Saturday, September 30, 2017

Mambo Americano

I enjoy authoring this blog for many reasons, not the least of which is the freedom to write about anything that crosses my somewhat spontaneous, freewheeling mind. Not long ago, I submitted my blog to an automated ad-generating tool, which said that it needed a theme on which to base ads. It was stymied in that it could find no common topic thread among all the posts I've written since 2004. Therefore, it is my belief that I have succeeded in my mission.

Today, I'd like to write about something which is near and dear to (some of) our hearts. Others think it is an overrated food item, but I'm here to set the story straight, because I have done my homework. I'd like to talk about the humble Moon Pie, alternatively known as the "marshmallow pie," and some of its notable imitators.

First off, if you're not familiar with Moon Pies (which I totally understand, what with some of you hailing from places far removed from the American South), a little introduction is in order. Moon Pies are a treat consisting of two graham cracker wafers sandwiching a layer of marshmallow creme, with the entire assembly being dipped in chocolate or other flavors, chocolate being the most common. As of this writing, pies also are available in vanilla, strawberry, banana (surprisingly good), lemon, orange, and salted caramel flavors, but in my opinion, the chocolate is still the real deal. Official Moon Pies have been made in Chattanooga, Tennessee, since 1917, which makes them exactly one hundred years old. They were originally developed as a portable snack for Kentucky coal miners who had asked if the bakery could produce a treat "as big as the moon."

In Southern tradition, it is quite common for a Moon Pie to be paired with an RC Cola, although the origin of this practice is unknown. "Big Bill" Lister, a honkytonk country singer of the 1950's, actually released a hit song during that era which was titled "Gimmee an RC Cola and a Moon Pie." (I just had to throw that in to prove that I'd actually done my homework.)

When I was a child, my parents referred to marshmallow pies as "mambo pies." (That term is magical to me, so if you don't mind, I'm going to use it for the remainder of this article.) A mambo pie could be any of several brands of marshmallow pies on the market at that time, including Bremner's and Lara-Lynn, in addition to the Moon Pie. Bremner's was a fairly well-known imitation of the Moon Pie, and just a few days ago, I saw their pies pictured in a 1959 advertisement from a Delaware grocery store, confirming what I had always guessed, that they weren't a strictly Southern treat. I absolutely loved getting a new box of mambo pies -- there was something magical about slicing open the white wrapper to the box, viewing the individually wrapped mambo pies begging to be eaten while binge-watching cartoons.

You'd think that over the years, as my tastes expanded to include all kinds of regional and international food, the appeal of a humble mambo pie might be somewhat diminished. Not so. I retain that fondness for domestic mambo pies, but I've also found some wonderful alternatives manufactured outside the United States. This didn't happen intentionally.

One day years ago, while shopping with my daughter Hannah at a local H-Mart, a gigantic Asian supermarket, we happened to notice this shiny gold box over on the side of the store, on a rack all by itself. Upon closer inspection, we found that the treats contained within were known as "Choco-Pies," and that they were made in Korea. We bought the box and brought it home with a mix of anticipation and cautiousness. When we opened it, we found each pie individually wrapped in foil, presumably for freshness, and when we sampled the contents, we were delighted. The Choco-Pie was every bit as good as the original Moon Pie or any of its imitators, and it was of sufficiently superb quality to be referred to from that point forward as a genuine mambo pie. We might not have been able to read the ingredients list, but it didn't matter.

Earlier this week, I was visiting for the first time an international gourmet market in Alpharetta, Georgia, only five miles or so from our house. As I perused the aisles, my excitement built when I saw endless variations of sugar wafers, another of my vices. And then, to my sheer delight, I spotted it: yet another variation of the Moon Pie, this one also in a shiny gold box. These pies were produced by a company called Ülker from Turkey and were named "Chocolate Halley." Of course, I bought a box and brought it home.

The Chocolate Halleys were stacked together and not individually wrapped, but they were placed in a nice snap-fit plastic tray to keep them fresh. On my first bite, I noticed that this pie featured more crunchy graham layers, reminiscent of the original Moon Pies that we used to buy back in the day. As I recall, the remainder of the pie was excellent, as I consumed the entire thing in less than a minute.

Indeed, my experiences with mambo pies in general have been rewarding, except for one minor incident. One stressful workday afternoon in the late 1980's, I purchased a double-decker (three layers of graham cookie and two layers of marshmallow creme) Moon Pie from a company vending machine. I noticed on the package that it said the pie would be delicious if microwaved, and in my mind, this seemed like a good thing. I opened the microwave and inserted the Moon Pie, then set the recommended cook time and pressed the start button. What emerged from the microwave at the end of that period can only be described as tragic. The chocolate coating was reasonably intact, but the marshmallow creme had oozed out the sides, transforming my much anticipated treat into a volcanic mess. The pie was as hot as the surface of the sun, and once it had cooled, it was just a blob. I ate it, of course.

For those of you who pooh-pooh real Moon Pies, I understand where you're coming from. It's true that the graham cookie layers seem a wee bit drier than they were in the 1960's, but hey, the company is still in business after one hundred years, so that says something. What with the plethora of offshore options available these days, I envision a bright future for mambo pies. In fact, if I have room left tonight, I may down another Chocolate Halley. Truly, there is hope for the future.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Think-A-Tron

Growing up, I don't recall ever making Christmas gift wish lists. I'm still slow to complete them, as my family will attest. I think this is because in my early years, my parents were just humdinger Christmas shoppers. We weren't a wealthy family, and during the year, we didn't exchange extravagant presents, but at Christmastime, my parents always amazed me with the gifts they found and gave me, many of which I did not know were on the market until I actually found them under the tree. One such toy was the Think-A-Tron. I received one for Christmas in 1962 and was immediately taken with it.

The toy had been developed by Hasbro and introduced onto the market sometime during the late years of the Eisenhower administration (an era which I actually remember, although that is material for another blog post). Anyway, the Think-A-Tron was something of a magical device. It consisted of a gray box resembling a computer punch card reader -- all computers used punch cards, or "Hollerith cards", at that time. The idea was that you slid a tiny punch card containing several questions (A/B/C or True/False) into a tray, then pushed the tray into the machine. Once the card had been fed, the machine would begin whirring, and a "digital" display would flash, finally settling on the letter of the correct answer.

This may all sound incredibly simple, but the Think-A-Tron came with about 500 punch cards, so running through them was a pretty good mental workout, and some of the questions were actually a bit challenging. They were all sourced from the Book of Knowledge, a popular children's encyclopedia at the time. and each card had questions printed on both the front and rear sides. One side contained the A/B/C question, the other the True/False question. Each card was pre-scored with paper dots which could be punched out to resemble a Hollerith card, but those dots weren't what actually controlled the Think-A-Tron; rather, a small notch on the side of each card determined which letter the toy would display. Once the player figured this out (and it wasn't readily apparent), determining the correct answer became something of a no-brainer. Still, the machine, with the commotion it created, was endlessly fun to watch, and I remember that most of the time, I purposely did not look at the notches so that I could test my answers.

The Think-A-Tron was my big present that year, and it was somewhat expensive for the time, ringing in at around $10.00. In today's currency, due to the calculated 713% rate of inflation since 1962, it would be worth about $81.00. In those days, people didn't get iPhones for Christmas; there were no credit cards, so things had to be bought with cash. Given that, I was eternally grateful to have received my Think-A-Tron, and I'm pretty sure that I stayed on my best behavior well throughout 1963 and maybe on into 1964.

Having worked in the information technology field since 1979, I'm wondering if that Think-A-Tron had anything to do with my eventual chosen profession -- I think it probably did. I remember the nights of studying for midterms and finals in college, memorizing those organic chemistry reactions, analyzing nervous system action potentials, trying to visualize objects in multidimensional calculus, that sort of thing. I was actually a serious pre-med student for most of my time at Northwestern. But it's interesting that in the end, what won out for me was a field I'd never considered, one for which my interest was most likely sparked at an early age by that clever little Think-A-Tron, with its two D batteries and its flashing lights. If I ever find one of these things in an antique shop, it's a done deal.

Note: Click here if you'd like to see a working demo of an actual Think-A-Tron.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Band on the Run

Yesterday, we were dodging the remnants of Hurricane Irma, and for much of that time, I was checking Facebook to make sure that our friends farther south were weathering it all without damage or injury. Once the downgraded tropical storm arrived here in Atlanta, it was a case of staying put and hoping for the best. But in the early morning, while the winds were still rather calm, a high school friend of mine posted a note on Facebook, looking for people who had been in our high school band. That set off a chain reaction of nostalgic posts which ended up putting a nice polish on an otherwise stressful day.

The Treadwell High School Band, 1972-1973
The Treadwell High School Marching Band was an institution in my hometown of Memphis. Under the direction of Dr. Harlo McCall, an accomplished musician who had graduated from the Chicago Conservatory of Music, the Treadwell band had truly "gone places." The band played all around the Mid-South, toured in Mexico, and even played in the Rose Bowl Parade one year. But Dr. McCall, or "Doc" as we called him, suffered a heart attack when I was in ninth grade and ended up leaving his position at Treadwell. Since he was such an icon at the school, the future of the band was somewhat up in the air.

Mr. Wilson took over the band when I was in ninth grade, and for a time, chaos ensued. It wasn't necessarily Mr. Wilson's doing, but some people had taken Dr. McCall's absence as an opportunity to turn the band period into a free-for-all. I distinctly remember one day when an exasperated Mr. Wilson stood on the podium as band members yelled and threw smoke bombs across the floor. The rehearsal had been an unmitigated disaster. Someone must have called their parents, because a few minutes before the end of the band period, one of the band moms suddenly appeared at the door to the band room, and looking on in horror, she yelled, "What are y'all doing to your BAND?" That was a low point, but it was also a turning point.

Mr. Cleotha R. Strong
We finished out that school year, and on the first day of the fall semester, we had a new sheriff in town. His name was Cleotha R. Strong. He was a tall, stylish man who bore a striking resemblance to Richard Roundtree of "Shaft" fame. We were somewhat intrigued by his calm, yet commanding, demeanor. Mr. Strong ("C.R.", the other teachers called him) told us that he played electric bass in what he called a "jazz combo." His appointment to the position so long held by "Doc" was to some students and parents controversial, but my friends and I noticed a few things about Mr. Strong: he was always willing to help any band member, he liked exploring new music, and he could talk about almost any subject.

Our Treadwell cafeteria was adjacent to the band room, so fairly soon into the new school year, several of us started finishing our lunches early and heading to the band room to hang out with Mr. Strong. He would bring all these albums from musicians we'd never heard, but he could discuss the music of any current band we happened to be listening to at the moment: he was equally as comfortable with Led Zeppelin as he was with Blood, Sweat & Tears. Most of all, he seemed to enjoy spending time with us, and fairly soon, the band as a whole began to pick up on this. He was nice to people, and he gained a following among Treadwell students, regardless of whether they were members of the band.

Mr. Strong could be a strict disciplinarian when necessary, but that firmness was always complemented by a desire to make us better musicians. Many afternoons after school, we would line up outside to practice marching, and for some otherwise well-mannered students, the idea of behaving during this time simply proved too demanding. I remember that my friend Mike, an honor student when not in band, would taunt Mr. Strong about staying in line, to which Mr. Strong, from behind his ultra-cool wraparound sunglasses, would reply with some admonition that generally kept the rest of us in stitches. My friend Charles was an excellent trumpet player, but he loved to talk. When this would happen during rehearsals, Mr. Strong, without missing a beat, would say, "Charles, shut yo' mouth." Business as usual.

(L to R) Neil Conner, Charly McClain, Anne Freeman,
Richard Brooks, Tim Howard, Lewis Wright
The long and the short of this story is that we came back as a serious high school band. Under Mr. Strong's leadership, we entered all kinds of band competitions, marched in parades in Memphis and elsewhere in Tennessee and Arkansas, and played at every football game. We played on nights when it was below freezing, and we played on days when it approached a hundred degrees. It was like we never stopped playing.

I was very honored during my senior year to serve as the drum major for the band. I will never forget the experiences I had: keeping track of who was looking faint (and who fainted) during lineups for parades, making sure we knew where we were going when we marched down Main Street, and keeping track of everyone who was supposed to be on the buses. One night late in my senior year, while we were at a band competition in Knoxville, I pulled out my acoustic guitar and started playing in our hotel room. A few other people joined me, and within about a half hour, almost all the members of the band, along with our chaperones, were either in or just outside the room, singing along. Right in the midst of our spontaneous merriment, Mr. Strong appeared, smiling from ear to ear. That moment absolutely made my senior year.

In my time in the band, I played trumpet, flugelhorn (Chuck Mangione's favorite), and French horn. I found, and still find, the performance of music fascinating, but equally as enjoyable during those band years was just being part of that group. People who use the term "band geeks" may be missing out on the true spirit of being in a band. There's a camaraderie in a band that is born of hours of rehearsals, physical exertion and exhaustion, and riding bumpy buses to and from performances. For me, at least, it was one excellent period of my life, and that Facebook post yesterday brought it all back.

To those of you who may be reading this and who enjoyed being part of the Treadwell band, you know what I mean: our shared experiences were demanding, yet incredibly rewarding. In my own case, I emerged from junior high a bit timid, but by the time I completed my years in band, I had the whole social thing down, and I suspect that holds for many of you. The good times we all shared were something that we might not be able to replicate, but in those days we grew, we forged friendships and respect, and we definitely made some memories.

Sending peace to all you Eagles, wherever you may be.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Steeling

I am reading and rereading the Facebook posts of several friends who are talking about Steely Dan in the light of Walter Becker's passing yesterday. It is almost impossible to describe how influential this band was to the music scene of the 1970's. Few musicians before or since have attained their level of technical excellence and originality, but even at the time, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were known to be unabashed perfectionists.

Back in the day, we would sit around and talk about their music, how it so perfectly blended jazz and rock, how it spoke a language, both musically and lyrically, that spanned from the East Coast to the West. No one else seemed to be doing that. I have such good memories:

  • Hearing that unbelievable "Reeling in the Years" guitar solo for the first time while driving to high school my senior year and just sitting there frozen in place until the song was over
  • Listening to the "Countdown to Ecstasy" album on the roof of my friend Paul's house while sipping cheap beer
  • Asking that same Paul to play "Midnite Cruiser" over and over on his Marantz quadraphonic receiver
  • Hearing "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" in Klein's car one night on the way to dinner in Chicago and not finding out until twenty years later that the opening keyboard riff was actually taken from an old 1960's Horace Silver jazz tune
  • Witnessing my friend Dan's excitement when he burst into my dorm room at Northwestern waving his copy of "The Royal Scam" and yelling, "This is the best thing I have ever heard!"
  • Purchasing my very own copy of the classic "Aja" at Peaches Records in Memphis and taking it home, marveling at the glossy cover finish and impeccable music within
  • Listening to the cuts of "Gaucho" while driving up and down Manchester Boulevard while working in L.A. in late 1980, thinking how this band had taken me from high school to the working world

The music was, of course, only part of the magic. Consider the lyrics...even if you don't understand them all, which we didn't at the time and may never:
Double helix in the sky tonight
Throw out the hardware
Let's do it right
Aja, when all my dime dancin' is through
I run to you
Are you with me Doctor Wu,
Are you really just a shadow
Of the man that I once knew?
She is lovely, yes she's sly
And you're an ordinary guy
Bad sneakers and a Pina Colada my friend
Stompin' on the avenue
By Radio City with a
Transistor and a large sum of money to spend
Got a case of dynamite
I could hold out here all night
Yes I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don't take me alive
Who is the gaucho amigo
Why is he standing
In your spangled leather poncho
And your elevator shoes?
I suppose I could go on and on, and even now as I type, I'm listening to "Aja" again. Every time, it's like the music is brand new, fresh and sophisticated. It made a difference. Generations of musicians will feel that influence, and we will go on listening. Donald Fagen says he will keep the music of Steely Dan going for as long as he is able. I hope that is a very long time, indeed.