Wednesday, April 23, 2008

BEST OF: Not-so-Iron-Chefs' ice-cream duel

When neighbors get together in Cambria, it’s often to share a meal.

We and two sets of our Marine Terrace neighbors added a twist to that equation, sharing a holiday weekend night as we made up quarts and quarts of homemade vanilla ice cream in a duel to determine who has the best ice-cream making machine.

The official competitors and their choice of weaponry were:

• Richard Greek, (then the county’s personnel director and former ag commissioner), with a wood-bucket, hand-crank, uses-salt-and-ice model ice-cream maker;

• Superior Court Judge Martin Tangeman, with an electrified version of the Greeks’ machine; and

• Richard Tanner, retired baker-caterer and former pit boss for Harrah’s Club, Reno, with a self-contained, no-salt/no-ice, commercial-style electric ice-cream freezer.

The Greeks paid close to retail for their model. We got our machine on super sale/closeout/slight scratches/discontinued model and they couldn’t even find the original box. And the Tangemans got their ice-cream maker at a rummage sale for $5.

Serious competition? Of course not. Hilarious? You bet. Competitive? Oh, definitely. We’re talking some major A-type personalities here, and each was devoutly convinced that his machine was the best on the block, literally.

We all live within a few houses of each other, even one of our official judges Joan Wedbush, who doesn’t have an ice-cream machine, but is a former caterer.

That Sunday proved to be ideal in every way but one: the weather, which was cold, foggy and London-like. Not exactly ideal ice-cream weather, but I guess ice cream is a hit in any environment.

While the idea was strictly for fun, we did have to do things correctly, we agreed. To make sure nobody hyped their own mix to make it special, we made up a giant batch of rich vanilla ice cream, and ladled it into the side-by-side containers right before the machines started their magic.

There were the three contestants, three judges and eight ice-cream groupies in the bunch, ranging in age from 3 to 76. The “duel” was a hoot. Good fun and dessert were the only real goals. We all laughed so hard, our sides and cheeks hurt.

Marty made a big play of stretching his arms behind his head and saying over and over, “See how hard I’m working, checking the ice cream,” while Richard, Christine and son Kris Greek took turns churning the crank on their low-tech device.

Marty made sure he or his wife, Carol Tangeman, stood guard at all times over their machine, to protect against insidious industrial espionage, I suppose.

The Greeks kept needling Marty, noting the noise factor from the Tangemans’ machine. “It’s so loud. You’re drowning out the ocean,” Richard Greek said. “And what if the power goes out?”

“You should have solar panels just for this,” Marty countered to my husband.

In turn, my Richard raised his hands above his head, looked up into the dense, drippy fog and said, “And just what good what that do you? Or us … remember, our machine is electric, too.”

When challenged over his demand for a handicap because he’d been “forced” to use the Greeks’ salt and ice, Judge Tangeman said he’d review the legal precedents … until one of us asked if there’d be any ice cream left by the time he’d get around to handing down his ruling.

This went on all night long.

We’d set up a wine-style blind tasting, complete with official judging forms and palate-cleansing glasses of water. And were those judges meticulous! “All contestants clear the area,” said Wedbush. “Let’s not have any undue pressure.”

The judges studiously nibbled and sipped, rolled the ice creams around on their tongues and slowly filled in their judging forms — much to the consternation of the youngsters waiting to dig into the leftovers.

Then we all sampled the three ice creams, eventually adding fresh strawberries or blueberries, caramel sauce or my Richard’s truffle topper, nuts, M&Ms or sprinkles. In some of the kids’ dishes, it was hard to find the ice cream among the add-ons. Memories of ice-cream-parlor “suicide sundaes” come to mind.

There were distinct differences between the three ice creams. One was soft and smooth, another slightly grainy and homemade style, another firm, icy-cold and silky.

Who won?

The Tanner’s commercial machine took the honors, I think partially because the self-refrigeration unit got the mixture so cold, so fast.

Finally, the sated contestants and judges staggered home, grateful to the end that neighbors could enjoy such a fierce competition, and each other, so much.

Summer’s coming. Anyone for a rematch?

This column ran first in The Cambrian on September 19, 2002.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Dye-hard egg hunt

Before I became a grandmother, I never knew it would be so much fun — or so complicated.

For instance, we hosted a houseful for Easter: granddaughters Caitlyn (12), Alyssa (9), Isabelle (8) and Georgia (5), plus our son Sean and his fiancĂ©e, Kim. What resulted was this family’s longest-ever Easter egg hunt.

The girls are each so different! And there were some special circumstances to consider: one girl is severely allergic to most nuts; another is fairly fussy about which candies she likes (such as peanut-butter cups); and a third was on crutches, with her leg in a cast after a sledding accident.

The fourth is 5.

So this hunt required some MBA-level pre-planning.

The holiday event began as soon as the girls awoke, with a nervous Easter Bunny (EB) fervently hoping the preparations would produce frolic and fun, but without any youthful hurt feelings, tears or temper tantrums.

At the dining table, each place was set with an egg-shaped place mat, a bunny mug, an Easter candy and a couple of little gifts to keep the girls occupied during breakfast. Meanwhile, EB snuck out, put four filled baskets on the front porch and hid 28 boiled hens’ eggs the girls had colored the day before.

Once the adults were up (if not yet Easter outfitted or even totally awake), the chant began. “Egg hunt! Egg hunt!”

When the girls opened the front door, the squeals began. Baskets! Candy! Trinkets! Chocolate bunnies (three of them filled with peanut cream and delightfully named “Reester Bunnies,” and one nut-free Cadbury)! The giggling gaggle of girls deposited their loot on the dining table, then dashed out the door in search of eggs.

“Halt! Wait!” EB said with nose twitching. “Rule time. There are seven eggs out there for each of you. Caitlyn and Isabelle — once you’ve found seven each, then go help Georgia and Alyssa,” who was limping around on crutches.

Caity and Izzy were done in a flash, of course, but they amiably played “you’re getting warmer … colder” with the other two girls as a couple of adults trailed along to make sure Georgia didn’t wind up stranded in a tree and Lyssie didn’t fall over trying to dig an egg out of a flower pot.

Meanwhile, EB and her two cohorts were inside the house, hiding candy-filled plastic eggs and other goodies.

Once the girls had found all the real eggs outside, the hunt was on in the living room, dining room and halls. It was like having four caffeine-amped monkeys playing “I spy” throughout the house, peering into vases, under couch cushions and behind pillows.

(I so hope they got it all. I remember my grandmother finding an overlooked chocolate egg in August one year — behind the radiator on a white rug that wasn’t white any more.)

Once our girls had ferreted out the goodies, the “Easter Banker” took over.

With a reserve of each kind of candy in another basket, the Easter Banker could exchange candies for another kind. That way, the fussy eater and the nut-allergic could redeem treats they’d found but couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. The other girls could exchange, too, if they wanted to.

Were we done yet? Not a chance.

After Easter Banker negotiations finished, the girls whooped and headed outside again.

Soon they were back, announcing that the adult Easter Egg Hunt was about to begin. They’d re-hidden the colored eggs, and now the parents and grandparents were to find them.

Devious? I ask you, how was I to know they’d hidden an egg under an upside-down abalone shell?

With a little coaching and a lot of hilarity, hooting and hollering from the youthful gallery, we oldsters finally found all the eggs (which by then were destined for the garbage rather than a deviled-egg tray or egg-salad sandwiches).

Whew! The hunt was over. We’d pulled it off. We’d made memories — and a huge, so-funny mess. A month later, in the most unlikely places, we’re still finding biliously pink and purple strands of Easter grass.

Could the Easter Bunny finally relax? Of course not. She’s already planning the 2009 hunt, playing “Can you top this?”

Sunday, April 13, 2008

BEST OF: Tour de chance

Imagine joining a group of strangers traipsing around on a shared vacation, seeing sights, having adventures, being taught new things.

Imagine us running rapidly in the other direction.

It’s called a tour, and for decades, we’ve avoided them like the plague. I'd protest that we’re too self-reliant, too stubbornly autonomous. We like to go our own way, make our own decisions, do our own thing at our own time.

On a tour, most of those choices are premade for you, about your room, your schedule, your activities, your menu and even the people with whom you sit and dine.

“Go, go,” our friends had told us. “Trust us. You’ll have a wonderful time.”

Finally, feisty as I am, I had to admit there was a lure in having somebody else making the decisions once in a while. I was willing to give up my tour-director hat, just for a little while. So, recently, we gave in and dipped our travel toes into the world of shared vacations.

Now as newbies, we weren't brave enough to sign up for a two-week group jaunt to Zimbabwe. We started small, with a close-to-home tour that began on a Sunday night and ended on a Tuesday morning.

Know what? We really did enjoy it. But we did our homework before we went, and that helped a lot.

Here are some things we did pre-tour, and one I shouldn’t have:

· We made sure that we were staying in a hotel we’d have chosen on our own. After you arrive is not the time to discover your hotel is a flea-trap in a red-light district. Fortunately, ours wasn’t.

· Ask dumb-sounding questions, such as “Do you have good water pressure there?” Why ask that, especially at a small hotel? Because on tour, everybody’s on the same schedule, which means most of them will hit the showers at the same time. It’s a bummer to bathe at 6 a.m. with cold water coming out of the showerhead drop by drop.

· Make sure the schedule matches yours. If you sleep till 10 every morning, and the group breakfast is served at 7, you’re going to be miserable.

· The itinerary also should allow you some down time. We had three walking tours in a row, one at 9 a.m., one at 10:30 a.m. and another after lunch. But we had a long sit-down meal, and time to rest before the beach barbecue that night. Even so, our tootsies would have appreciated a longer break.

· Conversely, if you have the chance, switch between types of activities. If you’re sitting on your duff being lectured in the morning, then go for a kayak tour or ping-pong competition in the afternoon. Otherwise, your scheduled evening stroll on the boardwalk may turn into a hobble.

· Make sure the prices you’re paying are, indeed, less than you’d pay if you were setting up the same activities on your own.

· Probably, you’ll be barraged with food. If you’re lucky, as we were, it will be marvelous. But it’s still different than your normal fare. So go easy. Don’t take that third skewer of shrimp or second piece of pie, even if it is included in the cost. Your tummy will thank you.

· And, for heaven’s sake, don’t do as I did and change purses right before the trip. It was plumb mortifying to hold up the line as I rummaged around for my pass in the 17 pockets that purse had suddenly sprouted. I must have looked like an aging bimbo as I smiled (aka grimaced) and apologized over and over.

So, go, go. Enjoy some group travel. If you plan ahead, it can work out to be more fun than you’d have had alone or as a couple. Trust us.

This column ran Sept. 18, 2003 in The Cambrian. And while we've only taken one other shared tour since then, we remain impressed with the concept.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Finding lost memory, digital style

I admit it — I’m a loser.

Not in the sense of not being good at my job or my life. I think I’m a good person. I’m also proud of being a community reporter and think I do it well … although I’ll never be in the same financial league as Oprah, J.K. Rowling or Rachael Ray, fersure.

I’m a loser because I lose things.

My car-key misplacing abilities are legendary. I’ll misfile crucial sheets of notes. I’ve put the portable phone in the freezer and the clean pillowcases by the phone stand. Fortunately, I didn’t put the ice cream in the linen closet. No, I left it sitting on the counter.

Just imagine the trouble my digital camera could give me.

Not the camera, itself, at least not yet. But have you taken a good look at the “film” for digital photography?

If I can lose a 5,000-pound mini-van in the parking lot or a 200-pound husband in our very own home, just imagine how fast I can mislay a miniscule digital-media disk.

I take some vitamins that are bigger than that!

Of course I never lose the old, slow, worn-out cards, oh no. It’s always the brand new, expensive, faster-than-the-speed-of-light disks that disappear.

It’s worst when I lose a card that I’ve just filled with photos during a crucial, never-to-be-repeated event.

On deadline.

To say that my bosses wouldn’t be very happy when that happens would be an understatement, like declaring that Mt. Everest is a sizeable hill.

And then there was a recent parade at Cambria's annual Pinedorado festival.

I’d taken with me a little case that holds backup AA batteries and a couple of spare photo cards. Digital media and pockets don’t get along, so I always have the case with me because it snaps right around my camera strap.

During the parade, I dashed up and down the street, taking pictures of floats and bands, little kids and clowns, just like I always do.

I think I log more miles than the marchers.

There were frustrations, too.

My Stetson flew off, and almost got crushed by a Clydesdale.

I missed some great shots because so many parade-watchers weren’t staying put, but were instead walking around, right in front of my lens. And I’m not tall enough to shoot over their heads.

I kept myself together, though, even when someone reached over and slapped a sticker-badge on my fringed, Western jacket and I couldn’t peel it off the suede.

Then I lost it. First the little case and the digital cards inside ... and then my cool, in part because there were wonderful parade pictures on one of those disks, I just knew it.

Husband Richard and I looked everywhere, obvious or not. We searched our van, gutters, trash cans. We asked everybody within a mile. We left “please call” notes all over town.

Eventually, photos from the other disks were used. Husband Richard ordered some expensive new digital cards. And I sulked.

But recently, I got around to taking my Western jacket to the dry cleaners so they could remove the stick-um from that doggone badge.

Did you know it costs more to clean that suede jacket than it would to replace it? Absurd.

As I flung the jacket back on the car seat in disgust, something thunked my knee. I reached into the pocket, rummaged around and surprise! I found the little case with the digital cards in it!

Sometime during the parade, I must have taken the case off my camera strap and stuck it in the fabric pocket of my jacket … not knowing that the pocket had a well-camouflaged hole in it.

As I scurried about taking photos, the lightweight little case must have slid down between the suede and the lining, ending up near the jacket’s already-bulky bottom hem.

Of course, I had checked the pockets way back when. But not the hem!

I suppose if I were more prone to wearing a fringed suede jacket around the house, I might have found the case and those three expensive photo cards much sooner.

But even months later, let me tell you, it’s a whole lot nicer to be a finder than a loser. I admit it.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribune