With Which I Am Well Pleased (Redux)

While our State of residence is opening up prematurely and irresponsibly, Marcia and I are still doing our part to protect ourselves and others through smart adherence to science-based guidance on social distancing and personal protection. So that means we’re spending a lot of time at home, still, even as we have diligently worked through our dire local climate to get good, healthy walks in every day, usually way out in the countryside away from the selfish, oblivious idiots who are bumbling around our neighborhood as though COVID-19 were a thing of the past already. We’re not exactly experiencing the sabbatical year that we had planned for 2020, but we have our health and we have each other and we have a variety of things, both mundane and meaningful, that are filling the hours and satisfying our souls. At the risk of repeating a titular heresy, I revisit my earlier With Which I Am Well Pleased post for a peek at 15 other specific things that have been keeping me entertained over the past month or so. Maybe you’ll be easily amused by them too.

TELEVISION SHOWS

MOVIES

MUSIC

BOOKS

OTHER

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 #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!

Thanksgiving Casserole

Due to a variety of travel plans, we had our family Thanksgiving dinner on Tuesday night this year at our apartment in Des Moines. It was just me, Marcia, Katelin and John, and since it was a small gathering (and since we all had a grand full Thanksgiving dinner the Sunday before at John’s mother’s house), I decided to roll out the most magical of holiday dishes again this year: Thanksgiving Casserole!

As much as I do appreciate (especially when somebody else serves it) the traditional conspicuous consumption dinner that takes hours to make, minutes to eat, and then leaves days worth of leftovers behind, when it’s just two, three or four of us together for the holiday, I’ve decided that it’s really not worth the time, effort, and calories. I’ve written here before about the wonders of casseroles (which are known as Hot Dish where Marcia’s from), and (without patting myself on the back too much), I do consider this one to be the end-all and be-all of the idiom.

I embraced Beverly Mills’ and Alicia Ross’ Desperation Dinners rubric in its construction, noting that not everything has to be made completely from scratch to be delicious, and that well-deployed packaged foods can be just fine, so long as they aren’t the sole anchors of a family’s diet all the time. I also, of course, ensured that there were no grease group violations here, by eschewing any water group foods that might be perceived as Thanksgiving staples belonging in such a casserole, e.g. the jiggling log of canned cranberry sauce that sits on the table and serves as comic relief for the dinner, much as fruit cake does at Christmastime. Do not want! No no no!

I mentioned the great success of this year’s Thanksgiving Casserole on a web forum I frequent and was asked for the recipe by one of the few other Americans there. I hadn’t really ever written it down before, so while it’s still fresh in my mind, I record it now for posterity’s sake, and so I don’t have to recreate it the next time I have need for it. Here’s how it goes, for the permanent record:

1. Make the stuffing first: I used one standard bag of cubed Stouffer’s herb stuffing, and prepped it per the directions: melting four tablespoons of butter in a big pot, adding two cups of chicken broth, bringing it all to a boil, then folding in the stuffing cubes and tossing until they are all moist. I then added one bag of Jimmy Dean turkey sausage crumbles to the mix, and set it aside. (The sausage crumbles were a new product this year and worked well; in the past, I have browned and crumbled about 12 ounces of Jimmy Dean bulk sage sausage in a separate skillet and then folded it in).

2. Butter up a deep casserole tray. Ours is a 13″ x 9″ by 2.5″ ceramic one and the quantities described here filled it perfectly. Pour in and press down half of the stuffing mix to cover the bottom of the tray. Next layer: one 16-ounce container of Bob Evans’ traditional mashed potatoes. Heat per instructions, then layer atop the stuffing mix. I then put a little bit of gravy (I used low fat bottled turkey gravy) and a little bit of shredded cheese atop that, to melt into and flavor the potatoes. (Note: the shredded cheese must be orange, and of a variety that can found at a typical gas station convenience store; don’t try to foo-foo up the casserole with fancy pants products, in this or any other step).

3. Next layer: Turkey. I got a pound and a quarter of Boar’s Head hickory smoked honey turkey breast, sliced thin, from the deli. I then diced it into small pieces and spread it evenly atop the mashed potato layer.

4. Next layer: Mac and Cheese. I used a box of standard sized (not the family sized) Velveeta Queso Blanco Shells. Make it per the box instructions, and layer it all smoothly atop the turkey.

5. Final layer: Drain one 15 ounce can of white shoe peg corn and mix it in with the other half of the stuffing mix. Spread this evenly atop the mac and cheese layer. Then use a piece of parchment paper to cover the whole thing and press down to get the casserole dense and of consistent depth, so it will bake firmly and hold its shape when cut. With the parchment paper still in place to absorb moisture, I put the casserole tray cover on top of the whole thing and put it in the fridge to set for a couple of hours before baking.

6. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the parchment paper, and bake the casserole covered for about 45 minutes. Then remove the cover and bake for another 20-30 minutes, until it’s bubbling nicely around the edges and looks browned on top. Sprinkle more shredded cheese atop the casserole and broil it for a couple of minutes to melt/brown the cheese. Remove from oven and let it set/cool for about 5-10 minutes before serving so it firms up even further. Cut into squares and serve, with the remainder of the bottled gravy (warmed) as a side to be poured on top of each square.

Then eat! It is really tasty and hearty, and it seems to create manageable portions in ways that the giant table full of 10 different dishes never can. It fed four of us comfortably at dinner, with two good-sized squares leftover for lunch the next day. We served it with a side of green beans (not the casserole, just regular beans), and then Marcia made her wonderful pumpkin praline pie for desert. The casserole took me about an hour to assemble, plus baking time. Marcia’s pie took about the same amount of time investment. Clean-up for everything took less than 15 minutes. Everybody was happy and sated, rather than bloated and tryptophan-shocked. We still had great dinner conversations, we still were thankful for what we have, we just didn’t have to start a crash diet the next day. Perfect!

Here’s looking forward to the next time I get to trot it out. If you’re inclined to try it yourself, let me know. We can start a club! Or a movement! Or a cult!

Here’s the casserole as it came out of the oven, before being cut into squares.

And here it is cut into squares to serve, layers exposed. Delicious! Like a White Trash Lasagna! Yum!

Space Madness

Marcia had a work conference last week, and I had work in Charlotte Monday and Tuesday this week, so I decided to head down to Florida for a few days of warmth with her before returning to the dreary Midwestern weather last night. Rather than staying at her conference hotel when her meetings were done, we decided to head over for a couple of nights in Cocoa Beach, on the Atlantic Coast. For folks our age, if we know anything about that seaside community, it’s likely the fact that it was the fictional home of Major Anthony Nelson (an astronaut) and Jeannie, from the deliciously cheesy television program, I Dream of Jeannie.

As we were headed up to our room on Friday night, we noticed a schedule of events in the elevator, and there was a paper sticker on the very date of our arrival showing a cartoon rocket. I pulled out my phone and, hurrah, was pleased to discover that SpaceX was, in fact, launching a mission that very night, at 245am. When we arrived in our room on the seventh floor, I happily noted that our private balcony was aligned in such a way that we had almost a straight-shot view of the pad where the Falcon Heavy rocket carrying a Dragon supply ship to the International Space Station would be launching. Double hurrah!

We set alarms and went out on the balcony at the appointed hour, and like clockwork, got to watch (and hear) my first orbital launch ever:

If you know me well, you know I’m a hardcore space nerd, so this was a real treat, and a great appetizer to our already planned Saturday adventure to visit Kennedy Space Center, where I got to snap a selfie at the business end of the mighty Saturn V Rocket.

Marcia also snapped me with my second favorite of all possible rockets, the Titan-Gemini stack.

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Back-tracking a bit, Marcia had work meetings during the days in Orlando while I was there, and I also had a night alone there as she flew out on Sunday, and I didn’t head to Charlotte until Monday morning. So I spent the time making friends, as one does:

I also got to embrace my inner redneck with a visit to my favorite greasy spoon destination in the world, for some delicious carbs and fats.

The business part of my trip to Charlotte was great, too. A board meeting and a research workshop at the Bartlett Research Labs, a glorious location near the area where my Dad was born and raised. We had wonderful fellowship and got a ton of work done with good people in an amazing setting. Win, win, win, win and win, with thanks to Bartlett for hosting us.

In closing, if you don’t know the source of the title of this post, you need to watch the following video, perhaps the finest fifteen minutes of animation ever created for television. It was life-altering the first time I saw it, early one Sunday morning sitting in a hotel room with an infant Katelin, trying to find something amusing to do while Marcia was trying to sleep in. I do not think all of my tearful laughter helped the situation on that front, but Katelin and I did have a new favorite cartoon series for many years afterward, so a reasonable trade-off, I think.

Thanksgiving Rules of Decorum

The extended Smith-Duft clans will be gathering in Beaufort, South Carolina today to give thanks and then eat ourselves into food comas. It’s been quite some time since all of us have been together in the Low Country that spewed us forth, so I sent the following “Thanksgiving Rules of Decorum” out as a refresher to remind everyone how we roll at this most gluttonous of gatherings. Here’s hoping your family traditions result in similarly successful results.

1. Gristle may be sucked off bones at the table, but cracking bones to remove the marrow must be done in the kitchen.

2. If there are no pets in the room to blame, all flatulence must be held until such time as a particularly funny joke is told, and the accidental emission adds to the mirth.

3. The tube of cranberry sauce is a decoration, not a food. No touching!

4. You must clear your plate of all objects put upon it before beginning round two. Even stuffed tomatoes.

5. You may only hide peas within a roll if there enough rolls to ensure that everyone else gets as many as they want. If rolls run out, you must eat your pea filled roll before you leave the table.

6. No matter how you hold the fork, it is wrong. If anyone chooses to notice this fact, you must skip a round and look contrite while others eat.

7. Discussion of bodily functions should be reserved for the pause between main course and desert. Comparisons of bodily functions to objects on the table may result in a fork mishandling penalty and forfeiture of dessert rights.

8. If someone disappears for more than 90 seconds, everyone at the table must loudly enquire as to their whereabouts, and whether everything is okay in there.

9. No additional butter is required on the Stouffers Mac and Cheese, unless it touches anything green and you need to offset the effect of the vitamins and minerals.

10. You may not take the hambone out of the green beans and pass them on without taking at least six beans, and not hiding them in your roll. You may elect to butter them before eating.