Category Archives: cooking

Fall In!

One time I was interviewed on TV. My husband and I were at the Arboretum, chilling and talking to another nature-lover. A disgusted-looking reporter approached us and said that he was doing a segment on the first day of fall. (No doubt that was why he looked disgusted.) He asked us about our thoughts regarding fall. The nature-lover gave the standard answer about the color of fall leaves.

Dan and I were not so predictable. He said fall made him sad because he couldn’t plant flowers anymore. I said that I always thought of September as the first month of school and that I had mixed feelings because I was no longer in education. The reporter looked even more disgusted, packed up, and went away. When we watched the news, we discovered that we were the only people he interviewed.

(The next day I told my boss that I had been on TV. “The bank robbery?” he said. He had a dry sense of humor, which I loved. But I digress.)

I actually do have mixed feelings about fall, in addition to the education thing. The fall colors are beautiful, though they’re really only impressive when weather conditions during the summer are perfect. And this year, they were far from perfect.

Then there’s Halloween. I’ve written before about how much I dislike it (https://butidigress.blog/2019/10/27/halloween-bah-humbug/). For those of you who want the Reader’s Digest Condensed version, I hate handing out candy. There’s the lack of trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood, the amount of leftover candy we have as a consequence, and the door-darting cat. There are also the Halloween episodes of nearly every TV show, although they’re not as annoying as the Christmas episodes of every show. There’s no Halloween music except for “Monster Mash,” which gets played ad nauseum. This year, I plan to hide in the bedroom at the back of the house with the lights off (including the porch light) and read by the light of my e-reader.

One thing I do love about the fall is pumpkin and specifically pumpkin pie spice. I’m not one of those who hates on pumpkin pie spice lattes and similar inventions. I seldom drink coffee, so I’m not usually around those. No, what I love are the actual spices – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. I love the smell of them. I love the taste of them. I love them so much that I’m often disappointed by the small amount of them that most people use in their pumpkin pie. We’ve tried to make our own. This year I’m even going to look up a recipe.

(I saw a recipe online for two-ingredient pumpkin muffins – spice cake mix and canned pumpkin. Of course, I’d have to bump up the spices. I always do when I make my own spice cake. But I digress again.)

Another thing I love about fall is the clothing. Sweaters. I have a large collection of sweaters, including those knee-length cardigans that are probably out of style now, not that I care. I also have a number of sweatshirts and cozy lap blankets. Flannel pajamas, too. I love wrapping up in them. It’s like a fabric hug.

I can’t say I love the Peanuts special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but I usually watch it just for the line about never discussing politics, religion, or the Great Pumpkin. I do, however, love the pumpkins Calvin carves in the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. And the Wallace and Grommit animated movie Curse of the Were-Rabbit. And Young Frankenstein. I can even take it when Dan binge-watches The Addams Family.

Of course, when it comes to things I really like about autumn, I recently saw a sweatshirt that says, “My favorite season is the fall of the patriarchy.” I may just have to get that.

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Oatmobile, Not Oldsmobile!

A friend of mine, while being driven home after a colonoscopy, remarked, “When I get home, I know what I want to have – a bowl of oatmobile. No, oatmobile. Damn it, you know what I mean – oatmobile.” (They were driving a Toyota, not an Oldsmobile. But I digress.) All of us had a good laugh about it then and for many years to come. My husband and I still say “oatmobile.”

The reason I bring this up is that I, too, am on a diet of oatmobile. And yogurt. And Jell-O. And pudding. And chocolate milk. None of these are amusing or pronounced in humorous ways, unless you count what my husband and I sometimes call “beef brof,” which I am also having a lot of.

As you may guess, this is because I recently lost a number of teeth. No, not in a rowdy bar brawl (though that’s the entertaining story I will probably tell people). I had quite a number of teeth extracted. My teeth were never good, my parents having been unable to afford orthodontia, and over the years, they have steadily gotten worse.

I had IV sedation for the extraction, or I wouldn’t have been able to get near the dentist’s office. I have severe dental-phobia, another reason that my teeth needed this kind of attention. The only person with worse dental-phobia than mine is my sister, who once cleared an entire room of prospective patients by screaming loud and long before the dentist even gave her Novocaine.

So, the IV sedation. Before the process started, I checked to make sure they had backup oxygen available, and that I wasn’t in procedure room eight. (I’ve seen Coma one too many times.) I was extra-nervous, too, as I hadn’t been allowed to take my Ativan the night before or the day of, in case it interfered with the sedation.

They did give me nitrous oxide, which has no effect on me. Once I was at the dentist and the hygienist said, “Bubble gum or cotton candy?” I gave her the “You’re from Mars and have two heads” look. Then I learned that scented nitrous oxide existed (or perhaps scented nose cones). Ordinarily, they offered these options to children. Perhaps I was acting childishly. I chose “toothpaste,” which was at least minty.

Then they had to choose a vein for the sedation. My veins are notorious for rolling around when trying to be stabbed. I probably would be too. It turned out the IV infiltrated and I went home with a large purple lump in my elbow. It’s not entirely gone yet.

Because of COVID restrictions, Dan wasn’t able to come into the treatment room with me, which he usually does, being my Emotional Support Animal. In fact, he wasn’t even allowed to come into the building. For two hours, he sat outside in the car, reading and napping, until finally the hygienist brought out wobbly me and gave him several sheets of directions on aftercare. The rest of the day is a blur. A painful, drooling blur.

Tonight he has promised me a dinner fit for an invalid – turkey, sweet potatoes, carrots, and ice cream – all baby food except the ice cream. He does realize that the baby food will need some doctoring, such as salt, pepper, cinnamon, maybe garlic, and perhaps other herbs and spices, to be palatable.

I swear, when this is over, I’m going to Red Robin and order their biggest, juiciest burger and their bottomless fries.

I’ll pass on my usual milkshake, though.

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We Were Girl Scouts Once … and Young

Yes, I know. The main thing that most people associate with Girl Scouts is cookies. And those are certainly one important part of the Girl Scout experience. But they’re far from the only thing, or even the most important.

Officially, cookie sales promote goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics. All the money raised stays with local councils and troops. Nowadays, Girl Scouts no longer sell door-to-door as we did back in the day. Instead, Scouts do phone and online selling, or set up tables in front of stores and in parking lots, often waving signs to attract buyers.

I was a Girl Scout from Brownies through Seniors. And yes, I sold cookies. (Many scouts had their fathers and mothers take the sign-up sheets into work, where coworkers often ordered their goodies. My father wouldn’t do it because, he said, he worked for a government institution and it wouldn’t be proper. But I digress.)

Although the activities that cookie sales funded were many and varied, my favorite – even more than earning merit badges – was camping. I wrote about camping a few years ago. As I described it:

There we were, bedding down on sleeping bags in our tents, the cold, hard ground only a layer of canvas or plastic away. When we sprang out the next morning, our lithe teen forms dressed in green shorts and Vibram-soled boots, we hoisted our backpacks and hiked over hill and dale and rocky trails, singing optimistic songs and breathing deep of the fresh air. We ate granola as we walked.

Later that day, we built a fire and sat upon logs, tree stumps, or little water repellent squares while our dinner cooked slowly, smoke curled around our heads, and mosquitos had their meal before we had ours. Then it was more songs, jokes, stories, and talk till it was time to pour water on the fire, make sure the ashes were cool, and return to our sleeping bags, where, after hours more chat (not the electronic kind, either) we dozed off.

That was, indeed, one style of camping we did. We also went to official Girl Scout camping facilities instead of state parks. I have vivid memories of those adventures, some terrific and others less so.

There was one decidedly memorable state park trip. We set up our tents, which we shared, four scouts per. After dark, we settled in our tents to tell stories and jokes. The girls in my tent read aloud from the book The Hobbit, to the glow of flashlights, lanterns, and the occasional candle (one thing we had learned was how not to set one’s tent on fire and what to do if we did).

A sudden storm came up and turned violent, with rivers of rainwater flowing through our camp, and indeed through our tents, our candle threatening to sail away. As we read the book, we were at a passage describing a storm rife with heavy wind and rain. Every time the storm in the book became more severe, so did the storm in our camp. It was eerie. Eventually, we decided we should stop reading before we were completely washed away. The next morning we had to cope with damp sleeping bags and muddy ground. But that’s what we did. We were scouts.

Other memories were less dramatic and less pleasurable. There was the time we ate “brontoburgers,” hamburger patties wrapped in bacon and then in foil and cooked in the embers of a dying campfire. The next morning we learned a valuable lesson about the inadvisability of eating meat that was less than thoroughly cooked.

Official Girl Scout camps had large tents on raised wooden bases, so we didn’t have to worry about rainwater. We had camping names like Rover and Binky and ones based on the Lord of the Rings (Strider) or MASH (Trapper, Hawkeye), which were popular at the time. We learned songs (some of them from Free to Be (does anyone else remember that?), as well as traditional songs that must have been around since the invention of scouting (“Make new friends, but keep the old./One is silver and the other’s gold.”) The best times were when we became camp counselors, in charge of younger scouts for a month at a time.

Those were the days, never to return. But now some of my sister scouts are grandmothers and I buy my cookies from their offspring.

A Window, Biscuits, a Butter Churn, and a Mule

It was an ordinary farmhouse, located outside Beattyville, Kentucky. But there was a secret inside that we kids loved. The kitchen, of course, was the best room to be in. But getting there was even more fun. The kitchen was obviously an add-on to the house, and the entry points to it included not just a door but a window, leading from one of the bedrooms to the kitchen. Of course, we never used the door like the grownups did.

The house belonged to our Cousins Addie and Jim Mainous. They were old even when we used to visit them during the summers. But every day, Cousin Addie hand-made biscuits and sawmill gravy. (Sawmill gravy is different from redeye gravy. Sawmill gravy uses milk. Redeye gravy uses coffee. But I digress.) The kitchen was painted black, but there was lots of sunshine coming in the windows and the back door. It wasn’t at all gloomy. It was warm and cozy and smelled like the biscuits that were rolled out with a drinking glass and cut to size using the mouth of the same glass.

Addie was a thin woman with a big laugh, who almost never wore her dentures. All I remember ever seeing her wear were dark cotton dresses and white aprons. Cousin Jim always seemed to be sitting at the kitchen table, not talking but drinking coffee and eating biscuits and gravy. We kids used to make butter in the authentic churn, which would now be an expensive antique.

In the living room, we found old paper or cardboard fans that were printed with the names of churches and funeral homes. The beds we slept in were much taller than those we were used to, which made climbing into them a workout. Just beside the house was a kitchen garden, which was endlessly diverting. We pulled up carrots and potatoes (which were usually not full-grown yet).

A little ways from the house was a barn, and it was the site of many adventures. There was a hayloft that contained bales of straw (not hay), but we were too young and timid to jump from it, as kids always do in the movies. There was also a fascinating old iron machine that took the kernels off the cobs of dried corn. We loved using it, though it turned out later that the corn cobs were meant to be left whole. There was also a mule, which I once got to ride bareback. Here’s some advice: Never ride a mule bareback. Their spines are very bony.

Across the road from the farmhouse was a hill that led to an ancient family cemetery. It made a nice walk to swing on the gate across the path and trek up there. I don’t know for sure, but I like to think of Addie and Jim being buried there and not in some huge cemetery far from their home.

Just a ways down the road, there was a drive-in theater, which we could see from the screened-in back porch. It was fun to watch the movies, especially the cartoons, even with no sound. Another nearby attraction was Natural Bridge State Park. There was an impressive lodge that we never stayed in, but where we could buy that sugary white candy that seems mostly made of air and dissolves in your mouth. We took pictures of each other standing under the bridge, though I don’t have them anymore.

If Beattyville had a town center, we never saw it. Down the road from the farm was a small gas station owned by Ollie Dooley, a more distant relative, but you couldn’t really say it was in a populated area. The areas we got to see were in the hill country of Kentucky, which we called “the mountains,” though they were nothing like the mountains they have out west. These were sometimes steep, rolling mountains, grassy and rocky, full of minerals.

Fracking didn’t exist back then, and I am glad. I’m sure the old farmhouse and barn are gone now. They were old when we visited them, and they can’t have survived or been rebuilt. And no one today would want a house with a black kitchen that you could enter through a window from the bedroom.

Bacon, Eggs, and Salt

Once upon a time, bacon, eggs, and salt were thought to be bad for a person’s health. Now they’re all the rage in cooking. They come in all sizes and shapes and colors, and they go with everything from hash to steak to pizza.

Bacon, I think we all agree, is bad for us, but we love it anyway, and any way. And there are so many kinds of bacon to love, in addition to the regular kind that Mom used to make for breakfast. There is thick-cut bacon, slab bacon, turkey bacon, and varieties that sound like bacon but aren’t (Canadian bacon, which is really ham, and pork belly, which is bacon on steroids). Then there are the foreign kinds like pancetta and guanciale, which may not technically be bacon as they come from different parts of the pig, but serve much the same purpose in many recipes.

So, what do you do with your bacon? Make a sandwich of it (with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, please, on whole-wheat toast). Put it on a different sandwich such as a hamburger. Put it on pizza. Make it into jam. Candy it (or if you have Canadian bacon, pour maple syrup on it). Put it on a salad. Put it in an omelet. Drape an egg lovingly atop the crispy (not flabby, please) strips. Or go full Elvis and serve your bacon with peanut butter and bananas, on fried white bread.

There’s been some debate about eggs. For a long time, everyone ate as many as they wanted. Then suddenly they were bad for you. Then, no they weren’t. You didn’t have to avoid eggs anymore. What happened? Did the egg change? Did the human body change? No, apparently some dietary health commission somewhere changed.

Now the debate is how to use the egg, and the answer is as a sauce. No, not in a sauce, as the sauce. This is why you now see hamburgers and all manner of other sandwiches served with a fried egg – mostly sunny side up, but occasionally over easy – resting just under the top bun.

But, wait! (I hear you cry.) The minute you bite the sandwich, the egg will explode and run everywhere! Well, yes, that’s the idea. The egg yolk is the new ketchup or mayo for a burger. Voilà! It has become the sauce. Now you can use words like “unctuous” to describe it, if you want to be taken for a foodie.

Perfectly poached eggs (meaning runny) are used in this way too, or to top steaks, hash, stew, shakshuka, etc. Apparently, if they are sufficiently runny, they improve anything they touch. There is some debate on sunny-side-up eggs. Should they be served au naturel? Or cut out with little round cutters so that they fit more attractively on a biscuit (or whatever)? Personally, I don’t have an opinion, as long as the egg is cooked long enough that the white doesn’t look like snot. That’s ick, not unctuous.

“Farm-fresh” eggs are preferred if you want to get culinary. There are also quail eggs, if you want to get dainty, and emu eggs, which are dark teal and look like they’re going to hatch a dinosaur. “Scotch eggs” are soft-boiled eggs with sausage wrapped all around them and deep-fried. There’s some sort of trick to keeping the yolk unctuous and the sausage crisp, but I don’t know what it is.

And salt? I think we all know by now that salt intake is related to high blood pressure, which is a Bad Thing. But the problem with salt generally only comes up when you eat already-prepared foods like potato chips or cans of soup. Those are loaded with salt. Some ingredients, like cheese, also contain salt, but I think we can all agree that every food should come with too much cheese on it. If you avoid processed foods that contain salt, there is really no need to fear. No one adds enough salt to unprocessed food to be dangerous. Or at least we hope not.

There are, perhaps surprisingly, a number of different kinds of salt to experiment with. In addition to good ol’ table salt, there are salt substitutes (which taste metallic because guess what? There’s potassium in it); kosher salt, sea salt, finishing salt, flake salt, THC salt (in CA anyway), and even Himalayan pink salt. (I own a lamp made of a giant pink Himalayan salt nodule with a light inside. No, I don’t lick it. I will, however, lick salted caramel, enthusiastically. But I digress.)

If you watch as much foodie TV as I do, you quickly learn that when someone says, “Needs seasoning,” they mean, “Needs salt.” Seems everyone puts in enough pepper. And they never mean rosemary or chervil or cumin or garlic, which are also seasonings. No, they mean salt.

My husband used to be of the “Never put salt on anything” school of thought. Every night when he cooked dinner and asked how I liked it, I would invariably reply, “Needs salt.” He at last grudgingly admitted that some things, like mashed potatoes, really do need salt to taste the way they should. But usually, he uses Mrs. Dash as he tries to wean me off salt. It doesn’t always work. Some dishes just need seasoning.

Thanksgiving Memories

It all started with my sister. Once she and my mother and I were driving around and talking about Thanksgiving. She was waxing rhapsodic about how it would be wonderful to give our cats little bites of turkey.

“Actually,” I said, “we’re having lasagna.”

The gasp from the back seat was audible.

“It’s going to have ground turkey in it. Does that count?”

Apparently, it didn’t.

Since that time, we have avoided turkey every year (except the one time Dan’s work was handing them out), just to piss off my sister, the uber-traditionalist.

Fortunately, we now have our own traditions.

Entertainment

This is really the heart and soul of our Thanksgiving. Every year we watch the “Turkeys Away” episode of WKRP in Cincinnati  (thank goodness for the internet!) and listen to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” singing – or rather reciting – along. One year we also had a DVD of a cozy fire in a fireplace. It was so realistic that, in the middle of it, someone from offstage came in and put another log on the fire.

Skype

One year Dan and his mother were particularly lonely, as they lived in different states. We taught her how to Skype – no easy task from hundreds of miles away – then set up our feast on a utility table in my study. At least we were able to have conversation and watch each other eat. (I think that was the turkey year, or at least the turkey breast year.) For an approximation of the Skype problem, go here to listen to my friend Tom Smith’s song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5XfjUPqj9M).

Food

The lasagna we had has not been our only departure from traditional holiday fare. One year we had spaghetti; another, salmon poached in orange juice. Our most memorable non-turkey meal, though, was the year we had ratatouille. It has been immortalized on my blog in an older post (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-2z), but here’s the gist of it.

Dan was visiting his mother that year, so Thanksgiving luncheon would be only me, my mother, and Dan’s best friend John. Doing a whole turkey for three people seemed excessive, and I wanted to make another nontraditional dish, so I settled on ratatouille, with the addition of some sausage for John, a carnivore.

Imagine our surprise when, after taking just one bite, John choked and couldn’t breathe. The rest of the afternoon was a flurry of Heimlichs, emergency equipment, the emergency room, several doctors, and an x-ray. Turns out John had swallowed the bay leaf, which I had neglected to remove, and it had lodged on top of his vocal cords. The highly technical medical procedure required to remove it was a very hard cough. We then went back to my mother’s house for ice cream.

Read the whole thing, if you have time.

Pandemic Thanksgiving

This year, the year of the pandemic, we didn’t have anyone over for Thanksgiving. Not only did we think it was safer, but both my mother and John have passed on. And not from any encounters with rogue bay leaves. I learned my lesson and now use a bouquet garni.

What we did this year combined the traditional and the nontraditional. We didn’t try to teach Mom Reily to Zoom this year. It would take longer to do that than to roast a full-sized turkey.

No, Dan and I continued our nontraditional tradition and at the same time supported a local small business by patronizing them. This year, we had a jolly feast of take-out sushi and Kirin beer. Arlo and Les Nessman were invited, of course. We have to keep up some traditions.

 

 

The “I Never Use a Recipe” Recipes

Once my friend Robbin and I resolved to write a cookbook called the “I Never Use a Cookbook” Cookbook. Alas, this never happened, so I thought the least I could do would be to turn it into a blog post. The basic idea was that, except for baking, neither one of us uses actual recipes when cooking. They’re more like theories than recipes, really.

(Baking is different. Baking is a science. You have to have just the right ingredients in just the right proportions to make everything turn out yummy. Why? Physics, I think, plus chemistry. Ask Alton Brown. But anyway, I digress.)

Most recipes contain the words “to taste.” Add salt and pepper “to taste.” Season with red pepper flake “to taste.” Taken to its logical (or illogical) extreme, all cooking is “to taste” and everyone’s taste is different. That means that if a recipe isn’t right for anyone else at the dinner table, it may still be right for you! That’s a win, in my book.

Of course, there are pitfalls in the “to taste” strategy. Once Robbin and I were making rum balls for a party. She was doing the mixing and I was doing the tasting. Every time she gave me a sample, I said only, “Needs more rum.” It went on like that for a while. By the end, we had true rum balls, with only enough chocolate to hold them together. But, boy, were they a hit at the party!

Rummaging in the pantry is another strategy for avoiding recipes. (Never try the ones on the labels of boxes and cans – fair warning!) One of Robbin’s creations that has entered her regular repertoire is “Tomato Tuna Rice Soup.” (I’ll let you guess what the ingredients are.) She knows it’s done when a spoon stands straight up in the bowl. It’s a hearty one-pot meal for a cold winter’s night and contains all the main food groups.

Pasta is another go-to foundation for a non-recipe meal. My husband likes to create pasta dishes with shredded chicken or ground beef, mushrooms, and whatever’s in the freezer. (Green peppers? Throw them in! Diced onions? In they go! Broccoli? Why not?) Top with any kind of cheese you happen to have. (Parmesan? Great! Co-jack? Sure! Cheddar? Go for it!) Spaghetti? Ziti? Rotini? Elbow macaroni? Doesn’t matter!

Casseroles are yet another occasion for which recipes merely get in the way. Here’s the theory: some kind of meat, some kind of noodles, some kind of vegetables, some kind of sauce. For us, the ultimate expression of this is mac-n-cheese-n-tuna-n-peas, but endless combinations are possible. (I had to convince my husband that some kind of sauce or gravy was necessary, but once he had the hang of that, he was good to go.) Sometimes he even skips the noodles, puts mashed potatoes on top and voilà – some kind of shepherd’s pie!

Using up leftovers is a wellspring of creativity, and one of the most creative ways to do that is to make a frittata. Again, the ingredients are virtually irrelevant, once you’ve got the egg and milk. Diced ham and cheddar cheese. Bacon and mushroom. Peppers and sausage. Some combination of the above, or whatever’s left in the fridge. Call it “Week in Review.” Add garlic, pepper, onion, paprika, chili pepper, or Mrs. Dash “to taste.” Serve with toast. Or bagels. Or English muffins. Or scones. With butter. Or cream cheese. Or jam. Or applesauce. You get the idea.

It’s true that not all your non-recipes may turn out to be hits in their first iteration. But since you’re not using a recipe, that means that every dish is a work in progress. In addition to never using a recipe, my husband and I rarely make a dish exactly the same twice in a row. It’s experimental cooking at its finest.

 

 

Eating Around the World

My mother, my husband, and I (in different combinations) have had some amazing travel experiences. England. Brazil. Croatia. And, like good tourists, we largely ate and drank our way through the various countries. 

There was the trip that my mother and I took to Brazil. When we arrived at our Rio hotel, we were greeted by our guide, who offered us a complimentary local drink – a caipirinha. This is the national cocktail of Brazil, made from lime, sugar, and cachaca (a local spirit reminiscent of, but different from, rum). It’s a pretty potent combination. My mother, who would have the occasional Tom Collins or glass of Mogen David, did not care for it, so she gave it to me. I downed both hers and mine.

Then the other little old ladies who were on the tour (there were a fair number of them) had the same idea and all gave me their caipirinhas rather than let them go to waste. It’s a good thing we had arrived in the evening and had no other events planned for that night, as I sat in the hotel lobby and got thoroughly sozzled.

Mom was not with us when my husband and I went to England (though Dan’s mother was). We lunched at pubs and tried authentic fish and chips, but passed up an Australian restaurant because I insisted we weren’t in Australia. 

But the most interesting culinary attraction there was when I noticed “spotted dick” on the menu at the restaurant we had chosen. (Insert your favorite “spotted dick” joke here.) I had heard of spotted dick before, but never knew what it was, really. Apparently, it’s a dessert, because it was listed under “Puddings” on the menu. (As those of you who’ve seen Harry Potter know, “pudding” is generic British for “dessert.” It doesn’t mean actual pudding.)

Naturally, I couldn’t resist ordering it. I tried to muffle my chuckles, but no doubt the waiter was used to this sort of behavior from tourists. When he brought out the dessert, it was rather disappointingly a sort of spice cake with raisins in it, topped with a thin custard. (I think it might have been crême anglaise, but I didn’t know enough at the time to call it that.) Evidently, the raisins were the spots, though I don’t like to think what parted represented the dick. Especially with that custard sauce.

The best treat of all, though, was one my husband and I had when we were on a tour that featured Venice, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. There was interesting food and drink everywhere. In Slovenia, I ate Brussels sprouts just because they were served with the main dish, and discovered they were wonderful. (Unfortunately, I have not had them prepared the same way since. And I didn’t know how to ask for the recipe in Slovenian. I speak a little Russian, enough to order cabbage or buy books, but I didn’t think that would go over so well.  But I digress.)

In Istria (a peninsula that’s part of Croatia), a few of us from the tour stopped at a local tavern to get a hot buttered rum to ward off the chilly rain that was plaguing us that day. Dan and I, feeling a mite peckish, ordered a fish plate. We thought it might be something like a cheese plate, a small assortment of different kinds of samples.

But no. We were presented with an enormous platter featuring every kind of seafood you can imagine in vast quantities, including a huge, whole fish. Again, this was before Food Network, so I had to try to disassemble the fish without completely shredding it or leaving any treacherous bones. (I remember that I did it rather successfully, though that may just have been the rum punch talking.) Our tour-mates had to dig in to help us make a sizeable dent in all the fish, shellfish, and other marine life (think octopus), so as not to seem ungrateful.

But our best food encounter was on that same trip. In Croatia, there is a city named Split. (I was once trounced by a crossword puzzle that had the clue “Split country.” I thought of Korea or Vietnam, but neither one fit.) Near the end of the tour, Dan and I stopped in at a small restaurant to have a little something-something – not a full meal, just a nibble or a nosh.

There on the menu we saw it – a prosaic, all-American banana split! How could we possibly resist? We had to order one just so we could say, “We split a banana split in Split before we split Split. But we didn’t do the splits. We might have split our pants.” Opportunities like that don’t come along just every day.

The Only Foods That Existed

I won’t say I was a picky eater, but when I was a kid, I definitely had strong food preferences. In fact, only certain foods existed for me – and not just because it was in the days before sushi entered the U.S.

Take milkshakes, for example. Though even at the time strawberry and vanilla milkshakes existed, the only kind I would accept was chocolate. I still have this opinion to some degree. For example, when I eat at Wendy’s, only a chocolate Frosty will do. But when it comes to other milkshakes, my tastes have broadened considerably. I love getting peppermint shakes at Christmas and banana shakes whenever. But my new favorite is the salted caramel milkshake at Red Robin, especially if they add a shot of booze to it, something I never even contemplated as a kid. (Salted caramel wasn’t a thing and booze wasn’t an option.)

Then there was jelly. Grape. And only grape. Not apple. Not strawberry. And certainly not mixed fruit. My toast and my peanut butter sandwiches required grape jelly or none at all. In the absence of grape jelly, toast got butter and PB sandwiches got no J.

Now I sample all the varieties of jams and jellies on offer – orange marmalade, blackberry, peach, and whatever they give me at Waffle House, to name a few, not to mention my all-time favorite, apple butter, which I guess is not really jelly. Strawberry is still my least favorite, but I will eat it when required.

Back in the day, the only lunch meat was bologna. I wouldn’t touch pimento loaf or the salami with those little hard things stuck in it that I later learned were peppercorns and wouldn’t have eaten even if I had known it. And forget head cheese! I inspected lunch meat subs (the only kind then in existence) carefully, and picked off the kinds I didn’t like. That left me with bologna and salami with no peppercorns, not exactly a culinary masterpiece.

Back then, ham and turkey were not so much lunch meats, but a breakfast dish and a Thanksgiving treat, respectively. At least that was the only way they were served in our house. Now I find that ham, turkey, roast beef, and even pastrami are acceptable. Strangely, I can hardly eat bologna anymore. Maybe my palate (such as it is) burned out on it all those years ago.

Other foods I turned up my nose at because of the way they were served. Peas, carrots, corn, beans (especially pinto beans with ketchup), and mashed potatoes were acceptable side dishes. Not so with asparagus. At that time, the only asparagus I knew of came in cans. I had never even seen a fresh stalk. Naturally, I assumed that asparagus was a slimy, icky vegetable, somewhat like okra. (If I recall correctly, all our vegetables came in cans at the time, but, honestly, there’s not much you can do to corn or peas to render them inedible. I actually even liked canned spinach, for some reason.)

Now that I’ve discovered fresh and frozen vegetables, my horizons have expanded considerably. I’ve since had fresh asparagus and liked it enough to have it multiple times. I’ve learned to like Brussels sprouts, if they’re roasted. The same with parsnips. Back in the day, roasting was a thing for, well, roasts, and maybe potatoes and onions with them, but little else.

Now I pride myself on what foods I will actually eat. I love sushi, adore hummus and guacamole, and jump at the chance to eat calamari. I have eaten curried goat, octopus, jackfruit, escargot, and pizza with nearly everything, including anchovies (not as a regular thing, but just to try it). Even my mom, purveyor of all those canned foods, learned to sample the local foods and drinks when we traveled abroad. She didn’t always like them (in which case she gave them to me), but by God, she tried them, and I admired her for that.

One of the only things I refuse to eat now is liver and onions. It’s a texture thing; they make me gag. Literally. Even my mom gave up on making me eat liver and onions when she saw that. I have lived my life happily without them and will continue to do so.

So, if you have a picky eater in the household, just wait and keep introducing new things. I once knew a child that would eat only buttered noodles who is now an expert on all things sushi.

I also know an adult who still won’t eat foods that touch on a plate, but you can’t win them all.

 

Don’t Harsh My Buzz

We all have things we love. We all have things we hate. Where the trouble comes in is when we love something that others hate and they feel compelled to tell us we’re wrong. I’m not talking here about huge social or religious dilemmas or political differences. I mean the stuff that shouldn’t matter, but people get all exercised about.

Like pineapple on pizza. There are those who love it and those who hate it. But for some reason, the haters attack the lovers as though they’ve committed a mortal sin by allowing fruit to touch their Italian dish, which we all love. (Technically, tomato is a fruit too and nobody minds having tomato sauce on pizza. Don’t ask me what that kiwi’s doing there in the photo. I have no strong opinions about kiwi. But I digress.)

Now I admit to liking Hawaiian-style pizza on occasion, the kind that comes with (for some unknown, peculiar, multicultural reason) Canadian bacon and pineapple. It isn’t my very favorite – that’s pepperoni and extra mushrooms. But once in a while, I order pineapple.

This hurts no one. So don’t harsh my buzz. Be like John. I invited John over once and served him pizza. It had pineapple on it. Without making a fuss, John picked the chunks of pineapple off his slices, ate the pizza, then ate the pineapple separately, as a sort of dessert, I suppose. That is what I call a mature, polite approach to pineapple pizza. That’s how I would approach a pizza with kiwi, if I tried it (I would) and didn’t like it. Hell, I even tried anchovies once, just to see.

I find that some people like to harsh other people’s buzzes over a variety of topics. Once, when I posted something about Star Trek, a new Facebook friend replied, “You do know you’re too old for this.” Well, phooey on that. I loved Star Trek when it first came out and I still do.

Yet it seems that loving Star Trek is not enough for some people. I need to love the right kind of Star Trek. These days, Star Trek: The Next Generation gets beat up a lot for its storytelling, plot lines – everything except Patrick Stewart, who everyone admits is pretty great, except when he says, “Engage!” or “Make it so!”

But damnit, I like NextGen (as it’s called, when it’s not called ST:TNG). In some ways, I like it better than the original series (ST:TOS). Don’t ask me to defend why I like it. I shouldn’t have to.

Or take Cats (the movie). Okay, it wasn’t great cinematic art for the ages and it didn’t have much of a plot – which is understandable if you know that the source material is a series of poems. But it had fine singing, incredible dancing, and amazing costumes. It had cats and T.S. Eliot. Why wouldn’t I love it? Even my husband said it was “astonishing.”

Country music is another area that I love that people are determined to knock. It all sounds the same, or it’s the music of racists, or everyone sings through their nose, or some other objection. Or I should spend my time listening to something good (however that’s defined).

This really harshes my buzz. I grew up with country music and, despite it being my parents’ favorite music, I never disowned it, not even when I was in my teens and the Beatles hit it big. I enjoyed both Willie Nelson and Elton John. I even enjoyed John Denver. (There, I said it!)

I don’t know. Maybe it would have been different if I had lived in Texas, but in suburban Ohio at the time, I met with only scorn among my peers. And, I’m sorry to say, that scorn continues to this day. And I can see how easy it is for that scorn to develop. I never listen to modern country music. I’m still stuck at the Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Emmylou Harris stage. (And don’t harsh my buzz about Kris Kristofferson movies, either. I still like them, except the one he made with Sylvester Stallone, whose movies I’ve taken a vow never to see. But if you like him, fine. I won’t hassle you about it.)

I’m hoping that now that Ken Burns has turned his documentary lens on it, country music will regain its status as something that it’s okay to like. In fact, I may listen to Waylon Jennings while eating pineapple pizza, and then relax with a little NextGen.

It’s my choice. Don’t harsh my buzz.