Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Low Light Hakuna
Hakuna keeps watch in the den at night in this vaguely painterly image. (What she’s watching for, who knows?)

Today is Hakuna’s sixteenth birthday. Sweet Sixteen!

It’s been fascinating, observing her Life-Journey from somewhat reserved Big-Sister Kitty (compared to Matata’s outsize personality, how could she help but appear reserved?) to sedate yet vivacious Night-Talker. And I’ve been photographing her in her variegated moods for at least the past seven years.

Treats are in order... and yet, Hakuna generally eschews treats, preferring her regular kibble to any alien offerings. Her favor is not so easily bought. But we’ll celebrate anyway, with or without her. Perhaps sushi. She’d like that.

Update: As befits a Birthday Girl, Hakuna leads the parade of kitties over at the Modulator, where this week’s Friday Ark sets out on its 337th voyage. This Sunday, be sure to head on over to Meowsings of an Opinionated Pussycat for the 372nd edition of Carnival of the Cats.


Will and Kate
Souvenir Will and Kate coffee mug, one of the billions of Royal Wedding-themed tchotchkes that will be sold during the next 24 hours. [Template courtesy Regretsy, Photoshop courtesy Yours Truly.]

While residents of the southeastern United States assess the destruction and bury the dead in the wake of yesterday’s unprecedented tornado outbreak, the national media are moving on to the really important News of the Day: the impending wedding of H.R.H. Prince William of Wales, K.G. with Miss Catherine Middleton.

Ahh, we Americans love our Pageantry of State, especially when we don’t have to bear the expense of maintaining it. We’re the ones who, some 235 years ago, decided we didn’t want any truck with royalty. And yet we collectively wet our pants over every ridiculous detail of the Royal Wedding, as if any of it really mattered. What Catherine will wear (ooh!) - how many horse-drawn carriages will transport the wedding party (ahh!) - the historic venue, Westminster Abbey (ooh!) - whether William will wear boxers, briefs, or simply go commando for the occasion (gaah!)

Meryl Yourish probably has the best take on the whole thing:
...I think the entire concept of monarchy, no matter how limited, is pathetic and about as anti-American as you can get. Why is that family rich? Because they used their armies to take money from other people over the centuries, and then forced them to pay taxes to support their heirs in perpetuity. I don’t believe any royal family is much better than modern dictators when you get down to the core of their fortunes. The difference is their victims died centuries ago, and Ghaddafy’s are dying today. So yeah, celebrate another wedding of wealthy inbred thieves? Pass.
Having said all that, I will concede that nobody - nobody - does Pomp and Circumstance quite as well as our British friends. It is so veddy, veddy entertaining to watch an amount of money equivalent to the GNP of several small nations being expended on a ceremony that, at its core, is the granting of a License to Screw. We haven’t seen the like for a long time...

...for it was nearly three decades ago - July 29, 1981 - that She Who Must Be Obeyed and I sat in her parents’ Beaumont, Texas home, watching Prince Charles marry Diana Spencer, William’s mother, in St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was a fairytale wedding: perhaps an overused phrase, but aptly descriptive of something that bears absolutely no relationship to Real Life.

Alas, that particular fairy tale did not have a “happily ever after” ending, given Charles and Diana’s separation, divorce, and Diana’s subsequent tragic death. But good stories - even good fairy tales - are not about the “happily ever after” part anyway, but the events preceding it. “Miserably ever after” plays so much better to the parts of our Reptilian Hindbrain where reside emotions like envy, jealousy, and schadenfreude.

Perhaps Will - who is a mere nine days older than the Mistress of Sarcasm - will think of his late Mum as he takes his wedding vows in the same grand hall wherein her funeral was held. As for me, I wish the royal newlyweds every happiness in the same manner I would wish any pair of newlyweds every happiness. And happiness will be elusive, for despite their enormous material wealth, theirs are lives that will be lived in rigorous circumscription and under constant critical observation. Events as trivial as a fart under the Royal Sheets will be newsworthy... and Gawd help Kate should she eat asparagus.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Channel 11 weathercaster Chesley McNeil’s expression says it all: “Uh-oh. We’re screwed.”

We’re here at Chez Elisson - She Who Must Be Obeyed, the Mistress of Sarcasm, and I - awaiting the arrival of a horrendous line of supercell thunderstorms. What the weather-wonks call a “significant tornado outbreak.”

There’s a monster swath of red and purple on the weather radar map stretching from the Gulf all the way to Toronto. Right now most of it is in Alabama, but it’s continuing its inexorable slide eastward. Toward us.

The weather people on the local teevee stations have been pissing their pants for at least the past day. They’re jacked up with a sweaty combination of fear and nervous excitement. They will have their time in the spotlight, for sure - but any joy they might feel is tamped down by the knowledge that it’s all too likely that people will lose their homes and lives tonight.

Tornadoes have been skipping across Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama all day. Now it’s our turn to be under the gun. It’s one of the pleasures of springtime in the South.

Assuming our house remains standing through the night, we’re likely to lose our satellite signal. I’m hoping we don’t lose power, too. Generally, our electricity stays on through the worst storms, but tonight, all bets are off.

SWMBO’s main concern, at this point, is whether she’ll miss any of “American Idol.” Grace (and guilty pleasures) under pressure: that’s her.

Update: Eric, up in the wilds of eastern Tennessee, reports that he is without power... and that, for a while, lightning strokes were flashing and banging at a rate of over two per second. Yikes!

Update 2: It’s the morning after what has been reported to be the worst tornado outbreak since 1974, and one of the worst in U.S. history. Over 173 confirmed dead, most of them in Alabama. Eleven deaths in northwest Georgia, in towns I was driving through exactly one week ago.

Over 150 tornado touchdowns were reported throughout the region, including those that were spawned by a single monster supercell that cruised across Mississippi, Alabama, and northwest Georgia over the course of the afternoon and evening, laying waste to Tuscaloosa and Ringgold.

We were lucky, with most of the really bad stuff skirting the edges of the metro Atlanta area. Here in east Cobb county, we saw a few lightning flashes and had a few minor storms blow through, but nothing to set the warning sirens off or send us scurrying to the basement with flashlights in hand. Watching those huge red and magenta blobs on the weather maps, though, we knew other folks were not as fortunate.

Now it’s the East Coast’s turn. Hopefully, the storms have shed most of their energy and will be only shadows of the destructive behemoths that roared through Dixie.

Update 3: After two days, the full magnitude of this weather event is still just beginning to be understood. Over 200 tornadoes were reported within a span of just a few hours, many of them deadly long-track storms.

It’s a good possibility that the twister that took out Tuscaloosa was the most powerful tornado ever recorded in the United States. Aerial views of Tuscaloosa show a swath of devastation that looks like it might have been left by Gawd’s own vacuum cleaner... and the known death toll is over 350 and climbing.

Here in Cobb County, Georgia, we didn’t just dodge a bullet - we dodged a fucking cannonball.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Four times a year, Yizkor - a special Service of Remembrance - is added to our morning liturgy.

Yizkor is recited during Yom Kippur services, an appropriately melancholy addendum to what is already a solemn day. But it is also included on the final day of each of the three ancient pilgrimage festivals: Sukkot, Shavuot, and Pesach.

Today being the last day of Pesach (in the Diaspora, anyway), it was a day for remembering. And, as our rabbi pointed out, the solemnity of Yizkor is at least partially offset by the joy of the season. Passover is a springtime festival, after all, and one of its enduring themes is that of renewal. Even in the face of loss and grief, we know that flowers will eventually sprout from the earth once again and that the mornings will be filled with birdsong.

Alas, so many to remember.

My grandparents, all having been gone from this world for over two decades.

SWMBO’s grandparents.

SWMBO’s sister. This summer it will have been 35 years since her untimely passing.

SWMBO’s dad, the inimitable Billie Bob. Nobody could barbecue a brisket like Billie Bob.

My mother.

My two uncles, Gerry and Phil. Two of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet.

There are more, of course. Family almost beyond reckoning. Great-aunts and -uncles, all dust and memories. Family. And friends.

Was it only three days ago that we stood on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in South Carolina, watching the wedding of the son of Friends of Long Standing, a handsome young man whose father no longer walks the planet with us? Yet another example of renewal and rebirth in the face of loss.

It is a peculiarly human gift, this ability to remember. It can be the source of such pain when those we love are taken from our midst... and yet who would choose a life without the capacity to feel that pain?

“As long as we live, they too shall live... as we remember them.”

Monday, April 25, 2011


They were lined up around the block, waiting to get in to the 9:00 show Saturday night.

It was a magic act. Nothing unusual about that. But what was unusual was the crowd. Instead of the usual assortment of pimply adolescent nerds and misfits, the eager horde of ticketholders consisted of women. Females. There was not a man-jack among them.

They were young (but not too young). They were middle-aged. There was even a scattering of oldsters. From plain to attractive, slender to chubby, they were there for an evening of magic. Special magic.

David Cop-A-Feel smiled. Another sold-out engagement!


[Sung to the tune of “Friend of the Devil”]

Lit out from Cupertino, left a trail of twenty tweets.
Spent the whole night writing posts, so I never got to sleep.

Sit by the keyboard where I waste my time,
Facebook friend of the devil is a friend of mine.
If my files upload before daylight,
I just might get some sleep tonight.

Ran into the devil, babe, he agreed to host my site -
But when I saw his CCS, I nearly died of fright.

Sit by the keyboard where I waste my time,
Facebook friend of the devil is a friend of mine.
If my files upload before daylight,
I just might get some sleep tonight.

I ran down to the levee and some spammers caught me there
They tried to take my money but I just gave them the air.

Sit by the keyboard where I waste my time,
Facebook friend of the devil is a friend of mine.
If my files upload before daylight,
I just might get some sleep tonight.

Got two reasons why I cry away each lonely night,
The first one’s named HTML and it’s my heart’s delight.
The second one’s my Twitter feed, babe, with all those stupid tweets,
And if I stop to catch my breath, then I will be dead meat.

Got a blog on Blogspot, babe, and one on Wordpress, too
The first one gets the traffic, ’cause the second one’s too new.

Sit by the keyboard where I waste my time,
Facebook friend of the devil is a friend of mine.
If my files upload before daylight,
I just might get some sleep tonight.

[Apologies to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, who are probably all grateful that their band’s career did not intersect with the Age of Social Media.]

Sunday, April 24, 2011


I wonder why the armadillo
Prefers the asphalt for his pillow.
No armor shields him from his fate
All smashed upon the Interstate.
To suffer such a tragic trauma
Can only be the fault of Car-ma.


It was Easter morning, and the Radcliffe children awakened early.

Breakfasted and dressed in their holiday finery, the family went to church. The kids fidgeted in the pews, anxious for services to end... for that’s when the fun would begin. Easter eggs!

Nothing save Christmas morning was anticipated as eagerly as the annual Egg Hunt.

But this year something was amiss. Instead of dyed eggs, all the childrens’ searching turned up were gnarled, rock-like objects.

They brought their baskets to Dad, who looked appraisingly at the brightly painted bivalves.

“Looks like the Oyster Bunny paid us a visit this year.”

[Originally published at Blog d’Elisson.]

Friday, April 22, 2011


Hakuna Goes Fetal

An often-recurring Feline Condition
Is the urge to repose in the Fetal Position.

Quoth Hakuna: “Hey, I’m not being lazy, ya buffoon! I’m conserving energy. Don’t you know it’s Earth Week?”

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


During the Passover seder - the ritual meal cum Socratic dialogue that teaches the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt - it is traditional to recount the ten plagues that the Almighty visited upon the Egyptians. Blood, frogs, nasal catarrh, warheads in the taint, painful rectal itch, hail, darkness, blithering, etc. As each plague is enumerated, we spill a drop of wine to show our regret that other people suffered in the process of our liberation: “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice.”

But there is a rarely-mentioned eleventh plague that was visited, not upon the Egyptians, but upon the Israelites - and it continues, year after year, unto this very day.

Matzoh crumbs!

Never mind the almost universal state of Bowel-Lock that descends upon us Red Sea Pedestrians this time of year... the real plague is the profusion of those damnèd Matzoh-Bits. For it is impossible to eat a piece of matzoh without covering the tablecloth with hundreds of little wheaten flakes, a sort of food-dandruff that attaches itself to every surface. Feh.

Where da vacuum cleaner at?

Monday, April 18, 2011


Ho lakhma anya di akhalu avahatana b’ara mitzrayim. Kol dikhfin yeitei v’yeikhol, kol ditzrikh yeitei v’yifsach. This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover.” - Opening words of the Passover seder.

This morning, as I headed off to morning minyan fifteen minutes earlier than usual, the full moon hung huge in the western sky, reddened by a thin layer of cloud just above the horizon. It was a beautiful reminder that the middle of the month of Nisan was upon us, bringing with it the festival of Passover and z’man cheirutenu - the season of our freedom.

Passover commemorates the departure of the ancient Israelites from their generations-long servitude in Egypt. While the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai would later define the Jewish religion, the Exodus was the event that defined the Jewish people as a nation... and gave us the sobriquet “Red Sea Pedestrians,” to boot.

Today’s early start time was to accommodate a special study session. The day being the eve of Passover, it was also the fast of the firstborn - a day on which, traditionally, firstborn sons would fast in gratitude for having been spared from the Plague of the Firstborn that struck the Egyptians. But by completing the study of a tractate of Talmud (a festive occasion that is capped off with a celebratory meal), the fast can be ended before missing a meal: The atmosphere of rejoicing overrides the requirement to fast.  And so we spend a half-hour learning with our rabbi, freeing those of us who are firstborn (such as Yours Truly) to go eat breakfast.  Too bad this gimmick doesn’t work on Yom Kippur.

A small group of us ran off to enjoy our celebratory meal at the local Waffle House - our last chance to have chametz (leavened foods) before the holiday kicked in. Besides, where else can you get your hashbrowns scattered, shattered, spattered, battered, smothered, hot ’n’ bothered, lathered, Dan Rathered, chunked, skunked, punked, capped, crapped, and bitch-slapped?

Our house is already fragrant with the aromas of the holiday. Nothing says springtime like the way SWMBO’s golden chicken soup with matzohballs perfumes the air. I can barely restrain myself. All of those wonderful seasonal dishes! I almost don’t even mind doing without bread, Scotch, beer, or regular defecation for the next eight days. (They don’t call matzoh the bread of affliction for nothing.)

To my family and all our Jewish friends, a happy Passover - chag Pesach kasher v’sameach.  May your holiday be a sweet and joyful one, without limit to any good thing.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Chicken Tagine
Chicken tagine with apricots and preserved lemon.

It’s always a treat tasting familiar proteins in unfamiliar garb. Our friends Barry and Malka put on a big Moroccan-style feed every so often, and the featured dish is usually a kind of tagine, a type of stew cooked in a specially-designed earthenware vessel called - you guessed it - a tagine.

A tagine consists of a round base upon which sits a removable conical lid with a central vent. The lid allows steam to condense and drip back down into the base, where it helps keep the dish moist.

Thanks to the Internet, you can score a real Moroccan tagine while sitting in front of your computer in your Thomas the Tank Engine jammies for less than you’d spend at a souk in Morocco. But to cook a tagine, you don’t need a chunk of weird North African pottery that will take up space in your kitchen cabinet 360 days of the year. A Dutch oven with a lid will do just fine.

I decided to try my hand at making a chicken tagine a few days ago. The Missus and I didn’t want to eat anything beefy that night, and JoAnn was going to bring fish. We hadn’t had poultry in a while. Why not chicken? And why not do something with a bit of exotic spice to enliven what can otherwise be a bland protein?

I had a handy shortcut in the pantry, a small tin of Williams-Sonoma tagine spices comprised of paprika, cinnamon, ginger, and saffron. After toasting a couple of tablespoons of the spice blend in a small skillet, I added enough olive oil to make a smooth paste. Into this went a couple of crumbled bay leaves and four garlic cloves, peeled and mashed flat with the back of my chef’s knife.

Enter Mr. Chicken, a good-sized, meaty roaster that I had dismembered with my handy-dandy poultry shears. Everything but the backbone (set aside for the stockpot) got coated with the spice mixture and left to marinate for a couple of hours.

Now it was time to take out the Dutch oven, AKA my makeshift tagine. A goodly squirt of olive oil, a warmup over a medium-high flame, and in went the spice-coated chicken to brown. After about ten minutes, I added a sliced yellow onion (use two if they’re small) and sweated that down. Once the onion was soft and translucent, I added about a half-cup each of chopped cilantro and chopped parsley, a handful of dried apricots cut into half-inch dice, and two segments of preserved Meyer lemon, also cut into half-inch dice.

Ahh, preserved lemon. You make this by combining chunks of lemon with lemon juice and plenty of salt, then letting ’em ferment for a few weeks. The peels get nice and soft and the whole mess becomes a concentrated source of lemony goodness.

Some versions of this recipe call for the inclusion of olives, but I was after that sweet-sour apricot-lemon vibe, so I omitted anything remotely resembling an olive. At this point, all I had to do was put the lid on the Dutch oven and let it sit over a medium-low flame for an hour and a half. But instead, I opted for sticking the whole thing in a 325°F oven.

After ninety minutes, the onions, apricots and lemons had broken down and the juices exuded by the simmering chicken had developed into a rich, delicately scented sauce. Hoo-hah! My tagine was almost ready to serve. Almost.

Traditionally, a tagine is served over couscous, a grain-like pasta. I opted instead for quinoa, a pasta-like grain. Quinoa has a texture similar to that of couscous, but it has a much higher protein content. Cooking it is a lot like cooking rice: stick it in a pot of water, bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, for 10-15 minutes. Easy-peasy.

So there it was: an aromatic chicken tagine and a bed of quinoa upon which it could rest to soak up any wayward juices. A scattering of chopped cilantro and it was all ready to serve forth.

And, boy howdy (as they say in Marrakech), was it tasty good. Without the weird North African pottery, too. But calling it “Chicken Dutch Oven” wouldn’t quite do it justice, would it?


It’s springtime in Atlanta, which means plenty of work for weathercasters and tax accountants. The tax accountants are buried with work - at least until April 18 this year - and the weathercasters are running around with their arms in the air, yelling, “Run for the hills!”

Spring weather in the Southeast is many things: boring is not one of them. Warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico is constantly getting into tussles with waves of cold air sliding down from Canada, with violent thunderstorms a frequent outcome.

Friday, our TeeVee Weather Peeps were all in a lather about a circulating cold front that was creating a line of especially nasty weather, a line that was moving inexorably eastward and leaving death and destruction in its wake. Thunderstorms replete with hail and frequent lightning, along with the occasional tornado. The usual seasonal fun.

The first wave of storms hit our area a little after eight o’clock that night, its arrival heralded by our county tornado warning sirens. There’s always an ominous aspect to hearing those sirens, especially when the rain begins to beat down like the proverbial cow pissing on a flat rock and the wind howls, banshee-like, driving sheets of storm-blast down the street in front of the house. But what drove us down to the cellar was the hail, first clacking against the house like so many windblown pebbles, then cascading down in a great roar.

Got stones?
Hailstones - mostly pea- to nickel-size - litter the deck at Chez Elisson.

Hail is scary. You never know when the marble-size ice pellets clattering against the windows are suddenly going to be replaced by golf balls or even baseballs, sky-stones capable of wreaking real mayhem.

After things settled down and we emerged from our subterranean protective lair, the evening progressed more-or-less normally... that is, until a second line of severe weather came sliding by at 2:15 a.m. There's nothing that says “Spring is Here!” quite as eloquently as hearing the sirens go off at oh-dark-thirty... and nothing quite as relaxing. Harh. Fortunately, that second line went by without too much sturm und drang, and we were able to go back to sleep.

Saturday morning, we awoke to a driveway and yard littered with leaf-shards. Our azaleas and potted plants were shredded. But they’ll grow back. People whose houses were blown away or whacked by giant falling trees will have a much rougher morning, alas.

Friday, April 15, 2011


Shiner Beer
Jimbo, he of the House By the Parkway, informs us that Shiner Bock, the semi-official beer of the Helen Blogtoberfest and the Hysterics at Eric’s, is now “situated and celebrated in New Jersee.”

I can’t blame Jim for being excited. I still remember how ecstatic I was when another Texas beverage became available in the Northeast for the first time. The beverage in question was Dr Pepper. I loved the stuff, which tasted like it might have been the bastard child of Coca-Cola and Sunsweet prune juice. Its occasional advertisements in Life magazine would serve only to tantalize and frustrate me, however, for I could only get it when we made our annual pilgrimage to South Florida: It was completely unavailable up North. All that changed in May, 1968 when Dr Pepper went national. Huzzah!

But let’s get back to Shiner Bock, shall we?

Shiner Bock - once a seasonal beer that is now produced year-round - is a fine brew with far more character than popular mass-market beers. But it was not always so.

When I first moved to Texas - this was in 1974, when the last of the dinosaurs were laying themselves down in their carboniferous beds to become future oil deposits - there was a handful of local (i.e., Texas-based) breweries that made products unique to the Lone Star State. There was Lone Star, famous for its long-neck glass bottles. There was Pearl. And there was Shiner, from just down Interstate 10 in Shiner, Texas.

When you went to the ice house for a few beers and a game of dominoes, you drank a Texas beer... if you knew what was good for you. Only problem was, those beers all tasted like piss. Or at least what I imagine piss would taste like. And Shiner, sad to say, was the pissiest of the lot. Yeef!

Why there were no decent beers in Texas back then, who can say? It was surprising, given the large proportion of Texans with German or Czech roots, that the best-known products of the state - beer-wise, anyway - were such crap. Nevertheless, that was the situation on the ground at the time.

But Shiner’s lager, clearly not their strong suit, had a brother - a seasonal bock beer which became very popular in Austin, home to a burgeoning arts and music scene. And meanwhile, Shiner’s Texas competitors were swallowed up by larger national brands. Both Lone Star (which still calls itself “The National Beer of Texas”) and Pearl ended up being owned by Pabst Brewing Company, makers of the infamous Pabst Blue Ribbon. (Shiner was acquired as well, but by Gambrinus, a Texas-based outfit specializing in smaller regional and craft brands.)

There’s good news. Despite the dominance of Anheuser-Busch and Miller (both of which operate huge breweries in numerous locations throughout the state), those regional and craft beers have done quite well in the Land of the Lone Star. Shiner is just one example.

I haven’t had a Lone Star or a Pearl in years, though the names still evoke a certain Texan nostalgia for me. But Shiner Bock actually tastes good, so I when I drink it I can not only enjoy my memories of life in Texas, I can luxuriate in the knowledge that some things do get better with time.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Mister Mallard
Male mallard, photographed at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

I’d hate to be the Easter ham,
No fun to be the Paschal lamb.
Some animals have all the luck -
Just ask my friend, the Paschal Duck.

I’m not exactly sure why lambs and pigs ended up on the holiday platters of Jews and Christians, respectively, but it seems that the duck - a wonderfully tasty beast by my accounting - managed to get left out of the equation.

Had ancient Israel been blessed with more lakes, perhaps things would have turned out differently. I can just see it now: a duck leg on the Seder plate in lieu of the lamb shank. One of the Four Questions (Quack-tions?) might be “Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights, we eat chicken. On this night, only duck.” And wild waterfowl would dread the arrival of the Mallard ha-Mavis - the Duck of Death.

As far as She Who Must Be Obeyed is concerned, the duck versus lamb debate is moot: She loathes them both equally. Whereas I love ’em.

Update: Friday Ark #335 is afloat at the Modulator... your place for Fun with Fauna!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Hakuna in Repose

She cries out in the night.
Has a mousie crossed her line of sight?
Has something evil given her a fright?
It just ain’t right.

Hakuna, as she approaches the age of sixteen, has become very vocal.

She who used to be the Quiet Kitty (Matata did all the talking) now meows loudly, sometimes yowling at random times in the dead of night. It’s something she typically would do after we would return from a trip away from home, as if to say, “Where the hell have you been? Now get right back in this house so I can ignore you!” But there have been nights lately during which sleep has been nigh impossible.

The hell of it is, she sounds almost as though she is trying to speak the language of us Bifurcated Gods. But the words are not quite human words.

She Who Must Be Obeyed did a little research and found that this phenomenon of nighttime wailing seems to be fairly common among older cats. Sometimes it’s driven by creeping dementia and confusion, sometimes by thyroid issues, and other times by causes unknown.

As Sissy Willis has said, cats see things we don’t... and maybe Hakuna is seeing things that mystify or frighten her, things that lie just beyond the limits of our puny human perception. Alas, that I cannot understand what she is trying to say...

Update: Friday Ark #335 is afloat at the Modulator. This Sunday, Carnival of the Cats #370 will be hosted by Pet’s Garden Blog - be sure to stop by and visit!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


No, I’m not referring to the skies.

The war that would variously be referred to as the Lost Cause, the Late Unpleasantness, the War Between the States, and the Civil War, began 150 years ago today with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, hard by Charleston, South Carolina. Ironically, though the attack succeeded in routing the Union forces from the fort, no Union soldiers died: One Confederate soldier perished.

It is an oversimplification to say that the war was fought solely over the issue of chattel slavery, although that issue was, at the root, perhaps the most divisive and combustible of its day. It is also, likewise, an oversimplification to say that it was fought solely over states’ rights. Regional political, societal, and economic divisions had slowly accreted to the point where conflict was inevitable; tragically, it was a bitter armed conflict. Think of it as a family feud between members of a particularly large and fractious family, a feud born of a thousand insults both remembered and imagined, and you will get a sense of how bitter it was.

That War, and its outcome, shaped the United States in which we live today. Chattel slavery is gone, although its ghostly remnants - racial discrimination, along with educational and economic differences along regional and racial lines - still remain. Numerous attempts to remedy those differences have transformed society, sometimes with positive results, other times with unintended evil consequences. But when have humans ever lived in a perfect world?

While all this business was going on, of course, my forebears were being chivvied and chased from one village to another in Russia and Poland. So I have no historical family-related dog in the hunt, except for the fact that I grew up as a Damn Yankee from New York. [Also, as a Jew, I have a natural tendency to be averse to the institution of slavery. Been there and done that, you could say.]

Over the years, I have lived in both North and South. Though I was born and raised in the North, I have no intention of ever going back there to live: today I call the South my home. Being a product of the mid-twentieth century, I have been able to love each part of our great country for its own peculiarities. It is a country in which the vigor, industry, and history of the North complements the South’s gentility and warmth. The once warring cousins, still slightly wary of one another, still have their differences - but at least they still sit at the same table, generally, and speak to one another with a civil tongue.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Tiny, 1996-2011. Requiescat in pace. [Photo by Sissy Willis.]

We here in the Cheese Aisle were saddened to hear of the passing of Sissy Willis’s lovely Maine Coon cat, Tiny.

I’ve met a handful of cats face-to-face that I first got to know through the bloggy-sphere, Laurence Simon’s brood of kitties being a notable example. Alas, Tiny (or her late big brother Baby) was not among them. And yet, thanks to her human companion Sissy’s gift for capturing “the light fantastic” through her photographs, I can conjure her up via the magic of memory whenever I wish.

Sissy notes in her post that “cats see things we don’t.” How true. Hakuna kept us both up most of last night with a barrage of Cat-Music. Whether she was scolding She Who Must Be Obeyed for being away in Texas the past several days, or whether she was grappling with hallucinations or Familiar Spirits, who can say? Perhaps big sister Matata was calling her from beyond the Rainbow Bridge... or perhaps she knew that Tiny was no longer among us.

Tiny, we hardly knew ye. We mourn your passing: one Tiny loss for Sissy and Tuck, one giant loss for the cat-blogosphere. Ave atque vale!

Saturday, April 9, 2011


With Passover approaching, I’m already anticipating a week of matzoh-driven constipation and carb-loading.

Part of the joy of the season - and the frustration, as well - is the array of special pesahdik (Passover-style) dishes we consume during the eight days of the festival. They’re special because many of them are eaten only at this time of year. For some of those dishes, it’s just as well.

What we eat is driven by the Passover restrictions on eating leavened foods (chametz), or anything derived from the five fermentable grains mentioned in the Torah: wheat, spelt, barley, rye, and oats. That means things like bread, beer, and whiskey are verboten. (Even though matzoh is made from wheat or spelt, it contains no leavening agents and is baked within eighteen minutes of when the dough is prepared: not enough time for fermentation to occur.)

If we want cake and cookies, they must be prepared from ground-up matzoh, not wheat flour, and they can be leavened only with beaten egg whites. You can buy plenty of packaged Passover cake mixes; I like to call these “Doorstops in a Box.” And while pesahdik breakfast cereals are available, they’re disgusting. Why eat that crap when you can make delicious matzoh-meal pancakes or matzoh brei, the Passover answer to French toast?

It gets even more complicated, though. Eastern European Jews - Ashkenazim - take things a step farther by prohibiting kitniyot: products like corn (maize), rice, lentils, peas, and beans. One rationale is that they can be made into products that resemble chametz (e.g., cornbread or porridge), or that they may easily become contaminated with any of the five grains. But there is also the matter of appearances: if someone were to observe you eating kitniyot, he or she might think you were eating real chametz and conclude that it was OK to do so. And so - dopey as it may be - Ashkenazim do not eat kitniyot during Passover. Sephardic Jews, i.e., those of Iberian or Middle-Eastern origin, do not observe such restrictions, nor do some Ashkenazim who live in Israel.

Living in America, where pretty much everything we eat is derived from corn in one way or another, poses special challenges for people who wish to avoid maize-based products. Fortunately, eating corn-fed beef is permitted during Passover... and I go out of my way to avoid high-fructose corn syrup all year round.

What is considered chametz is pretty straightforward. What is considered kitniyot is open to much more interpretation. For example, what about buckwheat? Buckwheat, while it resembles a grain, is actually neither a cereal (like wheat) nor a grass (like corn); it’s called a pseudocereal by way of emphasizing its difference from true wheat.

You can make leavened dishes from buckwheat despite its lack of gluten. Russian blini, the little yeast-raised pancakes that are a traditional accompaniment to caviar, are an example. Another Russian/Eastern European favorite is kasha, a sort of pilaf made from buckwheat groats. But while some authorities consider buckwheat to be kitniyot, others (including our congregation’s rabbi) say that it is not, and thus may be eaten during Passover. I’ve never seen it, but if my rabbi says kasha is kosher, who am I to argue?

So: Buckwheat is kosher for Passover (ask your rabbi if you’re not sure). Farina, however, is made from wheat and therefore is considered chametz.

Just to help you keep it all straight, here’s a handy reference guide:



My friend Phreddy was looking at Facebook a couple of days ago and saw a photograph of me wearing a tuxedo. “For why you got on the monkey suit?” he asked.

Monkey suit, indeed. Monkey suit is a venerable slang term for a tuxedo, a term that is also used by some to refer to any uniform. And that makes sense, because a tuxedo - any kind of formal dress, really - is a sort of uniform.

Somewhere in the bowels of Chez Elisson there is a photograph of Yours Truly at my high school Junior Prom, a model of nerdish elegance in my rented white dinner jacket. (It was the custom at our high school, back then, for young men to wear a white dinner jacket to Junior Prom, a “standard” black tuxedo to Senior Prom.) That was, as it surely is for many adolescents even now, my first experience with formalwear.

Technically, Black Tie - a tuxedo or white dinner jacket - is semi-formal dress. (The term “Formal Dress” refers to White Tie, of which more later.) But semi-formal or formal, it was a whole different world compared to the normal “dress-up clothes” with which I was familiar.

A shirt with French cuffs was no big deal, but a pleated-front shirt with studs in lieu of buttons - that was new to me. The trousers with a satin side seam, and the braces to hold them up, also new. Ditto the shiny patent leather shoes and this mysterious contraption called the “cummerbund.” And a bow tie was something I hadn’t worn since grade school.

But somehow, I managed to put the whole thing together, and the effect was (so they tell me) quite dashing as I escorted my diminutive (but well-endowed) prom date around town over the course of the evening. (How dashing a young gentleman can be while being ferried about on his date by his father is a question better left to another occasion.)

Over the years, I had infrequent occasion to wear any sort of formal clothing... and it’s probably just as well. At my wedding, I wore what then seemed wonderfully elegant and today seems completely ridiculous: an off-white tailcoat trimmed with brown lapels, matching trousers with brown side seam, white ruffled (!) shirt, and brown bow tie and cummerbund. Yeef. My only excuse was that it was the 1970’s, a decade packed with sartorial horrors. (At least I never owned a leisure suit.)

As time went on, however, I began to understand that, at least in formalwear, the ephemeral fashions of the day were not the point. Formal clothing is designed to flatter the wearer in a hundred subtle ways, as well as to provide a contrasting background against which a Feminine Companion might better shine in her own finery. Now I favor the more traditional look, a peak-lapel black wool tuxedo jacket with grosgrain silk lapel facing. And when I wear it, I truly feel like Mister Debonair.

If you really want to be Mister Debonair, however, you have to deal with the strict rules of White Tie, the highest order of male civilian attire. Unlike Black Tie, for which there is plenty of leeway for self-expression, there are stylistic forms that must be followed lest one look like a total boob at a state dinner or (extremely) formal wedding. I’ve never dipped my toe into the waters of Full Dress formality, but it would be wonderful to have an excuse to do so at least once in my lifetime. Until then, Black Tie will needs be debonair enough.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


I’m almost embarrassed to admit the extent to which the Missus and I have become Food Network junkies. If you were to attach some sort of electronic transcription device to our Teevee Tuner—or look at what goes through our DVR, for that matter—you’d see that virtually all of our television viewing consists of a handful of shows on NBC (mostly their Thursday night lineup), American Idol (a guilty pleasure for the Missus), and Food Network for the balance.

Honestly, I don’t know why we pay for HBO. Now that Boardwalk Empire is between seasons, there’s nothing on any of the premium channels that grabs my attention like Guy Fieri cramming some sweaty chef’s meatball sub into his pie-hole.

I know it’s ridiculous. It seems that nowadays, most of the Food Network’s content has drifted away from useful material—actual cooking shows, for instance—toward reality television in which food plays an ever more peripheral role. Entertainment trumps information.

Inevitable, some would say. After all, watching Rachael Ray roast a rack of lamb with a side of sautéed broccoli rabe (nice rack, Rache!) may have been informative, but it’s more fun to watch a platoon of wannabe-Iron Chefs duke it out for the opportunity to be a regular feature on a show that is a goofy American remake of an even goofier Japanese show.

If you look at Food Network’s schedule hard enough, though, you can spot the occasional trend. Food trucks? Personal chefs? They’re all there. But the most glaringly trendy food seems to be the Cupcake. Those little suckers are enjoying a veritable craze right now.

Baby Cake
Well, it’s a giant economy-size cupcake, anyway: the Mistress of Sarcasm enjoys a birthday Baby Cake from Savannah’s Back in the Day Bakery.

There are whole shows devoted to cupcakes, most notably Cupcake Wars. Think of it: Wars! Over cupcakes! (Sure, it’s just another “make-a-metric-buttload-of-interesting-food-in-no-time-flat-with-bizarre-ingredients-and-amuse-our-judges” show, but I like to imagine an actual war fought with—what?—cupcake grenades, perhaps.)

Cupcakes are lovable enough. They’re tasty, they’re cute, and they appeal to the little kid that lives in the back of your brainstem. But it’s only a matter of time before some other appealing nostalgia-laden food comes along and throws those dopey little cakes under the bus. Chef Michael Symon seems to think it’s the doughnut that will next take its place in the sun. I have an even better idea.

Funnel cakes.

Yes, funnel cakes. What is a funnel cake, after all, but a free-form Jackson Pollockoid doughnut? Like any kind of sweet fried dough, funnel cakes start right off tasting great, and they can only get better with a little Cheffy Pizzazz. (Never mind the calories. With their high surface area-to-volume ratio, funnel cakes are grease-bombs of nuclear proportions.)

I can imagine Michael Symon’s funnel cake: made from batter impregnated with exotic spices, dusted with cinnamon, confectioner’s sugar, and ancho chile powder. Hell, I’d eat one in a heartbeat.

And it’s only a matter of time before the stores start popping up. Gigi’s Cupcakes? That was last week. Now, everyone’s flocking to Elisson’s Funky FunCakes™. (Even the name says “fun”!)

Just wait a few months and tell me I’m wrong.

[Article first published as The Next Food Network Craze on Blogcritics.]

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


High-power liftoff
A high-power liftoff at GRITS-1, Calhoun, Georgia.

The skies were blue last Saturday over Calhoun, Georgia, with a stiff breeze that averaged some 15-20 MPH. A bit on the windy side, but otherwise a perfect day to see a bunch of rockets flying.

I had seen on my Facebook feed early Saturday morning that there was a three-day high-powered rocket event going on. I had already missed Friday’s action, and Sunday the Missus and I were going to be preoccupied with attending Houston Steve’s daughter’s wedding... so if I were going to catch any part of GRITS-1 (“Georgia Rockets in the Sky”), it would have to be just a couple of hours that very afternoon. Fortunately, Calhoun is only an hour drive north: normally, these high-power launches are held somewhat farther away in Winterboro, Alabama or Perry, Georgia.

Despite my short time at the launch, I got to see plenty of interesting flights. Sure, there were the kids with their low-power Estes rockets - the kind of stuff I used to fly as a young Snot-Nose 45 and more years ago - but there were plenty of folks with much bigger birds. F’rinstance...

Girl Power
“Some call it a spear, some call it a rocket”: Haley Huff’s “Girl Power,” which needs at least an M-class engine to fly.

Huff Performance
A few more of those “bigger birds.”

High-powered rocketry is a much different animal. Unlike the relatively unregulated low-power end of the model rocket spectrum, high-power rockets (roughly defined as anything with an H-class engine or bigger; or weighing over 1,500 grams; or using airframe components made of metal), are big and expensive. Whereas small engines are one-use affairs consisting of black powder packed into a (thick) cardboard cylinder, high-powered motors use exotic propellants like aluminum perchlorate and reusable aluminum engine casings. The propellant charge for a single flight can be $150 or more; I saw one O-class engine load there that sold for just north of $3k. That’s enough to loft a honkin’ big rocket.

We didn’t see anything quite that humongous Saturday, but the final flight of the day was a nine-foot tall rocket propelled by an M-class engine, some 900 times more powerful than those little bitty rockets of my nerdly youth - or, for that matter, of a few recent blogmeets. It took off with a most impressive roar and flew damn near out of sight. Alas, because the Propulsion Engineers were in such a hurry to set it up and fly it before the event’s FAA clearance expired for the day, they neglected to arm the recovery system, with the result that the rocket drilled its way straight into the ground after its brief but impressive journey.

M Engine: LiftoffM Engine: Mid-ArcM Engine: Upper ArcTriptych-01
High-powered (M-class engine) rocket flown at GRITS-1 April 3. Click on any of the images to embiggen.

It was over all too quickly... mainly because I was flying solo and did not care to stay for the barbecue and night launch. There’s only so much nerdly fun I can manage in one day, after all. But I’ll be looking to see when the next event comes along, even if I have to schlep to Alabama to see it!

More pics below the fold.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Still Life with Vase

High dynamic range image taken at the Four Seasons Hotel, Atlanta.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


Stefan stirs the Pot
Stefan stirs the pot as the Minyan Boyz prepare for Men’s Club Shabbat.

Yesterday, a group of the Minyan Boyz congregated in our synagogue’s meat kitchen to do a little cooking.

Our mission: prepare enough cholent to feed a small army. Bean stew for 250, the centerpiece of our Men’s Club Shabbat luncheon the following day. About fifteen gallons worth, by my calculations.

Cholent, for those of my Esteemed Readers who may have missed my earlier post, is nothing more or less than a Red Sea Pedestrian version of cassoulet, the quintessential French peasant dish. It’s mostly beans and potatoes, with a little meat thrown in; the perfect dish for a hungry crowd with empty wallets. (The meat, of course, will be beef or chicken, pork products being on the verboten list. So much for a true French-style cassoulet.)

Our cholent, in keeping with the spirit of the dish, was a bit of a hotch-potch of several recipes. Its primary components were beans - kidney and pinto. To that was added a heaping helping of chickpeas, a bunch of barley, and a passel of potatoes. For extra flavor, a pile of diced and sweated-down onions and a handful of thyme sprigs. We hacked up ten pounds or so of glatt kosher beef shank, browned it off, and added it to the pots; I then deglazed the pan with a bottle of Leininkugel’s fine lager and added it as well. Plenty of paprika, a liberal handful of salt, some powdered chicken base, a few cans of roasted garlic tomato sauce, and a goodly dose of black pepper completed the picture. Then we brought the cauldrons up to a steady simmer, laid in a few slabs of kishke, and set the whole thing in a slow oven to sit overnight.


After today’s Shabbat morning services (and a toast with some fifteen-year-old single malt), our Bean Stew for a Mob had cooked down to glorious, aromatic deliciousness and was ready to dish out... and I am pleased to report that it was the best honkin’ cholent I have ever had the pleasure to put in my pie-hole. I ended up eating two bowls of the stuff.

For extra protein, we also served hot dogs... and in case anyone felt like a little carb-loading, potato knishes.

For my part, I took one of the hot dogs sans bun and condiments and shoved it into my bowl of cholent, thus inventing - you guessed it - the Cholli Dog.

Nothing like eating beans and weenies while wearing a beanie, says I.

Friday, April 1, 2011


“Bless thy five wits! Tom’s a-cold...” - Shakespeare, King Lear, Act III, Scene 4.

Tom may be a-cold, but he can warm himself up easily enough with the right kind of soup.

Some years ago, on one of my trips to Thailand, I tasted of a wondrously spicy and delicious dish: tom yum kung.

There are several versions of tom yum, a soup in which hot (spicy) and sour flavor notes predominate. Tom yum kung, specifically, is made with prawns. It’s also loaded with lemongrass and phrik ki nu chile peppers, the latter giving the soup enough heat to register on a Geiger counter.

About those chiles. They’re little bitty things that pack a vicious wallop. Commonly known in English as bird’s-eye chiles, the Thai name translates literally to “mouse turd chile.” I’m pretty sure that’s more a reflection of their size than their flavor... unless Thai mice like to eat spent nuclear fuel rods, used car batteries, and paint remover.

With all those mouse turd chiles in it, just how hot is tom yum kung? All I can tell you is that with my first spoonful, I immediately began sweating profusely. This is likely a desirable side effect in the brutally hot climate of Bangkok, but it’s a bit disconcerting at the beginning of a meal.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that a chile pepper (rendered “chilli” in many Asian countries) will make you feel anything but chilly. A chilly chilli? That’d be silly.

Tom yum can also refer to a tasty male cat... or turkey. And if we invert the words “tom yum,” we of course get “yum tom.” In Hebrew, “yom tam” (the closest equivalent) means Fool Day. Which is entirely appropriate, because today is...