Sunday, March 15, 2009

Food Tsunami

James likes to cook after I scrub the kitchen. It’s usually just meat, but occasionally he’ll throw a vegetable in there, provided it’s immersed in some sort of sauce he created from salad dressing, cheese and whatever he can find in the refrigerator door that hasn’t expired. One time, at 3:00 a.m. he handed me a plate that included bacon, country fried pork, and a slab of ham. I never know what to expect, but it’s usually complicated and involves every pan he can get his hands on. He often photographs his projects and posts them online along with his “secret” recipes. He’s a proud man.

Our kitchen is smaller than the master bathroom in my house in Grand Rapids. If you have to get into the fridge when someone else is in there, the other person has to step into the oven. I try not to go in there when he’s working his food magic unless I’m summoned to chop an onion or find the soy sauce. I can hear what’s happening, but I really don’t want to know because I’ll find out soon enough after he abandons the job. On his tombstone I’m going to chisel, “I’ll clean it later.”

He makes these great offerings to me; these overflowing platters of gruel, when I’m least hungry. I have to eat it all or his feelings are hurt. “Don’t you like my food?” “Ummm, yes, but you gave me a pile of meat that’s bigger than my head, and is as taller than that mound of potatoes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “

Everything within two feet of the stove is covered in splatter. What I never understand is how I find food and butter wrappers in the sink when the garbage is sitting right next to his feet. I’ll be scrubbing the cupboards after he cooks, wondering what the Hell the sticky green stuff is and where he found mint jelly. Plus, what the heck was it IN? Was that lamb I was eating? Sometimes it’s hard to tell because he enjoys overcooking animal proteins. I’ll be on my 99th chew of a skewered piece of beef when he says, “What do you think?” The answer is always, “Wow, this is fantastic!”

I once found my hamster behind the refrigerator. She was huge; yet another victim of James’ Muppet Show Swedish Chef cooking style. What did she find? Chicken nuggets? Petrified pizza crust? A stray side of beef? She could have lived for years back there had I not heard the crunching.

James was in there again tonight. I came home from work and found a non-stick fry pan caked with something I had to soak off; a 2 foot long BBQ spatula; and a plate caked with cheese in the sink along with two beer cans and a dirty cake pan. His motto is, “I cook it. YOU clean it!” I don’t think this should apply if there is absolutely no evidence that there was anything for me OR the hamster. I probably wasn’t looking close enough. I’m sure he left me something under the stove.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Valley of the Dogs

I picked up my dog at the vet a few days ago. She had minor surgery to remove a growth that went from the size of a pea to the size of a grape and then to the size of a pea again; then it grew again and she couldn’t stop licking it. My local vet is scary. I think he might be German and he has Wagner blaring from speakers in the ceiling in a Jewish neighborhood. It’s a little creepy. However, basically everyone around here recommends him. His office looks like a set from Scary Movie 8: The SAW Chronicles. He has old National Geographic magazines from like 1952 and Field and Stream placed perfectly on the waiting room tables. I'm afraid to move them, lest I get them out of their perfect chronological order. Our old boxer, God rest her soul, hated him and almost bit his face off when he tried to trim her nails.

Peaches had only been there once to get a second rabies shot when we couldn’t get the paperwork for her first one. She was reluctant to enter, as most "children" seem to fear the possibility of a shot. My eighteen year old son still has to be distracted when a needle appears, “Hey, I was thinking about buying you a car! (‘OUCH’) NOT!” Anyway, my stomach was in knots when I went to pick up Peaches, an hour earlier than scheduled. Dr. ich bin ein Berliner told me I could take her home and that she was fine. I didn’t realize that “fine” meant that she was high as a kite and stumbling like a drunken lumberjack on a log roll.

He brought her out into the lobby where I had a new toy monkey waiting for her. She stumbled into my arms and tried to lick my face, missing my lips every time. Then she turned back to the vet and ran at him to kiss him into oblivion. She kept running back and forth between us, her look saying, “I love YOU vet! I love YOU!” “Thanks for the monkey, mom! Is this my monkey? I can’t keep it in my mouth. Is this my monkey? Carry it! Wait, I’ll take it! NOPE, YOU take it!” “I love you vet!” This dance went on for a good two minutes before we left the horror film set and cartwheeled toward the car.

She spent the rest of the afternoon falling into walls and acting like all the toys she’d recently become bored with were now the most interesting and exciting things on the planet. Her brother stood by and watched; his brow furrowed in confusion as his sister spent the next few hours on a trip that was clearly the result of the antiquated canine barbiturate doping system. James was absolutely aghast that a milder, “less fun” sedative hadn’t been used. As for me, I was thrilled for her and am now contemplating having this chicken pox scar on my chin removed. I wonder if being a Dr. of Veterinary Medicine also qualifies you to operate on humans. All I could think was, “I want what she’s having.” I still don’t know if she was smiling all day, or just couldn’t keep her twelve inch tongue in her mouth under the influence.

I don’t know how to break it to her that next time she goes to the vet she probably won’t be getting the same treatment. We’re both going to be very disappointed.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration of a Sixth Grader

I was fortunate to have many excellent teachers throughout my education, but one of my greatest influences was Dan Blair, my sixth grade teacher from Huss Elementary in Three Rivers, Michigan. Fresh out of college, his idealism and excitement inspired a generation of students who were attending what was considered to be “the poorest” elementary school in our city.

A storyteller, he never failed to grasp our attention, whether it was stories about his childhood playing in the vast abandoned tunnel system under Flint, Michigan with his friends; or his experiences attending college in the early seventies. He was able to gain our respect and therefore our attention when it came to the more serious business of the history of the world, and more importantly, the direction of our nation because he treated us like people. We still played outside until the street lights came on and read Judy Blume books, but he talked to us as Aristotle might have talked to Alexander. This was a person who taught the young people in the forgotten ward that we were human beings with brains that deserved to be filled with great literature, and lessons gained from A Clockwork Orange.

Sixth grade is a brutal time for many. It’s a time of great hormonal surges, horrifying peer pressure and sometimes shocking loss of innocence. I went into sixth grade worried about how my hair looked, and came out thinking about Civil Rights, personal freedom and the shocking stories of the Holocaust, which had ended only twenty-three years before I was born. It seemed like a hundred years to me.

Until that year, I had been raised in a gray world. When friends come over, they inevitably pull out the meticulous scrapbooks my mother created from our lives. It’s always good for a laugh, but looking at my school pictures, it seems that they never fail to point out to me that half of my class was black. Funny, I never noticed it at the time. My parents never mentioned it and I didn’t realize that I lived in a geographically segregated community. We were just kids, people playing together, attending Girl Scout meetings and going to each other’s birthday parties. We were also students in a class who were treated as equals with endless possibility and the opportunity to “live the dream.”

Mr. Blair encouraged us, every one of us, to learn from history and to live lives of endless potential. He taught us that we only had to wait until we were thirty-five to run for President of the United States, and that seemed like a lifetime away because it was. My classmates and I passed that mark five years ago. Reflecting back on my life, I remember growing up knowing that as an American Citizen, born in the United States; it was a possibility for me. I think he made us all feel that way. I recall attending American Legion Auxiliary Girls State, surrounded by girls full of ambition and belief in our nation. It was one of the single most important lessons of my life, and I know that even my desire to go there was instilled in me back in sixth grade at Huss Elementary.

I realize now how young Mr. Blair was when he was our teacher and I think about the optimism and self assurance he helped instill in us. I hope that he was able to continue to inspire hopefulness in his students like he did when he was a brand new teacher stimulating our desire to expand our minds and realize our dreams. It seems I’ve lived a thousand lives since then, and as I sat in Highland Park, Illinois watching the inaugural activities from my tiny condo, I remembered that life is still full of possibilities and endless dreams to realize. The installation of Barak Obama as President of the United States brought back a flood of memories; to the history lessons from sixth grade, the year my eyes were opened.

Huss School students were integrated into other schools when my little sister started. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, nor do I necessarily think it was the best thing for the students, or the wonderful teachers who were so integral in our lives.. The closing of that school meant the slow death of our neighborhood and the realization that the place where the more formidable years of my education were spent would no longer be a beacon of hope for so many. I am so grateful to have had the experience that I did. To have had the opportunity to grow up in a place where I walked to school, hung out with neighborhood kids and lived in the blissful naivety of peaceful cultural diversity was amazing. What happened in that school was a quiet miracle.

I feel for the students who ended up on busses, heading into neighborhoods as strangers in new schools, miles away. I’m so grateful today that I was fortunate to attend Huss School in those few idealistic years where there was peace and harmony in our neighborhood; when we had the chance to learn together and know each other as people with families, hopes and dreams; where we were all equal with equal potential and promise.

Huss is no longer an elementary school; Mr. Blair is a retired math teacher; and the houses in my old neighborhood are falling down. When I pull into Three Rivers now though, I don’t show guests my high school, which is now a church, or talk about my college or time spent traveling. I point to Huss School and say, “That is where I got my education.”

Friday, January 09, 2009

How's Your Salad?

My friend Kelly was sitting at the bar before her shift one day last week, eating her salad. The restaurant was empty, except for a couple of servers and the kitchen staff. She was pretending to pay attention to the sports ticker on the silent t.v. screen staring back at her when she suddenly got a text message from a number she didn’t recognize that said, “How’s your salad?”

She put down her fork and looked around. Odd, she thought, “Who knows I’m having a salad?” Coordinating her investigative team from the wait staff, it was soon detected by Ali that the perpetrator’s number was on the employee phone list. Alas, it was Rueben in the kitchen, who just wanted to know how her salad was. If only I could communicate with my customers through text messaging.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hey Big Spender!

My dearest customers,

I used to have a job where I earned a nice paycheck, had a company car and cell phone, health insurance, a retirement plan, you name it. I got paid to golf three times a week and I got paid to wine and dine people. In spite of the fact that I’m a woman (we’ll get to that later) I always tipped at least 20%. Now, in a great social experiment, I am waiting tables in an Irish Pub. I love it….most of the time. There are a few “tips” I’d like to give a handful of you.

1. FOREIGN EXCHANGE: I don’t care if you are from another country. You’re in “America” now, and when I say that, I mean The United States of America. Get a guide book if you’re going to live, visit or have a lay-over in our country. Just because people don’t tip in YOUR country doesn’t mean that you get a discount in ours. That $5 you left me on your $95 bill covered what I had to pay the bartender for the privilege of bringing you four pints of Harp, five glasses of the house pinot grigio, and an Irish coffee, not to mention the filet your girlfriend ordered with ten substitutions and the fact that I had to talk to the kitchen on her behalf to make sure that it came out bleeding and mooing. Oh, and Happy Birthday!!! I hope you liked your free Apple Tart. The ice cream and candle were my idea.

2. THANKS FOR PICKING UP THE CHECK! I know you’re the Big Guy; the one at the head of the table encouraging your comrades to order rack of lamb and drink endless shots of Jameson. All I can do is pray that your group is splitting the bill because if you pick it up I know you’re going to take this expense out on me. You and your four friends have managed to get that check up around $355, which would normally mean a $70 tip. That all sounds ridiculous, but you’ve been taking up two four-tops for three hours and I’ll have to tip out at least $25 of that to bus boys, food runners, and bartenders. I can’t add 18% because there are only five of you. My heart is pounding as I realize you’re the one picking up the tab. Nice! Oh yeah,… $45 because it was just easier for you to make it a nice even $400, right?. Thanks Big Guy. I wonder if your friends know that in spite of your generosity, you’re a cheapskate when it comes to the person who didn’t spit in your food.

3. “I DON’T TIP ON WINE!” Whatever. Whosoever came up with that ridiculous notion has never been a server, my friend. Regardless of whether or not you are tipping on those three bottles of wine, I am still going to have to pay the bartenders for having the opportunity to serve them to you. Wine is a hassle. With beer I just pick it up at the bar, lay down a coaster, and set it on your table. To serve you your wine I have to go through several steps. Polish glasses, follow five minute wine pouring protocol, expel the cork from the bottle and pour a little in your glass, waiting anxiously while you swirl, smell, chat and finally wave your hand at me. I pour a little in everyone’s glass, making sure that there is enough left for everyone to get a little more when I come back to pour it again in a few minutes. …but you, ”don’t tip on wine. “ Those three bottles came out to around $150. I’ll be paying the bar roughly $6 for handing me the bottles. Thanks!

4. LADIES’ NIGHT! Oh, my personal favorite. There you are with your gorgeous store-bought breasts, your gleaming white teeth and your $400 hair extensions. I love that top. Did you get it at Bloomingdales? They had a huge sale last weekend. Oh, don’t mind me; I’m just standing here waiting for your drink order since your friend waved me over. Do you mind if I come back in a few hours when you’re ready? Oh, you are ready! Okay, I’ll just stand here some more while you continue to talk about your new Escalade and how you can’t believe how much you had to put on your husband’s Amex Black Card to fill it. Thanks for the 10%. I was having a sale today.

5. CHILDREN FOR SALE! I can’t figure this one out. Is there something that comes in all of those baby packets that you get from the hospital that says that once you become a parent you suddenly only have to tip 15%? Just because children are smaller, it doesn’t mean that serving them is any easier. Let’s see. I got your kids individual crayon packets because they “don’t like to share.” Apparently the paper placemats weren’t good enough, so I’ll be scrubbing that blue wax off of the table after you leave. That’s a real Pablo Picasso you’ve got there. Your children want lasagna? Did you mean to go to the Italian restaurant next door? You look disappointed. Aren’t you so grateful for those non spill kid cups I put together for you? I hate it when you order chocolate milk. I’ve got ten other tables right now, but you’re sucking up all of my time. I had to run to dry storage in the back of the basement to find more chocolate syrup which I painstakingly stirred into your monster’s milk in the searing hot kitchen. What? NOW the other one wants some too? Oh! My! God! Do you think you could have told me this before? You said that she wanted that Kiddie Cocktail I just made. I guess I’ll drink it myself. It would taste great with vodka. …and wasn’t that nice of me to take your kids (and I mean that as in “baby goats”) on a tour of the place so you could have a second to finish your Cobb salad, no apples, no bacon, no blue cheese, extra chicken, add strawberries, balsamic dressing on the side? I love babysitting, that’s why I work in a restaurant.

6. DON’T JUST SIT THERE. You just cost me $60 because that eight-top reserved in my section had to be moved somewhere else because you’ve been sitting there for two and a half hours now. You paid your bill forty-five minutes ago, yet you continue to take up space. That’s what the bar is for. I think you’ve all probably seen enough of each other anyway. There’s another restaurant next door. Why don’t you go over and sit at one of their tables for a while? Shake things up a little. Try a different environment.

7. I LOVE GIVING YOU FREE STUFF! What? You ladies just want some hot water with lemon? Let me get right on that. I’ll be back in the kitchen putting those together for you. Also, please make your own lemonade at home. I know exactly what you’re doing with those six lemon wedges you demanded and that Sweet-N-Low. We have lemonade here. It’s delicious. I’ll bring you some, but then I’ll have to charge you $2.25. Yikes! Oh, good, you just want two cups of Split Pea soup. Of course I’ll bring you bread. More bread? Sure! More? Okay. You need more free hot water too? Here’s my cell phone number if you need anything else. I’ll be in the kitchen getting your free water and more bread. That $2 tip is going to make this all worthwhile.

8. LEAVE THE DOG AT HOME! You’re sitting in the library when the guest sitting at the table next to you corners me in the service bar and reports to me that there is a Toy Yorkie in a Coach dog carrier sitting on the bench next to their table and it’s staring at them. How did you make it past the door? I love dogs. I spend at least two hours a day at the dog park with mine. It’s where responsible people take their pets to play with other dogs, chase balls, swim and smell each other. If you want to spend time with your pet, don’t do it in my restaurant. This isn’t France.

9. “BUY THAT TABLE A ROUND ON THE HOUSE!” How I dread those words. That round means that I have to take $40 off your bill, for which I’d normally get tipped $8. You were going to order it anyway. I still put in the order, served it and found a manager to void it off of your bill. What? You and the owner are old coworkers? Oh, terrific. Your $400 bill just got cut down to $200. It was a lot of work, $400 worth of work, however, now, rather than $80, I’ll get $40. I’ll tip out $20 of that, based on $400. Here’s some news for you, and this is going to hurt a little. If you take a look at the bottom of your bill, where it says, “Courtesy Discount -$240” add that to your bill total and then tip off of the total amount, unless of course I gave you half the service, which is highly doubtful.

10. WE DON’T HAVE A MICHELIN STAR. Please don’t roll your eyes at me when I inform you that we do not have Dom Perignon or a nice Côte du Rhône. Why are you shaking your head that we don’t have Tsingtao or Bintang? Drink a Heineken, it’s the same thing. I love it when you ask me what we have on tap while you’re staring at the beer menu. Please don’t pronounce the “w” in Smithwicks. Yes, our Kobe beef is flown in every day from Japan. The jet also stops in Alaska every morning to pick up our organic farm-raised salmon. I’ll try to get the chef out here to visit your table, but he’s kind of busy right now butchering the free range chickens we have out back. Nope! We don’t have iced chai lattes, double decaffeinated half-cafs or caramel cappuccinos. I know, shocking!

OH, and by the way, YOU CAN’T PAY ME ENOUGH…to pinch me, slap me, stare at my breasts, put your arm around my waist, pat me on the head or “set me up with your friend.” I’m not a hooker, but if I was, I assure you it would cost a heck of a lot more than 20% of your $35 tab.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I love a good diner!

It’s hard to find friends who really appreciate being called at 3 a.m. to go to the Full Moon Café on 41 North. I have no idea what compels me to eat steak and eggs that late at night, or early in the morning for most humans. There is something about a nine page menu with twenty specials that really gets me going. I like the ones where the smoking sections, now extinct, are larger than the non-smoking area. That’s how I fell in love with The Full Moon. It’s a true shithole.

If you take a look around you, these places aren’t hard to find; however if you want to find a real hovel these days, you’re going to have to cross the border into Wisconsin. Nothing’s the same anymore. It’s strange going into a diner that only smells like food, and you don’t have to walk through a funnel cloud of Camel Extra Wides to get to your table.

There are so many things to love about the diner experience. It gives new meaning to the term “recycled paper.” You don’t have to purchase a newspaper full of things you don’t want anymore. Just piece together the sections you really want to read from the huge pile of scraps by the door and BAM you have yourself the perfect paper. My ideal Sunday newspaper includes The Front Page, Qualities of Life, Arts & Entertainment, Travel, Business (just for a headline breeze), Chicago Tribune Magazine, Parade, Perspective, and the following ads: Best Buy, Target, and Kohls. I don’t shop at these stores because there are too many moms in there; however, it is the quickest way to find out what new appliances are available. It’s not that I like the Trib, but that’s what you get for newspaper leftovers in these places. You won’t find a New York Times in a diner. You have to go to the Original Pancake House for that, and just like the Times, you will end up paying double.

My favorite thing about “the diner” is the extensive menu. I am in awe of how they can chuck out hundreds of different combinations of mediocre food for under $5.99. Where else can you go where the surf-n-turf consists of a strip steak, a chicken leg and fried catfish for a subtle splurge of $8.99? If you’re from a small town in southern Michigan and sometimes enjoy a crisp iceberg salad piled high with carrots, shredded cheddar, cucumbers, ranch dressing, and the occasional hair, this is your place. Don’t forget the croutons made from last week’s white bread dipped into a vat of oil, with just a hint of salt. NOTE: If you like your steaks rare, this is NOT the place. I prefer mine cut right off the cow and flipped on the grille for 30 seconds, but not here…not ever. You want to order it medium at minimum, and dip it in a swamp of A-1. The trick is, add salt and pepper directly to the sauce and dunk.

The Full Moon has an old pull-style cigarette machine between the restrooms. It’s stocked with fading packs of Kools, Marlboros, and probably some Chesterfields if you look close enough. That’s what Reagan smoked. This machine is a grim reminder of the loss of the freedoms I shared with our toked up founding fathers. It costs like $8/pack, and I imagine people bringing in the roll of quarters they were planning on using for laundry to get that desperate pack while sobering up from the strip club/truck stop across the street. Honestly, now that you can’t do it inside, smoking just isn’t that exciting anymore.

If you seek interesting characters, the diner is where they hang. It was more interesting when people smoked. Smoking generated a real late night crew of AA inmates and women who had been kicked out of their trailers. I’m not sure about the rest of the planet, but at the Full Moon you still get a combination of thugs, Navy Seals, salesmen and the occasional hooker. You also find “other people who work in restaurants,” a swarm of North Shore kids whose parents are in Miami, and cops. I love these people, every one of them. It takes a certain kind of person to say, “Yes, this is what I want, and I want it NOW.”

Unlike Sunset Foods, I do not have to apply make-up or comb my hair to participate. My perfect uniform is a “Life is Good” t-shirt, rubber flip flops and whatever pair of jeans I just found on the floor of my bedroom, underwear optional. Getting totally blazed is a good idea about 30 minutes before arrival because the food just keeps coming. It’s mind-boggling. I’ve never made it to the dessert round, but if I ever do, there is a giant glassed turnstile loaded with eight inch high cakes and strawberry stuffed something-or-others that are mouthwatering. You could make a meal out of one or just duct tape it directly to your butt. The following quote comes to mind, “Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam, circumspice,” but I’m not in Michigan anymore. This is as close as it gets.