Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Thanksgiving Fairytale

About a month ago, I became the proud owner of a Musque De Provence pumpkin, also known as a Fairytale pumpkin. I bought it because it's so damn beautiful, and I planned to use it as an ornamental centerpiece for our family's Thanksgiving table. This will be a special Thanksgiving, and it seemed appropriate to have a special centerpiece.

But then I learned that this rare variety of pumpkin is "especially prized by cooks for its fine textured flesh and robust flavors." So now I can't be content just looking at it. I have to cook the thing. 

My first thought, of course, was to make a pie. And I'll certainly do that. I've been baking a lot of pies this year, partly because I love pie and partly because it's the kind of home-spun cooking my mother would approve of. (I'm less certain she would approve of my ending that sentence with a preposition, but that's a mystery with which I'll have to abide.) The Musque De Provence supposedly makes for a great pie.

But this is an 18 pound pumpkin, enough to make 10 pies. We're a big family, but we don't need 10 pies. So I thought back on my days as a kitchen monkey (prep chef, dishwasher, waiter, barista, you name it) at the wonderful Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino. We made a simple but delicious carrot side-dish by combining cooked carrots, chicken stock, cream, butter, salt and pepper (and some mystery spice I can't recall - suggestions welcome!) in a food processor. The result was a vibrant orange and delicious puree with the consistency of melting gelato. So good. I'm going to make that again, but with an even mixture of carrots and my special French pumpkin.

I also have to make creamed spinach. My grandfather, George Burker, always made creamed spinach, and so naturally his daughter, my mother, always made creamed spinach for our special dinners. I can't remember a Thanksgiving without it. 

Last year, on Thanksgiving morning, my mom was getting ready to head over to my sister Dorothy's house for the day. She had been cooking vegetables for much of the previous day, and I sat at her kitchen counter for a couple of hours, talking to her while she cooked. (I'm not lazy; I would have helped if she'd asked. But it was a very small kitchen, and she didn't really want my help anyway. She wanted to do everything for her children, not the other way around. She liked it when I helped with her computer or when I brought her a new CD to listen to. But she wanted complete ownership over her cooking, and especially, I think, the creamed spinach.) 

After cooking all day, she stayed up late cleaning the kitchen. She must have exhausted herself beyond belief, because the next morning, on Thanksgiving day, she got up, headed to the shower, and just… died. Instantly, and without warning or explanation.

Back at my sister's house, we waited until well past the late morning hour we expected her to arrive. Then Kathleen drove over to her house to help get her and my disabled brother John out the door. Instead, she found John inside the house, alone and very confused. My mom had died hours ago.

Fast forward to the late afternoon, and all of us sitting down to the strangest and saddest Thanksgiving dinner any of us is ever likely to experience. Not surprisingly, we had all lost our appetites, and yet we were confronted by this mountains of delicious food. In particular, my mom's vegetables, which she had literally worked herself to death to prepare, stared up at us and insisted on being eaten.

So we ate. I can't quite explain the taste of the creamed spinach on that day. Sufficed to say, taste and smell got  themselves inextricably tangled up with emotions in a way that couldn't be overcome. That spinach tasted like a combination of love and sadness and a lifetime of my mother's hugs. And butter and onions.

So here we are, one year later, and my sister has asked her brothers to make the vegetables for Thanksgiving. It's entirely practical; she and her husband Paul are preparing both a turkey and a ham, and she will be making her usual assortment of fantastic fruit pies. So it only stands to reason that we take on the task of the vegetables.

So now I have this very special pumpkin, for this very special Thanksgiving. And of course there will be creamed spinach, which undoubtedly we'll make with love and sadness and a lifetime of my mother's hugs. And lots of butter and onions. I sure hope we don't mess it up.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What to wear when flying Ryanair? Depends...

Ryanair recently announced plans to remove most of the bathrooms on their shorter flights and replace them with additional seats, and then to charge passengers to use the remaining lavatory.  

What could possibly go wrong!?

Here's how I think this plan might have been rolled out to the Ryanair executive team:

Listen up everybody... OK, so as you know, we're all here to brainstorm ways we can make air travel MORE profitable and LESS pleasant for our, uh... guests.
OK, settle down... Tammy here has come up with a peach: First, we remove two out of three lavs on every plane (nods of approval) and then add six seats in their place (murmurs of assent). With 10% more seats and 66% fewer lavs, demand will skyrocket (applause). Now, here's the genius part...
We install coin-operated locks on the lav doors, and charge a quid per use. Everybody flies with a pocket-full of coins, right? Noooo? Well, then, we'll offer to make change, for a fee of course. And just imagine all those toads hopping around with their knees crossed, waiting to make change so they can get in line for the toilet!
And if some poor bastard doesn't make it, and shits himself, well, that's just a compelling object lesson to the rest of the bastards that they'd better bring their own coins and get to the front of the line.
Tammy, I love it. How'd you like to be our new VP of Customer Service?
Update 17 November 2010: Ryanair is in the news again...
More than 100 angry Ryanair passengers sat in a dark cabin without food or water for four hours Wednesday, refusing to leave their plane after it was diverted to Belgium, authorities and passengers said." [Read]

Monday, February 1, 2010

Little things make all the difference

Some businesses do unremarkable things remarkably well. Specialty's Cafe & Bakery is one. Specialtys makes great sandwiches, on their own great bread. They also make other stuff, like salads, cookies, pastries and coffee drinks. But I only get sandwiches. My personal favorite is the Peanut Butter and Stuff -- how do they make a peanut butter sandwich so satisfying? -- but every sandwich I've ever had, at any of their numerous locations, has been great.

Today, I ordered and paid for my sandwich on their web site for fast pick-up. (Specialtys has a great on-line ordering system. Very easy to use. You should check it out.) Only problem is, I ordered it for pick-up at the wrong store. I used to go to the Sansome store, so that's where I placed my order. But now I work much closer to the Pine store, so that's where I went. When I got there, my sandwich wasn't ready. Duh.

I asked for assistance, and the guy at the counter took down my name and disappeared into the back. A few minutes later a young woman appeared and said that my sandwich had been ordered at the Sansome store, which is a few blocks away. There wasn't even a hint of "You didn't order your sandwich from us, dumb-ass" snarkiness in her voice. She could not have been more polite about my stupid mistake. Then she said, "We can make you one here if you like."

That's it. That simple gesture embodies good customer service. She offered to erase my mistake (my mistake) in a way that would eliminate their profit margin on this one order but would ensure a loyal customer for the future.

Moral of the story: It's so much cheaper and easier to keep the customers you have than it is to market to and win new customers. I simply don't understand why more companies don't get that. (Are you listening, every single airline except Southwest?)