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Apple crisp: It’s a great way to connect.

Food is certainly a powerful way of connecting people across the globe. It is with that spirit in mind that I share this apple crisp recipe. A friend recently asked for one, and I turned, as always, to my “New Good Housekeeping Cookbook,” which isn’t so new any more. In fact, it’s tattered, stained and well-loved. It was the perfect general cookbook when I was starting out on my own, and I still refer to it for solid recipes that I know are going to work.

So, here is the perfect autumnal dessert that can showcase fall fruit at its most flavorful.

Apple Crisp

6 medium-sized cooking apples
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/3  cup old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats, uncooked
6 tablespoons butter or margarine, at room temperature

Peel, core and slice apples. Place apple slices in a 10-by-6-inch baking dish.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In medium-sized bowl, mix brown sugar, flour, oats and butter or margarine. Sprinkl oat mixture evenly over apple slices. Bake 45 mintues or until apples are tender. Serve warm. Or refrigerate to serve cold later.

Makes 6 servings.

From “The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook”

I can’t leave well enough alone. So, I never follow a recipe exactly as written. Even a recipe for baking. I would, for example, add a little acidity to the dish by squeezing a bit of lemon juice on top of the apples. Or, I would add an extra texture by throwing in a handful of cranberries into the mix. I might even add a touch of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger or other warm spice and cut back a tablespoon or so of the sugar.

That’s the fun of cooking. No two dishes, even two made exactly as the recipe says, will be the same. The two cooks might use different types of apples. One could use butter instead of margarine. There is a different taste, though both are still wonderful.

The main thing is to share this beauty with friends or family. That’s how food helps connect us.


Getting creative on class time.

I’m sorry I haven’t been a good correspondent for the past few weeks, but this course in Creativity has really sparked something in me.

I’ve been a professional writer for about 30 years now, and in the last four weeks or so, I feel more vitalized, more focused and more driven about my writing than I have in my entire life.

For the past two months, I’ve been juggling quite a few projects. One, of course, is my class work. And I have a full-time job. And I have a web business that deals with food and all things edible in the San Antonio area. I have also been in the throws of writing my first book with my business partner.

The volume is to be called “The Food Lovers’ Guide to San Antonio,” and the publisher, out of Connecticut, approached us because of the website, (shameless plug, I know — please forgive me). We didn’t sign the contract until the beginning of October, but the deadline is Dec. 9. That’s about the time the semester ends, too. And something called Christmas approaches. And through it all, work and sleep have to fit in somewhere.(And my doctor keeps bothering me about that exercise thing.)

Well, we are more than 90 percent finished with the writing, which leaves a lot of cleanup work to get the final writing into manuscript form. And we have to deal with the appendix and the index, and we have to do a lot of praying.

It’s been a tremendous workload, but it hasn’t been overwhelming, largely because of the readings I’ve been doing for class. One was Julia Cameron’s “Walking in this World: The Practical Art of Creativity,” one of the nicest, most well-intentioned books to inspire you to pick up a pen or a paint brush and start working. The companion book to that was Steven Pressfield’s no-nonsense “The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles,” in which the author invites you to overcome resistance, perhaps the most lethal illness creativity faces.

Their methods could not have been more different. Hers was a very gentle and encouraging approach to creativity, while his was masculine, forceful and blunt. Yet they both had the same advice: Don’t wait for inspiration. Just sit down and start writing. You don’t have to have characters, if you want to write a story. You don’t have to have a recipe in mind, if you want to write a cookbook. Just write. No excuses. And write every single day. In the beginning, it will be hard. The muse won’t strike when you are ready. But don’t wait for muses or any other supernatural force to call down inspiration on your head. Be a living Nike ad and just do it. And keep doing it.

One of my favorite writers, Anthony Trollope, would get up at 5:30 every morning and write for several hours before going to work. He did it while sailing around the world on various jobs for the post office (his day job), on holidays, on snow days, in the sunshine. He ended up writing more than 60 wonderful volumes of fiction and about two dozen volumes of non-fiction.

I, obviously, have not been anywhere near as prolific as he was, especially since I’ve been in journalism for 30 years and am only now writing my first book. But I have learned that the busiest times are often the most productive — and the most rewarding.

Just when I thought I couldn’t fit another morsel onto my plate, I find myself being called to pick up pen and paper often before going to bed or early in the morning to scratch down some ideas for poems! If you knew me, you’d know that poetry was the last thing in the world I would ever write, yet I’m discovering that playing with words in that new way can be fun. Yes, writing can be fun, even as it exhausts you and revitalizes you.

I haven’t written anything yet that I would want to share, but I don’t think that’s the idea. It’s part of accepting the words that are flowing out of me right now and channeling them in certain areas while letting the others flow free.

So, no excuses. Not from me and not from you. Start creating. And have fun, even when it proves maddening.

Give thanks and raise a glass.

Awhile back, I mentioned that I wanted to host a wine tasting in a Google+ Hangout, so that anyone who was interested could sip some wine and share their thoughts about what they were tasting.

Well, the big day is going to be this Sunday, Nov. 20, at 4 p.m. ET.

I would like to discuss wines that would go great with fall food, especially the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner for those of you who live in the United States. By fall foods, I mean braised meats, stews, soups, roasts, root vegetables, all those wonderful dishes that take hours to prepare so that the house can warm up while the oven is doing its thing. In the case of Thanksgiving, it’s all that brown stuff that fills the table: turkey, stuffing, gravy, breads, as well as a few earthy dishes, from sweet potatoes to five-fat mashed potatoes. (Don’t know the latter? We’ll be discussing these beauties in the session.)

Wine is a great way to bring people together, so let’s have some fun and enjoy each other’s company for an hour or so.

All you have to do is associate with me, John Griffin, on Google+ in advance and I’ll make sure you have access to the hangout. Bring a glass or bottle of your favorite wine, from a sweet Riesling to a dry red Zinfandel. We’ll introduce ourselves and what we’re pouring for the afternoon, and then we’ll talk about what we enjoy about wine.

It won’t be pretentious or snooty. The wine you bring doesn’t have to be expensive. (On a holiday, when you’re pouring multiple bottles, it’s actually better to have more affordable choices, anyway.)

Wine is too good to leave to the snobs.

So, let’s party on Sunday afternoon.

Football as a backdrop for something broader in scope.

I never thought I would find myself fascinated with a football story. It’s not a sport I follow (I don’t really have time to follow any sports), but I have been glued to the growing reports surrounding the Penn State child abuse controversy.

And it’s not because of the football angle, either, though the popularity of the sport certainly plays a role in what is keeping our collective attention fixated on the story.

What we have is actually a Shakespearean tragedy unfolding before us. A king, a 1-percenter in his field, an untouchable has been shown to have feet made of clay. Joe Paterno had been the ruler of his domain for the past 46 years and amassed a winning record that no one is likely to topple. So, why will his name go down in infamy, despite his enormous career successes?

Because Paterno didn’t do enough as a person, and in the end, that is what matters. After decades of preaching the values of good sportsmanship on the field, integrity and displaying a winning behavior no matter what life hands you, Paterno has shown that his words were hollow pep talks that he doesn’t seem to have believed. Or at least, he didn’t feel a need to follow.

Otherwise, why would he feel that the barest minimum that he did, reporting an instance of sexual abuse involving a minor, was enough? Why wouldn’t he have followed through to make sure that no other children were injured physically and emotionally?

We can ask the questions, but we can’t answer them. In a way, it’s like asking the average Germans of the 1930s why they didn’t speak up when Jews started disappearing from their communities; yet, information I learned from a Holocaust museum in Nuremberg said that less than 2 percent of the entire population actually did anything to stop the genocide that eventually occurred in their own country.

Shakespeare deftly handled the toppling of such seemingly noble figures while showing the effect they have on the lives of those they touch. Scenes of student riots after Paterno’s firing were like watching the crowds react in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination, as the Elizabethan playwright depicted it.

Hubris, blind devotion, an unwillingness to accept the truth of the situation, the devotion to football above the education that Penn State supposed stood for  — the whole panoply of emotions and intellectual issues is both epic and enormously personal. You could see David Lean give it the “Lawrence of Arabia” treatment or Terrence Rattigan form it into a companion piece to “The Winslow Boy.”

Someone — or, more likely, a great many someones — will be retelling this story in plays, television dramas and movies after the images have cleared from news programs and newspaper pages. The story is far from over. The list of children affected is said to be growing. The trials of those charged in relation to the abuse lie in the future (and all could be found innocent).

In the meantime, we are left to think about the responsibilities we have to our neighbors. It’s not a popular topic with some, in an age when you hear even isolated cheers for the death of those who didn’t bother to buy health insurance. But if we don’t follow through when we encounter injustice, especially against our youth, we harm the society in which we hope to live in peace. Paterno is learning that lesson the hard way, and he’ll likely mull it over for the rest of his life.

The packging is the product.

I live about 12 miles from my job, so that means it takes me at least 45 minutes to get there in morning traffic and more than an hour to get home at night. To fill the time on the road, I almost always listen to a book on CD as a way of catching up with those authors I haven’t had time to sit down with.

My latest is Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, who also wrote Outliers, which I listened to last week.

For those like myself who haven’t caught up with this bestseller, Blink is an examination of how the mind interprets what it sees, hears, tastes or smells in, well, the blink of an eye. It’s about the firefighter who knows when the burning building is about to collapse or the analyst who can tell from certain signals which couples won’t stay coupled for long.

The section that has me the most interested, of course, is related to food, and it includes information on the popularization of margarine, a butter substitute that once had a horrible connotation. During World War II, butter was scares,  so people had to make do with margarine, which came with color packets to change the white to a more palatable yellow.

After the war, people dropped the margarine. But why? To the marketers of Imperial Margarine, packaging was everything. In studies, testers were given yellow Imperial spread on bread, next to the foil wrapping and the company logo of the crown. They were also given the same product without the yellow coloring and no packaging next to it. The overwhelming majority of people picked the one with the packaging, because it sent a message of being of higher quality. In other words, they were eating the whole concept, not just the product itself.

He goes on to recall the early 1980s, when Pepsi started beating Coke in what became known as the Pepsi Challenge. The results were so overwhelming in Pepsi’s favor that New Coke was born, and many of us remember what a marketing fiasco that was.

The interesting point that Gladwell makes of the study is that in taste tests involving a sip of each of the sodas, Pepsi won hands down. But it never made a dent in Coke’s sales, even when people rejected New Coke and swore they didn’t like the corn syrup pumped into what was dubbed Classic Coke.

It seems that Pepsi was only king for a sip, whereas Coke ruled when it came to drinking an entire can, Gladwell writes. All of a sudden, the greater sweetness of Pepsi became too much and it wasn’t as enjoyable.

People’s taste buds are also conditioned to what they prefer. A lifetime of drinking or eating one product will naturally bias you in favor of it, whether you realize it or not.

I have encountered a few examples of this on my own. I live in San Antonio, where Coke comes in two versions, not New and Classic, but American and Mexican. The Mexican version is made with sugar, the American with corn syrup. In blind taste tests here, Americans prefer the one they drink the most often, and so do Mexicans. In fact, the difference is so striking that they usually heartily dislike the other because it tastes artificial, too sweet, too processed even.

I was once in a taste test with, among other people, a Diet Coke drinker who just loathed the taste of Mexican Coke and loved the taste of American, though she was convinced that the products were the other way around. She swore her favorite was like her beloved Diet Coke only with more body. And I guess it is, making it like the difference between regular and decaffeinated coffee.

I no longer drink Coke (I try to avoid caffeine, except in dark chocolate). but during the test, I found myself drawn to the Mexican Coke because, under the sweetness, there was a pleasant bitterness that I remembered from my childhood, and it was the reason I used to love Coca-Cola. Pepsi, by comparison, was always so sweet I remember having to scrape my teeth just to get some imaginary film out of my mouth. I never drank New Coke or Classic Coke, the latter of which is now the only product on the market. So, it was a drink I was unfamiliar with, and I found it to be one-dimensional and vapid. (Another Mexican import we get here is real Fresca, also made with sugar; it reminds me of my all-time childhood favorite, Wink, but that’s another story.)

Despite wanting flavors we know from childhood, more and more people around me are switching to the Mexican Coke because of the knocks that corn syrup has been taking. But I also think package has something to do with it, too. Mexican Coke is sold in 12-ounce glass bottles that have a nostalgic air to them. Plus, it’s the perfect size for a cocktail or a single serving, as opposed to some blob of a 3-liter plastic bottle.

We can’t resist the lure of fine packaging, but what we determine to be fine does vary from culture to culture. I once spoke with a marketing executive from Freixenet, a Cava from Spain that you find on sale especially during the holidays. Americans, it seems, can’t buy enough of the classy black bottles of Brut that still sell for under $10 and yet contain a sparkling wine that is crisp, clean and refreshing.

But the Europeans won’t touch that black bottle. Forget Chanel and her notions of the eternally chic little black dress. Forget the black is beautiful sentiment. The folks across the pond prefer the Carta Nevada Brut line clear bottle with the gold label. It is must classier to them than the black label, even though the wines are largely similar. Surprisingly, the Carta Nevada Brut has a touch more residual sugar, which would be more appealing to Coke-drinking Americans in a blind taste than the Brut they generally buy.

If we say we know what we want, are we referring to the packaging or the product behind the pretty wrappings? It’s gotten to where the answer is yes to both. That makes marketing all the harder, because we also say we won’t be manipulated any more. Of course, that means we won’t be manipulated in the old ways. But we will, old ways and new.

Here’s to your illusions.

Four years ago, I was in stuck in a routine. I got up in the morning, played with my bird, went to work, went out to eat (which was the focus of my work), went to a dance class and then went home.

Except for the dance classes, there wasn’t really much in there that demanded anything of me, other than my time. I worked 80 hours a week, filling the weekends and evenings with work, but it was largely a blur, all rote. Reading 19th century novels was my one great escape, the one big thing that prevented my brain from petrifying into the vapid mess that surrounded me.

I was working for a newspaper at the time, and I had stopped reading it because nothing in it had any relevance to my life. All of the political news I had read online before the paper hit my driveway in the morning, and I had written most of the rest of what interested me or listened to the reporters around me talk about what they would be writing.

That was supposed to be the way it was until retirement. Put in the hours, do a good job and forget about it.

Then, 2 1/2 years ago, I lost my job. I wasn’t the only one bored with the paper. Hundreds of thousands of readers had left it in recent years and, according to many of my friends, don’t even notice that it’s gone from their lives. So, 175 of went down on what I call the Ash Wednesday Massacre, for that was the day we were told.

Suddenly there was no need for my specialized services. I was forced to admit that I was no longer in control of what happened to me. I actually knew that already, thanks to my faith, but it doesn’t mean I wanted to acknowledge it.

And it hasn’t always been easy since.

After months of no work, I found myself taking minimum wage, seasonal work at a bookstore that occasionally only had seven or eight hours of work a week for me. (For those who have not worked minimum wage in decades, that’s about $55 a week before taxes, which is not enough to pay heat in the winter let alone a mortgage.) But I loved the work. There was something thrilling about helping a person find the book they were looking for, but they had no clue what the title was or who wrote it. All they had was a vague remembrance of something.

Then came another labor drought, followed by a job at the U.S. Census, a promised six-week gig that turned into six rewarding months. But it, too, came to an end. There was no illusion of control or routine or habit to develop with that.

Six months ago, I landed a job writing for an insurance company. I find myself getting up in the morning, playing with the bird, heading off to work, eating at maybe two restaurants on the way home (more work again), taking a dance class on occasion, and writing all night.

But I’m not nursing any illusions this time. I’m a contract worker, which means that the job could end whenever the money runs out. I do have health insurance, but I don’t even take that for granted.

God often has a way of taking us from famine to feast. Because I was out of work, I figured it was a good time to start on my master’s degree. I had the free time to devote to the classes and the papers I would have to write. But the second semester and work both started the same day. I have also partnered with a long-time colleague on an online magazine devoted to food in the area. Then, a couple of months go, we were approached by a Connecticut publishing firm to write a book. How could we say no?

So, my juggling act has gotten good lately, though I will admit not all of the knives have been in the air as long as others. I forced myself to check into a hotel room this past weekend in order to get away from it all and do nothing but work. It helped. I now feel more comfortable about the December book deadline than I have in weeks.

I now feel more connected to my classwork, even if I don’t get to post as much as I would like; and to my website’s readers; and to my job.

It’s great, except the bird is screaming because he’s being neglected. It’s a reminder — a very loud one, in fact — not to prop up any more illusions along the way. It’s out of my hands, and the more I remember that, the more I can focus on what needs to be done.

Kim chee? Puh-leeze.

Who is Kim Kardashian? And why does anyone in the world care about her or her marriage?

I know, she’s the ox-eyed, dark-haired creature that graces the covers of most every magazine you can buy next to the supermarket cash register. But who is she? And why would I care?

Why would anyone care?

Yet care they do.

The story of her filed 72-day marriage is the most popular story this morning on It’s been recommended by 1,361 people on And it’s a hot story on You could find it, too, on, though where it is now, I don’t know. And again, in case you didn’t get the message the first time, I don’t care.

I don’t watch television, so that puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to the vapid world of celebrities that fill the gossip pages. Even stories on “Dancing with the Stars” includes tidbits on Kim K. because her brother, Rob, is one of the remaining contestants. (I study ballroom dancing, so that show does have some tangential interest, but I don’t watch it, either.)

Yesterday, the news of her marital mistake managed to eclipse news that one of the presidential candidates had been accused of sexual harassment. And that, in turn, eclipsed reports that his campaign may or may not have claims of funding irregularities facing it. (The latter is far more serious than the former, but less “sexy” in type, so we’ll focus on how he treats women instead of where his campaign money is coming from.)

Yes, we are a shallow people. But on a certain level, we always have been (and by that I don’t mean Americans only. Read the Bible, ancient epics, the myths of the Greeks and the Chinese. We like flashy things, whether it’s bling or the human equivalent. And we are all prone to human error. The Greek gods were among the pettiest creations of all. Think of the mythical tale behind the Trojan War for evidence of that.

I just hope that we can muster enough courage and intellectual fortitude to prove the following letter on the Washington Post’s website wrong: “America is clearly only one election cycle away from a Kardashian as President.”