Mount Rushmore, Part 1

Keystone SD

Downtown Keystone SD

The 2017 Great American Escape

KEYSTONE, SOUTH DAKOTA

U.S. 16, the road from Rapid City to Mount Rushmore, is studded with tourist kitsch of every ilk and description.  Reptile Gardens.  The Dinosaur Museum.  Bear Country USA.  A wax museum.  Miniature golf.  You can just hear the kids in the cars yelling “Mom! Dad! Pleeeeeease??”

But that’s nothing compared to the raucous assortment of rock shops, souvenir emporia, tchotchke mongers and cafés lining the main  drag in Keystone, two miles from the famous faces carved in stone.  As a result of the association of Theodore Roosevelt with the monument, it seemed that about half the commercial establishments contain “Teddy’s” somewhere in their names.

We picked out a likely looking café for dinner; the food was quite good, but the accommodations lacking.  Perhaps I should have been tipped off by the middle school sensibility of the rest room signs that read “Pointers” and “Squatters.”  So call me dense and clueless.  Guilty as charged.

We had three choices of seating:  Perched on high tops on the main floor, up a steep flight of stairs to normal tables, or outdoors.  As we are no longer able to comfortably climb either stairs or chairs, we ended up eating out on the patio.  With the sun beating down on us.  In 95 degree heat.  With flies landing on our food every two minutes.  Psssstt!  Ever heard of a little thing called the ADA?  It’s a really lovely law that we have in our country to protect those of us with disabilities, and I believe South Dakota is still part of the Union.  Well, last time I checked, anyway.  Um, should I have brought my passport?

My wife has about had it with my griping, and I can’t say I blame her a bit.  My generally poor attitude has been exacerbated by my own stupidity in bringing along only one pair of shoes, a pair that, as luck would have it, offer no support whatsoever and are painful to walk in for even the shortest distance.

Happily, my sour disposition took an about face as we drove up the mountain, rounded a curve… and suddenly, somehow unexpectedly, there it was in all its glory, Mount Rushmore and its famous presidential faces.  We came upon it all at once, unprepared even, and joined two other cars in pulling off the road to gawk, mouths hanging agape in awe and amazement.  The only experience I can compare this to is stepping out of Paris’ Trocadéro métro station to find the Eiffel Tower right in front of me.

Let’s just say that no photo of Mount Rushmore you have ever seen can begin to compare to the view in person.  I now understand why people from every corner of the earth have this site on their bucket lists.

As the sun was rapidly setting and we had done a long day’s drive to get here, we will return to the monument in the morning to visit it properly.

More to follow.

 

 

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Uncle Guacamole’s Fantasy Lunch Counter

When I was ten years old, my family took the short ride into Manhattan to visit my Dad’s aunt.  A lifelong spinster, she was an accountant who lived high in an apartment building that shot its way up into the sky at 435 West 57th Street.  I was highly impressed with everything:  The midtown location, the doorman, the soft music in the elevator, the tiny, compact living quarters, my aunt’s adding machine with the smooth, green buttons and the frou-frou lunch we enjoyed across the street at the Holiday Inn.

The fancy items on the one-page luncheon menu included such delicacies as blueberries with cream.  My meal consisted of a cream cheese and green olive sandwich, with the crusts cut off the bread, of course.  Now, I had eaten a cream cheese and walnut sandwich with my father at Chock Full O’ Nuts, but this was my first experience with an olive sandwich.  My mother rarely purchased olives on the grounds that they were salty and “not good for you.”

After that visit, I begged my parents for olives on a regular basis, and sometimes they relented.  These delicacies were a beautiful thing to behold as I speared and wrestled them out of their narrow briny prison — first the bright red pimiento, followed by the luscious green orb.  I made Philadelphia cream cheese and olive sandwiches on whatever we happened to have on hand — soft white bread from Waldbaum’s, chewy onion rye from Barnett’s Bakery, a Lender’s frozen bagel, Ritz crackers, matzo.  As my sisters and I, bored on the long, hot, suburban days of summer vacation, pulled chairs out onto the shady patio and attempted to devise methods of self-amusement (long before the advent of video games and the internet), I proposed that we pretend to start a ritzy restaurant like the one at the Holiday Inn on 57th Street.

My first task, I knew, was to develop a menu.  Of course, I included blueberries and cream along with cream cheese and olive sandwiches, as I strained to remember the other items printed on that page in midtown Manhattan.  Now that decades have gone by, one thing remains unchanged:  I still cherish cream cheese and olive sandwiches.  As an adult, I now have the privilege of eating them almost daily.  Even as a vegan (voluntary) following a gluten-free diet (forced by health issues), I enjoy soy cream cheese and olive sandwiches on gluten-free rice bread.

But there is another thing that has remained unchanged as the years go by.  I still dream of starting a little restaurant that serves all the dishes that I wish were on the menu when I visit a restaurant.  A vegan, gluten-free lunch spot where I can walk through the door knowing that I can eat anything on the menu without asking a million questions of disgusted staff.  And just like back in that summer when, at age ten, I tried to develop a menu out on our patio, I still think of what my fantasy luncheonette would serve.  I have developed a no-nonsense menu, based on vegan, gluten-free dishes that I have actually have eaten, prepared either by a restaurant, myself or my wife.  In time, as more gluten-free, vegan items become available on the market and as customers make suggestions for dishes they’d like to eat, I am sure that the menu would be further developed and augmented.  And so, without further ado, I present you with my modest gustatory proposition.

UNCLE GUACAMOLE’S FANTASY LUNCH COUNTER

where everything we serve is vegan and gluten-free

 

Sandwiches served on gluten-free rice bread (add $1 for gluten-free tortilla wrap)

soy cream cheese and olive

soy cream cheese and tomato

PBJ (grape jam, strawberry preserves or orange marmalade)

triple decker (vegan cream cheese, peanut butter, choice of jam)

Tweedledee (melted vegan provolone)

Tweedledum (melted vegan gouda)

California (fresh veggies and avocado – optional: onions, dill pickles, pepperoncini)

Lebanese (hummus, tomato, cucumber)

 

Salad Bowl

protein bowl (tofu, garbanzos, tomatoes, cucumbers)

garden greens (red leaf and iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green olives,

raisins, sunflower nuts, served with balsamic vinegar)

fresh fruit salad with coconut milk yogurt

 

Spuds, Inc.

baked potato with your choice of toppings (Earth Balance vegan margarine, Tofutti vegan sour topping, Daiya vegan cheese shreds, broccoli, onions, salsa, jalapeños)

 

Hot Stuff

vegan chili (add $1 for loaded:  onions, Daiya vegan cheese shreds, Tofutti sour topping)

vegan “beef” (Tofurky brand) over rice

bunless burger (Dr. Praeger’s GF vegan) with fries and salad

sautéed tofu, mushrooms, onions over rice

nachos (vegan cheese, onions, Tofutti vegan sour cream, guacamole)

eggplant parmigiana (prepared with vegan soy cheese)

macaroni and cheese (gluten-free pasta, vegan soy cheese)

fried potato and tofu tacos (corn tortillas)

loaded fries (vegan soy cheese, Tofutti sour topping, onions)  (chili or guacamole $1)

gluten-free pizza (vegan soy cheese)  (toppings $1 each:  mushrooms, onions, peppers, olives, broccoli, artichokes, tofu, pineapple)

 

Sides

choice of hot veggies:  carrots, broccoli, spinach, corn, zucchini in tomato sauce, vegan “cheesy” broccoli or cauliflower

“ants on a log” (celery, raisins, your choice of peanut butter or vegan cream cheese)

white rice

French fries

chips and salsa

guacamole

beans and vegan cheese

 

Dessert

frozen coconut milk “ice cream” (chocolate, vanilla, cherry chip)

Sugar Plum Bakery whoopie pies

 

Beverages

fresh brewed iced tea, iced coffee, Pepsi products, seltzer (orange, berry or plain), orange juice, apple juice

 

So, what do you think?  Would anyone actually want to eat lunch at such a weird place?  Anyone out there want to raise some capital for this venture?  Has Uncle Guac finally lost his mind?  Talk to me in the comments.

 

Just So Yummy (A Vegan Allegory)

Among the many difficulties of eating a vegan diet is that you are constantly challenged — by well-meaning family members, by coworkers, by mere acquaintances.  My advice to anyone considering going vegan is that this aspect of the lifestyle is far more difficult than the matter of finding something to eat.  The fact is that, without adequate support, you’re always going to be the odd person out.

What is worse, however, is that you can count on being frequently called upon to defend your practices and beliefs.  It’s a bit different than practicing a minority religion (which, as a Jew, I do as well), as the United States and most western nations have laws prohibiting discrimination based on religion.  While there are exceptions, for the most part you can plan on those raising an eyebrow at your turban, yarmulke or hijab keeping their bigoted opinions to a nudge and a wink, or to comments made outside your presence.  Vegans have the advantage of not being identifiable by external symbols.  Some vegans choose to take advantage of this fact by staying “in the closet” to the extent possible, at least outside of safe spaces.  The irony, of course, is that there are no “safe spaces” for vegans.  Once your dietary preferences become known, you should expect pot shots and low blows to hit you from any corner, including from those with whom you have regular contact.  Not only is this awkward, but it’s also pointless and unnecessary.  So you can understand why there are times when I feel that it is always open season on vegans.  Simple acceptance of a minority viewpoint would be great.

Oh, but it gets worse still.  After a few years of this, just when you feel settled into a pattern of healthy vegan eating, just when you think you have the right comebacks for almost any remark, you may find yourself lapsing into a morass of self-doubt.  Is always being different really worth it?  Trying to be an educator and a role model gets old and you have to wonder if there is some truth to the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

The pressure to conform is even greater for vegans who are also gluten-sensitive.  Now you have not one, but two different types of deviation from the “standard American diet” (I love that this is abbreviated SAD).  Being gluten-free is something that people can at least understand, even if they think that accommodating you is a serious pain in the ass.  There is not much that anyone can say about dietary restrictions resulting from health problems.  But why do you have to be a vegan on top of it?  Is it really necessary to be so difficult?

I try to avoid this line of destructive thinking as much as possible.  I bristle for a moment at insensitive comments, then turn the other cheek.  But it all hit me like a tidal wave this past weekend, and at an unexpected moment.  I say “unexpected,” as you don’t usually expect encountering a relatively familiar situation to serve as a trigger.  I am learning that being a vegan can mess with your head.  Has anyone else out there experienced this?

During a most enjoyable weekend away in Reno, we considered having dinner at one of the casino buffets.  My wife doesn’t particularly care for buffets, but I have always liked the variety, all the more because there is likely to be something even a gluten-free vegan can eat.  It’s also nice to be able to serve yourself rather than engaging in the usual eating out litany of “no butter, no sauce, steamed only, does that have flour in it?”

My wife stood at the buffet entrance while I asked to go in and take a look at the offerings to determine whether this was going to work or not.  A quick walk-by looked like it would be possible.  There were plenty of salad fixings, garbanzo beans for protein, fruit.  Then I ambled past a large pile of breaded, fried fish.  I should explain that, in my former life, this was one of my absolute favorite foods.  I would indulge at any opportunity.  I can wax nostalgic about wonderful fried fish I’ve enjoyed from Maine to California.

Suddenly, I wanted to grab a plate, pile it high with fish and tear off the breading so that I wouldn’t end up in the rest room all night.  It was a weird feeling.  And, with a little shudder, I turned around and walked out.  We had dinner elsewhere.

I gained an interesting insight from the experience.  How could I be so easily tempted to throw away my beliefs for a plate of food?  This brought to mind Esau who, in the Book of Genesis, sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.

The visual cue of that fried fish struck a primordial nerve that screamed “I want it!”  This is not too different from the 1960s mantra “if it feels good, do it.”  Or, to be more accurate, “if it feels good, screw everyone and everything and just do it.”  I believe the proper adjective for this sentiment is “hedonistic” (although, perhaps “selfish” would be more fitting).  The implication is one of “you deserve it, so don’t overthink it.”

In fact, Big Food and Madison Avenue would rather that we don’t think about what we eat at all.  We’ll keep making tasty stuff, you pay us money and eat it.  End of story.  It is highly inconvenient when consumers begin to think about where their food came from, how humans and animals suffered to bring it to their plates and what alternatives might be out there.  My cynical side has long believed that it’s all about money, but I now realize that, while it is about money, it’s more than that.  It’s about the idea that denying one’s self anything is the epitome of uncool.  How others are affected is not supposed to come into the picture.  The advertising world counts on the predominance of the brain candy that is the moment of “I want it!”  It’s nothing short of pandering to our inner three year olds.

However, we are not three year olds.  As adults, we have the capacity to appreciate how our actions and words affect others.  Those whose psychological makeup does not permit this are often labeled “sociopaths.”  Who cares what anyone else thinks or feels?  It feels good!

This is where fried fish comes in.  That pile of food represents many dead sea creatures, hooked in the mouth or strangled in a net and dragged bloodied onto a boat to head for “processing.”  I have to wonder what that sharp hook piercing my mouth would feel like or how I would thrash with suffocation as I was pulled from the water and left to die.  And why should this happen?  So that my skin could be flayed off and my body cut up and frozen to eventually be dredged in bread crumbs and thrown into a vat of hot oil.  Over six billion fish are killed annually so they can go down our gullets.

Fortunately for most of us, the pain, suffering and death experienced by marine life is largely out of sight.  It’s convenient that we don’t have to witness the ugliness that occurs on the way to our plates.  Out of sight, out of mind.  The disembodied piece of protein before us doesn’t even look as if it were ever an animal.  Thank goodness we don’t have to think about it.  That way we can be like everyone else instead of being some weirdo who doesn’t eat meat.  That way we can go back to the buffet for seconds.

After all, it’s just so yummy.

 

Salad Bar

salad bar

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with salad bars.  I loved them and everyone else hated them.

Growing up in the suburbs of New York City during the 1970s, salad bars were few and far between.  Even fast food was virtually unknown.  Well, we had a takeout place called Chicken Delight.  (Anyone remember their catchy little TV jingle, “Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight?”) I remember what a big deal it was when a McDonald’s opened on Route 59 around 1969 or so.  There were a few little local hamburger stands, but most people just ate at home.  All of the families I knew had two parents who ate dinner with their kids every night, even if both parents worked.  It was another time, for sure.

When we did go out to eat, it was usually for ethnic food.  That meant either pizza or Chinese or one of the kosher delis.  I had never even heard of Mexican food.

There were exceptions, of course.  For the travelers, there was Howard Johnson’s over by the Thruway.  Or you could get a meal in one of the department stores, such as W.T. Grant in Nanuet (all you can eat fish, every Friday night!) or Stern’s across the New Jersey border in Paramus.  And yes, I do remember the leaping flames from the grill (and the heavenly odors wafting through the doorway) of Wolfie’s, near the entrance to Bergen Mall.

All these diverse eateries had one thing in common:  No salad bar.

The first salad bar experience that I can remember occurred whilst visiting my grandparents in South Florida.  Starting when I was about thirteen years old or so, we’d make the 1,300 mile trek in the station wagon at the start of every Christmas vacation, and occasionally at other times of the year as well (Easter break or summer vacation).  The first place we always wanted to head for dinner was Red Lobster, which had not yet come to Rockland County.  (Giant baked potatoes rolled in salt!  An exotic thing called hush puppies, with both tartar sauce and cocktail sauce!)  A night or two later, I’d be begging to go to Black Angus for dinner.  The only one in my family who would eat steak in a restaurant was my father; my mother and the kids only ate meat from the kosher butcher or the kosher deli.  But that was okay.  For me, it wasn’t about the steak anyway.

It was about the salad bar.

My grandfather would start to gripe about how it wasn’t healthy to let me near a salad bar.  Sure it was, I countered.  I may be a grossly overweight teenager, but hey, it’s salad!  Nice crispy, low calorie greens and tomatoes!  Oh yeah, my sarcastic grandpa would come back at me.  Loaded with bleu cheese dressing and cheese and croutons and God knows what other calorie laden treats.  Didn’t I know that salad bars were nothing but a big scam to make us think we were eating healthy when, in fact, everyone went back for seconds and thirds and ended up consuming more calories than would be appropriate for a pachyderm?  I had to look that word up in the dictionary.  The definition came as no surprise.  Still, an appeal to my father, whom I knew would talk to his father, usually did the trick.

On Black Angus night, of course, I would gorge myself in the exact fashion of which my grandfather had warned.  But, oh my gosh, that salad bar was amazing!  They used to advertise how many feet of fresh fruit and veggies they had.  I mean, this salad bar actually had melons and (gasp) canned peaches!

Well, back home in Rockland County, there was one place that had a salad bar, usually only on Friday and Saturday nights:  The Plaza Diner, across the street from the brand new Nanuet Mall on the corner of Route 59 and North Middletown Road.  Sure, there were a few other diners around (although not yet the explosion of diners that hit the scene in the 1980s), all of which were great for pancakes and eggs on Saturday morning or a slice of cheesecake after a movie.  But on the weekends, the Plaza Diner rolled out a salad bar cart onto a corner of the restaurant floor, and I thought it was nothing short of stupendous.  I would approach this holy altar with joy in my heart and a lick of the lips.  I might stick a leaf of lettuce or a cherry tomato on my plate for window dressing, but this was definitely not about the greens.  I would load up with pickled herring in cream sauce, noodle kugel (the good kind, made with fruit cocktail) and cold rigatoni with tuna and mayonnaise.  The best thing, of course, was that this zillion calorie debauchery was in addition to the entrée, potato, vegetables and bread that would be served.  For several years, my favorite meal was broiled bluefish (at least until I discovered spanakopita).  As far as I was concerned, however, it was fine to box up the main part of the meal to eat cold the next day (this was prior to the age of the microwave).  Just let me at that salad bar, mister!

During my college days, the family dining scene changed significantly back in my hometown with the opening of a chain steakhouse known as Ponderosa.  I believe the name, the knotty pine décor, the wagon wheels and campfire implements littering the walls and the Wanted posters were intended to represent images of the Old West.  The place was cheap, and it quickly became a go-to dinner establishment on the many evenings when my hard-working mother was too exhausted to cook (my father did not cook under any circumstances).  Dad would order a hamburger or, occasionally, a steak, while the rest of us chowed down on a limpid, greasy, breaded fish filet and a tiny baked potato.  No matter, though; Ponderosa had a salad bar!  Okay, it wasn’t a glorious salad bar like the one the Plaza Diner rolled out on Saturday nights, but it fit right in with the increasingly vegetarian sensibilities I was nurturing at college.  Come on, this salad bar had sprouts!  My fellow hippies back at the food co-op would be proud.

Decades later, I still love salad bars, although they are now even more vilified than they were back then.  My wife, who prefers to sit down and be served, refers to buffets of any kind as “used food.”  I must admit that I can understand why.  Despite the presence of plastic “sneeze guards,” the unappetizing manner in which the food has obviously been rooted through, plus the inevitability of some rotten kid sticking his boogers in the thousand island dressing, doesn’t exactly inspire images of freshness and health.  And when you combine this with the news stories about people getting deathly ill from such evil bacteria as E. coli . . .

None of this, of course, dilutes my enthusiasm for salad bars in the least.  Locally, there is Lumberjack’s, which features a compact little salad bar tucked in the corner.  While one could say it is “nothing special,” I appreciate the pepperoncini, the raisins and the sunflower nuts, particularly since the salad bar is about the only thing other than a naked baked potato that a vegan can eat in that establishment.  When the family is in the mood for pizza, I am in good shape as well.  Both Round Table and Mountain Mike’s have perfectly decent salad bars at lunchtime.  Most of the time, everything from the broccoli to the radishes to the red leaf lettuce is fresh, and I can go back to munch on pineapple and grapes for dessert.

As for salad dressing, I have noticed that most salad bars now have at least one low-fat or vinaigrette choice, along with cruets of oil and vinegar for snooty purists such as yours truly.  Some even have lemon slices available.

Here in central California, I must say that, when it comes to salad bars, the chain steakhouse Sizzler is in a league all its own.  Not only are the greens crisp every time (and we are frequent visitors), but I am treated to such delights as pickled artichoke hearts, garbanzo beans, green peas and quinoa-jicama-mango salad.  One end of the salad bar is devoted to fruit:  Fresh pineapple, honeydew, watermelon, strawberries.  Then there is the accompanying “hot bar,” most of which I ignore.  However, I always mosey on down to the taco station for the vegetarian pinto beans and the fresh guacamole.  And, unlike many other Sizzler locations, our local shop will gladly serve you a baked potato with your salad bar at no extra charge.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I recently learned some shocking facts about Sizzler.  With the decreasing demand for salad bars, it is something of a miracle that Sizzler is still around.  The chain had to file for bankruptcy in 1996 and ended up closing about 80% of its stores.  Only two Sizzlers remain on the entire east coast of the United States, one on Long Island and the other in Florida.  The remaining Sizzlers are all in California, the Pacific Northwest and Puerto Rico.  The Washington Post story linked above states that the idea behind Sizzler was one of “choice,” the ability to be all things to all people.  Like Alice’s Restaurant, you could get anything you want at Sizzler.

Sizzler salad bar

Sizzler salad bar

Well, not quite.  The beloved diners of my youth in New York and New Jersey, with their booklike comprehensive menus, really did serve just about anything you could want.  Sizzler, which operates on a considerably more limited scale, was simply trying to be both a steakhouse and a “fresh healthy food” place.  The problem is that, in the nineties, beef lovers began gravitating to places like Outback Steakhouse, Tahoe Joe’s, Red Robin and, at the higher end, Ruth’s Chris.  As for fresh, healthy food (I use the term extremely loosely), places like Chipotle and Togo’s appeared to be the up-and-comers.  Sure, Sizzler had an Italian bar with spaghetti and meatballs and macaroni and cheese, but everyone seemed to want to eat lasagna and ravioli at places like Olive Garden and The Old Spaghetti Factory.  You want variety in your chain restaurant?  There’s BJ’s Brewery, Ruby Tuesday, Mimi’s Café and (dare I say it?) even Denny’s.  The salad bar had become the ugly duckling, the red-haired stepchild.  No one wanted a salad bar anymore.

With this in mind, take a moment to watch the 1991 Sizzler video in the article linked above.  It is a real groaner, to say the least.  The whole, schlocky thing, from the dated outfits to the pasted-on smiles to the little girl taking batting practice to the couple kissing at the end is more than a little embarrassing.  Were the nineties really like that?  Or is this just some Madison Avenue fantasy that fooled no one, only further fueling Sizzler’s downward spiral?  When the video started being passed around online, I’m glad that Sizzler was confident enough to make fun of itself by posting it on Twitter under the headline “Let’s Sizzler like it’s 1991!”

My first visit to a Sizzler was in Modesto, California in the 1990s.  The place was just plain awful and we never returned.  In 2005, we moved to Fresno and agreed to try Sizzler again on the advice of my parents.  This time, it was actually good.  For a while, we took to eating lunch there after sleeping late on Sundays.  The place would be packed with the after-church crowd, and we’d engage in much merriment at the expense of the outrageous church outfits that many of our fellow diners were caught wearing.  Purple suits, bowler hats, bright orange shirts with bolo ties, dresses that looked like a rainbow threw up on them.  This location served a brunch buffet in the morning (scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes, the usual fare) before they switched over to the regular salad bar and “hot bar.”  For a while, I loved the place for the pans of vegetable lasagna they would routinely set out.  Soon, though, I tired of Sizzler and would beg my wife that we go eat elsewhere.

Eventually, I took a job out in the Sonoran Desert on the California/Arizona border.  Sizzler was one of the few restaurants other than fast food joints or Mexican places that the little town had to offer.  I reluctantly agreed to have dinner there when we went for my job interview and was pleasantly surprised.  For some reason, this place served both rice and potato (or vegetable) with every meal.  The salad bar included a feta cheese laden Greek salad that would always be my first stop.  And instead of a soft-serve bar, the server brought a dish of vanilla goop (back east, we used to call this “frozen custard”) to the table.  You could then take it to the dessert bar and dress it up with chocolate chips, syrup, strawberry sauce and Oreo pieces.  Once we moved to town, Sizzler became one of our regular dinner haunts.  On a typical night, you might see a dozen people you knew sitting at the tables and booths.  Sometimes, you could barely get in the place, thanks to the buses full of foreign tourists that regularly made dinner stops at Sizzler in both directions on the Los Angeles to Phoenix run.  We’d listen to a Babel of languages and made fun of the retirees and vacationers taking photos of each other on the way to Disneyland and the Grand Canyon.

As often as we ate at Sizzler, I refused to go near the place when we visited my wife’s family in northern California.  I had tried it once and was so disgusted with the disarray of the salad bar and the general uncleanness of the place that I vowed to never return.  Several years later, however, my wife’s family assured me that things had changed and urged me to give it another shot.  That location was now under new management, and I found the transformation nothing short of amazing.  It had become one of the “good Sizzlers” (like its sister stores in Banning and Turlock), with fresh greens and broccoli, mushrooms, plenty of fresh fruit, a taco bar and hot pasta.  And the place was clean.  Once I got to know some of the managers, it became clear that their commitment to the customers made all the difference.

Now that we live here, we find our way to Sizzler at least a couple of times per month.  In our year and a half in the area, nothing has changed.  As a vegan, I am pleased that I can have confidence that I will find plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit on each and every visit.  Even better, my wife can get her steak.

In the 21st century, salad bars remain relatively unpopular, and few restaurants in this area offer them.  I’m just glad that there are still a few places around, like Sizzler, where salad bar lovers like myself can indulge in their guilty pleasures.

Sizzler

Our local Sizzler, Sutter County, California

The Welfare Office (Olive Garden Dreams)

Cal Fresh

The couple standing in line in front of me on the parking lot asphalt had their two children with them.  All of us were wilting in the summer heat as we waited for the truck carrying the food boxes to arrive.

Out of embarrassment, or possibly just boredom, the husband/father stared straight ahead, acknowledging no one.  He was totally checked out.  I could see that he’d rather have been just about anywhere else.  The girls, who looked to be about ten and seven years old, began fidgeting, not knowing what to do with themselves.  The older girl began poking and annoying the younger one, as the latter made a valiant effort to ignore her big sister.

The mother noticed that, about ten people ahead of her, snacks were being handed out to kids by blue-uniformed women staffing a table.  She stepped over there and quickly returned with a little plastic cup containing what looked like a tiny slice off the edge of a quesadilla.  “Here, eat it!” she commanded as she thrust it at her eldest daughter.  “No, I don’t want it!” whined the girl.  “Will you eat it?” she asked the younger girl, who immediately shook her head no.  “Well, then I’m eating it,” she announced, popping the bite-sized snack into her mouth.

“First time here?” I asked the mother in an effort to start a conversation.  She nodded and I took the opportunity to tell her about the USDA food distribution next week and which churches are giving out food baskets and where to get more drought relief boxes over in the next town.  “I’ll have to write this all down when I get home,” she said.  Having been passed this information by other people in other food lines, I was glad to be able to pay it forward.

But she really got excited when I told her about the expired bread giveaway to be held this afternoon.  “You hear that, girls?” she said, “The church right by our house is giving away bread today!”

“And bagels and yogurt and bananas and cake,” I added.  “Cake!” blurted out the older girl, the single syllable exploding from her mouth as if in disbelief at her good luck.  “Yogurt!” exclaimed her younger sister, no less thrilled at the prospect.  I’m guessing it had been quite a while since they had been able to indulge in their favorite foods.

“It’s really hard to feed everyone when you have two girls,” offered the mother, almost as an apology for her daughters’ reaction to my news.  “Oh, I bet,” I responded.  But the food truck had arrived and the line of hungry families began moving forward and the delivery guys began climbing up ladders and handing down twenty-five pound boxes of canned vegetables, rice, beans, spaghetti and peanut butter.

As I passed the snack table, I noticed that the SNAP ladies were working an open jar of peanut butter and had set three fresh peaches on display next to a sign announcing that the snack being handed out to the kids in line was peachy peanut butter pita pockets.  Say that three times fast.

A family with four kids in tow had gotten on line behind me, and one of the blue ladies stepped out from behind the table to offer PPBPPs to their little ones.  Meanwhile, my wife had pulled the car around closer to where the food truck was parked.  As I passed our car, I was most grateful for the bottle of water she handed me through the window.

As I approached the sign-in table, I was accosted by an employee who carried a clipboard and asked me whether I knew about the CalFresh benefits that are available.  “It’s what we call Food Stamps now,” she explained.  I told her my story about how I had applied online, only to be mailed a thick packet of forms that would make an attorney’s head swim.  “I can’t find half the documentation they’re asking for,” I admitted.  “And anyway, isn’t it true that you can’t qualify if you have a car?”

Having a car has nothing to do with qualifying for Food Stamps, she assured me.  With no income, my wife and I would likely qualify, she added.  She then encouraged me to call the county Health and Human Services Department (commonly known around here as “the welfare office”) and get set up with an advocate to help me.

When I returned home with my box of canned food, I took the worker’s advice and called the county.  The paperwork they had sent me had been sitting on the little table next to my laptop for a week, mocking me.  I had been ready to toss it in the trash.  True, we are living off our meager savings, but at least we still have some.  Aren’t Food Stamps for people who are totally broke?

Not necessarily, a case worker told me over the phone.  If that’s our only source of income, and we’re using our savings to pay our living expenses, then we should still qualify. My wife agreed with my sentiment that even twenty dollars a month would be a huge help.

The case worker then went on to explain that she would need copies of our driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, auto registrations, savings account statements, life insurance policies, unemployment exhaustion paperwork and proof of our residence in the county.  (“What, no stool sample?” quipped my wife.) I am grateful that my wife is extremely organized and was able to rustle up copies of all the documents we needed in just a few minutes.  A couple of hours later, she dropped me off at the welfare office to turn in our documentation in support of our application for Food Stamps.  Uh, I mean CalFresh.  Navigating bureaucracy requires the right terminology.  I’m learning (slowly).

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I only had to wait about five minutes to speak to a clerk.  Showing her our paperwork, I tried to explain that its appearances are deceiving.  Although it indicates that we have money, in reality we have no access to it.  I went on to elaborate that when I was laid off, my employer (probably illegally) took half my accrued vacation pay and stuck it in a health expenses savings account.  Even claiming hardship won’t allow us to get our hands on those funds.  A holding company will pay out dribs and drabs to doctors to take care of our office visit copays and lab work, but that’s it.  That’s when the clerk asked whether I am able to provide proof of my assertions.  “Call them,” I suggested, incredulous.  Do they think I am making this stuff up?

The clerk scanned each of the documents I provided, adding them to our file on her computer system.  I explained that we had to move in with my mother-in-law when I was laid off nine months ago and that I am getting exactly nowhere with my constant applying and interviewing.  “I’m sorry,” she replied.  Well, what else can she say?  I’m sure the poor beleaguered clerk has heard it all and then some.

She explained to me that it would take at least a month for a decision to be made on our application.  If further paperwork is needed, we will receive a denial letter, after which we can cure the deficiency by filing the missing documents, thereby reopening the case.  I thanked her and sat down near the entrance to await my wife’s return.

To kill time, I pulled out my phone and checked my email.  What I found was a coupon for $5 off dinner for two at Olive Garden.  If only.  I entered a wistful mood and, as I watched the people come and go at the welfare office, I began text-bombing my wife about my Olive Garden dreams.

Got an Olive Garden coupon for $5 off dinner.

I think I hear eggplant calling my name.

I thought I heard lasagna calling my name too, but I was wrong.  It was actually calling your name.

Ohhhh, oh, minestrone… how I love thee, minestrone…

And the breadsticks stand up and do a little dance around the salad bowl…

And the heavenly odor of grated parmesan reggiano wafts over the table…

And the spaghetti noodles swim in garlicky pools of tomato sauce…

About this time, my wife pulled up to the curb.  “We can’t go to Olive Garden!” was the first thing she said when I opened the car door.

Yeah, I know.  But I can dream, right?

Oh, and I think I know a couple with two little girls who would very much like to join us.

 

 

The Social Network, Medical Style

Both Denny’s and our local diner are gathering places where friends meet for breakfast and lunch, community groups hold meetings and neighbors run into each other and share coffee and gossip.  But the vibe at Duke’s oozes authenticity, while Denny’s gives off the distinct aura of kitsch.  After all, it is a national chain.  And as much as Denny’s aspires to the genuine, it can never be anything more than a poseur.

Case in point:  Denny’s has begun to decorate its restaurants with wallpaper silk screened with not-so-pithy aphorisms that approach the boundaries of idiocy.   Here’s what I mean:

  • “A diner is a restaurant with its shirt untucked.”  (Thank goodness for that.  Here in rural northern California, I was getting tired of dressing up in suit and tie for dinner at Lutèce every night.)
  • “Bacon and eggs:  All in a day’s work for the chicken, a lifetime commitment for the pig.”  (Please don’t insult my intelligence.  Disneyland is thataway.)

Then there are the sayings that focus less on the restaurant itself and more on its customers.

  • “A diner booth is the world’s smallest neighborhood.”
  • “A diner is the original social network.”

I get the message that Denny’s is attempting to conjure up an old-timey feel that probably didn’t exist back then and certainly doesn’t exist now.  The irony of using the phrase “social network” in creating an image of yesteryear is not lost on me.

But today I discovered that it’s all a lie.  It simply isn’t true that a diner is the world’s smallest neighborhood or the original social network.

The doctor’s office is.

Early this morning, I accompanied Pastor Mom to her cardiologist appointment, where she had radioactive dye pumped into her veins and her motor revved up way beyond the legal speed limit.  Last time, the procedure made her ill, so we wanted to be sure that she wouldn’t have to drive home.  Armed with my book, my phone and my water bottle, I spent two hours ensconced upon a leather couch in the doctor’s waiting room.

The first thing I noticed was that Pastor Mom was by far the youngest patient there.  She was called in right away and I had plenty of time to bury my face in my book while I surreptitiously eavesdropped on the conversations going on all around me.  And there were plenty of those, the cooking show demonstrating the preparation of eggs benedict and hash brown potatoes on the wall-mounted TV being universally ignored.

The two elderly gentlemen seated behind me were discussing the relative comedic merits of Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason.  The two old ladies seated on the couch catty-corner to my own were lamenting the departure of Jay Leno from The Tonight Show, agreeing that the new guy, Jimmy Fallon, is strictly for the younger crowd.  Who can even understand the references that these young guys make?  Then the topic moved on to the Olympics, how spectacular the Opening Ceremonies were, and whether it’s better to stay up late to watch all the action or to record it and play it back early in the morning.

One patient using an oxygen tank waited her turn in a wheelchair; another came through the door using a cane and being supported by the arm of his wife.  Most were in the eighties or beyond.  I saw no iPads or PCs, few cell phones and plenty of old-fashioned, hard copy books.

Some of the patients appeared to know each other.  They inquired after the health of family members, catching up on who had moved out of town and who had died.  Perhaps they had met in this very waiting room on other occasions, or perhaps they knew each other from around town.

But what quickly became clear to me was that many of the grandmas and grandpas with whom I shared the waiting room had simply sat down and began conversations with their neighbors, taking advantage of serendipity and time to kill to make friendly connections with others who they may or may not ever see again.

So suck it, Denny’s.  You are not the world’s smallest neighborhood nor yet the original social network.

The cardiologist’s office is.

 

Duke’s

After church today, we headed over to the local diner for lunch.  Only we had breakfast instead.

The dining choices in our little town are few, and are mostly limited to fast food.  Going out to eat generally means traveling 20 minutes or more to one of the neighboring towns.  So I was excited to try out an eatery close by.

Duke’s is a homespun, hole-in-the-wall joint that opens at 5:30 in the morning for the early birds and calls in the horses at two in the afternoon.  And yes, there really is a Duke.  Plaques on the wall bear witness to his chili-making prowess in the form of awards from the Las Vegas chili competition in multiple years.

Although it was late in the day for Duke’s, about three-quarters of the tables were filled.  I was concerned that they wouldn’t have much in which a (near) vegan could partake.  On our way there, my wife mentioned that they offer an egg substitute, but it turned out to be Egg Beaters, which is made from egg whites.  So I was surprised at the choices available.

I ended up ordering fried potatoes, oatmeal and dry toast.  The home fries were prepared with bell peppers, onions and garlic.  Delicious!  The oatmeal was served with cinnamon and raisins.  My first surprise was that the place carries nondairy creamer (made from soy).  “That’s how Duke eats his oatmeal,” the server told me.

My second surprise was that Duke’s serves decaffeinated herbal tea, both jasmine and chamomile.  You may think that’s not so special, but you might be surprised how many restaurants serve standard issue black tea only.

Although we ate in the rear dining room, I suspect that the best place to sit at Duke’s is up front on the stools at the counter.  I saw several different newspapers and even a copy of National Geographic hanging around for the perusal of guests waiting for their meals to be cooked.

Those coming in for lunch have choices such as egg salad or grilled cheese sandwiches, patty melts, chef salads, soups and the diner’s specialty, chili.  Now, if I could only convince them to start cooking cauliflower cutlets and Portobello mushroom sandwiches.

But as far as breakfast goes, you can count me in.  I told my wife that she’s lucky that I am currently without my car, which we have loaned out to my niece so she can drive back and forth to her college classes.  Otherwise, I don’t think you’d be able to keep me away from the place.