Saturday, November 10, 2012

The best sandwich I ever ate

By Sal Emma

I've had some really great sandwiches. On merits alone, the top of the heap would be fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers and big, tender basil leaves with olive oil and balsamic vinegar on a slab of tender, crusty, deeply flavored Italian bread at Manganaro's in New York. Sadly, those sandwiches are no longer being made as Manganaro's closed their doors after some 90 years in business. But that's another story.

This is not a food review. It's about people coming together in times of peril to do what they can to help.

As most of you already know, after Hurricane Sandy I spent some time in Manasquan, N.J. helping cousins Mike and Christina Notaro clean out their flooded home to make way for the work crews to pull the floor and soaked drywall. It's heart-wrenching work, as much of what we dragged out to the curb were irreplaceable memories: scrapbooks, photos, yearbooks, special toys. But in spite of the emotional, difficult task before them, Mike and Christina are taking it in stride and showing admirable strength and grace. They are safe and staying with relatives until the work is done.

When I got the call, I pretty much made a beeline for Manasquan, with two stops in mind. Mike asked that I try to find some big plastic containers to hold the small stuff they were putting into storage. They were in short supply (everybody else at the New Jersey seashore had similar plans.) But I managed to score a few. And, figuring the work crew would be up for a snack, I stopped at our locally-famous Frog Hollow for a dozen of the world's greatest donuts.

My plan was to find a Wawa closer to Christina's house and grab a box of hot coffee to go with the donuts. Two problems: first, I never found a Wawa. Second, even if I had succeeded in locating one, it would have been closed for lack of power. So the crew didn't get their coffee. But the donuts were devoured with relish.

I was also planning to get my lunch at that Wawa stop, since I had jumped into the car as quickly as I could. So I never got my lunch. No big deal, in the grand scheme of things. I've done without many times before. And I could always grab a donut. In fact I wasn't even thinking about food until the sandwich brigade arrived.

I was surveying the damage, chatting with Mike and helping the other men haul soaked furniture out of the house. A small cadre of young moms and their pre-teen children arrived, on foot. "Anybody hungry?" they asked. They had baskets of handmade sandwiches, bottled water and probably some other goodies.

It was at that moment that I realized how hungry I was. “Wow! That is so nice. May I have one?” I asked. “Help yourself. Take two,” came the reply. They had spent a fair amount of time putting those sandwiches together and they were thrilled to have some customers. They even had a modest variety, ham, turkey, not sure what else. I imagine they were eager to empty out their powerless fridges before the stuff started going south. She gave me a sandwich and a bottle of water and moved to the next house.

This was a sandwich I’d never, ever make for myself. Turkey, American and mayo on puffy white bread. It was squishy and bland and uninteresting. And it was the best damned sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

At first, I thought – how could it be this good? It makes no sense. Well, I was starving, right? Not so fast. I thought the same thing. Then remembered that earlier this year, I broke a 24-hour fast with a big, drippy, stinky hoagy. I don’t particularly like big, drippy, stinky hoagies. And even though I was famished after the fast, I didn’t enjoy that hoagy much more than I would have on a normal day. It had to be more than just hunger.

I think it was because the sandwich was made with love. Made by people honestly concerned about both their neighbors – and people like me, the strangers in their midst. That’s what made it sublime.

That simple, pedestrian sandwich is a graphic reminder of the potential we have to do good when trouble strikes. These women knew they couldn’t undo the flood damage or magically restore the power lines. So they did what they could. They met around a dimly lit table in a broken house and assembled sandwiches for a broken neighborhood. It was a small gesture, an easy task, a no-brainer. Yet their accomplishment took on awesome power, bigger than any of us. They were sandwiches imbued with the power of God himself.

No wonder they tasted so good.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The terrible restaurant I can’t wait to go back to

Recently we had a strange and delightful restaurant experience. A friend gave us a gift certificate. We knew absolutely nothing about the place so had no real expectations outside the standard restaurant drill. Let’s say it was bizarre, from the get-go.

First of all, it’s in a crappy strip mall. I know, what strip mall isn’t crappy? But this one is really crappy. Dog ugly when it opened during the Reagan administration. Today, dog ugly with 350,000 miles on it.

We walked through the front door into what only the most hopeless optimist could call a lobby. It was about 4x4, with a cloth curtain separating the dining room. Essentially, a boardwalk photo booth. We stood there a good five minutes without anybody acknowledging us. Finally, Mrs. Emma stuck her head through the curtain and caught the waiter’s eye.

He seemed nice enough, but was hapless and overwhelmed in a way that made him fairly brusque. “Do you have a reservation?” was our greeting. No hello, welcome or sorry-to-make-you-wait. Once we told him we did indeed have a reservation (10 minutes ago, by this point) he disappeared, without a word.

So we waited, without instruction or encouragement.

Restaurants make my “never go back under any circumstances” list after three strikes. But it takes most Jersey shore restaurants the better part of an evening to swing and miss three times. Lousy atmosphere: strike one. Cruddy service: strike two. Mediocre food: strike three.

Tonight, I'd called strikes one and two inside the first 10 minutes. Before we even left the photo booth. Which by now was crammed with more equally confused hopefuls, pressing in to get out of the torrents of rain overflowing the potholes in the parking lot.

After at least five more minutes, he returned and pointed us in the general direction of a table.

I’ll try to set the scene. The place is about the size of an average family room. Into that space were crammed several dozen tables and a full restaurant kitchen. Whether the dining room was in the kitchen or the kitchen was in the dining room is academic. It’s all one space, so you gaze down the line as the chefs noisily flambé and sauté. The aisles were maybe 18 inches wide. So every time somebody walks behind you, he kicks your chair. Distance between tables: an inch and a half. I’m not exaggerating. Imagine cafeteria seating, with really nice décor.

Already annoyed by the photo booth, now I’m on a slow burn. By the grace of God, one of the women sitting next to us read my expression.

“Never been here, huh?” she asked. She could spot a virgin. When we confirmed her suspicion, she said, “Don’t worry. It’s worth the chaos.” I could only hope, though I was already fully expecting the inevitable cherry atop the standard crappy restaurant sundae: lousy food.

Since you’re basically sitting in the laps of the strangers next to you, it’s natural to strike up a conversation. On one side, a couple from Philadelphia with a vacation home in Longport. “We pretty much eat here every week in the summer,” they told us. On the other, a party of four including a CIA-trained* casino chef from Beesley’s Point. “I hardly ever eat out,” he said. (It’s hard to please a chef, especially at the Jersey shore, the food mediocrity capital of the world.) “But this place, I keep coming back to.” Their testimony was encouraging.

Waiter Boy returned briefly with the water pitcher, a saucer of virgin olive oil and a few thick slices of crusty bread. He rattled off the specials, then abandoned us once again. It’s a BYOB, but I had to resort to opening my own. Fortunately we both carry pocketknives for such a circumstance. With no way to summon him for seasoning, we borrowed some red pepper from the next table.

The menu was sparse and a bit pricey. $12 appetizers, $30 entrees. $6 for bottled water. But very interesting. Authentic Italian – not your typical Americanized version, red sauce slathered on everything from shrimp to spumoni.

Finally he returned. From the specials menu, the figs sounded too good to pass up so we ordered them. Main courses: chef’s daily potato gnocchi for Mrs. Emma and spaghetti with white clams for me.

Apparently, once your order is in, the place gets down to business. The figs arrived with surprising speed. Fresh-picked plumpers, stuffed with gorgonzola cheese, wrapped in speck ham (a smokier, sweeter, juniper-infused version of prosciutto) oven-roasted and finished with a balsamic reduction glaze. We dug in.

Oh. My. God.

In his Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, chef and author Michael Ruhlman documents both cooking and dining at Thomas Keller’s legendary French Laundry in California's Napa Valley. I read it aeons ago. (Great read, I recommend it.) One thing stuck with me. A word a French Laundry diner used to describe how Keller’s culinary artistry made her feel: giddy. I remember thinking: well, that’s one word I’ve never used to describe my response to restaurant food. But wouldn’t it be cool?

I’d be lying if I told you the figs made me feel any less. If we’d had another loaf of bread, we’d have eaten the whole thing, sopping up the glaze. I resisted the temptation to lick the plate. But the thought crossed my mind.

Then, the main courses came out.


Mrs. Emma’s gnocchi were light, delicate, supremely flavored and perfectly balanced. A harmonious sauce of fresh red peppers, mushrooms, white wine and who knows what else. Amazing.

My pasta with clams? The absolute best I’ve ever had. Period. And that includes outstanding homemade versions created at the hands of gifted old Italians.

And here’s the best part. I have no idea why they were the best I’d ever had. I couldn’t put my finger on any one voice in this magnificent symphony of flavor. It was sublime. The apex of culinary craft. Call-the-cops, Katie-bar-the-door perfection.

Even though I was briefly disappointed by the pasta's state of doneness. A few ticks short of al dente, it was nearly crunchy. But that was only the first bite. The chefs had preheated the bowl and compensated with perfectly undercooked pasta. By the time I'd released the clams from their shells, the pasta had finished, precisely where it should have. That takes skill.

Those of you who know me know I hold restaurants to a crazy high standard. Like the chef with whom we shared a table – they almost always let me down. Let’s face it. When you pay money to eat out, shouldn’t the food to be better than what you can make on your own? I guess it’s the price you pay for being a pretty good cook. Most restaurants fail. Predictably.

Not this one. The atmosphere was goofy and the service was spotty. Who cares?

The lady was right. Worth the chaos. And then some.

Luke Palladino Seasonal Italian Cooking
Plaza 9 Shopping Center
1333 New Road
Northfield, NJ 08225
609 646-8189
Reservations recommended but walk-ins welcome to try their luck. 

*The other CIA: the Culinary Institute of America, one of the world's most prestigious chef schools.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Day I Met the Angel

Newark, N.J. 1985. First time working for my buddy and mentor, Bob “Bear” Sanford. A retired TV repairman, Bear was a full-time communications tech and teacher at my college. For several years, satellite television had fueled his passion for tinkering. He was an early adopter, in the days when you had to build your own gear with a soldering iron and chicken wire.

Being the enterprising type, he’d figured out how to convert his expertise into income. He’d established a healthy weekend pay-per-view business. Back in those days, you couldn’t get pay-per-view at home. If you wanted to see a big boxing match, car race or other exclusive athletic event, you plunked your money down at some local haunt and watched it there.

Bear was the guy who set up the gear at bars, restaurants and other venues. And when he had the chance to wire more than one place for the same event, he hired young Turks like me to run the auxiliary locations.

I got the Newark assignment for a fight dubbed “The War,” pitting Newark's hometown hero “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler against Thomas Hearns.

I rehearsed the set-up in Bear’s Pennsylvania backyard. We ran a bunch of wires to a bevy of black boxes and a small satellite dish. He taught me how to aim the thing to find the tiny, tiny target: an invisible satellite the size of a VW Bug, floating 22 thousand miles above our heads.

With Bear conducting, I locked onto the satellite within minutes. Piece of cake. Two days later, I grabbed my two copilots and headed to Newark, early. I wanted plenty of time in case we had trouble.

Good thing.

I think we arrived at 2 pm for a 10 pm fight. Or something like that. Checked in with the owner – nice guy, natty in a shiny suit. It was a real classy place, linen tablecloths, crystal. Not exactly what we lily-white suburbanites expected in inner-city Newark.

We unloaded the van, ran the cables, hauled in the big projector TVs and assembled the antenna. I’d picked a spot behind the restaurant without any buildings or trees obstructing the satellite’s part of the sky. It was a dry, clear day. A blessing, because heavy rain can cause problems with reception.

As the others were setting up inside, I attempted to “shoot the bird.” I fired up a receiver and aimed the antenna, exactly as we’d done in Bear’s backyard.


I re-aimed.


I aimed again.


This was a puzzle. Didn’t make any sense. I knew where the satellite was. Nothing had changed since Bear’s backyard. Same antenna, same stand.

I aimed again. Nothing.

After 30 minutes of scanning practically every inch of sky, I still had zilch. By then, the other guys were finished inside so they came out to try their luck. Nothing. All we could do was scratch our heads.

No cell phones in those days. Bear was setting up a restaurant down in Trenton at the same moment. No way to get in touch with him. We were on our own.

That’s when the wino showed up.

If you called Central Casting and ordered a wino, this is the guy they’d send. Lanky, with spotty skin, too thin for his worn, soiled clothes. He ambled along like a guy rocking on a ship at sea. He paused to observe our predicament.

“Ain’t gonna work there,” he bellowed. “Gotta put it over here!” And he pointed to a spot not three feet from where I’d planted the antenna.

“Thanks a lot,” I yelled back, through a big, fake smile. Thanks for your help, old timer, I was thinking. We know a little bit more about this then you do, we’ll be fine, thanks.

He shrugged and wandered off, never to be seen again.

We aimed and re-aimed that antenna for at least another hour. Maybe more. It felt like four. By then, the restaurateur’s inner circle of friends and VIPs had arrived for dinner and cocktails before the fight. I think the mayor might have even been among them. The place was starting to fill up. And I was starting to get that feeling of dread in the back of my throat. A very large crowd of fight fans was planning their evening around me getting that damned satellite signal. And I was no closer after the better part of two hours, trying everything we could think of.

Flashes of panic crossed my comrades’ faces. These guys were basically hired hands. I was the one who was supposed to know what he was doing.

So I made an executive decision.

“Let’s put it where the wino wants it.” I exclaimed.

Eager for an opportunity to try something, we sprung into action. Assembled, the antenna was a heavy affair. It took the three of us to wrestle it into place. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you we moved the thing less than a yard. I leveled it, swung it towards the satellite and watched the receiver with hope and prayer.

Bingo! I had a green light inside a minute. Joy and relief spread through the team like lightning.

We were ready – before the crowd had swelled and much beer had flowed. I hate to dwell on what could have happened, had we never shot that bird. Although the fight went only three rounds, the fans got their money’s worth. Hagler was cut early and bled through the whole fight. Hearns broke his hand in round one, but stayed alive long enough to have Hagler put his lights out. Everybody went home happy.

The wino saved our bacon.

I didn’t recognize him as an angel that day. But today, I have no doubt.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Beer Soaked Video

A big shout-out to Jeff Linkous of the Beer Stained Letter. Jeff diligently documented our homebrew adventures with the Tun Tavern's brewmaster Tim Kelly and posted a crisp little video.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Hot, Wet & Dirty

By Sal Emma

I always knew homebrewing is hot, wet, strenuous and potentially dangerous work. Today, I know making beer for pay is hot, wet, strenuous – and even more dangerous.

It brings new appreciation for that hoppy IPA or tart saison they’re cooking up at your local brewpub or micro. It’s (almost) like eating king crab after watching “Deadliest Catch” on Discovery. Sure, few brewers pay the ultimate sacrifice for their craft. But you could easily mess yourself up pretty nicely in a brewery.

Whether it’s wear and tear after hand loading a ton of grain or having 220-degree steam melt your face off … the men and women who brew your favorite beer are putting their all into it. Next time you hoist a glass, toast the folks who forced it into existence.

We had an up-close and personal look at all this recently, apprenticed to a patient and gracious tutor, Tim Kelly. Tim’s the brewmaster over at Tun Tavern Brewpub in Atlantic City. And he was saddled with overseeing our attempt to scale up our 1.5 barrel homebrew recipe to 5.5 barrels at the Tun.

Terry Leary and Sal Emma at Tun Tavern, Atlantic City
We won the Tun’s annual homebrew contest. We entered three beers: Bruges Blonde, a Belgian-style golden; Old Coot, a British old ale and Black Hole Porter, a big, hoppy, robust porter. The Black Hole took first, which earned us the privilege of brewing it at Tun. (The Bruges took third, which didn’t win us anything – but it’s kinda cool.)

Picture the scene. After five years on the job, Tim knows every tic and burp of this aging Newlands brewery. He gets it – and routinely churns out delicious varieties in spite of a few bad motors, bum thermocouples and other bits of busted gear. At 15, the brewery is starting to show its age. Tim works it like a musician – and makes it sing.

Into that well-oiled orchestration toss three ogle-eyed homebrewers, all gung-ho to get their boots wet in a real brewery: yours truly; Terry Leary, a retired letter carrier from Marmora; and Terry’s nephew,  Brian Hutchings, an I.T. man from Somers Point.

For days before our scheduled brew, I was fretting over how our romp through Tim's brewery might affect him. Imagine trying to get a day’s work done with a bunch of photo-snapping tourists at your elbow. What a pain in the neck! I had little to worry about. Tim was an amazing host and teacher. I think this can be credited directly to the fact that he started out as a homebrewer. He knows the neurosis from which we suffer, first hand.

It was clear from the minute we walked in that we were the day’s brewers. Tim supervised – to keep us from ruining the beer and destroying ourselves. After that realization, Terry asked, “So, if the beer sucks, it’s our fault?” Tim’s response. “Absolutely.” One of many great laughs throughout the day.

Brewmaster Tim Kelly and apprentice Brian Hutchings
Tim had all the numbers crunched before we arrived, adapting our recipe to his brewhouse. And he let us do just about everything, within the safety margin. We monkeyed with the pump manifold, dipped into a furiously boiling brewpot for a test sample, hoisted 50-lb. sacks of malt, raked out the spent grains, weighed out the hops … the whole nine.

There’s a bit of voodoo in the process. Scaling up a recipe for a different brewhouse is not straightforward. A lot of judgment calls and creative decisions – substituting hops, settling on the various temperatures, for example. But, by day’s end, we had produced a beautifully hopped, rich and roasty brew that was delicious, even unfermented. We could taste potential there.

Now we wait, as it bubbles in Tim’s fermentation room. After dry-hopping and conditioning, it will occupy a tap at Tun in June. And we’ll serve it on the Battleship New Jersey at the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild’s Annual Beer Festival, June 23.

Update: Tim will tap our beer at the Tun the same day as the beer festival, Saturday, June 23. Get yours while it lasts.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lincoln's Jokes

At a recent presentation at the Philadelphia Union League, author and scholar Dr. Gene Griessman provided a rare window into Abraham Lincoln, the man.

Portraying the 16th President, complete in period-correct wardrobe, Griessman told a lot of funny stories. He explained how Lincoln used humor to deflect his somewhat severe appearance. And it became one of his sharpest tactics to disarm adversaries and put his audiences at ease.

Griessman opened his talk with a promise. “I’ll tell you a story or two. And if you laugh, I’ll probably tell two or three more.”

A few examples:

On the subject of age:
You know, I’m over 200 years old. The best thing about that? No peer pressure.
On the subject of appearance:
I sat for a portrait in Mr. Brady’s photographic studio. The assistant charged with making the photograph said, “Just look natural, Mr. Lincoln.” To which I replied, “That is precisely what I am trying to avoid.”
A woman walked up to me and said, “Lincoln, you’re about the ugliest man I’ve ever seen.” I said, “I can’t help it.” She said, “You could stay home.”
On my birthday, folks said the prettiest baby in three counties had just been born. Unfortunately, my father traded that pretty baby for me. And three cows.
On accomplishment:
A small boy approached me the other day. He said, “Mr. Lincoln, you’ve inspired me to become President of the United States.” Well I was flattered and delighted. So I asked, “What exactly did I do to inspire you?” He said, “Nothing … it was something my daddy said. He said if Lincoln could be president, then anybody could.”
On conflict and language:
That reminds me of a little church in the mountains of southern Georgia. A huge rift had formed over the existence of hell. It had split the congregation into two camps, one firmly believing that hell exists and the other, unconvinced. No compromise, no settlement. It got so bad that the skeptics left that church and built their own, just down the road. The minute the last brick on the new church was laid, they erected a sign out front, which read: “There ain’t no hell.” So the other church erected their own sign in reply: “The hell there ain’t.”
On music:
Apparently General Grant is a bit tone-deaf. He told me, “Sir, I can recognize two songs. One of them is Yankee Doodle. The other is not.”
On brevity:
A man had lost his way and asked a local farmer for help. “Does it matter which road I take?” he asked. The farmer replied, “Not to me.” The man said, “Have you lived here all your life?” And the farmer said, “Not yet.” So the man said, “You don’t know much, do you?” To which the farmer replied, “Well, I ain’t the one who’s lost.” So the man asked, “Why did you take an instant dislike to me?” And the farmer said, “Saves time.”
On psychiatry:
A man walked into the psychiatrist’s office and shouted, “Bugs! I’ve got bugs crawling all over me!” And the psychiatrist said, “Well, get out of here, I don’t want them getting on me!”
On death:
I was walking through the churchyard the other day and saw an interesting gravestone inscription. It read:
Behold and see as you pass by;
For as you are, so once was I;
As I am now, so will you be;
Prepare unto death and follow me.
What struck me was the hand-written reply, scratched underneath:
To follow you I'm not content;
Until I know which way you went!

Breakfast with President Lincoln

By Sal Emma

Had breakfast with President Lincoln the other day.

Well, not exactly. It wasn’t a séance. It was Dr. Gene Griessman, author, teacher, actor and raconteur.

A writer who also does public speaking, Griessman does it with a twist. He has built a career becoming Abraham Lincoln. He trims his beard to match his long coat and stovepipe hat.

Greissman addressed a group of business leaders at the Union League in Philadelphia. A member and good friend invited me. And, I have to admit, Greissman surprised me. His schtik wasn’t at all what I expected. Well, not totally, anyway.

If you’ve never been to an event at the Union League, it’s largely paunchy, middle-aged, wealthy Republican WASP guys. I don’t exactly fit in. I’ve got the paunchy, middle-aged bit covered. It’s the wealthy Republican WASP part that makes me a fish out of water. I’m Italian. I have no money. I’m a left-leaning independent. And I don’t own a single $1,000 suit. Imagine Louie de Palma at Jenna Bush’s wedding.

That’s not to say there aren’t folks at the Union League representing other ethnic, religious and political groups. (Women, even!) They’re there. But I think they’re outnumbered.

Considering this gaggle of powerful attorneys, financial advisors, bankers and other opinion-makers, I expected something cheesy, uber-patriotic and over-the-top romantic. Draped in red, white and blue bunting.

Plus, it’s the Union League, for crying out loud. Some within their ranks describe President Lincoln as their “patron saint.” Not a surprise, considering the Union League was founded to support the president during the Civil War.

My worst fears seemed reality when Griessman was introduced as “the 16th President of the United States,” complete with a canned rendition of “Hail to the Chief.” Oh, brother.

But once the music and undeserved standing ovation faded, Griessman surprised me. He talked about Lincoln’s lifelong challenges – as a boy supporting his family, trying to make a living in rough country. His lack of formal schooling. His bouts with depression and melancholia. His feelings of inadequacy. Griessman brought dimension, familiarity and human frailty to a history book character we tend to lionize.

With photographic evidence, we know Lincoln was not the most handsome of presidents. Apparently Lincoln was all too aware of his severe appearance. It was often the root of jokes he is reported to have retold. He used humor to disarm and embrace the people he came in contact with.

Apparently, his reputation as a jokester occasionally got him into trouble. According to Griessman, Lincoln opened a cabinet meeting with a joke shortly after the battle of Antietam. To this day, Antietam remains the bloodiest day in American history – a slaughter of 23,000 Americans. That’s nearly half the total killed over 10 years of America’s involvement in Vietnam, in just one day.

When one of his cabinet members asked how he could possibly laugh at such a time, Lincoln responded: “I laugh to keep from crying.”

As a writer, what intrigued me most was Lincoln’s devotion to the written word and his scholarly treatment of iconic writing, like the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

A bit of trivia: Lincoln read out loud. Seems an odd habit, but it makes sense when you consider his upbringing. There were no public schools in the woods of Kentucky and Indiana where Lincoln spent his formative years. Instead, parents pooled their money to pay a teacher to train their young charges in the three Rs. These humble little log cabin one-room schools earned the nicknamed "blab school." It was common for all the children to recite their lessons, out loud, in unison. It’s said you could hear a blab school a mile away.

In President Lincoln’s case, the payoff was profound. He wrote for the ear, because to him, words were always recited out loud. He learned cadence and rhythm from history’s greatest authors. It made him a better attorney. And it certainly cemented his place as one of the finest writers among those who have held the office of president.

Griessman demonstrated Lincoln's mastery of the spoken word with his most famous speech: the Gettysburg Address. The program turned to cheese again here – but thankfully it was brief. Griessman’s delivery was excellent and should have been unaccompanied, as the original audience heard it. But the presenters succumbed to temptation and put patriotic music behind it, which diluted its impact significantly.

Weighing in at just around 280 words, the speech ran under two minutes. It’s a polished, carefully constructed work of oratory that truly showcases Lincoln's incredible skills. Made more incredible when you realize that he pursued most of his advanced learning on his own, with no college or university.

Following his Lincoln portrayal, Griessman returned as himself, as it were, and spent some time discussing how businesspeople might apply Lincoln's leadership techniques. The entire program was informative and completely enjoyable. Griessman performs the Lincoln show at various gatherings throughout the country. If you have the opportunity to see it, I heartily recommend it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Burned by Scantily Clad Women

By Sal Emma

Every word of what you’re about to read is true. Honest!

Beth, of course, says differently. And she takes great pleasure in telling her side of the story. Here’s what really happened.

On the long drive home from North Carolina after a recent family mini-reunion, we were targeting a spot to walk the pooch and grab a bite. The weather was OK. Sunny and dry, so we opted for the outdoor mall at White Marsh, Md.

As the family’s resident beer snob, I volunteered to pick the venue while Beth and Max took Westmonster for a walk. Lots of choices, but as always, beer selection was the prime motivator. I stuck my head into two or three places. Narrowed it down to the brewpub and, across the way, Tilted Kilt, a chain pseudo-Irish pub.

Let the record show, your Honor, that I’d never before heard of this particular establishment nor had I ever set foot in one before this occasion.

On any day, I’d go with the brewpub. I avoid chain joints like the plague and will almost always opt to enrich the true local economy by patronizing locally owned haunts. But I couldn’t this day. The problem, the place was heavy with the dense and somewhat overwhelming aromas of brewing. Stink, most would say. As a brewer myself, I have only respect for any brewpub trying to make a go of it (especially in such a horrid location as this, a Disneyesque fake main street in a fake mall parking lot.)

But the place was really ripe that day. I could have tolerated it OK but I knew Max would be unhappy, with his more easily offended olfactory sensibility.

So I decided the simulated Irish pub would be the better choice. No malodors to contend with and the beer selection was off the charts. Perfect.

I went back in to inquire about the dog. He’s a service dog in training, so most places understand that they have to let him in under ADA rules. But on very rare occasions, we’ll run up against an uninformed restaurateur who holds his ground, for one reason or another. So out of courtesy, we tend to ask ahead of time instead of barging in and demanding that the place accommodate him. I approached the hostess station.

It’s important to note, your Honor, this object’s construction.

It was a tall wooden box, maybe four and a half feet high. A young woman was standing inside. I could see her neck and head, and little else. I’m not much of a fashionista so I don’t normally notice what people are wearing. But in this case, the cabinetwork obscured her duds so they were completely out of mind. I asked if the service animal would be OK and she was very polite and friendly in her approval. I took a closer look at the beer taps, where I saw the second of only two employees I encoutered during this reconnaissance: a guy in a T-shirt.

Key details, your Honor. Woman in a wooden box. Guy in a T-shirt.

Back outside, I circled around to the bookstore to pick up the rest of the family, satisfied with my scouting mission. We headed back across the pseudo-street and marched through the front door.
At this point, we were immediately approached by a trio of Tilted Kilt representatives, female, bubbly and enthusiastically welcoming.

One thought went through my mind: I am so screwed.

Let’s just say the Tilted Kilt work uniform allows unrestricted views of almost all piercings and tattoos. If you’re not against scantily-clad women, take a look. 

Oh well. Already in deep, no turning back. We sat, settled the dog and I held the giant plank of a laminated Technicolor menu before my nose to avoid eye contact with my wife. It was in vain.

“So. We came here for the beer selection, huh?” came my spouse's incredulous response.

For the foreseeable future, “beer selection” has officially become our family’s euphemism for the architectural features of a pretty, perky and barely contained young woman.

“Wow. Would you look at the beer selection on her?”

And of course Beth won’t think of letting me live it down.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Rubber Pancakes ... crowdsourced!

Yeah, man. We're at the cutting edge now. Crowdsourcing like the best and brightest, web-savvy 20-somethings.

Well. As long as you consider one guy a "crowd."

It was my buddy Denny. Part of my hope in posting the "Anyway" piece was that somebody in our vast global audience would know more about it - since it came to me without writing credit.

Denny nailed it:

It's called "The Paradoxical Commandments for Christians." The author is Kent M. Keith. He wrote it in 1968 when he was 19 and a sophomore at Harvard. It was part of a pamphlet he wrote for high school student leaders. It is now the basis for his book titled "Jesus Did It Anyway."
Keith penned the commandments in the 1960s and they quickly became fodder for the pre-Web Xerox sneakernet. Even Mother Teresa was rumored to have kept a copy.

Mystery solved! Thanks, Denny!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Anyway ...

By Sal Emma

[Postscript: a savvy RP reader recognized the poem, identified the author and taught us more about its origin.]

If there was one day I first began to absorb the amazing power of the World Wide Web, it was probably this one. It came into sharp focus, 20 years after the seed was planted.

My friend and former co-worker Mark reminded me of this little tale in an e-mail exchange yesterday. We were talking about how you try to do the right thing for your friends and neighbors and sometimes you get no thanks for it. Occasionally, your reward for doing somebody a favor is a swift kick in the pants. And we agreed that you have to do the right thing, anyway.

Which reminded me of a 20-year quest for a sentimental little poem.

Those of you old enough to remember a world without e-mail and Facebook might remember the analog version. The network administrators were office workers. The platform: Xerox. And by that I mean the ubiquitous photocopy machine. It was a sneakernet. You made the copy and carried it, on foot, to another who might make a copy of her own. On the network, jokes, cute stories, obscene drawings, bawdy limericks - you name it. All the same crap today's office workers zip around the world at the touch a button. But in those days, it took a little more effort and the network was a bit slower.

They were copies of copies of copies - the IBM Selectric typewriter font swelling to barely-readable Rohrschadt blobs of ink and toner. Most folks pinned these to their cubicle walls for casual observers.

Others - let's call them the bloggers of the pre-Web world - carried them around. Sometimes, full color on coated paper. These guys were serious. When you met one of these characters in the street, he'd say something like "Have I showed you my pride and joy?" Then extract a crinkled snapshot from his wallet for your examination. Really.

I met one of the former variety at a car stereo shop just north of Trenton, N.J. Beth had recently inherited her father's Oldsmobile, a lot like this one. It was about the size of a Korean grocery store and had a really cheesy GM/Delco radio with tinny transistor radio speakers. I decided to ask her to borrow it so I could secretly have a decent sound system installed as a birthday gift. AM/FM/cassette, of course.

I was buddies with one of the guys who worked at the shop which was the only reason they let me hang around during the install. Normally, a place like that will chase the owner away so they can curse at him and make fun of his car when he's not around. The guys at this shop were nothing like that. They went out of their way to be nice to me and were happy to share little trade secrets as they went about their work. At first I thought it was just my connection making the difference - but as the job progressed, it became apparent that one guy in particular really was that nice. He wasn't showing me any special treatment. It was just the way he interacted with everybody.

I was really taken by this guy. His no-questions-asked attitude of treating me like his greatest friend really impressed me. To this day I regret that I never figured out a way to befriend him. But in the 1980s, guys didn't exactly ask other guys for their phone numbers, if you know what I mean. It could send the wrong message.

At some point I had to go into his office for some paperwork. And I noticed one of these 27th generation Xeroxes pinned to his wall among the invoices, receipts and other work trash. It stood out - it might have even been in a frame. I went in for a closer look. It explained everything.

"Wow." I must have said, or something equally pithy and profound. Seeing my reaction, he told me it had become his life philosophy. And it blew me away. I was barely out of my teens and already working hard on cultivating a guarded, skeptical, cynical and somewhat angry-at-the-world mentality. And here was this guy, only a few years older than me, living a completely different kind of outlook.

It would be an overstatement to say that poem changed me. But it sure did stick with me. That entire day would have been forgotten I think, had it not been for the poem moment. My memory is notoriously bad for details of routine happenings three decades ago.

It impressed me. But not enough to prompt me to ask for a copy. Something I wished I had done for decades to come. It wasn't a big deal, nothing earth-shattering. But every three or four years, I'd think of that day, that car, that installer and that poem and think – crap, I wish I'd taken a copy of that thing.

Well, every three or four years quickly turns into 20. That's about how long it took for the poem to find its way back to me, thanks to the World Wide Web.

Somewhere around '99 or 2000, I was telling Mark about it, one day at work. And I thought ... hey, I wonder if anybody has posted it yet. I was skeptical. I could only remember one line of the poem, something about getting kicked in the teeth. But I also remembered a repeating word ... anyway. It was like - if you do this, you'll get that. Do this anyway. And so on. That was all I had.

It was enough. I think I searched "kick teeth anyway." And there it was - the very poem I'd remembered - and forgotten. Another one of those 'a-ha' moments that stick with you. That was the day I fully realized that we were seeing the world change in a gargantuan way, right before our eyes. I probably said "whoa," or something equally pithy and profound.

And here, for your edification, is the poem as I found it that day. It moves around with me and gets installed on each new computer as I upgrade. It's not tacked to my office wall but, like the time I was without it, I think of it every couple of years. When I do, I find it on my hard drive and reread it:


People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest person with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs.
Fight for underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building up may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.
People really need help, but will attack you if you help them.
Help them anyway.
Give the world the best you've got and it may kick you in the teeth.
Give the world the best you've got anyway.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cupcakes: the Tale of Two Moms

By Sal Emma

This isn’t the post I imagined. In my mind’s eye, the cupcakes would be a huge success and I’d silently relish the thought that I’d brightened somebody’s day in a meaningful way.

It didn’t quite turn out like that.

But the lesson’s the same. It’s about doing the right thing for the right reason. So I'm posting it anyway.

A few nights ago, we crawled into bed with our usual routine, capping another hectic day. I flipped on my nerd radio (shortwave). She read. When she turns out the light – the signal is clear. She’s read enough to quiet her brain. She’s going to sleep now. Game over. See you tomorrow.

That’s why her question surprised the hell out of me. There’s never any talking after lights-out.

“When am I going to make the cupcakes?”


“I have to make cupcakes for one of the girls at work. But I don’t know when I’m going to be able to do it.”

Her tomorrow was going to be just as insane as today. Another trip to Philly. A work reunion after that. Teaching karate after that. Barely 10 spare minutes.

This is Beth’s life. She’s not only living the supermom model, she’s defining it for the next generation.

My initial response was logical: “Why do you have to bake cupcakes for one of the girls at work?”

“Because her son’s birthday is Saturday.”

“Why are you baking cupcakes for her son’s birthday?”

“Because I offered to.”


“Because he wanted them and she couldn’t figure out how to make them so she would probably end up getting those crappy ones from the supermarket.”

I shuddered. Those greasy, malodorous sugar-bombs make me cringe. Understanding why anybody would put one anywhere near their mouth is beyond my intellectual capacity.

She had a fair argument. I remained skeptical. But, one thing I’ve learned after 25 years of marriage is that there are times when you have to be very careful to avoid saying the first thing that pops into your head.

This was one such occasion. And this train of thought went through my brain, in silence:

“Are you nuts? You work 50 hours a week. You take care of the house and the kids. You volunteer everyplace. You teach karate. You are fostering a service dog. You’re a Girl Scout leader. Why would you volunteer to bake cupcakes for somebody else’s kid?”

Then, this grenade: “Just because she’s too lazy to bake them herself?”

That was unfair. Below the belt. (Thank God I didn’t say it out loud.)

And then, the amazing thing. After this barrage of stream-of-consciousness cynicism, here’s what I actually said aloud:

“I’ll bake them.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because the kid wants them and I have time.” (Business is slow this time of year, traditionally.)

This was a magical moment. I didn’t volunteer out of a sense of duty, guilt or sympathy. It wasn’t a huffy bit of sarcasm “oh, I guess now it’s my problem …” Anything but.

God simply laid the image of Beth’s friend on my heart. I like her. She’s hard working and funny. She takes good care of her child. She’s from a good family. And she’s a single mom, anything but lazy. It was like the Holy Spirit breathed on the back of my neck and I understood, clear as crystal. Making her cupcakes was exactly the thing that needed to be done, and I was in a position to do it.

It was a blessing I can barely describe with mere words. Because I can guarantee that a few years ago, old Sal – negative, cynical and pissed off at the world – would have not only said all those mean-spirited things, out loud – he would have been completely comfortable with saying them. That's why I am convinced it was a gift from God.

My friend Jim Wilson has been an incredible influence in my life. He’s smart, devoted, funny, hysterically sacrilegious and a true Christian in every sense of the word. I thank God (frequently) for the privilege of calling him a friend – thanks to us stumbling into the coolest little church in Ocean City, N.J. a few years back.

During many discussions of life, family, love, God and grace, Jimmy uses the word available a lot. It’s scripturally based, this idea that you simply lay your day at God’s feet and have him use you as he sees fit. Most of us fail in this, most of the time. (And when I say “us,” of course, I mean “me.”)

Living as a Christian is like anything else. Work, play, marriage, music, riding a bike. You get better at it with time. You stick with it, through fear, doubt, lean times and dark moments and you hope that God is real and that the Holy Spirit really does walk among us as we go about our daily business. You make a commitment to stay ‘available’ to God – and hope for the best. And you ask that he give you opportunities to be salt and light in the world.

Volunteering to bake those cupcakes was that opportunity, sure as shootin’. Inside a tenth of a second – the time it took my brain to conjure up all those negative things I could have pontificated aloud – God tapped on my shoulder. And I made my offer, freely, in love and without a scrap of resentment or hesitation. I couldn’t wait to bake them. (Maybe in the future, I'll go right to the offer and skip the bellyaching!)

So, I know what you’re thinking. How did the cupcakes turn out? I’m sure they’re great. But I didn’t make them. Beth found 27 spare minutes between karate and lights-out and made them herself. While I was out of the house in a meeting. She’s a sneaky supermom, on steroids.

And another true Christian, in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Most Amazing Thing I Ever Ate

By Sal Emma

How good the food is depends a lot on how hungry you are. A road trip brought that lesson into high relief.

We had newly minted drivers’ licenses – so it was probably 1979 or thereabouts. Knowing my love for the natural world and wildlife, my Uncle Mike had given me a unique birthday gift: a trip on a whale watching boat, launched from the shores of Massachusetts. He paid my way and that of a buddy of my choosing. I chose my lunatic best high-school pal, Chris.

Today, you can find a whale watcher in just about any seashore town. But in those days, they were few and far between. Uncle Mike had found one somewhere south of Boston. Chris and I got up before the crack of dawn and started making our way north from New Jersey.

The trip was supreme. We had a fine time, free from our parents, busting chops and taking turns driving – munching sandwiches and solving the problems of the world along the way. Uneventful, except for the dark clouds that kept getting darker.

The boat package must have included admission to the now-defunct whaling museum in Sharon, Mass. We arrived there in snickers, posing for photos by the sign at the town limit: “Entering Sharon.” The double entendre, priceless to a couple of testosterone-crazed teenagers. (The new signs says “Welcome to Sharon,” by the way. Wimps.)

After a quick run through the museum, we hopped back in the car to make our way to the water’s edge. The sky grew darker. At the dock, we learned the boat would sail, rain or shine. We were relieved we hadn’t missed the chance after traveling so far. Then reality set in. We’re going out in this? Neither of us showed an iota of fear. We were invincible teenagers. And we were heading out with a bunch of invincible Massachusetts watermen. What could go wrong?

The rain and wind never let up. It was six-to-eight foot seas with almost no visibility. A big vessel (by canoe standards) it wasn’t so big against the north Atlantic. The boat heaved. And so did the passengers. I don’t think we were a half-mile out before the chumming began.

As anyone who has been in the situation can attest – vomit is extremely contagious. Once somebody leans over the rail to commit the contents of his stomach to the deep – others follow, like so many helpless dominoes.

Chris and I were determined to keep our sea legs.

An hour later, just about everybody on the boat was sick. The decks were awash in detritus of a most vile variety. The torrents of rain were a blessing, washing much it out the scuppers. We were freezing, soaked and barely holding on. But we made it, by the grace of God and our particular obsession with Monty Python.

We stood close. We put our hoods up, blinders against the backdrop – a scene of horror right out of Hieronymous Bosch. And we tried to recite every word of every Monty Python sketch we’d ever heard. It worked. Neither of us lost breakfast. Chris, a fisherman practically from birth, went even farther. He was the only guy on the boat buying stuff from the snack bar and eating it. Iron constitution.

I didn’t dare eat. I feared the slightest stimulation of the digestive tract would surely send it churning in the wrong direction. I toughed it out, never moving from the steel column to which I clung in the tempest, like a street drunk married to his lamppost. I hugged it and sang: “spam, spam, spam, spam, spam …”

And I never puked.

Nor did we see a whale. One could have jumped up and sat on the transom, smoking a Cuban cigar. Between the fog, the downpour and the hood-blinders, I never would have known.

Four or six or 46 hours later, who knows how long, the captain called it quits and motored back to port, to a feeble cheer of relief from his green, green cargo. We docked and a tangle of human wreckage staggered from the slick steel deck to terra firma, their color slowly returning to normal shades. The sick – dehydrated and stinking like yesterday’s diapers. Chris and I – wet, cold and on top of the world. We relished our victory over Davey Jones.

The minute my feet touched solid ground I realized I was absolutely starved. I hadn’t had a thing since breakfast and it was way past dinner. We ran to the car, dodging raindrops and laughing hysterically over what we had just experienced. Let’s get the hell out of here, fast.

The rain was coming even harder, but now it was dark. Through the windshield wiper streaks, we spotted the red neon: DINER.

Chris was spinning the steering wheel before I said a word. We were of one mind: all we wanted was a warm, dry place to sit down and catch our breath. Food would be nice, too.

We stumbled into the place, dripping. It was a cozy little locals’ haven of avocado Formica and cold fluorescent light. The waitress motioned us to an empty booth. By the looks of us, she probably had little trouble knowing exactly the word we most wanted to hear: “coffee?”

“Y-yes. Anything h-hot.”

Then, this Angel of God spoke the second most beautiful word I’d heard that day: “chowder?”

Our coffee cups were filled nearly instantly and we practically poured the stuff down our throats. Boy, was that good.

Then, a minor miracle. The chowder. In nondescript diner soup cups, perched in saucers adorned with a stamped paper doilies. Though we were surprised to get the Manhattan variety, in this neighborhood, it was surely the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

We went at it like a couple of starving prisoners. Plump little clam strips, rich tomato broth, succulent chunks of tomato, corn and a few kidney beans – every bit of this soup was sublime. With saltines crushed on top – it was savory, satisfying warmth in orchestrated ensemble, more wonderful than anything Leonard Bernstein ever etched on vinyl.

My God! It was the best thing I ever ate! Had I been a few decades older, I might have cried. (That’s saying a lot for a kid who grew up Italian, surrounded by chefs of most admirable gifts.)

But at that moment, cold, wet and as hungry as I’d ever been, it was so good, so warm, so perfect – it really was the best thing I’d ever eaten. Was it the best clam chowder ever made? I have no idea. It might have been. Or it could have come from a big tin can, for all I know.

To my palate, desperate for nourishment after a long, cold fast – it was nectar of Mount Olympus. I can still taste it, 30 years later. I have no idea what else we ordered that night. But the chowder is chronicled in my brain forever.

For days, Uncle Mike was upset about the whole thing. He had formed a mental image of us oohing and aahing “thar she blows” training binoculars on majestic leviathans, basking in the New England sun. It didn’t quite turn out that way. But, as I told him then, we had a terrific time.

And I’ll never forget that chowder.