Column Classic: Rewarding, Or Why Free Is Dumber Than You Think

By Lisa Scottoline

Here’s what I’m telling you: beware “rewards points.”

What?

Yes, that’s right. I said it, and if you remember, it wasn’t always thus. I used to be a big fan of rewards points.

Let’s review.

I remember the day I found out that my credit card was accumulating rewards points, because I felt like I had won the lottery.

Okay, a really tiny lottery, but still, free is free, and I was excited. The way my credit card worked was that every time I used it, it accumulated points that enabled me to choose free stuff from a free catalog, full of freeness.

Wow!

I even wrote about how hard it was to pick stuff out of the free catalog, mainly because I was so dazzled by the free part that I thought I might faint.

I’m not cheap, but free has a unique power, no? I couldn’t go wrong if it didn’t cost me anything.

Or so I thought.

And since then, I’ve been all over the reward thing. I’ve even spread the word. Daughter Francesca is about to get a new credit card, and I’ve advised her to make sure she gets one with rewards.

Who doesn’t want to be rewarded?

Lately, me.

I came to this epiphany with my new spice rack. I saw it in the free catalog, and I forget how many points it cost, because it all came down to the same thing:

It’s FREE, dummy!

So, I bought/ordered/ willed it to exist in my house. And now, sitting atop my oven, is a too-cool-for-school spice rack from Dean & DeLuca. All of the spices are in glass test tubes with real corks, so they’re visible from the side and have nice colors. But the spices are things like lavender and Tellicherry peppercorns.

Huh?

I have no idea when lavender became a spice, but it does look pretty in its purple test tube. Too pretty to use, and anyway, what would I put lavender on?

Marigolds?

The rack also includes imported spices, like Greek oregano and French tarragon. Thank God. You wouldn’t want tarragon from anywhere else, would you? And I smelled the Greek oregano, which smells exactly like American oregano, which smells like a pizza parlor.

So maybe that, I’ll use.

Or eat out of the jar.

But I’ve never used any of the spices in the rack, and the test tubes don’t say when they expire, so the bottom line is, the French tarragon should have stayed in Paris. It was a waste, even though it cost nothing.

Paradoxical, no?

The spice rack taught me that even though something is free, I might not want it. I don’t need it. I’m not going to use it. If I had really wanted the spice rack, I would have bought it, and the fact that I didn’t means I shouldn’t have it in the house, at any price.

Even free.

That was my life lesson.

Let me interject to say that the problem may be endemic to spices. Even before the test-tube spice rack, I’d been known to buy spices that I’d never use. Mainly because I want to be the kind of person who cooks with green curry, I’d buy the spice and throw it out when it became a solid block of greenness. I’d make this same mistake around the holidays, when I’d pick up fresh jars of allspice, ground cloves, and cinnamon, which is the kind of thing I imagine the Cake Boss tosses into his shopping cart. But I never use it, and I’m no Cake Boss.

Cake is the boss of me.

Come to think of it, the real problem may be that I’m a stinky cook, as I barely use any spices at all, and in this regard, I am my mother’s daughter.

Let’s blame Mother Mary. After all, she’s not here, and she doesn’t read the column.

Truth to tell, there was no spice rack in our house growing up, and we had only four spices: dried oregano, garlic salt, onion salt, and salt.

Mother Mary mainly cooked Italian, and salt.

We didn’t even have pepper because Mother Mary is enough pepper for anybody.

And to this day, when she visits me and makes meatballs or tomato sauce, we first make a trip to the grocery store to buy her salts, with their preservatives included the faker the better.

And you know what?

Her food tastes delicious.

And I feel rewarded.

Almost free.

Copyright Lisa Scottoline 2011

Column Classic: Unresolutions

By Lisa Scottoline

This is the time of year when people make New Year’s resolutions, but I have a better idea. By definition, a resolution is something you want to change about yourself, something you’ve done wrong in the past that you want to start doing right.

Boo!

I think we would all be better served if this New Year, we made unresolutions. That is, let’s make a list of things we’ve been doing, and we’d like to keep doing. Who needs negativism around the holidays? Times are tough, and why should we make them tougher?  Especially on our favorite people in the world, namely ourselves.

Let’s give it a try, shall we?

I’ll go first.

UnResolution Number One.  I sleep in my clothes, and I resolve to keep sleeping in my clothes. I know this sounds weird, and it helps that my clothes are fleece pants and a fleece top, because I work at home. Sometimes I even wear a fleece hat to bed, like a nightcap, because I like my room cold but not my head. Bottom line, I never have to worry about what to wear, and I’m already dressed, all the time. So now you know.

UnResolution Number Two. I kiss my pets on the lips, and I like it. I know people say it’s unsanitary, but they’re no fun. All of my animals expect me to kiss them on the lips, even my pony. And if they balk, I grab them by their furry cheeks and force them to stand still. I’m paying the room and board, and all I want is a little smooch. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

UnResolution Number Three. I don’t own an iron. It’s not the worst thing in the world if my clothes are a little wrinkly. No one really notices, or if they do, they’re too polite to say so, which is the same thing. To me.

UnResolution Number Four. I talk to strangers. I got this from my mother, who, when we went into the Acme, talked to the produce guy, the stock boy, and the cashier. She was always up in their business, and in time, they were up in hers. It turned every errand into a little party, a reunion of old friends, but there just happens to be a cash register in the room.

UnResolution Number Five. I make too much food. If I serve dinner and no one at the table says, “You made too much food,” then I feel like I failed. I love the idea that there’s a lot of food on the table. I want everybody full and happy, and I always give the leftovers to the dogs and cats.

You know what comes next.

(I kiss them on the lips.)

UnResolution Number Six. I wear flats. I used to always wear high heels, because I’m a shorty. I thought I felt more powerful in heels, but all I really felt was more painful. It was daughter Francesca who got me started wearing flats, and it changed my life. My toes are always happy, and

I’m still a mighty mite.

UnResolution Number Seven. I buy too many books. I love to read and have hundreds of books overflowing my bookshelves and stacked high on my dining room table, in piles. I love living around books, and reading is like traveling without baggage claim. Who needs a dining room anyway?

So maybe now you understand why I’m single.

Which brings me to UnResolution Number Eight.

I live alone, but I’m not lonely. I know lots of you live alone, whether by choice or by circumstance, and you may be lonely, especially around the holidays. I’m not saying you’re not allowed to be, all I’m saying is that the fact that you live alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely. It means you’re free to wear hats to bed.    

In the end, our own personal happiness is about figuring out what makes us feel the most ourselves and living that way – and to hell with what anybody else thinks.

So, when you’re making a list of resolutions, please do make some unresolutions, too.

It will be a Happier New Year.

Copyright Lisa Scottoline 2008

Column Classic: You Say Tomato

by Lisa Scottoline

Did you hear about this?

I read in the newspaper that somebody noticed that red tomatoes sell better than greenish ones, so food engineers started changing the genetic makeup of tomatoes to make them redder, except that it also took out the taste.

I learned so much from this that I don’t know where to begin.

Number one, food has engineers?

I thought trains had engineers, and food had cooks.

I just went from choo-choo to chew-chew.

In fact, I thought you had to have an engine to have an engineer, but no.

If you ask me, this opens new job opportunities for engineers. For example, I see a lot of trees that could use a good engineer. They aren’t green enough, especially in fall, when they turn a lot of crazy colors that don’t match.

I mean, let’s be real. Yellow and red? Nobody looks good in yellow and red, except Ronald MacDonald.

He’s single for a reason.

Worse, in winter, the leaves on the trees actually fall off. That’s definitely an engineering problem. I feel pretty sure a tree engineer would fix that, no sweat.

Also, the sun. 

Don’t get me started on the sun. It’s supposed to be yellow, but it’s too bright to tell the color. In fact, it’s so bright that we have to buy dark glasses to even be around it.

Also, the sun is hot, which can be a bummer. It makes us feel listless and uncomfortable, then we have to turn on the air conditioning, or at least decide whether or not to, which can be a problematic choice for certain people, involving money and self-esteem, oddly intertwined.

Not that I know anyone like that.

And also in winter, the sky could use a good engineer. There are times when it changes from blue to a very boring whitish-gray, then actually breaks up and falls to the ground in tiny, cold pieces that we all have to clean up.

Needs work.

Sky engineers should get on it. It’s like the sky doesn’t even stay up, which is a major engineering defect. Cantilevers, buttressing, and scaffolding may be required, and lots of it.

Really, lots.

Or worse, sometimes the sky loses its blue color, turns gray, but doesn’t break up and fall to the ground, right after I spent hundreds of dollars on a green machine to help me clean up the pieces.

That’s a lot of green, even for a green machine.

Who knew that colors required so much engineering? If you ask me, green is the color most in need of engineering. I wish those engineers who were trying to fix the tomatoes would fix the economy, but never mind, what do I know?

Let’s move on to my second point.

Having been astounded to learn that tomatoes have engineers, I was also amazed to learn that they had genes, too.

Who knew tomatoes were so busy?

I grow tomatoes, and I haven’t given them the credit they deserve for their rich inner lives.

To be honest, I had no idea that food had genes, at all. Just like I thought you needed an engine to have an engineer, I thought you needed, like, blood and a heart to have genes.

It’s hard enough for me to remember that a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable, but now I’m expected to know it has DNA, as well?

Bottom line, I’m bad at biology. Anyone who’s slept with me will tell you that.

But now we know that tomatoes have genes, this opens up new job opportunities, namely for actors. Think of all the new TV shows this could create, like CSI: Tomatoes, where they collect tomato DNA to catch the killer tomato.

In fact, we could have murders for every fruit, then spin it off to vegetables, too.

To Catch A Salad Shooter. 

© Copyright Lisa Scottoline

Column Classic: Mother Mary Gets An Idea

By Lisa Scottoline

Certain smells bring back memories of Mother Mary.

Among these are Estée Lauder Youth Dew perfume, More 100’s cigarette smoke – and mozzarella.

Not exactly sentimental, but there you have it.

You can trust that all the memories of The Flying Scottolines will be relate to carbohydrates.

Let me explain.

The other day, I was walking through the food court in the mall and I caught a width of a distinctive aroma.

Bad pizza.

Specifically, frozen pizza.

By way of background, my mother was a terrific cook, especially of Italian food. She made us homemade spaghetti, ravioli, and gnocchi from scratch. As a child, I spent hours watching her.

And it took hours.

If you’ve ever watched anybody make homemade spaghetti, it’s a domestic miracle. A loaf of dough that somehow ends up being rolled out and then fed into a spaghetti maker, coming out like flour-y tinsel.

Same with ravioli, because she mixed the ricotta cheese and seasonings according to her own secret recipe that had a tangy cheesy salty taste I could never duplicate and wouldn’t even try.

And when she made gnocchi’s, she started with the dough, but rolled it out into long skinny tubes, cut it into little chunks, and then floured her fingers and pinched each chunk, making the special dimpling that marks the best gnocchis – made by hand, dimpled by fingertips.

The problem was pizza.

When we were growing up, I wanted to be like the other kids, who got pizza delivered or had somebody go pick up pizza and brought it home. We never did that, because Mother Mary felt that since it was Italian food, it would be heresy to buy it at a restaurant. But she had no interest in making homemade pizza, and who could blame her, so she would buy it frozen at the Acme.

Or as we say in South Philly, the Ac-a-me.

She bought a no-name brand in a plastic bag, with ten small pizzas stacked on each other, as appetizing as hockey pucks.

She cooked it at home.

For three hours.

Okay, I’m exaggerating, but she overcooked the pizza every time, refusing to follow the directions. She wouldn’t even let me follow the directions. It was her kitchen, so she did the cooking, which meant that our pizza always sucked.

And let’s be real, back then, it was the dark ages of frozen pizza.

In fairness to Mother Mary, overcooking was the only chance that frozen pizza had of drying out, otherwise the crust stayed soggy and the tomato sauce distilled to hot ketchup.

So as I entered high school, I ended up at a friend’s house and they ordered pizza from a great neighborhood pizza place, Marrone’s.

I was hooked.

So one night, when Mother Mary wanted to make frozen pizza, I told her about the magic of store-bought pizza at Marrone’s, but she wasn’t having any. We fussed about it, but amazingly I persuaded her to give it a try.

Mother Mary was delightfully stubborn. You could move the Mummers up Broad Street easier.

So I went to Marrone’s, bought an actual take-out pizza, and brought it home.

Mother Mary opened the box, and we all waited in suspense while she slid out the first piece and cut the mozzarella strings with the gravity of a surgeon servering an umbilical cord. She took a bite, chewed, swallowed, and then said with a wink:

“I knew it would be better than frozen.”

From that day forward, we ordered from Marrone’s.

And I forgot all about that story until I walked through the mall the other day, and smelled the mozzarella.

I knew that somewhere, Mother Mary was winking.

Grief is funny that way, bringing back the good and the bad, the funny foods and the dumb fights.

And most of all, the love.

That never goes away.

And the best of it is homemade.

Copyright Lisa Scottoline