Thursday, April 24, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Cheerwine

     This is part 2 of my American regional soft drink/soda series, with the first being New England’s Moxie (see December 5, 2013 post).  One of the states I’ve worked in very frequently is Virginia.  It was here that I was first introduced to Cheerwine.  As I recall it was my friend John Paul (a.k.a “Pope.”) who first recommended it.  He mentioned that when he bought it on projects he added a note on the receipt next to Cheerwine saying it was just soda, for his company expense reports.  For this is true—Cheerwine is non-alcoholic, another entry in the category of soft drinks that have adult sounding names, like birch beer, ginger ale, and root beer.
     Before I did my trademark shallow research, I always thought that Cheerwine was a Virginia based company, as I’ve only noticed it being sold there, and usually only in the areas an hour or two around Richmond in particular.  But, that’s incorrect—it’s actually made in Salisbury, North Carolina, and is marketed throughout the Southeast, including Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, and of course Virginia.  Also, oddly, Norway, for unknown reasons.  Evidently the company that makes it (Carolina Beverage Company) is on the rise, and is looking to expand, as it plans to be available nationwide by 2017.  It’s been made since 1917, and claims to be the oldest continuing soft drink company still run by the same family.  Cheerwine is cherry flavored, and its color is a deep, burgundy red.  That, and its higher than average carbonation led to the “wine” part of its name, since it’s bubbly and (red) wine colored.
     I’m happy to report that I really like Cheerwine.  As advertised, its cherry flavor is very distinct, and tasty.  But, word of warning, it is very sweet.  (In that way you can see its roots.  Another of the Southeast’s popular beverages is a local iced tea variant called “sweet tea,” which is almost sugar with a little tea in it—total diabetes in a glass.)  I certainly couldn’t drink it every day or anything, due to the sweetness, but every so often it’s a delightful beverage.

     Also, for fans, it’s not just a soft drink.  Some supermarkets in the Southeast market a sherbet and ice cream with its flavor, and in July in recent years Cheerwine partnered with Krispy Kreme to make a Cheerwine doughnut.  Finally, for those wanting an alcoholic drink, Cheerwine mixed with Captain Morgan rum is known as a “Whining Pirate.” 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

How and Why I Got Into Horror

     Readers may have noticed that during the rare blog posts where I don’t talk about food, I tend to discuss horror-related themes—horror books, and horror movies.  And although I do occasionally write fiction that’s not strictly horror, it usually has at least a horror-ish tinge to it.  This is no accident, as horror is my favorite genre.  Since I’m sometimes asked why this is, I thought today I’d try to answer it.
     When I was growing up, few folks would have pegged me as a future horror fanatic.  Even the most watered down, kid friendly horror offerings scared the crap out of me.  I guess I had an active imagination, as I can remember at least two occasions when I was about five or six years old when I hallucinated and saw supernatural creatures.  The first time I saw a mummy walking into our kitchen, and the second was a lizard man coming up the stairs.  (At least I assume they were hallucinations—if not they were either non-homicidal, or else they were fooled by my clever trick of hiding under my bedcovers.)  So until I was embarrassingly old (8? 9? Even later?), it was not uncommon for me to run downstairs in the middle of the night and have to sleep on the couch outside my parent’s room due to being scared.  (Because apparently ghosts and monsters could attack me when I was alone in my room, but not in a room adjacent to my parents.)
     Nearly everything scared me.  Any story with a remotely dark theme.  I even recall being frightened by an afterschool-type television movie which had a (pretty tame) ghost in it.  I’m actually kind of surprised that “Count Chocula” cereal didn’t give me nightmares.  When I was 8, I remember being pissed that my father didn’t take me to the theater to see “Alien.”  Later, when I saw it, I realized that man, did he make the right decision.  If I’d seen that movie at age 8 I probably wouldn’t ever have slept alone in my bedroom again. *
     But clearly, as I aged, I began to lose some of this extreme fear.  The movie “The Thing” (the John Carpenter remake) was an important benchmark in my entertainment life.  I watched it at a neighbor’s house, on what must have been a fairly early version of a VCR.  Since the movie came out in mid 1982, this must have been in late ’82 or early ’83, making me either 11 or 12.  I found “The Thing” terrifying (and still do—it really holds up), but, I didn’t have to sleep downstairs.  I’d finally gotten over the hump.  After that, I kept going.  Obviously I had some interest in horror, and I watched , and read, more and more of it.  Effective examples of each still scared me, of course, but in a more mature way (or should I say, a less immature way).
     It wasn’t long before it became my favorite entertainment genre.  I’d head to the horror section first when we went to the video store.  Also at the book store, where I quickly discovered Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, H.P. Lovecraft, etc.  And when I started to write, invariably it was horror, or at least horror-related.  Put it this way—characters in my stories typically don’t die of old age.  And essentially, this is the same situation I’m in today.  I read a lot more nonfiction these days, but even this tends to be about real, nasty, events or people.  Shipwrecks, cannibalism, serial killers—that type of thing.
     Going deeper, the “why” question persists.  No one in my immediate family was interested in horror.  Some extended family members and friends were, but usually not to the degree that I was/am.  But, my family wasn’t adamantly anti-horror either, so I don’t think it’s a forbidden-fruit-is-sweeter deal, or some sort of rebellion.  The obvious psychological interpretation is probably that I enjoy it largely because it’s a way to beat a childhood fear.  Watching a movie, reading a book, or writing a story is my subconscious way of overcoming something that caused me stress as a kid, and helping to erase the embarrassment that I was so scared.  Alternately, maybe it’s a lazier version of an adrenaline junkie.  I want a rush, but I don’t want to, say, jump out of a plane.  Escapism is yet another explanation—it might help me get through the day to indulge in something scary (yet often unrealistic) to avoid some real life stressful issues.  Maybe it’s a combination of some or all of these.  Or perhaps I’m just kind of morbid.
     Whatever it is, it’s a strong appreciation.  Because, let’s face it, being a horror fan is tough sometimes.  Respect wise, it’s considered by a large portion of society to be only above pornography as a type of art or entertainment.  To many, a horror fan is at best dumb and immature, and at worst a sicko.  Horror entertainment rarely wins the awards.  Its creators are often asked to defend their work, in a way that a creator who specializes in comedy or drama isn’t.  Stories and films that are obviously horror may be labeled as things like “psychological thrillers” to appear more respectable.  To be fair, much of this disdain is deserved.  I’m a huge fan, but even I have to admit that for every good horror movie there are probably at least 5, or 10, really terrible ones.  Every genre has its clich├ęs, but horror can be the worst offender.  Also, sequels and remakes plague every movie category, but horror has some of the most egregious examples.  In some ways, this can be a plus, since when you find that rare great one in the sea of refuse, it makes it seem even more valuable.
     I like other genre offerings too—some sci-fi and fantasy, action/adventure, comedy, and even a few dramas.  Some of just about everything, with the possible exception of musicals.  But, horror will always be number one.  Scare me, disturb me, disgust me (or allow me the chance to do that to readers)—that’s my idea of a good time.
* Amusing story—growing up some friends of the family rather carelessly allowed their two young children to watch “Jaws.”  Like a lot of kids, this pair was then afraid that a shark would get them.  But they were so terrified that they avoided using the toilet, in case a 25 foot great white found a way to swim up those narrow pipes and attack them when they were just sitting there.  I shouldn’t laugh too much, since if I’d seen “Jaws” at a similar age I might also have been afraid to use the commode, or something even more ludicrous.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Yuca

     This is a food with an extremely confusing name.  Well, one of the common names.  In fact, when I pulled this off the grocery store shelf, I thought I was choosing something else—yucca.  I figured I was misremembering how it was spelled, or that it could be spelled in various ways.  But no—“yucca” and “yuca” are two entirely different plants.  Yuca is native to South America, but it’s also currently grown in Africa and Southeast Asia.  And as it turns out, it’s an incredibly important and popular food—after rice and corn it’s the third biggest source of carbohydrates in the world, and is a staple for at least 500,000,000 people.  So, once again, calling this food “exotic” is a little culturally biased on my part, as it is only so in the U.S. and probably Europe. 
     I was also surprised to learn that I’ve eaten yucca, also known as cassava, and manioc, among others, many times before.  Dried cassava is known as tapioca, which many folks, including me, are familiar with in its weird, eyeball-looking (but tasty) pudding form.  But its diversity doesn’t end there.  It’s also used as animal feed, biofuel, laundry starch, and as an alternative medicine.  Finally, it’s even made into an alcoholic beverage.
     Healthwise cassava is an extremely mixed bag.  On a positive note, aside from its carbs, it has significant amounts of B vitamins, phosphorus, calcium, and vitamin C.  On the negative side, it’s very low in protein.  Oh, and also, it has cyanide, and if not prepared correctly, can cause goiters, paralysis, or death.  So as is the case with picking wild mushrooms, or filleting a fugu fish, it’s best not to harvest and/or prepare cassava yourself unless you really know what you’re doing.
     The cassava I bought was canned, grown in Ecuador, and packed by Goya.  It was very simple.  Aside from it, the ingredients were salt and water.  It consisted of about 10-12 light yellowish stalky-looking pieces.  I tried it was various salsas, and this was okay.  But I actually enjoyed it best plain.  Cassava reminded me of a potato, as it was very starchy, in a good way.  I’d try it again, although I think the next time I’d like it as part of a meal, perhaps in lieu of a potato.  Given my disdain for cooking, this probably means the next time I have cassava will be in a South American/African/Southeast Asian restaurant.

     But the name “yuca” has to go.  It’s way too similar to “yucca.”  We don’t have a citrus fruit named “beaf,” or a type of cheese called “kumqqquats.”  I’m sticking with “cassava,” or “manioc.”

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Ants

     When I was a kid, a friend of mine, Dan, would occasionally eat ants.  Not as a meal or anything, but every so often.  Probably first as a dare, and then whenever we able to goad him into it.  As I recall, he chose the common, small black or brown ants you could find anywhere (at least in suburban NJ).  He reported that they mainly tasted lemon-y.  As a child, I was less experimental about trying different foods, so I didn’t join Dan in his snack.  But, about 30 years later, I was able to, thanks again to the folks at Think Geek, with their Edible Bugs Gift Pack (which for me was truly the gift that kept on giving).
     The particular ants I ate were weaver ants.  This is a species native to Asia and Australia.  They get their name due to their unusual nests.  Tree-dwellers, they use living leaves to form their homes.  Hundreds or thousands of them grab hold of a leaf, and push or pull it until it’s against another leaf.  Then, other ants carry over weaver ant larvae, and induce them to produce silk.  This silk is then used to cement the leaves together.  This they repeat several times, until an enclosed nest is created.  As the colony grows, more nests are constructed.  Even by ant standards, weaver colonies can be huge—up to 500,000 ants in some cases.
     As is typical for ants, weavers are extremely territorial, and vicious about defending their homes.  In addition to a bite that’s even painful to humans, weavers also sometimes spray caustic formic acid.  Incidentally, as many ants produce formic acid, this is most likely the sources of the “lemon-y” flavor that Dan detected in the ants he consumed.  In part because of this hyper aggression, weavers are sometimes used as living pesticide.  Because of their xenophobia, trees with weaver ants suffer less damage from plant eating animals.  And since weavers eat other insects and “honeydew” (which is a sugary liquid secreted by some sap eating insects, like scale insects, which are sometimes “milked” by ants, and other insects) these protectors don’t damage the trees themselves.  Therefore, orchard farmers will sometimes tolerate them, or even encourage them by stringing ropes between trees, for the weavers to travel by.  There is a downside to this though—beneficial animal action, like pollination, or seed dispersal from birds or mammals that eat fruit, is hampered by weaver ants.  But obviously for some fruit growers the advantages of having weaver ant tenants outweigh the disadvantages.
     As with the crickets, weaver ants are a fairly common food source in Thailand.  For pet birds, as bait for fishing, and for the Thai themselves.  Apparently there are even areas in Thailand where prized weaver larvae are twice as expensive as an equal weight of beef or pork!  The ants I ate were billed as “Queen Weaver Ants.”  I’m guessing the queens of weaver ants are bigger than the regular workers, as is the case with most social insects.  Unlike some of the other Gift Pack Bugs, which had exotic flavoring like wasabi, seaweed, or barbeque, the ants were only lightly oiled and salted.  The individual ants were about the size of peas, and rolled up into a tight ball.  The oil gave them a slightly moist texture.  They had a pleasant taste.  The level of saltiness was a perfect medium.  Enough to season the ants effectively, but not too much.  I had no problem finishing the small can, and I would eagerly try them again.  Also, they are high in protein and fiber, so health wise they’re a good choice, too.
     In closing, it’s clear that if my friend Dan ever decides to run for political office, he might need to pay hush money to me (and readers of this post).  Because “Anteater Dan,” whether represented as a person, or as the insectivore animal, would probably be too tempting for a political cartoonist to resist.