I’d like to make a few hundred Christmas cookies, but most of the people who might eat them are relocated, dead, or not speaking to me. Instead, yesterday I window shopped for cookie ingredients. Yes, it’s pathetic, but I could be strapping reindeer antlers onto my cats and sucking the rum out of fruitcakes. History shows that I’m not above such things.

I admit that in past years my desire to make cookies sometimes exceeded my will to make cookies. I devoted too much time to other holiday activities like writing Christmas cards and playing World of Warcraft. No choice remained other than slinking to Tom Thumb to score some pre-made cookie dough, as if the Pillsbury Doughboy were a street corner dealer of bootleg holiday cheer. Yesterday, out of nostalgia, I glanced at the cookie dough tubes as I sailed past towards the chocolate chips. I jerked my cart to a halt, and I said, out loud, in the middle of the aisle with toddlers around, “Holy sheep shit from hell.”

This is what I saw.

















Don’t eat the raw cookie dough. At least they said “please.” I’ve heard rumors that raw dough may not be good for you, but I figured that’s because it clogs your arteries and makes you die, which we all know is a small price for eating cookie dough. I didn’t realize that cookie dough’s perils warranted an actual warning label. Since childhood I’ve eaten a barrel of the stuff, and almost everybody I know has eaten it too. I’ve never heard of a person who, when provided access to raw dough, didn’t instantly stick some in his mouth.

I didn’t know what was going on, but I decided to go home and find out.

As a member of the ever-evolving species homo sapiens, I employed our latest strategy for responding to life-threatening situations. I went to Google. I “googled” the phrase “raw cookie dough kills you dead.” I got five brazillion hits. (That’s a real number—kind of. Look it up.) I only had time to read two brazillion of them. WebMD, the Centers for Disease Control, the New York Times, and many others agreed—raw cookie dough is horrible. Don’t eat it. While you’re at it, stay out of the cake, brownie, and biscuit mix too. If your mom offers it to you, spit it out.

Here’s the deal. Back in 2009 an e. coli outbreak made 77 people sick. Doctors looked into it and figured out that they all ate cookie dough that must have been contaminated somehow. They ruled out eggs (pasteurized). It couldn’t be the sugar, molasses, baking soda, or margarine (all treated for pathogens). If you’re about to suggest it was the chocolate, shut the hell up right now. It must have been the flour, which is horrible, nasty stuff never treated for deadly substances, even though humans have been eating it for thousands of years. The doctors didn’t uncover hard evidence. There was no smoking flour gun. But by process of elimination, flour must have been the deadly ingredient.

These doctors are called epidemiologists, and they study what makes bunches of people sick and/or die. They probably pegged it when they blamed the flour. I believe them.

With the smooth efficiency of a guided missile cruiser, our medical professionals, our government, and the news media terrified people across the nation by exposing the raw cookie dough threat. Bake the dough before you eat it, or you’re courting death. No exceptions. Well, the raw dough in ice cream is okay. It’s “likely” treated in a way that makes it safe. That’s what the doctor said. “Likely treated.” I’m sure they don’t want to make Ben and Jerry do away with a popular flavor.

I’m going to piss off every person reading this by saying, Let’s Do The Math. Hang in there with me.

How many people eat raw dough? About half of college students eat raw dough. Lots of them buy it just to eat—why cook it? That means about 11 million of them eat raw dough.

How many of them get sick from it? Well, the 2009 outbreak was 77 people, not too big, and that’s based on the whole population of the USA. Let’s be generous and say that lots more students get sick—maybe 1,000 per year. That makes their odds of getting sick about 1 in 11,000.

On the other hand, falling down also hurts a lot people.  Your chance of falling down and hurting yourself badly enough to go to the hospital is about 1 in 40 each year.

But let’s give these students a break—after all, they’re quicker on their feet that an old guy like me. Maybe their chance of getting hurt falling down is only 1 in 100.

That means that these students are about 100 times more likely to get hurt falling down than to get sick from eating raw dough.

So what I want to know is when I’ll see a big story on CNN about the dangers of standing upright, along with some stern warnings about dragging yourself along on your ass everywhere you go so you don’t fall down and die. If you happen to catch that news report, please tweet me.

I hear the objections. Walking around is necessary, while eating raw dough is optional. Well, if you’ve ever gone over to your girlfriend’s house and found your clothes and your laptop scattered across her front yard, you know that eating raw cookie dough is non-optional.

I won’t advocate that you eat raw dough. I can’t. If I do then some slope-browed yokel will eat four jumbo tubes of the stuff and sue me all the way to Armageddon. But I myself am a little tired of giving in to manufactured terror, and if eating sugary globs of dough counts as a blow against cowardice and stupidity, then I’m happy to strike that blow.

Besides, this sets my precedent for the day when doctors say orgasms are bad for you.

I’m fairly sure that Disney is trying to kill me. I don’t mean they plan to wipe me out with an obvious weapon, and they don’t want me to flop over dead in the middle of the Country Bear Jamboree. That would cause talk, and the paperwork would be a bitch. Instead, I think they intend for my heart to explode like a super nova while I’m mowing the yard in about five years.

You see, we’re on the Disney Meal Plan. It’s not just the Disney Meal Plan, mind you. It’s the Disney Deluxe Meal Plan. My wife’s father, who is hosting this trip, graciously and generously furnished this plan, and I’m grateful to him for his kindness. I knew it was something special when we checked into the hotel. The desk clerk looked at our paperwork, raised her eyebrows, and said, “Oh, you’re on the DELUXE Meal Plan,” just as she might say, “Oh, you reserved a UNICORN to carry you around Fantasyland.”

But I still didn’t appreciate what that meant until our first afternoon in the Magic Kingdom when we decided to eat. We inquired at a small restaurant and were told the wait was rather long. In fact, my wife and her traces of blood sugar would have been convulsing on the pavement at Goofy’s feet if we’d waited that long. So we trotted across the street to buy hot dogs.

I ordered two hot dogs and a small Diet Coke, and I gave the nice lady my meal plan card. The nice lady looked annoyed with me. After a couple of minutes of gesturing and shouting over the 50 other orders in progress, she made me understand that if you have a meal plan there is no such thing as a hot dog and a drink. If we wanted to use the meal plan for two hot dogs, we would get two deluxe hot dogs. Mine had chili and cheese. My wife’s came with pulled pork and slaw. Also, small drinks don’t exist for meal plan owners. We’d get large drinks, and two of them. Didn’t we want the French fries? She hoped so, because we were going to get them anyway. Oh, and we’d better not walk out of there without our mandatory two desserts. Stunned, my wife and I shuffled out of the place carrying what looked like a picnic table full of food, with a cellophane-wrapped fudge brownie clutched in my right hand.

We regrouped and changed tactics, like guerillas who’ve just been beaten by superior firepower. From then on we ordered one meal and split it whenever possible. We still ate like bears in spawning season. The breakfast egg sandwich was as big as half a dozen Egg McMuffins. I am not kidding. That worked out okay when we could order standing up. But if the restaurant was more sophisticated than a taco stand in Juarez, it didn’t let us get away with any of this ordering-one-meal-to-split-between-us bullshit. Two people get two meals, plus appetizers, beverages, and desserts. If we suggested otherwise, we got wry looks, as if they thought we might be socialists.

I left some good food on several tables. Things culminated last night at a wonderful restaurant. I nibbled on my appetizer, knowing I had to pace myself for the entree and the dessert. I’d ordered pastitsio, sort of a Greek lasagna, even though the waitress warned me that it was “heavy.” It arrived in a bowl as big as my face and three inches deep. I now know that in Greek “heavy” means nine macaroni noodles, a shred of ground beef, and four pounds of béchamel sauce.

I began digging through the pastitsio, looking for something other than that mass of butter and milk with the same specific gravity as uranium. I started to think of this meal as arsenic injected directly into my heart muscle.

As an aside, throughout my struggle with this entree, the wait staff was several times forced into frivolous birthday singing and shouting for embarrassed diners. My god, why don’t restaurants allow their servers to retain some dignity? They should just comp the birthday boys and girls a martini and a lottery ticket. Maybe a hooker if you ordered the lobster.

My wife, her step-mother, and I all surrendered to our monolithic tubs of pastitsio after several minutes of unsuccessful excavation. The wreckage looked like this:

I almost rebelled and refused dessert, just to challenge the restaurant into reprisals. My courage failed, and I ordered chocolate cake. How could they screw up chocolate cake? The waitress soon brought me an unfrosted disc of cake, the size, shape, and color of a hockey puck, with a little raspberry sorbet on the side. After one bite I realized this wasn’t the Nestle’s chocolate you might use for Christmas cookies. This chocolate was made from cacao beans picked under a full moon by virgins with hands bathed in lotus nectar. If my wife had reached for a bite I might have slapped her hand. If she’d known what I had on my plate, she’d have jammed her dessert fork into my jugular and let my body puddle to the floor while she annexed my cake.

That cake made up for everything. Here’s how it looked:

We’ve fought hard to keep the Disney Deluxe Meal Plan from killing us at some future time, but I fear we’ve failed. I may die from a butter-fueled coronary in a few years, courtesy of a mouse in a giant, sweaty costume, but that’s okay. It’s all part of the magic.

By the way, this is what they say the magic looks like:

This is what the magic really looks like:

At Disney World, if you don’t glitter then you’re a drone. You can push strollers, pay for ice cream, block the paths with your chubby waddle, and fill up queues to make it hard for the real merry makers to get to the Haunted Mansion. But you don’t add to the corona of happiness enfolding the place, and you’re just no fun. Today I saw a man who would kill you just for blinking, but in Fantasyland he strutted around wearing a red sequined Dumbo hat, complete with tail and ears that light up. That guy was fun.

I’ve seen more little girls dressed as princesses than I’ve seen Jack Sparrow t-shirts and coffee mugs. They were cuter than these kittens:

The little Scottish princess from Brave was popular, as you can see:

My favorite tiny princess wore a shiny lavender fairy tale dress and sparkly shoes, and her hair was done up with glitter and other girly doo dads. She was in the Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop with a hook on her hand, wrecking everything on the shelves and threatening anyone less scurvy than herself. That princess was pretty, but she didn’t take any shit. My kind of girl.

What did I wear on my journey through the Magic Kingdom? A plain gray t-shirt, gray trousers, and sneakers that I think were black five years ago. I looked like a piece of lint. I was useful for buying hot dogs and saying, “Excuse me,” to people blocking our path to the Hall of Presidents. Apart from that, I was the black hole where merriment goes to die.

I did make a tiny effort to increase the overall tonnage of fun in the park. As we hustled through Frontierland, we heard joyful, terrified shrieks distorted by distance and the Doppler effect. My wife, who’s more afraid of roller coasters than a bottle of gin is afraid of Keith Richards, said, “You can go ride that if you want to. I’ll hold your glasses.”

“Come on. Am I not man enough to make you feel safe?” I said.

“I don’t think so, unless you can reach in and make my gut feel safe.”

“I can do it,” I said. “Maybe I can be the gut whisperer.”

That was not a popular response. Twenty minutes later I was watching robot Abraham Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address. There was very little screaming involved.

Oh, and by the way, I don’t think Disney knows that Christmas even exists. You can tell from this picture.






We have returned to the scene of my wife’s childhood psychological violation.  Many people can empathize, but not many can understand it on a visceral level. I know I can’t. All I can do is hold her hand while she’s drawn through an inexorable maelstrom of insane colors and noise.

We’re riding the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney World.

She handled it magnificently, considering the trauma she experienced as a little girl. Back then, her parents and brother boarded the big, dumpy boat with her, along with a dozen strangers, and they eddied into the plaster tunnel at bayou speeds. The little cosmopolitan robots were cute, and the song was perky. It was tingly fun for a little girl. It looked a lot like this:

Then the ride broke down, somewhere in Scandinavia. The polite Disney cast members assured everyone that they were safe, things were under control, and the ride would resume soon. Ten minutes later everyone was fidgeting and bickering. Someone asked if the music could be turned off, since each section of the ride plays just a small part of the song over and over. In ten minutes the words “…that is time we’re aware, it’s a small world after all…” had been sung by chirpy kids without stopping about 120 times. No, they couldn’t turn the song off.

Thirty minutes after the breakdown, the arguing and muttered threats began. An emergency exit stood no more than ten feet from the boat, which was now stinking of frustration and fear. Couldn’t the cast members let the guests leave by that door? It’s only ten god damn feet away, for cripe’s sake! No, they couldn’t let the guests out. It wasn’t safe. The guests implied that it wasn’t safe to keep them in the boat listening to this relentless gush of sugary crap, if you know what I mean. A security guard made himself evident a few minutes later.

An hour after the malfunction, the weaker specimens had broken. Whimpers crawled up from the floor of the boat as children clutched their parent’s trendy bell bottoms or hairy legs. The kids who clung to their faculties learned a lot of bad words listening to the adults. They also heard about a lot of creative techniques for killing shitty little high school dropouts drunk on their own pathetic power.

When the eight infuriating, sanity-shredding bars of “It’s a Small World” had played about 1,000 times, the boat jerked, clanked, and slogged forward. The guests exited the ride like G.I.s wading out of a stream in the Mekong Delta. Thanks a hell of a lot, Mickey.

Today my wife drove a spike through the chest of the “It’s a Small World” ride. She sat tall, gazed at the horrible, wiggling ambassadors of world peace, and even laughed at the llama with the giant teeth. I consider it a mighty accomplishment on this, our first day at the Happiest Place on Earth.

And yet, in the seat behind us a little girl moaned, much like a distressed elk, “Out… out… out… ” Her mother soothed her and comforted her and promised that it would all be over soon. Nothing eased this child’s pain. It was like, you know, the Circle of Life or something.

When my grandfather went out to eat he always put sugar in his coffee, even though he didn’t like sugar in his coffee. He did it because the sugar was free.

I’ve heard that little story dozens of times since I was a boy. It comes up all the time when my family talks about my grandfather. It sums him up in two sentences. If you know that story, you know a lot about him.

Lately I’ve been working to make characters come to life in a story I’m writing. I struggle. I create backgrounds for them so I know how they think, how they talk, what foods they hate, and what they shout when having sex. I make them do and say significant things that will show who they are. But I often fail to build the thing I’m looking for—that fundamental, defining image as stark as being caught in a lightning flash.

I think I’ve overlooked the Free Sugar Factor.

The Free Sugar Factor involves a person doing something that’s habitual, probably trivial, and always unusual. It’s the kind of thing his family would bring up when they talk about him. They might say, “Oh yeah, whenever Aunt Jane got mad she’d drive to the grocery store and sit in the parking lot for an hour or two. What a character.”

The Free Sugar Factor isn’t some pathological behavior, unless the person really is a maniac. It’s doing something everyone else thinks is peculiar, but it makes perfect sense to the person doing it. We all do these things. It’s part of what makes us real people. I’m not sure, but I think mine may have something to do with turkey sandwiches.

To illuminate this whole concept, here are a couple of Free Sugar Factor examples from real people.

My father’s Aunt Delphi, who he swears was the best cook in the world, made a gigantic pan of biscuits in her wood burning stove every morning, far more than the household could eat. The family would eat about a fourth of the biscuits, and then she’d feed the rest to her husband’s coon dogs.

When I was a boy, my father kept a perfectly tuned diesel engine on blocks in the backyard, as I’m sure everyone else’s father did too. It drew diesel fuel from the gas can sitting next to it. Every day when he came home from work he started up the engine and stood there letting it run for a while.

The Free Sugar Factor usually involves a habitual act, but not always. Some isolated acts are definitive in themselves and forever after show what that person was about. For example, when my mother was three years old, her six-year-old brother took her to the nearby store to see Santa Claus. They joined a long line, and they stood just behind an overweight woman. My uncle kicked the woman right in the middle of her ass and said, “Get the hell out of my way, fat lady, I’ve got to go see Santa Claus!”

I’ll bet that gave you an image of who he is.

I think the cigarettes were free too.

I’m honored to provide the guest post today at the blog But What Are They Eating? It’s a fun and unique blog owned by Shelley Workinger, author of the SOLID series of novels, which you should check out now. I mean after you read my post, but before you do anything else like checking Facebook or eating those M&Ms in your desk.

But What Are They Eating? contains a regular FoodFic feature that explores how food is used and represented in writing. Shelley asked me to guest on the blog, and I’ve written Is “Kumquat” The Funniest Word In The English Language? about how food is used in my humor book Bring Us The Head of the Velveteen Rabbit. I’m thrilled to have been asked to participate, and please read the great posts in Shelley’s blog, and not just my post. Mine may or may not be great, but it’s probably the only post in FoodFic that’s ever contained the words “trowel” and “mammoth.”

So, please check out Is “Kumquat” The Funniest Word In The English Language?

Thank you, Shelley!

Also, since no one on the planet actually knows what a kumquat looks like, here’s a picture in which kumquats appear. Just doing my part for food appreciation.

Can you spot the kumquats in this picture? Hint: they look less appetizing than anything else, including the plate.

Photo by jules: stonesoup

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.