Have a Fictitious Meal

A book club I participate in recently asked members what characters from fiction they would like to host for a dinner. I went with Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye), Ignatius J. Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces), Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing (Fear of Flying), T.S. Garp (The World According to Garp), and Juliet Capulet (Romeo & Juliet) If they are allowed to bring a plus one it would be, in order, Phoebe, his mother, Adrian, Jenny, and Romeo Montague.

But what about the food? I’m not much of a chef and not very adventurous with menus. But how about a fictitious meal?

Fictitious Dishes is a bit of a cookbook without recipes, maybe a coffee table book that people page through, one they borrow from the library or give as a gift to a literary person who likes to cook. It is a pretty book. It has re-creations of meals from classic and contemporary literature with some excerpts from books, information about the food, author, their works, and the food itself.

I can see someone doing Mad hatter’s Tea Party from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Maybe you can read The Bell Jar while eating its crab-stuffed avocado. Not every selection is elegant. From The Catcher in the Rye, we get a cheese sandwich (on rye?) and drink a malted.

But how about an elegant jazz age party with Gatsby: “glistening Hors-d’oeuvre” and cocktails. Looking to be fancy? Boeuf en Daube from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Some New England clam chowder with Ishmael and Queequeg from Moby-Dick

I love the novel Moby-Dick. I don’t love clams in or out of chowder. Ever since I dissected a clam in AP biology and discovered that people eat the part that filters junk out of the water I haven’t been a fan. I grew up with the Manhattan tomato-based version and the New Jersey variation which has Old Bay crab spices and asparagus and the less clam the better. I can live with the Moby addition of salted pork (Jersey Taylor ham or pork roll?), pounded sea biscuit, and lots of butter. Some good crusty bread and good coffee and I might just reread Melville again with a bowl of chowder in front of me the next cold November in my soul.

As I said, I’m not that adventurous when it comes to food. I tend to like the peasant foods from every culture – Italian, Mexican, French, Indian, German – take your pick. I’m going to go simple American with my meal from a favorite book – To Kill a Mockingbird‘s fried chicken, tomatoes (from my Jersey garden), beans, scuppernong (I had to look that up. They are a Southern big, white grape that is tart) and nice fresh-from-the-oven rolls. Dessert is some apple pie ala mode (coffee or cinnamon ice cream is my preference) from On the Road. Ala mode on the road. Sounds good.

Fat Tuesday

King Cake
King Cake

Today is Fat Tuesday. If you want to be more French, it is Mardi Gras. It began as a preface to the religious holy day of Ash Wednesday. It is the last day to eat up the fatty foods before the ritual fasting of Lent which is a penitential season.

I’m taking Fat Tuesday quite literally this year. On this Tuesday, I am feeling fat and my scale tells me it’s more than a feeling. I hit my all-time heaviest this past weekend. I’ve done it before and I have shed 25 pounds before and then eventually gained it all back.

On Fat Tuesday, people would indulge one last time in foods that they might give up as their Lenten sacrifice for the upcoming forty days. Being brought up Catholic, my mother and the church made a big deal about giving up something you enjoyed for Lent. Chocolate, candies, desserts were typical choices. I recall people giving up (or trying to give up) television, cursing, and other bad habits. Our local church held an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast on this day, perhaps as a way to illustrate the sin of gluttony.

Church bells seemed to ring more often as another reminder of what sinners we had become and remind us to now repent. The church didn’t formally endorse Fat Tuesday but since a season of fasting was ahead you had to get rid of all the forbidden foods. You weren’t going to thrown away good food away, so this idea of partying and eating all remaining foods began. The non-religious party that is Mardi Gras begins two weeks before the day that carries the name.

At one time, the fasting was more serious. Forbidden foods included meat, eggs, and dairy products. Shrove Tuesday is the name given to today by many Christians, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Roman Catholics. For those who mark the day in a religious manner, it is about self-examination, considering the wrongs you need to repent, and what life changes you need to make. It does seem an appropriate day to start a diet.

This moveable feast is determined by when Easter occurs. The name “Shrove Tuesday” comes from the word shrive, an archaic verb meaning “absolve” from the Old English scrÄ«fan which meant “to impose as a penance.”

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. (Lent is a 40-day season because the Sundays aren’t counted. ) The 40-day period represents Christ’s time of temptation in the wilderness, where he fasted and where Satan tempted him. Lent symbolically, if not literally, asks believers to set aside time for similar fasting before Christ’s resurrection.

This first day of Lent is about confession and absolution. The symbolic ritual of burning of the previous year’s Holy Week palms happens on this day. On Ash Wednesday, the repentance ashes on put on the foreheads of churchgoers. As a child, I found this frightening as the priest would say “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” And since it was a school day, if you went to the early morning mass, you wore those ashes to school. It identified you. Maybe in a good way or a bad way depending on your neighborhood and classmates.

Foods that are traditionally eaten on Fat Tuesday (or during Mardi Gras) can be sweet. In the UK, Fat Tuesday is Pancake Day, and in Poland, it’s Paczki Day named for those jelly-filled doughnuts. In the U.S., places like New Orleans that celebrate Mardi Gras often serve the colorful King Cake with its rich, brioche dough and filled with cinnamon, chocolate, and cream cheese. But the food can also be fatty and savory, such as fried Po’Boys.

I’m treating that day as a second chance New Year’s resolution. Eat up the remaining ice cream, donuts, chips and dip, and then try to give up all that bad food for 40 days. Maybe prayers would help.

A detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Fight between Carnival and Lent’, 1559

The Long Tail of Greasy Tony’s

Greasy Tony's, NJ

Greasy Tony’s in NJ once upon a time

What is it about a short, simple post about a New Jersey food joint that went out of business that keeps it appearing in the top 10 posts read here?

Back in 2008,  I posted a story called Greasy Tony’s Reborn in the Desert.  Tony’s was I place I frequented in the early 1970s as an undergrad at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

It had good, fast, greasy food. Nothing extraordinary. It vanished in 1992, a victim of the university’s expansion. The students who made it popular caused its demise.

Whatever following Greasy Tony’s place might have had, it doesn’t explain why the post has “legs” (or a “long tail” as it is known online).

Is it the title of the post – reborn in the desert? Was it the mention of James Gandolfini (a Rutgers grad) eating a cheesesteak in the resurrected eatery in the Arizona desert?

Mr. Greasy Tony, Tony Giorgianni, died in 2008, so that is not topical news.

If you found that post, or this one, how about a comment here about why you came here. It puzzles me.

Update: 2022

A sharp-eyed reader let me know that they spotted a Greasy Tony’s t-shirt in the movie Revenge of the Nerds being worn by Booger. I guess someone connected to the film knew of the place. Perhaps this explains why some people search online and find these posts.

Nerds

The Nap After Thanksgiving Dinner

dinner
Image by Julie Rothe from Pixabay

Are you already prepping for Thanksgiving dinner? That might mean food prep or it might mean sleep prep.

This has always been my wife’s favorite holiday – no gifts, no cards, no religious affiliations, just food and family and friends and a time to count your blessings. In years past, we had quite a crowd with our parents, some bachelor(ette) aunts and friends who didn’t have family and our own two boys. This year the parents and aunts have passed on. Our boys are off with their in-laws, so it will be a quiet holiday.

Thanksgiving is also a day when Americans – who already eat too much – will make and eat too much to an even larger degree. And that often leads to the after-dinner nap on the couch. Sleep after a big meal is never a good idea for digestion, but you cant’ help it after that turkey and fixings. Right?

Did you see the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George force a lot of turkey on a woman so that she will fall asleep and they can play with her classic toy collection? It has long been thought that because turkey has the amino acid L-tryptophan, that it causes that after-dinner hangover. But is the turkey really what makes you so tired?  Maybe not.

Fact: L-tryptophan is an amino acid responsible for producing serotonin in our brains and serotonin is a hormone that affects mood. It makes us feel happy and relaxed and plays a role in helping us sleep and also aids with digestion. And turkey has L-tryptophan. But some research shows that the amino acids and protein in turkey have the opposite effect. They can inhibit L-tryptophan’s ability to produce serotonin which means it would keep you awake.

And yet the after-dinner turkey day snooze is real. What is causing it? It’s carbohydrates. The bread, rolls, stuffing, potatoes, cake and pie, when eaten with high protein foods like turkey will lead to feeling sleepy and sluggish.

How can we beat that sleepy effect? Don’t starve before the main meal because you’ll eat too fast and too much. (I know that you said that you didn’t eat all morning in order to “save room” for dinner.) Eat smaller portions of those carbs. Fight off the habit or urge to nap by getting outside for a little walk or some touch football.

So, now that I have taken some of the pleasure out of the holiday meal, is there any good coming out of traditional Thanksgiving foods? I searched and yes, there is some good news.

I have never met a potato I didn’t like and mashed potatoes are high on my list. Potatoes are full of potassium which lowers blood pressure and nourishes muscles and they have a lot of vitamin B6 which helps metabolism. Note that adding a lot of salt, gravy or butter can cancel out any benefits.

Fresh vegetables have fiber, Vitamins A, B1, B2 and B6 and calcium. The green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and the crunchy onions is not so great for your health.

I love stuffing. I will have a stuffing sandwich the day after Thanksgiving. I know, it’s bread on bread. But stuffing can be made healthier with the addition of whole wheat bread with the crusts and nuts, seeds, meat or vegan protein and carrots, celery and other veggies so that you get more fiber, antioxidants and nutrients. My wife’s recipe has all that and it is delicious.

How about pumpkin pie? I just read that many pumpkin products are actually made from other squashes and they can legally be labeled as pumpkin. Bummer. Pumpkin pie with real pumpkin contains potassium, vitamin C and beta-carotene, which can help lower the risk of cancer. Again, what else you add to the pie (sugars, whipped cream etc.) might tip the scale from beneficial to harmful.

I wish you moderation and gratitude on your Thanksgiving day. Eat well. And after the meal, maybe toss a football around before you watch other people toss one around on a screen from your comfy couch.

Caffeine and Consciousness

coffee tea

Like a number of things, coffee, or rather caffeine, seems to be good for you and then bad for you depending on what year we are in.

Currently, caffeine “contributes much more to your health than it takes away.” Says who? Says food, drink and psychedelics writer Michael Pollan.  Caffeine has been shown to improve focus and memory, and even your ability to learn. Did you pull some caffeine-fueled late-night study sessions in college? Did it work?

Caffeine doesn’t help most people sleep. I avoid it after 3 pm but my wife can have an espresso before bedtime and sleep the same.

I don’t know if I’m so much a caffeine fan as I am a coffee and tea fan. I even like herbal teas (no caffeine and technically not tea but tisanes) and decaf drinks. But considering that caffeine keeps me awake at night, I suppose that my morning coffee must do the opposite. I do know that when I tried going decaffeinated I experienced severe headaches for a week. Withdrawal from cold turkey.

I have read a half dozen books by Pollan and written about him before. He is a good, serious and interesting writer. Pollan wrote Caffeine: How coffee and tea created the modern world as an audiobook. It’s not that the Enlightenment occurred because of coffee but “Isaac Newton was a big coffee fan… and Voltaire apparently had 72 cups a day,” writes Pollan.

Ah, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Revolution. Big things that owe something to the coffee house. These places appeared London around 1650.

Coffee houses quickly found their clientele which gathered around interests, like literature, and professions, like writers, poets, philosophers and scientists. There was even one dedicated to selling stocks. Eventually, that one became the London Stock Exchange.

Sober and civil drinking – pub – changed the way people thought and worked. Well, alcohol was safer than most drinking water. But boiling water had benefits then too.

Pollan has also written This Is Your Mind on Plants which is a broader look at how we rely on plants. They give us sustenance, beauty, medicine, fragrance, flavor, fiber. But the book’s focus is on how they change our consciousness. Plants can stimulate or calm. They can temporarily tweak our consciousness or completely alter it.

We don’t think of caffeine as a drug. We don’t consider daily users as addicts. Well, it is legal, socially acceptable and readily available. Pollan wants people to rethink that. Drug or medicine? You can make a drink from the leaves of a tea plant and that’s fine. Make a drink from the seed head of an opium poppy and you break a federal law. In This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan goes deep into three plant drugs – opium, caffeine, and mescaline.

It probably seems odd to you to group caffeine in with opium and mescaline. It seemed odd to me considering those first London coffee houses were almost the opposite of the pubs and opium smokers. And those philosophers like Kant, Voltaire and Kierkegaard weren’t just having a cup with breakfast. They were mainlining their caffeine and it seemed to work.

I’m writing this at 6 pm. No caffeine since 1 pm. I wonder what I would have written after several 16 once dark roasts at 11 am.

Listen to Michael Pollan talk about how he gave up caffeine entirely for three months while working on his audiobook, Caffeine, and he says “I recommend it. I had some great sleeps.” But he also had an unexpected loss of confidence and lack of focus as he went through withdrawal.

Keep Calm and Kalsarikännit

This past week I learned about kalsarikännit, the Finnish tradition of getting drunk at home in your underwear with no intent to leave the house. Really. It seems that this tradition moved beyond Finland in the past year while over half of the world population was under stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kalsarikännit (how to pronounce kalsarikännit) literally means “drinking at home, alone, in your underwear” and I have also seen it loosely translated and anglicized as “pants drunk.”

The way I learned of the Kalsarikännit drinking “party” at home that never leaves home or gathers other guests is from the eighth collection of poems by Kim Addonizio titled Now We’re Getting Somewhere. I read that the collection is good companion reading to your practice of kalsarikännit.

In the U.S., this kind of behavior would likely be considered a sign of depression. Not so in Finland. Not so by Addonizio.

It is interesting that several other Nordic words came into wider usage the past few years. The Danish hygge referring to a certain kind of coziness and the Swedish lagom meaning “neither too much nor too little” have also had their social media moments the past few years. I doubt that all Finns are pleased with the image of this practice to outsiders of it being lonely people drunk at home on the couch.
Finland always gets high scores in the “happiness ratings” and they are often touted for having an excellent education system. As the not-so-serious book titled  Pantsdrunk: Kalsarikanni: The Finnish Path to Relaxation suggests, this is more about staying calm and relaxing in a stressful world. The “drunk” aspect probably is deceiving too as overdrinking is not a requirement of the practice.

Based on social media posts alone, I suspect that some of my friends have been stripping down to underwear, lining up some snacks next to the bed or couch, grabbing the TV remote or their mobile device and pouring their preferred alcohol.

And hasn’t this been going on in first-world countries for a lot longer than the past few years? I’m sure that Homer Simpson models this practice, even though he could never pronounce the kalsarikännit.

Must you be in underwear? I think pajamas are acceptable. Must you get drunk? No, though feeling the effects does seem to be key. Does it even have to be alcoholic beverages? In the strict sense of the practice, yes, but there are no kalsarikännit police that I have seen, so get that mug of tea or cocoa ready.

Have you been practicing kalsarikännit for years without even knowing it? Drop us a comment.