Daily Archives: August 26, 2012

Simple Tastes

I wrote recently that I have fairly poor eating habits despite much effort on the part of my parents who do have better sense with regard to food. Part of the problem may have been a counter-lesson involving food-as-reward. We were fairly poor growing up, so getting a pizza (which was a fairly new thing back then) or ice cream was our reward for good grades in school.

I always got pretty good grades in school (although not really for the food reward; I just really liked learning).  But food did become associated with good times, not that there’s nothing wrong with that. I seem to have dodged the bullet of using food as comfort, but I have discovered I eat more when bored or frustrated.

On the other hand, in the last few weeks, I seem to have reignited my childhood love of Kraft Mac and Cheese. It’s a dish most kids love; I was no different. The cafeteria at work has been offering a version they make with smoked Gouda cheese and bits of bacon.

I’d forgotten how much I loved it, so I’ve been buying the Kraft versions lately. I suspect looking for some sort of comfort from the work situation does play a role here. Pasta and cheese; hard to go wrong there, and you can add things to it for variety (toss in some chunks of white meat chicken, and you have chicken pasta alfredo).

Back in the day, on Sunday after church, my mom would make the traditional fried chicken supper complete with potatoes and a side dish of formerly fresh boiled vegetables (the boiling possibly explaining a bit about my dislike for veggies). With that in mind, I thought I’d connect back to those days with Simple Sunday and write about food ala Me.

I’ll warn you now, it will make many of you cringe. I have very simple tastes in food, nothing too fancy for me, please. I was also a very picky eater as a kid. When I saw pizza for the first time (a home pan recipe my mother tried; remember, this is back when it wasn’t a commodity food), I sniffed it for five minutes before I would eat it. (Turns out it became one of my favorite foods, second only to Tex-Mex!)

I’ve also been on my own most of my life, so I’ve been the main chef (well, the only chef usually). As I say, my tastes are extremely simple. Some Triscuits, some cheese, some raisins, a couple of beers, and I call that dinner. Or a nice bowl of popcorn tarted up a bit with Parmesan cheese and spices.  (Even my margarita recipe is simple and easy to remember!)

Over the years I’ve developed a few ways of making simple things just a little bit more fun and delicious. I thought I’d post some here on Simple Sunday.  As I say, some of you will cringe.

We’ll start with breakfast and work our way through the day…

Thompson Breakfast Bagels

Toast a bagel and then make a sandwich using cream cheese and salami. When I first heard of this (apparently available in a vending machine at work), it doesn’t sound good. Cream cheese on a toasted bagel, of course. But cream cheese and salami? That sounds… weird.

Turns out they’re delicious! I use onion bagels (good ones, real ones, not bread pretending to be a bagel), the Philadelphia Chive & Onion and three or four slices of a nice hard salami. (As I was exposed to more of the food world, I learned that sausage and cream cheese is actually a common combo.)

I call them Thompson Breakfast Bagels because that was a common breakfast we made on our fly-in fishing trips on Thompson Lake.

Cayenne Melt Sandwich

This one goes way back to my college days when a friend of mine opened his own health food store. He had a sandwich bar, but none of the sandwiches quite tickled my fancy, so I invented a new one.

Toast some good whole wheat bread and then melt Swiss cheese on both slices.

Sprinkle a bunch of cayenne pepper on the cheese (or use a good spicy salsa) and then a big bunch of mung bean sprouts for crunch and contrast. You can use the alfalfa sprouts in a pinch, but they don’t have that nice crunch.

Sautéed Hot Dogs w/ Swiss

Grilling hot dogs is wonderful, but not always possible or easy. So I start by boiling them in a frying pan with beer (real beer, something with flavor). I throw in a bit of butter and boil until the beer is gone. You finish them off by sautéing them in the butter for a “grilled” outside.

Meanwhile, toast some hot dog buns (this is a rare place where you do want to use white flour buns) and then melt Swiss cheese on the buns (toaster oven works good for this and the sandwich above).

Serve with a good brown mustard; the kind that looks filled with pebbles.

Plain Old Pasta

A fast and delicious hot dinner. Angel hair pasta cooks in four minutes. I throw some olive oil and pepper (black and red) into the water.

Drain. Stir in a few pats of butter and serve with Parmesan cheese and some spices; some fresh garlic is nice. (I just picked up a spiced Parmesan cheese, Mama Francesca, that I’m going to try tonight!)

Brown Sugar Fudge

Homemade “maple sugar” candy. Melt brown sugar with butter. You need high heat to melt the sugar, but don’t overdo it or you’ll end up with caramel, and if you really overdo it you’ll ruin the pan (the stuff hardens quickly and can be impossible to get out short of chisel and hammer).

Take it off the heat and stir in a bit of milk and lots of confectioner’s sugar. Whip it up good into a smooth, firm mixture and pour onto cookie sheets or tin foil. If you did it right, it’ll harden into a melt-in-your-mouth smooth sugar treat very reminiscent of maple sugar candy.


I can sense all the real cooks out there shuddering at my incompetence in the kitchen. Well, we can’t all be chefs. I can design & build computer systems or build a dog house or bookshelves that last for years, so I’m not ashamed. (At least it beats ordering pizza every night!)

In closing, a favorite bit from a movie I’m very fond of.

To say I was a picky eater is not to say a squeamish one. I’ll try anything once, so I’ve had rattle snake (yep, exactly like chicken) and octopus tentacle (rubbery) and those little tiny squids you get in some seafood salads (kinda tasty, those). And I’ve learned that snails, when done right, are pretty good (garlic and butter mostly).

If you’ve seen the Stallone/Bullock movie, Demolition Man, you might recall the scene where Stallone gets an underground burger. It’s the first decent food he’s had since they thawed him out from his deep freeze prison. He learns the burger is actually made from rat (“Do you see any cows around?!”).

His response matches what mine would be (and I’m so glad they played against the “Ew! [spits]” trope). “Not bad,” he replies, “Best burger I’ve had in years.”

If it tastes okay and won’t kill me or make me too sick, then it’s fine with me.


Sunday Drivers

I was on a supply run to the grocery store this morning and was stuck behind a Toyota Camry for most of the way. The entire trip takes place on two-lane roads that are hilly and curved enough to prohibit passing, so I was trapped. It’s a mellow Sunday morning, and there’s no use (ever) letting other drivers get to you. I’m not one to play the tailgating game, but the four vehicles stuck behind me were stacked up tightly.

In fact, once I realized it was a Camry, I started laughing. For a long time now, I’ve had a perception that when you’re stuck behind a particularly bad driver—one that stands out from the usual bad drivers—there is a good chance the car is a Camry. I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one with that perception; I’ve heard others make the same rant.  But it is a fact that there are a huge number of them on the road, and they age well, so odds are high on any car in front of you being a Camry.

This is related to the “full moon fallacy” which is based on the perception that, for example, cops and ER workers have about full moons definitely resulting in weird things. And they have first-hand experience to support the assertion!

The problem is confirmation bias. Weird things happening outside a full moon are ignored as background, but when it is a full moon, then it’s a data point. No objective analysis supports the idea of full moon weirdness. (I wish I could mount a camera on my car to record every truly bone-head driver. Then I could analyze this objectively. Who knows; maybe Camry drivers really are that bad.)

That said, it sure seems that some of the most bone-headed things I’ve ever seen were committed by Camry drivers. This morning’s example can be Prosecution Exhibit A.

Now, it’s a trivial aggravation being stuck behind someone who is going a few miles under the speed limit if you feel conditions justify, at least the speed limit. When the weather is clear and both pedestrian and auto traffic is light or non-existent, even a few miles over the limit  is okay in my book.  I feel that, when conditions are good, up to +5 on surface streets, and up to +10 on freeways, is acceptable.

But you really can’t fault someone for driving the speed limit or even just a few miles below it. Going 30 in a 35 (as the Camry was doing) starts to get into WTF territory, but no laws are being broken, and it’s really just a minor inconvenience. It turns your 10-minute trip into an 11.7-minute trip. Big deal.

It could be they have good reason for being slow. They could be timid behind the wheel or old or inexperienced. Maybe they are especially law-abiding or playing it safe in a suburban neighborhood.  If going slower were the extent of things, I wouldn’t be writing this post.

Many years ago I lived in a rural area south of the city and drove a long two-lane road back and forth to work every day. Most of that road was posted for 55 MPH. As it neared my small town, it went down to 45 MPH and two miles further down to 35 MPH for the stretch through town. Much of the road was too hilly or curved for passing, so a slow driver traps you.

A thing I noticed is that some people drove 50 on the 55, but also 50 in the 45. They might slow down to 40+ in the 35 zone. So it’s clearly not a matter of being especially law-abiding or generally slow, and it’s certainly not a matter of being especially safe (since you’re speeding in the one place where it’s worst to do so).

What it is, and there is no other way to put this, is being a fucking moron.

This morning’s Camry driver proved to be exactly such a moron. She rolled through the first red light right turn as well as the only stop sign a mile later. In both cases, during the slowest part of the “stop” her car was halfway beyond the stop point and protruding into the intersection. Then she turned into the grocery store parking lot entrance and cut diagonally across the lot, weaving through parked cars, to the Nail Salon at the other end.  A far smarter, safer, move would have been to take the next entrance and the short parking lot lane to her destination.

So we’re clearly talking oblivious, mindless, clueless fucking moron.

Maybe it’s that I learned to drive in Los Angeles, a place where they take (or took; for all I know that’s changed) driving very seriously. Older readers may recall a rash of freeway shootings (no one was killed, if I recall correctly), and in all cases the cause of the shooting was bad driving. (That business was parodied in one of my all-time favorite movies, Steve Martin‘s L.A. Story.)

Someday I’ll write a series of posts about bad driving and how to drive better, but for now this is just a captured morning moment. It’s a very trivial thing compared to, say, the atrocities of war or violent assault or poverty or starvation, but in terms of those everyday things, bad drivers rank high on my list of irritations.

At least in part that’s based on how we all take it for granted as a casual, daily thing, but we’re controlling heavy machinery with the power to maim and kill. Traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in this country, so clearly we could do better. (Traffic collisions rank 6th as a cause of preventable death in the USA; over 40,000 die per year, and over two-million are injured.)

There’s a thing about driving and sex. Everyone thinks they’re pretty good at it while, at the same time, thinking it doesn’t require any real training. Meanwhile the reality is that most people are a lot worse at it than they believe and could really use the training.

With regard to speeding, there is a traffic engineering rule (85th percentile rule) that says traffic goes at a natural speed for the road and the conditions, regardless of posted limits. An implication of this some people just don’t get is that, if the traffic is going ten miles over the limit, but you’re doggedly sticking to the limit, you are a traffic hazard!

The irony is that you are probably sticking to the limit in the name of safety and wishing every one else would do the same. It won’t happen. Ever. So get your head out of your ass, keep up and stop being a hazard. It’s that simple.

Driving in traffic is like a dance, and everyone needs to keep in step.