Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The 2011 Memorial Day Hot Dog Challenge

This story may cause a bit of a controversy (in my household at least). You see, on Friday afternoon The Wife suggested that we take the Little Monsters to the Worcester Public Library to check out some stuff and try to get some museum passes for the long Memorial Day weekend. She also suggested that we stop at Coney Island (also known as George's Coney Island or Coney Island Lunch) for some hot dogs afterward. Now, I have previously detailed a little bit about the fact that The Wife tends to have us eat a bit more healthily than I did back in my bachelor days--when my meals consisted largely of mac & cheese and takeout food. See Night of the Living Bread for more on this topic. While I am not a big fan of tofu and multi-grain bread, I do understand and appreciate that she is trying to get our little family to eat as healthy as possible, and to try to keep me around for a few more years than I might last if I eat the stuff I really want to eat. Suffice to say, we don't go out to Coney Island on a regular basis. It's a special treat to get such an opportunity. With all that in mind, I was certainly interested in going there on Friday. My arm didn't need to be twisted or anything.

George's Coney Island in Worcester MA

At night Coney Island's magnificent neon sign beckons passersby with its dripping mustard!

Here's a little video to show the true magnificence of the sign at night. Unfortunately the "DO" was out on one side on this particular night, but you can still get the idea.

This place is a Worcester (MA) institution. Their specialty is (not surprisingly) Coney Island Hot Dogs! I know that there are a LOT of places that claim to sell the best hot dogs, and many different cities and regions have their own take on how a hot dog should be served. I haven't taken stock of all the different styles of hot dogs around the country (though I wouldn't mind embarking on a trip based around doing just that!), but from my experience, Coney Island Hot Dogs rank right up there at the top. They take a grilled dog (important) and add mustard, an absolutely divine meat sauce and onions in their "The Works" dogs. You can have them other ways, but this is what George's Coney Island is known for. If you ever see someone at the counter ordering a hamburger it's a pretty safe bet that they've never been in the place before and they don't really know what they're doing.

Anyway, to get back to the story, we entered Coney Island Friday evening and I proceeded to get my usual order of "four, no onions". True, I'm missing out on a part of the true Coney Island experience, but I just don't like onions. It may not be a "genuine" Coney Dog, but it's still more than delicious! Plus, there is an unwritten and unspoken tradition between George's Coney Island and myself; you see, I always order mine with no onions--yet every time I go there at least one of my hot dogs will invariable have one (1) onion either on top of it, or hidden in the sauce. I've gotten over the disappointment of biting into one of my dogs and having an unsatisfying crunch of onion, and now I would actually be disappointed if there wasn't an onion in there somewhere. It would feel like the order of the world was out of whack or something.

Here's where the story gets interesting. As we were enjoying our meal of processed meat tubes, The Wife innocently quipped: "We should see how many hot dogs we can eat this weekend". Now, according to her, she meant it as a joke. Actually, she supposedly didn't mean anything at all by it--and even forgot that she had said it. On the other hand, I heard the challenge issued loud and clear and I took it very seriously! The challenge was on.

A photo from a previous visit to Coney Island (note the "bonus" onion!)


The next morning we were at a yard sale at our local library which was sponsored by the Boy Scouts. They had a snack area set up where they were selling coffee, soda, chips and...hot dogs. I mentioned to The Wife that I should get a hot dog (at 10:30 in the morning, as she'd later point out) to add to the four I'd already had the night before at Coney Island for the "challenge". She looked at me dumbfounded and asked "WHAT challenge?". When I reminded her of what she said Friday she pleaded ignorance. Either way, I did indeed order one (it was for a good cause after all), and the total was now up to FIVE HOT DOGS.

We next went to the Ecotaruim in Worcester, a nice little natural history/science museum which was previously known as the Worcester Science Center and the New England Science Center. We checked out all the exhibits and rode the little train around the property and then...made our way to the refreshment stand which we discovered is now run by a well-known Worcester restaurant. I considered (to the consternation of The Wife) getting another hot dog there, but the line was too long and an opportunity was wasted. The total stood at FIVE.

But, later that evening we were planned on visiting some of our friends and hanging out with them for a while. When we see them we usually either make food there or get takeout (subs or Chinese food). However, it turned out that they were having a big spontaneous cookout for Memorial Day weekend. In addition to a bunch of tasty side dishes they grilled up chicken, steak, hamburgers and...bratwursts. After a bit of consideration I decided that brats are close enough cousins to hot dogs to count toward the challenge. I was already eating one when the decision was made (by me), and then I just had to have another one.


Sunday was a good day. The weather was nice and sunny. We had arranged for a babysitter so The Wife and I could get a little time to ourselves. We went to Red Robin Gourmet Burgers for lunch. Sadly, while Red Robin specializes in great hamburgers, they don't serve hot dogs. We had a very nice day all around, but the total for the challenge remained stuck at SEVEN by the end of it. A valuable day was "wasted" and there was only one day left of the long weekend. Which brings us to...Memorial Day.

Monday started out with some rain showers, and even a little thunder and lightning that threatened our town's Memorial Day parade. Luckily it did happen and we were able to watch it with the aid of rain coats and umbrellas.

The Little Monster greets a giant Duckie on a rain-soaked street during the Memorial Day parade

After the parade we were planning on having a cookout (hamburgers and...hot dogs). The sky started to brighten and the sun started poking out just as I fired up the charcoal. The rest of the day was beautiful (if a little muggy). A look at the plate below shows that I had a little bit of everything. If I was truly taking this Hot Dog Challenge seriously I should have replaced the hamburger, grilled veggies, broccoli salad and potato salad with three additional hot dogs, but I did want to enjoy myself and try everything available. The single hot dog brought the total up to EIGHT hot dogs--and this one was a Hillshire Farms Cheddarwurst dog! But there were only a few precious hours left of the challenge.

Memorial Day Dish

I was able to muster up enough stomach space to have a regular Oscar Mayer hot dog a little later (NINE), and while cleaning up I finished the half of The Little Monster's hot dog that she didn't eat. This brought the total up to NINE-AND-A-HALF hot dogs late on Monday evening. It looked like the end of the challenge, but later in the night I reheated a leftover cheddarwurst dog and managed to (barely) get the total into double-digits!

The final hot dog of the weekend--and the challenge!


Now I realize of course that ten-and-a-half hot dogs over a four day period only averages out to a little over two-and-a-half per day. This is a paltry sum for a "challenge" and absolutely nothing compared to what will be going on in the real Coney Island on the Fourth of July when Nathan's has their annual hot dog eating contest, but it still meant something to me. For a guy who doesn't usually get a chance to go off on a hot dog rampage like this, it was a very fulfilling and filling weekend!

The challenge is over, but fear not--it's only the beginning of the summer and I'm sure a lot more hot dogs are just waiting to be eaten over the next few months. This coming Saturday we're planning on going to a Worcester Tornadoes baseball game. Can you go to a baseball game and NOT have a hot dog? The adventure continues...

A hot dog from a Tornadoes game last year

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Star Wars Day at Higgins Armory Museum

Higgins Armory in Worcester, MA is a great museum filled with arms and armor from the days of knights. While its impressive collection ("The only museum in the Western Hemisphere dedicated to the collection of arms, armor and art.") is reason enough to visit, this past Saturday (May 21) we had an additional enticement--it was the museum's third annual Star Wars Day! Sure, it was also "Judgement Day" and/or "The Rapture", but that didn't deter us in the least. In addition to all the great historical arms and armor from our own planet usually on display, it was a chance to see weapons, armor and characters from "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

The Little Monster has a love/hate relationship with people in big costumes, such as team mascots, Disney World characters and the like (she calls them all "Characters"). This has caused some issues when we go to sporting events. She loves that there are giant six-foot-tall sharks, cats, dogs and other creatures walking around and knows they're supposedly friendly, but when they get too close and it becomes possible to interact with them (get an autograph, take a picture with them, give them a high-five...) she gets a little scared. While The Monster has watched and enjoyed the original Star Wars trilogy (I haven't seen any reason to expose her to the second, Jar Jar Binks-riddled trilogy yet) I wasn't exactly sure how she'd react to actually meeting characters from the movies.

Anyway, I just found out that Star Wars Day at Higgins Armory would be taking place a few days beforehand. The Little Monster has just missed meeting characters from Star Wars (mainly Stormtroopers) at local events on a number of occasions where I either didn't know about their appearances until it was too late, or because we already had some other commitment when they were going on. It became imperative that we make it to THIS one.

Imperial forces mingle with visitors at the entrance to the museum

When we pulled into the Higgins Armory parking lot around 11:00 we saw a long line of people waiting to get in and to meet/greet the characters out front. With the help of a free pass we were able to walk past the line and enter the museum (after snapping a few photos with various members of the Imperial forces). Funny how it seems that the vast majority of the characters who show up for these events are from the Imperial (Bad Guys) side rather than the Rebel (Good Guy) side. I suppose part of that is because the vast majority of the Imperial force is made up of helmeted and armored personnel that fans enjoy dressing up as. And, to be fair, I also suppose that the Clone Troops from the second trilogy would be considered good guys more than bad guys (at least up to a certain point). That could all get kind of confusing... Anyway, let's look at the photos.

The Little Monster poses with a Snow Trooper and an Imperial Scout

The Little Monster and Monster Dad with an Imperial Death Star gunner

A special moment for Monster Dad as the Imperial Scout holds up Monster Dad's very own 1977-era Stormtrooper that he played with as a Monster Kid!

Inside the museum's entrance we met up with Queen Amidala. The Little Monster does enjoy such "girlish" things as princesses and ponies in addition to Monster Kid-type stuff, so she was happy to see a female character dressed up as a "princess". In fact, I made the mistake of saying "Hey, do you want me to get a picture of you with the Princess?" before correcting myself and saying "...I mean the Queen". Looks like my Geek license may have to be revoked! Well, to top it off, after I apologized for the gaffe, Queen Amidala said to me: "Actually, Senator would also be acceptable." Well, whatever the right title, we did indeed get the photo.

The Little Monster with Queen/Senator Amidala

Next, we went up to the fourth floor and actually checked out some of the museum's regular offerings. Normally this collection would be the whole reason to come to the museum (and it really is a place that anyone interested in knights, armor and weapons from Medieval times to the Renaissance really should visit), but today this awesome collection was merely a sidelight.

A really cool-looking Japanese dragon statuette

Just a few of the many suits of armor on display at the museum

Some helmets from days long gone by

While we were on the fourth floor balcony overlooking the Great Hall, we took in a Light Saber demonstration. The museum regularly has talks and demonstrations about armor and swords throughout the day, but today's demonstrations were mainly Star Wars-related, of course.

The "Jedi Master" introduces the demonstration

Old-school style sword fight, but with Light Sabers

I didn't get many photos of the Great Hall itself, but here's a couple pics from the "diorama" (for lack of a better, more impressive word) of two mounted knights engaged in a joust:

Note the Light Saber in the background as the demonstration continues

There is also a newer exhibit on the second floor (at least this was the first time I've seen it--though I haven't been to the museum for quite a few years) called the Department of Curiosities. This is a fascinating place filled with fantastic (and fictional) artifacts, creatures and other things from an imaginary world. It looks like something out of a Jules Verne book.

A cool-looking flying contraption among the items in the Department of Curiosities

Dragon heads mounted on the wall

Imaginative diving suit and another dragon

The skeleton of a young Centaur

This refrigerated creature made The Little Monster (and Monster Dad too) think of the Abominable Snowman--of course

And we could only wonder about the size of the creature that belonged to this skeletal hand

Getting back to Star Wars, outside of the Department of Curiosities we found Boba Fett with his own Personal Assistant (an Imperial officer) guiding him amongst adoring fans.

For a ruthless bounty hunter, Boba Fett was pretty good about signing autographs for his young fans

That's a bit more like what you'd expect a photo of Boba Fett to look like!

The Little Monster with Boba Fett

After having seen most of what there was to see (you can't really see everything in the museum in single visit), and with the Little Monsters showing signs of tiredness, we decided to head down to the gift shop before going home.

Photo-op with a non-StarWars-related character in the gift shop

A new look for The Little Monster!

And then, as we left we encountered even more Star Wars denizens on the way out the door! My wife informed me that we just missed C-3PO, who was heading upstairs while we were waiting to pay for a couple postcards and a pink dragon eraser in the gift shop. Oh well, maybe next time...

The Monster meets someone nearly her own size, a Jawa

How often do you get a chance to meet Boba Fett? We just had to get another photo with him!

Hanging out with a couple different types of Clone Troopers

The Little Monster and Monster Dad with a Snow Trooper and a TIE Fighter Pilot

As we headed across the street to the parking lot The Little Monster informed me that she wasn't shivering this time as she posed for the photos above. Apparently she confessed to her Mom that she was shivering with nerves when we took the first photos after we arrived, but warmed up to the idea enough to not find herself shivering by the end. I guess now I know that even Star Wars characters can cause a nervousness in her similar (if not quite as acute) to when she encounters oversized team mascots and Disney characters. Question answered.

That's pretty much the whole story, but here's a little more info and some potentially useful links for further reading:

Participating in the 3rd annual Higgins Armory Star Wars Day were: the New England Garrison of the 501st Legion, the Alderaan Base of the Rebel Legion, and the Higgins Armory Sword Guild.

The official Higgins Armory website is at: http://www.higgins.org/

And here's the 501st Legion's mission report about Star Wars Day at Higgins Armory

May The Force Be With You!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's the End of the World as We Know it and I Feel Full

Today (May 21, 2011) is supposedly Judgment Day and the date of The Rapture (according to some). I'm going to assume that if you're reading this that the date came and went without incident. I seem to have heard/read somewhere that the actual Rapture is supposed to happen at 6:00 PM. That's a pretty precise pinpointing, but I don't know if that's 6:00 PM EST (my time) or if it's 6:00 on the west coast, or 6:00 PM Greenwich Mean Time, or 6:00 PM in Australia...

Anyway, I figured that the impending Judgment Day was a perfect time for me to take stock of my Zombie Apocalypse supplies. I have a number of MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) and it's always a good idea to rotate your stock if you have them in storage--getting rid of older ones and replacing them with newer ones. I had two-each of Menu No. 6 (Chicken With Noodles) and decided to eat the older one (which was from 2007) to commemorate this (non) momentous occasion!

Here's my two Chicken With Noodles MREs

The one on the left is the one from 2007 (today's lunch)

MREs are a shelf-stable ration designed for the U.S. Armed Forces. They make an excellent choice for camping, hunting, hiking and stocking up for disasters (both natural and man-made). A lot of people don't appreciate MREs (they're not exactly five-star-restaurant-cuisine or anything). But if you find yourself looking for something to eat after a hurricane (Katrina for example) or an earthquake (like the recent one in Japan) they suddenly seem VERY appetizing, to say the least.

MRE's have changed a lot since the late-1980s, when I was in the Army. Not only has the flavor quality improved, the menus themselves have gotten a lot more appetizing-sounding too. The people who design, develop and produce MREs are constantly working to improve not only their shelf life, but also the quality, flavor and variety of them. They know that the main consumer of MREs are the soldiers who are out there doing their duty for our country.

The Chicken With Noodles MRE that I chose for this review had a date code of 7171 (see photo above). For more information about how to read date codes check out this page at MREInfo.com. MREInfo.com is the place to go for pretty much anything you ever wanted to know about MREs and other rations. This particular MRE was sealed up on the 170th day of 2007, which means it is four years old. Believe it or not, that's still pretty young for an MRE that's been stored appropriately. They can easily last ten years or more and still be edible. Since I bought this one on eBay and don't know its history I have no idea if it was stored well or not. Oh well, that's what a taste test is for.

Here's our MRE for today

Here's what the contents look like when pulled out of the bag

And here are all the contents spread out for easy viewing

Here's a list of the contents of my Chicken With Noodles MRE (and their date codes, where applicable):
  • Chicken, Noodles, Vegetables in Sauce (7128C)
  • Cocoa Beverage Powder (7108)
  • Crackers (7163)
  • Cheese Spread (7101)
  • Chocolate Sports Bar W/Chocolate Coating (7115)
  • Peanut M&M's
  • Accessory Pack "A"* (A 7169)
  • Tabasco Sauce
  • Flameless Ration Heater (FRH)
  • Hot Beverage Bag
  • Spoon
*Accessory Pack "A" contains: instant coffee, creamer, sugar, salt, matches, toilet paper, moist towelette and chewing gum.

Here's the accessory pack

And the other side of the accessory pack (note the "A" before the date code)

Here's a few examples of the date codes stamped on most components

The Flameless Ration Heater is a great addition to MREs that wasn't around when I was in the Army. We usually just ate them cold. There weren't many options for heating them up in the field. You weren't likely to have a chance to build a campfire and boil a pot of water. If you had a vehicle of some sort at your disposal, you could put an entree on the engine block, or in front of the heater. Otherwise you would most likely just have to accept the fact that you were going to be eating your meal at whatever temperature it was at the moment. Nowadays, you can put your entree (plus your side dish, coffee and/or cocoa if you want) into the FRH, add a little water, and it will heat it all up in about ten or fifteen minutes. I decided to eat this MRE as though I was in the field and didn't have anything that wasn't included in it (other than water). This means that I used the FRH for the Chicken With Noodles.

This is our entree for today (Chicken, Noodles, Vegetables In Sauce)

And, here it is out of the cardboard envelope, with the FRH underneath

One of the "funniest" things about MREs is something that is found in the instructions for the FRH. You are supposed to stuff your food to be heated into the FRH, add a small amount of water, fold the top over, stuff it back into the cardboard box the entree came in and then elevate the top of the whole assembly at an angle for maximum heating efficiency. The instructions include little illustrations to make it as easy to understand as possible (including for people who don't read English or don't read at all). The picture that tells you to elevate the FRH shows it resting on a rock, and it says "Rock Or Something".

Instructions on the FRH

And a closeup of the infamous "Rock Or Something"!

I also love this warning for people who might be tempted to eat the chemical heating unit in the FRH!

The FRH with the entree inside, already activated with water

The heating assembly put back into the entree's box and propped up on a "Rock Or Something"

Because of the amount of food (and calories, sodium, fat, sugar, carbs...) that an MRE contains (roughly the amount an active soldier in the field would need for a day), I didn't eat everything in this one in one sitting. I didn't drink the coffee (as I am not a coffee drinker) and saved the M&M's, Crackers and Cheese Spread for later. An entire MRE can certainly be eaten in one sitting (depending on the needs of the individual), but it can also be spread out to last for two--or even three--meals if necessary.

Cheese and crackers will make a nice snack later (as will the Peanut M&M's)

While waiting for the Chicken and Noodles to heat up I went ahead and added water to the Cocoa Beverage Powder and shook it up. The newer pouches for most of the beverage powders have a little zip-lock top so you can pour water in and shake it up right in the pouch with no mess. In the old days you's have to mix it in your canteen cup or try to stir it up in the smaller pouches they used to come it. Either way, you usually ended up with a bit of a mess.

Here's the Cocoa Powder pouch (note the contoured shape which makes it easier to grip for shaking)

Once the cocoa was made and the Chicken With Noodles was heated up it was time to eat. I don't exactly have an "educated palate" or anything, but I think that I would know something that tasted terrible if I ate it. I certainly give MREs a lot of leeway when it comes to flavor because of the fact that it's designed to sit in a plastic bag and be stored for months or years before being eaten--and still remain safe to eat. I would never directly compare what's found in an MRE to something that I might expect to be served in a fine restaurant. That being said, I thought the Chicken With Noodles tasted very good. I certainly wouldn't complain if I were out in the field and this was the only thing available for me to eat. In fact, I can think of a few things that might be available that I would choose this over. The chicken may be processed, but it does taste like chicken. The noodles are fine. There aren't a lot of the promised vegetables (but I'm not a big veggie guy anyway). And the whole thing is held together by a rather thick gravy sauce that tastes salty, but good. I really saw nothing to complain about with this entree (and keep in mind that it was four years old too!). Most MREs today contain a little bottle of Tabasco sauce (ostensibly to counter the bad taste of an entree and cover it up with a little kick of spice). I've never used the Tabasco on my MREs. While I'm not a big fan of spicy food in general, I've also never felt that the flavor of (the vast majority of ) the meals I've had really needed to be covered up.

This meal is now "Ready to Eat"

Trust me, it tastes better than it looks

Come on, you know you want to try it!

The cocoa was sweet and chocolatey, and I thought it was fine drinking it cold rather than hot. The Chocolate Sports Bar was basically your standard energy bar. Pretty much a chewy candy bar. I like sweets, so I had no problem with this either. As far as the stuff I didn't eat, I already know what to expect from Peanut M&M's (though it would be interesting to see how a four year old pack of them would hold up compared to the components that were actually designed to keep food fresh for up to ten years). And I already know that I like the Crackers and the Cheese Spread. This particular one was a plain spread, but they also come in different varieties (Cheese Spread With Jalapenos, Cheese Spread With Bacon), and there are also quite a few different types of peanut butter and jelly too.

Cocoa...shaken, not stirred (and cold, not hot)

The Chocolate Sports Bar, W/Chocolate Covering (shows some signs of aging, but tasted fine)

Do you think you'd like to try an MRE? Let's hope that you never find yourself in a situation where you have to eat one. But if you do, I think you'll find that they're nothing to be too worried about. It's all real food. Maybe not exactly what you'd want to eat on a daily basis, but it will keep you alive if it's a choice between an MRE and starvation. Oh yeah, there are a number of vegetarian entrees among the 24 different meals too.

I also made a video of this particular MRE opening/eating, and posted it on YouTube. If you just can't get enough of this stuff, check it out!