The Ghosts Of Johnny Marzetti

It’s amazing what you can learn just by looking at signs in downtown Columbus.  Yesterday, as I was walking past a building that is being rehabbed and rebranded near the intersection of Broad and High Streets, I learned that its first floor space once housed Marzetti’s Restaurant — and its signature creation, Johnny Marzetti.

Really?  Who knew that, for more than 30 years now, I’ve worked less than a block away from the birthplace of one of the most hated school cafeteria offerings of my childhood?

johnny-marzetti-2It’s hard to imagine that Johnny Marzetti was actually created by any human being, much less somebody in middle-of-the-road Columbus, Ohio.  I never ate the Johnny Marzetti created by the former Marzetti’s Restaurant, but the dish served under that name by the hair-netted cafeteria staff of the Akron-area schools seemed like it must have been concocted by the devil — or perhaps was the residue of nuclear detonation tests on the island of Bimini.

Inevitably tepid, baked to a concrete brick-like consistency with a sharp-edged crust, flavored with tooth-curling, industrial strength tomato sauce purchased in garbage can-sized drums, shot through with suspiciously chewy ersatz meat by-products, and plopped on to your tray with a resounding thwack, Johnny Marzetti was always greeted with a groan by the kids at Rankin Elementary and Eastview Junior High.  And when, as was inevitably the case, the rigid pile of Johnny Marzetti went largely unconsumed and was returned at the tray drop-off at the end of lunch period, it was carefully scraped into a container — presumably to be recycled for another lunch next week, or perhaps used as mortar on the foundation of the school addition being constructed next door.

Johnny Marzetti — along with the other dish that my sister Cath and I loathed and called “hairy fatty chicken” — was largely responsible for converting me into a dedicated bring your own sack lunch student.  Why expose yourself to the possibility of picking at that inert pink mound of glop when you could have a PB and J made by Mom, with an apple and a Twinkie, too?  In its own demonic way, the Johnny Marzetti served by school cafeterias made us all appreciate the loving cooking efforts of our mothers.

That location being rehabbed at 16 East Broad Street now carries a lot of baggage for me.  I wonder if a restaurant will ultimately start up in that space — and if so, I wonder if I’ll have the guts to overcome the ghosts of Johnny Marzetti and try it.

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A Taste Of Old Akron

The Webner family social media wires were burning up yesterday with the news that Swensons, an Akron-area tradition, may be planning on opening up a new hamburger joint in the Columbus area.  According to the article, Swensons has begun franchising and has indicated an interest in the Columbus market — they’re just looking for the right place.

e2fb43610d0ce3cec3e0f3ac6dabdfd1-akron-hit-theThis potential development burst like a bomb among the members of the Webner clan, because Swensons’ hamburgers were one of the foods we associate with our days growing up as kids in Akron.  Some days, we would buy sacks of burgers and milkshakes at Swensons, where to my recollection the meat had a very distinctive, somewhat sweet taste, and then go to the nearby McDonalds to get french fries because Grandpa Neal insisted that McDonalds’ thinner-cut fries were preferable to the Swensons’ variety.  Other times, we would go to Sky-Way, just a few miles down Market Street, which also was an old-line burger place.  At Sky-Way, you would drive up and park and then get served by kids who would skate up to the window of the car, attached a tray to the drivers’ side door, and bring your order directly to you without falling down.  The Sky-Way burgers were good, too, but it was the delivery method that really made an impression.

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Swensons, or Sky-Way?  In Akron, it was the eternal question and the basis for endless debate.  The Webners were enumenical on the issue — we happily consumed both.

I haven’t had a Swensons burger in years, but it and Sky-Way are enshrined in my fast food memory banks, right up there with the cheeseburgers UJ and Grandma and Grandpa Neal and I got at Riviera Lanes and broasted chicken and the old-fashioned pizza Mom got from a place with an Italian name that I don’t remember.

And when I hear that a Swensons might be opening up, I think two things.  First, if I go there, will the burgers taste like what I dimly recall and live up to my expectations?  And second, if Swensons is coming, can Sky-Way be far behind?

“Buddy Boy” And “Missy”

Recently one of my friends responded to an email from a colleague by addressing him as “buddy boy.”  It was the first time I’d heard that phrase in a while, and it was used perfectly, in line with the standards of my childhood.

00019748When I was a kid, there were definite gradations of parental reprimand.  Reprimands, of course, were different from punishment.  Punishment was typically physical, and could range from a swat on the behind to loss of TV-watching privileges to having to sit at the kitchen table until you ate all of the vegetables on your plate to being “grounded.”  Reprimands, on the other hand, were verbal, for offenses not quite meriting more vigorous discipline.  “Buddy boy” — as in “Listen, buddy boy” — typically was used with a relatively mild form of verbal censure, and when it was directed your way you knew that you had trangressed, probably by acting “too big for your britches” and presuming too much familiarity or expressing an opinion on some adult topic.  “Young man” was the next step up the scolding ladder, and usually was employed if you’d acted in an impolite or unmannerly way, often with respect to an older relative.  And the top form of reproach, which usually was reserved for some inappropriate public behavior, like at school, was to say your full given name, first, middle, and last.  When you heard that, you knew you were really in for it.

There was a similar reprimand ladder for girls.  The female equivalent of “buddy boy” was “Missy,” and the “young lady” replaced “young man,” but the top rung — the full name — was the same.

The reprimand ladder was an effective way of letting a kid know just how badly he or she had crossed the line.  Once a boy understood the censure spectrum, and then heard “buddy boy” directed his way, he knew he had screwed up, but his parents were really annoyed rather than furious.

Of course, these things change, and the “buddy boy” reprimand seems to have fallen out of favor.  In fact, if you run a Google search for “buddy boy” today, you learn from the top hit that it’s the name of a chain of marijuana dispensaries in Denver — so maybe the “buddy boy” message these days would be a little bit mixed.

Chromophobia

Crayola recently announced that it is putting a new color in its box of 24 crayons.  (That’s the standard box that smelled great when you opened it as a kid, not the overpowering big box of 64 crayons that used to have a crayon sharpener hole on the back side that never really worked right.)

crayola-crayon-new-color-03-ht-jef-170913_4x3_992The new color is a shade that Crayola has decided to call “bluetiful.”  The new color is based on a hue, called YinMn, that scientists accidentally discovered while experimenting with electronics materials.  And because a 24-crayon box can only have 24 crayons by definition, the decision to add a new color means that an old color is hitting the cutting room floor.  In this instance, the replaced color is dandelion — presumably, a shade of yellow — that joins mulberry, teal blue, magic mint and other “retired colors” in the “Crayola Hall of Fame.”

I groaned when I read this news.  Don’t scientists have enough to do without discovering new colors?  Don’t scientists know that there are people out there, like me, who think we have too many colors already?  We not only can’t remember where certain colors fall on the color spectrum, which means we never fully grok deep conversations about the outfits people are wearing — hey, is “citron” a kind of yellow, or a green, or something else? — we can’t even distinguish the fine gradations in hues that are presented to us when it comes time to decide on paint colors.  We are shown tiny squares of colors like “coastal gray” and “cloud” as potential “accent colors” and they already look pretty much the same.  God help us if scientists discover even more tints of light gray in between.  And now there’s bluetiful, elbowing its way onto the blue color palette that is already crowded with colors like sky blue, royal blue, ocean blue, and azure blue.

So I guess I’ve got chromophobia, and the fact that I’m somewhat colorblind doesn’t help, either.  I look at “bluetiful,” and it’s all blues to me.

Creepy Playgrounds

The London Daily Mail has an interesting article about creepy sculptures that appear to haunt some of the playgrounds built during the Soviet era in Russia.  There’s no doubt that there is a profoundly disturbing, nightmarish quality about some of the figures that could haunt little kids and cause them to avoid the playgrounds altogether.

7055939An evil, grinning chimp with fangs?  A crying woman in a blue dress?  A goateed, wide-eyed doctor in a lab coat ready to plunge some unknown instrument into your skull?  A hollow-eyed, distraught boy kneeling on the ground?  A bizarre fight between an emaciated bull and a reptilian creature?  Who came with this stuff, the psychological warfare section of the KGB?

But maybe we’re being too hard on the Soviets.  Let’s face it, American playgrounds aren’t exactly free from disturbing stuff, either.  Any playground that has a jungle gym, an old-fashioned merry-go-ground, and “monkey bars” is bound to present its share of childhood horror.  And the decorations at some playgrounds are unsettling, too.  We used to live a block away from a park we called “Yogi Bear Park” because it had a teeter-totter where the fulcrum was a covered by a cheap plastic depiction of the head of Yogi Bear.  The adults recognized the figure as Smarter than the Average Bear, but to little kids it was an unknown, apparently grimacing figure wearing a bad hat and a tie.  What the parents saw as Yogi, the kids perceived as a weird, lurking presence.  Not surprisingly, the tykes tended to steer clear of old Yogi.

For that matter, childhood is filled with intentionally scary stuff that suggests that adults get a kick out of frightening youngsters.  “Fairy tales” aren’t happy stories about fairies, but horror shows of child-eating witches, child-eating wolves, and other evil creatures ready to devour any wayward kid.  Hey, kids!  How about a bedtime story?

We apparently delight in terrifying children.  The Russian playgrounds just bring it out into the open.

Swearing Off Sara Lee

Recently Kish and I stopped at a Bob Evans for a cup of coffee.  As we waited at the to-go counter, we stood by the glass display case that offered all kinds of tantalizing coffee cakes, crumb cakes, and gigantic cookies.  It was a classic example of conscious retail design to encourage impulse buying:  as long as you’re here, picking up your order, why not go for one of these delectable items, too?

The coffee cakes looked awfully good, but we resisted the temptation and stuck with our lone cup of coffee.

sweetbreakfast-pecancoffeecakeIt reminded me of a kind of rite of passage during my early teenage years.  Mom used to buy Sara Lee pecan coffee cake that I found irresistible.  It was dense and moist and sweet and cinnamony, with swirls of icing and crunchy pecans.  Although it was sold in kind of aluminum dish so it could be heated and served hot, I always took my Sara Lee coffee cake cold, with a tall glass of cold milk as accompaniment.  And on some days, I’d have a second piece, too.  And maybe a third.

But after a while I realized that I wasn’t exactly maintaining fighting trim, and if I wanted to actually get a date with a girl I needed to do something about it.  It wasn’t just the Sara Lee, of course, there was the lure of Frosted Flakes, and Coke and all kinds of snack foods, and a lifestyle that involved too much TV watching and not enough exercising.  And, at bottom, the inability to enjoy things like that Sara Lee pecan coffee cake in moderation, rather than in gluttonous excess.  But I swore off the Sara Lee, and I don’t think I’ve had any since.

Could I enjoy a sliver of Sara Lee and a glass of milk, without promptly ravishing the entire cake?  I’d like to think so, but I’m not going to test that hypothesis.  Sometimes it’s more prudent to just avoid temptation altogether.

Reelin’ From The Years

Walter Becker died yesterday, at age 67.  Becker, along with Donald Fagen, was one of the co-founders of Steely Dan, the ever-changing band that was a dominant musical force in the ’70s and unquestionably one of the greatest American rock bands of all time.

The clip above from the old rock TV show The Midnight Special — where the band is jarringly introduced by a mustachioed Bill Cosby — captures the group performing live in 1973, which is about the same time I first heard their music.  The song they performed live on that show, Reelin’ In The Years, is a guitar-driven classic that was one of the first Steely Dan songs that caused me to buy their albums.  It was perfect for those high school days, allowing the boys with the bad ’70s haircuts and monster bellbottoms and tight polyester shirts to play some air guitar when the song came on the radio in the car before belting out lyrics that didn’t really make a lot of sense but were great to sing, anyway.

Becker and Fagen were genuises at coming up with the riffs and the obscure, tantalizing lyrics that wormed their way into your head.  Like Neil Young in that same time period, they kept reinventing themselves.  When you bought a Steely Dan album, whether it was Katy Lied or Can’t Buy A Thrill or Aja, or any of the other great albums they put out in the ’70s, you never were quite sure what you were going to get — but you knew it would be interesting.  And you could spend hours debating what the hell the lyrics to songs like Black Cow or Bodhisattva or Deacon Blues were all about, too.  Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, I think of Steely Dan’s Black Friday, and as it plays back in miy mind it stills sounds as great as it did when I first heard it, back in college.

Farewell, Walter Becker, and thank you for adding a little bit of richness and mystery to our lives.  (And 67 seems like a pretty young age to go, by the way.)