Let’s Throw This Place a Fish

When my father tired of a place, he would occasionally dust off his seldom-used South Philly accent, lean over to me, and quietly say, “Let’s throw this place a fish”.

It’s a combination of words I’ve heard only one other human being place in that particular order– a woman named Catherine who grew bored of hanging around a bowling alley simply to humor her co-workers. She looked surprised that I knew what she meant without her having to explain. She told me I didn’t sound like I was from her part of Philadelphia. I said “No, but my father is” and she seemed pleased that we understood each other.

It’s a phrase so arcane that even Google doesn’t seem to have heard of it and no one in my family could be absolutely certain of its origin or accurate meaning. Dad and I settled on the idea that it came from tossing fish to performing seals when they’d finished a trick onstage, but neither of us were ever completely convinced it was the best explanation. Whatever it’s origin, “Let’s throw this place a fish” means “Let’s get the hell out of here”, plain and simple.

Late last May, my father threw this world a fish, you might say. He’d had roughly 89 years of decent health. His 90th, however, was a doozy. My stepmother, who was 12 years younger than Dad, died 19 days after him– something no one quite saw coming–at least not with such mind-numbing swiftness. My sister and I always assumed she would be around to help take care of her husband in his declining years. But they did everything together, so it should have come as no surprise at all that they began their respective declines in tandem.

I won’t bore you with the details. But I learned that being a full-time care taker for a dying parent is heartbreaking and grim, to put it mildly. Doing it for two parents at the same time is exponentially harder. There’s no such thing as a happy ending with these things.


Mourning is so odd– one never knows what form it might take. In the case of my father and stepmother, my brain simply decided to close up shop and shut out the world. I’ve seen very few people, gone very few places, and gotten very little accomplished.

And it’s been eye-wateringly dull.

It’s been more than two years since I’ve written anything more complicated than a grocery list and I’ve come to discover that I’ve missed it terribly. I miss the art of it, the discipline it requires, and the mental clarity it affords.

And I miss connecting with my readers, if you’re still out there.

The last several years have been rather rough. The loss of my mother (also to dementia), a heart attack, 4 years of Trump, and the isolation of COVID took a heavy toll on the old mental health over here, which isn’t terribly surprising. Life has felt relentlessly bleak and deadly serious for what feels like eons. As a result, Food for The Thoughtless gradually became a “Let’s read along as Michael’s emotional state degrades in real time!” sort of thing and I felt as though I had no right to be arch and (hopefully) amusing what with the world going to hell.

Turns out I was terribly, terribly wrong. We could all use a good laugh, myself very much included. And my time away has caused me to miss out on the human connections I have made here over the years. I miss writing. A lot. I miss my readers. Also a lot.

But I do not miss this blog.

I think Food for The Thoughtless has had a long, eventful life, but all things must come to an end, good or otherwise.

In other words, I’m throwing this place a fish.

It’s time to turn the page (or click, since this is web-based reading material) and start afresh. It’s time to allow myself to enjoy writing again.

You may be asking yourself, “Does this mean what I think it means?”

And the answer is “Yes, Dear Reader, I have started freaking Substack.”

Simply follow this link to my new home: SPATCHCOCK

And please be sure to subscribe.

It’s about [insert expletive here] time I had something fun to look forward to.


Michael Procopio

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Celebrating Christmas the Catalan Way

At first glance, a Catalonian Nativity Scene looks like any other one might encounter during the Christmas Season: the figure of a newly born Jesus in a manger looked upon by his adoring parents, a shepherd or two, and a few docile animals. A Christmas angel may hover over the scene and the Three Wise Men might pop in to deliver the same gifts they give every year, or they may not, depending on preference or budget or display space availability. But if you peer around the corner, just outside this scene of solemn and miraculous birth, you’ll find another, more surprising figure: a little man in a red cap squatting low to the ground, his trousers pulled down low to give his buttocks a good airing.

What, you may ask, is this little man doing in such a position, so near to one of the most Glorious moments in the Christian tradition? He’s taking an enormous dump. And His name is, quite straightforwardly, El Caganer (“The Shitter”).

El Caganer has been doing his business behind the manger for a very long time. It is thought he first crept into the scene sometime in the late 17th or early 18th Century and has now eclipsed perhaps even the Christ child himself in terms of figurative affection. Celebrity caganers are also popular. Miniature Donalds Trump and Margarets Thatcher, for example, have been found crapping in Spanish homes for years.

And still there is another dung-related Christmas tradition from this particular region of Spain. It involves the feeding and general care by children of the Caga Tió (“Shit Log”) from the Feast of The Immaculate Conception (December 8th) until Christmas Eve, when the youngsters then beat the log with sticks as they sing songs about the presents it will excrete for them from its back passage. They next remove the blanket they once covered him with so lovingly to reveal the booty he has delivered. It is then that this revelry turns murderous as the children (or perhaps their parents) tossed this fecal Giving Tree onto the fire for their own, selfish warmth.

The Catalonians really, really know how to do Christmas right. Especially appropriate this season, I think.

This plague year we call 2020 has been an absolute steaming pile of excrement. I think it’s for this reason in particular that I have become so taken with the Catalonian tradition. I’ve never gone in much for Holiday décor and I certainly have neither the surface space, religious zeal, nor the budget to allow for a complete Nativity Scene in my 1-bedroom apartment, but I felt Ihad to have one. So I went small. I went practical. I went marzipan. At least, I thought, I’ll be able to eat my caganer when I’ve finished with him.

I have no recipe for you. I don’t even suggest that you try this for yourself. I simply looked up “edible caganer” on the internet one day and discovered that it is not a thing that exists. It could be for the simple reason that creating crouching figures out of marzipan are (please forgive) a pain in the ass.

Mine hardly looks as if he is straining at stool. He merely looks depressed. His shirt is of a non-traditional green because there is no such thing as pure white marzipan. HIs black trousered legs began to concertina beneath the weight of his confectionery body. The neck had a tendency to bend slowly forward as though he wished to hang his head in shame or resignation or both. I kept having to keep his chin up in order to be photographed. His dull, dark eyes stare out at nothing in particular. It was simultaneously amusing and disturbing to realize that I had just made a miniature almond paste version of myself. Except that this figure looks better in hats than I do. But now I had a caganer , he was all mine, and that was oddly comforting for some reason to which I have yet to attach any deeper meaning.

I haven’t written much this year, I know. The thought of doing so just felt too painful. The amount of tragedy, evil, and uncaring incompetence unleashed upon the globe this year took a heavy toll. And writing charming and snarky little food posts when there is so much suffering just doesn’t seem right. But I wanted to give you something to see out the year. I feel I owe you all at least that.

And I want to thank you, you dear freaking wonderful readers, for staying with me and even reaching out in my prolonged absences this year*. I’d like to wish you the happiest of possible Holidays, even though I think we all know that’s very unlikely. But most of us, hopefully, will struggle through this nightmare and survive and I want to think I’ll be there on the other side to greet you.

In the meantime, I am so looking forward to flushing this absolute shit of a year down the toilet bowl of history. My plunger is at the ready. I hope yours is, too, because we’re gonna need ’em. Maybe I’ll make a little one for my marzipan Mini Me. He’s just resting in the kitchen where his body has responded so much to gravity and the ambient heat of the stove as to cause his sad little head to droop and rest on the cool granite countertop, doing nothing in particular. He merely exists and I no longer feel I have the right to snuff out his life by eating him.

*To my horror and shame, I just discovered several wonderful comments that are weeks and months old, which I will now most apologetically respond to.

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A Quiet Place

The house next door, once vacant and more or less abandoned for years, is alive again with the sound of workmen’s saws, jackhammers, and polka music from 8 to 4. The overgrown jacaranda in their yard that used to shielded my living room from the afternoon sun and give me the half-illusion of living in a Southern California arboretum if I squinted hard enough has been cut down and hauled away to make room for piles of rotten wood and old concrete, which are then cleared away at regular intervals to make room for new piles of ejecta. It’s good that the owners are sprucing up their neglected property, but the noise from all this improvement is excruciating.

My across-the-hall neighbor Rachel moved out two months ago to co-habitate with her boyfriend. I wish her all the luck in the world, but resent the different sort of banging that could be heard from the other side of our shared bedroom wall as the handymen refinished the floors and did whatever else they typically do when freshening up a place in order to entice new tenants into paying $3,500 a month for a small one-bedroom apartment.

Last month the noises started coming from an entirely new direction when the low, constant-yet-oddly-soothing Satchmo-like growl of my downstairs neighbor, Stephen, was replaced with the sound of power tools and yelling to be heard over power tools. I found his kitchen door wide open as I climbed down the back stairs to the laundry room. The place was gutted. Any trace of the man who had lived there for the last forty-four years had been eradicated, which caused me to worry. Did he move out by choice? Was he ill? We weren’t friends, but we were neighborly. The owners are now installing new kitchen cabinets, which have been boxed up and cluttering the building’s foyer for a week. I saw another tenant moving out the other day. One I’d never even met. They’ll be starting on his apartment next and the noise will continue. The only quiet hours of daylight occur on Sundays. If I’m lucky. At night, there is an eery silence with my part of the building now half-empty.

My neighbors are vanishing one by one. News from the outside has been relentlessly awful. It is either too noisy or too silent to write much, even when I am able to concentrate. And so, dear reader, I feel as though I am slowly going mad.

Most means of escape that I once took for granted like hopping on a train to stay with friends or an airplane to visit my family are currently not an option. I get clammy just thinking about getting on a bus to go take a peek at the ocean, mask or no mask. My world has become remarkably small over the past few months and there are precious few places to which I can safely flee to find a bit of peace and quiet.

Fortunately, there is one tiny corner of the world where I feel I can take refuge– my local park. It’s a very short walk to a place designated to honor a man with an extremely long name– Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, the French hero of The American Revolution. It’s a small park, but it is surrounded on all sides by points of personal interest. To its west lies the hospital where I had my appendectomy. To the east is the home of Julie Newmar’s somewhat creepy younger brother. To the south is a building which offers up the dubious claim to have been the temporary residence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And what, you may well ask, is so special about the northern edge of the park? It is dominated by a Beaux-Arts confection called The Spreckels Mansion, built by syphilitic sugar magnate Adolph Spreckels and his artists’ model wife, Alma. It also happens to be the San Francisco residence of the 4th best-selling author of all-time, Danielle Steel.

In the park there is a long bench, high up and shaded by trees, which overlooks Washington Street and the mansions that line it. For example, Mrs. Merrill’s house, where I was once invited by my friend Justin (her live-in personal chef) to hang out as he prepared her dinner. After her meal was finished, Mrs. Merrill asked to meet me and suggested that Justin give me a tour of the house. From the top floor, he pointed to an enormous place across the little stretch of Octavia Street where Alma Spreckels convinced the city to place barriers in the road to slow down traffic enough to help with her husband’s sexually-transmitted headaches. He indicated that it was Ms. Steel’s house and that was my first glimpse of the woman, wearing a nightgown and pacing her bedroom carpet. Feeling a bit Peeping Tom-ish, I averted my eyes by lifting them to her rooftop, where I saw a play set– one of the cheap sorts in primary colored plastic. From my perspective, it looked as though the yellow slide would shoot any child brave or stupid enough to use it straight over the side and down three stories into her privacy hedges. That could not have been the case as I realized such placement would be architecturally unlikely, but it was my first impression of the woman and I cannot say it was entirely wrong.

And twenty years later, I find myself sitting on a park bench across the street from from her house in Portuguese fisherman sandals and a surgical mask wondering where all the time and most of my sanity and even that ugly play set have gone.

I always bring a good book with me when I visit the bench. There is perverse satisfaction to be had in reading good literature in front of the house of a pulp romance writer, though I can only get through ten or fifteen pages at a sitting because my attention span is shot to hell. But I tell myself it’s what I should be doing. I’m currently reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer, which was given to me for my birthday. I had the book tucked under my arm when I left the park the other day and ran into a friend at the grocery store who mentioned she knew the author. I told her I thought I had another friend who might know him and it turns out she’s friends with my other friend and all I could think was “San Francisco is the smallest world in the world.” Everything seems connected. Every book and every person and every park bench and every mansion, if you’ve lived here long enough and that, in its small way, is grounding.

When I arrive most mornings, when I find I can get out of bed at all, it’s foggy and cold, which is how I like my San Francisco summers. Yesterday, I shared the long bench with a bottle of water belonging to a woman doing Tai Chi. I looked up from my book at one point to find her hands open and held away from her body like a department store mannequin, rotating her torso slowly towards the mansion. Her hands then gently clenched into fists and I read far more into that gesture than was likely intended. Had she, like I, overheard Ms. Steel’s out-of-touch complaint regarding the quality of diamonds in San Francisco? Had she, too, been left with an unwanted party favor pack of cards labeled “Fifty Fabulous Farts”? I may never know for certain. The bottle was eventually replaced by a woman who took off her mask to smoke a cigarette, thereby breaking at least two park policies. She looked as though she was having a rough morning, so I said nothing. I read maybe five pages before my brain stopped working and returned home to the noise.

And that, dear readers, is another glimpse into my day-to-day, COVID-inspired life. I know I’ve been away too long, but it feels like the wrong time to tell my stories and the idea of ironic or clever recipe writing makes me feel a bit… “whoopsie”? Is that the current polite term for being sick to one’s stomach? I may have recently heard that come out of the mouth of Brett Sommers on a Match Game ’74 YouTube clip and I hate that I’m not certain.

I feel like there are more important things to be doing right now, although I feel a bit helpless to do anything at the moment except check in on friends from time to time, send condolence cards when needed, call my family once a week, iron absolutely everything that can be ironed in my apartment, and try to believe that there is any sort of future ahead that isn’t totally bleak.

But it’s also good to reach out and tell people you’re doing okay. Or that you’re doing not-okay. Some days I’m one, some days– most days, really– I’m the other. But I’m alive and that, I suppose, is a good thing. I need to give myself permission to write as a diversion and that’s a challenge right now. But I’ll get there, I promise.

Just as soon as all this god damned* hammering stops.

*I was going to say “Just as soon as all this fucking hammering stops”, but my father hates it when I use profanity on my blog.

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In My Solitude

A pair of mourning doves were fucking outside my kitchen window the other day. At the very least, they were giving it the old college try. The male fluttered his well-groomed wings from time to time to maintain an awkward balance on top of the female. She locked her small black eyes on mine for a moment, but they were so expressionless, her attitude regarding the experience seemed very much open to interpretation. I broke away from her gaze. It was awkward and anyway I was cleaning a chef’s knife which required my full attention— a trip to the emergency room is a horrifying thought at the best of times. During a pandemic, it’s unthinkable.

Resignation. That was the look. Not ecstasy, not annoyance, just an avian impression of stoic practicality.  

“Lucky bitch,” I thought as I carefully placed the knife on the rack to dry.

This morning on my way home from the market, an Irish Setter placed its cold, wet nose on my forearm as I knelt down to tie my shoes. Its owner apologized and I said “No problem” as clearly as possible through the hot mask that was pulling at my ears. What I really wanted to say was “Thank you. That’s the first time I’ve been touched by another living thing in nearly two months.” I sighed into my face covering, picked up my bags of groceries that now felt 30 pounds heavier, made it back home, stripped down, and took a hot soapy shower where I sat in the tub with the water spraying over me and sudsed and scrubbed until I felt immaculate enough to safely hold my head in clean hands.

Sheltering in place alone isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but I don’t expect it’s meant to be. I often think it would be lovely to share the burden of waiting out the plague with another human. Someone I could cook for and while away the days curled up in bed with to watch British Whodunits. Someone who would tell me to stop touching my face and cajole me into putting on pants. Or to take them off, depending on my mood. Someone I could then shut away in a cupboard until I felt lonely again. I have the feeling my therapist would tell me that’s not how healthy relationships work and I would tell him I agreed, but really I’d think it would be marvelous.

How lovely, I often wonder, would it be to have a cat? It might be nice to have a sweet, furry creature purring in my ear or kneading my chest in the morning with its paws in order to get me out of bed and give it food. I could almost forgive a clawed up couch and the ammonia whiffiness of the cat box if it meant having a warm-blooded animal respond to my touch.

But at the moment all I’ve got are two houseplants and if there’s one thing I’ve learned during this whole nightmare is that a Pepperomia Frost doesn’t hug you back. I do the best I can with my adopted flora. I’ve even named them. The problem is that I can barely remember what I’ve called them from one week to the next. Currently, they are called “Hannah” and “Her Sister”. I think they’re good names. Hannah is the Pepperomia. She’s dependable and gives me very little trouble. Her Sister is probably Holly, the Dianne Wiest character, because she’s kind of a mess and is all over the place. I have no idea what species she is– she’s just viney and prone to drama, as much as vegetation can be. She’s currently got one of her tendrils on my Joan Didion. My therapist says it’s fine that I can’t remember their names for very long and suggests that a non-strong attachment to one’s houseplants is probably a good thing and that gives me comfort.

Cooking in isolation does pass the time, but I find little joy in it. Over the weeks, I’ve made runny lemon curd, indifferent buttermilk fried chicken, and so many meatballs that I quickly tire of them and attack them as they simmer away in the pot until I have a lumpy, beefy sauce. But I do cook every day. I find it helps. I very much doubt I’ll jump on the sourdough yeast starter bandwagon. I’ve never been much of a bandwagon jumper on-er. The only bandwagon I’ve ever enjoyed is a film starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Or, as I prefer calling people by their real names, Frederick Austerlitz and Tula Ellice Finklea, which reminds me of two things I have discovered about my self during this social exile:

1. I fall into Wikipedia rabbit holes a lot
2. Isolation exacerbates my tendency to ramble and take off on tangents.

Reading is a challenge. As is watching full length movies. I set out to tackle François Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine last week because I was filled with self-horror for never having seen it. After twenty minutes, my eyes glazed over and nobody was home, so to speak. My friend Shannon gave me a book she thought I’d love, which I do. But I read maybe ten pages at a time. I’ll pick it up again today and go for twenty. The shortening of my attention span is aggravating. I find it difficult to hold a sustained thought for very long, which is one of the reasons I haven’t posted on this here blog earlier this month.

Music is a mixed blessing. I naturally lean towards sad songs in the best of times, so I thought I’d try to counter that by only playing happy songs and then I realized I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head and wondered what my therapist would have to say about that. I pulled up Nina Simone on Spotify last week and let her rip as I was doing housework because her voice always has a positive effect on me no matter what particular mood she happens to be in. I was scrubbing my kitchen floor to her version of Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” and noted how satisfying it was to be performing the same domestic drudgery as the heroine of the song. Other tunes followed as I tidied my way through until she started in with Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude”, which stopped me dead in my tracks:

“I sit in my chair
I’m filled with despair
There’s no one could be so sad
With gloom everywhere
I sit and I stare
I know that I’ll soon go mad”

It was an unfortunate choice of music and I found myself marooned in the middle of my kitchen floor still wet with watered-down bleach, wondering how soon until I, like Miss Simone herself, went mad. My feet were damp and if I ran into the living room to turn off the music, I’d ruin the rug. I just stood there until the song was over, motionless and feeling like an idiot. “Well, if I’m going to go off the deep end,” I thought, “I’m going to do it in a spotless kitchen.”

I somehow doubt I will go mad. I’m quite used to my solitude because I’ve had years and years of practice being alone. I enjoy my own company and, as a third child who grew up with much older siblings, I know very well how to entertain myself.

I generally like being alone. But when the choice to go out into the world and press the flesh, so to speak, is no longer a viable, responsible possibility, that aloneness can feel grim.

But I know I’m not alone. Physically alone, yes, but not socially. I know I’m lucky to have family to call every week who are healthy, and friends to Zoom and FaceTime with to shoot the breeze and share a cocktail or two.

I’m also lucky to have a roof over my head, food on my table, and enough resources to get through this year that seems to stretch on forever. Next year is another story entirely, but I’ve decided to cherry-pick from my mother’s trusty 12 Step Program and take this thing one day at a time.

And though I probably don’t say it enough, I count myself very luck to have you, too, dear readers.

Thank you for letting me wander all over the place with this post. I hope it finds you healthy and as well as can be under the circumstances. I wish I could give a sustained, uncomfortable-because-it-lasts-for-more-than-three-seconds hug to each and every one of you. And if I happen to see you in person after this nightmare is over, I want to apologize in advance for being uncharacteristically touchy-feely, but like I mentioned earlier, if you’ve ever resorted to hugging your houseplants, you’ll understand. And forgive.

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Lamb Dressed as Mutton.

Olay Lamb

I never expected to be this old, really. Fifty. Fifty. It’s such an important-sounding number.

It’s the exact number of dollars Holly Golightly requires for the powder room. It’s how many Nifty United States my brother coughed through in a live Salute to America pageant recording. It’s how many shades of grey the author of a poorly researched sex novel thinks there are. It’s the sum total of ways Paul Simon suggest you can leave your lover. It is a figure so significant that people whose marriages miraculously last that long receive presents made of gold. Gold.

To celebrate this milestone, I thought I would make Mutton Dressed as Lamb. I hadn’t the faintest idea what the recipe would be, but I thought the idea was appropriate for a middle-aged writer who still prefers wearing short pants. I Googled “where to buy mutton in SF” but was directed to places that only sold lamb. I widened my search, thinking I could mail order some from slightly further afield, but I am not at all comfortable buying meat from the UK unless I am actually present in the UK to eat it. My internet probing was disheartening. Perhaps I could special order it from my local butcher shop?

I called Bryan’s Quality Meats and chatted with one of the butchers. They do special orders. They have sweetbreads pre-packaged in their refrigerator case, so the idea didn’t seem too farfetched. “Mutton? Hmmm…” the gentleman on the other end said. I imagined him stroking his chin with his non-phone hand as he considered my request. “We don’t carry it. I’ll bet you could special order it with somebody who raises lamb, but that would probably mean committing to buying a whole sheep.” I expressed my disappointment and thanked him for his time and then he added, “People like their lamb young. When it gets old, nobody seems to want it anymore.” When I hung up the phone, I was suddenly depressed. More depressed than usual, that is.

“When it gets old, nobody wants it anymore” kept running through my head and I didn’t much care for it. I hadn’t been too worried about hitting the half-century mark until that moment. I wasn’t what you might call looking forward to it either– I’m not exactly sweet on birthdays. I hide my natal day information of Facebook because I don’t want three hundred people wishing me well. It makes my homepage so untidy. I get uncomfortable when people other than my father and stepmother sing “Happy Birthday” to me because it means I have to sit there and take it and I don’t know what to do with myself for the 17 seconds it takes for everyone to get through the lyrics. I die a little when it happens in restaurants. I prefer a small, quiet celebration spent with a few people who know it’s my birthday without a major social media platform having to tell them. And after that phone call to the butcher I just felt like a pile of old meat that nobody wanted.

I was being pathetic and I knew it. Old meat. Perhaps I am now old meat, but apart from a bit of grey hair, I think I’m doing alright. I recalled one of my favorite quotes regarding aging from Jeanne Calmet, the world’s oldest woman, on the occasion of her 110th birthday: “I’ve got only one wrinkle, and I’m sitting on it.” Except I imagine she said it in French. The act of conjuring that mental image always seems to cheer me up.

Old meat. What, pray, is wrong with old meat? Don’t people like their steaks aged? Aren’t pheasants hung in dark places to quietly rot in peace? And let us not forget our porcine products: Jamón Ibérico, Speck, and Serrano Ham are highly desirable. And very expensive.

I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective, really. Fresh meat has its own pleasures to be sure, but I am well past the spring chicken stage. Younger, tender viands lack complexity, and often rely on older, more experienced meats to help them along. It’s the prosciutto  that makes a Saltimbocca jump in the mouth, after all, not the veal.

The more, I think about old meat, the better I feel about it. But I am done for now. I’m going outside for a little fresh air. The fresh lamb steak I reluctantly bought instead of what I really wanted will be wrapped up tightly and put in the freezer. Do you think perhaps in a year or two it will have aged into something better? Probably not– no matter how hard you might try, you can never really get away with dressing up lamb and passing it off as mutton.

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