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.

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”.