A Peninsula of Flavor

A recent discussion about food inspired this discussion.  I have been all over the United States and not only should I feel blessed that I live in Colorado because of the scenery and the variety of things we can still do in our lovely state, but also because we exist on a peninsula of flavor across a vast, Bland sea of cooking.  I can’t even deign to call much of what is out there in the Midwest and the West as cuisine.  I believe cuisine indicates seasonings.  Cooking techniques.  Flavor.

Throughout America, regions are known for the signature dishes.  New Orleans is known for their Cajun influences.  Shrimp, crawdads, Cajun boils of corn and potatoes, etufee, the dark roux of gumbo, the mishmash of everything delicious in jambalaya.  The South and their wizards of fat and flour who infuse their meals with hospitality as well as a syrupy sweet layer of passive aggression.  The Yankee states for treats such as hot dogs, cheese-steaks, pizza, and pretty much anything you can make out of bread, melted cheese, and meat.  From the influences of immigration for the last hundred and fifty years.  California brings in the influences of Mexico, Asia, and good ol’ Americana with burgers and fries, and whatever can be cherry picked from the East Coast as well.

Between the barbecue states, with Kansas City, Texas, and the hinterland of Chicago and the influences of the Great Lakes of German and Polish immigrants, something happens to food.  Something horrible.

Along the I-80 corridor, the cross-section of food you get to experience drops off significantly once you leave the Chicago area and head West.  Only briefly does it improve when you hit southern Wyoming, but then again it degrades once your travels take you through Utah, Nevada, and their adjacent states.  In some places, it might even be hard to find a cup of coffee.  North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Eastern Washington, Oregon, all the way down to Arizona, the palette of the average person must tend to be leaning away from things containing spicy, savory, sweet, or sour.  What you are left with is salt.  Bready.  And pepper available only on request.

I think a big contributor to this would have to be the influence of Mormonism, which makes self-denying Protestantism look like Fat Tuesday in Trinidad.  Simple, austere people traveling across the Great Plains with hand carts, jars full of sourdough starter, and plenty of beans, salt pork, and maybe bits of old boot leather and wood to eat.  No alcohol.  No coffee.  A lack of spices (possibly due to availability or austerity) that would make the Amish blush.

The trend stuck.  It still continues to thrive in many places unless the restaurant is some sort of madcap renegade, throwing paprika and cumin around like candy from a firetruck during a 4th of July parade.  You’ll find things on menus like baked fish.  Like that’s all they do to the fish is just bake it.  *Shudder* Pork chops.  “Steak.”  Usually cooked all the way through without even a hint of pink.  Because pink is for sissies.

Colorado, however, gets to benefit from its proximity to New Mexico, and because of that Mexico by proxy.  Because of influences from Texas we not only have Chile (green from NM) but Chilli (red from Texas).  As a crossroads of many cultures and many influences, we know how to grill a steak, smoke some BBQ ribs, roast, grill, poach, fry, sautee, broast, boil, and sashimi just about anything. Elk.  Moose.  Wild boar.  Venison.  Antelope! (more of a novelty, it’s really pretty gross). Chicken, pork, and above all else, BEEF.  The only thing we don’t do very well with is cooked fish.  Colorado is 1500 miles away from either coast.  Don’t hold your breath the fish is going to be any good. Or better yet, hold your breath, because it’s going to stink.

Most of us don’t have the palette for fish.  We catch trout, which is usually drowned in butter, salt and pepper, lemon wedges, batter, and anything to make it not taste like fish anymore.  We don’t have many catfish to speak of.  Many times have I gone fishing, only to have our catch rewarded by charring hot dogs over an open fire on the end of willow switches.  The trout destined to hibernate in someone’s deep freeze until they are just thrown away years later.  Between the billions of bones to pick through and the portion size, hot dogs sound like a better alternative.  It’s more fun to fish for the fish, than to eat them.

Colorado’s biggest drawback today might be the prevalence of chiles and jalapenos in literally anything.  At some point, our taste buds are going to be cooked out by our tolerance to Scoville units of pain.  Also, we have nothing on New Mexico.  Santa Fe is like finding some antediluvian text in a language everyone can read inherently.  The purity of the food there, the simplicity, the synchronicity of seasoning which awakens the senses is, in my opinion, unparalleled. If I lived in Santa Fe, I would weigh 600 pounds.

Living in Colorado is a lot like flying just close enough to the sun without being burned by it.




Feeling Guilty about Books and Mortality

As a writer, I am also supposed to be a reader as well.  I wish I had more time to read, but I am also a single parent, and my time is often dedicated to listening to teen drama, watching YouTube videos of gamers playing Roblox, or getting my kids outside to do something with me that they will appreciate and remember for the rest of their lives–so help me if it kills us!  Other parents know what I’m talking about, I’m sure.  We’ve discussed it ad nauseum waiting for kids to get their backpacks and shoes on at school. At the cake line at birthday parties.  It’s in the haggard expressions and the disheveled hair.  The bags under our eyes and the shrugs we convey to each other.   I remember my parents lecturing me too about not spending enough time doing things while I was young.  Now I pass that nagging on to my kids.  The crux of the matter is really this: the older you get, the more you realize how little time there is.

Life is short.

If we had all the time of our misspent youth back, we would do many things differently.  I’m sure there’s a part of all of us that would kiss the girl, jump the ramp, get on that train and ride the rails, go to grad school, visit our grandparents. Et cetera. Et cetera.

I am going to be 43 soon.  I know that there are a lot of books I haven’t read, and just out of logistics, I also know that there are a lot of books I will never read before my life is over.  43 is pretty young.  I might have been telling myself that all my years.  32 is pretty young.  27 is pretty young.  14 is pretty young.  There was always plenty of time.

There isn’t enough time.  Call it a midlife crisis, but maybe it’s just a midlife catharsis.  I am realistic that it is quite possible that I have fewer days left than I have used up.  Getting smacked by a speeding bus or eating some bad shellfish aside, if you double my age now, I will already have passed the halfway mark of the oldest men in my family (except for one old farmer who lived to be 96–working hard, eating bacon and eggs every day of his life, and being out in the sunshine for nearly ten decades).  His son outlived him by only four years.

In my time on this planet, I have watched probably years of television, played months of video games, and maybe read a couple hundred books.  Maybe.  I’m not a quick reader.  For me, reading is an investment of time and money.  Unlike a movie, where you can be duped out of your $8 and a loss of maybe two hours of your day, for me, a bad book can sap weeks of my life.  The good ones have probably added years to it, but those are becoming less and less frequent.  I usually realize a book sucks about 80 pages in and stop reading. I doubt I’m the only one who does this. I have better things to do with my time than spend it reading a bad book (I’m looking at you The Girl on the Train).  I have shelves full of books I have only read the beginnings of.  Which might explain why as a writer, I have scads of stories that remain unfinished.  You learn from experience, and my experience of good beginnings is greater than my knowledge of spectacular endings.

I once heard a man say “If there were more libraries, we wouldn’t need as many police stations.”  Very profound.  But anyone who writes can tell you that nowadays, fewer people are reading.  And fewer publishers are buying.  I wrote recently about my daughter reading the Castle Perilous series. It was just a fun series that occupied an afternoon of my time as a kid.  Better than a movie too, I might add.   But so many books “worth reading” get turned into movies and series anyway.  Why bother with the primary text when you can see Peter Dinklage and Amy Adams do everything every Sunday night on HBO?

Recently, in an attempt to save money, I checked my local library for a book that was recommended to me.  The library had one copy in the entire county, which is fine.  This would be a reference book that would be nice to handle, dog-ear, and write in the margins. Not exactly something you should be doing to a borrowed book. The eReader copy was only a few dollars cheaper than the paperback.  I will get use out of this book, and unlike fiction, it will be something I can read when the mood strikes me.  I can come back to it.  Read it out of order, etc.  It just kills me that most books I have an interest in aren’t found at the library.  You have to buy them.  And I feel guilty for buying books, mainly because I have shelves of partially finished books.

It used to be that I never felt guilty for buying a book.  Spending hundreds of dollars every year for textbooks as an English major and History minor cured me of that.  For a while.  (I didn’t read much of those books either.)  But now, with school supplies, bills to pay, and general adulting to do, I feel guilty spending $16 on a book I probably don’t have time or energy to read, much less finish.

Libraries afford the luxury of reading the first 80 pages of a book and then returning it once the notifications of fines start rolling in on your email.  It’s safe. It’s cheap.  And sometimes it’s enough just to have a book around and stare at the title while you walk past.  It won’t break the bank to do this.

Forget about Kindle or eReaders.  If the kids haven’t run down the batteries or smeared unknown sticky substances on the screen while watching YouTube, there is still the matter of cost and the luxury of time you don’t have to read.  The few eBooks I have read didn’t stick with me anyway. No pun intended. For whatever reason, my memory of a story works much better with an actual dead-tree version of a story.  Also, I do like to dog-ear and write notes in the margins from time to time.  I have a copy of Ray Bradbury’s “Zen and the Art of Writing” I carried around with me for two years.  It is beaten to a pulp.  I love that book.  Until the eReaders can come up with a “writing comments in the margins in really sharp pencil” mode, I just don’t get the same experience from an eReader.

So, long story short.  Today I bought two books.  I feel guilty for it.  For nearly $30, I have two reference books for my home library.  They will collect dust.  They will be something I have to move one day.  For the cost of these two books, I could have bought two months of Hulu without commercials. Three cushy seated movie theatre experiences. Reading might be dying out because it is becoming an elitist venture.

I think it will drive you nuts to itemize it.

What I have to remind myself is this: Reading makes this short life so much better.  We might as well enjoy it.  Eat the steak.  Drink the wine. Kiss the girl.  Hug your grandpa.  Pet the dog. Write the stories. Read the book.

Live the life.

Why we write

This week, there was a quite a bit of family drama.  Needless to say, my 15 year old daughter is, in her own words, “super-grounded.”  I took her phone away from her.  Life has been hell for her ever since.  Cue the rolling eyes on my part.

Anyway, she has been at a loss as far as what can occupy her time, aside from continually scrolling up or down on her meme sites.  The last few nights, as she was climbing the walls, I calmly suggested she do what people actually still do that don’t have an electronics addiction: read a damn book.

This achieved a lot of push back unfortunately.  She informed me that while I was at work on Friday, she already looked through my bookshelves and could find NOTHING to read!  This is highly doubtful, but I did get together with her and start looking through books for her to read.  And unfortunately, I think she might have been a little bit right.

It’s a problem I find myself having a lot lately too.  So many books on my shelf were either “important” literary works, a book in a lengthy series, or books that are frankly just not fun to read.  Then I came across two series of books I loved when I was her age.  The Guardians of the Flame series by Joel Rosenberg, which begins with “The Sleeping Dragon” and the extra light and fluffy series “Castle Perilous” which begins with “Castle Perilous” by John DeChancie.

The first series is one which got in early on the trope of role-playing gamers are sucked into the world they are gaming in.  All sorts of stuff hits the fan.  Out of the many books and stories of this kind, I think Rosenberg did it best.  Especially with his character of the eternal smartass, Walter Slovatsky.

The second series is about the Castle Perilous, a nexus between worlds which houses 144,000 doorways into infinite worlds.  The guests of the castle each are imbued with magical Talents.  Anything from conjuring to being good at swordfighting, to teleportation.  It has been at leasty 25 years since I read any of these books, but the one thing I do remember is just how much FUN they were.

You don’t see that a lot anymore.  I could read a Castle Perilous book in a day or two, tops.  The story began and ended.  I laughed.  I was enthralled.  I bought the next book when it came out.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  The books weren’t graphic bloodbaths or sex-fueled exploitation series.  There were no lengthy descriptions of chicken dinners and heraldry.  The characters were not the most dynamic, but they were fun and relatable.  They made me look forward to reading the next one.  They didn’t talk down to their audience either.  They weren’t marketed as YA or anything either, but as a kid, they were highly accessible.  As an adult, my mom, an avid reader, got a kick out of them.  They were the equivalent of a night in, a day home, or a long drive.  Clocking in at under 200 pages each, the books were a quick and satisfying read.

That was before people stopped reading for fun, I guess.  The years when people swarmed the bookstores for St. Oprah’s newest endorsement or when literary profs told us to avoid reading trash, or when trash was marketed in $16 trade paperbacks (I’m looking at you, “The Girl on the Train.”)

Anyway, my daughter, who hates everything, actually liked the book.  For the first couple chapters at least.  Her attention was captured by golfing velociraptors and a 30 something man with a PhD. in Liberal Arts who wasn’t good at pretty much anything as a protag.

Talking about these books helped remind me why I got into writing in the first place.  To tell a fun story.  Escapism.  Adventure.  The implausible right there on the page, actually unfolding before my eyes.  Nothing super important.  Nothing deep and provocative.  And no, not even something HBO would buy (along with my soul) for a million dollars.

I had forgotten books like this existed.

Maybe it’s time people start making reading fun again.  Whenever I read, I know it is going to be an investment of time I usually don’t have.  Normally I get frustrated that a book starts to tank after the first few chapters.  After all, they got the attention of an editor, and the publisher got my $20 investment in a story.  There isn’t a lot of loyalty past that these days.

I think an author makes a contract with a reader when they tell a story, to always be interesting.  So few books these days, in my opinion, honor that agreement anymore.  And the ones that do already have TV shows or movies in the works for them.  I have become cynical in my old age I guess.  Reading is no longer a pleasure.  It’s a chore.

I hope something can prove me wrong about that one of these days.