Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy says that humor is all around us--we just have to look for it. So with this truism in mind, I headed to the grocery store to find amusing food.

First stop was the dairy case, where one sign jumped out at me: LOL Butter for $1.99. We're a Fleischmann's family, so I was understandably unfamiliar with Laugh-Out-Loud Butter. A dairy clerk sensed my bewilderment and offered assistance.

"Nu, so tell me about this Laugh-Out-Loud Butter. Is it tasty?"

"What brand?" he stammered.

"LOL Butter--just like the sign says."

"The 'LOL' stands for 'Land O' Lakes,' Fresser. You've been spending too much time in chat rooms."

Undeterred, I ambled to the condiments & spices aisle--there must be something chuckleworthy there. I was not disappointed.There on the shelf sat ROFL'S Spicy Mustard. Now, I find mustard seed and turmeric as amusing as the next gourmand, but this condiment just didn't make me laugh. So I availed myself again of the intrepid grocery clerk.

"Please tell me, kind Sir--just what IS so funny about this Roll-on-Floor-Laughing Mustard? You know--the one with ROFL in the name."

"Fresser!" the clerk wailed. "The label says, "Rolf," not "Rofl" for heavens sake! Go clean those Coke-bottle glasses of yours. And cut down on the web-surfing. You really should get out more."

So, to paraphrase the song, I'm still looking for laughs in all the wrong places. Maybe I'll bring Foxworthy along next time...


Friday, October 26, 2007

Mama Fresser and I really should start eating in better restaurants. Or at least ones that can punctuate.

We were sitting there, enjoying a breakfast nosh when the insidious advertisement caught my attention. At the tray liner bottom it read verbatim:

new Arch Card ™
load it. gift it. love it.

First of all, "gift" is NOT a verb. angry.gif Grant it. Present it. Bestow it, if you want. But I'm sorry, pop-culture grammarians: "gift" is still a noun. So if McDonald's advertising wizards want to create a three-sentence parallel as a tagline, they should learn the parts of speech first.

But the atrocities continued. At the top of the liner, the ad copy read:

so, what is Arch Card ™?

Arch Card ™ is:

happy holidays
thank you for baby-sitting my kids...
i love you as a friend
grandpa's morning coffee

Notice that their copywriters NEVER capitalize the first word of a sentence. Hello--this is your fourth-grade English teacher calling! Nor do they capitalize the proper noun "Grandpa" in "grandpa's morning coffee" or the pronount "I" in "i love you as a friend." But they ALWAYS capitalize their trademarks, such as Arch Card ™ and of course their company name. Such sticklers they are.

What are they telling us? That THEIR trademarks are more important than grandparents and individuals?

Oooh...I was so steamed I could barely enjoy my hotcakes and Diet Coke ®.


Memories waft out of the squat, narrow building and 53rd & Kenwood, teasing the senses of those who used to eat in the lobby here. Or at least buy their food and run. For here, on the site of what is now a dry cleaners, there once stood Harold's Chicken Shack.

Harold's was a take-out joint, open as late as 2 A.M. to sate those with alcohol-fueled munchies or provide a nocturnal cholesterol fix. Though my own jaunts to Harold's tended to occur long before the midnight hour, the scene there was always the same: steamed-up windows, hungry customers crowding a tunnel-shaped waiting area, a weatherbeaten wooden price list perched below a security camera. And at the end of this gauntlet sat the bulletproof glass partition with a bank teller's slot and a carousel through which customers would pay for and retrieve their grease-soaked feast.

At Harold's, the food was cheap, but the atmosphere was priceless.

There's a Harold's Chicken Shack in every Chicago neighborhood--provided you live on the South Side. Somehow Harold's urban ambience never traveled to the North Side. Maybe the neon signage that featured an axe-wielding chef chasing a chicken never caught on north of Madison Street, the city's north-south dividing line. Sure, we'ere the Hog Butchers to the World, but the hog-butchers and the meat-eaters don't always share the same neighborhood. But hungry college students go where their wallets lead them.

Queueing up for 'cue

First stop on the Harold's experience is the teller window, where you bark your order through the money slot at the cashier sitting an inch-thick sheet of plexiglass away. Then you slide your cash through the convex slot, retrieve your number, and wait for your number to be bellowed through the crowd.

When your lucky numer was up, you ambled up to the carousel to see your steaming hot chicken perched atop french fries and awaiting its ritual drenching in sauce. "What's on your regular half?" the lady behind the glass would blurt out, and you would request salt, pepper, barbecue sauce and hot sauce, or some permutation of the above. Some of the old-timers asked for ketchup.

When your order was ready, the staff wrapped it in Harold's distinctive green-and-white bags which, conveniently, listed the locations of their other 40-odd stores across Chicago. One loyal customer and dorm-rat vowed to visit each one of the stores and proudly post the store's bag on his dormitory wall.

Most of the dorms were four or five blocks away from Harold's, but some mix of thermodynamics and hungry anticipation kept the tasty bird hot even during wintertime jaunts back to the dorms. Even if you didn't eat Harold's that night, you could tell if someone else on your floor had, as the smoky scent of Harold's sauce drifted through the halls.

Oh, and the feast itself: a fried half-chicken sat atop greasy french fries, liberally doused with sauce and then topped with Wonder Bread cost all of five bucks. White meat aficionados ordered either a white half (four pieces of white meat) or a white sandwich with a breast and wing. Sometimes I even ordered livers.

Since those halcyon days, Harold's has moved down 53rd Street to a larger location that actually offers seating, but the bulletproof glass remains. I've eaten at the new store a few times, but still I wander by the old site on Kenwood and peer through the window. Hangers and a pants-presser have replaced the deep-frying vats and plexiglass, but if you listen closely, you can still hear the echoes of "What's on your white half?" bounding about the narrow space.

If only those grease-stained walls could talk...


After the Hee Haw Truck Stop Recipes, grits surely represent the South's finest contribution to American cuisine. Shockingly, however, some Northern folk would wrestle an alligator than try a bowl of grits or another Southern dish.

Once I worked up the nerve to offer my sister a bowl of my famous (around here, anyway) cheddar cheese grits. "Grits?" she scowled. "I'm not from the South!" was her indignant reply. You would have thought I was trying to poison her or something. Sure, I could have argued that grits are actually made from corn, a grain that typically is grown NORTH of the Mason-Dixon Line, but I didn't bother.

Another time, some college friends told of their drive back to Chicago from their spring break road-trip to Florida. Weary from driving and in need of repast, this group of intrepid noshers stopped at a Georgia diner to order eggs for breakfast. Their waitress cheerily chirped, "Would y'all like some grits with that?" To which an ordinarily polite New Yorker smirked, "Grits??? Do you have any POTATOES?"
I don't think the waitress conked him on the side of his head with a cast-iron skillet, but she surely should have. Teach that damn Yankee some manners, I say.

So how did I, a hardly well-traveled Fresser, acquire my taste for grits? My chum Puddin' Buns always drilled into me that when you travel to another part of the country or world, you eat what the residents eat. Try it--maybe you'll find something new. So when we visited his cousin at Washington University in St. Louis, we dropped in at a Waffle House and decided to try some grits with our eggs.

Instantly we were smitten. Here was an alternative to the hash brown hegemony so common in Yankee slop-houses, and really: shouldn't we just save the potatoes for dinner? Given that we were new to Southern cooking, Puddin' Buns and I topped our grits with (shudder) maple syrup--a capital offense in Mississippi, I later learned--but I have since mended my ways and stick to sharp cheddar and a splash of cayenne pepper sauce atop my bowl o' Southern heaven.

I can just imagine the reactions some of y'all have endured when trying to introduce the novitiate to the glory that is Southern cooking. So sit down with some cornbread and tell us your stories.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Schmaltz Monger signs in with today's installment

Slinging Hash in the Borscht Belt

All the other college kids had fancy-schmancy jobs working on Wall Street or at Uncle Mordechai's furrier. Me, I waited tables in the Borscht Belt.

Waiters would crowd into the "bimmy" quarters--rooms that the hotels set aside for summer waitstaff and were only marginally nicer than a cinderblock dorm room. But hey--bimmy rooms were free, leaving us to save our wages on more prudent purchases such as school tuition, drunken nightclub excursions and Sunday night pizza at Crossroads. When I had a good station, I could rake in $350 to $500 a week in cash tips. Mind you, this was thirty years ago, so those were some pretty serious shekels.

Catskills Characters

We had our share of charactes in every station: kvetchy diners, alter-kockers who had downed too much schnapps, comedians. One I'll never forget was Death Grip Granny. Kind old Granny bemoaned her arthritis and her lack of strength, but G-d help the waiter who tried to clear Granny's plate before she was finished. Granny would grab your forearm with a grip that could crush a coconut and smile, "I'm not done with that yet, Sweetie!" Once you dropped her plate, she released her grip and you would scamper away with an arm that looked like it had a run-in with a meat tenderizer.

Comedians such as Henny Youngman and Buddy Hackett were headliners in the hotels, but some of the wildest entertainment came from the waiters themselves. One "bimmy" would retire to his room to enjoy a baked potato with butter. But he didn't actually eat them together. He would take a bite of the potato in one hand and then take a bite of a stick of butter he wielded in his other hand. Potato bite, butter bite. Potato bite, butter bite. It was like watching the cast of "Young Frankenstein" break for lunch.

After a couple months of this, all the bimmies would hanker for Labor Day Weekend, when the resort season was almost over and the blood-curdling cries of, "Where's my kreplach??" would soon cease. Of course, we came back during the High Holidays and school breaks to earn money and nosh on chopped liver in the hotel kitchens.

So maybe it wasn't Wall Street. But it was a blast. High finance? Gimme high cholesterol anytime.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Can I hold up my pants with a Borscht Belt?

Maybe, if you top it with some sour cream.

O.K., wisenheimers, it's time for an explanation. The Borscht Belt is not what you wear when you can't find your Borscht Suspenders. Nestled in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, the Borscht Belt is a resort town where Jews from the 1940's forward schlepped to escape sweltering summer heat and enjoy comedy schtick, camaraderie, and yes, the Russian soup known as "borscht." Hence the name.

Borscht is a soup made from beets and spices, often served cold and topped with a dollop of sour cream. In fact, the only thing better than a bowl of borscht is the herring that's served alongside it. Fish and dairy meals were popular mealtime fare in the Borscht Belt, where comedians such as Henny Youngman, Jack Benny, Milton Berle and others plied their schtick.

A thousand miles from Iowa

Here in the Borscht Belt, you'll find more corn than in the Midwestern grain fields. This corn grows onstage in the form of corny jokes. "Take my wife. Please!" was the famous refrain of Borscht Belt regular Henny Youngman. Or this gem, "Honey, this food is fit for a king. Here, King! Here, King!" Typically, the jokes centered on the wife's (or the mother's) cooking, which, if not for a plate of schmaltz Herring served up at Grossinger's, the patrons would be probably kvetching over instead.

Like the stench from leftover fish, Borscht Belt comedy stays with us today. For proof of this, look no further than the TV show "Seinfeld and the quartet of characters who, while individually annoying, throw up some serious schtick--more often than not, when congregated over food.

Skinny-as-a-bird Jerry stocks his shelves with myriad cereal boxes to sate Kramer, who barges in to schnorr a snack whenever the mood strikes. "Just make yourself at home, Kramer!" Jerry sneers at Kramer, who needs no invitation. And then there's the prototypical nebbish George Costanza, who craves food so much that he gets the mid-coitus munchies and reaches for a pastrami sandwich while shtupping his girlfriend. "Oh, George! Oh, George!" his girlfriend wails while Georgie Boy peers out from the sheets in search of his rye bread fix.

I'm sure the Borscht Belt comedy was just as ribald, if not more so--Schmaltz Monger will have to chime in on this subject, as he used to wait tables in the Borscht Belt's heyday. He's got some real megillahs to tell us.

This Soup Isn't Funny

Nu, so you want a taste now? O.K., here we go...

Mr. Finkelman goes into his favorite Lower East Side restaurant and sits down at the counter. A waiter comes over and sets down a bowl of soup in front of Finkelman.

Finkelman peers disapprovingly at the soup and beckons to the waiter. "Waiter! Taste this soup."

"Sir, is there a problem?" the waiter asks.

"Taste the soup." Finkelman insists.

"But what's the problem?"

"Taste the soup!!" Finkelman repeats.

"But Mr. Finkelman, " the waiter wails. "You've been eating here for thirty years! Has there ever been a problem with the soup?"

"TASTE THE SOUP!!!" Finkelman blurts.

"O.K., all right already," the waiter says. "Where's the spoon?"

Finkelman shoults triumphantly "Ah-ha!!!"

Oh, I forgot to tell you--they served a lot of schmaltz there too.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

We combine a love of food with a keen sense of the absurd. Stay tuned...