Thursday, November 26, 2009

I kind of still hate "The Catcher in the Rye", sort of

Last month, my friend Stan posted a very well written and thoughtful piece about J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. I left him a long comment about how much I hated the book, but also recognized that I haven't read the book since we were in high school, and that my own memories and impressions of it might be somewhat skewed. In order to fully evaluate his entry, and possibly respond with one of my own, I decided that I should read the book again, as I may suddenly (if the intervening decade or so between my last reading and this one counts as "sudden") feel differently about it.

This kind of change is entirely possible. When we read The Scarlet Letter in high school, it was a long, painful slog that took about a month and a half because you had to analyze everything, beat each chapter to death like a dead horse, and then discuss it at tedious length in a room full of peers who, in most cases, had not only not finished but most likely not even started reading the book and who, more than anything, wanted to figure out what the teacher wanted to hear more than they actually wanted to think about a moldy old classic. I'm not saying that like I'm above those kids, because I totally just wanted to know what we were supposed to learn and if we could please just move on.

In retrospect, I think 90% of high school English coursework is designed to make kids hate reading, but I'm digressing. When I had to reread The Scarlet Letter for a literature course in college, we covered the entire book in two classes. We didn't spend a quarter of the school year on it, and when I reread it early in the semester to get it over with as quickly as possible it was like reading a completely different book where someone cut out all the boring parts and reading it didn't feel like pushing wooden splinters under your fingernails. I had a chance to view the book as a whole, rather than in weekly chapters, and I got to appreciate it more as a novel written for entertainment than as an iconic classic and pillar of the American canon.

I had high hopes for The Catcher in the Rye, and was ready to have my mind completely changed, but no. I still hate it. I can't argue with Stan's main points about it because I agree with them, with one exception. Stan states in his entry:

In high school we thought it was a book about authenticity. We resonated with Holden’s perspective that we were surrounded by unreflective phonies. It verified our self perception as unique or profound in our tired self-refuting insights. We identified with his disaffections and his systemic mistrusts. We saw Holden as a champion of nerdy angst and entirely missed Salinger’s clues that our narrator was neither consistent nor well.

I'm not part of the collective "we" in that paragraph. From the first time I read this book, the main problem I had with it was that I found it completely inauthentic, and I was as disgusted by the reactions of my classmates as I was by the book itself. As soon as I started rereading it, from the very first page, I remembered exactly what I didn't like about it, and now I've spent four and a half hours slogging painfully through it just so I could be done.

For starters, Catcher is a novel with a teenaged first person narrator written by a thirty-two year old man. I've always been distrustful of people who tell me what I'm thinking and how I'm feeling, and this was true when I was a teenager as well. I'm not arguing that only teens can write about teens, but an adult trying to speak in the voice of a person they haven't been for a decade or more falls prey to nostalgia and the changes in their own perspective that time has effected. You can write as passionately and descriptively as possible about how truly awful it was to have to play shirts and skins in gym class when you had a big huge bacne pimple on your shoulder blade, but you can't really put yourself in those shoes and feel how awful it really was. It no longer seems like the end of the world because you've been through so many other, more awful things like getting fired from a job and car wrecks and having to rewrite your entire master's thesis and overdrawing your checking account and whatever else. For a teenager, it's the end of the world because high school is the whole world, but for an adult it's just one more bump on a long highway. You can try to relive it, but you'll never quite get there.

And hey, speaking of high school and teenagers, one of the other reasons why I've always hated this book is that it always seems to be the first or second volume in the Angry and Misunderstood Unique Teenage Rebel Reading List. Show me a unique little twelfth grade snowflake who's totally above it all and completely jaded with the cliquish hell of high school, and I guarantee that their favorite books will include The Bell Jar, The Catcher in the Rye, or both. It's like when you go to college, decide you're a Wiccan, and suddenly your favorite movies are "The Wicker Man" and "The Craft". Hot Topic and Torrid might as well start selling Catcher and The Bell Jar in a black and red boxed set. Having been a unique, jaded, elitist twelfth grade snowflake myself, I'm not sure how I managed to hate this book on sight, but it must be because I was somehow even more unique and more special than everyone around me.

Either that, or I had an immediate gut response to the inauthenticity of my classmates' reactions to it. Junior high and high school children are soulless, heartless monsters for the most part, and travel the schools in packs to crush the weak and the different. If you don't have a group, any group, to be part of so that you can enjoy the safety of numbers, you might as well be swimming through the shark tank with your wrists open and gushing. What I hated about this book in high school was listening to the sharks in my English class praise the fictitious Holden Caulfield's hatred of phonies and unwillingness to compromise himself when they would have fallen on a real, flesh and blood Holden in their midst like a pack of jackals, and they were completely unwilling to admit that.

This post was intended as a response to Stan's post, but I'm not sure how to classify it. It's not a rebuttal, and I fear it might be closer to a rant than anything else. It definitely feels like I pulled off a scab I was only half aware that I had, and that perhaps the feelings of teenagers are more accessible to the adults they become than I originally believed. In closing, what did I learn from this rereading exercise?

1) I cannot rationally evaluate this book, because I cannot separate my feelings about the book and people who like it from the book itself. I didn't cite any pages above because very little of what I've written is based on the novel itself. I may not actually hate The Catcher in the Rye, but instead may just hate teenagers who like it.

2) Art is subjective, and I accept that different people like different things and that it's ok for them to. Stan and I can still be friends, as we both like lots of things the other does not. On the subject of this particular novel, we'll have to agree to disagree.

3) Thank God he didn't decide to reread and post about Billy Budd. There's no way I'd ever make it through that again.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


For every successful invention, there are a thousand or more that don't work out quite so well, and new food inventions can take a few different paths. In some cases, like the now unremarkable turducken, they go from novelty to commonplace. You can order turduckens online now, and Jen just made one for the quickfire on "Top Chef" last week. Others, thanks to the wonders of the internet, become infamous, like the corn nut-trimmed racial hate crime that Sandra Lee refers to as a Kwanzaa cake. At least once a holiday season I see that someone's blog has once again trotted out that holiday horror, and now, with Christmas coming earlier every year, I might be the first for 2009.

Every friend I have who celebrates Kwanzaa has watched that video in open-mouthed horror when I've shown it to them, and then immediately gone on to show someone else. I feel like I'm passing around that video from "The Ring": Before you die, you see the Kwanzaa cake. And then Sandra Lee crawls out of your television and kills you.

Back to food, though, there is a hazy twilight between the famous and the infamous, a shadowy place filled with the urban legends of cooking that everyone has heard of but no one has actually eaten. I'm speaking of things like the Bacon Log, the Texas State Fair's deep-fried butter lumps, the Meatbaby, or... the Cheelow square.

The Cheelow square is a dessert/snack/culinary abomination that was described to me as "Rice Krispy treats made with Cheetos" by my friend Rod, who was discussing it on his Facebook page a week or two ago. At first, I thought he was pulling my leg, because mixing Cheetos with marshmallow and sugar sounded about as appetizing as mixing chocolate with industrial drain cleaner, but then he posted a picture. Beyond that, he even claimed that they tasted good, and when I expressed skepticism, he suggested I try it myself and then blog about it.

I was intrigued enough to say yes.

Here are my Cheelow ingredients:

cheelow ingredients

As you can see, it's a simple recipe. Three tablespoons of butter, a ten ounce bag of marshmallows, and a regular bag of Cheetos. Acting on Rod's advice, I decided to crush the Cheetos into smaller pieces before using them:

cheeto crushing

That approach lasted for about three seconds before I realized the rolling pin was going to push all the air to one end of the bag and then make it burst open all over the counter. Given the alarming frequency at which things burst, explode, and boil over in my kitchen, you'd never guess that I got an A in Physics. Lamenting my intellectual decline, I continued breaking the Cheetos by squeezing the bag with my hands.

After that, I melted the butter carefully over low heat, so that it wouldn't burn, and then added the entire bag of marshmallows:


With a little stirring, they rapidly melted:

melting marshmallows

melted marhsmallows

Once they were all melted down, I removed the pot from the heat and dumped in the Cheetos, stirring to coat them:

mixing the cheelows

At this point, I was convinced Rod was punking me. No way in hell would this be anything you wanted to eat, but I soldiered onward. Working quickly before the mixture could start to harden (congeal?), I poured it into a liberally sprayed baking dish, and then used a spatula, also sprayed with cooking spray, to evenly spread it:

spread cheelows

All I had to do now was wait for them to cool, and then find someone to eat them. Fortunately, Bryan and Kristen are babysitting Jeannie's baby, so I called and generously offered to bring a mystery snack that they would be forced to eat while I took pictures. I was afraid to tell Bryan on the phone what the snack was, because I figured he wouldn't let me walk over.

After an hour or so, I cut the Cheelows into bars, carried them over, and offered them to my guinea pig/involuntary research partner:

cheelow square

Bryan responded by dubiously sniffing:

guinea pig (1)

and then tasting:

guinea pig (2)

And the Cheelows, despite their shady pedigree, are sort of good. Bryan described them as purgatory food, which meant it wasn't good and wasn't bad, but he ended up eating three squares. I've eaten a few as well, and the exact taste is hard to pinpoint. They still taste like Cheetos, but with a slightly sweet undertaste and with the flavor of the orange Cheeto dust hitting the back of your throat after you've had a few bites. If I could think of the right occasion, I would make them again.

I left a plate for Jeannie and Brian:

plate of cheelows

which I'm sure they'll enjoy.

Unless they get scared and just throw the whole thing away. I like to hope, though.

Friday, November 20, 2009


My parents were in their thirties when I first became conscious of the fact that they actually had ages, and were not the magically unchanging entities known as "Mom" and "Dad". Now I'm that old, and I'm not sure how I feel about this.

Fortunately, I have food, so I don't have to actually consider my feelings when I can just eat them instead.

my cake

That's the cake we had at the office today. I forgot to take a picture of it before we cut it, but you can see enough of it to get the gist. In my newfound old age, I've decided that I prefer layer cake to sheet cake, and especially to the God-awful current trend of having cupcakes for everything. Hey, anorexic girls that I see at the coffee shops with a giant decaff and a cupcake? That's still cake, even if it's small and cute.

I haven't actually told anyone of my cake preference, since I just decided it, but I like to think that somehow everyone just knew.

In addition to the cake, I got a small bag of fresh baked cookies from my apartment complex staff, who tied them to my door with a balloon:

balloon and cookies

My older friends have known for years that blue is my favorite color. There was a phase in college when I wore something blue every single day, just before the phase when my boxers and socks had to match my outfits so that if I got in a car accident and the paramedics had to cut my clothes off of me they wouldn't judge me for not matching. That phase lasted quite a while, actually.

Now, I've never told my apartment complex staff that blue is my favorite color, but I like to think that when they had to pick a balloon out of all the ones in the bag they somehow just knew.

Tuesday night there was even more exciting food, because we decided to go to the Indian restaurant we drive past every day for my birthday:

Sitar, Fine Indian Cuisine

Sitar was voted the Best Buffet in Knoxville by the MetroPulse readers in 2008, and now I understand why. It was a delicious adventure in Indian food which started when we walked inside and saw the sitar in The Sitar:

the sitar in sitar

It wasn't a magical sitar, like in "Moulin Rouge", but dinner was magical enough all by itself without hearing a bunch of bohemians and chorus girls screaming about beauty, truth, peace, and love. Dessert was the most magic part, but there were other courses to wade through before we got there.

First, I had the panir pakora as an appetizer:

panir pakora

It's fried cheese. Every culture should have fried cheese in it somewhere, and India managed not to disappoint me. The batter was a little eggy tasting if you ate the fritter by itself, but they gave us several dipping sauces and condiments that paired well with it.

For dinner I had chicken sultani, which is chicken in a cream and ginger sauce:

table full of treats

That's it there in the front left. I like ginger, cream, and chicken, so there was really no way this could go wrong, and it was boneless, unlike Jeannie's chicken tandoori:

chicken tandoori

Everyone seemed to enjoy their meal, and then there was dessert.

Oh, God, was there dessert.

If I ever end up on death row, this is what I'm ordering the night they gas me:

gulab jamun (1)

That's galub jamun, which I think translates into "orgy of deliciousness". As a fat kid, I've eaten a lot of dessert in my life, but this ranks as one of the all time best evers, and might even be the best.

The little dumplings are a light dough made with cheese and flour, and then deep fried. This gives them a spongy but somehow still dense texture, like a light poundcake:

gulab jamun (2)

They are then soaked, or, more techincally, drowned, in rosewater and sugar syrup. It sounds fairly simple, but as we've learned from Kevin and Carla on "Top Chef", simple food done well can be awe-inspiring, and the first bite of my galub jamun was transcendent. I've never really understood when people describe food as better than sex, probably because chicken fingers rarely achieve that level of deliciousness, but I understand now. I could go back to that restaurant every day and order only this, and I would be happy.

I didn't come right out and tell my friends they weren't allowed to share any of my dessert even though I offered it to them, but as they watched me hunch over the bowl and struggle not to pick it up to guzzle the syrup it was clear that they somehow just knew.

34 was an awesome birthday.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Free Day at the Zoo

Yesterday was Kroger's Free Day at the Zoo, which meant free entry with a suggested donation. There were actually three options for suggested donations: you could bring canned goods for the rescue mission, bring Pedigree pet food for the Human Society, or bring any kind of pet food in cans or bags smaller than 20 pounds for another animal rescue place. Since Bryan agreed to drive, I requested that we stop at my local Kroger so that I could buy a bag of pet food rather than bring canned goods for people.

Bryan seemed to think this was somehow wrong, but not unexpected from me. I actually had good reasons for this request, though. First, logic dictates that most people have canned goods laying around their house already, so if they decide to go to the zoo they will grab what they have rather than make a special trip to the store to buy pet food. I was trying to think of the less fortunate, the poor neglected animals who would be overlooked.

Also, people are monsters. Puppies are not.

If you don't believe me, you should have seen the number of people walking up from the parking lot with no canned goods. Granted, it was a suggested donation and admission was free regardless, but that doesn't mean people should take advantage. People will, though, because that's how people are. Worse than the people with no donation, though (since maybe those people are all unable to donate for financial reasons and just wanted to treat their families to a day at the zoo that they would not otherwise be able to enjoy; see, I'm trying to give the benefit of the doubt even if I don't actually believe it) were the families of five and six piling out of giant SUV's with one can for the whole family. Really, affluent parents? Really? You can afford to drive to the zoo in an Escalade but you can't afford to give Brytneigh, Jayden, and Mahdyson each a can of their own to go donate? I guess we know how you afforded that Escalade, and that you have nothing to teach your children about charity.

That's why, given the choice, I opted for a bag of puppy chow.

Shockingly, I also managed to climb off my moral high horse long enough to actually enjoy the zoo. Since we were there as soon as the gates open (although Bryan and I both believe they opened them earlier than posted), most of the animals were still asleep:

rhinos at rest

At first I thought the rhinos (rhinoceri?) were cute, but when we were on another walkway and saw into the back of the exhibit from another angle, they looked noble but kind of sad:

sliver of rhino

The sleeping zebra, on the other hand, looked kind of dead according to the woman behind me:

zebra sleeping

"He dead! I know he dead! Jes layin' there dead!"

The zebra's companions seemed unconcerned:

zebra chewing

The hyenas were wide awake:


but morning found the meerkats in comfortable repose:

meerkat in a pouch

Over in the Central American birds exhibit, the pink bird whose name I haven't learned even though I've seen it on two visits to the zoo was up and about:

pink spoonbill

but his friend the duck was still perched and dozing:

resting duck

Despite not learning the pink bird's name, I did learn a couple other things. First, the zoo wants to make sure there is no confusion about which restroom is which:

life-sized symbols

The symbols couldn't really be much bigger. Also, the zoo is very, very proud of their red pandas. Aside from the signs everywhere, they've made one of the animals on the carousel a red panda:

ride the red panda

and they have a big red panda mascot who walks around being creepy to children:

red panda mascot

All in all, it was a pretty fun day, especially for free. We got to see some animals, some animals got to see us:

gibbon watching

and I got to give food to some puppies.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Dinner with Madame X

Last night I was reading a book and watching Lana Turner as the title character in Madame X when I realized I hadn't eaten dinner yet. I was kind of tired and run down from the mess my sinuses have been all week, so I wanted to make something simple, and I thought I might just make some hummus. It's easy, and I could pick at it all night without worrying about it staying hot or cold, so I went to the cabinet for the beans and started looking for my recipe.

While I was pulling it out, I spotted this other recipe I had marked in a food magazine and left on the counter for roasted garbanzo beans with rosemary and parmesan cheese.

"Ooooh, let's try that!"

"What if it sucks?"

"Where's your sense of adventure?"

"A sense of adventure is why Lana Turner is faking her own death right now. That's where it leads. We should just make hummus."

"Oh, for God's sake. What does this recipe call for?"

A lot of beans, for the most part:

rinsed, drained garbanzo beans

While garbanzo beans are easy to rinse (and I always rinse mine; I have no idea what that slime in the can is, and I never want to know), the recipe called for them to be dried, too, and that took forever. I shook the strainer, let it drip while the oven preheated, poured them onto paper towels, blotted them with more paper towels, and still they seemed wet.

Eventually I decided they were dry enough, doused them with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then spread them on my foil covered baking sheet to roast. I didn't want to deviate from the recipe on a first attempt, but even then it didn't seem like nearly enough salt or pepper. I figured maybe the rosemary, which I added in the last few minutes of roasting, would add some more flavor, as would the parmesan cheese I dusted the beans with when they were finished roasting:

roast garbanzo beans with rosemary

I was doubtful, but hungry, and I took a spoonful and hoped for the best.

When I looked up, still chewing, I saw that Lana and I were making the same face:

drunken lana

That's right. The beans were as bad as being drunk, depressed, and crying while living in a Mexican flophouse under a fake name in an ugly bathrobe. It wasn't just that the roasted beans were pretty much flavorless, but they'd also had all of the moisture roasted out, so they were flavorless, hard, and dry. Even worse, the rosemary also dried out, so it was like a bowl of slightly softened BB's dusted with pine needles.

Like Madame X, I should have made different choices. She shouldn't have cheated on her husband, and I should have just made hummus.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

It's a cookoff!

I never ate chili before I moved here. People who know me well won't be surprised by this, since I still have never eaten a chicken wing, because it has a bone in it, or a kiwi because I don't know if you're supposed to take the brown hairy skin off or not. I never ate pizza with sauce on it until I was in college, and never had a salad until I was in my mid-twenties. In 2003 I decided I needed to eat more fruit but had only ever eaten apples and bananas, so I went to the grocery store and got one of each fruit they had in the produce department (except kiwis), took them home, and tried each of them.

The end result is that I still prefer apples and bananas, but the point that I'm trying to make is that I am new to a lot of foods that people take for granted, and one of those foods is chili. I haven't had a lot of time to become a connoisseur or anything, and my parents probably don't even know that I eat chili now (they will once my mom sees my flickr page), but I know that I don't like big chunks of tomato, I don't like Texas style (without beans), and I like it with sour cream and shredded cheese if available. With that basic knowledge, I was happy to accept Bryan's invitation today to the 4th Annual East Tennessee Chili Cookoff.

1st Annual?

For unknown reasons, the ribbon on the sign says 1st Annual, so I guess they've been reusing the sign for four years now. It was a very nice, surprisingly warm day to be downtown, though, and once we picked up our tickets we got checked in and were given our tasting passes:

tasting pass

I've only ever seen cookoffs on the Food Network, but it seemed pretty simple. Each booth had a number, and when you went to the booth they would punch off your number and give you a tasting sample:

serving cups

Each booth also had a drop box, and when you decided which was your favorite you filled out the card at the bottom of the tasting pass, tore it off, and dropped it in that booth's box. The booth with the most is the audience favorite, and all of the votes are put in a raffle for other prizes. I'm assuming I didn't win, since no one has called, but I have the phone right here on the end table just in case. I did get a lot of chili, though.

Out of loyalty, we went to the school's booth first:

UT Culinary Institute

While they just have a nice generic autumn harvesty display in front of the booth, some of the other booths went all out with costumes and themes, like the Pirates of the Chilibean:

Pirates of the Chilibean

who served their chili out of a treasure chest:

chili treasure chest

or the Mowing Monkey's Chili:

monkey chili

Because, really, everything is better with monkeys. Some people, on the other hand, didn't really seem to think this whole naming thing all the way through:

the lube

I can think of no possible combination of "chili" and "lube" that doesn't turn out disgusting. Why not just call your chili The Runs? I didn't even sample their booth, because the name and the mental images of the aftermath of eating it put me off so much. Sorry, The Lube, but no votes from me.

My vote, instead, after I finished sixteen of the thirty chilis present:

I surrender

(there are thirty-one on the card, but number seventeen was a no-show) and could eat no more chili was for the Laurel High School's chili, number twenty-seven. They kept talking about their secret ingredients being smoked poblano peppers, which I really couldn't taste because I had so much pepper in so many chilis that all I could differentiate was mild, hot, and mouth on fire:

The hottest chili

and smoked pancetta, which was spectacularly delicious. There were so many beef chilis, a few with chicken, at least one vegetarian, that the pancetta really stood out, especially when you bit into a little nugget of it and got that smoky, salty almost bacon flavor. They didn't have many other votes, probably because their meat choice was so nontraditional, but since I'm not a chili traditionalist it really was a standout for me.

Once we finished and voted, we walked around for a little while to take in the rest of the sights. There was live music onstage, bouncy bounces for the kids:

bouncy superman

some extremely tasteful shopping:

titties salsa!

and, of course, the chance to observe my fellow Tennessee residents:


Thanks for keeping it classy, Tennessee!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Oklahoma, OK!

I won! I won the state quarter game!

As you may or may not recall, this was the unhappy scene in my kitchen back in May:

the last one

I thought the last one I needed was New Mexico, but then I discovered that Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain and the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet was actually Oklahoma, state of unfilled quarter slots and broken dreams. "Oklahoma," I cried, hunched over my counter in grief, "Why do you hate me? Why can't you be more like whichever state that is with Helen Keller on it that I get all the time?"

Oklahoma, like Helen Keller before the day at the well, had no answer.

At long last, though, after getting a bagel for lunch today, the void in my life is filled:

Oklahoma? OK!

I've never been so happy to see a bird and a bunch of flowers in my life. I love you, Oklahoma. I love you.