Sounds and Furies

This week I noticed a bird behavior that was new to me, and surprisingly it was in barn swallows, which are birds I have been watching all of my life. They are beautiful creatures and an integral part of hot summer days as they fly in endless and seemingly tireless loops around us, catching their food. But when Robin and I cycled out to the South Canal the other day, I saw something new.

A group of the birds who were nesting under the bridge were out doing their thing and then I noticed that they were swooping down to the canal’s surface and causing ripples in the water. At the time I thought they might be picking bugs from the surface, but this video suggests they were drinking instead. Either way it was hypnotic watching them.

Birds, by Neil Young

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When I go out for dinner, paying somebody to prepare my food, carry it to my table, and do everything but chew it for me, there is always a reason. The reason may be obscure, but it is always there:

  1. I am being totally lazy and can’t be bothered taking care of myself.
  2. It is a social engagement, and the meal comes with the conversations.
  3. I am curious about a new restaurant, and would like to see if it is truly the one place on earth that will not set me kvetching after dinner.
  4. I want to try something that reveals a true chef’s skills rather than those of a simple dabbler like myself.

Here in Paradise there are not many places where the food is up to #4 on the list. Of course in ranch country we have steak houses, two of them, which do a good job searing your meal, but if you are trying to wean yourself from the sort of food that has already clogged 90% of your arteries, they are a poor choice to make regularly. We also have many many Mexican restaurants which are nearly interchangeable. Same big plastic menus, same offerings, same price structures. Even the “house specialties” are largely the same.

The national chains have a presence here, with McDonald’s, Burger King, Freddie’s, Culver’s et al. And these I use for those #1 type days, when all I want is salt and fat and don’t care much about anything else. They fill that bill pretty well.

But excitement? Something really out of the ordinary? I haven’t found it yet locally, and I’ve been looking now for nearly ten years. I seek that moment when I put my fork down after the first bite and realize that I have embarked on a journey of discovery and am eating food prepared so well that I absolutely know I could not reproduce it at home.

The Bible promises that if I seek I shall find.

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A Dick Guindon cartoon

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While I’m talking about restaurants, I would like to share one of my gripes with you. You knew I would get there eventually, it’s what seniors do. Be aware that this may be a repeat gripe and that I have forgotten the previous post. That’s also what seniors do.

One recurring scenario occurs when we are traveling and I order a breakfast which the menu refers to as biscuits and gravy, only to find myself with a large plateful of … absolute dreck, to be blunt. It’s an odd situation, because it is such simple fare, and every serving should be a home run, instead of the strikeouts that are so typical.

There are only two parts to this meal, the biscuit and the gravy. Let’s take them separately, shall we? I have had biscuit failures at home, to be sure, when I was careless in the preparation. But what we get are these ubiquitous leaden lumps that were not only not baked that morning, but not in any morning in recent memory. Forget flaky, light, and airy. These things are the embodiment of the line in an Army marching cadence that goes: “They say that in the Army, the biscuits are very fine. A roll rolled off the table and killed a pal of mine.”

Now let’s turn the spotlight on the gravy. This is something that starts out as a white sauce, a blank canvas upon which the cook/chef is supposed to paint with seasonings. It should also be lump-free if possible. Can I just say that there are very few Rembrandts out there painting in the sauces I have been served? Sometimes the lumps are the best part, because at least they have an interesting consistency. But flavor, savor, umami? Fageddaboudit. I’d rather eat the library paste I used to lick from my fingers in elementary school.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that while there is a natural expectation that the pork sausage gravy will contain pork sausage, most of what I have had brought to me in restaurants could be eaten without a second thought by orthodox Jews and Muslims. It is that distant from containing anything that was once porcine.

So why do I order it at all? Because on that one-in-forty day when you get your food and it looks like what you see in the photograph, when the gravy has a certain something in there where you love the flavor but just can’t identify the source – that is the best morning. This is the only form of gambling that I indulge in. Slot machines and card tables are not among my weaknesses. Biscuits and gravy is.

[BTW. Confession time here. I no longer make my own biscuits at home. At least not from scratch. What I do is to pop open a tube of ready-made Pillsbury dough chunks and bake them up. They are just plain better than what I make. Not merely a little, but a whole league better.]

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California just set the date for the beginning of the funeral service for the internal combustion engine. In 2035 the sale of new cars with gas engines will be forbidden in that state. It will take much longer to get the older cars off the road, but we knew it was coming, just not when.

It’s not just a switch in engines, though. It’s an entire switch in the culture. Think about a hot summer day on a residential city street, where an old beater rests at the curb with its hood in the air. Standing around it are a group of guys staring in at the motor and kibitzing.

Who in the world is going to open the hood and stare at an electric motor?

There’s no carburetor or fuel injectors to tinker with, and no need for endless but enjoyable discussions about air intakes, boring out the cylinders for more power, or how a pair of glass-packs would sound on this car. Staring at your car’s engine will have become as interesting as seeing the mechanical insides of a very large blender.

And that vanished but beautifully sonorous blast that used to issue from the muffler? Manufacturers have actually given thought to adding recorded engine and exhaust sounds to these sterile vehicles so that they rumble like something more alive than a light bulb.

But I do have to admit that I do look forward to one day owning a Subaru with a 500 horsepower electric motor on each wheel so that when I really tromp on it I can finally achieve my lifelong dream of traveling at Mach 3 in a small SUV.

Of course, it is much more likely that I would propel myself onto the sidewalk and into a long line of parking meters to finally end up climbing the side of a building. But while I am deleting myself in this colorful way, the recorded sounds of a Maserati ringing in my ears as I leave the planet would be a nice touch.

Maserati GranTurismo in full voice

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Lastly for today, a delightful article in the Times of New York about the daily flooding of the Lindisfarne causeway, and the tourists who pay no attention to the signs. Even if you don’t read a word, it’s worth a look for the photos, which include this one of George Douglas, a fisherman.

Islanders have little sympathy for those who get caught by the tides. “There are plenty of signs,” said George Douglas in his fishing shed on Holy Island.

It’s a light-hearted read about a place 4621 miles from my home in Paradise, and a gentle commentary on the silliness our species is capable of.

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