Monday, July 28, 2008

Talking Shop

I loved the way Janice was squinting as she held the Fiber One bar in front of her, squeezing her eyes, doing her best to make out the tiny print.

"Does that say shellac?!"

I laughed out loud, then chimed in.

"I know, can you believe it?"

I was having a bit of fun at work, this having been the 5th person that morning I showed the breakfast/snack bar to. I was looking to show my new-found discovery to anyone wanting to listen; something to break up the day.

Here's the deal. I'm not any kind of food nut, I'm really not. Am I becoming more careful with my eating habits as the years tick by? Of course I am. That just seems to be the smart way to go. So when it comes to reading labels, I'm right there. Scoping out for the big culprits like partially hydrogenated oils, trans and saturated fats, and one of the most silent, yet destructive ones - sodium. It's amazing to me how something can taste so completely un-salty while at the same time containing 1000 mg. of sodium. From what I can tell, so many foods today, especially the processed ones, are "built for the road" as they say. It's all about distribution and getting the goods out to the consumer so ... that means these items must last; they have to survive the long haul and then stay on the shelf until purchased. And to make something last that long, well ... it has to be preserved, kept alive, kept fresh. "Fresh" - isn't that a curious word to use here? Think of all those Hostess cupcakes sitting in their little display cases all over the world. My guess is those cakes can last just about 'til the end of time, if that's what it takes.

But that's a different subject for a different day. For now, let's talk shop. And I mean that literally. I'm talking wood shop. So, you may ask, "Where is Harry's mind headed here? How did he go from a Fiber One bar to wood shop?

At work, feeling hungry but not wanting to eat a whole meal, I went downstairs to the little cafeteria area and, not finding something I wanted, decided to check out the vending machine to find something of the low-salt variety; that's something I need to be more aware of these days. Again, a different subject for a different day. So, in the midst of the Cheese-Its and Pop Tarts, the Fiber One bar seemed to glow. It was the one item having at least the appearance of being, what I'd call, healthy. So - 75 cents went in and, within a few seconds, the bar was mine.

When I returned to my desk, as I often do these days, I immediately studied the label, partly because I really do care about what I'm putting into my body but also, because I genuinely hate it when companies market something as "healthy" when, in fact, the ingredients show the food is anything but healthy. At first glance, when I saw the clump of copy on the side of the Fiber One bar's wrapper, I pretty much knew things were headed in the wrong direction, health-wise. The numbers looked fine, actually. The sodium was low, about 90 mg for the whole bar - one serving size. And since the fat levels looked good too I figured I'd cleared those hurdles. But then came the long laundry list of ingredients. I'm not going to bore you with every item here - you can check this out, (click on the pic to the right - it should come up very large for you so you can read the copy easily) I pulled this from the General Mills website, where you can find the ingredients of any of their products. I love that companies are doing this now.

Take a look. What do you see?

Two words. "Confectioners Shellac."

Hmmm. Interesting.

The fact is, the word "shellac" stuck out when I first saw it. But because it appeared in tandem with the word "confectioners" I figured, "Okay. It's shellac but ... if it's confectioners shellac, that must be okay, right? I mean, it's confectioners, so ... It's not like I'm eating wood stain, or Cuprinol.

Okay, so I have to tell you - this one was weird to me. Come on - Shellac?! In a breakfast bar? In anything I'd ever eat? I read on and, sure enough, there was that word again. And the second time, it was alone. Now, there was absolutely nothing to counteract the effect. They're talking shellac here. Naked, isolated, unadulterated shellac. [FYI - From Wikipedia: "Shellac is the commercial resin marketed in the form of amber flakes, made from "lac," the secretion of the family of lac-producing insects, though most commonly from the cultivated Kerria lacca, found in the forests of Assam and Thailand."] Sounds delicious, doesn't it?

Come to think of it, the bar does that that light brown, glazy, shiny, smooth look to it. I figured it was syrup, honey, molasses or something.

Well, it's the "or something" that I've come to realize is the real culprit in most of the foods we eat. This is why I'm increasingly cooking and preparing my own foods at home. I figure that's the only way I'll ever really know what's heading into my mouth and then blood stream. Sure, even the produce may have God knows what on it but, I figure it's all relative and I'm headed in the right direction. When I go out for a meal? I do my best to get things as simply prepared as possible now - broiled, grilled, etc, ... And the "on the side" approach is fast becoming my default way to order. These days, it's the goopy sauces I look to avoid; all those things I used to love. Again, as I said before, I am most certainly not a food nut. Trust me, given the opening when the spirit moves me, (and it'll probably be with my brother the next time he visits me in KC), you'll be able to spot me sitting down to a nice helping of burnt ends and beans. And it will most likely be at LC's here in town.

Dietary prudence is a good thing and I'm glad I'm taking care. Still, there are times we simply can not prepare our own foods. Sometimes we have to rely on the likes of a General Foods Corporation to do it for us. And I suppose there is some good news here. If I ever choose to eat the Fiber One bar when I'm out in inclement weather, then I suppose I'm all set. At least my food and I are protected in that way and it's good to know the GF's product development folks have figured out a way to water-proof its treats.

"Well, all I know is there's chocolate in here." That was another colleague's reaction as she leaned in to check out the label.

"Oh. So let me get this straight then. As long as there's chocolate in there, that's cool then," I smiled. "It could read, 'cyanide, chocolate, arsenic, rat poison,' and you'd be okay with it, right?"

We laughed hard.

We're In Good Hands - So, that's that. I'm heading up to Mass. today to see family and I can tell you, the Fiber One bar is still in my bag, unopened. In an emergency, what can I tell you? I just might have to eat it. The fact is I'm not really sure why I still have it. I think I was saving it to snap a photo of the wrapper for the blog. But since the General Foods' folks have all that info neatly laid out on their website (see above), there's no more need for the photo. That being said, I figure there's no need to keep the bar any longer. Unless it's raining, of course. Then I'll eat it. At the very least, I can conduct an experiment. What do you think? Will the raindrops bead up on my arms and legs?

When did the American food distribution system get so amazingly advanced? Those folks are so, so smart. Isn't it good to know they're looking out for all of us this way?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

That's What I'm Talkin' About!


For years - I'm talking 18 of them - I've been telling my folks about Saigon Grille. When I lived in the city, there were times I must have ordered from that place about four times a week. And, whenever I called, it felt as though my "Curry Ga, rice and salad w/ two Cokes" (standard order) was at my door almost before the phone clicked off. I love Vietnamese Food. Malaysian food, Thai food - anything ... what do they call it? Pan Asian? "Best deal in town, dollar for dollar," is what my friend Howard used to say. I couldn't have phrased it better.

My folks have taught me a lot of things over the years, but when it come to adventurous cuisine, they've been pretty much straight down the middle. Listen, they're NY'ers, born and bred in Brooklyn, so it's not like we had pot roast and green peas for dinner every night. Our upbringing was filled with good, what I'd call ethnic food. From the trips to Union Turnpike Deli - to Ratners - to Chinese food - to Italian food at God knows how many places - (I'm not going to list every restaurant I've ever eaten at here, or every meal, although ... I swear I think I could do it, as bizarre as that sounds). Still, when it comes to the more adventurous cuisines, the spicier, more unusual arenas - Indian food, Vietnamese, Thai - those categories have pretty much been my deal - discovered on my own as I made my way out to the world, independent of my folks tastes.

"Have you ever had Vietnamese food?" my dad asked the other night.


At that point, I reminded my dad about my one-man-show of support for the Saigon Grille on the corner of 94th and Amsterdam.

"We went to a new place. Terrific food." he said, as I listened to my dad excitedly describe what they ate. I loved listening to him talking about this new discovery, with my Mom chiming in, in the background, talking over the loud TV.

It's not like my folks are narrow-minded. My God, they were the ones always looking to instill in me the instinct to branch out, try new things. And that included foods. The reason for their more conservative approach to food choices may have stemmed from the fact that my Mom has had stomach problems, pretty much since she was a teenager, so that's just the way things unfolded for them, and then, for us. And even with her stomach issues, My Mom's often made some bold choices, only to then sometimes pay dearly for those choices. I love that about her, actually.

So, all those years of me mentioning my love for Curry Ga, or Chicken Tikka Masala, really, anything curry - and my Mom would immediately shun the very idea of eating "foods like those." And I always understood that reaction since they would probably kill her if she ate them. And, of course, my Dad, out of respect and love for his wife of now, 58 years, pretty much steered clear of those foods, too. After all, there were plenty of other choices on the menu.

Gunfight at "The Hu Ke Lau Corral" - Interviewing all the seniors I meet, I especially love when they talk to me about discovering new things at a later age. New cities, sights, hobbies, talents, TV shows, a type of music, and so on. To hear about people "stretching," expanding their boundaries at a later age - it's inspiring. That's the way I plan to be.

My Mom has been going to a yoga class over the past few months, largely due to the fact that both Stuart and I are Bikram veterans and she has been watching us thrive in that environment for many years. And now, hearing my Dad excited that way, about Vietnamese food? I love it.

Talking about this reminds me about an incident; a funny (not so funny at the time) incident. It was back, I 'd say it was around 1968 or so; I was about 10 or 11. It was at the Hu Ke Lau Chinese ... well ... I think it was actually labeled Polynesian food. It was good, really good. Was it at the level of a Bill Hongs or any of the NY Style Chinese places? No. But, what else could you expect in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts? I mean, I don't think there was anything even approaching good in Springfield, so, all I can say is thank God for the Hu Ke Lau. I remember meeting our best friends, the Posnicks, there on Sundays, I loved those nights out. Sundays, as most Jewish people know, seemed to always be the evening of the week chosen for the "Great Treif Escape" -a chance for the Reform to Conservative to Non-observant Jews to indulge in their lust for spare ribs and pork strips, not to mention the best Lobster Cantonese I've ever tasted. I've thought about the Hu Ke Lau over the years. I haven't been back there, but hear it's still very much around and, actually, quite the rage. Something about an amazing twin lobster special and the best comedy club in the Northeast?? Can you believe that?!

But, here's where the aforementioned incident kicks in. You see, I didn't always love Chinese/Polynesian food the way I'm describing it here. Apparently - and I vaguely remember this - I was a Chinese Food resister back in those days. You've heard about Viet Nam War resisters? Well, I was looking to steer clear of Moo Goo Gai Pan. And so, whenever we'd head out to "The Falls" for those special Chinese/Polynesian dinners, apparently, I would tense up, clench my fists, and sit tight-lipped when it came to order-taking time.

"What's Harry J. gonna eat?" That was the burning question.

Of course, my folks were tolerant of their first born son for the first few episodes, I remember that. And then - now, you're not going to believe this - I'd order a steak and French fries. At The Hu Ke Lau, "Chinese & Polynesian" Restaurant. Honest to God, the fact that they even had that on the menu strikes me as odd when I think about it now. (Note: I just checked the current menu and, sure enough, under "American Fare" they still have the NY Sirloin on the menu, now tauted as "the best steak in the valley!! Grilled to perfection..." So, at least I had the chops to choose only the best, even when I was so far afield). And the truth is, it was pretty good, I remember that - again, part of my "remembering-every-meal-I've-ever-eaten" syndrome. I think my biggest issue at the time was that they only used Hunts Ketchup at the restaurant. At 10 years old, that had the potential of being a personal breaking point. But I made the adjustment. My parents breaking point? They were flexible, I remember that. I don't remember how many times they let me get away with the steak and French fries gig, but I do recall the lectures, short and sweet. The "you've got to try new things," "stretch your palate" lessons. At first, they'd throw those lines at me and I'd simply continue to chown down on my meat and potatoes meal. That was until - the showdown. I like to call it the "Gunfight at the Hu Ke Lau Corral" - complete with the blue waterfalls and wishing-well fountains. It was pretty in there, kind of like a ride at Disney World, complete with palm trees, fountains, Hawaiian-style music, exotic women (wait-staff). It was like Bali Hai in there.

Anyway, the proverbial shit hit the fan one Sunday night; my folks finally made their stand. That night, when I went to order my 1 1/2 pounds of the "best steak in the valley," I noticed the shadow of my Dad's hand closing in from the right. And just like that, the option fell off the table, so to speak.

Now, I don't recall the exact moment, but I'm pretty sure some screaming was involved. Right in the midst of that placid South Pacific motif. I pretty much freaked out at the prospect of not getting my steak and French fries as planned, sans Heinz. But, to their credit, my folks held the line; I can only guess that they had discussed this well ahead of time. Some kind of pact where they said, "Okay. We'll give this little character 6 steaks and then ... that's it. He's got to make the shift." We'll, I'd certainly reached my limit and now, it was time to ... freak out.

"Broadened Horizons" - Okay, so the happy ending is that I ended up loving Chinese and Polynesian food. The fact is I suppose I can credit that one unfortunate scene as a graduation, of sorts. I mean, if my folks hadn't done what they did, I'd never even thought about approaching places like Saigon Grille. The fact is, I might have ended up being a very boring person. Thank God that didn't happen.

So, back to the other night, hearing my Dad talk about their new taste sensations. That interchange caused me to smile all the way out here in Kansas City. That whole "circle of life" theme popped up in my head again. To remember how my Mom and Dad had been the ones to teach me to expand my taste bud horizons in those early years. With the training wheels off, I took their lead and later went off to college, then Europe, then the South, and then traveling cross country for Eldercation - all the time trying all kinds of tremendous new foods along the way. I was the one branching out and my folks pretty much stayed close to home, food-wise.; again, often for practical health concerns. And yet, the other night, it was so good to hear my Dad, at 84, sounding kind of excited about, of all things, Vietnamese food.

"And, what about Thai!?" he added at one point.

That's what I 'm talking about!!

Stretching culinary wings, even in their 70's and 80's.

The circle of life - They teach me; I teach them; We learn together.

Good Lord, I miss my Curry Ga.

"Next Stop - 86th Street/Broadway."

1-9-train, here I come.

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