Boxed Lunch Roulette

Yesterday I went to a professional event over the noon hour where every attendee got a boxed lunch.  At such events, the boxed lunches are grouped and stacked by the kind of sandwich printed on the outside, and you make your choice, take your box back to your seat, and hope for the best.

lunch_boxI say “hope for the best,” because when it comes to boxed lunches there’s a significant element of risk involved.  Sure, you can choose whether you want “roast beef” or “chicken salad” or “Italian” or “a wreck” (whatever that is), but of course the sandwich descriptions barely scratch the surface of the important information you’d like to know in deciding what to have for lunch.  At a restaurant, you’d be able to make choices about the bread to be used, find out what is put on the sandwich and add or subtract as you see fit, and pick your side dish, but in the boxed lunch scenario you’ve got none of those options.  You’ve got a mound of closed boxes in front of you, and it wouldn’t be seemly to start opening them up and pawing through the contents to determine which box is best suited to you.

Yesterday I went for the grilled chicken sandwich box. The grilled chicken came on a sub bun and — inevitably! — had lots of sliced tomato and shredded lettuce and other vegetable matter on top.  In the boxed lunch world, the prevailing assumption is that everyone will want every conceivable vegetable on their sandwich.  Call it the highest, or lowest, common denominator effect.  I despise both tomato and shredded lettuce, so I had to figure out how to remove them.  Since there was no utensil in the box, I removed the offending items by hand, which was a messy operation that created a small mound of unappetizing, limp vegetable matter in the box.  Add to that the fact that once shredded lettuce is added to a boxed sandwich it can never be fully removed because it tends to adhere to the bread and hide in cracks and crevices of the meat, and you’ve captured one aspect of boxed lunch roulette.

There’s more, of course.  With a standard boxed lunch, you get a side and a dessert.  Usually the side is a bag of potato chips or Doritos, but sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s a small fruit bowl or edible pasta salad.  Yesterday it was barbecue-flavored potato chips, which equates to a losing spin on the wheel.  I’ve not conducted a scientific study, but I have to believe that barbecue potato chips appeal to only a tiny, tastebud-challenged segment of the American population.  Lacking the ability to appreciate delicate and nuanced food flavors and spices, this poor group must opt for chips coated in heavy, dusty, quasi-sugary artificial flavoring that stains your fingers red as you eat them.  I therefore passed on the chips and found myself wondering — if you’re making boxed lunches, why not just opt for regular potato or kettle chips, rather than pushing the envelope with something like barbecue or ranch or vinegar flavoring?  But although the side was a dud, the dessert was a positive — an oatmeal cookie that I saved and brought home to share with Kish.

Ultimately I got a pretty good sandwich after the vegetable removal process was completed, skipped potato chips that I shouldn’t have eaten anyway, and brought home a good cookie.  All told, I’d say I broke even in yesterday’s exercise in lunch box roulette.

Salad ‘Speriment

I’m posting this because I’m hoping that my doctor might see it.

He’s been after me to change my eating habits.  It’s the same old tiresome nanny-like refrain — eat less meat, and when you do eat meat, make it chicken or turkey, and try to eat more fish, and eat more leafy green vegetables.  Lots more vegetables.  Except in my case, the latter request means eat any leafy green vegetables, because I loathe them with every fiber of my being and typically avoid them like the plague.  There are sound scientific reasons for doing so, and anyway you can plausibly argue that the U.S. Supreme Court, deep down, agrees with me.

IMG_0092But you have to listen to your doctor, don’t you?  And when you’re past the double-nickel milestone, you feel like you really should listen to your doctor.  You’re supposed to be wise and savvy at that point, and after all, you’re paying the guy.  And who knows?  Maybe with that M.D. degree he might actually have some useful insight into how I might actually be able to avoid the many appalling health calamities that routinely seem to strike down men my age.

So today, when I went out to lunch with an astonished associate from the firm, I ordered a salad.  This is the first lunch salad I’ve ever ordered.  In fact, it’s the first salad of any type I’ve ever ordered.  In fact, it’s the first salad I’ve actually consumed.  It was an arugula and spinach salad with cranberries and goat cheese and grilled butternut squash, with grilled chicken on the side to make it palatable and some kind of dressing.

And I ate every bit of it, Dr. Z!  Every bit!  Because I was hungry, and would have eaten the plate!  Are you satisfied?  Because I have to tell you that the entire time I was munching on the leafy green items that apparently are my failsafe ticket to long life, I was thinking of a cheeseburger.

The Arugula Initiative

Every year, when I go to the doctor for my annual physical, I hear the same thing:  you need to change your diet.  Consume less red meat, try to eat more fish, and — especially — eat more vegetables.  So, as the date of my annual physical nears, I always find myself trying to choke down some green, leafy item so that I can tell my doctor, in good faith, that I’m trying.  I’m like the kid who hopes to make up for months of complete inattention to dental hygiene by brushing and flossing diligently on the morning of his dentist’s appointment.

IMG_4810The doctor isn’t fooled by this charade, and I feel bad that I am not more compliant with his instructions.  He’s a doctor, after all, and has gone through years of education and training that allow him to say, with absolute conviction and sincerity, that I should eat more vegetables.  The problem is that I just don’t like vegetables!  At a restaurant, I’ll always order soup rather than salad — or if the soup options are of the gazpacho variety, I’ll just eat bread until my steak, medium rare, is brought to the table.

Fortunately, my lovely wife has come up with a solution to this problem.  It’s called arugula.  When she first asked if I liked arugula, I thought she was referring to that part of the human body that hangs down from the roof of your mouth at the back of your throat.  Instead, it is a leafy vegetable that looks like a weed from your garden and has a spicy taste.  Who knew?  It turns out that if you apply some tart vinaigrette dressing and add some parmesan cheese and blueberries or nuts to a bowl of arugula, it is reasonably edible.

So, we’ve been eating arugula lately, to the point where we must be mindful of arugula fatigue.  Arugula farmers the world over are celebrating the arrival of another convert to arugulaism.  And, when I go in to see my doctor for my check-up in a few weeks, I’ll be able to tell him I’ve been eating more vegetables — and for once my statement will have the incidental merit of being true.

Organic Odyssey

First Lady Michelle Obama apparently is a big fan of vegetable gardens, organic food, and healthy eating.  She encouraged a group that runs farmers markets in the D.C. metropolitan area to set up a market near the White House, and on Thursday she decided to visit the market to buy some “organic Tuscan kale.”  This story — which emphasized how her one visit inconvenienced workers and residents in the area, the “carbon footprint” of her one block drive to the market accompanied by Secret Service agents and staff, and how much the hoity toity offerings at the market cost — was the result.  

Mrs. Obama thinks that organic foods are important to healthy eating.  Although a recent study in the United Kingdom disputes that conclusion — and although I personally wouldn’t recognize “organic Tuscan kale,” much less eat it, under any circumstances — supporting healthy eating seems like as good a “First Lady cause” as any.  Her experience with the farmers’ market just confirms that the First Family lives in a fishbowl, where legitimate security concerns make it impossible for the President, or the First Lady, to do simple everyday things without great dislocation and expense.  Articles like the linked piece inevitably will result.

A bigger concern for the Obamas, I think, is that emphasizing much more expensive organic kale, or free range animals, or eggs laid by chickens in the wild, is going to strike many Americans who are going through tough economic times as weird and totally out of touch.  A home vegetable garden, which Mrs. Obama planted at the White House earlier this year, is just fine.  A visit to an upscale market that features “organic dandelion greens” for $12 a pound, when many Americans are dining on the cheapest box of Kraft macaroni and cheese to save a few bucks, sends a message that probably isn’t helpful to the President.  Talking about her discussions about vegetables with “kings” and “queens,” as she did on Thursday, doesn’t seem like a good message, either.

So It Begins . . . .

According to this story, some Senators are beginning to consider ways to pay for the proposed health care plan.  My guess is that, if a health care plan passes, it will be paid for by a series of different taxes, many of which will be viewed as taxing “unhealthy” activities — like drinking the “sugary soft drinks” noted in the article.   Such taxes are in line with the “sin taxes” that are routinely imposed by governments, such as taxes on cigarettes.

We therefore may see taxes on dietary choices — like eating meat, or eating Twinkies.  As a non-vegetable eater who occasionally enjoys a bowl of sugary breakfast cereal, I’m probably in trouble.

Once you begin to tax activities, however, it is difficult to decide where to draw the line.  Is drinking a “sugary soft drink” any more risky than, say, mountain-climbing or water-skiing?  Should  taxes to raise revenues for health care programs be viewed as a kind of “user fee” designed to raise revenue from those who are most likely to use the health care programs, much like the user fees imposed on individuals who camp in national parks?

General Tso

General Tso

General Tso

When I go to a Chinese restaurant, I often order General Tso’s chicken. I like it because it is a meat-oriented dish, not served larded with a bunch of limp, overcooked vegetables. If you go to a place that makes it with broccoli, of course, you just ask that they make it without the broccoli, and then you end up with a dish of rice, chicken, and a tasty sauce. It is very good lunch-time fare.

Because I like General Tso’s chicken, I thought it was only appropriate to pay homage to General Tso himself — regardless of whether he invented the dish, or whether he enjoyed the dish and made it popular among his troops. I envisioned General Tso cooking as a hobby, or perhaps serving his chicken concoction to his legions of troops huddled at the base of the Great Wall. In either case, he obviously was a man of good taste and breeding, richly deserving of the immortal fame that accompanies commemoration on the Webnerhouse blog. Imagine my disappointment in learning that General Tso — although an actual Qing dynasty historical figure, pictured above — had nothing to do with the meal which bears his name. Not only is it believed that General Tso never even tasted the dish, it is suspected that the dish originated in America, not China! O, rank heresy! This discovery has shaken to the core my belief that ethnic restaurants are, in fact, reflective of actual ethnic cuisine. Why, it would be like learning that hamburgers and french fries aren’t American inventions.

Vegetable Week: A Non-Green Life

As I have noted already, I don’t like the taste, texture, or smell of vegetables. Why would anyone want to eat something that is squishy, or slimy, or shot full of seeds? I suspect tht many people, deep down, share these views. Does anyone honestly believe, for example, that broccoli smells wonderful? If they could make an independent, guilt-free choice, would anyone really choose a forkful of cauliflower over a spoonful of Frosted Flakes?

I admit, however, that there is more to my anti-vegetable stance than just my physical revulsion at the thought of eating vegetables. I freely confess that, as time has passed and more people have learned about my curious eating habits, my refusal to eat vegetables has become a noteworthy part of my persona. I’m otherwise an unremarkable person, and at least this trait is somewhat memorable. And I’ve gained some unusual skills — just hand me a fork and watch me use the tines to deftly remove banana peppers, chopped celery, or other botanical foodstuffs from my plate and see if you disagree. I’ve also developed a useful set of rationalizations to help to explain why I’ll eat some items but not others. Corn, for example, is technically a grain, like wheat or barley, so corn on the cob is an approved menu item, and potatoes and yams are tubers, so french fries are okay.

I also enjoy the reactions I get when I explain this all to people. Years ago, when I worked at Alpine Village in Lake George, New York after my freshman year in college, one of my co-workers was a nursing student named Ceal. My eating habits plainly disturbed her. After I told her that I didn’t eat vegetables, she asked what I took for “roughage.” When I told her I did not take anything, she unconsciously backed away from me, as if I might experience an abdominal explosion at any second. So far, at least, it still hasn’t happened.