Posts Tagged ‘food’

Revisited: Three things I hate

July 30, 2011

A lot of people say there’s too much hate in the world today. I say it’s just directed at the wrong things. Instead of hating other races, other countries and other religions, we should focus on the particular entities that have done us wrong.

Here are a few that I vehemently oppose.

I hate watermelon

Maybe it’s a contempt for the familiar, considering I grew up in a melon-inundated south Florida. Maybe it’s the fact that few other fruits are as physically imposing, so dangerous if dropped that they can break your foot. Maybe it’s the rugged rind, the sticky juice or all those seeds.

Or maybe it’s that it tastes like a cucumber soaked overnight in a cocktail of artificial sweetener, Red Bull and urine.

I ate enough watermelon as a kid to know that I hate it as an adult. It’s supposed to be healthy, containing as much as 92% water, but so does the Gulf of Mexico and you don’t see people drinking that in. It has many hidden vitamins in its rind, which most people avoid eating due to its unappealing flavor (the rind is reputedly even worse than the flesh). It stimulates the body’s production of nitric oxide, thought to relax the blood vessels, much like Viagra does. Still, I’d rather be dehydrated, undernourished and flaccid than eat watermelon.

A suburban legend of my youth was that a kid once got a watermelon seed stuck in his nose, and it took root in the nutrient-rich “soil” of his nostrils. Because the melon can grow so fast, he woke up the next morning with a huge swelling in the center of his face. Doctors at first thought it was a brain tumor, then were even more horrified to learn it was a watermelon, growing right there in his sinuses. They conducted emergency surgery on the poor boy, then had a picnic right there in the operating room, literally enjoying the fruit of their labor.

On my first trip to India, I endured a 36-hour plane ride, off-the-chart jet lag, and the culture shock that comes from encountering unimaginable poverty, intense heat, overcrowding, card-carrying lepers, and the smell of a sewage river next door. But that was nothing compared to what I came upon at my first breakfast. I asked for my usual OJ, and was told that all they had was watermelon juice. There would be no mystical experience of the subcontinent for me. Hundreds of millions of people living in third world squalor is one thing; drinking a liquefied melon first thing in the morning is quite another.

Fun facts about the massive green orb — that it was declared the official state vegetable by a confused Oklahoma state senate, that it is hollowed out and used as a football helmet by fans of football’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, that it can now be grown in square and pyramid shapes — do little to mitigate its status on my list of the most loathsome things in the world.

Ever see David Letterman pitch a truckload of watermelons off the seventh floor of his New York studio? I’m with Dave.

I hate Black Oak Arkansas

I arrived back at the office after lunch Friday, and was honored to have my position as the King of Music Trivia once again confirmed. A debate had arisen in my absence about who recorded the seventies hit “Jim Dandy,” also known as “Jim Dandy to the Rescue.”

“I bet Davis will know,” said Donna and, regrettably, I did. It was the Southern rock band known as Black Oak Arkansas.

I then proceeded to internally hum the timeless chorus — Jim Dandy to the rescue/Jim Dandy to the rescue/Jim Dandy to the rescue/Go Jim Dandy, go — for the rest of the afternoon.

If you’ve never heard this band’s distinctive growling, whining, falsetto style, it may be simply enough to know a little about the group. They formed in 1965 in Black Oak, Ark., and promptly stole their first amplifier system from the local high school. Convicted of grand larceny and sentenced in absentia to 26 years in prison, they fled to the hills to “refine” their musical style, doubtless influenced by the baying hounds that continued searching for them.

By 1969, they had moved on to Memphis, Tenn., and signed a deal with Stax Records. Their debut album, which fortunately is almost impossible to find, is described as representative of their interests in psychedelia, Eastern spiritualism and the Southern Baptist church. They eventually ended up in Los Angeles and toured extensively, gaining a reputation as an impressive live act despite questionable grooming habits.

The year 1973 was a rough one for this country. The last American troops staggered out of Vietnam. The Watergate scandal began to unfold. Lon Cheney, Lyndon Johnson and “Dagwood and Blondie” creator Chic Young died. And a song so upbeat you’d think the singer was meth-addled reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Jim Dandy” had arrived, and he was urgently in need of someone to rescue.

Fortunately, less-than-stellar subsequent releases combined with the nation’s return to relative sobriety to rob “BOA” of its momentum. They faded into obscurity for the next ten years. For their obligatory eighties revival, they were kind enough to record a song called “I Want a Woman with Big Titties,” which quickly sent them back to their deserved place in the shadows.

I hate the immigration officials at Colombo airport in Sri Lanka

In 2007, I made my first visit to the beautiful nation of Sri Lanka (nickname: “India Lite”). I was to spend three weeks training employees of an outsourcing firm my company had hired. Except for a pesky civil war that required armed soldiers to be stationed everywhere except inside my hotel bathroom, it was a wonderful visit.

I should mention that the civil war was in the country, not at the outsourcing company. The workers there were wonderful people, at least the ones who weren’t out sick with Dengue Fever.

Anyway, I found out just before leaving the U.S. that I should’ve had a “working visa” if I intended to do business there. Instead, I had something cryptically called a “landing visa,” which meant they’d let you on the ground at the airport, but only long enough to determine if you were a tourist, who required no further documentation. If you were found to have come for work, I guess they’d make you spend the rest of your life in a small anteroom behind the luggage carousel, jumping up and down so that you were constantly “landing” on Sri Lankan soil.

After I landed in Colombo, I was directed to immigration and customs for “processing,” something I thought was done only to meat. I found the right line, and waited for what seemed like an eternity to learn my fate. Members of the military stood at the ready to dispatch anyone fooling with the rules including, I assumed, the law described on several signs warning that drug trafficking carried an automatic death penalty. I thought about the Ambien I had been prescribed for jet lag, and got even more nervous.

I sidled up to the pasty, shorts-wearing Germans in front of me on the chance I’d be mistaken for one of their group. I thought about my extremely limited German vocabulary, hoping someone would either sneeze (“Gezunheidt”) or invade the Netherlands (“blitzkrieg”) so I could prove myself.

When I got to the official who was to review my passport, he spoke not at all, choosing instead to quietly scroll through his ancient computer screen. He summoned an associate to show him something, and they chatted briefly in Tamil, either about how cool a YouTube video was, or that I might be an enemy insurgent or drug smuggler. More humorless glances in my direction eventually gave way to about a dozen stomps from his official stamper, and I appeared to survive admission to the island nation. But not after a suspenseful interlude that made me more scared than I’d ever been in my life.

Tom versus the pepper

June 27, 2011

It’s the season of bounty from our summer gardens, and if one more neighbor offers me a free peck of cucumbers, I’ll smile pleasantly, say “thank you,” and toss the whole lot in the county landfill.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the “generosity” of the contribution, though I suspect their motives are more related to retaining a small amount of space in their kitchens for things other than cucumbers, such as refrigerators, dishwashers and a narrow walkway with enough room for the film crew from “Hoarders”.

It’s more that I don’t understand the whole point of cucumbers.

As a food, they don’t seem to have very many uses. If it weren’t for pickles – and this rather tenuous connection to necessity – they’d be as obscure and pointless as Asian vegetables like nira grass, lo bok and the yummy-sounding bitter melon.

Most of the recipes I found online involve dropping the cucumber into some type of salad, shaved as thin as possible to minimize its taste. The closest I could find to something other than a salad was the Salmon and Cuke Mini Smørrebrød, a Danish concoction that uses a type of matter called “gravlax” to combine the glories of Scandinavian cuisine and the phallic fruit known to botanists as cucumis sativus (Latin for “that shit”).

I suppose you could bake, roast, boil, microwave, sauté, grill, stuff or broil the warty schlong and possibly come up with something edible. If not, at least it will have been destroyed.

My rage against the existence of the cucumber has unfortunately gotten me off-topic from what I meant to write about today. Such, I guess, are the wages of hatred.

My wife did accept a small donation of cukes along with a few other vegetables from a friend’s garden, and they sit now next to our sink. I’m not sure if we’re continuing the ripening process by leaving them there, or if we simply hope they rot quickly so we can toss them into the compost heap.

Beth does enjoy simple cucumber sandwiches, an effete treat enjoyed primarily by British nobility. I ate these once, dragged to “high tea” at Hong Kong’s posh Peninsula Hotel by a co-worker during a business trip. I didn’t really want them, but I didn’t want to upset the Communist Chinese. Beth can sometimes be almost as insistent as a totalitarian regime, but at least she won’t initiate a Cultural Revolution or Great Leap Forward if I politely refuse.

Anyway, back to the other vegetables currently on our kitchen counter. One of these is a cayenne pepper, a long, green, wrinkled veggie used primarily as a spice. It is considered a “hot pepper,” generally only edible in the smallest of quantities by the heartiest of individuals. On the Scoville scale, which measures the amount of the chemical capsaicin present in a chili pepper, the lowly jalapeno measures about 8,000 Scovilles. The cayenne, by contrast, measures 65,000 Scovilles.

As it turns out, one of our cats also thinks we have too many surplus and largely inedible foods on our counter but, unlike me, he has the temerity to do something about it. Saturday night, he launched a full-scale frontal assault on the cayenne.

Only he thought it was a snake.

Tom begins his attack on the fearsome vegetable

The rest of the family was enjoying a quiet evening in front of the TV when we suddenly heard a scuffle coming from the kitchen. There was a great thud on the floor, and we knew immediately that our muscular, aggressive tabby named Tom must have fallen to the ground. He had been pawing at the pepper from an arm’s-length distance, and had snagged a corner with his claw, causing the pepper to move. He interpreted this to be a counter-attack by the snake, and skedaddled himself away as quickly as possible.

The three of us intervened immediately, not to rescue Tom from his situation, but to be entertained by his antics. Tom spent about the first year of his life in the wild before we adopted him, and we imagined he’d encountered all kinds of snakes and other wildlife that he regarded as food. He was reverting back to his kittenhood, interested in a tasty if venomous snack.

Within moments, Tom was back on the counter, and back on the offensive. He continued his strategy of keeping his distance, using his greater reach to his advantage, much like a boxer softening up an opponent who had no arms. He jabbed. He prodded. He poked. He feinted. The snake/pepper was obviously tiring, but he had no manager to throw in the towel.

Finally, Tom landed a series of blows that did some serious damage. The veggie was deeply wounded in the midsection, tottering on the edge of the counter. Tom stood victorious over his victim, wanting to finish the match by wolfing him down, but too put-off by the scent of capsaicin to consume the now-defeated rival.

The pepper lies mortally wounded

It’s not quite the iconic photo of a young Cassius Clay dancing in triumph over the unconscious form of Sonny Liston, but Tom had achieved his victory, and was proud of his achievement.

Now if I can only get him to work on those cucumbers.

Revisited: Time to feed the cats … again

June 26, 2011

As I write this, it’s the unholy hour of 2 a.m. About 15 minutes ago, I was awakened by a wet nuzzling on my cheek. It can’t be my wife, as she’s working nights right now. It can’t be a dolphin, or there’d be the smell of fish. Then I hear a loud meow directed straight into my ear, and I realize it’s a hungry cat.    

About six months ago, I took over the chore of keeping our three kitties fed. For years, my wife and son had maintained a routine of twice-a-day feedings: a dry mound of colorless veterinarian-approved senior formula around 7 in the morning, then at 9 in the evening, just for a little variety, a dry mound of colorless veterinarian-approved senior formula. Everybody was fat and happy.    

When I took over, the gravy train started slowly going off the tracks. I’d prepare my turkey sandwich before work each morning, and toss Harriet, Taylor and Tom a scrap of lunchmeat. When I’d get home from work around 1:30, they’d recognize me as that big, awkward human who was an easy touch, and would circle my legs, their faces plaintive and irresistible. I’d succumb and offer up a few morsels of cat treats, then repeat the same ritual several hours later. Discipline and order were spinning out of control.    

This was turning out to be a bad role for me. I pretend not to care whether other humans like me, but I always felt I had a special bond with the animal kingdom, that my simple nature and base instincts gave us a common bond. We don’t have dogs, yet most of those I encounter on the street like me enough to repeatedly bark “hello” when I jog past their homes. Birds and squirrels seem to regard me as a kindred spirit, at least when I’m not accidentally running them over with my car. I have an innate confidence that if I ever encountered a bear or wolf or tiger out in the wild, that they’d like me too, and not just for my well-marbled meat.    

So now the cats are spoiled, and think they can demand food from me at any hour of the day or night. The trio is led by Harriet who, at age 14, apparently won the job of chief beggar by virtue of her seniority and her more piercing meow. I’ll be under a blanket taking an afternoon nap, and suddenly feel a commotion working its way from my feet toward my upper body. She starts by rubbing my shoulders with the side of her face, a move I resist by turning over and snuggling deeper into the blanket. Little vocalizations follow – nothing too disturbing, mostly just a polite announcement that she’s a cat and not a home invader and, if it’s not too much trouble, would I be kind enough to hand over all the cat food. When this fails, she resorts to the wet nose.    

As much as I like animals, and as much as I acknowledge the cat’s reputation for cleanliness despite the fact they bathe in saliva and tromp through a litter box every few hours, I can’t stand to feel their spittle on my skin. Harriet knows this, and so saves her ultimate weapon until the nudges and over-dramatic purrs have failed to rouse me. I burrow deeper into the sheets, trying to keep every square inch of my body covered. No matter how thoroughly I try to hide, Harriet always manages to find an exposed elbow or finger, and starts lapping away.    

My wife enjoys this show of affection, and can lounge for long moments while Harriet or Taylor methodically work a small patch of skin, searching for what she claims is love and I contend is salt. (Tom, who’s only been indoors for a year, prefers a more fang-based interaction with humans). I, on the other hand, can’t stand it. Maybe it’s the constant drumbeat of mandatory safety training at work that puts bodily fluids on par with nuclear waste or Newt Gingrich as a hazardous material. Maybe I need to distinguish between the lick, which involves simple saliva, and the nasal nudge, which involves mucus. Maybe I need counseling to realize that animal slobber is a natural and organic thing, soon to be available in health food stores.    

So when Harriet announced herself at my pillow early this morning, I took the easy way out and got up to feed her. She may have had a legitimate point in this one case. For their actual dinner hour, I’ve started recently to give them only a half portion around 9 o’clock and the other half about 45 minutes later. Taylor has taken up the sport of competitive eating, and will wolf down a full portion so rapidly that he ends up “refunding” (look it up at ifoce.com, the website for major league eating, if you dare). Last night, I dozed off before I could offer up the second course, so her complaint was a valid one.    

Still, I need a solution to this problem that doesn’t require any responsibility or self-control on my part. And I may have found it.    

During a recent visit to the vet, we picked up a brochure from the makers of Invisible Fence. For those of you not familiar with this product, it involves burying a small power grid around the perimeter of your yard which transmits a mild electrical shock to a collar worn by your outdoor dog when he tries to pass over it. It’s basically a self-tasering device that eliminates the need for ugly chain link to surround your property. After a few jolts to the throat, even the dumbest dog learns to avoid the invisible fence.    

The concept is a very clever one, and it didn’t take long for the sales folks at IF to come up with some other applications. My first choice for venturing outside the doggie market would’ve been electric collars to keep weak-willed humans away from bars, fast-food establishments, pawn shops, me and the like. Perhaps the company thought that metallic chokers with a transmitter attached would not be an acceptable fashion statement, though a visit to any high school could’ve convinced them otherwise.    

Instead, the Invisible Fence people are now offering an option to keep cats geographically controlled. And it somehow works not only out in the yard but indoors as well. The brochure doesn’t explain this in any detail, so I’m left to assume they won’t be digging up your living room and sinking high-powered cable around your sofa, but instead employ computers and perhaps a GPS connection to track your kitty. When Puff jumps onto the dinner table and starts gobbling your chicken — as shown in one picture in the brochure that’s captioned “does this look familiar?” — a geosynchronous satellite is duly notified and space lasers offer a virtual “no!” from 150 miles above the Earth.   

Not sure how Harriet, Taylor and Tom would react to that. You could make a strong argument that the punishment is a bit harsh for the “crime” of curiosity and hunger. Electrocuting your pet for the slight annoyance they occasionally cause doesn’t seem to give them enough credit for that whole love and companionship package they offer. But those wet noses sure will help with the conductivity.   

Time to be fed … again

Revisited: Food needs context, and a little salt

June 11, 2011

There’s something about encountering foods out of context that makes them more appealing.  

You wouldn’t normally associate a quality ice cream experience with standing in the road next to a truck blaring “La Cucaracha,” yet there’s no better summertime treat than buying a Nuddy Buddy from the neighborhood Good Humor man.  

We decline the stringy turkey leg at Thanksgiving, preferring instead a tender slice of breast meat. But put us at a Renaissance festival surrounded with busty wenches and nerdy knaves, and there’s nothing better than the smoked limb of a gamey tom.  

I guess that’s some of the psychology at play in my office. A lady from the adjacent department has recently begun delivering farm-fresh eggs directly to the desks of my co-workers. Reportedly, she has a friend who has a chicken, and if you supply your own crate and a small fee by Thursday afternoon, she’ll bring you a dozen eggs on Friday morning.  

“They’re delicious,” a friend told me. “You can’t get eggs like that in a grocery store.”  

Well, you normally can’t get eggs of any kind from an office chair wheeled through a maze of cubicles. Maybe it’s the smell of toner fumes from the adjacent copier that gives them a special flavor. Or maybe it’s the improbability of having the makings of a weekend’s omelets dispensed like so many payroll stubs that makes them unique.  

I haven’t yet joined this informal egg club, as the stress of the daily grind is taxing my heart enough as it is without adding a high dose of cholesterol. However, the Egg Lady from Accounting crossed my mind when I was driving down a country road last weekend and came across a yard containing a rickety table full of bright red tomatoes.  

Though my wife and I don’t grow a summer garden ourselves, it did seem like it was about time for the local crop to be coming in, and nothing beats the taste of a juicy ripe tomato fresh from your neighbor’s yard. I pulled into the dusty driveway and climbed out of my car, encountering a stiff-walking bumpkin who noted how hot it was, the traditional mid-June greeting in this part of the South.  

“Yup,” I countered. “Pretty dry too. We sure could use some rain.”  

Having been cleared with the proper code words, I was shown his collection of vegetables. Not only were there tomatoes, there were a few potatoes, squash, peppers and zucchinis. All were crudely displayed under a large shade tree, with the barking dog and beat-up tractor across the way clearly implying he had grown them himself. I felt up a few of the tomatoes; they seemed a little firmer than I might’ve hoped, though nowhere near the rock-hardness of the fruit trucked in from Chile that was in the grocery stores. I pretended to be discerning as I examined five and selected four for purchase.  

It wasn’t until I brought them home and proudly displayed them to my wife that I realized I had been scammed by a yokel. He had not grown any of this stuff himself. He had probably bought them at a store a few days earlier, let them soften a bit in the outdoor heat, then set up this country tableau to lure in suckers like me. I’d had no intention of buying vegetables while running from chore to chore Saturday morning, and yet seeing them whiz by the car window from out of nowhere made them irresistible.  

We tried making a BLT out of the tomatoes and I imagined they were palatable. My wife knew better and soon placed the leftovers way out of context, in our backyard compost pile.  

It got me to thinking about how I came to like or dislike the various vegetables I’ve encountered over the years. Having grown up in the sixties, where a regular schedule of mom-cooked meals was the norm, I didn’t develop the aversion to produce that haunts the dreams of modern kids. I had made pleasant if irrational connections to most of the common greens that allows me to enjoy them even today.  

I liked spinach because I liked Popeye. I liked broccoli because they looked like trees. I liked corn because I liked typing, and gnawing line after line of kernels felt like operating a typewriter (I still say “ding” at the end of each row). I enjoyed cauliflower because it felt like I was eating someone’s brain, which was considered a positive experience for a ten-year-old who enjoyed horror movies.  

By the same reasoning, I loathed dishes like lima beans, Brussels sprouts and peas. Not only did they fail to have a cartoon advocate who gathered super-human strength by eating them, they had terrible names. Squash and zucchini were in the same category; no good-natured sailor with bloated forearms was going to save Olive Oyl from the clutches of Bluto by downing a can of butternut squash. And okra, that Southern specialty with serious viscosity issues, was disgusting long before a certain extremely successful daytime talk show hostess could’ve rescued it just because her name rhymed.  

I didn’t even like tomatoes at the time, unless they had been rendered into ketchup or spaghetti sauce. I’m still not among those who can bite into one like an apple, but I can tolerate a few mixed in with wedges of lettuce. Salads themselves were repulsive until modern dressing technology brought us the ranch and green goddess sauces that gave them some semblance of flavor.  

Now, as I finish up this piece, comes word through an email from my wife’s knitting group that one member wants to share the bounty of her garden with anybody who cares to bring along a sack to that evening’s meeting. Exactly what’s being offered isn’t clear, though that hardly matters. If you were expecting to stitch together a nice scarf with a collection of friends and instead are confronted by cabbages, corn and green beans, they’re going to have to be good.  

Seemed like a good idea at the time

TV dinners not so easy any more

May 25, 2011

Ah, for the days when making a TV dinner was as easy as turning on the TV…

(And for that matter, ah, for the days when turning on the TV didn’t involve a half-dozen remotes, proper integration of cable boxes, DVRs and game consoles, and enough knowledge of modern electronics that you could rewire the nation’s missile defense system if you had to in a pinch…).

My earliest memories of cooking and eating a frozen dinner go back to high school. As a break from the monotony of the delicious home-cooked meals prepared with love and care by my dear mother, we’d occasionally toss a Swanson’s TV dinner into the oven for a few hours at 600 degrees for a special treat.

By the time it was ready (and our un-air-conditioned Miami home began to feel like a Seminole sweat lodge) the anticipation was palpable, even if the food was barely palatable. My favorite was the meat loaf dinner. It consisted of a tomato-sauce-drenched triangle of meat-like matter, a whitish plasma purported to be mashed potatoes, and no more than 35 kernels of buttered corn. Simply add a piece of Wonder Bread to sop up the remains from the corners of the metal tray, and you had a complete meal, including your minimum daily requirement of aluminum.

What it lacked in fine dining it more than made up for in convenience. The preparation steps were simple: (1) remove foil tray from box; (2) stick it in the oven; (3) find something typically ’60s-style to pass the time, like marching on Washington to protest the Vietnam War; (4) suffer third-degree burns removing the metal from the oven; and (5) enjoy.

Since those innocent days over 40 years ago, frozen dinner technology has advanced markedly. The variety and quality of food is vastly improved. Preparation time has been slashed to mere minutes. Cooking instructions on the package are now printed in both English and Spanish, for our Hispanic friends who wouldn’t otherwise know what a “panini” is.

The only advancement left is to have the food pre-chewed for you, which I understand the Swanson’s people are working on.

Having grown tired of the bland turkey-on-wheat sandwich I’ve taken for lunch for several decades, my wife recently suggested I consider bringing frozen foods. There’s now an entire aisle in the grocery store devoted to such meals. The variety can be overwhelming, so I made my request simple: It has to be so easy that a monkey could do it.

Beth brought home an inviting sack full of Stouffer’s dinners. She’d done a good job of reviewing the cooking instructions so my role would be minimal. The most that any of them required was piercing a few holes in the plastic film to vent the food so that meltdowns could be averted.

Within several weeks I had explored all the subtleties that Swedish meatballs had to offer, and was ready for something different. This time, I went to the grocery store myself. I operated under the assumption that none of the offerings could be that hard to prepare, and let myself get a little carried away.

The first dish I tried was the “New! Lean Pockets Pretzel Bread sandwich.” The roasted turkey with bacon and cheese offering looked delicious on the package, and my mouth watered with anticipation as I stood before the microwave at work and read through the directions.

Step one required that I unwrap the product and insert it into the “unfolded crisping sleeve.” Two questions immediately came to mind: How do you insert something into a flat unfolded sheath? And what the hell is a “crisping sleeve”? Also, if I can’t figure out how to get the sandwich into the crisping sleeve, would my shirt sleeve work just as well?

Once I got past this obstacle, I noticed that cooking times varied depending on the type of microwave oven used. For those with 1100 watts of power, one sandwich took 2 minutes and 15 seconds, while “lower wattage/compact microwaves” would require a minute longer. The small desktop appliance at work seemed pretty compact, but I had nothing to compare it to. It definitely wasn’t the room-sized monster I imagined an 1100-watt machine would be. I split the difference and zapped it for 2:45.

The next bit of doubt came along after the cooking and two minutes of cooling time were done. The crisping sleeve was apparently meant to double as a plate substitute. “Fold and lock bottom flaps of the sleeve, peel away top tab as you eat,” read the package.

“Crisp and carry!” said larger type on the sleeve itself. “Find us on FACEBOOK at facebook.com/leanpockets.”

So I was going to have to make a fool of myself on the world’s largest social network? All my friends were going to see that I couldn’t comprehend the origami required to enjoy a simple lunch? I don’t think so.

I slid the sandwich out of the sleeve, impaled it on a fork, and ate it like a popsicle. Despite this blatant disregard of protocol, it was pretty good.

Now I had the confidence to proceed toward even more difficult preparation methods. I tried the Lean Pockets Seasoned Crust Grilled Chicken Mediterranean stuffed sandwich. It too had a crisping sleeve (or “cajetilla de cocinar”), though it was a much bigger version that I wasn’t required to eat out of.

The real test came with the Lean Cuisine Chicken, Spinach and Mushroom panini. This meal not only used a “REVOLUTIONARY GRILLING® Tray,” something that sounded like it came right out of Col. Qaddafi’s attempts to quell his nation’s Arab Spring revolts. It also demanded that you mold the carton itself into a “platform, then align panini halves, edge to edge, along the vertical indent in the ‘REVOLUTIONARY GRILLING® Tray'”. After two minutes and 45 seconds, not counting a consult with professors at MIT’s school of engineering, the sandwich would be ready.

Somehow, I managed to fake my way through it. I scraped the exploded remnants of the lunch from the corners of the microwave, heaped them onto a paper plate and, as instructed, I enjoyed.

Monkeys would be proud of me.

A savory delight (once you figure how to cook it)

Revisited: Big Brother comes to Chick-fil-A

May 21, 2011

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote extensively of the Jazz Age, its dandies and its flappers, how tender was its night and how great was its Gatsby. Ernest Hemingway routinely chose themes of man facing a challenge, be it against the wild, the evil of his own nature, the guy at the next barstool who stole his gin, or living in a house overrun with six-toed cats. Jack Kerouac’s novels looked at the gritty side of life on the road, and that part off to the side of the road with all the dead animals.

Looking back on my body of work over the last year and a half, it seems I too have a recurring theme: fast-food drive-throughs. As the twenty-first century’s preeminent chronicler of fried foods on the go, I’ve become something of an expert on how to eat even when your immense thighs are stuck beneath the steering wheel. I’ve described the desperate battle between two vehicles trying to outmaneuver each other for the next opening at the pay window. I’ve confessed to mistaking a garbage can for a speaker box, and ordering my combo from a colony of flies. I’ve argued that “two hash browns” doesn’t mean four hash browns, despite the fact that they come two to an order. I’ve been humiliated by having to say words like “biggie” and “horsey sauce.”

Now it’s time to tell another tale in the series. This is about my latest visit to Chick-fil-A, a franchise perhaps best known for employing semi-literate cows to communicate the corporate imperative to “eat mor chikin”. I had to avoid their excellent meals for an extended period recently, following a nasty incident in which I tried to procure a free order of chicken strips by claiming I had a cow-head antenna topper between 3 and 5 p.m. on a Tuesday when in fact I didn’t. (Who knew they’d check?)

Six months later, I assume they’ve had a complete turnover in staff and no one will remember my attempted fraud. I drive up to the remote ordering station behind the restaurant with the intent of making a fairly straightforward purchase. Where there used to be a metal box punched full of tiny holes there was now a full-sized hi-def terminal. A recent technology upgrade had resulted in a two-way video communication system, allowing the order-taker inside to look and smile at me while I gazed back at him in horror.

One of the benefits of using a drive-through is that it minimizes your contact with the faces of the workers, and now here’s one of those mugs staring down at me from two feet above eye level. “Otto” is hovering over me, like that giant-faced character in the famous 1980s Apple ad who’s preaching conformity to the bald mind-slaves until Steve Jobs, wearing only his black turtleneck and high-waisted gym shorts, runs down the aisle and heaves a 40-pound iPhone prototype into the screen, destroying it and liberating the world to consume more poultry.

This attempt at the personal touch unsettles me. As Otto and I discuss the relative merits of different-numbered combos, I’m not sure whether to look at his image on the screen, or at the glass box just above where the camera is housed. I knew clearly what I wanted to order just a few minutes ago, but now that I’ve been transported millennia into the future, I’m completely flummoxed. Do I want two orders of medium waffle fries, or a peace conference with the Borg?

I collect my wits with the help of the motorist behind me offering encouraging toots of their horn. Yes, it’s the waffle fries and a five-piece nuggets.

“You can get a drink with that if you order it as a combo,” Otto suggests. But I don’t need a drink.

“It costs about the same,” he presses. “We’d be practically giving away the drink.”

Maybe I could donate the medium Coke to Haiti. No, I’m sticking with just what I want.

“Also,” I say, ”I completed an online survey for another Chick-fil-A recently, and I have this coupon for a free sandwich I’d like to get.”

As I hold up the thin slip of paper to the camera, I realize the image I’m seeing is reversed. Although Otto’s palindromic name is unaffected, the logo just over his shoulder is backwards. For him to be able to read the authorization code on my receipt, I hold it up to the side-view mirror of my car, redoubling the reflection so it’ll be readable to him. He doesn’t seem to appreciate this inventive effort, and instead simply trusts me. (Where was this guy during the antenna-topper scam?)

My order is complete, and then I hear this:

“I look forward to serving you at the pickup window.”

He looks forward to serving me? This is going to be one of the highlights of his day? I’ve gotten pretty stoic about the hackneyed greetings you typically get while interacting with the mercantile class. They may say “thank you” but what they really mean is “move along.” They may say “have a nice day” but what they really mean is “I thought I told you to get out.” They may ask how many ketchups you want, but what they’re really saying is “thanks for sucking the blood from my lifeless husk.”

As I shifted my car into gear to creep forward to the pickup window, I thought I caught a quick glimpse of how eager Otto and his crew really were.

“He’s coming around to the side now!” I think I hear him excitedly tell his coworkers. “It’s the 2001 grey Honda Civic! Check him out, everybody — he’s absolutely dreamy.”

Whoops of excitement can be heard through the transmitter. Young girls are shrieking with delight, while the guys are high-fiving and chest-bumping. The anticipation is palpable.

“Is it really him? Can it be? Yet another customer in the endless parade of spendthrift losers willing to pay close to five dollars for a simple chicken sandwich? I can’t wait to see him!”

Or maybe the video connection somehow became crossed and I’m watching an episode of “The Price is Right.”

Regardless, I’ll be thinking twice before I return to this particular Chick-fil-A/Chatroulette outlet. I’ll give ‘em credit for wanting to use a high-tech approach to offer a high-touch experience in their customer relations. I know they’re already touching my food, though, and I think that’s quite enough for me.

Revisited: Citizen journalist covers one too many

May 15, 2011

It had been since my days working at the college newspaper that I had covered an event as a reporter, then went back to my office to make up quotes and fabricate an account of what had happened. On Friday, there I was, back in the media, a journalist covering a political rally in the race for the office of South Carolina governor.

It was all a little intimidating at first. The candidate I was covering — tea party favorite Nikki Haley — had little trust and considerable antagonism for what she and her compatriots referred to as the “lamestream press.” So it was perhaps understandable that when I spied a pizza joint near the site of the early-evening appearance, I decided to kill a few minutes waiting for the candidate by having a slice and a beer.

Haley, the Palin-esque Republican who’s been in the news for alleged dalliances with conservative bloggers and lobbyists, was making a whirlwind tour of the upstate prior to Tuesday’s primary, and was running a little late. I grabbed a spot in the small outdoor seating area, nursing my Yuengling and listening to white, middle-aged women yearn for low-carb Italian food and the ability to take their country back.

“I heard that Obama just doesn’t like any of us,” said the woman behind the pole.

I tried to blend into the group without looking like one of them, not an easy task considering my whiteness. One Palin operative was handing out “Haley” lapel stickers; I accepted one rather than raise suspicion about my progressive Democrat loyalties. Another supporter, Republican state legislator Ralph Norman, was working the crowd before Haley’s arrival, shaking hands and chatting up his own fortunes. I gently wiped the surface of the pizza with my hand, so that if he did try the grip-and-grin with me, I could make a subtle-but-greasy protest that I don’t endorse his brand of right-wing populism.

Soon Nikki arrived, bounding across the plaza as much as someone can bound in 3-inch heels. She was met enthusiastically by onlookers before beginning her 15-minute speech.

Careful, Nikki — don’t trip on those wires

She read them the usual laundry list of offenses that the political establishment had committed against the people of South Carolina, conveniently overlooking the fact that there’s only one non-Republican currently serving in statewide office. She was against big government, taxing and spending, and in favor of small business and the forgotten everyman. She endorsed “real American values” in what at first I thought was a plug for the nearby sale at Ross Dress for Less, but turned out instead to be a call to guns and God. And she promised there’d be a “tea party everyday” if she were elected governor.

After the address, she greeted supporters by posing for pictures and thanking them repeatedly for coming out. I grabbed a few close-up photos …

Look out! There’s a black guy!

 … before heading back to the perimeter. I had a reporter’s notebook in my pocket and thought briefly about gathering a few quotes. But the same pocket also held about three dollars and change from my earlier purchase, so I figured I’d get another beer instead. Haley masterfully worked her way through the remaining throng. I quickly downed the second drink so I could be ready to approach the candidate when she took a few questions from the media. Unfortunately, I hadn’t eaten much for lunch that day and the two beers were rapidly going to my head.

I tried to think of a good question that wouldn’t betray my lack of sympathy for her narrow-minded agenda. “Where do you stand on off-shore drilling?” would be a good one; “Are you still auditioning for illicit lovers?” was maybe not quite as on-point. I imagined there was some kind of security detail nearby that would react to any inquiry deemed too hostile, and weighed that against her demonstrated affinity for South Carolina bloggers, of which I was one.

Then I fell down, and the whole internal debate I was having became moot. I snapped one last photo while climbing up off the ground …

Hugging a lucky supporter, I think

… and soon the candidate was boarding a bus for her next stop in Greenville. She wouldn’t be able to talk to this reporter, until later that night in my inebriated dreams when she noted that I was “cute” and asked “what’s a strong fiscal conservative girl gotta do to get a new-media star like you to buy her a beer?”

At least, that’s the quote I’m making up.

Revisited: A safari to the discount grocery store

May 14, 2011

Craving a little adventure in your daily routine? Want to break out of the normal patterns of life to do something exciting and different? Care to be confronted by a wild animal?  

If you’re tired of your role as an apex predator at the top of the food chain, then might I suggest a shopping expedition to Discount Grocery Safari. “The Deege,” as it’s affectionately known, is a market located about a mile from my home, specializing in the sale of scratched, dented, mangled, damaged, injured and mutilated grocery items.

Some of the packages are only slightly imperfect, while others look like they’ve been trampled by a rhino. The contents inside are supposed to be safe and effective, which is good if effectiveness is something you’re looking for in tonight’s dinner. Any parts oozing down the outside of the can or box cannot be similarly guaranteed.  

A few of the items may also be slightly past their expiration date, though perishability isn’t generally a factor in items like toiletries and paper products. Except perhaps for the bathroom tissue that seems to be made of papyrus.  

I was a little perplexed about the “safari” allusion until I visited the humble establishment over the weekend. As I stalked up and down the four short aisles inside the prefab corrugated building, the dim lighting suggested a venture into the jungle of deepest, darkest upstate South Carolina. It felt like danger lurked around every corner, or maybe that was a hulking cart full of single A&W diet root beer cans. Like a safari, it seemed the expedition could result in three possible outcomes: I’d bring down a trophy of a bargain, I’d at least get a memory of something exotic and dangerous, or it would be me who became the kill, brought low by the underestimated ferocity of StarKist’s “Lunch To-Go” tuna pouch.  

The parking lot outside the Deege has room for no more than eight cars on its gravel and broken concrete surface. What would otherwise be a ninth spot is taken up by a rack for a ragtag collection of grocery carts that seem to have wandered off from higher-end grocery stores in search of a better life, only to be ultimately discarded after their porn career failed. There’s no automatic door opener to sense your presence and invite you in. Like the savannahs of Africa, the Deege is not easy to access. You have to wrestle your cart over a two-inch rise while trying to hold the door open and avoid the family of Bodines headed for their truck with a month’s supply of potato chips.  

It takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the light, though your nose is given no similar reprieve. Since the inventory is subject to the whims of gravity and centrifugal force on the truck that it fell from, the featured produce varies from day to day. On Saturday, it was bananas, ripe as can be if not exactly yellow. There were also zucchini, cabbage and what looked like potatoes though they could’ve been elephant droppings. We’ll need to be vigilant for the rogue male apparently in the area.  

In an alcove to the right are several large chest freezers. There are no signs advertising what’s inside. You have to lift the lid and examine the interior yourself, and even then it’s not certain whether the large resealable bag contains shrimp or a buffed-up species of krill. Not being a baleen whale, I’d hope that it’s shrimp. It’s offered at $9.99 a pound, which is a little high for plankton.  

I turn back to the left and head for the aisle against the far wall. Here you have a collection of off-brand sodas with near-brand names — Dr. Peppy, Seven Heaven and Cola (Diet) — as well as what passes for the health/beauty/cosmetics section. There are spray deodorants with just a thin reed poking up out of the can instead of a nozzle, several bent boxes of Kleenex containing facial tissue that features a tire-track pattern, and there’s this …  

   

… the First Response home ovulation test kit, apparently ripped to shreds right there in the store by a shopper desperately looking for the eggs.  

I round the corner and start down the second aisle. At about half the width of the first row, you can barely maneuver the shopping cart between the racks of flour and oils, much less accommodate a passing shopper of more than two dimensions. Here we also have bags of “jet-puffed marshmallows” (USAir’s newest profit center?), Sadaf brand falafel mix and a jar of gefilte fish labeled as “sweet”. The “best if used by” date on the fish is quite a bit in the past, although those ten days lost when Pope Gregory introduced his new calendar in 1582 can be discounted.  

As I turn down the next-to-last aisle, I see more evidence of the “safari” nature of the enterprise …  

  

… where the green paint has been worn from the concrete floor by the spring migration of wildebeest. This section is a bit of a hodgepodge with no discernible theme. One rack features the book “Victory Club” by Robin Lee Hatcher, and it’s flanked on the left by Skippy brand dog food and on the right by Rite-Aid’s unscented panty liners. I’m not sure of the book’s plot, though a logical observer is led to believe it involves a pack of canines with feminine hygiene issues.  

Finally, I’m coming down the last lap. On this aisle, there are ice cream cones and taco shells which, being particularly susceptible to breakage, seem a long shot for a satisfactory customer experience, unless you like sprinkles. Snack foods near the cash register include some pretty decent candies and a bag of the failed Burger King venture into retail, the “ketchup and fries chips”. I’m tempted to fork over a dollar for the chips, just for laughs, then decide the King should not be rewarded for his lack of marketing acumen.  

The cashier is a smiling woman whose sense of pride indicates she might also be an owner or manager. The checkout equipment is surprisingly modern, complete with scanner and touch screen that are as out-of-place as a bagboy on the veldt. For my total bill of $14.92 — “hah, hah,” she observes, “Christopher Columbus” — I got a bag of ground coffee, some cookies and candy, a tube of the tasty-but-discontinued Mexican Layer Dip Pringles, two mousse cup selections and a generic can of salmon cat food. I shudder to imagine how unspeakably offensive the expired fish byproducts must be, which means my cats loved it.  

I’m handed a receipt and my safari is complete. It was quite the adventure for an otherwise boring afternoon. I picked up some nice used food and tasted what excitement might be like halfway around the globe on the world’s most mysterious continent.  

And here’s something you don’t get as you rumble your Jeep back into camp at the base of mighty Kilimanjaro. At the bottom of my receipt is a saying from the locals at the Deege, an expression of goodwill that will remind me how satisfying this challenging hunt was: “Thank You! Come Again Soon!” it reads. “No Refunds! No Exchanges!”  

The exterior of “The Deege”

Revisited: Doubling down on the Double Down

April 10, 2011

KFC has come out with a new version of its fried chicken, cheese and bacon “Double Down” sandwich that’s made specially for police departments. It’s called the “Officer Down.” — A Joke

*  *  *

The latest belly-busting outrage perpetrated by the fast-food industry on the American public is KFC’s Double Down. Critics have called it “too much,” a “heart-stopping, artery-clogging mix,” and “even worse than if an asteroid hit the Earth at the same time that volcanoes erupted everywhere, in the midst of a smallpox epidemic and a worldwide economic meltdown.” KFC counters that it’s simply “meaty.”

Yeah, it’s meaty, alright. In fact, it’s the only item currently on the market that combines the essence of three different animals in one sandwich. Cows, chickens and pigs all gave of themselves in providing ingredients for this meal, making it sort of the turducken for all seasons. Logging in at 32 grams of fat and an entirely reasonable three times the minimum daily requirement for sodium, this Frankenstein with cheese is hardly the least-healthy thing available at drive-throughs these days. Not when Wendy’s offers a “salad” with 540 calories and McDonald’s employees are more than happy to crawl through the take-out window and punch you in the eye.

Besides, we don’t care if it’s going to kill us and our entire family. We just want to know how it tastes.

My teenage son was the first in our clan to take on the challenge. “It’s not really that different from a cordon bleu,” he noted hopefully, before pronouncing it “delicious — can I get another one?” (No).

Mindful that things are not always what they seem — I’m thinking of the friend currently on a “no-carb” diet that allows him to eat just the toppings off of pizzas — I thought I’d give the Double Down a try for myself.

We went to the KFC outlet about a mile from my house, over by the hospital (a coincidence). I forget now when “Kentucky Fried Chicken” officially changed its name to “KFC,” but I’m pretty sure it was about the same time that “Oil of Olay” became simply “Olay,” and “Poisonous Appetizers” became “Applebee’s”. It definitely convinced me there was no unhealthy deep-frying going on inside the KFC. I figured the “KF” now stood for either “Killed Fresh” or “Kinda Funky.”

We pulled into the parking lot and I insisted on going into the restaurant, instead of using the drive-through, so I could get the full Double Down experience in person. A sign on the door warned “Livers Cooked Upon Request,” but I figured they’d leave mine alone unless they were asked to do otherwise. Another sign advertised KFC’s efforts to promote “Susan G. Komen for the Cure” through their website bucketsforthecure.com. It apparently struck no one at the corporate marketing level as ironic that the company would encourage the cooking of some creatures’ breasts, while trying to heal others.

A large group of red-shirted workers clamored about behind the counter. Either it was shift change, or else the quantity of personnel required to assemble all the components of the Double Down was making a serious dent in the nation’s unemployment rate. An eager young cashier named Ricky approached and asked to take my order. I’d have three “Downs” to go: one fried, one grilled, and one fried without “Colonel sauce”. He faithfully repeated the order using completely different words, so I stated it again. Finally, he was clear on what I wanted, though he wasn’t too sure it could be communicated accurately down the long production line, so he went around back to oversee operations. (In retrospect, I was glad I decided not to goof on him and ask if I could get a “Triple Down” if I supplied my own mortar).

I looked up at the big promotional sign behind the counter as I waited. “The new KFC Double Down sandwich is real!” it exclaimed. “This one-of-a-kind sandwich features two thick and juicy boneless white meat chicken filets, two pieces of bacon, two melted slices of Monterey Jack and pepper jack cheese” and the aforementioned “Colonel sauce,” which my son feared had been exhumed from the Harlan Sanders gravesite in Louisville, Kentucky. “This product is so meaty, there’s no room for a bun!”

Soon Ricky returned to reluctantly inform me that they had run out of fried breasts, and would it be okay to make the no-sauce order with one piece grilled and one fried. I was not about to abide such an abomination of nature for my son, and asked if they couldn’t hybridize my sauced item instead. No, unfortunately, that one had already been assembled, and couldn’t be deconstructed without surgical tools not currently in stock at that location. It would take a full five minutes to have a fresh batch of the fried breasts ready, so Ricky offered me a complementary Pepsi while I waited. It tasted nothing like fried chicken, which was probably for the best.

We finally got the order, paying out a hefty $16.17 for the late lunch. My son dove into his sandwich as soon as we were back in the car, but I decided to wait until we got home where I could thoroughly concentrate on the taste experience and also be closer to emergency services if they became necessary.

I’d describe the sandwich as fairly predictable, tasty but on the dry side, which made sense considering that last fried piece had probably been sitting under a warming lamp since earlier in the day. The separate cheeses had melted together into a single blend by now, rendering it unclear which was Monterey Jack, which was pepper jack, and which was Jack Kevorkian. The bacon was distinguishable from the chicken only because it was harder and stringier, not because it tasted anything like bacon. The sauce was there, fulfilling its minimum requirement.

After I finished off the meal, I waited for the after-effects I had been led to expect. The Los Angeles Times had warned of unspecified “physical distress” while other accounts led me to anticipate a six-foot-long hole being blasted into my colon. I loitered near the bathroom while waiting for the inevitable, as the Down moved down my duodenum, down my jejunum, down my cecum. Soon, I heard a dog barking in the distance, and the rustle of a spring windstorm in the trees. Somewhere, a baby cried and an old man breathed his last breath. In Switzerland, particles inside the Large Hadron Collider smashed together at tremendous speeds, releasing untold amounts of energy. My bowels, however, remain unmoved. Only a mild heartburn inhabited the space that had recently cleared KFC’s latest taste sensation. I had survived.

The next day, I delivered the grilled version to a friend at work. He asked if it were a breakfast food or a lunch food, and I speculated that perhaps it wasn’t a food at all but instead a sort of interstellar plasma. A short while later, I asked if he had downed the Down.

“I’m down with the Down, but it’s not much on taste, is it?” he asked. “I’d say more of a ‘cordon blah’ than a cordon bleu.”

 
Getting down with the Double Down

Revisited: Aren’t you glad I didn’t say orange?

March 12, 2011

The orange and I go way back. I grew up in Miami, so I have many fond memories of this refreshing fruit — walking past the bakery that made orange cakes, the smell of the groves as my family drove up the Florida Turnpike, the carefully sectioned after-school snack prepared by my mother from the tree in our own backyard. Then there were all those barefoot summers when my skin turned a bright precancerous orange.  

Citrus was our tropical icon. It represented a primary reason my family and others had abandoned the north for a life among the fruits. It was the perfect symbol for being a Floridian, its thick, leathery skin so similar to those pioneers who cleared the swamps and built the railroad, those alligators that still thrived in the roadside canals, and that Gloria Estefan.  

Oranges were so cheap and plentiful in southern Florida that when they couldn’t be properly disassembled by a responsible adult, we kids would just cut a hole in the top, then suck out the juice and discard the rest. To this day, I drink OJ with my breakfast every morning without fail, except for the month I spent in India on business where they thought watermelon nectar was an adequate substitute. Silly Asians.  

The orange doesn’t give up its sweet sunny taste easily. I typically eat the flesh only when it’s been carefully extracted by a hired hand and put into a fruit salad. Some varieties have been bred to make it slightly easier to get inside, though that convenience is often traded for taste. Those bastards the tangerines come closest to attaining a proper balance, yet I feel like a traitor to my homeland to consort with such mutants.  

Recently at work, management has brought out various food pellets to encourage us to work longer and harder during our busy season without needing to leave the room for nourishment. (I half-expect a Porta-John to appear soon next to my cubicle, so other biological needs can also be taken care of with equal convenience). In addition to the candies, donuts and meth-infused lollipops, we’re also given fresh fruit to spur on our activity levels. Among these are several bags of oranges, so I thought I’d revisit my youth and try to eat one whole.  

The following photographs chronicle my attempt:  

The uncut orange stands proud and defiant. “Just try to get inside me,” it seems to say.
 
Removing the skin by hand is awkward and, if you have any open paper cuts, extremely painful.
 
Attempts to peel with a knife quickly deteriorate into a stabbing (insert OJ joke here).
 
If you succeed at all using conventional methods, you’re left with a tiny sphere of flesh and a lot of wasted orange juice.
 
GODDAM ORANGE! Running it over with a truck may prove to be the best option for reaching that sweet, tangy interior.

Finally, the interior is laid bare and I can pick the juicy morsels from among the gravel of the parking lot. Now all I have to deal with are the seeds, membranes reminiscent of discarded condoms, and stringy white hairs that serve as the fruit’s last defense. 

Orange, if you didn’t want to be eaten, why did you have to be so difficult to master?