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 ... )
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.
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.
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.
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.