Best of the Archives #10: A Lifetime of Good Eats

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

A LIFETIME OF GOOD EATS (2009)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

There’s an old joke about a Southern man’s personal prospects that posits the greatest uncertainty about his health outcomes thusly: Will he have his first heart attack before he loses all of his teeth or not? I come from a long line of big Southern Men, and it was a valid question for a lot them, as dentures and cardiac arrests were certainly real life concerns for most of the old gents in my life, many of whom were indeed done in by clogged arteries and diabetes, before the cigarettes could get them.

I did learn from that, and I watch what I eat and I exercise regularly. I’ve also been blessed with tough teeth that I care for properly, even though (true confession time) I have probably only been to the dentist two or three times since college. On those rare occasions when I do go, the dentist invariably praises my oral hygiene and says everything’s fine. I’m told that different people have different bacterial cultures in their mouths, some that foment the growth of plaque, and some that foster decay and cavities. Neither one of them seems to care for my pie hole. I’ll take that as a blessing.

I had some blood sugar and cholesterol readings some years back that were marginally problematic. I adjusted the necessary lifestyle choices accordingly, and neither one’s much of a concern for me now. I know I don’t eat as much fruit as I should (it’s a grease group thing), but otherwise I’m pretty good about maintaining a high fiber, low fat, low carb diet, without much red meat in it. I don’t obsessively mind my calories, but I’m mindful of portion control, and I rarely indulge in any belt-busting all-you-can-eat buffet style behaviors either.

But, boy oh boy, is that all learned behavior of my adulthood, because I was brought up eating the polar opposite of that, in almost every way. Today’s archival article is a remembrance of those glorious, innocent days when buffets, fried foods, sweet tea, processed meats, and just about every other unhealthy thing imaginable featured heavily in my diet, and the diets of pretty much everybody around me, friends and family alike. It was all bad for us, sure, but it certainly tasted good, and I sure do remember those days fondly and wistfully — most especially my dad’s quixotic quest for the perfect chili dog, which found us buying unhealthy bags-worth of them in most every town we lived in or visited over the years. (Note well that what Southerners call “chili” on a hot dog has no resemblance to the Southwestern food of the same name; it was more of a greasy, chopped meat paste that it was bean-rich bowl food).

This article focuses a lot on diner-style restaurants, and I wrote it while still living in New York’s Capital Region, where those are a big part of the regional culture and cuisine. I tried to find an analogue of that experience when we moved to Des Moines, but never quite succeeded. Drake Diner on the campus of the same name has the chrome exterior and big menus, but it always felt more like a diner-themed college cafeteria than it did a real diner to me. In our current East Village neighborhood, there’s a new place called Clyde’s Fine Diner that advertises a gourmet-caliber diner experience, but that’s just an oxymoron, really. The food at Clyde’s is quite good, mind, and they even have Shrimp and Grits on the menu, but it’s foo-foo, and bears no resemblance to what real Carolina Shrimp and Grits looks and tastes like, while the restaurant interior is in the standard noisy Iowa box-style that I’ve written about, unhappily, here. Diner and hipster dining cultures just don’t align, no matter how hard folks might want them to. Bubba’s in Des Moines has also legitimately good and authentic Carolina-style food, but it’s more of a white linen restaurant than a diner, so that doesn’t count for me either.

While they don’t usually call them diners, once you get out into rural and small town Iowa, you can find a lot of family-owned, non-chain restaurants that are legitimately analogous to the feeding holes of my Southern childhood. While the menu highlights can be dramatically different, there’s fried foods aplenty, and you can easily create a true carbohydrate nightmare meal if you want to. If I had to pick the best of the bunch that I’ve experienced to date in Iowa, it would be Cronk’s Restaurant and Lounge in Denison, which has been around for over eight decades. It’s located on US-30, which is the modern-day remnant of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental automobile roadway. Its hearty food, great prices, convenient location, quick and friendly service, and unassuming interior have likely made it the perfect pause point for millions and millions of travelers over the years, while the locals seemed to love it just as much when I was there.

It’s good to know that places like that still exist. I don’t want to eat like that everyday, but I’m glad I can when the spirit moves me to do so.

Central Lunch was still hanging in there when my sister and I visited Albemarle in 2011 — but the last time I was there a couple of years back, it seemed to have been finally shuttered, alas.

Best of the Archives #9: The King of Tests Strikes Out

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

THE KING OF TESTS STRIKES OUT (2002)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

One of the personal out-takes from my Credidero writing project was an analysis of the types of writing I’ve done over the years, and how I might alter or adapt it in the years ahead. In the summary of that piece, I described my four major types of writing as follows:

Reactive: These would include reviews and related pieces; I saw, heard, read or did something, and here is how I react to it. Political pieces probably fall into this bucket too, as they are often written in response to governmental or social actions that generate a reaction requiring explanation.

Descriptive: I see these are being my experiential pieces, and I probably do this most often in travel articles and in my professional writing, where I am trying to tell readers something in ways that lets them see what I see, or understand what I understand, or value what I value.

Creative: The most obvious of the four categories, these would be my short stories, poems, lyrics, or whatever else just spins out of my head without direct anchor in the real world, until I make it so by writing about it.

Reflective: I see it as a type of writing that is personal, but is not necessarily anchored in any specific outside stimulus or activity. If I go back through the 1,200+ articles in my web archive, it’s unquestionably the least represented category of writing in my archive.

I see today’s Best of the Archives article as being one of a relatively small number of “Reflective” pieces that I’ve written and posted over the years. It’s a true story, with some some true personal lessons, and while it’s written to entertain, there’s no artifice in it, nor was it fictionalized, nor was it in response or reaction to any particular external stimulus. I know I wrote it as part of a Metroland group piece, but I do not remember exactly what the topic was. “The School Issue” maybe? I don’t know.

As flamboyantly out-there as my public persona has been over the years, here and elsewhere, I think I’ve actually been somewhat surprisingly private in terms of the truly meaningful and personal things that I’ve shared online or in print media. I do know that when I have shared them, they tend to be the more popular items on the website over a long period of time, so that should motivate me to write more of them. I think my reluctance to do so is anchored in the fact that so many of them involve(d) other people, and I don’t wish to violate their privacy or betray their trusts, so when I actually am inclined to share such tales, I almost always do so by framing them as fiction, in prose or poetry format.

Memoirs are big business, though, so maybe as I look to the future, this is where I should focus my writing attention. Food for thought.

A Navy Rule: “When in doubt, ‘Charlie’ out.”

Best of the Archives #8: Heart of Darkness, My Old Friend

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

HEART OF DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND (2009)

THE BACK STORY:

I suspect that for as long as recorded music has been widely available for retail sale, parents have been disapproving of their children’s listening choices. (That might have been the case in earlier history, too, though it would have been much harder for a kid to whip together a chamber ensemble to perform some Frans Liszt than it was to plop on a Little Richard record). Most of the time, this reaction represents benign “We just don’t get it” responses to generational change. Other times, though, it can be more problematic, especially when the artists who create it are unjustly accused of provoking dangerous, immoral or criminal behavior among its young listeners — and then the government gets involved.

I listen to a lot of fairly gnarly music as an adult, so if I had any fears about my own child’s listening habits, it was probably more a worry that she might either not appreciate music at all, or only appreciate shallow crap. I exposed her to the stuff I listen to as she was growing up, just because we pretty much have music playing around our house whenever we’re all awake, and I mostly let it go at that. (I was actually much more censorious about television, truth be told, in the early days of the “reality TV” era, when coarse, soul-sucking, exhibitionistic garbage filled an increasingly large sector of the broadcast spectrum; I am firmly convinced that actually watching someone get sexually assaulted, bullied, tortured, tormented or killed is a whole lot more psychically damaging to the mind of a youngster than listening to a song about it can ever be). As it turns out, my kid grew up to have fine musical tastes, and we still routinely swap recommendations and reviews. I award myself Five Parenting Gold Stars accordingly. Good job, Dad!

When all is said and done, I think tight parental control over children’s listening material is ultimately an exercise in futility, especially in the streaming era, since banning something is just as likely to motivate the kids to look for it elsewhere, and — more importantly — because parents actually have no real idea how their kids are going to hear things. Something ostensibly vulgar and vile may pass right over their heads. And then sometimes something that’s ostensibly suitable family listening may, in fact, push a whole bunch of unanticipated buttons in unforeseen ways.

Today’s archival article tells a story about that latter scenario, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. I’m sure I’d be a much more highly functioning adult half-a-century later if only my parents hadn’t exposed me to the mellifluous  sounds of one of America’s best-loved and most popular folk duos. The horror! The horror!

Wait . . .  where are you taking me, Paul and Artie . . .. Nooooooo . . .  NOOOOOO . . .  AUUUGGGGHHH!!!!

Best of the Archives #7: The Grease Group

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

THE GREASE GROUP (2009)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

As I’ve written before in this archival series, I was a blogger before the term existed. In the early 2000s, as blogs became a hip and trendy media thing, I had quite a good following and credible traffic, back when the pickings on the web were not as diverse as they are now, and when Upstate Wasted/Ether were in their heyday. In late 2006, the local daily newspaper in Albany decided that they wanted to get into the game, and began recruiting established local bloggers to contribute to their commercial site. Since I was a known name in the market, I was approached and agreed to join their portal. No pay, of course, beyond “exposure,” but what the heck, I wasn’t paying myself to write at my own website either, so what could go wrong? A lot, as it turned out a few years later. It did not end well.

I made myself a public nuisance trying to have my words removed from the newspaper’s commercial website after that meltdown, and to get the newspaper to admit that its business practices on this front were unfair and unprofessional. But I was working in a key management position at the University and Albany at the time, and the newspaper’s publisher happened to be the Board Chair of the University’s Foundation, so at some point I decided that the potential professional problems that the situation could cause for me were great enough that I had to let it all go. There are still loads of my articles on the newspaper’s website a decade later, against my wishes, and I am convinced that they remain there just out of spite.

Soon thereafter, I started a new group portal called Indie Albany that was committed to 100% commercial free content (I paid all of the hosting expenses myself), with a dozen or so participating writers maintaining full control of their intellectual property. Within a month of so of setting it up, one of my posts earned “Freshly Pressed” status on the WordPress portal, a huge traffic generator and bragging-rights status item at the time. Indie Albany was a good and successful project, and the WordPress recognition was a good validation of that fact.

My wife and I moved to Iowa the following year, so I slowly dismantled Indie Albany and established Indie Moines as a (solo) heir to that first portal. Within a year or so, though, I just consolidated everything from all of my various platforms back under my own named website, including the stuff that I had to aggressively extract from the newspaper. Today’s archival article is one of those ex-newspaper pieces, meaning that it probably also still resides back on that commercial site, but I am not going to go check on that.

My newspaper blog’s tagline was “Incongruity, Southernism, Feats of Strength, Art,” which was my weird way of describing the arcane assortment of things I liked to write about. (I guess it still applies here, and might be slightly more sensible than my current “Slow Molasses Drip Under A Tipped-Up Crescent Moon,” though that does eloquently capture the “Southernism” aspect of who I am and what I do). I’ve always been proud of my deep South Carolina roots,  even when South Carolina doesn’t behave in accordance with my personal beliefs much of the time, and I used my newspaper blog to provide tongue-in-cheek explanations to the folks of “Upper Yankonia” about the right (i.e. South Carolina) ways to do certain important things. I mean, who in their right mind tries to foo-foo up the grits?

This piece is a humorous one, but like most of my funny things, there’s a big kernel of personal truth buried within it. My family members might judge me to be a picky eater, but I’d deny that label. I’m a particular eater. There’s a difference. I like what I like, and I like it the way I like it. Which is the right way to eat it. Because it is. At the time when I wrote this article, I was actually responsible for the food service operation at the University at Albany, providing millions of meals each year to students and staff alike, so my staff members and I had lots and lots of conversations about food quality and nutrition, and there was always lots of teasing coming from my end about the healthy choices they promoted. I’d long had the “grease group” vs “water group” paradigm pretty well laid out in my mind, but I honed it to a nice bit of absurd folk logic during those many dining hall chats.

Here’s wishing you good eats throughout our social distancing time. Just keep your food groups properly sorted.

Nicely burnt + a cheese color that does not appear in nature + no tomato = A+ grilled cheese!

Best of the Archives #6: The Road to Anywhere

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

THE ROAD TO ANYWHERE (2003)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

This was from the 2003 “Summer Issue” of Metroland. It was one of our periodic group pieces, when large chunks of the paper would be turned over to a single topic, and all of the writers (staff and freelance alike) would be given somewhat free reign to write something that fit within the theme. They were sort of the bottle episodes of the journalistic world: easy to produce, usually somewhat disposable, but occasionally some good and memorable things would emerge from them.

For me, that was the case with this one. The “Summer Issue” was usually intended to be frothy, light fare, and I started writing this piece that way, but it went in different directions as I started thinking about the story and how various pieces fit together. Since much of this particular archival article actually is “the background story” itself, I won’t say much more about it than that, except to note that this is one of the pieces that generates more direct contact with me from readers than any others on the site. Oh, and I’ll also note that it was one of the last pieces I ever wrote for Metroland, perhaps even the final one. So it really is a tale of transitions, with resonance.

Our Ford LTD Country Squire was named “Eloise.”

Best of the Archives #5: Fin de Cyclical

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

FIN DE CYCLICAL: MILLENNIAL MUSICAL MUSINGS (1999)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

While we are all hunkered down under the cloud of a global pandemic, the anxiety many of us were feeling in the late months of 1999 regarding the Y2K Bug seems truly quaint by comparison. But it was very real in its time, as legitimate sources predicted airplanes falling out of the skies, global markets and banking systems collapsing, personal computers being turned into expensive paperweights, and a slew of other scenarios guaranteed to create sleepless night and despairing days.

As it all turned out, the actual impact was fairly benign in most cases, although it is hard to say whether that was because the threat itself was overstated, or because the hard work of a lot of people over a short period of time actually fixed the things that needed to be fixed. The outcome certainly allowed laypeople of certain proclivities to claim it was all nothing but media hype, and to ignore any and all future warnings related to computer security and safety, resulting in the wider spread of malware and viruses in the years since than would have been the case had we all taken good computer and data hygiene to heart for the long-term.

Here’s hoping that the astounding work being done to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 reaps similar benefits, and that even if the global catastrophe does not end up as utterly dire as some experts are forecasting, that we are thankful for the efforts of those fighting the plague, and that we learn something about how to manage our lives and health in an increasingly linked global ecosystem. That’s probably a pie in the sky fantasia at this point, since stupids gotta stupid . . . but we can all dream anyway.

The other things that were filling airwaves, websites, television screens, magazines and newspapers as 1999 wound down were navel-gazing articles about the state of everything at the turn of the century, and what the next year, decade and/or century might hold for us all . (Yes, yes, I know that the new century technically did not start until January 1, 2001, but that number’s not as exciting as the big 2000 was, and the media weren’t going to let a good story line go, even if it was factually incorrect). I was assigned to do a story like that, with a focus on the music industry. I wasn’t really excited about the task, but I set off to figure out how to frame me.

One thing that seemed intuitively clear to me was that the best futuristic forecasts from anybody I talked to would likely be wrong, just given how much the music industry had changed in the decade before the turn of the century. All but the most hardy of record stores died that decade, for example, completely supplanted by file sharing and other online music exchanges, some licit, some not. So instead of looking forward to 2100 and making stuff up, it actually seemed like it might be more interesting to look backward to 1900, just to explain how ridiculously far we’d come in terms of the creation and exchange of music.

I did a fair amount of research into what was going on in the music industry, and also what was going on in Albany circa 1899, and I wrote a fictional piece about an ambitious musician, set in that time and place, dreaming as big as his times would have allowed. Then I interviewed half a dozen music luminaries in various fields around Albany to get a sense of what was going on right there, right then, and knit the two streams together. That compare/contrast — forecasts from 1900 coupled with realities of 1999 — seemed like it might lead to something different that everything else that I was reading on this topic at the time.

You’ll have to tell me whether I was right or not after you read the piece.

Super high tech 1900 music machine. Surely this will be widely used in the future . . .