Ya buy ’em books…

An elementary school I drive by daily is emblazoned with signs announcing their ongoing book fair, and I will admit to a bit of nostalgia.  An only child, books were my constant companions, and book fair time at Horace Mann Elementary in Minneapolis meant my usually-not-overly-indulgent parents were willing to drop a few bucks at my behest.

Good stuff, Maynard.

I tried to indulge my own kids to an extent every time a bookfair rolled around, but those were different affairs – much more than books available for purchase.  Now, as a New Orleans teacher for the past nine years, I have encountered even more of the whole Scholastic book-selling-cases-on-wheels operation. A few years back, I was working at a K-12 charter school.  One afternoon, the delivered carts and cases full of books and related paraphernalia was pretty well in place in our school library, and I got to browse a bit. Many of the young adult titles and series looked familiar, and it was nice to see that many of the various series I remember from their younger days are still around, with new some titles in the series, to boot. (The gang from Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type are still going hilariously strong – bless ‘em.) There was also an admirable selection of classics.

As I roamed our makeshift Barnes and Ignoble, one of the selections on the ‘Adult Bestsellers and Cookbooks’ table caught my eye. It was a cookbook entitled “9 x 13:  The Perfect-Fit Dish – More than 180 family favorites to fit America’s most popular pan.” For the record, had I been asked ‘name America’s favorite pan’ I would have answered, “Sauce”.

Only in America: a cookbook predicated on a specific size of pan.

Sorry, but I couldn’t see this in the same vein as crock-pot cookery, or Dutch oven cooking like we did in Boy Scout days. This is something else entirely. The phrase ‘lame gimmick’ came to mind.

The blurbs on the back cover of the book are intended to be, one supposes, enlightening. To wit:

“A 9×13 pan can do everything from roasting a chicken to baking brownies!”

Really?

But there was more…

“Feast on comfort foods you grew up with, including Beef Stroganoff Casserole and Tuna Noodle Casserole.”

Sure, let’s recycle the gastronomic 1950’s – only in the correct sized pan! Let’s also salvage the word ‘casserole’ from the culinary dust heap. (Personal, two-part aside: 1. I hail from the Midwest, where the term ‘hot dish’ reins supreme over ‘casserole.’ 2. I know of very few people who would make a hot dish in a 9 x 13 pan.  That is what ‘casserole’ dishes are for, Chucklebunnies.)

So continueth the back cover hype:

“Revel in new flavor twists such as Cajun Mac and Cheese and Chocolate Chipotle Brownies.”

Chipotle brownies? Last guy I knew who put spicy herbs in brownies ended up getting two years probation.

But there was additional hype – and we haven’t even left the cover of the book yet:

“Dig into potluck pleasers such as Smokin’ Tetrazzini and Herbed Chicken and Orzo.”

‘Smokin’ Tetrazzini’ falls somewhere between ‘Cajun blackened’ and ‘left under the broiler too long’ while Chicken and Orzo is shorthand for ‘chicken-and-schizophrenic-starch.’  Is it pasta? is it rice? Is it crawling around your plate?

Then there are the recipes – no! Wait! The cookbook opens with a helpful ‘Pan Comparison’ page in which they compare 9×13 pans, covering various and sundry pluses and minuses.

‘Glass or Stoneware’ 9x13s have more pluses than ‘Metal’ 9x13s – but also more minuses; ‘breakable, cannot withstand sudden temperature change’ among them. (Pyrex or Corning Ware anybody?) Chief plusses include ‘Clear glass makes it easy to monitor browning’ and ‘Shows off beauty of gelatin or layered salads’ (except for stoneware, I guess) and then my personal favorite glass-or-stoneware ‘plus’:

“Some pans come with lids.”

Golly, what will they think of next? And why haven’t those pesky metal 9×13 manufacturers gotten on this ‘lid’ bandwagon? They don’t have it listed as a metal ‘plus,’ so one wonders.

And we can’t forget our third category of 9×13 pan, the ever popular…

plastic?

Plastic pans? Containers, maybe. Vessel, receptacle, canister, holder are all reasonable possibilities. But plastic pans? As we like to say in our household, “I don’t think so, Tim.”

The authors state that while plastic 9x13s are ‘good for no-bake recipes, refrigerator salads and freezer desserts’ they do allow in the minus column that they ‘may not be used for baking.’

That’s news you can really use, though there is not a word said about lids and plastic nine-by-thirteens. The authors need a Tupperware intervention, stat!

A bargain at $16.99, even without reading the actual recipes.

Just out of curiosity, I wondered what the book sold for elsewhere, and clicked over to Amazon, where I found not only the edition of the cookbook that we will be selling, but also this rather curious entry:

9 X 13: The Perfect-Fit Dish (In Memoriam Volume III Exclusive Edition) In memoriam?
Volume III?
That is a lot of commemorating.

I kid you not -new and used editions available…but that’s all on-line. Curiously, no mention of just who is being commemorated via cake pan.

Though $16.99 for a 9×13 pan cookbook seems pennywise, but pan foolish.

Hey, it’s all for books for the kids, right?

‘Chicken is chicken. Parts is parts.’

A friend recently posted a note on Facebook concerning her young sons voracious appetites, bemoaning the fact that her first-grader could “apparently eat a whole rotisserie chicken by himself!’”

Ahh, rotisserie chicken.

At one time or another, we’ve all had the need for a quick meal. If you are really in a rush, you can go the convenient but less than healthy fast-food route, or you hit the grocery store deli area for something already prepared and ready for you to just grab and bring home. One of the more popular grocery store grab-and-go’s are those golden brown, rotating slowly on the spit chickens.

As they are known in our house, ‘Barbarian Chickens.’

When our now sixteen year old son Will was seven, we picked up a rotisserie chicken for dinner one night. While setting the table, washing hands, etcetera, we put it in the center of the table, and Will stared at it quizzically, sitting there in its black plastic container with the clear top. He knew what it was, but he was used to having his chicken served on a plate, cut up, so was a bit puzzled. His younger brother Sam was non-plussed awaiting whatever was put on his plate.

We opened the steaming carton, cut the chicken up and served it without incident that night; Will ate it without any vehemence whatsoever that night, nor any of the others that we opted for a deli bird.

One chicken night changed that.

Will and Sam had been at daycare, where they had seen a movie in which a character goes glutton and messily gorges himself on a large turkey leg. Having also previously seen a commercial for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in which a corpulent king poses with a large drumstick, Will politely (and ironically) asked if, the next time we had rotisserie chicken, he could eat it ‘like a barbarian’ – ripping the drumsticks off with his bare hands before chowing down.

Seemed like a one-and-done deal to me,so, why not?

A few nights later, we brought home both the boys and a golden brown, hot and juicy chicken fresh off the grocery store Ferris wheel. There was a palpable excitement as we set the kitchen table, and once we sat down and said grace. Will asked if he could he could have at it, and we said yes.

We removed the clear lid of the chicken container, and Will dove in – grabbing the drumstick closest to him and yanking it. And then yanking it again. Fortunately, the bird was tender and easily separated from the bird’s thigh on that second yank. Will looked at it triumphantly for a moment, then dove in doing his best-as-could-be-expected-for-a-seven-year-old Henry VII impersonation, tearing (plucking?) meat from bone with a gleeful smile.

Thus was born, as it is known in this household to this day, ‘Barbarian Chicken.’

Fast-forward some seven, eight years and we were now living in New Orleans. To supplement my teaching income, I was working part-time as a cashier at an upscale neighborhood market that had a large deli department and a loyal following or their prepared foods – expecially rotisserie chickens. The store featured different seasoning combinations of the rotating fowl, and they were quite popular not just for dinner, but as the base for a good New Orleans staple – the stock for gumbo. It wasn;t uncommon for customers to buy five or six chickens at a time.

One night one of our regular customers came in and we were chatting as I scanned her three birds, making a comment that she usually only purchased two. The woman shook her head and told me that they were all destined for gumbo prep, as her kids ‘didn’t like the chicken anymore’ which she attributed to a ‘pickiness phase’ by her three kids, ages eight-to-eleven and lamenting the kids disinterest, as she and her husband both liked the chicken.

“My boys love it when I bring home Barbarian Chicken.” I remarked casually.

“What did you call it?” the woman replied with a laugh as I bagged her fresh asparagus and kale.

Explaining the story to her, she nodded and I could see the light-bulb clicking on. She paid for her groceries, then asked if she could leave her cart behind my register briefly. A few minutes later returning with three more chickens purchased at the deli.

“I’ll let you know how it goes” she said enthusiastically as she headed out the door.

A few nights later she there she was in my line with another load of groceries, sans chicken this time. She said she was glad I was working because she wanted to tell me when I told her  my story about ‘Barbarian Chicken’ she knew she could get her kids into the concept with exactly that sales pitch, and that it had worked like a charm. Her husband found the dinner-table Phillistine angle odd but effective, as their once bored-with-rotisserie chicken-boys chowed down with gusto on the re-branded ‘Barbarian Chicken.’

And they weren’t the only ones.

In my time at the store, I frequently recommended our rotating birds to many a stumped-on-what-to-fix-for-dinner mom, along with the Lucker-family label for the treat. It wasn’t long before store customers were coming up to my register with multiple roasted fowl and reminding me that it was “Barbarian chicken night at our house.”

I wonder if Bananas Foster got started this way?

I no longer work at the market, and the whole gluttonous role play thing is only a memory. Will is now sixteen, Sam thirteen, and on the rare occasions we have barbarian chicken, both boys handle it in a refined manner more reminiscent of Henry Gibson than Henry VII – though they still refer to it by its more romantic moniker.

That’s just how we roll. How the chickens roll.

Or at least, how they rotate.

An Editorial Condimentary

For the past few years, Taco Bell hot sauce packets have been covered with witty, conversational phrases; ‘Dibs on the taco’ “I see how you look at other sauces’ ‘Saying goodbye is the hardest part of this job’ and ‘Has catsup been talking smack about me?’ are among the current crop.

Aside from the archaic ‘catsup’ spelling, I have found these hot sauce packets to be moderately amusing, and good conversation starters – something needed when at Taco Bell.

While traveling in Minnesota over Christmas, we had dinner one night at Famous Dave’s Barbeque, a favorite road trip stop,and I picked up a few of their large sauce packets to go with our leftover ribs. Only when I got back to our hotel room did I discover that they, too, were ‘speaking’ to me.

The Dave’s basic Rich and Sassy sauce packets I got say ‘Best when eaten, not worn’ and ‘Whole hand lickin’ good’ while the packets of (the really hot) Devil’s Spit variety state ‘Ketchup’s evil twin’ and ‘Smoke. Ears. You get the picture’ and, my personal favorite, ‘Dave didn’t make a deal with the Devil, just a licensing agreement.’

I don’t mind witticism’s (I, in fact, enjoy them) coming from my condiments, but I am concerned that mayonnaise and mustard have, to date, been silent.

Why is that?

Sixteen year old son Will thinks he knows: “It’s a campaign by ‘The Man’(a.k.a. Ronald McDonald) to keep mayonnaise and mustard down. Maybe it’s time for an ‘Occupy McDonald’s’ movement.”

As he uses neither mayonnaise nor mustard, I’ll chalk that one up to youthful but well placed radical thought.

While I don’t think it is a vast conspiracy against non-reddish food accoutrements, I’d also hate to think it is some sort of condimental inferiority complex going on here; that would be wholly unjustified. Maybe mayonnaise and mustard could join forces to state their case to the general public. They work so well together in certain instances (think corned beef sandwich on pumpernickel, ham and Swiss on caraway rye, pastrami on a Kaiser Roll, etc.) it’s hard to believe they couldn’t state their case for condimental equality convincingly, or form some sort of comedy team.

Somebody needs to take up the cause of the voiceless.

We have a couple of small plastic tubs in our pantry filled with a wide array of condiments in packet form picked up from various locales; they’re great to toss in with school and work lunches or into picnic baskets. Of all the plastic and foil pouches of honey, ketchup, crushed red peppers, hot sauce, parmesan cheese, lemon juice, salad dressing and wet wipes hanging out in there, none of them try to be funny – they just go about their business. Effective, pedestrian, dull.

(For the record, the soy sauce and duck sauce in our condiment tubs have extraneous stuff written in Chinese, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t trying to be funny. Conversely, the folks at K.F.C. have some rather pretentious honey on their hands; ‘Honey Sauce’? Seriously?)

But mustard and mayonnaise have something special going on, and they deserve to be heard.

My experience with both tells me their conversational tone would be interesting. There is diversity in the mustard community; regular yellow mustard, brown mustard, spicy brown mustard, coarse ground mustard, even Cajun mustard – all would be delightful to hear from.

While there is less variety in the mayonnaise family, this is still a full-bodied condiment with a story to tell. (One might even grudgingly allow Miracle Whip to have a say here, though I personally consider Miracle Whip more  bathroom caulk than mayonnaise.)

Maybe mustard and mayo (M&M) could go a different route than the taco and barbecue sauces; perhaps something along the lines of Nietzsche quotations or song lyric lines form the 60’s – something hip, but staying away from any ‘fortune cookie’ like clichés. Just a thought.

I just think that mustard and mayonnaise need more respect, and anything they can do to get it for themselves I’ll get behind.

Keep this all in mind the next time you are at the condiment island of a fast food place, mall food court or a cafeteria – or while strolling the hallways of a hotel looking at used room service trays set outside of rooms for pickup (that’s usually where you get the big packets of unopened good stuff like salad dressings/vinaigrettes and cocktail sauce. Shelf stable sour cream, exotic jellies, salt-and-pepper shakers and half-and-half are a whole different post) and ask yourself, ‘what condiment really speaks to me, and what exactly, is it saying?’

This oversight needs to be corrected; mustard and mayonnaise deserve their due, need to be heard.

Please spread the word.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch…”

A recent Saturday evening found us out for dinner with a group of about twenty friends from church. It was a pleasant evening to sit in the courtyard of New Orleans’ Parkway Tavern enjoying the po boys, the conversation and fellowship. I was sitting next to Pastor Eric, and he and I were talking to some of the college kids from our youth group, who were sitting across the table.

A couple of them suddenly jerked their heads up, looking surprised, and Eric and I both turned around to see what was behind us.

There is small, roofed overhang on one side that shields the courtyard staff work area. On top of the roof was a black cat that apparently frequents the restaurant. He was nonchalantly sitting there, flicking his tail and licking his chops, apparently awaiting some sort of table scrap pouncing opportunity from our group.

I matter-of-factly went all Groucho Marx on the gang, stating definitively, “You know, a black cat crossing your path is a sure sign the animal is headed someplace.”

There was a pause, as the college kids digested the logic before nodding silent approval.

Pastor, Eric, who at ten years my junior and over a year as my pastor, is just starting to really get used to such stray utterances, turned and looked at me and said, “So is that what you do – just sit there passing out sage advice?”

“Guess so” I nodded, “About twenty years earlier than I had planned on, but yeah, it is what I do these days, pass out sage advice.” I paused. “Though sometimes it’s more…you know, tarragon advice; a bit more subtle with some complexity.”

Eric just looked at me, shook his head, went back to his po boy, sort of smiling.

I think I get prayed for more than some of the others.

The other day a purple pen I had in my pants pocket began leaking, soaking through the cotton lining of the pocket, and leaving me with two big, round purple splotches on my upper right leg.

It looked, in the mirror, like those U.S.D.A. stamps they put on sides of beef, so the natural inclination while getting ready for bed that night was to show my wife, then ask, seductively, “So, honey, what am I? Select? Choice? Prrrrime?”

“Ummm, suurrrrrre” she said, nodding in puzzlement, “One of those.”

On the plus side, she could’ve just said, “Alpo factory.” Theres an app stamp for that.

Mooooooooving on to….

October’s Household Quote of the Month:

“I’m thinking ahead here. My paranoia is getting the best of me.” – Will Lucker, 15 going on 37

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                As happens so frequently, while looking for something complete unrelated on the Internet, I stumbled across this, and now have the perfect wedding gift idea for most any couple: Twister sheets.I also have some twenty-fifth anniversaries to be noted over the next few years, so what I’m looking for now is a set of sheets based on the game Operation.

For gift giving in between those two chronological points, perhaps some matching his-and-hers Ouija board boxers.

Or maybe just send a card.

Until the next time, then.  Have a happy.

Liner notes from a week in ‘Nawlins

New Orleans is indeed, a musical town.

Friday morning I was driving to work, and one of my favorite oldies comes on the radio, so I crank it up and start singing along. I’m zipping down the interstate singing along with Simon & Garfunkel’s rockin’ Cecilia, and I look over to find the guy in the nice Sonata next to me is also singing along, and it seems like he is really belting it. I also see that while his left hand is secure on the wheel, with his right he has really got the bongo -beat going to town on the steering wheel and dashboard. I catch another glimpse, he looks my way, we make eye contact, he sees that I too, am singing along, nods in agreement, keeps on singing – as do I.

At this point, most people in most places would get self-conscious and stop singing, look the other way, slink down in their seat a bit, blush, or…

But not in ‘Nawlins. Here, we all just keep singing, keep driving. I know this, because it happens once or twice a month during my morning commute.

It’s New Orleans, baby; even when you can’t hear each other, you keep on singing for that shared musical experience.

“Jubilation She loves me again,
I fall on the floor and I am laughing!
Jubilation! She loves me again,
I fall on the floor and I am happy!

Ooooohhhh Cecelia….”

# # #

The other day the alarm went off right on the opening bars of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’ Tijuana Taxi. It’s a nice, jaunty little tune to pop out of bed to – even prevented me from hitting the snooze for once, as I mariachied right into the bathroom.

There is no punch line for this one; I just wanted to use the phrase “mariachied right into the bathroom” in my blog.

# # #

Saturday night we went with some friends to a legendary ‘Nawlins po-boy place, the Parkway Bakery &Tavern; it was everything it was said to be and more, food and atmosphere wise. A great time was had by all, and one of their special little quirks is truly New Orleans as well.

It’s one of those places where you place your order, then get called over the P.A. system to pick it up – only at the Parkway, you can’t use your name, they ask you what musical artist you want to be known by. The guy who ordered just ahead of us was Elvis, and as I was ordering, I heard a call for Bruce Springsteen. I also heard a quick call for Phil Collins ( I didn’t need to be eating with him) and one of our dining companions was Paul Simon.  (A guy behind me also wanted to be Elvis, but was told Elvis already had an order in.)

Michael was the gregarious, middle-aged guy at the counter taking our order, and as he rang it up, he asked the question I had been told to expect; “And what musical artist would you like to be known as tonight?”

“Just call for Frank Sinatra.”

“Ohhh, good choice, Frank!” as he swiped my debit card through the register. “What’s your favorite Sinatra song?” He handed me the card.

“Mmmm. That’s Life.” I replied without hesitation.

“Ooooh, great choice, Frank! ‘You’re riding high in April…”

“…shot down in May… “ I continued, to the chagrin and head shaking of my wife, who went quickly around the corner to get her Diet Coke.

“You ever hear him sing in person?” Michael asked.

“Nope.”

“I caught him once right toward the end of his career, wasn’t at his top form, but still worth every penny.”

“I have found some great videos of him in concert on YouTube, though.” I added

“You know, there is a brand new boxed DVD set just came out. It’s fabulous. You should check it out.”

“Cool. I’ll have to do that.”

Michael handed me my receipt. “You have a great night now, Frank.”

We certainly did.

And our New Orleans beat goes on…