Wednesday, August 27, 2014

O doughnut chain! U.S. snatches Canada's sweet round heart

     Brand loyalty is a funny thing.
     Because it’s a kind of love.
     And love is a funny thing.
     Take Burger King.
     I do not love Burger King because I’ve never loved Burger King. McDonald’s, all shiny white and red tile, showed up and won me when I was a wee lad. They didn’t offer seating, and you ate in your car, itself a thrill for a 6-year-old. McDonald’s lodged in the spot in my heart—metaphorically, though it probably lodged in an actual spot in my physical heart as well, though I try not to think of it—a place reserved for cheap, fast, alternatingly repulsive-and-attractive food.
     But Burger King? The first one I remember is on Orrington Avenue in Evanston across from what was then the Northwestern Apartments. Eating there was a sign that I had absolutely nowhere else to eat. And the odd thing is, I’ve always believed that Burger King burgers, flame-broiled on toasted buns, taste better than McDonald’s predigested mash of a burger. No matter. I still prefer McDonald’s, the way you love your mother and not the more fun and more interesting neighbor lady down the street.
     Love is a funny thing.
     So had the news Tuesday been that Burger King was going out of business, except for sincere sorrow at the loss of jobs; I’d be indifferent. Ta-ta, BK Lounge.
     But instead the news is that BK is buying Tim Hortons, the Canadian doughnut chain, and while we barely note it in passing here, north of the border it is a huge deal.
“Why not just cancel hockey while we’re at it?” The Globe and Mail editorialized.
     The name Tim Hortons might not resonate with you if you’ve never been to Canada. (Although, really, never? It’s a five-hour drive. Go. They have the metric system and different colored money and everything).
     The word people tend to use over and over to describe Tim Hortons is “beloved”
     “Extremely beloved,” said Robyn Doolittle,  star reporter at the Globe and Mail and author of “Crazy Town,” a new best-seller chronicling her city’s doughnut-larded mayor, Rob Ford. “It’s as much a part of our culture as hockey is and we do love our hockey.  It’s such a ritual part of life, especially small town life. You drop you kid off at hockey and grab your Tim Hortons.”

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Experience is the teacher of all things

     "Experience is the teacher of all things," Julius Caesar wrote, in his Commentary on the Civil Wars.
     That's obvious, of course. But sometimes, particularly amongst us brainy folk, it can come as a rude little surprise. We expect to learn things from books, to pick up new facts in conversation, but there's something a little head-slapping about life taking you by the hand and showing you the best way to do a thing through the process of you doing it wrong first. You feel a little thick, like you should have known.
      We were on vacation, traveling through the South a few weeks back, accompanied by Kitty, our adorable little dog. Every morning she gets a packetful of this gloppy dog food. At home, I peel back the foil, grab a spoon from the cutlery drawer, scoop the food into her bowl with the spoon, then deposit the spoon in the sink for cleaning.
      But in a dim morning motel room, there was no spoon handy, so I improvised and used the foil lid as a scoop. Necessity is the mother of invention, to trot out another old saying. 
    Worked perfectly. I was congratulating myself on this device, avoiding the necessity of dirtying a spoon, when I noticed, the next day, that I could do it even more easily --just overturn the container over the bowl, and it fell out neatly. Ah....take one dirty spoon off the list of daily tasks.
     I told this little story to a houseguest Monday morning, to pass the time while feeding Kitty in the new, more efficient fashion, marveling at how this being-alive-in-the-world thing holds lessons, even for sharp cookie such as myself. 
    Later that morning, doing the dishes, the little squirt pump for dishwashing soap went dry, as if to drive the point home, though I didn't realize it, at first.
    I lifted the pump out, expecting a narrow cylindrical reservoir to come with it. But up came only the thin plastic tube that went into the reservoir.
     Did I mention my wife is still in California, and I'm having to manage at tasks that don't necessarily fall into my realm of responsibility?
     "Under the sink!" I thought, briskly, opening a cabinet, reaching down, finding it, unscrewing the plastic soap cylinder, removing it, then filling it quite easily with blue dishwashing soap.
      Only now I had to put it back.
      Finding a hole under the sink to screw the top of a filled soap container was not as easy as finding the in-place cylinder had been. In fact, I had to balance a flashlight atop the hole, where the pump went, in order to find it and the bottle up under it, trying first through the reaching in and pushing stuff aside method, then removing the various bins and soap containers under the sink, crawling halfway in, and eventually line the reservoir up with the hole—it glowed an eerie blue— to screw it back in place.
     Did I mention spillage was involved, during the general flailing? It was.
     Also during this sweaty, awkward, messy process, which took maybe five minutes, on my back, my upper body and one arm jammed under the sink, I had this thought: "Remove the push pump. Pour the soap directly into the container, through the hole where the pump goes, leaving the cylinder in place."
      Ahhh... Of course. A whole lot easier that way.
     "Experience is the teacher of all things."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Is Chicago ready for a Great Fire Festival?

     When I first heard that Chicago was creating a funky new folk festival where citizens are asked to ritually burn challenges they hope to overcome, in the form of some grand aquatic celebration of our revitalization after the Great Chicago Fire, I was intrigued. But with the event five weeks away, and few people I know aware of it, well, I'm beginning to have my doubts.

     For a guy who never believed in God, not for a second, not even as a child, I sure am a fan of ritual. I will place two fingers upon the mezuzah on our doorpost and then kiss them, for luck. I put my hands upon my oldest son’s head and blessed him, in Hebrew, before he set out for college in California on Saturday. I’ve always envied the Catholic sign of the cross gesture as being a very useful, nearly perfect gesture to solemnize any moment that calls for it.
     Many people nowadays tend to be flexible when it comes to ritual.
     “Shouldn’t we have some kind of ceremony to mark his leaving?” I said to my wife, busily packing for the boy this week.
Framework for buildings to be burned at festival
     “We’re having Lou Malnati’s,” she replied, an answer I savored for its purity of spirit.
     Which is a long way of saying that I was fertile ground when the city cooked up the idea of a new symbolic civic holiday, “The Great Chicago Fire Festival,” set to debut on the Chicago River Oct. 4 (an auspicious date already, it being Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. I asked one of the publicists ballyhooing the Fire Festival how that happened and she said the date was set years ago, as if Yom Kippur were randomly set each year and determining when it falls in future years is an obvious impossibility).
     Since I doubt I’ll attend the event itself, I slid by Redmoon’s cavernous headquarters at in Pilsen Thursday for an open house and tour of the “Grand Spectacle” preparations.     
     Redmoon is a former puppet company now morphed into producing street parties, corporate blow-outs and birthday bashes for billionaires. It won a $250,000 arts grant last year to put on a party which, in Rahm Emanuel’s words, will mark “the creation of a new large-scale cultural festival that attracts global attention and highlights our city’s cultural assets and heritage.”
     The preview had a hasty, shambolic quality that made me wonder if they’ll pull it off.
     “This is by far the largest thing we’ve ever done,” said Jim Lasko...

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

The REAL Chicago style: Eat your hot dog however you please

          Last week the Chicago Sun-Times, the newspaper where I have worked for 27 years, ran an editorial, on the fallout from an interview I published with former Park District Superintendent Ed Kelly. At end of the piece, he tees off on Rahm Emanuel, callling him, most woundingly, "not a Chicagoan." 
     I did pause before passing along that slur, given that it is hurled toward me from time to time, simply because I was born in Cleveland and live in the suburbs, which is so unfair. But I am not a social service, as I like to say, nor a monument to justice. I knew it would get people talking, so I let 'er rip.
        It did cause a ripple. Enough that my esteemed colleague Fran Spielman asked the mayor about it—he claimed it untrue, spooling out his bona fides as Congressman, his cop uncle, blah blah blah.  To be honest, the whole question is the kind of politics of exclusion that Chicagoans and non-Chicagoans alike have supposedly inched away from.
      On Wednesday, the Sun-Times ran a thoughtful editorial on who is a real Chicagoan? Well, thoughtful until it came to this: 
    On Facebook last month, a new meme popped up: “I’m so Chicago…” A typical completion of the sentence: “I’m so Chicago I did nuthin, saw nuthin, said nuthin, was nowhere.” And somebody, of course, offered the usual cliche that he was so Chicago he “never puts ketchup on a hotdog.’’Then again, that’s true. Ketchup on a hot dog is wrong.
    Ahem. I like ketchup on my hot dog. To which, the guy who wrote the editorial sneered, "Yeah, but you're from Cleveland!" Maybe so, but I am also a graduate of Hot Dog University at Vienna Beef, which is as Chicago as it gets, and have the diploma to prove it. 

    Seven years ago, when the ketchup issue was last raised, I gave the matter a full exploration. 

     One lunchtime, 40 years ago, in the small cafeteria at Fairwood School, I saw a fellow child fish a steaming hot dog out of his Thermos, which his mother had ingeniously filled with boiling water. He placed it into a waiting bun.
     Such complex luxury was, of course, beyond my mother, and I gazed at the steaming frank, the way a shivering ape would eye a group of toasty Neanderthals lazing around their fire. Despite being myself deprived, I passed the concept on to my wife, who sometimes varies the usual soups and ravioli with a hot frank.
     She was preparing just such a meal, last week, tucking in the wee packets of condiments.
     "Do you want ketchup for your hot dog?" my wife asked our younger boy.
     "Ketchup on hot dogs is a disgrace . . . to Chicago," he said, unexpectedly channeling the soul of the late Mike Royko. The boy and my wife smiled, turning to regard me with no small degree of mockery.
     "Dad isn't from Chicago," said the boy, 10. "So it doesn't apply to him."
"Be nice to your father," my wife said. "He's lived here most of his life."
     Twenty-nine years, to be exact. Not that it matters. I'll always be an outlander.
     That's how Chicagoans are. Anything to push somebody outside the circle. Even scorning ketchup on hot dogs, a curious artifact started by Royko -- as far as I can tell -- and propagated by his imitators.
     What was his beef against ketchup? I delved into the archives. Royko cited three reasons -- first, hot dogs weren't served with ketchup when he was growing up.
     Second, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry character scorned ketchup on hot dogs. And third, and perhaps most importantly, ketchup on hot dogs is decadent, "another symptom of the general decline of standards in our society." Ketchup on hot dogs, Royko wrote, "is wrong because it is not right. Would you put whipped cream on a pizza? Would you put mayo on pancakes or salt on ice cream or pour milk on french fries? Remember, the Romans started putting ketchup on their hot dogs, and look what happened to their empire."
     Maybe we should all eat our hot dogs with ketchup. The Roman empire lasted 500 years. We should be so lucky.
I revisited the issue later in the month:

     It's a mystery that demands attention -- why ketchup? We don't demonize people who, oh, put mayonnaise on bologna. Why care about this? How did it start? 
   It was reading Bob Schwartz's fulsome praise of the Chicago dog [in his book, "Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog"] as "a banquet on a bun" that a plausible answer popped up. It is a theory, a thought experiment, but so was relativity, at first. I am confident I have solved the puzzle of ketchup and hot dogs.   
    Think back to 1940s humor, to Bugs Bunny cartoons. What was the standard culinary joke? The rube goes to the fancy French restaurant and does what? He asks for ketchup, he slathers the fine French food with ketchup, shockingly, causing the enraged chef to emerge from the kitchen and chase him with a cleaver. You've seen it a thousand times.          The no-ketchup-on-hot-dogs rule must be a variant of that, a winking half joke intended -- once upon a time -- to emphasize the quality of the dogs, to put them in the same league with haute cuisine, a bit of threadbare Vaudeville, perhaps intensified by the mustard-centric German culture that created sausages in the first place.   
      People sincerely protesting the use of ketchup are playing the role of the irate French chef. That's got to be it. It's a joke, unmoored from its origins and now loose in the land.   
      Remember that, next time you're sneering at someone -- me, maybe -- for putting ketchup on a hot dog. You're recycling an old joke, a bit of Euro-centric mockery that once tried to make us ashamed of our tastes.
     Sure, it is a small thing. But like the cracked windows theory of law enforcement, sometimes small things add up. Reject those who put ketchup on hot dogs and next you're rejecting nobodies who nobody sent or potential employees of the wrong color—also a true and genuine Chicago traditions. So you think that a real Chicagoan doesn't put ketchup on his hot dog? Well, buddy, my reply is that a real Chicagoan puts whatever he goddamn pleases on his hot dog without looking around to see what some kind of self-appointed taste maven thinks of it. Who would be so base as to diminish his own enjoyment by cravenly caving in to some local folk condiment preference? You can't kill an urban legend like the no-ketchup-on-hot-dogs canard. But that doesn't mean we can't fight against it. I ordered the hot dog above at the Gold Coast Dogs outlet hidden in Union Station.
    "With everything?" the guy behind the counter asked.
    "No," I said. "Just ketchup."
     He didn't blink. I ate the whole thing in about minute. It was delicious. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

    We're all so enthralled with the electronic world that we forget it's still possible to turn your back on it, such as this venerable Chicago place of business, where all your credit cards and smart phone wallets are useless. They accept cash money, and that's it. Nor can you use a telephone to let them know you're coming. They don't care. You just show up, unannounced, and you wait—often quite a long time—to receive their goods and service. Then pay your cash money and leave, utterly satisfied.
      Where is this place? What manner of place is it, with its cheezy pine paneling and its brusque cash-only notice? A public business in Chicago. I'm making this an extra hard contest, because I have an extra cool prize: this official, full-size Chicago street sign for the Irv Kupcinet Bridge. It's been on the window ledge in my office since he died in 2003. His son Jerry graciously allowed me to take a memento from his office, and I took this sign. (I contacted Jerry, to see if he wants it, and he already has one).
     So guess where the sign above is, and the sign below is yours, with the stipulation that you show up at my office and pick it up. I'll even buy you a cup of coffee at our in-house Starbucks and shoot the breeze with you a bit before sending you on your way. If you win and don't want the sign, simply say so, and we'll throw the prize open to the first person to claim it. It's a lovely sign, but I'm cleaning my office, and I'm trying to pare back a bit. I'd like to see the sign get a good home. Where IS this?

Friday, August 22, 2014

"What kind of people do they think we are?"

     Talk about spanning the spectrum. I had a column all ready to go, about a ventriloquist museum in Kentucky. But that really needs a photo, and just in case there wasn't room, I thought I had better have a backup, so wrote this, and then decided we ought to run it, whether there was room for the puppet picture or not. 

     A few weeks after Japan’s attack on the United States caught our fleet napping at Pearl Harbor, killing 2,400 Americans on a sleepy Sunday morning, our reeling nation, which up to that point had been a grudging ally to beleaguered Great Britain, was paid a surprise visit.
     “What kind of people do they think we are?” Winston Churchill said to a joint session of Congress, of our attackers. “Is it possible that they do not realize that we shall never cease to persevere against them?”
     Of all the stirring phrases that Churchill uttered, that one question, for me, echoes most over the years: “What kind of people do they think we are?” It rang out on 9/11, and came to mind again this week when the brutal Islamic State entity that has occupied a third of Iraq and slain thousands posted a video of a black-clad terrorist standing beside the kneeling figure of James Foley, an American journalist. He was forced to mouth condemnations of America, demanding we halt our air strikes against the Islamic State forces. The video then shows his decapitated head resting on his body.
     And their thinking is .... that this brutality will cause America to stop fighting them?

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Everything old is new again: Mason jars

     Nothing illustrates the dubiousness, if not disgust, that we automatically extend toward others, as opposed to the warm glow of affection that we lather over ourselves, quite like a bag lunch.
      There's something disreputable about somebody else's lunch, if not revolting. It can be in a crisp brown paper bag, the sandwich neatly prepared, tucked perfectly into a Baggie. There's still something off-putting, even sad, about it. We don't want to see it, never mind eat it. We avert our eyes as the lunchroom fridge swings open, avoiding the dismal vista of squishy sacks, odd Tupperware bowls containing murky piles of glop, and streaked wax-carton leftovers of our peers—containers we'd happily and gratefully dig into were they our own doing, but that we wince to glance at when they belong to others.
      At least I hope other people feel that way; maybe it's just me, being a priss. People do steal lunches at work, which boggles my mind, not only ethically, but gustatorily as well. It would be like picking somebody else's nose. 
      Or to be brief, if there's a thumbprint in your sandwich, it had better be of your thumb.
      Thus it is very rare that we see a coworker's lunch and marvel, as I did, about how beautiful it is, and then rush to snap its picture, as I did a few weeks back. It was ... well, no need to try to paint a picture in words here. I have the photograph:

     Isn't that gorgeous? I think it's the first lunch that didn't belong to me that I could describe as enticing. I'd eat it. I quizzed my co-worker—who, as so often happens with those employed by newspapers, did not want to be identified by the great publication that pays her salary ("Of course," I wanted to reply, but somehow resisted saying, "you wouldn't want to associate your REAL NAME with anything as controversial as having an ATTRACTIVE LUNCH!!! Now THERE's a profile in courage...")
     "Martha Stewart taught you that, right?" is what I actually said.
      Exuding the kind of humility that causes one to shy from the light — well, either that or exuding timidity— she said that no, she did not dream up the salad-in-a-jar, but was inspired by one of those how-to-live-splendidly life web sites. 
    She sent me a link to a page called "the kitchn" (vowels are so 2000, apparently) which claims that large glass Mason or Ball jars "have become ubiquitous across the blogosphere" and credits a woman identified only as "Kathy" at something called "Happy Healthy Life" with creating the layered jar salads on display (apparently living that happy, healthy life also demands that you don't link yourself publicly with your creations, which I suppose goes to explain why my life is the way it is. Maybe I should start a blog page called "Sad Sickly Life," so I have it up and running when I need it.  I just can't sympathize with someone who can't cop to creating a jar salad. I once signed my name to a column claiming that the mayor had gone insane). 
     Anyway, this was three weeks ago. Then I went on vacation. On Sunday, the New York Times, loping nearly a month behind "the kitchn", announced that millennials have "fetishized" the jars for the authenticity, which of course they all lack, as a "symbol of hipness." (Being the NYT, that could mean two web sites and four designers have gulled them into believing they representing some kind of global movement. The Gray Lady falls for that kind of thing frequently. At the least, they're guilty of exaggeration, using "fetishizing" when they really mean "liking" — I guess they got tired of calling every preference an "addiction.")
    Anyway, I use those round cheapie Glad containers, so as not to lug around a thick glass jar I would invariably break. And I lost out on my chance to scoop the Times by going on vacation, but wanted to share the idea with you, just in case you want to make your life more fabulous by using them. The trend is too much of a bother to last, and will go the route of all beautiful but cumbersome and expensive things. But it's worth trying once. And if anyone asks you, "Who made the lovely salad in the fridge?" you can just deny everything.