Friday, October 26, 2012

In The Real World

I stood in the dark, wet alley behind the movie theater. It was a small-town theater, and the alley, lined with saggy cobblestones, was barely wide enough for the garbage truck to get through. I stood alone, waiting for the actors to come out.

At eight years old, I wasn't old enough to figure out how they projected actors onto the big screen. I figured they put a big, bright lamp behind them, and the light shined hard enough on the silky screen that the audience could see their enlarged images, much as my shadow from the streetlight was longer than I was.

Before the movie had started, a pleasant man in a bow tie had walked out from behind the curtain onto the stage. He mentioned a few upcoming attractions, encouraged us all to buy popcorn during the intermission, and then, after expressing his sincere hope that we would enjoy the film, he slipped behind the curtain into the dark, secret world backstage. I watched for him but he never appeared in the movie. He must have just sat back there, out of the way, his job done.

The back door opened, startling me. A man walked out with two dripping garbage bags filled with wet popcorn and sticky paper cups. I tried to steal a glimpse through the door before it closed, hoping for a peek at the movie set, the characters lounging around smoking with their feet up. Maybe they'd see me, wave me in. But it was dark inside. I couldn't see anything, and the door shut.

I walked slowly the three blocks home. I do my best thinking when I walk. I sat down cross-legged beside our black-and-white TV, it's skinny legs touching mine. I stared at its cross-section. There was clearly not enough room for anyone to be inside. I didn't know how they pulled it off, but that's when I realized I had waited in the alley for nothing. For no one.

The TV that sat in a place of honor in our crowded living room was a big liar.

I had my suspicions, but TV was filled with such trustworthy characters: Andy Griffith, Captain Kangaroo, Family Affair's Uncle Bill and the nice father of Chip, Robbie and Ernie on My Three Sons, who seemed to be the dad to half the families on The Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night. I guess that should have been another clue.

"Move back from the TV – you'll ruin your eyes, " my mom warned. But every day I sat within touching distance of the bulging green glass, pixels big as my finger, and she didn't bother to repeat herself.

Each afternoon included a half-hour Bingo show. Mom would set me up with a few Bingo cards and a jar of dried beans. I listened dutifully to the voice on the TV as he read, "I…12. G…26." I don't think I liked playing Bingo as much as I was compelled to organize beans perfectly centered in each square. I was satisfied to create order. If I completed a row, I knew to say bingo! but at that time of day I was alone in the living room, and the TV game continued as if I hadn't said anything.

I had a crush on Miss Linda, the pretty teacher on Romper Room, who cared for a tiny class of children I hadn't seen in town. She looked like Carol Burnett with black hair, her big toothy smile filled with kindness. At the end of each show she raised her Magic Mirror and looked deeply into it. After a few disorienting moments of swirling special effects, she could see right through the mirror, right through the TV and out into the world. "I see Bobby," she said. "I see Jane, and there's Debbie, and Tim."

I waited, staring, unblinking.

"…Rachel, and Kent, Eric and Susie…"

I shyly waved hello.

"…Abdul, LaTravia, Pedro, Ingrid…"

She went through every conceivable name, looking right at me, right through me, with that insipid smile even as she ignored me.

"It's Mickey!" I called. "I'm RIGHT HERE."

The show ended. I turned off the set, watching the image implode into a tiny star that dimmed until it vanished altogether. I sat more alone than before.

Not long after, and with great effort, I starting going by my given name, Michael. My parents tried to be respectful of my wishes. To this day my siblings still call me Mickey.

I've learned that every fifth person shares my name. When I hear someone call "Mike!" my chemistry jumps a little but I don't turn around. They're usually calling for some other Mike, and I hate to be embarrassed by my anticipation.

Maybe when Miss Linda said "…and I see Billy," Billy wasn't sure she meant him Billy. But he could imagine it. He could continue to feel assured that Miss Linda was real, and with her acknowledgment, that he was too.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Blow Me Away

The first time I witnessed a real breakthrough in the culinary arts was when a fistful of Pop Rocks exploded in my mouth. Not as in, "exploding with flavor!" As in, blew up.

"Taste the Explosion!" the packaging exclaimed. I knew what an explosion tasted like. A firecracker once went off in my mouth. Perhaps I'll tell that story in July.

Because I did not learn a thing from that episode, I opened my mouth and tossed in a handful of the jewel-red Pop Rocks. Like every other kid trying Pop Rocks for the first time, I screamed and spit out the crackling carnage, choking at the sight of my foaming, blood-red spit. Then like every other kid I exclaimed, "Cool!"

Cereal makers lead the creative food charge for kids, turning honeycombs, s'mores and doughnuts into  corn-based, primary-colored breakfast that goes down like a spoonful of sugar. But finding more ways to eat sugar isn’t exactly a breakthrough. 

For grown-ups, behold the booze asmooch… the amused douche… [pause while I look it up]… the amuse-bouche, a one-bite treat brought to your table by the chef in frillier restaurants. This delicacy is his calling card, meant to sum up his entire culinary philosophy in a single wad of raw salmon or blob of mint foam. The amuse-bouche is technically not an appetizer because it comes before the appetizers and you didn't order it. It's more a thing to admire than a thing to eat. But you eat it anyway. The last one I had tasted like Thanksgiving dinner and dessert at the same time. If anyone is watching, you roll your eyes around thoughtfully as you ponder its slimy, slippery texture. How bold! Bravo! If nobody's watching you, you slide it off your tongue into your napkin.

The urge for creativity has invaded coffee, starting with cheap powdered styrofoam that looks quite like you actually paid $5 for a cappuccino. No more plain powdered non-diary creamer. [Another pause: if it's not dairy and not liquid, why do we still call it cream?] Now you can enjoy additives like Coffee-mate Belgian Chocolate Toffee, Parisian Almond Crème (you know it's really French because it has the accent), or Crème Brûlée (three accents! And no, I'm not making these up). How about Tiramisu Cheesecake? (Okay, I made that one up. Pretty good, huh? Hire me, Coffee-mate!) These powdered miracles are for people who don’t like coffee but drink it anyway.

The real food breakthroughs of the last decade are in food packaging. To make a no-drip ketchup bottle, Heinz developed a tiny sphincter spout that doesn’t leak at all until you squeeze the bottle hard enough until it blows like a zit across your hot dog, over the table and up the mink coat of the woman at the next booth, which is what she deserves if she’s wearing a mink coat in a place that serves ketchup. (If that seems like an odd example, know that it actually happened to me.) Heinz needs to solve the squeeze bottle's tendency to sound like a fart, which inevitably happens within earshot of 8-year-old boys who giggle and repeat that sound for the rest of the day until you send them to bed early.
Frito-Lay has perfected an exploding potato chip bag, which opens everywhere except along the top seam labeled "Open here."

Nature's Harvest reduces waste by putting only 3 ounces of granola in their 16-ounce box, cradled in a little biodegradable plastic bag surrounded by a box of, I presume, fresh, 100% organic country air.
The age-old wax-and-cardboard milk carton now has a plastic spout on top. Convenient! Just 1) unscrew the lid, then 2) dig out the “freshness seal” underneath by pulling the attached ring which 3) breaks off, then 4) dig out the damn thing by stabbing it with a butter knife. This innovation takes three times longer and drips twice as much as the original fold-open spout, which is still part of the carton.

Food trend-setters: if you are short of inspiration, here are three suggestions:
1. create cling wrap that does
2. biscotti-flavored coffee cups
3. make tomatoes out of tomato

Meanwhile, I could go for some more exploding food.

Reprinted from Food & Spirits Magazine, Fall 2012