How to Eat Breakfast

One summer ago, we had our roof re-shingled. Some people call it having a new roof installed. I think that’s a strange saying, because I envision a crew removing the rafters, the physical framework of the upper part of my house. But in this case, they simply mean that the shingles and the underlying protective layer are being replaced. Here in Texas we have extremes in weather, intense sun and heat, high winds, and hail. These elements really do a number on asphalt shingles. We hired a small crew to install the new roof, and they arrived every morning for four days, shortly before sun-up. As soon as there was a hint of daylight, several men, and one woman, were on our roof, stomping around, dragging cases of shingles and tools across its surface. There was no way to sleep through this.

I was never what you would call a “morning person.” I typically spend late nights working on little projects, writing, sometimes playing video games. Occasionally I stay up late with work. But I’ve always found something to keep from going to bed at a decent hour. But then here came these roofers, plodding riotously just above my head. Since there is a logical flow of events beginning with the emergence of daylight and culminating with the clamor of office work – phones ringing, chatter, and the tell-tale nervous laughter of hyperextended workaholics – once awake, I needed to get up. That time in between, this morning Thoreau spoke of, is meant to be relished, accepted with joy and dare I say, exhilaration, because morning is truly inspiring. Just ask all those dead poets and philosophers. Yeah, I thought so.

Inasmuch as I am a night owl, mornings do hold a certain mystique that I am still learning to appreciate. Things happen in the morning that you cannot reenact. One of these is breakfast. Breakfast, from the late Middle English for break and fast, in other words, a meal following a brief fasting period, albeit only 10 hours or so, is truly intended for mornings. I’ve had breakfast foods – omelette, waffles, etc. – at various times of the day and night. Yes, night. Something about IHOP at 11:30 pm is just kind of cool, or dorky.

My wife and I, therefore, were compelled to have breakfast together each morning. And even though this clamor of rooftop ballet lasted only a few days, we have continued to make and eat breakfast together every morning ever since. Breakfast in the US usually consists of eggs and bacon or ham. Some prefer pancakes. Our regimen includes oatmeal with fruit, coffee, and grapefruit juice. I prefer steel cut oats, but they take 30 minutes to cook. We sit at the kitchen table and actually talk about things – the expectations of the impending day, weird dreams we might have had, stuff we want to share – and we eat said breakfast.

I used to say that I didn’t have time for this, even though the idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day has been drilled into my consciousness for decades. Whether or not this is true, the ritual of sharing a morning meal has enriched my life. We carry it into the weekend, where additions are afforded, like sausages and eggs. on rare occasions, waffles. Each morning, preparations are made, and time is carved out for the spectacle. We talk about what’s going on with us, what plans we’ve made for the day. We compare schedules and talk about upcoming events. Quickly then, we clean up, and I get ready to leave. But I’m not in a hurry because I’ve carved out this time. It’s our time, not theirs. And that’s the beauty of breakfast.

I know very few people who have this luxury. But I see it as a necessity. Not the food, but the time spent relaxing and enjoying it; the ritual, the act of breaking bread. My perspective has in turn made it less of a luxury and more of a right, a privilege. I feel entitled to having a meal. I mean, food is a human necessity. Why do we feel we have to defend ourselves for making time to eat? I see my coworkers actually skipping lunch because of work. They say they have no time to take a lunch break. Not only is this absurd, but it is actually in violation of OSHA standards. There’s that precious time, that elusive time, the subject of many poems and songs. Why do we deny ourselves what is our fundamental right?

I still don’t think of myself fully as a morning person. Caffeine is a main source of my morning energy. But I have become somewhat of a creature of the morning now. The night still calls me, but lately I’ve found I actually look forward to sleep, and the following morning with that reward of coffee and and English muffin. Suddenly, the night has less appeal. It’s strange to see such a change in oneself. But these things happen. And I don’t lament saying goodnight to my old ways.

Is it Safe?

I was in a restaurant the other day when I caught a whiff of ammonia as one of the employees was spraying Windex liberally on tables and other surfaces to clean them after diners left. The whole place smelled of ammonia, and the fumes irritated my eyes and my throat. I mentioned it to a friend who told me it wasn’t such a big deal, and they needed to disinfect the tables after people ate there. I reminded my friend that you can disinfect using distilled vinegar. He said he didn’t like the smell. Okay, but the “smell” is not a toxic compound produced the chemical giants like P&G or Dow. White or distilled vinegar, among other varieties, are not only nontoxic, but you can actually ingest them in small quantities without any harmful reaction. The fact is, I make glass cleaner from an ingredient I could use in salad dressing. And it has been shown to be an effective disinfectant. Plus, it’s cheaper.

Chlorine is also widely used in restaurants as a cheap disinfectant. I admit it is quite effective in preventing the spread of bacteria like salmonella. For the kitchen and restrooms this is perfectly acceptable in protecting the public from harmful pathogens, and restaurant staff should take such measures after the establishment is closed for the night. Exposing patrons to ammonia or chlorine is potentially problematic, but if these chemicals are combined, the results can be quite toxic, and the combination should be avoided in all circumstances. I think it’s fine to mop the kitchen and dining room with a bleach water solution after closing time. A little chlorine goes a long way. Ammonia as a glass cleaner is not absolutely necessary. See this California Childcare Health Program article for more information.

I routinely clean my house with non-toxic solutions. I make a glass and surface cleaner from a mixture of distilled vinegar, water, and a drop or two of mild dish soap. This is surprisingly effective in cleaning dirt and residue from surfaces. I use other less-toxic solutions for disinfecting, and I use chlorine-based cleaners for sanitizing the bathroom fixtures and the kitchen sink. I’m kind of a stickler about what can be called “clean”. I eat off dishes that I consider clean, and I generally do not use bleach to get to that level of cleanliness. But if I were to eat mac & cheese off my kitchen floor, you’d better believe I’m going to scrub that son of a bitch down. Is it largely psychological, the fact that my dishes are not nearly as clean as my floor, and yet I find it repugnant to eat off the floor? Yes, I’m sure of it. I will not be dining dal pavimento anytime soon.

In the meantime, I’m comfortable cleaning with my vinegar solution. Ammonia is overkill, and it makes my eyes and throat sting. Oh, did I mention that my wife has multiple chemical sensitivity? Some people don’t believe this is real, but besides any doubt many people have, there is no denying that chemicals are used in increasing quantities and concentrations. The unfortunate side effect to the public is becoming desensitized to these harmful agents, except for the growing number who for unexplained reasons become more sensitive to them. Living in a toxin-free environment (or as close to one as I can be in the 21st century) has made me more aware of the onslaught of chemicals encountered in the supermarket. I think I was not aware how noxious the detergent aisle was until recently. Meanwhile, vinegar doesn’t bother me at all.

Some of my ancestors lived beyond 105 years. And that was before anyone knew about microorganisms. They did not have modern cleaning products in the 18th century, and yet they lived ostensibly healthy lives. Of course this is not to say that people in the 18th century didn’t contract illnesses due to bacterial infections. But maybe people had higher resistance to germs because they didn’t use hand sanitizer every fifteen minutes. I think we are so afraid of getting sick, we are in danger of making ourselves more guarded against the bug. Perhaps we can embrace it. Just don’t get too complacent.

So for the time-being, I hope restaurants would at least stop exposing people who are trying to eat to harmful chemicals. You can still douse the tables and booths with super-concentrated Clorox after everyone has left. Just use the buddy system in case you get a little too much of a good thing. Or better yet, think of alternative cleaning methods.

 

Summer Fête

Summer is in full swing. As it is July in Texas, summer has been upon us for many weeks already. And since there was no true winter in 2015-2016, that is, nothing froze. The air temperature got below zero* a few times, but the ground didn’t freeze. Therefore, we have an abundance of insect life here in the suburbs this summer. But this also means that there is plenty to eat for other creatures, and for the creatures that feed on those smaller creatures, and so on. Thus the so-called “food chain” of which humans believe they are not a part.

Summer means vacations for some. Others choose not to travel during summer, people like me and my wife. We don’t have children, so we travel when it is convenient for us. It’s little consolation, but there it is. Summer is a time for barbecuing, picnicking, and going to the pool. There are many sights, smells, and sounds that go along with the season. Today on KERA, during “Anything“, a listener wrote that she had moved to Texas a few months ago and wondered when the cicada noise would come to an end. Jeff Whittington, the program’s host, blithely, and with a little schadenfreude, welcomed the listener to Texas, adding that this “noise” was more symphonic than discordant, at least to the locals’ ears. After some time you are able to tune out the cacophony.

Jeff also mentioned that this year was not as bad as others in terms of the cicada serenade. He’s probably right. I can’t imagine a summer without them, their near constant buzzing and whining from the trees. The noise seems to stop during thunderstorms and at night. But since the sun sets late in the evening this time of year, you still hear them singing until nearly 9:00 pm. It’s then that the crickets take over until dawn.

I like to hear kids playing in the neighborhood. They play basketball in the street until it gets dark, and it reminds me of days when my friends and I would play baseball or Wiffleball at all hours. The neighbors probably hated us. During the day you rarely see people out on the sidewalks. It’s not that it’s hotter in North Texas than anyplace else – I think it was 50ºC in Fallujah last week – but we’re used to air-conditioned space now, and people are a little wussified when it comes to sweating. But this weekend, this Independence Day weekend, people will be outdoors. There will be concerts, parties, picnics, barbecues, and of course fireworks.

I love watching fireworks. Years ago, I enjoyed setting them off. But fires ensued, and things could have gotten way out of control. So we stopped with the fireworks. But it was a lot of fun, and every time I smell powder and sulfur burning, it takes me back. Not everyone likes that, I understand. Maybe it’s just me. The smell of charcoal is another favorite. I also like the way cut grass smells. And the combination of coconut oil and chlorine. I love summer.

I like the heat. Many people do not. I like it when it gets over 30ºC. Like certain plants, I need warmth. I’ve been known to enjoy a day of 40º or higher. Keep the ice cold drinks coming, and give me a hat, and I can stay out in the heat for hours. Something a little salty, too, to help keep me hydrated. You have to watch yourself. Dehydration can sneak up on you. If you stop sweating, get hydrated and cool off fast. Don’t stay in direct sunlight for long periods. And wear a hat, if you are balding, like me.

Enjoy your summer. Really live it up, because in a few months it will be time to elect our next leader. You will need to be prepared. So have a cold one, get the grill fired up. Go to a ball game. And take it easy.

Think Metric

 

Gastronomique

I am a man of passion. I am passionate about language. I have a passion for art, particularly photography. And I am passionate about cooking. I love to cook. But it goes well beyond a fondness for making meals. Since I was very young, I have had a yearning to create things. And for me cuisine provides the best palate: the human senses of taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing. When you combine all these in various aspects, you can create something that is not achievable from the sum of these senses. A photograph only appeals to one’s sight. Music is often only perceived by the ears, but sometimes it is seen and heard. But when we eat we experience something more.

When you peel open a navel orange, the zest bursts forth its oily essence, releasing the unique properties for your olfactory receptors. That, combined with the juicy flesh of the fruit, awakes the senses, bringing together the sight, smell and taste. Texture is a part of the experience, too. And let’s not forget about the sound the peel makes as you tear it open. You might have to really pay attention to get all five components. Maybe we are in too much of a hurry when we eat to take notice. It is easy to blame the fast food industry for this catastrophe, but we are also partly to blame. Humans are pre-programmed to crave fat and salt. We can’t help it, and so when offered the choice, it takes a lot more than willpower to resist it.

Why do we eat, really? I guarantee it is not just for sustenance. Our ancient ancestors did forage all day, hunting for meat and hides to cover their bodies, and eating whatever they could catch. They had to do this to survive, but then they discovered cultivation. They settled in one place, formed civilizations, and the rest, quite literally, is history. So when did we go from eating to survive to making meals more significant? Well, it probably happened about the time that grain was harvested and stored. Eventually, someone figured out that you could make stuff with it. Once mixed with naturally-occurring yeast, humans had discovered beer and leavened breads. And there was much rejoicing.

Actually, cooking has been around a lot longer than agriculture. Prehistoric peoples, I am sure as soon as they discovered how to make fire, began to cook food. It must have been that it improved the taste and texture, because it’s hard to imagine that they were concerned about microbes. But we may never really know. About 80 thousand years later gastronomy evolved. Ancient Egyptians have been credited with inventing beer. They at least learned how to cultivate grain and turn it into bread. This was a game-changer for civilization.

Now, 6000 years later, we have evolved again, with the advent of molecular gastronomy, featuring dishes like “carrot air” and Massimo Buttura‘s “Five Stages of Parmigiano Reggiano”. These dishes typically push the envelope of texture and visuals, but I don’t know if the flavor has been improved. Also, the price has increased exponentially. Of course, we get what we pay for. You can live on canned beans and powdered milk, if you want to call that “living.”

My passions lie in the making of simple dishes, actually. Lentil stew, baguettes, roasts, fricassee. Some would call it peasant food. Massimo says, “when you ask Italians where to get the best food, they say, ‘Mama’.”

Well, I’m off to the market to get some fresh thyme for my Superbowl Chicken. Go Broncos!

Food: the Bad, and the Ugly

Topic number 2 from 642 Things to Write About is to identify the worst Thanksgiving dish I’ve ever tasted. Well, I tend to cook Thanksgiving dinner for a lot of people every year, so without trying to sound smug, I don’t usually screw it up (okay, I tried). I posted about my feelings for this holiday a while back. And now that spring has arrived, I thought it a little strange to revisit fall. As for the worst dish I’ve ever had, I’m not very picky. I consider myself gourmand as much as gourmet. But, I have to say the worst thing I’ve ever eaten is a McDonalds chicken sandwich that I had several years ago. The “meat” was hideously overcooked, lacking any hint of flavor. The bread was very stale, most likely frozen at some point. And the texture of the sandwich was entirely – well, gross.

Now, I’ve had some kitchen mishaps. I over-cooked some miniature eggplants once, and I tossed out a casserole that went horribly wrong, much to the shock of everyone in the house. Sorry. You may have discerned that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Note that I do not take pride in this; I simply acknowledge my faults like my hubris regarding my own cooking. I’ve been guilty of refusing to let guests help me cook. Actually, it feels weird for someone to ask if there’s something they can do when I invited them to let me make them a meal. Of course there is some pride. But I am improving.

Humility is like medicine. It’s unpleasant, but it heals. Realizing that I can, and do, make mistakes, and that there is always someone better than I, has helped me more than any self-help DVD or motivational speaker or scripture verse. We don’t like looking as if we don’t know what we’re doing. No one likes to be humbled, but without the experience, you are left with nothing but the shell of conceit.

I’m still working on technique and timing. Timing is almost as important as the ingredients themselves. Bring eggs and milk to room temperature. Grow fresh herbs rather than using dried, if possible. Use fresh tomatoes instead of canned. Simple things make a big difference. In olden times, people went to the market daily because refrigeration was not available. That meant that meat and milk and eggs and vegetables were consumed closer to their point and date of origin. These days, one can still find farmers markets, and we might have the illusion of “farm fresh” produce, whatever that means. But it will never again be like what our great-grandparents knew. Those days are gone, unless you move to a kibbutz.

Insist on food with flavour. Don’t settle for fast-food insult. Our bodies are not evolved to accept the toxins in processed foods, and something’s gotta give. A little pride is in order. If you’re going to make a sandwich, make it the best damned sandwich you ever had. Make mealtime about the food. Otherwise, why bother?

Thanksgiving

Every year on the fourth Thursday of November people in the States celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. In 2013, it will be on 28 November. In the late 16th century, Puritans and others fleeing a volatile political environment back home left England to establish settlements in the New World where they could retain their cultural identity and heritage. These pilgrims faced difficult times in their new home in what is now Massachusetts. The conditions were harsh, food was not abundant, but the indigenous peoples of the Wampanoag tribe were helpful, and the settlers survived. As a result, the first Thanksgiving is commemorated with depictions of early European “Pilgrims” and Native Americans enjoying a feast together. It’s possible that this event actually took place, but it doesn’t matter to 21st-century Americans – I mean North Americans, and specifically, people in the US in this context. Canada’s Thanksgiving is in October.

Thanksgiving here in this country is celebrated pretty much the same, with roasted turkey stuffed with bread and fruit, cranberry sauce, gravy, potatoes, and pumpkin pie. Naturally, this is not universal. My brother and his girlfriend are vegans, and I am interested to know what delicacies they’re planning for the day. It hardly matters what is served, because the holiday is all about giving thanks.

The Thanksgiving Square Chapel in Dallas, Texas<br />© 2011 Chris Zuniga Photography
The Thanksgiving Square Chapel rises above the strangely serene park and water garden in the center of Dallas.

The original settlers to New England were profoundly religious – maybe more so than we are here in the Bible Belt – and so their celebration was undoubtedly in giving thanks to God for the abundance of their harvest. Nowadays, for most of us, food is plentiful, but many people pause to acknowledge that things could be far worse. Along with the obscene amount of food being served is the traditional football game. I’m talking about American football – traditionally, games involving the Dallas Cowboys or the Detroit Lions. The game is televised nationally, and the halftime show in recent years has been a bawdy spectacle with pyrotechnics. Back in the days of Tom Landry, when the Cowboys played in that eyesore that was Texas Stadium, I had the privilege of playing in the Thanksgiving Day Game halftime show as a member of the East Texas State University (now Texas A&M – Commerce) marching band. Our show was not particularly entertaining, featuring music of the heady, orchestral score from the film Henry V. For a marching band show, it was awful and over-reaching. But it was Thanksgiving, and the Cowboys were having possibly their worst year ever, except that they won more games than they would in the following, reorganizing, post-Landry years. So, there I was, playing in a dull show, for a mediocre, albeit professional team, in a derelict stadium on Thanksgiving. But, you know, I had a great time.

My friends and family on Facebook have started to count down, with expressions of thanks for whatever they are grateful for each day. It’s different for everyone. Most are thankful for their kids. It resonates with me differently because I have seen relatively hard times, and things have been better than they are now. But that’s life, and most of us can find something to be thankful for. Am I thankful for the bad times as well as the good? My wife taught me to think that way. It’s not easy. How are we to give thanks for things that bring us pain or grief? Maybe those moments, ordeals and trials, are part of our unique makeup. Yes, I could say that I am what I am because of the trouble I have faced. But it’s not intuitively obvious for me to be grateful for being bullied, or for never having children. So I struggle with that one. Moving on.

Thanksgiving has become kind of a holy day for me. It does not actually meet the criteria for a holy day in most religions, but I am a heretic, so, there. To me, Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays in the US that has resisted being overly commercialized, to the extent that people are not compelled to purchase extravagant gifts for one-another as is the case with Christmas and Valentine’s Day. But so much commerce is staged with Thanksgiving as its centerpiece. We have “Black Friday”, where sales begin at the stroke of midnight. But, lately, some retailers have been opening their doors in the evening on Thanksgiving. And people can’t wait to start their Christmas shopping. Except, now, there’s Cyber Monday, where online retailers offer even better deals. But even with all this commercialism, Turkey Day still seems to have held some reverence with its modern-day pilgrims. Everyone in this country probably remembers some tradition in their family, if they had one. Even homeless shelters have a special dinner on that day for their residents. And in the midst of the disparity between those who have plenty and those who have nothing, people still hold onto the notion of that first Thanksgiving of legend.

This year, we were planning to travel to see my 93-year-old grandmother, my aunts, uncles, and cousins for Thanksgiving. But things didn’t go as planned. Even so, my local fam will certainly appreciate that we are staying. If I may be immodest for a moment, my croissants are excellent, and I cook a pretty good bird. What this day means to me is beyond words. It’s more than the food and the gathering of family. I think of that Norman Rockwell painting, titled “Freedom From Want”, depicting a typical (white) American family, gathered around a table in anticipation of what, for some, could be considered a modest feast. But the sentiment expressed here is more to the point. Everyone at that table looks absolutely joyful. What more needs to be said? This embodies what we all hope or are nostalgic for. But for those who have something close to this ideal, you should be grateful. Give thanks. If you believe in God, thank him. If you’re not sure what you believe, thank the people who worked to provide that moment, from the farm workers who raised the turkey (or whatever) to the employees in the supermarket who stocked the shelves. Thank your neighbors and friends. Thank the firefighters who are working every holiday. Thank the gas station employees. Thank your parents. If you have nothing to be thankful for, be thankful for the nothingness.

I wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving. Lately, I’m thinking of the people of the Philippines, who are currently homeless, starving, and have no fresh water. Please go to http://www.charitynavigator.org/ for  information on which charities are serving the affected region. Be thankful for something, and forgive my sentimentality. I love the season.