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No dogs aloud. September 12, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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An alert member of the grammar police noticed this sign at a regional ag fair and sent a photo of the sign to columnist Bill White, who published it in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call (www.mcall.com) yesterday. The person who sent it wondered if the dogs could go in if they were quiet.

As wordsmiths, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood, who write compulsively from passion as well as professionally, had a good laugh over this. But after attending last weekend’s Bowers Chile Pepper Food Festival, we can top it.

A sign over one of the many food stands was offering spring rolls. It proclaimed with evident pride in its product, “Fresh celery and carrots shredded and sauteed with a blend of spies, tucked inside a thin sheet of pastry and fried to a golden brown.”

Makes your mouth water just reading about it, doesn’t it? Poor James Bond! It’s enough to turn anyone vegetarian.

Silence and I both love spring rolls, but decided we weren’t really all that hungry for some reason. And we did catch sight of a chihuahua lurking at the back of a booth, even though no dogs are “aloud” at the pepper festival, either.

And the beat goes off. January 12, 2012

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First, the post office, confronting us with a future of no Saturday delivery and (worse) no second-day delivery for first-class mail, even if it’s local. And now the newspaper.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have subscribed to our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, since we first moved to PA. Silence especially feels that it’s important to keep track of local goings-on and not just national and international news, that knowing what’s important locally is essential to being part of a community, however peripheral (in our case) that part is.

So it’s been our morning ritual as long as we’ve been here: I take the dog (currently our black German shepherd, Shiloh) out at 6:30 and we get the papers. Then Silence and I settle back into bed with our papers and morning beverage of choice. I read The Wall Street Journal, she reads the Morning Call, and then we switch off over our second cup. By the time we’ve finished the papers, we’re sufficiently awake to get up and get on with our day.

Assuming, of course, that the papers arrive. We’ve always thought our newspaper carriers were heroic characters, reliably delivering the papers on their beat no matter the weather and often before first light. But ever since Christmas, our papers have simply stopped arriving, at least until around noon. We could understand if our current carriers had taken a week off between Christmas and New Year’s and asked a slacker relative to deliver the papers while they were off. But my calendar reminds me that it’s now January 12, which would add up to rather a long vacation for anyone, much less a paper carrier.

Silence isn’t big on stirring the waters, but after a week of this, I decided to call the paper and see if I could find out what was going on. After all, the point of subscribing is to get the paper first thing in the morning so you can read and enjoy it before work. If it doesn’t show up until noon, by the time you can read it, it’s old news and wasted money. Unfortunately, three calls later—one with an actual person—I still have no clue what went wrong.

At this point, I’m starting to get a bit paranoid, suspecting a computer conspiracy theory. You see, the Morning Call recently decided to follow the New York Times (and doubtless many other papers) and start charging to access their online coverage. Our friend Ben resents this, since I think online access should be free if you’re already paying for a subscription. Otherwise, I don’t see why they shouldn’t charge, since, after all, they’re a for-profit enterprise.

However. What if they’ve deliberately started shoddy delivery service to force their subscribers to switch to their online service as some sort of corporate New Year’s resolution to do away with actual paper papers? What if the folks who send out your monthly bills are paying the post office to slow down first-class delivery in an attempt to force everyone to pay their bills online? (Making, of course, your identity even more vulnerable to theft.)

As a stamp collector, our friend Ben would be very sorry to see the end of the post office. And having recently sent out a truckload of Christmas presents and compared the post office’s pricing versus that of FedEx and UPS, Silence and I know that we would be hit very hard in the wallet if we had only the latter two services to rely on for our packages.

But worst of all would be the loss of the mail itself. Yes, it costs 44 cents (and doubtless will soon cost more) to send a bill that you could pay online for free. But 44 cents seems damn little to pay to keep your identity a little more secure from thieves and villains.

Our newspapers aren’t quite in that category. After all, we can still get free news online at MSN, Yahoo News, and doubtless many other sources. We can still at least read the headlines online at the New York Times and etc., and so far, The Wall Street Journal’s online content is still free.

In the case of the papers, it’s all about lifestyle, that morning cuppa and the rustling papers in bed, with our ancient cat Athena curled between us, our Shiloh in her own bed at the foot of ours, our huge, gorgeous, clueless cat Linus hiding under the bed but crying out for attention, and our smart cat, Layla, perched on the cat castle in the bedroom corner to be companionable. It’s about being able to share headlines and tidbits of news and entertaining stories and outrageous typos and concerns about the weather with each other as we read. It’s about starting the day slowly and companionably together before we have to head off on our own.

Are conspiracies really afoot to drive us to our computers? Our friend Ben thinks it’s highly unlikely. It’s far more likely that we’re simply being carried along on the tide of inevitability. And, however much it saves the folks who are driving it, I still think it’s a shame, and doubt very much that those savings will be passed along to the consumer. But I still wonder whatever happened to our newspaper delivery service…

Hounding the helpless hedgehog. May 24, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was astounded to open our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, and find a column by Bill White called “Kids target Pa. ban on hedgehogs.” Now, mind you, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed it, bizarre as it was, if Silence Dogood and I didn’t have a dear friend who is absolutely hedgehog-obsessed. But under the circumstances, the word “hedgehog” leapt off the page. What did Bill mean, “Pa. ban on hedgehogs”?!

Apparently, a fifth-grade class wanted to keep one of the cute little animals as a class pet, but on checking things out, their teacher discovered that it’s illegal to own a hedgehog here in Pennsylvania. I’ve only seen one live hedgehog in my life, a half-drowned specimen that managed to drag itself to my tent when I was doing archaeology in England years ago. But soggy as it was, it was endearing, so I could see why the students had decided they’d like to have one around.

The teacher and her class decided to enlist Bill White in the battle to have the anti-hedgehog law repealed (it’s apparently perfectly legal to own pet hedgehogs in 44 states), and his research revealed a Hedgehog Underground Railroad and a Facebook page called “The Cruel Injustice of Hedgehog Genocide in PA.” Who knew?!!

Digging deeper, Bill found that the anti-hedgehog law had come about because the state Game Commission was worried that some hedgehogs might escape into the wild, creating havoc and displacing native species. As a passionate gardener and nature lover, our friend Ben takes their point. With the exception of poison ivy, practically every major pest in our country has been introduced from abroad, either deliberately (kudzu, starlings, multiflora roses, purple loosestrife, house sparrows) or accidentally (Japanese beetles, brown marmorated stink bugs, innumerable weeds). The examples are legion.

Often, these plants, birds, fish, animals and insects aren’t pests in their native habitat, either because the climate limits their spread or because predators have evolved along with them and keep their population in check. Unfortunately, when they’re brought to a new area, the natural checks and balances are left behind. Anyone who’s ever seen a landscape buried under kudzu or a house inundated with stink bugs will appreciate the serious nightmare potential of this situation. Even in less dramatic situations, an unopposed invader can displace and even eliminate the native plants, animals, birds, insects, etc. that have evolved to populate an area, reducing diversity.

Our friend Ben can see the logic behind the law. What I can’t see is why it’s only aimed at hedgehogs. As enthusiastic pet owners, Silence and I have a dog, cats, parakeets, a parrot, and tropical fish. We also raise chickens. None of these are native to North America. Heading to local Pennsylvania pet stores, we see many other non-native birds, not to mention hamsters, gerbils, chinchillas, geckos, tropical snakes, goldfish, tropical frogs, etc.etc. Iguanas, guinea pigs, tarantulas, and other creatures native to the Americas—but not the U.S.—are also widely available. Why single out the poor hedgehog for this sort of abuse?! Surely it’s no more likely to escape into the wild than, say, a guinea pig or python.

Perhaps the real key is screening potential pet owners as carefully as shelters screen potential pet adopters, making sure that they’re educated about their pet’s needs and willing to provide them before sending a single pet out of the store. After reading Bill’s column, I’m sure that fifth-grade class would qualify. (Check out the column at www.themorningcall.com and look for additional commentary on Bill’s blog, which you can access at the same address.)

I guess it’s lucky for our friend that her hedgehog is a stuffed toy, or she’d probably be in jail.

Papers going to the dogs (and ‘hogs). May 23, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I start our mornings with two newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call. Today, both had front-page stories related to animals.

The Wall Street Journal decided to feature an obscure and disquieting dog-related phenomenon that stubbornly refuses to die: knitting with dog hair. I’ve been aware of this activity, which sounds like a sick joke but is perfectly serious, since being sent a review copy of the seminal book on the subject, Knitting with Dog Hair, back in 1994. According to the WSJ, seventeen years later, there’s still an enthusiastic band of spinners and knitters trying to take dog-fur yarn mainstream. But now they’re calling it “chiengora” (chien being the French word for dog).

Okay, so I screamed at OFB (“Eeeewwww!!! Knitting with dog hair!!!”) when I saw the article, but then I read it. And it appears that many chiengora enthusiasts are saving fur from grooming sessions with their own beloved pets and sending it off to be spun into yarn so they can knit or crochet a wearable memento of a cherished companion, sort of a proactive memento mori. There’s certainly a precedent for this in the Victorian passion for making brooches and rings from the beloved deceased’s braided hair, though in their case, it was humans, not dogs, who were being commemorated.

OFB and I were just brushing our own beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, yesterday, and it’s true, there couldn’t be a more lustrous black coat on the face of the earth. (That’s the reason black shepherds are called “lacquer blacks” in their native Germany.) A glossy black Shiloh sweater, tank top, or skirt would make any fashionista proud.  But frankly, even with as much fur as we brush off Shiloh, I can’t imagine collecting enough for a scarf, much less a piece of clothing. And, according to the WSJ, dog-fur yarn is very pricey for that exact reason (not to mention that it has to be hand-spun).

Now, I’m an enthusiastic knitter who loves knitting scarves form beautiful yarns as mindless relaxation and for gifts. And when I saw a reference in the article to a golden retriever scarf, I’ll confess, my attitude towards knitting with dog fur abruptly shifted. As noted, I still wouldn’t collect fur from my own dogs to send to a spinner. But were someone to present me with some skeins of lustrous black German shepherd fur or golden retriever fur (which brings to mind our beloved goldens Molly and Annie) or mahogany-and-white Springer spaniel fur (recalling my childhood Springers), it’s true, I would not only knit them into scarves but wear those scarves with pride and pleasure.

Call me a chiengora convert. (And head over to www.WSJ.com to read the article, “In This Yarn With [sic] a Tail, Our Heroes Thirst for Hair of the Dog” by Stephanie Simon, May 23, 2011.)

Meanwhile, our local paper also featured a creature on its front page. But this wild thing wouldn’t make anybody’s heart sing. It was a groundhog that managed to sneak into somebody’s car, chew its way through the passenger seat, and then become stuck underneath the seat.

If you ask me, this doesn’t speak well for the IQ of Pennsylvania’s own Punxsutawney Phil and his prognostications about the duration of winter or arrival of an early spring. But, like the famous Phil, this groundhog became an instant celebrity, attracting the neighbors, the local police, a Deputy Wildlife Control Officer, and the local mayor, not to mention the screaming owners of the vehicle in question.

The article, “New Tripoli driver doesn’t dig his hitchhiking critter,” by Kevin Amerman, is hysterical, and shows photos of the groundhog in flagrante delicto, stuck under the passenger seat, as well as in a live trap on his way to being released back to the wild. Check it out at www.themorningcall.com.

Fortunately, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a groundhog here at Hawk’s Haven, so I’m hoping our veggie gardens are safe for another season. But I wonder what those dog-fur knitting enthusiasts would make of groundhog fur?!

               ‘Til next time,


Comfort foods: the good, the bad and the ugly. March 5, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. The world of food writing, informative and entertaining as it is, is not exactly known for its bon mots. Personable, even irascible, often. Funny? Not so much. So I sat up and took notice when I read the following lead in an article about beignets by Regina Schrambling: “Deep-frying is the bacon of cooking techniques: It makes everything taste better.” Priceless!

Mind you, I’d be more inclined to agree with Gerard Depardieu’s character in the wonderful Queen Latifah movie, “Last Holiday,” Chef Didier, when he informs her that the secret to happiness is butter. Well, butter and salt. And sour cream and onions, and maybe some shredded extra-sharp white Cheddar cheese.

Which brings me to comfort foods. In the same issue of our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, that featured the beignet piece (beignets are basically doughnuts, New Orleans style), Diane Stoneback wrote the lead article on local residents’ favorite comfort foods. Let’s just say that many of the folks who submitted their favorite recipes for the article clearly agreed with me that hot, rich, starchy, cheesy, buttery, creamy, salty dishes were the essence of comfort food. (We’ll try not to think about the reader whose favorite comfort food is a grilled cheese sandwich—so far, so good, right?—dunked in hot chocolate.)

Macaroni and cheese casserole, fettucine Alfredo, Cheddar broccoli soup, baked noodle casserole, mashed potato casserole, macaroni and cheese (yes, a second recipe), and pierogi casserole were all featured. You’ll note the common themes of pasta, potatoes, and cheese, typically accompanied by a ton of butter, cream or half-and-half, cream cheese or sour cream, and bread crumbs. Thank God the article failed to give the calorie counts for these recipes, or we’d all have died just reading them. None weighed in (so to speak) at under a million calories, I swear. But hey, maybe each dish feeds eight, so you’re only taking in a few hundred thousand calories instead.

Not that I’m arguing with these folks. I love potatoes, for example. But I would not love boiled potatoes mashed with a little of their cooking water and served plain, or a plain baked potato or, God forbid, the oft-recommended “dieter’s special” of half a baked potato topped with fresh salsa.

Hey, I love fresh salsa. I love it on refried beans, huevos rancheros, black bean soup, and taco salad (minus the taco and, God forfend, ground beef). But salsa and potatoes really don’t do it for me. Give me a (whole, please) baked potato with butter, salt, and black or lemon pepper. Give me mashed potatoes with butter, milk or half-and-half, salt or Trocamare, and black or lemon pepper. If I’m making a special comfort meal for our friend Ben, scale back the butter and milk or half-and-half in those potatoes and add some cream cheese instead.

Oatmeal is another classic cold-weather comfort food for me, with a little cinnamon and milk. I figured this one was healthy enough to do double-duty on the diet angel’s list, until I saw the version in Diane’s article that one reader called comfort food, oatmeal “enriched with craisins, brown sugar, butter, banana slices, pecans and half-and-half.” Why not have a sundae and be done with it?

But the most mind-boggling comfort-food recipe in the article was for a pierogi casserole. Our friend Ben and I were not acquainted with pierogies when we first moved to Pennsylvania, and are still more than bemused by the concept of enclosing mashed potatoes in pasta. (Admittedly, we feel the same way about gnocchi, those iconic Italian potato-flour dumplings.) Could we please just have pasta or potatoes?! Of course, we feel this way about bread being served with pasta, too, so maybe we’re just weird, or un-American, or something.

Our attitude is not shared around here, however, and simply marks us as outsiders. Our friend Rob’s idea of the ultimate comfort food is pierogis, as he says, “swimming in butter.” No doubt he’d love this casserole, which features 10-12 mashed potatoes, 1 lb. lasagna noodles, 3/4 lb. shredded white Cheddar cheese, and 2 1/2 sticks of butter. Could I just say again, 2 1/2 sticks of butter in one casserole?!!! The dish also includes 2 chopped onions and salt to taste, in case you’re wondering. I guess at least the onions are healthy.

What are my favorite comfort foods? Biscuits with fried eggs and grits (a once-yearly treat, when visiting down South), or a crusty baguette with butter and good cheese (served with grapes or apple slices or sliced radishes or cherry tomatoes or salad, and, of course, wine), rank very high on my list. So do buttered table water crackers, preferably with Brie and apple slices, or buttered, salted rice, preferably with plain yogurt and dal. So does full-fat, small-curd cottage cheese, with sliced tomatoes in season or—a regional favorite around here that I was a very long time trying but found to be delicious—with apple butter in winter. So does a club sandwich with Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato, and mayo on whole-wheat toast with sweet potato fries. So does a Caprese salad with arugula, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, sliced tomatoes, capers, olive oil, salt, and pepper in hot weather. So do fabulously good vegetable spring rolls with dipping sauce and salt, or appallingliy hi-cal Chinese treats like bean curd Szechuan style and General Tso’s bean curd, with, of course, lots of rice and salt.

Our friend Ben was considerably less restrained when I asked him about his favorite comfort foods. “All of the above (except the cottage cheese and tofu dishes), plus peanut M&Ms, potato chips, Cheetos, fried chicken, bacon and tomato sandwiches, barbecued spare ribs—well, barbecue, period—corncakes, fried grits, real waffles, fresh-baked bread… And say, Silence, what about dessert?!”

Our heat-loving friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders had a good deal to say about his favorite comfort foods as well. “Jalapeno poppers, super-hot salsa and tortilla chips, chiles rellenos, quesadillas, fajitas, red-hot Buffalo wings… and hot dogs.” Hot dogs?!! “Sorry, sometimes nothing says comfort like a fat, sizzling hot dog or bratwurst, split and grilled until it’s covered with black stripes, in a bun topped with relish, onions, mustard, chili, hot sauce… ”

“How about a huge, hot corned beef sandwich on rye with all the trimmings?” OFB added, getting into the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day.

“Can anybody say ‘pizza’?” I decided to go for the obvious.

“PIZZA!!!!” everybody shouted. Well, alrighty then.

Okay, guys, fine. Comfort desserts, from my point of view, deserve a post all their own, from tiramisu and baklava to banana cream pie and chess pie to tapioca pudding and Dove bars. We’ll get back to you. Meanwhile, what are your favorite comfort foods? Please share them with us. And if you’d like to find the recipes for the Morning Call‘s comfort-food recipes, go to www.themorningcall.com.

        ‘Til next time,