Monday, April 30, 2012

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Vegemite

     On my trip to Australia in 2004, like many tourists, I wanted to see and experience the local sites and flavor.  One of these foods was vegemite.  Along with kangaroos, Foster’s Beer, koalas, the late Crocodile Hunter, and saying, “Shrimp on the barbie” and “G-day, Mate,” vegemite is one of the most quintessentially Australian cultural icons.  “He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich,” sing Men At Work in their 80’s hit, “Down Under.”  I was eager to try this dark brown pasty spread, even though I’d heard it was overly salty and nasty.
     But now let’s turn to vegemite’s history.  I was surprised to see it was so well documented.  Unlike many/most foods, its exact invention date and inventor are conclusively known.  World War I had disrupted the importing of British marmite (a similar spread, dating back to the 19th century), so the Australians were keen to devise their own variant.  To this end, a Cyril P. Callister was instructed to make a new treat made from the brewer’s yeast waste from the Carlton & United Brewery.  He used this yeast extract, blended it with celery and onion extract, and salt, and voila, in 1922 vegemite was born.  It took a while to gain a footing, but by the 1940’s it was hugely popular in Australia.
     It’s most often eaten on buttered bread/toast, or as a sandwich, which adds another slice of buttered bread, cheese, and occasionally lettuce, tomato, and even avocado.  Vegemite is also vitamin rich, being an excellent source of B vitamins like thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid (although unlike marmite, it has no B-12).  It’s also fat-free, has no sugar added, and can be enjoyed by both vegans and those with celiac disorder, as it contains no animal products or gluten.  Besides marmite, other yeasty spread versions include the Swiss cenovis, the German hefeextrake, and the Australian promite.
     Returning to my personal account, once at my friend’s apartment in Brisbane, I pretty much immediately badgered him for vegemite.  There was a slight problem with this.  My friend informed me that it wasn’t usually found on restaurant menus, and as he wasn’t a fan he was reluctant to pick some up at the market.  Fortunately, he lived in an apartment complex, and some of his neighbors were Aussie natives.  One of his friends agreed to bring some over for me.  I remember she and her friends’ reaction was mostly puzzlement—they didn’t seem to understand why I was eager to try it.  But I buttered up some bread, spread on some vegemite, and had at it.
     Anyway, long story short, I was rather ambivalent.  Sorry to be anticlimactic, but there it is.  It wasn’t awful—I’d heard it was gross, but the bread and butter seemed to mute the saltiness.  Yet I can’t say it was really tasty, either—I couldn’t imagine buying it and eating it regularly.  I was told it was often a comfort food—kind of their equivalent of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a fond food memory from childhood.
     In closing, I hope this isn’t taken as cultural snobbery versus Australians.  I realize that the U.S. eats some things considered odd by other countries.  And I certainly understand nostalgia for childhood treats.  I’m sure other countries might be amused and/or disgusted by say, funnel cake, or candy corn.  It’s all relative, is what I’m saying—I’m not criticizing their culture as a whole.
     I’ll return to Australian cuisine in later posts, about some of their exotic meats.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Beef Tongue

     I've decided to start a new weekly feature on my blog.  I've been having a difficult time coming up with topics to discuss, as is obvious if one checks the number of posts I've done.  Most of the blogs I've read have regular themed post days, and often one of these is recipes.  Therefore, I'm going to rip off this good idea with a personal twist.  As I've noted previously, I can't and won't cook.  My version of food preparation is microwaving something, and even waiting this couple of minutes tries my patience.  Anyway, this feature will emphatically not include how to prepare these dishes or drinks, it will just be a discussion of what I think about them.
     I love trying new things, food and beverage-wise.  I take the old expression, "How do you know you don't like something if you haven't tried it?" to heart.  Plus, I'm sure taking childish delight in grossing out others plays a little part in this.  A note to vegetarians and vegans--the majority of the foods mentioned here will be meat, or dairy, often of exotic animals.  I'll try to include some more fruits and vegetables to balance this out, but they'll probably still be in the minority.  Also, "exotic" and "disgusting" are definitely in the eye of the beholder--many of these dishes will be normal, even mundane fare, depending on a person's cultural background.  I'm coming at these from a mostly Anglo-Saxon upbringing, growing up in southern New Jersey, U.S.A.
      My initial entry is beef tongue.  It's kind of a cute story--a friend of my parents found that his children balked at eating tongue, so he decided to trick them by calling it "French Ham."  My folks tried this and found it worked very well.  "Can we have French Ham again?" was a fairly common dinner request from the Stansfield kids.  We enjoyed the meal, and as an added bonus this meat was pretty easy on the pocketbook, too.  Eventually, of course, the ruse was blown, and we learned what we were really eating.  I'm sure there was some complaining then, but we did eat it, remembering that we'd liked it under its alias.  Granted, in preparation it does look revolting, especially during the removal of the outer skin/taste buds, accomplished by boiling.  The taste, however, is very good.  As an adult, especially, I've sampled many different kinds of organs, and they tend to have strong, distinctive, and sometimes nasty flavors.  Not so with tongue--as the childhood story proved, it can easily be mistaken for a "regular" cut of meat.  Availability of tongue seems consistant across the country.  Most supermarkets probably will stock it, although maybe not in huge numbers.  In restaurants it seems most common in Mexican places, where it's called "lengua," (Spanish for tongue, naturally).  It's quite good in a taco or burrito as well.
     To sum it up, then, I highly recommend tongue as a slightly unusual alternative for omnivores.  A few bites will probably be enough for most people to get past the unpleasant mental image.  Also, it's good for a few cheap laughs, courtesy of French kissing references, or bestiality-themed, "French kissing a cow," jokes.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


     Recently I signed another contract with Musa, for a short story titled, "Kaishaku."  It's about a guy doing community service at a hospital who begins a friendship of sorts with a paralyzed man.  The patient turns out to have an extremely violent secret, albeit one with a twist....     I'm really looking forward to starting the whole process again--the editing, getting the book's cover made, and determining the tagline/blurb/excerpt.  And, of course, all of this followed by the actual publication.  Musa has really treated me well with "Dead Reckoning", so I'm very optimistic.
     Don't have a release date yet.  Judging from what I've seen of Musa's busy release schedule, I think it'll be out in July at the earliest, and quite possibly later.  Also don't have a category assigned, but I expect it will probably be Melpomene (Mystery/Suspense) once more.
     The title "Kaishaku" is not set in stone, either.  It's possible that it might be changed.  I'll post further updates on this new project.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Bad Hotels

     I work as a field archaeologist in the cultural resource management field with a large, international engineering firm.  Simply put, this means my coworkers and I go in before the bulldozers replace the bridge, add a lane to a road, put in a federal prison, etc., and excavate and preserve things of archaeologicial significance.  This all means we're forced to travel a lot, since we never know where the next job opening will occur.  As a result, I spend at least 8-10 months out of every year on the road, almost always living in hotels.  This is one of the perks of our industry--our hotel rooms are paid for, as are our meals.  The average type of hotel we're given is well, average--medium priced and quality places like Super 8's, Days Inns, Holiday Inn Expresses, and Comfort Inns.  Occasionally we stay in nicer hotels, and then sometimes we're stuck in distinctly below average, or even shithole places.  Today I'll be discussing a couple of these.
     First off is the Tuxedo Motel, near the town of the same name in NY state, just over the border from NJ.  Apparently it's still active, but from the photos on the website, and the reviews, it appears to have been remodeled.  I stayed there for about two months back in late 1994.  At the time our client had ridiculously low per diem rates--$50 a day for both hotel and food.  There has been inflation since then, of course, but even so, the average medium hotel rate at the time was about $50-60, and the average food rate $25-30 a day, to illustrate just how low that total was.  The Tuxedo Motel was the only place in the area that would allow us to have hotel and food covered, since it cost $25 a day.
      And it showed.  The hotel catered to hunters, and evidently, hunters with low lodging standards.  I knew something was up when I walked into my first room and there was a S & M porn mag on my night table (and not even a good one--oops, did I just admit that?).  The rooms were old, shabby, and extremely filthy.  A subsequent room had teethmarks on the plastic cups, phlegm on the walls, and mysterious (or not so mysterious, unfortunately) stains everywhere.  I'm betting if you shone one of those UV lights that show protein stains in these rooms you would have been blinded.  Most of the crew slept within their sleeping bags on the beds, not wanting to touch the sheets directly.  I'm sure all of us became like minor versions of Howard Hughes, feverishly washing our hands after touching anything in the rooms
      Not surprisingly, the amenities were lacking, too.  This was back in the days before cell phones were common, and the rooms had no phones--something which is unique in all of the dozens or hundreds of hotels I've stayed in.  There were payphones outside, but it was late fall/winter, meaning phone conversations were typically brief, as longer ones risked frost bite.
     A friend of mine had a particularly gross experience, even by the hotel's incredibly low standards.  When she checked in there was a pair of dirty men's underwear in the trash can in her room.  She was put off by this, but she figured, it wouldn't matter since the maid would empty the can when the room was being cleaned while we were at work.  So you can imagine her shock and revulsion when she returned later to discover that the maid had taken the filthy drawers out of the trash and put them in her clean underwear bag!  Stupidity?  Maliciousness?  Or some bizarre fetish?
     As bad as the Tuxedo was, the Gateway Motel in Waterbury, Vermont was worse.  I believe the Gateway has been torn down, blessedly.  Once again, a deficient per diem forced us into this appalling flophouse.  Its overall cleanliness aped the Tuxedo, and some of the rooms' features were worse.  A couple of the rooms had fleas, and one wing didn't have hot water sometimes--kind of a big deal given that it was late fall/winter once again.
      The Gateway's main drawback was its main employee.  The owner was an old guy, who had literally been a rocket scientist.  He was pleasant enough, but unfortunately he allowed his horrible underling (girlfriend?) to run the day to day activities in the hotel.  She was awful--rude, lazy, and bitchy.  We had phones in the rooms, but they weren't that useful--this woman wouldn't  pick up the hotel's line most of the time, because she didn't feel like it, evidently.  A coworker of mine had several disagreements with this woman that turned into nasty shouting matches--some of which I almost thought would result in my coworker stabbing this lady  (And if I was on the jury, I would have had no problem acquitting my coworker no matter what the facts were.)
      The final straw was the deposits.  We'd been forced to pay in advance for our entire stay, but the project was due to end earlier then originally expected.  This woman refused to issue our deserved refund.  My boss and coworkers enlisted the aid of the local police.  It was really a bluff--it wasn't really an immediate criminal matter, but his presence scared her into refunding our money.  It was also amusing to see the fear in the other hotel tenants' eyes when the cop pulled in--it looked like many had guilty consciences.
     I should mention, too, that part of the disappointment with the Gateway was how pretty and quaint the surrounding town of Waterbury was/is.  It's one of those picturesque small New England towns, with a nice downtown, good restaurants, fun bars, etc.  We'd go out for a tasty meal, throw back a few at an enjoyable tavern, and then have to crawl back into our disgusting ratholes.
     So there are the two worst places.  I don't mean to be too negative--like I mentioned, those are the exceptions.  Most of our hotels are fine, or even posh.  To end on a positive note, the best places I've stayed in were the Hawthorne in Burlington, VT, the Staybridge Suites chain, and the Candlewood Suites chain.  All very luxurious, with the Hawthorne getting top marks due to great rooms, free hot meals, and free wine/beer social hours four nights a week (and not Bud and boxed wine, either, but delicious local microbrews and decent wine.)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Song Lyric Misinterpretations

   Due to a combination of factors, including loud musical instruments playing in the background (like in say, metal and punk songs), lead singer mumbling (i.e., Michael Stipe of REM, Bob Dylan), or just bizarre lyrics (here I'm thinking of folks like Beck), it's common for people not to be able to tell a song's lyrics.  This is one of the most typical complaints against rock/popular music, although proponents fail to realize 1) If we like the song otherwise we don't care 2) If you listen enough you can learn most/all of the words 3) With the internet you can find out the exact lyrics within seconds.
     There's a long history of this phenomenon.  Apparently there was no crime in the 1960's, as the FBI had a reported 31 month long investigation into whether the words to The Kingsmen's cover of "Louie Louie" were obscene.  Which is hilarious in retrospect, as the actual lyrics are incredibly simplistic and tame, even by the standards of the time.  Granted, motivated people could easily come up with dirty versions of "Louie Louie," but that's hardly The Kingsmen's (or the song's writer Richard Berry's) fault.  (Speaking of knowing, contrived dirty versions of pop songs, my classmates and I at middle school dances would sing the refrain from Quiet Riot's cover of "Cum on Feel the Noize" as "Girls FUCK your boys" instead of the actual "Girls rock your boys."  Note:  We were the only kids, anywhere, at anytime, to make this clever change.)
     As entertaining as these willful changes are, I find the accidental, allegedly sincere mistakes somehow more funny.  On that note I'll list a few examples.
 1)  AC/DC  "You Shook Me All Night Long."  Real lyrics--"She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean."  Misinterpreted--"She was a fax machine, she kept her modem clean."
2)  Jimi Hendrix  "Purple Haze."  Real--"'Scuse me while I kiss the sky."  Misinterpretation--"Scuse me while I kiss this guy."
3)  Robert Palmer "Addicted to Love."  Real--"Might as well face it, you're addicted to love."  Misinterpretation--"Might as well face it, you're a dickhead in love."
4)  Elton John "Tiny Dancer."  Actual--"Hold me closer, tiny dancer."  Misinterpretation--"Hold me closer, Tony Danza."
5)  Alanis Morissette "You Outta Know."  Real--"It's not fair to deny me, or the cross I bear that you gave to me."  Misinterpretation--"It's not fair to deny me, or the cross-eyed bear that you gave to me."
6)  The Go-Go's.  "Our Lips Are Sealed."  Two misinterpretations of the song title/refrain--"I love Cecile," and "Alex the Seal."
7)  Billy Idol "Eyes Without a Face."  My uncle thought the title/refrain was "How's About a Date?"
8)  Manfred Mann's Earth Band's cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Blinded By the Light."  Apparently an extremely common mistake.  Instead of "Revved up a like a deuce," people hear "Wrapped up like a douche."
9)  The Clash "Rock the Casbah."  This is one of my own, perhaps indicating that I had a slightly dirty mind as a ten or eleven year old.  I heard the title/refrain as "Fuck the cat's butt."  Which I find makes a great song even more fun to sing.  Try it.