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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!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

70 Years of Cheerios

I just returned from the grocery store where I picked up a bright yellow box of Cheerios. And now that I think about it, it's something I've been doing all my life. I can't remember not eating Cheerios.

To say that the toasted oat cereal produced at General Mills' Buffalo, New York facility is an icon would be something of an understatement. According to a number of surveys, it is the top-selling brand of breakfast cereal in the United States and it is similarly popular in several other countries around the world. (The original Cheerios reigned supreme for decades, but has recently been overtaken by the “Honey Nut” version of the brand.) At the same time, the little golden “o”s have been around for so long that most folks just take them for granted. So let's take a few minutes to delve into some things you may or may not know about one of the world's most celebrated breakfast foods.

To begin at the beginning, we need to light up seventy birthday candles for Cheerios, born back in 1941. Originally, it was called “Cheerioats,” a name which only stuck around for about four years. (Unless you were my grandmother, who persisted in referring to the product as “Cheerioats” for about the next forty years.)

Lester Borchardt invented “Cheerioats,” working for months to perfect the “puffing” technique that ultimately resulted in the now familiar circular shape. (Factoid: Cheerios are made by heating up little balls of dough made from grains, water, and other ingredients, forming the spheres into “o”s and then shooting them out of a puffing gun at 100 mph. They are then toasted and packaged.)

Considering that in those days most folks thought of oats as horse food rather than people food, Cheerioats did remarkably well in it's first year. General Mills shipped out 1.8 million cases – at twelve boxes per case – in 1941 alone.

Shortly after the initial roll out, Cheerioats acquired a mascot. A cereal's got to have a mascot, right? “Trix” has the rabbit, “Lucky Charms” has the leprechaun, “Rice Krispies” has Snap, Crackle, and Pop, and “Cap'n Crunch” has … well, that one's pretty obvious. But few people remember a dark-haired little girl named “Cheeri O'Leary” who used to appear on boxes of “Cheerioats.” Her main job was to provide brief bios of popular movie stars and to pitch the cereal's first slogan; “The Breakfast Food You've Always Wanted.” Catchy, huh?

“Cheer Up With Cheerioats” soon followed and “Cheerioats – For Fighters On the Homefront” was a patriotic slogan introduced during the war years. According to some sources, the Quaker Oats people had a little dust up with General Mills over the “oats” part of the product name, so, in 1945, ad-man Fred T. Leighty, inspired by the “o” shape of the cereal, dropped a couple of letters and rechristened it as “Cheerios – The First Ready To Eat Oat Cereal.” (Ready to eat as opposed to Quaker's oatmeal product, which had to be cooked.)

That's also about the time “Joe Idea,” a red-haired boy in a striped shirt, began to appear on side panels of Cheerioats/Cheerios. But, alas, Joe didn't hang around long either.

The champion Cheerios mascot, the “Cheerios Kid,” was introduced in 1953 and he represented the product for most of the next thirty years. He was kind of a Popeye-like character, somewhat clumsy and inept until he “powered up” with Cheerios. Transforming into a trim and athletic-looking hero in his blue pants and white t-shirt, the “Kid” then saved the day for his gal pal “Sue.” The “Kid” emphasized the “power” of Cheerios in slogans that hyped “GO power” and the “pow-pow powerful feeling” imparted by the product. He hung out with some pretty heavy hitters over the years, including “Bullwinkle” in 1966 and 1967.

Other cartoon characters who briefly pitched for Cheerios include “Hoppity Hooper” – of whose 1960's TV program General Mills was a primary sponsor – and members of the “Peanuts” gang. There was even a '70s-vintage ad campaign that featured a yodeling stick figure. The “Kid” made a brief comeback in the '80s. And then it seems General Mills decided the cereal needed to grow up. The focus became “Nutrition. That’s the Cheerios Tradition” and “Oats, the Grain Highest in Protein” and cartoon character salesmen became obsolete.

So successful was the “healthy” sales angle that General Mills soon found itself in deep water – or perhaps milk – with the federal government.

Emerging nutritional science cited soluble fiber contained in whole grain food products, such as oats, as being a cholesterol buster. Cheerios began touting itself as “heart-healthy” and claiming that consumption of Cheerios could reduce cholesterol levels by four percent in six weeks. Labeling unequivocally stated that Cheerios was “clinically proven to lower cholesterol. A clinical study showed that eating two 1½ cup servings daily of Cheerios cereal reduced bad cholesterol when eaten as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol."

The Food and Drug Administration took offense to what it saw as an attempt by General Mills to market an unapproved new drug and sent the company a letter to that effect in May, 2009. Nobody said Cheerios wasn't a good product. In fact, the head of the FDA's Center for Food Safety opined that Cheerios was “a product that can be part of a healthy diet.” The Fed just didn't like the marketing hyperbole that could be misconstrued as drug advertisement. Although Cheerios did subsequently lower the volume a little bit, they still maintain, “Original Cheerios® cereal and Honey Nut Cheerios cereal have soluble fiber from whole grain oats. This type of soluble fiber acts like a kind of 'sponge,' soaking up some of the cholesterol in the body so that the body can get rid of it naturally. Lowering cholesterol can lower the risk of clogged arteries and heart disease. Additionally, original Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios are naturally cholesterol free. It's nice when foods with good ingredients also taste good. This is just part of the wisdom in using whole grain oats.” (www.cheerios.com)

Honey Nut Cheerios, of course, refers to the wildly popular companion to the original cereal that was introduced in 1979. In fact, the Cheerios family has grown quite large since 1941. Besides the “Honey Nut” variety, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios joined the fold in 1988; MultiGrain Cheerios came about in 1992; Frosted Cheerios were added in 1995; Berry Burst Cheerios burst upon the scene in 2001 and Chocolate Cheerios appeared on shelves in 2010. Lest we forget someone, the family also includes Banana Nut Cheerios, Cinnamon Burst Cheerios, Cheerios Crunch, Fruity Cheerios, and Yogurt Burst Cheerios. Additionally, “Cheerios and Xs” made a brief appearance in the early '90s and “Millenios,” featuring little “2”s, saw limited marketing in 1999 – 2000.

Cheerios represents something of an odd duck in the breakfast cereal flock. It's not a sugar-laden kiddie cereal. As referenced above, the primary marketing focus these days is directed toward health-conscious adults. But at the same time, Cheerios is a very “kid-friendly” cereal. Face it, everybody who has ever had kids – myself included – knows what it's like to pick up Cheerios scattered all over the house. The little toasted “o”s are the first finger food many babies and toddlers learn to eat.

The various varieties are just insanely good as ingredients in everything from trail mix to snack bars to muffins and cookies. Yes, you can even make marshmallow treats with Cheerios. Believe it or not, I have a holiday recipe that sculpts Cheerios into little Christmas trees.

And just in case you've ever wondered, it would take 3,155,524,416 Cheerios to encircle the Earth. If you'd like to verify that statistic, go ahead and start lining them up. I'll just dump a few hundred in a bowl and eat 'em, if it's all the same to you.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Weekend in Chattanooga, Tennessee

A few highlights from a recent wonderful weekend in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Highlight number one: our accommodations at the fabulous Chattanooga Choo-Choo. We arrived in Chattanooga about mid-evening on a Friday and had no trouble at all finding our way to the Choo-Choo. (What did we all do before GPS?) Checking in at the front desk located in the historic and beautiful Terminal Station was almost worth the entire trip. The magnificent dome, preserved in its pristine 1908 condition, is a must-see whether you're staying at the hotel or not. But do stay, because the fun is just beginning.

A few Internet “reviewers” made some negative comments about the Choo-Choo, mostly focused on the age of the place and its lack of modern amenities. Ignore them. If you want new, Chattanooga overflows with shiny new places. If you want luxurious, the city's got more than a few of those, too. But if you want unique and historic, there's only one Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

There are a couple of options to consider when staying at the Choo-Choo. One is the railroad cars. Actual vintage rail cars have been converted to modern hotel rooms with each car being divided into two rooms. Okay, so the amenities are not those of a downtown Hilton, but, hey, we're talking about a converted piece of antique railroad history here. Its clean and comfortable and as well-appointed as space allows.

Other accommodations can be found in one of the three “regular” hotel buildings that dot the property. We had a nice king room in Building #1 and it was a perfectly adequate room. No, it didn't have a mini-bar or a microfridge, but it was clean and it had a comfortable bed, a good TV, appropriate side furnishings, a nice tub and shower – all the things a decent room should have. I particularly liked the fact that the heat and air were controlled by a thermostat set in the wall rather than by a loud, clunky unit stuck in or under a window. Parking was adequate and convenient and we were lucky in that Building #1 has an indoor pool. The other two buildings have outdoor pools.

After settling in, we strolled the grounds. Wow! Try to picture an old-time train station platform with a beautiful garden running through it. There are tracks on two sides of the platform upon which the converted rail cars sit, but the remaining tracks have been replaced by gardens and gazebos and even a pond stocked with koi and populated by rather noisy frogs. Gas torches light the area at night, providing an ambiance that can be peaceful or quaint or romantic or almost anything your imagination wants it to be.

There are a number of eateries around the property. Two of them are contained in renovated dining cars. One is a fine-dining establishment and the other is a pizza place. I had to go for the pizza place and was not disappointed. The pizza was great and the price ridiculously cheap. I've paid more for less at chain pizza joints.

Exiting the air-conditioned pizza car into a muggy but pleasant evening, we window shopped some of the unique little stores until we found the ice cream shop. A nice completion of our evening meal.

As we continued our stroll, we came upon a pair of horse-drawn carriages. The driver of our carriage was friendly and informative and the ride itself was both fun and romantic. And reasonable, I might add, priced lower than similar rides I've taken in places like Atlanta, Charleston, and Austin.

Next morning we grabbed a quick bite – muffins and Danish – at a little coffee shop on the premises before embarking on our day in downtown Chattanooga. The city operates a wonderful little electric shuttle service in the downtown area. One terminal is right at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo and the other is just steps away from the fabulous Tennessee Aquarium, our ultimate destination for the day.

It is just flatly amazing what the Aquarium has done to and for downtown Chattanooga. I first visited the place just a few weeks after it opened back in 1992. Let me tell you, when you came out of the Aquarium at that time, all you wanted to do was get safely to your car and get the hell out of the area. Not so anymore! The Aquarium has brought about a transformation to the Chattanooga downtown riverfront area for which there are simply no words. I might try “beautiful,” “exciting,” “vibrant,” or any of a number of other superlatives, but you really have to see it to believe it. And it's all the more stunning if you have a reference point from years ago.

The Aquarium itself, with its twin River Journey and Ocean Journey exhibits, is something that will take at least a half-day to properly experience. You can rush through in a couple of hours but don't. There's a reason the place is billed as “the highest rated aquarium in America” and is consistently cited as being “number one for guest satisfaction.” The River Journey building, housing the largest freshwater tank in the world, will take a little longer to tour than the newer, smaller Ocean Journey, but don't cheat yourself out of a minute. And the commodious plaza surrounding the facility is usually a pretty hopping place, too. There was a neat little street fair going on the day we visited and we spent some time shopping the vendors and enjoying the live music.

Two aspects of the Aquarium of which we did not take advantage this time were the IMAX theater and the River Gorge Explorer, the latter being a 70-passenger high-speed catamaran that cruises into Tennessee's “Grand Canyon,” the Tennessee River Gorge. We'll do both next time, though.

It's safe to say that the area surrounding the Aquarium could take days to properly explore. We didn't have days, so we just hit the highlights, one of which was the beautiful Tennessee Riverwalk, a thirteen mile path that parallels the Tennessee River from the Chickamauga Dam to the downtown area. We didn't traverse the whole thing, of course, but we did follow it for a short distance from the Aquarium up to the Walnut Street Bridge. Gotta go there, folks.

The Walnut Street Bridge is a truss bridge built in 1890 to span the river. The bridge, which has a rich history of its own, carried vehicular traffic up until 1978. After years of neglect and disuse, the structure was renovated, its asphalt surface replaced by wood planks, and it now serves as a popular pedestrian walkway linking downtown Chattanooga to Coolidge Park and its beautifully restored hand-carved wooden carousel. At 2,376 feet, it is one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world. Providing a dynamic view of the city by day and a romantic one at night, the Walnut Street Bridge is not to be missed.

Not far from the Riverwalk and the Bridge is the Bluff View Art District. Here, among the artistic treasures like the Hunter Museum of American Art, can be found some great culinary treasures. I speak in particular of Tony's Pasta Shop and Trattoria.

Once again, there were a few online naysayers who complained about wait times and such. Once again, ignore them. The place is worth the wait. Tony's came highly recommended by a couple of locals, including a desk clerk at the Choo-Choo. A local recommendation always scores points with me.

Located in a renovated Victorian carriage house on the appropriately named High Street, Tony's is a hidden treasure worth seeking out. Now, a tour guide in the downtown area commented that the city must be proud of the few parking spots they have judging from the prices they charge for them. Having ridden the shuttle into downtown, we wound up hoofing it up a hill that was totally inappropriate for an old fat guy and a woman in high heels. In so doing, of course, we worked up quite an appetite and were really looking forward to dinner.

Okay, the place doesn't do reservations and we had to wait to be seated. Twenty-five minutes. Whoopee! I've waited longer at Olive Gardens. And Olive Gardens don't have the wonderful terraces and beautiful views that Tony's has.

Once seated, we were well taken care of by a friendly and efficient waitstaff. And the food was fantastic. I have a thing that I do at new restaurants; I always try the simplest dish first to see how the kitchen does with the basics. If they screw up a plate of spaghetti marinara then I don't hold out much hope for anything else. Tony's most definitely knows how to handle the basics. The pasta fresca was perfectly al dente and the marinara fatta in casa was robust and flavorful. The acid to sweet balance was just right and the herbs and spices were beautifully balanced as well. The online dolt who complained that the sauce tasted “like it came out of a jar” has obviously never had sauce that didn't come out of a jar. The rich dill cream sauce that enrobed my wife's lobster ravioli was similarly tasty and delightful. We split a portion of decadent Italian cream cake, then headed back down the hill, fearing that if we tripped we would surely roll all the way to the bottom.

In short, Tony's was a delight and I will go back there every time I'm in Chattanooga.

After a fabulous dinner, we watched from the Walnut Street Bridge as fireworks filled the downtown skies and then caught the last shuttle back to the Choo-Choo to complete a wonderful day.

Following a great Sunday morning breakfast at the on-premises Garden Restaurant, we took a little twenty-minute tour of the property aboard a 1924-vintage trolley that had seen many years of service in New Orleans before being “retired” to the Choo-Choo complex. As was the case with everybody we met, the conductor was friendly and informative as he pointed out the various historic aspects of the old railroad yard.

Before leaving town we stopped by the Chattanooga Duck station in time to catch the noon duck. I will assume the reader understands that the ducks in question are WWII surplus amphibious vehicles rather than waterfowl. I had ridden a duck many years ago in Wisconsin Dells, but my wife had never had the experience. (We tried to board the ducks in Austin, Texas a few years ago, but were prevented from doing so by excessive flooding. Imagine. A duck being grounded by too much water!)

What a blast! The captain was absolutely marvelous. He was funny, entertaining, informative, laid back, energetic, friendly, authoritative – all at the same time! The splashdown from the city street into the water was exhilarating and the lazy cruise up and down the river – the boat tops out at about six miles per hour – was relaxing and enjoyable. It seemed we were the odd couple among a boatload of teenagers from an Alabama church, but absolutely everybody had a great time.

We left Chattanooga behind with the full realization that we had not even scratched the surface of all that was available to us in the Scenic City. We did not look at any of the Lookout Mountain attractions. We did not see Rock City as dozens of signs had advised us to do. Ruby Falls remained unexplored and we were disinclined to ride the Incline Railroad. And there was no way to fit the shopping mecca that is Hamilton Place Mall into our schedule. You really can't do it all in one weekend. All those attractions – and more – will have to wait for another time. And there will be another time.

In the meantime, here are some places to check out for more information on the Chattanooga attractions we explored. Go. See. Enjoy.

The Chattanooga Choo-Choo: http://www.choochoo.com
The Tennessee Aquarium: http://www.tnaqua.org
Tony's Pasta Shop and Trattoria: http://www.bluffviewartdistrict.com
Chattanooga Ducks: http://www.chattanoogaducks.com

Everything else: http://www.chattanoogafun.com/attractions