5/4/22

Breaking the Sour Cream Barrier

I am that rare individual who possesses a California birth certificate and yet does not care much for avocados. I'm often asked, and these are the exact words, "How can you be from California and not like avocados?" Well, I only lived there full-time when I was a wee tot, and back in those days, Angie Dickinson had not made those 1970s commercials that resulted in the avocado becoming an object of culinary desire. In later years, when I would spend summers in the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County, I was more enamored of Thrifty ice cream and whatever nibbles I could pick up around town while riding my Spyder bike. Food was an afterthought -- sunshine was first on my mind.

Over the years, there have been certain foods which have just never had much appeal to me. In some cases, I downright fear a food, but that's getting better as I get older. And it's about time, since in many senses of the word, I guess I am a senior citizen. My latest personal victory has been sour cream. I've wondered for years why people like to dabble this appropriately-named concoction onto otherwise delightful Mexican food, but it took a to-go order mistake for me to acquire a taste for it.

One day during the height of the pandemic, I placed an online to-go order at my local Chipotle, during a brief interval in which it was not shut down because of lettuce or salsa contamination. I ordered my usual: a bowl with black beans and cilantro-lime rice, with barbacoa for the protein, and corn salsa, grated cheese, and salsa verde. When I picked up the order, I didn't check the contents, and I arrived home with a chicken bowl, pinto beans and white rice, pico de gallo, and a topping of SOUR CREAM. In a bout of both horror and hunger, hunger won out, and I started eating, realizing that I actually liked this, so much so that on my next online order, I intentionally ordered what I had been served in error. And that was the beginning of my sour cream fascination.

Now, a year or so later, I cannot order the #1 combo at Taco Bell (three crispy Supreme beef tacos with a beverage of your choice) without sour cream. In fact, I've started saving the little bits of taco that crack off as you're eating and using them to scoop up more sour cream. In so doing, I tell myself that I am actually eating a taco salad, which is kind of healthy, I think.

This experience with crème fraîche makes me wonder what else I may be missing. I recall vividly sitting in front of an order of KFC mashed potatoes one night in the 1960s and being told by my mother (an otherwise gentle and caring individual) that I could not leave the table until they were finished. I sat there for an hour, probably missing much quality television, until I finally dipped my spoon into the potatoes and gravy, put it in my mouth, and experienced what can only be described as a religious awakening. Since that evening, I have been a huge fan of mashed potatoes, and also now enjoy many other foods that I once feared, among them broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, carrots, and even tater tots. I try not to even think about all the years without tater tots.

One day last summer, I was having lunch with my daughter Hannah at Mi Vida on the waterfront in Washington, D.C. It is referred to online as "Celebrity chef's high-end Mexican fare in a glamorous bi-level setting with killer waterfront views." Without my even thinking about it or paying much attention, Hannah ordered guacamole. When it arrived, I took a bite and found that I actually enjoyed it. This meant that in a sense, I had achieved something major, since guacamole contains more than a little avocado. Hannah was elated and immediately snapped my picture while I sat there smiling and eating the guac. She then forwarded it to our whole family, including our daughter Sarah, whose homemade guacamole I had often refused. I was reprimanded by Sarah, who said something like, "Oh, sure, you won't eat mine, but you'll eat it there. Fine."

I really do try to keep an open mind about things, but I know that food remains a weak point. My kids tell me I eat like a teenager, but I don't think that's necessarily true. For example, I tend to favor those things that McDonald's has on sale in the mobile application, not just any random old thing on their menu. And I almost always, practically never, ok, maybe once in 2019, order large fries.

Wait a second. Can you put sour cream on top of guacamole?

4/13/22

Presentation Skills

When I worked for Macy's Technology, I had something of a reputation for preparing and leading meetings. I stretched PowerPoint to its limits and always tried to make presentations aesthetically pleasing or, in some cases, humorous. My feeling was that if you were going to have to sit through an hour (or more) long meeting, it might as well be entertaining. There is absolutely nothing more boring that sitting through a series of slides (as we used to call them), each of which is chocked full to the brim with unnecessary details that are of interest to only a limited audience. Plus, if you wear glasses, you'll probably have a hard time reading everything anyway.

I think my attitude toward what and how much to put on a slide probably stemmed from my father and his grocery store sign-making. Back in the day, his local supermarket chain was not of the size to have giant prepared signs to display; rather, he had to draw all the signs himself, even the giant price signs that used to appear in the windows. My dad had worked in grocery stores on the West Coast and up and down the Mississippi River, and somewhere along the line, he developed a real talent for making signs.

The process was typically performed at our house, and it followed something of a regular schedule. On Sunday nights after dinner, my dad would roll out sheets of white paper, uncap several very odiferous Magic Markers, and begin the magical process of sign construction. The TV was always on in the background, and I remember one series of signs that was drawn with Billy Graham's crusade playing. (Reverend Graham's delivery, along with the aroma of Magic Marker, could not but result in bringing one higher and therefore closer to Heaven.) I was fascinated by the skill and speed with which my dad drew these signs. It was as if he had an invisible stencil that made each sign consistent and perfectly well placed on the sheet of paper. He also drew smaller end-display signs that were equally as polished.

On several occasions, Dad let me help with the sign making. I was only about eleven or twelve, and although I tried in earnest to duplicate his style, my signs always seemed a little off kilter compared to his. But my dad, being the kind of guy he was, always put my signs in with his and displayed them in the store. I'd go look at them and think that they were close but no cigar. Still, I appreciated his thoughtfulness.

One of my dad's most entertaining signs was one that he drew when the price of chicken skyrocketed due to short supply. The only chickens that the store could get were very small, rather like oversized Cornish game hens. My dad drew a sign to display above them that read "F.B.I. Chickens," and underneath, it displayed some price per pound that I cannot remember. One day, a female customer asked my dad what the sign meant, and in his typical humorous nature, he replied that many of the parts had been redacted from the chickens and that they were therefore classified as F.B.I. Chickens. I'm sure the customer was quite pleased with the answer, although I heard this story second hand, so I don't know for sure.

I think the lesson from all this is: display with style, but make the point. Sure, you cannot buy a loaf of bread for 25 cents any more, but you can refrain from filling your PowerPoint slides with cut-and-paste excerpts in eight point font from Encyclopedia Brittanica. Make some nice, easy-to-read presentations. And if you need to redact some of the text, just be sure to note that somewhere, in order to minimize questions from the audience.

3/22/22

Splendor on the Bypass

That night in 1962, my dad and I were on a mission. As we made the five-minute drive from our house to Summer Center, I once again pulled out the piece of paper which my teacher had provided to each class member and quickly reviewed its instructions. We were to purchase one clear glass candle holder and a single red candle. Then, we would bring our candles and holders back to the classroom, where we were to attach a Merry Christmas tag to the candle with a small piece of red ribbon. On Christmas Day, we would present these to our mothers as a gift. The present was guaranteed to spark joy (although we didn't really know that term back then).

Although by today's standards, these instructions might allow little room for flexibility, that wasn't the mantra of the early 60s. In those days, you just did the same things everyone else did because they seemed like a good idea, and generally, you tried to keep things simple in the process. Of course, to fulfill our shopping requirements, there was no better place to visit than the dime store.

That night, my dad and I pulled up to the TG&Y and walked in from the cold to the warm, lively store. Within five minutes, a helpful saleslady pointed us to exactly what we needed. We purchased a glass candle holder in the shape of a star and the most perfectly finished red candle I had ever seen. On Christmas morning, my mother was indeed fully of joy when she opened my candle present, and so was I. Once again, the dime store had delivered.

Dime stores, as most of you probably remember, were the elemental precursors to today's "big box" stores, and my hometown of Memphis was full of them. In their heyday, there was no kid alive who didn't relish a trip to the dime store, or as some of our older relatives called it, "the five and dime," or "the five and ten cents store." The selection of items in these stores was astonishing, even by today's standards, and everyone shopped at them. I recently read that Mamie Eisenhower, America's First Lady from 1953 until 1961, was a big fan and would procure dime store items even while living in the White House. 

For those of you too young to remember, there was actually a time when many small, mass-produced items could be purchased for no more than five or ten cents, hence the name. Many of the items stocked in these stores are now found in almost any "big box" store, with of course larger inventories. Chain store names included the aforementioned TG&Y, Woolworth's, McClellan's, Ben Franklin, and Kresge, among others. There was no question that you could walk into a dime store with a dollar and still emerge with enough change to buy lunch. But one particular dime store, the Trenton Ben Franklin, remains anchored in my mind.

West Tennessee is full of "bypasses," roads which, as the name indicates, skirt the city to (supposedly) avoid traffic congestion. Many of these were built in the 1960s, and the town of Trenton, Tennessee, where my mom's family lived, was the recipient of one sometime around 1965. Even though its population consisted of only about 4,200 residents at the time, and we'd never really noticed much of a traffic problem, Trenton made the most of its bypass. New commercial ventures sprang up soon after its completion, and truly, the alternate route did ease getting around town a bit. So, it was only fitting that a dime store might land there, and in this case, Ben Franklin was the chain to open on what was known as 45 West.

One afternoon, when I was out shopping at Ben Franklin with the family, I spotted a Magnus Chord Organ in the toy section at the back of the store. Chord organs were small instruments with a standard piano keyboard on one side and a set of chord buttons on the other. This made it possible to accompany oneself while playing. I'd started piano lessons a couple of years earlier, and even though I'd seen these organs before, I'd never played one, but that day, I decided to give it a try.

I found the Magnus to be very easy to play, and after a few minutes, my cousin walked up to listen. Then, people from within the toy aisle started coming up and asking me to play songs that they knew. Pretty soon, a small crowd had gathered to watch as I merrily played along in a kind of Magnus Trance State. The store manager, a friendly middle-aged lady, walked up and asked if I would mind moving the organ up to the front of the store and continuing to play. She said it would be nice for the customers, so I moved the organ and continued to play for probably another half hour. I was getting some kind of buzz from all this.

Thinking back, I believe that first taste of spontaneous musical performance threw some kind of switch in my young mind. Prior to that time, I'd played only in piano recitals, forced affairs in which one had to dress nicely and sit up straight. But this new manner of performing was one in which you could let your hair down and enjoy yourself while making other people happy, and that's what my Ben Franklin "buzz" had been all about. As the years progressed and I picked up guitar playing, I realized that there was absolutely nothing like the feeling I got from playing music for people. I played piano all through high school, and I loved those moments when people would come up to me after a recital and tell me how a particular piece had moved them. And there was absolutely nothing like playing guitar on a stage, regardless of its size or that of the audience.

As the years progressed, this fondness for being out there manifested itself in other ways. I found, for example, that I enjoyed getting up in front of large groups of people at company meetings and conducting business as any one of a number of fictitious characters (i.e., Rico Vermicelli) in fake accents. Over the years, many people told me they were entertained by these goings-on, and that of course made me happy. The pleasure was mine, so to speak. But, you know, I'm not sure any of that would have happened had it not been for that afternoon in the Ben Franklin and those kind folks who spent a few minutes listening to that kid from Memphis playing popular classics on the Magnus.

So, the next time you're wandering today's big box aisles at Target or Wal-Mart, think back for a second on that old dime store. Take heed if you see a random youth tinkling around on a musical instrument or giving that basketball a bounce. They may just be up to something good.