What’s at Steak, Here

Jocelyn Sheffield: I’d like you all to meet Nigel Waters, the Duke of Salisbury.
Fran Fine: Oh, I love your steak.
Nigel Waters: Thank you. Lord Worcestershire and I get together every Sunday for a barbecue.
Maxwell Sheffield: And the Earl of Sandwich pops by for leftovers.

The Nanny, “Stop the Wedding, I Want to Get Off” (3/16/94)

Someone recently invited me to join a cooking enthusiasts’ group on Facebook. I do enjoy cooking, so I accepted the invitation. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was pretty hopelessly outclassed by most of the people in that crowd. But what the heck, I thought: maybe I’ll learn something.

A few weeks ago, someone posed an interesting question to the page:

There’s a line in here that maybe should have provided a big hint.

I thought about this a little bit. What good could confectioner’s sugar possibly do?

Confectioner’s sugar is regular sugar that’s been ground into a fine powder. There are several different levels of grind available, but the most common kind is the “10X”, which means it’s been ground ten times. When you purchase this stuff commercially, however, there’s also a little bit of cornstarch added to the sugar to keep it from clumping. That’s why you can’t just use it in your tea when you’re out of granulated sugar.

So, taking all this into account, I opined that because confectioner’s sugar has some cornstarch in it, there’s the possibility that some of the juices that might drip out would instead stick to the surface. And while most dry rubs contain some (brown) sugar, I really couldn’t see that it would make a ton of difference. Other people said much the same thing, coming down especially hard on any suggestion that searing “seals in the juices”. If you know anything at all about cooking, you know that part’s pretty much a crock.

But stuff like that stays with me, and I got curious enough to actually try it. Would you like to see what happened?

Tonight, both Wife and Wee One were at the ballgame in Aberdeen, so I was on my own for dinner. Originally I was going to stop off at the supermarket and get something extra sad to eat, like a pot pie or a frozen pizza. Something not so complicated that would fill me up. And then the steak thing popped into my head. So I went to the meat department and found some boneless ribeye steaks. Then off to Produce to put a salad together from the salad bar. (I’ve been eating at the stadium the last three nights; there aren’t a lot of vitamins going on around there. Season Tickets can be a pain sometimes.) I got it all home—and it just started to rain. Ugh.

OK, kid, change of plans. Instead of grilling the steak, I’ll have to broil it instead. We’re not letting rain get in the way of Science. Let’s go to the photos:

This is the ribeye steak I chose to work with. It’s got a bit of an odd shape because the Giant puts it in a vacuum pack, and I’ve just cracked it out of there. The steak is about 10-12 ounces (best estimate; it was a three-pack).
Because of the vacuum packing, I gave it a light beating on both sides with my tenderizing mallet.
A light dusting—again on both sides—with the Montreal Seasoning. Not too much because I don’t want it to overwhelm the Experimental Ingredient. I tapped it again with the flat side of the mallet to keep the seasoning from falling off.
And then a dusting with the confectioner’s sugar. There’s a little bit more on the steak than it appears, because some of the sugar has already dissolved.
And now, onto my Teeny Tiny Broiling Pan. Four and a half minutes on one side, then flip it over and cook until the thermometer reads 135 degrees Fahrenheit.
The finished product, resting until it gets up to 140, which only took a couple of minutes. Medium-rare, baby.
The pan, post-broiling. Some of the fat has rendered and most of the color you see in the bottom is bits of the seasoning, rather than “juices”. So maybe the cornstarch retained some of it?
With a cut taken out of it so you can see the color and the juices, again. I hit a nice medium-rare, temperature-wise, but the meat spent more time with this side up than the other side, so you can see that the pink isn’t quite centered but instead is closer to the bottom. And don’t worry, I put it on a different, clean plate.

But the bottom line is in the flavor, yes? Of course. I took a bite. And frankly it didn’t have a lot of effect on the steak as a whole. It’s not as though it had developed a candy shell or anything. What I did notice was that the burned sections were really caramelized sugar, and they followed the thicker fat lines from the steak. Therefore, eating those burned parts wasn’t as unpleasant as it typically would be, because there was a slight element of sweetness behind them.

So…as far as the original question is concerned, I’m going with a big fat No. It doesn’t make the meat juicier or, for that matter, sweeter. It does help a little bit when you get to the burned bits, but then again would they have burned as much had they not been sugared? Eh, probably not.

So it was an interesting experiment but in the end I decided it’s not really worth repeating.

One Word: Plastics (paid for all this)

Alex: We just hadn’t planned on a change of plan.

Jane: Well who plans on a change of plan? I mean, that would be sorta paranoid, don’t you think?

Laurel Canyon (2002)

I’m sure you suspect by now that Wee One isn’t so “wee” anymore. In fact, she turned 18 a few weeks ago.

In addition to that, she graduated from high school this spring, in a ceremony that costs the City and the students something in the neighborhood of $30,000, because that school can’t do anything without over-complicating it in the name of “tradition”.

Ripken Stadium Entrance Gate
Ripken Stadium. This wasn’t from the Sweet 16.

Wee One doesn’t get a lot of parties, but we compensate by making the ones she does get, a little bit bigger. For instance, for her Sweet Sixteen we rented a box suite at Ripken Stadium and a bunch of her friends joined her in a party at the Ironbirds Opening Day festivities (with fireworks, naturally). We rented a large van to transport kids who couldn’t get to the stadium, the kids got souvenir hats and junk, they all ate well, we managed to keep them more or less contained, the Ironbirds won, and we got fireworks to boot. Not too shabby.

So this time around for her graduation party (she wanted that rather than an 18th birthday party), we decided to expand things a little bit. After all, there would be more family members involved, plus adult-age friends and well-wishers. And Wee One wanted a DJ who could also do Karaoke. So we started looking into booking a space in a restaurant’s private room area.

Based on a little Internet research, our first stop was a place called Johnny Dee’s Lounge, just off of Loch Raven Blvd. The guy we spoke to was pretty great and very flexible with the menu (and reasonably priced besides), but we weren’t sure that the space itself was suitable for our event, so we passed. That’s not a knock on Johnny Dee or his Lounge. We’d certainly consider them for a different event.

Our next stop was at Hightopps Grille in Timonium. Wife spoke with them on the phone and outlined what we needed, and the person she spoke to, named Michelle, told us about this dining space with an outdoor patio adjacent that could also be used, weather permitting. Ooh, nice. So on the weekend, we went to visit the restaurant, sample the food and see what the waitstaff knew. As it happened, we got a very knowledgeable person who was able to answer most of our questions, with which we peppered her throughout our meal. We came away with a good feeling and I emailed Michelle to tell her we were interested in having the party during these hours on that day, and we’d just gotten the menu so could we lock that down at a future date? No problem, says Michelle, and I’ve booked a room for you. (This turned out to be a red flag we’d overlooked.)

So Wife and I perused the menu and put together something affordable but not cheap (it’s a fine line, sometimes), and left a little bit of wiggle room so that when we presented it to Wee One, she was able to have a little bit of say in what was served up.

About ten days out from the party: Wife got back in touch with Michelle to finalize the menu and the headcount. That’s when she learned that we weren’t getting the dining area with the patio; instead we’d been booked into a private room in a different part of the restaurant. What’s more, it was a space we hadn’t previously seen. For several reasons, this was a potential problem: we figured the space we thought we had was just about big enough for our party, plus the patio area (assuming the weather was good) would be a decent escape zone for anyone who thought they needed a break from the music. We had to go back in and look at the new space.

One week out from the party: the new space was definitely a no-go. There was no room for the DJ, it wouldn’t hold all of the people in our headcount, it was dominated by a bar (in a party for a teenager), and everyone had to pass through the main bar to get to the party. Even if it hadn’t been a kids’ party, it wouldn’t have held our headcount, with or without the DJ taking out a table’s worth of space, and even if you took the bar’s stools into account as “seating”. The manager on duty was sympathetic but really couldn’t do anything for us—and he did look for a few options—and Michelle wasn’t available. What about Michelle’s boss? Nope. Michelle IS the boss. She’s the owner of the restaurant. She’d ignored half the details that Wife had given her and was going to try shoehorning us into this corner. Go sit in at the card table over there, kids, while the Big People (read: better spenders) eat at the grownups table. We were screwed, plain and simple. Hightopps was out, and they’d created a huge problem for us.

We got back in the car and started to cruise York Road, looking at restaurants and wondering what alternatives we had. When you’re only a week out, you also have to worry about paying a premium for asking them to do this on such short notice.

I really don’t remember who thought of it, but one of us had an idea. And it was one of those ideas that, when we had it, we wondered why we hadn’t thought of it in the first place. What about The Barn? We’d been there plenty of times, they have a decent-size space, they have a permanent zone for entertainers, half the staff knows who we are…what kept this place off our list? It’s still a mystery.

For the uninitiated, The Barn is a restaurant/bar that’s in the area where Parkville and Carney kind of mix together, near the intersection of Harford and Joppa Roads. The place called “The Barn” is actually gone; it’s been remodeled and is the new home of The Charred Rib, which coincidentally used to be in Cockeysville. So now they’re The Charred Rib at The Barn, but most people still just say The Barn.

Image result for charred rib at the barn

I remember The Barn in its older incarnation: shortly after I moved to Baltimore, someone invited me to come up there for Karaoke Night. I was living at the exact opposite end of the city, and didn’t have a good handle on what was where, plus I didn’t really know anyone yet. But I went and, while the place had a bit of a used-up feel, I had a decent time. Oddly enough, I even remember the date: it was January 29, 2002. But I’ve digressed enough so I’m not going to tell you why I remember it. (Hee.) Anyway, the place got VERY cleaned up at some point and is really nice.

There are two levels to the building: the top level is the full-time bar and restaurant area, and the bottom level is used in the evenings, and is where bands come to play. The walls are absolutely covered with rock and roll posters and memorabilia. (If you ask where the restroom is, you’re told to “go back there and turn left at The Beatles.”) Perhaps, we surmised, they’d be willing to accommodate us in the lower level. Wife called them up and managed to get one of the big dogs on the phone. He needed to check on another thing that was happening that day, and promised to call us back. Ten minutes later, we got a return call: we could have the space if we wanted it. Ten minutes after that, we were in the restaurant itself meeting with him and putting a menu together. A few hours after that, we were getting the word out that the time and date hadn’t changed, but the venue had.

The Queen of Karaoke
Wee One, Karaoke Queen

And precisely one week later, we had a fantastic party, thanks to the folks at The Barn. We spent a comparable amount of money to what we would have spent at the other place, but we’re pretty sure we got more food for our money. Everyone had a great time, Wee One was happy, Wife was happy, the folks at Discover Card are happy. And The Charred Rib at The Barn has another positive review on Trip Advisor and Yelp.

Way Too Many Details

Nina Van Horn: You think too much.
Maya Gallo: That’s my style.
Nina Van Horn: Yeah, well, you’ve been trying the same style for fifteen years now. How’s that working out?

Just Shoot Me!, “Maya Stops Thinking” (5/3/01)


Warning: This is going to be excruciatingly boring. I know it because I’ve actually told this to people, and I can watch them just glaze over. But, what the hell. I should update this thing more often, so sometimes you get wheat, and other times you get chaff.

It drives my doctor crazy that my A1C number is so high. She’s always poking around in my habits to find out whether I’ve got soft signs of Type II Diabetes (so far, no). And one of the questions she asks me is whether I’m thirsty a lot. The reason for that is because the excess sugar in your system will draw more water out, so you’re urinating more often. Dehydration = extra thirsty. But the problem is, early on in my adult life I got into the habit of having something to sip on with me nearly all the time. So when I decide I’m thirsty, it’s more like a force of habit thing—“Hey, I don’t have a drink nearby”—than it is an actual Being Thirsty thing. There are lots of times I’ll make a cup of tea or something, and then forget all about it. It’s just good to have it nearby and such. At any rate, peeing a lot and having a beverage on-hand all the time are just part of my normal routine. I drink a lot, therefore I pee a lot. And lemme tell you, oftentimes during the day, that urine is so clear, it’s practically potable. I’m soooo hydrated, yo.

But my blood sugar is not what I’m writing about today, not specifically. It’s my choice of beverage, and the weird lengths I go to with it.

In the morning, and during the day, I’m all about the tea. Hot tea with my breakfast sandwich, then I make a pot of the stuff at work and have a few cups of that throughout the morning. If I don’t finish the pot, I pour what remains into a plastic container and drink it cold, and unsweetened. (Back to the blood sugar thing for a moment: I put a single packet of sugar into each mug of tea I drink—and I usually use 12 ounce mugs. So my sugar intake from tea isn’t much, considering how much hot tea I drink.) Near the end of the day, I’ll probably have a can of Coca-Cola. And there begins the downslide, because soda is definitely my downfall.

So now I’m on the Coke Train, and when I’m on the way home, I’ll stop and get a fountain beverage. And here’s where I fully concede I get weird.

This could easily be me. More often than not, I stop at 7-Eleven and get myself the Super Big Gulp of soda. That’s the 44-ounce cup, and it’s actually at least TWO steps down from their largest. Hey, I’m no pig. But anyway, one of the reasons I like the 7-Eleven is that they give you a discounted price on the refills, so the cost gets cut nearly in half. (Getting the occasional freebie via their app is cool, too.) But the other thing you have to deal with is getting the clerk’s attention when you first come in, so they see you’re doing a refill. Sometimes if they don’t see you come in with the cup, they give you a hard time. So my tactic is to go in with a cup from another place, like Wawa, or Sheetz, or Royal Farms. This way there’s absolutely no question whether I’m getting a refill. And, of course, most times they still ask me, “Is that a refill?”

Man, I was dumb when I was younger, but when I worked in a 7-Eleven, I wasn’t that dumb. Maybe a little naïve, but that’s another story.

Look at that terrible, terrible lid.So if I’m not getting a refill, I’m less choosy about where I go. However, Royal Farms, Wawa and Sheetz all have a fatal flaw with their cups: the lids suck. They’re made of  this soft, flimsy plastic that doesn’t fit very well over the tops of the cups (looking especially hard at you, Wawa), and you really have to work to get that lid on correctly. Sometimes you wind up going through two or three lids to get one that fits right. And—AND!—more often than not, if you tilt the cup a little bit for those first few sips, the lid will leak and now you’ve got soda all down your shirt. As it happens, however, 7-Eleven has GREAT lids. They’re a slightly harder, transparent plastic, and best of all, they fit on all the other guys’ cups. What ‘s more, they fit better AND easier on the other guys’ cups. So now I’m going into 7-Eleven with the foreign cup, and snapping a 7-Eleven lid on top. (UPDATE: Royal Farms has finally gotten decent lids on the big cups! Hallelujah!)

But wait—that’s not where the madness ends. We still have to deal with the STRAWS.

7-Eleven straws are way too fat. So when you’re taking a sip, you wind up swallowing a lot of air before any drink gets into your mouth. Wawa has a nice, skinny straw, Sheetz isn’t bad and Royal Farms….well, they had the nice straws until they replaced them a couple of months ago with these fat blue ones. Pfui. So my habit is to re-use the Wawa straws for as long as I can, but I also take an extra whenever I’m in there. So if I have to go to Royal Farms or 7-Eleven for a new cup, I skip the straw and take one from the stash in my glovebox.

So, to recap:

  • Most beverages from 7-Eleven because of the refill discount;
  • Cups usually from Wawa but also Royal Farms or Sheetz;
  • Lids from 7-Eleven because everyone else’s suck;
  • Straws have to be from Wawa or, in a pinch, Sheetz.

And yes, I do think about this stuff too much.

Rhapsody in Balut

[Flipping a coin to choose between "ducks" and "clowns."]

Joey: Ducks is "Heads", because ducks have heads.
[a long beat]
Chandler: What kind of scary-ass clowns came to your birthday?

Friends, “The One With the Baby on the Bus” (11/2/95)


Today I had a surprise adventure!

RambutanThe school in which I work has several Filipino teachers, and they know that I once had a roommate with Filipino roots, and that I enjoyed some of the food she made, and so every now and again when they make something traditional, they’ll bring some to me to try. So we’ve had Adobo together (no relation to the seasoning you can get from Goya), Pancit, a noodle dish whose name escapes me, and a few exotic fruits, including one called Rambutan, which you can see in the picture to the left. “Rambutan” literally means “hairy”, which refers to the coarse“hairs” that grow from the fruit. To eat a Rambutan, you hold it in both hands and, with your thumbs, you squeeze down and pull apart at the same time. The skin just splits open, leaving this white fruit inside. It’s got the approximate taste and texture of a grape, but beware the huge seed inside. Anyway, it’s tasty, although I like them chilled, which will brown the hairs a little bit.

So a couple of years ago we were talking about some of the foods I’d heard of, and some I hadn’t, and one of them brought up Balut. They were surprised to learn that I’d actually heard of it, but the only reason I knew anything about it at all was because I’d seen them eating it on Survivor. Balut is basically a working-class street food in the Phillipines, and I’m told that it’s most often sold in the evening from roadside stands. It’s basically a hard-boiled, fertilized and incubated duck egg.


You read that correctly. Duck eggs are fertilized and then incubated, so that a duck embryo begins to form inside. The longer the egg is incubated, the more formed the baby duck will be. However, Balut is always eaten while the bones are still soft enough to be eaten whole. You can buy the eggs based on how long they’ve been incubated. The most popular eggs are about 16-18 days old. The egg is then hard-boiled for about thirty minutes and finally plunged into ice water to stop the cooking. The eggs are served cool, or lightly warmed, and usually with beer.

So there we were, chatting about Balut and I’d said something about how I’d heard of it and I thought it would be a cool thing to try. They thought this would be pretty hilarious, and set their plans to get me some Balut. As it happened, their first attempt fell through, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. We were at a staff function and they didn’t realize that I had to leave early. It seemed like the matter was largely dropped. Until…

…this afternoon! One of the teachers came in and said, “By the way, I brought some Balut today, if you still want to try it.” Are you kidding? This is going to be wild! What a break in my otherwise routine day! She went back to her classroom and came back with two eggs, saying we needed a container to warm them up. I broke out my soup mug and we put the eggs into it, then covered them with water and microwaved them to get them warmed up a little. Then I took the cup out to the water fountain and drained off the water. In the meantime, a couple of my officemates gathered to watch the hijinks. The photos, incidentally, were taken by the co-worker who brought in the Baluts.

Eggs in cupCup O’ Baluts.

I had done a little research on how you’re supposed to eat a Balut, and so I had an intellectual idea of what was supposed to happen. The first thing is that you take the egg, which is just a little larger than a typical chicken egg, and turn it “blunt” side up. There’s a little space in there, between the egg’s shell and the top of the cooked embryo. You break out the top of the egg, and there’s supposed to be some broth inside, floating on top.

Tapping it open

If you watch videos of people eating Balut for the first time, they usually just sip it out of the top. And they usually say it tastes just like chicken broth. So here I am in the photo at left, carefully tapping the end off the egg with a fork so I can expose the broth. By the way, my hair is a complete wreck because I just ran a wet brush through it this morning without using any stuff to hold it in place.
No broth inside

Unfortunately, and it’s tough to see in this picture, there wasn’t any broth in the top of the egg. Sad for me, but I was told that that’s not atypical.

Peeling away some more shell So I started peeling away the shell. Inside was essentially textured like a hard-boiled egg, except instead of white albumen, I was treated to a grayish-tan color with blue lines shot through it (proto-veins?), mottled with yellow in spots. I was being careful about removing the shell, and my assistant asked me if I was delaying on purpose. I said, “Yeah, a little.”
About to bite So in this pic the egg is pretty much peeled and I’m about to take my first bite.

One of the reasons I was a little hesitant was that, while I knew intellectually that the egg had been boiled, I somehow hadn’t counted on the egg being so much like a hard-boiled egg. And while I do like eggs, I don’t much like hard-boiled eggs. Ah, well.

One down One bite gone. So far it just tastes like hard-boiled egg. So at this point I opt to add a little salt and pepper to it.
That's duck in there Another bite or two down. See that dark spot in there, the brown area near my thumb? That’s the baby duck. It doesn’t look like much of anything, though.

It’s at this point that my co-worker scrutinized my egg and opined that my egg was roughly 11-12 days into the incubation process.

Jones can't deal My assistant just can’t deal with this. She thinks the whole idea is gross.

Starting to fall apart

At this point there’s maybe one or two bites left, but the different components are also separating, so the whole thing is falling apart. Now the flavor is like boiled egg, but with a definite poultry overtone, too.
One bite left At this point, the only reason I’m struggling with this is because I just don’t dig the hard-boiled egg thing, but I’m determined to finish it. The Balut tastes fine, but the texture of the egg put me off. My assistant gets me a can of Coca-Cola so I can wash it all down (because it’s a little dry, after all).  

I finally take what’s left and shove it into my mouth.

Achievement Unlocked!

So I finally got to try Balut, and that was cool fun. Have you had any weird food adventures?

Affirmations in My Food

Jules: Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in France?
Brett: No.
Jules: Tell him, Vincent.
Vincent: Royale with Cheese.
Jules: Royale with Cheese! Do you know why they call it a Royale with Cheese?
Brett: [pauses]…Because of the metric system?
Jules: [impressed] Check out the big brain on Brett!

—Pulp Fiction (1994)


Not Pictured: Le Big MacSo the other night I was more or less on my own with regard to dinner. I was in one of those “eh…I could eat” moods, which means that I wasn’t really craving anything in particular. My time was growing short, so I defaulted to a local McDonald’s.

(I was going to tell you which McDonald’s it was, but on the off-chance that someone could get in trouble for this, I’m not gonna snitch.)

Typically, when I go to McDonald’s I get some version of a chicken sandwich. Not because it’s any healthier than the other menu options (because, let’s face it), but I’ve got myself into a place where I’m thinking it’s somehow less unhealthy. How’s that for convoluted logic? Be that as it may, I decided that while I wasn’t in the mood for anything in particular, I was definitely not in the mood for a chicken sandwich. So I went with a burger, specifically a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

McDonald’s has a two-for-one thing going on lately with those burgers; I’ve found that if you order the Value Meal, it’s a crapshoot with regard to whether you’re going to get one sandwich or two. Some places give you the BOGO only if you buy a la carte. This appears to be one of those places. At any rate, I got my sandwich, picked up my condiments, filled my soda cup and headed over to a table.

Like most of America, I usually open the burger box, then dump the fries into the lid to help contain them a little bit. However, I didn’t do that this time and this is why: when I opened up the box, I discovered a message on the inside of the lid.

It's like Hidden Pictures from Highlights Magazine.

Dear whoever receives this

message: Learn to Love

yourself! For you are your

Future!! Have a Great

Day! (smiley face)


Well. How can I dump my fries on that?

I actually spent a decent portion of my meal pondering this message. There’s nothing new about it, especially if you’ve been to any graduation ceremonies in the last few weeks; most of them sound just like this. And you don’t even get a cheeseburger to help you ruminate on what you’ve just seen.

I decided that it’s just kind of cool that some employee in the back of a McDonald’s somewhere in Maryland took the time to send an affirmative message to someone they’ve never met. And I think, in the future, I’ll be looking a little harder for the messages that are in front of me but haven’t made themselves fully obvious yet.

Mug Protocols

Captain Stemkowski: Don’t drink my coffee from my cup, Jilette!

No Mercy (1986)


I just got back from a whirlwind trip to Florida. My uncle died last week, and his memorial service was scheduled for this past Saturday, so Wife and I made our plans, got in the car and headed south on Thursday evening. We left Baltimore at about 6:30 and stopped in Manning, South Carolina at about 3:00 AM Friday, where we crashed in a motel for about six hours, then had breakfast and hit the road again. There was a pretty bad accident on I-95 that stopped traffic somewhere in the realm of Ridgeland. We were maybe a hundred yards back from the accident so it was pretty easy for us to see the helicopter land on the highway and then fly right out again. They don’t waste time when that bird is on the ground, I guess. At any rate, we managed to get to my mother’s place in Port Richey by 6:30, almost exactly twenty-four hours after we left home.

I got re-acquainted with my cousins, one of whom I hadn’t seen in literally years, and introduced my wife to them, and the tone was as merry that night as it was somber the next day. I’m starting to turn into a go-to guy when it comes to saying stuff at funerals, so I prepared something on Saturday morning and—because my brother’s printer didn’t have any ink in it—I saved it to Microsoft One Note and read it off my tablet instead.

But I’m not going to tell you anything about my uncle, or his memorial service, or anything else I might have done in Florida (which wasn’t much, really). I’m here to vent about the Mug Protocols.

You don't see these much anymore. My ex wife had a wooden one and nearly burned up the kitchen when she left it in front of the oven vent during a self-cleaning cycle. This actually started…oh my gosh, about twenty years ago. I was staying at my grandmother’s house, and we’d just returned from a restaurant. Everyone was in the mood for some coffee, but I’m a tea drinker. So I put the kettle on for tea and started up the coffee maker. The hot water was ready first, so I grabbed a mug from the little mug tree that my grandmother had on the counter, put the tea bag into it and poured the hot water in.

A minute later there was some murmuring over what I’d done. Apparently I’d grabbed the “wrong” mug. I looked at it again: it was just some mug, the first one I saw on the mug tree. It was a giveaway from Duval Federal Credit Union, and it read “Duval Federal, You’re Incredible!” on one side. It’s possible that they think this phrase has an internal rhyme to it; I don’t really know. What I do know is that I’d inadvertently taken my stepfather’s traditional coffee mug and soiled it with my tea. After some questioning I discovered that everyone in the house had a mug that was “theirs”. Most of them didn’t even live there, but that was no matter. So every time I made a cup of tea, I’d check with everyone to ensure that I was using an unclaimed mug. This was the beginning of the Mug Protocols.

XmasMugs_1At some point, while I was down there (back then), I was in a dollar store and I spotted a Christmas-themed latte mug. I wanted a Christmas mug for school, so I picked it up and took it back to my grandmother’s, fully intending to take it home at the end of the visit. As frequently happens to me, I neglected to bring it home with me, so my grandmother just put it away in the cabinet. The next time I came down, everyone made a point of noting that “my” mug was in the cabinet on the top shelf. By this time I’d completely forgotten about the mug, so I had no idea what they were talking about until I opened the cabinet and saw the Christmas mug up there. At the end of that trip I left the mug behind again, and again I forgot about it until my next visit. In the interim, though, they’d all got it totally ingrained into their heads that this was MY mug and nobody else was to use it. Once I left, my grandmother stashed it away until I came back.

Several years later, my grandmother decided that she was getting too old to live on her own, so she moved in with my mother. In order to do this, she had to divest herself of nearly everything in the house—furniture, bed linens, glassware, cookware, you name it. Whatever wasn’t getting sold or given away was going to go either into my grandmother’s bedroom in my mom’s house, or it was going into a storage locker. And those lockers fill up fast.

countertopI actually managed to get a couple of things from this purge, but my one regret is that I didn’t get my grandmother’s cutting board. It wasn’t a genuine cutting board; it was actually a cut-out from a Formica countertop where they removed the piece of counter so they could put the sink in. It was a deep red (red countertop!), and was a rectangle with curved corners and a hole drilled through it, and then a cut from the hole to the edge. See, they’d drill the hole, and from there they’d use a jigsaw to cut the main hole in the counter. The picture at left is for an oval sink, but I think you get the idea. Either my grandfather or my uncle had rescued it from a construction site about a million years ago, and my grandmother took it and used it for a cutting board for years and years. And even all those years later, despite the abuse from thousands of knife cuts, the countertop/cutting board still looked pretty good. But I spoke up too late, and it was gone.

So the first Christmas after my grandmother moves in with my mom, and I’m there for dinner, and after dinner we’re going to have some kind of dessert and, of course, hot beverages, and I reach into the cabinet to pull out a mug for my tea. Of course, without even looking and the first mug I grab is Duval Federal. Nope, can’t use that one but I’ll leave it out for my stepfather. “How about this one? Can I use this one?” Yes, that one’s fine. Then my stepfather pipes up, “You know, your mug is in the other cabinet.”

“Oh, yeah!” my mother exclaims. “Look in that cabinet over there, on the top shelf.” The cabinet in question is actually on the opposite side of the kitchen. I open it up and there, on the top shelf, is “my” Christmas mug. They were all very pleased with themselves for saving that mug when they were getting rid of all my grandmother’s other stuff, and for holding it aside for my use.

But here’s the kicker: when I went down
this past week to attend the memorial service, after Friday’s dinner I start pulling mugs out of the cabinet and I start asking “Is it OK to use this one? How about this one? After all, I don’t want to violate the Mug Protocols. Is there one designated as mine?” My brother says “Yeah, I’ve got your mug,” and shows me a souvenir Baltimore, Maryland mug that my mother bought about ten years ago when she was visiting. “You want it?”

“No, Brother, I really don’t care. I just don’t want to upset anyone with this mug business.” And that’s when it somehow turned into MY quirk, that I just had to have a certain mug or things could get ugly for everyone.

“You know,” my mother said, “your tall mug is still in the cabinet up there, if you want it.”

“No, Ma,” I said. “I’m not drinking out of a Christmas mug. I really don’t care what I drink out of, so long as it holds my tea. It’s you guys who get all up in arms if I use the wrong mug.”

They’re not hearing me, I think. I’m just going to have to continue to observe the Mug Protocols. Either that or quit drinking hot beverages when I’m in Florida.

UnSafe way

Patty Bouvier: I can’t believe Homer ruined another family barbecue.
Homer Simpson: [offended] Hey! Everybody pees in the pool!
Patty Bouvier: Not from the diving board!

The Simpsons, “Dangerous Curves” (11/9/08)


Wife and I are planning to take a trip in a few weeks. For the second time, we want to go see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the flesh, then have our Thanksgiving Dinner in a restaurant. Friday will be a Tourist Day for us, although given that I’m a transplanted native, it won’t be especially touristy. But I’ve already digressed and the story hasn’t even started yet.

Thanksgiving Dinner is typically hosted at the Parkville Palace (i.e., our house), but since we’ll be away, Wife wanted to do a nice family dinner before the holiday. Everyone’s calendars matched up nicely for last night, so sometime last week she set the date.

Lies! Lies, I tells ya!This meant some high-speed meal planning for me, but Wife advised that I not make it as fancy and multi-course as our usual Turkey Day offering. Oddly enough, I was more than comfortable with that idea. So when I spotted a Safeway circular in the newspaper that offered up some complete meals for a reasonable price, I said to myself “Hey, this might do the trick.” There was a choice of the turkey dinner, the ham dinner or the prime rib dinner. (I would have loved the prime rib, but Wife’s family has this habit of ordering their meat overcooked, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.)

Now, the turkey dinner has all of the typical trimmings, with the mashed potatoes, the gravy, stuffing and cranberry sauce among a couple of others, but the prime rib and the ham have the same side dishes. If you can’t see them in the picture, it’s Scalloped Potatoes au gratin, Corn Medley (what kind of songs do you hear in a corn medley?), Green Bean Casserole, a dozen dinner rolls and an apple pie. All you have to do is warm it up. Simple, right?

On Friday afternoon I called the toll-free number in the ad. This is actually where the trouble started, only I wasn’t smart enough to read the warning signs. The guy who answered the phone was, to be generous, not the brightest bulb on the string. The first thing he asked for was my first name, which is reasonable. My name is not something that people automatically know how to spell, so I immediately spelled it out for him. He didn’t get it on the first try, so I spelled it for him a second time. On this second attempt he read it back to me; it came back as something like “C, R, L, E”. I asked him, “Does that look like anybody’s first name to you? Let’s try it once more.” He finally got my name, then my phone number. OK, says I, we’re sailing smoothly now.

This is Parksville. It's in British Columbia, and apparently does not have a Safeway in it. The next question was my zip code. From this information he deduced that I was located in Baltimore City. Based on this fact, he asked me which of the four stores in Baltimore City I wanted to use: Lauraville, Canton, Charles Village or the one out on Baltimore National Pike. I told him that I didn’t want to use any of those; I wanted to use the one in Parkville. This, he couldn’t find. As it happens, part of the reason he couldn’t find it was because he was looking for a Safeway in “Parksville”, but even after I straightened that out, he still couldn’t figure it out. Then he suggested that if I do a Google search, it’ll show me where the four stores he’d mentioned are.

I said, “I know exactly where those four stores are, and I’m not going to any of them when there’s one less than a mile from my house.” Then I asked him if he had Google. When he responded in the affirmative, I suggested that he do a web search for “Safeway 21234”. Lo and behold, he located the store in Parkville. I was kind enough to spare him the necessity of trying to pronounce “Waltham Woods Road”. Then he asked me again if I wanted the store at Waltham Woods Road. I told him “Yes, and if you ask me a third time I’ll probably say ‘yes’ again.”

A few more seconds of typing, then: “And what was your phone number again?”

We’d been on the phone for eight and a half minutes and, of the four pieces of information he’d gathered from me in that time, he’d already lost one of them. “That’s it,” I said. “I need to speak to a supervisor.”

Another eight minutes, this time on hold. Finally the supervisor came on. I’m not going to recount the entire conversation because you probably have that part figured out. It’s all apologies and obsequiousness and “We’re sorry you’re not having an excellent experience” kind of crap. But he did take my order and confirmed that I’d have to go to the Deli to pick it up, 24½ hours hence.

And I went there the next day and everything went perfectly.

Ha, Ha! I was just yanking your chain, there! And so was Safeway, apparently!

At 4:05 I arrived at the store, grabbed a cart and headed toward the Deli. The clerk behind the counter asked if she could help me. I told her that I was there to pick up a dinner. She looked at me blankly. I tried again: I ordered a Ham Dinner for pickup at four o’clock. She still didn’t know what I was talking about, so she turned to a co-worker: “Do you know anything about a Ham Dinner?” The co-worker nodded, then said, “but we don’t have it.”

Excuse me?

She then started saying something about how they have the ham, but they don’t have “the kit”. The kit is apparently a package that contains all the other parts of the meal that aren’t ham. No package means you don’t have the meal. (Remember also that this means they don’t have everything for the Prime Rib Dinner, either.) This second clerk then disappeared into the walk-in refrigerator, but she emerged empty-handed and shaking her head. Again she told me the thing about the ham and the kit. Oddly, I didn’t find a repeat explanation comforting. I saw a sheet of paper in her hand and asked, “Is that my order? May I see it?” I looked at the sheet only long enough to establish that my name and phone number had been correctly recorded. That IS my phone number, and I haven’t gotten any calls from you.” I was getting a little more strident by this point. “I have a bunch of people en route to my house and I have nothing to give them. What am I supposed to do? Calling you guys was supposed to take the stress out of this whole deal.” She suggested that we talk to the manager.

I followed the clerk over to the manager’s office. In this office is a woman—the assistant manager—and I swear to god she’s eating an entire pepperoni pizza out of the box. I mean, it’s sliced and all, but she’s clearly doing this thing some serious damage. She continues chowing down her pizza while the deli cl
erk tells her about how “this man ordered the ham dinner and we have the hams but we don’t have the kit, and now he’s yelling at me because it’s not here.” Because it’s apparently my fault that I’m upset about placing an order that A) nobody filled; and B) nobody contacted me about a problem. Between bites, the assistant manager suggests that, rather than looking for a kit that isn’t there, she gather up the discrete pieces and give those to me. Because part of this was said with her mouth full, she wound up having to repeat it to the clerk, who heaved a big sigh and walked back to the deli area.

Hey, you know what? If I’m such a bother to everyone, I don’t need you either. I walked out of the store, not bothering to see if the deli clerk had even noticed I’d left. Given that I stopped immediately outside to text Wife about what had happened, it doesn’t appear that she did.

So here’s the Postscript to this tale: I went to the Shoppers Food across the street and put together a meal of my own: Spiral Sliced ham (about 8 lbs), frozen corn and a red and green pepper for chopping up into the corn and sauteéing slowly in butter; frozen Stouffer’s macaroni & cheese, frozen broccoli for steaming, an apple pie and a couple of tubes of biscuits. Dinner was about an hour later than we’d planned, and the total cost was nearly $10 cheaper than the Safeway meal.

This morning I mailed a letter to the Safeway folks. We’ll see what they have to say.

Night and Day

Prof. Sebastian DeWitt: When you were a student in the department, I could never picture you as a waitress.
Diane Chambers: Oh Professor, you’re forgetting I played a waitress in your production of "Bus Stop".
Prof. Sebastian DeWitt: Yes, I know.

Cheers, “Homicidal Ham” (10/27/83)


The last several days, Wife and I spent more time than usual eating in places other than home.

I’m sure this happens to every household from time to time. Every now and then your schedule catches up with you or something, and all of a sudden you realize that the last four meals you’ve had spent some amount of time under a heat lamp. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen often with us. However, on Friday we were kind of bushed and, despite the horrific rain, we decided to go out for dinner.

We went to Glory Days Grill in Towson, a place I didn’t even know existed until we stumbled upon it one fine evening about two years ago. It’s a typical bar-and-grill-type place, with numerous TV screens all over the place, nearly all of them tuned to a sporting event. The restaurant, like many others of its type, has a lot of hard surfaces, so it’s consequently pretty loud all the time, even when it’s not especially busy; otherwise we’d eat there more often. Presumably because of the monsoon, we were seated right away.

The waitress came up to our table pretty quickly and took our drink orders: vodka martini with a lemon twist for me, fuzzy navel for Wife. “OK, I’ll put those right in and come back for your food order,” she said.

Several minutes later she came back: she’d forgotten what our drink orders were. She got them again and disappeared.

When she arrived with the drinks, she took our meal orders. We ordered one appetizer to share and two entrées. Given the previous exchange, we should have been nervous that she wasn’t writing our order down, but we were so young and naïve then. Our drinks weren’t especially good, but that’s probably not her fault. After a reasonable interlude, our food arrived.

Our appetizer may have looked like this, who knows.More accurately, our entrées arrived. The appetizer? Nowhere to be found. At that point you don’t necessarily want it anymore, so we began our meals.

I know what you’re probably thinking: the appetizer arrived afterward, or she suddenly remembered it and offered to bring it. Nope, and nope. It was completely erased from her head. My guess is that her head passed too close to a strong magnet. In addition, her subsequent visits to her table were more like drive-bys: “How’s everything going that’s great…” She was an awesome example of the Doppler effect at work.

When we were finished, she came by and offered to clear the plates, then asked us if we wanted any dessert. We declined, and she took the plates away. Again, it was several minutes before she came back: “Would you like the check, now?” Uh, yeah.

This guy. Let me pause a moment to note that I’m not a bad tipper—18-20% is my norm, and I’ve been known to go higher for extraordinary service. (Also for breakfast. Always overtip breakfast servers, that’s my rule. I don’t know where I first picked that up, but it WASN’T “Life’s Little Instruction Book, which seems to be the #1 Google hit for that sort of thing.) I realize that these people ordinarily work pretty hard for the money. So when I leave a bad tip, I’m sending a genuine message. Here’s another rule I have: if you leave no tip at all, they can always rationalize it as my forgetting somehow, or maybe I’m like that guy in Reservoir Dogs. So, for me, bad service = bad tip. In retrospect, I’m not sure it was bad enough, if that makes sense; I left 10%.

On our way out, I asked to speak to the manager. I made a point of telling him that we waited till everything was over because we weren’t trying to scam a free dessert or anything; we just felt it was important for him to know what had happened. We also noted that all of our other visits (maybe four times/year) had gone very well; this was  definitely an anomaly for us. He thanked us for talking to him and asked us to wait a minute. When he returned, he had a couple of gift certificates in his hands. Our next meal would be nearly free. So, good on him. He didn’t have to do anything at all, and we didn’t really expect anything other than acknowledgement at that point.

On the bright side, you can probably beat them up if it comes to that. The next day I decided to surprise Wife with a day trip to the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area. We spent some time at Kitchen Kettle Village (as fine a place as any for Kettle Corn and Shoo-Fly Pie), and spent some time at the outlets (naturally). Oh, here’s a handy tip: if you see any Amish people, it’s considered bad form to wish them a Happy Thanksgiving. That’s not their gig.

On the way home we popped into the Texas Roadhouse restaurant in York, PA. There was a short wait for our tables, but what the heck: it’s Saturday night. Once we were seated, we had a waitress who was the polar opposite of the one we’d had the night before: attentive, friendly without being overly chatty, helpful with suggestions. At one point I’d asked someone (not the waitress, someone else passing by) for a new fork because the Yee-haw!tines on the one I’d been given were bent and I was getting all compulsive about it, and she was back in a heartbeat with new silverware and lots of apologies. Consequently the meal was enjoyable, the experience was great and, even if our visits to that area aren’t frequent, they’ll likely be seeing us again. And, of course, I tipped well: the two meals were less than two dollars apart pre-tip but when the dust settled, I’d probably tipped five dollars more at Texas than I had at Glory Days.

Do you have any stories of great (or not-so-great) ser
vice? Share in the comments section!

Man, That’s Grate.

Bugs Bunny: [pulls out "1000 Ways to Cook A Duck"] Fillet of duck Bordelaise maitre d'butter. Yum-yum. Duck polonaise under glass. Mmm-mm.
Daffy Duck: [reading from "1000 Ways to Cook a Rabbit"] Rabbit au gratin de gelatin under tooled leather. Oh, dah-rool, drool.
Bugs: Barbecued duck meat with broiled duck bill Milanese. Yummy-yum.
Daffy: Chicken-fried rabbit with cottontail sauce braised in carrots. Mm-mmm.

Rabbit Fire (1951)


I actually got a complaint yesterday that my posts have been very existential lately, because I’ve been working from the Emerson prompts, and why haven’t I told any fun stories like the one about the gasoline? So here’s a break in the existential action.

Yesterday when I got home I noticed a package still sitting on my doorstep, despite the fact that Wife and Wee One were already home. Why didn’t they bring it inside? I reached down to pick it up and discovered that it weighed nearly forty pounds, that’s why. Hey! My Father’s Day gift to myself had arrived!

mangrate logoSome of you know that I’m a fan of The Mike O’Meara Show, which was once a radio program and is now available as a daily podcast. (It’s still a radio show if you live in or near Coralville, Iowa.) The show is frequently sponsored by a product called the Mangrate, and between the chatter on the show, plus other positive things I’d heard, I decided that I was finally going to pull the trigger and get Mangrates for my grill. Also, I was engaging in a little retail therapy, but that’s for another post.

The Mangrates arrived in about three business days via Priority Mail (ordered Saturday, got them on Wednesday), and the only complaint I’d have about the shipping is that the tracking number they sent me didn’t work. But in the end, that’s a nit, right? If they hadn’t arrived, then I’d have a real complaint.

Because the Mangrates are cast iron, you have to season them before you can use them. I did this by spraying them with cooking spray and putting them in a 400-degree oven for an hour, then just shutting off the oven and waiting for them to cool back down to room temperature. At one point a few hours later, I opened the oven to take them out. I could touch the oven racks but not the grates, because they held the heat so well. The next day I took to the grill with my grates, and I’m just egotistical enough to have recorded it with my POS cell phone.

It just doesn't get clean unless you do the "burn it on high for 15 minutes" trick, which I think is what killed the porcelain.

So here’s my “before” grill. The top rack is really rusty, which is why I have the foil up there. The main cooking rack is porcelain-coated iron, but the porcelain has started to chip and is beginning to rust. And, the porcelain flakes are GETTING ON MY FOOD. Furthermore, there’s all kinds of crud that’s fallen through the grate onto the heat plates and to the bed of the grill. It’s a mess. The grill brush is one of three I bought this season (because they were really cheap). It’s already starting to get the bent-down, flattened bristles. The spray bottle is plain water, which I use to hose down the flare-ups. But you know what the other bad thing is about having to hose down the flare-ups? Now you have a bunch of water in the grill and you’re essentially steaming your food, not barbecuing it.

Pay no attention to the unkempt grass. These are the seasoned grates, before I put them on the grill. They’re meant to go atop the existing grate. I could have used a fifth grate; a sixth won’t quite fit.






That's some piece of meat. My grill, like so many others, has “hot” and “cool” spots. Part of this experiment was to learn whether the Mangrates would eliminate this unfortunate phenomenon. I put a London Broil over a “hot” area of the grill. This steak was somewhere between refrigerator and room temperature. I confess I may have put it on a few minutes early; the steak didn’t sizzle much when it hit the grate, and I was able to touch a “cool” spot near the front. So, note for the future: give it a little more time than usual to get up to speed.



I have no clever alt text for this. Move along. After six minutes I flipped the steak over (using tongs, not a fork, natch). Look at those grill marks. You can see that there’s a band where it’s a little more cooked on the outside; that’s over a gap in the heat shield. I was a little worried at this point that the heating wasn’t as even as I’d hoped it would be.





Has anyone else noticed this recent trend of making the frozen burgers irregularly shaped? Is it to make them look homemade or to make them easier to get apart? This was also the point where I threw on a frozen burger, in a typically “cool” area. I know, I’m a bad barbecue guy because I use frozen burger patties. But it’s my concession to convenience. Ordinarily, once the burger thaws on the grill I season it with a dash of Worcestershire sauce and a few shakes of something called Cavender’s All-Purpose Greek Seasoning. I love this stuff. It’s tough to find in this area, but when I’m in Florida (it’s plentiful near Tarpon Springs, go figure), I usually take the chance to stock up. I may just resort to buying it online, though. I didn’t take any more pics of the burger, so let me just note that the hot/cool experiment didn’t work out so well: the Mangrates don’t really eliminate those spots, but they do provide more overall even cooking. Go figure.

cookedThe finished steak, awaiting the last couple of minutes of me cooking the burger. That’s the second side you see; I’d flipped it again putting it on the rack. Again, great marks and a little bit of heat banding.

I should mention that the London Broil didn’t have a lot of dripping to do, which is the other reason I cooked a burger. Once I moved the steak to the top tray, I moved the burger to the hot area. Remember all those flare-ups I was talking about earlier? Gone. NONE. Not a one. The burger dripped plenty (as they do), but there were no flare-ups whatsoever and—AND—the burger remained juicy throughout. I cooked it all the way to Well Done and it remained juicy without overcooking on the outside.


mangrate brushThe next important step in the Care and Feeding of Your Mangrates is brushing the grill clean. Remember the cheap grill brush I had before? Gone. This brush comes with your grates for free, though you pay a little extra for the shipping. I got a shot of it in my hand so you get some idea of the proportions involved. This ain’t yo momma’s grill brush. It’s also pretty good for getting dirt out from under your nails.




post grillingThis is the grill, after I’d brushed it down. You can see that the area toward the back is already close to the traditional black you find on cast iron. I imagine the rest of the grates will approach that color before much longer.





finished meat!The finished product, perfectly done. And while the banding (as I noted above) had me kind of worried, it was like this from end-to-end, all the way through. Everyone in the house agreed that this was all kinds of awesome steak. Except for Wife, who insists on well-done meat, so I threw hers in the microwave where it turned all gray and stuff, and it went “clunk” when it hit her plate and that was nasty.




So to recap, Mangrates are incredible. Go get some, now. If you’re a friend of mine of Facebook, I’ll experiment with a couple of other foods and report back there, but after one use I’m already a very happy customer. And to any Mike O’Meara fans who may have made it this far: Essadee!

S’meeps? P’ores?

Burton “Gus” Guster: I have peeps, Shawn.
Shawn Spencer: You have two peeps. And one of them is made out of marshmallow.

Psych, “He Dead” (8/14/09)


Wife and I were looking through the Sunday newspapers this morning. I was reading the comics first, then moving on to the rest of the editorial copy; Wife was reading all of the sales supplements, what I like to think of as Porn for Women. Because I’m progressive that way.

Wife happened to notice in one circular that Marshmallow Peeps were on sale pretty cheaply. She wanted to get some to send to Daughter up at school. For whatever reason, this got my mind running: Peeps are made of marshmallow, but all we ever seem to do with Peeps is eat them. We never toast them up, or put them in cocoa or anything else; why is that?

I said to Wife, “You know what we should do? We should make Peeps s’mores.”

She gave me that look that most people would interpret as “What the hell is the matter with you?” but I choose to read as, “My god! That’s brilliant!”

Better yet, she actually went out and bought me the stuff to make Peeps s’mores. The bad news is that she came back with the Peeps bunnies, not the chicks, but that’s OK, it still worked out. In fact, it may have worked out better because of the bunnies’ flatness as opposed to the overall roundness of the chicks.

Here’s what I did. I’ve included pictures to help you keep up.

Bunnies, prepare to meet your Maker.

I preheated the oven to 350 degrees.

Then I put some aluminum foil on a cookie sheet. I put them on foil in case of accidental meltdown, just to keep some of the mess down. It’s a typical s’mores setup: graham cracker, then a piece of Hershey bar, then the Peep bunny.







Blinded by my science experiment.


The bunnies spent exactly three minutes in the oven. Two-and-a-half minutes might have been better, since the chocolate was pretty runny.

It’s tough to tell, but the bunnies poofed up a little from being in the oven.

If you look closely at the picture, you can see where the bunnies’ eyes and nose dots dissolved into brown puddles.





Peeps 3

Finally, of course, I took another piece of graham cracker and pressed it down on the Peep. In the s’more closest to the camera you can see the chocolate oozing out, which is not really what I wanted to have happen, but for a first effort it’s not disastrous, it’s just a little messier than you expect. Especially when you actually bite into the thing and then the chocolate runs in pretty much every direction.

So that was my little foray into Fun Food this week. My next mission is to find something interesting to do with jelly beans.