Sunday, April 4, 2010

Who Moved My Donkey?

Who doesn't love a good, cheap, authentic Mexican restaurant? Communists. That's who. I highly recommend El Rancho Grande (which I believe translates to "the big ranch"), located in a quaint little strip mall just off exit 3 of 471, near Newport, Kentucky.

With a cozy atmosphere of authentically tiled floors and brick walls, complete with paper cut-outs declaring "Fiesta!" dangling here and there from the ceiling panels, no one can accuse El Rancho's decorator of blowing the budget on over-the-top flare. Maybe that's why the menu prices are so reasonable and the margaritas so ... heady. Even the local college students don't mind spending precious food allowances on a cup of melted white cheese with their free, warm tortilla chips.

Speaking of local colleges, Daymar College is right next door, probably even shares a dumpster with El Rancho out back.

El Rancho's biggest draw, however, is its mascot. Right outside on the strip-mall sidewalk, there's a little donkey statue. As far as donkey statues go, this one's in want of a little love. His paint is chipping, giving the illusion that he's turning gray, and he's missing both of his ears. He disappeared for a few weeks, only to be returned to a spot about three feet away from where he was originally bolted to the cement. But he's back now, and safe, and I will continue to photo-document each of my visits to El Rancho with the lovable aging donkey out front.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Purple Mountains... Or Blue?

I believe that the only people who wear sunglasses indoors are blind people and assholes. On the other hand, even blind people and assholes drink beer. Assholes because they're cheap, and blind people because holding a wine glass is probably a logistical nightmare.

However, Coors Light has begun to blatantly discriminate against blind beer drinkers. When they re-introduced hyper-color technology to the 2000 decade with their color-changing beer labels, they forgot that blind people can't see the label. So how do blind people know when their beer is cold?

I'll tell you how. They have to actually touch it. That's right. You see, blind people rely more on their sense of touch. It's like when you're at a concert and you can't hear anything except the music, and you gain a heightened ability to read lips. Or when you have to get up to pee in the middle of the night, and you don't want to turn any lights on, so you gain a heightened awareness of your surroundings by using your sense of touch and feeling your way down the hallway. Blind people rely on senses other than sight all the time.

So when a blind person reaches for a beer, he or she can feel the temperature of the bottle, and in turn determine the approximate temperature of the liquid inside. Science tells us that there are millions of little nerve endings in your fingers. These nerve endings send messages up your arm, through the back of your neck, and into your hypothalamus (broadly termed "the brain"). There, the message is translated into what we "feel." The message might be "ouch!" for too much pain, or "ouch!" for too much pressure, or even "ouch!" for too extreme of a temperature.

Before Coors Light invented the color-changing label, there was absolutely no way of telling whether or not a beer was cold without touching the bottle. Can you imagine? Those were the dark ages. My only wish is that the blind people were not left behind, with only such primitive methods for determining the temperature of their beers. And that assholes would stop wearing sunglasses indoors.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The People's Chili

I just ate a plate of delicious Skyline chili cheese fries. Between bites, I noticed a new little sweepstakes Skyline was putting on. You get a game piece, scratch off the magic silver stuff (which, by the way, will only come off by rubbing a coin across it. No other method has proven to work, and I've ruined many a fingernail trying). Then, you enter the code online, fill out some forms, and ... probably don't win anything.

But I noticed the first prize was free Skyline for life. Oh, let the gluttony ensue for the lucky boy or girl who gets that game piece. Can you imagine? A LIFETIME of free Skyline. People say, "Oh, you'd get sick of it after awhile." Those people have a mental condition. Skyline is the chili of the gods. (P.S., Big & Rich. Nobody eats Skyline by the bowl.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

You Chew Like a Cow

"Chicle en la clase?!" yelled Senorita Greenlee, my ninth grade Spanish teacher. "No, no. Chicle en el ceste!" she demanded. Gum in the classroom?! No, gum in the waste-paper-basket!

As a language teacher, Senorita Greenlee despised gum in the classroom. She was a sweet little lady, and always patient as we worked through complex verb conjugations and pronoun-matching, exercises we probably couldn't even do in English, much less in Spanish. But the moment a classmate was caught gnawing away at a piece of Fruit Stripe gum, which probably lost its flavor about an hour ago, ninety seconds after it was unwrapped anyway, Senorita Greenlee morphed into the leader of a German heavy metal band.

"Se mastica como una vaca!" she screamed. You chew like a cow! She was a small, Irish, woman, who mostly confused us into submission with her Spanish demands that came in the middle of some other Spanish phrase we were already concentrating on translating. To interrupt such focus with vehement protests against the chewing gum industry was startling to say the least.

I've actually found it difficult, in the moments in my life where chewing gum and other adult freedoms are allowed, to find a brand of gum whose flavor lasts for an entire 50-minute class period, much less an hour and half college-length class.

Fruit Stripe Gum is out of the question. Its flavor rubs off on your hands in the unwrapping process before the gum ever reaches your mouth.

Bubble Tape is a genious concept, and a possible solution to the flavor-loss dilemma, but the amount of chewed gum to dispose of in the end would be unreasonable and embarassing.

The gums that have "flavor capsules" that "burst" in your mouth are okay after the initial shock. I don't know if I'm the only one, but the "flavor burst" is actually painful. After that first bite down, my face always freezes in a contorted fake smile, while I try to hide that my mouth is actually burning, and I'm truly afraid my taste buds are developing scars.

Advertisors who market gum must be so bored, or dilusional. Let's be serious. Their only marketing option is to harp about how long the flavor lasts with any particular gum. It's not like they're about to go after the market who likes "sticker" gum, or "yellower" gum. (Although a small brilliant facet of gums have recently claimed to whitten teeth). Either way, their only real objective is to create a gum whose flavor lasts. So, gum industry, I'd like to challenge you, really this time, to do your job and come up with a gum whose flavor outlasts the professor's lecture.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On Ammonia, Rollar Blades, and the Kitchen Sink

In the late 80's and early 90's, the phenomenon of street hockey invaded cul du sacs all over the Midwest. Kids ages five to fifteen united in neighborhood games in the street. We set out cones to mark goals, picked teams, strapped on our roller blades and kneepads, and, in that less safety-conscious time, left our helmets and elbow pads at home. Scrapes and bruises were battle wounds, not law suits. The street hockey ball was the size of a tennis ball, but made of tough plastic. Some of us had special hockey sticks made to withstand the pavement. Some of us whose mothers wouldn’t buy those expensive street hockey sticks were perfectly skillful with a broom instead. Entire summers were spent checking each other onto the hot asphalt, directing traffic around our games, and barely taking our skates off even to go in for lunch.
At the height of my street hockey career, around age eight, my mother insisted that I needed voluminous hair. Just as street hockey was taking over the streets of subdivisions, big hair was conquering malls across the nation. From the local news anchor to David Bowie to my third grade teacher, everyone seemed to have large hair. There were big bangs, big fros, big mullets, and big combs to keep it all teased. The answer to every woman (and man's) flat-hair dilemma was the body-wave perm.
My mother’s hairdresser, who I will call “Dr. Frankenstein,” lived just an unfortunate two houses down the street. The day my mother scheduled as the day my hair would lose its simple, flat, straight shape, I was pulled away from a heated game of street hockey and into Dr. Frankenstein's kitchen. I stepped into her house and was knocked over by ammonia-smells of permanent chemicals mixing together. On the table were tiny rollers, pieces of parchment paper, and rubber gloves. Had I been a little older, maybe I would have had the sense to run screaming right then.
Instead, I bent my head over the sink and let my mother wash my hair. Washing my hair in the sink was an un-welcomed bit of grooming she often did when I was a kid. It was a fascinating ritual that always began with a dramatic showdown.
“Your hair still looks dirty,” my mom would say when I came downstairs just out of the shower, “Are you sure you rinsed all the shampoo out?”
“Yes. It’s fine,” I would respond and slink toward the back door before she could tell me to go fetch a towel. I was usually missing out on a street hockey game, already in full swing, with the neighborhood kids.
“Wait just a minute,” she would call after me.
I froze. Within seconds she was behind me, draping a dish towel around my neck and leading me toward the kitchen sink.
“Mauumm,” I would whine, “The sink reeks!”
“Oh, it does not. I just cleaned it.” She would bend my head forward so that my nose was inches from the stainless steel basin where all the family’s discarded food was thrown into the soggy hole and ground and flushed away forever.
While my mother scrubbed at my scalp, I tried not to drown as shampoo and water streamed down the sides of my face into my eyes, nose and mouth. After episodes of kicking and gagging, scratching and trying to wiggle free, I was finally “clean,” standing up straight with a dishtowel wrapped around my head, the front of my t-shirt soaking wet.
“Doesn’t that feel better?” mom would ask, her voice a deviant and breathy high-frequency.
“No.” I would pout for the next few hours about the trauma I had experienced in the sink.
I knew better, however, than to put on this display at the neighbor’s house, and therefore silently suffered the shampoo in their foreign sink, where god only knows what leftover soggy food had met its end.
Dishtowel perched on my head, I climbed into the tall chair that brought me to the right height for Dr. Frankenstein to create her monster. She draped me with a large plastic poncho that fit like a christening gown, and combed out my natural, straight, perfectly-fine-as-it-was, long hair. Then she pulled out her scissors.
“Wait. I don’t want it shorter,” I said.
“She’s just going to trim it so that the perm will take,” said my mom. Again, devious lies. Long strands of hair fell from my head onto my lap. My heart skipped up a few beats and I felt like I might throw up.
Then she chose her next weapon. The roller. One after another, she parted out sections of my hair and tightly rolled them into the round pieces of plastic lined with papers. All I could hear was the crunching of the parchment next to my ears as she wound each one tightly toward my crown. Each time I moved my head, I felt a new pinch where hair was pulled nearly out of my scalp.
My mom just stood there and smiled.
“This is going to look really nice,” she said.
“Close your eyes,” said Frankenstein. My sinuses cleared as she poured the ammonia mixture over my head. While it dripped down my face I shut my eyes tightly. I knew I would go blind if even a drop seeped between my eyelids.
“Okay, now we just have to wait thirty minutes… Almost done!”
Thirty minutes! This was NOT part of the deal. I could never keep my eyes shut this tightly for that long. This was it. I was going blind.
I imagine Mom and Frankenstein sat at the kitchen table, ate Hagen Daas, and talked about who was getting fat, but I'm not sure because my eyes were shut so tightly I lost my hearing too. No more street hockey for me. I was going to be blind and deaf. I had heard that beauty was pain, but thought in this case we were overdoing it.
A dull ache in my forehead began to form and I felt dizzy. I saw flashes of light dancing on the insides of my eyelids and studied the shapes that formed. From now on this would be the world I would see. I was trying to get used to it when my hearing suddenly returned.
A kitchen timer made me nearly jump out of my chair, and worse, relax my eyelids so that a tiny trickle of ammonia oozed into my eyes.
“Mmmm!" A sound snuck through my unyielding lips and I panicked, but then remembered I could still speak. "Does that mean I’m done?” I asked?
“Finished. You weren’t baking.” Leave it to my mother to correct my grammar while I endured pending blindness, deafness, and almost lost my voice to boot.
“We just need to rinse you out in the sink and you’ll be all finished,” said Frankenstein. Two sink-washes in one day? Again, not part of the deal.
This time the neighbor did the washing. It was probably the only time in my life that I prayed for a sink-wash from mom. If my sight wasn't damaged from the drop of ammonia that leaked into my eyes when the timer buzzed, I was certainly going to be blinded completely by the rush of steam and chemical that flooded both lids. Frankenstein didn't pay any attention to the water temperature and my scalp smoldered under the rage that poured from the spray gun. My neck muscles strained as she pressed my head down and I pushed upward for air.
She pulled my head back and wrapped it in a towel. She squeezed out the remains of tap water, but not before they drenched the collar of my t-shirt. My eyes still clenched shut, I felt the warm blast of a blow dryer on my neck. Hair tickled my eyes and cheeks. My head felt lighter. No longer did I feel the comfortable weight of my hair down my back.
When it was all said, done, and blow-dryed, Frankenstein and my mom stood and stared.
“That’s weird,” said Frankenstein. Weird. Exactly what I wanted to hear. “It didn’t take quite like I thought it would, but I think it looks cute.” Cute. Should have stuck with weird.
“Here, look,” said my mom, handing me a mirror. “Doesn’t that feel better?”
I opened my eyes, fully accepting my new fate of blindness. To my horror, I wasn't blind and was able to see my reflection, clear as crystal, in the mirror. My hair didn’t have “body” so much as it had transformed into tumbleweed. It looked like someone stapled a startled cat to my head.
I knew I should be polite. Perhaps the combination of chemicals and the hour of holding a firmly compressed face had done more damage to my tear ducts than I originally thought. Sure enough, my eyes turned the bright shade of light blue they turn every time they well up with tears. I tried to look up, to the left, down, south by southeast, but I couldn't keep the tears from dribbling down my face.
"Honey, you really do look cute," said my mom.
"You don't like it?" asked Frankenstein.
"It'll relax in a few days," said mom, "After a few shampoos the curls won't be so tight."
"Can I wash it out now?" I asked.
"No, that would be a waste. It wouldn't take at all then," said Frankenstein.
"So?" I said. I was getting desperate.
"By September it will be just right. Just in time for school," said mom.
She took the mirror and lifted the poncho over my head. Street hockey games don't usually stop except to let a car pass, but as we walked back home the neighborhood kids halted their game to come see my hair. I tried to pull it back into a ponytail, but it was too short and curls kept bouncing out of place. I put on my skates, grabbed my hockey stick, and joined the game, taking solace in the fact that even though I now looked and smelled like a mad scientist after a bout with a hazardous waste spill, I could still skate faster and score more goals than any boy on the street.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tube Steak

I want to talk about a food item that, when I think about it, leaves a little bit of gag-vurp in the back of my throat. It's haunted county fairgrounds, carnivals, and deli counters far too long, and, to be honest, doesn't deserve a place amoung the delicious funnel cakes and chocolate-covered cheesecakes that the carnies next door are peddeling at the same such events. Foot-long hot dogs.

First of all, I really have no qualms with regular hot dogs. In fact, I embrace them, sometimes four at a time. But if you really want to eat that much hot dog, get two (or three or four) regular-sized hot dogs. Secondly, you’re putting a foot of ketchup, a foot of mustard, a foot of relish, a foot of chilli (you get the idea) on your foot-long hot dog. That’s gross.

What are hot dogs made of? Essentially leftovers. After the butcher has cut out the delicious chops, ham, bacon, and ribs, whatever’s left over gets ground and squeezed into a long tube of processed goodness. And what about the hotdogs that claim to be made from beef instead of pork? Or turkey? I don’t care how lean the animal was, hot dogs are still tubular leftovers.

I have a friend from Wisconsin, home of Johnsonville Brats, who talks with that charming Northern Midwest accent. She says things like, “Doncha know?” and, “Yah!” She calls hot dogs “tube steaks.” She has a point. A hot dog is just a hose stuffed with leftover steak.

Now, a bratwurst is slightly different from a hot dog in a few ways. For one, it’s less often that you find those leftover blends with a bratwurst. You usually either have pork brats, beef brats, or turkey brats. No “40% REAL TURKEY!!” label to leave you wondering what the other 60% is made of. Also, some careful seasoning goes into the creation of a bratwurst. You can get them at any level of spiciness, too. Extra spicy, medium spicy, original.

After countless Google searches, I've come to understand the innards and outards, so to speak, of the Johnsonville Bratwurst production line. It's just as you would expect. Lots of tubes, pipes and grinders.

It reminded me of my grandparents’ beef operation. Grandpa raises grain-fed baby beef until they are ready to be slaughtered at about a year old. That’s right. They’re not free-range. They live in a feed lot and eat until they are one year old, at which point they are loaded on a truck and sent to the butcher. Stop whining, PETA. These animals are in no way suffering. Did you read what I just said about them eating all day long?? They love it. They can’t get enough corn meal.

Grandpa took me with him to the butcher once. I have to admit, as exposed as I am to the whole beef-farm outfit, I was a little bothered by the putrid air that struck me when I walked into the slaughterhouse. Air conditioning? Forget it. This was late-August and the air was tepid. I was also startled by the shrieking sound of the power tool the butcher used to shave off the remains of the animal. There was a window where children could watch the butcher in action. Like at Nobel Roman’s or Dewey’s Pizza where you can watch the pizza chef flip the dough around in the air. Kids actually climb up on the step that brings you to eye level with the hanging carcass on the other side of the plexi-glass. Filets, rib-eyes, strips, and porterhouses are all set out on the table under the carcass while the butcher works away at another American Grade A steak to send out to Jeff Ruby’s, where it will be barely cooked and sold for between twenty-five and forty American dollars.

Of course there was also a vacuum sucking up the leftovers and shavings, sending them up through the ceiling to another room, probably without a viewing window, through long plastic tube. One day, a little man on the other side of that tube thought, "Hey! Why would we throw away all of these excess lips and assholes?" He took out his Swiss Army Knife, choose the serated blade, and started slicing away. The rest is history, and today Takeru Kobayashi stands as a national hero as he chokes down just one more of these delicious treats in a water-soaked bun.