Sunday, May 26, 2024

ignoreland

When Mrs. Pincus and I first got married, we were out shopping in a local mall. As we exited a store and were strolling in the common area, I saw a familiar face coming up on us. I pointed the fellow out to my wife and said, "See that guy? I went to high school with him." Mrs. P smiled and asked, "Are you going to say 'hello' to him?" I turned to her and, with furrowed brow, replied, "No! I never liked him in high school." We continued walking. My former classmate-in-question walked right by us and I didn't even glance in his direction. It was right then and there that I fully discovered my superpower.

I can ignore anyone.

With very little effort, I can pretend as though any person, at any given time, is totally invisible. This has included (but not limited to) family members, co-workers, salespeople, solicitors, homeless, those people — toting a clipboard or iPad — who stop you on the street for "a moment of your time" and strangers in the car next to me trying to get my attention. I can look right at someone and at the same time look right through them as though they weren't even there. 

Just a few hours ago, I went to the supermarket. I parked, got out of my car and started towards the store, when I received an alert on my phone. I stopped and fished around in my pocket for my phone. I extracted the phone from my pocket and saw it was just a notification that someone "liked" a recent post of mine on Instagram. I put the phone back in my pocket and continued into the store. Inside, I grabbed a shopping cart and reached for the shopping list I had compiled before I left the house.

It wasn't in the pocket I swore I had put it in. It wasn't in any of my pockets. I checked them all and I checked them all again. Dammit! It must have fallen out when I grabbed my phone. I pushed the shopping cart I had selected over to one side and began to retrace my steps to find my shopping list. This was very important, because without that list, I couldn't remember a single item I came for. That is why I made a list. 

I turned, making my way to the front doors. Right then, in walked my sister-in-law and my niece — right through the door that would be my exit. My sister-in-law has been the bane of my family's existence since she began dating my brother-in-law over twenty years ago. By this point, I should be calling her my ex-sister-in-law, except my brother-in-law is too goddamn lazy to divorce her. They have been separated for years. My brother-in-law has been living on my in-law's den sofa for the past four years. He moved into their house right around the time we were made aware of COVID-19 and a pending pandemic. My brother-in-law quarantined at his parent's house and never left. His estranged wife... well, I don't know where she was living, and frankly, I don't care. All I know is: I haven't seen her in almost four years and here she was — going shopping at the same time and place that I chose.

When my brother-in-law and sister-in-law were married and cohabitating, I could very easily sit at the same dining room table at my in-law's house and not speak a word to her. I don't believe I have spoken a word or even acknowledged her presence in a dozen or so years. That's right... years.

And now, here she was, not five feet away from me. Suddenly, my superpower engaged. Just like Clark Kent whipping off his glasses and tearing the buttons off another dress shirt, my eyes focused somewhere out in the parking lot. I walked right past them and continued my quest for my misplaced shopping list.

Sure enough, I spotted the folded list right where I expected to find it. It was laying on the ground in the spot where I had earlier checked my phone. I picked the paper up and, with it firmly held in my fist, I went back into the store. 

My first stop would be the produce section, where I would find bananas, the first item on my list. In my peripheral vision, I could see my sister-in-law lingering near the display of bananas. I decided to make bananas the last item on my list. Instead, and going against my regular shopping procedure, I made almond milk the next item I would get. I headed towards the dairy section at the rear of the store. My list would be filled backwards. When all of the items I needed sat safely in my cart, I grabbed that bunch of bananas and stealthily worked my way to self-checkout. I scanned, paid and was out of that store in just under twenty minutes.

And I never crossed paths with my sister-in-law again.

Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? My ass! How about a useful power, Superman? You know you really don't want to talk to Batman ever again.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

just don't tell 'em you know me

I've been to a lot of concerts since my first in 1975. I've seen good shows. I've seen bad shows. I've seen forgettable opening acts. I've seen memorable opening acts, including some that I had not previously heard and ended up buying their albums and becoming a fan (New Zealand new wavers Split Enz comes to mind). Conversely, I saw some awful performances by headlining bands. I have also had some unusual concert experiences that had very little to do with the actual music.

I met the future Mrs. Pincus in February 1982. In April of that same year, I was taken (dragged? abducted? forced?) to my first of many Grateful Dead concerts. The future Mrs. P was a long-time, devoted Dead Head and the veteran of many, many shows by the time our paths crossed. I, on the other hand, was not a fan of the San Francisco hippie holdovers. My musical tastes leaned more towards.... well, I could never quite pigeonhole my melodic preferences. I liked showy, flamboyant performers —those who (I felt) — gave a concert-goer a show. Like a real show! I wanted to be entertained. I saw original shock-rocker Alice Cooper dance with six-foot tall spiders. I saw Elton John execute acrobatics on his piano stool while decked out in sequins and feathers. I saw Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull's charismatic front man, balance on one leg while spinning his trademark flute deftly between his fingers. And I saw the incomparable Freddie Mercury... well... you know how Freddie Mercury held his audience spellbound in the palm of his hand. More recently, I saw Nick Cave stalk and prowl the stage while giving the crowd evening full of his trademarked brand of malevolent spectacle.

But the Grateful Dead? They just stood on the stage and played music, The actual "showy entertainment" was right in the audience. While the band noodled their way through one similar-sounding song after another, the audience twirled and swayed and danced and writhed... either to the music the band was producing or to the music that was constantly playing in their collective heads. The jury is out. I sat in my seat with my girlfriend (in her "pre-Mrs P" persona) and my future brothers-in-law — one a tie-dyed-in-the-wool road-weary follower of the Dead and the other, a budding "Dead Head-in-training." And me? I listened and marveled at the scenes playing out all around me. Not being especially familiar with the Grateful Dead's musical catalogue, several times I asked Mrs. P-to-be the name of the song the band was playing. She happily informed me, smiling, in hopes I was — perhaps — expressing an interest in her favorite band. Twenty minutes later, I asked the name of this song, to which she frowned and replied: "Same song." It looked like joining the fold of Dead Head-dom was not in my future.

A few months later, I found myself accompanying soon-to-be Mrs. Pincus, her older brother and her friend Randi (remember Randi?) to Philadelphia's Tower Theater to see not one, but two shows by Grateful Dead sage Jerry Garcia and bassist John Kahn. We had tickets to both shows, much to my chagrin. Admittedly, I was the odd one out, as my three colleagues were Grateful Dead fans prior to my arrival on the scene. For the early show, Mrs. P's brother and Randi took the "better" seats — down in the orchestra pit, just a few rows from the stage. We hiked up to the balcony and took our place just below the proverbial "nosebleed" seats. The interior lights dimmed and the two musicians shuffled out to the stage in the darkness. With no introduction, they launched into their first selection. As the show progressed, the temperature in the vast theater rose. Not due to a feverish performance (these guys were anything but feverish), but because of an air circulation system that was failing under the oppressive June heat we had escaped outside. The stale air and stifling humidity hung throughout the performance. When the final song — a decidedly non-rousing rendition of the Dead's "Dire Wolf" — concluded, our clothes were drenched in uncomfortable perspiration and we couldn't wait to get out of these close quarters. Outside, we found a McDonald's packed with Dead Heads and got ourselves some liquid refreshments. Here we waited it out until we were granted admission to the late show. The four of us discussed seating arrangements and confirmed an earlier decision to switch seats for the second performance of the night. Mrs. P's brother was not happy and attempted to renegotiate our agreement. He was unsuccessful and the future Mrs. P and I found our seats downstairs at center stage.

There was something obviously wrong with the air conditioning in the theater. The place was like a sauna. Folks milled around the seating area, using handbills for upcoming concerts as makeshift fans. Let me tell you, a building with no air conditioning in June packed with people is not pleasant. When you take into consideration the average Dead Head's reputation for not maintaining proper personal hygiene, well.... that doesn't help the situation. The lack of air conditioning was apparently affecting the start time of the second show. It was taking much longer than usual for the lights to go out, signaling the beginning of the late performance. In the meantime, a din of conversation filled the room. I noticed the guy with long, unkempt hair in our row sitting next to an unoccupied seat. Another guy — a near twin, hirsutly speaking — soon joined him in the empty seat. By their verbal exchange, it was apparent that Guy 1 was here for the first show and Guy 2 was not. 

Guy 2 was bursting with questions. He wanted a complete play-by-play, you-are-there rundown of the early show from Guy 1. However, from the way Guy 1 was unsteady in his stance and from the redness of his teary, heavy lidded eyes, he was not capable of delivering the required description of the night's first performance. In other words, Guy 1 was  — as Pittsburgh Pirates hurler Dock Ellis so eloquently phrased it after throwing a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD — "as high as a Georgia Pine." He was painfully tongue-tied and his scrambled thoughts came out in head-scratching incoherence. Guy 2 changed his approach. Instead of an account of the show itself, he pressed for a list of song's that Jerry played, at the very least. Guy 1 obligingly rattled off a dozen or so titles of Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia solo songs. With each mention of a title, Guy 2's eyes widened and he responded with a disappointed "Oh man!" or a joyously upbeat "Oh man!" 

I was fascinated by this conversation, until Mrs. P tapped my shoulder and rolled her eyes. I looked away from the hippie pair and focused on my future spouse. She leaned into my ear and, in a low voice, she stated, "He didn't do any of those songs. I don't know what show this guy thought he saw."

Although I am still not a Dead Head, there's no denying their entertainment value — both on stage and off.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

batches & cookies

I like cookies. Come on.... who doesn't like cookies? They are the all-time favorite afterschool, watching TV, ruin your dinner snack. They are easy to bake at home. They are easier to buy and bring home. I remember my mom would bake cookies from a recipe... until she started buying those ready-made tubes of Toll House cookie dough. Eventually, she abandoned the whole "baking" idea and just bought cookies in a package. My brother and I were just as satisfied. We didn't care where our cookies came from. As long as there were cookies in the house.

I was always partial to a brand of cookies called Mr. Chips from a small commercial bakery called Burry. Burry supplied the Girls Scouts with their wares for their annual cookie drive until the company's Girl Scout cookie division was purchased by ABC Bakers in 1989. The remainder of the company's operations were bought by Sunshine Baking. In their heyday, Burry's made some great cookies — Fudge Town, Mr. Chips and Gauchos. They also made Scooter Pies — a large, single serving concoction comprised of two graham cookies sandwiching marshmallow filling and covered with chocolate. They were good, but we didn't have them often, Mr. Chips, however — those were always present in the Pincus household. Every so often, other cookies would make an appearance in our kitchen. My mom liked Nabisco's Oreos. She also like Fig Newtons, which I always questioned their inclusion in the cookie category. They were — as far as little Josh Pincus was concerned — fruit cakes. And they were filled with a fruit that old people ate. I would sometimes eat the cake outside and toss the innards when the cake was completely consumed. Fig Newtons had a pretty funny and memorable commercial in the 70s, featuring character actor James Harder singing and dancing dressed as a giant fig. I loved the commercial, but not enough to get me to eat a fig. As an adult, I have changed my mind.

Cookies that made it to my house were sometimes purchased by the pound at a local bakery. They were dry, crispy things covered with jimmies ("sprinkles" to those of you outside of the Philadelphia area), chocolate chips (with the chips just applied to the surface of the cookie, not integrated into the cookie itself, unlike normal cookies). Some were filled with some sort of viscous jelly made from an unidentifiable fruit. I avoided those until the more colorful ones were gone. Then, if I really wanted a cookie, I'd choke a jelly-filled one down with an extra large glass of milk.

Sometime in the 90s, places like Mrs. Field's and The Original Cookie Company started popping up in malls. Cookies — once purchased in a package containing several dozen or by the pound at a local mom-and-pop bakery — were now brazenly being offered for sale by the each. One cookie! You could buy one cookie! It was certainly larger than the cookies bought in packages at the supermarket, but it was just a cookie. Soon, these places offered large cookie sandwiches, somewhat along the lines of the Scooter Pie. Two three-inch chocolate chip cookies were stuck together with a generous mound of frosting between them. These sold for a dollar or more which, frankly at the time, was unheard of! A cookie for a dollar? Ridiculous!

Last Saturday evening, Mrs. Pincus and I had dinner with my brother and my sister-in-law (His wife. Don't think anything weird is going on). The restaurant was in a shopping center filled with upscale, somewhat pretentious shops. One of those shops was a place called Dirty Dough, an unusual choice of name for a place that sells food. Dirty Dough offers a variety of "stuffed gourmet cookies." After a dinner that kept us late (we were talking about all sorts of things), we strolled over to Dirty Dough about fifteen minutes before they locked up for the night. The young lady behind the counter was informing the customer ahead of us of their limited offerings due to the late hour. We sort-of eavesdropped as she ran down the short list of available cookies, deciding that none of the flavor combinations appealed to us. We left, half-heartedly hoping to return in the future.

We headed to a Crumbl location we passed on our way to the restaurant. Crumbl is a trendy new chain of cookie bakeries with nearly a thousand locations across the United States and Canada. Crumbl is also open until midnight and we spotted a few folks we had just seen earlier at Dirty Dough. The Crumbl experience is an interesting one. Upon entry, no employee greets you. Instead, the front counter sports several iPads displaying an intuitive, interactive menu. One can scroll though the available cookies and make selection without a single word spoken to another human being. A team of employees can be seen busily working, scurrying around ovens, mixing dough, forming cookies — but not speaking to any customers until their pre-paid order is ready to be delivered across the counter. Mrs. P and I perused the evening's cookie selections. I settled on a traditional chocolate chip cookie and my wife opted for a frosted cookie of the sugar variety. We clicked our choices, sending little digital representations of the cookies into our virtual shopping cart. Our total was revealed and payment options were displayed. Our total, by the way, was ten dollars. TEN BUCKS! For two cookies! Cookies! Baked flour, water, sugar and such. I was paying ten dollars for two cookies. Granted they were above average-sized examples, but (and I'll do the math for you) they were five dollars apiece. FOR A COOKIE!

I swiped my credit card. Not happily, but I swiped it. A few minutes later, a young lady, handed us two small pink boxes emblazoned with the Crumbl logo. I was reminded of a scene from Quentin Tarantino's 1994 sprawling neo-noir crime epic Pulp Fiction. In the scene, dimwitted hitman Vincent Vega (as played by dimwitted actor John Travolta) is questioning his boss's wife's drink choice in a themed restaurant called Jack Rabbit Slim's. Mia (played to mysterious allure by Uma Thurman) had ordered a "five dollar milkshake." Vincent, cocked his head and asks for clarification on the beverage's contents and price.

"Did you just order a five-dollar shake?," he asks, "That's a shake? That's milk and ice cream?"

"Last I heard," Mia assures him

"That's five dollars?," he presses, "You don't put bourbon in it or nothin'?"

"No." she replies.

"Just checking.," Vincent adds.

When the drinks arrive, Vincent asks to sample the "five dollar shake" in question. Mia obliges, offering her straw and assuring her tablemate that she is free of "cooties." Vincent takes a healthy sip and then another. 

"Goddamn," a surprised Vincent reports, "that’s a pretty fucking good milkshake!"

"Told ya’.," Mia replies with a knowing confidence.

"Don’t know if it’s worth five dollars," Vincent concedes, "but it’s pretty fucking good."

I wish I could have had a similar exchange with the young lady behind the counter at Crumbl. However, I don't think she would have had the same appreciation and situational relevance from a quote from a thirty year-old movie as I did.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

king of all the world

There are a few places I have been to that immediately conjure a specific — and similar —- mental image. One of those places is Fremont Street in Las Vegas, Nevada. I remember the first time I visited Las Vegas. It was in 2003. I recall pulling up to our hotel at the foot of the notorious Las Vegas Strip and being mesmerized by the millions and millions of illuminated buildings and marquees that lined the sidewalks for as far as the eye could see. Later in the week, my family and I ventured up to Fremont Street, just outside the glitz and reverie of the storied "Strip." Fremont Street was the original "Las Vegas Strip" back in the heyday of the Rat Pack and all those shots of Vegas that I saw on 60s TV shows. But since the attention has been shifted to bigger and better places like The Bellagio with its magically majestic choreographed fountains and New York New York with its uncanny approximation of "The Big Apple" compressed into a city block, Fremont Street has had to do what was necessary to attract visitors and, more specifically, their money. Something called "The Fremont Street Experience" was constructed in the early 90s. A barrel-domed canopy that stretches four blocks above the street was deemed to be the perfect solution to Fremont Street's waning tourist trade. A dazzling eight-minute animated light and music show was presented on the underside of the canopy, much to the delight of tourists below. When the show concludes and the regular street lights come up, the seediness of Fremont Street is once again revealed in all its faded glory. (Note: I have not been to Las Vegas in over a decade, so this observation is based on my experience and not on any subsequent improvements that I may not be aware of.) The hotels and casinos on Fremont Street are small, compact and look as though their finest hour has long since past. I remember strolling up and down Fremont Street and likening the scene to an old prostitute — once alluring and desirable, but now faded and worn out after years and years of.... well..... you know.

Similarly, I feel the same way about Atlantic City. A little closer to home, I grew up going to Atlantic City every summer. Boasting the moniker "The World's Playground," Atlantic City was once a destination for families, as well as "singles who were ready to mingle." My parents both frequented Atlantic City in their pre-married days, visiting nightclubs and enjoying the entertainment of "big draw" names like Frank, Dean and Sammy. As a family, the Pincuses loved to cavort on the beach, thrill to the rides on Million Dollar Pier, enjoy sumptuous meals in a grand hotel dining room or just gobble down a hot dog from one of the many stands on the famous Boardwalk. When casino gambling was approved for the seaside resort, visions of an East Coast Vegas were presented to the folks in Philadelphia, South Jersey and surrounding locales. However, that never truly came to be. Instead, Atlantic City took a slow decline. The glitzy casinos were not enough to conceal the boarded-up houses and bankrupt business that dotted the landscape in-between. The casinos grew and their profits increased. The help that they promised the community never materialized. I remember a comedian observing that he had never seen more broken glass than in Atlantic City. When casino gambling began to pop up in areas just outside of Atlantic City, the seashore mecca no longer had a firm grasp on the local casino business. Several once-mighty casinos shut down and Atlantic City was now showing the sad, but familiar signs of an old prostitute — her sequined skirt torn and tarnished, her once-striking looks now unconvincingly disguised by hurriedly applied make-up.

I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. It was a place where working class families from poorer sections of the city would aspire to live once they came into better employment and an increase in income. My parents moved into a new development in Northeast Philadelphia in late 1957 and soon little Josh came along to join my mom, my dad and brother Max. As a child and pre-teen, I experienced my fair share of bullying and anti-Semitism from my predominately gentile neighbors. Kids my own age — some I considered my "friends" — would turn on me without provocation, spewing vicious epithets that they — no doubt — picked up from their parents. I moved out of my parents house — and that neighborhood — when I got married. When my parents died and I sold their house, I dropped the keys in the palm of a realtor's hand and exited Northeast Philadelphia with plans to never ever ever return. I kept that promise as best I could, crossing the boundaries of Northeast Philadelphia from my suburban home only when absolutely necessary, like when I was on my way to somewhere else. On those rare occasions, I took note of how sad the "Great Northeast" looked. Houses showed peeling and faded paint. Streets were littered with rusty shells of partly-dismantled automobiles. Empty bottles and broken glass littered empty lots, front lawns and street gutters. Businesses were abandoned, their cracked asphalt parking lots breached by wildly overgrown vegetation. It was just.... sad. Once again, my mind evoked visons of an old prostitute, worn down by a hard life. Neglected, struggling and unwanted.

The commute to my current job takes me through Northeast Philadelphia on a daily basis. Each morning, I pass near-empty shopping centers, boarded up homes and pot-hole riddled streets. There are garbage-filled empty lots and cars unlawfully parked on sidewalks. However, this past Friday morning, as I turned the corner from Levick Street onto Castor Avenue, I saw something. Something unusual. Something out of place. Something.... sweet. Sweet enough to warm my cold heart.

There was a woman in loud pajama pants and dirty fuzzy slippers. She was standing on the sidewalk with a small boy about seven or eight years old. The woman was primping and adjusting the boy's attire as though she was a personal valet. And the boy....? The boy was dressed like a king. That's right. A king — right out of a fairy tale. I only caught a glimpse as I turned the corner and maneuvered my car toward the light at Devereaux Street, but I saw that he wore a gold bejeweled crown on his head and a long red robe with a fur collar that was appointed with small black dots. The woman leaned over and smoothed the robe as the boy stood still — his head cocked at a slight upturn, his chin pointing regally, his crown gleaming the early morning sun.

He was The King. He was The King of Northeast Philadelphia and beyond. He was The King of everything the light touched. He was The King of the provincial castles and thatched-roof cottages of his kingdom. He was oblivious of the disdainful judgement I had passed on my former surroundings, conclusions drawn from decades of experiences and observations. This morning, he was The King. 
And that was the only thing that mattered.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

I didn't recognize the man in the mirror

Nearly thirty years ago, my wife and I were in the food court of a local mall with our son. Our son was about seven or eight at the time. Taking a break from shopping, we selected a table and ate our standard mall food fare, probably pizza or the always "safe bet" salad. As we ate I looked around at the other folks doing pretty much the same thing we were doing. It was a fine example of suburbia and I silently laughed at the tableau before me. 

I continued to eat and observe my surroundings when my glance landed upon a startling sight. Sitting at a table about ten or so feet away was a man eating his dinner alone. His head was down as he guided his food-laden fork to his mouth. Not particularly unusual... until he lifted his head up. He was the spitting image of my father. I don't mean he was a guy who kind of resembled my father. I mean he looked identical to my father. So much so, that — if I didn't know otherwise — I would have thought it was my father. But I did know otherwise. My father had passed away over eighteen months prior. This made this sighting all the more.... unusual.

I am not a believer in the afterlife or omens or signals from the Great Beyond. I cringe when I hear people interpreting the appearance of a cardinal as a representation of a deceased loved one. I dislike when folks wish dead people a "happy heavenly birthday" and I certainly do not — under any circumstances — entertain the unscientific concept of reincarnation. You want to believe those things? Go ahead. Don't foist them on me, 'cause I ain't buyin'.

But seeing my father sitting at a table ten feet away from me, eating dinner, knowing knowing —that he died a year and a half ago.... well, it was a bit unnerving. Not enough to make me a "believer," but unnerving just the same. I couldn't take my eyes off this guy. I tapped Mrs. Pincus's hand and discreetly pointed in the direction of the man eating his dinner. "Who does that guy look like?," I asked. She glanced behind her and needed no further direction. "Holy shit!" she exclaimed, trying to lower her voice to a whisper. Her reaction let me know she understood exactly which guy I was asking about.

Next thing I knew, I found myself doing something very un-Josh Pincus-like. I went over to the guy. "Excuse me," I began. He looked up from the open sectioned Styrofoam container from which he was extracting Americanized Chinese food. "You look just like my father.," I continued, "Do I know you?" The man smiled and identified himself as "Harold Simons." I instantly recognized "Simons" as my paternal grandmother's maiden name. My memory also scrambled to register his name as my father's first cousin. Coincidentally, "Harold" was also my father's first name, leading me to believe that, in the early part of the 20th Century, there was only a limited amount of male names available. Evidently, other more exotic names like "Tristan" and "Chase" had not been invented yet. (There were several "Max"s on both sides of my wife's family.) 

I told the man my name and noted our familial relationship. He chuckled in much the same way my father used to chuckle. I invited my father's cousin over to our table and introduced him to my wife and son. We talked for quite a while. He was much nicer and way friendlier than many of the members of my father's family — most of whom were not on speaking terms with one another. After some time, we excused ourselves, explaining that we had to be getting home. We expressed parting pleasantries and went our separate ways.

I sometimes think about one day being out in the world somewhere and a kid coming up to me, having been spooked by my familiar looks. You see, every time I look in the mirror lately, I see my father looking back. It's very unnerving, making me revisit my encounter with my father's cousin/doppelganger all those years ago. I suppose that's why I avoid shaving so much. I don't want my father watching me from such a close distance.

No. That's not an "up in heaven looking down on me" reference. That's a "Jeez! I'm getting old" reference.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

beyond belief

This morning, I was watching a show on the Food Network about (surprise!) food. Specifically, it was a showcase of Southern restaurants, each offering a signature meat dish. During one restaurant's profile, a chef explained that their meat comes from a local farm where the animals are raised humanely and treated with respect. In reality, of course they are. While those cows and little lammies are alive, they may very well be allowed to scamper through a sun-dabbled meadow. They may be fed the highest quality corn and other vitamin-rich nutrients, but — when it comes down to it — they are still bashed between the eyes with a sledgehammer or have their jugular slit and eventually their flanks will wind up breaded, fired or seared on a plate alongside some house made mac and cheese and some chichi sauce. "Humanely-raised" is a euphemistic term that carnivores uses to make themselves feel better about eating domesticated animals.

That said, I have been a vegetarian for almost twenty years. Before I decided to eliminate meat from my diet, I ate a lot of meat. Especially hamburgers. I loved hamburgers. I ate hamburgers my mom made. I ate hamburgers in diners (gingerly picking off the tomatoes and slipping them on to my mom's plate). I ate hamburgers in fast-food restaurants (always careful to ensure that my burger was tomato-free. Why didn't I exercise the same precautions in diners? I don't know. Perhaps I was intimidated by the stone-faced waitresses that called me "hon."). To be honest, there were some kinds of meat I did not like. I didn't care for steak or roast beef, but boy! did I like hamburgers. In 2006, in a decision formed as a testament to my own integrity, I decided to — once and for all — cut meat out of my diet. (The stupid story about how and, more importantly, why I became a vegetarian can be found HERE.) 

In full disclosure, I am not a vegan. Actually, in the eyes of some vegetarians, I'm not even a true vegetarian. I am a pescatarian, because I will eat fish. But, in keeping with the ultra-contradictory Josh Pincus brand, I don't eat all kinds of fish. I eat tuna and salmon and....that's about it. I like sushi, but only certain kinds of sushi. And I will not eat shellfish. I eat dairy products and eggs, so vegans still look at me with judgmental scorn (but so do a lot of people). As far as I'm concerned, I'm a vegetarian. So there.

Over the years, the folks who process food have been working diligently to create meatless versions of meat. These products are — inexplicably — directed at vegetarians. The food "powers that be" think that vegetarians secretly want to eat meat but, for ethical beliefs, they do not. Do all vegetarians harbor a dirty little secret about their desire to consume meat? Probably not. Do I? Maybe a little. My wife still eats meat and sometimes our dinners consist of two completely different meals. When we decide on "cold cuts" for dinner, Mrs P will purchase a package of turkey or corned beef from the kosher section of our local supermarket, while I opt for a vacuumed-sealed slab of slightly tan soy-based pseudo-turkey slices that don't taste anything remotely like turkey. They are good and I will eat them, but turkey aficionados (if that's a thing) would not be fooled... or amused. 

Fake meat food technology experienced major advancements within the past several years. It seems a special gene or molecule or some other science-y thing has been isolated. This gene — if you will — is the element that makes meat taste like meat. It's been processed and synthesized and if I actually understood the procedure, I'd be a food researcher instead of a mediocre blogger. The result, after countless trial-and-error experimentation, is a plant-based, meatless burger that actually looks, cooks and tastes like meat. When Mrs. P and I were first married, she made dinner for my parents — her new in-laws. She made spaghetti and "meatballs." The "meatballs" were actually a tofu-based concoction so as to allow cheese and butter to be served in our kosher-observant home. (Google the laws of kashrut, for a wild read.) At the conclusion of the meal, my father — a butcher by trade — complemented my wife and pushed his plate away. The five or six "meatballs were neatly lined up around the edge of his sauce-stained, otherwise empty, plate. Today, however, I would defy any meat eater (even my father) to tell the difference between the new crop of "burgers" from Beyond Meat® and Impossible® and the Real McCow... er... McCoy.

The first time I tried Beyond Burgers® was at my brother-in-law's house (not that brother-in-law, the other one). My brother-in-law, a vegetarian for as long as I can remember, invited us for dinner and, when we arrived, he was frying up some very suspicious looking burgers in his kitchen. I asked him if he finally abandoned the vegetarian lifestyle for "the dark side." He laughed and handed me the opened package of Beyond Burgers®. Seeing those thick, juicy patties sizzling in the pan made me very leery. Biting into one on a Kaiser roll and accented with ketchup, mustard, pickles and such... well, I wasn't convinced that this wasn't meat. As a matter of fact, every time my wife makes Beyond Burgers®, I stare at those patties sizzling away and I say: "Those are soooooo meat."

We have purchased and eaten Beyond Burgers®. They are good. They are very good. They have introduced other plant-based, meat-free, meat-mimicking products, including breakfast sausages, meatballs and little cut-up nuggets that my wife has prepared in a version of the renowned Philly cheesesteak. Recently, after seeing this option on a few different cooking shows, I have requested a fried egg to be added as the crowning glory of my Beyond Burger®. I know people have been doing this for years on their hamburgers. It seemed interesting and I have always been an adventurous eater. In my meat-eating days, I have sampled alligator, conch and buffalo. I have eaten eggs in many forms, so why not add one to a burger. Oh my gosh! It was sloppily delicious, adding a new flavor combination to a tried and true favorite. (I have to stop watching the Food Network. I'm beginning to sound like them!) Now, I can't imagine having a burger without a fried egg.

As long as Beyond Burgers® exist and fried eggs are plentiful, I don't see myself lapsing back into the ranks of carnivores any time soon.

Please... don't make me turn off commenting.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

try to remember

I have loved television for as long as I can remember. I had my favorite TV shows that I watched episodes as often as possible. Unfortunately, at the time, "as often as possible" was usually twice. Back in the 60s and 70s, TV shows produced as many as 26 episodes per season — some even more! After the initial broadcast of an episode, it was usually rerun one more time in the summer when production went on hiatus until the fall season, if the particular show was renewed. If the series was canceled, that was it, that show would never see the light of day again. Of course there were exceptions. The Monkees, which originally ran in primetime on NBC, enjoyed a three-year stretch as part of the Saturday morning line-up on CBS and later for a year on ABC. But, for the most part, after a series was canceled, that was it! You never saw that show again... until syndication packages began popping up on local UHF channels in specific markets. (Hey kids, ask your parents to explain "UHF" to you.)  

In 1985, Nick at Nite changed everything. Boasting a kitschy line-up of television favorites from the 50s and 60s, Nick at Night kicked off a nostalgia trend and spawned a variety of other cable channels to purchase the rights to beloved — and forgotten — shows and rerun them over and over and over again. Nick at Nite showed Mr. Ed, Donna Reed, Dennis the Menace and Route 66. Soon, they were supplementing their library with The Andy Griffith Show, Get Smart, The Dick Van Dyke Show and others, allowing the fledgling network to expand its broadcast day from a few hours at night to a full 24-hour schedule. Nick at Nite's rivals were showing Leave it to Beaver, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny along with other forgotten favorites like My Favorite Martian, Mayberry RFD and other popular shows with a surprisingly limited number of episodes like The Munsters (70 episodes) and Gidget (32 episodes). With other "retro" networks showing up on cable line-ups, series that were long forgotten found a new home, new exposure to a new audience and a new lease on life. Hey! Who are we kidding? There was no new audience. These revivals were geared exclusively to folks who watched them in their original run. Being the trivia fan and nostalgia enthusiast, I loved watching shows that I watched — or barely remembered — in my youth. I saw a show called Good Morning World for the first time when Antenna TV brought it back for a short run a few years ago. The series surrounded a morning radio show and the wacky antics of its hosts (played by Joby Baker and sitcom vet Ronnie Schell.) The show featured Billy DeWolfe, exercising his classic uppity fussbudget character, as well as an early career performance by Goldie Hawn. It was the creation of Sam Persky and Bill Denoff, the creative team who got their start under Carl Reiner's wing on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Good Morning World was the pair's follow-up to the success of another of their creations — That Girl. You've no doubt heard of That Girl and you probably never saw an episode of Good Morning World. There's a reason for that.

As technology advanced and the act of watching television evolved from three networks to a variety of streaming services offering original content and old favorites, more and more "forgotten shows" have surfaced — whether we like it or not. A whole new generation is enjoying The X-Files. Sitcoms like Seinfeld (whose infamous final episode was broadcast over thirty years ago) still can be found in syndication and ready to binge on Netflix, thanks to a lucrative, long-term licensing deal. Sure there are plenty of shows that have not been seen in years and probably will never be seen again. But, thanks to the internet and the good people at YouTube, a quick search will have you wallowing in the nostalgia of your youth with one or two episodes of a "Oh yeah! I remember this!" show. Recently, my wife and I watched a few installments of the late night music showcase The Midnight Special, which ran for a decade on NBC after the Friday night edition of The Tonight Show. I never thought I'd ever see this show again, but... here we are getting misty-eyed while viewing a performance by Loggins and  Messina and scratching our heads while an obviously stoned Paul Williams trips over his lines.

YouTube is a treasure trove of content for those — like me — seeking long forgotten shows available for a curious viewing. I stumbled across one such show a few nights ago, one I had never heard of before. The show was called Normal Life and it ran for 13 unremarkable episodes from March until July 1990. It was a 30 minute sitcom starring Cindy Williams, giving television another shot after the embittered end to her successful role on Laverne and Shirley. Her costar was Max Gail, looking vastly different from his youthful "Detective Wojciehowicz" on the critically-acclaimed Barney Miller. The series was very loosely based on the homelife of eclectic rocker Frank Zappa. It even starred two of Zappa's children — Moon Unit and her brother Dweezil — essentially playing themselves. There is one episode of Normal Life available on YouTube, thanks to user "VHS Captures" who uploaded it, noting they discovered it on an old VHS tape. A little research revealed that the episode — entitled "It's Only Rock and Roll" was the fifth episode in the series, originally broadcast on April 18, 1990. So, we watched.

It was awful.

It was typical 90s sitcom fare, chock full of unnatural acting, trite dialogue, terrible jokes, exaggerated physicality and a lot of mugging for the camera. Poor Cindy Williams looked as thought she really wanted to make this show succeed. Max Gail looked as though he needed to have a firm talk with his agent. The two Zappa kids rolled their eyes and acted as though they had signed on for something different. The entire show ran for the standard 22 minutes with commercials. Ten minutes in, my wife asked if the show's runtime was an hour, as she felt that how long we had been subjected to it.

Look, I love television and I will watch things that most people will not. I will watch Gilligan's Island. I will watch Hazel (even though I do not like it). I watch Dragnet to laugh at the purposely stiff acting, as well as nostalgic vistas of 1960s Los Angeles. I even like to watch little curiosities like Normal Life. But, one episode was enough to satisfy my curiosity.