Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Trending Markets

Here in the heartland of agriculture, we’ve cultured something that grows great on four acres of parking lot: the farmers market.

A farmers market isn’t much of a market and there aren’t any farmers. Mostly it’s rows of big white tents anchored with sandbags in case farm weather shows up. With tie-dyed scarves and homemade herbal ointments, most farmers markets look like the merch tables at a Phish concert.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The “farmers” are mostly handsome, fresh-looking kids in their twenties, decked in linen and trendy sunglasses. All have clean fingernails. None is wearing Key overalls. They’re bright and charming and I like them. I just don’t believe them.

I don’t believe them because they sell tomatoes in April. They sell corn-on-the-cob in May. They sell goat cheese even though nobody around here has seen a goat outside of a petting zoo.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In fact,
I like these people better. The real farmers I know are too busy for a farmers market. They’re busy steering million-dollar, GPS-self-driving combines that harvest a 45-foot swath of genetically perfect corn to be delivered direct and fresh to an ethanol factory. They’re busy maintaining the machines that deliver a ton of hormonally enriched by-products from the other end of the ethanol plant to feed a thousand chickens who would be blinded by the bright daylight reflecting off the pearl-white skin of a farmers market vendor.

On a real farm, you browse pigs. I prefer browsing the small-batch cheeses, hand-crafted in a small town in Iowa, which is fairly near a farm. Each is lovingly hand-wrapped by a person who recently quit her executive vice president position at First Data.

I love avoiding the local wines. I love the smell of steaming funnel cakes, which look a lot like steaming farm-fresh cow pies.

I love the street music. (Well, c’mon—it’s not farm music.) Banjos and accordions and straw hats and zydeco, perfect music if your farmers are from Louisiana. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the prodigious three-year-old drummer kid they trot out occasionally. He’s a great drummer for a three-year-old, not so interesting otherwise, beyond being freakish. Not to mention his sad back-story: only somebody spiteful buys a three-year-old kid drums.

Customers are good about wearing the farmers market uniform: huge hats and sunglasses and tank tops and tented baby carriages and PBA-free water bottles. Once my wife had to walk the six blocks back to our car because she forgot and wore her bra.

And dogs. Why is it charming to bring along your boxer to endure an hour on a hot summer sidewalk, drooling on the flip-flop feet of every sympathetic bystander?

I go from booth to booth, figuring one vendor must be a better farmer than the others, with fatter onions, greener kale, and a better drawl. I get stressed when I can’t tell any difference. I eventually go to whomever is closest to the exit, then buy a pound of kale and radishes, promising myself I’ll eat healthy this week. When I get home I make room in the fridge by throwing away last week’s kale and radishes.

The one thing definitely local about our farmers market is that customers approach each booth politely, admiring the kiwi and leeks and whatever else doesn’t grow well in Nebraska, turning it over, asking a lot of questions (“What can you make with this?”), involving you in a long discussion about the organic, bio-ethnic, pro-biotic yogurt they prefer, while their kid wipes a booger on your lettuce. Then they set it all back down and move politely to the next booth without buying anything.

Now that’s Omaha-local. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Reprinted from Food & Spirits Magazine, Issue 20

Friday, May 1, 2015

Party Time

“OOOOH, mints mints mints-mints-mints!” squealed the 40-ish lady in the frilly lavender dress. “I just love these wedding mints! I can’t stop eating them!”
That was the truth. She devoured all the sugary green mints which had been carefully placed as party favors in front of her chair. Then she moved on to another chair and ate those mints too, continuing from seat to seat like a locust until her sweater was dusted in sparkles and she quivered from joy and insulin overload.

“You can buy those at the grocery store,” I said. “Three dollars for a whole box of them.”

“Oh, I know,” she said with a flip of her hand. “But these mints are just for weddings. You’re not supposed to eat them by yourself.”

She had a point. They’re not called “TV Mints,” or “Green Sugar Frosted Mints.” They’re “Wedding Mints.”

Mints are members of a weird food group we only eat at parties. These sugary, cream-cheesy mints—white, green and bloody red—are often wrapped in gauzy twill and given away at Christmas to friends who quickly pass the frilly package on to someone else, repeating the process until the mints have gathered too much travel lint to look edible. But of course we don’t want to eat them. We hate weddings.

In contrast, we secretly, way down in our little hidden hearts, squee with glee when we encounter those little cocktail weenies floating in a watery bath of diluted barbecue sauce, lukewarm in a candlelit chafing dish. Again, you’re free to cook these at home. You could fill a cereal bowl full of them and park yourself in front of Game of Thrones for a night of ecstasy, but you don’t. Mini weenies are only for parties, inevitably offered from in front of a gaunt young caterer’s assistant who’s wearing a white button shirt with black vest and matching dyed hair and can’t stop herself from saying, “I don’t eat those. I’m vegan.”

Same with those rolled up cream cheese tacos—pinwheels, I think they’re called, even though they’re so heavy Hurricane Andrew couldn’t spin one. We sidle up to the party table, casually chatting while we eat one after another until we’ve consumed a brick’s worth of cream cheese while saying, “Oh, no, I’m not hungry. I’ll just pick.”

Where else but at a wedding do you eat mixed nuts with a spoon?

Where else but at a party do you see M&Ms in popcorn? Or cheeseburgers so wee you could tuck one into your shirt pocket, which is where the mustard will end up anyway?

Do you make punch at home? Of course you don’t, because you care about what you drink. But for a party you’ll mix cheap Popov vodka with two cans of plain label fruit juice and a two-liter bottle of Sprite and get fifteen people drunk for $8. There’s just something festive about ladling pink mystery booze into a Solo cup.

What’s fun about little ham salad sandwiches cut in white bread circles? Because that’s exactly how we wanted to eat those when we were six years old. “Mom, would you please cut the crust off my baloney and cheese sandwich?”

“No. The crust is the best part. It’s good for you. Eat it.” But get married and your mom will prepare a whole tray of hand-carved, crustless little white bread sandwiches just to mock your new bride. We see those at a party and the child inside us leaps like John the Baptist.

On the host side, parties are a perfect opportunity to go all out with your cooking experimentation. Our New Year’s Eve menu last year started with six bricks of butter, a pound of pastry dough, various foofy cheeses, and cured meats made from only the finest ears and lips. If the calories don’t kill you, a toothpick stuck in the throat will.

We don’t eat like that every day because we don’t want to die. But apparently we don’t care whether your new year starts with a heart attack on January 1. The fact is, we look skinnier if you look fatter. Have another cream-puff?

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Year of Eating Dangerously

Before we buttered our first roll, before the glasses were filled, before we had a chance to say grace, my mother set down the platter of turkey and announced: “Everybody—save the neck for Dad.”

There was a pause as our eyes connected. It was the only time the six of us kids had ever been in complete agreement. Mom might as well have instructed us to save him the eyeball.

Recently I read a story about vultures and the disgusting things they eat, things that would poison a human. When vultures pick over a dead carcass, they skip the neck.

Normally, it was fun to watch Dad eat, because he always had a tiny bit of corn stuck on his chin—even if we weren’t having corn. But the thought of him baring his false teeth, tugging away at some gristly rope to tear off a stretchy morsel of purple meat like Tom Hanks eating the little baby ear of corn in Big? No thanks.

To be fair, I’ve never tasted turkey neck. I’ve never even seen one. Store-bought turkeys don’t come with necks anymore.
A few random organs come neatly gift-wrapped and nestled inside the bird—probably not from that bird originally, but people do feel they’re owed some organs to throw away. But there has been no outcry at the absence of a neck.

Turkey itself is probably on its last legs, so to speak. I heard a lot last year, “I just don’t like turkey.” It had never occurred to me that liking turkey was an option at Thanksgiving.

A lot of cooks wouldn’t care if we skipped the turkey. Thanksgiving is the only time most of us handle a dead body bigger than a three-year-old.

Party food stopped making sense about the time pioneers stopped wearing buckles on their hats. Stuffing, for example, requires stale bread, which we don’t have anymore. Bread no longer goes stale because it is no longer made out of food. I bought a loaf of raisin bread last March, and by October it was still good. Even mold won’t eat it.

To make stale bread, you have to drive around in your car hanging it out the window. Or be a real American: go buy stale bread at the store. You can buy a can of stale bread crumbs for only three times the cost of fresh bread.

Valentine’s Day has the best food. Any menu is fine, really, as long as it includes chocolate. The problem is that the Valentine’s Day dinner isn’t followed by a football game on TV. After steak and seafood in a rich butter sauce with a bottle of wine, finished with chocolate mousse and a nice port, you are expected to be romantic.

The opposite of good holiday food is St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick’s Day food is the reason the Irish ran away from Ireland.

On Mardi Gras I do oyster shots, which are raw oysters dunked in cocktail sauce and vodka. With enough cocktail sauce and vodka, I could eat boogers—which is about the same as oysters.

I respect Passover, the only holiday where food is supposed to be miserable.

On Cinco de Mayo we celebrate the Mexican victory over France in the Battle of Puebla by eating food from Texas.

Hot dogs on the 4th of July taste good mostly because we bury them in cheese, sauerkraut, relish and mustard. You could probably leave out the dog and not miss it. Made of ground ears and lips and looking like wet toilet paper dyed zombie pink, we know it’s not really food, but it’s better than a bun full of neck.

Hot dogs would be gray, except we dye them with cochineal, which is made from crushed beetles boiled in ammonia. But still, that’s better than gray meat.

In my family, Chex Mix is served at every holiday. Chex Mix is mostly butter, Worcestershire sauce and seasoned salt. Seasoned salt is salt salted with salt. A salt lick has less salt than seasoned salt. Seasoned salt has more salt than salt.

Tastes evolve as we age. I used to beg Mom for Wonder bread. Now I despise it. I used to gag over sauerkraut. Now my mouth waters at the thought of it. As I grow more and more to look like my father, I fear that someday, some Thanksgiving, I’m going to blurt out, “Hey—don't touch that neck!”

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Funeral Procession

Part I

I was barely sixteen when I attended my first funeral. It was in honor of my good friend Jimmy, whom I had known for about three weeks. My parents encouraged me to go, but didn't offer to accompany me. So I drove the seven quiet miles to Gibbon, Nebraska alone.

 I didn't know what to expect. I was apprehensive, in a fog. I hadn't yet learned how to cry in public.

I don't remember who first introduced me to Jimmy, but we hit it off immediately. He was a drummer, and his country band needed a new guitar player. I fancied myself to be a rock guitarist, but Jimmy swore the band was really fun, and they were booked solid for a year. My current rock band had played one gig, with nothing more in sight.

It went to audition for his band, played them a song or two, and they hired me on the spot. "Come here on Saturday and I'll drive you to the gig," said Don, the leader. Don was half black, half Mexican, with a strong limp from childhood polio forty years before. He was a natural frontman, graceful and smooth. Like Joe Cocker, it was hard to take your eyes off him.

"When do we rehearse?" I asked.

"It's country, son," Don said with a kind smile. "Just listen and play along. You'll be fine."

Jimmy gave me a grin that said, See what I mean? How cool is that!

By that weekend, Jimmy was in a coma. While driving his 5-year-old sister to school, he was broadsided by a bread truck at a gravel road crossing so remote they didn't bother with stop signs.

His mother sensed it. She rose from her desk job, walked silently out of work and drove directly to the spot of the crash. She was the first to arrive.

Ten days later Jimmy was dead, and I was cobbling together appropriate clothes for his funeral. The first thing I saw when I entered the hall was Jimmy, lying in his open casket. I froze in place. I had no idea people did such things. It was awful to stare, but I couldn't look away.

I inched closer, and it wasn't Jimmy, not really. I'm sure the mortician did his best, but Jimmy had been crushed, and the reconstruction was imperfect. Jimmy's head was now longer, narrower, more square. He was wearing his new class ring, and it dangled like a pendulum on his bony finger.

I don't remember much else. Words were said, they closed the lid, and drove Jimmy away.

And that was that.

Don eventually married Jimmy's mom and adopted his little sister. Last time I saw her, she squealed as she wedged herself four feet up inside a doorway, proud as a chimp, her grin tugged at by faint pink lines where her awful wounds had once been. I like to think she's a raving beauty now.

I stayed with the band of strangers for a couple of years, repeating classics like Lonesome 77203, The Key's in the Mailbox, and Crystal Chandelier. I never told my rock-and-roll friends I was booked every weekend. My friends never saw the band photo, with the four of us wearing matching brushed denim leisure suits, each of us leaning one hand on a photography studio fence, me half the age of the others. The new drummer was 35, but I tried to befriend him. I moved away to college, eventually losing touch.

So that was that.

• • • • •

Part II

I was lucky enough to go four years before my next funeral. I had a front row seat. I was a pall-bearer for a man I never met.

How do you live 98 years and get carried out by a stranger? I didn't dwell on it; I answered yes when my father-in-law asked. He was not close to his father, whom we were burying, and probably didn't have an answer to that himself.

The funeral was held at St. Cecilia's Cathedral, among the largest, most breathtaking churches in the country. Raised Methodist, then accepted and rejected by the Baptists, I was unfamiliar with Catholic rituals. They save a special set for funerals. I nearly bolted from my pew when I looked over my shoulder to spy three robed boys advancing down the aisle holding spears. As the priest flicked holy water on the gleaming honey maple casket, I had to nail my feet to the floor to stop from wiping it off. My brain screamed, You'll ruin the finish!

The priest nodded to the pall-bearers. I was in front, port side, so I couldn't watch the others for clues what to do. We lifted the old man slowly, and an attendant slipped the gurney from underneath. I was surprised how light the casket felt, as if no one was inside.

The massive Cathedral sits atop a grand procession of steep marble steps, and as we passed through its giant iron doors and descended, I lifted the front slightly to keep the casket level. My starboard partner lifted in kind, but the two men in back instinctively lifted as well, and the casket lurched downhill.

Before we had a chance to respond, I felt the wiry deceased slide with a quick shish across the silk lining down toward the bow of his ship, his head konking against the wall with a hollow thump, like a ripe melon. We buckled under the sudden weight shift, lifting hard to right the ship.

As we reached the bottom and aligned him for reception into the yawning hearse, I concentrated only on not stumbling under the weight. Furtive looks danced among the bearers, but not a word was said. The car door was shut with a quiet, final chunk, and off the old man went, leaving me to imagine his freshly pressed suit rumpled, his elbows up around his ears, his head tucked sideways for eternity.

At the cemetery I stood beside another pall-bearer, my brother-in-law, whose grandfather was now suspended by steel cables over a freshly dug hole. "So you felt him…" I whispered.


"You gonna say anything?"

"I dunno…"

We waited, hands crossed in front of us, dark glasses hiding our eyes as we scanned the scene. The other pall-bearers must have known too, but we didn't dare to look at each other. And what would be done? Stop the ceremony, pry open the casket, grab gramps by the ankles and yank him straight, tugging his suit back down from around his chest, his pants from around his knees?

Finally the grandson whispered, "Who's gonna know?"

And then, time decided it for us. The casket descended, water was sprinkled, prayers were mumbled, roses were tossed, dirt was flung.

And that was that.