Saturday, May 21, 2016

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

I recently purchased a few Banquet brand frozen turkey dinners at a local supermarket. “TV dinners” are not typically on my shopping list nowadays—for a whole host of reasons, the foremost being that they aren’t very good. Once upon a time my youthful palate appreciated their ultra-sodium contents—but no more. Still, they were on sale, and the packaging underscored the fact that there was now “fifty percent more” turkey in them.

If nothing else, consuming these frozen dinners amounted to a stroll down Memory Lane. And I will concede they were curiously edible. However, if there was indeed double the turkey in the dinners, their predecessors must have been sorely lacking—unsatisfying for sparrows let alone the human masses. Fifty percent more turkey notwithstanding, I could have effortlessly eaten the three I bought in one sitting. If there was a downside to TV dinners during my wide-eyed and insatiably hungry boyhood, it was without question the portions. Even Swanson’s “Hungry Man” versions were somehow never enough.

This frozen dinner experience nevertheless got me thinking about other grocery store products from my youth, some that still exist and others that are in the compost heap of history. I ate a lot of pizza in my younger days—and in a variety of forms, too, including an instant toaster version manufactured by Buitoni. Regrettably, they are no more, but I fondly recall their gooey, reddish-orange puree of cheese and tomato sauce interiors, which were invariably blistering hot and prone to burn the mouth. My “Whatever Became Of” Internet search on these peculiar pizzas from yesteryear led me far a field to past comfort foods like Borden’s “Ready to Drink” Frosted Shakes in their heavy aluminum cans. We added milk to them at our house. They were that thick. Sadly, the Frosted Shake has gone the way of the Buitoni toaster pizza.

And the death knell didn’t end there. Sometime around 1970, Kellogg’s introduced toaster pastries called Danish Go-Rounds. I distinctly remember the TV commercials for them. They featured a catchy jingle that went something like this: “A new kind of pastry, frosty, and tasty. New Kellogg’s…Danish Go-Rounds.” They were tasty all right, but disappeared while I was still eating them. I had no choice. It was back to Pop-Tarts.

This former fare retrospective of mine found me in the end in Fudgetown. These were my all-time favorite cookies from a company called Burry, which also made Girl Scout cookies back then, when they were actually good. I hadn’t thought of Fudgetown in a long time, but I see that they, too, are only a memory now, along with Burry’s other boxed cookies: Gaucho and Mr. Chips, with the mysterious silhouette of Mr. Chips on the box. They were quality cookies. And since I never got the chance when Burry discontinued the products, I’d like to finally say it—better late than never—“Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Sticker Price

Last month I cast a ballot in the New York State presidential primary. Actually, I filled in a solitary oval on the thing and fed it into a machine, which promptly alerted me my vote had been counted. Except to say my candidate didn’t emerge victorious, I won’t tell you for whom I voted. Despite the thrill of voting being a relic of the past, I performed my civic duty. I remember casting my very first vote at the age of eighteen and how excited I was just to have the opportunity. It didn’t matter to me that the election outcome was a foregone conclusion. It was the 1981 New York City mayoral race. Ed Koch was running for reelection on both the Democratic and Republican lines. He received nearly 75% of the vote. I selected a third party candidate that year. Coronations were never my cup of tea. I have voted for a surfeit of sure losers—in a lot of different parties—because of this aversion. Unfortunately, coronations are the rule around here.

An oddball from my neighborhood—a misshapen, fifty-something fellow whom I’ve known by sight and reputation since our mutual youths—served as the polling place’s big cheese this go-round. His ample derrière comfortably rested on a chair by the entrance. When I arrived to vote he was too preoccupied with his iPhone to even glance my way. But that was okay by me. I didn’t need his assistance. Upon putting my John Hancock in the voting register, I was handed a small round sticker that I was—ideally—supposed to affix to my person. The thinking being it would encourage others to vote. It would serve, too, as a reminder that I had in fact voted, which would stop me dead in my tracks from repeating the process later in the day.

There was some controversy in New York City on primary day—of voters going to their respective polling places and not finding their names on the voting rolls. Some years ago I recall hearing that if we didn’t vote in two consecutive elections, our names would be purged and we would have to re-register. Draconian—yes. However, I have spotted the names of individuals who have long since moved away and even some who are long dead still on the books. And—given time—the former will eventually become the latter.

I just fear that it’s going to be a long slog between now and when I next call upon my polling place in November. A Facebook friend of mine recently shared a meme underscoring the more genteel time in which both she and I grew up. When—generally speaking—kids respected their parents and their elders, too; when common courtesies were commonplace; and when people agreed to disagree civilly. Her candidate in 2016: Donald Trump.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bein' Light Green

While walking past my old alma mater, Manhattan College, today, I couldn’t help but notice the school was festooned in springtime. The campus always looked nice, especially at this time of year, with many of its trees sporting healthy-looking, light green small leaves. Hope springs eternal. I spied some students, who were no doubt taking their final exams, walking to and fro. I noticed, too, a “Cash for Textbooks” tent set up across the street from the school’s main entrance.

I graduated from this esteemed institution of higher learning in 1984. It’s now 2016. If my arithmetic is correct—I wasn't a math major—that’s thirty-two years ago. I vividly recall the waning days of my college experience—early May in my final semester—and gazing out the window of Manhattan Hall onto the Quadrangle, which was alive in that aforementioned light green. I was attending a “Great Issues in European History” class taught by a very interesting and extremely affable man—"any questions, comments, observations"—who has since departed this earth. Thirty-two years will do that sometimes. But on this particular day, I well remember the combination of the seasonable air, spring sounds, and pleasing odors and colors. They reminded me that my days were numbered as a college student, and that there would be no more encores. I felt profoundly melancholy as a stared out that window and realized the adult world—ready or not—beckoned.

A few weeks later, I attended my graduation ceremony. New York City Mayor Ed Koch delivered a totally unmemorable commencement address. In fact, I don’t remember a word he said. It's fair to say he didn't quite inspire me to boldly go. Extemporaneously, the man was often entertaining, but delivering a prepared speech invariably negated his New York guy charm. After the proceedings, we graduates had to navigate our way down to the cafeteria in Thomas Hall to secure our diplomas, which were alphabetically aligned in our particular school of studies—mine was the School of Business. It was a somewhat nerve-wracking interim as I recall, because we didn’t know for certain if we had made the grade and passed everything we needed to pass. Happily, I did, but nevertheless didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my diploma or what was next on my agenda as now a certifiable adult. Considering all the money that parents spend—and the debt that contemporary college-aged kids amass—it seems quite a high price to pay for a mother lode of uncertainty four years later. When I began my collegiate journey in 1980, tuition was $1,750 a semester—$3,500 a year. In my final year, it was $5,000. As I recollect, we all thought that was a lot of money—and it was. A student loan of $2,500—the maximum available back then—helped. I had a coupon book to show for my higher education and a $77/month loan repayment for about ten years.

So, that’s what I saw today and that’s what I thought about as I passed by my old school, for which I have mostly fond memories. And that is significant, because I wasn’t sitting around in my last days of high school with anything bordering on melancholy. Being green—light green—has a knack for reminding us of what once was, what could have been, what is, and what may be.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)