Saturday, November 29, 2003

Thanksgiving favorites

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Pardon me, but do you happen to have a toothpick handy? I’ve got this wedge of Meleagris gallopavo caught in my teeth.

That’s turkey, bub.

This Thanksgiving, I had a great deal to be thankful for: I was thankful that my parents made a turkey and shared it with me. I was also thankful that I got to eat some of my in-laws’ turkey. And I was thankful that my wife and I could make our own turkey just for the hell of it, part of which is resting in peace in my refrigerator, covered in sage and rosemary.

I like the turkey. Turkey is definitely my favorite Thanksgiving food.

Just yesterday, after I had inserted a whole leftover drumstick into my mouth and pulled out the clean bone, I heard one of those not-quite-news news stories that claimed the average American eats 14 pounds of turkey every year.

Even though I like the turkey, I don’t eat much of it outside of the holiday season. I have turkey sandwiches and turkey burgers — but those don’t count, as far as I’m concerned. I mean the real deal, jack, with the drumsticks and wings and the plastic button in the chest.

So to be an average American, I have to eat 14 pounds of turkey at Thanksgiving alone.

Can I manage it?

Yes. Yes, I can.

After I read that, I peeked in my refrigerator. The turkey we made was 13 pounds. I did some quick math in my head: take away the bones, which are impossible to eat, no matter how hard I try. Now divide that by half, and I ate — what? A measly 5 pounds or something? No wonder why I’m starving for more leftovers.

Even if you add up all the turkey I ate at my parents’ house and with my in-laws, that’s only about 7 pounds or so.

I have some catching up to do. Anybody got a spare half-turkey lying around?

We have enough canned cranberry sauce to go with it. Since this was our first year including cranberry sauce in our meal, we stared at the can, occasionally poking it.

“Do you heat it up?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” my wife said.

Then she spotted the instructions on the side of the can.

“It tells you here how to take it out so that it keeps the shape of the can,” she said.

It’s true. There was even a diagram. With a snap of her wrist, a wave of her hand, and a hearty “Hi-yo Silver,” it slid into the dish with a gassy, rude noise. It was a rather slimy, purple, ridged blob.

“Perfect,” I said.

I’m not sure if there are statistics on the average American’s annual pumpkin pie consumption, but I probably exceed it. Without question, pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving food.

My taste for pumpkin pie is simply not logical. People just shouldn’t like a dessert as much as I like pumpkin pie — it’s not right.

In college, I had a roommate named Clint who liked the pumpkin pie as much as I did. One year, starting in September, we saved all the spare change we could. We dug through the couch cushions of the dorm’s common rooms. We reached through sewer grates, prospecting for nickels. We tipped freshmen upside down and shook them until their pocket change fell out.

When late November rolled around, we put our change in a pillowcase and took it to the bank. When the poor slob behind the counter finished tallying our total, we ended up with something like $12. We ran with it — literally, we ran — to the Star Market grocery store on Boylston Street in Boston. There, we spent the entire proceeds on pumpkin pie.

Four pumpkin pies.

For the next three days, all we ate was pumpkin pie. We had it for breakfast, lunch, brunch, dinner, midnight snack and high tea. Only three fit in the mini-fridge, so we had to eat one right away.

This year, I’ve only eaten maybe one, if that — hardly enough.

I forgot about the stuffing.

Wait — stuffing is my favorite Thanksgiving food.

I don’t care if it’s inside the turkey or outside, as long as I’m eventually the one who ends up stuffed. I used to prefer Stove Top with crumbled chourico mixed into it. Lately, I have a new favorite. It’s a recipe from my wife’s family, made with three kinds of meat. Next year, I’ll try to sneak some chourico in there to make it four.

The stuffing makes a fantastic binding agent for my absolute favorite Thanksgiving food, Leftover Sandwiches. A Leftover Sandwich contains everything that was on the table between bread, with a little bit of gravy — my favorite part of any Thanksgiving meal — liberally drizzled on it.

Happily, we have a colossal pot of stuffing in the refrigerator, something like 10 pounds of it — more than enough to stuff a yak. It’s also the secret to our famous Roast Stuffed Yak recipe, which is, hands down, my favorite part of Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 21, 2003

The Forbidden Zone

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The simplest way to measure a person’s wealth or social standing is to calculate how much empty air he or she owns.

Dig this: it’s not necessarily about the furnishings are in somebody’s home, or even whether its covered in shingles or vinyl. The real test is how much potentially usable but dead air a property contains.

Case in point: a house with a vast, empty back lawn seems much swankier than a house with a shed there. Once the space becomes used, it’s not as cool anymore. That empty space makes the place seem fancy, as if you’re flaunting that you own so much property you can’t even fill it.

So I guess this one of the reasons why so many Portuguese-American houses have rooms that are off-limits, packed with the good furniture that nobody’s allowed to sit on.

Be honest with yourself. If you’re from the Azores, there’s a 98 percent chance you don’t use the front door of your house — because that would mean you’d have to walk through the parlor.

And we can’t have people just walking through the parlor!

Most of my Portuguese relatives have parlors that are fully furnished, but you’re not allowed to go in there. Everything is meticulously arranged to offer maximum eye value — every spray of plastic flowers carefully chosen, every ceramic elephant placed just so. Just don’t linger too long. That’s a good way to get politely but firmly herded back into the furnished basement, where most of the living and cooking and hanging out is actually done.

Not that you’d want to hang around in the parlor, anyway. There’s nothing to do in there. If there’s a TV — as in both my grandparents’ houses — it’s probably not plugged in. The sofas are brutally uncomfortable. Everything’s breakable. The carpet is stiff because nobody ever walks on it. The only art on the walls are usually large wedding photos and First Communion portraits.

For a long time, I used to think only my family did this. Then I discovered that other first-generation Portuguese-Americans my age had identical experiences, down to the exact same ceramic elephants.

One kid I grew up with, if he so much as looked at his fancy parlor cockeyed, his mother whacked him with a slipper.

My parents were much less strict than that. We could actually live in the living room. My sister and I weren’t technically supposed to bring sneakers in there, but that was like seat belt laws — only in force if we were pulled over for some other violation.

The room that was really off-limits in my house was the dining room. It’s got a fancy-schmancy table in there and the good china. It had a yellow plastic runner leading through there from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. There’s a record player and stereo roughly the size and style of an obese person’s casket. Lingering inside this room was only for Christmas and New Year’s. My sister and I had to beg them to use it for Thanksgiving.

My wife isn’t Portuguese, the poor thing, so she’s not familiar with this custom. The first time I ever walked into her house, back in 1994, I recoiled in silent horror as I saw not one dog but two inside the house — and they were flagrantly sitting and scratching themselves in the parlor. I waited against the wall to avoid any errant flying slippers.

Recently, I had to explain to my wife why some Portuguese-American people keep some rooms like museum pieces.

“They’re for company,” I said.

“But every time we visit your aunt’s house, we don’t go into the parlor,” she said. “Aren’t we company?”

“We’re family. Family’s more comfortable in the furnished basement.”

“What about before we were married?” she said. “I wasn’t your family then. Why couldn’t I go into the parlor?”

I thought about this one for a minute — she had me there. I stroked my beard professionally, then gave her my answer. “Hmf,” I said.

Later, we visited my parents for an early Thanksgiving dinner. We celebrated early because they’ll be visiting my sister in Pennsylvania on the actual holiday.

I let us into the house to the warm smells of turkey and chourico — and it wasn’t coming from the basement. The dining room was all decked out with the good plates and everything.

“I thought it would be nice,” my mom said.

Over dinner, my wife and I asked her about the parlors. She told us about how she and my dad lived in tiny houses that were essentially one room.

“I had to sleep at my grandmother’s house, because there wasn’t a room for the girls to sleep in,” she said. “And that was typical.”

Then they immigrated to America, she said, and found that they could afford plenty of room for everyone. But they were still used to living together in the same room. So they fixed up their basements into replicas of the rooms they grew up with in the Azores, leaving the rooms upstairs as that universal symbol of wealth, empty space.

“And, of course, now we could afford nice things. So we try very hard to keep them nice,” she said.

Hence, my friend’s slipper-shaped bruises.

Of course, I thought, it’s not worth keeping things nice if you can’t enjoy them once in a while.

Hence, the dinner in the once-forbidden dining room.

So we passed highly stainable gravy from one person to the other. I dropped a potato, but caught it in my lap before it hit the carpet. After we were done with dessert, we left the dining room as clean as it ever was — for which my parents must have been extremely thankful.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Matrix trilogy, schmatrix schmilogy

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Friends, do you often find yourselves in a black leather trench coat, performing kung fu midair for minutes at a time? Do you wish your telephone transported you to a computer-generated dream world populated principally by other people wearing black leather trench coats? Are you plagued by those darn self-aware robots that are trying to wipe out the human race?

If so, friends, you have Matrix-fever, brought on by the “Matrix” series of movies. The symptoms of this illness include extreme dorkiness. Those deepest in the throes of “Matrix” fever have also been known to give their friends unwarranted (but weak) karate chops.

Luckily for you, the third part in the “Matrix” trilogy, “The Matrix Revolutions,” is out in theaters near you. In case you need further coaxing, take heed! Popcorn may be available.

This is a wild guess, but there’s probably a whole bunch of people (skewing toward the older, more fogeyish demographic) who have no idea what “The Matrix” is about.

The easy explanation is that “The Matrix” is, in the words of co-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski, an action movie about “kung-fu versus robots.”

The longer explanation is also “kung-fu versus robots.”

The first film in the series, “The Matrix,” stars Keanu Reeves as a mouth-breathing computer hacker named Neo. You can tell right away that something’s not right with the world, because computer hackers do not look like people who regularly make People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” list.

We also meet this really macho-looking lady named Trinity (played by the macho-looking Carrie-Anne Moss) who wears shiny black leather everything. Yes, presumably also pajamas. When a bunch of cops closes in on her to arrest her for something — it’s probably the Fashion Police — she responds by speaking to them calmly and reasonably, and the charges are dropped.

No, wait — she kills them.

Any-hoo, in the middle of this scene there’s a wicked cool special effect where Trinity is going to kick a guy in the face with her black leather stiletto boot. She jumps in the air, hovers for a while as the camera spins around them, ponders the consequences of her actions, gives the guy a few minutes to write out his last will and testament, and then finally kicks him — pow!

Then later, with the aid of more special effects, Trinity is chased across the roofs of skyscrapers by these Evil Faceless Government Types in boring suits. The clothes are the key to figuring out who’s who in “The Matrix.” The good guys are dressed like vampires. The bad guys are dressed by the Men’s Wearhouse.

We also meet other characters, like Morpheus, another guy fond of black leather whose sole purpose is to say portentous stuff like “The power of your mind.” He and Trinity contact Neo and, after much hemming and hawing, tell Neo that he’s destined to save the human race from intelligent robots that have enslaved us. You see, what we perceive to be “the real world” is actually a computer-generated dream world we all share, called the Matrix. In real reality, we’re all encased in pods, and robots have taken over the world using people as a source of power.

So, for example, Fall River mayoral candidate F. George Jacome didn’t really fib about graduating from college — we all just dreamed that he did, while in reality robots are actually in charge of Fall River.

Neo tells his compatriots that he is not familiar with any such robots. “Uh-uh,” he says in a stunning monologue. “No way.”

The Good Guys wake Neo up from his Matrix dream, and upon realizing the awful truth of the robots, Keanu Reeves utters his most convincing line of dialogue in any of his films yet:

Urrrrgh!

Neo and the Good Guys decide to fight back against the robots by hacking into the Matrix to defeat the system from within. Since they’re now aware that this dream world is fake, they can change whatever they want — they can fly, shoot endless amounts of ammunition at the Bad Guys — most importantly, their hair never gets mussed, no matter how many kicks to the face they're on the business end of.

For some reason, both the good and bad guys mutually agree that kung fu is their preferred method of combat — odd, given that they can magically conjure up all the guns or thermonuclear devices they want. Kung fu. I'm just saying. Thermonuclear devices vs. karate chops. Eventually, the movie ends with the Good Guys triumphant (even though humanity is still being enslaved by the fiendish robots, which is actually not a triumph at all, if you think about it).

That’s just the first movie. Whew!

The second movie, “The Matrix Reloaded,” which came out earlier this year, is a lot like the first, except much lousier. Now there’s a whole network of people who are fighting off those pesky homicidal robots. There’s more of everything — more noise, more leather, and especially more talking.

“Urmf,” says a clearly uninterested Neo at one point.

But nobody actually says very much. “I’m losing him!” says one character. “Hold on!” says another, followed by the only adequate reply, “Noooooo!” Then some bearded guy shows up claiming to have invented the Matrix, and he unleashes this long, uninterrupted stream of bewildered yakking, and there’s no more kung fu for the rest of the picture. I mean, if you're going to stick with the kung fu vs. the thermonuclear devices, at least have the courtesy to toss a few roundhouse kicks in every few minutes to keep me from nodding off into my Pepsi.

There’s a cliffhanger at the end, except I’m still not sure where the cliff was or what got hanged.

As for the third and final film, “The Matrix Revolutions,” I’m on my way to see it. I’m still a fan despite the movie’s problems. I’ll be the guy in the front row giving his date karate kicks, his legs stretching as high as his freezing cold leather pants will allow.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Little raw slices of salty brain food

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The quickest way to my heart is paved with garlic. My parents’ cooking is loaded with the stuff. But the quickest way to my head is paved with sticky white rice, seaweed and chunks of raw fish.

I speak of sushi, nature’s perfect food. This is the story of how a closed-minded European fell in love with exotic Asia — like James Clavell’s epic novel “Shogun.”

I became addicted to sushi when I was an undergraduate student at college in Boston. I was a naïve, chubby Portuguese kid raised on kale soup, pork four nights a week, beef on the other three, and roast rabbit for Easter dinner.

There was no chourico to be found in my college dorm’s dining hall. I asked. Instead, they served chicken patties, pasta, pizza, hamburgers — American fare that my dad calls “cat food.” He says this with the expression of someone who has accidentally swallowed his mouthwash.

Worse, the dining hall had a salad bar — with romaine lettuce in it, and that crazy purple cabbage. Portuguese people cannot abide salad, or vegetables of any kind. In Portuguese houses, “vegetables” means chicken-flavored yellow rice and “salad” is a bowl of sliced cucumbers.

After a few months of eating cereal for breakfast instead of chourico and eggs, I was a wreck. I visited my parents on the weekends and replenished myself with enough buttered bread, potatoes and malassadas to make me feel whole again. But once all the red pepper was out of my system, I would withdraw.

One day, when I particularly needed a garlic fix, some friends asked me along to a sushi bar.

“Raw fish,” I said, my eyes wet with tears. “So this is what rock bottom feels like.”

“It’s really good,” one of my two roommates said. It could have been either one of them — I was too strung out to notice. “You try sushi once and you’re hooked.”

My friends dragged me like a man to the gallows into a sushi bar on Boston’s Newbury Street, and ordered me things like tuna, mackerel, salmon, squid — all raw.

Before the moment the first piece of raw tuna touched my tongue, nearly everything I had eaten had been marinated in oil, ground red pepper and salt, fried in its own fat and served with two kinds of starches and a gallon of homemade red wine.

Sushi is nothing like this. Some pieces, nigiri, look like little wads of white rice with a strip of colorful fish on top. Others, maki, are seaweed-wrapped cylinders filled with rice, fish and vegetables. A filling dinner often fits in two hands. You dip the pieces into soy sauce flavored with ginger and wasabi, which is this green goop that is so spicy it will send fireworks up your nose and make tears squirt out of your eyes if not used in miniscule amounts. To naïve, chubby Portuguese kids, it looks like food that people in the post-apocalyptic future eat.

I fumbled with the chopsticks for a minute, then dug in. Long story short, my friends carried me out of that sushi bar a half-hour later as I held onto my swollen stomach. I leaned closely into my friends’ faces to smell the soy sauce still on their breath. I was hooked.

Its main ingredient is raw fish, yet sushi doesn’t taste remotely like fish. It’s more about how it feels than how it tastes. Some fish snap, others slide. I have spent several hundred hours analyzing its hold on me. This has required, let’s say, extensive research at places like Umi in Somerset, Tokyo in Providence and Gyuhama in Boston, better known as “Rock and Roll Sushi.”

I have never become sick from eating it — actually, if I have an upset stomach, eating sushi works better than Tums. I’ve eaten raw seafood that I won’t touch cooked, like octopus.

Dig this: I’ve eaten sushi for breakfast.

I went to this one sushi bar in Boston so often that the Japanese waitresses began to recognize me. Once, when I came back from winter vacation, the waitress took my order — raw tuna, salmon, squid, and a Coke — and said, bowing, “Not see you, long time!” I felt like Marco Polo.

What interests me most about sushi is its clean taste. Portuguese food is heavy with spices and odors — the same spices and odors for every meal. Compare two fish dishes: sushi and bacalau. Sushi is light, its tastes complex; bacalau is heavily salted codfish made with potatoes and sopped in vinegar, pepper and olive oil. Burp after eating sushi, and you detect a delicate tinge of ginger. Burp after eating bacalau, and you quickly lose friends. It reminds me of “Shogun” again — where the European sailor washes up in Japan, and his “barbaric” Japanese captors force him to take daily baths and eat a healthy diet.

Sushi is food for my brain. Portuguese food is stomach food; it’s there when I want something easy to stretch out my pants.

My wife and I visit my parents for Sunday lunch whenever I can. Mom will sometimes broil up tuna steaks the size of catcher’s mitts and brew a pot of yellow rice.

“I’ll just have a little,” I say, absently carving a slab of tuna into sushi-sized pieces.

“You’re always telling me how you love this stuff raw,” mom says. “You don’t like it cooked?”

Dad shakes his head. “Could have used more pepper.”

“It’s great,” my wife says, and she peeks over at my plate. I am packing yellow rice into little wads.

Mom reaches into the fridge and presents us with a bowl half-full of sliced cucumbers. “Almost forgot the salad,” she says.

I bow slightly. “Konichi-wa, mama-san.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

Utter repulsion

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I don’t like your feet. Nothing personal, buddy — I don’t like anybody’s feet. I don’t even like my own feet, which is why I keep them hidden in heavy brown shoes, as opposed to footwear where my toes would be exposed to sunlight.

I find the human foot unpleasant. Toes vex me. I don’t have a foot phobia or anything, but there are so many other nicer — and cleaner — parts of the human body: noses, shoulders, eyebrows, necks, you name it. The boob, to be sure. I’ll even take a nicely sculpted elbow, for instance, over any toe any day of the week.

When people wear sandals around me, I wince privately and turn away. These people always seem to have inch-thick calluses creeping up the sides of their heels. And they wiggle their toes an awful lot — more than seems necessary. Perhaps just to perturb me. The feet are bad enough, but it’s the toe-wiggling that sets my teeth on edge.

My wife’s feet are OK, I guess, but they’re still feet.

My point is, you can rest assured that I do not have a hoard of strange people's shoes in my home. Remain calm, Mr. and Mrs. America — if I see you on the street, I will not accost you and try to smell or lick your toes.

There are plenty of people who can’t say that. People with foot fetishes are everywhere lately.

Take the Rhode Island foot-licker — please.

In August, Raymond Dublin of Providence was sentenced to 18 months in the slam for sneaking behind a woman in a Bellingham Save-A-Lot and licking her toes on three occasions. Dublin had just gotten over a year’s stretch in the clink for doing the same thing to a woman at a supermarket in Woonsocket, R.I. For that kind of time, he should have at least swiped their purses, too.

Perhaps Judge Paul Losapio said it best: “I don’t know what type of counseling someone could undergo for this kind of behavior.”

The simple answer, of course, is to get him off strange women’s feet and onto his own. So here’s my two cents’ worth: yoga classes! Women in area grocery stores can wear their open-toed shoes again, and Dublin becomes flexible enough to smell and lick any number of his own toes. Everybody wins.

Not long ago, Donald J. Ruther of Ohio took the foot-sniffing deal a step further. In 2002, the Associated Press wrote that Ruther “pleaded guilty to burglary, admitting he had sneaked into a garage and stolen eight pairs of athletic shoes belonging to teenage girls.”

Ruther had intended to add them to his collection — “500 pairs of men’s, women’s and children’s shoes of various sizes and styles.” Some people bake cookies for comfort, and others bury their noses in other people’s footwear.

This story made me wonder if he sorted his collection at all. I collect things, and I prefer to keep them in order. I alphabetize my records and CDs, for instance, and I try to shelve my books according to preference. Maybe, like a connoisseur of fine wines, he stored his shoes according to vintage, in an enclosed cellar room to keep the fresh air from spoiling them.

I was also wondering if it was necessary to steal both shoes from a pair, if only having one constitutes an incomplete collection.

Apparently, just having one shoe works just as well. Last week, in Japan, Ichiro Irie was arrested on charges that he’s been stealing shoes from a nearby hospital — but only the left one.

Why the hospital? It’s common in Japan for people to remove their shoes before entering public buildings. Hence, I will never, ever visit Japan.

Why only the left? Pardon the pun, but perhaps it just felt right.

Any-hoo, Mr. Irie was caught when police baited him with a new pair of ballet slippers. He was trying to decide which shoe was actually the left when they nabbed him.

I made that up, but this part is true: When the fuzz searched Mr. Irie’s house, they found 440 left women’s shoes in a closet — pumps, sandals, high heels, you name it. They’ve been taken into custody and are being held for questioning.

Even celebrities are not immune to shoe fetishes.

NBA rookie Lebron James made his debut as a Cleveland Cavalier this week wearing a brand-new pair of Nikes that he helped design. He gave his pet shoes a name, “Zoom Generation,” and designed them to look like his Hummer SUV — the mark of someone who’s truly obsessed.

Starting Dec. 20, shoe fetishists can buy their very own copy of James’s sneakers for $160 a pair (they’re only half as much in Japan).

Uninterested because a new pair will smell too nice? Take heart! According to the Associated Press, “James said he expects to go through ’40 or 50’ pairs of his new sneakers this season.”

Even though I can’t understand foot fetishists, I’d hate to see all those sweaty, foul-smelling, double-digit-size sneakers go to waste. There are plenty of profoundly insane people out there who could adopt those shoes and give them loving homes.
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