Culinary no-no #500

When I first met former MenomoneeFallsNOW blogger Karen Taubenheim, she made a comment I thought was odd. Many years ago then-MyCommunityNOW editor Mark Maley had convened a meeting of the community bloggers (Earlier this year they were all dropped). Once the meeting concluded, seated near the back of the room, Karen and I and other bloggers talked about our blogs and writing experiences following the meeting.

One young blogger, and forgive me I can’t remember who, told me that even though he rarely agreed with me, he enjoyed reading This Just In. A few other remarks were made, and then Taubenheim chimed in, smiling.

“I really like the culinary no-no’s.”

With raised eyebrows, I responded profoundly.

“You what?”

“I really like the culinary no-no’s.”

There was a definite echo in the room.

“You have got to be joking.”

Taubenheim also said she wished that I posted earlier in the day and hated waiting at times until Sunday night to read. Poor woman.

The weekly Sunday blog had only been around for a few months, so I was surprised to hear Taubenheim, whose work I enjoyed and respected, single out from all my work this feature that started out as a complete whim.

Father’s Day 2007, a beautiful summer day, I wrote about grilling brats. And eating brats. And topping those brats. I was inspired by my wife, Jennifer who, in my admittedly unscientific opinions, ruins brats by squirting…ketchup on them.

No no no. Eureka! We had a blog title.

Other dining taboos quickly came to mind. The original idea was to take this concept only a few months, till the end of summer and then pull the plug. There are more food blogs than stimulus dollars, but not that many (one?) that go the opposite direction.

Then the unexpected happened. People started reading Culinary no-no. Lots of folks. Why? To this day, I honestly don’t know, but this effort over the years has consistently been one of my most-widely read pieces.

And we blogged about all kinds of topics. Here’s a personal favorite.

Culinary no-no #100

Once a week she visited our 7th grade class. A sweet, charming, bubbly lady, she hailed originally from Cincinnati, but had an accent thicker than Scarlett O’Hara’s. Her mission: to groom a bunch of 13-year old kids.

Because after all, as she often drawled, “You wanna be nice, good lookin’ and clean all over, dontcha, huhhhhhhhh?????!!!!”

Manners. We had to learn and practice good manners.

As hysterical as this may sound to some of you,  I was an extremely good boy. To this day, I always try to be a perfect gentleman. I owe it all to that woman.

She hammered proper etiquette into us like a drill sergeant with a perpetual smile. Over and over and over and over and over again. Want another analogy? It was Vince Lombardi-like. Then came the real test, the time to execute.

Maybe she could sense that I was not an insensitive kid. Whatever the reason, when she issued an assignment pairing up a boy with a girl to put the grooming lessons into practice, I got matched with Sharon Clock.

Everyone in the 7th grade knew that I had a thing for Debbie Huck and vice versa since the 1st grade. Debbie was pretty, very smart and sweet, and built beyond her 7th grade status. Sharon Clock was short, dumpy, fat, and had a silver front tooth. Kids didn’t dislike her. They just pretty much ignored her.

Instead of Debbie Huck, for the next several weeks, I would shadow Sharon. I pulled out her chair. I held the door for her. I hung up her coat. I held her coat when she put it on. I carried her books. I talked nice to her.

“Is there anything else I can do for you, Sharon? Is there anything I can get you, Sharon? Do you have any other request before I kill myself, Sharon?”

When you’re in the 7th grade, you possess Superman-like peripheral vision and hearing. You can see and hear the smirks and laughter as you help Little Miss Fatty into her seat.

At a Friday afternoon in-classroom party, the occasion escapes me, other kids were spinning records and dancing and laughing and joking.

“Would you like to go hang out with other kids, Sharon?”

No, not really, Kevin.”

“Well, what do you wanna do?”

“Are you serious, Kevin?”

Her words echoed through my brain: “You wanna be nice, good lookin’ and clean all over, dontcha, huhhhhhhhh?????!!!!”

“Sure, Sharon.”

“I’d like to play chess.”

“Excuse me?”

“Chess. I want to play chess.”

It’s amazing how a 7th grader’s thoughts can quickly turn from good grooming to homicide in a matter of seconds. So we played chess, and I tried to ignore the 45’s blaring in the background, and the laughing, and the snickering.

This is a lengthy lead-up to the point that there are obvious differences between the sexes. That’s a very good thing. As such, in certain situations, the sexes should be treated differently. That, too, is a very good thing. This includes treatment at restaurants.

Since Fred Flintstone was ordering racks of ribs at outdoor diners, it has been customary that women and men are not served the same way.

Women get menus first.

Orders are taken from women first.

Women are presented their plates first.

Women get their plates cleared first.

Did you know that at most higher-end restaurants, software allows servers to make a note of the places at tables that dishes are going to and if the diner is female? For example, a server can punch in, “L” for “lady.”

Some upscale restaurants are moving away from gender-conscious treatment of patrons. Everybody’s the same. If a guy gets his steak served before the gal gets her broiled fish, is it cataclysmic? Of course not. I can and would argue it’s still wrong (You hear that, Mrs. Cincinnati, whoever you are?!).

One New York restaurant owner has informed staff to try to read tables to see if they’d care or not about the whole gender treatment deal. That’s pretty risky, if you ask me, especially at a time when restaurants are begging for every patron that comes through their doors. Most restaurateurs, I submit, must and should consider sex differences if they want to be successful.

NY Times dining writer Frank Bruni says these old ways could be considered, “chivalrous” or “chauvinistic.” How about, “proper?”

There’s more. Is it wrong for the proprietor of a fine dining establishment to take the female gender into consideration when designing menus, choosing the menu wording, selecting the color the dining rooms are painted, or setting the restaurant’s temperature?

Gender matters. Bruni of the NY Times concedes:

“I’m regularly struck by that difference when friends hit me up for restaurant recommendations.

Men rarely ask me about lighting. Women frequently do, wanting reassurance that it isn’t too bright.

Women more often ask if a menu has leaner, healthier options. Men more often ask if they can get a decent steak.”

The same holds true, Bruni writes, for restaurant décor:

“At the Greenwich Village restaurant Elettaria, where the bound linen dinner menu evokes a diary and elements of the décor bring to mind a dollhouse, I spotted more women than men.

At the Greenwich Village restaurant Cru, decorated in clubby brown tones and distinguished by a wine list that lets high rollers rack up breathtaking bills, I spotted more men than women.”

While women should be treated differently, they also should not get poorer service simply because they’re female.

Do they? You bet. But could that be because they’re their own worst enemies? Oh, yes.

They don’t spend as much, they yak and yak and yak and tie up a table, and they don’t tip as well as men. So what goes through a waiter or waitress’s mind when a group of 10 women get seated?

Bruni of the NY Times writes, “Although the goal in many public places and in much of public life is to treat men and women equally, most upscale restaurants haven’t reached that point.”


That’s a good thing.

Let’s keep it that way.
— February 22, 2009

Most no-no blogs were lighthearted, subjective posts. Others were quite serious. The most serious:

Culinary no-no #52
A woman dries mud cookies in the sun on the the roof of Fort Dimanche, once a prison, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Nov. 29, 2007.

Rising prices and food shortages are threatening Haiti’s fragile stability, and the mud cookies, made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening, are one of very few options the poorest people have to stave off hunger. Pregnant women and children have long prized the dirt as a rich source of calcium and an effective antacid, but for some in the country’s most desperate quarters, where thousands buckle under rising food prices and rampant unemployment, mud has become a daily staple. (Ariana Cubillos/ AP Photos )

Men are forced into a police truck after being detained for allegedly looting near the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, Wednesday, April 9, 2008. Haiti’s President Rene Preval is calling on Haitians to quit rioting over high food prices, and in his first public remarks since the unrest began last week, told Haitians that soaring food prices are a global phenomenon. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

From VOA (Voice of America):

As the price of oil rises, farmers are finding it more profitable to raise corn for ethanol, instead of for food.

According to the World Bank:

  • Since 2000, global food prices have increased 75% and wheat prices 200%.
  • The food crisis imperils 100 million people.
  • 36 countries are in a food crisis (Food and Agriculture Organization).
  •  A quarter of the U.S. corn crop (11% of world production) went into biofuels this year.

From the Washington Post:

The World Bank estimates that global food prices have risen 83 percent in the last three years. Hence, food riots in Haiti, Egypt and Ethiopia and the use of troops in Pakistan and Thailand to protect crops and storage centers. Many countries are banning or limiting food exports. World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick says that 33 countries are at risk of food-related upheaval. Famine may revisit North Korea, parts of Africa or, disastrously for U.S. foreign policy, Afghanistan.

To many, the villain is biofuels. U.S. and European ethanol programs, intended as an antidote to climate change and an alternative to OPEC oil, stand accused of snatching food from the world’s hungry. According to India’s finance minister, ethanol is “a crime against humanity.” And it is part of the problem. The more corn becomes ethanol, the less will be available as food for people and livestock. In the U.S. farm belt, heavy ethanol subsidies, such as a tax break of 51 cents a gallon, encourage the shift. These subsidies were already questionable, in economic terms, before the commodity crunch. That they might contribute to hardship for the world’s poor is another argument for reducing them.

From the New York Times:

Work by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington suggests that biofuel production accounts for a quarter to a third of the recent increase in global commodity prices. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicted late last year that biofuel production, assuming that current mandates continue, would increase food costs by 10 to 15 percent.

Many specialists in food policy consider government mandates for biofuels to be ill advised, agreeing that the diversion of crops like corn into fuel production has contributed to the higher prices.

Skeptics have long questioned the value of diverting food crops for fuel, and the grocery and live- stock industries vehemently opposed an energy bill last fall, arguing it was driving up costs.

A fifth of the nation’s corn crop is now used to brew ethanol for motor fuel, and as farmers have planted more corn, they have cut acreage of other crops, particularly soybeans. That, in turn, has contributed to a global shortfall of cooking oil.

From the Free Republic:

One factor being blamed for the price hikes is the use of government subsidies to promote the use of corn for ethanol production. An estimated 30% of America???s corn crop now goes to fuel, not food.

“I don’t think anybody knows precisely how much ethanol contributes to the run-up in food prices, but the contribution is clearly substantial,” a professor of applied economics and law at the University of Minnesota, C. Ford Runge, said. A study by a Washington think tank, the International Food Policy Research Institute, indicated that between a quarter and a third of the recent hike in commodities prices is attributable to biofuels.

From the Financial Post, April 8, 2008

Who caused the world food crisis?

We are now by all accounts in the midst of a global food crisis: key grain prices were up 40% to 130% in the last year, people are protesting and hardship is mounting. But it could soon be worse. Governments and agencies all over the world are gearing up for a global “New Deal” on agriculture policy to solve the food crisis, which means the people who brought us the food crisis are the same people who now want to fix it.

The World Bank reports that prices of staples have jumped 80% since 2005. The price of rice hit a 19-year high last month, and wheat rose to a 28-year high, twice the average price of the last 25 years. Factors behind the surge in prices are varied, including bad weather in some regions, soaring demand from growing populations, and US$100-a-barrel oil.

But no factor gets more consistent credit for food price turmoil than the international biofuels stampede. Spurred on by what can only be described as massive subsidies and supporting regulations, farmers all over the planet are giving up on food production and shifting to fuel production.

The biggest biofuels boosters are in the United States, Europe and Canada. In the U.S., the leading Democratic candidates are campaigning on even more aid for ethanol. Canada’s Conservative government, playing to the farm lobby and a coterie of rent-seeking corporations, has showered millions on the biofuels market. Regulations forcing consumers to convert to biofuel automobiles are in the works.
We are shoving corn into our gas tanks. In the process, we are taking food out of the mouths of people all over the world.

The effort to help beleaguered farmers has turned into a major worldwide crisis, all for a biofuel that has far more problems than benefits.

The time to stop ethanol fever is now.
—April 27, 2008

For me the most passionate blogs have been about behavior in restaurants that drives me bonkers: Extreme rudeness toward servers, dressing like bums (mostly a male violation), cellphone use, wearing hates, feet on seats/chairs.

i never thought we’d last this long, the big reason being we’d run out of ideas. Since that hasn’t happened, thank you for tagging along, and here comes a fresh new no-no to start the next 500!

Culinary #500

I’m borrowing from Culinary yes-yes blogs my wife wrote.

As part of her sixth birthday celebration in 2015, Jennifer and I took our little diva, Kyla  to a James Beard Award-winning, Milwaukee institution (since 1870), Watts Tea Shop…

Dressed in her finery (another birthday gift, a new Cinderella gown & “glass” slippers) she couldn’t wait to be seated and start her tea room adventure. Her one (and only) problem? Choosing a tea flavor. Ultimately she decided on peppermint, and truly enjoyed it.

Jennifer wasn’t about to miss their traditional afternoon tea, while I chose instead a tuna melt accompanied by a cup of Irish cheese soup. We were all delighted with our selections. Kyla’s Children’s Tea featured three kid-friendly tea sandwiches – ham, turkey, and PB&J, accompanied by a lovely fresh fruit assortment, and followed by a slice of their famous Sunshine Cake.

I adored this wonderful time with Kyla.

Can you tell?

We dined in a room filled with brides-to-be, theater goers, triple generations sharing special moments, and a few out-of-towners who didn’t want to miss an historic opportunity to have tea at Watts.

We returned one week later for Breakfast with Benjamin Bunny, a delicious breakfast and story with two famous guests: Benjamin Bunny and Jemima Puddleduck. A rendition of a Beatrix Potter tale was read and there were photo opportunities.


That’s Mrs. Watts reading to the kids.

A great time was had by all.



I’ve known Mrs. Watts and her late husband, George for many years, and supported Mr. Watts’ run for Governor in 1986. Super people.

Sadly, the family is closing the tea room at the end of the year, a stunning local restaurant story that even caught the attention of the NY Times.

Forget about reservations. They’re completely booked.

I never knew such a business decision could be heartbreaking.

Thank you, Watts family, and God bless you.


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