Monday, October 1, 2018

Cereal Killers

As a kid I was always up at dawn. Every day was an adventure and I was eager to get started. I’d teeter downstairs and join my dad, who was inevitably sitting in his boxers, leaning on his elbows, updating his to-do lists in his back-slant lefty handwriting.

Mom delivered three flavors of breakfast cereal on a silver platter, along with milk, juice, and sugar. Grape Nuts, for her. Cinnamon Life, for me. Shredded Wheat, for nobody I knew. Nothing for Dad — he had cigarettes for breakfast.

I was allowed to add one spoonful of sugar to my cereal. I loaded the spoon as full as possible, wincing at every grain that slid off, and gently poured the whole load into a single little mountain atop my cereal. I added milk gently, then started breakfast by eating the sugar mound in one bite.

All our cereals were tan. Mom didn’t want us getting any ideas about colorful food. Of course she didn’t take me grocery shopping — had I seen the long aisle of neon-colored cereals with their come-hither names, I would have vapor-locked.

When Life cereal released its first “Mikey” commercial, I was mesmerized. We shared a name and a cereal — that meant we were probably related, and his brothers looked a lot nicer than mine. It was exciting. So I was caught off-guard when a schoolmate sneered at me, “Hey Mikey! He eats everything!” Another did the same. Then dozens. At each offense I would try to correct them: “Uh, that’s not how the commercial goes—” but by then they’d be laughing down the hall, satisfied that they'd used my head as a stepping stone to pop culture fame. Forty years later I still hear the taunt, still incorrect.

Occasionally I would ask Mom to get one of the other cereals I saw on TV: Count Chocula, Quisp, or my favorite, Cap’n Crunch*, made from corn, oats, and glass shards. She’d react as if I has asked for a car. Too expensive. We don’t do that. Not good for you. Once she relented and bought a box of Lucky Charms. My siblings immediately dug their grubby hands deep into the box, plucking out the pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, and green clovers, leaving me only the colorless oatey remains, about as exciting as Alpha-Bits.

Years later, my daughter asked for a box of Froot Loops. I explained just as my mom would have: such cereals were made of cardboard, the colors were artificial, they had no nutritional value, and their manufacturer can’t spell. I plucked a box of Life cereal off the shelf for me, and gave her permission to choose something of equal nutritional value. She held a box of Loops next to mine and compared labels. I learned from a seven-year-old that Froot Loops has fewer calories, less sugar, and more vitamins than Life cereal. Cracklin’ Oat Bran, my other healthy favorite, had the same fat as four slices of bacon—with sugar on top.

The 1950s were the Golden Age of Sugar, and most cereals bragged about it: Sugar Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops, Sugar Smacks. They all still exist and with the same heart-racing content, but they’ve all been renamed to protect themselves: Frosted Flakes, Corn Pops, Honey Smacks. The one which started it all in 1948, Sugar Crisps, now goes by Golden Crisps. Cowards.

After the Great Granola Scare of the 1960s, marketers gave up on pretending to be healthy and began blatantly naming cereals after candy. Oreo O’s. Reese’s Puffs. Hershey’s Cookies & Creme. “Cream” had to be re-spelled since there was no real cream in it, but they had no problem using “cookies.”

Except for Cinnamon Toast Crunch, no notable cereals have been introduced in the last forty years. The current fad is retro-sentimental: cereal “bars” are popping up, where you can choose from all the favorite cereals of your childhood, then mix-and-match them to create “recipes.” It’s as close as some people come to cooking.

Almost every cereal commercial ended with “Part of a nutritious breakfast!” It was part of mine. It just wasn’t the nutritious part.
* In 2013 the Wall Street Journal reported that the three stripes on Cap’n Crunch’s uniform signify he was a commander, not a captain.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Hot Stuff

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

In the early 1800s Mary was happily swept away by the handsome Edmund McIlhenny, a promising young banker who promised her a life of excitement in racy New Orleans. In the 1860s things in New Orleans got exciting indeed, when the city was invaded by Union soldiers. Buildings were burned, businesses failed—as Donald Trump might say, it was a disaster. Except this time it was the truth.

Times were hard, so 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 the hill 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 particular love for Texas, but they were happy to be 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 left alone was a tiny plot of brutally hot Capsicum peppers Edmund had 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 up mostly of Northerners who liked their food bland and pale. The hot peppers were untouched.

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 fiery sauce 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 a huge European demand.

Today the McIlhenny Company cranks out 720,000 2-ounce bottles per day, using peppers descended from that same original patch, poured into the same style cork-topped bottles, sporting the same label. Tabasco is included in soldier rations and is one of only a few American companies certified as a supplier to the Queen of England.

Originally published in Food & Spirits Magazine, January 2017

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Slow Cook

Millions rushed out to buy an Instant Pot, this year’s hot kitchen gadget. Many were disappointed to discover the Instant Pot didn’t deliver that kind of pot. It didn’t even deliver instant. But it is a pot.

You can bake a potato in 10 minutes! That is, if you don’t include the 20 minutes it takes the Instant Pot to heat up, and another 20 to depressurize, which means anything you cook takes at least 50 minutes. That is glacial compared to McDonald’s, where they mine your Facebook data to predict what you’re going to order, then throw it into your car window before you’ve come to a full stop. McDonald’s knows instant.

Baking a potato in my oven, which was the hot kitchen gadget of 1920, only takes 40 minutes.

They don’t call it by it’s actual name, the Pressure Cooker, because that fad came and went sometime around 1940. They also could have called it a Crock Pot, because calling it instant is a crock. But the bowl is thin metal, not thick ceramic, and besides, everybody already has a crock pot they don’t use.

They call it instant because it reduces cooking time from crock pot speeds of 8 hours down to pressure cooker speeds of 2 hours. This means if you get home at 5 p.m., you can prepare your dinner and have it on the table by 8 p.m. Boom! That’s better than a crock pot, where you’d eat at midnight, so there’s that. Lunch hour fast, it is not.

But, you say, you can prep your dinner in the morning, and it’ll be ready by — no wait, being ready by 11 a.m. doesn’t help. If you want it to cook gently all day long while you’re at work, you need to set your Instant Pot to crock.

Too late? You already bought one? Don’t despair: the Instant Pot also has an timer you can set for up to 12 hours, so you can program it to go off when your crock pot is done.

The Instant Pot is called a small appliance, which it is if by small you mean smaller than a suitcase but bigger than the toaster oven you had to move to make room for it. (The Instant Pot does not make toast.) It is too big to leave on your counter, unless you’re rich and have a huge kitchen, and in that case it’ll look great sitting next to your electric can opener, lettuce spinner, George Foreman Grill, and your three crock pots.

The Instant Pot claims it is “Seven Gadgets in One!” Including:

  1. A slow cooker: we can all agree the Instant Pot is slow.
  2. A pressure cooker: true, but it doesn’t replace your old pressure cooker because you’ve never owned one nor had any inkling why you might.
  3. A rice cooker: which makes rice in only five times the time it takes your rice cooker to do it.
  4. A steamer: a crock pot is a steamer too, if you have eight hours to kill.
  5. A yogurt maker: you never made yogurt. With an Instant Pot, you still won’t.
  6. A “sauté pan/oven”: First, why are sauté pan and oven paired up like they’re interchangeable? Do any of you bake cookies in your sauté pan, or brown onions in your oven? If you buy an Instant Pot, you’re not likely to throw away your pans or your oven.
  7. A warming pot: Bingo. But only because we never use a pot to cool anything.
By these measures you can also use your Instant Pot as a hat box, a beach pail, or a sink. It’s an Infinity-in-One appliance!

To use the Instant Pot, you throw all your ingredients into it, lock it up tight, and leave. If this is your idea of cooking, what you really need is a restaurant. You won’t be stirring while drinking wine. You won’t flirt in the kitchen while sharing a tiny taste and adding a little spice as you go. Your house won’t fill with the smell of sautéed garlic and onions.

Yet you still have to clean it. What nobody mentions is that while it cooks faster than a crock pot, an Instant Pot takes 10 times longer to clean. For all the gadgets it replaces, it does not replace your scrubby sponge.

If you’re still disappointed about the whole pot thing, I found a recipe for cannibutter that only takes 2 hours. Not instant, but hey.

From Food & Spirits Magazine, May 2018

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Thief

As Number Five of six kids, I didn't get a lot of new stuff. I felt like a superhero when Mom put new blue patches on my worn purple jeans, like the Six Million Dollar Man with his arm re-attached.

So it was a big deal when Dad took me to pick out a new bicycle. My scooter, my tricycle, probably even my baby carriage had all been hand-me-downs. This bike was going to be mine.

I fell for a honey-golden Sting-Ray. It had a pleated banana seat and a two-speed axle. A "racing slick" back tire, just like the drag-racers on TV. We brought it home, and I was somebody.

Like most kids, my bike and I became one. I lived in a small town with big streets, and was free to explore wherever I wanted. Probably my oldest brother had a lot of restrictions on where he went and what he did, but by the time Number Five came along, nobody even noticed I was gone as long as I showed up in time for dinner.

I cruised home, popped a four-inch wheelie, and dismounted, leaving it right up by the front steps of our big porch, among the various skateboards and ball gloves. I may have gotten scolded for blocking the steps, but never for parking in the front yard. It was our house. Our planet.

But someone couldn't resist, and rode off with my new bike. I had never even heard of a bike lock back then. Stealing just wasn't done. I had been carefree and happy. Now my stomach was an anvil.

It was never spoken, but in general I often felt like a burden. I could see my mom working hard to make ends meet, to keep everything clean, everyone fed. We didn't waste food, and that all made it pretty clear to me we didn't have money to burn.

I had just burned a bunch. Brand new golden bike, gone.

Dad was spitting mad. Nothing was worse for me than disappointing him. But how was I supposed to know? Kids aren't born expecting evil, looking over their shoulders, hoarding their belongings, tying everything to a chain. Kids play.

So the thief didn't just steal my bike. He stole my easy joy, trod on the effortless ease between the boy and his dad. Who does that to a kid?

He probably didn't even want the bike. Just saw it, couldn't resist, rode it for six blocks and dumped it. Someone else found it and thought it was a gift from Heaven. Finders keepers, guilt-free. No idea that fifty years later, some old guy would still get a stone in his gut thinking about it.

Years later my own daughter's bike was stolen, taken right out of our garage. Wasn't her fault, but I still shook my fist at the sky. The anonymity of theft leaves you suspecting anyone. Did that kid walking by on the sidewalk look at me nervously because he thinks I might know he stole the bike? Or is he looking at me that way because I'm glaring at him, just in case, to see whether he takes off running, proving his guilt? All of a sudden I see all the neighbor kids as them, not us. That's the scar a thief causes.

I got her another bike. No way to avoid that feeling of burden, a cloud looming over what should have been a joyous purchase.

Just weeks later she found me in the kitchen, and she stopped at a bit of a distance. Her face was red and her eyes bulged with the tears she was trying so hard to hold in. She tried to talk calmly but the words clogged in her throat. "Dad, did you move my bike?"

She knew. She had parked right up to the front porch, blocking the steps, ducking in to get a quick drink on a sweaty day. That fast, it was gone.

Who breaks a little girl's heart like that? Who makes her feel afraid of her father, filling with shame and guilt, when just minutes ago she was sailing through the breeze without a care, like a child should?

I sometimes wonder why this event sticks with me so hard after all these years. Maybe she has forgotten about it by now, buying bicycles for her own daughter. But the lump in my heart as I write this is big as an apple, heavy as a stone. Perhaps it's because all I wanted was for my girls to be happy, and someone stole her easy joy as simply as swiping a newspaper off the porch. He broke the world, and it can't be glued back together without a big crack showing. I knew that too well.

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.