Category Archives: Food

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The Trip to Italy Episode 4: Florence and the Three Davids

Before we visited Italy, I didn’t have much interested in going to Florence. I would have ranked Florence, Italy, as my third- or fourth-favorite Florence, behind Florence Henderson (Carol Brady in “The Brady Bunch”), Florence and the Machine (British indie rock), and maybe Florence Nightingale (sure, she basically created the whole field of modern nursing in the Victorian age, but what has she done in the last 120 years?).

Way back in Rome, on the first day of our guided tour, the 26 of us sat in a circle on a rooftop deck at our hotel and named the one thing we were looking forward to doing on this trip. The vast majority chose the Cinque Terre. There were some votes for Tuscany, wine, food, and some of the sights of Rome. (I said that we left our kids behind with my in-laws, so the rest of the trip was gravy for me.) Exactly zero people mentioned anything in Florence as their top choice.

But then we got there. And it was spettacolare! 

Before we arrived, though, we had one last trip on the luxury tour bus. Every time we got on the bus, our guide would balance letting us snooze with lecturing us on any topic that popped into his head. We’d be cruising along the Autostrade, in and out of sleep, when the intercom system would click on and he’d start speaking in a voice-of-God manner: “Let’s devote some time to the history of Tuscan cuisine.” And off he’d go. Sometimes he would provide us with our room numbers for the upcoming hotels, but usually he’d stare out the front windshield, not even checking if any of us were awake, and ramble on about Italian politics, history, art and architecture, wine and cheeses, etc. He loved giving Italian language lessons: “Lesson one: Grazie does not rhyme with Yahtzee. It’s three syllables: Grot-see-ay.” He’d point out sights from the window: “There’s Andrea Bocelli’s childhood home;” “Those are the mountains where Cararra marble is harvested;” “There’s Pisa, see the leaning tower?”

He surprised us on that last bus ride with a stopover at something none of us knew had even existed: the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, the last resting place for over 4,300 U.S. military dead. We spent an hour walking around the hillside 70 acres of headstones, and our guide filled in for the cemetery superintendent to provide us with a history lesson on the Allied invasion of Italy, a mission that happened a year before the Normandy invasion and offered lessons on how to better prepare for that excursion. (The superintendent was not available for anything other than a quick 5-minute talk because he was with family members of a soldier buried there, and that’s his first priority.) Humbling and quieting.

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Poor Duplo! I never got to taste your sweet goodness in your true form! (I did lick the melted chocolate off the wrapper, but I’m sure it wasn’t the same.)

Before we stopped there, we had made a pitstop at a rest area, and I bought an Italian candy bar, the Ferrero Duplo Nocciolato, a chocolate-covered hazelnut candy bar. I stuck it in my pocket and got back on the bus. “Aah,” I said to my lovely wife Jen, “time to enjoy a little Italian sweetness.” She said, “Um, no, you have to wait until we get off the bus. No food on the bus!” I looked at the other bus riders: they were busy passing around bags of m&ms and packages of biscotti, chocolate and crumbs spilling on the floors, and sloshing their coffees all over the seats. But sure, we’ll be the rule followers here. “When can I eat it?” I asked. “When we get to the cemetery.” That’s ridiculous, I thought, and maybe a little disrespectful to eat at a cemetery. But I waited anyway.

So after we toured the cemetery, I said to Jen, “Now?” She gave me the nod. I opened the packaging, and as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of what happens to a chocolate bar kept in one’s pocket for 90 minutes (did I mention it was 80 degrees out? Sorry, I should say 27 degrees Celsius for you Europeans, meaning really hot), It was a melted, yucky mess. “Gosh, that looks awful,” Jen said. “You probably should have eaten it earlier.” Oh, you think? Thanks a lot, lady! You’d think that would be the last time I listen to her about food. You’d be wrong. (See the bollito sandwich section below.)

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I was trying to get a shot of the pizza place in the background, but this gorgeous Italian bride and her groom had to ruin the photo. Thanks a lot, Florentines!

One thing you notice when you arrive in Florence is the lack of autos. The roads are narrow, cobblestoned, winding, and clogged with walkers. Our bus had to drop us off a few blocks from the hotel because it was too wide for the hotel’s street. (Rolling Thunder 2018 was back! The tour group’s wheeled suitcases were put to good use on this trip.) The city center purposely makes it a hassle for drivers: the only vehicles allowed on the streets are taxis, limo services, some tour buses if they are dropping off passengers, police, and delivery vehicles. It’s bizarre to be in a city that prioritizes pedestrians. You’d be walking, and you’d feel something hovering behind you: there would be a taxi or three, silently and patiently creeping behind you. But nobody honks. I got the feeling that if a driver honked at walkers, he’d be pulled from his car and beaten with slabs of prosciutto by a crowd of angry Florentines.

Our hotel was 720 years old. It was called the Torre Guelfa, or the Guelph Tower, named of course for the centuries-long power struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, two factions in Italy that argued about the supremacy of the Pope vs. the Holy Roman Emperor. (It’s not often that a hotel promotes its charming, welcoming aspects with the words “papal supremacy.”) It was imposing, with a tower that can be accessed by a steep staircase with amazing panoramic views of Florence. It was very dark; I pulled the drapes back in our room and it seemed as if I was the first to do it since the 1500s. Plus, bonus, there was this wide, square staircase that went up and up with an opening in the center, where a glass elevator shaft was added; I kept waiting to see Jason Bourne either ride a motorcycle down the stairs or jump to the elevator shaft and slide down the side of it.

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View of Florence from the Altrarno neighborhood.

The first thing we did when we hit town was head out in search of these special Florentine sandwiches at the Mercato Centrale. Our guide suggested we go there for shopping and lunch, and if we were brave enough, he recommended a certain deli counter that had two particular sandwiches: the bollito and the lampredotto. We kept hearing people say that Tuscany is known for its meats, and Florence is known for its own particular meats. (Town motto: “Florence: Come for the Meats, Stay in a Papal-Supremacy Hotel!”) Here’s what you need to know about the bollito: it means, roughly, “boiled meat,” and as far as anyone would tell us, it’s the meat from the back-fat of a cow. But it could be any meat from anywhere (on, I guess, any animal). It’s sort of like roast beef. And the lampredotto: that means “like a lamprey eel,” but it’s actually (are you ready for this?) the fourth and final stomach of a cow, sliced up and cooked in a broth. I don’t know why the “and final” part is added to the description of the cow stomach from which it is taken; does that make it more appealing? “Oh, it’s the fourth and final stomach of the cow? Give me two!”

We walked around the market; the first floor was concrete-floored, lots of meat and fish counters, many other food products, and generally a little dirty/gritty. There’s one counter that everyone gravitates toward, like flies to a rotting carcass. (“Rotting meat carcass” would be another accurate translation of “bollito.”) Jen said, “Why don’t you get the bollito and I’ll get the lampredotto?” I said okay, not so much because I was looking forward to the bollito but because I was starving and it sounded better than the fourth (and final!) cow stomach.

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Our first glimpse of Michelangelo’s David.

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This David statue is a Goliath! (Heyo, Biblical humor!)

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This guy really doesn’t have a bad angle.

Here’s the problem with being from the Chicago area: I know what a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich tastes like. (Shout out to Little Joe’s in LaGrange for one of the best!) The bollito that I had tasted like…boiled meat. It was okay. Then Jen said, “I can’t finish my lampredotto; do you want some?” I should have said no, but we were in Florence, other tourists were eating it, so I thought why not. This is why not: I couldn’t chew the stomach meat or fat or folds, whatever they were, enough to get them to a small-enough chunk to swallow. I’ve never gagged on a food before, but I couldn’t choke this stuff down. If you visit any food-centric website discussing Tuscan cuisine, they all mention the lampredotto and the bollito and how this “authentic Florentine street food” is a must. I’m here to tell you, however, that it’s okay to say, “No thanks, I’m saving room in my first (and only) stomach for the gelato.

Florence is easily walkable, and we were getting better at not getting lost in Italy. We walked with purpose back from the Mercato Centrale to the hotel and definitely got lost, but since we knew our hotel was near the Arno River, we pushed onward until we hit a body of water, hoping that it wasn’t the Mediterranean (which is 92 kilometers away, so that would have been embarrassing).

Our morning walk brought us to the Piazza della Signoria, the heart of Florence. This square has some impressive sights in it: the Palazzo Vecchio (the “old palace”), which is the town hall; the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is a triple-arched alcove containing an open-air sculpture gallery containing a dozen or more statues from up to 500 years ago; and, on the corner, the Uffizi (“Offices”) Gallery, a museum housed in the Medici family’s former offices. As our guide pointed out sights and we walked toward the palazzo, I couldn’t help but noticing…wait, that can’t be…is that…Michelangelo’s statue of David in the front of the palazzo?!? What the heck? I thought it was in a museum somewhere!

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At Piazza della Signoria, with the creepy Cellini statue showing Perseus with the head of Medusa. Note the replica statue of David in front of city hall in the background.

Turns out the original is in a museum somewhere, which we’d be visiting the next day. This replica stands, however, in the exact spot where the statue first stood in 1504. The original was moved indoors in 1873 to the Accademia (“Academy”), after having suffered a broken toe, a broken finger on the right hand, damage to the base from lightning, and, not surprisingly considering Italian politics, an arm broken off in three pieces when rioters occupied city hall and threw furniture out the windows at it.

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Our first glance at the Duomo, behind the nave and the bell tower. A few days later, we climbed to the top of that sucker; if you look closely, you can see people at the railing, just above the orange of the roof tiles. If you listen closely, you can hear a few of them screaming, “Get me the frick off this thing before it collapses!”

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The narrow staircase between the two domes to get to the top. Whose idea was this?!? (Hint: not mine.)

We continued our walk to the Duomo (officially the “Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or “Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower”). Fun fact about Florence: nearly all of their most-visited sites have boring names: the Dome, the Offices, the Academy, the Old Bridge, the Old Palace. Anyway, the cathedral and its dome are so remarkable that it’s hard to peel your eyes off of them. The architectural specifics behind the construction of the dome are fascinating, and not to get too much into the science of it here (because I have no idea what I’m talking about, even after reading the Wikipedia entry about it), but basically, the Italians had forgotten the technique by which the ancient Romans had built domes such as Hadrian’s Pantheon (I talked about it way back in my Rome post), and the concern was that no self-supported dome would stand. The original architect for the dome, di Cambio, proposed his plan in the 1200s, then died before any work was begun. About 200 (!) years went by before anyone else decided to take a crack at it. Enter Filippo Brunelleschi in the 1400s. He worked out the math behind it, creating an inner and an outer dome, called upon his friend Donatello (of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fame) to build a wood-and-brick model with him to explain it, and only 60 short years later, the dome was completed.

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This walkway on the inner ceiling of the dome leads to the last, curved staircase to the overlook. Jen: “Only 15 more minutes to the top!”

We visited the dome and church several times over the next few days, including climbing between the two domes to the top of it. For those of you who are afraid of heights and also don’t trust the laws of physics and math, I would suggest not squeezing your way up the 463 steps to the top of the dome and outside to the viewing area. It was dizzying. Also, on the inside, at one point you walk along the inner side of the dome and see, worryingly, massive cracks in the ceiling of the dome. Our guide said that engineers don’t really know what’s happening or how to counteract it, so it’s best if we visit it while it’s not under renovation (or collapsed). So we spent a good 10 minutes on the top, looking over the whole city, while in my head I was having a mini panic attack and was ready to get the frick off of it as soon as Jen was ready.

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Me at the top of the Duomo. I just kept telling myself, “I’m brave like a Spaniard!”

One night, we had another outstanding, one-of-a-kind view of Florence, this time from the tower back at our papal-supremacy hotel. Halfway up the walk to the tower, there was a tiny bar with beers and wines that you had to carry the rest of the way up yourself. There were about five tables on the open-air rooftop; we spent a pleasant hour there chatting with our tour mates before heading down for bed.

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View from our hotel’s tower. Those Guelphs really knew where to place their papal-supremacy hotels.

The second full day in Florence, we visited The Accademia (so called because it’s a gallery connected to an art academy), where Michelangelo’s original David now stands. It really is incredible to approach this perfect-human-specimen statue down a long corridor, be able to walk around it, and study it closely from any angle. You notice the veins on David’s arms and how realistic his muscles look. Of course, for me it was like looking in a mirror. People would say, “This is amazing!” and I’d reply, “I know! How lucky Jen must be to look at a body like this every day!” Then they’d walk away slowly as I stared off into space, smiling at my own humor.

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Carabe! Nothing like a tasty gelato to clear the palate of the lampredotto.

Our guide had suggested two gelaterias in Florence: Gelateria Edoardo, near the Duomo, where there was always a long line, and Carabe, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shop a little bit harder to get to near the Accademia. Most of the people on our tour chose Edoardo because it was easy to find; Jen was feeling confident about our chances of finding Carabe (mostly because we already stumbled upon it while leaving the Accademia). I can’t speak about Edoardo because we skipped it, but Carabe was out of this world. So good. We went back the next day. It was definitely the best gelato we would have in the whole country. The flavors were inventive, the creaminess was tongue-pleasing, and I am starting to sound like a snob describing it so I will stop. Just, if you find yourself in Florence for any reason, seek it out. And tell them the Spaniard sent you.

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She wasn’t even this happy on our wedding day.

There were tons of leather shops in Florence. (Not those kinds of leather shops, you sickos.) Our guide, who had misled me about finding wood and alabaster in Florence, was right about one thing: if you like shopping, Florence will please you. High-end retailers, the world’s best clothiers, jewelers along the Ponte Vecchio, and, if you’re into cheap leather goods, so much leather. There was one shop across the street from our hotel. And when I say “across the street,” the street was only about 10 feet wide, so we’re talking within spitting distance (but don’t spit in Florence, that’s rude). Jen kept circling back to the window every time we passed. I knew where this was heading. “Hey,” she said casually one evening, “maybe we should pop in there and take a look. You know, for souvenirs for the kids.” Sure, for the kids. I was on to her. Ten minutes and one fancy leather strapped shoulder bag later, we left with one thing for her and zero things for the kids.

Two other great museums that we saw: the Uffizi and the Museo del Duomo. The Uffizi was crowded with paintings by Renaissance Masters. I couldn’t spin a fancy leather bag above my head without hitting a Renaissance painting. (Seriously, I couldn’t. Their crack security squad wouldn’t let me.) I’d turn a corner and be like, “Hey, it’s Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” or, “Oh, look, there’s another da Vinci/Titian/Caravaggio/Bronzino,” etc. There were almost too many great paintings that it got boring. Just kidding, it was awesome.

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In the Museo dell’Opera, original statues from the exterior of the Duomo and cathedral.

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Jen in Florence. Looking like the Spaniard that she claims to be.

Jen and I ducked into the Museo del Duomo, which a lot of our fellow tour mates were skipping. It’s next door to the Duomo and is devoted to the construction and planning of the cathedral. I know that sounds uninteresting, but maybe you’re uninteresting. Sorry, I’m a little testy and probably suffering from gelato withdrawal now that I’m back in the States. Technically, the museum itself is called Museo dell’Opera, I have no idea why. Anyway, it has a neat layout that allows you to see the artwork of the cathedral up close, including some originals that have been removed from the sides of the buildings. Spread out over three stories and in 25 rooms, the artwork (mostly sculptures) highlights the history of the cathedral, and there’s a bonus on the top floor: an exit leads you to a balcony that overlooks the Duomo.

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They do like their Vespas in Italy.

Our last night in Florence was spent at a feast at a nearby restaurant. Our guide knew the owner, so the food and the wine flowed nonstop. This being Florence, the menu was mostly meat-based. Sorry, vegetarians! The meal was bittersweet; after instantly bonding with the few dozen people on our tour and spending a week and a half with them, we were about to say goodbye and never see most of them ever again. (I assume I’m going to keep in touch with my wife. But other than her…) The late-night walk back to the hotel, and the conversations that continued in the hotel lobby and up on the tower, were like graduation night; no one wanted to be the ones to end the party.

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Ciao, Fiorenze! (Inside joke; I don’t drink wine.)

The next day, we had until mid-morning before we had to catch our train to Venice. I convinced Jen to go on one last side trip, this time across the Arno River and to the Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s a park in the Oltrarno district with a panoramic view of the whole city. We walked across the Ponte Vecchio, with its fancy jewelry shops not yet opened for the day’s business, and into the funky Oltrarno neighborhood. Up a hill and several steep staircases, we found ourselves looking at…could it be?…yes, another statue of Michelangelo’s David, this one a bronze reproduction. Criminy, those Florentines love their anatomically correct naked-man statues! The view was magnificent, looking out across the river (not looking back at David’s anatomy, although that was fairly magnificent, too).

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The third and final David statue in Florence. I laugh at the number of Davids there are in Florence, but there are at least 12 in the United States, including in Philadelphia; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and, of course, Las Vegas.

I said to Jen, “A pretty good way to end this part of the journey, eh?” She said, “Give me a gelato and a lampredotto sandwich, and I could stay here for a long time.” I knew it was the right time to move on when Jen started waxing philosophically about the fourth (and final!) stomach of a cow.

Bear with me, faithful readers, we have one more leg of this adventure: a quick stop in Venice, then out to the lovely town of Treviso and our friends’ wedding! (You do remember that this whole trip was about a wedding, right?)

 

Thanksgiving Dishes: The Ultimate Ranking

Let’s get straight to it: You don’t have time to read a blog post about the joy of traditions and family and giving thanks for whatever it is I’m thankful for. I’m here to rank traditional Thanksgiving dishes by order of enjoyment. Judged by me, the expert.

What makes me an expert on Thanksgiving? I’m glad you asked. These are my qualifications: 1. I am an American, last time I checked. 2. I eat food.

Let’s do this!

The Ultimate Ranking of Thanksgiving Dishes (from Best to Worst)

1. That sweet potato dish with the big, puffy marshmallows on top. I love that stuff. Jen’s family introduced me to that. Oddly, my family never ate sweet potatoes when I was a kid. The marshmallows on top are not necessary. (But come on; seriously, who doesn’t love them when they melt into the sweet potatoes?)

2. Pumpkin pie. Illinois is the top pumpkin-producing state in the nation. Around 90% to 95% of all pumpkins used for canning are grown in Illinois. In fact, in 2012, Illinois produced twice as many pumpkins as the second-leading state, California. (Oh, snap! Now California has a pumpkin inferiority complex!) I totally did not make up this information; it came from The Illinois Farm Bureau and the University of Illinois Extension.) None of this explains why I love pumpkin pie, though. I have a secret ingredient for making awesome pumpkin pie. (Is the secret ingredient “love”? It might be.)

3. Cornbread. One of my old flames taught me how to make delicious cornbread. Her name is Betty Crocker. Oh, you’ve heard of her?

4. Stuffing. An in-law of mine makes a sausage-based stuffing that is to die for. On the years that we don’t get together with that side of the family, Jen gets a twitchy look in her left eye that speaks directly to me: “Find. That. Recipe.”

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This was either colored by my son during his preschool years or painted by Picasso during his Blue and Purple Turkey Period.

5. Turkey. Of course turkey was going to be in my top five. But I am ambivalent about it. I enjoy it when properly cooked. I have improperly cooked it many, many times. I’m getting better. My father-in-law loans me his electric carving knife when I host Thanksgiving; he makes me do the carving because he is testing my manhood. The first time he made me do it, things didn’t go so well. (I believe my final words after having gotten the knife stuck in the skeleton of the turkey were, “Mommy! Make it stop!”) I’m getting better.

6. Whipped cream. Can this be a separate entry?

7. Cranberry sauce (not canned). I make a cranberry swirl bread that is so time-consuming that, frankly, I would rather just prepare the cranberry filling and eating it. (Cranberries and sugar; it’s a beautiful thing.)

8. Cranberry sauce (canned). Jen prefers the jellied cranberry sauce.  I use it in the days that follow Thanksgiving on a leftover-turkey sandwich. I’m a little creeped out by the metal-can shape it holds when it slips out of the can.

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Our youngest, light of our lives, did this one. We pull this artwork out of storage every year, to embarrass them. Now it’s on the Internet. Forever.

9. Black olives/gherkin pickles. My dad was a big fan of these food items, so they always had a place on our table at the holidays. My siblings and I would put five olives on a hand under the table and then wave at each other with them before our beagle, Tiger, would eat them off of our fingers. My mom was under the impression that we ate the olives. Please don’t feed your dog olives; they are probably not good for dogs in large quantities. (But Tiger had an iron stomach and lived for 15 years.)

10. Bread rolls. Because dinner wasn’t filling enough already. I only ate them because, being the youngest in the family, I never knew when the food would run out before it got passed to me. (This explains so much about my personality; I should really be sharing this stuff with a therapist and not with the Internet.)

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My middle child drew this. “My favorite food is mash ptados and grave.”

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Why are the mashed potatoes black? Because the white crayon wouldn’t show up on the paper. Obviously.

11. Mashed potatoes/gravy. I know I am in the minority here when I say that I’m not a big fan. There have been times when one of my kids ate only mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving. Just a big plate filled with white slop and brownish sludge. I don’t have time for something that doesn’t have sugar in it.

12. Mincemeat pie. Is there actually meat in it? Does it have to be minced? Can it be diced or chopped? Again, my dad likes it, so I defer to him on this. Turns out, according to Linda Stradley of What’s Cooking America, this was a way of preserving meat in the 11th century. According to an English cookbook from 1545, “Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced and ceasoned wyth…” I’m sorry, I have to stop. That sentence is all kinds of annoying for the editor in me. Didn’t people know how to spell in 1545? (By the way, canned mincemeat nowadays might only have dried fruit and spices, but there are animal fats in it.)

13. Green bean casserole. Oh dear God. Please keep this “food” off of my Thanksgiving plate. I know that there are a good many people who absolutely adore this stuff. You can’t explain taste. But I will try: I believe that these people are missing taste buds. This was an annual tradition at the Dudley house; it is part of the reason I got married so young and moved out. This wasn’t even one of the original dishes passed around at the first Thanksgiving: it was actually invented in 1955 by the Campbell’s Soup Company. Cream of mushroom soup, green beans, French fried onions. General rule: If you would never eat two or more ingredients in a recipe by themselves, you shouldn’t eat all of them slopped together.

So that’s my ultimate list. I know I left off some dishes that others might traditionally have at their Thanksgiving feasts (e.g., collard greens, apple or pecan pie, deviled eggs, turducken, pepperoni pizza, leftover Halloween candy), but I don’t have time for arguments now: as we speak, my father-in-law is cleaning his electric carving knife.

Pie: My Third-Favorite Garbage Food

IMG_0319Our youngest daughter, the light of our lives, wanted to have some friends and their parents over for dinner and a sleepover a few weekends ago. (To clarify, the friends would sleep over, not the parents. That would have been weird for all involved.) My lovely wife Jen and I discussed the menu for the evening, and my daughter interrupted: “Why didn’t I hear you say ‘pie’ when you talked about dessert?” I said, “Because we’re having ice cream, cookies, and fruit; that should be enough.” She said, “But we’re known for our pies!”

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Apple pie. Clever, eh?

It is not exactly true that we are known for our pies. But we do like to bake pies. Or rather, we tolerate the baking of the pies because we love to eat pies. The four most popular pies in our household, spanning our own personal pie season (May to December) are strawberry-rhubarb, blueberry, apple, and pumpkin.

I wonder who was the first person to pick a rhubarb stalk, eat it, spit it out, and say, “This is horrible! It would taste great with 7 cups of sugar!”

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Something went horribly wrong with this crust. It was still tasty.

The only things my family likes more than pie are chocolate and ice cream. This has nothing to do with the rest of the blog post; it’s just that I am hungry and thinking about chocolate. And ice cream. (Part of the reason that I run marathons is so that I can eat garbage food as a reward. That’s probably what separates me from the elites.)

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“Hi, I’m a pie with a man’s face on it. Please eat me and put me out of my misery.”

Growing up, pie was not a big thing in my family. I don’t ever recall having a homemade pie at any time in our house. I did, however, spend a lot of time at a Poppin’ Fresh Pies restaurant in our hometown, which became a Bakers Square right around when I entered junior high. I mention this because the first two dates that I went on in eighth grade involved taking girls out to Poppin’ Fresh/Bakers Square. I’m surprised those relationships didn’t last more than a week or two: I knew exactly what ordering pie “a la mode” meant and used it correctly to our server. (Something about ice cream, right? I’m still hungry.)

My mother-in-law is a great pie baker. I don’t try to compete with her. Her pies are elaborate, delicious, and have a high degree of difficulty. If Jen requests an apple pie for her birthday, I let the mother-in-law do it. I know my place in the pecking order.

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It’s an image of a pie on a pie. How meta of me.

My pies, on the other hand, are humble. (Humble pie; see what I did there?) I make the crust from scratch with a little butter, some whole-wheat flour, salt, and water. For the fruit pies, I mix as few ingredients as is necessary to impart the flavor of the main ingredient (example: blueberry pie filling has blueberries, sugar, tapioca, a splash of lemon juice, and maybe a little cinnamon). I overfill the pie pan, then I put the top layer of crust on it and make a creative or goofy design. Usually the latter.

Then we eat the pie. Then my kids complain that the pie went way too fast.

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This was a summer pie.

I selflessly cut my pieces smaller to help the rest of the family out. I do this knowing that at least one person (Jen) doesn’t like to finish the crust, so I eat the leftovers to make up the caloric difference. I get all the glory of being selfless without the actual selflessness.

A few weeks ago, I was so desperate for rhubarb that I convinced my neighbor to let me cut down some of hers. I had already cut mine down for a pie the previous week. I felt guilty about that for a while. Then I ate some pie and felt better.

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Step 1: Harvest rhubarb and strawberries. Or guilt neighbor into giving you some. Or buy it; I don’t really care.

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Step 2: Make the dough by hand. This is the hardest part. I’m sure you can use electric kitchen equipment for this, but I like to feel all old-timey.

 

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Step 3: Mix chopped rhubarb, sliced strawberries, sugar, and tapioca together. Let sit for 15 minutes. Sneak many pieces of sugar-covered strawberries while letting it sit.

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Step 4: Roll crust out. I prefer to use a cylinder of marble that used to be a rolling pin but was dropped on its handles so many times that the handles broke off. One of my children is mostly to blame, but I won’t call him out by name. Except that he’s my only male child, so I guess I just did.

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Step 5: Press crust into pie pan. Cut off excess at edges. Eat excess. Or fill with extra fruit filling and make a little mini-pie that you can sneak into your pie hole while the kids aren’t looking.

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Step 6: Extreme close-up! This is what the hipsters call “food porn.”

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This was in honor of my middle child, the patient one, graduating eighth grade. It was either this or take her to Bakers Square, but I didn’t have much luck taking the ladies to Bakers Square in eighth grade.

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That’s supposed to be a strawberry image.

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This was for some friends from another country who were visiting our home.

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Celebrating my release from prison. Kidding! It was an anniversary pie.

I Never Found Herb at Burger King

Here’s how my brain works: “I think I’ll write a blog post about running. I’m hungry. Maybe I should write about proper nutrition for marathon runners. I wonder how many people found Herb in that Burger King promo in 1985?” So I decided to write about Burger King.

First, I should say that I haven’t eaten at a Burger King in a long time, maybe since I was a teenager and certainly not since I’ve been married. (I verified this with my lovely wife Jen.) When I told my middle child, the patient one, that I was thinking about posting something on Burger King, she said, “What possible connection to Burger King could you have?” See, we don’t really eat fast food that much. There is an Arby’s literally within sight of our house that we have never been to. (Editor’s note: Yes, “literally” as in literally.) I have not yet set foot in the Burger King in our town, and we’ve lived here for 14 years. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen the insides of all of the Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Little Caesar’s, and Pizza Hut franchises in our town put together.

My kids think I have always been hyper-vigilant about my health and theirs. Actually, I’m shielding them from a shameful secret from my past: until I met their mother, I was a fast-food junkie.

I grew up loving McDonald’s. (My favorite menu item of theirs from my childhood: Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Ooh, and the Triple Thick Shake, vanilla flavored.) And Burger King (Whopper Jr. with Cheese.) And Arby’s (Beef ‘n Cheddar.) And Taco Bell (the BellBeefer, which was a ground-beef taco in a burger bun, kind of like a sloppy joe but tasting all Taco Bell-ish). I could go on, but I won’t because I want to get to the Where’s Herb? campaign.

But first, of all the fast-food joints in my hometown, Burger King holds a special place in my heart (and my arteries) because it was within walking distance of my junior high. Every few weeks, a few of my friends and I would skip the bus ride home and walk to Burger King. I have no idea how I informed my mom of this change in plans; with no cell phone, I probably used a quarter at a payphone to call home, or I just came in late and no one cared. (This was a looser time in American childrearing history.)

One of my friends’ favorite pastimes at Burger King was to unscrew the lids to the salt shakers but place them on the tables so that they looked normal. (Back when salt and pepper shakers were routinely left on tables.) Then we would wait for someone else, usually an unsuspecting friend sitting at the same table as us, to sprinkle salt on their already-heavily-salted fries and watch the lid fall off and all the salt pour out onto the fries. We believed that we were hilarious and original.

Sometimes we would wait until a friend’s back was turned while they flirted with girls at a nearby table and we would dump salt or pepper into their soda. Once, we dumped about 10 tablespoonfuls of sugar into a friend’s Pepsi; the joke was on us when he drank it because he didn’t even notice a difference.

One of the funniest things I have ever witnessed, food-wise, was when a boy who was one year older than me bet that he could stuff a whole Whopper in his mouth. We pooled our money and offered him 10 bucks if he could do it. (I should mention that he had a mouth like Mick Jagger’s.) He took the Whopper, opened as far wide as he could, and (I am not making this up) placed the whole Whopper in his freakishly large pie hole and closed his lips around it. He held his hand out for the money, but one of my friends said, “Not until you swallow it.” He started trying to chew it without opening his mouth, and it was apparent that this wasn’t really working. Have you ever had one of those moments wherein simply making eye contact with someone makes you laugh so hard that you’re crying? He and I did that. Except I could laugh out loud, but he was tearing up and little Whopper bits were spritzing out of his lips and all over. His tears were filled with sesame seeds from the bun. (No middle schoolers were harmed in the making of this memory.)

This is Herb. And a poster of him that appeared in every Burger King. I never found him. (But I kind of looked like him in my awkward '80s nerd phase.)

This is Herb. And a poster of him that appeared in every Burger King. I never found him. (But I kind of looked like him in my awkward ’80s nerd phase, which sadly lasted deep into the ’90s.)

But this is a blog post about Herb. Remember Herb? (Sorry, I’m paraphrasing Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” The song, not the subsequent movie, which was practically unwatchable, unless you’re on drugs. Which may have been the point.) For years, I’ve asked people who lived through the ’80s with me if they remember the “Where’s Herb?” ad campaign. Usually, the answer is no, not really, or it sort of rings a bell. That surprises me because it’s pretty vivid in my memory, for two reasons: 1. I watched a lot of TV. A lot of TV. My kids have no idea what “too much screen time” means. The main screen in our house at the time, the TV, came on when the first person (my dad) woke up in the morning, around 4:30 a.m., and it stayed on until the last person (my mom) went to bed, around 10:30 p.m. Then my brother and I would secretly stay up late watching Johnny Carson and sometimes David Letterman on the black-and-white TV in our shared bedroom. (Don’t tell my dad; he was under the impression we were asleep by 10.) Subsequently, I saw all these commercials in 1985 concerning a mysterious guy named Herb. Oh, and 2. I had a marketing class in college, and the “Where’s Herb?” campaign was taught as an example of how not to promote a product.

The idea behind the $40 million campaign (according to Wikipedia) was that there was a guy named Herb who was the only person left in the country who hadn’t ever eaten at Burger King. There were these commercials showing Herb’s friends and relatives expressing concern about him and saying, “Herb was always a little different.” Then came the kicker of the campaign: Herb (actually, an actor named Jon Menick) would visit a Burger King in each of the 50 states, and whoever recognized him would win $5000, and then the rest of the customers in the restaurant at the time would have their names entered in a contest to win $1 million. From mid-November until the Super Bowl in January 1986, Herb’s identity wasn’t revealed, so basically, millions of us would walk into our local Burger Kings and ask random guys, “Are you Herb?” Because (and I can’t stress this flaw in the campaign’s premise enough) no one knew what Herb looked like because he didn’t appear in the commercials. Burger King aired a commercial finally showing Herb during the Super Bowl. Herb was very plain looking, like a typical ’80s movie nerd (glasses, buzz cut, tie, flood pants). From what I recollect, the actor would wander into a Burger King in, say, Indiana, and linger for a while, with a handler who would judge which person spotted him first. In some cases (many, apparently), no one recognized him. It’s not like he was Ronald McDonald prancing around or even the Hamburglar. That was part of the problem: this campaign was supposed to show how Burger King was different than McDonald’s somehow.

The campaign lost so much steam that it morphed into a discount promotion: anyone could walk into a Burger King, say, “I’m not Herb,” and get a burger for 99 cents or something. (If your name was Herb, you could say, “I’m not the Herb you’re looking for.”) For a while, I followed news reports of the states in which Herb was spotted, but the media sort of let it all fade away, so I remember only a handful of states. (Remember that this was in the days before the Internet, so there was no easy way to keep track of this.) For years later, I would periodically think, “If I find myself in a Burger King and I see Herb, is the $5000 offer still good?”

I can find no verifiable list of the number of states that Herb crossed off his list. I’m not sure if Burger King will want to sponsor my blog after reading this post, but for what it’s worth, I was the one guy who liked the Where’s Herb? campaign. Did I mention that Burger King’s sales dropped 40% from 1985 to 1986? So it’s not as if the campaign didn’t have an effect; it drove tens of thousands of customers to McDonald’s and Wendy’s and other rivals (who advertised, and I am not making this up, that Herb ate at their places but not at Burger King). For those of you who do eat at Burger King, here’s  a fun activity you can take away from this post: Next time you’re there, give your order, then look around furtively and whisper, “I’m not Herb.” Let me know what the discount is at nowadays.

This is the Super Bowl commercial that revealed Herb to the world. You can almost taste the excitement.

This is the first commercial, where Herb is talked about but never shown.

For what it’s worth, this is Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” Yes, it’s over 18 minutes long. I’m not saying you should listen to the whole thing, but you’ve come this far with me, so why stop now?