Sunday, December 20, 2020

You Are What You Eat: Questionable Cultural Cuisine

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Images from the Internet
Recipes included in the hyperlinks

You Are What You Eat: Questionable Cultural Cuisine

When I was a whippet of a man, I worked in a theater as an usher. One of the films to play during my tenure was Lucille Ball’s oddly musical film version of the play, Mame (1974). There is a scene in it where Mame invites her nephew’s fiancée and parents to dinner to kinda get revenge for an uncomfortable meal with her racist family. During the dinner, one of the foods that is brought out is, if I remember correctly as I have not seen the movie since, monkey brains (shades of 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust). The nephew eats it with no problem as he grew up with it, while the fiancée is disgusted. This planted a thought in my head, which is as follows:

Every culture has at least one food that just about every other culture will find to be gross.

For example, I grew up in a middle-class Jewish household, where a regular staple was a cold cut that was made from cows’ tongue – also known as beef tongue – though we just called it tongue. It was delicious, and I was shocked to find out that the Italian kids at school were completely taken aback by it. I did not understand, as it was yummy on a sandwich with some mustard spread upon it.

Over the years, there were other foods that I would eat regularly that made people cringe, such as schmaltz, or rendered (clarified, or melted) chicken fat that was refrigerated and then used as a spread in the same way as salted butter. This is what was originally meant by a schmear, before it was appropriated as a description of spreading cream cheese. Mel Brooks once proclaimed, I believe it was on the “Tonight Show,” the number one killer of Jews is the food they eat.” This is an example why. In the old shtetl days, Jews ate chickens every Friday night for the Sabbath, and it was natural to use whatever they could, so schmaltz was used on bread. A friend of mine in college was repulsed by the idea of it, so I brought it in on a slice of bread, which she hesitantly ate, and her eyes grew big and she said, “Wow, this is amazing!”

My mother was well aware of the lack of healthiness of the product, which she would make herself, and we almost exclusively had it the week of Passover. My favorite way to eat schmaltz was if you quickly wet a matzo sheet, give it a schmear, and then spread some course salt (also known as koshering salt) over it. Man, as a kid I could eat that all day. As I grew older, I probably have not eaten it since the early ‘70s, but still remember the taste.


What surprised me was how reviled gefilte fish was outside of the Jewish household. All it contains is ground deboned carp, whitefish, and/or pike. We would eat it with horseradish, starting with the red kind, moving up to the stronger white as we got older and our tastebuds matured a bit.


Going in the other direction, speaking of fish, I never understood the appeal of the Norwegian (mostly) dish called Lutefisk. As Wikipedia  accurately describes it, “Lutefisk is dried whitefish. It is made from aged stockfish, or dried and salted cod, pickled in lye. It is gelatinous in texture after being rehydrated for days prior to eating.” It is then either boiled or baked and is usually served around Christmastime. I had it a couple of times, and could not get past the gelatinous texture. I had to have some bread to force it down. Not because of the taste, but the consistency. To be fair, I also revile the gelatin that forms in the jars of refrigerated gefilte fish, which my parents loved. Yet I like gelatin pudding. Go figure.


There are a couple of easy ones, the foremost being that Scottish mainstay Haggis.  And what exactly is Haggis? It is sheep’s lungs, liver, and heart, mixed with beef, and encased in a sheep’s stomach, and then cooked. It is one of the rare foods that is actually illegal to import to the United States, though it’s fine to make it on your own. From what I understand, it is a bit hard and time consuming to make (have you ever tried cutting up a heart? They are tough, man). I have had haggis a couple of times – I believe it was a North American abbreviated version – and it wasn’t too bad; I actually liked it, but it was a tough chew if I remember correctly. I have eaten beef heart before (not fond of it because, again, of its tough texture), and I love liver; lungs are something for which I am not familiar.

No recipe for this one: in parts of Asia, it is common to eat household pets like dogs and cats. Cats are more for “medicinal” reasons, but dogs are regularly served. In fact, just in August of 2020, Kim Jong-un of Korea ordered citizens to hand over their pet dogs to be used for food. Obviously, there is no PETA in that country. When I was a teen, there was a local Asian take-out restaurant (86 Street and 21 Avenue, in Brooklyn) that was shut down for selling “pet meat.” They used strays for beef substitutes to unknowing patrons, in order to save money, a theme right out of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (“What I call enterprise / Popping pussies in pies / Wouldn’t do in my shop / Just the thought of it’s enough to make you sick / And I’m telling you them pussy cats is quick”). To be honest, I never ate from there.


Southwestern North America has its own variety of food that makes people from elsewhere wince, namely prairie oysters (also known as Rocky Mountain oysters). For those who do not know, these are the castrated testicles of bulls. They were ordinary around a cow pie fire in the old West while moving herds, but it’s less common now, but still considered a delicacy in certain parts of the country. In fact there is even a recipe collection by Ljubomir Erovic called The Testicle Cookbook. Apparently there are lots of different ways to cook them if you have the – er – balls. Never had them but I may if they are the deep-fried versions.

There are plenty of other what some may consider strange foods from around the world, including mealy worms, chocolate covered ants and grasshoppers, deep fried butterfly wings and shark fin soup. I have never tried any of these, but my uncle once brought my brother and I a can of the chocolate covered bugs (both kinds) when we were tykes. We opened the cans, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat them.


What cultural foods that others are turned off by that you love? Perhaps the dreaded Canadian-invented pineapple pizza? For me, for example, I love pizza Napoli (with anchovy). Feel free to add your own in the blog comments.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Book Review: Saving Grace, by DM Barr

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet


Saving Grace
Written by DM Barr
Black Rose Writing (Texas)
243 pages, 2020

Murder mysteries are a genre that has always been popular, but one needs to dig deeper, as they also can be broken down into subgenres: there’s the Noir/hard-bitten detective who at some point will mention the dirty city; there’s more of a police procedural, like those written by Sue Grafton; and then there is the category that Saving Grace could be included.

This falls more in line with the Agatha Christie / Murder She Wrote / Monk kind of almost artistic straightforwardness that makes it a bit more palpable for the average reader. That does not mean there won’t be blood and murder, it is just a stylistic choice that I personally enjoy. It’s certainly not a comedy, but it is a lighter shade of dark. Just from the name/word pun of the title, you know this is going to be a fun ride.

For those who don’t know, DM Barr is a celebrated writer with a few books under her belt now, and quite a number of awards. In the full disclosure department, I have known Barr in my life a while back, though I haven’t seen her since around 1990, when she was a magazine writer, but well before she was a published book author.

Most reviewers have referred to Saving Grace as a psychological thriller, and rightfully so. The central and titular character is a woman with a history of paranoia, and so now in her middle age, living with her husband and two teenaged sons, she has spent a large amount of her time under the thumb of numerous medications that keep her less than clear-headed. But she is going to change that by cold turkey-ing the drugs and go on with her life.

This leads to a nice line of “what is real and what is imagined?” Is Grace’s middle management husband, Eliot, a lothario who is only sticking around until Grace’s estranged rich father passes on and leaves her, his only living relative, his loot? And is Eliot’s plan to do away with Grace once that happens? She’s becoming more convinced by things that may or may not be true; she is living in a world of delusional circumstantial evidence fed by mental strain and a lack of medicines, and the prospect of being gaslit. But as a woman of a certain age, Grace indicates in the novel, “Life without meds overflowed with possibility” (p. 7).

It doesn’t help that between Grace’s passive-aggressive husband’s condescending and her two young teen sons’ lack of respect, she is living in a world of toxic masculinity, seeing her for what she can give them, rather than helping in a substantial way. This is just part of the reason she is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Everyone around Grace can see it, but her. The question is, what is real?

Grace is well read, as her only outlet for cathartic emotion, and Barr nicely uses characters of other novels to have her express how she is feeling, such as “She felt as trapped as Henri Charrière in Papillon, doomed forever to imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Except unlike him, she had no ally to help her escape” (p. 17). Barr never talks down to the audience, using language that is lush and languid, occasionally scattered with words like prophylactic homicide and uxoricidal (look it up; I did).

There are also quite an engaging ancillary cast of characters, such as her daddy, Barrington (I can so see Ray Wise in the role), who is a mean, nasty and elderly Trump-type who likes to belittle and name-call, and his mistress Caprice, who is more than a decade less Grace’s age. A third wheel in the relationships between Grace and Eliot, and also Grace and Barrington, is Grace’s psychologist, Dr. Emma Leighmann, who has been treating her since she was a child. It’s debateable whose best interest she has in mind, since Barrington’s long fingers have a financial hold on her. Another is Sheryl, Eliot’s over-ambitious secretary, willing to do what it takes to make her boss rise in the ranks, planning that he will take her with him, be it in the office or, as Grace fears, to replace her. Then there’s the toxicologist Grace befriends, Tom Druthers (as opposed to Smothers). You know something is up when Grace thinks, “Neither hand bore a wedding ring. It made sense—no self-respecting wife would let her husband leave the house in such a state.” Sure that’s a heteronormative comment, but in context it is dripping with possibilities. Speaking of which, of course the more the secondary characters, the better both the possible body count and, arguably even more importantly, the red herrings.

Two other individuals are the sister and brother team of Andrea and Hack. She’s a mystery writer who takes Grace under her wing, and he’s a late-teen gonif due to his gambling habit. The two of them are central to the story, though they are not in it, generally, until a third of the novel. Their presence is due to be profound.

The book is thankfully not formulaic, beginning with the murder, and then most of the rest are the events leading up to the moment of execution, as it were. There are also lots of surprises along the way, including the presence of a possible Undzer Shtik (Jewish Mafia), which made me laugh. There is also some serious side commentary on the issues of LGBTQI, conversion therapy, and homeless teens that are noteworthy being important lynchpins in the story without anywhere near being preachy.

A few interjections are also dispersed throughout about the political climate, not really taking a left/right side, but noting the cultural angst, such as one character, an aspiring writer, stating, “I write … Ultra-Cozies… They’re short mysteries with only two or three characters, take place in one location, and have very little action. … They’re for readers so traumatized by the current political climate, they can’t tolerate too much drama” (p. 70). As dire as the basic storyline is, there is levity here and there, such as one aspiring writer character describing her genre: “It’s Yoga romance. My latest, Chakra Full of Nuts, hit number one in the category last week. It’s about two Yogis who fall in love at a cashew farm” (p. 70). Or when Barr, as narrator, states about a tense moment: “The room grew as silent as the second ‘n’ in ‘condemn’” (p. 72). There are also a slew of (translated) Yiddish axioms that are bound to make the reader giggle.

The reason for the mention of writers, Grace decides to write a mystery novel, Salvaging Hope, using her life as the paradigm, hereby pre-emptively securing her safety as her fears are publicly circulated. A pretty brazen yet cool idea for a Marshall McLuhan-esque hot medium; or a one character describes it, “Publishing rather than perishing” (p. 92).

While the body count is not huge, its more realistic number is still relatively lively (pun intended), and the story builds and then explodes in the final third of the book when time catches up to the prologue, and then there are enough people introduced in Team Grace’s to try to figure out the answer. I’m willing to admit that despite the red herrings, I figured out (guessed) who was the central villain about a third in, but even so, was not totally sure until near the end (comes from years of watching shows like Monk and Midsomer Murders).

Chapters are relatively short at a few pages each, making them easier to digest, but considering the storyline, it is harder to put the damn thing down. I’m a relatively slow reader, but it only took me three days to go through it (normally, this would be a week, at least). That speaks to the quality of the story.

DM Barr

While I have not yet read Barr’s other books, Expired Listings (2016) and Slashing Mona Lisa (2018), there is a lot of meta text in here. For example, Barr and Grace are around the same age, both writers of lighter stuff until the novels came, and Barr’s also quite wealthy dad (I have been to his beachfront house in the Hamptons in the 1980s for a Barr pool party, but never met him, so cannot attest to the comparison to Barrington). As the story unfolds, we are also met with a secondary meta-formation, as we learn of Grace’s writing development (such as adding in said secondary characters), and that her first novel was about real estate agents, a field in which Barr has also embraced, showing she’s not beyond using the “write what you know” maxim. All for the better of her readers, I must add.

How did this book make me feel, overall? As Druthers put it, “…happier than a mosquito on the first day of summer” (p. 189).

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Shuck Up – It’s THE PET CLAMS [1981]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen fanzine, 1981
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet, unless indicated

This interview was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #7, dated 1981. It was written by our Managing Editor and current philanthropic goddess, Julia Masi.

Yeah, so I saw the Pet Clams, who were previously known as The Big Fat Pet Clams From Outer Space, in both incarnations; at CBGB. It’s not surprising they played there since they were managed by its owner, Hilly Kristal; in fact I once saw them open for the Colors, also managed by Hilly. Honestly, they were an okay fun band, but not one that would stick out in my mind. But then again, they were quirky and played a weird white reggae, so here ya go. The Pet Calms from Outer Space, a name they went back to at some point after this was published, have some CDs available at their website, – RBF, 2020.
Pic (c) Robert Barry Francos
When the Pet Clams landed in CBGBs on a rainy October Saturday for a soundcheck, they were still known as the Big Fat Pet Clams From Outer Space. They said they were experiencing their first interview, but after talking to these guys for about five seconds, it was obvious that they’d say anything to a girl in a tight sweater. For what it’s worth, FFanzeen spent this wet weekend afternoon in 1980 with Richard Glebstein, keyboardist / “lead singer and person who gets yelled at”; Gary Applebaum, guitarist; Dave Anderson, bassist; Al Spero, drummer; and their manager and CBGBs owner Hilly Kristal, in an attempt to find out – who are the Pet Clams?

* * *

Gary Applebaum: We were the Pets. We’d been mentioned in Rolling Stone. But there were a couple of other bands around called the Pets, and we found out that, because of trademark and copyright, we couldn’t use the name Pets. So I said, “Why we call ourselves Clams From Space? I was writing the script for a horror movie, Clams From Space. It was this whole Roger Corman-type thing. So we fooled around with it. We used a different name every night for about two weeks. So one night, we called ourselves the Pet Clams From Outer Space. And when Hilly, our manager, put it in The (Village) Voice, he left a word out by accident. And that’s how we became the Big Fat Pet Clams From Outer Space.

FFanzeen: How long have you been together?
Gary: We’ve been together two years. We started playing together at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, about August of 1978. We played there for about a month, around the Jersey Shore. We mostly played covers. We taped ourselves at a five-hour gig one time, and we played 10 or 15 original songs and 30 to 40 covers. When you play all night, you gotta play about 50 or 60 songs. We listened to the tape the next day and the only things that sounded any good were the original songs. We played the covers as through we just went wild on them. No discipline at all. And Richard has a sort of distinctive voice. You’d never know he’s from California.

FFanzeen: You’re from California?
Richard Glebstein: No. Lakewood, New Jersey.
Hilly Kristal: He has a very exciting voice. It sounds like a moose.

FFanzeen: Describe your music.
Richard: Rock’n’roll, reggae, New Wave. We do it all. People say we have a style.
Gary: We have a lot of different styles.

FFanzeen: Is it true that your single is a political song?
Richard: It depends on which side you listen to.
Gary: We have a couple of political songs, but the one (Hilly) put out as a single is “Gonna Get Fooled Again.” It was written about a year and a half ago. We opened for Squeeze and had about 15-16 shots of Jack Daniels. And I was out in Greenwich Village, driving home with the car doors open, trying to hit parked cars. The next day when I went to work – I was building houses at the time – I fell asleep on a concrete slab in a puddle of water. Everyone was standing around laughing at me and I wrote the lyrics with my carpenter’s pencil on the cement. It’s more or less a statement of tie idiocy of the two-party system. For instance, the two-party system might have some basis in England because the main parties are the Conservatives and the Liberals. They supposedly have different views. In America where they have the two-party system and both parties are essentially the same, it’s really silly to bother having an election. Both parties are the same party. [I whole-heartedly disagree, and believe that is a stance based in ignorance. – RBF, 2020.] We complain that Russia doesn’t have a democracy because they only run one candidate. We run two candidates that say the same thing. What’s the difference?

[Enter bassist Dave Anderson]
Richard: Dave wrote the music to that song. That’s why it’s not that good. We’re actually a brilliant rock’n’roll group.
Gary: He’s paid to say that.
Richard: No, I’m serious. I sat and gave it a lot of thought. We’re really brilliant.

FFanzeen: On Monday, you’re going to record your first album [released on Friday the 13th, in March 1981, titled The Pet Clams]. What will it be like?
Richard: Three reggae songs: “Don’t Get So Upset,” “Things Keep on Changing,” and “Jerusalem,” a very strong song.

FFanzeen: What is it about?
Richard: He was in a suicidal mood, so he said he was walking down the road to Jerusalem.
Gary: It’s more or less the juxtaposition of the end of a relationship and a time of turbulence in the world. Sort of like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, sitting there talking while the whole world is at war around them.

FFanzeen: Besides politics, what else influences you?
Richard: He’s influenced by other carpenters. I’m influenced by students. I’m a Special Education teacher at Lakewood Middle School.

FFanzeen: Do your students like your music?
Richard: My students are all deaf. No, they’re not.
Gary: Pitiful songs on the album.
Richard: “Gonna get Fooled Again” is going to be on the album.
Gary: Is it really?
Richard: Well, it might be. [It is – Ed., 1981]
Gary: One song’s about turning up in CBGBs. It’s called “That’s Showbiz.” And not making any money. They tell you to wait; just wait.
Richard: That’s what everybody does in rock’n’roll, whether they have an album out or not. Everybody waits.

FFanzeen: Back to your histories.
Richard: I used to play alone for a very long time. I was the cult hero of the polyester crowd.

FFanzeen: So what makes this band different from all other bands?
Richard: This band eats unleavened bread.
Gary: We’re the same as everybody, except I’m smarter.
Richard: We used to play at punk weddings and rock bar mitzvahs.
Gary: We’d done original stuff before and failed.
Richard: I didn’t. I was a tremendous success.
Gary: Have you caught his albums as a solo? He made about 10 solo albums in the ‘late ‘60s. He was very famous. His name was Randy Newman then.
Richard: I thought Newman was too Jewish. I like Glebstein.

FFanzeen: Have you ever had to open for a band that incongruous to yours?
Richard: We liked playing with Squeeze and David Johansen.

FFanzeen: How did the audience react to you?
Richard: They hate our guts. We can’t understand why.

FFanzeen: Does this band have a slogan?
Richard: Do bands have slogans?

FFanzeen: Yeah; the Stimulators have “Loud Fast Rules.”
Richard: Let’s get a slogan right now.
Gary: The band is so good it doesn’t need a slogan.
Richard: We don’t have a slogan. We love what we do. It’s hard work and we do it because it’s fun. This is a hobby. Gary’s a carpenter; Al’s a carpenter. You know all the maniac drivers in New Jersey? John taught them all to drive. We’re all very nice people.
Gary: And sexy as hell.

FFanzeen: Don’t lay it on too thick: I’m planning to take pictures.