Stories Told

Christmas spaghetti

I worked very hard to build good family traditions for my sons after their mom and I split up. But now those sons are in their early 20s; one has his first career job, which requires he work Christmas Day. It’s proving surprisingly challenging to get my whole family together at once this year to enjoy Christmas together. We are in a time of tradition transition, and I admit that I’m not entirely happy about it. I loved the traditions we built. But I do know that this is the natural order of things as children fly the nest.

I’m still giving all of my blogging time to the message I’ll give my church at our Christmas Eve service tonight. So indulge me as I rerun this post from December 22, 2011. This Christmas tradition ended a few years ago when I learned that I’m essentially allergic to garlic and onions. Cutting those foods out of my life has transformed my health.


We started having the big family Christmas gathering at my house when I rented my church’s parsonage after my wife and I split. You’d think that holiday hosting duties wouldn’t fall to the newly single guy, but logistically it just made sense. I was pinching pennies thanks to exorbitant lawyer bills, and that first Christmas was mighty lean. It was so lean that I fed everyone spaghetti for Christmas dinner.

Awaiting pasta

I must admit, I really like my homemade spaghetti sauce. I had perfected it through trial and error when I taught myself to cook in my early 20s in my first apartment.  But I was surprised when my Christmas spaghetti was a huge hit, and even more surprised the next year when everybody asked me to make it again. My mom has asked for it every year since. Now that money isn’t so tight, I make a bigger and more elaborate Christmas meal – but make spaghetti the night before or the night after. Here’s my recipe.

1 lb. bulk Italian sausage
1 stick pepperoni, cut into chunks
Small onion, diced
30 oz. crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
30 oz. diced tomatoes, drained
12 oz. tomato paste
5 cloves garlic, pressed
2 t basil
2 t oregano
1 t salt
1 t pepper

Brown the sausage with the onion and drain the fat. Add the tomatoes, pepperoni, and spices and simmer until the flavors come together, at least an hour.

As you can see, there’s not much to it, but it sure does taste good. I usually serve it with a salad, steamed broccoli, and warm crusty bread.

What unusual Christmas traditions does your family have?

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I'm workin' here

Every now and again, a photograph I take pleases me very much. This is one of those photographs. I love how light and dark play to draw the eye onto the woman working this booth. And the boxes of Oreos. That’s accidental. Actually, the whole shot might best be called an accident, as I was working fast. People were milling about and I wanted the worker’s face free and clear.

I shot this last August at the Indiana State Fair, but then forgot all about the film. I discovered it in my Pentax ME on Easter Sunday when I got it down to shoot our traditional Easter service at church. This film is Fujifilm Superia X-tra 800. I don’t love its grain, but it does let me get low-light shots, especially with my 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M. This fast film and fast lens are just right for night shots under the midway’s bright lights.

Film Photography

Captured: I’m workin’ here!

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Personal

Some frustrating health issues

I’ve been dealing with some health challenges lately and, well, I’m going to whine about them for a minute. If TMI isn’t your cup of tea, skip this post and come back tomorrow. I’ll have a pretty photograph to share with you.

You might recall my foot surgery in June of 2014. One year post-op I still experienced some pain, to both my and my podiatrist’s surprise and consternation. And then in July I whacked that foot hard into a table leg, breaking the second toe, aggravating the surgery, and setting me back months of healing. It hurt to walk in all of my shoes except my Birkenstock sandals. I threw out most of my old shoes and upgraded to expensive, but very well constructed new ones. My podiatrist had me put an orthotic insert into all of them to build up my arch and correct my overpronation to take pressure off the surgery site and allow healing. I’ve had to stop going barefoot, even around the house; I wear Birkenstock clogs as house shoes. And I’ve cut out all unnecessary walking. I’m finally starting to walk pain-free, but it’s been a very frustrating eighteen months.

In addition, I’ve dealt for years with some digestive issues. A gastroenterologist was surprisingly little help — “you’re eating more fiber, right? Well, that’s all I know to tell you” — despite pain so bad that it was affecting my ability to work. Four years ago I took a chance and went to a pain clinic for it. You would not believe all the things they tried — electrostimulation, antibiotics, even meditation and a version of autogenic training. But it all helped and made this condition manageable.

It should not have surprised me that being ejected from an über-stressful job in June helped even more than all the doctors and their treatments. My discomfort eased by an order of magnitude. All that was left to look at was diet. So I started an elimination diet — and my guts quieted the rest of the way down. As I’ve added various foods back to my diet, I’ve discovered that wheat, almost certainly garlic and onions, and probably legumes (beans, peas, lentils), and certain vegetables (including cauliflower and broccoli) are the main culprits behind my gastro-intestinal distress. What these foods share in common is that they contain oligosaccharides, and my guts apparently can’t process them properly.

Eliminating these foods has been transformational, but it has also turned eating at restaurants into a form of Russian roulette. I can obviously avoid breads and beans because I can see them, but onions and garlic are hidden in so many restaurant dishes. And I eat out pretty frequently, as in my line of work lunch meetings are normal. I avoid Italian and Mexican restaurants entirely now. Fortunately, I can find safe foods at any restaurant with a breakfast menu. And I eat a lot of plain hamburger patties and fries — though those can be seasoned with garlic or onion and often even the kitchen staff doesn’t know it.

Meanwhile, I’m still adding foods back into my diet. There’s some evidence I might have difficulty digesting fructose. If so, goodbye to a whole bunch of fruits (including cherries and plums, which I adore) and anything made with high-fructose corn syrup (which I probably ought to avoid anyway). But I’ll change my diet in whatever ways are necessary to avoid gut pain.

And here’s the kicker in all of this: the pain isn’t the main problem. It’s uncomfortable, but I can usually manage to get through my day. The real problem is that when I’m in pain at night, I can’t sleep through it. The insomnia is worse than the pain.

What this all means is that while I’m figuring all this out I never know when I’m going to tie my guts up in knots and be awake half the night. I suspended the challenges for Christmas, but since the first of the year I’ve felt bad more days than not. I’m determined to push through, though, and learn what I can and can’t eat.

An unintended consequence of this is that my diet has shifted away from proteins and vegetables and toward fats. I keep track of what I eat using an online tool called CRON-O-Meter, and it tells me that lately my diet has contained a whopping 47% fat.

Between a high-fat diet and not being able to walk it off thanks to my stupid foot, I’m gaining weight and all of my pants are too tight.

It’s all been stressful. And if you’ve been following my Driving and Singing series, you know that belting out a tune can really help me vent my stress. Unfortunately, I’ve been having some trouble singing since about Thanksgiving. My throat has been dry and feels “thick.” Sometimes projecting a really big note triggers my gag reflex, of all things! It is so frustrating not to be able to sing out.

I’m determined and diligent. I will push through all of this. But I’m struggling with patience right now.

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Stories Told

How the modern potato chip was ruined, and what you can do about it

I love a good potato chip. And good ones are hard to find.

That’s because most chips today are just salt and crunch. We want our salty snacks, but we don’t want them to be too bad for us. Most chipmakers have responded by frying in so-called “good oils” low in saturated fat and trans fat, such as corn, sunflower, and canola. It’s a shame, because what results is a dry chip with little potato flavor.

Yes, I said dry. A chip fried in saturated fats lacks no crunch, yet has a certain moisture to it. It is similar to a good pie crust, where the flaky layers melt in your mouth. Aw heck, most of you probably have no idea about that, either; who makes pie crusts anymore?

I have discovered that the fine people of Ohio are still serious about their chips. The state boasts ten companies that make them. The best known of them is probably Mikesell’s, of Dayton, which distributes its chips across much of the Midwest. Theirs were the best chips at the grocery store until they stopped frying them in pure peanut oil a few years ago.

Fortunately, Ohio has other chips up its sleeve. While I haven’t tried them all, I’m not sure I need to because I’ve tried and fallen hard for these two:

Ballreich

The first is Ballreich’s, made in Tiffin, which is about an hour southeast of Toledo. Their best-known chip is wavy, or “marcelled,” in Ballreich lingo. They’re a little thicker than your everyday chip, and they actually taste like potatoes. But because they’re fried in a combination of partially hydrogenated oils, they also melt a little in your mouth. They’re a little greasy, but not overbearingly so. They are a supremely satisfying chip.

Goldnkrisp

The other is Gold’n Krisp, of Massillon in northeast Ohio. Be still my beating heart, but they are fried in soybean oil and lardCan I just say that I have the deepest respect for that? When I bit into my first Gold’n Krisp chip, my knees buckled and I moaned slightly, so delicious were they. It was almost a spiritual experience. They manage to be less greasy than the Ballreich chips with no loss of great potato flavor. Unlike Ballreich, Gold’n Krisp makes only these flat chips.

You can buy fresh Ballreich chips online here. I’ve done it twice; they arrive well boxed and unbroken. Gold’n Krisp hasn’t joined the Internet age, but I gather that they take orders at (330) 832-8395. You’ll pay a good deal more for these chips than you will for that bag of Lay’s at the supermarket, especially because of shipping. And you generally have to order them several bags at a time, so perhaps it’s best to stock up for your next party or cookout. But my goodness, what chips.

In an age where we don’t want our snack foods to be too unhealthy, we’ve squeezed all the life out of them. I say eat fewer chips – but when you do eat them, eat really good ones. Ballreich’s and Gold’n Krisp should be at the top of your list.

I used to write about fried chicken here, too. Favorites here, here, here, here, and here.

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Indiana Fried Chicken Tour

The Indiana Fried Chicken Tour: Maxine’s Chicken and Waffles

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It had been too long, Sherrel and I agreed, since our last stop on the Indiana Fried Chicken Tour. Buying and moving into a new home had consumed his time for weeks. By the time he had settled in, I had turned in my notice at the company where we both worked. We knew we had to squeeze in one more stop on the Tour before I moved on.

We knew just where we would go: Maxine’s Chicken and Waffles. We had been once before, hoping to sample their fried-chicken dinner. The hour round trip to Maxine’s downtown Indianapolis location (132 N. East Street) from our Carmel office meant we were pushing the lunch hour’s limits. After we arrived, we learned that fried-chicken perfection took 35 minutes, time we just didn’t have.

So we settled for their signature chicken and waffles. If you’ve never had this dish, let me assure you that it is delicious. The enormous chicken wings go startlingly well with the crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the inside waffles, especially when you douse them in syrup. Our lunch was so fresh and good that we vowed to return. We figured we could call ahead to order the full fried chicken dinner.

When I became a short-timer in our office, let’s just say that on-time returns from lunch became less of a priority. Our return visit to Maxine’s was a certainty.

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Maxine’s is in a newish building shared with one of downtown’s few gas stations – an odd pairing, to be sure. But when you step inside you forget all about the fueling going on.

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Malissa, our waitress, appeared directly to take our drink order. She returned straightaway with our unsweet iced tea and a plate of little cornbread pancakes laid around a dollop of peach butter. The cornbread was moist and slightly sweet; the peach butter was creamy and sweet but not very peachy. Maybe I should have slathered more on the bread to get the full peach flavor.

Our dinners came with a small salad, fresh and crisp, of head lettuce, tomatoes, onion, and sharp cheddar. The onions were pungent and strong, surprisingly so, and were this simple salad’s highlight. Unremarkable croutons and ranch dressing (served on the side) rounded out the salad.

Sherrel called Maxine’s from the parking lot at work to put in our chicken order, and the golden-brown goodness arrived shortly after we finished our salads.

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I ordered my traditional sides of green beans and mashed potatoes with gravy. Sherrel got the potatoes and fried green tomatoes. My green beans were mushy, but at least they had good, slightly spicy flavor and weren’t fatty. A tomato slice and a ring of that strong onion topped and complemented them. The mashed potatoes were the best we’ve had on the Tour. There was no question about their origin: these were genuine mashed potatoes – unquestionably neither whipped nor instant as they were full of little potato chunks. They delivered solid, straight up potato flavor, with only a hint of the milk or cream that was holding them together. Maxine’s clearly chooses excellent quality potatoes. The gravy that topped them was slightly sweet and a little too fatty. A dash of salt improved it. Sherrel declared the fried green tomatoes to be fine, especially with the supplied sauce, but didn’t elaborate.

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At last I dove into the chicken, the main event. Maxine’s delivers four pieces with each order, either all dark meat or all white meat. I ordered the white, Sherrel ordered the dark, and we traded two pieces so we could each experience the whole chicken.

The coating was thin and crisp. I guessed that this was a simple flour dredge. But later Sherrel wondered whether Maxine’s uses crushed corn flakes in its coating. I think he may be right. The coating was mildly seasoned, perhaps only with a little salt.

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It works because the dense, tender meat carries deep, rich chicken flavor. Maxine’s is buying high-quality birds, easily the finest meat we’ve experienced on the Tour. Actually, this was the most inherently flavorful bird I’ve ever eaten. They don’t adorn it with thick, highly seasoned coating because this meat doesn’t need it; it speaks for itself. My only quibble was that the breast was a tiny, tiny, tiny bit dry.

My meal was $17.75. Sherrel’s dark-meat order was about a buck less. (That’s him over there, hard at work on his dinner.) This was a great experience, made even better by Malissa, who served us with a giant smile, an infectious great attitude, and an uncanny ability to appear at our table at the exact moments we needed her.

As Sherrel and I drove back to the office, we vowed that we would keep the Tour going despite it being more complicated now to schedule stops. Altogether too often our chicken quest was continued merely because we happened to pass each other in the hallway and one of us cried, “Chicken!” We must redouble our efforts; this is too much fun.

Other great stops on the Tour: Mississippi Belle, Kopper Kettle, and Wagner’s Village Inn.

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Indiana Fried Chicken Tour

The Indiana Fried Chicken Tour: Hollyhock Hill

Hollyhock Hill is in a class of Indiana restaurants that reminds of times gone by. We’ve visited two other such places on the Indiana Fried Chicken Tour: Kopper Kettle and The Iron Skillet. Traditional, genteel, and quaint, these places feel like stepping into a country homestead in how we all imagine 1928 must have been (which, incidentally, is the year Hollyhock Hill opened). They tend to be built into old houses, with interiors painted bright white and hung with whimsical decorations. Every table is a little bit different – one is round and covered with a short white tablecloth under a thick layer of glass; the next is rectangular with a brightly colored tablecloth; a third is oval with a frilly place mat at each setting. Ordinary glassware, flatware, and china are used, but are arranged so nicely that as you sit down you feel as though this will be a fine dining experience. Indeed, Hollyhock Hill and its ilk are as much about the experience as about the food.

Sherrel and I work a mile or so away from Hollyhock Hill, which is at 8110 N. College Ave. on Indianapolis’s Far Northside. Because it’s so easy to get to, we have visited before on our lunch hour, but not since beginning the Indiana Fried Chicken Tour. Hollyhock Hill is open for lunch only when a large group has reserved the restaurant for an event, so call ahead to check availability. They recommend reservations for dinner.

Hollyhock Hill specializes in family-style dinners and while they’re known for fried chicken, they offer steaks and seafood too. Lunches are plated and limited in portion. All of their meals begin with pickled beets and an iceberg salad with a sweet house dressing. Sherrel liked the beets but they’re not my thing and I stayed away. The salad is very well executed and is exactly what it means to be with mild, sweet flavors, but I wished for more and ate only a few bites.

Biscuits came next, to go with the apple butter brought with the salad and beets. Aren’t they gorgeous? Unfortunately, they were dense and tough, though applying a little apple butter helped dissolve my disappointment.

Shortly the main event arrived. I was struck by how green the green beans were. They came from a can, but were firm and mildly seasoned. Sherrel said he found both ham and bacon pieces mixed in. The mashed potatoes were whipped smooth with good potato flavor and a mild note of something else I couldn’t place. I covered mine in cream gravy. What it lacked in flavor it made up for in thickness and smoothness.

Sherrel and I agree: chicken is best fried in lard. Our hearts and arteries might not agree, but we aren’t asking them. Based on mouth feel, we think Hollyhock Hill fries in lard. Mmboy! The coating was thin and crispy everywhere, which we both like, but we wished for a little more spice. The chicken inside was a tiny bit dry, the breast more so than the thigh. We decided this was an anomaly, as the chicken was plenty juicy on our last visit. We didn’t detect any seasoning in the meat, but the dark meat carried a great deal more good natural chicken flavor than the white. When my plate was empty but for bones, I wished I could have had another thigh.

Our server made herself invisible but was clearly paying attention because the moment we finished, she cleared away our plates and brought out ice cream and bowls full of chocolate, butterscotch, and creme de menthe sauces. I’m a butterscotch fan and this stuff’s full flavor did not disappoint, making what was otherwise an everyday bowl of ice cream a delightful finish to my meal.

Lunch was $12.95 and included coffee, tea, or milk. I had the coffee and it was regular Joe, a good, honest cup. It went with a good, honest meal.

Indiana fried chicken also comes soul-food style. Check out Mississippi Belle and Kountry Kitchen.

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