Monday, April 28, 2014

Candy Review: All Sorts Of M&Ms

You know what the best time of year is? It's half-off Easter candy time! And this year, the M&M's laboratories have been cranking out some interesting things.


OK, to be fair, only one of these things is strictly Easter-related (hint: one of them features bunny ears). But they were relatively new to me, so they all got lumped into one post.

Let's take a look, first, at the M&M's Chocolate Bar.

This one has actually been around for a while--I remember picking one up almost a year ago with the intention of reviewing it but actually just eating it in a moment of weakness. It's actually not bad, although the chocolate they use in the bar is the same as the inside of an M&M. I could see some people liking the small amount of chocolate they get in a piece but not when it's just formed into a rectangle, but it's certainly not bad. The only drawback is that I almost always see this as a "premium" candy bar (i.e., over a dollar) but I wouldn't pay that much for it. It's barely the size of a standard bar, and really it's just a chocolate bar filled with candy coating bits I'm sure they just swept off the conveyor belt. It gets a thumbs up, but only on the half-off table.

Next up, let's look at the Mega M&Ms.

These are HUGE M&Ms that are three times the size of a standard M&M, also known as "about the size of a peanut M&M." What I am about to say is weird, but bear with me: you know when you are eating a handful of peanut M&Ms, and you get one where the peanut escapes, but that's OK because somehow the expectation of getting a peanut and then being denied makes it taste even better? That is not the sensation you get when eating these. They just taste like M&Ms with a different candy-to-chocolate ratio. Eh.

Finally, let's get to the big holiday special: The Carrot Cake M&Ms.


They also released some other "Easter" flavors, but they were all standards, like coconut.

Now, my opinion about carrot cake is the same as I have for things like pancakes, pro wrestling, and Saturday Night Live--the first bite is awesome, but by the time I'm done with the slice I never, ever want to see it ever again. And so it was with these M&Ms--they do, in fact, taste alarmingly like carrot cake, but they're too sweet and white-chocolatey for me. If you are the sort of person who would actively take carrot cake over any other sort of dessert, I say go for it; otherwise, this is definitely a once-a-year splurge.

I appreciate Mars/M&M's effort to diversify their lineup, and like my other reviews have stated, they generally do a good job. I just wasn't overly impressed with the newer stuff.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Happy Tax Deadline Day!

Happy tax day! Hopefully, you weren't one of the million citizens of this great nation to put off filing your taxes this year, but if you are, have fun for the next eight hours trying to track down the right form because your stupidhead printer won't print the stupid PDF file because Adobe feels like updated for like the tenth time today and WHY IS MY COMPUTER LOCKED UP AGAIN AND WHY DID THE PRINTER JUST PRINT THAT THING I TRIED TO PRINT TWO MONTHS AGO BUT COULDN'T GET IT TO THAT'S IT I'M MOVING TO CANADA WHERE THEY FILE TAXES VIA MAPLE SYRUP AND STEVEN STAMKOSES.

Taxes can be a frustrating time. Not only is it an inherently cranky behavior--no one likes to be forced to pay anything, let alone under the threat of jail time or, worse, an audit--but it's not like it's easy to do. Oh, sure, they call it the 1040 EZ, but I suspect the "EZ" is like how it's called "Cheez Whiz" even though it is neither Cheese nor whiz.

OK, actually, it's not that bad. If you're a schlub like me, whose deductions and investments are mostly in the form of various generations of Beanie Babies (OBO!) it's not much beyond simple arithmetic with a dash of Choose Your Own Adventure-style chart lookups. Actually, that's not a bad idea.

You encounter a secret passageway! To enter the door, turn to page 56 on Table a13 under "Real Estate Amortization" and cross-reference with your current income range. To pass it by, file an extension by April 15th.

It would make tax time a lot more fun, in any case.

Still, it can be quite bewildering. It's not just taxes, of course; it's the fact that there are state and local and federal taxes and they all tax different things and they all have different instructions--and that's not counting the myriad of property, state, and sales taxes you might have to deal with.

I won't lie; there's a certain level of nostalgia when it comes to doing taxes. Back in the day when I was first filing my taxes (which I was doing while they were fighting the Kaiser and inventing the forward pass) I would sit in a dark room, surrounded by calculators and sharpened pencils. There was a lot of erasing and cursing and chart-looking-upping, but in the end it was an admittedly odd satisfactory experience. Contrast that to today, where you can punch a bunch of numbers into an application on the computer, and within minutes you not only have a disappointing answer as to your refund amount, but a dozen Romanian hackers have bought ski vacations in Zurich with your social security number. If I'm going to get screwed by basic math, I want to work over it, not have some dime-store Turing machine tell me the sad amount of my return.

A discussion about taxes wouldn't be complete without complaining about what our taxes are being spent on. We won't get into it now--if we strung up all the things people objected about what the feds cut checks for, we'd probably cover the entire budget--but, still, even if the government is covering your favorite program they are probably doing it in the least efficient and more obtuse manner possible. It's like trying to pour a jar of spaghetti sauce into a pot by flinging it, one spoonful at a time, from a hundred yards away. Yeah, you're getting some in there, and technically you're doing it in roughly a valid way, but holy hell someone just needs to walk over there and sort it out and make everyone happy except the spoon flinger.

Of course, in the end, we all know we have to do it. You can delay all you want, but on April 15th, you've got to have those forms in the mail. Still, there's a sense of relief over the whole ordeal, because, as we all know, it can be a very taxing ordeal.
You've encountered a painfully obvious pun even fifth graders think is stupid! To pretend you never heard it, turn to page 128-A and enter your current household income less your dignity. To accept it and move on with your life, put this book down and go to the state store.

Monday, April 7, 2014

From The Greatest City In The World

Late last week, David Letterman announced that he is going to retire.
Good on him, of course; he’s in his late sixties, and no doubt he just wants to not go to work every day. But it’s hard to forget the impact he had on modern pop culture.

Letterman was my very first experience with “adult” humor—that is, sophisticated humor that wasn’t related to Disney movies or coyotes lighting sticks of TNT.* I would stay up late during the summer and half-watch Johnny Carson (he was good, but I didn’t appreciate the interviews) and then get ready for Letterman. Back then, The Tonight Show was more or less the only choice; many had tried, and failed, to compete against Carson. Letterman had the next best thing—a show after Carson. The audience was smaller and the budget tinier, but he wasn’t competing against the man who had slain so many before him.

In retrospect, this smaller audience and smaller budget worked in his favor. For one thing, he had much more freedom to be absurd. You would never see Carson getting dunked into a tank of water wearing an Alka-Seltzer suit. He wouldn’t be throwing watermelons off the top of a building. Sure, these were silly, seemingly childish skits, and yet Letterman’s cranky-old-man shtick managed to take the absurdity of the situation and ground it in a misplaced sense of normalcy. Yeah, jumping on a trampoline wearing a Velcro suit is stupid, but if straight man Letterman is in on the gag, it can’t be that bad.

Secondly, a smaller budget forced him to be more creative. When you don’t have money, you’re reduced to throwing junk off of buildings—and that’s okay, because Letterman’s gift was to take these silly premises and turn them into comedy gold. You add to that a healthy dose of “standardized” jokes (the Top Ten list would predate “list journalism” by a few decades) and you had just a perfect mix of surrealism, solid-base comedy, and a cranky personality turned pleasantly engaging.

During the 80’s, Letterman’s only real misstep was his interviewing (and, by extension, his personality). Being the crank worked to blunt the ridiculousness of the show, but when chatting one on one with celebrities he often came across as a jerk.  Most celebrities understood it and went along with it, and some called him out on it—most notably Cher, but others as well.
 
Still, when Carson retired, many thought it was a travesty that Jay Leno was picked over Letterman. By this time, over ten years on, Letterman had proved that there was a market for his style of comedy. Nothing wrong with Carson or Leno, of course, but their style was safe and plodding, with comedy aimed squarely at the older demographics that stayed home. Letterman, by contrast, could state, quite fairly, that younger people would stay home if they were given a reason to.

You all know the rest of the story: Letterman jumped to CBS and Leno stayed at NBC. They both could claim victory; for nearly the entire run that they competed with one another, Leno had the larger audience but Letterman had the younger, more lucrative audience. Letterman had his ups and downs—he garnered a huge amount of goodwill during his heart surgery; not so much when details of an intern affair were released. The jump an hour earlier (and a larger budget) did little to change him; by that time, the experimentation he could get away with at 12:30 was now the norm. But in the end his contributions to not only late night but to comedy in generally should not be overlooked.
                                                                      
*Not that coyotes lighting sticks of TNT is bad comedy, mind you. It's just nice to have some variety.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Guest Post: Don’t Ask Me About Tofu



Today’s post comes from Erin of Oh, Honestly Erin, and is part of a special day of shenanigans from other Pittsburgh Bloggers. You can see my post over on Ngewo's World, where I talk about spring. 

When people ask me about why I became a vegetarian, I'm sure they're braced for some PETA-scripted canned response about choosing not to eat anything with a face, or some granola manifesto about health benefits. But my vegetarianism story was born from sheer stubbornness.

My mom wasn't a bad cook, but I hated her pork chops. Naturally, this was the meal she seemed to make the most when I was growing up. They were just so dry and worthless, and always laying on my plate in some hideous, mocking, splayed-out fashion; all the apple sauce in the world couldn't make them go down any easier.

Finally, at age 16, I snapped. Maybe a regular kid would have faked a pork chop allergy, but I chose a different route to get out of choking down those hunks of dry rot: I just wasn't going to eat meat at all. Ever. Not even Slim Jims or bacon bits.

My parents saw this as a huge joke, something new to heckle me about, to place bets upon. “Oh look, Erin wants attention from us again!” They were used to this behavior from me. Once, I vowed to eat nothing but Welch's grape popsicles because I was trying to get a hospital admittance to avoid going on vacation with my Aunt Sharon (who is crazier than me).  But I stopped after a few days because no one was paying attention, and I ran out of Welch's grape popsicles.

My vegetarianism was basically just another Welch's Grape Popsicle episode as far as my parents were concerned, and they egged me on in all of the worst possible ways. They gave me three days tops before I succumbed to meatloaf. (My mom really did make a fantastic meatloaf. So moist. So meaty. So topped with Ketchup.)

This is why, 18 years later, when people ask me how I became a vegetarian, my answer is a simple “I hated my mom's pork chops."

***

In 1996, getting into a vegetarian lifestyle was pretty rough. I lived in Pittsburgh, not Los Angeles. Denny's didn't have Gardenburgers on their menus yet, Giant Eagle's frozen food aisle wasn't exactly a Garden of Eden, and my mom refused to make separate dinners for me. So while my family gnawed on BBQ ribs in front of me, I would eat cheese sandwiches and cereal and act like it was a meal fit for Valhalla, because: STUBBORN. At school, I would pair a peanut butter cookie with a carton of iced tea and call that lunch. I was terrible at this, but determined.  

 
Finally, I started buying Vegetarian Times magazine from the bookstore and kind of started learning about what it was I was doing exactly. I began collecting recipes but my mom was like, "Tofu? What the hell is that? Fuck you." So one weekend when my family was out of town, I hosted my own vegetarian dinner for some friends, which was no small feat because there was no Internet, no Whole Foods that I had ever heard of way over here in my South Hills suburban wonderland. I had to use the YELLOW PAGES to find some weird health food store in Mt. Lebanon that sold kelp and tempeh and a package of tofu that I would wind up having a staring contest with later because what the hell do you do with tofu? I had to beg my friend Lisa to begrudgingly drive me out there so I could buy ingredients for a dinner that no one but me was going to enjoy. Because "Sea"sar salad doesn't sound appetizing to meat-eaters, I guess.

That was my first and last attempt at "cooking," by the way. Sorry to all of the boyfriends who came later, expecting a home cooked meal. Not on my watch.

***

As a kid constantly struggling with thunder thighs, weight loss was a perk I thought would go hand-in-hand cutting meat out of my life. Newsflash: replacing chicken and beef with cheese in 87 different forms is not conducive to losing weight. When I'd go out with friends in high school, I'd eat the shit out of grilled cheeses, dressing-drenched Caesar salads capped with veritable parmesan hats, fettuccine Alfredo, just give me all of the cheese. My friends and I would always go to this diner called Home Cookin’ and I went through a good long phase where all I would order was cole slaw and pie. One of the waitresses laughed as she scribbled down my order late one night and asked, “You pregnant?”

“No, I’m a vegetarian,” I replied somberly.

Once I moved out at 18, it got even worse. I had friends over constantly, so we would order out all of the time. Cheese pizza, cheese sticks, cheese-covered eggplant parmesan hoagies, cheese hoagies with extra cheese to replace the meat. It’s a wonder I didn’t spend most of my 20s in a state of perma-constipation.

The only vegetables I ever ate were breaded, fried and delivered to my house by a bored teenager driving an Omni. Not to mention all of the alcohol that was consumed. I was far from that "anemic vegetarian" that my grandma worried I was going to turn into.

But at least being a vegetarian would render fast food impossible, right? Four words: Taco Bell's 7-layer burritos.

One time, a security guard at one of my jobs said he was surprised I was a vegetarian.

“Why?” I asked, wondering if my natural stench was eau de osso bucco and I just didn’t know it.

“You know,” he said, cutting an hour glass shape into the air with his hands.

Suffice it to say, I had gained some weight those first few years. 

***

An important thing to know about me is that I am helpless; basically just a flailing flesh-sack in a scary meat-filled world.

When I started dating my current boyfriend Henry in 2001, he was horrified when he opened my refrigerator and found it full of alcohol, condiments and film. (Because photography was more important than nutrition.)

"Why don't you have any food?" he asked incredulously.

So I showed him the box of rice and cans of Spaghetti O's on the shelf, the only things that I could purchase from the gas station down the street that I actually could kind of cook OK on those off-nights when I wasn’t being fed by chain restaurants.
“How are you getting your protein?” he asked, and I swear this isn’t going in the sleazy direction you might have in mind.

I had no answer for him. I barely knew the food pyramid, and he was asking me about protein?

After that conversation, Henry started cooking real meals for me, dishes loaded with vegetables, chick peas and tofu, because he was man enough to not give a shit about cooking with tofu, and I slowly started learning things I had never known, like what a "root vegetable" was. 

Henry was appalled that I was a vegetarian who didn't eat vegetables. Or fruit, for that matter. He made me things like mock mashed potatoes (I never knew I liked cauliflower!) and rice-and-fake-meat stuffed peppers, taught me that I really liked melons, and even added COOKBOOKS to my library of horror novels and Alternative Press issues.

By this time, a lot of the chain restaurants in Pittsburgh started offering veggie burgers on their menus, but Henry took me to a lot of ethnic restaurants, where vegetable-laden dishes and meat-substitutions were prevalent; it was starting to feel like maybe I stood a chance at survival. I still didn’t understand tofu, but I sure liked to eat it. I was starting to see vegetarianism as something more than a bet with my parents. It had become a lifestyle, and I began to realize that somewhere along the way, I stopped missing meat. Now I was eating things that I never knew existed, like seitan and tempeh, and I loved it. 

I guess my point here is, if you want to be a vegetarian but lack a lot of basic life skills such as “how to grocery shop”, “how to read a recipe” and “how to operate kitchen machinery”, get yourself a good girlfriend/boyfriend/butler. It could open up a whole new world that normal, self-sufficient people already know about.

I can only imagine how high my cholesterol was before Henry the Nutrionist came in and pumped me full of vegetables. (Not a sex analogy, unless you want it to be.)

***

A few months after I swore off meat, my friend Melissa was over and we were both hungry. Do you remember what it was like to be a hungry, hungry teenager? The rest of my family had gone out without me as usual, and my mom had left out a pan of the Hamburger Helper she made all the "normals" for dinner that night. 

It was right there. Already cooked. So convenient and lukewarm. 

Teenaged starvation + peer pressure = me basically lying in a pan of Hamburger Helper like some pathetic human-Garfield.  It was all so wrong and perverted, but it tasted so damn good. 

I cried in my bed that night like I had just had shameful hobo sex, my flesh smelling like it had been rubbed down with raw meat.

Up until pretty much right now, Melissa was the only one who knew meat had touched my PETA-anointed tongue but she vowed to keep quiet. I felt terrible about it, like I was such a fraud.  But slip-ups happen and I suspect it's more normal than the staunchest vegetarians will admit, like it's some dirty, bloody cow carcass of a secret. I still wonder if there’s some sort of code I should be following.

Should self-flagellation happen the next time I accidentally eat chicken disguised as a biscuit at a Chinese buffet? What is my penance? Sneaking meat is the dark underbelly of vegetarianism, like nuns fapping to pictures of Justin Bieber. No one talks about it. But sometimes, meat happens, folks.

In 2006, I would occasionally eat fish while I was pregnant, but I was trying to grow a healthy baby then so it made me feel like I wasn't really cheating. (Don't worry, Henry and my doctor knew what kinds of fish were OK for preggos to eat; I wasn’t sitting around eating bonbons and mercury sandwiches.) I vowed to stop after the baby was born, and I was doing so well until a few months later on vacation and some "friends" tempted me with sushi. You guys. It was so amazing! 

"Don't worry, I won't tell anyone!" one of them said when I started crying at the table about feeling guilty. But that girl was such a snake, she probably went home and made a filtered LiveJournal post about it. (We are no longer friends, FYI.)

That was pretty much the gateway food for me. I resisted the urge for quite some time, but then I gave up and openly became a fish-eater and stopped calling myself a vegetarian because I ain’t no fraud.

Sushi, you guys. It is so good

As of last week, I am back to eating "nothing that has a face." I couldn’t take the guilt anymore, and the constant reminder that my mom would think she had won the war if she ever found out I was casually chewing sashimi like bubble gum. However, if you ask my son, he will tell you that Mommy eats meat when no one is home. Which could be true if I knew how to cook that shit. But I don't. So, nice try, son.

***

I was a vegetarian for three years before someone asked me, "So are you ovo-lacto?"

"Ok," I answered. Because I didn't know there were different kinds of vegetarians! My three years of barely-passing Latin classes in high school at least helped me figure out that it meant I was a vegetarian who also ate dairy.

I was a vegetarian for six years before I found out that I wasn’t supposed to be eating food made from gelatin because it contains animal by-products. Two vegetarians actually had a shouting match about this at one of my game nights and I quietly shirked away because I didn’t want to get involved. 

I was a vegetarian for ten years before I was finally able to accept that “vegetarianism” is not synonymous with “skinny.” We can still eat cake and cookies. And potato chips. And milk shakes . And Kit-Kats.

I’ve been a vegetarian for eighteen years and I still don’t know what to do with tofu. It just sits there in the package, looking all slimy and wet. And the “firm” and “extra firm” versions are just as jiggly, so whaddup, tofu? Explain yourself. 

My friend Amber recently told me she wanted to add tofu to her diet and started asking me questions about it. Questions make me nervous because my response is usually "I don't know." Or just a shrug if I'm feeling like three words are just too much to muster. I’m conversationally ambivalent.

I had to text Henry and ask him what kind of tofu Amber should buy, because while I've come a long way in that I can now name more vegetables than peas and carrots, don't ask me about tofu.

***

I worked in a butcher shop for 4 years. What kind of a vegetarian even looks at a butcher shop for a minute, let alone works inside one for 4 years?! Luckily, my office was upstairs from where all the disgusting shit was happening, but sometimes my boss thought it would be hilarious to send me downstairs to get the meat cutters' lunch orders. I’d have to wear a USDA-approved hardhat, even.

Four years working in a butcher shop actually made it A LOT easier for me to stay true to my meatless lifestyle.

But then the Great American Bacon Explosion happened. Bacon sundaes. Bacon milkshakes. Maple bacon donuts. Maple bacon cupcakes. Chocolate-covered bacon. Candied bacon. Bacon-flavored condoms. Bacon breath mints. Bacon wigs. Bacon 4 President. Kitchen utensils to aid with the fashioning of bacon bowls to be filled with more bacon. I had no idea I even missed bacon that much until I was being tempted with bacon-wrapped apples in every garden. When I was a carnivore, bacon was just bacon. I mean, it was great, I loved it; but when did it become OMG BACON?

My tattoo guy is vegan. The last time I was at the shop, his consultation appointment brought him donuts, one of which was maple bacon. He quickly offered it to one of the other guys there. “Seriously, I might eat that if no one takes it. I think about bacon like, all of the time.”

“Me too!” I cried. And then I felt less alone in this small, meat-free community. 

If I ever fall off the wagon for good, it will be because of bacon. Goddamn you, bacon.

***


There's a stereotype for my kind: that obnoxious preachy person who sits across from you at dinner and judges you for ordering a steak. I was never that person. I don't give a shit what you eat as long as you're not dripping its blood on my plate. However, one time in 2003, I opened the refrigerator to see half of a Cryovac'd cow taking up an entire shelf. That might have been one of the most brutal fights Henry and I have ever had. He never brought shit like that into my house again.

It always bothered me though that I let people have their meat and eat it too, yet there were always those ones who just couldn't wait to make fun of me for eating faux chicken nuggets and black bean burgers. Like the time my whole family erupted in exaggerated dry-heaves when Henry was nice enough to cook me a Tofurkey for Thanksgiving in 2004. I had to sit there while everyone pointed out how gross and disgusting I was, like I was hand-shoveling dog feces into my mouth. And then my mom would swear that she substituted cream of mushroom soup in her side dishes that called for cream of chicken, but then she would snicker, so God only knows what they were feeding me. I couldn’t eat anything my grandma made me because I was 95% convinced that she was pureeing beef into everything from soup to muffins so that I wouldn’t “catch anemia.” 

Then there are the people who treat vegetarianism as a joke, refusing to order a plain pizza because they have zero respect for my dietary requirements. I got really good at picking pepperoni off pizza.

We can totally have a conversation without me thrusting a PETA petition at you (although I will sign the shit out of those at every single Warped Tour while Henry stands to the side, rolling his eyes up to the meat-filled heavens). I’m not going to tell you that you’re ruining your life by feasting on poor, defenseless animal flesh or hand you a pamphlet that illustrates what exactly is in that food court hot dog, because I don’t care what you do. 

Moral: don’t judge me and my tofishy tacos and I won’t judge you and your KFC Double Down.

And don’t ask me about tofu. 

***

Be sure to visit all of the blogs participating in the second annual April Fool's Day Pittsburgh Guest Blogger Event, as listed below.  Follow all our fun tweets under the Twitter hashtag #PghGBE

A Librarian's Lists and Letters
Beezus Kiddo
Crank Crank Revolution 
D&T In the Burgh
Don't Forget to Eat 
Downtown Living 
Emily Levenson
everybody loves you… 
jelly jars
'lil Burgers
Ngewo's World 
Oh Honestly, Erin
Orange Chair Blog
PGH Happy Hour 
Radio Chumps
Red Pen Mama
Sean’s Ramblings 
Small Town Dad 
Sole for the Soul 
Syntaxxerrorrr 
Tall Tales from a Small Town
The Firecracker Blog
The Pittsburgh Mommy Blog 
The Steel Trap
West of Mars 
Ya Jagoff
Yinz R Readin
Yinzster
Yum Yum PGH