“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.” ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
Today is the Autumn Equinox – the two halves of the diurnal course, light and dark, day and night, are exactly equal. By coincidence, here in North Texas, it as the day the summer broke. The killer humid heat gave way to a breezy, relatively cool, and mostly non-toxic day.
I celebrated by sitting at a windowless desk for ten hours, answering emails.
Then, wanting to live life to the fullest, I stopped at a local Hispanic grocery store on the way home from work to buy three pounds of Jicama. Since my medical emergency in New Orleans two years ago I have been eating as few carbohydrates as I can. One thing I miss are French Fries – or at least French Fry like food items. Potatoes, pasta, bread, rice… that sort of thing, the sort of thing that makes life worth living – are forever gone from my existence. The best I can do is to find substitutes.
A Youtube Video listed five food items to try. One was Jicama – which I’ve eaten off and on over the years – usually as a pickled salad item.
I found some other recipes to make sort of spicy baked fries out of Jicama – which I think I’ll try.
“It is inhumane, in my opinion, to force people who have a genuine medical need for coffee to wait in line behind people who apparently view it as some kind of recreational activity.” ― Dave Barry
I did not set out to be a coffee snob – I really didn’t. But now, looking back, it was inevitable.
Like everyone else my age, my early years were marked by my parents boiling cheap ground stale Robusta coffee in a percolator, recirculating the grounds, through a layer of toilet paper (always out of filters) until it was so bitter it was undrinkable – then drinking it anyway. I remember being fascinated at watching the water bubbling against the little glass knob on the top – the sound of exuberant roiling water and the smell of burned beans. When I got to college my parents bought me a percolator which I modified with some rubber tubing into a crude still – nothing worse than a nascent chemist in a dorm room with something to heat liquids.
Then there was the Mr. Coffee – which made a little bit better brew – but still the coffee itself was terrible. Right after school I spent some time addicted to daily morning coffee from the machine at work along with a stale sugared bread-thing from the next. I gave that up and went through miserable withdrawal when I learned of the screaming high-pitched caffeine headache that stuff would cause. Then came Starbucks, which actually makes terrible coffee (I always think of Starbucks as an office rental place, rather than a coffee shop) but it at least put coffee culture on the map. And it became a decades-long rabbit hole for me, and many, many others.
After years of experimentation I finally settled on a French Press and was happy with it except for the difficulty cleaning it out.
For a while, I would grind a week’s worth of beans on the weekend. But then, as I fell farther, I realized that it really does make a better cup if you grind the beans fresh… and bought a simple hand grinder for my desk at work.
So now I’m exploring the (literally)world of coffee beans. I learned quickly that I like light roast (the taste of the coffee varietal and location comes through better – plus a bit more caffeine).
My favorite place for buying coffee beans is Central Market. Yes, there are some very good custom roasters in my area, and I will visit them, but each one is somewhat limited and it can be tough to find exactly what I want. Beside, most of the best Dallas roasters have product in Central Market anyway. They have a vast selection of bulk bins full of a wide variety of whole bean coffee and there is something about putting the brown bag under the chute, lifting the handle, and listening to the coffee slide down.
Ok, let’s back up almost fifty years. I was in high school and living in Managua. A good friend had an uncle that ran a coffee plantation in the mountains above Jinotega and three of us hitch-hiked up there over Semana Santa (Easter Break) and had a great time. We spent one night in Matagalpa (an amazing city) and one in the coffee warehouse in Jinotega (the odor was amazing) before making it all the way to the plantation. There we rode horses and explored the area. There was even a miles-long wooden aqueduct that provided water for washing the coffee beans and hydroelectric power for a few lights around the main house. Amazing memories.
And the coffee is fantastic. It’s exactly what I was looking for. As I begin to run low I need to get back to Central Market and buy some more. I’m a little worried that I’ll miss out on other good things if I keep buying this – but I can’t imagine anything I’d like better.
I did not set out to be a coffee snob – I really didn’t.
We all want to know how to be happy, but we rarely consider the hidden costs of happiness. It is not free. And despite what Cover Girl or Tony Robbins or the Dalai Lama once told you, it’s not always easy breezy either.
“New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous.
But there is one thing about it – once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough.”
― John Steinbeck, America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction
From my old journal, The Daily Epiphany, June 11, 1997:
It was almost twelve years ago, I had only been working here for a couple months. I had only thirty minutes for lunch and I had only found one place I could get to and eat in half an hour. It was a little hole-in-the wall Chinese food joint down on Jupiter across from E Systems – the Egg Roll Inn. A handful of tables, twelve lunch specials in plastic letters on a board behind the counter, steam tables of prepared food, foam tricompartment plates and plastic dinnerware, little plastic packets of soy sauce, duck sauce, and hot mustard. Every city has hundreds of these places, not really very good, but cheap and fast.
I had received my allotted lumps of lunch special and steamed rice, divided by a soggy eggroll, when someone stuck their head in the swinging door, “Anyone in here drive a blue Ford?” he asked.
“I do,” expecting to be told my lights were on, it was an overcast day.
“Your car’s on fire,” was the reply.
I ran out to find the front end pretty much engulfed. For some reason, the thought of calling the Fire Department never occurred to me. I guess I didn’t imagine that there was someone who would come put out my fire for free. The owner of the restaurant said he had an extinguisher and I went in to get it. The fire looked bad, but it was mostly burning hoses and belts and wasn’t hard to put out.
I returned the extinguisher and then had a moment that was actually worse than the fire itself. I was a bit shook up and sweaty from battling the flames, my vehicle a blackened hulk out in the parking lot, everyone was staring at me (most had walked out to watch the free entertainment) but there on the table was my untouched Moo Goo Gai Pan (today’s watery special). I decided to gather up as much dignity as possible, ate my lunch, then walked back to where I work. It was a calm day and on the entire walk I could look up and see a slowly dispersing column of black smoke from my incinerated car. It was embarrassing and sad.
After that was an unpleasant week of phone calls; trying to get the title straightened out (I was woefully negligent in paperwork those days) so I could get a scrap dealer to take my car, I had to pay the owner for recharging his extinguisher, and had to make arrangements for getting to and from work until I could buy another car (I ended up buying a Renault Alliance – I can sure pick’em can’t I?). The money from the scrap dealer – minus the cost of the fire extinguisher – left we with enough money to buy two compact disks from the record store.
Not a horrible experience, but one annoying and humiliating enough to sink below the radar screen of memory. At least until the physical experience of firing off a cloud of dry powder brought it back. I was so embarrassed I never went back to the Egg Roll Inn. It’s still there, I doubt they’ll remember me after twelve years. I wonder if they have a vegetarian stir-fry? I don’t miss the food but maybe it would be worth a three dollar plate of limp broccoli to exorcise some demons.
“Do you know what breakfast cereal is made of? It’s made of all those little curly wooden shavings you find in pencil sharpeners!”
― Roald Dahl
From my old journal, The Daily Epiphany, Friday, November 01, 1996:
Dreams of frustration and stupid mistakes
In surfing the web, I’ve come some people who record their dreams. I’ve never thought much about dreams, so I thought that maybe I was missing something. So for the last couple of weeks I’ve been writing down as much about my dreams as possible. Now I realize why I don’t do this. Looking at your dreams should help you find subtle things about you and your personality, open up your mind to thinking about aspects that you hadn’t examined. My dreams were as subtle as a sledgehammer. For example the last two:
In my dream I went to a baseball game with some friends of mine, three of us sat in one section while one friend and I sat in another section. My section had no view of the playing field at all, the actual game was around a corner, all we could see was the crowd itself. I spent the entire dream walking around trying to find a place where I could actually see the game, but was not successful.
In another dream I was supposed to drive to Massachusetts to visit someone. But before I left, a guy (I remembered who he was, I haven’t seen him in years) convinced me to fly to Pittsburgh (I’ve never been there) with him, the idea was that I could drive to Massachusetts from there. Most of the dream consisted of us driving around Pittsburgh lost, I remember he offered to take me out to eat, he tried to pay with a coupon the waiter refused to take, and we didn’t have enough money to pay for dinner. The dream ended with him leaving me in Pittsburgh, and I realized that my car was still in Dallas, and I had no way of getting to Massachusetts, which is where I wanted to go in the first place.
“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”
― Orson Welles
Omar’s Food Mart
After a long morning of soul-sucking meetings and conference calls where he felt this IQ dropped ten points after each one, Craig decided to go out for lunch. He needed something non-corporate so he decided to go to Omar’s Food Mart.
OMAR’S FOOD MART was a little place at the end of a strip of auto repair shops on a corner of bad asphalt not far from where Craig worked. It was a monument to capitalism. Operated by five brothers from Syria, it crammed an impressive array of services into what looked from the outside to be a tiny gas station.
There was no place that served bigger, nastier, or greasier hamburgers than Omar’s.
Craig hadn’t been in there for a couple years but it hadn’t changed. They had a bewildering array of exotic food (Craig used to buy Semolina flour there when he still had time to make his own pasta). Crammed into the tiny space were aisles of gewgaws, a display of Hookahs, chewing gum and motor oil. Plenty of merchandise looked pathetic: obsolete cleaning supplies, faded greeting cards, suspect canned goods, and a single tiny green cardboard cylinder of Parmesan cheese with a thick coating of greasy dust.
The only active merchandise was an entire glass wall of cold drinks, a couple rotating racks selling candy, Slim Jims and beef jerky (Slim Jims are NOT beef jerky), and a wooden stand holding a generous selection of pornographic magazines.
A full array of financial services was offered: a Pick-Six machine and several Plexiglas Scratch-N-Win lottery ticket dispensers, a private ATM with astronomical service fees, money orders, and two slot machines. They were video multi-line bandits, Cherry Master and Fruit Bonus. The slots had stools in front of them so the customers could sit in comfort as they stuffed the dollar bill slot.
Even though it looked like a gas station or convenience store Omar’s biggest business was food. The narrow space behind the front counter was crammed with grills and fryers. There was an extensive menu on the overhead plastic lighted sign: eight different kinds of hamburgers, including the Texas Jumbo Cheeseburger (Craig ate one of those once, he felt like he’d swallowed a football) BBQ, BLT, Chicken Breast, Grilled Chicken, Chicken Fried Steak, Fish, Extra Bacon $1.00.
There was a long list of “Specials” which come with a drink and fries, and “Baskets” which include a salad: Chicken Strip, Catfish, Hot Wings, Shrimp, Gyros, Grilled Cheese, Ham and Cheese, Tuna Salad, Chicken Salad, Corn Dogs, Burritos, and Hot Dogs (small and jumbo). Side orders of: Fries, Onion Rings, Tater Tots, Hot Wings, Chili, Jalapenos, Stuffed Jalapenos, Toast. A breakfast menu of sausages, eggs, bacon, cheese, and ham in all sorts of combinations.
Craig had no idea how they could cook all that stuff in such a tiny space; but he’d never seen anyone order anything other than Hamburgers or Gyros. Three or four guys worked back there, one taking orders and the others scurrying around gesticulating and shouting in some unknown language. The only word Craig could understand was “Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger!” It sounded exactly like the old skit on Saturday Night Live. The meat and cheese sizzle on the griddle; clouds of blue smoke were sucked out overhead. One guy stands in front of a sizzling, dripping brown vertical rotating cylinder of some mysterious meat, constantly slicing off strips for Gyros. These were served in fat pitas with onions so strong you can smell them a block away.
At lunchtime there was always a line at the register. The customer in front of Craig had a graduated plastic bag Velcroed to his ankle and a tube running up his leg. Dingy yellow urine was filling the bag, it had a little valve on the bottom. It wasn’t that hot and Craig wished that guy wouldn’t wear shorts.
A guy was sitting next to the line playing the slots. An older man, thin, short, unsteady and using a cane, came in; they knew each other. They exchanged loud pleasantries, then the man with the cane leaned over and showed the slot machine guy the top of his head. “Look,” he said, “I’ve got a couple new plates, here and here.” “Jeez! Did you get your license back?” “Nope, after a head trauma, they send you to a New-Rologist for an E-Val-U-Ation,” he replied slowly. “Then you have to take the tests.”
It was Craig’s turn to order. They gave him a numbered slip and he stood off to the side while the grease flew. After awhile they called his number out but handed an order to someone else. “I though I was 256?” Craig asked. “Oh, we had two orders with the same number, what did you have? Cheeseburger basket?” He immediately reached down and stuffed a burger and fries into a brown paper bag and handed them to Craig. Craig noticed that practically nobody ever received exactly what they ordered the first time.
The baskets come with large drinks, which you fill yourself from a fountain in the back. There was a big sign that says, “Pay for your Refills!” Craig decided to eat in, he was in no hurry to return to the corporate rat-race. That he considered this to be a tiny vacation depressed him even more. They had some wood-grained plastic booths scattered around a back corner, a place to sit down. Craig still had his lab coat on, somehow it seemed appropriate there; almost every customer had some sort of uniform, many had metal chains between their wallets and belts.
It seemed like everyone there knew each other. The seating was close, which made conversations between patrons inevitable. A lot of asking for directions, “How do you get to Arapaho from here?” At the next booth some guy was smoking and ranting about fast food. “I dunno why anyone ever goes to McDonalds! They can come here and get better food cheaper. That Damned McDonalds! The only thing that puts them over is advertising. I dunno why anyone ever goes to McDonalds! Costs more – Get less. People don’t think about stuff! You can’t tell them anything! The only thing I ever buy is senior coffee and maybe an egg McMuffin.”
The general conversation then turned to the extensive menu. “They have Catfish?” “Yeah, but it’s no good.” The McDonalds hater added his two cents, “How can it be no good? Either it’s Catfish or it isn’t!” “I don’t know,” another guy piped up, ” but it’s no good.” “How about the shrimp?” “I don’t know, I can’t eat shrimp. I’m allergic.”
The other diners then began talking about folks they had known that were allergic to shrimp and had eaten some by mistake. Tales of swelling necks, choking, hives, and respiratory distress.
Craig finished his cheeseburger and noticed there wasn’t anyone at the front. On his way out he ordered a bag of gyro sandwiches to take home for dinner. Back at the office, he stashed them into his desk drawer.
All afternoon folks walked through Craig’s wing of the building and complained about the smell. It was those powerful Omar’s onions hidden away in Craig’s desk. He never said anything.
The minute you land in New Orleans, something wet and dark leaps on you and starts humping you like a swamp dog in heat, and the only way to get that aspect of New Orleans off you is to eat it off. That means beignets and crayfish bisque and jambalaya, it means shrimp remoulade, pecan pie, and red beans with rice, it means elegant pompano au papillote, funky file z’herbes, and raw oysters by the dozen, it means grillades for breakfast, a po’ boy with chowchow at bedtime, and tubs of gumbo in between. It is not unusual for a visitor to the city to gain fifteen pounds in a week
yet the alternative is a whole lot worse. If you don’t eat day and night, if you don’t constantly funnel the indigenous flavors into your bloodstream, then the mystery beast will go right on humping you, and you will feel its sordid presence rubbing against you long after you have left town. In fact, like any sex offender, it can leave permanent psychological scars.
— Tom Robbins
Sam drove two friends from work, Duane and Cheryl, out for Asian food at lunch. They argued on the way – about if the restaurant was primarily Vietnamese or Chinese. It had a wide variety of food on the menu, primarily Chinese, but the neighborhood was mostly Vietnamese. They decided on a way to settle the argument. After they parked they walked around the back, huddled next to the overflowing recycled grease container and pushed the kitchen door open. They stuck their heads in a little, keeping hidden but enough to hear the conversation between the cooks. All three were pretty sure they could tell the difference between Chinese and Vietnamese, even if they didn’t speak the languages.
What they heard was Spanish.
“What the hell,” Duane said, “they have Mexicans cooking.”
“I’ve heard that,” Cheryl said. “Most of the Asian places hire Mexican workers in their kitchens. I never believed it until now.”
They decided it didn’t really matter at all so they walked around to the front and were shown to a table.
They had fun looking through the higher numbered items, such as No. 134- Fish Ball with Sea Slug, but decided top pass on anything unusual. They waved the woman away with the Dim Sum cart. It was lunch specials today, No. 6 for Sam and Cheryl, No. 10 for Duane.
They enjoyed the wrapper on their chopsticks. On one side were actual instructions on holding and using and on the other side a great little piece of literature:
Welcome to Chinese Restaurant. Please try your Nice Chinese Food With Chopsticks The traditional and typical of Chinese glonoushistory. And cultual.
They liked the way that Nice Chinese Food With Chopsticks was capitalized. They liked the little misspelled sentence fragment at the end. They especially loved learning the new word, glonoushistory.
What did it mean? It is in no dictionary they had access to. Cheryl pulled out her phone and all the hits it returned were in regard to the chopsticks.
“So it must be a new word,” Cheryl said. “From the context it is obviously intended to mean the food, cooking, serving and eating habits of a culture. A word made by combining history with nourishment, with a glo thrown in the front for good measure. I can’t think of any other word that quite means the same thing.”
Duane said, “I can think of examples of use: ‘Jeez, I can’t believe you’re eating that greasy hamburger!’ ‘Get off my case, burgers are essential to my sense of glonoushistory.’”
“’Twirl your spaghetti on a fork! Don’t suck it up like a straw.’ ‘Are you criticizing my glonoushistory?’” added Sam.
Cheryl said, “I imagine small eastern liberal-arts colleges establishing departments of Glonoushistory. Professors of Glonoushistory, getting research grants and traveling to Central Asia to catalog the preparation of boiled Yak and fermented Camel Milk beverages. The chorus of complaining when the first graduating class majoring in Glonoushistory realizes they have completed a course of study actually targeting them straight to the fast-food industry.”
The three had a good laugh and then their food came. They broke off the chopsticks and dug in. Sam smoothed the cover out, folded it, and placed it in his pocket. He wanted to tape it into his journal that evening so he could remember the fun lunch with his two friends. He forgot to do that, of course. A month later, after several washings, he’d find the little wadded up remains in his pants pocket and not be able to figure out what it was.
Stuffed and worried about getting sleepy in the afternoon – there was a lot of work to be done – they piled into Sam’s car for the short drive back to the office. Cheryl sat up front, Duane in the back. There were some grocery bags bag there and Duane absentmindedly poked around in them. They were full of canned food, there was even a grocery receipt, but the cans were all silver steel – no labels.
“What the hell, Sam,” said Duane.
“Oh, I buy canned food, mostly vegetables. It’s cheap. And then I peel the labels off and leave the cans in the car for a couple days – to make sure I forget what’s in them, before I put ‘em in the cupboard.”
[voiceover] One fine day… I went out with an old man. He’s studied noodles for 40 years. He was showing me the right way to eat them.
Student of ramen eating:
Master… soup first or noodles first?
First, observe the whole bowl.
Student of ramen eating:
Appreciate its gestalt. Savor the aromas. Jewels of fat glittering on the surface. Shinachiku roots shining. Seaweed slowly sinking. Spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices. They play the key role, but stay modestly hidden. First caress the surface with the chopstick tips.
Student of ramen eating:
To express affection.
Student of ramen eating:
Then poke the pork.
Student of ramen eating:
Eat the pork first?
No. Just touch it. Caress it with the chopstick tips. Gently pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl. What’s important here is to apologize to the pork by saying “see you soon.” Finally, start eating-the noodles first. Oh, at this time, while slurping the noodles, look at the pork.
Student of ramen eating:
Eye it affectionately.
Student of ramen eating:
[voiceover] The old man bit some shinachiku root and chewed it awhile. Then he took some noodles. Still chewing noodles, he took some more shinachiku. Then he sipped some soup. Three times. He sat up, sighed, picked up one slice of pork-as if making a major decision in life-and lightly tapped it on the side of the bowl.
Student of ramen eating:
To drain it. That’s all.
A few months ago I treated myself to a new membership to The Criterion Channel – a streaming channel filled with classic, foreign, and unusual films. I used to rent videos from The Criterion Collection – back in the ancient days when movies came on little plastic disks or on long ribbons of tape – and this is even better.
And in these old days and the even older days before that… we forget how hard it was to find anything odd, unique, or rare that you wanted to watch. For most of my life I would read about works of moving picture art that I ached to watch but didn’t have a chance to.
In college I would sneak into film classes when they were screening classic films. Then when I moved to Dallas in the early 1980’s I purposefully lived in back of a repertory film venue (The Granada – now an excellent music venue) which would show two different films every night – with a “bigger” feature showing over the weekends. The day at the end of each month where the poster with next month’s showings would appear was an important event to me. I’d hang up the poster and circle the films I wanted to attend.
Then along came VHS tapes and DVDs and Blu-Rays and I searched for the more avant-guard rental shops. I would drive across town on a quest for some obscure foreign film that I had read about.
There was a Japanese film from 1985 that I wanted to see and had a hell of a time finding. It was called Tampopo and was touted as a “Ramen Western.” Finally, someone copied a disk and sent it to me. It was a lousy copy but I absolutely loved the film. The main plot, such as it is, involves a John Wayne-like truck driver and a motley group assisting a women in revitalizing her Ramen shop and in the process, making the perfect bowl of noodle soup. It is odd, revolutionary, and very funny. It is also sexy and exciting and, best of all, a classic example of food porn. Literally, food porn.
And now, there is a 2016 4K restoration from The Criterion Collection that has now showed up on the streaming channel. I was able to carve out a few minutes and sit down and watch the thing.
It was even better than I remembered. I’m not sure how, but I had forgotten how unusual the structure of the film was. It will go off and follow the story of someone that walks by the main characters on the street (although that side story is usually wrapped back in later on). There is the story of the gangster in white and his girlfriend with their food-oriented sex life which involves live prawns and cognac and other things. They have a unique and amazing way to eat a raw egg yolk.
It’s not fair for me to recommend Tampopo – if you don’t have the Criterion Channel (there is a 14 day free trial) it’s still pretty hard to find. But if it happens to come by your way, don’t miss it.