Remember When All Ice Cream Was Real Ice Cream?

I could not believe what I was seeing.  I rubbed my eyes, but it was still there:  Yet another ice cream shop claiming to be “the only real ice cream.”  This particular establishment’s claim to reality was based on its use of milk from cows that had not been fed hormones – that, and, I imagine, the scandalous prices it charged.

Doesn’t it seem like there has been a proliferation of these ice cream shops claiming to have the only “real” ice cream?  How can there be only one real ice cream?  If this ice cream was the only real ice cream, what had I been eating before?

ice cream cone being eaten

I did some research from my couch. Reality is not as simple as these retailers of ice cream had led me to believe.  One thing was for certain: a lack of growth hormones was not the only definition of reality.  This knowledge was comforting, but it had to be put to the test.  I would have to open my own ice cream shop based upon what I had learned.

The Real Deal (the only REAL ice cream!) opened up to as much fanfare as I could muster on a single Facebook post that took me two seconds to compose.  And a sign with this message greeted customers:

The ice cream is real because you believe it is real.  

It was an instant success.  Before long, the lines were out the door and I had to instruct my employees to be extra rude to keep it from getting too crowded.  I had a monopoly on real ice cream and I didn’t even know what flavors we had – it didn’t matter! 

At least, not until a competitor opened up across the street, claiming to have “the only really real ice cream” around.  I put on a disguise, and went to see what made this ice cream real.  At the entrance was a sign:

The ice cream is real because you can feel it and taste it.  

I bought a small cone – I couldn’t believe what they were charging for a small – and tasted it.  Yes, the tasting of the ice cream did seem more real than merely thinking about it.  My customers had left for this competitor, and who could blame them?   

After negotiating an expensive licensing agreement with the new ice cream shop to use their feel/taste formula for making real ice cream, I was glad to be back as a player in the market for real ice cream.  And my customers came back…for a day.  Because then yet another competitor opened.

No Ice Cream Is Real had lines out the door.  Once again in my disguise, I waited on line and when I got to the entrance there was a large sign:

No ice cream is real because no ice cream can prove it is real.  

And there was no ice cream for sale.  Instead, the refrigerated bins behind the diagonal glass panes were filled with slips of paper – paper of every color and thickness, with a small basket of pencils at the register – so that people could work out for themselves why no ice cream is real and therefore satisfy their craving for something that did not exist. 

And outside there were picnic tables where customers were sitting and working out on the slips of paper why no ice cream could prove it was real.  Some of them had the paper in a cone, and others in a cup. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves proving why real ice cream does not – nay, cannot – exist. It was such a simple and beautiful idea.  I could see why everyone wanted unreal ice cream from this place; it was truly the only place for real unreal ice cream.  And you would not believe what they were charging for a slip of paper.

Remember Twinkies?

The archaeologists were done for the day.  It was getting dark and Happy Hour at the Drunken Pick Axe lasted just until 7:00 p.m., after which time the drinks were served only in plastic cups, a prospect most of the dig team found unrefined.  The young graduate student, formally named Byron Russelbeard III, but who had somehow earned the nickname Spacecake, was putting away the tools when he noticed a little yellow object protruding from the inner wall of the large hole in the ground.

He stuck his head up out of the hole and waved for the others to come over, but they responded with pantomimed drinking motions, and kept walking away.

Spacecake turned back to the object.  Proper procedure would have been to note its size, color, and position in the log book and then cover it up with a paper towel.  But his laptop had already started downloading the latest version of iTunes, and paper had been extinct for many years.

And Spacecake was curious.  The yellow object was wrapped in a clear plastic shell that was malleable to the touch, and Spacecake was induced with a sudden desire to eat it.

“That’s crazy,” he said to himself, but still the object called to him.  Inside of a minute Spacecake had dug out the object and placed it in his pocket and was walking away with a nonchalant whistle he had seen someone do in a movie.

Spacecake returned to his room and took the object out of his pocket and examined it with his penlight.  He turned on his pocket recorder.

“Oblong object,” he spoke into the recorder, “about six inches long, a continuous height of two inches, and a continuous width of slightly less than two inches.  Appears to be made of a yellow cake-like substance and wrapped in thin transparent plastic…late 20th or early 21st Century.”  He examined the object’s underside.  “Ventral surface shows three white dots, regularly spaced lengthwise.”  He looked closer.  “The white substance is creamy.  I want to eat it.”

He snapped off the recorder.  What was the last thing he had said?  That he wanted to eat it?  He replayed the recording.  Yes, he had said he wanted to eat the object.

“But that’s crazy,” he said.  “I mean, it’s an artifact, buried under earth for many—”

There was a noise outside.  Kind of like a scratching, like someone—or something—was trying to find a way inside.  Spacecake dropped the recorder on his bed and covered up the object.  He opened the door and looked outside.

“Hello?” he said into the darkness.  “Who’s there?”  He could hear his heart pounding and he was sweating.  He shut the door slowly.

“Probably just the wind,” Spacecake said aloud, and laughed nervously.  He ran his hand through his hair and exhaled.

He uncovered the object.  The yellow cake—he was convinced now that it was cake—glowed under the small light and Spacecake was again filled with a desire to eat it.  That would be a serious breach of archaeological ethics.  For years he had studied and worked to get this chance to be on the most elite team of Apatosaurus diggers in the world.  Taking the object out of the hole was bad enough.  To unwrap it would throw all that hard work away.

Spacecake unwrapped the object, peeled back the plastic, and took a bite.  Oh ecstasy!  He had never tasted anything like it.  It was pure sweetness with no nutritional value.  It was the most wonderful thing he had ever tasted.  His mind was so overwhelmed by the explosion of taste that he did not hear the door open and the footsteps coming up behind him and the blunt object hitting him over the head.  As all went black, Spacecake was still moving the yellow cake and white cream around his mouth and savoring the taste.

 *          *          *

“Whatever it was, it was quick and painless,” the detective said, staring at Spacecake’s lifeless body lying on the floor.  “Look at that smile on his face.”

“But the configuration of his hand…it looks like he had been holding something when…when it happened,” the program director said.

“Maybe that was what his killer was after.”

“But what could it be?”

“I guess we’ll never know,” the detective said.

The program director nodded, took one last look at what had once been his most promising graduate student, and walked towards the door.  The detective held the door open, and then shut it gently behind them, leaving the body completely alone…save for the small, unnoticed, pocket-sized recorder laying on the bed.

Remember Life Before Greek Yogurt?

When I was a kid, I remember that there were two kinds of yogurt.  There was the kind with the fruit at the bottom, and the kind where the fruit was already mixed up with the white yogurt.  I liked the kind with the fruit at the bottom, so that I could eat small spoonfuls of the white yogurt until I saw the deep colors of the fruit, and pretend that I was an archeologist dairy.

Today it seems like the yogurt of those days is out of style, and has been supplanted by Greek yogurt.  I admit that the containers of Chobani have taken over so much of my own refrigerator that I hardly have enough room for the 5.0 liter box of wine.  And with good reason—the yogurt is delicious, and I can feel the active cultures improving my digestion and reading comprehension.  One website ( even touts its products as containing the qualities of the gods.  But how did Greek yogurt come to be?

According to legend, Epimetheus, who was a Titan until he was traded to the Jets as a third-string quarterback, was entrusted with equipping all of the creatures, including humans, with whatever they would need to survive in a very dangerous and expensive world.  To birds he gave beaks, to rabbits he gave speed, to elephants he gave size, to house cats he gave cute faces and arrogance.  He was satisfied with the job he had done, and planned to reward himself with a whole season of Dawson’s Creek on DVD.

His twin brother, Prometheus, came up behind Epimetheus, flicked his ear, and said, “What are you up to, Epilady?”

“Don’t call me that, Prometheus.”

“Oh, and what are you going to do about it?  Tell Dad?”

Epimetheus didn’t reply.  Prometheus seemed to always know what to say, whereas Epimetheus never thought of a good retort until days later.

“So these are the celebrated humans?” he asked Epimetheus.

“Yes,” Epimetheus said, and smiled, proud that finally he had done something that Prometheus had not.  Let’s see him criticize me now, Epimetheus thought.

Then Prometheus said, “The humans have no yogurt.”

“What do you mean?  They have yogurt right there.  See that man scraping the inside of the container, trying to get the last bit of fruit?  It’s an annoying sound, I know, but—”

“What I meant is that they don’t have Greek yogurt,” Prometheus said.

“Greek yogurt?  But that’s just for the gods.  Dad said that Zeus keeps it…”

“Who cares what Dad said?  What are we, little kids?  Little Titanettes?  Remember when I called you a Titanette, and made you dress up like a little ballerina?”

“Yes, Prometheus.  I do.”

“And then you cried in front of all the gods?  Oh, how I miss that Golden Age.  But listen, I think these humans could use Greek yogurt.”

Greek yogurt was indeed reserved for deities, which, along with incest and turning themselves into aquatic birds, ranked among the gods’ favorite pastimes until Dancing With the Stars came around.  Zeus, the king of all the gods and keeper of the remote control, had deemed Greek yogurt too tangy and creamy for mere mortals, so he kept it locked up in his safe with his thunderbolts and auto insurance policy.

One afternoon, Prometheus crept into Zeus’ room while the safe was open.  Zeus was trying to decipher the supplemental coverage clause in his policy and reached over to his telephone to call his carrier, and had his back turned to the open safe.  So Prometheus crept in, grabbed the Greek yogurt from the safe, and gave it to the humans while Zeus was still listening to all the choices on the menu.  The humans were then able to enjoy the tangy and creamy food, but with greater nourishment and active cultures.  Equipped with numerous and diverse bacteria, humans became the masters of the planet, and soon filled the Earth with their offspring and their offspring’s music.

As punishment, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock, and every day a bird would come by, eat his liver, and chastise Prometheus for not getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids.  This went on until Heracles persuaded Zeus to replace Prometheus with Charlie Sheen.

Remember Being 13 and Drunk?

My wife and I were dining at a popular Italian restaurant the other night.  As I worked through my third bowl of salad, I learned from my wife, who in college had minored in eavesdropping, that the girl in the booth next to us was 13 years old, and had accidentally been served an alcoholic beverage.  She was with her mother, who was standing up and looking around as if waiting for an ambulance to arrive.  The girl was fanning herself and looking like she wished she hadn’t said anything.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be 13 years old and consume an alcoholic beverage.  I became Bar Mitzvah at 13, and after the ceremony one my peers became inebriated by consuming several of the plastic thimbles that the congregation used to sanctify the Sabbath.  He spent the next few hours pretending he was a helicopter.  I think he does something with computers now.

The mother at the Italian restaurant, however, was clearly not at any Bar Mitzvah.  Eventually someone came and talked to her, a manager-type dressed in plainclothes and who looked like she was in the position to authorize free meals.  She looked to be about 25 years old.  She spoke to the mother while the teenage daughter fanned herself and tried to piece her life back together after a few sips of a weak strawberry mojito.  After a few minutes the manager left, and I figured that the woman would probably get a free meal out of the deal.  Good for her, I thought, as I signaled for another strawberry mojito.

Then another manager came and talked to the woman and her drunk daughter.  “Probably trying to get a dessert to go out of this, too,” I mused as the front-end loader lowered my entrée onto the table.

I was absorbed in stuffing my face for a few minutes, and forgot about the underage drinking at the adjacent booth.  But when I came up for air from my lasagna-cum-linguine alfredo-cum-chicken parmigiana, I saw that the mother and her daughter were still there, and that the mother had moved over to her daughter’s side of the booth, so that both were facing in my direction.  I was a little surprised they were still there, since at this point the girl must have been sober enough to drive.

Then the first manager came back and spoke with the mother for some time, and then the mother and her daughter got up and I figured, “Okay, that’s really it then.  The manager was just making sure the girl was sober and did not sustain the kind of damages that would lead to diminution in future earning capacity.”

Then a police offer walked through the front door.  And then another police officer.  I couldn’t see what the officers were doing, but I imagined it was not choosing two of the four listed sides on the menu.

I didn’t see the ambulance pull up in front of the restaurant, but we passed it on our way to the parking lot.  As we walked by, the back doors of the ambulance opened and the mother, her daughter, and a man with a button down shirt and a clipboard alighted.  I took the man to be a doctor or perhaps an adjuster from the insurance company.

My eyes locked with the mother’s eyes for a moment.  In that moment I tried to communicate all my respect for a parent who was so concerned about her child that for even a few sips of alcohol arranged for two sheriffs and an ambulance.  I tried to tell her that she was the embodiment of the rugged individualism that made this country great.

And in return, her look said to me, “Go eat your salad.”  Only not in those words.

Remember Mad Cow Disease?

I am going on holiday, so luckily for all of you there won’t be any new columns here next week.  The horror resumes May 10.

I hear that mad cow disease is back for the first time since 2006.  Ah, 2006.  The year the iPhone was released, putting millions of other cell phones out of work.  Cell phones that have long since run out of unemployment benefits and are now taking odd jobs such as cleaning gutters and producing reality television shows.

When I heard about mad cow disease in those days, I pictured cows sitting in their living rooms with scowls on their faces.  A bull comes in from the kitchen with a beer and newspaper.

“What’s wrong honey,” he asks his wife, who is sitting on the couch and looking upset.

“Oh, nothing,” she says, looking away.

“Really?  You’re not mad about anything?”

“No really.  I’m not.”

“I don’t know, honey.  Usually this means you’re mad about something.  Is it because I wore that wrinkled shirt to your parents’ last night?”


“I knew it.  Look, I told you, I was in a rush.  That old McDonald has been breathing down my neck about those reports, and I just didn’t have time.  Okay?”  He takes a sip of his beer.  “Well…I’m going back in the kitchen.”

But no, apparently the “mad” of the mad cow disease, aka bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is characterized more by a cow’s inability to stand.  In male humans, this symptom takes the form of an inability to mow the lawn or check that the garage door is locked, even though it was checked an hour ago and the male human is already in bed and half asleep.

A major concern with mad cow disease is controlling its spread.  This is accomplished by not feeding cattle meat to other cattle.  But a glitch in the system is that cattle meat may be fed to pigs, whose meat is in turn fed to other cattle.  And then those cattle are fed to humans at steak restaurants, many of which give a choice of two sides, or sometimes two helpings of the same side, but never any substitutions.

Of course, the most important question surrounding mad cow disease, more than the beef industry or whether the safety record of triple-decker cheeseburgers will be besmirched, is the name.  Wikipedia is entertaining input as to whether “Bovine spongiform encephalopathy” should be re-filed under “Mad-cow disease.”  I support the change.  As much as I like the way “spongiform encephalopathy” rolls off my tongue and bespatters the face of the person I’m talking to, I don’t think the scientific terminology would have captured the public’s attention the same way.

Because everyone knows what “mad” means.  Everyone has been mad at one point or another.  Maybe people are mad just reading this blog post.  And I’m sure that they would have classified a “mad human disease” a long, long time ago, had it not been apparent that the infection rate would be close to 100%, and that there would be no cure.

Remember When Sugar Wasn’t the New Cocaine?

Last week Sixty Minutes aired a segment titled “Is Sugar Toxic?” that reported scientific evidence that the added sugar in various foods causes a variety of ailments such as heart disease, cancer, and looking like a whale.  One neuroscientist, Eric Stice, stated that his studies show that the effects of sugar on the brain are similar to the effects of cocaine.  I pictured frenzied people tapping out Domino packets onto pocket mirrors and snorting lines with plastic coffee stirrers.

When did sugar get to be so dangerous?  Was it really that bad?  I remembered summer camp when a fellow camper put 19 packets of sugar into her tea and spent the rest of the day in a spin-art machine.

Years ago, when I was a young and impressionable smart-aleck, Nancy Reagan told me to “Just Say No” to drugs.  “It stands to reason,” I said to myself after the Sixty Minutes segment ended and segued into a commercial for Keebler fudge cookies, “that if they were still printing those green t-shirts with the ‘Just Say No’ printed with the line across it, sugar would be included in the campaign.”  I decided that I was going to clean myself up for good, and eliminate sugar from my diet.

That night I created a “Quitting Sugar” event on Facebook and announced to my friends and family that I was quitting sugar, and that under no circumstances were they to give me any, even if I asked them pretty please with sugar on top.  I had one last sugar blow out in my kitchen, feasting on Kit-Kats and Pixie Stix and the candy corn left my basement by the previous owners of the house.

The next morning I grabbed a giant garbage bag and went around collecting oatmeal creme pies and Yodels and pretty much anything that came individually enclosed in a little clear plastic wrapper.  I took the giant bag out to the garage, recited a farewell sonnet to Little Debbie, and then spent the next hour trying to figure out if the products should be placed in a landfill.

The first few days without sugar were not that bad.  I have an armchair that is really good for gripping, and there is a clinic nearby that dispenses free doses of Equal, no questions asked.  But the addict does not die so quickly.

I started inventing reasons so that I could just “so happen” to have to put sugar in my food.  “Isn’t tilapia supposed to be eaten with maple syrup?” I asked my wife over dinner.  “I’m pretty sure I saw that on Rachel Ray.  I don’t make the rules.”  I would suggest an office ice cream party as a team-building exercise, and then resign myself to eating ice cream since there is no “diet” in team.  I said that I just ate sugar at parties, and then crashed the birthday party that my neighbors were throwing for their 4-year-old son, attacking the cake in the kitchen while he was opening his presents.

Yesterday I came home to an intervention.  My family members each read pieces they had written about how my sugar addiction had torn me away from them and made it hard to fit my entire body in the viewfinder of their cameras.  There was a professional counseler in the room, who patted me down for sucking candies and then explained how my family was sending me to rehab where I could get the help I needed.

And that is where I am right now.  I just finished picking at the plate of broccoli they slid under the door, and in a few minutes I’m going to a group session where I and the other residents will talk about the nightmares and shakes and disgusting taste of plain water.  I know I can’t expect instant results.  But as long I never enter a supermarket or restaurant again, I know my future’s looking bright.

Remember When Mr. Coffee Was the Only Coffee Maker?

The mustachioed man in the center of the room took a drag of his electric cigarette and began his story.

“Beatrice bought me a Mr. Coffee when we had first started dating.  This was before we were married.  Up until that time I had to get my coffee by crashing the lobbies of Holiday Inns and taking advantage of the complimentary coffee they serve to people they believe are guests.  The Mr. Coffee changed my life.  Just put in the filter, scoop a few scoops of coffee, and pour in the water.  So easy a caveman could do it.

“But an easy life has a way of becoming more complicated, and married people have a way of become less married.  One day Beatrice was gone, and it was Janice in my life with pouty lips and Cuisinart coffee brewer that grinded coffee beans and kept track of appointments.  I thought that this was the one, the coffee brewer that would make coffee that when I drank it, I could taste it, just like Quentin Tarantino’s character in ‘Pulp Fiction.’

“Yet it was not to be.

“When the thrill of assembling the seventeen-pieces of the grinder/feeder/cannon at 6:00 a.m. had worn off, I realized that the Cuisinart grinder was too high-maintenance.  Time to say toodle-oo.”

He took another drag of his cigarette and adjusted his scarf, and I remembered that I was supposed to be taking notes.  I had a notebook but nothing to write with except a pink highlighter.  I wrote with it anyway.  Beggars cannot be choosers.

The mustachioed man continued.

“I brought Mr. Coffee back from the basement and used it instead of the Cuisinart.  When Janice asked me what I was doing, I told her that the Cuisinart was too complicated and poured in a dollop of my Silk soy creamer.  The next day there was a Dear John next to the filters, and Mr. Coffee and I were alone again.  But not for long.

“Noreen moved in with a French Press.  It had been a gift from her mother for learning how to reply to the sender of group emails without replying to all.  The French Press may have made excellent coffee.  I would not know because I never figured out how to use it.  I did not get any coffee, and succeeded only in proving Boyle’s Law with respect to Medium Roasts.

“Grimka—oh, Grimka!  I remember your big eyes.  Your graceful, slender back and tendency to give answers in the tone of a question.  But mainly I remember your percolator.  One of the two tenets by which I lived my life was that the more cups of coffee you made at once, the better the coffee tasted.  The other tenet was that the the Powell family episodes of “Charles in Charge” better than the Pembroke family episodes.

“The percolator was so easy to use and made delicious coffee.  But when I dumped the grinds down the garbage disposal, for two nights running the garbage disposal could not get to sleep, and had to keep getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.

“This time,” said the mustachioed man, unfolding, smoothing out, and then refolding his monogrammed pocket handkerchief, “I skipped that phase where there’s two coffee machines on the counter at once.  One day it was the percolator, and the next it was Mr. Coffee.  Grimka saw it, glared at me once, and then walked out of my life, sending her cat back for her clothes and Playstation 3.

“I knew then that I would never switch from Mr. Coffee to another coffee-making device.  Even if the device cleaned itself.  Even if the coffee tasted good.  Nothing would pry me from grips of my friend, my Mr. Coffee.

“Until I met Penelope.  We spent many weekends and holidays together.  I’ve never felt so close to anyone in my life.  True, Penelope was just a peel-off hologram that came with a bottle of Metamucil Fiber Caplets.  But she told me about the Keurig single-serve coffee.  I tried it and I have to admit, I love it.  You just pop in a cartidge, push a button, and drink.  The only thing to clean up is the little single-serve cartridge.  No filters.  No grinds.  No required data plans.  That coffee machine is the best thing that has ever happened to my morning.

“Of course, I could not say this to Mr. Coffee.  After all our years together, I did not want to break his heart.  So at first I put the Keurig on the counter next to Mr. Coffee, but a little ways back.  And I would use the Keurig only two days a week, and sometimes on the weekend.  Then I stopped using Mr. Coffee but kept using the Keurig the same amount.  Then I kind of turned Mr. Coffee away, towards the commemorative plate collection, so that he wouldn’t see that I was using the Keurig five to seven times a week.

“And then one day, I had company coming over, and needed to make room on the counter for someone’s apricot trifle.  I had to prioritize my kitchen appliances, and it was clear that Mr. Coffee was not going to make the cut.  I covered his brew basket with a paper towel, took him in my arms, and carried him down to the basement where he would live out its days on a plastic shelf next to the newspaper-fueled mixing bowl my entomologist got me for Christmas.

“I don’t regret my decision.  But sometimes, just sometimes, when I’m asleep, I think I hear something in the kitchen, like the sound of a plastic brew basket cutting a black electric cord.  I run downstairs but see nothing but the Keurig, safe and sound.  And I walk up to it, and put my arms around it, and whisper into its blue LCD screen that as long as we’re together, everything’s going to be all right.”

Remember When No One Cared Where Their Food Was From?

When I was a kid I didn’t care where my food was from as long as it wasn’t from off the floor.  Food falling on the floor is one of the worst things that can happen to you in elementary school.  In later years we would learn about the “five second rule,” which I once mixed up with the “five minute rule” and almost got left back for poor attendance.  But in elementary school, if there had been a little more room on those menus magneted to every refrigerator in the land, the description of the lunches would say something like “Not Dropped On the Floor Sloppy Joe.”

At restaurants today it is taken for granted that food is not dropped on the floor, or that if it is, no one will tell you about it.  Instead, the menus emphasize the geographic origin of the ingredients.  Everyone wants to know if the vegetables are locally grown, or if the chickens were raised on local farms, enjoying the fresh local air and tasty local feed, taking in the local theater and shopping at the local boutiques, before their necks were wrung ever so humanely.

Wikipedia describes the local food movement as a “collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies—one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.”  There is a Taco Bell five minutes from my home that I’ve often relied upon, parking my car behind the dumpster so that my wife wouldn’t see it while she shops for fresh vegetables and couscous.  But I don’t think that’s what they mean.

My first exposure to the local food movement was when my wife and I attended a farmer’s market near our home.  The vendors had set up tables with their wares, and offered so many free samples of local tomatoes, local cheese, local bread, and local meat, that it was not long before I was looking for the local bathroom.

One table was offering locally made gourmet peanut butter.  The options were far beyond the traditional chunky and smooth.  There was chocolate-pretzel peanut butter, cookie-dough fudge peanut butter, jalapeño peanut butter.  We were impressed.  Then I looked at the price tag, and realized why choosy moms choose Jif.  Panko-crusted animal-cracker peanut butter mixed with goat cheese and leeks may be great for dinner parties, but I had to conserve my cash for the parking attendant.

Local food, however, is about much more than nutrition and economics.  There is controversy about what constitutes “local.”  The United States Congress, in the 2008 Farm Act, defined “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as less than 400 miles from its origin.  That means that “local” covers an area of 502,655 square miles, or, as Tom Hanks’s character in “Cast Away” would have put it, “twice the size of Texas.”  Under that definition, I could secure a lot more free time by telling my wife I’m going out to run a few local errands.

I’m no member of Congress, but, to me, “local” implies that a chicken could have its head cut off and still be running around in my shopping cart when I’m swiping my frequent shopper card.  Politics is truly the art of compromise.

But these lofty concepts and global disputes rarely affect my daily life.  I eat whatever food I can find in the refrigerator or cupboard, with no thought of the journey it took to my gullet, and whether it paid tolls with E-Z Pass.  The only time the local movement enters my decision-making process is when I’m at a restaurant, and I am given the choice between meats raised on local farms or meats from origins unknown.  It is such a hard decision to make, that I already know I’m going to be reaching for antacids later on that night…antacids that are, fortunately, the most local food of all—right on the nightstand, next to my bed.

Of Ice and Men

A few weeks ago I came across a story about a turf battle between two ice cream truck drivers in Pennsylvania.  Evidently one of the drivers tried to run the other drivers off the road.

Image courtesy of Roadsidepictures via Flickr

In my investigation of the webpage reporting the incident, I found this comment posted by a “Miss Polly,” the wife of the victimized driver (all quoted material is sic) :

Hi Everyone, this is Miss Polly, I am the owner of the Ice Cream truck that actually called the police because the other Driver ran my husband off the road and almost hit children…The other driver has ran me off the road in another instance last year….[and] is intimidated by a female. I would never let my kids get ice cream off the trucks in our neighborhood b/c they were so scary lookingAnd so you all know…we are the ONLY ice cream truck business licensed in Uniontown, Pa…the other owner is not licensed and is operating illegally. The permit office is sending him a complaint letter. If you would like to see pics of our truck, us, our children and our fans, visit us on Facebook 🙂

Does anything arrest a child’s attention like the music of an ice cream truck coming down the street?  During summer evenings, it did not matter how deep we were into a Monopoly game, or large random hole in the backyard; we would drop our little plastic hotels or little plastic shovels, shake down the closest adult, and run out to meet the truck, screaming “ice cream man” and shoving slower kids out of the way.

As I reflect on those innocent days, when the ice cream cost under a dollar, and could be consumed with digestive impunity, I try to imagine what it would have looked like to see another ice cream truck coming down the street in the opposite direction at the same time.

The first signal would be the music.  The same tune would crackle from the trucks’ speakers – Scott Joplin’s ragtime classic, “The Entertainer” – but one measure out of phase, so that as the two trucks converged in front of my home, the dissonance would intensify, signaling that something dramatic was about to happen, and that there would be more than enough Bubble O’Bills with the red gumball nose to go around.

But instead of stopping, the two trucks would accelerate towards each other.  Out of each driver’s-side window would emerge a lance in the shape of a waffle cone.  The change in my hand would grow sweaty as I watched the ice cream men joust on my street.

Time would slow down.  My friends and I would look from one truck to the other, and instead of the loud engine and crackly ragtime, we would hear galloping horses and the drums and strings from the Battle of Stirling scene in Braveheart.  And one of the drivers – the one who came everyday, the one we knew and loved, the one who I had shortchanged on more than one occasion and who never called me out or told my mother – shouts to his enemy:

“You may take my route…but you’ll never take my Good Humor!”

Then each lance would pierce the opposite windshield, and the two trucks would collide and be annihilated instantly, like matter meeting anti-matter in a particle accelerator, leaving us kids with a puff of smoke, and a scattered and smoldering pile of Pop Rocks, over which we would fight to the death.  Or until our parents called us in, whichever came first.

And to mark the end of an era, we would keep the money meant for ice cream, and never speak a word about it.

Did an ice cream truck grace your neighborhood?  Did you run out to meet the truck like your pants were on fire?

Remember Happy Meals?

Remember Happy Meals?

I do.

All meals have the potential to be happy, at least the ones that do not contain kale or anything else that belongs on a tree.  But a Happy Meal can come only from McDonald’s.

Image courtesy of Cosmic Kitty via Flickr

A Happy Meal was designed for children.  The food of the Happy Meal, to the extent it could be called food, was no more or less happy than a regular meal at McDonald’s.  If you counted the effects of age on the alimentary canal, the food was probably much happier for children.

The Happy Meal’s happiness was in the packaging.  The burger and fries came in a little cardboard box with artwork and puzzles on the sides, and closed up at the top with a handle in the shape of double arches.  Inside the box, alongside the meal, was a toy, a small plastic piece of junk that would spend ten minutes in my hands, and 10,000 years in my parents’ basement.

I insisted upon Happy Meals every time.  The design and theme of the box and toy would change every few weeks or months, and I had to have the new one.  Sometimes the theme was based upon a movie that McDonald’s thought would increase the desire for sugar, salt, and fat.  Other times it was seasonal, like a Halloween themed box with witches riding french fries against a full moon.

The boxes were shaped so that one could be fit inside another, and stacked as high as the laws of physics would permit.  After a few months I had stack of Happy Meals taller than I was.  It was my monument to life.  Sometimes I would sit in my room and look at my tower, and imagine it reaching to the sky, with a spiral staircase leading up to an observation deck and souvenir shop with snow globes containing miniature versions of my Happy Meal tower.

When the tower reached the ceiling of my bedroom, I started another one.  Before long I had a city, Hamburglars and Grimaces watching over me like cathedral gargoyles.  I was re-zoning the downtown when my parents finally said something.

“Mark, we need to talk about your Happy Meal boxes,” they said.  “We think they are a fire hazard and your grades are suffering.”

I was having a little trouble seeing them around the towers of Happy Meals.  One of the boxes was decorated like a house, and had a perforated window that I opened to watch my parents leaving my room, shaking their heads.

Unable to reach my family, I invited my friends to see my work.  “Thanks for coming over, Clarence.  Please sit over here by the East Tower.  Oh wait.  I had to remove the chair to make room for the pavilion and carousel.  I guess you’ll have to stand.”

After a while my parents stopped coming in my room.  They would leave my dinner outside my door and knock three times, so that I knew it was not other kids trying to steal my Happy Meal boxes.  Although the only dinner that held any interest for me was a Happy Meal.

My parents had stopped taking me to McDonald’s, though, forcing me to rely on other parents.  I would tutor their dim children in math or social studies in exchange for rides.  Even when my parents cut off my allowance, I managed to scrape enough change together by recycling soda cans that I found in the garbage bins at school.  My teachers thought I was setting a great example, and gave me an “Enviro-Kid” award that I taped to my bedroom wall, facing the Ronald McDonald Senior Living Center that I had erected next to my hamper.

I came home late one night with my latest acquisition—a Roman Empire themed Happy Meal, decorated like the Coliseum, with lions dipping gladiators in sweet and sour sauce—to find my whole family sitting in a brightly lit living room.

My father stood up, walked over to me, and gently took my Happy Meal from my hands.  My mother gave me hug and directed me to the sofa next to her.  My brother, a good four inches taller than the last time I’d seen him, looked worried.  The cardiganed man on my other side, who introduced himself as Dr. Burger, said that he was there to help.

I looked at the ground and saw a suitcase.  This was actually happening.  I asked if I go up to my room and get something.  Dr. Burger said that I could not, and my family nodded in agreement.  They wouldn’t even let me see my boxes one last time.

I was taken to the Ronald McDonald Home for Wayward Teens, and shared a room with a young man who was battling addictions to methadone and the little animal figurines that came in boxes of Red Rose tea.  For weeks I was under constant surveillance, and if I tried to stack something on top of something else, I was given a shot of electricity and placed on the “no dessert” list for that night.

I was so happy when it was time to go home that I did not notice the back roads route we took to avoid the strip of fast food restaurants.  There was a “Welcome Home” banner above our television, and a wide open space on my bedroom floor.  It was like being in another kid’s room.

The other day I saw a boy carrying a Happy Meal, probably made from recycled Chicken McNuggets.  The boy looked happy.  I hope I did too.

Thanks to Jay Kaplowitz for the topic.