October 6, 2011
I’m somewhat shocked and appalled that human behavior allows for recurring blog posts on criminal behavior involving food. Not that I’m one to complain about my muse. The month of September alone was rife with new shenanigans, and a couple of convictions, from society’s dark underbelly.
September, 2011. Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The raw food movement?
On the afternoon of Monday, September 12, Wal-Mart security officers saw a man opening packages of raw hamburger and stew beef and eating some of the contents before putting the items back on the shelf. Police were contacted and arrested Scott Shover, 53, at taser point and charged him with felony theft. While only about $25 worth of meat was involved in this particular incident, Shover received the felony charge as this was his fifth retail theft offense.
September, 2011. Mount Prospect, Illinois. A Late Night Snack.
When most people get hungry in the middle of the night, they make a beeline for the kitchen. Hachem Gomez, 19, preferred to make a 3:00 a.m. trip out to Mr. Beef and Pizza. No matter that the restaurant was closed and the drive-through window was barred: Gomez broke through the security grating to gain access to the kitchen, where he began to prepare himself chicken tenders and fries in the microwave. Officers arrived on the scene at 3:30, and when asked if he worked there, Gomez simply said no and that he was just hungry. He was arrested and charged with burglary.
August, 2011. Denver, Colorado. Bring out your dead.
In the 1989 movie comedy Weekend at Bernie’s, two men, promised a ritzy weekend at their boss’ weekend home, arrive to find their boss dead, but decide to tote the corpse around so that they can enjoy the few days of luxury they felt entitled to. According to police reports, on the evening of August 27, Robert Young, 43, arrived at the home of Jeffrey Jarrett, only to find the man unresponsive. In lieu of calling 911, Young, along with friend Mark Rubinson, 25, piled the corpse into a car and went to Teddy T’s Bar and Grill. Jarrett was left in the car while the other two enjoyed libations charged to his card. Next stop was Sam’s No. 3, a diner, before they returned Jarret’s corpse to his house. Young and Rubinson next made a pit stop at a strip club, using Jarrett’s ATM card to withdraw $400, and before the night was over, they flagged down a police officer notifying him that they suspected their buddy was dead in his home. The pair was later arrested, and while they are not suspected of causing Jarrett’s death, they stand charged with abusing a corpse, identity theft and criminal impersonation. Both men were released on bail. Young has an arraignment date set for October 6. Rubinson has since been arrested again for drunk driving. He also happened to be driving in a stolen vehicle, but whether he was the one who snatched it has yet to be determined.
September, 2010. Denver, Colorado. Playing chicken.
To some, like The New York Times, raw chicken evokes l’amour in a big way. But 58-year-old lobbyist Ronald Smith was feeling less than amorous when he placed raw chicken in the heating ducts of his ex-wife’s home. (Other non-food-related acts of vandalism included wiping the hard drive of her computer, pouring bleach on her grand piano and marring her hardwood floors with mountain bike cleats.) Michelle Young, the former Mrs. Smith, discovered the damage on returning from a California vacation. It was allegedly the culmination of months of harassment, and while prosecutors could not produce eyewitnesses to definitively place Smith at the scene, they were, however, able to illustrate that the blue duct tape used to package the chicken pieces matched the roll of duct tape found in Smith’s home. Jurors deliberated for about six hours before arriving at their decision. Smith was convicted in September 2011 of second degree burglary and criminal mischief and is awaiting sentencing. He could face up to 18 years in prison.
January 2010. Leeds, England. A big break.
On the evening of January 30, Hussein Yusuf had been drinking at a local pub when he asked the chef, Roger Mwebiha, to cook him a meal. After repeatedly entering the kitchen asking if his food was ready yet, Mwebiha got fed up to the point where he returned Yusuf’s money. At 3:00 a.m. the following morning, Yusuf again asked the chef to prepare him some food and the two began to argue. Mwebiha went to take out the trash when he was confronted outside by Yusuf, who kicked the chef’s right shin, shattering both lower leg bones. Yusuf fled the scene while Mwebiha spent months recuperating from the injury. But about a year later, in a logic-defying move, Yusuf returned to the restaurant. The chef recognized his attacker and notified police. Yusuf, 23, admitted to the crime and was sentenced in September 2011. He is currently serving a 15-month prison term.
September 20, 2011
California is on the road to becoming the fourth state in the union to ban shark fin soup on account of the ecological impact that rising demand is having on shark populations. A bill nixing the sale, trade or possession of shark fins passed the state senate on September 6 and is awaiting governor Jerry Brown’s signature to be passed into law. The namesake ingredient for this Asian delicacy is harvested by fishermen who catch sharks, remove the fins and dump the carcasses back in the ocean. While other parts of the shark are edible or can be used for other purposes, it makes more financial sense for the fishermen to haul back the fins because they are the most valuable: they can sell (depending on size and the species of shark) for upwards of $880 per pound on the Hong Kong market. (In 2003, a fin from a basking shark sold for $57,000 in Singapore.) It is estimated that between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed worldwide each year for their fins, and with sharks unable to reproduce at such a rate to meet human demand, sustainable shark fishing is a bit unrealistic.
So what’s the big to-do over this dish? It’s certainly not the fin’s flavor—which has been described as being relatively tasteless—but rather it’s unique, rubbery texture. Once dried, processed and incorporated into the soup, the fin looks like fine, translucent noodles whose culinary value is in their mouthfeel—all the flavor has to come from the other soup ingredients. Some chefs have tried using gelatin-based substitutes, but, for those intimately familiar with the dish, imitation shark falls short of capturing the feel of the real deal.
“This is the most stunning aspect of the entire economic empire that has arisen around shark’s fin soup” environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin writes of the soup in her book Demon Fish. “It is, to be blunt, a food product with no culinary value whatsoever. It is all symbol, no substance.” Indeed, with some iterations costing upwards of $100 a bowl, it’s a dish that, if nothing else, displays one’s social status.
The dining tradition that dates back to the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 A.D.), becoming a mainstay of formal dining during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 A.D.), and it continues to be a popular dish at Chinese weddings. Opponents see the ban as an act of cultural discrimination, with the language of the bill singling out shark fin soup and giving no mention of other shark-based products, such as steaks or leather goods.
But shark populations are declining. In the 1980s, Hong Kong’s local shark populations were overfished to the point that its fishing market went bust. In the U.S., dusky shark numbers have declined by roughly 80 percent since the 1970s, with conservationists estimating that it would take upwards of 100 years for those populations to rebuild. In western Atlantic waters, hammerhead sharks have declined by up to 89 percent over the past 25 years. And in spite of cultural traditions, the international community—with the exceptions of Japan, Norway and Iceland—has placed bans on whaling because humans put such a strain on those populations. Should the same reasoning be applied to sharks?
September 12, 2011
Our last Inviting Writing prompt inspired some surprisingly pleasant memories of cafeteria meals, from the social dynamics of the school canteen to a fancy subsidized office food court. This month we move from the collective to the individual, exploring the theme of food and independence. Deciding what, how or where we eat is one of the earliest ways we assert our individuality. You might have a story about the first meal you cooked—or ordered in—after moving out of the house. Or about how you eat to the beat of a different drummer. Maybe you only eat what you grow or kill yourself, living independent of the food industry. We want to hear what food and independence means to you.
Send your true, original essays to FoodandThink@gmail.com with “Inviting Writing” in the subject line by Friday, September 16 (which happens to be Mexico’s Independence Day). We’ll read them all and post our favorites on subsequent Mondays. Remember to include your full name and a biographical detail or two (your city and/or profession; a link to your own blog if you’d like that included). I’ll get things started.
All Bun, No Burger
by Lisa Bramen
As a child, I was never a fan of meat unless it was slathered in barbecue sauce or otherwise camouflaged. My parents instituted a two-bite rule—I had to eat at least two forkfuls of everything on my plate, meat included, or no dessert. Although my family briefly flirted with vegetarianism in the early 1980s, after my mother saw a report on animal cruelty, the experiment didn’t last long.
Then, at the age of 16, as I was gnawing a piece of gristly steak at a cookout and thinking how gross it was, a revolutionary thought occurred to me: I didn’t have to eat meat, or anything else, if I didn’t want to. I was now old enough to make my own food choices.
The next day I declared my culinary independence to my mother, explaining that I planned to quit eating meat. As far as I remember she accepted my decision without objection. Although she didn’t cook separate meals just for me, I think she tried to accommodate my preference by making vegetarian side dishes that would work as my main course. In retrospect, she probably should have just told me that if I wanted to be so independent I should learn how to prepare my own meals.
My early years as a vegetarian weren’t always easy. It was still far from mainstream to avoid meat in the late 1980s, something that only wacky hippies did, and restaurants rarely had good vegetarian options, if they had any at all. A trip through Texas, in particular, proved challenging. Even a green salad was a rarity outside of the big cities there.
Still, I managed to avoid eating meat for almost a decade—not counting two times when I ate it by accident. The first incident was within a week of going vegetarian. I had somehow forgotten that one of my favorite after-school snacks, frozen taquitos, were filled with meat. I think I finished them anyway, as a last hurrah. The second time was a few years later, at a hostel in Italy, when I accepted an offer to share another guest’s pasta without realizing it contained beef. Too bashful and polite to point out my mistake, I ate a bowlful.
One day I tried ordering a cheeseburger with no meat at a McDonald’s. The cashier looked at me like I was speaking in tongues. He said, “You want a cheeseburger—without the burger?” When I assured him that was what I wanted, he puzzled for several minutes over how to charge me for such an odd request. I told him I didn’t mind paying the regular price, but he insisted on adding up the components individually—bun, cheese, mustard, ketchup, pickles. I think it ended up costing about 17 cents. When the cooks got the order, they came out to the counter, grinning, to get a look at the freak who had placed it. I have to say, though, it wasn’t half bad. Condiment burgers became a staple of my diet. In-N-Out Burger even added a meatless burger—they call it a grilled cheese—to their secret menu. Theirs includes lettuce and tomato; I recommend asking for grilled onions, too.
Being a vegetarian was much easier once I moved to San Francisco—where no one seemed to have realized that the 1960s were over—to go to college. The campus food court sold tofu burgers, and I discovered a vegetarian Chinese restaurant nearby that made to-die-for sweet-and-sour fried walnuts.
After nearly 10 years as a total vegetarian (and a brief stint as a vegan), my resolve broke down one day in France. I had been wandering for hours looking for something I could eat, when hunger finally got the best of me and I ordered scallops at a café—surely one of the least complex forms of life, I reasoned. From there it was a slippery slope. I gradually started eating other seafood. A few years later I started eating poultry and a few years after that, the smell of cooking bacon—the downfall of many an herbivore—proved too tempting to ignore.
I still eat far less animal protein than the average American, but I could no longer be described as a vegetarian. And other than those two exceptions, I still haven’t had another bite of beef in almost 25 years.
August 23, 2011
In the criminal justice system, those who live outside the law sometimes meet their downfall through their relationship with food. These special cases keep cropping up, and some themes even begin to emerge, be it Jell-O-centric criminal behavior or the nefarious activities of ice cream peddlers. Take your fill of a few more stories from the underbelly. (Here is the apropos sound effect if you’d like to play it as you read each entry.)
Port St. Lucie, Florida. July, 2011. A minor beef.
It was a drug deal that spun out of control. Timethy Morrison shelled out $100 for marijuana, and the dealer drove up and handed Morrison a white bag through his car window and began to drive off. Inspection of the bag’s contents, however, revealed nothing but ground beef, and Morrison promptly turned around and fired several shots at the dealer’s Volvo and fled the scene. He was later apprehended and charged with attempted murder, burglary, escape, possession of marijuana and providing a false name to a law enforcement officer.
Kittery, Maine. March 2010. “Redemption is a dirty business.”
Many states add a 5-cent deposit to the price of bottled and canned drinks—and you can get that deposit back if you return your empties a redemption facility. But in addition to the consumer getting back a bit of change, the facility is paid a handling fee on the order of a few cents for every can processed. It is illegal for facilities to process out-of-state containers, since a state’s beverage industry is paying back those deposits. But a at a few cents a pop, who would put the effort into working the system? Attention turned to Green Bee Redemption in Kittery Maine, when Dennis Reed of New Hampshire rolled up with some 11,000 empty bottles and cans. Reed, along with the facility’s owners, Thomas and Megan Woodard, were all charged with fraud. During the Woodards’ trial, it was revealed that they arranged for Reed, along with Green Bee employee Thomas Prybot of Massachusetts, to collect large quantities of cans which would then be dropped off at the Maine facility after hours. Thomas was found guilty of stealing more than $10,000 by way of processing the illegal empties while his wife was acquitted. Reed is slated to stand trial in October while Prybot was not prosecuted for his role in the crime in exchange for his testimony. It is estimated that some $8 million worth of bottle fraud takes place in Maine every year.
Holyoke, Massachusetts. August, 2010. A load of baloney.
Postal inspectors in Puerto Rico had been working with authorities to try to crack down on illegal drugs being sent via mail to the United States—and their attentions turned to Juan Rodriguez of Holyoke, Massachusetts, after several parcels were sent to his home in May and June of 2010. When the post office alerted Holyoke police about another shipment being sent to Rodriguez, narcotics dogs detected the presence of drugs and an undercover agent delivered the package. After the package was signed for, police raided the residence—and it turned out that Rodriguez had a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a. About 2.2 pounds of cocaine, worth about $100,000 on the street, had been hidden inside a hollowed-out loaf of luncheon meat. Rodriguez was arrested and charged with cocaine trafficking.
Webster, Massachusetts. July, 2008. Get ‘em while they’re hot.
On July 27, 2008, a tractor trailer traveling on Interstate 395 was involved in an accident and overturned, spilling its contents—a shipment of live lobster—and tow-truck operator Robert Moscoffian was called to the scene. Prosecutors allege that Moscoffian also called Arnold A. Villatico, owner of Periwinkles & Giorgio’s restaurant to the scene, who drove to the site with his refrigerated truck, and the pair took crates of lobster from the scene, with an estimated value of some $200,000, and sold them to local restaurants. Some of the upscale crustaceans were returned to the authorities, and the contraband lobsters discovered at Periwinkles & Giorgio’s were released into Boston Harbor. Indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit larceny, larceny over $250 and selling raw fish without a license, Moscoffian and Villatico are currently slated to stand trial in 2012.
August 22, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you for personal stories about cafeteria culture: the sights, smells, rituals and survival tactics of shared mealtime. Our first essay comes from Katherine Krein of Sterling, Virginia, who works in a middle school in the special education department, helping students in math and science classes. She charts the skills one learns to master over time as the cafeteria poses new and more elaborate challenges.
Learning Cafeteria Culture, Grade by Grade
By Katherine Krein
School cafeterias from my youth are first remembered by their artifacts. I can visualize several things: the hard and heavy rectangular trays, the substantial metal silverware, the breakable plates filled with food, the little milk cartons, and the thin plastic straws. Lunch was paid for with change in our pockets or purses. Learning how to carry the heavy tray in order to balance the plate of food, silverware, and milk was a proud accomplishment for me as a young girl.
Social navigation was the next thing that had to be learned. You had to make friends and form a pact that you would sit together day after day. This could be hard at first if you were the new kid in town. My family moved about every two years throughout my elementary schooling, so I had to be brave and friendly. Trying to fit in would sometimes put me in a morally uncomfortable position. I have a recollection of making friends with a group of girls whose leader was a little mean. I remember one day she put potato chips in the seat of an overweight girl. When the girl sat down and flattened the chips everyone, including me, giggled. This memory still haunts me and fills me with shame.
By junior high school everything became smoother. I had grown, and carrying the full heavy tray became easy. My father’s job no longer required us to move, and we settled into our social surroundings. Knowing where to sit in the cafeteria became routine, and it no longer filled me with uncertainty. But social faux pas were still rather common. I remember sitting across the table from my friend Lisa when somehow milk came shooting out from my straw and ended up in Lisa’s face and hair. I’m not sure how this all transpired, but I am sure that I must have been doing something unladylike. Lisa did not speak to me for the rest of the day, and later in the week she got revenge by flinging peas in my hair and face. We remained friends through it all.
In high school, manners and appearances became more important as I began to view boys in a new way, and I began to notice them noticing me in a different way. Keith was a boy my age who I thought was very cute, and we were sitting across the table from one another. He was playing with his ketchup packet as we talked and flirted, and in an instant the packet burst. Ketchup squirted in my hair and on my face. Shock and surprise turned into laughter. What else could I do? We did end up dating for a while until my interest moved on.
I can barely remember specific foods from my K-12 cafeteria days. In California I loved the cafeteria burritos. Fish was frequently served on Fridays. Pizza is remembered from high school because my sister, two years older than me, could count on me to give her half of mine. Last but not least are memories of the mouth-watering, gooey, sugary and aromatic cinnamon buns. Eating them was such a sensory and sensuous experience.
I have a theory about why I don’t remember more about the food. As a student my brain was bombarded with numerous new and nervous social situations, and I was busy trying to analyze and remember new and complex ideas. Eating was a response to being in the cafeteria, and my primary consciousness was busy with socialization and academic learning. Eating did not require much of my thought.