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.

Refrigerator Envy

On Thanksgiving, everyone could use a large, empty refrigerator that is about twice its normal size. You know — a refrigerator that is large enough to allow you to retrieve a can of Diet Coke without risking knocking over multiple aluminum-foil covered bowls, serving dishes, and gravy boats that have been carefully stacked and balanced to consume every square inch of scarce refrigerator space?

Why can’t somebody invent an expandable refrigerator that you could use for the holidays? Like dining room table manufacturers did years ago, when they figured out that you could design tables to be extended so as to include an extra leaf or two when needed? Ideally, the expandable holiday refrigerator would include a special pie storage area, a beer bottle rack that would project out when the door is opened, and an extra large storage area to carefully secure all of the leftover turkey that will be used over the coming week.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving! Or, as it will also be known in our household this year, happy Big-Ass Pie Day, as Kish bought a super-sized pumpkin pie for us to gobble down as part of the festivities.

Hey, if there ever was a year where you could justify an extra portion of pumpkin pie, without guilt, it’s 2020. And some extra whipped cream, too.

The Random Restaurant Tour —XLI

Here’s some tangible evidence that the entrepreneurial spirit in America remains strong — a new restaurant has opened up in our neighborhood. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with all of the extraordinary challenges it poses for food service establishments, some people had sufficient confidence in their food and their business model to give a new restaurant a go. It’s great to see, and naturally we had to check it out.

The new restaurant is called Chapman’s Eat Market. It’s open for business in the old Max & Erma’s location on Third Street in German Village. If you ever visited the place when it was Max & Erma’s, you won’t recognize the interior of Chapman’s. All of the kitschy Max & Erma’s bric a brac has been removed, leaving a very clean, spare look. The space never looked better, or felt roomier — which is a good thing when you’re setting up tables that are appropriately distanced for your diners.

Chapman’s serves a set tasting menu that is a nice change of pace from the normal “order off the menu” restaurant. When we went on Friday we received an eight-course meal that included two dessert courses. Every one of the dishes, from the smoked salmon fritters that began our culinary adventure to the yuzu key lime pie that ended our journey, was excellent. My favorites were the pork shoulder lettuce wrap, pictured above, which included grilled pork shoulder, nuoc cham, cucumbers, jicama, peanuts and mint, the khao soi, with yellow curry, shrimp, chicken, fried noodles, pea leaf salad, banana, tomato, and peanut, and the duck confit leg and mole rojo, with cowboy beans, Carolina Gold Rice, pickled chayote, and roasted squash. I ate it all with relish, even though the dishes included more vegetable matter than I would ever have ordered for myself.

Three things stood out from our Chapman’s experience. The first was flavor; this is not a restaurant that is fearful of adding a nice kick to its dishes and laying out some creative spice and seasoning combinations. The second was texture; most of the dishes featured a very interesting and enjoyable crunch as part of the package. And the third was variety. In one eight-course setting, the offerings touched the bases of classic American, Chinese, Italian, and Mexican cuisine, sometimes in delightful combination. And the key lime pie, pictured below, was a beautifully tart way to bring a fine meal to closure.

If you want to try a new place and get a meal that might just make 2020 a bit more palatable, put Chapman’s on your checklist. You may well see us there — from an appropriate distance, of course.

Bacon Masks

The Hormel company has developed a bacon-scented face mask. The company created “breathable bacon” masks to promote its “black label” bacon, and a limited number of the masks, one of which is shown above, will be distributed, for free, to people who signed up for a chance to be selected for a mask on the Hormel website and are chosen to be one of the lucky recipients.

Alas, if you haven’t signed up for the bacon mask lottery already, you’ve missed your chance. According to the CNN article linked above, the contest closed on October 28.

We’ve already seen lots of designer masks in the mask market, so I suppose scented masks were inevitable. On the widely accepted theory that a little bacon makes everything better, experimentation with a bacon-scented face mask was inevitable. Can milk chocolate, peanut butter, and chili scented masks be far behind — if they haven’t been introduced already? And I suppose you can argue that a bacon-scented mask serves a scientific purpose: since one of the most definitive symptoms of COVID-19 is loss of sense of smell, a heady, bacon-scented mask could serve as a kind of early warning system. If you couldn’t smell your mask anymore, you would know it is time to go get tested.

I wouldn’t want a bacon-scented mask, which seems like it would get old pretty darned fast. Still, you have to admire Hormel’s initiative. Who’d have thought that 2020 would see giant leaps in the design — and smell — of face masks, and the exploration of new frontiers in everyday exposure to the wonders of bacon? It’s just further proof that necessity is the mother of invention.

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.