Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

24.5.18

Half forward flank.



Ha! And you thought only the boys played football. Wrong! Here is Alexandra displaying perfect ball drop (although the dropping arm has swung around a bit too far) and good follow-through.

Look out, boys.

18.5.18

Doubting Thomas. Or at least his suits.

The following opening sentence fell out of a writer's keyboard like an overweight sprinter out of the blocks, staggered through its middle em-dashed clause, and then crashed into a non-sequitured ditch, where it lay bleeding until its writer put it out of its misery, by writing the next sentence.
Tom Wolfe, who died Monday, was — as even those of us who did not share his politics and often deplored his taste and even doubted the fashion wisdom of all the white suits have to admit — one of the central makers of modern American prose.
Let's translate, taking out a couple of 'evens':

White suits, unsavoury politics and bad taste aside, he was pretty good at writing. As if the former even matter.

15.5.18

Four teenage jobs.

1. Age 11: Grade Six incinerator monitor at primary school, 1968 - burning all the rainbow lunch wrap and paper bags from school lunches. Probably my most responsible job ever.

2. Age 14: delivering weekly newspaper to streets south of Essendon airport at 4 a.m. on Thursdays.

3. Age 16: gardener for old Mrs Fleming. She gave me stale cake for morning tea, the poor old dear. I remember being sad for her for some reason. Probably that she had no-one else to share the cake with. Years later, I found out why - she was a ghost.

4. Age 17: salesman at B. V. Menswear in Puckle Street, Moonee Ponds. I sold suits, bowls outfits and hats to the older men, and pastel bodyshirts, flared trousers and check lumberjackets to the younger customers.

What were your teenage jobs? Meet any ghosts?

14.5.18

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign/Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind ...

It was the kind of agency that was pompous enough and sanctimonious enough to have inspirational quotes – written by other people, of course – all over its walls. I worked there for a while.

You walked in on Monday morning and SMACK, a huge sign behind the reception desk hit you in the eye.

It read: The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible. The MD thought it would intrigue clients so much, they wouldn't notice how long they'd been sitting in reception. I didn't know what it meant either. It was written by Arthur C. Clarke. Science fiction headlining an advertising agency? Perfect.

Then you took the long march to the creative department. Along the corridor, they had quotes angled out from the wall on swivel frames so you couldn't miss them. Some underling swivelled them the other way in the afternoon so you would see them on the way out. One of them read: The future depends on what we do in the present. That pearl of truism impressed no-one except the cleaner, who wisecracked that it meant he should go home and sleep now, otherwise he'd be too tired to clean up our shit tomorrow. Cleaners are the straight-shooters of the business world. Everyone else talks bullshit.

There was a really deep quote in the men's room: You cannot plough a field by turning it over in your mind. That would have been good advice, except the creative director had the habit of calling two-hour brain-storming meetings late on Friday afternoons. Lots of mind-turning, no ploughing. Hypocrite.

The quotation in the kitchen, hand-picked by the CEO, read: The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen. I wanted to change it to Believe that and you'll believe anything, because it meant exactly the same thing in a neatly subverted way, and was a lot more succinct. Architects are so long-winded.

The boardroom quote was meant to be the best of all: Seek the lofty by reading, hearing and seeing great work at some moment every day. I wondered how many clients were feeling lofty when they were being shown their latest campaign.

One day, after staring at the wall in Steve the creative director's office, I finally heeded the quote resplendent behind his carved desk: Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. I resigned.

A few years later, I returned to the agency as creative director after Steve had retired to some pathless trail in South America.

The first thing I did was to get rid of the insincere, duplicitous quotes and replace them with my own selections. No big deal really: usually new CDs sack the entire creative department and bring in their own people. I just changed the signs.

I started in reception, and put up a huge sign behind Ariel, the power-dressing receptionist with the cute smile and the sexy phone voice. The sign read: Imagination is more important than knowledge. Sometimes clients asked me if I really believed that quote and I told them airily, with a dismissive wave of my hand, 'Oh, Albert Einstein wrote that. He wasn't the brightest star in the universe, was he, so you can take it or leave it.' That shut them up. They never knew when I was being sarcastic and when I wasn't; which is no wonder, because I don't either.

Then I proceeded along to the media department. Here, a bunch of mental giants decide whether to put our work in Women's Weekly, Family Circle or Who's Who on Reality TV, based on how many copies of each were picked up by brain-dead housewives at the checkouts in outer suburban supermarkets last month. Along the wall went John Wanamaker's famous Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, I just don't know which half. This was to remind the box-checking automatons what an inexact science media buying is. A darts player could do it. And for that they get cases of Scotch at Christmas? Everyone thinks Harold Mitchell is an 'adman'. He's never made an ad in his life. He buys media, on behalf of agencies, for their clients. He grew fat on commissions.

Now the kitchen: that was easy. So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright. I like obscure references and allusions. (No-one got it for a whole year. Then a new graphic designer, who had previously studied architecture, saw a photo of the kitchen with its earlier quote and nodded. At last. An intelligent graphic designer. That was a first.)

Finally, the boardroom. Raymond Chandler: Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency. It worked a treat: clients couldn't work out whether we were being self-deprecatory or boastful. They stared at it, scratched their heads, shifted their gaze to the glass chess board on the sideboard with a game set in the Blumenfeld gambit, and thought about it.

While they did that we slipped the previous month's inflated job costings past them on power point, before they noticed.

*

Hubris in business (especially in bureaucratic organisations) is always worth pricking.
Now, someone has written the book. They beat me to it.

James Adonis, which surely has to be a pen-name, reveals the idiocies, the lies and the chicanery that sits at the heart of the 'motivational' quote in his book The Motivation Hoax. Steve Waterson reviews the book in The Deal – Reinventing Business (Issue 102, April 2018). Waterson writes:
... business mantras ... (are) everywhere, adopted by unoriginal thinkers and shouting from desk calendars and office walls: "A quitter never wins, winner never quits." ... "If you can dream it, you can do it." ... Business writer James Adonis has produced a short, witty but thoroughly researched book ... unstringing these supposed pearls of wisdom. ... Adonis first selects a few of the most irritating – sorry, classic – motivational quotes, examines their veracity by analysing relevant academic studies business articles and published research, then proposes an amended quote that more nearly approximates the real world.
No-one ever need feel bullied by a motivational quote again. Waterson continues:
Along the way, (Adonis) pricks many of the inflated ideas many of us suspected were nonsense ... If you feel brainstorming sessions were a waste of time, or that ad hoc teams are a waste of humanity, you're ... right.
Motivational quotes set in stone like ersatz commandments are one thing. Then there are the "platitudes (that) tumble from the lips of our 'leaders'." (Leaders get quote marks because everyone is a leader, so no-one is.)

Further, the concept of 'employee engagement' means every worker is arm-wrestled into obligatory cheerfulness, every joy-filled second of every working day, in the open-planned circus ring of the modern-day 'safe workplace'.

No wonder, in this neo-Chairman Mao-inspired compulsorian view of modern life where everything you do and think is prescribed, things go wrong. The courts are of full of the offended claiming every grievance known to man and a few yet to be invented.

Waterson sums up:
Adonis's book will ... liberate you from the glib dictums of our supposed superiors ... The Motivation Hoax helps clear the air of cant* ... .
Indeed. And in finishing this very long post, always remember one thing: Magic Happens.

*

The Motivation Hoax: A Smart Person's Guide to inspirational nonsense, by James Adonis, Black Inc, $24.99

*Even my stupid computer does not know this word, so let's give it a lesson from The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

Cant noun3 4 The special phraseology of a class, sect, profession, etc.; jargon, slang. 5 A set form of words repeated mechanically; esp. a stock phrase or word temporarily in fashion. 6 Ephemeral catchwords; affected or insincere phraseology; esp. language (or occas. action) implying piety which does not exist; hypocrisy.

7.5.18

Fast food #3: baked Irish potato and cheese.

A variation on cheese mac and even more delicious.

Peel and cook four large potatoes.

Mash them with two tablespoons of butter.

Now fold through a little milk, two tablespoons of grated cheddar cheese, and a teaspoon of salt.

Place the mashed potatoes in a baking dish with a further two tablespoons of cheese on the top.

Bake in a hot oven about 10 minutes or until the cheese starts to darken on top.

Serve scattered with chopped parsley or spring onions for some crunch to contrast the unctuous texture of the 'pot-mac'.

When you are hungry, probably the most satisfying dish on earth.

Variation.

Crack four eggs (without breaking the yolks) over the top of the cheese and potato before placing the casserole into the oven.

2.5.18

What, not again?

First I lost the lot in Trio back in the GFC. (Good to see the VOFF is still pursuing ASIC and Bill Shorten on that issue.)

The authorities managed to find some small bits of cash belonging to victims of Trio/Astarra on an island in the Atlantic or Pacific, or some swamp somewhere. Guess where they put it?

AMP.

Thanks for nothing.

18.4.18

Fast Food #2: the Four Minute Meal.

I used to have competitions with friends and family to get a meal on the table the fastest. There had to be cooking involved. Two minute noodles and similar did not qualify.

For one of these cooking races I served up pasta carbonara in just under four minutes.

Here's how I broke the Four Minute Meal.

Fill the kettle and put it on. Elapsed time, ten seconds.

While the kettle came to the boil - one and a half minutes - I took two rashers of bacon, two eggs, a pack of parmesan and some parsley from the fridge and a pack of gnocchi, a bottle of olive oil and a garlic clove from the cupboard. Elapsed time, forty-five seconds.

I opened the gnocchi. Elapsed time, forty-nine seconds.

I sliced the bacon into small pieces and threw them into a pan with a splash of olive oil, and lit the stove. One minute twenty.

I chopped the parsley. One minute thirty. The light in the kettle went off and the button clicked up. I poured the boiling water into another pot on the stove over a high heat and tipped gnocchi into the pot - carefully. If you burn yourself you're disqualified.

I grabbed a plate and some cutlery out of the cupboard and set them on the table. One minute forty-five.

The bacon was done by the time the gnocchi floated to the top of the water. Two minutes thirty.

I drained the gnocchi and tossed it into the bacon pan and stirred it around. Two minutes fifty. I cracked the eggs in and stirred around again, adding the parmesan. Three minutes twenty.

Gnocchi carbonara into the bowl, parsley on top, more parmesan. Three minutes forty-five. World record.

12.4.18

Fast food #1: world's quickest soup.

Tortellini in brodo.

Heat 1.5 litres of stock, or use your favourite canned, bottled or packaged stock. Chicken, beef, vegetable; doesn't really matter. It's just flavour. And salt.

To the stock, add half a kilogram of ricotta tortellini, a cupful of finely shredded silverbeet, a cup of peas and a tablespoon of pesto (blitz basil, walnuts, parmesan, garlic and olive oil or use a jar from the supermarket).

Ready when tortellini and peas are done. Serve with more pesto, a shower of parmesan cheese, and some sliced hardcrust bread.

29.3.18

Pasta with leek, capsicum, avocado and toasted pine nuts.

That headline alone has enough appetite appeal to get you salivating. The dish itself is even better.

Chop a leek lengthwise twice, and then slice the lengths to get quartered rings.

Chop a red capsicum into small squares and add the leek and capsicum to a pan with a scored clove of garlic, a dash of white wine, a little olive oil, and lots of pepper. Simmer fifteen minutes. Check fluid level and adjust with more wine.

Meanwhile, cook pasta shells.

When the leek and capsicum are cooked and the wine has almost evaporated, add a sliced avocado, a dessertspoon of home made pesto and half a cup of cream, and simmer until cream reduces.

Drain the pasta shells. This is difficult and annoying. The shells hold the water. Persist. You do not want watered-down pasta sauce.

Spoon creamy vegetables sauce over pasta, add shaved parmesan cheese and toasted pine nuts. Glass of shiraz.

21.3.18

Mr Richards has an idea.

Mr Richards just suddenly appeared one day, looking pale. He greeted the receptionist, and walked towards his office.

He wasn't wearing his regular suit. He was wearing a pale blue polo with a turned-up collar over beige chinos and the kind of boat shoes that don't go on boats. He looked like he was on his way to lunch in Brighton. Perhaps he was. He was carrying a takeaway coffee.

But it wasn't coffee.

'This stuff actually tastes quite good,' he said, when I had followed him into his office and he had put it down on his desk. 'In a herby, grassy kind of way, and after you haven't had coffee for a week or two,' he added. 'You forget what coffee was like.'

'Who are you trying to fool?' I asked him. 'Me? Or yourself? These things go in trends. People used to drink a thing called Caro. It was made of mud or something. Before that was chicory. Now everyone is drinking chai, which is essentially liquid curry with tea in it. It will pass. It tastes like shit.'

'Thanks for the encouragement,' he said, bitingly sarcastic, 'I can see it's going to be an uphill battle getting you to do what I'm about to ask you.'

'Which is what?' I asked.

He paused. 'I've turned vegetarian,' he said, as if announcing his aunt was a terrorist.

I gulped. There goes another one, I thought. But I didn't say that.

'Nothing wrong with that,' I said. 'Nothing at all. History is full of vegetarian MDs.'

'And dead ones who didn't change their ways.'

That floored me.

'OK,' I said. 'Point taken.'

'I want to get a vegetable account,' he said. 'And you're going to help me.'

I just stared at him.

*

I went back to my office and started jotting down some ideas.

Cabbage. Just Eat It.

It was a bit of a joke. Hijacking all the old lines for a new purpose.

The Cauliflower Generation.

Are they copyright?

Spinach. Engineered like no other vegetable.

No-one would even recognise them any more, surely.

Radishes are forever.

That was good. The diamond people would have no reason to bring action. It would hardly infringe on their market.

Carrots. The other root vegetable.

We could do a joint advertising campaign with the meat and livestock authority.

Have you been parsnipped lately?

Hang on a minute. There's actually something in this, using send-ups of old ad lines to promote generic vegetables.

Get me the Vegetable Marketing Board on the line.

19.3.18

Heart attack spurs publishing deal.

So there was no MD for a few weeks.

The doctor had explained to me when I had visited Mr Richards in the hospital. It wasn't so much the running out of the building that had done the damage, but the shock of the situation. Sprinting won't kill you, but losing $20 million will, I guessed he was driving at. Actually it was $40 million.

I hoped Richards would be fine, and that his heart attack wouldn't spark a mid-life crisis.

I'd seen it before. The CEO of another agency I had worked for years ago ran his business, worked twelve hours a day, had long lunches and stressful deadlines, ate the wrong food too often, smoked, worked weekends .... all the elements of a fabulous, long, happy life.

Then he had a heart scare and went and spoiled it all. He stopped working, converted to some religion not based in the same hemisphere, and joined a 'men's group'. Then he wrote one of those self-awareness books that you see on the front counters of chain bookstores, as impulse gift buys. He called it Relax and filled it with eighty pages of meaningless quotes - Your inner calmness appeals to the goddess of your nature, Your peace quotient resides in the matrix of the soul, The duck's landing is nature's kiss, True fulfillment is anger's nemesis - that kind of thing; interspersed with pictures of lily pads, people doing yoga on mountains, smooth rocks piled up in cairns, a woman playing a flute to a sunset, and sleeping cats.

He told me later he got the lot - quotes and stock photos - from the internet.

It sold ten million copies.

14.3.18

Monday.

Sometimes even I am stuck for an idea.

Like what kind of flowers to buy a fifty-something managing director lying in the cardiac department of a major hospital. Sweet William? Too fussy and tiny. Lilies? They're for funerals - maybe next week. Daffodils? Just wrong for a ruptured aortic aneurism victim. Flowers are just so tricky - no wonder they are left up to the girls.

However, as a man of action, I soon decided on an answer: none.

*

He was just waking when I walked into the ward about 11 a.m. A nurse was tip-toeing out. There was a simple table in the room with a bunch of tulips on it. They looked like they had just been delivered.

I sat down quietly on a chair. He looked at me.

'How are you?' I asked.

'Hey!' he said in a feeble attempt to be pally. He tried to sit up.

'Just relax,' I said. 'We're not in a bar or the boardroom now, we're in a hospital. You really shouldn't talk. I'm just here to see you. You had a slight turn ... nothing a triple bypass won't fix!'

He made a noise approximating a laugh at my weak joke, then his eyes wandered over to the tulips on the table. He obviously hadn't noticed them earlier. He drew the wrong conclusion.

'Thank you for the flowers,' he said, his eyes looking back at me. 'Tulips ... they're beautiful.' His eyes were tired, but their deep blueness betrayed an inner strength. I knew he would be OK. So I played along with him. His gaze had returned to the far wall.

'That's OK!' I said. I reached over unobtrusively, and deftly removed the little gift tag that was attached to the vase. 'I knew you would like them!'

He was asleep again.

I looked at the gift tag. It read: Get well soon. R. J. Morris. Agricultural Bearings.

9.3.18

Weekend.

I don't know what time I woke up.

When I did, I waited for about half an hour before opening my eyes, and then promptly shut them again because I was falling through space at hundreds of miles an hour and the ceiling was turning around at the same time. Seeing that could make you fall out of bed.

Six hundred elephants seemed to be stampeding through my head. Even one elephant would have hurt, but exaggerating seemed to help the pain.

I lay there and eventually slid uncomfortably into a half-slumber. I was crawling through the Gobi desert searching for water. But I couldn't get anywhere at all because the scorpions were spinning webs around me and tying me to the sand. I know scorpions don't weave webs but these ones did.

Then I woke up again and tried to remember where the kitchen was so I could drink water. I found the kitchen. I found the tap. I found a glass.

I couldn't eat yet. The last of the stampeding elephants was standing still in my head. I hoped he would follow the others, but he didn't. Obstinate bastard of an elephant. He just stood there, stamping his foot every now and then.

I tried to remember what day it was, but couldn't. Then I had a brainwave. It must have slipped past the elephant. I went outside and picked up the morning newspaper and looked at the dateline. It was Saturday.

Just a normal Saturday morning, really. I forget what else happened except that the CFO called me late in the afternoon to tell me Mr Richards, our dearly beloved managing director, was lying in a bed in the cardiac intensive care unit of a major hospital.

*

Next morning, my head felt clearer. I walked to church and sat ten pews from the front. The guitarist-slinging choristers finished a jarring five-verse song about praising and worshipping, and then the priest entered, strode to the altar, and started the Mass.

The guitar players interrupted throughout with their unmusical versions of the responses, prefacing each with that horrible 1-2 introduction. Twang-twang. The place seemed to be stuck in a 1960s peace-train time warp. Imagine discarding Palestrina, Victoria and William Byrd for tone-deaf singers playing untuned guitars. We got to the gospel. It was the one about the Pharisees, who were sanctimonious, self-righteous hypocrites who needed the hoi polloi around to make themselves look good.

Then the priest climbed the pulpit, red-faced, to deliver the sermon. He looked like a mountaineer going up Everest. He raised his hands in the air and told us the love of money was the root of all evil. Didn't I know it. I had $20 million hanging in the balance that morning. Or was it forty? I still couldn't remember. Way up there in the pulpit the priest droned on about people having too much money and too many things, flapping his arms to emphasise every second syllable, a towering inferno of jaw-jutting sanctimony.

Then he finished by demanding we all contribute more to the parish coffers, turned and half-fell out of the pulpit.

Something didn't jell, but I couldn't work out what it was. I was worried about Mr Richards, who was not allowed any visitors until tomorrow.