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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 24, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Strawberry Caps, Quitters, and Paprika

We just got back from a late-night showing of The Hitman's Bodyguard. The reviews on this have been mixed. Our reviews are unanimous: Terrific adventure movie, with a double romance tossed in. Good dialogue, good writing, Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, Gary Oldman, an amazing amount of obscene language (half of which you miss if you don't speak Spanish), and more dead bodies and wrecked, shot-up, and blown-up cars than your average movie.

If you want to see stuff you haven't seen before, this movie has a guided tour of Amsterdam, which is a gorgeous city when people aren't shooting and blowing up vehicles. We loved every minute. Ignore the critics who are too cool for school.

*

Watching a few moments of the Kevin Spacey film K-PAX, I happened to see Spacey, playing a man who might be insane or might be an alien, take a bite out of the end of a whole banana and start chewing.

If you've ever tried that, you know that not only does it taste nasty, you've got to have sharp teeth, a strong bite, and give the fruit a firm ripping motion to succeed in taking off the end.

With his mouth still full (because I sincerely hope Spacey did not swallow the peel), he took a second bite. In case someone thought it was a fluke.

Then, I hope, a production assistant or his personal valet brought him a bowl or a wastebasket or a silver ewer into which he spit the whole mess. Because even if he could selectively spit out the peel, who wants to swallow banana insides that have been mouth-mixed with the banana outsides?

I regard this as a stunt on a par with tearing a telephone book in half. (That also has a trick to it, which I learned, and I have torn phone books in half without ever being particularly strong.)

But then Spacey did something equally icky, to me, at least. He took a strawberry with the leafy cap on it (the calyx or hull) and popped it in his mouth.

When a strawberry still has its cap, that means it still has the pith. This part is edible only to people who eat the cores of apples.

A website devoted to strawberries makes this statement when labeling parts on a cross-section diagram:

"This is the pith of the strawberry. It has almost no flavor and is usually discarded along with the hull when the strawberry is being prepared."

That's right. When a strawberry is prepared for human consumption, the calyx (hull, cap) and pith are removed and discarded.

So why is it that I constantly see strawberries served in restaurants, at parties and receptions, and on airplanes with the leafy cap (and therefore the pith) still on them?

Does this make a convenient handle to hold the berry (technically, "pseudocarp receptacle")? No, it does not. The leaves of the calyx hug the surface of the strawberry so closely that most of the time, in order to get a grip on the calyx, I have to be holding the pointy end of the fruit in my other hand.

And since I already have the end in my grasp, I pull up the calyx, grip it tightly, and pull the calyx -- and, with luck, the pith -- out of the fruit.

Thus I complete an operation that should have been performed in the kitchen before the strawberry was plated or mixed in with a salad.

When I was growing up, there was in our kitchen drawer a device that looked like a very wide tweezer, with finger grips at the ends. For years I puzzled over what you would do with it. It was way too small to be tongs, and besides, you'd have to put your fingers into the hot water in order to use this tool to extricate boiling asparagus spears or any of the other uses I imagined.

Finally I noticed it again when my mom was in the kitchen and she said one of two things. She might have said, "I don't know either. It was a wedding gift." Or she might have said, "Those are for removing the piths of strawberries."

The reason I don't know which is that she might have said the first one in reference to another kitchen tool, in which case it was my father who told us both what it was. Either way, I finally knew (in theory) what it was.

I have to confess here that the reason I believe my mother might not have known what it was is simple: I have no memory of fresh strawberries being prepared and served in our house when I lived there. It might have happened, but I would have blotted out the memory because I never ate a fresh strawberry until well into my twenties.

Why would I eat a strawberry? I didn't like strawberry flavoring in anything, and the fruit itself was bumpy.

What five-year-old wants to eat bumpy food? It looked as appetizing to me as a caterpillar or a cricket. Especially since I didn't grow up watching people pop fresh strawberries in their mouths and going, "Aaaah" or "Yum!"

You have to remember that in the 1950s, even in a fruit-growing area like Santa Clara, California, grocery stores had a very limited selection of fruits compared to today. They could only offer what was in season, and fresh fruit was expensive. My parents, especially my mother, had keen memories of the Depression, so that poverty and starvation were specters just outside the door.

Spending money on luxury foods when there might not be any food next month was out of the question. Fresh corn on the cob, for instance, was an amazing treat, because usually we got our vegetables -- corn, peas, string beans -- out of cans.

Later, when frozen food became cheaper and household freezers got bigger so you could fit more than an ice tray and a quart of ice milk in them, we tasted frozen corn, peas, and beans (and horrible chopped broccoli which was mostly stem).

But fresh berries? Nowadays, we can have fresh berries from Latin America as well as American greenhouses year-round, and most people can afford them. But that's today. In my childhood, I never acquired a taste for them.

When I finally tasted them (in 1972 at a little juice shop in Araçatuba, Brazil, a place where strawberries cannot be grown), I got used to the bumpiness (those bumps are the real fruit of the plant, rather like tiny sunflower seeds).

For some insane reason, Americans think that the bigger the strawberry, the better. I have never found this to be true -- the bigger they are, the less flavorful, while smaller berries are both tarter and sweeter. And the wild strawberries that have become volunteer groundcover in sections of our front yard are the sweetest.

The huge strawberries are the ones that get dipped in chocolate, because it takes fewer berries (and therefore less preparation) to fill a box or carton for presentation. And there is a weird kind of sense to leaving the leaf on the dipped berry: It's still very awkward to get a grip on it, and you can't grasp the base without covering your hand in chocolate, but you can get leverage by pushing down against the carton or the plate. Then the calyx and pith make it possible to eat a chocolate-dipped strawberry without becoming a chocolate mess.

But I know something that would work way better than leaving the leafy part on the berry. It's called a "toothpick." You can buy little boxes of cheap wooden ones, or plastic ones with various designs (though if you use the plastic ones on your teeth, you'll often regret it).

So even with chocolate-dipped strawberries, you don't really need the calyx.

Why, then, do so many chefs and servers think that it's acceptable to serve strawberries that they have not finished preparing for human consumption?

I've had people say to me, as with fish bones, "It's OK, you can eat them." They mean, I suppose, that the calyx and pith will not make me ill; as with fish bones, "you just crunch them right up when you chew."

OK, thanks, I'm glad to know that I "can" eat them. But I don't want to.

And the worst thing is that I'm beginning to find whole strawberries, caps on, mixed into fruit salads and green salads, so that in the process of eating the salad, you have to separate the strawberry from the other elements and pull the cap off. The easiest way to do this is with your fingers, but that leaves your other hand covered in whatever dressing they used.

It is possible to take off calyx and pith using fork and spoon (or blunt knife). You lay the strawberry on its side, insert the edge of the spoon or blunt knife under the edge of the calyx, and press down. This will cause the strawberry to tilt in that direction until it's standing straight up. You then use the fork to pry the berry up off the leaves.

If you use a sharp knife, it will cut off the calyx and leave the pith. But a spoon edge or blunt knife won't cut the pith, and it will remain attached to the cap when it comes off.

However, this method requires concentration and practice, because another outcome -- and not a rare one -- is that in the process the whole strawberry will flip into the air like a tiddly-wink and land in some unpredictable location nowhere near your plate.

So if you have a salad that includes improperly prepared strawberries, you will not be able to take part in dinner conversation because your concentration will be entirely on strawberry preparation.

Or you can set the strawberries aside as you eat the finished part of the salad. If the host or hostess asks you if you're allergic to strawberries (as my wife is), you can cheerfully reply, "Oh, I love strawberries. But I would have had to get my fingers all over in the salad in order to get the cap and pith off, and I preferred to keep my hands clean."

The host or hostess, aghast, will say, "Oh, I thought that was how strawberries are supposed to be served."

"Ah, yes, I know. Bad chefs and lazy cooks do that in restaurants all over the place. But it's as appalling for them to leave that work undone as it is to serve shrimps with the tail on."

Uh-oh. Because there we are with the other great unfinished food that now dominates the American plate.

Now, if you've ever worked with green shrimp, you know that pulling the heads off is disgusting as well as degutting work. Still, you usually cook shrimp with the rest of the shell on, partly because it's easier to break open the shell and extract the shrimp after cooking.

But some people, making a virtue of laziness, declare that the shell is the most delicious part. They insist that if you're boiling shrimp, then the shell becomes disgusting to eat, but if the shrimp are deep-fried, the shell has all the flavor.

Well, duh. If you apply the flavoring when the shell is on, it will cling to the shell; some people say that you should put the shrimp in your mouth to taste the flavoring, then remove the shell and eat only the shrimp.

Isn't that a pretty picture? Diners taking things out of their mouths, performing surgery on them, and then popping the edible parts back in.

Other people say the crunch shell of deep-fried shrimp is the "best part."

This is like one nine-year-old assuring another that potato bugs are delicious, you just crunch them up. It's a practical joke, people, not a cuisine.

There is a class of people, most of them from Baltimore, who believe that you can eat soft-shelled crabs with the shell on. This is why Baltimore is still years away from joining the ranks of civilization. (Don't complain that I said that, O my friends from Baltimore, unless you can promise me that you, personally, do not eat crabs that way.)

Since Chesapeake Bay crabs aren't real crabs to someone like me who grew up on west-coast crabs, I didn't mourn much when I realized that I could never eat a crab dish made from "soft-shelled" crabs, because my mouth would be stabbed by shell bits. Chefs and cooks are apparently taught that with Chesapeake Bay crabs, you don't have to do all the prep work. You just serve them filled with gum-cutting shards because the barbarians of Baltimore eat them that way.

Shrimp are not prepared yet, if the tails remain on. Don't tell me that they are a nice "handle" for the shrimp. First, why should I need a handle on my food? I have a handle on my knife, fork, and spoon. Second, even if you think a certain style of shrimp preparation should be brought to the mouth with the fingers, the skinny end of a cooked shrimp, sans shell, is an excellent handle.

But if the tail is on, and, like a civilized person, you do not want to eat that portion of the shrimp's shell, then biting (or cutting) the skinned shrimp away from the tail leaves a small but perfectly delicious portion of the shrimp meat trapped inside that last segment of shell.

As with strawberries, there is a spoon-or-blunt-knife solution, by pressing that blunt edge against the last full portion of shrimp meat and then pulling off the bony tail with your fingers (alas, there's no clean-fingered way). Or you use both hands to pry open that last bit of shell and pull it away from the meat.

Why should you have to do any of that? Why wasn't that done in the kitchen? I would gladly pay an extra nickel per shrimp if that meant I didn't have to finish the food prep at my table. (And that amount would pay them far more than the per-shrimp cost of peeling them entirely instead of leaving the tail.)

The tail-on shrimp is particularly obnoxious when it's part of a dish that's served hot. Now my fingers aren't just covered with seasoning and sauce, they'll be burnt ... unless I wait until the dish is nearly cold, which doesn't sound appetizing to me.

Chefs live in this secret magical world where hideous things are "innovative," and they succumb to fads like thirteen-year-olds, so that when a trendy chef does something, everybody else does it, and then it becomes a law of cooking, so that if someone on Master Chef does it differently, it's treated as if they committed a mortal sin.

That's how grossly undercooking meat has now become the Law of the Steak -- if you can't squeeze blood out of it by pressing on the top, it's "overcooked" and the meat is adjudged a failure by Gordon Ramsay.

Never mind that human evolution didn't really begin until we started cooking our food, and that only rude and starving people would grab the meat and gnaw on it while it was still bloody. We have smaller teeth than apes precisely because we were cooking our animal protein so that it could be chewed and swallowed on the same day.

The result is that I don't eat steak in America, because Americans insist on serving raw meat that has been heated until it's somewhat brown on the outside. Chefs and waiters routinely warn me that if I get my meat "well done" or "done," it will be "dried out." I always reply that this is sad news, because I wonder what else the chef or cook did not learn how to do before being turned loose in a kitchen. Meat can be fully cooked and remain moist inside -- when prepared by a competent chef.

And when a waiter announces, as one did in a restaurant in Maine a couple of decades ago, that "the chef is serving salmon rare tonight," I reply, "Not to me," and I leave.

If I want raw salmon, I'll go to a first-rate sushi place, where they know (a) which salmon can be served and eaten raw or rare, and (b) they know how to prepare it so it isn't disgusting.

So we, the eaters at their restaurants, become the victims of their childish and silly fads. All red meat must be rare. Only white fish needs to be cooked. All shrimps need at least the tail, if not the whole shell. All strawberries must have a green bit at the base and the pith must be undisturbed.

All these rules are not only wrong but stupid, and the results satisfy only the people who are true believers in the nonsense fad. Even they secretly prefer shrimp meat without shells; beef that has that wonderful flavor of "cooked" instead of the bloody icky taste of unchewably raw; fish that is cooked through; and strawberries without leaf-and-pith.

I think that some or maybe most chefs and cooks have the weird notion that leaving the green on a strawberry makes it look "fresher" or "more authentic."

What makes a strawberry look authentic is that it's a strawberry. I don't think anybody is growing parsnips that they process into fake strawberries. If it looks like a strawberry and is firm instead of squishy, it's real and it's fresh, so take the hull and pith off before you serve it, just as you don't serve every steak with whatever leather and hair were on the outside, or whatever internal organs were adjacent to it on the inside.

And some will say that a ring of tail-on shrimp around the goblet of shrimp cocktail looks "perky" or "jaunty" -- the aesthetic argument. But I have to say that while a ring of tail-on shrimp around a bowl of a good, spicy sauce does look appetizing, what looks even more appetizing is the same ring of shrimp without tails, because I know that I can eat that shrimp cocktail without performing an ourectomy on every shrimp.

[No, you won't find ourectomy in your dictionary, because I made it up. And I did it more carefully than the coiner of "television" because both oura (tail) and ectomy (removal) are Greek in origin, instead of being a mix of Greek and Latin. That would have been caudectomy. And it would have made me ashamed to show my face among philologists.)

I realize that I won't change the mind of a single chef by making this argument, because peer pressure among chefs, as among thirteen-year-olds, is an irresistible force.

However, perhaps a few home cooks who think it makes them look more "professional" to fail to remove certain unpleasant or inedible parts of shrimps and strawberries, or to be incapable of preparing a moist piece of well-done meat or a well-cooked fish, might be convinced, after reading this, that serving food that has been adequately prepared is OK after all.

"Edible" is better than "professional" when it comes to cooking.

If you wouldn't send your guests into the back yard to pick their own strawberries from the dirt of your garden, or if you wouldn't serve them green shrimp and require them to behead the shrimp, pull out the guts, and then roast it over the dinner candle, then perhaps you can finish that whole process before you serve.

By the way, if you're looking for a strawberry huller like the one my mother had -- a simple, cheap metal tool that performed only one function -- to give you a firm but non-cutting grip on a strawberry pith so it all would come out in one go -- here is a suggestion: Look for Skedee Strawberry Huller on Amazon.

There are other, more complicated hullers -- Oxo makes one whose operation I don't understand (which means I'll probably buy it just to see).

There are also methods that are even cheaper, like pushing a plastic soda straw up through the pointy end of the strawberry. When it reaches the stemmy end of the fruit, it will push out the pith and the cap. (However, you have to run it straight up the center of the strawberry, or it will miss. It also leaves you with a hole at the pointy end of the berry.)

*

"I'm no quitter."

People say that as if not quitting were a virtue. As if quitting put the mark of Cain upon you. (I personally think the mark of Cain was a sleeve tattoo. Or maybe a butterfly tattooed on his ankle.)

People will tell children who hate hate hate being on a ball team, "You signed up and you're going to follow through because we have no quitters in this family."

To which the correct answer is, "So if your company cuts your salary in half and makes you work without a desk, a chair, or a computer, you still wouldn't quit?"

But of course, few parents like to have their stupidity so explicitly demonstrated by their children, so few children have the stones to say it.

Instead they go back to the team where they have (a) no fun, (b) a mean, nasty coach, and (c) a team full of bullies who make their life hell and never give them the ball.

There are things that, if you're doing them, you should quit immediately. It's not a virtue to say, "People keep telling me that cigarets are going to kill me. But I'm no quitter."

I know a family -- a wonderful family -- whose kids found themselves taking part in rehearsals for a play that they knew was going to be awful, where the script was being revised at every rehearsal so that memorizing anything was pointless, and where most script revisions were designed to allow one of the director's children to show off weird and unrelated talents.

The parents of these trapped children knew that if they dropped out, there would be almost nobody left; the play could not possibly go on. Now, this might have been a mercy to the world of theatre, but the parents consulted with the children and pointed out how much harm and hurt it would cause to the family that was putting on (and ruining) the play.

Jointly, the parents and children reached the compassionate decision that they would not cause that pain and hurt; they remained in the play, with this as their consolation, that in all likelihood nobody would ever see a performance of it, and those who did see it would feel only compassion for the actors.

So even when quitting is an obvious option, sometimes you stay. But never because quitting is bad per se.

"I can't resign as a crematorium worker at Auschwitz because I'm no quitter."

"I can't leave my terrorist cell that's planning to blow up schoolbuses because my father would be ashamed of a quitter."

"I can't stop lying about my HIV and having unprotected intercourse because I'm no quitter."

"I can't stop cheating on all my tests because I'm no quitter."

"I can't stop impregnating every girl I date and then leaving her to deal with the baby on her own, because my mother didn't raise no quitters."

If you're doing something rotten, or you're in a rotten situation that you can escape from by simply quitting, then here's a thought: Quit!

Because there's something much worse than being a quitter. It's continuing to do something that makes you and other people miserable.

Teach your children that it's OK to change majors in college, to quit teams run by tyrants or idiots or thugs, to drop out of band when you realize that you will never be good enough to be fifth-chair trombone in a five-trombone section. It's OK to quit the talent show when you realize you can't sing the tune or remember the words. It's OK to quit the play when you find out that they require you to wear a costume that you think is immodest. It's OK to quit your job and change careers when you realize that you don't want to spend the rest of your working life doing this for no better reason than that, when you were choosing a college major, somebody told you that there'd be good money in it.

It's good to follow through on good things, to be the kind of person who sticks to a worthy task until it's done, and done well.

But it's just as good to quit doing tasks that you hate, if you have some alternative way of earning a living or taking care of the people who depend on you.

Just as I'm revolted by having a U.S. President who calls better people than he is "losers," I'm disturbed by people who use the epithet "quitter" as if it were the end of the discussion. Especially when they say it to children.

To me, it seems identical to saying, "I don't care how miserable you are in your life. Once you set your foot on any path, you must stay on that path forever."

Quitting one thing doesn't mean you'll quit everything. Parents, you've seen how your kids will often persist for hours, weeks, years at activities they enjoy or feel rewarded by.

But to compel them to do something they hate because you have the superstitious belief that quitting at one awful thing means you'll never persist at anything else damages their trust in you, a harm that is usually greater than any harm that would come from quitting.

*

My wife and I are trying to eat more healthy food -- and our definition of "healthy" has changed since I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I'm still far from the insulin-injection level, but I know what my dad went through when he did have to take the injections. He was able to smart-eat his way off the insulin in a relatively short time, and perhaps that contributed to his longevity -- he passed away at 96, which is not a bad number for anybody to reach.

So we're stepping up our exercise. My wife already was walking ten or more miles a week, plus a tap-dance class (talk about aerobic!) and two workouts with a trainer every week. For me, just walking around the block was taxing, but I've worked up to doing a couple of miles on the treadmill three or four times a week, and I've lost fifty pounds in the past year.

Sadly, that was a drop in the bucket. I'm still nearly a hundred pounds away from my awesomely healthy weight at age 22, when I came home from my LDS mission in Brazil.

Instead of a big multi-week family vacation at the beach this year, we attended a family reunion in Utah where we were able to see everybody. But the beach was still there, calling to us. (It knows my wife's name; me it just calls "splat," as in, "Hey, Splat, where ya been this summer?")

No need to rent a house for just the two of us, but we had a great alternative: A villa at Spa Koru in Avon. It's ideal for us because, besides being way cheaper than beach house rentals, the villas at Spa Koru come with a week-long membership in their fully-equipped gym.

Now, my wife gets half her exercise walking to the beach and then miles along it. But I'm wearing compression socks and they don't work well at the beach. (Taking off wet compression socks is only slightly easier than skinning a live shark with your fingernails.) I get my miles in by using a treadmill in Spa Koru's air-conditioned gym.

Meanwhile, my wife is going to get a hot-stone massage at Spa Koru tomorrow, and we're both using the gym equipment and free weights to make some progress on upper-body work. In short, even though we're both sporting a 6 at the front of our age (and I'm about to earn a 6 in the second position, too), we can come to Spa Koru and continue the real progress we've both been making at this lifelong project called "not dying."

(Everyone fails in the end; the goal is to rack up as many points as possible before you run out of life points.)

Even though we still love our favorite restaurants and dine out a couple of times a week, in between times, my wife is learning a lot of new dishes -- salads, mostly -- to add variety and healthiness to our home dining.

The other night, at a family party for three friends who share the same birthday in August (I'm the oldest), we got on the subject of soup (I don't know how) and it came out (of my mouth) that my very favorite soup, out of all the fine soups in the world, is a good, thick, hot pea soup.

This brought groans from the ignorant bigots in the group (which was most of them) who thought of pea soup as horrible. But I knew that they simply hadn't yet had a good pea soup.

The gold standard for pea soup is the one they make and serve at Andersen's Pea Soup restaurant in Buellton, California, just north of Santa Barbara. There's a second location in Santa Nella just south of Stockton in the Central Valley.

Both locations are way too far from my childhood home in Santa Clara for us to have eaten there often ... or, in fact, ever. Because my only actual memory of eating Andersen's pea soup came from the time when we were moving to Mesa, Arizona.

The obvious route took us through Buellton, and my parents kept talking about going to Andersen's Pea Soup restaurant the whole way down the coast. Of course, my father never called it anything but "Andersen's Sea Poop" but that was my dad. We expected nothing else.

Eating that soup, I was in heaven. Now, my mom made a mean pea soup, so I already knew that pease porridge hot could be delicious. But the soup at Andersen's made my mother's good soup seem like gruel, and to my sorrow I have never found an occasion to go to either Andersen's location since then.

Here at the beach, my wife remembered that soup conversation from the party last week and went in search of a good recipe. She had tried a few crockpot pea soup recipes since we got married, but we never much liked the results -- pea soups are not all created alike.

However, she went in search of recipes that we could make in the well-equipped kitchen in our villa at Spa Koru, and the internet came through this time, taking her to AllRecipes.com, under the name "Ham and Split Pea Soup." She cut the amount of ham in half because she didn't want to make "Ham Soup with Peas."

Best of all, when she found the recipe she used her Paprika Recipe App to clip it from the website and automatically enter it into her recipe database.

My wife heard about Paprika from a friend who said, "All the young mothers in our church group swear by Paprika." This is the litmus test for any app -- if a young mother has the time to fuss with it, it must work efficiently and well.

My wife had tried a previous app, but it was crippled and had features she didn't want -- like assembling nutritional information which was useless because it didn't have data on quite a few common ingredients.

Paprika, though, she can use on her Android phone (it's also available for i-Things and Windows devices), so that when she goes into a store, she doesn't have to have a premade list or remember all the ingredients herself. She just opens Paprika, finds the recipe, and voilá, there's the ingredient list.

Also, because of Paprika, when she's visiting in the kitchens of our daughters and daughter-in-law, she can find all her recipes in order to cook favorite dishes. She can also enter recipes she learns from them, and those recipes are with her forever and always. (If she keeps her phone charged, always a struggle when you use electronics as constantly as she does.)

So we highly recommend AllRecipes.com's Ham and Pea Soup recipe (with half the ham, and letting it simmer for 45 minutes allows it to thicken the way I like it) -- and also the Paprika Recipe app for Apple, Windows, and Android screens.


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