Cereal Advances

With great advances being made in space flight technology, rocketry, electric cars, and communications devices, it’s nice to see that the cereal companies are keeping up their end of the bargain.

Kellogg’s has introduced Peeps cereal, which looks like it consists of Froot Loop-type rings and small marshmallow chicks and bunnies—just in time for Easter. It seems as though that combination would be sweet enough to curl your teeth, but perhaps that’s the point. And judging from the number of boxes that were absent, it looks like Peeps will be a hit.

When will the cereal companies finally drop the pretense and just start putting chocolate bunnies and malted milk eggs into cereal boxes?

Hiking’s Reward

After our hike through the Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve, we drove over to nearby Yellow Springs, Ohio for lunch. And on our way back to Columbus we decided to treat ourselves to a classic Ohio privilege: getting some homemade ice cream from Young’s Jersey Dairy, a legendary spot located on the short stretch of Route 68 between Yellow Springs and I-70. We weren’t the only ones who had that brilliant idea, either; the parking lot was packed with people who were enjoying a beautiful day.

We went through the drive-through and were delighted to learn that mint chocolate chip — my favorite — was the ice cream flavor of the day, which meant we got two enormous scoops for the price of one. I got mine in one of their colossal waffle cones, which admirably holds the ice cream and prevents the drippy, melty spillage that often occurs when you are eating a cone in the car. The ice cream was great — and very reasonably priced, I might add — and the cones lasted until we were more than halfway back to Columbus.

It’s amazing what a day trip outside of Columbus on a bright early spring day after weeks of crappy winter weather can do for your mood. Topping things off with some homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream doesn’t hurt, either.

Ancient Seeds Can Still Bear Fruit

Herodotus, Galen, and Pliny the Elder, names from the ancient Greek and Roman world that are familiar to the classical scholars among us, all praised the fruit of the Judean date palm. But in the centuries after the heydays of the Greeks and Romans, the date groves fell into decline and the distinctive Judean date palm plant disappeared — until now, thanks to the efforts of some Israeli scientists. And the reappearance of the plants tells us something noteworthy about the sophistication of the ancient farmers who grew the plant and, potentially, the hardiness of seeds.

The scientists located ancient seeds of the long-lost plant in caves and the ruins of a fortress built by King Herod and have used the 2,000-year-old seeds to grow thriving plants, like the one shown in the photo above. From hundreds of seeds that were collected, scientists selected a few dozen of the best candidates, soaked them in water and fertilizer, and then planted them — and, amazingly, six plants sprouted. The scientists then used the grown plants to conduct a genetic analysis that showed that the Judean date palm contained elements of African date palms and Middle Eastern date palms.

In short, the Judean farmers of long ago had engaged in careful breeding programs to try to produce the most succulent dates — which is why many people in the ancient world praised the Judean date for its large size, sweetness, and long storage life, as well as claimed medicinal benefits. Those findings suggest that ancient farmers knew what they were doing as they crossed different plants, hoping to enhance specific, desired qualities of the fruit.

The successful regeneration of the Judean date palm, centuries after its disappearance, from seeds that have sat, unused, for millennia may teach us something about the longevity of seeds, and may mean that other lost plants of the distant past can be recultivated. As for me, I’d like to try one of those famous dates — after the scientists that rescued the variety from oblivion are done experimenting with them, of course.

The Why Of Spillage

Every morning, my first task is to make a pot of fresh coffee. And on the vast majority of mornings, after I fill the pot with water from the faucet, as I am pouring the water from the pot into the coffee maker some water drips from the spout and runs down the side of the pot to the counter. There might be a rare day, once in a great while, when my combination of morning alertness and careful pouring technique prevents any spillage, but 99.9% of the time I’ll need a dish towel to mop up the water.

What causes this annoying event? Your sixth-grade science teacher would tell you it is the so-called “capillary effect” of water, which involves elements of cohesion, adhesion, and surface tension. Basically, water molecules like to stick together, and like to stick to almost anything — including the sides of coffee pots. Once the first water molecule decides to tumble over the spout of the coffee pot and stick to the side — rather than obediently falling into the coffee maker, like a good water molecule should — other water molecules will follow.

This is a common problem, and you’ll see all kinds of tips about how to address it. As for me, I think the best approach is to try to pour the water into the coffee maker very slowly, so there is no chance that the first rogue water molecule will make its break for freedom over the spout and down the side of the pot. But normally the urge to drink some hot coffee is too strong, the pour passes the tipping point, the first bad boy molecule leads the way, more inevitably follow, and it’s time to get the dish towel off the rack again.

This can be annoying, to be sure, but as the U.S. Department of Interior “water science school” website teaches us, capillary action is essential to the health of trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plants — because capillary action is a big part of how they get water from their roots up to their branches, leaves, and flowers. Capillary action also has been a real boon for paper towel makers, because that’s why water creeps up a paper towel that touches a water spill, thereby ensuring that Rosie the lunch counter lady can demonstrate that Bounty is the quicker picker-upper.

So that’s the capillary effect for you — helping trees and Rosie, while adding an inevitable extra step to the morning coffee making process. The morning spill might be irritating, but if that’s the price to pay for flowers and green leaves, I’ll gladly pay it.

Just In Case . . . .

The stories we’ve been hearing from Texas over the past two weeks have been truly horrific. People went without heat during an unprecedented cold snap, without electricity, and without water for days, and many shifted to a survivalist mode. Obviously, the Texas authorities responsible for the power grid have a lot to answer for, and talking about a winter storm of the century doesn’t fully explain how completely the system failed.

Now that the worst of it is over, Texans have been talking on social media about what they learned from this experience–and what they can do to prepare for the next devastating winter storm, or hurricane, or other natural disaster. It’s an interesting topic, and one that those of us in other parts of the country would do well to think about, too. You never know when the weather might wreak havoc with expected utility services and food supplies and leave you to go into survivalist mode. And the unsettling question is: if that were to happen to you, would you be reasonably well prepared?

So what are our friends in Texas saying?

  • Lay in a supply of bottled water, and if a storm is bearing down, fill bathtubs and sinks. Humans need water, and if disaster strikes you just can’t have too much of it.
  • If you live in a standalone structure, buy a generator. People in Texas who had generators that they could rely on during this period say they’ve never made a better use of their money.
  • Know how to shut off your water and drain your pipes, and remember to turn off your water heater when you do.
  • Be sure you’ve got flashlights and batteries.
  • When your plumbing is inoperative, disposable plates, cups and utensils are essential.
  • Get a propane-powered space heater and don’t forget the propane for it.
  • Keep a supply of instant coffee and canned food in the garage.
  • Did I mention bottled water and a generator?

You never know when a crisis might hit. Being prepared for the worst isn’t a bad idea.

A Ramen Story

I’ve been eating a lot of ramen noodle lunches during this COVID shutdown period. I cook up the noodles, toss the unopened, too-salty-for-my-tastes flavor packet into the trash, and then add various items to the noodles and water, like chopped hard-boiled egg, tofu, spinach, tuna fish, chopped onion, or other leftovers from the refrigerator, and always some sriracha sauce, mustard, and horseradish to give the concoction an extra spicy kick. It makes for a hot, satisfying lunch that’s a nice break from sandwiches.

The other day I was waiting for the water to boil and noticed that the back of the noodle packet included a short tribute to the founder of the Nissin Top Ramen brand that is shown in the above photograph. You don’t see tributes to founders on food packets much anymore — in fact, you really don’t see them at all. This one says that the founder, Momofuku Ando, invented instant ramen in Japan and brought it to America in 1970, includes a sketch of his head, and describes him as a “legendary inventor and humanitarian.” The packet also directs you to the Nissin Foods website for more information.

Well, why not learn more about a legendary figure? You can find the referenced website here. It says that Mr. Ando invented instant ramen to deal with food shortages in post-WWII Japan and also invented instant noodles in a cup after noticing Americans eating noodles from cups. It includes photographs of Mr. Ando, including one with him in a lab coat posing with a microscope that sure makes him look like an inventor. The photos indicate that the sketch on the packet is a pretty good likeness, by the way. As for his humanitarian status, the website includes some of Mr. Ando’s sayings that are claimed to still inspire the company, like “be meticulous, yet bold.” Some of Mr. Ando’s other quotes are “always look around you with a great deal of curiosity,” “food is a peace industry,” and “when you cast away greed in adversity, you can find unexpected strength.”

It’s nice to know a little bit more about this person who came up with the idea of instant noodles, which have helped to make my personal shutdown period a bit more tolerable. And, in his honor, I will strive to always “be meticulous, yet bold” in chopping up leftovers and adding inventive combinations to my ramen creations.

Answering The “Kid Questions”

Every parent has had to field their fair share of “kid questions”: those innocent, wide-eyed inquiries that presuppose that Mom and Dad know everything there is to know in the world and can explain it, besides. The classic “kid question,” of course, is “why is the sky blue”?

“Why does food stick to what is supposed to be a no-stick pan?” is another good example of a kid question. And depending upon a parent’s mood at the time, and whether the parent is trying to use a spatula to lift a stuck egg from a frying pan without splitting the yolk, answers might range from some quasi-scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo that you figure will satisfy the kid and cause him or her to stop asking those infernal questions to an honest answer that will give the kid more information than they bargained for, like: “Well, Tommy, sometimes in life things don’t work like they are supposed to, and you’re just going to have to get used to it, okay?”

It’s nice when science lends beleaguered parents a hand and provides information that will allow them to answer those tough questions. Researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences have done just that by carefully examining the no-stick pan issue and publishing their research in the Physics of Fluids journal. The scientists found that dry spots can form even on oiled, “no-stick” pans, and that’s where the food sticks. The dry spots are created by a process called thermocapillary convection, in which oil moves from the hot center of the pan to the cooler edges, and the thin coating of oil in the center of the pan becomes destabilized and eventually ruptures — leaving that dreaded dry spot that threatens to ruin your otherwise perfectly cooked egg. (And if you don’t want thermocapillary convection in your kitchen, the scientists helpfully note: “To avoid unwanted dry spots, the following set of measures should be applied: increasing the oil film thickness, moderate heating, completely wetting the surface of the pan with oil, using a pan with a thick bottom or stirring food regularly during cooking.”).

So there you have it: thermocapillary convection is the right answer. And the great thing about that answer is that once you start talking about thermocapillary convection, capillary length, and oil destabilization, your kid will probably lose interest and stop asking those questions. It turns out they probably didn’t really want an actual answer, they just wanted to reassure themselves that Mom and Dad do know everything there is to know.

Feel free to use “thermocapillary convection” to answer other kid questions, including the “why is the sky blue” head-scratcher. It will serve until your children reach the teenage years, when the questions stop and parents suddenly become far less knowledgeable than friends. 

Scratch One Starbucks

This Starbucks at the corner of Sycamore and Third Street in German Village has closed. It’s fair to say that opinions are divided about that .

The coffee-obsessed Starbucks addicts are sad, of course. They’ll have to go a bit farther for their triple-spice grande cinnamon lattes and scones — but not too much farther, because Starbucks are ubiquitous in Columbus, and there are two other Starbucks that are only short walks and even shorter drives away. On the other hand, people who live in the immediate surroundings, like us, won’t be sorry to this particular Starbucks go. We might lose the so-called “Starbucks effect” — which associates Starbucks locations with higher home prices — but we’ll also lose litter, constant illegal parking by the coffee-crazed customers of the store, and lots of coffee-fueled traffic rattling through our neighborhood. And we’ve still got a nice homegrown coffee emporium, Stauf’s, that’s less than a block away.

The story around the neighborhood is that this Starbucks store, which seemed to be doing a brisk trade, was closed because Starbucks is transitioning to more of a drive-thru business model, and there is no room (fortunately) for a drive-thru set-up at this location. The drive-thru concept seems weird to me, and contrary to the whole coffee house concept in the first place — which, initially at least, sought to offer comfortable chairs and tables and friendly atmospheres that allowed customers to sit and chat and work on their laptops while sipping their cups of Joe. Now it’s grab and go and slug down your sugary concoction in the car.

This location won’t be vacant for long; a local shop that sells handmade soaps and lotions is moving from another location in our neighborhood into the former Starbucks space. And with the closure of the Starbucks those of us who walk the neighborhood won’t have to dodge the Starbucks zealots zooming around corners, mindlessly parking in no-parking spots rather than legal spots, and then backing up through pedestrian crosswalks without so much as a backward glance because they are just too important and rushed to proceed legally. I’m not sad about that.

Cold Day Brunch

I associate wet, sloppy days with . . . pancakes. Back in the day, on Sundays in the winter, the Webners would eat pancakes by the dozen, and I was responsible for preparing the stacks of flapjacks on an electric grill. It was an awesome responsibility for a callow youth, but I enjoyed flicking water onto the grill and hearing it sizzle to make sure the surface was the right temperature, carefully spooning the pancake mixture out to maximize the number of pancakes that could be cooked at one time, watching the pancake batter bubble, and then using the spatula to deftly flip the pancakes over without having one pancake fall onto another. The electric grill is long gone, but I still enjoy the whole pancake process.

Today’s pancakes were served with sausage and scrambled eggs, and they really hit the spot. Now, it’s time to work off those calories by sinking onto the couch and binge-watching TV for the rest of the day.

The Winter Warmer

The weather took a foul turn yesterday, even by the dismal, gray standards of a Columbus winter. We got freezing rain in the morning that turned the brick sidewalks of German Village into a treacherous skating rink, and then more freezing rain mixed with sleet as the day progressed.

When one must endure such a cold, dreary day, it helps to turn to old favorites in the hot nourishment category. So, last night I prepared grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup made with whole milk for us. I grilled the sandwiches on our big skillet, lightly buttering some flax bread to get a good crust and using Kraft American cheese for maximum meltiness. (Technically, the classic version of grilled cheese sandwiches requires Wonder Bread, but I haven’t consumed a slice of Wonder Bread since, like, 1974.)

The soup was piping hot and deliciously creamy, the grilled cheese had a good crunch and great gooiness, and I cut the sandwich diagonally to facilitate the required dipping of the sandwich halves into the soup — because even though the soup and sandwich were each tasty on their own, they only achieve maximum home cooking greatness when the soup directly infuses the crunchy bread and melted cheese. The combination was washed down with a glass of milk, and it definitely hit the spot on a gray winter’s day.

After eating my soup and sandwich and thinking about the countless grilled cheese and tomato soup family meals we enjoyed at our kitchen table when I was a kid, I felt better. Warmer, too.

My Chopping Block

We’ve all been doing a lot of cooking at home during the last year or so, and I’m no exception. I’ve especially enjoyed making ramen noodle concoctions and stews, and experimenting with different flavors, seasonings, and ingredient combinations. I also like making those dishes because they typically involve some chopping and cutting.

Cutting and chopping are probably my favorite parts of the entire cooking process. For one thing, when it’s time to cut and chop I get to use my handcrafted, now well-scarred cutting board, which makes me feel like a real kitchen professional — even though I’m admittedly not an adroit chopper, and wouldn’t dream of doing the rapid-fire, fingers-at-risk chopping that you see on the cooking shows. For another, it’s just fun to get out a knife and experience the tactile sensations of dicing things up to whatever size you desire, then grandly sweeping them off the board into a simmering pot. Add some good music and you’ve got a nice little cooking experience going.

I particularly like the feel of cutting and chopping onions and potatoes. I’m not sure why, but during this continuing stay-at-home period attacking defenseless plant matter is especially enjoyable.

2,000 Years Of Fast Food

Pompeii — the Roman town that was buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. — continues to tell us some interesting stuff about the everyday lives of the ancient Romans. Excavations have uncovered apparent brothels, bars, homes — and now, a fast food stand, pictured above, that was operating on a busy street corner.

The fast food stand evidently was closed in a hurry as the volcano spewed the ash that buried the town. Archaeologists found the remains of that fateful day’s offerings in some of the pots embedded in the brightly colored food stand. The menu when the volcano blew included duck, pig, goat, snails, fish, fava beans, and a paella-like combo dish. And from that chicken that is painted on the front of the stand, I’m guessing that everybody’s favorite poultry was in one of those pots from time to time, too.

The excavation also uncovered a scenario that might be familiar to modern fast-food stand operators. The remains of a person who was lifting the lid on one of the pots of food were also uncovered — leading archaeologists to speculate that somebody fleeing the eruption couldn’t resist stopping to grab some free food when they should have kept running.

The ancient Romans seem like they were a lot like us, suggesting that the basic motivations of people — and the key concepts of point of purchase advertising that attracts them — haven’t changed that much over thousands of years. The brilliantly decorated food stand, obviously calculated to catch the eye of passersby, with the no doubt delectable smell of simmering food, looks like a modern food truck or an open-air food stand on the street of New York City. The pork, chicken, and fish that was served would be at home in any modern fast-food outlet, too. The only thing that appears to be missing from the Roman stand is a dirty water hot dog.

Gift Box Goodies

Yesterday as I was working at home I heard a rustling outside and a kind of thump on the doorstep. Those sounds, coupled with Betty’s frantic barking, told me there had been a delivery. I went outside and found a package, and when we opened it, we discovered a “made in Oregon” gift box from our friends who live in the Portland area. The box included cheeses, nuts, summer sausage, salmon, marionberry fruit spread, and chocolates — all with an Oregon provenance.

It’s a great way to showcase a state’s products, and it made me wonder if there is a similar collection of Ohio products that is available to ship for the holidays. We enjoyed getting a taste of Oregon, which we hit pretty hard last night and which made our holidays more merry. Thanks, Ben and Rebecca!

The End Of Eating Out

In Stonington, Maine, the Harbor Cafe is a bedrock of the downtown business area. During the winter, it’s typically the only restaurant open on Deer Isle. It serves a great menu of classic diner fare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with many chowders, stews, fish dishes, lobster rolls, and other classic New England favorites mixed in. It’s a great place to go for a glass of Allagash White and a bowl of haddock chowder (with extra oyster crackers and hot sauce, of course) and, if you’re up to it, a piece of one of their great, homemade pies.

But now the local newspaper is reporting that the Harbor Cafe is in danger of closing. Thanks to the coronavirus, its revenue have been cut by a third this year, and it still has to pay rent, and water, and the other costs of running a restaurant business. As a result, the Cafe is in danger of closing, which would cost the downtown area an iconic business and eliminate 12 jobs on Deer Isle. A former employee has started a Facebook fundraising campaign to try to help the Cafe stay in business.

The Harbor Cafe is not alone in its struggles to survive a business-crushing global pandemic. CNN reported this week that 17 percent of America’s restaurants have closed — about 110,000 restaurants in all. We’ve seen closures on the restaurant row on Gay Street and elsewhere in Columbus, and the CNN story reports that the news for those of us who like to dine out from time to time may get even worse: a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association found that 37% of respondents say it is “unlikely” they will be in business in six months unless things change.

In short, an economic disaster is happening right in front of our eyes — although many of us, keeping to our snug coronavirus cocoons in our houses, haven’t really noticed it yet. The shutdown orders, the changing instructions from health officials, and the fear that has been generated is decimating an important small business sector and causing a loss of jobs that won’t come springing back if and when a vaccine gets here. 100,000 restaurants aren’t going to magically reopen when the “all clear” is finally sounded.

I don’t like the idea of Stonington, Maine, without the Harbor Cafe, and I don’t like the idea of an America without a rich smorgasbord of restaurant options. If you agree with me, I urge you to get out to your local restaurant of choice, have a hearty meal, and maybe splurge on that piece of pie, too. Stimulus packages are nice, but what restaurants really need right now are full dining rooms.

Edited to Add: Just to make it clear, I’m not suggesting that people disregard governmental orders or flout social distancing norms. Most of the restaurants I know of (including the Harbor Cafe) have implemented social distancing in entrance and egress rules, creating distance and/or putting up barriers between tables, masked staff, and other measures to make dining out as safe as possible. And if, notwithstanding the safety measures, you just don’t feel comfortable dining in, carryout is always an option to help support your local restaurants.

A Cookie-Free Christmas

As regular readers of this blog know, my annual tradition is to bake holiday cookies for clients and friends as a humble token of my appreciation. At this time of year, I would normally be scouring the internet baking websites, old cookbooks, and ethnic recipes for new Christmas cookies to bake and add to the mix.

This year, regrettably, I’m going to break the tradition.

There are several reasons for my decision, all of which stem from the coronavirus scourge. Many of my clients’ offices are closed, and people are working remotely. Part of the idea of the tradition is to send a batch of cookies that can be put out at the office coffee station that everyone could share and enjoy as a small pleasure and little taste of the holiday spirit. Thanks to COVID-19, those office gathering points simply don’t exist this year.

I also think there are safety questions about baking and then shipping handmade cookies. The health care authorities carefully say there is “no evidence” that coronavirus is spread through cooked food, and I take them at their word. But there’s more to the issue than that. The cookie exercise requires getting the ingredients at the store, buying tins, baking the cookies, and then having them shipped and delivered. In an era where we are being urged to reduce our contacts with people, that’s a lot of points of contact that could be avoided by not baking the cookies in the first place.

And I’ve also come to realize that there is a pretty broad spectrum of personal reactions to the ongoing pandemic. At one end of the spectrum are people who are still largely isolating and won’t go to restaurants, at the other end are fatalists who think we’ve overreacted and are willing to take their chances in doing just about anything, and there are lots of different points of view in between those two poles. I don’t know whether the recipients would feel uncomfortable about getting some home-baked cookies delivered to their door–and potentially causing that kind of reaction would be inconsistent with the whole point of the exercise in the first place.

So, I’ve reluctantly concluded there will be no cookie baking this holiday season. It makes me wistful, but a lot of traditions have been interrupted this year. Next year, the fates and vaccine manufacturers willing, maybe I’ll do a double batch to compensate for the Cookie-Free Christmas of 2020.