Tab Stab

Coca-Cola recently announced that it will stop making Tab diet soda. Coke also announced that it will stop making “ZICO Coconut Water,” “Coca-Cola Life,” and “Odwalla,” none of which I’d ever heard of, much less tasted. But Tab? Tab hits home.

Hearing that Tab is being discontinued is kind of like hearing news of the death of an Hollywood star from long ago who you assumed had died long ago. You feel sad but also somewhat surprised that the person was still around. Not having had a Tab in decades, I assumed that it had gone to the great soft drink graveyard in the sky long ago.

Tab was a staple of the Webner household when I was growing up. Tab was the first diet drink introduced by Coca-Cola, and the first food item of any kind that I remember seeing advertised as a “diet” option. Mom fought a long, desperate twilight struggle to keep her weight down, so Tab was a natural item to add to the family refrigerator. With its kicky, quasi-psychedelic logo and flourescent can, Tab was very much a product of the ’60s. It was made the saccharine as the sugar substitute and became enormously popular in the ’70s, when dieting really took off, but then faded away find after Coke introduced Diet Coke and began pushing that beverage in lieu of Tab.

I’ve quaffed a Tab or two in my lifetime, the most recent time probably being while playing Pong on the Atari system we had in the family room of our split-level house, and I recall it as having a distinctive, almost peculiar taste. Not bad, necessarily, or good, either, for that matter, just . . . distinctive. You got used to it, and some people got almost addicted to it. Tab had its devoted fans who kept the brand alive when most people had forgotten it and it accounted for a tiny fraction of Coke’s total beverage sales. I knew one person who kept cases of Tab in his office and drank one with every lunch, which incidentally consisted of the same sandwich from Subway.

People who crave that unique Tab flavor are very sad these days, and are probably scrambling to use the internet to buy up as much of the product as they can in order to build up a lifetime supply. For the rest of us who lived with Tab long ago, we give a wistful salute to another childhood product that we will see no more.

Back To The Oven

Yesterday I went back to my favorite restaurant to have my favorite dish for the first time in months. The restaurant is Indian Oven, located over on East Main Street on the outskirts of downtown Columbus, and the dish is lamb korma, at medium-plus on the spice scale.

No words can adequately capture what it is like to have your favorite meal after a prolonged withdrawal period. Let’s just say it’s almost a religious experience, and the lamb korma was every bit as good as I remembered. I took my time in eating, carefully mixed the meat, sauce, and rice as shown below, and savored every delicious bite.

If you haven’t had your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant in a while, I encourage you to do so, whether through in-person dining, as I did for lunch yesterday, or through carry out if you are more comfortable with that. Restaurants have been hit hard and need our support. Who wants to get to the end of this cursed pandemic only to find out that a favorite restaurant that helped to define the contours of your enjoyable “normal” life has closed forever?

The Random Restaurant Tour — XL

This summer we have been trying to support all of the local businesses around Stonington — especially restaurants, which really need the traffic to stay in business and which face unique challenges in achieving appropriate social distancing and sanitation in the coronavirus era. Every week, we’ve tried to go to at least one local-area restaurant for a hearty meal and a very generous tip for our server. This week, as our stay in Stonington is coming to a close, we’re looking to complete a final circuit of all of our summer options.

Last night we went to the Fin & Fern, which has become a mainstay this summer. It’s located next to the mailboat dock and features a really good and diverse menu. It also made the decision to open when a lot of restaurants were still debating their options and resolutely stayed the course all summer, offering fine, and safely served, meals. I’ve become very fond indeed of the F&F short rib and mashed potatoes, and Kish swears they have an amazing Caesar salad. (I wouldn’t know, because when it comes to salads, I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him.)

Last night, though, I went for the lobster stew, shown above, and a bacon cheeseburger with fries. The lobster stew was a creamy treat, served piping hot with lots of big chunks of lobster and accompanied (of course!) by oyster crackers. And the cheeseburger was a grilled-to-perfection medium rare, with thick pieces of smoked bacon and just the right amount of fries. It was a fine way to bid the Fin & Fern adieu until next year.

We’re all going to try to forget 2020, and for good reason. But there are some parts of the year that I will remember, and the restaurants that opened up and offered patrons a dash of normalcy amidst the craziness will be one of them. Thanks to the Fin & Fern for some great food and a friendly atmosphere when we really needed it the most.

One Last Lobster Roll

Our time in Stonington is rapidly drawing to a close. After more than four months of working remotely from the salty shores of the Penobscot Bay, we’ll soon be heading back to the Midwest.

When a very pleasant sojourn is ending, it’s important to lock in those memories about things that make a place special. That means large gulps of salty air on morning walks, and feeling foggy mist on your arms and face, and touching rough granite rocks, and hearing a few more locals talk with those unique Maine accents. And of course it means a lobster roll, too, because lobster is one of the flavors of Maine.

Fortunately, the Harbor Cafe in Stonington makes an exceptional lobster roll: a split-top bun, toasted and lightly buttered, loaded with fresh lobster in a light sauce. You get heaping amounts of lobster with every crunchy bite. We headed there for one last lobster roll yesterday, and got something to savor.

Breakfast Mutation

Once, I was a big breakfast person.  Mom was a charter member of the “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” cult, and she insisted on our having a “healthy breakfast” before we headed off to school.

In those days, a “health breakfast” meant a big bowl of Frosted Flakes, Captain Crunch, or Quake during the warmer months, and oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, or some other hot cereal — always with brown sugar, of course — and a glass of juice, and a glass of whole milk, and probably some toast with jelly, besides.  Fortified and carboloaded with our “healthy breakfasts” and bundled up against the morning chill, the Webner kids went out to wait for the school bus and take on the world.

But over the years, my tastes and breakfast interests mutated.  Some of it was due to speed; there just doesn’t seem like a lot of time in the morning to make a big breakfast.  Some of it was due to weight; at some point, large mixing bowls of sugary cereal suddenly didn’t seem like such a wise move from a belt size standpoint.  And some of it, frankly, was just a matter of taste.  I got to the point where I didn’t like the feeling of gobbling down a bunch of food first thing in the morning.  Restricting my intake to a cup of coffee and a small glass of orange juice left me feeling a bit lighter and less logy.  And I also figured that if I limited myself to a small breakfast, that would leave plenty of room on the calorie counter for a nice lunch.

Is breakfast “the most important meal of the day,” as Mom’s creed dictated?  Beats me!  Given the ever-changing “science” of human dietary needs and food pyramids, I doubt if anyone really knows.  These days, I pretty much just for go what makes me feel better.  I suppose if I was going out and waiting for the school bus in the chill morning air, then taking a loud, rattling, 45-minute, seat belt-free ride with a bunch of other rambunctious kids headed off to school and charged up by their own intake of sugary cereals I might feel differently.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XXXIX)

I can’t even remember the last time I had lunch at a food truck.  It’s been at least the six months of COVIDmania, for certain, and given that winter isn’t prime food truck territory, it was probably a good six months before that.  So when we saw that a food truck was going to be parking at Billings Marine, the boatyard in our neighborhood, going there to have a food truck lunch was an easy call.  I didn’t even care what kind of food the truck was offering–just the chance to get something hot and eat it outside, in a different setting, was irresistible.

So yesterday we hoofed it over to Billings during the lunch hour and took stock of Gott Lunch?, a truck that serves breakfast and lunch and is going to be camped at the boatyard from 9-4 every day.  Gott Lunch? offers a delectable array of hot sandwiches, all of which are served on toasted bread.  Everything on the menu looked good, so choosing a sandwich was tough, but after careful deliberation lasting about three milliseconds I went for a Philly steak melt with some mac ‘n cheese on the side.  The sandwich was great, and what really put it into awesome territory was the bread–a dense, crunchy multigrain that was loaded with flavor.  Put some grilled steak, melted cheese, and grilled onions on that toasted bread, let the melted cheese and grilled steak juice sink into the nooks and crannies of the toasted slices, add a few forkfuls of mac and swigs of cold water, and gobble it all down outdoors, and you’ve got a lunch to savor.   

We’ve all been good about accepting the reality of the coronavirus and modifying our behavior to responsibly account for the risks posed by a global pandemic, and our family has been no exception.  And that was one of the things that made our visit to Gott Lunch? so special.  Having lunch at a food truck was a highlight, because even though the food was terrific, what we really got to taste was a tiny bite of normalcy.

Salt Intolerance

Do human taste buds and flavor tolerances change as human beings age?  Or are they just putting more salt — much, much more salt — into some foods these days?

I’m guessing it’s a little bit of both.  

I’ve definitely changed my application of salt to food as the years have gone by.  I used to reflexively salt things like cheeseburgers, steaks, eggs, and corn on the cob, but have long since stopped doing that.  These days, I rarely put salt on anything.  I’m a big fan of black pepper, and I like to apply seasonings like paprika and cayenne to give food an extra flavor kick.  But salt has moved to the back of the seasoning cabinet.

But I think it’s also true that many restaurants simply are a lot more liberal with their salting.  I’ve had to edit my list of restaurant foods because some orders are simply too salty to be enjoyed.  I’ve long since stopped getting carryout Chinese, because most places have so much sodium in their General Tso’s chicken that you kind of wonder whether the General was some kind of pathetic salt addict.  And McDonald’s fries are also at the verboten end of the salt spectrum.  Lately some pizzas also seem to be edging toward the forbidden zone.

Sometimes it’s just too tempting to try that piece of pizza, but I always end up deeply regretting it.  I find myself drinking glass after glass of water to make up for the salt intake, and I wake up at night feeling like every ounce of moisture has been sucked out of my body and you could use a straight razor to shave salt crystals off my tongue.  And then I vow that another food item must go onto the roster of banned items.  

This summer the GV Jogger generously got me a great t-shirt that says “Stay Salty.”  It refers to my personality, not my taste buds.

At The Burnt Cove Boil

Tonight we tried a new place for dinner. It’s called the Burnt Cove Boil, and it was great. I only wish we’d found it sooner.

In Maine, if you’re talking about a “boil,” you’re talking about shellfish. The BCB offers you a prime picnic table right next to the waters of Burnt Cove, paper towels, a succulent Stonington crab, steamed corn on the cob, a whole lobster, a wooden pick to extricate the crab and lobsters meat, and an ice cream sandwich for dessert — all for a very reasonable price. Oh, and one other thing — a baseball-sized rock to smash the assorted claws, legs, and tails as part of the participatory dining process. Beverages are BYOB.

The food was terrific and fresh from the boat, the setting was beautiful, and the shellfish smashing felt pretty darned satisfying after a long day of remote work. Burnt Cove Boil, in Stonington, is highly recommended. Be sure to ask for Jake.

Seeking Skillet Suggestions

We’ve got a cool new helper in the kitchen.  Dr. Science and the GV Jogger sent us a skillet as a housewarming gift, to help round out our very limited supply of Stonington cooking implements. 

The skillet was hand forged by the skilled blacksmiths and treated by the artisans at the Lockhart Ironworks of Logan, Ohio.  It’s a beautiful piece of work that even came with a cool mini-skillet that we’ve hung in a place of honor on the magnetic strip that runs along one wall of our kitchen.

I’ve always wanted a true skillet, which is one of the most versatile cooking devices you can have.  Skillets also can become kind of heirloom items that get passed down from generation to generation.  So, I want to make sure I treat this skillet with the care and respect it so richly deserves.  The key is to make sure that the skillet becomes properly seasoned and develops a natural non-stick surface.  The Lockhart Ironworks note says that it has already pre-heated the finished skillet and treated it with a layer of coconut oil for seasoning purposes.  It recommends that we apply a thin coat of our “preferred oil” and cook a meat that is rich in fat or oil during the first few uses to help with the seasoning process.  And of course the skillet needs to be carefully dried and oiled after each use to prevent rusting.

So, I’m seeking instruction and guidance from my internet friends.  What should our “preferred oil” be, and what are some good meats to cook to help establish the desired seasoning and achieve the patina that will move this skillet into heirloom territory?  Suggestions would be much appreciated!

Moxie Insistence

Kish found a bottle of Moxie — the legendary official soft drink of Maine — in one of the local grocery stores and brought it home for us to try. I can report the Moxie is actually quite good. In fact, I liked it a lot, from the very first sip. It’s like a bold, flavorful, no-holds-barred root beer with an unknown additional ingredient— like ginger, maybe? You’d expect Mainers to go for something that packs a wallop, and Moxie definitely delivers.

Plus, I love the label on the bottle. When a guy who looks like that insists you drink Moxie, you’d better listen to him.

At Greenhead Lobster

Greenhead Lobster is one of the places where the Stonington lobster fleet unloads its catch.  Once the lobster boats dock at the Greenhead pier, the lobsters are taken from the salt water tanks on the boats, put into plastic bins that are placed on a conveyor belt, then rolled up a ramp to a large holding facility where the bins are removed from the ramp and put into a large salt-water holding tank, shown above.  The holding tank takes up pretty much the entire building and can hold immense quantities of freshly caught live lobster that waits in the tank until it is trucked off to its ultimate destination. 

It’s an interesting operation, and a labor-intensive one.  From the lobster boat crews unloading their catch, to the guy rolling the bins on the conveyor belt, to the guy who removes the bins from the belt and lugs them over to the holding tank, the people you see at Greenhead are all working hard to get America the fresh lobster it loves.  

This year has been a really tough time for people in the lobster trade.  With the coronavirus, many restaurants are closed or operating at reduced capacity, which means reduced markets for the lobsters.  We can’t make up for the reduced demand all by ourselves, of course, but we’ve been trying to pitch in by going down to the retail shop and buying lobster regularly.  You know when you buy from Greenhead that the lobster is absolutely fresh, and you’re getting a great price, too.

If you’re thinking of what to have for dinner tonight, how about some lobster?  The hard-working folks at Greenhead Lobster would appreciate it.

The Lobster Pot

Last night we broke out our trusty lobster pot for the first time this year.  With guests in for a visit, we needed to properly welcome them to Maine with a traditional lobster dinner.

Pretty much every household in Maine has a lobster pot.  They get handed down from generation to generation, or passed along to new people who are moving into the area.  We got our pot using the latter method.  We bought it at an estate sale, which is about right:  Mainers typically won’t let go of a good lobster pot until the Grim Reaper gives them no say in the matter.

The lobster pot has one essential function:  to hold huge quantities of water, and lobsters, until the water can be brought to a boil and the lobsters properly cooked.  Our pot, which has the kind of size and industrial appearance you’d expect to see in a kitchen of an army base, serves its role admirably.  I have no idea how much water it holds, but it’s enough. 

An important part of the whole lobster preparation process is turning the stovetop burners to high and then patiently but expectantly waiting for those uncounted gallons of salty water to come to a boil so the cooking can really begin. 

You don’t watch the pot during that time period, of course.

Grillin’ And Chillin’ (II)

Tonight’s cookout featured split lobster tails — purchased from Greenhead Lobster Co-Op, just a few steps away — and grilled ears of corn.

Lobster tails are easy to cook on the grill — slather some butter and garlic and paprika on them and grill them about four minutes each side, flesh side and shell side — the corn is, too. We cooked it in the husk and it came out perfectly. It’s not a surprise to the grillmeisters out there that everything tastes better with some char on it. It’s definitely true, though.

H/T to the Red Sox Fan/Birthday Boy for the corn grilling concept.

The Comfort Of Cooking Shows

Since we’ve been up in Maine we’ve spent a number of evenings watching competitive cooking shows.  There are two reasons for this.  First, our cable provider offers a surprisingly limited number of options.  And second, there’s just something pleasing and comforting about competitive cooking shows that seem to fit well with the crazy period we are experiencing.

1407187942730We’ve watched and enjoyed Guy’s Grocery Games, Chopped, Big Time Bake, and Beat Bobby Flay.  The shows all follow a kind of playbook.  The contestants are introduced, we learn where they are from, and we hear about their backstory and what they are going to do with the money if they win the competition, so “rooting interests” can be established.  Then we meet the judges and see what curious culinary curveballs are going to thrown at the contestants — who must try to whip up an entree that uses, say, pickle-juice popsicles or ingredients that they can balance in a pizza delivery box.  And, of course, the competition proceeds pursuant to a clock countdown, so there’s always the risk that a contestant will fail to get their food on the plate before time is called.

Why do we like these shows?  For one, the contestants inevitably end up impressing you with their know-how, poise, and creativity, whether they win or lose.  You can pick up some useful cooking tips and techniques along the way, too.  But mostly, for me, there’s a comfort in the fact that the shows and contestants are all good-natured, nobody takes the competition super-seriously, and the stakes just aren’t that high.  The contestants would all like to win the money, or the trip to some tropical location, sure, but they are going to do just fine, regardless.  And they are working on food, not life or death scenarios — and most of the dishes they produce look pretty darned good.

It would be interesting to know whether the ratings of cooking shows has increased during this crazy time.  And I also wonder:  when the world does return to normal — as it will one day — and we get back to a more robust cable system, will we still watch these shows, or will the need for the simple comfort they provide have vanished?