Another submission to Friday Fictioneers: Roasted Wood Gnome
Photo copyright: Madison Woods
While hunting for mushrooms recently, I came across an unusual specimen: the Wood Gnome. A rare gastro-gnomic delicacy, the small creature was hunted nearly to extinction by German foresters; Wood Gnomes came to the New World along with other unsavory immigrants: pox, diphtheria and the Welsh*. French fur trappers made Quebec famous for its gnome fur exports. (It takes several thousand gnomes to make a decent coat.) To prepare, simply remove lederhosen, wash gnome thoroughly and skin before spitting and roasting over hickory fire embers. Gnome is done when the tiny nose pops. Sprinkle with gruyere and serve.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Please, no hate mail from the Welsh. It just sounded funny to me.
Picture courtesy of FreeDigitalPhoto.Net/praisaeng
Sometimes, life just is one big, flaming bag of poop. This is probably not a traditional start for a food review, but it is an appropriate one.
* * *
In search of experience as a food critic, I have finally run up against the burning question which every Culinary Columbo must face: “Is it right to totally tank a restaurant’s reputation because of a bad day?” I’ll let you be the judge.
Following a whirlwind vacation in Chicagoland, I decided I need to do my bit for local tourism. So, Friday ,I took take my very special guy downtown for lunch. It was only after getting on Monroe Street that I discovered construction has turned the downtown area into an M.C. Escher nightmare. Streets went nowhere or suddenly became one-way in the opposite direction. (I am fairly certain I drove up the side of a building at one point.) Eventually I nudged my flame-red Toyota Echo into the perfect parking spot on Monroe Center, chortling at my good fortune.*
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/Stuart Miles
I filled my pocket with quarters for the meter and then got distracted by the effort of coordinating my date—who will eat nothing at a restaurant that isn’t covered in syrup served with a side of bacon—and his haversack of emergency snack food**, and as a result, I entered the nearest restaurant without performing that one task that, if forgotten, can turn your sunshiny day upside down in the blink of an eye.
This is the part of the food review where I am supposed to wax poetic on the innovative use of space, the side of the room which housed a wall of no doubt, high-end wines in their impressive angular, shoebox-sized cubbies and the other side which was part deli, part corner store rummage sale. I ought to be waxing about the novel, handwritten artsy signs which made trying to read with bifocals the pretty, but distant, menu an exercise in near-sighted humiliation: “Do you have this printed anywhere in Pica 16 I can hold two inches from my nose?” Instead I will raise a pointed question: “If one, hypothetically, bites down on something and a tooth goes ‘crunch’ on un-chewable matter, is one obligated to inform the restaurant their food is booby-trapped?”
Now, in my opinion, that answer is a resounding, ‘Yes’. I was happily masticating my very delicious salad when I heard a horrifying sound reverberate through my skull—a sound which I can only image is what glass sounds like when it goes through a trash compactor. Now, I like hyperbole as much as the next girl, but let me tell you I am not kidding when I say I was entirely surprised that, when I spat that mouthful into my napkin, that there wasn’t a sparkling diamond and/or a trail of bloody spittle following.
I dithered, as I checked my mouth for open wounds and picked whatever rock-like thing it was I’d gnashed with overly fragile molars. Should I tell the management the salad bites back? Should I just finish up and leave? Then I came up with what looked like a large-sized grain of something hard. Possibly a piece of my tooth, possibly whatever it was I’d bit down on. I decided this was worth informing someone.
This is the point of the story that gets kind of disgusting—but only to people who actually expect the restaurant to care whether they are serving sanitary, safe food. I went to the counter where I was met by a suspicious and hostile clerk who interrupted my explanation to go get a manager.
A young lady came over and asked what happened. I explained that I bit down on something in the salad and I showed her the piece of whatever it was—no doubt gifting her with my molar dna to replicate later, in private, for her alien overlords. She asked, “So, was it something plastic?” I whispered, as if I was afraid the health inspector had bugged the joint, “It sounded like glass.”
I heard the following when she walked back to the food counter to determine what it was I’d been served (paraphrased since I was ten feet away):
“What was it she ate?”
“A mixed salad with a lot of different ingredients.”
(Inaudible muttering which I took to be the decision that I was a con-artist who no doubt had eaten 90% of my meal and then complained in order to get my lunch for free.)
“…It wouldn’t be worth the trouble to go through everything.”
This last sentence I heard very clearly. They weren’t going to bother to check the food that, while delicious, apparently was working on commission for the tooth fairy.
I objected when the manager offered me a refund. “I don’t want a refund. I enjoyed the salad, it was delightful, right up until I broke a crown.”
Another underling came over and retrieved my credit card, when I protested again that I didn’t want a refund, he said, “No, my manager insists you get one.”
The thing is…they took my salad away. They took the bite I spit out away. It wasn’t until afterward that it occurred to me they wanted the evidence. They were apparently concerned about a frivolous, or fictitious, lawsuit. Perhaps the manager apologized at the time, but what I felt most of all when I left the restaurant was a burning embarrassment. That I was treated as if I was a plague upon their establishment. “The one who dared complain.”
Leaving the place, red-faced and feeling like I was somehow at fault for trying to prevent a rash of tooth-related catastrophies, I was confronted by the final inequity: a parking ticket slapped on my windshield. My free lunch had cost me more than my dignity. It also cost me the absentminded-parent penalty tax.
So, I have decided that, as a food critic, I will refrain from judging a place based on an isolated incident. It might have been an overlooked stone in my lettuce. It might be that my dental hygiene has slipped and I need my enamel checked. I won’t name the restaurant. I will say, however, that treating a customer as if they were to blame for faults with your food pretty much guarantees you are not getting a four-star review. The nicest thing I can do is to omit naming the place and simply advise you to chew with caution at deli’s located on Monroe Center between numbers 56 and 58…oh, and don’t forget to feed the meter.
Now, you tell me, what would you have done? Please comment below. Thank you.
Okay, I am not sure this is how you are supposed to create a link to someone else’s work. But I admired this poem so much, I decided to claim it’s brilliance, if briefly, and share it with you. This is a work adapted and written by Helen Midgley. If you ever forget what poetry is supposed to be, besides an exercise in novel rhyme schemes, this shows you how it’s supposed to be done and makes it look easy.
There is a house, hemmed by hundred-year-old forests. It sits wedged at the crack where the mountain and the trees argue about property lines; each takes a small step here or there, reclaiming what was lost. The crenellated highway cuts through and, playing referee, takes no sides. From the uppermost window you could see traffic zoom by. Only birds know this was once a palace of an impoverished people. Zigzag stairs dash haphazard footpaths—dizzying, transitory indecision leading nowhere. And flower pots wait at the end of the world for owners who are never coming home.
Some days all you need to clear your head is to drop a really heavy rock on your foot. Or several.
* * *
Summer only half-way over, I sorely needed rejuvenation. I signed my son up for a week of overnight camp. (Cue the Hallelujah Chorus.) I looked forward to this vacation with all the desperation of a convict ticking off the days to parole. The minute he was abandoned left at camp, I took off to Mackinac Island for two days of renewal. It was glorious, even with the influx of international sailors celebrating their arrival following a weekend racing from Chicago-to-Mackinac Island. (And by ‘celebrating’ I mean consuming enough rum to float their boats back home.) Later, I would have my own celebration on the rocks—just not the kind floating in alcohol.
In search of serenity, I biked up hills, some so steep I found myself getting off and walking rather than popping a lung attempting to peddle. I navigated the 8.3 mile circumference of the island, stopping to take pictures for families and ordering people to ‘smile like you mean it’. I was caught in a downpour and laughed while my glasses became kaleidoscopes of raindrops I couldn’t wipe off because nothing left was dry. Biking the island was so freeing; it felt like finally breathing deep after a lifetime hyperventilating. And everywhere I went, I saw cairns, piles of stones that could have been there for centuries or be gone in seconds, monuments to timeless impermanence.
Cairns encircle the island like unwieldy beads on an invisible string—representative of the human impulse to leave a sign saying: ‘Killroy was here’. Some people went for a minimalistic approach: three rocks tiered like granite layer cakes. Others incorporated driftwood or multiple towers, improbably balanced. They made tempting targets. Children delighted in hurling smaller rocks at the delicate structures and shrieked with glee whenever one toppled. I watched a father and son build their perfect stone fortress and, when asked ‘what was his inspiration’, the man joked he had been thinking of a sandwich he dreamed about. Apparently all that hard work builds an appetite. After contemplating the universe in piles of stone, I decided that I needed to construct one of my own.*
Building a cairn takes a lot of patience, perseverance and, apparently, steel-toed shoes. First, I carefully selected my ‘perfect rocks’. I came up with the rule that I wouldn’t destroy someone else’s tower for materials. It would be like peeling the gold leaf off Madonna’s** halo—just not done. I also decided to build it at the edge of the water—symbolic of nothing more than the fact I didn’t want it in easy reach of kids with projectile weapons. Heaving rocks from their various loci, I waddled over and chucked them down to the growing pile near the water’s edge below. I loved the cracking sound the rocks made as they hit the giant boulders left behind the last ice age. I should have thought about how much force one of those heavy rocks had to make the gunshot cracking sound when only tossed from about five feet. But I was never good at physics. Materials compiled, I set out to create an outer structure that encapsulated the inner peace my trip had brought me. Cue the irony.
My first attempt involved the brilliant decision to build a bridge between two large boulders abutting the water. They were far enough apart to make this a challenge. Stack, nudge, stack….splash. Repeat. No matter how I stacked them, the rocks did not want to obey. I frowned. “Hmm, maybe I need a bigger rock?” This is one of those thoughts that should be accompanied by scary music. Duh Duh DUH!
For my second attempt, I climbed back up and scoured the area until I found a nice, long, I-could-barely-lift-it specimen. I can still feel the gritty edges as I tentatively pulled it up. (Tentative due to the overabundance of spiders on the island.) Once I huffed and puffed my way back, I tossed it down to the pile. It made an ominous ‘THWACK’ as it hit the rocky shore. The stones beneath squealed in protest…or warning.
I merrily scurried back to building my fortress of solitude and reflection. I got one, two, three rocks in place. I precariously balanced my new-found ledge on top just like a toddler might place a heavy book on tiny blocks. It wobbled a bit, but then settled. I grabbed my next two questionably-stackable objects and attempted the second story walls. And this is when the drum roll you can all hear but I am oblivious to crescendos. I place one rock. (Audience holds breath.) I place the second rock. (Still holding.) The tower threatens but does not fall. I consider grabbing my camera, but I decide to place just one…more…rock. Lifting the almost-perfectly-flat slab, I gently place it like a leaf floating on water…and CRASH. You’ve never seen such a rock slide. I scrambled to get out of its way. I almost made it.
Before you imagine fountains of gushing blood, chill. It missed me. Most of me anyway. My fortress of serenity did try to smash my left foot. The big toe trembled in shock, counted its tinier neighbors to make sure everyone was all right, then declared itself fit for duty. My toes are awesome that way. It was about now that my tranquility was sorely tested. I gritted my teeth, promising: “I will build my tribute to serenity if it kills me.”
After several disastrous attempts—a few requiring water rescues—I started to question how necessary this was to my mental health. Staring at the uncooperative materials, I was struck by how easy it is to fold in the face of failure. (Cue sappy, introspective music. Probably something by Yanni***.) I give up too easily. It is rare that I look at an obstacle-laden path and say, “Yep. This is the road for me.” I recently watched a young woman tackle an impossible course on a program called American Ninja. If you haven’t seen this, you really should, Kacy Katanzaro’s performance is sheer poetry of motion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfZFuw7a13E. Faced with my own challenge, I admitted that, while I will never conquer mountains, perhaps I shouldn’t give up on building my molehills before I give it my very best effort.
Arms trembling and toes quivering, I constructed my Zen Temple to reflect inner peace. True to the nature of the subject, it was finely balanced, fragile and not expected to last. I managed a few photos, all the while wondering if a stiff breeze would tumble my edifice, burying me under a concrete-hard layer of hubris. But no, I climbed back up the hill, pausing for one glance back, appreciating the calm I managed to achieve despite the setbacks. It was a good moment. I walked away, knowing such moments are not meant to last. Someone or something would come along and destroy my symbolic peace, but, for once, I was okay with that. That which is torn down can always be rebuilt.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
* Because who doesn’t want to climb around on hairy, slimy rocks lugging very heavy stones?
**By the way, this is a biblical reference—not a ‘like a virgin’ one.
***No offense meant. I actually like Yanni. But he does have a spectacularly silly first name.