Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Take a Load Off

Thanksgiving gluttony skidded right past Christmas indulgence and T-boned into New Year’s revelry. Cookies and cocktails everywhere every day. I can’t say no to them. That’d be rude.
So here am I, as wide as I am tall, psyching myself up for another annual New Year diet. Judging by the relentless advertising, we’re all in the same shape. “Get a Whole New You!” they promise, when what they mean is Get Rid of Half of You.

I’ve tried all the fad diets. I’ll save you some trouble and list the winners and losers. Wait — in this case, the losers are winners. Anyway, whatever.

I started with the Atkins Diet: bacon and eggs for breakfast, smoked salmon with cream cheese for lunch, and steak sautéed in butter for dinner — what’s not to like? Sure, you give up bread, potatoes, chips and candy, but you get to replace them with sausage and Slim Jims. I lost five pounds the first week. Unfortunately, I looked fatter because my kidneys were swelling up like balloons and I was peeing rainbows. I quit and called it a win.

Like Atkins, the Paleo Diet is meat-heavy, because you’re only supposed to eat what a caveman might. I picture cavemen gnawing noisily on giant turkey legs cooked over a fire, but more likely they ate tree bark and bugs because turkeys were too hard to catch. If you stick to this plan you’ll lose weight just from having to chase down your dinner.

The Mediterranean Diet is heavy on nuts, fruits, fish and oils. They motivate you to lose weight by putting you in a Speedo. Because Italy has a long Mediterranean coast, I added a lot of pizza, pasta, and wine. Turns out that’s how I got fat in the first place.

I skipped the Dr. Andrew Weil Diet. First, he’s fatter than me. Second, he’s dead. You can have chocolate and wine on this diet, so at least you’ll die happy.

Likewise I didn’t try the Baby Food Diet, because every baby I ever met was fat. They might as well call it the Buddha Diet.

According to the Brown Fat Plan, “yellow fat” is jiggly, soft, and makes you look old. “Brown fat” is good, melty and slides right off of you. To turn yellow fat to brown, you eat carbs some days, switch to protein other days, while flipping back and forth between being Democrat and Republican. Like the 17 Day Diet, which changes up your intake every 17 days, this is supposed to keep your metabolism in a fat-burning way because it is always guessing. But my stomach wasn’t fooled: it is attached by a system of nerves to my eyeballs, which were watching what I ate the whole time.

I liked the Personality Type Diet because it is not about eating. They administer a questionnaire which reveals your relationship with your food. Their results revealed that I have a “fat attitude.” A fattitude.

The French Women Don’t Get Fat Diet: Like a French woman, I did not get fat. And like a French woman, I ended up terse and crabby.

Raw Food Diet supporters believe cooking food makes it toxic. Your food can be lukewarm, but not over 118 degrees. While there is no proof that cooking food is bad for you, there is ample evidence that you can lose a lot of weight from botulism.

The Cabbage Diet worked great for me. Sadly, I couldn’t show anyone my lithe physique because they were kept away by my cabbage farts.

Jared Fogle lost a lot of weight eating only Subway sandwiches. I followed his example, until his example included child porn and prison.

On the Shangri-La Diet, I was encouraged to eat all the same crap I always do, but first drink 500 calories of oil. If it upsets your stomach, all the better. There is zero evidence this works except for creator Dr. Seth Roberts saying it does. Dr. Seth fails to clarify he is a Ph.D., not a doctor doctor. Of all the diets that don’t work, this one is the easiest.

Some badly named diets: The Ayds Plan had a perfectly clever name until it was overshadowed in the ’80s by AIDS, which caused even greater weight loss. And there’s the Morning Banana Diet which, to my relief, is not a euphemism.

Here's my plan for next year: the OfficeMax Diet. Two days before Thanksgiving I’m going to staple my mouth shut until January 2.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Fads Gone Bad

As Food & Spirits magazine celebrates its 10th year of persnicketiness and gluttony, I offer my congratulations to Erik the Publisher. In his honor I’ve come up with a top ten list of food fads from the last ten years that are now as popular as Bart Simpson tattoos.

The cronut. The French spent generations perfecting the art of turning a stick of butter into something light, flaky and delicious. Americans then deep-fried it, delicate as a state fair corn dog. What did we learn, kids? Deep-frying doesn’t make perfect things perfecter.

Red Bull and vodka. Red Bull is for people who think something great will happen if they just stay awake long enough. Vodka is for people who would rather be skinny than happy. Red Bull is an upper. Vodka is a downer. Drinking them together makes you a drunk who won’t shut up and go home.

Bacon everything. Sure, I love bacon. Out of respect for its holiness I eat it like, well, bacon. In strips. Of bacon. I don’t put it on a maple donut. I don’t macramé it into a lattice to be draped over a turkey on Thanksgiving. I don’t chew bacon-flavored gum. Which brings me to…

Turducken. I like convertibles and unicycles and bulldozers, but I don’t have to have a convertibullcycle. If you stuff a turkey with a duck that was stuffed with a chicken, write down the recipe so you can hand it to the emergency room attendant when you get food poisoning.

Oh, and of course deep-fry it. Put that layered blob of factory-grown meat into a deep fryer to give it a good crust on the outside while protecting the freshness and vitality of the bacteria inside. And speaking of raw…

Paleo. If eating like cave men were good for you, you’d still be covered in fur. A real paleo-era diet plan would be to eat only the foods you can run down and kill with a weapon made from chipping at a rock for three hours, then tying the sort-of-sharp shards to a stick with strips of your peeling sunburn. Skin your catch, gut it, then drag it two miles back to your family, who will help you chop it into marginally chewable bits. All this uses more calories than you will consume. Like eating celery.

The McRib. McDonald’s had an early hit when they made McNuggets, because we don’t like bones. Painting fake bones on fake meat doesn’t make it meat, and did I mention we don’t eat bones?

Krispy-Kreme. I’ll say it: the emperor has no clothes and he’s eating a plain friggin’ donut. What makes Krispy Kreme taste special is you were at the back of the line when the bell rang to announce fresh donuts were coming out, and your subconscious had to justify why you were twenty minutes late for work.

Chocolate wine. Because for some people, drinking wine and eating chocolate was too much work.

Pod coffee. It’s more delicious because it comes in little plastic single-serving cups we get to throw away to make ourselves feel special with every lonely cup. Espresso machines make single servings too, but they make them out of coffee.

Craft bartenders. In this usage, “craft” meant “it’s about me, not you.” You sit for twenty minutes watching a bartender count drips of homemade jasmine tincture out of an eyedropper while greasy beard hairs drop into your drink. The only time I want to see an eyedropper in a bar is if you’re making a cocktail for my eyeball.

Now keep in mind that while I sit here casting my judgements, I’m drinking cheap wine and eating popcorn by the fistful as crumbs tumble down my shirt. Which is to say that for the last ten years, some things have remained comfortingly unchanged.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Pie in the Sky

“Tang: breakfast of astronauts!” cried the TV ad.

Nope. Tang was never any part of their breakfast. Most astronauts couldn’t stand the stuff. Buzz Aldrin once said bluntly, “Tang sucks.”

Tang was concocted by Dr. William A. Mitchell—for General Foods, not NASA. In the fanciful world of food labeling, Tang is a “fruit-flavored drink,” which doesn’t mean flavored with fruit, but rather that it tastes fruit-ish. The only fruit-like ingredients in Tang are the first two on the label: sugar and fructose (which is sugar). Tang once introduced a version that advertised “half the sugar of 100% juice!” That sounds better than saying it has 100% less juice than juice. A single serving of original Tang contains six teaspoons of sugar.

At first, sales were not so sweet. Then John Glenn was given Tang in space to test whether a human could swallow in zero gravity. General Foods got wind of the experiment, and soon TVs were bleating that Tang was “breakfast of astronauts!” Kids like me clamored for Tang so we too could go to space, like wearing a hat might make us a cowboy.

With stars in their eyes, Pillsbury stole the idea and advertised their Space Food Sticks as “the first space food made available to the public!” They didn’t mention Space Food Sticks were never once eaten in space—the closest they ever got to NASA was the Space Center gift shop. Advertising the “nutritional balance needed for astronauts hard at work,” Space Food Sticks came in flavors like caramel and chocolate.

So what, then, is space food? There are a lot of challenges. You can’t use regular utensils, because if you drop a fork it won’t fall. It just floats around until someone, hopefully not your pilot, gets stabbed in the eye. The Space Food sticks commercial showed the brown, cigarette-shaped stick being slipped easily through a custom-fit hole they added to the astronaut’s helmet visor, which in real space would have killed him instantly.

There’s also a metric called “low residual.” It’s a polite way of saying NASA wants food to go into the inny-end of astronauts without much coming out the outy-end. I imagine Space Food Sticks came out looking pretty much the same as they went in.

Humans lose their sense of taste in space. Without gravity, mucus doesn’t drain. Nasal congestion dulls one’s sense of smell, and taste goes with it. Conversely, smells linger longer in space, and travel farther. They learned this when Skylab once offered its crew Paul Masson Cream Sherry. Beyond the bad idea of drunks in space, the smell traveling throughout the ship triggering everyone’s gag reflex.

Today’s spaceships have hot water and refrigeration. Meals are tailored to each astronaut. Guest countries display local pride. Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti was the first to drink a fresh-brewed coffee, thanks to an International Space Station device designed by Lavazza called the ISSpresso. For Italians, good coffee is the difference between adventure and “Sorry, I can’t live like this.”

Korea spent over a million dollars to create a space-worthy version of kimchi. It was served once, by astronaut Yi So-yeon, who retired from the space program as soon as she touched ground.

Swedish spaceman Christer Fuglesang was not allowed to bring reindeer jerky on board because Americans on the flight thought it would be “weird” so close to Christmas.

Carbonated drinks don’t work in space. Gravity separates bubbles from liquid in the stomach, but in space they stay mixed. A beer belch results in a kind of vomiting they call a “wet burp.” Nonetheless, barley grown in space was used to brew beer, just to prove we could if we had to.

Today, space food is still big business. While it was crafted for people who look to the heavens in wonder, most of it is bought by survivalists who stash it in holes in the ground.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Tasting Ghosts

Mary Avery grew up on a prehistoric dome of salt in the middle of the Louisiana marsh in the early 1800s.  It was huge: six miles around and with caves 50,000 feet deep. It belonged to her parents, so naturally she wasted no time escaping it. 

As a young woman Mary was happily swept away by the handsome Edmund McIlhenny, a promising young banker who offered her a life of excitement in racy New Orleans. Soon things got exciting indeed when New Orleans was invaded by Union soldiers in the 1860s. Buildings were burned, businesses failed. It was a disaster.

Edmund and Mary ran home to Mom and Dad Avery and their hill of salt. It was now called Avery Island—her parents had exploited it into a very successful salt-mining business. The Avery salt mine became so successful that the Union army found out about it. Salt is a vital ingredient in preserving meat, and the Union army preserved a lot of meat. Soon the salt mine was confiscated for the war effort, and the McIlhennys were on the run again, this time to Texas. They had no love for Texas, but they loved being alive.

The war ended. Edmund and Mary returned to Louisiana to reclaim their family property, only to find it—the mansion, the farms, the mines, everything—pillaged and destroyed. The only thing Union soldiers had left alone was a tiny plot of brutally hot Capsicum peppers Edmund had once planted, from seeds given to him by a childhood friend. The peppers made for a fun prank on unsuspecting guests who were brought to tears by the spicy heat. The Union army was tough, but not that tough. Made mostly of Northerners, they liked their food bland and white, and left the peppers alone.

There were no jobs for Southern bankers. Edmund was growing broke. Hands on his hips, he surveyed the Avery mountain of salt and his puny patch of potent peppers.

He recalled a recipe he had toyed with prior to the war. He mixed his salt and peppers with vinegar, then aged the brutal blend in leftover whiskey barrels for a few weeks. He strained the results into reclaimed cologne bottles he found on the cheap. A creative guy with no money, McIlhenny designed and printed his own labels, naming his new brew after a river in the hottest part of Mexico, mostly because he just liked the sound of it: Tabasco.

In 1868 he sold 350 of his little bottles to adventurous, hardy Southerners who had a taste for heat. A year later he sold a few thousand at $1 each. Northerners had no use for it, but Edmund soon opened an office in London to manage the blooming European demand. Today the McIlhenny Company cranks out 720,000 2-ounce bottles per day using peppers descended from that same original patch, into the same style cork-topped bottles, sporting the same label. Tabasco is included in soldiers’ rations and is one of only a few American companies certified as a supplier to the Queen of England.

Friday, November 4, 2016

We’re Getting Somewhere

At seven years old I learned the Earth spins along on its axis at 1,040 miles per hour.

So of course I wondered: if I jump high enough, would I come down in a different spot? Obviously I should, because the Earth is moving under my feet, and if I step off of it, the two of us would move independently. Just like a merry-go-round, right? You step off and look back and see it still spinning without you. You don’t go spinning along with it all around the park.

A thousand miles per hour was hard for me to imagine because I didn’t have any reference point for such numbers. But it equals 1,525 feet per second, and I could understand that. That’s about five football fields. In a second. If I jumped up for one whole second (it’s harder than you think—try it) I should come down somewhere in the next neighborhood.

But of course not. I had jumped plenty of times before, without even thinking, and didn’t go crashing through the hedges bounding my front yard. So the effect must be more subtle. If it’s moving and I’m moving, then we’d both move together a bit before separating, like jumping off the roof of a moving car.

So to begin my experiment, I started small. Why take chances?

I drew a chalk line on the sidewalk. I aligned the toes of my red Keds up to it. I gave a little hop.


A bigger hop. Then a full jump. Then a give-it-all-you-got heave-ho.

I actually came down behind the line. Maybe I was facing the wrong way? After a few more trials, I could see the results were random. While I hardly ever came down exactly on the line, my in-fronts and behinds were about even. I was crushed. Why didn’t it work?

I’ve learned since by both observation and inference that it’s just as well. In sixth grade I would see how high I could throw a baseball, and it’s good I didn’t break a window in the next town. It took until high school for me to grasp the why of it all—the relative motion, the physics. I’m still a little disappointed. I still have a lot of questions.

For example, in 2012 when Felix Baumgartner rode a balloon up 128,097 feet—that’s over 24 miles high—and then stepped out. He was in a free-fall for four and a half minutes. You can’t even imagine four and a half minutes, because if you try, you’ll get bored and go do something else before you get to four and a half minutes. That’s how high he went. That’s how far he fell. He rose up from Roswell, New Mexico, and do you know where he landed?


I think of that when I feel I’m not getting anywhere. While things in my little sphere of awareness may not be changing much, I’m moving right along nonetheless. Just think:
  • Because it spins and we’re on it, we’re riding along on the face of the Earth at 1,040 miles per hour.
  • But! The Earth is moving too: it zips around the Sun at 67,000 miles per hour.
  • Meanwhile the Sun, dragging Earth along, is ripping through the Milky Way at a cop-taunting 515,000 miles per hour.
  • Thanks to a push from the Big Bang, the Milky Way disk itself is skipping across waves of space space at 1.3 million miles per hour.
And behold we humans, tagging along all the while, riding shotgun, hair blowing in the wind.

It’s impressive progress, without even lifting a foot. Lucky for me, I stay with it even when I jump up off the Earth’s surface. If it didn’t work like that, and I jumped up from my house in Omaha for about one second, I’d come down near Denver, and leave one hell of a skid mark.

We’re moving right along. We’re definitely getting somewhere. And we’re all gonna be fine.

Yikes! I forgot continental drift! It’s an additional inch per year — about as fast as fingernails grow. Not much, maybe, but it adds up.

Friday, September 2, 2016

In the Raw

On a recent trip to Hawaii’s Big Island, I was introduced to the traditional bowl of raw ahi stirred up with soy sauce and sesame seeds, called poke. Although it looked like an exposed brain, I fell instantly in love with its decadent healthiness. Bonus: Having just finished Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, I also enjoyed quoting from it: “Can I have a little poke?”

I know. Po-KAY.  [ sigh ]

We also prepared raw ono marinated in lime, coconut milk and pineapple—basically a fish daiquiri. And kalua pig. (Also not a cocktail).We cooked all this at home. By home I mean the sterile AirBnB house which had clearly never been anyone’s actual home, and by cooked I mean we put it in a bowl and stirred it.

Our home kitchen was very spartan, which is fine in Hawaii because:
  1. cooking heats up the house, 
  2. few houses have air conditioning, and, 
  3. why cook when you can eat daquiris at the beach? 
Besides the occasional brewpub burger and deep-fried bits of things, I didn’t encounter much cook-type cooking. Most of the food we saw was simple, fresh and cold. While the French linger over lunches, picking at course after course, Hawaiians dive into their poi and laulau and kalua pig, git-er-done-style, and move on—much like my father ate, a man who in no other way resembled a Hawaiian.

Hawaii offers lots of fresh fish because:
  1. it’s far better than frozen fish, 
  2. it’s right there, and 
  3. Hawaii is 2,500 miles from the nearest Costco. 
In 1794, British Captain George Vancouver gifted a dozen cows to Hawaiian King Kamehameha. The king was so impressed that he placed a kapu (taboo) on the cows, which forbade anyone from touching them. The kapu was lifted fifty years later because:
  1. there were now over 35,000 cows, 
  2. they were killing people and tromping hundreds of plants into extinction, and, 
  3. cows taste good. 
I had a couple of locally-grown, grass-fed hamburgers that were out of this world, putting my Midwestern meat snobbery to shame. The restauranteurs were not posey locavores. It’s just that in Hawaii, everything is locally grown. Even the Big Island, at its widest, is only 90 miles across, marked by an 8-mile-long feature named the Great Crack, which I include here because even geography can be funny.

Anything that can’t be grown must be shipped in a can across the Pacific, which is why crap food is so much more expensive in Hawaii than fresh.

Lest you miss your Costco cuisine, most every restaurant offers stadium cheese, which is the Hawaiian term for that plasticky orange food-like product we sometimes refer to as nacho cheese, that globs out of a pump at the movie theater. Besides the dreamy fresh fish, bananas and pineapple, Hawaii offers pretty much any canned food that can survive on a literal slow boat from China.

Back in Omaha I was offered a culinary class in which one names a pig, butchers it, then takes its pieces home to store in the freezer. It’s all well and good to know where your food comes from, and I suppose naming your pig is the least you can do when you’re going to eat off of it for a year. That’s longer than many of my other so-called serious relationships. Hawaiians don’t give their fish names because really it’s just a one meal fling and then it’s over.

It is a 1,500-mile journey from my home in Nebraska to the Pacific Coast, then 2,500 miles more to Hawaii. That’s how far my wife traveled to enjoy her first taste of Spam, a Hawaiian favorite food, after she snapped up a can prominently displayed in a Kona grocery store. That’s also how far the can of Spam traveled. It was made in Nebraska.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Special Delivery

I had been married once before. It was a long time ago. We got pregnant 18 months later. I don’t goof around.

The hospital where we were scheduled to deliver insisted we take a childbirth class. There were four sessions, one per week. We joined six other couples of the usual variety: some who want you to think they know everything, some who ask relentless questions and don’t listen to answers, and some, like us, who sit silently, saucer-eyed, minds spinning as if they had just been informed their father was David Crosby.

The first class was about feeding and bottles and how to hold a newborn so his head doesn’t fall off. I wondered how babies survived before they invented school. I don’t remember what the second class was about because the Q&A couple wouldn’t shut up long enough for the teacher to get a theme going.

At the top of the third class the teacher announced, “We’re going to watch a film—” Mrs. Q&A started to ask whether it would be presented in video or Super-8, but the teacher pressed on: “—all about Cesearean sections.” That shut Q&A up, her hollow mouth still open.

I froze too. They’re going to train me to go in after the baby? I envisioned myself like Little Jack Horner, only instead of sticking in my thumb, it would be my whole hand. Instead of a pie, it would be a lasagne. Instead of a plum, I would pull out my daughter.

In those days, once you had a C-section you had to deliver that way forevermore. I wondered why they bothered to stitch women back up, only to open them again later. Why not install a zipper? Or a little door? Women like Octo-Mom could harvest babies like eggs from a hen. You could decorate the door with a crafty little wreath, maybe tattoo some daisies around the entrance. You already have a little shrubbery.

They don’t because women wouldn’t leave the door shut. Every woman I know wants me to understand what she’s really like on the inside. If she could just show me, she would.

All these thoughts raced through my head in one second, before the dizzying swirl popped like a soap bubble as the movie started. I learned that once a C-section begins, the father has no job whatsoever. He doesn’t get to say, “Breeeaaathe,” because a machine took over that job. He doesn’t even get to coach, “Push, honey,” because to push at that point is like squeezing a pumpkin seed.

There’s no need to tell you more about the movie. You pretty much know what happens next, if you saw Aliens. I don’t know why they made us watch it except to make regular childbirth, the equivalent of passing a football out your butt, look fun in comparison.

Contractions started three weeks early. I thought they might be false, so we waited a little while. They weren’t. We rushed to the hospital where we were issued matching gowns and a room. Then we waited.

At one point the attending nurse mumbled that she wasn’t hearing the heartbeat very well through the strapped-on monitor, so she picked up a hand-held version and poked around for a better spot. Listenening carefully, she stiffened, froze for a moment, then rushed out of the room without a word.

We exchanged worried glances. The attendant returned with the head nurse in tow, who put on headphones and listened for herself. She looked at the attendant in confirmation, then they both whisked away, avoiding eye contact with us. Please not now, I thought. Please not us.

We hadn’t had much money back then, and no insurance. We had skimped through a lot of the pre-natal testing: no amniosentesis, no ultrasounds, etc., paying as we went for what we could afford and only what seemed crucial. Suddenly that plan felt short-sighted.

Long, quiet minutes passed before the attendant and head nurse returned with the doctor. He listened briefly, then announced flatly, “Congratulations. You’re having twins.” Voila. He left the room.

They didn't cover this in the class.

My body tipped back into the wall. My wife let out an uncomfortable, high-pitched giggle. I wasn’t unhappy with the news, I just didn’t know what to do next. I hadn’t pictured any of this.

Events came fast after that. Baby Kate burst into this world with a wide-eyed gasp, as one emerges from a deep dive. The doctor passed her over his shoulder to Team One, which whisked her away to a cold, stainless-steel scale upon which she was weighed and wiped clean of the wax and debris.

Although Kate had cleared the way head-first, Molly followed tentively, her right hand outstretched to feel the way. She got stuck, her arm bent over her head. The doctor had to push her back in and rearrange her, causing New Mom to let out a wild-eyed yell fit for a Pittsburgh Steeler. Molly gave it another go and flopped out with comparative ease. She was hustled off to a second steely scale, a heat lamp trained right above her face, and she was abandoned while the staff returned to Kate.

I had been sold on the idea of participating in the delivery, and imagined myself in full hospital uniform standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the doctor, crouched with my catcher’s mitt at the ready. The reality was that I was given a small, taped-off square in which to stand, with firm instructions to stay there. I looked at Molly, alone and squinting under the harsh hot light. Nuts to this, I thought. I’m breaking out. Quiet and unseen, I tiptoed the few steps to Molly and shaded her face with my giant adult hand. Her eyes opened wide and she looked at me as if to say, “Thanks Mister—whoever you are.”

I didn’t know how wide and clear and soulful a baby’s eyes are at birth. It’s only after they squirt in an antibiotic that the eyes swell shut for a week, like a visit from Joe Frazier. I enjoyed a brief moment bathing Kate before they doctored her eyes shut too. So much magical gazing time is lost. If I knew then what I know now, I’d have looked deeper, longer. My eyes would have said, “We’re gonna be fine,” even though I didn’t know.

There was nothing else for me to do. Labor had been long and I had been awake and terrified for nearly a day. I headed out to buy another crib. I was grateful for a task I could comprehend, but it seemed like woefully inadequate preparation for what was coming.

In the elevator I encountered our baby delivery class teacher. Shell-shocked and exhausted, I could barely form sentences. I tried to apologize because, since we had just delivered twins, we wouldn’t be attending her final class covering normal childbirth.

“How big were they?” she asked.

“Fifteen and sixteen pounds.”

She fainted, right there in the elevator.

What are you fainting for? I thought. You’re the one who presents horror films for a living, and I’m the one who just touched two blood-soaked fetuses for the first time.

No, wait, I remember now—the babies were five and six pounds. I didn’t  know at the time whether that was good or not. They probably covered that in the final class.