Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Cheerful jobs that lack cheer

I hate to be a demanding customer, demanding more from some services than others, but I think there are some establishments where, even if they are just retail, a certain amount of joy should come with the service. When I am mumbled at through the Taco Bell drive-thru speaker, they don't repeat my special order request back to me and hand me my food, peering back at me through their seemingly newborn eyes, I don't blame them at all. They work at Taco Bell. They are getting minimum wage and dishing out pig food to pig people. There is nothing to be happy about. I don't even blame them (though of course I am frustrated) when they screw up my order and forget to leave out the beef. If I'm eating their Mexican Pizza for $2.85, what do I expect? A bowl of smiles? Hardly.

 Dante from 'Clerks', the second worst clerk of all time, (after Randal)

But some businesses are in the business of being there for important, fun filled events in your life and subsequently, should step it up on the cheer front. I for one, on the few times a year when I have to face the public, am able to share in our customers' delight over our fabric prints and feed their excitement. Even when they gasped with glee over a cow print that went against all my aesthetic principles, I'd just smiled politely and remark that it was popular, my gritted teeth stored discreetly in my stomach.

I first noticed this lack of joy where there should be some when shopping for my wedding dress. I for one was not interested in sharing my life story with the ladies in the dress shops, but my mother, of course was ecstatic about the wedding of her first born and couldn't help but pour her heart out to the shop lady about how excited she was, and how happy she was with who I was marrying. The dress designer did nothing to disguise her boredom with my mother's chit chat and stopped just short of rolling her eyes at her. Thankfully for my mum, she remained oblivious to the poor reception and her prattle could not be stopped. I stood in the middle feeling uncomfortable, all too aware of both parties' positions, wishing my mother would knock it off, but was also taken aback by the wedding dress makers inability to enjoy the trappings of weddings and listen to a proud mother. After all, this is her business. Do you think that should that be part of the service? Maybe we weren't worth it since I found a perfectly fitting dress on sale, 1/6th the cost of having her make it for me from scratch.

Okay, maybe not THIS enthusiastic, but a good balance. 

In the day to day realm of whimsy, I went out to buy my kitten a new brand of food last week and was met with more disappointment. I didn't go to Petco, the massive chain of pet stores, but instead went to an independently owned boutique pet store where I am quite certain they are being paid above minimum wage to give a crap. I asked if they would take this bag of food back once opened if my cat didn't like it. The guy said with this particular brand, they would. I then added "He's just so fussy." and the guy just said nothing, glared at me and continued bagging my order. Even before I owned a pet, I could easily enjoy getting caught up in pet talk and I would hope that someone working in a fancy pet store could and would willingly want to engage in joyful chit chat about pets. A simple "Oh, I know what you mean!" with a hint of "those rascally kittens!" in his voice would have sufficed, rather than dead silence, indicating he probably hates me and my kitten. How could he? He's adorable!

My adorable, 5-month old Birdsworth whom the clerk should have been interested in.

Lastly, I have had mixed service for the the employees at See's Candies. Judging by the delight with which I show the fabric my company designs, I can assure you my capacity for company enthusiasm would reach its greatest heights if it were my job to not only fill boxes with chocolate, but also have the pleasure of handing out free samples. It's like getting to be Santa Claus every three minutes over an 8 hour period. What a delight! There is one woman at my local See's Candies who has lost her way and hands over the sample as though they were lumps of coal. She is very efficient and knows their wares, but her lack of love for the product or happiness for your upcoming enjoyment is grossly apparent. If I may say, her physique indicates she may have overdone the chocolate and she may resent the willy nilly purchase and consumption that she can no longer partake it. Whatever her back story, it is not my problem. I should be able to able to bound out of See's with a bag full of Bordeauxs with a spring in my step as I was joyfully nudged out by a merry chocolate purveyor.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Progress from the handkerchief: Hand sneezing?

Do sub zero temperatures kill bacteria? I sure hope so. As I waited in line at the supermarket last week, while the cashier was waiting for the customer in front of me to finish screwing around with his coupons and money, the girl needed to sneeze. And she did so...right into her hands. I shuddered. My turn was coming up soon, but not imminently, so she had time to correct the situation. I glanced over above the cash drawer and was delighted to see a pump of hand sanitizer. It would be any moment that she would reach over for a pump to cleanse her hands of the mucus and swine flu setting up camp on her hands.

I know she has a tissue, but she's sneezing and has cool hair.

After eventually finalising her transaction with the other customer, and passing on her sickness to him by way of his change, she then turned to my three frozen items, picked them up, and scanned them. After sneezing directly into her hands, no effort was made to clean them. I wanted to die. I may curse myself for the rest of my days for not asking her to use the hand sanitizer, a thought I had seriously toyed with but was unable to carry through with because I am gutless.

Never a fan of the handkerchief, the idea of carrying a day's worth of snot around in my pocket an unappealing one, I have never had a propensity for one, though for those who carried them, they were usually at the ready to catch a sneeze. With the advent of the tissue, the handkerchief gradually became obsolete, though rarely stuffed up a nearby sleeve. In the interest of expedited snot discarding, this has been a good thing. But what of the sneeze itself? What is containing that? It seems tissue only comes along to mop up the yellowish-grey devastation, but the viral mist that is otherwise destined to roam free, commonly ends up in the offender's (and I say offender because I find it offensive) HANDS.

Hands are not like the plastic sheath used to cover an otoscope. A doctor pokes it into your ear with the sheath, it is used once, then discarded. No, hands are, if you're lucky, for life and serve as the vehicles for food to mouth, and exchanges with other people. As such, it seems perfectly logical that these living tools should be kept free of bacteria as much as possible. This all seems so obvious, so why it has become a common practice for people to sneeze into their hands is nothing short of baffling to me.

I appreciate the sentiment. I know people are trying to contain their sneeze and prevent it from floating freely and infecting many, but is it really a good idea to contain the germs, all concentrated on two hands, only to use those hands to touch shared spaces? I think not.

So what are we to do? Well, there are options other than hands for sneeze containment and I, and others who are aware of this ever increasing problem would appreciate if you would adopt them, should you catch yourself sneezing into your hands.

My first preference, depending on the cut and stretch of my collar, is to sneeze down my own shirt. This method is sometimes initially met with confusion, but I don't see the problem. The sneeze is well contained within the confines of my clothing and if I'm already sick, I'm not about to give it back myself via my belly button. I don't think my torso skin is any more precious than my hand skin that it should be spared the horrors.

According to Omri, my Israeli friend who is currently living in Sweden, the Swedes have sneezing etiquette down as he has observed them all sneezing into their elbows. I noted his observation sounded just that, observational, rather than something he was use to partaking in. I let the issue drop to prevent him from having to confess to hand sneezing and me needing to be disgusted by it. In any case, I too use the elbow method when my top styling does not permit. It can be tricky as in the rush to marry nose to elbow, perfect placement of the nose is hard. As the head lunges back and then violently forward, it can be hard to maintain the alignment. Still, it is relatively contained and poses no real threat of germ sharing unless you were about to participate in a jig at a local barn dance.

I would advise against this type of dancing even without the risk of elbow germs.

Sneeze down your shirt, sneeze into your elbow, sneeze over you shoulder if that's all you can muster and there's nobody standing behind you. But for the love of crumb cake, don't sneeze into your goddamned hands unless you are willing to IMMEDIATELY go and wash them. If you plan to open a door, pat me on the back or share a bowl grapes, wash your hands or keep your diseased digits as far away from me and others as is humanly possible.

Oh, and you can apply all of this to coughing as well. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The truth about vegan desserts

"What does a vegan donut taste like?" someone asked. "Like the hole: Nothing." was the snide response. Another popular retort is "cardboard".

I'd like to open by pointing out that the diatribe you are about to read is not by a vegan. I am vegetarian which permits me egg and dairy without compromising my title. Gelatin, rendered down bits of horse hooves, euthanized pets and dead circus animals, is not vegan nor vegetarian, so boo-hoo, I have to count myself out on marshmallows and jello/jelly. I never liked them anyway. I admit, it stings if gelatin is contained in a tiramisu and I have to pass. Now that you know all that about me, I hope to enlighten those who are ignorant of the potential magic in vegan desserts.

More important than the fact that I can eat eggs or dairy is the fact that I can eat sugar. Sweet, sweet sugar. And cocoa. Oh, I would give your right arm for a fine piece of 60% dark chocolate, preferably from Belgium. I'll eat any chocolate, vegan or not so I am not married to vegan desserts as I write this. It might shock you to know that sugar and cocoa are not only vegetarian but they are also vegan. So is flour! *Gasp* Seriously? Key ingredients of many desserts are not made from animals? Yes, that is correct. No, vegan desserts are not comprised of cucumber and lentils. If you aren't such a snob that you'll eat a Safeway cake or store bought candy, you are no sweet-treat snob, so don't cry about the use of soy milk like you know the difference.

Fried can be vegan, and for that, I am grateful.
When I hear people making cheap cracks at the expense of vegan desserts, it really irritates me because it is just so completely misguided and flat out ignorant. I don't begrudge someone who enjoys a buttery cake, but I was of the understanding that sweetness is what drives the world of dessert, not butter.

Eggs are used as a binding property and so for vegan baked goods, some sort of egg replacer is used. I don't know how all this works because personally, I don't believe in baking. I never have.* I am however willing to reap the benefits of the baking efforts of others and can tell you I have not said myself, nor heard others say of a cupcake "Hmmm, it's okay but it could use more egg." The cakey part of a cupcake can be as moist and delicious as can be, even while vegan. We all know the heart of a cupcake is worn on its sleeve, and by that, I mean it's in the frosting. A frosting consisting mostly of sugar. Nothing is lost here because margarine was substituted for butter, soy milk for milk. Again, I can eat any cupcake, and all I care about is the sugar content.

Choc-orange, one of my all time favourite combos, is contained in this delicious cupcake made by my dear vegan friend, Emily. She was a friend. She became 'dear' after the cupcakes.

Having said all this, there is a group out there who are possibly responsible for the poor showing of the vegan dessert (though honestly, I believe the ignorant naysayers have never tried any of them) and those people are called hippies. While travelling in the middle of nowhere with limited vegetarian options, I admit I will gladly welcome the restaurant offerings of hippies. But as they seem more preoccupied with health and tending to their dreadlocks, it isn't likely to be a foodie's paradise. There are exceptions as the odd hippie will somehow take us to culinary heaven, but generally I have low expectations for what they dish up. Once the main course is completed, one runs the risk of encountering the most tragic words in any dessert cook book and they are "fruit sweetened". No, no, no nononononono! We don't want that. Yes, I agree, a vegan, fruit sweetened chocolate cake tastes like crap. The problem isn't that it is vegan, but that it lacks SUGAR. I urge you not to eat anything fruit sweetened unless you just can't eat sugar, in which case, I'm truly sorry. GOD, I am SO sorry...

A vegan peanut butter bomb cake. I think this is the kind you get in New York which can be found at Moby's tea house, Teany Cafe. This thing blows my mind.

I'm not trying to tell you that all desserts should be vegan or that everything can be perfectly substituted. It just can't, but that's not to say that magic can't and doesn't happen. You are reading the writings of someone who put two spoons of sugar on their cereal, has 5 pumps of flavoured syrup in their mocha, and is known to, on occasion, eat a quality piece of chocolate first thing in the morning (no, I am not a diabetic). I simply do not fuck around when it comes to my sweet treats.

My beloved dark chocolate Bordeaux from See's Candies. Not vegan, but high up in my personal food chain.

My favourite ice-cream is a vegan Chocolate Peanut Butter Zig Zag by Purely Decadent. If you look to ice-cream for milky creaminess, then maybe vegan ice-cream isn't for you, though it is still creamy. I actually wont eat chocolate ice creams that are cut with too much milk like those at Stone Cold Ice Creamery (plus it stinks in there). But if you enjoy rich chocolate flavour and with the added bonus of peanut butter, then you are a bloody idiot to turn this thing down. I can and do eat any ice cream I want, but this is my favourite.

Really? Do I need to explain this?

Another favourite dessert of mine is from a vegan restaurant in the San Fernando Valley called Madeleine Bistro. This is a place for fine dining, small portions, and explosive flavours, but the thing I wait for and long for is the Bananas Foster Split. I first encountered Bananas Foster while doing extra work on the Tenacious D movie. I guess it's some sort of magical concoction of slices up bananas sauteed with brown sugar and likely butter. It was magical and I longed for it, but never ended up having it again until Madeleine's. There's a twist on the traditional Foster as they lay out the warmed, sugared banana, but add a drizzled raspberry sauce (raspberry sauce!) and top it off with vegan ice cream, hot chocolate sauce and on top of that a vegan cream made of cashews (with lots of sugar). How can anything made of cashews and sugar not be fantastic? As I said, the restaurant is fancy and I just about have to have my hands cuffed to the back of the chair to stop me from bringing my plate up to my face to lick it clean. I do quietly continue scraping every bit of sauce from the plate with my spoon until the waitress comes to take it away from me.

Oh sweet Bananas Foster Split, it has been too long! We will be together again soon...

A blog about vegan desserts can't be complete without honouring the beloved cake maker of Melbourne. Vegetarian Orgasm was a much loved vegetarian restaurant in Melbourne. While the food was of a pretty high standard (until they expanded, and cut portions and raised prices and went out of business) the desserts were completely out of this world. They were the work of a man we all considered an artist in the realm of cake making. While not vegan himself (just vegetarian), Mark the cake maker appeared to spend most of his spare time dreaming up new cakes. His father, like mine (both were Sri Lankan) was a sugar junkie and this had rubbed off on him. He would not cut any corners when it came to appeasing a sweet tooth. Among his classics were the peanut butter bomb cake, Turkish delight cake and honeycomb cake. He even made a Coca-cola cake, complete with little pieces of chocolate he'd made from a chocolate mold of Coke bottles. The main body of the mega cakes were a good 3 inches in height, but atop that would be some kind of flourish, enhancing the already intense flavours (pieces of Turkish delight if it were a Turkish delight cake, etc) then topped off with lots of cream and drizzles of hardened chocolate. I'm tearing up just thinking about it.

There were regulars on the dessert menu, but he was consistently coming up with new stuff. We would often stop by just to get cake. So loved by all were his cakes whether one was vegan, vegetarian or carnivore, that we didn't have to think twice about employing his mastery to make our wedding cake. He did one of his fabulously dense mousse cakes, one layer was just chocolate, another chocolate hazelnut. I forget what the third one was, but it was so rich and divine that just a sliver could send you into a diabetic coma. I for one was never able to eat a whole slice in once sitting, despite all my boasting of sugar consumption. I wont lie, the vegan cake did not have the strength of whatever feats are used for regular wedding cake architecture for a three tiered cake. It sunk a little, but he warned us this might happen. No help that the cake required an hour and a half car ride, but aside from a little sinking, it looked just fine and more importantly tasted fabulous, the two chocolate echidnas he made stood proudly atop. It was so great that the staff at the reception place we caught trying to hide the remainder from us to keep for themselves.

Not one of Mark the cake maker's mousse cakes, but kinda similar on the inside. His were darker though and I'm guessing even more delicious.

Good vegan dessert makers should not be scoffed at. They are not making something that visually resembles a dessert, but trying to tantalise taste buds while adapting to certain dietary needs. They are to be championed for their innovation and dedication to the glorious world of desserts!

So be a lover, not a fighter of vegan desserts. If you love sugar, fruit flavours and/or chocolate, these decadent needs can be fulfilled without animals products. No need to bag it out, because it just ain't true. Besides, you sound like an asshole.

*Remark about not believing in baking was stolen from Andrew Dice Clay.