Friday, September 13, 2013

A Change in Plans for this Blog.

    As usual, I have bitten off more than I can chew. Trying to write up all of my "opinions" on the top 100 meals, books, movies, TV shows, etc., at one time, is beyond my abilities. Especially, while I'm working in remodeling at the same time. The books are the hardest. In the first place, my lists aren't definitive, except for the movies list, which I've kept for years. And as I try to winnow out my 100 books, I find I really need to reread many of them before I can say they belong in the top 100. Actually, this was part of my goal--making the lists was a way to force me to reread many of the books I've loved during my lifetime. It's also a tremendous time eater. I've spent a lot of money, too. I don't feel I can honestly say a book belongs on my list if I no longer own a copy, so I've been ordering five-six books a week, to put my money where my mouth is. Now, of course, I must reread those books.
    With that said, I'm changing my plans. I shall write up one list at a time, starting with "Fantastic Meals. The Top 100 (Mostly Southern) Meals and Sides of all Time." The obvious reason for doing this is to make my life easier. The second is because the folks at have been gracious enough to print all of the articles I've sent to them in their national blog, and since they seem to have and want a Southern slant, this works out well for my "Meals" blogs. This will also give me time to reread and to sort out my books. I now have about 150 of them that I  feel belong on my list--50 too many. If you know me well, you must realize that it's difficult for me to cast a good book aside, saying it's not worthy of belonging on my list. At present, books by Anne McCaffrey, Sebastian Junger, Frank Yerby, Euell Gibbons, Jules Verne, and Madhur Jaffrey are just outside the top 100. This is heresy, is it not? Then, again, should any one of these supplant Leon Uris, Jennifer Crusie, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, or Hal Clement? I think not. Do you see my dilemma?
    Thus--onward--with "Fantastic Meals." I hope you understand.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fantastic Meals. Number 97 of the Top 100 (Mostly Southern) Meals and Side Dishes of all Time.

Number 97
Fried Calf’s Liver and Onions

            Before I try to convince you that calf’s liver really does deserve to be in the Top 100 Best Meals, I need to give you some insight into how my list is going. I had a setback, of sorts.
            Yesterday, I was fooling around with my Top Twenty, pulling some out, adding some in, but Number One and Number Two, as far as I was concerned, were chosen. They were sacrosanct. My Number Two was potato salad—my mom’s potato salad, to be exact, and there was no way in hell I was moving it, unless it went up. Then it struck me—many people—those other than my sister and me, for example—might not consider potato salad a complete meal. Gosh. I was . . . nonplussed, and felt as if I’d been struck by something. Not only was I listing potato salad as a complete meal, I also included macaroni salad, cole slaw, and lemon pudding. What had I done? I made an executive decision. I decided that since many would protest, I should move these “side dishes” off to the flank, where they belonged. I’d write about them all the same, but they wouldn’t be listed in any particular order with the “main meals.” I pulled them off the board I was displaying them on and filled in the gaps. Mom’s potato salad was no longer Number Two.
            I was struck by writing fever, though, and began writing about potato salad, the potato salad I grew up with. I wrote for five pages. I couldn’t stop. I’d have to break the article in half to make it the same length as the others. I was struck again, as if some Greek deity was shooting little “Hey, you” arrows at me. If potato salad was so important to me, it deserved to be on the list—it deserved to be Number Two, in fact. So I made another executive decision—I’d re-name the blasted blog. I would now call it, “The Top 100 (Mostly Southern) Meals and Side Dishes of all Time.” And, thus it shall be. Mom’s potato salad is back where it belongs, and I can breathe better and get on with my life again.
            So, here we are—Fried Calf’s Liver and Onions. Yum! My only complaint is I want to write it as “calves’ liver,” but everywhere I look, it’s “calf’s”—in James Beard, as well as on the package from the store. Where is William Safire when I need him?
 I actually do love the taste of calf’s liver, in spite of how it’s spelled, or in spite of how my wife and children feel about it. My wife will no longer let me force the dish on our children, now that they’ve all flown the coop, and she claims she will fly away, too, if she must eat Brussels’ sprouts and calf’s liver. Well, I feel she’s missing out, but she’s sticking to her guns.
            There’s actually a strong psychological reason I love not only calf’s liver, but other food products not readily eaten by the masses—raw oysters, scrapple, liver pudding, and fried chicken livers, for instance. I love them because my dad loved them. He was my step-dad, actually, and since my real dad died when I was one, he was also the only dad I ever knew. He didn’t tell me much about my childhood, but after Dad passed on, Mom would tell me stories about how he used to love taking me out to eat when I was five or six years old. He’d take me to the Marine Corps Officer’s Club, set me on a barstool, and order me a dozen raw oysters. I was nobody’s fool. I ate the devil out of those rascals, slurping them down with joy. There would soon be a group of battle-hardened Marines around us, cheering the “little kid who loves raw oysters” on and on. Mom says I’d eat as many as they’d bring me. My step-dad was famous. This eating of strange meats, these delicacies, as Dad and I referred to them, was one of the few bonds we ever had, and it lasted right up until he died. Every time I’d go home, he’d have some strange food no one else in the family would even try—a new variety of scrapple, or a liver pudding he’d found down close to the Georgia-South Carolina border. I was always game for it. Always. Our strange, two-person hobby was one I really enjoyed.
            Thus, it was early on in my life I was exposed to calf’s liver. Dad knew that out of the five of us, he and I would eat whatever he brought home for Mom to cook up. Neither Dad nor I ever had a yen for pork or beef liver. We didn’t trust either one as being safe to eat. We weren’t fools, just liver-lovers.
            Mom was usually the cook while I was growing up—no self-respecting Marine was the family cook. Not back then. And later on in life, as I started making my own fried liver, I had no idea whether it was similar to the way Mom made it. I did learn a tidbit from James Beard. In his American Cookery, he insists that calf’s liver should be “served on the pink side or, in the case of the steaks, quite rare.” I come close to agreeing. I learned from Beard to not overcook my calf’s liver, as I had done for years, trying to get the dish just right. I think my mom overcooked it, too. I often wonder how Dad would have loved a tender piece of my undercooked calf’s liver. I think he’d have been overjoyed. When the dish is overcooked, it’s tough as shoe leather.
            So, here it is—my recipe for calf’s liver and onions. Use Vidalias if you’ve got ‘em.

4 tablespoons canola oil (I don’t use butter like Beard did, and I’m not a huge fan of
            cooking everything in EVOO, like Rachael Ray, either. Canola’s good for you,
and I’ve got to get something healthy in this meal.
2-3 Vidalia onions, sliced ¼” thick. Don’t bother separating the rings. They cook better
            and easier if you leave them together as long as possible.
1-4 pieces of thawed calf’s liver.

That’s it. I don’t add salt or pepper to mine. I don’t dredge them in flour, either, like Beard does. Why cover them in flour? I see no gain in taste, and the fried white-flour texture isn’t worth the trouble or the mess.
            Pour the oil in a frying pan and turn the heat to high. Add the onions and cook about 4-5 minutes, turning the heat down to medium high after the first minute. Flip the onions and add the liver. It cooks fast! Cook, moving it from side to side so it won’t stick, for only one minute, or one minute and fifteen seconds—then flip it over. Once again, cook it for 60-75 seconds. Pull it out of the pan and place on paper towels. I always cut mine to be sure it isn’t too rare. I want it pink, not bleeding. Put it back in the pan for another minute if it doesn’t look appetizing to you. But no longer. Pull out the onions and let them drain a few seconds, grab a fork and knife, and dig in.
            If I have some leftover vegetables, or rice, or chow-mein-like mixture, I’ll dump them in the frying pan after I cook the liver to heat them up. They pick up the onion-liver flavor, too. Oh, golly, leftovers are good this way.
            Now I’m not going to tell you this is a healthy meal, although it does have all the B-12, vitamin A, riboflavin, and folate anyone needs for the day. The problem is, of course, it also has a bunch of calories, too much iron for an adult man, and more cholesterol than one is allowed on a daily basis. As I eat this wonderful delicacy—called thus by James Beard, himself—I think about my dad. I can picture him, in “Gyrene Heaven,” pointing down to me, and saying, “You should have seen that rascal when he was a kid. He’d slurp down three dozen raw oysters without batting an eye.” Thanks, Dad. Thanks for the memories.

            So now . . . if you haven’t eaten any fried liver and onions in a while, try some, and I hope you enjoy the dish as much as I do, whether it’s calf’s or calves.’

Monday, September 9, 2013

Top 100 Books Ever Written. Number 99--"The Bridges of Madison County."

Top 100 Books

Number 99
The Bridges of Madison County
By Robert James Waller

            Those who know me well will think this choice for my 99th top book is a joke. It’s not. Nor did I like this book. And I said earlier that “liking a book” was to be one of the main criteria in my selection process. Why, then, is Bridges on my list at number 99?
            First, some background. When I began making my list of the top 100 books of all time, I thought the first ten and the last ten would be easy. I made a list of about 200 books I felt I should consider and then began whittling them down.
            I did my Top Twenty first. I had 55 in no time at all. After several days of juggling books, I finally felt I had a number close to 100. I had 119. I still do. Plus I’ve added a few more books that I’d forgotten about—twenty-two to be exact. So I now have 41 books too many. Forty-one books that might supplant the forty-one I chose earlier. And I really like all 41 of them. The problem is I don’t like number 99—The Bridges of Madison County. The reason this book’s on my list is because of one of the other criteria I have—if I’ve read a book many times, it should qualify. I’ve read Bridges five times. Yes. I read a book I didn’t like five times. Why, you may ask? It was because I wanted to study it. The book was a best seller—in fact, it’s one of the bestselling books of the 20th century, with 50 million copies out there floating around. I have only one copy.
I studied this text because women loved the book. They also loved the film, produced by, directed by, and starring Clint Eastwood. I disliked the book so much I didn’t give the movie a fair look. I don’t plan to, either. It’s not my kind of movie. I do feel Clint Eastwood was the perfect man to play the role of perfect Robert Kincaid, however. Both men give high praise to themselves.
            When the book became so popular, and I finally read it, I asked myself over and over, “Why do women love this book so much?” I came up with two reasons. Number one: Francesca is plain, forty-five, and has lines on her face—but Robert Kincaid loves her, takes her photograph, and adores the hell out of her. He worships Francesca. She is worshipped by a guy who is described as being “lithe . . . tall . . . hard . . . a magician of sorts . . . all lean muscle . . . full of power and intensity . . . a man who missed little.” This Kincaid guy is God’s Gift to Women. And he loves—not young, pretty girls—oh, no—he loves Francesca! He is looking for “intelligence” and “passion born of living,” and he “finds most young women unattractive” because “they had not lived long enough, or hard enough to possess those qualities that interested him.” Oh, come on. This plain-looking, Italian immigrant, Iowan house-wife, farm-working woman is what he’s been searching for all his life?
            When I finished reading this book I was in shock. I hated it. I thought it was poorly written and difficult to believe, and I grew so tired of Robert Kincaid’s stellar qualities I wanted to throw up. Actually, what I wanted to do was beat the guy up. I wanted to kick his ass. He was a blowhard. I wanted to beat him over the head with one of his three Nikon cameras. I wanted to blacken one of his “photographer’s eyes that missed nothing.” I wanted to yank off his “well-used Red Wing field boots” and smash him over the head as he quoted W. B. Yeats—and Francesca, bless her soul, knew both the poem and the author. Good grief—do you know any Yeats’ poems you can rattle off? Would you know one if you heard it? I wouldn’t. Then again, I’m not Robert Kincaid, the best damned writer-photographer National Geographic ever had.
            But . . . then I realized that Robert James Waller had done something I had never done—he had written a book exclusively to and for women. If I’d been a woman when the book came out, in the thirty to fifty-year-old range, I’d have read the book twenty times. But I wasn’t a woman. Not then, nor now. And I really got upset when the writer told the media there were strong similarities between the main character and himself.
            The other reason I believe the book was a hit is because of what I call the “unresolved ending,” or the “lovers-meet-and-are-kept-apart-ever-after” ending. Think Romeo and Juliet, The Titanic, Love Story, and, of course, The Bridges of Madison County. I don’t like this type of ending. I prefer happy endings. I would never go, willingly, to see a version of Romeo and Juliet, for example. And I prefer My Fair Lady to Shaw’s original, Pygmalion. I do see a purpose in such movies and books, however—it’s the money. Tons and tons of it. Women (and some men, I’m sure) will pay anything to watch a movie or read a book about a “love that cannot be.” Waller, Eastwood, Shakespeare, Shaw, Segal, and Cameron made millions off their sad-ending stories. There is one movie I sort-of liked that had a sad ending—Griffin Loves Phoenix. The ending caught me by surprise. I cried and cried. The movie affected me tremendously, but would I call it great? Nope. I’ve also never watched it again. It’s too damn sad. I feel the same way about Love Story. I watched it once—that was enough. Life’s too short for me to watch a movie or read a book to make myself unhappy.
            I do, however, wish I could be “the man” that Robert Kincaid was. What a dude! What a lover! He “was an animal,” he was “shamanlike,” he was from “haunted places,” and even though he was fifty-two, he could make love all night long! What a stud!
            I can’t go on. You get the idea. I hated the book. It’s Number 99 because I studied it, hoping to learn how to become a better writer. I did learn what to do—write a sad-ending book. The problem is I can’t.
And with that, I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the book. You tell me if it was worth my time to read this book five times. “There was no breeze, and the corn was growing.” What the hell? What’s he trying to say? Of course the damn corn was growing—they were in Iowa. And according to Robert James Waller (maybe I should start using my middle name, too) there are only two things to do in Iowa—watch the corn grow and make love to someone else’s wife.

Did I mention how I wanted to grab the Camel cigarettes out of Kincaid’s pocket and smash them into his mouth? Did I say how I wanted to do this just before he did his morning routine of jogging for forty minutes, pumping out fifty pushups, and lifting his cameras as if they were weights? I also wanted to call up Francesca’s husband and tell him to come join me, and we’d beat the crap out of all three of ‘em—Kincaid, Waller, and Eastwood. Yes—this book infuriates me! I read it those five times, and never again. I make it number 99 on my list because I want everyone who reads this to know that I am capable of reading a book I hate. You should also admire my self control. I never did seek out Kincaid and beat him to a pulp. And I never squealed on Francesca, either.