The Original “Black Friday”

The first two weeks of November were jammed with “un-often” events this year.  For starters the bright light of Halloween’s blue moon spilled into the wee hours of November 1st.  During those same wee hours most of us lost Daylight Savings Time.  The very next day (Monday) marked the official arrival of Hurricane Eta to our shores. The day after that we voted in a presidential election. A week later we staged the Masters golf tournament (it’s supposed to be in April, people).  Then we had another hurricane (Iota), the first time we’ve had two in November.  Finally, we spiked positive COVID-19 tests in record numbers after months of declines.

That’s a pile of rarities in a short amount of time.  So why not add one more to the heap?  Friday the 13th.  I missed it completely.  Maybe you missed it too (and you’d be forgiven with all those other distractions).  Last Friday – the 13th – came and went without an ounce of bad luck to blog about.  Ironically, the only story I can share brought good luck.  I placed a carry-out dinner order last Thursday night and the restaurant gave me someone else’s food.  When I went back for the right order they told me to keep both.  As a result my Friday the 13th dinner was unexpectedly “on the house”.

Are you superstitious?  I’m not – not in the least.  I have no problems with sidewalk cracks, leaning ladders, or black cats. I don’t lose sleep anticipating the third occurrence of a bad thing.  I gladly pick up a penny (it’s free money after all) but with no expectations of luck.  I’ve broken mirrors (deliberately, in remodel projects) and wishbones (on a whim, in turkeys).  I’ve even knocked on lots of wood (mostly doors) but hey, my life goes on as usual.

Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece

As for Friday the 13th’s “un-luck”, its long-ago origins are suspiciously weak.  The most common comes from the story of Jesus in the Bible: thirteen individuals at the Last Supper (Thursday) followed by Jesus’ foretold crucifixion the following day.  Other theories point to fighting gods in mythology and fighting knights in the Middle Ages.  None of these carry water in my book.  Seriously, how did misfortune come to be associated with the collision of a particular day and date?

I read up on calendar averages, thinking the 13th falling on a Friday was as uncommon as a blue moon.  Maybe the 13th favors the other days of the week instead?  Nope, try the reverse.  Over a significant number of years the 13th falls on Friday more than Saturday, Sunday, or any other day of the week.

To add a helping of confusion, look no further than Spain or Greece.  These countries have an irrational fear of Tuesday the 13th.  Italy?  Friday the 17th.  Imagine watching America’s famous horror movie franchise in any of these places and wondering, “so… why do they call it ‘Friday the 13th'”?

No matter my efforts to undermine this superstition, the effects are real.  Over 17 million Americans admit to a dread of Friday the 13th.  Some avoid airplane travel and others won’t even get out of bed.  Buildings remove the thirteenth floor from the stack (which is a lot of demolition for a superstition, isn’t it?)  Elevators conspicuously delete the “13” button.  Numbered seats in stadiums go 10, 11, 12… 14, 15, 16.

For some of you, Black Friday means bargains.  For others, Black Friday means “13”. If nothing else, I’ll give you a couple of words to describe the circumstance of the latter’s irrational fear.  If you’re afraid of the number 13 you have triskaidekaphobia.  If you’re afraid of just Friday the 13th you have paraskevidekatriaphobia.  (Me, I only have acrophobia.  At least your phobias sound more sophisticated.)

Fact check.  This post was published close to the midpoint between Black Friday (the 13th) and Black Friday (the retail binge).  Okay-y-y-y.  This post also contains exactly 666 words.  WHOO boy.

Let me repeat… I am NOT superstitious.

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

Halloween’s Element of Surprise

Same ol’, same ol’… sigh…

Our grocer dedicates an entire aisle to Halloween this time of year.  It’s a pile-on of kid costumes, yard decor, plastic jack-o’-lanterns, and party supplies.  You’ll also find massive bags of assorted small candies, enough to load up your front door bowl with a single pour.  These treats are individually wrapped and brand-familiar to carefully conform to the holiday’s “safe standards”.  In other words, there’s no element of surprise in all that sugar.

When was the last time you were treated to a little something you didn’t expect?  Here’s a good example.  My wife and I traveled to Texas last weekend to visit our son.  As we settled into the hotel room we noticed a tray on the table with two bottles of water and a couple of wrapped candies.  Not so unusual.  But then we read the little card next to the tray.  Not only was the water free of charge (hotels typically stick it to you with bottled water) but the candies were handmade salted caramels from a local culinary kitchen.  Suddenly I’m thinking, “What a nice hotel!”

Perhaps you know a few other hotels with the same gesture, as Doubletree does with its chocolate-chip cookies (see Calories of Contentment for more on that).  But unlike our Texas hotel, Doubletree always goes with the chocolate-chip cookies.  Stay there enough and you come to expect them.  No surprise.

That, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with Halloween today.  You still get the occasional trick (TP in the trees?  Shaving cream in the pumpkins?) but the “or-treat” routine has been reduced to just that – routine.  Think about a child’s anticipation for the big night.  Hours spent making sure their costume stands out in a crowd.  Miles spent covering sidewalks and front walks.  Fingers spent on doorbells and knockers, all so they can get, what… another fun-size Hershey bar?  Where-oh-where is the element of surprise?

Mom’s Halloween treats

Back in the “ol’ days” (because I’m feeling old today) a lot of front-door Halloween treats were homemade.  People handed out family-recipe popcorn balls and caramel apples.  My mother made the frosted ginger pumpkin cookies you see here.  A guy down the street dressed as Dracula and manned a little round grill in his driveway, handing out barbecued hot dog bites on toothpicks.  You never knew what you’d walk away with until you made it to the next house.

A mini pumpkin has zero HTV

Creative treats only boosted the night’s excitement back then.  I remember catching up with friends in the darkened streets to compare the collective efforts in our bags.  More importantly, the wide variety of treats upped the ante on what one candy-ranking opinion piece referred to as “HTV” or Halloween Trade Value.  After all, the most important event of the night was the post trick-or-treat trade, right?  You’d spill the contents of your pillowcase into a big pile on the floor and the back-n-forth would begin.  “I’ll give you three rolls of Smarties and a Baby Ruth for your Charleston Chew”.  Yes, friends, those were the days.

Everything changed when Halloween lost its young-and-innocent status.  Parents inspected treat bags to filter out anything remotely suspicious.  Homemade items only made it as far as the next-door neighbor’s kids or backyard Halloween parties.  Suddenly a treat didn’t pass muster if it wasn’t recognizable and wrapped.  The creative license of trick-or-treating has expired.

But hold on now.  What about the other 364 days of the year?  Can’t the element of surprise show up on one or more of those?  Can’t we still be caught off guard… in a good way?

Here’s an attempt.  At least two companies offer monthly treats by subscription and you have no idea what’s coming.  SnackCrate describes its product as “a world of snack surprises – monthly”.  TryTreats advertises “each month’s box will feature snacks from a different country in the world.  The country you’ll receive is a secret until you receive the box!”  Kind of a spin on my ol’-days Halloween nights, don’t you think?

Speaking of treats I think the dog got wind of this topic.  The other night I prepped his dinner with the usual two cups of kibble topped with a few bits of lunch meat.  He ate the bits but left the kibble.  He’s never done that before.  Maybe he’s bored with it?  I need to shake things up.  Throw in a few doggie treats.  Add the ol’ Halloween element of surprise and get his tail wagging again.

Standing on Tacos

Red’s Giant Hamburg – Springfield, MO – may be America’s first drive-thru restaurant. Red’s opened in 1947 from a converted gas station, closed in 1984, then opened again last year. In the United States it’s not really “fast food” without the drive-thru, is it?  McDonald’s certainly agrees, as does Burger King.  But Taco Bell, they think outside the tortilla.  Just last year the Bell opened a taco-themed hotel and resort in Palm Springs, CA.

A taco-themed hotel and resort – really, you ask?  Yes but more on that in a minute.  It helps to cover some of Taco Bell’s earlier adventures first.  Founder Glen Bell started his restaurant in the 1960s as the copycat of a local Los Angeles walk-up taco stand.  The concept of “American-Mexican fast food” quickly franchised to 100 locations in less than five years.  Today you’ll count 7,000+ Taco Bell locations in two dozen countries.  Two billion customers frequented the Bell in 2019.

I’ve always admired Taco Bell… er, from afar.  I can’t tell you the last time I navigated TB’s drive-thru (probably my kids’ high school days).  Don’t get me wrong, I love Mexican food.  But eating at Taco Bell is like supplanting an Italian artisan pizza with a Little Caesars.  In other words, I prefer my Mexican at authentic Mexican restaurants.

But there’s no denying Taco Bell’s success.  They chose six or seven essential ingredients and spun an entire low-cost menu out of them.  Take the $1.49 soft taco.  Four components: seasoned beef, lettuce, and cheese, inside a soft tortilla.  Add sour cream, tomatoes, or other options, but you’ll pay $0.40 or more for each.  The only freebies are the hot sauce packets at the pick-up window.

From the Taco Bell soft taco evolved an entire zoo of animales.  You have the Taco Supreme, Chalupa Supreme, Cheesy Gordita Crunch, and (for the really adventurous) the Nachos Cheese Doritos Locos Taco Supreme.  From the Taco Bell burrito you get the Burrito Supreme, Grilled Cheese Burrito, Beefy 5-Layer Burrito, Quesarito, and Crunchwrap Supreme.  Again, all of these wild animales come from pretty much the same small set of ingredients.

Taco Bell’s successful run endures at a time when foodies lean more towards farm-to-table organic.  So why does it still work?  Marketing.  Taco Bell’s all about creative thinking.  Some examples:

  1. Taco Bell branded their hot sauce, taco shells, chips, and shredded cheese, and you can find them on your supermarket shelves.  No drive-thru necessary.
  2. TB teamed up with several pro sports franchises to offer free food based on individual performances (i.e. steal a base, score so many points, score so many runs = free tacos).
  3. In 2001, when the Mir Space Station re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, Taco Bell floated a giant target in the Pacific Ocean and promised a free taco to every American if a bit of the space station (designed to break up) hit the target.  (No such luck.)
  4. In 2013, Taco Bell designed a waffle taco, filled it with scrambled eggs and sausage, added a side of syrup, and called it breakfast.  The waffle taco is no longer on the menu but breakfast still is (if you consider a Hash Brown Toasted Burrito “breakfast”).
  5. In 2016, Taco Bell test-marketed a Cheetos Burrito.  That’s all you really need to know, right?
  6. In 2017, Taco Bell partnered with Lyft to offer “Taco Mode”.  Rides from 9pm-2am included a stop at Taco Bell.

Which brings us to the Taco Bell hotel.  In the summer of 2019, TB converted an existing Palm Springs resort into a live-in advertisement, “the biggest expression of the Taco Bell lifestyle to date”, according to its Chief Global Brand Officer. 

Not only did they slap the TB brand all over the resort, but they also offered the full Taco Bell menu, poolside cocktails “infused with a Taco Bell twist”, a “not-to-miss gift shop” (including a Forever 21 fashion line of Taco Bell apparel), and a salon where nail art and hairstyles were decidedly “Bell”.  The resort was a pop-up, only intended to operate for a few days, but reservations sold out within two minutes of being offered.

“Gidget the Chihuahua”

Taco Bell has one more menu item I didn’t mention above: the Spicy Potato Soft Taco.  Er, had.  The Bell discontinued it but not before Bryant Hoban (of O’Fallon, MO – not far from Red’s Giant Hamburg) purchased and froze three of them.  A few weeks later Hoban sold the “mint condition soft tacos” through Facebook.  For $70.  Each.  With that kind of endorsement, it’s safe to say the Bell will be ringing for many years to come.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the Fox News article, “Taco Bell is opening a taco-themed hotel and resort”.

Loony Binge

I know very little about Oscar Wilde, except he was a 19th-century Irish playwright famous for “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Wilde lived to be just 46, producing his best works in the last ten years of his life. He was often quoted, lacing words of wisdom with pretty good wit. Here’s one of Wilde’s best: “Everything in moderation, including moderation”.

Poisonous snakes?

Perhaps you caught this story from last week’s headlines: “Man Dies from Eating More Than A Bag of Licorice a Day”.  (I mean, who wouldn’t catch a story like that, right?)  It seems a Massachusetts construction worker with a daily candy habit switched from red to black licorice, and a few weeks later he went into cardiac arrest.

After futile attempts to revive our candy man, medics discovered he was experiencing ventricular fibrillation, meaning the lower chambers of his heart stopped pumping blood.  So he died.  From licorice.  You’ve heard of death by chocolate, but seriously, death by candy?

The New England Journal of Medicine says black licorice contains glycyrrhizic acid, which in ample amounts tanks the body’s potassium levels.  Low potassium levels contribute to heart arrhythmia (and heart arrhythmia is never a good thing).  Can’t say I’ve heard of glycyrrhizic acid until now (bet you haven’t either) but it doesn’t matter.  All I took from this story was: black licorice = death.  That’s disturbing because I love black licorice.

Check out my previous post connoisseur for a “taste” of my licorice obsession.

Whips, twists, nibs, wheels, shoelaces – licorice comes in all shapes and sizes.

Not gonna lie; the moment I read this not-so-dandy candy story I pulled open my desk drawer (left side, second one down) and grabbed the bag of black licorice sitting innocently in front.  Then I reviewed the ingredients very slowly and very carefully.  “Corn syrup, sugar, modified potato starch, caramel color, carnauba wax…” (and several other ingredients I really shouldn’t be eating).  But nowhere did I find “licorice root extract”, the bearer of that nasty acid.  Whew.

Let’s be honest – the real message here isn’t “don’t eat black licorice”.  Rather, it’s Oscar Wilde and his “everything in moderation”.  Our poor construction worker, according to family members, consumed “one to two large bags of black licorice every day for three weeks”.  If it wasn’t the glycyrrhizic acid, something else in the candy would’ve done him in.  Or maybe the gallons of water he drank to wash it all down.

Yep, that’s a real thing too (water intoxication).  Drink too much and you can succumb to an “imbalance of electrolytes” and die.  Then again, 99% of us avoid stupid dares or sustained exercise where you lose track of how much water you take in.  But then there’s the other 1%.  Stay away from those people.

Nine of ten of you don’t like black licorice (easy guess) so you’re not breathing a sigh of relief alongside me.  But you may not be innocent of other binge-worthy foods.  Take your pick: popcorn, potato chips, nuts, trail mix, or peanut butter (especially those little PB-filled pretzel-bite thingies – oooooo).  “You can’t eat just one”, am I right?  You probably can’t even put the container down.  And don’t get me started on Chinese food, where I seem to get hungrier the more I eat of it.

The good news is, you’re not heading for potassium deficiencies or cardiac arrest with these binge foods, but it’s fair to say they contribute to the downward spiral of unhealthy eating.  One day you wake up and find yourself sprawled atop a mountain of junk food asking, “how did I get here?”

Since we’re talking about killer (or diet-killing) foods, let me throw another one out there: coconuts.  Yes, you think coconut oil, milk, and extract are all the healthy rage these days, and you’d be… right.  But I’m talking about tropical islands and swaying palm trees.  There lies (er, hangs) the reason coconuts are called “the killer fruit”.

Urban legend perhaps, but they say falling coconuts kill several people every year.  At least ten cases have been documented since the early 2000s.  In Queensland, Australia they remove coconut palms from their beaches for this reason.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Coconuts kill.

Then there’s death by chocolate.  (Chocolate kills too, you ask?)  Okay, so maybe I’m referring to a sinful dessert instead, minimally described as “chocolate with chocolate on top of chocolate”.  The American pub “Bennigan’s” offers the undisputed king of Death by Chocolate: a chocolate crumb-crusted chocolate cake, paired with two scoops of (chocolate) ice cream, topped with two Twix bars and covered with chocolate sauce, accompanied by a side dish of heated chocolate topping.  Woof.  Maybe chocolate kills after all.

How about a smile, Oscar?

Here’s one more ingredient in my desk drawer licorice: anise oil.  Anise gives you the same flavor as licorice root extract but without the occasionally fatal side effects.  Maybe it’s a cheaper or easier-to-come-by substitute?  Unfortunately, anise oil can cause pulmonary edema (also never a good thing).  Maybe I need to reevaluate my licorice habit after all.

I’ll leave you with another Oscar Wilde quote: “Life is too important to be taken seriously”.  With all due respect to our Massachusetts licorice-aholic, I couldn’t agree more.  So I will continue to eat black licorice, and I will continue to enjoy black licorice.  In moderation, of course.

Some content sourced from the 10/13/2014 ShortList article, “20 Pieces of Wisdom From Oscar Wilde, the 9/25/2020 Ars Technica article, “Rare case of black licorice poisoning kills man in Massachusetts”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Brand Spankin’

Years before Haagen-Dazs, Klondike, and Dove Bars competed for your freezer space, you had a revolutionary creation known as the Eskimo Pie.  Foil-covered, with a thin coat of chocolate magically adhered to a small bar of ice cream, the Eskimo Pie was the first of its kind: a two-desserts-in-one sensation brought to market almost a hundred years ago.  The version I remember (from the 1960s) was a hockey puck – a little larger, a little flatter – with mint ice cream in the middle.  Today, the (Dreyer’s) Eskimo Pie looks no different than any other ice cream bar.  Someday soon it won’t even be called an “Eskimo Pie”.

You know what I’m talking about, of course.  Eskimo Pie lands on the list of brand names considered negative racial stereotypes.  Before you know it, Eskimo Pie will be rebranded into something more socially acceptable.  News to me, “Eskimo” is considered derogatory by the Inuit and Yupik people of Alaska.  An “Inuit Pie” doesn’t sound quite as tasty but maybe Dreyer’s should adopt the name anyway.  At least they could retain the cute little fur-lined character they already have on the box.

America: land of stereotypes

I get it; I really do.  As much as the Caucasian and the male in me make it virtually impossible to stand in another’s shoes, I still empathize.  Brands get spanked because their names, images, or associations are knowingly insensitive – even harmful – to groups of people.  That needs to change, even if it means renaming a product that’s been around a century or more.

My mother may have been a woman ahead of her time.  When I consider the brands I was raised with, I remember Minute Rice (not Uncle Ben’s), Log Cabin Syrup (not Aunt Jemima or Mrs. Butterworth’s), and Challenge Butter (not Land O’Lakes, whose logo centered around the image of a Native American woman).  Nothing controversial about my childhood brands (thanks Mom!)  The only character who might’ve caused a stir was the leprechaun on the Lucky Charms box, but I don’t think the Irish made a fuss about him (yet).

While you’re wondering about the new names for Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben (the latter announced just yesterday as Ben’s Original), broaden your perspective a little as these other products/people/places step up to the home plate of scrutiny:

  • Dixie (i.e. Cups, Beer, Chicks).  “Dixie” originated in (black) minstrel shows and denotes the former Confederate States of the Southern U.S.  Either association doesn’t bode well for this Americana word.
  • Mutual of Omaha.  Nothing wrong with the name, but the logo is effectively a Native American in full headdress.  What say a cornucopia instead (get it?)
  • Nestle Candies.  Overseas brands include “Red Skins”, “Chicos”, and “Beso de Negra” (Kiss of the Black Woman).  Maybe just drop these products entirely for now.
  • Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.  Whoops.  At least they can just go with “Alpine Meadows”.
  • Disney’s “Splash Mountain”.  To me it’s just a theme-park water flume ride with hollowed-out logs, but others see the connection to Disney’s 1946 stereotypic animation “Song of the South”.  Look for less controversial ties to “The Princess and the Frog” soon.
  • L’Oréal.  Products claiming to make the skin “fair”, “light”, and towards “whitening” are going to need different words.  Way different words.

Then you have businesses like ManpowerGroup Global, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and Two Men and a Truck.  There’s just no winning with these (unless you label 50% of the company/restaurants/ fleet as the female equivalent?)

I found it funny the (former) Washington Redskins couldn’t come up with a socially acceptable team name in time for the 2020 NFL season, so they’re simply known as “Washington Football Team” today.  That’s so generic I picture every player on the roster identical: same height, same weight, same hair color, same number on the jersey.  With that in mind, here’s some advice for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.  Come up with a new name pronto.  Not the “Edmonton Inuits” or “Edmonton Yupiks”, neither of which roll off the tongue.  Just something, else you’ll be known as “Edmonton American Football Team”.  Uh, come again?

Some content sourced from the 6/19/2020 USA Today article, “Are the Washington Redskins Next?…”, the ONGIG article, “20+ Top Brands Changing Their Name to Avoid Racial Bias”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Calories of Contentment

The other night – too late for a grocery store run but with few options in the pantry – my wife and I split a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese for dinner. No spicing things up, no healthy side of vegetables to lessen the guilt – just a heaping bowl of the little pasta elbows with powdered cheese. MAN did that taste good. I promptly considered a Hostess Ding Dong for dessert but caught myself just in time. Whoa, boy. Who says there’s no traveling during the pandemic?  I’ve made the journey to the land of comfort foods!

A little context before we explore the calories of contentment.  After the kids moved out of the house several years ago, our diet moved decidedly to the more healthy.  We upped our fruit and vegetable count.  We focused on meals with whole foods and fewer ingredients.  We started shopping in boutique grocery stores, discovering foods and brands we never knew existed.  Dairy and starchy carbs took the back shelf to pure proteins and Mother Nature’s bounty.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this good intention, a box of Kellogg’s Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts dropped casually into my grocery basket.  I’d heard they were pretty good and I’d never tried them before, so… why not?  Then the kids came to town for a long weekend, so we just had to load up on old family favorites like Cap’n Crunch, Good Humor Creamsicles, and Red Baron frozen pizzas.

But here’s the thing.  Our kids eat so responsibly these days, sugary cereals and snack foods no longer appeal to them.  They make flourless banana pancakes and organic food “bowls”.  They nosh on healthy proteins and Boba teas.  They spend most of their time in the kitchen instead of the drive-thru.  Those comfort foods we purchased got no love, so naturally we purchased a couple more (the Kraft Mac & Cheese and Hostess Ding Dongs).  Heck, we even embellished those choices with a countertop bowl of Brach’s caramel “Royals”, and a huge container of Peanut M&M’s in a nearby cupboard.  There’s now a junk-food roadblock in front of every attempt to eat healthy.

What is going on here?  I blame the coronavirus.  Most of our processed-food pals moved into our pantry in the last six months.  All of them were impulse buys (or “moments of weakness”, or whatever else you want to call them).  No surprise though; we’re contributing to a nationwide, if not worldwide trend during this pandemic.  The world’s biggest packaged-foods manufacturers reported sales growth of 4.3% in the first three months of the year (vs. forecasts of 3%).  Canned soup purchases rose 37%, canned meat 60%, and frozen pizza 51%.  Hot Pockets and SpaghettiOs flew off the shelves.

Is one of these YOUR comfort food?

In all seriousness, a turn to comfort foods is a sign of something more complicated below the surface of our psyches.  I wish I could credit nostalgia: the sentimentality for past happier times and places, or emotional eating: the propensity to consume comfort foods in response to positive/negative stimuli.  Instead, I think we’re dealing with declinism – the belief our society is heading towards a prolonged downturn or deterioration.  We’ve been here before America, as in the Depression of the 1930s, the spread of Communism in the 1950s, or the rise of Japan’s economic powerhouse in the 1970s.  In each instance our country soldiered on better than before, but that’s not to say the short-term endurance is any fun.  And that, boys and girls, is why comfort foods maintain a “healthy” presence in grocery stores and in your pantry.

Hilton Hotels rivaled the pandemic headlines when they revealed their Doubletree chocolate-chip cookie recipe to the world last April.  Talk about your classic comfort food.  Doubletree cookies have nestled on hotel pillows since the mid-1980s; a whopping 25,000,000 in less than forty years.  “We know this is an anxious time for everyone”, was Hilton’s excuse for sharing their secret.  I baked a batch as soon as I came across the headline and now I can’t seem to stop.  A heaping bag of Doubletrees now sits in our refrigerator more often than it does not.  I could probably recite the recipe from memory, and I dream about them in my sleep.  Hilton’s got me hooked.

I still haven’t tried those Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts, the preservative-filled pastries responsible for this whole mess.  All are still paired neatly in their foil packets, sitting quietly on the shelf.  The box may even be getting a little dusty.  I figure my willpower remains intact if I leave the tarts alone until their expiration date.  Er, wait – now that I think about it – Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts never expire.  Dang it; that’s a little depressing.  I’d better have a Ding Dong to cheer myself up.

Some content sourced from the 4/24/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Comfort Foods Make a Comeback in the Coronavirus Age”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Come What Mayo

When I was a kid, I had this inexplicable obsession with cheese sandwiches. Maybe it was the popular Wonder Bread of the time (a slice of which could be reduced down to a compact dough ball with minimal effort). Maybe it was fondness for the Tillamook cheese my mother always had on hand; the sandwich merely serving as an edible container.  Surely it was because they were super-simple to make.  Whatever the reason, cheese sandwiches would’ve been utterly dry-mouthed and unappealing without the essential third ingredient: mayonnaise.

Tartar sauce or mayonnaise?

The easy guess here is you have mayonnaise in your refrigerator.  Go check.  Even if you don’t, you have the ingredients to make your own: eggs, oil, and vinegar or lemon juice (blended together at high speed and allowed to set).  The fancier versions of mayo add in some spices.  Your particular brand probably lives quietly in the refrigerator door or towards the back of one of the shelves, alongside several other condiments.  But the more I learn about mayonnaise the less inclined I am to group it together with the basics like ketchup and mustard.

West of the Rockies where I grew up, the standard brand of mayonnaise was always Best Foods.  When I moved east of the Rockies later in life, the name changed to Hellmann’s but the label, the jar, and ingredients were exactly the same.  That was always an oddity to me – until I learned Best Foods acquired Hellmann’s after both brands were solidly established.  Rather than drop one for the other Best Foods just kept them both.  Same product, same packaging, different name.  [Note: those of you in the southeastern U.S. may prefer Duke’s Mayonnaise – a distant third in sales.  At least Duke’s tastes distinctly different than these fraternal twins.]

The essential ingredients

Mayonnaise has one of those prolonged evolutions you could care less about, including its debatable origins.  Several moments in European history claim ties to its invention.  The most credible story (or the most romantic – take your pick) has the French winning the Seven Years’ War in 1756, and the victory dinner including a fish course, but no cream to make the tartar sauce.  The chef improvised with eggs, oil, and garlic instead, and voila: mayonnaise.  Further, the dinner took place in the Spanish port city of Mahon, so the sauce was dubbed “mahonnaise”.  Elegant name, no?

On French fries – seriously?

But for a few uses I can take or leave mayonnaise.  In addition to my childhood cheese sandwiches I only use mayonnaise for tuna salad, potato salad, or cole slaw.  I never put mayonnaise on a burger (do you?)  It’s ketchup on my French fries not mayonnaise (apparently that’s a “thing” with some of you).  It’s drawn butter on my artichokes (again, not mayonnaise).  And speaking of the cheese sandwiches, I recall my mother packing school lunches with bologna-and-mayonnaise sandwiches.  Meat and mayo on the bread – that was it.  No Tillamook cheese, no lettuce or tomato, no pickle on the side.  There’s a harsh simplicity to bologna and mayonnaise.  In other words, I hated the combo (and maybe that’s why mayonnaise only gets “a few uses” in my world now).

After my wife and I met, I discovered another refrigerator regular besides Hellmann’s: Miracle Whip.  You could say Miracle Whip masquerades as mayonnaise (same look, same wide-mouthed jar) but the taste is decidedly sweeter.  Check out MW’s ingredients and you’ll discover a clone of mayonnaise… but with a healthy dose of high fructose corn syrup (sugar).  I like the tangy taste of Miracle Whip but I can’t help thinking mayonnaise is the healthier alternative.  Credit Kraft Foods though, who debuted their “less expensive alternative to mayonnaise” at the Depression-era 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.  Almost a hundred years later MW’s a staple condiment, and the Miracle Whip-or-mayonnaise debate lands in the same conversation as Coke vs. Pepsi, Uncle Ben’s vs. Minute (rice), and Aunt Jemima’s vs. Log Cabin (syrup).

“Mayo-nnaise…”

If you’re like me, at some point in this post your sub-conscience drums up the 1982 romance “An Officer and a Gentleman” (If not, you’ve missed a great film).  If you’ve been to Ireland you probably know County Mayo in the northwest corner of the country.  Better yet, go visit the town of Mayo on the northeast coast of Florida.  A few years ago Mayo changed its name to Miracle Whip as a publicity stunt.  Okay, that tops all other “mayo” references I can come up with.

As little as I dip into my mayonnaise jar, I’ve seen plenty of expiration dates.  It might behoove me to make my own instead.  Eggs, oil, and vinegar, with a little salt to taste, whipped at high speed.  Sounds American easy-as-pie.  But call it mahonnaise, okay?  Then you’ll have something sounding more like what the French cooked up all those years ago.

Some content sourced from the 7/9/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “The Delicious Evolution of Mayonnaise”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

R.I.P. Restaurants

The next time you dine out, take a good look at the menu options. You may find a few favorites missing thanks to COVID-19. Whether gaps in the supply chain or trims in the workforce, the virus-born experiment of modified operations has restaurants scrutinizing menus for what makes (fiscal) sense and what does not.

Examples: McDonald’s “all-day breakfast” – implemented in 2015 and an immediate success – retreated to morning hours shortly after the virus exploded. Drive-thru wait times promptly decreased – by an average of 25 seconds – so the change may be permanent. Outback Steakhouse axed its wedge salad and French onion soup, favoring fewer appetizers with faster production.  Before you know it Outback may offer steaks, potatoes, and nothing else.

Subtle menu changes like these got me thinking about restaurants closing their doors for good.  At some point all of them go to their graves.  Maybe this is the beginning of the end for McDonald’s and Outback.  Maybe ten years from now we’ll look back and wonder what brought on their respective demises.  I know I would, which brings me to the real topic of this post: what happened to the eateries of my youth and why are most of them now defunct?  Here then, a eulogy of my more memorable ones:

  • The All-American Burger – We had one of these red-white-and-blues in my hometown just a few blocks south of the church where I went to Sunday night youth group.  Mom supplied the cash while All-American supplied the fast-food dinner on those Sundays.  Not sure why AAB closed but they did have their fifteen minutes of fame in the 1982 classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
  • Chi-Chi’s – A super-size Mexican restaurant and one of the first dates for my wife and me in college.  Great food, but Chi-Chi’s U.S. downfall was a grand-scale outbreak of hepatitis-A in one of its Pennsylvania restaurants, in 2003.  You can still find them in Europe and the Middle East.
  • Farrell’s – An ice cream parlor and a great place for parties, since the birthday kid got a free sundae.  Farrell’s had an early-1900’s theme: straw-hatted waitstaff, player-pianos, and menus printed on newspaper.  My favorite Farrell’s memory: “The Zoo” – a giant bowl of ice cream intended for ten or more topped with a menagerie of colored plastic animals.
  • Hamburger Hamlet – “The Hamlet” also had a location in my hometown, and for a burger joint the menu and decor were decidedly upscale.  It was known as a Hollywood celeb hangout.  Curiously, I associate Hamburger Hamlet with O.J. Simpson more than other celebrities.  Simpson’s wife Nicole and friend Ronald Goldman were murdered at the Simpson house, in the residential neighborhood nearby our Hamlet.  Nicole Simpson had just been dining at Mezzaluna (the restaurant where Goldman worked), also just a couple of blocks up from The Hamlet.
  • Lyon’s – The quintessential 1980’s smoke-filled greasy-spoon diner.  There was nothing memorable about Lyon’s (nor healthy on the menu) except the rip-the-boss conversations my coworkers and I had over lunch.  Lyon’s filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and never recovered.  No surprise; none at all.
  • Naugles – My go-to choice in college, Naugles never skimped on their portions of Mexican food (so who cared about the taste?)  Whether it was the massive “Macho Burrito”, the messy “Naugleburger”, or the trash-can sized sodas, Naugles was my all-nighter study buddy. Del Taco took over most of the chain in the 1990’s.
  • Pup ‘N’ Taco – Hot dogs, Mexican food, and – pastrami sandwiches?  I remember Pup ‘N’ Taco more for the buildings than the food; obnoxious red, white, and yellow structures with steep-sloped roofs, similar to the look of the Der Wienerschnitzels of the time.  Taco Bell bought out Pup ‘N’ Taco in 1984, more for the locations than for the menu. Obviously.
  • Sambo’s – I can’t tell you why I remember Sambo’s; I just know my family and I had several meals here.  At its peak Sambo’s had over 1,000 locations in 47 states.  Fittingly the only remaining location changed its name this year, to disassociate with the children’s story The Little Black Sambo.  George Floyd and all, you know.
  • Victoria Station – Chain together several boxcars and a caboose, add kitchen, tables, and steak-and-shrimp menu, and you have a heckuva unique restaurant. Victoria Station ballooned to almost a hundred locations at its peak.  The railcar restaurant concept evolved from a joint graduate project at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. Victoria’s seemed like an upscale meal but maybe it was just the train car dining that made me feel upscale.

Someday soon (soon) we’ll be able to say we’re “post-pandemic” but by then it’s predicted thirty percent of our restaurants will have closed.  I’ll pray for those restaurants to R.I.P. as well, but not without another deserving eulogy.

Some content sourced from the 6/27/20 Wall Street Journal article, “Why the American Consumer Has Fewer Choices – Maybe for Good”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

In Defense of Breakfast

I wish I could remember the first time I watched “The Wizard of Oz”. I was probably six or seven, and so many scenes in the movie would’ve been magical at that age.  Black-and-white turning to brilliant color as Dorothy opens the door post-tornado. Glinda the Good Witch descending in a giant soap bubble. The Emerald City gleaming green beyond endless poppies. But one scene disappoints at any age: when (The Great and Powerful) Oz is exposed as a mere mortal (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”)  It’s the same disappointment I have with Mehmet Oz right now.

If you know Oprah Winfrey you probably know Dr. Oz.  A cardiothoracic surgeon and Columbia University professor, Oz added “television personality” to his resume when he appeared on Oprah’s show more than sixty times.  Later he launched the daily “Dr. Oz Show”, addressing medical issues and personal health in front of a studio audience.  He also authored the best-selling YOU: On A Diet series of books.

I’ve listened to Dr. Oz a handful of times and his medicine seems credible enough, especially with his attention to homeopathy and alternatives.  But earlier this year he made a statement I simply couldn’t digest.  Oz said (and I quote): “Breakfast should be banned”.  WOOF.  To me and a whole lot of other aficionados, that’s a truly harsh statement.

I’ve written about breakfast before, and my unabashed affection for its foods (ex. see Dream Puffs and The Meal of Champions).  For me, “it’s the most important meal of the day”.  However, those in the know – Dr. Oz included – say I’m victim to a powerful long-ago marketing campaign.  In the 1940’s General Foods decreed breakfast as “most important” based on the claims of anonymous nutritionists, when in fact GF simply wanted to sell more of its breakfast cereal.  Seventy years later many of us still buy into the idea of most important.  We just don’t have the data to back it up.

Now, let’s clarify a couple of points here, especially for those of you who are take-it-or-leave-it about the morning meal.  First, breakfast on my table is usually healthy and/or whole-food.  I like steel-cut oats with fruit, soft-boiled eggs with pepper, and yogurt with granola.  I adore traditional unhealthy breakfast champs like pancakes and waffles, omelets with the works, and bacon/ham/sausage, but those are for occasional Sundays after church or special occasions with family.  My weekday breakfasts are simple and small, designed as much to fuel as to fill.

Second, I have to cut Dr. Oz a little slack with his breakfast ban.  To add context, Oz goes on to say, “instead of eating breakfast first thing every morning, eat your first meal of the day when you are really hungry”.  In other words, Oz isn’t attacking breakfast so much as the timing of breakfast.  Have breakfast for lunch, for all he cares.  In fact Oz says, “Have brunch every day of the week!”

Intermittent fasting (IF) is a popular approach to diet these days, where meals are timed to create periods of fasting and non-fasting.  If you subscribe to IF it’s difficult to have an early-morning breakfast, else you’ll have dinner for lunch and nothing for the remainder of the day.  I like the concept of IF; I just don’t have the discipline (nor the inclination).  Morning breakfast works best for me – every day at the same time.  I look forward to the foods and I like the fact I’m fueling my mind and body before putting either through its paces.  But you may be different.  You may wake up and not be hungry.  You may venture several hours into the day before even thinking about food.  Your travel mug of coffee may be “breakfast” all by itself.  Different strokes for different folks.

Even if the entire camp isn’t eating breakfast first thing in the morning (or at all), I must stand fast on this: Breakfast is a morning meal. 4am, 7am, 11am – I don’t care, as long as it’s before noon.  None of this “breakfast for dinner” nonsense.  Wait, let me grant one exception: Sunday brunch (where I never partake of the “lunch” items).  Otherwise, I think even Dr. Oz would agree with the old adage, “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper”.  If we could all learn to eat like that, we’d be “great and powerful” every waking hour of the day.

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

No News is Good News

As a kid, my parents would sometimes take my brothers and me to a restaurant called Sir George’s Smorgasbord.  Sir George’s was one of those all-you-can-eat places, and in the 1960’s it cost you a mere $1.69 a plate!  I don’t remember the “royal buffet” being so kid-friendly (except for the fried dough balls for dessert) but that didn’t matter so much.  The idea you could assemble your own dinner from dozens of selections was a dream compared to some of mom’s mandated meals.

Sir George’s closed its doors in the late 1970’s, but I thought about the place the other night.  For years my wife and I used to watch a half-hour of local news on television – our before-bed catch-up on the happenings of the day.  I was always impressed with how many stories the newscasters crammed into thirty minutes; an almost breathless smorgasbord of headlines and reports.  Alas, the real-time information of mobile devices removed much of the appeal of the late-night news (except the weather – always an important topic here in Colorado).  But maybe the loss of appeal should be blamed on something else.  Something more troubling.

With the pandemic and protests of late, my wife and I tune into the news again.  We seek an encouraging stat or bit of research we’ve missed, or we yearn for a better angle on the justification of our country’s continuing unrest.  Whatever the reason, we find we’re tuning out the news almost as fast.  What used to be a buffet of international, national, and local news has changed into something else entirely: essentially a waste of our time.

I’m guessing news broadcasts look about the same in every American locale right now.  The lead story is an incident-based piece on racial injustice (i.e. Seattle’s CHOP), followed by something similar at the local level (i.e. a peaceful protest).  These stories are followed by a statistical update on COVID-19 (global, national, local), which leads to the latest state/city mandates and recommendations.

Click the stopwatch.  Fifteen minutes have already been consumed by protests and pandemic, leaving the other fifteen minutes for weather, sports, and everything else a viewer “needs to know”.  Actually, make that ten minutes.  Our news takes a break halfway through for commercials, then again just before wrapping things up.  Weather is only newsworthy if you live in a place where it changes daily.  Sports isn’t newsworthy at all, at least not right now.

You see where I’m going with this.  The late-night news is simply not “news” anymore.  Without taking anything away from the seriousness of the pandemic and the issues behind the myriad protests, neither topic is end-of-day compelling when you’ve already consumed a healthy dose of both from your phone and newsfeed.  You seek something else entirely late at night, at least to avoid EGO (eyes glazing over).  You seek something newsworthy.

The news lineup won’t change, of course.  Networks broadcast what they think you want to see and hear.  Or more accurately, they broadcast what they want you to see and hear.  Daily pandemic coverage is designed to elevate fear and maybe drive safer practices.  Daily protest coverage is designed to elevate the significance of the issues and maybe drive actual change.  But sorry; these topics are not the most newsworthy day-in and day-out.  They’re not “breaking news”.  Here’s breaking news: the other day we had a large brush fire just to the north of us, threatening our very homes and lives.  By my stopwatch, the news got to that story seventeen minutes after the hour.  Should’ve been the lead.

If the networks retitle these broadcasts something like “Pandemic and Protests Daily” at least I know what to expect.  I could set my DVR to record the show once a week and that’d be all the tuning-in I’d need.  Kind of like daytime soaps, where you can skip a whole week and then watch the next Monday’s episode to get caught up on all you missed.

Mark my words, the nightly news will soon lumber off like the dinosaurs, never to be seen again.  You might ask yourself: will its demise be attributed to the real-time pings of your mobile phone, or because the networks didn’t choose to acknowledge the vast buffet of topics right in front of them?

I say bring back Sir George’s.