I remember when food was fun

An An American family having Thanksgiving dinner in 1962

When I was a kid, Mom occasionally fixed us something for dinner called “city chicken legs.” We Honey kids thought this was a real treat. It was some kind of tasty meat on a stick, breaded and fried. They were like meat popsicles.
Come to find out city chicken was a low-cost alternative to real chicken, made from ground-up pork and/or veal. Also called mock chicken, it got popular among working-class homes during the Depression in urban areas like Pittsburgh, where apparently it’s undergone something of a revival, and Detroit, where no doubt Mom picked it up from Grandma, who pretty much lived in the kitchen.
These days city chicken may be making a comeback as a sort of alt-farm-to-table delicacy among urban foodies. But back in the late Fifties I didn’t care a whit about what it was made of, and certainly not whether it was any good for me. It just tasted great on a Friday night, right next to the margarine-drenched mashed potatoes and canned cream corn.

city chickenIf I were to consider buying city chicken today, I guarantee you I’d be in the grocery aisle for 10 minutes examining the list of ingredients, fat/sodium content and whether or not the responsible animal was humanely raised and killed. Then I’d probably put it back in the case because you just can’t be sure these days. Back home I’d search on “city chicken humane E. coli FDA” to see if it was medically and ethically OK to eat.
Which is all well and good. Recently I actually did do a search on an organic chicken brand to see if it was as humanely and safely raised/killed as it claimed. Advised otherwise by an organic food-business friend, I am now eating an Amish variety. Surely they wouldn’t lie to me.
But even though I feel slightly better about my chicken now, it’s a pitifully small gain. What about the 500 pounds of cereal I eat each year, based on not much more than a Seinfeldian preference for grains shaped like an “o”? What about that non-fat French vanilla creamer I dump into my coffee each morning? When I look at how it hardens on a spoon, I can hardly be confident in what it’s doing to my stomach.
And what about the salmon I fix Andrea for Sunday dinner? I always buy “wild-caught” because “farm-raised” sounds like it came from a swamp. But when they’re being wild-caught, how many innocent fish are being killed, and how many more salmon can spawn until they’re all gone? Wouldn’t it be more ecologically responsible to eat the swamp-raised ones?
And the eggs! Oh heavens, the eggs. Used to be they were the source of all heart attacks. Now supposedly you can eat all you want – just as long as they’re from free-range, uncaged, vegetarian-fed chickens who get nights off to meditate. And soybeans! Back when Adele Davis was pushing brown rice and tofu, soybeans would save the world along with rock ‘n’ roll and communal living. Now they’re just another baddy of the corporate-GMO complex, and could cause you to break out in acne.
I am not pro-GMO, mind you (that’s genetically modified organisms, which sounds much creepier than GMO). The government just approved a kind of genetically-modified apple that prevents browning when sliced or bruised. Really? I wonder how much money went into developing this apple, and then for government researchers to study it, when all I do is slice off the brown part. End of story.
And oh by the way, now a national dietary advisory panel reports that cholesterol-high food being bad for the heart is a myth, and that what we really need to worry about is too much sugar (i.e., the French vanilla creamer). Except that critics call their
recommendations “a farce” and that if we follow them we will die. Nice. I’m sure that with enough time online I can figure out who’s right.
But yes, I really am eating better now that Andrea has educated me to the virtues of organics and the evils of GMOs. Still. Eating was a lot more fun when I didn’t have to weigh the non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free, really and truly organic factors against the other consideration: Does it taste good?
Ah well. City chicken sure tasted good while it lasted.

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1965: the best year in rock radio, ever

Taking us eight miles high: the Byrds

Taking us eight miles high: the Byrds

In the fall of 1965 I was an invalid. I injured my back playing football in the backyard and spent the next three months in a body cast, encased chest to knees in mummifying plaster. Don’t ask about the details. Suffice to say I was mostly immobilized, and spent long afternoons flat on my back, thinking about sports and girls and listening to the radio.

Thank God for that radio. Through that tinny little transistor I was helped through those tedious days by the Beatles, the Stones, the Supremes and my first sweetheart, Petula Clark.

From October through November, the top Billboard 100 singles were “Yesterday,” “Get Off My Cloud” and “I Hear a Symphony.” Phew. That’s just two months. The year began with “I Feel Fine” atop the charts – the first of five No. 1 Beatles hits that year – quickly followed by “Come See About Me” and “Downtown.” The year ended with “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds and “Over and Over” by the Dave Clark Five.
In between you had “Help Me, Rhonda” by the Beach Boys, “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys (a big favorite of mine at the time), “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher and that stick of Motown dynamite, “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” by the Four Tops. I grooved to that thing all summer long while playing with my cousin Lance at my grandparents’ house in Detroit.
This is also the year that “Like a Rolling Stone” assaulted the airwaves with Dylan’s ragged growl, rising to No. 2 despite its unprecedented six-minute length. And of course Dylan’s transcendent “Mr. Tambourine Man” was taken eight miles high by the Byrds, tinted-glasses pioneers of folk-rock.

Holy cow. Seen through the lens of pop-culture history 50 years later, this bunch simply can’t be beat. I defy you to name another year in which such a broad and stunning cross-section of American popular music poured out of a single source – in this case, my trusty transistor radio.

The year 1965 was when the sub-genres of rock and roll, folk and soul came together to form the larger creature known as Rock. Pop music had yet to split off into sub-species each with their own dedicated stations and followings. It was all coming to us at once. Pretty much everything that was great you could hear on top 40 or even see on the Ed Sullivan Show, including Mick Jagger’s gleeful sex swagger.
This is not to mention the wonderful songs that didn’t quite make the top tier, such as the We Five’s “You Were on My Mind,” an exuberant rendition of folksinger Ian Tyson’s doleful lament, “I got troubles.” When I was in the hospital with my back, my roommate, like me perpetually plugged into his transistor, would alert me to the song’s onset by shouting, “’I got troubles’ is on!”
Oh, harbingers of future troubles were there, such as Barry McGuire’s apocalyptic “Eve of Destruction,” and cotton-candy novelties like “I’m Telling You Now” by Freddie and the Dreamers. But as I recall, nobody was trying to get our attention by sticking out their tongue and humping a foam finger.

As cool as cool could be: Diana Ross and the Supremes

As cool as cool could be: Diana Ross and the Supremes

No, we had Diana Ross seductively cooing “Come on boy, see about me” and Petula demurely purring, “The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”
Sigh. Petula made me forget mine, for three minutes at a time anyway.

So did all the other marvelous music-makers of 1965. It was just one year, but it heralded a lifetime of sonic joy.

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betrayed by my body, again

sneezing guyI always forget how much I hate being sick. It makes an otherwise normal life into an unpleasant chore, all the day and night long. The fact almost everyone does it at this time of year is little consolation. I believe I brought on this apparent case of “the common cold” by briefly reflecting on how glad I was to not be sick. This thought came to me just the other day while driving around, in the form of something like, “Well, at least I’m not sick.” So much for counting that particular blessing. As I write I am sitting in my big Marty Crane-style recliner, with my cat Abbey on my lap. Little wads of Kleenex litter the floor around me, each one of them nasty evidence of a nose-blow. I am like Meg Ryan in that scene in “You’ve Got Mail” where Tom Hanks comes to visit her with flowers, and she is miserable with what she calls a “tempachur.” A cold makes any hardship ever so much worse. Occasionally I also hack up mysterious gunk with a cough, as my body seeks to expel whatever crud has come to infest it these past few days. My sneezes are as violent as Bruce Willis slamming a bad guy against a wall. Andrea says I sneeze so loud to get attention. I do admit it makes me feel a little better. What is this “common cold” anyway, and why is it so frickin’ common? The Mayo Clinic says more than 100 viruses can cause a cold, the most common being the rhinovirus. (Did this actually originate with rhinos?) One can catch a cold, says Mayo, simply by being with another person who coughs, sneezes or talks. “Talks”? I got this cold just by talking with someone else who had one? If that’s true we’re all doomed. Might as well just come over and shake my hand, pal, because the rhinovirus is going to get you sooner or later. But truth be told this little rhino is but a mouse compared to the backache/flu/life disabler I recently endured. This began on New Year’s Eve day with a strange ache in my lower back. Although I danced the eve away with Andrea to the Lazy Blue Tunas, the ache grew and grew. Then came a hard, dry cough as if I’d been working in a coal mine. Then, no doubt aggravated by the cough, the back ache quite suddenly became medieval torture. It happened as I was trying to pull on my socks: a sharp, stabbing pain that made me exclaim something I choose not to print here. And from then on, the pain got way worse. The next morning I couldn’t get out of bed because every slight movement of a knee or toe caused a back spasm that felt like — well, again we will not be printing that. All because of pulling on my socks. It is both humbling and depressing when the body betrays you. Suddenly you go from this confident, productive being to a pathetic, griping slug. Everything you do takes effort and nothing you do feels good. You stand at the drug store counter with an arsenal of drugs and the cashier looks at you with pity. “Man, it must suck to be you,” she thinks. “Just you wait your turn,” you think back. What is the upside of being sick? Why did God create the rhinovirus? Is it just a random ingredient in the evolutionary soup, like a bad onion? Am I supposed to learn something from this? Wouldn’t life simply be better without the rhinovirus? Guess I’ll have to store this with my other Questions to Ask God, like “Why are there mosquitoes?” and “Who invented jokes?” For now, you’ll have to excuse me. I need to blow my nose, drink plenty of fluids and watch another episode of “Mad Men.”

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Dr. Strange lives again: now cometh Cumberbatch

Dr. Stephen Strange

The Master of the Mystic Arts has arrived in the 21st Century, just in time to save the world from its dark forces.
When my daughter, Emily, gleefully informed me that a Dr. Strange movie was finally going to be made, starring the “it” boy of our age, Benedict Cumberbatch, my magical mind did a little dance. How I had longed for this day. And by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, lo it hath arrived! Or, rather, will arrive, late in 2016, according to recent reports.
You see, Dr. Strange was my favorite Marvel character back in the day, when I was reading pretty much all of them. Oh I liked my Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men all right, but Dr. Strange was my guy. As a moist teenager I spent hours reading his occult exploits in my family’s cabin on the Muskegon River or, my preferred reading spot at the time, in the bathtub. (There was something wonderfully solitary and soothing about reading in the bathtub, for those of you sadly unfamiliar with the experience.)
Why Dr. Strange? One word: mystery. A former venal surgeon turned enemy of ephemeral bad guys, Stephen Strange tapped into my imagination by entering into dimensions full of wonder and mystery. The weird netherworlds depicted by series creator Steve Ditko, and later by writer Roy Thomas and artists like Dan Adkins and Gene Colan, enthralled me. For a kid who was deep into the psychedelic-era Beatles, “The Lord of the Rings” and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, Strange’s battles with the likes of Nightmare and Dormammu was heady stuff in every sense.
I started reading Dr. Strange in high school and continued, I am now embarrassed to admit, well into college (although comic historian Mike Benton has written many a collegian consumed it with “the belief of a recent Hare Krishna convert”). So captivated was I that I wrote a letter to Marvel just to let them know. To my delighted astonishment, they printed it in issue No. 173, October 1968.
I have kept the comic (along with a couple dozen others) in a box dutifully marked “Dr. Strange.” The letter takes up most of one column, as I prattle on about the profound genius of a comic book: “It is unsurpassed by ANY publication in its manner of opening your mind to new, mysterious and wonderfully haunting worlds.” Prude that I was, I also chastise the writers for having Strange smoke a cigarette, and helpfully advise against having him battle mere super-villains – only otherworldly foes, please!
Further embarrassment: I sign my letter “The Gifted One,” a title I had assigned myself while strong under the spell of Tolkien’s Gandalf. Likewise, my soulmate Brad, with whom I regularly exchanged fanciful letters at the time, was “The Enlightened One.” Like many good children of the Sixties, we were deep into our own thing.
I suppose it is not a great stretch for a teenage wizard fascinated by the Sorcerer Supreme to end up as a religion writer for a Midwest newspaper. We were dealing in the spiritual and supernatural, after all. Brad ended up owning a highly successful, energy-efficient streetcar company. Go figureth.
As it turned out there were other wizards in the land. Following publication of my letter I heard from a few, including one with literary powers from Bradford, Pa. She is a well-respected anthropologist today.
Strange the paths we all have taken since those heady days. Imagination lights the way on many wonderful journeys. I have no doubt that when Cumberbatch meets Strange, many more young imaginations will be set afire. Verily, by the flames of Faltine, the outcome will be most passing strange.

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Christmas glows quietly this year

Andrea and me, Christmas 2014 4My tree is perhaps the prettiest it’s ever been, a perfect little Fraser fir plucked off the corner lot across from Meijer. It glows quietly this morning, its white and blue lights winking where Andrea thoughtfully draped them. My beloved Jumping Jack hangs center stage. Behind him Mickey Mouse dozes dreamily, as he has every year since Emily gave him to me, while to his left Peter Pan flies over London, also compliments of Emily. She keeps me supplied with childhood whimsy.
Under the tree, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus keep up their Nativity tableau flanked by wise men, a shepherd and a couple of crouching animals. My cat Abbey knocks them over occasionally. Mom and Dad had a Nativity scene when I was a kid, and so I have one now.
This tree and the ceramic Holy Family pretty much stand in for Christmas at my house this year, along with a clutter of cards on the window sill guarded vigilantly by nutcrackers. Just one present rests under the tree, a plaid package sent along by my foster sister, Margie. It is a quiet, stripped-down kind of yule, and I am fine with it.
But when I was a child Christmas was a riot of excitement. I so looked forward to it, for weeks and weeks. Big family celebrations, driving into Detroit to the grandparents, singing carols on the way. Cousins all around. Smell of tangerines and Scotch pine. Christmas Eve full of music and delicious food, Christmas morning wonderful beyond measure.
When Emily and Max were children, much the same. My heart leaped with the widening of their eyes. Their bare feet on the carpet tickled my soul. Charlie Brown and I delighted in their every squeal of joy as the wrapping flew around the room.
Now is a different season of life. Emily and Max are 34 and 27 in the blink of an eye, with their own lives. No little ones underfoot at the moment. Ten years ago my marriage unraveled in a spectacularly ugly way. Thank God for Andrea.
Outside it’s been a damp and gray Advent, barely relieved by wisps of snow, going on a month now. The sun rarely shows himself. The neighbors bravely dress their homes in light against the unremitting darkness. It’s been a long December, as Counting Crows sang, “and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.”
Maybe. However, I can’t bear to watch the news.
Karin Bergquist remarked upon the unbearableness of news last Saturday, in a concert at Calvin College. She and her husband Linford Detweiler sing as Over the Rhine. Theirs is an unusual variety of Christmas music, a blend of melancholy and lilting sweetness, acknowledging the sadness as well as the wonder of the season. Linford dubbed it a new genre, “reality Christmas.”
“Whatever we’ve lost, I think we’re gonna let it go,” they sang. “Let it fall, like snow.”
Life has largely become a process of letting go of losses – of family as it was, of childhood and, increasingly, of loved ones. The only way through it is to accept the losses, let them hollow out a certain hurting place in my heart, and then to keep my heart open so that new joys, friends and family can enter. And to cherish without regret the childhood I had, with all of us gathered around Mom at the piano and singing carols.
“Darling, Christmas is coming,” Over the Rhine sing. “Do you believe in angels singing?”
I do. I’ve heard them, singing around the piano.

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star of wonder, time of light

winter lightAs the days grow darker, longer, I have to remind myself: the light is coming.
By this I don’t mean just the Winter Solstice, Dec. 21 for us this year, when the longest night of the year gets things as dark as they’re going to get, and the light starts coming back. Our ancient ancestors used to light bonfires to help retrieve the sun, much like we do by drenching our homes in bright winking lights today.
No, I also mean the spiritual light of Christmas, which despite its runaway commercial sleigh still bathes the culture in a spirit of generosity, as well as holding deep religious significance for Christ followers.
And I also mean the light in children’s eyes, wide with delight, surprise and wonder.
That is the light I miss most at this time of year. For I remember its glint in my own children’s eyes, Max and Emily lighting up as they bounded down the stairs Christmas morning. And I remember it in my own heart, as my bare feet padded down Nana’s carpeted stairway in the magical quiet of early Christmas Day.
Nearly 20 years ago I wrote about this special wonder, in my religion column for The Grand Rapids Press. I include it here, because it is worth reminding myself of, and hopefully will remind you of the wonders of your own holiday traditions. As we grow older, it is good to keep that childlike wonder alive, like the flickering flame of a votive candle.
This piece is included in my collection of columns, “Faith on First: Thoughts on God, Nature and Sacrifice Bunts,” which includes a chapter on holidays.
Here is a bit of the Christmas wonder I felt as a child. I hope it lights some special memories in you.

Front cover

Wonder has its own magic
Christopher deVinck can still see the long, veined hands of his father holding a toy soldier and turning the key.
It was a moment of unexpected intimacy. Jose deVinck had taken an instant to show young Christopher how to work the soldier, just out of its Christmas package.
Why this image should stick with Christopher, now a 44-year-old author, is curious. Surely more dramatic things have happened in his life. But this moment held something rare and lasting.
The resonance of the word itself suggests its rarity. You can’t apply it to too many things. When you experience wonder, you feel it. When you don’t, you feel that, too.
Amazement, suspense, adrenaline highs: Those you can get at a movie theater, a football game or a Cedar Point ride. Wonder is not obtainable. You just have to notice it when it happens.
Personally, I don’t notice it often enough.
DeVinck made a point of noticing by writing about it in his new book, “Simple Wonders,” published by Zondervan of Grand Rapids. A hand-sized collection of meditations, the book describes such wonders as ordinary trees, elephants or an old woman who says she has God in her knitting basket.
It begins with deVinck skating on a frozen swamp as a boy. He stopped, kneeled and swirled his glove on the ice’s surface. Through the glassy ice, he saw a goldfish looking up at him.
“Under the surface of our lives, there are things swirling around that if we don’t clear the ice, we’re not going to see it,” deVinck told me during a visit to Grand Rapids. A school language arts supervisor from New Jersey, deVinck publishes thought pieces for The Wall Street Journal and other periodicals. He has written several books, including “The Power of the Powerless.”
I listened fairly patiently. I had to decide to focus on the conversation, feeling the pressure of things to do pushing on my mental periphery. Even now, other tasks tug at my attention as I write. News events demand to be covered, issues beg to be addressed, our house must be made ready for the season.
So to sit and write about something as ephemeral as wonder seems an indulgence. What does wonder really have to do with people’s lives?
Perhaps not a tremendous amount. But I have to question if we need it more than we think.
“Marvel, miracle, (archaic) magical,” says my dictionary. “A cause of astonishment or surprise.” “Star of wonder, star of might,” goes the old carol. “Thou art the God that doest wonders,” reads Psalm 77. Of Isaiah’s several names for Christ, the first is wonderful.
The wonder of the shepherds in the Christmas story is palpable, and all who heard their story wondered at it. There is fear, awe and delight wrapped up in the Nativity story. Debates over its historical details are merely interesting; what moves us is the wonder.
Perhaps that’s why deVinck finds a readership in the no-nonsense Wall Street Journal for stories such as going fishing with his son. A ladybug frozen in the moonlight merits three pages in “Simple Wonders.”
He learned his sense of wonder from his mother, Catherine, who would point out a glowing moon or a rustling leaf. He’s not sure why wonder is important.
“I just know focusing on those tiny things makes the sad things and the lonely things less sad and less lonely,” he says. “Focusing on the simple things teaches us a real sense of gratitude.”
He finds gratitude in the memory of his father’s caring hands. I find it, among other places, in our Christmas tree.
Outside, it was an ungainly green tangle held upright in a biting wind by a brave tree-seller. Inside, it spreads majestically and glows with a hundred dangling memories. After a day of deadlines, hassles and shoving shoppers, I gaze at our tree and find stillness and wonder.
Like deVinck, I’m not sure why it’s important to gaze at a gussied-up tree. But I know without wonder, the days feel mechanical, incomplete and sometimes downright nasty. If you’ve ever felt wonder in a checkout line, let me know.
Particularly at this time of year, something more wants to be seen and felt. A brief glimpse of the ongoing miracle of creation; a tiny twinge of awe, fear and delight, gently feeding one’s sense of gratitude that there really is something to celebrate here.
Too often we look right past those wondrous moments, and the goldfish under the ice slips away.

Dec. 16, 1995

From now until Christmas, readers may buy “Faith on First” at a reduced price of $12, and additional copies for $10 each. I will donate half of all proceeds to Access, a food-pantry and hunger relief network in Kent County, Michigan. Email me at honeycharlesm@gmail.com if you would like to order.

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feeding back, feeding others, feeding soul

Honeytones at Feedback 2014

Jammin’ at Founders (photo by Cheryl  Thompson Schuch) 

The week started loud, like I like it. Feedback 2014: What a blast.
The Honeytones’ 20th anniversary gig to benefit Access, its food pantries and anti-poverty programs was every bit as glorious as it should have been: packing out Founders with fans and friends; listening to the sharp pop of Domestic Problems and the garage-rock ecstasy of the Fuzzrites; playing just what we felt like playing helped by the lovely voice of Hannah Rose Graves, the blues harp of Hank Mowery and the golden sax of Rolly Smith.
There’s something marvelous about the fact that John Sinkevics and I started this journey in his Comstock Park basement more than 25 years ago. We plinked out tunes by Tommy James and Steve Earle on his Casio keyboard (which was little more than a glorified Mattel model), a drum machine that produced maybe two or three beats we could actually use, and an electric guitar that I’d borrowed from Mom. With us was Ron Hovingh, like John and I a refugee from The Press newsroom, all of us brought here by the simple fact that we loved rock ‘n’ roll and for a long time had wanted to play it with other people.
Thus was born Sink and the Honeytones, later shortened to The Honeytones for strictly utilitarian reasons, although our ex-Press comrade Ted Roelofs will claim it was a brazen bid by me for greater glory. If so, looks like I won!
And so we played and played until one day we came above ground to play at a Press holiday party. Our first number was “I Think We’re Alone Now,” when in fact we were finally not alone. We were playing with and for other people, and what a happy fact that was.
Hundreds of songs and scores of gigs later we are still playing, John and I, the Click and Clack of The Honeytones. Ron tragically passed away some years ago but his sweet, high harmonies linger in our memories. Many drummers have come and gone, none of whom exploded on stage although their hands did set off pyrotechnics. Currently we are more than ably backed by drummer Tom Taylor and bassist Matt Fouts, and rejoined by the gifted vocalist Susan Beerens, who first sang with us some two decades ago.
All of which is to say that last Sunday’s 20th anniversary Feedback was not just a day of rock ‘n’ roll joy, as always, but a true treasure and gift. To still be able to make music all these years later, as part of a giving community, for an agency that feeds others, is a wonderful way of feeding the soul. As John wrote in his music blog Local Spins, “It made for the perfect pre-Thanksgiving party.”
The following night saw a much quieter kind of pre-Thanksgiving party: the 15th annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. Andrea and I huddled into Westminster Presbyterian Church with several hundred others to hear expressions of gratitude from our community’s wide array of faith perspectives: Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, secular. Here too was food for the soul, whether singing a responsive hymn with Dominican sisters, or listening to a beautiful praise of God by a young woman from the West Michigan Hindu Temple.
For Andrea and me, the week ended with a more traditional kind of food, courtesy of a smorgasbord at a local restaurant. With family spread far and wide, we celebrated Thanksgiving Day with a movie and a meal and the cherished company of each other. We fed more than our tummies; it was love and gratitude that filled our souls. It was not nearly as loud as rock ‘n’ roll, but just as joyful in its simple way.

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