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Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

“Schie” the worker’s soup from “Mother Russia”

In Recipies on February 28, 2011 at 11:38 am

 

Meatless, satisfying, fast, and economical...that's "schie"!

Hungry workers of the world, unite!

 

 

Wages, if you are fortunate enough to have a job, are flat.  A recent article in Phyne’s local newspaper says wages are 25% lower than they were in 2008.  Engineering graduates are waiting tables.  Small business owners are frantically searching for another corner to cut in order to make ends meet.  Former managers juggle two (or three) part-time jobs, or toil at low status jobs they once hired “others” to do.  Eating “out” has become a memory for many and they come home, exhausted, to a cold stove, or shove some pre-packaged “something” into the microwave before falling into their beds.

 

The last thing these workers need is another pretentious review of someone else’s foi gras.

 

What if they could make a homemade soup, from “scratch”, almost as fast as opening a can of pre-made, store-bought soup?  What if all of the ingredients for such a soup only cost a few dollars, yet could feed their hungry family?  What if this soup used no meat?  What if such a soup could be cooked while they change out of their workaday clothes?

 

It can!

 

Phyne Dyning is proud to present schie, the worker’s cabbage soup from Mother Russia.

 

While we often think of Russian food as being course, stout, or downright heavy, schie is anything but those things.  It is a light, yet highly satisfying, vegetarian soup.

 

But this is no watery cabbage soup from the gulag kitchen.  This is not a soup that sits, simmering its promise, for hours on the stove.  The ingredients can be prepared in about ten minutes and cooks in less than thirty.

 

“Light” does not imply a watery, tepid base with a few leaves of cabbage floating in it.  Perhaps “bright” is a better descriptive adjective for schie.  While much of the brightness comes from the vegetables, schie gets its brilliance from…

 

Wait for it!!!

 

…pickle juice.

 

Come back!

 

Adding acid to soups is well known to professional cooks and chefs.  They use lemon juice, vinegar, wine, cider, or even whole apples to give soups a bright flavor.  Without a bit of acidity, a soup can remain flat and emotionless.

 

Novice cooks sometimes think flat soups need more salt and they hopefully add more and more salt until the result is highly salty, colored water.  Sometimes, just a teaspoon of lemon juice is enough to wake up the soup flavor…and use less salt.

The workers need a hearty soup that can be prepared in a short time and at minimal cost per serving.

 

So, here it is…schie.

 

1 large onion (think softball-size or bigger) thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic minced

1 medium turnip diced

3 carrots peeled and cut into matchsticks

1 potato peeled and cut into large dice

1 TBS dried dill weed

1 C WHITE, button mushrooms thick sliced

½ head of green cabbage coarsely chopped or shredded (about 1 ½ pounds).

4 C vegetable broth (or chicken stock)

¼ C olive oil

¼ tsp white pepper

4 bay leaves

2-3 TBS kosher DILL pickle juice

kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

 

In a large stockpot, heat the olive oil over low-medium heat.  Add the onion, garlic, carrots, and turnip.  Sprinkle a PINCH of kosher salt over the vegetables as they cook.  Cook until the onion begins to get translucent (about 10 minutes), be careful not to brown the vegetables.  Add the bay leaves, potato, half of the dill, mushrooms, and vegetable broth (or chicken stock).  Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover.  Be careful not to overcook the soup into “mush”.  The soup only needs to cook about 20-25 minutes (until the potato is easily forked).  Just before serving, add in the rest of the dill and the 2-3 TBS of pickle juice and stir.  Serve a hearty helping of the vegetables, surrounded by a bit of broth.  Season generously with ground black pepper.  Serves well with a crusty bread…such as a baguette.

Let them bake bread!

In Recipies on February 28, 2011 at 11:33 am

 

Now, THAT's bread!

“Food”, throughout most of human history, usually meant “bread”.  The food-laden table of today would be fantasy for our not-too-distant ancestors.  Wars were fought over bread supplies and revolutions fomented whenever bread was in short supply.  The wise monarch or emperor ensured that the regular folk had sufficient bread as a measure to keep the peace.

 

 

“Let them eat cake” probably did not seem clever from the depths of a basket at the end of a guillotine.

 

The bread of our ancestors was course and rough.  In lean years, sawdust would be added as a measure to ensure more bulk to the bread and make it more filling.  The “upper crust” was less likely to contain fragments of stone from the miller’s wheel; it commanded a higher price and was coveted by the wealthy.

 

The commoners ate peasant breads that would sop up watery soups and sauces and still retain a chewy consistency.  Ingredients for soups and sauces were costly and a frugal eater mopped every drop and drip from the bottom of his or her wooden bowl or plate.

 

Baguettes, Italian loaves, pitot, and Russian (white) breads fill my bill as peasant breads.  Why?   It may be because so many of my entrées are peasant faire and are best enjoyed with thick, crusty, chewy bread.

 

The closest to store-bought bread to be found in my home are loaves picked up from La Mie when their bakery sets up at the Downtown Farmer’s Market.  Another vendor offers challah (which they parenthetically label “egg bread”).  I have never tried their version.

 

There is something off-putting about loaves of challah displayed below a grinning cartoon pig…the vendor is also a BBQ stand.

 

To each his own, but I regard sliced, white bread sold in plastic bags as one of the more foul “advances” of modernity.  “Wonder” indeed!

 

Such bread is surely a great convenience, but bread baking need not be thought of as an all-consuming chore requiring the luxury of great expanses of “nothing to do” time.  Americans kill hours of time in front of televisions and computer screens.  What better time to bake loaves of wonderful-smelling bread.

 

I am amazed that bread baking is not more vigorously pursued.  Nothing beats the aroma of baking bread and there are few pleasures greater than breaking off a still-warm piece, slathering it with butter, and chewing it in absolute bliss.

 

Since Phyne Dyning is not about food snobbery, the Phyne Dyner encourages readers to pursue bread baking in any manner possible.  Bread from a bread machine is infinitely superior to store-bought loaves and my recipes are easily adapted to a bread machine.

 

Traditional bread baking is hardly labor-intensive.  I am a bit mystified when my guests gush, “Oh my!  You actually baked bread for tonight?”

 

Why not?  The amount of “active” time one spends in the bread baking process is around 30-45 minutes, at best.  The rest of the time is spent…waiting.  While my dough is rising, I clean up bowls and workspaces.  Then, when the bread is finished, there is very little cleanup do be done.

 

Baking bread is a bit like doing laundry.  In today’s world, the latter consists largely of dumping dirty clothing into a machine, tossing in some soap, and pushing a button.

 

Exhausting?  Hardly.

 

I do most of my bread baking in winter.  I get dozens of loaves of bread and “free” heat for the house.  Peasant breads are best baked at very high oven temperatures and the resulting waste heat is a virtual supplemental heat source.  And baking in a properly moist oven adds a bit of much-needed humidity to the room.

 

Baking 6-12 loaves at a time seems daunting.  What is not eaten immediately goes to the freezer.  The loaves thaw and warm wonderfully fresh (in 10-15 minutes) in a 375-degree oven.

 

Although we were recently teased with a few days of Spring-like weather, it is a sure bet that we are due for more snow and frigid days in Iowa…America’s Ukraine.

 

That gives you ample time to bake two of my staple breads and take advantage of the resulting “free” heat.

 

My favorites are French baguettes and my modified Italian bread.  These are crusty loaves that serve well alongside one-pot meals and soups.  They can be split, covered with oil, vegetables, feta, and herbs and broiled into light bruschetta.

 

Man has been baking bread for centuries without fancy mixers.  That said; a heavy-duty stand mixer with a bread hook takes a lot of the effort out of home bread making.  However, one piece of equipment is indispensable if you want a nice, cylindrical loaf: a baguette pan.  An instant-read thermometer is helpful when warming water to the right temperature for yeast budding.

 

Sure, the baguette pan is a worthwhile $20 piece of kitchen equipment.  But, then again, a loaf with a flat bottom is hardly a reason not to bake wonderfully aromatic homemade bread and part ways with store-bought loaves.

 

Let’s start with the French Baguette.

 

A French law dictates the ingredients allowed for the baguette (flour, water, salt, and yeast).  No other ingredients may be used and still be called a baguette.  The law was probably enacted by very rigid minded Germans who dropped by Paris for dinner and who usually stayed several years after the dessert course.

 

The baguette is the quintessential peasant bread.  It tends to be a dense loaf with a crust that can vary from “crunchy” to “barely chewable”.  Do not confuse the baguette with much softer French bread.  The baguette has been described by many Englishmen as, “an edible cricket bat”.

 

Its nature makes it an ideal accompaniment for the wonderful soups and stews we make during cool to colder months.

 

The ingredients are basic:

 

4 C all-purpose flour

2 tsp yeast

1 tsp salt

1 ½ C warm water (110F)

pinch of sugar (unauthorized by the French law)

 

The sugar helps the yeast get started.  Purists can substitute ½ tsp of flour for the sugar.  Water temperature is somewhat critical.  Too cool, and the yeast will not grow.  Too hot, and the yeast can be killed by the heat.

 

If desired, a couple of tablespoons of wheat germ can be added to the flour.

 

(FUN FACT: A cooking historian told me that bakers of old frequently mixed some saliva with a bit of flour before mixing in the yeast.  It seems a credible tale, as enzymes in saliva break down starches to form simple sugars that would nourish the yeast.  Try it with a saltine cracker.  Keep chewing the cracker long enough and it will begin to taste sugary.  Sure, the story has a bit of “ick” factor.  But remember, the bread is eventually baked at high temperature and would likely kill any germs from the cook’s saliva.)

 

Add the yeast and sugar to ¾ C of the warm water and set aside for at least 10 minutes (or until frothy).  Place the flour and salt in a mixing bowl and mix thoroughly for about 2-5 minutes.  Thorough mixing of the flour and salt is critical.  Pockets of concentrated salinity (salt) will kill the yeast mixture and result in a flat loaf.  Pour the yeast/water/sugar mixture into the flour and allow it to incorporate using the bread hook.  Slowly add the remaining water until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.  When the dough no longer sticks to the side of the bowl, it is ready for kneading.

 

Lightly flour a kneading surface and your hands.  Knead the dough for about ten minutes.  If the dough is too dry, moisten your hands with a SMALL bit of water and knead to the proper consistency.  If the dough is too sticky, add a sprinkle of flour.  Lightly oil a large bowl and place the dough inside.  Cover with a damp towel.  Put in a warm place to rise.

 

(Note:  When I am preparing the other items, I turn my oven to 200F.  When the dough is ready to rise, I turn off the oven and place the dough within.)

 

Allow to rise for 1-hour, or until doubled in size.

 

Punch down the dough and divide it into two equal portions.  Form each portion into a smooth ball and then roll each ball into a cylinder.  Place the cylinders on a lightly oiled baguette pan, re-cover, and return to the warm oven for 30-45 more minutes to rise.

 

Remove the pan from the oven.   Place the rack on the lower 1/3 and another rack just below it.  Place a shallow (metal) pan underneath, nearly filled with water.  Pre-heat the oven to 425F, according to an oven thermometer.

 

CAREFULLY open the oven door (there will be steam inside) and place the pan on the rack above the water pan.  Bake for 25-30 minutes.  Then CAREFULLY remove the pan of water.  Continue baking until the loaf is deeply golden and sounds hollow when thumped (about 5 minutes).  Cool on a wire rack.

Modified Italian Bread

 

I am sometimes (often) hard-pressed to tell the difference between commercially prepared Italian bread and commercially prepared French bread.

 

I suspect commercially prepared French bread is baked by Germans (or Il Duce’s Italians).

 

The Italians add a couple of tablespoons of (olive) oil to the French recipe and this gives the Italian loaf a bit more of an “open” internal structure.  This more open structure lends itself to soaking up thick sauces, whereas the closed structure of French bread lends itself to sopping up soups.  I modify the Italian method a bit further by adding a bit of milk, which will give the bread a slightly smoother texture and a bit softer crust.

 

The recipe is very similar to that for the baguette:

 

4 C all-purpose flour

2 tsp salt

2 tsp sugar (or honey)

2 tsp yeast

2 TBS olive oil

¾ C milk (room temperature)

¾ C warm water (110F)

 

Refer to the section on baguette baking for more detail.  The following is a skeletonized version of the process for Italian loaves which is nearly identical to that for the baguette.

 

Mix the sugar (or honey), yeast, and warm water and set aside for 10-12 minutes.  Thoroughly mix the salt and flour as for the baguettes.  Stir in the olive oil.  When the yeast mixture is frothy, add it to the flour-salt mix using a dough hook.  Slowly add the milk.  Process with the dough hook until the dough ball no longer sticks to the sides of the mixing bowl.   The dough should be very smooth and elastic when ready to knead.  It will be noticeably smoother and less dense dough than for the baguette.

 

Create a warm oven as for the baguettes.  Knead the dough for about 5 minutes and place it in a lightly oiled bowl.  Cover with a damp cloth and place in the warm oven for 1-hour or until doubled in size.

 

Prepare two cylinders of dough and place them in the baguette pan as you did for the baguettes.  Cover, and allow to rise for an additional 30-45 minutes.  Remove while you prepare your 425F oven with the water pan in place.  Place the baguette pan on the rack above the water and bake for 25-30 minutes.  Remove the water pan and brush the tops of the loaves with a bit of milk.  Return to the oven for an additional 5 minutes until tops brown.

 

I generally bake bread one day per week.  It is a cooking activity that can be done while attending to other home chores, such as laundry.  The result can be frozen for later use, or enjoyed right out of the oven.

Pesce Pesto, Pronto

In Recipies on February 10, 2011 at 2:30 pm

 

And you thought it was only good for toothpaste pranks!

 

 

Pesce Pesto Pronto over Whole Wheat Angel Hair Pasta

 

“Pesce” means “fish” in Italian.

 

Sit down.  Sit down.  We’re not making fish pesto.

 

The recipe I use calls for anchovies.  (Sit down.  Sit down.)  We just used some in the Coastal Normandy Vegetable recipe.  You wondered, “How will I ever use any more anchovy paste?”

 

This pesto is wonderful when tossed with whole-wheat angel hair.  I prefer whole-wheat pastas because I like any pasta cooked a bit al dente. If I get distracted when making regular pasta, it tends to get overcooked and slimy.  Yuck!

 

Yes, the Phyne Dyner is not perfect.  Sometimes I goof up and overcook things.

 

Of course, all fresh ingredients may be used.  But when you’re standing in the middle of the kitchen pondering what to make for supper after getting home from one of your two (or three) part-time jobs, the stuff in the cabinet fits the bill and still makes a pretty nice presentation.

 

½ tsp garlic powder

2 TBS dried parsley

½ tsp dried oregano

¼ tsp dried thyme

½ tsp dried basil

¼ C ground Romano cheese

½ C panko (bread crumbs) ¼ C reserved

2 TBS olive oil

1 tsp anchovy paste or minced anchovy fillets

Red pepper flakes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

 

(Whole Wheat) Angel Hair pasta for four – cooked per package instructions.

 

Quartered cherry tomatoes and green onion tops for garnish (if desired).

 

Mix all ingredients in a bowl, except for reserved panko and pepper flakes.  Mix thoroughly.  Toss the pesto with the hot pasta.  When thoroughly mixed, sprinkle remaining panko on top, sprinkle a pinch of red pepper flakes on top, and garnish with cherry tomato quarters and green onion tops (if desired).

Bringing the Beach to Normandy Vegetables

In Recipies on February 10, 2011 at 2:27 pm

 

Alors! Les Vegetables de Normandie sur la Mer

Coastal Normandy Vegetables

 

 

The Normandy-style blend of vegetables is one of our favorite side dishes.  Most commercial, frozen blends are a mixture of cauliflower florets, broccoli florets, yellow carrots, and baby carrots.  The frozen blends are easily prepared in a microwave or steamed on the stovetop.  A Normandy blend can also be made using fresh ingredients from your local farmer’s market.

 

It is February in America’s Ukraine, Iowa.  Today, we’ll use the frozen blend.

 

Many people are familiar with the anchovy only as a rubbery, too salty, and very fishy pizza topping that should be avoided at all costs.  This recipe uses anchovy paste or minced anchovies to give Normandy blend vegetables a coastal flair.

 

I prefer using the paste because it is easy to uniformly stir into the butter sauce.  And, the tube can be re-closed and stored in the fridge.  The fillets can be used by purists who may enjoy bits of intense fish flavors in every bite.

 

4C frozen Normandy blend (1C serving per person)

2 TBS butter or margarine

¼ tsp garlic powder

1 tsp anchovy paste or minced anchovies

salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

 

In a small saucepan, melt the butter or margarine and stir in the remaining ingredients.  Allow to stand for about 10 minutes for the flavors to blend. Steam or microwave the Normandy vegetables according to package instructions.  Pour the butter sauce over the hot vegetables and toss.

 

An elegant, but fast side dish couldn’t be faster.

The State of the Union Road Trip

In Editorial, Lifestyle on February 10, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Capturing the dichotomy between the two states of the Union

Phyne Dyning was launched as a counter to the pretentiousness of the foodie craze that has been sweeping across America over the past couple of years.  Unlike other food blogs Phyne Dyning seeks to bring new and exciting flavors to everyday dishes.  The average home cook typically relies on 10-14 menu items for the supper menu and uses take-away food to break up the monotony.

Phyne Dyning is not about economics or politics.  However, the emerging American reality is one where unemployment and underemployment results in food insecurity for many families.  And, even if job loss has not touched food providers, skyrocketing food prices are beginning to deeply impact what the home chef is able to bring home to prepare.

In recent months, The Phyne Dyner has seen a package of all-beef Polish kielbasa shrink from 16-ounces to 14-ounces, while the price for the same product jumped from $2.69 to $3.89.  An $18, 2-pound bag of bulk pine nuts has become a $25, 1.5-pound purchase.  Rising fuel and commodity prices will only add to the financial pain home chefs are just beginning to feel.

Phyne Dyning is undergoing a makeover.  If readers are seeking dinner ideas served alongside $40/bottle vodka, they will not find them here.  Menu items will draw from homegrown and locally grown produce and everyday supermarket ingredients.

Our portions will be sensible.  The Phyne Dyner was aghast when he picked up a popular foodie magazine and saw 6″ diameter, 1-pound meatballs (plus sauce) and 1.5-pound pizza slices featured within.  Gluttony has no place among phyne dyners.

The following article is a detour away from food.  Rather, it tells readers a bit about why Phyne Dyning has taken a different tack.

I love road trips.

All my life, I have looked forward to the adventure and excitement of an automobile ride through America’s verdant fields and smoggy cities.  In my mind, I can still smell the aromas of breakfast cereals produced in Battle Creek, Michigan.  The smells of “Stinkytown” (Gary, Indiana) with its steel mills, chemical plants, and refineries remain embedded in my mind.

The mills are gone, the refineries are shuttered, and the chemicals are now imported.

In recent weeks, I drove 1000 miles to the Gulf coast for personal business in Galveston, Texas.  The 22-hour trip gave me an opportunity to meet some people and make some observations about the state of our Union.

Convenience Store Clerk #1

Just outside of Oklahoma City, my gas gauge ruefully informed me that it was time to add more $3/gallon gas to the tank of my rental.  I pulled into a brightly lit gas station/convenience store.  Inside, hot coffee beckoned and a man with silvering hair slid a mop over an already gleaming floor.

“Howdy!” the man with the mop said in greeting when I breezed through the door.

I waved in friendly acknowledgement and made my way to the restroom to recycle some coffee from further up the road.

Afterward, I filled a cup with fresh coffee and made my way to the mop-man who now stood behind a counter sagging under the weight of gum, room-temperature energy drinks, and overpriced sunglasses.

It was just after midnight and the mop-man was talkative.

We exchanged comments about the weather and chatted with concern about the unrest in Egypt.  I commented that I deeply enjoyed driving at this hour because the road belonged to a few long-haul truckers and me.

“Yeah”, he sighed, “I always loved driving my rig at this hour as well.”  His eyes twinkled as he remembered.

“You drove a semi?” I asked.  “It’s none of my business, but how come you drive a cash register and a mop now?”

“The finance company took away my rig because I couldn’t make the payments.  Fuel was expensive, repairs, tires, licenses, and other expenses ate up everything I earned in a haul.”

“How long did you drive?”

“’Bout five years.”

“What did you do before that?”

“Army…twenty-two years.  My pension covered my home expenses.  So, at least we were able to keep the house.  In the army, my MOS (“Military Occupational Specialty”) was transportation and logistics.  When I got out, trucking seemed a natural fit.”

He said he may be able to return to trucking after a few years of paying back the finance company the difference between what he owed on his rig and the amount they were able to sell it for.

“I’m fifty-two, next week.  Might be too old to pass a DOT medical when and if the time comes.”

We visited for a few minutes more.  I shook the mop-man’s hand and made my way into the gaily-lit fueling area and back to my car.

On the road, the coffee was bitter.

The Rest Stop Sleepover That Wasn’t

Somewhere between Dallas and Houston, my eyelids grew heavy.  On my road trips, I disdain those chain hotels with their “complimentary” continental breakfasts.  I usually pull in at a rest stop, recline my seat, and sleep.  When I wake, I make my way to the restroom and shave alongside the truckers and other traveling men, splash some water on my face, and (after a breakfast of jerky) take to the highway again.

I pulled into the rest stop and walked to the map under the glass near the door.  “You are here”, informed me that I had about another five hours to my destination.  A teenager, dressed up like a Texas state trooper, emerged from the door of the nearby restroom.

“Excuse me, sir” I began…

(In Texas, anyone who might be older than you is “sir”.  Those in positions of authority, even if much younger, are also “sir”.)

…”Is it okay if I take some sleep parked out front?”

“Oh, it’s legal.  But I don’t recommend it”, said the young trooper.

I wondered if the trooper was the nervous, protective type.  Or, was he an authority figure of whom it was better to beg for forgiveness than it was to ask permission?

He stopped, pulled a cigarette from a pack beneath the red pocket-flap of his shirt.  He lit the smoke, pulled on it deeply, and asked: “Where ya’ll from?”

I told him I now lived in Iowa, but that “home” was Texas.  It was partially true.  I do consider the Lone Star State to be “home”.  I told him I usually slept at rest areas when on long trips.  Most of my native-born Texan friends do too.

“Normally, it would be alright.  But we’ve been having quite a few robberies of truckers and travelers at rest stops and picnic areas between Dallas and Houston and between Dallas and San “Antone”.  If you can, I really recommend finding a room.”

He finished his cigarette.  I thanked him for the advice and dragged myself sleepily into the seat.  A few miles down, I pulled into one of those places with the continental breakfasts.

The Night Clerk

The room was clean.  It smelled of bathroom disinfectant and clean sheets.  I slept soundly.

The next morning, I made my way to the dreaded continental breakfast.  Standing in front of the enormous flat-screen television showing more violence in Egypt, stood the same young man who checked me in over twelve hours ago.

“Looks like someone pulled a double”, I said in a sympathetic tone.

The young man smiled and nodded.  “Yep, but it’s more money for me.”

“Nothing wrong with that!”

I pressed the plunger on the coffee dispenser.  It gurgled pitifully in a death rattle.

A sign said the “free” breakfast ended at 10am…only ten more minutes.  It was unlikely the young clerk would make more coffee.

I reached for the juice pitcher with only a half-inch of (undoubtedly warm) yellow fluid ringing its base.

“I’ll make some more coffee, if you have time to wait”, said the clerk.  “It’ll only take a few minutes.”

He vanished behind a door with the deceased coffee dispenser and returned in a few moments.

We leaned against the serving bar.

In a few minutes I learned that my desk clerk had graduated from Texas A&M only the summer before.  He could not find work as an agricultural building designer.  The night-clerk gig made his truck payment.  He lived at home.  He was happy to get some overtime because the grace period on his student loans was about to expire and he would need hundreds more per month to keep those loans satisfied.

He was not sure about his prospects.  Every day he spent night clerking came after another day away from his professional endeavors.  He worried that he would become rusty or obsolete before “things got better for my field”.

I drank my coffee.  I handed him my room key in its little folder, two dollars folded alongside.  He looked puzzled.  Tips are rare for night clerks.

“Thanks for making the coffee and good luck.”

He smiled broadly and handed me my receipt.  Then, as is the custom in Texas, he reached across the desk and shook my hand firmly.

“Ya’ll take care.”

Food Sacks For Sale

I had taken care of much of my business and was standing in the lobby of the League City and Texas City Chamber of Commerce.  I was hungry for Creole, Cajun, or South Texas cuisine.  Rather than poke around the towns and take my chances, asking the locals about somewhere to eat was the logical thing to do.

The ladies at the Chamber gave me the name of a place where my Texas-casual appearance would be welcome and where locals could be found standing in line “at the supper hour” a few hours later.

As is typical among Texans, they gave me directions only a local could follow: “Turn left where the Chevy dealer used to be.”

Within minutes I was lost.  A grocery store ahead seemed to promise the presence of someone inside able to help me find my food.

The store, part of a Texas-wide chain, had seen better days.  The tiles on the floor were curled at the edges (courtesy of some hurricane), the coolers white enamel, and a few “Sale” banners drifted listlessly in the warm air currents above.

I found a seasoning mix I favored when I last lived in Texas and made my way to the checkout.  It would be “Yankee-rude” not to buy something and then expect free directions from someone working there.

As I stood in line, I read the news above the fold from newspapers in a rack.  More unrest in Egypt…

The lady ahead began to move out of line.  I would be next.

Something caught my eye.

“Buy this food sack for $3.50” proclaimed the scrawl on a cardboard sign above a paper bag containing flour, a (hopefully empty) butter tub, cans of vegetables, and jars of potted meat.  “All donated food will stay in this neighborhood.”

The checker, a portly African-American lady with heavy eyelids, waived me forward.

“Did you find everything you wanted?” she asked in a monotone.  She swept the jar of seasoning mix past the scanner and an equally listless “beep” sounded from the register.

“Yes, ma’am.  Thank you.  But tell me about these food sacks.”

The heavy lids lifted as she told me about construction lay-offs and how the jobs held by men in this largely African-American neighborhood had evaporated over the past two years.  She told me how the local churches tried to keep food banks running to fill the need.  The food sacks were donated to local churches where their contents made their way to the tables of area families.

I paid for my seasonings.  I mused how my anticipated Creole or Cajun supper would probably cost $50-60.  I reached into my pocked and took out my money clip.  I peeled off $35 and handed it to the checker.

“Put me down for ten food sacks.”

Her eyes lit up and she thanked me with the sincerity one only finds in the American South.

I made my way to my car.  I put my seasoning mix in the trunk.

My meal was excellent and served with icy mugs of beer.  It was 82-degrees outside and the frost melted off to form pools of water on the cracked vinyl tablecloth beneath them.

The “air conditioning” was provided through window screens.

The bill for my meal came to $22.  The food was excellent and the ambiance was pure coastal Texas.

Down the street, food sacks were being sold for $3.50.

Convenience Store Clerk #2

I always need to buy gas in Oklahoma.  This time, I gritted my teeth and willed the gas gauge needle back toward “F”, and pressed on toward Wichita.  Just outside the city, my willpower gave out and the needle bounced dangerously close to the “E”.  It was almost midnight and being stranded without fuel on the desolate Kansas Toll Road did not sound fun.

I pulled into a gas station/convenience store.

I tried to pay at the pump, but no joy.  I sulked my way inside.  I stopped at the cold drinks cooler and pulled out my tenth or eleventh Coke of the day.

Coca-Cola cuts the aftertaste of cigarettes.  I normally shun cigarettes.  But, on road trips, the nicotine keeps me focused on driving.

Nicotine, the last barely-legal drug of abuse.

I pulled out my credit card, the one that gives a fraction of a cent per dollar purchase to the Aircraft Owner’s and Pilot’s Association.

The middle-aged lady behind the counter picked it up, scanned it, and then looked at it briefly before handing it back.

“You a pilot?”  She asked the question without the awe I sometimes get from flightless humans.

“Yeah.  Been a while, though.  Archers, Dakotas, and Warriors mainly.  But it’s gotten so expensive.”

She nodded.

“I used to be an inspector for avionics built for MD-80s”, the clerk said with a sigh.  “The company moved to Mexico.”

The MD-80 is an enormous aircraft found in commercial fleets ferrying hundreds of passengers thousands of miles.  The amount of avionics equipment in one is staggering.

Now, to save a few pennies, those critical avionics used in similar aircraft are now assembled and inspected in a country where the water is seldom drinkable.

I’m sure it helps offset the cost of the coffee and pastries, prepared by the company chef, that are served at board of director’s meetings.

The clerk told me she finished her shift at the convenience store at 5am.  At 6am, she would report to the cafeteria of a local elementary school.  The former avionics inspector would make sure that the children did not throw their food trays into the trash.

The State of the Union

My road trip gave me more information about the state of our Union than did the applause-peppered speech given several weeks ago.

The speech told me about “recovery” and bold economic plans to “put Americans to work”.  After the speech, the opposing armies departed the battlefield and went to parties to quaff fine spirits and smoke big cigars under tall hats.

I think they need to take a jerky-fed, cigarette-sustained road trip.

The America in the fine speech did not resemble the America I had just driven though.