With Which I Am Well Pleased V (Miles Out)

A week from today, Marcia and I should be waking up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one day away from the start of our shared lives’ next chapter in Northern Arizona. We’re leaving Iowa on Thursday, and spending a couple of nights at opposite corners of Kansas (Atchison and Dodge City) on our way to the Southwest, so there’s some work, time and miles to get us to where we’re going, but we’re pleased to be so close, having looked forward to the move for so long.

We’ll be living in an AirBnb in Sedona until at least mid-December, while we hunt for the ideal house, so I will be packing up the home computer where I do the vast majority of my online and real-world work, and putting it into storage for a few months. I will have a laptop with me, so will be able to continue posting and participating in online activities, though it’s always less appealing to me to do so that way than it is to have my nice, big, high-resolution screen, full-sized keyboard, and ample stereo system in front of me while I clatter away. All good and worth it on a macro basis, though. I’ll trade that short-term working inconvenience for the longer-term expected pleasures of warmer weather in a culture more attuned to my own, any and every day.

We’ll also be packing up the television upon which we watch all of our movies, and the iTunes account I use to manage my music will disappear for awhile as well. So it seems a good point to pause today and add an entry to my “With Which I Am Well Pleased” series, offering an assortment of 15 items in various categories for your consideration, since they’ve been rocking my own socially-distant world in recent weeks. If these aren’t enough recommendations to move you fully, or if you’re so thoroughly moved that you need more, more, more, then there are also four earlier installments in this COVID-era collection, here, here, here and here. Knock yourselves out! And note that the next time you see a post with this series title, it’ll be coming to you from a land without endless corn and soybean fields, too many hogs and Covidiots, and a never-ending gnawing cold autumn wind. Pleased!!

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New Thule roof box on new Mazda car.

Monkey Bread from Scenic Route Bakery.

Dining In and Dining Out(side)

I’ve been the primary cook about our household for as long as we’ve been a family, though the ways in which I deploy my culinary skills have evolved significantly over the years. When Marcia and I were younger and less financially comfortable, especially in the years soon after Katelin was born, the vast majority of our meals were eaten at home, and prepared with economically sourced supplies. I actually used to carry a little calculator into the grocery store with me to tally my purchases, making damned sure that the weekly food budget was not exceeded, not by a penny. We still smile about those days when discretionary spending limits forced me to make a tough decision on which one of Guns N’ Roses’ two Use Your Illusion CDs we could actually get when they were first released together, since we couldn’t afford to buy both. Oh, the hard choices! Oh, the humanity!

Dining Out was definitely a luxury in those days, and saved for special occasions if the destination was a nice one (well, in relative terms, anyway, since we lived in Idaho at the time), or as a socializing reprieve if we were having more mundane and affordable fare with friends and neighbors. But then as our financial situation improved over the years, so too did the frequency, expense and (some of the time) quality of our Dining Out experiences. Back in 2012, I developed and posted a listing of what I then considered to be my nine best Dining Out meals ever and with whom I shared them; it looked like this, and I still hold each of these dinners dear:

  • Channel Bass Inn, Chincoteague, Virginia (me and Marcia)
  • Cafe Marquesa, Key West, Florida (me, Marcia and Katelin)
  • Zuzu, Napa, California (me and Marcia)
  • River Street Cafe, Troy, New York (many meals with many people)
  • Driftwood, Oranjestad, Aruba (me, Marcia and Katelin)
  • Barbes, New York, New York (me, Marcia, Katelin and our friend Pat, two meals)
  • Hótel Búðir Snæfellsnesi, Búðir, Iceland (me, Marcia and Katelin)
  • V Mertz, Omaha, Nebraska (me and Marcia)
  • Unknown parilla (steak house) in La Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina (me, Marcia, Katelin and Katelin’s friend, Kenna. I can’t recall or find the name because apparently it has closed; I know where it was, but it does not show up on maps anymore)

Having spent 2015 to 2019 in the Food Mecca of Chicago, and having traveled internationally numerous times since 2012, we’ve experienced many more exquisite meals at superb places that could potentially be added to this listing. Maybe I’ll do that post at some point. I’ll have a lot of meals to consider from our Chicago Era, because the wealth of local choices and the presence of a massive grab-and-go style grocery store in our condo building reduced the number of meals I cooked from scratch at home to truly negligible levels. We essentially inverted our original family paradigm, such that it was typically a special occasion meal (e.g. Thanksgiving Dinner) that was cooked and consumed in our condo, while routine meals were experienced elsewhere, even though the quality of offerings available made even some of those regular evenings out quite divine from a culinary standpoint.

That said, it’s also important to note that we’ve experienced myriad forgettable or offensive Dining Out experiences along the way as well, even in Chicago and overseas, with their number rising in direct correlation to the number of Dining Out meals we consumed. When we lived in Iowa the first time (2011 to 2015), we ate most of our meals at home, largely because I found the local restaurant scene to be so very dire. Yes, you could find some decent-ish food in Des Moines, but a Dining Out experience involves three key elements — food, ambiance, and service experience — and getting just one or two of them right isn’t good, at all. Unfortunately, missing one-to-all of those three elements seemed to be the norm in Central Iowa, prompting me to write this aggravated slate of advice to the region’s restaurateurs, based on loads of real-time, real-world Dining Out Disasters.

So I knew when we moved back to Iowa from Chicago in 2019 that I’d be cooking at home a lot more than I had the prior four years, out of necessity, whether I liked it or not. I will note, to be fair, that the Des Moines dining market had improved a bit while we were away, with a few more quality options emerging and a widespread reduction of the “Closed on Sundays” theocratic nonsense that used to drive me crazy here. Room ambiance remains a chronic problem in Des Moines, with inept service still nipping at its heels in many locations, but at least the trends are moving (a bit) in the right directions, if slowly. But, still: it’s no Chicago. And it never will be, no matter how desperately the market aspires for distinction.

Then, of course, and as is the case in so many narratives penned in 2020, COVID happened. Iowa’s response to the pandemic has been generally poor (our Governor ranks last in the Nation in terms of surveyed reaction to her handling of the virus), but there was a relatively brief time when the restaurants did shut down completely, and even if they hadn’t, we weren’t about to go put ourselves at risk by stepping foot in any of them. So cooking at home moved from a “most of the time” to an “all of the time” paradigm, and you know what? I was (and remain) pretty good with that situation.

Marcia and I have spent less, ate healthier, and had far fewer aggravations alongside our meals together since returning home from Florida in March. I’ve developed a nice roster of entrees that we rotate through, including various Indian, Japanese and Chinese stir-fries and sautes, some choice Mexican-inspired favorites (I’m particularly pleased with my posole and self-developed Mexican Lasagna), pasta, rice and tortilla-based dishes built around non-meat products, pizza, salmon, tuna, shrimp and beef with various sauces, and a nice mix of sides, including Low Cackalacky childhood faves like succotash and black-eyed peas. (We’ve not had any chicken or pork, though, as an active act of protest against the ways that Iowa has treated its meat-packing workers in recent months). I’ve also made and eaten more green salads in the past six months than I did in the six years prior, if not longer. So Dining In is okay with me. It’s a positive adaptation to a negative circumstance.

There are times when we can’t Dine In, though, so we’ve been Dining Out(side) in lieu of Dining Out for those meals. Socially distanced picnics with Katelin and John allowed us to visit and catch up with them during the darkest early days of disease time. When we have traveled out of Des Moines, we have taken to finding restaurants that can manage decent carryout experiences, and then eating them in pleasant outdoors environments. (This is easier when the weather is nice, obviously). We had some stellar outdoor meals during our trip out West last month, in fact, a memorable aspect of a soul-affirming change of scenery.

It has been interesting to see how well (or not) various restaurants have adapted to this changed food-service paradigm. One of our favorite neighborhood restaurants was also one of the first to offer carry-out options, which we were glad to give a try for our Anniversary Dinner in June. They seemed to be doing everything right: online ordering, curb-side pickup, contact-free transactions, etc. But, unfortunately, they missed two important elements: creating and preparing food that would travel well, and paying attention to what the customer ordered. We went with their prix fixe menus, choosing three items each, for a total six total items ordered — four of which ended up being the wrong items, or were wildly inconsistent with the menu descriptions, or were made with poor-quality ingredients. I can’t say I’d count them as a favorite neighborhood restaurant anymore accordingly.

I suspect that the restaurants which survive and thrive through and beyond the pandemic are going to be those who can do a much better job on this front, and who remain willing to continue hewing to such a model even after the virus has run its course and/or we have widespread vaccinations available. Because, honestly, at this point even if you remove fear of infection from the Dining Out experience, I’m not feeling particularly eager to reintroduce those two uncontrollable elements that can so wreck a meal — ambience and service experience — into my dinnertime plans, knowing how many truly enjoyable, healthy, affordable and aggravation-free meals we’ve had during lock-down days.

That may certainly be making lemonade from lemons and/or seeking silver linings behind grey clouds, but I think it’s going to be a near-permanent change to the way that I view the acquisition and consumption of foodstuffs. And I suspect that I am not alone on that front. My only regret in feeling this way comes from empathy with and sympathy for those whose careers will be impacted adversely and permanently by such a change of consumer sea-state in the Dining Out industry. I know that we are fortunate to work in fields that will not require such radical self-reinvention, and to have the means to meet our nutritional needs in a way that is pleasing to and healthy for us.

Our COVID Era philanthropy has been devoted toward food security accordingly. Perhaps you, too, could consider reallocating some of your erstwhile Dining Out dollars in a similar fashion? Well, if you already have all of your Guns N’ Roses CDs properly acquired and sorted, anyway.

While I do the cooking, I do not do the baking. That’s Marcia’s purview, and her banana scones were a most delicious treat. (I am hoping that when she sees this post, she will be inspired to make them again, om nom nom!)

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.

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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!