Friday, May 9, 2008

These are the Tunas of our Lives

Photo Flickr-Matt Biddulph

Charlie the Tuna is my friend. He's friends with lots of other people too, so I'll have to try to not be possessive of him. Often Charlie is forgotten about (so self-effacing!) but he seems nonetheless to be around in lots of kitchens, ready and willing to be helpful when needed.

I was thinking about Charlie just the other day and wondered how everyone else felt about him. So rather vaguely, I posted a query on Serious Eats and the response was surprising. So very many ways to use tuna were described - there was a veritable treasure-trove of ways to dress up Charlie. Of course some people don't like him too much - I know that my own children do like tuna at home but never in public. The worst thing I could do to them would be to send a tuna sandwich in a packed lunch for school. I did try, once. Their horror after that experience dissuaded me from ever trying that again!

As Mother's Day grows near the tunas made by women who were mother-figures in my own life came to mind. My grandmother (who was not a cook by any stretch of the imagination) put together tuna sandwiches as one of the few things she did "cook". On soft white bread, a mashed pulse of tuna mixed with mayonnaise was flattened along with a swath of butter thickly spread onto one of the bread slices, caressing one side of the tuna like a sliver of fat coolness to bite into. This is the way sandwiches were made in Maine where she lived, when she lived. Butter was a requirement or it simply wasn't a sandwich - no matter whether the filling had mayo in it or not.

My mother didn't much like tuna sandwiches. I can understand why. Instead, one of her specialties was tuna casserole. Made with Campbell's cream of celery soup lined up in its red can and Mueller's elbow macaroni lined up in its blue and white box with the little peek-a-boo cellophane center, the tiny curls of macaroni smiling out through it.

I loved that casserole. In later years I didn't make it very much - it was simply not in the "gourmet" category I liked to putter around in. Once I did make it, when a little boy was visiting. He was six years old and he knew his food. "You're a Great Cook!" he informed me after tasting the dish, which his mother did not make for him at home, I guess. "A Real Gourmet!" I was happy to have him think this, and remembered the taste of my own childhood.

The blue and white box the macaroni came in was useful, too. My dog Wolfie (the most adorable little black Pomeranian one can imagine) stuck his head into the box for some reason then pushed his nose through the broken cellophane peek-a-boo front. It sat on his head like a bizarre crown for a furry little King. I only wish he had worn it every day, but he tired of it after about ten minutes, pawing it off then looking for something else to get into.

My mother-in-law Josephine (a wonderful cook who had learned at her mother's side on a small farm in Italy) had six children to raise. Her way with tuna is remembered with both fondness and fear by her children. She did send tuna sandwiches for lunch, and her children did have to eat them. No discussion here - it was what there was to eat. Actually it was delicious though daunting to have to eat it in front of the eyes of taunting classmates as I hear tell - but I've eaten it and loved it. Flaked inexpensive tuna, grated carrots, finely chopped celery, minced parsley, chopped hard-boiled egg and grated onion with some mayo, salt, pepper and red wine vinegar went into the blend which was then put between slices of white bread. Her trick was to not drain the tuna too much. So what one ended up with was a lovely drippy mess which was rather disgusting at the same time.

How many other ways is Charlie used? I roll a blend of tuna, mayo, capers and lemon juice between roasted red peppers then slice into roll-ups for a cute-looking casual h'ors d'oeuvre. Sometimes I layer tuna blended with mayo, garlic, lemon juice, plenty of ground black pepper and chopped parsley on a baguette with sliced tomato and Provolone and heat the whole thing in the oven for fifteen minutes for a savory, rich hot tuna hero. Divine. Add potato chips on the side and there is no need to imagine heaven - it is there in a very simple, quick bite. A plebian heaven perhaps, but then that's how I like it!

For classicists, there's Vitello Tonnato. For Francophiles there's the famous Pan Bagna (Claudia Roden offers the best recipe, to my mind). Elizabeth David mentions a historic recipe from the 1500's for "Tarantella" in one of her letters to a famous friend. But of course that was before Charlie was canned.

That Charlie. He sure does get around.

Happy Mother's Day to All! (P.S. Save Charlie for another day - he's usually pretty easy to find.)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

To Eat: Shoots and Leaves

Photo Flickr-john w

I’m not on a diet. Nor is anyone else here. But that doesn’t mean that strong personal food preferences, definitely idiosyncratic food preferences, do not reach my ears as chief cook and bottle-washer, oft expressed in the well-known phrase “I don’t like that” when the dinner menu is being discussed.

It's not really even (solely) about pickiness to my mind. It’s about taste and perhaps even about physiology. My daughter would like the world to be made of cheese, with a little bit of chicken on the side please. My son would vastly enjoy a universe built from Japanese food and Doritos. Me? I just want a salad. Preferably one someone else made, just for me.

The only “diet” I’ve ever heard of that caught my imagination was written by MFK Fisher. Her advice was to make a meal of one good thing and lots of it, as much as one might want - then to plan the meals to create a balance of food over the day . . . instead of the more usual way of planning the meals to each be completely balanced as independent entities. The only problem with that diet could be the tendency to make every meal an ice cream meal.

If I were on a diet, things supposedly would be simpler. Day would follow day, so nicely planned out and well-running. The Plan would Rule. No matter what the plan was. But is a diet really the answer? Most everyone I know is on a diet – and nobody is really too happy about it.

It gets even worse when to add insult to injury the diets one decides to bow to then obstinately do not live up to the promises they hold. Not being able to eat things one really likes (whether it be for reasons of health or even merely of being organized in a family of many tastes) can make life seem rather grim. Especially if the diet is for health and as so often happens, the pounds do not magically start rolling off.

My solution has been to try to find a happy middle ground, one without a sense of denial but rather a feeling of hopeful embrace. One solution to resolve my family’s “I don’t like that’s” is to say “To Eat: Shoots and Leaves”. It’s not a perfect solution, granted. But it’s better than eating (a diet), shooting (someone, anyone – maybe whoever invented the diet?), and leaving the scene grimly after meal upon meal of food not to one’s taste.

Embracing the eating of shoots and leaves can be shaped many ways. As a way to find a meal everyone likes, it often works for us. So if the perennial question of what to eat for dinner raises its head in your home, you might also want to respond to it with the answer - "To eat? Shoots and leaves!"

Here is an excellent recipe to try, full of the variety any usual family with fully-developed idiosyncratic tastes requires. It’s an oldie but goodie, quiet but still staunchly standing. You too can be cute as a panda eating shoots and leaves.

Sukiyaki Salad

Buy lots of these good things. Be sure they are fresh and colorful:

Mung Bean Sprouts
Red Bell Peppers

Choose a salad dressing or offer all sorts:
Sesame-Ginger or Tomato Vinaigrette, or whatever odd things the children may like

Prepare your choice of:
Grilled Beef, Chicken, Shrimp, Pork, Lamb or Tofu

Chop and toss, dress and devour. You can make it pretty or just chow down, glad that finally the bickering has ended.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Hello Kitty in My Life

Photo Flickr - devlyn

Sung to the tune of "Let it Be" by the Beatles

When I find myself in times of trouble
Hello Kitty comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
"Be like me"

And in the hour of darkness
There is still a light that shines on me
There will be an answer
Hello Kittyyyyyyyyy

Hello Kitty Hello Kitty
I'm glad you talk to me
Bringing words of wisdom
"Be like me"

Saturday, April 19, 2008

You Can, Go Home Again

Photo Flickr-law_keven

If you want to go home again, it's best to start out on a sunny afternoon on a late Spring day. You'll need a starting point of course, and the best starting point is always the Champs-Elysees.

To get to the Champs-Elysees, go over the ten foot long bridge spanning the trickle of stream that separates Virginia and West Virginia on the long winding road dotted with hayfields, truck repair shops, and small houses, then turn right almost immediately into the new shiny Shell gas station with the Subway sandwich shop and convenience store all enclosed so nicely within it.

Here the journey begins.
It's best to be dressed right for this occasion of home-coming. Men: bandanas and motorcyle jackets with black sunglasses will do, or alternately overalls with a white T-shirt and workboots. Slouchy-jawed and unshaven is best. If you can't manage this then at least wear a feedcap that has seen better days. Women: jeans and any old top are fine. Makeup and hair are the important parts here. Hair should be long and frizzley with bangs pointing upwards in seeming delight, or short scarily spiked out. No makeup but for dark black all around your eyes with a liquid eyeliner, providing a clear unsmudged intense accent.

Drive north and turn onto Bozoo Road. Head up the road past the black cows that always seem to dance to the music on the car radio. Sometimes they ambulate to the beat, other times they wiggle their heads sideways and toss their tails. When the day is a bit chilly the younger ones might prance and butt heads, playing at a big fight. As boys sometimes look like puppies when they tussle and play, these young steer look like boys somehow, boys just stuck in the big leathery hides just pretending to be cows.

Go past the sparkling pond that fills an acre and a half in the front yard where the bass and bluegills are always ready to bite. Drive straight out to the little brick church that sits on the top of the hill on the edge of nowhere, where the hills and green and sky just lay beyond till they reach the river and the old ferry some miles past, which is there but which seems like the end of the known universe, looking past the tiny deserted church with its dirt parking lot edged with its broken-down wooden swingset and kiddie slide.

Stinking Lick Road is there on the left, the tiny dirt road heading straight back into the edge of the barren-looking woods. Someday someone might actually drive up that road and see what's there. Why would a place be called "Stinking Lick"?

The place to go to is the Dairy Bar, and the Ballard Food Store too. Here, the burgers taste like burgers did in 1965, at any Dairy Bar anywhere. They taste like home, like summer, like simplicity and innocence. The french fries are crinkle-cut, the ketchup cheap and vinegary. Let's be clear about this. This is a world away from "gourmet". This is a world away from any sort of pretension, here at the Dairy Bar. "Ice Milk Available" says the old hand-lettered sign on bent posterboard stuck to the wall with yellowing cellophane rectangles of tape. The small square workspace is where all the food is made by the lady that owns the place with an always-present teenage girl assisting, learning to fry oysters, grill burgers, make a perfect swirl of soft-serve.

When the order's ready it's squeezed out with a welcoming extended hand through the tiny glass window in small white sacks, while they call out names. And they do know your name. Be sure to keep your ear in good tune though, waiting to be called, for each syllable of your name will stretched into three, lilted into a song with high and low notes sounding through the air.

Across the street at the tiny food store, the dark interior is belied by bright toppled boxes of produce and seeds and plants out front. Things look like they have been saved for survival purposes from some past wartime inside the store. The chicken feed is more prominently displayed than almost anything else except for country ham in a large cluttered plastic-wrapped assortment of cuts, and there's the round of hoop cheese around the corner next to the six fifty-gallon plastic garbage containers filled with different kinds of dried beans. They're labelled "new crop" when they are, of course. Pintos rule, and new crop ain't old crop by any stretch of a cook's imagination.

Crossing the street, there's always the pickup truck driving by with too many people stuck together in the cab, lurching sideways with hay bales in the truckbed, sometimes followed by a battered horse trailer. They smile and wave through the open windows as they drive past. No, you don't really know them, they don't really know you, but you are here and they are here and that warrants a smile and a wave. You nod and smile and wave back and remember all this, this way of being.

There's always the guy that walks out of the store past you as you walk in. He might be tall and lanky, or short and skinny. He's never fat, for he works with his hands on a farm. He bales hay, fixes the vehicles that always break, handles the cattle and the crops and somehow he just never gets fat or pudgy or overfed. He's always there though he may not always be the exact same guy, but he looks right into your eyes, I mean right into your eyes, unashamedly, without hesitation or covertness of any sort whatsoever and he smiles the sweetest damn smile right into you. In that moment an internal breath is taken away along with a sweeping off of your feet even though you know that if you opened your mouth to talk you'd scare the guy half to death being, as you are, an "outsider". But that smile held the beauty of a simplicity that's rarely if ever seen outside these parts, outside places "like this", like the place you've come home to. No measurement, no conniving, no wondering, in that smile.

In that smile, you're the girl that sits on the haystack laughing, as the colt skitters sideways at the cat that jumps from the grass to surprise it. In that smile, his eyes say in a straightforward manner, without any twisting torturously around as if under a sharp pin: I'm a good man. His eyes say this without question for he knows he is, without question. The sun rises, the sun sets. The world is as it has been for some long time here and it won't change too quick, no needs to worry about this that the other thing and more. Hay grows and is cut, over and over. Calving season comes regular with reminders of life and death as some calves live and some die, some rise and grow, some falter, and each one is a small perfect thing of beauty. That smile says he's a man who likes you as a woman, without question. It says, "I'll cherish you." And you know he would, for it shows in that smile, without question. He'd cherish you, and how often does that happen.

Inside the dusky store a piece of hoop cheese is cut with the heavy battered knife from the huge black wax-edged round set out on the wooden table waiting to be cut by different hands, to be taken home to different homes, to be nibbled on by a hundred different people, each one devouring it crumble by slightly oily torn-off crumble. The plastic wrap is set right there next to it to wrap it.

Time to go now. Time to drive back up the other road past the battered sign for the Cashmere Coon Hunt Club, where the guys meet on Friday nights to drink beer and plan that someday soon they'll head out to the woods with their favorite huntin' dogs to hunt raccoons . . . someday soon . . . then past more hills, more green, more cows, more ponds. Time to drive back to where you live which is not here. Time to go back to where you belong a mite more closely than you belong here.

You can go home again, even if you don't really belong there, as each tangy crumble of warm orange hoop cheese will remind you. You can go home with the taste of each bite taken into your hungry mouth, touching your tongue as you nibble with little bites till bit by bit the hypnotic, acidic, dense buttery haunting taste is done with. Home is where the heart is, and sometimes you can even taste it. No matter how you're dressed.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Dining Upon the Celebrity Chef

Photo Flickr - David Wulff

Today our guest blogger Moira Tuscanaro offers astrological advice on how to choose the chef just right for you.

Hello dolls it’s Moira! With Mars in a tailspin it is vitally important for us to focus on what is truly necessary to inform and improve our lives. We must focus on that which will move us to a higher plane of existence.

I speak now of Celebrity Chefs, of course. How indeed, could it be otherwise?! Purrrrrrr.

Who among us has not wanted to devour one of these tasty morsels?! Who has not spent hours driven nearly mad with a constantly-simmering sense of urgent desire driving one’s thoughts, endlessly thinking of every move they make, wanting so very badly to have been there, to have been by their haute and hunky sides as they smacked that head of garlic or slapped that ever-so-rude runner’s hand?! It is touching to see, this mad passion. And we should indulge it, and indulge it well. Who knows where this passion might carry us? Gazing at the stars is merely the start of the path. Perhaps a side-trip into the kitchen will follow. Meow.

Let us speak more of the Celebrity Chef. The food they create is just the tip of the iceberg. It merely serves to pique our interest in them personally. Who they are, what they do, their adventures in and out of money-making deals, whether they fulfilled the request for an order of foie gras in sheep’s milk and whether or not their hair was clean today! This knowledge is vital.

Astrology leads us to the higher planes of thought, where can then decide: Are they perfect enough for us? Have they done all things in the right fashion that we need them to? And their testicles – have they both descended? We are so darn pleased and quite excited in an odd sort of way to be recently edified (by a renowned expert in the restaurant consulting field in a story on a certain foodie website) that this knowledge *is* required in this decision-making process! Yes indeedy! We now understand that we must only deal with those chefs with both, descendant.

We will not speak of any women chefs here, for they are a breed apart. And besides, nobody ever mentions them anyway. Could this be due to the reason everyone knows deep within their true hearts? That the kitchen, indeed, is where women *really* belong? Mew.

Here, then, are your advisements. Enjoy, enjoy! There is nothing more emotionally delicious and truly exciting to the egotistical taste buds than feeling the savory hot juices of a celebrity chef dripping down a happily quivering double chin, particularly if he is live and on the hoof!


Aries: Your chef will have a ferocious temper. His enunciations will be fiery and his food will evoke thoughts of Amazonian adventures. His method of recipe development will be to arbitrarily toss bunches of pureed habanero peppers into every pan, after they were hand-chewed to a fine pulp by the easiest-going dishwasher on the staff. His hair will be messy, his chef’s coat bold with brightly embroidered titles. Many sparkling sauces will embolden your chef’s food, sauces made by reductions of as many pounds of wild game he can hunt each night from any slow-moving wait staff. Sharpen your teeth, Aries, and join him!

Taurus: Pork roast. Pork roast. Pork roast. Passionate pork roast. Pork roast with herbs. Pork roast stuffed with exotic fruits and braised in a fine red wine. Pork roast coated with fennel seed and garlic, wrapped in caul fat, slowly browned then cooked in milk. Your Taurean chef is there to sate you. Meat. Pork roast. Perhaps an artichoke to start, but a small one, enlivened with poached beef marrow and shaved Parmesan to kill off any vegetable flavor. Your earthy Taurean chef will make you so happy that you will be unable to stand up from the table after dinner. Fat, sublime, loving satisfaction will be yours. Take a bite.

Gemini: Look deeply into your Gemini celebrity chef’s eyes. You may notice their innocent, pure gaze. Don’t be surprised when important utterances he allows to fall from his heart-shaped lips are as confusing as dancing on a floor where a pound of butter landed. Pretty, pretty food, though. Food that is easy, light, whimsical, and sometimes threateningly towering. Do not forget to place your napkin on your lap while dining upon the Gemini chef. He is can shatter quickly into a joyous mess of delicious flaky crumbs.

Cancer: Cancer, your star-studded chef attends to the detailed requirements of status with the tenacity of a crab. Hints of his high quality will start outside the door to the restaurant, quiet yet audaciously tenacious reminders. Mind your manners with this chef! His food will not be as controversial as some you might find with the other astrological signs, but you will surely be eating a man who Knows Who He Is. Expect him to taste of the finest old Larousse or an equivalent modern text.

Leo: The Leo celebrity chef will announce himself with a toss of his glorious mane soon after you enter his restaurant! Watch his progress as he magnificently swooshes through the dining room, bowing and graciously kissing each lady’s hand! His food will be flamboyant. Foams that hit your chin as the dish is placed before you and truffles en masse, carved into tiny swans strewn over the baby piranha eggs draped over a flittery filo butterfly will merely whet your appetite for more, more, MORE of him! He will be ever so happy to oblige.

Virgo: Be quiet and be serious. Please wear your best clothes, dear Virgo, as you approach your chef. He is surprisingly skittish though touchingly formal. He will expect perfection from you as you dine every bit as much as he does from himself. Exude a sense of calm reflection as you eat your single perfectly poached mouthful of quail egg on the eighteen inch plate that the staff of three carry with completely straight faces to set before you. Take gentle small nibbles of him before chowing down for highest essence of flavor.

Libra: The Libran celebrity chef is usually so full of charm (when you can catch him awake and not napping under the pastry table) that you might have an intense urge to lick him all over endlessly before diving in. From his kitchen he will seduce you with creations made for the tiny bite. Some of them will look quite silly. Nevertheless, as you laugh, your hunger to really bite him and to really bite him hard, will increase. Indulge yourself. He won’t mind. He will consider it a chance to take a break.

Scorpio: Humble yourself before the Scorpio star chef’s menu creations. There is serious artistic merit invoked in each plate. If you act appropriately, there may be a seven-course meal provided, all for your appreciation. Make lots of happy noises while eating or he may hit you with his sharp tail or tongue.

Sagittarius: The gregarious Sagittarian chef is ready to entertain you by whatever means possible! Catch that still-flapping live fish as he throws it into the air towards you to prove its freshness! Tread upon the fresh herbs strewn along the floor towards the kitchen while deeply inhaling the aroma! Join the ranks of laughing wait staff at the bar for a drink or two while you endlessly wait for your table. It is all so much fun to have this happy raconteur of a star-studded chef in mind for a tasty meal. Don’t mind the mess, just enjoy the fun!

Capricorn: Bring a book. Bring maybe two books. This could take a while. If you have enough patience to wait for your Capricorn celebrity chef to finally deliver your whole grain ethically grown biologically unaltered specimen of DNA-checked intelligent tiny portion of poached fish with Arctic sea nettles, it will be worth it. Please keep quiet about the whole thing, and eat him with a sense of duty and an air exuded of undertaking a higher calling. He will appreciate it deeply and in a heartfelt way.

Aquarius: Get ready for glamour with this zodiac sign celebrity chef! Sighing with intense pleasure, he will be ready to strip off his Armani suit just for you to chow down upon him and all the creations on his luxurious menu. Most of them are only there for show, anyway, just to whet your taste. They really were never made by anyone in that kitchen at all. But so what! It is all in fun! Don’t forget to take off his Rolex before you start to nibble. It might give you an unpleasant shock.

Pisces: The mystery that your chef exudes is only matched by the tasty lightness of his food. Often he can forget to make any food whatsoever, being swathed in a lovely daydream of what it is he will put on his menu tomorrow. Nevertheless, this chef has a happy sweetness of taste that all the chefs from any other astrological sign lack, and the kitchen staff always remembers to keep cooking, so who cares?!

The stars have offered their advice to you, dear hungry ones.
Who exactly are these chefs in person? That is something the stars can not tell you. Only you will know that. Aside from the fact that these chefs are all men. Remember that these astrologic advisements do not apply to women chefs. They are a breed of their own and can not be defined within the parameters of what is flying around in the sky.

Only you have the understanding of your own hungers, particularly those that strike when the Moon is full and bright, as it lies omniscient and heavy in the sky as if straining its ears to hear the distant baying of howling hounds. Meow. Prrrrrrr.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Jam Tomorrow, Jam Yesterday

                                                            Photo Flickr-ms.Tea

But never jam today.

I know I promised to talk about chili, but as I must follow Lewis Carroll's rules it won't be today.

Instead there is something to read. It is more than good enough to eat. Wander to it if you'd like to read something warming and delicious in words. From Rachel - it's the last comment on the linked post.

I love to read Rachel's evocative writings. 

Friday, January 4, 2008

How 2 B A Food Riter

Writing about food is becoming an ever-more popular thing to do.

Everyone is an expert, too - for who does not eat among us?

I'm not sure how people used to become food-writers. Maybe they just decided to do it then did it but today the opportunities to study "food-writing" are growing with the verdant strength of mint in a hot summer garden. 

Even Stanford now offers an online course in food writing, which is not only listed on a Google search but is also advertised in the sponsored link section.

Could this be the wave of the future? Could the best food writing professors at major universities ultimately replace the football coaches in income-earning ability?

Admittedly, I'd like to see someone who talks of writing about food making several million dollars a year rather than someone who talks about how to throw balls while tackling each other - but that's just me.

Maybe if a dining competition were part of the program it could help. Teams of college students, all well versed in dining (dining, not eating) could fill the stadiums . . . the games scored by how knowledgeable and discriminatory they were in menu choices and table manners. Ah, what a lovely dream.

I bet it would improve food concessions and the general state of tailgating, too.

Tomorrow: Chili

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Meeting? Meating?

                                                                                     Photo Flickr-Jenguin

If it so happens that you are someone who likes meat, hates meat, or lives in a world where meat exists, you may enjoy taking a gander at Meatpaper.

"A print magazine of art and ideas about meat. We like metaphors more than marinating tips. We are your journal of meat culture" is the editors description of the magazine.

Nobody even has to ask where the beef is - the online site offers meaty bites of the corpus of the print versions.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Putting Gender on the Table

                                                Illustration Flickr-Todd Ehlers

It's possible one would rather have sex on the table, but this is a very good thing to read about. Food for the mind.

From Harvard (wooooo-hoooo!):

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Barry Fig's Chip

Hard, small, knotted stones rose suddenly, pulsing with pain in the hot wet corners of Barry Fig’s cheeks. A startling, loud squirting noise came from his mouth. Barry had vigorously, and quite inadvertently, salivated.

The taste reminded him of rice and sea salt blended into some gummy combination. Damn dream. It had embarrassed him in public once again. He moved away from the counter cautiously, pushing through brightly attired college students and dull corporate drones lined up for chai lattes and cappuccinos. He felt slightly dizzy and moved his hands to grip the cup more securely. As he sidled through the crowd, a glum silent little prayer repeated itself in his mind over and over, “I hope nobody heard that ridiculous noise I made!” But the sudden salivation must have been covered up by the steamy sound of the espresso machines. Nobody seemed to be staring at him. Barry decided to be thankful for small favors.

Into the low purple velvet chair he sunk, coffee held close to his chest. The chair squeaked a mild puff of protest as Barry sandwiched his not-undersized bottom fully into its soft seat. Brazilian music percolated a bass note into the warm room that was made so pleasantly bright by natural light that flowed through the floor- to-ceiling windows. A disparate river of voices blended together in happy hip-ness mixed with sharp scent-notes of cinnamon, chocolate, and perfumed soaps. A seamless wave of sophisticated urbanity existed here in this so-familiar coffee shop cocoon . . . the mood was always so smooth, so genial.

But today this damn dream was seriously getting in the way of Barry’s angst-free patina. Not even the four-dollar-ninety-five-cent-plus-dollar-tip-left-for-the-barista-with-a-smug-smile caramel macchiato helped erase the urgent discomfort that persistently bit at him.

Dodging his pale slightly bulbous blue eyes here and there to be sure nobody was watching he gave a quick hard sideways tug at his fancy leather belt to relieve the tight pressure edging into his gut. The epiphany occurred then, in a shocked demi-second of illumination. It struck him like a big red lobster clawing his nose. It was time for this dream to be made real. He knew it would bring so much to the world. Who wouldn’t love this? It was time. It was past time, really, for the world’s largest potato chip to be built.

His macchiato finished with a lip-licking slurp, Barry pushed up with his chubby wrists to leave his chair. Flipping open his cell phone to check the time with a practiced snap of his well-manicured hands, he emerged out into the sunlight. He decided to avoid the subway today – the end of the ride would no doubt be horrible in this heat. He raised his hand into the air, to hail a taxi out to his job on City Island as an assistant designer of elevator electrical panels.

Bouncing away on the slippery cab seat during the twenty-minute ride, his mind focused on the details of his dream, how he would do it . . . but it was all rather fuzzy. He needed help with this thing. He didn’t know anything about food. (Except to know what he liked, of course.) He needed money, too, probably, and his credit cards were all maxed out as usual. How did other people do things like this? A large billboard caught his attention. “Nike!” was brazenly splashed across the wide surface. Ugh. No, that wouldn’t do. Corporate support was okay for athletes, but personally he hated all corporations. They were evil. It was corporations that were to blame for most of the world’s ills. It was really sickening that they should have so much money and power.

He ran through the list of everyone he’d ever known . . . old friends, people he’d met on the elevator mechanics forum, family . . . but none of them had any money. Christ. How was this chip ever going to be brought into the world? But what about that guy his sister had dated last year . . . what was his name? Roan Haselshnitz! He knew stuff about food. He’d started three restaurants (none of them were still open, but anyway . . .) He’d made a mint. Now there was a really savvy business guy. Kind of guy Barry just naturally detested, but whatever. He’d get his phone number from his sister and give him a call.

“Barry, dude! What’s been going on?” Roan was the same as Barry had remembered (a bit too loud and hearty).“What’s Cassie been up to? Married yet?” Barry worked his way nervously through the usual chit-chat. His heart skipped a beat here and there as he waited to get to the point: his dream, his fantastic project! Bent closely over his work desk, he started to doodle a huge potato chip onto the message pad before him, but quickly tore off the pink sheet and crumpled it as once again the familiar sensation began in his always-ready taste-buds.

“Roan, dude. I uh . . . need your help, man. It’s about a project I’m working on. You know about food and stuff. And business and stuff. So I need to ask you something.”

“Sure, dude. Ask away!” Barry pictured Roan in a leather chair, leaning back, toying with an expensive cigar. He always pictured Roan with a cigar, even though Roan was a non-smoking kind of guy, the sort of guy that was always a bit too thin, too fit, too damn healthy, which was disturbing in some way to Barry. He opened his mouth to tell Roan his reason for calling, his dream, and a hot flash overcame him. He felt as if he were sweating bricks all of a sudden. Somehow, without passing out (yet without really knowing what he was saying) he rapidly burbled words into the receiver of the phone. God, this was hard. It was his dream. What if this guy laughed at him? Or worse, what if he just was totally bored by it?

At first when Barry stopped talking, he heard nothing. His blood felt as if it were starting to freeze in his veins, and the image of a frozen Icee flashed into his mind. He felt like he was spinning inside a big metal machine, all scrunched up and cold, palpably soft and over-sugared, just waiting to be expelled through a too-tight plastic tube into the sticky convenience-store atmosphere of real life.

“Whoa, man. That’s intense. I like it!” Roan’s voice came to him through the frozen fog. “Everyone likes potato chips. Who doesn’t like potato chips? Man, I almost feel my mouth salivating right now!”

Barry smiled. He knew that feeling. That feeling was a good one, as long as you were ready for it.

“I’m not in the food business exactly, anymore, Barry,” Roan said. “But I might be able to think of some ways to help you get set up.” Barry was shocked, and a bit worried, for how could the guy help if he wasn’t in the food business anymore?

“Most of my business now is done on the web, man. I have a couple of websites that generate income, actually pretty good income. They’re websites for foodies, you can make some good contacts there, dude. I’ll fill you in on the ropes. Your idea. . . will go over big, I’m pretty sure. Write me out a proposal for what you want to do and we’ll post it. We’ll give you a great online name. That always helps. Maybe we’ll even create a guy online to hassle you – that’ll get you the sympathy vote, and maybe even some bucks for backing. It’s a Gulliver’s Travels vs. Pinocchio sort of scene, you know. But we can work it for you. Listen, it’s made me a great income in the past six months. I love your idea!” he almost shouted through the phone with a huge guffaw of a laugh.

Barry didn’t understand most of what Roan was saying but what the heck. It sounded cool, and he was really anxious to find a way to build this chip. When Barry clicked off his cell phone twenty minutes later he and Roan were firm friends and new partners in the business of “The World’s Biggest Potato Chip.”

For two weeks now, Barry had been posting on Roan’s websites about his project to build the world’s biggest chip. At first he had some positive feedback, but no definite backers seemed to be interested. Each day he would log on to see what responses had come in. Each day things got worse and worse. People were posting ridiculous questions and even coming close to being insulting about his idea. “Posturing nincompoops,” he muttered to himself as he read the posts this morning. “Go fuck yourself.” That was the mantra he muttered each morning, over and over now, as he read the replies. “Go fuck yourself go fuck yourself go fuck yourself.”

But today was different. Someone had posted offering what looked like good ideas, along with an offer to help. She had one advanced degree in Marketing and another in Biology. Minx Calipher. “What a beautiful name,” Barry thought. Her posts were full of stuff about who had done what, here and there, in this somewhat limited field of building large food dreams. “Gossipy little bit of strudel!” Barry smiled to himself, pleased at discovering all this new and valuable information. He decided to contact her.

Finally, the project was underway. The chip was actually being grown, rather than built. A patent had been applied for in Minx’s name along with Roan’s, for they had provided the funds needed for the project. The only point of contention between the three had been about what sort of potato to use. Barry wanted to use an Idaho. An Idaho was already big to start off with, he figured, and had a sense of safety, and America, about it. Roan argued for Red Bliss, saying that the tensile strength of the potato would prove a good thing in the long run. Minx was for the idea of Peruvian Purples. So stylish and hip! After three days of bitter argument, they decided to leave the decision up to a vote by the members of Roan’s foodie website. Idaho won by a landslide.

The plan was to grow the potato chip to its full, giant size, then to prepare it for cooking by spraying all its surfaces with canola oil. It would then be air-baked by a team of chefs, each wielding a hot welding gun gently over the surface of the chip as they walked around and around it, just close enough to cook it to a perfect golden crisp.

Journalists called Barry weekly to find out the status of the project (one even invited him to guest judge on the top-rated TV show “Americas Biggest Chefs Spit Bricks”), for this would be the first giant potato chip ever developed with the use of Viagra as fertilizer. Minx, with her advanced degree in bio-engineering, had written a two hundred fourteen page thesis on the subject. Barry had scanned through it but had not bothered to read it, really, as first of all it looked like gibberish to him, which made him feel stupid, and second of all, he trusted Minx implicitly. Who wouldn’t! She was charming, and loved to wear tight low-cut blouses, which made her all the more believable.

In the small closed-off room in the basement at Barry’s office building in City Island, dimmed lights were hung at odd angles from the ceiling and the chip started to grow. It had been cut perfectly with a mandoline, an oval orb from an Idaho potato – then placed on a cut-open and taped-down Hefty lawn-and-leaf bag to grow. It was doused with a precise amount of liquid Viagra daily. Barry had taken to gulping a bit of the Viagra too, as Minx visited often. Not that he needed it, he told himself. When his chip came through, she surely would love him anyway.

And the chip did start to grow. First it extended into a larger oval, then grew even more. It had reached three feet in diameter when something started to change. It elongated into a shape longer than oval. It began to resemble a french fry more than a chip. Barry was extremely upset when he noticed the change, and called Minx to come over to the shop to take a look. He also was vaguely uncomfortable in general and was having difficulties walking because of his daily Viagra cocktails.

“Jeez, Barry! What are you worried about?” Minx asked with a warm hint of maternal concern in her voice, when she saw how the potato had grown. She laughed as she tossed her Chanel necklace out of the way in order to put her face up close to the large, strangely-shaped bit of potato. “We’ll just call it the world’s biggest french fry! People love french fries! Maybe even more than chips! Ahhh, we could even make the world’s largest ketchup packet.” She poked with her burgundy-manicured fingertip at the potato and smiled, well pleased.

Barry was wordless. His head pulsed with a pain that had started just above his left eye. This was his dream, had always been his dream, and she did not understand it! Sweat beads formed on his forehead and the taste-buds in the corners of his mouth felt hot, burning hot, and dry. They crumpled into sand-like piteous fragments like a taste-reminder of ancient stale Pop Rocks. Without thought, he grabbed Minx’s shoulder and twisted her around, pulling her up as she bent over the table, towards him, grasping her tiny waist and pulling her narrow bony hips up and jabbing into his own rounded frame, while still trying to stand up straight without embarrassing himself.

Minx let out a little shriek, pulling her chin so far back into her neck that Barry thought she looked exactly like a french fry herself for a moment. “Barry! Cut it out! I’m with Roan. Didn’t you know?” She pushed him away, hard, and as she did, he grabbed the Hefty lawn-and-leaf bag to try to keep his balance. The bag slid onto the floor and the potato went with it. As it landed on the floor, the elongated huge piece of potato broke into shattered bits.

Barry and Minx stared at it, breathing hard, frozen in time and space. Minx was the one who moved first, to start to clean it up. “I’m sorry, Barry. I guess that’s the end of that.”

It was the end of Barry’s hopes and dreams. Minx and Roan sold the story of the chip to a scientific journal then used the money to take a trip to Cuba where, Barry imagined, they were smoking small vile cigars and drinking bad rum at this very moment. His dream had been crushed, ruined, and on top of that he’d had to consult a medical specialist to help with the problem that he’d developed from drinking all that Viagra. He couldn’t start over again with another chip, for Minx and Roan owned the patent to the idea.

One bright morning, on his way to work a few months later, he patiently waited in line at the coffee shop. A strange woozy feeling came over him. A dream. A new dream. No longer a chip. Instead, the image of a doodle came rushing with a vibrant glory into his mind. A cheese doodle. The biggest cheese doodle in the world. And it would be his. It would be Barry Fig’s Big Doodle. He couldn’t wait to begin. Sometimes, he thought, a chip is just not enough.

Barry smiled, and salivated loudly with a startling, loud squirting noise, surrounded by all the brightly attired college students and dull corporate drones lined up for chai lattes and cappuccinos.

Environments Near Far and Virtual

Monkeys at the Feast

Monkeys at a feast. In ways it reminds me of humans on the information superhighway.

It's astonishing the ways online environments have replaced real ones in terms of time spent in various degrees, for various purposes. 

In the past year I learned a lot about the virtual experience. On the plus side, there are some people who over time have shown themselves to be rather wonderful people in my life, though I do not know them "in person". On the minus side (but not really for all things learned lead to some sort of hoped-for wisdom) there are some people or environments which (just as in real life) have proved to be toxic in my life.

The toxic in life always startles me. Intellectually I'm ready for it but nevertheless there is always an element of surprise, emotionally. One never wants to see the toxic, of course.

The great thing is that when one departs from a place or person that is toxic the feeling of possibilities increase as if by magic. And of course in reality the possibilities increase too, for there is no longer a struggle of the confusion wrought not by good fairies but rather by imps.

I recently read a post by a new member of a website (or rather the website prefers to be called a "Society" actually) a few weeks ago and it made me laugh aloud. It was this new member's first post and though they noted that they dared to do it in order to contribute their thoughts to the topic, nonetheless they somehow felt "guilty" just for noting their thoughts, and that this had never occurred at any other site, and they could not really put their finger on the "why" of it.

So often I had felt the same way when participating in this "Society". Being versed in management I often wondered how this could happen (for it not only happened to me but to other people I knew and more than a handful of them too).

Was it an operational flaw? Lack of management structure or accountability? Was it due to the fact that there was no real pay given to management types but rather there was the coin of ego boost attached to title given, the feeling of being part of the powerful (sic) in-group, the bonus of having their essays printed in the literary section of the site? (All good things but not in the real world equating to the variety of professionalism granted when compensation by real money is given for a job done.)

Or was it due to the leader?

I've developed a thesis by watching things over the years: The priest makes the church. The rituals are important, the structure is required - the supporting cast necessary, too - but the final tone of the place is set by the priest or leader.

Why did this person new to the site feel guilty? Why have so many other people been made to feel quite odd and uncomfortable when they do not feel so at other places?

I don't have an answer to that. And can't really find one that satisfies me, for the Society I speak of (or the website anyway, which has named itself a Society), although seemingly transparent in all things operational is in reality opaquely transparent in all things operational. One might think a lawyer designed it.

And goodness knows what lies at the hearts of things lawyers design.

There are so many other environments, though. Near, far, and virtual. I'm pleased to have found that there are no new members posting of feelings of guilt in any of them I've noticed so far.

I feel like a new woman, having emigrated from a place where I often felt quite uncomfortable. 

In the new year to come, if you feel uncomfortable or unhappy, do consider yourself . . . consider what contribution your own acts may have conspired to have this be so. But do also consider your environment. 

Some can be toxic. 

If we are to be monkeys at the feast let's be sure the food is to our tastes. If not, search out another table. Good tastes are waiting, somewhere.

Chomp chomp.