Monday, August 23, 2010

National Zucchini Night

One of our least well known holidays in America may be National Zucchini NIght, August 8th. Started by a man in Pennsylvania, it is celebrated by secretly leaving gifts of zucchini on the front porches of 'lucky' neighbors. As I wondered how such a bizarre practice could be the foundation for a national holiday, it was inevitable that I found myself thinking about the nature of this summer squash, one that seems to be in perennial oversupply.

One might well wonder whether secretly leaving, wasting, dumping zucchini on the porches and doorsteps of unsuspecting and innocent neighbors--official holiday or not--might really constitute little more than a positively shameful waste of food. (To my knowledge there is no existing Minneapolis City Ordinance referring to the unlawful dumping of zucchini.) Unburdening oneself of excess unwanted vegetables is undoubtedly not the most civic minded, responsible or green thing to do. Then again, how does that saying go . . . "One man gathers what another man spills", or something like that. This may come from some parable in the Bible, but I remember it from a Grateful Dead song, Saint Stephen, on Live Dead, Vol 1.

Still, zucchini may well be the most drab and under-appreciated vegetables around. (It's not technically a fruit like a tomato really is, is it?) Moreover, you have to admit that this relatively small, unpretentious and painfully modest vegetable is NOT in short supply. The popularity it continues to enjoy in the gardens of our citizenry puzzles me. People always seem to be wanting to get rid of the things, as in . . . "Here--have some zucchini from my garden!" And the hapless victim receiving the bounteous gift of zucchini can't easily say what they really think, now can they? "Oh great, just what I wanted--more zucchini to add to the two dozen that are already languishing in the Crisper drawer in my refrigerator." The pile of neglected zucchini slowly become more and more rubbery as the months of late summer and fall pass by, as these forgotten vegetables consistently find themselves being passed over while their more appealing vegetable brethren lying on a more prominent shelf in the fridge are used in everything from salad to ratatouille.

Most people just don't know what to do with zucchini in the first place--let alone with extra zucchini. Since they're perishable, you can't really use them as a door stop. They are not to be confused with cucumbers--are they even related? They do not taste any where near like a good cucumber. They taste vaguely like cardboard, except their texture is very different than cardboard. You can't really carve them into clever shapes very well. I hear that they freeze poorly. They cannot be pulverized and used for grouting tile or flooring material. They don't hold nails or screws well, and forget about making clothes out of them like you can hemp or fibers made from corn. You cannot cut holes in them and make fanciful musical flutes out of them, and there's no point in beating a drum with one. I've heard they might find favor as sex toys by some, but I have no experience with this. I would imagine that the practical challenges presented by their size and/or shape might well prove formidable.

Neither dogs, cats, nor cows care to eat them. They don't come in different colors--they're all the same dumb shade of green. You can't ferment them to make a fulsome, cheery and fortifying drink like the Norwegians do with potatoes and caraway seeds. (Aquavit!) You can't really write on them, inscribing intricate yet durable pictographs like the Andean Natives do upon gourds, nor can you scoop out their insides and carve them like pumpkins. And everyone knows you can't talk with a zucchini (well, The Prince of Wales might try).

Lacking the heft of a nice, ripe tomato, you cannot peg them at neighborhood rivals. Unlike eggs, they should not be thrown at windows or speeding cars--you might hurt someone.

Really, when you get right down to it, the zucchini is not a very exciting vegetable. And so--only from my personal point of view of course--one might just as well leave them on doorsteps and porches on a quiet, dark and warm August night. It's not like there's going to be a shortage anytime soon. Still, I would urge anyone doing so to always dispose of their zucchini responsibly. Get them on the porch, where they belong--and don't leave them splattered and forlorn in the road like wasted pumpkins the morning after Halloween.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Men and Perception

Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut and still think they're beautiful.

(Originally attributed to Amy Thomas, Genola, Utah)

Two Norwegians go to Texas

Lars and Ole get really adventurous, and go on a vacation in Texas. They walk by a store window with a sign that says, “Suits $5.00 each, Shirts $2.00 each, Trousers $2.50 a pair.”

Lars says to his pal, "Vell Ole, vont’cha luke’a’det! Ve coud buy’a hoal boonch a’dees clothes, taak'em bak tue Meen’e-so’ta, den sel'em to’ar frends, and maak’a fortune!"

Lars continues, "Now ven ve go’in dere, dont yue sae’a verd, OK? Joost let me du’tha taukeng —cos ef dey heer yeur accent, dey might tink ve're joost ignorant Norveejuns from Meen’e-so’ta! And den’dey von't vanna sell dem clothes tue os. Now den, I'll tok like I'm a reel Texan, so dey von't kno."

Lars and Ole go in, and Lars tries out his best fake Texas accent,
"Hoawdie, y'all. Vee'll taak
50 ov dem dere soots at five dolors each,
100 ov dem dere sherts at two dolors each, and
50 pairs ov dem dere trouseurs at two-fifty each.

“Vell den, Ah'll joost back up my peak-op and......"

The owner of the shop interrupts, "Ya'll a cup’la Norwegians from Minnesota, ain't you?"

"Yah Vell," says a surprised Ole, “How coud yue tell den?”

“’Cause this here’s a dry cleaners,” replied the shop owner.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Norwegian Farmers and their (nearly) Famous Barn Cats

My relatives on my father’s side are all Norwegians, and when I was a kid we had cousins that still lived on the farm. Some who were in my grandparents’ generation still spoke with a Norwegian accent and used some Norwegian expressions. Our cousins who were my grandparents’ or parents’ age were all addressed as “Aunt” and “Uncle”. Aunt Boletta and Uncle Omar had a dairy farm on which they kept about 30 cows (pronounced “caus”); they were the second generation in the family to work that farm. (Aunt Boletta and Uncle Omar may have been my only Norwegian relatives on my grandfather Lund’s side with a sense of humor, although that’s perhaps another story.) As a very young boy I was occasionally brought to visit them on their farm.

A dairy barn is a magic place to a city kid. The size of the barn alone was nearly overwhelming—it was built to last, entirely out of oak with beams still bearing the marks of the saw cuts made 70 years before I walked inside it. Ten-inch oak boards covered the sides and made up the expansive roof, which was covered on the outside by cedar shingles. It was an enchanting place, the smell of the hay and the old oak, the sounds of the animals, and all the tools carefully arranged on the walls. The hay loft was even larger than the lower portion of the barn. Climbing up over the stacked bales of hay that nearly filled the high vault was like climbing a mountain. There was always a litter of kittens hidden somewhere in the hay loft, but even here they couldn’t be safe. On a narrow ledge near the peak of that vast space sat a huge barn owl on her nest, silently watching anything below that moved.

Only after being strictly instructed that I must stick close and do exactly as he said, was I allowed to follow Uncle Omar around the barn as he milked the cows. Being around large animals like cows was dangerous and required caution and good sense. It was winter, and the cows positively steamed, giving off a thick, heavy, sweet odor I’d never smelled before. The lower part of the barn that housed the cows and dairy machinery was remarkably clean and had recently been painted white, adding the smell of linseed oil to the other layers in the air. Uncle Omar ‘introduced’ me to the cows tethered in their stalls; each one in the herd had her own name and of course personality. They were the biggest animals I’d yet seen up close. He carefully told me how to avoid getting stepped on or kicked. The cows looked neither friendly nor mean; just absolutely huge. As I stood nearby, each cow seemed to take in my appearance with apprising eyes the size of saucers. He let me try to milk a cow by hand, first showing me how he did it, as he filled a tin cup in less than a minute for me to drink. I’d never had fresh milk still warm from a cow. Then I tried milking the cow. It was Impossible; no matter how hard I squeezed nothing happened. He smiled at me, and we both laughed.

I watched Uncle Omar methodically hook the cows up to the milking machine, one cow at a time (hardly anyone milked cows by hand any more by the mid-fifties). He was a large, powerful man who worked with a grace and gentleness you wouldn’t expect from such a big man. The individual tubes from the cows’ udders joined into a single line that drained into a large vat. An electric motor drove the machine, which was basically a sophisticated suction device. Aside from the steaming cows, it was the only source of warmth in the cold barn. The electric motor was connected to the drive shaft on the milking machine with a large, circular leather belt. This is where the term “belting leather” comes from—heavy duty stuff. When the milking machine was running, that belt turned over fast.

Now, every barn has cats—it’s an ideal set-up. The cats get food and shelter, and the farmer is relieved of the rats and mice that would otherwise infest the barn; sort of its own little ecosystem. I’m standing there watching Uncle Omar, and I look up at the top of the milking machine and see the biggest, bad-assed orange cat I’d yet seen in my young sweet life glaring down at me. If that cat could have talked, when he caught me looking up at him he would have said something like,

“What’chu lookin’ at, city kid? I’m a barn cat, see—and I do as I please. Piss off, candy-ass!”

As startled as I was, I couldn’t help but notice something unusual about him. As he lay on the edge of the milking machine, I saw that he had a little nub on his butt in the place where his tail should be. This nub was twitching like an orange button that had somewhere to go. As I turned back towards my Uncle, I saw another cat standing near the wall—also without a tail—a terrible, scowling, black and white cat the size of a Springer Spaniel. If he’d been given the facility for speech as well [this one would’ve had a Norwegian accent and no doubt descended from Jotunheimen Mountain Trolls], he might have said,

“Lili Doofken!--Grrrrr! I eet rats baigger dan yue fur brekfust!--Heissss!!”

This little boy from the suburbs was getting the impression that these barn cats were definitely not pets, and that they sure didn’t think much of me. I didn’t ever want to be alone in the barn with them, ever. As young as I was, I still didn’t want to admit to Uncle Omar that they scared me to death.

“Uncle Omar?” [Gulp] “Those cats sure are big—and they don’t have tails!”

“Oh—Ya Vell, Ve gotta spe’shool breed’a kat heer, doncha’ know. Dey’re bourn vee’tout tels—Ya den, I spos’ dey’ll be fae’moos som dey, hmm?”

I couldn’t believe my incredible luck to become acquainted with this rare and barely discovered breed of cats. I asked Uncle Omar if I could go inside and talk with Aunt Boletta about their special breed of cats. I waded through the chickens (if they were alot bigger, and if they weren’t so stupid, they might be scary too), out the barn door (taking care to close it behind me) and ran through the snow to the farmhouse.

I let Aunt Boletta know that Uncle Omar had let me in on their secret—their special breed of tail-less barn cat—and I hoped that they would enjoy becoming famous.

“Vat 'arr yue taukeng a’boat, jung man?”, Aunt Boletta smiled. She had a lovely, kind, and charming smile—years later when I saw my first Ingmar Bergman film, I decided that Boletta looked like Liv Ulmann all those years ago. She patiently listened to my account of meeting their tail-less cats. Finally, she couldn’t keep herself from laughing.

“Oh, det Omar—hees such’a keed'r!” She told me how my Uncle had just been teasing me, and explained the nature of what I’d really seen: In the winter, barn cats like to sit close to the milking machine because it’s warm. Unfortunately, there’s that long, heavy belt on top going around and around very fast. Anyone who’s watched a sitting cat will get the picture—how a cat naturally swishes its tail back and forth, back and forth. A cat sitting in the wrong place (close to the moving belt where it enters a gear on top of the milking machine) swishing its tail at the wrong time, gets caught in the belt.

One of two things happens: (a) the cat is pulled into the milking machine gears and dies a quick and violent death, not unlike when they crawl under the hood of a car to sleep on a warm engine and then someone goes out and starts the car, or (b) the cat’s tail gets quickly amputated—sparing the cat, who uses up at least one of its nine lives by surviving. Of course, you don’t see the dead cats skulking around the barn—and thus the illusory appearance of a barn populated by a ‘breed’ of cats without tails. Come to think of it, having sustained the shock and surprise of a violent tail amputation might have had something to do with the survivors’ disposition. I felt sorry for the cats that died; but my Aunt and Uncle were good and kind people—and for this reason I could accept their matter-of-fact attitude that they (like all farm people) needed to have about the life and death of animals that after all were not pets.

I sat at Aunt Boletta’s kitchen table and smiled as she said, “Var sa godt” and passed me another gingerbread cookie. (Say, “Var-sha goo”--literally “Be so good”. It’s a useful, all-purpose Norwegian phrase, meaning something like, “Here ya go.”)

How to Give a Cat a Pill

[Note: never try this on a tail-less Norwegian barn cat.]

1. Pick cat up and cradle it in the crook of your left arm as if holding a baby. Position right forefinger and thumb on either side of cat's mouth and gently apply pressure to cheeks while holding pill in right hand. As cat opens mouth pop pill into mouth. Allow cat to close mouth and swallow.

2. Retrieve pill from floor and cat from behind sofa. Cradle cat in left arm and repeat process.

3. Retrieve cat from bedroom, and throw soggy pill away.

4. Take new pill from foil wrap, cradle cat in left arm holding rear paws tightly with left hand. Force jaws open and push pill to back of mouth with right forefinger. Hold mouth shut for a count of ten.

5. Retrieve pill from goldfish bowl and cat from top of wardrobe. Call spouse from yard.

6. Kneel on floor with cat wedged gently but firmly between knees, holding front and rear paws. Ignore low growls emitted by cat. Get spouse to hold head firmly with one hand while carefully forcing wooden ruler into mouth. Drop pill down ruler and rub cat's throat vigorously.

7. Retrieve cat from curtain rail, get another pill from foil wrap. Make note to buy new ruler and repair curtains. Carefully sweep shattered figurines and vases from hearth and set aside for gluing later.

8. Wrap cat in large towel and get spouse to lie on cat with head just visible from below armpit. Put pill in end of drinking straw, force mouth open with pencil, and blow down drinking straw.

9. Check label to make sure pill not harmful to humans and drink one beer to decrease chance you've aspirated it and to wash taste away. Apply Band-Aid to spouse's forearm and remove blood from carpet with cold water and soap.

10. Retrieve cat from neighbor's shed. Get another pill. Open another beer. Place cat in cupboard, and press door against neck, leaving head showing. Pry jaws apart with dessert spoon. Flick pill down throat with rubber band.

11. Fetch screwdriver from garage and put cupboard door back on hinges. Drink beer. Fetch bottle of scotch; pour shot of same and drink. Apply cold compress to cheek, and check records for date of your last tetanus shot. Apply whiskey compress to cheek to disinfect.

12. Call fire department to retrieve cat from tree across the road. Apologize to neighbor who crashed into fence while swerving to avoid cat.

13. Consume remainder of Scotch. Get spouse to drive you to emergency room; sit quietly while doctor stitches fingers and forearm and removes pill remnants from right eye.

14. Perhaps giving a cat a pill isn't something you should try at home.

How to Give a Dog a Pill

1. Wrap it in bacon.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

George Harrison and Monty Python

Some time after The Beatles had broken up, George Harrison (God bless him) wrote to the members of Monty Python.

George told 'the Pythons' how much he liked them, and that he was certain Monty Python was in fact "the next reincarnation of The Beatles". For those of you who weren't around at the time (early 70's), The Beatles in general and George in particular had thoroughly earned by then what would now be called the "street cred" to say things like this and be totally plausible. (And who's to say he wasn't right, anyway?)

Unfortunately, someone in the mailroom at the BBC discarded Harrison's letter, thinking it was a fake. It never got delivered.

So the guys in Monty Python didn't even know about it, … until years later when they met George, who then asked them what they thought about his letter. ("What letter?")

Imagine, getting a fan letter from one of The Beatles, and not knowing about it because someone threw it away?!!