Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mac 'N Cheese

It may be that in the heat of the summer you are not thinking about macaroni and cheese, but I am.  As the summer winds down for me, I have been using the last days of vacation to work on cooking, recipes, canning, fresh produce and what you can do with it, all of that.

Which brings me to macaroni and cheese.  This iconic dish, this ultimate comfort food, is something that gets made made in most American households throughout the year, probably even in the summer, but most certainly in the colder months.  There's probably a family recipe or a favorite recipe or Velveeta.  My family has been in all of those camps, depending on the age of my children, the Velvetta version being the most reliable, the most consistently satisfying from their perspective.

But now the children are grown and out of the house and Mac 'n cheese still feels like a viable dinner option on a meatless Monday.  So when I started making it, I re-examined it.  Macaroni and cheese is one of those dishes that I make without a recipe.  After all, it is little more than cooked pasta ( the shape is your choice) and a bechamel sauce with cheese(s) added to it.  If you want, you can put a topping on it.  If you want, you can bake it.

In my latest incarnation of the dish, I learned three things, insights I should or did already know but didn't put into practice consistently.  But I did this time, and now I am calling them "must do"'s:

1.  Most fully-homemade recipes are built upon the butter, flour, and milk sauce as a base.  Called bechamel or white sauce, this basic sauce of French cooking combines fat and flour in a roux to which liquid is then added to create a thick(er) sauce.  In most macaroni and cheese recipes, once the butter and flour are combined, you pour in the milk and go from there.  What I discovered, not surprisingly, is that if you can hold off, can let the roux get to "blonde" or light brown, you add a lot of flavor.  There is no rush to add the milk.  Let the flavor build.

2. And this is the big one--never, never, ever bake your macaroni and cheese, that is unless you like it dry and curdled, all moisture from the sauce sucked into the pasta.  Me, I like smooth, creamy mac 'n cheese, a little soupy perhaps, certainly wet.  The cheese is part of the sauce; if there is no sauce because it has been evaporated or assimilated, then that is not mac 'n cheese to me.  Many recipes out there are built around a beautiful sauce which, when it is baked, reduces and disappears.  Don't ever bake your mac.  It is an absolute to be followed.  And if you do follow it, then even your leftovers will be creamy.

3. Put a topping on it.  By all means, put your mac 'n cheese under a broiler where its topping can come together.  Then you have the chance for crispy and crunchy on top but still smooth and creamy underneath.  I ran across a recipe during the last couple of weeks which had tomatoes in it, so I thought, why not put those tomatoes in the crust?  Which is why I sliced some tomatoes and dried them out in the oven, cooled them, and then ground them in a food processor with bread crumbs (I used crackers) and Parmesan cheese.  Trust me, a crunchy crust is a great counterpoint to the soft, cheesy noodles underneath.  You put the hot pasta and cheese sauce under the crumb crust and broil it and you have something special.  Maybe your crust has onions or olives or red peppers, I don't know.

Mac 'n Cheese is a standard dish, but it is also a special one that deserves to stand out and to get a "Wow" from the people who are eating it.   And that means that you have to pay attention to how it is made.

One of the "upgrades" I rely on is having a variety of cheeses in the refrigerator to draw from.  My last version used cheddar, a Russian cheese, a touch of an assertive blue cheese, and the Mexican version of Parmesan (for the crust).  A variety of cheese will give your casserole a complex flavor, a this-particular-version-may-never-happen-again kind of vibe.

It's worth it to revisit the meals that get made several times a year to see how they could be made better.  I hope I have given you at least three ideas for how to do that.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

You Can't Judge A State By Its Billboards. Can You?

Driving down I-75 into Florida as a newly-minted retired couple or as a family headed to Disney World, your expectation as a consumer/visitor to the Sunshine State would probably be a billboard bombardment of the vacation opportunities that await you--attractions, discounts, retirement communities full of young, active retirees, the holdovers from "old" Florida, like airboat rides or glass bottom boats.  You would be wrong.

Not entirely wrong, of course.  There is some of that.  But it is not the dominant impression you have after your first 50 miles.

No, the billboards of north Florida seem to assume that you are pregnant.  That you are planning to have, or are at least pondering an abortion.  Or that you have gotten someone pregnant.  Or are planning to.  And will want to talk her into pursuing that same path.

I guess I blame that one billboard advertising Poker and Jai-Alai.  If you're going to detour off the interstate to a place where gambling and betting are the activities of choice, then, of course, you are likely to compromise yourself in other ways.

But that is just one billboard.  Most show fetuses, with a reminder of when their hearts start beating.  Or with the possibilities of what that unaborted child could become--even an Albert Eisntein, who I'm pretty sure was not a Christian, even though these billboards most certainly are.

I guess I blame those fewer billboards that are actually about Florida, the ones showing the distance in hundreds of miles to Cocoa Beach or, more specifically, to the Ron Jon Surf Shop.  For on those billboards are young, fit, swimsuit-clad teenagers whose lives of frolicking in few clothes in the sand must surely lead to the need for the indoctrination of the more dominant billboards.

Or maybe it's something to do with north Florida, because the plethora of anti-abortion billboards decreases dramatically once you get down the road a bit.  Is there some kind of abortion epidemic up around Lake City?  Or are people slipping over the line from Georgia?  And how could that be?  North Florida is a Republican stronghold.  Did Dr. DeJarlais move down there or what?

One guy whose signs used to be all over the place but aren't as much is Doug, the vasectomy guy.  Doug looks like a sleazy Ron Livingston from Office Space, and looks like he enjoys his job a little too much.  For years it seemed like, based on the range of his ads, he must have toured Florida nonstop, performing "no scalpel, no pain" nut snips.  He was everywhere.  Maybe he did them in a helicopter. One has to wonder if the anti-abortion activists have decreased the demand for Doug.

Lest you think I exaggerate, allow me to concede that there are other billboards along those early highway miles--for gun stores boasting 1000 guns and there are gas stations waving Confederate flags (the good kind that aren't all battle flags, that also have a large rectangle of white and one of red).

And lest you think I criticize, when you head out of Florida into southern Georgia, you see billboards that simply read "#Secede."

Georgia and Florida also promote their "We Bare All" truck stop/strip clubs.  And the thing you notice in Georgia is that one out of every four billboards is either empty and white or is an advertisement for how to rent it, so I'm guessing you could rent one for a song and make your own statement in these bi-polar, toxic driving wastelands.  Or it may be that billboards aren't good for much, except to tell where is a hotel or restaurant or strip club that you would like to frequent.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Bob's Beer Endorsement For Summer Vacation '15

In a shocking, last-minute development, Bob has declined to endorse Corona Light as "The Official Beer Of Bob's Summer Vacation '15."  The non-endorsement has sent shockwaves through the beer industry and left executives wondering "What, exactly, does it take to get this friggin' endorsement?"

Oddly, Bob appeared to be most shocked of all, as the story broke.  "I thought they had it, I really did.  I mean, it's been my 'go-to' the whole time I"ve been in Florida.  It really has.  It was there for me when I was cooking, grilling it.  It was with me when I'd sit out on the porch and play my guitar late at night.  It goes well with every crappy thing I've eaten as part of my "batchelor's diet" down here in F-L-A--pizza, Asian, Chili's carry out, even a bag of Indian snacks, but, well, not Honey Nut Cheerios.  That would be too Raising Arizona."

Perry Bush, Regional Sales Manager for Corona America, based out of Texas, was even more stunned.  "I really thought we had with the slimline cans.  He's kind of a 'can' guy these days. And down around the pool, or by the grill, these easy-carry cans seemed the perfect product for him.  Plus, he's not a 'koozie' guy, so we didn't anticipate the slippage complaints we've gotten from other vacationers, and we didn't get the.  We thought we had it sewed up."

Indeed, even when he was spotted leaning over the third floor railing of his condo drinking a can of Hotter Than Helles Lager, Bush said he was not worried.  "Everybody strays," he said, "But we all know Bob is not a craft beer guy, and when it dawns on him that he can get almost 12 of us for 6 of them, we knew he would come back.

Theories abound, then, as to what happened.  Friends thought that maybe he was still stinging from that Halloween two years when all of beer advocate.com turned against him over his blog piece, "The Beer I'm Drinking Apparently Sucks," a somewhat tongue-in-cheek argument in favor of The Yeunglings of the world over super-hoppy IPAs.

Bob assures us that was not it.  "I'm over that nightmare.  Since then, I've been drinking a few more craft beers and the world has come to its sense somewhat to realize that sometime paying crazy money for stupidly-named beer doesn't make sense.  At least, not on a budget."

Another theory asserts that Bob is playing hard to get in order to get a bit more money from Corona.  "Not true," says Bob.  "I've never received a dime for my Summer Vacation endorsement (last summer it went to Tecate).  They get the money.  I pay for my beer like everyone else."

Over at Tecate, of course, a different kind of corporate soul-searching is taking place due to the loss of Bob's endorsement this year.  For Tecate, however, there is no mystery.  "For whatever reason, the Publix supermarkets in the part of Florida where Bob vacations has stopped carrying Tecate in cans," a company spokesman who did not wish to be identified said.  "Rest assured that heads will roll over this one.  That oversight is inexcusable."

"And there were our slimline cans sitting right in the shelves where Tecate used to be, in the Mexican area.  How did we not make this happen?" a mortified Perry Bush said.

"Blame The Food Babe," says Bob.  And he gets a collective 'Huh?' from the beer people.

"Well, I was in the library," continues Bob, "Just looking around and I see a book called The Food Babe Way, which piques my interesting, so I pull it off the shelf and there's an attractive woman on the cover asserting that she can help you/me to "break free from the hidden toxins in your food.  Well, if you know me, you know I'm all about hidden toxins.  I'm a label reader. So I flip open the book. And in some kind of weird cosmic coincidence, I'm staring at a list and seeing the words "Corona" and "propylene glycol alginate" in the same box."

"And I flip a bit and see that the propylene stuff is, more or less, the antifreeze you put in your car for cold weather.  Except in beer, it minimizes the head you get from your poured beer.  I know, I know."

"See, beer makers aren't required to list the ingredients in their beer.  So you think you're drinking some combo of water, barley, hops, malt, maybe rye.  Wrong!  If you're drinking a fairly well-known beer, there's a good chance they've added coloring, corn syrup or other sweeteners ( and I'm not talking about flavored beers like shandys, where it's obvious), fish bladders, moss, "natural flavor", and a host of other potentially-GMO stuff."

"So you're saying we need to take all of the added stuff out of our beer to get your endorsement?" Perry Bush asks.

"Yes," Bob says.  "You need to become the Panera of beer."

"What about Tecate?" says a voice from the back of the room.

"Sorry, guy, but I think your beer isn't popular enough to make her list."



Thursday, July 23, 2015

On Watching "Trainwreck" With The Elderly

A couple of weeks ago, as I was taking one of my rare excursions into the shopping mall, a man fell into step next to me and asked, "Didn't there used to be a restaurant there?"

I glanced over to my left at the darkened windows we were walking past.

"Oh, yeah," I said, "It was that cafeteria for old people.  Piccadilly or something."

"Wonder why it went under?" He mused, as we started to walk our separate directions.

Of course, I have a theory: old people don't want to eat at restaurants like that anymore, with its array of roast beef in gravy, mashed potatoes, fruit cocktails, and the like.  It became an outmoded concept that had no chance of adapting.  That is only a theory; I have no idea how the chain is doing in shopping malls across the country.  It could be hugely popular in Topeka.  But I doubt it.

Down here in Florida among the elderly, as is my habit, I find myself reflecting on aging and retirement.  But I am also on vacation.  And so, one afternoon, I decided to see a movie.  The best reviewed of the bunch was Trainwreck, the Amy Schumer movie that I didn't know much about, but figured, ok, kind of a raunchy, R-rated relationship comedy.  Maybe some laughs.

I thought I'd sneak into the 4PM showing when I could get the matinee price and still sit in the relative comfort of an empty theater as the oldies of Venice prepared for their "Early Bird" meals around the city.  Boy, was I wrong.  As I walked into the theater just before the start, I first noticed scores of people in those seats way up front that no one ever sits in unless they are desperate.  Probably can't see from farther away, I thought.  Then, as I rounded the corner, I discovered that the entire theater was almost full.  As I looked up into the mass of people, I had no interest in trying to find a single seat up there.  So I, too, walked down to those awful seats in the front, find a place at the end of the third row.

As we sat through the string of previews, I had chances to look around and to notice how old the audience was--white hairs, blue hairs, and no hairs surrounded me, making comments after each preview like, "Ooh, That looks good.  I want to see that."

I kind of lost my bearings.  Then the movie started.  I've never seen Amy Schumer, but have seen any number of Judd Apatow-directed movies and movies built around SNL alums, so I was ready and willing for the barrage of dick jokes, sex jokes, uncomfortable drawn out sexual situations, candid sex talk and the other trappings of the modern "R" comedy.

What I wasn't prepared for was the howling laughter of the elderly, how they roared their collective ways through the raunchy comedy, whether the romantic leads were were debating how often he should "go down" on her or how every rebuttal from a muscle-bound suitor in a movie theater ended up sounding like a graphic, gay come on.  They loved every bit of it.  They clapped when the movie was over!

I remember my friend telling me about the awkward experience of watching Tropic Thunder with his parents.  I recalled watching the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings when my parents were visiting, and my father refusing to believe that any man would commit any of the behaviors that Anita Hill was accusing Clarence Thomas of.  My parents would have walked out of Trainwreck after 5 minutes; my dad wouldn't make it through a single episode of Deadwood.

My movie companions represent a new breed of elderly--they are the ones who would rather eat at Panera than Picadilly, who aren't transitioning into an elderly style of dress, who work their laptops and ride racing bikes, not a single-speed bicycle with thick tires and a basket in the front.

People who are 70 years old right now were 24 years old for Woodstock, 22 for the "Summer Of Love," 18 when LBJ started escalating the Vietnam War.  They are approximately the same age as the living rock stars that we continue to idolize--Jagger, Richards, Young, Dylan, Townshend, Page, Plant.

The disconnect between seeing the Rolling Stones prancing on a stage in Atlanta and the active lives of their age mates in Florida retirement communities likely belongs to me.  I'm sure the marketing experts have long since figured out that the leading edge of the "Baby Boomers" want to stay active and to not go gently.  That's an encouraging trend.  But I'm still adjusting to sitting next to someone's great grandmother while she giggles at oral sex jokes.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Last Big Mac

My mistake, if you would call it that, was in waiting until Florida to eat my last Big Mac.  The McDonald's I choose was just off the interstate, a clean, well-maintained operation run by senior citizens and teenagers, with a very present manager who believed that, for the woman who called wondering if she had left her purse there, the purse might still be there.  It was that kind of place, but I didn't know that when I picked it.  I had just decided that it was time.

There was a scare, a rumor, a few months ago that McDonald's was going to phase out the Big Mac, and while that was nothing but a fast food legend, it did put me in the mind of eating my last Big Mac.

This wasn't going to be a sacrifice or anything like that.  At least 25 years have passed since the last time I ate a Big Mac.  And but for the rare Egg McMuffin on a road trip, the last time I had been to a McDonald's for any reason had to have been at minimum at least a decade earlier.  The many food perversions and general unhealthiness of the menu had pushed me in other directions long ago. Fast Food Nation and Supersize Me had done their jobs. I decided that the Mac was children's food, teenagers' food, and that no adult had any business ever eating another one.  Except for one more, because I wanted that last one.

According to Wikipedia, the Big Mac was invented in Pittsburgh, PA in 1967 and was featured there for a year before it went national.  I moved to Pittsburgh in 1967.

Today, it is hard to imagine the novelty, the audacity of the Big Mac.  Two patties?  A double-decker?  A sauce besides ketchup? A paper collar to hold the towering sandwich in place?  A sesame seed bun?  Like the McRib that would follow, the Big Mac pushed the boundaries of what fast food could be, especially for a hick in a Pittsburgh suburb, and it had us, as children, eating things we wouldn't normally eat--like dill pickles.

Hamburgers were decades from their great makeover, quality ingredients and idiosyncratic additions (I almost ordered one in St. Petersburg last week that had peanut butter, bacon jam, and potato chips, among other things, on it) that make none of us blink at paying $12 or more for a beef patty on a bun.  The Big Mac, when it came out, cost 45 cents, today about 6 times that.

Even as a teenager, a Big Mac was a treat, a splurge, a drift from the norm, and it was a legitimate alternative, for me, to Arby's or a baked Pittsburgh hoagie.

But the older I get, the grosser fast food becomes.  But for the occasional Chick-Fil-A or the nostalgic Arby's, it falls into the category of "things I shouldn't do to my body."  After all, there are much better-tasting things I shouldn't be doing.

The thought of a Big Mac, a flattened, mushy gunk of a sandwich oozing orange sauce, its middle layer of bun slogged from sopping up everything else, hard to hold and harder to set down for fear of its collapse was the epitome of my fast food disgust.  But I wanted to close that chapter.

The McDonald's off I-75 in Venice is the slowest fast food place I've been in.  I say that because, at late morning, with plenty of staff and very few customers, we all stood around waiting for our orders.  There was even a "barista" of sorts, whipping up coffee drinks. Slowly. What I didn't realize is that, for whatever reason, this McDonald's was making food to order!

My last Big Mac, when I opened the lid, was perfectly-crafted--the three bun layers were perfectly aligned, the burgers and condiments centered on them.  Even the lettuce was on the sandwich, not fallen along the sides.  And the bun stood puffed and tall.

So I was doomed at the first bite.  My last Big Mac tasted like a perfect mix of ingredients, and I could taste each one.  It tasted like a quality burger, one that put more upscale places attempting to recreate the Big Mac to shame.  It tasted like childhood, like high school, maybe even better than memory.

I disciplined myself not to eat all of it, and I will stick with my vow not to eat another one, but I am not sorry that I danced with the fast food devil this one last time.  The French refer to sex as "the little death."  This felt a bit like that.  Adieu, Big Mac!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Nooga Strong and Tragedy-Borne Marketing

Mere hours after chaos struck Chattanooga last week, the hashtag #NoogaStrong was born and spreading across the Twitterverse.

But first, a side note.

Country music artist Ronnie McDowell rocketed to fame on the back of Elvis Presley's corpse.

McDowell's song, "The King is Gone," was written mere hours after he learned of Presley's death on the radio while driving down the Interstate in 1977. The song became a launchpad for a more prolific and interesting career that included more than 30 songs in the Top 40, almost all of them from 1978-1986.

McDowell was the final act for the radio show "Music City Roots" (link to livestream of the show) recently, and he told the story of his rise. His song remembering The King has sold 5 million copies. He said six. Maybe he's right. Maybe he's rounding up.

What struck my friends and I in the audience was how casually he spoke of Elvis' demise. Elvis died. I wrote this song. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me. My life was never the same.

To be fair, McDowell has probably told this story a few hundred thousand times in the last 35 years. How can he possibly be expected to bring sincere emotion to The King's death every single time? Still, the way he spoke of it seemed just a bit too cavalier.

In interviews during his rise, Ronnie McDowell began to express how frustrating it could be that he was so singularly identified by that song, by his tendency to sound like (and gyrate like) Elvis, and that he wanted to be respected in his own right, as his own man. The rocket fuel to stardom had proven to be something of a restraint as well.

Back to Chattanooga, where a nutjob shut down a town for the better part of a day. His insanity was tainted in some part by his own screwed-up brand of Islam, and it led him to murder five men.

And then, there it is. #NoogaStrong.

A downtown Chattanooga restaurant put out four plates and four shots of whiskey for four reserved seats at the bar in memory of the fallen soldiers. At least one other restaurant in the suburbs made a similar effort.

In the hours and days following, on Facebook and Twitter, pictures of T-shirts for sale. Pictures of decals and stickers. Proceeds going to the families.

As someone whose career involves marketing, I am constantly taken aback by how quickly and casually we seem to commodify and brand our tragic experiences. If we can't give it hashtag and a somber picture, we can't feel it. If we can't share it out with some memorable name, then it doesn't feel like a big enough deal. If our story isn't trending nationally, people don't care as much as they should.

If it seems like I'm judging, like I'm insulting people who have used this hashtag or have eaten at one of these restaurants to honor their efforts, please understand that I am the dinosaur in this scenario. I'm the one struggling to keep up with the times.

Contemporary culture has decided that tragedy-based marketing is fair game, so long as its done with some modicum of taste and reservation. And if it is, we'll take pictures, share and retweet it as a show of branding solidarity. We'll buy those decals, and we'll wear those shirts.

When I was in Boston last winter, every tourist store had Boston Strong shirts. Those things were as ubiquitous as Red Sawx and Patriots wear.

We have long moved past whether it's weird to wear cool-looking shirts that memorialize the Boston Marathon bombings. That I find it awkward and uncomfortable is very much my problem.

Ronnie McDowell made a career because he was the fastest on the draw to a song about Elvis' death. Social media has only made the race faster and more intense.

Mostly, I think I'm just grateful Twitter didn't exist on September 11, 2001. I don't want my memory of that dreadful and horrifying day reduced to some catchy hashtags and window stickers. Tragedy and mourning takes time, and it needs to marinate, and that while a community must find ways of uniting in a time of loss, doing so with jingos might not be the healthiest or best way to go about it.

Friday, July 17, 2015

My thoughts are no clearer than anyone else's

But when a terrorist's attack, even if he radicalized himself, happens in your hometown, you have to think something about it, right?

Yesterday was a strange day.  In order to get out of town, I needed to cut the grass.  But then I started getting calls from my wife who works in the courthouse.

There's been a shooting on Lee Highway.

There's been a shooting at the mall in Cleveland. (This was later debunked.).

The city's going crazy. They've got us on lockdown.

 They say there's an active shooter loose.

They've instituted a no-fly zone over the city.

Lowlife that I am, all I wanted to do was to get the grass cut.  So, I asked, can I go outside and cut the grass?  I wouldn't, she said.  So I didn't.  And started watching CNN instead.

No, my personal story is neither interesting nor relevant.  Please know that when it was confirmed on television that the situation was over, I went out and cut the grass.  And when I got too hot on that 90+ degree day, I came back inside and watched CNN.

I only offer this account as an example of what was happening with regular people while four Marines had been killed in our city and several others injured.  We didn't know much of what was going on, and by the time we heard about, it was over.

I did notice several things as a listener/observer:

1.  If you think CNN is the cutting edge, think again.  Their "Breaking News" was way behind other sources.  My daughter knew the name of the shooter at least an hour before CNN came out with it.  She is in Nashville.  She also found a blogger online who had all of the background information on the shooter many hours before CNN  had that info.  Maybe they've been burned and are cautious, or else they are the last to know.

2.  Even in the midst of tragedy, there is something perversely entertaining about knowing more than the major news outlets.  And it makes me wonder.

3.  When you deconstruct a tragedy with friends, those friends will zero in on issues you never thought important.  Like last night, when my friend started critiquing the shooter's escape plan and the weaknesses of it.  Or when you run into an alum in a bar who clearly has other issues and can't even engage in the tragedy.

We all of us in this modern world scenario try, more than anything, to engage in the information competition--who can come up with the renegade source that gives him or her the edge, the shred of intel that makes him or her the "go to du moment".  We are funny in that way.  Information may be nearly limitless, but ways to get at it, for us mere mortals, are not, and so we all scramble to know something that no one else does, but when we discover it, thousands, perhaps dozens or hundreds of thousands of people already know it.  And we are surprised to discover that each time it happens.

Mostly, I am very proud of my city so far, though, like the rest of this, it needs not my endorsement. The police were aggressive in the best ways.  The churches have done exceptional work with prayer meetings and vigils and interfaith services.  Our individual citizens, even if their English usage goes South, have represented us so well with their  candor, their observational skills, their raw emotions.  I can only pray that the focus stays on mourning the victims; as long as the whole city is welcome to do that, maybe we will get through this okay.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Eyeglasses, My Glasses

Only lifelong glasses wearers, or those who have battled with contacts from time to time, know what it means to get new glasses, to alter the way that everyone looks at your face.

For some people, glasses are an accent, an occasional need for close up or far away.  For the inveterate glasses wearers, those spectacles are a part of our beings, our psyches, our essences.  They are not a fashion statement, particularly; they are a necessity.

And so, with some trepidation, I tossed off the old glasses look and went with a completely different one.

In short, there are two basic glasses choices: wear a dramatic "Yes, I wear glasses" frame or wear something with thin wire rims or maybe almost no frame at all which says, "I barely wear glasses at all, can you even tell?"

Fashion tends to vacillate between these choices, but if you are as old as I am, past the age of fashionability, unable or willing to try to keep up, then you just make your own choices, go with them, and don't apologize.

I had gone with the small, barely glasses look for all of this century, but reluctantly, as in talked into it by women in my family or a salesperson or both.  The "just barely" look had served me well, I suppose, but any time I actually talked about glasses ( which would be about as often as I talk about haircuts, being an introvert, as in never), I verbalized wanting a " classic" look.

Now, for better or worse, I have it.  After walking into LensCrafters with a Ray-Ban display featured prominently at the mouth of the store, I have gone classic with a pair of Ray-Ban glasses and sunglasses.  I have never owned prescription sunglasses before.  Now I do.

When you wear assertive glasses, as I am doing now, then the "barely" glasses seem weak, an unwillingness to acknowledge that you have to wear them.  Glasses with distinct frames make you, as in me, feel powerful and smart.  Like Rick Perry.

In Emmanuel Carrere's novel, The Moustache, a man loses his identity when he shaves off his Moustache.  People don't recognize him, refuse to believe that he is who he is. A person who wears glasses has a similar fear.  Will my new glasses cause people to see me differently?

Now that I've been wearing mine for two days, including a test drive around both floors of our local mall yesterday, it does feel like people have been noticing them; I've gotten a few stares along with a few compliments.  It's a strange feeling, getting comments on glasses when the people commenting don't know you and when no one ever really commented on the glasses you wore for the previous 8 or more years.  Were the previous glasses not worth commenting on, or was that their point?  Are these new glasses really "me"?

Even more surprising or disconcerting when I bought the glasses and was getting them fitted, was to have a "Black Hawk Down" Marine veteran who was waiting on me say, "Dude, you've got great hair."  Don't hear that one much.  Do the glasses bring out the beauty of my hair?

For the introvert, the thought of reentering the work world with new summer glasses is tantamount to that dream some of us have where we show up somewhere but forgot our clothes.  But the beauty of glasses is that you can hide behind them, if you want to.  You can let them do the work for you, as if you really had little to do with the wearing of them, as if you know that they make you someone else and that your true essence is without them.  Or that maybe you really are seeking a different identity.  Just ask Superman.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Enda Venera

Last Friday, I went out to lunch with a couple of friends, perhaps the last such lunch in a long, long time, or, perhaps, forever.  It was a comfortable affair, no issues, no conflicts, just a bit of teasing and a lot of catching up since summers are such scattered affairs.  Over the years, lunches like that have been built around talks of love and dissolution, births and deaths, problems and triumphs, and frustrations.  There have been tough talks and stupid insults (the latter mostly from me).  There have been times when nothing much has been said at all.

But now one of us is leaving, and that will be nowhere more painful than at lunch.

Now, I don't know about where you work, but at our school, lunch is of paramount importance, for students and faculty alike.  Sure there are social gatherings and Fantasy Football leagues and all of that, but friendships are formed and sustained during lunch.  Out.

Thirty-two years down the road, one of our longstanding traditions is to escape to Ankar's Hoagies during a long day of August meetings or a mid-year in-service or even before the faculty golf tournament, when we played.  Why?  Because 32 years ago, a couple of vets took me, a brand new teacher, out there for a great sandwich and those killer onion rings, and the pattern stuck, and even though those men are long gone and I will be in a few years, the drive to that restaurant, a decent haul from the gates of the school, will likely continue.  Or die.

But lunch out?  I don't think it will die as an institution, unless we get an interim head like our sister school did, who banned all faculty from leaving campus during the day.  A most misguided decision, I would argue.  To understand schooling, you need to understand the balance between time on and time off, by day and by year.  To be "all on" in front of a group of students or for a variety of jobs every single day, school employees need time off to recharge the batteries.  If that balance is not here, faculty can implode.

You see, there are many theories as to why our friend is moving on, and all of them hold some truth, I'm sure.  But the simplest explanation is probably: lunch.

A change in work circumstances for him packed his schedule so much that he could never go to lunch with us, and, at some point, if you can't enjoy the community of a school built on community, you must ask yourself, What's the point?  The outside demands of family, children's obligations, church, house, complex relationships make evening and weekend socializing always a bit of a crap shoot, depending on the life stage we are in.

But lunch?  Lunch is sacred. Or was.  Or should have been.  The first thing my lunch regulars and I want to know on early Monday morning is when that week we will go to lunch.  The first thing my departing friend and I would do when we got our schedules for the year would be to look for common free lunch periods.  Sadly, in recent years, those dried up.

It's funny, isn't it?  When a person leaves, you don't feel the whole person gone.  Why should you?  My pal will be a relatively short drive down the road, a text or email away, a likely frequent visitor in this city.  No, what I will miss is my friend in context--coming to terms with a different car parking next to mine each day, walking down to my classroom without the chance to have a 5- minute energy-boosting chat, the lack of commiserations about the daily grind of the modern work life. And lunch.

Or breakfast, since for so many years, breakfast was our lunch, before-school coffee and raisin toast as we, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, "prepare[d] a face to meet the faces that we meet."

The greatest trait a person can have is "conviviality," the enjoyment of eating and drinking with friends.  Contained in that one trait is the acceptance of all of our foolishness, our lies and half-truths, our petty jealousies and self-serving natures.  It is the grace to be generous to people whether you like them or not, to acknowledge that in spite of our human weaknesses, common experiences are better shared.  That's what lunch was about.  And that's what you have, my friend, in spades. A bientot, j'espere.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Shedding Skin

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Dear Friend,

This morning you wrote to me, “It’s becoming real.”

You’re really moving. You’re really picking up your life, having invested almost 30 years in this one place, and plopping it down into another city, another school, another culture. And you're leaving a lot behind.

As I sit this morning, temporarily dislocated in another city and immersed (ne drowning?) in education data and discussion, I was stuck staring into my escapist-inspired overpriced mocha, thinking fondly, but sadly, of you. To even try and think of what is going through, and has gone through, your head and heart these past few months. quakes my knees.

I wonder what you think of your friends in what has become your “former home.” Almost all of us believed this change was a good idea for you. Why would people want someone about whom they deeply care to move away? Why would we want to break up the band?

It’s a tricky thing, to be a parent or a friend. To figure out what’s best for someone else. To determine what it means to believe in someone, to support them, to care about their needs and interests. Oh yeah, and to not butt in. To not overstep very important bounds. Perhaps the bounds change based on the connection -- parent, spouse, friend -- but there’s no science to drawing that line. It’s more like art and luck, and the best of spouses, friends, and parents just seem to draw it better, to know when and how to let go of the proverbial bicycle.

(Is it strange how often I feel like a terrible friend? That I mostly pray that my friends know how much I care despite how terrible I am at proving/showing it?)

That so many of the people who love you dearly seem so unified in the belief that this move is good… did it leave you wanting the right person to express dissent? Did you have dark moments where you wondered whether we’re all on the other side of the room whispering, “And don’t let the door hit you on your way out, buddy”?

I ask you to think about your place in an important history. Some 75 years before you, a man made this same move, from and to the same places, possibly for some of the same reasons. The founder of your new school came from your old school, as you know. He moved from here to there and helped to build, from the foundations up, the very school that now so impresses you with its different set of challenges and possibilities, strengths and dysfunctions. When he arrived, the school was on the brink of insolvency, and look now. Now the school is “crushin’ it,” as the whipper-snappers say.

You are stepping into a place, into a culture, into a school whose ideas and educational beliefs were borne, from its beginnings, of the same place you leave. By many accounts, if you’ll forgive the misquoting of Star Wars, the student school has become the master. Higher student achievement levels and expectations coming in and going out. More than twice the endowment in almost half the time. A campus sitting on real estate worth more than Greece, at the moment.

There is clear precedent here. A history of taking wisdom and experience from your former locale, transferring it to this new place, and making something equally, possibly even more amazing from it.

We’re both religious seekers who often feel closest to God when our artistic or intellectual synapses are firing at their highest levels. We are skeptical of those who claim to be “called” somewhere, because usually those people are trying to give God credit for selfish or self-motivated decisions, perhaps in the hopes that by so doing, it’s less selfish, less self-motivated.

For your sake, I hope you believe this move is for yourself, because God can work through us even when we're driving the wrong damn way down a one-way street.

I hope you find new and amazing parts of yourself, strengths long dormant and unused in an environment that had grown too comfortable. I hope you feel yourself, gradually, incrementally, realizing just how much more of an amazing person you can be than you have been, that what you were was deeply beloved, but what you can become is worth shedding some skin.

Selfishly, because I also suspect change is coming for me, I’m hoping to watch you blaze this nerve-wracking trail and hold onto the lessons of what and what not to do when departing the only real work culture you know and entering an alien environment with alien people and their alien ways of doing things.

One of the more salient lessons I’ve learned this summer is that inspiration literally requires hitting a wall, that your brain cannot make the leap from what it knows to what it can unexpectedly discover without a moment of giving up. In giving up, even if only briefly, the brain is permitted to rewire and think differently, and it is there where eureka lives.

For both our sakes, I hope no snake is too old to shed some skin and find a way to become something more. Our best eurekas are ahead of us.

Walk on, walk on, walk on.

Love,
Your Friend

Sunday, July 12, 2015

"You Should Stare Into My Eyes More"

Look me in the f*#king eye when I’m talking to you.

I’ve always thought of Mates of State songs as hitting someone over the head with an Escher drawing. You might not be exactly sure what the frick they’re proclaiming, but you know they really really mean it. And they make the confusion less aggravating by throwing in these one-line fortune cookie zingers that glue themselves to your cerebral cortex. Lines like:

Love loud, don’t lose loud.

Everything’s gonna get lighter, even if it never gets better.

I can’t wait to say all the things you can’t see, all the things that make you better.


Opening act Good Graeff came out for a rousing encore
with Mates of State at The High Watt in Nashville.
If there’s an obvious theme running through their new EP, You’re Going to Make It, it’s that when we lose eye contact, we lose everything. You don’t need a USB cable or Bluetooth to connect to important stuff. You need to be there, physically and preferably with another human being, in the f*#king moment. Look me in the eyes when we’re talking.

A number of critics seem to view MoS as a peppy, optimistic band that celebrates love and happiness, which is like saying Shel Silverstein wrote cute children’s books. MoS might be a “glass half full” kind of band, but they also know that the glass is only half full, and that the other half is full of regret, guilt, lost opportunities, roads not taken, and irreversible mistakes. In most cases, the MoS glass is focused on two, and only two, people. A relationship. Usually romantic. Maybe there are kids. Maybe there are additional romantic trysts or threats, but it’s all really about what is going on between two people.

In other words, there’s nothing unique about their subject matter. MoS is about the delivery, about hitting you over the head with an Escher drawing.

The oddball song in this EP is “Beautiful Kids,” the kind of love-it-or-hate-it song that sums up the MoS vibe, but the subject matter in this case is not introspection or the dissection of two people. Rather, it’s a cautionary insult.
Beautiful kids, did we kill the magazines?
Beautiful kids, you’re always staring into cracked screens.
Could this be the last time you will get to know me?
It’s the modern age
Why’d we kill the books now?
You should stare into my eyes more 
Beautiful kids, I can never know your struggle
Beautiful kids, predict your thoughts and sell your data
This will be the last time you will ever know me
in the modern age
So why’d we kill the books now?
You should stare into my eyes more 
We should turn the page back
Forget about the score
It’s never enough, we always want more
We go click click click click click….
click click click click
It’s eternal
Can we turn it off?
This song is either the beginning of the end for Mates of State or the beginning of a next stage, because this is the first song they’ve written where I think of them as parents more than as musicians. They’ve stood in front of increasingly younger audiences for almost 20 years, and they’re increasingly standing in front of an audience more concerned with capturing the moment on a phone, or replying to a text between songs, than they are with connecting to the band they paid to enjoy. And, in this song, I can’t help but think they started from the question of, “Is this what our kids are going to grow up to become?”

It’s a strange thing to be a liberally-minded person lamenting over cracked screens and eye contact. Our sort believes in progress and moving boldly into the future… but we also wonder what kind of screwed-up future would be more interested in, as Louis C.K. has observed, viewing the concert by watching the tiny screen in front of us rather than seeing the much higher-resolution reality beyond that screen.

I think most liberally-minded middle-aged adults hope it’s a fad and fear it’s a trend. I think we hope we’re not shouting Version 2.0 of GET OFF MY LAWN!

But if grumpy old people can hold onto the glass that’s half-full, as Mates of State so clearly can, then there’s always half a glass of possibility. And you get the full-on sugary celebration of the beauty of a half-full glass on “Gonna Get It”:
Could it be that
I can see an empire
It might be nothing
Maybe it’s ours to take
We’re gonna get it
Now we’re gonna get it
Now we’re gonna get it now 
They gave you the right
To believe that you might
Those last two lines. That's the sound of the wise parent.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Salt and Pepper

Times being what they are, a title like that is bound to have some metaphorical underpinnings.  Are we going to talk race relations, like "Ebony and Ivory"?  Or will this be some rumination on aging, how an initial sprinkling of white and gray is going to overwhelm darker hair as we age?  Or is Bob so uncool that he wants to talk about "old school" female Hip Hop artists, but can't get the colloquial usage quite right?

Well, no, this is nothing more than talk about the two seasonings that sit on a table, one that spurred the explorations of new lands and continents, the other which is one of the essences of life, unless we add too much of its essence to our lives.

Simple salt and pepper.  Or the lack thereof.

Now that my wife and I have an "empty nest," we tend to find ourselves drifing more casually and often toward s quick meal out.  Sometimes we get home, late both of us, and the energy isn't there to start cooking.  Sometimes we string together a series of meals at home and then reward ourselves with a pretty nice meal on a Friday night, like we did last night.

Last night, there was no salt or pepper on the table in the restaurant.  This afternoon at brunch, there was no salt or pepper on the table in the restaurant.

If you eat in trendier, "upscale" places sometimes, you have , no doubt, experienced this phenomenon.  Like wait people who insist on memorizing your order instead of writing it down, the lack of seasonings on the table is a way of saying, in an esoteric restaurant sense, "We got this."  As in, they got this, not you.

I understand what the restaurants are trying to do.  They are trying to show that their chefs are such superb tastemakers that it would be redundant or excessive to add to their carefully-considered seasonings.  They are saying that they have prepared the food as it is to be eaten and nothing more will be needed.

There's just one problem:  removing the diner from the seasoning equation suggests that all diners are the same, or, put differently, that the same food will please all diners.  Everyone reading this knows that is not true, so why don't these restaurants?  A child is going to expect ketchup with his fries, and a restaurant that carries no ketchup in an attempt to ignore that reality needs a "No children" sign posted largely on the front door.  At the other end of the age spectrum, an older person whose tastebuds have begun to lose some of their sensitivity is going to like things to be sweeter, saltier, maybe hotter, just to perk up those tired buds.

Beyond that, people from different cultural backgrounds have different seasoning needs.  That's why a Thai restaurant will offer to season dishes at, sometimes, 5 different levels of heat.  Me, I just wanted some black pepper for the potato salad that didn't have the same "pop" as my neighbor's superb potato.  Me, I just wanted a little salt for my Waygu beef burger.  Forgive me, but I like a little salt with red meat, even if it has been massaged.

Even though I find the no salt or pepper on a table annoying, I laugh as I write this because I think of the different palates my friends and I have at a Japanese restaurant.  If we all three order teriyaki chicken, I will use white sauce and Siracha, Troutking will use Siracha and ginger sauce, and Billy will use all three.

Do these restaurants whose tables are bare of seasonings think that their customers' use of simple salt and pepper is any less idiosyncratic?   Really, I know this a "First World" problem, if that, but the decision to make that decision for consumers is nothing less than patronizing.  It says, and this mantra should be a cautionary one for any restaurant, it says, "Our food is more important than your enjoyment of it."

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Yes, Pickles!

It is the summer, cucumbers are bountiful and cheap, and eating is casual and often grilled, so the question is:  why aren't you making pickles?

If you aren't a pickle lover, read no further, but if you are, there is literally nothing easier to make yourself and to enjoy, if you want, almost immediately.  Pickles are in almost every culture's food for two simple reasons: 1) pickling is a way of preserving and extending the life of vegetables (or fruits) and 2) the acidic nature of pickles is a compliment to meats and other proteins.  From the sour pickles of Germany to the stinky kimchee of Korea to the elaborate array of pickles in India, they are literally everywhere around the globe.

All you need to make pickles are the following:
Photo courtesy of onceuponachef.com

A refrigerator
vinegar
salt
sugar (maybe)
water
a few herbs and spices of your choosing
jars, bowls, containers of your choosing
cucumbers

No special ingredients or equipment; just what you've got, unless you are looking to make a particular flavor.  And, wait, not even cucumbers.  You can pickle just about anything!  Pickled onions are great on sandwiches or in egg salad.  That zucchini and yellow squash you've got growing in your garden will pickle nicely.  So will green tomatoes (or ripe ones).  Or watermelon rind.

Still imtimidated?  Start simple.  Start with David Chang, the chef behind Momofuku.  To make his "quick pickles," you simply toss, say sliced cucumbers, with sugar and salt in a 2:1 ratio (probably about 1 tablespoon to 1/2 tablespoon for every couple of cups of sliced cucumbers), let them sit for about 15 minutes, pour off the liquid that accumulates, and you've got pickles!  Tasty ones!  And not even any vinegar.  That will keep in the refrigerator.

Many people think pickles mean canning aka boiling a brine and pouring it over the vegetables and sterilizing and sealing special jars and lids and then simmering them in water for  10-15 minutes before you pull them out with special tongs and then listening for the distinctive "pop" that tells you the jars have sealed.

Yeah, you can do it that way.  But they'll suck.

That is, unless you like soft, mushy pickles.  I don't.  I like a crispy snap to my pickle, a certain turgidity that only comes from making refrigerator pickles.  These babies you can start eating the day after you put them in and you can keep eating them for another month, if they last that long.  Sure, they won't be as crisp on day 30, but they will have a deeper flavor and will still crunch.

My current go-to refrigerator dill pickles are these, from onceuponachef.com.  Her addition of coriander seeds to the springs of fresh dill and garlic and mustard seeds and a few pepper flakes are really easy and flavorful.  I've made several batches this summer, have given some away (winning someone else's inner-family pickle competition), and am happy to see them whenever I open my refrigerator.

For a sweeter pickle, I use David Chang's master recipe (not the quick pickles above), which makes a milder (because of the rice vinegar), less sweet pickle than the ones you might buy in a store.  Great with grilled Asian food.

If you get into pickling big time, then, sure, you'll want to try to make the kind of fermented pickles that your grandmother never made (mine did, but I'm assuming you're younger) or that might come with your sandwich at any great deli, but my efforts with those kinds of pickles have never yielded the results I'd hoped for.  So I just reach into the fridge.  What are you waiting for?  Get pickling!




Tuesday, July 7, 2015

HIVES, the acronym

Dear Television:

I'm not really even someone who used to watch TV, but I will concede, nay, celebrate, the fact that this new "Golden Age" of television, which might have (I'm not TV historian) started with The Sopranos and 24, continued through The Wire and The Shield, peaked (apparently, I haven't started it yet) with Breaking Bad, and continues with too many shows to name, is really something special for anyone interested in quality (or even crappy) entertainment.

You guys have done great!  There is a lot of good stuff out there!

There's just one problem:  I can't keep up.

Too many shows on too many networks is beginning to drive me crazy.  I knew I had turned a serious corner last night when my wife asked me to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates with her (we have an MLB subscription--that's its own kind of TV show!) and I said this, "I can't, Honey.  Monday is my Catch Up Night."  What?

But it's true.  Since HBO unleashed the second season of True Detective, The Brink, and Ballers all at once, I've been trying to keep my eyes above water.  Add to that the highly-regarded Mr. Robot, which I can only catch on Xfinity for a limited amount of time, and I tell you, I am scrambling.

Put these shows off until the fall, when things are calmer, someone might suggest.  But I can't.  By the fall, how many more new shows will be out.  I know the next House Of Cards is out there somewhere, that Games Of Thrones and Veep will be back.  I watched and voted for a series called The Man In The High Castle on Amazon Prime that will be coming out soon.

Plus, I never got to Rectify after the first episode, got separated from Homeland after the first season, and have tried and failed to be one of The Americans on more than one occasion.  Something else shows up and I get distracted.  Orange Is The New Black has gotten ahead of me; I'll probably never actually go back to The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, since they feel like dinosaurs now.  Some Amazon original has already won Emmys, and I've never even clicked on it.

New episodes!  More original series!  Movie stars on TV!  Blogs about shows!  More networks!  More networks producing new episodes of original series starring movie stars that people are blogging about!

I have a solution.  And it kind of comes from Donald Trump.  Trump once suggested that you only need to know enough about a book to be able to talk about it at a cocktail party.  That was accomplished, I suppose, by reading the back cover and maybe the inside cover.  But who the heck is talking about books at cocktail parties these days??????  They're talking about TELEVISION!

So here's my solution.  I'm only going to watch the first episode of new shows as they come out.  Actually, accidentally, did that with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  Saw it, kind of liked it, and then, before I could give it another thought, it disappeared from my radar.

Back to that solution.  I'm so scattered these days.  There's not much going on at work and I'm wondering if I can sneak off and watch Mr. Robot.  Anyway, only the first episode.  First episodes are like the opening songs on CDs.  They usually catchy, good, set a tone, all of that good stuff.

And if I've got that first episode down, I can go all kinds of different places with it at the cocktail parties in my future:  "You know, I watched the first episode, but I couldn't get into it."  "Yeah, great show.  I'm a little behind.  Whatever happened to...."  "Woah!  Spoiler alert!  Don't tell me."  "Yes, I've seen it, but I thought the previous season was better."  "I love the music on that show.  Isn't T-Bone Burnett choosing the songs?"  "The set-up for the season was so great, but the show really didn't fulfill its promise, imho."  "Have you noticed how much they drink on that show?  Anybody need another beer?"

With an expansive collection of first episodes under my belt, I'm good anywhere from the urologist's waiting room to the artist's wine and cheese reception at church.  I can talk to the world, smile at advertisements on the sides of buses, nod at conversations going on around me.

Otherwise, I'm going to end up in a psychiatrist's chair with "Hyper-Intensive Varietal Entertainment Syndrome," trying to convince the doctor of my idea for how to create 32-hour days.  Because I'm telling you, I can't keep up anymore.  But I'm trying.

Yours in programming,

Bob



Monday, July 6, 2015

Food + Money + "Ethics" + Marketing = Betrayal

I probably eat in Panera more than any other restaurant--not because it is my favorite place, but because I meet my father there every Sunday morning.  I also don't eat all that much when I'm there, occasionally a pastry or a bagel with my ubiquitous cup of coffee.

And because people are so calorie conscious these days, what slows me when I do order food are the calorie listings that go with all of the breakfast items on the menu.

We eat lunch there sometimes, too, especially if we're out at the mall and want something that is quick and relatively healthy, or, even more so, if we are on the road and want the same thing.  Panera has always seemed safe, reliable, one of the "good guys" when it comes to restaurants.

So it is with some disgust that I react to the new signs that hang all over Panera locations, signs like the one above that proclaim the restaurant chain's new initiative to get all of the artificial ingredients out of its food by 2016.

This is marketing.  This is a trend.  Other chains from Chipotle to McDonald's are doing the same thing.  And I'm not naive; it is effective marketing in 2015. But it is not just marketing; it is expense. The fact that Panera reminds us that they can't fully make the transition until 2016 is an indication that they are having to "retool" parts of their operation and that, until then, they are perfectly happy to continue serving us the ingredients that they feel it necessary to remove.

I am a label reader.  When I buy products in a supermarket, I look to see what is in them, and if there are a number of ingredients aka chemicals in there that I don't recognize (or that I do recognize and fear), then I don't buy the product.  Some food additives are scary; some are just scary-sounding.  for example, you probably don't want to eat any form of aluminum, but you probably do.

So if you look to the left (chart courtesy of foodbabe.com), you can see the additions to your food that Panera is taking away.  I don't know all of those, obviously, but there is some pretty bad stuff on there, things that you would not willingly put into your body if you knew what they were.

And that raises the question.  Since Panera knows what those ingredients are, since Panera knows that they can positively market the fact that they are removing these additives, why did they ever use them in the first place?  It is not like these 150 additives were suddenly discovered to be bad for us in the last week.

Why was it okay to sneak all of this into their food before, but it is not okay now?  Is Panera more ethical now, or did they just get caught?  Or, why announce that you are removing them before you remove them, leaving us to know that they are still in there?

The simple answer to any question we can think of is money.  Panera could make more money by using these chemicals.  Most of them preserve, stabilize, or maintain the consistency of the food they are added to and that means longer shelf life and that means less waste and that means more profit.

I'm not so naive as to deny a company's right/need to make money, but I don't find it unrealistic for them to do so in responsible ways.  The reasons I focus on Panera are a) no one expects this kind of ethical activity from McDonald's, b) Chattanooga does not have Chipotle, and c) well, Panera.

Panera promotes the freshness of its menu, even changing it to reflect the season, is extremely open about its caloric content, and even markets itself as something of a "healthy" place to eat-- with nutritious power sandwiches for breakfast, smoothies, and a variety of teas and drinks that reflect latest healthy trends like mango or acai berry.  Sure, they've got pastries, but they are clearly catering to fitness-conscious eaters as well.

And that's why I feel betrayed, a betrayal that isn't mitigated by the menu and food preparation changes they are in the midst of.  Panera may be doing something "right," but they aren't doing it for the right reasons.  They are doing it for marketing (to suggest that now they are even healthier), and they are doing it in full awareness of American consumer amnesia.  People forget.

And what about item 151?  150 is such a nice, easy to remember, round number, isn't it?  Do you think that by some coincidence that is exactly how many things needed to go?  Or are there other things still in the food that, at least for the moment, they know that they can still get away with?

Food production companies rely on an FDA (Food and Drug Administration) called GRAS, which means "generally regarded as safe."  If you're an English teacher like I am, ponder the diction of that least common denominator for a second.  You probably think I'm paranoid, but for someone like me who watches what is in food, Panera's actions, paradoxically, make me feel less safe, not more so.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Tooth Life

Q: Why are dentists so unhappy?
A: Because they are always looking down in the mouth.
                                                                                           --old riddle

This is, first, the story of two root canals.

The first root canal was a failure in every way possible.  I was in the dentist chair for 2 1/2 hours.  During that time, before the dentist even came in, the assistant told me that the dentist was left-handed and that she was having trouble coordinating tools and procedures with him.  During that time, the battery on his forehead light lost power and he had to drive to his other office, a 45-minute round trip, to get a replacement.  During that time, he finally realized that he did not have the tools and the expertise to complete the surgery.  So he sent me to a specialist.

The specialist's office was the most beautiful medical facility I have ever been in.  Located in an office building overlooking a shopping mall, it had an open feeling due to its partial walls on the interior and the floor to ceiling windows on the exterior.  He told me that all he did was root canals, nothing else, and so the tough cases came to him.  With an efficient assistant and state-of -the-art equipment and anesthetic, I was in and out of the chair in 25 minutes.  Not kidding.

The cost of this expert root canal was $949.

Now, think about that for a second.  If fully booked, he could do two of these surgeries every hour, and for a full day and a full week, could make close to $16,000 a day, or $80,000 each week.  If he took three weeks of vacation every year, he could gross close to $4,000,000 a year.  Now, I know there are equipment costs and rent and insurance and other employees to pay, but still, he could make quite a chunk of money every year and probably does.

Depending on where you look, the high suicide rate for dentists (over 5x higher than the general population) is either an alarming fact or a punchline.  Doctors also have suicide rates that come close to or occasionally surpass dentists.  Military veterans, while their statistics are alarming, are not as high.

According to mentalhealthdaily.com, the suspected causes of suicides among these professionals are things like "stress, demanding nature of the job, patient complaints, perfectionism, and even loans to pay off from dental school."

I have another theory: what if your job involved doing the exact same thing over and over, hour after hour, day after day, week after week?  What if you were a highly and expensively trained professional and yet all of your expertise reduced to a very narrow use of skills?  Because that is where the money is, right?  You want to make big money as a doctor or dentist?  Then you have to specialize, narrow your practice to an area that few others can do and probably not as well as you can.

And that may mean walking into pre-op room after pre-op room and putting random strangers to sleep before surgery.  Or doing root canals with such efficiency that your patient is little more than a tooth surrounded by blue latex that you work on with an x-Ray and a microscope and a drill.  All you have to say to him or her is "Do you need to be suctioned?" or "You're doing great" or a narrative of the procedure that you deliver in a monotonic, done-this-a-thousand-times voice.

If you check the hours of dentists, most of them are not seeking to maximize profits like my mathematical example above.  Instead, they work 4, maybe even only 3, days a week.  Now that could mean that they are so wealthy they don't need to work more, but that doesn't seem to be the case, in general.  Maybe they just can't take the grind, and need a golf course to decompress and to regroup.

An assembly line is an assembly line whether you are building cars or fixing teeth, and even if one is far more lucrative, that does not mean that it is any more fulfilling.  Most of us dread going to the dentist's office and can't wait to leave, even if it is a routine visit.  What if you lived there and that was your routine?


Friday, July 3, 2015

Fireworks and Thunder

It doesn't seem fair, does it, that there should be fireworks and thunder going on at the same time?  Those pops, booms, and staccato bursts of machine-gun like explosions are reserved, aren't they, for hot summer nights, clear and dry, with lightning bugs speckling the darkness.  And thunder?  Well, if it's rumbling all around with increasing, sky-lighting flashes, shouldn't the human pyrotechnics be saved in paper bags by the door for another night?

Last night, we had both going on simultaneously, and my mention of this leads to an obvious insight on your part: Yes, I have a dog.  When the thunder starts, my dog shivers uncontrollably.  If I try to hold him, he won't be held.  If I put him on the bed with us so that he can try to go to sleep and tell him that "This is the safest place in the world," he will jump down and emit high-pitched whines in the darkness.  He will move irrationally from place to place, so the whines begin to come from all over the room.  If he seems close, and I reach out, I will grab nothing but air.  If I turn on the light to locate him, he will back away when I call him.

And when there are fireworks and thunder, there is no respite.  Such was last night.

We had friends from Florida with young boys over the other night, and we were out in the backyard playing Spikeball and could hear the beginnings of the evening fireworks around us.

The oldest one said to me, "Did you hear that?  That sounded like a gun."

"That wasn't a gun," I said.

"How do you know it wasn't?"

"Because I hear them all the time," I said, casually.  "And that wasn't one."

"But how can you tell?"

My expertise kicked in.  "Guns have a sharper sound.  They are more sporadic, random.  Sometimes you can hear another, more distant or different sounding gun shooting back."  I have to admit I was kind of amazed at what was pouring out of me.  "Oh, yeah," I said, "And it's usually later at night that you hear them.  They wake you up and you say, that was a gun."

There is a way to keep my dog safe from his terror of loud noises.  It is called a Thundercoat, and we own one, though I couldn't put my hands on it, if I had to.  It is a tight-fitting canine garment, and its snugness gives the animal comfort, like its mother is protecting him.  If you've ever been held tightly, you can quickly grasp how it works, or is supposed to.

You see, there is a design-flaw to the Thundercoat--you must put it on the dog before the thunder starts.  If the dog does not feel secure before the noise begins, the coat is worthless.  That leaves a couple of choices: 1) trust the Weather Channel to be able to tell you when a thunderstorm is coming or 2) keep it on your dog all the time.  But a tight, secure embrace all of the time?  That would be like an American citizen wearing a bulletproof vest to work or school everyday.  What kind of life would that be?

Even if we grant the weather people a fighting chance, there is still no way to predict when the fireworks will start or stop (around here, it is often many days after the 4th before all of the ordinance is gone).  Or when a national exuberance to celebrate means firecrackers in the rain.  Or when the holiday is over and you know there will still be explosions in the night that leave me awake wondering what lit the fuse and knowing that the coat won't save anyone.

Poor dog.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Flavor

Flavor is work.  Flavor is time.  Flavor is a perfect blend of "ingredients."  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  This is as true for a homegrown tomato as it is for a rack of ribs or a complicated dish in French cuisine.  People are often amazed by real flavor because they sense its complexity, even if they can't articulate it, and because they don't exactly know where it came from or how to do it.

Flavor shortcuts, on the other hand, tend to be artificial and noticeable, but most of us don't notice because modern society teaches us that, contrary to what I've just asserted, flavor is not worth the time.  We do not blink at eating a quick-rise or even a frozen pizza crust, even though we know that occasionally we splurge for that restaurant pizza whose crust is made with a special flour, pure ingredients, and an overnight (or longer) rise in the refrigerator.  Yeah, the institutional crust is good enough, especially if we overwhelm our taste buds with enough toppings.

A helpful way to think about flavor is this:  flavor has layers. But not like a "loaded" pizza. It's hard to conceptualize that when you are staring into a vat of liquid, because those layers aren't vertical like that old Jello product that would separate into three different layers after it went into the refrigerator to firm up.

No, flavor has layers in the same way that a relationship has layers.  A marriage, for example, will likely have layers of trust, commitment, sexuality, friendship, child-rearing, shared history, and any number of things.  The layers create depth, in the same way that flavor layers do.

The reason that this is on my mind is because, for only the second time in my life, I have made the Momofuku ramen broth to serve to others.  And most people, when they taste it, when they put sprouts and chicken and poached egg and scallions and nori and then ladle the broth over that, then it is the smell and flavor of the broth that carries them away.  It happens to me, too, not only when I go back and make myself a second bowl, when I add each layer along the way.

So, courtesy of chef David Chang, here is how depth of flavor is created:

First, in many quarts of plain what, you simmer several pieces of dried kombu seaweed and then let it steep.

Then you add dried shitake mushrooms and do the same thing--let the hot liquid plump them up and infuse the water with their earthy essence.

So, two layers, and already you have the sea and the earth in your pot.

Next goes in several pounds of chicken and, especially, chicken bones, the first animal presence in the broth.  I use chicken legs because they have a lot of bones by weight, and their dark meat holds its flavor when I take it out after an hour-long simmer.

The next two ingredients are the most challenging, one because it is unwanted and the other because it is so prized.  To find pork neckbones in a city, you have to find a grocery store with a strong African-American presence, because that particular part of the pig is yet another discarded portion that their culture has worked magic with.

The other ingredient is Benton's bacon, a most-desirable item that menus across America like to show off for its outrageous smokiness (um, and depth of flavor).  So pig, two ways, is ready to go in, but first those neckbones need to be roasted.  Why?  Because roasting concentrates flavor.

So the pound of bacon simmers for an hour (which sucks all of the flavor out), but not until the pork has roasted for an hour and can join it.  Time.  Work.

The pork simmers in the broth for 5-6 hours, the longest of any ingredient, and then for the last 45 minutes, it is joined by an onion, a bunch of scallions, and a carrot or two.  Vegetables have joined the party.

At this point, with all of the solids removed, you have a rich, meaty, smoky broth tempered by the sweetness of onions and carrots and the land-and-sea funk of mushrooms and seaweed underneath.

So the broth is finished, but it is not seasoned.  For Chang, that seasoning alone is a chance to add multiple additional layers of flavor.  He seasons his broth with tare.

Tare is a simmered concoction of its own--roasted chicken bones, soy sauce, mirin (sweetened Japanese wine), and saki.  I use chicken wings, which, when roasted, then simmered as part of the tare, become the more tender and flavorful wings I've ever tasted, outrageously sweet and salty at the same time, but not so much that you don't keep reaching for another one and another...As for the actual tare broth, you add it by the tablespoonful to your ramen broth until it tastes the way you want it to.

I fully realize that this is more than you ever wanted to know, even those few of you who are still reading.  But I just wanted to show how flavor builds.  You'd have to say there are at least 7-8 layers you can taste in what started as plain water.  And yes, all of the flavor groups are there--sweet, salty, a bit of sourness from the wine, the tinge of bitterness from roasted meats, and, finally, the all-important unami, the fifth flavor.

Next time you taste something that is flavorful beyond compare and you wonder how it happened, think of this broth.  Here's how.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Women's Soccer Is Not For Women...

yet.

That is my theory, anyway, based, admittedly on a very small ethnographic study.  Still, I think I'm right.  Girls, yes.  Women, not so much.

I have seen part or all of the last three matches played by the American women in the World Cup.  Each of those matches has seen an increase in viewership in the United States.  But in each case, the women I was with had no interest in the match or its outcome.

Tonight, at my house, there were 9 people here to watch the match-- 2 women, 3 men, and 4 boys.  While the boys watched USA vs. Germany with varying degrees of interest and the men were glued to the entire match, the women sat outside away from the television and talked.  I know that is not a significant sample, but I still think my theory is right.  Here's why:

1.  The level of play in women's soccer is high enough that men who love to watch men play enjoy watching the women play, too.  That is not always the case, even in professional women's basketball (not my judgement, that comes from my sports fiend friends).

2. Women, at least those past 40, did not grow up with much soccer contact, so they often don't really understand, or even connect with, the game.

3.  Girls, on the other hand, have had nationwide success with soccer, starting with their schooling and pre-schooling, so they are all about the USA women's team.

4. Men are more likely to plug into "patriotic" notions, are more likely to care about such U.S. vs. The World kinds of things, and, with the 4th of July approaching, the idea of an American team moving on to a finals showdown on July 5th is like red, white, and blue candy.

5. Since the start of the Women's World Cup, the American women have made it to at least the semifinals every single tournament.  Their program has been more successful than the men's program from the beginning, and male viewers have figured that out.  If you like World Cup soccer and you are a U.S.A. fan, you get to hang with the women longer.

6. Men like to watch in-shape women.  While Team USA is not necessarily filled with "lookers," I do have friends who hold "sports crushes" (a term I just invented) on Hope Solo and Alex Morgan.

7. Women, on the other hand, are, perhaps, not as inclined to cheer on younger, more in-shape women.  And that's all I have to say about that.

8. Soccer is growing in the U.S. at all levels, and the Women's World Cup takes advantage of that.  Certainly the women are deserving of a loyal following in their own right, but there is little doubt that their tournament feeds the needs of men who don't want to have to wait four years for another World Cup.

9. Some early members of the U.S. women's team established themselves as sex symbols, and there continues to be a residual effect from that.  Again, small study, but men can name and identify more players on the women's team then they can on the men's.

10.  Men typically like sports, watching sports, all sports, more than women do, and the Women's World Cup is the flavor of the moment, positioned in between the end of the NBA and NHL, before football, and during the dog days of seemingly-inconsequential baseball.

So, yeah, it will be cool when America's women get behind America's women's team in the world's sport, but that isn't likely to happen for some time.  Too many societal conditions have to change. Or, maybe I'm just wrong about all of this.  I do know that the other men and I are already making plans for the final on Sunday.  Our wives, well, God bless them, they will probably have to come along to support us more than the team.