Archive for the ‘Cambridge’ Category

Mayonnaise, Scotch and the Rabbi, II

October 5th, 2010

Back on the Charles when the gigantic CAIN’S sign snuggled next to MIT’s drab buildings, I worked for a while in the mayonnaise factory. Part one of that tale is here.

Learning there was both formal and informal, practical and even philosophical. I learned jar-capping tricks, a surprise peril of working the conveyor belts, why restaurant food tastes better, and even a Teamster form of tax.

First there was the ballet that must occur in all factories. Years later for various magazine stories, I visited, analyzed and wrote about businesses, including factories. Each subordinated natural human inertia and whimsy to the process and output. That required considerable choreography and knowledge transfer.

Magic on the Line

At that Cain’s site, we turned out lots of quart and pint jars of mayonnaise. We also would have rare runs of small jars of horseradish, plain and beet. Then on occasion, we’d switch lines to limited runs of gallon jars of mayonnaise and French or other salad dressings bound for restaurants.

For the latter, I was surprised to see that the contents looked a bit darker and came from different vats. A long-timer explained that those were premium versions of Cain’s products. Restaurants got better oils and other ingredients. Maybea  diner’s perception that food out tasted better had as much to do with the materials as what the chefs did.

When I first saw the gallon process, I wondered how we’d keep up with the lines. The human part was attaching the big lids securely. We’d have little time as the massive jars came under nozzles and received their dollop in a second or so of disgusting, diarrhea-sounding deposit.

I had never consider the matter and related it to helping my grandmother can vegetables and fruits. The lid turning and tightening process took much longer than the gallon jugs on the assembly line would allow.

Instead, I learned the technique in a few seconds. The lid fit nicely in a standard-size man’s hand. We’d put a hand on the jar, place the lid on the opening, snap it on over the threading and give it a quarter turn to complete the job in under two second. We had sore forearms after an hour, but we could easily keep up with the line.

Say What?

More surprising was how many of the workers were hard of hearing. I had relatives in the 40 and up ages and initially didn’t get understand why the men were forever leaning toward each other and asking for repetition, even in the lunch room. By the second day, I got it.

The clinking glass jars were the problem. At then end of my second day, I got to my apartment with ringing in both ears.

The thousands of jars used a shift fed onto a gently vibrating conveyor system that nudged them into a narrowing chute. The jars ended up single file to advance under the filling nozzles. While the clinking was pretty quiet, particularly to those just passing by, hours of the incessant high tones did their damage. A couple of the older guys said they knew the cause, but figured a steady, union job that supported their families was worth it.

I added ear plugs to the hairnet for my costume

The same guys also seemed to enjoy the occasional visits from the rabbi or committee certifying Cain’s products as kosher. From their stories, they all seemed to be Roman Catholic and even with all their church’s trappings and rituals, they views Judaic food laws as amusing.

With no meat entering the plant, apart what we brought in our lunch sandwiches, inspecting Cain’s must have been easy. Everything was clean, well documented, and from known providers. Cain’s product labels had the U in a circle indicating certfication from the Union of Orthodox Congregations.

As a lowly worker, I never saw the visits, but heard from the old guys how it went. The rabbi would arrange an appointment and do his inspection (what the employees insisted must have been blessing the vats of mayonnaise). Then he’d retire with company executives for receipt of his fee and considerable drinking.

That doesn’t fit my image of an orthodox rabbi at work. Then again, I was passing through. If the tale wasn’t true, it should have been. It’s much more interesting than looking at books and checking production facilities.

Truckers Tales

An occasional excursion to Cain’s warehouses gave me a quick glimpse into new-to-me history. Those guys were long-time Teamsters, now union brothers. They were busy in spurts, but mostly they waited for a task and talked while waiting.

One liked to describe driving rickety trucks over the terrible roads from Boston to Buffalo long before interstate highways. Weather could literally kill you and there was a fair chance your truck would break down at least once.

One at the warehouse also reveled in the bonuses of his job. His favorite was in the days after Prohibition ended and they were back to carrying booze. It involved a desk drawer and paper bag.

He in particular was fond on Scotch and preferred it re-bottled. He said he’d remove a bottle from a case’s corner. He had a spare bottle and a bottle-sized paper bag. He’d put the Scotch bottle into the bag, place the neck in a drawer and crack the glass. Then he’d filter any stray glass by letting the whiskey filter through the paper. In a short time, he had almost a full bottle of his favorite for free and he’d replace the now broken bottle in the box.

Broken in shipment was the expression.

Final Parting Gift

A few years later, after journalism school and running the weekly newspaper in the capital of South Carolina, I found a Cain’s blessing. I moved to Manhattan to get to a real city and fulfill my teen pledge to myself to live there. Jobs were hard to come by, particularly in papers or any kind of writing. Numerous newspapers had merged or failed, as had many newsstand magazines.

I’d go to interviews where more résumé/portfolio clutchers appeared than chairs could hold. Many were much older men, with mortgages, wives and kids. More important, they had decades more experience than I.

After doing temp work, I turned my attention to the many trade magazines in town. Cain’s helped me get a job at one of the first I approached.

Sure my résumé had college journalism, the grant study, and being editor-in-chief at the weekly. Blah, blah, blah — bubkes compared with other job seekers. Yet, both to indicate that I really was a writer and to differentiate myself somewhat, I put summer and college jobs on too. I figured that the résumé should be readable and that being on a carpentry crew for a couple of summers might help, particularly at Construction Equipment.

As it turned out, the editor was a fine writer, John Rehfield. He called me in and told me it was in part for those extra jobs listed. It wasn’t carpentry, rather mayonnaise packer. He just had to know more about it.

He also liked my portfolio and personality. However, it was Cain’s that catalyzed the call.

Coincidentally, I asked him why he’d hire me when all the other writers were engineers. A civil engineer himself, he laughed heartily, leaned forward and said, “You can write. I can teach you anything you need to know about construction. I don’t know anyone who can teach an engineer to write.”

Tags: 

Mayonnaise, Scotch and the Rabbi

October 4th, 2010

A post on skyline signs at Universal Hub put me in the memory tumbler. Yeah, yeah, Citgo…but I have personal flashbacks related to the gigantic lit CAIN’S sign by MIT plugging mayonnaise and pickles.

Up here for a year and a half or so in the late sixties, I lived in Cambridge while I was on a grant to study underground papers in Manhattan, Boston and Cambridge. I filled in income with summer jobs at places like Advent and Cain’s. Sharing a big apartment on Broadway nearly Inman Square with my girlfriend and four other women, I’d head toward the back of that sign to work. The front faced Boston on the Charles.

The only part of Cain’s that came home other than stories was a radish knife. That’s not like a wee paring blade. Rather, a foot or so long machete-like blade for coarsely chopping the forearm-size horseradishes before processing.

I was a cook even then and admired them. One of the older guys said they had lots of them and they weren’t worth sharpening, so I should just take one.

The Spider Lady

Back home, the spider lady loved it. She worked as a grad student in Harvard’s arachnid lab. Her bedroom had walls pied with prints, photographs and posters of bats and spiders. She was spider-like herself, way thin with long arms and fingers (although only the usual human number of each, I am pretty sure).

I had a car and drove her out to her family digs. I think they were in Dover. It was the next estate to Gov. Francis Sargent’s. She could likely fixate on spiders or anything else given her station.

She also liked meat…bloody meat. She saw that radish knife as another tool in this fixation. The six of us shared a kitchen and she was often there doing vigorous things with steak.

The apartment was jolly and there was a pleasant sexual undercurrent. It was five women, two female cats, one male one (Balls for his most obvious feature), and I. Frequent humor was of synchronized menstrual cycles, human and feline. The women other than my girlfriend were largely busy with studies or work, and boyfriends were not common visitors or visited.

(Promise note: This apartment was also the setting for a Fourth of July overnight psychotic break, replete with endless arias, neighbors calling police and a holiday visit to MGH’s psych ward. More on that in a future post. Also, the tale of Balls’ vanishing and the night of the gigantic bottle of retsina will be another one.)

Spider lady loved that knife from Cain’s though. Thus, none of us was surprised to see her in the kitchen flailing on a chunk of dead cow, bringing the massive, lobed blade down too hard. I think everyone was there when we learned how powerful her spindly arms were, as she took a massive swing, cut the steak straight through and continued splitting the butcher block cutting board in two.

Lunch in the Locker Room

Back down to the mayonnaise factory, I found another kind of education entirely. I had grown up earning my way as a paperboy, working agriculture, lolling as a lifeguard, getting sore and calloused as a house carpenter, but this was my first factory job. It was also my first brief stint as a union member (Bakers and Confectioners, the Teamsters).

In the height of the Vietnam War and me with long hair and an earring, I was a bit trepid. A couple of us were 19 or 20, but the regulars were in their 40s through 60s. Many were WWII and Korean vets and I was unsure how elbow-to-elbow work would go, much less lunch at a long table in the shared locker room would go. The two youngest of us had to wear hairnets because of our hippie dos, as well.

The first lunch settled that. One of the oldest guys, gray, pot-bellied and with forearms like Popeye unfolded his Record-American tabloid (later bought by the Herald). Oh, crap, thought I; here we go. He read about battles and deaths over there, swore and said we had no business sending our boys to die in Vietnam. The room heard widespread grunts, obscenities and agreement. I, of course, felt like a total fool, because I had already stereotyped the reader as a conservative, warmonger. Instead, we basically shared the same politics.

Back then, Cain’s was still a family business. The founder John E. had died almost 20 years before, but the workers had known him and knew his son Bob who took over. Today, it is part of a large corporation and is Cains Foods. It long ago moved to a sprawling suburban location and the sign by MIT is gone.

When I was there though, I learned a bit about the Teamsters, something about mayonnaise and salad dressings, a major drawback of a food assembly line, and the slightly unsavory visits from the kosher-certifying rabbi. Those in part two

Tags: , ,

Dose of Kloss

August 27th, 2010

weeklossNosing about for contract technical writing still, I checked some of my clips and portfolio yesterday. Part of the mini-thrills for an alter kaker journeyman journo is finding totally forgotten pieces. One such was of electronics wizard Henry Kloss.

While dead for eight years, Kloss was a charming chap as well as driven innovator. I’d had a few interactions with him before the profile I wrote for Electronic Business 26 years ago.

WABAC notes: EB was a Boston-based Cahners maggy, moved with the company from Cahners Place in the South End to Newton Corner to sale to the UK Reed folk (by the bye the world’s largest toilet paper maker at the time) to dissolution with other trade books last year. While I usually took my own pix, the one with the article was by local photog Ted Fitzgerald (cropping above).

Other profiles and obits speak to Kloss’ visionary work in sound and TV. Few note that he willing sacrificed huge wealth for pretty big wealth. He got his joy from creating the new and best, not from making mass markets in the OK.

Otherwise, I think of NYC cabs and kittens when Henry comes to mind.

In the late 1960s, I was in college and living in Cambridge on a grant. I filled in cash flow with a couple of jobs, including making speakers by hand at his new Advent Corporation. They were damned good speakers.

He actually accidentally designed the new standard of stereo speakers. He was developing projection TV technology and just wanted cash flow for that from the speakers. He ended up vastly improving on his older KLH technologies and establishing new standards for sound. Also, he had a skunk works project going for a farther out ideal, 3D TV. The word in house was that he had one, with the drawback that you needed a radiation suit to sit in the room with it for any length of time. That never got to market.

Meanwhile at Avent had a huge room filled with QA women verifying woofer, tweeter and switch components. He gave them exacting standards. Then a small row of us assembled the speakers. I connected the wires for the controlling switches on the back, then piped glue and power stapled them to the panels. They were great speakers and I think each of us bought at least one set at employee prices.

My little value added here is first that he drove to work in his old, still functioning Checker. That’s the same clunky, sturdy gem that was the standard NYC taxi of the time. His current one was his first, a 1948 model.

That said a lot about what he expected and created. He wanted the best of its type. He expected it to last a long-time if not forever. He’d do what he thought his customers should, pay for good stuff.

Also, one day his wife showed up and cajoled us workers. Her way of dealing with an unexpected and unwanted litter of kittens was to squeeze employees. She appeared with a box of them and offered them. I heard at least one QA woman say she owed her job to the Klosses and felt obligated to take one, even though she neither wanted one nor particularly liked cats.

Together, the Klosses were epitomes of New England frugal.

I can’t say I begrudge him that at all. He turned his mindset into products we were happy to make. I recall years later living in New York City being at a dinner party where the hosts went on about how much they loved their stereo speakers. Peeking behind one of the big Advents, I was pleased to see that it was one of those I had made.

Tags: , , , , ,

Surprise Prizes in the Box

April 28th, 2010

Hearing a friend tell a new story or reveal an unknown aspect is always a joy for me. Like a continually opening, expanding flower, the little extras delight me.

Perhaps it was being raised as a Southerner (more on New England in a few lines). Perhaps it’s simply my bent as a delayed gratifier. Either way, I find the relationships best that constantly increment.

I see a link to the candy-box philosophies of my sister and me. We had one distant grandmother, in Denver. She would send us presents, including from time to time a box of candies, usually a Whitman’s sampler — that big yellow box with some of this, some of that and some of the other.

candiesWhile each of us had our own box (although we shared with the maternal unit), Pat and I differed in ingestion selection. She should immediately locate and begin to devour her favorites. It was as though somehow they would disappear or go bad or something. In contrast, I took my time, starting with the least desired lumps. I would work my way over the days to the dark chocolates with the chocolate fillings. We consumed the same, but she dribbled off in pleasure while I climbed.

Unlike Forest Gump’s mother’s platitude, you did know what you were going to get, at least if you looked at the legend on the box top or had memorized the shapes and decorations on the pieces over the years.

Friendships and marriages can seem like that. The small revelations can be as endearing as the inevitable evolution. Fully defined, immutable relationships are surely among the stalest, most boring possible.

So to New England, and particularly the Boston area, it’s everything on the table in the first seven minutes of meeting. This goes beyond candor and into the realm of challenge.

Up here, it’s what Southerners disdain as bragging on yourself. That’s the private schools and university, sports while there, the pedigree including any points of family fame, and career accomplishments. Think my résumé is longer than yours; so there!

The obvious points there are identifying yourself and even claiming superiority. In a deferential society descended from the British one, it is a logical expression. Oh, but how tediously that sets the tone for any on-going relationship. Everything they think worthwhile has already been revealed.

I think of several long-term friends who express surprised delight when I mention a new-to-them aspect. Not long ago, a chum of 30 years expressed pleased astonishment when I mentioned in a group conversation that I was born in Oklahoma. If I had engaged in that résumé display, there’d be no little treasures.

The spin conversation last week with the bartender in Cambridge reminded me of that. When she mentioned that she was taking spin classes to get in shape for a charity ride, I could easily and reasonably played my I-used-to-teach-spin card. At the time though, I figured that she’d be behind that bar where the four of us regularly visited again and again. There’d be an appropriate time to add that little flavor to the conversation. Meanwhile, it was her moment to talk about her ride and her exercise.

As it happened, two of the other guys expanded the topic immediately and mentioned that they were in my spin classes. That was not quite as delayed as I would normally have it, but even with that, the unfolding details are ever so much more pleasant than talking over someone else’s turn.

A few times, I have heard a New England sort defend a demonstration of family and personal credentials as honest and necessary. I see the cultural differences, but I still prefer my way. I like the little treats that come out of nowhere.

Tags: , , ,

The Spine for Spin

April 27th, 2010

The legendary Martha lived in the air of Cambridge Common last week, in mentions of her previous life as a spin instructor. That amusing fitness subculture is a bit more obscure than yoga, but has it adherents.

Four of us were at the bar. It’s become a regular afternoon joint every week or two both because it always has a fine range of IPAs among its 30 taps and because its prices are good at a buck or sometimes two or even three less a pint.

The bartender said she was about to go on the Cape Cod MS charity bike ride with some girlfriends. She added that the first time has done the ride, she felt she might die, but she’d been taking spin classes, so she figured she was ready.

That was the cue for guys on adjacent bar stools to do what they so best — play the Greek chorus and make a harmonizing response. One noted that spin classes and road biking use muscles a little differently, that there’s no direct correspondence. Another acknowledged our fraternity here. Two of the other three had been in spin classes I led.

Leave a Puddle

They did what I think all spin instructors want to hear. They spoke of how tough I had been.

That was my turn to talk about my first spin instructor, Martha. She told her classes, “If you don’t leave a puddle under the bike, you’re dogging it.” We believed her for two reasons. First, if she figured you were using a lower resistance than she had told you for the given exercise, she’d get off her own bike-like object and crank up your dial. Second, she left a puddle. She worked at least as hard as any of us.

She subsequently went on to become a well known yogini here and then in San Jose. Along the way, she lost her h and became Marta and teaches exclusively yoga. When I knew her, I also took power yoga with her and learned that she taught step as well. She was exhausting classes three ways all day long. She probably was the fittest person in New England in the process.

I see from her new site, her former yoga boss, Rolf Gates, wrote a blurb — Marta brings all of herself to what she does and in so doing, expresses the essence of yoga with each step she takes. That’s what her spin classes were like too, plus she demanded the same of us.

Panting in Burlington

For the three of us on the stools, none was a kid when we started spin. Properly led, it’s damned tough. It did forge some bonds too, much like being on a sports team, I suppose.

We did our spin classes at the FitCorp in Burlington. When Martha dropped her classes there to focus on yoga, I carped mightily. The manager of the gym shut me up by saying there was Keiser Power Pacing training in a couple of weeks in Boston. If I wanted classes so badly, I should become an instructor. In other words, put up or shut up.

I put up and took the certification class from Kris Kory, the aging surfer type who literally wrote the Power Pacing book.  It’s certainly adolescent of me, but I have to say that style is much superior to the original, the trademarked, capital S Spinning®. The latter is by far the most common and it’s, well, kind of sissy. You might need a towel for your brow, but there’ll be no puddles.

I learned from the best. Kris was master of the theory and technique. He taught hard and snazzy stuff like slides that the other guys don’t. Before I even got to him though, I had learned what a real workout is.

We used to do spin three times a week. We got aerobic and anaerobic workouts unlike anything else I know.  I love my road biking, but it’s not as physically challenging. I’ve taken Spinning® classes as Y’s and other gyms too, to find that they are only a workout if I combine them with fast cycling to and from the gym.

A good class combines enough peer pressure to keep you pumping and a skilled enough instructor to make  you pray for the end of the hour. I think of another guy we used to work with who sometimes took Martha’s class. He was a lifter and quite strong, but wasn’t used to the relentlessness of it all. When she said to the class, “Remember to breathe,” Mike panted out, “That’s all I’m thinking about!”

Tags: , , , ,

Color Me UU: 2 and New

March 30th, 2010

Good timing, Globe! A short feature today dovetails with my recent post on UU hand-wringing over lack of racial diversity.

After 378 years in Cambridge, MA, First Parish will have a Latina minister, Rev. Livia Cuervo. In a religious group striving to mix up its very, very white membership and very white ministry, that’s good. Unitarians founded and ran Harvard from the start, but has somehow fallen far behind in diversity efforts.

Cynics may ask:

  • What took so long?
  • How serious is this for adding her as an associate minister?
  • How serious is this for hiring a 72-year-old?

Don’t sneer too long. The parent UUA most recently elected an Hispanic, Rev. Peter Morales, to its presidency.  Plus, the senior minister in Cambridge is Rev. Fred Small, who is also a hippy-dippy style folksinger (pretty good and pretty well known IMHO). I have no doubt he wants to build on this choice.

UU v. US by raceUUs are actively trying to diversify. They seem to be doing better in attracting and growing ministers of color than folks in the pews. See this chart from UU data with the maroon being they and the blue all US church goers by race in 2008.

Rev. Cuervo is coming in with a good attitude at least. The Globe‘s Lisa Wangeness quotes her as, “This is really breaking the tradition — it’s big for everybody…I want to help them nurture the dream they have.”

From my experience in the UUA and in particularly with the Arlington Street Church, I’m looking to see whether this will translate into more Latinos coming to a not-necessarily-Christian and pretty white church.  I think back to over 20 years ago at the ASC when we replaced the standard UU minister (white, male, graybeard) with a young, very out lesbian adoptive mother, Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie.

She was already well known in the LGBT communities around here as the minister at the P-town church. Very few of our members feared her presence might turn the ASC into an all-gay church; truth be told, we already had the reputation as the UUA chapel for the number of ministers and staff from HQ who worshiped there and we were already welcoming to all.

However, we were quite surprised in her first year at how many lesbian couples her ministry attracted, many adoptive parents and quite a few from Somerville. Most of those turned out to be tire-kickers as they say in the sales biz. When we asked those who stopped coming why, we typically heard that they’d rather sit in a café with the papers on Sunday mornings or that the 12 mile drive or subway seemed too much or that the kid’s classrooms were not nice enough for their children.

Rev. Cuervo might pack folk in by virtue of being a dynamite preacher, if she is. She might attract non-Catholic Hispanic worshipers. She might be just another good UU minister. Regardless, the calling was good. The effect and longevity are to be determined.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Sassafras Safari

March 5th, 2010

Try to find filé powder in Shaw’s or Stop & Shop. I tried, along with many other chain and oner groceries in and around Boston.

As always, my quest was successful…through my demented perseverance. In my decades in Boston, I have gone from harrumphing frustration to amusement and enjoyment of the sport of it all.

As the cook around here, I am relentless in pleasing my family and guests. It isn’t always easy in a less than cosmopolitan town. Locale has come to make the ingredient hunts events for small triumphs.

Some of this is my fault for having a wide and deep repertoire  in the kitchen. I have been known to guffaw and simultaneously wrinkle my many-furrowed brow when I mention that I am the family cook. Almost invariably the non-chefs and mere dabblers and meat burners outside ask, “Oh, what kind of food do you cook?,” as though that would be reasonable chitchat. Horse feathers! It would be far easier to list what I won’t, haven’t or can’t cook.

Moreover, having lived in many parts of the country (and Japan) growing up, I got used to a variety of cuisines, groceries, and regional specialties. Then as an adult, I lived a decade in the Village in New York, two blocks from the fabulous Balducci’s produce, cheese, meat and fish haven. In lower Manhattan, virtually any foodstuff and all ingredients are available…right then…right there.

Boston and Cambridge and the area are not like that. There are many styles of restaurants. For ingredients though, you damned well better know your neighborhoods as well as your towns if you are looking for something. That’s kind of cute and even endearing in a provincial way. It’s less wonderful when you want to make a dish you know or have recently gotten a recipe for making. The hunt is on!

In its extreme, I learned this the first year we moved from the apple to the bean. That was 30 years ago and Boston has become more urbane and cosmopolitan since, but as many foods as I’ve had to track down over the years, I have no doubt we remain way behind more integrated cities with less dependency on sub-neighborhoods and cultural niches.

My first shock was fittingly enough, bean-based in Beantown. I worked down on Commercial wharf at Inc. magazine, which was a nice walk from the half of a townhouse we rented from the food and beverage manager of the Ritz. Johnny Carter of Johnny and Bonnie was a serious foodie by passion as well as profession.

He said he had never eaten feijoada, the Brazilian national dish and I figured I’d serve that as a get-better-acquainted meal. I knew I could get the sausages and pig and cow parts in the North End on the way home. I had not accounted that the key, staple ingredient — black (turtle) beans — would be a huge deal. After all, I had the North End, the Haymarket and Stop & Shop on the way home.

Well, 30 years ago, we here were even more provincial than we are now. Store after store, whether Italian specialty or chain, most did not have black beans or had ever seen them. Nowadays they are common dried and canned, but not in early 1980.

Such safaris have recurred repeatedly since, but with far greater success. That evening of the feijoada meant substituting the much inferior kidney bean, which did not have the fullness and muskiness required. However, I have learned to plan farther out. I also know which neighborhoods and which stores are likely to have this or that ingredient.

Tracking down items that would be very common in Manhattan has become a real sport and pastime in Boston. Such it was with filé.

I had a couple bottles of powdered sassafras leaves, including one a friend who visited New Orleans brought me a few years ago. When I use it that is generally for gumbo and I don’t need a lot, perhaps a teaspoon or two at the most and putting some on the table for the Southerners to sprinkle on as they might with the various levels of hot sauce I provide.

I sussed out the new Hyde Park supermarket, part of the PriceRight chain.  Every week (starting Sunday and not the herd mentality of Friday), that store has specials, including a couple of loss-leader produce items. One week it might be 97¢-a-pound grapes and the next it might be and was 99¢ okra.

Those wicked green fingers were as flawless as any I had seen or my granddad ever grew and at a great price. So, I churned out a gumbo and used my next to last allotment of filé. Hence, I went looking for replenishment.

filé powderAs a side note, I disdain those who say a gumbo needs either okra as a thickener or filé for that job and not both. I don’t know anyone from Louisiana or anywhere in the Deep South who agrees.  The word gumbo itself is from an African term for okra. You can be sure the namesake is essential. Filé though does more than thicken the broth. It has a distinctive flavor and aroma. We can taste and smell it. Gumbo is not real without both okra and filé, regardless of the fat used in the roux, the meat or fish simmered, or the broth base.

So with my absurdly, compulsively through process, I walked, biked or drove to store after store and called a few others. I learned a few things, such as:

  • the wonderful Hi-Lo Latino market in JP’s Hyde Square has myriad herbs and spices in four places, with lots of Caribbean medicinal bags of leaves or roots, but no sassafras.
  • likewise, America’s Food Basket on Hyde Park Avenue not only has a fine  selection of those ugly root vegetables, but it has a huge range of culinary and medicinal herbs and spices in three sections (no filé).
  • also, that new PriceRight has a big selection in two places in bottles and bags, but no filé.

After two dozen stores, I was amused by it all. I returned to the internet and tried multiple versions of search terms. Finally with something like “(filé powder)  gumbo Boston Cajun ingredients”I saw the winner. On the fourth page of hits, a food chat site had a comment that included the highlighted phrase “for those in the Boston area”.

Sure enough, a decent bike ride or drive of 12-plus miles took me to the source — the wonderful Marty’s in Newton. Yeah, it’s a wine/booze/beer store, but they have great mustards, chocolates and other foodstuffs. I’m sorry the Allston one disappeared in a lease fight, but one is really all I need.

Marty’s private brands many herbs and spices in a great rack of clear bags. God bless ’em. I returned with two sacks of filé. Come the next batch of perfect okra, I’m set. I make a totally pleasing gumbo.

Perhaps it’s  true that the worthwhile should be at least a little struggle so you appreciate it. I’m sure I was spoiled by the years in the Village and almost daily trips to Balducci’s. There I’d find exactly what I wanted and needed and then carry my treasures the whole two blocks north. It was satisfying without the thrill of the hunt.

Likewise, I know in Boston I have cataloged hundreds of items with their neighborhoods and stores for sources. I also know that a couple of times a year, I’ll don my virtual pith helmet and pick up my virtual net for the hunt.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Boston Bike Status TK

December 11th, 2009

Is it a senior moment when I mis-date an event in the Google calendar? I did and shall follow up on the state of cycling in Boston as soon as the report appears on the city site.

Dumbly, I not only put the day for in-person delivery for this evening instead of last evening when it occurred. I also tweeted and Cinched that. I have removed those erroneous leads and apologize if I confused anyone.

Jolly cyclingAs a relentless (and my sons say weather-foolish cyclist), I do keep tabs on the situation. I am pretty sure that there will be incremental improvement data and forecasts on the continuing addition of bike lanes, racks, bus racks and such. In addition, our city’s cycling goddess (a.k.a. bike coordinator) Nicole Freedman is after a bicycle-sharing program here.

Truth be told, I’m less sanguine about the future of the latter. I’ll cover that more in future posts.

If today’s bitter cold has you off your bike and in your TV chair, you can keep  your mind focused with two Left Ahead! oldies. A year ago, we chatted with Freedman and a few months before that with her Cambridge counterpart Cara Seiderman.

Otherwise, I offer mild redress for my error with previous related posts. Click on Cycling to the left or here for those.

Tags: , , , , ,

Life and Death by Bike

November 16th, 2009

We people could used more RAM.  In common public activities — for this post, think walking, cycling and driving — there are a ton of data to analyze every second. Yet the human norm is to limit the input, to be overly selective in using our brains.

A fatal example occurred in Boston when an 84-year-old walked out into traffic on Friday. A cyclist knocked  him to the curb, where he hit his head. He died two days later in the hospital.

Like competing Greek choruses,  we immediately heard:

  • The large subset of bicyclists are all monsters! String ‘im up.
  • A very quiet repeating chant of make the roads safe for cars, walkers and pedalers.
  • A small subset of grumblers about crazy pedestrians.

I have a stake in all the races here, being a multi-modal guy (add the subway or T as we call it here). Moreover, I have been hit by car drivers four times. The first, at age 6, was my fault; I ran across the street in front of a car with a green light. The second and extremely serious, at 19, was when another of the six students in my Greek class (yes, a third of the class was involved) wasn’t paying attention and flung me up and through his VW’s windshield. Twice as an adult cyclist in Boston,  I was hit by drivers who simply did not pay attention to the road and plowed into me when I had the right of way and was looking.

Yesterday’s fatality, Henry Haley, was elderly and according to the Globe not too healthy. Yet that was an unnecessary death and he might have had another decade or more of enjoyment and participation coming. The cyclist, identified by the Herald as 22-year-old Julian Paul Cavarlez-Flores of Randolph (probably a 15 to 18 mile bike ride), apparently had no chance to stop when Haley stepped into traffic against the light and not in a crosswalk.

The cyclist’s being legally in the right doesn’t bring Haley back any more than it will keep Cavarlez-Flores from forever replaying the panic and impotence at the appearance and impact. By the bye, he remained, tried to help and cooperated with police. Witnesses said it was Haley’s doing.

Here, I’m huge on multi-modal transportation. Search the cycling posts on this spot and at Marry in Massachusetts to find posts on Boston’s cycling defects and advances, on the Moving Together and Rail-Volution conferences, and on efforts to make ped/car/bike transit safe and inviting for all. Some of the ideas we are finally copying from Europe (think NYC’s separated walker and cyclist lanes) will make big leaps in that direction, but they will be a long time coming.

Let’s leave aside the wild-eyed get-off-my-road attitude of overly aggressive and overly entitled drivers. Think instead of the attention factor. Through what appears to be a combination of dull wits, low process capacity or perhaps just laziness, most us don’t make the effort to keep others on the road safe.

Try any American beltway or interstate to see this in action. A long and wide cascade of red tail lights, often with spots of squealing brakes and tires, occurs regularly. That’s no act of God. Instead, most of us drive right in front of our cars’ hoods. Were we looking a little farther and wider, we could see this truck cutting of that car, a sudden slowing a few hundred yards away, a state-police car off in the right shoulder, or drivers blocked up behind some slowpoke in the far left lane.

Ideally, there’d be no tailgating and no mass surprises…if drivers took in the horizon and looked up from their hoods. Yet, doing that requires brain power, of the type nearly all of us can perform if we choose. There are many ocular messages and a few aural ones involved. We can’t be twisting the CD player dial or reaching for a map or watching the GPS display. We actually have to pay attention and use our processing power all the time.

Cyclists should do that too and in self-preservation, most are better at it than drivers. The potentially fatal hazards — almost entirely from inattentive or hostile drivers or from pedestrians — are constant in the city.

Consider tinted windows, which I consider hazardous both to the driver and to those around the car. Drivers lose some visibility in any darkened condition. Far worse is the elimination of field of vision for those beside or behind in the constant turning or lane changing conditions. Many of those tints are just too deep for safety and an annoyance to fellow drivers.

For a cyclist, tinted windows can be super-dangerous. On streets, even those with painted bike lanes, there is a constant risk from gormless drivers suddenly flinging doors open into traffic. If they knock a cyclist into traffic or if the pedaler hits the door, it means serious injury and even death. Dooring is a far greater cause of death and injury to cyclists than collisions between bikes and pedestrians.

The self-defensive solution is for cyclists to process constantly. It is not the option most drivers consider in their metal cages. Every parked car may contain a driver or passenger about to throw the door open without looking (violation of state law, by the bye). That processing does not mean cyclists can take their eye off the road ahead or to either side. Instead of slowing to pass as legally required, many drivers blow the horn as though that suddenly will make the bicycle disappear.

As I go by various transit methods, I am pretty sure that city cycling has a similar effect as hard crosswords. Both (particularly cryptics in the latter group) make the brain process more information, keeping it sharp. Ideally, everyone would regularly be a driver, walker and cyclist too. Dealing with the spatial realities of each could give us both insight and empathy to the others.

Pity that Mr. Haley died from the collision. Yet, this is such a rare event that it got and likely will continue to get media coverage locally. In contrast, cyclists injured by drivers are not news and those killed by a car or truck driver tend to hit the neighborhood weekly only.

It’s too glib to note that the common-sense prevention is to watch where we walk, rdrive or bike, as well as obey those pesky laws and regulations about traffic lights, crosswalks and turns. Instead, some of us are compelled to extreme caution by the abandon of others. I think of River Street in Hyde Park from Cleary to Logan Squares. On this always busy road, pedestrians of all ages, with and without their children, stride suddenly between parked cars and traffic, with no attention to the nearby crosswalks. As a dad who drilled it into my three sons never to assume drivers are looking out for you, I remain astonished that parents would risk their kids’ lives constantly. I bike and drive that stretch cautiously.

Our behavior in many cities and most the nation being what it is, we end up adjusting the mechanics to cope as best possible. That’s why we have sidewalks and here a few inconvenient bike paths and increasing mileage of bike lanes. We have to protect people from each other far more than civility and reason would otherwise demand.

I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the fully separated and pretty safe car/ped/bike lanes here. Yet that is more likely to happen than that other solutions — hard traffic enforcement. If word got around that Boston’s blue boys charged drivers with running red lights, cutting off or j-hooking cyclists, threatening pedestrians in crosswalk chicken and such,  we’d see a very different transit environment.

Forget that.

Instead, the crowds have competing calls of blame for bad walkers and bad pedalers. The real problems are streets not yet set up for multi-modal transit and drivers creating a wild-west-style roadway. Here’s betting that we patch the signs, paint the lanes and separate travel areas long before we force drivers to behave.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Imperfect Demanding Perfect

September 28th, 2009

strawbs.jpgBlemished fruits and vegetables separate humans philosophically. Much like admiring a pretty woman or handsome man, even the plainest of us demands more of the objects of our voyeurism than we provide.

 

I am in my 30th year of shopping at Boston’s Haymarket, 32nd if you count college days when I lived in Cambridge for a bit. I absolutely adore the rickety stalls on Blackstone Street. Also, much like my family members, I have a broad view and make allowances.

 

Not all are so forgiving.

 

I recall my late mother-in-law tsk-tsking over my Saturday harvests when she was on one of her protracted visits. For example, I’d bring back a full flat (12 pints overflowing of strawberries) and separate and clean them. A few pints would have a couple of moldy berries.

 

Sylvia would give a loud and long, “What a shame!” with great sincerity. While I paid 30¢ or perhaps 50¢ per pint, she thought I would have been better off paying $2 or $3 a pint in the supermarket. True enough, there were unlikely to be any moldy fruit in those. Then again, they would be half white and as tasteless as packing peanuts.

 

It would be the same with those tomato-like objects supermarkets stock and sell, the more or less permanent things, hard and vaguely pink, with no scent or flavor. Yet, they too would be without blemish.

 

I thought of her again recently as a blogger acquaintance exchanged a few emails with me on the subject. One included:

Our biggest problem with Haymarket is quality.  The prices are fantastic but often we throw out more than we eat which makes us do two things: 1) question whether the low prices are truly economical and 2) feel like we are being incredibly wasteful consumers.  I would love to try the market again but am trying to find strategies that make it truly worth it.

 

I suspect I can do what he wants, but perhaps not exactly as cleanly as he wants. Among the overlapping issues there are:

  • Some vendors specialize and there are the right places to buy fresh herbs or citrus or root veggies. I can help there.
  • Some is frequency. The vendors know me by face after so many years and quite a few will warn me off something that isn’t that good on a particular weekend.  He’d have to show up and greet them as though he were French for awhile to get that.
  • Some is watching, particularly the college students as summer help. Be sure to see that they take the product they sell in plain sight. When they bend out of sight to a hidden box, that’s often trouble. Hear how the Asian-American women yell at them if they try that.
  • Accept that the cheapest is sometimes the riskiest. Most fruits and veggies and half or a quarter of supermarket prices. That written, it makes sense to scan the Thursday grocery fliers; sometimes the supers have a great loss leader like 77¢ a pound black grapes that you may not be able to top at the Haymarket. Mostly though if the green beans are 75¢ and gorgeous, don’t hold out for the 4 pounds for a dollar; you can be pretty sure the vendor dumping goods at absurd prices has stuff bad or about to go bad. Many would rather dump that, but a few will appeal to greedy shoppers.
  • If you want to get serious about a trip, walk through the front and then the back of the market. After all, it’s one long block and two perpendicular short half-blocks. See what looks good and fix the prices for your favorites on the way. Then swing back through with the bags you remembered to bring (I use a huge messenger bad for most stuff).

Back to the philosophical part, my mother-in-law did not grow veggies and fruits for subsistence. My grandfather, William B. Michael, did and had since the Depression.  Granddad taught me many realities of vegetative matter.

 

By the bye, my mother said she, her brother and sister, and their mother really didn’t know there was a Depression. That is, they were not grossly ignorant, rather Granddad had them covered. He had a full-time job (48 years on the B&O). He sold Chevrolets on the weekend. He had a part-time dry cleaner and tailor shop next to the house. Then, there were those gigantic gardens.

 

By the time my grandmother (with neighbors, children and grandchildren) canned, the shelves lining the basement floor to ceiling has Ball jars galore and the huge freezer was full of bags of Lima beans, corn and more. Snap beans, tomatoes, pickles and…it never seemed to stop.

 

My mother also told of how embarrassed she had been to wear homemade clothes from her father. Then she went away to college and bought clothes off the rack. She be damned, they didn’t fit perfectly. She had worn tailored clothes until she was 18!

 

Many summers I worked with him from weeding through harvest on several acres. He was a great respecter of people, but also of vegetables and fruit. He taught me enjoyment of what we grew as well. If it was time for asparagus, we’d walk down one of the 100-foot rows, cutting the perfectly ripe spears. Lightly steamed minutes later, they were sublime.

 

I also learned to take beautifully ripe tomatoes, redolent with that slightly acrid sweetness, and if one of the gems had a spot of blight or mold, we’s cut that and direct it to a stew or other sauce. The taste and color were great. As with today, the “bad” tomatoes were far better used that way than any permanent supermarket food.

 

So that is another philosophic angle of food. From a man who waltzed his family through the Depression, Granddad avoided waste. He also knew sapid from insipid.  I refuse to fill my mouth with bland food as a result.

 

Many Haymarket fruits and vegetables are ripe and ready. The supermarkets don’t want that, regardless of the grand tastes and aromas. They need food that will ship around for a week and sit in the store for two more without showing blemishes or mold. That’s the sturdy, Styrofoam® stuff you find behind the salad bar sneeze guard.

 

None for me, thanks. I’ll take the lush and ready-to-eat stuff. I’ll toss the occasional really bad piece and make the most of those with minor flaws. I’m not perfect and don’t demand perfect appearance of every tomato and strawberry.

Tags: , , , , ,