Ode to the Suet-Filled Spongecake Crisco Logs

As I write this, the snack-cake eating world is in a panic over the demise of Hostess, the company that makes, among other things, Twinkies. There have been runs on the products, and people all over Facebook and Twitter are lamenting their downfall.

(I’ve been more of a Ho-Ho kind of guy, but I left convenience store snack cakes in my rear-view mirror a while ago.)

The likelihood of someone’s buying up the brands and cooking up the “goodness” again is pretty high, as this article by the Associated Press explains.

All this kerfuffle reminded me of an article called “Twinkie, Twinkie, Little Suet-Filled Sponge Cake Crisco Log, Now I Know Just What You Are” in the July 1989 issue of Spy magazine. In the piece, authors Jane and Michael Stern talk about the mystique around Twinkies and the various attempts people have made to recreate them in their homes.

And if you’ve managed to score some of the golden cakes, be sure to run some experiments as shown on the T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S. Project site.

In the meantime, just sit back and wait: they will be back.

The Number You Have Reached…

…has been disconnected.

For the first time in my life, I do not have a home phone number.  

Last week, we decided to drop our landline telephone service.  We did an informal-yet-enlightening analysis of our home phone usage, and here’s what led to our decision:

  1. Of all the inbound calls we get in a week (according to caller ID, it’s between 25-30),  less than one is usually from someone with a legitimate reason to call us.   The rest of the calls are telemarketers, political robo-dialers, and/or survey-takers.
  2. People who really need to contact us already use our mobile numbers.
  3. The only outbound calls we make are to the local pizza shop or the occasional business phone call when T-Mobile or US Cellular can’t get a signal to our house. 

Based on the first point alone, our decision was made.  Once we looked at the cost, it made the choice that much easier: we were paying $85 per month for basic phone service and 8 Mbit internet. 15 Mbit internet-only service from our provider costs $52, which means we were paying $33 per month for the “convenience” of being hassled by people (and machines) we didn’t want to hear from.

I made the call Friday morning and by Monday afternoon the phone line was turned off.  Oh, and this little bit of joy took only minutes to go into effect:


..and After:

We did not put a forwarding number on the account because the people who need to contact us know how to do so.  So all you robo-dialing, political-office-running, lawn care-selling, survey-taking entities will have to find another tree to bark up.  Or whatever it is that you do.

For the people and places with whom we wish to stay in contact but we’d rather they didn’t have our mobile numbers, we’re sharing our Google Voice number. This has the advantages of (a) not ringing a phone in our house (or pockets), and (b) providing a spiffy and occasionally accurate transcription of the voice mail that the caller can leave when they dial our number.  And if, for some reason, we need to have the Google Voice forwarded to a “real” phone, it’s just a few keystrokes to make that happen.

Yes, we’ll have to keep our mobile phones charged and have a spare standing by in case one of them takes a dive into the Chicago River.  We’ll also have to make sure the numbers for our local Police and Fire Departments are programmed into our mobiles.   Done and done.

One more step at simplifying our lives is complete.

Supporting Metropolis — 3 New Events!

There are three new fundraising opportunities for Arlington Heights’ Metropolis Performing Arts Centre and its School of Performing Arts.    Please consider participating in one (or more) of these events!

1. On Thursday, November 10, Jimmy John’s in Downtown Arlington Heights (19 S Dunton Ave) will donate 20% of all sales between 2:00-9:00 pm to the Metropolis School of Performing Arts.  Just print out this flyer and bring it in with you!  (Although I have it on good authority that if you mention Metropolis you won’t need the flyer.)

2. Also on Thursday, November 10, Biggby Coffee in Downtown Arlington Heights (21 S Dunton Ave) will give $1 to Metropolis when you purchase any medium or large specialty drink.  Just go into Biggby any time on the 10th and say you’re there to support Metropolis– they’ll take care of the rest!

3. From now through January 2012, Whole Foods Market Palatine will give Metropolis 10¢ per bag for customers who re-use their own shopping bags in the store and wish to donate their bag refund.  Click here for more details.

Help support this wonderful Arlington Heights institution!

Farewell, Urban Harvest

Bittersweet news: Urban Harvest, a gourmet food shop in downtown Arlington Heights, is closing this week.    (Details can be found in this article from the Daily Herald.)

There are three businesses (and their owners) in downtown Arlington Heights that figured prominently in both my establishment as a newly-single person and in Lisa’s and my courtship.  Mary Ellen Hogan’s Urban Harvest is one of those.

In the early 2000s I used to pass by Urban Harvest’s original location every day on my way to and from the Vail Avenue garage.  One day I was enticed inside by a lady named Courtney who was standing in the doorway, holding a platter of seven-layer cookie bars.  Entering the store, I discovered all sorts of neat stuff:  cheeses, hummus, wines, cookies, gourmet lollipops, and chocolates.  A beautiful relationship was born.

Urban Harvest became a regular stop a couple times a week and practically part of my everyday. They even invited me to be a part of a Labatt Beer Academy tasting, the first event of its kind that I ever attended.

One day I went into the store with the intention of getting something for Lisa, whom I wanted to impress.  Mary Ellen pulled a little basket from behind the counter and said, “Try this.”  I asked what they were, and she  called them the “Oh My God Chocolates.”  I took a bite of one and immediately said.. well, you get the picture.  I bought two boxes of these things and they became an integral part of our courtship.    And Lisa was impressed.

Over the years, we’ve stopped in for blue-cheese stuffed olives, pastas, and all sorts of goodness.  The other day we stopped in to buy a final seven-layer bar and I was able to wish Mary Ellen all the best. We’re sad to see a wonderful store closing in town, but here’s wishing  her a wonderful future as pursues her new dream job.

(Postscript on the “Oh My God Chocolates:”  Urban Harvest couldn’t get them after carrying them for a couple years, but here’s a link to someone who’s selling the original product.  I was told that Whole Foods sold a very similar item, and sure enough they do: here’s a link to a blog entry that reviews the Whole Foods product. The chocolates within are identical to my palate.)

From Nirvana to News

As expected, the former Q101 (WKQX) changed formats this past weekend to become “FM News 101.1” (WWWN).

There was a lot of lead-up to this change, beginning with rumors in June that the classic-alternative rock station was up for sale, leading through the announcement of an air staff with rather impressive credentials.   Time Out Chicago‘s Rob Feder has devoted a lot of column space to the station’s startup, as have several other online sources.

I had the chance to listen to the station most of the day today as I was telecommuting, and my first impression is that they’re still feeling their way through the new format.  It’s not bad and certainly not unlistenable– FM News 101’s air staff takes a much more casual approach than their more tightly-formatted competitor, plus they’re not compressing or “optimizing” the audio or using beds of noise under the air staff,  which gives the new station a similar feel to WBEZ‘s, or at least a step in the direction of the all-news days of the former WMAQ.

The station offers “Weather and Traffic on the Fives,” which is in direct response to WBBM’s “Traffic and Weather on the Eights.”   The segment is signaled by the sound of a gas station bell, which became annoying after a while. They also offer minute-long segments about shopping, technology tips (e.g. how to save battery life on your cellphone), and health.    The air staff also throws out questions to the audience and solicits responses on their Facebook page, reading the comments on the air.  Network news and features are provided by ABC Radio.

I’ve been a regular WBBM listener for many years, and my clock radio is still tuned to that station.  That said, I’m going to give FM News a chance to find their voice.

Speaking of WBBM:  once WWWN’s owners announced their intentions,  rumors started flying about WBBM’s simulcasting their programming over CBS’ floundering WCFS-FM (I blogged about their “Fresh” format here). In mid-July WBBM started running spots that said that starting on August 1 you’d be able to hear them on 105.9.  And sure enough:

It’ll be interesting to see what happens– stay tuned!


This blurb appeared in our local paper on August 28, 2008:

• Someone took a change machine from Randhurst Mall, 999 N. Elmhurst Road, between 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. July 30. The machine, which changes dollar bills for quarters, contained $340 in cash. It was worth $850.

While this wasn’t exactly a Danny Ocean-level heist, it says more about the current state of Randhurst than you might intially think. What this article says is that sometime in the middle of the day someone stole what I assume to be a heavy piece of equipment from the shopping mall, presumably without being noticed.
This is quite a change from the Randhurst I grew up with. The inside of the mall consists mostly of empty storefronts now, and is scheduled to be demolished very soon to make way for redevelopment, a mixed-use property called Randhurst Village. (The stores outside the mall, most notably Costco and Home Depot, are doing extremely well– quite a contrast.)
The Randhurst I knew was a busy place where you could find pretty much anything you were looking for. I grew up near the shopping center (they never called it a “mall”), and many days of my youth were spent there since it was only a bike ride away.
When I was a kid, the anchors stores were Montgomery Ward, Carson Pirie Scott, and Wieboldt’s. Wards had a great record department and cafeteria (“The Buffeteria”) and I used to get my WLS surveys and stickers there. I never went to Carson’s or Wieboldt’s as a kid, although Wieboldt’s had an S&H Green Stamps redemption center in the basement, and I used to get blank cassette tapes there when I got a little older.
The main destination for us kids was SS Kresge’s, in the corridor between Carson’s and Wieboldt’s. It was a “dime store” in the sense that K-Mart never was. We used to get Frozen Cokes and Air-Popt® Popcorn, and maybe a little toy from the aisles in the back. They also had a little cafeteria where we’d get Cokes if we didn’t want the frozen variety. At one end of the store they had aquariums where you could buy various tropical fish and those little turtles the FDA doesn’t allow you to buy any more. The fish were right next to the massive display of Contact-Paper rolls. And every Christmas, as my mom will tell you, they had the demonstration table set up with “Balsam Pine, Smells So Fine” incense which came with its own little log cabin.
Speaking of Christmas, Randhurst was quite the destination because every year on the day after Thanksgiving Ringmaster Ned from WGN-TV’s Bozo’s Circus would welcome Santa Claus to the mall. My cousins and sister and I went every year for a stretch of about 4 or 5 years to witness the event.
When my kids were little, we used to spend hours walking around and browsing the stores. One of the high points for them was getting a table in the food court– which was next to impossible at lunchtime on the weekends– and eating their Happy Meals. And right up until earlier this year, Rebecca still liked going to the “sample lady” at the teryaki stand on the second level.
My last visit to Randhurst’s interior took place on an early Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago. The place is almost unrecognizable, with nearly every storefront shuttered and only a few customers and security guards walking the once-busy main aisles. The merry-go-round in the center of the mall was still lit and turning, with one or two kids and their parents on the ride. Except for the echoes of the carousel’s music, the whole place was eerily silent.
If you Google “Randhurst” you’ll find all sorts of remembrances of this once-great mall. (As I wrote this, I thought of hundreds of things that could fill this blog.) For a good overview of the center’s history, check out this link to a document at the Mt Prospect Historical Society’s site.
Will the “new” Randhurst draw the crowds? We’ll have to wait and see.

Business Casual

I mentioned in an earlier posting that I was at an event in Tokyo. The invitation I received from the sponsor said it was a “Business Casual Event.” I asked one of my traveling companions (who works for the company sponsoring the event) to verify this for me. “Business casual, for certain,” is what he was told.
I decided to follow the advice a clothing salesman gave me years ago: “You could dress business casual– but why?” I packed two suits, a sport jacket with a couple turtleneck sweaters and coordinated pants, and– just in case– a pair of tan Dockers and a blue button-up shirt.
The first day of the meetings, held at the Park Hyatt Tokyo (where Lost in Translation was filmed, by the way) nearly every single one of the over 300 attendees was wearing a suit.
So much for “business casual, for certain.” At least I bet right.
The truth is that “business casual” is a meaningless term that thousands of fashion writers and HR departments have tried to define but have had little success. At best, I can come up with the common threads of “collared shirts, clothing with finished seams, no logo wear, and no Spandex.” (I remember seeing an Arthur Andersen memo in the mid-1980s which specified that female employees “must wear appropriate undergarments” but that’s another topic.)
For several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s I worked for an investment firm known for its casual approach to the employee environment: free breakfast and lunch, free ice cream in the afternoon, free soda, water, and beer in all the refrigerators– and a nonexistent dress code. The idea was that you were supposed to do your job and do it extremely well, and in return the company didn’t bother you with checking your death-metal-band T-shirt underneath your flannel. I’d call the environment “proto-dot-com.” (The funny part is that by the time the dot-com boom was in full force, the company had been swallowed up by a gigantic Swiss bank and the beer and nonexistent dress code were gone.)
While working at the firm, I rode the train regularly with one of its partners. Both of us were usually in jeans, and we’d get disdainful looks from everyone else on the train, each one spiffed up in suits and ties. I used to laugh, thinking that this guy could have bought and sold most of the people in the car, and they looked at him like he was a low-life.
I would never call that company’s environment “business casual”– it was clearly all the way on the other side of it– but I believe that firms like mine had a huge influence on more traditional companies and encouraged the casual-dress policies of the 90s.
By the time “jeans Friday” started to take hold in the business world in the 1990s, I was already tired of it. Yes, it’s zero-brain-power easy to put on jeans in the morning and match them up with a polo shirt and sneakers, but at some point– say, after doing this for 10 years– you don’t feel like you’re really going to work. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, there is something to be said for more clearly defining the line between life at home and life at the office.
That’s when I began my transformation into a beDockered middle manager, for better or worse.
So, while everyone else was getting ready to go ahead and uh, wear a Hawaiian shirt and jeans on Friday, I was already on the way back. And that was around the time I met the salesman mentioned at the top of this piece.
The dress code at most of the places I’ve worked has been some sort of business casual. This included everything from khakis to polo shirts, down to jeans and even shorts in the summer (at one particular company). The common stipulation among all of them, though, was that when you met with the company’s clients, you should dress in formal business attire.
Over the years, I defined “business casual” to mean “no jacket, no tie.” There’s room to move in that definition, but I usually try to err on the side of overdressing. I remember getting off a plane in Amsterdam and heading straight to a meeting in my company’s offices, figuring my travel attire (khaki pants and a polo shirt) would be fine, as it was acceptable in most of the company’s offices worldwide. When I entered the conference room, I felt like the guy who cleans the conference rooms after everyone leaves– wait, even he was dressed better than I was.
Never again.
My current employer just opened up the dress code on summer Fridays to allow jeans. Many of my coworkers are excited about this.
As for me, it will be business as usual.

Guess What: The World Didn’t End

Field's Clock
I had some time to spare at lunchtime today, so I decided to check out the State Street Marshall Field’s Macy’s store.
(You may remember my thoughts on the name change, which I covered in this blog entry last year.)
My verdict after spending about an hour in the store: it’s the same store it’s always been.
Look above: the clock is still there– so are the “Marshall Field and Company” nameplates. And hey– the green awnings are still there, only now they say “Macy’s.” (Sorry about the poor photo quality– a Motorola phone isn’t the best camera.)
Look below: OMG, it’s the Walnut Room, filled with people eating lunch! I thought they were supposed to close it and use it for storing New York Yankees jerseys or something.
Walnut Room
I spoke to a couple of people who work there, and they both told me that the traffic they’ve seen has been about the same as before the switch, if not a little busier. And the funny thing about my conversations was that the people actually sounded like they came from Chicago– weren’t they all supposed to be displaced by people with Brooklyn accents?
And why was the store crowded and the cash registers ringing? Wasn’t this place supposed to be quieter than a museum?
I bought a box of Frango Mints (curiously, with the Marshall Field’s name on it) and nowhere did I see a guy who looked like Ralph Kramden with a pushcart selling hawt dawgs.
I did see this neato Motorola cellphone vending machine:
And this awesome iPod vending machine:
ipod machine
(Side note: You can get an iPod Shuffle– the now-old-style 1 GB version– in this machine for something like $50. That’s a deal.)
The quality of the merchandise seemed pretty much the same. The furniture and higher-end home stuff all seemed the same to me. I didn’t go through the clothing closely because there wasn’t enough time.
So, to sum it all up, the store on State Street is pretty much the same as the one that was there two weeks ago. Only the name has changed.