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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. Every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Choosing and Maintaining a Good Pizza Stone

Time To Get Stoned

I'm always talking about the importance of having a good pizza stone if you want to make good pizza at home. But I don't think I've ever gotten into the specifics of what constitutes a good pizza stone, nor have I ever addressed how to take care of one once you've got it. Well, let's fix that.

First, let's talk about why you need one. The world's best pizza comes out of wood-burning brick or stone ovens. The reason is because nothing retains and distributes heat like a brick or stone oven, also called a masonry oven. Bakers and cooks figured that out back at the dawn of civilization, and even with all our technological upgrades, nothing has come along that does the job better. As a matter of fact, one of the things mandated by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana for making a true Neapolitan pizza is a wood-burning masonry oven. It doesn't get any more official than that.

I don't have one. And, personally, I don't have a couple thousand bucks to invest in one. Furthermore, I don't posses the “DIY” handyman talent it takes to build one. So having a pizza stone in my conventional oven is the next best thing.

Sometimes also referred to as a “baking stone,” a pizza stone is essentially a thin, flat slab of stone or ceramic material designed to fit in your oven. They even make small ones that work in countertop or “toaster” ovens. Since most people think of pizza as being round, most manufacturers tend to make round pizza stones. But you can buy square or rectangular stones that cover more surface area inside your oven. Whatever the shape, the purpose of the stone is twofold: it absorbs and distributes heat evenly, eliminating hot spots and allowing for more uniform baking. And, due to its porous nature, it helps wick away moisture, resulting in a crisper crust.

When it comes to pizza stones, quality counts. The cheaper and flimsier the stone, the poorer the performance. And the likelier you are to throw the thing in the trash, provided it doesn't break into three or four pieces the first time you use it. If you're going to get one, get a good one.

Forno Bravo, one of the companies that makes backyard brick ovens, also markets a pizza stone that measures a whopping 3/4-inch thick. That's a slab of rock! They claim it heats faster and retains heat better. It comes with a ten-year warranty and they'll sell you as many as you want for fifty or sixty bucks each. http://www.fornobravo.com/pizza-stone

The good folks up in Vermont at King Arthur Flour have a stone that sells for about the same price. It comes in a rectangular shape and it's “only” 1/2-inch thick, but they claim the manufacturer of their product “holds the original patent for 'pizza stone'.” And it comes with a lifetime warranty. http://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop/items/pizza-baking-stone

Williams-Sonoma has a rectangular stone that is also 1/2-inch thick. Made of cordierite ceramic, it sells for about fifty bucks. Nothing on the website about a warranty, but you can check it out here: http://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/baking-and-pizza-stone

The stone that has lived in my oven for about fifteen years is a Pampered Chef product. It was a gift from my mother, who thought the stone I already had had gotten pretty ugly. (She was right.) My Pampered Chef stone is made of natural clay. It's round and big enough to accommodate a 14” pizza with a little room to spare. At just under 1/2-inch, it's not as thick as those listed above, but it's held up well and done the job for a long, long time. Unfortunately, they appear to have replaced it in the current catalog with something that has built-in handles and is advertised as being “virtually nonporous.” But you can still get one of the old ones like mine through Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Pampered-Chef-Large-Pizza-Stoneware/dp/B004MJDOVC

Now, you can buy pizza stones at the big box stores for about ten or twenty bucks. Remember: “you get what you pay for.” The most common complaint about the low-price stones is that they break the first time you use them. When you use a pizza stone, if you're doing it right, you're cranking your oven up as high as it will go – 500 to 550 degrees. Cheap stones can't take the heat and they crack.

Of course, quality and price aside, cracking can also be the result of improper handling. A lot of people think that “stone” and “indestructible” are synonymous, and that's not the case with a pizza stone. Pizza “stones” are actually closer in composition to clay or ceramic tiles, and you know what happens if you drop one of those. If you don't know, ask my brother-in-law, who dropped a whole case of them once. It wasn't pretty. Well.....it was pretty in a mosaic sort of way, but I digress. Bottom line: don't drop your pizza stone or fling it around carelessly.....unless you want a mosaic tile backsplash in your kitchen.

Probably the worst thing you can do to your pizza stone is wash it. I don't think anybody is stupid enough to try putting one in the dishwasher........I hope. But you can't hand wash them, either. At least not with soapy water. Pizza stones are porous and they absorb moisture and oil and such. This property helps in “seasoning” the surface of the stone, much like cast iron cookware is seasoned by proper use. The seasoning actually helps impart a little flavor to food cooked on the stone's surface. And if you've doused your stone in Dawn, guess what your next pizza is going to taste like?

You can use plain water on the surface of your stone, but don't immerse it in the sink. Remember...... porous.......absorbs water. And if it gets waterlogged and you stick it in a hot oven, steam develops and.......crack! But it's okay to use a damp cloth to wipe off anything that accumulates on the surface of the stone. And, by the way, it's perfectly fine and normal for your stone to get grungy-looking after you've been using it for awhile. Darkening and staining are part of the seasoning process. Don't bust an elbow trying to scrub it all off.

But if you do have to scrub something off – some burned-on cheese or something – you can use a stiff brush or a plastic scraper for the job. You can even use medium-grit sandpaper if you go easy with it. Scrape the surface as clean as you can and then use a damp cloth to wipe it down.

And, by all means, always wait until your stone has cooled completely before you try to do anything to clean it. A super hot stone is a super fragile stone, much more likely to fracture than one that is cool. It's also more prone to thermal shock, which is why you should leave it in the oven to cool on its own rather than pulling it out and setting it on a countertop or something. If you've ever had a glass baking dish explode from thermal shock, you won't want to repeat the experience with a clay or ceramic stone.

In fact, it's perfectly okay to just leave your stone in the oven 24/7. Mine never comes out unless I have a specific reason to remove it. Although leaving a baking stone in the oven will make the oven take a little longer to heat up – the stone absorbs heat – it will also even out the heating in your oven, making everything you cook in there cook a little better.

But if you have a self-cleaning oven, always remove the stone before hitting the self-cleaning cycle. The cleaning cycle gets really hot – as high as 900 degrees. Even a high quality stone may crack under that kind of heat. I've seen comments from people who say they self-clean their stones all the time. Fine and dandy. Most manufacturers advise against it and I'd rather err on the side of caution than drop another fifty or sixty bucks on a new stone.

Word of caution regarding leaving your stone in the oven: don't put anything really heavy on it. If you're baking a casserole in that fifteen pound Le Creuset ceramic-coated Dutch oven of yours, it's not a good idea to set the pot on the stone. Way too heavy, especially after the stone heats up. That's one of those cases where I'd take the stone out if I needed the space.

Back to the subject of thermal shock, you shouldn't put a cold stone in a hot oven. If you've already preheated your oven and then remembered the stone, forget it. For one thing, the stone has to be hot in order for it to do any good, and if you've already preheated your oven, the stone will take another forty-five minutes to an hour to come to proper temperature. Either do without or turn the oven off and start over with the stone in place inside the cold oven. A cold stone in a hot oven is worthless and while I can't say for sure that the stone will crack if you put it in cold, why take the chance?

Now, there are some fancy-schmansy new stones on the market that are all glazed and coated and dishwasher safe and all that stuff. Meh. Give me my plain, old-fashioned, porous, unglazed clay or ceramic stone any day. That's what I've been using for about twenty years and what other bakers and cooks have been using for about twenty centuries and it's good enough for me.

One final thought on the topic of pizza stones: cheap, easily replaceable tiles from your local hardware store. A lot of cheap bast......er........thrifty folks........go down to Lowes or Home Depot and drop three or four dollars on a bunch of plain, unglazed quarry tiles, which they then use to line the bottom of their ovens in lieu of expensive pizza stones. And if an occasional tile breaks – which it will – hey, no biggie! Just replace it with another fifty-cent tile. I have no objections to this concept. Well.......one or two. First and foremost of which is the presence of lead in some of these cheap tiles. Another thing to consider is consistency; not all tiles are created equal. And finally, there's convenience. As I have noted, I leave my stone unturned. It never leaves my oven unless something requires me to move it. And when I need to move it, I just take it out of the oven. I don't have to mess with four or six or eight or however many individual pieces, which I then have to replace afterward. And since I often tote my stone with me when I go off cooking at other people's houses – people who are likely to be stone-less – it's easier to bag up one big slab of tile than it is to carry around ten little ones. But that's just me.

What are you waiting for? Isn't it time you got stoned? Invest in a good quality pizza/baking stone, treat it well, and it will help you turn out amazing pizza, bread, and other baked goods for many years to come.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

FDA Does The Hokey-Pokey On Banning Artisan Cheese

You Throw Your Cheese Ban In, You Throw Your Cheese Ban Out

If you need further proof that the FDA – the so-called “Food and Drug Administration” – is totally out of touch with reality, to say nothing of sanity, look to the latest tempest-in-a-teapot caused by their idiotic and ill-informed attempt to ban the manufacturing of certain artisan cheeses.

Without going into a lot of detail, the crux of the issue involved the use of wooden boards for aging cheeses. After centuries of producing cheese using this technique, the Stupid Idea Fairy came along and whomped the FDA decision makers with her wand, making them issue an edict that said:

The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements, which require that “all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained.” 21 CFR 110.40(a). Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products.”

Okay, let me get a handle on this. The FDA grants GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status to every chemical additive and preservative that comes down the pike because the “scientists” and “experts” hired by food processing companies say it's okay to lace our food with potentially carcinogenic substances. But when science – and centuries of experience – says that using wood to age cheese is a safe and common practice, the FDA gets their panties in a wad and bans it.

I'm sure the folks at Kraft were dancing a big happy dance. “Oh, boy, oh, boy! Our hand picked government stooges just handed us the entire cheese manufacturing business on a polystyrene cheese board. No more pesky artisan cheesemakers to cut into our profits. Oh, boy, oh, boy!”

But their celebration was short-lived, as was the FDA's moronic ban. In the first place, the agency did not present the issue for discussion and comment as it usually does in these cases. Nope. They just cited the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama in January of 2011 and issued their little fiat sine die. That arbitrary action hurled the gauntlet into the faces of the artisan cheese industry worldwide, because not only were American cheesemakers being affected, but traditional European artisans would likely have been subject to the ban as well. And the petitions started flying as the online world came alive in protest. Cheesemakers and cheese lovers from Azusa to Zanzibar started flooding the blogosphere and the Twitterverse with outrage. They overloaded the phone lines and e-mail boxes at the FDA and even demanded the White House take action on the matter.

Not surprisingly, it took exactly one day for the looney-tunes in charge to back away from their ill-advised effort. In fact, they backed away so fast and so far as to have denied ever issuing the original statement in the first place:

The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.

In the interest of public health, the FDA’s current regulations state that utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be “adequately cleanable” and properly maintained. Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.

The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.”

Ah-ha! NOW they're going to “engage with the artisanal cheese-making community.” Yes, after having their asses handed to them, I imagine they would. When Jonathan Swift and John Kennedy Toole wrote about confederacies of dunces, they must have had the FDA in mind.

The upside of this whole debacle is that people are finding their voices and making them heard. The days of blindly trusting government agencies to safeguard our best interests are waning. People are finally figuring out that politicians and bureaucrats exist solely to make more politicians and bureaucrats who feed and grow upon the largesse of lobbyists and special interest groups. Unless the “little people” put their faces in the faces of these Brobdingnagian plutocrats, they have no faces, and until their whispers become roars, they have no voices. “Pink slime” got attention and the attention got results. Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 got attention and the attention got results. Azodicarbonamide got attention and the attention got results. But people have to be aware and they have to be informed and they have to act in their own self-interest because the days of the government acting in their interest are gone, if they ever existed at all.

In the meantime, artisan cheese producers need to keep on their toes. The FDA will not take this humiliation lightly and will likely start looking for back doors and shortcuts to achieve their purposes. Something or somebody got them riled up in the first place and, while they may have backed away on this issue for the time being, I doubt they've backed down.

One thing's for sure: the next time the FDA regulators get together for a group photograph, the photographer had better refrain from chirping, “Say CHEESE!”

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Homemade Bread or That Store-Bought Bread-Like Substance

Baking Bread vs Eating Your Yoga Mat

Azodicarbonamide (ADA) has been making a lot of headlines lately. It seems that the public has gotten clued in to the presence of the stuff in a lot of the food products they consume, especially breads. The real shock and awe came when it was discovered that Subway, the poster place for healthy eating, used the substance in its “fresh baked” bread.

In its industrial uses, ADA is employed as a blowing agent in the production of foamed plastics, such as shoe soles and yoga mats. Of course, in Europe and much of the rest of the world, the use of ADA in plastic products that come in contact with food has been banned because of its potential carcinogenic properties. So naturally, American manufacturers actually add the stuff to food. And the food industry lapdogs at the FDA and the USDA have granted it GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status. This in spite of the fact that ADA is banned as a food additive in Europe and Australia and the World Health Organization and the UK's Health and Safety Executive have found it to be responsible for a variety of respiratory issues when inhaled.

But, darn it all, when you add it to flour as a bleaching agent, ADA just makes dough so nice and stretchy and rubbery and strong. Just what my body needs: to process slices of ham and cheese wrapped in the equivalent of a couple of baked foam shoe soles. How utterly healthy is that?

You know how they ask you for your bread preference when you order at Subway? The girl at my local store was confused when I asked for my sandwich on “plastic Italian bread.” When I explained the ADA angle and pulled up a couple of articles on my phone to support my assertion, she was positively dumbfounded. “I've eaten here myself for years,” she exclaimed, “because I thought it was so healthy.” And as I went off to munch on my plastic-enhanced repast, I could see the girl running around to other employees with her phone in her hand.

To be fair, the articles I showed her dealt with Subway's announcement that it would be removing the ADA from its bread products, but why was it there in the first place? Especially when the chain has successfully managed to bake its bread without ADA in places where the substance is banned. It is most imperatively not an essential ingredient in the bread making process. So why do we Americans get to be the corporate guinea pigs? Never mind biting the hand that feeds you; just poison it instead.

Of course, Subway is not alone. A list has been circulating online of more than five hundred products you probably consume on a regular basis that contain ADA. How about that store brand White Enriched Bread or White Enriched Hamburger Buns you buy at Kroger? Or those Little Debbie or Mrs. Freshley Honey Buns? Plastic New York Garlic Breadsticks anyone? Or any of sixteen products Pillsbury stashes in the dairy case. Say it isn't so, Sara Lee! But it is. Smuckers is all concerned about our kids' health, so they lower the sugar in their “Uncrustables” – and leave the ADA. The whole list can be found on the Environmental Working Group's website here: http://www.ewg.org/research/nearly-500-ways-make-yoga-mat-sandwich

Now, admittedly there's not much I can do to avoid hidden ADA at places like Subway or, say, a ball park that uses ADA-laced Ball Park hot dog buns. But I can certainly avoid bringing it into my home, and I have done so for many, many years through the simple expedient of baking my own bread.

Oh, the anguished cries of the outraged consumer are deafening! “You idiot! How dare you suggest that I have the time to bake my own bread?” “Baking bread is expensive, you stupid Communist.” “What makes you think I can bake bread, you elitist food snob?”

Sorry. Baking bread is not expensive, it's not time consuming, and it's not difficult. Think about it! Before commercial industrial bakeries began bagging up soft, gummy loaves of sliced pseudo bread-like substances, people baked bread at home all the time. Real bread! With real flavor and texture! And real ingredients. Ingredients that did not include enough additives and preservatives to embalm an Egyptian pharaoh.

I can count on one hand the number of loaves of “store-bought” bread I have purchased in the last ten years. Let me clarify, because I do occasionally buy specialty breads in the store's bakery or deli. But I only buy the aforementioned plastic bread in a plastic bag when I have absolutely no other choice; and I make sure to always have other choices.

Yeah, like most baby boomers, I grew up on a diet of Wonder Bread. My mom, who could actually bake bread that was truly wonderful when she wanted to, got sucked in by marketers and advertisers to the whole “convenience” thing. And all the claims that store-bought bread was “enriched” and “healthy” and “nutritious” just helped sell it to a gullible populace even more. So Mom's homemade bread got to be a rare treat. When I got older, I asked her why she stopped baking bread. “I don't have the hand strength to be able to knead it anymore,” was her explanation. And at the time it was a good one. Mom didn't have any kind of super mixer in her kitchen arsenal. And, although it was great for cake batter and cookie dough, heavy bread dough would have torn up her good old Sunbeam Mixmaster. So she mixed and kneaded bread dough by hand, a task even I would hesitate to undertake today. Well.......sometimes I do, but I have lots of other options.

Option number one is a decent stand mixer. And, yes, “decent” and “expensive” are usually synonymous. I have a KitchenAid 5-Quart Tilt-Head in my home kitchen that will handle just about anything I throw in it. And I'm still trying to regenerate the arm and the leg it cost me. But when I consider that the hundred-dollar Sunbeam Mixmaster I bought at Walmart lasted one day in my restaurant kitchen, I realize that it was worth the investment. I've turned out a ton of baked goods from that thing, not to mention the meat I've ground and the ice cream I've made with its attachments.

If you prefer a unitasker, a bread machine is a good option. I have two of them. For the record, though, I don't actually “make bread” in them. I don't like the squarish loaves they produce. But they are superb when used on the “dough” setting. I can dump my ingredients in the hopper and go off and do other things while the machine makes the dough. Then I come back and take over the remainder of the process myself. I make the bread; the machine just makes the dough. Kind of like having a tiny Hobart on my home kitchen counter.

Food processors can be used for some types of bread dough. Pizza dough, for instance, is a breeze in a food processor. If I'm trying to impress somebody, I let them watch me make pizza dough by hand. Otherwise, into the food processor it goes.

Let's talk ingredients. Read the wrapper on that loaf you bought at the store: Enriched Wheat Flour (Flour, Barley Malt, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, Corn Syrup, Yeast, Soybean Oil (Non-Hydrogenated), Salt, Contains 2%Or Less of The Following: Wheat Gluten, Soy Flour, Dough Conditioners (Monoglycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Enzymes, Ascorbic Acid, Azodicarbonamide), Yeast Nutrients (Ammonium Sulfate, Monocalcium Phosphate), Calcium Peroxide, Calcium Propionate (A Preservative), Calcium Sulfate, Soy Lecithin. Contains: Wheat, Soybeans. May Contain Traces of: Milk, Egg, Hazelnuts.

Here's what I put in mine: unbleached bread flour, water, milk, butter, sugar, salt, and yeast.

Now let's discuss cost. A five-pound bag of the good stuff, King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour, costs me between four and five dollars, depending on where I buy it. I can get six loaves of bread out of a five-pound bag of flour. I buy my yeast in one-pound packages for about two dollars. Add in milk, butter, sugar, and salt and I can make a loaf of bread for about a buck. At anywhere between two and four dollars a loaf for store-bought breads, who's coming out on top?

Ah, but time is the deal-breaker. Who's got time to bake bread? Let's see.........it takes me almost five minutes to prepare the ingredients and dump them in the machine. Then I go sit at my computer and check email for thirty minutes while the dough is making. I invest thirty seconds in walking to the kitchen to turn off the machine after the dough cycle so it won't continue baking the bread. Then I go watch an episode of something on TV while the dough rises. It takes another grueling minute or two to remove the dough from the machine and put it in a loaf pan. I rest up by watching something short, like “Jeopardy.” By the time Alex is done, the dough is ready to put in the oven that I set to preheat during a commercial. By the time Pat and Vanna are through spinning the “Wheel of Fortune,” my bread is ready to take out of the oven. Whew! I don't know how I manage to slave away like that.

And once you get the hang of a basic loaf of bread, the rest is easy. I make a huge variety of breads and rolls. Besides basic sandwich bread, I make French baguettes, Italian bread, cheese bread, breadsticks, dinner rolls......you name it. And it doesn't all have to be white bread. Whole wheat and whole grain breads are just as easy. Some breads are a little more involved than others and some require special pans, but the point is, you can do it all at home for far less cost and with infinitely better quality. Skip the KitchenAid if you can't afford it. A good bread machine will cost about a hundred bucks and will last for years and years. Heck, if you're not as picky as I am about the shape of the loaf, let the machine do the whole process. It'll still be better than than that chemistry set in a bag that disguises itself as bread in the grocery store.

In today's world, you can't entirely eliminate artificially enhanced, preservative-laden, chemically processed food from your diet. It's everywhere. Subway. Who'd a thought? But you can take steps to make sure it doesn't dominate your diet. And baking your own bread at home is a good place to start. And besides, once you get started, you'll be really popular with your friends and neighbors.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Visiting The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia

“In Tribute To The Valor, Fidelity, And Sacrifices”

I was traveling through Virginia recently when I came upon a road sign on I-81 near Bedford, Virginia that indicated the presence of the National D-Day Memorial. My first thought was to wonder why a national memorial to such a pivotal event in the course of WWII would be located in Bedford rather than in Washington, DC or some other capital. I decided to find out.

When I was a boy, memories of WWII were fresh and close to the surface, the war having ended just ten years before I was born. And celebrations and commemorations of certain dates were common. Every school child knew that V-E Day, celebrating the end of the European phase of the war, happened on May 8. They knew that victory over Japan was celebrated on V-J Day, September 2. And everyone commemorated the tremendous efforts and loss of life that occurred at the onset of the Normandy Invasion on June 6, known as D-Day. If you didn't recall the exact dates, they were printed on every calendar on every desk and wall in America. Along with Pearl Harbor Day on December 7, they were days to be remembered.

But in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we've largely forgotten them. I looked at every calendar in my house and office. They're not there anymore. And asking about them of anyone under the age of 65 or so will likely result in blank looks. Such things are politically incorrect these days, I suppose. Or, perhaps, merely irrelevant to generations that have moved on. I wonder how many people pass the same sign I did and wonder not why it's there but rather what it is in the first place. As the warriors of “the Greatest Generation” fade away, the moments that shaped and defined their lives and their world are deemed relics of an uninteresting past. Sad but true.

It seems Bedford, Virginia was chosen for the site of the National D-Day Memorial because the tiny town suffered the greatest per capita loss of life on the beaches of Normandy of any town in the United States. Bedford's 1944 population was about 3,200. The town sent a company of soldiers, Company A, to serve in the 29th Infantry Division of the 116th Infantry Regiment. Thirty young men were in that company when it landed at Omaha Beach. By day's end, nineteen had perished, a huge loss for a small community.

The idea for a memorial had been talked over and kicked around for quite some time, but the push for actual development came about after the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day in 1994. Occupying eighty-eight acres of land overlooking the town of Bedford and with stunning views of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, the National D-Day Memorial officially opened on June 6, 2001.

The foundation that administers the memorial is a non-profit organization and the memorial itself was built primarily from donations and funds raised by the original organizing committee that formed in 1988 and by the subsequent non-profit organization. Cartoonist Charles Schulz, himself a WWII veteran who served in Europe as part of the 20th Armored Division, was a major contributor to the memorial project and volunteered to head an early fund-raising campaign. The memorial continues to be supported by contributions made to the foundation.

As it stands today, the National D-Day Memorial is comprised of three plazas representing the planning, execution, and victory phases of the D-Day invasion. Reynold's Garden, laid out in the shape of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force combat patch, represents the planning stage.

Visitors then move on to Gray Plaza to experience the landing and fighting stage of the operation. A reflecting pool at the center of the plaza includes beach obstacles and vivid sculptures of soldiers wading and struggling ashore from the ramp of a Higgins craft, accentuated by intermittent jets of water spraying up to represent the gunfire under which these brave men made the landing. A necrology wall curves around this central plaza containing the names of more than 9,000 men who lost their lives at Normandy. US losses are displayed on the western aspect of the wall and the other Allied losses are seen on the eastern side.

The third plaza, Estes Plaza, celebrates the Allied victory under the massive Overlord Arch, “Overlord” being the code name under which the invasion was conducted. The arch is 44 feet, 6 inches tall and bears the date June 6, 1944 at the bottom and the word “Overlord”at the top. The twelve flags of the nations that served in the Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF) surround the arch.

Plaques, sculptures, and artifacts throughout the memorial provide educational information on every facet of the operation, detailing facts about events, personnel, and equipment. Gardens dot the landscape, offering opportunities for quiet reflection surrounded by the beauty of the near distant mountains.

As I said, I kind of stumbled upon the memorial while traveling someplace else. But it is definitely a destination in its own right. It's a little off the beaten path. Once you exit I-81, you've got about twenty miles to go, but it's easy four-lane travel and the route is well-marked. Allow yourself at least a couple of hours to take advantage of everything the site has to offer. In addition to the permanent displays, there are frequent programs and events held at the memorial, especially on the anniversary date and on holidays such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

From their website: “The national D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia exists in tribute to the valor, fidelity, and sacrifices of the Allied Forces on D-Day, June 6, 1944.”

Besides the monuments on the grounds, the National D-Day Memorial Foundation is involved in conducting an oral history program and a participant and identification program for D-Day veterans.

One of my uncles fought in the Battle of Normandy, although he was not involved in the initial D-Day invasion. Still, his recounting of the carnage he witnessed when he arrived shortly after conveyed much of the horror and valor that occurred there. Decades after the war, his eyes would tear up at the memories. It was not something he talked about often. But it should not be forgotten. It should never be forgotten.

The National D-Day Memorial is located at 3 Overlord Circle, Bedford, Virginia with a mailing address of P.O. Box 77, Bedford, Virginia 24523. Visit the website at http://www.dday.org/ for comprehensive information on fees, hours of operation and phone/e-mail contact information.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Restaurant Review: Macado's, Marion and Lynchburg, Virginia

The “Land Where Time Stands Still.”

I went to a place called “Macado's” yesterday. It is fairly likely I won't do it again. Oh, don't get me wrong, the food was fantastic. I just don't have the time to eat there.

Macado's is a casual dining restaurant similar in concept to places like Applebee's and Ruby Tuesday. They are a regional chain with locations in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Their website boasts that they have been “serving extraordinary overstuffed sandwiches for over thirty years.” Like similar places, their angle is that they decorate their walls with lots and lots of sports memorabilia, most of it locally based. And their tag is “You Just Have To Be There.”

Well, I've been there. Twice. At two different stores. And I wasn't impressed at either place either time.

As I said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the food. It is really quite good and, as advertised, quite “overstuffed.” The portions are generous and I totally blew my calorie count for the day on a sandwich, fries, and a soft drink. My wife had an enormous hamburger that sent her diet into a tailspin, while our dining companion made a whole meal out of an appetizer. And, I say again, it was all very, very, good.

Here's the problem: the service was slower than any I've experienced in any similar establishment anywhere in the country anytime in my life. Really. I don't think it's the fault of the servers. There just seems to be something wrong with the operation of the kitchen.

My first exposure to Macado's came from a recommendation in Marion, Virginia. We were in town for a 7 pm concert and were on a bit of a schedule. The folks at the venue pointed us toward Macado's, situated just down the block. They also corrected our pronunciation. I had assumed “muh-CAH-dohs,” but it is actually “MACK-uh-doos.” It was just after five, so we figured we'd be okay.

The Marion store is located in a renovated post office and it has a definite cool as far as atmosphere is concerned. Seating was prompt and our server was very quick to provide our drinks and take our orders. Collectively, the four of us ordered three simple sandwiches and a pasta entree. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. And asked our server what the problem was. And then we waited some more. The server blamed the kitchen and apologized profusely. And still we waited. We started pleading with our apologetic server, explaining that we had tickets for a show that was rapidly approaching its curtain time. (Side note: we had actually invited a couple of members of the band to join us for dinner. It was becoming apparent that their declining of our offer was fortuitous.) When, one hour and ten minutes later, our three sandwiches and one pasta entree finally arrived, we had begun to consider eating the napkins. More importantly, we were looking at being seriously late for our show, so we wound up wolfing down the food and running for the door. We made it with about ten minutes to spare.

So, one year later, when we saw the highway sign for Macado's in Lynchburg, Virginia, we thought we'd give them another try. I mean, the food really had been good and even though we'd had to shove it down our necks pretty quickly, we did enjoy it. And surely the service issue wouldn't arise again. This was a different store a hundred miles down the road.

You know what they say about lightning not striking twice? Forget it. It happens. At least it does at Macado's, which I shall henceforth refer to as the “Land Where Time Stands Still.”

Three of us entered a practically empty restaurant well before the beginning of dinner service and were greeted by – nobody. The hostess stand was empty. It's rude to yell, “Hey! How about some service here,” so we just stood there until we were noticed. That notice came from a server who came in the front door ready to clock in for his shift. He put down his backpack and picked up the seating chart. Eventually,the hostess theoretically on duty came out of wherever she had been secreted and took over. Once we were seated, our server – the same guy who started to check us in – arrived promptly and took our orders. And then the waiting game began once again. Not nearly as bad as it had been in the Marion store, but bad enough. Forty minutes for a burger, a sandwich, and an appetizer.

Once again, there were no complaints about the quality and the preparation of the food. It was as good as any we've had anywhere. But you've got to ask yourself if it's worth the wait.

Genuinely curious about what goes on the kitchen, I asked to see the manager. I really wasn't trying to bust anybody's chops; I earnestly wanted to know if there was something in the expediting or something in the setup of the line or some other factor that could account for the horrendously slow service. Predictably, it took fully eleven minutes for a manager to appear tableside.

He was apologetic, of course, and explained that the reason he had been so long in coming to our table was that at Macado's the manager is expected to cook on the line and he had been finishing up a dish. I'm sorry, this is a cheap cost-cutting measure. Cooks cook and managers manage and if an establishment can't afford to keep the positions separate, then perhaps the establishment should go into another line of service. The place wasn't that busy and when asked how many tables they were serving at the moment, the manager said “seven.” Allowing that all seven were four-tops, that's a total of twenty-eight covers. A competent kitchen should have no trouble handling twenty-eight people. We are talking burgers and sandwiches here, not five-course meals. And then the young manager made an observation that struck us as odd: he said that most of his customers did not have our standards. Is he saying that most people who eat at Macado's have low or no standards? I'm sorry, but I think the standards of the kitchen need to be raised rather than the customer's standards being lowered. And a forty-minute ticket time on a burger, a cold sandwich, and an app is unacceptable by any standards.

I don't generally pay much attention to social media “reviews,” but I scanned a couple of places and found these comments relating to a Macado's location in North Carolina: “We were seated right away because there were only about 3 other tables in the entire place. You would think that would mean we would have quick service (I saw 3 waitresses including ours)...wrong. It took quite awhile for the waitress to even come to our table. Then took awhile to get our drinks and an excessive amount of time to get our food.” And, “My only other slight complaint is the time it took to get our sandwiches, which was a considerable wait though we were the only people in the place...and we all ordered sandwiches.” Or, “I seem to have service issues (slow!) nearly every time I come here but the food is good, so... It's a good place to stop for a meal before seeing a movie. If you're trying to make a specific movie time, though, don't stop in here expecting a quick in-and-out.”

Obviously, there are some really basic kitchen issues that need to be addressed chain-wide. It's a shame because the food is excellent. But, great food not withstanding, I guess people with my “standards” would rather go someplace they can get a simple sandwich served in less than an hour. Sorry, Macado's, but I don't think our relationship has much of a future.