Sunday, October 22, 2017

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

“Bring me some apples and crackerjack,” the young woman bellowed tunelessly, swaying in time to the organist and slopping her beer just a little bit. I’m not judging her for not knowing the lyrics to this standard American anthem, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The funny part was that the words were rolling across the gigantic screen, karaoke style, right in her line of vision. Some simply sing the wrong words with abandon, carefree in their ignorance and unaffected by perfectionists nearby. Good for her.

We were in the bleacher seats, directly behind center field. From here, we could visit several concessions dedicated specifically to sausage sandwiches, hamburgers, fried chicken and of course, the ubiquitous hot dogs and French fries. No salad, tofu or sushi for these fans. Actually, you can probably find these if you really want to. Cracker Jack now comes in bags, making it just too easy to cheat and find the prize before you get to the bottom. Prizes have also experienced an economic hit as paper jokes and games replace earlier baseball cards, plastic rings and temporary tattoos. I never did like Cracker Jack, but the prize inside drove me crazy, as did cereal boxes, in my youth.

The only time I enjoy drinking a beer is at baseball games and heat-of-the-day summer barbecues. So, despite the very chilly temperatures of this particular game day, I enjoyed a cold one. For the price of this lovely, plastic cup of nostalgia, I could have bought a case of high-end brand bottles. Ah, no matter. This is a rare event.

Usually, I bypass the ever-popular ball park hot dog, steaming and rubbery in its slightly stale bun, for a hockey puck hamburger. I was surprised and delighted to find that the burger was very nicely cooked on a fresh roll with lettuce, tomato and onion. The price of a single burger is $9 but that is not the most painful part of the story. The shocking addition to the menu posted on the wall overhead is the calorie count for these comestibles. Argh! Who needs to know that a single rocket burger has 710 calories? A double comes in at a whopping 1020 calories – more than half what I should consume in a day. Sigh. Add that to the beer and glorious garlic fries we enjoyed as an appetizer and technically I should not eat again until sometime next June. Do we really need to know this? No. A baseball game is not the time or place to worry about healthy food. I imagine there is not one redeeming ingredient in the Cracker Jack, ice cream or cheeseburger spring rolls either.

The bleacher seats are special in that they are populated mostly by folks who have purchased some kind of season ticket. This way, you end up sitting with the same people throughout the season and a familial camaraderie develops. As we shivered together, sitting on metal planks, the group around us shared stories, snarky observations about the Red Sox and leaped to their feet in outraged unison when a ball over the left field wall only yielded a double.

While I really love going to a baseball game, I am not a purist and was not above retreating to the warm, enclosed Mohegan Sun sports bar during the 7th inning stretch. It was not so bad to watch the Yanks close out their winning game with a hot coffee in my hands and my toes thawing in my shoes. The bar has big screens covering all of the walls so you don’t miss a moment of action. What you might miss, however, is catching that long-shot hit to center field or having a little beer slopped on your jacket by an exuberant neighbor in the stands.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Cafe Gourmand

It seems that I am a little late to the table regarding my newest French food obsession: café gourmand. When I first noticed it offered on menus in France, I thought it was the Gallic take on fancy coffees like Irish coffee with Baileys or something highly sweet or flavored. I was not interested in such a thing, so ignored café gourmand. Quel dommage!

When dining with French friends last spring, they encouraged me to try a café gourmand. When they described it to me, I wanted to smack my forehead in regret. Quite simply, café gourmand is an after dinner coffee, accompanied by a few mini desserts. This was just too good to be true. Indeed, my tiny coffee cup was surrounded by five tiny pastries, each one a delightful bite. It was heavenly and satisfied my permanent sweet tooth without the commitment of an entire mousse au chocolat, which I could have happily devoured and regretted later.

Our family lived outside of Paris for three years at the turn of the last century. It was 1998 to 2001 but sounds so much more dramatic this way, n’est pas? Among the many, many cultural things we learned as Americans in a foreign country for the first time is that unlike home, the after-meal coffee could never, never accompany dessert. We received such looks of horror, disbelief, and disgust when we tried to order the two at once, that we got the message pretty quickly.

In the ensuing years, we return to France frequently and are comforted by the things that endear us to this beautiful country including, random railroad strikes, a mystifying inability to understand our accented attempt at their language, the perfect bread that exists only here, excellent wines that are affordable, and the most sublime roasted chicken on the planet. I have noticed recently, that portion sizes at restaurants have grown, though no one can really tell me why. This is not a good thing as before, we could enjoy a four course meal without groaning in regret. In the early days of our Francophile training, the starter might be one small piece of pate seated on a tiny bed of greens, followed by a few slices of perfectly cooked duck breast next to a bouquet of 10 green beans tied with a cord of celery and a golf ball of creamy potatoes. After that came the seemingly unnecessary, but highly anticipated plate of cheese, usually three small slices of whatever looked good to the chef at the market that day. All of this would be followed by a larger crème brulee (after all, what is really the best part of the day?) then a small coffee of several sips. We would enjoy a glass of wine or two with this meal and left the restaurant feeling satisfied but not overburdened.

Today, as the portions have become much more generous, I often skip the starter and dessert, or simply take a starter and salad or cheese. Dessert is rarely something I order as I simply cannot enjoy it after so much wonderful food. The glorious answer to the gaping lack in my restaurant experiences these days is the café gourmand. As the Spanish have their tapas, perhaps the French might consider a wine gourmand offering? It could feature a generous glass of wine along with some cheese and mini-meal elements, much like we have in the states when we say “heavy hors d’oeurves.” This would be followed by its sweet cousin, café gourmand and we would end up with an extremely abbreviated version of where I started almost 20 years ago. I must admit that I prefer the classic meal formula. It forces one to relax a bit and savor the food. Unfortunately, the French are increasingly becoming American as they alter their eating habits to keep up with family and work commitments. Quel dommage, indeed.


Monday, July 17, 2017

Did you stay in the car at the drive-in movies?

My brother was just a baby at the time and we were set up in the back seat of the family station wagon. There were pillows, blankets and stuffed animals all around us. We had on sweatshirts over our pajamas. It was thrilling to be outside in our pjs at night. This was a special occasion for us: we were at the drive-in.
            I can remember so clearly, the smell of the Jiffy Pop that my mom made for us. In the days before microwaves, this was a real treat and enjoyed only occasionally. The unpopped kernels came packaged in a covered aluminum pie tin contraption, with a handle. You slid and shook this thing across the heat of your stove and in a few minutes, the top had puffed out and the wonderful, hot popped corn was inside.
            When we were kids, there were always two movies at the drive-in. The first was usually a kid-friendly cartoon, the second a first-run adult movie. The idea was for us to nod off after ours, so the adults could enjoy theirs. Of course we couldn’t resist fiddling with the heavy, metal boxes that hung precariously from the slightly lowered glass of the car windows. This was the speaker through which distant and crackly voices emerged. The speaker was attached to a pole by a thick wire and we were admonished time and again not to pull on it. Yeah, sure.
            At the front of the parking field, just before the huge screen, there was a playground with swings and a rickety slide. We wanted desperately to play on those things while we waited for it to get dark enough for the show to begin. Nothing doing, said our parents, we were encamped and no one was going to miss a moment of the movie. From the concession ads to the final check that the speakers weren’t still attached to the car, a trip to the drive-in was an adventure indeed.
            When we hit our teen years, we considered the admission price to be a group fee. Two would sit in the front of the car and pass by the small booth, handing over the pooled resources of the group sneaking through the adjacent corn field at the same moment. We thought we were getting away with something. Who wanted to pay for a ticket when you could put that money to good use at the concession stand?
            It all began in 1933 when Richard Hollingshead rigged up the first drive-in movie in his backyard in Camden, New Jersey. As he tweaked his big idea, looked for an improvement on his little radio hidden behind the screen that had been nailed to a few trees. He contacted RCA Co. which devised a directional sound system and the drive-in movie on a large scale became a possibility. The idea grew in popularity through the 1950s, taking a brief hiatus during the mid-40s when the US was focused on the war effort. Construction of these outdoor theatres flattened out in the 1970s and by the end of the 80s, they began to close. Cable TV and VCRs were taking over as new forms of family entertainment.
            Recently, drive-in movies are enjoying a resurgence world-wide with theatres being restored and new construction taking place in the mid-West in particular. Nostalgia seems to be the driving factor. Lord knows we all have plenty of electronic gadgets in our homes to keep us occupied. Now, we look to the great outdoors for family-friendly entertainment.


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