Loony Binge

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

Poisonous snakes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about a smile, Oscar?

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

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

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

Dream Puffs

Last year, Starbucks surpassed Subway as America’s #2 restaurant, measured by gross sales (McDonald’s is still top dog).  I don’t consider Starbucks a place to “dine”, so second-place is impressive.  Then again, Starbucks’ bakery case has matured since its initial offerings.  There are temptations-a-plenty now, en route to the barista.  The traditional breakfast items share space with yogurt parfaits, fruit-and-cheese boxes, “fold-over” sandwiches, and entree-size salads.  But it’s the smaller offerings I want to talk about today.  Look closely through the glass – you’ll see sous vide egg bites and Bantam’s bite-sized bagels.  Those little guys could be the future of fast food.

egg bites

I haven’t tried the mini bagels, but Starbucks wins me over with its egg bites.  The first time I gave them a whirl, my wife and I were in the middle of Lent, trying to find alternatives to the foods we gave up.  Egg bites to the rescue.  The sous vide prep means cooked in water, with nothing but a bit of spinach, red pepper, and cheese mixed in for flavor.  Simply elegant (elegantly simple?), and the light, fluffy texture makes them as delicious as they are convenient.

Three Little Griddles

Æbleskiver

Now let’s talk about real breakfast foods.  Last weekend, my wife and I went to a nearby restaurant called Three Little Griddles.  Much to my delight, Griddles had Æbleskiver on the menu.  If you’re Danish, you already know what I’m talking about.  Æbleskiver is heaven-sent breakfast: puffy little balls of pancake with a sweet surprise in the middle, finished off with a delicate dusting of powdered sugar and a side of raspberry jam.  Æbleskiver is Danish for “apple slices”, but you’re more likely to bite into a strawberry or a fruit-compote filling instead.  Three Little Griddles also offers Æbleskiver with an egg/bacon filling, coated with a maple-syrup glaze and powdered sugar.  A complete breakfast!

NOT Æbleskiver

If you haven’t heard of Æbleskiver and the first thing you thought of was “doughnut hole”, shame on you.  Doughnut holes don’t even qualify as poor man’s Æbleskiver.  Doughnut holes are a clever product designed to get you to buy more when it appears you’re buying less (think “fun-size” candy bars).  I have two issues with doughnut holes.  One, they’re not actually the “hole” of a solid doughnut, but prepared and baked separately instead.  Two, they’re not shaped like a doughnut hole should be (picture it – something more like the hub of a wheel).  They should be called doughnut balls.  But enough of this talk; I’m wasting words.  Let’s keep the focus on Æbleskiver.

My first taste of Æbleskiver came when I was little, in the Central California village of Solvang.  Solvang is like, well, a kid’s “Little Denmark” – a town small enough to walk around, with an overabundance of shops selling toys, candy, and ice cream.  Several windmills spin slowly above Solvang’s high-pitched shingle rooftops.  A church sits prominently on the edge of town.  A small park serves as the town square, complete with a bandstand-sized gazebo.  All that’s missing is some water-filled canals and cobble-stoned streets.  But meanwhile, there’s plenty of Æbleskiver.  Some restaurants even bake them out on the sidewalk, rotating those little dream puffs to perfection in their unique iron skillets.

If you credit the Danes with the invention of ball-shaped food, the rest of the world takes a distant second with its imitations.  China makes a spherical egg-based fruit-filled waffle called Gai Daan Jai.  Japan makes a variety of savory ball-sized snacks called Takoyaki. (Savory? Yuck.)  And America makes doughnut holes called Munchkins.

As if Æbleskiver isn’t cool enough as a food, it’s also a cool word with a unique spelling (note the “letter” Æ).  Perhaps Starbucks will start carrying it, along with the egg bites.  I’d buy both and a coffee for a complete breakfast.

Finally, if Æbleskiver has you wondering what other delights Denmark has to offer, consider ÆblekageÆblekage is “apple charlotte” – stewed sweetened apples layered with butter-roasted bread crumbs and crushed makroner (an almond-flavored meringue), topped with whipped cream and red currant jelly.  Oh my; sounds like dream stuff.

Æblekage

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

Save the Bowl

Back in the 1980’s, Hollywood produced an awful movie called “The Stuff”.  The story began with a couple of miners discovering a pasty-white goo pouring forth from the earth.  Giving it a taste, they realized it was not only edible, but the more you ate the more you seemed to want.  So, they package the goo, brand it “The Stuff”, and begin selling cartons to the masses.  Turns out – besides tasting good – “The Stuff” melts your brain, turns you into a zombie, and leaves you with nothing but an insatiable appetite for more.  That’s the entire comedy-horror plot, save for an FBI agent and a teen trying desperately to rescue the planet.  “The Stuff” was like a light/airy “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”: no taste and little substance.

Even a “distasteful” movie can be a prophecy, however.  Maybe you’re craving “The Stuff” after reading that paragraph.  Guess what?  It just may exist, disguised as the pint-sized “ice cream” products from Halo Top, Arctic Zero, Enlightened, and others.  All available this very minute at your local grocery store!  What are you waiting for?

Halo Top (HT) is – in one aspect – the dream dessert.  Halo Top is a full pint of ice cream (per the label – four servings), engineered to be consumed straight from the container in one sitting, but with none of the guilt/gluttony associated with full-fat competitors.  HT can’t hide its pride – the biggest lettering on the container is the calories (just 280 for the whole pint; 25% of Ben & Jerry’s), while elsewhere the packaging promotes immediate and total consumption with slogans like “save the bowl” and “stop when you hit the bottom”.

On the other hand, Halo Top is not dream-tasty.  Some describe HT as “shaved ice” while others say it leaves a chalky aftertaste (hello, stevia).  The chocolate-chip cookie dough has very little “dough”, and the cookies-and-cream has no cookies.  Every review I found recommends time at room temperature to achieve a more ice-cream-like consistency.  On a recent visit to the grocery store, I “hefted” one of these pints.  It was hard as a rock, yet somehow so light/airy it felt like a little helium balloon, ready to ascend from my grasp.

Here’s the real wonder to me: none of the above gotchas stop consumers from filling their baskets with Halo Top pints.  Last year’s sales were over $350 million, a 500% increase from the previous year.  In the same time, “regular” ice cream sales increased less than 10%.  As one consumer declares, it’s a brave new world of ice cream – quantity over quality.

What I find most disturbing about Halo Top and its peers is the manufacturer’s intent.  They’re effectively encouraging you to clean your plate by design.  Four servings make more sense than one because you should eat the whole pint.  Whether you’ve already quenched your appetite is irrelevant; it’s about getting to the bottom of the container.  Arctic Zero claims “…our love of ice cream runs deep, like eat-the-entire-pint-deep.”  Enlightened even offers how-often guidelines.  In their website FAQ’s, we’re told ice cream is not just for dessert: “Not at all! Low in calories, fat, and sugar, and packed with protein and fiber, Enlightened Ice Cream is truly good for you. It can be enjoyed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner… or anytime in between!”

Let’s translate the “more is better” concept to the movie theater.  If we drop the guilt factor from junk-food concessions, we could sell popcorn in containers the size of trash cans.  Soda could be hosed to each theater seat for hours of non-stop slurping (restroom logistics aside).  String licorice could be coiled on floor-mounted reels.  M&M’s could be the size of hamburgers.

We’ve just about come full-circle here.  If all of us binge on Halo Top, honing our full-container consumption habits for breakfast lunch, dinner, “and anytime in between”, haven’t we created a modern-day version of “The Stuff”?  All that’s missing is the magic ingredient in Starbucks and Chinese food that triggers “I want more”.  As for me, I’ve never tried any of the products I’ve talked about today, nor do I intend to.  I’d rather not become a zombie.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop…“.

Midwest Cookie Madness

I wonder how many modern-day brides still wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” on their wedding day.  This time-honored gesture of good luck includes a nod to 1) continuity, 2) optimism for the future, 3) borrowed happiness, and 4) purity, love, and fidelity.  But some brides would rather not mess with the dress, understandably distracted by other wedding-day traditions.  Like 18,000 homemade cookies.

Thirty-one years ago, after my wife and I exchanged our rings, we sliced into an impressive three-tiered wedding cake at the reception; miniature bride and groom perched on the smallest layer at the top.  Per tradition we took that smallest layer home, stored in our freezer and shared on our one-year anniversary: a toast to continued good luck and prosperity.  Had we been raised in Ohio or Pennsylvania however; our guests might’ve been drawn to the cookie table instead.  So says a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Thousands of cookies at a wedding reception?  Sounds to me like the latest quirk of the my-wedding-is-more-memorable-than-yours game (besting cupcake towers and chocolate fountains).  On the contrary, cookie tables are almost as traditional as wedding cake, dating back several generations.  They are the reception obsession of some Italians, Catholics, Greeks, and Scandinavians.

Cookie tables are traditional in Ohio and Pennsylvania as well, and these communities take their baking seriously.  There’s even a Facebook page to exchange recipes, ideas and guidelines (see here).  Cookie tables may soon become a wedding reception norm from coast to coast.

Here’s a “taste” of cookie table guidelines.  Every item must be homemade by family members; or if purchased, only specially-ordered from your neighborhood bakery.  Cherished recipes (i.e. “lady locks” and “buckeyes”) must carry over from generation to generation, no matter how time-intensive the preparation.  Cookies must be as fresh as possible, leading to a flurry of baking in several houses days before the wedding (and lack of freezer space in those houses).  Even the layout of the table itself has rules; considering the number of cookie varieties and which varieties deserve prominent placement.  Finally, the table “reveal” must be decided: 1) Already on display as guests arrive?  2) Revealed by the bride and groom with a dramatic pull of a curtain?  3) Self-serve, or closely guarded by tuxedo-ed cookie stewards?

Cookie tables have one advertised – if not followed – rule-of-thumb.  The ratio of cookies to guests should be around 12:1. That number allows a guest to sample several cookies at the reception, and take several more home for later.  If I apply the 12:1 ratio to the 18,000-cookie wedding (a real-life example), there should have been 1,500 guests.  In fact, there were only 360.  According to the mother of the groom, “…my goal was to have a spectacular cookie table…”  I’m sure the guests thought it was spectacular, helping themselves to an average of 50 cookies each.

Competition plays a role with cookie tables, with the goal of “mine is better than yours”.  One example boasted of “…tens of thousands of cookies, filling nine banquet tables… six people worked for two days on the display”.  Another boasted of “reserved varieties, prepared especially for (and only for) family members of the bride and groom”.  Even the take-home boxes get a personal touch.  With all this attention to cookies, wedding cake – or any other dessert for that matter –  stands in the shadows (like the bride and groom themselves?)

When my son or daughter gets married, perhaps my family will extend the tradition to Colorado and prepare a cookie table.  With my baking skills, I’ll commit to an impressive 3:1 ratio, five different varieties (provided I’m allowed to use store-bought refrigerator dough), and guests will delight in a consistency I can only describe as week-old-but-slightly-burnt.  I guarantee it’ll be memorable.

Little Jack Horner

Behold the Thanksgiving feast. Turkey and stuffing – a meal unto itself. String beans with mushrooms, dripping in butter. Crescent rolls (because you can never have enough carbs at Thanksgiving). Every side dish imaginable, or at least enough to fill up the empty spaces on the table. And then there’s dessert. Homemade cookies and cakes. Pies galore – pumpkin, apple, and cherry. And way over in the corner – completely overlooked like a little kid begging for attention – mince pie.

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I love mince pie. It’s an exorbitance of flavors, provided you like the ingredients of course: raisins, dried apples, and molasses, blended with generous helpings of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg; topped off with two or three shots of brandy. For the spices alone – which were said to represent the gifts brought to Jesus by the three kings – mince pie is sometimes referred to as Christmas Pie.  But early Americans didn’t celebrate Christmas, so mince pie made it to the Thanksgiving table instead.

Mince pie has a colorful history. The Brits get credit for the pie itself, but the Middle East gets credit for the fruits and spices, discovered by European crusaders on their travels and returned to their various homelands. Mince pie was originally a dinner pie – meat included – with the spices added to hide the sometimes “off” taste of meat without refrigeration. Over time the meat was left out entirely so only the fruit and spices remained. The pie literally morphed from savory to sweet (and from “mincemeat” to just “mince”).  At one time mince pie was banned from dinner tables, frowned on as a religious symbol by Puritan authorities.  I’m glad I don’t live in a time of Puritan authorities.

If you’re looking to salvage a few calories as you roam the Thanksgiving buffet, don’t go anywhere near mince pie.  Were you to consume the whole pie you’d be talking 3,600 calories, and that doesn’t even include the essential topper of brandied cream (“hard sauce”).  Were you to only eat the filling you’d still take in almost 400 grams of carbohydrate and 250 grams of sugar.  But you’d take in no fat and almost no protein.  It’s like consuming a concrete block.  If someone threw you in the East River after a generous helping of mince pie you’d sink to the bottom in nothing flat.

More trivia about mince pie:

  1. An eating competition was held in 2006 where the winning contestant ate 46 mince pies (not 46 whole pies but rather the smaller tarts you see in the photo above).
  2. Mince pies were originally coffin-shaped (not round), but they just called them “rectangular” because coffins hadn’t been invented yet.
  3. Early versions of mince pie contained a total of thirteen ingredients – symbols of Christ and his disciples.  Another reason those pesky Puritans considered the pie “forbidden fruit”.

Making mince pie is quite the chore.  Take a pie shell, dump in a jar of mince filling, top with another pie shell, and bake at 425 degrees for thirty minutes.  To be honest, the hardest part of making mince pie is finding the jar of mince.  Your local supermarket may carry it but they usually hide it deep in the lowest shelves of the baking aisle (are they embarrassed to carry it?)  One time I found a jar that looked dusty and dated, as if it had been back there since the last Thanksgiving.  Another time the checker humiliated me by saying, “No one ever buys this stuff.  Why would anyone ever buy this stuff.”  Well, I buy this stuff, pal.  Because I like mince pie.

Mother Goose rhymed: Little Jack Horner, Sat in the corner, Eating a Christmas pie.  That’s me.  I’m Jack on Thanksgiving.  And I’m sweet on mince pie.

Banana Rant

Let’s start with a song today; or at least a verse from a song.  See if you remember this little number:

Jack, Jack bo-back, Banana-fana fo-fack. Fee-fi-mo-mack, Jack!

The song? It’s “The Name Game”, that annoying rhyming chant that should stick in your brain for the next several hours.  Here’s another one:

Day-O! Day-O! Daylight come and me wan’ go home!

The song?  It’s the “Banana Boat Song”, made popular by Harry Belafonte.

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I mention these songs because they’re happy on bananas.  And I hate bananas. Let me rephrase: there is no fruit, vegetable, or otherwise consumable item on God’s green earth more singularly unappetizing to me than bananas.  I only have to think about the taste of a banana and I consider tossing my cookies.  Bad news for me though – supermarkets, songs, commercials, movies and desserts ensure my world is constantly bombarded with the yellow fruit.  Bananas are as prevalent in the urban jungle as they are in the real one.

I blame my growing-up years, now that I think about it.  My first bike was a 1968 Schwinn “Lemon-Peeler”- the one with the “banana” seat.  What in God’s name was I thinking?  I could’ve had Schwinn’s “Pea-Picker” (green) or Schwinn’s “Cherry-Picker” (red) but no; I had to opt for a “Banana-Peeler” (as it came to be known).  It horrifies me to realize I sat on a banana for a good chunk of my childhood.

My Saturday mornings included “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour”; that silly animal rock band I somehow found entertaining.  Disney crushed me with “The Jungle Book”: King Louie eating bananas every time he was on-screen and even singing about them.  (I will never sing about bananas.)  Finally, I can’t shake those Chiquita banana commercials, the ones with Miss Chiquita dancing and singing: I’m Chiquita banana and I’m here to say… catchy little jingle.  It’s like the media was conspiring to force me to like bananas.

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Fruit was a requisite item in my school lunches back then.  Oftentimes my mom would put a banana in my school lunch instead of an apple or an orange or grapes.  My protests went unacknowledged at home so I gave bananas away at school, to anyone who showed interest.  Not that I got anything worthwhile in return.  Bananas have little value in the American high school.

All of the above pales in comparison with one ghastly horror-film-worthy banana-filled-memory.  Coming into the kitchen one morning before school, I found my mom busily frying bananas on the stove.  I rubbed my eyes in disbelief but the image didn’t go away – banana slices sizzling and popping in an oil-filled pan.  Seriously?  Aren’t bananas bad enough the way nature made them?  Couldn’t I opt for a bowl of sliced bananas and oranges instead, where enough shredded coconut on top blocks out the banana taste?  Apparently not.  Mom just had to be adventurous.  I can still picture that plate of thin, dark, hot, greasy banana slices next to my more redeeming breakfast items.  Gag.  It’s a forever-imprint on my brain.

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Even the concept of “acquired taste” failed me with bananas.  For example, I used to hate tomatoes (and yogurt repulsed me even more), but somewhere in my food journey I actually learned to enjoy them.  Now they are staples in my diet.  Not so bananas.  Bananas are as choke-worthy today as they were in that frying pan forty years ago.

If I must eat bananas there’s only one way they’re going down the hatch – in banana bread.  I actually like banana bread.  That’s probably because the dozen other ingredients win the battle and effectively expunge the banana taste.  It’s like Fig Newtons if you hate figs.  Or Oysters Rockefeller, with enough broiled cheese and spinach to effectively kill the oyster.

Opinion: bananas foster, banana splits, banana cream pies, and banana pudding are all outstanding dessert choices as long as you leave off the bananas.

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Facts: 100 billion bananas are consumed every year across the globe.  Americans alone account for 27 pounds/person/year, which equates to 108 bananas!  You’ll find bananas on the list of the “World’s Healthiest Foods”.  The Latin word for banana translates to “Fruit of the Wise Men”.  California even has a Banana Museum for crying out loud. (17,000 items!)

None of that moves me.  Gwen Stefani may sing B-A-N-A-N-A-S on “Hollaback Girl” and shirts or sweaters may tempt me at Banana Republic, but I will never put “like” and “bananas” into the same sentence (er, except this one).  But hey, call me if you’re hungry.  My 108 bananas are all yours.

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