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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.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

When You Go Shopping, Please Remember To Bring Your Brain


Your Brain Gets Lonely When You Leave It At Home

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!

It's really hard to express primal scream therapy in print, but I do feel better, thank you. What's got me bugged now, you may ask? I'll tell you. In one word: idioti. (That shouldn't be too hard to translate from Italian.) Specifically, people who step out the door and leave their brains behind. This results in them going to shops, stores, restaurants, gas stations and the like in a completely brainless state. Not good, people, not good. Bad for society and bad for your brain. The poor thing gets lonely when you leave it home alone. Let me illustrate my point by relating some examples of folks shopping while brainless.

I just got back from my local Pizza Hut. (Yes, sometimes I get desperate.) I had ordered my pizza online, paid for it in advance, and timed my trip to the local store so that I could just whiz through the drive through window to pick it up. That was the plan, anyway. What I didn't take into account was the moron who pulled up to the drive through window just ahead of me to place his frickin' order and WAIT FOR IT!! I sat there in stark disbelief for several minutes as it slowly dawned on me what was happening. Fortunately, there was no one behind me, but still I can assure you that backing an SUV out of a severely curved drive through lane without benefit of a rear view camera is no picnic. I went inside, ranting about already being old and only getting older sitting out there behind that fool, and picked up my order. It was ready, of course, and the transaction took me all of thirty seconds; a thirty second transaction I could have accomplished from my vehicle were it not for some random idiota who left his brain at home.

Then there's the grocery store checkout. Here's where the brain-free phenomenon is really prevalent. First let me share how I handle the checkout experience. I bring my loaded cart to the checkout stand and place the contents on the conveyor. When I'm done, I pull the cart forward and through so that anybody behind me can start doing whatever they need to do. Then – and this is the tricky part, apparently – I get out my wallet and remove my credit card and any store rewards card or coupons I might have. That way, when the cashier hits the total, I can immediately hand over the discount card, the coupons, and the payment for the purchases. Ideally, while I'm doing that, the next person in line is going through the same procedure and thus the world continues in an orderly fashion. Sadly, such efficiency gets all bolloxed up and grinds to a halt when the nitwit in line ahead of me – and they're always ahead of me – waits until all the groceries have been totaled and most of the order is bagged before they even give the first thought to the fact that they are expected to pay for it all and start to make slow, sometimes lugubrious progress toward their pocket or pocketbook. After locating their wallet, they spend half a minute or so figuring out which form of payment to employ. They know they have a discount card, but either can't find it or don't seem to have it with them, forcing the cashier to use an alternate means of obtaining the information. If they have coupons.....somewhere.....well, all bets are off. And if they are still stuck in the stone age and are writing a check, you might as well get comfortable because you're going to be there for awhile. Instead of having pre-written everything but the amount on the check while they were waiting, they wait until the cashier presents the total before they even begin searching for their checkbook. Then they have to find a pen and fill out the check and wait while the cashier processes and approves it, which usually involves rummaging around for ID......all this while you stand there watching your ice cream melt. What is the Boy Scouts say? “Be prepared?”

How about the line at the fast-food place? Lot's of empty heads there. You can easily spot them because they are the ones who wait until the counter person says, “May I help you?” before they look up at the menu and proceed to stare at it as if it has somehow miraculously changed since they were in yesterday. Or perhaps since 1958. And, of course, you're stuck behind them, watching your lunch hour tick away while they ponder this most ponderous decision.

Oh, and while we're at the fast food place, if you had your brain with you would realize how incredibly rude it is to be talking on your cellphone while you're in the process of ordering or paying. This is actually true at the grocery store as well or anyplace where face-to-face human interaction might occur. Dust off your brain and put yourself behind the counter. How would you feel if the person you were trying to help by taking their order or ringing up their purchase was so completely engaged in talking to someone miles away that you – standing right there in front of them – might as well not exist? And it's not just the rudeness factor: your engrossment in your electronic conversation usually impacts those in line behind you, too, slowing down service and subjecting others to intimate details about your affairs that they'd probably rather not know. If my phone rings while I'm working with a cashier, I quickly excuse myself and answer the call by saying, “Hold on a second. I'm ordering lunch” or “paying for groceries” or whatever the case may be. I then put the phone down and continue to interact with the person standing in front of me. I figure they are already waiting on me, so I'm not going to make them wait for me.

I love the convenience of an ATM. And that's just “ATM,” by the way, and not “ATM machine.” The “M” in the acronym “ATM” stands for “machine,” so by calling it an “ATM machine” you are actually saying “automatic teller machine machine.” And why, unless you are an operative within the Department of Redundancy Department, would you need my “PIN number?” Wouldn't my “PIN” or “personal identification number” suffice? Why must it be my “personal identification number number?” Hmmm? Same thing applies to may car's “VIN number (vehicle identification number number)” or the “UPC code (universal product code code) you might find on the back of an “LCD display (liquid crystal display display).” But I digress.

Back to the ATM. Assuming I'm doing what most people are doing, i.e. using the machine to get some quick cash, I don't understand how I can accomplish the task in under forty seconds – yes, I've timed myself – while it seems to take others forty minutes. Again, remembering to bring your brain to the banking machine helps a lot. Because, see, if you do that, you'll have your card in your hand as you approach the device rather than waiting until you get to the keypad before you start fumbling for your wallet. I can drive up, get out of my car when necessary, slip my card into the slot, select “English,” select “Withdrawal,” opt out of getting a receipt, punch in my transaction amount, remove my card, collect my cash, and be back in my car in less than a minute. That is, of course, unless some boob got there first. Said boob took an eternity to extract a wallet from its place of concealment and an infinity to locate their ATM card within the wallet and is now staring at the screen as if it were a control panel aboard a space shuttle. Boob will finally decide upon a course of action and the course will invariably involve doing a week's worth of banking business that could have and should have been done at an actual frickin' bank. Then they will meander back to their car and sit there while they check over the transaction record, count the cash, put their card back in their wallet and return the wallet to their pocket or purse before putting on their seat belt and starting up the car, engaging the transmission, and s-l-o-w-l-y pulling away, leaving me sitting in my car with my electric razor, shaving off the beard that has grown during what should have been a less-than-a-minute-long transaction and popping my blood pressure pills as the steam from my labored breathing fogs up my windshield.

Walmart is a place my wife and I both love to hate. Either of us would rather be subjected to Ernest Tubb singing opera than to shop at WallyWorld. (If you're unfamiliar, find any classic Ernest Tubb tune and you'll immediately understand.) But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, and it's best to just prepare in advance for the cadre of the clueless you will doubtless encounter within the walls of Walmart. I'm not talking about the obvious “People of Walmart” people, the ones you see online in all their outlandish fashion glory. No, I mean the regular folks, your neighbors and fellow citizens who do to the aisles of Walmart what kids in the '50s and '60s did to the parking lots at the malt shop, the drive-in, and the pizza parlor. I go to Walmart when I need something I can't conveniently find somewhere else. “Low prices” be damned, I would rather pay a few pennies more and not be driven to a state of nerve-wracked, drooling catatonia. There is no price tag on my sanity. And the people who drive me insane are the ones who view Walmart not as a place to shop for goods and get out but rather see it as a social gathering venue in which they all mill about, narrowing the already narrow aisles, talking to friends they apparently haven't since since at least earlier today and discussing at length everything from Junior's soccer practice to Mom's “female” problems. All completely oblivious to their surroundings, a direct result of having left their brains at home. If they had brought their brains to Walmart, they would realize that there are people there who want to get what they came for in a swift and orderly fashion without having to take on aspects of Alabama's Harry Gilmer or some other famous halfback adept at broken field running. Shop like you mean it, people! And if you absolutely must engage in a coffee klatch in the cereal aisle, at least have the common sense and common courtesy – both of which are extremely uncommon anymore – to pull your cart out of the middle of the aisle so people who aren't part of your gabfest can get by. I always carry bail money to Walmart in case I need it.

Last but certainly not least, let's stop by the gas station. Most everybody these days pays at the pump. Most, but not all. There are still those who, for whatever reason, pay cash. I do it myself sometimes if I'm only getting a couple of bucks worth of gas for the lawn mower or something. This, of course, involves leaving your car at the pump and going inside the building. And that's fine. Go on in there and pay for your gas, then come back out and pump it. When you're finished, move your car out of the way so the six cars lined up behind you can access the gas pump. That's what your brain would likely tell you to do if you had it with you. Only a brainless idiot would go inside to pay for his gas, get some cigarettes, buy a few lottery tickets, grab a drink, pick up some chips, snag a candy bar, and get into an extended conversation with ol' Billy Roy who just happened to be in there doing the same thing. I know they call it a “convenience store” but it's not just there for your convenience. Think about the people sitting outside in their cars waiting for you to finish your all-important business. It might be raining or snowing, it might be hot or cold, they might be late for work or trying to get home for supper, But, of course, you can't think about such things if you left your brain at home.

Earlier I alluded to having a brain in your head at all times as being important to society, which the dictionary defines as “the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community.” And etiquette – or “good manners,” as the country folk say – is defined as “the set of rules or customs that control accepted behavior in society.” So it's not all about me. It's not all about my rights and my privileges and my ability to do whatever I want to do anytime and anyplace I want to do it. It's about what's best for the “aggregate of people living together” under a “set of rules.” And whether you're religious or not, the greatest of those rules is the one that tells us to respect our fellow human beings and to treat them in the same manner in which we would expect to be treated ourselves. And that requires thinking. Thinking about others. Thinking about whether or not something you're doing is creating a problem for somebody else, whether it be in a checkout line, a grocery store aisle, or a gas pump. The kind of thinking which requires a brain to be present at all times. Ergo, your brain should be like an American Express card: don't leave home without it.

I'll see you at Walmart.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Cheesecake Factory's Failed Four Cheese Pasta


Good Thing They Don't Call Themselves “Pasta Factory”

You ever wonder why some restaurants choose to name themselves some sort of “factory?” In this day and age of “handcrafted” and “artisan” goods, doesn't the “factory” designation ring a little industrial and uninspired? Dictionary.com defines a “factory” as: “a building or group of buildings with facilities for the manufacture of goods; any place producing a uniform product, without concern for individuality.” Hmmm.

We recently decided to spend a Cheesecake Factory gift card my wife had received for her birthday from a coworker. We'd never been to a Cheesecake Factory before and, after this past weekend's experience, we will likely not be going again. At least not for anything other than the cheesecake.

The atmosphere and décor at the restaurant we visited were stunning; very art-deco and upscale. And we were impressed if somewhat nonplussed by the twenty page menu. That said, let me offer a little insider tip: elaborate window dressing like dramatic décor and gargantuan menus are rapidly becoming passé in the industry. They are holdovers from an era when “if you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit” held sway. Give me a little hole-in-the-wall place with a single page menu of extraordinary food and I'm a much happier camper.

Anyway, we were shown to our table promptly by a smiling hostess and immediately attended by a very friendly, personable, and knowledgeable server. So far, so good. Undaunted by the daunting menu, my wife decided to go a little outside her usual comfort zone and try the Chicken Pot Stickers, classic pan-fried Asian dumplings served with a soy-ginger sesame sauce. I opted to stay close to my Italian roots and go with the Four Cheese Pasta, a dish consisting of penne pasta in a marinara sauce with mozzarella, ricotta, Romano and Parmesan cheeses, topped with chopped fresh basil. Of course, the server asked me if I wanted chicken with my pasta because Americans simply can't wrap their heads around the idea that pasta is a dish in and of itself and that Italians do not mix chicken – or any other meat – in with their pasta. So I politely declined the offer.

Our beverages arrived quickly and we were presented with a basket of delicious assorted breads while we were waiting.

My wife's pot stickers surprised, pleased, and satisfied her very much. Despite the typically Brobdingnagian American restaurant portions, she cleaned her plate quite effectively and was ready to move on to the signature cheesecake offerings.

It was not, however, love at first bite for me. In the first place, the dish came with a rather unappealing glop of wet ricotta and chopped basil on top. The consistency of the ricotta was such that I at first mistook it for sour cream. After I mixed it into the sauce, turning the red marinara rather pink in the process, I was ready to dig in. Well, my mama always taught me that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all, so let me say that the bread was delicious.

Look, I'm not a big one for complaining to the kitchen. Generally, if I don't like something, I don't finish it and I don't go back. But this was different. This was so egregiously awful I had to say something. The last time I remember being so offended by a dish was about fifteen years ago when some chain steak joint served me a fettuccine Alfredo rendered absolutely inedible by the heavy-handed adulteration of nutmeg and God knows what else in the sauce. At the Cheesecake Factory, the sauce was inoffensive enough, but the pasta was simply the worst I'd ever been subjected to from either a professional or a home kitchen. Although properly cooked for texture, it was indescribably bland. There was more salt in the tears I shed over this affront to Italian cookery than there was in the water in which the pasta was prepared.

In case you have never read anything that I or any other Italian cook has ever written about cooking pasta, you have to, have to, HAVE TO add generous amounts of salt to the water in which you cook the pasta. Some cooks say to “aggressively salt” the water. Others will tell you the water must “taste like the sea.” In any case, salt is essential to flavor in pasta. And that flavor must be imparted during the early cooking process when the pasta is opening up to release its starches and absorb flavors. Once the pasta is cooked, no amount of salting will give it flavor. Salting badly cooked pasta after the fact will only result in salty-tasting but otherwise bland pasta. And that was most definitely the case here. I literally took the top off the salt shaker in an attempt to infuse some semblance of flavor into the pasta set before me, but it was impossible. I had my wife try a bite. She could taste the sauce and the salt I'd dumped onto the noodle, but she agreed that the underlying pasta was hopelessly underseasoned.

I spoke to the server who sent over her supervisor who sent over the kitchen manager. I wasn't trying to be an obnoxious jerk; I genuinely wanted to know if this grievous, flagrant abuse of perfectly good pasta was the result of some corporate policy limiting the use of salt for “health reasons” or if it was just a preposterous lack of experience in the kitchen. Hey! It happens. I had to retrain one of my restaurant cooks once because he was using half-teaspoons of salt where half-cups were called for.

I think word about me must have made it up the line because the first question the kitchen manager inexplicably asked when he arrived at the table was about my occupation. I told him. And he admitted they were, indeed, required to “control” the use of salt in their kitchen. (Sigh) Why is it nobody understands that pasta only absorbs a minuscule amount of actual salt from the water? That the rest of the salt goes harmlessly down the drain? That nobody's going to get hardened arteries or have a stroke as a result of eating properly seasoned pasta? I don't know. (Sigh)

My wife properly explains that restaurants are really over a barrel on this issue. There are some salt-nazis out there who will raise holy hell if they taste the slightest hint of salt in a dish. “What are you trying to do, kill me?,” they screech. And then you have folks like me on the other side of the equation who will crucify a cook for attempting to bore my palate to sleep with bland, tasteless food. Working upward from the lowest common denominator, some restaurants choose to properly season food and suffer the slings and arrows of the outrageously palate-numbed masses while others – apparently including Cheesecake Factory – opt for pandering to them.

At any rate, the kitchen manager went on to explain that they followed fairly standard restaurant procedure in that they par-cooked big batches of pasta first thing in the morning, stored it in the reach-in until needed, and then finished it portion by portion in hot water and sauce before serving. No problem. That's the way I've done it, too. BUT, the pasta gets its flavor in the first few minutes of cooking. If the water in which the noodles were par-cooked wasn't salty enough, all bets are off when you reheat them. He told me he was going to go back and taste the water they were using to reheat the pasta. Too late, dude! The damage was done by the prep cooks this morning. You get a little wiggle room with something relatively fine like capellini or even regular spaghetti. But with big honkin' pasta shapes like penne, you just get flavorless, bland, inedible chunks of chewy cardboard. And that's what I was served – in a four-cheese marinara sauce with a wet glop of ricotta.

But on the bright side, the chocolate mousse cheesecake was decadently delicious. And, as I said, the bread was good, so the meal wasn't a total loss.

I know I'm an opinionated, hyper-critical old fuddy-duddy when it comes to Italian food. And I know Cheesecake Factory is a very popular place. The one we went to was packed to the doors, so obviously somebody likes it. My wife liked it. She's now a confirmed consumer of pot stickers. And who's to say the next Cheesecake Factory down the road might not have a kitchen a little less stringent in its “control” of salt? The fact remains that for my money – even though it technically wasn't my money – it all amounted to a rather disappointing dining experience. Except for the cheesecake: I'll definitely go back for the cheesecake.

Which is why, I guess, it's a good thing they don't call themselves “Pasta Factory.”

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Can Your Kitchen Towels Really Make You Sick?


It's Just Common Sense, Folks

I'm kind of shocked by a new study revealing that kitchen towels can make you sick. To me, the shocking part wasn't the bacterial growth on the towels so much as how it got there.

The study was recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. CNN reports that, according to a lead study author, Susheela D. Biranjia-Hurdoyal, senior lecturer of health sciences at the University of Mauritius, nearly half of the common kitchen towels examined – 49 out of 100 – exhibited growth of bacteria normally found in or on the human body. Nasty stuff like staphylococcus aureus, normally found on skin and in the respiratory tract, and e. coli and enterococcus, usually found in.....well, most everybody knows where you usually find those. The point being that any and all of them can make you sick as a dog.

The study broke things down a bit: researchers discovered that the type and amount of bacteria differed based on a family's size, socioeconomic status and type of diet. For instance, the aforementioned “staph” germs were more likely to be found on towels from big families and those of lower socioeconomic status, while the intestinal bugs were more likely to occur among meat eaters. The logic behind the latter statistic is that people who prepare meat regularly tend to grab a handy kitchen towel to wipe down cutting boards and countertops.

The paragraph that got me was this one: “The bacteria were also more likely to be found on wet towels than dry towels and on towels that were used for multiple purposes, such as wiping utensils, drying hands and cleaning surfaces, according to the study.”

Wait a minute. The wet towel thing is obvious and I get that part. But what's with the “used for multiple purposes” thing? “Wiping utensils, drying hands and cleaning surfaces?” You mean there are people out there dum......errrr....uninformed enough to use the same towel for all that? My mother the clean freak who would even wash and sanitize paper towels before she threw them into a carefully compartmentalized and segregated trash can – wet stuff in one plastic bag, dry stuff in another; food scraps in one container, paper trash in another – is absolutely spinning in her grave at the thought!

In my restaurant kitchen, there was a progression. In the first place, you can't use “dish towels” to dry dishes in a restaurant kitchen. Nope. Health code violation. Points off your score. If you don't have a dishwasher with a heat cycle, hand washed dishes have to air dry on racks. That's always one of the hardest things to get across to new employees who are used to using “dish towels” at home. But we did use towels to wipe down surfaces. Once you used a “clean” towel to wipe down a countertop or a table a few times, the by then “dirty” towel moved down the ladder to be used to wipe up spills on the floor. Then it went into the laundry hamper. Towels for drying hands were always of the “sanitary roll” type, or came out of a paper towel dispenser mounted at the handwashing sink.

My home kitchen works pretty much the same way. I usually air dry dishes in a dish rack just because I'm lazy. But if I do dry them with a towel, it's a dedicated “dish” towel. It gets used for dishes and nothing else. I won't even dry my hands on a “dish” towel; I have “hand” towels looped over the oven door handle and on a metal towel rack that fits over one of my cabinet drawers. “Dish” towels are for dishes and “hand” towels are for hands. I have special bar mops – thick, super-absorbent terry cloth towels designed for the purpose – hanging around to wipe down countertops, stove top, appliances, etc. And I either use dedicated “floor rags” or dirty dish or hand towels or bar mops to wipe up floor spills and such, depending on how nasty the spill is. I can't wrap my brain around people using the same towel for everything. Although I know they do it. They're the same ones who use filthy, smelly, raggedy dishcloths over and over again and then leave them wadded up wet beside the sink in an open invitation to any nearby bacteria to set up shop and party. Those are also the people in whose houses I will not eat anything.

Another story I was reading on the subject inferred that some people were not regularly changing out their kitchen towels; as in they were using them for weeks without washing them. Yikes!

There have been numerous articles published about changing out your dishcloths or sponges or scrubbers or whatever every couple of days at most. But I guess dish towels kind of get overlooked. Okay, so lets look. I do a load of “kitchen laundry” every week. Towels, dishcloths, aprons, bar mops – anything made of fabric that I use in my kitchen – go in the wash on “hot” with bleach every week. Potholders and oven mitts get the treatment from time to time, as well. And I don't do endurance testing to see how long I can go without washing something. If a dish towel or hand towel or whatever has seen extra heavy use for some reason, into the laundry hamper it goes and a fresh one comes out of the linen drawer. I don't try to “make them last” for a whole week.

I also keep a spray bottle of the same sanitizing solution I used in my restaurants (and still use for catering) in my home kitchen to wipe down surfaces so I'm not just spreading germs around with those nice clean towels. Add about a quarter teaspoon of liquid chlorine bleach to two cups of water. Pour into a one quart spray bottle. This yields a mixture that equals approximately the 100ppm concentration recommended by most health departments for low level disinfection.

The FDA says: “Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. Then, throw the germs away with the towels! If you use cloth towels, launder them often, using hot water. Note: Don't dry your hands with a towel that was previously used to clean up raw meat, poultry, or seafood juices. These raw juices may contain harmful bacteria that can spread to your hands and throughout the kitchen.” (The agency also says, “keep pets off kitchen counters and away from food,” but that's a topic for another time.) I can get behind the paper towel notion, too, but many environmentally conscious folks are vehemently opposed to it. When I do use paper towels, I use the heavy-duty, thick, absorbent variety. Yes, they are more expensive, but they are cost effective and relatively “greener” because you need fewer of them to do the job: one or two sheets as opposed to half a roll of the cheap dollar store brands. But I'm cheap too and I tend to limit the use of paper towels to food prep and use cloth towels for cleanup.

It's just common sense, folks. I know someone who changes out bath towels and wash cloths after every single use. Germs, you know. Yet that same person will leave a dish towel on the counter by the sink until it resembles a battle flag from the field at Gettysburg. Go figure.

Bottom line: heed the advice of scientists, the FDA, and yours truly. Wash your dish towels regularly. Heat dry or air dry your dishes as much as possible, but if you do take a towel to a fork, plate, or glass, make sure it's not the same one you just used to wipe the floor. Or the one you used to wipe your hands after you handled raw chicken. Or the one with which you wiped your toddler's nose. (I swear, I've seen it done.) Multitasking is fine for some things but not for kitchen towels. Try my method of separate towels for separate tasks. Or don't. After all, dealing with food-borne illnesses will give you lots of opportunities to check out the condition of your bathroom towels, too.

Just sayin'.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A New Runner Up To My Favorite Bacon


Head For A Nearby Cracker Barrel

Greetings, fellow bacon aficionados. I come to you today with good news; I have found a worthy runner up to my favorite bacon and it, too, comes from the Volunteer State. Well.....sort of, anyway.

Nothing short of the apocalypse is going to separate me from my abiding love for Allan Benton's porky ambrosia. The bacon produced at Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee is renowned and preferred – nay, revered – by top chefs all over the country for a good reason: it's freakin' delicious. Naturally dry-cured by hand, thick-cut, and oh-so-smoky, there isn't a bacon on the market that can touch it.

But.....it's kinda hard to come by. Allan doesn't sell at retail because he doesn't have to. You won't find Benton's bacon at your neighborhood supermarket. It's available at a few specialty places in and around the area where it's produced, but by and large the only way to obtain this nearly unobtainable porcine perfection is to order it online or to make a pilgrimage to the smokehouse in East Tennessee, something I do a few times a year. I never leave Benton's without several pounds of my favorite savory, piggy bonne bouche, but invariably I do run out before I can restock. What to do, what to do? Well, I'll tell you what to do: head for a nearby Cracker Barrel.

Yep, that's what I said; a good ol' Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. Based out of Lebanon, Tennessee, which is located about 165 miles west and slightly north of Madisonville, and with more than six-hundred locations nationwide, there's probably one around an interstate exit near you.

Now, I've been eating the bacon at CB for decades. It's an integral part of my favorite “Old Timer's” breakfast. And I've probably seen the signs proclaiming that the bacon is available for in-store purchase in two-pound packages hundreds of times. But only recently did I actually pay attention to those signs.

I was out of Benton's bacon and Sunday morning was coming up. That's the day I totally abandon my Italian roots and pig out – excuse the pun – by cooking my family and friends a huge American-style breakfast. It's about the only non-Italian meal that I really enjoy cooking and eating. And bacon, of course, is the star. For years, my backup bacon had come from my local butcher who has a special purchase arrangement with Farmland Foods. I used it both at home and in my restaurant kitchen. But lately, that bacon wasn't up to par. I was returning pounds of the stuff that looked like it had been cut with a dull chainsaw. The taste was still okay, but otherwise the overall quality was just lacking. I tried a few national and regional brands from the supermarket with “meh” results. So when I saw the sign at Cracker Barrel one Friday evening, I thought, “Why not? Let's give it a try.” And, boy, am I glad I did!

This is good stuff, folks. It's not handcrafted artisan to-die-for good like Benton's, but for a commercially produced product, it's hard to beat. The first thing I noticed is the uniformity of the cut. This is a big deal because it means all the slices will cook up evenly. It's a nice medium thickness; not so thick you feel like you're munching on a thin pork chop nor so thin as to resemble bacon-flavored tissue paper. All the slices are of a standard length and they stay that way throughout the cooking process. There's not a lot of shrinkage, indicating that minimal water was injected in the curing. At the same time, there's not a great deal of fat rendered off, either. For example, I had to cook some up in the microwave the other day. This is my absolute least favorite way to cook bacon, but it's the best way to get it super crisp super fast if you want to crumble it over a baked potato, which is what I was doing. Normally, bacon cooked in the microwave makes a gawdawful greasy mess. But I was pleasantly surprised that that was not the case here. Very little grease to clean up. This means there's a good lean-to-fat ratio. Best of all, this is bacon that tastes like bacon. It's got a great balanced porky, salty, hardwood smoky flavor. And it's not terribly expensive. As I write this, Cracker Barrel's bacon, when purchased at a local restaurant, is priced about the same as the premium brands you find at the grocery store. And it's worth every penny.

Now, Cracker Barrel may bill itself as an “Old Country Store” and it may have a lot of rustic décor and lots of homey products for sale, but one thing's for sure: there ain't anybody out back butchering hogs and makin' bacon. Nope. Thanks to a multi-year licensing agreement, the credit for that goes to John Morrell, a division of Smithfield Foods. And as far as commercially sourced bacon goes, both are pretty reliable names.

So here's the deal, Lucille: if you want the best bacon money can buy, you'll still need to find a way to tap into Allan Benton's Tennessee treasure house. Go online, go to Madisonville, or go find a friend who's making a road trip and doesn't mind having the car smell like bacon for possibly hundreds of miles. But if you're looking for an acceptable substitute, skip the supermarket and skip on over to Cracker Barrel. Buy a couple of two-pound packages and make sure to employ my tipsfor saving your bacon after you get it home. It ain't Benton's, but it's good. (I wonder if I could get them to print that on the label. Nah. Probably not.)

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Saying “Ciao” To The Chew


“We Wish Them The Very Best”

I can't say I'm completely surprised. Although it happened a little faster than I thought it would, ABC's decision to ax the afternoon gabber/eater The Chew was pretty much a foregone conclusion. The cooking show that replaced the venerable soap opera All My Children back in 2011 will itself be replaced by an expanded version of the popular newser Good Morning America this coming September. Oh, well. É vita. (That's Italian for c'est la vie.)

I've been up and down about The Chew for most of its seven season existence. My initial reaction when the show debuted was “The Chew is a little hard to swallow.” I went on to say that “after a few bites I'm honestly trying to like The Chew, but it's simply got to get better.”

I've never liked the cutesy name: The Chew was intended as a play on words to its lead-in talker, The View. (Somebody at ABC actually got paid to come up with that one.) And I was none too enamored of the cast, either. Mario Batali was the undisputed star of the piece and, frankly, the only reason I tuned in in the first place. Somebody obviously owed celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz a favor and paid it off by giving his cute but clueless daughter Daphne a co-hosting gig. Top Chef alum Carla Hall was flighty and unfocused, “Iron Chef” Michael Symon proved his mettle to be more like aluminum (foil?), and “style expert” Clinton Kelly must have seen the end of his What Not To Wear road coming and decided to just go along for the ride.

The first few episodes were nearly unwatchable as the fractious five struggled to become a cohesive unit. Mario, Michael, and Carla did their best to draw on their food TV experience in an attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but it was apparent that Mario was phoning it in and that Michael and Carla were still searching the Yellow Pages for the number. And, as I observed at the time, “Watching the real food experts on the set prepare drool-worthy dishes and then watching Ms. Oz throw a handful of psyllium husks on a bowlful of yogurt was like watching a gourmet food truck crash into the front of a health food store.” Of Clinton I said, “With no real food experience and a personality that vacillates between supercilious and just plain silly, he adds little to the show, although his tablescape segment on Day 3 was interesting. Maybe he'll grow on me.”

And he did. So did Daphne. Carla toned down the shuck and jive a little and although Michael still “caramelized” everything in sight instead of just browning it, he developed a great rapport with the other four and with the audience as well. Mario was Mario right up until the end, which, of course, is what led to his downfall.

Now, ABC is denying that Mario's recent fall from grace over his unsavory behavior and an ongoing NYPD investigation into his sexual peccadilloes had anything to do with their decision to truncate the program. They used the “Godfather” defense: “It's just business.” The fact that The Chew's inevitable association with the man in the orange Crocs and the precipitous seventeen percent drop in viewership among the critical 18 – 49 female demographic after his outing plunged ratings back to freshman season levels when all the disgruntled soap fans were still organizing protests obviously had nothing to do with it. They just needed another hour for GMA, so bye-bye Clinton and company. Ri-i-i-i-i-ght!

It didn't matter to me: I stopped watching The Chew the day Mario was fired. As I said, he was the main reason I watched anyway. And as I've written elsewhere, even though he was a rotten, deplorable role model whose superior intelligence was belied by the fact that he stupidly attached a cinnamon roll recipe to his official “apology,” he is still an incredibly talented, knowledgeable, innovative Italian chef who has an intrinsic knack for teaching as well as for cooking. I learned more from Molto Mario reruns than I did from almost any culinary class I ever took. Daphne Oz taking leave of the show last year barely caused a ripple: Mario's ousting was like a tidal wave. On the one hand, you had fans like me who lost interest without Mario's presence and influence, while on the other hand were the #MeToo crowd who abhorred and denounced the fact that he ever had a presence and influence to begin with. And smack in the middle was the network, valiantly trying to hold the pieces together when even the pieces were left in a weird, directionless limbo. Just a few days prior to the cancellation announcement, Carla Hall talked about the vacancy left by Batali. She said that The Chew had no plans to replace him, and that the remaining hosts had “become closer” since his bombshell banishment.

For its part, Disney/ABC, speaking in the voice of Disney/ABC Television president Ben Sherwood, made it all sound very matter-of-fact and gave it a nice Mickey Mouse spin: “Over the past six years Good Morning America has solidified its place as America’s No. 1 morning show. We believe there is great opportunity for viewers and advertisers in expanding to a third hour.” At least he was politic enough to put “viewers” before “advertisers” in the statement. But I think in reality the order was probably quite the reverse. I mean, there was obviously nothing left to do with The Chew. And what did it accomplish, after all? As a talk/food hybrid, it only broke new ground, running 1,454 episodes over seven seasons while garnering multiple Emmy noms and winning two of them. But once you hung a crude and socially unacceptable red-haired, fleece vest-wearing albatross around its neck, all past bets were off and the shiny new “great opportunity” was brought to the fore. I can almost guarantee, however, that nobody at the House of Mouse had the first thought about a third hour for “ America’s No. 1 morning show” before a certain Italian chef fell off his high horse and got dragged through the Spotted Pig-shit.

Sources say it will all go down like this: Whereas GMA's principal competitor, NBC's Today, runs a consecutive four hours, the new GMA move will not impact the syndicated Live With Kelly & Ryan show, which follows the first two hours of GMA in most markets. The aforementioned talker, The View, will stay put following Live. Because of that scheduling and a noon local newscast in many markets, the third hour of the revamped GMA will air in The Chew's old 1 PM -2 PM time slot, some three hours after the morning show’s second hour. So you'll watch two hours of GMA in the morning, then watch Kelly Ripa and her co-host de jour and the ladies of The View for a couple of hours, then maybe sit through a noon newser, and then come back for another hour of Good Morning America, which will actually be airing in the afternoon. Makes sense to me. What are they going to call it, Good Afternoon America? The abbreviation would be GAA. I don't think that will sell. We'll just have to wait and see, I guess.

As The Chew masticates its last, I'm sure there will be “great opportunities” ahead for the remaining embattled co-hosts. Carla and Michael, who both reacted to the news with thanks to viewers for an “amazing ride” and an “amazing run,” respectively, might have to fall back on cooking for awhile until Food Network offers them a vacuous game show of some sort. Ever the philosopher, Clinton Kelly said, “Huge bummer, but that’s the TV biz.” Hey, he's still “fabulous,” after all, so I'm sure something appropriate will come his way. Daphne is off making Dr. Oz a granddaddy over and over again and Mario has switched his focus from diners with forks to activists with pitchforks, so he'll be quite busy for the foreseeable future.

Sherwood added this closing to his statement, “For seven years The Chew has delighted audiences by delivering innovative food segments in an entertaining atmosphere. We applaud and thank Gordon Elliott, Aimee Householder, Michael Symon, Carla Hall, Clinton Kelly and the entire cast and crew for their great work and amazing run. And we wish them the very best.”

Ciao” to The Chew. It's been nice knowin' ya.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Sorting Out The Way Italians Really Eat From The Way Americans Think Italians Eat


Are You Eating Like An Italian Or An American?

Everybody in America knows that Italians eat huge meals that consist of lots of pasta swimming in meaty red sauces, right? There's lots of garlic bread and salads with rich, creamy Italian dressing. And of course there are decadent desserts to top it all off. We've seen it on TV and in the movies and we've all been to Italian restaurants, so it must be true, right? Ehhhh.....not so much.

In the interest of sorting out the way Italians really eat from the way Americans think Italians eat, let's try a little quiz.

We'll start with pasta. Pasta is something Italians eat in great quantities, usually on huge plates with a lot of tomato sauce and meatballs heaped on top. Sometimes instead of tomato sauce, Italians substitute rich, creamy Alfredo sauce and add in chicken or other meats, seafood, or vegetables. Such dishes are usually considered the main course of an Italian meal.

And if you think this is true, you are thinking like an American.

The Italian meal progression is set up much differently than its American counterpart. In America, a meal generally starts out with a salad or a soup and progresses through an entree or “main course” that consists of a meat and one or more side items – usually a starch and a vegetable – and ends with a dessert. Under these circumstances a tossed salad, a large plate of spaghetti and meatballs and a dessert like cannoli or spumoni ice cream qualifies as an “Italian” dinner. But it's a dinner no Italian would actually eat.

In the first place, Italian meals are served in several small courses, usually starting with an antipasto, or an “appetizer” of cured meats or cheeses or perhaps bruschetta. These are small bites, not intended to be a whole meal unto themselves. The next course is the primo course. This is where the pasta comes in, or perhaps risotto or soup. The secondo follows the primo and is the meat or seafood course. Next are the contorni or the vegetables. A contorno is seldom served on the same plate as a secondo. Pasta is never served as a “side dish” to meat or vegetables. And the dolce or dessert course that concludes the average meal is usually something light and sweet, like fresh fruit.

In the second place, spaghetti and meatballs are not served as a single entity. You can have an order of spaghetti and you can have an order of meatballs, but you'll only get them together in places catering to American tourists. And there's no such thing as “Alfredo sauce” in the Italian diet. It's as American as apple pie. So is the custom of cutting up chicken or whatever, throwing it into a plate of pasta, and dousing it with sauce. Chicken Alfredo? Sorry. Not in Italy.

As kind of a side note on the topic, let's talk about bread and salads for a minute. I hate to break it to you, America, but bottled “Italian” dressing is an American creation and garlic bread – the kind soaked and slathered in garlic butter – is straight out of Little Italy, not “big” Italy.

It's true! È vero! Italians don't “do” salads the way Americans do. At an Italian table, the salad is not a precursor to the meal. Instead, salad is served as a palate cleanser after the main course. And rich, creamy “Italian” dressings are non existent in Italy, where salads are generally dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic or wine vinegar, and salt and pepper.

As far as bread is concerned, Italians love their bread. But they eat it with a meal, often using pieces of bread to “fare la scarpetta” or “make a little shoe” with which to soak up excess sauce on a plate. Bread isn't its own course, served before a meal as an appetizer. Even Italian restaurants that give you bread and “dipping oil” before dinner aren't being completely authentic. The only time you'll see bread as an appetizer is if it's an actual appetizer like bruschetta or crostini. And there's no such thing as “garlic bread.” Italians, especially southern Italians, aren't big on butter to begin with and they don't soak or slather their bread in it. Instead, Italians will toast up some slices of bread, rub them lightly with a clove of garlic and brush them with olive oil. That's real Italian “garlic bread.”

Now let's talk about portions. Italy is noted for its abbondanza lifestyle and Italian meals are huge affairs with tables groaning under the weight of enormous platters of food. And there's that American thinking again.

Don't believe everything you see on TV. Except on rare special occasions, Italians just don't eat that way. Sure, your local spaghetti house or red sauce joint will load you down with enough pasta to herniate a horse, but that's because it's a question of image. Americans have so come to expect gigantic portions that if an Italian eatery in America were to serve authentic quantities of food to its clientele, the customers would be terribly disappointed and would likely eat elsewhere as a result. When I eat at an average “Italian” restaurant, I order from the children's menu. That way I'm only getting twice as much food as I need as an individual rather than enough to feed a small Italian family. An authentic portion of pasta, for example, is never more than a cup or so. Steaming plates piled high are unheard of for just one person. And the concept of “never ending” anything never occurs to Italians.

And while we're discussing pasta portions, be clear about this: if you think a big pile of plain pasta on a plate swimming in a quart of tomato sauce that has been poured over the top is the way Italians serve pasta, you're thinking and eating like an American again.

Italians view sauce almost as a condiment: the pasta is the “star” of the dish. Italians never pour huge quantities of sauce over the top of plain, cooked spaghetti, for instance. Instead, the spaghetti is cooked in salted water until it's almost done, then it is removed from the water and actually cooked in the sauce for a final minute or two in order to allow the flavor of the sauce to permeate the pasta. Then it is plated with just enough extra sauce to dress the pasta. If you have a puddle of sauce left on the plate after the pasta is gone, you've oversauced the dish.

Now that we've talked about pasta, let's focus on that other Italian staple, pizza. Pizza is everywhere in Italy, from fancy pizzerie (that is the proper plural of “pizzeria:” you don't just tack an “s” onto a word to make it plural in Italian), to street vendors to home tables, everybody loves pizza. Yes and no. While it's true that pizza has spread from its southern roots to encompass most of the Italian peninsula, the pizza experience in Italy is quite different from what Americans have come to expect. In fact, most American travelers are rather stunned by real Italian pizza. In the first place, there's no such thing as pepperoni pizza. The sausage-like pepperoni Americans load onto their pizza is an American creation. If you order “pepperoni” in Italy, expect to find red or green peppers on your pizza because that's what “peperoni” means in Italian. If you want spicy sausage, you might try ordering salsiccia piccante, but don't be surprised by funny looks because Italians just don't load a lot of junk on their pizza like Americans do. Meat lovers? Forget it. Italians don't mix meats on pizza (or much of anywhere else.) Pizza purists in Naples – where modern pizza was born and raised – only recognize two varieties, marinara and Margherita. The marinara is made with a traditionally thin crust topped with tomato, oregano, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and basil. The Margherita consists of thin crust, tomato sauce, mozzarella di bufala, fresh basil, and extra virgin olive oil. Unlike the long-cooking “spaghetti sauce” type of tomato sauce commonly ladled on in America, vera pizza Napoletana is lightly sauced with a fresh, light, raw sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes.

Chicago-style? Not in Italy! I doubt an Italian pizzaiolo would even recognize such a concoction as pizza. Same goes for so-called “California-style.” Chicken and kale and vegetables and such all have their place, but it's not on pizza. And Hawaiian pizza? Please! (shudder)

A few other things that set the Italian pizza experience apart from its American cousin include the way pizza is served. Gigantic, enormous pies meant to feed either a large crowd or one or two hungry college students are unheard of in Italy. The rule there is one pizza per person, a pizza being about the size of a small dinner plate. Pizza does not come sliced up into individual wedges like it does in America. Italian pizza is served whole and comes with a knife and fork. You cut it yourself and use the utensils for the first few bites until you get the slice to a manageable size you can pick up, fold slightly and finish off.

The only real pizza in Italy comes from wood-burning brick ovens. The gas or electric powered conveyor-belt ovens common in American pizza joints would be viewed as dispositivi dall'inferno (devices from hell). This dedication to wood and brick is also why there are very few “home baked” pizza options in Italy. No home oven can approach the correct temperature, about 900 degrees. And Italians would sooner eat the packaging from a frozen pizza than the actual product – and would likely find very little difference between the two.

While pizza is an anytime food in America – even consumed cold for breakfast – it is generally a dinner food in Italy. It is seldom eaten for lunch, unless you grab a slice and eat it standing up at a bar. And the beverage of choice to accompany pizza is either beer or acqua frizzante (sparkling water), although due to American influences, soft drinks – most notably Coca Cola – are making inroads among younger people. And there are no leftovers, no “take-out” boxes. Anything not eaten is simply left behind.

Which brings up another big difference between eating like an Italian and eating like an American: “to go,” “take away,” “take out,” “drive thru,” and the like are foreign concepts in Italy. Most Americans view food as fuel; something they need to have in order to keep functioning at their daily breakneck pace. They're perfectly fine with getting “something to go” and stuffing it down their necks as they sit at their desks or travel from point A to point B. Not so in Italy where food is taken much more seriously. About the only thing you'll ever see an Italian consume “on the go” is gelato, which they'll eat as they take a walk, or fare un passeggiata. Not even coffee is served in a “to go” cup; you drink it while standing at a bar. (You're actually charged extra to be seated while drinking your espresso.)

Meals, even common daily lunches and dinners, are events; times to be savored and appreciated, to talk and to socialize. (That means put down the phone and converse with the person sitting across from you, in case you need a definition.) And quality, not quantity, is the important thing. It's not hyperbolic or braggadocious to say that Italian food and Italian ingredients are the finest in the world. Italians know it and they like it that way. At home, Italians keep a few staple items in the pantry and shop almost daily at small local markets for their meat and seasonal produce. American-style “supermarkets” are just not an Italian thing, nor is weekly shopping to “stock up.” It's all a much slower-paced and generally more healthful way of eating than the frenetic grab-it-and-go lifestyle lived by most Americans.

Speaking of meals, mealtimes are different in Italy than they are in the United States. For one thing they're later, something common to most of Europe. Pranzo, or lunch is never eaten at noon as it is in America. An early lunch might be one o' clock. Two is a fairly average lunch time. And dinner, or cena, is usually served around eight or nine p.m. Which, by the way, is commonly expressed as venti or ventuno (20 or 21): also like most of Europe, Italy tells time based on a twenty-four hour clock, so there's no “a.m.” or “p.m.” As appropriate for the time of day, lunch is usually the bigger meal and dinner is smaller and lighter fare, generally opposite of the American way. Italians aren't big breakfast eaters. The common bacon and eggs and hashbrowns and toast and pancakes and juice and coffee that many Americans enjoy would be mind numbing to an Italian, who is most like to have a pastry – called a cornetto – and coffee for colazione (breakfast). Italians eat a lot of eggs, to be sure, but they do so at lunch or dinner. Eggs are just not an Italian breakfast “thing.”

None of this is meant to imply there's anything “wrong” with the American version of eating like an Italian. And I'm not some snooty purist who looks down his nose at Italian-American fare. I like a red sauce joint with fake grapevines and chintzy checkered tablecloths as much as the next guy. But you need to know the difference, especially if you ever plan to travel to Italy. It'll kind of help lessen the culture shock when you discover that fettuccine Alfredo, chicken Parmigiana, and stromboli aren't on the menu. Besides, although all that rich, meaty, creamy, saucy over-portioned Italian-American food is undoubtedly delicious, the real thing, made from high quality, fresh, seasonal ingredients, is so much more so – and it's healthier to boot.

La vita è troppo breve per mangiare e bere male, quindi mangiare come un italiano vero! (Life is too short to eat and drink badly, so eat like a real Italian!)

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Why Ancestry.com Can Be Dangerous


A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

What a ridiculous concept! Ancestry.com dangerous? How can America's most beloved genealogical resource that has allowed more than two million members access to nearly sixteen billion records since its inception back in the 1980s possibly be dangerous? Isn't that a bit hyperbolic? Well......maybe.

Thank goodness Ancestry appears to have abandoned – for the moment, anyway – the execrable marketing ploy “you don't have to know what you're looking for; just look.” The online ancestor hunting service now has a new gig going in the DNA business: spit in a tube and they'll tell you all about yourself. It's interesting. I tried it and the resulting ratios were about as expected. No twists, no turns, no surprises. Unlike the poor schmuck in the TV commercial who had to trade in his lederhosen for a kilt. Or the stunner some lady got when her Ancestry DNA test revealed that the doc who ran the local fertility clinic turned out to be her biological daddy. Ooops!

Please don't misunderstand. I love Ancestry.com. It's an amazing resource on which I have heavily relied for many years. What I don't love is the potential for misuse and abuse that can make it – as I said – dangerous. Let me explain.

Have you ever said something like “I know just enough to be dangerous?” Or maybe you've heard the old expression “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” (Even though the actual quote is “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”) In either case, the idiom refers to people who gain a modicum of knowledge about a given subject and then believe themselves to be experts capable of managing much more than they actually can, often to the detriment of themselves and/or others. Many times, this is the case with Ancestry.com users.

Ancestry.com and its many derivative competitors are like tools. When employed by skilled hands, they can yield fantastic results. But when wielded by clumsy amateurs.......well, it ain't gonna be pretty. That's why I got so exercised over that stupid slogan. Of course you have to know what you're looking for! Just going online and plundering and blundering around in the dark is a sure recipe for disaster. It's like giving a five-year-old the keys to a Lamborghini and telling him to take it for a spin. The resulting carnage will be unpleasant.

I spent more than forty years skulking around dusty archives, courthouses, churches, libraries, and newspaper morgues and stomping about in dozens of remote cemeteries in search of my ancestors. I turned over the odometers on several cars. I interviewed scores of old relatives, old friends and old neighbors. I spent more money than I care to think about on photocopies, certified copies, fees, and postage. I squinted at dark, grainy photographs until my eyes blurred. I attempted to decipher illegible records recorded by people who could barely write. I found out that a surname with four or five letters can be spelled forty or fifty different ways. In short, I dotted every “i,” crossed every “t” and empirically verified every jot and tittle of available information. Then and only then, after I had established a rock solid base and knew what the hell I was looking for, did I begin to utilize resources like Ancestry.com. Through Ancestry and other Internet sources, I was able to cap off decades of work, adding details and finishing touches I would otherwise not have been able to access. Like finding out the name of the ship that carried my great grandfather from Liverpool to Boston. Or finding his name in nineteenth century English census records. I published the results of my quest in a profusely illustrated and exhaustively researched book that thoroughly chronicled the roots of the family back to the early eighteenth century.

Then a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a distant cousin who informed me that he had started working on the family tree online as a hobby seven or eight years ago and had traced us all the way back through British kings and queens to the ninth or tenth century and he was willing to share his work. I was too busy weeping and wailing and gnashing my teeth to really pay much attention. To think I had wasted forty-five years and all that money and tire rubber and shoe leather when all I really had to do was spend a few minutes sitting on my ass in a chair and punching a computer keyboard. Wow!

And kings and queens yet! My old Aunt Tootsie warned me at the start of my journey that I might find “some old horse thieves.” Guess what, Auntie? Moonshiners? Yes. Old men who married their young step-daughters or got their teenage nieces pregnant? Yes. Liars, philanderers, relatives who hung themselves in barns and in mental institutions? Yep. Found them, too. But no horse thieves. Lots of farmers and a few craftsmen, but no kings or queens.

Of course, everybody wants to be related to somebody famous. And that's part of why Ancestry and its ilk can be so dangerous. If I had a nickel for everyone who wanted to be related to a Founding Father back when I was doing professional genealogical research during the years surrounding the 1976 bicentennial, I'd be a rich man today. Disappointingly for many, not everybody gets to be famous. Most people walking around today are descended from common farmers, merchants, tradesmen, and the like. And unless you can conclusively trace your lineage to some of Europe's patrician families, the chances of finding any records predating the sixteenth century or so are pretty slim. Ancestry has enormous resources documenting about two hundred countries. But even Ancestry can't get you back to Adam and Eve; their data well bottoms out in the 1300s.

A lot of those earliest records are sketchy and sparse and come from church collections. Don't go on Ancestry expecting to find your great-great-great grandfather's birth certificate all framed and waiting for you. Birth, marriage, and death records weren't required to be kept on a civil level until the early twentieth century. You might find a few on a catch-as-catch-can basis dating from about the mid-nineteenth century. Before that you're largely at the mercy of ecclesiastical records of various sorts. Census records aren't very helpful much before 1850. Prior to that, censuses usually named only the head of the household; anybody else living in the dwelling was a number, i.e. “4 males, 3 females.”

But I'm wandering off topic. Let me get back to why I consider Ancestry.com to be dangerous. In a nutshell, Ancestry and similar services allow people to practice what I call “make it fit” genealogy. Let's say you've talked to Grandma and gotten a few twigs to populate your family tree. Now you go on Ancestry, armed with these vague references, and start searching. Lo and behold, little “leaves” start cropping up. Admittedly, some of those “leaves” don't exactly jibe with what Grandma told you, but, jeez, they're awfully close and they would enable you to leap back another generation or two in your search, so you just take the questionable data you've found and “make it fit” in order to branch out your family tree. Never mind that you may have inadvertently grafted an entirely different species onto your root stock. It's close enough and it gets you back to the kings and queens of England.

I have seen published references on Ancestry to women giving birth to children fewer than nine months apart. I have seen records of children born more than a year after their father died. I have seen instances where a person dies but is still listed as living in a particular locale six months later. Some careless, clueless clown killed my great-great grandmother thirty or so years before she actually died. How did that happen? Simple. There was a reference recorded in somebody's incomplete online genealogy that said she died “after 1875” because that was apparently the last this person had seen of her. Well, the next person in line sort of forgot the “after” notation and just listed her date of death as “1875.” And the next person and the next person and the next person perpetuated the error. Now you've got a dozen published records on Ancestry.com that swear this woman died in 1875. Of course, the fact that she lived until 1907 is immaterial. People saw it on Ancestry so it must be true.

Ancestry.com has something it calls “OneWorldTree.” It's described as “one big community family tree. OneWorldTree takes family trees submitted by Ancestry members that were 'stitched' together with family trees and historical records from other sources. OneWorldTree identified probable name matches between these sources and now displays consolidated results in a worldwide family tree that can help you with your family history research.”

Okay. That sounds just ducky. Well, I found one of my uncles hanging on this “community tree.” I'll call him “Uncle Joe.” According to OneWorldTree, “Uncle Joe” was married twice within a four year period. His first marriage in 1922 was to a woman named “Sarah.” According to the tree, he married again in 1926, this time to a woman named “Jane.” So, let's say I'm a “newbie.” I don't have to know where to look, I'm just looking, right? And here I just found good old “Uncle Joe” on “OneWorldTree” and now I know that he was married twice to women named “Sarah” and “Jane.” I'd better write that down in the old family tree! It's on Ancestry so it must be accurate.

But wait. As it turns out, I knew “Uncle Joe” really well when I was growing up. Used to visit him nearly every day. And I knew all his kids. And I knew and really liked his one-and-only wife, my aunt “Sarah Jane” whom he married in 1924 and with whom he remained until his death fifty years later. Think maybe somebody ought to prune that branch on the old community tree?

So my cuz has it all figured out, eh? Ninth century kings and queens, eh? He probably stumbled on somebody's “wonder tree.” These are full-blown genealogies all researched and written out for you. Just cut and paste and pass it on to the kiddies.

But who's to say that the author of that tree knew his genealogical ass from a hole in the ground? I found a couple of these “wonder trees” while researching a detail about my great-grandmother. According to one of them, she died while giving birth to my grandmother. Hmmmm. Then whose obituary did I read in newspapers dated seventeen years later? I'm sure my great-grandfather would have been astonished to find that the woman he buried in 1890 after a long battle with cancer had actually died in childbirth back in 1873. Better still, another “leaf” lead to a tree that correctly identified my great-grandmother's birth year as 1836. Unfortunately, it also showed that her mother was born in 1832. Ooops! Somebody must have missed that little detail. Another genealogical gem mined from Ancestry.com noted that my great-grandmother had four daughters. This much is true. But the tree went on to list them chronologically by name, and here's where the branches began to shake. The girls were born in 1868, 1871, 1872, and 1873. Except that the daughter born in 1872 had a different last name than the ones born in 1868, 1871, and 1873. How does that work? The daughter that this idiot just threw in there to make her fit was actually born in 1862, the product of a previous marriage.

Be honest with yourself; if you knew nothing about your family and saw stuff like this on the Internet while you were just “looking around,” would you know what to make of it? Probably not.

And God help you if you try to correct somebody's error on Ancestry! I've had my head handed to me for trying to set the record straight. How dare I question somebody's painstaking research? Research that they undoubtedly spent hours online researching? Who was I to correct their work? Never mind the fact that the error I was trying to correct involved my own mother. What the hell did I know?

I have another cousin who means well. He's even made a couple of fact finding trips beyond his computer desk. The problem is he often jumbles the facts he finds. For instance, he published a photo on Ancestry that showed my grandfather, one of my aunts, and a little girl of about ten years of age. They were fishing. He correctly identified Grandpa and the aunt, but he labeled the little girl standing with them as my oldest sister. Sadly, my sister never stood a day in her short life. Born with cerebral palsy, she died when she was seven and never went fishing with anybody. The little girl in the picture was actually the daughter of another aunt and uncle, a cousin who happened to have the same first name as my sister. I tried to correct him, but the picture's still there for somebody else to reference and misidentify.

Genealogy is much more than entering a name in a search box and seeing what somebody else has come up with. Sometimes it requires detective work that would make Agatha Christie's “Hercule Poirot” proud. For example, I once found an error in an old memorial book from a relative's funeral. The date of death listed conflicted with official records and family memories. It was a year off. A call to the funeral home confirmed the error. The death occurred in January and apparently whomever recorded it in the funeral book just wasn't used to writing the new year yet!

Sometimes things carved in stone shouldn't be. The birth date is wrong on an uncle's gravestone because his second wife – to whom he had been married only a few weeks when he died – didn't know the correct date when she provided the information to the monument company. I knew that not because I saw it online, but because I had copies of his birth certificate and other corroborating documents obtained at the county courthouse.

I spent years butting my head against the wall of my great-grandmother's past. Try as I might, I couldn't find a thing about her beyond census records and some newspaper clippings. Not even on Ancestry. Then one day I was going over some of those old newspaper records I'd had in my possession for decades. There was a notation about her being visited by her aunt, “Mrs. Doctor So-and So.” Light bulb moment! The doctor being quite prominent in the community, let's see what we can find out about his wife the aunt. Bingo! Records back to before the American Revolution. In which, it turns out, a family member served. Seems that a few members of the family – my great-grandmother and her aunt included – had significantly changed the spelling of their surname for some reason, which is why I had been hitting the wall for so long. Once I found the right name, I found the right path. But I didn't find the beginning of that path plundering blindly around on Ancestry. It was a clipping from a local newspaper – an actual physical document in my hand – that got me started. Once I knew what I was looking for, Ancestry helped me find the rest.

A powerful tool. That's what Ancestry.com is and that's how it should be used. But in the same manner that you can't just pick up a hammer and a saw and build a mansion, you can't just log on to an Internet site and construct a family tree. When a sculptor creates a work in stone, he doesn't just go down to the masterpiece store and look around for a completed project. He cuts the stone out of a quarry then begins the arduous task of chipping away at it with rough tools. After months of backbreaking labor, he's ready to employ finer, more precise tools to bring out the features and polish the surface.

I could go on and on with analogies about going to kindergarten before you go to college or about not trying to climb your family tree from the top down, but I think I've made my point. You simply have to know at least a little bit about what you're doing before you start using resources like Ancestry.com. Otherwise you're going to spend all your time running up blind alleys and down dead-end streets before ultimately hitting a wall and either making egregious mistakes or just quitting outright.

Final illustration: I entered my grandfather's name into the search box on Ancestry. That's all you need to do, right? And all the answers will automatically come to you, right? Yeah, right. When I entered his name, I got more than seventeen thousand results. Only about a dozen actually related to him. Not only were there men of the same name scattered all over the world, there were several who were born about the same time and lived in or near the same place. And there's no way I would have been able to sort it all out if I hadn't already known what to look for.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and places like Ancestry.com can definitely be sources of a little knowledge.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Why Does Grilled Cheese Have To Be “Adult”?


Adulthood Isn't Everything It's Cracked up To Be

It's National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day again and in honor of the event, I'm going to whip up a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches for supper tonight. And you know how I'm gonna do it? I'm gonna do it in a manner that will make every hoity toity, highfalutin food snob in America cringe and squirm. I'm gonna take two pieces of plain white bread, slather them inside and out with some rich, creamy butter and slap two slices of American cheese between the slices of bread. Then I'm gonna toss the sandwich onto a hot flattop griddle and sear both sides until the surface of the bread is GBD (golden brown and delicious) and the cheese inside is nice and melty. And to be even more diabolically evil about it, I'm not even going to use expensive upscale deli American cheese. Nope. I got me some cheap pre-sliced cheese from the restaurant supply – five pounds for ten bucks – and that's what I'm gonna use. Bwah-ha-hah! I will, however, draw the line at grocery store bread. I will be using my own homemade white bread, thank you. I do have a few standards, you know.

Frankly, I don't know when everybody went nuts. When I was a little kid – admittedly, a long, long time ago – the aforementioned procedure was the one and only way to make a grilled cheese sandwich. It's the way my mother made it, it's the way my grandmother made it, and its the way every restaurant, diner, and drive-in in town made it. You asked for or ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and that's precisely what you got: cheese inside of bread, grilled. Nowadays, they call such a preparation a “kid's grilled cheese” or a “junior grilled cheese.” If you want to be seen as a grownup, you have to have a “gourmet grilled cheese” or an “adult grilled cheese.” I'm sorry. Maybe it's just the weird places my increasingly feeble mind tend to wander, but whenever I see “adult” used as an adjective, I start thinking of “adult” beverages or “adult” movies or “adult” toys. And that's just not someplace I want to go with my innocent little slice (or two) of comfort food.

Besides, who's to say that adults can't enjoy the same things they enjoyed as kids? I've never stepped into a Dairy Queen and seen an “adult ice cream cone” on the menu. Or an “adult” root beer float at A&W. What, pray tell, is “adult” about over complicating a simple pleasure like grilled cheese?

Oh, but the adult palate is so much more evolved.” Poppycock! Yes, my palate is a great deal more refined these days than it was a half-century ago and I can detect a lot of subtle flavors and nuances I couldn't back then, but you know what? I've never outgrown “unsophisticated” comfort foods like a grilled cheese. Or mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese or a good plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce, for that matter. Hell, those things, too, have to be tinkered with and upgraded to some cockamamie “gourmet” status because, apparently, the old fashioned way mama made them just isn't good enough anymore once you “grow up.”

Taking a timeless classic like grilled cheese and adding avocado and peppers and mustard and mayo and ham and pickles and salsa and pesto and tomatoes and God knows what else is not making the sandwich “adult.” It's adulterating it! Okay, occasionally I'll put a couple of strips of bacon on a grilled cheese sandwich. And when I do, I don't call it a “grilled cheese” anymore because it's not. Only a grilled cheese – cheese and bread, grilled – is a grilled cheese. Adding bacon makes it a “grilled cheese and bacon” sandwich. Throwing ham on a grilled cheese doesn't make it an “adult grilled cheese.” It's a frickin' ham and cheese sandwich! And adding peppers and pickles and such doesn't elevate it to “gourmet” status. It just paints a mustache on the Mona Lisa and junks up a classic.

But American cheese isn't even cheese!” Oh, get your nose down before you drown in a good rain. Sometimes I'll “fancy up” a grilled cheese by adding some Cheddar or mozzarella or provolone or some other less “pedestrian” cheese product, but good ol' American remains the foundation and the basic building block. If I really want to go upscale, I'll butter the outside of the bread and coat it with some finely grated Parmesan – the real stuff, not the crap in a can – before it hits the grill, producing a nice crispy, cheesy crust on the outside of the sandwich. But it's still just the two essential elements: bread and cheese.

I've baked my own bread for many, many years. Better tasting, better quality, and far healthier than the chemical and preservative laden bread-like substances that populate supermarket shelves. I can bake any kind of bread you want, but mostly I use King Arthur bread flour to bake the plain white sandwich bread that I use for grilled cheese. I don't use wheat or rye or seven-grain or pumpernickel or brioche or challah or ciabatta: just give me plain white bread. Is it “healthy?” Probably not. Is it delicious? Damn skippy! And I'm not eating them three times a day seven days a week, so who cares about “healthy?” Show me a doctor or nutritionist who'll tell me a plain grilled cheese sandwich with a nice steamy bowl of tomato soup once a week is going to contribute to my early demise and I'll show you a quack.

I don't need a $15 “grilled cheese” with a pedigree tracing the origins of the cheese back to a particular cow on a particular farm outside a particular French or Italian village. I don't need “comte” or “boschetto al tartufo” or “raclette” or “toma” or “chaource” or any other cheese I can't readily identify or even pronounce on my grilled cheese. Kraft is fine, thanks. Maybe Borden in a pinch. I read someone who waxed rhapsodic about a place that served a grilled cheese made of Annelies cheese, caramelized onions, thinly sliced pickles and coarse grain mustard on sourdough bread. They referred to the cheese – of which I have never heard – as “dreamy” and called the sandwich “life-changing.” See why I wonder when the world went nuts?

Do yourself a flavor: if you've got a bakery in town or a supermarket with a real bakery section, go get a loaf of quality white bread. While you're at the supermarket, nip over to the deli and splurge on a half-pound or so of decent American cheese. Yellow or white, doesn't matter; they both taste the same. When you get home, take out two or four or six or however many slices of bread are necessary and spread them lightly with real butter. Not that plastic abomination that is margarine. Real butter, please. Salted or unsalted as you prefer. Only butter has certain proteins that will produce a wonderful nutty flavor when heated and browned. Now place one or two slices of cheese – three if you're feeling particularly bold – between the slices of buttered bread and form your sandwich. Butter both sides of the outside. Don't overdo it. Greasy is not good. If you have a griddle of some sort, great. If not, a skillet will do, especially if it's cast iron. Now heat that sucker up and spray just a little butter-flavored cooking spray on the surface or melt just a little more butter on it to help lubricate things. Place your sandwich on the hot cooking surface. Restaurant trick: we use something called a “domed lid” to cover things like burgers and sandwiches as they cook. It helps retain moisture and speeds the melting process by concentrating the heat under the dome. Try it; you'll like it. Leave the sandwich in place long enough to get a nice golden color on one side then flip it over. Press it down a little with your spatula to flatten it out a bit and to help the melting cheese get nice and gooey and spread around inside. When the other side is golden, take the sandwich off the cooking surface and put it on a plate. Cut it across or diagonally as you prefer and then as you take your first bite, allow the innocent, child-like peace and tranquility that is a good grilled cheese sandwich to fill your stomach and soothe your soul. After all, sometimes adulthood – like an “adult” grilled cheese sandwich – isn't everything it's cracked up to be.