Take Out Season

December 13, 2009

So what do you eat at this mid-point between feasting holidays and attendant family gatherings? We managed to scrape together two meals this week that approximate the community ideal. I cooked some chili with the last of the late season tomatoes, the last of the CSA onions and a bag of Carson Arbrogast 9 bean mix. One batch was veggie, the other was seasoned with a couple of Appleschram bratwursts. No fresh peppers. Seasoned with some Fiesta brand paprika and some store-bought cumin and cayenne. I still have plenty of local garlic, and used that liberally, too. The next night Diane put together a whole-wheat pasta topped with home-canned CSA tomatoes and stirred up some kale in olive oil and garlic. The cheese on top came out of a bag with the Kraft logo, but still and all I count that meal as a win. More importantly, we managed to pretty much all sit down at the table for both those meals, including our son Walker.

But this only got us to Monday and things went downhill dramatically after that. Tuesday we were on our own and scrambling, piecing together bits of leftovers and other things. I think I wound up cutting up a Nathan’s hot dog and making my own “beanie weenie”, with some frozen fries on the side. No one else in the family would touch that stuff. Wednesday (or maybe it was Thursday—none of this was memorable) was another cobbled-together everyone on their own night. The great black chaotic maw of daily life caught up with us by the middle of the week and we were reduced to take out. Now there’s nothing wrong with a little take out now and then. When our kids were growing up, almost every Friday was take-out and it was regarded as kind of a treat. Admittedly the treat for the parents was partly in not having to cook, but everyone looked forward to it. We were in Texas then, and our choices oscillated between pretty mediocre pizza and some pretty darned good Tex-Mex fast food from Taco Cabana. Not meaning to overstate it here, but Michiganders don’t have anything that compares with Taco Cabana.

The pizza got a lot better when we migrated as far north as West Lafayette, Indiana. A rather bizarre place called Bruno’s Swiss Inn makes very, very good pizza, which they slice in a distinctive pattern with wallpaper shears. Bruno’s is less bizarre today than when we arrived, having moved to new digs in the late nineties, but it’s still worth a visit if you are in that neck of the woods. Here in Michigan, our pizza choices alternate between Deluca’s and Harry’s. Deluca’s is a Westside institution that probably needs no introduction to local readers, though I’m amazed that so many people from my work life at MSU have never heard of it. Harry’s is a local bar on Verlinden, across the street from the now-demolished GM plant and literally just around the corner from our house. Actually we probably do 4 or 5 Harry’s pizzas for every one we get from Deluca’s. As folks probably know, you almost always have a long wait for one of those Deluca’s pizzas, especially on Friday nights.

So forget the locally grown, healthy stuff, and forget holding out till Friday for a “special treat.” By mid-week we were calling Harry’s and ordering up one 14” with olives and another with tomatoes, onions and mushrooms (pepperoni on one side only). You have to kind of work yourself up for the ambiance at Harry’s. It’s always friendly enough, but sometimes it’s packed with seeming regulars while other times it’s almost empty. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason I can discern. And whether the joint is full or empty, they do like to smoke. So while I don’t think we’ve ever gone down there to eat as a family group, they do a credible job with the food. The pizza is surprisingly good, especially when it’s hot. Harry’s is so close that it’s always the first option for take out when nobody in the Thompson household wants to cook. And that’s definitely where our mindset was by whatever unmemorable night it was that we resorted to the telephone.

I’d like to say that it was a temporary thing, but Diane was on the phone to me again Saturday. I was working on campus, and she wanted me to bring something home. The first choice from that locale is Taste of Thai on Grand River, just east of Bogue Street. This is another one of those places that people who care probably already know about. It may not be the best Thai food in town, but other shops around have tended to be rather inconsistent over the years. I usually head over to the Quality Dairy store next door while they are fixing the order, but this time that’s where I got in trouble. By special request, I’m picking up a Dr. Pepper for Diane and I also grab a Diet Dr. Pepper for myself. And there is this big cooler in the front of the store with bottles of QD Eggnog buried in the ice. (I’m sucker for anything on ice.) Eggnog is probably worth a blog of its own. One can wax poetic, nostalgic and vitriolic contemplating the wide variety of viscous substances that parade under this banner in our industrial food society. I wouldn’t rate QD’s brand as the best, but it’s far from the worst. And as I hope is clear by now, an acceptable level of expedient mediocrity is the overriding theme for this week’s cuisine at the Thompson household.

However, it seems I crossed the line with the QD Eggnog. Not only is it sweetened with high fructose corn sweeteners, it’s colored with yellow #247.6/p+@$37>, or some such thing. Of course we don’t look so carefully at the ingredients list for the Dr. Pepper. But I take the point. Dr. Pepper is what it is, but it’s certainly possible to find eggnog that matches our values a little better than what I brought home, and after all, the ELFCO main store was not that much farther east. In my defense, it was graduation weekend, and the traffic on Grand River was horrible. And I have no intention of drinking more than one glass of eggnog a week between now and Christmas, anyway. Maybe eggnog is one of those foods that really should be relegated to truly special treat status, rather being insinuated into the acceptable mediocrity that characterizes take out season.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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