Third-Wheel Meal

In last week’s ’tis the Seasonings post, I wondered why “ginger” and “red hair” were synonymous. Paula from Monday Morning Rail replied with the answer which probably trumps all others (thanks, Paula!).  Ginger Grant, the glam character from the sixties sitcom Gilligan’s Island had a healthy head of red hair.  Sometime after the sixties a “ginger” became a person with red hair.  I’m satisfied, so let’s move to a question more appropriate for this week.  Why is (America’s) Thanksgiving celebrated on a Thursday?

Yes, it’s time for my annual Thanksgiving rant.  Rather, my everything-steps-all-over-Thanksgiving rant.  It’s not really an annual rant but perhaps it should be.  Three years ago I had so much to vent about Thanksgiving’s due, it took me two blog posts to let off the steam (see A Distant Third).  This year I’ve decided, zero progress has been made since then.  In fact, the situation is snowballing.  Thanksgiving is finding less and less air as it gasps between the behemoths known as Halloween and Christmas.

Poor choice of word, “snowballing”.  It’ll make readers think about Christmas and I need you to stay focused.  My campaign is to keep each of the year-end holidays corralled into its respective month.  In other words, November equals Thanksgiving. (Repeat ten times, please).  Turkeys and pumpkin pie, not Santas and plum pudding.

There, I said it.  Apologies to those of you who’ve already shopped and wrapped presents.  Apologies to the rest of you who’ve already decorated your houses.  I’m just trying to give Thanksgiving its rightful place among the “big three” instead of its laggard position as “third wheel”.

You can name a dozen things associated with Halloween, and two dozen more with Christmas.  But with Thanksgiving?  Three (at least here in America).  We have the meal itself, the parades, and football.  That’s pretty much it.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the American Thanksgiving trifecta.  The meal is hanging in there despite efforts to make it healthier.  Turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie are still Thanksgiving staples (while “tofurky” is not).  I sometimes wonder why I don’t enjoy these foods on other days of the year as well.  Also, more people make the Thanksgiving meal at home than order online or go to a restaurant. (Do I have the data to back this up?  No, I do not.)  But we should acknowledge Friendsgiving, which has become common enough to remove the quotation marks.  Not only is Friendsgiving celebrated on any day but Thursday, the table spread can be decidedly different. Watch out.  There may come a November when – GASP! – more people celebrate the “friends” version than the “family”.

Parades remain more about Thanksgiving than the other two holidays.  You’ll find the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television this week and at the same time, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Plymouth, MA host large-scale parades.  But here’s my Davey-downer factoid.  The Macy’s Parade may be the world’s largest (as well as the second-oldest in America) but it’s also an imposter.  It began as the “Macy’s Christmas Parade” in 1924, designed to launch a longer retail season at the end of the year.  So you see, the name may have changed but the parade is still decidedly “holly-jolly”.

Football brings out the smirk in sports fans again this Thanksgiving.  As they have every year since 1934 (save the WWII years) the NFL’s Detroit Lions will be playing on Thanksgiving Day.  As they have been every year (seemingly), the Detroit Lions are a truly awful football team.  In the last twenty years the Lions have amassed exactly four winning seasons.  This year?  The Lions are the only team in the NFL without a win.  The Lions are so bad in fact, the NFL has added two other games to your Thanksgiving Day lineup so you have options.

We’re almost done here, but don’t panic; I haven’t forgotten the original question.  Why is Thanksgiving celebrated on a Thursday?  Here’s the easy answer.  President Lincoln made it so back in 1863, as the final Thursday in November.  President Roosevelt also made it so back in 1941, more specifically the fourth Thursday in November.  Yeah but… why a Thursday?

Here’s the real answer (or at least my answer).  Thanksgiving is on a Thursday.  Thursday is named for the Norse God Thor.  Thor is the God of Thunder.  See the pattern?  Thanksgiving-Thursday-Thor-Thunder.  It’s the whole “Th” thing.  Thanksgiving doesn’t really fit on a Friday (but maybe Friendsgiving does).  Besides, by Friday we’ve forgotten all about turkey and stuffing as we turn to computers and shopping malls.

Now then, banish all that “Th” nonsense from memory.  The real intent here is to give Thanksgiving its proper time and space mid-holiday season.  Let’s move Turkey Day from “third wheel” to “equal wheel” by finding more Thanksgiving stakes to claim in the month of November.  Maybe we should all dress up as pilgrims.  Maybe we should also have our kids “trade” instead of “trick-or-treat”.

With that, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.  And next week, I might even wish you a Merry Christmas.  You know, in December.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

’tis the Seasonings

When I baked a batch of molasses cookies for Halloween last month, I pulled ground ginger, cinnamon, and cloves off the spice shelf without so much as a glance at the labels. I recognized the spices by their colors and textures. Had I taken two seconds more to peruse the other spices nearby, I would’ve noticed the thin layer of dust on their bottle tops. Yep, my life needs a change of season-ings.

Here’s the count, at least in my kitchen.  On the spice shelf, I have fifty-two bottled or bagged inhabitants.  In the spice drawer (essentially an overflow of the shelf) I have another twenty-six.  No-calculator math brings my total to seventy-eight unique flavorings, yet how many do I use regularly?  Maybe a dozen.  I ask the same of you. How many spices live in your rack/drawer/shelf?  Of those, how many do you use week-in and week-out?

We’re missing out on adventure, you and me.  My recipes are bland enough to demand little more than garlic salt or oregano (on the savory side), and cinnamon or ginger (on the sweet).  I could spice things up if I’d just explore more exotic recipes… or simply brighten the ones I already make.  My mantra should be “Spice is the variety of life” (not the other way around).

For inspiration, I could take a trip to Indonesia’s Maluku Islands.  Once upon a time, nutmeg, cloves and mace could be found only on the Malukus, earning their nickname “The Spice Islands”.  I have this vision of a pungent-smelling tropical oasis of colorful trees, plants, and bushes, everything edible and delicious.  I’m running around sampling this and that like a kid in a candy store.  Kind of like (you remember the scene) the Chocolate Room in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Spices have tons of trivial facts and here are some of my favorites:

  • Allspice tastes like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves all rolled into one.  Keep that in mind the next time you bake.
  • Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world.  Some varieties ring in at $400 for a few ounces.  Maybe because it takes a hundred hand-harvested flowers to produce a single gram of the spice?
  • If you find a blend called Chinese Five Spice, you can season your food to be sour, bitter, salty, sweet, and pungent all in one shake of the bottle.
  • “Masala” means “spice”… and nothing more.  In other words, be wary of that next dish of chicken masala; the seasoning could be a blend of anything.
  • Spice blends are often associated with countries, as with Harissa (North Africa) and Jerk (Jamaica).  The United States?  Pumpkin pie spice, of course.  We Americans obsess over anything pumpkin spice.
“If You Wannabe My ‘Clove-r’?”

Because the musically inclined want to know, I took this opportunity to read up on The Spice Girls, the British girl group from the 1990s.  I was disappointed to learn the name has nothing at all to do with spices.  Each of the five women took on a nickname to include the word “spice” but only Geri Halliwell’s (“Ginger Spice”) made any reference to a real spice… and that reference was only to her red hair.

[On that note, can anyone explain ANY connection between “ginger” and “red hair”?  My bottle of ground ginger is decidedly yellow…]

Diaspora Co. Spices gift box

Here’s the real crime with my spice shelf.  Almost all occupants are standard brands, like McCormick or Spice Islands, uniformly bottled in identical quantities.  Neither brand is organic (let alone an advertised proponent of fair trade).  Furthermore, their spices are processed and packaged in a factory, while I have zero excuses not to be shopping at a local store like Penzeys.  You only buy as much as you need at spice stores, and you can be assured of fewer steps in the journey from source to you.  Of course, you can also shop spices online at places like Diaspora and Burlap & Barrel.

Speaking of “as much as you need”, I can say with certainty most of my spices are past desired shelf life.  No, they’re not expired; more like “faded”.  They won’t pack as much punch as they did in their prime.  Here’s the rule of thumb with spices: if whole (i.e., cloves) best used for 2-3 years; if ground (i.e., cinnamon) best for 1-2.

If I took a poll of “favorite spice” I’d get a different answer every time (including a few men who’d choose a Spice Girl).  My favorite spice?  Red pepper flakes.  I use them liberally in a lot of dishes, including pasta and soups.  I describe them as a convenient after-thought, a final flourish as I’m about to sit down at the table.  Fire on top of my food.

Maybe if I invested in one of these spinning countertop racks, the mere visibility of so many options would spice up my life.  I’d be more in line with Simon & Garfunkel’s “… parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme”.  But if I’m limited to a shelf (and a drawer) my spices are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  Just a shake of red pepper flakes and call it good.

Some content sourced from the Relish blog article, “15 Spice Facts You Never Knew”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Scour Power Bars

I like to calculate trivial quantities for my own entertainment. For instance, in the timeframe of my years in grade school, my mother made me over 2,000 sack lunches (thanks, Mom!)  Or how about, in the sixteen years my wife & I have lived at our current address, I’ve driven up and down our street over 12,000 times. Trivial or not, these numbers lend perspective to things we don’t think a lot about.  Like soap.  And my soap number is +650.  That is, the number of bars I’ve consumed over the years in a daily effort to keep clean.

Seriously, when was the last time you gave a bar of soap more than a passing glance?  The poor little 3″ x 2″ x 1″ pastel-colored brick spends its month-long life sitting somewhere in your shower or bath, 23.75 out of 24 hours a day.  In those remaining fifteen minutes (probably less) he gets his one moment of adventure, traveling all over your body while he works to return you to fresh ‘n’ clean.  But with each passing day, Mr. Soap gets smaller and smaller until the dreaded moment of deliberation.  Is his remaining sliver too little for effective scour power?  You’d never know it with all the water, but maybe Mr. Soap sweats as he shrinks, anticipating the moment he gets demoted from the shower to the trash bin.

In the spirit of don’t try this at home (because it’s already been determined), a bar of soap really does last about a month, assuming a daily shower.  And that’s me.  I take a morning shower every day whether I need it or not.  Even if there’s nothing to “get ready” for I still want to face my day like there is.  So, Mr. Soap matters to me. You can understand why I’m getting into a bit of a lather on this topic.

In the chemistry lab, soap equals a surfactant derived from the chemical compound of a fatty acid.  In the supermarket, soap is simply a waxy, floral-smelling substance you purchase in solid or liquid form.  Behold some of the more common brands in America (as advertised online by Wal*Mart):

  • Caress
  • Coast
  • Degree
  • Dial
  • Dove
  • Irish Spring
  • Ivory
  • Jergens
  • Lever
  • Olay
  • Safeguard
  • Yardley
  • Zest

Admit it, as unimportant as soap may be to you, there’s a favorite brand out there, probably from the list above.  Mine is a little more exotic.  I go with Dr. Bronner’s All-One Hemp Lavender Pure-Castile (and how’s that for a mouthful of soap?)  Dr. Bronner’s is harder to find and more expensive than the commoners above, but I sure like it.  Maybe it’s the hemp; you know, maybe I’m getting a little “high ‘n’ clean”?  You could claim I’m “soap-stoned” when I shower.

My wife & I stream most of our entertainment these days so we miss a lot of commercials.  But ads for soap – at least those of several decades ago – took scrubbing bubbles to ridiculous claims.  Coast convinced you its product would “awaken your senses” and “bring you back to life” in the mere minutes of a shower.   Irish Spring advertised itself as “springtime in a bar” as a towel-clad Irishman cut into the soap with a knife he just happened to be carrying, uh… where, exactly?  And Zest had you thinking “you’re not fully clean until you’re Zest-fully clean”.  As if Zest was somehow noticeably better than other options.

Even though my Dr. Bronner’s might label me a soap snob, I want to give a shoutout to Ivory.  The simple white bars claim to be 99.44% pure soap.  The other 0.56% includes the sharp tang of fresh ginger root, a smell I will always associate with my grandparent’s house.  I can’t come up with another smell so “cleanly” connected to my distant past, so Ivory gets my nod of gratitude.

Some of you reading this far dismiss the entire topic since your preference is liquid soap.  I say, good on you!  Liquid soap has all of the cleansing benefits of bar soap and is typically a better moisturizer for the skin.  Liquid soap is also less likely to gather germs than Mr. Soap since he sits fully exposed in the shower all day every day.  But bar soap contains fewer ingredients and more natural ingredients than liquid – better for you and for the environment.  As they say, tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to. 

This opera of soap is just about done, but not before I leave you with one final trivial number: 4,800.  That’s how many years soap’s been a thing, invented by those brilliant but ancient Egyptians.  Think about it the next time you unearth a mummy.  You’ll never know who’s under the wrappings, but at least you can be pretty sure he or she was left fresh ‘n’ clean.

Some content sourced from the RompaGroup article, “17 facts about soap, the most popular hygiene product in the world”, the Healthy Group article, “Is Liquid Soap Better than Bar Soap?”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Once-A-Year Cake-and-Cheer

I caught a radio show last week where a caller mentioned her birthday fell on December 25th. She lamented how, as a kid, she received presents for Christmas and others for her birthday, not knowing which were meant for which. Without missing a beat the radio host goes, “Hey! At least you get to share your birthday with Jesus! I have to share mine with Madonna!”

I decided to play the game myself (and you can too, at the Famous Birthdays website).  Type your special day into the box at the top of the screen and up pop all these, uh, interesting people you share something of a kinship with.  You’ll see names, ages, and occupations under big, colorful photos.  People the website deems famous.  But don’t get too excited now.  I had to scroll through seventeen before I recognized anyone.  Maybe that’s because their occupations are Rapper, YouTube Star, and TikTok Star?  For Pete’s sake, can’t they have real jobs?

Mercifully, I find “real” birthday buddies among the self-proclaimed famous.  Steve Perry – lead singer for the band Journey – shares my birthday, born eleven years before I was.  So does Sam Cooke, whose soulful voice captured hearts in the 1960s.  But one birthday buddy stands gracefully above the rest.  Diane Lane, exactly three years my younger, is one of my favorite actresses.  When Diane turned 14 in 1979, she debuted as the adorable lead in the France/Italy adventure A Little Romance.  I’ve been smitten ever since.

Ms. Lane

Birthdays represent a variety of celebrations as we pass through life, don’t they?  As babies, our parents celebrate for us since we have no clue what the fuss is all about.  As young children, the celebrations become the most colorful: parties with friends of the same age and activities from amusement parks to backyard bouncy houses.  As young adults, birthdays tend to be celebrated at restaurants and bars, with plenty of alcohol flowing.  In the decades following we seem to favor SURPRISE! parties.

Now, as my sixtieth birthday looms like the next interstate exit, I’m all about more subdued celebrations.  A quiet dinner out with my wife.  A trio of phone calls from my kids.  A single piece of birthday cake instead of something big enough to hold five dozen candles.  Wouldn’t want the day to pass without acknowledgment but the simpler the gesture the better.

Speaking of birthday cake, it’s perhaps the single tie that binds as we celebrate our years young and old.  I picture a baby’s birthday cake as small and round, with a big #1 candle on top.  Cover your kid in plastic and put the cake close enough so he or she can dig in with both hands.  We have these priceless and messy pictures for each one of our kids.

Young children have the most adventurous cakes.  I picture a blank rectangle just waiting to be populated with frosting, decorations, and little toys, like an artist’s canvas.  Dump trucks working on a cake-top construction site.  Animals living in a cake-top jungle.  Ballerinas dancing across a cake-top stage.  The possibilities are endless.

After childhood, cake designs evolve to the age itself.  Whether big wax numbers or individual candles, the focus of the cake becomes the number.  After enough of those years, we try to be more subtle (ex. spell out the age with candles) so we don’t set the house on fire.  Later in life, we save the biggest celebrations (and cakes) for the round numbers because ages 80, 90, and 100 are achievements in themselves, aren’t they?

There’s evidence to suggest birthdays and cakes have been a combo as far back as ancient Roman times but for me, birthday cake is simply a nod to happy childhood memories.  Birthday-cake-flavored ice cream, cookies, and even protein bars are all the rage for this reason.  We just want to be kids again, breathlessly anticipating the celebration of our special day.

Some content sourced from IMDb, the Internet Movie Database, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Peanuts and Pumpkins

Three years ago, New York Magazine’s website Vulture ranked all forty-five Peanuts animated television specials from worst to best, including a paragraph on each one to justify its ranking. I wouldn’t have guessed Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy appeared in fifteen television specials let alone forty-five. But let’s be honest; only two Peanuts adventures have had any staying power: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (#2 on Vulture’s list), and A Charlie Brown Christmas (#1).

Maybe I’ll weigh in on the Christmas special in a couple of months, but with Halloween on the horizon I need to speak to the runner-up. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown first aired on television in 1966, so those who were alive back then (me) have the chance to see it for the 56th time this year. But maybe not? The networks stopped showing Great Pumpkin two years ago.  Other than PBS in select locations, you’ll have to buy the DVD or subscribe to Apple TV+ to watch Charlie Brown get another rock in his trick-or-treat bag.

Writing about a Peanuts special dates me – there’s no question.  But it’s still worth the words.  The Peanuts gang was the comic strip of my youth.  I remember the anticipation of the Sunday morning newspaper and the “funnies” pages.  Charles M. Schulz and his Peanuts characters always got the first slot.  When the specials debuted in the mid-60s, it was a big deal.  It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown only showed up once a year, in mid-October.  We didn’t have DVRs (let alone streaming) back then, so watch it live or you’d miss it.  Peanuts specials were always the hot topic of conversation at grade school the next day.

After so many watches, Great Pumpkin becomes an interesting study.  You pick up on the little things, the ones which would implode under the weight of today’s social media scrutiny.  Right out of the credits, Linus & Lucy head to a patch to pick out a pumpkin.  On the way, Linus picks up an apple among the fallen leaves, takes a single bite, and tosses it into a trash can. (Unnecessary waste!).  In another scene, Lucy stabs a pumpkin with a giant knife as she begins carving (Children with weapons!).  Then Linus looks on in horror and says, “I didn’t realize you were going to kill it!” (Violence!)

Great Pumpkin touches on other themes to sink today’s children’s shows, including bullying, teasing, and casual use of words like “stupid” and “blockhead”.  Charlie Brown is the butt of several jokes, including Lucy pulling the football away just as he tries to kick, and the girls using the back of his head to draw a pumpkin carving design.  Yes, I laughed at these scenes when I was a kid, but only because I wasn’t that kid (and because it was the 1960s humor).

Here’s an oddity with Great Pumpkin.  You’d think a short animation would be a continuous story.  Not so.  Great Pumpkin jumps awkwardly between disconnected scenes, from carving pumpkins to trick-or-treating to a Halloween Party.  The middle minutes shift randomly to Snoopy acting out his costumed “World War I Flying Ace” in the middle of France.  It’s as if Great Pumpkin didn’t have enough Halloween material to fill a half-hour, or at least needed an excuse to include Snoopy in the story.

Finally, “the Great Pumpkin” itself is completely akin to Santa Claus, but for a different holiday.  Linus writes a letter to the Great Pumpkin to say he’s looking forward to the arrival on Halloween night and hoping for lots of presents.  The Great Pumpkin visits pumpkin patches the way Santa Claus visits houses.  There’s even a mention of “pumpkin carols”.  You’re left wondering why this figment of Linus’ imagination wasn’t a little more unique.

If you haven’t watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, I probably haven’t given you reasons to rush to your television.  It’s simple and disjointed, and the animation doesn’t win the show any awards (even in the 1960s).  But just like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the characters are endearing, and the story has a pretty good message.  I’ll probably find myself looking for it again next year.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Sweet Nothing

Cleveland, Ohio sits proudly on the south shore of Lake Erie but has long been considered one of the least desirable locales in America. Shuttered steel mills, miserable weather, and a floundering economy don’t paint a pretty picture. But Cleveland does have an upside. It hosts the iconic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Hundreds of thousands flock to its international film festival. And the Cleveland Browns – long the doormat of professional football – just completed their first winning season in over a decade.  Alas, music, movies, and sports don’t erase mistakes… not when a city lays claim to a “holiday” called Sweetest Day.

Tape a big round target to my computer monitor and hand me a bazooka, because I’m about to blow the Sweetest Day bullseye into bits you’ll need a microscope to see.  The redeeming qualities of this celebration amount to little more than sweet nothings. I mean, how bad is it when your holiday is not only labeled a “Hallmark”, but popular opinion says it’s the worst of that lot?

A Hallmark Holiday.  By definition it’s a celebration with no more substance than a push to buy a greeting card.  Boss’s Day (Oct. 16th).  Administrative Professionals’ Day (April 27th).  Teacher Appreciation Day (May 3rd).  There’s even Clergy Appreciation Day (Oct. 10th).  Sweetest Day lands at the very bottom of this feathery-light pile.  Please, can we just leave it buried there?

“Hallmark Holiday”

It wasn’t always this way with Sweetest Day.  Wait… YES IT WAS.  Did you know we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the original Sweetest Day last Saturday?  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The better question I should ask: Do you even know why we celebrate Sweetest Day?

No, I don’t celebrate Sweetest Day, but many of you in the “Great Lakes Region” do (eight midwestern U.S. states plus the Canadian province of Ontario).  For the rest of us, here’s the debatably sincere back story.  In 1921, twelve Cleveland candy company executives pooled their surplus product and gave away 20,000 boxes of candy “to newsboys, orphans, old folks, and the poor”, and literally manufactured a holiday in the process.  In the hundred years since, Sweetest Day has morphed from free candy for strangers to “… a day to share romantic deeds or expressions and acts of charity or kindness.”  With all due respect Cleveland, why do we need a “holiday” for romance or charity?

This is all your fault, Cleveland

When I first learned about Sweetest Day all I could come up with was Valentine’s Day 2.0.  I mean, how convenient, right?  We have the big day of romance in February so why not a little one (a really little one) in October?  Defenders of Sweetest Day say the two celebrations aren’t anything alike.  I agree.  Valentine’s Day was a Christian feast day designated over 2,500 years ago and celebrated throughout the world today.  Sweetest Day was a gimmick designed to sell candy (and cards) exactly 100 years ago and celebrated throughout… the Great Lakes Region.

Several failed attempts were made over the years to solidify Sweetest Day on the October calendar.  In 1922 the name was changed to “Candy Day” to see if it would generate more buzz (nope).  In 1927 they tried to make it Sweetest Week (nope again).  And in 1937, to make it more nationally accepted, they tried to advertise Sweetest Day on par with Mother’s, Father’s, and Valentine’s Day (this effort sponsored by, drum roll please… the National Confectioner’s Association).

None of this spinning of wheels stood in Hallmark’s way.  The greeting card company produces over 150 designs for Sweetest Day.  American Greetings joined the card party to make another 180.  Can you blame them when so many Great Lakes Region people are willing to buy?

All of my bazooka-blasting brings me to a fitting conclusion concerning Wikipedia (where I often find reference material).  Every Wikipedia article gets a rating of “quality” and another of “importance”, using a scale not so different from the one you had in grade school.  Wikipedia’s article on Sweetest Day – published seventeen years ago – gets a quality rating of, uh… has not yet received, and an importance rating of, uh… has not yet received.  In other words, nobody at Wikipedia cares enough to even rate the article.

Here’s an idea.  How about we just delete the Wikipedia article? (as one employee proposed two years after it was published).  For that matter, how about we just delete Sweetest Day?  I have my bazooka at the ready.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Lucky Strikes

Have you checked your basement lately? (uh, Dave, I don’t have a basement). How about the crawl space (nope, don’t have one of those either). Maybe a deep closet, the kind with empty space behind the hanging clothes? If I haven’t pegged you yet, just lift up your area rugs (assuming your floors have been around a while). Why? You might find something interesting down there! Loose change. Old love letters. Bowling balls.

Bowling balls?

A small part of Dave’s “bowl” collection

Talk about a lucky strike.  Another Dave in my country (he of Norton Shores, MI) recently began a DIY house renovation when he unearthed a bowling ball from behind the crumbling concrete of his back porch.  So he pawed the sand some more and found another ball.  And another.  Pretty soon he had fifteen.  By the time our industrious friend cleaned out his subterranean bowling alley – er, crawl space, he’d amassed 150 balls – some black, most blue, and all designed to knock down pins.  I’m sure Dave would agree with this Dave when I say, “What the HECK?

Seriously, how would you react if you found hundreds of bowling balls under your house?  Me, I’d wonder if they weren’t part of the structural foundation (Don’t laugh; a 1940’s house we used to live in had glued-together schoolroom yardsticks in the walls.)  My next thought would go to an abandoned underground city, with my house right on top of the bowling alley.  And my final thought?  Aliens.  Aliens put those hundreds of bowling balls down there.

Did THIS used to be under Dave’s house?

Norton Shores Dave was more rational than my own thinking.  After finding the first fifteen balls he stopped digging and picked up the phone to Brunswick Bowling.  Some of the balls had date stamps back to the 1950s and Dave was concerned about toxicity. (Good thinking there, Dave.) But Brunswick glanced at a few of the photos he sent and said the balls were fine.  So it’s official: bowling balls last forever.

Hidden rooms – and the hidden treasures they contain – have always captured my imagination.  In the movie National Treasure, Nicolas Cage sorts through clue after clue on the hunt for a hidden fortune.  The final scene where the underground room reveals itself in bursting firelight is jaw-dropping.  Or how about any movie scene where a sliding bookcase protects a passage to the secret space beyond?  Wouldn’t that be a great feature in your house?

I designed a house with a sliding bookcase once (true story), back in my days as an architect.  The hidden room was accessed from the landing halfway up an open staircase, behind innocent-looking shelves of books.  The hidden room was meant to be a home office, with a small balcony overlooking the backyard.  I pictured the owner’s guests, standing on the lawn and looking up, saying, “Wait a sec’, how come I haven’t seen that room?

Admittedly, bowling balls aren’t a sexy find (even 150 of them).  It’s not like you’d go, “Perfect… just what I’d been hoping for!”  That’s not stopping Norton Shores Dave, however.  He thinks there may be even more balls down there, but – letdown ending to the story – he’ll probably just turn them into decorative pavers in the yard.

Plant orange trees… find a church instead!

Other hidden-space stories yield more satisfying treasures.  Last year a gardener in England – simply pulling weeds – unearthed sixty-three gold coins from the era of Henry VIII (now that’s what you call “paydirt”).  Another gardener – this one in Turkey – found an entire 6th-century church under the ten acres of land where he was about to plant orange trees.  Old rolled-up movie posters under the floorboards of a house were so pristine they brought $600,000 USD at auction.  Finally, in 2009, an English doctor passed away and left his house to his relatives.  What they overlooked for many months? The dusty, vintage 1937 Bugatti in the garage.  Selling price: $4.2 million.

Maybe the best finds are up in the attic.  In 2013 a family found a Van Gogh in the rafters of the house of deceased relatives.  The painting had been gathering dust for over a century because the original owner thought it was a fake.  Not so.  It turned out to be a priceless example from Van Gogh’s most prolific years.  Okay, not quite “priceless”, but how about $90.6 million?

It’s only fitting – as Halloween approaches – I ask you to crack the seal on your hidden spaces.  You’ll probably need a flashlight.  You’ll brush aside spiderwebs or put the boot on a creepy crawler or two.  But c’mon, you know you’re curious.  There could be something valuable right there underneath your feet.  A stash of cash.  A famous painting.  Or 150 bowling balls!

Some content sourced from the CNN.com article, “Home renovation leads to the discovery of over 150 bowling balls under a family’s porch”, and the lovemoney.com article, “People who bought homes and found treasure”.

Sour Grapes

I’m not a fan of French wines. Er, let me rephrase – I don’t appreciate French wines. My palate for bottles of the red and the white has traveled as far as Napa (Chardonnay and Cabernet) and California’s Central Coast (red blends) but nowhere further unless I count the occasional bottle of Chianti from a college year in Italy. I can’t even name a French wine, other than a sparkler like Dom Pérignon. But maybe it’s time for a change, my friends. I’ve taken a sudden interest in a new Viognier… you know, the wine from the vineyards of Grey Poupon?

But does it “pass muster”?

You read that right.  Grey Poupon, the maker of Dijon mustard, wants to be a maker of fine wine as well.  Described as “bright hints of spice and pronounced citrus” and “floral characteristics”, a bottle of Grey Poupon white “pairs ideally with charcuterie boards and sandwiches”.  Of course it does, because there’s an infusion of crushed mustard seeds in every glass.

Mustard-flavored wine.  Sounds like sour grapes, doesn’t it?  Mustard wine sounds as appealing as the scoop of Goat Cheese Beet Swirl ice cream I can get right up the road in Denver.  And if you think the name on the Grey Poupon bottle sounds fancy – La Moutarde Vin – think again.  Translation: mustard wine.

I don’t expect to stock my wine cellar with bottles of La Moutarde Vin (once I have a wine cellar, that is) but I do stock my frig with mustard.  Despite endless baloney-and-mustard-on-white sandwiches in my grade school days, I bounced back as an adult and reembraced mustard.  The yellowest of condiments is delicious in potato salad.  It’s ideal on bratwurst or a hot dog.  And mustard wins out over mayonnaise any day on a ham-and-cheese.

For all the attention ketchup gets (for some reason Batman and Robin come to mind here), mustard has been around longer and comes in more varieties.  In typical fashion, Americans first flocked to its most basic version, “yellow mustard”, before maturing to the spicy brown varieties of Europe.  Mustard was created in Dijon (France) in the 1800s.  Anyone who knows the taste of Dijon knows it’s a wholly different animal than the yellow.  Why so different?  Dijon mustard is made with white wine.  And there’s the role reversal in a nutshell.  Now we have white wine made with Dijon mustard.

[Trivia break: A popular brand of mustard in America is French’s.  Where in France did it come from?  No, no, no, back up the truck.  It’s just yellow mustard.  It has nothing to do with France. But it has everything to do with the guy who invented it: Robert Timothy French.]

We Americans adore mustard so much we built a shrine in its honor.  The National Mustard Museum in Middleton, WI proudly boasts the world’s largest collection of mustards and mustard memorabilia.  I have no plans to visit, but I do wonder if they’ve added a bottle of La Moutarde Vin to their display.

As long as I’m grappling with American vs. Dijon or mild vs. spicy, let’s address another challenge with mustard.  It’s a branded color, as in mustard yellow.  Sure, I get it – the yellow evokes the bright blooms of mustard plants.  You’ll even find mustard yellow in a box of Crayola crayons.  But what if you’re a kid in France?  How does a French mom explain to her kid why his mustard yellow crayon looks like bright sunshine instead of Grey Poupon?

Grey Poupon’s La Moutarde Vin is a limited-edition product, sort of a “cheers” to the wine used in the mustard.  At $30 a bottle, it’s reaching the high end of what I typically spend on wine.  But with every bottle you also get a free jar of Grey Poupon.  Okay, so maybe I have a taste for mustard wine after all.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Grey Poupon wine now exists”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Coup de Grâce

On my green and pristine back lawn, a solitary fallen leaf lies captive among the blades, a sure sign of the coming fall. A summer lengthened by oppressive heat is mercifully at its end. Fellow bloggers eagerly write about crisp mornings, cool nights, and college football games. But here’s a better nod to the upcoming season, a beckoning more sublime than anything “pumpkin spice”. Have a listen to Antonio Vivaldi’s violin concerto “Autumn”, from his best-known work, “The Four Seasons”.

Sure, I could bore you with the details of a classical composition written over four hundred years ago. “The Four Seasons” was cutting edge for its time because the music reflected real-life events: singing birds (“Spring”), soft breezes (“Summer”), and icy paths (“Winter”).  But today’s post is not really about “Autumn” and its drunken dancers.  It’s about the performance of the piece by Frederieke Saeijs.

Ms. Saeijs

I’d never heard of Frederieke Saeijs before I watched the eleven minutes of her violin solo in the video above but I must confess, I’m absolutely smitten.  Frederieke (pronounced exactly like it reads, unlike her last name), is Dutch by birth but worldly in every other respect, including her education, performances, and teaching.  Her list of accomplishments and awards suggests there is nothing further she can achieve with her instrument… and she’s only forty-two.

But I digress (and can you blame me after seeing her photo?)  Let’s get back to this performance of “Autumn”.  Here is what I found so captivating.  First, Frederieke’s eyes and her movements with her violin are unabashedly expressive as she plays, clearly one with the music.  She is a picture of grace with her slender frame, elegant hairstyle, and striking purple gown.  In other words, you could watch this video on mute and still be impressed.  But please don’t.  You need to hear the music, even just a few minutes of it.  I admit to distraction by some other things on my computer screen yet I kept coming back to this performance until I’d completed all eleven minutes.

If I haven’t yet persuaded you to spend a few minutes with Frederieke, consider this.  She plays the entire piece from memory (which, in ‘Autumn’s more furious moments, is mind-boggling).  Also, her performance – as well as those of the smallish orchestra around her – is captured from a dozen different angles.  This was a busy production, both in front of and behind the camera.

I kept waiting for something – anything – to bring this performance back to earth so I could describe it as less than perfect.  Except for a cough in the audience minutes from the end, I don’t see how the concerto could’ve been purer.  Seriously, have you ever wondered how a soloist of this caliber avoids a sneeze or a cough, or even slips a little on her high heels?  Perhaps this explains why Frederieke is a world-class violinist and I am not.

Finally, if you made it to the end of this performance like I did, you’ll find it interesting the video concluded before the audience applause (and standing ovation, no doubt).  I say “good call” to whoever posted the video.  The silent fade-to-black conclusion only makes the performance more powerful.

Mr. Vivaldi

A coup de grâce is defined as “a decisive blow”, and further, “one delivered mercifully to end suffering”.  I love the double meaning here.  The season of autumn delivers a merciful end to the suffering of a hot summer.  More to today’s topic, Ms. Saeijs’ violin performance speaks of force and grace as one.  In other words, she offers you a most sublime welcome to fall.

The poem which inspired Vivaldi’s “Autumn” concerto includes the line, “… And (by) the season that invites so many, many…”  After watching today’s video I feel very much invited.  I suggest you raise a glass of hot cider to the calm of fall.  While you’re at it, give thanks for the breathtaking talent of Frederieke Saeijs.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Do YOU Know the Muffin Man?

I have a hodgepodge of baked goods on the kitchen counter right now. A loaf of sourdough sliced and ready for sandwiches. Brioche buns to cradle the bratwurst I barbecued over the weekend. Angel food cake for dessert topped with berries and whipped cream. And tortillas (which, okay, are “fried goods”) by the bagful. But we’re not done here. There’s one more option, one where my starchy carb willpower goes flying out the window. English muffins.

Who among us doesn’t love a warm, toasty English muffin?  The little round breakfast breads give us so many reasons to choose them.  They’re delicious, whether with butter, jam, or as an ingredient in Eggs Benedict.  They’re satisfyingly circular.  They’re usually fork-split so they break apart easy for the toaster.  You feel like you get two-for-one instead of a single piece of boring toast.  And as if to boast of their popularity, McDonald’s bakes millions of them into their Egg McMuffins.

Here’s another appeal of English muffins.  They have all those nooks and crannies to secure the melted butter.  You’re familiar with the term “nooks and crannies” (I know you are).  It’s the primary descriptor in Thomas’ English Muffins advertisements.  But you probably don’t know the backstory.  Thomas – as in Samuel Bath Thomas – created the “American” English muffin in 1880, after moving to the United States from England.  He brought with him a griddle-baking process for the muffins, which results in the signature crunchy outside and soft inside.  140 years later, I’m hard-pressed to come up with another manufacturer of English Muffins.  Okay, maybe Bays.  That’s it.

Ironically, English muffins are a more popular breakfast item in North America, Australia, and New Zealand than in England.  But you can’t just call them “muffins”, at least not in America.  Muffins (coming from the German muffen for “little cake”) refer to blueberry or corn or some other muffin with a more specific taste than the sourdough of English.  Not sure about you, but my consumption of English muffins to blueberry or corn is probably 100:1.

Eggs Benedict

You think you “know the muffin man”, but I’ll bet you’re just singing the children’s song (and you’re welcome for getting it stuck in your head).  There really were muffin men, you see, way back in the mid-1800’s.  They’d walk the streets selling their fresh-baked muffins, ringing bells like an ice cream truck.  In Britain there used to be so many muffin men ring-ring-a-ringing, Parliament passed a law to ban the bells.  But people still bought their fresh-baked muffins (at least until houses started getting this new invention called a “stove”).

When Mr. Thomas first sold his muffins in America he called them toaster crumpets, described as a “more elegant alternative to toast” to appeal to finer hotels.  Over time he changed the description to “English muffins” to better serve the masses.  The company bearing his name has been making them ever since, and the griddle-baking approach is the secret to all those nooks and crannies.

Crumpets, aka “English muffin imposters”

While we’re on the subject, let’s settle the debate on crumpets (and scones, for that matter) vs. English muffins.  Crumpets look like English muffins.  They’re about the same size.  But that’s where the similarities end.  Crumpets are only cooked on one side.  They have a milder taste.  And there’s a good explanation for the popularity of English muffins over crumpets in America.  Muffins go better with coffee, which Americans drink a lot more of than tea.  Can’t tell you when I’ve ever seen someone having a crumpet with their coffee.

“The Muffin Man” song includes the lyric, “… who lives on Drury Lane?”  Turns out, Drury Lane is a real street; a thoroughfare bordering Covent Garden in London.  But I prefer to think the Muffin Man lives right here on my street.  The Muffin Man is me, because not a week goes by where I don’t include the English rounds in my breakfast.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.