Pages

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, October 28, 2014

Bialetti Aeternum Ceramic-Coated Cookware

My New Favorite Non-Stick Cookware

These days, you can't sling a dead chicken in an American kitchen without it landing in a piece of non-stick cookware. Go to any major discount retailer and you'll find non-stick cookware of all kinds at all price points. Some of it is cheap generic stuff and some bears the name of your favorite high-dollar celebrity chef, replete with concomitant price tag.

Now, I don't use non-stick cookware for everything. In fact, I don't use it for much of anything. For instance, if you want to make a pan sauce using the bits of fond that stick to the bottom of the pan, you're out of luck with non-stick because......well......nothing sticks. No stickee, no saucee. And most non-stick cookware is not oven-safe and not real friendly with high temperatures in general. So for most of my cooking applications I stick with.......pardon the pun.......high quality stainless steel, seasoned carbon steel, or good ol' practically invincible cast iron.

But there are some things for which non-stick cookware is a must. Eggs, for example. I don't know anybody, pro or home cook, who doesn't use non-stick for eggs. And non-stick is fabulous for sauteing vegetables. You don't need a lot of oil with non-stick cookware.

As I said, non-stick cookware is available everywhere these days. Good quality non-stick cookware is a little harder to find. In general, good quality cookware is a cook's best friend. And I do mean good quality. You can trundle on down to a discount retailer and pick up a five-kajillion-piece set of non-stick cookware for ten dollars. Not only will you get what you pay for, but you'll continue to pay for it every time you incinerate something in it.

Non-stick cookware has a relatively short lifespan. Some of the cheap, discount store stuff can be ruined the first time you use it. But even the manufacturers of better quality cookware project a useful life of between three and five years. Much depends, of course, on how you use and/or abuse it.

Non-stick has come a long way since Teflon. There used to be a lot of health concerns centered around Teflon and other PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid ) non-stick coatings. Some of them were deserved. Older coatings often emitted a noxious gas when heated to high temperatures. And you know the age-old question, “If nothing sticks to Teflon, how do they get Teflon to stick to anything?” Well......sometimes not very effectively. The older coatings were notorious for pitting, peeling, and flaking off. Not only are flakes of polytetrafluoroethylene not generally called for in most recipes, the underlying perfluorooctanoic acid emulsifier was not good eats, either.

Ceramic non-stick coatings are all the rage today. Bypassing the toxic effects of older substances, these coatings most commonly utilize a combination of ceramic silicate powder and titanium that is sandblasted onto a pan's surface and then fired to a temperature of about 2000° F. This produces what many manufacturers tout as an “eco-friendly” and “safe” yet durable non-stick surface.

I'm a big fan of ceramic coatings. I have a beautiful ceramic-coated cast iron Dutch oven that is absolutely wonderful for soups and stews and braises and just about anything else you can think of. The biggest drawback is that my wife can barely lift it. With the lid in place, that rascal weighs in at just shy of fifteen pounds, empty.

Anyway, when it came time to replace some of my old non-stick stuff, I knew I wanted to go ceramic. I had heard of Bialetti's new “Aeternum” line, and then I saw one of my favorite Italians, Fabio Viviani, using it on his online “Chow Ciao!” cooking program. So I decided to give it a try. I'm very glad I did.

“Aeternum” saute pans are available in 8-inch, 10.25-inch, and 12-inch sizes. With a colorful exterior and a brilliant white interior, they are not only functional but kinda pretty, as cookware goes. The “Aeternum” line has recently expanded to include an 8-piece set that contains the aforementioned 8-inch and 10.25-inch saute pans as well as a 2 qt covered saucepan, a 2.5 qt covered saucepan, and a 5 qt covered stockpot. Other open stock pieces, such as a square griddle, are also available.

Here's the description from the Bialetti website at http://bialettishop.com/CWAeternumMain.htm :

Our beautiful "Aeternum" line of cookware combines a beautiful design with modern eco friendly cooking technology for best results.

The eco friendly Aeternum cookware line is free of PFOA, free of PTFE and free of Cadmium.

The interior features a new "nano-ceramic" coating which is a water-based coating made of titanium and suspended silicate micro-particles (the main component of glass); one of the purest and most ecological materials in nature. This material resists scratches, abrasions and offers a smooth, compact and uniform surface that makes it easier to clean. The white color provides a unique and extraordinary cooking experience.

The base provides excellent thermal conductivity and guarantees optimum heat distribution resulting in less energy required to maintain desired cooking temperature. The also scratch resistant hi-temp silicone exterior makes this cookware easy to clean (recommended hand-wash only).

Our Aeternum cookware is suitable for use on gas, electric, glass and ceramic stoves and is manufactured in China.

I'm not too much on that “manufactured in China” line, and I don't know that company founder Alfonso Bialetti would be either. But then again my genuine “Original Panama Jack” hat also says “Made in China” on the tag inside. Things are what they are, I suppose.

Regardless, the Bialetti brand has a great track record for quality. And the cookware is reasonably priced. The 8-inch saute pan retails for around $20 at most places. The whole 8-piece set goes for about $130.

I've read a couple of critical reviews from people who complain of pitting and chipping. And they say that the coating “bubbles” after a very short period of use. I'm sorry. These people obviously don't know how to handle non-stick cookware. You have to baby it a little. You can't just throw it in the dishwasher. It says so right in the instructions that most folks don't bother to read. You can't use metal utensils or abrasive cleaners. It's not oven-safe and you really shouldn't use high heat on the cooktop. That goes for any kind of non-stick cookware. So if you stick your new Bialetti “Aeterum” saute pan on a super hot burner, use a metal fork or spatula, then toss it in the dishwasher, guess what? The coating is going to pit and chip and probably bubble. Duh!

I've had my 10.25-inch pan for a couple of years and I've yet to see the first mark or mar on the coating. The red bottom has darkened a little with use, but the white interior is just as bright and flawless as it was the day I got it. And it is easily the best non-stick surface I've ever used. You don't need much of anything by way of oil or butter when you cook. A few drops of olive oil or a quick spritz of non-stick cooking spray is all I ever need to turn out perfectly sauteed or pan-fried food. It is absolutely my “go to” pan for eggs. And clean up is a breeze. The surface wipes clean with hot soapy water and a dish cloth. My wife loves the Bialetti non-stick as much as I do, so I'll probably wind up acquiring the whole set eventually. (Are you listening, Santa?) I recently purchased the 8-inch pan. My old 8-inch non-stick saute pan had seen better days, having fallen off the pot rack a time or two. You see, most non-stick cookware is made of aluminum, a relatively soft metal not noted for enjoying a fall from six or seven feet in the air. So in addition to being very well used, it was also quite out of round. I really needed a new one, and the Bialetti was perfetto.

So if you're in the market for some affordable, good quality non-stick cookware, don't look for a celebrity chef's picture on the label. Just look for l'omino con i baffi. That's what they call “the mustachioed little man,” a caricature of Alfonso's son Renato, who serves as the company's mascot. Well, nowadays Fabio's picture is on some of the packaging, too. But the other little Italian guy has been around for many years. And with proper use and care, so will your Bialetti “Aeternum” cookware. 

Buona cucina!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Béchamel: A Real “Mother” of a Sauce

One of Many Things the Italians Taught the French

Béchamel is one of the five “mother sauces” in classic French cuisine. It is known as besciamella or occasionally balsamella in Italian and is simply called “white sauce” in English. It is comprised of
three principal ingredients: fat (usually butter), flour, and milk.

Like so many other culinary elements, the French probably stole......er......acquired béchamel from Italian chefs who accompanied Caterina de' Medici to France in the 16th century and then proclaimed it to be their own. Many French chefs debate and deny this, but they would because they are French and spend a lot of time in denial. Balsamella had been around in Tuscany and Emilia for a long time before the French co-opted it and renamed it in order to flatter a French marquis.

Politics and origin aside, béchamel is one of the simplest sauces to make – and one of the easiest to screw up. French culinary authority Auguste Escoffier deemed it to be a “mother” sauce because it is the basis of so many other preparations. It is a key component in lasagna and other pasta dishes and casseroles. It is essential to a good soufflé and forms the base for most cream soups. I make killer creamed potatoes with a béchamel sauce and if you mix in some sausage and pour it over fresh, hot biscuits, you'll be on the express train to Flavortown. (Gotta quit watching Guy Fieri.) Add cheese to béchamel for a Mornay sauce, without which decent macaroni and cheese would be impossible. Besides imparting flavor, béchamel does wonders for the texture of a dish, retaining moisture and adding a richness not achievable by other means.

Here's what you need for a basic béchamel:

1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon of flour
1 cup of milk
salt, to taste
freshly ground nutmeg (optional)

Obviously, you can increase your yield based upon your needs. Just keep your ratios in mind.

A perfect béchamel sauce begins with a roux. (That's pronounced “roo” for all you non-Frenchy types.) A roux is what you get when you cook flour and fat together. The result is the most efficient thickener there is for sauces and gravies. You make a roux by melting butter and then adding in an equal portion of flour. If you want to know why this works, I'll can tell you in one word: gelatinization. When you heat flour in fat, it causes the release of starches in the flour. These starches swell and bond with surrounding liquids, creating a gel and causing the desired thickening effect.

Some varieties of roux call for lard, vegetable oil, or other fats, but butter is by far the most common ingredient. Some recipes specify clarified butter, but regular butter works just as well for most purposes. As with most cooking or baking preparations, using unsalted butter allows more control over salt content in the finished dish, but if salted butter is all you have available, it'll work. Just make sure to taste for seasoning before adding more salt.

The longer you cook a roux, the darker and more flavorful it gets. You don't want an overpowering flavor in béchamel, so you only cook your roux until it turns a very light brown, two or three minutes. Long enough for the raw flour flavor to cook out. The texture of your sauce will depend on the texture of your roux. Generally speaking, you want to use equal portions of flour and butter. But if you're looking for a thicker sauce, you can add a little more flour.

Stir, stir, stir! Keep it moving. Keep stirring or whisking that roux. If you just throw the flour into the butter and walk away, you'll have...........well, you won't have a roux. Constant stirring is essential. Once your roux has formed, it should look like something between a thick slurry and a blob of lightly colored paste, depending on how much flour you used and how thick you want it to turn out. Now you're ready to add the milk and get your sauce going.

The best results come from using warm milk. The more anal among recipe writers will instruct you to “scald” your milk. Scalding involves heating the milk to around 180°. This used to be necessary in order to kill bacteria and to destroy enzymes that inhibited thickening. These days, unless you're getting your milk direct from the cow instead of the refrigerator, it's pasteurized and you don't need to do that anymore. Just stick it in the microwave for about a minute. Or warm it in a pan on the stove. Cold milk straight from the fridge might cause your sauce to “break.” In non-kitchen terms, that means it'll separate. There are ways to fix a broken sauce, but it's easier to do it right the first time. Cold milk also tends to form lumps.

Add the warm milk a little at a time and whisk or stir until it combines smoothly with the roux. If you dump it all in at once, you'll get lumps. If you use too much milk, you'll get a runny sauce. If you don't use enough, you'll get wallpaper paste. See why it's so easy to screw this up? And keep stirring! At first, you're going to look at the mess you're creating and say, “Oh my stars! (Or words to that effect.) This looks terrible! I must be doing something wrong.” Patience, grasshopper. Keep adding and stirring. It'll all magically come together and you'll really impress yourself.

Once you get a smooth sauce of the desired consistency, keep stirring and bring it to a boil. Don't let it bubble vigorously. Once you see bubbles, drop the heat back and let the sauce simmer for another five or six minutes. Did I mention to keep stirring?

Remove the pan from the heat and taste the sauce for seasoning. Add salt as needed. Some folks like a little pepper in there. If you want to be really fancy and esthetically pleasing, use white pepper instead of black. Nutmeg, while not a necessity, does add a nice depth of flavor to the sauce.

If you're not going to use the sauce right away, that's okay. It'll hold until everything's ready. But press a piece of plastic wrap down onto the surface of the sauce to keep a skin from forming. I don't mean cover the pan with plastic. I mean put the plastic right on the sauce. Seriously. Don't hold it too long, though. If you keep the sauce on the stove over really low heat, you'll be okay for maybe thirty minutes. After that, the heat will start changing the flavor. You can refrigerate béchamel as long as you keep it well covered. When you're ready to use it, warm it up slowly, stirring frequently. Béchamel loves to be stirred and the longer you stir it, the smoother it gets.

If your sauce turns out too runny, don't try to reduce it. Reducing is a fancy kitchen term for cooking a sauce over medium heat in order to evaporate liquid and concentrate flavor. And it'll royally screw up a béchamel. Instead, employ another fancy French technique called a buerre manie. (It means “kneaded butter.”) Take equal amounts of cold butter and flour and mush them together to form a ball. Drop the ball into the warm sauce and eccolo! The butter melts, releasing the flour and its thickening starches without making a lumpy sauce. (“Eccolo!” is sort of the Italian equivalent of “voilà!” I just figured I'd used more than enough French words today.)

Conversely, if your sauce seems too thick, add small amounts of milk – remember to stir – until it thins out to where you want it. Just don't go overboard with the milk or you'll wind up with a great pan of warm milk for hot chocolate. You'll have to add more butter and flour and pretty soon you'll have a big vat of sauce when you only needed a cup. Or, of course, you can start all over.

It's really not as hard as it sounds and the benefits of a well-made béchamel are more than worth the effort. Practice and consistency are the keys. And did I mention stirring?

Buon appetito!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Americanized Italian Names

How Do You Tell Somebody Their Name is “Wrong”?

“Hey, buddy! You're saying your name wrong.” That's not something you hear every day, but if you're Italian-American it just might be true.

Of course, “wrong” is very subjective. Whether given at birth or adopted later on, your name is your name and you are free to spell and/or pronounce it any way you like. For example, former MLB player Matt Diaz pronounces his last name “DYE-az.” Never mind that everybody else says “DEE-az,” which is linguistically correct since there is no long “i” sound in Spanish. When Matt's grandfather emigrated from Spain, he wanted to be different. So “DYE-az” it became. This caused confusion in the press booth and aggravated Hispanics who considered that Matt was “mispronouncing” his name, but there it is. Anglicizing/Americanizing ethnic-sounding surnames is something that happens in all cultures. But when it comes right down to it, nobody beats the Italians for “mispronouncing” names.

A popular example comes from “The Godfather” movies and the Corleone family. Notice that about half the characters in the movies pronounce the name as “core-lee-OWN” and the other half say “core-lee-OHN-eh.” Dropping the final “e” is probably the most common alteration of a traditional Italian name. Look at singer Joey Fatone. It's not really “fah-TONE;” it's “fah-TOH-nay.” Same goes for “Iron Chef” Marc Forgione and his famous father, Larry Forgione. Both men pronounce their name “for-gee-OWN.” But in Italian, it should be “for-JYOH-nay.” Names that end in “e-s-e” are also prone to change. I was watching a documentary that featured Italian-American mob figure Michael Franzese. And he was pronouncing his name “fran-SEEZ.” Another Italian guy called him “fran-ZAY-say,” which, from a linguistic standpoint, is correct. I know an Italian-American doctor who calls himself “guh-DICE,” but his name, Giudice, would actually be “JEW-dee-chay” in Italian. So why do all these sons of Italy – and so many other Italian-Americans – pronounce their names “wrong”?

For better or worse, we live in an age of diversity, wherein “different” is okay. It's okay to look different, it's okay to sound different, and it's okay to have an unusual or “different” name. But it wasn't always that way. A hundred years or so ago, anybody “different” was looked upon with suspicion, if not outright hostility. You had to look American, act American, and sound American in order to be American. Anything else and you not only directed suspicion and hostility toward yourself and your family, you also limited your opportunities. A recent study showed that immigrants to the United States in the early years of the 20th century earned as much as fourteen percent less if they failed to change their names to something that sounded “American.”

The entertainment industry is a good example. Many of today's actors, singers, and entertainers have “foreign” names. Sometimes it even makes them more popular and “exotic.” But as recently as fifty years ago, it was still standard practice to change an ethnic name to something “American” in order to enhance box office or chart appeal. In fact, a lot of Italian-American entertainers followed this practice. Sometimes they made the decision on their own, but most often it was made on the advice of their agents. Would Dino Paul Crocetti have been as popular as “Dean Martin?” Would teenagers have gone as crazy over Walden Robert Cassotto as they did over “Bobby Darin?” Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero would never have fit on a marquee as well as “Connie Francis” did. And although Madonna became enormously popular by using just her first name, I wonder what would have happened if she had insisted on being “Madonna Louise Ciccone?” Of course, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta bypassed the issue by calling herself “Lady Gaga.”

Most Italian immigrants didn't entirely change their Italian names. Many just “Americanized” them. Immigrant chef Ettore Boiardi got tired of Americans mangling his name, so he made it easier for them to pronounce. He started calling himself Hector Boyardee. You know him as “Chef Boyardee.”

But most Italian immigrants didn't become famous. They changed the spelling or pronunciation of their names for different reasons. In the early days of immigration to the United States, the mindset of the immigrant was entirely different from what it later became. They wanted to distance themselves as far as possible from their native countries and to start entirely new lives as Americans. They weren't interested in being Italian-American or Irish-American or Franco-American or Mexican-American or any kind of American that involved a hyphen. They just wanted to be American. In a land where all their neighbors were called “Smith” or “Jones” or “Johnson” or “Brown,” traditional Italian names that ended in vowels didn't “sound” American enough, so they simply dropped the final vowel. Or they adopted the English language convention of the “silent” vowel, something that doesn't exist in Italian. Thus, someone whose name ended in “o-n-e,” instead of pronouncing it “OH-nay” as they had back in Italy, they now pronounced it “OWN.” It just sounded less foreign that way.

Many immigrants didn't effect the change themselves. They had it forced on them by people who simply couldn't pronounce their names. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people who worked in government offices often held their jobs based on their ability to read and write. But they didn't necessarily have to read or write well. Refer back to “The Godfather: Part 2.” Remember the part where the clerk at Ellis Island processed young Vito Andolini from the town of Corleone and arbitrarily dubbed him “Vito Corleone?” That happened all the time. And the enumerators who conducted the US Census were notorious for spelling names the way they heard them. That's how some of my Italian forebears went from being “Violi” to being “Vallee.” And it wasn't always the fault of a government clerk. Oftentimes it was just the neighbors. My grandparents' parish priest was Father Sansone. He pronounced it “sahn-SOH-nay,” but many of his rural American parishioners couldn't get the hang of that and called him “Father San-SOWN.” He answered to both, but he, himself, always used and preferred the proper Italian pronunciation. I don't know why, but Italian names just seem to be beyond many American's linguistic limits.

Historically, political climates have also had a lot of influence on the pronunciation of “foreign” names. During WWI, the British royal family changed its surname from the decidedly German-sounding Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to a more properly British-sounding “Windsor.” And when Benito Mussolini was flexing his fascist muscles in Italy in the years leading up to WWII, Italian-Americans were dropping final vowels and silencing final “e”s all over the place. Being identified as an Italian was not a popular thing in an America soon to be on the outs with Italy.

Much is said about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Often forgotten, however, is the plight of Italian-Americans during the war years when nearly 600,000 Italian-American citizens were branded as “enemy aliens.” They were required to register with authorities and carry cards identifying them as such. They were prohibited from traveling more than five miles from their homes without permission. They were not permitted to own firearms, radios, cameras, or even flashlights – considered to be “signaling devices.” And on the West Coast, they were subjected to an 8 PM to 6 AM curfew. The FBI arrested around 1,500 Italian-Americans between December 1941 and June 1942. Most were quickly released, but about 250 spent up to two years in internment camps.

In odd contrast, an estimated 1.2 million Italian-Americans served in the U.S. military during WWII. The only enlisted Marine in U.S. history to win the nation's two highest military honors -- the Navy Cross and the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor – was Italian-American John Basilone, a U.S. Marine sergeant, who died at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

These wartime conditions left indelible marks in the Italian-American community. Signs and flyers were posted directing “enemy aliens” to “speak American.” As a result, many Italian-Americans stopped speaking their mother language altogether. Others Americanized their names or otherwise attempted to distance themselves from their heritage.

Generations have passed since these early days of immigration and war. Many modern Italian-Americans don't even realize their names are “wrong” in the traditional Italian sense. The doctor to whom I referred earlier had no idea how to pronounce his name in Italian. He said it the way his parents and his grandparents always said it. It was just his name. He said it the way he was taught to say it. He didn't know there was a “proper” pronunciation. (He also didn't know his name means “judge” in Italian.) That's very common among second, third, or fourth generation Italian-Americans who know little or nothing about the native language of their ancestors. And I'm not inferring that Italian-Americans who maintain their Anglicized names are less proud of their Italian heritage. That's certainly not the case in the big Italian-American enclaves of New York and New Jersey. Those people may pronounce their names wrong and they may butcher the hell out of the beautiful Italian language with bastardized words like “pro-SHOOT” and “moot-sah-RELL” and “ri-GOT,” but when it comes to ethnic pride, nobody waves the Italian flag higher than they do.

In the end, though, I think the reason most Italian-Americans tolerate the mispronunciations of their names and their language is because they are, at heart, a very humble, unassuming, and polite people. Unlike the French, who will beat you about the head and shoulders over the slightest linguistic transgression, Italians are grateful that you even attempt to recognize or speak their language and they are much more inclined to overlook minor flaws and defects in pronunciation. Unfortunately for those transgressors I encounter, I have French blood mixed in with the Italian, so I tend to be much less tolerant. That's why I involuntarily flinch and cringe every time some restaurant server tries to sell me “broo-SHET-uh” and “MARE-uh-NARE-uh.” But that's a rant for another time.

Thing is, even though Italians and Italian-Americans are very humble people, they don't have to be. They have every right to be proud of their heritage and shouldn't feel compelled to accept ignorance and disrespect. Even if America wasn't necessarily “discovered” by an Italian, Cristoforo Colombo did quite a lot for its ultimate development. The “new” continents themselves were named for an Italian, Amerigo Vespucci. Although not an immigrant, few can dispute the impact Guglielmo Marconi, “the Father of Radio,” had on America and on the world. Next time you drop by a local branch of your bank, think of Amadeo Pietro Giannini, founder of the Bank of America, who instituted the practice of branch banking in the United States. One Antonio Meucci actually “invented” the telephone; Alexander Graham Bell just beat him to the patent office. Do you like orange juice or coffee with your breakfast? Tropicana founder Anthony Rossi pioneered the pasteurization of orange juice, and while Vince Marotta didn't actually invent coffee, he did invent “Mr. Coffee.” Do you own a battery-operated device? You wouldn't if not for the pioneering work of Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta. The list goes on and on. Do we even have to mention Dante, Michelangelo, DaVinci, Botticelli and their contemporaries? No, when it comes to impacting the world, Italians don't have to stand in line behind anybody.

As I stated at the outset, your name is your name and it is your prerogative to say it and spell it any way you see fit. Add a syllable, drop a letter, or say it backward while standing on one foot, it's all up to you. If you think of yourself as Italian, just consider that in the beautiful, lyrical, exquisite language from which your name is derived, there is most likely a wrong way and a right way to say it. And, because of social, political, and historical factors beyond your control, you could be saying it wrong.

Soltanto un po di cibo per il pensiero.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The California Plastic Bag Ban Kerfuffle

Is This the End of Modern Civilization?

It looks like California has gone and done it. With one stroke of a pen, Governor Jerry Brown has brought about the end of modern civilization. At least that's what some people would like you to believe. And what heinous act has the elected leader of the country's most populous state committed that would bring about such a horrific societal cataclysm? He banned plastic bags, that's what. He coldly, callously, calculatedly killed a colossal convenience cash cow.

SB270 takes effect in July of 2015. Under the measure, single-use plastic bags – like the ones you bring home from the grocery store – will be phased out at large supermarkets and discounters like Walmart and Target. Convenience stores and pharmacies will have until the following summer to get rid of their plastic bags. The ban does not affect the little green bags in the produce department nor does it impact the big shopping bags department stores sometimes hand out. Just the cheap, common, ubiquitous bags that seem to blow across highways like tumbleweeds from one side of the continent to the other.

I live on the other coast, but I can hear the shrieking carried on the west wind from special interest groups already planning massive protests. The outfit that represents plastic bag manufacturers – go figure – is leading the charge, claiming that the move will be disastrous across the board. They're trotting out the old “lost jobs” horse and flogging it mercilessly and by some queer twist of logic, they are predicting dire environmental consequences.

Wait a minute. Back up the garbage truck. You mean the fact that more than 4 billion bags are littered across the landscape or washed out to sea every year does not constitute a dire environmental consequence? That only 7% of the bags produced annually are ever recycled and that the remaining 93% are either blowing around my backyard or piling up in landfills where they will reside unchanged for the next millennium does not have an environmental impact? Come on! Promoting a special interest is one thing. Pandering to our stupidity for the sake of their cupidity is something entirely different. Do they really think the public is so moronic it cannot see through the transparently specious spectacle they are making of themselves?

Tens of thousands of people thrown out of work? Uh.....no. Not if the factories retool and make something else. Like reusable bags maybe?

Of course, the whole issue would not be a true kerfuffle without politics. The hue and cry spreading from San Diego to Del Norte bemoans the fact that the new law allows grocers to charge up to ten cents for paper bags. The utter nonsense and intemperate billingsgate being ginned up over a dime is amazing to behold. The new law “would fleece consumers for billions so grocery store shareholders and their union partners can line their pockets,” fulminates one plastic bag industry hack. It “unfairly penalizes consumers,” cries a rep for the paper bag industry. I think my favorite idiotic argument comes from a man who lives on a fixed income: “It becomes a flat tax on senior citizens.”

I'm a senior citizen. Let me clue you in to a few things. One of the benefits of being around for awhile is an expanded life experience that extends beyond last week. If you are under 40 years of age, you cannot recall life without plastic grocery bags. However, if you've got a few more years under your belt, you can. I was a bag boy in a local grocery store back in the '60s. Guess what? There were no plastic bags. Every order I sacked up went into paper bags. We had big ones, medium-sized ones, small ones, and even itty-bitty ones, depending upon the size and number of items. The bags were sturdy and, if packed properly, held infinitely more than their flimsy plastic successors. And more securely, I might add. Paper bags stood upright in the back seat or trunk and could be clustered together in such a way as to almost guarantee they would remain that way throughout the ride home. Okay, they didn't have handles and you couldn't carry six of them in one hand. But if you packed the bag right – the way every bag boy was taught to do – two paper bags would hold as much product as six plastic ones.

In short, we don't need plastic bags to ensure our survival as a species.

Now, for the guy who's worried about going bankrupt over that dime, let me offer a suggestion: fold up the bag when you get it home and use it next time you go to the store. My mom had a bin in the pantry where the paper bags went to live after they were emptied. We used them for everything. Some of them became trash can liners, some went on to live as storage containers, a few were made into book covers for my schoolbooks, and the rest went back to the grocery store every week. I'd say a good sturdy paper bag made about ten trips back to the store before it got demoted to trash can duty. You may call getting ten uses out of a dime a “flat tax.” I call it a thrifty use of a reusable resource.

An even more thrifty use can be made of reusable canvas or cloth bags. Most stores sell them for under a buck and they last freakin' forever. I've got a few that have been around for ten years. Not a bad return on a dollar, wouldn't you say? They've got handles so you can carry bunches of 'em and when they get a little dirty, take the cardboard bottoms out and toss the bags in the washer. The old bag boy in me has taken time to instruct some of the bagger kids at the supermarket where I shop. One teenage girl elevated me to genius level because I showed her how to frame up the inside of the bag with cereal boxes and then put canned or packaged stuff inside the “walls” formed by the boxes. She had never conceived of such a thing! And she had certainly never been taught how to do it. She immediately passed her newfound knowledge on to her co-workers. When packed properly, canvas bags are equal to or better than paper and infinitely superior to plastic. No matter how you pack them, plastic bags sag, lose cohesive shape, and spill their contents all over the cargo area of your vehicle. Repacking all the bags when you get home gets pretty old pretty quick.

I have a “bag-o-bags” in my pantry. Inside one ginormous insulated bag, (which I use for cold stuff when I shop), I have about twenty reusable canvas bags all neatly folded and awaiting their next use. When I head out to the store, I grab one or two or six or however many I think I'm going to need. And rather than be caught flatfooted and bagless on an impromptu shopping foray, I also keep a half-dozen bags in the trunk of my car.

I went to a store the other day and bought one item about the size of my cellphone. I had not bothered to grab a bag from the trunk because I was just getting one item the size of my cellphone. The young man ringing up my solitary item proceeded to reach for a plastic bag in which to place it. “No, thank you,” I said. “Just give me my receipt and we'll save a plastic tree.” I often do this for small purchases. And sometimes, if I'm making a lot of small purchases at a number of stores, I'll have one or two canvas bags waiting in the car. Into these I will transfer said small items, often putting ten or twenty small purchases in one bag. It makes a lot more sense than accumulating twenty cheap plastic bags for twenty items the size of my cellphone. Don't worry. If you're riding public transportation, they won't charge you any more for one canvas bag than they would for twenty plastic ones and you won't have as much junk to juggle.

Another plus for the “flat tax” worry warts; many of the stores I frequent offer discounts to shoppers who bring their own bags. Usually, it's a nickel. So, let's say you paid a buck for a bag. Twenty uses and it has paid for itself. You call that a tax? I call it a rebate.

Unfortunately, the bottom bottom line for most people these days can be summed up in one word: convenience. If it ain't quick, easy, handy, cheap, free, or otherwise personally advantageous, they ain't gonna do it. Never mind the indisputable fact that plastic bags clog up our landfills. Forget that they turn into floating islands in our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Forgo the notion that they create unsightly litter on a massive scale and often prove hazardous to wildlife. And don't even consider that they are made of – hello? – oil, thereby increasing our reliance on an increasingly unstable and expensive resource. No, you go right ahead and insist on your convenience. And heaven forbid you should have to fork over a dime to help preserve your planet. Hell, you'll be dead in a few years anyway and it won't be your problem anymore.

So, let the American Progressive Bag Alliance – yes, there really is such an entity – proceed with its plan to combat California’s new legislation with a referendum. The law's sponsors rightly believe that the state's citizens will see through the obvious BS and do the right thing by appropriately adapting their behavior. And, as Gov. Brown stated when signing the bill, “We're the first to ban these bags, and we won't be the last.” Looking at the number of communities that have already enacted similar bans and at the growing number of states considering them, I think he's right.

Single-use plastic bags were first foisted off on a creature comfort-driven society in the mid-1970s and that society has since become addicted to them. Paper bags, the whiz-bang convenience items of their day, were introduced in the mid-1800s. Before that, our forebears managed quite nicely with canvas sacks and totes. George and Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas and Martha Jefferson and all their revolutionary friends toted their own sacks to Ye Olde Colonial Grocery Store. If it was good enough for them, why isn't it good enough for us? Let us once again declare our independence from tyranny! The tyranny of cheap, single-use plastic! The time has come, my fellow Americans, to go back to the future!

Seriously, folks. Go out and buy a couple of reusable bags. And then remember to use them. Save a plastic tree.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

You Can't Get Pizza in Italy

American Pizza Chains Avoid the “Mother Country”

October is National Pizza Month in the good ol' US of A. It's also Italian-American Heritage Month.
The two just go together like cheese and pepperoni, right? Except that you can't get pepperoni on a pizza in Italy. By American standards, you can't even get pizza in Italy.

Go ahead. Look up the number for Pizza Hut in Rome. I'll wait.............hmmmmm.........can't seem to find it, huh? That's okay. I'll settle for a slice or two from Domino's in Naples. What? Can't find that number either? Well, surely there must be a Little Caesar's somewhere near the Colosseum. After all, Big Caesar hung out there. Really? No luck?

Who would believe that the biggest pizza makers in the world don't make pizzas in Italy? Actually, that would be pizze, the proper plural of “pizza.” “Pizzas” is an entirely American word. In much the same way as pepperoni pizza is an entirely American creation. Which is probably why none of the Big Three pizza purveyors peddle their product in the “Mother Country.” Nobody would buy it.

Italian pizza is to American pizza what a prize fight is to a street brawl: some of the components are the same, but the techniques are utterly different. And even though Italians outspend Americans by almost 4 to 1 in per capita pizza purchasing, not a single funny red roof, spotted game piece, or goofy little emperor figure can be found anywhere from the heel to the top of the boot.

But surely the American pizza titans must be chomping at the bit to take their version of the All-Italian favorite back home, right? Not so much. A Pizza Hut spokesperson claims, “Italy does not fit with our brand story.” Whatever the hell that means. A rep for Little Caesar's says, "Our initial focus is more on the developing countries rather than the developed." He then talks about expanding into Canada.

I guess the effect would be about the same as opening a Taco Bell in Mexico or a P.F. Chang's in China. Nobody but American tourists would eat there. And that would be largely because many of them are too damn stupid to know better. Case in point, a comment I found on Yahoo! while researching this subject: “At the risk of a million thumbs down, the pizza in Italy is not the same as Pizza Hut, or any other pizza place in North America. We missed good food there. (Even the week with a tour that took us to supposedly good upscale places) My heart jumped in Naples when I saw the McDonald's at the train station. Loved everything.” How do you answer that? Let me try. “Of course it's not the same, you palate-numbed idiot. The pizza in Italy is actually good!!” Pardon me while I get over hyperventilating.

A little more research discovered that there is, indeed, a Pizza Hut in Rome. And it got five-and-a-half stars on Yelp. It's on Martha Berry Highway in Rome, Georgia and may I highly recommend it to the adventurous world traveler whose heart jumped at the sight of McDonald's. Funny, his heart jumps and my stomach drops. Oh, well. He might also try the Domino's I found in Naples. It got a half-star less on Yelp, so it may not be as good as the Pizza Hut in Rome, but head on over to Tamiami Trail North in Naples, Florida and try it for yourself. There's even a Little Caesar's in Florence (SC) and a Hungry Howie's (don't know how we left that one off the list) in Venice. (That would be the Venice with a beach in Florida rather than the one with the canals in Italy.) Hey, it's the best list I could come up with. You can still tell people you went to Pizza Hut in Rome, capisci? They'll never know.

Seriously, there is an Italian equivalent of fast-food pizza......sort of. It's a chain place called “Spizzico.” The word is a derivative of “spizzicare,” Italian for “nibble.” You can find them in airports, train stations, shopping malls and such, where they serve rather huge slices of pizza along with such traditional Italian fare as French fries and soda. You can dine in or take out. That should make Mr. Heart Jumper feel right at home.

So in summation, may I heartily recommend you honor, observe, and/or celebrate National Pizza Month the way any good Italian would? Avoid Pizza Hut, Domino's, Little Caesar's, Papa John's, Papa Murphy's, Sbarro, CiCi's, Godfather's, and, yes, even Hungry Howie's and go out and find yourself a real pizza place somewhere. You probably have one near you. I'm writing from a small town in the middle of nowhere and there are at least ten fairly authentic, real Italian pizza joints run by real Italians located within twenty-five miles. Any and all of them are vastly superior to any and all of the aforementioned. In fact, I drove by one of my favorite places earlier today.

Would you believe my heart jumped when I saw it?