Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Passion of the Crust

“Bread is dead,” the headline screamed. The shock of it caused me to cough violently, launching a chunk of partially-chewed Pepperidge Farm Honey Wheat on a short and tragic flight to the floor below.

The demise of bread was a crummy prospect indeed. Take away bread and, in my view, you risk the collapse of civilization itself. Remove bread from the equation and you usher in an irreversible breakdown of the very fiber of existence. And for what? The chance to lose 15 pounds in six weeks so you can gain 30 six months later? People of Planet Earth, I implore you. Is this how you want it all to end – not with a bun, but a whimper?

My life had been a journey driven and nurtured by bread, a quest enriched by bread as a daily symbol of sustenance and stability. Bread, in all its glorious varieties added to me, defined me, made me more than I would otherwise be. I lived for bread, and my life is a testimony to bread’s splendor.

Feeding Young Minds. Studies have shown that empty stomachs lead to poor concentration and a harder time learning in school. What studies have not confirmed, but what my personal experience proves without a doubt, is that getting the nutrition kids need to learn, grow and succeed every day in school is greatly enhanced by eating a seedless Kaiser roll with breakfast. I’m absolutely certain of this due to the dramatic improvement in my grades from the time my father started bringing seedless Kaisers home with the paper in the morning. Before the Kaisers, I was flunking math and scrapping by in geography. After the Kaisers, my math grades soared to solid “B’s,” and my grasp of geography impressed my teacher enough to write on my report card “Alan thinks globally, acts locally, and smells of cream cheese.”

The Battle for the Biscuit.  For as far back as I can remember, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday. No cards, no gifts, just say “grace” and begin the gluttony. While my mother would awake at some absurdly early hour to prepare a feast that would make a pilgrim weep with gratitude, my two brothers and I were interested in only one thing. The biscuits. When loading our plates with food, we each left ample room for the flaky golden delicacies, begrudgingly adhering to the one-at-a-time rule my parents had established after the “Biscuit Blitzkrieg of ’81.” On that infamous Thanksgiving Day, 90 percent of the biscuits landed in two of the five mouths at the table, and the battle for the last biscuit was fierce and vindictive. I can still hear my mother say, “there, now neither of you gets it,” as she extracted it from the combined clutches of my brother Bob and I and devoured it in two lusty, unladylike bites.

A Loaf of Bread, A Jug of Wine. When I got married, my relationship with bread achieved even greater significance, as the preparation of meals took on a new prominence in my life. Conversations like the following became a daily ritual.

Me: “Any thoughts on dinner tonight?”
My Wife: “How about grilled cheese?”
Me: “What kind of bread should we use?”
My Wife: “The Publix Sour Dough Plus Five grills up good.”
Me: “True. But their Country Rye is a larger loaf size and holds the melted cheese in place better.”
My Wife: “What about the sauerkraut rye we used to get?
Me: “That was at Winn-Dixie, and they stopped making it. I’ve been boycotting them ever since, which explains their recent downsizing.”
My Wife: “Then just pick out what looks good to you and surprise me.

This, of course, was music to my ears, as visions of a steaming loaf of Basil Parmesan Sun-Dried Tomato Foccacia stirred my expectations for a night of hot buttered bliss.  

Call me a fanatic, but for those who claim that bread’s final expiration date is here, I strongly disagree. Bread is not dead. Bread will rise again. Bread is reborn! Crust is King! Long live bread!

Now are you going to back away from that last biscuit or are we going to have a problem here?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dinner With The Babe

I'd serve a lot of hot dogs,
buns and beans and beer.
There's never too much food around
when Mr. Ruth is here.

He'd come fresh from the ballpark,
in unifrom and cleats.
We'd talk about his batting stance,
and broads and booze and eats.

I'd say, "You're such a hero,"
he'd say, "I'm just a man."
And as he'd shovel down the beans
I'd fetch another can.

He'd throw back a mighty mouthful,
then a hefty swig of brew.
He would hold his fork just like a bat
and take a swing or two.

"What's it like to be a legend?"
I would ask and watch him smile -
"Oh it's the next best thing to sex
to hit a ball a country mile."

Now I've dined with rich and famous,
and I've broken bread with kings.
Had sloppy joes with Elvis,
and grits and onion rings.

But if you want my real opinion,
just call me Honest Abe.
For hearty chow and chatter,
I'll take dinner with The Babe.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Lost Years

If you see my face on a missing person flyer any time soon, don’t be alarmed.  It’s not that I’ve been kidnapped. It’s just my lousy sense of direction leading me away from wherever I’m suppose to be.

At this point in my life, I’d venture to guess that my frequent navigational goofs have added up to a total of five solid years spent completely and hopelessly lost. And that’s just while driving. If you factor in false steps on foot, you’re up to seven years or 70,000 miles, whichever comes first.

The two years squandered getting lost on foot I can live with. After all, the average adult spends two years of their life just waiting for the guy ahead of them at the post office to pick between the American flag stamps or the Legends of Boogie-Woogie stamps.

It’s the five years lost in my car that makes me melancholy. After countless misguided journeys left me older but no wiser, I decided to keep a travel journal to chronicle trips of various durations, monitor driving patterns and – hopefully – learn from my mistakes.

Submitted for your amazement and pity are a couple of excerpts from that journal.

Orlando, August 2008. While driving from our hotel to a nearby attraction called Church Street Station, my wife and I become lost. What makes this unremarkable event remarkable is that once off the highway we actually see Church Street Station. In fact, we see it several times at close range as we drive from block to block. The problem is that a series of one-way streets keeps us from making the turns we want to make and soon Church Street Station disappears into the night.

Just when it appears things can't get worse, the lighted, paved road we are on turns into an unlighted, dirt road and dead-ends abruptly at a metal gate by some rundown warehouses on the outskirts of the city. My wife, who has been uncommonly quiet for the last few minutes of our descent into oblivion, turns and says: “Is this the part where we stumble onto a drug deal going down and are shot gangland style and left to die?” She’s such a kidder.

New Jersey, October 2011. While back in my home state for a cousin’s wedding, I decide to show my wife some of my old stomping grounds. Things so pretty well at first as I successfully find my way back to my first apartment, the office I worked at right out of college, and the state park were I use to hike. But heading back to the hotel it all unravels. It seems that some of my “old stomping grounds” were stomped on by other people in the years since I left. Their overzealous and gratuitous stomping resulted in new roads, new scenery, and more opportunities for me to get spectacularly, irreversibly lost.

Soon, we find ourselves in a gritty, bars-on-the-windows kind of town with the gas gauge almost on empty, darkness falling fast, and the sound of broken glass crunching under our tires as we stop for a red light. My wife, who has been uncommonly quiet for the last few minutes of our plunge into purgatory, turns and says: “Is this the part where we run out of gas, are taken hostage at knifepoint by a sociopath named “Skunk” and are featured in a story on Dateline intitled “Last Exit to Horror Cabin.” I’m telling you, she’s such a joker.

So what have I learned about my horribly deformed sense of direction from my travel journal experiment?

I’ve learned that when I come to an intersection and confidently go left, I should have gone so far to the right it would make a conservative republican proud. I’ve learned that when I decisively go straight ahead, I should have turned 20 miles back while there were still useful landmarks like buildings and living people. And I’ve learned that I can continue to count on being an accidental tourist paying tolls on roads I shouldn’t have been on and asking directions at gas stations so far removed from where I’m going that the name of my destination is “a new one” on the locals.          

Just last night, coming home from work, I got detoured into an unfamiliar neighborhood and lost my bearings. As I circled the same streets for the third time, I could almost hear my wife say “Is this the part where we decide to buy a home here and start life fresh instead of trying to find our way back out to the main road?”

My wife. She sure makes a lot of sense sometimes.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Christmas Eve In West Milford

It always snowed on Christmas Eve when I was growing up. Or at least that’s the way I remember it. Snow falling down. Relatives falling down. Snow letting up. Relatives getting up. Me, standing at the picture window, a little too entertained by the ice capades in the driveway as my aunts and uncles arrived and made the delicate journey to the front door.

Some did better than others. My Uncle Allan, an athlete in his younger years, glided gracefully from car to house, steadying my Aunt Jean with his free hand. Uncle Sam, an avid golfer, had trouble with his short game in the poorly lit driveway, often taking up a big divot where his rump rammed into the ice. Par for the course for him, I’m afraid.

They came from the suburbs and cities, my relatives, making the trek to the mountaintop home my dad called the Ponderosa and where my parents hosted Christmas Eve dinner each year. We lived in a rural New Jersey town called West Milford, about 40 miles northwest of New York City. To many in the family, it was a place to enjoy the fresh air and wide open spaces of the country. Or, on Christmas Eve, to squeeze into our cramped 1,000 square foot ranch house and hope that the deviled eggs my mother prepared wouldn’t trigger a man-made greenhouse effect of lethal gases.   

As tradition had it, the kids were allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. It was your tough luck if that turned out to be socks or pajamas. Before you took a moment to sulk, you were expected to hold up the socks or pajamas, wave them excitedly in the air, and yell across the room, “Wow, thanks, grandma – they’re just what I wanted!”

The adults would exchange gifts, too, often relaying a colorful story to underscore the specialness of their selection.

“I stopped at six stores to find that snow globe,” someone would announce heroically. “They don’t make that one anymore.” Maybe that’s for a good reason, I would think.

Sometimes a hot new toy would grab the spotlight, like the year my brothers Bob and Jim got some Matchbox cars and a ten foot long strip of plastic racetrack. Again and again, they would perch their miniature cars at the top of the elevated plastic track and watch them scurry along on their predictable journey to the end of the coffee table. Though they are grown men now and would deny it vehemently, in the heat of their Matchbox mania they could be heard to yell things like “Wicked!” and “Wow – Cool!” and even “In your face, herk-a-merk!” (I have no memory of the origins of the term “herk-a-merk” but knowing the banter of brothers I have no doubt that it was meant to be hurtful.)

My Aunt Sue would often bring a date to the festivities. A Stan. Or a Glen. Or a Byron. There would be the inevitable whispered comparisons to the previous year’s date, with comments like “Glen’s no Stan,” or “When did she break up with Byron?” or (cruelly) “What a total herk-a-merk.”

Surveying the proceedings from the sidelines were the revered elders of the tribe, Grandpa Herman from my mother’s side, and Grandma Bessie from my father’s side.

Grandpa Herman would sit silently for long stretches of time, sipping his Pabst Blue Ribbon and smiling softly at the commotion going on around him. Lulled by his Zen-like stillness, at some point in the evening I would slide into the next seat, greeting him with a casual, “How you doing, Grandpa?” In response, he would grab my knee in a vise-like grip, his eyes gleaming wickedly as he squeezed until all feeling left my leg and I lost consciousness.

“You’re his favorite, you know,” my mother would say later, after they revived me and packed my leg in ice.

“I know,” I’d say. “It’s when he stops crushing my knee caps that I’ll worry.”

Grandma Bessie was also content to watch from the periphery of things, a piece of pie or a slab of cake at her disposal. I’d slide into the seat next to her, hungry for her wisdom and inquisitive nature.

“Do you think your parents would mind if I took my girdle off?” she would ask me, shifting uneasily on her creaking folding chair.

“You mean right here?” I blurted.

“No, no. I meant in the bathroom.”

“I don’t think they’d care,” I ventured. “But there’s a line for the bathroom and the estimated waiting time is 35 minutes.”

“What if I do it behind the pile of coats in the bedroom?”

“Go for it,” I urged supportively. “I’ll save your seat.”

Actually, as I look back with nostalgia at those Christmas Eves of my boyhood, in my mind I’m still saving a seat for everyone. For Grandma Bessie and Grandpa Herman. For Aunt Sue. For Uncle Allan and Aunt Jean. For Uncle Bobby and Aunt Gail. For Aunt Shirley and Uncle Sam. For Aunt Janet. For Cousins Allan and Dawn. For Cousins Jenn and Diane. For my brothers, Bob and Jim. And most of all, for my parents, Al and Marge, who made the West Milford Christmas Eves a holiday tradition that will warm my heart and burn bright in my memory for as long as I live.

And some day, when my turn comes again to open just one Christmas Eve present, I will hold my socks or pajamas high, wave them gleefully in the air, and yell with joy and gratitude...

“Wow, thanks everyone – it’s just what I wanted!”

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Throwback: Battle For The Biscuit

For as far back as I can remember, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday. No cards, no gifts, just say “grace” and begin the gluttony.

While my mother would awake at some absurdly early hour to prepare a feast that would make a pilgrim weep with gratitude, my two brothers and I were interested in only one thing. The biscuits.

When loading our plates with food, we each left ample room for the flaky golden delicacies, begrudgingly adhering to the one-at-a-time rule my parents had established after the “Biscuit Blitzkrieg of ’81.” On that infamous Thanksgiving Day, 90 percent of the biscuits landed in two of the five mouths at the table, and the battle for the last biscuit was fierce and vindictive.

I can still hear my mother say, “There, now neither of you gets it,” as she extracted it from the combined clutches of my brother Bob and I and devoured it in two lusty, unladylike bites.

Today, I still covet the biscuits at Thanksgiving dinner. Especially the last one. In fact, I’ve been known to fight for it. So, to my tablemates present and future, the question I must ask you is this:
“Are you going to step away from the bread basket,
or are we going to have a problem here?”
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. And just to show that there’s no hard feelings, please help yourself to my share of the candied yams.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Off The Top Of My Head

It’s time to clean out my mental closet and clear away a bottleneck of notions, reflections and ramblings.

  • To the inventor of the sandwich, British statesman John Montagu, I say: Thank you Earl of Sandwich for following your impulse to stick your beloved meat between two slices of bread. You changed lunch. You changed the world. 

  • At my high school reunion, a perky blonde girl was now a chunky bald man. The years can be cruel.

  • We now have one of those single-cup coffee systems at the office that brews over 250 different beverages. Early Favorites: Lady Gag Gag Latte and Gas Station Goo.
  • Wisdom From The Word Guy: Watch your tone: While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, if you keep repeating everything someone just said using a high-pitched, cartoonish voice, your flattery may get you punched in the face.

  • Tried to watch some of the World Series last October but found myself lured away by ANYTHING ON ANY OTHER CHANNEL.

  • When I was 17 I was attacked by a wolf. I can still see his snarling face and smell the stench of wild rabbit on his breath. I cried "Wolf! Wolf!" but no one came because of my reputation for joking around. It was a lesson learned the hard way.

  • I had that dream again where I'm living in a Winnebago outside of Forest City, Iowa with a small battery-powered TV and a collection of cologne bottles.

  • How's everyone doing ... good? How 'bout this weather we've been having? Did you lose some weight? Any plans for the weekend? (Just sharing my gift for small talk. I'm here all week. Thanks for coming.)

  • Part II of my series, "Living With Ambiguity," may or may not air tonight on PBS, ABC or some other network with letters in it.

  • When the library security guard informed me I couldn't eat in there, I said "Even tunafish?" The question made no sense of course, but in some strange way it gave me the momentary dignity of being the victim of an unjust system.

  • The Beatles. They had that one hit - Norwegian Wood - and that was it. So sad these one-song-and-gone bands.

  • You know your exploration of wine has reached an advanced stage when you find yourself in a store holding a bottle with a familiar label and thinking "I know I’ve had this one before, but did I love it or hate it?"

  • Someone grumbled that they do their best proofreading after they hit send.  That sure hits homme with me.

  • Photo Faux Pas: When someone’s taking a picture and you’re on the far end of a group shot, ignore the fear that you’ll be cut out of the photo and refrain from doing an exaggerated lean-in. If you get partially cut out, the photographer will be the one at fault. If you lean in too far and ruin the photo, you’ll forever be the bozo who blocked out Aunt Adeline on her 100th birthday. So relax, smile, and don’t block out Aunt Adeline.
  • Actual catalog ad I read about a manual typewriter: "Devoid of technological crutches such as spell-check and deletion, The Wordsmith Manual Typewriter encourages the patient, considered sentiment of a wordsmith who thinks before writing." Perfect. Now I can slow things down and clickety-clack my way to a thoughtful 75 words of stunning insight. If the whiteout holds up I should be done by next month.

  • My rejected name for the royal baby: Prince Ethan Alan William "Wally" Worchestershire. (I still think it was the right choice.)

  • Apology to Joe Blow: While talking about possibly buying a new car, I said this to my wife - "I don't want to pay what Joe Blow pays." That was unfair. You didn't deserve that, Joe Blow, and I regret making the remark. Please accept my sincere apology. And by the way, if you don't mind me asking, what did you pay for your new Camaro?

  • I feel blessed to live at a time in human history when multigrain baguettes are readily available and a man need not feel self-conscious to say the words "multigrain baguettes."

  • You ever notice that when you need about 20 seconds to accomplish some small task in your car you never hit a red light, but when you have absolutely nothing to do in your car you hit every red light and they all seem to last about 5 minutes?

  • My new line of rainwear is out. "AlWilly WetRobe" is a fashion-forward two-ply polypropylene poncho that keeps your clothes dry and your style slick. Available at Big Lots and finer Space For Lease stores.

  • Gotcha, For Dummies book series! The title of your latest edition, Bankruptcy For Dummies, makes the usual attempt at ridicule, but the joke's on you. The fact that I know nothing about bankruptcy is because I'm financially stable, which makes me pretty smart. Who's a dummy now, For Dummies dimwits? In your face!

  • While reading an article about the U.S. Ice Fishing Federation I ran across the phrase "fish officials." Maybe it's because I'm a word guy, but the inadvertent wackiness of that phrase gave me a cheap thrill I'll savor for days. (No disrespect to fish officials intended.)

  • I strained my back yesterday running slowly over a mildly sloping speed bump. On the bright side, my tailpipe was not damaged in the incident.

  • Wisdom From The Word Guy: Using a foreign accent when you're visiting a country where you don't speak the language will not aid your communications efforts. You may even get thrown in jail for being a public nuisance where you'll wait approximately four months to speak to an attorney. Happy travels!


Monday, October 28, 2013

Kings Of Vegas

Let me set the scene for you. As a race car driver determined to win the Vegas Grand Prix, I need some quick cash to buy a new high-powered engine for my car. But it’s my heart that’s racing when I meet a woman who distracts me from my mission -- curvaceous swimming instructor Ann Margret. It’s a razzle-dazzle Vegas funfest of sexy showgirls, roaring race cars, and risk-it-all adventure when I take you along for a wild ride I like to call “Viva Las Vegas: Debauchery in the Desert.”

Now that I’ve got you onboard, allow me to announce a few minor changes to our story that will in no way detract from the high-voltage excitement and glittering Vegas glamour that you crave. Instead of a race car driver hell-bent on winning the Vegas Grand Prix, I’m a middle-aged ad writer with acid reflux and an enlarged prostate. I accept my brother’s invitation to join him and six of his buddies in splitting two hotel rooms and a couple of rental cars eight ways so we can do a long weekend in Vegas for roughly the amount of money one would spend for an afternoon of bowling. Oh, and if that scenario isn’t tantalizing enough, my brother can’t walk much because he’s recovering from double foot surgery and one of our roommates is a guy named “Fudd.”

Ready for an adrenalin rush of electrifying Vegas action? Then say goodbye to the dull and dreary, strap yourself in, and let’s hit the highlights.

Barbarians at the Buffet. There are two things that everyone does in Las Vegas – gamble and eat. Some will try and get the most food for the least amount of money to conserve funds for gambling. Others will spare no expense enjoying lavish meals at swank restaurants because they view it as part of an overall vacation experience to be savored and remembered. The first group is commonly known as “men.” The second group let’s categorize as “women.” Since this trip was men only, the dining strategy was simple: belly up to a buffet once a day, load up on starchy, high-carb chow, and then periodically toss down a pizza slice or hot dog to maintain that feeling of bloated grogginess.

Frolicking with Slots. As an unsophisticated gambler of modest means, I invest 100 percent of my dinero at the slot machines. This means I get to lose just as much money as the table players and the high rollers without all the social stimulation and entertainment. My big win came at a machine called “Top Dollar” that landed me in a bonus spin for $250. My big loss came at an Elvis machine where I was mesmerized by video clips of The King singing “Heartbreak Hotel” while pumping in $140 that found a new place to dwell. My standard facial expression in both situations was a trance-like stupor that I learned from my fellow slot addicts. The machines are programmed to sense emotion, so experienced players never show vulnerability.  Pretend you’ve slipped into a coma and you just might lull an older Wheel of Fortune machine into coughing up a halfway decent jackpot.   

“Funny Man” George Wallace. While other hotels foolishly squandered small fortunes to secure the likes of Bette Midler, Penn and Teller, Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil, our adopted dorm, the Flamingo Hotel, slyly recruited alleged comedian George Wallace.   Prominently placed posters throughout the casino proclaimed Wallace’s act as “The Best 10 P.M. Show in Vegas.” Now, I’m no connoisseur of live shows at Las Vegas casinos that start promptly at 10 p.m., but based on the clips of Wallace’s performance shown on our in-room hotel promo channel, the other entertainment options at the hour must have been a trash talking parrot act and “The Hand Shadow Magic of Dobbs Honda and His Portable Partitions.” Here’s a taste of Wallace’s wit and wisdom: “I saw a guy with a bumper sticker that said ‘How’s my driving?’ Am I supposed to follow this idiot around and watch him drive?” My response: “Yes, and when you come back, bring some funny stuff.”

Hanging With the J-Man. My brother Jim is the perfect tour guide for cruising the Las Vegas casino scene. Unlike our travel companions Fudd, Bucky, Screech, Zippy, Weasel and Mr.Eko, he doesn’t let day-long golf outings lure him away from the Vegas Strip and its opportunities for personal enrichment. As an accomplished black jack player, Jim gave me a crash course on the intricacies of the game.

Jim: Ace is 1 or 11.

Me: Uh huh.

Jim: The dealer must hit on all hands 16 and below.

Me: Uh huh.

Jim: Dealer must stand on all hands 17 and above.

Me: Uh huh.

Jim: You don't always need 21 to win, often you're playing for the dealer to bust.

Me: Uh huh.

Jim: Always assume the next card dealt will be a 10.

Me: Uh huh.

Jim: Money is made when you split or double.

Me: Uh huh.

Jim: Any questions?

Me: You up for playing the slots?

Perhaps the single most memorable moment of the trip came on a breezy, easygoing night out on the Strip after an exhausting day canvassing the far corners of cavernous casinos hoping to score free drinks from waitresses trained to avoid us like the plague. Jim and I paused in front of the breathtaking fountains of the Bellagio Hotel. The dancing waters soared. The lights twinkled and blazed. And somewhere in the mist, the ghostly, otherworldly voice of Celine Dion sang out the haunting words to The Titanic theme song “My Heart Must Go On.” With the warmth and spontaneity only two brothers could share, Jim reached over, gently touched my hand and, gazing into my eyes, said, “You owe me $15 for gas, slot boy.”

“Put it on my tab, James,” I mumbled in a drowsy Elvis drawl. “I’m meeting Ann Margret for a mojito and then I’ve got a Grand Prix to win.”