Friday, February 25, 2011

Steel Cut Oatmeal... All Night Long...

Now that's what I call a Power Breakfast!

Don't Argue With Mother...

     “Are you there?   Hello!  ...  Hello?  ...  Are you there?”

The voice of my co-worker Gretchen wandered up and over the divider between our cubicles.

     “Hello?  Are you there?”

     Hmmm...  Who's she talking to?  I took a sip from my coffee mug and continued writing an email to one of our customers.

     “Hello...  Hello...  Hello?”  Her voice came again, interrupting my thoughts for a second time.  “Hello?   Dave?   Hello!?”

     “Gretchen, I’m right here.”

She was just sitting five feet away from me on the other side of the divider.  I wondered why she didn't just stand up to get my attention.

     “Oh, you are there.  I figured you’d be there now, but I just thought I would check.”

     “Gretchen, I've been here since we opened.”  She didn't respond.  I finished proofreading the email and clicked 'Send'.

     “Oh...  I just didn’t want to interrupt you if you were busy with work.”

     “Did you need something, Gretchen?”

     “Are you okay?  You sound different."

     "Yeah, I feel fine."

     "Are you sure about that?  Your voice sounds lower.”


I took another drink and cleared my throat.

     "A-hem.  Mmmmpf.  Eh-rrggggg.  Grumph!!!  Uhh-ckACK!!!"

I muttered a few words under my breath, just to see if my voice was different.  But everything felt and sounded fine.

     “No, something’s wrong with your voice.  You sound absolutely terrible.  Are you getting a cold?”

     “Um... nope.  Not that I know of."

     “What did you have to eat this morning?


     "You heard me.  What did you have for breakfast?

     “Steel-cut oatmeal...  with raspberries, walnuts, and maple syrup.”

     “What else did you have?”

     “Coffee.  I’m just finishing my second cup now.”

     “Dave, you’re not supposed to have sweets on weekday mornings.”

     “Gretchen, I only put three teaspoons of sugar in my coffee.”

     “Dave, you know that too much sugar isn't good for you.  I've told you that before."

     “Gretchen, what on earth are you talking abo--.”

My voice trailed off, as I stood up and peered over the divider.  Gretchen’s back was toward me, and she was hunched low in her chair.  I heard snickering from a nearby cubicle.

     “Dave," said Caroline, standing up from her chair.  "She’s been talking to her son this entire time."

     “What?  No...  she's been asking me about my breakfast."

     “No, Dave.  She's talking to her son.  He doesn't have school today."

We both looked over towards Gretchen.  She was still hunched over in her seat.

     “No...  You know weren’t supposed to have Lucky Charms for breakfast today...  No, I don’t care if you have the day off from school...  "

I sat back down at my desk and opened the next email in the customer service Inbox.  

     "No, don't argue with me, Dave...  You know Lucky Charms are just for a treat on Saturdays.  ...  If you pull that stunt again, I'll take away your weekend cereal privileges.”

Ah, crows...  Mother Nature's
most reliable garbage disposal.
Gretchen’s fourteen year-old son was also named Dave.   On too many occasions in the past, I had tuned her out because I had just assumed she was talking to him.  One day, I had apparently ignored her for quite awhile, while she discussed with me a scenario involving a deceased spouse, a confused widow who was the sole beneficiary of a Roth IRA, and the disgruntled executor of the estate.  I was actually on the phone with my friend Alex.  According to a co-worker, the exchange lasted for almost twenty minutes.

     "So can I give the executor the password to access the account online?"

     "Yes, that sounds good."  Alex had asked if I wanted to come over to his house later to watch football.

     "Really?  But the executor isn't on the account.  You'd still give him the password?"

     "Absolutely."  Alex had asked if I could pick up some beer on the way over.

     "Okay, if you say so."

     "Actually...  No.  You probably shouldn't do that."  Alex wanted to know if he should invite the wives, but I didn't think that was the greatest idea.  Our other friend Brad had a one year-old at home.  He'd need to find a babysitter if his wife came along.

     "Oh.  Well, do you think I should ask Christine?  I mean... she's the IRA expert and all."

     "Yeah, I suppose you could ask her."  Alex said he'd check with his wife to see if she'd consider watching the little ones during the game.

     "Christine's not in today.  I think I'm just going to go ahead and give him the password."

     "That's fine."  Alex thought it would be a good idea if we ordered a two large pizzas...  one with pepperoni and one with green peppers, onions, mushrooms, black olives, and broccoli.  "And I'll make sure I pick up a twelve-pack, just in case Brad shows up."

     "Thanks a lot for your help, Dave."

     "Did you say something, Gretchen?" I asked, hanging up the phone.

There are two important lessons to be learned here.  The first is to make sure that the person you're speaking with is aware that you're listening to them.  Eye contact is helpful, for starters.  After enduring several botched attempts at meaningful verbal exchange, Gretchen and I eventually learned how to recognize when she was addressing me, whether the right one of us was actually listening, and whether or not either of us knew what was actually going on, if the correct listener was actually paying attention.

And the second lesson?  Always remember to eat a wholesome, healthy breakfast when you get up in the morning.

Mom always knows best, and Gretchen was right on the ball.  A big bowl of artificially-colored marshmallows scattered amongst over-processed, sugar-frosted grain turds is not the best breakfast for a growing boy.  In fact, it's not really a good breakfast for anybody.

Purple turds, pink gallstones, blue polyps, green bunions, yellow goiters, orange blackheads, red phlegm...

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Aside from providing the necessary energy to get going in the morning, a nutritious breakfast will fill you up properly and suppress the urge to snack excessively before lunch.  When I was a kid, I would have also preferred a big bowl of sugar-coated cereal before boarding the bus.  But my own mother made sure that I wasn't loading up on over-processed garbage in the morning.  As a youngster, my standard cereal of choice was Honey Nut Cheerios.  Not the healthiest cereal out there, but I could have done much worse.

Once I reached high school, I discovered Quaker Instant Oatmeal.  I had always found oatmeal to be fairly bland on its own.  Even doctoring it up with brown sugar and milk wasn't too exciting to me.  But Quaker Instant Oatmeal was different.  Each individual packet was a magical mixture of over-processed, quick cooking oats, along with enough powdered, artificial flavoring to make it taste like candy.  Just add boiling water and stir.  It certainly satisfied my morning sweet tooth.  But it was still oatmeal, so it must have been healthy for me...  right?   Right?

Well, kinda...  Not quite the pinnacle of whole-grain evolution, but I was on the right track.

For the remainder of my school years and throughout most of my twenties, I waffled back and forth between a number of whole grain, hot breakfast cereals.  I'd be satisfied for a few weeks before eventually tiring of the current selection and moving on to the next one.

And then, I discovered steel-cut oats.  As far nutrition and versatility, you can't do much better than this wonderful breakfast grain.  But before I get into the specifics of steel-cut oats, let's have brief review of our oatmeal facts, shall we?

A Quick Oatmeal Primer...

Every type of breakfast oatmeal that you can buy at the supermarket, including steel-cut oats, comes from the mighty oat groat.  Oat groats are whole oats that have been hulled and cleaned.  You can actually buy oat groats at certain supermarkets and health food stores, but they do take almost an hour to took.  To speed up the preparation time, the food industry has generously given us a number of different oat products, which are all created by processing the same oat groat to varying degrees.

The oat groat is what's harvested from the field.  In addition to the harvesting, the only other mechanical processing is the removal of the outer hull and cleaning.  Next in line are 'steel-cut oats', which are basically oat groats that have been 'cut' by 'steel' (duhhh? ... ) into several smaller pieces.  Beyond the steel-cut oat is where the heavy processing starts to kick in.  'Old-fashioned' or 'rolled oats' are whole oat groats that have been steamed and rolled into a thin, flat flake.  The advantage of this is the shorter cooking time.  Next in line are 'quick-cooking oats'.  Instead of steaming and rolling the entire groat (steamrolling???), the groat is cut into several pieces (Hey...  sounds like steel-cut oats!) and then steamrolled.

And then, we have 'instant oats'...  the disgraceful bottom-feeders at the base of the oatmeal pyramid.  You'll find these despicable creatures hiding out in basement bars and in the backs of cars.  Instant oats are basically quick-cooking oats that have been rehydrated with hot water to pre-cook them.  All you need to do is add the boiling water, and they're ready to eat.  They're the most convenient type of oatmeal to prepare...  I suppose.

But is all that extra processing really worth it for a bowl of underwhelming, 30-second mush, which is often loaded with artificial sweeteners?

I say...  ABSOLUTELY NOT!  Especially when you can make a delicious bowl of steel-cut oatmeal with just a smidgen of extra effort.

Aside from whole oat groats, steel-cut oats undergo the least amount of processing of any kind of oatmeal.  As a result, they break down in your digestive system and release energy much more slowly.  This keeps you feeling full longer and will help to put a beat-down on the urge to snack on Twinkies and Pop Tarts all morning long.  Since they have a relatively low glycemic index, they're also much kinder to your blood sugar.

Red Bob is your friend.
Remember, you can trust Red Bob
for all your hot cereal needs.
The nutritional benefits of steel-cut oats are many.  In addition to being an excellent source of both soluble and insoluble fiber, steel-cut oats contain phytochemicals, which are believed to play a role in fighting and preventing cancer, as well as a number of important vitamins and minerals, including iron, selenium, zinc, and vitamin E.

Like old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats, they can be prepared to a satisfying, creamy consistency.  However, since the bran layer remains relatively undisturbed when the whole groat is chopped up, steel-cut oats retain a chewy, nutty texture.  Even when cooked or soaked for extended periods of time, they won't get soggy or mushy like old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats.

The most common knock that I've heard against steel-cut oatmeal is that it requires too much time to prepare.  It's true that it can take a good half an hour to cook them on the stovetop from pot to bowl, with regular stirring required.  However, there is an excellent, simple, and reliable way to prepare them that requires very little time and attention.

Want to hear about it?  Then read on...

All Night Long...

Yup.  Lionel Richie was right.

The best way to make steel-cut oatmeal is to start preparing it the previous evening just before bedtime.  And then, just let them cook...  all night long...

By the time the morning rolls around, you'll barely have to do anything else to before enjoying a healthy, delicious breakfast.

Check out that action shot!  Look
at that oatmeal plummet like
snow into the boiling water.

There are several different brands of steel-cut oats that you can buy, but I've been pretty happy with Bob's Red Mill.  I actually buy quite a few of Bob's products, so this is a logical choice for me.  Also, the measurements in this process are for a single serving size, but the proportions can easily be doubled or tripled, depending on the number of servings you'd like to make.

First, fill a small pot with one cup of water, and turn your burner on high.  While the water is heating up, measure out a quarter cup of steel-cut oats.  Once the water has reached a rolling boil, turn off the stove and move the pot off the hot burner.

Then, dump the quarter cup of steel-cut oats into the hot water and put a lid on the pot.

And that's it!  You're done!  Nothing else to do at the moment except brush your teeth and drift away to a peaceful dreamland, filled with oatmeal-laden goodness...

     ...falling asleep...
































Oh, $H*%!

Okay, it's morning.  Time to get up.  First thing you want to do is burn your pajamas and undergarments.  Also, you'll want to immediately to strip your bed and toss the sheets in the washer.  Once that's taken care of, it's time to tend to your oatmeal.

Go ahead and take the lid off that pot, which has been sitting on the cold burner all night.  What do you see?  Yeah, that's right.  Your entire batch of steel-cut oats has absorbed a ton of the water in the pot.  It's all puffed up nicely into a delectable, creamy texture.  But there's still some excess water in the pot.  All you need to do is turn the burner on really low, leave the pot uncovered, and then go about your morning routine.

Make your coffee, feed the cats...  clean up the few dishes from dessert the night before, if need be.

Just barely bubbling. Breakfast
is almost ready.  Next, you
need to choose your toppings

After about eight minutes or so, the mixture in the pot will start to bubble just the slightest bit.  At this point, just give them a quick stir every few minutes, just to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pot.  Once most of the excess water has boiled out and the mixture has been reduced, go ahead and turn off the burner, and then pour the oats into a serving bowl.  If the oats are still a bit watery, that's okay.  They'll thicken a bit more after sitting for another minute or so.

Now...  this next part is extremely important.  DON'T YOU DARE...  reach for a spoon and start eating.  You've just spent all night (well...  not really) making this wonderful oatmeal.  If you just start eating it now, you might as well be flushing it down the toilet.

I've never understood why anybody would go through all the trouble to make any kind of oatmeal, and then just settle on eating it plain, or with only milk and brown sugar.  What a waste.  Instead, you should be topping this big bowl of hearty goodness with...  at minimum...  a natural sweetener, at least two kinds of fruit, and a handful of some kind of nut.

One of the reasons that we're all getting so fat, lazy, and sick in this country is because we're shoveling garbage into our mouths...  AND...  we're not eating enough fruits, vegetables, or fiber.  In this situation, this is your opportunity to think of yourself as the artist.  This heaping bowl of piping hot steel-cut oatmeal that sits before you is your blank canvas, just crying out to be decorated with fruits, nuts, and other healthy toppings.  New research is showing that we should really be getting as many as eight servings of fruit and vegetables per day.  You should be asking yourself how many servings can you squeeze into this one bowl?

How do I go about decorating my oatmeal?  Let's take a look at this morning's bowl.

First, I always sprinkle on a generous dose of cinnamon.  That's a given every time.  Next, we need to think fruit.  I always go for two kinds of fruit...  a handful of fresh or frozen fruit, and then a big scoop of some kind of mushed up fruit or puree.  Applesauce or a mushed-up, overripe banana can work well.  For my mushed up fruit, I've recently been on a pumpkin kick.  Pumpkin is loaded with vitamin A and is also a good source of iron.  If it's not in season, just buy the stuff in the can, which is just as nutritious.

I've also added a handful of frozen wild blueberries.  If they're in season, you definitely want to go for the fresh kind...  preferably the fresh kind from Maine.  But frozen blueberries work just as well in the middle of the winter.  The market near my office just happens to sell Wyman's of Maine Frozen Wild Blueberries...  how 'bout them apples?  Speaking of apples, if you peel, core, and cut up a fresh apple the night before and toss it in the hot water with the oats, they'll be the perfect consistency to eat in the morning.

Next it's time for a handful of nuts.  Almonds or walnuts are my most common choices.  If you're feeling adventurous, you can also try pecans.

Finally, I drizzle on a modest amount of natural sweetener.  My favorite is maple syrup, and this is what I've chosen today.  But I've recently been experimenting with unsulphured molasses.  Just one tablespoon of the stuff is a good source of potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron, and it sweetens the whole damn bowl, bringing out the flavors of the fruit.  I've also had success with honey and agave nectar.

Notice anything missing?  Yeah...  no milk.  I've traditionally added milk to old-fashioned oatmeal, but I always leave it off the steel-cut variety.  I find that adding milk to steel-cut oats takes away its creamy texture, leaving it way too gritty.  And, I've recently been cutting most of the milk out of my diet.  I still do cheese and buttermilk in cooking, but I now use soy milk anymore in my smoothies, lattes, and cereal.

On that note, there's a lot of conflicting, and in some cases, misleading research out there at the moment regarding dairy products...  including how much is good for us and whether we should really be eating dairy at at all.  I won't say any more about that here, as this is a topic which probably deserves its own blog entry.

But for now, I've decided to leave the milk off my oatmeal.  There are plenty of grains and vegetables that can help me get my calcium fix.

Lastly...  bury your spoon into your bowl and mix everything together.  Yes, it looks kind of sludgy, but this is the best way to evenly distribute all of your toppings throughout the oatmeal.

Dig in, and enjoy your healthy, delicious breakfast.  You've earned it.

Oatmeal References:

Friday, February 18, 2011

No Case Of The Mondays Here...

Hey!  You in there...  with the coffee...
How 'bout fillin' up this bird feeder!

This past Monday, I pulled into the office parking lot just a few minutes before nine o'clock.  We're actually supposed to arrive around 8:45 and then log into our computers and be ready to go by 8:55, but that doesn't always happen.  On some days, we all arrive at 8:45 and log into our computers by 8:50.  And there are other days when a few of us get in by 8:45, and the rest of us arrive by 8:50.  Then, Emily and I scamper in at 8:55.  We fill up our coffee mugs, log into our computers, and we're ready to go by 8:59.

Emily has a good excuse for being a few minutes late.  She has a twenty year-old horse named Kirby, who needs to be ridden, watered, and fed every morning.  Every other day, she cleans out Kirby's stall, shoveling out the turds, spent hay, and other equine detritus.  She also has a few goats that need to be serviced.  On many mornings, this entire routine can take almost an hour.

While I don't have any high-maintenance horses to bail me out, I do have a few of my own animal friends to feed.  Of course, there are those two pesky but lovable felines that tromp into the bedroom and start whining to be fed, as early as six o'clock.  They each get half a scoop of dry food and fresh water as soon as I get up.  On some mornings when I'm pouring my first cup of coffee, I'll hear the resident pair of cardinals scolding me in disgust from the evergreens by the back window.  Throwing on both slippers, I'll sprint from the garage into the backyard with a large scoop of bird seed and fill up the empty feeder.  Before I even return to the house for my first sip of coffee, the cardinals will be enjoying their free breakfast, along with a gang of chickadees, a few tufted titmice, and a pair of Carolina Wrens.  But keeping our feathered friends nourished only takes about four extra minutes out of my morning.

Rolling in my breakfast sure is fun.  Maybe
next summer we can get that bird bath.
The one advantage that the 'delayed arrivals' in the phone center have is that we don't have any customers lining up just outside our department.  Nobody is loitering about the outside of the building, leering at us through the windows, wondering if we can open the front doors eight minutes early.  The entrance to the phone center is actually around the other side of the building.  While we turn on the phones at nine o'clock sharp, the first customer I speak with at 9:01 won't know whether I've arrived at my cubicle at 8:45 or 8:59.  As long as I answer their call on the first ring and help them out with everything they need, everybody's happy.

We all know that we should be there at 8:45, along with everybody else.  But if any one of us arrives a few minutes late, it's not a big deal.  We don't receive scoldings, spankings with wooden spoons, reprimands, slaps across the face, or warnings.  We don't get money docked from our paychecks.  Instead, we just make up the extra time at some point during that day...  or the next day.  Sometimes I'll shorten my lunch by ten minutes, or maybe I'll arrive ten minutes earlier the following day.

Lately, I've been staying later by ten or fifteen minutes, after everybody else leaves.  There are always a few emails that come trickling in, just after we close at four thirty.  Our customers are well aware that we'll answer their emails within four business hours.  However, it's nice to be able to respond immediately to a message they sent us just after we closed, especially if they're not expecting the response until sometime the next morning.

That's one of the perks of working here.  We're all treated like thoughtful, responsible adults.

Nope, this is not a busy kitchen at
a local diner during the breakfast
rush. It's actually the conference
room at a financial institution.
Another benefit is the occasional five-course breakfast buffet that's sometimes waiting for us in the phone center.  When I arrived at the office this past Monday morning, my co-workers and I were looking forward to freshly-made breakfast paninis.  On the previous Friday afternoon, Lisa had asked Emily how she wanted to celebrate her birthday.  In the past we've ordered egg sandwiches from the grease dive across the street, and sometimes they've been really good.  But recently, they've ended up being soggy and limpid once we've opened them up.  They're obviously crispy and hot off the grill.  But when they sit wrapped up in aluminum foil, they steam themselves into a frumpy state of sogginess.  A few of us brought this to Lisa's attention during Friday's birthday brainstorming session.

     "Why don't we just make breakfast sandwiches here," she suggested.  "I can bring in my panini maker, along with the ingredients."

     "How are you going to cook the eggs?" Abby asked.

     "I'll just fry them up at home and bring them in already cooked."

     "That's a great idea," said Emily.  "Yeah, I like that."

Each of us asked Lisa what we could bring, but she told us not to worry about it.  She said she'd take care of everything.  When we arrived at the office, we were each expecting a simple egg and cheese sandwich.

And folks, if you look to your left,
you'll see the Colon-Blo station.
What we actually got was a buffet that would put the average diner's breakfast offerings to shame.  As I entered the building, the delightful aroma of eggs and hash browns smacked me in the face.  A few of my co-workers were sitting at their desks, but I heard laughing, talking, and lively commotion streaming in from the break room.  When I poked my head through the door, my jaw hit the floor.  A full collection of breakfast fare was spread out on two long tables that had been pushed together.  At the end of the first table was a crock pot full of piping hot oatmeal, along with several toppings, like brown sugar, blueberries, walnuts, and dried fruit, which were set out in individual bowls.  A platter of oranges and bananas sat next to both milk and orange juice.

Lisa was preparing paninis at the second table.  She'd split open a fresh sandwich roll, add a fried egg, and pile it up with whatever toppings we wanted... including cheese, bacon, roasted red peppers, and spinach.  Then, she'd load it onto the panini maker and close the top, grilling it for about five minutes.  A full batch of hash browns was also sizzling in an electric skillet nearby.

     "Um, Lisa...  I thought we were just making the egg sandwiches today."

     "Dave, I'm Italian.  You know that we can't just have egg sandwiches."

I shook my head as I returned to my desk to log onto my computer.  At that moment, I actually felt pretty guilty for not bringing in any of my pancake batter or a large thermos full of home-roasted coffee.

For the next several hours, Lisa continued to cooking at the panini maker, while Ashley wandered up and down between the three rows of cubicles, taking our orders two at a time.  After relaying our orders to Lisa, Ashley would return with two hot paninis.  Once all ten of us had been fed, Lisa made paninis for people from the teller line and the IT Department.  About an hour after wolfing down my egg 'n cheese panini with baby spinach and roasted red peppers, I returned to the mess hall and loaded up a bowl with oatmeal, dried cranberries, walnuts, and maple syrup.

Monday mornings at work are lotsa fun.

When it comes to celebrating an employee's birthday, I'm fairly certain that a five-course breakfast buffet is the exception, and not the norm.  At any other phone center, one would be lucky to be treated to a dozen bagels or donuts, once every few months.  In the five years that I've worked in this department, not one us has left...  not one.  Lisa goes out of her way to make sure that all of us are happy, and that we all have a good time.

I've heard horror stories from some of my co-workers about the companies where they were previously employed.

     "We weren't allowed to have any food at our desks."

     "The pressure to make unneccesary sales was overwhelming.  We were told to push every one of our products to the customer, even if it was something they obviously didn't want or even need."

     "One time I was reprimanded when I left my cubicle to get a snack."

     "We weren't allowed to include the words 'love' and 'whine' in our emails."

     "Even when I exceeded my sales goals by 150%, I was still told I wasn't doing enough."

     "We were all limited to six personal items each, in our cubicles."

I actually have over eighty-seven personal items at my cubicle.

I've got all the basics that I need to get my work done...  a computer, keyboard, mouse, printer, along with a collection of window envelopes, receipt paper, and blank TPS Reports.

And then, there's the banana tree on the shelf above my computer monitor.  Last summer, I bought it at the market across the way because it looked lonely, and I wanted to see if I could grow a banana tree.  So far, I'm happy to report that it's thriving.  I also keep sugar, Tabasco sauce, honey, and my collection of coffee mugs on that shelf, along with a few writing and grammar references, and my Spotted Dick.

It's the 'fetus picture'.
I have quite a few pictures pinned or taped up on both sides of my cubicle walls.  There's a photo of my wife and I at the annual winter party.  There's the Justin Bieber picture, showing a side-by-side comparison of our mugshots, with BieberHair Photoshopped onto my head.  There's the fetus picture.  Well, it's not really a fetus, but that's what my co-workers call it.  It's actually a fully-labeled, cross-sectional diagram of a coffee cherry.  From a distance, I suppose that one could easily mistake it for a fetus, but I'm not the one who brought it up.

I also have a picture of myself dressed as Sarah Palin for Halloween.  This year, a whole bunch of us dressed up in cool costumes.  My co-workers agreed that mine was the scariest, most disturbing costume that they'd ever seen.  At one point during the morning, Caroline brought in her three-year old daughter to see all the costumes.  When she saw everybody else dressed up as pirates, vampires, demons, and witches she pointed and laughed, clapping her hands in delight.  But she took one look at me and burst into tears.

     "Dave, you're gonna have to take off your Sarah Palin mask.  Maddie is so scared."

I immediately removed my mask and apologized to Maddie, letting her know that everything was going to be OK.  I felt really terrible for scaring her so badly.

Aside from all my pictures, I have three separate calendars hanging up.  The first one was a freebie from my car insurance company, which they sent to thank me for forking over hundreds of dollars every year.  I usually don't save these calendars, but the theme of this year's edition was 'scenes of nature', and August's picture was a breathtaking shot of Mt. Katahdin, up in Maine.  After I'm done with the calendar, I'll probably tear out the photo carefully, and hang it back up by itself.  I also have a calendar, which my wife got for me, that has a bunch of cute kittens doing yoga poses.  And finally, there's the 'Men of the Phone Center' calendar, which my eight female co-workers put together for Evan and I, for being outnumbered four to one.  For each month, there's a different collection of pictures of the two of us goofing off, having a good time, and behaving like damn fools.

Absolutely horrifying.  For the entire day, the walls
of the phone center refudiated with baffling lunacy,
blood-curdling horror, and lexical tomfoolery.

To the left of my desk are three file drawers.  The top drawer is filled with about eight different boxes of tea, along with a spare toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, and a bottle of contact lense solution.  The middle drawer has some random office supplies and a few Scooby Doo stickers.  And the bottom drawer is where I keep my blue balls, a spare box of oatmeal, and some mixed nuts.

I've also started hanging up all of the medals that I've won at my races.  So far, there are seven pinned up there, including the three from the last three editions of the Mount Desert Island Marathon.  This year's is especially meaningful to me, as I cut over ten minutes off my time from the past two years.  I'm really proud of these medals.  Not only do they serve as a reminder to me of what I can accomplish with hours of dedication and hard work, they've also inspired many of my co-workers to start exercising more and eating healthier foods.

Only allowed six personal items at your desk...


I must have missed all of those studies showing that worker productivity can be increased by downplaying individual accomplishment, suppressing individuality, and beating the soul into submission?  For whatever reason, so many companies today believe that the best way to increase productivity and add to the bottom line is to run each of their departments like a day care, hover over their employees, and take the fun out of the job.

Work wouldn't be as much fun
without the Spotted Dick. 
Lisa knows that this isn't the best way to get the most out us.  Instead, she gives us all the resources that we need to be successful and then takes a step back, letting us do our thing.  Now and then, she'll direct or nudge us towards projects that take advantage of our skills, our talents, and our gifts.  Once we complete these projects, we're always recognized for all of our efforts and hard work.  More importantly, she encourages us to be ourselves and to have fun.  This philosophy has helped each of us to get to know and appreciate each other even more.  As a result, we all feel comfortable working together and trusting each other, when taking care of our customers.

That's the bottom line.  It's not about how much money we make.  It's about how happy we make our customers.

What about you?  Do you work for a great company?  Do your supervisors care about you enough to celebrate your birthday with a Monday morning breakfast buffet?

Yeah, I know...  it's probably not realistic to expect this at every company.  But what about the basics?  Are you encouraged to be yourself and to have fun at work?  Are you given all the tools you need to succeed?  Are all of your efforts and hard work recognized by your peers?  Can you trust your co-workers to help you out, and can you be trusted to do the same?

If the answer to any of the above questions is 'No', then maybe it's time for you to make a few changes.  A few years ago, I would have suggested that it was time for you to find a new job, but that's not a reasonable option in today's crippled economy.  Those of us who are lucky enough to have any sort of a job right now are very fortunate, and we should be really be extremely grateful.  But you can still make changes at your current job to make it more fun.

What changes, you ask?

I haven't the slightest idea.  You certainly know your workplace better than I do.

Here's a suggestion.  Why not find a small banana tree at a greenhouse somewhere, bring it into the office, and start caring for it.  Give it some water, some fertilizer, and some love.  See what happens.  And pay attention to the reaction you get from your co-workers and supervisor.  Show them that your new banana tree is a good thing.

Also, keep up the good work.  Hopefully, the rest of your co-workers, and maybe even your supervisor, will be inspired to jump on board.  That's a start.

Last July, the phone center banana tree had only
three leaves.  Now it's got ten.  At this rate, we
may have some actual bananas by 2112.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

No Wings, No Pizza, No Problem...

At the Atlantic Brewing Company, near Bar Harbor, we used
to get the sampler platter at the 
Mainely-Meat Barbecue
We'll still go there to stock up on great brews.

Another Super Bowl has been played, another team has been crowned the king of the National Football League, and another off season has begun.

The game itself was decent, as the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers by a score of 31-25.  A small part of me was routing for the Packers to win, but I really wouldn't have cared either way.  Unfortunately, I'm a fan of the Buffalo Bills, so the Super Bowl has meant less and less to me every year.  As we get further and further away from the days of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, and Andre Reed, it becomes clearer to me that we won't be going back to the big game any time soon.
But even without the Bills, there are still several factors that can make a great Super Bowl.  First and foremost is the quality of the play on the field.  If the game is close, and both teams play really well, then I usually go to bed that evening feeling satisfied.

The other aspect is the quality of what I shovel into my mouth during the game.  Hmmm...  where do we begin with this one?  I should probably start by revealing what I had at last year's gathering.

(sigh   ...   )
When the Colts played the Saints in the Super Bowl XXIV, just over a year ago, I was invited to watch the game at my friend's in-laws' place.  They had just purchased a slim 52-inch Samsung LCD TV to replace the 35-inch behemoth-of-a-Sony CRT TV, which had rested undisturbed in their family room for the past fifteen years.  They generously invited all of us over to break in their new monster.

What did I have to eat during that gathering?

Pepperoni pizza, chili, cheese cubes 'n crackers, wings, cheese slices, pulled pork I think, blue cheese, possibly some cold cut sandwiches, there may have been some cocktail wieners, bleu cheese, maybe some summer sausage slices that were intended to be enjoyed between Ritz crackers, there was some more cheese somewhere, probably a few dirty, creamy dips that may have been made with meat...  I think there was some sort of chocolate cake or ice cream-type dessert option, which I'm sure I enjoyed.  I also had a few beers.

Yup, I ate all of that.  It was pretty gross, in hindsight.

What did I eat during this year's edition of the game?  My wife and I went to a small gathering at our friends' house, along with two other couples.  There were also several adorable infants running around.  When we got there, I cracked open a beer and dug into the tortilla chips and bean dip.  The dip was spicy and slightly poo-colored.  But it was really, really good.

Papa Smurf always says, "Judging a bean dip by its color is NOT very Smurfy."

I also had some ruffled potato chips and sour cream dip.  Right around the time that Enrico Palazzo was slaughtering our national anthem, I opened my second beer and then stuffed my face with about twenty-two of those miniature French baguette slices, which are intended to be topped with warm, slushy cheese product.  I dunked them in the poopy dip instead.

To see the entire scene in
Spanish, please click HERE.
And what about the main course?  At the start of the second quarter, I enjoyed a big bowl of vegetable chili, a side of coleslaw, and a heaping scoop of homemade mac 'n cheese.  With about six minutes to go in the half, I grabbed my third and final beer.

Papa Smurf always says, "Please drink responsibly."

As the Steelers and Packers fought it out, I gulped my beer and continued to reflect on football-related issues with the three other dudes who were present.

A few of the wives were paying more attention to Steelers coach, Mike Tomlin.  Any time he was shown on camera, the ladies would jump up and down, squealing in delight.  One of them commented that he was hot 'n sexy...  or sexy 'n fine...  or something along those lines.  When the camera panned in close for a head shot, one of them offered a glowing review of his powerful facial features.

I decided to go for seconds on the mac 'n cheese just before the halftime show.  It probably wasn't the smartest move.  I had reached that familiar point in any social gathering when we're not actually eating because we're hungry.  Instead, we're simply eating just because there's still food sitting on the counter, crying out to be consumed while it's still somewhat warm and gooey.

Wading through the swamp of giant Legos that littered the floor, I made my way to the make-shift buffet and slopped another scoop of mac 'n cheese on my plate.  Then I noticed the lone kaiser roll sitting on a platter next to the pulled pork.  I don't do pulled pork anymore, but it would have been a dirty shame to let that poor kaiser roll suffer in solitary confinement.  Snatching it off the platter, I split it in half, slapped it down on my plate next to the mac 'n cheese, and buried it under my second scoop of vegetable chili.

After reclaiming my spot on the couch, I continued to feast mercilessly as my wife looked on in disgusted horror.  On the television, the Brown-Eyed Peas were still prancing around onstage, spreading their deplorable brand of hip-hop feces over the throbbing band of dancing Brown-Eyed groupies.  All of the dancers were wearing body suits, which lit up in a number of different nauseating shades of pink.  For the remainder of the performance, they arranged themselves in the shape of two giant hearts, swaying back and forth to the noise pollution onstage.  I felt like I was watching Garth Fagan's Lite-Brite from Hell.

Another Meatless Maine Crow original cartoon... 

My glance drifted from the television down to the floor, where the one-year old was playing detective.  One-by-one, he'd open the cabinets of the entertainment center and inspect the interior.  Once satisfied, he'd slam it shut and then turn towards us, grinning from ear-to-ear.

When he found his way to the large, central cabinet, he took extra time to look around.  Then he flipped over onto his back and tried to inch his way backwards into the cabinet.  With only his legs sticking out, he looked like a miniature plumber, wedged under a sink to investigate some leaky pipes.  Gently, his mom grabbed his ankles and slid him carefully across the carpet.  She stamped his little forehead with a big wet kiss, as he giggled in delight.

Just as the Brown-Eyed Peas had finished defecating, my friend's wife set a platter of cupcakes and brownies down on the coffee table, next to my feet.  I leaned forward and snatched a cupcake, gulping it down within seconds.  A few minutes later, two brownies met a similar demise.

At that point, I realized that I had probably eaten enough for the evening.  Putting my feet up, I sank back into the couch to let my stomach recover from the abuse, and watched the rest of the game.

What was different at this year's gathering?

Yup...  No meat.

For the first time in about twenty five Super Bowls, I watched the entire game without eating a single bite of animal flesh.  Not one slice of pepperoni pizza.  Not a single buffalo wing.  No bite-size, sausage-type treats, which may have been enclosed in some type of intestinal casing.  No beef chili.  Not one amusing little cocktail wiener, carefully rolled up in a Pillsbury trans fat blanket.

Earlier in the day, I was really worried that I'd miss the wings.  But once the game was underway, and I had taken my first spoonful of vegetable chili, I didn't miss the meat one bit.  I barely thought about it for the remainder of the evening.

There's something funny about food.  While taste is a major factor in what we choose to eat, the routines that we associate with food are also a significant part of the experience.  This is why pizza and chicken wings creep into our minds when Super Bowl Sunday rolls around.  It's why we crave the sight, smell, and taste of that enormous, twenty-pound bird, stuffed full of seasoned bread, sitting in the middle of our family's table on Thanksgiving.

Human beings are creatures of habit.  As we go about our daily lives, we establish routines.  Some of these routines are more significant than others, and they become traditions.  We tend to hold these traditions in high regard because they're familiar to us.  They can bring us a significant amount of happiness and comfort.

Many of these traditions include food...  like the Thanksgiving turkey or the Christmas ham...  the leg of lamb on Easter Sunday or the grilled hamburgers and hot dogs at the Memorial Day family picnic.

But really, how important is food in making these traditions truly memorable?

OMG do NOT touch my beautiful fur coat MOL!!!

My wife and I made the decision to give up meat almost six months ago.  On that particular day, I wasn't too worried about not being able to find something interesting or delicious for dinner that night...  or the next night...  or the one following that.  I wasn't concerned that our first Saturday morning breakfast would be boring.  Instead of an onion, red pepper, and cheddar omelet with bacon, home fries, and coffee, I think we had an onion, red pepper, and cheddar omelet with home fries and coffee.

Whoop-de-doo.  (Anybody else writing this blog entry would have just written 'OMG'.  Fortunately, my standards are higher, and I am not just 'anybody else'.)

But after the first few weeks of our meatless diet, we found ourselves confronted with minor dilemmas, as our well-established routines and traditions were challenged.

The first occurred at a local sports bar just a few miles down the road.  After a long week of work, we were both in the mood to grab a few drinks, some munchies, and dinner.  Earlier in the summer, that would have meant a Sam Adams, a dozen medium wings, and a foot-long corn beef sub, piled high with coleslaw, sauerkraut, swiss, banana peppers, along with a side of thousand island dressing.  We started by ordering our drinks.  That was the easy part.  As we opened our menus and scanned the appetizers, we looked at each other helplessly for a few moments.

Buffalo wings and chicken fingers were out.  Mozzarella sticks?  Nope...  absolutely disgusting.  Loaded nachos minus the beef?  Not a good idea.  I was scheduled for a 20-mile training run the next day, and I didn't feel like toting three rolls of toilet paper along.  Quesedillas without the chicken?  Too small.  If we were each getting our own, I would have considered it.  Loaded fries?  Hmmm...  loaded fries.  I peered at the menu more closely to read the description...  'Crispy potato wedges topped with crumbled blue cheese and drizzled with wing sauce'.

(cue Homer Simpson Voice)     "Mmmmmmmmmmm...  loaded friiiiiiiiiies."

They sounded really good.  We placed an order and asked for extra blue cheese and wing sauce on the side.

As for our sandwiches, my wife ordered the grilled veggie wrap.  That certainly piqued my interest.  But a wrap isn't usually enough to satisfy my appetite.  Instead, I asked our waitress if I could have the grilled vegetables from the grilled veggie wrap on the foot-long sub roll, along with coleslaw, sauerkraut, swiss cheese, banana peppers, and the side of thousand island dressing.

It was absolutely delicious.

With an open mind and some creative thinking, we altered our traditional pub meal from wings and corned beef subs to loaded fries and grilled veggie sandwiches.  Almost six months later, I don't miss the wings.  If I ever want that 'medium wing taste', I can just saute or oven-roast some veggies, maybe some Brussels sprouts, potatoes, or broccoli, and dunk them in Dinosaur Barbecue Sauce.

Food of the gods... 
The holidays presented us with an even bigger dilemma.  Whereas we typically enjoyed buffalo wings now and then during a casual night out, the spectre of the Thanksgiving turkey was looming over us ominously, like a dark meat cloud.  (pun intended - after some accidental, yet thoughtful consideration).  For as long as I've been able to eat solid foods, I've had at least two helpings of turkey at every Thanksgiving celebration and most Christmas gatherings.

During the early years, I started out with small helpings of white meat, topped with modest amounts of gravy.  As I entered my growth spurt, the servings and portion-sizes blossomed steadily, until they reached a gluttonous climax in my early 20s.  This was known as the 'Turkey Trot Era'.  My dad and I would begin our Thanksgiving Day with a 5-mile road race at nine in the morning, move to the couch for football and beer at noon, and finish the day with the big meal at around four thirty.  In my prime, I'd put away at least three monstrous servings of both white and dark meat, alongside mountainous heaps of stuffing and mashed potatoes, all drenched in glorious turkey gravy.  At one of my Turkey Trots, I even won a ten-pound turkey in a raffle that was held after the race.

As for Christmas, we had turkey pretty much every year I can remember, save for the one or two years when Mom made ham instead.  While the meal wouldn't be ready until late afternoon, the turkey had a significant presence during Christmas morning.  When my sister and I were younger, we'd get up really early, plug in the lights on the tree, and play Monopoly and Sorry until the sun came up.  Once mom and dad awoke, they'd greet us cheerfully at the bottom of the stairs.  But before we could open the presents, each of us had an important task.

Dad's job was to fire up the stereo and choose some music from our extensive collection of Christmas records.  My favorites were the original Mannheim Steamroller album, and Carols From Clare, one of the many albums with John Rutter conducting a Christmas choir.  My sister and I were on hot chocolate duty.  She'd heat up a kettle full of water, while I carefully selected four mugs and filled them each with four scoops of Carnation Hot Cocoa mix.

And mom had the most important job of all...  thawing the turkey.  Carefully, she'd retrieve the bird from the freezer and place it in the right hand side of our double sink.  Turning on the faucet, she'd fill up the sink until the water level was just above the top of the frozen bird.  We couldn't open presents until that faucet had been turned off.

Keep in mind, this was back before the days of quadruple-pressure, 450-horsepower faucets.  I don't know whether it was just my imagination, but the stream of cascading water seemed to slow to a crawl after about two minutes.  I can recall many a Christmas morning when the Cambridge singers were well into their third song, four mugs of cocoa were sitting on the table getting cold, and the four of us were standing silently around the sink, watching with excruciating impatience as the water level crept up millimeter by millimeter.

But good things come to those who wait.  Once that turkey was completely immersed, it was a mad dash to the living room to play Santa.

Even when we're not actually sitting at the dinner table, the food we eat can easily become a meaningful part of our daily lives, as it's welcomed and assimilated into our rituals.

Routines, memories, traditions...  family and friends who have left their footprints...

This is what I was going up against this past October, as I considered my first ever Thanksgiving dinner, sans bird.  As an added bonus, I was going to be hosting the meal for my side of the family.  I say 'I', and not 'we', because my wife's Thanksgiving day would unfortunately be spent in bed, sandwiched between two overnight shifts at the hospital.  While I'd have the luxury of her helpful input during the week beforehand, I'd be doing the actual preparation and cooking on my own.  In addition to my dad and his wife, my sister's family would also be coming into town.  They would eat a more traditional dinner at my brother-in-law's parents' place earlier in the day.  Once late afternoon rolled around, they'd gather up their two boys, hop into the car, and drive across town to our place to enjoy the second feast of the day.

Like my wife and I, my sister gave up meat around the same time we did.  She's actually the one who helped inspire us to do so.  Since my brother-in-law and two nephews would have had their fill of turkey during the afternoon, the only bird-eaters in attendance would be Dad and his wife.  When I let Dad know that I wouldn't be preparing a turkey, he generously offered to supply and prepare a small turkey breast, for anybody who wanted meat.

The next order of business was to plan the menu.  Many of the the same traditional side dishes could be served without a problem.  After some online treasure hunting, I decided on spicy pumpkin soup, carrot-herb rolls (so freakin' delicious...), and oven-roasted balsamic Brussels sprouts.  For the main course, or turkey replacement so-to-speak, I settled on a recipe that I'd found on Dr. McDougall's website...  Holiday Stuffed Pumpkin.

I'd stumbled across Dr. McDougall just about two months after swearing off my buffalo wings.  The good doctor believes that a majority of our ailments and maladies could be cured, and even prevented, by sticking to a vegan diet.  I'm not ready to go vegan at this point in my life.  I've given up meat without any problems, and I've pretty much cut all excess milk out of my diet.  But I'd have a difficult time giving up eggs and cheese.  I've tried several different ingredients to replace eggs in my baked goods, and the end result is just not the same.  My multiple attempts at vegan pancakes have been inconsistent.  They were really good the first time I made them, but I wasn't able to duplicate the results in subsequent attempts.  Besides, an occasional egg or cup of buttermilk in my baking now and then is not a big deal.

Nevertheless, McDougall presents a compelling argument for eliminating all animal products from our diets.  All of his articles and findings are based on his own experiences and extensive research at his wellness clinic in California, as well as independent medical research that's widely available in public databases, such as the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

And by 'independent' research, I'm referring to research that's not sponsored, funded, or spun by national beef, national dairy, or the mammoth pharmaceutical companies who bring us penis pills that cause our hair to fall out...  as well as hair-growth pills that cause our penises to fall out.

Even though I haven't gone vegan, I've already noticed significant benefits just from cutting out all meat and most dairy from my diet.

Yes, you can eat every part of that squash...  including the skin. 

After settling on the recipe, I decided to give it a test run a few weeks in advance.  I picked up a funky orange winter squash from the local farmer's market, along with the other usual produce.  I followed the recipe step-by-step, preparing the stuffing the night before.  The next day was Veteran's Day, and I had the day off from work.  At three o'clock, I hollowed out and stuffed the squash, and I let it rest on the counter for a few hours.  I popped it in the oven around four thirty, and it was ready just after six o'clock.

It was delicious...  GREAT SUCCESS!!!  The recipe was definitely a keeper.  All I had to do was to duplicate the feat a few weeks later. 

The night before Thanksgiving, Dad and his wife arrived around ten o'clock.  The carrot herb rolls were fresh out of the oven, cooling on the counter.  I had already put the stuffing together earlier in the evening.  I knew I'd be spending most of the next afternoon in the kitchen, but I wanted to get as much done as I could beforehand, so I'd be able to spend a few spare moments with Dad watching the football game.

On Thanksgiving morning, I rolled out of bed around seven o'clock and whipped up a batch of my famous buttermilk pancakes.  My sister and I were going to run a 4-mile Turkey Trot together, and I had promised her a delicious pre-race breakfast.  Just because I'd be giving up the turkey, didn't mean that I had to give up turkey trots.

The pancakes were a hit, as we all scarfed down three each.  Due to possible digestion issues, I normally don't do pancakes on race day morning.  But I figured that they wouldn't hurt me in this case, since I still had well over two hours before the start.  After finishing my second cup of coffee, we left for the park where the race was being held.  Dad drove over separately.  He wouldn't be running with us this year, as he was nursing a sore knee, but he still wanted to cheer us on.

After warming up and stretching, my sister and I lined up at the starting line, along with over 3,500 other runners.  It was a frigid morning, and we were anxious to get moving.  When the gun went off, it took me a few minutes to get up to speed.  The field of runners was huge, but we all had to share the same narrow street for the first four hundred yards.  As I rounded the corner onto the main road, the cramped crowd of runners began to spread out into a steady stream, and I was able to speed up and move through the pack.  At the two-mile mark, I spotted Dad waiting on the corner.  He began to cheer loudly, as I approached.

     "Go Dave!  LET'S GO DAVE!" he screamed as I ran by.  "GO DAVE!"

My sister and I knew that he'd rather be running, but we were really glad to have our own personal cheerleader.  It brought me back to the days of my high school and college cross country meets, when both Mom and Dad would show up to our races and sprint around the race course, cheering us on at the top of their lungs.

At one race during my junior year at college, my parents drove almost four-and-a-half hours to watch me run.  The race was held at a golf course just south of Cleveland.  They jumped in the car at four in the morning and arrived at the golf course around eight-thirty.  After the gun went off at nine, they spent the next thirty minutes chasing me around the course, screaming their heads off every time I ran by.  Once I had crossed the finish line, they stayed around to chat with me and my teammates for almost twenty minutes.  Just after ten o'clock, they hopped back in the car and arrived home in Rochester around quarter of three.

To say that Mom and Dad were chronic cross country groupies would be a gross understatement.

For the next mile-and-a-half, the race course strayed from the main roads, traveling through an established housing development.  Despite the bitter chill in the air, the people were streaming out of their houses into their yards to cheer on the wave of runners.  After returning briefly to the main roads, the last half mile of the course snaked through the park.  I followed the group of runners along a paved trail across a narrow footbridge over a stream.  After a sharp right, the final straightaway of the course opened up into wide field.  I kicked it into high gear for the final 200 yards, passing three runners before crossing the finish.

I ended up snagging 76th place.  Not bad for my final race of the season.  I already knew that I'd be taking some time off, as my Achilles had been bothering me for the past three weeks.  After grabbing a cup of Gatorade and a banana at the food tent, I returned to the finish line to wait for my sister.  She crossed the line in 235th place, which made her pretty happy.  Ever since she had given up meat and increased her vegetable intake, the quality of her training had improved quite a bit.  She was able to run more mileage than she had in years.

Another Meatless Maine Crow original cartoon.
In addition to kicking meat, taking Yoga once a
week has also made a difference in my running.
Back at the house, my sister left to enjoy feast number one across town.  After showering and making a pot of coffee, I put together a plate of snacks for Dad and his wife to enjoy during the football game.  The treats included cheddar cheese, some foofy multi-grain snack crackers, as well as tortilla chips and salsa.  Before tackling dinner, I decided to open a few beers and watch the first few minutes of the Patriots and Lions with Dad.  I was expecting the Patriots to wrap up the game by the end of the first quarter.  But the Lions hung around for quite a while, before the Patriots finally exploded for several scores late in the game.

The rest of the afternoon went without a hitch.  I've never been very good at coordinating multiple courses of a meal to be ready at the same time.  I usually leave that duty to my wife...  the Food Network-trained gourmet cook extraordinaire.  But I had done quite a bit of the prep work beforehand, so I was in good shape.  Dad started cooking the turkey breast around two thirty.  He had hauled along a large, stand-alone roaster to free up our oven for the Brussels sprouts and stuffed squash.  Every twenty minutes, he'd hop up from the couch and douse the turkey with the aromatic juices, which had started to pool at the bottom of the roaster.  Between chopping, stuffing, pouring, and stirring, I was still able to steal a seat in front of the television now and then, to catch brief snippets of the game.

My wife woke up from her daytime slumber around three-thirty.  After showering, she came downstairs to visit with us before leaving for her sister's place.  We wouldn't be eating until after her work shift was scheduled to begin, so she decided to eat with her side of the family at her sister's house, which was already on the way to the hospital.  Using a innovative device called the Clever Coffee Dripper, I prepared a mug of hot coffee just for her.

The Clever Coffee Dripper, which I've recently started referring to as the Keurig-Killer, is such an awesome little device that it will receive an entire blog entry of its own sometime in the near future.  As my wife took a long sip from her mug, I watched in satisfaction as the caffeine gauge in each of her eyes shot up from 'E' to 'F'.  Yeah...  my home-roasted coffee is that good.

By the time my sister arrived with her husband and two boys, we were just waiting for the Brussels sprouts to finish up in the oven.  Dad had already sliced the turkey and spread it out onto a large platter.  The spicy pumpkin soup was steaming in a large pot on one of the back burners.  A few minutes earlier, I had crisped up the carrot herb rolls in the oven and covered them up with a towel in a large serving basket.  Just before seven o'clock, my nephews helped me set the dining room table.  Fifteen minutes later we were all seated, and I was enjoying my first Thanksgiving dinner without meat.

Most everything was delicious, but I did hit a snag with my stuffed squash.  When I had prepared the stuffing for the test run several weeks before, I was short on the vegetable stock by about a half cup.  But the stuffing had turned out perfectly.  Tender, moist, slightly crispy around the edges...  just like it's supposed to be.  When I repeated the recipe, I used the full amount of vegetable broth.  Unfortunately, the end product turned out to be a bit too sloppy.  After realizing that I had used too much liquid, I shoveled the stuffing out of the squash and into a 13x9 baking dish and tried to crisp it up in the 450 degree oven.  I left it in with the Brussels sprouts for at least fifteen minutes, but it was still too mushy for my liking.  As I test-tasted it for the second time, I made the following mental note:

     Note to self:  Decrease the vegetable broth by half a cup, when preparing in future.

After dinner, we all enjoyed a slice of homemade apple pie and chocolate chip cookies that my dad's wife had prepared.  Then my sister helped me clear the table and load the dishwasher, while the rest of the crew moved on to the family room to watch the end of the second football game.  Once the kitchen had been tidied up, my sister and I joined the others in the family room and started a game of Scrabble.

'Xu' is a monetary unit in Vietnam.
Who knew?
As I was rearranging letters on my stick, I found my thoughts drifting back over the events of the past twenty-four hours.  For as great of a role that turkey had played in previous celebrations, I realized that I hadn't given it much thought on this particular day.  And while I had certainly provided a delicious alternative in my stuffed winter squash, the food we shared together hadn't been the defining factor in the day's success.

Instead, I thought about the Turkey Trot that I had run with my sister that morning.  It was only the second time in our lives that we had both lined up together at the same starting line.  I've probably crossed at least a hundred different finish lines.  The feeling of accomplishment is so great that it's almost impossible to put into words.  But it's even better when there are friends and family members running by your side.  I hoped that my dad would be able to join us at the starting line the following year.

I thought about my two nephews and how much fun it had been to prepare a delicious holiday meal for them.  All of the food that I'd made had turned out surprisingly well.  But it would have turned out even better if my wife had been by my side in the kitchen, helping me out with the preparation.  As the afternoon wore on, she would have almost certainly nudged me completely aside and finished cooking on her own.  She has a gift in the kitchen.  I thought about how generous my father had been to offer to bring along some turkey for anybody who wanted some.  It was great to be able to enjoy the football game and share a cold beer together, if only for a few minutes at a time.

I also thought about Thanksgiving days from my childhood.  Every time we'd hosted the meal, there were many family members who'd made important contributions.  But Mom had been the glue that had held the day together every year.  It was hard for me to believe that this was the tenth Thanksgiving day that she hadn't been with us.

I often wonder what she'd think about my sister and I giving up our turkey.  Would she have enjoyed my sloppy, stuffed winter squash creation?  I can't really say for sure.  But I do know that she would have been beaming with pride as I carried it into our dining room and set it down on the table in front of her.  She would have told me that it was absolutely delicious.

I didn't miss the turkey.  But I really missed Mom.

Food is definitely an important part of our lives.  It fills us up and nourishes us.  It can even satisfy us when it's really good.  It gives us the energy to get up early and run a five-mile road race in below-freezing temperatures.  Most importantly, food has the power to bring us all together at the same table.  It's not what we share at the table that matters; it's the people we share it with that make the difference.  My parents could have fed us bread and water every year at Thanksgiving.  As long they'd been there to share it with me, the day would have been complete.

As I lay my head down on the pillow that night, I realized that the absence of turkey would no longer be an issue for me at future Thanksgiving gatherings.  The Super Bowl would still be played every year, even without a few slices of pepperoni pizza or a dozen medium buffalo wings on my plate.

Long-standing traditions can take years and years to establish.  But we can easily start new traditions, as long as we have the love and support of the important people in our lives.

Maine sunsets have been a family tradition for over 30 years.