A Trip To Scotland, Part Two: Food And Beverage Time!

Soon after publishing A Trip To Scotland, Part One, I pretty well decided that Part Two of my wife Sandy’s and my recent adventures would be all about Edinburgh’s wonderfully beautiful Princes Street Gardens and the very astonishing Scottish Highlands. You know, nature stuff.

But things can change rapidly when least you expect them too. “Yo, Neil!” I said to myself when I sat down to begin composing this opus. “Many things got you stoked during your sojourn in Scotland. And, obviously, you can’t write about them all. I mean, this ain’t a memoir you’re creating here. But a few food and beverage items impressed the hell out of you and Sandy, and they’re practically begging you to devote a bit of wordage to them. Would it kill you to do that? Nope, it wouldn’t. Well, hopefully that last statement is true.”

Who am I to argue with myself? Princes Street Gardens and Scottish Highlands are now being rudely shoved aside by yours truly. Food and beverage have won out. But worry not, nature fans. The Gardens and the Highlands will be featured prominently, and possibly exclusively, in Part Three.

Sandy and I ate and drank awfully well while in Scotland. Plenty of salmon, plenty of beef, plenty of cheese. Not to mention plenty of beer and wine. Our meals often were hearty, and always were satisfying. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Haggis (Photograph credit: foodfolio/Alamy)

Yet I regret one thing, culinarily-speaking: I should have given haggis a try, even if only one or two forkfuls. Haggis is maybe the quintessential Scottish dish, after all. In one or more of its various permutations, it was on the menu of nearly every eating establishment we settled into.

But I didn’t. Haggis, a fairly complicated preparation of minced, cooked ingredients, contains oats, which I like. It also usually contains lamb or calf lungs, hearts and livers, none of which I’m eager to ingest. One or two forkfuls of haggis, however, wouldn’t have killed me. Well, hopefully that last statement is true.

Here, then, are a few of the various dining experiences that made a deep impression on me. All took place in Edinburgh.

Let’s start with coffee, a beverage that I down every single morning without fail. Sans coffee, I’m no good. Never did I expect to, but I had the second-best coffee of my life at the Southern Cross Café, where Sandy and I ate breakfast five times during our eight day vacation (the best coffee I’ve ever had was in Rome). SCC offers several styles of coffee. What we drank were large cupfuls of their Americano, which is made with espresso. Rich, fragrant, slightly sweet, it was delicious.

Scones at Mimi’s Little Bakehouse

When it comes to scones, the one I ate at Mimi’s Little Bakehouse one afternoon wasn’t the second best I ever encountered. It was the best. Sandy had a scone there too, and she thought it the greatest. The scones I’d previously had in my life were squat, dry and crunchy. Teeth, watch out! And I liked them. Mimi’s scones, however, were tall and unlikely to chip the choppers. Nicely airy, yet proudly firm, our scones came to our table warmed. They were delicate in taste, and comforting as a warm blanket. We spread butter and raspberry preserves on them. My brother, after I sent him a picture of the scones, asked for my opinion about them. Perfection is what I told him.

Bowl at top contains stovies. Bottom plate contains steak and ale pie.

At Deacon Brodie’s Tavern for dinner, Sandy and I ordered traditional Scottish food. Stovies for her, steak and ale pie for me. Stovies is a stew that always contains potatoes. Pieces of beef often are in the mix, as was the case with Sandy’s order. My entrée, loaded with potatoes and beef and an ale-infused gravy, was encased in a nifty crust. Ah yes, we enjoyed our choices very much. Home-style cooking is hard to beat.

Still, the steak and ale pie wasn’t the top dinner that I had. That honor goes to the two dishes I consumed at the Whiski Bar & Restaurant. Sandy sampled them that night and was so impressed, she ordered them when we returned to Whiski several nights later.

A lousy photo of 1) a bowl with a few remaining drops of Cullen skink and 2) part of a smoked salmon platter

I’m talking about Cullen skink, and a smoked salmon platter. I was in an adventurous mood during the first visit to Whiski, because I sure as shit had never heard of Cullen skink before. Skink, I later learned, means soup. And Cullen is a Scottish village where this creamy chowder, made with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions, originated. Man, it was something else. And I mean that in a good way. Salty and alive with flavor, it went down the ol’ gullet smoothly and happily. As tasty a soup as I’ve ever eaten.

And the smoked salmon presentation? Superb. Scotland is known for its salmon, of course. Whiski took a large piece of fine, crusty bread and topped it with baby greens, capers and thick slices of smoked salmon, dressing the bread lightly with crème fraiche and a salty sauce. After eating the soup I figured that the next course would inevitably be a bit of a letdown. It wasn’t. In fact, I might have swooned over the salmon creation more than I did the Cullen skink.

Okay, that’s enough oohing and aahing. Still, before I bid you adieu I have to tell you that my mouth has been watering for the last 10 minutes as I relived the Whiski Bar experience. That makes me realize, though I really didn’t need any reminding, what an excellent trip Sandy and I had. Food and drink aren’t always standout occurrences on vacations. When they are, it’s a bonus. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Scotland. But if we plan another visit to that land, I’ll look forward to being very well fed.

(Don’t be shy about sharing this piece or about adding your comments. Gracias.)

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The Call Of The New: A Curious Story

Let it be known that I’m not too much the self-analytical type, which means I usually don’t give a lot of thought to what I do or why. Shit, basically I wake up in the morning and try to make a go of the day. But recently a certain aspect of my behavior became clear to me. And the more I thought about this aspect, I realized that it’s part of everybody’s makeup, that it reaches back to our baby years. It’s part of human nature, in other words. This innate need cools down for most of us as we get older, for sure, but it remains a force, one that makes our life journeys interesting and productive.

“Yo, Neil,” I hear a chorus of voices exclaiming, “time is precious and our attention spans are shorter than your dick. Give us some pertinent facts, guy. Tell us what the hell you’re talking about already!

Woe to those who ignore a chorus of voices. Here goes.

The mid-morning hours of the 20th day of April, a Saturday, found me, as usual, upon the living room sofa. The radio was tuned to Sleepy Hollow, a weekend show of peaceful music on WXPN, a Philadelphia station. I was only half-listening to the tunes being played, though alert to the possibility that a few might mesh beautifully with my inner tunings. And, as always, I was hoping to meet some music that I’d never heard before. Around 9:30 one number that met both criteria floated out of the stereo’s speakers. The song was Bird, by the singer-songwriter Azniv Korkejian, who is known professionally as Bedouine.

Bird is good. Really good. It’s about loving someone so much, you’re willing to let them go when freedom is what they require. I’ve listened to Bird several times since the Saturday in question, feeling it wash over me and into me. This song’s got power!

Bedouine, who is fairly new to the music scene, sings in a resignation-tinged voice, her words coming across in almost an offhand manner, though she probably worked on them religiously. Bird is a quiet emotional outpouring. It will remind you of introspective songs by Joni Mitchell.

Yes indeed, I’d been open to hearing something that was new to me. And very luckily, the haunting Bird came my way.

The day progressed. I could have stayed home, doing any number of things that are part of my routine. Lawn mowing, laundry, grocery shopping, etc. Invisible strings, however, were pulling on me to get out of the house and meet up with something that I hadn’t crossed paths with before.

And so, in late afternoon my wife Sandy and I went to the nearby Ambler Theater to see Amazing Grace, a documentary about the making of an Aretha Franklin gospel album in 1972. The album was recorded in a Los Angeles Baptist church, its pews filled with music lovers (the faithful and non-faithful alike), and the performances and behind-the-scenes moments were faithfully filmed. The movie was intended for release, but for various reasons sat on a shelf for lo these many years. Clap your hands, sisters and brothers, rejoicing in the undeniable truth that Amazing Grace has seen the light of day! It’s great.

Chalk another one up for following the call of the new.

And at Deterra, a good restaurant across the street from the movie house, without consciously realizing what I was doing I searched the menu for clever dishes that I hadn’t previously encountered anywhere. And I found them. Potato gnocchi, with mushrooms and fava beans and a froth of parmesan cheese, brought a big smile to my face. So did pappardelle (wide pasta noodles) served with sautéed shrimp and pesto sauce. Yowza, yowza, yowza!

The next day is when it dawned on me that what I’d done on April 20th is what I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember: I hear the call of the new and I move on it. Not obsessively. Not even every day. But regularly. Acting like this is to a large extent who I am. Partly I follow this path to keep boredom away from my door. But it’s far more than that. I seek new experiences because many of them turn out to be enlightening and inspiring. I wouldn’t want to live any other way.

And the pattern is nothing more than one that began in my early years. The world is new and intriguing to little kids, after all. They want to know. They want to explore. “What’s this? What’s that? Look at this! Look at that!” is their mantra, their engines’ fuel.

It all boils down to curiosity. Humans are born curious. And we retain our curiosity, though some far more than others. Hell, does anybody want to sit around day after day doing the same old, same old? I don’t think so. We like to shake things up, at least a little, and add interesting spices to the stew. We can’t help ourselves. I mean, where would we be without curiosity? Stalled, man, stalled, in the pre-civilization eras.

And, come to think of it, that would be okay. Sure, our fair species’ prodigious achievements over the last 10,000 or so years have resulted, in part anyway, from the curiosity genes populating our cells. That’s because curiosity is one of the mothers of invention. But in the process, Planet Earth has been brought to its knees since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Carbon dioxide emissions, depletion of resources and pollution of the waters have done an excellent job of that. Oy vey, to say the least!

Hey, this essay has taken a turn that I wasn’t expecting. Writing can be funny that way. Seeing that I ain’t in the mood for bumming myself out, I’m now going to remove my digits from the keyboard. It’s a bright, sunny morning as I type this paragraph. My lawn needs mowing, and I hear its call.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. I thank you.)

Too Much Stuff? (A Story About The Modern World)

A couple of weeks ago, my fingers quivering with excitement, I began to thumb through the January 14, 2019 issue of The New Yorker magazine, a publication I’ve been subscribing to for eons. Great magazine, where lightweight and goofy forms of content happily share space with heady material.

These days I gravitate to short New Yorker pieces, rather than the lengthy articles that the magazine also serves up. That’s because my attention span over the last 20 or thereabouts years has shrunk like a chilled dick. It was with relish, therefore, that I read an easy-to-manage story (click here to read it) about one Martin Kesselman, a “color consultant to home owners and decorators” (to quote the article). Not long ago Martin co-created what he feels is a perfect shade of white paint. Known as Elliyah, it is named after his daughter. Apparently that shade of white has found good success in the marketplace.

Before you ask what I think you might be all set to ask, read this: “Does the world really need another white? Benjamin Moore has a hundred and sixty-four versions of it, all of which Kesselman sells. But he believes that Elliyah is different.” Those are the words of Patricia Marx, the article’s author. See, she anticipated your question.

Elliyah is different? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But even if it is, how different can it really be from many of the whites available from Benjamin Moore and the world’s other paint manufacturers? Well, maybe that doesn’t matter. After all, we live in expansive times. Hand-in-hand with an exploding human population (it’s pushing eight billion), there have been bigger and bigger demands for products in just about any category you can name. More people equates with more buying, after all. And within each category the number of available items has skyrocketed to the Moon. Hip, hip, hooray! Choice is good, right?

When I was a high school senior, which puts us back in the years 1964 and 1965, I worked part-time at a Bohack supermarket. (Bohack, for you trivia buffs out there, was a chain in the New York City area, where I used to live.) It was an average-size supermarket for its time, maybe 90 feet long on each side. Whatever its dimensions were, they would pale in comparison to the supermarkets of today. I mean, you could probably fit 20 Bohack stores inside the Giant supermarket (a member of an aptly named chain) half a mile from my current home in the Philadelphia suburbs.

The cereal aisle at Giant.

Talk about choice! My local Giant carries so many items, it’s amazing and dizzying. Teas, breads, cereals, cookies, fruit juices, frozen dinners . . . hundreds of feet of shelf space are devoted to pretty much every category. And that’s only to be expected in our Amazonian age of untold options. Do you want to buy a Bulgarian-made desk lamp that doubles as a miner’s cap, or monogrammed bras manufactured in Azerbaijan? After a handful of clicks and other keystrokes, they probably can be yours.

The cookie aisle at Giant.

I sometimes wonder what the avalanche of choices means. Have buyers gone loopy, constantly on the lookout for something new to distract them from our angst-producing world? Are we genetically programmed always to demand more, more, more? Are we just wild and crazy guys and gals, out for a fun time? Whatever the case or cases, manufacturers are more than happy to read our minds, to anticipate our wants and to induce new cravings. Let’s look at cookies — at Oreo cookies specifically — as one of 25,000,000 possible examples. I mean, plain ol’ Oreos weren’t good enough? Now there needs to be white fudge Oreos and chocolate mint Oreos and a half zillion other types of Oreos too? Uh, let me think about that. Okay, I’ve come to a conclusion: Yeah, man, nothin’ wrong with white fudge and chocolate mint Oreos. They’ve got my votes!

The tea aisle at Wegmans.

Let it be said, however, that overall I’m not much of a shopper, at stores or online. But I do like to go food shopping. For one thing, it gets me out of the house, which is a positive. Hell, at home I’m very unproductive, spending 80% of my waking hours scratching my head and my balls. (What, at my advanced age there’s something better for me to do?) At food stores, though, I have a good time and I don’t scratch. Anyway, one day last week I paid visits to my local Giant and to Wegmans, another airplane hanger-sized supermarket. I breezed through their aisles, quickly picking up the items on my shopping list.

Part of the beer section at Wegmans.

But there was one exception to my breezing: At Wegmans I slowed down to smell the roses, alcoholically-speaking, in its beer section. I’m not all that interested in the enormity of choices on our planet for automobiles, smart phones, toothpastes, hot sauces, whatever. Beer, however, is another story. Small, adventurous breweries began popping up left and right in The States and elsewhere around 1990. I got into their products in 1994, on my honeymoon. Ever since then I’ve made it one of my missions to explore the wonderful world of beers, while of course drinking in moderation and while not scratching my head or my balls.

Wegmans’ beer area put a smile on my face the other day, as it always does. It’s colorful, intriguing and worthy of deep investigation. So many choices! What to buy? What to buy? After 20 minutes I opted to go home with a craft-your-own six pack. Before transferring its contents to the frig, I arranged the bottles neatly, asked them to smile for the camera and took their picture. Beer. That’s one category that, for me, never will have too many options.

(As I almost always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Many thanks.)

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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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!

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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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Here Come The Docs (Movies, That Is)

They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere! And I ain’t talkin’ about nail salons or Buffalo chicken wings or right-wing crazies.

Documentaries, that’s what I’m here to discuss. Docs are out there by the thousands, old ones and new ones. You can catch them on the small screen on HBO, SHOWTIME, PBS (NOVA and Independent Lens, are two of its documentary series), CBS (60 Minutes), etc., etc. Not to mention the oceans of docs you might peruse via Netflix.

Now, I’ve seen various documentaries on the tube over the last few years, but I’ve watched more on the silver screen than at home. That’s partly because I haven’t been partial to plopping myself in front of the magic box too much. On the other hand, my cinema attendance always has been robust. Another reason, the more important of the two, is that, starting in the early aughts, many documentaries have found their way into theaters around much of the globe. That’s very true in the Philadelphia region, which I call home. My wife Sandy and I, fans of the genre, approve.

Here’s a cool thing about documentaries, which tend to be low-cost affairs and never rake in dough à la, say, Logan or La La Land: Once in a while one of them will settle into the theatrical marketplace and take nearly forever to depart. In saying this, I have in mind a doc that Sandy and I saw with friends in Philadelphia last November.

The Eagle Huntress, the film to which I refer, opened in The States one month before we viewed it. Remarkably, it’s still in some theaters across this fair land and still in the Top 100 of money grossers, as measured by the fascinating website Box Office Mojo. That’s staying power, folks, that few movies of any sort possess.

A nice movie, The Eagle Huntress spins the tale of a young Mongolian girl who is drawn to the historically male-only endeavors of taming and bonding with eagles and training them to race and to hunt in specific ways. Its central Asian scenery is gorgeous (what’s not to like about deserts and glacial mountains?), and the story line is not your everyday fare. But, to me, the plot didn’t ring quite true. I’m convinced that the final test of the girl’s gifts — to have her eagle chase down and kill a fox on treacherous mountain slopes  — didn’t go as neatly and smoothly as the director hoped for. I believe he’d have stayed out in the wilderness, filming take after take, until the desired outcome was achieved. Otherwise the movie would not have had a clean and tidy ending.

Enough quibbles. On to the three docs that Sandy and I went out to see in the past month: Kedi; In Search Of Israeli Cuisine; and I Called Him Morgan. As with The Eagle Huntress, they are playing here and there in cinemas around the USA and other countries. And if they haven’t yet made their way to Netflix or the like, indubitably they fairly soon will.

In a nutshell, I recommend these movies highly. Kedi tells the tale of street cats (felines, not hipsters) in Istanbul that have developed beneficial relationships with various humans with whom they share space. In Search Of Israeli Cuisine is a flick for foodies and for travel buffs. The goods on display in this movie, and the rural and urban settings in which they are grown, cooked, and consumed, look great. As for I Called Him Morgan, well, it made my knees go weak, as it is about one of my jazz heroes, trumpeter Lee Morgan. It also is about Helen Morgan, Lee’s common-law wife who shot him to death in a Manhattan jazz club in 1972. When Lee passed, the world lost a magnificent talent. He could play like nobody’s business and penned irresistible songs, from the nimble and fleet to the panoramic.

It’s a funny thing about Kedi. Sandy, a cat lover, liked it, but not as much as I did. That’s saying something because I decidedly am not a cat person. You’d have to pay me a few thousand dollars weekly to house one in my abode. But Kedi put me under a spell. I suppose it was the cinematography, more than the story, that got to me. I don’t know where, other than in Kedi, you’re going to see the world from cats’ perspectives. What did the director do, train a coterie of cats to become cinematographers and to follow their feline buddies around town?  Wow, seeing Istanbul from inches above the ground was, I thought, the coolest. On the opposite hand, so were the aerial shots of the city, for which feline cameramen had no input. Those images served no particular purpose, as far as I could tell, other than to look amazing. And amazing they did look.

After viewing In Search Of Israeli Cuisine I started thinking about a movie that hasn’t been made but could be: In Search Of American Cuisine. That is, it’s not easy to define what a nation’s cuisine is. Or was, for that matter. As with most issues and subjects, things often are more complicated than you might at first assume. In the Israeli case, culinary traditions from many dozens of countries and cultures have been brought to, or already existed in, the land of Israel. There they have intermingled, evolved, and been experimented upon. I went into the movie thinking that there would be an emphasis on Eastern European Jewish cooking (brisket of beef, smoked meats, kugels, etc.), but in Israel those dishes are not dominant in the least. Today’s Israeli cuisine draws more from Middle Eastern and North African cultures than from any others. Fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and seafoods are what Israelis, as do many peoples the world over, place into their mouths. I left the movie hungry for grilled fish and for hummus, Israeli staples.

What can I say about Lee Morgan? I’ve been listening to his recordings for almost 50 years. I’ve been in the long-defunct, grubby jazz club, Slugs’, where he was murdered. And for years I’ve wondered about the circumstances that led to his death. Possibly I’m wrong, but it always seemed to me that not much information ever came out about his shooting. If it did, I don’t know where. But now, lo and behold, Kasper Collin, a Swedish director and jazz lover, has seized upon and told Lee Morgan’s story, its bright beginnings and sad ending. But not fully, because that ending does not fit itself into a tight package. It never will be completely understood.

Would you have to be a jazz fan to enjoy I Called Him Morgan? Well, I’m going to say that even the non-aficionado will go for this one. The movie has a brooding, moody quality, especially in the snow-filled wintery sequences leading up to and following Lee’s death. And, in marvelous film clips, it shows off his bristling musical chops. What got to me the most, though, was the telephone interview, captured on cassette tapes, that Helen Morgan gave to Larry Reni Thomas in North Carolina, where she lived after serving hard time in New York for her crime. Thomas, who has worked as a writer, teacher and radio host, conducted the interview in 1996, a few months before Helen’s death. The slow relating of her life story in her creaky voice and her explanations of why she came to pull the trigger were, I thought, the movie’s core and backbone. And maybe its heart. Without the interview there’d have been not much of a movie.

Lee Morgan, famed though he once was (his hard-bopping song The Sidewinder was a pop hit in 1965), has faded into semi-obscurity. I Called Him Morgan might help to reverse that truth a bit.

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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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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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