Friday, February 24, 2017

Best Restaurants to Have an Existential Crisis In

As a philosophy major and travel writer, I've had my share of both existential crises and road food. And in all my travels, I've found several great restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops to question your purpose in life while enjoying a quick nosh. Here are a few of my favorites.

Waffle House: A staple throughout the Midwest and South, Waffle House is, to paraphrase Karl Marx, "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation." Plus, you can get your Regulars Club card punched with every meal.

Try the All-Star Special while you consider that we're all just fuel for a giant economic machine that grinds us up in its endless hunger. Man or woman, black or white, the engine pities no one, from the day we start working to the day we die. But I hope you retire early enough to enjoy some of the fruits of your labor, because seniors get 10% off every Monday.

La Bamba Burritos, Champaign, Illinois: Nothing says struggling to understand America's unquenchable gluttony like chowing down on the famous "Burrito As Big As Your Head."

Inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre who said, "If I satiate my desires, I sin but I deliver myself from them; if I refuse to satisfy them, they infect the whole soul," La Bamba serves three sizes of burritos, mini, regular, and super. My favorite is the regular steak and chorizo with sour cream. It satiates most of my desires, but not so many that I can't go back the next day for Taco Tuesday.

Highland Bakery, Atlanta, Georgia: As you enjoy a soy chai latte and Thai peanut salad, gaze into the emptiness where your soul should be, if humans do indeed have one. Trace your fingers over the Friedrich Nietzsche quote you had tattooed on your thigh when you were a sophomore in college: "To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering." And leave room for a pecan roll. They're some of the best in Georgia.

Gusto Pizza, Des Moines, Iowa: Stanley Kubrick once said, "The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning," so you'll love the build-your-own pizzas at Gusto Pizza. Choose from 48 choice and prime toppings, including shrimp, eggplant, and green olive relish.

Ponder the meaning of life and your place in it over a 16" pie with Cajun bacon, pepperoni, Italian sausage, and Provolone cheese. And you can ponder at one of three convenient locations, Des Moines, Johnston, and West Des Moines near the Country Club.

Hubbard & Cravens Coffee, Indianapolis, Indiana: You're sitting alone, more alone than you've ever been, drinking your cold brew coffee, when a great idea for a story pops into your head. As you search for the notebook you've never owned, you're suddenly aware that you've missed out on a life of art. Bask in the modern decor, while you realize your life has been an endless chain of unimportant meetings, unread TPS reports, and khaki pants that scream conformity and obedience.

Sprinkle some organic sugar into your cup as you realize this moment is your children's destiny in 35 years. You promise to be more creative as you gaze at the latte art in your cup. But you know your promise will be as empty as the journal that fell behind your nightstand last January 2nd.

Voodoo Doughnuts, Portland, Oregon: Marcus Aurelius said "The longest-lived and the shortest-lived man, when they come to die, lose one and the same thing." But when they come to Voodoo Doughnuts, the only thing they lose is their willpower.

Whether you're polishing off the Captain My Captain Doughnut (a yeast doughnut topped with Cap'n Crunch cereal) or the Lemon Chiffon cruller doughnut, you can also be sure you and the longest-lived man won't lose any weight.

But if you want to fill the hole in your soul with food (assuming you believe you still have one), try the Tex-Ass Challenge Doughnut, which equals SIX of their normal doughnuts! And if you can eat it in 80 seconds or less, you get your money back, to replace your lost hope for the world and our place in it.

Note: As Virginia Woolf once said, "It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality," so Voodoo Doughnuts only accepts cash, no credit cards.

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Why Don't We Talk Like That Anymore?

One of the things that disappoints me about our language is that it has become less flowery and expressive than it was 300, or even 150, years ago. We don't use lofty language or elevated speech like they did in high society in the 18th century. Our words are basic and sparse. There's no real magic to our everyday conversations.

I'm not complaining. That's the kind of writing I favor. I've built my entire career on a Hemingway-esque approach to that style, one where "Hemingway-esque" will be the biggest word I use all day.

But I worry that our shift to simpler language has ground down all the flourishes and high points of what our spoken language used to be.

Four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare became history's most famous playwright, thanks to phrases like, "If music be the food of love play on." Or when he taught us that "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind."

These days, I walk into a burrito joint, and am greeted by my burristo with a thrust-out chin and "S'up, bro?" My daughter and her friends text each other and ask, "wut r u up 2?"

Why don't people speak with style anymore? We don't have to be formal and dignified, but it would be nice for someone to display a little panache once in a while.

Superheroes have panache. From Superman's totally not-self-conscious, "Up, up, and away!" to Underdog's "There's no need to fear! Underdog is here!" to Doctor Strange's "By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!" superheroes boldly announced their presence or feelings with authority.

They say words and phrases that people just don't say out loud. If you were surprised by a spider in your bathroom, I don't think you would shout The Beast's, "Oh my stars and garters!" or Herman Melville's "from Hell's heart, I stab at thee!" as you smashed it with a newspaper.

One of my favorite lofty declarationists is the Red Panda, the eponymous character of The Red Panda Adventures, an audio drama podcast from Toronto, Canada.

Every episode, right before intermission, the Red Panda boldly declares his dedication to stopping ne'er-do-wells and evildoers with pronouncements like "The city of Toronto will no longer sleep in fear. The Red Panda swears it!" or "The Mad Monkey will finally learn the true meaning of justice. (dramatic pause) At the hands of The Red Panda!"

I can imagine him on the roof of a Toronto high-rise overlooking his city, staring off into the middle distance, shouting his intention to serve justice with a side of knuckle sandwich.

Meanwhile, his wife and partner, The Flying Squirrel, is standing right there next to him, wondering who he's talking to, and why doesn't he talk that way at home?

"Tonight, the garbage will be taken out to the curb! (dramatic pause) By the hands of The Red Panda!" or "I will pick my socks up off the floor before I go to bed! The Red Panda swears it!"

Sadly, we don't get to do anything like this in real life. No one thinks talking this way is absurd if you're a superhero, but if you do it in everyday conversation, you look like a total idiot.

"I require an oil change and tire rotation. . . on the car of Erik Deckers!"

See, total idiot.

Even villains have swagger, maybe more than the superheroes. Marvel's Doctor Doom sounds so pompous and bombastic, it's a wonder his henchmen don't laugh at him behind his back.

"Who dares disturb the slumbers of Doom?" Even a simple "Who dares—?!" sounds way cooler than a plain old "who put a flaming bag of dog turds on my porch?!"

Since we don't have any real life superheroes or super villains, we're left with bland, uninspired language that only gets a boost when some alien-battling movie president starts shouting about not going quietly into that good night, as inspiring music surges in the background.

Instead, we have politicians who can't speak in complete sentences without ending in incoherent ramblings, or punctuate tweets with an insincere and obnoxious "Sad!" as if they actually had real human emotions.

I'm not suggesting we all start talking like over-the-top Shakespearean actors, but would it really be so bad if we could speak with a little more grandiosity?

"A plague of all cowards, I say, and a vengeance too! Give me a cup of Coke, boy. And three pork tacos with extra guacamole!"

Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London, UK (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain in both the UK and United States)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Do You Keep Your Ketchup in the Fridge or Pantry?

It was a life changing moment that reshaped my entire childhood. I never knew people lived this way, and the realization that people could do. . . this, and throw caution to the wind, made me realize there was so much more to life than I ever knew.

It was the day I learned my Aunt Karen kept her butter in a cupboard, like some hippie.

This was a big change from my family tradition of keeping little tubs of margarine in the refrigerator. We had to chip out chunks of margarine with a heavy knife and used it to tear big holes into our toast. Or I would put a couple margarine stones between my pancakes, which made the top pancake look like it had a painful cyst.

So when I saw the butter in the cupboard at my aunt's house in Oregon, I thought she was getting old and senile, and had forgotten to put it away. I asked my mother about it, and she said with a sniff, "no, my family always did that growing up."

"Is it okay to eat?" I asked, worried about botulism.

"Sure, it's fine," she said.

I couldn't believe what happened next. The butter spread so smoothly and easily on the toast, it was like spreading silk on a slice of satin. It was some of the best toast I had ever eaten.

I asked my mom if we could keep our margarine like that, so I didn't have to go back to excavating chunks for my toast.

"Absolutely not!" My mom and her sister got along fine, but I got the impression this was a sore point for my mother, so I left it alone.

Years later, when I learned that my wife-to-be was a butter-in-the-cupboard proponent, I knew I had made the right choice. This alone was enough to make me want to marry her. Breakfast became a treat again, and not an act of wanton toast violence.

Apparently, refrigerating condiments is a hot button issue for a lot of people, and is the hill many of them choose to die on. Forget immigrant bans and ethics violations. To refrigerate or not refrigerate, that is the real question.

The London Evening Standard was surprised by this too, because a British supermarket chain had posed the question on Twitter, and the newspaper thought it was worth a 250 word article.

Asda asked their Twitter followers where they stored their tomato ketchup, in the fridge or in the cupboard. They even ran a little Twitter poll so they could tabulate the votes.

Apparently, English people feel the same way about their ketchup that my mom did about her margarine — strongly and unyielding — because a lot of people got emotionally invested in the discussion and wanted to make sure they had been heard.
Many people who responded with their own tweets said they preferred to store their ketchup in the cupboard until they opened it, but put it in the refrigerator after it had been opened. One woman even pointed out that it said so right on the package, "Refrigerate AFTER opening."

Someone else in the comments section said she had been keeping her ketchup in the cupboard for 60 years and had never suffered any ill effects. I would have thought the ketchup would taste a bit off after the first 20 or so years, but she seemed to be okay.

Some people were cynical about the entire thing. "Wherever it gets the most PR coverage," snarked one Twitter user. "Well done, Asda marketing department."

First, don't be such a whiny baby. This is the sort of thing marketing people should be using Twitter for: to spark friendly discussion about something fun. Otherwise, they're going to be weighing in on political issues or posting nothing but "Ketchup on sale for £2.00!" tweets and that gets tiresome.

In the end, 2674 people voted on Asda's tweet, and the cupboard people outnumbered the refrigerator people, 54% to 46%. Of course, a majority of British people voted for Brexit too, so we can't trust them to vote on anything correctly anymore.

I even conducted my own informal Facebook poll —"informal," because I like to imagine that British people wear suits and bowler hats — with the same question.

I got nearly 60 responses from people, and most people said they keep their ketchup in the refrigerator, and only a few said the cupboard.

Also, a few people said they didn't like ketchup, and one person called it "catsup." I unfriended those people because I don't need that kind of negativity in my life.

In the end, it doesn't matter whether you keep your ketchup in the refrigerator or if you hate freedom. Our condiment storage choices probably date back to the way our parents were raised, and even their parents. So that can't be helped, and I'll still support you no matter what you choose.

But if you put your butter in the fridge, we can no longer be friends

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Adventures in Vegetarian Taxidermy

Erik is out of the office this week, so we are reprinting a column from 2005.

Kevin: Hello, and welcome to Kevin Ketchum's Kitchen Adventures. I'm Kevin Ketchum and this is my kitchen. Today, I'm joined by Bastian Flannelbeard, noted vegetarian taxidermist and vegetable activist.

Bastian: Hello, Kevin.

Kevin: Hi, Bastian. Vegetarian taxidermy? That's a new one on me. How does that work?

Bastian: Well, let's say you've just enjoyed a particularly good vegetarian meal, like vegetarian lasagna or tofu pizza, and you want to commemorate the experience. How would you do that?

Kevins: Well, actually I hate—

Bastian: That's right, you'd have the vegetable stuffed so you could show off your commitment to the vegetarian lifestyle.

Kevin: But didn't I already eat it?

Bastian: That's right.

Kevin: So how do I stuff it and save it for later?

Bastian: When we first started our company, that little problem set us back for six months. Then we came up with a new solution. We stuff a replica of the vegetable.

Kevin: A replica?
Bastian: Sure. We take a vegetable of a similar look and size, empty out the seeds and flesh, which we save for later — can't let that go to waste, can we? — and then fill it and close it up. The client has an exact replica of the scrumptious vegetable they just enjoyed.

Kevin: What kind of vegetables do you prefer to work with?

Bastian: Oh, we especially enjoy working with your larger vegetables, like pumpkin, squash, eggplants. Tomatoes are okay as well.

Kevin: Aren't tomatoes technically a fruit?

Bastian: I try to avoid that "in the box" thinking. It taints our understanding and appreciation of vegetables. It's just one more example of Corporate America trying to prevent us from expressing our true artistic vision.

Kevin: How does Corporate America benefit by making you call a tomato a vegetable?

Bastian: You know how they are.

Kevin: Um, no.

Bastian: The Culinary Industrial Complex — what I call "Big Food" — is afraid of art and the truth it speaks.

Kevin: What kind of truth can you get from a vegetable?

Bastian: Vegetables encourage us to return to Mother Earth and embrace her energies. Big Food is afraid of people turning their backs on their materialistic ways, and embracing a more natural and simple lifestyle.

Kevin: What about the way a vegetable is raised? I'm sure a vegetable activist like you must have some thoughts on that.

Bastian: Absolutely. We find that organic vegetables are the easiest and best to work with. They come from the earth and don't put any nasty pesticides or fertilizers into the ecosystem. Our business is to celebrate the best the earth has to offer, so obviously we have to use subjects that celebrate Mother Earth's giving spirit.

Kevin: Hmm. And what kind of filler do you use?

Bastian: We fill the vegetables with a non-expanding polystyrene foam and seal and coat it with two-part petroleum-based epoxy.

Kevin: Two-part. . .? So what do you do if a client wants to have a vegetable stuffed from a meal six weeks previously, or they live five states away.

Bastian: We ask them to provide us with several photos of the vegetable in question, and we'll locate one that closely resembles the subject.

Kevin: (chuckles) Or they could just have the photo framed.

Bastian: Eww, no! Why would someone want a picture of a vegetable? That's crazy. A picture is just a brief snapshot of a memory. A stuffed vegetable allows a person to experience the texture and weight and smell of their stuffed vegetable.

Kevin: What does a stuffed vegetable smell like?

Bastian: Well, for the first few months, it smells like non-expanding polystyrene foam and two-part petroleum-based epoxy. So we encourage the owners to leave them outside or in a well-ventilated garage for the first three months to avoid hallucinations.

Kevin: So if you're a vegetarian taxidermist —

Bastian: And activist.

Kevin: And activist, how do you feel about your fellow taxidermists who deal with animals?

Bastian: They're murderers.

Kevin: They didn't actually kill the animals though, the hunters did.

Bastian: But they provide an opportunity for the hunter to glorify their acts of murder.

Kevin: So you're opposed to the consumption of any meat product.

Bastian: That's right. But a life without meat doesn't mean you can't enjoy different cuisines. For example, I've got a great recipe for vegetarian haggis using rolled oats, grains, and soybeans.

Kevin: That's not even haggis. Haggis is made from sheep organs. It's like cooking a slab of tofu and rolled oats and calling it a vegetarian steak.

Bastian: Actually, that's the best steak you can make. It's just as good as the real thing.


Photo credit: Jason Ruck (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.