Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Jimmy Standard

He's Rat Pack charming – cuff links and collared shirt on a regular Monday morning at this large, bustling Panera Bread.
He's sitting at the end of his table, back against the east wall, coffee mug steaming, newspaper crossword puzzle half-finished in ink, as he has for years, six mornings a week. The chairs refill with the 6 a.m. friends, the 7 a.m. friends, the 8 a.m. friends. Some of the faces have changed over the dozen years this place has been open.
But there's always Jimmy.
They breeze through – suits & ties, skirts & heels, jeans & T-shirts, uniforms. The regulars wave or call him by name. He knows bank presidents, lawyers, contractors, financial advisers, entrepreneurs, store owners, teachers, servers, managers, police officers, engineers. The well-heeled and the penny counters. The young and everyone else.
Jimmy’s a natural storyteller whose jokes flow like smoke – edgy with a side of dirt. He speaks softly most of the time, so you may have to lean in to catch the punch line, delivered with sharp precision. Unpretentious in a pretentious sort of way, he’s slightly built and wearing dark slacks, dangling gold earring, custom-designed turquoise rings. His gray hair is combed back, his facial hair neatly trimmed.
A well-educated man who left formal schooling when he was a teenager, he can talk to – no, engage in conversation – anyone – about anything – geography, politics, sports, education, plumbing, relationships, weather, cars, gardening, gourmet cooking, photography, writing, music, home repair, finances, wine, travel. But unless you ask, he will just sit quietly with amused brown eyes.
It’s easy to picture him behind a long, dark bar in Baltimore – the kind where beer mugs slide easily. He used to do that, one eyebrow raised, tongue firmly in cheek, while listening to regular customers’ outrageous stories. It’s not that different here.
Staff members and bartenders on cruise ships, in Las Vegas hotels and many restaurants know Jimmy and his wife. He preserves their adventures in hand-written journals and scrapbooks stuffed full of his photos.
He collects recipes like baseball cards. Next to newspaper clippings, scraps of paper, faded notes with tips for sautéing onions or stuffing shrimp, he has written his critiques and suggestions. Wine tasting notes require separate thick books, of course.
Jimmy doesn’t text. He’s not on Facebook. But he will email recipes and write blonde jokes on coffee napkins. He carries a cell phone that never makes a sound. The irony is not lost on those who know where he spent the majority of his professional life.
Here at Jimmy’s Panera on a cool but sunny Thursday afternoon, I see a scruffy young man, wearing torn jeans and a black T-shirt, sitting at that table on the east wall. He’s talking loudly about a subject he clearly doesn’t know anything about.
I’ll try to be polite when I tell him to get the hell out of Jimmy’s chair.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cooking with Class

“Tell us about your most embarrassing moment with bacon,” she suggested, using a black oven mitt to one-hand a hot pan onto the counter. Two thick braids held the front strands of her long, dusty blonde hair off her face. Black yoga pants, black chef's coat, “Chef Carolyn” in pink letters on the left side.
Six men and six women sat on the stools at the long counter and watched closely as Carolyn cut the pecan-bacon brownies. No one responded to her icebreaker.

I was a kid – 10 or 11 – about to bite into a piece of crispy bacon at the breakfast table. “Do you remember Wilbur?” my dad asked, that smirk sneaking up the left side of his face. You mean the pig that I fed and cleaned and loved and talked to and named after the character in my favorite book, and cried over on the day I found out that he had disappeared ... THAT Wilbur?!

Carolyn was scooping crumbly brownies onto small paper plates. “I put in a little extra bourbon this time,” she said with a smile. “What happened to the rest of the bourbon?” several people asked at once, as the laughter rippled. Nope, only in the brownies. After all, this is state-funded education.

I really miss Julia Child.

Carolyn sliced tender pork roast, separated thick raw bacon slices, turned on the gas burners, preheated ovens and took stuff out of the fridge, but it wasn't long before we were off the stools, cutting salmon, peeling oven-baked eggs (325 degrees for 20 minutes) mashing hot sweet potatoes, chopping paprika, sage, onion and garlic, frying and crumbling pounds of pork.

And we were all hostages to that bacon smell.
Cooking requires patience, perseverance, flexibility, prayer, versatility, love, planning, teamwork, focus, discernment. It helps if you have some skills, but you can learn how to do anything: chop, de-bone, whip, mix, slice, grate, stir.
This was an industrial kitchen – think Cake Boss rather than Rachael Ray. Hanging silver pots, wooden cutting boards and sharpened knives. Four ovens, four sinks, a massive island counter. A Splatter Zone (been in Sea World?). Carolyn pushed a button and a splatter shield emerged from the counter behind the gas stove. Cool!
“Since this IS a bacon class, we will substitute grease for butter in every recipe,” Carolyn said without looking up.
No matter how closely you follow a recipe – measuring precisely and stirring with confidence – or how many times you use the same recipe – the Sunday pot roast, the Monday night meatloaf – it never turns out exactly the way you planned or exactly the same way every time. For the record, my bacon green beans have never tasted as good as my grandmother’s. This is a creative and unpredictable journey.
“I need some of you to de-vein and de-tail the shrimp,” Carolyn said. I joined several others, including a 20-something blonde, at the island.
“I can’t do it; I don’t like their legs,” said the blonde. She hid her hands in the front pockets of her red hoodie.
In my most professorial way, I peered over my gray-rimmed glasses. “They’re tails.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.

Pretty sure.

“How about if I take off the tails and you do the butterfly cut?” I said.

“Will I need a knife?” she asked.

Could use your teeth, I suppose.

“How about if you wipe off the counter after I’m done?” I said, smiling brightly.

We scorched one batch of bacon. The salmon – well, let’s just say it wouldn’t make the cover of a food magazine. Somebody (you know who you are) cut some of the bacon too short for wrapping the shrimp.
The timer alerted us that the bacon sweet potato soufflé was ready. Carolyn pulled it out of the oven. Then, she scooped bacon pecan ice cream out of the silver machine and plopped the sweet stuff into the white foam bowls in front of us.
“I don’t think I can eat ice cream at 10:30 in the morning,” the blonde said.
“You’ve got a lot to learn,” a tall, 50ish man said, reaching for her paper bowl.
While savoring the creamy souffé, I became immersed in a 15-minute discussion of cheese with Sheila, sitting on the stool to my left. 
1. Put fresh parmesan or provolone inside a date. Wrap bacon around it. Bake at 350 degrees until the bacon is done. 
2. Use at least two kinds of cheese in every recipe.
3. NEVER run out of cheese.
Under “course suggestions” on the evaluation sheet, I wrote, “Cheese, Please.”
We cooked and consumed the brownies, salmon, ice cream, shrimp, candied bacon bites, fresh spinach salad with creamy bacon dressing, bacon nibbles. And lots of bacon crumbs.
Four hours later, I walked out the door and straight into a bright blue sky and a crisp fall breeze. And remembered what I had forgotten. Everything tastes better when you enjoy the journey.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Inside the Odditorium

I was the kid who always wanted Dad to pull the Pontiac Land Yacht over so I could see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.
Of course, he was the guy who probably left the car door open that day when he peered over the edge of the Grand Canyon and remarked, “It looks like a big ditch to me.” But that’s my mother’s story.
Actually, it doesn’t matter if the signs refer to a haystack, bubble gum, rubber bands, an animal, plate juggling, body parts, food, a hole in the ground – I’m a sucker for pretty much anything that includes hyperbole in the title: Most Amazing, Only Living, First Ever, World’s Smallest, Internationally Known.  
It doesn’t get much better than the World Famous Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo – where hyperbole meets food meets eclectic décor. You can even get a free steak – that is, if you consume all 72 ounces of it AND the sides in an hour. The six-ounce sirloin was enough for me but what an adventure just to see the inside of that place. J
            Despite the pricey admission tickets and against My Better Judgment, I took my kids a few years ago to  a Ripley’s Believe or Not Odditorium in Grand Prairie, Texas. Ripley’s, after all, has been “proudly freaking out families for over 90 years.”
So, for the Original Combo price of $21.99 each, which included Louis Tussaud’s Palace of Wax, we walked through the 10,000 square feet of objects labeled “oddities.” We gazed at the greasy wax reproduction of the World’s Tallest Man, a variety of shrunken heads, a barbaric electrocution chair, an extensive collection of torture mechanisms, a couple of mummies. We followed the Warning for Those Faint of Heart signs to a blackened room, where some sort of ninja swinging a really big sword jumped out at us. (I screamed; the kids were fine.) We learned a lot of stuff, too. Like, if you never cut your nails, they will grow to about 13 feet by the time you are 80. Stuff like that.
            Even attractions billed as historical or educational often turn out to be oddities. My son was 6 when we did all the tourist stuff in San Antonio. “Mom, the gift shop is bigger than The Alamo!” he exclaimed as he ran to the plastic weapons.
If you've ever walked through any of those massive traveling exhibits – Star Wars, King Tut, Titanic – you know you always end up at the same destination – a really big gift shop full of junk stamped Made in China. Only the main graphic on the T-shirts changes.
            Because you never know what oddities you’ll find at local events, I go to as many as possible. The requirement: “Fest” or “Fair” or “Cook-off” or “Day” must be in the name: Red Earth, Western Heritage, Chili, International, Cowboy, Car, May, October, Balloon, Films, Arts, Stilwell Strawberry, Medieval, Rush Springs Watermelon, Watonga Cheese, Grape, Family, Great State. (Anyone found a Bacon Fest yet?)
It’s all about the journey. So, if you spend any time with me, be prepared to stop and smell, uh – stop and stare – at the oddities along the way.