Shopping, Black Friday, And Yours Truly

If the clothing and footwear industries depended on me for financial sustenance, they would be shit out of luck. I don’t buy their goods very often. I mean, most of my attire is between three and about 45 years old. Yeah, I said 45. That’s the approximate age (I wish I could pinpoint the year in which I bought it) of a sweater that I want to be buried in when my bucket-kicking time arrives. The deep blue garment, which I treasure dearly and wear pretty frequently, still looks damn good to my eyes. Any coffin worth its salt would be proud to encase it.

My favorite sweater

I definitely haven’t been nice to the aforementioned industries in 2019. The only clothes I’ve purchased so far are underwear, socks and a sweatshirt. And as for shoes, none. That’s because I’m not too interested in regularly updating or freshening my look. Also, I seem to have excellent luck on most of those rare occasions when I do go shopping for apparel or accessories, which makes it unnecessary to shop very often. For example, three or four winters ago, upon entering a Macy’s department store near my home, I immediately found two winter coats that fit me perfectly and looked terrific. I whipped out my credit card and made them mine.

And one day seven or eight years ago, at a Sears department store, I hit the jackpot, leaving with about eight pairs of jeans that I’m wearing to this day. I could cite several more examples of this kind, but you get the picture.

Yes, I’m satisfied with the clothes and shoes that I own. So, when Black Friday (an annual, mega-hyped shopping day in the USA that unofficially kicks off the Christmas buying season) rolled around last month on the day after Thanksgiving, as it always does, I ordinarily would have avoided like the plague the indoor shopping mall near my house. I had no desire to check out the wearables on sale. And the same went for the non-wearables. And yet, mall-ward I directed my car at 11:30 AM.

Why? Hell, basically I didn’t want to enter a coffin some day without ever having experienced Black Friday firsthand. Despite being nearly as old as dirt, there are times when I can prance around the altar of pop culture better than just about anyone from my old f*ckers demographic. And if Black Friday isn’t a major player in pop culture, I don’t know what is.

Black Friday at the mall near my house.

Yup, the mall was decently crowded. Yup, most stores had Black Friday sales going on. Nope, I didn’t feel even the slightest urge to examine any merchandise. Still, I liked being at the mall. I always do, though my visits are only occasional, because the mall strikes me as a wonderland. I like its three levels of winding avenues, its airiness, its colors and sounds. And the overabundance of merchandise in the stores, though easy to criticize as excesses of the capitalist system, amazes and captivates me. Mankind, though flawed as hell, sure can turn out products like nobody’s business.

Black Friday at the mall.
Black Friday at the mall.

One thing for certain is that I was the sole visitor whose purpose was not to spend cash, but to observe. And also to record scenes with his or her smart phone’s camera. After an hour and a half of doing exactly that, I got the hell out of there.

“I ain’t much of a shopper, that’s for sure,” I said to myself as I drove back home. But a few hours later I realized how imprecise that thought was. You see, when it comes to food markets (of which there are none in the mall), I love to shop, and spend two or more hours every week in that pursuit. This pattern began somewhere in the 1990s, when it became apparent to me that the variety and quality of food stuffs available in the USA were a whole lot better than they’d ever been.

Food nerd that I’ve become, I get a charge examining olives, relishes, juices, grains, yogurts, you name it, on store shelves. The numerous types of each blow the mind. Who in the USA ever heard of quinoa, farro or Kalamata olives until fairly recent years, for instance? Nobody that I personally know.

Whole Foods breads. Many loaves had already been sold.
Some of the cheeses at Whole Foods.

In my area, the store that excites me more than any other is a Whole Foods supermarket. (Whole Foods, by the way, is part of the Amazon/Jeff Bezos empire that is engulfing the world.) I can’t stay away from its coffee, cheese and bakery sections, each of which contains products that make my life better. Farm Loaf bread and other breads, all baked on the premises, are swell. So are any number of the cheeses from around the world that Whole Foods carries. And two varieties of Allegro coffee (Rainforest Blend and Extra Dark French) have found strong favor in my household.

Some of the coffees at Whole Foods.

I suppose that you could do far worse than having food shopping as one of your hobbies. It gets me off my ass, for one thing. And it has given me something to write about here. That’s all to the very good, considering that I’m chronically semi-constipated when it comes to coming up with story themes. Maybe prunes would help. Prunes are a staple of many old f*ckers’ diets, right?

(As I frequently mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay on social media. Mucho gracias.)

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Two Million Cheez-Its And Counting

Circa 1970 one of the greatest culinary stories of my life took root: My infatuation with Cheez-It crackers. Just about everyone knows Cheez-Its. They are crunchy and salty one-inch squares, baked amalgams of cheese, wheat flour, paprika, etc.  Back then there probably was only one variety of Cheez-Its. The divine original in other words, the sort I stuck with through the years till recently switching to the Extra Toasty style. Today there are more than 25 Cheez-It types to choose from, including Whole Grain, Cheddar Jack and Mozzarella. They take up a whole lot of shelf space in most supermarkets, so clearly I’m not alone in loving Its. As we’ve been told, great minds think alike.

Cheez-It crackers in two of its many varieties.
Cheez-It crackers in two of their many varieties.

And you know what? I’ve eaten 2,000,000 Cheez-It crackers in my life, give or take a couple hundred thousand. That’s a lot of individual food items going down the gullet. Have I ever eaten more separate pieces of anything over the years? I’ve given this plenty of thought. Who wouldn’t? The only thing I can come up with is grains of rice. Maybe I’ve consumed more than 2,000,000 grains of rice. I’ll investigate that subject one of these days and let an anxious world know the results. But on with the current story.

Two million Cheez-Its. How did I arrive at that figure? It wasn’t easy. The question is deep. And so, at a loss for determining a calculation method, I started where most sensible people would start. That is, I got in touch with someone much smarter than me. I had been in phone contact with Dr. Vinnie Bubalinsky before. He’s head of the mathematics department at St. Louis Institute of Advanced Abstract And Profound Research. I had called him from out of the blue a year ago, explaining that I was wondering about angels gyrating, not dancing, on the head of the average pin. How many might fit there? Vinnie hadn’t a clue, had very little response at all to tell you the truth. I was glad to learn that tough questions don’t necessarily evoke glib answers.

The other day I dialed Vinnie’s number again and told him about my Cheez-It quandary. Vinnie remembered me. “What the f – – k’s wrong with you?” he asked. Patiently. “Get a life, you loser,” he added before ending our conversation. I would if I knew how.

I was on my own. I grabbed my favorite pen, a load of blank paper and a calculator. And I began to work out the numbers. Leave it to the Cheez-It manufacturer to make things difficult. I mean, for decades Its had come in an understandable size, a one pound package. That’s the same as 16 ounces I’ll mention to those of you who left school a long time ago. But in 2008 the Its maker downsized the box to 13.7 ounces, a strange number to be sure. And last year they did it again. The standard Cheez-It box now contains 12.4 ounces of product.

And if all that weren’t bad enough, I had to throw into the equation the fact that my Its consumption habits have changed over time. For years and years I would down three or four pounds of Its weekly. I easily could knock off a box while watching a baseball game on television. But those heights are a distant memory. In the early aughts my intake of Its dropped by half. And it has continued to shrink. For the last few years I’ve eaten about three-quarters of a pound per week.

The tools that I used for my daunting calculations.
The tools that I used for my daunting calculations.

OK. I sat at the dining room table for hours, scribbling, sweating, cursing, punching wildly at calculator keys. The basic fact that I always held onto came from the side panel of each Cheez-It box: Twenty-seven Its weigh 30 grams. And 30 grams, I found out elsewhere, are the same as about 1.1 ounces. Needless to say, progress was slow. But things eventually started to come together, to make sense. Two million Cheez-It crackers was the approximate number that I had chewed and swallowed, I finally concluded. I picked up the phone and dialed Vinnie Bubalinsky’s number, ready to gloat. But I hung up after one ring. He will read about my triumph soon enough, no doubt, on this page. Vinnie, some losers never quit.

I’d like to put my Its consumption in perspective. We all agree that 2,000,000 Cheez-It crackers are a massive amount. In fact, if you placed them edge-to-edge on a flat and straight-as-an-arrow highway, they would extend for 31.5 miles, a very sizeable distance. But wait . . . there’s something I hadn’t thought about: In a car you’d cover those miles in less than half an hour. And yet it took me 45 years to eat the crackers. What does this mean? That cars are about 1,000,000 times faster than the human mouth? That highways inherently are inappropriate places to place Cheez-Its? I really don’t know. I’m confused. I need help.

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

We Said “Cheese Please” At Iron Abbey

I’ve grumbled before on these pages about the paucity of loveliness in the townships that surround my suburban Philadelphia home base. Stuck in the middle of a large section of this haphazard overdevelopment is a place that I think is a-ok. Iron Abbey is its name, and beer and good food is its game. It is a gastropub. Location: Horsham, Pennsylvania. My wife Sandy and I ate dinner there recently. One part of the meal, a cheese plate of all things, particularly opened our minds and eyes.

Part of the scene at Iron Abbey.
Part of the scene at Iron Abbey.

Iron Abbey is a large establishment. Its dining areas and bar are on ground level where the look is woody and stoney rustic. Kind of like, who’d have guessed, an abbey. Upstairs are an espresso café and rooms filled with beers for takeout purchase. The beer rooms are wondrous, packed with microbrews, many obscure, from the corners of the globe. For this article, let’s stay on the ground floor, where the beer selections are no less mind-blowing.

Sandy doesn’t like beer. She is a wine lady. Unfortunately for her, Iron Abbey does not cater to wine-by-the-glass ladies or gents. Those selections are slim. The two Sauvignon Blanc choices were overpriced at $10.50, so Sandy, a white wine devotee, instead sipped an eight dollar glass of Cielo Pinot Grigio, direct from Italy. Sandy says she has had better. I took a sample and approved of its dryness but quickly decided its flavor could be richer.

Enough about wines. The Philadelphia region has become a haven for beer geeks, and Iron Abbey is a top example why. I spent five minutes poring over the beer menu. The choices were nearly endless, around 40 on tap and 250 in bottles and cans. The pressure was on. Twice I told our waitress that I needed more time to decide. On her third visit to the table I was too embarrassed to ask for another extension. Firestone Walker Easy Jack IPA I said, pointing it out on the menu’s draft beer section. With craft beers, one usually can’t go too wrong, so skilled have the world’s brewers become. My selection, birthed in sunny California, was proof. Bitter and hopped-up it was, as all good IPAs should be. One of the hops varieties in the recipe imparted a husky tinge of grapefruit flavor to the brew. I liked that a lot.

The best segment of the meal came next. Sandy and I were all set to bypass any starters and simply place our main course orders when I absentmindedly began to pay some attention to the menu section titled “The Board.” There, one may select from various cheeses and meats, all of which are accompanied by an eclectic mix of nibbly stuffs. Why not, we decided. When the waitress reappeared we picked two cheeses and sat back with our drinks. We’re not naïfs, but neither of us had ever before ordered a cheese plate at a restaurant.

The cheese board that we loved.
The cheese plate that we loved.

The cheese plate arrived and we couldn’t have had a better time. It came with salty olives, crunchy excellent French bread, fig and apricot jams, roasted Macadamia nuts,  pickled red onion slivers and membrillo. Yes, I hadn’t a clue either as to what membrillo is. Turns out that it is a firm soft paste made from quince pulp, sugar and water. Some post-Iron Abbey research told me it’s commonly found in Portugal, Spain and Italy. I caught what I thought were flavors from the apple and pear family. Quince, as additional research told me a little while ago, is indeed related to those fruits. Bottom line, the membrillo was delicious. The other accompaniments were too. As for the cheeses, we had selected  Ubriaco Classico from Italy and Ossau Iraty from France. As with membrillo, I’d never heard of either of those cheeses before. For the most part I’m a Kraft swiss and Cracker Barrel cheddar kind of guy. But I know there’s a world of cheeses out there to be explored. The Ubriaco was semisoft and hinted of wine and citrus. The Ossau Iraty was dense and dry and pungent. Sandy and I swooned over both of them and the bread and the nibbly stuffs. This was the most exciting platter of food we’d had in quite a while.

Crab cake entrée (top). Chicken burger (bottom).
Crab cake entrée (top). Chicken burger (bottom).

After the cheese extravaganza we’d have been happy to pay up and leave. We knew that it would overshadow the next course. Which it did. My grilled ground chicken burger, though, was awfully tasty, a comfort dish covered with melted Monterey Jack cheese and sautéed bits of red peppers and onion. The side salad I opted for in lieu of fries was fine too. Sandy’s crab cake entrée was done nicely. The grilled crab cake was charred outside, soft inside and good. Some extra doses of spices and flavorings wouldn’t have been a bad idea, though. It sat atop dreamy mashed potatoes, mushroom slices blended through. Blanched then sautéed itsy bitsy asparagus and carrot pieces, very flavorful, surrounded the mountain.

We had no room for dessert. We paid our bill and thanked our waitress, then squeezed past the crowds to the front door. Iron Abbey is a popular spot. Though it is by no means perfect, there are good reasons why it’s bustling.

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