Saturday, June 16, 2018

American Food

As a study-abroad-student in Tübingen back in the 90s, I had the pleasure of living in a German dormitory.  My floor, save for me, two French students, and an angry Turk who'd grown up in Germany, was entirely German.  We shared a rather large kitchen.  Most of us used the kitchen almost every night to cook meals.  Occasionally, we'd cook a shared meal, but, more often than not, we cooked solitary meals to be consumed near one another at the table.

I was enamored of the market that set up each Wednesday in the town square and took to buying fresh fruit and veg on a weekly basis.  I didn't know it initially, but by buying fresh produce and cooking it for dinner in our dorm kitchen I'd managed to break down a rather large stereotype the Germans held about Americans.  That is, of course, that we ate heavily processed foods at every meal, and didn't really cook so much as eat McDonald's (they had said this to me) or pour goop out of cans to heat up.

Am Markt

I am a child of the 70s and, sure, we'd eaten our fair share of canned and frozen veggies, but we had also had the pleasure of growing our own produce in the back garden as well as buying it fresh at our local markets.

My grandparents and great-grandparents hailed from Scandinavia, England and Ireland.  I have relatives from Mexico and East Asia, too.  So, what does an American eat?

Chilaquiles?  Flank steak over rice with soy sauce?  Pickled herring on brown bread?  Mac-n-cheese?  Avocado and shrimp over lettuce? Home-made plain yogurt with honey drizzled over it? (Hint: we ate all of these things.)

We are a country made up of many different ethnic groups.  We are a lumpy stew, if you like.  So, too, is our food.

American food is the food you grew up eating.

American food is not burgers, fries and a milkshake, unless, I suppose, that that is what you grew up eating, and, might I say, bummer for you.  My parents never cooked us french fries, nor did they blend us milkshakes for dessert.  Never once was uttered, "Just one more bite of double cheeseburger, then you're excused from the table."

In addition to the above mentioned fare, here is a sampling of the food we regularly ate:

*boiled garlic sausages with cabbage, carrots, and potatoes (all cooked in a pressure cooker) served on a plate with spicy mustard on the side.

*artichokes from the garden with mayonnaise and some sort of casserole.

*Dad's homemade cioppino with shellfish that he had caught himself down at the shore.  I'd write 'we', but I can't say any of us kids really helped much outside of baiting the crab traps.

*lasagna-dad's grandmother's recipe-with some green vegetable accompaniment.

*stir-fried tofu with veggies (all in a wok)--this was the 70s in California, folks!

*Limburger cheese sandwiches--Dad was the only one who ate them, actually.


*baked chicken with rosemary and garlic

*lima beans, brussel sprouts, broccoli

Fridge staples: pickled herring in wine sauce, stinky cheese, Parmesan, mayo, mustard, ketchup, butter pickles, dill pickles, butter, milk, yogurt and orange juice.

If we did have fast-food burgers, then it was an occasional 'treat' and not at all a daily occurrence.  McDonald's wasn't the end-all-be-all either.  A & W Rootbeer was our burger joint of choice.

Good eats.

Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with a lovely woman at a cookery shop.  I couldn't tell where she was from by her accent, but it was full of heavy consonants and flat vowels.  Her English, however, was fluent.  She was buying a housewarming gift for a friend.  We chatted about mini Le Creuset cups, milk pitchers with floral prints, and what we would like to receive as housewarming gifts ourselves. It turned out, actually, that she was "from" Philly. I really like Philly and told her so.  We each took turns talking about the things we liked best about her city of Philadelphia. I imagine that her version of American food may differ from mine slightly, but it's American nonetheless. 

Lumpy stew are we.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

God told him to?

When I first started my bar gig at an Italian restaurant in Hell's Kitchen, there were some glaring omissions to the bar set-up. There was no simple syrup (sugar water) and there was no fresh citrus of any kind. Even the most generic of cocktails, the Lemon Drop, calls for both fresh citrus and simple syrup. This particular bar instead would use sugar packets (like the kind you use for coffee) and Sweet and Sour, a generic, lemon-flavored product for such a drink.

I made simple syrup in the restaurant kitchen and put it in an old break bottle (emptied out booze bottle) with a partially torn off label, so folk wouldn't mistake it for alcohol, and put it in the well in place of the Sweet and Sour bottle. I brought up an apron-load of citrus (easy pickin' in the walk-in) from the basement at the start of my shifts. Apparently, no other bartender had gone down into the bowels of the restaurant. The stairs leading down to the basement were treacherous and there was a rumor of rats. After hearing from the owner that my s.s. should be in a different container, so as not to rankle the inspection folk, I brought in a label-free bottle that used to house incredibly fine scotch that the husband and I recently polished off, and poured the sugar water into it. For six months, this arrangement worked well.

Then one day I came into work, and found, to my dismay, that the simple syrup I used to make drinks with like this one--


was gone.  I looked around a bit for the missing bottle before I started to squawk about it to my co-workers.

"The Monday night bartender took it home," said the busser, David. "He did what?!?!" I said louder than was absolutely necessary.  David was like, "I didn't know. I thought maybe he had talked to you, and you told him it was okay to take it." After hearing from David, I phoned Edmond, my sticky-fingered co-worker, and left a WTF? message on his machine. He returned my call and left a message that was some tripe about "well, I heard you quit, and no one here uses simple syrup, and I liked the bottle, so I took it." I had quit, but was still working for the next two weeks, so I was NOT DONE with using simple syrup yet.

Edmond, around my age, and sorta decent-looking, had worked at the restaurant full-time as a bartender up until a few months before I was hired on. Edmond was also the guy who, having come back on a "fill in" basis, trained me. He'd quit, he said, because he wanted to focus on some "at home" job that I was only vaguely interested in hearing about at that time.

As I became settled in to my new digs, I began hearing about the real reason Ed didn't work at the restaurant anymore. Edmond, having found God seven years' prior in a really serious way, was told by God to "stop serving people alcoholic beverages." This bit of info. could be substantiated by a handful of people at the restaurant. God told him to stop, so he quit tending bar. (Although he's now back two days weekly serving drinks to those in need, so did he have to ask God for permission first in order to do so?) Oh, and, did God tell him to pinch my bottle, too?  I should ask him that tomorrow when I go into the restaurant to retrieve it. If he'd just asked to have it, then I would have given him the bottle, but it was the principle of the matter.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Medium-sized fish in a very small pond

It was ten o'clock on a Wednesday night and the annual Zug stier festival was in full swing.  Ten o'clock marked the end of my shift.  After fourteen hours of work, I was glad to be done.

'Who told you you could leave?  Everyone else is staying late.'  I had had a feeling that there would be some confusion around my leaving at the scheduled time, given how impromptu I felt the training for this event seemed to have been and how bungled the communication re: work hours for the event via email was.

I produced a copy of an email in which the assistant to the Big Boss had written to me very clearly: Work hours--Mittwoch: 8.00-22.00; Donnerstag: 8.00-22.00.  The floor manager's face twisted into what appeared to be a mixture of anger and frustration as she began to walk away.  'I don't have time to sign you out right now.  I'll do it tomorrow morning.'  With those words she disappeared into the crowd.  I walked in the opposite direction out the service door knowing full well that there was no way I'd be returning the next day.  Without her signature, I would not see one Rappe of 350 CHF, but I couldn't care less.  The waitress nightmare come-to-life that I'd lived that day was over.  Tomorrow's shift, what was sure to be another stressful experience, could FUCK OFF.

I had arrived Wednesday morning ready for the scheduled 2-hour training.  After dealing with all the back-n-forth via email hammering out times and days of catering gigs, I was encouraged by the idea of having a training.  I thought it meant that those in charge actually cared to have us be prepped for what would be two very long and, as I would soon find out, grueling shifts.  Indeed, I had hoped to be part of a well-functioning team.  My hopes were soon dashed.  The training consisted of  approximately 15 minutes' worth of how one uses the hand-held ordering device.  The festival food menu was pretty extensive with many drinks, appetizers, entrees and desserts.  We were shown how to punch in a drink order.  For example, if one wanted to order clear apple cider, then one pressed the 'apple cider' button.  Cloudy apple cider was 'shift' + 'apple cider' button.  Glassware was just 'shift'.  From that brief description, I wasn't really sure when and how many times we were supposed to hit the 'shift' button if we wanted to order a few bottles of cloudy cider with glassware.  (As the evening picked up, it was clear that glassware was just a quaint notion.  Bottles were brought to tables in a hurried rush sans glasses.)  When I asked for clarification re: ordering procedure I was told that 'none of this pertained to me' as I would be in the VIP area.  Well, that was news to me!  Moreover, I had no clue what being in the VIP area meant.  I quickly found out it was a brunch for 'promis'.  I wasn't given a time frame for the brunch, but it was all over within a couple of hours.  The main event, where I would be running food, was 'general admission' and it would seem that residents from far and wide came out in full force with one thing on their minds: eat, drink and be merry!

The low-lights of the evening were as follows: food being constantly sent out to tables where there was no cutlery.  Drink orders disappearing into thin air.  The angry: 'We've been waiting 30 minutes for our drinks!'  The confused: 'We ordered drinks...?'  The obnoxious: a chorus of whistles, the constant chant of 'over here!' and 'hey!' 'hey!'  A few dudes felt it prudent to stick out their arms like Gong Show hooks and try to corral those of us walking by them, arms laden down with plates, en route to other tables.  I kept expecting Bratwurst and french fries to fall on someone's head.

The high-lights of the event came in the form of that sometimes really lovely 'matey' camaraderie that one builds with one's co-workers.  It's like, hey, we're all here in the trenches, let's try to have a laugh and keep things moving.  Carla, a stout and friendly woman was always up for a quick chat and a smile.  Then there was Daniela who was a bit sassy and every time I saw her she'd say something to make me sputter with laughter.  Most of us, however, just looked harried and stressed.  There was, honestly, no time for anything other than GO-GO-GOING at top speed from the kitchen to the tables to the wash-up area.  And, hurry up, while we were at it!

This poorly executed event was put on by a 'successful' catering company from the area.  If what I participated in was a 'success', then I would certainly hate to see failure.  I'd imagine that there is hardly any competition for gigs in this area, so this particular catering company gets all the really lucrative yearly festivals.  What a sad state of affairs.  Festival goers and those who work them deserve better.
The fest took place in that massive, white tent. Think: Oktoberfest on steroids. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018


Mimi and David, ca. 1971

Over the weekend, I attended the memorial for my mother's friend, Mimi. It was a lovely afternoon tinged with sadness. I met (well, I was reminded that she'd met me when I was a baby) Mimi's sister, Linda. What really struck me was how much Linda both looked and sounded like Mimi. It was a comfort to be able to speak with her. Linda said more than once that 'it' wasn't supposed to happen this way. Linda was an only child until the age of eight. Before the baby was due, her parents had told her that if the baby were a boy, then she'd receive a train set. If it were a girl, then she'd get a dolly pram. She'd really wanted the train set. 

Her baby sister came home from the hospital wrapped in a pink blanket, cute and tiny as could be. Linda loved her right away. 'She was my baby.' Their mother contracted TB and had to 'go away' for a year. 'Then she really was my baby!' She also said that over that first year relatives would come to meet/visit with the baby and she'd be in charge of everything. It almost sounded as if she had to show she was capable lest another family member try and take baby Mimi away during their mother's prolonged absence. Linda said that she had expected to look after Mimi for the rest of her life. I couldn't help but become emotional listening to her. 

Mimi had met her husband, David, through my mother's high school friend, Nan, and Nan's then hubby, my paternal Uncle Gerry. Gerry and David had been friends since high school. Yet that hadn't clued me into to the fact that there were going to be a handful of other 'city kids' (most of whom were 1st and 2nd generation Italian-American) at the memorial who'd grown up knowing my Dad's family. I spoke with one man who'd told me that Uncle Gerry went on camping trips with his family up to Clear Lake every summer for most of their adolescence. Additionally, there were four, retired San Francisco firemen in attendance who had all worked with my Dad's other brother, Ray. It's not so uncommon that these men would have worked together at some point as one tends to move fire houses a lot when first starting out on the job. It is uncommon, however, that an SF firefighter could afford to live in today's San Francisco. Rents, never mind mortgages, are just too darn high. 

Flowers from the memorial.

One of the firefighters made a comment about how my Uncle Ray had gone from liberal to conservative in the intervening years while making a flip-flop gesture with his hand. I said, 'so, you've been in email contact with him recently, I take it?' Uncle Ray hooked up with a very wealthy widow some years back and now considers himself part of the 1%. Funny, but I don't think his firefighter pension makes him minted. 

Another old firefighter mentioned how my Uncle was 'cool' and that he looked up to him. Well, he was tall and attractive in a sort of Robert Redford Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid kinda way, so I could see that. Yet another fireman mentioned how Ray had put him at ease when he was a newbie. A 'crusty old-timer' had chewed this guy out in front of his colleagues and it had made him feel bad. 'He hadn't introduced himself. He hadn't said anything to me at all' before yelling at this man in front of the whole house. Later, my Uncle pulled him aside to simply say, 'consider the source'. He told me that he had been grateful for those words. 

In other news, it would appear that Batman is my neighbor.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Eichler along the Bay

I, like many of my generation, grew up in a post-WWII suburban housing tract. The home, built in the mid-50s and one of few slightly varied floor plans in my neighborhood, was a modest, 1-storey, 3 bedroom, 1 bath affair with both a front and back garden. The house wasn't large, but it was just enough for me, my two siblings and parents.

Joseph Eichler was a local real-estate developer responsible for developing homes steeped in the modern architecture of the 40s-60s for residential home buyers in the San Francisco Bay Area. I did not grow up in an Eichler home, sadly, but I have been fortunate to visit a few and I think they are fab.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure, if I can use that word, of being part of a cleaning team to help get a local Eichler home ready for sale. This Eichler appeared to be a 4 bedroom with kitchen, living room, sizable office/den, 2 full baths and a small sort of bonus room of off the kitchen whose use could not figure out. (See first picture below.)

The globe-shaped light-bulb covers are all period. Each room had built-in closets with sliding doors that appeared to be covered in a sort of burlap material. I think that the previous owners must have had a pet that liked to scratch things because most of the closet doors looked abysmal, so no photos to show.

As I was cleaning with a set of sliding glass doors open (it was a bit hot inside the house), I was immediately struck by how loudly the planes were flying overhead. They almost sounded as if they were on top of the house; it was freaky. It didn't take long to realise that this house lies directly under the flight path of San Francisco International Airport. So, if any of you have ever flown into SFO, looked down to see a series of homes along a vast stretch of both the bay and a series of lagoons, then you, too, have 'seen' this house. :D

Even if I could afford this home (I can't because it's going for around 2 million), I wouldn't want to live in it due to the constant plane noise. Noise pollution won't deter home buyers. The schools in this town are said to be very good and the close proximity to Silicon Valley jobs is another HUGE draw. So, 'cha-ching' to whoever owns this old Eichler. It's gonna go fast.

Wee bonus room just off of the kitchen

The entire wall save for the fire place area is floor-to-ceiling windows

Room after room along the long hallway

Front door leads to an ample interior courtyard; 3 sets of sliding glass doors surround

The plane was actually much closer to the ground than it appears

The house we cleaned. 

The house next door. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Bea, Duchess of San Mateo County

In a nod to Meghan's California roots, her Coat of Arms includes our state flower: the golden poppy.  

I have to say, I dig this nod to the West Coast. Looking at her Coat of Arms, I began thinking of what my Coat of Arms might look like were I to magically have one. Mine wouldn't just have an element of our shared homestate, but would be entirely made up of elements representing my No. California coastal upbringing. 

My Coat of Arms would also include the California poppy alongside a smattering of ice-plant sprigs. Standing on the greenery would be two red-tailed hawks flanking the crest. Maybe one could have a gopher in its talon? I'd replace the quills with three crustaceans, crabs to be precise. Crowning the top of the crest would be a light blanketing of fog. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

AIDS Memorial Grove

West End entrance leading to the Fern Grotto

This scenic patch of greenery within Golden Gate Park is like a mini-oasis. Save for the odd cell phone talker, ball/frisbee player or picnic-goer, the AIDS Memorial Grove is usually fairly peaceful. Unfortunately, the habits of Memorial visitors seem to be changing over time. As the lawn at the Conservatory of Flowers has now become a mini Dolores Park West (read: Party Spot Central), so, too, has this place become a bit of a fiesta zone at the weekend.

Abide by the rules, folks. 

Flowers left for a loved one. 

At the east end, there's a really cool bit of cement with names etched into it that I mistakenly thought were the names of those who we have lost (like the Memorial Quilt), but it's actually a composition of names of donors to the grove spiralling out from a central point like the rings of a tree. -slightly less moving as a result. However, there are occasional individual memorials to those who have died set up on the donor name site & they are moving. -a floral bouquet, an old photograph, eulogies left on sheets of paper and secured by rock.  

Beyond the glade are paths, dirt & stepped alike, leading up through the trees at the west end toward a main road. Benches abound within the grove, so there's really a lot of opportunity to sit and reflect during one's visit. 

My favorite Uncle died of AIDS/HIV related issues back when the epidemic was just coming into to full swing in the mid-80s. It was awful to watch him deteriorate. We really had no idea what was happening to him. His death marked the second time I had seen my father cry. The first was when he and my mother divorced. I'm grateful that this grove exists and that I'm able to visit it as often as I wish

Parting shot.