Sunday, September 26, 2010


A few weeks ago I suddenly caught Produce Fever, as happens occasionally, and bought about five pounds of vegetables I’d never cooked before. The beets seemed like a great idea at the time—they’re cheap and good for you, and as I’ve mentioned before I do not require my meals to be very interesting.

So I chose six large beets and, not wanting them to go bad, boiled them up all at once. Let’s pause for a moment to reflect that beets are very, very colorful. When you eat cooked ones or cut raw ones, this color is a purpley-red of easily identifiable plant origin. When you boil a huge pot of beets on the stove, though, the whole mess turns the rusty red of fresh blood. It foams. Big chunks of red beet flesh bob to the surface. When you spill drops on the white stovetop—and you will—they dry quickly into the unmistakable signs of a catastrophic nosebleed. I felt like Bluebeard with his boiling bowl of wife chunks.

The cooked beets were indeed blandly delicious, appearances aside, so I set them in a Tupperware vat in the fridge and looked forward to devouring them over the next three or four days.

As it turns out, it takes a lot longer than that to eat a half gallon of beets, for the following reasons:
  1. They become a lot less exciting over time
  2. Thanks to my lack of self-control at the farmers’ market, I also had a pound of carrots, four cups of broccoli, two cups of cauliflower, a grapefruit, a sack of green beans, four apples, two bananas, and a cantaloupe to eat within the week before they started to ooze
  3. I kept thinking about that bowl of blood
All this excess produce fit beautifully into my cooking style, which consists of two methods:

1. Cook some things and mix them together

2. Cook some things and don’t mix them together

In the end I handled the botanical bounty by developing an additional method:

3. Don’t even bother to cook things

Ultimately, I bid farewell to the last half pint of beets and their accompanying mass of purple sludge. The experience taught me a valuable lesson about impulse-buying unfamiliar perishable food, though:

No, never mind. Look, there’s a sale on chard!

Monday, September 20, 2010

I Hate Ants

Let’s get this straight: I am not afraid of ants. I just hate them.

I am about 54,081,290 times bigger than a household sugar ant by volume. This is roughly the number of times that NASA’s largest rocket-building facility is bigger than me, or that Princess Leia is better than Queen Amidala. It’s pointless to fear a creature that can fit under my fingernail.

But ants and I hate each other with a murderous rage that will lock us in mortal combat for eternity. They started it.

One night when I was a few months old, my parents put me to bed and could not figure out why I kept crying. They fed me, they rocked me, they changed me, they sang to me, but every time they put me back in the crib, I would start to scream within minutes.

Finally, through the haze of 3 a.m., someone turned on a light to investigate the bed. That’s when they discovered the ants—evil mutant demon ants with a taste for baby flesh who had crawled up a two-story building, through the tiny window gap, down the wall, across the floor, and up the legs of my bed to EAT ME ALIVE IN MY SLEEP.

My parents managed to drown the minions of Satan, but I still have a scar on my temple from their tiny jaws of doom.

Thanks to the short memory of infants, though, the ants enjoyed a truce with me for nearly 15 years after their unprovoked attack. I tended ant farms. I protected anthills on the playground. I even tenderly moved the creatures outside when others threatened to smash them on tabletops. But all the time they were plotting.

First it was the nest of inch-long, winged carpenter ants that moved into my wall and all of my possessions. For days I shooed them out the window one by one, but when they reached the bed I abandoned my peaceful ways and littered the room with their brittle corpses in an all-night crusade.

Two years later, they surfaced again. My friend Madelyn and I were minding the house for another friend while her family took a vacation, and one night I opened the pantry to discover a battalion of Beelzebub’s beasts advancing toward the chocolate.

After stripping the pantry, obliterating the insect troops, and planting roughly six poison baits per square foot, I sat down to rest with a half-empty bag of potato chips.

Every chip was crawling with ants.

Instead of throwing the bag away, I became a thundering inferno of destruction. Armed with a serving spoon, I shook each ant onto the counter and crushed it into oblivion. The bodies collected. I may have cackled. Madelyn wondered whether to call the authorities or simply run and save herself.

But even this display of my ruthlessness in battle did not deter the enemy for long.

One fall in college, I agreed to feed an acquaintance’s cats while she was out of town. On the third day of feeding, my roommate and I opened the kitchen door to find an uneven brown river flowing from the doorstep to the cats’ food dishes.

The fifteen-foot stream of ants reached more than six inches at its widest point. The good news is, when they’re so concentrated, you can mow down thousands with a single blast of poison spray. Take that, turkeys.

We wiped up about a pound of ant carcasses in all. By the time the bloodbath ended, the insect army was out of troops, the homeowner was out of Raid, and my roommate had concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that I was out of my mind.

It’s been a few years now, so I’m probably about due for another exoskeletal onslaught.

Go ahead, ants. Make my day.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Best If Used By...

I baked a cake for my birthday last month. It wasn’t actually very good because I beat the egg whites too much even though I live at a really high altitude, but I like seeing them puff up. It’s like a special kind of magic show reserved for those of us who didn’t learn to bake from scratch until college.

Anyway, the cake was dry to the point that it needed a ten-minute soak in melty ice cream to stop tasting like sheetrock. But I baked it, and it was my birthday cake, and I had plenty of Cookies & Cream, so I was going to eat it anyway, even if it took two weeks because no one else wanted any.

The thing is, it’s hard to tell when a cake is too old to eat except by how dry it’s getting. This one didn’t look any different with the passage of time, and it sure didn’t taste different, so by about Day 13 I was halfway afraid of contracting catastrophic, stubbornness-induced cake poisoning with every bite I took.

I play this game a lot—walking the fine line between waste and personal injury. If old food doesn’t look bad or smell bad, I feel guilty for throwing it out, so I have two options:
  1. Leave it in the fridge until it does look bad, then throw it out with a clear conscience.
  2. Eat it, claiming to believe it can’t hurt me, and spend the next 36 hours suffering the shadowy malaise of Egg Doubt.
Egg Doubt is the creeping sensation you feel after eating the last Easter egg a week from Tuesday, even though they are only supposed to keep for seven days. Once you make that fateful decision, the rest of the day will be full of phantom stomach pains and episodes of fleeting lightheadedness: Did you imagine it, or are you about to collapse into a pool of flaming botulism doom as your own intestines destroy you from within?

Egg Doubt is the twin of Dairy Doubt; they fall into the larger family of Expirationoia along with their cousins, Potato Salad Suspicion and Mistrust of Room-Temperature Cold Cuts.

It’s even harder to judge the safe zone with other food groups, though, because they don’t come with echoes of age-old parental warning. No one ever says, “Don’t eat that broccoli if it’s been left out!” or “The Jell-O isn’t very fresh.” So this stuff sits in the fridge accumulating Starving-Children-In-China guilt until someone finally takes the plunge, one way or the other.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I got into my car a few days ago and noticed that the odometer looked like this:

YES! In only 9.2 miles—within the course of the day’s commute—all the digits would be lined up in order! For a precious tenth of a mile, I would attain a fleeting taste of obsessive-compulsive nirvana. All I had to do was pay attention until the Great Conjunction came.

Anyone whose heart has never thrilled to see a clock reading 11:11 may as well stop reading here, but it’s up there with seeing a straight flush come together in your poker hand. I’ve spent a lot of time awake in the dark waiting for 12:34 or 3:21, as well as any time that reads the same way upside down or backwards.

I also like to check the page numbers in books to know when I’ve reached the exact middle. If I don’t read the numbers for a while and overshoot, I’ll backtrack to the right page and skim it again for any special import or hidden messages. In elementary school I got into the habit of mentally doubling and halving every page number just in case I was missing something exciting.

The odometer is more urgent than clocks or pages, though, because this sequence of numbers will never come again unless you drive a magic car that can run for more than a million miles, exceed the number of available digits, and start over again at zero.

So on the day in question I started driving, glancing down at the gauge every three seconds for about a mile. Then suddenly I had to change lanes. Then I turned a corner. Then my usual route was closed for construction, and a school crossing guard stopped traffic, and a song I liked came on the radio.

All at once I was in the parking lot at work, checking the dash to see when I should buy gas, and I saw it:

I had let that precious moment slip away, and it was gone forever. How could I forgive myself? How long until the next magical number would come up? Would I miss that one, too?

I feel like I’m betraying my car. It’s as if I’m the mother and he* is a small child who keeps trying to show me fabulous gymnastic feats, but I’m always looking away at the moment he backflips off the monkey bars.

Every time I fail him, he finds something else to show me—how about 0987678? 0987890? 0988888? I missed them all by a few miles. For the last one I even dangled a sheet of paper on the dashboard over the display to remind me to watch carefully during my next drive, but I was still led astray by the senseless frivolity of paying attention to traffic.

Now my only hope of anal-retentive satisfaction is to watch like a hawk for 0989898. In about 24,000 miles I’m going to need a failsafe system for catching 1234567, or my brain will probably implode. Meanwhile, I have to get back to my book, because I’m almost to page 222, which is half of 444, and if you read the last letter in every line it spells out your secret enemy’s Facebook username and password.

A note to parents, roommates, and coworkers: Not everyone who obsesses about this stuff is crazy. At least that’s what the voices tell me.

*Maybe your cars, ships, and trains are all female. Mine has an established personality and can be coaxed or encouraged verbally. He likes a pat on the driver-side front quarter panel. He loves me back. Go define sanity your own way somewhere else.