Wednesday, September 27, 2006
I'm not exactly a big fan of chain restaurants, mostly because they tend to have bland, overly salty, uninspired food. But truth be told, when a Noodles and Co. franchise opened up just down the street, I got a little excited. A whole place that serves nothing but noodles! If you've been reading this site for even a smallish length of time, you probably know that I love noodles. Mostly Asian noodles, and mostly in big steaming bowls of soup with the fancy oversized spoons, but really I like any kind of noodle-type food: pasta, pierogis, dumplings, whatever. And this Noodles and Co. place has all of that, and it looked pretty cheap, so a few weeks ago I got some co-workers to check it out with me. It's a lot like many other quick dining chains: you order your food, they make it fresh in about three or four minutes with ingredients just behind the counter, and bring it to you for about five bucks a plate. They have Italian and American dishes in addition to Asian ones, which made me skeptical (if a restaurant tries to do too many styles of food, I get suspicious), but I actually really liked the Japanese-style noodles I had. My co-workers also agreed that the food was pretty good, especially for the money. (And, when you throw in the buy-one-get-one coupons that seem to have papered the town since the restaurant's opening, it's even better.) Tonight, armed with my freebie coupon, I got Paul to go there with me, and I guess he liked it well enough, even well enough to go back with me now and then; he likes noodles -- who doesn't? -- but maybe doesn't share my deep-rooted affection for them. I, on the other hand, had this Thai curry soup with noodles in it, and oh my god, I want like a non-stop intravenous line of it, but to my mouth. (I don't think it's good to run coconut curry broth right to your veins.) I think it was the best five bucks I've ever spent. On food, anyway. And now of course I want to go there on a weekly basis. I wish there were some un-chain noodle places around here, but since there's not, Noodles and Co. will do. Do you have one of them near you? It's good. You should try it.

After I all but licked the bowl, we went to a sporting goods place to find a gift for Paul's nephew. After looking around for a while, we weren't finding anything that was either interesting or that he didn't already have two of. Just as we were deciding to leave, I spotted a stack of medium-sized boxes labeled "Parent and Child Training Set." And inside the boxes were a pair of kid-sized boxing gloves and a pair of adult-sized blocking mitt things. And of course, the kid-sized boxing gloves pretty much fit my hands, and Paul put on the mitts, and holy crap, did we have fun with it! I was punching his hands pretty fast, and it was a blast, and within a minute we were hysterical. After we caught our breath and calmed down and put everything back in the box so we could get it for his nephew (how could we not?), we even asked if they had an adult version. The guy there asked if it was so we could beat each other up, and we were just like, yeah! But they didn't have one, and the kid-sized gloves weren't exactly my size, not enough to spend money on them anyway. So we went to another sporting goods store and found one for grown-ups, but rather than buy it spur-of-the-moment, we decided that we'd wait to see if we really wanted it. But I think I do. Oh man, boxing is fun! And it's a pretty good cardio workout too. So I am thinking that maybe in the next few weeks, I want to get a quote-unquote training set for us. Paul said he'd block for me, and I kind of like the idea of knowing how to throw a punch. You know. For protection. In the dangerous streets of Kalamazoo.

Friday, September 22, 2006
I know the big produce news around the country is the whole bacteria-infested spinach story, but around here, the big produce story is honeycrisp apples. It's so big that in last Sunday's local paper, there was a big story on honeycrisps, along with a fairly large color photo, on the front page. Apples on the front page of the Sunday paper. (Before you start thinking any derogatory small-town comments, I should tell you that growing produce is really big business around here. If you eat any apples this season, for instance, there's a good chance some of them came from western Michigan. You probably ate some Michigan blueberries this summer, too.) What's the big deal with honeycrisps? They're good -- apparently so good that markets and farm stands can't keep them in stock. As we were driving out to the lake on Saturday, we passed at least one orchard with a handwritten board out front proclaiming, "We have honeycrisps!" Apparently, it's the combination between really crisp and really sweet (hence the name) that people love. One local grower was even quoted calling them "the Louis Vuitton of apples," probably in reference to their quality and not a pricetag reminiscent of Japanese honeydew prices. I didn't recall ever having had one, so of course, I was interested. And I like apples. But given their popularity, I didn't think I'd get any. I'm not really one to hunt out the elusive apple species, you know.

But then yesterday, in the local supamegamart, in one of the apple bins, were honeycrisp apples. At two bucks a pound, they were practically twice as much as the other varieties, but I wanted to try them, and I've been trying to understand that good local produce supports the local economy, so I got some. And you know what? They are really good! I don't know if they're the best apples I've ever had, mostly because I just don't keep track of that sort of thing, but as far as eating apples go, they are definitely exellent. I don't know if they'll be good for drying in my dehydrator (I like fujis for that) or baking (cortlands are good), but I'll add them to sour green and braeburn on my list of good snack apples.

The whole honeycrisp craze around here reminded me of when I was younger. I grew up in another significant apple-producing area, and I remember my grandfather really liked the macoun apples. Every fall, we'd drive out to Queens several times with five-pound bags of locally-grown macoun apples, and I think he liked them for the same reason: very crisp, very sweet. And then we started liking them too, and then people we knew started liking them, and then everyone wanted macoun apples. And then we sort of...forgot about them. So in a way, it's kind of nice to see people getting all jacked up for honeycrisp apples. Actually, it's nice to see people getting excited about any food that doesn't come from a corporately-owned fast food place.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006
A few weeks ago, I was watching the Good Eats episode about fried chicken. Paul usually hates Good Eats and Alton Brown, but he also loves fried chicken, so when he saw what the episode was about, he actually sat down to watch it with me. And when it was over, he said, that fried chicken looks pretty good. And then he asked me if I could make it. So I said yeah, sure. I'll make fried chicken.

So tonight was the night. I used the boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead of a whole cut-up chicken like Alton did, thinking that maybe it'd be a bit healthier. Yeah, I know, fried chicken isn't healthy, but I figured I'd maybe save a few grams of fat. Anyway, Alton said to make sure to soak the chicken in buttermilk overnight before frying it. Right. I got a pint of buttermilk, and last night, I put the chicken in a bowl and poured the entire viscous contents of the container over the chicken. And then I went to bed.

Earlier tonight, I got my buttermilky chicken out of the fridge and drained it really well. Then I got my frying stuff ready. Alton said to use a cast iron pan. Check. Mine's not as big as his was on the show, but I figured it would still work. Cast iron is cast iron, no matter what the size, right? Right. Next, Alton said to fry in vegetable shortening instead of any kind of oil for better flavor and less fried chicken smell in the kitchen. Vegetable shortening. That's Crisco, right? Oh man. I've had a long-standing aversion to Crisco, partially because I'm genetically predisposed to heart disease, and isn't Crisco that partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening that gets all clogged up in your arteries? I'm pretty sure it is. But that's only part of why I get all squeamish about Crisco. There's kind of another part. Umm, once, when I was like eight or so, I was looking in the cabinet for something to eat, and I found a can of Crisco, and I didn't know what it was, so I opened it, and it looked like frosting or marshmallow fluff, so I grabbed a spoon and tasted it, and oh god, it wasn't frosting! It wasn't frosting! It totally wasn't frosting! It was awful, and all the Hawaiian Punch in the world couldn't get that slime out of my mouth! So since then, I haven't liked Crisco. But Alton said to use it, so I took a deep breath and bought a can and spooned it into the cast iron pan to melt. Crisco. Gross.

Then things moved along quicker. I made a quick spice shake of paprika and garlic powder and red pepper and salt, just like Alton said to do, and shook it over the chicken. Then I dredged it in flour and a little cornmeal, and put it in the pan to fry. I covered the pan with one of those mesh pan covers to keep Crisco from landing everywhere in the kitchen. (Helpful!) And then it cooked, and it was ready in about 20 minutes, and holy crap, this was the best chicken ever. Paul called it the best meal in the history of the world. Man it was good! I think the buttermilk really had something to do with it, because the meat itself was a little tangy, and even though I kind of overcooked the chicken a little bit (erring on the side of caution, you know), it was still really juicy and tasty and just completely good.

So: I have learned a few things from this experience. First, aside from the horrendous butternut squash dumpling incident, which I will not go back into at this time, Alton Brown really knows his shit. Okay, I kind of already knew that, but confirmation is always good. Second, soak everything in buttermilk. Everything. That stuff is liquid gold. Very thick liquid, but liquid nonetheless. And finally, Crisco may taste like ass straight from a spoon, but when frying chicken, it really does lend a nice flavor and texture, and it really does keep the fried chicken smell down. I don't know how often I'll be making chicken like this, since it's kind of not very healthy, and since I don't like to fry if I can't open a window or a door, but I will definitely be frying again.

Monday, September 18, 2006
So I guess people have been getting sick from eating spinach lately, and I've read some things about how this is really bad for the spinach industry. So bad, perhaps, that the spinach industry may not ever recover. But really, the beef industry went through the same thing and people eat as much beef as they ever did. No, I think people just don't like spinach in the same way that they like beef, and are just looking for excuses not to eat spinach, and for once, they finally have one. That's what I think.

Thursday, September 14, 2006
Tonight I was so tired that I locked my keys inside the computer lab that I teach in just as class was starting. But then, while I was waiting for someone to let me and my class back in, I actually taught Photoshop for 30 minutes without a computer in front of me. I was kind of glad when that key showed up.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Holy crap. Keith Olbermann is my new hero. From his 9/11 comment at the World Trade Center site: "When those who dissent are told time and time again, as we will be, if not tonight by the president, then tomorrow by his portable public chorus, that he is preserving our freedom, but that if we use any of that freedom that we are somehow un-American, when we are scolded that if we merely question, we have forgotten the lessons of 9/11, look into this empty space behind me, and the bipartisanship upon which this administration also did not build, and tell me this: Who has left this hole in the ground? We have not forgotten, Mr. President. You have. May this country forgive you." I think I will be writing him in for president in 2008.

Monday, September 11, 2006
I've tried to stay away from the 9/11 memorial propoganda today. It seems to me that the more people we kill in the Middle East, the less people around the world care about the 3,000 of our own who died five years ago. Really, it's enough already.

Thursday, September 7, 2006
There's this hotel in town called the Holiday Motel. It looks kind of dive-y, and it's right off the highway on the main suburban drag. I've never stayed there, and I don't think I'd want to or ever really need to, but it has this really cool sign. It was one of those fifties-looking neon jobs, with big letters and a great big angled thing and bright colors. Or used to, rather. For years now, I've driven past the Holiday Motel and thought, I should take a picture of that awesome sign. But I never got around to it. And then last week, as I drove by, I saw a bunch of workmen around the sign. Then I looked more closely, and saw that a new, more contemporary, backlit, non-neon, and much uglier sign with the words Holiday Motel on it was being put up. When I drove by later that night, the old sign was gone.

I will miss that old sign. I can't believe they tore it down, as it was one of the best-looking signs in town. The neon looked amazing at night, and once the T, E, and L were burned out in HOTEL, so since then Paul and I have called it the Holiday Mo. And that was really fun to say. But now, with the new sign, that will never happen again. I wish I had a photo. But, there are photos out there; the person who put together this web page had enough sense to stop and get one. (Scroll down to see it.) There are some other signs in town that I really like, and I am making it my fall project to photograph them. Ooh, like there's one in town for a dry cleaning place called Paris Cleaners, and their neon sign says Paris Cleaners, One day service, and because of the arrangement of the letters, if you line it up correctly, you can take a photo that reads Paris one day. I've been meaning to do that for three years. I'm going to do it soon. But unforunately, I dropped the ball with the Holiday Mo.

Monday, September 4, 2006
Walking across, not looking down. We had to get up insanely early to do it, especially given that today is a holiday and one of the perks of a holiday is getting to sleep in, but we pulled our clothes on before dawn and caught a school bus to St. Ignace for the annual Labor Day Mackinac Bridge walk. And, apparently, this was nothing special, as indicated by the throngs of people doing the same exact thing. I don't know if this photo does it justice; as we were approaching the starting point on the northern end of the bridge, other people on the bus made startled remarks about how many people there were walking across, and how neat it was. I guess if you see that many people walking in one direction and you know they're not fleeing from some sort of disaster, it's neat. And yeah, it was.

Paul commented on the very lax security on the walk, and I have to agree. It kind of surprised me, especially given that one, we're in a post-9/11 world here, and two, the bridge recently made headlines as a potential terrorist target. No one checked us, searched us, tried to detect any metal on our bodies, or did anything else to see if we were smuggling explosives onto a five-mile suspension bridge 200 feet over notoriously choppy water that had tens of thousands of people on it. I guess it's good to be trusting, but there's a line between trust and naivete, and I don't think it's a fine one, either. There were, to give some credit, lots of army people stationed at regular intervals on the bridge, and there were quite a few cops at either end, and up high on top of the southern tower you could see about a dozen people with what looked like binoculars looking down on the crowd. So there was that. And really, not that I would have (and not that I want to get myself in some sort of legal trouble here), but I feel fairly confident that I or anyone else could have carried along something dangerous. Maybe I'm the one being naive here, but no one even gave me a first look, let alone a second. Amazing: You can't carry a bottle of Dr. Pepper on a plane these days, and airport security inevitably wants to closely inspect my nasty, beat-up Tevas (which I wear without socks, if you catch my drift) before I get on a commuter jet to Grand Rapids, but somehow all that security gets overlooked on Labor Day on the Mackinac Bridge. Like, I carried a bottle of water with me, and no one questioned it! They probably just assumed it was water. (It was.)

But anyway, the walk: it was good, and I'm glad we did it, and I want to do it again, but maybe not every year. The crowds are huge, and that many people (they expect around 50,000 for the event) in two lanes of traffic gets a bit slow. Then throw in the oooh factor and the nearly 1:1 ratio of people to cameras, and things start to maybe not go at the pace you'd like them. But we got over in good time, and it was a really nice morning, and you know, it's good to see that many people turn out for something fitness-oriented. For most people, walking five miles in a week is significant. Walking five miles in one day is downright impressive for a lot of the people who did it today, especially some of the older folks in the crowd. So that was good to see.

And the whole thing was remarkably well organized, and people were really well behaved, too. School busses from surrounding counties all line up in Mackinaw City, and for two bucks you can get a ride over to St. Ignace to start the walk. Crowd control is set up the night before, and people start queing up in snake formation. It's like waiting to ride a roller coaster, except the line moves very fast and there's no steep drop. Then, on the other side, you get off the bus and start walking. That's it. And the state has managed to keep the corporate aspect out of it: there are no tables anywhere trying to sell cans of sugary "energy" drinks for five bucks each, no jerks with clipboards giving away hoodies for applying for a new Visa card, nothing like that.

(Of course, there's always one person who has to act like an asshole. This person was, unfortunately, on line with us in Mackinaw City with his daughter and decided that nah, he didn't have to wait, and just started sliding by everyone in line with his kid. Everyone saw, everyone rolled their eyes, but none of us said anything to him. Then, when it came time to pay the two measly dollars to ride the bus, he said that his daughter would sit on his lap, and so he didn't have to pay for her. That might have been acceptable if she were like four, but the kid was at least 12 and not really of lap-sitting age, and it just seemed like he was being a cheap bastard for trying to save two bucks. And then in line, with like thousands of other people in fairly close quarters, the guy lights up a cigarette and smokes it down to the nub. Just what everyone wants to smell at 6:30 in the morning; most of the other smokers had the decency to step aside from the crowd to light up. And then, we wind up on the same bus as this asshole, and of course, his daughter does not sit on his lap because she's too goddamn big for that. And as we're getting to the starting line, his bratty kid starts whining, and he has the nerve, the absolute gall, to tell her that good things come to those who wait. I told Paul that people like that asshole are why terrorists hate us. Paul thought his behavior was just a selfish human thing and not an American thing, but I still think that's a big part of why they want to kill us all. Anyway.)

After the walk, I was a bit sore, but I actually feel alright now. And we even made it back to our hotel in time for the free breakfast, which was actually pretty good. (Make-your-own Belgian waffles! Biscuits! Sausage gravy! And I just walked five miles, plus the extra mile to and from the hotel to the pick-up point, so seven miles, which means I don't have to feel guilty for eating any of it!) And it was cool to see some of the old timers who have done the bridge walk every year for the past howevermany years, as indicated by the yearly "I Walked Mighty Mac" patches they had sewn on their jackets. We didn't buy patches, or t-shirts, but it was a cool experience and I'm glad we did it. We might skip next year, but I definitely want to do this again.

Saturday, September 2, 2006
Unfortunately, summer is winding down, and for me, that means back to work. But before that happens (officially, anyway; I've been working all week), we're taking one last quick summer trip up north to Mackinaw City for the annual Mackinac Bridge walk. The Mackinac Bridge connects the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan (though I've heard it told that UP'ers say it's what keeps the lower peninsula from falling off), it's a little over five miles long, and it's closed to foot traffic every day of the year except Labor Day. It's a fun, Michigan-y thing to do, and I've never done it. I'm a bit scared of heights, and all that water underneath is a little unnerving, but I think it will be fun. And safe -- I'm sure it will be safe. The bridge may or may not have been a terror target recently, so that plus the stepped-up security of the past five years should make this a metal detecting good time. Leavin' tomorrow. Pix when I get back, I hope.

(And for those of you who caught the spelling difference and are wondering why the city is Mackinaw and the bridge is Mackinac, this offers a bit of explanation.)

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