Day 1,006: Sciencey Foods

Yesterday I started off writing an article, then thought I’d next-level the fucker by drinking some egg in an otherwise fine beer. This was an act of creative hubris on my part, somewhat inspired by the weirdness of how I spent my 2020: celebrating every damn National Whatever Day I could track down. That meant trying haggis, making my first mint julep, and even slapping together a Baked Alaska just because I thought I could.

Last year’s adventure taught me one solid lesson: it’s the writing I love. Cooking is fun, eating even more so, but I am only equipped to pour my brain-parts into the written word. It’s a fantastic leap from writing about people foolish enough to chug back eggs in their beverage to actually becoming one of those people.

So today I’ll withhold any brash indulgences and stick to words. Words about food. Words about people who have plunged their vocational hands up to the wrists in food, and developed some of the science that improved on Mother Nature’s tragic shortcomings. These are winners of the Stephen S. Chang Award for lipid science.

We’re going to start with Rex Sims. Actually, I’m going to start by prefacing all of this by reminding everyone that I am not a scientist, and my eyes will gloss over sentences like “When hydrogen is absorbed on the catalyst surface dissociation into H* and H* occurs which allows for both saturation and isomerization to occur.” I’m sure that’s 100% accurate, but I do not know what it means, nor do I plan to learn what it means and explain it in my folksy, lovably Canadian-Jewish fashion. But I will point out that Dr. Sims’ work with General Foods (he was a fat & oil man) paved the way for frozen dairy products.

We would not have Cool Whip if it weren’t for Dr. Sims. He worked on emulsifiers, and also came up with the magic behind Stove-Top Stuffing, Shake ‘n Bake, and Tang.

Damn, this guy’s work went into space. I just scrolled through the other recipients of the Stephen S. Chang Award, and no one else has a resume as bodacious as Dr. Sims. I think we’ll look a little closer at him and ditch those other wannabe food-science celebs.

Dr. Sims may have provided the science, but Ruth Siems (similarity in name purely coincidence) actually invented Stove-Top. The magic of Ruth’s work lay in figuring out how big to make the dehydrated crumbs. Too small and you’ll have a gooey, lumpy slog of spice. Make ‘em too big and you’ll end up with little rocks of unpleasant crunch.

Ruth was not a scientist; she earned her degree in home economics. And once General Foods threw that stuff onto shelves in 1972, households had a new option besides potatoes or rice for an easy side dish.

If this were yesterday, I might have been foolish enough to try eating some Stove Top raw out of the box. Fortunately, I have learned and grown since then.

Next up, good ol’ Shake ‘n Bake.

I have nothing to say about Shake ‘n Bake. It’s a product, it tastes fine, and it’s no substitute for real fried chicken. I’m sure it’s a healthier alternative, and has been since its introduction in 1965, but I’ll take a crispy slab of Crisco-soaked white meat over something that has danced around inside a bag then got tossed in the oven.

Look at that pitiful drumstick up there. That sad little gam that once hoisted up the torso of its host body as it plunked through what was likely a tiny cage. It was eventually hacked off and sent to its destiny, only to be ineptly battered and undercooked, its flavor potential squandered because some lazy bastard couldn’t be bothered to do it right. Then they took a photo and posted it online.

People are weird.

“Tang sucks.”

Those were the words of Buzz Aldrin in 2013, reflecting upon one of the lesser high-points of his career with NASA. I mean, he’s not wrong. Tang may be a palatable form of powdered sugar-water, but it’s no Kool-Aid. Its main claims-to-fame were that astronauts drank it in space, and it inspired a Wu sort of Clan in the hip-hop world of the 1990s. I feel like this article has once again shifted to me crapping all over the fine work Dr. Rex Sims contributed to the world of food science.

Instead we’ll shift the discussion over to Bill Mitchell, the General Foods chemist who took Dr. Sims’ work and turned Cool Whip and Tang into actual products. Bill was an innovator, and if General Foods hasn’t named a wing of their head office after the guy, then they are fools. Actually, they are nothing – General Foods was absorbed into Kraft years ago.

But Bill’s coolest move might have been as he was attempting to create self-carbonating soda.

Packed with delicious and noisy carbon dioxide, Pop Rocks were invented in 1961 but not sold until 1975. This was likely because either the General Foods marketing people found the stuff too terrifying to sell, or maybe because the suits in the boardroom just didn’t have the foresight to know how badly kids want candy that virtually explodes in their mouths. By 1983 they’d yanked them back off the shelves. How could they be so cruel to my generation? It’s no wonder no one my age shed a tear when Kraft took them over.

Maybe Pop Rocks disappeared because of that old urban legend, the one that says that Mikey from the Life cereal commercials perished when he guzzled too much Coke and Pop Rocks one afternoon. It seems the combination made stomachs explode. Or at least it seemed that way until the first episode of Mythbusters demonstrated that not to be true.

The one thing all of these deliciously chem-treated foods has in common is Dr. Rex Sims and his brave forays into making processed food for all of us. Every one of these foodstuffs comes bundled with longevity and popularity, even if they lack any nutritional value.

All things considered, I’d take any of them over another glass of Egg Beer though.

Day 1,005: The Egg Beer Experiment

I stared listlessly – without even the slightest trace of list – at my screen this afternoon, trying to scratch my brain for a topic. Yes, I had made a habit of allowing Ms. Wiki’s “Random Article” button to guide my journey through topic selection, but toward the end of this project in 2014 I began poking my own ideas into the mix. I mean, once I heard about the mummy of John Wilkes Booth going on tour around the country, I wasn’t about to wait for random chance to dump me onto that particular topic.

So as I scanned an article about 19 ways to jazz up your ramen noodles (which I never make, so my reading that article was more an act of boredom than anything else), I began to wonder… do people ever crack an egg in beer? And just drink it?

I hit up good ol’ Google and punched in ‘Egg In Beer’. I was not disappointed.

Actually, I was quite disappointed.

First off, it’s a colloquialism I’d never heard before. When someone is asking for something good, perhaps something beyond what they rightly deserve, a response could be, “What do you want – egg in your beer?” I suppose that implies that getting an egg in one’s beer would somehow elevate the beverage to superhuman levels. Or maybe it’s a warning that adding that extra thing they don’t deserve would spoil what they’ve already got – a perfectly fine beer.

Had the definition ended there, I would not be penning a kilograph about the concept. No, consuming a raw egg cracked into a pint of beer is not unheard of – in fact it’s a delicacy to some people. One Seattle court battle from 1915 saw a judge ruling that an egg cracked into a beer does not go against any statutes prohibiting giving away free food at bars. Once it’s in the beer, it’s a beverage ingredient. So I suppose this was… good news? An easy workaround for taverns who aren’t allowed to give away food but don’t want their regulars leaving their stools for a snack elsewhere? Or is it just grotesque?

I’m leaning toward just grotesque, but then I truly have no idea.

I suppose I have some idea…

We’ve all heard of guzzling raw eggs as a cure for a wicked hangover, and we’ve also heard of downing some hair-of-the-dog – a bit more booze to somehow regulate the mind. I’ve tried the latter, and found varying results, depending on the severity of the hangover. I’ve never tried chugging raw eggs, simply because I can’t see the logic in forcing something slippery and slimy down one’s gullet when one is already feeling one’s belly doing a dance of impeding rejection. Cracking a raw egg into a beer would combine those dubious cures into one though, so maybe that’s the secret. I have no hangover at the moment, nor do I feel like generating one to find this out.

My last genuine hangover was January 1, 2020 – National Hangover Day, which I celebrated fully at the outset of that weird gas-leak project I pulled off last year. I’m extremely happy this alleged cure had not crossed my radar, or I might have been foolish enough to try it.

Now if I was to head down to Hanoi, I might find something that would change my mind on this issue.

Egg Beer, served at the Giang Café in Hanoi, is just like it sounds, except less vulgar. First off, you’ll find no bulbous yolk doggy-paddling through your suds. The chef whips up egg whites with some sugar and butter, then pour that into the beer, giving a robust and sweet treat that actually sounds quite appealing. Sure, it looks a little custard-like, but how bad could it be?

It would have to be better than the Red Eye cocktail, made somewhat famous in the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. That’s beer, raw egg, tomato juice and aspirin. Again, we’re talking hangover cure here, and not a leisurely beverage. I suppose when the demons of a fractured morning are pounding on the inside of one’s skull, one will do what one has to in order to make it through. Even if that means downing something that by any logical measure sounds vile.

Smoking weed doesn’t give you a hangover that could lead to this. Just sayin’.

Eggs in beer is known as a ‘miner’s breakfast’, implying that folks who work in a mine are so grisly and macho (or perhaps wholly devoid of taste buds) that they’ll regularly down this concoction, just for fun. Season 2 of The Wire also introduced us to the Irish Breakfast allegedly enjoyed by Baltimore dockworkers, which involves the same basic two-ingredient recipe. Paul Newman, playing an alcoholic lawyer in the 1982 Sidney Lumet film The Verdict, also chugged one of these for breakfast.

I suppose the lesson here is that cracking an egg into a beer is, if not at all palatable, a great way to demonstrate that your character is odd, visceral, and perplexingly male.

Hey! I’m all three of those things, right? I mean – simply writing about “egg in beer” feels a little flat to me, especially after having spent a year in which my daily writing assignments were flecked with weird real-world experience. I’m not desecrating a fine beer with a raw egg though. I will, however, try to recreate the Giang Café’s recipe for Egg Beer. Just for you, the reader. You’re welcome.

In my haste, I forgot to separate the yolk from the white, so in effect my finished recipe landed closer to the Paul Newman recipe than the Vietnamese delicacy. And it tasted like a frothy, somewhat buttery beer. Big thanks to local brewery Alleycat – not for supplying me with any free beer for this (though I will accept free beer and proceed to conduct weird culinary experiments with it if they’re open to it), but for creating a tasty brown ale that made me forget I’d stupidly inserted wrongness into every sip.

I have no regrets.

Not true – I have one regret. I should have simply cracked the egg in. The butter, which I’d had the foresight to melt prior to whipping this all together, began to harden again once I poured the mixture into the drink. Maybe I didn’t whisk it enough. Maybe I should have left out the damn yolk. But once little chunks of butter start creeping into each sip, transforming them into bites… yeah, that’s just a mouthful of regret.

I already had a tasty beverage awaiting me. What did I want – egg in my beer???

Day 1,003: Forget Saskatchewan, We Want Ice Cream!

This happened often during the original project.

Maybe not “often”, but frequently enough that when it happened last night, the sudden spurt of mental calisthenics felt familiar and friendly, like running into an old co-worker at a clambake. Sometimes during the nearly 33-month stretch of this project’s original run, I’d select a topic, write an article, and realize hours later just how tremendously dreadful or dull the piece was. No matter – the aim was to write 1,000 words every day, and that I did. Except the next day I’d have to double it because I didn’t want to sacrifice a day of the project to something so banal.

Well, it happened again. After having oozed out a kilograph yesterday on the 1964 Saskatchewan provincial election, I lay in bed at night wondering… why? It wasn’t particularly funny, nor was the story of the election all that interesting. It was a thousand words of filler, and since this is merely an experimental revival and not another string of a thousand days, I have no space for filler. Instead, I’m going to plant a foot, change direction, and see where this takes me:

Meet Tom Carvel. He lived in upstate New York during the Great Depression, and made a scant living selling ice cream from his clunky old truck. I imagine on some nights when business had been slow, he and his wife Agnes would have to subsist solely on ice cream to survive. Hopefully he stocked some of the heartier flavors, like Maple Walnut or Shrimp Cocktail. Times were tough. And when the going gets tough, the goddamn truck tire goes flat on Memorial Day goddamn weekend under the hot goddamn sun beside some goddamn pottery goddamn store.

Anyhow, Tom was having a really shitty day. His truck was full of ice cream, and he wasn’t exactly in a hotspot of pedestrian activity. In desperation, as his product transformed into a sweet, succulent goo, he started pitching the stuff to passing motorists. People stopped, as they often did in the 1930s (cars topped out at around 8 MPH, I believe), and Tom’s melty glop was a hit. Tom realized two things: people will go nuts for ice cream with this consistency, and he’d be way better off planting himself in a single location to sell the stuff, rather than drive around and hunt for customers.

Tom borrowed some electricity from the pottery shop and made a mint (a chocolate-mint mint if you will, which I won’t) over that summer. The equivalent of $60k in today’s money, which if you ask any ice cream vendor they’ll tell you is a depressingly large sum of cash. Tom opened the first Carvel shop on the same location (he ousted the pottery store, though the polished online history seems to omit any of the juicy details of that move), and patented the first soft-serve machine.

And here’s where things get interesting – as if ice cream itself isn’t perpetually interesting on its own. While hocking his machine to a bunch of schmoes who didn’t really know what they were doing, he realized that he could sell his machines along with his expertise and signage and take a percentage of the profits from all over the place. And that’s how Tom invented franchising. I mean… sort of. The history of franchising stretches back to Isaac Singer’s sewing machines in the 1800s, and it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than soft-serve ice cream sales… but let’s pretend none of us have any portion of a business degree (I don’t!) and just say that Tom pulled off a pretty cool and profitable move.

An even profitabler move – and yes, we do intend to keep trying to invent words here at 1000Words Industries, at least until one of them sticks – was Tom’s 1956 handshake deal with Ray Kroc to supply all milkshake machinery to Ray’s little McDonalds business. To this day there’s a Carvel logo on every soft-serve machine in every McD’s on the planet.

This made me wonder: what is really in McDonalds ice cream? It’s generally assumed that anything purchased beneath the Golden Arches™ will be at least somewhat less healthy than similar products elsewhere, but does the same hold true for something as basic and pure as soft-serve ice cream? It turns out the answer is yes.

This photo has nothing to do with the article; it’s a left-over pic from my Saskatchewan election article. Enjoy!

You introduce air into the process of freezing your ice cream – that’s how soft-serve exists. McDonalds most likely uses a liquid flavor mix, ultra-heated and sterilized for our protection. Up until 2017, their ice cream contained such yummy preservatives as sodium phosphate and disodium phosphate, which are usually used to keep meat products all fresh and squishy. The phosphate brothers are also known for contributing to heart disease, osteoporosis, kidney problems and even space-herpes, so good riddance to them. They also switched over from phony vanilla flavoring to natural vanilla, which means they no longer employ lignin, a chemically-treated byproduct of paper manufacturing.

Yes, lignin was dancing around in every delicious cone of McSoft-Serve you’d enjoyed prior to 2017. You basically ate pulp-and-paper-mill poop.

But that was then! This is now! Or, since I wrote this before you’ll read it, this is some other incarnation of then! Today, McDonalds’ soft-serve is geared for the more health-conscious 21st century market!

I searched for ‘glob of fat’ to punctuate this next paragraph, not realizing that’s an actual fucking product.

A cone of vintage, paper-poop-heavy McSoft-Serve would run you 170 calories, four and a half grams of fat and 70 milligrams of sodium. A cone of next-gen modern vanilla McGoo will net you 200 calories, five whopping grams of fat and 80 milligrams of sodium. So they took out some harmful chemicals, even reduced the number of artificial sweeteners from three to two, and they somehow concocted a more deadly cone. You’ll even wind up with an extra few grams of sugar with the new stuff. Though for those of us who ask for our McSundaes with “an irrational amount of extra caramel”, do we really care?

No. We don’t. We’ll still grab a cone if we damn well want to, or if the lineup at the Dairy Queen drive-thru is too long. Oh, DQ also claims they invented soft-serve, but I don’t have time to dig into that theory today. Besides, their story isn’t nearly as folksy and delightful as Tom Carvel’s fortuitous flat tire and the subsequent chain of events that turned him into a gazillionaire.

Also, I’m still a little hung up on that pottery store suddenly vanishing like that. Stay tuned for a deeper exploration on Day 4,667: Blood On The Kiln – The Real Tom Carvel Story.

Day 946: The Unfillable Stomach Of Charles Domery

originally published August 3, 2014

Thankfully for us disciples of feckless fact and impractical information, the human body does not always cater to the limits of logic and science. We can always gawk upon the fortunate – or unfortunate – whose innards form their own rules, leaving their mark in the lore once mined by Ripley and Guinness and Barnum and other protectors of the peculiar. Immersing myself as I have in a mandated one thousand topics across the spectrum of mind-piquing knowledge, I was bound to run across a few of these folks.

Last December I wrote about Tarrare, an eighteenth-century Frenchman who ate his weight in food every day, and made his living on the proto-freak-show circuit, devouring live beasts before gaggles of open-jawed onlookers. The clinical term is polyphagia: an insatiable appetite, or a hunger that can’t be conquered. In Tarrare’s case, one can also account for a critical depravation of good taste, as anyone who eats a live snake before an audience is clearly disgusting as well as edacious.

Right around the time experts were prodding Tarrare with a stick, trying to figure out what made his insides work this way (and perhaps waiting to see if he’d eat the stick), another polyphagious man was making medical headlines. Charles Domery sold his patriotic soul and devoured everything he could find. He was a truly voracious eating machine.

Charles Domery was born in Benche, Poland (sorry – I couldn’t find a better picture of the place) around 1778. He was one of nine brothers, all of whom – according to Charles – shared the same unquashable appetite. Having lived through feeding one male teenager, I cannot fathom what sort of pre-industrial job the Domery patriarch must have held to afford to feed nine with such an appetite. But if the dinner table was a battleground in Charles’ youth, it showed no ill reflection upon his temperament. Those who knew him said he was a good egg.

Nor did his build reveal any signs of the perpetual motor-hum in his stomach. Charles was 6’3”, with long brown hair and cool grey eyes. He couldn’t read, but that was the norm in eighteenth-century Poland; Charles was observed as being of normal intelligence and showing no signs of mental illness. The guy just loved to eat. And whether spurned onward by patriotism, by hopes of a steadier influx of food or by his family who wanted less competition in the pantry, Charles joined up with the Prussian Army to do battle with France during the War of the First Coalition at age 13.

If Charles joined the army for the food, it was a miserable mistake. The Prussian Army was suffering from a food shortage at the time, which led Charles to abandon his post and march into the nearest French-controlled town to surrender. The French commander accepted his surrender, and handed him a melon, which Charles ate – rind and all. More food was brought in, all of which Charles devoured before the commander’s eyes.

Inspired by France’s legendary gustatory gusto, Charles reevaluated his principles and joined up with the French Revolutionary Army, where he was immediately granted double rations by his commanders. A Mr. Picard, who served with Charles around this time, claimed that 174 cats (minus skin and skeleton) met their fate in the murky caverns of Charles’ digestive system. Picard claims that it pained Charles to do it, but it was a necessity. The guy had to eat, and double-rations plus what he could buy on the side wasn’t enough. Sometimes he’d kill the cats first. Sometimes there simply wasn’t time.

Charles was also heavily into grass.

That’s right, not the grass your grandparents smoked whilst ruminating beneath the stars to the throbbing grooves of Big Brother and the Holding Company, but lawn-grass. Charles ate four or five pounds of the stuff every day. He wasn’t big into vegetables, but this easily-obtainable greenery was plentiful and space-filling. Charles would eat whatever he could. While sailing upon the French frigate Hoche, one of his compatriots’ legs was blown off by cannon fire. Charles grabbed hold of the loose limb and started chowing down before one of the other sailors snatched it away in disgust, throwing it overboard.

When Charles and his regiment were captured by the British Royal Navy in 1798, Charles became a medical spectacle. Guards gave him double rations, then triple, then quadruple, and eventually ten prisoners’ worth of rations every day. When that food ran out, Charles caught and ate the rats that wandered into his cell. He ate candles, unused medicine (with no ill effects) and the prison cat. He would even wash the food down with water, which was extremely ill-advised in war-torn areas, as water-borne diseases were rampant, and even prisoners of war were given beer, tea and diluted rum instead. But Charles snarfed it all down, and displayed nothing that could be viewed as a medical concern. Except for that damn appetite, of course.

The prison commander, fascinated and probably a little freaked out by this ravenous prisoner, had Charles treated by two doctors from the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. They wanted to see what Charles could handle. In one day, they fed him four pounds of raw cow’s udder, five pounds of raw beef, twelve candles, more beef, more candles, and a ridiculous amount of porter. At no time did Charles’ pulse rise, nor did he urinate, defecate or vomit. He was in a good mood and even danced a little – so maybe the porter had delivered a slight effect.

The doctors never figured out what made Charles so hungry, and also so physically capable of devouring an astounding mass of food and drink. Modern theories suggest hyperthyroidism, or possibly a damaged amygdala or ventromedial nucleus, which is where the party happens in the heart of the hypothalamus. Any of these could cause polyphagia, though apart from Charles and Tarrare, I can’t find any cases quite as severe. It’s possible that doctors’ observations were distorted, and the 200+ years separating their journals from our eyes leave absolutely no room for verification. After his imprisonment near Liverpool, no more was written of Charles; he ate his way into the fog of history.

Where are the modern Charles Domerys? Are there folks out there who suffer from a truly bottomless pit of hunger? Imagine the devastation someone like this could cause to Bonanza’s all-you-can-eat ribs night. From all accounts, Charles was a friendly and affable guy; his mood and persona were never affected by his appetite. You just wouldn’t want to invite him to dinner.

Day 938: Bedtime Tales From Tiki-Topia

originally published July 26, 2014

Hey kids. Your mom normally takes care of story-time, but there’s an engrossing marathon of The Real Housewives of some damn city on TV, and she’s asked me to fill in. I’m more of a freestyler than a page-reader, so I’m going to unfold this tale fresh from my mind’s back pocket.

Because I love you, and because my brain is bobbing lazily upon a lilting brume of a particularly precocious rum tonight, I think I’ll unwrap the story of one of daddy’s heroes, a man whose singular vision of an urban oasis has not only helped daddy get through your mother’s tearful re-telling of the salient plot-points of every goddamn Nicholas Sparks novel, but also through your ballet recitals, your soccer games and your school concerts. That man’s name was Don the Beachcomber.

No Trixie, daddy isn’t going to tell you a story about a pony. Why not? Because Don the Beachcomber was a man, man of prescience. Hey, stop your whining! What would you rather hear about? Trixie, I don’t know any stories about goddamn unicorns. Lucy, so help me, if you ask me to read that Berenstain Bears book again, I will spend your college fund on cocaine. What did you say, Tommy? You want a story about zombies? That’s my boy. The story of Don the Beachcomber is full of zombies.

When Don was nineteen years old, he left his home in Limestone County, Texas – that’s near Dallas, where the Cowboys play football… you remember last Thanksgiving  when daddy was throwing candied yams at the TV set and cursing a man named Tony Romo for almost blowing a game against the Oakland Raiders? Well, he plays for the Cowboys. Anyway, Don went on an adventure, sailing around the Caribbean and the islands of the South Pacific.

While Don was out exploring, he learned all about yummy rum tiki drinks. Lucy, remember when you told me that Shirley Temples are the bestest drinks in the world? Sorry honey, you’re flat-out wrong about that. The cocktails Don discovered could push your taste buds into retirement, for after having sampled those sweet droplets of Polynesian nectar, there will be no greater summits for them to conquer. No Trixie, you can’t try one now. It’ll just taste like booze to you. Right. Eww. Whatever.

Don used to be a bootlegger during Prohibition. That means he brought alcohol into the country when it was illegal. That’s right Tommy, you shouldn’t break the law. But this was a stupid law, and by breaking it, Don was able to earn lots of money so he could move to Hollywood and build a restaurant. So you see, sometimes breaking the law is okay, if you’re ultimately elevating the collective palette of an entire society.

Don opened Don’s Beachcomber Café in 1934 just a half-block off Hollywood Blvd, right by where the Kodak Theater is today. You guys remember back in February when daddy was throwing Cheetos at the TV set and cursing the fact that A Good Day To Die Hard didn’t get nominated for any Oscars? Well, the Kodak is where they filmed the Oscars. And if Don’s café was still around today, he’d no doubt win every statuette in the building. Let me tell you about some of these drinks.

Sorry Tommy, the zombie cocktail is not made with actual zombies, nor do human brains pop up in the recipe. A zombie happens when four ounces of three kinds of rum walk into a glass and meet up with some bitters, some fruit juices, and a little bit of magic. The story goes that Don invented the drink to help out a customer with a bad hangover. What’s a hangover, Trixie? Well, remember last Sunday morning when daddy was throwing pork rinds at the TV set because Kelly Ripa wouldn’t stop talking, except the TV wasn’t actually on and daddy was just having what mommy called an “after-party episode”? That’s a hangover.

Sometimes a zombie is made with something called falernum. Falernum is a syrup – no, not for pancakes, Lucy – made from almonds, ginger, sometimes cloves, allspice and lime. Falernum is to a tiki drink what Van Morrison is to music: textured, inventive, and joyously distinct. Trust me Trixie, you wouldn’t like it. Falernum invites your tongue on a quest, throws in weather changes, plot twists and a gentle wisp of danger, then ultimately anoints your palette with wisdom and an intangible sense of exaltation. Trixie, you told me last week that Fresca “tastes too loud on your tongue.” Falernum would probably kill you.

While Don’s friendly Oakland rival, Trader Vic, claims he invented the Mai Tai in his tiki cove in 1944, Don swears he created it eleven years earlier in L.A. I’m inclined to believe the man, as he has bestowed upon my innards such so many drops of cunning bliss I abhor the thought of ever doubting him. Trader Vic’s Mai Tai is a sweet little number – Tommy, you might be able to handle one of these; maybe I’ll make you one next time mom’s out meeting with her Blog-Of-The-Month Club – made with rock candy syrup, orange syrup, orange curaçao, some lime and some rum. But Don’s? Don’s Mai Tai is a dimension of flavor unto itself.

Sipping on a real Mai Tai is such an immediate portal to the unremitting tropics you’ll feel the visceral scrunch of beach-sand beneath your feet; you’ll find yourself wiping away the salty spittle of the South Pacific from your brow; and you’ll discreetly wonder – even if you fashioned the beverage in your own home – if the crushed ice singing against the side of your glass might be tainted with a smidge of Hepatitis.

During World War II, Don traveled the Allied lines, setting up exquisite R&R escapes for enervated servicemen, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his troubles. He was a hero, and when he returned home, he and Trader Vic unleashed the mighty tiki fad upon a thirsty nation. People donned garish cotton frocks and dragged their livers through a consciousness-throttling stream of Technicolor mayhem and rum-soaked felicity. Rec-room bars in homes took on a Polynesian panache and for a brief time in history, our collective cup runnethed over with the serpentine taste of dreams.

And then it faded away. Don lost control of his restaurants in a divorce, he moved to Hawaii, bought a houseboat and lost it in a hurricane. The tiki trend gave way to Brylcreem, clanking guitars and a noisy counterculture with no delicious libations to boast about. The spirit of the tiki, those meandering byways of narrative flavors, went underground. Those who know of such empyrean elixirs still dance beneath their luminous halo-lights when possible, but outside of a few savvy crannies along the west coast, the culture has mostly evaporated from our part of the world.

That’s all for tonight, kids. Time for bed, and time for daddy to look up the recipe and make his own Falernum. Tommy, get daddy some Chex Mix to throw at the TV. I hate this Real Housewives crap.

Day 934: The Forbidden Fried Foodstuffs

originally published July 22, 2014

Every so often, I forget how much I despise fast food. I find myself seduced by the siren scent of McDonalds’ temptress fries, or the dangerously sweet allure of a Dairy Queen Peanut Buster Parfait (though I prefer substituting the hot fudge for caramel – my personal Achilles has remarkably fat heels). I know about the chemicals, I know about the trans fats, and I am fully aware that the caloric count of a Big Mac exceeds that which some humans will consume in a week.

But in those euphoric final seconds before that initial bite, there exists the possibility that this will be the numinous rajah of burgers, the godly Big Mac that actually tastes like something other than special sauce and pickle. Once – and only once – I thought I found it. A local McDonalds that concocted the perfect drive-thru construct, a veritable clone of the freakish stunt-food they eat in the commercials. Perhaps it was only a dream.

While my devoteeism to the perils of fast food fodder may be no more than a hidden shame in my gustatory closet, there are those who boastfully snarf down the grease-laden vittles procured by our corporate masters. And thanks to their crafty spelunking of these establishments’ stock items, they have uncovered (and shared) some of the secret menu items we can all use to pretend we are connoisseurs of comestible compost.

If you’ve already sampled KFC’s Double Down sandwich and didn’t find quite the surge of self-loathing you were looking for, why not sample a Big McChicken from McDonalds? Sure, you could wuss out and grab a McGangBang (some McEmployees will actually make it for you if you ask for it by name), but that’s just a McChicken crammed inside a McDouble burger. The Big McChicken requires you to order three McChickens, throw out everything but the breaded meat, then use those as a substitute for the buns on your Big Mac. I guess this is a viable choice if the only thing you’re looking to cut out is carbs. And common sense.

If you’re looking for something else to jazz up your Mcsperience, but without causing your arteries to foreclose on your circulatory system, try out the Mc10:35. You’ll only be able to charm this across the counter right after they stop serving breakfast, but if your server is in the right mood, you can cram a McDouble’s burger patties inside an Egg McMuffin for a surreal treat. No good? Wait for March and try out a McLeprechaun Shake – that’s a Shamrock Shake mixed with a chocolate shake for some tasty mint-on-chocolate action.

Not every secret-menu item is an abomination of glutinous excess. Some are simple tweaks on a classic – for example, if you’ve got a yen for a club sandwich but you possess a vehement disdain for bread that has been cut into tiny triangles, you could fashion a BK Club at your local Burger King. Sure, it’s breaded chicken instead of fresh turkey breast, but with tack on lettuce, tomato and bacon to your Original Chicken Sandwich and you’ll never know the difference.

Okay, that’s a lie. Your taste buds know better; most of the sludge offered up by the King is only edible by the most generous definition of the word. Other suggestions, like the Rodeo Burger (BBQ sauce and onion rings on a burger) or the Mustard Whopper (a Whopper with… wait for it… mustard) are subtle variations to a menu whose contents would best be used as garden mulch, not dinner.

I have always found KFC’s bowls to be visual cacophonies of veritable digestive abuse. Had they graced the Colonel’s menu back in the days when I’d inhale a fist-full of cannabis and conquer the food court for sustenance, I probably would have cannonballed into those plastic tubs of corn, potato, cheese and Original Recipe goodness. But those days have drifted into a green-sepia mist.

That said, if you’ve got a savvy slinger of poultry procurements working behind the counter of your local KFC, you can ask to customize your bowl with whatever ingredients you fancy. Want fries in there? Biscuits? Bacon? They might do it for you. Alternately, you can pluck a Triple Down off the secret menu – that’s exactly what it sounds like, an expanded version of their infamous bunless monstrosity.

It struck me as surprising that the Peanut Buster Parfait is listed on the Dairy Queen secret menu – perhaps my American friends aren’t fortunate enough to witness this glorious dessert on their local menus. But I’m intrigued by the Marshmallow Creme Sundae. I wasn’t aware that DQ boasted a liquefied marshmallow goo-substance (known as ‘Fluff’ to the masses) among their possible toppings. After your double-cheeseburger with traffic-cone orange cheese-stuff, one of these might be downright groovity to the palate.

Other DQ secrets include the Banana Split Blizzard, a whipped concoction of their banana split fixins, the Midnight Truffle Blizzard, which features dark cocoa fudge and Truffle Bits (and I have to say, the Truffle Bits would be a great name for a neo-punk/clarinet-heavy acid-jazz band), and something called the DQ Frozen Hot Chocolate. Just ask them to take their hot chocolate, dump some ice into it, then blend it up. Chances are, the kid taking your order will be awe-struck, as though you had just unlocked the cryptic mystery of flavor exultation.

Not really fast food, but since the holy purveyors of mass coffee-ism have a secret menu as well, I don’t feel it’s right to leave Starbucks off the list. Above you can marvel at the Starbucks Liquid Cocaine: four shots of espresso and four pumps of white chocolate syrup, topped with ice and some milk in a grande cup. Not enough?  Ask for a Green Eye, which is a regular coffee, iced or hot, with three nerve-goosing shots of espresso stirred in. Feed one of these to your three-year-old and watch the fireworks show.

The Frappuccino, which is more a candy/Slurpee hybrid than anything resembling a coffee beverage, has numerous incarnations around the secret menu. The Twix Frap mixes caramel, chocolate and hazelnut. The Cotton Candy Frap is a Vanilla Bean Frap with extra pumps of raspberry syrup. And the Thin Mint Frap can kick the McLeprechaun Shake right in his green little nuts: a Tazo Green Tea Creme Frap, with two pumps of chocolate syrup, one of mint, some java chips and a splash of honey will make your tongue howl at the moon. The Girl Scouts need to get behind this treat.

Every speed-grub establishment has its own secret menu. So long as you have an open mind and you aren’t asking the restaurant staff to sling together your artistic vision during the swampy throes of a dinner rush, you can probably have some fun with your selections. Just stay away from the stuff that’ll kill you. No one needs a Triple Down.

Day 924: The Forbidden Foodstuffs

originally published July 12, 2014

It was the same conversation, every time I’d stay over at a friend’s place when I was a kid. Inevitably my friend’s mother would learn that I was Jewish (I was one of two in my grade, so word traveled), and she’d ask, “Will you eat [bacon/ham/shrimp, etc.]?”.

I never understood it. I was never Jewish by faith, only by chance of birth, which meant I’d accept none of the dietary restrictions, however I’d inevitably inherit a natural comedic timing and the inexplicable desire to own a media outlet. But give up on bacon? On luscious shrimp creole? On devouring my meat and cheese off the same plate? That’s blasphemy.

But it isn’t only pork and crustacean meat that my ancestry was trained to avoid, and it isn’t only the Jews who are hell-bent on depriving themselves of these protein-rich nibbles of bliss. There are taboo food and drinks across the spectrum. Some – like bacon, obviously – are ludicrously unnecessary sacrifices of outmoded traditions. Others make a little more sense.

Pork is forbidden in Jewish, Islam and even Seventh-day Adventist Christians. Even the Phoenicians, Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians steered clear of munching on our little porcine friends, perhaps because they were dirty animals (they did like to feast on their own poop), or possibly because they were revered back then. Yet despite all those cultures waving away the opportunity to savor the unworldly pleasure contained in a rack of baby-backs, the USDA reports that pork is the most widely eaten meat substance around the globe.

Crustaceans are also big on the Jewish list of no-no menu items. That means no crab legs, no lobster, no pan-fried shrimp in garlic butter… I’ve got to stop writing these articles on an empty stomach. Even catfish is verboten. The reason these tasty little sea-creatures are taboo? They live in water but do not have fins or scales. That’s it. If it sounds ridiculous and arbitrary to you, you are not alone. It just seems so cruel.

There’s actually an enormous chunk of the African population who won’t dine on fish of any kind. It’s known as the ‘Cushitic Fish Taboo’, as many clans who speak Cushitic languages in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt and Tanzania won’t touch the stuff. The origin of this mandatory abstinence is unknown, but it strikes me as an odd notion, that the people of these nations should deprive themselves of any food. Aren’t they perpetually on the brink of starvation? Not a good place to be picky.

A number of native tribes in the southwestern United States, including the Navajo, Apache and Zuñi, won’t eat fish. Archeologists have noted that almost no fish bones were uncovered at any Norse sites in Greenland, suggesting those 11th-16th century explorers also forbade marine life consumption, despite the fact that there’s almost nothing else to eat on that desolate rock.

Jews have more to worry about than shellfish and pig-parts; we are also forbidden from noshing on eagle, osprey, vulture and ostrich, thanks to the sacred scribbles in Leviticus 11:13. Muslims can wolf down all the ostrich they’d like, but they can’t touch birds who hunt with claws and talons. Bats are on the list too – not kosher, not allowed under Sharia law. If I’m going to follow any kosher edict, I might stick with this one.

Guinea pigs aren’t allowed on any old serving plate either. Cuy, as they’re called in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, are considered a delicacy. Naturally there is a significant market for shipping guinea pig meat to North America, though it became a very public battle when the New York City Parks & Rec department clamped down on cuy being served at an Ecuadorian festival in 2004. Capybara, the guinea pig’s close cousin, is specifically exempted from the Catholic ban on eating meat during Lent, oddly enough. So no pork, no beef, no chicken, but you can gobble down some rodent-meat if you just can’t wait for your Easter turkey.

It’s common knowledge that cows are sacred among the Hindu faiths; even Hindus who do eat meat won’t touch their beloved bovines. They’ll happily spread a cow’s manure on their mud-hut walls for insulation or consume cow urine as a medicinal substance, but they won’t bite into a burger. This isn’t merely out of respect for a holy beast; cows are crucial to a family’s survival in agricultural India. Chinese Buddhists feel the same way, though they lean more toward discouraging the consumption of beef rather than banning it. In India, killing a cow, even for a life-saving steak, will get you tossed in prison.

Horses aren’t considered kosher food, despite its popularity in European supermarkets. Some Christians hold off on stomaching their stallions as well; Pope Gregory III called eating horses “a filthy and abominable custom” in 732. Iceland only accepted Christianity onto their shores with the strict provision that they’d still be allowed their edible equines. Horse remains a popular meat in Belgium, France, Spain and Switzerland. Even in Germany – though they’re also known for eating another kind of meat there.

Yes, my beloved Yoko, you too could be feast-fodder within the borders of Deutschland. Or you might have been a hundred years ago, when dog meat was a customary delicacy (it was finally outlawed in the 80’s). In fact, the suspicions about the German love for canine meatstuffs led Americans to be suspicious of Frankfurters being sold by German immigrants. This led to the coining of the term ‘hot dog’, or so the story goes. Of course dog meat is often linked with low-end Chinese restaurants in North America, though in truth those claims are mostly unsubstantiated.

Other foods that might spew loogies in the face of your particular faith:

  • Frogs, crocodiles, alligators and snakes won’t get the blessing of any rabbi.
  • Bears are out for Jews also, as are any predatory earth-bound animal for Muslims.
  • Islamic folks love serving camel hump for a treat, but Jews won’t touch ‘em. Maybe this is how that whole tension between them got started.
  • If you’re hungry for cat meat, you’ll find most of the world (outside of Guangdong, China apparently) will see your craving as disgusting. Cats are also nixed by kosher and Sharia laws.
  • Insects aren’t kosher, and there are actually strict Jews who won’t touch broccoli or raspberries because they can’t be properly cleaned of bugs. So if you’re looking for an excuse not to eat broccoli, simply become an Orthodox Jew.
  • Some followers of Jainism, an Indian religion, won’t touch root vegetables (carrots, potatoes, etc.) because they believe that yanking them out of the ground murders the plant. In certain sects of Buddhism and Hinduism, onions and garlic are out.
  • Those who follow Yazidism (a Kurdish faith) won’t touch lettuce because some 13th century Yazidi saint was executed and allegedly pelted with lettuce.
  • Humans… yeah, don’t eat humans. No one’s going to want to hang out with you if you eat humans.

The list of forbidden foods is longer and more elaborate than I’ve covered here. My belief has always been that if the food is safe and clean, and it’s not a common household pet or a member of your own species, dig in. Life’s too short to worry about angering the gods over lunch.

Day 904: Acquiring A Taste For Acquired Tastes

originally published June 22, 2014

Earlier today, someone suggested to me that I pen an article about surströmming, which is a northern Swedish delicacy. As with any food that is considered a delicacy of a very specific region, yet has not made the official menu of well-known cliché ethnic foods from its nation (in Sweden’s case that would be meatballs, lingonberry sauce and whatever that whacky Muppet is cooking up), I knew it would sound gross. And it does. Surströmming is a fermented Baltic sea herring whose odor is allegedly so horrendous it has been banned from two major airlines and the Stockholm airport.

It’s an “acquired taste”, I’ve been told. This is a puzzling psychological concept to me, and would make for a more interesting kilograph than some terrorist cousin of the anchovy family.* There are foods I have tried and loved from the first bite – Kobe steak tartar, key lime pie, crème brulé, among others. But it’s true that sometimes a particular gustatory journey requires baby steps before the palette can truly hit its stride. Why is that?

Even beer. When my beloved aunt and uncle gave me my first can of O’Keefe’s Extra Old Stock (my father passed on this rite of traditional bonding; he was more a drinker of wine and A&W Cream Soda), I hated it. Maybe that was because it was crappy beer, but I really think my tongue just needed some training wheels before it could appreciate what hops and malt could become. It’s a curious thing.

Babies are born with a predilection for sweet foods and a natural disdain for bitter or sour stuff. We don’t generally lean toward salty eats until about four months, but once we leap off the boob into a heaping bowl of solid foods we become suddenly very adventurous. This might explain why those little two-nub pieces of Lego can so easily find their way into a toddler’s gullet (though I suspect Freud would say that has more to do with a penis obsession, the sick bastard). Not long afterward, neophobia sets in.

Here’s a word you can use to smack down anyone who doesn’t want to hear that new underground avant-garde noise-music band you just discovered, or someone who won’t check out Breaking Bad because it seems too “weird”. Neophobia is a fear of novelty, and in the food world that means the fear of trying anything that might slap our taste buds into unknown waters. As we drift into our teens we usually overcome our neophobia (to some extent), and are willing to unleash a little morsel of the unknown into our masticating repertoire now and then.

This is around the time some people discover they are supertasters, those fortunate few who can pluck the essence of cumin from a sauce or isolate that dash of paprika that ties together grandma’s meatloaf. A supertaster is someone with an astounding sensitivity to bold tastes, and depending on their personal groove and personality they might gravitate toward exploring those eclectic global tastes or avoiding them completely, finding their intensity genuinely painful to experience.

And that’s part of the puzzle. Your personality could influence whether or not you ever warm up to the mighty bite of imported olives. Since the supertaster gift can also be a genetic inheritance, you might have your ancestry to blame for your inability to acquire an appreciation for those bizarre and brash flavors. Repeated exposure might work; it took me three or four high school parties before the sting of a lager’s bite became music to my mouth. Since then, I have swum down Kolsch canals and lambic lagoons, exploring all corners of the beer world – not merely for professional research (I moonlight as a copy writer for one of the truly great Canadian brew-makers), but because I love it.

Other foods which are staples of our deviant western culture are also considered to be acquired tastes. Coffee doesn’t hug everyone’s soul – worldwide it takes an eternal backseat to tea as the warmed-up cup o’ choice. Goat cheese, which I find to be creamy, rich, and not unlike the flavor equivalent of sliding into a toasty hot tub after a brutal day of labor, repels some folks. Caviar is another, and while I’ve only sampled it a half-dozen times, I have found half of those experiences to be rather pleasant.

Olives are a mighty deal-breaker; I have yet to encounter a soul who is indifferent to those little blobs of boisterous intent. Some love plucking them from their tiny portable pools of gin or their luxurious landscapes of Greek salads and popping them into their mouths. Others – and I count myself among this bunch – might enjoy lobbing them across the table into friends’ mouths for sport, but we despise the notion of actually eating one. It’s an acquired taste, sure, but for us it would also be a reversal of passions.

But passions – and tastes – can change.

You can do it the hard way if you want. Bite into that canned surströmming and pretend to like it. Mimic the responses of others who actually do. Embrace your attempt at conformity and realize it’s not entirely a bad thing. This is often how foreign travelers – in particular those who plan on residing in another land for an extended stay – have to do it. Eventually you’ll either reach the point where even the sight of a tin of surströmming will force your uvula to reach down your throat and induce vomiting, or you’ll realize you’re starting to fancy the little guys.

Chemicals can do it too. A 2005 study by Smit & Blackburn found that adding caffeine and theobromine (both of which are active compounds in chocolate) to a drink that participants tried several times yielded positive results. They measured this against another identical drink to which they added a neutral placebo, and there was a distinct preference for the chemically-treated stuff. This could be because those little chemicals found in chocolate stimulate the same mind and body effects as chocolate without altering the flavor. We can learn to love a food if it feels good.

So maybe any of us could learn to love surströmming. It’s often served in a sandwich form, stuffed between two slices of a thin, square crispy bread called tunnbröd (which I imagine tastes something like matzo, the stuff we Jews torture ourselves with every Passover), with butter, boiled and sliced potatoes, thinly-diced onions and a strong cheese like Västerbotten. On second thought, it might be smarter to acclimate oneself to surströmming on its own first. That’s a lot of mighty Viking flavors vying for the conquest of my tongue.

Or maybe not. Some souls are simply not inclined to be adventurous in their consumption. It was a proud day for me when my son dared to stray from the blasé beef ‘n peapods dish and sample the zesty Szechuan chicken from our favorite Chinese place. Yet my 17-year-old daughter still often orders her burgers barren of anything more adventurous than burger, bun and cheese.

And bacon. Of all the tastes out there to be savored, bacon should be the easiest to acquire. That’s just common sense.

Day 882: Smoking Your Smirnoff & Other Sciencey Drinky Things

originally published May 31, 2014

As an experienced recreational imbiber of liquid giddiness, I’d like to think I have evolved to the point where I’m ready to infuse a little science with my drinking. I have mastered my threshold of vomit-inducing over-consumption, and when the mood is right I’ll even remember to balance my ethanol intake with a hangover-quelching dose of water. I know my limits, and I seldom glide past happy-drunkenness into slobbering-wreckdom.

I’m already aware that rum is made from sugar cane, vodka is made from potatoes and grains, and beer is made from pure and unrefined liquid manna. I’m proud of the fact that I actually drink alcohol for the taste, though the accompanying enhancements to my charm and wit are nice too. But I want to know more.

Why does alcohol have this magical effect on our physical beings? What is the scientific community working on to enhance my drinking experience? Why did I have to drunkenly sing six Air Supply songs at the karaoke machine during my last office Christmas party?

It’s the weekend and I’m whetting my appetite on words about booze until the clock displays a less shameful hour to start drinking. I’d better hurry.

The otolithic membrane is this sciencey glob of stuff in your inner ear. It’s filled with little hairs and a viscous goo called endolymph. When you tilt your head, the endolymph bends the hair cells, which transmit the info to your brain that your head is tilted. When alcohol begins tap-dancing in your bloodstream, that viscous goo gets less dense. This makes the hair cells bend a little easier, conveying false tilting messages to your brain-meat and messing with your balance.

This phenomenon can also cause your eyes to swirl around to compensate, thus providing the glorious bed-spins that haunted too many nights of my younger days. There are a few ways to prevent this – don’t drink alcohol, for example. If you aren’t ready for that kind of madness, try mixing your hooch with sugar soda instead of diet. Sugar slows down the emptying of the stomach, which slows down the walloping effects of drunkenness. Also, don’t light up a late-night, post-drinking doobie. The cannabis will smack those little hairs around even more and you’ll be spinning like a wobbly dreidel for hours.

Take it from the voice of experience – smoke before you drink. Of course, only do this in Colorado or Washington state, unless you have a prescription; if it’s illegal it must be morally wrong, right?

The nigrostriatal pathway in the brain, which is the same little neuron conduit that gets hampered in sufferers of Parkinson’s Disease, is also affected by alcohol. This is your motor control center, the part of my brain that I blame for my inability to play golf (though I suspect complete and total disinterest also plays a part). When you drink, your metabolism in the nigrostriatal pathway increases, which triggers the reward sensors in your brain to become more active. This is why we tend to gesture more wildly when we drink. This might also be why I become a substantially better (albeit clumsier) dancer.

Isn’t science fun? It’s also a fact that one drink before bed will improve your overall sleep. Drink more than that and your sleep architecture will be messed up when the booze leaves your system. The body oozes out about 0.01-0.02 percent blood-alcohol per hour, so if you’re sitting just over the legal driving limit of 0.08, you’re looking at maybe four hours before your body has purged the drink. That’s when your sleep patterns might get jostled.

We all know the long-term effects of continuous alcohol abuse – I’m not going to meander down that dark, cautionary path. Instead I’m curious about Palcohol, a brand of powdered alcohol that was accidentally approved for sale in the United States by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for just under two weeks last month. These are capsules you can take orally if you enjoy being drunk but don’t like the taste (which is weird), or you can dissolve them in water to make your own beverage.

The ATF approved Palcohol for sale on April 8, only to rescind it on the 21st because – whoops! – they didn’t mean to do that. It was a bureaucratic error. There is concern that kids could get their hands on Palcohol and use it discreetly, as could government drone workers who engage in lengthy writing projects <cough, cough>. But the real worry is that people will snort it, thus getting drunk instantaneously and potentially damaging their nasal passages.

Would people actually do that? Snort powdered booze? Well, there are many who smoke it.

This is an actual thing. Using an open-flame heater, or alternately an asthma nebulizer, alcohol can be transformed into a gaseous state for inhalation. There was – no, sorry, there is – a device on the market called AWOL (Alcohol With Out Liquid) that mixes alcohol with oxygen to create small mist droplets, which can be inhaled like a lungful of ignited kush. There are others too – the Vaportini utilizes thermal vaporization for smooth vodka breaths. Mmm. Flavor country.

The positive effect of inhaling your liquor is the more immediate rush of drunkenness it provides. Also, it’s a fun little novelty that will add a dash of memorable strangeness to your next summer shindig. The downside is that it’s hard to regulate the right amount of smoked hooch you pull into your bloodstream, which means you might rocket right past 0.008% into dangerous territory without even knowing it. And your body’s automatic response to alcohol poisoning – puking your unholy guts out – won’t do a thing if you’ve been smoking the stuff.

But then I’ve heard of women (okay – girls) putting vodka-soaked tampons into their innards for a quick rush. Could we get any weirder than that?

You have clearly reached a milestone of bewildering personal choices once you’ve selected to cram a hose in your rectum and pour alcohol through your back door. This is known as butt-chugging, and it makes the people who smoke and/or snort their booze look sane and without need for immediate counselling by comparison. Once again the alcohol is hitting your bloodstream like a school bus plowing into a phone booth made of popsicle sticks. And once again your stomach is powerless to reject the excess booze in order to keep you alive.

These kids today. Except it’s not just kids. A 58-year-old machine shop owner in Lake Jackson, Texas, died from this in 2004. He was an alcoholic, but had a nasty sore throat, which made it tough to gulp back his daily dose. His wife helped him out by pouring two full bottles (that’s about three liters) of sherry into his butthole. That is a serious commitment to one’s addiction, and I suppose to the bonds of matrimony. The guy died, and his wife was charged with negligent homicide.

Look, it’s the weekend, it’s practically summer, and the temptation to snarf back a heap o’ the good stuff and diluting one’s endolymph to make the tiny little hairs inside our ears bend and weave like hippies at a Phish concert is there. But be responsible. And just drink the stuff – don’t mess with perfection.

Day 877: One Last Gut-Cram Before I Go

originally published May 26, 2014

Sometimes sinking one’s brain-fins into the waters of a good hypothetical topic and paddling about with one’s friends can be a healthy exercise. “What ten albums would you want on a deserted island?” “Which three children’s books would you travel back in time to read to a young Calvin Coolidge?” “If you could repaint the Great Wall of China in any shade of turquoise…” But my favorite of all hypothetical dalliances is the notion of the final meal.

The problem here is that we don’t generally know when our final meal will take place. It has crossed my mind upon consuming the occasional flaccid offering of meat-like McFiller-Material that I might be condemning my taste buds to an anticlimactic splatter of blandness, should a tragedy befall me suddenly. In order to become lucidly aware that your next meal will truly be your last, you’ll have had to have made some pretty nefarious life choices. For those of us who will probably never be on death row, each time we order off the menu we’re rolling the dice that we’ll get another chance.

The last meal is the one romanticized element of capital punishment. In truth, the condemned prisoner is usually not allowed to order with the full breadth of his or her imagination. If they could, I’m sure the final meal would often consist of a key to their cell baked into a Twinkie, along with a fully-armed rocket launcher, maybe garnished with a side-salad. In the US, even alcohol is usually on the forbidden list.

Of course, the real reason prisoners are entitled to a glorious final meal has nothing to do with mercy or consideration for the doomed. It’s all about ghosts.

The last meal for the condemned is rooted in ancient superstition. Serving someone a free meal implies making a form of peace with the host, a truce if you will. The prisoner’s acceptance of the complimentary grub implies that he or she has forgiven the judge, the executioner and the witnesses. It was the state’s (or the crown’s) way of saying, “Here, enjoy this feast. Please don’t come back and haunt us. We’re cool, right?” The better the food and drink, the less likely the prisoner will return to spook those involved with his death.

Even in biblical times, the notion of giving a condemned soul a pleasant gustatory so-long was a thing. Though to be accurate, there is no mention in the old texts about feeding a prisoner, only getting them drunk. “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.” I can dig that. Even the Talmud says that those who are on their way to the gallows should be intoxicated for the experience. I don’t know if they were worried about being haunted so much as wanting to make the transition for the doomed a little more pleasant. Or maybe a drunk prisoner put up less of a fight, I don’t know.

Once the notion of getting hunted down by the recently-undead was no longer so much a concern, the final meal either carried on as a tradition or died out, depending on the administration in charge. Eighteenth-century English law wiped out the final meal, indicating that during the period between sentence and execution, the prisoner should be kept in solitary confinement and given nothing more than bread and water. The French tradition was to give the prisoner a little glass of rum just a few minutes before they met the guillotine. There was no final meal, as the period between sentencing and off-with-his-heading was usually only a matter of a few hours.

The tradition of the final meal is alive and well in most parts of the United States that still execute people. They call it the prisoner’s “special meal”, as it’s served one or two days prior to the execution, and is not necessarily the last thing the person is going to eat. Something to consider for the lactose-intolerant – whatever you order for your big feast, you’ll probably have to contend with the full breadth of its effects on your innards before you’re snuffed out, so you may want to steer clear of your love for cheese fondue. Just saying.

There are specific restrictions (beyond the rocket-launcher idea), on what you’ll be imbibing for your final chow-down. In America the default is no booze and no cigarettes. In Florida the food must be local (so no escargots in butter sauce from that place you love in Paris) and it can’t cost more than $40. Make that a limit of $15 in Oklahoma. You murder someone in Tulsa you’ll be lucky if you can swing a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal and a Hot Apple Pie for your final repast.

Some inmates choose to share their final meal with another inmate, or even to have it distributed among the others in his or her cell block. In special cases someone from the outside (such as the inmate’s mom) can join in on the meal. In Louisiana it’s customary for the warden of the prison to sit down and join the prisoner. I’m not sure if there’s a special story behind this tradition or if wardens in Louisiana just love to eat.

When Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s infamous mass-murderers was sentenced to be hanged in Israel, he requested a bottle of Carmel, a dry Israeli wine. Saddam Hussein refused the offer of chicken and cigarettes for his last meal. Mona Fandey, a former pop singer, witch doctor and murderer from Malaysia, turned down a final meal at Kajang Prison, so her captors took the opportunity to make her suffer a little more and gave her KFC the night before her hanging.

Pizza, burgers and steak are big among the condemned. Ted Bundy refused his final meal, perhaps hoping he’d get the chance to haunt the prison officials after he was gone. One Alabama prisoner requested turkey bologna and grilled cheese. Dobie Gillis Williams, executed in Louisiana in 1999, opted for a dozen chocolate bars instead of a well-balanced meal. Gerald Lee Mitchell in Texas asked for a bag of Jolly Ranchers. James Edward Smith asked for a lump of dirt, but the guards refused him. Victor Feguer, executed in Iowa in 1963, asked for one lone olive.

But the real prize goes to Lawrence Russell Brewer.

Brewer is the guy who ruined it for everyone in Texas. For his final meal he requested a modest portion of two chicken-fried steaks (with gravy and sliced onions, of course), a triple-bacon-cheeseburger, an omelet with cheese, beef, tomatoes, onions, peppers and jalapenos, a bowl of fried okra with ketchup, a pound of barbecued meat, a half-loaf of white bread, three fajitas, a meat-lover’s pizza, a pint of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts, and three root beers to wash it all down. For whatever reason, Texas prison officials complied, gathering this table-full of food for Brewer to enjoy before heading for the great beyond. Brewer looked at the feast, then pushed himself away from the table without eating a bite. He claimed he wasn’t hungry.

With that little prank, Senator John Whitmire pushed through legislation that eliminated the last meal tradition in Texas prisons. Brewer might have thought he was punking the system; actually he was screwing over everyone else who would ever be on death row in his state.

For myself, I don’t know. A serving of Mr. Cecil’s Ribs from L.A., a juicy pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli in New York, maybe a slice of key lime pie and a pint of chili lager from Dadeo’s, my local haunt… I think it’s probably best that I’ll never have to make this decision.