Monday, November 30, 2009


Whatever you made for Thanksgiving, you probably spent the rest of the weekend finishing. Even though the last thing anyone wants to think of today is holiday food, the Times published an article last Wednesday that deserves another look. After interviewing the keepers of various recipe sites, the author provided a snapshot of the most searched-for holiday recipes by region, and the results are interesting.

Growing up, our Thanksgiving menu never varied, and because it never varied I assumed that the entire country ate what we ate: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green been casserole, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. My mother always started things off with fruit salad, which I figured was her idiosyncrasy, since she believed fruit salad to be a "fancy" start to a meal. I therefore had no idea that, had I grown up in the Midwest, Thanksgiving would have been incomplete without a cheese ball.

Most of the recipe searches in the article are for items one would expect, although it's interesting to note that most of the searches for green bean casserole came from the West coast, as if San Francisco liberals have never heard of such a thing, and that most of the candied sweet potato searches came from the South, as if sweet potatoes and marshmallows are somehow ingredients foreign to the Southern diet. I had no idea, however, that deviled eggs were part of anyone's holiday menu, but they are in the top 25 most searched-for list, and would appear to be a staple of the mid-Western holiday diet.

What do Tennessee and Idaho have in common? Residents of both states apparently enjoy cheesecake as their holiday dessert. If you live in the South, you are apt to serve macaroni and cheese alongside the sweet potato pie on Thanksgiving day. If you happen to live smack dab in the middle of the country, your turkey was accompanied by corn casserole, based on this data. Those who live in the northern plains and the Northwest appear much more likely to brine their turkeys. In the South, green bean casserole was not searched for, while this was the only region of the country where cooks clamored for recipes for broccoli casserole, whatever that may be.

Looking for stuffed mushrooms on your holiday plate? Get invited to dinner in New England or Alaska. It turns out fruit salad is a Thanksgiving staple, just not on either coast, and that in this one instance my mother was a red-stater. Butternut squash is something I can imagine as a holiday regular, but either only New Englanders needed a recipe for this dish, or it's only served in New England.

I'm not sure what conclusions can be drawn from this data, but I did learn that we are a large and diverse country. I mean, deviled eggs? Cheese balls?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Impersonators

The tickets were free. Why else would I go to see a Bruce Springsteen tribute band? But let's start with the more important question: why does a Springsteen tribute band exist? The man is not only alive, he's still touring. He just played a bunch of shows in Jersey a couple of months ago. If you're a huge fan, wouldn't you just go see the man himself? Or just stay home listening to his records? Why on earth would you pay good money to see an impersonator when the real thing is available to you?

The tickets were free because the show was only half full. As it turns out, the answer to the above questions is that people who are eligible for Medicare are the ones who would pay good money to see a Bruce impersonator. The last time I the youngest person at a concert was when I saw the Rolling Stones when I was 15. I know that I'm getting older, and that this is music that people 15 or 20 years older than me grew up with, but there was something completely disconcerting about sitting in the middle of a sea of baldness, paunch, and bifocals at what was, at heart, a rock concert. Then again, the Stones themselves must be closing in on 70, if they aren't there already.

We only stayed for about half of the show, not because it wasn't a good approximation of Springsteen, complete with a fake Clarence Clemmons and a fake Stevie, because it was a good approximation, but because the whole experience was just too weird. It was like being in an alternate universe where the entire E Street canon existed, but all of the songs were written and performed by a guy named Lloyd Springstein.

I couldn't help, though, feeling somewhat sorry for "Bruce" and the rest of the band. I imagined them all growing up, dreaming of becoming professional musicians, dreaming of rock stardom. They all practiced and practiced, spent years sacrificing, just to spend every night of their lives pretending to be someone else. I don't know if it's a step up or down from being a professional Elvis impersonator, but either way it made me both sad and thankful that the show took place in a theater equipped with a bar.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Seeds of Dissention

You might assume that, when it comes to local government, the most burning, most pressing, most divisive issue would be taxation and the municipal budget. You might assume that residents have the strongest feelings about their pocketbooks. You would be wrong. If you want to start a local civil war you only have to say one little word, and that word is "parking."

I have been listening to arguments about parking for five years. Local merchants complain that the meter fees in the central business district are too high. Everyone complains when the meters are enforced and tickets are written. When the meters aren't enforced, everyone complains that compliance is spotty. When tickets are written because people are parking too close to intersections everyone complains, and when enforcement of intersection sightlines are ignored everyone complains about that.

Those who live in higher density residential neighborhoods who don't have off-street parking complain when they can't park directly in front of their own homes. People who have driveways and garages complain when neighbors or visitors park in front of their homes just because they don't like the view of parked cars from their front windows. People who live near schools or local businesses located within residential neighborhoods complain when customers or staff park near their homes. People who live on streets with plenty of parking for all complain if anyone parks on their street, even for a minute.

Propose a new business or redevelopment project in my city and everyone will immediately start complaining about parking. Propose a new parking deck and everyone will complain about the wisdom of parking decks. Propose a parking lot and everyone will complain about impervious surfaces. If you want neighbor to turn against neighbor, friend against friend, simply lean into a group of peaceful-seeming people and whisper, "Parking." Within 30 seconds fisticuffs will commence.

If there's a solution I don't know it. When you live in a place with medium or high density, in old neighborhoods built before every home contained a two-car garage, you're going to have a lot of cars competing for on-street parking. Distraction is probably the best method to combat the divisiveness of the parking issue. Lean into that same group and whisper the second-most controversial topic and parking will become a distant memory. That topic? Street trees.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tax Dollars at Work

I discovered the most magical place several months ago. It's a large building filled with books. Once you find the book you want to read you can borrow it for free, and when you're done you return it so that the next person can read it. You can also borrow DVDs, audio books, music CDs. It's so sustainable it's almost a collective, more socialistic than health care reform. It's the public library.

Back in college and grad school I went to various libraries all the time, but I'd somehow forgotten that they existed. I got into the habit of buying the books I wanted to read and then giving them away, because my house is full of books and I just don't have room to keep too many more of them. For some reason I just assumed that I'd have a long wait for any newly-published book, and that it wasn't worth it. The new penuriousness led me to the library last month, and I have to say that I've been pretty stupid all these years.

My taste in literature is clearly not shared by the other residents of my small city, because I've never yet had to reserve a new book and wait for it. And I'd completely forgotten how libraries subscribe to each and every periodical, and how they provide comfortable chairs for you to slouch into while reading all the magazines and newspapers you can handle in one sitting. There's even pencils and paper lying around in case you want to write something down. There's free WiFi, but there's also every reference book imaginable, so you don't need to rely on the vagaries of Wikipedia for information.

The bast thing about the library, though, is that it's free because my school taxes pay for it. I don't have children and have previously gotten incredibly annoyed each fall when my ridiculously high school tax bill arrived. At least now I can feel as if I'm getting a benefit for all that money. In fact, this is perhaps the only instance where I can hold in my hands a physical manifestation of my tax dollars at work.

Also, don't buy into the myths. If you see someone you know at the library and want to have a short conversation, go for it. I've never once been shushed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Turkey Sucks

Yeah, it's been a while. After 20 months I just needed a break, but now I'm back, refreshed, renewed, reborn, rejuvenated, get the picture. I got my hair cut again yesterday, which I do every six weeks, and realized that my last post was after my last haircut, which meant that six weeks had gone by. So, my break is over, and it's time to get back to it.

So much happens and yet nothing happens. The seasons change, daylight disappears in the evening, when you want light, and appears way too early in the morning, when you want dark. Leaves are raked and blown and are migrated from tree to sidewalk. A season of Mad Men comes to a satisfying end, while yet another season of Real Housewives comes to a satisfying start. Books are read, trips are taken. I will get to all of it, eventually, but on this morning, as I begin preparations for another Thanksgiving, I want to talk about turkey.

I'll start by admitting that I hate turkey. Yes, it smells good while it's roasting, but at the end of all that effort you're left with exactly two pieces of OK-tasting poultry - the meat from the inner thigh - and about 10 pounds of dessicated tastelessness. Stuff it or don't, brine it or don't, the end result is still a lot of meat that you then spend a week disguising in mayonnaise-laden sandwiches or cheese-ridden casseroles. In the end, there's absolutely no reason that we make turkey for Thanksgiving other than the fact that we think it's traditional.

Did the Indians and Pilgrims eat turkey at that originary meal? Perhaps, we don't really know. Oysters were plentiful in the Bay, and the natives would have brought corn, root vegetables, that kind of thing. Venison was just as likely as turkey on that 17th-century groaning board. No, we eat turkey at the holidays because our parents served it, and our parents served it because they like to think they grew up in a Normal Rockwell painting but really probably were served turkey by our grandparents simply because it was a cheap way to feed a lot of people.

No matter the origins, turkey is a bad idea. If turkey was actually so delicious, wouldn't it be served in fine restaurants everywhere? Have you ever once said, "I want to go out for a really good piece of turkey?" When planning a nice dinner party for your friends or loved ones other than Thanksgiving or Christmas, do you buy a huge frozen bird? If turkey were so good, wouldn't there be a McTurkey sandwich? Wouldn't Julie and Julia have featured Julia Child in her French kitchen mastering the art of brining?

Thanksgiving is, at heart, a dinner party. It took me years to realize this, but it is the truth. I've let go of all the holiday cliches, and treat it as what it is. If I want to serve roast beef or rack of lamb, that's what I serve. If I want creamed corn instead of sweet potatoes that's what I make. This year I'm considering fondue. You don't need turkey. You probably don't even want it, if you think about it.

Free yourselves this holiday season. Make whatever you want!