Son vs. The Grizz

I know it’s a bit of a social media no-no to post photos of your food, but this was a wager. It happened like this: My sons and I have been going to a local diner for months, and on one visit, my cousin was with us. My cousin mentioned that his nephew keeps ordering “The Grizz,” but that he can never finish it.

“The Grizz” is a cluster-bomb of breakfasts: Two strips of bacon, two sausage links, a ham steak, three eggs, hash brown potatoes, and two pancakes. According to the calculus of my stomach, that’s three breakfasts, not one.

the grizz

Needless to say, news of the distant cousin’s failure to summit Mt. Grizz naturally became a bit of family lore. The Grizz was no longer just an expensive breakfast menu item — it had acquired a bit of myth.

So this morning, my older son said he wanted to order it. My son is thirteen, and struggles to fill out slim-fit jeans.

I said no. It was too much food, it was expensive, and I hated to see food and money go to waste. My son kept after it: “I’m hungry.” “I can finish it.” Etc. Then my younger son waded into the fray, offering to help. I countered with, “Why don’t you two share it?”

They had the uni-mind on this one, so they vetoed that motion. Son 1 wanted The Grizz. Son 2 wanted to see Son 1 eat it.

I agreed, on the condition that he had to finish it. I also decided to document things, thinking that if things went sideways (or came back up),  I’d have digital proof of his folly.

When our food arrived, we tucked in. Son 1 knocked off the three eggs, over-easy. And the bacon. And the sausage. And the ham. And then the pancakes. Then, slowing down noticeably and drinking plenty of water, he went after the hash browns. A few bites from the end, I was ready to give it to him, on rounding error.

He shook me off. He was hell-bent to conquer.

The Reimains of The GrizzWhich he did. Remarkably, we did not have to go directly to the drug store for Pepto-Bismol, or Alka-Seltzer. He didn’t want to go jump on a trampoline, but he was otherwise fine.

I’m just hoping this doesn’t become a habit.

The Apparition on My Counter

The other day we had an epiphany on our counter. Actually it took the form of a coffee stain, which took the form of a face:

Needless to say, we were thrilled. As you can clearly see, this is not just the image of a face, it’s some sort of religious icon. It is clearly not, as my heathen friends have argued, a reincarnation of Mr. Bill, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, or the Were-Rabbit from the Wallace & Gromit movie.

No. It closely resembles the Jesus Pierogi (sold for $1,775 on eBay to a casino), or the Virgin Mary on a toasted cheese sandwich ($28,000 on eBay, also to a casino).

The Jesus Pierogi. Proving that the son of God digs Polish food.

“We will definitely use the sandwich to raise money for charity, and we hope it will raise people’s spirits as well,” said Richard Rowe, the casino’s CEO. “We believe that everyone should be able to see it and learn of its mystical power for themselves.”

You see, if people believe my counter stain apparition is some sort of pop-culture icon, it won’t have the same revenue potential mystical power.

But enough of this time-wasting. If you’re a casino and want to make an offer, call me!

A Travesty of Justice: Judging the Dessert Contest

A few days ago, the CEO’s executive assistant stopped me in the hall, and asked if I would be a judge in the company dessert contest.

Would I! I love dessert. I live for desserts. I’m old enough to have achy joints, but I still haven’t lost my sweet tooth. I immediately asked everyone I knew if they had magistrate’s robes and a powdered wig, and watched “Perry Mason,” “LA Law,” and “My Cousin Vinnie,” though Marisa Tomei’s leopard-print camisole and teased hair did distract me from the subtleties of jurisprudence.

Not only that, this was some kind of honor! I mean, chosen to judge desserts. Could I put such an honor on my resume? Could I switch careers? You might scoff, but I’m thinner than Paula Deen, and I don’t look live I’ve been snacking on amphetamines, either. And have you heard Rachael Ray moan when she really enjoys eating something? That noise is positively indecent, somewhere between the grunt of Monica Seles hitting a backhand, and a water buffalo in rut.

Today was the day of the contest. I arrived at the anointed hour, and surveyed the table of desserts. I’d even brought a pad of paper and a pen to rank to record quantitative dessertliness. Because I am a serious dessert judge.

But before I could cogitate, ruminate and deliberate, the executive assistant appeared. She pointed to a flat dish cut into rectangles and topped with shredded stuff. “We’ve declared this one the winner.” She put a small piece on a plate, cut it in half, and added, “I want to make sure you agree.”

I ate a mouthful. “That’s a darned fine cake, but–”

She cut me off. “Good. It’s the winner.”

I stood there, dumbfounded. But what about the Kahlua cake, the one-drop cookies, the  fruit-tarty thing, or the lemon pie with a great deal of meringuey stuff? What about the context? The science quality judging matrix and the secret balloting? What about due process for those other desserts?!?

Didn’t matter. The executive assistant was the amica curiae, and had signed the writ. That cake was the winner.

But she wasn’t done. Then grabbed the other half of the piece of cake off my plate and popped it in her mouth, leaving me with a quarter of a piece. (That’s a photo of it at the top.)

Outrage! Mistrial! This is a mockery of the rule of law! Etc.

By the time I finished lunch, most of the other desserts were gone, and I was pretty full. I tried some of the Kahlua cake, but I’m tough like a Bulgarian figure skating judge, and found its texture wasn’t as good as the an oatmeal-coconut-cake-something-something the hyper-efficient executive assistant had proactively declared the winner.

Onward the wheels of justice turn, I guess. Also, if you need a judge for your BBQ or dessert contest, drop me a line.

Because now I have experience.

The Friday Sustainability Roundup, Quiz Style

For the past five years I’ve written a sustainability tip for my company newsletter. This past week I imitated Paul Slansky, who used to do brilliant quizzes in the New Yorker during, as he calls it, “the Bush coup d’etat.” The column appears below the tiger.

Three interesting quotes came over the transom this week, from interesting sources. See if you can guess where these came from.

1) “We call on all people and nations to recognize the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.”

2) “America is a resplendent, plentiful and fertile land, rich with natural resources, bounded by vast ocean spaces. Together these gifts are ours to be enjoyed for their majesty, cultivated and harvested for their abundance, and preserved for following generations. Many of these resources are renewable, some are not. But all must be respected as part of a global ecosystem that is being tasked to support a world population projected to reach nine billion peoples midway through this century. These resources range from crops, livestock, and potable water to sources of energy and materials for industry. Our third investment priority is to develop a plan for the sustainable access to, cultivation and use of, the natural resources we need for our continued well being, prosperity and economic growth in the world marketplace.”

3) “…the basic idea is that all the CO2 we emit stays around for a long time. That’s a very unfortunate fact, and that leads to the warming. That’s about as clear as anything can be. You can argue over, as the temperature goes up, will it go up even more. There are certain feedback effects that are the subject of a lot of inquiry. But almost no one basically doubts the fact that you’ve got to reduce the CO2 emissions.”


1) A Vatican working group of scientists.

2) The second quote is from a paper by Capt. Wayne Porter (Navy) and Col. Mark Mykleby (Marines), called “A National Strategic Narrative.” (PDF). It’s not an official military document, but the two authors are high-placed advisers to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A New York Times story goes into more detail, and quotes Mykleby speaking to the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce: “It’s a strategic liability to keep subsidizing our agribusiness model the way it is for any number of reasons — the decay of our soil, the health of our citizens, because our food is not healthy any more, etc., etc.’ ” he says. “Remarkably, it was very well received in the middle of corn country.”

3) Microsoft co-founder and CEO Bill Gates, who is now better known for the efforts of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates gave a TED talk about energy last year, and the quote comes from a conversation about the same issues sponsored by Grist.

In other news:

  • A UK government report concludes that Wi-fi internet access and other communications are at risk from global warming. (Guardian)
  • An analysis of 900 academic papers supporting climate scepticism found that 9 out of the top 10 authors were linked to ExxonMobil.
  • Girl Scouts, parents, and cookie buyers logged onto the Girl Scouts’ USA Facebook page to ask that palm oil be removed from Girl Scout cookies. (Harvesting palm oil destroys tropical rainforest, and has contributed to habitat loss for species such as orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and rhinoceroses). The organization’s response? It simply deleted the comments. (Good write-up about the story and issues from Grist.)
  • A new paper from a Swiss researcher found that singals from cell phones cause honeybees to become disoriented, and then drop dead. (Fast Company)
  • From the Dept. of Read this While Standing Up: Scientists in Louisiana found that people who sit for most of the day are 54 percent more likely to die of heart attacks. There’s also an infographic that spells out this research in more detail.

Pastry Hunt, 2.0

In the comments to my blog post “A Tale of Two Countries, and their Snack Foods,” one commenter asked, “Would you be able to tell us where in Paris you had that memorable pain au chocolat?”

Good question — and I’m using good question the way a politician does, when s/he doesn’t have an answer. When I travel I lean on a guidebook for things like hours, directions and tips, but I also do a lot wandering around on foot, and tend to eat at whatever place looks appetizing.

I learned this tip from my cousin. We were rambling through Seattle one day in search of lunch, and I had my nose in my guidebook. He suggested winging it, and we ended up eating in Chinatown at a place called Uncle Ball’s. The food was just okay, but eating at a place with such a bizarre name was one of the highlights of our trip.

But I digress. I didn’t actually know the name or exact location of the patisserie in Paris, but I did know it’s general location, since I had gone to the Saturday produce market at Place de la Bastille:

Then I wandered down a side street, went by a good-looking patisserie, and bought goodies there. I also remembered it was right around the corner from a Starbucks.

Thanks to the awesome power of Google (and I mean awesome in both senses of the word), it’s alarmingly easy to retrace my steps. I didn’t know the name of the side street,  so I simply mapped the locations of Starbucks nearby.

Place de la Bastille

Detail from a map of Paris, showing Place de la Bastille

From that I knew the Bucky’s I was thinking of was on Rue de la Roquette. I used Google Street View to check out the street corner a half-block away and then panned around, and … voilà:

There’s your answer: La Tradition du Pain, at Rue Duval/Rue Saint Sabin. If you paste the store’s name into Google, you can even see some Italian guy’s photo of the display cases on Flickr.

His photo caption sums up my thoughts pretty nicely: Aspettavo il giorno successivo solo per fare di nuovo colazione lì sperimentando altre squisitezze!

(P.S. – Don’t read Italian? Try dropping the sentence into Google Translate.)

What’s for Flunch?

I saw this sign in Paris and it gave me a chuckle, so I took a picture. Flunch. It looks like a typo, or one of those cute Euro near-misses at rendering a sign in English.

It took me another week to actually look it up. According to Wikipedia, Flunch is a restaurant chain roughly comparable to Sizzler. More interesting is the entry’s trivia section: “The word ‘flunch’ is a portmanteau of ‘fast’ and ‘lunch’; it has become part of French slang, coining the verb, ‘fluncher’.”

That’s a slightly disturbing trend. Imagine if American fast food restaurants achieve verb status — or, almost as bad, if their marketing departments attempt to promote their names by turning them into verbs:

  • “Just let me Arby’s this before the meeting starts”
  • “We’re not just eating lunch, we’re Fuddruckering it”
  • “I love the way that girl Chick-Fil-As her food with her sensuous lips”

But that’s only a mildly amusing concept for us Americans, because we’ve been Dunkin’ Donutsed by marketers for so long, we’re used to fast food companies committing language atrocities. I’ve actually written about it before, when I came to obvious conclusion that many of the foods with crappy names — Hardee’s Monster Biscuit, Bob Evans Stacked and Stuffed Caramel Banana Pecan Hotcakes — tend to be epically crappy foods.

I happen to be Dairy Queening in and out of a book called Pardon My French: Unleash Your Inner Gaul, which is a guide to French words and phrases, especially ones that explain some quirk of French culture.

In the book’s first section (Food and Drink, mais bien sur), the author Charles Timoney explains the phrase manger chaud — literally, to eat hot.

The average French person will expect to eat mat at least once a day and will also expect at least one dish of each main meal to be served hot. Suggesting that a colleague might skip a decent meal and just grab a sandwich may well be met with an appalled cry of “Mais if faut manger chaud!”

If we can take Timoney at his word (unless he’s secretly a cultural knuckle-dragger, I’m inclined to, since he’s lived there 20-plus years), a proper hot sit-down meal is a big deal to the French. I mean, all you have to do is walk around Paris and see the soixante million or so cafes and bistros, compared to the relatively low number of MacDonald’s and Starbucks.

But there’s another disturbing trend that’s more disturbing than bad verbing. Slate magazine points it out in their story, Why is there so much violent crime at fast-food restaurants? A lowlight reel:

In January, Toledo, Ohio, resident Melodi Dushane punched out a McDonald’s drive-through window when she was told they didn’t sell Chicken McNuggets in the morning. Another woman recently drove through a crowd of people in a McDonald’s parking lot, injuring four. In 2008, a Los Angeles man punched a 16-year-old girl in the face at a McDonald’s after she complained about him cutting the line. A Wendy’s customer reportedly assaulted a female clerk at a drive-through window in 2007 after she didn’t tell him to “have a nice day.”

The story cites a number of reasons for this: location on busy streets, the restaurants keep long hours, and a lot of cash, their customers tend to be younger and poorer, and so do their employees. But the reason I found most interesting was at the bottom of the piece:

Customers may feel stressed out, too. Professors at the University of Toronto released a study in 2010 concluding that exposure to the logos of fast-food chains like Wendy’s and Burger King made people hasty and impatient. When “fast” food doesn’t live up to its name, people might lash out.

That’s kind of rich, isn’t it? The golden arches condition us to expect speed. We’ve become Pavlov’s dinner guests.

I’m not surprised customers are stressed out. Think about the fast food business model: They want you to speed up to the counter (or drive-through), order, pay, and then leave. They don’t want people in their restaurants, since that creates a mess they have to pay someone to clean up. The entire place is designed to be bright, clean-looking, and inhospitable: the molded furniture, the tiny tables, the fluorescent lighting,  the lack of amenities on the table, the lack of a waiter, etc. Often they wrap your food for you (whether you want it wrapped or not), the default assumption being that you’re going to eat somewhere else.

Yet another book about France I was Krispy Kreme-ing recently explained the difference between restaurants and bistros. Since that book is still in Paris and I am not, I’ll have to lean on Wikipedia for a brief history:

Bistros likely developed out of the basement kitchens of Parisian apartments, where tenants paid for both room and board. Landlords could supplement their income by opening their kitchen to the paying public. Menus were built around foods that were simple, could be prepared in quantity and would keep over time. Wine and coffee were also served.

In Paris,  restaurants were for the well-to-do, and the bistros were for the working class (kind of our like our fast-food restaurants, but without dancing spokes-clowns). Nowadays, Parisiens are being infected by flunch, and the US is a littered landscape of Carl’s Jr.,  El Pollo Loco, Panda Express, and Quiznos, where people brawl and mow each other down with their cars.

Meanwhile, we’re still trying to master the art of the bistro — something the Parisiens figured out back in 1884.

A Tale of Two Countries, and their Snack Foods

I recently traveled to Paris, which offered me a chance to observe all sorts of things, including the stunningly important issue of the ways airlines differ in feeding their passengers.

On Air France, the morning snack service consisted of the usual beverages (coffee, tea, water, juice, soda). Then the flight attendant presented a plastic tray, which was filled with breakfast pastry and little napkins. I selected pain au chocolat.

pain au chocolat

Pain au chocolat, the morning snack on Air France.

It’s a bit of trouble to get fresh pastry on a plane. Somewhere someone has to actually make the pastry, then it needs to get shipped to the airport and loaded onto the plane — all in short order, or else your snack goodie will be about as moist and chewy as your seat cushion/personal flotation device.

I’m not suggesting that Air France is being all that visionary or altruistic. They’re merely reacting to the cultural norm. The traditional light breakfast fare in France is often coffee and a croissant, so offering the same on a flight is kind of a no-brainer.

With that in mind, what does Delta Airlines offer?

Prepackaged pretzels and peanuts, the snack handout on Delta Airlines

The pain au chocolat was not the best one I had in Paris (after that one, my mouth wanted to spend the afternoon in bed, staring at the ceiling smoking cigarettes). But it was still pretty good.

The pastry was small, tasty, and not many people said no to them. I expect that the flight attendants ran out of them, or came pretty close. It was a little ceremony: the box was presented to you, and you got to choose between a croissant, pain au chocolat, or an escargot aux raisins. The latter has nothing to do with snails; in fact it’s a spiral pastry with raisins in it. They look like this:

The entire Air France morning snack ritual seemed to encompass the French approach to food: It’s fresh; it’s personal; the portions are small; it’s high-quality. When you eat good food, you pay attention to it.

So what do the two plastic packages of pretzels and peanuts say about the American approach to food? Well let’s open that package up a little.

Is it fresh? No, not in the way bakery goods are. It was put in a plastic package, but that could have happened days, weeks or even months ago.

Is it personal? No. There is no ceremony involved, no opportunity to survey the items and select one. The flight attendant reaches into a container, pulls two out, and hands them to you.

Is it high quality? Only if you think you can eat haute cuisine by shopping at the gas station.

Are the portions small? Yes, but if you’ve ever asked a flight attendant for more peanuts or pretzels, they’re all too happy to give you a handful. Since the snacks have almost no worth, no one minds giving you as much as you want.

Put another way, the peanuts and pretzels are mass produced low-cost and last for ages — they’re forgettable food widgets, but you’re welcome to eat as much as you want.

Needless to say, after eating the French way for a week (smaller, local, quality-driven, personal — the French way produces food like mom used to make!), it’s a little hard to come back to a country where so much of the food is bland, mass produced, and wrapped in plastic.

Sigh. Pass the peanuts.

Night of the living ranch dressing, and flying cats

We survived the first week with the French exchange student, despite our bad French. While polluting the poor kid with onion rings at a restaurant, Carmen tried to say that she liked the ranch dressing (je l’aime = I like it). Instead, she said je t’aime — I like you. Ranch dressing had become a being.

Yesterday the boys were playing with little Nerf guns, and I tried to say my coat was impermeable to the bullets: “Mon manteau est imperméable aux … euh, Curran, comment-dit-on ‘bullets’?”

Curran: “Fléchettes.”

Me: “Quoi? Les chats?”

Today we go to le champ de citrouilles — the pumpkin patch. I’m sure we can’t possibly mismangle the language there.

Culture is Like a Box of Chocolates

We’re hosting a French exchange student, who arrived from Paris yesterday. Tonight was our first dinner together, and for dessert, we put out what we had at and hand: some Mint Milano cookies, and some Hershey’s Halloween chocolates:

After dinner, our little student (he’s ten years old) presented us with a small fortune in gifts: a coffee table book, two coffee mugs, books and t-shirts for our kids, and a nice box of chocolates from Le Nôtre, a French chocolatier.

Now, one could speculate all night about the motives. The family loves to shop. The family is generous. This is a traditional thing to do, when you board your child with someone else. Or, it’s like tipping a valet when you first drop the car off with him, so that he’ll treat it well. Actually, it’s kind of a French cultural tradition. But whatever. That’s not the point.

What I find interesting is how easy it is to generalize on the basis of the chocolate.

We almost never have Hershey’s in the house (I think it tastes like a mixture of wax and granulated sugar), but at US supermarkets, you can literally buy bags of the stuff. In other words, it a symbol of the American approach to food: cheap, mass-produced and low quality. Dump it in a bowl, and it’s all you can eat.

On the other hand, here’s a photo of some Le Nôtre chocolates:

Notice anything? What I see is that they’re small, elegant, expensive — not the kind of chocolate you dump into a bowl on the coffee table. Both the Americans and French make chocolate but they take opposite approaches. Where the US mass produce for mass consumption, the French make chocolate something better: more expensive, meant to be enjoyed in small portions, and appreciated.

(Yes, this is generalizing a bit, as I’m sure I could find crummy chocolate in Paris, and there are great chocolatiers in the US. But look at the food that France exports, such as wine and cheese. It’s almost always high quality. The well-known US exports are things like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Hershey bars.)

I think France gets this one right.

Major League Baseball Stadiums Debut “Grand Slam of Gluttony” Clubs

BALTIMORE — When Manny LeGros went to watch a recent Orioles baseball game, he spent much of it in the concourse instead of in his seat. Because that’s where the buffet was. With a ticket to the Orioles’ Left Field Club Picnic Perch, LeGros was entitled to an all-you-can-eat buffet of nachos, hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn, lemonade, sodas and ice cream.

He could have stayed in his seat and watched the game in person — that’s the reason millions of people go to see baseball in the first place — but the lure of a third bucket of nachos proved too difficult to resist.

Baltimore Orioles fans like Manny LeGros eat as many buckets of nachos with chili as they can during a nine-inning game. Gorging yourself on food "is how you show you're a real fan," LeGros says.

“I’m closer to the food from here,” LeGros explained. “I wish someone would bring food to my seat on a conveyor belt so I don’t have to walk at all.”

The left-field sections at Camden Yards are part of the growing trend of all-you-can-eat style options in major league ballparks. For $40 per ticket in the section, fans are entitled to a buffet-style choice that includes all the above-mentioned foods and even salad — but only to mitigate the heartburn from the chili.

“Here’s the situation,” LeGros said. “The Red Sox, the Yankess, those are competitive teams. The Orioles are 33 games below .500. If the team’s gonna suck donkey balls, why shouldn’t I stuff my face?”

LeGros uses a sickly appropriate baseball metaphor when admitting he eats “double to triple” the amount of food that he would if it were not being shoveled out of bottomless troughs.

“I mostly go for the hot dogs,” he said. “They have cold stuff like ice cream. I’ve had a bunch of the ice cream. Oh, I tried one thing of salad too, because last year they didn’t have a salad. But I didn’t finish it. It’s nice that they’re trying for healthier stuff, but I’m at a ballpark.”

LeGros said he wants to take a road trip to Cleveland, where the Indians promote their all-you-can-eat section on their website with the opening tagline of, “How much food can you eat?” while offering fans a chance to “test their limitations.” He also wants to visit Detroit, and buy a ticket to “Trough of the Tigers,” where hungry Tigers fans eat nachos and ice cream out of “bottomless” metal trenches.

The all-you-can-eat trend worries some critics, like the American Medical Association, which notes that nearly 34 percent of all American adults and 17 percent of children are obese. Given America’s epidemic of obesity, they also question whether it is socially responsible for teams to set up these all-you-can-eat sections.

But baseball executives like Ed Pattermann believe that having a legion of overeating fans gives them a business advantage — even, perhaps, an edge on the field.

“Baseball teams can fatten their margins with a suite of ancillary services catering to the morbidly obese,” Patterman said. “These people will need a valet service, help getting out of their car, electric scooters, assistance getting to their seats — their super-size seats, which we can sell at a premium. Often they’ll need medical assistance at the ballpark, which is why we’re opening an Orioles medical clinic under the right-field bleachers.”

In addition to noting that the fatter fans are, the harder they’ll find it to travel to distant ballparks, Pattermann also notes one exciting plan the ball club plans to debut next season.

“When we crunched the numbers, we found that when our players dive into the stands after pop fouls, their injuries cost us millions in lost playing time,” Pattermann said. “If we pack the first two rows of seats with fat people — we’ll auction off the privilege of sitting there to our fattest and most affluent fans — their huge girth will act as cushions. If those worthless human cattle can cushion just one or two landings a year, that’s a huge difference in the amount of productivity we can wring out of a ballplayer.”

For Barbara and Steve Zaftig of Cockeysville, Md., the gluttony seats are the place to get the most value out of their trips to the park. “Everything is overpriced in ballparks,” Barbara Zaftig said. “The hot dogs are $5. The sodas are $6. Even the pretzels, are overpriced. It’s good that you don’t have to deal with any of that.”

When asked about the irony of going all the way to a professional baseball game only to ignore the highly trained professional athletes in favor of a bargain restaurant, Steve Zaftig scoffed. “No it’s better. No one wants to battle a 600 lb. man like me to catch a foul ball. Besides, eating less is un-American. It’s, like, socialist or something.”