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.

True Colors

In the kitchen cabinet convenient to our countertop coffeemaker (I’m on a roll with the letter C today), we keep a couple of large mugs; souvenirs from the San Diego Zoo. Identical in size and shape, both mugs have images of animals on them. More importantly, one mug is light blue while the other is bright red. For this reason and no other, I place the blue mug at the front of the cabinet and the red mug further back. My preference is the blue one.

If these same mugs were in your kitchen cabinet, which would you choose?  What if I added a green mug and a purple mug – would your choice be just as clear?  It should be, since we all have favorite colors.  Unless we’re colorblind we concur when something is blue, or something is red.  We even agree when something blue is “pretty” (say, the summer sky) or something red is not (say, the heart of a forest fire).  But that’s just preference by association.  Favorite colors are part of our DNA.

I’ll take “green”

As far back as I can remember my favorite color is green.  I also like blue and purple, but if I only get a single Skittles make it green.  With board games, I choose the green pieces. With my wardrobe, I own several green shirts (but no red ones).  My wife and I once owned – one after the other – a green van, followed by a green sedan, followed by a green mini-van; even though the more popular vehicle colors are white, silver, black, and dark grey.  It may be no coincidence the colors of my alma mater are blue, gold… and green.

Hello, Marilyn!

Don’t let the numbers influence your choice but 35% of Americans prefer blue while 16% prefer green, 10% purple, and 9% red.  Orange, yellow, and brown sit together at the back of the bus.  Also, gentlemen may prefer blondes, but gentlemen definitely prefer blondes in red.  To heterosexual men at least, women in red draw more romantic attention than any other color.

Infants show a preference for color as early as twelve weeks old.  That’s hardly an age where you associate colors with material things.  Toddlers show a preference for pink and blue regardless of sex (and cool colors over warm), but choose yellow over both of them – perhaps owing to association with the sun, flowers, and other “happy” things.

Here’s where favorite colors get interesting.  At five years of age you begin to associate colors with more than just “things”.  You associate with feelings and states of mind as well.  Consider the table above.  My preference for green suggests a good/bad combination of traits.  Immodestly I like to think I have good taste.  Unquestionably I put a premium on my health.  Envy?  Sure, every now and then.  Eco-friendly?  Nope, not really.

Red and blue make for better arguments.  The “lust”, “power”, and “speed” associated with red explain why it’s the color of choice for sports cars, and why red uniforms statistically improve performance in certain sports (think Tiger Woods).  All five blue traits explain why the color is so prevalent in the American workplace (and primary in the logos of standard brands like Ford, Facebook, and IBM).  Even the traits of violet/purple make sense: the color most associated with royalty.

The Rose of Temperaments

Our desire to interpret the meaning of favorite colors has been around a long time.  The Rose of Temperaments is a wheel-like image from the late eighteenth century, matching colors to character traits and occupations.  See what your color says about you.  If green goes to my very soul, the rose is strikingly accurate.  I can make a case for every trait in the list of phlegmatic. My tendencies are also more introverted than extroverted.  The rose gives me reasons for envying red, yellow, or blue (and reasons for not), but I can’t deny it: I am literally defined by my favorite color.

Speaking of the basic colors, we also favor color names. Mother Nature’s rainbow just doesn’t do it anymore.  In a recent remodel project my wife and I chose the paint color “Cocoa Whip” over “Havana Coffee” and “Wild Truffle”; when in fact we were simply choosing a shade of brown.  In product tests, participants shown swatches of the same color consistently preferred the one with the most elegant name.

Closing comment on my favorite color green.  You do know what they say about green M&M’s, don’t you? The aphrodisiacal effects (urban legend) are explained by the color’s association with fertility.  However, the better story comes from 1976, when the FDA banned the chemical “red dye #2” and red M&M’s temporarily departed the production line.  Rumor had it the reds were the real aphrodisiacs, employees were pocketing them straight from the line, and the whole red dye #2 story was a cover-up.  Red, green, whatever the color; they all taste good to me.  Even the brown ones, which testers swear taste more like chocolate than any other color.

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

Banana Ranting (again)

Take a good look at this photo.  My wife and I have this weird assortment of foods on our kitchen counter right now.  Store-brand hamburger buns.  A half-loaf of “artisan-style” marble rye against the backsplash.  Below both, a package of ready-to-use French-style crepes.  To the right, a spaghetti squash and a handful of wrapped Lindor truffles.  To the further right, an oft-visited plastic container of peanut butter pretzels, fronted by a watermelon just itching to join a fruit salad.

These foods are not “still life” waiting to become paint on canvas.  They’re not even past-due items from the back-of-store sale rack.  They’re just random samplings from trips to the grocery store; items kicked to the kitchen curb instead of the pantry or frig.  Two questions, then.  If you were given this lot on “Top Chef” could you whip up something appetizing?  Would you even care to try?

artwork courtesy of Alexi Talimonov

More importantly, I made it to the third paragraph before mentioning the pair of bananas taking up prime real estate front and center in the photo.  I HATE bananas, be it look, feel, texture, or taste.  Bananas need to go back to the primeval jungle from which they escaped.  In my world, bananas should be called “no-passion fruit”.  If I were starving on a desert island, shadowed under the gently waving fronds of a banana palm, I’d nosh on the fronds, then the tree bark, then the tree itself before tossing its worthless bananas into the ocean.  Hell, I’d choke down sand before eating bananas.  Put a gun to my head (or a banana); I still wouldn’t eat one.

For Pete’s sake though; no matter the magnitude of my banana hate, the yellow curvies still find a way to remain relevant.  Take this pandemic for instance.  Stuck at home means more time in the kitchen.  More time in the kitchen means comfort food, and comfort food includes baking bread. Sourdough. Pizza dough. Baguettes. Challah. Naan. Sadly, we rookie bakers discover the ingredients in our pantry are as past due as our bills.  Way past due.  Flour tastes sour.  Honey ≠ sugar.  Past-its-prime yeast does not make the loaf say, “All rise!”  Even with fresh ingredients we butcher the recipe by feeding, kneading, and reading too much into every step.  Instead of baking bread we’re breaking bread.  We need a no-brainer no-spoiler kinda baked good.  Banana bread to the rescue!

Banana bread is easy; it really is.  Call yourself a breadmaker with as few as five items – none of them “yeast” or “starter”.  Sift together flour and baking soda.  Whisk together eggs, butter, and mashed bananas (mashed bananas?  Isn’t that what I threw up regularly as a kid?)  Combine in a loaf pan, bake, and voila – banana bread.  You’ll find the first four ingredients in your pantry already and if you also have bananas, they’re probably overripe (i.e. perfect for banana bread).  Just like the bananas on my kitchen counter.  I made the mistake of picking them up when I took the above photo.  They’re so ripe they feel like half-filled water balloons.  Or half-filled hot dogs.  Or Twinkies submerged in water for a few hours.  You get the idea.  Ewwwwwww.

Now for the irony/paradox/contradiction/twist/flourish of today’s post (take your pick).  I like banana bread.  I’m on the fence of almost loving banana bread.  Slice a thick piece, warm it in the oven, slather with butter, and it’s pretty damned good.  As I admitted almost four years ago in my post Banana Rant, bananas work inside of bread like figs work inside a package of Newtons.  As a standalone they’re a horror-filled rubbery package disguised as one of Mother Nature’s edibles.  Downgraded to an ingredient they stand on the fringes of the vast arena known as “food”. 

Enough with the spotlight on bananas already.  Trust me, I had better topics to blog about this week.  My pandemic-born obsession with Netflix.  A lamentation to Major League Baseball for a season that’s never gonna start.  A keyboard pounding to the heavens for dumping several inches of snow on our neighborhood this week (for God’s sake, it’s June!)  But no, I chose to discuss the best use of “water-logged Twinkies” instead, keeping bananas a front and center topic.  Kind of like walking into the grocery store and the very… first… thing… in your field of view is an acre of bananas grinning their pathetic yellowy smiles.  They should go back to the jungle where they belong.  I’ll make do with soury-dough bread instead.

Some content inspired by the 4/20/20 Wall Street Journal article, “Forget the Sourdough.  Everybody’s Baking Banana Bread”.

Going Against the Grains

When I was a kid – many moons ago – my mother made breakfast almost every morning; a service I full-on took for granted. She made eggs or pancakes a lot, but on days she ran late (or just didn’t feel like it) she’d put out big boxes of brightly colored breakfast cereal. Lord how my brothers and I heaped our bowls with those chemical-laden nuggets. Lucky Charms. Cap’n Crunch. Frosted Flakes. Sure beat the horrid porridges my mother also chose to make. So, forgive my double-take when I sat down to a delicious helping of steel-cut oats the other day, deliberately passing up a beckoning box of Golden Grahams.

bo-r-r-r-r-ing…

Like tomatoes, avocados, and yogurt, I have zero fond memories of hot cereal in my childhood.  I recall coming downstairs for breakfast, and before even reaching the kitchen I’d smell the distinct nastiness of cooked grains.  Quaker Oats.  Cream of Rice.  Cream of Wheat.  Wheatena (the worst of them all).  My mother had more choices for hot cereal than she had sons (and she had a lot of sons).  It’s like she wanted us to vote for “blandest breakfast”.  Mercifully, she allowed small amounts of brown sugar and/or raisins to sweeten things up.  And milk.  Lots and lots of milk.

I should’ve figured this out decades ago.  Hot cereal’s a whole lot better with fresh fruit (raisins are a poor excuse for fruit).  Strawberries, blueberries, apples – they all turn “mush” into an appealing “meal”.  And the learning curve continues.  Rolled oats are better than instant oats.  Steel-cut oats are way better than instant oats.  And lest you’ve forgotten: anything is better than Wheatena (even tomatoes and avocados).

Tell me this: when was the last time you used “porridge” in a sentence (Brits aside)?  What an utterly dated word.  The last time – the only time I uttered “porridge” was reading “Goldilocks and The Three Bears” or jigging to “Peas Porridge Hot” (“…peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old…”).  My nursery-rhyme days.  Porridge doesn’t have a modern ring to it (did it ever?) and yet that’s exactly what we’re talking about today by definition: hot breakfast cereal made by boiling grains in water (or milk).  Wikipedia counted ’em – all grain types included – and came up with seventy-five distinctly different porridges.  Doesn’t matter.  If I’m a kid I still opt for Froot Loops.

You need porridge trivia for your next socially-distant gathering and I’m happy to oblige.  Consider the following:

  • Whole-grain oats date back to 7,000 BC, which sounds like dinosaur times to me (even though it isn’t).  The Chinese and the Greeks made claim to the first versions of porridge back then.
  • Lisa Williams and “The Golden Spurtle”
    If you’re supremely proud of your cooking, there’s a World Porridge-Making Championship in Scotland every October.  The list of winners looks suspiciously Scottish (i.e. “Duncan Hilditch”, “Ian Cruickshank”, “Addy Daggert”) but last year’s champ was England’s Lisa Williams.  She earned “The Golden Spurtle“, which begs a most excellent trivia question: What do you call a stick for stirring porridge?
  • In 1755 it was documented oats were horse food in England but people food in Scotland.  Not exactly a boost to Scottish pride (although to be fair the people’s version was cleaned, toasted, hulled, and cooked).
  • In Portland, OR you used to be able to buy hot cereal from an oatmeal-only food cart.  “Bloop” – with made-to-order mush like “Peanut Butter Banana Dreams” and “Good For You Goodness” – shuttered its wheels in 2011 after a single year in business.  I get it: oatmeal’s no passing fad but it’s also no passing food truck.
  • Your standard can of oats (18 oz.) contains over 26,000 grains.  Don’t count; just trust.
  • The oat capital of America is (drum roll…) Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of most-popular-brand Quaker Oats.  Small town, big factory.
  • Once upon a time, Quaker Oats included coupons in its oatmeal boxes redeemable for legal deeds to property in Milford, CT.  Granted, the lots were only 10’x10′ but you could still be a landowner with a modest purchase of oatmeal.  The whole scheme became a property tax collector’s nightmare and the lots were eventually condemned.

Speaking of the Quaker Oats Company, in the 1970’s they came out with flavored instant versions of their hot cereals.  “Apples & Cinnamon” and “Maple & Brown Sugar” come to mind (“Ready in Just 90 Seconds!”).  God answered my prayers to distance myself from Wheatena.  Also deserving kudos, Quaker Oats used to own Fisher-Price Toys.  Can’t you just picture the marketing division, trying to develop an “oatmeal plush” doll?

I’m devoted to my steel-cut oats these days but I’m not gonna pretend I’m not tempted by alternatives.  Cheerios (especially the “Honey-Nut” variety) is the ultimate oat cereal.  Life (especially the “Cinnamon” variety) is another delicious Quaker Oats product.  And I’ll never get my childhood love for Lucky Charms out of my DNA.  They’ll always be a little more “magically delicious” than porridge.

Some content sourced from fabFood, One Green Planet, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Not-So-Fast Food

If you’re like me, you’re prepping meals at home more often than you used to.  Your grocery lists are electronic or paper instead of in your head.  You may even be meal-planning and on your way to becoming America’s next gourmet chef.  But no matter the approach eventually you succumb to food out instead of food in.  “Taking away” meals these days means navigating an app, a website, a drive-thru, a phone call, or for the really daring, an unscheduled appearance at the front doors.  You never know which approach works until you try a couple.  Sometimes you simply give up.

Case in point.  Last Friday we took my wife’s truck for a service – scheduled just after sun-up. Leaving the house so early meant breakfast would be out instead of in.  My first thought?  McDonald’s.  An Egg McMuffin is still a pretty good on-the-go breakfast, and navigating McDonald’s hasn’t changed (drive thru, pay at the window, drive away, enjoy).  I also admit to a soft spot for the Golden Arches because I worked there in high school.

My wife had other ideas.  Since a breakfast sandwich was the order of the day she wanted Einstein Brothers Bagels, and with good reason.  Einstein’s offers a choice of five “classic” breakfast sandwiches and another seven “signature” specials: twelve different spins on bagels and eggs.  While Egg McMuffins are assembled from just four mass-produced ingredients, Einstein’s creations are made-to-order adventures with options like chorizo, avocado, spinach, and mushrooms.  If the choice is Einstein’s or McDonald’s it’s a no-brainer.  Except now.

“Save time?” I beg to differ.

Not knowing Einstein’s take-away approach during COVID, I parked in front of the restaurant while my wife went inside to place the order.  Nope.  Einstein’s allows two options: DoorDash or order from the app.  Well blast my bagels – DoorDash doesn’t even deliver to our neighborhood so it was either the app or go hungry.  Fine.  A quick download and I went in search of the “Order” button.  Nope.  Einstein’s wants an account first – phone number, email, birthday, credit card, and so on.  Fine.  At last we assembled our on-line order and I went in search of the “Pay” button.  Nope.  Einstein’s makes you bank a minimum balance first (and welcome to “Shmear Society Rewards”).  Really?  A cash reserve for a breakfast sandwich?  Once and for all, nope.  I X’d out of the app, deleted it from my phone, and left a skid mark or two as I accelerated away.

“McDelivery?” Not necessary.

McDonald’s was also on the way home, a couple miles up the road.  We didn’t have their app either but so what?  Order at the drive-thru, pay at the window, drive away with an Egg McMuffin, enjoy.  We even splurged on hash browns (and an order of breakfast sausage for the dog).  A McDonald’s breakfast for two people and a pet costs far less than a similar order at Einstein’s.  Was my Egg McMuffin forgettable?  Yes.  Did I consume my sandwich within minutes of leaving the restaurant?  Yes (today’s Egg McMuffin is smaller than your palm).  Did I wish I’d had a custom-made Einstein’s instead?  Of course.  But not if I must jump through a bunch of electronic hoops to get one.

I want to support restaurants through the COVID pandemic; I really do.  Our favorite Mexican place has nothing electronic, so you just place a phone order and take-away fifteen minutes later.  Our favorite coffeehouse is a converted bank, so it’s drive-thru, pay, and go, lickety-split.  That’s all I’m asking for: simple process, no hoops.

Einstein’s theory of relativity assumes accelerated motion (say, a car pulling away from a restaurant with an order of food).  Einstein’s Bagels requires decelerated motion (say, the unanticipated time to download, setup, and bank-load their app).  Take your pick: Einstein’s approach or Einstein Brothers’ approach?  For me, it’s Albert’s way every time.

Edgy Veggies

Thanks to several weeks of mandated “stay-at-home” here in Colorado, my wife and I limit our trips to the grocery store to every ten days or so. In turn, we’re digging deeper into our freezer, discovering a rather exotic world of forgotten foods. We found a box of gourmet croissants the other day that hadn’t quite earned their expiration date (score!)  We also found ingredients to a “healthy” dog food recipe, which will probably never become dog food.  But mostly we’re unearthing frozen vegetables; the ones passed over for months (years?) in favor of peas and carrots. And now that we’re out of peas and carrots?  Suddenly we’re eating more cauliflower.  Cauliflower?

flower power

Here’s my earliest nightmare memory of cauliflower; maybe yours too.  1) steam the florets fresh in a big pot.  2) sprinkle a little Parmesan cheese on top.  3) call it good.  News flash: cauliflower isn’t good that way – not at all.  It’s just colorless and tasteless, and I remember thinking what in God’s name am I eating here – tree roots?  In my childhood evaluation, cauliflower rated below spinach and broccoli.  Miles below peas and carrots.

Today’s cauliflower is a whole different animal (er, vegetable).  It’s being described as “the new kale”.  You see, someone discovered how to “rice” cauliflower a few years ago and suddenly it’s a trendsetting side dish.  Someone else discovered how to make crust out of cauliflower and suddenly it’s an option for pizzas.  Cauliflower’s popularity surge is probably because of what it doesn’t offer.  85% fewer calories than white rice.  23 times fewer carbohydrates than a wheat pizza crust.  There’s even a vegan form of Gruyère cheese out there, with cauliflower as the main ingredient.  Keto and Paleo fans are flocking to this great imposter.

The data backs up the newfound power in the flower.  Sales of cauliflower are up 40% in the last four years.  We’re now buying less cabbage and garlic than cauliflower (in my case, way-y-y-y less cabbage).  Cauliflower’s green leaves are the latest addition to salad bars.  Aldi, the German company with a delicious cheesy-cauliflower rice (more cheese, less flower), claims it’s now its top-selling product.  Aldi capitalizes on this volley of cauli with other products, like tortilla chips and gnocchi.  Tortilla chips made out of cauliflower?  Now that’s just wrong, people.

THIS is how you eat Brussel sprouts

Cauliflower falls under the same veggie species as the Brussel sprout (as well as broccoli, cabbage, and kale), and I think those little green buds deserve a debt of gratitude.  Brussel sprouts may be the original edgy veggie.  Back in the day, Mom prepared them the same way as cauliflower (and the same way she prepared every other legume in the world) – steamed with a sprinkle of canned cheese.  They were awful.  But years later we have sliced and diced Brussel sprouts buried within liberal helpings of grilled bacon and onions. Genius. It’s like you’re only eating bacon and onions, with a slight aftertaste of Brussel sprouts.

Taken the same way, cauliflower now lands on my “consumables” list.  I prefer the riced version with cheese (cheese makes everything better).  The hybrid pizza crusts aren’t too bad, like cauliflower with cornmeal.  Maybe I’ll even give the vegan Gruyère a try.  In other words, as long as cauliflower is an ingredient – not the whole enchilada – I’ll bite.

Kale may now be passé, with white becoming the new green (although cauliflower also comes in orange, green, and purple).  Take your pick: roasted, grilled, fried, steamed (aka boring), pickled, or raw.  Plant cauliflower seeds in your garden and you’ll have full heads in 30 days or less.  With all this demand for stand-in veggies, your next bite may beg the question, “is it flour or is it flower“?

Some content sourced from the 3/4/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “‘The New Kale'”: Cauliflower Becomes a Bestseller”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

St. Brigid’s Cathedral dominates the quaint urban landscape of Kildare Town in central Ireland. The centuries-old stone church beckons the short walk up the hill from the village square, for a tour around Brigid’s domain. And while you’re on the grounds, you’ll be tempted to climb the adjacent tower for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding county. I assure you; the vistas are breathtaking.

A bird’s eye view from my own locale would be just as breathtaking right about now.  In the last ten days, I’ve ventured beyond my driveway once, for a mundane grocery shop at the local market.  For all I know, nearby Colorado Springs has been erased from the map.  For all I know, all my neighbors in the surrounding county traveled to a tropical island where they’re making merry, while I’m left to keep an eye on things back here at home.  Who nominated me for that job?

Proceed with caution!
The tower “stairs”

No kidding, the view from the tower at St. Brigid’s is spectacular.  Not only do you see all of Kildare Town below, but you’ll be mesmerized by the lush green acreage of the adjacent Irish National Stud (and its countless roaming thoroughbred horses).  When my wife and I visited several years ago, targeting Kildare Town to see the cathedral of her namesake saint, I figured light a few candles and say a few prayers; not climb a ten-story tower.  I have a mild fear of heights so you can imagine my trepidation.  And here’s the kicker: there’s no code-sanctioned, easy-to-navigate stairwell within the tower.  Instead, you hand over a couple of Euros for the privilege of climbing a dozen ladders to the top.  I almost called it quits after the first few rungs.

My longing to “rise above it all” today is not just inspired by the pandemic, nor even my acrophobia-be-damned adventure up the tower at St. Brigid’s.  I also think about nearby Pikes Peak, the highest of the Rocky Mountains in this part of Colorado.  “America’s Mountain” tops out at 14,115 feet, and I’ve hiked to the summit several times (the trail begins at 6,000 feet).  You begin the journey on a series of easy switch-backing trails, which then give way to a remarkably gentle incline through a forest of Ponderosa pines.  For several miles under the treetops, you have no orientation to suggest you’re even climbing a majestic mountain.  But once you hit the tree line, everything upwards is a moonscape: rocks and dirt and scrub brush all the way up to the summit.  The view is stunning; as if you’re looking down from space.  You can see clear to Wyoming to the north and Kansas to the east.

Pikes Peak, through Garden of the Gods

I could use a mountain (or a ladder-filled tower) on my property right about now, just to connect with the world around me.  Oh sure, rural living means the stay-at-home rules are a minor inconvenience, but it’d sure be nice to confirm someone else is out there.  The local news shows human interest stories every night on TV, but c’mon, how many of us trust the media these days?

Here’s my very favorite climb-ev’ry-mountain memory.  I grew up in a narrow canyon on the outskirts of Los Angeles; so narrow in fact, some stretches could only accommodate a single row of houses on one side of a winding two-lane road.  Biking with the cars was taking your life in your own hands, as was scaling the canyon trails into the domains of rattlesnakes and other wildlife.

Lucky for me, a steeply rising network of paved residential streets branched off the canyon floor less than a mile south of our house.  On foot, those streets became a kid’s adventure up and out of the isolation.  I’d stock a daypack with cheese sandwiches, Pop-Tarts, and anything else I could pilfer from the pantry.  Some days I’d go it alone; others I’d drag my brother with me.  Up, up, up we’d climb, rising breathless until we could peer almost straight back down to the canyon floor below.  The final stretch of the topmost street – with houses perched precariously along on its edges – afforded a view of Los Angeles and the nearby Pacific Ocean like none I’ve seen to this day.  There I’d sit, munching snacks, wondering what all I was missing down there in the big city.

Today it’s the same feeling, only different.  What am I missing out there in the big city?  Is Wyoming still to the north and Kansas to the east?  Are cadets still at the Air Force Academy, anticipating this weekend’s socially-distanced graduation ceremony?  Have the majestic red rocks of Garden of the Gods finally crumbled?  Truthfully, I can’t answer any of these questions, not while I’m stay-at-home.  But at least I can see the summit of Pikes Peak from here.  At least I’m confident St. Brigid’s Cathedral still stands in Kildare Town (Notre Dame in Paris, maybe not so much).  And at least I can revisit fond memories, the kind I never thought I’d yearn for again.  On that note, think I’ll make a cheese sandwich.

Confection Perfection

While grocery shopping the other day, my wife asked me if I’d eat something containing “77% dark chocolate”. I replied casually, “No, my limit’s more like 72%”. To those in the know, the percentages refer to the cacao content; not the broader term “chocolate”. And that level of technical shows you how far I’ve come from the 3 Musketeers bar of my youth.

Each of us taps into our particular coping mechanisms as we deal with impacts of the pandemic. My wife spends countless hours playing brain games on her iPad. More of my neighbors take daily walks than I’ve ever seen before. Me? I’m getting lost in a few rainy-day projects, but more to the subject at hand, I’m tapping into my dark chocolate stash. There’s something therapeutic about a small square of the good stuff slowly dissolving on the tongue.  Dark chocolate is medication for troubled times.  It sates my soul.

I can’t recall when I graduated from “candy bar” to “chocolate bar”, let alone dark chocolate.  Like most kids of the 1970’s, I was drawn to Milky Way, Snickers, Nestle Crunch and the like, due to an annual dose of “fun-size” every Halloween.  But somewhere I had an epiphany and realized chocolate was pretty good all by itself. The clincher: studying abroad in Italy during college.  Overnight it seemed, I graduated from the products of Hershey’s and Mars to the more refined of Perugina and Ferrero. 

The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed Thierry Muret, the executive chef chocolatier at Godiva, and after reading the article I thought, “Now there’s a dream job”.  Not so fast, Mr. Goodbar.  Turns out Monsieur Muret is an industrial chemistry grad who leans heavily on his knowledge of science to create Godiva-worthy delicacies.  Muret’s all about “molecular gastronomy”, or decomposing/recomposing the very elements of chocolate to develop new textures and tastes.  Think about that the next time you bite into a Godiva truffle.

This much I know.  Chocolate’s most common varieties are “milk”, “dark”, and “white”, and while each contains cocoa butter, they’re better defined by their other ingredients (i.e. the dairy in “milk”).  My taste for dark chocolate evolved over a lot of years, the way my coffee matured from “instant” to “espresso”, and my wine from “Chardonnay” to “Cabernet”.  The basic versions simply don’t cut it anymore.

Thanks to Monsieur Muret, this much I don’t know about chocolate.  There’s a tight temperature range (65°-75° F) where fine chocolate can be “tempered” (shaped into truffles, etc.) without altering its delicate flavor.  There’s also a tight time frame to temper, because you don’t want the temperature to fluctuate more than a degree or two.  But Muret colors outside of the lines.  He throws temperature and time frame to the wind to concoct new textures and tastes.  He once spent an entire year perfecting a single ganache.  Whoa; that’s taking it to a whole new level.

The path to chocolatier typically goes through culinary school, not the chemistry lab.  You start with a pastry degree (pastry degree?) and then specialize in chocolate/confections.  Nope, not what I studied in college – not even close.  But I do deserve a “tasting degree” for my years of experience.

If the pandemic goes on long enough, I may find the shelves of our grocery store devoid of dark chocolate.  No problem: I’ll settle for a good ol’ 3 Musketeers bar instead.  Milk chocolate (not to mention the dose of childhood nostalgia) is a passable backup coping mechanism.

The so-called experts say there’s “no high-quality evidence that dark chocolate provides health benefits”.  With coping in mind, I couldn’t disagree more.

Some content sourced from the 2/7/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Nothing Could Be Sweeter Than Being Godiva’s Top Chocolate Chef”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Iced Coffee

Place Dauphine

In the airy but over-aired romantic comedy Me Before You (2016), the dashing but damaged Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) laments bygone times when he refers to, “Paris. Place Dauphine, right by the Pont Neuf. Sitting outside the cafe with a strong coffee, a warm croissant with unsalted butter and strawberry jam.” Place Dauphine is not just a scene in Me Before You; it’s a real square in the heart of Paris.  And it probably has Will’s cafe, thanks to the nearby river and central views of the city.  Yet French cafes are growing scarcer every year.  In fact, these quaint little gathering places are disappearing in droves.

Painting by Vickie Wade

If someone asked me to paint a scene from a French country village, I’d surely highlight a charming cafe on a cobbled central space, bursting with patrons.  In the cafe, the proprietor would serve incomparable pastries alongside fine, pressed coffee.  The room would swell with music and chatter; the locals swapping their work-day adventures before heading home to supper.  The evening stopover in the cafe seems to me a staple of French culture.

So it pains me to read about closed doors on France’s rural cafes, according to a recent report of the Wall Street Journal.  Sixty years ago, you would find over 200,000 of them liberally dotting the country.  Today, there are less than 40,000.  “Progress” – in its various forms – has forced the rural worker out of traditional French industries and into the big cities.  Time once spent in the cafe is now given over to the workday commute.  Adds a village mayor, “Without a cafe, a village is pretty much dead”.

A “French cafe” in Ireland

Even though I’ve been to Paris, I can’t claim to have spent time in any of its cafes, not even the famed Les Deux Magots, where writers like Hemingway and Joyce were said to have gathered.  And yet, I’ve still experienced authentic “cafe culture” (and I don’t mean Starbucks).  On a trip to Ireland several years ago, my wife and I concluded our first day of sightseeing by ducking into what we thought was a small pub in downtown Dublin.  Turns out the place was more “French cafe”, complete with black-and-white prints on the walls, candle-lights on the tables, and coffee, tea, and pastries to beat the band.  We were so taken by the place we stopped in every afternoon for the better part of a week.  Perhaps the most showstopping memory of all: we never saw a phone, tablet, or laptop.  Patrons were there to gather and chat, or at least – in the case of a few loners – to lose themselves in a good book.

van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”

The French cafe is made all the more romantic thanks to the artist Vincent van Gogh.  In 1888 in the southern town of Arles, van Gogh observed the play of a cafe’s lights against the nighttime sky, which inspired his painting Cafe Terrace at Night, the precursor to his unequaled The Starry Night

“Yellow vest” protestors

Perhaps you recall France’s “yellow vest movement” a year or so ago, when protestors took to the streets to battle aggressive economic policies.  Turns out the French cafes played a part in the melee.  The government sought to impose an increased fuel tax to reduce the number of cars on the road.  The protesters interpreted the tax as an impolite shove, to get more people to move to the big cities.  In other words, less people in French country villages.  And no people in French country cafes.  Remarkably, one of the government’s concessions following the yellow-vest protests was subsidies towards small businesses.  Perhaps the French country cafe is not dead after all.

Had I written this post two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have come up with much positive spin on this topic.  But let’s face it, those of us “sheltered in place” right now yearn for social interaction (not social distancing).  We want face-to-face again, not Facetime.  We want the congregation, not just the church service.  So perhaps there’s a silver lining to the current pandemic after all.  When we return to “new normal”, my hope is we’ll have a newfound appreciation for gathering, instead of hiding behind our electronic devices.  As well, my hope is my next visit to France will find the doors of French country cafes wide open again, just beckoning me inside for “strong coffee and warm croissant”.

Not So Fast, Mr. March!

In 2010, New York City premiered a wee little romantic comedy called Leap Year. The movie starred Amy Adams and Matthew Goode, and spun a creative love story around a Leap Day tradition of marriage proposals. In Ireland (and Britain), the tradition held if a woman proposed to a man on February 29th, the man must accept her offer or face significant penalty. Leap Year begins in Boston with the intent of ending in a Dublin marriage proposal, but the coastal Irish town of Dingle (and Matthew Goode) gets in the way. That’s where the real story begins.

If you haven’t seen Leap Year, you’ll have to search elsewhere for the complete plot summary. Just avoid the movie reviews. Leap Year earned a not-even-modest 23% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a not-even-one-third 33 out of 100 on Metacritic. My favorite assessment comes from reviewer Nathan Rabin, who concluded, “The film functions as the cinematic equivalent of a (McDonald’s) Shamrock Shake: sickeningly, artificially sweet, formulaic, and about as authentically Gaelic as an Irish Spring commercial”.

Yeah, I get it. Mr. Rabin refers to the several “overly-Irish” details in Leap Year, which seek to pay homage to the country’s culture but instead come off as cliched (with a capital C). But do viewers really care? Leap Year‘s underlying story is fun, and even if rom-com isn’t your bowl of Irish Stew, at least you have Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. I repeat, Amy Adams and Matthew Goode, two of the most appealing actors in the movie industry today.

I’ve been hooked on the lovely Ms. Adams ever since she took her Oscar-nominated spin as Giselle in Enchanted (2007). It doesn’t hurt she grew up just a few minutes north of where I live here in Colorado. My wife’s been hooked on Matthew Goode ever since he stole scenes from Mandy Moore in Chasing Liberty (2004). It doesn’t hurt he added a passable Irish accent in Leap Year. Both actors have been nominated for awards in far better films, but put them on the big screen together and a little chemistry goes a long way.

Speaking of leap year, my preference for order and logic takes a serious hit whenever the short month of February rolls around. A month of twenty-eight days when the other eleven have thirty or thirty-one? Why not just reduce two or three other months from thirty-one to thirty days and make February “full”? The only credible historical explanation I can find is this: Caesar Augustus stole a few days from February to make his month (August) as long as Caesar Julius’ (July).  We future generations are left to deal with the anomaly. Gee, thanks Gus.

In a rather odd example of redemption, February gets extra attention by boasting an extra day every four years. We need the quadrennial Leap Day to put the calendar, the seasons, and the universe back into sync. Not so fast, Mr. March. And yet, pity the poor souls born on Leap Day. Must’ve been pretty traumatic as a kid, trying to understand why your special day doesn’t show up on the calendar like the other kids. Or consider a “leaper’s” 21st year (or whatever year one earns drinking privileges). How do you convince the barkeep you’ve reached your drinking birthday in a year without a February 29th?

Perhaps you’ll “celebrate” Leap Year 2020 by seeing the movie of the same name. We’ll watch Leap Year for the zillionth time. My wife will remind me Matthew Goode’s character and her own Irish Draught horse share the same name (Declan). I’ll remind her several Leap Year scenes take place in Connemara and County Wicklow, two of our favorite places in Ireland.

Matthew Goode recently admitted, “I just know there are a lot of people who say (Leap Year) was the worst film of 2020″. But Goode also admitted to signing on so he could work closer to home and to see his girlfriend and newborn daughter more often. Doesn’t that make the (English)man even more likable?  Maybe.  At least Amy’s doing a sequel to Enchanted.

(Author’s Note: Just noticed this is my 229th post on Life In A Word. 229 as in 2-29 as in February 29th as in Leap Day. WHOA.)

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the 2/28/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Leap-Year Babies Fight a Lonely, Quadrennial Fight for Recognition”.