Tasting notes from my first Pie and Beer Day

Monday was the first Pioneer Day that I’ve been able to celebrate in Utah for many years. I started the day in a traditional way — by attending the Days of ’47 Parade in Salt Lake City. After a break, I ambled over to Beer Bar for a tradition that sprung up in the years when I was outside of Utah — Pie and Beer Day.

It’s a bit silly but Beer Bar was hosting a fundraiser for the Utah Brewers Guild that featured pairings of pie with local craft beer. The offer was five pairings for $25. It was a little pricy, but it allowed me to try a lot of different pies and beers that I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out.

It was a big draw as the establishment was packed with people, both inside the building and outside on the rear parking lot.

As I fought the crowds, I took notes on the beverages and desserts that I ate.

First — Copper Onion & 2Row Brewing

Lamb sausage pie with goat cheese from Copper Onion & hIPAcryte, an IPA, from 2Row Brewing

Lamb sausage pie with goat cheese from Copper Onion & hIPAcryte, an IPA, from 2Row Brewing

The pie: Lamb sausage pie with goat cheese, pickled peppers, caramelized fennel, herbs and park fat crust.

The beer: HIPAcryte – an IPA

Tasting notes: The beer is relatively light for an IPA. The hops come through, but the pine accent is primary note. The pie is savory as expected, but the herbs and fennel make themselves known. The crest by itself is flaky, and is serviceable as a pie delivery system. It’s a bit greasy (which is understandable given that it’s a pork fat crust) but the crest ultimately holds up. Combining bites with the beer, they go well together – the body of the beer stands up to the boldness of the pie without conflicting with each other.

Second — Garage on Beck & Moab Brewing

Mormon Funeral Potato Pie from Garage on Beck & amber steam lager from Moab Brewing.

The pie: Mormon Funeral Potato Pie

The beer: Steam lager

Tasting notes: Despite spending a few years in Utah, I really don’t have much experience with “funeral potatoes” — a common fare for gatherings around funerals. I am more familiar with the steam lager style of beer — an older brewing style kept alive in part because Anchor Brewing of San Francisco continued brewing it during the dark ages between the Prohibition and the beginning of the craft brewing era.

The beer is a bit sweet with a tinge of bitter hoppiness. It’s got an amber color and definitely tastes like an amber (actually, it may be an amber — I’ll have to double check [Edited to add: It was amber and a steam lager.]).

The top of the pie doesn’t look like I would expect it to — it’s got a dry, crumbly look with bread crumbs and what looks and sort of tastes like dried shredded cheese. The inner part of the pie looks more like a potato casserole should. The crust is very crisp and has good flavor, although it’s not as golden brown as it could be.

The pie is spicy, which compliments the creaminess of the potatoes. Digging into the pie is a bit of an ordeal because the dry toppings go flying to and fro but there’s some sort of chewy middle layer that doesn’t let go easily.

As far as a pairing, it’s another winner in my book.

Third — Tulie Bakery & Epic Brewing

Blueberry Lemon Hand Pie from Tulie Bakery & Tart and Juicy from Epic Brewing.

The pie: Blueberry Lemon Hand Pie

The beer: Tart and Juicy

Tasting notes: There are a lot of cute little pies at this event. I skipped all of them and went for the monster hand pie by Tulie. It looks like a triangle of folded puff pastry topped with sugar and toasted golden brown. Given the size, I’m a little worried that the balance between pastry and filling may be off, but we’ll have to see.

The beer isn’t one that I would seek out on my own, except to maybe try once or twice. It’s got a ruddy orange look and definitely has a tart scent. On tasting, it’s lighter than my first two samples. It starts off with a bitter fruit taste but then it opens to a more balanced sweet and tartness.

The pasty is slightly overbaked, with an overly dark underside but it isn’t burnt. The crust is flaky, buttery and falls all over the place (likely because it’s dry). The fruit is there, but the flavor of the pasty is dominant (especially on the edges and this hand pie has a lot of edge). The blueberries are present, but I’m not getting much lemon. There’s also a flowery accent which is pleasant.

As a pairing, the sourness of the beer doesn’t fully match up with the pie as the beer underscores the pie’s lack of sour or tart bite. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to score this as a miss.

Fourth – Beltex Meats & Bohemian Brewery

Apocalypse Now Pie from Beltex Meats & “mystery beer” from Bohemian Brewery.

The pie: Apocalypse Now Pie (with wagyu beef, hash browns, American cheese, pork confit and kimchee)

The beer: Mystery beer (some sort of lager – must double check. LATER: It’s a kolsch)

Tasting notes: This entry had the most intrigue, given that the pie had a vague description and the beer was unspecified. However, Beltex has garnered a reputation for being good with meat, so I had high hopes — something that was borne out by others who had previously sampled the establishment’s offering. Many had high praise, although one noted that it was a little dry.

The beer is slightly sweet with just a hint of a hop profile. It tastes like a competent lager, but I worry about it being overwhelmed by the pie, which features rich beef, pork confit, kimchee and cheese — all savory elements.

The pie is a round handpie, with fork-crimp edges and a shiny golden brown finish. There’s no indication of what’s inside, but the initial appearance makes you want to dive in. Working in the from the tough edges, my first impression was mostly American cheese, which was just OK.

The second and third bites were better. The pork confit is definitely present as there was a hunk of shredded meat in my pie. I don’t think the kimchee entirely worked — it adds a bit of color and spice, but it gets lost in everything else. The hashbrowns are stringy, but that’s probably for the best because it allows it to spread through the pie without being overwhelming.

The cheese was odd — part of it backed to the upper crest and turned an unpleasantly dark brown. The crust itself is dry when it’s thick — which may have prompted the comment about dryness. When the crust is acting as the envelope for the pie filling, it seems to be just right.

Overall, I would say this is a solid hit, but not a home run. The beer actually works with the pie, to my surprise, as the lager lost none of its flavor potency.

I joked with one of the Beltex people about what they’re going to do next year. I suggested Apocalypse Now Redux or Heart of Darkness. Now, that I’ve had time to think, I would be in favor of Tart of Darkness.

Bonus tasting – Stein Eriksen Lodge & Park City Brew

Pecan pie made with Breakthrough wort from Stein Eriksen Lodge.

I had saved the pecan pie from Stein Eriksen Lodge for last, which turned out to be a bittersweet decision. The pie was supposed to be paired with Park City Brew’s Breaking Trail Pale Ale, but they ran out. The good news is that the pie didn’t count as a pairing (essentially a bonus). As an aside, Beltex also appeared to be out of beer and their pies weren’t visible, so it was good when I grabbed the pie when I did.

The pie: Pecan pie made with Breakthrough wort.

The beer: None 🙁 (although the pie people noted that the sweet barley wort created as part of the brewing process was used in the pie).

Tasting notes: The pie looks great, with chopped pecans throughout the filling. Some pecan pies have just a handful of nuts. This is the total opposite. The crust looks like it’s in good balance to the rest of the pie — not overly thick, with a light golden touch.

On first bite, the flavor of the pecans comes to the fore. There’s a little sweetness to it, but it’s not overwhelming as some pecan pies can be. The pie is a little on the drier side, without as much of the cohesive filling but it holds up well. I’m not getting much crust on my bites, but that’s not the worst thing in the world (and it may be balancing out the nuttiness of the pecans).

This is definitely a good pie.

Fifth – Pat’s BBQ & Squatters Beers

Rhubarb pie from Pat’s BBQ & Blueberry Hefeweizen from Squatters Beers.

The pie: Rhubarb pie

The beer: Blueberry Hefeweizen

Tasting notes: My phone battery is dying, so I’ll keep this one short. The hefe has the blueberry notes. It smells fairly tart but the delivery is entirely smooth and sweet. There’s almost a cream taste to it.

The rhubarb is a mix of rhubarb and blueberries. They go great together — tart and sweet. The crust has absorbed some of the moisture of the filling, but that’s not bad for pie. The crust is still firm.

Tasted together, the pie and beer are fruit whammy. Not a bad way to finish my first Pie and Beer Day.

One reason why I may go to Buffalo Wild Wings & one reason why I may never go back

Online trivia is probably the biggest reason why I'll go back to Buffalo Wild Wings, if it's available at the Chico location.

Online trivia is probably the biggest reason why I’ll go back to Buffalo Wild Wings, which appears to be available at the Chico location.

Buffalo Wild Wings completed its expansion to Chico this week. Judging by photos of early lines and posts in my Facebook feed, it seems a lot of people are happy about the development. Although I love saying “The game is on!”, thanks to the eatery’s unceasingly repetitive TV commercials, I don’t know if I would go back after a visit to the Natomas location in May 2014.

Why I may go back – While I was generally impressed by the huge bar area with a standing wall of giant TVs and the beer selection (although I think Sierra Nevada was largely missing), the food is pretty standard for this type of quick-service restaurant and the prices are higher than I think they should be (the Chico menu lists a wing combo at $16.79, otherwise fries and slaw cost extra). Ultimately, there was only one compelling reason why I could become a repeat customer and that’s online pub trivia.

When I dropped by the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to see the old familiar blue consoles of Buzztime trivia. I first played Buzztime when I was living in the Midwest from 2001-05, but no Chico tavern has offered it for more than a decade … until now.

With the blue console, a bar patron plays quick, 20-minute trivia matches with clues broadcast on one or two TVs scattered across the bar. The questions are nearly always multiple choice and the difficulty level is closer to the earlier rounds of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” than “Jeopardy!” After every question, you can see how you’re faring against other barflies. When the round ends, the scores are calculated across North America and you can see your nationwide rank.

There are multiple types of games in the primary trivia channel, but there are other channels including virtual poker. During football season, many sites offer QB1, which allows contestants to win points if they correctly guess the offense’s play.

During my visit, I was the only one really playing trivia (everyone else seemed to be focused on an MMA match featuring a fighter from Sacramento). Still, it was fun to play while I ate and had some soda.

I can get my fix through a number of online and smartphone apps that are available, such as QuizUp, but Buzztime can be a little more sociable as the pacing of the games aren’t rigorous. While you want to ring in promptly when there are questions, there are frequent breaks to continue conversations with your friends (if you have any) and to order more food and drink (which is what I’m sure B-Dubs and other bars want you to do).

Several of my friends and I have gone to live trivia at some Chico restaurants, which is generally fun, but can be quirky. Online trivia like Buzztime is generally available anytime, so it may be easier to get a bunch of friends and just go.

Here's why I may never go back to Buffalo Wild Wings -- the restaurant making Bud Light as its "Beer of the Month" in May 2014.

Here’s why I may never go back to Buffalo Wild Wings — the restaurant making Bud Light as its “Beer of the Month” in May 2014.

Why I may never go back – While I was generally uncomfortable with the prices, there was one incredulous discovery that baffled me. As I was leaving, I saw that the restaurant’s “Beer of the Month” for May 2014 was Bud Light.

I’m not a fan of Bud Light (although it’s not unpalatable), but that’s not the primary reason why I was turned off to the point where I may never go back. Bud Light is _the_ most popular beer in America by far. Although sales have reportedly dipped recently, a Vox chart shows it outsold its nearest rival (Coors Light) nearly 3:1 in 2013.

Given such market dominance, Bud Light doesn’t seem to really need to be highlighted as a “Beer of the Month.” It’s a default, go-to beer for a lot of people — you would expect nearly every bar in the country to offer this product. It’s like naming Christmas the Holiday of the Month for December, salt as the Seasoning of the Month or if Little Cesar’s named its ever-available pepperoni pizza as the Pizza of the Month.

One possible factor is that Budweiser’s owner Anheuser–Busch InBev advertises the brand quite heavily. Maybe there was an advertising consideration when Buffalo Wild Wings made such a banal selection for its beer of the month?

If you do choose to sample the exotic and unknown Bud Light, Buffalo Wild Wings offers these tasting notes for the American-style light lager — “Subtle fruity and citrus taste notes with a fast, clean finish.”

The price of this special brew was $4.25 in 2014, which wasn’t too bad, although one may find better deals on far more superior beers elsewhere in Chico.

Postscript – After writing all this, I checked the restaurant’s beer menu and found the _two_ beers of the month:

Here are  Buffalo Wild Wings' beers of the month, as seen on Aug. 10, 2015.

*sigh* Here are Buffalo Wild Wings’ beers of the month, as seen on Aug. 10, 2015.

It’s disappointing to see Bud Light nab this spotlight again. Buffalo Wild Wings also has an odd definition of “Import,” as Goose Island is a Chicago brewery. It’s worth noting who Goose Island’s owners are — Anheuser-Busch InBev. AB InBev _is_ based in Belgium, so maybe that was a criteria in defining “Import.”

On a slightly positive note, Sam Adams remains its own independent company. At least there’s that, although Sam Adams seems to have similar issues to Bud Light.

Taste Test: Sierra Nevada Nooner Session IPA

A bottle of Sierra Nevada Nooner Session IPA is on display next to a glass of the ale.

A bottle of Sierra Nevada Nooner Session IPA is on display next to a glass of the ale.

Last month, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. released a variety pack called “4-Way IPA.” A co-worker and I agreed to split a 12-bottle case from the Chico brewery that included Blindfold Black IPA, Nooner Session IPA, Snow Wit White IPA, as well as the ever-popular Torpedo Extra IPA. To make the math of dividing the case easier (and to accommodate my co-worker’s beer aficionado significant other), I opted for a bottle each of the new varieties and three bottles of Torpedo.

First up for me was the Nooner Session IPA. This bottle was packaged Jan. 22, 2014 and I opened it March 11, 2014.

From the label on the neck of the bottle, Sierra Nevada writes “Nooner IPA is light in body but big in hop aroma and flavor. This session IPA delivers a dose of citrusy and grapefruit hop character from the use of whole-cone American hops.”

On the side, the label states “There’s no better way to start a lazy afternoon than with a group of friends and a few beers. Nooner IPA is a session beer that’s light in body yet big in hop flavor. By using intense, whole-cone American hops in our Hop Torpedo we pack this small beer with a hefty hop punch.”

With an ABV of 4.8 percent, this definitely seemed to be in line for casual consumption.

Sierra Nevada Nooner Session IPA looks amber and coppery when it is held to the light.

Sierra Nevada Nooner Session IPA looks amber and coppery when it is held to the light.

The pour didn’t give off a lot of head. This is probably an ale that would benefit from pouring directly in to the center of the glass instead of partially down the side.

The golden copper hue appeared to become cloudier as it rested in the glass. Initially, the ale’s smell was a pungent combination of citrus and pine, but it seemed to have diminished as time passed. Later, there were times I could smell it clearly and times where there was nothing.

On the first sip, it seems to open like Torpedo but the finish veers in a different direction. A citrus tang lingers on the palate. Through the cymbal crash of citrus, a faint bitterness reverberates like the waning echo of a tympani.

What little precious foam this beer did produce clung to the side of the glass in a satisfying fashion, but there weren’t any glorious rings.

This ale packs a lot of diverse flavor, but it isn’t heavy or overwhelming. There was no point where drinking it felt like an endurance challenge to survive an onslaught of hops or other factors.

Nooner Session IPA seems to live up to its name. Although I only have one bottle, I can easily picture sharing some with friends over a BBQ.

I’ll sample my two remaining new ales over the next couple of days. I’ll be saving the Snow Wit for last because I’ve heard good things about it and I love saving the best for last.

Taco Bell’s bland Cantina Bowl a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’

Taco Bell sign

FILE-This Wednesday, June 6, 2012, file photo shows a Taco Bell restaurant in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

When I hear the word “Cantina,” I often think back to the Mos Eisley cantina scene in “Star Wars.” In the case of Taco Bell’s new Cantina Bell™ menu, the comparison is apt because I also think of Obi-Wan Kenobi describing the town of Mos Eisley as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” (it’s the town’s motto!).

That’s the most positive endorsement I can give Taco Bell’s newest offering. Instead of trading on a snacky gimmick like the Doritos Locos Taco and its nacho cheese encrusted shell, Taco Bell appears to try something new … and fails miserably.

Up front, I will grant that we shouldn’t necessarily expect greatness from a fast-food menu — although the food should at least be somewhat enjoyable. And, unlike Taco Bell’s previous effort to add Fritos to burritos and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s effort to throw everything in a bowl and call it “Famous,” at least Taco Bell appears to make an effort for a more gourmet offering. Unfortunately, my expectations of the Cantina Bowl were buoyed by Taco Bell’s descriptions and they were ultimately and utterly dashed by the final, underwhelming product. The Cantina Bowl is neither enjoyable to eat nor very flavorful.

Taco Bell says the Cantina Bowl contains “citrus-herb marinated chicken [or steak or veggies], flavorful black beans, guacamole made from real Hass avocados, roasted corn and pepper salsa, a creamy cilantro dressing, and freshly prepared pico de gallo, all served on a bed of cilantro rice.” Based on the description and photos, it sounds like something you might get from Chipotle (except if you didn’t have much say on the ingredients).

It would seem like there are a lot of flavors on that list — if only calling something flavorful would make it so. Unfortunately, the flavors never blended into a delicious melange. The end result was so bland, I was rushing for the Fire Sauce to make it palatable.

If the ingredients in the dish didn’t mesh well together, one may hope for some individual elements to stand out. Unfortunately, I opted for the “steak” instead of the chicken and it seemed like the only thing to stand out (and not for the right reasons).

After a few bites, it tasted like I was digging into the meat from a frozen dinner (specifically, the Marie Callender’s Old Fashioned Beef Pot Roast). Unfortunately, the frozen meal provides a better experience at about $3 than the bowl at $7 (including drink).

The similarities were uncanny — the chunks of beef in the bowl had a similar grain and texture and the gravy/sauce was practically identical. It is similar to the steak that Taco Bell uses in its regular burritos, but its flaws stood out more here because it could be isolated from other ingredients.

The rice merely reflected what little other flavors were in the bowl while contributing nothing more than the texture of watery grains to the dish. Again, this is very similar to the rice from a frozen dinner.

As I ate through the bowl, I pondered The Onion’s joking take on the five ingredients in the Taco Bell kitchen. Basically, the joke is that Taco Bell just remixes the same five or so ingredients and calls it something new. In the case of the Cantina Bowl, I believe they added some new items (like the corn salsa), but other ingredients — like rice, lettuce, steak and tomatoes — seemed like the same ones that Taco Bell uses in its everyday tacos and burritos. That’s a problem because the taste expectations were much higher for the bowl and entire Cantina Menu than the regular menu where we know what we’re getting … for better or worse.

The apparent use of stock ingredients plays into the presentation — it looked nothing like the promo photos (but what does?). It looked hastily assembled at the eatery at the Chico Mall and the plain ol’ ingredients were easily discernable. The photos and review from Brand Eating provide some good context.

The lettuce was the same light green shred that you might see in the chain’s tacos and just as paper-y bland. Most of the sauces and salsas glooped up into the lettuce, which could have been an opportunity to get enjoy the sauces on their own merits. Unfortunately, the only sauce that stood out was the creamy cilantro dressing. It had a thin consistency, but had added a little tang of flavor.

I couldn’t really get a taste of the guacamole. The corn salsa and “flavorful” beans added little more than the texture of corn kernels and tiny, firm black beans.

I prefer Mexican food (or Taco Bell’s version of it) to have some spice, but the Cantina Bowl had no heat at all. Reviewing the list of ingredients, there are only a few items that could really contribute spice (perhaps the salsas, the cilantro dressing and the beef) and they failed to deliver.

Adding the Fire Sauce helped perk things up, but it was still a slog getting through the rest of the meal and I was happy when it was done. I probably should’ve stopped eating it, but that’s a habit I need to get back into.

I must give Taco Bell some credit for trying something new to try to compete in a space normally held by Chipotle and similar restaurants. I also liked that they touted that if you don’t like it you can return it for something else (which really should be standard customer service, but is still appreciated).

I was so disappointed by this underwhelming offering that I strongly considered taking Taco Bell up on its offer for a new dish, but I was in a hurry that night (and I wasn’t in the mood for more food).

Ultimately, like the Mos Eisley cantina, Taco Bell’s Cantina Bowl is something that people should probably avoid.

Bottom line — Stay away from this uninspiring, flavorless Cantina Menu offering from Taco Bell that just never comes together. Although it may appear to be fresher and more “gourmet” than other offerings on the restaurant’s menu, appearances may be deceiving and more costly.

‘Balls’-y Ben and Jerry’s ice cream lacks punchline

Schweddy Balls ice cream from Ben & Jerry's
Schweddy Balls ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s

Sometimes a joke that works on a late night Saturday sketch comedy show doesn’t always work in the grocer’s freezer. My heart had been set on trying the new limited batch of “Schweddy Balls” from Ben and Jerry’s the moment I read about it being released. Sadly, after an epic search for the confection, I found it to be ultimately underwhelming. Skip down to the review.

“Schweddy Balls” is named after a “Saturday Night Live” sketch from 1998. In the original sketch, two hosts of a public radio program called “Delicious Dish” interview a man named Pete Schweddy, who makes and sells confectionary balls for the holidays. He presents his creations to the hosts, who make a series of comments that would sound like raunchy double entendres to the fictitious radio audience.

Over the past few months, I have searched high and low for the product in Chico, but had no luck. I tried the Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop off of East Avenue, but I apparently missed it there (and the store sadly closed a few days later).

Later, I was outraged to read of a nationwide movement of mothers who threatened to boycott stores who placed such a product in their expensive ice cream sections and potentially expose presumably innocent children to a 13-year-old joke that would probably need to be explained to them in exacting detail because those young minds would have never — never! — been exposed to such crude humor in the first place.

Also — These children would also need to be at least four feet tall to even reach the expensive ice cream section of most fine stores. And what sort of irresponsible mother would let their child roam without supervision, randomly opening freezer doors or trying to peer through frost-glazed windows?

I was all set to declare that Chico had no “Balls” because of the mothers and the fact that the product isn’t being widely distributed. However, some friends have pointed out that they were able to find it at some Chico locations, so I may have either been looking in the wrong places or missed the boat.

Ultimately, I found my “Schweddy Balls” in San Francisco (which, because I’m 12, prompted a slightly immature tweet from me). I had actually struck gold twice. I had first found a pint in a liquor store near the Marina district. Although they wanted $5.99 for it, I was tempted but I had to say no because I had no place to keep it cold as I continued my day trip.

Heading back to the Embarcadero for the bus and train ride home, I stopped by a nearby 7-Eleven for one last check and I found it again.

This time, the price was $4.99, but there was some confusion at the counter because the barcode wouldn’t scan. The clerk grabbed some Dreyer’s MAXX and said they were the same and the same price — $2.99. I repeatedly insisted that it wasn’t, but ultimately relented to resolve the issue.

I headed to the Emeryville train station and started sampling the product. I knew most of it was going to melt, but I wanted to get enough of a feel for “Schweddy Balls” to write an adequate review.

Opening the carton of Schweddy Balls ice cream.

Opening the carton of Schweddy Balls ice cream at Emeryville train station.

Schweddy Balls is described as “Vanilla ice cream with a hint of rum, with fudge-covered rum and malt balls.”

The vanilla had good visual texture, with flakes, etc, and there was a discernable, slight taste of rum in the vanilla. However, that hint of flavor was often overpowered by the numerous mini rum balls although I could still detect it toward the end of the serving.

The balls in “Schweddy Balls” were about the size of chocolate-covered raisins and were scattered throughout the pint, although mostly down the middle of the container (in other words, it really didn’t look like the photo). The rum taste from the rum balls was fairly pleasant, with no discernable chemical aftertaste. The flavor was similar to what one might find in cherries liqueur.

The texture of the rum balls varied — some felt like fairly solid, chewy chocolate bites, while a few had a bit of a liquid burst to them.

The malt balls were like Whoppers, but smaller and perhaps had a firmer crunch. They had a stronger balance of chocolate to malt, possibly because of the size difference.

Ultimately, “Schweddy Balls” is a pretty straightforward and simple offering — exactly what was on the label and little more. As I continued to sample the dessert, I found myself having more fun trying to guess which flavor the next ball would be. It was a pretty even mix of both types.

“Schweddy Balls” is merely an OK entry into the novelty confectionary world. Sure, there are a few slightly guilty chuckles (or stern outrage) over the name, but it’s probably not worth the 270 calories per serving (or the 15 grams of fat, 60 mg of cholesterol, etc.).

The snacks of our grandparents

Almond RocaWhile walking down the snack aisle of a local discount drug store today, I passed by tall, pink tins of Almond Roca. Thinking of those toffee candies wrapped in chopped almonds took me on a journey back to my grandparents’ house so many years ago.

Those memories reminded me of other treats that my family would snack on, dredging up recollections of gatherings of years ago. It brought forth of flashes of people who have since passed on and houses that have since changed hands.

Maybe I can get a little nostalgic at times, but is there a snack or food item that reminds you of your family?

For me, Almond Roca was a treat that my grandma would indulge in just occasionally. I seem to recall that she would snack on hard, ovoid discs of sugar-free candy more often. She would also drink diet cola, switching over the years from Tab to caffeine-free Diet Coke.

Her house during the holidays would also include dishes of hard candy (but not sugar free). There were also nuts in their shells, and cracking them was an annual challenge for me.

On the other side of my family, my great-grandparents would have dishes or jars of hard coffee candy, twisted in a distinctive black-and-gold checkered wrappers. I think it was the only candy offered, because I remember eating them although I wasn’t the world’s biggest coffee fan at age 5.

More pleasant were the jars of macadamia nuts. The strong, dry and nutty scent from a freshly opened jar was a strong memory that I gleefully remember whenever I can get a jar of my own.

Out of respect for today’s increasing insistence that we focus on healthy eating, I would note candy wasn’t the only food that sparks fond memories. My grandparents and great-grandparents often kept small gardens that would take up varying portions of their backyards.

I can’t remember everything that was grown, but I remember fresh strawberries and green beans as well as cherries and tomatoes. One set of great-grandparents would jar and pickle nearly everything under the sun.

To my grown-up regret, those pickled veggies were prepared in a Japanese style that I didn’t find tasty as a kid with a predominately Western palate. I would hope that my tastes have matured over the years, but I’m a little sad that I won’t get to enjoy those veggies.

Now that I’m grown, I wonder what food memories I’ll create on my own. Like many of us, I over-rely on processed foods. While I generally enjoy it at the time, they generally fail to satisfy in the long term (for example, the idea of a McRib always sounds better than the actual product).

While the initial time investment will likely be great, I think my fondest recollections will come from what I can make myself, instead of from a box. Hopefully, I can create a meal that will remain on the table of my mind, like all of those treats from the past.

Monday’s ‘Fresh Air’ touches on food and high concert prices

I always like listening to the diverse topics discussed on public radio, but Monday’s “Fresh Air” seemed to hit a lot of high notes in my book. There were discussions about the increasing popularity of cooking shows and a look at ticket prices at concerts.

First, guest host Dave Davies chatted with Michael Pollan whose recent New York Times Magazine story touched on how Americans love watching cooking shows, but we’re actually cooking less. It was a great interview and had some sobering information.

Pollan said Americans spend an average of 24 minutes per day cooking in the kitchen and about 4 minutes doing dishes. He compared that figure to the fact that some cooking shows last twice as long as some people spend in the kitchen.

Looking toward the future, Pollan cited some marketers who feel that home cooking may fall by the wayside, much like killing, bleeding and plucking a bird if you wanted chicken for dinner.

I admit that I don’t cook at home as much as I should. I loved watching cooking shows, ranging from what Pollan called “dump-and-stir” instructional programs to the competitive shows like “Iron Chef.”

Cooking shows provide me some cultural insight and some ideas for meals (although it doesn’t necessarily translate to my kitchen). Some of the competitive programs are over the top and don’t provide direct ties to home cooking. However, Iron Chef gave me a greater appreciation of cooking and Japanese culture. Programs like “Good Eats” and “Molto Mario”  showed me essential ingredients and cooking techniques that helped in the kitchen.

In the second segment, John Seabrook discussed the live music industry following his recent article in The New Yorker.

The interesting aspect of that conversation was about Internet scalping driving up ticket prices. Seabrook said ticket prices may be set lower than full market value to encourage sell-outs and that full venues help the bottom line for parking and concessions.

I really enjoyed the discussion, but I still have strong feelings about scalpers, online or otherwise. It is fascinating how the Internet has legitimatized something that was previously illegal in many states and just a little bit scuzzy.

It miffs me that people who have no interest whatsoever in attending an event buying up and reselling tons of tickets to line their own pockets. On the other hand, I’m more understanding of season-ticket holders and others selling tickets to events they intended to attend.

Ultimately, I think scalpers needlessly drive up the cost of attending an event and I want to have no part of it even if it means that I don’t get to go.

The curry test

The curry test

I was camping last weekend when my group decided to duck into a local market for some ice. While they went to make their purchase, I walked around and decided to look for some curry sauce mix.

I wasn’t planning on mixing up some Asian food during the camping trip — it’s part of an ongoing test I have to determine the quality of grocery store.

I call it, the curry test.

It’s a simple test — I just check to see if the store carries my brand of curry sauce mix (S&B) in the Asian food section.

The test is simple and straightforward for my needs. It allows me to make some snap judgment on the quality of the grocery and the town it resides in.

If a store has the curry, I generally tend to think that the store is well stocked in more cosmopolitan fare and perhaps serves a more diverse group of shoppers.

Stores that don’t stock it seem incomplete in my eye and to some extent the community also seems to be missing something.

There may not be any rhyme or reason for why a store would stock curry. Population may be a factor with larger cities being more likely to have it. When I lived in Hancock, Mich., the smaller markets near my house didn’t have it, but the larger supermarket across the canal in Houghton did.

The Thriftway market in tiny Dunsmuir, Calif. had it on the top shelf of a rather small ethnic food section. However, it wasn’t at the Graeagle Store in the even tinier Graeagle, Calif.

College town Chico has the sauce mix at most stores, but I almost wrote the town off because it wasn’t at the first store I checked (the college neighborhood Safeway on West Sacramento Avenue).

Geography may play a factor too. While curry can be found in small rural communities, it can also be missing in larger cities, like Saginaw, Mich.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the large chain supermarket in left-leaning Middletown, Conn. This is a town with a lot of diverse eateries, but I had to ship relief packages to my New England friends because their local store didn’t stock it.

Here’s are some of the towns and stories where I have sought curry (by population):

Graeagle, Calif. (pop. 831): No.
Dunsmuir, Calif. (pop. 1,801): Check.
Hancock, Mich. (pop. 4,158): Nope
Houghton, Mich. (pop. 6,878): Definitely at EconoFoods.
Middletown, Conn. (pop. 48,030): Not at the Stop & Shop.
Saginaw, Mich. (pop. 55,620): We tried the Kroger and settled for Thai curry mix.
Chico, Calif. (pop. 83,791): Many stores do, but not the student neighborhood Safeway.

Of course, this test is purely subjective. You may have some essential comfort food that you just can’t live without. For me, you’ve gone a long way to gaining a new customer if you’ve curry boxes on your store shelves.

Image: Several boxes of curry sauce mix were for sale at the Thriftway store in downtown Dunsmuir, Calif. in Feb. 2009.