My Good Day at the 2018 Chicago IMS

IMG_0496There are relatively few things I look forward to doing in the dead of winter. Going to the International Motorcycle Show when it comes to Chicago is one of them. February may seem like the worst possible time to put on a show like this. What were they thinking?

In warm weather states, the IMS features outdoor activities, like demo rides, in addition to the indoor expo. That isn’t very feasible here in the frigid, snowy Midwest—although every year you will find at least one snow-capped motorcycle parked in the remote lot. We do have our diehard riders. For most of us, though, the IMS is as close to riding as we can get in the dead of winter.

IMG_0522Such was certainly the case this year. Thanks to my unemployed/self-employed status (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3), my wife and I were able to attend this year’s show on opening day. The entire area was under a winter storm warning that morning, but that didn’t deter us. I shoveled several inches of snow before we left and off into the storm we went. The drive was slow and visibility poor, but we eventually arrived safely at the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. I’m sure the show’s organizers, UK-based UBM, weren’t too choked up about the lighter attendance that afternoon, but Karen and I thoroughly enjoyed the uncrowded aisles and displays.

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I have gone to the IMS every year since 2003 for two reasons. First and foremost, I want to see the new models up close. Sit on a few bikes. Talk to the reps. Dream. Other motorcycle enthusiasts will understand. I am always drawn to “retro” models, that remind me of what motorcycles looked like back when I was a kid, and also new concepts and trends. These days, however, my tastes run heavily toward “full dresser” touring bikes because I enjoy taking road trips on two wheels. Now truly any motorcycle can be utilized for long distance travel. Indeed, people have proven the point by making coast-to-coast journeys on small displacement dual-sport motorcycles, 50cc scooters and even mopeds. Me, I like to travel in comfort, often with a passenger, and do not (intentionally) ride off-road. I like a bike that can be ridden for hours on the interstate, comfortably, but that also handles well on curvy backroads.

I saw a couple of interesting new touring bikes this year, both imports. The all-new Honda Gold Wing Tour packs a lot of technology, power, and comfort into a fairly compact package (relative to the last two iterations of this machine). The unconventional double wishbone front suspension drew a lot of attention, as did all the onboard gadgetry. Compared to the previous GL 1800, which seemed truck-like up front in my eyes, this year’s model looks positively svelte. My greatest concern, apart from the prospect of going back to a Japanese bike from my current American-made mount, is the reduced luggage capacity. The touring model (i.e. with trunk) offers 110 liters total or about 29 gallons of cargo space, 40 liters less than the previous model. That’s a concern for someone like me, who has never been one to pack light.

Yamaha also upped the ante this year with their all-new Star Venture. While no slouch in the technology department, the Venture doesn’t have quite as much high-tech punch as the does the Gold Wing. What it does have is a new air-cooled (!) V-twin powerplant, a comfortably low seat height, and ample luggage capacity—38 gallons, give or take, depending on trim. As with the Honda, I’d have to put this bike through the paces, with and without passenger, before passing any real judgement. But I must say, this bike felt good beneath me. So much so that I went back for one last look before leaving the show that day.

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Ever since I bought my Victory Vision, almost five years and 50,000 miles ago now, I’ve had an ever-growing appreciation for American-made motorcycles. I can say without boasting that my current ride is the biggest, heaviest, sweetest sounding, most comfortable road machine I have yet owned. But following Polaris’ decision last year to cease production of the Victory brand, my domestic choices have been reduced. Although I have never owned or even ridden a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, I have a great deal of respect for the brand as well as for the company behind it. I won’t rule out the possibility of owning one sometime in the future, but I must admit that compared to some other choices, the H-D models feel a bit cramped and just don’t seem to “fit” me well. Then there’s Indian. I’ve never owned one but have ridden their Chief and Chieftain models. Still not as roomy as my Vision (I’m not sure what is), the big Indians have a nice ride and a sweet sound. They are also quite expensive and although the touchscreen display on their Chieftain and Roadmaster models is the largest in the industry, I can’t get over the likeness of that big, boxy dash to a 1950’s television set.

The other reason I enjoy attending the IMS every year is to walk the merchant aisles. This year had a better mix of vendors and promoters than I’d seen in a while. For one thing, there were more “destination” exhibitors—tourism departments, event promoters, etc. I love those because their maps and brochures give me something to look over and ponder while I wait for the snow to melt. The apparel and accessory booths are always fun to browse, too. There is one vendor in particular called Cyphen Sportswear that Karen and I look forward to seeing each year. We have been buying T-shirts from Steve and Ronnie for many, many years now. They watched our children grow up, back when we used to take them along. We’ve gotten to know each other well enough that we no longer just shop, but actually stay at their booth and visit for a while.

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Custom builds have become a big part of the IMS in recent years. I have no mechanical aptitude to speak of—I break things—but I have an eye for aesthetics and a deep appreciation for custom bike builders who know their craft. Of particular note this year was “Porterfield,” a board tracker custom by a group called Motorcycle Missions, “a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Corporation helping individuals who deal with PTS(D) and suicidal ideation find hope and healing through motorcycles.” I am intrigued by this organization, which deserves more attention from the media as well as the public at large. Motorcycle Missions in fact won the J&P Cycles Ultimate Biker Build Off Championship and was declared the 2018 “King of the Builders” at the Chicago show.

And so we drove home with our souvenir bags filled with literature, freebies, and whatever merchandise we’d purchased at the show. The snow had stopped and, presumably due to the storm having kept so many people at home, the roads were wide open at what should have been the height of Chicagoland’s afternoon/evening rush.

I know motorcycling isn’t for everybody, but it’s clearly a thing for me. There is nothing else quite like it. Thanks for hanging with me.

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Fun with Fajitas Well North of the Border

ChipsConsidering the magnitude of our last culinary endeavor (see Worth the Effort: Homemade Ravioli and More), Ann and I vowed to try something less labor-intensive this time around. No, I never suggested going to McDonald’s or ordering a pizza. After lobbing Pinterest links at each other for a few days, we decided to attempt fajitas with a few simple sides.

When I say simple, I mean simple. In advance of my arrival, Ann brought in chips and salsa from a local Chili’s. They made for a nice opener and as thin, fresh tortilla chips go, we could have done worse.

Sheet PansWe opted for two meats, chicken and steak, but prepared each differently. For the steak, as well as the peppers and onions, we prepared a variation of this sheet pan steak fajitas recipe. Our greatest variation was using skirt steak, which is the traditional go-to cut for fajitas, instead of flank steak. For the chicken, we applied a fantastic fajitas marinade recipe, which I would like to prepare again, once the next grilling season comes around.

As always, the glaring issue was portion control. When Ann and I engage in these kitchen collaborations, we typically plan to feed three and have enough leftovers for five. Inevitably we end up with enough for twice as many. I blame myself. Okay, between the steak and chicken, I managed to keep the total meat load to around three pounds prior to cooking. But what could I possibly have been thinking when I procured seven bell peppers of various colors and ample size for this meal?

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Amidst all of our slicing and chopping and mixing and rubbing, Ann quietly prepared some cilantro-lime rice and a topping of seasoned frijoles negros (black beans). This made for a fantastic side dish, more of Cuban origin than Mexican according to Ann. She also mixed up a batch of homemade guacamole that may very well be the best I’ve ever sampled, plus a bowl of fresh pico de gallo. Had I been paying attention, I might be able to tell you when went into these delicious sides and condiments, but then I may very well have sliced a few fingers along with all the peppers and onions I’d been preparing.

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And so our preparations went on. By supper time we had produced a table filled with delicious food. After a brief discussion on how to properly fold tortillas for fajitas, so that there is only one open end and no contents falling out the bottom, we dug in. Qué delicioso!

I’d like to tell you that no limes were harmed during the production of this meal, but that would be a lie. The fact is that from the time we began work on our first marinade through the opening of our last bottle of Corona, many limes were zested, cut, twisted, squeezed and/or pressed for our personal pleasure.

And you know what? We enjoyed it all. As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Worth the Effort: Homemade Ravioli and More

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I no longer fear ravioli. It’s not that I have ever been intimidated by pasta. I have, however, encountered a few setbacks when making the stuff from scratch.

I first attempted to make my own ravioli about fifteen years ago and my endeavor did not end well. The filling wasn’t quite right, nor was the pasta surrounding it. Most of the ravioli fell apart during the cooking process, leaving me with many flat squares of cooked pasta and many loose bits of wet filling. I had honed my tomato sauce making skills earlier on in life, but even the finest sauce in the world would not have saved that sorry-looking mess. My family was supportive, assuring me that the meal was still edible despite appearances, but oh, the shame of it all!

I can tell you with confidence that my ravioli has improved a great deal since that first attempt and my friend Ann recently gave me an opportunity to prove it. For our first cooking endeavor since last November, we put out a traditional southern Italian spread that would have made my mother smile.

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We began fairly early in the day, preparing our meats and a sizable pot of homemade tomato sauce in which to simmer them. The sauce was made using a two quarts of home-canned purée, a large can of crushed tomatoes, and a few fresh plum tomatoes that Ann had in her well-stocked kitchen. For meats we used mild Italian sausage from Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, plus meatballs that we made from ground beef and pork, and some braciole that we made from a beautiful flank steak.

Ann runs circles around me when it comes to certain culinary skills, one of which is knife work. She keeps her blades razor sharp and knows how to use them. For this reason, I was grateful when she offered to slice the raw flank steak for our braciole. Within a minute or two, she had horizontally sliced that flank steak into two thinner pieces, which I then flattened out using her tenderizing mallet. I seasoned the pieces with salt and pepper before layering garlic, parsley, and grated cheese on one side — using my best approximation of how my mother used to do it. Then we rolled the pieces, tied them up, and browned them with the other meats before adding all of the meat to our sauce, which had already been simmering.

While the meat was still browning, we prepared a basic pasta dough using an imported Italian “tipo 00” flour, some eggs, a bit of olive oil, and enough water to gain the proper consistency. I worked the dough to death before wrapping it in plastic and tossing it in the fridge to rest. Then we made our filling using fresh ricotta and grated Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Asiago cheeses, plus an egg, some parsley, and other seasoning. Once that was all blended and creamy, we covered the mixture up and chilled it for an hour or two.

IMG_0324When the noon hour had passed, we broke out the antipasto and poured some wine. We wrapped thin slices of prosciutto around chunks of fresh canteloupe and set that out with some aged provolone and dry hot sausage. There were marinated mushrooms, artichoke hearts, black and green olives, and more. Our break was relatively brief, but much needed. All the while, our meat sauce simmered and our ravioli fixings chilled in preparation for the next step. By this time Ann’s kitchen was smelling quite wonderful.

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Then came the big project. Using an electric pasta machine I had inherited from an aunt of mine, we rolled out the pasta dough into ever-thinner sheets. We then applied the filling between two sheets of pasta, using a tray-type mold to form, press, and cut the square pillows of heavenly goodness. As an added measure of security, we crimped around all the edges with fork tines. We ran out of filling before we ran out of dough, so i switched out the press rollers for cutting rollers on the pasta machine and we made some spaghetti.

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Not one ravioli broke open during the cooking process. Once all the pasta had been cooked, we served it all with the meats, some oven-warmed crusty bread, a lovely tossed salad, and more wine. As is usually the case when I cook Italian, there were ample leftovers. Ann took some, I took some, and I suspect we will both be feeding people for a little while. The last time we cooked a meal similar to this, Ann fed ten to twelve people from her share of the leftovers. I blame my mother, who was my first and probably my best cooking teacher. That woman would have rather died than run out of food when she was feeding people.

By the end of the day, all the food had been divided and packaged up, some for my wife and I and some for Ann and her “kids” (neither her kids nor mine are kids anymore). All the pots, pans, dishes and utensils had been washed and put away, and every food preparation surface had been thoroughly cleaned. The only evidence of the feast we’d prepared and eaten was the wine we were still sipping and smiles on our faces.

I’d say that turned out alright. Wouldn’t you? As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Pass the Doubanjiang: Excursions into Asian Cooking

IMG_0022During those times when the weather is not conducive to recreational motorcycling, my friend Ann and I will sometimes get together and cook things instead. Even in the dead of winter, our kitchen antics have never caused pneumonia or frostbite. Besides, we always have fun cooking together, even on those rare occasions when we set off the smoke alarm. The dishes we prepare are seldom complicated, but we do try to keep things interesting.

Sometimes we prepare dishes that one of us already knows well enough to teach to the other. Ann once taught me how to make spaetzle from scratch, for example. On another occasion I showed her my version of homemade tomato sauce from scratch, along with my homemade Italian meatballs. Sometimes we try new things together, like chicken gyros or tacos al pastor. All in all, the two of us have had more successes than failures and so our cooking endeavors continue. We now keep an ever-growing list of dishes we’d like to try preparing together. That’s probably why we have seldom collaborated on the same foods twice.

As of late, Ann and I have been on an Asian kick. While brainstorming our menu, we came up with too many dishes to prepare for a single meal, but rather than omit any dishes, we arranged two Asian menus, each to be prepared roughly two weeks apart.

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Round one consisted of a cucumber edamame salad with a ginger-soy vinaigrette dressing, chicken potstickers with two dipping sauces, and twice-cooked pork. Ann found the salad recipe on a blog site called Noble Pig. This was relatively easy to make and we both enjoyed the combination of flavors and textures very much. In fact, I took a container of leftover salad home with me that evening and made a light lunch of it the following day.

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Of the three dishes we made, our potstickers were the most labor-intensive and time-consuming. They were delicious, mind you, but took a bit of time and effort to prepare. We used two different types of store-bought wrappers and filled them all with the chicken mixture. The potstickers we made were a variation on this recipe, but if you search for potsticker recipes on Pinterest, you should find enough results to keep you busy for a lifetime. We steamed one batch and fried and steamed another. Personally, I like the fry/steam combination method better. The dumpling wrappers develop crispy edges but remain soft and chewy farther in. We made two dipping sauces. The one we liked was fairly traditional and pretty easy to make. The other was basically greasy heat—crushed chilis and garlic cooked in oil. As much as Ann and I both enjoy spicy food, we will not be repeating that sauce.

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Twice-cooked pork is my favorite Chinese dish but very few restaurants, to which I’ve been, seem to offer it. Marinated pork butt is cooked once, then thinly sliced and stir-fried with cabbage before adding a sweet and spicy sauce. I first experienced twice-cooked pork at a place, now long gone, in Racine, Wisconsin that featured the dish as part of their buffet (this was years before Chinese buffets had become a thing). The next time I had it was on an epic motorcycle trip that took me through Lincoln, Nebraska. I am always enchanted by the combination of sweetness, heat, and crunch. So when Ann and I first began tossing around menu ideas, I kept suggesting twice-cooked pork.

We prepared this dish using a recipe by Chinese chef and author Martin Yan, of whom I am a longtime fan. For a first try, we did alright and there was very little in the way of leftovers. I would like to try making twice-cooked pork again sometime, increasing the sweetness, spiciness, and thickness of the sauce until I get it just so.

IMG_0016We had begun this cooking endeavor with a simple tray of rice crackers, wasabi peas and such. We ended it with fortune cookies. Oddly enough, Ann and I drew the same fortune. I no longer recall what it said, but the sheer coincidence had rendered our entire bag of fortune cookies suspect. We pressed Ann’s son, Andy, into service. She offered him a cookie. He left it there, unopened. We stared at the unopened morsel as the tension increased. When we could stand it no longer, Ann snatched up the cookie and crushed it between her fingers. I think I stopped breathing while her eyes scanned the strip of paper within for a brief eternity. At last she spoke.

“It’s not the same.”

So, just a coincidence. It was as though a large, heavy stone had been lifted off my chest.

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Our second round of Asian cooking, two weeks later, was quite delicious, but much simpler. Sort of. The flagship dish this time was Japanese ramen — not the budget-priced instant stuff that can be found in almost any retail store, but the genuine article. We made a traditional miso broth, boiled a package of organic ramen noodles, and prepared a host of traditional and near-traditional toppings to go with it.

One traditional topping for ramen is braised pork belly. We certainly could have gone that route, but I talked Ann into making an oven-broiled Chinese char siu style pork tenderloin instead. As we are sometimes inclined to do, we combined elements from two different recipes and produced an awesome Asian-influenced pork tenderloin that went well with our ramen soup and all the other toppings, namely fried tofu, baby spinach, seaweed salad, soft-boiled egg (for Ann only—I am not an egg eater), and this marvelous spicy bean sprout salad, which could be eaten on its own or as a topping. Now you might conclude that ramen prepared and served in this fashion is a meal in itself. And you would be correct, but neither Ann nor I could stop there. Oh, no, of course not.

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After all the time and effort we had put into making potstickers back in round one, Ann suggested that for round two, we bring in prepared dumplings and focus on our homemade dipping sauces. I liked that idea and so picked up two varieties of Jang Foods frozen dumplings at my local Tony’s Finer Foods location. From nearly half a dozen options, I chose chicken and cabbage dumplings and shrimp, pork and leek dumplings. Each package came with a small packet of prepared dipping sauce, which we promptly discarded. Instead of using that stuff, Ann and I repeated the traditional dipping sauce that we had enjoyed so much during round one, plus we prepared a soy-chili sauce that was just different enough to be worthwhile. The dumplings themselves were very good and the convenience factor cannot be denied.

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Rounding out our round two menu was a tray of sushi, California rolls I believe, that Ann had picked up at her local grocer. We utilized our dipping sauces for these, too and I found them quite tasty.

In the space of two weeks, Ann and I used more Asian spices than either of us had used before. Take sesame oil, for example. Sesame oil is not so much a cooking oil as it is a seasoning and a potent one at that. I have always been wary of using more than a few drops, but we went through tablespoons of the stuff during both cooking sessions. I still wouldn’t get reckless with the stuff, though. We went through many cloves of garlic and quite a bit of fresh ginger, too.

There were also things I’d never used before but will gladly use again. Doubanjiang is a fermented broad bean (aka fava bean) paste that is used in a variety of Asian cuisine. It’s salty, spicy, and flavorful. Sambal oelek (or ulek) is a fresh chili paste of Indonesian origin. Made with crushed hot chilis, vinegar and salt, it gave an interesting kick to one of our dipping sauces. Shichimi togarashi is also called Japanese seven-spice and should NOT be confused with Chinese five-spice seasoning. The seven spices are typically Sancho or Sichuan peppercorns, red chili flakes, dried orange or tangerine peel, black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, ginger, and Nori (roasted seaweed) flakes, all of which are ground or pounded and then mixed together. Yes, it is spicy. We used it in our miso broth, but shichimi togarashi can also be used as a table spice as well as in marinades, coatings, and dressings. Miso, which was new to me but not to Ann, is a fermented paste made from soybeans and rice or barley. There are a number of varieties including white miso, which is not white at all, and red miso, which is darker because it has been fermented longer.

Ann and I could easily have developed a round three menu, but we ran out of time. What with the holidays and all, we don’t even try to get together during the month of December. When we do meet again, in January, we will be preparing a special Italian meal.

As always, thanks for hanging with me. Or perhaps I should say watashitoisshoni okoshi itadaki arigatōgozaimasu.

 

God and the Salt

By Mark Schellhase (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Mark Schellhase (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0


I had an unusual dream prior to waking up this morning and want to record it here before the entire dream fades from my memory. I am making no claims about the substance of this dream.

As my dream began, for reasons unknown to me, I found myself alongside God—or rather, I should say I discovered God beside me. Don’t ask me how I knew who it was. In dreams sometimes certain things are simply understood to be so. I was not in a particular place. In fact, to the best of my recollection, there were no surroundings at all, other than some sort of heavy white woven fabric laid out before me that seemed to flow from Him. We were side-by-side, as opposed to facing each other. Although I never looked directly at his face or saw his body, in this dream God seemed like a man, albeit a very large one who positively dwarfed me, like a grown man beside a young child.

And that’s exactly how I felt, like a small child. For the duration of this dream, I never said a word. Now that’s very unusual for me. Whether in a dream or awake, silence is not among my strong suits.  From my left side, God spoke to me in a soft, deep voice. There was no echo, no Cecil B. DeMille special effects. Here is how it went.

“People wonder why I don’t do more to help them.” He placed several large crystals on the cloth in front of me, although I never saw his hand.

“This is salt. Go ahead, pick one up.” I picked up a white crystal the size of a Brazil nut. “Look at it. Feel it. Hold it in your hand.” I did as I was told.

“Put it in your other hand.” I moved the crystal from my right hand to my left. “Now put it behind you and switch it back.” I obeyed, not really understanding the point of this exercise. It was sort of like playing Simon Says with the Almighty. He told me what to do and I did it. If only real life worked like this.

“See? It’s real. I put that there. The problem is, people don’t use what I give them” That’s when I understood. I turned to my left, grabbing fistfuls of the heavy woven fabric, and began to cry.

He said one last thing to me, with emphasis. “Pick up the salt.”

Then I woke up, wondering what I may have been ignoring or underutilizing and what salt had to do with it. I’m not often able to remember my dreams, so I guess the way this one stuck in my mind bothered me a little. I’m also not one for quoting Bible verses, but let me leave you with this one that popped into my head. As I said when I started, I make no claims.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.”  (Matthew 5:13)

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

For the Benefit of Others

 

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It sure didn’t feel like the second Sunday in October, but there we were. Conditions were sunny, dry, and relatively warm as Ann and I rolled into the spacious lot at Fox River Harley-Davidson to register for the 31st Annual DuKane A.B.A.T.E. Toy & Food Run. This was Ann’s third consecutive year attending and my fifth. I attended for the first time in 2013, at which time I reconnected with one Wally Elliott, then the event’s coordinator, with whom I had done business back in the 1980’s and 90’s. One year later, I was a member of the DuKane Chapter of A.B.A.T.E. of Illinois and was actively promoting the Toy & Food Run.

The folks at Fox River Harley-Davidson do it right. Besides serving as a registration and donations collection point, this motorcycle dealership puts out a free breakfast for Toy & Food Run participants. I should point out that riders of all makes and models are welcome. I have never ridden a Harley, but was made to feel no less welcome for it. When Ann and I rolled out toward Elburn with all the others, we had no idea how many bikes were in our party. Still, it felt awesome to be a part of that.

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This annual event, billed as “Chicagoland’s oldest and largest suburban toy run,” is not a small one. From remote registration points, eight this year, participants fed into a parade staging area, and also a registration point, outside of Knuckleheads Tavern in Elburn, Illinois. From there a fully escorted parade wound its way to the Batavia VFW grounds for an afternoon of fun and festivities, with merchandise vendors, live bands, and food and beverage vendors on hand for the duration of the event. Local and state political figures and candidates also attended, including Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, himself an A.B.A.T.E. member and avid motorcyclist. Admission was once again only $10 per person, along with a new, unwrapped toy and a non-perishable food item.

The atmosphere at Elburn could only be described as festive. Bikes were being parked in several staging lots. As usual, a live band was playing their hearts out in the lot behind Knuckleheads. Bikes and bikers were everywhere. A large, dedicated group of volunteers kept everything moving in an orderly fashion. Governor Rauner was there, as was Santa Claus. Some of us joked about who was the bigger celebrity.

At 12:30 PM, we rolled out of Elburn. As always, Ann was capturing everything she could with still shots and video. Countless Law Enforcement Officers and designated volunteers assisted with traffic control, ensuring a safe ride to our endpoint in Batavia.

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The festivities at the Batavia VFW are always extraordinary and this year was no exception. Multiple bands provided an afternoon of vibrant live music, courtesy of TOGA Talent Agency. The merchandise, food, and beverage vendors were all top-shelf. And still more volunteers kept everything moving in an orderly fashion—no small feat for an event of this magnitude. The toys and food items collected that day (enough to fill two flatbed trailers, were distributed to many local charities, representatives of which were on site to tell their stories. The event itself also raises funds for our A.B.A.T.E. chapter.

For the record, A.B.A.T.E. of Illinois is a motorcycle safety and rights organization (read: lobby) that not only protects and fights for the rights of motorcyclists, but brings motorcycle safety and awareness to the community through speaking engagements, education at driver’s ed courses and visiting clubs and organizations. The DuKane Chapter represents the state organization in Northern DuPage and Kane Counties.

It sure didn’t feel like the second Sunday in October, but there we were, and it was awesome! As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Have Cucuzza, Will Travel

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As the old adage goes, if you don’t like your situation, change it. If you can’t change it, change your mind. What might have been a dark, depressing weekend for me turned out to be a wonderful one, with a good bit of help from a dear friend and the timely ripening of a somewhat unusual Italian vegetable.

My friend Ann and I were supposed to have gone on a fall motorcycle tour around Lake Michigan last weekend but because I had not yet resuscitated my personal finances following the complete and utter demise of my most recent employer (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3), I was forced to cancel our trip. While I’d like to think I can shake anything off like so much dust from my sandals, the fact of the matter is my mind was headed for a very dark place as the result. Mind you, this wasn’t the first time in my life I’ve had to cancel plans for practical reasons. And yes, as a rule, having to do so sucks like a top-of-the-line Dyson vacuum. But what burns me most is not that I was inconvenienced—I can deal with that all day long—but that it had affected a friend of mine. It doesn’t even matter to me that this friend didn’t really mind all that much. If you want to end up on my bad side fast, do something, anything, that adversely affects one of my friends. When that happens, you may want to step back a mile or two.

But you see, though my employer had failed, miserably so, that had occurred last July. This was September and I still hadn’t pulled out of my own tailspin. So while the time span was quite within reason given my career stage (over seven years at the director level), whom could I blame for inconveniencing one of my dearest friends more than me? Nobody. Thus my smoldering ire was turned back on myself. Fade to black… almost.

Enter the cucuzza, a type of gourd that is grown as a summer squash in southern Italy. The Americanized term for this vegetable sounds like “googootz” and thanks to the myriad of Italian dialects, you may also hear it called something that sounds like “cogozza” or “coguzzigia.” It’s all the same thing. They grow on vines and they grow rapidly to substantial lengths, often over three feet long. The skin is inedible. The flesh beneath is white and tasteless raw, but when cooked, it takes on a translucent, pale green hue and has a mild, somewhat sweet flavor.

So there I was, looking at the prospect of spending four days—the length of our planned trip around the lake—obsessing over something I could not change, and that just seemed so pointless to me. So I reached out to Ann and said as much. “Why should we write off the entire four days? Let’s take at least one of those days and do something worthwhile.” Then for good measure, I added, “I’ve got a cucuzza that will be ripe for picking by this weekend. I could bring it up if you promise not to laugh, and we could prepare something with it together.”

“Like what?” Ann seemed intrigued by that idea—such is the power of a nice cucuzza—and so we so we laid pans for one day of riding, walking, and cooking together. In addition to supplying the cucuzza, on the eve of our day together, I offered to harvest some large leaf basil and grill some Italian-marinated chicken breasts for our culinary endeavor. Ann, in turn, obtained the additional vegetables and grains, along with some bread, wine, and other assorted goodies to complete the meal. Game on!

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The following morning, I carefully wrapped my cucuzza in a favorite cotton hoodie, strapped it securely into the passenger area of Miss Scarlett, my Victory Vision touring motorcycle, and headed to Ann’s place up in Wisconsin. What I was not prepared for, one-hundred-plus miles later, was the immediate affection Atlas, one of Ann’s cats, displayed for my well-endowed squash. When it came time to peel and cook my unusual vegetable, the photogenic feline posed no issues. Still, it made us smile and laugh a bit.

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The temperature and humidity were unusually high for late September, so Ann and I opted to restrict our motorcycle outing to the morning and early afternoon hours. This meant staying relatively close to home, but I didn’t mind. We rode a relatively short distance to Oconomowoc and ever my reliable navigator, Ann directed me to Fowler Lake Park, a delightful spot on the eastern shore of Lake Fowler, right in the midst of Oconomowoc proper. Once off the bike, Ann proceeded to lead me on a walking tour of approximately three miles around the lake, pointing out all manner of man-made and natural points of interest. Sure, it was a little warm, but the day was beautiful and we had a really fun time together.

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Once we got back to Ann’s place, we set about to chopping, sautéeing, and simmering our food. You’ll have to wait for my book to come out to get the full non-recipe, but the essential elements are the cucuzza, some aromatics and root vegetables, tomatoes, stock, meat, grains, and seasonings. Many options and variations are possible. The end result is a hearty, flavorful stew that makes a meal in itself. A few hours later, Ann, her son, and I had eaten our fill and true to the Italian tradition into which I had been born, there were ample leftovers.

It had been such an awesome day. In the course of that day, everything wrong had quickly become overshadowed by all that was right. Still, as is often the case, the ending was bittersweet. Why? Because it was an ending. After all the pots, pans, and dishes had been washed and put away, I packed up a few leftovers on Miss Scarlett and after we had exchanged our goodbyes, I headed for home, literally riding off into the sunset before turning south.

Sometimes all you need to do, in order to understand that all is not bad, is to be willing to see the good. Thanks for hanging with me.