Why I Hate Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving remains an exciting holiday for me because it is the one and only time of year that I get four consecutive days off work without having to dip into my vacation time.  Other than that, I find Thanksgiving decidedly meh.

Okay, I hate Thanksgiving.  There, I said it.  I find Thanksgiving positively nauseating.  I know, I’ve turned into an old curmudgeon.  Bah, humbug!

Holiday time critics frequently decry Christmas as having long ago been sacrificed on the altar of consumerism.  Thanksgiving, of course, is no different.  We eat too much, watch football and then waste our money on Black Friday.  I see the list of deadly sins taking shape here:  Gluttony, sloth, avarice, envy.

But what about giving thanks?  At my age, I am thankful and grateful for every day that I am still alive.  I thank the Lord for His many blessings every day of the week.  I don’t need a special day just for that.

As a vegetarian, I am disgusted by the mass slaughter of birds.  A coworker recently mentioned the annual presidential pardon of a turkey.  Exactly what crime was that turkey guilty of that it needed a pardon, I asked.  Let’s just say this is not how to win friends and influence people.

As I’ve discussed in this space before, my aversion to Thanksgiving has much to do with family drama in years gone by.  To put it mildly, my memories of the holiday aren’t too sunny.  I used to say that I considered it a good Thanksgiving if no one threw a punch and no one called the cops.  I exaggerate, but not by much.  I considered it a good holiday if no one started yelling expletives and no one lobbed a projectile at anyone else.  By that standard, I don’t recall too many good Thanksgivings.

Today, I have aging parents with health problems.  My usual Hobson’s choice is to either drive four hours each way to spend Thanksgiving with them or to feel guilty about leaving them alone on the holiday.  Thankfully, I’m off the hook this year.  My sister and her son are driving to Mom and Dad’s and will cook Thanksgiving dinner for them.  Thanks, Sis!  I owe you.

As for me, I plan to have an excellent Thanksgiving this year.  I look forward to chowing down at the Sizzler salad bar, just my wife and myself.  On Black Friday, I look forward to catching up on my sleep.

And yes, I’ll have my laptop with me and will probably do some work over the holiday weekend.

So sue me.

 

Raining Tacos in Scrabble Land

CLACKAMAS, OREGON

“Jews don’t eat tacos.”

We were on the way to Oregon for a Labor Day weekend Scrabble tournament and I was trying to come up with a plausible excuse for my wife regarding why I am totally clueless when it comes to taco-eating etiquette. The depths of my ignorance in this particular realm is so deplorable that I can’t even manage to eat a fast food taco out of its wrapper without making an unholy mess all over the place. Shredded lettuce everywhere. Taco meat stains on my pants. Grease running down my chin onto my shirt.

My wife tried to tell me something about holding the taco by the wrapper on one end while taking bites from the other end and pushing the wrapper up as I go. This seems fine in theory, but I always seem to have trouble making allowances for the effects of gravity. And anyway, what am I supposed to do about the avocado shooting out of the top like some sort of perverse green lava while I’m trying to take dainty little nibbles out of the side?

The obvious reason that traditional Jews don’t eat tacos is that tacos have long been an integral part of the cuisine of Latin America, while most American Jews are of eastern European ancestry. I would no more expect tacos on the menu in Poland or Russia than I would expect kreplach, kugel and cholent to show up on the menu in Mexico. In other words, there is a cultural disconnect.

America, of course, is famous the world over for its cultural heterogeneity. While my forebears feared that the ocean crossing to the States would effectively obliterate all traces of our cultural identity in the bubbling American melting pot, the former assumption of assimilation eventually yielded to a celebration of multiculturalism. No one thinks it a bit odd to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or to go out for margaritas and enchiladas on Cinco de Mayo, even if we have lack any Irish or Mexican ancestry. Chinese, Thai and sushi restaurants are everywhere for all to enjoy. And yes, non-observant Jews do eat tacos.

However, I grew up in a kosher household in New York in the 1960s. I never even heard of a taco. There wasn’t a Taco Bell in every neighborhood. Our community had no Mexican restaurants. And who would even think of such a goyishe thing, anyway? Feh!

The result was a bit of culture shock when I transplanted myself to a heavily Mexican-American area of California’s Central Valley in the mid-1990s. Never mind that I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t even understand the minhag ha’makom, the cultural lingua franca. I embarrassed myself well and truly when I sheepishly admitted to not knowing what a tortilla was.

Even if traditional Judaism had not built bulwarks against the multicultural environment so prevalent in the United States, our religious proscriptions could never have tolerated the taco. Meat and cheese together? Hass v’shalom! You should wash your mouth out with soap! Jewish dietary laws prohibit eating meat and dairy products at the same meal, much less in the same tortilla. And who could even find a tortilla not made with lard? Remember, we don’t eat anything that comes from a pig.

Oh, how times have changed. Packaged tortillas bearing kosher certification are now available at your local supermarket. And thanks to the fake meat revolution spearheaded by industry leaders Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and the host of non-dairy cheeses now on grocery store shelves, it’s perfectly easy to prepare a respectable pareve (non-meat and non-dairy) taco that even vegans can enjoy. Inevitably, the fast food industry has begun to get on board this train.

Much has been written about the Beyond Burgers sold by Carls Jr. and the Impossible Burgers on the menu at Burger King. Could the taco be far behind? Not a chance. While Taco Bell seems to be holding out, competitor Del Taco has zoomed forward with its Beyond Meat tacos. The avocado version, which eschews the cheese, even claims to be vegan.

While no Orthodox Jew would be eating fast food of any kind, those of us raised in middle-of-the-road, suburban, Conservative Jewish kosher households now find it possible to join the crowd in indulging in fast food tacos. All of which brings me back to my dilemma: How are you supposed to eat the darned things without making an unholy mess? Put them on a plate and use a knife and fork? I remain clueless.

To make matters worse, I arrived at the Scrabble tournament in Oregon to learn that the entrance fee included lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Guess what was served at the first lunch? Someone was about to make a great big mess in front of his fellow competitors.

The night before the tournament, I had trouble sleeping. Not unusual for me when at out-of-town hotels. In bed, I picked up my phone and began perusing the day’s news. A story that caught my eye described a new tactic employed by the City of West Palm Beach, Florida to discourage homeless persons from sleeping on the lawn of one of the city-owned properties. All night long, the city blares from its speakers an endless music loop consisting of the children’s songs “Baby Shark” (doo doo doo doodoodoodoodoodoo) and “It’s Raining Tacos.” This tactic, known as “the weaponizing of sound,” has been roundly criticized by many.

My curiosity got the better of me. A song about tacos? This I had to hear. I pressed “play.”

Um, bad move.

Take my advice: Don’t do it. If you’re not familiar with this Parry Gripp ditty, you are better off remaining in blissful ignorance.

Okay, don’t listen to me. But don’t blame me when you can’t get this catchy tune out of your head for days. (Shell! Meat! Lettuce! Cheese! Cheese cheese cheese cheese cheese!)

And whatever you do, try not to think of this song while you’re making an unholy mess eating tacos with several dozen fellow Scrabble fanatics. If you bob your head and start humming while you’re spewing shredded lettuce everywhere, someone is going to wonder what’s really in that water bottle.

Saying the Wrong Thing (Vegan Edition)

My 19 year old niece recently spent a month trying on vegetarianism for size.  She even flirted with vegan meals a bit, as she shares my opposition to the murder of animals for our gustatory pleasure.

I took the opportunity to chat with her about nutrition and menus when we both attended a family event several weeks ago.  On that occasion, I shared a vegan “cheeseburger” with her (Boca burger with melted soy cheese) and left her with the remainder of my package of fake cheese.  My intent was to convey the message that one can enjoy many tasty dishes that do not include the rotting flesh of dead animals.  But I tried not to sugarcoat things.  Vegans do need to ensure that they are consuming sufficient protein rather than succumbing to the temptation to carbo-load all the time.  I also explained about the importance of including yellow and orange vegetables in one’s diet for Vitamin A, as well as citrus fruits for Vitamin C and leafy greens for iron.  I shared that I have a tendency to keep lists in my phone, both to ensure that the right items are purchased during our trips to the grocery store and to monitor my dietary balance.

I find it fairly easy to discuss the cruelty of factory farms, the horrors inflicted on chickens and the way that bulls are killed and butchered.  I have no problem holding forth on vegan food options, nutrition and menus.  But there are other things that I have a much more difficult time talking about.  I refer to the “social” aspects of veganism.  The truth is that, even at my age, I still have a lot to learn about human relations.  How should I say this?  Manners have never been my strong point; I tend to put things bluntly to the point that many find me inconsiderate and even downright rude.  I don’t believe that my coarse demeanor quite rises to the level of, say, Donald Trump, but I have had my moments.  I have been compelled to issue many apologies in the course of my life.  So when I became a vegan nearly three years ago, it didn’t take me long to realize that the dangers of social gaffes lurk around every corner.

How do I refuse a cookie?  You’d think “no, thank you” would be sufficient, but some folks won’t let it alone.  Others think you’re just being a snob.  Yes, I know you’ve seen me eating cookies, but mine don’t contain animal products.

How do you tell someone that you are unable to eat a single thing that is being served?  Possible responses include:

  • “It looks lovely, but I’m really full. I just ate a little while ago.”
  • “I’m diabetic, so I have to be really careful. I’ve already maxed out my starches and fats for the day.”
  • Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t know that I’m kosher. I’d really enjoy a cup of tea, though.”

I find that successful vegan eating away from home is all in the planning.  You can check restaurant menus online in advance.  You can warn your hosts well before showing up at their homes.  You can make sure to eat before you go or after you leave, or you can prepare your own food and bring it along.  This last option, as convenient as it is, can be problematic as well.  I have learned through painful experience that some take offense when you show up with a Gladware container of tofu and broccoli and ask to use the microwave.  It’s a minefield even for the socially savvy.  For someone like myself, however, eating with others is clearly a losing proposition.  What I must do is try to keep my mouth shut, and not just because of the food being served.  I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that whatever I say is likely to be the wrong thing.  And no matter how disgusting I find the food being consumed by others, I am nearly always better off keeping my opinions to myself.

Vegans remain a tiny minority in the United States, a situation that is not likely to change for the foreseeable future.  My dad, now in his 80s, admits that he never heard the word “vegan” until about ten years ago.  Fortunately, awareness of the vegan movement is increasing.  While this is, overall, a positive development, it has also given rise to an increase in deprecatory comments.  For example, my wife recently showed me a meme on Facebook that asked whether the mouth-watering sensation one gets upon smelling steak on the grill is similar to the sensation experienced by vegans upon smelling a freshly mowed lawn.  So excuse me for a moment while I head outside to graze.

Okay, I’m back.  Baaaa.  I mean, “yummy!”

I have no clue how to fairly address this conundrum with my niece.  I do want her to know what to expect, but I don’t want her to run away screaming.  She’s already experienced a bit of vegan social woe when she clearly expressed her expectation that her family provide her with vegetarian meals. Umm…

I hate to say this, dear one, but this is not how to ingratiate yourself to those closest to you.  It’s a cruel, hard world and it’s every vegan for herself.  You have a job, you draw a paycheck, so you can get what you need when you visit the grocery store.  Make lists.  Plan menus.  It’s really not that hard.

For such things to come out of my mouth is very much in keeping with the rudeness that seems to have become my personal hallmark.  I need to heed the adage about not judging until I walk a mile in another’s moccasins.  It’s easy to say “take care of your own needs and don’t expect anything of others” when you earn a good salary and have a wife who is willing to do the shopping.  It’s not so easy when you work part-time making FA wages and have a three year old to take care of.  Not to mention the fact that, when you’re 19, you want to eat fast food like the rest of your friends do and you don’t want to have to think about your upcoming meals.  You want to enjoy the convenience of eating what’s readily available, what’s cheap, what everyone else is eating.  You don’t want to have to explain your food choices and your philosophy to anyone.  You want to fit in.

The other day my wife told me about a phone call she received from my niece.  “I did a bad thing,” my niece prefaced her remarks, before admitting that she was unable to resist an egg sandwich at Starbucks.  My kind, gentle wife very patiently explained that it’s not the end of the world and that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating an egg once in a while.  “Yes, but there was bacon on top of it,” my niece added.

I had to laugh.  If I’m to be honest, I have to admit that I was more relieved than disappointed.  Being a vegan is a tough row to hoe, and all the more so when you’ve been raised eating meat at almost every meal.  I had a head start in that I grew up with a mother who kept kosher and have never tasted bacon.  Kosher meat is expensive and it just wasn’t a big thing with us.  So when I stopped eating meat 26 years ago, it wasn’t the type of sea change that it would be for my niece.

A few nights ago, my niece and her little one were visiting us in our tiny rented house at dinnertime.  I was chopping onions and tomatoes to prepare vegan nachos while everyone else was enjoying microwaved pepperoni Hot Pockets.

“I didn’t like the way eating vegetarian made me feel,” my niece told me as she was heading home.

“It’s not about eating meat,” I reminded her.  “It’s about getting enough protein.”

Leave it to me to say the wrong thing again.  It’s the story of my life.

 

Losing the Game of Body Poker

My aging body has upped the ante lately, and this is one pot that I may not be able to win. I like this metaphor because, some days, it really does feel like a high-stakes game of poker. I get the feeling that this time my body may not be bluffing.

I am hobbling around with a nasty infection in my foot, gobbling antibiotics like candy and praying this disgusting thing resolves itself sometime soon. I try to stay off the foot as much as possible, which has given me a new appreciation for the importance of being able to walk. Meanwhile, my nightmares are populated with scenes of losing the foot, dying during surgery, being relegated to life in a wheelchair, being fitted with a prosthesis.

I thank God that I have been blessed with a wonderful wife who puts up with me even in bad times. She runs around taking care of everything while I try not to act like a cripple (which I have not done very successfully).

I have lost trust in my new Kaiser doctor, as she diagnosed athlete’s foot when I first came in to the office with this problem. I tried to tell her that I’ve had plenty of athlete’s foot and this definitely is not it. She disagreed and prescribed some ointment that, of course, did nothing to help a bacterial problem. Two weeks later, I show up in her office again to demand answers. My foot looks like a picture in a medical textbook. I remember seeing a photo that looked just like this back in the days when I worked for a drug company. I recall being grossed out then, and now it is me! I cannot shake this dread feeling that I am going to end up in the hospital and that this will all come to a bad end.

As if that weren’t enough, the doctor looked at my blood tests and diagnosed me with celiac disease. This means I am now on a gluten-free diet. Okay, stop for a minute and imagine a vegan on a gluten-free diet. This is a disaster!

As it turns out, nearly all my vegan convenience food (Boca burgers, veggie dogs, bean burritos, “deli slices”) are full of wheat gluten. This pretty much limits my protein sources to tofu and beans.

I really don’t know that I can hack it. Sure, if you look around online, you can find gluten-free vegan recipes. I even found one for scrumptious looking cupcakes with chocolate ganache frosting. But the recipe requires me to start by roasting some beets!! Um, I don’t cook and I don’t plan to start now. This is not going to work for me.

So what are the alternatives? I can stick to mostly vegetables, supplementing them with tofu and canned beans. Or I can abandon veganism entirely and revert to my ovo-lacto vegetarian ways. As tempting as the latter course of action may be, I will start by trying the former. Like everything else in life, I will have to figure it out as I go along.

Now if only this damned foot would heal!

The Protein Question

The Vegan Files

One of my coworkers, the most friendly, helpful guy you could hope to know (and a computer whiz, to boot), recently mentioned that he is on insulin but is still having difficulty keeping his Type 2 diabetes under control.  I was a bit surprised, as he is tall, exercises (not only goes to the gym but also has a job that keeps him running around our building like a banshee all day) and is not morbidly obese like me.  I related that I’ve had reasonable success at controlling my blood sugar since I went vegan a little more than two years ago.

He seemed busy, but I spent a minute or two explaining about the vegan diet before he had to run off to put out the next fire at work.  Funny thing is that there is no one “vegan diet.”  Every vegan eats differently.  The baseline that most of us have common is that we do not eat animal products.  This includes a ban on meat, fish and seafood, dairy products (milk, cheese, etc.), eggs or honey.

As most Type 2 diabetics know, the finest foods in life are starches.  I knew that even in my carnivore days.  When you have to watch your carbs, it is easy to dream about bread, potatoes, bread, pasta, bread, cereal, bread, bagels, croissants and tortillas.  Did I mention bread?

Most of these beloved starches are vegan (although you always have to watch the ingredients on the labels of commercially prepared products).  But those of us who are both vegan and diabetic are faced with a double challenge.  It is easy for vegans who eat on the run to overdo it on the starches, a disaster if you’re a Type 2 diabetic.

So I’m not surprised that among the most common questions that I’m asked about my vegan diet is how I get my protein.  “You don’t even eat eggs?” my coworker asked me.  I know where he’s coming from.  As I’ve been blessed with naturally low cholesterol, I used to eat a lot of eggs.  If I had a boiled egg (or two) for a snack, at least I didn’t have to add it to the carbohydrate tally for the day on my diabetic diet.  A single egg gives you 6 grams of protein, so egg lovers who go vegan will likely need to search for a replacement source of protein.

Then again, maybe not.

Don’t ask me how much protein you should consume each day.  I have no idea.  For one thing, it’s an individualized thing in that it supposedly depends on your body weight and how much you exercise.  For another, there appears to be little consensus among the medical community regarding how much protein we need.  Lots of folks out there wag their fingers at meat-loving Americans, warning that we’re getting too much protein and that this can cause us to gain unhealthy amounts of weight and even result in kidney disease.  Then there are others who believe that we don’t get enough protein and would, in fact, do better to indulge in more as a replacement for a lot of the refined sugars and starches that Americans are so enamored with.  All in all, however, I believe we’re probably better off dumping the excess carbs and replacing them with vegetables (both the green and orange varieties).

Starch does have its place, however, even for vegan Type 2s.  It’s a matter of achieving balance, which I grant is not the easiest thing when you spend your life running hither and yon.  I am definitely not a good role model in the area of balance, as I seem to have developed a potato fetish on a scale that would be funny if it weren’t so sad.  As far as I’m concerned, a day without potatoes is like a day without sunshine.  If I don’t have my baked potato, I get positively grumpy.  But you know what?  A baked potato (if it’s not a giant one) tends to have about 90 to 110 calories.  You could do worse.  And starches do fill you up, which can leave you less hungry for the junk food that is forever calling my name.

So I let my coworker know that, while carnivores may have concerns about eating too much protein, vegans (particularly diabetics) have to be concerned about eating too much starch.  Making a point to eat protein at one meal each day is quite sufficient for many of us.  I ticked off a list of some common vegan protein sources:

  • tofu
  • seitan
  • beans and legumes (including hummus)
  • nuts
  • soy milk
  • commercially prepared vegan products

In this last category I include items such as vegan burger patties (Boca burgers, for example) and veggie dogs, vegan “lunch meat” (my favorites are Yves “bologna” and Tofurky’s “oven roasted turkey”) and vegan frozen items (my favorites are Gardein’s “fish,“ “chicken” and “meatballs” and Amy’s bean burritos).  These convenience foods are probably not as healthful as whole foods such as beans and legumes, but they taste great and I never have to worry about a quick protein source to throw in my bag.  A few minutes in the microwave at work and lunch is served!

Of course, protein choices have to be modified to personal preferences.  For example, I happen to detest seitan (sprouted soy), which, at least to me, tastes like dirt.  I rarely drink soy milk, as I prefer almond milk, which has very little protein (but is wonderful in a cup of hot Earl Grey).  I do, however, enjoy tofu and beans, particularly chick peas (which here in California are popularly known as garbanzos).  Everyone has to come up with the mix that works for them.  It’s particularly tough for those transitioning from a meat-eating lifestyle, because many of these products may be totally foreign to them.

It’s also worthwhile to bear in mind that many foods that you already eat contain protein that you might not be aware of.  A packet of instant oatmeal, for example, which I always think of as a starch, typically contains 3 grams of protein.  If you throw two of those in a bowl with some hot water in the morning, you have the same amount of protein as there is in an egg.

The bottom line is that protein is not at all difficult for vegans to come by, particularly with all the commercial products available on supermarket shelves these days.

I just hope that my coworker decides to give it a try.

 

Eggplant

eggplant

The Vegan Files

My mother told me a lot of stories when I was growing up.  Some made me roll my eyes with the morals they were meant to convey and others I just plain couldn’t believe.  But then there were some that I never got tired of hearing no matter how many times she repeated them.  Most of these had something to do with Yiddish words or with the intricacies of observance in the Jewish faith.

One of my favorites went something like this:  A boy raised in an observant Jewish home married a nice Jewish girl whose parents didn’t keep kosher.  However, she was determined to learn kosher cooking.  While an inexperienced cook, she did her best to please her new husband.  He related many times how much he loved lamb chops, and she was glad to oblige.  To the kosher butcher shop she went, intent on picking out the finest lamb chops ever cut from a young ovine.  At dinner that evening, the young bride burst into tears when her husband offered his critique: “It’s okay, but it’s not like Mama made it.”  Not one to give up easily, the wife tried again and again and again, asking the butcher for recommendations and trying out various types of lamb chops, consulting cookbooks and trying different preparation techniques, spices and garnishes.  Alas, it was all to no avail.  Each time, she would be deflated when her husband reported “It’s just not like Mama made it.”  In desperation, she finally gave up on lamb chops from the kosher butcher and prepared the kind of dinner that she grew up with.  Apparently, this kosher thing just wasn’t working out, so she might as well cook what she knew and loved.  She went to the local supermarket and bought pork chops, which she prepared using her mother’s time-tested recipe.  To her surprise, her husband’s face lit up with the very first bite.  “Finally!” he cried, “Just like Mama used to make!”

This wonderful story came to mind while working on my memoir recently, when I got to the part where I was describing my dislike for the lunches that were served at the yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish school) that I attended in my elementary years.  Most days, I brought a sandwich from home, which suited me just fine.  Thinking about the school lunches, I remember how heavily breaded the dry fish cakes were.  But most of all, I remember how much I disliked the tomato soup that was often served.

“What’s wrong with the tomato soup?” my mother would ask.  “Is it too sweet?  Too salty?”  At the age of eight, I couldn’t come up with a coherent explanation.  I just couldn’t put my finger on it.  The bottom line was that it just wasn’t like the tomato soup that my mother served at home.

Years later, I came to realize that the school’s awful tomato soup was homemade, while my mother’s delicious soup was Campbell’s out of a can.  My mother bought Campbell’s because her mother did.  Both of them kept kosher.  Neither had any idea that the “natural flavors” listed in the ingredients include meat juices left over from processing dead cows and pigs.

Like the young husband in my mother’s story, I had no idea that my “kosher” food at home was anything but.

I experienced a similar situation when it came to cheese, which was once among my favorite foods.  I mainly grew up on processed American “cheese,” packaged Swiss cheese and cottage cheese.  My father loved to indulge in tiny bricks of “smoky cheese,” which he particularly enjoyed on apple pie.  I would taste it and fail to understand how anyone could stomach the stuff.  As an adult, I branched out and learned to love feta, bleu cheeses, Brie, cheddar, gouda and provolone.  Over the years, my parents became more adventurous as well, and they now regularly enjoy Muenster and Havarti.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, I got schooled once again, this time courtesy of Trader Joe’s.  About five or six years ago, I was shocked to discover that, right there on the label of some of TJ’s most delicious cheeses, the ingredient “animal rennet” was listed.  Now I understood why the Orthodox Jewish friends of my childhood would only eat Miller’s kosher cheese.  After my lesson from Trader Joe’s, I gave Miller’s a try and found the taste to be disgusting.  Apparently, you had to use the scrapings from the stomachs of cows and sheep to get the enzymes that made cheese taste so delicious.  It was Campbell’s tomato soup all over again!  I related this sad information to my parents, to no effect.  As far as my mother is concerned, cheese is dairy and therefore kosher.  Oy.

When it comes to flavor, it seems that most of the time non-kosher wins.

After I became a vegan, I learned that excellent minestrone soup can be made using vegetarian tomato sauce and fresh vegetables.  My wife is a master at this.  I also learned that bland food can easily be flavored with any number of spices, no meat juices needed.  My go-to spices are black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and oregano.  I also use mustard (both yellow and Dijon), lemon juice, green salsa (I don’t much care for the red), pepperoncini and jalapeños.  For baked yams, cinnamon is a must.  And then there is vegan margarine, olive oil, vinegar and soy cheese to flavor vegetables.  Even tofu, which many won’t eat due to its bland nature, is delightful when doused liberally with spices and baked.

My favorite vegetable remains the eggplant, which I learned to love as a teenager when my father would take me out to little Italian joints for eggplant parmigiana.  My wife still prepares this for me regularly.  She slices the eggplant, I douse the slices with canned tomato sauce and spices, and in the oven it goes.  About 40 minutes later, I apply slices of soy cheese to get nice and melty.

Just as in the case of tofu, many won’t eat eggplant because it is bland.  Believe me, it’s not bland at all when I get done with it.  Garlic rules!

Years ago, I learned that eggplant, like tomatoes, are nightshades; for a very long time, both were thought to be poisonous.  But what I didn’t know (until we saw it on the Cooking Channel the other day) is that eggplant is, of all things, a berry!  How can something as large and lovely as an eggplant be compared to a little strawberry or blackberry?  Strange how nature works.

Even worse, however, I learned this week from Jeff Guo’s Wonkblog entry in The Washington Post that the eggplant emoji is suddenly enjoying a spate of popularity.  Initially, I was delighted.  I had no idea that my favorite vegetable, er, berry, had, in all its purple glory, found its way into the land of text messaging.  That’s when I learned that (gulp) the beautiful eggplant emoji has, uh, a sexual meaning.  Now why would anyone go ruin a thing of beauty by smutting it up like that?

Gutter minds notwithstanding, the eggplant emoji will continue to bring a smile to my face.  Please feel free to send it to me anytime.  But only if it means you’re inviting me to dinner.

I’ll bring the soy cheese.

 

The Haircut

FRESNO

My father keeps telling me about how much he likes the work his barber does.  Now, Dad has very little hair left at this point, so it’s not as if I expected his barber to be a corn row connoisseur or a faux hawk aficionado.  But when he told me that his barber charges only four dollars (plus tip), I was sold.  I decided to put up with my sideburns for a couple of months in order to get my ears lowered both competently and cheaply when I headed south to visit my parents for Thanksgiving.

On Black Friday, my wife and I drove from my parents’ house out in the country to “the big city” of Fresno to get coiffed.  (Well, really so my wife could use her computer to get some work done, since there is no high-speed internet connection or wi-fi out on the rangeland where my parents call home).  My father warned me that his barber might have the day off, but that “one of the girls” would take me.

When we arrived at the shop, we were greeted with a CLOSED sign on the door.  My wife told me this would happen!

Fortunately, we had just passed an open barber shop a few blocks away.  Inside, three barbers were working away on customers while another family waited their turn.  I sat down patiently and waited about 20 minutes to be called.  This was definitely not a discount hair establishment like the place my father patronized.  A sign advertised that a regular haircut would set you back $12.  But I was there already and I just wanted to get this itchy stuff off my ears and face.  I was not about to drive around looking for someplace less expensive.

The last time that I had my hair cut back home, I told a young woman at a salon that I wanted a “3.”  For at least 20 years, I’ve been familiar with the numbering system that many barbers use.  Before I was married, I used to get a “one,” which is basically your Marine special.  Just a bit of fuzz on top.  My wife says that this style makes me “look like an escaped mental patient,” so I began leaving some hair on my noggin. I am now used to having the sideburns removed and keeping a reasonable amount of hair north of that.  Still, I thought the “3” was a bit too short.  Therefore, this time around I requested a “4.”  “You know what a 4 is, right?” the barber asked.  Yes, I assured him, I know what it is.  Upon which I blinded myself by removing my eyeglasses and hoped for the best.

The barber was a young guy who insisted that I used to be a tutor at his high school (I have never taught), urged me to get a lump on my head checked out (I explained how I obtained it forty years ago) and griped about how Heald College closed down when he had almost completed his associate’s degree and how Fresno City College wouldn’t transfer any of the credits.

I should have told him that he missed his calling.  He should have been a bartender.  I wished I had the nerve to tell him to shut up and pay attention to what he was doing.

At that point, the barber requested the details of my Thanksgiving.  “Whad you grub on?” he inquired.  I explained that my mother prepared the traditional turkey, cranberry sauce and potatoes, but that I very much enjoyed my eggplant and tofu, thank you.

“You a vegetarian?” he asked, incredulous.  I answered in the affirmative, in no mood to explain the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan.  Then he asked when was the last time I ate meat.  “About 25 years ago,” I responded, upon which he wanted to know what my last meat meal consisted of.  “I really don’t remember,” I admitted.  “It was a long time ago.”

“If it was my last time eating meat, I’d remember,” he remonstrated.  “I’d have a triple cheeseburger.  But I could never stop eating meat.”

About this time, the barber offered me my eyeglasses and I glanced in the mirror to check out the new me with a “4.”

Welcome to the Marines, son.

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