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Culture Shock: What My Buffalo-to-Chicago Move was Originally Like

Culture Shock: What My Buffalo-to-Chicago Move was Originally Like

I moved to Chicago years ago, and in many ways it became more a home to me than Buffalo ever was. Now, since I’m attempting another inter-city move in a month, here is a list of things I noticed upon moving from Buffalo to Chicago that I never quite adjusted to:

Pizza and Wings don’t go Together
It’s not fair to expect every city on the planet to weave chicken wings into the culture like Buffalo has, but growing up in Buffalo, it does seem fair to expect wings to be the tasty accompaniment to a handful of particular dishes. Namely, pizza. In Buffalo, it’s ubiquitous to pick up the phone, speed-dial your favorite pizzeria, and say you want a large pepperoni and a double hot wings. They know the request because you’re a regular customer and they’ve heard slight variations on the same order a million times in the past. We take the combination for granted so much that wherever we go, we expect our pizza with a side of wings and let our hosts know what terrible people they are if they forget the wings. When I arrived in Chicago and made friends who ordered pizza, though, it was a short flight to my realization that people there didn’t feel like the extra grease with chicken meat on the side was an essential side dish. Hell, even that’s overstating their importance – Chicagoans went about their pizza business like the pizza/wings combination didn’t exist. Fortunately, Chicago is so good at pizza that you won’t care after the initial shock wears off.

The Street Grid Makes Sense
Buffalo loves to advertise its status as America’s Best-Planned City. No less an authority than Frederick Law Olmsted said Buffalo was the best-planned city in the world, and Buffalo was planned in a radial pattern, which is extremely rare in the United States. I guess it would make sense that Olmsted and other old-school architects would think that, though; they didn’t live long enough to witness abominations like the HSBC Tower, Main Place Mall, the Buffalo Convention Center, and all those other buildings which wipe out the meticulously planned radial design. The Convention Center and Main Place Mall in particular are notorious for choking off parts of downtown which would otherwise be reached very easily from Buffalo City Hall if they weren’t sitting in the way. Compounding the architectural mistakes is a legion of one-way streets going in so many different directions that you would think the city had a deal with an oil company which would cause motorists to keep getting lost and having to buy more gas. Chicago’s layout only seemed confusing at first. Once someone explained the directional and numbering scheme to me, though, I never got truly lost again. Chicago’s blocks are blocks, and its streets mainly stick to one direction. True, some of them – like Clark Street – curve a little after awhile and slant, but generally, even with all the one-way streets – I guess some things are constant between cities – it was refreshingly easy to find my way around.

The directional system is very easy: Madison Street is the official north/south marker, while State Street marks east and west. The corner of Madison and State places you at 0/0 numerically, and numbers increase like normal in every direction. The further away from Madison and State you get, the higher the address number. Even-numbered addresses are on buildings on the north and west sides of their streets; and by a rigorous and time-consuming process of elimination, you’ve maybe concluded that south and east street sides have the odd addresses. One thing I find a little dumbfounding, though, is that State Street is the barrier between east and west. State Street gets cut off around Lincoln Park, and the east side ceases to exist.

The People Think Chicago has the Monopoly on the Word “Pop”
We get it: Using “pop” as our word for soda is a regional thing. We’re told that from birth. Chicago apparently missed the memo. If you’re from out of town, every use of “pop” as a way of referring to soda is accompanied by a wink, a smile, and the occasional elbow nudge as the Chicagoan who just used it explains to his guests that “pop” is the word they use for soda in Chicago. They seem to think they’re letting you in on the secret formula for Coca-Cola when they say it. Well, the thing about “pop” is that the region that uses it as a term for soda is fucking massive. In fact, according to The Huffington Post, a survey anyone can fill out on a site called popvssoda.com, and Discover Magazine among many other sources, “pop” is absolutely dominant along the entire northern coastline from the Pacific coast – including Alaska – to western New York, except for a small spot in Wisconsin along the Lake Michigan coast. It changes to “soda” around Rochester, New York. The point where “pop” stops being used going south varies, but it drifts as far down as Oklahoma and changes to “coke” in the deep south. “Soda” actually seems to be the minority word for soda. Back to point, though; there’s no need for Chicagoans to cling to their use of “pop” like it’s some special identifying mark or secret handshake because everybody fucking knows what it is.

Chicago is a Hate Group for Ketchup
When you move to Chicago – or, hell, even if you’re just passing through it – you’ll be forced to try one of those seven-topping hot dogs that are so popular there, possibly at gunpoint. Your first thought upon glancing the Chicago-style hot dog for the first time will probably be along the lines of “how the hell do I eat this thing?” You’re not going to shove the whole thing into your mouth to bite down, since there’s too much between the onions, relish, peppers, pickle, celery salt, mustard, and tomatoes. (And the dog itself is, of course, made of beef; not just beef, but Vienna beef, and placed on a poppy seed bun, because any other beef on any other bun will toss the universe out of whack.) Your second thought may be of ketchup, but Chicagoans will recoil in horror at that thought. Hatred of ketchup is something known to unite Cubs fans and White Sox fans. The city tries to bully people about this; some hot dog places don’t even have ketchup available. Others just have assholes at the service counter who insult you to your face for putting ketchup on hot dogs.

Ketchup is treated much the same way you would treat asbestos. The fact that these people drown their french fries in ketchup instead of eating them with salt and vinegar and that mustard is a legal form of torture never seems to bother them. Meanwhile, Buffalo introduced a type of dog called the Texas Red Hot to the planet. Unlike the dicks who vend in Chicago, no one in Buffalo cares what goes on your Texas Red Hot, and long as you’re getting the dogs themselves at a place that makes them halfway decently. There are many of them; Louie’s has its fans, but Ted’s is the consensus place to find a good hot dog in Buffalo.

The Football Fans are Idiots
You would expect to find a sizable number of mouth-breathers among a fanbase which made Mike Ditka, the NFL’s response to Donald Trump, into their patron saint. That’s a good summary of Bears fans. These are fans who bitch if their team committed to something other than outmoded run-first football and growl a lot about “Bear weather,” a make-believe home field advantage offered by Soldier Field’s location alongside Lake Michigan and the blustery winds swirling in. On one hand, you can’t blame Bears fans for looking at the team’s incredible successes on the ground: An amazing nine titles, including a Super Bowl victory in the 1985 season, and a running back roll call of transcendents like Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, Gale Sayers, and the immortal Walter Payton as well as locally memorable runners like Neal Anderson, Matt Forte, Beattie Feathers, and Rick Casares. On the other hand, Bears fans all still seem to believe this style amounts to some insurmountable advantage. They’ll talk up Bear weather as if no other team in the NFL plays in the cold. I would remind fans that it gets pretty damn cold in Buffalo too, and Bears fans, bless their tiny dino brains, tried to argue with me about it. They’ll insist you can’t pass in a Chicago winter, even though a certain outdoor team which plays in even worse weather than Chicago has spent the past two decades showing the Bears differently. Yeah, three of those FOUR Super Bowls the Green Bay Packers have reeled in were all led by Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and that fourth title was guided by another quarterback who plays with the kind of form that leads quarterbacks to the Hall.

And about those titles: That one I mentioned from 1985 happens to be the most recent of them, and fans dwell on it like it’s the only thing that matters. Granted, from everything I’ve gathered about that 1985 team, they were quite memorable, but no other fanbase lives in its past like this. Even the Bills fans old enough to still sing shoulda coulda wouldas about those four Super Bowls set the glory years aside once the current season starts. Deadspin’s Why Your Team Sucks football previews listed Chicago’s sports loyalties a few years ago and placed the 1985 Bears over the current Bears. It was accurate.

Summer is the Real Bad Season
To paraphrase Douglas Adams, Chicagoans honk on mightily about the pleasures of summer, but if Chicagoans knew the first thing about summer, they would also be able to think of at least 3268 places to spend it, and that’s just on the same latitude. The thing about living in Buffalo is that we have the lake effect. Lake Erie might bury us on a regular basis, but come the summer, it becomes an air conditioner which prevents the heat and humidity from becoming unbearable and keeping the city relatively dry, but giving us enough rain for all kinds of gardens to sprout. The summer temperature average in Buffalo is in the low 80’s, and we get an average of three days a year where the temperature hits 90. The city just broke a streak of below-90 days in the last month which was two years long. Buffalo has never had a 100 degree day. Although Chicagoans love to play up their city’s winter weather reputation, that won’t intimidate anyone who spent a long time living in another cold weather area. The summers, though, are like saunas. If they didn’t hit the high 90’s often, it certainly felt like they did, and the humidity frequently got so high that the fish in Lake Michigan didn’t have any trouble making breaks from the lake into cleaner waters. A school of fish taking a pleasant Sunday swim along Lake Shore Drive is capable of holding up traffic and endangering bicyclists. Motorists probably don’t want to get the guts of a splattered Great Lakes trout splattered on their windshields, just because fish guts don’t seem like the kind of thing that would come out very easily if you tried to wash them out with windshield wiper fluid.

Chicago’s Toughness is a Charade
If you move from a smaller city to a major 21st-Century megalopolis like Chicago, it’s only natural to feel a little overwhelmed at first, especially if the megalopolis in question has a reputation for drawing and quartering people. After awhile, though, it will become clear that the only reason Chicago has such a hard reputation is because the local media and frat megadouchebros running around on the Near North Side of the city are the ones who are saying it. You know those guys: Every Dylan and Chad in Lincoln Park or Wrigleyville who was raised in Evanston or North Barrington and is working corporate for six figures because of Daddy’s marketing connections believing they’re suddenly hard because they’re loud, keep getting way too drunk at Cubs games, and bought every worthless piece of junk with Al Capone’s face on it.

I had lived in Chicago around a month when I figured out the city had nothing to show me on the toughness front, but one incident that happened after a few years sticks out to me: Combos – yes, the snack – had released a list of the 50 manliest cities in America, and Chicago was number 48. The only reason I know this is because the local media raised an uproar about it. Naturally, it was mentioned every other page in the following day’s Redeye, and I seem to recall something from the Sun-Times as well. I’m not sure which is worse here: The fact that Chicagoans took an innocuous list written as a promotion by a snack food corporation seriously, or that they were actually offended by it. I could only imagine the reaction if someone brought it up in Buffalo: “Hey, did you hear Buffalo was (some number) on the Combos list of manliest cities?” “The Combos what list now?”

As a close cousin, Chicago is also too under-equipped and prissy to pass itself off as a true winter city as well. It’s a city which has, more than once, run out of its snow removal budget. If there’s heavy snowfall, anyone who can’t dig themselves out will starve to death because their neighbors aren’t going to sweep in and take up the duty themselves. The highest snowfall I experienced during my residency in Chicago was around 15 inches, and it was enough to keep people off the streets for days. People barely went outside, and it was incredible to walk around days later and see how many people didn’t even shovel their front stairs.

That Infuriating Inferiority Complex with New York City
If your sole reason for moving to Chicago from anywhere in upstate New York is to escape New York City’s shadow, don’t. Every now and then there’s lip service to Chicago being the better city – which it is, except the people there don’t seem to believe that themselves. Tell a Chicago native you’re from New York City and watch them light up like they’ve noticed you’re Batman. Seeing a city which holds New York City up to the light – especially one like Chicago – is a slap in the face to someone who came from a place which was very clear about an ethos and attitude toward NYC which said “you want to live in NYC so bad, go fucking live there. Or shut the fuck up about it before we run your ass out of town on a rail.” What the inferiority complex tells everyone is that New York City – with its impossible price ranges for everything, its legions of unaccomplished intellectual nitwits who believe they’re entitled to respect only by virtue of living there, and its upper class which takes every opportunity to flaunt its wealth to the lower classes – is something to be aspired to. I have some mixed feelings about my hometown, but I do still have enough pride in it to say: Chicago, you want to live in NYC so bad, go fucking live there.

Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Tim Horton’s: The Ultimate Donut Shop!

Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Tim Horton’s: The Ultimate Donut Shop!

Ah, donuts. Quite possibly the world’s most perfect pastry treat. It says something that whenever people begin their attacks on large, corporate fast food chains, the big donut shops always seem to escape relatively unscathed. I’m not quite sure what, exactly, it’s saying, but I’m sure it’s something. In any case, donuts are delicious. I love them, you love them, and there’s nothing better than going into a neighborhood donut shop on a freezing winter day to order our favored center-hole (or cream-filled) pastry with a nice cup of hot coffee and reading for an hour.

The big question, of course, is figuring out where you want to go to do that. Well, of course there’s always your local joint, but as much as I promote as much locality as possible in matters like this, there are those local places that just aren’t suited to the quiet atmosphere you’re looking for to get out of the cold and lose yourself inside a book for awhile. So as much as I don’t like going to the big places, they’re good at serving that purpose, and I frequently like to take advantage. If you live in the United States or Canada, your choices for such a joint are set in stone: Americans can take advantage of Dunkin’ Donuts, while Canadians have access to Tim Horton’s. But what if you’re living along the border and have ready access to both? Which one do you go to? Well, I’m one of those rare border people who is as likely to visit Dunkin’ as much as he is Timmy’s, and I say it’s time to mine a definitive answer to which one of these places is better. So let’s do this! Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Tim Horton’s. One day, I’ll learn.

Donuts
Well, these places are both donut shops, so we might as well start with the obvious. Both Dunkin’ and Timmy’s are known and, well, at least tolerated for their abilities to whip up batches of creative donuts. Both bakeries have a habit of expanding their selections on a seasonal basis – Dunkin’ even offers a selection of donuts for Valentine’s Day, featuring donuts filled with cookie dough or brownie batter. Timmy’s goes for a more localized basis, and when football and hockey seasons roll around, they have pastries dedicated to the local teams – even the Bulls if you happen to be on the University of Buffalo campus. In the fall, Timmy’s has pumpkin donuts, and Dunkin’ has a seasonal selection more based around apples. When it comes down to the actual structure of the donuts, though, well, those tend to be pretty different too. The donuts at Dunkin’ Donuts are bigger and more dense while the ones at Tim Horton’s are fluffier, airier, and easier to chew on.
Winner
I know this is blasphemy in this area, but I’m giving this edge to Dunkin’ Donuts. Although I think Tim Horton’s probably has the better selection, I tend to think of donuts as dense treats that need to be washed down with a nice batch of brewed coffee, so the variety at Timmy’s just isn’t going to be an acceptable substitute if I decide I want a regular, classic Boston Creme or peanut donut. Dunkin’ does the classics pretty well, and that’s what this whole section comes down to.

Coffee
There’s nothing like a cup of bold, robust coffee to wash down your pastries, so both places offer combinations that include it, along with a wide variety of ways to spice it up. Both places offer iced coffee and dark roasts, as well as a set of cappuccino drinks. There’s not much else to say about coffee – it’s pleasantly bitter and hot, can go with any food, and is a nice way to warm up.
Winner
Tim Horton’s wins this one by a mile. Not only is their dark roast better, but if you go to Dunkin’ Donuts, you have to order the dark roast in order to have a drink that tastes even remotely like coffee. And even then, the Dunkin’ Donuts dark roast is more like one of those vending machine coffees; something that’s there, quick, painless, and convenient that you can drink when you’re in dire need of a pick-me-up. The regular Dunkin’ Donuts coffee has been likened to dishwater, although I personally prefer to compare it to hot water which has been flavored with ink. There’s not much difference, though, and the message remains the same: Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is something that can be thrown out without regret.

Bagels
The redheaded stepchild of the regular donut, bagels aren’t as soft or sweet, but you get to fill them up with butter and cream cheese. And Dunkin’ Donuts makes its bagels considerably bigger than Tim Horton’s, so there’s more for the price and more room for cream cheese. Unfortunately, Dunkin’ bagels also tend to be rather chewy, and also very difficult to bite off. They’re more like the bagels a lot of us get from grocery store bakeries. The bagels at Timmy’s are smaller, and they don’t offer quite as much variety when it comes to toppings, but if you want the bagel sliced and toasted, first of all, it really tastes like its been sliced and toasted and not merely heated in a saucepan for ten seconds. They are hard but just soft enough for you to be able to eat without chipping your teeth, but Timmy’s isn’t quite as generous with the cream cheese. Both places offer a great variety of bagels, from your regular flavors to temporary seasonal offerings.
Winner
Tim Horton’s. Not only are the bagels more like real bagels, they go a lot better with butter if you’re not up for cream cheese. Also, their bagels are a lot more flavorful and taste like exactly what they’re supposed to taste like. The way they’re baked is excellent – you don’t wear yourself out trying to chew one of them.

Muffins
The larger, tastier, more filling, and less healthy alternative to the donut is an incredible treat at Dunkin’ Donuts. Moist, gooey, and packed with whatever flavor you ordered, there’s really not much of a contest to be had in this department… Until you get to know the various branches of Dunkin’ Donuts are realize they all seem to use very different muffin recipes. And that’s a real key here – Dunkin’ muffins COULD be the best you find anywhere, IF you happen to find a branch that does them well. Unfortunately, just as often, you’re also likely to find Dunkin’ muffins that are stale or dry. Tim Horton’s muffins are significantly smaller, and their best don’t hold a candle to the best at Dunkin’. However, there’s a more interesting selection at Timmy’s, and some of their muffins have small pockets filled with an appropriate cream or jelly. Although Dunkin’ ultimately has the higher quality muffins, Timmy’s makes up for its lesser quality with better consistency – a muffin cooked is going to be done in a particular way whether it’s done at Harborcenter or the University of Buffalo campus. The quality remains the same no matter where you are.
Winner
Tim Horton’s. And my god, what a place for Dunkin’ Donuts to squander its potential. Dunkin’ seemed to find the perfect way to make muffins, and yet, it can’t get that method of baking to every store. Hell, in my experience, it can’t get its baking methods to half its stores, and so you have a scattershot chance of finding the best of any particular kind of muffin that gets served at Dunkin’ Donuts. This kind of roulette has never happened at Tim Horton’s. I’ll grant that Dunkin’s blueberry muffins are consistent, but sometimes, I just want a damn chocolate chip muffin that isn’t fucking stale! Or a pumpkin muffin that doesn’t completely crumble after I take my first bite!

Sandwiches
There’s a decent selection of sandwiches at both donut joints. At Dunkin’ Donuts, you get the feeling that everything that’s not one of their breakfast sandwiches was whipped up in a hurry using leftover breakfast materials with lunch meat. Not that I’m docking them for that in itself, because some of those selections are pretty tasty – their turkey sandwiches make a good, fast lunch sandwich in a pinch. Tim Horton’s does subs – or, really, half-subs, bigger than the sandwiches you’re likely to find at Burger King. There aren’t a whole lot of varieties of them, and it feels more like Timmy’s is banking more on its own selection of infallible breakfast sandwiches, which include biscuit sandwiches. Their selection of breakfast sandwiches is pretty standard, and has the usual ingredients, like eggs, sausage, cheese, and bacon.
Winner
Tim Horton’s. Dunkin’ Donuts seems to have whipped up half its menu as a compliment to its putrid coffee. That’s a bad enough crime as it is, but Dunkin’ compounds it by demanding you pay lunch sandwich prices for most of them. At Tim Horton’s, you can actually get a sizable lunch sandwich for an appropriate price.

And the winner of this contest is Tim Horton’s, and a four-time Stanley Cup champion and Hockey Hall of Famer destroys one of the silliest, most unsophisticated uses of the word “dunk.” Although, let’s be honest: The real winner in this contest would be Ipsento. Or Spot. Or Coffee Culture, or Sweetness 7, or whatever other local cafe serves coffee and pastries for the local intellectuals. The small places seem to get it right every time.

Health, Models, and the Fashion Media

Health, Models, and the Fashion Media

I can’t say I ever understood the appeal of those waif-thin models that kept popping up everywhere back in the 90’s. Their figures were terrible – they all looked like they would soon be whisked away in the next light breeze, plus their apparent attitudes seemed to run the gamut from neutral to indifferent. Occasionally, they might come across as surly. Sure, there was Tyra Banks, but she was an exception; the general rule of 90’s models was that if you threw them off the top of the Sears Tower, they should be able to float down, unharmed.

When Adrianna Lima first broke through in the mid-millennium, I got the sense a big shift in the modeling landscape was about to occur. Then Kate Upton appeared, and all bets were off. It would be a great lie if I wrote that Upton’s radiating sex appeal had nothing to do with her impressive chest, especially considering how often fashion designers put her in clothes which serve to accentuate it. (Let’s call this the Tomb Raider approach.) There is, however, more to Upton’s sex appeal than merely her breasts. I think the ultimate appeal of Kate Upton is that she appears to be healthy and happy working in an industry which, until recently, demanded that no one in it – man or woman – be either. Far from being the bitchy cheerleader or vapid, humorless icebox, Upton always seems prepared with a smile and a witty quip, signs of her being warm, personable, and approachable. Her body type is also different from the 90’s prototype: Although we can’t trick ourselves into believing the average Jane will ever have a body resembling Upton’s, Upton herself doesn’t seem to show any of the typical signs of starvation or deprivation that were once everywhere in the industry. Her ribs aren’t about to claw their way out of her thorax, and her skin doesn’t seem to have any abrasions or tightness which would signify her sharing of one mini-carrot a day with three other models as a diet. In short, Kate Upton takes care of herself.

The fashion media – and hell, we can expand that to include the entire high fashion industry itself – can’t seem to bring itself to figure this out. Both the industry and the media dedicated to covering it have decided that models need to look a certain way, right down to facial expressions during runway shows. Upton is, for some odd reason, assailed by fashion commentators for being too fat. Other criticisms include that she has an average face and that her waist is too large for a true hourglass figure. Upton also has a habit of speaking candidly instead of letting herself being reduced to a smiling, nodding corporate token in her interviews.

Anyone who read my last extinct list knows how I feel about the fashion media, and its appalling treatment and inability to make heads or tails of Kate Upton is a major reason why. The fashion media is the one wing of the news which is even more useless than Fox News. Everyone who covers high-end fashion seems to be even more out of touch with the public than the United States Congress. That, though, could just be the nature of the business. After all, this is a group of so-called journalists who spend all their time watching runway shows which feature clothes with space hooker designs which never seem to find their way to the masses, worn by size -3 models which, because the big-name designers have decided -3 models are the standard-bearers of beauty, the journalists have decided the designers know what they’re talking about and therefore follow suit by being disgusted by a size -2 anorexic.

Now the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue this year is featuring two models who are being constantly referred to as plus-size models. Although current Jeter girl toy Hannah Davis is featured on the cover, the newest Swimsuit Issue is being noted for the presence of Ashley Graham and Robyn Lawley. Lawley is a size 12 and Graham flaunts her size 14 figure. Both of them are drop-dead gorgeous… And both of them are being attacked in the fashion media for having bodies which, by most accounts, can be considered both attainable and normal. Hell, Lawley is deflecting shots these days because there’s a whole other crowd of people who are in an uproar that anyone would ever consider her plus-size. Graham – whose picture I’ve placed in the inset – appears to be a bit bigger than average, but she’s definitely not out of shape.

Now comes the money question: What’s the big deal? Lawley and Graham are a hell of a lot closer to what the girl next door actually looks like. Is the problem with them that Mr. Klein can’t make a bigger version of an outfit which is a dress on one leg and a pant leg on the other that is only going to be seen in show once before the plebes all forget about it? Because if that’s the problem, the uber-rich designers are probably in the wrong line of work.

2015 is shaping up to be one of the most annoying, palm/forehead smacking, bemusement-sighing years on record – it’s only February, and yet the year has already seen some of the most inane controversies imaginable. And this might be the most absurd: Two otherwise gorgeous and healthy women who happen to have very normal body types are in a magazine full of near-naked women. The outrage is being fueled entirely by a wing of the media which is apparently offended by the fact that Ashley Graham and Robyn Lawley both lack visible skeletal structures. That’s the only impetus I can really decipher behind all this animosity.

Suddenly, the days when Barbie was catching flack for her unrealistic body type don’t seem so far gone. We know more about healthy lifestyles then ever before, and there’s a growing section of the populace which is altering its lifestyle in order to be healthy. And yet, here are the vapid chimps in the fashion media, desiring and promoting a body type which little girls were literally starving themselves all throughout the 90’s in order to attain, even as most of the men called the Flockhart body unattractive. Thanks to a band of writers who apparently can’t make their livings writing things that are legit, the planet is now taking a giant step backwards in regards to healthy lifestyles. They’ve gotten so obsessive about unhealthy, impossible thinness that we’re considering normal-sized women fat.

So, how many of these commentators do you think adhere to the standard of beauty they’re busy trying to maintain themselves? My guess is that it’s not too many of them.

Be a Better Halloween Candy Giver

Be a Better Halloween Candy Giver

The premise everyone associates with Halloween also seems to be the one everyone is the most prone to screwing up. You can easily liken it to playing soccer or playing piano in that respect: It’s one of those things which you can very easily figure out what to do. Hell, it’s such such a stupidly easy thing to figure out in just doing the act in and of itself that it’s virtually instinctive. The problem is that so many of the people doing it take the skill for granted, and so they end up royally sucking at it, and they see no need to try to improve. For a society that claims to place a ton of value on the well-being and innocence of its children, we sure don’t care very much about giving out decent treats on Halloween. So, in the interest of being a good public servant, I’m now going to give readers a good list of what to give away and what not to give away for Halloween, along with a few quick guidelines on how to give.

1 – It’s okay to expect kids to say “trick or treat” and “thank you.” It’s not okay to expect a “please.” The “trick or treat” is basically a substitute way of saying “May I please have some candy?”

2 – If you must comment on the costumes, it’s a bad idea to make assumptions of exactly what people are dressed as. You can get away with turning it into a question if you really want to, but you don’t want to risk offending some poor kid because said kid looks like a completely different character than who s/he is claiming to be.

3 – There’s no such thing as an honor system on Halloween, especially if you’re giving away good candy. Unless you have an unlimited supply of self-replenishing candy, you can’t afford to leave a large bowl of candy on your doorstep with a note asking kids to take only one or two pieces. If you’re not personally supervising, kids are going to take as much as their palms will allow, and many have no qualms about diving back in for seconds. If you want to monitor how much candy the kids take, you have to personally sit on the stoop yourself, so don’t try to plan anything that will force you to leave a bowl sitting outside.

4 – If there’s a particular kind of candy you don’t like, don’t pawn it off on any kids. Why would you give them anything you don’t personally approve of?

5 – Along those same lines, don’t use Halloween as an excuse to just pawn off leftovers, either.

6 – Unlike a lot of other people who write out these things, I’m willing to personally endorse giving out healthier treats. What I’ll never endorse are pennies or religious literature. Pennies don’t buy anything, and not nearly enough people give them out on any given Halloween night to make them amount to anything; religious literature is not only tasteless, it turns you into a hypocrite as well. If you’re giving out tracts, guess what: You’re still participating in this Pagan holiday you claim to be against.

Good Candy

Mini-candy Bars
These are absolutely gold. All the taste of a full-size candy bar wrapped up in a smaller, more affordable package which can easily be bought and given away in bulk.

Peanut Butter Cups
These are the very best. No matter the size, peanut butter and chocolate is always a winning combination.

Nerds
A definite crowd-pleaser with 80’s aficionados, Nerds are nice little pebbles of candy which usually combine a pair of fruit flavors.

Peppermint Patties
Not outright healthy, but they don’t do nearly as much damage as a lot of the other candies I’m including on this list. The regular-sized York patties only have two fat grams and 140 calories, so if you’re a health nut looking to maximize the best of both worlds, these are by far your best option.

Junior Mints
Bite-sized, more liquidated versions of the above.

Starburst
Another tasty option which is friendlier to your body, Starburst candy really does unleash a gush of flavor into your mouth which you can still taste afterward.

Lifesavers
These are one of the few fruit hard candies that are served in packages which include a handful in a single serving. They’re delicious, juicy, and it’s easy to eat them in spite of their hard texture.

Necco Wafers
An unusual choice for people with more unusual palettes, I always did like these things. They’re simple and can be popped quickly and easily.

Raisinettes
No, Halloween isn’t a good time of year to let your instincts to good health rule you, but it’s easy to get away with it simply by cloaking the raisin in a nice veil of chocolate.

Boston Baked Beans
These fall under the “simple pleasure” category, offering a small shot of sugar covering a regular peanut. Boston Baked Beans are actually a great substitute for peanut M&M’s, except without the chocolate between the candy coating and the peanut. nd while no one should complain about receiving M&M’s of any kind of Halloween, let’s face it: The peanut flavor is dominated by the peanut.

Bad Candy

Candy Corn
Look, I realize these are a sign of the season, but they’re nothing but sickly-sweet sugar packs with a little bit of food dye. They taste nothing like traditional autumn harvest foods, and have nothing notable about them except those dye jobs. They don’t even really look like corn unless you stack them a certain way.

Now and Later
These seem to be ostensibly taffy-based candies. Every time you try to bite down into them, though, they turn out to be hard as diamonds, and then when you finally get them thawed, they take forever to chew and get stuck between your teeth for hours.

Bite-sized Candy Bars
These are nothing but less-satisfying versions of any of the bigger ones. The only reason they exist is because some evil corporation was trying a new way to save money. Plus they’re all wrapped up individually, which makes them a big pain to try to eat in succession.

Bubble Gum
Good for your teeth, so goes the advertisement (the sugar content argues otherwise), but that’s if you take the time to chew it. No one wants to spend ten minutes wearing out the flavor in a piece of gum when there’s chocolate sitting right next to them. Also, a lot of the gum has the texture of concrete as well, and that’s no good for anyone when they try to take that first bite down.

Jawbreakers
These have the same problem as bubble gum. They’re tough to eat, and they take an awful lot of time to finish off. Without trying to place too fine a point on it, the name Jawbreakers isn’t some exaggeration, either; it’s pretty easy to chip or knock out a tooth with one of these things in your mouth.

Tootsie Rolls
These are supposed to be chocolate-flavored taffy, but your standards for good chocolate would have to be awfully low for these things to qualify. They taste more like chocolate imitation than anything, and the texture reeks of harder candy corn than taffy.

Smarties
There are a lot of candies that should just be advertising themselves as nothing but generic, processed sugar pops, but no other candy is as blatant about it as Smarties.

Jolly Ranchers
These things can’t even be categorized. They’re another thing you can’t chew. And by that, I don’t mean you eventually can chew them, like Jawbreakers and hard candy, or that they’re soft candies like Now and Later which just got hard. No, Jolly Ranchers were made to be sucked, and they can be stuck in your mouth for upwards of 20 minutes.

Lemonheads
If your favorite cleaning product was broken down and processed into dried sugar, these are what it would taste like.

Dots
More processed sugar trying to masquerade as fruit flavor, there no no fruit to be had anywhere within. They just baked the sugar, injected some food coloring, and somehow put them at that weird medium where they’re chewy but still very hard to chew to the point where they keep getting stuck in your teeth.

Thinking Inside the Box About Wine

Thinking Inside the Box About Wine

I frequently buy whisky in plastic bottles.

It isn’t because I have some kind of preference for plastic bottle whisky. It’s merely an issue of convenience. The few times I go out to buy whisky, I’m riding my bicycle more often than not, which means I’ll have nothing more than a (frequently crowded) backpack to carry it in. The plastic doesn’t cost any more or less than the glass, and it also weighs less and won’t break against whatever reading material I happen to be carrying. And when you get stuck buying whisky on the pedal, the choice is just that obvious.

Unfortunately, hard alcohol has one of those finer thing reputations, and my preference for plastic bottles leaves hard liquor aficionados thumbing their noses at me. Apparently, there’s some great difference between the taste of Evan Williams in a glass bottle and Evan Williams in a plastic bottle which only the most sensitive and sophisticated palette can comprehend. I myself have never been able to taste such a difference, but then again, sophisticated whisky nuts are now raising their noses to me and pointing out that I drink Evan Williams, so what the fuck do I know? Aside from the fact that plastic bottle whisky is a surefire sign of redneckdom and the sophisticates would cross the street to avoid my coveralls with one strap unhitched, lack of any shirt whatsoever underneath, and ability to say every sentence beginning with a loud “duh!”

Wine, of course, has a much similar stigma to shake. Actually, it’s not all that similar; it’s actually much worse. Everyone is familiar with the idea of boxed wine, but no one particularly wants to try to wrap their heads around the concept. As it happens, I’ve drank my share of boxed wine too. Every year, Rob’s competitive barbeque team, the Buffalo Meatheads, starts the barbeque season by holding a fundraiser dinner at the South Buffalo Social Club. And by “fundraiser dinner,” I don’t mean one of those suit and black tie affairs where everyone dresses in their Sunday best, sits at circular tables, gets served a single dinner which could be held in your fist, and listens to motivational speeches from the popular football players of the hour. These are extremely blue-collar cookouts. The team cooks its competitive best, artery-clogging brisket, pulled pork, barbeque chicken, beans, mac and cheese, and more and gives it all out all-you-can-eat buffet style. Are you a health nut? You’re suspending your diet for the day, Jack.

The only trace of sophistication is in the drinks selection – light beer and wine. The light beer is of course a crime for which the whole team needs to be punished, preferably by being forced to drink light beer. Most wine diehards will argue the Meatheads need to be punished for the wine in a similar fashion. It’s boxed wine, after all. There’s just something about boxed wine which makes even the most liberal, tree-hugging wine aficionado recoil in disgust before talking up the virtues of the bottle and cork supplied from Italy and France.

Face it: Wine by bottle and cork is growing into an antiquated concept all by itself. I think it’s insane that people make a big deal over not only having a cork – as opposed to a regular, everyday screw top – but constantly bitching over what the proper material for a cork should be. Some are make of rubber, some are made of plastic, and others are made of real cork. This causes some sort of endless debate in the wine community because the tastes of all three can apparently be easily detected by the sophisticated palette. What a lot of these wine nuts share is contempt for the screw top – we have fortified wines (those are the uber-cheap wines sold chilled at the seedy corner store in the bad part of town, and the ones you’re afraid homeless people will buy when you give them money) to thank for that – and the boxed wine. None of those corks, however, are able to solve a very fundamental problem: When you get the cork out, you can’t put it back in. A lesser-known problem that I’ve personally experienced is when the cork breaks off. I can hear the wine crowd preparing their lectures on how my cork was likely made of not only the wrong material, but the wrong material from the wrong place.

Boxed wine solves that problem nicely. It comes with a tap. And without a cork, there’s no cork taint, and it takes a special kind of person to believe a condition which is detrimental to the wine is some kind of flavor enhancer.

The boxed stuff will stay fresh a lot longer, too – four weeks, minimum. The problem with a lot of wine snobs is they’re so used to drinking stuff that’s been oxidized in bottles, they have never had a pure form of wine and don’t know a damn thing about how it’s supposed to taste. The bag the wine is sitting in prevents oxidization, so the wine stays fresh for awhile, and air doesn’t get into the bag. Yeah, that tap only goes one way, and when the wine starts to pour, the tap makes a big difference.

It’s safe to hypothesize that part of the reason boxed wine is cheaper than bottled wine is because the plastic bags and box shell are cheaper to produce. There are wine companies that prefer to use boxed wine for this very reason, and this is a huge benefit to people who need wine. How much does a single bottle of wine hold? A standard wine bottle will hold 750 ml, which isn’t any larger than a standard bottle of whisky. A wine box will usually hold at least three liters, which is over three bottles of wine. Three liters seems to be a standard, although I’ve seen plenty of wine boxes holding 3.5 liters or up to five liters, and you can get that for as little as $20. There’s no such thing as having too much wine, unless of course you bought it in a bottle and were forced to drink the entire thing in a single night because you couldn’t find a stopper.

To thrill the tree huggers who hate boxed wine for some reason, boxed wine is better for the environment than bottled wine. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but plastic and cardboard are both much easier to recycle than glass.

We’re beyond the bad old days here. And with the upcoming generation having a big focus on a more sustainable society, there shouldn’t be so much shame in going out for a giant box of wine. Let’s look over the advantages: Price, freshness, don’t need a stopper, easier to open, won’t spoil anywhere nearly as quickly, and boxed wine containers won’t shatter. There’s no reason for the boxed wine stigma to exist, given advantages like those. Disadvantages? Um…. You can’t tell how much you have left? Doesn’t look as classy without a fancy colored bottle? Uh…. Can’t carry it around in my backpack when I’m bicycling.

The Great Pizza War

The Great Pizza War

The relentless narcissism of New York City recently made it place a free-standing structure on top of its shiny new, skyline-defining skyscraper in order to win the country’s tallest building crown on a ridiculous technicality. After the announcement, some commentators said it didn’t matter, and that we all knew which city had the better pizza. Okay, buildings are one thing; pizza is the thing here that really matters. And indeed, we do know which city has the better pizza, but there are some folks who simply don’t want to accept it. Like, just to pick a random example, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.

After the announcement and an offhand comment about Chicago-style pizza being better, Stewart went off on one of his most spectacular rants, decrying the famous deep dish. In response, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was characteristically weak. In a move that wasn’t met with quite as much publicity, he sent a couple of deep dish pizzas to The Daily Show studios in New York City. There was a note too, something along the lines of “dead fish.” I guess that would indicate the pizzas were filled with anchovies. Whatever point Mayor Emmanuel was trying to prove is lost on me. What’s worse is that the interpretation of the gesture is so open to interpretation that some onlookers took it as Chicago’s concession. The Daily Show responded to that with some grainy footage of a dog taking a quick whiff of the deep dish and running off in horror. Rahm, uh, what the hell were you trying to do anyway? Yeah, you need to leave this to the pros. Like me.

There’s no doubt to me about which pizza is better, and there shouldn’t be to you, either. Given the option, what will you take – a pizza or a thin piece of paper that has to be crammed into your mouth whole in order for it to be bite-sized? Yeah, that’s what I thought. If you want to eat a thin crust pizza, make sure you don’t overdo the beer because when you get too drunk and pass out onto the pizza, that crust isn’t anywhere close to thick enough to cushion the blow. You’ll slam your head against the surface of the table too hard and kill yourself.

Let’s cut to the heart of what New York-style pizza is: It’s sopped paper with red paint and melted wax on top. What’s more, it’s limp. How does one eat a piece of pizza when it keeps literally falling flat when you’re trying to take a bit out of it? New York-style pizza is a kind of pizza that literally can’t stand on its own.

Yeah, deep dish pizza is thick enough to crawl into and sleep inside to keep warm. Somehow, this is treated like some kind of big problem. I tried to crawl under a New York-style pizza to keep warm once and I ended up getting hypothermia.

Sauce on top, toppings and cheese cooked into the bottom crust. You know what this is? This is the perfect redefinition of a pizza. Any idiot can put the ingredients on the top of the pizza in a flash, ramp up the oven, and burn the thing, but it takes a real master to place everything in a position where it’s poised to fall out of the pizza upon slicing it open and it doesn’t. The thickness is beautiful in the incredible explosion of taste you get when you stuff a piece into your mouth and bite down and realize deep dish pizza isn’t exactly hurting for toppings.

At some point, someone will try to make the portability argument, but since when the hell is pizza supposed to be a portable food? Am I planning on gorging myself on the L? What’s disgusting is trying to imagine a proponent of New York-style pizza on the subway, standing with his hand raised a foot over his mouth because New York-style pizza is lim as hell, gently trying to lower the tip to get a bite which will probably taste like the surrounding air because New York-style pizza is so thin that all the surrounding smells and tastes can be absorbed into it in rapid order, like with baking soda, and it will quickly overcome the actual (nonexistent) taste of the pizza itself. This is something New Yorkers conveniently forget: Their pizza quickly absorbs every smell from the wood grain to the stale metals, but they taste it and call it pizza. There’s no talking them out of it, since they believe America west of the Hudson River is a myth, and have therefore never left New York City to try eating a real pizza in their lives.

Yeah, there’s no doubt that one of those cities’ pizza is better than the other. Chicago is the clear choice. You try going with New York City “pizza,” just save yourself a lot of trouble, pick up the entire pizza tray, and start licking it, because that’s the only way you’ll ever be able to taste it.

Food Fascism and the Chicago-Style Hot Dog

Food Fascism and the Chicago-Style Hot Dog

The Chicago-style hot dog has an odd, complex list of ingredients. It begins with the hot dog itself: Beef. Vienna beef, to be excruciatingly specific, like everything about the iconic food’s yum factor hinges on the ballpark sausage’s being not only beef, but Vienna beef! Also, the bun, which absolutely, positively must be a poppy seed bun. When the missing Dead Sea Scrolls are discovered, I’m quite certain this will be among the Lost Commandments. Once those are established, see if you can run down the rest of the toppings ten times fast: Tomatoes. Dill pickles. Sweet relish. Mustard. Celery salt. White onions. Chili peppers.

Got all that? That’s no hot dog, that’s a sausage salad on a bun. It’s practically vegetarian.

My first experience with the Chicago-style hot dog was a little bit confusing for me. It wasn’t because of the topping list; if you need a Chicago-style dog, just ask the vendors, because they’ll always know what they’re doing better than you do. My confusion stemmed more from the fact that I had no idea how to actually eat the damn thing, beyond the part where I put small chunks of it into my mouth, bite them off, chew them, and swallow. My parents raised me the right way, and pounded good manners into my head so that I conduct myself like a gentleman whenever I eat in public. Looking at the overfed frank, I asked myself, so is it acceptable to use a fork on this thing, like with the pizza? Or am I expected to just cram it into my mouth whole?

Chicago has managed to build an entire culture of food centered around this thing. Chicago boasts more hot dog vendors then McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger Kings put together. Yet, people in Chicago don’t see any problem leaving out any of that giant topping list when they want to cook their own hot dogs for the Independence Day barbeque. It’s almost as if they can’t actually remember what all the toppings are. I’m tempted to think they’re agreeing with me in secret by forgetting the toppings, and admitting this hot dog topping motherload is tedious and cumbersome.

If you’re able to somehow stuff a part of the Chicago-style hot dog into your mouth, what follows is an odd – but admittedly delicious – taste brew of the bitter, tangy, and sweet. Usually the pickles, tomatoes, and peppers aren’t a part of that brew in my case because I’ve already picked them off and eaten them individually, wondering all the while if I was robbing myself of the full Chicago-style hot dog experience by doing so. While Chicagoans swear by these toppings, I don’t know how many of them eat the dog in its complete form. Do they remove the bigger toppings too, or try to eat the entire thing as it’s presented? In the years I spent living in Chicago, I never figured out how to properly gorge myself on one of these things. While the Chicago-style hot dog has become an enduring symbol of Chicago’s food culture, to me it became my own personal symbol of the fact that I wasn’t from Chicago, no matter how much I established myself there.

The most grating aspect of devotion to this giant, cumbersome grab bag of hot dog toppings is the city’s attitude toward ketchup. Chicago people have trouble remembering all the toppings on their hot dogs and rarely have them all around for home cookouts, but they’re all convinced that of all the toppings, ketchup never, ever goes on top of a hot dog. One of my good friends in Chicago, Scott, joked that that’s how everyone would know I wasn’t a native – I put ketchup on my hot dog. I can’t comprehend my dogs without the stuff. I’m not talking about adding it to the salad the Chicago dog masquerades as, but ketchup on a hot dog, in any context. Even a lot of hot dog vendors in Chicago have bought into this foodie dictatorship and don’t even have ketchup available on the side.

Honestly, in a pinch, what the hell else am I supposed to use? Mayo? Olive oil? I’m not averse to avoiding ketchup when toppings are plentiful and I get to be choosy, but when I whip up a couple of beef dogs – Hebrew National, thank you very much – and have nothing on hand, am I expected to just take my dogs and bread the ten-hour Amtrak ride out to Chicago just to properly drench them in a fashion that drowns out the taste of the meat? Even merely removing the ketchup from the topping lineup means I’m faced with the viscous, bitter yellow semen known as mustard, one of the most insufferable substances to have ever been inflicted on this planet.

Tell you what: When I’m in Chicago and eating a hot dog, I’ll try to avoid disgusting you with ketchup as long as there’s enough acceptable toppings there as options. Don’t expect me to ruin my lunch by force-feeding mustard to a taste palate which violently rejects it if that’s all there is. And don’t expect me to not get disgusted if I have to watch you destroy your french fires by pouring loads of ketchup onto them instead of salt and vinegar, the way the gods intended for them to be eaten.