Lobster Songs

June 10, 2010 § 2 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

JC, this one’s for you.

On Saturday morning, I got up early and went out. I drove 12 miles to an upscale grocery in the suburbs, stood in a long line, chatted with people, bought three lobsters, stood in another long line to have them cooked, brought them home (12 more miles), took one to pieces, used it to make a lobster omelet for my husband who took three bites and said “I don’t care for this.”

That’s the story. My husband objects to this story. He says that he ate “half” the omelet and that’s more than three bites. It’s more than three bites if you’re two years old. We’re talking two eggs and about a third of a cup of a lobster. How many bites can there be?  Anyway, I finished eating it for him and he thinks that’s adequate compensation.

It was a great dilemma for me whether or not to buy the lobster in the first place. We’re in the midst of a serious family crisis involving our grown-up daughter. We need every dollar, so who am I to go frittering away the stuff on things so inessential as lobsters? And yet, they were only $10. That’s three times what they would be on the Island.  But this is land-locked Ohio, where the only lobsters usually available are those miserable creatures stacked in grocery store tanks.

I sort of remembered that when we were newly wed in Montana that my husband humored me with a special Lobster dinner date at the Grand hotel the next town over. Larry the owner had gotten a bushel of lobsters shipped in from Boston and of course they cost the earth. They’d been cooked too long and were tough. Then there was all that business with plastic bibs and drawn butter and linen tablecloths and some kind of terrible white wine.

I know that there are other songs the lobster sings, and thinking that those might elicit more enthusiasm from my spouse, I head down the garden path to the car.

The parking lot of the upscale grocery is very full. Christmastime full. Last year they were out of lobsters in two hours. Inside, the line runs past the machine where they make the fresh mozzarella, along the deli case promising an English Ploughman’s lunch, past the island of organic strawberries ($6 a quart) up to the bakery cases full of petit fours and tiramisu. I find my place at the end, behind a man in a gray t-shirt. He isn’t particularly hairy, but from behind his shape makes me think of a silverback gorilla.

The line is long, but it’s moving quickly. A man comes by with a pad and a pencil. Is there anything I’d like from the deli while I’m waiting? I’d love a stack of pancakes, but that doesn’t seem likely so I just smile and shake my head. “No thanks.”

A foreign woman comes along with a bottle of white wine (“on sale today for just eleven dollars”) offering samples. I can see in the line ahead of me that plenty of people have taken her up on it.

“Not at nine in the morning, thanks just the same.”

“Well,” the woman says. “It’s nearly nine-thirty.”

We’ve rounded the corner, and I can see the mound of lobsters up ahead, stacked up on a fixture like so many little brown grapefruit. I see the drill: tell the man how many you want, he puts them in a bag and you take the bag to the cashier, and if you like you can stop outside and have them cooked. I’m glad I don’t have to look them in their little eyes (on stalks, yet) and choose. You, and you, and you. Your luck ran out today, lobsters. Really, though, their luck ran out some time ago.

In front of the pile of lobsters is a conventionally handsome young man.  He could be a day trader or a hedge fund manager, but he is dressed very improbably in a polo shirt and a pair of melon-colored foul weather bibs. The press release from the grocery had promised that there’d be someone from the lobster boat on hand, but this is one super clean lobsterman.

“Three,” I tell the other man, the one packaging the lobsters, and I look away, down the wine aisle, as he chooses. He hands me the bag (white, with a red lobster on the side) and smiles. I take it and make a beeline for the cashier. When the bag rustles in my hand, I feel slightly ill. That’s ridiculous, I know. Look at all the people standing in line to pay for their white bag of arthropods. Over in that line a mother and her daughter, who looks about eight, are delighting over the antics of their little rustlers. I mean, what is the matter with me? It’s not like we’re leading veal calves up to the checkout.

A nice woman about my age, which means not as young as we used to be, opens up her check stand and motions me over.

“There are three,” I say, and I can hear the apology in my own voice. “I wish I could just get a ticket or something in here and pick up the cooked ones outside,” I confess. “I can’t stand feeling them moving around in the bag.”

“I know,” the woman commiserates. “I can’t either.”

Outside, there’s another line of people waiting to get their lobsters cooked.  Though this line is shorter, it’s slower, the cooking and cooling of lobsters being a bit more complex than just packing them in a bag.  I am sandwiched between a couple who moved here from New Jersey and a woman who grew up in Wiscasset, Maine and is now talking to her mother on the cell phone.  It seems the lobster guy knows the man who runs the local lobster pound. (That’s lobster-wholesaling operation, by the way, not where they take stray crustaceans.)

“Brendan Ready,” the woman is saying into her phone. “Yes, he says he knows Albert.”

At the front of the line, under a white tent, lobsters are being poured from bag to kettle and fished from the kettle into a trunk full of crushed ice and water. There’s a kind of festival atmosphere, and if you saw a photograph of the scene you might think it was taken on the coast somewhere. Standing there though leaves no doubt that we are smack dab in the middle of Ohio.

Brendan Ready is mingling with the crowd, answering questions like “How long do I cook them at home?” (Fifteen minutes.) And “How do I keep them alive until it’s time to cook them” (Put them in a crisper under damp newspaper.) And “Do you ever get sick of lobster?”  He laughs.

“No, I never get sick of it. I could eat lobster for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”  Later I will look up the “Catch a Piece of Maine” phrase that’s emblazoned on his polo shirt. It turns out to be a company in Portland that seems to have made a very successful business selling the idea of a sustainable fisheries model through direct marketing and online sales. Website photos of the company’s other lobster boat captains include those of men who look like they do go down to the sea in ships.

Mr. and Mrs. New Jersey are discussing with Miss Wiscasset the different eating habits of people when confronted with a lobster on a plate. Miss W. is shocked at the people who don’t eat every last bit.

“Well, not the brain of course,” she says, referring to a collection of ganglia that amounts to about the same as a grasshopper’s brain. We all take great relief that a brain that size is not contemplating the meaning of life as it’s tossed into a pot of boiling water.

“I can’t believe some people who just eat the tail and the claws and throw the rest out,” she continues. “There’s meat in the legs, and the tomalley is a great delicacy.” Mr. and Mrs. Jersey don’t look quite convinced.

“Well, sometimes there’s just so much lobster that you don’t have time to mess with much beyond the claws and the tail,” I say. They all look at me as if they hadn’t noticed that I’d been standing there next to them for the last fifteen minutes. “I grew up on Prince Edward Island. We ate a lot of lobster.”

We are at the head of the line now and Mr. and Mrs. New Jersey hand over their two lobsters in a bag, and someone puts two other cooked lobsters in a bag and off they go. Before I know it, I have three cooked lobsters in a bag in my hand and I am headed for the car. The three I carried from inside the store, feeling their every rustle in my viscera, those have just been dispatched to lobster heaven, and in fifteen more minutes, when I am nearly home, they will be sent home with someone else.

There was a lot of lobster for us on the Island. My stepfather was a doctor there, and at times one lobsterman or another would turn up with a bushel of lobsters fresh from the pot.  I remember one afternoon the lobsters arrived very much alive. A large pot was set to boil on the old stove and my stepsister and I tossed them in a few at a time. Though the claws were pegged with wooden plugs, the lobsters were still lively and could easily twist from your hand.

“I’d like to be, under the sea in an octopus’ garden, in the shade . . .” I sang, tossing the flailing lobster in headfirst. Splash! Children, if not cruel, are certainly callous.

Those little wooden pegs, as it turns out, were the sole industry of the tiny Acadian town of West Pubnico, Nova Scotia, where they were hand-whittled. It was an invention that revolutionized the lobster industry, and in the 1930s West Pubnico rightfully declared itself “The Lobster Plug Capital of the World.”

Unfortunately the pegs broke through the membrane of the lobster flesh and allowed for bacteria to collect there, a potential source of contamination. By the mid-eighties, 500 million wooden plugs later, the last of the pegs are gone, replaced with rubber bands.

The bands, like the pegs before them, make the lobsters not only easier to handle, but keeping them from killing and eating each other.

“Oh,” you say with dawning awareness. In fact that’s one of the reasons lobsters are not farmed like oysters and shrimp and salmon. The other is that it takes five to seven years for a lobster to reach market size and that’s a long time to be feeding something that keeps trying to eat the rest of your inventory.

Lobsters are sorted and banded on the boat, using a tool that looks something like needle nosed pliers to stretch the strong bands over the claws. This is a point where the little beasts can lose their claws, making them culls. Claws get caught, break off, and lobsters will sometimes shoot off their own claws. (There should be a joke I could make here, especially since a claw-less lobster is called a “pistol,” but it just won’t come.)

The Commercial Fisheries News has advice to minimize claw loss due to banding: “Hold the lobster in one hand by the base of the carapace while banding with the other hand. If the lobster is too large to hold in one hand, place the lobster on a surface and hold securely. Both of these options give the lobster a sense of security, for it is not dangling in mid-air.”

Lobster traps (also called “lobster pots” which leads to all manner of semantic confusion) are baited with flesh: herring, hotdogs, chicken necks, mackerel. A 1997 study in Prince Edward Island found that lobsters caught with mackerel were weak and lethargic. Perhaps it’s their version of a turkey dinner.

After the second world war, a company called LobLure (not to be confused with contemporary lobster scent bait of the same name) experimented with a wide spectrum of artificial bait ranging from women’s sanitary pads soaked in herring oil, bricks marinated in kerosene and, inexplicably, white coffee mugs.

The bait bag is tied to the sill in the kitchen, that’s the first chamber of a lobster trap, the one before the parlor. Some traps have more than one parlor. Wooden traps are still in use, though wire mesh has become popular. All of them are to have a door large enough to let the immature lobster recognize the error of his ways and show himself out.

When the traps are pulled, “shorts” and berried hens are thrown back, the others are sorted and banded; or if you’re lucky and they’re cooking on the Miss Jeanne M., are thrown straight into the pot.

An average “hen” lobster will produce 8000 eggs or “berries” at a time. It takes ten months for the “berries” to hatch into baby lobsters, or “crickets” as they’re sometimes called, and the colder the water the longer it takes. For every 50,000 eggs it is estimated that only two will survive to market size. All the lobstermen throw back the hens with eggs, along with the crabs and occasional eel that makes their way to the parlor.

Dr. Jelle Atema from the Boston Marine Biology Laboratory describes the mating of lobsters as “poignant” and involving a gentleness that is “almost human.”

When the hen is ready to mate, she seeks out the male of her choice in his lair, Dr. Atema explains.  There she molts, shedding her shell to expose “her naked vulnerability.” (Atema’s words, certainly not mine.)

At that point the male could either mate with her or just eat her, but he chooses the former, turning the hen’s vulnerable body over unto her back. The male lobster, all dominance in hard shell, pointy legs and mouthparts, inserts his first pair of swimmerets, which are rigid and grooved, and passes his sperm into the female’s soft body. Dr. Atema observes that the female lobster will remain in the safety of the male’s den for about a week until her new shell hardens.

No matter what you’ve seen on television, lobsters do not mate for life.

To ensure not being pinched by the lobster en route from trap to sorting table (or again, if you’re lucky, traveling trap to boiling pot) the lobster must be held by its carapace, the long solid shell between head and wickedly articulated tail. Being smacked by the under side of their flipping tail hurts almost a much as being pinched. It doesn’t take long to pitch one in the pot, though and lobster eaten on the boat where it was caught has no match in any restaurant.

Traps are marked with buoys identified by the lobsterman’s license number. Occasionally whales get caught up in the lines between traps and buoys, other times the lines are cut, by storm or mishap or rival, leaving the “ghost trap” on the floor of the sea to go on catching lobsters forever and ever, amen.

Giving lobsters a sense of security. Tender mating rituals and ten months to produce the youngsters (crickets!). Kitchens and coffee cups! No wonder we have such mixed feelings about consigning them to their deaths in a vat of roiling seawater and steam.

Even Alice in Wonderland is loathe to admit that every lobster she’s ever known is one she’s eaten, choosing her words very carefully as the Mock Turtle teaches her the Lobster Quadrille.  Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?

Some “animal rights” radicals have repeatedly brought up the issues of cruelty (though really how seriously can you take an organization that calls fish “sea kittens”) and various theories have been floated in response to make cooking lobster more “humane.” Some suggest a gentle steaming.  Others suggest putting the lobster in the freezer for a few minutes to lull it into sleepy complacency. The truth of the matter is those are worse.

Lobsters die immediately upon contact with boiling water. Any residual twitching is a nervous response, not unlike (but less sophisticated than) the chicken running around after her head’s been cut off.  As for lobsters “screaming” in the pot, they have no vocal cords and thus no way to scream. The sound is made by air escaping the carapace.

Still, though, we don’t generally handle our food while it’s still alive. (Okay, oysters, in fact are still “alive” while traveling down my throat, but it’s really a stretch to anthropomorphize an oyster.) People try hard to disassociate the living lobster from the lobster recipe, even going as far to refer to them as “bugs,” and insects and lobsters are both arthropods. Yet whole threads exist on websites like Chowhound musing the question of how to kill a lobster.

Some recipes call for raw lobster meat—and it’s true that if you use “boiled” lobster meat in puff pastry, bisque, omelets and the like that the meat will be tougher. I’ll just have to live with that, because I am not willing to take up a cleaver to butcher a living creature even if said creature is just a step or two above earthworm on the evolutionary scale.  I’d rather have someone else dump it in a vat of boiling water and go on in my ignorant bliss.

The last time I’d had a lobster was October 2007 at the Red Lobster restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota. I know, I know. Lobsters start to die little by little as soon as they’re taken from the sea. Their life in a tank is a kind of purgatory. Occasionally a particularly large or charismatic lobster will be “rescued” by a customer to be returned to the ocean. They rarely survive the trip back.

Of course, the Red Lobster restaurant charged “market price” which would have paid for two other entrees, and they brought out the melted butter and the bib. But they forgot to crack the tail with a kitchen knife and they couldn’t find the crackers. I asked the waiter to take it back to open the shell. When he brought it back, it seemed they’d taken a hammer to it. We didn’t end up paying for it finally, but even so, the lobster was so rubbery it was hardly edible. We had to go by a burger stand on the way back to the hotel, which is what we should have done in the first place.

Lobsters used to be so plentiful on the New England coast that after a storm, they’d pick them up on the beach and distribute them as food for widows and orphans. They made a regular appearance on the tin plates of prison inmates. Some employment agreements stipulated that the employee would not be made to eat lobster more than twice a week. Then, around the middle of the 19th century, someone figured out how to successfully transport lobsters to urban centers around the country and fresh lobster became a luxury food. Which brings me back to the remaining three pounds of fresh lobster (at $6.50 a pound) in my kitchen in Dayton, Ohio.

I can hear the shower go off upstairs. Carrying a cooked lobster in one hand, I tiptoe up the stairs, and standing to one side, use the lobster’s claw to scratch on the door to the bathroom.

Scratch scratch scratch.

“What is it?” my teenage son asks from within.

Scratch, scratch, scratch.

“Who’s there?”

Scratch scratch scratch.

“Yes?! What IS it?”

Scratch scratch scratch.

The door flies open and I wave the lobster at him.

“Argh! Mom! You killed it didn’t you?!”  I’m laughing so hard I can hardly catch my breath.

“No, no—ha, ha, ha” I rattle the lobster gently. “They killed it for me.”  He rolls his eyes and shuts the door.

In the kitchen, I whack the length of the tail with a chef’s knife. There’s so much tomalley I’m worried that something’s awry. I know some people love the dark green goop, that which serves as liver and intestines for the lobster, but it’s not my thing. Plus, with the rise of toxins in the ocean, I’m not keen on ingesting the lobster’s filtering system. I rinse the tail meat in the sink.

The claws have a kind of milky white jelly in them, that’s the cooked “blood” of the lobster. It’s not dangerous, but has little taste and I rinse that off too.

The last lobster is also overly full of tomalley. I wonder how many calls the upscale grocery has received from people concerned that their lobster was bad. I’ve never seen tomalley in this kind of quantity, but maybe that’s the norm now.

While I’m pulling apart one of the claws, the lobster draws blood as the sharp edge of the pincer slices my thumb.

“Dammit!” I drop the claw in the sink and raise my thumb against my mouth. “Ouch.” I have to go wash my hands and find the band-aids before I can return to making the lobster salad.

Lobster salad is for lobster rolls, my idea of culinary heaven and my last attempt to persuade my husband and son into the league of lobster lovers. It’s the meat of two lobsters, a teaspoon of green onion, a stalk of celery chopped fine, the squeeze of half a lime, a teaspoon of hot sauce and a tablespoon or two of mayo—just enough to bind it together.

This is the kind of lobster I dream about eating. If I were on death row, this is the meal I would ask for. Lovingly I spoon the mixture into the grilled-in-butter hot dog rolls. My husband eats one, but there’s not much enthusiasm. Julian seems to be finishing his, so I offer him another.

“Uh, no thanks, Mom. I’ve had enough.”  When I pick up his plate, I see that he has eaten the lobster roll, but around the lobster, picking out the chunks of meat, which litter his plate.

I give up. I am resigned that lobster will join that pantheon of other things I love but They Will Not Eat. Banana pudding, coconut cream pie, crème brulee, watermelon, summer soups, tomatoes, salad caprese, steak tartare, sushi, clam chowder, mussels in saffron cream sauce, oyster stew and now, lobster.

Long, long ago in Boston, I regularly drove north to Revere Beach for lobster rolls at Kelly’s Roast Beef.  A seaside joint, it’s open nearly every hour of the day (with a two-hour break from three a.m. to five a.m.) every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving. No matter the weather or the season, you walk up to the window and order your lobster roll (some people do get roast beef I guess) and bite down into absolute bliss.

We usually went at night. I don’t remember all the people that went with me to Kelly’s. My ex-husband, I’m sure. I know my mother went at least once because she still talks about it. Girls in summer frocks and combat boots, skinny boys with new tattoos, friends home from Paris and people I could hardly stand; all of us at the window bathed in a pale blue fluorescent glow—the sea stretching out behind us inky black.

I don’t remember all of them because when I think about going to Kelly’s Roast Beef I think about all the times I went there with Joe.  He and I worked together and every day was punctuated with theater, gossip and lunch.  We adored each other, but you know, not like that. Or maybe it was like that. Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance? I could count on Joe to hold my hand, to hold my head up, to keep me from drowning in self-pity and self-loathing.

He loaned me his leather motorcycle jacket when I needed to wear a leather motorcycle jacket. (And not just any leather jacket, either, but a Schott, like Marlon Brando’s in The Wild One.)  There’s a photo of me somewhere in that jacket, looking just as brave as I needed to look.

Not that there wasn’t trouble in paradise. The worst fight we ever had was over a shower curtain, and it was bad. We didn’t speak for weeks.  And when we did speak again, we got in my Volkswagen and drove to Revere Beach for lobster rolls.

Lobster rolls consumed in companionable silence in the Victorian pavilion across the street, the waves whispering along the shore. We hear the lullaby of the sea, as we go lightly across the sand. We were so beautiful then, and too distracted to even know it. Joe went to New York to be a playwright; I went to the land without lobster.

I haven’t been to Kelly’s in nearly twenty years.

It isn’t the same, quite, eating lobster rolls in the kitchen of my house in Dayton, Ohio, on a summer night, thumb bloodied and bandaged.  With my eyes tightly closed I taste the lobster roll: buttery crispy hot dog bun, cool, tangy dressing, lobster sweet and resilient, redolent in my mouth.  And there it is, the spell of the lobster’s song: I taste and just for an instant, I am again at the edge of the sea.  Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?


Give Me That Fish

April 22, 2009 § 1 Comment

Sometimes you just have to write about the mundane. You find you just don’t have the wherewithal to write about sadness or faith or even the last thing left in Pandora’s box: hope. What is left then is either a blank canvas and hours wasted noodling around because you know you need to write, but you’re not strong enough for writing your heart. That’s when you write about McDonald’s instead.

Unless you’ve been in a cave since sometime-before-Mardi-Gras, you’ve seen the ad. If you’re like most Americans, you probably know every word to the jingle. Love it or hate it, McDonald’s Lenten season commercial for their Filet-o-Fish sandwich has achieved a kind of pop culture status that the Super Bowl spots only dream of.

Easter has come and gone, Lent’s been over for weeks and McDonald’s has ended the promotion, yet people still crave the singing fish. Views of the multiple listings for the spot on Youtube topped two million last week and continue to climb; the first one posted garnered 10,000 views in the first hours it was available.

Since it appeared, Freddy the Fish’s 15 seconds of fame has been parlayed into mashups and remixes by DJs , it’s being played in clubs, there are parodies, children sing it, cats sing it, hell, I even sing it. (Not on Youtube, though, you’ll be glad to know.) You can get the jingle as a ringtone for your cell phone.


Give me  back that Filet-o-Fish

Give me that fish

Give me back that Filet-o-Fish

Give me that fish

What if it were you hanging

up on this wall?

If it were you in that sandwich

you wouldn’t be laughing at all….


When they were looking for a way to promote the fish sandwich during this year’s Lenten season, McDonald’s turned to Arnold, a Boston ad agency. (You can blame them for the Carnival Cruise beach ball ads, along with “Powered by Tyson” and spots for Ocean Spray.) The catch? (Sorry.) The same spot had to work for both English and Spanish-speaking markets.

Pete Harvey, senior ad man at the agency, gave them “Freddy the Fish.” (For the Spanish markets, the piscine star was presented as “Pepe de Pescado.”) Brainstorming in the aptly named “Fish Bowl” conference room, one staffer recalled a decade-old hit novelty item “Billy the Big-Mouthed Bass,” an animatronic rubber fish that sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Take Me to the River” when passersby set off the motion sensor.

Though Freddy bears more than a passing resemblance to Billy, he is actually a real fish, a pollack, prepared by a Los Angeles taxidermist. (Both pollack and cod are used in the Filet-o-Fish, but the crew decided that the cod was “too scary looking.”) Freddy’s head and tail are activated by remote control. Nonetheless, Gemmy Industries, the manufacturers of the original Billy, were flattered by the imitation. One of their veeps sent a thank you note to McDonalds, and they are introducing a recordable Billy Bass that will be sold through Cabela’s, and a Billy Bass app for your iPhone.

The agency supplied the lyrics to the New York music production company, Pulse Music and composer Josh Peck sent back seven different interpretations of Freddy’s song.  Just before presenting the last variation Peck told the firm “We don’t think you’ll go with this one, it’s the most weird.”  That techno-meets-garage-band sound (“the most weird”) was the unanimous favorite.

“It was the one everyone wanted to hear over and over again,” Pete Harvey told USA Today. “There’s more risk with jingles, but also more reward.”  In scouting out a location, a garage was found that had a Billy Bass already mounted on the wall: they had found the right spot. Ray Conchado, the actor who plays the head-bobbing man eating the sandwich, said he started out eating the whole sandwich with each take. After a few takes, he learned to just take a bite.  J.R. Reed, who portrays the dumbstruck friend returning a borrowed drill, gets the most comment at our house. “The look on that guy’s face is just great,” my husband has said each and every time we’ve seen the spot.  Or even just when talking about it.

Give me that fish.

Every year McDonald’s sells 300 million Filet-o-Fish sandwiches, and twenty-five percent of those are sold during Lent, the forty-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter during which many devout Roman Catholics give up eating meat.  McDonald’s isn’t the only fast food giant to cash in on this fish-selling opportunity; every chain from Burger King (BK Big Fish replaced the long standing “Whaler” a few years ago) to Rally (Deep Sea Double) to Arby’s (and their touted “fish shaped” sandwich) is in on the act.  As you might expect, the regular fishmongers like Long John Silver and Captain D.’s really step up their ad campaigns too.

We’re not Catholic; we give up nothing for Lent. (I’d be happy to give up housekeeping and overcooked vegetables, but I guess that’s not really in the proper spirit of the thing.) But we do eat more fish in March, and that is due in some small part to the McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish promotions.  Though my husband was pretty upbeat about Rally’s Deep Sea Double, I wasn’t impressed. The fish squares were dry and had a kind of bitter aftertaste. They were too crunchy, and the cheese, well, I don’t know. I just didn’t care for it.

In fact, I generally can’t abide fast food fish. (Yes, I confess, I’m one of those peculiar people that peel the batter off the shrimp.) But that particular combination of the Filet-o-Fish: a tender square of fish, a bit of tartar sauce, a little cheese assembled tidily on (and this is the important part) a steamed bun.  A remarkable number of consumers complain that McDonald’s only puts half a slice of cheese on the Filet-o-Fish. Hello? They’ve only put half a slice of cheese on the sandwich since 1982, when most of the malcontents hadn’t even been born yet.

It’s less a cost-cutting measure than a means to reduce the calorie and fat content in a sandwich that some people might choose as a healthier option to the Big Mac. You could do worse in that respect, the sandwich weighs in (sorry) at 350 calories, 16 grams of protein and 16 grams of fat. An odd side notes here is that two diet websites list the calorie/fat count of the Filet-o-Fish at 450cal/26g and 380cal/18g but those are anomalies, most independent sites agree with McDonald’s own nutritional analysis.

The phenomenon of Freddy the singing fish’s popularity generated a considerable amount of press, not just in trade journals like Brandweek, but also in the “generalist” newspapers, like USA Today and in all manner of websites. Many of them include comment sections, and the comments have run the gamut from “I can’t stand this commercial, I turn the channel every time it comes on” to “I love this! It’s my ringtone.”  (And complaints about the half slice of cheese.)

The real puzzle in the comment section is the invective that pops up fairly regularly. They’re not just critical of McDonald’s, they are screeds: apoplectic rants about the American institution, and its sandwiches. Do vegetarians write them? Sometimes. Are they written by animal rights activists? Probably. Are they written by former employees—some of them, without a doubt. Why do these people even read articles about singing fish commercials if they are going to make their blood pressure go through the roof? It would be less deleterious to their health if they just had a couple of Big Macs and chilled.

It made me think of the Internet rumour a good friend sent me a few months ago, urging me to boycott McDonald’s in a show of support for American cattlemen. The rumour purported that McDonald’s was going to be buying uninspected South American beef, raised on pastures that used to be rainforest, cutting into the livelihoods of ranchers across this fair land. Most of the other big burger chains (Burger King and Wendy’s predominantly) do use South American beef. (And all beef, imported and domestic, in this country is inspected, so that part was just a bugaboo.)

McDonald’s is the single largest buyer of U.S. beef, its not surprising that American cattle producers would be worried that the chain was looking elsewhere for their patties. The problem, according to McDonald’s, is not that there isn’t enough beef produced in the U.S. but because most of the beef here is grain-fed, there is not enough lean beef available here. Therefore, McDonald’s began importing grass-fed beef from Australia and New Zealand; those imports account for about ten percent of the beef they use in this country.

Unlike most other fast food chains, McDonalds has become the standard bearer in environmental conservation. (When they gave up Styrofoam use, it cut Styrofoam demand in this country in half and rainforest conservation via their refusal to use South American beef.) They were among the first to provide better nutritional choices and full disclosure of nutritional analysis.  In philanthropic endeavors, they provide 6,000 bedrooms every night for families of ill children through nearly 300 Ronald McDonald houses (serving more than a million families every year) and through Ronald McDonald House charities, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and program services to benefit children worldwide. 

Because they are so ubiquitous and because every McDonald’s in America can be mapped on their website, they have also become a cog in the vast network that compromises dog rescue and the transport system that makes it work, not just for pure breed rescues, but for shelters across the country in their efforts to place dogs. You’d think people could find something more worthwhile to be enraged about.

We stop at McDonald’s pretty routinely. My father made McDonald’s his regular stop for pee breaks, and when we’re traveling we do the same. When my son was little he and I used to go through the local Drive-thru after school for an order of French fries to share. When I was little you used to be able to go to McDonald’s, get a hamburger, fries and a coke and still get change back for your dollar. I even remember the commercial for it. “Sir? You forgot your change.”  The greatest food? No, probably not. Maybe the most reliable fast food, though, and always, always, the comfort of the familiar.  My Mom usually ordered the Filet-o-Fish.


Let Us Now Praise Tim Horton

March 27, 2009 § 7 Comments

Last fall, I lost a dog. Every day for ten days I got up after a few hours of restless sleep and took my son to school. The next stop was Tim Horton’s for coffee, thus beginning another day of searching alleys and abandoned houses, handing out flyers, walking the aisles of the animal shelter. Had I the strength I would have done this 24 hours a day. But this story is not about my search for the dog, it is about Tim Horton.

The dog? Oh, you want to know about the dog. Well, okay, but then after that, it’s about Tim Horton. On the night of the ninth day, I got a phone call from a nurse at the local Hospice. They had seen my dog, she’d come up to the doors, looking for food. It was the first call I’d had. That night we tracked her through the woods behind the Hospice and across their park-like campus but came up empty-handed. The next day, very early, after a trip through Tim Horton’s drive-through, I went back to the Hospice and searched. And waited. And searched. At 2:30 in the afternoon, she crept out of the woods and seeing that it was me waiting for her, she flew to me.

Those mornings I could have made coffee in my own kitchen. The freezer has organic Nicaraguan French roast beans, fair trade Sumatran, a bag of Eight o’clock that my husband is very fond of. No, I went to Tim Horton’s because it made me feel hopeful. The window of the drive-through would open, and a friendly person would take my money and hand me a hot coffee in the Tim Horton holiday cup.

They always had a day-old Timbit (or as my son likes to call them “bits of Tim”) for my retriever, sitting in the seat behind me. He would sometimes startle them, sticking his big brown head over my shoulder and through the window in anticipation of his treat, but they always laughed.

Each night when I finally gave up and went home, I’d set the empties on a shelf in the garage. They joined the other Tim Horton cups there, lined up like little soldiers waiting for Macy to come home. And when she did, the cups all went unceremoniously into the trash.

For those of you not versed in the parlance, Tim Horton’s is a chain of coffee and doughnut shops (or as they like to put it “Baked goods, always fresh!”) established in 1964 by Canadian Tim Horton, a defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Who had previously tried his hand at a Studebaker dealership and a hamburger stand.)

Tim had been signed to the Maple Leafs in the fall of 1952, when he was 22 years old and played for Toronto until 1970, during which the team won four Stanley Cups, and Tim was named to NHL all-star teams seven times. He was tremendously strong, yet calm under pressure, earning few penalty minutes for an enforcer-type defenseman. (Gordie Howe called him “Hockey’s Strongest Man.”) Between 1961 and 1968, Tim Horton played in 486 consecutive regular-season games; that stood as the NHL record for consecutive games by a defensemen until 2007.

He had an unusual method for handling players that were fighting him: he’d wrap his arms around them in a giant bear hug and squeeze. It’s said that the Bruins’ Derek Sanderson bit Tim hard, on the ear, during a fight. The story goes that Sanderson felt one rib snap, then another and was desperate to escape the veteran defenseman’s embrace. Or maybe he was just dreaming of doughnuts.

Tim Horton was never known to be vicious or sneaky though and earned the respect of fellow players throughout his long career. When coach Punch Imlach was fired from the Leafs in 1969 following a humiliating playoff defeat, Tim left soon after, finding a new berth first with the New York Rangers, then a single season with the Penguins before arriving at his old coach’s new team, the Buffalo Sabres, in 1972. Imlach wasn’t the coach anymore, he’d been sidelined by a heart attack, but he remained with the franchise as GM.

Then, very early on the morning of February 21, 1974, in the pre-dawn hours, Tim Horton was coming home to Buffalo from a game in Toronto 90 miles away. He was trying to avoid a traffic stop by Mounties (he’d had a few drinks after the game) when he flipped his DeTomaso Pantera and was killed. (The car, a gift from Punch Imlach, was an awful car anyway. Too little weight for too much engine, the steel unibody construction had a poor fit and finish. Many Panteras broke down on the Ford test track. It’s said that Elvis Presley shot his with a handgun when it wouldn’t start.)

Like the rest of the Pee Wee girls hockey team, I wept at the news. With a child’s grief, I put a stripe of black electrical tape across my 1973 O-Pee-Chee card and tacked it to my bulletin board. I may not have even noticed Tim Horton before (I was really a Flyers fan) but now I mourned him. For the rest of our season I finished off my long braids with black ribbon.

After that, though, tears long dry, Tim Horton came to mean doughnuts. There was only one Tim Horton’s on Prince Edward Island. It was in the capital, Charlottetown, on University Avenue. Every trip to Charlottetown- picking up someone at the airport, going to the high school drama competition, our annual high school football game with Colonel Gray, Christmas shopping- every trip meant stopping by Tim Horton’s to pick up a dozen doughnuts. There are nearly two dozen Tim Horton’s on the island now. Charlottetown’s paper, The Guardian reported in a story last July that the three Tim Horton’s locations in the city are causing traffic problems as the drive-through lines back up onto city streets.

It’s been twenty plus years since I was last on the Island (and yes, I went to Tim Horton’s on my last trip there) but I found my Tim Horton’s fix in other places: Vancouver, Cranbrook, Lethbridge, Calgary. And then a few years ago, Michigan! The migration south over the border has begun. Now there are nearly a dozen Tim Horton’s in the Dayton area.

A confession is in order here about Tim’s doughnuts: I don’t love them anymore. I don’t know if it’s just that my taste buds are more developed now or if the doughnuts have declined since my childhood (so many things have) but really, they are just okay. It’s a funny thing about those fried rounds of dough: people are very opinionated about what makes a good one. I am sort of partial to the fare offered up at Dunkin’Donuts, but Krispy Kreme—no thanks. (Even if it is fun to watch their Rube Goldberg contraption make them.) Jim’s Donut Shop in Vandalia is said to have excellent doughnuts, but we haven’t tried them yet. The best doughnuts I ever ate were made by Margie Collins in the basement of the Redeemer Lutheran Church. It doesn’t matter though, because Tim Horton’s isn’t really about doughnuts anymore, it’s about coffee.

There are more conspiracy theories about Tim Horton’s coffee than any subject save the American government. It is the “double-double” (two creams, two sugars) that regular drinkers describe as addictive. There have been university studies and chemical analyses, there are web-pages dedicated to the topic (“Tim Horton’s Coffee aka Canadian Crack,” “Tim Horton’s Crack Identified,” “Tim Horton’s Introduces New Crack”—okay, so the last one was about their breakfast sandwiches, but you get the picture.) You have to pry their cold dead fingers from around the cup.

My old high school friend Richard doesn’t understand the fuss, calling the coffee “Generic, but consistently okay.” Perhaps, like me, he is drinking the coffee black instead of ordering the fiendishly addictive double-double. (230 calories, 12g of fat) The Double-double is so pervasive in Canada, that the term has gained entry into the Oxford English Dictionary. As a beverage, it has been endorsed by the law enforcement community in Police Link .

Richard may not be vulnerable to the Tim’s addiction, but my friend Jan doesn’t go into work (for the Canadian Coast Guard) without her extra large Timmie’s in hand. As it happened, during the weeks that Macy the dog was missing, Jan’s profile photo on Facebook was a photograph of a Tim Horton cup sitting on a console at Jan’s work. Every day, she wrote to ask how the search was going, to reassure me that the dog would come home, to ask how I was holding up, and every message that she wrote bore that image of the Tim Horton’s cup. I don’t think I ever got around to telling her that I saw picture of the cup as a gesture of solidarity, a badge of courage, a sign of hope.

Yesterday, my husband and I were sitting eating chicken salad sandwiches at the Tim Horton’s less than a mile up the road from where I was reunited with the dog. (Oh yeah, you can get lunch at Tim Horton’s too.) With a nostalgic smile I pointed at the door to the restroom, the sign says “Wash Rooms.”

“Canadian-speak,” I said. Since I drink my coffee black, I’ve never tried to order a double double there, but I’m sure if I did they’d know what to do. On the shelves are bags of coffee beans from the sustainable coffee program that Tim Horton’s has developed in Guatemala to benefit coffee growers, and their communities. On the walls are photographs of the summer camps Tim Horton’s sends underprivileged children to each year. Behind me there is a poster of Sidney Crosby, “the kid,” a hockey phenomenon signed to the NHL in 2005 at the tender age of 17. Sid was a member of the Timbits hockey program in 1993, and he is shown with a little girl and a little boy from the contemporary program which provides local hockey associations in the Canada and U.S. with jerseys, participation medals, hockey jamborees and for some, the chance to play hockey as the intermission feature at select NHL games.

Later, I will read that altogether the Timbits sports programs supports more than 200,000 children in not just hockey, but lacrosse, soccer, t-ball and baseball, along with sponsoring free swimming at community pools in the summer and free skating at community rinks in the winter. I’ll read about the Smile Cookie program that contributed over two million dollars to support children’s charities in Canada. But first I have to finish the cup of coffee on the table in front of me. It’s brimming with hope.


March 21, 2009 § 2 Comments


a love note

There was an email from one of our closest friends this morning, wishing us a very happy anniversary.

“Hmm,” I thought. “She must have the date wrong.” Glancing up at the calendar, there it is written in my own clear hand “Anniversary,” in today’s little square. When my husband comes in from working in the raised bed where we’re planting this year’s herb garden, I grin at him and say “Happy Anniversary, honey.”

“What? Are you sure?”  We married on the first day of Spring, sixteen years ago. You’d think we’d be able to keep track.  By the end of the day, we have marked this occasion poking around in a junk shop, stopping at a restaurant for a couple of excellent hamburgers, then on to the hardware store for a new sprayer for the faucet on the kitchen sink.

Like our marriage, it is a companionable and comfortable outing. We share a few private jokes, and nudge each other occasionally over our “date.”  Hell, we look like a Cialis commercial, who needs Hallmark and a trinket in a velvet box? I’d rather have peony bushes to line the front walk anyway.

This is the first anniversary we’ve spent away from the place where we met, wed and spent most of our married life up ‘till now.  Funny how that distance gives you an extra dollop of nostalgia, and over the course of the day I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about that blustery March day in Montana sixteen years ago.

East coast wasp-y girl writer marries Los Angeles native Chinese railroad man father of two small girls. Their mother departed the scene long before I arrived; he and I met in the public library where I worked at the circulation desk. I had no idea he was as old as dirt as he seemed (and seems) very cute and boyish. We had a guest list as long as our arms, having decided to invite everyone we ever knew. What was remarkable is how many showed up . . . including Sir Brian Corrin and his lovely wife, Sheila, who popped across the pond for the occasion. 

The best man, Webb Hardenbrook Green, had been my landlord in Boston. The maid of honor was also a man; Colin Burns, artist and lead singer of a death metal band. (Don’t be silly, he wore a tuxedo.) The other bridesmaids, in tea length periwinkle velvet, included my dear friend Noelle Sullivan (who sent greetings this morning) and sang Handel at the wedding and is herself a girl-writer, and Sheryl Dahl, a fifth generation Montanan, baker and bon-vivant. Elmer’s beautiful daughters in English lawn dresses led the procession; now they are both beautiful grown up women, married as well.

In the days before the wedding, we filled the church with tulips and pussy willows; branches cut early and brought inside to leaf. (March in Montana is very, very unpredictable.) The church had been used as a set in Robert Redford’s movie A River Runs Through It the year before. It needed little beyond spring flowers and a few exuberant swags of tulle to look festive. Grannie, my father’s mother, arrived at the airport looking every inch the Hollywood dowager, complete with big hat and small entourage. 

Members of the wedding, guests, family poured in from across the country, arriving in flurries of excited greetings, warm embraces, laughter. Late on Thursday evening we’d gone in search of food and drink. Parents and stepparents, grandmothers and minor rock stars, English peerage and Montana railroaders, we eventually landed at the Timber Bar, in Big Timber, about 40 miles east of Livingston. It was a pretty quiet night at the Timber, a Montana workingman’s bar, linoleum floors and schoolhouse lights. When the front door opened, we looked up to see who it was, and to our surprise ten more wedding guests walked in. 

Rehearsal dinner had been in Sam Peckinpah’s old apartment in the Murray Hotel, not just for members of the wedding, but for all of the out of town guests and some of the in town ones too.  As we left the hotel, mist was swirling in the streets.

It was a four o’clock wedding, which leaves too little time to do much and too much time to do nothing. There were flowers to be fetched, a sweet pea bouquet like that my Grannie carried 57 years before. Last minute hair issues and a missing bridesmais. (She turned up.) My mother and my Nana and my groom sat at the kitchen table assembling the last of the programs, each decorated with a Chinese paper cut, each bound with a sewn binding of gold thread. I tried to eat breakfast, French toast, my favorite, but I swear it tasted like cardboard with maple syrup on it. Joan Hartwig, an expert in Shakespeare and a friend of my parents since graduate school, buttoned up all 35 buttons on the back of my velvet dress.

The ride to the church was in a horse-drawn carriage (two matched black Arabians) and at the last minute my stepfather asked me if I’d like him to ride along and you know, I was really glad for the company. I had two fathers at this event, and given my concern for bruised feelings, I chose to walk down the aisle unsupported by any man’s arm. You know, I’d been an actress and a performance artist in college; surely I could manage a two-minute trip to the altar. You wouldn’t believe how long the first two minutes and seven seconds of Claire de Lune seem when you’re shaking in your pale silk slippers.

Upon the altar, I realized that I’m wearing a ring on the third finger of my left hand, a little gold circlet, an everyday sort of ring that I’d forgotten to remove. “The wrong ring!” Silently, discreetly and only in a tiny panic I slipped it off and palmed it into Colin’s hand; I think he probably still has it.

Webb had the right rings in his pocket: mine a ring Elmer and I bought in a pawn shop with money unexpectedly left to me by my stepfather’s late mother, Mary Killick, a woman who saw good in everyone and who was charmed by Mussolini. Elmer’s ring is the one I’d worn on my middle finger since I was 15, it was my father’s wedding ring from his marriage to my mother.

The vows were complex. (Hey, I was a writer-girl and former performance artist, what did you expect?)  They were a combination of homily and prayer, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Rainier Maria Rilke, the traditional Lutheran marriage service, not asked and repeated, but answered from memory. When Elmer married the first time, in a civil ceremony Alaska in 1968, he was struck dumb: instead of saying “I do,” he was only able to nod. (Yeah, yeah, we know.)

He and I practiced and practiced and practiced. He memorized his lines until he could have said them in his sleep. At least that’s what we hoped. His voice rang out strong and true to the last line of Rilke “With only this one dream, You come, too.” During the recitation of his vows, he never once wavered, finally arriving at the great long riff that is the pinnacle of the Lutheran intent: “that I take you to be my wife from this time onward, to join with you and to share with you all that is to come: to give and to receive, to speak and to listen, to inspire and to respond, and in all circumstances of our life together to be loyal to you with my whole life and all my being, until death parts us.” The tears welling in my eyes spilled over.

The ebullient notes of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring filled the sanctuary, and we dashed down the aisle to receive guests at the back of the church, who kissed our cheeks and went outside to stand in the drizzle tossing rice. The Chinese say that all the rain that falls on your wedding day are tears you won’t have to cry in your marriage. Such pragmatists, the Chinese.  My groom and I and the little girls climb into the carriage for a ride through the rain to the Park and down Yellowstone Street to the Depot, a handsome Italianate railroad depot designed by Reed and Stern, they of the Grand Central Terminal fame. People come out on their porches to wave as we pass by.

Meanwhile, back at the Livingston Depot, a fully loaded coal train has rumbled by. A coal train is extraordinarily heavy and it can send significant vibrations through a building. Before the wedding, our friend Sheryl, baker and bridesmaid painstakingly assembled the exquisite wedding cake at the Depot, hurried to change her clothes and rushed to the church by quarter to four. (That’s where she was.) But the rumbling of the coal train had set the cake to shaking and it had slumped, a delicious disaster on the cake table.

No one tells the bride anything when something goes wrong. I missed Sheryl long before I realized the cake wasn’t there.  I would survey the room occasionally, greet guests, tip my head to Noelle, and mouthe, “Where’s Sheryl?” She’d shake her head, shrug a little. Finally I sent Webb to see what he could find out. I swear he and Noelle exchanged a look. Webb came back and whispered in my ear.  When they took us to her, Sheryl was sobbing. This was worse than the cake. Cake is just cake even when it’s your wedding cake.

It wasn’t so bad that it couldn’t be served; it just didn’t look the way we thought it would. And it was the incomparable Velvet Underground Cake, from the recipe they used at Rosie’s Bakery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Here’s the recipe.  They don’t credit Rosie, but they ought to, it’s definitely hers. It takes at least a day to make this cake and it is worth every minute of effort.)

“Well,” I said,  hugging Sheryl, “let’s just eat it.”

The best man found a wedding crasher, a middle aged woman, crouching in the coatroom behind the coats. She had snuck in to hear the band, she was “auditioning” bands for her daughter’s upcoming nuptials. As it turned out,  that particular band couldn’t be had for love or money (though I remember we had them for $600). We’d engaged the MSU Jazz Swing band to play jazz standards. The day before the wedding (yes, one day before) the director, Glenn Johnson, called to say he was very sorry, he forgot the students would be gone on Spring Break.  But, he was quick to add, he said he knew some jazz musicians who would be willing to fill in this one time, friends of his, if that would be okay.

It turned out to be far better than okay. The friends, as it happened included seriously well-regarded musicians like Eric Funk and Kelly Robertie, among others. It’s like expecting a cover band and getting the real thing. Not only that, they had a bigger repertoire, more Gershwin, and Eric Funk can sing. And they didn’t usually play wedding gigs, so they were having fun, breaking into a series of lively polkas, when one of my husband’s co-workers started the rest of the railroaders to pinning currency to my dress. Sometimes traditions just happen to you.

Somehow we miscounted tables, and didn’t have a place for the musicians to sit during breaks. So they sat with us, dispensing advice on marriage and love and the blues, eating roast salmon and medallions of filet and game stew. You can imagine the advice, but they offered it tenderly.

And not once, not twice, but three times they played us our song, Eric Funk talking over the piano . . . “The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend, the world with all its capers and how it all will end. Nothing seems to be lasting. But that isn’t our affair; We’ve got something permanent, I mean in the way we care. . .”  And then he sang Gershwin’s very last song:


It’s very clear

Our love is here to stay;

Not for a year

But ever and a day.

The radio and the telephone

and the movies that we know

May just be passing fancies,

And in time may go.


Many things have changed since that day in March. Those musicians have scattered, they don’t play together anymore.  Sheryl has closed her bakery. The pastor was sent to a church in the far corner of the state. I haven’t seen Colin since the day we put him on the plane. My Nana is gone, and so is my stepfather, and so is my Dad. We’ve left Montana.


But, oh my dear,

Our love is here to stay;

Together we’re going a long, long way.

In time the Rockies may crumble,

Gibraltar may tumble,

They’re only made of clay,

But our love is here to stay.


Wherever green is worn

March 17, 2009 § 3 Comments

On Things Irish and the Celebration of St. Patrick

by Larkin Vonalt

So many things about the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in America bother me, and I have not been good company, watching throngs of green-attired Americans from the sidewalks, going from bar to bar in Boston, or Butte or Chicago. My friends used to say, “Lighten up, have another beer.”

The very last night I spent publicly celebrating the wearing of the green culminated in watching drunken young men urinate off the awning of the M&M Restaurant onto the crowd below. That’s it, I thought, there must be a way to mark St. Patrick’s Day that does not involve green wigs, green beer or puking.

The year before last we did return to Butte to watch the beautiful daughters of Sullivan-Daley clan, dear friends all, dance the parade route. I wore a green ribbon in my hair, and my Chinese husband had on a small button that read “Irish, sorta.” They say that on St. Patrick’s Day that everyone is Irish, and for many Americans that is literally as well as figuratively true.

In this country, we celebrate a number of holidays that find their roots in our ancestral cultures: Cinco de Mayo, Oktoberfest, Chinese New Year. But Hallmark doesn’t market cards for those occasions, and no city dyes her river, and Americans don’t make such perfect asses of themselves as they do for St. Patrick’s Day. It seems a strange way to pay homage to a complicated people with such a complicated history, who despite or because of the struggles have given us a legacy of literature and music quite apart from any other.

Unlike my friend who sends me excerpts from the Irish Times, and brings me Irish tea and Irish socks and Irish linen and writes an excellent online journal about the Irish diaspora in Montana ( http://montanagael.blogspot.com/ ) I know almost nothing about Ireland. You don’t have to know much to begin to understand how intensely tangled a thing it is to be Irish. Even when I was just 19, and passionately interested in the hunger strike and eventual death of IRA activist (and MP) Bobby Sands in the Long Kesh outside of Belfast, I couldn’t figure out if he was a villain or a hero. Nearly 30 years later, I am still no clearer in my understanding.

This ongoing struggle between Protestant and Catholic, Loyalists and Irish Republicans is found even in what the “wearing of the green” is supposed to stand for. Originally, the color associated with the Catholic Feast Day for St. Patrick was blue. “Wearing of the green” refers to the wearing of a shamrock on your clothing, to show your Irish nationalism or at times, to show your loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. (St. Patrick, who lived 385- 461 A.D., used the three-leafed Shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the pre-Christian Irish.)

Some Protestant Irish have taken to wearing Orange on St. Patrick’s Day as a sign of rebellion, drawing from William of Orange (the King of England) who defeated King James II, a Roman Catholic, at the Battle of Boyne in Dublin in 1688, ensuring a Protestant (and English) military dominance in Ireland, and creating tension that has existed ever since. Yes, ever since. 320 years.

I don’t exactly know how it is that I never went to Ireland. I went other places that meant less. Italy, for instance. I could have skipped those months in Italy altogether for a few days on Wicklow Head and been the better for it. I wept on the grave of James Joyce, still in self-imposed exile in Zurich. It was only 600 miles more to Dublin. If James and Nora could manage it in the twenties, well surely, I could have made the effort. I didn’t.

Joyce wasn’t the only Irish writer that stirred my heart. Oscar Wilde had been a favorite since high school. How could you fail to find amusement and encouragement in quips like “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much,” or “Biography lends to death a new terror,” or “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

William Butler Yeats rounds out a trilogy for me. I named my thoroughbred mare “Pilgrim Soul” for a phrase in his poem “When You Are Old.” This is the stanza:

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

Yeats’ most famous poem is without question “Easter 1916” about the week-long Irish uprising. His ambivalence about the use of violence to achieve home rule is clear in every line. And so too, is his utter grief at the outcome.

And so, I no longer really celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, so much as I mark it, acknowledge it, carry it in my heart, which if in reality is only a very very small part Irish, is wholly Eireannach for this one day. 

In the morning, I will arise and go now (not to Innisfree) but down the stairs, dressed quietly, a dark moss green merino sweater. Breakfast won’t be much, Barry’s tea with milk and sugar in my usual leaf green mug. (No doubt the boy will wear something very green so as not to be pinched at school.) In the kitchen, I’ll choose music with an ear to the day: The Pogues, The Waterboys, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, U2.

I interviewed U2 in 1981 when we were all just pups, and they were playing in bars and opening for bands like J. Geils. Bono predicted their phenomenal success, we wished it for them but did not believe it. It disappoints me now how they have squandered it, with missions that are only about Bono’s ego and every record a re-hash of the one before it. Never mind, who knows what any of us would do with that sort of success?

Lunch will be simple. Potato Soup with brown bread and a Guinness. Perhaps in the afternoon, there will be time to peruse the Irish Times or curl in a chair to revisit William Butler Y. Dinner is the more complicated Limerick Ham. You didn’t think Corned beef and cabbage did you? Corned beef is not even Irish, but Irish-American. Immigrants in New York, looking for a cheaper alternative to the traditional bacon or sausage, turned to Jewish butchers, who provided them with the pickled brisket we associate with the 17th day of March.

My husband had an interesting question about the fact that St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, when many Roman Catholics have given up eating meat. Apparently, there is a special dispensation from the Bishop to allow for eating meat on the Feast Day of St. Patrick, and this has worked pretty well except for the very rare occurrence when St. Patrick’s Day actually falls during Holy Week and they have less wiggle room.

Limerick Ham is usually a cured leg of pork, traditionally smoked over Juniper branches. Okay, so no juniper branches and a leg of pork is a bit much for the three of us, so we adapt and cook a small smoked ham, first by boiling in apple cider and then finishing in the oven, and served with an accompaniment of potatoes and cabbage, with burnt oranges to finish.

Burnt Oranges

4 Large oranges

5 ounces sweet white wine

1 tablespoon butter

half-cup sugar

10 ounces fresh-squeezed orange juice

2 tablespoons Irish Whiskey (warmed)

Carefully peel the oranges thinly. Then with a sharp knife remove as much of the pith and white skin as possible, keeping the oranges intact. Cut the thin peel into fine strips and cover with sweet white wine. Put the oranges into an ovenproof dish. Put a little butter on top of each one, pressing it down gently, then sprinkle each one with a teaspoon of sugar. Put into a 400F oven for 10 minutes or until the sugar caramelizes.

Meanwhile mix the orange juice with the sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and let it get syrupy, without stirring. Add the orange peel and wine mixture and bring to the boil again, then cook rapidly to reduce and thicken slightly.

Take the oranges from the oven and if not fully browned, put under a moderate broiler for a few minutes. Pour the warmed whisky over them and set it alight, over heat. As the flames die down, add the orange syrup and let it simmer for about 2 minutes. Serve at once.

Perhaps a glass of Bushmill’s while clearing up, listening to the boy practicing the cello in the next room. Settling on the velvet sofa to watch a movie, maybe The Crying Game (exploring the themes of race, gender, sexuality and nationality against the backdrop of the Irish troubles) or Michael Collins, about the Easter 1916 uprising. Perhaps neither, perhaps simply to bed instead, taking the green ribbon from my hair, the words of Yeats running through me like a long deep river.

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven’s part, our part

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death;

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in a verse –

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Speaking in Two Tongues

March 16, 2009 § 2 Comments

There are many ways to learn a language. Most often people seek to study a second (or third or tenth) language, in a classroom or on their own. Or they learn it at their mother’s knee, conversing in the familial Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Hindi, while speaking English to the world outside.

I saw on Facebook that our son-in-law is using Rosetta Stone to teach himself Swedish, the language of his ancestry. My husband and I joke that our son-in-law is studying Swedish so he can talk with his father without our daughter knowing what they’re saying. Or maybe they’re planning a trip to Stockholm, who knows.

During high school in Canada I was compelled to learn French, so I can scrape by pretty well. I don’t have to use subtitles much when watching French movies, I can find my way easily around the menu of a French restaurant, and on the one occasion I went to Paris, I did not feel utterly lost. But I never think in French and that’s what separates “speaking French” from “knowing” it.

Long before the French though,Mother married an Englishman (I was ten), and when we moved to West Yorkshire,  I developed my second language: English. (“What?!” You say, quizzically.)

Well, I know to look both ways at the Zebra crossing so I won’t get struck by a passing lorry. When I’m tired, I prefer the lift to the stairs. I’ve corrected my mistakes with a rubber (rather than preventing “mistakes” with one) I’ve gone to the Chemists for a plaster, which I’ve then affixed to my finger. I’ve enjoyed the warmth of a good anorak, and I’ve been gone longer than a fortnight. I prefer Trifle to Blancmange (aptly pronounced blahhhhh-maahhnj) and I can never put my hand on a Biro when I need one.

Additionally, I know the difference between a barrister and a solicitor. You probably shouldn’t look for crisps in a chip shop, I need plimsolls if I’m going to play netball, and there’s nowt for the moggies to eat. I’ve never written to an Agony Aunt, I prefer bangers and mash to bubble and squeak, but I’d rather have a butty than either. I’ve exclaimed “Gor Blimey, this fairy cake is delicious” Luckily not too many things have gone balls-up, though occasionally my teachers would say “Oy, you, stop skiving.”  Okay, then, Bob’s your uncle. Oh, and there’s nothing like a bit of cha to raise your spirits.

Which is something that my Chinese American husband would certainly agree with, though he, like all Chinese, would never dream of taking his tea with milk and sugar. Crazy, he says, it just doesn’t go. Like putting fish sauce on your breakfast cereal. He calls it the same thing, though: cha.  The British slang, in fact, comes from the Cantonese word for tea.  “Cha” was the first Chinese word our son learned, picking it up from hearing his parents’ one word question “Cha?” (Tea?) or “Ngeem Cha?” (Drink tea?)

My husband’s mother was an immigrant, arriving here in 1936, just as the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally being lifted.  Her husband was a third generation Chinese-American, but the exclusion act had required him (as it had his father) to go to China for his bride. In fact, Elmer’s father had been born in China and came to the U.S. alone in 1913, at age 12, to seek his future. In 1921, he returned to China to marry (it was an arranged marriage) and then returned again, alone, to America. There would be many such trips across the Pacific for the next 14 years. The couple had five children before the family was allowed to come to America.

When Rose Louie Lieu arrived at the port of Los Angeles, she spoke no English.  Elmer is uncertain if his father tried to teach his mother some English, but certainly he had to translate for her. They settled on Clanton Street in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, about two miles by bus or foot from Chinatown and the familiar charivari of her native tongue. Five children became six, then seven. All the children always spoke Chinese with their parents, and each of them went every afternoon to a special Chinese school to learn how to write the beautiful Chinese characters.

Dad worked in the shipyards, Mom stayed home and hand painted silk ties. When Elmer, the baby of the family, was about five years old, his parents opened a small neighborhood grocery store on Washington Boulevard. At the store, both his mother and father spoke English with their customers, but the language at home was still Chinese.  (Except for the year when they both got mad at each other, and didn’t speak at all, but that’s another story.)

In 1969, the grocery burned to the ground. The Lieus were in their late sixties, so they took the insurance money and retired. From that day forward, their English language slipped away little by little. By the time I met Elmer’s mother in 1992, she didn’t speak any English at all.  During the many telephone conversations Elmer had with her, he spoke Chinese fluently, and without hesitation. But put him on the spot, ask “What’s the word for this,” or “How do you say that” and he can’t remember.

His mother came from a village outside of Toisan, in the Pearl River Delta. Up until about 1950, three out of every four Chinese immigrants was from Toisan, and the city was referred to as The Home of Overseas Chinese. The dialect that she and Elmer’s father spoke is further distinguished as being a “country dialect.” It is a derivative of Cantonese, but can lead to awkward assumptions: Many people know the Chinese dish Moo Goo Gai Pan. It is chicken with mushrooms. In Toisanese, “gai” means “dog” and “goy” is chicken. Best to have your dialects in a row before you order your Peking duck.

Mandarin is now the official Chinese language, but 70 million people still speak Samyip (Cantonese) and it is the official language in Hong Kong and Macau.  Of course, the dialect that Elmer’s parents spoke is preserved from a time nearly a century ago. In the very same village, they are no longer using these particular idioms or constructions; like many immigrant families, we have preserved for ourselves a vernacular of antique Chinese speech. 

During our marriage, I’ve spent a lot of time smiling in restaurants while Elmer conducts elaborate conversations (in Toisanese) with waiters and waitresses across the country, and in Canada. Especially in Canada. I know the drill. He says “Are you Chinese?”

“Yes,” the person answers, adding his or her own question. “Are you Chinese . . .” and they’re off and running. My ear is attuned to any reference to bak gwee (White Devil, that’s us pale folks) but so far no one has mentioned it.

The best (and most authentic) Chinese restaurants are often the most unprepossessing ones, in strip malls and office buildings. We found one such place in Crescent City, California. The food was excellent and the owner-waitress-wife of chef was from Toisan. It’s a good thing our son was there too, or I would have had to spend the entire meal without uttering a word. Just as we were leaving, Elmer and the woman had a particularly lively and cheerful exchange. As we walked to the car, I asked Elmer “What was that last thing you said to her?”

 “Do you want to go back to the hotel?”


“Do you want to go back to the hotel?”

“That’s the last thing you said to the waitress?”

“What do you mean?”

Julian was laughing so hard at his father’s unwitting faux pas, I thought he would pass out. When my dear husband finally caught on, he started laughing too and we all had to sit in the car awhile to collect ourselves.

The first word my mother-in-law taught me was Heckla. It means “have some more.”  She used it like a blessing, though, making sure that we were well fed, warm enough, cool enough, had enough cash . . . and here, have some more. It did no good to say we were full, or fine, or had enough money; there was always something more to give us. It was a beautiful and generous sentiment and I wish we could have had it etched upon her headstone, but of course, the Chinese are far too formal for such things.

In the 17 years that Elmer and I have been married, I have picked up a bit of Chinese here and there. It’s not as fluent as my French, or my idiomatic British, nor will it ever be the language of my thoughts. But I can urge Julian to hurry up Lwoy-la. (Come on). I can say I’m ready to leave.  Luwht-la (Let’s go.) I know that the antique dress in the lacquer trunk is called a Cheung-Sahm and I know that the carved trunk with the scenes on it is the Jun Muk Lung.

My abilities extend to wishing you a Happy New Year, (Gung Hay Fat Choy), saying Thanks (Wa-deh) and politely asking how you are (Neh How Ma) My husband and his long time friend, Bill Ahaus, are hilarious when they say this to each other on the phone, in what I call Chinese-restaurant-short-order-screech. Bill’s a bak gwee (like me) but his wife Doreen is Chinese American, so it’s okay. It’s not racist if you’re making fun of yourself.

I also know Wah Sun (New China, frequently seen on restaurants and my husband’s Chinese name)  Ma (horse, and also the famous cellist) Haack (black, and Haackas are a dark Chinese minority; Chow Yun Fat is one, so is our brother-in-law, father of the family’s claim to real success: Famous Headline News anchor, Richard Lui) and the ever essential ShiHahngGee (literally: shit bowl paper, but what we polite Americans call toilet tissue.)

Sadly, our son won’t learn Chinese at his father’s knee, as it’s hard to teach Chinese when you can’t remember it except for when you’re having conversations with waitresses.  Julian has picked up some colorful Cantonese terminology (and a few insults) with which he dazzles his contemporaries at school. And he has learned to listen for the music in other languages, puzzling out German and French and now his own choice for speaking in a second tongue: Latin. Deus Succurro Peur




  A Very Short British-American Glossary

zebra crossing — crosswalk

lorry – truck

lift – elevator

rubber – eraser

chemists – pharmacy

plaster – bandage, bandaid

anorak – parka style winter coat

Trifle – layered dessert with fruit, cream, cake and sherry

Blancmange – molded gelatinous dessert

barrister – an attorney who argues cases in court

solicitor – an attorney who represents you in matters not involving court

crisps – potato chips

chip shops – fish and chip shops—chips are slices of fried potato

plimsolls – girls gym shoes (like Keds)

netball – basketball

Agony Aunt – advice columns, like Dear Abby & Ann Landers

nowt – nothing

moggies – cats

bangers and mash – sausage and mashed potato in a casserole arrangement

bubble and squeak – fried potatoes and cabbage, sometimes a bit of bacon or sausage

butty – a sandwich made with meat and butter

Gor Blimey – an exclamation, a colloquial form of “Gosh!,” from “God Blind Me.” Really.

fairy cake  — cupcake

balls up – totally ruined, messed up, SNAFU

Oy – A form of address similar to Hey!

Skiving – to avoid work, dawdling

Bob’s Your Uncle – “That’s it, then,” that’s all there is.

Cha – tea












Folly Beach

March 7, 2009 § 5 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

When my son, native child of a landlocked state, was eight years old, I took him to see the Atlantic Ocean. We were visiting my grandmother in upstate South Carolina when it occurred to me that we were pretty close to the ocean at Charleston. It’s about 150 miles, but living in Montana, where the distances are so vast that it’s nothing to drive 30 miles to get a gallon of milk, that didn’t seem far at all. Heck, we were driving 72 miles a day to get Julian to school (18 miles there to take him, 18 miles home, 18 miles to get him, 18 miles home.)

But Charleston is not the beach. Further inspection of the road atlas revealed a little barrier island just south of the city. There, a tiny green patch was labeled “Folly Beach,” so we took our suits and sandals and were bound for glory, or at least a sunburn. The interstate goes within about ten miles of the island, after that you have to wend your way along a suburban highway lined with Burger Kings, tanning salons, gas stations, drug stores. (No doubt a suburban hell during hurricane evacuations.)

Finally the roadsides give way to low-country marshlands, estuaries, fishing docks, seafood merchants, and as you get to Folly Beach proper, an authentic beach town. Churches and the post office and the public library sit on prime real estate and one hopes that they always will remain so. 

“Can you smell the salt?” I asked Julian. He put his head out the window like a dog. “Yeah, I think so,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.

What makes the shore smell like the shore is actually dimethylsulfide, a gas produced when phytoplankton (the basis of the ocean’s food chain) are consumed or die. A few hundred parts per trillion is enough to scent the sea air, and it is a smell enjoyed by seabirds, (to them it must say “lunch”) as well as humans. I guess “salt breeze” sounds more poetic than dimethylsulfide. Whichever, what it said to me as I drew closer is “home home home home.” Maybe I was a mermaid in another life.

My pulse quickened as we neared the shore. I knew that any minute, I mean, any minute now, the Ocean was going to appear before us in all of her shimmering glory. Kind reader, I wish I could describe to you the wonder on my child’s face, the thrill of that first sighting, but like our first glimpse of the ocean at Folly Beach, that has to wait.

For at the top of Center Street, right on the beach side sat an absolute eyesore: a concrete behemoth that has as much sensitivity to its location on the water as a Federal Prison would, blocking any and all views of the sea. It’s the Holiday Inn, and it had sat there like a colossal insult only since 1995, which makes it even more reprehensible.

Whoever is in charge of zoning at Folly Beach should be tarred and feathered, or at least spanked. The architect who designed this horrible structure should be used as an example at every architecture school in the country of what not to build, of what kind of aesthetic disaster it is to not design the correct structure for the setting. What is wrong with these people? Whatever kind of payoff occurred to have that Holiday Inn situated there it was not enough. There’s no amount of money large enough to justify it.

But that’s not what this essay is about, because the monolithic Holiday Inn is the exception at Folly Beach, not the rule. So we will ignore it and go on. We turned left along Arctic and drove down along the edge of the world. The dunes rise up next to the road, so you still don’t immediately see the water. We parked the car next to boardwalk steps and walked up to have a look. Julian had only one word: Wow.

The beach stretched up and down as far we could see. Late in the afternoon, it was nearly empty.We played in the water until nightfall. Julian picked up a hundred shells, got wrinkly fingers and toes, and licked the salt from the skin on his forearm. The sand along Folly Beach is so silvery and fine, it “sings” when you walk in it, the faint, fine song of the siren. Just before we left, I fetched a plastic grocery bag from the car and filled it with dry sand to carry back to my landlocked home. There I would keep it in an enormous Mason jar and whenever I needed some relief from the oppression of the mountains, I’d open up the jar and breathe deeply.

We didn’t get back to Folly the next year. Though our travels took us to the Carolinas, we went north this time, up through Myrtle Beach and along the coast to the Outer Banks. The intense development from Hatteras to Kitty Hawk left an impatient feeling in my soul.

It’s nothing like the little town south of Charleston that still made room for ordinary things: VFW turkey shoots, funny little package stores, trail rides, girl scout troops. No wonder the locals call it “Mayberry By the Sea.”

When I went back the next year, I tried to convince my grandmother, then 92, to come down to the sea with me. She put her novel down on her lap and thought about it for a minute. “That might be nice,” she said. Later, though, she decided that she probably should just stay home. I asked if she was sure, and she said she was. “You go on, I think I’ll just stay here and read.” Now I wish I’d tried harder to get her to come along.

So I went with my dog and it was nearly dark when we finally got there. We walked along the beach together, his joy plain as he darted in and out of the surf. After returning him to the car, I walked to a restaurant on the pier and ate oysters and drank a Pilsner while writing postcards to friends back in that dry and ocean-less state.

Historians think that Folly Beach was named for the old English word meaning “an area of dense foliage,” but come on, the word “folly” as we understand it, the quality of being rash and foolish, has been in wide use since Shakespeare. “Though age from folly could not give me freedom,” as Mark Anthony said.

In the 18th century, the island was used as a quarantine by ships entering Charleston harbor to drop off passengers suffering from cholera, and was at the time called “Coffin Land.” Try developing a tourism industry with that kind of moniker.

There were shipwrecks, Charleston cut off communication and supplies during a particularly bad patch of disease, the Union Troops used Folly Island to help launch their offensive against the important port city to the north.

Being a barrier island, it has seen its share of storms, and grainy black and white photos in local histories show the devastation that the the wind and the sea have wrought from time to time.

With the dawning of the twentieth century came rum-running, pavilions, boardwalks, piers and Folly-land became the vacation destination for city dwellers. The big bands of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were regularly featured at the Pavilion.

In 1934, George Gershwin spent the summer on Folly Beach, in a bungalow at 708 West Arctic Avenue. It’s reported that he “went completely native” (sometimes unshaven and in blue jeans) there, rambling around Folly Beach and James Island, attending revival meetings and church services of the Gullah.

In 1926, Gershwin had read (in one sitting) the novel Porgy, by Charleston writer (and real estate and insurance agent) W. DuBose Heyward. Working in concert with his brother, Ira (in New York) writing the lyrics to some songs, and with DuBose Heyward (in Folly Beach) as librettist, Gershwin composed the great American opera, Porgy and Bess. It is said that he also judged a local beauty contest.

Yesterday, I went back to Folly Beach again, this time with my mother. I went back to the restaurant on the pier, it has declined a little. The pale gray blues and lemon yellows of the walls are a bit grimy. It reminded me, sadly, of an old lady who has turned herself out in a fine linen dress, not realizing that there are stains on the front, or that it is soiled around the collar and cuffs. The She-Crab soup had too much celery (I think it was celery) and the Prince Edward Island mussels, while lovely and mild would have been better served in a saffron cream sauce than the spinach and yellow pepper broth chosen. Mother said the crab cake was good, but you could tell from looking at it that it came this close to being burned. Still, we got to sit, looking out at the water, watching the pelicans and pigeons, a few bedraggled-looking starlings marching around.

Afterwards we walked out on the pier for a bit, laughing at the sign that Sharks Are Catch and Release Only! “Catch and Release” is a minor religion in landlocked Montana, the tourists releasing Browns and Rainbows because they can’t differentiate them from the native and endangered cutthroat trout. Just as well the mountain streams aren’t populated with sharks as well.

We drove a little further up the street, not too far from the trailhead to Morris Island. (You can’t actually get to the lighthouse anymore. Erosion has left it surrounded by water, and it was decommissioned a few years ago. The Light had been scheduled for demolition, but a local group rallied their support and found a private buyer.) We found a spot to park, paid to get a parking chit, got out of the car and broke the law.

Dogs are permitted on the beach November through April all day long, and in May through September they are allowed before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m. but they must, and I repeat, must remained leashed. Taking a Chesapeake Bay Retriever to the beach and keeping him leashed is like putting a bowl of She-Crab soup in front of a starving man and not allowing him to eat. Both dogs are trained to come at a whistle, are always under voice control and will sit immediately to be leashed. They’re pretty good canine citizens. We released them.

They had a splendid time racing full-tilt into the surf, chasing each other and the foamy tops of wavelets rolling into the shore. After about 40 minutes, when we were joined on the beach by a couple with a Yorkshire terrier puppy, we called in the dogs, clipped on their leashes and went to the car to find towels. They might have thought the Yorkie was a squirrel, which would have resulted in considerable consternation.

“It was really nice to just stand there on the beach,” my mother said, handing me a dry towel.

Nearly every house on the island has a shingle in front, offering it for vacation rental. It’s very tempting, this notion of spending some extra time in Folly Beach. We did motor the seven miles into Charleston and devoted ten minutes to looking at the historic district around the Joseph Manigault house. I always think there will be enough time after the beach to go and explore the city. This is what I’ve always intended and it is absolute folly.  I always spend so much time on the barrier island I never have a chance to see Charleston before its time to go home.

Perhaps a week or two at the beach would do the trick, perhaps then there would be time to see what Charleston is about, in between sneaking dogs onto the beach and eating shellfish and drinking Pilsners, going native, answering the siren song of Folly Beach. I wonder if 708 West Arctic Avenue is available.

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