Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Nuts Allergy and The Restaurant

The Critical Mom is very allergic to nuts--the siren-whirling, ambulance-calling kind of allergy, and one that's often easy to deal with in large American cities, where nut-free zones have become popular. But tonight when my husband took me out to dinner for my birthday to the cute little Italian place--oh, it reminded me of the village! It reminded me of Bleeker Street!--I ended up in a bad situation. No hospital this time--two spoonfuls into my tartufo, I realized I'd eaten something with nuts. My tongue itched and saliva was pouring into my mouth. If you were a pediatrician and you'd taken my blood pressure you'd think it was fine--a regular internist would have blanched and hoped it wouldn't drop. 
The spaghetti alla vongole proved delicious: filled with fresh parsley, juicy little clams, and some elegantly garlicky olive oil. The waiter did not approve when I added cheese, and looked as though he might faint when I drank Lambrusco. He actually told me, after I'd finished, that one didn't drink sweet wines with fish, and that one never put cheese on fish. I laughed. 
I wonder if dessert was revenge. 
I did ask whether the tartufo had nuts. He said no. I should have told him to ask the cook. I did ask, "Do you make it here?" and impatiently he repeated, "I'm sure it has no nuts!" In other words he did not really answer. Two bites in, I felt the familiar symptoms and I wondered how long they'd last. I'm sitting home typing now, an hour after the incident, and the salivation has stopped but I still feel faint and my skin itches, slightly. My mouth is very dry, despite two glasses of water and a cup of peppermint tea. I won't feel normal before morning. When I'll still be slightly weak, and need two coffees.
The waiter noticed I'd stopped eating my tartufo. What was going on, he wanted to know? I said there were nuts in the dessert.
"Catastrophe!" he said, as if he didn't believe me. Then he asked the cook and I heard her say, "Yes, little pieces."
Waiters, cooks, restaurant owners--ye who serve desserts in Northwestern Europe: please find out whether your desserts have nuts. Advertise nut-free zones. Business may pick up. And personally, I'd be very grateful.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Good Grains and the Critical Mom

Our German friends used to tell us only two starches would work at any well-rounded meal: parboiled white rice or potatoes. Or bread. But I go to all the places the German ladies don't go. When we lived in Bavaria, I always shopped at Norma, the supermarket that had the freshest vegetables. A German friend, unwilling to mingle with non-Bavarians (she made an exception for me) would only go to Tengelmann, which has more expensive vegetables and classier butter. My husband and I got a kick out of revealing to her that all the vegetable dishes at her favorite Italian restaurant came from Norma: we'd seen the chef there buying in bulk. She continued to order the same dishes at the Italian place, but has yet to stick a toe in Norma.
If she comes to visit, I'm going to drag her to the local Turkish grocery, where you can buy four or five different kinds of bulgur.  And here's how you cook this affordable and highly nutritious grain:

(1) Rinse portion (a large coffee mug full will suffice for two adults) in a sieve briefly. Drain. Set aside. Heat olive oil--about two tablespoons--in a pan on the stove. Dice onions--garlic, too--peppers, if you're feeling adventurous--and sauté for a bit; when the onions are transparent and the peppers soft, add the bulgur and stir, toasting it lightly. Meanwhile, boil water and pour a mugful or two of instant chicken broth into the bulgur. A bit more if you like. Lower heat. Stir. Eat when soft, and when all the water is absorbed. You can also add frozen peas to this. 

(2) And here's another great, affordable grain: Kasha, or buckwheat groats. If you're lucky, you might find these in the bio section of Edeka--otherwise, try the local Russian supermarket. Kasha can be cooked like rice: approximately double the water to the Kasha. I don't rinse Kasha, though I do rinse bulgur and rice. Cooking method:

Put the Kasha in a pot; add a bit of salt, and pour twice the amount of boiling water in. Stir and let boil, then lower heat and stir and simmer until all water is absorbed. You can have this very plain, adding a little butter, or you can sauté onions and peppers on the side and put them in later. You can also melt a slice of Gouda cheese or Cheddar cheese over bulgur or kasha for a healthy, delicious, and most inexpensive meal.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Scamming The Critical Mom

We almost fell for one scam geared to academics: calls for papers from an international journal . . . until we happened to see the email address, a private one somewhere not in the U.S. Then there's the indefatigable "Microsoft" man, the one who pronounces his supposed company "Mick-ro-soft," as if he knew perfectly well he were slipping me a mickey: if I'd just drink in his words and follow his advice, as did, alas, an elderly friend, he'd ruin my computer for me. I just got a new scam today, claiming to be from HSBC Hong Kong--but with an email address in Russia, and since the lady in question is not, in my considered opinion, employed by that estimable bank, I'm going to reprint her message here in full, entirely without her permission, and throw in a free English lesson as well:

I am Ms Donna Kwok, HSBC Hong Kong, head of corporate sustainability Asia pacific region. A sum of USD$21,300,000.00 Million was deposited by our Late customer who died without declaring any next of kin before his death in 2006.My suggestion to you is to stand as the next of kin to Fadel Ahmed.We shall share in the ratio of 50% for me, 50% for you.if interested please email:

Donna Kwok.

Ms. Kwok, pick a name that doesn't sound like "quack," for starters. About that  

head of corporate sustainability Asia pacific region

The guy or the gal who is really in that position thinks very highly of him or herself, and would capitalize his or her title: Head of Corporate Sustainability. In order to emphasize the importance of the title, they'd also put the second part of it on its very own line, capitalizing all:

Asia Pacific Region

It's "your late customer," not "your Late customer," but no bank would ever use such a phrase. Why don't you go look at real letters that real banks write? Do a little research, I always tell my students, before you write that term paper. 

I'm going to let you find the other errors in your message, which at the moment gets a grade of F, but if you fix all the errors and throw in a little imagination you might even get a B from me.

And Ms. Kwok, if you're really out there, do yourself a favor and buy the following books:

Strunk&White, The Elements of Style:

Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed:

Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing and Life:

The first will prevent you from making really dumb mistakes in grammar that reveal you as a quack before your message does. The second will help you to learn to write perfect sentences. The third will, I very much hope, inspire you to write something better than that  silly email. My God, Ms. Kwok, if you've got brain enough to write that, you've got brain enough to write something better. Why don't you write about your life--how did a nice girl like you end up scamming Western Europe instead of writing her memoirs?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Schwarzfahrer: The Criminal Critical Mom

 So I forgot my monthly tram ticket. In my town, you don't stick your card in a slot to get through a turnstile, the way you do in New York. You buy a ticket that you leave in your wallet all month, unless an official from the local transportation authority appears with a gadget and an identity card and demands to see your monthly pass. 
Once upon a time about a year ago, I forgot to buy one until I was three days into the next month. Actually, this has happened more than once. This has happened, if I remember correctly, three or four times. I always buy a ticket, and usually I buy the next month's ticket in the last week of the month. But as I say, I forgot to buy the thing soon enough on a very few occasions. 
The first time I got caught I barely spoke a word of German, so that I did not understand the man when he said there would be no fine, but that I just had to go buy my ticket. But the Germans . . .  they keep records. He took my name and address. The second time, months after the fact, I actually had a ticket, but I'd left my wallet at home during an altercation with a child who either did not want to wear a jacket in sub-zero weather or who could not find a musical instrument. This time I'd forgotten that I'd forgotten my ticket. Only during the minute when I was searching for my wallet in my bag, the indignant official tapping his foot impatiently, did I see, in my mind's eye, my orange wallet lying on the bottom step of the stairs, where I, at that very nanosecond, realized had left it--and where I found it when I got home--later than usual--as a result of my altercation with the official. 
That's when I had to go to the authorities, get a finger-wagging lecture, and pay for my next month's ticket right in front of them, sofort! instead of buying it from the machine at my stop, as I normally do, for convenience. 
Ah, but there was a third time, you see, during another altercation about Where Is My Sweater or I Can't Find Any Underwear! And that time, I had to pay a fine. A large fine. 
Just a few weeks ago, I was on the tram again when I realized that I'd left my wallet on the stairs again. This time I can only blame myself--I hadn't had more than four hours of sleep. Along came the official and I thought I Just Cannot Do This Again Because They'll Ask Me To Pay A Figure In Three Digits Which Is The Cost of Four Months Of Cards.
I had my card at home, remember. My legitimate card.
"May I see your ticket?" said the spider to the fly.
"I'm so sorry," I explained, "I left it at home with my wallet." Which was perfectly true. So I had to exit the train, at a stop not too excruciatingly distant from my own, and I was asked to give my name. Which I have always done in the past. This time, what came out of my mouth was:
(1) The first name of the last person I had spoken to at work that day 
(2) The last name of the first Austrian novelist who popped into my head. Why? Because I went to graduate school with a person who also happened to have that name.

I gave as my address something vaguely in the same street, but well, not exactly mine. The thing that tripped me up was my birthday. Even though I know that thirty days hath September, April, June, and November . . . . you get the picture. Rattled by the thought that Zeus would fling a thunderbolt at me for lying, I gave a date that does not exist, and fluttered off some explanation with the checker, who spoke German as well as I do--almost not at all.  I tottered away with my piece of paper:  my fictitious counterpart had two weeks in which to pay. Somehow, that person has not showed up. 
When I got home, I scooped up the wallet that was cooling its heels on the stairs, took out my monthly ticket, kissed it and promised I'd never forget it again. Then I discussed the matter with my boys, one of whom has used exactly the same technique and worried about doing so in exactly the same way: his card was at the bottom of his bag, but he thought he'd left it at home. The other kid is sure they're coming after me. Brrrrr.

In these times, you should watch this classic film that is nominally, but not exactly, about being a Schwarzfahrer: