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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Why Ancestry.com Can Be Dangerous


A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

What a ridiculous concept! Ancestry.com dangerous? How can America's most beloved genealogical resource that has allowed more than two million members access to nearly sixteen billion records since its inception back in the 1980s possibly be dangerous? Isn't that a bit hyperbolic? Well......maybe.

Thank goodness Ancestry appears to have abandoned – for the moment, anyway – the execrable marketing ploy “you don't have to know what you're looking for; just look.” The online ancestor hunting service now has a new gig going in the DNA business: spit in a tube and they'll tell you all about yourself. It's interesting. I tried it and the resulting ratios were about as expected. No twists, no turns, no surprises. Unlike the poor schmuck in the TV commercial who had to trade in his lederhosen for a kilt. Or the stunner some lady got when her Ancestry DNA test revealed that the doc who ran the local fertility clinic turned out to be her biological daddy. Ooops!

Please don't misunderstand. I love Ancestry.com. It's an amazing resource on which I have heavily relied for many years. What I don't love is the potential for misuse and abuse that can make it – as I said – dangerous. Let me explain.

Have you ever said something like “I know just enough to be dangerous?” Or maybe you've heard the old expression “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” (Even though the actual quote is “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”) In either case, the idiom refers to people who gain a modicum of knowledge about a given subject and then believe themselves to be experts capable of managing much more than they actually can, often to the detriment of themselves and/or others. Many times, this is the case with Ancestry.com users.

Ancestry.com and its many derivative competitors are like tools. When employed by skilled hands, they can yield fantastic results. But when wielded by clumsy amateurs.......well, it ain't gonna be pretty. That's why I got so exercised over that stupid slogan. Of course you have to know what you're looking for! Just going online and plundering and blundering around in the dark is a sure recipe for disaster. It's like giving a five-year-old the keys to a Lamborghini and telling him to take it for a spin. The resulting carnage will be unpleasant.

I spent more than forty years skulking around dusty archives, courthouses, churches, libraries, and newspaper morgues and stomping about in dozens of remote cemeteries in search of my ancestors. I turned over the odometers on several cars. I interviewed scores of old relatives, old friends and old neighbors. I spent more money than I care to think about on photocopies, certified copies, fees, and postage. I squinted at dark, grainy photographs until my eyes blurred. I attempted to decipher illegible records recorded by people who could barely write. I found out that a surname with four or five letters can be spelled forty or fifty different ways. In short, I dotted every “i,” crossed every “t” and empirically verified every jot and tittle of available information. Then and only then, after I had established a rock solid base and knew what the hell I was looking for, did I begin to utilize resources like Ancestry.com. Through Ancestry and other Internet sources, I was able to cap off decades of work, adding details and finishing touches I would otherwise not have been able to access. Like finding out the name of the ship that carried my great grandfather from Liverpool to Boston. Or finding his name in nineteenth century English census records. I published the results of my quest in a profusely illustrated and exhaustively researched book that thoroughly chronicled the roots of the family back to the early eighteenth century.

Then a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a distant cousin who informed me that he had started working on the family tree online as a hobby seven or eight years ago and had traced us all the way back through British kings and queens to the ninth or tenth century and he was willing to share his work. I was too busy weeping and wailing and gnashing my teeth to really pay much attention. To think I had wasted forty-five years and all that money and tire rubber and shoe leather when all I really had to do was spend a few minutes sitting on my ass in a chair and punching a computer keyboard. Wow!

And kings and queens yet! My old Aunt Tootsie warned me at the start of my journey that I might find “some old horse thieves.” Guess what, Auntie? Moonshiners? Yes. Old men who married their young step-daughters or got their teenage nieces pregnant? Yes. Liars, philanderers, relatives who hung themselves in barns and in mental institutions? Yep. Found them, too. But no horse thieves. Lots of farmers and a few craftsmen, but no kings or queens.

Of course, everybody wants to be related to somebody famous. And that's part of why Ancestry and its ilk can be so dangerous. If I had a nickel for everyone who wanted to be related to a Founding Father back when I was doing professional genealogical research during the years surrounding the 1976 bicentennial, I'd be a rich man today. Disappointingly for many, not everybody gets to be famous. Most people walking around today are descended from common farmers, merchants, tradesmen, and the like. And unless you can conclusively trace your lineage to some of Europe's patrician families, the chances of finding any records predating the sixteenth century or so are pretty slim. Ancestry has enormous resources documenting about two hundred countries. But even Ancestry can't get you back to Adam and Eve; their data well bottoms out in the 1300s.

A lot of those earliest records are sketchy and sparse and come from church collections. Don't go on Ancestry expecting to find your great-great-great grandfather's birth certificate all framed and waiting for you. Birth, marriage, and death records weren't required to be kept on a civil level until the early twentieth century. You might find a few on a catch-as-catch-can basis dating from about the mid-nineteenth century. Before that you're largely at the mercy of ecclesiastical records of various sorts. Census records aren't very helpful much before 1850. Prior to that, censuses usually named only the head of the household; anybody else living in the dwelling was a number, i.e. “4 males, 3 females.”

But I'm wandering off topic. Let me get back to why I consider Ancestry.com to be dangerous. In a nutshell, Ancestry and similar services allow people to practice what I call “make it fit” genealogy. Let's say you've talked to Grandma and gotten a few twigs to populate your family tree. Now you go on Ancestry, armed with these vague references, and start searching. Lo and behold, little “leaves” start cropping up. Admittedly, some of those “leaves” don't exactly jibe with what Grandma told you, but, jeez, they're awfully close and they would enable you to leap back another generation or two in your search, so you just take the questionable data you've found and “make it fit” in order to branch out your family tree. Never mind that you may have inadvertently grafted an entirely different species onto your root stock. It's close enough and it gets you back to the kings and queens of England.

I have seen published references on Ancestry to women giving birth to children fewer than nine months apart. I have seen records of children born more than a year after their father died. I have seen instances where a person dies but is still listed as living in a particular locale six months later. Some careless, clueless clown killed my great-great grandmother thirty or so years before she actually died. How did that happen? Simple. There was a reference recorded in somebody's incomplete online genealogy that said she died “after 1875” because that was apparently the last this person had seen of her. Well, the next person in line sort of forgot the “after” notation and just listed her date of death as “1875.” And the next person and the next person and the next person perpetuated the error. Now you've got a dozen published records on Ancestry.com that swear this woman died in 1875. Of course, the fact that she lived until 1907 is immaterial. People saw it on Ancestry so it must be true.

Ancestry.com has something it calls “OneWorldTree.” It's described as “one big community family tree. OneWorldTree takes family trees submitted by Ancestry members that were 'stitched' together with family trees and historical records from other sources. OneWorldTree identified probable name matches between these sources and now displays consolidated results in a worldwide family tree that can help you with your family history research.”

Okay. That sounds just ducky. Well, I found one of my uncles hanging on this “community tree.” I'll call him “Uncle Joe.” According to OneWorldTree, “Uncle Joe” was married twice within a four year period. His first marriage in 1922 was to a woman named “Sarah.” According to the tree, he married again in 1926, this time to a woman named “Jane.” So, let's say I'm a “newbie.” I don't have to know where to look, I'm just looking, right? And here I just found good old “Uncle Joe” on “OneWorldTree” and now I know that he was married twice to women named “Sarah” and “Jane.” I'd better write that down in the old family tree! It's on Ancestry so it must be accurate.

But wait. As it turns out, I knew “Uncle Joe” really well when I was growing up. Used to visit him nearly every day. And I knew all his kids. And I knew and really liked his one-and-only wife, my aunt “Sarah Jane” whom he married in 1924 and with whom he remained until his death fifty years later. Think maybe somebody ought to prune that branch on the old community tree?

So my cuz has it all figured out, eh? Ninth century kings and queens, eh? He probably stumbled on somebody's “wonder tree.” These are full-blown genealogies all researched and written out for you. Just cut and paste and pass it on to the kiddies.

But who's to say that the author of that tree knew his genealogical ass from a hole in the ground? I found a couple of these “wonder trees” while researching a detail about my great-grandmother. According to one of them, she died while giving birth to my grandmother. Hmmmm. Then whose obituary did I read in newspapers dated seventeen years later? I'm sure my great-grandfather would have been astonished to find that the woman he buried in 1890 after a long battle with cancer had actually died in childbirth back in 1873. Better still, another “leaf” lead to a tree that correctly identified my great-grandmother's birth year as 1836. Unfortunately, it also showed that her mother was born in 1832. Ooops! Somebody must have missed that little detail. Another genealogical gem mined from Ancestry.com noted that my great-grandmother had four daughters. This much is true. But the tree went on to list them chronologically by name, and here's where the branches began to shake. The girls were born in 1868, 1871, 1872, and 1873. Except that the daughter born in 1872 had a different last name than the ones born in 1868, 1871, and 1873. How does that work? The daughter that this idiot just threw in there to make her fit was actually born in 1862, the product of a previous marriage.

Be honest with yourself; if you knew nothing about your family and saw stuff like this on the Internet while you were just “looking around,” would you know what to make of it? Probably not.

And God help you if you try to correct somebody's error on Ancestry! I've had my head handed to me for trying to set the record straight. How dare I question somebody's painstaking research? Research that they undoubtedly spent hours online researching? Who was I to correct their work? Never mind the fact that the error I was trying to correct involved my own mother. What the hell did I know?

I have another cousin who means well. He's even made a couple of fact finding trips beyond his computer desk. The problem is he often jumbles the facts he finds. For instance, he published a photo on Ancestry that showed my grandfather, one of my aunts, and a little girl of about ten years of age. They were fishing. He correctly identified Grandpa and the aunt, but he labeled the little girl standing with them as my oldest sister. Sadly, my sister never stood a day in her short life. Born with cerebral palsy, she died when she was seven and never went fishing with anybody. The little girl in the picture was actually the daughter of another aunt and uncle, a cousin who happened to have the same first name as my sister. I tried to correct him, but the picture's still there for somebody else to reference and misidentify.

Genealogy is much more than entering a name in a search box and seeing what somebody else has come up with. Sometimes it requires detective work that would make Agatha Christie's “Hercule Poirot” proud. For example, I once found an error in an old memorial book from a relative's funeral. The date of death listed conflicted with official records and family memories. It was a year off. A call to the funeral home confirmed the error. The death occurred in January and apparently whomever recorded it in the funeral book just wasn't used to writing the new year yet!

Sometimes things carved in stone shouldn't be. The birth date is wrong on an uncle's gravestone because his second wife – to whom he had been married only a few weeks when he died – didn't know the correct date when she provided the information to the monument company. I knew that not because I saw it online, but because I had copies of his birth certificate and other corroborating documents obtained at the county courthouse.

I spent years butting my head against the wall of my great-grandmother's past. Try as I might, I couldn't find a thing about her beyond census records and some newspaper clippings. Not even on Ancestry. Then one day I was going over some of those old newspaper records I'd had in my possession for decades. There was a notation about her being visited by her aunt, “Mrs. Doctor So-and So.” Light bulb moment! The doctor being quite prominent in the community, let's see what we can find out about his wife the aunt. Bingo! Records back to before the American Revolution. In which, it turns out, a family member served. Seems that a few members of the family – my great-grandmother and her aunt included – had significantly changed the spelling of their surname for some reason, which is why I had been hitting the wall for so long. Once I found the right name, I found the right path. But I didn't find the beginning of that path plundering blindly around on Ancestry. It was a clipping from a local newspaper – an actual physical document in my hand – that got me started. Once I knew what I was looking for, Ancestry helped me find the rest.

A powerful tool. That's what Ancestry.com is and that's how it should be used. But in the same manner that you can't just pick up a hammer and a saw and build a mansion, you can't just log on to an Internet site and construct a family tree. When a sculptor creates a work in stone, he doesn't just go down to the masterpiece store and look around for a completed project. He cuts the stone out of a quarry then begins the arduous task of chipping away at it with rough tools. After months of backbreaking labor, he's ready to employ finer, more precise tools to bring out the features and polish the surface.

I could go on and on with analogies about going to kindergarten before you go to college or about not trying to climb your family tree from the top down, but I think I've made my point. You simply have to know at least a little bit about what you're doing before you start using resources like Ancestry.com. Otherwise you're going to spend all your time running up blind alleys and down dead-end streets before ultimately hitting a wall and either making egregious mistakes or just quitting outright.

Final illustration: I entered my grandfather's name into the search box on Ancestry. That's all you need to do, right? And all the answers will automatically come to you, right? Yeah, right. When I entered his name, I got more than seventeen thousand results. Only about a dozen actually related to him. Not only were there men of the same name scattered all over the world, there were several who were born about the same time and lived in or near the same place. And there's no way I would have been able to sort it all out if I hadn't already known what to look for.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and places like Ancestry.com can definitely be sources of a little knowledge.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Why Does Grilled Cheese Have To Be “Adult”?


Adulthood Isn't Everything It's Cracked up To Be

It's National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day again and in honor of the event, I'm going to whip up a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches for supper tonight. And you know how I'm gonna do it? I'm gonna do it in a manner that will make every hoity toity, highfalutin food snob in America cringe and squirm. I'm gonna take two pieces of plain white bread, slather them inside and out with some rich, creamy butter and slap two slices of American cheese between the slices of bread. Then I'm gonna toss the sandwich onto a hot flattop griddle and sear both sides until the surface of the bread is GBD (golden brown and delicious) and the cheese inside is nice and melty. And to be even more diabolically evil about it, I'm not even going to use expensive upscale deli American cheese. Nope. I got me some cheap pre-sliced cheese from the restaurant supply – five pounds for ten bucks – and that's what I'm gonna use. Bwah-ha-hah! I will, however, draw the line at grocery store bread. I will be using my own homemade white bread, thank you. I do have a few standards, you know.

Frankly, I don't know when everybody went nuts. When I was a little kid – admittedly, a long, long time ago – the aforementioned procedure was the one and only way to make a grilled cheese sandwich. It's the way my mother made it, it's the way my grandmother made it, and its the way every restaurant, diner, and drive-in in town made it. You asked for or ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and that's precisely what you got: cheese inside of bread, grilled. Nowadays, they call such a preparation a “kid's grilled cheese” or a “junior grilled cheese.” If you want to be seen as a grownup, you have to have a “gourmet grilled cheese” or an “adult grilled cheese.” I'm sorry. Maybe it's just the weird places my increasingly feeble mind tend to wander, but whenever I see “adult” used as an adjective, I start thinking of “adult” beverages or “adult” movies or “adult” toys. And that's just not someplace I want to go with my innocent little slice (or two) of comfort food.

Besides, who's to say that adults can't enjoy the same things they enjoyed as kids? I've never stepped into a Dairy Queen and seen an “adult ice cream cone” on the menu. Or an “adult” root beer float at A&W. What, pray tell, is “adult” about over complicating a simple pleasure like grilled cheese?

Oh, but the adult palate is so much more evolved.” Poppycock! Yes, my palate is a great deal more refined these days than it was a half-century ago and I can detect a lot of subtle flavors and nuances I couldn't back then, but you know what? I've never outgrown “unsophisticated” comfort foods like a grilled cheese. Or mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese or a good plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce, for that matter. Hell, those things, too, have to be tinkered with and upgraded to some cockamamie “gourmet” status because, apparently, the old fashioned way mama made them just isn't good enough anymore once you “grow up.”

Taking a timeless classic like grilled cheese and adding avocado and peppers and mustard and mayo and ham and pickles and salsa and pesto and tomatoes and God knows what else is not making the sandwich “adult.” It's adulterating it! Okay, occasionally I'll put a couple of strips of bacon on a grilled cheese sandwich. And when I do, I don't call it a “grilled cheese” anymore because it's not. Only a grilled cheese – cheese and bread, grilled – is a grilled cheese. Adding bacon makes it a “grilled cheese and bacon” sandwich. Throwing ham on a grilled cheese doesn't make it an “adult grilled cheese.” It's a frickin' ham and cheese sandwich! And adding peppers and pickles and such doesn't elevate it to “gourmet” status. It just paints a mustache on the Mona Lisa and junks up a classic.

But American cheese isn't even cheese!” Oh, get your nose down before you drown in a good rain. Sometimes I'll “fancy up” a grilled cheese by adding some Cheddar or mozzarella or provolone or some other less “pedestrian” cheese product, but good ol' American remains the foundation and the basic building block. If I really want to go upscale, I'll butter the outside of the bread and coat it with some finely grated Parmesan – the real stuff, not the crap in a can – before it hits the grill, producing a nice crispy, cheesy crust on the outside of the sandwich. But it's still just the two essential elements: bread and cheese.

I've baked my own bread for many, many years. Better tasting, better quality, and far healthier than the chemical and preservative laden bread-like substances that populate supermarket shelves. I can bake any kind of bread you want, but mostly I use King Arthur bread flour to bake the plain white sandwich bread that I use for grilled cheese. I don't use wheat or rye or seven-grain or pumpernickel or brioche or challah or ciabatta: just give me plain white bread. Is it “healthy?” Probably not. Is it delicious? Damn skippy! And I'm not eating them three times a day seven days a week, so who cares about “healthy?” Show me a doctor or nutritionist who'll tell me a plain grilled cheese sandwich with a nice steamy bowl of tomato soup once a week is going to contribute to my early demise and I'll show you a quack.

I don't need a $15 “grilled cheese” with a pedigree tracing the origins of the cheese back to a particular cow on a particular farm outside a particular French or Italian village. I don't need “comte” or “boschetto al tartufo” or “raclette” or “toma” or “chaource” or any other cheese I can't readily identify or even pronounce on my grilled cheese. Kraft is fine, thanks. Maybe Borden in a pinch. I read someone who waxed rhapsodic about a place that served a grilled cheese made of Annelies cheese, caramelized onions, thinly sliced pickles and coarse grain mustard on sourdough bread. They referred to the cheese – of which I have never heard – as “dreamy” and called the sandwich “life-changing.” See why I wonder when the world went nuts?

Do yourself a flavor: if you've got a bakery in town or a supermarket with a real bakery section, go get a loaf of quality white bread. While you're at the supermarket, nip over to the deli and splurge on a half-pound or so of decent American cheese. Yellow or white, doesn't matter; they both taste the same. When you get home, take out two or four or six or however many slices of bread are necessary and spread them lightly with real butter. Not that plastic abomination that is margarine. Real butter, please. Salted or unsalted as you prefer. Only butter has certain proteins that will produce a wonderful nutty flavor when heated and browned. Now place one or two slices of cheese – three if you're feeling particularly bold – between the slices of buttered bread and form your sandwich. Butter both sides of the outside. Don't overdo it. Greasy is not good. If you have a griddle of some sort, great. If not, a skillet will do, especially if it's cast iron. Now heat that sucker up and spray just a little butter-flavored cooking spray on the surface or melt just a little more butter on it to help lubricate things. Place your sandwich on the hot cooking surface. Restaurant trick: we use something called a “domed lid” to cover things like burgers and sandwiches as they cook. It helps retain moisture and speeds the melting process by concentrating the heat under the dome. Try it; you'll like it. Leave the sandwich in place long enough to get a nice golden color on one side then flip it over. Press it down a little with your spatula to flatten it out a bit and to help the melting cheese get nice and gooey and spread around inside. When the other side is golden, take the sandwich off the cooking surface and put it on a plate. Cut it across or diagonally as you prefer and then as you take your first bite, allow the innocent, child-like peace and tranquility that is a good grilled cheese sandwich to fill your stomach and soothe your soul. After all, sometimes adulthood – like an “adult” grilled cheese sandwich – isn't everything it's cracked up to be.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Restaurant Review: Castiglia's Italian Restaurant & Pizza, Strasburg, VA


Six Thumbs Up!

Having left Thomas Jefferson's Monticello behind and with Washington, DC still ahead, we were road-weary travelers when we checked into our hotel in Strasburg, Virginia. But we were also hungry and I had noticed an Italian place down the road as I was driving in. I was assured by the young woman at the front desk that it was “pretty good,” and, bolstered by that enthusiastic recommendation, I headed out into the early spring Virginia night in search of sustenance.

Castiglia's Italian Restaurant & Pizza is located at the end of a nondescript strip mall on a busy highway near Interstate 81. But that's okay: some of the best Italian and Italian-American fare I've eaten has come out of strip mall kitchens. I'm not prejudiced about location.

It was late when our party of three arrived, well past whatever dinner rush there might have been. We pretty much had the place to ourselves. One table of guests was leaving as we arrived and another came in shortly after. Obviously, we were seated promptly by a very pleasant hostess. Our waitress was equally pleasant and engaging.

The décor was typical faux-Tuscan and the menu was standard Italian-American. I have long since given up hope of finding much truly authentic Italian food in such places. Even though the owners are from Naples, they, like the majority of their paesani, have bowed to the necessity of serving an American clientele that believes heaping piles of spaghetti and meatballs to be the height of Italian cuisine. I don't blame them: they do what they need to do to stay in business.

The menu was, as I said, typical, with lots of pasta dishes, chicken dishes, veal dishes, seafood dishes, an assortment of hot and cold appetizers, soups, salads, steaks, subs, wraps, burgers, and a few vegetable offerings. And, of course, pizza, calzone, and stromboli along with the usual selection of dolci. We were pleasantly surprised by a fairly decent wine list. The ladies chose a nice Moscato. I was pleased to find Peroni on tap. Most “Italian” places serve it in bottles and it's just not the same.

Knowing that we were traveling and would not be able to carry out the usual half-ton of leftovers, my wife and her mother opted for appetizers, which the server assured us would be adequate as entrees. They both chose something called “shrimp Margherita,” and I just ordered a small cheese pizza.

The complimentary fresh bread and garlic spread we were served while waiting for our meal were exceptional. You could tell the bread was fresco fatto in casa and not some warmed over frozen travesty. We wolfed it down and asked for more. I know it's not authentically Italian to serve bread before a meal, but who cared? We were hungry and it was delicious.

The appetizers/entrees were excellent as well. The sever was right: the portions were huge. The shrimp Margherita turned out to be succulent, perfectly grilled shrimp served over a bed of fresh spinach that had been sauteed in garlic and oil. My wife and her mom agreed that maybe a tad less spinach would have been better, but overall the dish was quite successful. And my pizza was fabulous. I always judge a place by how well they execute the simple things, and this simple pizza was buonissimo. You could tell the crust was expertly scratch made. The sauce to cheese ratio was perfect. You may ask “how do you screw up a cheese pizza?” Trust me, I can answer that question with a hundred examples. Not here, though. I don't know if it was pizzaiolo Salvatore Scotto, Gino Scotto, or Luigi Illiano who made it, but I did some serious damage to half a pie and it broke my heart that I couldn't take the rest with me. I mean, I guess I could have had cold pizza for breakfast instead of the hotel's “continental” offering, but......

There was no room for dessert, which is sad because I'm a sucker for cannoli.

I would like to have been able to sample more of the menu, but from what I had and what I observed, I can say that Castiglia's Italian Restaurant & Pizza serves up good Italian-American food, skillfully made by a real Italian family of cooks. The place was clean and tastefully decorated, service was fast, efficient, and unwaveringly friendly, and prices were more than reasonable. It's a casual dining, family-friendly place with adequate convenient parking.

The location of Castiglia's Italian Restaurant & Pizza that we visited is at 33820 Old Valley Pike, Ste 8 (US Hwy 11) in Strasburg, Virginia, just off I-81 exit 298. Open Monday though Thursday 11 am to 10 pm and from 11 to 11 on Friday and Saturday, Castiglia's offers free area delivery. Call them at (540) 465-8777, check out their website at www.castigliasva.com, or find them on Facebook. Apparently, there's a second location in Port Royal. Maybe I'll head over there next time.

Castiglia's promises fresh, made to order food cooked with passion. And from my experience on this occasion, they definitely fulfill that promise. Six thumbs up!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

How To Hand Wash Dishes Revisited


Everybody Knows How To Wash Dishes, Right? Well......Maybe Not So Much

I'm revisiting a piece I wrote a few years ago on the subject of dish washing. Recent experiences have prompted me to examine the topic in a little more depth because it seems a lot of people didn't learn to wash dishes the way I did.

The most vexing problem I faced in my last restaurant was not food quality or service; it was dish washing. It was a small place that didn't have an automatic dish washing machine. Dishes were done by hand in a three-compartment sink. Except for on busy weekend nights, we didn't have dishwashers on staff: cooks and waitstaff were responsible for washing their own dishes. Everybody on staff was younger than I by many years and in some cases by many decades. And after a couple of weeks of frustrating observation, I came to the inescapable conclusion that not a single, blessed one of these young folks knew the first damn thing about washing dishes. And they weren't all high schoolers; in fact, most were in their twenties and thirties and many were parents with little kids at home. The way they took care of my customers made me shudder to think of how they took care of their families. I had all the proper signs and regulations posted around the dish bay and I dropped hints and reminders from time to time in the vain hope I could awaken some form of common sense in these people. None of it worked and I finally exploded and called everybody in for a staff meeting on dish washing.

I learned the art of dish washing in the days before automatic dishwashers became as common as toasters. And I learned at the hands of experts; my grandmother and my mother. I don't know that my grandmother ever even saw an automatic dishwasher, and I know for certain she never used one. My mother had such disdain for the devices that she used hers as a storage bin for her Tupperware. Both women were dedicated hand dishwashers who lived well into their eighties. Between the two of them, I don't think I could begin to estimate how many dishes they washed in their lifetimes. Add to all that the fact that my first restaurant job was working as a dishwasher and I think I present with some valid credentials on the subject.

But that's still not enough. In order to avoid this being a “my mother taught me better than your mother taught you” piece, I went further, consulting health departments and doing some actual scholarly research on proper dish washing.

Believe it or not, there are specific procedures to follow. It's not just a matter of running some water in the sink, dumping in a little soap, and throwing in the dirty dishes. But after hanging out in various home and restaurant kitchens it is obvious to me that these basic techniques are being largely ignored, if they were ever taught in the first place. Call me obsessive/compulsive or whatever you will, but, based on the horrendous hygiene I have observed in some kitchens, I have been known to stealthily rewash dishes before I use them. Here's why.

I know so many people who have an aversion to the most essential element of hygienic dish washing: hot water. Many of these folks will come out of a shower with their bodies a nice shade of candy-apple red because they like their showers hot. And yet they wash their dishes in stone cold water. Go figure.

Beyond my grandmother and my mother, the experts with letters after their names will also tell you that dishes should be washed in water as hot as you can tolerate. Now this opens up a whole can of subjective worms. And way too many people of my acquaintance apparently can't tolerate water heated above 99°. That's body temperature, folks! If you can't stand to put your hands in ninety-nine degree water, you shouldn't be able to tolerate touching yourself! Worse still, I know people who do dishes in room temperature water; 70 to 74 degrees. Water that is actually cold. I've said it before, I'll say it again: If you insist on using cold or lukewarm water for dish washing, just set up little cabanas beside the sink for the e-coli, the salmonella, and the other varieties of bacteria you're inviting to go swimming in your sink. That's all you're really accomplishing. You're not getting anything clean.

Bacteria don't drown. Water won't kill 'em. Heat kills bacteria. To really sanitize your dishes, you need to heat them to above 140°. That's what dishwashing machines do. Obviously, sticking your unprotected hands in 140° water will likely send you to the emergency room. For hand washing dishes, the FDA recommends a minimum temperature of 110°. To make sure I'm practicing what I'm preaching, I actually stuck a thermometer in my dishwater: 113.3°. The hot water from my tap registered 123.8°. Now, I can't tolerate 124° on my bare hands for long but for me, 113° is no problem. Personally, I heat my rinse water a little hotter than my wash water – about 115° – and I add a couple of drops of bleach to the rinse. Yeah, the water's a little hot, but with rinse water, you can just snatch and grab. You don't have to keep your hands submerged in it like you do the wash water. But don't grab too quickly; the dishes should remain submerged in the hot wash water for at least thirty seconds and should be rinsed thoroughly.

As I mentioned, in some restaurant kitchens there are three sinks; a wash sink, a rinse sink, and a sanitizing sink. With only two sinks in my home kitchen, I combine the rinsing and the sanitizing in one. In restaurants, there is a specific chlorine level the health inspectors look for, measured by using paper test strips. (50 – 100 PPM, if you're curious.) At home, about two teaspoons of bleach per gallon of water will suffice.

But again, it's gotta be hot water. Observing the FDA minimum of 110° – along with using a good, strong anti-bacterial dish soap – will effectively do the job. If your skin is too sensitive or if you're worried about “dishpan hands,” go get some rubber gloves. Don't risk your family's health.

Hot water also gets your dishes cleaner. Grease doesn't break down in lukewarm water. If you stick a dirty, greasy plate in a sink full of 90° water, you'll come out with a plate that looks clean – but it'll still be greasy. And if you've ever wondered why your glasses and silverware look so spotty and filmy, check your water temperature. You know that “sheeting action” one of the dishwasher detergents advertises? You get the same effect when you use hot water. Dishes washed in hot water dry faster and cleaner than those washed in warm or cold water.

Now let's talk a little technique. First things first, scrape your plates. Dishes don't get clean when they're in the water competing with breadcrumbs and with floating chunks of meat and potatoes. It's not rocket science. Scrape your dishes.

Next, rinse your dishes. This is a hard sell sometimes with people who somehow find it redundant to rinse dishes that are going to be washed anyway. Again, it's just common sense. The first plateful of spaghetti sauce that you toss unrinsed into your clean dishwater is going to turn that water red and greasy for every subsequent dish you put in. Rinse your dishes.

Now stack 'em. Stacking doesn't have anything to do with the actual cleanliness of your dishes, but organized stacking makes the dish washing process cleaner and easier. Glasses, cups, and silverware stack first, plates and serving dishes next, and pots and pans last.

This is also the order in which you should wash your dishes, and in this instance the stacking does affect the cleanliness. I know so, so many people who just throw everything in the sink at the same time. Plates, glasses, knives, forks, pots, pans all jumbled together willy-nilly all at once. But think about it for a minute: what dishes do you really want to be the cleanest? The ones that actually come in contact with your mouth, right? The glasses, the cups, and the silverware. So it makes sense that you should wash them first, when the water is the hottest and the cleanest. If you wash the glasses with or after – say – the greasy frying pan, what can you expect to happen to your glasses? Thank you, but I'll take my beverages without the floating layer of grease, if you please. And those aren't “water spots” on your knives, forks, and spoons. They're spots of whatever you had for lunch yesterday if you just washed them along with the dirty dishes.

Plates should be next, as, theoretically, anyway, they should be cleaner than the pots and pans, especially if you've rinsed them. Serving dishes and utensils follow the plates and then come the pots and pans.

If you've got really dirty pots and pans with lots of baked-on stuff stuck to them, soaking is probably in order. Hot water, please. Cold water really won't do much good. And about ten minutes soaking time is all you need. Anything longer – like overnight – is just an excuse for putting off cleaning up the mess. If it hasn't soaked off in ten minutes, it's not going to. That's when scrubbing pads come into play.

Now, somewhere along the line, you may have to change your water. In many Asian cultures, dishes are always washed in running water because it is perceived to be more hygienic. And I do sometimes wash dishes under running water if I only have a few dishes to do. But in the interest of conserving water and saving on water and water heating bills, I generally adhere to Western customs that employ sinks or tubs of standing water. For large loads, that's going to mean changing the water at least once.

Now, the glasses and silverware probably didn't do too much damage to the dishwater. But after a dozen or so plates and serving dishes, are you really getting anything clean? Think about it; what color is clean, fresh water? Clear, of course. It has no color. So by the time your water develops a distinct reddish, brownish, greenish, or grayish color, is it still truly clean and fresh? And should you reasonably expect to get your dishes clean in such water? Come on. Change it, already.

Speaking of changing things, how about those dishcloths, sponges, and towels? Personally, I have no use for traditional sponges. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a hospital's surgical suite and 10 being a toxic waste dump, kitchen sponges rank number 11. You can't have them in commercial kitchens; you shouldn't have them in home kitchens. Unless you're preparing a science project on bacteriology. “Oh, but you can sanitize them in the microwave!” Yeah, until the first time you put them back in the water and the listeria and staphylococci invite all their friends aboard. Ditch the sponge.

Dishcloths are a better option, provided you take proper care of them. By proper care I mean changing them out frequently as usage requires and also keeping them in proper condition. A scientific study conducted a few years ago revealed that dishcloths containing the lowest microbial count came from households that replaced used dishcloths every day. Dishcloths containing high microbial counts had been used in household kitchens five consecutive days or more, and were never completely dried out during that time. The study determined that when dishcloths were dried out after use, bacterial growth was halted. So those of you who wad up your wet dishcloths and leave them lying in or around the sink take note.

Now, I don't change my dishcloth every day. Nor do I use the same cloth for a week. And I follow the FDA food code recommendation regarding use of a sanitizer bucket for my dishcloths. But I don't leave them soaking, because research also shows that after a couple of hours, organic material present in the cloths neutralizes the sanitizer and bacterial growth can occur. I soak them after use, take them out and dry them, and replace them every other day. Unless, of course, they are filthy, in which case I replace them right away. Duh!

To be honest, I don't use dishcloths nearly as much as I used to. Modern silicone sponges and scrubbers are much more efficient and easier to clean and sanitize.

Dish towels are another issue. Again, if health inspectors catch you drying dishes with a towel in a restaurant kitchen, there go a couple of points off your sanitation rating. Betcha didn't know that, huh? I know most of my dishwashers didn't. Air drying is best. And for goodness' sake, clean your drying rack once in awhile! Putting clean dishes in a dirty drying rack is an exercise in futility. If, however, you are like most people – me included outside a restaurant kitchen – and you use a dish towel, make sure it's a clean dish towel. Not the one with which you wiped the chicken blood off the counter. Not the one with which you mopped your sweaty forehead, wiped your greasy hands, or got that little spill up off the floor. “Dish towel” equals dish use. Nothing else. And when it gets damp, get a dry one. In the first place, you're not drying anything with a wet towel, now are you? And in the second place, here come those pesky germs again. And replace the towel in the same manner as you replace the cloth; break out a new one every couple of days or as needed.

I mentioned cleaning your drying rack. How about cleaning your sinks? How often do you actually clean and sanitize your sinks and drains? Do you know that most household's toilets are cleaner than their kitchen sinks? That's because you think about cleaning the toilet, but you seldom think about cleaning the sink. And yet, where do you wash the dishes from which you eat? Maybe you should try doing them in the toilet. (I know; yuck!) I sanitize my sinks and drains every day. All it takes is a couple of minutes with some hot water and a little bleach or cleanser.

One of the most spectacularly, despicably unhygienic things I've ever seen in a home kitchen involved filling up a sink with tepid water and a little soap and then throwing dirty dishes into the sink throughout the day. At some point along the way, said dishes were treated to a brief encounter with a dirty cloth that had been wadded up on the counter and then they were rinsed under cold running water before being dried with a questionable towel and put away. I have to ask; why bother? For as much cleaning value as you're getting out of that sinkful of disgusting cold, gray water with grease and particulate matter floating in it and that nasty rag, you might as well just put the dishes away dirty. If this is you, save yourself some time and money. Money that you'll probably need for doctor bills. Uggghhh!

And you lukewarmers don't get off the hook, either. I'm sorry. I hate it for you that you can't stand hot water, but neither can the grease and the germs. If you're filling your sink with water that is cooler than body temperature, you're just throwing a greasy pool party for bacteria. Period. Turn up the water heater and get some gloves.

And remember the steps the experts recommend – the ones my mama taught me: scrape your dishes, rinse your dishes, stack your dishes, and don't do the pots and pans first and then try to get the glasses clean. It just won't happen.

Oh, and one more thing: dishes have two sides, a top and a bottom. Remember to wash the bottom of your dish because it sits on the top of the one stacked below it in the cabinet. Just a little something to think about.

Okay, see you in the kitchen. I'll wash, you dry.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Bypass Advertising Chickens**t When Buying Eggs


The Incredible, Marketable Egg

As I frequently remind you (and myself), I'm old. Old enough to remember going to the grocery store to buy eggs that just said “EGGS” on the plain, old-fashioned cardboard carton. No “cage free” or “hormone free” or “free range” or any of the other clever qualifiers stamped all over the fancy containers eggs come in nowadays.

Back in those days of blissful ignorance we didn't think much about how eggs got into the cartons. Most of us knew enough about farm life to draw mental pictures of jovial farmers in overalls going out to the henhouse and raiding the nests of contented cluckers. We didn't know – or want to know – about factory farms wherein thousands of hens existed in battery cages; wire mesh contraptions, stacked and wired together usually containing more than one chicken squashed side by side with another in an arrangement that keeps them from being able to spread their wings or stretch their legs or do much of anything other than sit there and lay eggs. Each bird “lives” – if you can call it that – in about seventy square inches of space. I'm looking at my 9”x8” mousepad. That's seventy-two square inches. My wireless mouse has more room to roam than a factory farm hen. Kinda makes you look at your omelet in a different light, doesn't it?

Fortunately, awareness of these inhumane conditions is slowly forcing changes to be made in the way eggs are produced. I don't know if we'll ever get to that bucolic scene I described in the previous paragraph, but several big egg sellers and big egg users have gotten behind efforts to moderate or eliminate the cruelty. A number of states have limited or banned the use of battery cages and legislation is in the works in other jurisdictions to make things better for the birds that provide us with such an essential element of our diets.

And, of course, even as substantive efforts at improvement are being undertaken at the legal level, here come the hucksters, hawkers, peddlers, and sloganeers from the ad agencies trotting out to help thoroughly obfuscate the issue. Ever ones to leap to the forefront of a cause to see if a dollar might be made there, they have cluttered supermarket eggs cartons with all kinds of meaningless words and phrases designed to confuse consumers into feeling better about themselves and their choices. With that thought in mind, allow me to blaze a path through the chickenshit in an attempt to offer some clarity.

Let's start with “farm fresh.” If you've ever seen – or smelled – a commercial chicken farm, “fresh” is the last thing that comes to mind. It's just a term they use to sell eggs. If you want real “farm fresh” eggs, you have to go a real farm. As far as commercial egg freshness goes, check all those arcane codes on the end of the carton. There's a “pack date,” an “expiration date,” and a plant code. The plant code simply tells you in what facility the eggs were actually packaged. It's a four-digit code that's usually preceded by a “P” and if you're really curious, the USDA has a plant location tool you can use.

The “expiration date” is more a guideline for the store than for the consumer. Also expressed as a “sell by,” “use by,” or “best by” date, it just tells the grocer when to pull the eggs from the shelf. You can still safely eat the eggs for at least a couple of weeks after they “expire.” Same thing with a “sell by/use by/best by” date; it's an indicator of maximum freshness, not safety. Both expiration and sell by dates are based on the pack date; expiration dates have to be thirty days or less from the pack date and sell by dates have to be within forty-five days. The pack date is the actual date on which the eggs were put in the carton. It's a three-digit number that may be a bit confusing because it's based on Julian dating. Julian dates run from 1 through 365 (366 in a leap year), so eggs packed on April 1 of a regular year, for instance, will be Julian coded as 091.

Natural” and “All Natural” are among the ad game's most popular buzzwords. And also among the most meaningless. They tend to slap the word “natural” on just about anything. According to the dictionary, “natural” means “existing in or formed by nature.” If that's not a broad category I don't know what is. When it comes to eggs, the USDA says egg products are “natural” if they contain no artificial ingredients, added color, and are only minimally processed. I've never encountered an artificially enhanced, color-added, processed egg, so I'm assuming just about all eggs are “natural.” And if you're scrambling unnatural eggs, I'm not sure I want to know about it.

“Organic” is the next big word of the day. It's a term that actually does have meaning when it's enforced and not just used as a selling tool. Organic eggs can be a bit healthier for you because the chickens that lay them are healthier. Organic eggs come from free-range chickens that have not been doped up with hormones, antibiotics or other drugs and which have been fed with entirely organic feed. That means the feed given to the chickens can't come from crops that are genetically modified, treated with pesticides or herbicides, or fertilized with chemical or synthetic products. And no poultry-slaughter byproducts. Which leads to another often misunderstood label: “vegetarian-fed.”

People like to think of happy chickens eating grass and grain and green, leafy vegetables. That's a nice picture but far from the truth. Chickens are omnivores: they'll eat anything including other chickens or parts thereof left over from the slaughtering process. They also eat bugs and crickets and any fly larvae – aka maggots – they happen to find hanging around in cow manure. Sorry. Probably better not to dwell on a chicken's natural diet for too long, but do keep in mind that a “vegetarian-fed” chicken's favorite between meal snack is frequently.....chicken.

I mentioned hormones. That's another specious selling point: “No Added Hormones.” By law, laying hens are not allowed to be given hormones anyway, so this phrase is a selling gimmick. Even the cheap eggs in the cheap cardboard cartons that just say “EGGS” contain no added hormones.

Same thing applies to “Antibiotic-Free.” According to the US Poultry and Egg Association, there are only three antibiotics approved by the FDA for use in laying flocks and “only a small percentage of laying flocks producing conventional eggs ever receive antibiotics due to use of effective vaccines and other management practices which minimize the need for antibiotics to treat illness.” And FDA regulations for antibiotic use ensure that antibiotic residue does not migrate to the eggs. So, it's just another advertising gimmick.

Non GMO” is a controversial term. In and of themselves, eggs are, of course, not genetically modified. Nobody's out there trying to engineer a better chicken or a better egg through genetic manipulation. The “non-GMO” label is meant to apply to the feed the hens consume, but unfortunately most gullible consumers just see “Non-GMO” and think, “Oh, how wonderful! Non-GMO eggs!” And that's what the ad people want them to think. It sells more eggs.

Omega-3” sounds healthy, doesn't it? And most nutritionists will agree it is. Chickens on a natural diet get an omega-3 boost from sources such as the aforementioned grasses and weeds. Such hens, therefore, lay eggs that are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than chickens that are only grain-fed. Grain-fed birds get their omega-3 charge from fortified feed. “Omega-3” eggs can be fortified with different types of omega-3 fatty acids: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), commonly found in fish oil, and ALA (alpha linolenic acid), a component in flaxseed, walnuts, and chia seeds. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), also found in fish oil, is another player in the omega-3 game. The problem is there's no official recommendation for human intake of any of these substances, and even if you allow for the 1,000 mg daily intake of a combination of DHA and EPA that some experts promote, the amount of omega-3 acids added to eggs through a diet of flaxseed and fish oil are minimal. One omega-3 egg typically contains 340 milligrams of ALA and seventy-five to one hundred milligrams of DHA. So you'd have to chow down at least two-and-a-half eggs every day to get anywhere close to a beneficial level. But it sounds really healthy and it sells eggs.

Humanely Raised” and “Animal Welfare Approved” are terms that help sell eggs to people who truly are concerned about animal welfare. You'll see little seals that say either “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved” on the cartons. The former means that the egg producer subscribes to a set of rules and regulations that guarantee chickens have decent, healthy living conditions that include proper ventilation and appropriate nesting material in their nest boxes. They are also given the opportunity to “bathe,” something chickens do to rid themselves of lice and other parasites by flopping around in a box of dirt. The other label certifies that the birds have all these things plus being raised almost entirely outdoors and that they escape wholesale slaughter and are painlessly euthanized when their usefulness as layers expires.

Let's wrap up this walk through the chicken droppings by examining the real stars of the egg marketing firmament, “cage-free,” “free-range,” and “pastured” or “pasture raised.”

According to the US Poultry and Egg Association, “eggs labeled as cage free must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food and water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” However, “cage-free” only means that chickens aren’t kept in actual cages. They might still live jammed in on top of one another, up to their knees in their own and their neighbor's waste, and never see daylight within that “building, room, or enclosed area.” And remember what I said about chickens being omnivorous? It has been shown in some cases that without the barriers of cages, “cage-free” chickens living in close proximity to other chickens have a higher mortality rate due not only to the easier spread of disease but also because they tend to peck one another to death.

Free-range” is a little better option because, the association says, “free-range” eggs must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. The operative word here is “access.” Just because a chicken has “access” to the outdoors doesn't necessarily mean it goes outdoors. Often chickens are still jammed into cavernous buildings with a small door on one end that opens to a few feet of outside dirt space. Even if the chickens on the far end of the building know the door is there, there's no way they'll ever get to it. And “outdoors” doesn't automatically mean some picturesque pasture where the chickens can romp and play in the sunshine. “The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material;” in other words, a screened-in porch of some sort may qualify as “outdoors.”

Pasture-Raised” or “Pastured” eggs are kind of the humane gold standard. They are exactly what they imply; eggs that are gathered from chickens who run around outdoors eating the things that chickens who run around outdoors eat. The “girls” at Vital Farms, for example, live on rotated pastures with an allowance of approximately 108 square feet per bird. Contrast that the with the seventy or so square inches allotted to commercially raised chickens in battery cages. Of course, regular old commercial eggs can sell for less than a dollar a dozen while pastured eggs go for upwards of six or seven dollars a dozen, but, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.

Oh, and one more thing you'll find printed on egg cartons: grades. Grades are the USDA's “beauty contest” for eggs. The grades “A,” “AA,” and “B” have nothing to do with the nutritional content of the egg. While they do help weed out defective eggs with unpleasant things like blood spots, meat spots, bloody whites, mixed rot, blood rings, stuck yolks, embryo chicks, and other nastiness that you wouldn't want to serve sunny-side up, grades are primarily cosmetic standards. The highest grade is Grade AA. These eggs have thick, firm whites and high, round yolks with clean, unbroken shells. Grade A eggs, the ones usually sold in stores, have most of the same characteristics of Grade AA, except their whites are "reasonably" firm. Grade B eggs have whites that may be thinner and yolks that may be wider and flatter than higher graded eggs and while their shells must still be unbroken, slight stains are permissible. And, of course, that USDA grade shield is yet another marketing tool used to sell more eggs.

No eggs were harmed in the writing of this article – at least not yet. I feel a frittata coming on and you know what they say about not having an omelet without breaking a few organic, pasture-raised, Grade AA eggs.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Stop Wasting Money On Copper-Colored Crap Cookware


Baa, Baa Copper Sheep. Have You Any SENSE?

Gordon Ramsay has adopted a new catchphrase lately; “Let's get that right!” And it applies when I tell you that copper cooking vessels are the crème de la crème of cookware. Let's get that right!

Professional cooks the world over have used copper for generations. It's an excellent conductor of heat, it warms up quickly and stays warm longer, and it allows for gentle, even heat distribution. Much more so than any other material, even cast iron. Hot spots are all but unheard of with copper. This results in more uniform, more controlled cooking with practically no burnt spots or scalding. Copper cookware is generally a perfect weight. It's heavy enough to sit securely on your stove but not so heavy you can't lift it with one hand. Copper is reactive but when lined with a non-reactive material such as tin or stainless steel, it is one hundred percent safe and two hundred percent effective. Bowls made of pure copper are the industry standard for whipping up fluffy egg whites. In short, copper is great stuff. Let's get that right!

Something else to get right, copper is also expensive and somewhat temperamental to maintain. You can't crank the heat up to OMG hot under a copper pot and then just toss it in the dishwasher before stuffing it into your overfilled pots and pans drawer. Well......I guess you can if you don't give a rip about what it's gonna like like or how long it's gonna last. Copper tarnishes easily and requires frequent if not constant polishing and it's a fairly soft metal prone to scratches and dents. Some cosmetic denting and pitting is okay – gives it that “cooked in” look, I suppose – but if it gets too warped and battered, it's useless.

Bring your banker and an appraiser to the store when you go to buy the stuff. I can get you a nice deal on a twelve-piece set of Mauviel copper at Williams-Sonoma; a steal at just $1,900.

Or you can go out and buy the latest fad in “As Seen on TV” cookware. Yep. Copper. “$19.95 and if you act now, we'll double your order. Just pay extra for shipping and handling.” Uffa! As P.T. Barnum famously never said, “There's a sucker born every minute.” I can assure you there's more copper in a Lincoln penny – which is 97.5% zinc these days – than there is in any and all of those cheap, overly-hyped “copper” pots, pans, cookie sheets, fry baskets, grill mats, knives, and I don't know what all else. I saw a plastic slotted spoon with a “copper” handle in a store the other day. WTF is a so-called “copper” handle supposed to do to improve the performance of a spoon

It's a scam, folks, pure and simple. A gimmick designed to separate you from your money. It's a con worthy of “The Sting.” A flimflam. A fraud. A racket. A rip-off. A double-dealing shell game. A fast one. A hosing of epic proportions. Get the idea yet? It all started out with one product and now it's spread to the point where every blessed thing you see is “copper.” And you know what? It's all paint, people; copper-colored paint. Like the kind you buy for household and craft use only on an industrial scale.

These hucksters take cheap aluminum pans, pots, spoon handles and what have you and spray them with a tissue paper thin ceramic coating that has been infused with copper-colored paint. They could just as easily have made the stuff green – oh, wait. They already do that, don't they? Anyway, copper-colored crap cookware has exactly the same non-stick abilities as any other cheap aluminum junk but with absolutely none of the desirable properties of real copper – because there ain't any real copper in any of it! It's paint. Pigment. Useless coloration. The equivalent of covering rabbit droppings in red food coloring and calling them berries. Let me drag out my Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony album here and play you a chorus of “The Hustle” while I reiterate; it's a gyp designed to hoodwink gullible rubes. Of which, apparently, there is an endless supply.

Whenever you put a “non-stick” surface, be it Teflon or a ceramic coating or whatever, on any pan, you usually do it by spraying or dipping the pan in a gel solution which is then hardened by a high heat firing process known as curing. Decent quality stuff usually gets at least three or more layers of this coating. Colors are absolutely immaterial; they can make the finished color anything they want it to be. Most are silver or gray, some are black, some are white. And when they're trying to bamboozle somebody into following the latest “As Seen on TV” trend, they make it copper.

Most people know – don't you? – that the most durable materials for making cookware are cast iron or stainless steel. Aluminum is a close second, but only if it's hard anodized aluminum. Anodization subjects the surface of aluminum pots and pans to an electrochemical process that builds up the metal’s natural coating of oxide, yielding a hard, nonreactive substance that forms a tougher coating. Hard anodized aluminum gets, like, a double dose of the process, making it useable in even tough professional kitchens, the place for which it was originally designed when Calphalon came up with it back in 1968. The most utilitarian hard anodized aluminum cooking vessels are usually coated with a non-stick surface of some sort. Even so, aluminum – even anodized aluminum – is pretty soft and can be warped and beaten out of shape through hard use. I've been in a few restaurant kitchens and know whereof I speak.

Now, you take ordinary cheap aluminum. It's light weight, a good heat conductor, and relatively corrosion resistant. It's great for a lot of things, especially bakeware. But if you bang it with a foam rubber mallet or drop it on a firm mattress, it's gonna dent or bend out of shape. And if you spray paint it with a thin coating of copper-colored paint, within a fairly short span of time that paint is going to scratch up and flake off like nobody's business. 

Real copper is ridiculously expensive. A single Mauviel twelve-inch 1.5 mm copper fry pan with a stainless-steel interior is going to set you back to the tune of about $295. For one pan. A good quality twelve-inch stainless-steel pan – say, something by Calphalon – goes for about $110. An enameled cast iron twelve-inch pan from Tramontina will cost you around $70. And even a plain old Lodge cast iron workhorse sells for twenty to thirty bucks, depending on where you get it. So do you really – I mean really – think you're getting anything resembling real copper or real quality for $19.95 – two if you order now? Really?

Baa, baa, copper sheep. Have you any sense?

It all evolved from a single snake oil salesman – er, I mean “marketer” – who conceived the original concept a few years ago. The stuff they were pushing then may or may not have actually been worth what you paid for it, I don't know. What I do know is that it's not just cheap gimmicky pots and pans anymore. It took about a week for all the copper-colored crap that's out there now to start flooding the market. Like the frickin' “copper” handled spoon! Really? A “copper” knife that “never needs sharpening”? C'mon! At best, it's an inexpensive ceramic knife with a coat of paint. “Copper” fry baskets? Why? “Copper” crispers to “turn your oven into an air fryer.” Riiiight! “Copper” grill mats, “copper” roasters, “copper” baking pans and muffin tins? What's next? “Copper” oven mitts? (If I see one of those in the store next week, I swear I'm gonna scream.) There must be enough soft-headed suckers with no sales resistance out there who keep buying this garbage or they wouldn't be able to keep selling it.

I don't know why but that great old 1968 comedy routine that Johnny Carson and Jack Webb did on “The Tonight Show” just jumped into my head.

Webb (As Sgt. Joe Friday): This is the city. Los Angeles California. Some people rob for pleasure. Some rob because its there. You never know. My name's Friday, I’m a cop. I was working the day watch out of robbery when I got a call from the Acme School Bell Company. There’d been a robbery.
Carson: There’s been a robbery.
Webb: Yes Sir, what was it?
Carson: My clappers.
Webb: Your clappers?
Carson: Yeah, you know those things inside a bell that makes them clang.
Webb: The clangers.
Carson: That’s right, but we call them clappers in the business.
Webb: A clapper caper.
Carson: What’s that?
Webb: Nothing Sir. Now can I have the facts? What kind of clappers were stolen on this caper?
Carson: They were copper clappers.
Webb: And where were they kept?
Carson: In the closet.
Webb: Uh huh. You have any ideas who might have taken the copper clappers from the closet?
Carson: Well, just one. I fired a man. He swore he’d get even.
Webb: What was his name?
Carson: Claude Cooper.
Webb: You think he…….
Carson: That’s right ! That’s right! I think Claude Cooper copped my copper clappers, kept in a closet.
Webb: Do you know where this Claude Cooper is from?
Carson: Yeah, Cleveland.
Webb: That figures, that figures.
Carson: What make it worse, they were clean.
Webb: Clean copper clappers?
Carson: That’s right.
Webb: Why do you think Cleveland’s Claude Cooper would cop your clean copper clappers kept in your closet?
Carson: Only one reason.
Webb: What’s that?
Carson: He’s a kleptomaniac.
Webb: Who first discovered that the copper clappers were copped?
Carson: My cleaning woman, Clara Clifford.
Webb: That figures. Now let me see if I got the facts straight here. Cleaning woman Clara Clifford discovered your clean copper clappers, kept in a closet, were copped by Claude Cooper the kleptomaniac from Cleveland. Now is that about it?
Carson: One other thing.
Webb: What’s that?
Carson: If ever I catch kleptomaniac Claude Cooper from Cleveland who copped my clean copper clappers that were kept in a closet....
Webb: Yes?
Carson: I’ll clobber him.

Hey, at least that's funny. Countless cadres of consumers committing copious quantities of cash to acquire colossal collections of crappy counterfeit copper cookware with which to clutter their kitchens is not.

Remember, folks, all that glitters is not copper. Especially not at $19.95 plus shipping and handling. If you really want copper cookware, save your money and buy some of the real thing. And don't forget to pick up a gallon jug or two of Wright's Copper Cleaner or Brasso while you're at it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

What's The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread? How About A Day Honoring Sliced Bread?


What's So Great About Sliced Bread?

C'mon, you know you've said it: “It's the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Of course, since practically nobody knows what unsliced bread is anymore, that bit of hyperbole has lost some of its punch over the years. Still, pretty much everybody knows that the classic idiomatic phrase refers to something extraordinary – especially a newer discovery – that will likely be a significant improvement. “But what,” you may ask, “is so great about sliced bread?”

Bread has been around for a long, long time. There's archaeological evidence that a rudimentary form of flatbread was known in Europe thirty-thousand years ago. Most of the breads we recognize in Western culture today are the leavened variety that come out of ovens as loaves. Some loaves are round, others are elongated, some are oval shaped, and some, like what we commonly call “sandwich bread,” are kind of squarish. The round, elongated, or oval loaves can be broken apart for consumption or even eaten “as is,” but the traditional “sandwich loaf” pretty much has to be sliced in order to be of any use. And that can be a problem.

People who live in the “modern age” where all you have to do to make a sandwich is open a plastic bag and take out a couple of perfectly machine-sliced pieces of bread don't really have an appreciation for what it takes to slice bread. My grandmother had to do it. And I do it myself. It takes a good bread knife and a keen eye to achieve uniformity. You don't want slices that are too thick or too thin. Or a thick slice paired with a thin slice. You particularly don't want slices that start out thick at the top and wind up thin at the bottom or vice-versa. There's also a talent to slicing up a loaf of bread – especially fresh bread – without crushing it as you cut. Slicing bread can be a time-consuming, frustrating chore.

Enter a guy named Otto F. Rohwedder, an inventor from Iowa. Over the course of about a decade of trial and error, he came up with a concept for “A Machine For Slicing An Entire Loaf Of Bread At A Single Operation,” an idea he patented on November 26, 1928. But the initial reaction among commercial bread bakers was not exactly what Rohwedder no doubt hoped it would be. In fact, the contraption was something of a hard sell at first.

To begin with, bakers were unconvinced that consumers wanted pre-sliced bread. Up to that point, I guess, nobody had been beating down the bakery doors asking for such a commodity. Then there were concerns about freshness. An unsliced loaf of bread stays fresher longer. Once you cut into it, it begins to go stale fairly quickly. To address these concerns, the inventor originally conceptualized the use of pins to hold the sliced loaf together. Since unpinning individual slices of bread wasn't an idea that appealed to anybody, Rohwedder approached the issue from a different angle: he amended the way the sliced bread would be packaged. There were no convenient plastic bags with little twist ties in those days. Instead, Rohwedder suggested wrapping each freshly-sliced loaf in thick wax paper. And so it was done. Eventually, cellophane took the place of wax paper before ultimately giving way to plastic. Come to think of it, I can actually remember wax paper-wrapped bread covered in cellophane packaging. Jeez, I'm old.

Anyway, the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, decided to give Rohwedder’s unconventional device a shot. They installed his machine and began to sell “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread” on July 7, 1928. The local newspaper carried both a front page news story and a full back page advertisement for the new-fangled gimmick in an effort to convince people that sliced bread really was a great thing. Selling points included statements like, “After all the idea of sliced bread is not unlike the idea of ground coffee, sliced bacon and many other modern and generally accepted products which combine superior results with a saving of time and effort.” The article goes on to prophetically enthuse, “So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.”

Needless to say, sliced bread quickly became the greatest thing since......well, you get the idea. By 1930, the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis had built its own slicing machines and was sending its soon-to-be-iconic product, Wonder Bread, pre-sliced and wrapped in wax paper packaging festooned with red, yellow, and blue balloons, to retailers nationwide.

And now there is legislation pending in Jefferson City asking Missouri lawmakers to officially designate July 7 as “Missouri Sliced Bread Day.” After all, Chillicothe, a town of about 9,500 folks, goes all out to promote its claim to fame as “The Home of Sliced Bread.” There's a recently erected historical marker in front of the red brick building at 100 Elm Street that formerly housed the Chillicothe Baking Company and there's an annual Sliced Bread Jam Bluegrass Music Festival, too. Supporters of the bill recognize Chillicothe's “piece of very positive history” and believe such a celebration would stimulate the local economy by bringing more tourists to northern Missouri. According to the Chillicothe News, if the proposed holiday becomes a reality, local residents are encouraged to engage in “appropriate activities and events” to celebrate Otto Rohwedder’s game changing creation.

I suppose it's a good thing I don't live anywhere near Chillicothe because I would have a hard time engaging in any appropriate activities. Personally, I don't eat sliced bread. Not since I started baking my own bread many, many years ago. Now, I'd be lying like a politician if I said sliced bread had never passed my lips. Are you kidding? I grew up in the '50s and '60s when moms were assured that the aforementioned Wonder Bread “helps build strong bodies twelve ways.” I think I got shortchanged on about eleven of those ways, but that's neither here nor there. The point is I grew up consuming my fair share of the soft, gummy commodity we're talking about celebrating. But no more. I can count on one hand the number of times I've had to make an emergency purchase of store-bought sliced bread in the last several years. Of course, back in Rohwedder's day, bread was still bread; made from flour, water, salt, and a little yeast. Concerns about bread going stale were legitimate in those days because real bread really would spoil in a fairly short amount of time. Unlike today's preservative and additive laden bread-like substances that can sit out on the counter for weeks at a time and still maintain what passes for “freshness.” In other words, it's still nice and soft and gummy. But I still wish Chillicothe luck in their pursuit of sliced bread fame. It's not their fault, or Otto Rohwedder's, either, that the baking industry would ultimately turn a basic, natural dietary staple into a form of chemically enhanced Frankenbread.

Oh, and in case you ever find yourself thinking, “I wonder what was the greatest thing before sliced bread?”, I may have an answer. Apparently that would be wrapped bread since early advertising for  sliced bread touted it as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” Although I imagine if you were to start saying, “That's the greatest thing since wrapped bread,” people would just give you funny looks. And who knows? Maybe someday I'll make a pilgrimage to Chillicothe just so I can have a slice of bread and stimulate the local economy. I've done stranger things.