Why is Wimpy in this? I trust Wimpy enjoys rare expertise in the eating arts. But in cooking? Why not Rough House, who does run a cafe, and who in the 1960s was finally allowed into animation? It’s got me wondering which studios got to use which minor Thimble Theatre characters, although it’s far too late for me to start tracking that. All the character does is leave Popeye in charge, and then come back to see the aftermath of the chaos. That doesn’t have to be the more familiar Wimpy.
But also, why does Popeye need an excuse to be in charge of something? W Schmidt was comfortable giving Popeye jobs like piano-mover or fireman without explaining how he got there. Why not short-order cook too? It would make more sense out of pleasant little jokes like Popeye observing how the newspaper guy never misses.
The conflict, once it starts, is Brutus pushing a juke box into the restaurant and shoving the organ-grinder (and monkey) out. This is surprisingly realistic, given how vicious the coin-op business could be back in the day. Popeye’s lucky not to have got shoved into a pinball machine. Brutus moves in, to “protect me business interests”, and we get a quick version of the Brutus-grabs-Olive-Oyl, Popeye-rescues-her storyline. It’s all ordinary enough, but well done and nicely decorated. There’s fun bits like Olive Oyl calling “save me, sir knight!” to a Popeye covered in tin pans. Or Olive Oyl answering Popeye “we’re out of duck … oh, that kind!” when she has to dodge. I don’t have any serious complaints about any of this; it does its business well. I just don’t see what Wimpy adds to the events, besides a punch line that everybody forgot the organ-grinder.
We have many things to thank Jack Kinney for, this cartoon. One is producing and directing it. Another is the story. Animation direction’s credited to Alan Zaslove, though. Here’s the 1960 short Spinach Shortage.
Ask someone to describe a Popeye cartoon and they’ll give you a plot-driven summary. Popeye and Olive are doing something, Bluto/Brutus horns in, Popeye eats his spinach, beats up the bad guy. But ask what makes a Popeye cartoon interesting, especially the black-and-white ones. You get a response more useful to making lasting cartoons: it’s the mood. Popeye facing a silly or perilous situation and muttering silly comments. If you want a good Popeye cartoon, get a premise and a couple solid scenes riffing on it.
Spinach Shortage isn’t quite there. It’s got a good premise. Bluto/Brutus has tried to deny Popeye spinach before (see the inspired How Green Is My Spinach) but the idea is sound. And it takes a different angle here: Brutus has cornered the world spinach market and just won’t sell to … well, there’s a mystery.
Is this cartoon’s Brutus trying to get Popeye? Or just to get rich? He spends a lot more time chuckling about the rise of spinach prices than about what this is doing to Popeye. At one point he says how spinach has gone up to 10.25 per ton, and later to 50 per ton. That seems low, even for 60-year-old prices. But what do I know the price-per-ton of spinach? This brought me to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service report on spinach commodity pricing. This brought me to learn I don’t know how to read a USDA Agricultural Marketing Service report on spinach commodity pricing. I can see where most every market is “steady” or “about steady”, which seems nice. Another site says that in 2014 spinach for canning was about $68 per ton, so I guess Brutus’s quotations were in line.
Back on point, though. The cartoon has this dreamlike flow to it. Popeye stocked up his spinach supply last week. It evaporates as he walks over to it. Popeye searches and finds nothing but store signs about there being no spinach. Popeye tries to break in to Brutus’s warehouses. The scenes feel like when Speedy Gonzales is trying to break into the cheese factory past Sylvester or Daffy Duck. Except the plot demands Popeye fail in ways Speedy can’t. Popeye tries riding a balloon into the warehouse, and falls into the sewer, to climb into the warehouse, and find he can’t pry open a box. It’s almost a nightmare logic of obstacles temporarily overcome and then renewed.
Reel out the events and I guess there’s a thread of action that makes sense. The cartoon’s most interesting, though, when it’s being strange. Popeye’s spinach stock disappearing. The progression of signs telling Popeye there’s no spinach. Good, strong, weird scenes.
So why don’t I call this is a good cartoon? I’m not sure. I’m near to reasoning myself into calling this good. But then I have to explain why I more enjoyed writing about it than watching it. I notice the strongest scenes are all front-loaded. Popeye trying to break into the spinach warehouse is a bit pathetic for one of the first generation of superheros. There’s some nice silliness in the ways Popeye tries to break in, like trying a fishing pole to snag a can, or riding a balloon. But they’re also mundane, at least for a cartoon world. Too plot-driven a way to break in, and to have the attempts fail.
The cartoon ends with Popeye punching Brutus into an Eat More Spinach billboard. There’s no hint that Brutus’s corner of the spinach market will end, or that spinach supplies will return to normal. This isn’t the first cartoon to not bother establishing the status quo will return. And goodness knows we don’t need reassurance that in the future Popeye will eat spinach. It does feel like an unresolved chord, though. I can defend this. We don’t need the central premise of a nightmare resolved to finish the nightmare. It could be the cartoon needs to lean more into the nightmare feeling.
The Popeye Wikia for this short summaries it: “Popeye and Brutus are farmers who enter a county fair contest to see who is the best. As per usual, Brutus resorts to cheating.” It’s a struggle to think of more to say about it. This group of people had been making Popeye cartoons for 28 years when this was made. They could probably have done it in their sleep.
What I expect from a Paramount-made cartoon, here, is that it’ll be crafted correctly. The animation will be sluggish, but it won’t have errors. The writing will be plain, but will make sense. We’ll never have a baffling fiasco of a cartoon. The worst that will happen is the cartoon will be dull.
And that’s what we have. It’s your standard Popeye-versus-Brutus contest, going several rounds with Brutus cheating. Remarkably his cheats work half the time. In this sort of setup I expect either all the cheats to work or none of them to work. The score being tied at the last event is novel. Also the last event is spinach-eating. That’s an odd choice; all the other events sound like County Fair contests. But, it’s a Popeye cartoon, the spinach has to be somewhere.
Fleas a Crowd I liked as a solidly competent cartoon with flashes of wit or imagination or silliness. Here’s another cartoon solidly competent. It lacks those flashes, though; even the cartoon’s title is a generic content description. Its only distinctive part is Popeye and Brutus trying to distract each other at the tastiest beef-burger contest, about 7:00 in the video. (Why not say ‘hamburger’? Surely there weren’t enough turkey burgers or other variants in 1961 that you’d need to specify a beef-based hamburger.) They do a couple rounds that are almost literally, “Hey, look at the distraction!” I can imagine being annoyed by this and calling it laziness if I were in a foul mood. As it is, I’m basically happy, so I see it as a gleeful embrace of the artifice or something.
Still, I’ve watched this cartoon three times in the last 72 hours, and will remember nothing of it 72 hours from now.
So this is a weird one. It’s back to the Jack Kinney studios, with a cartoon produced and directed by Kinney himself. The story’s credited to Dick Kinney and Al Bertino. And it’s dated 1960, in a title card that sure looks like the copyright was superimposed later. The credits warn that it’s going to be a cartoon to pay attention to. The production credits are given this striking rhombus background, for one thing. And the music is abnormally long for the King Features run. We’ll get into more of these peculiar things in Barbecue for Two.
So if you’re not alert to the subtleties of animation production, like, if you’re a kid watching these cartoons, you maybe realize something’s strange about this. We settle in to Popeye’s suburban home, although it’s not his usual Boring Suburban Home from Kinney productions. But the real giveaway is our first look at Popeye. He’s not in the white, Navy-derived sailor suit. He’s back in black/navy-blue, like in the comics and the 1930s cartoons. Also he looks … somehow more squished and angular at once.
The premise is that Popeye wants to have Olive Oyl over for a barbecue for, well, it’s there in the title. Brutus intrudes, becoming obsessed with getting in on the action. This would be obnoxious except Popeye starts the aggressions here, swiping petunias from right under Brutus’s nose. Wimpy joins the action because he can smell the hamburgers. Swee’Pea jumps in because he’s very young and should have some adult at least within screaming range. Brutus starts hitting on Olive Oyl by singing the rock-and-roll she loves. His lyric, “Don’t drop no mustard on my clean white shirt, baby”, is just wonderful, and his swaying, like he’s me trying to dance, is an extra nice goofy bit.
Olive Oyl rejecting Popeye’s square music evokes Coffee House, the Beatnik cartoon, certainly. The other Jack Kinney cartoon this makes me think of, though, is Popeye’s Car Wash, for its plot structure. Particularly for the way Popeye has to run between several stations — hamburgers to Wimpy, the swing for Swee’Pea — before getting back to fighting Brutus, or trying to.
I like this short, but have to admit it’s a complicated liking. The models for the characters are weird. Our first view of him is the skinniest Wimpy apart from the weight-loss cartoon I’m sure they did. There’s some snappy lines in it, such as Olive Oyl declaring, “If there’s nothing I like the least, no-gentlemen is the most”, or observing, “What’s that? A plane? A train? A rocket? It’s Wimpy!” Or there’s weird lines. Thinking here of Brutus taking off Olive Oyl’s shoe and dropping lumps of sugar in. Less good, and more baffling, is Brutus’s rage at being called Junior. I cannot see how this is a “sissy” name and I wonder if some other name got changed to Junior in the recording. His declaration “My name is … ” before Popeye punches him across the continent (and knocks the world off-axis) is a funny bit for everyone who noticed the avoidance of Brutus’s name.
Much of the music sounds, to my ear, like leftover Famous Studios sound cues. This makes sense for a pilot. There are a few bits where Popeye huffs his pipe. It’s a faint thing, softer than the huffing he does in other shorts.
It’s always easy to like the first, or first couple, episodes of a series. They tend to be weirder, and that stands out. I suppose if the whole cartoon series were like this then this one wouldn’t stand out. As a one-off, showing a way that Popeye might have been animated and wasn’t? It’s compelling.
Popeye’s still being a jerk about those petunias, though.
“It’s perfectly safe to go trick-or-treating while the pandemic’s out of control,” say parents who for the past ten years have had the cops X-ray their kids’ Jolly Ranchers. Sure. All right. I’m calling your bluff. I’m handing out popcorn balls.
Related issue: I have no idea how to make popcorn balls. My best ideas for how involve, spraying a handful of popcorn with glue? Maybe rolling some kernels with silly putty until it all coheres? There’s some trick to it, I’m sure. Oh, right, of course there’s a trick, because it isn’t trick exclusive or treat. Don’t mind me, I’ll run out of whatever mood this is soon.
OK so I would totally be out of here and busy being rich, but it turns out my plans for a food planer ran into some problems. Like, you have to make one, and then you have to make millions, and then you have to sell them. And sure, everybody gets the idea. But then pressing something that smooths out the peanut butter and then going to smooth out the sour cream? That gets some mixes that just don’t go over well. I’m sure this can all be sorted out but honestly? I’m getting to think that being rich is just too much effort.
Yeah so I had the idea for the invention that’s going to make me rich beyond all reasonable dreams. It’s a food planer, so you can use it to level out the surface of your ice cream or peanut butter or, heck, even sour cream, and get the experience of breaking the nice smooth surface every single time. Thanks for being with me in my journey through life up to this point, where I get fame and wealth and the acclaim and thanks of the millions, but obviously now I need to drop all this blogging foolishness and go into doing whatever it is wealthy people do all day. Rebalancing portfolios or something. Been fun writing; see you later!
Meanwhile, on my other blog, I’m going through the alphabet explaining mathematics terms. Also, at the end of this month, I’m hosting the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival. That’s a gathering of educational and recreational mathematics writing. If you know something mathematical that delighted you, please, let me know. More people would like to know it, too.
8 June – 30 August 2020.
Delightfully grumpy Saul Wynter had niece Madi as houseguest for the summer. Her father had to go to Venezuela for The Company, so I trust they mean he’s part of another inept CIA coup attempt. Madi’s mother died years ago. Madi’s grandmother — Saul’s cousin — just died, and Madi’s not coping well. But what else is there to do? Let her stay with a friend? After many walks with his rescued shelter dog Greta, Saul thinks he’s ready for a summer with Madi.
Oh, but hardly! Why, Madi is sullen, and messy, and on her phone like ALL the TIME. More, she doesn’t like dogs and shoos the timid but friendly Greta off. Greta returns the courtesy, ripping up a shirt she’d left on the floor. Everybody gets stressed out and Greta hides under the bed.
It goes on like this until the start of July when Mary Worth’s meddle-sense finally kicks in. Once she’s aware of friction between housemates Mary Worth can not act fast enough. She has them over for lunch, teleporting them into her kitchen before Saul Wynter gets off the phone. “It’s all right, Mary Worth just does that,” Saul reassures Madi. Mary Worth notices Madi noticing her flowers, and Madi admits her grandmother loved color. Mary Worth agrees: color is one of her favorite intensive properties of matter, up there with viscosity and specific gravity. Mary Worth coaxes Madi to an afternoon at the pool. And to have cookies, since her grandmother was a great cook.
At the pool Mary Worth asks Madi about her grandmother, and listens a short while. She comments how things Madi does to remember her are nice. How we honor loved ones by imitating the good they did. Have to say, Mary Worth’s meddle game is on.
Madi resists the suggestion to get to know Saul and Greta, though. She complains her Gram’s died, her life’s “shaken”, and she’s living all summer with a grouchy old man and his dog. She makes a fair point. Mary Worth talks about Greta’s long time spent looking for a home and Madi rolls her eyes all the way into Gil Thorp. But she invites Mary Worth to jump into the pool and that helps some. She says Mary Worth reminds her of Gram.
This meddles Madi at least into being a quiet sullen who doesn’t put her feet on the couch. She’s still crying at night, though. Until Greta pokes in and squeezes up against her because dog. And that fixes the problem of her not liking dogs. At least not liking Greta.
So way back when this story started an incident happened that I didn’t think rated mention. Toby was having trouble making desserts for a Charterstone meeting. I thought it was no more than a bit of color along the way to the actual Saul-and-Madi-and-Greta story. I should have known better. Mary Worth isn’t some slapdash strip that would leave a plot point like that hanging. And the resolution of this launches the end of the story to greatness. From the 5th of August we see Toby struggling again to make dessert for, I think, a different Charterstone meeting.
Toby needs Mary Worth’s help: she can’t figure out the banana bread recipe. This raises many questions, among them: what, she can’t go to Bake-N-Cakes and buy dessert? I concede the plot requirement that Toby be working on something a 13-year-old could plausibly have experience with. But, like, the banana bread recipe at AllRecipes.com is seven ingredients, one of which is “bananas”. It has three steps, one of which is “preheat oven and grease pan”. (Snark aside, I think AllRecipe’s step two is over-stuffed. I would break that into three or four steps, one for each time something’s mixed or poured into a new bowl.) Toby’s kitchen is a wasteland of ruined bananas, spent eggs, and viscous puddles of things. I can’t swear that her ice cubes weren’t somehow on fire. If we the audience had not seen that, I would theorize this was a setup to trick Madi into opening up. Instead, no, we have to suppose that Toby is a person who can’t parse “In a separate bowl, cream together butter and brown sugar”.
Madi comes with Mary Worth. Toby provides an example of her failed banana bread, so Madi never suspects she’s being patronized. A person who can’t “stir in eggs and mashed bananas until well blended” is not trying to outthink a 13-year-old. Madi offers that her Gram made banana bread with a “secret ingredient” and she decides, finally, to let Toby know what it is. With the secret Toby tries again and now she has a successful banana bread! The little project makes all the difference. From here on Madi’s a pleasant friendly teen and likes Greta and Saul and Mary Worth and feels bad for Toby and everything.
So from the 18th of August we move into the ritual of thanking Mary Worth for everything. This story she did do something to be thanked for. Madi’s decided her summer turned out great. And she’s going to be a chef and bring her Gram’s recipes to everyone. And hey, her dad’s been released by Venezuela counter-intelligence, so he’ll be swinging by to pick her up soon and we can … never see her again I guess. We haven’t quite gotten to Madi’s last strip, much less any hint what the next story is. I expect that to start next week.
Dubiously Sourced Mary Worth Sunday Panel Quotes!
“When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.” — Elon Musk, 7 June 2020.
“No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversation as the dog does.” — Christopher Morley, 14 June 2020.
“It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it.” — W Somerset Maugham, 21 June 2020.
“When anger rises, think of the consequences” — Confucius, 28 June 2020.
“Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.” — Lily Tomlin, 5 July 2020.
“Be a little kinder than you have to.” — E Lockhart, 12 July 2020.
“Where flowers bloom, so does hope.” — Lady Bird Johnson, 19 July 2020.
“A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.” — Steve Maraboli, 26 July 2020.
“I don’t think people really realize or understand just how wonderful and special dogs are.” — Robert Crais, 2 August 2020.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again” — Thomas H Palmer, 9 August 2020.
“Take care of all your memories, for you cannot relive them.” — Bob Dylan, 16 August 2020.
“Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.” — Gertrude Stein, 23 August 2020.
“We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.” — Helen Keller, 30 August 2020.
There’s an advertisement in the local alt-weekly for “Chocolate your body understands”. That’s a mind-expanding exercise for you. My body, you may have gathered, never had trouble understanding any chocolate, no matter what funny accent the chocolate might have put on. But, we are asked to accept for the premise of this advertisement, there are chocolates that bodies can’t understand. The bodies try, surely, by such methods as speaking more loudly at the chocolate, but nothing comes across. Some other food group, perhaps a sauce of some kind, must come in to serve as interpreter. (Oh, finally the purpose of peanut butter is clear!) But now all these indignities of translation end, and we can just eat chocolate, so they promise.
I bet it’s not as simple as they pretend. There’s probably some classwork your body has to take before it talks with the chocolate again.
Since my brain is unwilling to let this go: if he had his family back home send crates of Charles Chips. I am making this joke because I feel like being a seven-year-old who has noticed a word appearing in more than one place and I am going to stand a little too close to you and smile, showing slightly too many teeth, until you agree this is very clever, which I will realize much later is not the same thing as ‘funny’. Yeah, delivery potato chips would be pretty well smashed up by the time they got to Korea but hey, some people like that. You can spackle them together with dip and make a barely edible wad of material that’s sweet, salty, and has lots of sharp edges. That’s definitely in character for Major Winchester.
August 22. everyone who had a part in this day, give yourselves a fresh round of applause without being unseemly about it.
Cheddar II: Cheddiest. From out of Nowhere, Connecticut, 06269, this new flavor, appearing in ouch-y sharp, dangerous in its pointedness, somewhat polyhedral, and mint, has taken over the world of cheese and opened up new avenues in being so much more than the inspirational cheddar that it’s not hard to see why old-fashioned cheddar is expected within the next two years to go the way of the original, almost forgotten ched.
once-in-shakespeare.com Where else but this scrappy new start-up can one get a convenient listing of all the words that appear in the canonical plays of William Shakespeare one time? Anyone can produce a list of all the words, just by shaking a collected edition on its side until the pieces fall out, but who’s going to take out the duplicates and grow new authors with them?
Raised Flooring. After years of drop-down ceilings being the cliche and overused answer to ways to make a room seem more claustrophobic we have this alternative. Unexpected bonuses include having more things to count while bored, and the improved sense of balance as people try to walk on those bar things from which the floor panels are hung. This will inspire grace in our walking like Groucho Marx if nothing else will.
How the English language has no solitary word for the feeling of uncertainty that accompanies thinking that one’s socks are damp when there’s no chance for taking one’s shoes off to check or to change them no matter how much we need a word for exactly this sensation. This single loss has saved millions of dollars and dozens of lines of newspaper type in just the past month. And think of all the people it’s inspired to try to buy less painful shoes. Yes, yes, you can put together a bunch of words to get the same sense across. It’s not the same.
Flatware. There is nothing which soothes the desperate need to buy flatware quite like flatware, and we should all be glad the flatware industry exists to satisfy this need. Be warned: much so-called flatware these days is not in fact flat, but extends into a third or even a fourth spatial dimension. If you have no choice but to purchase this imitation flatware do speak to the steamroller operator with whom you’re on good terms — you are on good terms with at least one steamroller operator, aren’t you? — to arrange for the appropriate enflattening.
March 10. Nobody’s saying it’s a patch on August 22, but it’s still really good all around and everybody deserves to take a bow for that too.
Adverbs. These sentence-stuffers had a great run and it’s a shame that we’re scheduled to lose them if the conversion to Modifiers.6 ever happens. Still, anyone who’s ever had to write to a specified word count has relied on their ability to be added to or removed from sentences and they will be missed, like when someone notices the `a’ or `an’ doesn’t match with the next word anymore.
Sriracha Automobiles. For the past fifteen years sriracha has been slipping almost unnoticed into everything, starting with sandwiches, then cooking shows, then books, then consumer electronics, and now into the important industries of Navy ships and personal automobiles. No one may know where sriracha comes from or what it intends, but we can be sure that it’s here and it’s unavoidable, and that with the proper setup it can be used for good or at least to not be so frightening, and that earns it a place on this list.
Simple Thermometers. Despite fears no important features of the weather developed into the imaginary and then the complex number plane. So despite the shortages in Complex Thermometers none were needed, except for that stretch in fall where the temperature became one of the principal roots of a heptic polynomial. But for the most part we got along just fine with the old-fashioned thermometers and isn’t that one of the ten things about the decade just finished?
So please here take a moment to point and snicker at a pepper plant that, despite having ALL SUMMER LONG to work on it, never managed to grow more than about four inches tall. And then used that chance to spit out like fourteen green peppers, most of them taller than it is.
So to sum up, plants: what’s the deal, huh? Seriously, what the heck? You know? Right?
It’s still a lot of fun reading the names of the streets off the overpasses. “Fangboner Road” alone threatens to keep the gang giggling for hours. “Preventorium Road” inspires everyone to toss out out their ideas of what this could even mean. This goes on for so long and for such a merry time that by the time anyone can think to look it up they can’t remember what exactly the road name was. They know it wasn’t Vomitorium Road, but that’s as far as the consensus will reach. Amanda’s claim of knowing a “Squankum” are shaken off. It feels like a bad laugh although they’re not sure exactly why.
The fourth great field of sheep is not so much fun as the first. Dan insists the problem is the sheep aren’t trying to be interesting. Sophia asserts that few things would be worse than sheep that compel your interest. The menace of the hypnosheep masters keeps the group’s spirits up for the next two fields of sheep before they sink beneath all possible commentary.
Is that a strip mall with two yoga centers? Josh says it’s three, but he’s definitely mis-reading tea room as a yoga center. Right? We mean it’s one of those tea rooms too fancy to be comfortable. Well, there’s definitely at least two. Maybe this is just the yoga center district of town?
Well, this is a restaurant. All right, it’s not a vegetarian-friendly restaurant. It seems determined to put meat into things that don’t even need it. There’s a high-pressure gun in the kitchen. It injects chicken and processed lobster food product into everything. “We just want some garlic toast,” beg Josh and Amanda. “We don’t need animals to have died for the cause!” The restaurant tries to cope with the concept of someone who wants the tomato soup that hasn’t had a fist-sized chunk of pig flesh ripped off and unked into it. But the effort fails. There’s a mishap in the kitchen, and it sprays chicken cutlets, which are dug out even of the glove box up to three months later. At least that’s how the story goes. Really it’s more that the waitstaff has to come back to apologize that they don’t have a second black-bean burger patty, would a portobello mushroom be all right? And it really wouldn’t, but Josh would take it to not cause trouble for people who have to deal with much worse customers. It’s all right, since it turns out they don’t have portobello either. He gets a plate of melted butter with a scoop of mashed potatoes. Later he tries to insist that mashed potatoes would be a good substitute for the burger patty, earning him so much grief.
That’s a weird bunch of sheep but nobody wants to reopen the subject.
All right but serious talk. Or anyway, comparing the bathroom stuff that different hotels give you. Everyone takes turns asserting they’ve seen the most preposterous blend of things. Sophia claims to have been at a long-term hotel once that had a single tube which claimed to be soap, skin lotion, shampoo, hair conditioner, toothpaste, mouthwash, energy drink, makeup remover, transparent nail polish, shoe polish, stain remover, windshield fluid, transmission fluid, and fish ick treatment. Two miles later she says she thinks she went on too long for the laugh she could possibly get. Dan says that a combination mouthwash and energy drink is a great idea and she should patent that. Amanda questions whether you could patent … what, coffee with way too much mint? This allows everyone to learn a little bit more about each other, as they say what kinds of things they can or can’t eat right after brushing their teeth. This causes everyone to realize their friends are daft. This is worse than when they learned what podcasts everyone else listened to.
All right but is that a two-story strip mall? Is it possible to be a strip mall if it has got a second story? Yeah, we know about that strip mall with the two-story Borders that used to be there, but that was just the one place. If the mall has a second floor with different shops upstairs isn’t that … well, we clearly don’t have the words for this concept. What is it and how many yoga centers can it have?
The gang agrees a road trip would be great. It’s been so long since the last one. There’s not going to be many more good chances this year. The weather’s getting to be more of itself. Work is getting busier. There’s the chance the state might discontinue roads for the rest of the year. No telling. If we don’t get to it soon we might never start at all.
Which car to use? There’s the obvious choice. That’s the one that would reach its scheduled service mileage about one-third of the way through the trip. That’s … something we could handle? … Right? … Daniel insists he can handle it. Nobody believes it. The cashier at Pita Pit asks Daniel if he’s all right, or if he’s lying about something powerfully important to him. The guy at the car wash just leans in and hugs him, saying, “I don’t know why but, man, something about you says you need this. Whatever it is, it’ll get better.” Amanda’s the first to admit this won’t work, though, even after finding car dealerships roughly along the planned path.
It’ll be Josh’s car instead. It’s less comfortable. But Josh insists he’s glad to host the trip. “It’ll be great! I can finally get updates to all my state maps!” Nobody’s sure whether this is serious. But in that little cubbyhole in his car doors are a lot of maps. So many maps. Gas station maps. Maps from Esso gas stations. A map of the Washington, D.C. area that still shows “Lee Family Estate” where Arlington National Cemetery should be. A map showing the Colonie of Nieuw-Nederland. It’s pristine. His car is three years old. There have always been things about Josh nobody understood. Now, knowing a little more, everyone knows him less.
Road snack purchases are a hot debate. There’s the faction that wants things bought ahead of time, so the gang can set off without false starts. There’s the faction that sees the false start as tradition. There’s the faction that insists there’s rest areas on the highway for a reason. Amanda tries to be the sensible one and insists road snacks aren’t necessary if everyone just eats good meals. There seem to be more factions than people going.
Fourteen hours of heated debate spread over three chat groups, none of which have all the participants in it, agrees at least to go to the same convenience store and stock up. This after ninety minutes of argument about the supermarket being cheaper. Or the neighborhood grocery store being better for the long term economic health of small business all right THANK YOU we get it. It’s twenty-five bucks’ worth of Fritos, economic justice doesn’t enter into it.
The cooler issue will not settle. There’s good economic reasons to get bottles of soda, even small bottles, and keep them in cooler. This crashes into the faction that fresh-poured fountain drinks taste better. A hard-shell cooler works better but bangs the knees of everyone in back. A soft-shell cooler fits between people but Sophia’s read things about breeding bacteria? Somehow? It’s all very tiring.
The day before the trip the low-tire-pressure light comes on. Josh has a pressure gauge for just this problem. It’s not the front driver’s side tire. It’s not the rear driver’s side tire. It’s not the front passenger’s side tire. It’s not the rear passenger’s side tire. Two hours of increasingly cross words follow in three of the now-five group chats. Fourteen separate web searches for symptoms follow. Eight of them end up on Yahoo Answers. Despair sets in. Sophia has the breakthrough insight: could it be the spare tire? Yes, it could, but it is not. Thirty minutes later the low-tire-pressure light stops lighting. Daniel offers it was his suggestion to put electrical tape over the dashboard that did it. The real explanation remains unknown. Perhaps the tires just wanted some attention.
“Fritos are not a matter of economic justice” becomes the newest in-joke for the group. Three and a half years later it switches to being Cheetos not being a matter of economic justice. No one is able to explain this phenomenon. It becomes a matter of great angry debate when anyone tries to insist that it was originally Fritos.
I’ve realized there must be a fan theory that the fondly-yet-dimly-remembered summer camp movie series Meatballs shares a continuity with the beloved-I-assume series of Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs movies. This would be the dullest fan theory not to include the phrase “dying hallucination of”.
Mealtime. It’s a great-sounding word. It pairs together two great syllables. Well, the first syllable is great. The second syllable is that thing that reminds us we should have got this all done before. Still, “mealtime” together? That’s some nice stuff. Even better if the stuff includes, like, a gravy of some kind. Less good if the mealtime includes one of those Very Internet Persons who wants to argue about whether chili is a sandwich or hot dogs are soup.
How much do we really know about mealtimes? Not as much as we could, surely. The average person knows only about 95% of everything they might care to know about mealtimes. This could be improved, one way or another.
Mealtimes may seem like traditions fixed since time immemorial. It turns out that “time immemorial” usually means something a lot closer to 1956 than people admit. Also it’s not so much “fixed” as it is “it would make someone else’s life easier if we tried a little harder”. That person also deserves a lunch sometime they could predict.
Still, meals have been a lot more flexible in their scheduling and content than we realize. This until we notice that we’ve been “a couple minutes late” on dinner every day for the last six years. Also that by “a couple minutes” we mean 95 minutes. Also that by dinner we mean “two items taken, at random, from the freezer and heated up”. This most recently included a chunk of orange juice concentrate dating to the 2008 Financial Crisis. That usually makes people aware of what they’re doing with mealtimes, momentarily.
Still, there are common patterns in the times of meals. Dinner, for example, used to be a midday meal, had somewhere around noon. This shifted in the early 19th century, when the busy residents of New York City found it was too much bother to get home at that hour. Dinner moved first to 2 pm, then to about 8 pm, then back to 6 pm. In 1934 it moved back to 11:30 am the next day. This had the neat side effect of ending the half-day of work on Saturdays, since otherwise Saturday dinner would interrupt Sunday brunch. And thus the modern weekend was born.
Dinner kept moving later and later, though, and people reasonably got fed up having to wait so long. Oh, that exciting day in 1955, though, when the whole population started to say, “you know, I am fed up with waiting for dinner” and then heard themselves say that out loud. So they started having a quick, supper-like meal, eaten at dinnertime. Dinner as we originally knew it faded away, except for historical reenactments. It’s currently estimated to be around 3:35 pm, two days after.
Lunch has often been around noon. The trick is when noon happens. Yes, we think of noon as being at that 12:00 that has a morning just before it. But that’s just the chance result of the French Revolutionary Calendar. What noon is supposed to be is “nine”. This is not necessarily nine in the morning, nor in the evening. It’s supposed to be nine hours past the moment that’s nine hours before noon. How that ended up at 12:00 remains a mystery. Anyway I usually eat lunch late myself.
Breakfast is an interesting meal to time. In the old days, sure, people were fasting all the time. It added some panache to the famine going on. But even when food was plentiful there were problems. You could see, for example, religious prohibitions against eating meat on Fridays or Tuesdays. Or against eating milk on unseasonably warm days. Against eating eggs that haven’t been kept in a pot of water. Against eating things with the letter “r” in them before the Apocalypse. The trouble with finding a thing to eat was resolved in the 13th century, when a series of church councils came around to the idea that when the letter “r” appears in “breakfast” it is serving as a kind of devotional bread. Happily these councils got the matters settled first thing in the morning, first day of the meeting. And so we have breakfast right at the start of the day.
Will there be new mealtimes yet invented? It’s hard to say. Most of us have settled into a modern pattern where we kind of keep grabbing small things and ingesting them. And we don’t have any time to do anything properly anymore. But what if research projects to inject new hours into the day, such as the experimental R o’clock, works? We might get something good yet.
Boy, do you ever look at a box of machine-extruded rotini and think about all the generations of pasta-carvers plying their trade? Rotating this thick noodle base and chiseling away a long and deep enough groove to make that spiral? Learning how to have a steady enough hand as to not chop the rotini up into too-short a length, or making the spiral tread too shallow or the vanes too thick? And doing it fast enough that they could carve away a whole dinner’s worth of pasta in the time it takes to make a meal? And then all those centuries of accumulated experience being wiped away in favor of pasta-making machines that don’t need any humanity to them.
Hey, totally unrelated yet fun fact: my sister-in-law won’t let me tell her kids anything without a responsible grownup supervising.
I wasn’t listening very closely to the teaser for the Mister Food segment on the noon news Friday. I thought the guy said he was going to show off a “dessert that would be worthy of the Renaissance”. So that kept me hanging on for the whole commercial break. What would this be? My best guess: a slab of honeycomb on top of marzipan, covered in nut-megg and tobacco leaves, bludgeoned the one tymme with a sugar-cayne.
Anyway it turns out they were doing a Kentucky Derby tie in. They had said a “dessert that would be worthy of the Winner’s Circle”. You can see how “Winner’s Circle” and “Renaissance” sound similar, what with both things being made up of words composed of syllables and all. Anyway I’m annoyed because I wanted Mister Food to tell me I was right.
Hey, are they going to have a Kentucky Derby this year? I should look that up. They hold those in prime-numbered years, and also some of the others.
Also, reasons to believe that Topher’s Castle is making up some breakfast cereal mascots in order to prove copyright infringement by disreputable web sites like mine:
For Apple Zaps: “Duckbert is a red-haired duck who loves soccer. He’s wears a red soccer uniform complete with soccer cleats. He’s shown kicking a soccer ball.”
But to be sincere, the site has a heartening number of characters tracked down and described, with pictures for a lot of them. It really makes you appreciate how many breakfast cereals have tried to make a kangaroo mascot and how somehow it just never takes. I am so happy this person put this work into this project.
Before I get warmed up you might ask how I know anything about grinding coffee beans. I’m glad you don’t ask the equivalent about every one of these essays. That would hurt my feelings. I affect a quiet, almost stoic pose. But I do have, and use, six feelings. I admit one of them is that feeling of nuisance that my sock is not quite wet enough to justify changing.
But it does not hurt my feelings if you doubt my knowledge of grinding coffee beans. I’m not a coffee drinker. I don’t much like it. I usually get coffee because I’ve misunderstood the question. I prefer tea, which could also use some work but which I’ve been kind of used to for longer. The only time I get coffee on purpose is when I go vegetable-shopping at the farmer’s market on the westside of town. They have this complementary coffee bar with a rotation of eight different flavors. And then what am I going to do, not get coffee because I don’t like it? It’s complementary.
And yes, I could get a complementary tea instead, but they use the same tea bags we already have at home. I’ve paid for those already, out of the household budget. This is a real chain of logic I really follow in reality, for real. Also they always have flavored coffees. And coffee might not be anything much, but coffee-cake flavor coffee? That’s great. I should get something to eat with my cup of coffee-cake flavor coffee, but what?
Nevertheless I do make coffee at home for my love, and for guests we have. And people agree I make good coffee. So I have standing.
Coffee comes in the form of beans. This is great because they make this satisfying rattle when you accidentally spill them on the kitchen floor. It’s a noise like pouring some particularly sugar-glazed cereal into an empty bowl and a good reminder to clean the kitchen floor more often. But to turn this into coffee you need to grind the beans. This creates “grounds”. The name comes from when the Coffee Makers Association heard the naming session was right now, not next week like their calendars said. You can get the coffee ground for you by somebody … somewhere … and buy it like that. But then people who are really, really, really into coffee will stare at you. Again, I only drink coffee when I’m feeling proud for snagging a good-looking bunch of turnips for our pet rabbit. But I know if I were making a cup first thing in the morning, I wouldn’t want the dolorous gaze of coffee enthusiasts coming through the kitchen window.
Anywhere you can buy coffee beans has a machine to ground then on the spot. It’s this terrifying machine with at least four hand-written signs warning about settings you must not used taped to it. There’s a layer of coffee dust on it deep enough to grow half-caff bananas. Best to hide from that scene. You can get a coffee blender for home from any shop that sells coffee-making supplies, or “coffeterium” as they say in the trades. (“Coffeteria” is the plural, for if you need more than one blender.) These are great, though. You take the lid off, pour beans in, plug the machine in, press the button, get a spray of beans in your face, and learn to put the lid back on again next time. It makes a fun sound on the kitchen floor.
If blending fails you can go try other ways. One good way is to set a cupful of beans in a strong plastic bag, tape it to the outside wall, and then summon the Kool-Aid Man. He not only crushes the beans into a fine powder but gets you something you like drinking right away while you’re waiting for coffee. That’s all great, but you can only do it up to four times, plus the landlord gets all tense.
So you have to stop using the Kool-Aid man. But that might not be a bad thing. Grinding beans is when they start to lose flavor, and we didn’t spend years getting kind of used to the flavor of coffee to have less flavorful coffee. But the logical conclusion is there: don’t grind the beans before drinking the coffee. Give in to the sound and eat the beans, like cereal, in a bowl full of chocolate milk instead. You can swallow a modest number of gizzard stones, like birds do, to crush the beans inside your crop and enjoy the perfect coffee experience.
It is possible guests are just being nice when they say I make coffee well.
Six more non-consecutive weeks of winter. This is foretold by the groundhog either seeing or not seeing its shadow (research department please clear this up) but being so distracted in the process there’s nothing jumbled thoughts incomplete returned to. While spring may arrive right about on time, there’ll be sudden bursts of winter throughout the whole year. It’s a bit inconvenient, because of the rush to put snow tires on and off again. But it’s pretty great to get, like, eight inches of snow in the middle of June when it’s warm enough to enjoy it. Plus it adds some realism to Christmas in July, if you’re lucky or if you have Christmas in July in June.
Six more leeks of winter. Predicted when the groundhog emerges and sees (or does not see) the shadow of a potato. Yes, I know, you’d think it would be the shadow of an onion or maybe chives. But that’s just how the folklore settled down. We suspect there’s some weird Cockney rhyming slang behind it.
Six more beats of winter. The groundhog is a dj and he’s got some vinyl rarities that are going to make this the best night ever.
Six door-weeks of winter. The groundhog emerges with either a doorknob or the knocker for an ISO standard front door. In this case winter will be longer by approximately the same amount of time you spend opening doors in an average six-week span. This isn’t all that much, really, considering the time spent closing these doors is not charged to the winter account.
I’m happy to report the Meijer’s cash register computers are now giving out gift receipts for anything. So they figure, eh, I might not be giving a carton of rock salt, two jars of discount peanut butter, or a pack of Morningstar Farms vegetarian sausages to someone as a gift, they want to be ready in case I do, and in case that person would rather have something else instead. I’m going ahead and guessing they imagine someone’s feeling more like getting a transparent vinyl shower curtain or a box of club crackers instead. Except what good are the club crackers without peanut butter to put on them? I suppose there’s cheese, cream or otherwise. Hm. Must think about this sometime.
A thing to understand about my area of mid-Michigan is that there are sandwich shop chains. Particularly there are two sandwich shop chains with a New Jersey theme. There are good reasons for this. If you know them please submit them in writing care of an office. These events happened while I was eating lunch in one of them.
There was a kid sitting at the table next to mine. Well, sitting in the way that a young kid does, which is, hovering around the table and hopping onto and off of the chairs and putting her chin on the back of a chair and then calling out to an adult who existed somewhere about the prospect of having a cookie. She didn’t talk about the “prospect” of a cookie. That’s me putting words into her mouth, as she only had the promise of a future cookie. I’m not sure how old she was. Once they’re old enough to stand up reliably all kids look to me like they’re either four, ten, or sixteen. This kid was at the four-year-old level.
I wasn’t worried about the kid. Whatever she was up to, it wasn’t my fault, and the worst that you can really do at that age in a sandwich shop is spill your soda. She didn’t have a soda, so she must have got around to spilling it before I even got in. And then suddenly she asked me, “What’s that?”
I would have been happy to know what what she wanted the that to. I’m sorry, I feel seasick and have to lie down a bit. Okay, I’m back. I guessed she was pointing to the picture on the wall and tried to explain it was a woman sunbathing. This seemed to satisfy the kid so I thought, great! I’ve had my unplanned interaction with a stranger for the week. Now I don’t have to talk to anybody anymore. On later examination it turns out to be a picture of a woman on a sailboat.
“What’s that?” asked the kid again, pointing at about the same spot. I tried to follow her finger and guessed maybe she meant what the woman who was not sunbathing was part of. It’s a replica of one of those “Welcome To ____” postcards. This seemed like a vast conceptual universe to get across to a kid. I did my best: “It’s a picture of Point Pleasant. That’s a town on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a neat place. They used to have a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster and a beautiful merry-go-round there.” I was bluffing. But, like, it’s a Jersey Shore town. If they didn’t have a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, and a merry-go-round they weren’t even trying. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: Jenkinson’s Boardwalk! No, that’s in Point Pleasant Beach, a technically different borough in the same part of the Barnegat Peninsula. The kid was very interested in all this right up until I started answering. Still, she seemed satisfied so the world was all in order.
“What’s that?” the kid then asked again and I was running out of things to that about. My book? “It’s a book about Popeye,” I said and hoped that the kid would not be at all interested. I mean, I’d love for someone not-old to be interested in Popeye. But the book had a collection of strips from the 30s and 40s. And in those days comic strips had about eighteen panels each weekday, none of them with fewer than 600 words per panel. If the kid had any idea I was looking at comics she might want to read along and I won’t live long enough for that. But I could at least give an answer and hope that satisfied.
“What’s that?” she asked again. And I gave up. And now I must face knowing that, for all I think of myself as a self-confident and self-assured person, any four-year-old kid can break me with one question repeated four times. Maybe five if I wasn’t quite listening to start with. “What’s what?” I asked back and the kid wasn’t intersted in whatever I had to say.
She perhaps felt she had triumphed. She did not ask me “What’s that?” again. Instead she sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. When she reached the end, I told her, “That’s a very nice song. Did you make it up?” She didn’t dignify me with an answer. Fair enough although I’m like 85% sure my niece would have let me get away with asking that when she was four years old. I was honestly intending to give her the chance to call me silly for thinking she had made that up, or let her get away with saying she had. She’s the one who out-thought me entirely.
So I have to credit the sandwich shop kid for handily winning whatever social game she was playing with me. I’m completely defeated and I might never be allowed to buy a sandwich from anyone ever again.
I hope to help in preparing things for Thanksgiving. I have reason to think I can. I cook most dinners. I don’t do advanced cooking. I mostly use the cooking trick of “warm up a food thing”. Make sure it’s a food thing (very important.) Warming it up is also important. You can try having, say, an un-warmed baked potato. The results are sad to taste, plus then you have a conversation afterwards about how you reached this point in life.
Still, warming is pretty much the one trick I’m good at. Thanksgiving dinners need two or even four tricks. So its cooking is a challenge. The first challenge is getting over my offense that we find recipes on the Internet. The thing is in the early 80s computer magazines would tell us three things. That we should learn BASIC to program computers. That we could use computers to store recipes. That we needed to know what “modem” was short for. This was all nonsense and I’m annoyed we’re letting computers give us recipes. I don’t care if it’s the only way to find out what a blanched tomato might even be. We don’t need to know that much. “Modem” is short for “modulator/demonstrator”.
So I take a recipe and step into action. I check first that it is a recipe for a thing we want to have at or around Thanksgiving. This isn’t my first rodeo. I confirm the ingredients:
1 (one) loaf, adumbrated
2 5/8 cups water (rotational cut)
4 tbsp cream cheese
14-18 crackers, club
two eggs (British-style)
1 can, peas or what have you, 8-12 oz (troy weight)
yellow squash (at least two parts yellow to one part squash)
1 and 7/9th cups scuppered niblicks
some mushrooms of the “usual kynde” (Ref: Chaucer, c 1387)
2/5th cup sugar (mixed white and dark, or as it is known to professional cooks, “chiarosucrose”)
I spread the cream cheese onto the crackers, interrupted by the two crackers that break in half mid-spread. Placing the smaller half on top allows these to become tiny pyramidal cream cheese snacks. It fortifies me for the work of making food. I’m lucky not to need a snack to get the fortification crackers ready. I discard 2/7 cups of water as surplus to requirements.
There’s sure to be a need for some milk product. I look over the cans: evaporated milk. Condensed milk. Sweetened condensed milk. Unsweetened unevaporated milk. Powdered half-and-half. Half-and-unpowdered-half. Instant yoghurt [sic]. Partially assembled yogurt [sic]. Whipping cream. Whipped cream. Lightweight whipped cream. Summer-weight whipping cream. Pitted milk. Unpitted milk. De-unpitted milk. Re-pitted milk. Lots of pulp milk. Pitied milk. I take out a can of cheese soup stock and pretend to be dusting the cabinet shelf when challenged.
Anticipating a serving-spoon shortage I select some spoons, “fiiyne and trew” (Ref: Pepys, 1667), and set them in a secure spot, thereby causing the shortage.
Preheating the oven to 395 I start telling anyone who’ll listen of how I replaced the heating element in the old electric oven. The only one willing to listen is the new electric oven. I trust this story rallies it to new heights of oven skills, as like four months after I put the new element in we got rid of the old oven. Well, we had a new one. So with the old we looked through Craigslist. We found someone named Craig who wasn’t going to check their lawn any too often to see if someone abandoned an electric oven there. It has a good home now with a Craig who’s entertaining fantasies about some home-based food-making service, so far as we know.
There are instructions on one of the recipe pages printed out about fluting a pie. This is a prank and I pay it no attention.
I open the carton of bread crumbs. It’s a cherished carton, handed down in the family for decades now. The box’s design betrays its age. The lettering is in that check-numbers typeface they used for future-y stuff in computer magazines of the early 80s. Its UPC number is 4. I take a clean handful of crumbs and rub them against the loaf until the crumbs, themselves dryer than my hands if such a thing is possible, crumble. The cloud of bread crumb crumbles spreads in a vaporous movement off the counter. It settles on the floor, where it becomes a patch of the tile that never feels comfortable to walk on again, even in socks.
I set the microwave timer to 1:99, and switch it to 20 percent power, before turning it off.
The butter needs clarifying, as far as we know. We’ve been getting these “butter rolls” from the hipster farmer’s market. They’re cylinders about four inches in diameter and upwards up twenty feet long. I begin the clarification process by connecting it to our lie detector. It’s actually the old iPod Nano, with a broken pair of earbuds used as the sensors. Don’t tell it. We discuss its past and whether it feels any trauma from having once been milk. And then its feelings on converting from milk to butter. What is it to endure the process the dairy industry professionals know as milk-into-butter-converterization-processificationizing? We can only hope to know. Its alibi checks out and it is released from custody.
In a moment of whelming curiosity I look up what it is to “parbroil” a thing. It is to boil a food until it is partially cooked. This makes me rant about how “part boiled” is exactly the joke I would make about what it means. And it’s irresponsible of actual food-related people to pull a stunt like that. I start to ask whether it is a “pound” cake because of the many steps in which one punches the cake. Furthermore, I show with logic everyone agrees to be supremely correct and right and everyone else was wronggity wrong wrong wrong that the word “demonstrator” must imply the existence of a word “monstrator” which would be an explanation which makes the workings of a thing completely obscure.
Yes, I am still feeling the sting of terrible betrayal about how Diet Faygo Arctic Sun is, despite the bottle, actually slightly less blue than a bucket of orange paint would be. Even as we speak, if we get together the minute I’m writing this, I’m consoling myself with a can of Fresca, where the relevant soda pop is “I have no idea what color. It’s in a can”. However, we do have this exciting development. It came about from my love stopping in the cider mill to get … well, go ahead and guess. But also eggs because we were, so far as my love was aware, out of eggs. I also got eggs, because so far as I was aware I was the only person in a position to get eggs. The important thing in our state of being temporarily flush with eggs is that the cider mill eggs are a mix, not all a bunch of uniformly Same Color White Or Brown. In fact, we’ve got this:
So yes, that second egg from the right, top row. It’s a pale color, yes, and it photographs as pretty darned grey. But we got the tests back from the Pantone Laboratories just hours ago and it does fit within the technical standards to pass as a “green egg”. I can’t tell you exactly what we’re going to do with this wonder of nature, except that it’s probably going to be eaten.