatlipoca are at it again” if they could’ve pronounced either of the words.)

It’s only been in the last century or so that turkeys became a popular form of poultry. Though it’s likely the meat was served at the first Thanksgiving attended by the Pilgrims and the Indians, that’s probably only because they kept running around the food preparation area. It was actually too expensive to become a staple at holiday meals until just recently. Before World War II, goose or beef was more likely to comprise the common holiday dinner.

When the wild turkey was domesticated, its life became both easier and harder. Today’s birds could live to be ten years old if they weren’t slaughtered at about 16 weeks. They grow up on a factory farm, bred to have magnificent white feathers to make their carcasses more appealing. The male is the tom, the female is the hen, and the baby is a poult, though they don’t spend near enough time together as a family. Mature toms are too large to “achieve natural fertilization,” as Wikipedia delicately puts it, so their semen is manually collected and hens are inseminated artificially. Neither much care for this arrangement, but what are they going to do? Break out on their own and find a nice apartment they could afford on a turkey salary?

Turkeys are popularly believed to be unintelligent. Claims are made that during a rainstorm, they’ll look up at the falling precipitation until they drown. Recent research has shown, however, that many aren’t simply stupid but instead suffer from a genetic nervous disorder known as “tetanic torticollar spasms” that causes them to look skyward. Like human parents embarrassed by the poor performance of their offspring, turkey parents can point to a disorder similar to ADHD as the reason their brats are running around like madmen, toppling lamps and unable to stay focused for more than a few moments.

The turkey is now solidly a part of American lore, especially at this time of the year. Schoolchildren trace outstretched hands to create likenesses of the animal for fall craft projects. Coworkers abandon casual conversation in the breakroom and opt instead to gobble at each other. The turkey lobby brings one lucky tom to Washington so it can receive the traditional presidential pardon, though in an attempt to be seen as moving toward the political center after recent election losses, President Obama is considering slitting its throat this year.

By Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, all we really care about is how to prepare the bird for dinner. Available in the market as either fresh or frozen, the meat typically requires several hours baking or roasting in the oven to become fully cooked. A recent trend has seen the rise of a new method, deep-frying the turkey in an outdoor vat of hot oil for 45 minutes or until the entire set-up explodes and is next seen on YouTube under the title “Butterball goes fireball.”

Ultimately, the dish is surrounded by cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn, and whatever that awful casserole is that your sister-in-law keeps bringing year after year. Extended families come together to share an all-too-brief moment of togetherness before heading back to their separate lives watching televised images of Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions facing their own slaughter. Soon, the notorious “tryptophan coma” descends on the gathering like a cloud of carbon monoxide until participants awake to find themselves waiting in line for Walmart to open at 2 in the morning.

As we pause during the next 24 hours to give thanks for all the bounty we share, let’s not forget to express appreciation to the noble turkey for his contribution. If Ben Franklin had his way, the creature would be our national bird, seen all over our money and other national emblems instead of all over our shirts and tablecloths. And we’d be eating bald eagles for dinner, arguing over who gets the bald spot rather than who gets the drumstick.

I’ve had deep-fried eagle before and, trust me, it’s not something you’d want to eat.

Note: To read more about Lives of the Dead, please visit the following posts:

https://davisw.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/happy-columbus-day-sort-of/

https://davisw.wordpress.com/2010/08/13/lives-of-the-dead-augustus-father-of-august/

https://davisw.wordpress.com/2009/03/16/lives-of-the-dead-st-patrick/

https://davisw.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/lives-of-the-dead-martin-luther/

He’d say “Happy Thanksgiving,” but the snood keeps getting in the way
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Thanksgiving comes early in the office

November 22, 2011

The turkey carcass sits mangled on the serving table, looking like the victim of a bear attack. The sweet potato casserole has been denuded of its marshmallow topping, but you could probably scrape a few more servings out of the corners of the pan if you tried. The stuffing is completely gone, serving its stated purpose of stuffing those who now lounge around the edges of this scene, barely moving except for the effort it takes to moan.

No, you haven’t been transported several days into the future by the magic of the blog. This is the scene I left behind at yesterday’s office celebration of Thanksgiving, long before most of us will commemorate the occasion.

The corporate calendar of holidays is not something most of us are aware of until we walk into work one dark January day and discover we’ve neglected to bring the green bagels for St. Patrick’s Day, which the outside world celebrates on March 17. Maybe I exaggerate a little, but not much.

The government has imposed Monday observance of the more minor holidays like Presidents, Labor and Memorial days. Christmas and New Year’s are complicated by the fact that the days before them — the Eves — are in many ways more important than the actual holidays themselves. Many human resources departments have come up with the concept of a “floating” holiday for individuals to use in the religious observance of their choosing, such as Yom Kippur, Kwanzaa or Talk Like a Pirate Day. People in my mostly Christian office, for example, use their optional holiday for the day after Easter, prompting one observer to wonder if the “floating” had something to do with Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

I guess having the Thanksgiving potluck yesterday made some sense on a gut level, considering few of us would want to gorge like that two days in a row if it were scheduled for Wednesday. The only opening left on the sign-up sheet when I got to it was “salad,” which seemed very un-Thanksgiving-like but worked for me since it was so easy to prepare (take one head of lettuce, rip to shreds, serves 20). Management was providing the ham and turkey, and everything else was being brought in by the staff, who would have a chance to dazzle coworkers with their best recipes, many of which involved green beans, cream soup and those crunchy onion things.

The sit-down time was scheduled for 11 a.m. so the organizers had the better part of the morning to set up the centerpieces, warm and then re-warm the hot dishes, and tempt us all with the smells of the season. This was to be an affair that combined our staff with workers from the front office, who we sometimes pass in the restrooms but about whom we know little else.

As the serving time arrived, I was unfortunate enough to be just outside their offices when a manager called out for me to summon them. At first I was confused about who exactly he meant, and nearly beckoned the 200-plus temporary work crew from the warehouse. That would’ve been a horrible mistake, certain to result in stolen plastic cutlery and tiny, tiny portions for everyone. Still, I didn’t want to call for these front-office folks I didn’t know (“hey, it’s the guy from the bathroom – what’s he want?”) so I went to hide in my car for a few minutes.

I hoped this would have the added benefit of allowing me to miss the inevitable speech-giving and prayer that would precede the food consumption. But as the schedule started running behind, I made it just in time to hear the department head note that though these are difficult times, we still have much to be thankful for, followed by a brief blessing.

Not being a currently practicing Christian myself, I’ve always felt awkward during this portion of the proceedings. It’s not because I take offense at having others’ religious beliefs imposed on me; rather, I’m bothered that I use the respectful silence to think of the sarcastic prayer I’d be tempted to offer if I’m ever called upon. Instead of beginning with “dear Jesus” or “holy Father,” the sacrilegious scamp in me wants to begin with a “good God” and then launch into several other James Brown references like papa’s brand new bag and how good I feel (so good). Fortunately for everyone, Edna does a nice reverent offering, and it’s finally time to chow down.

Office chairs were pulled up to the long row of covered work tables. After people made their way down the buffet, carefully gauging the decreasing capacity of their Chinettes against the promise of what appeared further down the line, we were told to squeeze into a seat and begin the scheduled conviviality. The randomness and closeness of this seating arrangement, not to mention my very real fear of being injured by flying elbows, caused me to linger toward the end of the buffet line in the hope the table would be too full. I lucked out and was able to return instead to my work station to eat, where I got a kernel of corn stuck between “F7” and “F8” on my keyboard.

I genuinely enjoyed the food, as did everyone else. I was also able to enjoy the air of warmth and geniality in the room without actually having to get any of it on me. We didn’t have any holiday music piped through the intercom as we’ll do at Christmas — primarily I guess because there isn’t any, except for the less-than-festive “Turkey in the Straw” – but there was a certain atmosphere that for a moment almost made me give some actual thanks.

I managed to avoid overeating, which was good since I had a long drive home to navigate in the next hour and I didn’t want to sleep through it. Others in our department weren’t so lucky, as they staggered back to their desks to face another three hours of duty. The combination of turkey, heavy carbohydrates and the kind of workload you might expect at a financial services firm during a lingering downturn must’ve been as tough to handle as an Ambien/opium blend injected directly into your forehead.

At least there were no Detroit Lions to send them over the edge and into lethal coma.

Turkey time at the office

November 18, 2011

The food for the office Thanksgiving luncheon was all set up and ready to be eaten. Workers summoned for the feast from different departments stood about awkwardly, hungry but mindful of the need to wait for some kind of “GO!” command.

First, the district manager had a few words to say. He welcomed the 50 or so white-collar staffers, and spoke of an old tradition that he greatly admired. He’d heard of a family that asked everyone in attendance at their holiday dinners to talk briefly of something they were thankful for in the past year.

A few sidelong glances were exchanged among the famished professionals — “at this rate, we’re never going to eat” seemed to be the unspoken consensus. The manager sensed the crowd’s reluctance to talk about home and family matters at work.

“Anybody have anything they’d like to share?” he asked.

There was some lame muttering from the back about being thankful for friends. Another person said they had suffered a lot in the last year while recovering from a serious motorcycle accident, then realized this wasn’t much of a reason for thanks and instead turned it into a “deep gratitude” that another accident hasn’t happened again.

I felt embarrassed by the silence and sorry for the well-intentioned manager, and almost spoke up myself. I was going to say I was just thankful to have a job in these difficult times, then realized it might prompt him to wonder “why is he still working here?” and decided to hold my tongue. When it became apparent that no one else was going to speak — unless we wanted to ask the people ringing our phones off the hook while the receptionist was away microwaving the green bean casserole — he moved on.

After a pause, he again looked around the room and asked if anybody wanted to say “a word” before we began eating.

Were this any other region of the country besides the South, the word people might’ve offered would be something like “c’mon” or “let’s go, already.” Down here, though, “a word,” especially when requested immediately prior to the consumption of food, means a prayer. Finally someone accepted the challenge, and asked everyone to bow their heads. I used the opportunity to study what a nice pair of running shoes the person next to me recently purchased, and how well their color coordinated with the office carpet.

The prayer (prayist?) proceeded through an acknowledgement of the usual litany of Christian superheroes. He thanked an unseen timekeeper who granted us the opportunity to join together. He gave a brief preview of the available entrees, specifically mentioning both turkey and ham. He said he did all this “in Jesus’ name” (though I bet he’d be resuming his usual role as Bobby in just a minute), then everybody said “amen.”

I’m really glad that I, an agnostic, have never been forced to deliver an impromptu invocation at a company function. I’ve had years of Lutheran training and could probably recall a doxology or two if pressed. I think I could fake my way through it.

Actually, I’ve been known to invoke the various names of the Almighty and His Posse on numerous occasions throughout the average workday. I’m not sure how good a prayer it would make, but I could improvise something like the following.

Good God
I can’t believe the last person to use the copier didn’t hit the reset button when they were through.
Now I have 50 copies when I only wanted two.
And they left blue paper in the legal tray.
Christ Almighty
Those people on the night shift have been using our creamer again.
And doesn’t that guy over in Legal realize that you’re supposed to pay to be in the coffee fund?
Mary, Mother of God
Why have these maintenance people vacuuming while I’m on this important call?
They now wear portable motors and bags on their backs.
I wish those were jetpacks and they’d fly the hell away.
Sweet Jesus
I’m out of sticky notes again.
And I think someone slid a different chair over here, because this one just doesn’t feel right.
Is there no respect for personal property in this place?
Holy Cow
They’re cranking up the thermostat again even though it’s already 150 degrees in here.
These women need to ditch the sleeveless tops already or else bring their Snuggies to work.
God Damn It
It looks like there’s another network outage coming in five minutes.
Tech says it’ll only take about thirty seconds, but by the time you have to restart and bring all your programs back up, you might as well call it a day.
They’re probably doing some upgrade that blocks even more websites.
Jesus H. Christ
Those new paper towels in the men’s room are so thin, they’re practically toilet paper.
I’m sure it’s cheaper than the old stuff, but don’t they realize we’re using twice as much?
I am sick of tiny disintegrated shreds of saturated paper sticking to my hands.
God Almighty, what is wrong with these people?

 

Sweet Lord

Getting creative with the grocery list

October 27, 2011

I am fascinated by other people’s groceries.

When there’s someone in line checking out in front of me, I always review their items and try to imagine the lifestyle they lead based on their selections.

I envy the discipline of the middle-aged woman buying Greek yogurt and pretending to like it. I’m jealous of the college student purchasing the 12-pack of energy drinks to maintain his amped-up schedule of partying, studying and bonking coeds. I yearn for the day when, like the elderly man grabbing a pack of adult diapers, I won’t have to get off the couch to go to the bathroom.

Similarly, I’m always hopeful at the end of the checkout process that I’ll accidentally end up with someone else’s purchases. For one thing, I rarely pick up more than a few items at a time and, for selfish reasons alone, I’d rather have their hundred-dollar haul than my single plastic bag of pretzels, gum and dryer sheets.

But I’d also like to have the experience of wading through a collection of random products I’d never buy myself, and trying to figure out how to eat or otherwise consume them.

This would be a great way to get out of the rut I’ve dug after decades of being a big boy who could feed himself. I bought only what I needed to re-stock the routine things I ate every day. Early morning meant a cup of coffee, a glass of orange juice and a blueberry breakfast bar. At lunch, I’d eat a turkey sandwich and three Chips Ahoy reduced-fat cookies. Occasionally, I’d mix it up slightly — substituting mixed berry bars for blueberry ones, for example — but that was the extent of my adventure.

I longed for the day when serendipity would be my menu planner. I’d pull out a Boston butt pork roast, some PopSecret popcorn and a box of Sylvania micro-mini CFL lightbulbs, throw them all in a big crockpot, and have the kind of dinner I’d never imagine on my own.

While picking up a few things from the nearby gourmet organic supermarket yesterday, I came upon what may be the next best thing to this bizarre fantasy. In the parking lot, I found a wadded-up grocery list some careless shopper had dropped on the ground. Perhaps I could use this as my guide to an exciting new life full of exotic consumables.

The handwriting was a little tough to read, but that’s about what I’d expect from someone more focused on grabbing existence by the throat than on penmanship. This was a person with places to go, people to see, things to do and — if I’m reading this list correctly — “sour crougat” to eat.

Across the top of the list, in all caps, was the word “WALMART”. Though it is a publicly held company, and theoretically you could snatch it up for its market capitalization value of $194 billion, I doubt this is what the shopper intended. (If it is, I sure hope they had some coupons.) Maybe this was just their next stop.

The rest of the list read as follows:

Swiffer Dusters 360°
Prunes
2 – Cape Cod chips
40 gurg raisen boxes
Sour crougat – in Pic 6 RSF
Nail clipper – good
Anch. persporarv can
Tooth paste
Vitamin D
Diet Coke ?

Many of the items that were legible are things I’ve considered buying in the past.

I’ve seen the Swiffer commercials (where a housewife’s first marriage — to a mop — comes unraveled and they divorce, though the mop continues to stalk her from the backyard) and they seem like a good alternative to my method of cleaning (moving into a new house when the old one becomes too dirty).

Prunes and raisins seem like sensible fruit choices, if I want my exhilarating new way of life to include regularity. I’ve always neglected the health and well-being of my colon, duodenum, semicolon, etc.; maybe now is the right time to make some changes. I’m not sure what the “40 gurg” means, though. Could it be “yogurt”?

I already have about a dozen nail clippers in the backs of various drawers around the house. Whether or not they qualify as “good,” I’m not sure. Goodness would seem to be a desirable trait, and I’ll keep that in mind next time I need some grooming tools.

I already buy toothpaste, having long ago given up the practice of buying root canals instead. I’ve never been a believer in vitamin supplements, though if I were to start anywhere, I imagine I’d start with vitamin D (to match the letter my name begins with and because, in my book, you can never get enough fat-soluble secosteroids).

I may opt to skip those products whose spelling I can’t make sense of. If I had to guess, I’d say “sour crougat” is probably “sauerkraut”. I’m not familiar with the kind that comes “in Pic 6 RSF”, though I’d hope that’s the additive that converts the pungent cabbage concoction into actual food. The “Anch. persporarv can” could actually be a can of anti-perspirant or, at the other end of the smells-good spectrum, anchovy perspiration. My own sweat smells bad enough, thank you.

As for “Diet Coke?”, it does seem like a good question. I’ve frequently considered switching from my beloved Pepsi to less-sugary soft drinks, but the fact that most taste like overly sweetened brownwater discharge has hindered me.

I’ve still got the list, and still wonder what I should do with it. It’s been fun using the battered sheet of paper as a window into the world of an anonymous gourmet. I was hoping for something a little more extensive, something with a little more meat on its bones, but this could be enough to get me started.

Plus, it did have a small grease spot on it.

Maybe I’ll just eat the paper.

Herman Cain. For a President You Can’t Refuse.

October 14, 2011

From an overheard telephone conversation …

Godfather’s Pizza: Godfather’s, can I help you?

American People: Yes, I’d like to order a President to be delivered, please.

GP: Go ahead.

AP: Yes, I’d like a medium … uh, I mean, a moderate. I want someone with both government and private-sector experience. Someone who understands that the poor and middle-class need more help than the rich do. Someone who isn’t locked into rigidity by their religious beliefs, or because they signed some anti-tax pledge. And no onions.

GP: No onions? Are you sure? You don’t want someone with the onions to stand up to the Washington insiders who have stolen our country from us?

AP: Uh, yes, that’s right. No onions.

GP: And what kind of crust do you want?

AP: I want extra-crusty. I think we need a cantankerous, grumpy sort, so we can negotiate aggressively with other countries.

GP: Okay, extra-crusty. Got it. How about a heartless immigration policy that will punish innocent children by denying them education?

AP: No. No, thanks.

GP: What about widespread deregulation of banks and other businesses that contributed to the financial meltdown?

AP: No.

GP: Would you like to deny affordable health insurance to all Americans?

AP: No, that gives me heartburn. Oh, and no anchovies.

GP: Okay. Do you need any drinks with that?

AP: Yeah, let me get a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke. Does that come with the price of the President, or is that extra?

GP: No, it’s extra. We’re through with entitlements. That’s what got this country into such a mess to begin with. We can sell you tea instead, if you like. Our Tea Party makes a great brew.

AP: No, that’s okay. Now, what sorts of side orders or other extras do you have?

GP: We have the 9-9-9 tax plan, a way for the poor to pay more while the wealthy pay less. We have a promise to veto any bills that are more than three pages long. And we have the fact that our man is a black guy.

AP: A black guy? Oh, that sounds good. What about wings?

GP: No, he doesn’t have wings, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he sprouts some in the afterlife.

AP: I meant buffalo wings.

GP: No, we’re getting those next year. After widespread oil drilling in the West wipes out the habitat of the wild bison. Then, we’ll have all the buffalo meat we can handle.

AP: Alright, just the medium President then, I guess. Oh, and I have a coupon for $2 off.

GP: I’m sorry. Those are good on takeout only.

AP: Really? That’s not what it says on my copy.

GP: Oh, you’re going to get a lot of unexpected surprises with this order. But you do want delivery, right?

AP: Yes. And how long do you think that’ll take?

GP: Let’s see … the Iowa caucuses are in early January, then comes the New Hampshire primary, then the South Carolina one … I’m guessing it’ll arrive at your house in a little over a year.

AP: A year? That’s an awful long time to wait.

GP: Well, there’s always the chance that the Far Right will rise up in armed insurrection against the bloated, illegal, unconstitutional federal government some time before next November. So you might get your man earlier, but I can’t promise anything. No “30-minutes-or-it’s-free” deals from us.

AP: Alright. Maybe I can snack on something light while I’m waiting. There’s a Michele Bachmann around here somewhere.

GP: Now, you know you can track the making and delivery of your President online.

AP: Yeah, I was looking at that on my smartphone. It shows you’ve taken the order and you’ve started making it. That’s cool.

GP: You’ll be able to keep up as your President rises in the polls, then makes an offensive comment about gays, then falls behind in fund-raising, then releases financial statements showing he’s paid no taxes for five years, then exits the race in shame when it’s found he hired an illegal alien as a nanny.

AP: That’s pretty neat. And now I can see that you’ve accidentally dropped him on the floor.

GP: Don’t worry. He was topping-side-up. There’ll be dirt on the bottom but it’ll just look like marks from the cooking.

AP: Okay. So how much will that be?

GP: Let’s see … there’s the negative impact on our image around the world, there’s the fear from our allies that we’ve elected a simplistic hothead, there’s the bond agencies that will lower our credit rating, there’s a sharp drop in federal revenues … It’s going to cost you about $500 billion. And remember, our delivery guys don’t make change.

AP: Got it.

GP: Now, what is your name, address and phone number?

AP: Gee, I don’t know if I want to give out that kind of personal information. I thought Herman Cain was against unnecessary intervention in the life of average Americans. I’m not sure I like the idea of Big Brother knowing that much about me.

GP: Well, if you don’t give us your address, how do you expect to get the President delivered to your house?

AP: I think maybe I’ll come pick it up after all. So I can use that $2-off coupon?

GP: Yes, you can. So that reduces your total to $499,999,999,998.

AP: And you do take credit cards, right?

GP: No! No more credit! No more deficits! No more debt! We expect you to pay in cash and in full, not leave the bill for your children and your children’s children.

AP: Never mind. Cancel my order. My temporary fascination with Herman Cain is over. Maybe I’ll give Rick Santorum a call.

GP: That’s fine with us. But you might want to Google him first to find out about one particular topping I don’t think you’ll like.

AP: Such awful choices this year …

The man who could be our next president (right)

Entertaining the Indians

September 26, 2011

I had the pleasure Friday of taking two Indian visitors from my company out to dinner. (These were not “woo-woo Indians,” as my friend Danny from college used to distinguish Native Americans from South Asians, but “dot Indians.”) My wife joined us for what turned out to be a fine evening of fellowship.

I wanted to be sensitive to the cultural difficulties likely faced by two foreigners on their first visit to the U.S. I wanted to do better than I had some seven years ago, when I hosted another pair of visitors from the subcontinent.

Those earlier two were unfortunate victims of my best intentions to show them all that American excess could offer. I had taken them to the Cheesecake Factory.

As you might imagine, this turned out to be quite overwhelming for natives of a land where a bit of rice was treasured sustenance, not an after-thought side dish next to a towering mound of chicken and cheese.

“You might enjoy the eggplant,” we had suggested at the time, knowing these Hindu men were probably vegetarians.

“No, no,” came the polite protest from Krishna. “No egg. Only veg.”

This time, I was determined to select a restaurant that didn’t intimidate diners with cake slices the size of your head. Beth and I discussed several options we knew were close to their hotel as we drove to meet them.

“I wish we could take them somewhere typical of the Carolinas,” I said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know any restaurants that serve Slim Jims and Mountain Dew.”

We finally agreed to give them two options to choose from: an upscale Indian restaurant named Saffron, and a more casual Italian place called Portofino’s.

I wanted to be accommodating of their tastes and limited familiarity with America, but I didn’t want to be patronizing. I felt that these folks were relatively sophisticated and might be put off if we treated them too gingerly. At the same time, I knew from first-hand experience how disorienting it can be to eat dinner in a foreign land. I didn’t want them to order angel hair pasta and be disappointed when they got slim pasta noodles instead of actual hair.

We met the Indians in front of their hotel. Both Akshay and Jenny greeted us warmly, and we all decided to walk the short couple of blocks toward the restaurants. They said they’d probably prefer the Italian place, since they ate Indian food “all the time.”

“Are you familiar with Italian food?” I asked. “You know, spaghetti, pizza, pasta dishes …”

“Yes, yes,” Akshay assured me. “We have Domino’s.”

I thought about explaining that Domino’s was to Italian food what McDonald’s was to Scottish food, then thought how much I’d prefer haggis to a Quarter-Pounder and let the analogy drop. We had arrived at Portofino’s by now, so all I could do was hope for the best.

The place wasn’t too crowded for a Friday night, and we were seated promptly. Menus were passed out by our server — she described herself as “Melanie,” though I had no plans to become acquainted on a first-name basis — and she started by collecting our drink orders.

I didn’t know my guests’ position on the propriety of consuming alcoholic beverages, and they probably didn’t know mine either (I’m in favor of it, as much and as frequently as possible). But when Beth broke the ice by ordering a glass of merlot, I was glad we took the lead. Turns out, they were quite familiar with wine, and sought to become even more familiar with it during dinner.

We alternated studying our menus with chit-chat. I tried to gauge how well they were interpreting what seemed like a pretty exotic bill-of-fare. All the pastas were listed on one page, with names like “puttanesca,” “arrabbiata” and “boscaiola,” while the protein dishes came under the headings “vitello” (veal), “pollo” (chicken) and “pesce” (seafood). Even I was struggling with what would be a good choice.

When the server returned, we placed our orders. Beth got the eggplant parmigiana and I got the fettuccini primavera. Jenny opted for the chef’s salad while Akshay ordered the “salmon mediterraneo”. We sipped our wine and conversations became gradually more casual as the alcohol took effect.

Akshay, who I knew from my business trips to the Sri Lanka office he heads, told us he’d spent the late afternoon trying to walk to the nearest Walmart. (I wondered whether he actually needed to buy something, or simply felt this was a requisite pilgrimage for anyone visiting North America). I said I too liked to walk, and we laughed about the time I wandered into a tear-gas-soaked demonstration on my way work during the recently concluded Sri Lankan civil war.

“That was fun,” I laughed. “My visit, not the civil war.”

Before long, the food arrived. The plates were steaming hot, which gave me plenty of time to worry whether Akshay would know how to handle his dish. The salmon came festooned with open clamshells around the edge, and I was concerned he’d try to eat these whole. Should I say something? Or should I hope he was worldly enough to recognize that razor-sharp shells would cut his GI tract to ribbons?

While Akshay picked at the edible parts of his meal, Jenny was talking to Beth. I’d heard that the Indians are a naturally inquisitive people, and that Americans could expect unabashed questioning about topics we’re not used to discussing with relative strangers. Jenny wanted to know more about the everyday life of U.S. citizens. I was afraid she’d ask how often we invaded our next-door neighbors, or if we felt at all guilty about driving indigenous peoples from our subdivision. Instead, she asked simply “what is it that you do for fun?”

Beth and I looked uncomfortably at each other. We’re in our late 50’s, have a mortgage, worry about the soaring cost of healthcare, and wonder if our dreams of retirement have completely evaporated in the current recession.

Fun? Not really on our radar.

“Uh, well, we go out to the movies sometimes,” Beth said.

“I like to play Words With Friends,” I added.

I think Jenny got the hint and tactfully abandoned the topic of pleasure.

We returned to our food and finished up with little additional conversation. Both my guests seemed comfortable in their surroundings, and I was glad I had restrained myself from explaining the purposes of the fork, and how I was going to use the “magic” of a “credit card” to pay for our meal.

Beth and I asked for boxes to put our leftovers in, and suggested they do the same in case they wanted a snack later. Such a thing isn’t done in polite company in Asia but, we explained, this is America, and we really, really like our food.

“Do you have a microwave in your room?” I asked. “Do you know what a microwave is?”

“Ha, ha,” laughed Akshay. “Yes, we are familiar with the microwaves and yes, we have one in our room.”

I had made it through almost the entire evening without talking down to these wonderful people. Now, I had finally made my requisite faux pas and gotten it out of the way. I was relieved as we walked them back to the hotel.

The evening was still pleasantly warm. The neighborhood we passed through is one of those “new urbanism” developments, with old-fashioned storefronts on the first floor and apartments on the second. Though built from scratch only a few short years ago, the architecture had the look of a much earlier time.

We arrived back at the brand-new Hilton where they were staying and prepared to say our good-byes. Akshay looked up at the Hilton sign, and saw the street address — 1920 — just beneath it.

“This building is well-kept for being almost a hundred years old,” he said.

I passed on the urge to finally be able to use my superior knowledge of the world.

“Yes, it is,” I said.

Don't eat the clamshells (it's considered rude in America)

An editorial: Is it really a seven-layer burrito?

September 23, 2011

The seven-layer burrito, as created and sold by Taco Bell, is a wondrous thing.

Available at most locations of the popular fast-food outlet for as little as $1.49, it’s practically a meal in itself. A soft flour tortilla wraps around rice, beans, a blend of three cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and guacamole, like a protective mother wraps her arms around her children. Spicy scamps that they are, the ingredients try to ooze free as you eat the burrito. But they are doomed instead to satisfy even the heartiest hunger, except maybe for that glob that landed on your shirt.

There is little that one can editorialize against in this marvel of Mexican cuisine. Oh, sure, the food police will tell you that it’s got too much fat or sodium or cholesterol or insect parts-per-million. What they neglect to note, however, is that by ordering it “fresco-style” — with salsa serving as an able replacement for the cheddar, pepper jack and mozzarella cheese sauce — you can cut the fat content by 25%. Also, it has 12 grams of dietary fiber, which sounds like a lot of grams.

Where the editorial board here at DavisW’s blog has a bit of a quibble is with the marketing of the product as “seven layers.” The dictionary defines a layer as “a single thickness of something that lies over or under something or between other similar thicknesses.” Once compressed into its cylindrical casing, the true meaning of “layer” is lost. What arrives through the window of your car at the drive-through is more a mish-mash of ingredients, randomly swirled about by the whims of the burrito’s creator, and by how it is jostled during its journey from the warming tray to your open maw.

Also, the use of the number “seven” to describe the quantity of components is a little misleading. If you count the three different cheeses as separate entities, what you’re actually getting is a ten-layer burrito. One could even make the argument that the tortilla itself should count as a layer, bringing the constituent total to eleven. Why, then, is it not named after a larger and presumably more desirable number?

This probably has to do with the storied history of the meal itself. As far back as the Aztecs, the number seven held mystical properties. When they sacrificed virgins to their primitive gods, all the girls had to be at least seven years old (something to do with what we now know as child labor laws). The ancients measured their year as consisting of seven months of 52 days each. When they slew their enemies in war, they ate the defeated heads as the original seven-layer burrito, oddly counting the nostrils of the nose as two separate ingredients while both the eyes and the ears counted as one item each. The tongue was the original “al fresco” option — warriors could choose to omit it if they were watching their weight.

What concerns those of us who reside in the 21st century is how to order the seven-layer burrito when we want to omit an item or two. Should we ask for a seven-layer burrito without the cheese and sour cream, even though such an omission makes it a less-than-seven-layer burrito? Would it be better to characterize this order as a five-layer burrito, or would that be too confusing for the marginally educated counter staff? Why not start instead from the bottom up, requesting a “zero-layer burrito” with rice, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and guacamole? Or might this prompt them to leave out the tortilla entirely, instead handing you a ball of soggy starches and vegetables unrestrained by an outer casing?

We call on Taco Bell to clarify their position on this issue. Consider an a la carte menu option. Allow us to enter the food preparation area and construct the mass ourselves. Remove any number from the name of the product, and call it simply the “layered burrito.”

Just don’t make us do math — especially subtraction — when all we’re interested in is satisfying a hunger as primal and demanding as those Mesoamerican civilizations of centuries past.

‘Clumsy’ doesn’t begin to explain my problem

September 19, 2011

I’ve always held a deep-seated belief that fluids should be allowed to flow unencumbered.

As a political philosophy, it’s not much. But as someone who looks at the physical world and sees free-running rivers and churning oceans and new improved ketchup dispensers, I literally ache when I think of how water and other liquids that have been constrained by Man.

I guess that explains why I go to such great lengths to liberate fluids whenever I can. It’s also a great excuse for why I find myself constantly spilling stuff.

I don’t consider myself a clumsy person. I think I move rather lithely through life, knocking over remarkably little for such a big and aging guy. I once spent an entire afternoon in a china shop, destroying only small amounts of merchandise until I was asked to leave for trying to place a to-go order for moo goo gai pan.

Were I, however, subjected to a battery of genetic tests, I’m pretty sure results would show that I possess the so-called “lummox gene” deep within my DNA. I come from a long line of awkward men, as was demonstrated on an annual basis when one particular uncle would come to Thanksgiving dinner and inevitably drop the green beans to the floor. It’s a family tradition that we tend to spill things.

So yesterday’s disaster in my home shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

After meeting an old friend for brunch, I stopped at a Smoothie King to pick up a treat for my wife and son. My son wanted the chocolate-and-peanut-butter-and-banana concoction while my wife opted for the “Chocolate Shredder.” I carried both smoothies successfully to my car, and drove them 20 miles to my home without incident.

When I pulled into the driveway and began to gather up my things, I decided to carry both styrofoam cups on the iPad I had taken to Panera with me. I’ve seen professional wait staff do this balancing act a thousand times while bringing drinks to their customers, and it seemed like a good way to free my other hand to carry the newspaper and fumble with my keys. The iPad can perform thousands of functions; using one as a tray doesn’t even require paying for an app.

I made it through the side exterior door okay but when I tried to open the sunroom doors into the living room, both cups began to totter. I lunged in panic to steady them, which only made things worse, and the sticky-sweet drinks toppled onto the carpet.

“FFFFFUUUUUCCCCCKKKKK!” I observed as chocolate plasma splashed about my feet. “Damn it!”

What a royal mess the Smoothie King had delivered! I stumbled over to the kitchen counter to unload my other things, tracking the gummy goo on my shoes and onto the tile floor. Chocolate smoothie was everywhere — splashed onto the side of an adjacent bookcase, under the bottom edge of the door and soaking deep into the rug. My anguished cries brought my wife running.

“I’m such a clumsy idiot,” I told her in a pre-emptive move I hoped would quell any criticism she might be tempted to add. Gracefully, she offered only sympathy and help.

What had been looking like a quiet Sunday afternoon spent in front of televised football was now transformed into a marathon clean-up. For hours, we scrubbed and soaped the entire affected area, and by evening we had eliminated almost all of the visible smoothie. The parts that soaked through the floorboard into the crawlspace beneath our home would add a nice chocolaty flavor to the soup that had accumulated there from my other recent spills.

There was the evening just last week when I knocked a full glass of Pepsi onto its side next to the couch. Since my son keeps his beloved MacBook on the coffee table, I have to keep my drinks on a tray on the floor. (For some reason, he’s afraid I’ll spill something on the computer). Two of our cats had a case of “the rips” and were rocketing around the living room, so I reached down to protect the glass. In the process, I knocked it over myself.

Then there was the time I tried to apply marinade to a sandwich I was packing for my lunch. Functioning on too little sleep, I had imagined the sweet orange condiment would make a nice substitute for mayonnaise on my turkey sandwich. I loosened the lid, stepped away briefly to grab a newspaper, then returned to pick up the jar and give it a vigorous shake to blend the ingredients. Marinade flew about the room. I cleaned up the best I could at that ungodly hour. Still, later that morning, my wife had to wonder how a strip of candied orange peel had fallen from the ceiling into her breakfast.

There was also the time I tried to “flash-cool” a plastic bottle of Mountain Dew by putting it in our spare freezer. By the time I remembered to retrieve it a few days later, the bottle had expanded, then structurally failed, then exploded. Two frozen chickens and a pound of ground beef were mortally wounded.

And this doesn’t even count the incident at work about a month ago, where I spilled a fresh cup of coffee all over my desk and keyboard. I was answering a question from one of my proofreading trainees, and made a sweeping gesture to indicate the grand scope of errors we had to catch and correct. It made for a terrible mess, but also served as an effective display of how the unpredictable could go wrong.

After yesterday’s smoothie incident, I’d like to say I’m re-dedicating myself to grace and finesse, but I’m not sure it would do any good. I’m not trying — consciously, at least — to broadcast liquids to the four winds. But I don’t think any effort on my part is going to reverse the desire for entropy that runs through my family history at a molecular level.

Even though gene replacement therapy is not covered by my current health insurance plan, I think there might be help for me available from the medical community.

Either I can start taking all my fluids intravenously. Or, I can get me one of those cone-shaped collars that dogs and cats wear to keep them from gnawing at their stitches. If they seal tightly enough around your neck, you could just pour the drinks over your head, wait for the level to rise enough to reach your mouth, then enjoy hands-free beverage consumption without the possibility of making a ruinous mess.

Then, all I have to do is find a shampoo that claims to clean smoothie out of your hair.

Or, as the case may be, your fur.

Afterword: I dedicate today’s post to my Uncle Jack, who died over the weekend at age 86. He was the only local relative beyond my immediate family while I grew up in Miami, and came to be a favorite of my sister and me. Every holiday and every Sunday, Uncle Jack would take a city bus from his home downtown to visit us out in the suburbs. Inevitably, he’d bring us each a cash gift. We would’ve loved him anyway.

We’ll miss you, Uncle Jack.

All a matter of taste

September 8, 2011

A few days ago, I was sitting innocently at my desk when a co-worker approached with an open bag of candy.

“Here, have one,” he said. “They have an interesting taste.”

It was still morning, and he correctly interpreted my pause as a sign of reluctance. I don’t eat candy in the morning, and probably haven’t since gorging on some long-ago Easter made me ill. In my book, candy is not a breakfast food. Nor is cold pizza, anything with chicken in it, nor anything chocolate.

“They’re good,” he persisted after a few moments.

No, they weren’t. They were “ginger candy,” sweet and chewy with a texture like a jelly bean. But the ginger flavor would’ve gone much better with sushi, about eight hours later in the day. At 9 in the morning, it repulsed.

“See?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Interesting.”

Much like the Holocaust, the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa and a Britney Spears concert are “interesting.”

Against my better judgment I had given in and tasted something someone was offering me. Usually, I don’t do this. I spend a lot of thought constructing exactly the taste I want to reside inside my mouth at any given time, and don’t appreciate capricious-if-well-intended efforts to change this delicate balance of flora and fauna.

When I first wake up, my mouth tastes awful, which I expect after a night of grinding my teeth into nubs. I’ll quickly brew a cup of coffee and savor this flavor, then follow up with a tooth-brushing that gives me enough minty freshness to present to the world.

At different points during the day, I’ll introduce other flavors: first, a blueberry muffin with more coffee at work, then perhaps a piece of fruit to cut through any lingering “morning mouth,” then — no sooner than 10 a.m., which I consider the earliest that carbonated beverages should be consumed — the stinging carbonation of a Pepsi.

Once my maw is fully awake, I can be as adventurous an eater as anyone. I enjoy spicy food, exotic food, healthy food and even near-foods such as Slim Jims and gum. (Interesting fact I learned watching “Top Chef” last night: there are no recipes that use chewing gum as an ingredient).

I’m certainly no Mike Holland, though. Mike was the childhood friend who lived down the street that I once accidentally cracked in the forehead with a baseball bat. (I don’t remember if this was before or after he began impressing other neighborhood boys with his willingness to lick anything. In retrospect, I’d guess it was after the blunt-force brain trauma.)

Mike once put a rock in his mouth. He’d let a dog lick his tongue. He would eat grass — and not just any grass, either, but lawns that had just been sprayed for chinch bugs. I don’t know if he grew up to be Andrew Zimmern, the “Bizarre Foods” host on TV’s Travel Channel who draws the line at eating human flesh, or simply died a painful poisoning death shortly after moving away. But Mike’s appetite sure was cool to a group of hard-boiled eight-year-olds.

I think of Mike sometimes. If alive, I’ll bet he’s happily married. Aside from the occasional co-worker who offers strange and unwanted foodstuffs, the biggest battle to resist that I face is when eating out with my wife.

Beth and I, after almost 30 years of marriage, have very similar tastes. When we go to a restaurant, even one with the most extensive menu imaginable, we’ll almost always want to order the same thing.

“Let me guess,” I said recently as we prepared to order at a Chinese restaurant. “Number 572?”

“Yep,” she said, “but I’d get it with brown rice, not white.”

Because I’ve always viewed suspiciously the older couples who look alike, eat alike, dress alike, etc., I refuse to order the exact same dish as Beth. She thinks this is silly. Even stupider, she contends, is that I’ll then order my second-favorite item on the menu, and refuse her offers to taste or split her meal.

It’s not that I’m afraid to eat after her. And it’s not that I want to avoid the “sharing charge” that so many restaurants have these days. It’s just that, once I’ve made up my mind what to order, my palate expects this and nothing more.

Ever pick up a can of motor oil thinking it was a thick chocolate milk shake and take a deep swig? If your brain thinks it’s a shake, then your taste buds tend to agree and the darn thing ends up tasting like a shake. Same thing is true with General Tso’s Chicken, except you (usually) don’t go into convulsions.

This perverse dining philosophy of mine didn’t serve me well during business trips I was frequently making a few years back to the Indian subcontinent. Eating room service or in the hotel restaurant wasn’t the problem; it was the one night I was invited into the home of a Sri Lankan co-worker for an authentic Sinhalese meal.

The custom for this kind of dinner is that large bowls of food are offered “family style,” allowing everyone to share. As long as proper utensils are used to divvy up the courses, I’m fine with this. The problem, however, is that THESE PEOPLE EAT WITH THEIR HANDS!

“Let us show you how to hold your fingers so that your hand makes a scoop,” said my helpful host, Ambalangoda Anuradhapura (or something like that).

Not wanting to be an ugly, nor a hungry, American, I played along.

“You’ll find that your skin adds a certain saltiness that enhances the flavor of the food,” he continued.

As long as it’s my skin and not yours, I thought, I can probably get through this.

Once I had steeled myself against the barbarism of it all, the evening was actually quite enjoyable. It was almost fun trying a primitive, Third-World custom. I wasn’t eating after these friendly Asians, I was eating simultaneously with them.

I don’t particularly remember what we had that night, except that it had way too many syllables and a vague coconut flavor. I do know, however, that the company and the fellowship were quite wonderful.

And this was the after-taste I had in my mouth as we bounced and jostled in our auto-rickshaw back to the hotel. Where I later became violently ill.

Britney: So tasteful

Local government to fund sludge fight

August 11, 2011

After the recent debacle in Washington surrounding the deficit and the debt ceiling, it’s easy to think that all government is ineffective and/or corrupt and/or run by spineless chuckleheads.

But the passage of a measure Monday night by my hometown’s city council demonstrates that some agencies survive, even thrive, wading in the knee-deep muck and grime that is the people’s business.

Months of preliminary work by a Rock Hill official has resulted in the “Fats, Oils and Grease Initiative,” passed by a vote of 5-1 at this week’s meeting. The measure will guarantee that the city inspects grease traps at the area’s food-service establishments to make sure gunk is stopped before it invades the sewer.

Assistant city manager Jimmy Bagley has spent much of 2011 working with utilities and other departments on the project. He presented his findings to the council during a workshop in April, then followed up with weeks of heavy lobbying to drum up support for the new regulation.

A grease trap is a plumbing device used to intercept most greases and other repulsive semi-solids before they enter the wastewater system. When traps are not properly maintained, fats and oils get into the sewer lines. Pipes that were once 8 inches in diameter can rapidly be clogged to only 4 inches.

“The cold grease begins to clog and get hard,” Bagley told the council. “As soon as it hits a pipe or anything in the line that’s an obstruction, it stops up. Then you get a back-up, or manholes overflow, or it goes back into people’s homes.”

While elsewhere the nation’s infrastructure crumbles in the face of Tea Party-inspired frugality, South Carolina’s fifth-largest city is tackling needed maintenance head-on.

But not before several of the council’s conservatives asked some tough questions.

Council member Kevin Sutton reluctantly agreed to vote for the ordinance, despite the government intrusion it might mean for local businesses. Councilman John Black could not be convinced that keeping revolting sludge out of citizens’ homes was a priority, and cast the sole vote against the proposal.

The state Department of Health requires any establishment generating wastewater containing fats, oils or grease to have and maintain a grease trap. However, there is no enforcement provision.

It’s a bit like having laws against murder, but no police force to enforce them. Except that rotting, coagulated lard smells slightly worse than the decomposing bodies that would litter the landscape under a small-government system of law enforcement.

During the April session, several members expressed concern about the cost to businesses of the grease traps. Assistant manager Bagley pointed out that all local businesses already have the traps; they would just have to be working.

“Oh,” said one councilman at the time.

The new ordinance goes into effect in five months (if all Rock Hillians haven’t abandoned their increasingly repellent hometown by then). It will place fines on non-complying restaurants; a first re-inspection would cost $250 and a second one would run $500.

A full-time staff member will be hired to conduct up to 25 inspections a week, eventually getting to all 400 city establishments. No word yet if this job opening has been posted, nor if any of the county’s 20% unemployed work force will step forward to take a job as sickening as this one.

Conservatives surprisingly opted not to allow free-market forces to clean up the grease traps. Some libertarians may have suggested that diners not patronize offending restaurants until they made their own individual inspections and were assured that organic mire was being kept in check. Only then would they return to their seats and enjoy their appetizers.

Bagley said he hoped the ordinance would achieve three goals: education, inspection and enforcement.

“It allows us to participate in programs to let folks know that on a residential level, they can do their part as well,” Bagley said.

One of the main suggestions he had for residents is that they too refrain from pouring grease down their sinks.

“If everybody does their part, hopefully it’ll all fall into place,” he said.

“They’re asking private citizens to be responsible by not dumping shit into the city sewers?” a local Tea Party representative was expected to ask. “Americans should have the freedom to behave like animals in their own homes if they want to. As long as it doesn’t involve extramarital sex.”

Sludge and shit