A Night on the Town By Ourselves

I really don’t like Dallas. It’s nothing personal, though, because I’m not a big fan of Texas’ other cities, either.

My wife gave me and my two sons Mavericks versus Clippers tickets as a Christmas present so we could have a “guys’ weekend.” When we ordered the tickets, she told me “Maybe you guys could do this every year” and I could almost see the parenthetical (because then I can control the remote for 24 hours). My wife loves to travel and she loves her boys, but there’s enough gas in a middle-aged, slightly out of shape man and two teenage boys to give America energy independence if we just knew how to harness the power. I feel certain she’s at home with the windows open and Sleepless in Seattle on a continuous loop on the t.v.

It’s a win/win for everyone.

We booked a room within walking distance of American Airlines Arena in the historic West End. The Springhill Suites off North Lamar is a quiet, serviceable hotel with nice spacious rooms. I can’t speak for the full buffet breakfast yet but the coffee is decent.

The problem with Dallas isn’t the truly awful traffic, made worse by the least helpful road signs and exit notifications in the country, but the way the city is spread across miles and miles of space. Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, in many ways, suffers the same emphasis on suburban development. All three cities are simply hubs for the residential areas that surround them and none of them have any kind of public transportation system.

The problem is, I think, most clearly symbolized in the placement of major sports venues. While our hotel is a 12 minute walk from American Airlines Arena, we are a 30 minute drive (if traffic is okay) from the Dallas Cowboys $1.2 billion facility and Rangers Ballpark. Last night, Dallas had two winning basketball teams playing and the Cotton Bowl, a game with 80,000 fans packing the stadium to watch a very exciting game between Missouri and Oklahoma State.

Yet, when my two boys and I went out to eat, we walked across the street into Ellen’s Southern Kitchen. It’s Friday night in the historic West End, five blocks from Dealey plaza with two major sporting events in town and we walked in, sat down, and finished our meal 45 minutes later. No wait, no fuss, no rush.

Don’t get me wrong. It was nice, but it was also a little depressing. The excitement of going to a sporting event is the critical mass of people cheering and connecting within the moment. When Blake Griffin, Deandre Jordan, or Dirk Nowitzki make a great play, the entire crowd cheers (or groans, depending on the score). Colleges subsidize sports programs and cities utilize taxes to build stadiums to both help draw people to their campus or city, but also in order to create that intangible, difficult to measure emotional connection to place.

Sports, like churches, marriages, and family reunions, give us a chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves and, as disturbing as many people might find the claim, sports engenders a loyalty that supersedes almost every other community. Later today, 85,000 people will pile into Lombardi Field in almost sub-zero temperatures to watch the Green Bay Packers play a football game. I doubt most people would suffer through such conditions to listen to the minister talk about Paul’s Letters to the Romans and if you would do that for a family reunion, your Aunt Suzie’s fruit salad must be pretty damn tasty or you have better looking cousins than the rest of us.

And, let’s be honest, when you cheer for the Packers (or Cowboys/49ers/etc) no one cares about your sexual orientation, who you voted for, or your stance on the Affordable Care Act.

About five years ago, my family and I went to a Yankees game. I hate the Yankees, but riding the subway with thousands of strangers and then walking down the street, heading into the ballpark was, to use the easy cliche, electric. Two years ago, I was in Atlanta riding the wave of fans heading into a Georgia Tech/Clemson football game. Seattle has both its baseball and football stadiums next door to each other, allowing bars, restaurants and street vendors to line the curbs. Even Detroit, the largest bankrupt city in America, had enough sense to build their football, baseball, and basketball arenas within walking distance of each other. These cities help create a kind of carnival atmosphere that helps its fans form an emotional bond and develop an irrational loyalty as a community.

Last night in Dallas, fans drove in, had fun, and drove off. There was no large communal moment in the streets, in the bars, or even in the hotel hallways. There was no sustained emotional connection drawing strangers together because all the venues are so far apart and disconnected from the city itself.

My sons and I have had a great time. The Mavericks lost, but we saw some exciting basketball and some acrobatic dunks. Ellen’s Southern Kitchen is worth a dinner date. My younger son had the Big Ole’ Breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits and gravy and “the best hash browns ever” he told us). The older boy, suffering from a head cold, had the blackened catfish that looked delicious and with enough spice for him to actually taste and just enough so it didn’t taste like fish. My prime meatloaf was loaded with crispy onions, red, and green peppers. Too often, meatloaf can be too moist and the vegetables get hidden by tomato sauce, but at Ellen’s they pour just a little pan gravy on the top. Dipped in the mashed potatoes, each bite allowed four different, complementary flavors to mingle and linger on the tongue. Even better were the green beans sauteed in bacon and tomatoes. I think even the most hardcore carnivore would eat those vegetables.

I can imagine turning a Mavericks game into a family tradition for the Wegner men. American Airlines Arena is a nice venue and there is a balletic quality to 7 foot men running the court and leaping through the air in what should be physically impossible things to do. But, I kind of hope next year we have to wait longer before we eat and there’s a little more chaos in the streets after the game.

Baltimore Isn’t All Crab Cakes and Harbor Tours: Smoked Duck Pizza and Cold Beer

Baltimore isn’t all crab cakes and harbor tours. I was on my way out the hotel door Friday night when, on a whim, I decided to ask the front desk for a dinner recommendation.

Wearing my baseball cap and Angelo State baseball hoodie, I clearly wasn’t in the mood for upscale and high class.

I probably should buy some lottery tickets because I’m on a hot streak, getting rock solid suggestions here of late. The guy in New Orleans pointed us to Coops and the woman tonight sent me up Federal Hill to the Metropolitan.

“It’s my favorite place,” she said looking at my clothes, “and definitely casual.” I decided to take her comment as an observation not a judgement. I was, after all, wearing my cleanest hoodie and my least stained cap.

Federal Hill, if you don’t know Baltimore very well, is the area where Nora Ephron filmed parts of Sleepless in Seattle. Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell eat dinner in the Mount Vernon area, Ryan has her apartment in an area near Federal Hill, and they hang out on S. Charles Street. (Ephron, just as an aside, was an underrated screen writer and her films captured a simple but important romantic sensibility in contemporary America. What, Ephron’s screen plays asked, does it mean to be in love in the face of shifting social ideas regarding relationships in America? If you don’t know her works, you owe her movies a viewing.)

But romantic comedies can be a post for another day.

Federal Hill is one of those rejuvenated areas so common to American cities this day and age. If you travel to St. Louis any time soon, head over toward Washington University or St. Louis U and walk among the town homes and old industrial areas. Like so many places, governmental investment in the inner city areas in the form of tourism, professional sports teams, and tax deductions have revitalized run-down neighborhoods, rescuing them from crime, poverty, and drug infestations. These are areas that began as working class family homes but fell into ill-repute as the blue collar jobs fled to China, India, and anyplace else corporate bosses could find cheap labor.

With a little spit and polish (and a healthy dose of police, money, and hotel taxes), though, these areas have been transformed into homes and communities where the pretty people live. I was worried I might get kicked off the streets as an interloper. Cool and groovy I am not.

The Metropolitan is about 3/4 of a mile off the harbor down a tree lined S. Charles street. The coffee house and wine bar sits across the street from the Federal Hill Wine and Spirits Liquor store and in the midst of townhouses and walk up apartments. The streets have that vaguely European-feel, reflecting their architectural birth as homes for immigrant, industrial workers. The Metropolitan is a true neighborhood bar and restaurant.

It’s also worth the walk. The bartender downstairs sent me up the stairs with a friendly wave of her hand. I scored a seat near a window propped up by a liter beer bottle. Necessity and invention is always a good sign.

The music sets the tone. Neil Young, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Dylan, Hendricks–I heard them all but they weren’t dominating the scene. A group of folks sat at the bar holding a conversation. They didn’t have to yell to beat out the music and, in what probably says more about me than the bar, I didn’t hear a single cuss word while I was sitting there. It’s an odd thing to notice, but I’ve grown weary of language that shows about as much imagination as a football locker room.

Don’t go to the Metropolitan if you only drink Bud Light, though. They serve craft beers from around the world. The waitress brought me samples since my palate tends toward Schlitz and Lonestar. I never really know what kind of beer I like. I did reject the Pumpkin Beer. If I want pumpkin, I told her, I would order pie. No one has ever accused me of being a beer snob. I thought about just asking for more samples, but instead I started with a Green Flash Saison Diego. It’s a lighter beer with just a hint of hops. Crisp and clean.

Like so many things in life, our moods are a product of the historical and contextual moment. I was tired of big meals and the waitress, to her credit, didn’t try to sell me the most expensive thing on the menu. And take note that the Metropolitan has a full menu for such a small place. When I told her I just wanted something light, she pointed me to the Smoked Duck Pizza and a house salad.

“It’s better than it sounds,” she told me.

She was right. The pizza is about 8 inches, the size of a medium size plate, with a thin, fire cooked crust. They use a pesto sauce with basil covered in mozzarella and a slice of smoked duck sitting on top. There is just enough of the smoked flavor that each bite carries the meaty duck taste as it blends with the cheese and pesto. Importantly, they keep the pesto mild enough that it helps keep the pizza moist without getting too wet as it sits on the plate.

Combined with the house salad, it was just enough food to satisfy my hunger but not leave me waddling back to the hotel. And that’s good because I’m not sure waddling is allowed among the young, good looking people in that area.

Don’t Let the Neon Sign Fool You: Eat At Phillips

All I really know about Baltimore I learned from reruns of the Wire, Edgar Allen Poe stories, and watching Cal Ripken, Jr. play baseball. It’s easy to forget that Babe Ruth was born here, Baltimore is the home of America’s first umbrella factory, and our first post office system began right here in Charm City. (It is also easy to admit that I looked up everything after Babe Ruth. Thank heavens for google.)

This isn’t my first foray into the city, though. About three years ago, I stayed in the inner harbor area for a conference. During that trip, I spent most of my time exploring the area around the harbor with an evening walk to the Federal Hill area. Supper one night at the Rusty Scupper, breakfast each morning at Bohemes, and a late meal at an Irish Pub near Federal Hill park. I’m headed to the Scupper tonight to see if it is as good as I remember, Bohemes is closed, and for some reason Federal Hill seems way too long a walk this time around. You know you are getting old when after one beer and a good meal you start wondering what cable channels you have in the room.

As a general rule, I try to avoid chain restaurants when I’m in a city. Sure, Outback makes a decent steak, but I can get that steak in any city in America. I want, if at all possible, recipes built on local traditions with, I hope, quirky hometown twists. It’s no guarantee the food will be any good, mind you, but at least my taste buds will be disappointed in new and unique ways.

And they were let down my first meal this time around. The M&S Grill looks promising. It faces out toward the harbor, sits across from my hotel, and provided easy access after a day flying and sitting in airports. The front staff was friendly, the waitress, like so many people in cities these days, was from someplace not Baltimore (with an accent that screamed Boston)–they did live up to the Charm City slogan, though.

But friendly workers don’t make the food taste good or excuse the fact that M&S Grill is part of the Landry’s seafood chain.

Now, I’m sure Landry’s is delicious, but too often chains aim to democratize their dishes, ensuring they can please the family from Indianapolis while not offending the couple from San Francisco. They might use local seafood, but the spices and approach is the same.

Nonetheless, the beer was on the table before I knew what I had gotten myself into and a friendly wait staff and a cold beer can go a long way to helping food taste better.

Sometimes. I ordered the parmesan-encrusted flounder, mashed potatoes and seasonal veggies. Props to the folks in the kitchen because the potatoes and veggies where tasty. The potatoes had just enough flavor to make them worth eating and the vegetables were cooked just right without seasoning so I could taste the squash.

It’s good they were both so tasty because they must have forgotten the parmesan and just encrusted the flounder. Anything with parmesan should let the cheese dominate the first bite while the thing coated emerges somewhere near the back of the tongue. Maybe someone else’s fish got all the flavor?

The good news is another meal always awaits us.

I had been avoiding Phillips, partly because it has this massive neon sign and it sits next to the Barnes and Nobles. I’m a bit biased in favor of the understated and distrust blaring, garish signs.

I should probably rethink that philosophy.

Charm City again at the front desk and with the wait-staff. They were in the midst of seating a gigantic party of 48. I only know this because some grizzled guy standing near my table leaned over and told me he’s always wanted to just slide into an empty seat with these big company dinners and see if anyone notices. Since he was wearing a Phillips insignia on his shirt, I thought I might check his recommendation for dinner–get the inside scoop as it were.

He asked where I was from, told me he’s worked there for 26 years after owning a place on the beach, and then asked what I was thinking about eating. “What’s good?” I asked.

“The steak is great, but overpriced,” he said. “Beef prices are killing us and we have to charge too much for it.” He sat down at my table. “We are known for crabs so that’s a safe bet if you are hungry. Big chunks of crab.”

“What about the flounder stuffed with crab,” I asked.

“That’s one of mine. Delicious. Been making that for about 26 years.” He stood up, looking at the party of 48. “Gotta go. Hopefully, we can get these guys out of here by closing.”

The waitress stepped in, like a choreographed move, and asked what the executive chef recommended.

Yeah, it’s that kind of place, neon sign or not.

Practice makes perfect, by the way, on the flounder stuffed with crab.

Flounder, to me, is an interesting fish. Like most white fish, you have to be careful cooking it. Too long in the skillet or in the oven and you get a gloppy mess that feels like sawdust in your mouth. It’s one of the reasons you encrust it in something or pile lemon, tomatoes, or onions on it while it cooks.

At Phillips, they cook the flounder in its own cast iron dish sitting in what I assume is olive oil with garlic and other spices. The crab cake rests on top in the center of the fish.

Start on the edges as you eat, savor the fish that holds together long enough to chew. The fish definitely holds up on its own. Take a bight of the crusty french bread that is light and airy on the inside, and then make your way to the center. Before you begin blending the two, take a bite of the crab cake, let the flavors wash across your tongue and then eat the meal as the chef intended. The crab cake jumps out at you but the flavor lasts only until the fish’s garlic flavor and different consistency kick in. As the disparate but complementary flavors mix, there is (or at least should be) that almost inaudible sigh as your stomach knows you made the right choice for dinner.

I ordered the house salad and creamed spinach on the side. They recommended the season vegetables, but squash two nights in a row didn’t seem like a great idea. Plus, I’m a sucker for creamed spinach. In retrospect, the vegetables make more sense. Their spinach has a light, garlicy cream sauce. Combined with the fish and crab cake, I was definitely safe from vampires that night (and probably for another week.) I would have, as I say, been better off with a clean vegetable to avoid conflicts with the main course.

In the interest of fairness, I should warn you to take your appetite and your wallet. The meal is deceptively filling and the folks at Phillips aren’t cooking in the name of charity, but you will, I think, feel like it’s money well spent. After all, they have to pay for that neon sign out front.


Gluttony Is A Sin (Unless The Food Is Good)

My wife and I took a break from the politics of destruction in our nation’s capitol last weekend and made a quick dash to New Orleans.

The madness of Bourbon Street, fortunately, transcends political party. And it usually makes more sense. Especially after a Hurricane from Pat O’Brien’s.

If you’ve never been to New Orleans, you owe yourself a trip. If you are somewhere between the ages of 21 and 30, I highly recommend a Friday or Saturday when LSU plays an SEC rival. The French Quarter will be filled with partially developed frontal lobes and you will fit right in. There is a collective, Bacchanalian joy running up and down the street that is both infectious and exciting. Of course, I’m also fairly certain the seven deadly sins make a nightly appearance, although it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between sloth and just plain passed out. I’m not, I say in my most fatherly voice, advocating you participate in any of them, but they are definitely on display.

Those of us who have reached an age where we realize the night before isn’t worth the morning after can still enjoy ourselves. That Hurricane from Pat O’Brien’s tastes just as sweet to us as it does to them. We just know the calories will last longer than the hangover.

But the real joy in New Orleans isn’t the music, scantily clad women and men, raucous parties, cheap t-shirts, or daiquiris for sale on every corner.

It’s the food.

I should note that New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina is a remarkable example of the collaboration between governmental aid and private entrepreneurial spirit. Low interest loans, tax abatements, and a willingness to take a chance on small business ownership can transform an area, even when it’s been washed out and devastated.

And thank goodness some of those small business owners can also cook.

We began our trip with lunch at Mothers, home of the World’s Best Baked Ham. They’ve certainly had a lot of practice. Mothers has been serving since 1938. Remarkably, after Katrina, the owners sought out employees displaced by the storm and brought them back to work. There’s something about that kind of consistently good employment that helps food stay tasty. My wife had the Ferdi Special, a roast beef po’boy with ham. It’s not for anyone with vegetarian tendencies. Unlike too many chain “food” stores today, Mothers lets the natural juices from the meat keep the sandwich moist. But not too moist. The bread stays firm and holds the meat. They are famous for their Ferdi, but don’t deny yourself the fried shrimp po’boy: pickles, shredded cabbage, a hint of mayo and fried shrimp with just a hint of cajun flavor. It was a veritable symphony as the flavors worked together.

That was lunch day one. How, we wondered, sitting at the table with our bellies full, would we ever eat again.

We managed.

But we got smarter when we ate lunch the next day because we shared the Redfish Amer at the Star Steak and Lobster House. For lunch. Talk about living high on the hog.

Or in this case swimming with the fish. The little steakhouse seats about 30. I recommend you get there about 11:30 because our waitress said the chef cooks up her sauces about that time.

And you want this Crawfish Cream Sauce when it first comes out of the pot. I suspect this stuff would go well on anything, but I recommend you pair it with that lightly fried Redfish, garlic potatoes and broccoli. I’m convinced, by the way, that you can tell the quality of a restaurant by how they cook their broccoli. Best broccoli ever–The Palm in San Antonio. Star comes in a close second. The key to good, fresh veggies is they have to be steamed or sauteed so they are starting to soften on the edges but remain crisp enough to retain their flavor. Never, I insist, steam vegetables for more than seven minutes and for heavens sake stop drowning them in garlic. Broccoli, done right, is a deep green color and crunches as your teeth come together.

And Star did it right. With a light flour coating, sauteed just enough to brown the crust, the fish held together on the fork in the way only redfish can.  But the real culinary delight was that Crawfish Cream Sauce. I’m a big fan of letting food speak for itself. I understand the desire of restaurants to create distinctive flavors, although too often that simply means they cover the dish in pepper. That’s okay if you are serving cheap cuts of meat. Fajitas are spicy mostly because the meat would be inedible if we didn’t do something to it. Catfish is the same way. That’s food you eat to fill up.

A crawfish cream sauce, though, should let us feel the crawfish and complement the flavor of the redfish. The salt, pepper, and other spices should lurk in the background and surround the fish on our tongue.

You might imagine we were done in, but thank goodness there are three meals a day.

Anytime I check into a hotel, I ask for food recommendations. That’s a dicey game. I got sent to a restaurant in Atlanta once where they only served fruit flavored beers. I still have nightmares. If it can be turned into a syrup, it doesn’t belong with barley and hops.

Score one for the desk manager in New Orleans, though.

“You gotta head down to Coops,” he said pulling out the map. “It’s a little bit of a walk, but the Rabbit and Sausage Jambalaya can’t be beat.” He looked up smiling. “Best in town.”

Recommendations like that make you wonder if his brother owns the place. I should warn you that Coops isn’t for the faint of heart or those looking for a quiet, romantic getaway. The music is loud, the grill is sitting about 50 feet out the back door, and seating is limited.

And I don’t know if the jambalaya can be beat or not, but they have the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. Seasoned, the menu says, to perfection with Coop’s bayou blend and that’s not a lie. The chicken isn’t southern fried with that thick batter. When I fry my chicken, I dip it in the flour, eggs/buttermilk, then flour again. That creates that thick, hearty fry that crunches and fills you up.

I’m guessing Coops is an eggs/milk and then flour kind of place. Do it once, do it right, then fry it up. The outer edges had that crunchy, crispness with just enough cajun seasoning to let you know it was there, but it wasn’t interested in blowing your sinus cavities wide open. The chicken stayed moist under the crust, cooked all the way through.

But the real treat here was the Chicken Tchoupitoulas my wife ordered. Boneless chicken breast sauteed in a cream sauce with shrimp and tasso. It came with green beans cooked with that same attention to detail as Star paid to the broccoli, but who really cared that night. The cream sauce was able to balance a little cajun swing with the moist, perfectly cooked chicken breast below. “We’ll share,” she said. Until she took a bite. Some people just get greedy when the eating is good.

Let’s just say there were no leftovers. The entire weekend.

Because it was New Orleans and gluttony is only a sin unless the food is good.

You Want a Treadmill with Those Fries?


Click to view table. Four different menu labels used in the study.

You wouldn’t think an article titled “Potential effect of physical activity based menu labels on the calorie content of selected fast food meals” would be all that exciting. (In fact, my students might point out, who expects any journal article to be all that sexy?) However, the authors of this piece in Appetite offer what seems to be a pretty revolutionary idea to help us battle obesity, clogged arteries, and our general penchant toward gluttony in the American population (and perhaps everywhere else in the world).

Essentially, the authors argue, it is far more effective to provide both a calorie count and the equivalent exercise required to burn that food off our hips if we want eaters to consider what they eat. For most eaters, calories are pretty meaningless numbers but when we visually remind them what calories add to the bottom line (or just the bottom), they tend to make different choices the authors claim. Other research has found similar results when we provide the work required to burn off that soda you drink every day.

On the surface, this idea seems brilliant. Like the anti-smoking signs in my doctor’s office showing nasty yellow teeth and black lungs, one can only imagine the impact of finding out that Big Mac you had for lunch equals 78 minutes of walking. (Is it indelicate to argue the person exercising on the poster should look like someone who eats hamburgers all the time? Super sizing could take on a whole new meaning.)

Imagine if we took this idea to it’s logical next step? Happy meals would come with pedometers. Your optional side with the Hunger Buster Meal Deal would be a pair of tennis shoes and a map of local walking trails. If we really want to go crazy, let’s invent straws that only work while you are walking. No sedentary sipping allowed.

Color me skeptical, though, of the long term benefits of this approach. Don’t get me wrong. I think a label with photos is far more effective than one with just a bunch of numbers. Heck, based on our most recent debt crisis, most American’s can’t balance their checkbooks. What makes anyone think we can count calories properly?

The problem with the interactive menu is our overall ignorance about eating or burning calories. I consider myself a half-way intelligent person who eats (mostly) well. I get my 5 fruits and veggies, avoid over eating, rarely eat fast food, only drink cola if there’s rum in it, and I limit my dessert consumption (most of the time). I walk almost every day for 30-45 minutes. We’ve raised our boys to understand eating well and being active matters and we try to model that advice.

But I have absolutely no earthly idea how many calories I consume in any given day or how many calories I need to consume so that I don’t pass out or start losing weight. I can tell I’m gaining weight because my pants get tighter.

I’ll also admit the obvious: when I go to McDonalds, I already know the food isn’t all that good for me. While I will admit my faith in human intelligence wains some days, I highly doubt anyone walking into Burger King thinks he’s waltzing into a health food store. A sign telling me I need to exercise after scarfing down 12 nuggets is about as useful as a sign showing me what happens after the 6th beer. (Or is it two signs?)

Menu-based labels drawings might, in the beginning, cause me to go with the medium fries, but I think attacking my choice of fast food meal size misses the point. We are seeing a relatively consistent increase in obesity across all income levels. Certainly, there are some complexities regarding race and gender, but for the most part fat cells don’t care about our bank accounts.

In other words, walk into an KFC in America and you will find a good economic cross section of America.

They are there because the food is inexpensive and convenient, but mostly we are there because it’s fast. Perhaps, instead of worrying about my choice of fast food, we might start asking why so many people need fast and inexpensive food.

The drive-thru window lets me leverage my time for other pursuits. Like working longer hours to pay for my health insurance. Or working two jobs to pay the mortgage on my little piece of the American dream. Or making the note on a second car so my partner can go to work (so we can pay for the  . . . ). Or letting my children play sports after school. Or . . ., well, you get the idea.

The issue, then, isn’t calories and exercise. Hell, if I had 78 minutes of free time to walk every day I wouldn’t be going through the drive-thru with 2 hungry kids.

While I applaud the authors of the study (and I don’t want to sound like I dismiss their data), I also think they are studying the symptom not the cure. Fast food used to be a treat or something we picked up on the road so we could keep on trucking down the line.

Over the years, the food hasn’t changed. It’s still fast, greasy, fattening, and mostly bad for you. What’s changed is our need and desire for speed. What we need is a menu-based choice that shows us how to slow down our lives so we can eat less often on the run and more food in our homes.

And they need to hurry up. I’ve got to stop by KFC on the way home tonight.

There’s More to Eating (and Learning) Than Filling Up and Getting Full

cookingOne of the few things my wife and I always agree on is the necessity of feeding our guests well. While it may seem a bit old school, when we have company we plan meals, buy special ingredients, and put in the time to make supper an occasion to remember. Instead of spending our time sightseeing, shopping, or going out, we tend to spend our time visiting while we chop, grill, and, unfortunately, clean up our mess. Of course, we do some of the other things, but we don’t allow these visits to pass outside the house. In so many ways, the work involved is pleasantly exhausting.

My wife’s parents are visiting this weekend.  Last night for instance, we had fried shrimp po-boys (with homemade remoulade sauce, rice, black beans, beer, and some leftover German Chocolate Cake from earlier in the week). Tonight, we are grilling up some steaks, cheesy jalapeno sausage, mashing some potatoes, tossing a salad, and eating some There’s No Such Thing As Too Much Chocolate Pie. We’ll have french bread (rising as I type) and wine as an added bonus. No one ever goes home hungry.

During the week, our meals are a bit less elaborate and more practical. With two teenage boys, our kitchen is rarely closed. In either case, we rarely eat out. During the week, even when we are tired from working all day and the prospect of cleaning the kitchen is about as appealing as cleaning the kitchen after frying chicken, we still cook. It’s not just because taking two teenagers out to eat is cost prohibitive: there’s also something important about putting a meal on the table and having home cooked food. In many ways, that effort demonstrates our willingness to do the necessary work to fulfill the elemental needs of our children. Simply put–food matters to us.

Cooking when we have company is, in many ways, just as important as cooking for our family. Food and the dinner experience is, as so many others have noted, one of those communal events that bring us together. When my wife’s parents are here, they always offer to take us out to eat and we always refuse. Cooking might look hard and we might look busy, but it’s pleasant work. To a certain extent, we imagine that the meals we offer our guests are, in the parlance of our day, a value-added experience.

Interestingly enough, as I read yesterday that ACE (the American Council of Education) approved 4 Coursera courses for college credit and that the University of Texas announced 4 MOOCs in the works, I thought about our meals and having company. The reality is that my university will never be involved in the MOOC movement. Certainly, we might have to decide if we are going to accept credit from Coursera or UT, but when UT added (in small print) that producing a quality MOOC costs around $20,000 per course, I think I can say with some certainty that we don’t have that kind of money hidden in the couch cushions.

More importantly, though, I hope my school resists the MOOC movement and, instead, trumpets the value added elements of human contact. I have no doubt that a MOOC, with the advanced analytics that measure student competence, can walk (march?) students through the mechanics of just about any subject. I’m currently teaching an online sophomore American Literature course. The class is designed to introduce students to trends in American literature since 1860. Specifically, we focus on defining specific terms related to genres and American literature, analyzing individual works of literature for meaning, and understanding the diverse intellectual and cultural tradition of American mythology. My students, those who do all the work, will be able to do each of these things by the end of the semester. Some, those who earn A’s, will do these things much more effectively than those who earn F’s. There is something positive about those skills. Each, in its own way, is an important part of learning to think critically. Each is, in the immortal words of Pink Floyd, another brick in the wall. (Yes. I’m aware of the irony of my comparison.)

No matter how many instructor videos, blogs, emails, skype video conferences, tweets, or student video blogs we have in the class, though, what I can’t offer my students in the online environment is passion and a sense of the humanity involved in the learning experience. Certainly, my instructor videos can show me as excited, funny, and engaged. I can, easily enough, show my students that I am interested in the subject and they can show me a mastery of definition and an ability to analyze. Much of their work can be graded mechanically by the computer.

But learning isn’t just about mastery of a skill and the mission of higher education (and education in general) shouldn’t be focused solely on acquisition of skills. One of our stated missions at my university is to help students develop the necessary critical thinking skills to be productive citizens. While an online class with the advanced analytics possible in this day and age can measure a student’s knowledge of the Constitution, memorizing the Bill of Rights doesn’t make one a good citizen any more than quoting the 10 commandments makes someone a good christian.

A steak from my backyard might, objectively, taste just as good as one from Outback or even The Palm, but our fondest memories of food rarely center on just the seasonings sprinkled over the meat. When we look back to those favorite moments, we see smiling faces, hear familiar voices, and recall the setting and experience. These are the value added elements that create memories. Educationally, we need to recognize the importance of those human elements. We can all learn the basics of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” quantum theory, and Advanced Plant Biotechnology and we might even be able to develop an online format for helping us apply some techniques. That’s certainly one kind of learning.

But, there’s something important in seeing, hearing, and feeling how others react and understand ideas. Education, like eating, is about more than just filling up and getting full. Learning involves the nuances of human interaction that add value to the knowledge and we can’t measure such things with analytics or in massively available classes anymore than we can judge the value of a meal based on how full we get. I’m sure MOOCs have value, but like a family dinner, it also seems pretty obvious there’s greater value when everyone can fit around one table on occasion.

Weebles Wobble, But They Don’t Fall Down (unless they keep eating)

My taste buds love to travel. I reward them with chicken nuggets in the airport, eat deserts at the banquet meals, and have a full breakfast every day (get the open yolk sandwich with cheddar cheese on sour dough bread next time you are in Patachou’s. Lord. Because an egg isn’t bad enough: we need cheese on it, too. On sourdough bread. My brain said wheat but that’s not what came out when I ordered).

It’s like paradise in my mouth the entire trip. Two days into the trip and the taste buds have this pavlovian response every four hours. It’s like “Little Shop of Horrors” except my taste buds are the plant. I don’t know or understand the chemical or metabolic reaction caused by hunger. I only know my taste buds somehow short-circuit the part of my brain that makes good choices. When I’m at home, the brain wins. I eat smaller portions, push the plate away, and I’m able to walk away. I am master of my desires!

On the road, there must be some kind of sly, secret taste bud insurgency team (Taste Team 6?) that sneaks in and occupies any sense of restraint I might normally show. I can see Jimminy Cricket in my mind’s eye, but he looks like a piece of chocolate mint candy not the voice of reason. I like to tell myself I’m just being economically responsible. After all, I paid for the food and I should eat it. There are starving kids in China, the voice in my head screams!

My belt, on the other hand, shouts out like a metaphor torured by a bad writer (kind of like the one I’m strangling in this post). At home, my wife and I, when we eat out, will split a meal. We show restraint and respect for our waistband.

On the road, I’m eating alone. (Don’t despair. They encouraged us to sign up for some group meals for Friday night. “Our big fear is someone ordering room service and eating in their rooms alone,” they said. Hell, I thought that was the goal–room service, cable, and peace and quiet.)  Away from home, I sit looking at my plate of food and my taste buds overwhelm my better judgment. I start with the best of intentions. “I’ll order water,” I tell myself. Then the waiter tells me about a local brewery and I feel compelled to shop local. (I’m helping the economy, darnit.) So, to make up for it, I’ll order half a meal and get the least expensive thing on the menu. That’s what my brain whispers, but the mouth says something different. “Feed Me, Seymour, Feed Me!” Sure, the waiter might back away slowly from the crazy guy, but the food shows up anyway.

And there’s no sharing of a meal. (Partly because that would be totally creepy. Hey, perfect stranger, want my leftovers?) I follow my mom’s advice and clean that plate. Even as my legs push back from the table, even as my body says no more, even as I can hear the leather in my belt creak, I shovel that one last bite down the hatch and then waddle back to the room with self-loathing, hoping the snap on my jeans doesn’t pop off and injure someone.

Yet, there I was again tonight. Walking Indianapolis: took a look at the NCAA office building on the shores of the White River, headed past the Indiana State Museum where they were playing Janis Joplin’s version  of “Me and Bobbi McGee,” hoofed it down to Veteran’s Memorial Plaza (an awesome site at night), and circled back to Monument Circle and window shopped. I take back anything bad I might have implied about the city. I was out two hours and never really noticed the time.

I told myself the walk was good. Cleanse the system and burn some calories. The exercise gave me confidence. I walked up on a bar and I could see a band setting up. Easy decision. Step in, get a PBR ($2.00!) and a burger. Small expense so if it was too much food I could walk away guilt free.  As I stepped inside, I looked across the street and saw Mo’s: A Place for Steak.

Resist, my brain said. Stick to the plan. Low cost, small portion. Live music. Cheap beer. I had those taste buds whipped.

Until I turned around. Mo’s had a piano player so the live music was a wash. Indianapolis has two kinds of places to eat: steak and Irish pubs. I’ve had Irish. And the pub. But not the steak. I need to fully experience the city, that voice whispered. Nothing like taste buds that have evolved into logical, independent thinkers.

By the way, if you go to Indianapolis, St. Elmo Steak House is famous. I’m sure it’s delicious. My taste buds recommend Mo’s. They keep it simple there. Salt, pepper, a hint of garlic and they rub the steak with olive oil. They let the meat speak for itself. Get the creamed spinach. It goes well with the steak melting in your mouth.

So here I sit, sprawled out in a food induced coma, and wonder why my brain loses every time when I’m on the road. My waist band is begging to go home. I better leave soon or shop for new pants. I’ll walk an extra mile when I get home, I argue with myself. Eat more salad. Water with every meal. And I feel better as I drown out the little voices. The biggest lie in the world might be the lie to yourself, but it’s also the most satisfying.

By the way, I wonder when room service stops delivery?

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > U.S. > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)