Thursday, June 11, 2020

In a universe where compromise is inevitable and discretion is its own best teacher, we find ourselves in constant negotiation with the alignment of the stars. We obey their whims, albeit with the occasional quizzical sneer, yet we seldom understand them. Such is the nature of this lengthy task we have chosen to pour into our otherwise unspectacular days. Where yesterday we reflected solemnly upon lost rights and never-forgotten loved ones, today we are required to re-focus, to re-tune, and to open up our hearts and souls for the wonders of this:

National Egg Roll Day

For only the second time in history (I’m trying to add some gravitas to this one, so bear with me) humanity celebrates National Egg Roll Day. The day was founded last year by a – wait for it – restaurant that serves egg rolls. It makes sense, I suppose. If any aspect of westernized Chinese food should be elevated to have its own day… actually, scratch that thought. I can think of a myriad of dishes that should have their own day, and I’d like to celebrate every one of them.

But this will have to do. An egg roll usually contains cabbage, chopped pork, and a number of other mystery ingredients because I don’t want to pull back the veil too far on these. Egg rolls are magic. It is absolutely an American Chinese food staple, having originated on this continent, not in the old country. Oddly enough, one ingredient that often doesn’t make its way into an egg roll is egg. The breading may contain egg, or it may not. An article in the Washington Post suggests we may call them egg rolls because the Chinese word for ‘egg’ sounds like the word for ‘spring’, and these are based off spring rolls which actually are a part of traditional Chinese cuisine. But no one has verified this, so I’m giving this theory a thumbs-down.

The New York style egg roll is about two inches long, with a thick crunchy skin. The ones we usually get around here are larger, but with a puffier batter. We ordered a couple from Lee Garden last night, a restaurant known (at least by us – other experiences may contradict this) as a deeply mediocre purveyor of western-style Chinese food. But the egg rolls were in the crispy style, and they were damn fine.

National Ballpoint Pen Day

Now we’re into some serious party-time. Woohoo, ballpoint pens!

With that biting sarcasm now out of my system, I suppose I can appreciate that ballpoint pens did in fact improve the world considerably. Before them, we either had pencils or fountain pens to deal with. There was no quick-dry solution, in fact it wasn’t even thought of. The first ballpoint patent had nothing to do with replacing fountain pens; John J. Loud simply wanted something to write on rough surfaces, like wood or coarse paper. It turned out that his invention wasn’t quite up to the task – it could make marks on coarse surfaces, but it was too coarse itself to work for regular writing. Not to worry about Mr. Loud though – he went on to invent some sort of firecracker cannon, so clearly his life was awesome.

Perfecting the ballpoint was tricky. Make the ball socket too tight or the ink too thick and you’ll get nothing onto the paper. Err too much in the other direction and you’ll have a sloppy mess. Làszlò Bìrò figured out that newspaper ink dried quickly enough to avoid smudging, so he enlisted his chemist brother to help him come up with the first workable, marketable ballpoint pen in 1938. It was patented on June 15, which brings up the question of why we celebrate this on June 10. There is no answer. I hate it when there’s no answer.

Bìrò came up with his masterpiece in Argentina. The first ballpoint pen marketed to American audiences debuted at Gimbel’s department store in New York City in 1945. It was the Reynolds Rocket, and it sold for $12.50, which is about $186 in today’s money. That’s a lot of cash for a ballpoint pen.

Jodie has her favourite pen, which is a rollerball style. These make use of water-based inks instead of oil-based inks. This can create more smearing, but if done properly feels great when it makes contact with the paper. I appreciate a fine point gel pen myself, which has no place in the sacred space of National Ballpoint Pen Day. I hope you had a few special moments with your beloved favourite pen yesterday – we’ve all got our favourites, don’t we? Or is it just us, the weird people who celebrate stuff, and who also care about the brand of pen in their hands? Whatever – the artwork above shows the capabilities of a ballpoint pen in the right hands. Thanks to our daughter Abbey for being awesome and far more talented than her parents.

National Iced Tea Day

In my extremely limited travel experience, I have found that there tends to be only one standard form of ‘iced tea’ in most places. Up here we have Nestea and other sugary concoctions. If you order iced tea in a restaurant, that’s what you’ll get. To my knowledge only Chili’s served brewed iced tea, and they warn you about it whenever you order it. At present I believe our only Chili’s in town is presently beyond security in the terminal at our airport, so it doesn’t come up much.

In LA and New York I’ve ordered iced tea and there is no warning, they simply bring you unsweetened brewed iced tea. They call the sugary stuff ‘sweet tea’. And that’s about right. Real iced tea is a refreshing beverage, full of actual tea flavour. It can be sweetened with sugar or sweetener, but it doesn’t need it. Sweet tea is fine, but it’s not real iced tea and should not be labeled as such. I know, that’s an uphill fight that I’ll never win in this part of the world, but dammit I’ll believe it to my death.

My weirdly mortality-staked stance on this issue aside (seriously, I need to tone it down about 15-20% on that one), there are numerous cultural variations on iced tea. In the Netherlands and Belgium, iced tea is often a carbonated iced tea made by Lipton. In South Korea, they serve it cold but with no ice, and with such weird flavours as corn and barley. In Vietnam they’ll serve you iced tea at a restaurant while you’re deciding what to order.

We took some melon-and-other-fruit-flavoured tea from David’s Teas and iced it yesterday, providing us with a delicious beverage to accompany dinner. Iced tea as it should be. Save the sugar for dessert.

National Herbs & Spices Day

Is this a day to devour some delicious KFC, with its patented 11 herbs and spices recipe? Well no – KFC isn’t on the menu for today. But spaghetti is, and I love making my own sauce, employing fresh herbs & spices whenever possible. Yesterday I made use of some of the fresh basil we have growing in our back yard, as well as some thyme that was still in our fridge. It was a very tasty mix.

This is not the sort of celebration that lends itself to an explanation of history or invention. Herbs and spices have been lending their oomph to food for as long as we know. The question of why is obvious: food needs a little kick. It needs some help to realize its true potential. Some herbs, like the aforementioned basil and thyme, are almost universally loved, at least when used correctly. Others, like cilantro, are divisive. Again, when used in the right context, it should be outstanding.

As for the Colonel’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices, that was one of the great mysteries of my youth, right along with the secret formula for Coke (which they butchered and maimed when I was 9). It turns out the Chicago Tribune may have uncovered the list through a discovered checklist in a family album. To be mixed with flour, here’s what you need to recreate your own KFC masterpiece: salt, thyme, basil, oregano, celery salt, black pepper, dried mustard, paprika, garlic salt, ground ginger and white pepper. Pure magic.

Oh, and I should point out that while it didn’t seem as though it should, that homemade spaghetti sauce yesterday went brilliantly with the egg rolls.

National Black Cow Day

On the one hand, my research may have been flawed. On the other hand… maybe not. The origins of National Black Cow Day are lost to the ages, so we’ll never be able to know for sure. One source I found for this day indicates that it refers to a root beer float, which apparently some folks call a black cow. I’ve always called it a root beer float, but then I’m known for being overly literal.

In researching the day, I also found a reference to a black cow beverage which contains Kahlua, cream and Coca-Cola, which sounds suspiciously like a Black Russian. Then there’s this recipe, which features evaporated milk, root beer and bourbon, with a bit of chocolate syrup drizzled overtop. That’s the one I decided to make, since I’d already purchased some bourbon for the unimpressive mint juleps last weekend. I liked this one much better. Much, much better.

Steely Dan has a song called “Black Cow”, though it fails to specify which one is meant. It’s one of the Dan’s songs about drugs, so I’m leaning toward one of the more alcoholic definitions. Probably the one pictured above, because if I was acting careless and drug-laden enough to warrant Donald Fagan singing a song about my life, I’d do it with some quality booze. That’s just common sense.

World Art Nouveau Day

The Museum of Applied Arts in Belgium, a facility I have never had the good fortune to visit, created this day back in 2013 to honour two significant artists, Antoni Gaudi and Odon Lechner, both of whom died on June 10. Gaudi’s work is well-known to anyone who has drooled over Spanish architecture, while Lechner’s masterful architecture brightens up several blocks in Hungary. Both fall into this category of art, and have produced it on a grand scale.

So what the hell is art nouveau? I’m glad I asked. Art nouveau, which obviously includes art that is not necessarily intertwined with architecture, came as a rebellion against the stuffy academic art of the 1800s. The best movements in art start off as rebellions. With nouveau, you get lines and forms inspired by nature. You get movement in the lines, and beauty in the embellishment. You’ll see it in the funky early 20th century designs in Paris Metro stations, in the ornate glassware of Lalique, or in the flowery brilliance of the lamps designed by Louis Tiffany.

Art Nouveau oozed out of Belgium, which is why they get to lay claim on establishing this day to celebrate it. It emerged as a global art movement, inspiring artists to take the history of their nation’s art and weave it into this new way of thinking, from England to Japan. Those fancy old posters for French shows like Les Folies-Bergère or the early 20th century ornate Coca-Cola ads are art nouveau. Anything attributed to the ‘Modern School’ in Britain is also art nouveau. In Austria, where Gustav Klimt was fusing the style with expressionism, they called it the Vienna Secession. The Sagrada Familia basilica – that massive church designed by Gaudi that has taken more than a century to build – is likely the largest-scale example of art nouveau on the planet.

So celebrate like we did, have a look through some art nouveau masterworks and appreciate the style. In our part of the world, art nouveau had run its course by the start of World War I, and art deco stepped in to take its place. But while art may flare up and down in the collective consciousness in terms of what’s hot at any given moment, great art endures. And great art is worth celebrating.

We soldier onward, driving toward the end of this month and the halfway point of this project with verve and enthusiasm:

  • National Making Life Beautiful Day. How can we make life any more beautiful than it already is? Wow, that’s too bubbly, even for me.
  • National Corn on the Cob Day. Well timed for tomorrow, as corn would not have paired well with spaghetti and egg rolls.
  • National German Chocolate Cake Day. We celebrated this one a bit early, but we’ll happily relive it.
  • Cousteau Day. Hooray for Cousteau!