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My column last week about my misadventures with coffee stirred up memories of other food mishaps.

Here are three such stories:

Reader Judy Young writes:

When we were kids, my dad was always grumpy when he worked a different shift and we learned to stay out of his way.

He came down from a nap to eat supper. We all scattered because he was not usually in a good mood coming from a nap and having to eat and then go to work again.

He filled his plate from various pots on the stove.

However, he didn’t know that my mother was in the process of cooking chocolate fudge.

He mistakenly ladled it onto his mashed potatoes, thinking it was gravy.

When he took a bite, we all knew something happened from the ruckus in the kitchen.

Afterward, one of my smart-aleck brothers, labeled all the items in the kitchen, e.g. “faucet,” “cabinet,” etc.

On the pan of fudge, he put “NOT gravy.”

***

From my wife, Meg McGuire:

When I lived in England, my family there was my mother’s sister.

A year or so into what turned into a 10-year stay, I was invited to my aunt’s to celebrate my birthday.

After dinner, she brought out the cake. It looked remarkable with white icing and swept-up peaks on the top.

Time to cut the cake.

There was a lot of chatter so my cake-cutting went on in a quiet corner. I gently pushed the knife down, expecting the usual soft icing and cake.

It wasn’t soft. In fact, it was pretty hard. I was aghast.

My aunt’s cake was a failure.

I wasn’t going to tell her but I attempted to saw my way into the icing, which cracked under the pressure of the knife.

The knife then got stuck, holding fast in some sort of goo.

More sawing and I then hit something so firm, it could have been ham.

This whole time I’m trying to act as though the broken icing, the goo and the rock-solid cake were all perfectly normal.

I cut an American-sized slice, about 2 inches at the wide end, and put it on a plate, where it landed with a thud.

Now it was the guests turn to be aghast.

The slices were way too large.

This was what is called a Celebration Cake and is made for special occasions in England.

It consists of dense fruitcake topped with a layer of apricot jam, then a layer of marzipan and then white sugar icing that is meant to harden.

These cakes are often made months in advance and perked up at intervals with brandy before the icing goes on.

My aunt forgave me for “breaking” her cake — and turned that first slice into about 20 pieces.

***

And from yours truly:

This dates back to when my parents were newly married.

Mom (a newly arrived immigrant from Germany) and Dad (who is Italian) were hosting his sister and brother-in-law for dinner.

This was a big deal.

Mom decides to make lasagna, the recipe for which included tiny meatballs.

Mom makes a bunch of them and sets them aside in a colander.

Dad, who was not much of a hand in the kitchen, came in to “help” and started doing the dishes.

Without looking, he grabbed the colander and immersed it in the soapy water.

As he is scrubbing, he pulls up a handful of soapy meatballs and was like “What the heck?!”

Mom is distraught.

Dad, ever-resourceful, says, “No worries” and proceeds to rinse off the meatballs!

They serve the dinner and, as Dad tells the story, he leaned in close all night to see if his brother-in-law would be blowing bubbles from his mouth!

 

 

 

Do You Take Bacon Fat With Your Coffee?

I discovered recently that there are a number of ways to have your coffee.

There is, of course, black (no sugar, no milk); light and sweet (lots of sugar and milk); or some combination that excludes one or the other or substitutes sugar with an artificial sweetener or substitutes milk with cream.

But did you know that you can add bacon fat to your coffee?

Yes, yes you can.

But I sincerely do not recommend it.

Here is what happened:

My wife buys local jars of honey and uses a teaspoon every morning with her tea (and has convinced me of the virtues of using it in my coffee instead of sugar).

The jars are pretty large and when they are empty can be useful for assorted purposes, including collecting cooking fat so we don’t pour it down the drain and clog up the works.

I get in from work pretty late, often around 2:30 a.m., so when I stagger out of bed in the morning, I am looking for coffee — stat!

On this particular morning, there were two honey jars, one filled three-quarters with yummy nature’s goodness — honey — and the other coated at the bottom with congealed bacon fat.

So there is a 50-50 chance of picking the correct jar.

Not only did I pick the wrong one, but I actually had to work at it reaching deep into the jar to scrape out what I thought was honey.

Now, you may smartly ask: Given that there were two jars, and one appeared to be nearly empty, what made you think it was filled with honey?

That is a legitimate question.

The answer is: I am an idiot.

Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let me continue my story: I take a heaping spoon of gunk, put the spoon into my coffee and stir it.

At the breakfast table, without giving the mug a second look, I proceed to sip the coffee.

Are you familiar with the term “spit take”?

It is a comic move in which a character is drinking something and hears some news that is so shocking that they dramatically spray a mouthful of what they are drinking in a gesture of surprise.

Well, my reaction was akin to that but involved much more swearing.

When I looked at the amoeba-shaped sheen floating on the surface of the coffee, I knew in an instant what had happened.

Since this revolting experience, I have learned that other popular additives used around the world are butter, salt and cinnamon.

I haven’t tried those yet but it’s hard to imagine anything more disgusting than bacon fat.

Oh wait. Yes there is.

This happened 30 years ago. My future first wife and my future father-in-law (a big imposing figure of a man) and I were out at an Italian restaurant discussing the upcoming wedding plans.

Dessert and coffee were served and I’m so nervous about my future father-in-law, I’m not paying attention to what I’m adding to my coffee.

I thought it was sugar.

It was in the same metal container that I thought contained sugar.

It turned out it was Parmesan cheese.

You know, drinking just black coffee has become more and more appealing.

My Wake-Up Call About Caffeine

It’s a ritual at my annual physical: My doctor asks how many cups of coffee I drink a day.

Three or four, I say, and she gives me the thumbs down, indicating she disapproves and wants me to reduce my caffeine intake.

And I am always like, c’mon! It’s just coffee! Where’s the harm?

Heck, some studies have found coffee to have beneficial effects, such as lifting your mood, protecting your heart and reducing your risk of diabetes.

But after doing a little reading – and experimenting — I’m starting to appreciate why she gives me a hard time.

I wrote recently about grappling with fractured or deprived sleep and it got me to thinking about the ways I stay caffeinated.

We live in a 24/7 culture where constantly being “on” has become part of our nature, so we reach for what’s going to keep us going.

I’ve long enjoyed the social nature of coffee and the wakeful buzz it can deliver. I proudly own a refrigerator magnet that says “Coffee! You can sleep when you’re dead!”

A reader recommended Death Wish coffee, which bills itself as the “world’s strongest coffee.” To drive home the point, its logo features a skull and crossbones.

But then I read about Black Insomnia coffee, which also bills itself as the world’s strongest.

According to the website caffeineinformer, Death Wish has 728 mg of caffeine per 12 fluid ounce cup, a level it labels as dangerous.

And Black Insomnia? 702 mg, and also dangerous, according to the website.

The hyper-caffeinated coffee industry has adopted a certain hyperbole to outdo each other. Among the other brand names being promoted: Banned, Shock and Biohazard.

Typically, I am good for one cup of coffee at home (95 mg), a large Dunkin’ Donuts when I get to work (300 mg) and maybe a Red Bull (80 mg) or another cup of coffee (95 mg).

To put those numbers in perspective, findings recently published in Food and Chemical Toxicology backed up current guidelines that recommend no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day.

So my daily average intake of caffeine by coffee is about 500 mg, or 100 more than what is recommended.

After my work shift changed recently, forcing me to wake up at 3 a.m. and be on the road by 4 a.m., I decided to try Death Wish and Black Insomnia – not together, I hasten to add!

I’ve had Death Wish coffee about five times. I find it gives me a nice pick-me-up as the first cup of coffee in the day and keeps me cruising for several hours.

Black Insomnia, though it reportedly has less caffeine, sure does deliver a jolt but it also took me about five hours to come down to levels of consciousness that felt normal.

I had this weird low-grade headache and what I can only describe as an out-of-body experience.

Researchers from the nonprofit foundation International Life Sciences Institute North America wrote that having too much caffeine on a consistent basis can lead to headaches, tremors, hyperventilation, dizziness, anxiety and agitation — and those are on the “milder end of the spectrum”!

Some deaths related to caffeine consumption have been documented, particularly in those with certain medical conditions.

The bottom line is, no matter how much you need to stay awake, exercise some level of moderation in your caffeine intake.

Otherwise, you might risk damaging your body, or worse, you can, as the refrigerator magnet says, sleep when you’re dead.

Related links:

Sleep-Deprived As a Way of Life

Work, Drive, Sleep, Rinse and Repeat

Heavy on Coffee and Light on Sleep

I Worship at the Church of Dunkin’ Donuts

Heavy on Coffee and Light on Sleep

Sleep but not nearly enough.

Wake.

Drink coffee.

Drink more coffee.

In fact, just pour the pot over your head to wake up.

Rinse and repeat.

If this sounds familiar, welcome to the crowd.

Some of us might rise, but we won’t shine.

As a society, we’re chronically not getting enough sleep and let’s face it, when you reach a certain age, (*cough — your 50s — cough*), your body does not spring back quite the way it once did.

In this episode of About Men Radio, Pedro and Chris discuss their sleep habits, the virtues of caffeine and coffee and the importance of finding the right balance between the two.

For kicks, if you want to determine the best time to get to sleep based on what time you need to rise, check out this sleep calculator.

Give the show a listen and tell your friends about us. We could be the best cure for insomnia!

Sweet dreams!

Related:

Perchance to (Please!) Sleep

Work, Drive, Sleep, Rinse and Repeat

Sleep-Deprived As a Way of Life

Note: This week we will explore the issue of sleep  — or lack thereof. Why do we not get enough sleep and what toll is it taking on us? We’ll have three installments, starting today with Richard Rodriguez.

About nine months ago I changed jobs.

It was not for advancement or more money but for a shorter commute and better health insurance.

I also changed my work hours from a regular day shift to a 3-11 a.m. shift, which I actively sought.

I knew it would be a tough transition but the very early hours would help me to help with the kids and transportation needs in the afternoons and early evenings.

The old job was during day hours but the long commute kept me away from home for 12-plus hours a day, I felt useless to my family and it stripped me of all energy to do anything when I got home.

So I landed a position that cut my commute from two hours to about 45 minutes each way.

I just needed to transition to those new working hours. Staying up late was my thing. My brain was most active at night and after the kids went to bed, I would watch my TV shows, write, surf the net, etc.

I was still able to get enough sleep to go to work the following day. Now I have an early bedtime that I almost never comply with, which leads me being sleep-deprived for most of the week.

By the end of the week I am so exhausted I usually pass out on the couch trying to stay up.

I had one very scary instance caused by this sleep deprivation.

Driving home one Saturday afternoon I had stopped for a red light and then I opened my eyes and saw the car in front of me coming closer really fast. I could not fathom why this was happening but my reflexes kicked in and I pushed hard on the brakes and literally stopped inches from the car in front of me.

Holy shit that was close!

I could not believe that I had drifted off to sleep so quickly, but was lucky that it was for only a second and I was able to recover before smashing into the car in front of me.

I hope for this never to happen again.

I have since then kept caffeine pills in my car and use them when I don’t stop for coffee and feel like I’m overly tired. I do have to say that the cup of coffee typically is more effective than the pills.

So nine months in, I continue to stay up too late and feel like I can never get everything done.

I sometimes take a nap in the afternoon when I get home but need to be careful as sometimes it just makes you more tired.

Overall I like these hours. I enjoy commuting during the off hours and not dealing with any traffic whatsoever. I also like the time in the afternoons I have to deal with family responsibilities.

My workweek also shifted to Tuesday-Saturday with Sunday/Monday off.

I miss my freewheeling Friday nights but having Monday off makes Sundays so much more relaxing.

It is what it is. I just keep plugging along.

Microwaved Coffee and Other Food Fails

A sign in our kitchen reads: “If it walks out of the refrigerator, let it go.”

I cannot for the life of me imagine why that sign is there.

Ahem.

Ever since my wife and I first got together, my cooking and eating habits (lack thereof and abundance of, in that order) have been the source of rich commentary.

For instance, my wife was horrified — absolutely horrified — when she discovered that I would brew a pot of coffee and then each subsequent morning pour myself a mug of Joe and microwave it.

Within days, she had gotten a plastic coffee filter holder and filters to fit so that I could brew a fresh cup of coffee each morning.

See, the thing with me is that when it comes to food I want to avoid fuss — a four-letter word that begins with F-U and is just as profane.

For quite a while I lived by a recipe book — a term I will use generously — called “A Can, a Man, a Plan.”

It was put out by the same publishers as Men’s Health magazine and offered to simplify healthy meals.

For example, boil up some pasta, open a can of tuna fish, pour onto the pasta, sprinkle it with tomato sauce and shredded cheese and nuke in the microwave.

Presto!

Instructions so simple that even I could follow them. Plus, the meal hardly required much preparation and it was relatively nutritious.

I admire people who are adept in the kitchen and can follow recipes and cook up a storm.

Me?

I will bring into work 3-day-old salad that is seriously past its prime. When my wife Meg protests, I will usually just say with a dismissive wave of the hand, “Oh, it’s fine.”

Leftovers.

Food with freezer burn.

Food that is beyond its expiration (except for meat).

It’s all pretty much fair game for me.

If it passes the sniff test, I’m good.

So you can imagine how grateful and blessed I am to have Meg in my life. Among her abundance of fine qualities, she is an amazingly adept and adventurous cook. My dinners are flavorful and complex and never boring.

Of course, when she is away and I am left to my own devices, I will revert to my sorry ways and fix a bowl of oatmeal for dinner.

I recently bought a low-grade of turkey from the supermarket deli and when I tried to defend it as being equal to a brand name, such as Boar’s Head, Meg said to me: “I love you, but you are no judge.”

She’s right of course.

Well, now if you will excuse me, I have a cup of coffee to microwave.

I Worship at the Church of Dunkin’ Donuts

Having spent a week in May in the San Francisco Bay area, I have these observations to report:

* The weather is consistently cool and comfortable.
* The locals are unfailingly polite and helpful.
* Colorful flowers grow easily and in abundance.
* The restaurants are diverse and the food is fresh and flavorful.
* It has accessible, far-reaching mass transit.

There is not a Dunkin’ Donuts in sight.

I’ve never visited a place so inhospitable.

For me, DD is the purveyor of chalices of liquid gold.

Even my wife knows to refer to the familiar pink-and-orange logo as “the holy of holies.”

Indeed, coffee for me is not merely a hot, caffeinated beverage, it is a religion.

I worship at the Church of DD where the first commandment is “Thou shalt have no other coffee before DD; thou shall not brew for yourself any false coffee.”

My wife is dedicated to drinking Starbucks, which I find pretentious and foo-foo. (The coffee, not her.)

She even goes as far as to ascribe certain qualities to Starbucks patrons.

On a recent afternoon, for instance, she was driving and was waiting to make a turn when a considerate motorist yielded so that she could turn.

“Oh,” my wife said. “You are such a nice person. You must be going to Starbucks.”

Sure enough, that is exactly where this driver was headed.

I love my wife but we have a real divergence of opinions when it comes to DD vs. Starbucks.

For me, I do not want any artisanal, free-range coffee beans collected by white-gloved hipsters wearing skinny jeans who put the beans into a satin-line burlap bag and then grind them by hand.

I also do not want my coffee orders to sound like some form of pig Latin: “I’ll have a veni, vidi, vici grande soy latte with a half gainer and a twist.”

Yes, I do in fact own — and proudly wear — a T-shirt that reads “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Starbucks.”

DD shirt

I tend to be pretty proletariat about coffee.

It is a commodity for the masses and rightly ought to be treated and marketed as such.

Coffee is too important to the public well-being to be treated as some upscale elixir that only coffee cognisanti can order.

Recent news coverage affirming once and for all that coffee is not harmful to your health and can actually be beneficial was cause for rejoicing.

So for the sake of your health, and to demonstrate you have good taste, raise a cup of DD coffee to your lips.

If you really must drink Starbucks, treat it as you would a wine tasting: Sip. Swish. Spit.

And then keep on spitting until you’ve reached a Dunkin’ Donuts.

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A Sign of Friendship

In a coming blog post, I will talk about the “Breakfast Club” therapy that About Men Radio contributor Richard Rodriguez and I have created.

For now though, I want to share something that happened at our most recent get-together in Allamuchy (yes, it really is a place) in New Jersey.

When we were done with our meal, Rich said to me, “Come with me to my car. I have something to give you.”

What he brought out from his car was the shape of a loaf of Italian bread and wrapped up.

What you see here is what was inside: A touching tribute to our shared passion for coffee and to an enduring friendship!

Thanks, Rich!

Gimme One With Everything

It was the mid-1980’s and I was working at a summer job.

I was fortunate to have a neighbor who employed me, God rest his soul, who in his retirement started a small business selling hot dogs from a converted laundry truck that grew into a restaurant on wheels.

He would be up way before the sun, cooking bacon and making gallons of fresh coffee. I would meet him at his favorite spot near a major roadway and start my day serving egg sandwiches, buttered rolls and hot coffee to customers traveling to work.

After the morning rush, we would switch to hot dogs, chili dogs, meatballs, soda, and of course, more coffee, as it seemed that was the universal drink of the workingman.

The days consisted of mad rushes serving a line of people stretching down the block to wondering when the next customer would show up.

It was a long day.

You may wonder where we went to the bathroom, especially since we were also constant drinkers of the magical black elixir.

I typically ran up the street to a friendly furniture store that allowed us to use its facilities. The boss never left the truck, which had a sink and running hot water, as per code, but no bathroom accommodations.

One day during a lull, the boss had to relieve himself of some of that coffee he constantly consumed. (I don’t think I ever saw him without that coffee cup in hand.)

He did not think about hoofing it up to the store where I usually went. Instead, he had a special coffee can with a lid he kept under the counter.

We always wore aprons.

He cautiously looked up and down the street making sure no one was headed our way, and proceeded to take that special can, remove the lid and slid it under his apron.

This was a much-practiced action, as he quickly undid his fly and I heard the stream hitting the bottom of the empty can, all behind the veil of that apron.

Without warning, a group of hungry people appeared by the window and I jumped to start serving them.

The boss had been caught by surprise, but he stealthily removed and capped the can, washed his hands and began serving the customers without missing a beat.

I swear I could not figure out how he did this so quickly. I did not notice him go through the motions of putting it back in his pants or zipping up for that matter.

Yet there he was by my side, with a smile, sliding hot dogs into buns and asking if they wanted sauerkraut or onions.

If these people waiting for their lunch to be served only knew…