Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Heat Index

My first experience with spicy food came when I was a youngster.

I was a latch key kid, and that included lunch. My grade school was literally across the street from the house, more or less. So I would let myself in and prepare my own lunch, as early as age 11.

This was circa 1974-75.

Nobody reported my mother to Child Protective Services. I managed to not burn the house down. I'd fix my lunch, eat it, and be back in class on time.

Somehow along the way I have lost that efficiency in my life, but that's another blog post entirely.

The point being, my first encounter with spicy foods came in the form of those Vlasic hot pepper rings in a jar. Again, I was 11 and I started nibbling on those tangy, vinegar-encased yellow rings, usually combining them with a sandwich of some sort.

That was some 40 years ago, and it was way before I discovered Szechuan Chinese food, Indian cuisine and Thai delights.

It was also way before fast food joints and snack manufacturers discovered anything remotely on the warm side, spicy food-wise.

Today everyone is pushing spicy food.

Jalapenos are all the rage now.

Everyone from Frito Lay to Applebee's to Burger King are putting jalapenos in their offerings.

Spicy food is everywhere. Buffalo style (fill in the blank); "bold" menu items; Cajun everything; Thai this and Thai that.

Not that I'm complaining.

My yen for bold, spicy and tangy foods clearly started with those latch key lunches in the mid-1970s. Vlasic hot pepper rings was my first experience. I remember it like a woman remembers her first kiss.

But I eventually had to eat something other than hot pepper rings to satisfy my growing craving.

My mom and I used to eat Chinese food a lot but it wasn't until I went off to college and started working in Ann Arbor that I realized not all Chinese cuisine was of the Cantonese variety.

Spicy Chinese food? Really?

Some co-workers were getting take-out at a Chinese place down the street and it served something called Szechuan, they said. Never heard of it, I replied.

Oh, it's good, they said. Very spicy and hot.

I probably cocked my head, like a bemused dog does.

But I for sure said that I was in on that!


Part of nature's nectar


The food arrived and I'm surprised my taste buds didn't all drop dead of a heart attack.

Never before had they seen anything like Szechuan Chinese food come down my gullet.

What a taste sensation!

So that's when I got hooked on spicy Chinese food (circa 1982). That would change from Chinese to Asian when I discovered Thai cuisine, some five years later.

If I thought Szechuan (and Mandarin) was hot, I had no idea when it came to Thai food.

Thai food was invented for people like me. Intense heat, but still adjustable for individual taste.

Siam Spicy, on Woodward in Royal Oak, gave me my indoctrination to Thai food. I foolishly ordered it "extra hot" on my first visit. I dismissed the sweet waitress's warning.

I should have listened to her.

But that painful (literally) experience didn't dissuade me. I had discovered a treasure trove.

In the early-1990s I found out about Indian food. More delightful salivating ensued.

So here we are today, 40 years after I lost my spicy food virginity, and only now is the food industry catching up.

It's a generational thing, I'm sure.

I was born in 1963. Today's target demographic was born some 20 years after that, and they, as a whole, are more in tune with hot and spicy food.

They are less afraid and more adventurous eaters than the generation preceding them.

The products and menu items today reflect that shift in taste bud stamina. Although when the so-called spicy offerings first started to appear, they weren't nearly hot enough for my liking. Now the heat level is increasing as the demographic is getting younger.

The easiest bet I ever won came some 30 years ago, when a friend wagered that I couldn't eat an entire bag of extra hot potato chips without drinking anything.

I won a case of Molson Brador beer. Like taking candy from a baby.

I still eat hot pepper rings, by the way. Today I call it comfort food.









Friday, February 13, 2015

The Justified Bully

In the 1980s, HBO presented a comedy series called "Not Necessarily the News." In it, pretend anchors used real news clips but altered them for laughs.

Cleverly inserted shots that the HBO show produced, interspersed with the actual clips, would be used for gags.

Of course, the notion of fake news on TV was hardly new at that time. "Saturday Night Live" began the trend in earnest with its signature Weekend Update segment not long after "SNL" debuted in 1975.

While "NNTN" was playful and Weekend Update was very sarcastic, always delivered with a wink and a smirk, there was still further to go in the fake news genre.

Enter Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

Where "NNTN" was produced sporadically and Weekend Update was weekly (during the "SNL" season), "The Daily Show" was exactly that---daily.

But that's hardly where the delineation ended.

"TDS"'s Jon Stewart was not part of a host rotation, like Weekend Update's, which helped make stars out of everyone from Bill Murray to Dennis Miller to Seth Myers.

Weekend Update has always been presented in a breezy five minutes or so, while "TDS" has always been 30 minutes in length.

Stewart is one of two hosts that "TDS" has ever known (Craig Kilborn began when the show began in 1996 and Stewart took over by 1999), and he stunned his audience with the announcement this week that this will be the year that he steps down.

Kudos should continue to go to Kilborn, the ESPN grad whose smarmy delivery would forever brand "TDS," but it was Stewart's intellectually sharp, biting humor and longevity that cemented "TDS"'s perpetual place in television comedy history.

"TDS" has been guested by a gaggle of political figures and other celebrities over the years, many of whom have been eager to share the stage with Stewart and engage in the ensuing repartee.

Such was the popularity of Stewart's show that it spawned spin-offs, like Stephen Colbert's "The Colbert Report" and "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore."

Stewart never hesitated to point out the absurdity and hypocrisy of politics, social issues and celebrity. He used his host's chair as a bully pulpit, but it always seemed that those he bullied deserved it. Stewart possessed the incredibly difficult knack of being biting but not mean-spirited. He never tweaked anyone just for cheap laughs.



I believe that the ability to jab someone in a pointed way but sans brutality added to the humor of "TDS." Stewart was no insult comic---he wasn't Don Rickles sitting behind a desk.

Stewart was so entrenched as "TDS" host that it was easy to forget that he wasn't one of the mainstream news anchors, but instead a gifted comedian and an actor/director whose career on the big screen is nothing to sneeze at either.

Comedians will tell you that the beauty of their craft turns up when their material practically writes itself.

Stewart didn't have to try very hard to pull laughs from the daily headlines; so much of what goes on is good fodder. But that doesn't minimize his contribution to television comedy.

Jon Stewart's "TDS" not only poked fun at the news and newsmakers, it illuminated the injustices, ridiculousness and shamelessness bubbling just below the surface of them both.

Stewart pulled no punches, but at least those he tattooed had it coming.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Death in the Slow Lane

Traditions are terrific things. Whether they run in families, bring together communities or even entire nations, there is no mistaking the notion that honoring tradition is a noble and cozy thing to do, when not misguided.

But let's do away with the funeral procession, shall we?

In simpler, less crowded, less rude times, the funeral procession, particularly when done using the horse and carriage, was a fine way of respecting the newly-deceased.

Today, it's more along the lines of a nuisance and, frankly, it can be dangerous.

The journey from church (or other nonsecular place) to the cemetery or mausoleum can certainly be a somber one. There isn't a limousine leading the way with cans and string attached, with a hand-painted sign that says "Just Died."

So I get it that commuting during an occasion of burial isn't the most pleasant thing in the world. And I have nothing against respecting and honoring the dead.

But the funeral procession has worn out its welcome.

Today, with roads packed more than ever with vehicles, the idea of stringing together dozens of motorists and allowing them to pass through intersections and running red lights with impunity, simply isn't very bright.

It's nothing against the processioners, per se, although there does always seem to be one car that lags behind the rest, creating a potentially dangerous gap. It's more about the rude, disrespectful motorists who aren't part of the procession.

I just don't think we need to drive en masse to a burial.

I think you can give folks the target address and driving instructions and say "We'll see you there."

An exception would be for something more stately, such as the funeral of a police officer or political figure.

If one of the purposes of a funeral procession is to show, in a very visual way, how beloved someone was, I am reminded of some sage words uttered by a wise person.

"The only thing that is going to determine how many people show up to your funeral is the weather."

My inspiration here isn't because I was recently inconvenienced by a funeral procession, though Lord knows that I have been. Nor is it because I have encountered strange and exasperating moments whilst driving in a funeral procession, though I once drove the entire way behind a car with no functioning brake lights (that was fun).

In fact, this really has nothing to do with inconvenience. It has everything to do with practicality and safety.

I don't have the numbers, and maybe they don't bear me out anyway, but I still think that you increase the chances of an accident anytime a funeral procession rolls on by.

Besides, they're depressing.


Enough.


What's a more in-your-face reminder of mortality than watching 30 cars drive slowly by, following a hearse?

I see enough images of death and destruction on TV and the Internet to last me a lifetime, thank you very much.

Would death be any less significant and the occasion of a funeral be any less morose or somber if we stopped traveling to burials in herds?

I recall a stand-up comedian once remarking that as a show of life's cruel irony, the only time you get to drive through red lights and stop signs is when you're dead and can't enjoy the gratification.

Besides, in my non-funeral procession fantasy world, if I really want to drive miles and miles in a tight-knit pack while pumping my brakes, I have that opportunity, twice a day: my commute to and from work.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Kept in the Dark

I think one of the most depressing parts of winter is that we spend it cloaked in darkness.

It's dark when you wake up to get ready for work. The afternoons are often overcast and everyone has to drive with their headlights on. It's dark when you drive home from work. You can go days without seeing any serious sunlight.

In Michigan, you can pretty much put your sunglasses in the drawer in October and not pull them out again until April---if you're lucky.

It's like in wintertime, we've all forgotten to pay the light bill.

That's why, when you get a day of sunshine in the winter, your eyes hurt. You spend the day squinting. Everyone looks like Robert De Niro in every movie in which he's ever appeared.

But there's something called the Winter Solstice, and we actually passed it a few weeks ago---December 21 to be exact. And when you pass the solstice, you're in for longer days, slowly but surely.

When I was a kid, I remember folks talking about December 21 as being "the longest night of the year."

Kids, as we know, tend to take phrases literally. I was no exception. One year, I heard all the blather about December 21's "longest night" and when that night actually came, I thought it would be dark for the whole next day.

The "longest night" aspect, of course, is an astronomical phenomenon rooted in minutes, not hours.

But that's not what kids hear.

So here we are, 23 days past the Winter Solstice and while it's still mostly dark out, the commute home from the office isn't quite as depressing anymore. I take heart in the fact that from this point forward, nightfall stays away a tad longer, day by day.

But it's still dark a lot.


This photo was likely taken at 1:00 in the afternoon during a Michigan winter


I like December 21 in the same vein that I dread June 21, the Summer Solstice.

Because after June 21, the days start to get shorter.

I love it that in the summer, the clock will read 9:25 p.m. and you could still mow the lawn if  you want. There's that much sunlight still available.

But after June 21, sunset creeps closer and closer. It's like a slow water torture.

By August, 8:00 becomes the point where you need flashlights outside. A couple months later, with the leaves on the ground and with more chill in the air, sunlight becomes a precious commodity.

Then we start the whole depressing winter thing all over again.

This blog post may seem like an exercise in futility, because no amount of complaining in the world is going to change the Earth's axis. We can't rally and join hands to make our winter days filled with more sunshine.

But I write this because today it hit me---I made it home after work with a sliver of sunshine left in the sky. It was gone a few minutes later, but this is improvement.

Plus, in Michigan, the longer the days get in the winter, the more we get to see all the snow that needs to be shoveled.

Give and take, you see.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

(Not) Getting Carded

So how many Christmas cards did you get this year?

Are they adorning the wall? Do you have so many that they outline the closet door frame? Or are they stuffed in a holder on the coffee table, bursting?

No?

Not at our house, either.

The Christmas card is a dinosaur---like drive-in movies and transistor radios.

Nobody sends Christmas cards anymore. It's another example of how Americans today just don't like to slap a stamp on anything and ship it via the United States Postal Service.

Sending Christmas cards was a feeling of accomplishment but not of gratification. I mean, you were never there to see the recipient open yours.

But getting Christmas cards? Now that was some fun.

They would start to come, slowly at first, usually the week after Thanksgiving. Those cards were sent by the early bird folks.

But as the month of December moved along, the Christmas cards moved along with it, filling the mailbox more voluminously as the days ticked down toward December 25.

You almost had a mental checklist of from whom to expect cards, and crossing them off as you received them. It was fun to see the different styles, the cozy illustrations and the heartwarming words inside.

Everyday, it seemed, you got at least one card in the mail during December.


This is not a sign of the times anymore

The envelopes usually gave them away: red, of course, and also by shape and size. The electric bill never came in an envelope the size of a good, old fashioned Christmas card.

About 10 years ago, the cards didn't come with the same frequency as in years gone by. It got to the point where the propped open cards could fit on the coffee table without much trouble.

Today, you're lucky if you get ten cards, total. I think we've received about that many, though we sent out far more than that.

However, even our sending has decreased, mainly due to attrition, i.e. people passing away.

That's the thing, right there: the older folks are much more likely to send holiday cards than the second generation of Baby Boomers (those born in the mid-to-late 1960s and beyond). And the older folks are dying off.

The thing now, of course, in the digital age, is to send an "e-card," which is basically an online link that takes the recipient to an animated feature, about 30-45 seconds in length. They're cute and all, but it's not the same.

I can't tape e-cards around my door frame, can I?

It's a losing battle, I know. Christmas card sending isn't coming back. Soon we won't receive any at all.

It's sad, but what are you going to do?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A True Miss America

Today's Miss Americas serve their term and then they're never heard from again. Or so it seems.

There's no prerequisite, of course, that the winner of arguably the most famous beauty contest of all time needs to stay in the limelight when she hands the crown over to her successor.

But there was a time when Miss America was often the springboard to bigger and better (or, at least, more profitable) things.

Mary Ann Mobley was one of those Miss Americas who stuck around in our consciousness long after she sashayed down the runway.

Mobley, 77, passed away the other day after a battle with breast cancer.

She was the first Mississippian to win the legendary contest, and she parlayed that distinction into a pretty decent stage and film career as an actress.

Like so many other women of her era, Mobley was able to star opposite Elvis Presley on screen, and like her brethren, she out-acted him.

Mobley had a smile that went from ear-to-ear and her dark beauty was a stark contrast to the blond, lighter handsomeness of Gary Collins, an actor and game show host (and fellow Mississippian) who she married in 1967.

Mobley captured the Miss America crown in 1959 and six years later she was a winner again---this time with a New Star of the Year Golden Globe.

But despite all her credits on stage and screen (big and small), it was in charitable causes where Mary Ann Mobley was a true Miss America.



She served on several councils and contributed to many charities and her work was exemplified by the naming of a pediatric wing after her, at a hospital in her hometown of Brandon, Mississippi.

Mobley and Collins formed one of television's most well-known couples, particularly in the 1980s. For many years they were both in our living rooms in some way, shape or fashion, with Mobley doing turns on shows like "Falcon's Crest" and Collins chatting up folks on talk shows and helping them win money on game shows.

Mobley was the first woman to be inducted into the University of Mississippi Hall of Fame.

But Mobley's sweet-as-pie good looks and her Mississippian, southern belle demeanor shouldn't have fooled you, because she was also a very competent filmmaker.

You heard me.

For years, Mobley documented the "young victims of war and starvation in places like Cambodia, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan," according to a release from Warner Brothers.

That probably doesn't sound like the Mary Ann Mobley with whom you're familiar.

The Chairman of Miss America, Sam Haskell, sang Mobley's praises after word of her death reached him.

"She challenged me, she loved me, and she made me laugh! I shall miss her!"

Mobley once spoke of her ever active life, when she was knee-deep in acting, fundraisers and volunteer work.
"I'm home about two days a month, and on those I have to pack."

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Alco-Haul

My bar-hopping days are long gone, so maybe I know not of what I type.

So call me naive, but do we need bars to be open until 4 a.m.?

A hurried-through bill by the Michigan State Legislature would allow some bars to stay open until 4 in the morning on weekends.

According to the bill's sponsors, it's a matter of competition.

Senator Virgil Smith (D-Detroit), the bill's sponsor, says the measure is needed so Detroit can compete with other big cities, like New York.

Come again?

We are going after the lush crowd? Tourists will decide their destination based on bars being open further into the wee hours?

Another legislator said that the bill merely gives businesses that serve alcohol the option to stay open later.

"Who are we to tell bars how late they can stay open?" was the quote.

OK.

That seems to be a shocking display of being short-sighted. I mean, we are talking about alcohol consumption here. There figures to be some degree of consequence to this bill, one would think.

As you would imagine, the law enforcement folks aren't crazy about this, for multiple reasons. One is that the 4 a.m. thing just happens to coincide with when police staffing is thin. Another is that those stumbling out of bars and taking to the roads will now start to overlap with the people who leave early for work.

Ah, but there is a financial component to the bill. Money talks, as you know. Usually.

The bill lets bars and restaurants that pay a $10,000 annual fee sell alcoholic drinks until 4 a.m. Eighty-five percent of the money would go to local police, 10 percent to the state Liquor Control Commission and 5 percent to the communities where the permit is issued.

But even though the police are the beneficiaries of the extra cash, they are down on the bill.

What does that tell you?

Why stop at 4 a.m., by the way?

Some bars open as early as 7 a.m., which is a whole other blog post. So those establishments could close at at four and re-open three hours later. Seems kind of silly.

The bill passed in the Senate, 22-14. It now moves to the House.

Supporters like Smith say that the extended hours would help put illegal "blind pigs," which are open past 2 a.m., out of business.

Not so sure about that. Seems to me that blind pig patrons will stay blind pig patrons, for the most part.

Nico Gatzaros, whose family owns Fishbones and the London Chop House, lauds the bill because it will help certain businesses, like taxis.

That reasoning should be filed under the "if you don't laugh, you'll cry" category.

In other words, with this bill, we hope the taxi business booms, driving home the soused.

Nothing from Gatzaros about how he proposes to get the drunks to call a taxi to begin with. Gobs of alcohol isn't exactly a precursor to common sense and wise decisions.

But hey, who is the state to tell bars how late they can serve booze?

It's not like it's a public safety issue or anything.