Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Searching for a restaurant in an unfamilar city

By Dick Hirsch
Even in the information age, eating on the road is always a challenge and can become a real adventure. That’s partly because we are spoiled; we are so familiar with the gustatory conditions on our home turf we are unprepared to conduct a truly comprehensive search for a decent meal elsewhere.
I’m no authority, but at home I can readily recommend local places where I consider the specialties to be apparent, whether it is chicken Marsala, ribs, souvlaki, pasta fagiole or the juiciest hamburger. No research is required, but it’s far different in unfamiliar territory.
Let’s eliminate places on the interstate highway system. There are few choices on turnpikes; a state agency has made the choices and awarded the contracts to the company submitting the highest bid.
Many of them are franchises and present the same menu offerings familiar at home. The Burger King burger and fries on the road have the same appearance and flavor as the same items served at the Burger King near the shopping plaza at home. I suppose that’s a benefit; you know what to expect, but there is no adventure.
It’s a far cry from the days when over the road travel was conducted on state highways leading through cities, towns and villages, through the countryside, over the hills, down by the river, or on the other side of the valley. At strategic points along the route were a wide choice of restaurants. It was the job of the travelers to attempt to choose a stopping place where the food was good, the silverware shiny and the restrooms clean.
There was a period when a school of thought maintained the best places to stop were those where the parking lot outside were filled with trucks, preferably the over-the-road 18-wheelers. The popular theory was that the truck drivers, since they were on the road on a regular basis, would know the best places to stop, the places with the finest food, the best prices and the biggest portions. Many travelers subscribed to that approach. Although it is unwise to generalize, I have never believed that truck drivers would be the best arbiters of culinary matters.
Signs and billboards were important. They beckoned the hungry and stressed the unique nature of each establishment. “Home Cooking,” and “Table Service” were popular claims, as were more specific postings citing the cuisine, such as honey-dipped fried chicken, homemade soup, pies made daily or fresh coffee.
The simplest sign I remember said “EAT.” I couldn’t believe any normal person would ever be attracted to a place with such an unimaginative sign. So I stopped. I ATE. It turned out well, one of the best tuna salad sandwiches on wheat toast I had eaten at the time, accompanied by a quarter of a head of lettuce slathered with Russian dressing. It was a satisfying occasion but such experiences require either daring or research, which must often be conducted on the scene.
The best research is done by interrogating the locals. It’s too bad, but the guidebooks are often of little use. They become outdated because restaurants close, managements change and cooks are notorious for departing on short notice.
The most effective strategy is to ask questions. If you ask the right questions of the right people, the theory is that you will find one of the outstanding places in town. This can be relatively simple if the spoken language is English, much more daunting for visitors to a foreign country. Consider this report of a recent quest for a place for lunch in Barcelona, Spain.
My wife, Lynn, after questioning a number of sources,found the name and address of a place. Our only challenge: to find it. First we sauntered down the boulevard. It was still early. No luck. Then we started asking. One couple pointed us in this direction, but they seemed uncertain. Another couldn’t understand our question. A shopkeeper confidently pointed us in the opposite direction. We needed a tie-breaker and approached a man who waved us away. He obviously didn’t want to be bothered with tourists. But Lynn persisted, showing him the printed name and address. His eyes suddenly brightened and he gestured, pointing that way and around the corner.
With his help, we found it. The menu outside looked appealing. In we went, where we were immediately greeted.
“Two for lunch,” I said.
“Do you have reservations?” she asked.
Ah, the perils of dining on the road.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Why I am still looking for my blue overcoat

By Dick Hirsch

When the serious winter weather arrives, I always start looking for my blue overcoat. My chances of finding it are remote because I gave it away several years ago. But I keep looking for it anyway, and that’s part of the story.
Like many personal items, that coat has a history, a history that includes some moments worth remembering. Let me first set the scene by describing the coat. It was a heavy wool, double-breasted Navy blue with those shoulder epaulets that are identified with the style that I recall is sometimes described as a British Warmer.
I purchased it during that misguided period of my life when I wore a jacket and tie to the office absolutely every day. This was a dressy coat and I think it helped me convey---or try to convey---a businesslike demeanor.
The actual purchase was memorable. We had flown to Montreal for two reasons: it was to be a weekend getaway and it also was to provide an opportunity to do some surveillance and gather some first hand information for a story on how they clear the snow from streets and walkways. Montreal has a well-earned reputation for giving winter a quick brushoff, dealing with snow very efficiently. It was February and there was ample snow being blown about by insistent gusts.
After a busy weekend, we were flying back on Monday afternoon, so we spent the morning browsing around the downtown area, where they have a busy retail district both above and below ground. I recall pausing outside an aboveground men’s shop with a large sign announcing WINTER CLEARANCE. I usually avoid men’s stores in Canada because I don’t appreciate their styles, but something must have caught my attention because I went inside.
I should mention that I was wearing a camel color overcoat that had logged considerable miles, still wearable, but no longer very impressive. Before long I was back in the coat section, checking the stock, and eventually trying on the blue coat. One look in the full length mirror, and it was over. Navy blue will do that for any of us. But the sleeves were too long and it was already 11:45 and we had a 2 o’clock flight. I explained the problem to the salesman.
“No problem,” he said. “Go have lunch while we shorten the sleeves.”
That’s how it worked out. Alterations that usually take a week were completed in 45 minutes. We went back to the hotel after lunch with the new coat, picked up the suitcases, and were ready to go to the airport. But was I going to schlep two coats? No.
So I went down to the lobby, folded the old coat very carefully, and draped it neatly on one of those overstuffed chairs in the lobby. Then I left, always wondering how long it would remain there and who would eventually notice it, claim it, and walk away with it.
I wore the blue coat home and wore it successfully for several winters. With its Canadian heritage, the coat was manufactured of material that was soft but dense, with a remarkable ability to repel the winter winds that are so familiar to Buffalo people. Yes, I occasionally had the impression I was slightly overdressed, but I tried to ignore the feeling because I realize Navy blue can have that affect.
As my dress code evolved toward the casual, suits succumbed to sweaters and the coat was no longer appropriate. I gave it to the son of friends, then a college student, who explained the latest collegiate trend was wearing used bulky overcoats, often obtained from a thrift shop, to go with their jeans. He took it back to campus and I was delighted that it would have a new life in an uplifting university atmosphere.
It didn’t work out. He kept it for one winter, but on his return home, he called and said he was going to return the coat because it “just wasn’t right.” I suppose it was the Navy blue issue again. I hung it in the closet, and wore it one last time the following year, although I knew our long relationship was ending. As January approached, I dropped it off at the Friends of the Night People. I’m sure they found a person to wear it. Although I keep looking for the coat, I haven’t seen it yet, but I know it still has the ability to keep a person warm.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

How a suspect became a person of interest

By Dick Hirsch
When I was younger I aspired to be a person of interest. Actually, it was more serious than a mere aspiration, it was more of an intense yearning: I wanted to develop into a person of interest.
That goal included the ability to engage in interesting pursuits in interesting places with other interesting people. More importantly, it involved becoming a person who felt comfortable in a variety of situations, including wide-ranging conversations over a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer, a critique following a concert, play or movie, or an informed explanation of a complex political situation or the failure of a team to record more wins than losses.
Whether I ever succeeded in attaining that status I am not in a position to say. It is a well established fact that everyone believes that they themselves are an interesting person; thus it is impossible for any individual to make an objective and accurate assessment of his or her own interest quotient. That evaluation must be made by others.
With that as background, becoming a person of interest was always a worthy and admirable, although unspoken, goal. Until now.
Now “a person of interest” has emerged as a newly coined euphemism that is being popularized by police departments and quickly adopted by the news media, always willing to include a description that makes their reports sound somewhat more intelligent. The press traditionally attempted to avoid euphemisms, which are best described as agreeable and inoffensive terms that are substituted for more direct and accurate words.
But some editors apparently aren’t being as careful as they once were, guarding against euphemisms. On several occasions I’ve seen stories in the daily paper reporting that a person had passed away, when they had really only died. The usage of passed away was forbidden by newspaper stylebooks.
In the current situation, the authorities and the media have conspired to delete any use of the word “suspect” from their public statements and reports. You can be sure that the guys down at headquarters and the reporters in the newsroom still talk about suspects, but they have decided to sanitize it for public consumption for fear of offending someone.
Consider the view of anyone described as a person of interest. Who is kidding who? They know exactly what is transpiring: because of some activity thought to be suspicious, they are considered to be a suspect.
I still prefer suspect. It’s a perfectly good word and one of the first things they tried to teach you in Newswriting 101 was that was the description to be used until a person was actually accused or charged. Just recently I was suspected of tracking mud on the living room carpet, but never actually accused.
There is no better word that suspect. It is direct and descriptive, yet it reaches no conclusion. A suspect is only a suspect.
One of the most famous lines in movie history still resonates today. It was uttered by actor Claude Rains, playing the role of Capt. Louis Renault, in everybody’s favorite movie classic, “Casablanca.” Remember? The lovers, Ilse (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) were at the airport in Casablanca, attempting to board the last plan and flee to Lisbon, when the local Nazi commandant, Major Strasser, arrives, gun in hand, and is determined to stop and arrest them.
Rick (Humphrey Bogart) won generations of admirers when he pulled a pistol from his pocket and shot Strasser before the very eyes of the police captain, played by Claude Rains, who immediately picked up a phone, called headquarters and delivered that wonderful line:
“Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.”
I don’t know why, when or where it all began, this conspiracy to create a sweet smelling phrase to replace suspect. I’ve asked some attorney friends if they could offer and explanation and none of them had the vaguest idea, although one suggested it was the latest move in a continuing effort to be kind to suspects and perpetrators.
I believe that. I also believe that such a strategy was stimulated by the success of such terms as pre-owned, correctional facility and sanitary landfill. I laughed aloud when I heard the first commercial for a pre-owned Cadillac, pre-owned so potential buyers shouldn’t feel diminished by considering a used car. It’s a trend, but for many of us, a prison is still and prison and a dump is a dump.