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.

Merry-Go-Round Mayhem

The Safari Park’s merry menagerie

In the midway of the wonderful San Diego Zoo Safari Park in California, you’ll find a colorful attraction called the “Conservation Carousel”. Unlike traditional carousels teaming with horses, the Safari Park merry-go-round boasts giraffes, rhinos, zebras, cheetahs, and other “rare and endangered creatures”, just waiting to be taken for a spin. It’s a full-on circle of animals. It’s like riding a zodiac.

Wheel of Fortune

Speaking of the zodiac, what’s your sign?  I’m an Aquarius (born in late January), which makes me water-bearer to the gods.  As much as I don’t subscribe to horoscopic astrology – a visual representation of the heavens to interpret the inherent meaning of life – I can’t deny water’s played a significant role in my world.  I spent childhood summers in the Pacific Ocean and the backyard pool.  I lazed away hours in Northern California’s Lake Tahoe, swimming and water-skiing.  I’m enjoy a lively display of water, whether Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls or the fountains of Vegas’s Bellagio Hotel.  A gentle rain is nature’s therapy.

He’s not as great as he looks…

But then there’s the hell-or-high-water side of things.  Literally since our wedding night (when my bride and I awoke to dripping from the bed-and-breakfast room above us), the two of us have endured all manner of water problems.  A fully flooded basement.  A backed-up septic system.  Drinking water with a PH so out-of-whack we had to install a conditioner and a neutralizer.  Our well water quit pumping one time – for days – when a squirrel chewed through the electrical connection.  It’s like those gods have nothing better to do up there than play games with their little water-bearer down here on Earth.  If it were up to me I’d spin the zodiac wheel and land on another space instead.

Turns out my wish may have already been granted.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the earth maintains a wobble in its orbit around the sun, caused by gravitational pull on its not-so-perfectly-round midsection.  That wobble (called “precession”) – projected over the last several thousand years – shifted the alignment of the Earth with the zodiac constellations as the Sun passes through them.  Long story short, everything astrological advances one month on the calendar.  In other words, you rams out there (Aries) are actually fishes (Pisces).  You maidens (Virgo) are now lions (Leo).  And us water-bearers (Aquarius) – mercifully – are now mountain goats (Capricorn).

… but they don’t fall down.

With more passing of time, the earth’s Weeble-wobble will redefine basic astronomy as we know it today.  Take Polaris, the “North Star” at the end of the Little Dipper, and the starting point to locate the more distant constellations.  A few thousand years from now, Polaris will give up its position to Vega, another bright star.  All because our planet is a little fat in the middle.

With talk of a “changed world” after a curbed pandemic, I think it’s high time for me and you to adopt our newfound zodiac signs.  Goodbye Aquarius.  Hello Capricorn.  To preview my new persona, I looked at today’s horoscope in the local paper: A conversation with a female acquaintance will be important to you today. This is a good time to share your hopes and dreams for the future with someone to get his or her feedback.  Bless my lucky stars – I’m to check with my wife before moving one position on the astrological merry-go-round.  Seriously?  What does she know, holding court from under the sign of Cancer?  Whoops – make that under the sign of Gemini instead.  Either way, she can finally refer to me as, “you old goat, you”.

Some content sourced from the 2/21/20 Wall Street Journal article, “You’re a Scorpio?  Why the Earth’s Wobble Means Your Zodiac Sign Isn’t What You Think”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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”.

Bathroom Sync

During our town’s annual “Parade of (new) Homes” last summer, my wife and I came across a master bathroom with two showerheads in the same space. The fixtures were mounted on a single wall, almost beckoning the future owners to a side-by-side shower date. Several other couples gave pause alongside us. Shower at the same time? Nope.  We’re not among the 77% who love the idea. On the other hand, my wife and I would never give up our side-by-side sinks.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, “My Biggest Remodeling Regret…”, the author bemoans the lost space consumed by her dual master bathroom sinks.  She says, in hindsight, she would’ve exchanged the space of one sink for a linen closet.  Remarkably, in the seven years since the remodel, she claims she and her husband never used their side-by-side sinks simultaneously.  In a nutshell, she’d prefer to spend her bathroom time alone.

We’re in the midst of a remodel ourselves, which displaces my wife and I to the upstairs for several months.  As a result, we’re sharing a bathroom with one small sink.  It doesn’t work very well for us.  Why?  Because we like our own sink real estate.  We like the freedom of our respective bathroom routines whether or not we’re both in there.

Too “cozy”!

Bathroom habits speak to our individuality, don’t they?  What works for my wife, what works for me, and what works for our juxtaposition may be a far cry from your own preference.  Consider this scenario: would it bother you if your connecting bathroom were open to your bedroom (that is, no door)?  I’ve seen several layouts where the bathroom counter is the first thing you see when you prop yourself up in bed.  Ugh.  Our bathroom demands a door.  Having said that, I have no problem barging through said door, even if my wife is in the middle of getting ready.  Why?  Because a) we’re comfortable sharing our bathroom routines, and b) the toilet has its own little room; a “water closet” with a door.

But why side-by-side sinks specifically?  Because we often get ready for the day (or the night) at the same time.  Sure, we’re pretty good about weaving and bobbing around each other with a single sink (like we’re doing right now), but I much prefer grooming in my own space.  Then there’s the chatter.  We routinely ask each other’s mirrored reflections “how does your day look?” or “how does tomorrow look?” while we’re in bathroom sync.  We’ve done this for so long I can even understand my wife’s responses through her teeth-brushing.

The Journal article spends several paragraphs lauding the opportunity for privacy in the bathroom – not because habits are embarrassing, but because the bathroom can be a therapeutic escape from the chaos beyond its doors.  The bathroom is cozy-small.  The bathroom is typically simple and without clutter.  The Journal suggests magazines or iPad time or even singing (singing?) to promote rejuvenation.  I’m not here to dispute the notion.  I’m simply saying the bathroom’s not where I’d choose to rediscover my mojo.  Pretty sure my wife feels the same way, else I’d lose my barge-through-the-door privileges.

I’ll concede one point to the Journal.   The author brings up (and promptly tears down) another recent side-by-side trend: toilets.  Really?  “Going” at the same time?  Then again, I see more and more men un-self-consciously on their phones while “taking care of business” in public restrooms.  Maybe they’d be okay with a bowl-by-bowl conversation.  Seriously, how would you feel about receiving a call from a public restroom?  I’d reach for the hand sanitizer. I’d also demand the caller focus instead on his/her business and call back later.  Much later.

Creamer Schemers

A couple weeks ago, my Nespresso coffee maker sprung a leak. As it brewed a cup, it also “espressed” a small river of coffee from the base of the unit. An online chat with the good people at Nespresso determined, a) the maker really was broken, b) the one-year warranty covered the repair (whoo-hoo!), and c) the fix would take up to ten business days. Well beans; ten business days meant regressing a full two weeks on drip coffee instead.  Hold the phone; did I just label myself a coffee snob?

Nespresso

Nespresso – for those of you not familiar – is one of the many capsule coffee systems on the market today. Unlike the Keurig K-Cup, “Nestle-Espresso” capsules spin as the water passes through the grounds (7,000 RPMs – vroom vroom!), adding a light-colored frothy cap of “crema” on top. The crema enhances the aroma, but more importantly delivers the mouth-feel of a latte, as if you stirred something in from the dairy family. But call me fooled; Nespresso’s nothing more than coffee in the cup.

Bunn’s coffee-monster

Coffee snob? Parvenu, perhaps. It wasn’t that long ago I contentedly drank “joe” from one of those big metal Bunn machines, flavor-boosting my Styrofoam cup contents with a sugar cube and powdered Coffee-mate. Then, I spent a year in Rome and my world was forever coffee-rocked. I returned to the States armed with words like cappuccino and espresso and caffe latte. But America didn’t even know the word Starbucks yet. A “coffee shop” was still a greasy spoon diner; forgettable joe in a forgettable cup.

Mind you, not having Starbucks didn’t mean I was gonna crawl back to the Bunn, especially after a year of Italy’s la dolce vita (look it up). Eventually I dropped hard-earned cash on one of those early model home coffee/espresso/steamed milk contraptions – a machine requiring twenty minutes, twenty steps, and a phone-book-sized operations manual to produce a small cappuccino. The birth of the American barista did not start at Starbucks, my friends. It started in the frustration of orchestrating an overly complicated home-brew system in search of pseudo-Italian-style coffee.

Sometime after Starbucks opened its first doors (but before Nespresso), Keurig developed the K-Cup. The Keurig coffeemaker felt like a huge step up from standard drip (and ushered in the concept of single-serve coffee at home). Keurig opened a seemingly new world of coffee to me – exotic names like Green Mountain or Paul Newman’s or Donut Shop – but let’s be honest. Keurig was basically glorified drip, and I still wasn’t taking my coffee straight, like I did in Italy. And that’s where Nespresso shines. If the K-Cup is a step up from drip, Nespresso is the entire staircase.

Ironically, the same company producing Nespresso markets a line of oil-based creamers sugary enough to make your coffee taste like Easter in a cup. Nestle already offered creamer flavors like Peppermint Mocha or Italian Sweet Creme or Toasted Marshmallow, before recently adding Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Funfetti. Not to be outdone, International Delight augmented its own coffee creamer line – REESE’S Peanut Butter Cup, Cinnabon, and OREO Cookie Flavored, with – no joke – a PEEPS flavor. Better check for bunnies before you take a sip.

For the record (if the Pulptastic website is to be believed), I’m not even close to being a coffee snob. I can choose from any of their twelve defining characteristics and come up short. I don’t read about coffee. I don’t speak the lingo (“Robusta?” “Arabica?”). I don’t know what “cupping” is. I do enjoy a Starbucks coffee every now and then. Finally, I’m half-tempted to check out the PEEPS creamer (maybe I won’t even need the coffee in my cup). See the Pulptastic list for yourself. Maybe you’re the coffee snob instead of me.

I’m still waiting (im)patiently for my repaired Nespresso coffeemaker to come back. I’m barely surviving on my backup K-Cups. But I’m no coffee snob. And I was just kidding about wanting to try PEEPS in a bottle. On the contrary, those creamer schemers can keep their product far, far away from my Nespresso.

Some content sourced from the 2/3/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Rich Sales Boost Coffee Creamers”.

A Baker’s Half-Dozen

If you’ve ever been to an IKEA home furnishings store, you know the shopping experience is more about navigating a vast warehouse than a cozy “store”.  IKEA retail covers several football fields worth of showrooms and merchandise, with clever navigation arrows projected onto the floor so you don’t lose yourself in the maze.  Before or after your purchases, IKEA offers a spacious sit-down cafeteria, so you can fuel or restore your energy levels as needed.  And it is here – in the IKEA cafeteria – where I can’t help but picture the Swedish Chef from the The Muppet Show.

You remember Swedish Chef, don’t you?  Even if you only occasionally glanced over the shoulders of your children as they watched The Muppet Show, Swedish Chef left an indelible impression.  Chef had those big, bushy brows completely covering his eyes.  He always had a handful of utensils, inevitably launched into the air of his kitchen as his gibberish songs ended with “… BORK, BORK, BORK!”  Chef sported a colorful bow tie, a white apron, and the distinctive toque blanche (white hat) on his head.  Swedish Chef was always my favorite Muppet.

Chef could be working behind the counter of the IKEA cafeteria, because naturally; IKEA serves Swedish food.  My favorite entree (as if I dine at IKEA regularly) is the Swedish meatballs in brown sauce (köttbullar), served with a side of the crepe-like potato pancakes (raggmunkar) and a dollop of lingonberry jam (Sweden’s famous “food freshener”).

There’s another fellow in the States who reminds me of Swedish Chef, and he doesn’t work in the IKEA cafeteria.  Ever heard of Mimal, “the Man in the Middle of the USA”?  Mimal lives in the Midwestern states, and he’s a big boy.  In fact, Mimal’s so big he barely fits between Canada’s border to the north and Mexico’s to the south.

Have a look at the map.  Mimal (sometimes called “the Elf”) is a silhouette of a chef, represented by the outlines of seven American states.  MIMAL is quite literally (M)innesota, (I)owa, (M)issouri, (A)rkansas, and (L)ouisiana.  He holds a pan (Tennessee) of fried chicken (perfectly represented by Kentucky).  Mimal can thank the west bank of the Mississippi River for the shape of his five-state body.  He also looks like he’s about to march his chicken right off the map, over the Atlantic Ocean, and on into Europe.  Maybe he’s headed to Sweden?

Whoever discovered Mimal hiding in America came up with a clever way for children to memorize a handful of states.  Appropriately, Mimal the chef is made up of a baker’s half-dozen of them.  A baker’s dozen (13) began in the 11th century, when an extra loaf was added to the bread basket to guarantee the minimum sales weight.  A baker’s half-dozen then – rounded-up – is seven loaves.  Or seven American states.

Leave it to Americans to deny Mimal his innocence.  Based on one or more unsolved mysteries in the MIMAL states, the elf-chef was once connected with a real-life kidnapper/murderer.  The legend claimed if you drove straight from Minnesota to Louisiana – through each of Mimal’s five “body” states, you’d be abducted (never to be seen again) once you crossed Louisiana’s northern border.  My logical brain asks how said abductor knows you made it through all five states?  But this is legend we’re talking about, much like the monster in Scotland’s Loch Ness.  Tabloid fodder at best.

Educators expanded on Mimal’s seven-state profile, including all fifty American states in a story designed to help students memorize names and locations (would’ve been helpful back in my school days, when I’d confuse Wyoming with Colorado).  Still, I prefer to limit the game to Mimal’s baker’s half-dozen.  I can’t help but see a big chef every time I look at a map of the United States.  I also can’t help hearing him sing, “…BORK, BORK, BORK!”

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the Laughing Squid blog.

Check-Out Champ

We had a good drop of snow the other night; the best we’ve had since the new year began. The flakes fell quickly, adding inches to the front porch and everything in the yard beyond. As I surveyed the vast, white blanket before me, my mind wandered to snow angels and snowmen, to pulling the sled out of the garage. I pictured wandering lines of deep footprints, far as the eye could see, or snowballs piled up and ready, waiting for a battle with the neighborhood kids. Without knowing it, I was effectively ticking the list of images from Ezra Jack Keats’ 1962 children’s classic, “The Snowy Day”.

Confession time. I didn’t remember the story of “The Snowy Day” until I stopped by my local bookstore the other day for a copy (destined to my granddaughter’s bookshelf). It’s a simple book: the snow-filled adventures of a little boy on a winter’s day, captured in less than two hundred words. The images tell the story as well as the words, including the boy’s disappointment when he realizes a snowball carefully packed into his coat pocket melted moments after entering the warmth of his house.

Why all the fuss over a short children’s story, authored almost sixty years ago? Consider this: “The Snowy Day” is the most checked-out book in the 125-year history of the New York Public Library (NYPL). That’s 485,583 individual borrows, putting the book comfortably ahead of hundreds of thousands of others. (Safe to say the “Jeopardy” writers jotted down that bit of trivia for future use.)

You’d think I’d have checked out “The Snowy Day” when I was little. After all, the library was a weekly – if not bi-weekly destination as a kid. My older brothers took music lessons right across the street, leaving the library as a convenient “babysitter” while Mom went to the grocery store. I’ll always be grateful to her for that strategy, which generated countless check-outs and a lifetime love of reading.

I find it remarkable the NYPL maintains complete records – most of them on paper – backing up its check-out claim for “The Snowy Day”. The book topped several other bestsellers I would’ve chosen instead. Take “Fahrenheit 451” (#7 all-time checked-out), or “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (#9). How about other children’s titles like “The Cat in the Hat” (#2) and “Where the Wild Things Are” (#4)? “The Snowy Day” sits atop the list with fewer words and fewer pages (except perhaps #10, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”) Good on you, Ezra Jack Keats.

Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” seems out of place in the NYPL top-ten (#8) – the only non-fiction read on the list. I’ve never checked out a Carnegie self-help book, let alone bought one (not that I couldn’t use the help). For that matter, I’ve never checked out any of the NYPL top-ten. Maybe #6 Charlotte’s Web, but that was a long time ago.

“The Snowy Day” brought to mind storybooks from my own childhood, I took a few minutes to recall the following favorites (sans Google search):

  • Harold and the Purple Crayon
  • Clifford the Big Red Dog
  • The Red Balloon
  • Make Way for Ducklings
  • Blueberries for Sal
  • Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel
  • Are You My Mother?
  • Sparky’s Magic Piano
  • Caps for Sale

The brain is remarkable. I can give you a complete synopsis of each of the above stories, fifty years after I first read them. Furthermore, “Harold and the Purple Crayon” and “The Red Balloon” manage to tell their stories without a single word. Nothing but photos and illustrations. They make “The Snowy Day” look like a novel.

I can’t tell you the last time I set foot in a library, but I know it’s been years. I’d say I’m “overdue” and should “check out” one of the nearby branches. After all, the stories of my childhood have endured the test of time, waiting patiently on the shelves; perfect reads for the next “snowy day”.

Some content sourced from the 1/13/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “These Are the Most Frequently Checked-Out Books in the History of the New York Public Library“.