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A Brief History of Pasta

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Today, I’d like to share with you about something which has kept me going the past few months. When all else fails, I can rely on this to get me through the tough, poverty-stricken times. I am of course referring to that wonder-food of undergrads: Pasta. Whether it’s spaghetti, macaroni, or that flat stuff they put in lasagna, pasta has had a long and glorious history of being slurped down the gullet of humanity. Now it is time for the tale of the noodle to be told, to give credit where credit is due, and to give us a new appreciation for this starchy yellow floppy stuff.

Our story begins where most movies made in the 80’s begin: a mystic-looking forest with the caption “somewhere in Asia.”

Just like "Gymkata!"

If this wasn’t what you were expecting than it’s probably because Italy has brainwashed the world into thinking they invented pasta, rather than just being the place that is most associated with it. Sort of like how Americans like to pretend they invented hot dogs, guns, and God. In actuality, the first references to pasta found in history are actually references to a Chinese rice-pasta. This is actually a great foreshadowing of the way the primary consumers of pasta in America (undergrads) think about food. Imagine: it’s late and there’s nothing going on tonight. There is, in fact nothing to do but eat, think about food, and think about how to obtain more food. You’ve had rice for the past six weeks straight and you’re sick of it. So, in a fit of inspired boredom, you mash up the rice into a powder, mix it with water, and pour it onto a hot thing until it cooks. Then, because you’re not interested in being that inspired twice in 24 hours, you just throw some of the leftover rice-scrapings into some water and boil them until they’re soft enough to eat. Voila! Instant pasta! I’m not even going to tell you whether that story was from the perspective of the college students or the Chinese. It could be either one!

The next reference to pasta was in fact from Italy. Just kidding! It actually comes from the Talmud. Yeah, the Jewish religious text. Stick that in your driedel and spin it, Italy!

Those yellow rings are actually noodles.

Yeah, actually the Talmud refers to a dried noodle called itryah, which was pretty normal food at the time of the Talmud’s composition. By the time of the 10th century the Arabs were making pasta called lakasha to sell in the markets. Think of the guys who sell peanuts in baseball stadiums, who walk up and down the stands yelling “peanuts, get your hot, roasted peanuts here!” and replace “peanuts” with “lakasha.” and you’ll get a sense of how Arabic markets work. Very noisy, lots of food, and apparently covered in pasta.

Italy comes late to the party with pasta. While pasta like foods were eaten even before the Roman empire came to power, since they were not actually pasta I don’t count them. Italy does, but they’re biased, and probably grouchy if they haven’t eaten since lunch. According to pasta historians, and such things exist, apparently (I like to imagine that they all look like Mario Batali) modern pasta was probably brought to Sicily by traders from the Arab world. They base this belief on the evidence that the oldest pasta dishes in Sicily contain things like dried fruits and cinnamon, both of which are featured heavily in Arab cuisine and pasta dishes.

Now that pasta had finally reached the Italian world, you’d probably assume that things like lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs were pretty quick in being invented. Actually, there’s one major reason those dishes wouldn’t come onto the scene for quite a long time. Probably after the American revolution, in fact. That reason? Tomatoes.

Heaven help us.

Tomatoes were basically assumed by everyone to be poisonous until Thomas Jefferson rubbed them in the faces of the Colonial scientific world by eating them as frequently as he could and living to a ripe old age. You see, back in the day, people used to eat off of plates made of a poisonous metal called pewter. Since they weren’t eating the plates, this was mostly ok. However, the high acidity of tomatoes caused the plates to dissolve slightly into the tomato juice, resulting in illness or death for the person who ate them. Presumably, the family of the first person ever to die this way blamed the tomatoes for his death because “killed by his dinnerware” wouldn’t look very good on a headstone. Thus, most people assumed the plants were deadly, and wouldn’t have slathered a sauce made of them all over their food.

Popular pasta dishes in their most current forms were brought over/invented in America by Italian and Sicilian immigrants fleeing tough conditions in the 20s and Mussolini in the 30s and 40s. This is also how American pizza was invented, coincidentally.

So there you have it. Invented by the Chinese, refined by the Arabs, adopted and loved by the Italians, and finally mass produced and used to feed poor college students by Americans.

Does anyone else think “Driedel-Spun Chanukah Pasta” would sell really well?

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Dumb Boys, Dumb Boys, What’cha gonna do?

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Criminals are dumb. It’s a fact of reality, and runs totally contrary to what popular fiction would have you believe.  There are no evil geniuses out there  coming up with needlessly complex schemes to say… force people to do their bidding using a magical beard tonic.

Yeah, I wasn't making that up.

Point is, that with very rare exceptions, criminals are not incredibly bright bulbs. This is why most of them get caught. The stubbornness of criminals in breaking the law leads to some rather amusing antics. Think about it, most crimes are essentially this: dumb people trying to do something that smart people don’t want them to and then trying to prevent the smart people from finding out about it. That’s basically the premise to every successful comic strip or Looney Tunes short in history! It only makes sense that when this formula plays out in real life, it often ends up just making us want to laugh. Such is the case with the story you’re about to read, which in true crime story fashion I like to call “The Assault on The Wawa Bandits.” (As relayed to me by a member of law enforcement involved in the proceedings.) Note: this story is best read in Jason Statham’s voice.

Late in the afternoon the Anne Arundel County SWAT team receives a call that SWAT action is needed to resolve a hostage crisis. They suit up in full response gear (which includes tactical vests and machine guns) and loads up into the SWAT van. This is actually more of a tank, since it looks like what would happen if you crossed an armored van with a Transformer. About halfway to their destination, a call comes in that the previous situation has been resolved, but that they are preparing for SWAT arrival at a second site and the team is put on standby. While waiting for instructions, the team decides to get some coffee at a local gas station chain called Wawa.

The team wisely decides that entering the Wawa in full gear carrying guns is likely to alarm people, so one member of the team bravely volunteers to take off his gear and go in in just his uniform t-shirt and pants to retrieve the coffee. About this point the SWAT officer located by the van’s only real window looks to his left and notices a peculiar sight. A man has just pulled up in the parking space next to them and proceeds to start rolling up small paper sheets full of a controlled substance. One of his arms is in a sling, in order to facilitate his illegal behavior, he has propped his arm up on the steering wheel, and is doing his work six inches in the air above the steering wheel in full view of any passers-by. The officer alerts his comrades to the malfeasance taking place to their left, who respond:

“Sure, Terry. Pull the other one.”

The officer reiterates his concern with added emphasis on the malfeasance.

“Fine, we’ll bite. We’ll come look out the window.”

The first officer to arrive at the window confirms the malfeasance to the alarm of the other officers of the peace, who immediately spring into action. 11 fully equipped SWAT officers, their firearms, and one man in a t-shirt that says “SWAT” on it storm from the bus and surround the offending Ford Taurus. The man rolling contraband immediately attempts to hid what he is doing, but fails, due to his broken arm, in doing anything other than looking like a bad “numa numa” dancer.

At this point in the story, the officers realize that Slingboy the Dopey Criminal has an accomplice. They ascertain this information by peering into the window of the nearby Wawa and discovering that one man in the line to pay for coffee has suddenly done a very good imitation of Jerry the cat.

Or Bonkers the...whatever it was he was supposed to be.

The officers motioned for him to come outside with the intent of questioning him to establish a possible link between him and the criminal already in custody. This intention was rendered unnecessary as Bonkers the Wawa Customer exited the coffee establishment yelling “You parked next to a SWAT van?? Why would you park the car next to a SWAT van you absolute git!?”

“I didn’t know it was a SWAT van!” replied Slingboy in a rather whimpering tone.

“It has SWAT written in block print down the side of it!” Bonkers shot back.

As the officers endeavored to arrest the two criminals, it quickly became apparent that Slingboy was also of an altered state of mind, when his eyes suddenly widened in fear and he asked:

“Did you guys come all the way back over from Afghanistan just to arrest us?”

It would prove to be the start of a long day.

Later that afternoon the SWAT officers learned a bonus lesson about the dangers of shoddy carpentry. A man clearly at the end of his wits was threatening to cause injury to what would later be discovered to be a mannequin, but which everyone thought was a woman at the time. In order to affect entry into the house, the SWAT team rolled their tank up to the front lawn and used an extending boom attached to the top of it to place a hydraulic battering ram against the door. This ram was then activated, in order to knock the door down and allow the SWAT officers to arrest the suspect. However, due to poor construction value, the door’s destruction caused a chain reaction which led to the entire front wall of the house falling away into the front yard. The suspect, suddenly realizing that his ruse was revealed and that he would never be able to explain to a home insurance company what had just happened, threw down his gun and surrendered. If they’re willing to knock your house down to get at you, its time to pack it in and give up.

And do something about all that back sweat, man! For all of our sakes!

The Poster I WANT To Put Up

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Dedicated to all the kids who break our elevators, and who are subsequently stuck in them.

Taxi Drivers of Amman City

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Back in May I got the chance to spend a month in the Arabic nation of Jordan. When not sightseeing, the group I travelled there with lived in a small apartment in the West Side of Amman, the capitol city. To get anywhere in the city meant hailing a taxi and somehow communicating where we wanted to go. If we were lucky, the taxi driver would have spoken a bit of English, if not, we had to rely on our group’s meager grasp of Arabic. One conversation with a taxi driver in particular illustrated the difficulty of getting around without knowing what you were saying to the poor driver. We had been told that if we wanted to get back to the street where our apartment was located, we were to tell the taxi driver to take us to “mujamma mahatta lil-basat” which apparently meant something to the effect of “the bus station in mahatta district.” We however, forgot about the “lil-basat” part, which confused the driver.

Me: “Mujamma Mahatta?”

Taxi Driver: *blank stare* “Mujamma mahatta….?” (You want to go to a bus station?”)

Me: “Yes”

Taxi Driver (in Arabic): (“Which bus station?”)

Me: “Yes.”

Taxi Driver: (“You want me to take you to a bus station, but I need to know which bus station you want to go to.”)

Me: “…Yes?”

About here, one of my friends realize that “lil basat” hadn’t gotten into the conversation and began saying something that sounded like “little basalt” to the taxi driver. Now realizing my mistake, I looked at the poor taxi driver and said as clearly as I could. “mujamma mahatta lil basat?”

Brought to you by Hallmark

The poor man smiled as though someone had just shone light into a dark prison cell he happened to be sitting in, and cheerfully drove us straight where we wanted to go. I tipped him extra. Later in our journey, after making sure we memorized the whole phrase which would get us home, we hopped into a taxi at the end of a long day and asked the driver to take us home. The driver cheered up considerably when we realized we were American. Contrary to popular belief, most Jordanians like Americans just fine, regardless of what they think of us politically. In fact, this particular driver, though he spoke no English, apparently though Americans like us held the keys to all coolness, and he was going to prove that he was worthy of them.

He started this unexplained trial by American fire by roaring off the curb as fast as he could to make the tires squeal, followed by his best imitation of how people drive in Hollywood car chases. We of course, had no idea of what was going on, and simply held on for dear life as the taxi weaved between buses and other cars (the terror exacerbated by the fact that there are no lines on the roads in Amman, and thus, chaos holds court on the streets). About 3 minutes into the drive, the taxi driver realized something else he could do to be cool. He rolled the windows down, turned on the English language music station on his radio (which he’d installed bass woofers into) and cranked it as loud as he could.

I should probably take this moment to explain that as we were driving crazily around Amman, windows down, blaring  Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R” at extremely high volumes, it was Jordanian independence day. Imagine the reverse situation: an American taxi driver in D.C. on the Fourth of July is driving at unsafe speeds blaring Arabic music out the windows and turning around every few seconds to see if the uncomfortable Arabs in the back seat think he’s being cool.

And that is the story of how I lost 4 years of my life to a young Arab man who wanted nothing more than for me to approve of him.

A Reflection on Technicolor Enslavement

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I have a problem. I am seriously and hopeless addicted to on of the most insidious of legal mood-altering substances on the planet. I may or may not have had 4 bags of them hidden in different places around my home, in different varieties so that at any point I was less than 20 feet from one of them. What is this crippling drug? Jolly Ranchers.

The road to hell is paved with delicious fruit flavoring.

I’m not normally a candy junkie. In fact, the only candy I will buy outside of Halloween are the Ranchers. It started off innocently enough, with youth camp leaders handing them out with other candies as prizes. Hook the youth, and you’ve got your customers for life, as they say. Like the little fiend I was, I devoured these amazing little nuggets of damnation without a second thought. As the years passed, the cravings got worse. I started branching out, from the original five flavors into the Passion Mix, or the Wild Berry, and even the Screamin’ Sours. Every passing day was filled with the desire for the little logs of fruity self-destruction. I stashed them in ziploc bags in my sock drawer so I could eat them before breakfast without my mother finding out. The couches of my house were filed with wrappers I shoved in between cushions to avoid detection. These tactics kept me safe from parental interference in my habit until I graduated from high school and moved to college. There I learned just how crippling my addiction had become.

Studying without the Ranchers proved impossible. I had to have one in my mouth at all times or the knowledge just flowed out of my head as soon as it entered. Eating the same flavor twice in a row cause paralyzing bouts of writer’s block and heaven forbid I eat grape after eating apple. Bad mistake. By the end of my second semester there, I was cooked. Totally baked and completely useless.

A fellow Rancher addict at the same stage of addiction.

I knew I had to do something. I started to research Jolly Ranchers feverishly, looking for some insight into how to break my addiction and escape the cravings. No matter where I looked though, I couldn’t seem to find anything more than basic information about the Ranchers. The Wikipedia page was only a paragraph long for crying out loud! There had to be a reason. Then: it hit me. Someone wanted the secrets of the Ranchers kept quiet. Of course! It all made sense now! I’d been fed the first ranchers as a child, hooked, and then reeled in as life went on. But who had given me the Ranchers to begin with? Authority figures! If we don’t stop this before it spreads, we’ll end up living in a dystopian future ruled by a tyrannical Texan named Jolly R!

And he'll look just like Joe Don Baker.

So rise up, my brothers and sister! Rise up before the Ranchers take hold! If we stand together, we can stop Joe Don Baker/Jolly R from taking over! UNITE!!!

Maybe I’ve just been without a rancher for too long…

The Unavoidable Stakeout

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While at the work, I was forced to witness one of the most painfully awkward flirty encounters in the world between two high schoolers. They decided to have this conversation 20 feet from the desk I work behind, so my co-worker Candace and I were treated to the whole thing. Since we have a document open on one of the computers at all times to record amusing events that take place, I wrote down a record of the whole thing, and I’m sharing it here.

“Awkward DTR twenty feet from the desk. Jared (the man supervising the high schoolers currently attending a camp) joins us in quietly laughing at the awkwardness, and provides color commentary. This is probably the most awkward conversation to take place outside of an episode of The Office. The DTR is interrupted by a game taking place around the campers. Smitten Boy is not amused. Melodramatic Giggly Girl is blocked by Chunky Kid. Knee Pinching ensues between the lovebirds (???) Smitten Boy attempts the lame ‘stretch that turns into having an arm around you,’ maneuver, which he aborts when she turns around, resulting in him accidentally slapping her in the head. A few minutes later Smitten Boy and MGG approach the desk and ask for tape to repair a twenty dollar bill SB had somehow torn in half. Candace suggests he just make a ring out of it for MGG. They switch couches and resume the squirm inducing awkwardness.

Like this, only replace any cuteness you might sense with awkward adolescent floundering.

MGG flirtily chews on a straw while SB’s mouth hangs limply open (really). This conversation is just a mish-mash of things they saw people do on TV, only executed poorly and without context. More knee-pinching (still???) and some tickling. Suddenly SB thursts his face into MGG’s for no reason, makes bug-eyes, and returns to normal. I could not invent a weirder conversation. MGG’s mother  (I think) arrives on scene. Suddenly SB is enthralled by the conversation a group of his buddies are having near him, while MGG acts casually indifferent to everything around her. Mom-person leaves and the conversation resumes, only now MGG is obscured by a pillar. Eventually she returns to view and whispers something into SB’s ear (0_o) They play an awkward and painfully flirty game of hid and seek around the pillar. Finally, they walk away and this irritating story concludes.

My face during this conversation. I'd like to thank this baby for modeling it for me.

Account Payable: A Noir Fiction

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The past has a funny way of reaching out to grab you. Just when you think you’ve finally found a way of gettin’ away from it, it pulls you right back down into the hole you crawled out of.

It was late. Much later than I usually stayed in my office. The smell of smoke still lingered where I’d spilled peanuts on the radiator earlier that night. A half-empty 2-liter bottle of 7-UP sat on my desk. Bleary-eyed, I stared at my monitor. It had all come down to this. Staring Death right in the face, watching it laugh at me, watching everything I’d worked for drain away.

It all started three days ago, when a client of the firm I work for, Falconetti Corp. took a big order on credit for bronze paperweights from a paper manufacturer in Lincoln, Nebraska. I knew it couldn’t be good when my supervisor Janet came sauntering through my door. Nothing good ever came from a visit from Janet.

“Geoff, I need you to handle this.” she said, dropping a fat stack of papers on my desk, and upsetting an empty Lo Mein carton. “It’s the Falconetti papers, for the Lincoln deal.” she explained.

“Janet,” I said , leaning back in my chair, “there’s no way I can deal with that today. I got the Hartford file stagnating, the Plesinski deal going down in four hours, and I’m still adjusting investments to match market value!”

She rolled her eyes. “Just get it done, Geoff. You’re behind on your work this month.” She was right. I hate that. I mumbled a reply and snatched the file off my desk, tossing it onto an already towering stack building up next to my computer.

Later that day I finished closing the books on the Plesinski deal and pulled up the documents for Falconetti. Rain splattered on the window of my office. Office. heh. More like a glass cubicle with a corkboard door. Stupid architects. I sat there for a few minutes, eyes unfocused. I scratched my bristly chin and pulled open the file. Receipts, cash orders, memos, a wrapper from a roll of mentos, and a sticky note that read “Geoff- do NOT wait on this.” Pfft. Janet.

It seemed that Falconetti wanted us to record the sale and write up some statements for the month that they could feed to the investing public. Typical stuff, with one minor detail. They wanted the costs recorded for making the paperweights, too. Lazy bums couldn’t even bother to do that? I started writing up the paperwork. Pretty standard stuff. Just had to take the value of the sale and put it into the right accounts. Kid stuff. That was the beginning of the nightmare.

The next day I was sucking down a Dr. Pepper and e-mailing a video of a piano-playing cat to the company using a fake e-mail when Janet came marching into my office.

“Geoff, Falconetti’s not happy.”

“What? I did what they wanted.” I said, waving a hand at her and continuing to amuse myself with the feline pianist.

“Then why did they lose fifteen thousand dollars when they made the sale?” she replied, cocking her eyebrows and leaning against the doorframe. She held out a sheet of paper.

“Gimme that.” I said, snatching it. No way. Couldn’t be. But there it was. Falconetti’s books were showing them at a loss of fifteen thousand after the sale. Obviously it didn’t actually happen. They made money, not lost it. But their records said otherwise.

“You screwed this up. You’re fixing it. And clean off your desk, already!” she gestured to a pile of food wrappers and soda cans that had been growing throughout the week. I swept them off the desk, more or less into a trash can, and started looking back at the Falconetti brief. The cat video no longer hypnotized me. The magic was gone.

Two days I worked on that paper. Nothing. No mistakes in the numbers. They were solid. So why? Why did Falconetti’s documents say that they lost money? I worked constantly, only stopping to put out the fire when I knocked over that bag of peanuts into the radiator. Finally. It hit me. Accounts Payable! I’d listed the sale as a debt that Falconetti owed to the buyer. How could I be so dense? I quickly fixed my mistake.

Then the past grabbed me by the heels and dragged my right back down my hole. The screen froze, then turned blue. Little letters taunted me, talking about “dumping files to prevent damage”. The Blue Screen of Death. Everything I’d done was gone. I’d be here all night trying to re-do everything.

I grabbed the bottle of 7-UP and downed the whole thing.