Ecru Pants, High-Tech Torture, and Mac and Cheese

It’s a classic confrontation: hapless bozo versus impersonal corporate interests, and their tools of oppression.

It begins with Valentine’s Day gifts from my wife: a pair of pants a size too small, and a new bathroom scale incorporating technology worthy of the nerds at MIT.

These gifts are a clear threat in my world, where there are two groups of people: those for whom the number of inches in the waist measurement exceeds the number of inches in the inseam, and everyone else.

On what is ordinarily a day afloat on a swell of affection, I am forced to fight off a giant company that has combined forces with my wife to blight my comfy existence. I am tag-teamed by Kathy and the Tanita Corporation.

I’m in the living room, watching TV, drinking a cocktail, eating Kozy Shack tapioca pudding, totally absorbed in hour four of a broadcast of the Westminster Dog Show. It’s time for the working dog class competition.

I’ve taken a liking to a Portuguese fishing dog. For years I watched the annual dog spectacle, rooting in vain for an English Yellow Labrador Retriever to take the crown. I had to do this, since my dog, Arnie (an English Yellow Labrador Retriever) was seated at my feet. Arnie was an extremely intelligent animal; had I rooted for any other breed, he would have sauntered to my studio and urinated on paintings. Arnie’s dead now, so I am free to shift my allegiance. I pick the Portuguese beast, prompted by my love of linguica and an aged Touriga Franca from the Duoro.

“I got you a couple Valentine’s Day gifts, sweetie.” It’s Kathy. She’s been shopping. I know from the tone of her voice that I’m in trouble. She plops two packages in front of me.

“Come on big guy, open ‘em up.”

“But, honey, they’re just about to examine the Irish Wolfhound. Don’t you remember that gorgeous Irish Wolfhound that walked at the head of the Irish Guards as they marched down The Mall to Buckingham Palace? What a dog! That’s one incredibly powerful sight, don’t you think? It is hard to believe that Setanta, a mere 7 year-old, could have vanquished one of the beasts in hand-to-fang combat.”

“Open the packages … now.”

I pick up the package with the soft contents, and tear it open. I find the pair of pants. Dockers, of course. Old man pants.

“Pretty, huh? Don’t you love the color? It’s called ‘ecru.’”

“Well, yeah, ecru. Love it.”

The judge pries open the Irish Wolfhound’s mouth and inspects its teeth. The dog maintains its poise. I’d like to see the judge try that move on my neighbor’s ill-trained pit bull. That would be a dog show worth watching, again and again.

“It’ll go with the shirt I bought you for Christmas. The Belgian chocolate-colored shirt you’ve never worn. I love that shirt.”

And I love her passive-aggressive communication style. I’m tempted to respond in kind, but I decide to mimic the wolfhound, and remain composed, noble.

“That’s just swell, but there’s a problem with these ecru pants: I need at least two more inches around the waist.”

“Absolutely right, Chubby. Take a hint; imagine how great you’ll feel once they fit. Now, open the second package.”

I tear the wrapping off the package containing the hard contents. I open a box, and pull out a thin, flat device. It looks like a section of the International Space Station control panel.

“What is this?”

“This, Dough Boy, is the reason you are going to fit into those ecru-colored pants in a month or so. And wear my favorite shirt — the Belgian chocolate colored shirt. Read the description on the box. This is really exciting; it’s going to change your life.” She clasps her hands to her chest, looking like an excited second-grader at a birthday party.

According to the information printed on the carton, I am holding the Tanita Ultimate Scale, Model 2001WB(Pure White). It is, claims its manufacturer (the insidious Tanita Corporation), two machines in one: a digital scale, as well as a “body fat monitor.”

My heart sinks, my previously elevated spirit begins to disintegrate and plummet floorward.

According to the evil engineers at the Tanita Corporation, the machine will, in seconds, deliver a startlingly accurate measurement of my weight, then calculate exactly what percent of that weight is useless, potentially harmful blubber.

I feel sick. The judge seems unimpressed by the wolfhound.

I put the box down, and cleanse my mind with a dose of Great Pyrenees. Unfortunately, the huge, black canine strays from the course to sniff an English Mastiff’s ass. That’s common practice at the dog park, but it’s a deal breaker at Westminster. This is the first time I’ve seen a mastiff smile.

Kathy picks up the box, reads, then speaks. “Listen to this, Porky: this is not an ordinary scale. The Tanita Corporation has given you a way to take control of your health, and your future. They’ve created a method of bioelectrical impedance analysis that, according to scientists in both Europe and Asia, is the best possible way of determining body composition. This little beauty has foot pads that allow the machine to send a safe electrical signal through your body to determine how much of you is disgusting flab.”

I assume those scientists “in both Europe and Asia” are German and Japanese. If I recall, similar folks cooperated in 1942, when the brainiacs at the Tanita Corporation developed a prototype gyroscopic guidance system for the Nazis’ V2 rocket. If you can’t trust them, whom can you trust?

A large woman trots across the arena floor with an elegant Springer Spaniel at her side. As she rounds the corner at the end of the arena floor, the handler provides a spectacular example of the effects of complimentary centrifugal and gravitational forces. There’s no way this gal cares about bioelectrical impedance.

“And look here (Kathy thrusts the box between me and the television screen), “there’s a color-coded graph showing the different flab zones relative to your age. You’re down here on the 70-79 age line, the very bottom line. Anyone below that line is dead. According to this, if you’re on the bottom line, and you have up to 22 percent body fat, you’re in the healthy zone. Way over here, where the line turns red, is the danger zone. I have a hunch you’re over on the red part of the line. Maybe beyond.”

I’m getting depressed; I need another cocktail, more pudding.

“Okay big guy, snap the batteries in the machine. It’s time for a weigh-in.”

The digital display panel lights up when I slip a pair of AA batteries in the Tanita. The machine welcomes me in four languages on a readout, and informs me that “we” are about to begin “our voyage to ultimate health and happiness.” A blinking smiley face follows the message. Kathy places the machine on the floor, and reads the instructions aloud.

“All right, hit the ‘On’ button, wait for zero to appear, then take off your socks, and put your heels on the silver pads at the back of the scale. It says here to be very, very careful you’re not wet. You’re not wet again, are you? I never know if you’re damp.”

I’m dry. I obey.

“First, it will show your weight. Do you see anything?”


“What is it?”

“I’m not saying. It’s my weight, not yours.”

“OK, my money is on 230, at the absolute minimum, probably more judging from what I saw this morning when you were in the shower. Is there another number there now?”


“That’s your body fat percentage.”

Kathy darts over, and looks down at the display before I can jump off the machine, and kick it beneath the end table.

“Whoooooeee, that’s incredible. Lemme see here: according to the graph provided by the Tanita Corporation, you are setting some kind of record. Wow, look down here. See where the pale blue is ‘Underfat’ and the yellow is ‘healthy?’ See here, where the line turns orange? That’s ‘Overfat.’ And here, where the line turns red, that’s ‘Obese.’ I think the line would have to turn deep scarlet, maybe purple, and run off the edge of the scale to represent what I’m seeing on this display. Hoooo boy. No more butter and cheese for you, Big Boy. And look, the data has been replaced by a blinking frowny face.”

Kathy hits the reset button on the Tanita, and jumps on.

I prepare myself for the onslaught.

There’s a teensy mutant canine darting around the Westminster arena. It looks like food, a mobile snack, with long, white hair. I wonder how it tastes. Would it be best grilled, or braised? I wonder if, when a dog loses a major competition, the breeder and owner turn the mutt loose, a miserable disappointment doomed to fend for itself on the mean streets. I wonder if the humane society folks picked up any strays recently here in Siberia With a View. I wonder if a concoction featuring kecap manis would work as a marinade.

Kathy gets off the machine, puts her hands on her hips, and smiles.

What I adore about my wife is she can ridicule me in four languages. She looks down at the display, and does a little dance while singing: “Tu es le plus gros, je suis la moins grosse. Tu es le plus gros, je suis la moins grosse.”

Anytime I hear French, I think of a Croque Madame, and I want to loudly proclaim its glory — the toasty bread, the béchamel, the ham, cheese and gooey egg yolk — but Kathy is not going to allow me the detour.

She points at the yellow portion of the line on the Tanita box while she dances. She is “healthy.” In French.

I obviously have a problem. According to the Tanita Corporation.

“This is great,” says Kathy. “It’s like an obesity early warning system, our own little body composition NORAD. Every morning before we get to work, right before we eat a no-carb, low-fat breakfast, we’ll test ourselves. This digital readout allows us to measure weight loss, down to half an ounce. We can check our body fat percentage every morning, twice on weekends. It will be a fun thing to do together, since you won’t take square dance lessons with me.”

I brood. It’s not fair: I’m being assaulted by a malevolent, profit-obsessed corporation, its high-tech machinery, and a multilingual wife who wants to stuff me into pants a size too small. Ecru.

I can’t succumb to this pressure. I need a way to fight back, and I find it in short order. Kathy has invited our friends, Jack and Charla, over for dinner. I decide to create a dish that will do two things: blend the very best of American lowbrow food with the grand culinary tradition of Mexico, and in doing so battle an ominous multinational corporation.

The guests are ideal for the occasion: Jack will eat anything, and lots of it.

For the American element: macaroni and cheese. From the Mexican side of the spectrum: roasted poblano peppers, and two fiery salsas.

For extra measure I toss in some pork, in the form of hot Italian sausage.

I create a recipe for poblanos stuffed with macaroni and cheese (and sausage).

I roast the peppers until the skins char, close the peppers in a bag for a few minutes so the steam loosens the skins, then I peel them. I take the sausage from its casing, crumble it, and cook it over medium-high heat, adding plenty of minced onion and garlic near the end of the process. Next: cook small elbow macaroni until al dente, drain, add a glob of unsalted butter, some salt and pepper, the sausage mix, a monster load of shredded cheeses — sharp cheddar, Asiago, Parmesan, and Asadero — a splash of heavy cream, some ground cumin, salt, pepper, and a teensy smidge of ground nutmeg.

I stuff the poblanos with the mixture, and place the peppers in an earthenware gratin dish, slicked with extra-virgin olive oil. I dribble more oil atop each stuffed pepper, cover the dish loosely with foil, and pop the cargo into a 350 oven for 45 minutes. The dish comes out, the foil is removed, a layer of the grated cheeses is sprinkled on the peppers, and under the broiler they go, until the cheese melts and browns slightly.

I work all afternoon to produce the salsas. For one salsa, I roast husked and rinsed tomatillos, serrano peppers, and a couple habeneros, until the skins blacken. I also roast sliced white onion, and peeled cloves of garlic. Into a processor go the tomatillos, the peeled and seeded serranos and habaneros, some salt, and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. I pulse the peppers and tomatillos, remove the brew to a bowl, then pulse the onion and garlic. Everything is mixed, the seasonings adjusted, and into the fridge the salsa goes to allow flavors to meld, and a ferocious heat to build. It’s like lowering fuel rods into the core of a reactor.

For the second salsa I take eight large, dry, New Mexico red chiles, cut off the stem ends, and remove most of the seeds. Into a pan of hot water the peppers go, and they are simmered until they soften, then they are drained, and cut into large pieces. I put roasted onion and garlic into the processor with salt and pepper, and add the chunks of pepper, a splash of red wine vinegar, and a bit of sugar, then pulse the mess before adding a can of crushed plum tomatoes with most of their juices. After another pulse process, I adjust the seasonings, add a bit of dried oregano, and into the fridge the salsa goes, dark, smoky, mysterious, hot.

To finish: I whip up some pinto refries (I make them with lard — no need to inform the Tanita Corp.); cook a batch of frozen corn, drain it and add plenty of butter and black pepper before heating over a medium high flame, browning the butter and slightly caramelizing the corn; wash off a mess of greens; whisk up an oil, lemon juice, minced shallot and mustard dressing. Finally, I knock off a more than passable, out-of-season guacamole.

Hands across the sea. And an admirable response to the new weight-loss pressure.

The experiment is a grand success. Jack and I go for seconds, then thirds. The green salsa is incendiary, the red salsa spicy and deep. The flavor of the roasted poblanos perfectly accents the sausage-studded, creamy mac and cheese. It’s a keeper. And a slap in the face to corporate ambition.

After dinner, I rush over and grab the Tanita.

Now I know what I’ll use the infernal machine for.

I jump on. I’m elated. I’ve eaten 1.75 pounds of delightful, cross-cultural chow. One more pepper, and I top two pounds of gain.

I’m deep in the red zone, happily cruising toward purple.

Or, is that ecru?


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One Response to Ecru Pants, High-Tech Torture, and Mac and Cheese

  1. wm musson says:

    like your salsa receipes……still using your green chile from 15 years ago….kathy sounds in good shape! enjoy the scale….

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