Miss Ginsu: About/Bio


Random Generosity: 24 Days of Delight

December is just around the corner, and I already feel a longing for Leslie Harpold's advent calendar.

For those who missed out on all the fun, writer/designer/web pioneer
Leslie Harpold used to post online advent calendars each December. She filled the days with holiday memories, wacky links and special little surprises.

She wasn't trying to sell anything or preach points or create converts. It was just a series of sweet gifts that brightened a cold, dark month. I looked forward to clicking through to see the daily delights.

marshmallow snowman

Last year, in the middle of December, Leslie's advent calendar simply stopped. I saw the eulogy appreciation for her shortly thereafter on The Morning News.

I didn't know her, but I miss the generosity of spirit that drove her to offer something simple and sweet in which the world's tide of random web-surfing strangers could float in and find cheer.

I've been thinking about that kind of random generosity recently, and in that spirit, I'd like to offer my own online advent calendar this year.

Beginning tomorrow, you'll find Miss Ginsu's Advent Calendar posted in this space.

It's not intended to be a replacement or a replication. Think of it as more of a celebration: 24 days, each featuring a fun, simple thing to make and give, inspired by Leslie and anyone else who offers their talents in the service of random generosity.

Miss G.

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Borrowed Comforts

Is comfort food necessarily bound up in the place in which we spend our developmental years? I have some quibble with that notion.

The comfort food of my people is supposed to be monochrome and starchy: bread, potatoes, beef and butter served alongside a tall glass of milk or a cup of dark coffee. I sprouted in the Upper Midwest of these United States, and that's how we rock it up there.

Yet, in times of stress, sorrow, sickness or stupor I so often find myself drawn toward the comfort foods of far-flung regions: Venezuelan arepas, Vietnamese pho, Japanese ramen, Indian curries, Israeli shakshoukas and Moroccan tagines.

Coffee at Les Enfants Terribles
Coffee and J's furry arm at Les Enfants Terribles

In the darkness, Canal street cutie, Les Enfants Terribles, is a crush of beautiful people who drink and laugh and flirt.

But on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the place is a low-key gem, providing me with a corner table, sunny windows, a view of the international soccer matches, a hot cup of coffee, a crusty baguette and a plate of tasty tagine alongside rockin' Moroccan harissa. My tagine is hot, tender and rich in meaty chicken flavor with a hint of lemon. Slathered with a little searing harissa, it's pure comfort food.

Tagine and couscous at Les Enfants Terribles
Tagine (at front) and couscous (at rear) from Les Enfants Terribles

This is certainly not the finest tagine on the planet (that's a mystical meal I imagine as some kind of slow-cooked masterpiece I'd discover in the kitchen of a Moroccan grandmum). What it is, however, is warm, welcoming, inexpensive and... yes, comforting.

When I really think about it, is my brunch tagine so different from the cuisine of childhood? The tagine is really just a stew. Baguette in place of sliced bread, couscous for the potatoes, chicken or lamb replace the beef and the coffee... well, that's still coffee.

The arepas I love so much are simply a crispy corn shell holding a pocket of stewed meat or vegetables. Pho and Ramen are steaming bowls of veg and meat with noodles. India's curries are highly spiced stews served with basmati rice. The shakshuka is a hot tomato-pepper stew served with eggs and pita. None of these dishes are really so different from the others.

It's clear that the accents are different. One man's harissa is another man's ketchup, no? But could it be that when we speak of comfort food, the world communicates with something like a common tongue?

Three Spoons

Les Enfants Terribles
37 Canal St. (at Ludlow St.)
Lower East Side, NYC

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Introducing: The New Chez Ginsu

Miss Ginsu & Cupcake

After months of thinking, tinkering, plotting, planning and fussing about, I'm proud to present the new & improved MissGinsu.com. (With boundless thanks to J for patiently debugging my buggy code and The Roomie for her advice on cuteness.)

It's still not perfect ("Dammit, Jim! I'm a cook, not a programmer!), but I hope that once you have look around, you'll agree it's a heck of a lot better.

The new display is best viewed on Safari and Firefox, tolerable on IE 7 and still miserably broken on IE6. If you're on a PC and you don't have Firefox yet, you can download it here for free and get the whole awesome Miss Ginsu experience.

What's Changed
  • The Name: Is the site called, The Hedonista? Is it called, Miss Ginsu? In truth, it was supposed to be "The Hedonista: A Food Blog by Miss Ginsu", but it was pretty confusing. That's over now. We're going totally Miss Ginsu from here on out.

  • Simplified Navigation: The navigation bar has been stripped down to the basics: Tasty Places to go, tantalizing Recipes to cook and our favorite Food Finds. Looking for something? Check out the search bar (at right) or browse the archive.

  • The Color Scheme: It's brighter, happier and more diner-like.

  • The Miss Ginsus: The place is chock-full of 'em. Why? Well, why not? They're cute. And we think the world could use more cute. Also: Naps. But we'll work on cute for now.

Meanwhile thanks for reading, and I hope you like the new look!

-Miss G.

PS: Completely unrelated, but also important... The Roomie wants anyone knitty (or crochety) to know that the Love Keeps You Warm program could really use scarves or yarn donations to help warm folks that are living with HIV/AIDS. If you have skillz, scarves or a bunch of extra yarn sitting around, contact Diana Previtire at Actor's Equity NYC before November 30. More info on the flyer at Miss Heather's Greenpoint Dog Log Blog.

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Top 10 Tasty Tales of Childhood

James and the Giant PeachI was a lucky little kid. I had parents who read to me and bought me lots of books. Early on, they introduced me to the wonders of the public library and taught me to read, which cracked open the whole world's opportunities.

As an adult I still carry around a whole heap of warm, fuzzy nostalgia for the stories of Rudyard Kipling and Theodor Geisel, the weird poetry of Edward Lear and Shel Silverstein.

Not surprisingly, most of the works that resonated strongly were the ones that featured food.

I vividly remembered poor Ellen Tebbits, yanking up an enormous beet from the mud for her classroom show & tell. I fully empathized with Winnie the Pooh's honey obsession and puzzled for years over Eeyore's ascetic thistle diet.

Recently I ran across the Pennsylvania Department of Education's very thorough list of children's books about food and was pleasantly reminded of the wealth of beautiful illustrations and luscious stories still wrapped up within the folds of my brain.

Therefore, in no particular order, I share:
My Top 10 Tasty Tales from the Rosy Days of Childhood
1. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
A town that rains food! Best. Place. Ever. (Or maybe not?)

2. James and the Giant Peach
Roald Dahl's descriptions of fresh peach are so mouthwatering. Take my advice and don't read this book unless it's peach season. (Now is a good time.)

3. Charlie & The Chocolate Factory
Dahl again. Amazing. Creepy. Tantalizing. All at the same time.

4. In the Night Kitchen
The mind of Maurice Sendak is such a treasure. As a youngster, I remember this book being a bit scandalous for its full-frontal nudity... as if depicting a joyful nude was something base. Silly puritans.

5. Green Eggs & Ham
Who doesn't love Green Eggs & Ham? I don't want to meet that person. I remember back in the day when Jesse Jackson read it on Saturday Night Live. Hi-larious.

6. The Tawny Scrawny Lion
A skinny lion that's never full. A rich, delicious stew. A lovely little book.

7. The Poky Little Puppy
Poky. Clumsy. And absolutely greedy for dessert. That's my kind of puppy.

8. The Little Red Hen
She's a go-getter, that little red hen, and she really promotes the whole "dining at the source" concept years before it was cool.

9.Stone Soup
It's a classic tale that's been told many times, but this is the tasty version I remember.

10. The Giant Jam Sandwich
Peril! Terrified villagers! If only all such problems could be solved with a giant jam sandwich.

Have a treasured food story from your childhood bookshelf? Do share!

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Taking on the issues, one lemon bar at a time

chocolate chip cookies
One Cookie to rule them all, One Cookie to find them, One Cookie to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them

For the most part, I think most people feel helpless when faced with the big, vague Issues. Take Injustice. Or Suffering. Or Torture. Or Poverty. (No, really. Take them.)

These are concepts too large for a human brain to really conceive. Twelve million children in America have too little food? I can't even hold a detailed picture of more than 150 hungry people in my little brain. They begin to smear together and lose their distinctions as individual people. Beyond 150 or so, they're an anonymous crowd.

Twelve million people is so far beyond my mental abilities as to seem unreal. Imaginary. Like all those billions of stars they tell me are out there. I live in New York where I see Orion. Occasionally. And maybe a dipper if I'm very lucky. The other billions of stars are a kind of fiction to me. Like those 12 million starving children.

When faced with capital-"i" Issues, I think many people have similar feelings. What can I do? I can't do anything. I'm just me. I'm small and not very capable. My superpowers are extremely limited.

But small actions committed en mass actually do make a difference.

For example, I found out last week from the people at Earth Pledge that the temperature in a city like NYC can be up to 10°F hotter than the surrounding countryside. It's known as the Urban Heat Island effect, and it's caused by heat reflected off urban surfaces (read: apartments, offices, bodegas, schools, etc.) and heat created by all the little people running around on, around and in those surfaces doing the things that people do.

Ten degrees. That's a significant change made by the ordinary activities of a few million individuals like me.

Similarly, I'd encourage you to consider the impact you can make in your kitchen. The Share Our Strength Great American Bake Sale begins this weekend. It's their summer-long campaign intended to inspire people to bake, eat, donate and take thousands of small actions toward alleviating the childhood hunger in America. (Those with dietary concerns and carbon qualms can, of course, simply donate to the cause without munching or baking.)

SOS hosts a number of great programs, but this one seems particularly joyous: Battling issues with muffin power! Taking on poverty with pie pans! Fleets of cookies flying into action!

For my part, I'm organizing my office team and bringing treats with which to woo my co-workers on Friday mornings throughout the campaign, which runs from May 19 through August 31.

Do my tangy lemon bars (see recipe below) or rhubarb-apple crisp make a big difference? No. They make a small difference. Alongside a nation's brigade of brownies and sky-darkening clouds of oatmeal-raisin cookies, my lemon bars contribute to a ten-degree kind of difference. My lemon bars are a tiny force for good.

Want to start your own bake sale? SOS kicks off this Saturday. Sign up today at the Share Our Strength site.

A Terribly Sincere Batch of Lemon Bars (Makes 24 bars)

For the shortbread crust:
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose or pastry flour
A pinch of salt

For the lemon filling:
Grated zest from 3 lemons
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F, and lightly butter a 9 x 13 x 2-inch baking pan.

2. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Combine the flour and salt and blend into the butter mixture.

3. Press the mixture evenly into the bottom and sides of the pan with lightly floured fingertips, raising about a 1/2-inch ledge around the pan sides.

4. Bake for 20 minutes, and cool on a wire rack before you make the filling.

5. To make the filling, whisk together the sugar, eggs, zest, juice and flour.

6. Pour lemon mixture over the cooled crust, and bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until the filling looks set (not liquid). Cool to room temperature in the pan.

Keep, covered and chilled, for up to three days. Before serving, cut into squares and dust with confectioners' sugar, if desired.

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Forget Foodies. Unleash the GastroGnomes!

The New York Times published an article today that features "The Foodie Scene in the Twin Cities," the subhead for which proclaims, "In another sign of a cultural awakening, dining out in this city of sensible industry is no longer confined to steakhouses."

Sitting on the couch this morning, I read this line aloud with ill-hidden outrage.
Confined to steakhouses? Seriously? Did the writer actually visit MSP? I lived thereabouts for close to ten years and I can't remember ever eating at a steakhouse.

My sweetheart chuckled from his desk a few feet away. Having already read the piece, he knew my boiling blood wouldn't cool a bit as the thesis statement of said article became clear.

As it happens, the "Foodie Scene" covered in the Times refers almost entirely to some recent "celebrity chef" action. Oh sure, there's a passing reference to one of the excellent farmers' markets and to Chef Brenda Langton, a Minneapolis fixture who's been cooking tasty things as long as I can remember, but as far as the Times is concerned, the term "foodie" seems to be confined to those looking for high-end five-to-seven course prixe fix dining directed from on high by the new gods of expense account cuisine (Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, in this case).

Why all the rage? Well, if I knew nothing about the Twin Cities (and honestly, that's true of the majority of New Yorkers I've met), I might read that article and think to myself, "Thank heaven for those bold, selfless celebrity chefs. How else would a backwater like that learn any kind of appreciation for organic and regional ingredients? God bless Wolfgang and Jean-Georges."

All of which is complete and utter hogwash. But wait... is it possible that they mean something different by the word "foodies?"

With that thought in mind, it seems the foodies of the Times eat exclusively at tables with very high thread-count coverings. Said foodies would also have to have completely forgotten Celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson who ran Restaurant Aquavit in Minneapolis (and NYC) until recently. And they'd have to be blind to places like La Belle Vie, whose chef, Tim McKee, was recognized by Gourmet, James Beard and the local City Pages. (And for that matter, I recommend that those seeking guidance on MSP just skip the Times and read the City Pages food reviews. They know all the best things going.)

I could go on, but I feel we should get back to business: "Foodie." I've never liked the word. It just sounds dumb. Like someone affixed a vowel sound to a random noun to make a label. It's what little kids do to form insults.

They can have that word. I just want to clarify that "Foodie Scene" as used in the article mentioned above should be read as the "Status Dining Scene."

On the other hand, I feel that those people who are dedicated to ferreting out and exploring the world of tasty, exciting, horizon-expanding foods available any a given place should be called something else.

"Gourmets" sounds flaccid and snobby. "Epicurians" seems accurate, but it comes off as a tad stiff. "Chowhounds" isn't bad, but it's rather specific. I'm going to go with something more like "Gastronomes," which conjures up an image of an army of garden gnomes armed with forks and knives, ready to explore and devour. Unleash the Gastro-Gnomes! (A bit terrifying, isn't it?)

Where do the Gastrognomes of Minneapolis-St. Paul eat? In many places, as it turns out. Ask a few. They'll tell you. In that spirit, I'll list just a handful of my favorite Twin Cities food spots:

The Midtown Global Market, where you'll now find a killah combination of cheap+tasty, including Manny's Tortas, Holy Land and La Loma, the home of tasty tamales.
920 E Lake St

One-stop picnic shop: The Wedge Co-Op, where you can get a loaf of bread, a fresh-pressed fruit juice, an array of treats and be on your way to the Sculpture Garden for lunch.
2105 Lyndale Avenue South
Minneapolis MN, 55405

The improbable Sea Salt Eatery for fish sandwiches and crab cakes that have no right to be so tasty. Be warned: They're only open in the good months.
4825 Minnehaha Ave

Ted Cook's 19th Hole Barbeque — Classic baked beans, cornbread, greens and saucy barbecue. Worth getting lost on the residential streets trying to find it? Hell yeah.
2814 E 38th St

Victor's 1959 Cafe Eggs with black beans and fried yuca? Toast with guava jelly? Yeah, I'm in.
3756 Grand Ave S

Hell's Kitchen, which makes awesome bison sausage and their signature brunchy treat: the luxe Mahnomin Porridge.
89 South 10th St

Emily's Lebanese Deli I've been trying for close to 6 years to make tabbouleh that tasty...
641 University Ave NE

Blue Nile I'm a sucker for Ethiopian. Mmm... Stew.
2027 E Franklin Ave

Surdyk's wine + cheese shop extraordinaire
303 East Hennepin Ave

Rustica Bakery Breads, rolls and pastries made with love, skill and a bonus helping of tastiness.
816 W 46th St

A Baker's Wife's Pastry Shop Unassuming, inexpensive, impressive. Get a tart.
4200 28th Ave S

Coffee Gallery at Open Book. This listing really isn't all about the food. There aren't many things I crave more than Books + Coffee. Open Book is an amazing resource for anyone who loves books and enjoys seeing how they're constructed.
1011 Washington Ave S

Bayport Cookery Okay, so it's actually a stone's throw from MSP. But my lord, people... they host a morel fest. It's damn tasty and not terribly expensive. Make the trip. These guys were doing sustainable, local cuisine before it was cool.
328 5th Ave N
Bayport, MN

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Tell me again why I'm here.

terrible martinis
Terrible martinis at the Time Out Eat Out Awards. Amaretto, vodka and lemon sour. Blorg. For the record, I really don't understand what's wrong with a standard olive-studded gin martini.

Saxelby Cheesemongers
Cheese Mongeress Anne Saxelby and the Saxelby Cheese Gang pose for their album cover.

It's widely known that bloggers are the media's ugly stepchildren. Actually, it's worse than that. Bloggers are the stinky kids at the edge of the playground that the traditional media is eventually forced to select for their teams.

Knowing this, I was (reasonably, I believe) torn about whether I should go to the Time Out New York Eat Out Awards last night.

Good reasons against going: It's not really my thing. No plus one allowed. Not really dressed for cocktails. Knew I'd have to admit out loud that I, ahem, blog.

Good reasons for going: Free drinks. A possibility of chef-spotting. Monday night.

So yes. I sent in my RSVP. I printed my invite. And upon arriving, I went for my nametag. That's when I discovered I wasn't on the list. That's when it hit me: not only was I illegitimate media, I was illegitimate party-crashing media. Sad and sadder.

After forcing me to spell out the name of my blog (rather more loudly than I would have preferred), they let me in (as a nametag-free pariah) and I was handed a drink. Well, kind of a drink. An exceedingly sweet martini that made me remember why I don't pay money for such beverages.

The place was crammed with the NYC food industry... bar people, restaurant people, front of the house, back of the house. Made me wonder who was running the city's bars and restaurants until I remembered nobody goes out on Monday anyway.

Feeling slightly ridiculous, like an underdressed interloper, I looked for someplace to ditch the "martini." The inner critic handed me twelve good reasons why I'd be better off at home. Just then, like a calming patch of blue sky in a sea of storm clouds, the crowd parted to reveal the good kids from Saxelby Cheesemongers in the Essex Street Market.

And I knew I was safe. Why? Because people who care, deeply, about cheese, are also people who love the world's underdogs. They're the compassionate souls who would pick the stinky kids at the edge of the playground for their teams because they really, truly believe in the potential of those stinky kids.

I know this about cheese people because cheeses are the food world's underdogs. They are funky, stinky, runny, barnyard-y, lumpy and sometimes covered in spotty molds. They're not pretty, shiny and colorful, like apples or immediately beguiling, like barbecue. Cheeses are not the popular kids. It takes a brave and loving soul to look beyond their surface textures. Truthfully, many cheeses need extra time and care to become exquisite. Not everyone has that kind of patience.

Despite our earnest catcalls, Saxelby Cheesemongers didn't win the Reader's Choice Award for Best Cheese Shop. That honor went to Murray's. Again. The friendly folks at Against the Grain didn't win for Best New Bar, either. So after the show, the cheese losers, beer losers and one tag-along media outcast packed into cabs and sped away to Grape and Grain (the tiny, homey eatery next-door to AtG).

We drank wine, we toasted each other and we ate, lavishly, by candlelight. We had a grand time. And at some point I realized the best reason of all to go to a food award night: It's a reminder that even in as large a city as New York, the community of dedicated food people is small and intertwined.

As much as the restos, bars and food shops compete with each other, they also necessarily, support each other. Whether Murray's wins or Anne Saxelby wins, the community of cheese lovers grows. And I think that bodes well for all of us.

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In space, no one can hear you retch

soylent green
Soylent Green: the Malthusian Catastrophe at its finest.

Ever notice how disgusting the food of the future looks? Food that comes in pill form. Soylent green. Food that comes out of a replicator. It's pure nutrition. Efficient fuel. And food love is apparently an antiquated notion to our descendants. With the exception of Captain Picard's cuppa Earl Grey, there's little to no enjoyment involved in sci-fi cuisine.

The supposedly non-fiction news is no better. Consider vat meat. Bland packaged foods that won't wreck the space craft. Overfished oceans depleted of sea life. Molecular gastronomy advances that produce edible paper menus. Genetically engineered hybrid crops developed, owned and distributed by transglobalmegacorps.

And I guess I'm part of the problem, too, having taken part in a low-budget sci-fi spaghetti western that does nothing but subliminally re-enforce the assumptions that the food of the future is, at its very best, bland, packaged and the color of metal. (In Planetfall, the bar drinks are green and the food either arrives in mylar packets or in the form of shiny silver "space potatoes.")

Like it or not, I'd wager that culturally internalized visions like those revealed in sci-fi and fantasy fiction may, in some way, work to shape our collective futures. It's certainly possible that prescient sci-fi writers like H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Yevgeny Zamyatin and Philip K. Dick only tapped into the trends of their respective times, extrapolating possibilities that happened to crystallize. But isn't it also possible that in the same way individuals use visualization or mantras and organizations use mission statements, a society unconsciously feeds off its collective dreams (films, graphic novels, books, tv shows, etc.) while inventing its future?

I'm not trying to suggest that sci-fi as a genre needs to take up the gauntlet (or pot holder, as the case may be) and lead the media in creating brave new visions for the luscious, fresh, juicy, robust meals of a much tastier future.

And it doesn't need to be writers and filmmakers that invent our culture's dreams for a delicious, sustainable future (and just as a side note, when I say "sustainability," I don't just mean responsible fishing or integrated land management. I'm thinking of the way delicious food is sustainable food. It sustains you physically, mentally and emotionally. Thus, a sustainable diet encompasses meals you want to eat again and again.).

I realize that storytelling is about conflict and drama, not food porn, but wouldn't it be wonderful to see some of the meals of the future depicted in the lush brushstrokes we currently seem to save for our visions of the past? Or are we already too sad and cynical to believe that the citizens of 2050 or 3075 or 3000 would ever sniff and savor and salivate over their suppers?

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Is that your message on my medium?

In case you were wondering...

'Tis the season for candy conversation hearts, so I'm just now mulling over a practice that I find a bit mystifying: verbose food.

I've known for some time that it's possible to print up custom M&Ms that exclaim very short messages. And I'd bet that anyone who's attended a few trade shows or weddings may have encountered personalized candy bars or chocolate coins, but I'm still not sure that I fully understand what drives the custom candy urge.

Marketers will throw a logo on anything, but what are Robert and Barbara really trying to say when they offer me a commemorative Bob&Barb chocolate-almond slab at their reception? Does a mass-produced novelty represent their union? Am I supposed to keep it until their first anniversary? Do I munch it, dreamily, after the party, thinking all the while of how sweet and nutty my friends are? What if I only eat dark chocolate? Am I symbolically shunning their symbolic generosity with my food snobbery? Should I feel guilty about that?

Etiquette complications aside, if one thinks of sweets as more like inexpensive blank surfaces than tasty delights, using them as inexpensive signage becomes understandable. Those who savor higher-quality bonbons don't generally scrawl "Happy Birthday, Marge!" across La Maison du Chocolate treats or the cache of treasures snagged at Richard Donnelly's shop of tasties.

By comparison, chalky little pastel Valentine's hearts are fair game for proclamations. The practice reminds me of restaurants that boast killer views. In my experience, if the scenery is stunning, the food surely won't be. (Though rest assured, the tab generally matches the view in its breathtaking qualities.)

So perhaps candy communiqués really deliver two messages... one spelled out across the sweet and a quieter, less savory tale told by the presence of the former.

I'll think I'll take my candy messages in virtual form. Those undisturbed by chatty sweets can follow these links to find DIY candy bar wrapper templates and more information on customized candy.

Late-Breaking Newsflash: Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories not only sports an irresistable name, they've also done an investigation of a pen with food-safe ink, for yes, yet more scribbling on food. At least they have the good sense to question whether the valentine hearts on which they write are actually food.

Though it might be a little late in the game to secure a food-safe pen for your Valentine's Day doodles, you can always fall back on my favorite 2nd grade trick... ballpoint pen messages/drawings across the skin of an unpeeled banana. Cheap. Fun. Nutritious. Apply allusion of choice here.

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Tantalizing toy food finds

Parents and kids often have very different ideas about what constitutes a "good" toy. I remember the year I so desperately wanted the Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine. I'm not sure why I skipped the E-Z Bake Oven (also popular at the time) and went straight for Sno-Cones, but my five-year old brain was obsessed with visions of making and sharing syrupy day-glo Sno-Cones in the livingroom.

Sticky syrup, brightly colored food dyes, garish commercialism... After all these years, I finally begin to understand why my father was horrified by the request. Needless to say, he didn't buy me the Sno-Cone machine. Instead, dad settled on the far more practical art set.

I imagine there are gobs of households filled with children who beg for art sets and receive, instead, items that more closely represent that household's parental hopes and dreams. Tiny doctors' bags, for example. Itty-bitty briefcases.

No, dad didn't try to force me into medicine or law. And yes, I used the art set. A lot. But I never forgot my Sno-Cone Machine dreams.

Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine

My food production fantasies turned to other outlets... I shaped the backyard mud into loaves to be baked on stones in the sun. I made salads of yard grasses and tried to feed them to the cats.

I coveted the adorable set of tiny plastic packaged foods and the toy cash register that belonged to another little girl whose name I remember only as "Kelly." As I recall, Kelly and I played grocery store over and over again until she gave me lice and then we broke up. She, much to my disappointment, kept the grocery store.

Later in life, I heard from other kids that the Sno-Cone Machine kind of sucked. The ice was always too hard for the flimsy grating device, and it mostly just dripped. Small vindication.

Several years ago, I finally enacted my revenge on a world that had seemingly plotted against my involvement with food commerce. I enrolled in cooking school. I took jobs in kitchens until I could no longer afford to pay both rent and school loans and had to quit.

Sudden career diversion, $30,000 in culinary school debt, a few bad marks on my credit... could all this have been avoided with a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine? I can't say. Such mania may be inevitable.

Wooden Sushi Toys

Then again, today's toy food is ten times more compelling than the cartoon tie-ins of yesteryear. See, for example, the work of award-winning toy company Melissa & Doug.

I recently tripped across these items while paging through a copy of New York Family in the dentist's office. One peek at the orderly bento boxes sent me to the web, where I found the charming "Look, mom! I'm a sushi chef" play set, and a "nutritionist-in-training" wooden food groups assortment.

What food geek — whether five or fifty — wouldn't be dying to play?

Some favorites:
  • Sushi Pretend Food
  • More Wooden Sushi Toys
  • Sushi Slicing Kit
  • The Food Groups (in toy form)

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  • 5.20.2006

    Dinner Goes Sci-Fi

    The Food Loop
    Oh, no! Cap'in! It's got the FISH!

    I know, I know... You thought the future of food came in pill form, like the ones they popped on the Jetsons. All your nutritional needs met in one tiny, utilitarian package. No joy. No flavor. No chewing. No socializing. Just three squares a day condensed into hard, gray pills.

    Granted, you don't have your flying car or your robot maid, but aren't you glad you were so very wrong about that food thing? (For the sake of mental peace I'm setting those disturbing national trends toward Jamba Juice, Vitamin Water and Power Bar meal replacements off to the side, of course.)

    But lo! Yesterday, a sharp-eyed friend sent me a link to the real deal in space-age dining: the food loop. Yes, the future is here and it comes in the form of epic oven battles between your roast and this wacky pink trussing tool. Place your bets, gather 'round the oven, and watch the gripping death match.

    While you're at it, raise a toast to the decidedly old fashioned "meal."

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    The Butcher Who Broke My Heart

    Free-Range Duckies

    Occasionally, my job has unusual perks. Last week they sent me out to visit a free-range duck farm on Long Island with the butcher, the photographer and a few important decision-makers.

    The ducks were healthy, terribly clean, seemingly happy and surrounded by grass, trees, sunshine, spring water, fresh breezes... all the stuff you'd hope a duck's life would entail.

    Sadly, the less uplifting part of the story is that these little guys are a meat commodity. Their lives are short (just a few months) and after their speedy dispatch (a quick cut in the jugular) the ducks get dipped in parafin, stripped of their feathers (which are cleaned and used in pillows and coats) and prepared for sale.

    Whole ducks for Chinese markets are prepped "Confucian-style" (whole, organs and all) and frozen, while breasts and legs for standard sale are trimmed by a loyal staff of workers who've been with this family business for years. Tongues and feet are also beloved by the Chinese restaurants, so they're frozen for sale by the pound.

    This was such a meticulously clean and efficient farm, I came away with a feeling of satisfaction. My post-vegetarian guilt was assuaged. The ducks have short lives, yes, but their handful of numbered days seem pleasant, unlike the crowded, stifling chicken mills and turkey barns I've had the misfortune of encountering.

    The butcher, a self-described "man at the top of his game" with more than thirty years in the business, left the farm shaking his head and sighing. "I hope someday in the future we humans won't have to do this," he said. "It's different when you get the meat on my end. You package it, and it's a product."

    "But when you're here and you're looking at them... I mean, this is a beautiful farm, you know? It just seems so barbaric that we have to do this."

    In competition for the deeper soul, I think I was out-hearted by the man who deals in death. I'm still not sure if the water rimming up in my eyes was more about fate of the ducks or my own loss of innocence.

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    USDA Changes Pyramid to Pie

    USDA pyramid
    And at the top, you'll find nutritional enlightenment...

    Yeah, maybe most of the world has been watching the Sistine Chapel for a plume of white smoke. Meanwhile, my coworkers have been salivating at their screens, counting down the moments to this morning's USDA webcast announcement for the new food pyramid. (Weirdos.)

    Essentially, they've divided the hierarchy into vertical slices of varying widths to represent relative consumption. The slices are color-coded, and you have to check at MyPyramid.gov to get your own, personalized recommendation on what the government thinks you should be eating.

    The reactions among the troops here?

    "It's stupid!"

    "It's terrible information design! The image isn't sufficient on its own. They don't provide labels for the sections, so it's just confusing"

    "They tipped the pyramid over and spilled it out all over the place. It's like they're saying, 'hey you figure it out' "

    "It's a food pie"

    "Well... it takes into account individual people's needs."

    "It doesn't tell me why I'm supposed to eat all these grains."

    Overall, there's confusion and disappointment. Our nutritionist was the most cautiously optimistic among us.

    The bottom line? Eat whole grains, vary your vegetables, focus on fruits, find calcium-rich foods, eat lean proteins, know the difference between fats, and exercise every day.

    I haven't yet found a mention about remembering to floss and getting eight hours of sleep every night, but I'm sure that's in here somewhere...

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    Red! Hot!

    Valentine's day's signature candy... some would claim it's chocolate.

    Since I consider dark chocolate to be a major food group, a single-holiday association is terribly restrictive. Other folks are all about the "conversation hearts," but I've always found them to be chatty, chalky, cloying. Their colors seem faded, their sentiments too common.

    Thanks to TS for the "cinnamon imperials" image

    For me, Valentine's Day will always be about the red hots. There's something simultaneously so vixenish and second-grader cute in those shiny candy shells.

    Known in the confections field under the far-too-formal generic title "cinnamon imperials," a handful of these little guys act like fireworks in the mouth, leaving you with cinnamon-fresh breath, a bright red tongue and a quick sugar high. And isn't that a bit more representative of the kind of love Valentines Day usually promotes?

    Thus today, I take time to pay homage to valentines, romantic love and a million tiny droplets of sweet cinnamon with the REDHOTS Virtual Tour.

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