Hospital Food

As a hospital patient, I am finding that the best meal of the day is breakfast. After all, it’s hard to mess up breakfast. Corn Flakes, Raisin Bran, hot oatmeal, cream of wheat — you know what you’re getting with cereal. Order a bagel and a fruit cup; it’s hard to go wrong. Better to stay away from anything more adventurous. French toast or an omelette comes pre-packaged and is asking for trouble and the risk of inedibility.

Lunch and dinner are more problematic, particularly if you don’t eat meat and have medical restrictions as well. Choices are somewhat narrowed. I have now eaten something called vegetarian stew with rice twice (it’s mostly banana squash, zucchini and garbanzos). Likewise, an egg salad sandwich twice. Cottage cheese and fruit has become a go-to item. Fortunately, the hospital kitchen offers tomato soup and vegetable soup daily. A small dish of soup with a roll and margarine is something I’m grateful for when the rest of the meal is ick. Take tasteless mac ‘n cheese with bland baby food carrots as a case in point (I ended up with that on my tray twice). Or so-called vegetable lasagna, clearly a figment of someone’s demented imagination.

Dessert depends on whether I get the nice order taker lady or the Dietary Enforcer. In the former case, I might score a lemon bar. In the latter, it’s another fruit cup for sure. My ace in the hole is my discovery that the nurses on this floor do have a stock of tiny ice cream cups in a freezer. Wake me up to take ten pills at 3:30 am and you can guarantee that I will be asking for one. Chocolate, please.

Of course, to have any chance of receiving a reasonable meal in a hospital, you have to order it first. This can be a challenge, particularly if you happen to be sleeping or out for a procedure in another department when the order takers come around with their iPads. You can always call your order in to the dietary department, if you can get through to them. Most of the time, I can’t. Last resort is writing my order on a meal form and asking a nurse to fax it in. Failing that, a patient can ask for whatever meal happens to be an extra on the cart. I imagine I’d have to be pretty hungry to settle for that.

But, as I mentioned, I am lucky enough here in the cancer wing to have that little something up my sleeve.

Chocolate, please.

When Pigs Die

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

Trigger warning: I get a bit graphic this week. If you don’t believe that meat is murder, or you’d rather not think about how that bacon arrived in your pan, you may want to navigate off this page now.

Today, I’d like to take some time to talk about pigs. Yes, pigs. Not those of our fellows who may be a bit slobby or coarse, but actual porcine, squealing oinkers. Hogs.

This is not a pleasant topic, as anyone who has had a whiff of a pig barn or a feed lot without a gas mask can attest. Economics comes into the mix, yet another topic that makes many of us ill. To top it off, any discussion of pigs is emotionally loaded from the get-go. We love our bacon and our barbecue. But we’d really prefer not to think about how these tasty morsels arrived on our plates. And while our only connection with pork may be picking a shrink wrapped package out of the meat case and plunking down a credit card or EBT at the supermarket check stand, lately even that transaction has fallen apart as we find the shelves bare in the age of coronavirus.

There are those of us of the Jewish and Muslim faiths who don’t eat pork for religious reasons, and tend to find even the thought of pigs a bit disgusting. Vegetarians such as myself have even further objections, so I will be the first to admit to the difficulties of discussing this topic in a dispassionate and neutral manner. I can’t. But neither am I willing to turn my head away and think pretty thoughts.

Recently, I began to hear of a disappearance of pork and other types of meat from supermarket shelves as a result of the closure of big processing plants in the Midwest, including giants Smithfield and Tyson. (Some have since reopened under executive orders.). These facilities had become hotbeds of coronavirus infection among employees working in an occupation that decidedly does not lend itself to social distancing. When I started to see articles and recipes touting meatless meals pop up in mainstream media, that’s when I decided it was time to try to find out more about what’s going on here.

I remember how, back in elementary school, I first discovered the poetry of Carl Sandburg, who famously described Chicago as “hog butcher for the world.” So what better place to start, I thought, than the Windy City.

It did not take me long to locate an article on the disconnect between the surfeit of pigs on Midwestern farms and the paucity of pork on store shelves. To my surprise, however, the piece in the Chicago Tribune was not locally written, but carried from The New York Times.

Heartland states such as Iowa and Minnesota are the epicenter of the crisis of too many pigs and nowhere to sell them. The fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has caused hog farmers to run out of barn space and, in desperation, to resort to killing their pigs and either burying the carcasses or putting them through the wood chipper. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are lost as unsold pigs are turned into compost. As Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath more than 80 years ago: “Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.”

This state of affairs has been hard on pig farmers, not only due to the financial devastation it has wrought, but also due to the emotional devastation of farmers compelled to kill the animals they worked so hard to raise. Farmers are used to shipping off their bounty to the big meat packing plants for slaughter, not to having to kill the beasts themselves.

I found it fascinating to learn the methods of murder used. One farmer sealed the cracks in his barn and piped in carbon dioxide gas through the vents. Another loaded up his gun with ammo and methodically shot each of his pigs in the head. The Times reports that it took him all day to do the job.

This is known as “wanton waste,” usually illegal when it comes to hunters shooting a deer and leaving it to rot in the woods, but perfectly lawful when it comes to farmers killing off animals they own and treating the dead flesh as trash. The difference, of course, is that a state’s deer population is viewed as a common resource. Waste is therefore a crime against the community and the state. When it comes to wasting animals that a farmer raised or paid for, however, well, possession is nine-tenths of the law, don’t you know.

It is difficult to imagine the task of disposing of hundreds of 300 pound plus dead pigs to clear out the barn for the next generation of recently born piglets that will likely meet the same fate. So how can these farmers prevent the same situation from recurring in a few months, should the pandemic continue unabated? Short of closing up shop and filing for bankruptcy, not much in the way of prevention is in the offing. The best that farmers can hope for is some measure of mitigation. “Managers supervising the sows have killed about 125 baby pigs a week, or 5 percent of newborns,” reports The Times.

And it’s not just pigs. After all, the big meat packing plants process poultry, too. On the east coast, in Delaware and Maryland, about two million chickens were killed and their bodies “disposed of” last month. It is easy to forget that these were living, breathing, clucking birds that, up until a few weeks ago, spent their days scratching and foraging for juicy bugs and worms in the field (or, sadly, debeaked and packed into stinking cages). I know, they’re just chickens, who cares? I’ll take a leg and a thigh, please.

So where does this leave us from an economic perspective? It’s a matter of making ends meet, of bringing together supply and demand. While industry does its best to create demand, lest the fickle winds of consumer taste abruptly shift direction, this is not a case of the public suddenly losing interest in eating meat. Far from it. It’s the supply side that’s the issue. Supermarkets have resorted to putting up signs announcing limits on the number of packages of meat each shopper is permitted to buy. In much of the country, Wendy’s has none of its famous square hamburgers for sale, having run out of meat.

The meat supply is slowly increasing as some of the packing plants reopen. Now it’s a matter of whether sufficient PPE and social distancing measures will be employed to prevent employees from getting sick. Meanwhile, Congress is considering increased aid to farmers and the federal government has agreed to purchase some of the surplus meat. But first there has to be meat. In other words, first it is necessary to turn those pigs into bacon, ham and sausages instead of into compost.

As The Times reports, the problem is that, outside of the meat packing giants, there is not much demand for live pigs. Everyone wants bacon, but no one knows how to butcher a hog.

This disconnect between the beast and the pan has developed over a hundred years or more in the United States, prior to which families routinely raised their own animals, then killed, butchered and ate them. You knew exactly where your meal came from. Back in the nineteenth century, Dickens pointed out that a man toasting sausages in his fireplace could not but help think fondly of the pig that, but a few days earlier, was still squealing out behind the house.

Today, by contrast, eating meat has become an antiseptic process, totally divorced from its origins. When we put food into our bodies, we no more want to know where it came from than we want to know where what comes out of our bodies goes once we flush the toilet.

There are still deer hunters out there who butcher their own venison for the freezer, and a few have taken a live pig off the hands of a desperate farmer. The Times article even points out that some have purchased live animals from hog farmers and have paid to have them butchered before donating them to charitable organizations. And some farmers have even tried to sell pigs to individuals on Facebook and Craigslist.

I say it’s time for more of the meat eaters among us to step up and put their money where their mouths are. Where are those who mock the animal ethics movement by referring to PETA as People Eating Tasty Animals? Your pork fix awaits you on the hoof in Iowa and Minnesota.

Mask pulled up over my nose, I enter Wal-Mart only to pass by a guy in a T-shirt that reads “All God’s creatures have a place in this world, right next to the mashed potatoes and gravy.” Why isn’t this wiseass buying some of these surplus pigs to eat with his spuds?

Beyond the horror of the hundreds of deaths among our loved ones that we are experiencing daily, the coronavirus has also served to point out the folly of our ways and to rub our noses in it. It’s time for those who talk the talk to start walking the walk.

Updates:

“Is Pork Essential?” Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2020.

Survey Silliness

I am getting tired of writing about the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic (tip of the hat to Governor Newsom for wisely closing the beaches and parks – thank you!), so today I am capitulating to a mindless distraction by responding to a survey. Never fear, I’ll get back to more pandemic stuff next time.

I saw this survey on The Thirsty Oriental’s blog, Rhapsody in Yellow, over on Prosebox. Thank you, sir! (I hope I don’t get drummed out of the WordPress corps for mentioning a competing platform.)

How many pairs of Converse shoes do you own?
Zero. I only wear tough black work shoes. I’m thinking this survey may be geared to a younger person.

Any other names your parents planned to give you?
I think I was supposed to be Abraham. There’s a family story about running around to various cemeteries during my mother’s pregnancy to determine Dad’s correct Hebrew middle name, which thankfully turned out to be Avram, thereby saving me from a lifetime of being Abe.

Are you hot?
Heavens, no. I’m always freezing my butt off.

Where is the most beautiful place you know?
Malibu, California.

Who do you work with?
Fellow managers and my wonderful team of program analysts. You folks rock!

Five essential items you never leave the house without?

  1. Keys
  2. Wallet
  3. Folded handkerchief
  4. Pens
  5. Eyeglass cleaner wipes

Have you ever hit an animal with your car?
A dog, once (decades ago). I felt really bad about it.

Favorite ride in an amusement park?
You’re kidding, right? I hate rides. I don’t even like amusement parks. I can amuse myself just fine, thank you (and without vomiting).

Favorite beauty essential in your bathroom cabinet?
Huh? Whazzat?

Do you have many followers on your Tumblr?
I don’t even know what that is. (I told you this survey was intended for a younger person.). I don’t do Instagram or Facebook or any of that static. But I have over 3,000 followers of this blog, and I appreciate each and every one of you for putting up with me!

Do you tan easily?
Can you say “third degree burn?”

Are you expecting something in the mail?
Maybe my paycheck stub? Teleworking, yay!

Do you inspire others?
Nope. I’m too boring.

Favorite dessert?
Oh, man, now you’re talkin’! Definitely my mother-in-law’s fruitcake. I heard that snide remark! Don’t laugh, it’s heaven on a plate. What else? My mother-in-law’s lemon meringue pie (I’m sensing a theme here). Homemade cannoli from Martio’s Pizza in New York. Black forest cake (with a cappuccino). Really good rice pudding with half-‘n-half and whipped cream (here’s looking at you, Greek diners of New Jersey). Banana split. Strawberry Fribble from Friendly’s Ice Cream in Massachusetts. Maine blueberry pie. Or, if we’re talking about something that I can actually find around here and also eat without getting sick, a gluten-free, nondairy whoopie pie (sounds disgusting, tastes delicious) from Sugar Plum Bakery in East Sac (with a large coffee liberally doused with almond milk). I’ll be having one if those in a little while. Yum!

What do you collect?
Memories, mostly.

Do you like cats?
Yes! I know, some folks think they’re evil. But I grew up with cats. Dogs, however, I don’t care for. Well, except for my sister-in-law’s little Yorkie, who has lately become my patio buddy. Also, my easy chair buddy. Arrrrgggghh! Did I really just say that? [face palm]

Are you healthy?
I’m old. Does that count?

Have you ever been out of state?
I have visited all 48 continental United States. I just need to wrap it up with Alaska and Hawaii. I have also visited two Canadian provinces (the other 8 and the 3 territories are on my bucket list).

Can you always blame your acts on that you were just too drunk?
Hahaha! I don’t drink. Well, except for seltzer, coffee and my wife’s wonderful iced tea. I guess I have to come up with another excuse for the stupid stuff I’ve done.

Three things you try to avoid as much as possible?
The gastroenterologist, the lab where they draw my blood, and the ultrasound machine down in the bowels of Kaiser Hospital. Ouchie!

How many times have you been overseas?
Twice. Once to Europe, once to the Caribbean.

Do you have someone in mind when shopping for underwear?
My wife takes care of that stuff. Don’t ask me.

Number of jeans in your closet?
Zero. My legs are big as tree trunks. I can’t even get pants that fit me properly. Jeans? You’ve got to be kidding.

What accent do you have?
My favorite is the circûmflêx. Um, we don’t have accents in California. But if I’m tired or stressed, I start to sound like Bernie Sanders. Once a New Yawka, always a New Yawka.

Where would you like to live?
No comment.

Duke’s Library

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I realized it was time to sit down for a serious talk with my wife. All this conversation about coronavirus and social distancing and death rates is causing me to contemplate things that I usually try to avoid.

“I can’t think of anyone to leave my book collection to,” I began. Most people just expect to pass down their prized possessions to their children. When you don’t have children, however, is when things get interesting. I’m talking about the lifelong bachelor or spinster who leaves vast sums to the ASPCA in the name of his or her cat. “We do not have a single niece or nephew who would appreciate my books,” I whined. My patient wife nodded. “Maybe I could leave them to a school or the public library.”

I have visions of my precious volumes being strewn about an outdoor book sale table beneath a handwritten “50 cents” sign. Sigh. And then there’s the unfortunate fact that our little town doesn’t even have a public library. If you drive across the Feather River, there’s a library in Marysville. I’ve been there exactly once.

Maybe I could get Duke’s Diner to take my books. They could set them on little bookshelves lining the walls around the restaurant. I guess I’d have to leave them some money to buy the shelving, too.

I love Duke’s. It’s just a little hometown breakfast and lunch joint, open 5 am to 2 pm, seven days a week. Most of the employees are extended family of the late founder and chili master, Duke Griego. They know who you’re related to and what you like to drink. The place has been around since 1962 and it’s an absolute institution in town. Not to mention that they make the best home fries in the state of California. I’m talking peppers, onions, salsa. I’d eat that every day if I could. I am also more than a little attached to their blueberry pancakes.

Alas, the front and rear dining rooms at Duke’s are now empty, all of California’s restaurants having been closed by order of the governor as a coronavirus prevention measure. I noticed on their web page that they are still cooking, take-out orders only. So Sunday morning (ok, so it was afternoon already) I called in my breakfast order and my wife and I drove over there to pick it up.

Duke’s is only about a five-minute drive from here, across the railroad tracks and past the Headstart and the elementary school. It’s near the center of town, with a Mexican carniceria and a convenience store across the street. The place where I fill my gas tank and the medical clinic are on the next block. Cue Montgomery Gentry’s “My Town.”

The décor inside Duke’s is so cornpone that you just have to love it. There is a gigantic fork and spoon mounted on the wall. There are signs featuring sayings about family and blessings and coffee. There are photos of Duke Griego himself with awards that he has won for his chili.

I ask myself whether mounting shelves on the wall and filling them with my library would kill the hometown countrified mood. Perhaps so. Somehow Mailer and Nabokov and Shields and even Steinbeck may feel out of place. Would a shelf filled with my American history books be seen as patriotic, or just as hopelessly egghead? Now, if I were to donate a photo of an egg, and maybe a chicken crossing the road, the history shelf might work.

Okay, so maybe Duke’s is not the right venue for my books. Perhaps my little library could be the start of a community public library here in town? Add a few computers with internet access and my fellow townsfolk would no longer need to sit in traffic on the bridge to Marysville. If we could get someone to donate a house near Duke’s, kids on bikes could pedal over and our many carless neighbors could conveniently visit on foot.

Well, I can dream, right?

As we approached Duke’s on Sunday, I noticed that they had pushed a small table and a chair out onto the sidewalk. Two menus were on the table. The sandwich board near the door advertised the day’s special, pineapple upside down pancakes — takeout only.

When I walked in the door, I found it jarring that every seat was empty, including the stools at the counter, on a normally crowded Sunday. My order was ready to pick up and pay for. Did I want salsa? Sour cream? More syrup?

On the other side of the pass-through window, the cook was still working away even though it was almost closing time. Two more people came in to pick up their orders as I signed the credit card slip.

“Are you guys doing okay?” I asked the server. “Are you hanging in there?”

She smiled and nodded. “We’re doing fine,” she told me as she disappeared into the kitchen to pick up another order.

Empty Shelves

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

Most of my colleagues have been staying home and teleworking, just as I have been for the past week. It’s been a strange undertaking for all of us. “I’m right here,” I attempted to reassure one of my team members over the phone. “I’m just at the other end of the keyboard.”

We keep in touch by text message, by email, over Skype and on the phone. And then there are the endless conference calls, some of which have lasted into the evening. I’m fairly sure that I have been on more conference calls in the past week than in all the years of my professional life combined.

“No one is allowed to get sick,” I tell my team. “I need each and every one of you. Go wash your hands. Do it now!” In my mind, I see hot water faucets being turned on and hand soap being lathered. I can only hope that my imagination squares up with reality.

One of my coworkers ventured out to the supermarket a few nights ago. Next day, I asked her how it went. There was no chicken, no ground beef, no milk, no toilet paper, she reported. “How about canned goods?” I asked. Not much, she told me. The shelves were picked bare.

“What are things going to look like in two weeks?” I asked my wife. I could almost hear the infrastructure disassembling. Does it take a virulent microorganism to prove to the world that the foundation of our society is not love or faith or duty, but supermarkets and toilet paper? And does this mean that we need to start a new religion where all of us pray to Sam Walton?

I try to remember to check in with my elderly parents regularly. Mom is hunkered down for the duration and is dead set on preventing Dad from wandering farther than the mailbox across the road. On the phone with Mom, she admits that her pantry is starting to look rather bare, although they still have plenty in the refrigerator. She estimates that they have enough food left for ten days.

Holy mackerel, do you know what that sounds like, Mom? Like you’re marooned on a desert island or lost in the Antarctic. Better ration your comestibles now, or in ten days you’ll become polar bear food.

Sigh. I tell Mom that I’ll try to have some food delivered to her house, but that I don’t know whether anyone will deliver way out there on the wild prairie, or even if there’s any food to be had anymore. Amazon is taking orders to be delivered 30 days from now, Mom tells me. Oh, yeah? And what are people supposed to eat in the meantime? She asks for bananas.

In my dreams, I am speeding 200 miles down the freeway to rescue my starving parents, when I am pulled over by the cops for violating the “shelter in place” order. They drag me out of my vehicle, haul me off to jail and impound my vehicle.

I start perusing websites and making phone calls, looking for a grocery store willing to deliver out to the sticks. I quickly become frustrated. One supermarket tells me I have to contact DoorDash. When I ask for their phone number, I am placed on hold and listen to the same tune over and over until I am finally disconnected.

I go back to work and my wife takes over our mission of mercy. Instacart to the rescue! After several false starts, she finds that we can order groceries for delivery from Save Mart.

We start to make a list of items we think my parents would like. Bananas, cottage cheese, sour cream, French bread. White tuna in water? Sold out. Canned salmon? Only one can left. How about the packets? Not sure if they’ll eat that. Stuff for salad? Lettuce, yes. Beefsteak tomatoes? All out. How about Romas? Cucumbers? How about the little English ones? Marie’s bleu cheese dressing. Dad’s favorite Honey Bunches of Oats.

We close out the order: $160. The price of some items have mysteriously doubled.

Not long after, the store emails us. Bad news on the fruit. I call Mom again and sing a painfully off-tune rendition of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

We order a box of Entenmann’s chocolate donuts for my parents. Okay to substitute the variety pack if necessary? Sure. They end up delivering a bag of donut holes.

At least the delivery occurs. We breathe a sigh of relief as Dad reads off a list of the contents of the boxes. He is particularly thrilled with the bleu cheese dressing.

1,224 people have tested positive for coronavirus here in California. Far less than, say, New York, but still a lot. Will this number triple or quadruple in the next few weeks? Will the supermarket employees and delivery people start to get sick and disappear from the scene? What if the truck drivers can’t deliver food to the supermarkets? Thinking about these things makes my head hurt.

My wife and her sister head out in search of groceries. They hit up one supermarket after another, finding many bare shelves and picking up what’s still available. They hope to score lettuce and tomatoes to make sandwiches, but no luck.

After coming up empty-handed at five supermarkets, my sister-in-law was sauntering down an aisle when she spied both lettuce and tomatoes in a shopping cart. She looked around, didn’t see anyone, and transferred both items into her own cart.

Salad, anyone?

Social Distancing 101

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I’m really bad at social distancing.

Okay, so I never even heard of the term “social distancing” until, well, a week ago maybe? I’m told it means staying at least six feet away from the nearest human being at all times. I hope this proscription does not extend to non-human life forms, considering the proclivity of my sister-in-law’s little Yorkie for jumping into my lap.

Let’s just say that I have violated the social distancing rule with impunity on at least two occasions over the last few days. I can’t quite determine whether this makes me a rebel or an idiot. Or perhaps someone just stuck in his ways.

I like to eat. A lot. And I don’t cook. Hence, the restaurants of Marysville and Yuba City are my hangouts. The problem is that “hanging out,” of the foodie variety or otherwise, is no longer acceptable. Millennials are being chastised for continuing to hang out in bars, thereby risking unknowingly spreading the coronavirus. Residents of the Bay Area, less than two hours west of here, have been ordered to shelter in place, with violators being handed misdemeanor tickets. It may be smart to pay that ticket by mail, as it could be a while before they’re able to actually schedule a hearing before a judge. The excuses they will offer in court should be interesting.

My gluttonous ways are made all the worse by a case of cabin fever. I’m used to driving to the office in Sacramento every day, and teleworking from my bedroom is getting old fast.

Over the weekend, I snuck out of the house and drove to a family restaurant where I treated myself to an enormous breakfast. Only four tables were occupied in the whole place. I could actually hear Melissa Etheridge and Neil Diamond singing on the recorded music loop.

Moments after I ordered, two women walked in and were seated at a booth directly behind me. One of them was celebrating her birthday. I thought nothing of it until I heard the birthday girl cough. It wasn’t a casual, “excuse me” type cough, either. It was a raspy cough, the kind that might come from someone with bronchitis. I began to get nervous. Had some droplets landed on me without my knowledge? Would I be getting just what I deserve for having the nerve to go out in public? Should I run home and take my temperature?

Finishing my meal, I felt a bit chastened. Still, the next day, feeling cooped up and hungry, I climbed into the car and drove into town. The restaurant that was my destination had quite a few vehicles in the parking lot, and I had to choose between walking in the rain and waiting in my car until a spot near the door opened up. That’s when I moved into position for a good view through the restaurant’s windows. The place was packed. I immediately got the jitters, turned the car around and slunk back home to cut up some fruit. Social distancing indeed.

The next day, my wife texted me at lunchtime from her own telecommuting perch around the corner in the living room. “Wanna go for a drive?” Heck, yes! Get me out of here!

We ran a few errands and ended up at a chain restaurant for lunch. There was a parking space right in front and zero wait for a table. Both of these are highly unusual at this location.

Only about half the tables were full. The server asked whether we wanted sweetener for our tea, as the holders full of little packets had been removed from the tables. We noticed that there were no salt and pepper shakers either. This was to avoid customers touching everything and passing around the coronavirus, the server explained. In fact, what type of tea would I like exactly? She could no longer bring me a sample of available teas from which to choose. That touching thing again.

After this little adventure, I concluded that I had experienced enough excitement and danger, and that henceforth I would just stay home as we are being exhorted to do from seemingly every corner. I am learning to put up with sandwiches, microwaved oatmeal, healthy raw veggies and fruit. There’s always stuff in the freezer that I can zap if I need a little variety.

But it’s my 86 year old parents about who I am truly concerned. They live in a rural area of the Central Valley, near Madera. It’s a nearly four hour drive south of here. Mom has heeded warnings for seniors to shelter in place, but Dad suffers from the same foodie wanderlust that I do. In his case, however, he craves all manner of shellfish, particularly shrimp. Mom keeps a kosher home and will not allow such religiously forbidden foods into the house. So Dad attempts to escape to the restaurants of Fresno as often as possible.

Mom is having a hard time keeping Dad at home when he is committed to getting his shrimp on. She is worried that he will end up contracting coronavirus and will bring it home to her. How would two old, sick people take care of each other with no one way out there in the country to help them?

Mom’s approach has been to spend all day, every day, prepping and cooking food to serve Dad gourmet meals, thereby keeping him at home. On the phone, she tells me thar she feels like a galley slave, like Scheherazade, forced to weave yet another culinary yarn each night just to save herself.

And then she excuses herself, saying she has to get off the line to scrape the carrots and start making the gravy. After all, it’s only five hours until dinnertime.

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.

Passover Food Challenges

With the eight days of Passover starting Monday night, I find myself feeling a bit nostalgic.  I first led a Seder, the traditional family dinner at which we recite the story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, at the age of six.  Neither of my parents were able to read the Hebrew and Aramaic from the Haggadah, and I had already been attending an Orthodox Jewish school for two years.  We hold two Seders, on each of the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, and I have attended at least one nearly every year of my life.

This year will be an exception.  I thought about driving four hours to visit my parents and attend a Seder at their synagogue, but that would have required me to take two to three days off work.  I could attend a communal Seder at one of the area synagogues, but even then I’d have to take at least a day off work.  The Seder can’t start until sundown, and usually lasts until well past midnight.  That makes it tough to get up for work at 4:30 in the morning.  So I will have to skip the Seder this year, although that doesn’t mean that I will “pass over Passover.”  The holiday comes with many dietary restrictions and I plan to honor as many as I am able.

As bad as I feel about not attending a Seder, the whole matzo situation makes it even worse.  Matzo is the traditional crackerlike flatbread that we eat for eight days to remind us of the unleavened bread pulled abruptly off the hot rocks of Egypt before the loaves had time to rise when the Jews were thrust out into the wilderness without a moment’s notice.  Granted, it gets old after four or five days, but I know I will miss it.  Made of only wheat and water and baked for less than seven minutes, it’s not a food for the gluten-sensitive.  Sure, I could order an expensive box of gluten-free matzo online, but it wouldn’t be made of wheat and therefore wouldn’t satisfy the ritual requirement of the mitzvah.  So what’s the point?

At the Seder, we eat many traditional foods, including a green vegetable (always celery in my family) dipped in salt water, super hot horseradish, and the delicious haroseth (apples and walnuts chopped up fine, seasoned with cinnamon and a dollop of grape wine).  We drink four cups of wine or grape juice.  And then there is the dinner, which at my parents’ house always included hard boiled eggs (dipped in the salt water left over from the celery), chicken soup with matzo ball dumplings, gefilte fish (cold fish patties with salty fish jelly), homemade borscht (beet soup, usually served cold) and then meat, potatoes, carrots and dessert.  My mom usually served homemade applesauce before we put the tea on to boil and broke out the honey cake and coconut macaroons.  It’s hard to leave a Seder without being utterly stuffed.

Of course, as a vegan, I no longer eat most of these things.  And being gluten-free clearly does not help the situation.  Traditionally, on Passover we eat no bread, corn, rice, cereal, pasta, legumes or anything that might become leavened.  This means no corn, including any prepared item containing corn syrup.  It means no beans, including soybeans, which means no tofu.  In other words, most of my vegan protein sources are off-limits for the next eight days.  Most Passover desserts contain dairy, eggs or both, so those are out for vegans.  It makes an already difficult holiday just this side of bearable.

So what do observant Jews eat during Passover?  Lots of meat and fish, lots of eggs and lots of dairy.  Good luck, vegans.  We do eat fruit and some types of vegetables.  In my case, I go through many pounds of potatoes and carrots, plus some eggplant, zucchini, spinach, broccoli and mushrooms, and lots of salad.  My favorite fake burgers, made of pea protein, are out.  So is my fake cheese and anything made with vinegar (think mustard, salad dressing, pickles, olives, hot sauce).  I flavor everything with black pepper, garlic and lemon.  I eat lots of plums, apples, bananas and citrus.

In the old days, my Passover breakfast might be cottage cheese with fruit and matzo with cream cheese or fried eggs or matzo brei (pieces of matzo dipped in egg and fried).  Now, it’s potatoes.  In the old days, my Passover lunch would typically involve tuna on buttered matzo and hard boiled eggs with maybe a slice or two of tomato.  Now, it’s potatoes.  Maybe with some carrots or plain salad with lemon.  Very boring and largely protein-free.  I try to remember to eat spinach or broccoli each day, as they each contain a small amount of protein.

My mother has always referred to Passover as “a hard holiday.”  However, the difficulties are tempered by many delicious traditional foods and lots of Passover sweets.  None of those benefits accrue to those eating a vegan, gluten-free diet.  True, you can be creative, particularly if you cook.  I don’t.  I am highly fortunate that my wife is willing to boil pounds of potatoes and roast vegetables in the oven for me.

And yet here I am, with Passover not yet begun, already looking forward to the holiday being over.  I suppose I should look at the bright side.  Perhaps I will gain an improved perspective on the hardships faced by my ancestors who, having escaped slavery due to the Lord splitting the Red Sea, wandered in the desert for forty years.

Eight days seems mighty reasonable by comparison.

 

Breakfast of Road Warriors

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Lobby of the Marriott Convention Center, Riverside, California

RIVERSIDE

Vegan on the Road

A perpetual concern of travelers everywhere is what to do for breakfast.  Lack of planning on the part of the traveler is common, and the quality of the traveler’s experience is thus largely in the hands of one’s innkeeper.  Unless you’re staying at a “bed and breakfast,” chances are better than average that you will be in for something inadequate, disgusting or, if you’re particularly unfortunate, both.

About the time you open your eyes and realize that you are not at home in the comfort of your own bed, but in a hotel room in a strange city, you will hear your stomach rumbling and you will begin to wonder where sustenance is to be had.  If, at check-in, you spied a sign at the front desk indicating “morning coffee available in lobby,” you know you are at the mercy of what’s available nearby.  This is when one’s stomach expresses the fervent wish that the local amenities extend beyond microwaving a pre-packaged burrito from 7-11.

We road warriors are dedicated to the truth that there is much work to be done and that such work must be fueled by some form of morning sustenance beyond mere caffeine.

My employer has informed me that I am not permitted to seek reimbursement for the cost of my morning meal if breakfast comes free with the room, even if it is a “continental breakfast” consisting of coffee and donuts.  The fact that I am unable to partake of either of the aforementioned delicacies does not appear to sway company policy in my direction.  Thus, I am better off staying the night in accommodations that blithely ignore their guests’ need for food in the A.M.

One way to assure morning prandial satisfaction is to bring one’s own food.  This is an attractive option for those with special needs, such as my fellow vegan and gluten-free eaters.  The success of such plan, however, is largely dependent on the presence of a refrigerator and microwave in one’s hotel room.  While such amenities are common these days (at least in North America), they are by no means universal.  In fact, may I suggest that the likelihood of finding food storage and preparation facilities located in one’s guest room is inversely proportional to the quality of the hotel?  One is more likely to find a micro and fridge in Room 108 at Motel 6 than in a 20th floor suite at the Hilton.  Then again, who wants to bring one’s own food when local culinary delights await?

Lesson learned:  When making reservations for business travel, be sure to order a refrigerator and microwave rather than waiting until check-in and hoping for the best.  That is, unless you want to end up like me, with a bagful of hard potatoes that you can’t cook.

I do have certain gluten-free vegan coping mechanisms that I use on the road.  Everywhere I go, I search for Thai restaurants.  This is not because I’m crazy about Asian food, but because most Thai restaurants offer at least a few dishes that can be prepared both vegan and gluten-free.  Pad se ew, please.  No meat, just tofu, no egg, no fish sauce, no soy sauce.  Those are real, gluten-free rice noodles, right?  Not so hot that I turn into a fire-breathing dragon, please.

As it is not my habit to eat Thai food for breakfast, however (even if there were any Thai restaurants open at that hour), I generally look for a place where I can find some fruit.  Now, my habitual breakfast at home is either coconut milk yogurt with banana and raisins or a “protein bowl” (garbanzos and tofu).  But I challenge you to find an American restaurant serving such delights at seven in the morning.  I frequently end up throwing a banana, a slice of gluten-free millet bread and a bottle of water into a bag as I hurry out the hotel door to an early meeting.  I hope to cadge a cup of tea at the meeting venue, but I am seldom so lucky in this coffee-devoted nation of ours.

As a case in point, a few days ago I was in Los Angeles.  After a night in a motel in a seedy area of town marked by the repetitive wailing of car alarms and sirens, I walked into a meeting and was surprised by a breakfast spread just waiting for the participants to dig in.  The viands consisted of turkey, ham, cheeses and rolls to make sandwiches, assorted muffins and, of course, coffee.  (Query:  Who the heck eats such crap at eight o’clock in the blessed morning?  When I asked this of my mother, she replied: “A farmer.”). Honestly, it’s such a ray of sunshine to be presented with all the lovely comestibles that a gluten-free vegan would be delighted to encounter.  And, of course, not a cup of tea in sight.  I sighed and dug in my bag for my banana and millet bread.

Here at the Marriott Convention Center in Riverside, California, one evening I wistfully reviewed the room service breakfast menu and its checkboxes and found the usual variety of egg dishes, meat and cereal.  When completed and hung on the door knob, a hot breakfast would appear, as if by magic, during the 15-minute interval of the guest’s choice (6 to 11 am).  And, just as magically, $15 to $18 per person would be added to the guest’s hotel bill.  Perhaps, I wondered, if I closed my eyes, recited an incantation and wished upon a star, the menu would magically be altered to include berries with almond milk or a breakfast sandwich of soy cheese and grilled tomatoes on rice bread.  Sigh.  In some alternate universe, perhaps.

Then a funny thing happened. While I leafed through the hotel’s amenities brochure and noticed the availability of a breakfast buffet in the lobby restaurant for the princely price of $19 per person, my wife attempted in vain to get the flat screen TV to work.  Not being wealthy, I couldn’t imagine spending nearly $40 (plus tip) for my wife and I to have breakfast.  After all, my employer allows me to expense the grand sum of seven dollars for my morning meal.  Perhaps I do inhabit an alternate universe after all.

I phoned the front desk to report that the telly was on the fritz.  The staff member on duty apologized and sent up a technician.  He messed around with the thing but had no more success than we did.  After he went off to contact the hotel’s internet service provider, my wife called the front desk again to ask about checkout time.  The same chirpy staff lady asked whether our TV had been repaired.  When we assured her that it had not been, she offered to have us change rooms.  No need, said my wife.  We were heading off to sleep anyway.  Apologizing once more, the desk clerk offered us two free breakfast buffets for our trouble.  Hallelujah!  Perhaps my awkward abracadabras worked the right spell after all.

Visiting Riverside is always a slightly strange experience for me, tinged with more than a bit of déjà vu.  My former employer was based in Riverside and, even though my work location was a three-hour drive east, out in the desert, I had to come into town two or three times each year for meetings.  Ironically, now that I work in northern California, I find myself still doing the same (although it’s a six-hour drive each way from Sacramento).

My former employer always put me up a few blocks away at the Mission Inn, deemed by many to be a premiere accommodation due to its historic setting and the ghosts of the past that some say continue to inhabit its walkways and guest rooms.  Personally, I never cared for it, finding the atmosphere dark, drafty and just a wee bit pretentious, as might be expected of some English countryside manor with a 17th or 18th century pedigree.

While the quaintness, antiques and Spanish architecture of Mission Inn appeal to many, I much prefer the modern amenities offered by the Marriott.  While the venue levies separate charges for most of these, those in the know are able to take advantage of the broad leeway given staff to satisfy guests.  In other words, many of the fees can be waived if you just ask (particularly if you mention that you’ve stayed with them before and that your employer has certain expectations in regard to costs).  Not only did we have $25 in wifi connection charges waived (“we still have to work, you know”), we also obtained free parking and an upgrade that allowed us access to the 12th floor concierge lounge (where we watched the Cubs and Indians duke it out on a big screen TV back in September).  Oh, and about that concierge lounge:  They serve juice and pastries in the morning and appetizers in the evening.  Appetizers?  Try sushi, curry, salad and desserts.  Who needs dinner?  As a vegan GFer, I could chow down on raw veggies, hummus and fresh fruit.

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Breakfast buffet at the Riverside Marriott

Which brings me to the $40 breakfast buffet for two that we were comped.  Although it was a weekday, a cook was preparing omelettes to order.  There were scrambled eggs, boiled brown eggs and several of my wife’s favorite breakfast items, including bacon, sausage, yogurt and bread and English muffins for toasting.  GF vegan?  I chowed down on oatmeal with raisins, potatoes and fresh fruit (cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and watermelon).  They even had almond milk on hand for my tea, a rarity on the road.  The staff was so accommodating that I wonder whether they would have sent out to Whole Foods or Sprouts had I asked for gluten-free millet bread.

My fellow breakfasters ranged from men discussing football and billion-dollar deals to an older couple traveling with a squirming three year old who was Face Timing the folks back home.  “Behave,” I heard her mom warn from halfway across the room (and, likely as not, from halfway across the country). “Don’t cause Grandma any trouble.”

 

 

Truck Stop Music

Vegan on the Road

santa-nella-music

A fairly ordinary truck stop at the edge of the interstate gets a musical makeover.

SANTA NELLA

Among the first things I notice in a restaurant or other retail establishment is the quality (or lack thereof) of the recorded background music piped in through the speakers tucked into the ceilings.  At the TA Truckstop on Highway 33 at the I-5 exit here in Merced County, central California, the vibe is decidedly 1970s, presumably to appeal to aging baby boomers such as myself.  Represented were Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Mungo Jerry, Bad Company, Roberta Flack, Billy Joel, B.J. Stevenson, Chicago, Styx, Al Stewart, Abba, Linda Ronstadt, Steely Dan and, of course, the Pauls (McCartney and Simon). We were in there about an hour and a half, my wife working on her Thinkpad and me messing around on my phone, and we never heard the same song twice.  This was a little different than our last truck stop experience, in Reno, where we made only a short visit and still managed to hear Vanessa Carlton’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” four times.

The kitschy music theme of the dining room seemed like it belonged in Gatlinburg or Branson or somewhere.  There were fake guitar sculptures and framed photos of recording artists on the walls, giant G clef and music notes above the salad bar and plaques in the booths featuring large type lyrics of a smorgasbord of eras, including songs made famous by Louis Armstrong, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Righteous Brothers, Judy Garland, the Andrews Sisters and Hank Williams.  Snowflake mobiles dangling from the ceiling were probably meant to evoke wintertime, but still seemed like bedraggled refugees from some tacky Christmas display.  I suppose this should come as no surprise, considering that the truck stop Christmas tree was still up in the lobby, repurposed for the remainder of the winter season by the addition of red paper hearts along the fronds and a large Love sign at the top, where the star of Bethlehem or an angel blowing alleluias on a trumpet should be.

The last time I was here was more than three years ago, when I had a go-round with an impatient cleaning lady.  Neither of us spoke the other’s language very well.  I wasn’t yet aware that I am gluten intolerant, and it may have been a good thing for both of us that I didn’t know how to say “diarrhea” in Spanish.

Santa Nella is a convenient rest stop between northern and southern California, but we usually patronize Pea Soup Andersen’s, the faux-Danish overpriced tourist trap with the windmill, just across the road.  However, when we last made this trip, about four months ago, I was inadvertently glutened by a seemingly safe food item I consumed over there.  The opportunity to avoid that and the overpriced tourist schlock led us to try our luck with the truckers.

Even a gluten-free vegan can be relatively happy at a truck stop, particularly if you’re willing to “fudge” a bit, as I tend to do when I’m on the road.  These days, I find that I can tolerate a small amount of dairy or egg that may be hidden in restaurant food a lot better than even a little bit of wheat.  My body is still revolting from an uncharacteristically stupid food decision I made a few days ago. Let’s just say that it MIGHT have had something to do with a birthday and a chocolate cake. Pain!

When I’m on the road, a salad bar is a sight for sore eyes.  In San José last week, we walked into a tiny Italian restaurant that looked and smelled just like one of the mouth wateringly wonderful family-run holes in the wall on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.  Finding no gluten-free pasta or pizza crust, we walked right out and headed across the street to a steak house where, my wife assured me via a visit to its website on her phone, a salad bar awaited my delectation.

Disappointment greeted me.  No salad bar!

It sounds like the opening of a bad joke.  “A vegan walks into a steak house…”  But as every vegan traveler knows, steak houses do have one good thing going for them (if you can grit your teeth and overlook the bloody cow carcasses):  Baked potatoes.  So there we were at dinnertime in a steak house, with my wife choosing a French toast breakfast and me settling for a dish of salad and a baked potato.  We are a strange pair.

santa-nella-salad-bar

Salad bar at the Santa Nella truck stop

Here at the truck stop, it is still early in the day and everything on the salad bar looks fresh, even the melons and pineapple.  I load up on beans for protein and grab some taters from the breakfast buffet.  Lucky me showed up just as the staff was switching over to the lunch buffet, which provided me with carrots, squash and rice.  I ate my fill, then headed out to the car and reclined the seat in preparation for an hour’s nap.

It was my wife’s turn to drive.