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

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Change? There is a problem with change

By Dick Hirsch

There is a growing group of people who should probably be worrying about other aspects of their lives, but, no, they are worried about the future of the penny. They just adore and respect the penny, and usually they have a coffee can or some larger vessel at home, brimming with pennies.

I deny affiliation with that group even though when I empty my pocket at the end of each day I do segregate the pennies and deposit them in a small container. What else is there to do with them? I understand that some people throw them away, but I cannot bring myself to take such an action. My collection never amounts to much because another family member will periodically empty the container, count, roll and exchange the pennies for some real money, perhaps as much as a dollar or maybe even two.

It isn’t the value of the penny that attracts those coffee can savers. It’s the lore, the mystique. They remember the display of penny candy at the corner store, and the wide selection it offered, and they occasionally recall innocent times spent long ago in a penny arcade, which was filled with various intriguing games and machines. Insert a penny or two in the slot, and wheels began whirring, lights began flashing, bells began ringing, and the action was underway. Others may remember their introduction to gambling, either pitching pennies against the wall to see who could get closest to the target or else learning the rudiments of penny ante draw poker.

Some others recall the wisdom that created an aura that surrounds the penny. I think of them still: “A penny saved is a penny earned,” is probably the one most often cited, but I always preferred: “Save the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.” There is real optimism in that axiom, but, even when practiced diligently, it is a long and sometimes disheartening road to wealth.

Yes, there are groups of people for whom the penny is a revered icon. From time to time, some congressman or Washington bureaucrat will suggest that the penny should be eliminated, no longer be minted. Abandon the penny, they say. It is a familiar proposal, a proposal made periodically by well-meaning individuals, and it never fails to unleash a storm of protest from the penny lovers. They want the penny preserved at all cost.

The preservation of the penny is a truly costly undertaking. Even though it has come to be regarded as somewhat irrelevant, the US Mint needs to produce more each year. It is a losing proposition, as you may have heard. Each penny costs about 1.7 cents to produce, so the government is losing $50 million each year by keeping pennies in circulation. The mint needs to produce about seven billion new ones each year---that’s billion with a “b”---partly because some pennies wear out or are lost or discarded, but mostly because people insist on hoarding them.

Because it is so beloved, there seems to be little chance the penny will be abandoned. It has too many lobbyists at every level. Zinc producers are among the leading supporters of the continued coinage of the penny, and with good reason. Once pennies were primarily a copper alloy, but copper became far too expensive; the copper in each coin was worth more than the penny. Various formulations were tested and the Mint in 1982 settled on a mixture that is 97.5 percent zinc and 2.5 percent copper cladding. Naturally, the price of zinc has been rising, creating the annual penny losses for the US Treasury.

The nickel is an even bigger problem. Each nickel costs the Mint about a dime to manufacture and you cannot stay in business very long with that kind of a structure. The Mint sells coins to the Treasury at face value. Nickels used to be good for parking meters and coin telephones, but those uses have faded with rising costs. Still, they still play a role in retail dealings.

If the penny and the nickel are loss leaders for the Mint, the dollar coin is a major profit item. It only costs about 20 cents to make, assisting the Mint in its obligation to break even.

As for my own approach, since it is still comforting to have some change jingling in your pocket, I seldom leave the house without a few quarters. In the current economy, they’re still good for some uses, but not for very many.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Adding to Buffalo's riches

By Dick Hirsch

Nobody ever said it was dull living in Buffalo, did they? Let the observers and demographers from elsewhere write whatever they please; if you are paying attention you can testify this is an exciting, amazing and embracing place to live. Permit me to cite the most recent example:

A few days ago a remarkable cross-section of community leaders---philanthropists, artists, educators and elected officials---proudly participated in a ceremonial ribbon cutting prior to the opening of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College. It is a stunning new museum, scheduled to open with its first exhibition in late November.

It is the first new museum built in the city in over 100 years and it emphasizes the paintings of Charles E. Burchfield, while also featuring the work of regional artists. Burchfield’s career in Buffalo evolved from designing wallpaper to gaining international recognition for the distinctive and evocative watercolors he quietly created in the small studio in the backyard of his home in Gardenville.

Just an hour before I joined about 700 others to attend the ceremony and tour the building I was reflecting on the latest nasty news about Buffalo. There it was again: Buffalo the third poorest city in the US, preceded by Detroit and Cleveland and followed by El Paso and Memphis. I filed that story, along with the one published a month ago in Forbes Magazine, ranking Buffalo among the 10 fastest dying cities. I read all those stories but try not to dwell on them. That’s the kind of press we’ve been getting for years. Back in the ‘60s, there was a municipal furor when a west coast sportswriter wrote a story calling Buffalo “the armpit of the east.” By doing so, he became something of a local celebrity, and had his expenses paid to fly back here and appear for a TV interview and have lunch with the mayor.

We should be adjusted and desensitized by now. Who cares what the distant commentators claim? We know the truth.

At this moment, you should be phoning or e-mailing your relatives in Houston or Charlotte and raving about the Burchfield Penney, a $30 million project that was built with an impressive combination of private and public money. The result is a spectacular new destination, an 84,000 square foot building that is flooded with natural light bathing the spacious exhibit areas. This is a remarkable building, the exterior massive, but settled comfortably in its campus environment on Elmwood Avenue, the interior characterized by an innovative use of the space and a series of compelling angles and vistas. It will soon be added to Buffalo’s list of architectural triumphs.

Poorest city? Phooey! We’re quite comfortable...thanks for asking.

If you think of it, you should tell your relatives in Phoenix or Atlanta about the reconstruction of the Darwin Martin House, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s true masterpieces, nearing completion, as well as major enhancements underway at the Buffalo Zoo.

The arts and cultural community is strong and vibrant. The closing of the Studio Arena Theatre has been a setback, but there will come a future time when the place will be revived and they will once again turn on the house lights. The Studio Arena, with its rich history, didn’t deserve its fate, ironically becoming a victim of a flourishing theater community. There is considerable competition in the performing arts, from places large and small, places like Shea’s Buffalo, the Irish Classical Theater, the Kavinoky Theater, MusicalFare and other producing groups. The Studio Arena, with a sizable facility and an overhead to match, wasn’t nimble and perceptive enough in recent years to develop a following that filled the seats with the needed regularity.

Using the completion of the Burchfield Penney as a springboard, this column was definitely conceived as an attempt at boosterism, an approach I seldom follow in print. I’ve found it beneficial, however, occasionally to remind myself and others of some of the very real benefits we have. My wife, Lynn, offers impressive testimony, based on her work for years with young families transferred here. Most of them came reluctantly, with foreboding, based on negative reports they had read, usually about the weather and the shrinking city. After two or three years, their outlooks changed. They were embraced by the community and its qualities and people. They stayed, an indication that sometimes it takes a different perspective to recognize truth.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Some questions are rarely asked

By Dick Hirsch

Most people tell me that one of my skills is asking questions. I can’t disagree because I have always been an inquisitive person, a quality that probably helped lead me into journalism. In addition, I spent over 19 years conducting live interviews on television. Those were weekly half hour programs, and I can honestly say that I never was short of questions on any night and I never used any note cards with pre-planned questions.

With that as background, I can tell you that I have frequently be criticized for refusing to ask directions while driving in unfamiliar territory. I understand that my situation is far from unique. That is a behavior pattern that has been widely attributed to humans of the masculine gender, with the observation most often made by wives, usually while seated in the passenger seat of a moving vehicle.

I have often heard the allegation, usually phrased something like this:

“You men are all the same. You would rather drive around, not knowing whether you are going in the right direction, instead of asking somebody for directions.”

I don’t deny any of that. I speak only for myself, not on behalf of others in my group who from time to time face the same accusation. My policy is this: driving is comparable to being at the helm of a ship, such as the captain, and it is the driver’s responsibility to travel to the proper destination in the time allotted. Asking for directions shows a lack of confidence or weakness, don’t you agree?

In all my years of experience, I have never been lost. When the children were younger and we were vacationing, they sometimes seemed concerned, fearful that as I drove around in the gathering darkness, I didn’t know where I was. I might not have known exactly where I was at that precise moment, but I always knew my approximate location. Do you not agree that a driver must be self reliant? That has always been my opinion and I see no reason to either change my attitude or else invest in a GPS, one of those global positioning systems that provides reliable travel directions. I have friends who depend on those and I can still get from Point A to Point B before they do.

Besides, there are fewer dependable sources for travel directions. The best sources were the service stations, where you could usually pull in and find three or four guys who were very familiar with the neighborhood. They either worked there or were stopping in just to socialize and maybe play a little cribbage. They were able to provide concise directions and sometimes even suggest an optional short cut. Those places are mostly gone now, with gasoline being dispensed at convenience stores, where the clerks consider themselves to be well above average if they are able to find their own way to work on time.

I was under great pressure a few months ago when we were away to attend a surprise birthday dinner party. Those attending were supplied with written directions from the hotel to the site of the party. Sometimes such documents provide room for misinterpretation, such as “Cross Walnut Street and follow Route 345.” That’s fine, but it doesn’t say whether to follow 345 to the left or to the right.

In that case I went left. We kept going and going and it kept getting darker and less populated. We were surrounded by cabbage fields. I made a U-turn and headed in the opposite direction. Concerned that we would miss the surprise aspect of the party, I relented, violated my own policy, and asked some help from other motorists at stop lights. No luck. I stopped at a deli, where I found a truck driver who had never heard of our destination, but said he believed I was going in the right direction. We made it in time, not because of any directions, but because we finally spotted a billboard advertising the restaurant, thus keeping my record unsullied: never been lost.

On the other hand, I am perfectly willing to give directions when asked. Sometimes it doesn’t work out well, however, like the occasion when a driver with Kansas plates pulled alongside and asked me how to get to Route 384. Sorry, I told him, I had no idea.

Oops; later that day I realized Route 384 is Delaware Avenue, which was just a few blocks west of where the question was asked. I’ve always admitted I was better at asking questions than at answering them.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

Pesto, now in a commanding position with pasta

By Dick Hirsch

I grew up secure in the knowledge that all spaghetti came with tomato sauce. Furthermore, I mastered the spelling of spaghetti, a tricky word, at an early age, well before I had heard the term pasta.

Pasta? What’s pasta? I also was quite familiar with macaroni and could spell that, too, a claim that many of my school classmates couldn’t make. Just as I had the inside information on red spaghetti sauce, I was fully informed about macaroni. It came with cheese, sometimes in the same box.

And just as macaroni was accompanied by cheese and spaghetti came with tomato sauce, there was another relative, the noodle, which most often presented itself in soup, along with some shards of chicken and a few bits of celery and carrots.

I disclose this personal background information as a means of recounting the gustatory simplicity of those days. This reflection began the other evening as I was downing a portion of a thin pasta style---it could have been spaghettini or even angel hair---made with a greenish substance known as pesto. Sometimes when I am eating a meal I especially enjoy I am likely to think back and ask myself a few questions about my relationship with that dish. Did my mother make it? When did I first eat it? Did I always like it?

Pesto? Green? Peculiar pastas? Whoever heard of such deviations from the standards established long ago? None of us had ever heard of pesto. Pesto suddenly materialized and developed a high profile about 20 years ago. After a few tentative tastings, I embraced pesto with increasing enthusiasm, an enthusiasm bordering on fervor.

As I savored that pasta with pesto the other evening, I decided that pesto, in my judgment, now outranks tomato sauce. I say that without qualification, even if the red sauce includes monstrous meatballs. At the same time, I asked myself why I had to wait until I was cruising through middle age to discover the appeal of this remarkable dish.

Why was it a secret for so long? Were our Italian neighbors keeping pesto a secret? If so, why? Just across the street lived my friend Joe Dellapenta, and when I sometimes stood in his driveway waiting for him to answer my call and come outside, I would smell some of the most fabulous cooking aromas emanating from the kitchen window. It sure didn’t smell like anything we had for dinner at our house. I’ll just bet that his mother and plenty of other mothers in our neighborhood and over on the west side were well aware of pesto and were serving batches of pasta mixed with pesto sauce to their families while still withholding the recipe from general use.

(As an aside, I should remind you of the lingering suspicion that they followed a similar scheme with zucchini. Zucchini? What Zucchini? Wasn’t he the famous lion tamer with the circus? We never knew of zucchini until many years later when an elderly gardener on Efner Street bragged about his crop of zucchini, planted from seed. The newspaper printed a picture of him standing in his vegetable patch, ensnared amid the tangle of overrun zucchini vines.

(Along with the photo and a story about the garden, they published a couple of recipes. That was all the publicity that relatively unknown vegetable needed. It emerged from obscurity, catapulted to prominence, and soon people were clamoring for it. It was being grown, harvested, cooked in countless different ways, and enjoyed by the multitudes. The plot of the Italians to keep zucchini as their own secret had inadvertently been foiled.)

The news on pesto is out now, of course, but there is still much to be done if pesto is ever to challenge tomato sauce for leadership. At our house, we grow our own basil, the essential ingredient of pesto. My wife, Lynn, several years ago found a great pesto recipe, and perhaps it tastes even more succulent when you can just walk out the back door, pick some basil leaves, combine it with olive oil and the other ingredients, and quickly produce a quantity of pesto, the native dish of the Genoa area.

I see no reason to include the recipe. There are many sources and I don’t wish to invade the territory of the food writers. One admission I will make that may or may not relate to this topic: I’ve discovered that I always achieve what I believe is a better result when I write on an empty stomach.