Old but not-a-papa john

I ordered Papa John’s Pizza tonight; it was kind of a milestone.

It’s the first time I’ve actually used my AARP membership.

AARP started sending me mailers on the day of my 50th birthday in 2010 (which is kind of scary, when you think about it too hard). I meant to join but never got around to it until a month or so ago. It doesn’t cost much, and you do get the discounts, and the magazine, and what have you.

Yes, I’m a pathetic old person.

The one discount mentioned to me by several out-of-town friends was that if you buy coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts and flash your AARP card, you get a free donut. But there’s no Dunkin’ Donuts in Shelbyville, and I don’t drink coffee.

But if you order online, AARP membership gives you 25 percent off at Papa John’s. That can’t be combined with any other sales or discounts, and in point of fact it’s probably not much cheaper than waiting for a good coupon or simply getting whatever pizza happens to be the current special.

But it’s the principle of the thing.

I ordered the “double cheeseburger pizza” that they’ve been advertising. It’s not bad, but it’s a little strange. (Dill pickles?) I think I may go back to a more traditional pizza next time, assuming I live that long. (Did I mention I’m a pathetic old person?)

a man for more seasons

My favorite type of chili to make is spicy Texas-style chili, without beans, either simmered for a long time or cooked in a pressure cooker to speed things up. Because of this, you want to either use coarsely-ground or “chili grind” beef, or beef cut into little half-inch cubes. I either use a variant of Alton Brown’s pressure cooker chili recipe or a product like Wick Fowler’s 3-Alarm Chili Kit. The Wick Fowler product used to have directions for a long-cooking preparation; those aren’t on the package any more, only the quick recipe with ground beef.

But I enjoy just about any type of chili, quick or slow, beans or no beans. Once in a while, a quick-cooked product will attract my attention and I’ll try it out, and it’s usually fine. The Tabasco sauce people make chili fixings in a jar – brown some ground beef, add the contents of the jar, and simmer just enough to heat through and wake up the flavor.

And (put your fingers in your ears, Texas friends) while I love making a good thick chili without beans, I don’t mind something like Wendy’s chili which has beans in it. And the beans are a healthy extender, with lots of fiber.

chilikitToday, while at Dollar General Market (the kind of Dollar General that has a full grocery store), I found something called a Hunt’s Chili Kit. It had a regular price of $2.75 but was marked down to $2.50. I had a pound of ground meat at home and figured I’d buy the Hunt’s kit to use with it. The chili kit is a box containing a full-size can of Hunt’s tomato sauce, a full-size can of Hunt’s diced tomatoes, a full-size can of Van Camp’s kidney beans, and a seasoning packet. None of the canned products is labeled as being “chili flavor” or “chili-seasoned” or “for chili” or anything like that, so none of them appears to have any sort of chili flavor built in. They are just the regular varieties of beans or tomatoes that you’d buy separately off the shelf.

The trouble is, I opened the box to look at the ingredients and found that it’s a very small seasoning packet – half the size of those packets of chili seasoning or taco meat seasoning you find in grocery stores. I don’t see how this packet could possibly have enough chili flavor for a pound of ground meat and the contents of those three big cans.

Even worse, I appear to be out of chili powder. I’m going to have to put off making the Hunt’s chili kit until I can have some chili powder standing by to augment the packet that was included.

a place of hope

I had a wonderful evening with some of my fellow American Cancer Society Relay For Life volunteers serving dinner and handing out gift bags at the Hope Lodge in Nashville.

Hope Lodge 1ACS operates a network of Hope Lodge facilities throughout the country. If you’re undergoing cancer treatment, and live more than an hour’s drive away, you and a caregiver can stay at Hope Lodge for free. For a city like Nashville with a lot of hospitals and university research, drawing in patients from a wide geographic area, that can be a godsend for those families, who are already stressed out physically, financially and emotionally. Officially, residents are responsible for their own meals, and there’s a roomy community kitchen on the ground floor with designated storage spaces for each room. (You can’t have food in the rooms, because of the sanitation and insect issues that would cause.) But community groups can volunteer to come in and cook dinner for the residents as a ministry, which is what we did tonight.

Hope Lodge 11

I say “we” as if I had a hand in the cooking. Mostly I was just underfoot, posting photos to Facebook and chatting with some of the patients and caregivers as if I was somebody.

A lot of the money raised by ACS goes to research; that’s as it should be. The more we can do to reduce mortality rates and improve quality of life, the better for everyone. But it means you’re sending your money off to something that’s kind of, well, impersonal. So I was excited when the Relay committee first started talking about a trip to Hope Lodge. I first saw it in 2011, when I came up to Nashville to write a story about it for the Times-Gazette. It’s a way for our volunteers to put faces to the money they’re raising.

This was a fun evening, and a moving one. The patients – and the caregivers, who are under a lot of stress themselves – were wonderful, and all were appreciative, even those who couldn’t or didn’t eat for one reason or another.

One man had driven up on short notice, with little chance to make arrangements, from south Mississippi for his treatment. He used his Android tablet to make a panoramic photo of all of our volunteers working at their various tasks, and was tickled to be able to share it to the Bedford County Relay For Life Facebook page.

We handed out gift bags with items that had been recommended by the ACS staff as potentially helpful or comforting – a sport water bottle, a crossword puzzle book, and so on. There were plenty of gift bags left over, and we left them to be given to any residents who we missed seeing or who check in in the coming days.

If your club or Sunday School class is looking for a project, you might want to look into going up and serving dinner at Hope Lodge.

Jimmy and the muppets

Here was how “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” ended its run Friday night:

In case you don’t know, there’s a connection between Jimmy and the Muppets, one I read about a couple of years ago and which Jimmy explained briefly Friday night. Many years ago, the Muppets were set to appear on the “Tonight Show” with Jack Paar. They had to be at 30 Rock quite early, for rehearsals or some such, and ended up with some time to kill. Jim Henson, Frank Oz and some others at one point ended up killing time by painting Muppet-like faces on some exposed pipes that were part of the building’s heating system. No one thought anything of it; they were just killing time.

The painted characters remained there for decades. When “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” was on, and Jimmy Fallon was a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” the pipes were in a closet in the dressing room used by Max Weinberg, then Conan’s bandleader. Jimmy saw them and was amazed, and he would bring friends and family to see them, an annoyance about which Weinberg was apparently good-natured.

When Jimmy took over “Late Night,” he wanted to see that the characters were preserved, and he got NBC to do some remodeling. Some walls were moved so that the pipes were no longer in anyone’s dressing room, and in fact they could be shown to the public as part of the 30 Rock tour. When Frank Oz appeared on the show, and Jimmy showed him the characters, he was moved to tears by the fact that they were still there after all these years.

I just think that’s a neat story.

Jimmy’s “Tonight Show” will be done in that same area of 30 Rock, in the same studio Jimmy used for most of his “Late Night” run. “Late Night” moved to a smaller studio a few months ago so that the larger one could be renovated and expanded for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” So the Muppets will continue to be Jimmy’s neighbors for a while to come.

monuments men

Last summer, my brother and sister-in-law here in Tennessee gave me a Regal Cinemas gift card for my birthday so that I could go see “Star Trek Into Darkness.” May was a crazy month, between symphony stuff and Relay For Life stuff, and I never got around to it. Being unattached, I don’t get out to the movies that often. When I had the time there wasn’t anything in the theater I wanted to see, and when there was something I wanted to see I could never find the time.

This month, however, I’ve been wanting to see “The Monuments Men.” I love the premise, I love the cast, and I’m a big admirer of “Good Night, And Good Luck,” an earlier fact-based movie directed and co-written by George Clooney. So today, I got away from work a little early (I have some stuff to cover this weekend) and drove to Tullahoma for the 3:50 p.m. screening.

I haven’t read any actual reviews of the movie yet, but I saw something last night that indicated some critics don’t like it. If that’s the case, I have to disagree with those critics. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Monuments Men.” I would go see it again if I had the chance.

While it’s based on real situations, and some of its characters are (renamed) versions of real people, I don’t know how accurate it is as blow-by-blow history. But as entertainment, for me anyway, it was a grand slam home run.

I suspect most of you know the basic premise, and the cast in various permutations have been blanketing various talk shows for the past couple of weeks, but in case you don’t know, the movie is set during World War II, primarily after the Normandy invasion, when all sides could see the writing on the wall but there was still a perilous journey to get there. The Nazis had been accumulating billions of dollars worth of priceless artworks from the countries they’d invaded and from the Jews in their own country. This artwork was intended to eventually be displayed in a massive “Fuhrer Museum” in Hitler’s home town.

With the end of the war looming, there are several dangers – that the Nazis might destroy the artifacts out of spite, that the Allies might bomb them accidentally, or that the Soviets might re-steal them and keep them for themselves, with the supposed moral justification of their heavy casualties.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) convinces FDR of the necessity to preserve these priceless cultural artifacts, even if it involves risk. The authorities aren’t convinced enough to commit much in the way of resources, but they allow Clooney to put together a team of experts, played by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin (“The Artist,” which I saw for the first time on Netflix just a few weeks ago), Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”). The men are a bit too old to be regular soldiers but gamely go through basic training and are dispatched to Europe. There, with the help of a young German-speaking soldier (played by Dimitri Leonidas, who’s gotten little mention but who’s terrific) and a cynical Frenchwoman (Cate Blanchett), they attempt to track down and preserve as much of the artwork as they can, returning it to its original owners if possible.

Some in the military to whom Clooney and his team turn for help see this as a ridiculous distraction and an insult to the brave young soldiers risking their lives around the world. But Clooney and his team passionately believe that the cultural identity of the conquered nations is one of the very things the Nazis had been trying to destroy – and therefore one of the very things that was most worth fighting for. They see themselves not simply as preserving dusty old works of art but as preserving part of what it means to be a human being.

I knew going in that this was part of the message of the movie and was afraid it would be driven home with a sledgehammer. Remember Clooney’s famously-arrogant Oscar speech, in which he seemed, on behalf of the entertainment industry, to take credit for every social advance of the past century? Even Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park,” who owed Clooney their careers, made fun of that speech as a dangerous “cloud of smug” which figured into the cataclysmic plot of one “South Park” episode.

But, no, while this movie has a message (and a good one), it works first and foremost as entertainment. The bravado of Clooney’s team and the relationships between various team members made me think of classic movie director Howard Hawks, who would probably have enjoyed this movie greatly. I particularly loved the Mutt-and-Jeff relationship between Bill Murray’s and Bob Balaban’s characters. I would watch a movie just about the two of them.

In fact, if the movie has a flaw, it’s that the cast is so big, with so many great actors, that you wish you could get to know some of the characters a little bit better, especially the two who leave the action before we get to the end.

I highly recommend this movie. I had a great time.

A short visit

I haven’t blogged about my trips to Learning Way Elementary in a few weeks; I continue to enjoy them, even more each week, but there just wasn’t anything out of the ordinary to share.

Today, I showed up and Ms. Aymett was out. The substitute didn’t really have anything for me to do. I played a game with four kids for a little while and then slipped out when it came time for the substitute to lead the whole class in something. I was only there for 15 minutes or so. But that’s OK; it’s all about what the class needs on any given day.

Today, what was needed was for me to get quietly out of the way.

Careful what you ask for

I noticed it had been a full week since my last blog post. I don’t usually like to go more than a few days, and so I knew I needed to write about something. I made a tongue-in-cheek Facebook post asking for a topic, and the first response was from my North Carolina sister-in-law, an English professor:

“Laundry. Or maybe that’s just me thinking about another exciting weekend.”

I actually might have done laundry today. By my normal schedule, I probably should have. I burned off a vacation day today, but it was largely unproductive. I did go for a nice long walk in the 50-degree weather, which was fine. I also finished doing my taxes online (I had started them a week or so ago but had to wait for one last figure). I decided to wait and push the laundry forward one more day.

It’s going to be a nice quiet weekend, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I have no specific Super Bowl plans at present. Last weekend was busy with JournCamp, and next weekend will be busy as well – the 8th will be my Saturday to cover weekend events for the newspaper, plus I’ll be going with a Relay For Life group to fix dinner at Hope Lodge on the 9th, a week from Sunday. So it’s OK to relax a bit this weekend.

I may, just for the heck of it, drive to Tullahoma tomorrow and use a Chick-fil-A gift card that’s been burning a hole in my pocket since Christmas. Or I may save that for some other time. I want to see “Monuments Men” and I have an unused Regal Cinemas gift certificate from my birthday last summer (which shows you how much I’ve been to the movies lately). I could wait and use the Chik-fil-A card in a week or two, whenever I get the chance to see “Monuments Men” in Tullahoma. Then again, the movie ticket gift card is large enough that I could just get a hot dog from the concession stand for dinner that night. So maybe I’ll do the Chick-fil-A on its own after all.

Roast beef friday

A few days ago, I was responding to a post on Facebook – not even a friend’s post; a commercial post, from Kroger – and I recalled the wonderful Cook’s Illustrated / America’s Test Kitchen recipe for eye of round. I got to thinking that I hadn’t made that eye of round in ages. So I went to the grocery store yesterday – Kroger, no less – and eye of round was on sale.

Well played, Kroger.

I can’t link to the actual recipe because it’s behind a paywall. But here’s a blogger who reviewed it, and I’ll give you some of the high points. Eye of round is more expensive than pot roast cuts but usually less expensive than fancy oven roasts. But you have to treat it well in order to get it to turn out well as an oven roast. The ATK recipe involves coating it liberally with kosher salt and then wrapping it in plastic for 24 hours. It looks like too much salt, but it gets distributed throughout the meat and helps tenderize and flavor it.

Then, you sear it in a hot cast-iron skillet, to give you the lovely brown crust, before putting it in a very low and slow oven. (I should have added pepper before searing but forgot.) There are some times in the recipe but they suggest, because of the nature of it, that you go by probe thermometer instead of by the clock. I’m talking about the kind of thermometer where you put the probe in the meat but the digital readout sits outside the oven, attached by magnet to the oven door. You cook the meat slowly until it reaches 115 degrees (if you want to wind up medium rare) or 125 (if your final destination is medium). Then, then you turn the oven off, without opening the door, and let it sit in the oven. The carryover heat should get you an extra 15 degrees, which is 130 for a nice medium rare or 140 for medium. You slice very thinly, against the grain, and it tastes like a much more expensive roast than it really is. Medium rare is the way to go.

The roast is in the oven right now. Of course, I knew there was a lot of browned goodness in the cast iron skillet I used for searing, so I deglazed the skillet with a little water and am using the water to make rice in my rice cooker. The rice will help tide me over until the beef is done, since that will take a couple of hours. When your’re cooking for yourself, it doesn’t all have to get done at once.

I’ll have a few wonderful hot slices tonight, but it will also be quite good cold in the next few days.

the folksmen

The current movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” is set during the folk music boom of the early 1960s; as I understand it, it’s a drama, although no doubt suffused with that special quirkiness that only the Coen brothers can supply.

But the publicity surrounding “Inside Llewyn Davis,” as well as the return of the Jane Lynch-hosted “Hollywood Game Night,” has me thinking about one of my favorite comedies, the great Christopher Guest mockumentary “A Mighty Wind.”

“A Mighty Wind” is set in the modern day but references the folk era. A manager of numerous folk-era acts passes away, and the family decides to stage a tribute concert for public television, bringing together three of the late manager’s most-famous acts. Two of those three groups haven’t performed together in many years.

“The Folksmen” (Guest himself, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) are in the mold of the Kingston Trio or the Chad Mitchell Trio. You may notice that The Folksmen are played by the same three actors from “This Is Spinal Tap,” which – while directed by Rob Reiner – was the template from which Guest fashioned his own mockumentaries. Guest, Shearer and McKean had created the characters before the movie, and in fact the Folksmen were the opening act for one of those real-life Spinal Tap concert tours. They were sometimes booed by audience members who didn’t realize that they were actually the members of Spinal Tap in different costumes.

“The New Main Street Singers,” a nine-member group including characters played by Lynch, Paul Dooley, John Michael Higgins and Parker Posey, are a parody of the New Christy Minstrels and other aggressively-upbeat ensembles. (One of the Folksmen derisively refers to them as “a toothpaste commercial.”) Unlike the other two acts, the New Main Street Singers have been performing through the decades, albeit with a constantly-changing lineup. (Dooley’s character is the only original member left, and he’s portrayed as being somewhat disengaged.) Lynch and Higgins are hysterical as the husband and wife now leading the group, who have their own somewhat unconventional metaphysical views.

“Mitch and Mickey” – played by SCTV alumni Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy – were a married couple during their folk-era heyday, but had an acrimonious divorce which landed Mitch in a mental hospital, from which he’s emerged as a bit of a burnout. Mickey is now happily married and out of show business. Their signature tune from back in the day included a kiss between the two of them at a critical moment, and no one is sure how they’re going to handle that moment in their reunion performance, or even if they’ll be able to make it that far given the bad blood between them. Levy was Guest’s collaborator in creating characters and situations for all of his mockumentaries, and he is nothing short of brilliant as a performer in this one.

The mockumentary moves back and forth among the three groups as they prepare for the big night, and various other characters. Fred Willard is hysterical as a smarmy TV star-turned-publicist who is trying to promote the concert.

Bob Balaban plays the concert’s producer, the nervous-nelly son of the deceased manager, and he’s very funny as well.

Everything builds to the climactic concert, during which one of the key players suddenly disappears. It’s very funny stuff, and the music (written by the cast!) is great, functioning as both parody of, and tribute to, the folk era. We used to listen to my parents’ Chad Mitchell Trio album every Saturday when I was growing up, and I have my own copy on CD.

A wonderful movie, definitely worth checking out.