Saturday, December 31, 2011

A New Year...a New Focus?

In the fledgling days of the New Year, 1973, Sister Therese went up and down the rows of students in her fifth-grade religion class, asking each of us to name our favorite Christmas present. I remember telling her, “walkie-talkies,” only because she repeated what I had said, slowly and syllabically, as if walkie-talkies were, maybe, instruments of the devil or, more likely, something completely unfamiliar to her.

At the top of my Christmas list, 1972, were walkie-talkies, and when old St. Nick didn’t deliver the goods, I looked to a New Year’s Eve miracle as my last best hope. The ten-year-old me prayed that the walkie-talkies gift idea had been passed on to my godmother, who turned up on New Year’s Eve every year—an annual tradition—and actually bought me real presents. She was both a generous and kindly woman, and her husband was an incredibly nice man, too—born in Germany with a thick German accent. He couldn’t be my godfather because he wasn’t Catholic, which I thought was silly then as a little boy and even sillier now. He should have been my godfather. Two years later, though, he was gone. A freak accident, and an even more freakish blood clot, took his life at the age of forty-two. Both a good man and a New Year’s Eve tradition ended without fair warning.

Since that time—almost four decades ago—I’ve found New Year’s Eve more depressing than not. As a kid, it underscored that Christmas was over and, worse than that, Christmas vacation was nearing an end, too. There was nothing more disheartening than returning to school after a Christmas vacation. What was there to look forward to anyway? I know what—a long stretch of school days in the bitterly cold depths of wintertime.

So, another year is gone and I am a year closer to the end than the beginning. This is, in fact, the essence of the New Year. But then again, it is also—as this far-sighted manager I once knew at a place I once worked said—“a New Year, a New Focus.” Perhaps he was on to something there! Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Eve in My Home Town

Only seconds ago, I heard "the first lady of song" Kate Smith belting out Christmas Eve in My Home Town on one of my cable's Music Choice stations. While my personal "Christmas Eve in My Home Town" of the Bronx memories weren't nearly as bucolic or as syrupy special, they faithfully adhered to a venerable tradition—one that merits a mention and maybe even a song of its own someday.

For me, Christmas Eve has forever been rooted in the Italian’s “Feast of the Seven Fishes” dinner—assorted fish dishes served alongside spaghetti with garlic and olive oil (aglio e olio)—although I don’t think we've ever quite made it to the seven-fish mark. When my paternal grandmother was the culinary impresario of this evening, the fish were, without exception, baccalà (salted cod fish), calamari (squid), eels, and shrimp. She came from a mountain town called Castelmezzano in Southern Italy, where fish of any kind were rare birds indeed. Because it was salted to death, baccalà was the only fish product this impoverished sliver of geography—sans electricity and refrigeration—knew, with the one exception being fresh-water minnows of some kind that ran in the mountain streams after heavy rains and melting winter snows.

Ironically, my grandmother didn’t much like fish. Outside of Christmas Eve dinner, the only fish I ever remember her cooking were fried scallops, and not very often at that. Because they maintained somewhat more appeal to me than did eels and squid, I had long wished these rarely prepared scallops of hers would be added to the holiday menu. But, in the big picture, the specific fishes really didn’t matter. The one-night-a-year tradition trumped all else—even taste. My grandmother's spaghetti alone was always ace and enough for me. So what if the eels and squid were a far cry from roast beef at the Ritz.

I suppose what has long been unique about these Christmas Eve feeds of ours is that they consisted of fishy things few among us would—or even could for that matter—order in a restaurant. My fishmonger friend, and a longtime neighbor of mine, stocks and sells eels only at this time of year. Why is that? Foodies, I guess, just aren’t clamoring for eel appetizers, but then that’s okay. I have sampled eels through the years and they've typically been quasi-edible, creamy, and surprisingly bland. However, they've always been extremely fishy to touch. Still, I’ve watched relations of mine attack the scant meat on these slithering and bony creatures of the sea like they would spareribs.

Flash forward to the new millennium and fish cakes, fillet of sole, and—at long last—scallops, too, have been added to our Christmas Eve tradition. Without question, these are more palatable and benign fish dishes with appeal to a wider audience. Somehow, though, the Christmas Eves of yesteryear—with my grandmother doing the cooking—tasted a whole lot better to me.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Christmas in New York Story

As I exited the subway at 66th Street and Lincoln Center on this very cold morning, classy Christmas decor surrounded me. Strolling south and then east to Columbus Circle and the southern entrance to Central Park, I laid eyes on more than a few humongous Christmas trees in corporate giants’ lobbies—holiday eye candy for sure.

When I reached my destination, I noticed the park’s entrance was glutted with peddlers of interesting things. There were shoppers aplenty in this tented holiday village, including many tourists. They seem enamored most of all with snapping pictures across busy and crowded sidewalks, and taking a very long time in getting it right. I was meeting someone at this location and had much too much time to kill. In the meantime, I didn’t browse these temporary, make-shift shops because that would have violated two critical life rules of mine: I don’t browse when I don’t intend to buy anything, and I don’t wade through crowds under any circumstances, and especially when I don’t intend on buying anything.

I couldn’t help but notice, too, that intermingled in all of this urban festiveness was a decidedly less appealing side of Christmas in New York. Perhaps I’m painting with a broad brush here, but tourist-dependent “special rides” of any kind seem to be operated by a smarmy lot. Observing unctuous pitchmen trying to ensnare tourists to ride in their hansom cabs, bicycle carts, and tour buses was painful. Their boorishness stood in sharp contrast with the local wealthy sophisticates just passing through with their Starbucks coffees, or whatever it is that outfit calls its five-dollar cups of headache-inducing sludge.

The piece-de-résistance of this Christmas in New York Story is the strange place I ended up in. When I finally met the individual whom I was patiently waiting for, he informed me that he needed to get something to eat in order to take a high blood pressure medication. The irony was not lost on him that we were headed to McDonald’s to fulfill this task. We patronized a McCafé actually. I hadn’t been to a McDonald’s of any name in quite a while, and for a very good reason. I have long been leery of this international hamburger conglomerate, which seems incapable of serving its staple hamburgers with nothing on them. It always seemed to me that, logically, preparing plain hamburgers would be the quintessential piece of cake in the burger business...but not at McDonald’s.

Anyway, I ordered a six-piece Chicken McNugget, which was the last main course I recall sampling at a McDonald’s, with French fries and a drink—and the bill totaled $8.35! I was remiss, I guess, in not searching hard enough for a special deal. But, for starters, I found reading the menu board difficult because it was both crammed with stuff and required 20/10 vision to decipher. I didn’t have 20/10 vision in my youth, and certainly don’t have it now. In the final analysis, I think my Chicken McNuggets cost me more than .60 a piece. This is my Christmas in New York Story, 2011.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christmas, Ronco, and Me

Visualize this: a diverse assortment of Ronco merchandise adorning endcaps at all Woolworth-Woolco stores, Osco drugs, and other fine retailers. Add to this snapshot from the past, Ronco television commercials running 24/7 in the weeks leading up to Christmas, featuring everything from Mr. Microphone to the Egg Scrambler to the Smokeless Ashtray. Actually, I would be hard-pressed to conjure up another company in all of human history that had something for everyone on Christmas lists. Ronco rocked.

Fast forward more than three decades and Ronco, sadly, is in the ash heap of entrepreneurial history, as are many of the exclusive stores that sold its merchandise. And so we are left with only fond Ronco-inspired Christmas memories. I purchased a few Ronco products in my day, but one in particular stands out—the Bottle and Jar Cutter. For some reason, I had become fixated on the idea of getting this thing for my father and introducing him to a brand new and exciting hobby. He had been heavily into decoupage in the early 1970s and a prolific plaque maker. Many of his creations, in fact, endure in people’s homes to this day. But by the late 1970s, this one-time hobby of his had run its course, and I reasoned he needed another creative venue to occupy his free time. I honestly thought he might get into bottle and jar cutting. I imagined him turning all kinds of empty glass bottles and jars into candy dishes, decorative bowls, and terrariums. So many things came in glass bottles and jars back then—everything from sodas to cooking oils to peanut butters—and, too, there was no such thing as recycling. So, I thought turning a lot of empty bottles and jars into something cool and special made perfect sense.

To make a long story short, the Ronco Bottle and Jar Cutter was a monumental bust as a Christmas gift. For some reason, it was met with outright hostility. And there is a lesson here concerning the art of gift giving, wasting money, and all of that. But my biggest regret regarding the Ronco Bottle and Jar Cutter is that I didn’t just take it back and hold on to it in its original box. At least then I could have it on display on my end table now, or possibly even have sold it on eBay ten years ago for a tidy profit. But then again, I was an idealistic youth who merely wanted my father to create a trailblazing line of late-1970s recession glass.