Monday, August 20, 2012

When Victory Tastes Like Wendy’s

Although humans have boasted about their ability to cook since man first learned to barbeque a brontosaurus, the “foodie” phenomenon that has erupted in the last few years has taken culinary narcissism to a completely new and annoying level. Few things make a meal worse than getting full on the food of a foodie as they meticulously fill you in with the details of their newest delectable delight.

On the other hand, nothing is better than beating the foodies at their own game. Especially with food their pretentious palates would never consider acceptable.

For several years, I worked with a group who took great pride in their culinary abilities. They brought in desserts, breakfasts, and even the occasional stew. They put a lot of time and effort into their food and everyone knew it. While it wasn't a competition, they had an amicable admiration of talent and tried to top each other with every creation.

On the first Friday of every May, these foodie friendships were put to the side for my company’s annual Cinco de Mayo Chili Cook-Off. With a small but significant prize and year-long bragging rights on the line, it was showtime for those who thought they could command a kitchen.

In my third year in the workplace, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and enter the chili cook-off. I wasn't much of a cook, but I had recently purchased a crockpot and was excited to try my hand at my first chili.

In mid-April, the announcement went out for chili cook-off contestants. Besides all the usual suspects, the cook-off also brought out several people who, like the culinary version of Christmas Catholics, only got involved for the big annual event. And then there was me.

Throughout the next few weeks, the upcoming cook-off was the talk of the office. Many of the prospective participants discussed strategies, ingredients, and how they thought they were going to do. Since my name was new to the list, a few even asked me what how my preparations were going. As their enthusiasm grew however, mine waned. Their increasing chatter made me dread the contest. It was all they talked about. I quickly regretted entering the contest. I wasn’t a cook, and if it meant being like them, I didn’t want to be. Despite my negativity, however, I still needed to submit an entry or face horrible workplace embarrassment.

At 10 pm the night before the chili cook-off, while all the other chilis in all the other kitchens of all the other workers were probably simmering in anticipation of the big day, I did what any enterprising person who had lost interest in a chili cook-off would do: I visited my local Wendy's and bought eight 99-cent chilis.

To my surprise, my order took only a few minutes. I wondered how long the chili I purchased had been simmering in the restaurant. Was it there since dinner or did they make a new pot for the late-night crowd?

Regardless, I had my chili. There was no rule that says I had to eat my own submission.

I drove back to my apartment and immediately poured each container of chili into my crock pot, added an unhealthy serving of hot sauce, and set the crock pot on “simmer”.

The next morning, I unplugged my submission, taped the lid to the crock pot, and drove to work. Seeing me with my concoction, several curious co-workers asked the ingredients.

“Something I threw together,” I replied.

That answer thankfully garnered a few laughs, in part I believe because of my rookie naivety. They didn’t consider me a threat, and I didn’t care. To be honest, besides the hot sauce, I really had no idea what was in Wendy’s chili.

Hours before the cook-off, I gave my creation a creative moniker that could tease but still hide its origin: “South of the Border Meets D.T.’s Daughter”. The name openly advertised the hot sauce I used (“S.O.B.: Sauces of the Border”) while slyly hinting the Wendy’s connection (“Dave Thomas = D.T.”). As lunch time approached, I wondered if the name was too revealing.

Ten minutes before noon, the chefs were told to bring their chilis to the outside picnic area. Carefully I carried my creation to the tables, placed the pot next to the other submissions, and taped on the name placard.

At noon, my co-workers poured out of the building, eager to taste the wide array of chilis. Before they could dig in however, a group of judges, including the head of my department, made themselves small bowls of each submission. Once the judges had their samples, the rush was on.

I personally sampled a few of my competitors’ chilis. They were quite good. With each spoonful, I could taste the care and quality of their work. Some chilis were full of flavor, others heavy on heat.

As the majority finished their lunch, the department head stood before the crowd.

“We would like to announce the winners of this year’s contest,” he exclaimed.

He then announced the third place runner-up, a newcomer. Everyone cheered, as someone had broken in the elite circle of chefs. Second place went the regular who had won the year before. Good for them, I thought as I kept eating.

“And the winner of the Chili Cook-Off is ‘South of the Border Meets D.T.’s Daughter’.”

I nearly spit out my mouthful of chili.

While my co-workers clapped, I got out of my seat and accepted my prize – a year membership to the local Costco. As I walked to the front, I was sure someone was going to out me, call me a fraud, and make me give up the gig. I half-contemplated outing myself, admitting my ruse, and handing the prize to the runner-up. That would have be the moral thing to do. But there was no rule against commercial entries and I submitted a pot of chili same as the next guy, even if I didn’t slave over a hot stove to create it.

After the contest, I returned to my office, carrying a nearly empty crock pot, and growing increasingly smug with victory.

I thought about giving the Costco membership to the local Wendy’s, as they played as big a part in my upset as I did. But I didn’t.

Like victory over the annoying foodies, it was mine. All mine.

(Picture from World's Recipe List)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Perfect Wedding

(This was originally published in the FSView and Florida Flambeau in 2002, but since they don't have my old articles online at all, I decided to post it here.)

According to the unwritten rules of society, marriage is an expected step for most people in their 20s. Following tradition, people should be on the lookout for that lifelong soulmate after their college graduation. Once this mutual discovery of partners is complete and two people decide they want to spend the rest of their lives together, marriage planning becomes horribly one-sided.

For example, every trip to the local magazine rack presents women with plenty of advice on the perfect wedding. These publications give tips such as what to wear, and most importantly, what the groom-to-be should be doing. Apparently, guys have no say in what should be one of the biggest days of their lives. This lack of input may either be the cause or the effect of a predominant male indifference towards the matrimony ceremony.

However, like the minute percentage of women who don't consider their wedding an event of epic proportion, there are some guys who have ideas on what they want to happen on their big day. I am of this small minority. Mine are trivial considerations and in no way alter the grand expectations of my bride-to-be.

My first request is during the planning stages of the wedding. Being somewhat unknowledgeable to the wedding gift procedure, I was recently introduced to gift registration. This is a fairly resourceful idea in which well-wishers buy specific gifts from specific stores. It makes the process very neat and orderly. I have noticed, however, that the usual suggested stores are entirely off-track. Most people want their gifts from Tiffany's, Dillard's, JCPenny's, or even Home Depot for those practical minded folks. Not me. I want my gift-bearers to shop at the Dollar Store. Why ask for one cup for 35 dollars when you can get 35 cups for one dollar? Imagine how many more gifts can be expected. As an added bonus, even the poorest relatives will feel like an integral part of the wedding present parade.

Request number two is slightly more involved. I want a midget, a clown, and an Elvis impersonator to not only be present at the ceremony, but also at the reception. (They must be three different people. I will not accept a midget with clown makeup and sideburns.) Their main purpose is to be in all official wedding photos. Attendees can be photographed with all, two, or only one of these esteemed guests. Who wouldn't smile for the camera knowing they are in the presence of comic and rock'n'roll greatness? I can only imagine how perfect a picture of Elvis, a midget, a clown, and my bride and I will look hanging on the wall of my future home.

My third and final request is that no eating utensils be used or supplied during the reception dinner. I have always been a big fan of the barbaric style of eating featured at Medieval Times and I want my friends and family to share in the joys of finger food. Although peas and spaghetti would be eliminated, entrees such as chicken wings, french fries, or even asparagus are still options. Plenty of napkins are a must of course, as it would appear uncultured if I wiped the barbeque sauce from a plate of ribs on my rented sky-blue polyester tux.

I know the hardest part of achieving these aspirations will be finding someone willing to accept my ideas. I would hate to invest months or years into a relationship only to see the girl of my dreams walk out when she fails to compromise on our wedding plans.

I am flexible, however. Skipping the ceremony, traveling to Vegas, and having a drive-thru wedding is okay as well.

As long as Elvis is there.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Legend of Uncle Kev

(After posting this, I searched online for Kevin Harbst a.k.a. "Uncle Kev". I eventually found and contacted his stepson on Facebook who replied and informed me that Kevin Harbst died of a heart attack in 2007. He was 44. According to his stepson, I "captured the essence of the man and his life damn near perfectly".)

Here is another one from the binders from an Article and Essay class I took in Spring of 2002. Interesting to read where my mind was at when I was 24. (Note: Some slight grammatical edits made based on the professor's comments.)

I’ve never had many long-term friends.  Most of my good friends last about three years before we go our separate ways.  That was the case while I was in the military, and it will soon be the case again next year when I graduate college.  All I am usually left with is many home addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, and hopes of hanging out with my friends again one day.

These hopes have become reality on several occasions.  I have traveled long hours to visit friends in Savannah, Miami, and even Chicago.  Many of my friends will also tell me when they are in the Tallahassee area, as several did during this year’s spring break.  One of the more interesting trips I have taken was to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to visit an old army sergeant I call “Uncle Kev.”

The trip to Hattiesburg was not exactly easy.  My truck began to overheat and I had to stop in a small Alabama town to let it cool.  I also got lost trying to find Highway 98 in Mississippi.  These problems added about an hour and a half to my expected four-hour drive.

“Hey Mike I didn’t think you were going to show,” Uncle Kev says as I exit the truck.  It seems weird having him call me “Mike,” in the Army I was only known by my last name.

“Sorry I’m late.  I had car trouble,” I reply.  Uncle Kev’s place is a shabby little trailer on a Hattiesburg side road about five miles from Camp Shelby, where he is stationed now.  If any more than one person lived in the trailer, it would be too small.

This was the first time I was able to hang out with Uncle Kev.  Army fraternization rules stated sergeants and lower enlisted soldiers weren’t able to get together off duty.  We always joked around while on duty, however.  I knew finding him was a must when I was discharged.

“So Uncle Kev, how’s the hoggin’ here?” I ask as I entered the trailer.

“Hoggin’,” or picking up extraordinarily large women (450 lbs or larger) with the intent for sexual pleasure, was a favorite subject of Uncle Kev’s.  He had supposedly written books on the subject.

“It’s not bad.  These southern boys know how to feed their women.  But I am having a problem getting them though that tiny doorway,” he replied.

Looking around, I could tell Uncle Kev was hurting financially.  He slept on a mattress in the left corner of the trailer.  Most of his possessions were in boxes filling up the entire right side of the residence.

For the rest of the night, as we caught up on lost time, Uncle Kev told me how he had gotten the shaft from his ex-wife in his recent divorce.  She received their two kids and two of their three cars.  He was left one car and a debt of over 40,000 dollars with no way to pay it off (nearly half of his army salary went to child support).

Uncle Kev also told me I was only the second person to visit him.  His son had spent a weekend with him a year earlier.  As the night continued, we drank some really cheap beer and listened to some songs from his extensive music collection (he had drawers full of tapes and boxes of records and CDs).  “We better get some sleep, tomorrow we are going to the casino,” Uncle Kev warned me.

The next morning at 8:30 am, after Uncle Kev returned from his mandatory hour of physical training, we got ready and drove to Biloxi, about an hour from Hattiesburg.  “I’m a regular there,” Uncle Kev told me, “we can eat and drink for free.”  I wondered why someone so far in debt would frequent a casino.

We arrived at the Biloxi casino by 10:30.  The situation was eerily Rain Man-esque, but unfortunately for Uncle Kev, I had no Dustin Hoffman-like abilities.  He gave me half of his spending money, 150 dollars, to play the slot machines.  I lost it all.  He didn’t do much better.  We totaled 300 dollars for six Heinekens and two lunches.

By about 3:00 we were on our way back to Hattiesburg.  I fell asleep for most the trip.  When I awoke, I asked Uncle Kev how long I had been out.  “I don’t know, I was asleep too,” he joked.  It may have not been a joke.

After shooting the breeze, listening to music, and drinking more cheap beer for yet another night, we went to sleep.  The next morning, I packed my things and prepared for my drive home.  Uncle Kev thanked me for visiting and wished me luck finding some good hogs in Tallahassee.

On my drive back I thought about Uncle Kev, feeling bad for him because of his financial situation and feeling even worse because he had very few people in his life.  At the same time I was glad I was included in his small circle of friends.  I only wish I could have helped.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Return of the Decigram and Decagram

In 4th grade, my teacher, Mr. Tomani, told my class story to help us remember our metric system. In the final line of the tale, a woman named "Milli Kilo" sent a deck of graham crackers to a gentleman named "Hector". When said by the Italian character in the story, the line "Milli Kilo centa Hecta deci deca gram crackers." listed the measures of the metric system. I don't know if Mr. Tomani invented it, or if the mnemonic device was passed down for generations before reaching me, but it worked: this simple way of remembering the metric system is still ingrained in my head.

Milli Kilo and Hector recently came to mind when I read a box of prescription medicine. Whatever happened to hecta (100x), deca (10x), deci (.1 x), and centa (.01 x)? I've never used them in my life. I've never even heard them used outside of the classroom. All I've heard is milli or kilo. My prescription, for example, was 500 mg. Shouldn't that be 5 decigrams? Why not drop the zeroes and use the measurements we all learn?

What would happen if society started using the lesser know measurements again? What if my prescription wasn't working as well as I though it should and I asked to be bumped to a 6 decigram refill or something even stronger? Would my doctor understand my request?

I bet the cost of his eight years of medical school he wouldn't understand something I learned in 4th grade.

Imagine if food labels advertised in more obscure measurements. Suddenly that Big Mac with its 62 grams of fat only has 6.2 decagrams. Sounds healthier, doesn't it? 6.2 is a lot less than 62.

If I ran a restaurant my nutritional chart would purposefully use deca and hecta. I'm sure I could pull the wool over the eyes of quite a few customers. I'd sell a four patty, triple cheese, double bacon burger and advertise only 11 decagrams of fat. I'd call it "The Double Deca".

Of course, the riches and the customers would come to a halt when Mr. Tomani walks in.

Milli Kilo and Hecta would not be happy.