Friday, August 14, 2009

My Donut Diet

Yes, you read that right. Donuts can help you diet. Of course there’s a catch. What were you thinking, that donuts have suddenly become healthy? But it’s a wonderful catch. One all humanity should experience at least once.

They’re not just any donuts. They’re Frog Hollow donuts.

Deep in southeastern New Jersey, there stands a small cottage in the shadows of a thicket of oak, ivy and Virginia creeper. It’s so unassuming that the uninitiated pass right by.

When the Patterson family is inside baking up donuts, the “open” banner flies under a “donuts” sign that any self-respecting Madison Avenue suit would find comically small. The founder, Joseph M. Patterson, his son, Joseph R. and miscellaneous other Pattersons have been churning them out there since the elder Joseph opened the place in ’71. Long before there was much else in Greenfield, N.J. – years before the Wawa, the pizza place and the hardware store sprung up down the street.

The locals can spot the “open” colors from a mile. Sometimes you swear you don’t need the banner. You think you can smell them frying away, when the wind’s blowing just right. (Donut lust plays tricks with the brain.)

You wait for that banner like a kid waiting for Christmas. And the payoff is 10 times better than anything Santa Claus ever stashed under a tree. In the pantheon of donut perfection, the Frog Hollow vintage stands head and shoulders above the rest. No contest, turn off the lights, call the cops, period.

For years the front door didn’t latch. It had a doorknob but there was no point turning it – you just gave it a shove and in you went to the quiet, dark-wood cool under the shade. They fixed the doorknob years ago but I still am not used to actually turning it.

You make your way to the counter, temporarily blind as your eyes have not yet adjusted to the darkness. Joe R. is usually doing the baking duties these days, flanked by his wife, Deborah or one of the kids. But a few days a week Joe M. still mans the counter, as he has for over three decades.

They are happy to see you. We’re happier to see them. After all, we’re the ones that are leaving the place with a bagful of Frog Hollow Donuts. You catch up on things. One recent morning, we chatted about the high school marching band and the recent change of leadership in its boosters club. You savor this small talk. We’re proud to be the object of envy for the tourists who drove two hours or more to stand in line behind us. It’s a chance to broadcast a message of unbridled glee: we're locals and we can get Frog Hollows any time we want.

Well, not exactly. Which is a key reason they are officially diet food.

Frog Hollow is only open a few days a week during the tourist season. If you want a Frog Hollow in the dead of February, you simply can’t have one. Score one for the diet.

Second – the Frog Hollow donut is so sublime, so completely, unabashedly superior to any other – they simply destroy your desire for lesser attempts. That insipid, sweet, boring second-rate stuff they sell in gas stations, chain donut stands and supermarkets won’t even turn your head, once you’ve sunk your teeth into the crisp, creamy bliss of a Frog Hollow. The Frog Hollow donut empowers you to walk right by.

That's my kind of diet food.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Beat the recession tips: the thrift shop

Sometimes they're dark and dirty. Sometimes they smell bad and the staff is downright scary. But when finding bargains is on your to-do list, the thrift shop calls your name.

I know what you're thinking. You wouldn't be caught dead in a thrift shop. Let me tell you something. I've seen plenty of affluent soccer moms in thrift shops. Doctors' wives, even. And if you're lucky, your town might have a clean, bright thrift shop with a friendly staff and no bad odors. It's worth exploring.

Even if your thrift shop is a dark cave, if you can defeat your fear, you can save some serious dough. I'm here to prove it.

We live in a disposable society. Americans love buying crap they don't need and then dumping it as soon as they get tired of it. More loot for us thrift shop hunters.

There are a few rules of the road. (At least in my Thrift Shop Rulebook:)
  • I won't try on a hat in a thrift shop. (Head lice.)
  • I won't try on trousers in a thrift shop. (Crabs.)
  • Don't go anywhere near beds or mattresses (Bedbugs.)
  • (You can expound from there.)
  • You can't always buy what you want when you want it. But if you are patient, you'll find it. Eventually.
  • Because the store stinks doesn't mean it's dirty. In most cases, the smell comes from old shoes. Once you realize that, it somehow seems a little less offensive. Plus you can sometimes avoid the smell by avoiding the shoes.
Generally speaking, unless I am desperate, I pretty much ignore the clothing. But if you need a specific thing in a hurry - like party wear or the elements of a Halloween costume - the thrift shop often comes through.

A few recent examples of amazing thrift shop bargains:
  • A black blazer to complete a Riff-Raff (Rocky Horror Show) costume: $10
  • A black silk shirt: $4
  • A $60 Waring retro blender with two glass jars: $9
  • A plastic model kit worth $7 on ebay: 49¢
  • An entire black-and-white darkroom, including the enlarger: $25
And my favorite: My wife has not quite embraced the iPod revolution. She has one, but she only uses it at the gym. If she's working around the house and wants music, she finds the CD she wants and loads it into her boom box. She had a real nice Sony boom box - but it broke down and she was without it for quite a while. She did not want to replace it, scoffing at the expense - $75 for an equivalent Sony.

So, while stalking thrift shop bargains, I found the unit that matched her broken one - although it's the newer, nicer model. There was no power cord but I scrounged one that fit from the wire box and found a power outlet under ladies' suits. I grabbed a CD and a cassette from the book section of the store and sat on the floor to put the unit through its paces. It was perfect, save for an even coat of dust and grime. At home, I salvaged the power cord from her old unit, and Simple Green took care of the dirt.

The unit cost me the princely sum of $7.

Yeah, baby. That's like 90 percent off.

Monday, June 29, 2009

You can learn a lot from Looney Toons

It started when Daffy Duck introduced Porky Pig to Hymie, his invisible kangaroo pal, in the classic short Daffy Duck Slept Here.

Porky’s response (or so I thought): “You’re pixelated. There’s no kangaroo here.”

Wait a minute. I though pixelate was one of those new, techie words – like debug, Firewire and gigaflop. Yet here’s Porky uttering the word back in 1948, before many of the folks who refined digital imagery pixels were in diapers.

After a bit of research, I realized I was wrong. Porky’s was the older version: pixilated.

Notice the small spelling difference. Pixelate, is derived from pixel, a portmanteau blend of picture (pix) and element coined in 1969 to describe the individual elements of a TV picture. In 1948, pixilate had one meaning and one spelling, with an i. It’s derived from the root word pixie and is used to describe somebody acting drunk or goofy.

The thing I love about this little bit of language trivia is that a digital image can be described as pixelated when low resolution lets the individual pixels show through for a blocky, blurry effect.

Not unlike what you might see when pixilated.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Beware the Beer Scams

Miller's newest piece of advertising dreck inspired this post. It's "Triple Hops Brewed" says its new ad agency, BBH-New York. Miller gives them $150 million a year. And that's the best they can come up with? Pathetic.

It's probably not the most egregious. But it's gotta be in the top 10. And since it's the scam that ticked me off most recently, figured I'd wax poetic about some of my favorite examples of big-brew/big-agency beerhype:

1. Triple Hops Brewed: What a crock of you-know-what. It refers to how many times hops are added during the "brewing" phase, when "wort" the unfermented, sweet beer is being boiled in the kettle. The oils in hops are not soluble in wort. So they have to be boiled long and hard to get them to dissolve out. Then we can taste them in the finished beer.

If you hop early in the brew, you get mostly bitterness in the finished beer. But long boiling destroys some flavor and aroma components. So brewers hop both early and late, to coax different characteristics from the hops. Hopping a beer three times is so common it's not even worth mentioning, let alone making it the centerpiece of an entire multi-million dollar national ad campaign.

A barrel of Miller lite has about as much hops as my little finger. The issue is not when they add the hops, it's how little they add.

2. Beechwood Aging: This is a crock that actually has roots in truth. The Czech/Bohemian brewers of the 19th century discovered this trick. Beechwood is used as a traditional "fining" agent in European pilsner - the lightly colored, well-hopped, bottom-fermenting lagers made famous by such labels as Budweiser-Budvar (the original Bud) and Pilsner Urquell.

When people started drinking beer from glass vessels, brewers started looking for ways to make the beer look better. Before the development of filtering, fining agents were used to remove solids from the beer. They mostly go after dissolved proteins that tend to become solid at serving temperature, lending a cloudy appearance to the brew served in glass. Subjecting the beer to wood chips will help. Millions of microscopic nooks and crannies in the beechwood serve as places to trap solid particles. And unlike its cousin, oak, beechwood is relatively inert in liquid - it does not impart any significant flavor components.

America's King of Beers, Budweiser, is beechwood aged. No problem. But then, like all mass-market beer, it's cold-filtered. Cold-filtering removes any and all particulates in the beer, rendering the beechwood aging completely irrelevant. It's done out of a sense of tradition, only. Advertising it as a real benefit is misinformed at best and disingenuous at worst.

3. Cold Filtering
You probably recognized that term earlier, because it's another piece of crap that beer ad agencies have been foisting on the populace for years. If a beer is filtered, it's cold-filtered. On his worst day, a brewer would never filter beer warm. Filtering is pointless unless you have something to filter. Remember those dissolved solids from the beechwood aging example? They stay in solution unless you chill the beer. Chill the beer, solidify the solids. Now you can filter them out. See? It ain't rocket science. And it does not make one beer stand out against another.

And there's an even bigger scam at work here. Cold filtering isn't done for you, it's done for them, because Mass Market Model-T beer is made to be packaged. Like pasteurization, filtering makes the beer more stable for sitting on room-temperature shelves for who-knows-how-long. And, like pasteurization, it does little or no good for beer flavor.

Recommendation: drink beer that insults neither your taste buds nor your intelligence.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Conflicted about motorcycle inspection

It was going to be an hour wait, which is pretty odd for the 10th of the month. Turns out there was only one lane open. New Jersey is retrofitting all its vehicle inspection stations with lift equipment that will enable checking wheels off the ground. I wasn't too concerned. I was caught up with work, it was a beautiful spring day and mercifully the mosquitoes were bothering somebody else.

I packed up my jacket, removed my helmet and settled down to enjoy the breeze. I had been in line scarcely 10 minutes when a remarkably friendly inspector walked over to me and told me to get out of line and roll to the side of the building, where he would inspect the bike pronto. Sweet!

I sustained quite a few looks of envy (and a few of hostility) from the hot and frustrated cage drivers as I rolled past. I waited at that assigned spot for only another five minutes or so before the inspector reappeared and completed the inspection.

First he checked my headlight. Then my turn signals, which are not even required on motorcycles in the Garden State. (I've always thought this was kind of odd, but there you have it.) That was it. He went back into the building and reemerged with my sticker after another 10 minutes or so.

Here's the conflicted part. I was really grateful for the preferential treatment - but puzzled by the inspection itself, which seemed a complete waste of time. They didn't check the brakes, tires, wheels, chain, helmet or any other essential bit of gear. Just the lights. OK, NJ. Whatever floats your boat. Ya gotta love government contractors.

Not complaining, I'm good for two years. (Maybe I'll be as lucky next time.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Marsh mallows. Marshmallows. Know the difference.

A recent post about s'mores got me thinking about marshmallows. Even though they pronounce it "marshmella" in my neck of the woods – the word "mallow" caught my eye some years ago as I was leafing through Durward L. Allen's North American Wildlife.

The upshot: these are marsh mallows . These are marshmallows.

What gives?

Turns out, the plant came before the confection. These days they make marshmallows cheap, using common gelatin, which is a byproduct of meat processing. (It's the reason vegetarians don't eat marshmallows.) But, back in the day, the roots of the marsh mallow were gathered and boiled with sugar to create the puffy candy pillows. It worked because marsh mallow roots are rich in mucilage, a gluey, natural thickener.

And if you're old enough, you'll conjur up this image when you hear the word "mucilage." Remember those weird rubber things from grade school?

Since a variety of health benefits have also been ascribed to marsh mallow, in the old days marshmallows were considered good for you – or at least good for your dyspepsia and catarrh.

Now they're just empty calories, but still – life just wouldn't be the same without them.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

S'more s'mores, please

My Twitter friend Jen Singer mentioned s'mores. That inspired this post.

Most agree that s'mores rock, with the possible exception of those who have lost their sense of taste thanks to a massive nuclear accident. Chocolate, marshmallow, graham crackers ... what's not to love?

It's one of those quintessentially American folk recipes that just warms the cockles of your taste buds. Even if you don't like marshmallow, grahams and chocolate – there's something about a s'mores that comes together in divine synergy when the ingredients are combined.

But you probably already knew that.

For my overseas pals – and Americans who have been living under rocks – the s'mores recipe is the epitome of simplicity. Roast a marshmallow (on a stick, over a fire, accompanied by ghost stories or raucous singing.) Slap the browned, gooey confection on a half a graham cracker. Add a segment of a Hershey Bar. (Yes, Hershey Bar. This is not a paid endorsement. It's just that a Hershey Bar segment is the perfect size and portion for this purpose.) Put the other half of the graham cracker on top and squish it down. Give the chocolate a minute to melt, then engage with extreme prejudice.

Your fingers and camp-dirty sweatshirt will end up all sticky from s'mores residue, then black from campfire ash. Leave them alone. You're camping, for Pete's sake. There will be plenty of time for soap and water when you get back to civilization.

An aside - you can make s'mores at home by sticking a half graham cracker topped with a marshmallow in the microwave. While it's fun to watch the marshmallow swell to 15 times its original size – the experience doesn't quite cut it. S'mores should be enjoyed while breathing campfire smoke and swatting mosquitoes. Plus they lose the caramelized and smoky complexity that you can only get from roasting the sugar over an open fire.

But what to call these delectable little bundles of carbohydrate excess?

In some circles, they get the moniker "Angels on Horseback." Not bad. The white marshmallow, the saddle-hued chocolate, the horse-tan graham crackers. But too many syllables for my taste. You can get them quicker if you ask for s'mores. And the name is a simple expression of their wonderfulness. They're so good, you always want s'more. Some plus more equals s'more.

Get it?

This is not difficult. But apparently it's quite a herculean feat if you're from Pennsylvania.

Living at the southern New Jersey seashore, most of our friends and neighbors are Keystone State transplants. In fact I've often wondered why Philadelphia hasn't annexed Ocean City as its easternmost suburb – since it might as well be between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Through some trick of DNA controlling the muscles of the tongue, if you're from Pennsylvania, you'll in all likelihood say schmores when you mean s'mores. As if they're a local variety of salted meat, smoked by Mennonites. Schmore's Old Fashioned Honey Hickory Bacon Slabs.

The funnier thing is that when – at great risk to your personal safety – you point out the folly of this linguistic butchery, they get all in your face and insist that their version is correct. Really? So, you're telling me that, when asking for more Corn Flakes or mashed potatoes or chocolate milk, Pennsylvania kids say "Mom. May I have schmore?!"

No, of course not, they'll reply. Followed by what's your point? Intelligent, educated Pennsylvanians, these are!

I give up. I still want to be your friend, despite your wanton disregard of the rule of law. Let's crack open a few Yuenglings. And pass me schmore Angels on Horseback, please.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Restaurant deadly sin #1: industrial condiments

[If you missed the intro to this series, peruse it here.]

I think we're all born optimists. And sometimes small shreds of that primal optimism actually survive into adulthood.

That's why we go back to bad restaurants after they hang up the "under new management" banner. It's almost always a mistake. A mistake bad enough to put that infantile optimism where it belongs: under a large, heavy rock.

There's one such sewage treatment plant in our hometown. I'll patronize it every 10 years or so. After which I plead with my dining compatriots to remind me never to go there again, ever.

On one such foray, this time with my young son, I innocently reached for the bottle of ketchup to slather my fries.

At least it looked suspiciously like ketchup. Clear glass bottle. Smooth, long neck. White metal cap. With a keystone-shaped label emblazoned with the moniker "Heinz." (Can you blame me for thinking it was ketchup?)

I upended the bottle over my plate and what poured out could only be described as thin fingerpaint. Orange, the consistency of maple syrup. Half the bottle had slipped out before I detected their evil duplicity. Fortunately I am a fry-dipper, not a true fry-slatherer, so most of my fries were left untainted.

Even I, the ever cynical, ever astute restaurant-goer was embarrassed by the near success of this condiment confidence trick. Son of a bitch. They slipped me a mickey, the bastards.

Seeing red stars in my field of view, I managed to keep my composure with the waitress. She was as much a victim as I, so there would have been no point scolding her.

I asked for real ketchup. Cute as a button and dumb as a rock, she stared blankly. I explained, slowly.

"OK. See this? It's not ketchup. It's industrial waste, masquerading as ketchup."

Then came her key testimony.

"Oh, yeah. We refill the bottles back in the kitchen."

"Yeah. I get that. Can you fetch me a new bottle, please, one that has not yet been tampered with?"


Ya gotta love bad restaurants with clueless employees. Rule 1: if your boss is doing evil deeds in the kitchen, like filling Heinz ketchup bottles with GlobalChemCo Ketchup Substitute #13, it might be best if you kept that information to yourself.

Somebody remind me never to go back there, ever again, please.


The restaurant's deadliest sins

You could write tomes about the stupid, stupid, stupid stunts restaurateurs pull to antagonize their patrons. But if you really want to research that multi-volume work, you need to take a trip to a place with a tourist economy, like the New Jersey seashore.

In a free enterprise system, competition trumps all. If your restaurant sucks, it won't last. In a tourist economy the free enterprise system means nothing. If you build it, they come. Smart people don't go back to bad restaurants. But we're all keen to fall victim to a bad restaurant at least once. In a tourist economy, you just need to con enough hapless vacationers to patronize your craphole once to keep it in the black.

Thanks to this convenient flouting of the food biz bible, tourist destinations are dotted with crappy, sub-par, mediocre, swill-shilling feeding troughs that would have been run out of town on a rail after five minutes in a market with bona fide restaurant competition.

Before my Jersey Shore booster club readers get their knickers in knots, let me assure you that I am not for one minute suggesting that the beach is without good restaurants. Of course we have good restaurants! The point of this screed is that the upside-down economics of the tourist economy spawns more restaurant buggeries than a proper, year-round economy.

So that's the setup, dear reader. In later installments, we'll outline the offenses committed by these pseudo-gourmet establishments of doom, one by one.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Equal quantities of diced vegetables, herbs and sometimes cured meat, sautéed as a flavor foundation for soups, stocks and sauces. Among the most common blends is simply carrot, celery and onion.

Soup on the floor!

I jostled the soup bowl. A little spilled. So I set the bowl on the counter to wipe the floor. Unfortunately, I placed the full bowl too close to the edge and it upended and tumbled in a slow-motion ballet of impending disaster.

Splat. Soup and china shards, spread wide over the floor.

Naturally, the paper towel dispenser was empty. Life's funny, especially when you're in the middle of a "Three Stooges" short.

Floor mopped. Replacement bowl mail-ordered. Now I have an excuse to share the recipe for my quick, almost-homemade chicken soup. It's so fast and so good - and if your kids are anything like mine, you won't be opening cans of soup anytime in the near future. They prefer this over cans, hands down.

The secret weapons are a mirepoix of carrots, celery and onion, fresh herbs, off-the-shelf soup stock and boneless chicken breast. Sautéeing the mirepoix in oil softens the vegetables, trimming time off the total recipe. Serves four. About 20 minutes prep time.


2 carrots
2 ribs celery
1 small onion*
1 clove garlic*
Fresh thyme and parsley
1 quart low-sodium chicken stock
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast pieces
Wide egg noodles
Olive oil


In a saucepan or Dutch oven, sauté in about a tablespoon of olive oil
1 carrot, sliced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 small onion, diced

Turn the heat down low, cover pot and let them cook without browning.

1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
A bundle of fresh thyme stalks and parsley sprigs OR 1/2 tsp. dry thyme.

Saute briefly, then increase heat and add 1 quart low-sodium stock. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Set timer for 15 minutes.

Slice the chicken breast into bite-size pieces and season well with salt and pepper. Set aside.

When 15 minutes have passed, add the seasoned chicken pieces and simmer one minute longer.

1 1/2 cups wide egg noodles
2 tsp. fresh parsley, chopped or 1 tsp. dry

Turn off heat and cover pot. Let stand five minutes. Adjust salt and pepper and serve with crusty bread.