Monday, February 21, 2005
Midwestern Culinary Faux Pas
Flying from Boston to San Jose, we made the usual stop in Chicago. I had one of these rare itineraries where I was to stay on the same plane. I felt that fifty minutes was too long to sit, so I took all my belongings and my boarding pass and ventured out into the exciting arena of Chicago O'Hare Airport.
I observed all the spawning and migratory beings making their way to all points of the earth. Ah, there's the gate to San Francisco and there are folks going back to the freezing cold Northeast. Oh, look at those happy ones boarding a flight to the Bahamas!
Observing humans in transit is a wonderful way to spend time at O'Hare, but hunger called and remembering the cuisine on American Airlines where sustenance consisted of plucking a little blue bag out of what can only be described as the food morgue, I opted for a quick airport chow-down.
Moving on past the Panda Garden, Pizza Hut and the always available $10.00 Martini I chanced on a stand that claimed to sell authentic Chicago Hot Dogs.
Ah indigenous foods, yes why not? Though I have gone beyond the wiener in my culinary evolution, I have indeed heard much talk of this fabled sausage creation of the Midwest.
I found a seat at the bar in the small bistro residing on a open corner between gates K4 and K5. On the other side of the bar was a very tall African American women with great hair and a wonderful chiseled face She opened her eyes leaned forward and said "Yes…"
I heard the cook call her name, it was Doris.
"I'd like one of those venerated Chicago hot dogs, but I must be sure I'm about to consume the real thing. After all, airports truly are full of illusion."
My host guaranteed me that this would be an authentic Chicago Dog and I would soon be part of a tradition I had only heard about but never experienced. She had a great face. I trusted her.
As I waited for my dog and beer, I observed the dozen or so people at the bar. No one making eye contact, most were fidgeting with their carry on bags, looking at their respective watches and consuming consumables in a most consumptive fashion.
My masterpiece arrived and I was perplexed. It was beyond any hot dog experience in my 50 plus years of eating.
First off, the bun was really thick and the pickle relish was placed across the dog, not up and down the dog. In other words, it went from bun to bun. Adding to the sausage mystique, there were tomatoes and cucumbers cascading around both the bun and the actual dog itself. Lastly, there were quite a lot of fries, all on the same very small cardboard plate. The fries were dipping over the thick bun and falling on my dog.
Although I had never spent much time in the Windy City, I knew that the proper way to consume this beef creation was to pick the whole thing up and somehow guide it down one’s gullet. Had I been alone, I might have tried such a feat.
With great apprehension I reached for the plastic bag that contained the little plastic knife, fork and spoon. Meanwhile, with the smallest corner of one eye, Doris was observing me opening the bag.
I then proceeded to start the consumption experience of my Chicago hot dog with a knife and fork. All the while, Doris' eyes got bigger and her cursory glances were morphing into short stares at me and the dog.
There was now not a doubt in my mind that I was committing an indigenous culinary faux pax. I knew it, and I knew she knew it, and I was sure she knew I knew she knew.
I sheepishly raised my eyes. I lifted my palms in the most sincere form of submission a weary airport traveler could muster. Our eyes met. A long silence was interrupted by my confession.
”Okay, okay” I said. “I know I have done a really uncool act by eating a Chicago Hot Dog with a knife and fork.”
Bowing my head even lower I continued.
“I was confused by the relish, the bun, the tomatoes, the abundance of fried potatoes product...I'm jet lagged , it's my primary Chicago Hot Dog experience and I don't have a manual.”
After more silence, Doris spoke. "Let me ask you this. Would you eat a pizza with a knife and fork?"
I assumed an upright position and replied, “Of course not! I'm originally from New York."
"New York!" Doris exclaimed - "I thought you were from Omaha or some small place in North Dakota, but now that I know you’re from New York, this is inexcusable."
We both tried as hard as we could to keep that smile away. This was really fun. We debated about bun size and tomatoes and hot dog customs at quite a high and excited volume.
Everyone on the counter got into it. Each person had his or her interpretations of the proper dog eating experience. People were lighting up like Christmas trees. Everyone stopped looking at their watches, cell phones were tucked away, people were looking at each other, all of us were escaping from our traveling isolation and just enjoying the moment.
It was agreed upon that no matter what the venue, the dog must be consumed without benefit of knife and fork, and I did promise Doris that on my return to their bistro, I would amend to the proper etiquette and culinary mores.
During the entire 30 minutes that I spent with Doris, somehow we knew we were great friends. We were conspirators in breaking up a boring reality. As short as it was, it was wonderful because we understood each other from the get go.
All that fun and all I had to do was to commit a small Midwestern culinary faux pas.
Saturday, February 19, 2005
Gazing at this faded, crumpled, limp, multi stained dollar I gave it a very small chance of success in a vending machine. This unfortunate piece of legal tender was found tucked away in the far reaches of my wallet, the same wallet that I had accidentally dropped in a somewhat dubious puddle of rainwater the previous night. It was the only dollar I had. The sweat dripping from my fingers on that humid Indiana afternoon only added to the depravity of its condition. While attempting to flatten this pitiful reserve note out I rubbed too hard a ripped down a half an inch on its right side. There was a severe gravy stain directly on the little Masonic eyeball above the pyramid and a large red dot on top of president Washington’s head. The bill was so deteriorated that the American eagle looked more like a frightened turkey sinking into quicksand.
It’s clearly stated on the bill “In God We Trust” and trusted I did as I carefully placed this aged piece of currency into the slim metal receptacle of the machine. I then chanted a little junk food prayer as the bill slowly disappeared. The machine was pleased; it quickly devoured my aged and crumpled Federal Reserve Note. I pressed E-3 and waited through those pregnant seconds until my extra large Snickers Bar hit the bottom of the machine with a joyful thud.
As my happy hands were opening the flap to retrieve my sweet and joyous prize my ears were treated to an unusual electronic voice coming from the direction of the dollar slot. The machine was returning my bill after it had set that Snickers bar free. It literally spewed the dollar into the air; my eager hands captured it as it floated towards the pavement. Then there was another sound, one anyone could decipher. It was the sound of change coming trough the machine and down into the small metal compartment. I now had the desired confection, my original dollar and forty-five cents in change.
Could it have been the gravy stain over the mystic eye that set this dollar aloft after it had brought forth my sugared desire? Or was there a bigger picture happening here? I was shocked, elated and puzzled as to my next move. I looked at George; he still had a red mark on top of his head.
Mystified by this recent magic I studied the bill for a possible answer. I doubted that it was “In God We Trust” as I was now engaged in (if not breaking) at least seriously bending one of His commandments.
I then noticed written directly above the little gravy stained Masonic eye the phrase “Annuit Coeptis” from the classic Roman poet Virgils’ Aeneid written in the first century B.C. “Annuit Coeptis” translates to “providence has favored our undertakings” and yes favored I was and I decided to continue my relationship with this now magic dollar and the receptive and loving vending machine.
Adding to my somewhat flawed logic were the next group of words beneath the pyramid, “Novus Ordo
Seclorum.” Virgil’s second phrase translated to “A new order of the ages”. Indeed I thought a new relationship
between humanity and vending machines starting right here on a hot and muggy Indiana afternoon and I am
the chosen one.
I straightened out my crumpled bill as best as I could for my second attempt. Contemplating my rising sign I choose a Mars Bar. I placed my legal tender into the machine, and once again it was accepted. As I punched E-8 I did wonder if there was a video camera watching me trying to pull one over on this aged vending machine located between West Harrison and St. Leon Indiana.
The Mars bars falls to the pit and the dollar is once again vaulted out of the machine and this time there is fifty-five cents in change. Staying with my planetary theme my next choice was a Milky Way and it soon came to rest in the chute with the Snickers and the Mars bar and as before my dollar was returned and there were two dimes and one quarter in the change box.
The machine was somewhat slow and it took almost a minute for the entire transaction. If each transaction netted me an average of fifty cents then I could potentially make $30. per hour and of course many candy bars as well. I then had a moment of logic and morality. The machine probably had just so much change in it and a limited number of candy bars. I then contemplated if this little bit of fun might lead to possible incarceration. I’d be the laughing stock of the cellblock. I could just envision my fellow inmates laughing at someone busted for tampering with a vending machine.
As I was contemplating continuing my criminal activity a car pulled up and two little kids and their dad walked up to the machine. I quickly gathered my booty and walked over to the water fountain hoping theses new arrivals wouldn’t break the magic. As the two children hopped up and down chanting for their favorite confection dad put a dollar in the slot. The bar came down as well as the change but his dollar was gone. I waited until they pulled out. I decided to continue but only with candy that had the names of planets.
I soon realized this decision would be a limiting one. Fifth Avenue, Goobers and Idaho Spud were not celestial names at all and Nut Goodie, Salted Nut Roll and Sesame Snaps didn’t make it to my wish list as well. Ah but what about Skor? There was a famous Danish astronomer with that last name. I pressed D-5 and Skor dropped down and once again the dollar was returned with fifty cents in change. Starburst fit the bill and then just for old time sake I took another Mars Bar.
After my tenth transaction and had another pang of conscious but perhaps it was more like a ping. Am I committing an immoral act? I looked at the machine, and it was looking back at me. I then thought of all those times I poured money into a vending machine and received nothing at all. That one in St Paul that I had placed six quarters in, the coke machine at the Hilton in Los Angeles, a coffee machine that delivered nothing in east New York. Then I thought of all my friends and all the vending machines around this globe that took their coins and returned nothing. This isn’t just about me, I thought it’s about everyone on this planet who at some time of their lives tumbled their quarters into a machine and came up empty. Still there were some consistent pangs of guilt. I decided to collect my bars, my quarters and my dimes and roll on down the interstate.
I found myself nervously looking in the rear view every few minutes as I headed west. What if a little old Indiana man was watching me through his binoculars from his RV and called the state police. Every squad car in the Hoosier state is now on the lookout for the, hum… what would they call me? Would it be “The Sweet Tooth Bandito” or “Mars Bar Murphy” or better yet “Le Voleur de la Chocalot”.
I felt a little more at ease as I departed the interstate for 46 west, a smaller and more inconspicuous route. I soon arrived in Bloomington checked into my hotel and got ready for the music convention.
I was foundling my lucky dollar like a totem as I walked down the hall to the elevator. Out of the corner of my eye I saw them, six gleaming brand new vending machines. I could feel my dollar slither through my fingers like a snake approaching its prey. I thought these machines looked a lot more state of the art then one I knocked off back on the interstate. My brain said no, but my dollar said go.I had nothing to loose as I was already rich in candy, quarters and dimes.
I decided to go for the one-dollar bottle of water. The machine quickly devoured my bill a cold bottle slid down the chute. The machine hesitated just like before but it probably had a newer chip in it, one that could see through the gravy stain on the little Masonic eye and the red dot on George’s head. My dollar was now resting comfortably with all its brother and sister dollars in the Marriott Raintree Hotel in downtown Bloomington Indiana. I snapped off the top of my last dollars work, took a long hard drink, and I realized that my short Midwestern career in crime had come to an end.
(C) Gourd Music 2003