A Side Order of Snark–My Culinary Journal (part one)

Recently, I haven’t cooked much. I spent a big part of the past year crashing on couches and building dressers out of luggage. I’ve had to dig through suitcases that served as portable desks. So, in this transient phase, I wasn’t exactly able to schlep all my kitchen gear around with me. Sure, I carry a suitcase filled with fifty pounds of books, but I needed to draw the line somewhere.

Beyond that, I’d be cooking in someone else’s kitchen, which just feels weird to me. Not ‘going through someone’s medicine cabinet’ weird, but weird nonetheless. It feels inappropriate to poke around into someone’s spice rack. They might not be comfortable with me knowing they use a lot of turmeric.

Consequently I eat out a lot, at least compared to other broke people I know. So, as a way of justifying my profligate ways, I’ve decided to introduce a new regular feature here, in which I will toss a thousand or so words at a restaurant wall to see what sticks. In this installment, we visit a vegan soul-food joint in Eugene, Oregon.


I had never been to a vegan restaurant, but during my six weeks as a denizen of the greater Eugene-Springfield metropolitan area, enough people recommended the Cornbread Cafe that I figured I had to try it. And mind  you, these weren’t just vegans recommending it–normal, healthy-looking people seemed to like it, too.

Restaurant reviews don’t normally use the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance,’ but that’s the first impression you get from the menu at this yin-yangy diner. Their catchphrase is confusing enough–the vegans I know rarely seem comfortable, which makes sense to me, given all the delicious food they prohibit themselves from enjoying.

Then you’ve got the menu , which is best described as “down-home deep South, if the deep South had no animals and the people there had to survive on plants.”


I would be more open to vegan food if vegans would stop trying to trick us into thinking we’re eating yummy animals. I have no philosophical problem with tempeh, but don’t describe your tempeh as ‘chick’n-fried.’ Tempeh is fermented soybeans, and no matter how much you compress it and season it, it will never become a chicken. Stop pretending, and be cool with what it is.

When you use  ‘chick’n,’ you just remind me I could have eaten actual chicken somewhere else. I don’t have a problem with the tempeh being depicted as ‘smothered with cashew gravy, because not they’re saying it’s smothered in ‘beef-ish gravy,’ or ‘beefy sauce.’ The gravy is made from cashews, and I’m good with that. I don’t understand it, but I can accept it.

Then there are the ‘phish’ phillets. Putting aside the fact that there is NO reason, vegan or otherwise, to misspell ‘fillet,’ why won’t you call it tofu? Yeah, after you con us with the name of the item you come clean, but people don’t read the words that come after the big letters. If they did, they might wonder if even want something that is ‘seaweed-seasoned.’

Lastly, let’s talk mac . . . AND cheese. Not ‘Mac Uncheese,’ which makes no sense on several levels. Grammatically, are they saying they started with old-fashioned macaroni and cheese, and then through mysterious process, uncheesed it? Or is ‘uncheese’ a food unto itself, one that doesn’t exist in a stable state in this world, made from anti-milk produced by rare anti-cows? Is it something that can’t coexist with cheese from our world without causing a cataclysm that would destroy both the uncheese and the cheese, leaving only plain macaroni?

                                 The Harvesting of the Uncheese

So, the menu threw me a few curves, but how was the meal? Being an adventurous gourmand (and frankly, hoping to hedge my bet if some of it was inedible), I had the sampler platter, and it was surprisingly good! Surprising, mostly, because it all tasted like real food, instead of the ‘near food’ I was expecting.

I was also amazed at how satisfying it was, since usually after sampling a vegetarian dish, my mouth’s first reaction is “You know what would make this perfect? If they would put some meat in it.” Typically, after an evening at a vegetarian restaurant, I would find myself wondering whether I had, in fact, eaten dinner. Not at this joint–I left with a wonderful, first-world, top-of-the-food-chain feeling. I felt strangely full, without a single animal dying!

I wasn’t sure if tempeh and tofu could headline a meal, but they performed like talented, plucky understudies given their first break on Broadway (“If you’ll check your program, tonight the role of ‘Steak’ will be played by Processed Soybeans”). And the cashew gravy might have been the real star of the show. It was so good I thought about asking for a little cup of it to go . . . it would be great over some ground turkey I’ve got at home.

There are some food items that neither food scientists nor well-intentioned hippies can replicate. Hot dogs, for example, are tasty precisely because of the bad things they contain. Maybe there’s a numerical correlation between the amount of nitrites and the coefficient of yumminess, but every vegetarian ‘not dog’ I’ve tried tastes like something that wants to be a real hot dog, like Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy.

In the same sense, there was only one menu item that disappointed: the Mac Uncheese. Just stop it, vegans. We all know that vegan ‘cheese’ sucks, so stop trying to reverse-engineer the stuff. Stop trying to lure animal eaters by making faux versions of unhealthy comfort food. Embrace your eco-conscious choices–feel free to slather some beet-kale-carrot sauce over a bunch of twigs and call it whatever you want–but don’t try to trick me into believing that noodles covered with cruelty-free goop is the same as macaroni and cheese. Other than that, though, I could happily go vegan again. I’ll take extra seaweed seasoning, and don’t skimp on the cashew gravy.

Upon Further Review

I’ll always remember the first review I ever got for a stand-up comedy show. Sometime in the late eighties, when I had just started to land paying gigs, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune  reviewed a show that featured me and several other ‘up and coming’ comics. The reviewer, apparently having exhausted all of the show business metaphors then in use, and at a loss for a way to describe my act in comedy terms, instead went for a more visceral approach, describing my part of the show as being like:

…taking a cold bath with someone you dislike.

I really only endured that one bad review in about fifteen years of doing stand-up. Even at the time, it didn’t bother me too much. The wording of it always made me think the writer was just burnt out, and started randomly combining negative phrases. Frankly, I suppose I’m lucky he didn’t compare my act to “drinking spoiled milk with an investment banker,” or “undergoing a root canal with John Wayne Gacy.”

During the comedy boom years, being reviewed as a comic wasn’t a big deal, because no matter how monumentally you might have failed at a given show, you always had the next show, and if that crowd liked you, the previous gig was was irrelevant. Now that I’m an author, I’m trying to get my small collection of humorous essays to stand out from the eight hundred thousand other books published every year. Reviews seem to matter quite a bit more.

Some websites won’t publicize your book unless you have a certain number of reviews. And readers pay attention to reviews. When you are trying to decide between my book and seven hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine others and all you have to go on is a few pages of preview and a cover image the size of postage stamp, reviews matter.

From this angle, Dane’s essays look funny. But do they hold together with any sort of narrative through-line?

The problem is, I can’t get people to review my book. In my most recent promotion, I gave away just shy of five hundred copies of “Stuck In My Head.” In the promo before that, almost seven hundred people grabbed a free copy. The book also resides in two bookstores, and dozens of friends and acquaintances have actual, physical, paperback editions.

By my math, that’s almost a gazillion people who have had the opportunity to read my book and write a short review on Amazon. Currently, the book has fifteen reviews. Fifteen people (out of a gazillion, mind you) have offered their opinions of my book. More people than that attended the most recent meeting of Muslim Mexican Women for Trump.

You can post reviews anonymously on Amazon, so it’s not like you’re even held accountable for your opinion, snarkycat47368. I don’t really understand what’s so daunting about it. It’s certainly not that people don’t have opinions–my Facebook feed is filled with questionably-informed and unabashedly judgmental opinions on everything from Colin Kaepernick to climate change.

I hate that I need to ask for reviews. It’s bad enough that I have to ask people to read my books. And I’m not even sure I care what your review says. If you truly can’t formulate any opinion about the two hundred pages of my soul that you just consumed, here’s an idea–you can copy a couple of sentences from the book and paste those in the little review box.

In an Amazon review, you pick a number of stars (out of five) and then you write what you thought of the book. The stars are even gold stars, in case you’re nostalgic for grade school. The thing is, as important as reviews are, I’m not sure anyone actually reads them. People count them, but they’re really just looking  at the number of gold stars.

As a writer, I appreciate honest reviews. As a human being, I’m more ambivalent about the concept. If you don’t feel you got $2.99 worth of chuckles out of the deal, speak your truth. Unfortunately, sometimes people review the book they wanted you to have written for them, instead of the book you actually wrote. One of the reviews of my first book “Does This Taste Funny?” expressed major disappointment at the lack of recipes, even though nothing in the title, subtitle or synopsis indicated that it was a cookbook.

If you’re still at a loss for what to say in your review, I’ve put together some examples for you, to give you a jump start. For instance, you could give a purely factual review:

This book turned out to be two hundred and fifteen pages long, and there were fifty thousand, one hundred and twenty-two words. Four stars!

Or, you could simply restate the premise of the book:

In “Stuck In My Head,” Dane provides an offbeat look at music and mental health, and since I’ve listened to music before and I have mental health problems, it was right up my alley. Five stars!

If you’re going negative, be creative:

This ‘book,’ if Dane wants to call it that, is nothing more than the ramblings of an obsessive-compulsive crazy person, and reading the ‘book’ feels like being trapped in a storage closet with a high school audio-visual geek who forces you to listen to his entire collection of Carpenters records . . . while taking a cold bath! Five stars!

Now, let’s briefly summarize what we’ve learned here:

  • Reviews are pointless
  • I need more reviews
  • I want them to be honest
  • (But there’s no need to crush somebody’s dream)

As a bonus, if you’re clever enough with what you write, maybe I’ll buy your book. After I check out the reviews, of course . . .


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Blame It On Rio

Once every four years, we watch over-the-top displays of jingoism, flag-waving, and fear. For two weeks, we get beginning-to-end coverage of celebrities, big crowds and boisterous cheering, with accusations of corruption and cheating thrown into the mix. It’s a special time when the average American sits up and takes notice of things he only cares about once every four years.

I intended to use the paragraph above for a piece about the political conventions, but then I got lazy, then I got distracted, and, well, the conventions were over and I never wrote the piece. The cool thing is, I can use the same paragraph for this piece, about the Olympics. Continue reading

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Fair Enough

I don’t get out of the house much. Most of the time, I convince myself it’s by design, and most of the time, I’m kidding myself. It’s certainly easier to tell myself that I’m making a choice to stay home and write all day, or research markets for my writing, or continue binge-watching ‘Gilmore Girls.’

The reality is more nuanced than that. Actually, it’s not even a matter of nuance. The reality is that sometimes I justfeel too damned awkward to be out in public, due to what I’ve decided to call a neurological quirk.

Technically, it’s a spinal ‘condition’ — or is it an ‘issue’? No, ‘issue’ makes it sound like something I should just talk out, and eventually resolve. And I don’t think of it as a spinal ‘problem’, because that implies a solution, and there really isn’t one which doesn’t involve a risky neck surgery that only has a fifty-fifty chance of making a difference.

So let’s just stick with ‘quirk.’ It’s a quirk that, fortunately, rarely causes me pain, and almost never prevents me from doing my work. The awkward part — and this is the part that keeps me inside on beautiful days — is that this quirk causes me to walk funny. Not ‘funny’ in that people might point at me and laugh, but ‘funny’ as in “Why does he walk so funny? Is he OK?” I’m so wobbly when I walk that it looks like, at any moment, I’m either going to veer into traffic or tumble, ass-over-Keurig, into a broken heap. Continue reading

A Social Media Style Guide for the Far Right (From a Concerned Lefty)

I don’t wade very often into the waters of political argument, and I particularly avoid politics online. I’m opinionated and sarcastic, and I am notoriously bad at letting things go, so it would be far too easy for me to get sucked into some Facebook black hole. The next thing you know, I’m scrolling through hundreds of comments, and comments about comments, and clicking links, and posting links, and then I wake up one day and realize I never finished writing that third book. Continue reading

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A Letter to Dad


I know it must seem a little weird to get a letter from me, but I thought it would be good to catch up a bit, since we’ve been out of touch for so long.  It’s gotta be at least . . . fifty years, right? Continue reading

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