Friday, December 30, 2016

Answer Your Phone

Bad things happen in our own lives and the lives of those around us.  If we can, we protect ourselves by turning away.  We shield ourselves, if possible, from trauma, from ugliness, from imagined scenes we fear will turn to fact and haunt us.

I received a phone call from a friend now living out of town who was worried about another mutual friend.  In response I said

“Sure, I’ll go down there.”

In a few minutes I was pounding on the front door, a replacement steel door at one time added, along with vinyl siding, to a little old Ottawa house.  There were no lights on.  No one answered.  Our friend’s car was parked at the curb and covered in snow.  No wheel tracks.  The mailbox was full.  There were no footprints leading to the house.  The sidewalk and stoop were unshoveled.  How many nights ago did it snow?  How many days had passed?  No signs of movement from curb to the door.  No sound of movement within the house.

I walked to the back on the neighbor’s driveway.  Smooth snow covered the way to the deck, between the house and its little garage.  Pretty unbroken snow, sculpted, once more with no tracks.  Snow had fallen days ago.   Two days? Three?  The light from a streetlight glowed faintly in the back by the alley.  But from the house no light.  No sound.  I opened the back storm door and tried the knob.  It turned.  I opened it.

For a second I saw myself stepping in and yelling his name.  I almost did just that but then I stopped.  Not because I feared he had a gun, although I crossed my mind.  I feared what I would find.  I should have returned his calls.  His calls were so long and rambling.  My wife read the news item to me from the paper.  A DUI.  He had stopped calling.  Had not called me in weeks.  All through the snowstorm, the cold snap that followed.  Filled with shame perhaps.  Likely depressed and drinking more.  I didn’t want to imagine what he could have done.  But having done just that I didn’t want to see what I imagined.  I didn’t want those images to be made fact.  I turned away, like I turned away from his calls.  I went to the police station and talked to the dispatch officer in the lobby.

“I’m concerned about my friend.  He lives at ______ and I can’t raise him.  I got a call from people close to him out of town.  He’s not called important people in his life for some time.  He doesn’t answer the door.  I’m worried.”

“You want a well being check then?”

“Yes I do.”

He took my name.  He promised cops would meet me there.  They did.  They were great.  They shined their flashlights into his car.  I told them the door was open in the back and the tracks leading to it were mine.  We followed them, they shined their lights into the garage first, then into the back windows.

“I’ll stay here,” I said.  I stood on the deck.

“That’s best,” a young cop told me.

Cowardly?  Perhaps.  I listened as they entered the little house, three of them, flashlights blazing.  I heard them call out.  I had told them his name.  They called out twice.  Time was moving so slowly.
I didn’t hear his response, only their reply to an unheard voice.

“Can we come down there then?” I heard a cop say.  I knew then he was alive.

Did he have a basement?  Where was down there?  In a minute, perhaps two, the three officers came towards me, flashlights lit.

“He appears to be OK.  He’s on the couch in the front, in the living room.  I told him your name and he said he’s willing to talk to you.”

“Thanks.  I wasn’t sure what I might have found in there.”

“I know.  Better we go in than you.  Glad to help.”

They left.  I walked down the long hall.  Down there must have referred to the length of the hallway.  It’s a shotgun house, long from front to back, at the front door a living room, a hallway with two bedrooms and a bathroom off it, kitchen at the rear.  I could barely make him out in the darkness.

“______, people are trying to get in touch with you.  You aren’t answering your phone.  They called me.  They’re worried.”

“I’m right here.”

“Can I turn a light on?”

“Of course.”

I switched on a floor lamp.  I hadn’t seen him in a month or more.  He was even thinner.  A cheap thermal blanket was bunched around him.  A big couch pillow had a dent in it.  He had been sleeping, or simply lying, inches from the hollow steel door I pounded on so hard and long.

“You didn’t answer your door.  The back door was open. But I was scared.  I‘m sorry I called the cops.”

“It’s OK.  I’m glad to see you.”

“Where is your phone?”

“I have it here I think.” He fumbled in the pocket of his hoodie.

“Is it dead?  Let’s charge it.”

“I don’t think it will do any good.  My service was cancelled I think.  Along with the internet.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think so.”

“OK let’s use my phone.  Let’s call _____.  He called me.  He’s worried.”

“Now?”  He looked genuinely puzzled.

“Yeah.  Talk to him.  He’s your friend.  He’s worried.  e;’s worried.  He’s worried Let him know you’re all right.”

I punched in our friend's number.  ______ looked at my phone as if it were a moon rock.  Then he heard something and put it to his ear.  He began to talk, flippantly, carefree, as if he was planning a trip to the beach.  I heard but one side of the conversation.

“__________ my man, whassup?”

He paused and listened.

“Just, you know, staying in with the weather and all.  Takin’ it easy.  Watching movies.  Nothing special.”

“___________?  I just talked to her didn’t I?”

“ Really?  She says it was three days ago? That can’t be.  I’m sure I talked to her.”

“Yeah.  Well of course I believe you, I mean if that’s what she told you.  I just think she’s wrong.  She gets nervous.  I tell her not to worry…”

“Yeah, OK, I promise.  I’ll call her right after I hang up.  Yes I will.  And yes I am.  I am fine.  Don’t worry about your old buddy ________.”

He hung up and looked around the room blankly.  Unopened mail covered the coffee table.  There was an empty can.

“Where were you earlier?  When I knocked on the front door?  You must have heard me.  I’m sorry to have called the cops but I was worried. To be honest I was afraid you might have hurt yourself.”

“I’ve had people knock on my door that had the wrong house.  I’m sorry I didn’t answer.  I might have been in the shower.”

He paused.  His eyes were bloodshot and his clothes were rumpled.  He looked bad.

“Sorry but you don’t look like a guy who just got out of the shower.”

He ignored that.

“Thanks for worrying about me.  I may be depressed but hurting myself or someone else is nothing I would ever do no matter what.  Really.  Don’t worry about that.”

“OK, but I’m worried about you anyway.”

He looked at me for a long time but didn’t respond.

“You eating?  What’s this can here?”

I picked it up and read it.  It was Ensure, a prepared protein drink.

“I had that a while ago.  I had a hot dog too.”

“You been sleeping?”

“I don’t sleep good.  My dreams wake me up.  I have pretty terrible dreams.”

“The DUI?  What about that?”

“I wasn’t drinking.  The numbers on the machine were nuts.  I tried to tell them it was just my medication.  I said to the cops “You blow in this machine, I bet it says you’re drunk.’ It can’t be right.”

He looked at me with a pained face.  Beseeching might be the word.  Plaintive.  Wanting terribly to be believed.

“When’s your court date?”

“I don’t know but it’s written down on the ticket.  I got that somewhere.”

“You’re going to need an attorney.”

“I’m getting letters.  They must read the paper.  Everybody in the county wants to defend me.”

“How about your kids?”

He hung his head.
“I want to see them for Christmas.  They’re supposed to come over.”

I looked around.  A Christmas tree was in a bag on the floor.  Cardboard boxes were stacked all around.

“What’s with the boxes?”

“I’m going to move.  I got to sell this place.”

“Do you have money still?”

“Not much.”

“How about I pick you up in the morning and we go to breakfast.  Take a shower and change your clothes.  I’ll be here at 9:00.”


“Yeah.  Let’s get you out of here.  Maybe come up with a plan.  You’re a social worker that needs a social worker.  You know how to do this.  You’ve done it for plenty of people.  I’ll bring a pencil and a yellow pad.  We’ll get started.”

It’s human nature to protect ourselves.  Besides that it’s the holidays.  We want bright colored lights and presents.  We want to reaffirm love with family and those most close to us.  So yes, we protect ourselves.  We turn away from ugliness.  We shield ourselves from possible trauma.  It’s natural I think.  But we can, any of us, help those who hurt.  All you really have to do is show up.

My friend got help and continues to make use of it.  Those of us who care for him, and there are many, hope he reached the bottom  (if there is such a thing), is on his way back up, and finds his way to better days.  It’s hard to do alone.
Consider answering your phone when you would rather not.  Better yet reach out to those around you before they call.  We need each other.  It’s natural to turn away but rethink it.  You could make a difference.

Happy New Year.  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Artificial Calamari revisited

I was out with my wife for drinks and an appetizer in downtown Ottawa at the Lone Buffalo and the place was jammed. The Lone Buffalo touts itself as a provider of quality locally sourced and freshly prepared food and drink and makes good on that promise. But as we scanned the list of small plate options I was reminded of this appetizer inspired story from years ago. I got the idea for it listening to an intriguing episode of This American Life on NPR. As a farm kid who helped raise livestock, and now the father of a young woman with a degree in food science, it was too good to pass up back then. Likewise, it’s too good not to repeat now. As you celebrate Christmas in the bars and eateries of your choosing, be careful out there.

I was reminded of this radio broadcast while looking at a package of Pacific Cod at Kroger. I’d never heard of Pacific Cod. I figured it was a made up name capitalizing on the solid reputation of Atlantic Cod, the standard tasty fish of Friday night fish fries in the Midwest. You can get it broiled now, but aficionados go for the battered deep fried kind with fries. Add hand battered deep fried onion rings as an appetizer and you have some serious grease going on. At least there’s the salad bar.

Intrigued, I bought the Pacific Cod. I baked it and found it not as firm, not as tasty, as Atlantic Cod but not bad. Still curious I looked it up on the Internet. Turns out no one agrees on what to call this product. Some call the species grey cod, certainly not Alaskan black cod or ling cod, while others just call it Pollock. There must be tons of Pollock out there, along with Whiting, and someone in the fish industry must be dying to call it something else so it sells better. Whatever Pacific Cod is, in the end it is cheap protein with hardly any fat, and while it cries out for some sort of sauce to give it zing there’s no cause to turn your nose up over it.

Turns out this shiftiness in food labeling is nothing new. They even have a name for it. Surimi, the fine art of disguising one fish as another, and it dates back to 12th-century Japan. Basically, Surimi makers grind up cheaper fish and craft the resulting paste to mimic the look, taste, and texture of more expensive fish. I imagine it as fish sticks on a much higher level. Surimi took a giant and profitable leap forward in 1993 when Oregon State University’s Jae Park, a food-science professor and the creator of fake crab or crabstick (Park’s preferred term), began leading the Surimi School, an annual short format seminar in Astoria. Since then, he’s trained more than 4,500 people to twist, color, and mold lesser fish into fancy forgeries. Last year, Seafood Executive magazine named the professor one of the 100 most powerful leaders in the global seafood industry. Why? Crabstick sells for $3-$4 a pound. Dungeness Crab sells for $30-$35 a pound. And while crabstick is a processed food that contains lots of sodium along with cryoprotectants, artificial flavoring, and coloring all added to the base of ground Whiting or Pollock, it has less cholesterol than natural crab (before the garlic butter) and it’s sustainable. We, the bulging we (of all us humans on the planet), might eat Snow Crab and King Crab into extinction but we’ll never, they say, run out of Pollock and Whiting.

What caught my ear that day was artificial calamari made from some kind of pork product. Calamari is Italian plural for calamaro, which is a squid. The Italians claim they made calamari famous by slicing it into rings, deep frying it, squeezing lemon over it, and serving it with marinara sauce. Truth is calamari, or squid, is served all over the world. But whereever and however it is served it has always seemed to me to have a distinctive texture and taste. How, I thought, could you possibly create a passable equivalent to calamari? And from pork? I was intrigued.

This was an episode of This American Life that seemed somehow whimsical. Lots of background music building fake tension. I went back to the This American Life website and listened to the whole podcast again. You can do that too by going to and registering at the site and diving into the archives. I borrowed heavily from NPR’s script to write this piece. Whether you listen to the podcast or read the rest of the story you have to take this in. It’s a food science horror story.

A reporter for This American Life (TAL), Ben Calhoun, got a tip about a farmer "with some standing in the pork industry" who is in charge of "a pork producing operation that spans several states." One fine day this farmer was visiting a pork processing plant in Oklahoma, and noticed boxes stacked on the floor labeled "artificial calamari." Asked what that meant, Ron Meek, the plant's extremely credible sounding manager and a friend of the farmer willing to go on the record, replied "Bung. It's hog rectum." For clarity, Calhoun adds "Rectum that can be sliced into rings, deep fried, and boom, there you have it."

The farmer, who confirmed the story, chose to remain nameless, and declined going on record with the reporter about the incident because his girlfriend warned him that his name being forever linked to pig rectum in Google searches. Smart man. But Ron Meek did agree to speak on the record. He claimed he never personally saw the label "artificial calamari" but that's what he was told by the people he worked for, and he believed them. And in an interview, his bosses backed the assertion that pig rectum was being sold for use as imitation calamari. They just couldn't say where.

Rectum is of course a nicer word for asshole. An individual piece of bung, hog rectum, or asshole would be a ten to twelve inch length of large intestine leading to the actual rectum end point, a pink wrinkly looking pear sort of thing on the one end. Ron Meek described them as soft tubes resembling noodles.

I know this sounds bad. This might be easier for me because I grew up on a farm, but consider this: if you eat sausage you’re eating various meats packed in diligently washed and cleaned intestine which lives just up the street, so to speak, from the bung in question. Bung just gets a little thicker at the end there. As for the calamari question, the plant manager wouldn't say what happened to the bung once it got out the door, but confirmed they ship a lot of it to Asia, particularly China. Everyone assumes it primarily ends up in the sausage, most of which is after all “whole hog.” Now there’s a two edged sword if there ever was one. To get the hams in your sausage links you have to take the unsavory parts too.

Obviously it would be illegal in America to serve pork rectum and call it calamari, and the USDA says they've never heard of anyone trying to pass pork bung as squid. Officially they say that. However one food industry attorney told TAL "the regulation we have is not designed to catch an offense like this. It's aimed mostly at sanitation and food safety. If someone wanted to do it, chances are they'd get away with it." And if you were a food purveyor in China, sending product to the U.S., you could certainly get away with it. Given the fact that pork bung is sold at less than half the cost of calamari, the financial incentive is enormous.

What sealed the deal for me after listening to the podcast, what made me believe the unconfirmed story, was the taste test. The reporter, having run into a brick wall of a solid on the record informant, turns instead to plausibility. At that point he becomes less a journalist and more of a creative soul. He appeals to his sister, a chef, to cook pork bung side by side with calamari and conduct a taste test with his friends at the radio station. As she prepared the two products for deep frying she was doubtful. While the squid retained its ring shape the pork bung twisted into something that looked mangled. Appearance aside, she believed the bung, having been marinated for the life of the pig in its own feces, could not shake that taste. To counteract that possibility she brined half of it, soaking it in salt water for a full day, while preparing the remainder simply as fresh clean pork bung. She breaded the squid and bung the same, fried it the same, and served it blindly in three batches at her restaurant to a group of volunteers willing to help the reporter with his story.

Especially poignant was the story of a young Italian man who had just started working at the station. His family ate Calamari regularly both at family dinners and at restaurants. His grandmother used to buy her own squid and make it herself. His fear was that he would not be able to tell the difference and be forever jinxed from eating calamari again owing simply to the possibility that he could be chewing on a pig’s ass.

As she was frying the bung, the reporter’s sister was amazed to see the twisted form smooth out into a presentable ring during frying. In wire frying baskets side by side in the hot oil she saw little or no difference. She figured the taste would give it away, or if not the taste the texture. To her, texture is the wild card in food recognition. She believes we love the feel as much as the taste of our favorite foods. She brought the plates to the table. Standard calamari made from squid, pork bung brined in order to neutralize any bad taste, and straight up fresh pork bung sliced, breaded and fried. The tasting began.

Absolutely no difference. As many thought the calamari was pork bung as believed the pork bung was sliced fried squid. Texture, taste appearance-nothing was different from one plate to the other. It was amazing, and devastating to the Italian man. He left the restaurant early, mourning the perhaps lifetime loss of calamari and wondering what he could ever tell his family. Simply knowing he might possibly be eating a pig’s asshole led him to vow never to take that chance again.

This is not a nailed down story. It couldn’t be published in a newspaper. Some would ask why it ran on radio. I’d say it’s because that’s the way life is some times. Many times actually. You can’t prove things are true but you know in your heart they are. This American Life did not prove that pork bung is being sold as calamari. But it raised the possibility. That’s where good stories often start. Stores aren’t fact. But they are great aren’t they? From the day I heard the basics of this story on the radio I imagined a meeting where the idea, the concept of artificial calamari, was developed. And having heard the pod cast, it’s now sort of busting out of me onto this computer screen.

A small but established food distribution company holds its regular weekly meeting. It’s chaired by Bob, the owner and president, but the agenda rarely changes. The meeting is designed by and large as a vehicle for supervising his staff, which is the management team. At the table is Art, a food scientist in charge of product development; Gary, Chief Financial Officer, and Stephanie, newest member of the team and the company’s marketing director, hired to give the company a boost in social media among other things. Alice, Bob’s secretary, notes. The meeting starts with a report from Art, the food scientist.

“Well it’s no secret that my staff and I have been developing an exciting new product, and I’m happy to say I’ve got solid information today to share with you about it. I think this is a terrific opportunity for our company. But we’re at a point where I need your input and frankly your help. This product has endless financial potential but there is considerable risk involved.”

“What is it Art?” said Stephanie. “Rumor around the plant is that it could be the next crabstick.”

“I know, I’ve heard that rumor too and I’m flattered by the comparison. It’s like crabstick but with some important differences. It’s an artificial calamari. It can be sold as a frozen product, pre-breaded ready for deep frying, or it can be sold fresh and uncooked with an even longer shelf life than real calamari.”

“What’s the production cost?” asked Gary. Gary had been through these ideas before with Art and often found them financially unfeasible. He wished they would come to him sooner on these things so they didn’t have to waste their time on dead losers.

“Less than half the cost of calamari,” Art said.
He gave Gary a steady smile, as if to shut him up.


“That sounds too good to be true,” Gary replied.

“But what is it really?"  Stephanie asked. “Some kind of cheap ground fish mixed with egg whites and starch? What’s in it?”

“That’s the beauty of it and the challenge. It is not a seafood product. We can get all of it we want right here in the Midwest.”

“I hope it’s not that freshwater Asian Carp everyone’s dying to sell us out of the Illinois River.”

“No, it’s even more basic. It’s a pork product. No one would have ever imagined this. It’s a pork product and it’s so perfect, so similar in every way to calamari that you can’t believe it.”


Gary and Stephanie spoke at the same time.

“How can a pork product even resemble a sea food product?”

Bob cut in for the first time, having been beaming since the start of Art’s presentation.

“That’s what I thought too Gary. When Art first came to me with this breakthrough idea I thought it was absolutely crazy but it grows on you. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. So please, both of you. Hear Art out on this. Show them the pictures Art.”

Art brought out glossy color photos of unbreaded calamari side by side with his artificial calamari. They appeared to be of the same size and have the same color. The artificial calamari was twisted.

“The artificial calamari needs no processing. Unlike Surimi, where similar products are ground and reconstituted with other ingredients to resemble the original, this product is a single tissue, a single body part, that when sliced and cooked is virtually indistinguishable from calamari.”

“It looks wrinkly?” Gary asked.

“Miraculously, it straightens out when it cooks. Takes the exact shape as the squid.” Art said.

Gary looked closely at the picture of the artificial calamari. He’d been in the food industry for a long time.

“I’ve never seen a pig part like this. What part of the pig is it from?”

Art was quick to say

“It’s akin to sausage casing.”

"Sausage casing is intestine. What’s akin to intestine?”

He looked up at Bob and Art with a puzzled look.

“I’m warning you, this is the hard part,” Bob said. “This is where I first balked at the concept.”

“It’s bung. Pork bung,” Art said
“Bung as in bunghole?” Stephanie said.

There was a pause.

“Yes,” Art said.

“You’re proposing that this company… and I as its marketing director….try to sell a pig’s ass as an Italian seafood appetizer.”

“Stephanie you won’t believe how it tastes. It’s uncanny how much it tastes like calamari. And it’s cheap. We can discount calamari by twenty percent and still take a huge profit on this artificial stuff. I’m telling you, this can work.”

“You’re all nuts!" Stephanie said.  "You can’t honestly believe that people will sit down to a plate of deep fried pork ass and eat it like it was just taken out of the Mediterranean by a cute Italian fisherman.  It’s asshole! You would be asking people to eat asshole. And I would be asking them to buy it with a straight face. It’s not going to happen.”

Bob, usually calm and in control at these meetings, erupted.

“Alice stop taking notes.”

“Jesus Christ Stephanie, do you want the Chinese to make all the money? Do you think Qingdao International isn’t looking at this very thing right now? How long do you think this will stay a secret? Calamari is a billion dollar industry. With a B. If we capture even ten percent of that market…OK, maybe it doesn’t sell well here. But if we can boost sales overseas to get a ten percent share, that’s a hundred million dollars. A hundred million. Do you want to add $100 million to this company’s sales? Do you think that might result in some bigger salaries around here? Well I’ll tell you what, I do want that kind of success and so do our stockholders. I want to this company to be successful and I know I’ve got one of the best management teams in the business. Now if we just work together, we can overcome the image difficulties this product presents and meet the challenge.”

Stephanie sat back in her chair and folded her arms in silence. Gary looked at Art, then Bob. The silence was becoming uncomfortable. Gary turned and spoke to Stephanie.

“He’s right about the money you know.”

Art followed closely with a suggestion for Stephanie.

“We’re counting on you to come up with a better name.”

“Than pig's ass?” she said.


Bob smiled broadly at her, putting his hand on hers.

"You’re probably the key to making this work Stephanie.  We’re all counting on you.”

And thus is born, maybe, a new product to feed the world.  See what you can do you go soft on the facts and instead create  a story?  God its fun.  Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Catherine McClure’s Peanut Brittle

My sister in law Sheryl, Darwin’s wife, was my cooking teacher Friday.  Darwin wanted me to come down the day before but I was busy.  He was worried about the weather.  Sheryl had to take one of their granddaughters to an appointment and wouldn’t be home till ten.  They were calling for snow or something else to start in the afternoon.  Danvers is about an hour away.  I woke up later than I wanted, forgot the stuff I was going to bring them, made a thermos of coffee and still got there by 8:30.  That gave Darwin and I a chance to talk.  And we did.  We had a mutual political rant.  We’re on the same page politically and commiserated mightily about national and state politics.  It got loud.  It went something like this.

“Can you believe, this and so, and what they did?  Jesus Christ!”

“No I can’t.  It absolutely makes me this and that!  And on top of it, what about this other?”

“I know!  The dumb bastards.  What are they thinking? ”

“I have no idea.  What’s going to happen next?  Nothing good I don’t think.”

“Me either.”

Slowly the political talk cooled and we began to talk about family; our kids, his grand kids, the extended family, what everybody is doing.  It was a sweeping review of nearly everybody, taking up news from around the country and beyond.  Then I steered the conversation to the past.  I’m writing about the past, a collective past Darwin was part of, and I need to know when things happened in our lives.  It’s the kind of thing we don’t think of often.  Darwin made the switch, started putting events into the order in which they happened, matching years with those events, and I began taking notes.  Before Sheryl got home I tucked a valuable sheet of notes, a sort of timeline, into my bib overalls to take back to the shack.

When Sheryl got there she was all business.  The night before she had laid what we needed out on the counter by the stove:  raw peanuts, the candy thermometer, big sack of white sugar, two bottles of Karo syrup, baking soda, butter, table salt.  She had a saucepan on the stove.  The recipe was lying beside it.  I checked it out before she arrived.  It started like this.

3 cups white sugar
1 cup Karo white syrup
¾ cup warm water
Combine in a large saucepan, stir, heat on high.  Stir occasionally.
After a hard boil, reduce heat to three quarters.  Cook slowly to 280 degrees.

It was straightforward.  I considered starting without Sheryl but thought that unwise.  Best to let her take me through it because recipes, I’ve learned, never tell the whole story.  Like this for example.

“What do we do first Sheryl?”

“Butter the pan we’re going to pour it on.  You can get busy cooking, have it all ready, turn around needing to pour it out right away and if you haven’t buttered your pan its trouble.  So butter the pan.  And it has to be butter.  No oleo, no spray.  Butter.  Lots of it.

Sheryl was using a thick aluminum cookie sheet.  Mom used a chunk of dark marble, broken on one edge, from who knows where.  She would put it out on the porch and let it get cold.  Sheryl is not so sure cold is good.  She thinks that may speed up the cooling too much.  Anyway we don’t know where that chunk of marble went and Sheryl’s oversized cookie sheet works fine.  We slather it with butter.

“OK now you put the ingredients in the pan in the order they’re listed; sugar, syrup, and water.  You measure out the sugar.”

While I did that Sheryl poured out a cupful of that thick Karo syrup.  Has to be the white, not dark.  Sheryl used a little rubber spatula to get it all out of the measuring cup.  I made a note of that.  She added the water.

“Now you have to stir and nobody told me this but I’ve had better luck heating it slowly.  You can keep it on high till it boils, but then you have to turn it down and go slow till it gets up to 280 on the candy thermometer.  If you heat it too fast it gets funny when you put the peanuts in and turns out different.”

Some things you don’t understand, you just take a trusted one's word for it.  We patiently waited for the thermometer to rise.  Sheryl turned her electric stove top down to 7.  I had that figured for about medium high on my gas range.  Somewhere in there.  It’s an inexact science.

“I put the two cups of peanuts in a bowl so I can pour them right in the second it hits 280.  When the peanuts go in the temperature drops, then comes back up.  But you got to keep going slow to 305.”

She took a very close look at the thermometer.  I shined a light on it with my phone’s flashlight feature so she could see better.
“Where’d you get that?”

“It’s part of my I phone.”

“I don’t have a smart phone.  Mine is still a dumb phone.  Got those two cups of peanuts ready?”

She was still looking at the thermometer in the hot sugary brew.

“OK we’re there.  Pour them in.”

I poured in the peanuts and Sheryl immediately started chopping at them with her wooden spoon.

“I sort of chop these things in the mix.  Somebody told me once you don’t have to do this, that they separate anyway, but I just chop up and down and move them around to be sure.”

Sheryl was going after those peanuts.  I checked the thermometer and it went down to about 270 before it started coming up again.

“It won’t be long now.  Get that soda and salt ready.  I mix the two together and poke around on it making sure there’s no lumps.  Put it in that little half cup measure.”

She motioned with her head towards a little orange cup next to the peanuts.  I consulted the recipe and began to measure the soda.

Add 2 cups raw peanuts to mix
Cook to 305 degrees
Remove from heat
Add 3 teaspoons baking soda and 1 teaspoon salt

“That’s not enough soda,” Sheryl told me.  Actually she sort of barked at me.

“Says three teaspoons.  That’s just one.”

“They got to be heaping.”

“Doesn’t say heaping.”

“Yeah, well that’s the trouble with recipes.  Sometimes they don’t tell you everything.  The soda is real important.  I don’t know if the salt matters much.  But I didn’t used to use enough soda I don’t think. That or I stirred it too much and all the air went out of it.  You’ll see, the soda is what makes it expand and get airy.  Light kind of.  Some people’s peanut brittle is dark and almost glassy.  That’s why I always liked your Mom’s best because it’s light.  Real crisp and good.  That’s cause of the soda I think.  That and I don’t stir it too much.  I just stir it while I turn from the stove and walk to the counter where the cookie sheet is, then I pour it right away onto the sheet.  It works good.”

With that Sheryl took over and put three heaping teaspoons of plain old Arm and Hammer baking soda into the cup with a level teaspoon of table salt.  She was careful to press the lumps out of the soda and blend it together good.

“It’s almost to 305 David.  Now watch.”

When the temperature rose to the right number Sheryl took out thermometer, slid the pan off the heat, poured in the soda salt mixture right away, and spun around with the pan in one hand and a spoon in the other.  As she walked to the buttered sheet she stirred the soda around and around.  When she was standing in front of the pan she poured the mix straightaway onto the pan, from one side to the other, and scraped the sided of the saucepan quickly, getting all the hot sugar and syrup onto the buttered sheet.  I thought it would run off the edge of the pan but it stopped miraculously, like hot fiery lava stopping its slow advance just short of a church.

“Now you wait till its right.”

“How do you know?”

“You just have to know.  I’ll show you.”

Women in my family say that kind of thing about cooking all the time.  My Mom got disgusted when people asked about details she thought were obvious.  It was as if she thought everyone knew what she knew.  I once asked her how long she cooked the oysters in butter, the liquid they came in, and salt before adding them to hot milk mix for oyster stew.  She looked at me as if I were absolutely ignorant.

“Oh for God’s sake.  You just know.”

“No you don’t Mom.  You have to be judging it by something.”

She thought for a moment.

“OK then.  See those little black lines, that sort of layered fleshy skirt at the edge of the oyster?”


“When those start curling, getting wavy, they’re done.”

“Thanks.  Was that so hard Mom?”

Sheryl was more forgiving than Mom.  She explained that the people who didn’t make peanut brittle anymore found this part to be the hardest.  They can do all the rest, she explained, but they can’t pull it apart right.  Either the mass gets too cool and hardens, ends up a thick brick, or they burn their hands pulling it apart too quickly.  There’s an art to almost everything.  Knowing when to pull apart the peanut brittle seems to be the most critical and hardest to figure step.  I took a picture of Sheryl while we waited for her to declare the stuff ready to pull.

She kept feeling the edge.  Pushing it up off the pan and watching how fast it fell back into place.  Feeling the heat.  Pulling it slightly.

Here’s what the recipe says.

Let cool till edges harden.  Stretch into pieces on a flat surface and let cool completely.

“How about time Sheryl?  Like, let rest five minutes or something.”

“That doesn’t work for some reason.  Either the pan is cooler or warmer, or it’s cooler or warmer in the house or something. But it doesn’t exactly depend on time.  It depends on how firm the edge is, and how hot the batch is.  Look at that now.  See how it thins when you pull, stretches and sort of tugs along the stuff behind it?  That’s what you’re looking for.  Put some butter on your fingers and let’s pull this.  You pull your side I’ll pull mine.  Once we get the edges pulled we’ll wait for the middle to cool a little and then we’ll pull it.”

It was hot.  You couldn’t keep your fingers on it long.  We pulled hunks off the edges, pulled the hunks again to make smaller thinner pieces, let the pieces lay on the formica counter, and pulled more.

“Now keep moving those pieces around as they cool so they don’t stick hard to the counter.”

I did as I was told.  Then we pulled the middle same as we did the sides.  There were more peanuts in the middle.

“I wish I knew how to get the peanuts more uniform all over.  But people eat the pieces without the peanuts too.  It’s all good.”

Then we were done.

Sheryl got out a round plastic ice cream tub. When the pieces cooled we put them in the container.  She advised me to keep the lid off for a while to let the candy both dry and cool.  The pieces would stick together less.  She also told me not to leave the tub uncovered.  Too much air or moisture can make the pieces stick together.  We’d done a batch.  It was delicious.  It’s been a while since I ate Mom’s, but it was as good as I remember hers.

“OK.  That one is yours to take home.  Now you do it again for practice.  The newt one’s for me.”

I repeated the whole deal.  Darwin had retreated to the living room and CNN.  He got disgusted with news regarding a politician about to take office and turned it off, retreating to a novel. 

When the next batch was done and after we cleaned up and Darwin and Sheryl announced they were taking me to lunch.  They’d gotten a gift certificate at their 50th wedding anniversary celebration earlier in the year and were waiting for an occasion to use it.  Darwin drove to a good place in Congerville called The Mercantile.  Homemade food and pies.  In Congerville these days it’s pretty much that place and the post office, a seed corn company and the elevator.  Riding over the blacktops on the way there I got to drive by farms I’d worked on or otherwise had a connection to fifty years ago.  I remembered people and events I hadn’t thought about in a long time. 

When we came out of the restaurant, rain was freezing on the windshield.  We got back to Danvers as quickly as we safely could and I started home.  Darwin worried about me again, wanting me to call when I got home.  I did.  I thanked he and Sheryl once more for a nice day.  Seeing family over Christmas is almost as good as homemade candy.  It’s a toss up.  And then maybe family and homemade candy are so tied together you can’t tell them apart.

I'm trying the home made caramels next.  Sheryl told me how to cut them and showed me how to make the wax paper wraps.  Evidently the hard part of making caramels is stirring it continuously.  Sheryl let me in on her secret stirring technique.  I'd try to make divinity but we've lost or never had Mom's recipe.  I don't know anyone that makes that from scratch anymore and neither does Sheryl.  Maybe you can help us out.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Change, peanut brittle, and other winter topics

Saturday came early for me.  I woke up early and rather than lie in bed I got up.  The thermos of coffee I made for my trip to Chicago Friday was on the counter where I left it.  I realized it was there yesterday at about the Marseilles exit, too far gone I thought to circle back and retrieve it.  Too much time would be lost.  I seldom have those kinds of restraints anymore, not that I heeded them much while I was working, but I wanted to get to this meeting on time.  I thought it was important.

Having a thermos full of lukewarm day old coffee meant less time in the kitchen before I made it to the shack.  I had a bowl of Wheaties, my two daily pills, and headed out the back door before 6:00.  I felt as if I needed this time with a blank white word screen.  What used to be intimidating is now comfortable.  I’ve gotten that far at least.

As I walked into the building, formerly housing a dairy which bottled and distributed milk on the South Side, now a social service agency where Friday’s meeting was being held, in East Beverly close to Morgan Park, I was lucky enough to encounter a staff member going to work.  She got me through the locked door, guided me to where the sign in sheet was, and welcomed me to her agency.   When she inquired why I was visiting I told her I was going to be in a meeting with Audra, who I assumed (correctly) was her executive director. 

“You mean Dr. Audra?” she said.

“Really?  I didn’t know she has a doctorate.  To us she just goes by Audra.”

“That’s because she’s cool,” she said with a broad smile.

When I walked into the shack this morning it was cold.  The shack had not been warmed by a fire in its little stove since late Thursday, so it was cooled down completely.  My water jug in the corner with the hand pump had ice in it.  I cranked on the electric space heater under the desk with my mitten still on and started building a fire straightaway; half a brown paper grocery bag, slivered pine on top, a chunk of oak, some corn cobs, one match.  I wait till the wood crackles before I add more oak and even then I have to restrain myself.  My tendency is, being greedy for heat, to overload the stove which can choke out a fire still building.  I added my first extra oak about 6:10 and poured coffee in a tin cup on top of the stove to heat it.  It is 6:35 now and I’ve turned the space heater off and taken off my coat and fingerless gloves.  Still have my scarf on though.  The computer is slow when it’s cold.  You have to have more patience in the winter, that’s all there is to it.

The meeting in Chicago was important because it was about organizational change.  Organizations can hum along for years on a particular model, way of operating, set of assumptions and beliefs, reliance on particular partners and cooperative agreements, formal or otherwise, but it’s rare when all that can stay the same long term.  Any outfit has to change in small ways all the time to keep up with technology and the world around it, but there are times when it has to deliberately make significant change happen which is outside the norm.  That’s what was going on at this meeting. It was only one meeting in a process, but this was a critical meeting in that process.  I was glad to be part of it because I believed I could contribute.

The guy I sat next to, a busy exec who had to be on a conference call during lunch, asked me what was new.  I just say what pops into my head now when people ask me that.  Sometimes I think I do that just to hear how my life sounds out loud.
“I’m going to learn how to make peanut brittle.  My Mom made great peanut brittle and my sister in law learned from her.  She’s going to teach me.  I’m excited about it.”

It was an honest and true statement.  I am very excited about it.  The guy, a good guy and smart, with the interests of kids and families solidly lodged in his thinking, looked at me with a bit of surprise, then smiled. 

“I love peanut brittle.  I have no idea how you’d make it.  I hope that goes well.”

I don’t imagine he’s thought of making peanut brittle in some time, if ever.  I know how that is.  I was the same way.  Too God damn busy.

The dawn this morning was strikingly uneventful.  The sky was black, I could not see past the light shining on the ravine from the shack’s glass east wall, and then by degrees it brightened and turned gray.  There is no wind and you cannot see the sun.  Drab.  And the cold?  It’s all relative.  I often check the temp in Red Lake, the area in Northern Ontario where I go fishing in late summer.  This morning it was -19 there.  It would take a lot longer to get the shack warm if it was sitting near Red Lake.

I could have talked about my writing I suppose when my friend asked me what was new rather than peanut brittle but it’s a hard topic for conversation.  I talk about it mostly to my wife and a very few friends, one of them a writer himself.  I write and edit like I always have, but more recently I’ve begun to rewrite, arrange, and package.  I do that every day as I have for some time only now, in the past month, I am starting to see it come together in a tangible way.  I think I’m onto something that could be publishable. Whatever it might one day be called it now has a table of contents, a word count, a structure, some bones so to speak.  I’m making progress.  Things are changing here, meaning here inside the shack, which is very personal space.  Writing is a very personal thing, lonely at times, hard to talk about.  But after all, it is made to be read right?  Spoken sometimes, like poetry, but not so much this stuff I’m writing.  Read quietly I think is probably better.  Hopefully thought about as well.

I used to see my Mom making peanut brittle, probably walking through the kitchen on my way somewhere else, interested only in eating the finished product.  My Aunt Lou helped.  For a while there we made taffy and hard candy with the Twenty family who lived close.  I remember them and my folks handling very hot wads of white sugary stuff, folding and refolding it, pulling it out into cords on the kitchen table, pressing red peppermint and green wintergreen stripes into them, cutting them into pieces.  It was a big deal, the candy making.  Lots of laughs in the kitchen.  Those farmers had a way of entertaining themselves that could be lost if we don’t watch out.  That may be one of the reasons I’m spending time learning to make peanut brittle.

Come to think of it the other places I devote time to these days outside the shack; volunteering at my church and a couple other local not for profits, are intentionally creating change within themselves.  I think I may be drawn to change.  I’ve heard myself say words to that effect in meetings, that change is energizing and studying the past does little more than draw our attention away from the future.  I have a feeling I believe that, and wouldn’t be involved to the degree I am with things outside the shack were it not for the promise of change.  It’s good to realize those things about yourself from time to time. Those kinds of realizations can make you satisfied with how you spend your days.

After the meeting broke up I cruised the neighborhood.  Like so many parts of Chicago I had never been there.  I didn’t have long to explore because I had to get back to Ottawa to cook at church, but as I drove around I learned this: you cannot talk about any one side of Chicago as a single thing.  I was at 103rd and Vincennes, deep on the South Side, and it was a very livable neighborhood, obviously cared for and invested in.  With care and investment in both buildings and people couldn’t the whole South side be full of livable neighborhoods?  I understand it is not universally so now.  I may be a farm kid but I’m not na├»ve.  Correct me if I’m wrong but aren’t care and investment what is required to make the South side or the West side universally livable? Why isn’t that happening?

Those are my thoughts and that is my report on this cold Saturday morning.  I have other stuff to do.  Later today I’m going to some deal they’re having in the downtown Ottawa park, then driving with friends to attend a Christmas sing along at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago followed by dinner at a North side restaurant, where we will no doubt pay too much for dinner and convince ourselves we had a fantastic meal.  Speaking of meals we’re serving one tomorrow at noon at Open Table church that is absolutely free.  Turkey noodle soup is on the menu at Second Sunday Lunch for anyone in the community at 910 Columbus where it borders Jackson.  It’s going to be tasty. 

I’ll tell you how the peanut brittle turns out.