Friday, January 28, 2011

The Simple Joys of a Ripe Avocado...And Other Things I Almost Missed

Warning: Descriptive food language ahead. Stop now if you're related to my husband and that kind of thing grosses you out.

I came home from a hard day's work and allowed myself my newest sinful indulgence.

I grabbed a ripe avocado from the fridge and slowly drew my chef's knife around the fruit all the way to the pit, breaking the fruit into taut hemispheres. I hacked into the pit with one swift thwack of my knife and twisted it out with a practiced turn of my wrist. Then I drew the velvetty meat out of the yielding skin with a large spoon, giving me two perfect pieces to slice up like butter.  I sprinkled some kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper over the blemish-free slices and ate every bite, standing over my kitchen sink, basking in the sheer joy of it. How can something be both creamy and fruity, both rich and refreshing, all in the same bite? It's bliss.

I've been finding myself craving avocados with the kind of intensity usually reserved for Dove dark chocolate, and I don't know why, but there could be worse things I could be doing at 4 every afternoon. Some people shoot Jack Daniels; I devour green fruit. I save the Jack for Saturday night.

I can't eat an avocado without thinking of how, in my naive youth, I used to absolutely despise them, and how very close I came to missing out on this newfound joy.

I can both credit and blame my mom's distant cousin. Faye lived in the apartment below us the year we spent in Knox County; hers was one of two full apartments in the building and actually had its own bathroom, so we were very glad that it was occupied by someone we knew. Faye wasn't like the rest of the kin I met that year; she was worldly and well-travelled. When she had been married, she lived with her husband and son in California. California! It seemed so exotic. When I camped out at her place one morning through a one-hour snow delay, she told me how her son had once been dismissed early from school because of a real-life earthquake that had opened a huge crack in the road outside his school. Sure made my snow and flood days seem like nothing special.

I stayed with Faye quite a bit when Mom had to work late, and on one of these occasions a commercial for salad oil came on TV. A cheerful-looking woman dipped a slice of something vibrantly green into the oil and seemed to really enjoy that first bite.

"Oh, my God," said Faye. "What I wouldn't do for an avocado."

"What's an avocado?"

"It's a green fruit with a big pit that you can't find here in Kentucky. Not good ones, anyway."

"What do they taste like?"

She struggled for a while and told me I would just have to taste one someday myself.

"Put a little salt and pepper on it," she advised. "That's all it needs. But it is something of an acquired taste."

After that she went outside to smoke a cigarette, and I was old enough to know what human activity people usually wanted to smoke after, so I figured these avocado things must be REALLY good.

A year later we were living back in northern Kentucky and my dad had taken me to a new produce market that opened. I was allowed to pick any fruit or vegetable I wanted, even if it was something I'd never tried before. Dad was fresh out of rehab and was trying in vain to get us all to be healthier. I spied some wrinkled green things: avocados! Yay! Never mind that I hadn't the faintest idea what to do with one.

With much work, Mom peeled and pitted the thing  and presented it to me ceremoniously on a salad plate. I picked up a slice; it was so slimy it fell out of my grasp. My mom shuddered. I wanted to like it, so I grinned at her as I was trying to make that first bite actually go down. I was repulsed, but I had been talking about these things for a solid year, and I didn't want to look like a rube.

"You don't like it, do you?"

"Sure I do. It just maybe needs some salad oil."

It went into the garbage. Acquired taste, indeed.

For the next 25 years, I avoided avocadoes and its byproduct, guacamole, like most people avoid liver or brussel sprouts. I gagged at there mere sight of any of that green sh*t next to my nachos, thank you very much. I passed up recipes that called for it and put it firmly on my "I Hate..." list.

Then a funny thing happened. I got a coupon for free chips and guacamole at Chipotle after my very first 5K. I sat on the coupon for a while because, you know, apparently I hate the green stuff. Then I figured if it was there in my purse, I might as well use it for the chips, anyway.

But something compelled me to try it the guac. It was there, after all, and I was still hungry, and it looked quite wonderful. It was nothing like the stuff that used to haunt my late-night nachos at Denny's in Danville.

About a year later I got the nerve to try Faye's favorite fruit in its pure, unadulterated form. For old time's sake. Oh, dear Lord, she was right about them. Why did I ever think they were foul? And they've been a regular in my fridge ever since.

I almost missed out on one of the culinary loves of my life simply because I didn't like them as a kid. I shudder at the thought just the way my mother shuddered when she watched me try to force-feed a slimy avocado to myself at the tender age of 10. What else have I been missing?

There are some things in life you simply have to acquire a taste for. You have to want to like them, and try them enough times that finally, one day, it sticks. The question always is, though, what's worth all that effort? What's worth aquiring a taste for?

Well, beer, for one. Would I be healthier if I'd never tasted an ice-cold beer on a hot summer day and all of a sudden started loving it when as a young adult I thought it was even nastier than avocadoes? Maybe, maybe not. A drink a day is good for you, you know. But would I be happier without that particular acquisition? No. Absolutely not. A good beer is a work of art.

I've also acquired a taste for salmon, which I used to think was the devil's own creation. But it's very good for you, so they say, and on practically every decent restaurant menu, so I am glad I kept trying that one until I discovered the one way that I actually enjoy eating it (marinated and grilled to a char.)

It's not just food; the first time I read both The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations, I hated them. I didn't understand why either of those was considered good literature. But in college, under the instruction of a pair of great teachers, I grew to love them. Dicken in general may be an acquired taste.

I haven't made a New Year's resolution yet, but maybe it should be to give another shot to some things I think I hate. Just to make sure there aren't any more avocadoes out there. Maybe I'll start with Nickleback or Two And a Half Men. (Give me strength.)

Have you ever given something a second chance and realized that actually you kind of love it? Is there anything you'd like to give a second chance? Sound off below.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Shallow Thoughts

My old friend Insomnia has been back in town; I suspect the stream of snow days we've had is to blame. She likes to show up at my door any time that I get to sleep late on random Wednesdays.

Whenever I spend a few hours with Insomnia, she and I like to talk. Here's a sample of what went rolling through my brain last night:

1. Mom has me worried because she said Scout's been binging and purging. I am not sure if a cat can be bulimic, but it certainly would explain why Scout's been looking lean and svelte. I know it's nice to look good in your skinny jeans, but at what price, Scout? At what price?

2. I've got to print out that picture of Agnes for Mom. Mom had me worried about her, too, when she called less than an hour after picking up Ainsley for some Mamaw-and-me time to say the following:

"Yeah, can you get me a picture of Agnes?"

Ummm...who the f^&* is this Agnes, and how could you have gone senile so quickly? You were making sense an hour ago! How worried should I be that my kid is with this crazy person?

"Uhhh, Mom...what are you talking about?"

"You know, Agnes. She looks just like Ainsley did when she was little."

Fab. Now she's seeing little girls named Agnes running around...oh, wait! Agnes!

"Are you all watching Despicable Me, by chance?"

"Of course we are. Have Jason pull a picture off the Internet for me. Bye!"

I love my mom.

3. "He's climbing in your windows, he's snatchin' your people up, trying to rape 'em so y'all need to hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your kids, hide your wife..." Great. How did THAT get into my head? Again? Thanks, Insomnia. That was helpful.

4. I also can't quit thinking about that "Tiger Mom" book. I was condemning the author pretty hard until Jason told me I can sometimes push Ainsley too hard academically, and now I don't know if I have any business bad-mouthing this woman. But I proudly display Ainsley's last report card even though she got a B in math, and would a true Tiger Mom do that? Probably not. I push Ainsley in some subjects because I know she can get good grades. She is an excellent reader and writer and I will never be able to accept bad grades in those subjects. I don't push too hard; I am nurturing her talent. So that she can write a brilliant and scathing memoir about her relationship with her mother someday. I'm not a Tiger Mom; I'm more of a house-cat mom. I'm all fine and good until you ruffle my fur the wrong way and then I might give you a little hiss and bat you with my paw to let you know I mean business.

5. House cats...Scout...Blurg. Here we go again.

Sleep did come. But this morning in the shower, I still couldn't get Antoine Dodson out of my brain. Such is the life of those who entertain thoughts when they should be entertaining sleep.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Gone Country

Everything is cyclical.

Pants legs have gone from wide to narrow to wide again and now people are inexplicably wearing skinny jeans that only look good on underweight 15-year-olds (and don't even get me started on denim leggings.) The school day has gone from a 6-period day to block scheduling and back to 6 periods, and reading instruction has gone from phonics to whole language and back to phonics again.

If you live long enough, everything old will be new again.

In the mid- to late-nineties, I went through a country stage. Fed up with the boy bands and watered-down R & B I was hearing on pop radio, I started listening to my mom's favorite radio stations. And I liked what I heard.

Garth Brooks. George Strait. Trisha Yearwood. Tim McGraw. Martina McBride. Deana Carter. The Dixie Chicks. Early Kenny Chesney (the DJ at our wedding played "Me and You" after my matron of honor's teary-eyed and touching toast, and Jason and I have had a soft spot for that song ever since.) Yes, even Shania Twain, much as I hate to admit it. I liked that most of the people I was listening to were talented singers with big voices (Martina!), or good songwriters, or seemed like plain good folks who would be fun to talk to over a plate of fried chicken and an ice-cold Bud. In May of 1998 I bought a box set collection of Garth Brooks CDs after I saw him in concert in Lexington; I feel justified telling you that because, looking at the pop charts for that month, there wasn't too much quality pop music for sale. Backstreet Boys and Savage Garden, anyone?

Then something happened. As quickly as I fell in love with country music, I fell out of it. I think the exact moment might have been the first time I heard Toby Keith threaten to put a boot up someone's ass because it's the American way. I began to find country a little too corn-pone, a little too smugly redneck. When we bought our first new car in the fall of 2001, I didn't program a single country station into the radio's presets.

I still bought CDs from the Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss with Union Station, but since they didn't get much airplay on my local country stations, I am not even sure they count as "pure" country. Every summer I put a Carrie Underwood barn-burner on my summer mix CD for going-to-the-pool listening, because Carrie's songs are so cute when they're angry. But other than that, I've not given country much love.

Then, out of the blue clear sky, I fell in love with a video and a song that was on CMT while I was working out on the elliptical. It caught my eye on one of the gym screens while I was watching Paula Deen add a stick of butter to something, and I changed my tuner and, just maybe, my musical life. Behold! People with talent! It's like the Anti-Ke$ha!

And I went right home and spent the rest of my night browsing for videos and songs by the Zac Brown Band.

Some of you are more musically knowledgeable and hip than I am and may already know of these guys with the tight bluegrass-y harmonies and stunning virtuosity on their respective instruments. They're new to me, though, and I think I love them. I felt the first twinges when I watched a video of them just sitting around on their tour bus doing one of my favorite traditional bluegrass songs, "Fox On the Run." Then when I found video of them at the CMAs covering "Devil Went Down to Georgia"--mercy. And the following fun fact helped me earn some cred with Jason--they opened for Dave Matthews Band a couple of times this summer.

So I may be back to country now. I have found that I kinda like Dierks Bentley, and The Band Perry, and Jason Aldean. I like them better than Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, and the like, anyway.

Sometimes I don't like to speak of my country roots among the more musically hip of my friends. I hide my John Anderson greatest hits CD or pretend like I don't know every word of "Strawberry Wine."

But it just might be time to dust off my sawed-off cowboy boot-shoes and brush up on my line dancing. I've gone country. Again. And it's all Zac Brown's fault.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Apocalypse Now...or Maybe Later

When I was a young girl, there were a few things I was absolutely, positively sure of.

I believed the evangelical televangelists my mom watched when they said the Rapture and the Tribulation were coming, and that right soon. I believed that aliens had visited our planet, probably on multiple occasions, and that someday they would make their presence known in a spectacular, possibly violent, manner. I fervently believed in ghosts, and that angels walked among us, and that each of us has a soul that either goes to heaven or gets stuck here on earth in a kind of purgatory when we die. Finally, I believed in a myriad of government cover-ups and conspiracies including, but not limited to, the JFK assassination. No way, I thought at 17, did Lee Harvey Oswald take down a president of these United States all by himself.

I am older and, for the most part, wiser now. I am more of a skeptic about almost everything; thirty-six years on this planet have taught me an awful lot about people, science, and faith. A fantastic professor in college (the first Jewish person I'd ever known, and perhaps ironically, the most knowledgeable scholar of the New Testament I've ever had the pleasure of listening to) taught us that the book of Revelations is not meant to be read literally, but was written in code to provide hope and comfort to struggling Christians in the years following Jesus' death. I've learned about just how special and possibly unique the conditions on our own earth are and how, even if we're not alone, the intelligent life forms elsewhere in the universe may be so different from us and so far away that any kind of clear contact could be impossible. I've had some hair-raising encounters with mediums, psychics, and ghost talkers and had some experiences that I choose to interpret with my heart, but that could easily be explained away with science and a hefty helping of bereavement psychology. And even though my 12th-grade government teacher would be appalled to hear me say this, after an entire grading period of persuasion (I mean instruction), I do think it's possible for one man, even a man of questionable skill, to kill a president. Little men can kill great men, even though it doesn't seem remotely right or fair for the world to work that way.

But inside the skepticism is still that little girl who, like Fox Mulder, wants to believe. I don't keep a flying saucer poster hanging in our family room in imitation of Mulder's "I Want to Believe" wall decoration for nothing. I do want to believe, and I can't really decide whether I am a skeptic or a true believer. It kinda depends on the day, as ridiculous and wishy-washy as that sounds.

And now that birds are falling out of the skies, and fish are dying, and hundreds of little quakes have happened in a little Arkansas town without a fault line near, and the frickin' Lost numbers showed up in the Mega Millions jackpot, for crying out loud, the skeptic's shrewd eyes have failed and I am utterly, completely convinced that apocalypse is nigh.

I've been jokingly sending texts and emails to my friends since all this freaky stuff started hitting the airwaves. "The end is here! Party at my house! Hurry, before it's too late and all the Unibroue is gone!" "Beware the imminent alien invasion! Stock up on water and baseball bats!" (That's for you, Signs fans.) "Stay the eff out of western Kentucky! The New Madrid fault is gonna bloooooooow..." (Well, that one almost makes sense, scientifically speaking. We're due for The Big One, and animals often freak out before Big Ones, right?) But I'm not really sure that I'm joking.

A thousand birds dying of massive blunt-force trauma on New Year's Eve? Okay, I can buy that maybe possibly a scare from fireworks was responsible. But then further reports came out of dead birds in Louisiana, and western Kentucky, and then a bunch of fish died, and then I read from a blogger that close to that same area in Arkansas there had been all these freaky little earthquakes all fall, and so on, and so on. Something is up here, kids. It could be God. It could be aliens. It could be geography, biology, or seismology. It could be an X-File. But don't tell me it's nothing.

It's waaaay too much fun to pretend it's something.

I didn't realize how much I needed a good paranormal-ish mystery (not in my backyard, though, thank God... or whatever) to unfurl my long-missing crazy conspiracy "Spooky Librarian" flag. Rational explanations can be so boring sometimes. Occam's razor cuts too neat a line. I want to talk about some freaky, paranormal weirdness for a change.

And hope (and maybe pray) that despite all this fun, science is right. Because I like this planet too much to have to leave it just yet. I like the idea of an alien invasion in theory, but in practice, it would just make modern life so darned inconvenient. The aliens might not like Modern Family as much as we do, and then where would we be?

Before Christmas, and before all this explained-but-not-explained stuff happened, I had an interesting conversation with one of Jason's brothers about some of these favorite subjects of mine from my naive youth. He's a fan of Ancient Aliens and had me look up the "alien" cave paintings profiled in one of the episodes. Yep, those look like aliens on those walls, alright.Then we started talking about JFK's autopsy, the Magic Bullet, smoke on the grassy knoll, and the Zapruder film ("Back, and to the left....Back, and to the left..." I can still hear my government teacher say.) It was enough to make me a hard-core believer again until the next morning when the Kentucky bourbon had worn off and the reality of life in the 21st century kicked in. Is it possible to be an alien and conspiracy agnostic?

I suppose that's as possible as masses of birds dying from trauma that's merely the result of sudden, startled flying. Fireworks, you say. Sure.

Whatever the final, science-sanctioned word ends up being, there will be those who see government conspiracy, cover-up, little green men, or the hand of God. Provided we're still here to talk about all this (there is an evangelical group who has used the Bible to calculate the end of time and we might only have until May, so live it up), even the last word will not be the last word. This is way too interesting and juicy a tale for me to accept a simple explanation for.

The truth is out there. But it's not nearly as interesting as speculation.

Are you a conspiracy nut? Are there alien bodies recovered from Roswell frozen in a secret hangar at Wright Patterson? Are the end times coming? Or are you just going to use all this apocalypse talk as an excuse to eat, drink, and be merry (for tomorrow we die)?