Wednesday, May 17, 2006

This I Believe: Marriage, Spicy Fries

I believe I’ll mate and procreate eventually. I’m doing it to spite China.

Qi and I discussed many things on our Monday walk to the gym: Ryan Seacrest;; the definition of “casserole” (“You put a bunch of stuff in a dish and bake it,” I said, prompting Julia Child to do a posthumous 360). But after awhile our conversation lapsed. Qi toed the dirt with her Adidas Outrunner. “Um, so, when you go visit your family and friends...will anyone try to find a boyfriend for you?” Before I could think of a response (i.e. a clever version of “no”), she continued: “Because if you were in China, you know, at your age, people would think that you do not want a boyfriend.”

That’s why I’m proud to be an American. U-S-A!

Okay, history shows I’m just a smidge worried about this marriage/kids deal. If you were to tap the diary archives, you’d see the same Bridget Jones announcement every two months or so: I will die fat and alone. But in honor of our swingin’ single forefathers, today I proclaim: no, I will not die fat and alone. Maybe fat. But not alone. Take that, communism!

Yesterday, in celebration of this resolution, I ordered the popcorn shrimp/spicy fries combo at Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits. I did it for democracy, and to test my second pillar of culinary nostalgia. 1) Spaghetti-Os. 2) Spicy fries.

One day in 1987 or ’88, my mother and I declared ourselves spicy fry connoisseurs. Tops’ fries were the best. Unfortunately, no one knows about Tops -- not even the people who worked there. Tops was about the size of a C-grade Sno Cone shack. It crouched apologetically in the parking lot of a Murfreesboro strip mall. So ashamed was Tops of its dinky façade that it changed identities at least 10 times before ‘90. One day, an insurance agency. Next, a Mexican restaurant. Then, bail bonds. If Tops were a Tulane psychology student, it would self-diagnose with an Axis II personality disorder. “Did you order a burger or a burrito, or fire and water protection?” Mom and I got the fries. Every time.

For some, the key question is: curly or straight? We just cared about the seasoning. The perfect spicy fry isn’t too spicy. It doesn’t seek to overpower your burger and Coke. It’s agreeable to ketchup, but it can also stand alone. The ideal spicy fry appreciates subtlety. What’s the in coating? Paprika? White pepper? Cumin? Tops won’t tell. Tops can’t tell, actually. I’m pretty sure the building has been razed. Look for a massive grease spot and unsigned promissory notes.

Here’s the sad(der) truth: even if Tops had survived the 20th century, I would‘ve abandoned it. The spicy fry ritual ceased around 1991, when I hit puberty. “Hit” is the right verb, because I quickly -- and, I might add, unoriginally -- collected all the painful marks of adolescence. Acne. Self-consciousness. Eating pathology. Next, on a very special episode of... Oy.

And I might have skipped yesterday’s Popeye’s outing, had it not been for Qi. Apparently, China spends so much time fretting over its terminally single quarterlifers, it has no chance to worry about arterial sclerosis. “Junk food! We need junk food!” she exclaimed, after spotting Popeye’s on our Magazine St. shopping trip last week. “Er, I really don’t think we have time...” I could feel the Frialator fumes oozing into my clothes. Specifically, my jeans. More pointedly, the back pocket area. Qi looked disappointed. “Okay,” she said. Another mental box ticked off. Spinster: check. Joyless carrot-eater: check. Alright, alright. “Let’s go on Tuesday?” I suggested. Qi had a Tues. appointment with the eye doc (contact lenses), also on Magazine. O beautiful for spacious thighs. (God, I’m sorry. Bad puns know no nationality.)

I’ve never been to a Popeye’s. I’m guessing Qi hasn’t, either. I’d further suppose that this particular Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits has never welcomed a skinny White girl in the company of a skinny Chinese girl. “You want hot sauce?” the cashier asked, after taking our order. “What?” “Hot sauce.” “Oh, no,” I said. “I guess not.” I know the Look I got in return. Saw it in the Delta, when I brought my lunch to school on Peach Cobbler Day. That’s one craaaaazy bitch.

We ate it all in the parking lot, sitting in my car, listening to Destiny’s Child. No shame. You’ll be happy to know that the sound of greasy-spicy-artery clogging euphoria is timeless. Also multicultural. It’s a small world, after all. A small world with a roughly equal gender ratio, I hope.

Friday, May 12, 2006

This I Believe: Spaghetti-Os

I feel for Chef Boyardee. The millennium has not been good to him. When I was a kid, Boyardee fought only “Frugal Gourmet” Chef Jeff Smith for kitchen space. If you don’t remember what happened to Jeff Smith, well, Michael Jackson wants you on his next jury. Boyardee kept the youngsters at a distance. And he ruled.

But Chef Boyardee would not fare well in today’s celebrity chef buffet line. I doubt he’d know what to do with lamb liver or octopus eyeballs -- so, no “Iron Chef” cameos. He doesn’t shout explosive catch-phrases like Emeril, or back humanitarian causes like Paul Newman. Chef Boyardee mixes a mean beef ravioli, and he’s amenable to your microwave. That’s about it.

Nowadays, he’s not even welcome in the spaghetti aisle. While Emeril snuggles among Prego and Barilla, flashing his self-satisfied grin in three flavors (Vodka Sauce, Puttanesca, Mushroom/Onion), Chef Boyardee must split his time between Pasta, Aisle 4 and Canned Meat, Aisle 6. Canned meat. Bobby Flay wouldn’t survive such shame. Anthony Bourdain would sue.

If Boyardee’s twisty gray moustache seems a tad grayer, it just shows how the mighty can fall. Nothing lasts forever, even Chef Boyardee. Which is why I bought the Spaghetti-Os.

One reason, anyway. It was a pity purchase, but also an experiment. Or, more accurately, an act of faith. Boyardee might be relegated to dish duty, but Spaghetti-Os should have permanent reign over mass-manufactured, canned entrees. “Uh oh, Spaghetti-Os” nothing. Spaghetti-Os have a foothold in the food chain, because they’re easy and damn tasty. So I hoped.

Belief is a shaky thing, after all. This week, Stephen Colbert scored cult status by staging a spot-on mockery of Bush Beliefs. “The greatest thing about this man,” Colbert told the uneasy White House correspondents, “is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he did on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.”

Colbert is right, of course. There’s a word for “belief in spite of measurable change.” That word is “insanity.”

Still, I wanted the Spaghetti-Os to be yummy. Because as you grow up, so many beliefs get squelched. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy aren’t real. Father doesn’t always know best. Neither does Mother. You can wish upon a star, but you probably won’t get a snow day. Not in Tennessee in April.

Events can change, but can’t some childhood gods stay enthroned? Like Spaghetti-Os?

I bought the goods on Monday, and, I’m ashamed to say, right away I got jaded. Turns out, Spaghetti-Os aren’t part of Boyardee’s repertoire. They’re Campbell’s. Boyardee cooks Beefaroni, which sounds like a “Happy Days” character. Not my decade.

The can went in my cart anyhow. Then it stayed on my pantry shelf for four days. On Monday night, I chose salad. Tuesday I baked tuna noodle casserole, which I ate in front of “American Idol” with Qi. Leftovers on Wednesday.

Thursday was my Delta friend Lizzie’s birthday, and she requested Meat-Free Day in celebration. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, as I’m, er, a vegetarian (pesce, not lacto-ovo). But, okay, I’d purchased Spaghetti-Os with meatballs. I wasn’t a vegetarian in ‘86. And I’d really liked Spaghetti-Os with meatballs. In fact, I had a Spaghetti-Os tradition of saving the meatballs for last, eating around them and counting them up, then savoring them one by one. I could delay gratification, no sweat. Theoretically, this skill should’ve served me well.

*Parents, relatives, former teachers please pause reading right here.*

According to Kimberly (not her real name), Webb School class of ‘95 or so, my future sexual bliss hinged on suppressed impulses. She filled me in during a set change for Steel Magnolias, in the make-up room: “When you’re peeing, see how long you can stop the flow. You’ll thank me later.” Maybe Kimberly achieved Triple X success before graduation, but, for me, the “O” in Spaghetti-Os wasn’t the least predictive.

(*You can resume reading here.*)

Besides, Spaghetti-Os with meatballs are “A GOOD SOURCE OF PROTEIN!” sez the label. 11 grams. 16% of your daily requirement. Unfortunately, they’re also a great source of sodium. 890 mg. When I was young, and my heart was an open book, I didn’t worry about things such as high blood pressure. Since I hated math as much as I adored Boyardee (sorry...Campbell’s), I wouldn’t have known that 890 mg is 37% of my daily sodium allowance. If a wise adult had clued me in, I might’ve skipped a meatball or two. Doubtful.

My “My Little Pony” days weren’t clouded by the specter of mad cow disease, either. A very small circle next to the ingredients of Spaghetti-Os with meatballs claims: “U.S. inspected and passed by department of agriculture.” The font is size -3. Steadfast beliefs...ask me tomorrow? If God has a sense of humor (and from past experience, I believe S/he does), I’m in slight mortal distress. Offhand, I’m not conjuring any more humiliating death than mad cow disease via Spaghetti-Os. Getting hit by an Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, perhaps.

I waited until tonight. Tonight I feel solid, trusting, faithful, and ready to brave unrefrigerated beef. Why? I passed Statistics. Did pretty well, really. I tell you this not because I seek applause, but to prove that miracles happen. Actual, big miracles. Miracles with small “p values.” If there’s no correlation between academic miracles and sanctity of childhood belief, then I’ll go down in a neon-red blaze of artificially flavored spaghetti sauce, with a decent second semester transcript. By God.

Barring my Mmmm, mmmm demise, I intend to test nostalgia in a few more posts. I’m betting Kristy’s Big Day holds up against The Great Gatsby. Fingers crossed, I’m right.