My niece and I share a bond: we were born on the same day, 25 years apart. She was a special little girl right from the start with an amazingly loving heart, and a wicked sense of fun and humor. The light of her life was her older brother, but when he got on her nerves, she let him know it, even when she was a babe in arms. And she was never a very fussy eater.
When she was very young, she developed a short-lived allergy to chocolate. I always felt a little sorry for her over that. Our family lore was steeped in chocolate. So every time I made chocolate chip cookies, I pulled out some of the dough and made a dozen cookies just for her. Her older brother would get so jealous that he’d try to sneak them away from her. She caught him every time and told on him every time. I think he got in trouble every time, too.
One time I was baby sitting and it was time for lunch. I made their favorite lunch (at the time) a peanut butter sandwich cut in half diagonally and some taco chip (as they called them. Corn chips to us.) They also had a glass of milk.
“Uncle Joe!” they protested. “There’s no cookies!”
“You can have the cookies after you finish your lunch,” I replied.
Nodding his head stoically, my nephew started munching away. My niece ate one half of her sandwich and some chips, but wanted her cookies.
“Uncle Joe, can’t we have the cookies now?” she pleaded.
“You know the rule. Not till you finish.”
With a merry twinkle in her eye, she jammed the entire half sandwich of peanut butter into her mouth.
I yelled her name and made her spit it out onto her plate, afraid of her choking on the sodden mass in her mouth. “Stop crying,” I said. “It’s okay.”
My nephew watched and said dismissively, “That was dumb.” He was always ready to offer his opinion on the events of the day.
Shaking my head, I left her sobbing quietly while I got a plate of cookies ready for them. As soon as she saw the cookies, her mood picked up. I think she was mostly afraid I wouldn’t let them have cookies after her stunt.
Those two kids liked their sweets, but the thinks they loved were mostly savory or sour. They couldn’t get enough fried chicken. I once watched my nephew demolish ten chicken legs and still claim to be hungry. Beef jerky was like candy to them. They loved it in all its forms, but preferred it homemade. But their favorite beyond all else were dill pickle spears.
I kinda had to agree with them there. I love pickles, too. Mostly dill, but I’ll eat others. The only pickles I can’t stand are sweet pickles. Grosses me out. Them two, too. Which leads me to my niece’s jalapenos. I wasn’t there to enjoy this one act play, but I wish I had been. I can see it in my mind’s eye in every detail.
My brother took his family out to eat at our favorite Mexican restaurant. Not only was the food spectacularly good, it was owned and operated by an old classmate of mine from high school. It was a family restaurant with a comfy atmosphere.
My brother said they were sitting there and the waitress had brought them their drinks.
“You know those bowls of vegetables they put down?” he asked me. I nodded.
It was a bowl of pickled vegetables, things like cauliflower and carrots and was wonderfully sour and tasty.
“It’s called giardiniera. It’s good stuff. They usually serve it hot, but it can be just sour or just sweet.”
“Whatever it is, they brought us two bowl and one of the bowls had jalapenos in it.”
I nodded. Yep, that would be right.
“We were eating them and the chips and salsa, when your niece grabbed hold of a jalapeno.”
“Ooops, how bad was it?”
My brother grinned. “I grabbed her hand and made her stop. I told her it wasn’t a dill pickle like she thought. I told her it was a hot pepper and she wouldn’t like it.”
“But Dad,” she said, starting to tear up. “I want it.”
“You can have it,” my brother replied. “I just want you to understand that it’s a hot pepper not a dill pickle. You might not like it.”
They went back and forth like this for a few minutes and my brother said our local sheriff was sitting at another table with a grin watching the whole thing. The waitress had already left to get a glass of milk. Several other people at nearby tables were watching and smiling.
“Did she eat it?” I asked.
“Well, not the whole thing. She took one big bite, spit it out, and started rubbing her tongue and crying. She tried to grab her water, but I told that wouldn’t help any. The waitress brought the milk in a hurry and she drank that down to the last drop.”
“Did anyone laugh?”
“No, just her brother. He got a glare from his mother and stopped pretty quick.”
Poor kid, she always had a mind of her own. I wonder if she still likes hot peppers?
I got to thinking the other day, I’ve eaten far too many bugs than any human being ought to. There’s been the plethora of bugs, usually of the gnat variety, that have found their way into my mouth on bike rides, motorized and pedals, and the ones that have entered my food supply while camping out. But the easy majority of bugs have been eaten by choice. Mostly by my own choice. It’s due to The (damned) Rule, and there are times when I question its wisdom and validity.
I’ve already told you about the multiple times I’ve eaten snails. Once, in Laos, I saw snails so large that as they crawled down a wall, their shells would hang in front of them, blocking their eyestalks. Laos was also the place where I saw the woman on the street selling toasted bugs, and patrons eating them like popcorn. And Laos was the place where I got to try those wonderful fried crickets.
But, in various places in the world, I’ve tried cooked spiders. I’ve had way more than just one fried grasshopper. And a couple of times in Africa, I bit the bottom part of an ant off and squished it in my mouth to get a sweet honey taste.
I’ve not done this, but I’m told that scorpions can be eaten, too.
Once, I ran a search on the internet about edible bugs to make sure I wasn’t being poisoned and found out that some cultures toast and grind bugs to make a flour. Scientists have long known that bugs are incredibly high in protein so the flour would be too. I can’t imagine a chocolate chip cookie make from cricket flour. I’d keep wondering what the chocolate chips were made from.
Several years ago, here in this part of the country, the cicadas were entering their 17 year cycle so they were coming out of the ground to mate. The dogs and ducks were going crazy, gobbling them up by the pound. So many people were worried, one of the local news stations ran a report about how delicious the cicadas are. You have to grab them as soon as they come out of the ground. Sauté them in butter and they taste just like asparagus. So, me being me, I tried it, just the once. It wasn’t too bad, but it did not taste like asparagus to me. I’m surprised they didn’t say it tasted like chicken, cuz, as you know, everything tastes like chicken. Including chicken.
Then there’s the chocolate covered insects. I have to say, if you use a high quality chocolate, nearly anything covered in it will taste good. And since I tend to be the adventurous type, when I had the opportunity, I tried chocolate covered ants. Pretty decent. Mostly crunchy chocolate.
Most people can’t handle the thought of eating bugs. Although they’ll happily eat shrimp and lobster, etc. the bugs of the ocean. I had a colleague a while back who could not even bear the sight of a bug. This was brought home to me by one incident in Mexico.
The woman was a total professional. I knew there was a fun person behind that professional persona, but I had not yet cracked it to see the real person. I find I work better with people if I know them pretty well, but I also respect another person’s boundaries so I didn’t work too terribly hard to get beyond whatever she wanted to present.
Then one day there were four or five of us walking home from work, her among them. We had to walk past a construction site that had a board fence perimeter. I thought nothing of this, nor of the triple or quadruple line of cock roaches wandering back and forth from the street to the construction site on the sidewalk. We were all talking and as I said, I didn’t think anything of the bugs walking around. We were in Mexico, about an hour and a half from where I grew up. This was nothing to me.
Until I heard a shriek that was ripped from the bottom of someone’s soul. As I started to turn, I felt just the slightest pressure on my shoulder, and I watched this young woman levitate at the height of five feet for the length of six or seven feet, screeching the entire time. All I could think of was the superhero character Banshee who rode the sound waves he emitted as sonic shrieks.
We were all startled. When she landed lightly, letting go of my shoulder, we all just stared at her.
“Are you okay?” I asked with some concern.
She was trembling slightly, but nodded her head. “I can’t stand bugs.”
“That would be my guess,” I said. “I’ve never seen anyone fly before. Are you a superhero or something?”
She grinned. “Nope, just a scaredy cat.”
I was struggling to withhold my laughter since I didn’t want to upset her anymore, but I found her to be more approachable after that. Mostly because I could tell my eyes were brimming with unshed laughter every time I remembered her levitating over the roaches. Which was every time I saw her.
My favorite bug story is actually the first time I ever ate a bug on purpose. Way back in the day, I wanted to learn survival techniques. I’d read a bunch of books about how to survive in the woods, etc. but I’d never had an opportunity try them out. I found a survivalist school in the George Washing National Forest in the western part of Virginia and signed up for the first class.
About a week after I’d sent off the application and the check, I received a call from the instructor. We discussed some of the preliminary tasks I’d have to do prior to the class then he told me which one he’d signed me up for which was for middle of Spring. I’d asked for the late summer session and said so.
“Oh, I don’t have anyone else signed up for that session. I may not do it. Most people don’t like the late summer session because of the bugs.”
“Don’t want bugs?” I repeated. “What are they going to eat then?”
He laughed out loud and said, “I’ll sign you up for that, but if I don’t get enough for a class, I’ll send your check back.”
He got enough and the class was held. We arrived on Thursday afternoon and sat around meeting each other and the instructor. We learned that on Friday night there’d be a big bonfire and a surprise for the meal.
The surprise was grubs. Grubs are large or small, the pupae of various kinds of flies. I’d read they were incredibly delicious. They’re almost entirely made up of fat. We heated flat rocks beside the fire until they were practically glowing. Then we tossed a few grubs on the rocks and listened to them sizzle. The instructor used a stick to move them around so they didn’t burn. Once they were “done” an even scorch all over, we used two sticks to pick them up, like chopsticks. I popped one into my mouth and bit down. I warm, buttery, almost like popcorn taste exploded in my mouth. This was GOOD! I reached for another, then turned to watch how they were prepared. The instructor was grinning at me.
“I had a feeling you were going to like them,” he said.
Understatement. I haven’t tried them since, but I remember fondly that first crackling bite and that wonderful warm flavor.
BTW – I was going to add a picture of grubs, but, well, there aren’t any “cute” pictures of grubs, so I didn’t.
On the Food Network, Anne Burrell has a favorite mantra. Well, she has many favorite mantras, but the one I’m thinking about right now is “Brown food tastes good.” She teaches all her students that on every cooking instruction show I’ve seen her in. And everyone knows that presentation is key to a successful dish. We eat with our eyes first, our noses second, and our mouths last.
One Christmas, before I moved away from home, I spent a few hours making a ton of sugar cookies. I wanted enough to last the whole holiday season. To speed the process, they were all round. No fancy cookie cutting or shapes for me. I wanted to make a nice, creamy, buttery, sweet frosting for the cookies and I wanted to make sure the frosting didn’t get mushy and messy.
I don’t remember how I made it, but I created a great tasting, great looking, and great acting frosting for those cookies. But I didn’t want them to be all white, so I split it up into four batches and left one white. I added food coloring to the others and made blue, red, and green. The result was a festive, multi-colored plate of confectionary goodness, pleasing to the eye as well as the tongue. I was quite proud of them. Some of them had sprinkles, some had those little silver balls, some were plain. This was in the days before mini chocolate chips or I would have added those, too.
When it came time, I put out a plate of various cookies and these took center. The holidays commenced with the usual hilarity and feasting and sugar high. One evening, just before they were to go home, my sister asked if there were anymore red cookies.
“I don’t know, I’ll look,” I replied. I found one last batch of the sugar cookies in the freezer and set them in the microwave for a few seconds. This was first generation microwave, and nothing ever had to be in that diesel engine for long. The cookies came out thawed and only slightly warm and the frosting was not runny at all. I handed them to her and she very carefully picked out all the red frosted cookies, and just as carefully ate them all.
“Why just those?”
She gave me a very serious look and said, “The red ones taste the best.”
“What are you talking about? They’re all from the same batch of cookie dough and frosting. The only thing different is food coloring.”
She shook her head slightly and repeated, “The red ones taste the best.”
I laughed and let her believe whatever she wanted to. A couple of years ago, I reminded her of the red cookies. She nodded, “Yup, the red ones taste the best. Can you make more of those?”
Fast forwarding several years, and it’s Christmastime again. My wife and I are going to spend Christmas Eve and the entire Christmas Day at her parents’ house, along with her brother and sister, their spouses, and one kidlet. I had a big bag of chocolate chip cookies ready, and two cakes. I wasn’t going to be cooking any of the feasts, so I wanted to take something extra special. I decided to make peppermint candy.
This stuff is so easy to make. It’s just three ingredients, four if you count food coloring. Soften an 8oz brick of cream cheese and using a strong blender, cream the cheese with 1/2 tsp of peppermint extract. The longer they sit, the stronger the flavor will become so don’t be tempted to add more unless they’re all going to eaten within a day or two. I added more, a whole teaspoon. Once it’s completely incorporated add three cups of powdered sugar in half cup measures. You want to make a very stiff dough, so if you need to add more sugar, do so. The stiffer the dough, the easier it will be form the candy.
Once you have the stiff dough, separate it into however many colors you want, add food dye, and knead it until the color is uniform. Or you can add a rainbow effect by adding different colors and kneading until it’s streaky. Then all you have to do is shape the candy in any way you choose. Once it’s shaped, let it air dry for about 12 hours then put it in a bowl. The outside will be firm and the inside will melt in your mouth. These can also be dipped in chocolate.
So I took a bowlful of multicolored candy. There was white, purple, blue, red, green, yellow, and streaky. Everyone was very impressed and enjoyed them immensely. At one point during the evening, I went to get myself another glass of wine (cuz you can’t have just the one, right?) and my sister in law was looking through the bowl.
“I can’t find any blue ones,” she said. “They taste the best.”
I was instantly transported back to my old homestead and the sugar cookies. I couldn’t believe it was happening again.
“They’re all from the same batch of candy,” I said. “Except for food dye, there’s no difference at all. They should all taste the same.”
“No the blue ones taste best. Oh, here’s a couple.” She grabbed them up with a smile. “Thanks for making these. They’re delicious.”
I watched her walk back to the living room shaking my head. Someone else came in and asked what was wrong.
“She said the blue ones taste best, but they’re all the same.” I was befuddled.
“She’s wrong. The white ones taste best.”
I realized it was a losing battle.
Besides, as Anne Burrell says, “Brown food tastes good.”
It will come as no big surprise to anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time that I love pizza. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like pizza. There’s a wonderful cartoon strip called Baby Blues about a young family. In one strip, they’re sitting at the dinner table with a gigantic pizza and the mom starts to hand the little girl a slice. That won’t do; the little girl tells her mom to take some of the toppings off since she doesn’t like them. By the time they’re done, the mom says, “That’s just wet triangular bread!” The little girl replies, “Ah! I love pizza!”
As much as I love pizza, I’ve had a few mishaps with the delicacy. Once while in college, I went to a pizza parlor close to the University. It was Saturday night, the place was loud and crowded. When my group was finally shown to a table, we had to shout to make ourselves heard. We ordered our drinks and two pizzas. Nearly twenty minutes later, our drinks appeared. A very long time after that, one pizza appeared, and not the type we had ordered. It was a straight onion pizza, nothing else except sauce and cheese. It was a very large pizza, readily able to feed everyone at our table so we just said we’d take it since the waitress didn’t seem to know what was going on. We all tucked in and it wasn’t too bad. On my second piece though, a single slimy sliver of onion slipped down my throat and lodged in my windpipe. The gag reflex took over automatically, and suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. It’s a scary moment, let me tell you. The place was noisy and I couldn’t attract anyone’s attention. I couldn’t talk to alert anyone to what was going on. I stood, trying to control the panic response, and concentrated on getting even a little bit of air in my lungs. Something shifted, I coughed, and the piece of onion came out my mouth on the floor. I was able to breathe again and sat down at the table with no one the wiser. Odd moment.
Another pizza mishap that was more on the funny side of things happened in Sri Lanka. A colleague and I went to the food court in the shopping mall next to our hotel. There was a pizza place there and he wanted a sausage pizza so bad he was ready to kill for it. He actually came close to that. The young man at the counter didn’t understand English very well. We asked if he’d make a whole pizza for us, but, at first, wouldn’t do it because they only sold pizza by the slice. We promised to buy every slice of the whole pie if he’d make it the way my colleague wanted it. When he finally grasped that, the next challenge stood before us: making him understand the topping request, sausage. I was pretty sure that was going to not only daunting, but unsuccessful. My colleague talked until he was red in the face, and his temper and nerves were frayed. Suddenly, the counterman’s face lit up. “Sauce?” he asked. “Yes!” my colleague answered. And a terrible thought formed in my mind. My colleague was so happy as we waited for his sausage pizza. The kid brought it out to our table in the dining area with a large smile, happy to have made his customer happy. He had sliced it and put it in individual boxes as per his corporate instructions. We each opened one and took a healthy bite. It was a pizza made with curry sauce. On top of the tomato sauce. And random vegetables. And covered with cheese. And the reason my colleague wanted pizza was because he was fed up to his back teeth with curry. And it was a hot curry on the pizza. I just laughed and silently planned what I’d be ordering from room service as my colleague moaned and whined and ate his way through six pieces of curry pizza.
My favorite funny pizza story took place a couple of decades ago. I was still married, and my wife’s family were all getting together one night for a “special occasion.” Her father was ordering a pizza for delivery for the first time. He loved pizza, but always went to the restaurant to eat it. He likes going out, to this day. But this night, he was ordering delivery and wanted to mark the occasion by having everyone over to eat pizza. This was in the days before online ordering so telephone orders were the norm. When all was said and done, there 9 people gathered for the feast. My father in law wanted to keep it simple so after a lot of discussion, it was decided to order pepperoni pizza and have done with it. He disappeared into the den, then came out with a big grin.
“It’ll be here in thirty minutes,” he said with so much pride in his voice I almost laughed.
We all talked, joked, laughed, listened to music, until there was a knock at the door. My father in law opened it and handed out the money with a tip, and accepted a boxed pizza. With a flourish, he brought it over to the table and set it down. I was already sensing trouble, but he opened the box to reveal:
One medium pizza cut into 8 slices for 9 people.
My wife and I decided to share a piece while everyone else each had one. Her father was so embarrassed he didn’t know what to do. He apologized several times and offered to order two more, but we all took it with good humor.
“It’s all part of the learning curve,” someone said.
We hung out for another hour or so then made our way to our cars. We stopped at a fast food chicken place on the way home.
The story, as I heard it, says that a few hundred years ago an Earl sat at the gaming table in his house, hosting a private gambling party. As the evening wore on, stomachs began to growl, but he was on a winning streak and didn’t want to take a break for a full on meal. He called his manservant to him and asked the he prepare several slices of bread with some meat in between them. It was a handy way to eat with his hands while cards were being played. The idea was a success. The Earl of Sandwich went down in history as the inventor of the sandwich, born of necessity, desire, or pure greed.
So, whenever I think of a sandwich, I think of two slices of bread with something in between.
I tend to think in absolutes, so whenever anyone talked about something called a sandwich outside of my definition, I tended to want to correct them. One of the first “real” jobs I had I worked at a famous fast food place known for burgers and fries and a couple of golden arches. It was fun and I enjoyed my time there except for smelling like grease all the time. One time, the GM pulled all of us into a meeting to explain the introduction of a new product. It was some kind of burger, I don’t really remember what, and as he was extolling its virtues, he concluded with “It’s a mighty fine sandwich.” I bit my lip, metaphorically, because to me, it was a mighty fine burger, not a sandwich.
But then we get into trouble. How do you define a sandwich? Everyone knows what a sandwich is, right?
*Side Note: I used to work in a building that had a cafeteria on its first floor with many different stations for various types of food. There was a “carvery” where they would make huge sandwiches fresh for you and one of those was a BLT. These poor ladies, whose first language was not English, did their absolute best for us, but they had a script to follow to make sure they didn’t make any mistakes. Invariably, when I ordered the BLT they would ask “Would you like lettuce and tomato?” Since those two ingredients fairly define a BLT, I’d just nod. Okay, back to blog.
Like so many other items in the cooking universe, the varieties of sandwiches are unique to the person making or eating said sandwich. I knew a girl in high school who would get the spaghetti plate for lunch and would take the bun, split it in half, and put a huge chunk of spaghetti in it and eat it. Her response to my question “What the heck are you doing?” was “I can make a sandwich out of anything.” She would also mix milk in her bowl of jello chunks, but that’s another story.
On the Food Network, one of their celebrity chefs is known as Jeff Moro, the Sandwich King. He won their competition by making sandwiches for nearly every challenge. I’ve made some of his creations and all I can say is they were GOOD!
Since the ingredients are ever changing and can be “anything” as my friend used to say, then maybe the defining factor would be the bread. But can you call the picture above and this picture:
the same thing? They have the same ingredients, and they’re both on bread. But depending on my current mood, I’m just as likely to pick on over the other, and they’re both still called sandwiches.
You can’t even argue the size of the sandwich as a factor.
These are a mere three to four bites. Wait, maybe the defining element is that you don’t have to cook a sandwich!
Oh, yeah, never mind. Grilled ham and cheese is a favorite of mine. But there’s that two slices of bread thing. And that’s what the Earl did. hmmmm.
Yeah, nope. That doesn’t do it either. And it’s not even how you assemble it.
Whether you cook the ingredients before or during or after.
So what are we left with, in the end? A sandwich is bread acting as a vehicle to transport food to my mouth thus to my stomach to stave off starvation for yet another day.