I’ve eaten a lot of crap over 53 and a half years. I’m guessing you’ve eaten your share, too. I’ve eaten storage rooms and barrels full of common poisons, ingested by way of Sour Cream Pringles, Double Stuff Oreos, Rold Gold Pretzels, Three Musketeer Bars, Double-Cheese and Bacon Burgers, Taco Supremes , Hot Dogs from Questionable Sources and the Rubbery Swanson’s Object that they refer to as Fried Chicken, among other common people swill. Despite this (and despite the personal campfire that I light around my head at regular intervals – not to mention the bottomless cup of coffee that’s always nearby) I’m not dead. Actually, I feel pretty good. I think it might be the long walks. And the farm fresh food. So does Mookie.
When I was a kid, I had an iron stomach. Some of the things I found edible astound me now. And there was no barrier on my access to poor food choices. As the youngest child of five, I was my mother’s or father’s co-pilot on their weekly trips to the supermarket. (It remains one of my primary household responsibilities to this day, and oddly enough, I love supermarkets so much I worked as a stock clerk off and on for many happy years, without having to think about what I was doing once. Anyway…). When I’d go to the supermarket with my mother especially, she’d let me buy just about anything that looked like it might be something. It’s possible that she was a little distracted. Nevertheless, I have happy childhood memories of eating entire boxes of Bugles while watching afternoon game shows and sitcoms on a portable black and white TV after school, of making myself a Friday Night Elio’s Frozen Pizza to go with Sanford and Son or The Odd Couple, or doing up an entire box of pigs in a blanket for a late Saturday afternoon Mets game from the West Coast. If you stacked the slices of Oscar Meyer Bologna that I consumed between 1970 and 1990, and stood three of their nasty hot dogs between each slice, it would be approximately the height of the famous Jones Beach Water Tower, and far and away the greater engineering marvel. They’re very thick slices, but still.
Some of my childhood favorites make me flat out nauseous in retrospect. I would crack open a tin of vienna sausages and munch on them, or make Underwood Chicken Spread or Deviled Ham on Wonder Bread and, Good Lord, actually have it for lunch. I’ve eaten Spam with a Hershey’s Chocolate Milk chaser . And speaking of chocolate, there were Yodels. And Ring Dings. And Devil Dogs. They all go great with a cold Dr. Pepper. Did I mention I had all my teeth extracted seven years ago?
Moving on. As I mentioned, I’m the youngest of five children. There’s four years between the four of them and four and a half years between me and everybody else. By the time I was in fourth grade, my parents were already paying three college tuitions. My mom was working full-time as a NYC high school English teacher and my dad was working two nights a week at Apex Technical School in Manhattan teaching HVAC classes in addition to his day job. During the school year, my mom still felt strongly about getting anyone to the table who happened to be home at exactly 6 pm for dinner, but in order to plan that dinner, she had to relegate it to auto-pilot. She’d get a delivery from Pat’s Prime Meats in Malverne on Saturday (they’re still around), and off we went on another trip on the merry-go-round: Lamb Chops with mashed potatoes and frozen cut green beans on Monday, Turkey Roll or Howard Johnson’s Chicken Croquettes from the A&P on Tuesday, chicken cutlets with white rice and frozen mixed vegetables on Wednesday, Meatloaf with baked potato and carrots on Thursday, frozen pizza or whatever was left over on Friday. Everything prepared as quickly and with as little complication as possible, out of the necessity of eating at exactly 6pm.
My mom was actually a very good cook. On the weekends we might have a broiled steak, or something like veal parmesan, which my mom called veal scallopini. That was always my birthday dinner request. She also made her own spaghetti sauce with meat that rivaled that of any Italian mother. But the busier she got, and the fewer people who were around to eat, the more the weekly rotation, all of which got pretty old after a while anyway, started falling apart. There were a lot more Chinese food and Ancona Pizza nights, which suited me just fine, and a lot more frozen food.
Nobody knew any better. What could be more convenient than a TV Dinner? : Swanson’s Salisbury Steak, or the iconic and evil Fried Chicken Dinner, or the meatloaf, which was to meat what particle board is to wood, with the chocolate brownie that would be unsalvageable if you left it in at 350 degrees for a second longer than 30 minutes. There was the Stouffer’s Chicken A La King that you boiled in two bags, one for the so-called chicken and sauce-like substance and one for the rice. Hard to screw up rice. And there were Hungry Man Chicken and Turkey Pot Pies. We had ’em all. Like many children of the 70’s, the generation when moms went back to work again, TV Dinners were perfectly acceptable alternatives to home cooked meals. They taste pretty good, too.
Except really, they aren’t, and they don’t.
As I got into working more and more (at Mel Weitz’ Foodtown, as well as other Mcjobs) and going to college at night, I subsided almost exclusively on fast food, junk, the Queens College cafeteria, friendly delis, the 7-11 and the ubiquitous stalwart TV Dinners. I’ve always had a metabolism not unlike a coal furnace. I’ve weighed somewhere between 120 and 125 pounds my whole adult life, and yes, at 5’9”, I am a human scarecrow, and maybe a little sensitive about that, but I’ve accepted that I am as God made me. (I’m always amused that people are allowed to say, “you’re so skinny!” but not allowed to say, “Christ, look how fat you are!” It’s a bit of a double standard. And I wrote that line at least 35 years ago). Nonetheless, I have to constantly feed the furnace to maintain my weight and keep from falling off the face of the earth, or slipping into a crack in the sidewalk.
One of my favorite go-to meals when I went to school at night was to come home to a big breakfast at 9:30 pm. Some french toast, maybe fried eggs on an english muffin, maybe a couple of nuked sausage links on the side. My parents thought I was fucking crazy but they loved me anyway. My mother would always tell me there was a leftover lamb chop, but I’d be more likely to have a bowl of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios.
Once out in the working world, if you had a good pizza place I could get in and out of in less than twenty minutes, or a diner where the grease soaked into the bun of the cheeseburger as you ate it, you and I became the best of friends, and you got 15% of my weekly income. When I worked in the production department at New York Magazine in the late 80’s (as much fun and as little fun as it sounds) there was a tradition that when a staffer left they would receive a mock magazine cover as a parting gift. When I left after two years and two months, one of my favorite co-workers (I remember you, Franny!) included an inset picture of the pizza place across 2nd Avenue on my cover with the headline “Sal In Shock! Sales Plunge!” I was also famous for using my weekly food allowance for staying late to “close the book” on Tuesday nights to pig out on KFC. A lot of people who worked there were very into fancy-schmancy restaurants, which more often than not frightened me. They would all walk into our end the office and become immediately enraptured, then quickly repulsed, by the smell of mass-produced fried chicken. I didn’t really care. I was just shoveling coal into the furnace.
After a while I settled into this job where you’re lucky to get ten minutes to eat lunch and they don’t buy your KFC, or your copy paper. I’ve been on “continuous service” in this particular job for 21 years and three months. I needed something to eat fast that I wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to fully and properly digest (and expel) until two or three hours later. Thus began the legend of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
People are amazed at the fact that I’ve eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich nearly every working day for over twenty years. I’m amused that they’re amazed. Especially when I sneak it in during meetings and somebody says, “Hey! That looks good!”, like they just now realized you could put these particular ingredients together. Why wouldn’t you eat peanut butter and jelly? It’s perfect!
And let me be precise here. (This is a very big part of my OCD, so it’s a subject very dear to me). It’s actually peanut butter and jam, and I do randomly switch between grape and strawberry jam.(Sometimes obsessive-compulsives will surprise you). But it has to be Smuckers Jam. And Jif Creamy Peanut Butter. Liberally spread together on Pepperidge Farm Honey Wheat Bread, then wrapped in foil, then put in a Ziploc bag (with a zipper) for maximum freshness. I make tomorrow’s peanut butter and jelly within a half hour of getting home from work. It has to be well-refrigerated. It goes in the bottom drawer of the fridge, where everything I pack in my working day lunch bag goes: A bottle filled with water, a bottle filled with Tropicana Orange juice, a plastic bottle of Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola for the ride home on the God Damned Belt Parkway, some apple slices in a Ziploc bag, an individually-wrapped Entemann’s crumb cake, and my magic potion: A La Yogurt Mixed Berry and a bag containing about fifteen blueberries.
Yogurt was one of my big turning points on my food journey. It’s about as far away as you can get from Bugles, for starters. In fact, I could make the case that yogurt is the axis on which this entire silly narrative tilts upward towards it’s title: Better Food.
When you become a parent, it’s not about feeding yourself anymore. Fifteen years ago, I married a lovely girl named Trisha who had been a vegetarian for seventeen years when I met her. She couldn’t believe some of the stuff I ate, and the stuff she ate didn’t seem at all filling to me. And yet we loved each other then as now. She was especially repulsed by one of my g0-to dinners, the Dread Birdseye Garlic Chicken Voila. Available in your frozen food section, but if you’re smart, you’ll just keep on walking. Quote the funniest woman I know: “The chicken is kind of suspect, but it’s the voila that’ll get you.”
Nonetheless, for the first couple of years, we figured it out. A lot of pasta, a lot of take out. If you’re ever in Valley Stream, Ancona Pizza on Rockaway Avenue could theoretically feed you for the rest of your life. Start with the meatball parm hero. Tell them John sent you.
And because Trisha’s mother told her it was her responsibility to feed me, which it isn’t, she would make really good cheese lasagnas, and even made me Shake and Bake Chicken and cutlets like my mom made, even though she wasn’t eating any of it. Once when she made me a roasted chicken, I caught her making it dance on the sink as she cleaned it. I love that woman like you wouldn’t believe. But she herself stayed a vegetarian until one July day in 2003, when she was pregnant and she smelled really good.
We were sitting in Dad’s Copake Diner, which is one of my favorite ways to start a sentence. Usually, she’d have to go through five minutes of making faces at the menu to find the best vegetarian thing they had. Suddenly she just said fuck it. She didn’t really say that because she curses much less than I do. What she did say is: “I’m going to have a chicken cesear wrap.”
And just like that, Trisha wasn’t a vegetarian anymore. And I started barbecuing more steaks. And we had a baby. And we bought baby food. And the baby ate the baby food, and we ate what we ate. And the baby got a little older, and we started expanding his menu. Trisha bought some Axlerod Yogurt.
Yogurt grossed me out from the mid-1960’s up until 2006 or so. And one day I tried one again. And I eat it every working day, and many non-working days at that, and have been eating it religiously for ten years now. It not only tastes great, it’s like a fresh coat of paint on the walls of your digestive tract every morning. Once I got hooked, I suggested that Axlerod’s motto ought to be: “It’s so Mother Fucking Good!” But ah, so you ask, why’d you put a picture of La Yogurt in here? Well, first I’m glad you’re still paying attention, and secondly, there was a distribution problem at my King Kullen with Axlerod. They often didn’t have my favorite flavors. And I haven’t changed my mind about greek yogurt, or the cottage cheese my mother used to eat for lunch with a half a melon when she was on some weird diet. That shit is vile. But out of necessity, I tried La Yogurt and found it just as mother fucking good as Axlerod. Again, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder will surprise you sometimes.
The blueberries got added to the morning yogurt when I decided to start growing blueberries in giant pots around the yard. I started about ten years ago and I now have ten blueberry bushes. I love blueberries. I love everything connected to blueberries. The plants themselves are beautiful. It’s fascinating to watch the flowers slowly become berries, and the fall foliage is a deep crimson red that’s like a bonfire in the sunshine. So many things are better with blueberries. I’d buy blueberry scented toilet paper if they made it. (I actually wrote that joke about cinnamon a long, long time ago. But I think it’s pretty good, so I recycled it). And after a few summers, I realized that one of my truly favorite things about growing blueberries (specifically, highbush blue jay, blue crop and one or two other cultivars I can’t remember right now) is that they come into season just about the same time that I get some time away from the Belt Parkway for a while and can actually enjoy a summer morning. I was walking around the house smoking a cigarette (Gasp!) and picking at the blueberries at the same time. (The robins, mockingbirds and catbirds, who don’t smoke, also get their share) when it suddenly occurred to me that I was ingesting carcinogens and antioxidants at the same time And let me tell you, it felt great. So every morning I pack every spoonful of La Yogurt with as many blueberries as I can, and I become as indestructible as I possibly can be until peanut butter and jelly sandwich time approximately four hours later.
Meanwhile, back in fatherhood, our young lad, known on A Creek Runs Through It as “The Dude”, started to have (well-documented) sensory issues, and among those was disliking the texture and taste of certain foods. By the time he was 8 or 9, milk was out. Eggs were never in. You could get away with things made with milk and eggs sometimes, as long as they were cutlets or lasagna. But then he started to have a problem with cutlets and lasagna. we couldn’t win. Shake and Bake Chicken was one of the first ones to go, which made me very sad. I mean, how the hell…? Never mind.
Suffice to say, it was getting harder and harder to feed him without disappointment and what my mom used to call “whammy faces” at the dinner table, and I was getting more and more frustrated, since by this time I had put myself in charge of cooking because Trisha doesn’t get home from work until after six. And I was really starting to enjoy cooking. I always liked it, but I was digging up more recipes and learning more about the magic ingredients and spices that really good cooks put together. Mrs. Duffy is my witness: I have gone from Chicken Garlic Voila in a frying pan to restaurant quality presentations. As a matter of fact, when they closed down a long, long established restaurant called Goldie’s at Gibson Station, which is one one of my favorite walking routes with Mookie Dog, I conjured up a Powerball Dream of opening “Duffy’s At The Station” and hiring lots of people I know to create the best family restaurant in Valley Stream (which already has Mitchell’s). It’s a nice dream, but it’d be way too much work. If I did hit Powerball, I’d probably just take more naps.
So you could imagine, becoming really good at cooking, great even, and starting to really feel strongly about family dinners just like Mom used to, and having very little time to put them together, just like Mom used to, and then having the guy you’re cooking for constantly whining that he can’t eat what you cook. It was getting frustrating to say the least. And then, like manna from heaven two summers ago, Our Harvest entered my life.
This is a picture of Mike Winik and Scott D. Reich, undoubtedly the smartest guys in their lunchroom when they went to school, blissfully unaware that I am using their picture without permission and that they are tagged in this post. They are the co-founders of Our Harvest. Let me tell you the amazing idea that these two young fellers came up with and how it’s changed my life.
This is what they do: They buy fresh meat, poultry, dairy products, vegetables, fruit and other stuff from farms in the Hudson Valley upstate, New Jersey and out east on Long Island and local organic foodies, they sell it to me through their website at ourharvest.com and I pick it up on Saturday mornings, where a nice college kid waits in the parking lot of Blessed Sacrament Church, a mile north of here, with bags and coolers of fresh food. And not only that, for every $25 you spend with Our Harvest, they donate one meal to a family in need on Long Island, and I assume it’s not a TV dinner. They have pick up points all over Long Island and the Five Boroughs. It’s a wonderful thing when your business model ensures that everyone wins. I was in on the ground floor of this, and actually met Scott or Mike, or both, one of the first times I picked up my order. I complimented them on their cool t-shirts (It has their logo on the front and the slogan “Eat Better Together” on the back) and they had a free t-shirt waiting for me with my next order. They had me at the chicken, but the t-shirt was a nice touch.
And this is what I can tell you: It’s all so mother fucking good. Perdue chicken and King Kullen steaks are like Swanson TV Dinners compared to eating chicken and steak that was enjoying the sunshine just a couple of weeks ago. Once you have eaten farm fresh meat and poultry, it’s impossible to go back. There’s a Turkey London Broil I get that’s from the DiPaolo Turkey farm in New Jersey, and I found a outrageously delicious recipe for an orange honey glaze for said turkey – complete with herbes de provence (which is fun to say) – from thecozyapron.com, the domain of a nice lady named Ingrid who my wife thinks I have a little thing for. And the carrots taste like carrots. Everything is fresh and full of the food flavors that are slowly disappearing from just about everything you buy at the supermarket. And Sunday I cook things to last all week. I’m a regular visitor to an app called The Big Oven, which you have to say in a silly Fat Albert voice when you refer to it. And since we all eat enough chicken to start growing feathers, I have an arsenal of six or seven chicken recipes that The Dude is guaranteed to eat every time. We still have wars at dinner time here and there, mostly because The Dude didn’t fall far from the tree, and The Tree still keeps a supply of Oreo cookies, donuts, Pringles and spice drops in the house at all times, and The Dude often snacks too much before dinner. But for the most part, food has been solved on Duffy’s Creek
And oddly enough, The Dude has developed a Temple Grandin-ish interest in the humane treatment of farm animals and the importance of organic food. Taking advantage of this, Trisha brought home some organic milk last year and suddenly The Dude’s five-year milk boycott ended, and he drinks it with his Our Harvest-laced dinner pretty much every night. And then I tried the organic milk. And I never went back. It tastes like the the milk my parents got in glass bottles from the Dairy Barn. It makes store brand milk taste like milk-flavored water. It costs a lot more, as does all the Our Harvest food, but I couldn’t care less. What should you spend money on that’s more important? For one thing, my son eats. And he’s a human scarecrow, too, so he needs every bit of protein he can get.
And for another thing, a funny thing has happened to me over the last couple of years with long walks with Mookie Dog , more farm fresh and organic food and slightly fewer Oreo cookies. I feel better. A Lot better. I feel like I very well may have expelled a lot of chemicals from my system and not replaced them with more chemicals.
Thanks to Our Harvest, we’re eating better food all the time. Thanks to the miracle and inspiration of childbirth, the guy who ate ten-thousand baloney sandwiches is one of the best cooks you know. Yes, I still have a bag of Oreo cookies in the pantry. And yes, there is nothing Mookie and I love more than an individually-wrapped Entemenn’s Crumb Cake. But when it comes to dinner, I don’t mess around. I wish I could invite you all over to prove it. I’d make you some Sesame Chicken Thighs that would make your knees quiver. Maybe some Baked Yukon Gold Potatoes and fresh steamed broccoli on the side.
And fresh salad. Always fresh salad, and always organically grown. I haven’t touched a pre-made bagged Dole salad in years and years.
I’d sooner eat my lawn.