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

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 - AVE ATQUE VALE


A good year is like a good cocktail - containing the right balance of sweet, sour, and bitter. Pictured: the Aviation.

Today is the last day of 2015.

Forty years ago, on this very day, I met Dee - and less than two years later, we would be husband and wife. The story of our first meeting is entertaining enough in its own right that it merits its own post, but that it took place has led to our mutual histories being what they are today. Despite - or perhaps because of - all the water that has gone under the bridge since then, I cannot imagine not having met her. Our two daughters would probably agree.  

Every year leaves a slightly different impression when one looks at it in the rear-view mirror - rolls it around on the tongue, so to speak - and as each calendar year surges to its inexorable close I always pause to savor its aftertaste, its peculiar blend of tastes and aromas. Years are like cocktails, I suppose: The best ones always have multiple layers of flavor. Months of sweetness are punctuated by dark, sour times, and once in a while an intense attention-grabbing moment of bitter grief comes along.

Leave it to Mister Debonair to work through his year-end maudlin moments by using bartending analogies. But, hey, it works. Let’s go with it...

We sit at the Great Cosmic Bar every year, and we order up our Tipple o’Life. Give us a sweet year, we say... but we don’t really mean it. (Would you order a simple syrup and soda on the rocks at a real-world cocktail bar?) It doesn’t matter what we ask for, though, because what we are served is what we’d get if we said, “Ohhh, the hell with it. Surprise me.” It’s always a surprise.

So let’s pick apart the waning year’s recipe, shall we? A warm base liquor of family and friends to provide a mellow and yet mildly intoxicating backdrop. Happy moments for sweetness. Throw in a disappointment here and a miscommunication there to provide acid notes: Unalloyed sweetness can be cloying. Then there are the bitters, the ingredient without which no cocktail is truly complete. Illness. Death. Pain. Loss. Without them, the sweetness becomes sameness. It loses its savor.

Most of us think we would be perfectly happy doing without all of that grief and suffering. Just give me a Kool-Aid, please! (Without the extra Jonestown touch.) So what if it’s a kid’s drink?

Cocktails, though - drinks for grown-ups - have bitters.

Proportions matter. You use a jigger for most cocktail ingredients. You use a dropper for bitters.

That’s because bitters are tricky. Strong. Too much, and what should be subtlety becomes intolerably in-your-face. And yet, without them, a cocktail is lifeless. Dull.

May your 2016 be the perfect draught for you, Esteemed Reader - the ideal proportion of base, sweetener, acid, and bitter. And may the Big Guy who mixeth your Cosmic Cocktail refrain from squeezing that bitters dropper too hard.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A SHOUT-OUT FOR THE SPROUT


Balsamic Brussels sprouts with onions and bacon... courtesy of Houston Steve. 

Brussels sprouts for breakfast
Brussels sprouts for lunch
I like ’em when they’re soggy
I love ’em when they crunch

I roast ’em and sautée ’em
And I shove ’em in my belly
But the Missus doesn’t like ’em
’Cause they make my toots all smelly

Brussels sprouts for supper
Eat ’em every night
Those wizened little cabbages
They are a real delight

Saturday, December 26, 2015

DOES THIS HURT?

“Pain is weakness leaving the body.” - USMC

Does this hurt?

How would you describe your pain on a scale from one to ten?

That’s a routine hospital question used to assess the need for analgesic medicaments. Since pain is nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong, you don’t want to tamp it down completely... and you don’t want to get too comfortable with pain meds, the most effective of which are notoriously addictive (and constipating). But you crave relief. You would sell your soul for the balm of Gilead that taketh away thine discomfiture.

So you are asked to rate your pain on a scale from one to ten, from minor annoyance to full-on shit-your-liver-out screamfest. It's not an easy exercise.

I think of pain as a point on a two-dimensional surface, a sheet mapped on coordinates of quality and intensity. There are dull, throbbing aches and there are intense ice-pick-like stabs. There’s the sudden zetz of a dentist hitting a sensitive spot, and there’s the intense burn of a hard-working muscle... all different pins on the Map o’ Agony.

Put a simple scalar number to it if you must. Does it make you grumble and grimace? Does it cause you to involuntarily squeeze out a string of fuckbombs? Or is it that shock so sharp that it causes a sudden intake of breath? I give those a 3, 6, and 8. You don’t want a ten. That’s Hurty Hurterson country, and you do not wish to be resident therein.

I call those scary twinges The Bear, and I hate his occasional visits. I fear that Dee will be getting to know The Bear all too well as she recovers from her wrist and hip fractures... and I am hoping that when he does come, he is a meek two or three, not a ferocious nine.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

STARWARSBUCKS


Chewbaccaccino. [Photo: Jenna Robinson.]

With his coffiee
Would a Wookiee
Want some toffiee
Or a cookiee?

A LITTLE BIT OF SEASONAL PERSPECTIVE

[Originally posted as “A Matter of Perspective” at Blog d’Elisson, January 25, 2005.]

Religion.

Balm for the afflicted. Opiate of the masses. Fairy tales. Myth. The deepest truths.

Religion is a lot of things.

In today’s various wars - the War on Terrorism, the Culture Wars, the Jihad Against the Great Satan and the Little Satan, religion is a key element, if not the key element. Religion inspires us to do and be our best - but through so much of history, religion also has inspired us to kill and hate one another.

The Crusades were just one example. Western Christians think of knights in shining armor on a holy mission, but Muslims and Jews remember that slice of history differently: women and children raped, disemboweled; whole families, whole villages murdered. Not that the Muslims were that much more pleasant to live with, if you were not a believer.

And it’s no different today. Islamic fundamentalism. Suicide bombers. The 9/11 atrocities. Madrid. Bali. Executing teenage rape victims for “indecency” in Iran.

Not that the Christian fundies have given up. You have right-wing religious zealots bombing abortion clinics, shooting doctors. They even have us hatin’ on SpongeBob! The bastards!

The Jews have their own issues. Some Jews throw rocks at other Jews because they do outrageous things...like reading Torah. Outrageous, that is, if you’re a woman - at least, so the ultra right-wing Haredim say, even if you are in a women-only prayer group.

Sometimes, a little perspective is in order.

Twenty-seven years ago, I was working on a project with several technologists from one of our affiliated companies in Japan. These guys got to spend a month in Texas, learning about an alien culture and eating bizarre food. Barbecue! Chicken-fried steak!

The work required round-the-clock coverage, and so it was that one cold Sunday morning in mid-December I found myself wandering around the process area with Yamada-san, one of the Japanese technology guys. And he turned to me and asked, “Elisson-san, what will your family be doing for Christmas?”

[Actually, this sounded more like “Erisson-san, what wirr your famiry be doing for Kurisumasu?” But the meaning was plenty clear enough.]

And I answered, “Not a whole lot, Yamada-san. We are Jewish, and we do not celebrate Christmas.”

Yamada-san considered this for a moment. Then he said, “Oh, that’s OK. All you Western religions are the same to us.

* * *

Christian or Muslim, Muslim or Jew -
The difference depends upon your point of view.
Step far enough back, and that alien “other”
Starts in to lookin’ more like your brother.
When the little green men come from outer space,
They won’t ask to whom you pray or note the color of your face.
To them we’ll just be Humans - prey to be destroyed,
By the Bug-Eyed Monsters from the Outer Void.
And will God shed a tear? Will He say “Boo-Hoo”?
Well, the bug-eyed dudes are His children, too.
So we’d better stick together in our Earthly stew,
’Cause the difference depends upon your point of view.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

ALVIN, WE HARDLY KNEW YE


Alvin C. Bagdasarian (1958-2015). Requiescat in pace.

The entertainment world is in shock and mourning today after news of the untimely passing of Alvin Chipmunk Bagdasarian at the age of fifty-seven. Perversely, Alvin’s death took place on the release date of the Chipmunks’ latest film, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip.

Alvin, with the help of his adoptive father and manager Ross (“David Seville”) Bagdasarian, parlayed a series of novelty recordings into a career that spanned television and movies. He was known for his quick, lively wit and penchant for practical jokes. Fiercely proud of his Armenian upbringing, he officially changed his surname from Seville to Bagdasarian in 1997.

AC (as he was often called) was famous for his stage routine in which he would drive David to the point of exasperation, usually through seeming inattention. Dave’s reaction - shrieking “Allllllviiiiiiiiin!” at the top of his lungs - would elicit Alvin’s signature response: “O-Kayyyy!” The bit inevitably brought down the house. It was later discovered that the chipmunk suffered from a mild form of ADHD as well as being partially deaf.

Alvin was found dead two days ago in Houston Steve’s garage, apparently asphyxiated. He had crawled into a sock, and it is speculated that he became disoriented while trying to extricate himself. Drug involvement is not suspected at this time.

The funeral was a private affair in which Alvin’s remains were, in accordance with chipmunk tradition, returned to the forest by Houston Steve flinging the decedent into the woods, using the sock in which he was enshrouded as a slingshot.

Brothers Simon and Theodore were in seclusion and unavailable for comment.

Monday, December 14, 2015

THE REASON FOR THE SEASON

“...In the days of Mattathias son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmoneans and their sons, there arose a cruel power against Your nation Israel, demanding that they abandon Your Law and violate Your commandments. And You, in Your great mercy, stood up for them in the time of their trouble, defending them, vindicating them, and avenging the wrong done to them. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the spiritually unclean into the hands of the pure, the evil into the hands of the righteous, the arrogant into the hands of those who were faithful to Your Law. And You wrought great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel unto this day, revealing Your glory and Your holiness to the world. Then Your children came into Your Temple, purified Your sanctuary, and kindled lights in Your sacred courts. They set aside these eight days as a season for giving thanks and reciting praises to Your holy Name.”  - from the daily Chanukah liturgy

Many of our non-Jewish friends - and many of us Red Sea Pedestrians ourselves - are under the mistaken impression that the central story of Chanukah has to do with the so-called miracle of the oil: a single day’s supply of the consecrated oil used to light the candelabrum in the Temple having lasted a full eight days, long enough for additional supplies to be prepared.

But that story, miraculous as it may be, is nothing but a fable... a tall tale for the children, and an excuse to eat fried foods all week. The real miracle is the victory of a small band of warriors - the Hasmoneans - over a vastly superior power, the Seleucid Greco-Syrian rulers of Judea, who wanted to force the Jews to assimilate into their pagan culture. That is where the hand of the Eternal One was truly revealed.

To say that Chanukah is all about the oil is like saying Christmas is all about Santa Claus. It misses the point.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A DAY IN THE KINGDOM


The iconic Spaceship Earth, AKA the World’s Most Humongous Buckyball, greets visitors entering Disney’s Epcot park.

“A man enters with his children, his money and his wits, and leaves with his children only, sandbagged by a thousand catch-penny engines.” - Cyril Kornbluth, from The Advent on Channel Twelve

* * *

My visit to Orlando, Florida last week was a mini-Family Reunion of sorts. My cousin Di had rented a house in Orlando, Florida that was more than big enough to accommodate any family members who cared to join her for several days of relaxation and attraction-hopping. Dee, alas, had a full calendar, but I was able to pry myself loose from my usual weekday activities to make the trip.

One of the Must-See attractions in Orlando, of course, is Walt Disney World and its multifaceted complex of amusement parks. Since Cousin Vern, who was visiting from his home in Jerusalem along with his younger daughter, had never been to a Disney park, they made sure that that was part of the agenda. Specifically, they wanted to see Epcot, which is as close to a permanent World’s Fair as anything else on the planet.

I was perfectly happy to tag along: even though I had been to Disney World before, it had been a long time since the last time Dee and I had visited. Since then, I figured there were a few new things to see. Plus, I had an ace up my sleeve.

The last time we had been to Disney World had been in April, 1987 - more than twenty-eight years ago. At the time, Disney had been celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the park’s opening... and I was the lucky random recipient of a free park pass. That pass had sat quietly in our basement for close to three decades, growing steadily in value as the cost of park admissions crept northward over the years. It was now worth over $150... and it was high time I cashed it in.

One thing I noticed right away was that the ancient paper ticketing system had given way to a high-tech magnetic card that you would simply tap against a reader when you needed to use it. On entry into the park, you simply tap the card, put your index finger on a fingerprint scanner, and presto! You’ve been Mickified. It’s only a matter of time before iris-scanning and automatic stool-sampling technology is added to the admission process.

Your bags are also searched before you enter, presumably for contraband food, drink, and weapons of mouse destruction. It’s not as thorough as a full-on TSA security scan - or, for that matter, the way they check you before allowing you in to see The Masters Tournament - but it’s still something that was unnecessary three decades ago, alas.


My brother (the Other Elisson), Cousin Vern (a pseudonym), and Yours Truly. 

Epcot is a peculiar sort of place. The name is a lowercase version of its original moniker, EPCOT: the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. As originally envisioned, it would have been a living, active city, with actual residents doing whatever people were going to be doing in the future - pushing buttons at Spacely Sprockets, perhaps. But the job of being an actual residential community ended up in the lap of nearby Celebration, a town that Disney built in the unusable crappy swamp and scrub land on the other side of Interstate 4. Epcot, meanwhile, would be a full-time theme park.

As noted above, part of it is a sort of permanent World’s Fair, with several countries represented by their appropriate pavilions, shows, restaurants, and gift shops... with each country’s area staffed by natives of that country. The other section is a mishmash of attractions having to do with the Earth, space, the land and seas, and energy. It’s a bit like those retrofuturistic projections of life in the 1960’s from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, with the flying cars and the twelve-lane superhighways - in this case, the 1990’s as envisioned by the people of the 1960’s. That faint aroma you smell everywhere is the vague pong of anachronism. Even the typefaces have a vaguely “I bet this looked really ultramodern in 1973” look to them.


Spaceballs? No, just the Mission: SPACE® ride.

So much of Epcot seemed unchanged from the last time we’d seen it, except perhaps for the price tags: Most of the really new stuff is in parts of the Disney empire that we would not see on this visit. Perhaps the biggest change - and it may be subtler at Epcot than at other outposts in Walt’s empire - is that Disney has supplemented their own traditional stable of animated characters with major acquisitions: Pixar, Marvel, and even the Star Wars pantheon. Seeing someone wearing a Darth Vader helmet with built-in Mickey Mouse ears is a jarring reminder of how much larger the world of Disney has become.

For cynical old me, one dose visit every thirty years or so is about right. Yet, surprisingly, there are people who never tire of the place. While grabbing a beer with Cousin Vern, I struck up a conversation with a gaggle of women at the Rose and Crown (the English-style pub), who happily informed me that they visit the park every year. They’re not locals, either - they have to get in a plane and stay in a hotel room. This, Esteemed Readers, made my head explode a little.

Every. Fucking. Year.

And that, I suppose, is the peculiar appeal the Disney parks have. People love this place, to the point of pathology. Why go to nasty real Morocco or stinky real Paris when you can go to fake ones right here, get food that vaguely sounds like it might come from those places, avoid passport hassles, and spend just as much money or more?

Lest you think I’m just a cynical old bastard, let me reassure you that I am not immune to the Disney magic. Hell, we even saw Mickey Mouse himself just outside Les Chefs de France, the (vaguely) French restaurant. Check it out:


Mickey Mouse? Or Ratatouille? You decide.

Perhaps he’s a bit large to be Mickey Mouse. (Also, he’s out of uniform!) Maybe this was Ratatouille instead.

Friday, December 11, 2015

COUSIN VERN AND THE INFAMOUS MIAMI INCIDENT


The Doors, circa 1969. From left: John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison. [Elektra Records - Joel Brodsky, licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.]

They say these things happen in threes.

First it was Jimi Hendrix, who died in September 1970. Mere weeks later, Janis Joplin was dead as well. The following summer, Jim Morrison, the demented genius behind the musical group The Doors, joined them, completing the trifecta. Three legendary musical talents snuffed out within a nine month period, all at the tender age of twenty-seven - a bizarre coincidence. Less coincidental was the fact that drugs and alcohol played a role in all three deaths.

My cousin Vern (an obvious pseudonym) feels personally responsible for Morrison’s death. He may very well be right. And after you know the story, Esteemed Reader, perhaps you can decide for yourself.

Vern grew up in North Miami Beach, not quite old enough to be in the vanguard of the Generation o’ Hippie Freaks, but old enough to have worn a Nehru jacket back in the day. One summer, after spending a few weeks with us in New York, he returned home with an armload of LP’s in which was represented groups as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Vanilla Fudge, and Dr. John. That was when he introduced me to the music of The Doors.

Of course, anyone who listened to Top 40 AM radio in early 1967 was already acquainted with The Doors, thanks largely to their hit “Light My Fire,” which for the purposes of the format had been chopped down to about three minutes. (To hear the full seven-minute version of the song you had to listen to FM radio, where album-oriented rock music stations with deep-voiced DJ’s and high fidelity stereo sound were beginning to get popular - or you had to buy the LP.) Vern had all of The Doors’ albums and delighted in reproducing Jim Morrison’s trademark scowls.

Vern saw Jim Morrison’s scowl - and a whole lot more - at what has since been dubbed “The Miami Incident,” the infamous concert in Coconut Grove on March 1, 1969 in which Morrison reportedly exposed himself. That show was going to be trouble no matter how you sliced it: There was standing room only, the seats having been removed; there was no air conditioning; the band was an hour late showing up; and Morrison was both pissed and pissed-off - three sheets to the wind and angry. That there would be a whipout of the Lizard King’s Ding was not foreordained under these circumstances, but given Morrison’s increasingly erratic behavior, it’s hardly surprising. What is surprising is that there wasn’t a full-blown riot.

Morrison was subsequently arrested and convicted on several charges including indecent exposure, but died before his appeal was resolved. He was pardoned posthumously in 2010; unto this day his bandmates continue to deny that he exposed himself at that concert. But Vern knows the truth... because he saw it with his own eyes.

Asked by the Miami police to testify at Morrison’s trial, Vern had been horrified at the prospect of having to help convict one of his musical idols. Because he was a minor at the time, he could not be compelled to appear at the trial - and his mother, my redoubtable Aunt Marge, rendered the matter moot by exercising her veto power. Morrison was convicted, but it was not an ironclad case without Vern’s eyewitness account. An appeal would likely have been successful.

On such little matters do the heavy wheels of History turn. For Vern is convinced that had he testified, Morrison would have not only been convicted, he would have seen no point in an appeal. Which would have meant serving six months at hard labor in Florida’s notorious prison system.

Jail time. Hard time. Who knows but that that might have been the catalyst for Morrison’s repentance of his evil, dick-exposing ways? He might have turned his life around, given up alcohol and drugs, and eventually gone on tour with Anita Bryant, Jackie Gleason, and the Lettermen (all of whom performed at a “Down with Obscenity” rally shortly after the Incident). Why, he might be alive today, going on Doors reunion tours and generating hit after gospel-rock hit, had Vern done the Right Thing.

But probably not.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A CHANUKAH EDITORIAL



[If Dear Abby can get away with reprinting the same frickin’ Holiday Columns every stinking year, why not Elisson? We are therefore pleased to offer this eleven-year-old Editorial Response previously published here and at Blog d’Elisson, one that is both timely and appropriate to the season. Chanukah begins at sundown on Sunday, December 6 this year.]

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the electronic-mail communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of Lost in the Cheese Aisle:
“I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there was no Judah Maccabee and that Chanukah is a load of crap. Papa says, ‘If you see it in Lost in the Cheese Aisle, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, was there a Judah Maccabee?” - Patty O’Furniture
Patty, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All they care about is that fat red-suited guy who schleps presents to Yenemvelt and back. All minds, Patty, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, goornisht, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Patty, there was a Judah Maccabee.

He existed as certainly as dedication and courage and devotion exist. He kicked some serious ass back in the day, Judah did, throwing the Greco-Syrians out of Judea and reclaiming the holy Temple. His struggle was a struggle against assimilation, against those who would be seduced by the pop culture of the day. He fought his battles so that we Jews would retain our cultural identity and not be swallowed up in the prevailing pagan mainstream. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there had been no Judah Maccabee! It would be as dreary as if there were no Pattys. (Or furniture.) There would be no candle-lighting then, no singing Ma-oz Tzur (or even those stupid dreidel songs), no commemoration of the miraculous rededication of the Temple. No Judah? We would even today be schmearing ourselves with olive oil and burning pig hearts as sacrifices to Zeus. And our Christian friends would have no Christmas - for the culture that gave rise to Jesus would have been wiped out. The eternal light - the ner tamid - with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Judah? You might as well not believe in fairies. Or the Matzohball That Does Not Sink. Or Eliyahu ha-Navi. You might get your papa to hire men to watch all the seder tables of the world to catch a glimpse of Eliyahu, but even if you did not see him, what would that prove? Nobody ever sees Eliyahu ha-Navi drink his wine at the Seder table, but that is no sign that there is no Eliyahu ha-Navi. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. (Although those footprints in the grass were more likely made by your Papa as he tried to sneak back into the house with a snootful of booze after the office Xmas party.) Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You can tear apart the knish and see the tasty filling inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Patty, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Judah Maccabee? Thank G-d he lived - and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Patty, nay, 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to chase the Greco-Syrians out of Judea and combat the forces of cultural assimilation, making glad the heart of childhood.

Happy Chanukah!

[Originally posted on December 25, 2004.]

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MA


Mom, displaying her usual million-watt smile in a photo taken about thirty years ago.

Today is Mom’s birthday. She’d be eighty-eight years old now if she were still walking the planet with the rest of us... but, alas, she is not. She must celebrate her Special Day by eating ambrosia and quaffing nectar in the World to Come, with the stars of heaven serving as candles for her cake.

We will observe the occasion in our own way, as we have done for over a quarter-century. On the first night of Chanukah - tomorrow - we will serve a Memorial Dinner consisting of Chinese take-out and Dee’s most excellent potato latkes. We’ll kindle the first candle on the chanukiyah (the special nine-branched candelabrum used on this holiday)... and we will remember a special lady whose smile would light up a room like all the candles in the world.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO AN OLD SOUL


Rubber Soul album cover art [Wikipedia].

Rubber Soul, the album that marked the beginning of the Beatles’ transition from adorable moptops to psychedelic rock music icons, was released fifty years ago today.

If you wanted to pick the album that best demarcates the “old Beatles” sound from that of the “new Beatles,” this would be the one. The discs that bookended it - Help! and Revolver - could not have been more different.

Over the years, I’ve had my favorites amongst their many albums, but with the passage of time I grow stronger in my personal conviction that Rubber Soul is the best Beatles album of all. Rolling Stone has referred to it as their “accidental masterpiece,” and perhaps it was. Even after a half-century it doesn’t seem dated, and pretty much every tune is not merely good, but excellent. Check out the menu:

Drive My Car
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
You Won’t See Me
Nowhere Man
Think for Yourself
The Word
Michelle
What Goes On
Girl
I’m Looking Through You
In My Life
Wait
If I Needed Someone
Run for Your Life

Not a dud in the deck.

Back in April, 1993, Dee and I had the good fortune to see Paul McCartney play at the Astrodome in Houston... and, yes, we took the girls along as well. The first song he played was “Drive My Car,” and I cannot begin to tell you, Esteemed Reader, what emotions boiled up in me as we heard that voice singing that song. It was as though almost three decades had peeled away almost instantaneously... incredible. It sounded new... and it still does.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

THE GOLDEN DOOR, UNHINGED

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates once stood
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Was the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glowed world-wide welcome. And still her eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

“But should that ‘refuse’ be of darker skin,
Or Asiatic features, think again.
Our welcome is not limitless, you see.
If we’re selective, none dare call it sin -
Those that flee tyrants, we fear to take them in
At least until it’s safe - and that is who knows when?

“So keep your homeless, keep your tempest-tost.
Who knows what welcoming that lot could cost?
(Those Hindus, Buddhists, Mussulmen, and Jews
Possessed with all their strange beliefs and hues)
And do not try to send them all to me. 
The eagle flies each Friday, but freedom isn’t free.”

[Apologies to Emma Lazarus]

Saturday, November 14, 2015

MEN HAVE IT EASY

One of our dear friends is a lady of Mature Years who never fails to astonish me with her (occasional) salacious observations.

After a ten-minute struggle to put her earrings on, she observed, “You men have it easy.”

“How so?” I replied.

“You never have any trouble finding the hole.”

Friday, November 13, 2015

A DAY TO VEX THE SUPERSTITIOUS

Churchy Panic
Churchy LaFemme, famous triskadeikaphobe.

Quoth Churchy LaFemme in Walt Kelly’s beloved comic strip Pogo, “Gyack! Friday the 13th come on a Friday this month!”

It’s probably a good day to stay indoors and self-medicate.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

THE OLD BERRY PATCH

As of two days ago, Dee and I are now proud owners of a little bit of real estate just up the road in Sandy Springs.

It’s not a whole lot of acreage, but it suffices for the purpose. And as for the old real estate mantra - location, location, location! - it’s in a quiet neighborhood and a popular development... so popular, people are dying to get in.

We have no immediate plans for the property, but you never know. There’s an old Yiddish saying: “Men tracht, und Gott lacht,” which can be lyrically translated as “Man proposes, but God disposes.” Which leads me to conclude that...

Everyone knowses
That when God disposes,
It’s good to have a place for you to reposes
As you decomposes.

WEBCOR, WEBCOR


Webcor, webcor. Houston Steve’s vintage reel-to-reel tape deck, times two.

A few days ago I stopped by to visit Houston Steve, who had just returned from several days in the Northeast.

Unlike Yours Truly, whose audio library is scattered throughout the house in the form of caches of LP’s, CD’s, and digital files, Steve seems to have his musical things fairly well organized. At the very least, he has managed to concentrate them in a single location - a closet adjacent to his wet bar. It’s jam-packed with various discs, both vinyl and shinyl, and also contains a treasure trove of semi-antique equipment.

There’s a reel-to-reel tape deck in there - not the cassette kind with which many of us oldsters were familiar, but the kind that used reels of quarter-inch magnetic tape, a product that I understand is no longer manufactured. Back in the ancient days of analog sound reproduction, audiophiles loved their reel-to-reel tape decks, devices capable of delivering the highest quality stereo sound.

Steve’s tape deck always makes me think of Don Van Vliet, the gentleman you might know as the Captain Beefheart of blessèd memory. And why would that be? It’s because of the song (really more of a poem with musical backing) entitled “Golden Birdies” with which Beefheart concluded Clear Spot, possibly his most accessible album. Here are the lyrics (video here):

Those little golden birdies - look at them

And the mystic Egypt tassel dangling down
Old sleeper-man - shhh, don’t wake him

Up wand hand broom star was an obi-man
Revered throughout the bone-knob land
His magic black purse slit creeped open,
Let go flocks of them

Shhh, sookie singabus
Snored like a red merry-go-round horse
And an acid gold bar swirled up and down
Up and down, in back of the singabus

And the panataloon duck white goose neck quacked
Webcor, webcor

Webcor, indeed. Don Van Vliet is, alas, gone these past five years, leaving behind his artwork (he was an inveterate painter) and his strange, yet fascinating music. Gone, too, are the devices on which he recorded that music - consigned to the dustbin of history with other products of obsolescent technology. Ave atque vale!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

SMOKE AND SALT

We missed the first one in 2005... and we somehow managed to be absent for the one in 2007. But other than those two times, we’ve been making the trek to the little hamlet of Englewood, Tennessee every fall for Eric’s epic weekend-long birthday parties, the ones that have become known as The Hysterics at Eric’s.

The Hysterics have become a bit less hysterical over the years, most likely because all the participants are ten years older than when it began. It’s much less a drunken debauch and much more a collegial get-together with old friends. And that’s just fine.

Every year’s affair is memorable for a different reason... and sometimes more than one reason. We’ve fired off model rockets, gone shooting, had inflatable sheep in attendance, tested our archery skills, dressed up as soldiers. We’ve dined on country-style ribs, steaks, barbecue, ziti, carry-out Mexican food, and gumbo. And there’s always some kind of music, and some form of Poetic Recitation.

Oh, and did I mention the single-malt Scotch? There’s always some of that, too.

This year was memorable for at least two reasons... at least, memorable for Dee and me. Reason One was that this year, Elder Daughter was present for at least part of the festivities. And Reason Two was that this was the year of the food that shall hereafter be referred to as TMTONTBCBRSP - The Meat That Ought Not To Be Consumed By Red Sea Pedestrians, which was served up in its classic country form.

It should be understood that real country TMTONTBCBRSP is entirely outside the experience of many people who did not grow up in the American Southeast. It is vastly different from most people’s idea of TMTONTBCBRSP, which is either a lump of pink flesh that comes out of a huge tin labeled “Plumrose” or some such; thin slices of luncheon meat from the supermarket deli counter, designed to be combined with one’s choice of cheese to form a sandwich; or a spiral-sliced chunk of meat that comes from a storefront bearing the legend “HoneyBaked.” This is not those things.


Emphatically not HoneyBaked TMTONTBCBRSP.

What country TMTONTBCBRSP is, is an entire leg of a beast that does not chew the cud, yet has a split hoof. That leg is rubbed down with a cure, a combination of salt, sugar, and sodium nitrite. Then it is smoked, wrapped in cloth, and left to hang on a hook for several months, during which time it develops a coating of moldy grachitz and the deep salty funk that is its major characteristic. It’s a process for preserving meat that is as old as the hills, one that is solidly embedded in American folkways.

It should also be understood that just a few miles up the road from Eric and Fiona’s cozy abode lies a smokehouse - a purveyor of products made from TMTONTBCBRSP using the old-fashioned, time-consuming method described above. This particular smokehouse’s products are of an unusually high quality, so much so that they have attracted the attention of well known food writers and chefs, especially those who have associated themselves with the farm-to-table movement. You could say this place is the Mecca of country TMTONTBCBRSP, a cliché that is both valid and amusing for obvious reasons. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that Eric would decide that a nice big chunk of Benton’s Country TMTONTBCBRSP would be just the thing to feed a small army of (mostly) former online journalists and hangers-on.


Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams. The Mecca of Tennessee country ham, so to speak.

Now, the thing one must keep in mind when dealing with country TMTONTBCBRSP is that it is intensely salty. To prepare it for service, you must first scrape the layer of mold and other detritus off the exterior, then soak it in several changes of water over a period of days. Then, simply slice it up, heat and serve. But it isn’t quite that simple. People who are used to the more conventional preparations of this meat are rarely prepared for the intensely funky aroma it gives off.

At one point during the proceedings, I received a somewhat panicked phone call from Eric, who, after several days of advance preparation, was having second thoughts about his meal program.

“When you guys get back to the house, we need to talk. I think we have a problem.”

“What’s the problem?”

“I think the TMTONTBCBRSP is tainted.”

Upon closer inspection, it appears that Eric had been put off by the intense Poke-Stank with which the, ahhh, Meaty Product had been perfuming the refrigerator - indeed, the entire house - a lusty combination of smoke and grease with a gentle touch of human cadaver. But Yours Truly - by no means an expert in matters relating to TMTONTBCBRSP - reassured him. It’s supposed to smell like this, I said.

And I was serious. I had, over the years, sampled the countrified version of TMTONTBCBRSP on numerous occasions. The first time had been at a now long-defunct place in Smyrna, Georgia called Aunt Fannie’s Cabin, an embarrassingly un-PC restaurant that recaptured the antebellum vibe with appalling success. My main course, a hearty slab of meat, had been intensely flavorful and smoky... and I was up the entire night afterwards, drinking glass after glass of water to knock the salt concentration in my bloodstream back to something resembling normalcy. So I knew what to expect.

I also knew that most of Eric’s guests would be satisfied with small portions, since a little goes a long way with powerfully flavored foods. We would have enough to feed the multitudes... especially since the TMTONTBCBRSP would be supplemented by mashed potatoes, Bou’s amazing cheese grits soufflé, and green beans simmered with a hock from the TMTONTBCBRSP. (Eric - the consummate host - also had put up a few filets mignon for the handful of folks who do not partake of TMTONTBCBRSP.)

Bottom line: Our Tennessee Country Supper was amazing, with the creamy, savory cheese grits offering the perfect counterpoint for the intensity of the TMTONTBCBRSP. Far from being tainted, it was dead solid perfect. Like fine Scotch whisky, it may be an acquired taste for some... but for me it was delightful as well as being somewhat off our beaten food-path.

For those who had the foresight to leave a corner of their bellies unstuffed, there was also an amazing chocolate espresso cake, courtesy of first-timer Rosie. Huge enough to have its own gravitational field, it was a cake that could have nestled comfortably amongst its enormous brethren at the Marietta Diner, where they sell their baked goods by the cubic yard.

All in all a fine weekend, one that was capped off by a Sunday morning breakfast that included Benton’s fine extra-smoky bacon (another Meat That Ought Not To Be Consumed By Red Sea Pedestrians), scrambled eggs, and leftover cheese grits... and Eric’s valedictory recitation of a few of William Topaz McGonagall’s execrable (and unintentionally hilarious) poetic works.

Too bad we only do this once a year, huh?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

ON ANIMAL HUSBANDRY

O, if I ever owned a sheep, I’d name him Mutton Jeff
And feed him oats and barley malt, and spelt and rye and teff
And then, when he grew large enough, yet still a tender lamb
I’d hack him into little bits and eat him up, by damn!

Friday, October 30, 2015

REFLECTIONS UPON PASSING THE BAR EXAM


Yours Truly at age thirteen, posing next to the sign announcing my impending Bar Mitzvah. (And yes, it’s that Amityville.)

Today is a minor anniversary of sorts, it being fifty years ago that I became a Bar Mitzvah - literally  “Son of the Commandment” - an adult in the eyes of the Red Sea Pedestrian community, at least in the religious sense. You could call it our version of passing the Bar Exam.

Popular opinion notwithstanding, it’s easy to become a Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah, if you’re female), provided you’re Jewish. All you have to do is turn thirteen - twelve in the case of females. All of the foofarah - the ceremonies, the parties, and the accompanying narrischkeit - is just gilding on the lily. But it’s a significant enough occasion that - in our tradition - one is called to recite the blessings over the Torah for the first time. If you’re a minimalist, that’s pretty much all you have to do.

Most b’nai mitzvah will, additionally, chant the final Torah reading and will then read the appropriate complementary selection from the Prophets (the haftarah), this last a tradition that arose some 1,850 years ago when the Roman occupiers of Judea prohibited the study of Torah under penalty of death. (“Honest, Officer Centurion - we weren’t reading the Torah - just a different part of our scriptures!”) And in some congregations, the young man or lady will lead part or all of the day’s services... a task I was not expected to perform back in the day.

[It’s a testament to our parents’ belief in their Jewish identity - a belief that far outweighed their belief in Judaism as a religion per se - that my brother and I received the Hebrew education that allowed us to get through the ceremonial aspects of our respective b’nai mitzvah. Speaking for myself, I had a reasonable aptitude for chanting both Torah and haftarah, but Hebrew school bored me to tears. The spring after my Bar Mitzvah, I declared that I was dropping out, and thenceforth my religious activity was minimal for the next two decades. The moral of which is, there’s hope for all of us.]

After a full half-century, my memories of the Big Event are necessarily vague. I remember reciting Kiddush - the blessing over the wine - Friday evening, after which I proceeded to drain the goblet. (Halfway through, the cantor quietly told me, “You don’t have to drink the whole thing!”) I remember standing at the reader’s table as I began my Torah reading, feeling my knees knocking together and watching the silver pointer bouncing up and down on the scroll like a seismograph needle as I held it. (Whether my voice betrayed my nervousness, I can only guess.) I remember reading the second half of the haftarah, the first half having been read by the other young fellow who shared my Bar Mitzvah date. And I remember the reception my parents hosted afterwards, complete with sit-down luncheon, live band (Dad and his old musician friends sat in for a few numbers), and the requisite cake shaped like an open book.

We still have the photo album from that occasion, and it’s fun to take it out once in a while to see who is still alive. Alas, all too many are not. Rabbi Spielman now sleeps in his Forever Home, just a few feet away from where my mother rests... and even Beth Sholom Center is no more, having been superseded by some sort of Science of Spirituality Meditation Center. Ave atque vale.


Fifty years later, nephew William reads the same passage (Genesis 9:29-32): “And Abram and Nahor took themselves wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and father of Iscah. And Sarai was barren; she had borne no child. And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot, the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai, his son Abram’s wife; and along with them they left Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan, and they came into Charan and dwelt there. And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Charan.” [Click to embiggenate.] 

Meanwhile, fifty years later, we celebrated the occasion in the best way possible - by joining our family in Texas as our nephew William became a Bar Mitzvah. By the Gregorian calendar, his was a few weeks earlier than mine, but he read the same Torah portion I had read all those years ago, the conclusion of the famous story of Noah. As he chanted, I silently mouthed the words - there are some things you remember even after fifty years - and I smiled, tasting the sweetness of new memories being made.

Monday, October 26, 2015

KOUNTRY KASHRUT: A 100-WORD GROANER

When Rabbi Jacob was hired to fill the pulpit in a small Southern community, what he saw surprised him to say the least.

It wasn’t that they ate grits, greens, and cornbread. That was fine; it was expected. But he was shocked to see them eating pork in all its varied forms. Even more bizarre, they avoided all kinds of waterfowl. The very idea of consuming duck and goose was regarded with contempt and loathing.

He asked how this could be, and they drawled their answer...

“According to the Torah, we are prohibited from eating the flesh of the swan!”

Friday, October 23, 2015

FLAY BOBBY FLAY



Flay Bobby Flay
Flay is a kick-ass Iron Chef
Flay Bobby Flay
Flay is a kick-ass Iron Chef

Whatever cooking you have in your mind
Ribs or chicken, they’ll taste mighty fine

Flay Bobby Flay
Flay is a kick-ass Iron Chef
Stay, Bobby Flay
Stay and cook us some dinner
Until they clear the plates away
Let ’em know your dinner is a winner

His apron’s dirty but his hands are clean
And that’s the best food that we’ve ever seen

Stay, Bobby Flay
Stay and cook us some dinner

Why wait any longer for the meal to begin
You can have your ribs and eat ’em, too
Why wait any longer for that Flay-vor you love
When he’s standing at the barbecue

Flay Bobby Flay
Flay is a kick-ass Iron Chef
Stay, Bobby Flay
Stay while our meal is still ahead

I’ll wash the dishes in the morning light
And I will belch and fart all through the night

Stay, Bobby Flay
Stay while our meal is still ahead

[Inspired by our having watched three consecutive episodes of “Beat Bobby Flay” on the Food Network, in which Mr. Flay (unsurprisingly) vanquished all competitors.]

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A BIG BOX FULLA CHOONS

Last week, as we were on our way to a happy family event in Texas (our nephew William’s Bar Mitzvah!), we stopped, as is our usual practice, at the Waffle House to grab a quick breakfast.

Dee and I were accompanied by Elder Daughter and the Mistress of Sarcasm: an Elissonian Full House. And I am pleased to report that neither of our daughters committed the dastardly sin of trying to order pancakes at a Waffle House. We raised them girls right.

As we sat, consuming our Breakfasty Comestibles, my eyes were drawn to a device that sat near the entrance to the restaurant. It was evident that this was a jukebox - or at least what passes for a jukebox these days.



A jukebox, I should point out, is a partially automated music-playing device - usually a coin-operated machine - that will play a patron’s selection from self-contained media. (Wikipedia). The proliferation of portable music-playing devices, beginning with the transistor radio and culminating in electronic gewgaws such as the iPod and smartphones, made jukeboxes obsolete... but nevertheless, they are still seen in places like diners and bars, where they are present as much to create a nostalgic atmosphere as they are for providing audio entertainment.

Jukeboxes were the first outlet for new music, and because they were simple play-for-pay devices with no advertising, they provided excellent data on what songs were popular: they were the ones people would part with their hard-earned nickels to hear.

I’m old enough to remember the days when jukeboxes had a self-contained inventory of perhaps fifty 45-RPM records, equating to one hundred individual songs. You would drop in your coins, push the selector buttons, and then watch as the automatic machinery inside the box would grab the proper record from its carousel, flip it horizontally, and place it on the turntable. The tonearm would drop onto it and - presto! - music would issue from the speakers. It was almost as entertaining to watch the jukebox operate as it was to listen to the music.

The jukebox gave you an opportunity to share whatever music you cared to hear (Beatles! Rolling Stones! Mantovani! Bing Crosby!) with a room full of uninterested strangers... provided you got to the slot with your hoard of nickels ahead of the asshole with a roll of quarters and a Captain & Tennille fetish.

Of course, with music now available through digital media, it was inevitable that what few jukeboxes remain would evolve to take advantage of newer technologies. At first, the old vinyl records gave way to digital compact discs, which in turn were replaced by more advanced digital storage, with a single hard drive being able to hold tens of thousands of tunes. A great big box fulla choons, that’s what the newfangled jukebox is. Efficient... and soulless.

As for me, I miss seeing those little 45-RPM discs and all that machinery. That was entertainment!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

FORWARD, INTO THE PAST

Oopsie. I meant Back to the Future Part II.

Those of us who are familiar with the 1989 time-travel comedy (the centerpiece of a trilogy that began in 1985 with Back to the Future and concluded with Back to the Future Part III in 1990) will recollect that today is the date of Marty McFly’s arrival in what was then the somewhat distant future.


Somehow, 2015 used to seem so... futurey.

The future isn’t exactly like the folks back in the late 1980’s imagined it. Hoverboards and home fusion reactors haven’t quite made it yet, nor have flying cars... but then again, filmmakers have been using flying cars as a trope for Futuristic Shit since before the days of the Trylon and Perisphere. (Go look that one up, kiddies.)

Of course, nobody ever predicts the real world-changing technologies. Personal computing was still in its infancy when BTTF was made; smartphones and social media weren’t even on most people’s mental horizon. It makes you wonder what technologies will be commonplace in, say, 2045 that we have no idea of today. (Bet they don’t include flying cars.)

I wonder what’s more depressing - the dystopian Biff Tannenworld of BTTF2 or today’s real world, inhabited by zombies whose souls have been sucked out of them by their ever-present mobile devices.

Universal Studios apparently has a sense of humor about all this... coupled with a sharp business sense. Here’s their trailer for the movie that - by now - should be playing in Hill Valley at the local cinemultimegaplex:



Now, if they could only invent a “Mr. Fusion” that runs on cat turds. I could light up New York with what Stella produces.

Update:
Well, the Cubbies lost the NLCS to the New York Mets, so we’re one step farther away from the fictional future of BTTF2. But that’s hardly a surprise. There’s a difference between science fiction and fantasy, after all...

Friday, October 9, 2015

I WAS THE WALRUS

John Lennon turns 75 today. Too bad he’s not around to celebrate.

Lennon was a musical genius of the first water... but like many geniuses, Lennon could occasionally be full of himself. Satirist Tony Hendra, on the Radio Dinner album he co-created with fellow National Lampoon writer Michael O’Donoghue, used Lennon’s own words - culled from a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone’s publisher Jann Wenner - to skewer him in a delightful little piece entitled “Magical Misery Tour.”

Here’s a YouTube version (NSFW!) for your delectation:



Hendra, along with Sean Kelly, also wrote Lemmings, the Lampoon’s off-Broadway show, notable for being the first show to star Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Christopher Guest. After his stint with the Lampoon ended in 1978, he eventually went on to become editor-in-chief of the late, lamented Spy magazine. He also played band manager Ian Faith in the film This Is Spinal Tap, which also featured Christopher Guest, his old friend from Lemmings.

Happy birthday, John!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

THE SCULPTURE

I wished to make a Pumpkin-Ox:
I piled them like so many rocks
And made from them a bovine shape
More like an aurochs than an ape.
I carved the horns; I carved the snout,
Machete waving all about.
My neighbor came, admired my work,
And said, like an uncultured jerk,
“Why pumpkins? Why not stone or clay?
Why build your bovine beast this way?”

“I sculpt with what I can afford -
Depends upon whose Ox is Gourd.”

ON THAT PARTICULAR SEASONAL GOURD


Death Star Jack o’ Lantern by Noel Dickover. Go here for more interesting pumpkin art.

“The only Office the good Pumpkin serveth is that of submitting itself unto the Carving-Knife, thereby to be converted into a Jack o’ Lantern. The Flesh of the Pumpkin may nonetheless be made into Pyes that are considered by most rational Beings to be Delicacies to be endured at the holiday Table more for the Sake of Tradition than for their Palatability.”

- the Bard of Affliction

Monday, September 21, 2015

SLEEPING

You’ve heard the song if you’ve seen that one television advertisement for Sleep Number beds.

While you were sleeping your babies grew
The stars shined and the shadows moved

It’s a song from Elvis Perkins’s Ash Wednesday album, titled (appropriately enough) “While You Were Sleeping” - a logical choice by the advertising folks who are trying to sell expensive high-tech bed gear to families with children.

It’s been a few years since I first heard that song. At the time I had been enroute from the wilds of the Northeast, headed towards Atlanta along with Elder Daughter, both of us passengers in the Mistress of Sarcasm’s car. It was coming on evening, grey and drizzly, as we cruised down Interstate 81 near Roanoke, Virginia, when “While You Were Sleeping” came on the radio. The lyrics grabbed me by the throat on the very first listen. Before we had gone ten miles down the road, I had already added the song to the growing library of tunes piled up in the electronic bowels of my smartphone.

While you were sleeping you tossed you turned
You rolled your eyes as the world burned
The heavens fell the earth quaked
I thought you must be but you weren’t awake, no
You were dreaming...

Those lyrics afflicted me with a powerful, sweet melancholy, magnified by my being in the presence of our own babies. They were no longer babies, of course. They had grown while we were sleeping, while the stars shined and the shadows moved.

While you were sleeping I tossed and I turned too
I closed my eyes but the future burned through
The planet turned a hair grey as I relived the day

Dee first heard the song when it appeared in that advertisement, and she had the same visceral, gut-punched reaction to it that I had... to the extent that she immediately grabbed the rest of the Ash Wednesday album.

Why does that song resonate so strongly for both of us? Why can’t I listen to it without getting a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye? Is it the image of fleeting time, big events, and life speeding past us in the seeming blink of an eye?

SUBWAY TOKEF

Some by local
Some by express
Those wheels will leave you in quite a mess
Some by diesel
Some by steam
In the tunnel nobody hears you scream
Some in the station
Some on the trestle
The rail’s the mortar; the train’s the pestle
Some by subway
Some by El
Neither will leave you feeling well
Some by turnstile
Some by gap
Choo-chooed up to the old Dirt Nap

The train’s the vehicle for me
But I hope to avert the Severe Decree

Saturday, September 19, 2015

THE PAINTERLY PRIVATEER: A 100-WORD STORY

He had spent a lengthy career on the high seas, accumulating a lifetime’s worth of plunder. Countless were the ships he had scuttled after having stripped them of their valuables; countless were the screaming sailors he had sent to Davy Jones.

But as Pete grew older, his taste for the violent life diminished. He came to treasure not gold and jewels, but the paintings of the Old Masters… and so he left Jolly Rogering for a more refined line of work.

Smiling, standing athwart the entrance to his new business, he greeted his customers. “Welcome to Pegleg Pete’s Arrrrht Gallery!”

[Today, September 19, is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.]

Friday, September 18, 2015

GETTING ON MY LAST NIRVANA: A 100-WORD STORY

He sat on the hard wooden floor in that posture Westerners called Indian-style and which he knew as padmāsana, the Lotus. With his feet pressed soundlessly into his thighs he emptied his mind, preparing for his ritual.

A few moments spent studying his chakra-board and he was ready. The elastic went above the left bicep just so; the tablespoon of diacetylmorphine burbled above the candle-flame.

Strange that the cow was considered sacred by his people, he thought, when it was the horse that could carry one to Nirvana.

The needle plunged home as Deepak Chopmeat practiced his daily Transcendental Medication.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

AUTUMNAL AMBROSIAL ALCHEMY

It’s not quite autumn yet, but summer has entered its final week and the morning air has taken on a most fall-like briskness. This being Georgia, the cool weather is a temporary condition - plenty of hot, sweaty days lie ahead in the next month or so - but nevertheless, it is a welcome reminder that the seasons are about to change.

I love this time of year. On the weekday mornings when I leave the house before seven o’clock to attend minyan, the rising sun is just beginning to paint the eastern sky with glorious shades of pink and orange. The trees are showing the beginnings - just the beginnings! - of their fall colors. And I have to decide between wearing short- or long-sleeved shirts, on account of that crisp air.

Along with cool mornings, fall colors, and the panoply of Jewish holidays, the impending onset of Fall also marks a change in our menus here at Chez Elisson. Salads give way to stewy dishes like chili, Hungarian goulash, and braised short ribs... and summery, chilled gazpacho yields to hot, restorative cabbage borscht.

Dee’s cabbage borscht, AKA cabbage soup, is amazing. Long years ago, she learned how to make it from her grandmother (with a substantial amount of kibitzing and back-burner driving from her great-aunt Dorothy)... a toothsome combination that includes diced tomatoes, a head of cabbage, beef shanks or flanken-style ribs (or both), and lashings of brown sugar, lemon juice, and sour salt. The exact composition is known to Dee, but not me: My input is limited to minor adjustments in the seasoning.

It never ceases to amaze me how a humble vegetable like cabbage can be transformed into a potage that, while certainly not the stuff of haute cuisine, nevertheless manages to be both earthy and ethereal. It is truly a sort of kitchen alchemy.

Cabbage borscht is the kind of concoction that gets better after a day or two, a homey, heady dish that warms both body and soul. It’s just right for those days of introspection and prayer that cluster so thickly on the calendars of us Red Sea Pedestrians this time of year... and for the occasional chilly evening.

Friday, September 11, 2015

MATCHA-RITION


Homemade matcha-coconut ice cream. Mmmmm, tasty. [Click to enhugify.]

I like ice cream
Made from green tea
Unlike asparagus
It does not perfume my pee

Thursday, September 10, 2015

THE MUSLIM BARTENDER (A TRUE STORY)

“You are not being persecuted for your beliefs when you are merely being denied the privilege of shoving them down someone else’s throat.” - The Bard of Affliction

There has been a lot of Sturm und Drang lately over one Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who has garnered a certain amount of notoriety for having refused to issue wedding licenses to same-sex couples despite having been ordered by the courts to do so. Putting her name on said licenses would (she says) imply her approval of same-sex marriages, something she feels she cannot do based on her religious beliefs.

Ms. Davis’s staunch refusal to compromise her principles - or her ridiculous grandstanding, depending on where you stand on the matter - earned her a stay in the pokey for contempt of court. She was released after a brief sojourn, providing an opportunity for yet more grandstanding. (“Eye of the Tiger,” anyone?)

The people comparing Ms. Davis to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. - after all, she went to jail for her beliefs, too! - should maybe take a step back. What if it were interracial marriages she objected to? That matter was settled in Loving vs. Virginia back in 1967, and I imagine that most of us would be justifiably outraged if a county clerk refused to issue papers for an interracial couple today. Perhaps a better comparison would be to Governors George Wallace and Orval Faubus, both of whom stood in the schoolhouse door (the University of Alabama and Little Rock Central High School, respectively) to demonstrate their opposition to SCOTUS-ordered desegregation.

My opinions are pretty straightforward on this matter. Ms. Davis was elected to a government post in which she is required to attend to certain matters in accordance with the law. Whether she finds the law disagreeable - for whatever reason - is of no consequence. If she is uncomfortable with performing certain job-related tasks, then she has the option of delegating them to someone else in her office with a more accommodating belief system. Or she can resign.

Plenty of folks have weighed in, with some proposing helpful analogies. How about a Muslim county clerk who refuses to issue driver’s licenses to women? Or a Quaker clerk who denies her constituents gun permits? My answer is the same in all of these cases: Do your job or slide over and let someone else do it. The First Amendment’s religious protections are intended to prevent the government from interfering in citizens’ free exercise of religion: They do not permit a citizen who is acting as an agent of said government to impose his or her own religious practices upon others. 

Things are a bit different in the private sector, where there are legal formulae in place that require a certain amount of accommodation for employees’ religious restrictions. As long as the accommodations do not create undue hardship or expense for the employer, they must do what they can to deal with the flight attendant who refuses to serve alcohol or the pharmacist who refuses to dispense certain prescriptions. (The courts, of course, have the last word on what constitutes undue hardship or expense.)

As far as I’m concerned, I have no problem with accommodating people’s religious beliefs provided that they do not discommode others. You can’t work on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday? Fine, we can find someone to cover for you. You gotta wear that scarf, fedora, yarmulke, or turban? No problem. But as soon as you start getting up in my grill, there’s gonna be some kind of beef - with all due respect to my esteemed Hindu friends.

If you’re a Muslim working in a job that may involve your serving alcohol or transporting people who have alcohol in their baggage, and you have a problem with that, I have news for you: You are in the wrong job. You don’t have to drink the alcohol. Do not impose your beliefs on others.

If you are a religious Christian who works in a pharmacy, and you have problems dispensing certain birth control-related medications or devices, I have news for you: You are in the wrong job. You do not need to use those medications or devices. But deciding whether others who do not subscribe to your beliefs may do so is above your pay grade.

If you are an ultra-orthodox Jew who has booked a seat on a commercial airline flight and your seatmate happens to be of the opposite sex, and you wish to change seats, I have news for you: Sit the fuck down. Unless you want to buy the seats adjacent to you - or charter the entire flight - you are obligated to sit where you are assigned and not disrupt the flight while you search for alternative seating or neighbors. It is impolite and ridiculous, and you are imposing your beliefs on others who do not share them.

Most Westerners are familiar with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Jesus said it, paraphrasing Leviticus 19:18: “...Love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” But the great Rabbi Hillel formulated the Rule differently: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn it.” (Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a). My friend Houston Steve points out that Hillel’s version is better, as to have one “do unto others” requires a certain amount of presumption in assuming that someone else will like the same things you do. The things you do not like, however, are fairly obvious to you... and among them must be counted having someone else’s beliefs imposed upon you, however earnest those beliefs may be.

And all of this constitutes a long-winded introduction to the story of the Muslim bartender... a true story, not a joke.

Several months ago, Dee and I went to one of the local performing arts palaces to see a well known comedian. Having arrived sufficiently early, we had enough time to purchase a couple of Adult Beverages before the show started.

I joined the queue at the bar and, when it was my turn to be served, I was somewhat taken aback to see that the sever/bartender was wearing a hijab, a traditional scarf-like headcovering worn by observant Muslim women. But it was obvious that she had no problem whatsoever with doing her job, which is to say exchanging money for alcoholic beverages.

Dee ordered and received her drink: Scotch, served neat. But I, Mister Smart-Brains, had to get all fancy-pants Cocktail Nerdy. I ordered a Bombay Sapphire martini.

Leave it to me to violate the KISS (“Keep It Simple, Stupid!”) principle at a performing arts venue, where mixology is an art that is typically practiced at the finger-painting level. But my Muslim friend came through, despite the fact that she had absolutely no idea how to make a martini. She simply dumped about three drinks’ worth of gin in a plastic cup, added a big glug of dry vermouth, dropped in an olive, and handed it over. No ice, alas, but I was too gobsmacked to complain, having just been served by someone who - if the Kim Davis protocol were to be believed - should have been doing anything but tending bar. (Also, I had just gotten a triple for the price of a single drink. So what if it was a bit warm? That just allowed the flavors of the vermouth to come through.)

English author Samuel Johnson’s famous quip (“Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”) immediately came to mind. But this young woman was doing her job - and, let’s face it, dealing mostly with much less complicated orders. She did not trot out her religion and wave it in her customers’ faces.

Is that level of civility too much to ask? Or would we all like to live in a Taliban-like society in which the hyper-religious turn our First Amendment freedom on its head in order to oppress us?


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

TOMMY


Tommy, can you eat me? Dry-aged tomahawk rib-eye steak, a perfect bachelor dinner. [Click to embiggenate.]

The Atlanta Braves may be notorious for their Tomahawk Chop, but I, for one, am a big fan.

No, I don’t particularly enjoy sitting in the nosebleeds watching America’s Team getting trashed - they are having a supremely rough season this year - while moving my right arm up and down, chanting, “Oy, oy, oy-oy-oy, oy, oy, oy-oy-oy.” But I do like a good, dry-aged rib-eye steak, and if there’s an enormous bone protruding off the end that makes the whole affair look like a weaponized dinner entrée, then I am, as they say, all-in.

The first time we saw one of these, it was when we were celebrating Eli (hizzownself)’s eighty-fifth birthday up on Long Island. It was a monster 40-ounce Meat-Club that even Fred Flintstone would have appreciated for its heft, balance, and beefy, beefy flavor. I’ve been harboring a jones for one ever since.

This one - it had caught my eye while I was rummaging around Food Whole the other day - got the Big Green Egg treatment, using the “Blast Furnace” heat setting. It was probably running somewhere between 750-800°F, enough to create a generous crusty layer of beefy, charred meat flavor on the outside with a perfect medium-rare interior. Glorious.

Seasoning a monster chop like this is pretty simple. I hit it with kosher salt and a generous twist of freshly ground black pepper about an hour or two before I was ready to throw it on the fire. A spoonful of hot garlic butter finished it off when it was done.

A little heirloom tomato salad, a wee dram of single-malt Scotch, and - by George! Dinner!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

SUNSHINE ON A SPOON


Lemon sugar: the sunny, aromatic result of running Meyer lemon zest together with granulated sugar in the Cuisinart.

Some years back, when personal blogs were still a Thing, I discovered a certain site whose author wrote eloquently about food culture, cooking, and (especially) baking. Had I not already been thoroughly entranced by the way she expressed her love for the Kitchenly Arts, her piece about Patricia Neal would have snagged her a permanent spot on my blogroll. (Remember blogrolls?)

At that time, my baking “expertise” - such as it was - did not extend to breadmaking, so much of what she wrote on that subject was lost on me. But there were a few recipes that I essayed, and the results were good enough that they are still part of my repertoire unto this day.

Yesterday I was casting about for something sweet I could make for dessert. It was Dee’s birthday, and Houston Steve and his lovely daughter Monica were going to join us for dinner. Monica, alas, has issues with gluten - real ones, not the “I feel so much better since I went paleo” ones - and so cake was out of the question, moreso since Dee does not generally care for cake, birthday or no. And that’s when the Lemon Curd light went on in my brain.

It’s hard to beat a proper lemon curd, especially when you make it with Meyer lemons. It’s a tad on the rich side, but it has the perfect balance of custardy creaminess, sweetness, and bright citrus. Paired with a fresh blueberry compote, it is sunshine on a spoon - the kind of dessert that can be served any time of the year. And I’ve never seen a recipe that can outdo the one I copped from the Bakerina over ten years ago. I’m happy to post it here on the (hopefully unlikely) chance that Jen’s blog goes dark, but you really should go back to the source: There’s so much more there than just this one recipe.

Meyer Lemon Curd

½ cup sugar
3 large eggs, plus 4 yolks
¾ cup freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice (about 4-5 lemons worth)
2 tsp lemon zest
4-8 tbsp chilled butter, cut into small chunks

Zest the lemons, being careful not to remove any of the white pith. (A Microplane grater is perfect for this purpose.) Put the sugar in the work bowl of a food processor with the zest; process for about one minute until the sugar is aromatic and lemony.

Once you zest the lemons, juice ’em. For the best yield, have them at room temperature (nuke them for about 15 seconds if they are cold from the fridge) and roll them around on the countertop while applying gentle pressure with the palm of your hand. By doing this, I only needed three good-sized Meyer lemons to get the requisite six ounces of juice.

In a metal bowl or the top of a double boiler, whisk the eggs, egg yolks, and lemon zest-sugar together until blended. Place over simmering water and cook, whisking frequently, just until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add the lemon juice. Continue whisking and stirring as you cook, bringing the mixture to 160˚F. As you approach the target temperature, the mixture will become foamy; the foam will then subside and the mixture will begin to thicken. You’re looking for a consistency like loose sour cream. Do not overcook or the mixture will curdle - you do not want a pile of lemon-flavored scrambled eggs.

Remove from the heat and press through a strainer into a clean bowl. Now, whisk the butter into the still-warm mixture, one chunk at a time. [Use the full 8 tbsp if you want a richer curd - I generally use 6 tbsp, which still gives rich and tasty results.]

Place the bowl in a larger bowl of ice water until chilled, then decant into a serving bowl or storage container. You can parcel it out into individual tartlet shells, ramekins, or wineglasses if you wish before serving it forth.

Damn, this stuff is good. There’s a bit left over from last night, and the knowledge that it is sitting there defenseless in the refrigerator is testing the limits of my self-control.

Friday, August 28, 2015

TRADEOFF

I swapped my Viagra
For melatonin
There’s a little more sleepin’
And not as much bonin’

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

MUFF

This morning I took my morning meal with the Minyan Boyz at the local Panera, as dictated by our normal Breakfasty Rotation.

There’s no smoked fish at Panera, and the bagels are bagels in name only, their only resemblance to the Real McCoy being their toroidal configuration. Nevertheless, the coffee’s decent enough, and those who partake of the sweet stuff can choose from a plethora of pastries, cookies, and cakes.

I noticed that, in amongst the bakery treats, there was a selection of muffin tops. Yes, Panera actually sells muffin tops, using the vaguely sexual-sounding sobriquet “muffies.”

Muffies.


A Panera muffin top, AKA “muffie.” Photo credit: Cakespy.

If all this sounds like an episode of Seinfeld, it is. Elaine, who eats only the tops of muffins, theorizes that a shop that sold only muffin tops would be hugely successful. Her former boss, overhearing this, takes the idea and runs with it, opening a shop he calls “Top of the Muffin to You!” Unfortunately, to get the proper muffin top quality, he can’t simply bake muffin tops by themselves: he must bake whole muffins and remove the tops. That creates a serious problem: how does he dispose of the leftover muffin stumps?

I really have no idea how Panera has managed to wrestle this issue to the ground. I envision a murky underground business, one that is conducted in the dead of night behind the store, one in which grimy wads of cash exchange hands and sacks of muffin stumps are quietly heaved into the back of a panel truck with fake license plates.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

VITREOUS SIMIAN


Submitted for your delectation, here is “Porcelain Monkey” - Warren Zevon’s left-handed tribute to Elvis Presley. Bitter and brilliant.

He was an accident waiting to happen
Most accidents happen at home
Maybe he should’ve gone out more often
Maybe he should’ve answered the phone

Hip-shakin’ shoutin’ in gold lamé
That’s how he earned his regal sobriquet
Then he threw it all away
For a porcelain monkey

He threw it away for a porcelain monkey
Gave it all up for a figurine
He traded it in for a night in Las Vegas
And his face on velveteen

From a shotgun shack singing Pentecostal hymns
Through the wrought iron gates to the TV room
He had a little world, it was smaller than your hand
It’s a rockabilly ride from the glitter to the gloom

Left behind by the latest trends
Eating fried chicken with his regicidal friends
That’s how the story ends
With a porcelain monkey

He threw it away for a porcelain monkey
Gave it all up for a figurine
He traded it in for a night in Las Vegas
And his face on velveteen
Porcelain monkey, har har har har

Hip-shakin’ shoutin’ in gold lamé
That’s how he earned his regal sobriquet
Then he threw it all away
For a porcelain monkey

He threw it away for a porcelain monkey
Gave it all up for a figurine
He traded it in for a night in Las Vegas
And his face on velveteen

Porcelain monkey, har har har har
Porcelain monkey, hey hey hey hey
Porcelain monkey


May you not spend your final moments riding the Porcelain Monkey... and let us say, “Amen.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

YES, YOUR EMINENCE

Is there anyone else who suppresses a chuckle every time one of those GMC truck ads comes on? I’m referring to the ones that are backed by The Who playing “Eminence Front.” It’s one of my favorite songs from the Who’s latter-day canon, but it seems to be misplaced as the anthem for a TV commercial selling motor vehicles.

Those ads remind me of when Ronald Reagan invoked Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” during a campaign speech in 1984:

“America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”

Obviously, Reagan and his clueless staffers had never bothered to look any deeper than the song’s kinda-sorta patriotic sounding title, because had they ever listened to the lyrics they would have found precious little to resonate with their “It’s Morning Again in America” campaign theme. Springsteen’s song is a working class lament, and its refrain - Born in the USA! - is a cynical counterpoint to the story of Vietnam veterans who suffered through the war only to become disaffected and marginalized upon their return home.

And so here we are, thirty-one years down the road, and it looks like, once again, somebody didn’t do his homework. “Eminence Front” is a bitter, cynical song despite its powerful, driving chords:

The sun shines
And people forget
They spray flies as the speedboat glides
And people forget
Forget they’re hiding
The girls smile
And people forget
The snow packs as the skier tracks
And people forget
Forget they’re hiding.

Behind an eminence front
Eminence front - it’s a put on.
It’s eminence front
It’s eminence front - it’s a put on.
An eminence front
Eminence front - it’s a put on.
Eminence front
It’s eminence front
It’s eminence front - it’s a put on.
It’s a put on
It’s a put on
It’s a put on

Come and join the party
Dress to kill
Won’t you come and join the party
Dress to kill.
Dress to kill.

The drinks flow
People forget
That big wheel spins, the hair thins
People forget
Forget they’re hiding
The news slows
People forget
The shares crash, hopes are dashed
People forget
Forget they’re hiding.

Behind an eminence front
An eminence front - it’s a put on
It’s just an eminence front
An eminence front - it’s a put on.
An eminence front
An eminence front- it’s a put on.
Eminence front
It’s eminence front - it’s a put on.

It’s a put on
It’s a put on
It’s a put on
It’s a put on

Come on join the party
Dress to
Come on join the party
Dress to
Come on join the party
Dress to
Come on join the party
Dress to kill
Dress yourself to kill.

It’s about wealthy hedonists with their drugs and expensive toys, poseurs who hide their problems behind a façade - an eminence front. Possibly they could use a GMC truck as one of those expensive toys, eh?

Does anyone else wonder about those ads, or is it just crazy old me?

Monday, August 17, 2015

ON THE FOODLY BUCKET LIST

Mimi Sheraton, celebrated food writer and former restaurant critic for the New York Times, has come out with a new book: 1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover’s Life List.

Ms. Sheraton, at the age of eighty-nine, has had way more food experience than most of us. I figured I would see what I had been missing out on... or, put another way, whether I needed to reorder my Foodly Priorities in case (Gawd forbid) I should get hit by a bus or meteor tomorrow.

I’m still plowing through the first chapter, which focuses on British and Irish foods... and I have been pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed several items on her list, including roast goose (albeit not with sage-onion stuffing), roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, Gentleman’s Relish, shepherd’s pie, steak and kidney pie, fish and chips, codfish cakes, and Stilton cheese.

Cheddar cheese is also on Ms. Sheraton’s list, and here is what she has to say:

“By far the best and most complex of all, and the rarest in the U.S., is the Isle of Mull cheddar, from the Sgriob-ruadh farm (the Gaelic means ‘red furrow’ and is pronounced ‘SKEE-brooah’) on the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides.”

Thanks to happy coincidence, I had only a few days prior procured a chunk of that very cheese at Star Provisions, the high-end food purveyor where I go when I need, say, a whole lobe of duck foie gras. It had gotten my attention because the Isle of Mull is the home of the Tobermory Distillery, some of whose fine products I have sampled thanks to my malt-loving buddy Eric. Apparently, the dairy lies hard by said distillery, and the cows’ diet is supplemented with spent barley mash. Lucky cows.


And, yes, that Cheddar is pretty damned good... although I also am a fan of Vermont-made Cabot Clothbound cheddar. Which one is better at any given moment depends on your mood, and what you’re having it with.

I can’t wait to see what other goodies Mimi and I agree upon. I’ll keep you posted...