In the New Year: A brief lament and hope for Hope

by Don Curto

I recently calculated I have been alive for twenty-three presidential elections and voted in seventeen of them…from Roosevelt in 1944 to Obama in 2008.
You would be right to guess that all of my votes were cast for Democrats. There are two important reasons for this: one, my father would have been shamed, and after his death possibly arising from his grave to smack me “a good one,” had I voted Republican; and two, my good sense always told me that the Democrat would make a better president for social progress. As long as there are people out there in hunger and without a warm, safe place to rest, our country’s promise has not been met.
I had hoped, especially at the end of WWII, to see a country without citizens in poverty. My trouble is, of course, that I am a Romanticist. I read too much Tom Swift in my early youth and far too much Hemingway and Dos Passos in my formative years. James Thurber and Damon Runyon lighted the dark corners of life and remain friends still. Bernard Shaw was a good socialist guide.
The dark, penetrating poetry of T.S. Eliot is haunting and disturbing. A dose or two of the fast-paced, beautifully rhyming poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay acts as a buffer. Her sonnet “Chaos” takes the state of utter confusion and confines it into fourteen lines, thus eliminating confusion and disorder. A small masterpiece.
And then there is the master New Yorker cartoonist, William Stieg, who lived and drew until he was ninety-five. One of his most famous drawings done before 1945 shows a “Stieg man” dark brows, heavy lids, sitting crunched up, holding his legs tight against himself in the corner of a box barely big enough to hold him, glowering. “People are no damned good” is the caption. We who have lived long and been observant know that is true, but we who are romantic are led to hope for the possibility of a transformation.
As a child and youth, I lived through the Great Depression; the circumstances of that time and my age made me an observer and not a real participant. There were only about two billion people on earth at that time; now there are almost nine billion with instant communication, air travel, weapons in hand (with far too many of them being nuclear), and the ability to do things not imagined in 1930. Fear and starvation and homelessness can breed terrorists, even amongst the innocent.
After the eight-year attempt by George Bush to try to govern our country in a world of great danger, and failure, it would look that Stieg was right and there is no hope. I never thought I would see such disaster. There is a very long list of devastating decisions made by President Bush, and I am not going to repeat them here. You know them all. Greed, avarice, stupidity, ignorance and hunger for power and its retention once gained have led us to the edge of the abyss, and we stare into the bottomless pit not knowing what to do.
It would appear that not only was Stieg correct about people being “no good,” but reading the list of brilliant people who have “invested” in Bernard Madoff’s plans expecting nothing but rewards, regardless of what any other intelligent person could see: there is no free lunch. How the likes of some of the industry titans could not have known that if something looks too good to be true, it almost always is…
But, as noted in Michael Lewis’ new book Panic, “Something for nothing…it never loses its charm.” It does no good to excoriate the Bush crew and the greedy and ignorant Wall Street people who got us sliding down the steep chute. We are where we are.
Now we look to a young man with brains, courage and the determination to help us out of our own mess. If you pray, start right now. Pray for the good fortune we all had in electing our new president. Pray that Obama is a Superman from another planet, but, if not, just a really smart guy who genuinely is interested in his and our future.
It would be very nice not to have to live through another depression, to be alive as we come out of the darkness and find ways to provide Americans with food, shelter, medical care and see the emergence of Hope, once again. And while we are at it, we can help the rest of the world get there, too.

Keeping Food on the Table

As the price of oil has declined recently, so have the prices of foods in our supermarkets. Chances are good, however, that oil prices will rise again (forget the big car) and so will food prices. As economists (some of them anyway) urge us to buy—and buy with confidence—it is more important than ever to buy with intelligence.
As I walk the aisles of our supermarkets, I marvel at the content of food carts I pass. Sometimes I think I could advise the shopper to replace much of what is in the cart and save money and get better products. Fortunately, I have developed enough restraint to avoid this kind of behavior. I don’t know all the things you should not buy, but I do know what I should do when shopping.
Here are some thoughts for you which might save you money and help you get better buys.
Don’t ever, ever buy bottled water. If you buy some of the “specials” on this product, say 150 32-ounce bottles for only $4.99, better you should take the $4.99 and throw it down the aisle so someone else could use it more productively. If you live in the U.P and have city water, village water or well water, you probably already have something better than what is in that bottle, and your cost is negligible. If you must have a bottle of water in your car, get an empty bottle from one of your rich friends, clean it, fill it with tap water and keep it in your car.
Most Sundays, local papers carry colorful advertising supplements urging us to purchase the bargains shown. Recently, one of the supplements had products which presented a litany of things we don’t need or should not buy. For instance:

• 8 Swanson Pot Pies for $5. A pot pie for sixty-three cents?
• 12 cans of selected vegetables for $5. For forty-two cents each, you can imagine.
• Old Dutch Restaurante (12- to 15-ounce size) Tortilla Chips, two for $4. I bet the “old Dutch” ate a lot of these chips. And the ad is bold enough to tell you that you save up to $3.58 when you make this buy.
• You can get a thirteen- to fifteen-ounce bag of Fritos or Cheetos for only $2.99. Now there is a bargain we all need in tough times.

My point is: if you are going to buy pot pies or canned vegetables, look for the best quality. Read labels. There is no way on earth any of us need tortilla chips or Fritos or Cheetos, although I admit to a sometimes passing addiction to a bag of Fritos when on a long auto trip. It’s the salt, I think.
In the case of the pot pies, common sense should tell us that there is very little value in something that cheap, with colorful packaging to boot. Read the labels.
There is an ad for ten cans of ripe olives for $10. These are six-ounce cans of medium, ripe olives. Look closely at this product, at any price. If the olives are California black ripe olives, pitted, be wary. Most of the olive flavor is long gone as these olives start out as green olives but are treated with lye to “ripen” them. Then they are washed of the lye and canned. And why do you need ten cans, anyway?
More frequently, stores are adding “olive bars,” where one can choose from several kinds, in bulk, buying only what one needs.
I could go through the whole supplement finding products that look good (the purpose of the advertising) but are not, in most cases, real bargains. For instance, by what logic would you think you can buy an edible pizza for $2?
So it’s tough to shop well. Read labels; use good judgment that tells you if it looks like an incredible bargain; believe the “incredible” part.

Pretty Darn Good Recipe for New Year’s

(or any other time)
Chicken Cacciatore
Usually this dish is made with a tomato sauce. Some years ago, I decided to eliminate the tomato but still have a tasty dish. I call it Roman-style, but more accurately it might be Milan-style, where tomatoes are not so frequently used. In any way, it is pretty darn good.
A three- to three-and-a-half-pound chicken cut into eight pieces as the breasts are cut in half.

2 tablespoons of olive oil…use the good stuff, always
1/4 cup finely chopped onions
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon slivered Kalamata black olives
2 tsp anchovy paste

Wash and dry the chicken pieces. Lightly salt and pepper.
Heat olive oil in large skillet, brown chicken pieces, skin side down. Don’t crowd in pan.
Remove chicken pieces and set aside.
Cook the onions until soft and just beginning to color.
Add wine and vinegar, reduce slightly.
Pour in chicken stock while scraping pan to save all the stuck pieces.
Return chicken to skillet, add oregano and bay leaf, bring to boil.
Reduce heat and cover. Cook until the chicken is done, about twenty-five to thirty minutes.
Remove the chicken to a serving plate, remove bay leaf, bring to boil until it thickens slightly. Stir in the black olives and the anchovy paste. Pour over chicken and serve.
Happy New Year. Good shopping and good living.

— Don Curto

After-notes: It is with the greatest of sadness that I note the passing of Kareem’s Place, formerly the New York Deli. Its great soups and sandwiches will be missed by all, as will Kareem’s joyful personality.

Scotching a rumor: I have heard several times in recent weeks that Elizabeth’s Chop House is in “trouble.” Perish the thought. Owners assure me things are going very well and their only intention for the New Year is to continue to serve some of Marquette’s highest quality food. That’s good news.

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