Poor man’s cinnamon rolls

Cinnamon is a weird spice for me. I like it, but only in moderation. It’s a spice that doesn’t know its place, because it shows up in all kinds of things where it doesn’t belong. Applesauce, for one; oh sure, some people like it that way, and that’s fine, but I want my applesauce to taste like apples. Sara Lee puts it in their cheesecake bites, proving their famous slogan entirely wrong; cinnamon distracts from the flavor of the cheesecake. Most coffee cakes are better without it, and when it comes to donuts I’m always incensed that they stick the cinnamon ones in the middle of the variety pack—where the strong flavor contaminates the plain and powdered sugar donuts both!

But I do like cinnamon, when it isn’t being abused.

This is the prelude to a story about my grandmother, and one of the ways I fondly remember her. She was an excellent cook, although I never did go in for rice pudding (her signature dessert) or a lot of the Italian food she often made, because I’ve always been picky. Her chicken cutlets, though, were second to none, and even typing those words my mouth is watering and my stomach is gurgling at the thought of those pan-fried goodies. I haven’t had her chicken cutlets for many years, and yet the memory of their taste is crystal clear. Even when she made boxed macaroni and cheese, it came out tasting a lot better than normal. (My sister thinks maybe it’s because she used powdered milk for everything. Someday I want to try that.)

One of the things I remember best about her was that she was always up early. Incredibly early. But she’d also be up and about a lot of times in the middle of the night. So when my sister and I would stay over, many was the night that we’d wake up and then hang out with her in the kitchen with a bowl of cereal for a little while before going back to bed. (Funny thing about that: It’s how people always used to sleep before the Industrial Revolution, breaking up their night so that there was a quiet hour or two between sleeps. I kinda wish we’d get back to that.)

In the ’80s she got a microwave, and she began experimenting. While the rest of the world had to learn slowly how microwaves can be temperamental, she was a natural. She was the one who taught me to make poor man’s nachos—break up taco shells, cover with cheese, melt, enjoy—which I still do now and then to this day, because it’s tasty and fun and sometimes I can’t be bothered to make anything else. But she also created a simple instant dessert.

What she would do was butter a piece of bread, sprinkle on cinnamon, roll it up and pin it closed with a toothpick, and then microwave it until warm. Of course you had to do this with several pieces of bread, because just one is not enough. And so the poor man’s cinnamon roll was born: soft and hot and comforting. Grandma was a genius with the microwave.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve done this too, but I found out that white bread isn’t the very best vehicle for this sort of thing: leftover dinner rolls are. You know those rolls—the pull-apart ones you don’t have to bake in the oven, that line up like squares in the package. They’re basically white bread too, but in the shape of a dinner roll. They’re cheap, they’re delicious, and they make the very best poor man’s cinnamon rolls.

Usually my wife and I are the ones bringing rolls to holiday dinners, so I like to buy an extra package for home. That way if there are leftovers, the rolls go great with them. And if not, I can use up those rolls for a million things—like breakfast sausage patty sliders, or mini cold cut sandwiches. And for a treat, I’ll split a few of those rolls, slap on a pat of butter, sprinkle on cinnamon sugar (even better than cinnamon alone!), and nuke ’em until they’re warm and the butter has melted completely.

This time of year especially, the poor man’s cinnamon roll is a late-night delight. There’s nothing better for watching a little late TV. And whenever I make them, I think of my grandmother.

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Fast food calories: nobody cares!

A new study has determined that calorie labeling on fast food menus does not impact consumers’ choices in any significant way—which is to say, pretty much at all. What were the odds?

100%. They were always 100%.

Let’s leave aside any possible methodological issues and take this study at face value for a sec. Or even pretend it away entirely, because it ultimately doesn’t matter. The study was done based on Philadelphia already having such labeling laws, but in May all major fast food chains will have to follow suit. Is it even worth it? The study says no, this is yet another bonehead move by the government to combat a problem with a bad solution. Oh sure, it’s better than that stupid rule in NYC that you can’t get more than a 16 oz. soda with your meal, because at least it’s putting information in front of people and letting them make their own choices rather than forcing them to accept whatever arbitrary rules they’re given, but it’s meaningless because this information simply does not matter to most people.

The problem with this approach is blindingly obvious, and yet the irony is lost on those who conducted the study.

To be effective, nutrition labeling must be clearer and larger. It must also reach regular fast-food eaters—people who expressed more concern with cost and convenience than nutrition, [study author Andrew] Breck and his colleagues found.

Say what now? Breck hits the problem right on the head without acknowledging the fundamental reality that it’s intractable, or understanding the folly in thinking otherwise.

People who prioritize cost and convenience over nutrition will never respond to labeling, even if it’s shoved directly in their faces. In fact the more onerous such labeling gets, you might even reasonably expect people to straight-up rebel. After all, nobody likes the Food Nazis but themselves, and even that’s questionable. (I’ve always suspected Food Nazis suffer from the kind of deeply internalized self-loathing that tends to push people to boss others around.)

Everybody, literally everybody knows that a steady diet of fast food is simply not good for you. (Although funnily enough, researchers who’ve tried it while practicing reasonable portion control found they could still lose weight on fast food.) Having a Big Mac or a Whopper for every meal is just plain stupid, which is why almost nobody does that. In fact it’s pretty much always cheaper and healthier to cook at home. But fast food wins when it becomes the most attractive option, and that happens under several circumstances:

  • You crave a particular food item.
  • You’re out of the house and hungry, and quicker is better.
  • You’re home, but nothing you have in the house sounds good.
  • You’re home, but cooking anything will take too long and time is severely limited (by hunger, schedule, or any other reason).

That list is by no means exhaustive. The point is, nutritional labeling will never, ever make a dent in any of those reasons. By the time someone reads the label, they’re already planning to order. If you want to get people to eat less fast food, you have to give them better options to deal with the situations that send them to the drive-thru. The place to redirect towards better eating habits is in the kitchen and around the home. And that is a very, very difficult prospect.

Hence why people run to simple but pointless interventions at the wrong end of the decision chain, because they think doing something, even if it’s useless and stupid and possibly costly, is better than nothing at all. Almost no problems actually work that way. If you’ve ever had the impulse to defend a stupid decision based on the idea that it’s better than nothing, even if there are arguments as to how it can make things worse in some way, give yourself a mighty slap. And if that kind of thinking is ingrained in you, keep slapping until common sense prevails or you bleed out.

Flailing does not solve problems. Limiting what people can buy for themselves is flailing. Forcing restaurant chains to engage in labeling that will have absolutely no effect is flailing. Just because the status quo sucks doesn’t mean you can fix it by throwing darts. Breck correctly identifies why the labeling fails, but has the audacity to suggest that making the labels bigger and more obvious—which addresses none of those reasons—could accomplish anything different. If you want to attack the obesity problem, you have to look at the whys. And that will lead right back to:

  • The food pyramid is a load of steaming garbage.
  • We have an imbalance of omega-6 fats in our diet instead of also getting plenty of omega-3. (Reason: omega-3’s go bad faster; packaged food makers don’t like them.)
  • Family dinners are less common than they used to be.
  • Home cooking is less common than it used to be.

None of those problems have easy answers either. But you won’t fix any of them by flailing.

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Pointless controversy: Thursday night football has to go

Question asked: Should the NFL consider ditching Thursday night football? Yes. Yes, they should.

As an occasional diversion from the regular schedule, Thursday games are fine. They’re a Thanksgiving tradition, and in the late season, sure, why not a Thursday game now and then? But every week?

The short week is brutal to players who are still coming back from the effort of a Sunday game, and they hate it. This alone is a reason not to do Thursday games every week. This is the same reason why moving to an 18-game schedule, proposed a few years ago, was such a bad idea. Football is already rough enough on players’ bodies without making it more difficult.

The way the Thursday night games fly from network to network is just confusing, and unreasonable. There’s no call for it. Pick a network and stick with it.

The “color rush” uniforms for Thursday night games are hideous. Gads that’s so stupid. Whoever had this rotten idea should be taken out behind the shed by Goodell himself and shot. And needless to say if it was Goodell’s idea, he should shoot himself twice. Not fatally, but someone at least deserves a serious limp for it.

As a viewer, I hate the Thursday games. It’s hard to commit to watching something in that time slot on a weeknight. I hate the Monday games and the Sunday night games for the exact same reason (among others). Dudes, of course your ratings are going to be lower for night games. It’s not like the frickin’ Superbowl where people plan their whole year around it, and besides, the Superbowl airs earlier than a typical night game. After 8:00 is too late.

The Thursday night games need to go. Not entirely, but mostly. Have a few now and then as a special thing, and be done with it.

Now about London: Screw it. No more London games. It’s not that I begrudge our friends across the pond a taste of actual real football, but the travel and jet leg are murder on the teams. The time difference means fans on the east coast have to tune in in the morning, and fans on the west coast have to get up even earlier. It’s just not workable! At least these games are uncommon; there’s apparently been some talk about adding teams to the league in the UK, which would magnify this problem a thousand times.

Let’s be done with Monday night football. On ABC it was understandable; on ESPN it’s a joke. I know they’re under the same umbrella, but that umbrella is shoddy and full of holes. ESPN stopped being a decent sports network a couple decades ago, and the network deserves to die in a ditch. I hate watching anything at all on ESPN. The network is too political, commercial to the point of chopping up coverage of everything they show, and not even good at commentary anymore. People are supposed to stay up late for a dose of inferior broadcasting?

Sunday night football needs to go too. NBC is bad with sports, the opening song every week is a cringefest, and after a day of games it doesn’t make a ton of sense to throw in one more. Fatigue sets in. Sunday nights I just want to relax, pointedly not watch crap like 60 Minutes, and dread the coming Monday.

These night games feel like a chore, not a joy. They take the fun out of watching football for me, and Thursdays in particular are hated by the players. Why put them through that? It’s not helping anyone, not even the NFL’s faltering bottom line. Get rid of it already, except for a one-off game here and there and Thanksgiving. And while you’re at it, London, Monday nights, Sunday nights, and the New England Patriots too. That last one is for me—and justice.

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Let’s blog a parade: 2016

All right, here we go. 2016 is most of the way behind us, and that’s something we can all be thankful for. The TV is on now, and I just missed most of a cooking segment at the end of the Today show. I’m not sure I’m awake enough to deal with Billy Fuccillo’s car ads; no offense, Billy. I have a pumpkin muffin standing by, so let’s do this thing. Once again this is a live post, so refresh here and there to keep it going.

Continue reading

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Pointless controversy: Pretzels aren’t salty enough

I have never made Chex mix. I consider this a personal failing on my part, because it’s apparently super easy to do, and homemade Chex mix beats store-bought every time. Plus, you can put in whatever you want. My wife likes those little bagel chips they add, but personally I could do without them. This did get me thinking, however, about mini pretzels.

Is it just me, or did mini pretzels and pretzel sticks, even big pretzel rods, use to be a lot saltier in the ’80s? Because I remember them as a lot more flavorful than anything I’ve managed to find in the last 20 years.

If my memory is not faulty and pretzels have gotten blander, then I know exactly who to blame: Rold frickin’ Gold. Their mini-pretzels became ubiquitous around the late ’80s and early ’90s, but they brought with them a signature awfulness predicated on a lack of seasoning. Their pretzels were incredibly plain, exceptionally “dry” in texture, and criminally under-salted.

But since then, it seems that all other brands have followed suit. I can’t find a pretzel rod these days that’s crusted with salt as in days of yore. Pretzel sticks have more in common now with regular sticks. And mini-pretzels, while typically more flavorful and possessing a better texture than Rold Gold, nevertheless remain under-salted.

In fairness to the brand, though, I suppose I can’t entirely blame them. I also blame the “health” crazes that suggested salt was evil. Bad nutrition advice is always with us, always in new forms, and of course the Food Nazis love to push new bad advice on us all the time. Lately there’s been a tidal wave of opposition to their stupidity, including new research that points out the whole thing about salt vs. blood pressure was largely hooey to begin with. (It turns out table salt isn’t so great for you, but that’s because of the additives—not the iodine, but the anti-caking agents that basically amount to food-grade glass. Kosher and sea salt, on the other hand, are much better.) So while pretzel salt was never evil, I suspect manufacturers were swayed by the buying public who were in turn swayed by a bunch of chattering yakholes, and therefore they reduced the salt content in the pretzels to follow the trend. And to bring it back full circle, I believe—as a suspicion only—that trend was led by you-know-who.

And if I’m right about that, can I really blame manufacturers for merely following a trend?

Yes. Yes, of course I can blame them, and do. It wouldn’t be the first time a bad trend has ruined foods for us. Pork used to be much more flavorful and moist a couple of generations ago, but the whole low-fat bandwagon (again, another case where the nutritionists were way wrong) led pig farmers to breed for leaner meat. Lean pork is an abomination, and when I become a supervillain, we’re gonna fix it. Meanwhile every other grocery aisle is stuffed with foods that are tailored to the low-fat fad, adding sugars to (incompletely) make up for lost flavor, and then we wonder why there’s an obesity epidemic.

Why can’t pretzels be better? I’m certain they used to be. And how am I supposed to include them in homemade Chex mix without deep and abiding shame? I need either a brand that didn’t follow the others into the abyss, or a way to saltify the pretzels before I use them. The former seems hopeless, and is certainly Google-proof. The latter seems like a ridiculous extra step to take, but pride and taste demand it.

Apropos of nothing, I’m adding a reminder here that my annual parade live-blog starts at 9 AM Thanksgiving day. Enjoy the Macy’s parade with pumpkin muffins and a little snark on the side.

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Christmas music inertia, and why it’s wonderful

It’s official: Y94 FM started playing Christmas music yesterday at noon. The preseason is here. And I don’t mind, because in my house growing up the preseason started in September. Christmas was a big deal, a whole season of festivity. I couldn’t pin down exactly when the Christmas decorations went up, but it was usually not that long after Halloween; the music started earlier. December was typically a whirlwind of decorations, frosted cookies, homemade chocolate candies, Christmas movies, big shopping trips with friends (my mom didn’t drive), and of course the music.

Not long ago I read an article that’s a couple of years old, pointing out that Christmas music is stuck in the ’50s. That is, there hasn’t been a lot of real innovation in Christmas music since then, and all our standards still hail from the ’40s through the ’60s with the occasional foray beyond. The article has a suggestion as to why. Short answer: it’s the Baby Boomers’ fault for being so nostalgic. Now I’m happy to blame the Boomers for a lot of things, but here not so much. And that’s a shame, because unlike the article I would actually put this to their credit. In truth nostalgia is only a small piece of it, and the article only scratches the surface of why the classics have endured while so many others failed to catch on.

Of course it doesn’t simply speak of nostalgia for Christmases past. A lot of that had to do with the fact that the American economy was in a uniquely great situation at the time, basically priming it for nostalgia. And there’s truth in that.

What we now think of as the holiday aesthetic isn’t just about a particular time of the year — it’s also very much about a particular time of American history. That golden postwar era casts a long shadow across the decades that have come after. Many contemporary policy discussions — on big topics like inequality and political polarization — are animated by a comparison between that period and the present one.

With respect to the Washington Post and author Christopher Ingraham, while this is insightful I think it somewhat misses the mark. Look at A Christmas Story, one of our most beloved holiday films. That takes place in 1940, when America hadn’t even entered World War II yet and was just recovering from the Depression. So it can’t just be the ’50s or the late ’40s; there’s something indefinable about an old-time Christmas that’s bigger than the postwar boom, bigger than the era of Eisenhower and two cars in every garage.

The real magic in Christmas music isn’t that it takes us back to the ’40s and ’50s, but that it harkens back even further.

Take a listen to the lyrics of Sleigh Ride sometime. They spark up a redolence not of the 20th century but of Americana in its purest form. The songwriter takes us to a little town like so many in this country, still basking in its agrarian heyday, where farmhouses and friends were abundant and the home cooking was second to none. And Christmas for them, too, was as much a way of life as it was in my house as a kid. Heck, technically Sleigh Ride is more of a winter song than a Christmas one, as is true of many Christmas songs, but the point stands all the firmer for that because it captures an entire season of merrymaking and fellowship.

Although it may stand out from other songs in degree, Sleigh Ride is not all that exceptional among the standards when it comes to nostalgia. Listen to any one of the others and you can feel the reach back into those days. And small wonder, because that kind of good old-fashioned American Christmas was still in living memory for many. The songwriters of the day knew that. They tapped into a vein of tradition that stretched far beyond them.

I grew up in the ’80s, and Calvin and Hobbes ran during a period from my pre-adolescence and into my early adulthood. The kind of childhood Calvin had was not dissimilar to my dad’s in many respects, or even to mine, but Millennials will never fully grasp the significance of Calvin’s near-suicidal downhill wagon runs with his tiger friend, or the joy of building snow monsters for hours on end. Bill Watterson was wise to end the strip when he did, even though it dismayed us so, because the sheer imaginative richness of that boy’s life is something the likes of which future generations will not know in the same way. And I fear that in many ways, they’ll never have a good grasp of what came before them, or a real hold on tradition; I hope I’m very wrong about that.

But it goes so far beyond the writing. No discussion of Christmas music, then vs. now, would be complete without bringing up the singers and the orchestra. Bands were in America’s blood then, music in its soul, and so the songs were supported by a full complement of instruments and skilled players. They were sung by people who practiced their craft, who may have had multiple takes in the studio but still had to perform live without the benefit of Auto-Tune. We had crooners like Dean Martin, Perry Como, Mel Tormé, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, and Robert Goulet. Good gads, what wonderful things I could say about Robert Goulet’s Christmas music. And from the women we had Dinah Shore, Julie Andrews, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé put out Christmas music that still kicks the crap out of most stuff that came after, and small wonder because simply as musicians they did the same.

Don’t get me wrong, though; I could rattle off a long list of new Christmas classics that came after the ’60s, although a shocking amount of that list is in the ’80s and very little after that—for reasons that have a lot more to do with the fact that pop music was a lot healthier in the ’80s. That’s a pointless controversy for another day.

And one more thing that bears mentioning: A lot of our early Christmas music started as hymns. Hymns are a special kind of music, because they’re intended for a group sing, and America had a bigger heart for singalongs in those days. Many a Christian laments that modern churches have moved away from the hymnal and toward a “chorus” format, because worship choruses as they’re called are nowhere near as good as the hymns of old. Hymns were written in accessible keys and with easy harmony, to make good singers out of bad and make many voices blend as one. Many of the people who wrote the standards of the ’40s and beyond had experience with this, and their songs likewise are accessible, easy to follow, good for a singalong.

So in the end, nostalgia for the ’50s, well-deserved in many ways, is only the tip of the toboggan hill when it comes to why their Christmas music endures so much better than modern work. Looking at nostalgia alone, you have to go back much further to get the really big picture; that small-town welcome and the drive over the river and through the woods are still etched into the heart of every American patriot. The music itself was better, and the men and women who sang it were better singers too. The classics were written for all of us to sing with them, as the gentle voice of Bing Crosby still reminds us today. And yet we still have room in our hearts for more, if only now and then one will pluck the right strings to make a home there.

For the Millennials, my hope is this: that you and your descendants will see past the veil of artifice that has taken over our lives today, into the heart of what life was like for the generations before you. Embrace them, because despite all the differences between you they would happily embrace you too. Their world was different, some parts for the better and some for the worse, but find the better and see Christmas through their eyes—and if you do, it will never fail to be a part of you again.

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Vote bacon

The election is over. Thank goodness. No, that’s not a commentary on the outcome. America chose either the wrong or the wronger candidate, and like I said before I’m not getting political on this blog. Suffice it to say no one was ever going to be truly happy with the outcome either way, except for the fact that it would be over. And so it is now. Now it’s just a matter of praying for the best.

None of which is to say I didn’t have strong opinions going in. I was tense all day yesterday, some of it from the election and some from a work issue that’s been making me sick. (Supposedly the work issue is solved now. Still monitoring.) But Monday night I realized this whole thing was messing with my stomach, and I needed to take action. It was too late to do anything then, but I had time to hatch a plan for Tuesday: a coping mechanism better than drinking.

The night of the election, I made bacon. And then I made waffles. It didn’t eliminate my anxiety when the time came, but at least by then I had a belly full of bacon and waffles. Therefore in the end, the real winner of the night was me.

And today for lunch, I made waffle tacos. As loyal readers (ha!) may know, I take somewhat facetious credit for the invention of the waffle taco. I came up with the idea before Taco Bell ever brought theirs to market, anyway. It’s easy: just stick a leftover waffle square on a plate, slap on a piece of cheese, and fill it with whatever meat you like. Only today, I decided to scramble an egg first in place of meat, and used it to fill two waffle tacos—each of which also had bacon. I’m doing it again tomorrow for sure. In fact, I’m tempted to do it right now.

Anyway, the moral of the story is: when you’re facing absolute dread, reach for the bacon. Cook up a pound and a half or more of the thick-cut stuff. And then make a whole crapload of waffles. Use the fresh result to face the oncoming storm, and the leftovers to deal with the mess it leaves behind. They’ll make it better.

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