Food, Glorious Food! If You’re Afraid of Butter, Eat Chocolate Bacon and Drink Cream!

Tito’s is a Santa’s Elf’s Best Friend!

Elf Elixer

I was at the Mountain View train station two weeks before Christmas, waiting for the 8:27 train to take me north a few miles to Palo Alto, when I was suddenly surrounded on the platform by several Santa Clauses and a dozen elves, all putting on their beards, reindeer antlers, knee high boots, pointy hats, shoes with bells and curled up toes, and brightly colored scarves, capes and sashes. They were all young festive seasonal workers, bound for the malls and department stores a few stops to the North, ready to bring joy to children and sell promises, wishes, presents and photos of kids sitting on the lap of a jolly, plump, red cheeked, bearded alcoholic toy maker from the North Pole, surrounded on his throne by a small band of diminutive, mythical helpers.

I got on the train ahead of most of them and climbed the stairs to the upper deck. Four female elves piled into a banquette four-plex of seats in front of me and sat facing each other across a fixed Formica table. The eldest elf pulled out a bottle of Tito’s Vodka from her back pack along with four large plastic glasses and proceeded to pour four very tall doses of courage for her fellow Elves to help them prepare for a long day of dealing with an endless parade of needy, entitled, Silicon Valley children. By the time I got off the train three stops later, they had all doubled down on Tito’s elixir and were ready to ride a reindeer.

Santa at work

What is the question most often asked by people with a PhD in Philosophy?

Do you want fries with that?

Socrates • Kant • Aristotle

This mocking, self referential joke was told to me my upstairs neighbor when I lived on the ground floor of a Victorian house next to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1981. He had a doctorate in philosophy and after working in the fast food business had somehow transitioned up to being a sales coordinator and publicity maven for Santa Cruz Organic, the first company to offer customers a wide range of organic, 100 percent juices and blends, starting in the early 1970’s. He had just quit that job and moved from Santa Cruz to the big city of San Francisco and was searching for a new career path where his knowledge of Immanuel Kant, Plato, Aristotle and Wiggenstien could be put to better use and become a cash cow.

There was no insulation in the 19th century house we were living in, reminding me on a daily basis that one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. The previous tenant had come to my front door, wanting to fight me because I had washed the dishes at 9:15 in the evening, disturbing his TV watching with the abhorrent and hellish sounds of silverware and cutlery being cleaned. After I declined his invitation to fisticuffs, he had the police knock on our door later that night with a charge of disturbing the peace.

My new philosopher neighbor had different issues. He and his girlfriend were in the process of planning their wedding in Wisconsin. He was visibly upset that his father, a bowling alley repair man, was refusing to come to their upcoming wedding because his wife to be was Jewish. He and his fiancee often got into screaming fights over a variety of issues which would often end with him yelling;  “Your shit stinks like everybody else’s!” before slamming the door and leaving the house.

The building behind us housed an old crazy woman who would stand on her back porch and shriek insults at her neighbor for unending hours, so there was little peace in the neighborhood under any circumstances. When I asked the recipient of the slanderous aspersions about his daily diet of verbal abuse, he was philosophical, saying that it had been going on for years, that she was ancient and mentally ill and that there was nothing that anyone could do about it other than tune her out and wait for her to die, raising profound questions of time, temperament and personal sanity. 

Do you want fries with that?

All ashore that’s going ashore. We sail for Southampton, England, in 30 minutes.

I heard this announcement and admonition a number of times times over several years on the Queen Mary steamship in my childhood, toward the end of “Bon Voyage” parties as we bid farewell to my grandparents, James and Margaret Thomson, as they were preparing to set sail for England from New York City. The enormous ship was tied up at a dock on the Hudson River and the departure was always a festive, gala event, with free tea and white bread finger sandwiches with creamy mystery fillings with the crusts carefully cut off in classic English Tearoom style. I loved seeing their state room, roaming the majestic ship and and fantasized about someday having a week to cross the mighty Atlantic myself, out of sight of Manhattan, or any land at all.

Queen Mary in New York Harbor

Put the nickels in the slot and pull out your sandwich.

After our excursions to the metropolitan Art Museum in New York City, when I was a child, my grandmother and I would often go to the Horn & Hardart Automat for lunch. The Automat was an art deco styled restaurant and was the first American fast food chain. At the Automat the food was displayed behind chrome plated hinged windows. We diners would insert the required number of coins (mostly nickels) into the machines and then lift a small window, hinged at the top, and remove the meal, usually wrapped in waxed paper. We would then take the meal to one of dozens of tables and sit down together to eat lunch. The machines were replenished with food from the kitchen behind the walls of windows. At one point there were 40 Automats in New York. Both of my grandparents loved the Automat. It was a modern miracle they could not have imagined in their 19th century childhoods in New Brunswick, New Jersey and the Erie Canal adjacent village of Sprakers, New York.

8th Avenue Automat, New York

Don’t serve yourself. The servants will serve you all of your food.

I was at my girlfriend Sallie’s grandparent’s house in Rockport, Maine at the age of 20, visiting for a very long weekend, when I was admonished to not try to serve myself any food at lunch or dinner. I had never before been in a friend’s house where all of the many courses of food were served exclusively by servants. I felt like I was at a medieval banquet, except that there were only four people sitting at the table; Sallie, her grandparent’s and me. Sallie’s great grandfather had somehow made his fortune in the opium trade between India and China in the 19th century, though I had been cautioned to never bring that fact up in polite conversation. Her grandparents had a retinue of servants who had been with them for decades that they treated very badly. They also had a mansion in Philadelphia and a pre Civil War plantation in South Carolina. Their grand house in Maine was called “Spite House” (now a museum) so named by Sallie’s great grandfather to spite his neighbor’s smaller and less grand mansion. He had the house moved on a barge from 75 miles further south in Phippsburg and had it put on a new foundation in Rockport on the edge of the water in 1925. Sallie’s grandparent’s servants travelled with them to all of their habitations up and down the eastern seaboard.

Their seaside vacation home in Maine had a long pier extending out into the ocean where her grandparents had his and her’s boats. He had a 50’ long sailing ketch and she had a 50’ long luxury motor boat, both ready for oceanic cruising. 

She took me out sailing with her uncle in a sailboat race on Saturday. In nautical language there is a new unintelligible term for everything that you might have ever known or understood in everyday English on land. Her uncle barked sailing commands at me that I did my best to obey, having very little idea what he was asking me to do. He seemed infuriated by my ignorance, cursing at me as we tacked to and fro in the windy race. In spite of my seafaring incompetence, we came in 5th out of 12 in the contest.

Spite House being delivered on a barge • 1925 • Rockport, Maine

The cormorants would dive down on a leash and bring a fish back to their masters.

Fishing with Cormorants from a boat

My mother told me this story of working, symbiotic, inter species friendships and relationships from her childhood in China when I was young. Every night, as she tucked me into bed I would ask her to “Tell me about when you were little.” I was always fascinated by the stories of her young life in far away China, in a life so different from mine where I went to school at P.S. 125, an inner city, ghetto public school in the heart of Harlem in the 1950’s; a place I would not have dreamed of sending my children to under any circumstances. 

She would weave fantastic tales of her father bargaining with the King of Thieves, monks who had lost their earthly desire to live and had been naturally mummified and then covered with gold leaf and set upright in the lotus position in a cave for the rest of eternity on the banks of the Yanktzee River. From that same river she told stories of seeing fishermen who had trained cormorants on leashes that would dive down into the river and catch fish and bring them back up to their master’s boats. The birds had removable rings around their necks which prevented them from swallowing large fish, which were caught in the bird’s throat and which the fisherman would remove before sending them back down underwater on another fishing expedition. The birds were able to catch and swallow smaller fish. 

Cormorant fishing skills were practised in ancient Egypt, Peru. Korea and India, but the strongest traditions were in China and Japan, where my mother had seen this ancient art in action. This method is not common today, since more efficient methods of catching fish have been developed, but it is still practiced as a cultural tradition.

Fishing with Cormorants from land

Nothing Does It Like 7Up!

My mother never brought Coke home for our 1950’s American family thirst quenching needs on her grocery shopping outings. We had either Root Beer, Orange Soda or 7Up, and 7Up was and still is my preference. I drank a lot of bad, over yeasted, over carbonated, home made root beer at farms and fairs in rural New England in my childhood. 

7Up was created in 1929 and was originally called “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda,” and was clearly developed before the advent of branding focus groups. The original formula for 7Up contained the mood-stabilizing drug lithium citrate, perhaps mirroring Coca Cola which originally contained cocaine as well as sugar and caffeine.  

In the 1950s, 7Up unveiled a new advertising campaign that declared  “Nothing Does It Like 7Up!” which confused me as a child, as 7Up seemed to be a far better choice than nothing.  Ads for this campaign attempted to market 7Up as a drink that the whole family could enjoy. Some of these ads even featured babies drinking 7Up, claiming that the soft drink was “so pure, so wholesome” that “you can give it to babies and feel good about it.” 

The ads suggested that moms mix equal parts 7Up with milk for a “wholesome combination” that would encourage even the pickiest of toddlers to drink their milk.  Their tag lines over the years were “Nothing Does It Like 7UP, ”  “You like It, It likes You!”  “Wet and Wild!”  “It takes the Ouch out of Grouch!” (perhaps a nod to lithium citrate)  and  “The Un-Cola!”

The writer and musician Richard Farina included a poem about 7Up in his collection of  “Little Nothing Poems:”

“Nothing does it like 7Up

And you don’t have to pay a deposit.”

As Plato wrote, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

Nothing lasts forever – We will always have nothing. 

He knows the secrets of the sea, and he does not speak

I first read this quote about why he loved and admired lobsters in an interview with Salvador Dali when I was a student in France in 1971. Though I have eaten dozens of lobsters and the son of one of my cousins was a professional  “Lobsterman” on fishing boats off of the coast of Maine, as far as I know, no lobsters have yet revealed the secrets of the sea to any member of the human race from their cold kingdom at the bottom of the ocean. Dalí continued to feature lobsters, which he viewed as symbols of erotic pleasure and pain, in his paintings, prints and performances, throughout his life. My lobsterman relative complained to me about the onerous regulations lobster men had to work under to protect whales, saying “What have the whales done for us recently?”

Hotline to the secrets of the sea

If a chicken and a half can lay an egg and a half in a day and a half, how long would it take a monkey with a wooden leg to kick the seeds out of a dill pickle?

Monkey business

I posed this question to my nephew Ethan Moses, when he requested a riddle to start the day when we were doing some painting and repairs on his family’s house in Santa Barbara. After he was not able to do the math on my surreal question,  I asked him a simpler riddle with a real answer:  Where was Moses when the lights went out?”  That one also stumped him. The answer, true anywhere in the world after sunset, is “In the dark.”

I can’t control the weather!

We were stopped in Stanley, Idaho for dinner after a day of white water rafting on the Salmon River. Stanley is a town on the edge of the Sawtooth Mountains with a subarctic climate that has frosts 290 mornings every year. All of its 67 residents are white. The county it rests in is named for General George Armstrong Custer, the Indian killing, genocidal maniac. 

We tried to get dinner at an upscale restaurant there but it was full except for outdoor seating. As we sat down outside, black thunder clouds loomed up nearby. We asked the waitress what would happen if it rained and we were out there eating our $ 30 entrees and she simply said “I can’t control the weather!”  We got into Candice’s Audi SUV and drove down the mountain into Ketchum, where had an Asian Fusion dinner indoors during a rainstorm an hour later.

Albert Bierstadt • A storm in the Rocky Mountains

You must wait half an hour after eating to go swimming, or you will get severe cramps and drown.

This was the ironclad rule throughout my childhood, enforced by everyone’s parents that I knew or ever swam with. It turned out there was there is no medical evidence to support this always stated, always enforced, post-picnic medical myth.

Undertow • Winslow Homer

The Twin Pop is a quiescently frozen confection.

This confusing and vaguely alarming phrase was printed on the packaging of the hundreds of popsicles that I ate as a child. It was only much later in life that I came to understand what it meant. This phrase actually refers to the fact that flavored ice for a popsicle is simply put in a refrigerator and frozen. The word “quiescently” means in a restful state. This distinction is made because ice cream and most other frozen confections are churned, stirred or agitated in a process known as overrunning.

A quiescently frozen confection

Ants are very sprowng!

My sister Alison made this comment after eating an ant she found on the lawn in The Quadrangle at Union Theological Seminary in New York City when she was a toddler. When my mother asked her what she meant, Alison said “Sprowng to eat!” 

Strong Ants on Venus

Don’t eat the snow! It’s radioactive!

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s the United States, the UK and the Soviet Union did extensive atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, exploding enormous bombs above the earth which released substantial quantities of radioactive materials into the environment which were widely dispersed in the atmosphere and deposited everywhere on the Earth’s surface. My mother warned us not to eat the snow that we made into snowmen and snowballs outside of our New York City apartment because it might be radioactive and could poison or kill us. By official count over 2,024 test were made under water, on land and in the atmosphere worldwide, all releasing substantial quantities of radioactive materials. Childhood quickly lost its innocence on those cold and snowy Cold  War winter days and nights.

B. Wang • Gathering of Plum Blossoms in the Snow

The shrimp are really just a vehicle for the sauce.

Lobster and Shrimp • Hiroshige

My brother Peter and his wife Jill had just flown out to California from their home in Texas to attend Karen’s and my wedding in the summer of 1984. They brought a large troupe of Gulf shrimp on ice with them for the rehearsal dinner at my future mother in law’s house in Palo Alto. My mother’s dear eccentric friend, Anna Aschenbach had flow out from her home in Connecticut for the event and was at the dinner. She, like my mother was born in China in 1922 and they had shared a crib as infants and were roommates at Smith College later in life. She was the first person I ever heard use the word “obstreperous” in a conversation.

After eating a few of the delicious fresh shrimp that night she let us all know that “The shrimp are really just a vehicle for the sauce” an unforgettable quote that has been repeated in jest dozens of times during sumptuous shrimp feasts in the intervening years.

We’re on a See Food diet now. We see food and then we eat it.

I e-mailed my friend Ken asking him if either he or his wife had any dietary restrictions for the dinner I was going cook for them during their upcoming visit to California and got this response.

Market Woman with fruit, vegetables and poultry • Joachim Beuckelaer

What is it with you Jews and chopped liver?

I was at an outdoor, pre-wedding picnic in a park in Portland, Oregon when my nephew Ethan (brother of the bride to be) arrived and put down a huge 5 pound platter of mounded chopped liver in the center of the table, prompting this comment and question from a woman who was clearly not Jewish. The dish is made by sautéing or broiling liver and onions, adding hard-boiled eggs, salt, pepper, and schmaltz and grinding that mixture. The liver used is generally calf, beef, or chicken and it is served on matzah crackers or with rye bread.. Though I am not Jewish, I have been to countless Jewish weddings, celebrations, religious and memorial services, and chopped liver was served at every one of them.

Since eating chopped liver may not be appreciated by everyone, the common Jewish-English expression “And what am I, chopped liver?”, signifies frustration or anger at being ignored on a social level.

An explanation of the expression is that chopped liver was traditionally served as a side dish rather than a main course. The phrase therefore may have originally expressed a feeling of being personally overlooked, as a “side dish.”

Salmon roe in puff pastries, chopped liver on hardboiled eggs and smoked herring

It is better to carry on than to be carrion.

My punster friend Paul wrote this as a final e-mail sign off salutation to me during the Great Covid Pandemic of 2020. I was once atop one of the highest pinnacles at Pinnacles National Park when two carrion loving Condors alighted on a rocky outcropping 50’ away from us, oblivious to our presence. One of the birds was a young male and the other one was a much smaller juvenile female. The male had strangely brilliant iridescent pink and purple feathers on its neck. It walked up to the female and put her entire neck and head down his throat, in some sort of oral mating ritual. She seemed to regard this as some sort of erotic avian French kiss, and sat there motionless as he repeated the odd gesture several times before they both flew away, perhaps trying to find a lunch of delicious rotting carrion. California condors can soar on warm thermal updrafts for hours, reaching speeds of more than 55 miles per hour and altitudes of 15,000 feet.

The ornithologist rangers in charge of the Pinnacles Condor Rescue Program feed the condors a steady diet of still born calf bodies, placed atop rocky peaks, as it is unsafe for them to eat real carrion in the wild as it often has lead bullets hidden in the decaying flesh from hunters and ranchers who shoot coyotes and ground squirrels and leave their bodies to decompose. Even a tiny ingested pellet from a shotgun will kill a Condor, as lead is terminally toxic to their biological systems.

Condors at Pinnacles National Park • Photo by MMB