Monday, August 28, 2006

A Riot in the Cafeteria

The food police are at it again. This time they’re targeting school lunchboxes.

The Center for Science in the Public Trust has recently issued a Lunchbox Makeover for school-age children giving them, what they believe are, “10 tips for a healthy school lunch.”

It is my belief that— to a person— everyone who works at the CSPI is childless. Here are their supposed “easy” suggestions for making over our children’s lunchboxes:

1. Encourage your child to choose one percent or fat-free milk. The problem is not the milk, but how to keep the milk cold. It’s already hard enough to get cold milk at school. I can remember the milk cart at my school used to arrive mid-morning immediately after recess. There’s nothing quite as unrefreshing as a glass of warm milk immediately after running for 20 minutes in the scorching Mississippi heat.

2. Leave the cheese off sandwiches, unless it’s low-fat or fat-free cheese. My daughter inherited her cheese addiction from her mother. Their philosophy: “If it tastes good, it’ll taste better with cheese.” I’ll let the CSPI try and fight that battle. Though I know the adversary, and they don’t have a chance. My wife thinks cheese is one of the major food groups and should be reclassified as chewable calcium.

3. Switch from fatty luncheon meats to low-fat alternatives. If God would have wanted us to eat low-fat bologna, he would have made skinnier pigs.

4. Include at least one fruit in every lunch. I have no problem with this one. In elementary school, I used fruit as a bargaining chip to trade for other people’s bologna and cheese sandwiches. An apple and two bananas were usually good for three chocolate chip cookies and a Pop Tart.

5. Sneak vegetables— like lettuce or slices of cucumber, tomato, green pepper, roasted peppers, or zucchini— onto sandwiches. What planet are these people living on? My wife, who is somewhere over the age of 30, doesn’t even eat cucumbers, tomatoes or green peppers, how will she sneak them onto my child’s bologna and cheese sandwich?

6. Use whole grain bread instead of white bread for sandwiches. Amazingly enough, we’re a step ahead of the game on this one. At our house it’s always been 100% wheat bread since the children were born.

7. Limit cookies, snack cakes, doughnuts, brownies, and other sweet baked goods. Actually, my vote is for no sugar for anyone under the age of 16. When they’re able to drive, we’ll let them eat sugar. I’ll support that legislation, tomorrow. At our house, we don’t let our children eat sugar-filled foods before they go to school, and certainly don’t want them eating processed sugar while they’re at school. To our kids, sugar is like granulated amphetamine. My children are active enough; I couldn’t imagine loading them up on doughnuts, cake, and brownies, and turning them loose on their teachers. Although, while babysitting, my mother seems to take great delight in feeding them a few scoops of ice cream just before she drops them off at our house. Once, I think I heard her laughing hysterically as she drove out of the driveway.

8. Limit potato, corn, tortilla, or other chips. At this point, I think we need a quick recap— warm milk, no cheese, low-fat processed turkey, kiwi, roasted pepper, cucumber, and tomato with a slice of wheat bread— no Fritos, no Ruffles, no Tostitos. Where’s the benefit of being a kid, if you don’t get to eat a few potato chips? I’m not talking about sitting in front of a television or video game and eating a large can of Pringles. We adults spend the rest of our lives watching what we eat. Kids run and play and spend all day burning calories. I say, “Pass the Doritos.”

9. If you pack juice, make sure it’s 100% juice. Good luck. Have you ever seen an all-out riot created by a nine and five year old? It can turn nasty pretty quickly.

10. Don’t send Lunchables. Do we actually need someone to tell us that?

Are these healthy suggestions? Yes.

Are they “easy” suggestions, as the CSPI states? No.

In a nutshell, be realistic. Don’t load your children up on sugary and fatty foods. Don’t let them lounge in front of the television all day, and for your own safety, wait until they’re 21 to feed them zucchini, green peppers, and cucumbers.
Pineapple Sherbet

One day last week the weatherman at my local television station reported the day’s heat index as 117 degrees.

Earlier that afternoon I had been running errands for my wife. My children were with me. One of our errands placed us near Kamper Park in my hometown of Hattiesburg. As a child I spent countless days in that park during the summer months. Funny thing, I don’t ever remember being too hot. Running, swinging, sliding, and jumping in the Mississippi heat with more energy than I’ll ever know again never slowed me down, the temperature outside never mattered.

However, last week’s heat slowed my pace considerably. Maybe it was age. I was certainly feeling all of my 44 years, maybe more.

As we drove down the road that led to the park, I showed my children— a nine-year old girl and a five-year old boy— the place where I ate ice cream as a child. It was an ice cream parlor owned by the Seale-Lily Ice Cream Company.

The “Seale-Lily” as it was known around town, was a soda fountain of the standard 1950s/1960s variety, which served ice cream in bowls and cones, sundaes, splits, milk shakes and light sandwiches. I held the place in high regard.

At the Seale-Lily I only ate pineapple sherbet. It was my favorite then and it is my favorite today, when I can find it. When making homemade ice cream, my family usually prepared vanilla or peach. To me, homemade peach ice cream tastes like summer, but pineapple sherbet tastes like my youth.

I am not sure what it was about pineapple sherbet that steered me away from the typical childhood choices of chocolate and strawberry. It has only occurred to me as I write this column that pineapple sherbet might be a strange choice for a kid.

Today a liquor store occupies the space where the employees of the Seale-Lily scooped thousands of cones.

My children asked about the Seale-Lily and wanted to know if there was a place in town that served pineapple sherbet. Hattiesburg has several ice cream shops which offer excellent gourmet ice creams, varieties in every color and flavor, places where exotic candies and fresh fruits are mixed by hand to one’s selection. I am a regular at The Marble Slab Creamery and my waistline is a testament to those visits. However, I couldn’t think of one place that serves pineapple sherbet.

At 44, I might not be as active as I was at six years old, but I am much more resourceful. After thinking for a minute, I walked over to the Sunflower grocery store that anchors the shopping center that housed the Seale-Lily and bought a quart of pineapple sherbet and a box of hard-plastic spoons.

I drove my children next door to the park and took them to the giant gazebo that has been there as long as I have been alive. We sat at a picnic table in the sweltering August heat, no cones, no air conditioning, no worries, and ate pineapple sherbet straight out of the box.

In an instant I forgot about the heat. I watched as my children ate with abandon and wondered if one day they would tell their kids about the joys of pineapple sherbet in the hot Mississippi heat.

Do yourself a favor, today; buy your son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandson, granddaughter, or friend some ice cream. Whether it’s in a cone or straight out of the box, you’ll be making memories for you and them. Pineapple sherbet or not, you’re likely to forget about the heat and humidity, but you’ll never forget the joy of eating ice cream with a child.

Monday, August 14, 2006

For Whom the School Bell Tolls

I am now the father of two school-aged children. This week my daughter enters fourth grade and my son enters kindergarten (let’s all bow our heads and say a prayer for Mrs. Prine, his teacher).

Back to school means returning to the daily routine of getting to bed early, waking up early, the before-school scramble, and waiting in a long line for the after-school pick-up. It also means lunches away from home.

Throughout the summer my children eat late breakfasts and large lunches. Lunch might be eaten at 11:30 a.m. or at 2:45 p.m. it depends on several factors: how hot they get while playing outside, what’s on television, which friend is visiting, or what’s being served. Not so in the school year. Back to school means back to a daily routine that will be followed— with the exception of a few brief holiday interruptions— until next May.

I love the fall. Though Mississippi won’t see a hint of fall-like weather until the middle of October, it is my favorite season. The excitement that comes with returning to school— a new teacher, new books and supplies, the possibility of making new friends— is an excitement that we never relive in our adult years. Fall just smells different.

The sense of smell, like the sense of taste, has strong connections with our memories. Today, the scent of pencil shavings from a pencil sharpener will instantly take me back to Mrs. Smith’s fourth grade class at Thames Elementary School. Nowhere in my average workday do I encounter the smell of pencil shavings, these days it’s all rolling-ball pens with precise grips and Microsoft Word with dull and odorless keyboards and screens.

In my youth, the aroma of yeast rolls wafted through the corridors of school signaling the approaching lunch hour. My elementary school had an honest-to-God line-them-up-in-the-back-of-the-room grab-a-tray-and-a-carton-of-warm-milk we-only-eat-greens-on-the-days-they-mow-the-grass cafeteria.

The school cafeteria is an important place for childhood socialization. One is not supposed to talk in a classroom, recess is usually spent running, playing, or competing in kickball or basketball games. In the lunchroom the pressure is off. That is where the art and politics of conversation is learned, friends are made, urban legends are spread, and meals are shared.

Sharing a meal with friends is one of the few elementary school activities that we carry into adulthood. We no longer dust the chalk off of erasers, or line up in single file lines, we don’t turn in homework, take tests, or carry a lunch box, I haven’t played kickball in several decades, but I share a meal with friends all of the time, and I don’t do it much differently than I did when I was 10-years old.

In those days lunch boxes were— like today’s bumper stickers— a statement or extension of one’s personality or views. I had a Charlie Brown and Snoopy lunch box. It was lame and didn’t really make a bold statement about who I thought I was, or what I believed, but it was on sale when my mom bought it, and that was that. As a kid I always wanted a Beatles lunchbox. In retrospect I had more in common with Charlie Brown than John Lennon, but a kid has to dream.

A few years ago I compiled a list of the items that I longed for as a kid, but never got. The list was long and extensive. Most were toys that I no longer wanted or material junk that no longer mattered. Though, sitting at the top of the list were a Beatles lunchbox and a Lava Lamp.

I write this column surrounded by three large Lava Lamps and a Beatles lunchbox, reminiscing about the school cafeteria, yeast rolls, and the many hours I spent dusting erasers, a punishment then, but a fond memory, today.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Beautiful Swimmers

When I was a child my family owned a small, rickety fish camp on the Pascagoula River near the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

When the year’s final school bell rang, shorts were put on, shoes were kicked off, and the slow pace of summer kicked in. I spent those days fishing, trolling for shrimp, and water skiing.

In an era before catch-limits, we filled ice chests full of redfish— this, a full decade before Prudhomme blackened one in a skillet and started the national craze that created the subsequent redfish shortage. Other days we attached a small shrimp trolling-net to the back of our boat. We trolled slowly all afternoon, hauling in the net every hour or so and separating shrimp from the other sea life that had been netted. Most of the other species were tossed back into the water except for the occasional flounder or sheepshead. We then returned to the small camp and boiled the shrimp just minutes out of the water.

All summer we kept crab traps in the water. No matter where we were traveling on the river, or into the Gulf, we stopped on our way home to check the crab traps. The day’s crab catch was added to the ice chest and the crabs were boiled and picked that evening.

The refrigerator was always full of crabmeat, usually in the form of West Indies Salad. My mother loved West Indies Salad and was never too far from a Tupperware bowlful and a box of crackers.

West Indies Salad is a simple creation of crabmeat with a light vinaigrette dressing and is said to have been created by Bill Bailey, a Mobile restaurateur who operated a long-running establishment on the Dauphin Island Parkway. My mother used a recipe from the 1964 Mobile Junior League cookbook, Recipe Jubilee!.

As Labor Day drew nearer, afternoon showers became lighter, the days grew shorter, and the crabs traveled upriver with the brackish water. I can remember using hand nets to scoop crabs out of the shallows of the tiny beach near our swimming hole, always returning the sponge crabs (those bearing eggs) to the water. On some days, ice chests could be filled in mere minutes.

The generic and specific name for the Gulf Blue Crab is Callinectes sapidus, and according to the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources website, “Its generic name, Callinectes is a combination of two Latin words meaning ‘beautiful swimmer,’ while its specific name, sapidus, means ‘savory.’”

I have always loved the term “beautiful swimmer,” and though the Blue Crab’s swimming motion is more of a herky-jerky sideways scamper than a graceful and fluid movement worthy of the title beautiful swimmer, I think the name is befitting if only for the crustacean’s wonderful flavor, unmatched versatility, and culinary stature in the Gulf South.

The three most beautiful words in the Mississippi cooking lexis are: Jumbo Lump Crabmeat. The majority of my restaurant career has been filled using dishes featuring crabmeat. It is the first and foremost ingredient in my larder. One would have a hard time finding more than a dozen savory seafood dishes that couldn’t be improved substantially by the addition of crabmeat. It is sweet, and delicate, and versatile.

Since childhood I have associated the month of August with crabs. It is the most plentiful and economical month for purchasing crabmeat and, to this day, the abundance allows me and my chefs to focus on developing dishes featuring the Gulf’s most versatile delicacy. At the Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg we use over 400 pounds of fresh crabmeat each week during the annual August crabmeat promotion. The slow and tedious effort of picking through the fragile lobes in search of stray shell or cartilage is worth every man hour of overtime.

My mother sold the fish camp 20 years ago. A few years after my son was born, I drove down to see if I might be able to buy the property back from its current owners. The old camp, the neighboring camps, and the entire area was in such a state of disrepair that I immediately lost the desire to return, and haven’t.

Today, summer is shorter and the pace is faster. My kids don’t have the luxury of a Memorial Day to Labor Day vacation as school now starts in the middle of August. Something seems wrong about a world that makes a kid sit in a hot classroom while there are so many beautiful swimmers to be caught.

West Indies Salad

2 lbs. Jumbo Lump crabmeat, picked of all shell
1 Medium Red Onion (chopped fine)
1 /2 cup Light Olive Oil
1 /2 cup Champagne Vinegar (or White Balsamic Vinegar)
1 Tbl. Parsley
1 tsp Hot Sauce
2 tsp. Worcestershire Sauce
Salt and Pepper to taste

Gently combine all ingredients and refrigerate for four hours or overnight.

Serve on sliced tomatoes, a bed of lettuce or as an appetizer with crackers.