Sunday, April 25, 2021

peg o' my heart

I have written some pretty dumb blog posts over the past ten years, but I must say, this may be one of the dumbest. Yes, I have voiced my opinions about things that bug me, annoy me, irk me, rub me the wrong way... but this is a gripe I have with someone who has been dead for nearly a quarter of a century. Things don't get much dumber than that.

Please stand up.
If you follow me on Instagram or if you are lucky enough to be my friend on Facebook (oh stop it! that was a joke!), you know about my on-going feud with Peggy Cass, the perennial panelist on every single incarnation of the TV game show To Tell the Truth. You'd think that I wouldn't watch the show — which is broadcast every weekday morning on retro network BUZZR — if she annoys me so much. Well, if you think that, then it's obvious that you don't know me very well. I like the show. I remember watching it when I was kid on the offhand day that I was home from school with either a legitimate or exaggerated illness. Admittedly, the show was a small intellectual step above other game shows like The Price is Right or Let's Make a Deal (two other sick day must-sees!). Sometimes the subject matter involving a particular group of contestants was way above my elementary school education, but I watched (I think) because I liked the see which celebrity (and I use that term very loosely) guessed correctly. I also liked when the contestants hesitated, then stood and quickly sat in an effort to freak out the panel. Even if I didn't understand the topic of the contestant's new book about visiting Communist China or his invention of a ground-breaking device, I found the show fun.

Except for Peggy Cass. Yep... even back then. (I just had a conversation with my older brother about this very subject. He said he recalls — as a nine year-old — thinking that Peggy Cass was annoying.)

The unnecessarily 
glamorous Miss Kitty
The format of To Tell the Truth was fairly simple. After a brief, if somewhat coy, introduction from jovial host Garry Moore, the panelists are introduced. For the bulk of the entire run of To Tell the Truth, the panelists were familiar game show host Bill Cullen, the ostentatiously glamourous actress/socialite/personality Kitty Carlisle, the aforementioned Miss Cass and a fourth guest — usually Orson Bean or Bert Convy or Joe Garagiola (who, invariably injected some sort of baseball analogy into his line of questioning). Kitty Carlisle's status as a "celebrity" intrigued me. I had never heard of her, aside from this game show, and I wondered why she dressed in feather boas, sparkly gowns and giant examples of diamond-encrusted jewelry just to determine which of three pretty young ladies was a champion hog caller. It was only later in my life that I spotted her name in the credits of the 1935 Marx Brothers classic A Night at the Opera and I realized she was riding her career on the laurels earned from a single supporting role nearly four decades earlier. She was like To Tell the Truth's answer to Arlene Francis, the authoritatively smug panelist on What's My Line? who saw every Mystery Guest at "last night's cocktail party," except if the Mystery Guest was a member of a minority group. In an effort to try and nail down Arlene Francis's exact talent, I have seen her in two movies and she was very forgettable in both.

However, Miss Carlisle and Miss Francis weren't nearly as irritating as Peggy Cass.

As Agnes
Peggy Cass has a very interesting Wikipedia page and I have read it many times in hopes that it would shed some bit of light on her career and why the "celebrity" label has been applied to her. It states that, although she was a member of her high school drama club, she never had a speaking part in any school production. That honor would have to wait until an early 1940s production of Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday. From there she made her Broadway debut in 1949 in the musical Touch and Go. A few years later, she took home a Tony Award for her portrayal of the hapless "Agnes Gooch" in Auntie Mame, a role she reprised in the film and earned her an Academy Award nomination. (That's right! Peggy Cass was nominated for an Oscar! Not so prestigious anymore... huh?) From there, Peggy made a few TV appearances and another film (a not-so-great sequel to the popular Gidget). She landed her own series, The Hathaways, costarring Jack Warden about a typical suburban family — except their family was a family of chimpanzees. It was around the same time she began exercising her alleged intellect on the first version of To Tell the Truth. According to a questionable sentence in her Wikipedia biography, Peggy "often displayed near-encyclopedic knowledge of various topics, and would occasionally question the logic of some of the 'facts' presented on the program." I don't know who contributed to Peggy Cass's Wikipedia page, but I take fierce umbrage with this statement. After watching Peggy Cass, almost every morning, I have witnessed her regular modus operandi. She is not an intellectual. She does not possess a near-encyclopedic knowledge of various topics. She doesn't even have a firm grasp on the English language. She doesn't shut up long enough to gather her thoughts to form a coherent sentence and then she gets mad if her question is misunderstood.

Peggy and her subjects
I have seen Peggy Cass argue facts in a contestant's "signed affidavit." She askes irrelevant questions, then argues about the answers. In a recent episode, she questioned several young men claiming to be the country's youngest certified plumber. She asked "What's a 'Plumber's Companion'?" before correcting herself and changing her query to "Plumber's Helper." The young recipient of her question misunderstood and replied that a "plumber's helper" was an apprentice. Peggy frowned angrily, and later, when she was revealing her vote, she castigated the poor boy for his answer, explaining that she wanted him to say "plunger." She voted incorrectly in that round. In another segment with a woman claiming to be an expert on bald eagles, Peggy questioned why a live example brought on stage didn't have a lot of tail feathers, as though she was an expert in ornithology as well. She didn't appear too pleased with the contestant's explanation, either. Just today, she was quite dismissive of a contestant's reply when asked about a specific breed of an elephant — as though Peggy had information that the owner of the elephant didn't. Then, she argued with the first female guard at San Quentin prison over whether she thought there should even be female prison guards. She once berated a man who photographed an alleged Bigfoot on the morality of his investigations. Peggy routinely injects her personal opinion into questions, often citing her deep Catholic beliefs or her Boston upbringing — mostly regarding subjects that rarely apply to either of those categories or to the day's contestants. She gives the overall impression that she is too good for the show, the contestants, her fellow panelists, Garry Moore, the studio audience and — well — society in general. 

Peggy Cass didn't make it to the current, network revival of To Tell the Truth hosted by actor Anthony Anderson. She passed away in 1999. However, I will continue to watch To Tell the Truth and I will continue to get frustrated by Peggy Cass... because, I love — six decades later — when she votes incorrectly.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

cabbage head

For the past 14 months, we have been ordering and picking up groceries curb-side at our local Walmart on an almost weekly basis.. My "love-hate" relationship with the retail giant is put to the test every single week. Walmart's service and selection are inconsistent — sometimes attentive and vast, other times, lackadaisical and limited. But, their ridiculously low prices are reason enough to continue to put up with the incessant "Walmartness" of the situation.

A few days prior to our scheduled pick-up time, my wife compiles an online shopping list using the handy Walmart phone app. Because we have been eating salads for dinner for the last two years, our weekly order doesn't change much. It includes a number of fresh vegetables and some jarred accouterments (like roasted red peppers and bread & butter pickles), as well as the occasional household item as needed (like lightbulbs or batteries). When our order is ready, my wife guides her car into a designated space in the Walmart parking lot. After identifying herself via the app, an attendant — sometimes masked, sometimes not — opens up the rear hatch of our SUV and loads in the pre-picked and already-bagged items from our order. Wanting to avoid any unnecessary social contact, we wait until we get home to check the accuracy of the order... and, invariably, something is wrong. At least Walmart is consistent in that respect. In various weeks gone by, they have given us four 15 ounce cans of Mandarin oranges to make up for a single 29 ounce can they did not have. (Math is not my forte, but... come on!) Another time, they substituted jalapeno peppers for out-of-stock radishes. Despite their mistakes, our receipts reflect the price of the original items, so we actually come out ahead. And, to a company the size of Walmart, I hardly think they care

Just this week, Walmart continued their streak of getting at least one item wrong, but this time.... well... things had a surprisingly pleasant outcome. 

I'm not sure if the person who brings the bags out to our car is the same person who actually roams the aisles and picks the stuff off the shelves. Whatever the case, this week's picker didn't know the difference between a head of lettuce and a head of cabbage. Apparently, anything large, round, green and leafy qualified as "lettuce." Lucky for us, watermelons or rubber playground balls don't have leaves. When we arrived home, I was confused when I extracted three huge, solid heads of cabbage from a bag... panicking when I discovered that our order did not include lettuce. Making a salad for our dinner would be difficult without lettuce. My wife made a quick phone call to her parents (who live around the corner from us). They were able to spare a slightly brown, slightly hacked-apart partial head of lettuce for our nightly salad until an emergency supermarket trip the next day could replenish our supply.

But, what were we supposed to do with all that cabbage?

Mrs. Pincus is a phenomenal (phenomenal, I tell you!) baker, as testimony from the numerous beneficiaries of our annual "Night Before Thanksgiving" dessert party will affirm. But, cooking... well, she will be the first to admit that she does not enjoy actual cooking. Y'know... like meals. As the recipient of over 36 years of my wife's cooking, I will heartily disagree with her assessment of her cooking ability. She may not like cooking, but she is a pretty good cook. Recently, in an effort to inject a little variety into our daily "salad, baked potato and vegetable" dinners, Mrs. Pincus had introduced steamed broccoli, steamed cauliflower (awakening my heretofore unknown affinity for cauliflower) and grilled asparagus. With the recent purchase of an air fryer, experimentation had yielded crispy potatoes — both sweet and white — panko-encrusted mushrooms and eggplant (another previously sworn-off vegetable that I am just now enjoying) and even battered fish filets. But cabbage? What to do with all that cabbage?

After staring at those three giant heads of Brassica oleracea for a good long time, Mrs. P fetched a large pan from our kitchen cabinet. She requested the cooking oil from the pantry and I obliged. Suddenly, she sprang to animated life. With knife in hand and cutting board at the ready, Mrs. P sliced strip after strip of cabbage from one of the heads, her head down, carefully monitoring her precision  and uniformity. Without looking up, she asked for an onion. Assuming my role as the new sous chef, I grabbed a medium-sized onion from a previous order that Walmart had gotten right. Mrs. P moved the pile of shredded cabbage aside and cut up the onion, adding the pieces to the oil simmering in the pan on the stove. To the onion, she added chopped garlic — our newly-discovered flavor enhancer — followed by the cabbage. She topped it all off with some shredded carrots and a sprinkle or two of sesame seeds (previously reserved to line the crust of our homemade pizza). 

"What exactly are you making?," I cautiously asked.

"I'm not sure yet.," Mrs. P replied with a smile. She pulled out a package of DynaSea mock shrimp* that had been defrosting in our refrigerator and released its vacuum seal with a flick of her knife. She dumped the contents of the package — eight pink and plump little "shrimps" — into another pan, where they were now glistening in some sizzling oil and chopped garlic. Then, she switched on a third burner (I didn't even know you could light three at one time!) and got a small pot of quinoa going. Along with the simmering cabbage and the simmering "shrimp," Mrs. Pincus was on fire! "Doesn't enjoy cooking?" Yeah... right!

We began making our standard dinner salads, just like we've been doing every night forever. As I doused mine with dressing, Mrs. P began the "plating" process, as though she was winding down her second round of Chopped and was confidently about to dash the dreams some line cook from the most exclusive restaurant in Pierre, South Dakota. She layered two bowls — first with perfectly cooked quinoa, then the translucent cabbage-onion-carrot-garlic creation. She topped each steaming bowl with four braised "shrimp" and some of the little charred pieces of garlic.

You can't believe how good it was! Well, I'll tell you... it was so good, that two nights later we made some more. And the night after that, Mrs. P started making a variation on a theme. We skipped the fake shrimp and added green peppers. I spiced mine up with a couple of shots of sriracha and soy sauce. Oh my goodness! — I began to have visions of opening up a food truck or selling this stuff from our back porch. I was already devising the "bill of fare" in my head. We could sell this stir-fried cabbage dish and some delicious baked goods.... and maybe my mom's iced tea. I can make that. Depending on what Walmart mistakenly adds to our order next week, some new items could be popping up on our menu.

Hey! When did this become a cooking blog?

*a seafood product made from pollock, shaped and seasoned to resemble shrimp, specially made for those members of society who observe the laws of kashrut [keeping kosher]. I have not eaten actual shrimp in over 40 years, so I can't determine how close they got, but it is pretty tasty.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

why's everybody always pickin' on me

People compose yourselves. This is a bris. We are performing a bris here, not a burlesque show. This is not a school play! This is not a baggy pants farce! This is a bris. An ancient, sacred ceremony, symbolizing the covenant between God and Abraham... or something.
— "The Bris" Seinfeld, 1993
Remember that episode of Seinfeld? It was just one of a number of storylines on the long running comedy that poked fun at Jewish tradition. Show creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David were not especially observant as Jews growing up in Brooklyn, but they were keenly aware of the many rituals and foibles that "their people" displayed. Anti-Semitism was addressed in the episode where Jerry was labeled an "anti-dentite" based on his attitude towards his dentist. Hitler was hilariously mocked by Elaine's boss Mr. Pitt (as played to deadpan perfection by the late Ian Abercrombie) when he delivered a speech about Poland Springs water. The whole setting of Del Boca Vista, the fictitious, but all-too-real, Florida retirement community where Jerry's parents resided, could only have been imagined by someone with intimate insight into the real thing.

The episode "The Bris," first broadcast in October 1993, was unusual in its subject matter. The self-proclaimed "show about nothing" was actually about something. While Seinfeld sporadically included a smattering of Jewish references throughout its nine-season run, "The Bris" presented a scenario that most non-Jews would never get the opportunity to witness. The segment was replete with terms unfamiliar to most gentiles, like "mohel" and the word "bris" itself. Of course, its main goal was to be funny, but it managed to weave some of the actual parts of the ceremony into the narrative. Series co-star Jason Alexander later lamented that he didn't care for the child-hating aspect of the mohel character, but you gotta do what you can to be funny.

Well, I am very familiar with the liturgy of brit milah (ritual circumcision), having witnessed many, including one that was performed right in my own dining room, (and by "witnessed," I mean "turned away at the crucial moment, along with every other male in the room," with the exception of the mohel... I assume.) Every bris is nearly identical — a lot of explanation to the uninitiated, a lot of chanting and recitation in Hebrew, a certain amount of screaming and crying (some of it even from the baby), followed by the ever-present bagels-and-such spread, which is prevalent at most Jewish home-based ceremonies. Now, in these days of social distancing, a gathering such as a bris is subject to a different set of protocol. Yesterday, my wife and I attended one such bris using the modern miracle of the Zoom meeting. And this one had all the makings of a Seinfeld episode, circa 2021... but not for the reasons you might think.
The rabbi's wife at my brother-in-law's shul (a Yiddish word meaning "synagogue" that Jews like to use to make them feel more like Jews) had a baby last week and, as per tradition, he was to have a circumcision on the eighth day after his birth. A link to join a Zoom bris was sent out to members of his congregation, as well as friends and relatives across the country and those who made a small contribution in honor of the blessed event (that's where we fit in). Mrs. Pincus and I huddled around my computer screen about fifteen minutes prior to the appointed time, just to make sure all systems were working properly. Several other folks had the same idea. Soon little blocks were slowly populating my computer monitor, some with silent faces adjusting camera positions or some just staring blankly at us, waiting for this thing to begin and be over. Everyone's audio was automatically muted, as predetermined by the admin, in this case — the rabbi and new proud father. Mrs. P and I watched in amusement as folks got up from their desks and wandered out of the room. Others squinted, waiting for something to happen, as they ate from a plate placed just out of view of the camera. One little window displayed two curious little girls — one wearing glittery cat ears perched atop her head — peering into the camera as though they were observing some poor fellow who had fallen down a well.

And then Gary appeared.

As proclaimed by his on-screen name, Gary chose to view the upcoming bris via the technology afforded him by his iPad. From the angle in which we saw Gary, his iPad must have been laying flat on a desk or table and he appeared to be hovering above it. Instead of a familiar backdrop of a bookcase or a shelving unit filled with Judaica-heavy knick-knacks, Gary had only a blank ceiling behind him. Every so often, when he would consciously move the unit or accidentally bump the table, and we would catch a glimpse of a clock hanging on the wall. This would appear in the bottom portion of the screen because of the unnatural angle at which the iPad was situated. In addition to a splendid view of Gary's ceiling, we were also treated to a medical examination-quality perspective of Gary's nasal cavity. 

As the time clicked closer to the beginning of the bris, the rabbi popped in to say that the baby's fussing will cause an unavoidable delay. He promised to be back as soon as the "guest of honor" had calmed down. As consolation, those who logged in early were subjected to a lengthy display of Gary picking his nose. Extensively. In full view of the camera and a virtual roomful of eager — now disgusted — "guests." Gary showed no sign of slowing down. He dug and prodded and scratched and drilled. He poked and jabbed and excavated and plowed. I could not overt my eyes. I was rivetted, as though I was driving slowly past a a multi-car pile-up on the Expressway, hoping not to see any carnage, but secretly wishing the opposite. Except I had zero desire to see anything that Gary extracted from his nostrils.

Finally, the actual ceremony began. The rabbi offered a heartfelt "welcome" to all who joined, mentioning select few by name. He introduced the tradition of "the bris" by saying "you all know the story" — then he proceeded to tell the story. His wife briefly entered the frame and waved, then a committee of bearded, tallis-swathed men hijacked the action, chanting quickly in Hebrew and rocking their bodies in complementary rhythm. It didn't matter that the actual act of circumcision was performed off-screen, Gary was otherwise preoccupied

I could not tear myself away from Gary. And Gary could tear himself away from his nose. Gary was diligent, not letting some little bris interrupt him from the task at hand. A few times, Gary's screen upended — probably from an errant bump. For a fleeting moment, his little allotted rectangle resembled a hand-held camera scene from a late-era Friday the 13th sequel with blurred body parts being tossed about in dim lighting. Almost as quick, Gary righted his device and was back to "cleaning house" with nary a breather. Gary stood out among the sea of smiling faces across my monitor. But I could only focus on Gary. Could I be the only one who could see this?

Somewhere along the line, while my attention was, unfortunately, elsewhere, the ceremony ended in a hail of "mazal tov"s. The rabbi and his wife were beaming in their little cube at the center of the screen. Guests were merely gesturing applause since everyone was still muted. The rabbi thanked everyone for their attendance and promptly clicked his "Exit Meeting" button. His square disappeared. Gary stuck around for some further probiscal maintenance. Mrs. Pincus and I did not.

This, too, was not a school play! This, too, was not a baggy pants farce! I'm just not sure it was indeed a bris.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

cut the cake

My mother-in-law's birthday was a week or so ago and my wife thought it would be nice to buy her a little cake to celebrate the occasion. Mrs. Pincus happened to be out on a weekly grocery run to pick up staple items for our house as well as for her parents. She found herself a BJ's Wholesale Club, a sprawling nationwide operation that — in these strange times of social distancing — allows for such practice purely because of the vast size of the building. BJ's Wholesale Club is roughly the size of an airplane hangar and, like Costco and Sam's Club (its closest competitors), stocks its items on huge, multilevel shelves in wide aisles. Shoppers have no choice but to keep six feet apart... unless you encounter someone who just needs to grab something off the shelf at which you are standing. Then, they will practically climb into your shoes with you — pandemic or not.

In addition to the multi-aisle displays of flat-screen TVs, fleece pullovers and work pants piled to the ceiling and 10-pound packages of cloves, BJ's Wholesale Club features a bakery right on the premises. Mrs. P scanned the shelves of the open refrigerated case where a variety of birthday cakes were on display, all ready for an on-the-spot celebratory inscription of well-wishes. My wife selected a small blue & white frosted cake, protected from the elements by a small clear plastic dome. She slowly approached an opening in the service counter where she spotted a young man in a paper hat busily squeezing a colorful rope of frosting from an overstuffed piping bag. She held the cake at eyelevel as she walked, carefully turning it in her hands and checking for imperfections in the way the frosting was applied. Satisfied, she was about to hand it over the to the young man at the bakery to inquire about an inscription... when her plans were interrupted.

Or hijacked, as it were.

A man approached the service counter of the bakery, beating Mrs. Pincus by about three steps. Mrs. P instinctively stepped back. The man bellowed in the direction of the young man at the bakery.

MAN: Hey! HEY! You got cakes? Birthday cakes?
BAKERY MAN: Yes sir. Right over here. (He gestures towards the ten-foot long bakery case over which an enormous sign reading BIRTHDAY CAKES hangs.)
MAN: Oh. Right. (He makes no attempt to move towards the bakery case.) Can you write on a cake? Can you do that? Write on a cake? I need a cake with Happy Birthday written on it.
BAKERY MAN: Yes. Would you like to get a cake from the ones over here? (Again, he points to the shelves filled with cakes.)
MAN: Can you write... like... Happy Birthday on it? It's for my son. For his birthday. For his tenth birthday. Can you write something like that on it? Happy Birthday or something?
BAKERY MAN: Sure. Once you pick out a cake, I can write anything you like.
MAN: (Still ignoring the entire display of pre-made birthday cakes): I want Happy Birthday... y'know... for his tenth birthday. Can you do something like that?
(The BAKERY MAN picks up a pen and paper and hands it in the direction of the MAN. He does not accept it.)
BAKERY MAN: Just write down what you'd like it to say on the cake and I will write it... once you pick out a cake.
MAN: Just... y'know... like Happy Birthday.... um... Happy Tenth Birthday. Y'know, something like that. Can you do that? Y'know... like Happy Birthday, like I said?
BAKERY MAN: If you can write down exactly what you want on this paper... and pick out a cake... I can do whatever you'd like.
MAN: Just... um, Happy Birthday... you know. Oh wait.... let me call my wife. She'll tell me what she wants on the cake. She always takes care of this stuff.

The man pulls a cellphone from his pocket and lumbers off in the direction of the grocery section — which is opposite where the birthday cakes are on display.

At this point, a very patient Mrs. Pincus takes the pen and paper and writes out the inscription she would like on her cake. She noticed the young man at the bakery shaking his head.