Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chili Dogs (In the Category of Want What You Have.)

I love chili dogs, and bless the gods, chili dogs still love me (digestionally speaking). I hosted my first #Tweetup cookout last Sunday, Fathers Day. It was a beautiful day for a cookout in the #NRV, and the local Tweeps are really great people. I love that the guests ranged in age from 2 to 55. I love the delicious contributions everyone made. Bacon wrapped jalapeƱo poppers still warm...amazing! I tried kale chips for the first time, and it made me feel hipster...briefly. Crab dip with pita chips, and coconut cake, corn salad, cookies from Wingdale, brie and crackers -- yum.

I made hot dogs with chili, burgers and BBQ chicken. The chili is my own recipe, l tweaked it for years, and I'm happy with the balance of sweet and heat. I promised I would share my recipe, but it's a handwritten hot mess spattered in ketchup and chili powder. I figured if I publish it here, I can pin this page to my recipe board and not have to deal with the messier original. So here I go.

Berly's Hotdog Chili

1 lb. Ground Beef
1/2 Medium Sweet Onion, diced fine
1/2 c. Ketchup OR 1/4 c. Ketchup and 6 oz. Tomato Paste (whichever you have in your pantry)
1/2c. Water
2 tsp. Chili Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Red Pepper
1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin

Brown the beef, crumbling until fine. Drain very well and put in medium saucepan. Add remaining ingredients. Simmer covered for at least 30 minutes then uncover and simmer up to four hours until desired thickness. Serve right away, or better, refrigerate overnight. You can lose any congealed grease that has formed on the top before reheating to reduce the fat calories.  Makes about 2 cups.

Bon appetit!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Pop Pop’s Bank Vault (In the Category of Be Where You Are.)

I have dim memories of my father’s father, my Pop Pop. I knew my mother’s father well into my adulthood, but Pop Pop died when I was fourteen, so I didn’t get as many years with him, and especially the years where I could hold a reasonable conversation on topics more broad-ranging than Barbie Dolls and the finer moves needed to win a game of Jacks. Pop Pop didn’t interact much with my sister or me when we visited the Victorian style house with the wrap around porch at 155 Euclid Avenue in Hackensack, New Jersey. Mostly I remember him sitting in his armchair surrounded by stacks of the New York Times.

Pop Pop’s chair could have been Archie Bunker’s chair had the producers of that television show known of it and traveled the 14 miles across the Hudson River to see it, sagged, golden, a matching dust ruffle tacked along the bottom. The chair didn’t recline, but years of use had molded Pop Pop’s form into the back and seat until it fit him like a glove whether he napped or watched Lawrence Welk from the 14” black and white television glowing in the corner across the room. Worn, frayed chair arms betrayed decades of hands rubbing, gripping, and pounding. No one other than Pop Pop sat in the chair. No. One. (I had the audacity to try once, and he yelled at me when he caught me. After that, I waited until I was sure he was out of the house.)

Stacks – and I mean stacks – of back issues of the New York Times surrounded the golden armchair, which sat angled feng shui style in the corner of the living room. He had filled the open space behind his chair with newspapers, neatly piled, column-like, and they rose above his head. The sides were also surrounded, the stacks descending as they approached the windowsill so as not to obscure the window, which years of nicotine and dust had grimed into dysfunction. Smaller piles of recent issues lay at Pop Pop’s feet like reticent lapdogs.

Pop Pop once caught me using the newspapers for a jungle gym. I was old enough to like jungle gyms and young enough – lightweight enough – to climb the stacks without toppling them. Pop Pop, livid, screamed incoherently at me, shaking a finger. I scrambled down and fled the room. Mom and Nanny Bob (Dad’s Mom) consoled me later.

“Why does he keep all those newspapers, anyway?” I asked. No one provided a satisfying explanation. Only the vague, “he just likes them” from Nanny Bob. Mom probably answered along some other lines regarding overall cleanliness. Housekeeping did not concern my father’s parents. (Truthfully, Dad never bothered with it either. I get the “clean gene” from my mother, whose father instilled it in her as well as my aunts and uncle.)

While my parents were still married, we usually traveled to Hackensack at Christmastime. Dad would take us into New York City to watch the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center or drive through snowy Central Park. One year, we rode several elevators to the top of the Empire State Building where I discovered I have a fear of heights. When Mom got Christmas in the divorce, Dad, I, Sis, and (eventually) our stepmother visited Nanny Bob and Pop Pop at Easter. On our first spring visit, I was surprised to see the usual Christmas decorations still up (a two-foot, pre-lit tree with ornaments, and two strings of colored lights that crisscrossed the living room ceiling, sagging just below the central light fixture).

“At their age, it’s easier,” Dad explained. “Safer, too. No ladders.”

Years passed, but little changed at the house on Euclid Avenue. Like my sister and I, the stacks of newspapers grew taller, archives of wars ending and beginning, the deaths of presidents, and marches for equality that, from what I can surmise, my Pop Pop did not support. I suspect his bigotry created conflict with my father (my Dad held no prejudices that I know of – if he did, he never articulated them to me). No visit to Hackensack that I recall omits a shouting match between the two men. Pop Pop could be charming when dining out, though. He donned a tie and jacket, Nanny Bob put on her wig of carefully coiffed curls and a slinky satin dress, and we all piled into the blue 4-door sedan (some American make, I don’t recall which). The waitstaff at Pop Pop’s favorite steakhouse knew my grandparents by name, and I always felt like a VIP when they ushered us to “the usual table.”

On casual outings, we headed to Packard-Bambergers, the grocery store with wooden floors, which seemed like a destination adventure compared to the boring A&P my family shopped at in Virginia Beach. Pop Pop preferred to use the liquor department entrance, which had a green carpeted ramp that passed through a faux wine cellar – stacks of open barrels piled with dark green bottles of wine from every country lined both sides as it inclined into the store. Dad insisted we stop by the snack counter at least once each visit for what he called a “proper hotdog.” The smell of grilled sausage made our mouths water, and the dog casings had a perfect snap. Served on a poppy seed roll with mustard, onions, and sauerkraut, Dad relished every bite. I loved the unusual dining arrangements, standing at a counter, eating with just napkins and a thin paper tray for a plate.

I was in the midst of a highly charged, emotional teenage drama when I learned that Pop Pop had died. My sister found me pounding on the front door of my junior high school BFF’s house, begging her insane mother to return my tape player. The witch refused to answer the door even though we made eye contact through the window – I never got the tape player back, and I really don’t like the woman to this day. Thirty-four years later, I can recall my anguish at the loss of both; Pop Pop’s death was my first, and it terrified me.

When the time came to clean out the old house and sell it (Nanny Bob had dementia, and she moved to Virginia Beach so Dad could take care of her) the stacks of newspapers lost their sanctity and became trash in need of hauling off. I was not present at the time, so I don’t know how many column inches Dad and my stepmother had stuffed into Hefty bags before the first twenty dollar bill fluttered out onto the floor. I only know all the bags had to be upended and sorted carefully; they extracted around $3,000 from between the pages of decades worth of the New York Times. We marveled at the nuttiness of it, and it became one of my “family stories.” (In fact, I wrote a story about that house two decades ago so that I would never forget. I published it here, in tandem with this non-fiction piece, to console myself for not having to buy a Father’s Day card again this year.)

Only in the process of cogitating on this blog piece for the past month or so have I realized the significance of my grandfather’s newsprint stacks. They were not the product of a lazy slob or a hoarder with mental problems. They were not something Pop Pop “just liked.” They were his piggy bank.

A young man during the Great Depression (his only child was born in 1938) I can easily believe my grandfather distrusted banks. From there, I understand how he might be unwilling to lose his money in another crash, so my Pop Pop built a bank vault using stacks of the New York Times. All those hours spent forming that old golden chair to his posterior had, in reality, been hours spent guarding his fortune. No wonder he screamed at us children whenever we got near them. Had we toppled a stack and money fell out, his cash stash would have been revealed. He couldn’t risk it.

After all these years, I feel grateful for this insight. I can forgive the grumpiness he showed me as a child. I can easily access the happier memories – his rare flash of humor and the unexpected warm smile, my amazement that he created the lovely, if overgrown, backyard flower garden, and not my grandmother. I can visualize the calmness that overtook his face as he napped in his chair, surrounded by the New York Times.

A photo of my father (left) and my mother's father (right), and a wooden bear with two paws broken off.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What did we do to the children? (In the category of Want What You Have.)

Soul-searing news out of Wisconsin this Tuesday morning – two twelve-year-old girls lure a third girl, their best friend, into the woods with a game of hide-and-seek. Pouncing on her from behind, one girl holds her to the ground while the other girl stabs her 19 times in the arms, legs and torso. Her attackers then walk away, leaving their BFF to seek help from strangers, bloodied and terrified. I can only imagine the vision that greeted the bicyclist who finally rendered assistance. The assailants, fans of a horror Internet character named Slenderman, had been planning the crime for months, working through various scenarios before settling on the park and a friendly childhood game to carry out their attack. Apparently, the girls had concerns about blood clean up that drove their decision.

Another day, another horrific act of violence committed by a child in America – gun advocates everywhere breathe a collective sigh of relief. “It was a knife! See, we told you guns aren’t dangerous,” as if the conversation was a contest about which weapon is deadlier. (It isn’t. If it was, guns would win, though, but I digress.) Another opportunity for media pundits to blame cartoons, video games, and the parents for leading children down the path of destruction, but let’s remember that the media exists solely to perpetuate its own salary and has decided that babbling incoherently, regardless of facts, best achieves that goal.

Another day to ask the question: What did we do to the children?

I am most terrified by the seeming lack of empathy, not just in these two girls, but in so many of the children that murder their peers. I don’t believe poor parenting is completely to blame for creating “soulless monsters.” No doubt abusive parents contribute to socially ill-adjusted children, but in many cases, parental abuse plays no role in the child’s desire to kill. In many cases, the kid has had a long history of problems coping with peers and societal norms, as if they had been born that way. Born that way...what did we do to the children?

I fear we poisoned them, with the food, with the water, with the air, that we polluted in our haste to grow more crops faster with fewer weeds and bugs, and apparently I am not the only person who worries about this. A handful of large corporations, intent on controlling the global food production market, have dictated a paradigm for mass production that includes a long list of nasty chemicals (most of which they, themselves, manufacture) being sprayed in our air and on our food; it then flows into our water. We and our children ingest them all. Perhaps these chemicals alter us fundamentally, change how our brains develop and how they work, the same way they interfere with bee colonies. We didn’t think it mattered how we grew our food and treated our water, but it does.

Take autism for example, a disorder that science now believes begins in the womb, which explains why the movement to prevent autism by shunning childhood vaccinations has not reduced the incidence of autism, merely created a resurgence in long-cured diseases such as measles and whooping cough. At the same time, studies show that the rise of autism can be linked to pesticide use. (Here’s a second study for good measure.) I don’t mean to suggest that autistic children are violent, although aggression is certainly prevalent in many cases. But I am curious about the connection between the use of toxic chemicals EVERYWHERE and how it might impact brain development in our children in and out of the womb. Because best I can tell, the children aren’t the same. They are scarier, meaner, less feeling, more violent.

As early as 1999, researcher, Robert Hatherill, from University of California, Santa Barbara called for more studies on the connection between increased youth violence and increased pesticide use, ironic given that UCSB was the setting for most recent mass killing. A young man, only 22, whose brain wiring told him violence was the way to handle his anger, stabbed and shot at girls who spurned him and boys who attracted girls. He then killed himself and left a community reeling. The 1999 article concludes with a suggestion from Hatherill. “Rather than directing all our attention to bitter debates on gun control and the violence in the entertainment industry, let’s also consider the pressing need for a cleaner environment and more nutritious food.” Fifteen years later, the debate continues, and the giant food/chemical producers are winning.

And the children kill.

What have we done?