Food for Thought

China, Tremendous, Huge, Special ... Bad

I’ve made an incredible mistake.

I thought I was a sensible, even somewhat smart person.

But, no. And, well … maybe I didn’t really have good reason to think so, in light of my few commendable attributes.

But, all that aside, I beg you: Be smarter than I. Have the good sense to learn from my error. There is no need to experience this yourself.

I have issued food alerts in the past. This is another: For the sake of your health and well-being, and that of your family and friends, pay heed.

It began when Kathy mewed and sweet-talked me into driving to a city in New Mexico, about 120 miles away. I won’t tell you which city it is, for fear the Chamber of Commerce will send a hit man to eliminate me.

Let’s call it “Tallow Town.”

There is only one way to convince me to make such a trip — which invariably involves the agony of shopping at the world’s most bizarre mall and several large big box stores — and that is to promise me food.

Here is the setup for my mistake: Kathy promises we will “find a nice place to eat.” I know quite well that Tallow Town offers no food worth eating.

I go anyway.

I accept responsibility for what ensued. But, this doesn’t make what happened any less terrible.

We arrive in this dismal burg southwest of Siberia With a View and fight our way down the main drag — a powerful argument for sign codes. This avenue has few equals as far as sheer ugliness goes, and the insane driving habits of the residents of the city makes the experience a total horror. The trip is aesthetically and physically dangerous.

The fear and trembling (apologies to Kierkegaard) is amplified by sojourns to several large discount, we’ve–got-huge-lots-of-this- crummy-junk-delivered-by-rail-so-you-can-buy-it-extra-cheap, warehouses.

A dark cloud descends on my day as we make our way to yet another barn with “mart” in its name — a cultural anthropologist’s dream, a sane man’s nightmare. My head is throbbing; I can’t complete a thought. Not that I can in ordinary circumstances, but, this is worse than usual.

The effort required to survive the shopping makes me hungry. When I get hungry, I turn into an idiot. It’s a blood sugar thing. Not that I’m anything but an idiot most of the time, but … well, you get the picture, don’t you?

Here’s where I tumble off the edge and fall to my doom.

ALERT: DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU!

To put it in a nutshell: whatever you do, never eat at an establishment that combines at least three of the following words in its name: China, Chinese, Giant, Tremendous, Huge, Special, Buffet.

Please, listen to me.

We’re speeding down the thoroughfare and there it is, just such an establishment. We had never seen it before. There’s quite a few cars in the parking lot. There’s no one on his hands and knees at the side of the building spewing the contents of his gut into the sparse, unwatered landscaping. What have we got to lose?

Careless thinking, to be sure.

Kathy ordinarily puts a stop to such a venture, but she is in a delirium, produced by a big-screen plasma television home theater system she saw at an electronics barn. It costs $6,000 and, her ears ringing, Kathy repeatedly shouts out “Really, that’s not much, considering the set is fifty-four inches. And those sub-woofers; can you believe those sub woofers?
We can add a room to the house and buy reclining theater seats with cup holders.” She looks like she’s grabbed a high voltage line.

Her good judgment has evaporated. She is in no condition to restrain me. She merely tags along and does what I tell her to do. For once. And, irony of ironies, it is the wrong time.

I should know something is amiss when we step over the chalk outlines of a man, woman and child on the sidewalk in front of the entrance. I ignore the omen.

By the time my internal alarm bells ring, it is too late: Our hostess has whisked us to a booth and a lad wearing a stained white shirt appears with two glasses of murky, chlorine-scented water and our ticket. He gestures toward the other side of the cavernous room, to a series of steam tables.

I look around the room. There are a lot of fat people in the joint. Well, I figure, it can’t be all bad if other fat guys are here, in droves. I’m fat; these are my people. It’s kinda like a Catholic visiting Vatican City, isn’t it?

I am not going to torture you with a review of all the offerings. The memory is too painful. I’ll touch on the high points.

There is a table on which I find several large trays of “sushi”— obviously more than a few hours old. Apparently, you can make “sushi” out of sucker and catfish.

There is a section labeled “Raw” directly in front of an unmanned Mongolian barbecue grill. The grill is coated with a thick layer of mottled, brown grease. The “raw” meats have turned a strange purplish-brown color and ooze odd liquids.

In the middle of a steamtable containing several huge hotel pans filled with hunks of deep-fried stuff swimming in brightly-colored gelatinous sauces, is a pan of macaroni and cheese. In the center of the next steam table, right next to a large dish of shredded fake crabmeat that has turned a disturbing yellow color, sits a pan of “cherry cobbler.”

A sensible man would break and run, leaving a marginal tip for the lad who fetched the swamp water. “Sorry, I just got a call on my cell phone: The dog has died. I look forward to returning and sampling the delicious looking items on the steam tables.”

But, no, not me.

I pile some small heaps of high-chroma-colored stuff on my plate. Ahead of me in line is a fellow who makes me look small. He is wearing sweat pants and a windbreaker. He has two plates and he is heaping them sky-high with “baked mussels.” Not only have these shellfish been on the steam table for a year or two, but they are baked in what appears to be a mayonnaise blanket — in the Japanese style. In other words, there is a high probability these beauties contain major-league doses of every organism that can taint food and poison a diner. I think for an instant that I should warn the guy, but I notice a crude-homemade tattoo of Satan wielding a machete on the back of one of his huge paws, so I shut my mouth and return to the table.

Kathy is gnawing on a piece of rock-hard melon. She has already spit three grapes into her napkin. She has a small mound of the yellowed fake crab on her plate.

“How is it?,” I ask.

“Mmmrrgggggruppp.” She refuses to look at me.

I eat a few bites and my tongue is coated with a sickly-sweet paraffin-like substance.

They say you cannot taste MSG.

I beg to differ.

Kathy goes back to the steam tables and returns with some fried won ton.

“How is it?”

“I think I’m getting stomach cramps. I need to get out of here; the walls are pulsating and closing in on me. I need to get back to that home theater system. This is an emergency, buddy, I’m not kidding. I have to get out of here, pronto. Does it look like I’m swelling? Huh, does it?”

One more bit of advice.

Never eat anything called “Chicken on a Stick.” It is clear someone jams a sharp stick into a chicken (the orifice, angle of entry, etc., is unimportant to anyone but the chicken) and whatever comes out on the stick is then cooked and set in a pool of orange grease.

Why is it these buffets are so awful?

In general, you have to go to Vegas to find a decent buffet, and even there you have to do your homework— not all of them are acceptable. But, in Averageville, USA, (or Tallow Town, to be precise) there is not a chance in the world you’ll find palatable food at one of these operations.

There are some darned fine foods you can serve buffet style. There are braised meats and casseroles that stand up to a reasonable tour of duty on a steam table. You just never find them at the giant, stupendous, all-you-can-eat, super-dooper, Hi y’all-come-on-in-and-bring-your-appetite establishments favored by fat people and old folks.

I lament this fact as Kathy as I drive home, the car windows down, for safety’s sake.

“I could operate a heck of a buffet,” I say as I swerve to miss a deer.

Later that evening, I open my copy of the Culinary Institute of America’s text, “The Professional Chef.” I am surprised there is no “buffet” entry listed in the index.

I know darned good and well Escoffier would have run from the average buffet operation screaming, spitting blood and holding his head. But, there have to be items that could pass the test.

What about pot pies? They’ll keep for a while on the heat.

How about braised and shredded pork? Chicken cacciatore? An estouffade using shank or chuck — meats that improve with long, slow cooking?

Lasagna could be a keeper.

Vegetables could sparkle for a limited period of time, given the poor things aren’t cooked to death prior to their arrival at the steam table.

How about a potato casserole? Waxy potatoes, peeled and sliced, then par-cooked in a mix of milk and a bit of chicken stock. The potatoes are layered in a buttered casserole combined with the milk mix that has thickened during the par-cooking process. Salt and pepper and a few knobs of butter are added to each layer A bit of heavy cream is poured over the top and everything is covered with a dusting of grated Gruyere. The casserole is baked in a moderate oven until the spuds are tender, the cheese brown and bubbly and the milk and cream jelled.

Decent breads and rolls? Why not?

Great soups remain at the top of their game for a long time.

Salad fixings don’t need to be piled up in huge mounds, drying out (or kept “fresh” with the liberal use of bizarre preservatives known to produce massive tumors in lab rats); they can be ferried to the table in smaller quantities. Keeping raw vegetables crisp does not require a degree in physics.

I would avoid serving fish at a buffet, unless it is smoked and can be kept appropriately cold. Baked and fried fish turn the corner to Nasty Avenue within minutes of leaving oven or stove.

I stay up late compiling notes for a buffet menu. Actually, I stay up late because there is something unspeakably awful happening in my intestinal tract. I think it has something to do with Chicken on a Stick.

As I jot down recipes, I begin to evaluate costs.

Prices at my ideal buffet operation will be a bit steep. Maybe $25-30 per person.

I’m sweating profusely and as I wait for my fever to break I envision my fantasy business: I call it “Karl’s Super Grande Extreme Monster Buffet With Over 20 Items (no sweat pants allowed).” It is located in a handsome stucco building with sparse shrubbery around the perimeter. You gotta have a place where overeaters can barf.

Or, maybe I’ll save my money and buy a giant-screen plasma TV home theater system with reclining theater seats with cup holders and trays for huge loads of potato casserole.

I’d check my notion with Kathy, but she’s busy in the bathroom.

What’s Cookin?

Avocado Salsa

1 package (16 ounces) frozen corn, thawed
2 cans (2.25 ounces each) sliced olives, drained
1 medium sweet red pepper, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup olive coil
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 tablespoons cider or white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
4 medium ripe avocados
Tortilla Chips

In a large bowl, combine corn, olives, red pepper and onion. In a small bowl, combine garlic, oil, lemon juice, vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper — mix well. Pour over corn mixture and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Just before serving, chop avocados and stir into salsa. Serve with tortilla chips. Yields about 7 cups.



Obituaries

William (Bill) Jonathan Baker Sr.

William (Bill) Jonathan Baker Sr., of Houston, Texas, age 93, born April 26, 1914, to William B. Baker and Jane Kathryn Dain, passed away July 13, 2007, while on vacation in Pagosa Springs.
 
Bill was preceded in death by his wife, Marion Eathel Schanbacher, and his daughter, Margaret (Peggy) Baker.

 He is survived by his daughter, Jane D. Baker; son, William J. Baker Jr., and wife, Anita; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
 
Bill was born in Honesdale Penn., a rural town in northeastern Pennsylvania, and grew to appreciate and love nature.  He loved to work with his hands; if he was not tying flies, he could be found in his woodworking shop making anything from furniture to chess boards. His favorite activity was to go fishing, which he did until he died.  Bill participated in many church and community activities throughout his long life. He was a helper, an encourager, a devoted husband and father. From Blue Birds to Boy Scouts to the neighbors and friends, he was always there to give a helping hand.
 
Bill attended Cooper Union in New York City to learn engineering.  He worked for the Lummus Company (now part of ABB Corporation) for 35 years before retiring, and then began his own engineering consultation business.

 A memorial service will be announced at a future date to celebrate and remember his life.

Alice D. Worrell

Alice D. Worrell passed away the morning of July 7, 2007. She was born May 12, 1950, in Los Angeles, Calif. Alice and her husband moved to Pagosa Springs in 1999 after her long battle with cancer when she was given only a short time to live. She loved the mountains and Pagosa, and was known at potlucks as the deviled egg lady. Burial was July 13, 2007, at Hilltop Cemetery.

After college, she began a career as an air traffic controller for the FFA, the first female controller in El Paso, Texas, transferred to Roswell, N.M. tower in 1976, she met Charles, the airport manager of Roswell Industrial Air Center. Her job moved her to airports in Aspen, Washington and Utah. After retiring, she married Charles in 1995.

She is survived by her mother, Cecilia, four brothers, daughter Laurie, son Robert, grandchildren Kira and Cody, two stepdaughters, four step-grandsons, and two step-great-grandchildren.

She loved reading, cross-stitch, crafts and visiting with friends. A part-time teacher, she never stopped helping children get started crafting and reading. She is already dearly missed.

Send a message to the family or a memoriam to be posted here.

Donna Rae Cooper

Donna Cooper, local artist, daughter, sister, niece, cousin, and loving friend to Pagosa Springs, passed away Friday, July 27, 2007, in Farmington, N.M., following surgery. Donna was born June 8, 1957, in Fruita, Mesa County, Colo., to Robert and Peggy Sorensen Cooper.

While being afflicted with Down Syndrome from birth, Donna was a loving, outgoing person who made friends with everyone she met. She was talented in athletics and art, and loved to sing. Donna was involved in Special Olympics for many years, earning medals in bowling, skiing and swimming. She painted many lovely oils, and for several years donated a painting for the Education Center’s auction. She held several art shows locally, and her paintings have been shown in Durango, Pagosa Springs and Denver.

Donna is survived by her parents, Bob and Peggy; sisters, Janice Klassen and Margaret Bliss; her brother, Alan; and nieces and nephew, Katie, Bob and Bailey Bliss, Lauryn, Alexa and Brooklynn Cooper; her aunts and uncles, Bill and Karen Sorensen, Don and LaRae Fowler, Elaine and Nolan Shumway, Vaughn and Arda Higbee, Eldon and Mary Jo Cooper, Esther Mary Grubbs, Evelyn Cooper, Jake and Carolyn Stoner, Dan and Jean Wood; and 42 cousins. She was preceded in death by her brother, Robert Brian; grandparents, Harold and Waldine Evans Sorensen, Samuel Yundt and Hazel Miller Cooper; her step-grandmother, Thelma White Cooper; her uncles, Bill Cooper and Winston Cooper, her cousins, Jimmy Sorensen, Anna Louise Fowler and Teed Stoner.

Donna went to church with her sisters and brother, and knew at an early age that she was a special beloved daughter of our Heavenly Father. She began her school years at preschool in Fruita, and Riverside School near Grand Junction. Her church and school teachers did an outstanding job of helping her reach her potential as a person.

Her growing-up years were spent with her family and their many activities. She rode horses, helped plant a garden, do all the household activities. She was the only one who knew how to cut and plant potatoes when she lived briefly at Browning House in Durango. She was involved in many activities with Community Connections. She was not expected to live past a year, and each year was a gift to all of her friends and family members.

Donna had a bit of a temper, and did not want anyone to touch her table with crossword puzzles, books and art supplies. She made it clear that those were her things. She made sure everyone did what they were told, once making her cousin, Kyle, eat fish sticks because his mother had told him to. She loved to travel, and was able to see lots of the western United States with her parents. She was able to see a Neil Diamond concert, and another time see a Denver Bronco game in Denver.

Donna was employed at Pizza Hut for about 10 years, and also worked at other businesses. She was a volunteer at the animal shelter in Durango for a short period of time, and her idea of caring for the animals was to open all the doors and set them free.

Like her idea of freeing the animals, Donna is now free from her earthly journey, and can rejoice in being with Heavenly Father, and her family and friends who have gone before. She has left a grieving family and friends, and we will miss her more than anyone can know.

Send a message to the family or a memoriam to be


Celebrations

WEDDING

Paul and Jenna Bilyk

Paul and Jenna Bilyk were married July 28.