Eggplant Parmigiana And Good Advice

It’s not every day that a visit to a shopping mall inspires someone to write about eggplant parmigiana and good advice. This is one of those days. Off we go.

I can’t begin to explain how or why, for many years, I stopped eating eggplant parmigiana, somehow forgetting that it is one of my favorite dishes. I hadn’t overindulged on eggplant parm, thus getting tired of it. And I hadn’t turned away from Italian cooking in general. God forbid! No, sometimes life takes weird, head-scratch-inducing turns, and my losing awareness of eggplant parm’s existence was one of them. This southern Italian mélange of fried eggplant, tomato sauce and melted cheeses, which had gone down my gullet numerous dozens of times during the 1960s through 1990s, became a stranger to me in the current century. Until September 15 that is, about 10 weeks ago, when eggplant parm vivaciously reentered my life. Hallelujah!

That night my wife Sandy and I were at a good restaurant a few miles from our suburban Philadelphia home. Marco Polo is its name and Italian cooking is part of its game. We have thrown business Marco Polo’s way for around 25 years. Scanning the menu I was awakened from my eggplant parmigiana amnesia, for it was as if a Roman god or goddess slapped me upside my head and then trained my eyes on one and only one listing on the menu. My mouth began to water almost uncontrollably. I became a sputtering, emotional mess. “I must have it! I must! I shall!” I nearly screamed.

Eggplant parmigiana at Marco Polo

And so I had it. And, man, was it superb. The eggplant was moist and tender, the tomato sauce as sweet as a sunny springtime day, and the cheeses very fine and, importantly, not overwhelming in amount.

Since that joyous occasion I’ve eaten eggplant parmigiana six more times, most recently on Saturday past (November 24), when Sandy and I once again dined at Marco Polo. I’m hooked on the stuff! For the remainder of my earthly stay I plan to keep it that way, in moderation. I could do a lot worse.

Okay, then. That’s the eggplant parm part of this story. Now it’s time for some good advice, and also for a valiant attempt to connect those two themes.

Once in a blue moon I head to the wondrous, three-level, enclosed shopping mall near my home. Usually, like most people, I go there to shop. But two or three times I’ve gone to try and find something or other to write about for this publication (click here to read one example). On November 24, seven hours before dining at Marco Polo, the latter was my intention. There was a pretty good chance, I figured, that the visit might prove to be journalistically fruitful.

Maybe an essay about frenzied shoppers and kiddies sitting on Santa’s lap should have been the result of my time at the mall. But, you know, that just ain’t me. Instead, my attention was drawn to a sign in Macy’s department store, the first place I investigated within the mall. The sign, a store directory, said “Find Your Way” in big letters across its top. “Holy shit!” I thought to myself. “That’s powerful advice. It’s important for people to find their way, their true path in life. Fulfillment will result if they do.”

Whoa, what had come over me? I’m not the philosophical sort. I’m in the middle section of the deep-thinking pool, at best. And it wasn’t ganja that brought out that unlikely response from me, seeing that I haven’t smoked weed in 30 years.

Whatever the reason, I then went on a quest to locate other examples of good advice in the mall. And indeed I found some. “Believe In The Wonder Of Giving” commanded another Macy’s sign. “Love Your Mother” (meaning both your female parent and Mother Nature) proclaimed a tee shirt in Bloomingdale’s department store.  “It’s Never Too Late To Have A Happy Childhood” smiled down upon the customers at Build-A-Bear Workshop. And the finest advice of all came from a poster at Sephora. “Be Kind. Be Open. Be Gracious” it urged. Needless to say, the poster also should have said “Be Helpful.”

Damn straight, I was on a roll!

The final emporium in which I met words of wisdom was a Hallmark store. A small box, meant to be hung on a wall or placed on a table or shelf, contained a message that I paused over: “Do More Of What Makes You Happy.” A pleasure-seeker to a sizeable degree, I could relate, because I took it to mean that we might as well boost our fun a lot while we can, seeing that the number of spins we make around the Sun are, shall we say, on the limited side.

But there’s a more expansive way to look at the message, as I decided the following day when it rose to the surface of my mind. There it joined with memories of my most recent Marco Polo meal and got me thinking. Eating eggplant parm is a fairly trivial endeavor, but it sure enough makes me happy. And when I’m happy, my frame of mind improves, increasing the volume of positive energy that I deliver to the world. In other words, increasing the frequency of my being kind, open, gracious and helpful to others. The uptick is on the minor side, no doubt. But considering the state of affairs on our planet, every little bit counts.

This isn’t just about me, me, me, though. If hundreds of millions of us followed the Hallmark store’s advice, the upticks might add up to something special. Hey, maybe the world would significantly change for the better. You never know. After all, those four adjectives  — kind, open, gracious, helpful — are where it’s at.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Many thanks.)

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Aaah, The Early Morning: Coffee, A Puzzle, And A Fine Song

Hello one and all. It is afternoon as I begin to write this story on the fourth day of October of 2018, the year that is rapidly disappearing in our collective rearview mirror. Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring that up! Get your eyes off of that mirror! Even though it ain’t a wonderful thing that our expiration dates are getting closer with each passing second, there’s no point dwelling on that. If it had been up to me, I’ll note nonetheless, the design and nature of the cosmic game we’re parts of would be a whole lot different, a whole lot more user-friendly, than they are. But, par for the course, I wasn’t consulted.

Still, despite my dissatisfaction with how the world and universe turn, there’s one time of day that I am almost always glad to greet: The first hour after I arise at 6:30 AM, when the potential troubles of the day normally haven’t yet reared their f*cking heads, and there’s nary a peep coming from within my house.

“What, do I disturb Your Majesty when I come downstairs in the morning?” my wife Sandy, who snuck up on me to take a look at the mighty words that I’m typing, just snarled at me.

“No, no, not at all. You are the sunshine of my life. You are the apple of my eye. You . . . ”

Oooh! Sandy has unloaded three big, fat kisses upon the crown of my head, one for each of its remaining strands of hair. See? It pays to be complimentary. And it pays to have three strands of hair. Now, there’s a couple of life lessons for ya!

Where was I? Oh yeah, the first hour after I jump, or should I say stagger, out of bed, leaving Sandy to her dreams.

This is my general routine: After visiting the bathroom I head into the kitchen to pour myself a cup of joe. The coffee always is waiting for me, for I fill our Mr. Coffee machine with ground coffee and H2O an hour before hitting the sack, and then set Mr. C’s timer to begin the brewing process at 6:25 AM. The coffee without fail tastes vibrant and strong, because I use a lot of ground coffee in proportion to water, and have discovered over time a number of java brands that really make the grade.

Being a guy who’s happy to provide public service, I’m now going to impart what might be useful information to some: Try combining two or three coffees to create your own personal blend. The flavors and intensities most likely will be very complimentary. If they’re not, then experiment till you find a blend that suits your taste. Me, I use three coffees, one of them decaf, in equal proportions. The current choices are Melitta’s Classic Decaf, Melitta’s Columbian Supreme and Lavazza’s Intenso. I tell you, just writing about my morning beverage is setting me all aquiver. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s jolt!

Okay, getting back to October 4: Filled cup in hand, I relocated to the living room sofa at 6:45 AM, as usual. And also as usual I opened my laptop and signed onto the BrainBashers website to bring up its selection of sudoku puzzles. Man, how did I live for so many years with no awareness of sudoku, a captivating numbers puzzle that I first attempted seven years ago? It didn’t take long for me to become an addict.

I felt content and subtly happy as I filled in numbers on a BrainBashers sudoku grid, giving my flabby brain its daily dose of exercise. And I became even happier when I flipped on my portable radio, something that I rarely do, silence-seeker that I ordinarily am at that time of morning. Lo and behold, at 6:59 a terrific, endearing song (Homesick) by The Marcus King Band burst forth from WXPN, a Philadelphia station. I think that Homesick helped speed my way through the puzzle’s nooks and crannies. At my discouragingly advanced age I need all the help I can get. Here’s Homesick:

So, the time has arrived for my second public service announcement: If ever you have the chance to see The Marcus King Band in concert, don’t toss it away. I plan to catch them when they pass through Philadelphia next month. They are tremendous, a young Southern rock/soul group whose leader (Marcus) plays electric guitar, well, electrifyingly. They knocked me out when I watched them on Conan O’Brien’s late night television show in August. And they knocked out Conan too, leaving him kind of gaga. These guys, I firmly predict, are going to become big. Here’s the band’s performance on Conan’s program:

I’ve now performed two good deeds in one day. Who knew that writing could be so fulfilling? Without a doubt I’ve earned myself a reward! And I know who will be delighted to bestow it upon me.

“Oh, Sandy! I think I discovered a fourth strand of hair. The crown of my head sure could use another kiss.”

“Oh yeah?” says Sandy from 60 feet away. “I’ve already blessed your scalp three times today. That’s my limit. I’m done.”

Shit! Life ain’t fair! I need a nap. Over and out, till next time.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. Thanks.)

No One Ever Said That Finding A Pawpaw Would Be Easy

No one ever said that finding a pawpaw would be easy, though the article (click here) published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 20 seemed to indicate that it wouldn’t be as tough as I’ve discovered it to be. Anyhow, search I did, coming up emptyhanded. Which is okay. You win some, you lose some, to toss in a cliché that’s hard to beat. But I haven’t given up the fight! No way. Pawpaw vibes are in the air. Someday, somewhere, I’m certain that I’m going to meet a pawpaw in the flesh.

“So, what the f*ck is a pawpaw?” you delicately ask. Well, everything that I know about pawpaws, which I’d never heard of before, comes from the short article mentioned above. It contains all that I need or want to know, as I like to avoid extensive, extended research whenever possible. That article, igniting a spark within me, sent me on a quest that has resulted in another pawpaw-related piece. Namely, the one you’re reading.

“So, what the f*ck is a pawpaw?” you delicately ask once again. Well, it’s an obscure fruit. It looks like a mango, has a tropical sort of taste, and is creamy in texture. Pawpaw trees are native to many eastern swathes of North America, and their fruit was popular with native Americans and with early colonists. George Washington, for instance, loved pawpaws for dessert.

But pawpaws no longer are well known. They bruise easily and get over-ripe pretty fast. Consequently they don’t meet the demands of today’s retail world, according to the article. Hell, bananas bruise easily and get over-ripe pretty fast too, but there are billions of them on store shelves. So, there must be more to the story than that.

Whatever, it’s an undeniable fact that pawpaws are hard to come by. Sure, pawpaw trees exist in the Philadelphia region, in which I reside. There just ain’t a lot of ’em. If you know the right people though, or are in the right place at the right time, a pawpaw or two or more will be yours. The right time is now, by the way, since pawpaws are an autumn fruit.

The day after I read the article I left the house to try and find a pawpaw. If anyone near me carried the item, I figured it would be the Whole Foods supermarket about three miles away. They didn’t. “So, what the f*ck is a pawpaw?” two of the store’s produce department workers almost said to me when I made my inquiry. I tell you, I was surprised not to have success at Whole Foods. I mean, they carried cherimoyas and jackfruit, which were new to my radar screen, so why not pawpaws? Ah, the mysteries of life.

A half hour later, at my local Giant supermarket, I also ran into a dead end. Phone calls would be easier and quicker than driving around, it then dawned on me. So back home I called Weaver’s Way Co-Op in Ambler, a town seven miles from mine (the several branches of Weaver’s Way were noted in the article as possible purveyors of pawpaws). The guy I spoke with was full of information. Yeah, he said, they’d received a 10-pound shipment of pawpaws a few days earlier. And sold them all that same day. He had no idea if or when they’d get any more of the bad boys. Not many pawpaw trees are under cultivation, he told me. I thanked him, hung up, and placed a few more calls.

They proved to be fruitless. Creekside Co-op, three towns distant from mine, had never heard of pawpaws. Neither had the Trader Joe’s or the Wegmans supermarket in my area. Neither had the branch of Weaver’s Way located in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. Nor the Produce Junction a seven-minute drive from my house.

Hell, that about did it for me. I mean, often I’m a glutton for punishment, but occasionally I know when not to keep beating my head against the wall. There are at least 12 other stores with creative produce sections that I could have dialed. But all of them are 10 or more miles from me. Even if one of them had pawpaws in stock, was it worth a long roundtrip to obtain the fruit?

Uh-uh, baby. Uh-uh.

And so ends my pawpaw saga. For now. When the day arrives that I cross paths with a pawpaw  (and I know I will, as I’ve already stated), I’ll work that magnificent occurrence into a story. Even if it doesn’t fit I’ll shove it in! I’m fairly good at that, you know.

As for now, I’m rapidly tiring of writing about pawpaws. It’s refreshment time. Goodbye till we meet again, amigos. I’m about to ease my busy fingers from my computer’s keyboard and head into the kitchen to pop open a bottle of the king of beverages. Beer. I’m sure that it will taste at least as good as a pawpaw would. Skoal!

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. I thank you.)

The End

Magnificent and valued readers, do not be alarmed by the title of this opus. It is not being published posthumously. Yours truly, a vaguely trustworthy septuagenarian, thankfully has not yet reached his expiration date, and hopefully that date won’t arrive for at least 20 years. But, as with pretty much everything in life, who the f*ck knows?

Almost inconsequentially though, the title does pertain to an opened box of pasta that had been sitting in one of my kitchen cabinets since 2006, give or take a year. My wife Sandy and I finally got around to tossing it a couple of weeks ago. Prior to that we hadn’t paid any attention to the box, which is what it deserved, as lousy-tasting as the pasta was the one and only time we prepared it back then.

We’d purchased the pasta, known as Barilla Plus, because Sandy was somewhat down on regular wheat products and was all for multi-this-and-that concoctions. Barilla Plus was the latter, what with lentils, chick peas, oats, spelt (what the hell is spelt?), barley and flaxseed comprising major parts of the dough. One night we cooked and ate the stuff, probably covering it with a good tomato sauce. It bit the big one, to resurrect a phrase that was popular on my Vermont college campus during the hippie era. Or, to put it another way, the pasta sucked, its flavor remarkably strange and unappealing.

As far as expiration dates are concerned, Barilla Plus’s was long ago. The box said the pasta would be best if used by September 2007. Being generous by adding two or three years to that, I estimate that the true expiration date (the date on which the product in effect died) took place no later than in 2010. Well, our box of Barilla Plus at last has been buried, with no mourners present, in wherever it is that my township dumps its residents’ garbage.

However, there is more to this essay than a frigging box of pasta. A lot more. Because when it comes to mourners, Sandy and I came close to tears when we bid goodbye last month to our 2012 Hyundai Elantra. The vehicle, cute and comfortable and totally to our liking, had only 45,000 or so miles on it when, in early August, it was rear-ended two miles from our home by a careless driver. I wasn’t in the car when the collision took place. Only Sandy was, and the extremely good news is that she was unhurt.

Hyundai on the repair shop’s grounds

Not so for the Hyundai, whose rear sections crumpled like tissue paper. Man, the car looked bad, but it was drivable. And fixable, we assumed. We drove it home, and there the victim sat for a day or two in our driveway till arrangements were made, via our insurance company, to have it towed to a collision repair shop.

Well, no point going into all the details. The bottom line is that the insurance company ultimately decided that the cost of repairs was more than the car was worth. We’d be sent a check, for the car’s value as if it were undamaged, said the claim handler. And that’s why, two weeks after the accident, Sandy and I went to the collision shop to clear out our belongings from the Elantra.

Pitiful baby . . . that car had been awfully good to us. I found it hard to believe that I’d never again sit behind its steering wheel while its motor was running. On the shop’s grounds, Sandy and I emptied the car and hung around for longer than we’d expected. We patted the car, looked at it longingly, and silently remembered the many good times we’d had in places to which our Hyundai had taken us. Shit, that big hunk of metals and plastics and fabrics was dear to our hearts. I hadn’t realized that before. But in saying goodbye, I did.

Our Toyota

We’ve replaced the Hyundai with a new car, a Toyota Corolla, whose fate, with luck, will be far better than its predecessor’s. And the Hyundai is now in its graveyard, having been towed, two days after Sandy and I paid our respects, to a facility whose mission was to take it apart, salvaging as much as possible. Graveyard I guess is the wrong word, seeing that much of the Hyundai will find new life in other man-made bodies. Which doesn’t change the reality of the Elantra being dead and gone. Obviously.

There is an uncountable number of things in life that are worse than losing a car. Still, I’m damn pissed at the person who whammed and bammed my former wheels. “Up yours, dear,” is what I’d say to her if I were to pay her an unannounced visit, a visit that is possible because her address is listed on the police report that the accident generated. “You have caused me and my wife a lot of problems and expense. Did I forget to say up yours? I didn’t forget? That’s okay. I’ll say it again anyway. Up yours!”

Hey, typing up yours three times, and now a fourth, has made me feel better. I knew that blogging would pay unexpected dividends one day! Didn’t think, though, that it would take over three years (I launched this website in April 2015) for a dividend to manifest itself.

On that note, boys and girls, I shall ease this essay into its conclusion. Please drive safely, as most of our roads are congested and crammed with potential dangers. And stay away from my new Toyota, or else!

(As I say at the end of nearly each and every one of my pieces, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing. It’s good to share, or so we have been told.)

Santa Fe Pleased Us Just Fine

My wife Sandy and I had been itching for a good while to stretch our traveling legs, to go somewhere we’d never been that’s far from our suburban Philadelphia environs. But where? “How about here? How about there?” we pondered.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Well, in the end we left here and there for another day, as the answer was right at hand. My brother (Richard) and sister-in-law (Sara) moved to New Mexico several months ago, after occupying space in California for 30 years. Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capitol, was their new home. Sandy and I wanted to see them and also were more than happy with the idea of poking around Santa Fe and other parts of NM, a state full of deserts, soft-colored hills, mountains and mind-boggling rock formations. New Mexico it would be.

Ergo, late last month we spent eight days in the Land Of Enchantment, as New Mexico is called by some, unpacking our bags chez Richie and Sara and doing our best to be good houseguests. I think we succeeded in the latter, but, as with much of life, who really knows? Anyway, we passed mucho hours wandering around Santa Fe with them, occasionally without them, taking in a good deal of sights and the general swing of things. I’ll leave New Mexico’s natural landscapes, which we also visited, for a future story or two. My typing fingers are all set to concentrate solely on Santa Fe right now. Away we go.

Turns out that Santa Fe, a sweet place whose buildings primarily are adobe-style and low to the ground, is high as hell. By which I mean that this city of 80,000 humans lies in the high desert, 7,200 feet above sea level. That’s up there. The air is dry and fairly thin and, when a drought is on, as is currently the case, the sun is unrelenting. Drinking lots of water throughout the day, therefore, is pretty much a must even if you’re the indoors type, unless you enjoy the effects of dehydration. As is slathering on lots of sunscreen and donning a hat if you plan to spend more than 20 minutes outdoors.

I took to Santa Fe from the get-go. I liked its look, an amalgam of the influences of indigenous peoples and of the Spanish, who conquered and colonized enormous chunks of the Americas starting in the 1500s. Adobe, adobe everywhere. The earth colors made for a soothing experience. As did Santa Fe’s overall quietness, the lack of a mad rush of residents and tourists. Motor traffic gets fairly rough on certain avenues at certain times of day, but for the most part cars and trucks don’t interfere with the easy-going feel of the city’s central sections.

At right, Richie and Zella

A number of my walks through town were in the company of two individuals: my brother and Zella, who is Richie and Sara’s large dog. Zella is a Bouvier, a breed I’d never heard of till making Zella’s acquaintance several years ago in California. Zella doesn’t use sunscreen or wear a hat in Santa Fe, though I urged her to. She took offense at my suggestion, indicating that she doesn’t look good in hats and, in no uncertain terms, that I should go f*ck myself. Naughty doggie. However, Zella does imbibe a sensible amount of H2O throughout the day. Smart doggie.

Zella received a good deal of attention from pedestrians during these walks, far more than I did. And she was made right at home at a shop we passed one morning, a dog-loving establishment that has a Dog Bar, just outside its front door, where water and treats are at the ready.

One afternoon, Sandy, Richie and I were plopped on a bench in the Santa Fe Plaza, a park in the center of downtown. Zella wasn’t with us. We were eating chicken fajitas that we bought from a food stand at the park’s southeast corner and were watching the world go by. You never know what you might see in parks, which is part of the fun of hanging out in them. That afternoon a bubble-blower, probably a Plaza regular, showed up. With a net-like bubble-making device he filled the air with soap bubbles, some of them really big. The fajitas were tasty, the soap bubbles were captivating. Sandy and I agreed that we were feeling fine.

Cafes, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, crafts galleries, museums . . . Santa Fe has them in quantities far beyond what you’d expect in a small city. It’s one of the major art centers in the USA, which was fine with me, as I’ve been popping into galleries and museums for nearly all of my life.

Left to right: Sandy, Sara, Richie

Appropriately enough, Sara and Richie took us to Museum Hill, a part of town that, also appropriately enough, is home to several museums, including the Museum Of International Folk Art. Our group of four headed to the Hill one afternoon for lunch at a café. We then entered MOIFA, an astonishing place. Sara had been there before and decided to go back to the café to read a book. Richie wasn’t a first-timer either, but he was in the mood to see the collection again.

Mexican musicians

And what a collection! I spent time mainly in the Girard wing, which houses folk art from all over the globe that one couple (Susan and Alexander Girard) accumulated during the mid-1900s. They donated their collection to the museum in 1978.

Mexican village

The Girard wing contains dozens of exhibits that are recreations of village scenes and of everyday life, all populated with miniature renditions of people, houses and appropriate accoutrements. The two exhibits that rang my gong the most were Mexican-themed, one of a village in all its colorful glory, the other of musicians having the times of their lives in a crowded three-level performance area.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Trees In Autumn 1920/1921, oil on canvas, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Gift of the Burnett Foundation

You can’t go wrong in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum either. It’s one of the many museums in Santa Fe that are not part of the Museum Hill complex. I’m a fan of O’Keeffe’s paintings and had a tip-top time looking them over. On her canvases, O’Keeffe captured the essence of the landscapes and objects before her — be they mountain scenes, vast deserts, or flowers only inches away — with bold shapes and intense colors.

O’Keeffe lived in New Mexico for part or all of every year starting around 1930 until her death in 1986. For much of that period she made her home on a property in the desert about 60 miles from Santa Fe. She attained huge fame in her lifetime, and her reputation since then hasn’t waned. Deservedly.

Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery store

Nor can you go wrong in Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery, one of the many shops that I entered. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in an indoor space of any kind whose every item struck me as beautiful. But that’s what happened at Fisher, which carries Native American ceramics both old and new. Magnificent stuff, beautifully proportioned, colored and decorated, in styles that date back numerous centuries. I should have made a purchase. Man, I can be dumb as shit.


Okay, I can’t leave without talking a little more about food. Sara is an excellent cook. She and my brother fed us deliciously. And on a couple of nights the four of us ventured out for dinner, hitting the jackpot on one of those excursions when we had terrific pizzas at Pranzo Italian Grill. Sandy’s and my Margherita pie, with added olives, is pictured above in the forefront. Its extremely thin and charred crust was a model for how pizza crusts should taste and look.

Good trips are good for the soul. Sandy and I had a very good trip, spending quality time with family, gathering new experiences, seeing sights worth seeing and dining well. We’re fortunate folks.

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Before, During And After Lunch: Slices Of Life And Of Pizza

I’ve been thinking recently about the nature of this blog. Not a whole lot, but enough to see that my stories — when you look at their sometimes straight, sometimes wavering and sometimes loopy as hell strokes — paint a pretty good picture of what I’m about. I’m not one to reveal all. I’ll never write a word, for instance, about the time, 40 years ago, when I went undercover in Nepal to help bring down the notorious Himalayan gang of bank robbers that dressed themselves in highly-convincing yeti costumes. Or about my space-boot shopping spree with Neil Armstrong a few days before he blasted off for the Moon. But I reveal plenty, I think.

Basically I’m a simple guy who does simple things. Well, simple cum lopsided things often might be a more accurate description. And for the last two and a half years I’ve been writing about them. My articles peer at, for the most part, typical days for yours truly, show what my interests are and have been, and show who has accompanied me (and whom I’ve accompanied) on this journey through what we affectionately call life.

Slices of life. Yeah, that’s what I usually find myself describing. And now that I’ve expended nearly 200 words in trying to establish a degree of context for this current opus, I’ll turn my attention in that direction. “Yo, you better, pal,” I hear a few voices saying. “Our time is limited. We’re this close to closing out your article and checking out some YouTube videos of skateboarding kangaroos.”

Right, right, ye whose attention span is shorter than Donnie Trump’s fuse (but not shorter than his dick). Here we go.

Last Friday I found myself heading north from my suburban Philadelphia abode. My car, having a mind of its own, drove itself two and a half miles to an establishment that ranks high on my ladder of places where I like to grab a bite for lunch. In fact, it probably is my favorite lunchtime eatery in my neck of the woods. And that’s because, speaking of slices, I believe that the slices of pie that one purchases at Nino’s Pizzarama are damn good. A card-carrying fool for pizza, I down them there two or three times a month (and I go to other pizza joints throughout each month too).

I ordered a slice of regular pie and one of Sicilian. They hit the spot regally, though I was slightly disappointed in the regular’s crust. Too chewy. The pie needed to have been left in the oven for another 20 or 30 seconds to become as crispy as it itself was hoping to become. Such is the life of pie.

While munching away, I couldn’t get out of my head a song I’d heard on the radio during my northward trek. It’s a very beautiful recording, one that I instantly became attached to soon after its release in 1968: Hickory Wind, by The Byrds. As always, it sounded wonderful.

Hickory Wind comes from Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, a magnificent country-rock album. The Byrds, famed for earlier numbers such as the psychedelic nugget Eight Miles High and the folk-rock staple Turn, Turn, Turn, had undergone some significant stylistic and personnel shifts by the time it was waxed. Three of the five original members were gone and new guys, most notably the space cowboy Gram Parsons, who helped push the band partly into country-music territory, were on board. Parsons is one of rock and roll’s legendary names, not only for his big musical talents, but for his wild and wooly and troubled life. He died of a drug overdose in 1973.

Gram Parsons is credited with having written Hickory Wind in 1968 with his musical compadre Bob Buchanan. (There is a dispute over the song’s authorship, by the way. Some claim that a little-known folksinger named Sylvia Sammons composed it, and that Parsons stole it from her. The truth never will be known, it seems.) It has been recorded by many since then, but The Byrds put it out first.

What a song. Wistful and melancholy, it stands you up straight and makes you think about the times when loneliness and an aching heart might have ruled your days. That’s Gram singing lead. In the car I melted as I listened to his yearning voice and to the sad, sad notes coming from Lloyd Green’s pedal steel guitar. Man, you want to be in a happy mood when you’re eating pizza. But me, I sat at one of Nino’s tables in a contemplative frame of mind, not fully able to concentrate on the powers of sweet tomato sauce, excellent melted cheese and could-be-better crust.

There’s much to be said for contemplative, though. It’s a state that can be good for the inner being, helping us to put things in perspective and, if we’re lucky, softening our defenses. On the way home from Nino’s I turned on the radio and found myself on the receiving end of another helping of such as Horace Silver‘s Lonely Woman filled the car. Silver, whose rich 60-year career in the jazz world ended with his passing in 2014, composed and recorded Lonely Woman in 1963. It came out in 1965 on his most famous album, Song For My Father.

There’s little I need to say about the song. It is subdued and righteous and should be better known than it is. A trio (Horace on piano, Roy Brooks on drums, and Gene Taylor on bass) perform Lonely Woman, Horace having decided that the tune would benefit if saxophone and trumpet, which appear on the majority of his recordings, sat this one out. Less sometimes is more. What’s more, Horace plays straight through Lonely Woman’s seven-minute length, having further decided that neither a bass solo nor drum solo were appropriate. Hats off to that.

Slices of life. Slices of pizza. I’m sure a spot-on connection could be drawn between them, and that slice-y metaphors are out there ripe for the picking. Those with bulbs brighter than mine would have no trouble drawing and picking. Which is why I now shall quietly exit the stage, before long to return with another tale of the sublimely simple. Till then, amigos . . .

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A Grunion Story

A few weeks ago I was at a suburban Philadelphia branch of the Weis supermarket chain. Nice store. Big, well-lit and damn fine when it comes to offering a sweet selection of beers. Beer shopping usually is my main reason for entering Weis’s doors. I’ve dropped a lot of dough there in that pursuit.

What I buy, being a beer snob, are brews other than Budweiser and Miller and their milquetoast cousins. Over the last 25 years I’ve developed a love affair with more flavorful brews: the bright and piquant in taste; the murky and dense; and the bitter as hell, to cite a few. And Weis is a mecca for such goods.

So there I was, eyeing Weis’s beer shelves with deep interest. I’m always on the hunt for beers I haven’t had before, and I came upon one that day. It was an example of a pale ale, which is a common species of bitter beer that breweries like to tweak and play around with. Its maker was Ballast Point Brewing Co., a San Diego-based enterprise I was slightly familiar with, and the name on the label was Grunion Pale Ale. Grunion? The word rang zero of my bells. What’s more, the label pictured two fish writhing on the sands. What the f*ck was that all about? I hadn’t a clue. I bought a bottle of it, natch, along with a bunch of other brews, and went on my merry way.

Not many days after that I brought the unopened, fish-labelled bottle with me when my wife Sandy and I joined two of our top friends, Liz and Rich, at a Thai restaurant in the Philadelphia burbs. The place is a BYOB. Rich asked me what beer I’d arrived with. I showed him the bottle.

“Ah yes, grunion,” he said. “They are tiny fish that crawl out of the ocean to mate on beaches in southern California. They are quite amazing.”

I stared at him in disbelief. “Are you kidding me?” I finally asked. “You actually know what grunion are? And you know about their sex lives? How is this possible? I doubt if you’ve ever been fishing in your life.”

“What can I say?” Rich coyly intoned. “Some of us are blessed with the gift of extensive knowledge.” Those weren’t his exact words, but they are close enough.

I looked at Sandy and at Liz. I asked them if they’d ever heard of grunion before. The answer was no. I then proceeded to begin drinking the beer. It was delicious. Bitter, slightly citrusy from the hops used in its creation, and not the slightest bit fish-flavored(and that’s because grunion are not used in the brewing process. They only are on the label!).

Twenty-four hours later Sandy and I were at dinner in downtown Philadelphia with two more of our top pals, Cindy and Gene. The conversation, profane and giddy, went all over the map. After a while I started recapping the previous evening’s beer story.

“Can you believe it?” I said to Cindy and Gene. “Rich actually heard of grunion. Have either of you?”

“Not me,” said Cindy. However, Gene, a polite and non-bragging sort, had this to say: “Oh, I know about grunion. They are tiny fish that crawl out of the ocean to mate on beaches in southern California.” Those weren’t his exact words, but they are close enough.

I stared at Gene in disbelief. “Man, you’re a city boy,” I said. “Why do you know about grunion? Seems to me that they’re as obscure as can be.”

“Well, when I was younger I used to read a lot about animals,” he said.

I guess he did!

I firmly believe that in the greater Philadelphia region, whose human population exceeds the 6,000,000 mark, you’d have to search far and wide to find people who could tell you what grunion are. Yet, on successive evenings I’d broken bread with two of them. Talk about infinitesimal odds. If only, after all these years of knowing Rich and Gene, dashes of their brain power had made their way over to me.

Anyway, since those two grunion-centric meals I’ve done a bit of research into grunion. Not much, because I’m not the scholarly type, but enough to get a feel for the subject. Grunion, it seems, come in two similar but somehow different varieties. Type One lives in the ocean waters off of southern California. Type Two inhabits the Gulf Of California in the Mexican region known as Baja California. And indeed both types do crawl out of the water to mate. They do this at night during certain months of the year. You can read about grunion by clicking here.

And you can witness grunion doing their slithery, entwining beach thing by clicking below. Thanks to this YouTube video we might learn some new sex positions from the grunion spectacle. Hey you!!! You’re blocking my view!!! Sit down!!!

Alas, it’s time for me to wrap up these proceedings. Before doing so, though, I’ll add that Ballast Point Brewing Co. was founded by a bunch of cool guys. They like to fish almost as much as they like churning out beers, which is why they name most of their products after fish and other occupants of the seas, and picture said creatures on many of their labels. I’m on the lookout for Ballast Point’s beers now that I’ve sampled Grunion Pale Ale. Supporting those who not only are talented but lean toward the offbeat side is a good idea, don’t you think?

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The Poster Boy For Healthy Eating Habits: C’est Moi!

From out of the blue the United States Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion called me recently with a flattering offer. “Hello, Neil? This is Dudley Eatright. I’m Chief Down-The-Gullet Officer at the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. You’ve come to our attention through channels that I’m not authorized to divulge, but I assure you that they are nutritious and delicious.”

“Neil, we here at CFNPAP have learned about your mega-healthy lifestyle. Why, when we found out about your long-time devotion to Mr. Spock’s Vulcan vegan diet, and about the triathlons that you compete in weekly at your, shall I say, quite mature age, we were more than impressed. We were floored. You’re pushing 70 yet have the vitality of a supremely fit 25 year old. How do you do it? — I’m very pressed for time, so please don’t answer that.”

Soon it will be me behind that lectern.
Soon it will be me behind that lectern.

“Neil, here’s why I’m calling: You are a model of remarkably sensible, possibly extreme living. And the citizens of our great land should know about you. They should hear from you. That’s why we here at CFNPAP want to make you the poster boy for the benefits derived from consuming lots and lots of fruits and vegetables and grains. Despite our best efforts, Americans continue to chow down heavily on Slim Jims, Tostidos and Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches. Neil, we feel that you’re the guy to enlighten them about what foods they should be shoving into their maws. Michelle Obama has tried, but her success rate hasn’t been so terrific, now has it? And since she’ll be exiting the national spotlight in a matter of months we want a new face to promote healthy eating habits. Neil, please say you’ll help us out. The USA needs you, pal!”

fd10d260abdbbad0fb130a3f838151eaWow! I was stunned. For years I had made every effort to keep my dietary regimen and athletic pursuits little-known. Only my family and friends, I thought, were aware of my Vulcan veganism. And as for the triathlons that I am addicted to, I always enter under a pseudonym and always wear a Lone Ranger-type mask to further obscure my identity. Whenever a race official has questioned my donning of a face mask, my retort has been short and precise: “Yo, kemosabe! Back the fu*k off!” That never fails to work.

And yet CFNPAP found me out and tracked me down. And to tell you the truth I didn’t mind. It will be great to guide my fellow citizens along pathways leading to outstanding health. And to boost national consumption of plant life.

“I’m aboard!” I said a tad too loudly to Dudley Eatright. “I’m your man.”

“I knew I could count on you, Neil. Thank you so very much.”

Domestic blueberry pickings were slim.
Domestic blueberry pickings were slim.
Only the frontmost boxes held peaches.
Only the frontmost boxes held peaches.

“There’s only one thing, Dudley,” I said. “And maybe you can work this out for me. You see, fresh blueberries and peaches are my fave fruits. I eat ungodly amounts of them. But in the USA their harvests are over for the year and the supplies are dwindling fast. Why, the other day at my local supermarket’s produce department I couldn’t believe how near to barren the domestic blueberry and peach shelves were. It brought tears to my eyes. I even took some photos so I’d have something to remember my friends by. And yeah, I know that blueberry crops from South America will arrive in our stores any day now, with peaches soon to follow. But their prices always are outrageous. Dudley, the federal government stockpiles oil and gold and nuclear warheads. Am I wrong in assuming that it also stashes away sizeable amounts of USA-grown blueberries and peaches? Level with me, Dudley. I want the truth!”

There was a long pause. Then Dudley spoke. “Yes, Neil. Your analysis is accurate. I can’t begin to describe the quantities of blueberries and peaches that are being kept fresh and delectable in temperature-controlled, hermetically-sealed secret underground chambers. President Obama and his cabinet members, Senators, Congresswomen, Congressmen, top military brass . . . they all demand fresh peaches and blueberries year-round for their bowls of corn flakes and shredded wheat. And, patriots that they are, they’ll eat only those grown on American shores. Needless to say, the Department of Agriculture is proud to give them what they want. Neil, what’s your angle?”

“You can guess, Dudley. Starting tomorrow I expect daily deliveries to my door of blueberries and peaches from the government’s cache. Then, all will be well.”

“This can be arranged, Neil, no problem. Is there anything else?”

“That’s it, Dudley. I’m easy to please. And might I add that it has been a pleasure speaking with you. I am flattered and honored to be tapped to serve my country. Let the fruits and vegetables and grains campaign begin!”

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Caramel (Suzanne Vega, This Beer’s For You)

Leffe Brune
Leffe Brune

A few days ago, in a local supermarket’s beer section, I assembled and bought a “create your own six pack.” At dinnertime later that day I grabbed one of the six from the frig, and I’m glad I did. It was a thick, rich, mellow ale. Dark and handsome too, I might add. And delicious. Leffe Brune (brown), brewed in Belgium.

If it weren’t for this excellent beer I wouldn’t be typing this story right now. Instead I’d probably be cemented to the living room sofa, counting the number of dust balls scattered on the room’s hardwood floor, one of my typical pastimes. But I am typing this story right now, and here’s why:

Earlier in the aforementioned day, fishing around in my mind for something to write about for my blog, I thought about Caramel, a song by Suzanne Vega that I’ve always loved. But I wasn’t sure how I’d incorporate Caramel into a story. It’s a great song, not too well-known. For years I’ve thought it deserves to become a heavily covered tune, a standard if you will, as it is perfectly formed musically and lyrically. For 40 years I’ve thought almost as much of Tom Waits’s (Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night. “Maybe I’ll write about Caramel and (Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night and one or two other songs that, in my ideal world, nearly everyone would know about,” I more or less said to myself. “That’ll be at least a  couple of weeks from now, though. It’s a tough story to work out.”

But a few hours later, scanning the label on my Leffe Brune, I shifted course. It read: “Savor the mystery of the ages. The authentic Belgian Abbey ale. Enjoy this delicious Leffe Brune with its sweet caramel yet bitter taste.”

Caramel! Whoa, no way this could be a coincidence. No question about it, the beer gods who hover invisibly above Planet Earth are fans of Suzanne Vega’s Caramel. That’s why they placed the Leffe Brune label before my eyes. Which means that they wanted me to devote a story solely to that song. “Screw Tom Waits,” they in effect were saying to me. I love and revere the beer gods. I pray to them before turning off the bedroom light each night. Therefore, I shall obey.

Suzanne Vega is one of those artists who has been around for a long time (in her case, for about 30 years), though not too obviously for much of the span. She hit her visibility peak in the mid 1980s through mid 90s, when a bunch of her songs received lots of airplay. Tunes such as Luka, Tom’s Diner, Marlene On The Wall and Blood Makes Noise. Things have quieted a lot since then in terms of Vega’s fame. She still tours a good bit, playing before plenty of fans, and releases albums fairly regularly. But, barring a fluke of some kind, she’s unlikely ever again to be a big media presence. She hardly is alone in that. The same might be said for Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, Bruce Cockburn and near-zillions of others. The music biz, like life in general, is fickle.

Left to right: Beer; Caramel's lyrics; the CD on which Caramel appears.
Left to right: Leffe Brune; Caramel’s lyrics; the CD on which Caramel appears.

Despite that . . . if somehow Caramel were to come to the attention of many classic singers (calling Tony Bennett and Jane Monheit) and singer-songwriters, I’m of the belief that it would be recognized as awfully damn good and irresistible and eventually would find its way into the pop music canon. It came out in 1996 on Vega’s album Nine Objects Of Desire and had a now-forgotten shot of exposure that same year when it played during a scene in the movie The Truth About Cats And Dogs. But as far as I can tell, Caramel rarely has been covered by other musicians.

Yo, tell me that I’m wrong. Here is the first half of Caramel’s lyrics. They are concise and they pop. Poignantly. If they didn’t come attached to music they’d read as a cool poem. Coming from me, not exactly a huge poetry fan, that’s a major compliment.

It won’t do
to dream of caramel,
to think of cinnamon
and long for you.

It won’t do
to stir a deep desire,
to fan a hidden fire
that can never burn true.

I know your name,
I know your skin,
I know the way
these things begin;

But I don’t know
how I would live with myself,
what I’d forgive of myself
if you don’t go.

The lyrics above take up 16 (short) lines. And they comprise a mere four sentences. Four additional sentences, which you can read by clicking here, complete the lyrics. Me, I’m totally taken by Caramel’s simplicity. There are no head feints or foot shuffles. Wham, Suzanne Vega gets to the essence of a sexual attraction that must not be pursued, a love affair that must not be allowed to flower. It ain’t easy to write like that.

But Caramel isn’t a poem. It’s a song. And its music makes me want to head south. To Brazil, home of the samba, of which Caramel is an example. What a melody, so sweet and wistful. Such melancholy chords upon which the melody hangs. Ah me. In Rio I’ll set up a hammock on Ipanema Beach. I’ll watch the girls go by and sip on a long cool one (yeah, it’ll be a Leffe Brune). And as the Sun dips below the horizon I’ll listen to Caramel on iTunes. Or maybe on YouTube, which you too may do by clicking right here.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

King Georges: A Possibly Tasty Movie Review

On our way to dinner at The Broad Axe Tavern on a recent Friday night I told my wife Sandy about the approach, since abandoned, that I might take in writing the article you currently are reading. It was to be a comparison of dinner at The Broad Axe with what my opinion would have been, had I ever eaten there, of dinner at Le Bec-Fin, a famous, majestic and now-closed French restaurant in Philadelphia. All of this made possible sense because the movie that Sandy and I were headed to later that evening in suburban Philadelphia was King Georges, a documentary about the last few years (2010 to 2012) of Chef Georges Perrier’s involvement with Le Bec-Fin, which he opened in 1970.

Yup, I had thought that my culinary tastes and scrutinies would make for way cooler reading than a review of King Georges. And, dope that I tend to be, I was quite certain about what my conclusion would be, even before seeing King Georges. Namely, that I’d prefer to eat at The Broad Axe than at fancy-schmancy Le Bec-Fin. Broad Axe food I understand. It’s good for the most part and you don’t need a translator to figure out what’s what. Le Bec-Fin’s fare, which I had read about for decades, would have intimidated me. That’s because I knew and still know diddly-squat about high-level French cuisine.

We saw King Georges at the Ambler Theater.
We saw King Georges at the Ambler Theater.

But after watching King Georges I did an about-face. Who cares about my food preferences when a terrific piece of filmmaking is at hand? Clear the way! Movie review, here I come! And by the way, I should have given pricey LBF at least one spin during its lifetime. I’d have parted with some serious cash, but the meal and the experience would have been worth it. I hadn’t because I was a culinary coward.

Sure, the food looks great in King Georges. But that’s not the reason to see the movie, as food isn’t primarily what it’s all about. What we have here is a vibrant look at a pretty complicated guy. King Georges is filmed mostly in close-up and often in tight quarters, Le Bec-Fin’s kitchens, and reveals an extremely colorful and self-driven character as he wrestles with the reality that his famed and celebrated baby, LBF, ain’t the destination that it once had been. And that maintaining his customer base is hard and ultimately maybe not possible. What’s a top chef to do? In Georges Perrier’s case, keep on truckin’ and truckin’ until . . .

King Georges 2 IMG_1269
King Georges shows Perrier as a sometimes-crazed dynamo in the kitchen, his senses aware of what’s going on in every pot and pan attended to by the small army of chefs under his command at LBF. He rants and raves. He praises and hugs. He includes sh–t and/or fu–k in half the sentences that pour from his mouth. He’s a pip, a perfectionist, an incredibly hard worker who seems to have gotten no more than a handful of hours of sleep nightly for forty-plus years. How can you not love someone like this? I mean, he cares. Born and raised in France, he came to the USA in the mid 1960s hoping to own, cook for and run one of the best restaurants in the States. All of which he ended up doing for years and years. And he became a celebrity of sorts in the process, a big name in certain circles around the globe, eons before the likes of chefs/restaurateurs Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali became media fixtures.

During the last few years, though, Georges Perrier hasn’t been too visible. Whom, then, do we have to thank for bringing him to our eyes and ears in 2016? None other than Erika Frankel, she whom neither you nor I ever heard of before. Frankel has earned her keep producing documentaries and other works since the early 2000s but, before King Georges, never had donned a director’s cap. How did she manage to handle the job so well? Maybe it was beginner’s luck. Probably it was innate talent. Whatever, having a charismatic figure to make a movie about didn’t hurt.

You know, writing this article has made me hungry. I’m going to head into the kitchen and labor over one of my exotic specialties, a grilled cheese sandwich. I’m sure that Chef Perrier would approve of my sandwich-flipping technique, the precise and practiced manner in which my right wrist rotates just so. Before I say goodbye, however, let me mention that King Georges isn’t making waves at the box office. In fact, Sandy and I were lucky to see it in a theater, because nationally only a single digits number of cinemas are showing it. But happily for the inhabitants of our planet, King Georges is obtainable via Amazon Prime and other online operations. Be it at a theater, or more likely in the comfort of your home, here’s your chance to be the first on your block to watch King Georges. Take it from me, kids. I think you’ll like it.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)