A simple test to determine if a food is objectively tasty

My friends, Kim and Andrew, were kind enough to include a dish of canned jellied cranberry sauce on their Thanksgiving table for me.

I love canned jellied cranberry sauce.

I also brought canned jellied cranberry sauce to my class's annual Thanksgiving feast and was shocked to learn that 13 of the 18 students present had never seen the stuff. They were fascinated by the sloughing sound the cranberry sauce made as it left the can, as well as the way to retained the can's shape, right down to the ridges.

Despite their fascination, only a handful of kids tried my cranberry sauce. Most thought it looked disgusting. One kid said it looked "processed and fake." None liked it very much.

But I understand why:

Canned jellied cranberry sauce not very good. I think it's delicious, but I know objectively that it's not. I have a nostalgic affection for the food, but in reality, there are far better cranberry sauces in the world.

How do I know it's not good? I apply the test that I apply to all foods to determine if they are actually tasty or only nostalgically or culturally tasty:

How difficult would it be for me to find this food in a restaurant?

Restaurants are the perfect labs for determining the tastiness of a food. If consumers objectively love a food, I will find it on a menu somewhere, and with relative ease. Restaurants want to make money, and they make money by satisfying their customers. The best foods will eventually land on menus.  

I can't find canned jellied cranberry sauce anywhere. Therefore, it ain't good.

The same can be applied to many nostalgically or culturally appreciated foods. My wife, for example, is Jewish. Foods like kugel and gefilte fish are beloved by her people. 

I happen to know that neither of these foods are particularly tasty, however, because you cannot find either of them in restaurants. No one wants to eat kugel or gefilte fish unless they have been eating them on religious holidays or family gatherings all of their lives, because these foods are nostalgically tasty. 

Not actually tasty.

Actually, in my experience, most Jews don't like gefilte fish either, but perhaps my sample size is small.

The opposite is true for a food like challah, a bread traditionally eaten by Jews. I can find challah on many menus. It is served as French toast in chain restaurants as ubiquitous as IHOP. It's used for sandwiches in many diners and sandwich shops. Challah is an objectively delicious food, and I know this because it has found its way off the Jewish holiday table and into the mainstream diet because it actually tastes good. 

Matzo ball soup is similar. It's little more than chicken soup with a matzo ball in it, but still, I see it on menus. It's a food that non-Jewish people love.

I have a friend who likes to bring green bean casserole to potluck gatherings. She says it's delicious. When probed, I quickly determined that she has been eating green bean casserole all her life. It's her grandmother's recipe. Of course she likes green bean casserole. I's nostalgically delicious. 

But is it actually good?

I have never seen green bean casserole on a restaurant menu. So no. It's not actually tasty. It's only nostalgically tasty. 

Besides, of all the things you could put in a casserole, why green beans?

By the way, if you look into the history of green bean casserole, you'll discover that it was invented by the Campbell's Soup Company in 1955.

Convenient since cream of mushroom soup is one of the primary ingredients.  

The inspiration for the dish was "to create a quick and easy recipe around two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup."

So the bar was pretty low when green bean casserole was invented:

Find two things that most Americans have in the pantry and mix them together.

Not exactly the makings of a delicious dish.

There will be people who push back against my test for objectively delicious food. They will argue that food need not be in restaurants to be objectively tasty. I understand why they feel this way. It's difficult to come to terms with the idea that the noodle pudding or green bean casserole that you and your family adore is not very tasty. 

I get it. I feel the same way about canned cranberry sauce. It's what my mother and her mother served at Thanksgiving every year, and it's fantastic. I love it. My whole family loves it. I told my wife that I want to eat it more often.

It's delicious.  

Nostalgically delicious. But that's okay. It doesn't make me like it any less, and on Thanksgiving, there is always more than enough for me.

Today I give thanks for something intangible and improbable and incredibly powerful

On this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for possibility.

Perhaps I will always be a mid-list author who publishes a novel every year or two.
A storyteller and speaker who takes the stage now and again to entertain audiences.
A screenwriter and playwright who is never paid very much for his craft. 
A very small business owner. 

And if that is the case, I will be a happy man.

I am doing what I love.

I have often said that I would like to someday write for a living and teach for pleasure, and while I am certainly not ready or able to give up my teaching salary, I am closer to this dream than I ever thought imaginable.

But with every book and every story and every screenplay and every musical comes the possibility for greater success. A larger readership. A broader fan base. An opportunity for more prolific career. The dream of a best seller.

In short, possibility.

I was standing in the copy room at my school on a Friday about ten years ago, complaining about the wedding that I had to minister and DJ the next day. A group of friends and colleagues were standing alongside me, listening to me complain.

Later on that day, one of my wiser and kinder colleagues took me aside and said this to me (paraphrased as best as I can recall):

There’s nothing wrong with you complaining about the wedding you have to work this weekend, but please don’t forget how lucky you are, too. Most of the people in this school and everywhere else receive a paycheck every week and that’s it. They have no other way to earn money. They will get their tiny raises every year, but that’s it. Probably forever. Unless they want to go to work on the weekend as a waitress or a cashier or maybe pick up a tutoring job, most people are stuck with the same salary for the rest of their lives.

You own a DJ company, and I know it’s hard work, but I also know how much a wedding DJ can make in one day. It’s a lot of money for a single day of work, and you spend that day with your best friend. It can’t be that bad, or you wouldn’t be doing it. It takes most people months to save that kind of money. And you write books. I don’t know how much you make off them, but it’s probably a lot in the eyes of the people working here. And you write musicals with Andy, and you write for magazines and the newspaper. And your books might be made into movies someday. You have a lot going on.

Just don’t forget how lucky you are to have these other ways to earn money for your family. And you’re doing what you love. Not everyone is so lucky, so just be careful about who you’re complaining to. Some people might wish that they were doing even some of the things you do.

That conversation has remained in my heart and mind, and I often think about it on days like today.

It is unlikely that I will be wealthy someday, but thanks to all of my creative and business pursuits, the possibility exists. As improbable as it may be, my life is filled with many unlikely ways of making my fortune. Retire young. Travel the world. Give my family everything they want. All while doing the things I love. 

Writing. Speaking. Entertaining. Teaching. 

It is unlikely that any of these pursuits will make me a fortune, and that's okay. I love my job and my students, and I feel incredibly lucky about the life I lead.

But I feel blessed with the ability to genuinely hope for so much more when so many cannot.

My colleague and friend was right. Possibility is a great thing. I am thankful for a life filled with it on this day.

If you don't have possibility in your life, why not start today? I'm constantly advising my friends to find something they love and try to find a way to earn money doing it.

Don't quit your day job, but invest just five hours a week pursuing your dream. If you're lucky, you may find yourself with a new and more exciting career someday, or maybe just an additional income stream doing something you love. 

Canned, jellied cranberry sauce will not go the way of the dodo (or the Twinkie) if I have anything to say about it.

For the lovers of canned, jellied cranberry sauce, here’s some terrifying news:

It would appear that this Thanksgiving Day staple is on the decline. When I went to the grocery store yesterday to pick up several cans of the stuff, I found it relegated to a two foot section of bottom shelf space in the baking aisle.


And half of those three feet were occupied by the ugly stepchild of jellied cranberry sauce:

Whole berry cranberry sauce in a can.


In addition, there was only one brand from which to choose, and only 12 cans in all. And before you propose that the limited quantity had something to do with Thanksgiving Day approaching, the entire area of shelf space afforded to canned, jellied cranberry sauce was filled.

There was only room enough for about 12 cans.

Whatever evil at work here must be stopped.

I have since learned that canned, jellied cranberry sauce is much more popular than I ever imagined. I apparently travel in foodie circles who view almost anything from a can as dog food. The typical cranberry sauce that I see is a homemade variety made from organically grown and personally harvested cranberries, mixed in with nuts, seeds, and other ingredients that have no business standing alongside cranberries.

Outside my food snob circles, though, canned cranberry sauce sales are not declining. 

I only pray that canned, jellied cranberry sauce is not like the Twinkie:

Universally beloved but rarely purchased.

A world without canned, jellied cranberry sauce would be too much to bear. 


18 reasons for me to be thankful on Thanksgiving 2014

1. My children, who are my greatest blessing in life. I find joy in everything that they do. Many people warned me about how difficult parenting would be. They were wrong.

2. My wife, the ideal mother and best wife. I married the pretty girl and the smart girl, and I still can’t quite believe it.

3. In these not-so-easy economic times, I am thankful to still find myself with the means of providing for my family.

I’m in my sixteenth year of teaching and love it today as much as I did when I began so long ago.

My DJ company remains successful after 19 years in business.

My writing career continues to prosper. My fourth novel will publish in November of 2015. My fifth is nearly complete, and I’ve also completed a memoir about a season of golf and an essay collection based upon my Moth stories. I also have a on-the-side novel that I am pecking away at that I like a lot, and a couple other writing projects, including a screenplay and two musicals.

I’m also fortunate enough to be paid for tutoring gigs, speaking gigs. and a variety of other side jobs. Finding work is not been a problem for me, and I know how fortunate I am for this.

4. I am thankful for The Moth, the storytelling organization that allows me to take a stage and tell stories. Since I began telling stories in 2011, I’ve competed in 26 StorySLAMs, 8 GrandSLAMs and two Mainstage shows. My stories have appeared on The Moth’s Radio Hour and their weekly podcast, and I’ve been fortunate enough to win 15 StorySLAM competitions so far.


This success has opened doors to storytelling opportunities with organizations like The Story Collider, Literary Death Match, The Liar Show, TED, The Mouth and more. The Moth made me a storyteller.

5. I’m grateful to the supportive and enthusiastic audiences who have made Speak Up possible. I first proposed Speak Up about four years ago in an effort to avoid trying my hand at The Moth, and when we finally launched it in 2013, I thought that we might get 30-40 people per show.

We have since sold out every show and now have partnerships with outside venues and schools to bring Speak Up to them. None of this would be possible if not for our audience, who fills our theater and welcomes our storytellers with rapt attention and enormous support.


6. I am thankful for my friends, a collection of honest, direct, intelligent, successful people who miraculously accept me for who I am and stand by me in times of trouble. Many are like family to me.

7. I am thankful for the Patriots, who are playing well and giving me reason to cheer on Sundays.


8. I am thankful for my students, both past and present, for making every day an adventure. It has been such an honor to get to know them like I do.

9. I am thankful for canned, jellied cranberry sauce. We should eat much more of this throughout the year.

10. I am thankful for Bluetooth headphones and the limitless supply of podcasts and music that pour forth from them on a daily basis.

11. I am thankful for pickup basketball and the occasional collisions in flag football. I’d be thankful for tackle football if I could find someone to play with me.

12. I am thankful for Kaleigh, a dog who can admittedly annoy us to no end but is the only other living being willing to climb out of bed at 4:00 AM with me and head downstairs to work. Almost every sentence that I compose is written with Kaleigh underfoot.

13. I’m thankful for Owen, our twenty pound bulimic house cat who wakes us in the middle of the night and bites us from time to time but accepts all of our children’s poking and prodding and full-body hugs with patience and love.

14. I’m thankful for our many babysitters, and especially Allison, who take such amazing care of our children when we are gallivanting about.

15. I’m thankful for my literary agent, my film agent, my editor, the booksellers of the world and all the other bookish and entertainment professionals who make my sentences sound gooder and help my stories find their way into readers’ hands.

16. I’m thankful for golf. Oh so thankful for golf.

17. I’m thankful for my family. A father who I am finally beginning to know. A brother who is back in my life after many years apart. A sister who should be writing more. Aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and cousins who my children are getting to know. And my wife’s family, who have taken me in and made me feel like a part of their family.


18. I am grateful for possibility.

Perhaps I will always be a slightly-less-than-midlist author who publishes a novel every year or two, and if that is the case, I will be a happy man.

I am doing what I love.

I have often said that I would like to someday write for a living and teach for pleasure, and while I am certainly not ready or able to give up my teaching salary, I am closer to this dream than I ever thought imaginable.

Really, really far away, too, but still closer than I ever thought possible.

But with every book comes the possibility for greater success. A larger readership. An opportunity for more prolific career. The dream of a best seller.

In short, possibility.

In addition, all three of my books have been optioned for film or television.  This does not mean that anything will ever happen with any of them, but once again, it represents possibility.

Then there is a memoir, a book of essays, a rock opera, a tween musical, a screenplay, my speaking and storytelling career, and more.

My life is filled with many unlikely ways to make my fortune. Retire young. Travel the world. Give my family everything they want.

None of this will probably never happen, and that is okay. I love my job and my students, and I feel incredibly lucky about the life I lead.

But I feel blessed with the ability to genuinely hope for so much more when so many cannot.

The preferred Thanksgiving Day meal time

I enjoyed a lovely and perfect Thanksgiving yesterday.

In the company of some of our best friends, we shared food, conversation and football. We chatted about our work and our children. We laughed at stories told from a year gone by. There was great debate over whether or not I am a hipster (I’m not).

In addition to the food and conversation, my son, Charlie, took more steps yesterday than he has at any other time in his life.

My daughter, Clara, who only eats fruits, breads, cheeses, yogurt, bacon (she doesn’t realize that it’s meat) and some vegetables, enjoyed a dinner slightly different than the rest of us and was understandably hungry when we arrived home that night,, but this was to be expected.

image image

It was truly a perfect day.

This post is not meant to impugn the perfection of the day in any way, but the only thing that could’ve made the day better was a change in start time. I believe that noon is the ideal time for the Thanksgiving Day meal. I have hosted Thanksgiving many times in my past, and whenever I did, food was on the table as close to 12:00 as possible.

A noontime meal provides these key benefits:

1. The meal does not interfere in any way with football. The first game of the day kicks off just as you finish eating.

2. The fabled late day turkey sandwich is now a possibility and a necessity. When I hosted Thanksgivings in the past, I made sure to have the best breads and cheeses for these late day sandwiches, which were oftentimes better than the meal itself.

3. Desserts can be eaten much later in the day, after the meal has been better digested. There’s nothing better than eating pie two hours after the meal the first football game enters halftime.

4. It eliminates the need for the awkward pre-Thanksgiving Day meal. Rather than eating a lunch that doesn’t consist of turkey or ham or skipping lunch entirely in order to save room, make the Thanksgiving meal the breakfast, lunch and dinner of the day.

5. It affords a drinker who’s had one too many glasses of wine during the meal the time needed to sober up.

6. Best of all, it transforms Thanksgiving into a all day affair, which is what it should be. 

I realize that the noontime meal is a rarity. Other than the ones that I have hosted the holiday, I have never experienced one myself, but I would argue that the closer to noon, the better.

J. Bryan Lowder of Slate suggests that the perfect time for a Thanksgiving dinner is 8:00 PM, claiming that:

“the harsh winter light streaming violently through the windows casts an unappealing pall across (the meal). Candles cannot hope to compete with the sun, so everyone looks and feels washed out and, as a result, prone to petty palpitations and the flaring up of old resentments.”

Apparently Lowder dines in some horrible, post-apocalyptic world, so if this is the case for you and the appearance of the food and your guests is critical to the success of the holiday, perhaps an 8:00 PM meal is a good idea.

But for those like me who live in a world where winter light doesn’t violently stream, candles burn with a fairly consistent flame and my friends look good in almost any light, the noontime meal might be something to consider.

Yesterday’s hosts admitted that there was definite appeal to the noontime meal save one:

The need to rise at some ungodly hour to begin preparations.

While it is true that you may need to begin cooking the turkey as early as 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, once the bird is in the oven, you can return to bed for a few hours and awaken to  house that already smells of Thanksgiving.

Not bad. Right?

I don’t know J. Bryan Lowder at all, and I’ve never read any of his work, but I don’t think I’d like to spend an evening dining with him anyway. The claim that “everyone knows that dinner—especially a dinner party—is served at the hallowed hour of 8:00 PM” is enough to make me think he’s at least a  pretentious snob and possibly worse.

This may not be a fair assessment at all, but all I have to judge is about 700 words.

Lowder’s only concession to his 8:00 start time is the admission that it’s inconvenient for anyone who has traveled from more than two hours away. But he also asserts that these people should probably be staying the night anyway.

Knowing nothing about this guy, I have to assume that he’s about 25 years-old, lives in Brooklyn, enjoys Thanksgiving with six other hipster friends in an apartment somewhere in Williamsburg, and may actually live on the set of HBO’s Girls. Lowder has no idea what “staying the night” might mean for a family of three or four with small children or a host whose home isn’t blessed with a guest room or even an elderly grandparent.

I know it’s hard to think beyond a two foot radius at times, but c’mon.

Unless your Thanksgiving excludes children, anyone over 55 and anyone traveling more than 30 minutes from their home, an 8:00 mealtime is simply insane.

I don’t even think a regular dinner party should begin at 8:00. But the again, I’ve never been very interested in what “everyone knows.”

This piece in Slate by Allison Benedikt is ridiculous link bait. It’s also offensive to my children.

I love Slate. I probably read Slate more than anything else on the Internet. But occasionally Slate publishes pieces that amount to nothing more than link bait, and Allison Benedikt’s piece entitled No Thanksgivukkah: The portmanteau holiday is bad for Jews and bad for America, is clearly one of them.


Bad for America? The hyperbole in the subtitle alone is ridiculous, and it’s an argument that she fails to address at any point in the piece.

Not once is her perceived threat to America discussed.

Pure, unadulterated link bait. I should stop right there. This alone should be indictment enough. But I’ll proceed, because I was so annoyed by this piece.  

As you may know, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah overlap this year for the first time in 125 years this year. This won’t happen for another 70,000 years, so even the need for making an argument like this is questionable at best.

Get over it, Benedikt. It’s one year.

But the rationale behind Benedikt’s objections are just as ridiculous, probably because link bait is hard to write. If it’s not hyperbolic nonsense, readers won’t click. But hyperbolic nonsense is difficult to pass off as rational. 

Benedikt has three objections to Thanksgivukkah. Here they are in the order that she presents them:

I don’t want my kids to think Thanksgiving is a “present holiday.”

And while Thanksgivukkah is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, I guarantee that every little Jewish boy and girl who gets a gift on Thursday will, going forward, expect gifts on the fourth Thursday of November—forever.

Ridiculous. Jewish children will receive presents immediately after the lighting of the candles as a part of Hanukkah,, as it has been done every year before. The traditional will remain the same, except that it will be buffered by turkey and stuffing. Unless you wrap the child’s gift in the turkey carcass, it will be crystal clear that these presents have nothing to do with the Pilgrims, cranberry sauce or football.

Even if there are children who are stupid or monstrous enough to expect gifts the following year, they will not receive them, thus ending all future expectations.

As parents, we say no and move on.

And let’s be realistic. This isn’t going happen. Perhaps the most demonic and materialistic children might expect gifts for one additional year, but these monsters are few and far between, and their expectations will only last one year. For children of such ill repute, this kind of  disappointment is probably needed and deserved.

I also find it  fairly offensive to assume that my children will expect gifts on Thanksgiving next year, which Benedikt does when she “guarantees” that “every little Jewish boy and girl… will expect gifts on the fourth Thursday of November—forever.”

Hyperbole? Probably. But don’t lump my children into your exaggeration. I am confident that many, many little Jewish girls and boys are smart enough to understand the difference between the two holidays, even when they overlap, including my own. Leave my kids out of your link bait. You insult them and all their sensible brethren when you do so. 

Sweet and sour braised brisket with cranberry sauce is an abomination.

The argument here is that Jewish food and Thanksgiving Day food does not mix well.

I realize how important food is to the Jewish tradition, but the need to bifurcate these food items lest they be ruined is obviously stupid.

Because my favorite thing about Thanksgiving is that it’s secular.

Allison Benedikt is a Jewish woman married to an atheist man who celebrates the traditions of Christmas. This describes our family as well. My wife is Jewish, and I am a reluctant atheist who loves Santa, Christmas trees and holiday music.

Benedikt struggles with the issues surrounding these religious differences, as did her parents for a time. She expresses as much on a recent podcast, and it’s also hinted at in her piece.

But this sounds like much more of a personal problem for Benedikt than one that impacts a large number of people. It’s really not hard to differentiate between the two holidays, even when they fall on the same day.

It’s really not hard at all.

Besides, in my experience, Hanukkah is celebrated in most Jewish homes for about 15 minutes every night.

Maybe longer if dinner is part of the celebration.

Light some candles, say a prayer, open a gift, and perhaps eat a traditional Jewish meal on one or more of the nights. In fact, I have been told on many occasions (sometimes with great vehemence) that Hanukkah is actually a minor Jewish holiday that has only gained notoriety because of its proximity to Christmas and the desire for retail establishments to capture the Jewish consumer as well.

The overlap between the two holidays is hardly daylong. 

Benedikt suspects that she is not alone in her desire for the secular and the religious to remain separate, and I agree. But I also think that she’s in a minority, and it’s a minority that has yet to work through their religious differences with themselves and their spouses. When it’s “a relief it is to have this one major holiday that isn’t in some part about what I am and my husband is not (Jewish), or what he is and I’m not (Christmas-celebrating),” you haven’t exactly embraced the religious diversity in your home.

Instead of worrying about explaining to your kids why mom believes this and dad believes that, why not just embrace a multi-religious view in which all religious views are treated equally, absent any pressure for anyone to conform?

If that seems too radical, remember that this threat to Jews and America will not happen again for another 70,000 years.

Grin and bear it for 24 hours.