Simply Astonishing: Nun’s Farts

Christina the AstonishingIt was a seizure that killed Christina the first time.

She may have been tending her sheep or terrorizing passersby or perhaps both when the paroxysm occurred. Her sisters discovered the body, but by then she was past saving. They were grief-stricken and possibly a bit relieved. Severe, pious, and with a clear distaste for the company of other people, Christina had never been an easy person to live with.

Her funeral was held at the church of Sint-Truiden in what is now called Belgium but was then part of the Holy Roman Empire, which many scholars would like to remind you wasn’t very holy, not the least bit Roman, nor even much of an empire, no matter how large it may have seemed at the time. The local congregation gathered to pray for her soul, hear a mass, and see the unpleasant 21 year-old safely in her grave. But as the priest delivered his sermon something rather unusual occurred.

Christina sat bolt upright in her coffin, uttered a soul-piercing shriek, and promptly flew up into the church rafters. As the amazed congregation stared helplessly up at the ceiling, the priest gently coaxed her down. She later explained that she had been shown the terrors of Hell, the suffering souls in Purgatory, and the blessed ones in Heaven. At the end of her journey, she was offered a choice by God– to stay in Paradise or return to earth and lead a penitential life to expedite the suffering of those awaiting entry into Heaven. She chose the latter. When asked about her little levitation trick, the young woman with a second lease on life confessed she did it to get away from the crowd because the stench of sin that came from them frightened her.

Eye witnesses would later refer to the event as “astonishing”. It was an adjective that would hang about Christina well beyond her natural days, much as the odor of transgression clung to those she both prayed for and disdained.

She took to her new life with impressive brio. When she wasn’t hurling insults at sinful strangers, she avoided them altogether and sought out sufficiently lonely places for suffering wherever she could find them. In winter, she would plunge beneath the ice of the Meuse to meditate for weeks under the freezing water. When the weather was more pleasant, she would float down the same river until she met up with the nearest watermill and let its wheel carry her body round and round until it was properly mangled. But her preferred hiding place was a raging furnace, where she could pray in proper torment and carry her burning passion for the saving of souls to a literal extreme. But after each appointment with agony, Christina’s body would miraculously heal itself.

She was arrested twice for suspicion of being possessed by demons.

Upon being released for the second time, she steered her penitential life in a surprising direction for someone who disliked the company of others– she joined the Dominican monastery of St. Catherine’s, conveniently located in her hometown. A mendicant order, the Dominicans were sometimes referred to as “God’s fighting dogs”. Their poor and semi-rabid reputation suited her. She spent the rest of her days in quiet prayer and died– for the second and presumably last time– of natural causes on the 24th of July, 1224 at the age of seventy-four.

The prioress of the monastery later testified that, during her life at the monastery, Christina served God humbly and obeyed any order the prioress might give. She was still prone to levitation because she detested the sinful odor of her fellow nuns, but it’s nice to know she obligingly came down from the rafters when asked.

I see that as an astonishing mark of personal growth on her part.

Pets de nonne

Pets de Nonnes (Nun’s Farts)

Once upon a time, I wrote a proposal for a cookbook with recipes based on the lives and horrible deaths of Catholic saints and martyrs. I enjoyed the hell out of writing it, but when my agent sent it out to the publishing houses, the general reaction was essentially this: “It’s weird and we don’t know how to market it.”

Someone even asked the question: “Where do we file this? Under Food, Humor, or Religion?” Nobody wanted it, so it’s been collecting dust on my hard drive ever since. Or whatever the appropriate equivalent is for something that doesn’t exist in a place where dust can penetrate.

So I thought I might share a saint-related recipe on this blog from time to time, where no one but my commenting readers can tell me it’s a bad idea. Or tell me where to file it.

The recipe pairing for Christina the Astonishing was an easy one– pets de nonnes are the obvious choice for a holy woman who not only finds the smells of her fellow brides of Christ unpleasant, but can make herself lighter than air to boot. The dough is plunged into hot oil and rises to the surface when (and only when) it’s damned good and ready to. Had Christina consistent, easy access to giant vats of hot oil, I feel certain she would have availed herself to such a novel means of self-torture. Just imagine her crispy skin. But I’m getting ahead of myself– that’s a recipe for St. Bartholomew.

The following recipe is derived from the proper, French confection– little puffs of choux pastry, light as air. There is another version of pets de nonnes, sometimes referred to as pets de sœurs, which is Québécois in nature and is therefore to be avoided. I have no wish impugn the integrity of French Canadian cuisine. I merely fail to find anything wind-breaking about them.

The finished product is tasty, but austere, which is appropriate given the inspiration for this comes from a mendicant order of holy women. The next time I make them I (and I definitely will be making them again), I might fill them with a light pastry cream, or a whipped cream folded with jam. But I’d have to figure out another name for them because the idea of stuffing a nun makes me shudder, even as a recovering Catholic.

By the way, Christina the Astonishing is not an official saint of the Roman Catholic church,   but she is still venerated and considered by her followers to be the patroness of not only the mentally ill, but of people who own and operate watermills.

Makes…I don’t know… 18 “farts”. This may depend upon how many you initially burn, which is rather difficult to do. But sometimes, nature calls and cannot be avoided. Even while frying. Also, I got bored of counting them, so I stopped.

Ingredients:

For the pets:

• 6 tablespoons of butter
• 1 cup of cold water
• 1 cup of sifted all-purpose flour (I find sifting annoying, too.)
• A heavy pinch of salt.
• 4 whole eggs which have come from a healthy chicken’s cloaca.
• A large amount of vegetable oil. (Enough to ensure a 3″ depth in your frying implement.)

In which to roll said pets:

• 1 cup of white sugar
• 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
• ½ teaspoon of freshly ground clove

Preparation:

  1. In a small bowl, mix sugar, cinnamon, and clove thoroughly. Set aside for the fun, easy part of this recipe.
  2. Put butter, salt, and water into a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pot and bring to a boil. Remove the pot from the heat once boiling status has been reached, then add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon, continuing to do so until it forms a dough and pulls away from the sides of the pot in a more-or-less glossy, clean ball. Return the pot to the stove and, over low heat, keep stirring for a couple of minutes to dry out the dough.
  3. Add the eggs, one at a time until each has been fully incorporated into the floury mass. It will slip and slide and you may well think, “This really doesn’t look right.” But it is. Just keep stirring and incorporating until it hurts. Christina would approve. Set aside and let cool. It does not have to be cold. Just give it a little rest post-workout.
  4. In another heavy-bottomed pot (or the same pot, just cleaned and dried), pour the oil to a three-inch depth. Make it four if you are feeling flush. Or two if you don’t come from an oil-rich nation. Just as long as there is enough depth to fully fry your farts.  Place over medium heat until the oil reaches 350°F.
  5. To fry these “puffs” as I shall now call them, dip a (measuring) tablespoon into the oil and scoop it into your awaiting mass of dough. Re-dip into the hot oil, which should immediately liberate the little tablespoon-sized ball. You may regard the amount of dough you’ve just placed in heated fat and think “That doesn’t look like enough”. But then it suddenly puffs up to a size large enough for you to say aloud “This is sufficient. I am happy with the circumference of this particular nun’s fart.”
  6. Each puff will rise when the natural, God-given gas within has expanded. It will also flip itself over when it feels it is ready, which I find fairly miraculous, given the subject matter of this post. But not always, so do keep a good eye out. When the the puff is beautifully golden brown on all sides (beautiful golden-browning time: approximately 5 minutes), remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel-lined rack. Repeat the process until all of your farts puffs have been expended. Do not overcrowd the oil pot. Fry them a few at a time.
  7. Roll each still-warm puff into your sugar mixture and place them in your favorite serving vessel. These treats are delicious, even when cold, but there are few things more satisfying than serving your friends and family a bowl full of nice, warm farts.

 

Posted in Rants and Stories, Sweets and the Like | Tagged , , , , , | 21 Comments

Let’s Just Forget That Ever Happened.

Paris CatIf I had to liken this blog to a common domesticated animal, I’d say it was more catlike than anything. It isn’t so mean-spirited and short-lived as a hamster, nor does it constantly beg for attention and occasionally eat tissues like our canine friends. And it certainly is nothing like a goldfish except that its author does occasionally go near water.

It is most positively, definitely feline. It shows up on your doorstep every once in a while with a questionable offering and does its business in the same place every time. Occasionally, it grooms its private areas in front of company.

And when it gets sick, it goes and hides until it either feels better or dies. Or, hopefully, somebody notices and hauls it off to the vet.

Fortunately, this furry little blog is not dead. Turns out it just got lost in the bushes, killed a few lizards, went to stay with an elderly couple who don’t understand the internet for a while, then got bored and decided to come home. It looks up at you, purring and blinking, with a short meow that seems to say, “Let’s just forget this little episode ever happened now, shall we?” And then it brushes past you slowly to find the nearest warm thing to sleep on.

And that is pretty much what this author is asking you to do. It’s been nearly six months since my last confessional. In cat terms, I felt that slinking off somewhere was much better than horking up something dreadful on the living room carpet.

I am anything if not polite.

Poppy WhiteEverything’s okay. Or at lease will be.

Depression is a total bitch of a mistress and that’s all I’ll share on the subject for the time being. I thought I had run out of things to say. I felt supremely uninteresting. And the thought of writing anything seemed not only distasteful but impossible.

I had forgotten that I write and keep this blog to entertain myself. It’s the place where I have traditionally had a lot of fun being creative. It’s because of this little thing that I have met so many fascinating people, gotten to do some pretty marvelous things, and won an award or two along the way.

Everything has felt so grim and serious over the past couple of years. This is most likely because so many things really are. It’s taken me a while to accept that it’s okay to enjoy myself from time to time. In fact, I think it’s probably medically necessary.

And now I remember why I started this blog in the first place– to have a good time and to keep myself sane.

So let’s just forget these past few months ever happened, shall we? Good. Because, if pressed, I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened during that time– it’s been so bloody boring and depressing without you.

Poppy Cocktail

Poppy Cocktail

According to a Nina Simone song I rather like, the poppy is the flower of forgetfulness. As the source of opium and its derivatives like morphine, laudanum, and heroin, it can certainly help you forget just about anything. For a time, anyway.

If Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz is to be believed, poppies will also put you to sleep.

And, just to confuse things, the poppy is a well-loved symbol of remembrance to those who wish to commemorate those lost to the horrors of war– from the battlefield of Waterloo to the Fields of Flanders, where the deep red flowers burst into bloom where the iron-rich blood soaked the earth.

There are few flowers more fraught with meaning.

I may have come up with an appropriate name for this drink at one time, but I have completely forgotten and that is, after all, one of the points of poppies. You can call it a Poppycock if you care to do so– this author is quite often full of it.

Once after a rather memorable dinner party at the home of my friends Holly Heyser and Hank Shaw , my hosts offered me a digestif of home-made poppy seed liqueur. I must have enjoyed it immensely because I woke the next morning on their couch in more or less the same position. I must have dreamed, but I honestly don’t remember a damned thing beyond the fact that the previous night’s elixir must have been pretty damned wonderful. Or maybe it was simply the fact that I had consumed multiple courses of food and several glasses of wine over the span of several hours.

California PoppyThis concoction does not contain Hank’s magic potion, but rather a commercially-produced, small-batch amaro from Greenbar distillery made, as it states quite grandly, “in the City of Angels”. It is made from the indigenous Eschscholzia californica (California poppy, for those of you not into Latin names) which, though not a source of opium like the European or Asian poppy, does contain properties purported to combat sleeplessness and anxiety– two major plusses in my book.

It’s a drink for when you wish to pretend you’re much more louche than you really are. I like to imagine I’m George IV– fat, gout-ridden, and unloved by his people– spiking his brandy with laudanum and then washing the whole thing back with a magnum of champagne. For those of you more creative types with less severe self-image issues, you might prefer to dress up as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drink a few of these and then wait for your fascinating dreams to come until your own “person from Porlock” arrives to make you forget them again. Or dress your hair in sausage curls for all I care and drink it to ease your pains à la Mrs. Barrett-Browning.

Just drink it, if you ever happen upon a bottle of poppy liqueur. I make no promises as to its cure-all properties, but I can guarantee you’ll look great quaffing it. And, if you consume enough of them, it’s sure to make you forget any of this ever happened.

Makes 1 cocktail

Ingredients:

• 1 ounce brandy
• 1 ounce poppy seed liqueur
• 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice
• 1 teaspoon simple syrup (or less, if you like)
• Decent champagne. Or indecent, if you’re really going for the whole louche thing.

Preparation:

  1. Pour brandy, poppy liqueur, lemon juice, and simple syrup over ice that has been conveniently placed in a cocktail shaker. Stir until very cold.
  2. Transfer the mixture into a chilled champagne coupe. I prefer them to champagne flutes, because flutes are a) easy to knock over, b) a bitch to clean well, c) not nearly as versatile or attractive, and d) annoying.
  3. Pour champagne into the glass to your desired level.
  4. Drink as many as you like, put on a bit of Chopin or Berlioz (they were hooked on the stuff), then put on your nightshirt, crawl into bed, and fall into the arms of Morpheus. What you do in his arms is your own business.
  5. Do not give this to your cat, if you own one. Like anyone could truly own a cat. (See: horking.)

 

 

Posted in Liquids | Tagged , , , , | 54 Comments

Crème de Pot

CdPPdCOn Election Night 2004, I went to my friend Adam’s house to watch the returns. He greeted me warmly at the front door and introduced me to an inflatable replica George W. Bush and encouraged to give it a damned good thrashing. The awkward knuckle sandwich I served to its facial area caused the thing to fall backward, which was oddly satisfying, but seeing it immediately right itself with a smile on its face was unsettling. Though clearly a bad omen, I said nothing and sat on the couch, surrounded by friends, drinking gin, and feeling increasingly demoralized as the evening wore on. When the outcome became depressingly clear, Adam disappeared upstairs and returned a few minutes later dressed in a pink leotard and tutu, proffering Valium on a small silver tray. He was a very thoughtful host.

Having failed to kick Bush out of the White House, we decided to do the next best thing– kicking his effigy out of Adam’s, down 19th Street, and into the middle of the Castro Street intersection where we watched drivers do their damnedest to run it over with their cars. It was wonderfully cathartic. It was also the moment I understood that Human Companionship + Mood Altering Substances= Election Night Emotional Survival. 

In 2018, I am now far too old to be mixing drugs and alcohol willy-nilly willy-nillily pell-mell cavalierly and have yet to secure my Election Night companionship, but I do know what I’ll be serving to those who do decide to endure this biennial ritual with me:

 

Crème de Pot Pot de Crème

Heroin BottleI’ve been wanting to make this for æons eons ages but never quite knew the best way to go about it. This is largely owing to laziness and the fact that some members of my family believe marijuana is a gateway drug to heroin use. But it was also, in part, due to the fact that I don’t really enjoy what are referred to in the Locoweed Universe as “edibles”. They can be a bit whiffy and, for the impatient, it’s easy to have too much of a good thing. Remind me to tell you about Easter Sunday 2005 some time.

But now cannabis use is perfectly legal where I live and I’ve found a wildly simple (if not inexpensive) way of getting it into food without it tasting as though it had even a passing acquaintance with little Miss Mary Jane herself.

I’ve based recipe on Melissa Clark’s New York Times dessert. I should state very clearly that I have absolutely no knowledge of Ms. Clark’s views on this particular herb. Rather, my decision was based on two criteria: 1.) It’s a damned good, very easy recipe and 2.) She’s fun at parties.

Makes: a) 4 to 6 servings, b) those who eat it temporarily less anxious about election outcomes, c) total sense when you think about it, or d) all of the above. 

Ingredients:

• 1 ½ cups of heavy cream
• ½ cup of whole milk
• 3 ounces of bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
• 1 ounce of unsweetened chocolate , savaged in the same fashion
• 4 large egg yolks
• 3 tablespoons of sugar
• a very heavy pinch of salt
• 100 milligrams* of a golden, waxy  magic substance from Jetty Pen Dablicator™. I chose “Reckless Rainbow” because the name is so layered with possible meaning I wouldn’t even  know where to begin unpacking it all.
• Freshly whipped cream or the fatty, white, and dollop-able of your choice.

Preparation:

  1. Heat your oven to 300°F. Bring cream and milk to boil in a heavy saucepan, remove from the flame. Next add the chopped chocolate, mortifying it so thoroughly that it blends completely with the hot dairy.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar, and salt. Do this by hand because it is a marvelous way to expend aggressive energy. Really get the metaphoric cane out of the cupboard and have at it. When beaten into silky, almost ribbon-like submission, incorporate the chocolate mixture into the egg amalgam.
  3. Jetty PenAdd your cannabis-based waxy substance now, whisking confidently to ensure its even distribution.
  4. Divide the mélange into small (2 to 4 ounce) containers: tiny ramekins, espresso cups, old prescription bottles (excellent for those who need a reminder that what they’re about to consume is indeed medicinal), or tiny French yogurt pots one has brought back from Paris in one’s suitcase because one is pretentious.
  5. Set the filled containers in an appropriately sized, baking dish (Pyrex, metal roasting pan, what have you) and place the dish on the center oven rack. Fill the pan with hot tap water until the level reaches about halfway up the sides of the pot de crème vessels. Cover with foil, making certain to poke a few air holes into said foil with a fork for ventilation.
  6. Remove from the oven when the edges are lightly set and the center jiggles slightly like a high school football player’s belly at his 10 year reunion (about 30 to 35 minutes) and refrigerate for several hours until the desserts cool and set. (At least three hours.)
  7. Serve to your friends with freshly whipped cream and the assurance that you will be there for them come what may. Should the election results be to the satisfaction of yourself and your friends, congratulations. If the opposite is true, REFUSE TO GIVE YOUR GUESTS A SECOND HELPING AND TELL THEM IT IS FOR THEIR OWN GOOD. In this case, my best advice is to go upstairs, put on that tutu, bring on the Valium, and pray that we’ve only got two more years of this shit.

* This amount works well for me. I am a 6 foot tall, 200+ pound male. Adjust dosage at
your own risk.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

In My Own Little Corner.

JesterjpgSomething happened to me last month and I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it– my friend Jean offered me the other half of her office. O-F-F-I-C-E. I’m struggling to get my head around it because I am not, by nature, an “office” type. Whatever that is.

I have spent exactly one month of my adult life working in an office– as an intern under Michael Bauer at the SF Chronicle Food Section. And even he fled when I was but two weeks in. To Antarctica, specifically. “The only place on earth without any god damned restaurants,” he joked. At least I took it as a joke.

But you know what? I’m not going to worry about whether I’m the office type or not. It doesn’t matter. I have a specific, carved-out space for writing, which it turns out I very much need. I’ve committed myself to showing up at least four times per week. It means I have to put on pants. It means I have to leave my apartment. It means I have to start writing enough to justify the expense of a writing space.

It’s pretty damned wonderful. And the best part?

IT’S ABOVE A <EXPLETIVE> BOOKSTORE, which means that people who sell used books for a living are my  <expletive-expletive> landlords. How’s that for a <expletive>-great coincidence?

DeskI have my own, dedicated desk, where I eat my lunch and keep important things like heavy foreign language dictionaries from college I cannot bear to toss, stamps, pens, and shiny cardboard tubing that once housed confetti tossed by Rip Taylor?

Every morning, the first thing I do is sit there and write a postcard to someone. I bought a collection of 50– each with an image of a different bird saying something fairly upsetting. I consider that my warm up– so much less intimidating that sitting down to write a proposal. It’s also a good excuse to update my address book.

Book StackHaving an office is also useful because it allows me to take stacks and stacks of books out of my small apartment and put them somewhere that exists by (thanks for selling ’em, Green Apple!) and for the writing of the things themselves. I keep a special stack of them immediately to my right, for two, very simple reasons: 1.) They serve to remind me that I do not completely suck and 2.) Gloria Upson was so very right about books being awfully decorative, don’t you think? The dirty French slang books add a certain <explétif> je ne sais quoi, and The Matter of The Mittens is simply there to remind me that I need to return it to my friend Julie Michelle.

Tea ThingsOccasionally, Jean makes me tea because she is kind and for no other reason. I have brought my own tea things in, but she does not care for my choices. She much prefers the herbal varieties, ones with far less ammonia and rodenticide than I’m used to. Please remind me to add these to my shopping list. And to save my receipts because I can now write off office supplies. Except I’ve had no income for the past year, so I probably needn’t bother because I won’t be paying any taxes. But do remind me for next year. Set an alarm on your calendar. Thank you.

Schubert'sOh, and there’s one more important thing, which I can’t remember if I’ve told you. Remember the memoir thing I’ve spent the past almost-year working on  avoiding melting down over? I had a long, productive talk with my absurdly patient agent and have decided to shelve the mother-<expletive>. I’ve moved on to something more pleasant. A new topic. One that doesn’t make me want to kill myself. I consider this a step in a healthier direction. And it’ll be a hell of lot more pleasant to read. Early stages yet, but I’m working on the proposal. At my office. At least four times a week. And if I’m good, I can treat myself at the Swedish bakery across the street with a slice of fucking Princess cake.

 

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Hallo, Fremder.

Dark WandererForgive me, reader. It’s been three months since my last confessional. I think that’s the longest I’ve ever gone without writing in this century.

It’s a boring but important issue to address, so let’s just get that out of the way, shall we?

Oh let’s do. I promise to keep it short.

Over the past several months, I’ve felt a very strong need to step back from the world for a while and figure out what to do about writing. Not whether or not I should do it, but rather what I should be writing about.

Life has felt unbearably grim for quite some time. I retreated from social media for a month, thinking it might help minimize my angst, weltschmerz,  lebensmüde, and any other unpleasant mental state that can only be described accurately in German.

The withdrawal only made me feel more isolated than usual. This is, of course, not a smart thing.

I’ve struggled for ages with the idea that, given the current political scheißsturm we’re in, I have no right to be funny. Or even mildly entertaining. Toddler torture doesn’t exactly inspire humor.

Instead, I’ve spent my time in a combined state of anger, horror, helplessness, and exhaustion. The never-ending news cycle has helped turn my brain into something like a stale loaf of bread soaking in a bowl of milk and liquid chloroform—sodden, cloudy, and fuming to the point of near insensibility.

Combine that with a year spent digging up altschmerz in the boneyard of Memoir-land and Presto! You’ve got a delicious recipe for a mental health disaster.

Know what? It’s a pretty fucking black place to inhabit.

No one needs to live in a near-constant state of darkness unless one is, say, Scandinavian. But even the Finns know the light will return if they just hold on long enough. They take their vitamin D, use the sauna, toss their hair to Speed Metal, or do whatever it takes to get them through to a brighter day.

Whatever it takes.

And that is essentially what has finally sunk into my think, thick skull– doing whatever it takes to not succumb to that blackness.

Talking things over with my friend Craig the other day, he said, “You may not be able to save the world, but you can at least help to make it a world worth saving.”

Then he added, “I have no idea if I got that right or even who I’m quoting, but you get the general idea.” I think I do.

It’s exhausting absorbing darkness all the time. And maybe throwing off a little light now and again isn’t just acceptable, but necessary.

So I’ve decided to keep on writing and telling stories and will do my best to not feel guilty about doing so. And with a regularity that might suggest I were treating it as medication. Not like a four times a day insulin shot that helps to keep one alive, but rather like a once a month flea-and-tick pill that helps to keep things from sucking so much.

Yes, that’s it. When you think of me, I want you to now think of me in this way– as oral dog medication.

Thank you so much for letting me get that off my chest.

I’ll be back sooner than later with some titbit or other for your (hopeful) enjoyment. Until then,

Auf wiedersehen, pets.

Michael

 

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Iceberg with Russian Dressing

Iceberg in Russian DressingI feel like I’m drowning. Not in water or custard or paperwork, but in news.

I spend the day refreshing the homepages of my usual information websites, running away from my computer for a while, coming back, rinsing, lathering, repeating. I go to bed exhausted, yet sometimes too anxious to sleep for hours. When I wake up, my first thoughts are typically along the lines of, “Oh Sweet Jesus, what happened while I was unconscious?” I then open my browser and the cycle starts all over again.

My breakfast consists of reports on the Mueller investigation, Syria, the state of Maggie Smith’s health, and who’s left the White House today and which more frightening person is filling their shoes. My dinner is more or less a re-hash by pundits who help break down the news for me because I am so often overwhelmed with information that I can’t sufficiently digest it all unaided.

In between, I do my best to have a sensible lunch.

I’ve been getting so little accomplished lately in part because my fear of missing out on the latest updates has become a bit of an addiction and not a fun one like Plant vs. Zombies or The Great British Bake Off. But over the past few months I have, however, gotten rather good at pronouncing Russian names. Kislyak, Veselnitskaya, and Emelianenko dribble off my tongue like hot beef borscht, often trickling down my chin and onto the front of my shirt, which is extremely maddening, I must say.

Since I wrote that first sentence stating that I feel like I’m drowning, I have clicked over to the BBC homepage once and Washington Post twice.

There is so much freaking awful going on in the world and it all seems to be happening so fast that I simply can’t process it all. And it’s made me feel that anything I do– anything I write about– is unimportant. That I have no right to tell my stories with people dying, democracies undermined, and the whole planet going to hell. It’s a ridiculous notion, I know, but it’s been rather difficult to shake lately.

For some reason, my therapist thinks this is all rather unhealthy. He’s (quite rightly) pointed out that there have always been terrible things happening all around us, but that should never stop people from living their own lives and telling their own stories. Or, you know, people who write from writing stuff.

And I suppose he’s right. We just agreed that I need to limit my news intake and implement a bit more self-care. I’ve failed today in that I paused writing this post to check the news, but I have ultimately succeeded by having actually written something today.

I think that’s progress. Yes. I double checked my sources– it is definitely progress. It is, however a struggle.

So in an effort to please my head doctor, I’ve closed the tabs to my Facebook and news pages for now and tossed a slim volume of Truman Capote onto my couch for later. For when I come back from taking a long walk where I’ll try to think of one or two actual nice things for a half hour or so. Which I’ll open after I pour myself a glass of Beaujolais from the bottle I didn’t dare finish off with last night’s salmon. Not polishing off an entire bottle of wine in an evening is also a struggle. But it’s a healthier substitution for bourbon, so that is also definitely progress.

In the meantime, since largely about me eating my feelings, I will leave you with a recipe you will most likely never want to make.

Iceberg Wedge Drowning in Russian Dressing

Since everything seems to be tainted with the stuff in some form or other– possible government colluding, election tampering, troll farming, spy poisoning, Assad-bolstering– I figured it’s as good a time as any to whip up a batch and wallow in it for a little while, then take a very hot, soapy shower and get on with my day.

I can’t imagine anyone actually following through and concocting this recipe, which is excellent because it saves me so much time recipe testing. Thank you.

It’s one of those viscous mixtures that’s culinary death to the tender greens of a Springtime salad, but very much at home dripping down one’s wrists as it oozes from a hot Reuben. And now, if you are of a certain age, you have the image of The Partridge Family’s manager in your head and you will be upset. You are very welcome.

Makes approximately one gallon of Russian Dressing

Ingredients:

• 1 finely minced yellow onion
• 12 cups of mayonnaise. Really.
• 3 cups of tomato ketchup
• ¼ cup of hot sauce
• ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
• 1 tablespoon of paprika
• A generous pinch or 12 of salt
• Iceberg lettuce, cut into 4 wedges

Preparation:

  1. Chop the onion so fine that it can mingle among the other ingredients for ages before it’s detected.
  2. In a (very) large bowl combine mayonnaise, ketchup, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, and salt. Infiltrate with onion until smooth.
  3. Stand back and look at the gigantic mess of pink goo. If you smoke, take a long, dramatic drag from your cigarette and say, “What the hell have I just made?” Emphasizing the word “hell” expels just the right amount of smoke for a wonderfully theatrical effect.
  4. Refrigerate for a few hours so that the flavor agents have enough time to properly collude.
  5. To serve, place each iceberg wedge in a deep bowl and ladle dressing over them until only their tips are left exposed, which will be fun for your guests because they will have absolutely no idea how much crap they’ll have to wade through to get to the bottom of everything.
  6. If anyone questions what you’ve just served them, tell them it’s Creamy French Dressing– they probably won’t know the difference. If you’ve still got that cigarette, blow smoke in the face of the person or persons probing you for an added dash of drama. Don’t ash.
  7. Place remaining dressing in a smaller bowl and leave out for several days, preferably near your stove. Stir occasionally. Leftovers may then be used to poison enemies.
  8. Deny everything.
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Down Argentine Way

Dulce de leche cremeBefore traveling abroad, some people like to bone up on the history and culture of their upcoming destination. Others prefer to wing it and hope not to drown in their sudden cultural immersion. I like to think of myself as neither fully one way nor the other. I like a heavy dash of surprise in my global adventuring but I do my best to learn a few things I consider important prior to my trip like native table manners, what not to wear, and the proper way to address the head of state in case of chance meeting.  And I always try to learn a few phrases of the local language, because knowing how to order in restaurants, say “please” and “thank you”, and ask for directions to the nearest free clinic are very useful tools to have under one’s travel belt.

But, before to my trip to Argentina, it never occurred to me that I should learn how to ask “Is this habit of random objects and people falling from the sky a cultural thing?” in Rioplatense Spanish. My mistake.

I’d never even considered going to Argentina before my friend Bill stood up on a picnic table at his Angel Island birthday party and asked “Who wants to go to the World Tango Festival in Argentina with me next year?”  It might have been the beer, the heat of the August afternoon sun, or the chance to escape my current domestic living situation for a few days– or a combination of all of those factors– that caused me to raise my hand. I had little interest in the tango, but I hadn’t been out of the country in years. I needed a little adventure.

There were seven of us who eventually found ourselves Down Argentine Way the following March: Bill and his boyfriend Gary, our friend Patrick, and myself traveling from San Francisco, plus three of Gary’s Boston friends: Michael, Ken, and Jim.  I consider it a miracle of social chemistry that seven gay men with rather strong individual personalities managed to spend ten days together without intramural conflict. We devoted our days to shopping, wandering, and spreading dulce de leche on every available edible surface. In the evenings we napped, smuggled cocktails into our hotel rooms, and explored the Buenos Aires nightlife. It was hard not to immerse ourselves in the pleasures of a city with the highest concentration of plastic surgeons and psychotherapists per capita in the world. Plus,  the dollar was strong, the policemen absurdly beautiful, and the steaks were as big–and delicious– as my head. Everything about our stay seemed perfect except for one thing: the chance of being killed on the street while walking off one’s morcilla.

On our way back to the hotel for a much-needed lie down after a particularly louche lunch one afternoon, we were startled out of our wine-induced torpor when a strange object descended from heaven onto the sidewalk just a few yards ahead of us. It was quickly identified as a diaper which, by the sound it made as it landed, had served most capably its intended purpose. We were lucky it hadn’t hit us. We were even luckier that, as far as shit bombs go, it was a dud. We sidestepped the unexploded threat with our lives and our south-of-the-equator Summer Whites intact.

The following day, after a similar noontime repast and clearly having learned nothing from recent experience, I was returning to the hotel by a similar route when I heard a noise  behind me, which sounded very much like the Tin Man might have made fashioning with his axe a pottery circlet for the Cowardly Lion during the “If I Were King of The Forest” number from The Wizard of Oz, but without the Harold Arlen music and much louder and more disturbing. I turned around to discover a potted palm tree, along with its glazed ceramic container, had just collided violently with the ground a few feet directly to my aft. There was terra cotta shrapnel everywhere, but I remained physically unscathed and, unlike the lion, uncrowned. My ensuing nap was fitful; my first cocktail of the evening, medicinal.

Two near misses in two days was enough to set anyone’s nerves on edge. But when news broke the next evening that a much-loved soap opera star had leapt to his death from his penthouse onto the pavement below, I sensed a rather worrisome trend. Was this really a thing in Buenos Aires? If so, it’s one of the customs my otherwise excellent copy of Let’s Go Argentina failed to mention.  After three days in the city, we were flying north to Iguazu the next morning to soak in the scenery and I for one was glad to get out of the city and its tall buildings for a little while.

After the seven of us checked into our rooms at the Hotel Cataratas, we agreed to rendezvous in the lobby downstairs lobby, then scout the area for suitable and sufficiently potent watering holes. As the first one down, I settled myself on the nearest couch, picked up a magazine to thumb through, and the succumbed to a mild sneezing fit. Before I had time to properly worry if I was coming down with jungle fever, a travel pack of Kleenex landed at my feet. I wasn’t at all startled, but rather, I was pleased that something actually useful had fallen near me for a change. I leaned down to pick it up and pulled out a tissue to help stem the unfortunate, yet aptly in-theme waterfall that was cascading down my nose. Gary appeared moments later and gave me a look.

“You could say thank you, you know” he said, irritated, but not nearly as much so as my sinuses.”I’ll bet you thought those tissues just magically fell from the sky.” To my embarrassment, I realized that he was absolutely correct.

Garganta del DiableIt’s always a bit shocking when the unexpected happens once. Disturbing when it happens twice. By the third time, one can only help but think “What the hell is happening? This isn’t normal.” When it starts happening every day, well, it’s incredible what one gets used to.

When we made it to the falls the next morning, I was convinced I had just discovered the most beautiful place on earth. I spent the day hiking in a sort of misty paradise with my friends as we looked for toucans and swatted bees away from our cans of Coca-Cola Light. We saved La Garganta del Diablo— the tallest of Iguazu’s waterfalls– for last. A wooden catwalk led us to the opening of the devil’s throat, and we were surrounded by a startling spray of mist and rainbows. But it was the frightening power of the water that stays in my memory of it. Standing at the edge and white-knuckling the metal railing as nearly half a million cubic feet of water rushed beneath us every second, Patrick looked at me and yelled over the sound of the torrent, “Doesn’t it make you want to jump?” I nodded back. I really did wanted to. I harbored no suicidal thoughts. No despair. Just the strange urge to join the inexorable force of the water as it dragged my senses downward. I thought about the diaper, the palm, and the soap star, believing for a moment that I actually understood their gravitational desire to be pulled towards oblivion. It was then that I realized something very important:

Diapers don’t have feelings.

I pulled myself away from the falls and the spell was broken, which was when I became aware of something else, even more profound:

I was only a mile or two away from Brazil and could therefore safely order a caipirinha.

Chocolate souffle

Chocolate Soufflé with Dulce de Leche Crème

The wonderful thing about soufflés is that one nearly always expects them to fall at some point and, if they don’t, one is often pleasantly surprised. For this obvious reason, I have chosen to make one to go with this story.

Since you’re all such smart people, you’re probably thinking to your collective self: “But Michael, chocolate soufflé isn’t exactly Argentine in nature, is it?” And I would say that you were correct, but try putting steak in one of these god damned things and see what happens.

The real gem, in my opinion anyway, is the dulce de leche whipped cream. On its own, “dee de ell”, as I may or may not now call it, is too stiff and sticky to effectively accompany such a delicate concoction of chocolate and hot air. Folding into whipped cream solves that problem and makes it ever so slightly less cloying at the same time. Of course, I might even encourage you to say “Sod the soufflé” altogether and just make the crème.

Makes: 1 large soufflé to share among you and your six friends or 6 small because you don’t actually deserve one and you really can’t afford the calories.

For the Dulce de Leche Crème:

• 1 cup of fresh heavy cream
•  1 jar of dulce de leche from a trusted manufacturer or Argentinian abuela. You are also very welcome to make it yourself, if you like. David Lebovitz has been known to make a dandy batch or two.

Preparation:

1. Whip cream into a mild frenzy, or until a medium stiffness is attained, peak-wise.
2. Spoon in 5 tablespoons of dulce de leche and fold in. Taste it. Is it what you wanted? If not, add more dulce de leche. I did. I added seven, but that’s because I’m bold. Make this before you do your soufflé(s), but you already know this.

For the Chocolate Soufflé:

Ingredients:

• 1 each: computer, web browser, internet connection and whatever else is needed to view an online recipe: Bittersweet Chocolate Soufflé by Melissa Clark. I followed her directions precisely and I suggest you do the same over at the New York Times because  I did not alter the recipe in any way and I’m not really into copyright infringement. If you’re annoyed with the current state of their Op Ed page and wish to find an alternate recipe, I suggest you do so.

When soufflé baking has been achieved, remove from oven and immediately dust with powdered sugar or cocoa powder, if that’s your thing. Serve forthwith.

Place the dulce de leche creme in a silver champagne coupe– one of a set of six you bought at the San Telmo flea market in because you just knew you had to have them. Even though, fourteen years later, this is the first time you’ve ever even used one of them and maybe you should have bought the vintage cocaine bottles because they were cooler but the guy who was selling them was also selling Spanish language versions of Mein Kampf and that made you uncomfortable.

Accompany with a silver spoon you once stole from the Rose Room at the Algonquin Hotel when you were pretending to be Robert Benchley and were therefore necessarily drunk.

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A Question of Size

Pepper MillAs I delivered a Greek salad to table twenty-two, I pulled a large brass pepper grinder out from under my arm and offered to pulverize its contents for the benefit of the woman who ordered it. When she declined, I tucked it back into the white, no-iron cotton sheath of my armpit.

My actions were noticed by Frank, one of our more amusing regulars who was standing just behind me, drinking perhaps his second Manhattan of the evening. He jumped as if  goosed by my moulin à poivre, as the French might call it. Although often tempted, in the seventeen years I’d worked in a Greek restaurant, I had yet poke anyone with the device, let alone learn the correct Hellenic term for it.

“Hey! Watch your Rubirosa!” Frank exclaimed in mock alarm.

“You know, I may very well be the only person working here who knows what the hell you’re talking about,” I answered, proud that I had, in fact, gotten the reference.

“Why the fuck do you think I said it to you?” he muttered as he sipped his drink.

I really do miss that man.

For the rest of the evening, I felt absurdly self-conscious every time I waggled a pepper mill over anyone’s food. Each time, the cold, hard metal turned to hot, turgid flesh in both my imagination and my increasingly sweaty palms. On one occasion, I nearly giggled in the presence of four women as if I were a nine year-old laughing at a fart joke in front of my mother’s bridge club. I needed to get a better grip on my professionalism. And on the pepper mill, which I worried might slip out of my hands.

Porfirio RubirosaIf there are any of you left in doubt as to the meaning of the term “Rubirosa”, I will explain its origin:

Porfirio Rubirosa was Dominican diplomat from the Mid-20th century. His interests were very much in line with most other international playboys of the time: polo, auto racing, and having sex with lots and lots of women, like Zsa Zsa Gabor, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, and Jayne Mansfield. Of his five wives, two were American heiresses: Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke. Both of them gave him B-25 bombers as well as many other items of value in their divorce settlements. He was, to put it mildly, extremely popular with heterosexual females. Perhaps it was his Caribbean charm. Or perhaps it was the fact that his member was reported to have put his polo ponies to shame. His friends referred to him as “Toujours Prêt” because it was always ready to go. His reputation was such that Parisian waiters began calling their oversized pepper grinders “Rubirosas”.

I’m so glad we’re finally clear on this.

Raw MeatNow is the point I should add that, at this very same Greek restaurant, there is another Rubirosa-esque item on offer: a 21-ounce bone-in ribeye steak, which is really far too much meat for any one person to tackle alone. Presenting such a slab of beef would occasionally produce gasps from unsuspecting diners, both male and female. As good as it is, I’ve never understood the allure of dealing with one by one’s self, but people do it all the time. Perhaps it’s the thrill of a challenge. I’ve been seduced into attempting it on one or two occasions, but sensibly found myself subscribing to the Rodney Allen Rippy school of thought: It’s too big to eat. Having that much meat inside of you all at once is unhealthy, four out of five doctors will tell you, and can lead to great internal distress. If you’re wondering about the fifth doctor, he’s probably in the pocket of the US Beef Council.

It isn’t my job to judge you if you enjoy your steak and your pepper mills well endowed. Judgement’s more like my hobby, really. I used to be like you, but age, experience, and my cardiologist have changed me. In these matters, the question of size is more like a question of taste, I think. And I, for one, prefer my meat more demurely proportioned.

Steak au Poivre

Steak au Poivre

Now this is what I consider a very approachable recipe. And for those of you who enjoy pepper but harbor deep inside of you a great terror of oversized pepper mills, it may be positively liberating. Modest meat meets Tellicherry zing.

Serves two reasonable people or one size queen.

Ingredients:

• 2  6-ounce filet mignon steaks, about 2 inches thick
• 2 tablespoons coarsely crushed black peppercorns
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 decorously-proportioned shallot, finely minced
• 1 ½ cups of beef broth
• 1 seemly glug of cognac
• ¼cup of heavy cream
• a smattering of finely chopped parsley for appearances’ sake
• oh, and salt

Preparation:

  1. If you can think this far ahead, tenderly massage your meat with salt, then place in the protective sheath of your choosing and refrigerate. Remove the meat about a half hour before cooking to bring closer to room temperature.
  2. Crank your oven up to 450°F.
  3. Take a clean tea towel and place it on your cutting board. In the center, place 2 tablespoons of whole peppercorns. Fold one end of the towel over the other, making a safe pouch for the soon to be humiliated spice. Take a reasonably proportioned, heavy bottomed cast iron pan and bring it down upon the swaddled peppercorns with enthusiasm several times in quick succession until they are sufficiently crushed or your downstairs neighbor wonders very loudly in unrepeatably scurvy language just what it is you are doing to make such a racket. Remove the pepper from its wrappings and rub vigorously into the meat.
  4. Place the same skillet over a high heat and wait until it’s almost as hot as the women at Jimmy’s Disco in Paris were for Mr. R. before lubricating the pan with one tablespoon of butter. Add the steaks and let them sizzle for about two minutes to give them a good, dark crust on one side. Turn them over and do the same to the other. Toss the pan in the oven to continue cooking until the desired temperature is reached. You will sense when your meat is ready by frequently poking it with your finger. Remove the pan from the oven, setting it back on the stove top. Remove and cover the steaks to let rest until needed again.
  5. Toss the second tablespoon of butter in the pan and swirl it around, making certain to use some sort of barrier between the skin of your hand and the pan’s handle. Remember: it’s been in the bloody oven.
  6. Add shallots and cook until just starting to brown, then add the beef broth and let simmer. Add the cognac. If you enjoy drama, tilt the pan slightly towards the stove’s fire until there is an impressive burst of flame leaping up from inside the skillet, which is all the more alarming because you chose to perform this stunt on the side of the stove next to where you keep your rather flammable cookbooks. If you prefer a more relaxed form of cooking, just let the liquid reduce by roughly half. Add the cream and cook until slightly thickened. Add parsley, if you bother to remember.
  7. Return the somewhat more-relaxed-than-you steaks to the pan to coat with sauce. Serve on a platter the size of which you find satisfactory and non-threatening, and jettison the pan’s hot effluence on top. Serve with shoestring potatoes, which I am not telling you how to make and enjoy. In moderation, of course.

 

 

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So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

3 FishLike most reasonable people, you’ve just read the title of this post and may be wondering a number of things. Or one thing. Or possibly nothing at all, if you’ve just stumbled upon this blog by accident. Or you’re not even actually here because I haven’t posted on and barely visited this site for more than three months and you are now beyond caring.

Let me reassure you that the heading in no way means that I’m shuttering Food for the Thoughtless, or that I’m planning to bump myself off, or that I’ve come to believe that I’m a dolphin and making a hasty escape from planet Earth. It signifies something else entirely.

It means that I quit my job. The restaurant one. The one where, over a span of seventeen years, I have sold (and possibly eaten) several tons of sea life. Bream, huachinango, sardines, anchovies, smelt, rock cod, idiot fish, porgy, and bass. Then there’s the octopus, squid, cuttlefish, sea urchin, and that one calamitous special of sautéed calamari strips in pesto over matchstick potatoes I described to my guests as “caterpillars found dead on a tiny haystack” and was ordered in spite of my dire warning.

I’d only meant to take a six month leave of absence because I told myself I wanted that time to start writing my book. Some of my regular guests who knew me better than I know myself said, “You won’t be back.” I thought they were crazy.

French FlagI’ve worked in the preparation and service of food from the time I was fifteen, when a strange man wearing pink golf pants decorated with bunnies hungrily eyeing carrots offered me a job fondling oranges across the road from the Jungle Cruise, until last June. And with the exception of a few, excruciating school boy jobs in retail, I have done nothing else to earn my living. I’ve enjoyed every juice squeezing, celebrity scrutinizing, table serving, food styling, recipe testing, cooking show slaving, pastry making, ice cream churning, cater waitering, napkin folding moment. At least, I enjoyed most of them.

Then, at one point over the summer, high on a hill in a converted Alsatian convent, surrounded by Riesling grapes and mirabelle plums and chickens which may or may not become dinner, I understood I wasn’t going back. I realized that, in the amount of time I’d spent at the restaurant, a human being could be born, potty trained, endure puberty, finish high school, get accepted to college, and lose their virginity in celebration. I figured it was time for me to do something similar. It was time to graduate, move out, and move on. Finally losing my virginity is another topic for another time.

Turnip bloodBut I was also truly burnt out, crispy-fried, beyond exhausted. I’ve been blogging, in one place or another, for twelve years. I’ve kept Food for the Thoughtless going for ten, for g-d’s sake. Most people who were blogging back in 2008 have long since given up. And that wasn’t what I wanted. Not at all. But the Faerie Spring of Good Ideas was clogged with cat hair and running dry. And the thought of digging around in the emotional minefield that is memoir writing was especially horrifying. So I walked away from absolutely everything for a while. No “Sorry for not posting”, no explanations. Just a good soaking for the houseplants and a quick shuffle out the door. All the blood from this human turnip had been let.

And I have to tell you– even if it means betraying my Orange County roots– that it was awesome. Zero regrets. I slept a lot, went for long walks, read books, made myself salads. I more or less kept my own company. Never in my adult life had I had the entire Holiday Season free from the stress of working and being cheerful for other people’s Christmas parties. This year, I chose to ignore the Yuletide altogether. It was wonderful.

But now I am back. The little brook of inspiration is again flowing at full babble. I plan to have more fun on this here blog than I have in a while. My navel-gazing will now be reserved for the book that I now feel ready to attack, although I still find the prospect of doing it terrifying. But not in a bad way. I mean in a challenging sort of way, which is good.

I do thank you for your patience. You’ll be hearing from me on a regular, monthly basis again. With an extra lagniappe or two thrown in for good measure.

And a special shout out to Kokkari Estiatorio— my wonderful home away from home for seventeen years. It was hard to quit you, but I’m glad I did.

I am no longer a waiter who writes. I’m now a writer writing full-time, Monday through Friday.

So for now, all I want to say is, “So long, and thanks for all the fish”. And, of course, “Hello again, and thanks for reading.”

Cheers,

Michael

 

 

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Greek Mythology

MartiniWhen I was waiting tables, people seemed to offer me drinks on an almost nightly basis. If a couple brought in a particularly nice wine, they’d want to pour me a glass. If someone purchased an esoteric bottle from our reserve list, I’d be offered a taste if I hadn’t tried it before. Sometimes, people would try to buy me a shift drink or a shot of ouzo because they just liked me so damned much. These things happen all the time to charming, middle-aged servers in Greek restaurants in San Francisco. It’s part of the culture. Sadly and, I suppose, wisely, they were gifts I was compelled to refuse.

“Thanks, but I can’t,” I’d say with a detectable half-tone of disappointment. If there’s anything a waiter needs after surviving two crazed seatings in the dining room, it’s a shot of something alcoholic. “We used to be able to do that years ago, but not anymore,” I’d add as a slight, wistful foam began to bubble at the corners of my mouth.

It’s true. When I started at the restaurant, we’d taste wine multiple times a night. Slide management-sanctioned shots of Plomari down our gullets with the last guests. Sit down at the bar for a decompression cocktail when all the customers had left. That is, until one particularly unfortunate evening.

If my guests were persistent enough in their offer, saying things like, “Oh, what harm could it do?” I’d nearly always respond with, “Well, if you really want to know, I’ll tell you why we can’t drink at work. But only after you’ve finished your dinner because the story’s a bit…bloody.” I’d drop that on them like a sizzling plate of saganaki and let them make the choice whether to pursue this post-prandial line of conversation or not. But that last word usually got them hooked.

After their tables had been crumbed and tidied and the dessert menus slid into place in front of my guests, the question would come up again. “So?” I remember one woman who wanted to buy me a drink asking, “Give us all the gory details.” She sounded like a friend asking about an especially terrible date or a hemorrhoid  operation.

“Well,” I said, “It used to be all fun and games around here until someone literally lost an eye.” I noticed out of the corner of one of my own, fully functioning sight organs that I was needed at another table– a man had dropped his dinner fork. I excused myself for a moment, relishing the fact that the interruption would serve to make story time that much more enjoyable.

“What do you mean ‘lost an eye‘?” the woman demanded before I’d fully reached the table.

“I mean precisely that,” was my rather serious reply. And then I began to tell her and her dining companion the story, which goes something like this…

Years ago, I worked with a man we called “Papou”. It wasn’t his real name, of course, but he was Greek and in his sixties and just seemed like the type of grandfather who would drink a little too much raki at Holiday parties and start flirting with your young female friends. The name just fit and he never discouraged its use. He was an amusing man who seemed to enjoy the novelty of working in a fancy restaurant for once in his life, but he had a rather sharp tongue that he whittled to a fine point when he’d been drinking, which was often.

He was charming enough to peel the knickers right off a nun but, sadly, his breath could strip pine, which meant he’d have to work his magic from a distance of at least five feet for the seduction to be effective. He smoked. A lot. He was the one person for whom I considered stale cigarette smoke a breath freshener.

EyeballAt the end of one fateful evening when all of the guests had cleared the restaurant, a few of the staff bellied up to the bar for an after-shift drink. I wasn’t working that night, so the rest of the story I’ve reconstructed over the years based on the accounts of those who were. Papou, who’d more than likely had considerably more than just one cocktail by then, decided to go outside for a smoke, taking his martini glass with him. No one’s certain exactly how it happened because there were no witnesses– his coworkers most likely busy swapping customer horror stories and not-so-casually finding out who had the best night, tip-wise. It’s possible that he was trying to light a cigarette while holding his drink, propping open the heavy oak door at the front of the building. Maybe set the drink down on the pavement in order to pay more attention to his Marlboro Red. Whatever the method, the cocktail class managed to break and the jagged stem somehow found its way into his eyeball.

When our manager came upstairs to close up and kick everyone out, he counted heads and then inquired as to the whereabouts of Papou. No one had noticed him leave. Assuming correctly that the old fellow had gone outside for a smoke, he poked his head outside. No one was out on the sidewalk, but there was a trail of blood that led right up to the door of Papou’s white land yacht, where he was found trying to “sleep it off”. If the manager hadn’t found him, he would most likely have bled to death by morning. Instead, he was trundled off to the hospital to see what could be done, which was very little. The eyeball was a goner.

He never came back to the restaurant. Whether he was fired or simply decided to retire or both, I don’t know. All I do know is that a friend spotted him at SFO, one-eyed like a defeated Polyphemus waiting to return home to Greece and crawl back into his cave with his sheep and his wine, knowing that no man was responsible for his misfortune but himself.

After reading that last paragraph, you may be saying to yourself, “Hey, wait a minute. A blinded Cyclops is no longer one-eyed, but no-eyed,” and you’d be absolutely correct. I just can’t think of a more accurate correlation to Greek mythology. But that’s pretty much what this story is–a tragic tale about a Greek man that has taken on the distinct gauzy haze of myth over the years.

I remember very distinctly that the woman who asked me to tell the story had a cocktail glass with only a sip or two left of pink liquid in it, turned warm from lack of attention. When the narrative was over, I looked at the glass and then at her, asking if she’d finished with it. She nodded, speechless.

“And that is why we’re not allowed to drink at work anymore. Are you sorry you asked?” I queried, removing the potential hazard from the table.

“No!” she ejaculated. “That was amazing! I just feel so bad for the old man.”

“Me, too,” I said. And I do feel bad for him. But I’m also grateful to him for giving me such an excellent cautionary tale with which to horrify my guests. It happened in a Greek restaurant, after all. Drama is to be expected.

When the woman paid her bill, she slipped me an extra $20 on top of the gratuity. “I still want to buy you a drink,” she insisted, “Just have it….anyplace else but here.”

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