Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Kitchen Granite

Granite day yesterday. The installer was sick as dog yet dragged himself to the job because I threw a fit on Friday when they didn't show up - I had rearranged my schedule and put off a meeting until Monday. Didn't call, didn't show. Then they tell me they are coming on Monday. Foiled again. Frustration from months and months of this routine finally bubbled over and I did a shrieker into the ear of our kitchen guy. I felt terrible for this poor 
sick man on Monday, but the shrieking really does works - he didn't dare call and cancel. I suffer in the aftermath of this kind of loathsome behavior - the adrenalin production is exhausting and the Canadian side of me suffers for failing at the polite approach. However, if I hadn't shrieked, he wouldn't have come; we would have been pushed down the list and as is typical with these people. we wouldn't be rescheduled first. We'd be put at the end of the list again and some other shrieker would be first place. 
Ah, the construction business...always so elevating.  

One of our bathroom faucet sets is missing in action. We've lost very little over the course of the construction. A few tools, a ladder -  but when you consider all the people who've been trooping through we've done pretty well. 

Another development in the "doesn't fit department" - our fire clay sink is too big for it's britches. The space is off by a 1/16th of an inch and the cabinet guys want the granite guys to "force it in". They won't do it because they're afraid it might crack, either now or horror of horrors, later. We have a summit meeting on Wednesday when they will gather round and decide if they have to rebuild the cabinet or not. Included in the sink installation instructions is a paragraph in red, bold type explaining that these sinks are all slightly different and that the cabinet should be built to the precise measurement of the specific sink. Naively, I thought they knew what they were doing. Before the cabinet installation, our kitchen guys insisted we have all the appliances in the house ready to go. They've been sitting there since before Christmas and they hadn't looked at the hood or the sink - before building the boxes. The cooktop is unpacked and I'm anticipating more trouble/challenges ahead.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Serendipity Waffles

Waffles over-offer in the looks department. Applying my personal Chorus Line rating they get: Looks 10; Flavor and texture 3. In food photos, in cook books or on restaurant menus, they look crispy and crunchy, hot and delicious. I'm almost always disappointed with the real thing -"in the flesh" they end up being soggy and flacid.  Yes, the basic flavor profile is there no matter, what but without a crisp texture,  the result is a generally blah flavor experience.

An error of omission in the kitchen - a bit of serendipity this morning resulted in a couple of excellent waffles. I made them ahead of breakfast time and cached them in the oven to keep warm, forgetting one critical thing - to turn the oven on! We sat down to eat, spread butter on them and realized as the solid butter pats remained intact, that they were pretty well cold. While the batter was gone, the waffle iron was still sizzling hot. Breakfast was rapidly turning into a disaster, so with nothing to lose, I thought I'd try putting them back in the iron, butter and all, to see if they'd warm up without setting the iron on fire. I twisted the timer for one more cooking cycle, watching carefully while running through my mental refrigerator inventory figuring out what we could eat instead but when the timer dinged, the waffles were gilded, crusty and crispy, piping hot and best of all had a buttery aroma and flavor which added that element of background flavor missing in the average waffle. With just a touch -  a kiss of maple syrup - they were perfect to accompany the L.A. Times crossword puzzle.

I'd like to be able to spray on syrup but would probably have to use a commercial pump. Pouring it on is just that - pouring it on. I wonder if the goo could be squirted out of a spray bottle. Something to rig up for next Sunday.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fat Banished

Here's a diet that's "easy to swallow". Gulp. At least the worms are sanitized and packed in jars - probably All Natural.  Apparently this diet has been dusted off and is recycling again around Hollywood. How desperate can you get?

Gunlauger Kristjansson

Your surmise about Icelandic given names is correct.  One sees few of the classic ones in North America these days although I think they are making a fledgling recovery among a few brave fourth and fifth generation parents.  In fact, I think Karen and I may, in some small way, be responsible.  We acquired an Icelandic dog in the early 80's whom we named Gunlauger Kristjansson.  Everyone loved him because he was so enthusiastic.  He chased birds in flight and even airplanes with an unwavering belief that he would catch them.  He also had, as you put it, an "operatic" voice.  That was an unwelcome characteristic to our neighbors on Dominion Street.  Our vet assured us that the minor operation to de-bark him would surely solve the problem and Gunlauger would never even be cognizant of the difference.  He was unaware of the enthusiasm factor.  Three months later Gunni was again serenading the neighborhood.  The unprecedented second minor surgical adjustment to his vocal chords was performed by our vet with iron-clad guarantees.  Three months later the arias commenced.  His story became an inspration!  When we moved to Victoria in 1986, Gunlauger moved on to a home in Chicago.  We have since heard reports that the name Gunlaugur is starting to show up in the birth announcement columns in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Chicago dailies.  Now we're thinking of getting another pet.  Perhaps we should name it "Skarphethinn".  Kind of catchy, don't you think?
P.S. If the railway yard thing isn't working, you could mention that Neil Young grew up in River Heights and started his musical career there.

Sepia Saturday - Potato Pickers

This photo shows my Irish Canadian relatives having what they thought was a great day, picking potatoes. Everybody lived in the city and had city-type jobs but the farm was nearby and operated by a family friend who invited us out for picking, stooking wheat and other major events. Never fully able to shake off their farming roots, this family reveled in the opportunity to get out, dig in the dirt and soak up the stark scenery. They enjoyed gazing at the flatness with not a bump between them and the horizon. I must have inherited a mutated gene; always looking for a hill.

I'm the short blonde; my sister is behind me with the glasses and my mom has the dark black hair and the shopping bag. Everyone else was filling a galvanized bucket but mom was a big fan of shopping bags and we used them for everything. When she died and was cremated, my sister and I picked up her ashes in a generic container and used a Nordstrom's shopping bag to take her out for the internment  in my father's grave. My sister insisted on leaving the container nestled in the Nordstom's bag because she thought mom would get a kick out of it. I'm sure she did.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Finger Sandwiches?

Some years ago at a roast, Barack Obama told the story of how Rahm Emanuel lost the tip of his middle finger on a meat slicer at the deli where he was working as a student. Barack described Rohm as being "essentially rendered mute". Apparently Rohm really knows how to wield his impedicus or digitus medius or what's left of it.

Having a bit extra on the end of that middle finger could be useful in case of this kind of accident. You'd never be at a loss for words. At lunch the other day, Barbara talked about experiencing a deadly business lunch with a chap who had more than a little extra (middle finger length). His impedicus was legendary for it's extraordinary length. Not only was it long, but spatulate as well! Barbara said it was terribly distracting, disgusting in fact,  and wondered why the man didn't undergo surgery to reduce it's length. Nancy, always curious, wondered what they had to eat at that lunch. Chicken fingers? Finger sandwiches? She did a hilarious enactment of the inevitable sputtering/word groping that occurs when you're trying to avoid  noticing or mentioning a peculiarity like this. Instead of putting your foot in your mouth, everything you say ends up having a finger in it.

I had a little bit (hmmm) to offer to the finger stories having sliced off the tip of my own dear impedicus on a bagel slicer in NYC a decade ago. In the emergency room they shouted, "Bagel Kit". Apparently, bagel accidents are frequent in NYC and in the ER's they have, at the ready, assemblages of appropriate sutures and splints, finger cots and so on. My finger and my story share happy endings as my fingertip, despite the prediction of the ER surgeon, clung to life -  by a hair for a while; finally it took hold and stuck. I still have my full finger repertoire although in Fallbrook there's little use for it and it's getting rusty.

Here's one of my mother's favorite recipes for FS.

Cucumber Finger Sandwiches
Only for the patient and pain-staking cook

1 cup whipped cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1 medium cucumber, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 bunch watercress, washed well, dried and 1/2 the bunch cut into two inch pieces
1 loaf thinly sliced white bread, crusts removed (My mother used to roll them with slight pressure
using a rolling pin. She liked the bread ever so lightly compacted.)

Blend cream cheese with garlic salt. Spread thinly on bread slices, making sure to spread right to the edges. Assemblage is very important with these little sandwiches. It could take my mother an hour to put together a plate of these. Speed is not of the essence here.  Because the sandwiches are tiny, every bite has to count  - unlike it's vulgar, bulky cousins - those thick deli style sandwiches overly crammed with filling stacked up in the center of the bread. Nothing is as disappointing with finger sandwiches, as an unbalanced bite! Overlap the cucumber slices with great care and precision, on half the bread slices, placing them right to the edges of the bread; top with the two inch pieces of watercress. Close the sandwiches with the remaining bread slices - line up the edges. Carefully, avoiding fingers, and using a finely serrated knife, saw into quarters or use a sharp unserrated knife and one swift partitioning hack. Use excess watercress for  garnish.

If anyone expresses displeasure with the size of these sandwiches or the fillings or finds any fault of any kind with the sandwich maker or his/her family, you know what to do.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fees on fees on fees

Arthur Frommers blog last week addresses the practise of the addition of fees to rental car bills. There's a fee for everything - even a fee for the fee.  

I'm thinking that I should apply the same principals and try the following additions to a simple invoice  for services rendered.

Accounting fee 1% Charge for collecting our fees
Procurement fee 3% Fee for going to the store and buying all the stuff we need
Storage fee 1% Covers cost of refrigeration and square footage we devote to storing all the ingredients, packaging materials and other things clients send us
Equipment use fee 3% Scales, pH meters, pipettes, lab notebooks, chef's jackets, measuring equipment
Tax fee 5% Why not??
Confidentiality fee 3% Keeping your mouth shut is really hard!
Fee recoup fee 1% Because we are charging a fee, we are at risk for losing the client therefore there must be a fee fee
License recoupment fee 1% We all have to have licenses
IFT fee 1% We belong to the Institute of Food Technologists which benefits our clients
FDA compliance fee 1% Should it be necessary, we do comply with FDA regulations
State of California Income Tax fee 6% It costs plenty to live in California and for our clients to have a consultant with a California address. 

That's a nice 25% collectable as an add-on. My fee names are pretty weak - I need help thinking of solid dependable believable names for these unbelievable charges.

Should I attempt this - I'm sure I'd never work again so I guess the addition of another 25% unemployment fee couldn't hurt?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Palm Desert Visit

Palm Desert is beautiful this time of the year. The boulevards are a riot of color, the mountains snow-capped and the sky clear and blue. Although it's high season and a tennis tournament was underway, the
streets didn't seem crowded last week while I was visiting with some friends from Winnipeg.

They are staying at the Hampton Inn/Suites and got me a room there too which was quite comfortable.
Linda, Pat and Erna have a ball during their month-long visit. Of course, they have a way of having fun no matter what. Pat cuts every kind of coupon and watches carefully for "deals" so she is always pulling a dollar-off or free something out of her purse. Erna does all the driving and gets plenty of friendly back-seat help from Linda who is an accomplished map reader. At the moment they eschew GPS because they like maps and Linda enjoys reading them and navigating. They love Palm Desert and the freedom for a while from having to dress in heavy clothing for even the briefest exposure outdoors. How liberating to just walk out the door dressed in indoor clothing without giving it a thought. We Californians take so much for granted.

Our conversations range all over the place during these visits but of course we spend time catching up on news of old school friends, neighborhood friends and Winnipeg news in general. At this age, we spend more than a little time comparing our health problems and expressing gratitude that we are still "above ground" and able to get around. It's a highlight of my year.

Fishing is a major interest for this trio and during the summer months, as much time as possible is spent with a line in the water. Erna told me they have even devised a method of fishing during pouring rain by placing the rods in a spot visible from the car. They sit under cover running outdoors only when a rod is bobbing. Mostly they catch pickerel (which makes my mouth water to say the word) and catch and release. The fishing is still good apparently because of this wise conservation method adhered to by most ardent fisherpeople.

A great treat when we were growing up was Winnipeg Goldeye. I have fond memories of nibbling away at this delicacy while spending the night with Linda at their families cottage at Matlock. Goldeye in its natural state apparently has soft and unappealing flesh (I've never seen it in it's natural state). Fishermen discovered that the flesh could be firmed up by soaking in brine, poaching and then smoking the fish in oak wood, apple wood and other woods. The photo above is a Flickr photo with permission to copy. The smoked fish became a fashionable gourmet dish after the turn of the century. According to Wikipedia, Woodrow Wilson and the Prince of Wales were fans.


Mr. Olive Head

Thursday and Friday were spent up at the studio with Shari and Richard the photographer. Quality of our subject product has improved considerably and we found it easier to make everything look good. There are always breaks between bouts of frenzied activity and on Friday, Mr. Olive Head (no relation to Edith) showed up to pay a visit. No dead flies were available and so he reluctantly agreed to pose for a picture. I think he should see an opthamologist because his right eye looks pretty bad and as you can see, we couldn't get him to smile no matter how hard we tried.

Richard was in a great mood and we all had a lot of fun while getting much done. This salad gave us a bit of trouble as it tended to compact as it sat under the lights.  Richard who is looking like Mr. T in the rear view is fluffing it up.

Sepia Saturday -The Quiet Canadian

Sir William Stephenson (1896-1989)

My home town in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada isn't famous for much except for being flat and really cold...so when we find something to crow about - we do it. Monte Hall and Gisele McKenzie were born there and when I work that into a conversation (not very easy) the usual response is "Who??"

I discovered recently that Sir William Stephenson was born in Winnipeg and spent his formative years there. Although not exactly a household name, Stephenson accomplished much including laying the building bricks for modern espionage..what a life unfolded from a humble beginning on the Canadian prairies! When I get the "Who??" question about him, here's some of the facts from the Canadian Encyclopedia:

"Stephenson flew as a fighter pilot in WW1, winning several medals for bravery. While a student at the University of Manitoba, he invented the wirephoto and then a radio facsimile method of transmitting pictures without need of telephone, earned a fortune and an entree to influential political circles in London."

At the beginning of WW11, Stephenson was placed in charge of British security coordination in the Western Hemisphere, with headquarters in New York City where the telegraphic address was INTREPID - later popularized as Stephenson's code name. His organizations activities ranged form censoring transatlantic mail, breaking letter codes and forging diplomatic documents to obtaining Vichy French and Italian military codes, protecting against sabotage of American factories producing munitions for Britain and training allied agents for surreptitious entry into nazi occupied Europe.

Although Stephenson was knighted by King George Vl and awarded the US Medal for Merit not much was known about his war services until the publication of H. Montgomery Hyde's The Quiet Canadian (1962). The claims made regarding Stephenson's career have been treated with reserve by professional historians and experts on intelligence. Stephenson lived in the  W. Indies after WW11 becoming chairman of the Caribbean Development Corp and eventually retiring in Bermuda.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sepia Saturday - The Surf and Sand Beach Club

This photo shows my husband's grandfather and grandmother, his mother and her two sisters at the Surf and Sand Beach Club just north of the Hermosa Beach pier, owned and operated by Los Angeles Athletic Club, around 1926. The Club was sold in 1932 and became the Huntington Beach Biltmore Hotel until it was torn down in 1969.  Grandmother and the kids went down there for a month to six weeks during the hottest weeks of the summer.

Why the tie? There was a dress code at the Club that was strictly enforced. The Club's dress code called out business attire for all the public rooms with the exception of the "swimmer's" entrance. Why they would have a business attire dress code at the beach is beyond me. This photo must have been taken on a really hot day; I was surprised at how many people were at the beach - there's a big crowd in the background. 

Grandmother, with a hat slightly smaller than the umbrellas, was a fashionista, and dressed in a snazzy kimono thing as is the youngest aunt, Frankie, seated in the middle. A seamstress came to the house once a quarter and made dresses for the girls, who lived pampered lives. Aunt Lorraine, who became a harpist, seated on the left, had a "movie" horse as a pet; he was one of the horses from My Friend Flicka. In this photo she was wearing one of those annoying knitted bathing suits that got heavier and heavier as they got wet and could stretch out to your knees. I remember having one as a kid and spending most of my time pulling it up, wringing it out and trying to hold it over my bare butt. My mother-in-law is the young teen on the right. She died this year at age 97.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sepia Saturday 2. How times have changed

Working in the food business and having been on the dark side a number of times: working for the California Egg Commission at the height of the cholesterol controversy and for Lawry's when sodium was the killer du jour, I find this poster particularly funny. At least, I never worked for the Lard Information Council!

Sepia Saturday. My crazy little aunt

I'm not sure this photo is sepia and it's only 1947; recent compared to most of the posts.

This happy group consists of my uncle, aunt Alvina, aunt Hilda, my sister Eilleen, my grandmother Lucy and on the right, my auntie Mary Pearl who had Turners syndrome. She was 4'4" tall, weighed about 80 pounds, never sexually matured and looked like a child with an old ladies face. It's the only picture I have of her.

Pearl lived with my grandmother Lucy and her 2 maiden sisters in a large house next to the church and I saw her every Sunday. In her sixties she was officially diagnosed as a schizophrenic but for most of her life she had acted a "bit odd" as her sisters used to put it. For example, she took naps in a large dresser drawer - disconcerting for the adults, but a great idea as far as me and my young cousins were concerned. We loved her because she was small and her quirkiness made her a lot of fun.

Pearl's memory was prodigious and the family used her like a laptop computer. On demand, she could reel off all the family dates of significance:  birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, deaths plus she kept very close tabs on the weather and the weather statistics - a particular specialty. Pearl's peculiarities were easily tolerated in that unconventional family; there seemed to be enough psychological space or elasticity to accommodate her undeniable strangeness.  She didn't leave the house often - this photo was taken on a very rare visit to our house. As you can see they were barely enduring the visit and didn't even take their coats off. Until I first experienced Pearl in a context outside of her house in a "normal" situation, I never realized how different she was. And because I had a crazy little aunt, I assumed everyone else must have one too! Of course, later I realized the down side of having a crazy aunt both for her and for the family. Much, much later I realized how lucky we were to learn about tolerance and diversity as youngsters.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Book Club Meeting

We had a great read this month for the book club, Barbaras' pick: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot - her first book.  Everyone enjoyed it and the discussion was lively.  Here's an excerpt from the review of the book by Jad Abumrad, of NPR's Radiolab:  

"Honestly, I can't imagine a better tale. A detective story that's at once mythically large and painfully intimate.

Just the simple facts are hard to believe: that in 1951, a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks dies of cervical cancer, but pieces of the tumor that killed her--taken without her knowledge or consent--live on, first in one lab, then in hundreds, then thousands, then in giant factories churning out polio vaccines, then aboard rocket ships launched into space. The cells from this one tumor would spawn a multi-billion dollar industry and become a foundation of modern science--leading to breakthroughs in gene mapping, cloning and fertility and helping to discover how viruses work and how cancer develops (among a million other things). All of which is to say: the science end of this story is enough to blow one's mind right out of one's face."

As usual the food and drink were excellent including Jamaican take-out from a hole in the wall near Chula Vista. Laurie has patients of every kind of ethnicity and likes to find out where their favorite ethnic eating places are. She knows the best spots around to get authentic ethnic food. Fried plantains, roast goat, jerk chicken and dirty rice were part of the huge spread. In addition to the Jamaican food, there were two good salads, a cheese plate and cookies. This group moves well together in the kitchen and without much fussing around gets the food on the table; we get quickly down to the business of eating and drinking while the talk flows around the table.

Inevitably talk turned to the ethics of using people's tissue/body parts for experiments with or without permission.  I'm sure it was done regularly in the past. As for Henrietta's particular case, no crystal ball could reveal the future for her cells. How can you ever foresee what would happen for example with a simple blood donation - something most of us have done without thinking much beyond just adding to the available supply. However, the blood could go to an axe murderer or child molester in prison for life who needed surgery; or to support medical research into something you might strongly object to like human cloning or brain transplants or something that seems ghoulish and unsavory to us at this point in time. Once you release control over a donation you have to accept that it will be used at someone else's discretion and you do run the risk of supporting something you abhor. For me personally, I've checked the donors box on the drivers license - they can have anything I have left of value.

There was some interesting talk of vampire literature and the relationship between vampire popularity and the economic climate. As we'd veered off the main subject and onto the inexplicable and weird,  Beth revealed that she had had a close experience of the third (?)  kind. A flying saucer sighting! I think her story got high-jacked and I didn't hear the end. Perhaps another time.

Next month's book selection is the "The Hummingbird's Daughter" by the delightful Luis Alberto Urrea whose book signing we attended as a kind of field trip last year. Here's a link to Urrea's wonderful website:

Put your money where your mouth is

More rambling about the Natural Foods Expo: We tasted some delicious Vita Coco coconut water being imported from Brazil. Aseptically packaged in foil tetrapacks using flash pasteurization for 2 seconds at 120 degrees , the nuances of flavor are preserved. When we were traveling in Sri Lanka we were told that coconut water cures everything from hair loss to cancer and the Vita Coco people told us that coconut water was used in IV solutions during the Vietnam war.  Many of our roadside refreshment stops in Sri Lanka were made specifically for coconut water, cleverly packaged IN THE COCONUT. They punch a hole and insert a straw; delicious, refreshing and totally recyclable packaging. No exaggerated claims were being made by the Vita Coco people - just good taste and electrolytes which they boast are present in more quantity than in sports beverages like Gator-Aid. http://www.vitacoco.com/benefits.html

Shredded money can be purchased from the US mint and online from various EBay sellers. We saw
toothbrush handles made out of the shredded stuff being sold by a very enthusiastic and engaging young woman in the Radius booth. One variety of their brush has a timer built in so you are told when 2 minutes is up and there's another alarm that indicates when three months have gone by and you need a new head for the brush. The brushes were quite wide and soft - they claim to have three times the bristles of a regular toothbrush. Many different handles were available including the one made of shredded money  - real inspiration to get out there and earn during the day. I thought they should call that brush, "put your money where your mouth is". Oddly, these brushes were designed by a couple of architects - no dentists involved.

A show stopper on the Korean aisle was a display of  beautiful and delicate candy/treat boxes. Instead of traditional candy, so sweet, most of these items were less sweet but very flavorful such as  dried apple strips fashioned into roses, cakes made of seeds with lovely garnishes  - all beautiful, delicate and restrained - so different from our hulking, gooey, excessive chocolate boxes. These Korean treats are based on very old traditional goods from ceremonies, now presented on special occasions to honored guests, prized customers, or on the occasion of great accomplishment.  They are meant to be savored with the eyes and enjoyed with all the senses - not just gorged as we are wont to do with chocolates.

There were hundreds of forgettable weight loss products, most of which we ignored. Somehow we got pulled into a booth where a Swiss weight loss product was being sold. The hook of the diet is a chewy piece of material, like Bazooka bubblegum, nicely flavored and full of dietary fiber. You chew it at strategic times during the day accompanied by a glass of water and you can achieve a silhouette as in picture :). The fiber swells in the gut and the idea is that a signal of fullness will be sent to the brain, dulling appetite. Satiagrams  - something unique to this diet, map your waxing and waning appetite and purportedly educate the user sufficiently to change eating habits. Shari remembers a similar diet craze in the US many years ago.

Accompanying the product is a slick little booklet with the photo of a handsome Swiss doctor on it and, guess what?? A suggested diet of 1500 calories of day, a calorie chart and an exercise program. Most of these diet schemes are the same - ultimately it's the calorie restriction and increased exercise that causes the weight loss; the rest of the bells and whistles may provide some psychological help but what works is EATING LESS and EXERCISING MORE.

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Hypoticutis in the hoodinikepap"

The Natural Foods Expo held yearly at the Anaheim Convention Center has become one of the food industries biggest events - both in number of exhibitors and number of attendees. Shari and I walked around, nibbling and schmoozing for 6 or 7 hours. The level of entrepreneurism is very high at this show... many start-up companies vying for a piece of the pie.  Enthusiasm and energy run high and it's hard to get by a booth without someone handing you a sample or stopping you to talk. I came home with 40 or 50 tea samples but there must have been 100 or more tea companies selling every flavor and variety of tea imaginable. Tea companies were only second to the vitamin supplement people who dominate the show.
The supplement people often make exaggerated claims for their products and many of these claims are unsubstantiated or substantiated by the thinnest of evidence gleaned from the internet. Yet the market for the products seems to continually grow - and at a much faster rate than the rest of the food industry. Shari thinks we are all going to die from "hyper-vitaminosis of the something". My father might suggest this could be related to "hypoticutis in the hoodinikepap"...an illness that used to strike him suddenly but temporarily on Sunday mornings when we were supposed to be in church or when he had a social event to avoid. Swift and terrible, hypoticutis was immobilizing and shockingly coincidental in length with the duration of mass on Sunday, about 45 minutes. The illness lifted just as swiftly as it struck and just as mysteriously.

My favorite at this show is a not-very-subtle chap who sells colon cleanser. In the early days of this show, he displayed an outrageously large toilet that filled his entire booth space. The toilet made him look about 1/2 normal human size, a Lilliputian deftly maneuvering his way around this mammoth fixture, passing out his information and fielding questions. Over the years, the toilet has gotten smaller and smaller (presumably his business has gotten larger and larger) and this year, it was about normal size. No doubt he's been encouraged by the good taste (?) of the show managers to tone down the toilet a bit. For 2010, he's added to his show staff, a contingent of girls in shorts and tight T-shirts who no doubt have very clean colons and attract a slightly different kind of attention particularly from the male passers-by than did the giant toilet.

We usually check out the Chinese exhibitors to see if they've finally caught on to the show culture. Nothing seems to have changed - each booth has a table and chairs with a skinny little Chinese guy usually with thick glasses, sort of cringing behind the table. Products are lined up on a display table or case behind the table so you can't really see what they've got. If you enter the booth to speak with them, they retreat even further behind the table. Why do these manufacturers send the most introverted people in China to the shows, wasting gobs of money to gain very little? Maybe 2011 will be the year we finally see them spend some promotional dollars on the real money makers - mammoth toilets and scantily clad girls. The American way.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Talk turns to the current status of many of the Swiss people Richard and George know in common. Last night at dinner George told a story of one fellow who worked in an office in Bern. Usually everyone in the office would go out to eat lunch together but on this particular day he stayed in with a bagged lunch. His office chair was wooden with a wood seat  - he shifted his weight in it and realized he'd gotten a splinter right on his butt. Hmmmm. He took off his pants and his underpants but couldn't see where it was - not enough light, so he got up on the chair and took his magnifying glass in hand, twisting himself backwards so he could see his butt in the glass. That's when the janitor walked in.

The same chap, a geologist spent some time in Greenland on as assignment. He was recently engaged but had a contretemps with his father-in-law to be, so thought it would be a good idea to get out of "Dodge" for a while. Greenland seems like a rather extreme solution nevertheless there he was with nobody but an Inuit to lead him around and help him collect samples. Life was bleak, lonely and dangerous. Once, he was out too far, a storm hit and he found himself almost freezing to death when he and his dogs, stumbled on a musk ox. He killed it, gutted it and climbed in, waiting out the storm and surviving. Iccck. Later, they were too late to get out of Greenland before the ice froze over again and had to spend another bunch of months together. One day, he was running his sled with the inuit behind when he felt a bullet whistle right by his ear. The inuit was trying to kill him...he'd lost his marbles which happens in the cold and isolation. When he finally got back to Bern, the nasty father-in-law didn't seem like such a problem. Perspective.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

George's Singapore Tale

I was worried that George might get lost. Navigating from the San Diego airport to the house in daylight isn't easy and he hasn't been here for a couple of years.  Prepared for the rescue, I had a flashlight out, the garage door up and the phone at hand. It rang about 11:00 and it was George. "I'm here", he said. "Where?", said I, thinking he was on Stage Coach driving back and forth or at the very least, in the wrong driveway. I should have known a retired test pilot and fighter pilot would consider this night time navigation a piece of cake.

In he came, all 6'3"of him, looking wonderful as usual. A glass of wine and some cashews seemed just right for the late hour.  Small talk about his flight from Hawaii ensued seguing to a discussion of upcoming travel plans, his and ours. George and Richard were posted together in Switzerland in the early 80's - George was the Air Attache and Richard his Desk Officer.

George has lived a fascinating life living all over the globe; his father was a diplomat and even as a child he lived in exotic locales. The subject of Singapore popped up.  George has vivid memories of when he was as young as seven and "we were living in Singapore, in a house off Orchard Road built by the Firestone company to house management personnel. There were 5 or 6 houses and we rented one of them. In December 1941, I can remember standing on the balcony of that house looking out across the city in the direction of the harbor and the docks, seeing Japanese planes streaking overhead. Bombs were falling and we could see the explosive blasts and fires erupting all over the city. Tracer bullets lit up the sky we could hear ack ack everywhere. From then on, we spent the nights in an air raid shelter with sleeping bags. Up to this point, nobody had taken the Japanese threat very seriously, but the situation started to look bad. Mother, my brother and myself got whisked out of Singapore to Java where we spent several months waiting for my father but it became increasingly possible that he might have been captured or killed in Singapore. Mother went to Jakarta and talked to the US Consul who advised her to get out as fast as possible because the Japanese were coming. We threw what little we had into suitcases and were driven to the nearest port where we boarded a ship, full of refugees, bound for Melbourne Australia.  The Japanese were closing in on Indonesia from two directions - mere hours away. The ship sails and we get out about 500 yards and it stops. Everybody is upset and wonders what's going on. Before the imminent invasion, banks wanted to get their gold out of the country; small boats were bringing out load after load and packing them into the hold of the ship. There was so much gold and so much weight that the ship sunk until the hull was scraping bottom. We had to wait for the tides to change before we could get afloat and get out. "  A ship full of penniless displaced people floating along with a substantial portion of Indonesia's wealth riding along underneath them.

They made it to Melbourne and found out happily, just before arriving, that their father was OK and in Perth. 19 ships had left Singapore with evacuees on board. "17 were sunk, 1 was badly damaged and most on board died. One ship made it through without damage and it was my dad's boat. It was a cattle boat and they were filthy, smelly things -  unlikely to be carrying passengers. Apparently the Japanese didn't think it was worth a bomb."

The family was reunited in Australia and shortly after George, his older brother and mother were able to get passage back to the US. US troops were being shipped to Australia and as refugees the Thompson family were able to get booked on a returning ship. George's father spent the next year in Perth representing the American government. "Officers liked to visit him to listen to his collection of Hawaiian records and relax. Meanwhile our boat took the southern route back to avoid the conflicts and the ship traveled through very heavy seas. There was a pendulum on board, fun to watch, which was used to figure out the pitch as the ship was rolling back and forth most of the time. I would run up to the side of the ship that was highest then run down and across and try to get up the other side before it tipped again. It was marvelous fun for a kid. They used to let me ring up the cash register which was a thrill. Ice cream bars had been loaded on for the troops on the incoming journey and the crew commandeered some of them which they would share with me once in a while. When it got hot, I'd go stand around in the meat locker." The experience was like a kid's dream come true.

George talked about a sudden personality change that he remembers experiencing at that time. He'd been a difficult child with a temper: disobedient and prone to throwing fits. Somehow through experiencing the evacuations and all the attendant stresses, he came to realize, at the ripe old age of 7, that his mother was somebody to be reckoned with. She was successfully managing their survival during a very difficult time. Respect for her illuminated his brain like a light bulb going on and from then forward he was obedient and helpful. Quite an insight for a young boy.

Stuffed Camel for Book Club Meeting

Mid April we're off to Syria (Damascus, Aleppo, Krac), Lebanon (actually just Beirut) and Jordan (Amman, Petra, Dead Sea). Our bedside tables are collecting teetering piles of Frommers and Lonely Planet guides. I've ordered a couple of novels set in the region for background reading. Better and more sophisticated choices would be history tomes, but I'm currently not in the mood for that kind of research. A feel for the culture is the most I can attempt so I know what to look for with this quick peek. There is an "Idiots Guide to the Middle East Conflict" but I don't think it would be illuminating for the kinds of touristy things we are planning to see, like the lost city of Petra and the souk in Damascus both  pictured below.

Richard's niece is married to a Syrian with a wonderful, loving, extroverted family. French is their language of choice and at holidays, when you walk into a room where the effusive and vivacious Syrians have gathered, gesticulation is rampant, laughter is loud and you can hear multiple melodic conversations in soprano and basso profundo voices and everything in between. Nobody stands still; kids run around your legs. Food is everywhere; wine flows freely. How dull we were until the lucky marriage that mashed us all together.

They are putting us in touch with a guide (long time family friend in Aleppo) and if all the schedules work out, he will drive and guide us during our visit. Any scraps of spare time I can find at the moment have been spent online looking at hotels (we hope to stay in the below pictured B&B in Aleppo, restaurants (for the basics) and the many travel blogs (for itineraries) being kept by young people who are in Syria to learn Arabic - apparently the cost of living is cheap enough to attract students and there are plenty of teachers available. As it's only a 4 hour plane ride from London to Damascus, the country is popular for vacations for Brits and for scholarship. The amount of writing on the net about traveling in the area is amazing.

As usual, I'll be on the lookout for interesting foods, but eating will rank low on our priorities for this trip. Two of the items I will be looking for are:

1. Aleppo pepper which has suddenly become one of the darlings of the culinary world. It's a red pepper flake which is apparently not too hot with plenty of flavor and rich fruity notes. 

2. Camel 

The camel has a single hump;
The dromedary, two;
Or else the other way around.
I'm never sure. Are you?

Ogden Nash

Recipes for camel always start with the basics: Find yourself a good looking medium size camel. Remove the rider; dust off coat, clean feet carefully (I'm picky about this). Whisper sweet nothings in both ears and then bonk on the head, hard. It's much easier to proceed with the recipes if the camel is unconscious or preferably dead. 
Here's a typical (slightly modified) recipe from RecipeBazaar: 

Whole Stuffed Camel for Book Club

SERVES 1 hungry book club



  1. 1
    Skin, trim and clean camel (once you get over trthe hump - careful with the toenails), lamb and chicken.

  2. 2
    Boil until tender. This could take quite a while.

  3. 3
    Cook rice until fluffy.

  4. 4
    Fry nuts until brown and mix with rice.

  5. 5
    Hard boil eggs and peel.

  6. 6
    Stuff cooked chickens with hard boiled eggs and rice.

  7. 7
    Stuff the cooked lamb with stuffed chickens.

  8. 8
    Add more rice.

  9. 9
    Stuff the camel with the stuffed lamb and add rest of rice.

  10. 10
    Broil over large charcoal pit until brown.

  11. 11
    Spread any remaining rice on large, decorative tray slightly smaller than your car. Place cooked camel on top of rice.

  12. 12
    Decorate with boiled eggs and nuts.

  13. 13
    Smash and jam the tray into your car and drive quickly to the book club meeting. There will be enough for seconds.  

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Human vending machines

Driving by the Albertson's shopping center, I cringe for the people dressed in statue of liberty costumes trying to drum up business for the Income Tax service in the center. Could there be a worse job! Yes - you could be working inside a vending machine - the ultimate superfluous job.

Kit Kat's new Human Vending Machines combine the best elements of convenience foods, automatic vending, and slavery in one brutally delicious, schadenfreude-laden package. Basically a snack machine with a human being trapped inside, the machines put a personal face on candy vending transactions. Users put in their money, make their choice, and ask the man inside to send out the chocolate. The vendor, in turn, smiles at the customer, grabs the candy, and drops it into a slot.

There is no word yet on whether, underneath their smiles, the anonymous vendors are dying inside, asking themselves what series of bad choices led them to become nameless cogs in a snack-distribution empire. Similarly, one has to wonder if any of the vendors has found himself on a weekend-long alcoholic bender after selling a candy bar to his former prom date, a slickly-attired professional who pretended that she didn't recognize him.

The irony of this is delicious. 

The human in the kit kat machine reminded me of the famous human jukebox in Ghiradelli Square. He sat in a large packing box which he'd dubbed the Automatic Human Jukebox.  A sign said, "insert coin" next to a slit. After you deposited your money a flap would open; the guy inside would pop up and play the trumpet. The whole act was hilarious, everybody would stand around and laugh and laugh. Whenever I was in the vicinity, I made a point of dropping by to see him at work . 

I looked him up on line and apparently mental illness got the best of him and he died, a wreck, living in dumps in San Francisco. I hope the guys in the Kit Kat machines fare better. 

Friday, March 05, 2010

Who the hell is Harry?

A friend, who taught gay couples ball room dancing, invited me to a party at her home. In attendance was a strange mix of people - gay, straight, transexual, old and young. The common thread is that most of them had attended one of my friend's assortment of dance classes.  For about an hour,  I talked to two fascinating women, psychologists, making their living as jury experts. Lawyers would hire them to consult through the voir dire process, assisting in the psychological shaping of the jury. The OJ Simpson trial was big news at the time and many of us were glued to the TV watching Judge Ito's court as the bizarre story unfolded. No subject could have been more fascinating at the time.

As I left the party and said my goodbyes, my friend the hostess commented, "I noticed you spend quite a bit of time with Harry and Norma."  Harry? Turns out one of the "women" was in fact, Harry -  a cross dresser who spent half his non-working time dressed as a woman and the other half as a man. Harry and Norma were married and Norma accepted this bizarre arrangement.

I was floored because I didn't even suspect or question his gender for a minute. Once my friend told me that "she" was a "he" I could see it immediately. His size and weird make-up should have given it away, but it was a party full of unusual people, gender confused, gender transitional - a little like the bar scene from Star Wars. This group was so diverse and so accepting that an elephant with a tutu would have been welcomed with a hug and drink.

Robert's blog today about our local cross dresser who is apparently accepted by his family and the community, reminded me of that party, 15 years ago and that unforgettable couple.

Outer space smells like fried steak

OUTER space smells of fried steak, scientists revealed yesterday.

The universe also has an aroma of hot metal and motorbike welding, Nasa experts said.
Astronauts reported the bizarre scents on their suits when they returned from space walks.
The space agency has commissioned Steven Pearce of British fragrance firm Omega Ingredients to recreate the smells to help train spacemen.
He said: "When astronauts were de-suiting and taking off helmets, they all reported quite particular odours.
"We have already produced the smell of fried steak, but hot metal is more difficult.
"We think it's a high energy vibration in the molecule and that's what we're trying to add to it now."
Mr Pearce told pupils at Moorside High School, Manchester, he hoped the smells would be ready this year.

A friend of mine opined that the exhausted smoke from all the fans in fried food joints all over the galaxy has ended up floating like a huge smelly oil slick through outer space. That stuff has got to go somewhere.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Speakers - Winning and losing

Cruising around through Flikr yesterday enjoying various photos and shifting from link to link, I happened across a collection of photos taken by Stanley Marcus. They are very good, like everything Mr. Marcus put his hands on.  I had a delightful experience with Stanley (note the first name basis) years ago and the memories came rolling over me as I scrolled through the photos.

What was I doing with Stanley Marcus? At that time, I was working for Lawry's and was active in our corny management club which met once a quarter - rubber chicken dinner and a dull speaker. Because of my moaning and groaning about the speakers, I ended up with the job of recruiting them for a year. "Take that you whiner.......you get the speakers. Put up or shut up!!"

Shortly after my "appointment" I was in San Francisco for a project and went into the Neiman Marcus there. I was completely dazzled by the store and amazed that anyone would pay for instance, $98.00 for a T-shirt. What fantastic marketing the store had done over the years! I fantasized about getting somebody from the store as a speaker for our meeting. I heard that Richard Frank who was president and founder of Lawry's had a passing acquaintance with Stanley Marcus and he agreed to let me use his name to get Stanley's ear. Miracle of miracles, Stanley agreed to come out and speak to our group for the cost of his plane ticket and a hotel for one night and dinner with Richard Frank. I think I caught him at a weak moment or something because why would he bother with 40 people from our little company?

He was a fabulous speaker - completely down to earth and casual. He ran way over the alloted time regaling us with great stories about the beginning of the store, the marketing coups which are legendary - in particular the Christmas catalog and the "his and hers" gift. They rarely sell many of these items if at all, but they get millions in publicity every Christmas.

He told about encouraging men to wear drooping socks during WW2 in order to save the rubber that would have been used for elastic. I read on Wikipedia that he also "devised regulations for the manufacture of women's and children's clothing that would enable the nation to divert more textile resources to uniforms and other war-related needs:

We settled on certain prohibitions, such as lengths, sleeve fullness, patch pockets, ensembles, sweeps of skirts, widths of belts and depth of hems. ... The restrictions we put into effect froze the fashion silhouette. It effectively prevented any change of skirt length downward and it blocked any extreme new sleeve or collar development, which might have encouraged women to discard existing clothes.
—Stanley Marcus
In addition to these restrictions, Marcus recommended to the WPB(war production board) that coats, suits, jackets and dresses be sold separately "to make them go further." The changes were expected to create a total savings of 100,000,000 yards (91,000,000 m) of fabric to be used in the war effort.

I was so encouraged by this successful "booking" that laboring under delusions of grandeur, for the next meeting I called the man who was on the cover of NewsWeek that month, the inventor of GoreTex. He turned me down but spent a full hour on the phone telling great stories. I was particularly interested in the  company non-organization. Info from their website is below and since I write this blog mostly for myself, if the reader is not interested in Bill Gore and Goretex, I say - too bad. Like it or not, here it is:

How we work at Gore sets us apart. Since Bill Gore founded the company in 1958, Gore has been a team-based, flat lattice organization that fosters personal initiative. There are no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, nor predetermined channels of communication.
Instead, we communicate directly with each other and are accountable to fellow members of our multi-disciplined teams. We encourage hands-on innovation, involving those closest to a project in decision making. Teams organize around opportunities and leaders emerge. This unique kind of corporate structure has proven to be a significant contributor to associate satisfaction and retention.
I was fascinated by the fact that nobody has a title. Mr. Gore told me that if someone really needed a title to function, he encouraged them to make one up and the company would print them cards. I imagined myself in the same situation, titling myself "Empress of R and D" or "Grand Duchess of San Fernando Road". 
From these two speaker recruiting experiences I came to believe that everyone is approachable  - but that was a couple of decades ago.
A couple of months later, I was on the other side of the fence. The events coordinator at Lawry's asked me if I'd speak about creating new products to the Beverly Hills cooking club that was going to tour Lawry's. I prepared a presentation where I took one of our products and went through the ingredient declaration, explaining why we used each ingredient,  how it functioned and where it came from; fascinating things like modified corn starch (drum roll), hydrolyzed vegetable protein etc. I had them taste various products to illustrate the point. One of the products was a beef au jus - I had them taste it with and without MSG thinking they'd be interested in seeing how dramatic the difference was - after all, we (the product development lab) thought it was fascinating. As I was blabbing on and on, I realized that somebody in the audience looked familiar and that it was Danny Kaye! Wow, I thought to myself...Danny Kaye is listening to me speak. Then I realized Danny Kaye was really irritated with me....and then I realized they were ALL irritated with me. That feeling that I had bombed just washed over me like a hot flash - sort of like telling a joke when nobody laughs. I guess the group had been told they were getting some kind of culinary demonstration, not an exercise in TASTING MSG, as the group leader sharply chastised me later. At the end, they all whisked out of the room  - all the Beverly Hills foodies, without even throwing a glance my way.

So I called my Mom and could proudly say, "Guess what...I really irritated Danny Kaye today". At least I didn't bore them.