New Product Thursday

Trader Joe’s is always good for some novelty or oddity. That’s the way that store does things. Lately I picked up a Trader Joe’s Quasar Bar, a 1.8 oz. candy bar, on impulse. There’s no indication on the packaging who actually makes the bar for the grocery store chain, but no doubt it’s one of the major confectioners, since it’s a high-quality bar.

Naturally it has an astronomical name. After all, there’s Mars and Milky Way and Starbursts and probably others I don’t know about. The verbiage on the package: “With whipped chocolate and rich caramel enrobed in dark chocolate.” Interesting choice of a verb, enrobed. A very Trader Joe’s touch.

The Quasar Bar’s compared to the Milky Way, and there’s something to that, but I thought of it more as the love child of a Milky Way Midnight Dark Chocolate and a 3 Musketeers. The combination works well. Not worth a trip to Trader Joe’s by itself, but a good impulse purchase if you’re there. More about it here, at an entire blog devoted to that grocery store.

Sad to say, Trader Joe’s Low Calorie Lemonade, in the 8 fl. oz. plastic bottle, isn’t nearly as good. It’s neither very sweet nor particularly tart. I prefer my lemonade on the tart side, but not too tart, though I can understand those who like it sweet. This lemonade tastes like lemon juice added to water.

At first I thought I hadn’t shaken it vigorously enough, but after a good shaking, it still tasted like lemon juice added to water. It might be made from organic, fair-traded, non-GMO, gluten-free lemons, but that doesn’t make it any good (actually, it only says organic).

On to Costco, where Yuriko picked up a 30 oz. package of Aussie Bites, a product of Best Express Foods, not of Australia, but Hayward, Calif. A Delicious Health Snack! the package promises.

Some ingredients are in large type on the package: rolled oats, dried apricots, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, honey, coconut, quinoa, chia seeds. In standard ingredient-label smaller type: all those, plus various kinds of sugar, butter, sea salt, baking soda, rice flour, etc. ZERO TRANS FATS is in all caps.

They’re essentially cookies, though not disk shaped, but more like small, densely packed muffins. Quite tasty, but also very filling. It’s taken us more than a month to eat most of them.

Mail From the Patel Brothers

Something new in the mail the other day: a circular from Patel Brothers. The grocery stores of theirs that I’ve seen have the appearance of being local — tucked away in strip centers — but in fact Patel Brothers is a national chain, with about 50 stores. The brand did start in Chicago, however, with its first store on Devon Ave., hub of the city’s East Indian population, in the 1970s.

Patel BrothersThe four-page circular has one of our names on it, so it’s more than a blind mass mailing. Chinese New Year is mentioned on the front page. Guess the Patels are looking to expand their market a bit.

On the back page, various East Asian items are offered, such as Ichiban Tofu, Sriracha sauce, TYJ spring roll pastry and Chaokoh coconut water. Looking up that last one further, I learned that the Thai product is the “Official Coconut Water Partner of Liverpool Football Club.”

Inside the circular, the products are more South Asian. From it I learn that Swad brand is popular. Apparently that’s an Indian food distributor headquartered in Kerala, but its web site is less than helpful when it comes to offering much information about the company.

The About Us page says, all sic: “Catering to gods own people is no mean task. We embraced this challenge with great enthusiasm and with Swad Food Products, a well known house hold brand name in India. We make available premium Wheat & Rice Products all over the world. Our products are available all over the world through more than hundred strong distributors. Our Product Quality agreed internationally by getting orders from Middle East, Europe and USA.”

Anyway, at Patel Brothers, you can buy Swad peanuts, cashews, salt, moong dal, whole moong, kidney beans, kabuli chana, turmeric powder, ghee, rice flour and canola oil.

Kyoeido Import Store, 1992

It occurs to me that if I lived in Japan now as a fairly youthful expat, instead of 25 years ago, I probably could order anything I wanted on Amazon or Alibaba, maybe, though I don’t know how much purchase the latter site has in Japan. It would be expensive, of course, but what isn’t in Japan?

Those online retailers might be one of the marvels of the age, but essential to the experience of being an expatiate is going out and finding things you need or want, by design or chance, using scraps of information from native and non-native sources (gaijin lore, I used to call the latter). Or so I believe. Amazon and Alibaba aside, the hunt for consumer goods among non-Japanese in Japan must also be facilitated by smartphones these days. It must be a wholly different experience, and I’m not persuaded it’s a better one.

I thought of all this looking at bits of letters I wrote in early 1992.

Feb. 1
I went to Kyoeido import store yesterday, a place I discovered by chance about a year ago. It’s a wonderful place. You never know what they’re going to have. Yesterday I notice a bottle of Egri Bikavér in a bin of ¥1000 wines. Good value, that.

[To save a trip to the wine-speak in Wiki: Egri Bikavér, in English Bull’s Blood, “is a red blend produced in Eger. It is the true essence of the red wines of Eger, a terroir wine, which carries the flavour of the soils of local production sites, the mezzo-climate unique to the region and the traditions and mores of local residents, from the selection of varieties to choosing the period and method of grape processing and mellowing.”

I discovered the wine when I lived in Nashville. I probably bought it for the first time because of the novelty of a vintage from still-behind-the-Iron-Curtain Hungary.]

I asked the shopkeeper if he always had Bull’s Blood on hand. Actually I said, “Here, in this place, this thing is always here?” in my rudimentary Japanese. I didn’t fully understand the answer, but caught enough to know that wine imports from Hungary are an iffy proposition. He showed me a second bottle that I hadn’t seen, and I bought that too.

Feb. 20
Like a fool, I went to Kyoeido today. I always drop more money there than I intend. I saw a big stack of big jam jars, maybe containing half a kilo each. On closer inspection, the jam turned out to be from Russia, though labeled from the CIS. (That still sounds like a microchip manufacturer.)

The jam sure was cheap. I had to wonder what was wrong with it. In the end, I bought a slightly more expensive, smaller jar of Bulgarian jam instead, which is reputed to be good, and maybe not too radioactive.

A Wad of Paper Circulars

We still get a paper newspaper some days of the week, and last Wednesday’s newspaper was the heaviest I’d lifted off the driveway in years. It was a regularly sized mid-week paper supplemented by a weighty array of circulars, mostly from retailers fighting the battle against stagnant physical-store sales, though of course most have online sales as well.

They included (no special order): Macy’s, World Market, Sprint, Carson’s, The Dump, Best Buy, Abt, Duluth Trading, La-Z-Boy Furniture Gallery, AT&T, JC Penney, Kohl’s, Guitar Center, Mattress Firm, Bed Bath & Beyond, The Tile Store, Home Depot, Fannie May, Verizon, Sears, Art Van Furniture, Ulta Beauty, JoAnn, Staples, Office Depot/Office Max, Ashley Homestore, Value City Furniture, Walgreen’s, Sleep Number, Kmart, Walmart, HOBO (Home Owners Bargain Outlet), Bose, Toys R Us, Lowe’s, CVS and Target.

Some of these retailers aren’t just fighting to keep their physical stores busy, but against ending up in the dustbin of retail history. If you know even a little about retail, you can guess which ones those are.

The only one on the list I’d never heard of was The Dump. It calls itself “America’s Furniture Outlet.” As far as I can tell, there’s only one in the Chicago area, in west suburban Lombard. The brand is in nine other markets around the country and, strangely enough, notes its web site: “Regular stores open every day of the week and you pay for. [sic] We are only open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, which keeps our cost of doing business down.”

A Fashion Wagon Party Card

One more recently acquired postcard for the week. This one’s in James Lileks territory, I think, not only because of the mid-century commercial artwork, but also because the entity behind it was from Minnesota.
FashionWagonIf that card doesn’t scream late ’60s, I don’t know what does. Indeed, it’s postmarked February 16, 1968. It’s an invitation for a neighbor to a “Fashion Wagon Style Show” at a house in Hoffman Estates, Ill., scheduled for February 23.
FashionWagonRevAn event to brighten up what must have been a dreary February in metro Chicago (they’re all dreary). And to sell a few dresses. Interesting detail: the RSVP phone number uses two letters to begin with. That pretty much disappeared in the ’70s, but I remember learning the telephone exchange letters for our home phone number as a child.  It began with TA (Taylor).

Apparently TW was “Twinbrook.” That took a little digging to find, but strangely enough I found it referenced in Jack Hoffman’s obit in the Chicago Tribune in 2008. Hoffman was the homebuilder who developed Hoffman Estates.

“Eventually, Mr. Hoffman’s company would build some 5,000 homes in the town incorporated in 1959 as Hoffman Estates. Residents that year voted to name the new city Twinbrook, after the local telephone exchange,” the paper noted. “But Mr. Hoffman’s influence led the homeowners association’s board of directors to dismiss the popular vote.”

So much for the vox populi, but there’s still a Twinbrook Elementary School in the village. Note that the editor didn’t see fit to explain the term “telephone exchange” in 2008. Few readers younger than me would understand the reference, but then again, how many people younger than me read newspapers?

Back to the card: it was produced by the Minnesota Woolen Co. to promote its fashion parties. A little digging and you find information from the University of Minnesota Duluth that tells you that “the Minnesota Woolen Company was founded in Duluth in 1916 by Nat G. and Abraham B. Polinsky. The company sold clothing throughout the United States through door-to-door sales. The company was the largest in the nation in sales of clothing on a direct to consumer basis…

“The Mendenhall, Graham Company was purchased in 1946 by Minnesota Woolen Company, which operated it as Minnesota Manufacturing Company with a plant at 514 West 1st Street. The company distributed clothing designed and manufactured in part at 131 West 1st Street through the national Fashion Wagon Party Plan introduced in 1962….

The last major expansion occurred in 1972 when the company moved the Fashion Wagon sample warehouse and shipping facility into a new building at 42nd Avenue West and Superior Street. The retail store closed in 1976, the manufacturing outlet in 1977.”

By the time alphanumeric telephone exchanges were gone, so were Fashion Wagon Parties.

(Speaking of telephones, out of idle curiosity I looked up those two dates in 1968, and found, according to Wiki anyway, that “…on February 16, 1968, the first-ever 9-1-1 call was placed by Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite, from Haleyville City Hall, to U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill, at the city’s police station.”)

The Noah Bell on My Nightstand

Ted Striker: Mayday! Mayday!

Steve McCroskey: What the hell is that?

Johnny: Why, that’s the Russian New Year. We can have a parade and serve hot hors d’oeuvres…

April ended with heavy rains and chilly air. May Day passed under gray skies, with equally chilly air. Yet the grass is long, buds are everywhere, and birds are noisy in their pursuit of making baby birds.

Sometime in the spring of 1986 (probably), I bought a noah bell at a Wicca gift shop in Austin. Strictly speaking, I don’t think Wicca had anything to do with the store, which was stocked with crystals and incense and other esoteric-flavored knickknacks, but that’s how I referred to it later. Maybe that’s gross insensitivity to Wicca, but even my enlightened Austin friends got a chuckle out of the description. Things were different in the ’80s, I guess.

In our time, naturally, one doesn’t even have to go out to find Wicca supplies.

Thirty years later, this is my noah bell.

noah bellThis is what it sounds like, struck with a stainless steel spoon: Noah bell rung three times.

Interestingly enough, it sounds about the same when struck with a plastic pen. Note that there’s no clapper. There used to be one, which was made of wood, but it disappeared sometime over the last three decades. It wasn’t made of copper, so I know it wasn’t stolen.

My bell is about 4¾ inches (12.5 cm) tall, not counting the ring on top, and 3 to 3½ inches (up to 9 cm) in diameter, since it’s more oval than circular. A smaller noah bell with a clapper sounds like this.

I still have the large tag that came with my noah bell, because of course I do.

Noah Bell FrontSo it’s not just a noah bell, but a Maharani brand noah bell. A maharani is the wife of a maharajah, so I suppose that’s like naming your brand Queen or Empress.

Noah Bell BackOLD INDIAN BELIEF needs to be all caps? That’s told of other bells as well, and I have to wonder what kind of lily-livered devil or evil spirit would be scared off by the sound of a bell. Don’t they cover that in evil spirit training? Then again, I ring it around here sometimes, and we’re not bothered by evil spirits that I know of.

The company that imports these bells from India is called Maharani Imports. According to its web site, “Maharani Imports specializes in whimsically themed wind chimes and mobiles made with recycled iron, handmade fused glass beads, and Noah Bells all assembled together in Mumbai. We also have many costume and semi-precious necklaces, earrings, and bracelets…

“We are based outside of Dallas in a small rural town called Bartonville. The company has been in that location since 1980 and we are located on a 30 acre ranch property with many rescued animals. Namely we have about 6 donkeys and 9 llamas, which we welcome you to come visit by appointment if you are nearby!”

Bartonville’s just south of Denton, and I’m not so sure that it’s particularly rural any more. But I can see how the good folks at Maharani Imports might have discovered Austin early as a solid market for their products. My own noah bell now spends most of its time on the nightstand near my bed, along with a lamp, a stack of books, a small statue of Lincoln, and some other bibelots.

Mr. Grouchy at the Hootenanny Hut

America’s Best Train, Toy & Hobby Shop (see yesterday) isn’t the only retailer I’ve visited recently, though it’s the most interesting by far in recent months. Not long before that I went to a much more conventional place — let’s call it the Hootenanny Hut, not because the place deserves such a fun name, but just because it’s a fun name. And if you decided to throw — hold? stage? — a hootenanny, you might be able to find temporary decor and other supplies for it at a place like this.

Anyway, Ann and I were there, and I had a few moments to look around. There was a whole rack of faux facial hair available, including an Old Man Set, Afro Beard, Hippie Mustache, Fearsome Beard, and a Hungover Beard, among others. The simply named Black Mustache looked like the kind of vigorous growth you once saw on one or another of the Village People’s upper lips.

One hair offering in particular caught my eye: the “Mr. Grouchy” set, which included a thick black faux moustache and two thick black faux eyebrows. A helpful photograph of a man wearing the Mr. Grouchy set showed what it was supposed to look like: an imitation Groucho Marx, complete with a large cigar. No cigar, not even a faux cigar, came with the set, however.

What percentage of Mr. Grouchy buyers, or even people who see it casually, know the source material? Just idle curiosity. Fewer and fewer as time goes by, I figure.

America’s Best Train, Toy & Hobby Shop

As expected, today was frigid, near zero to begin with, and not much warmer as the day ground on. As the Monday holiday for the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., it’s the sort of day on which school is closed and the mail doesn’t come, but otherwise there was work to be done.

There aren’t many stores like America’s Best Train, Toy & Hobby Shop in Itasca, Illinois, any more. It’s an independent hobby shop, largely but not completely devoted to model trains, with its merchandise stacked floor-almost-to-ceiling along a number of narrow aisles. Tight enough to put off the claustrophobic, no matter how much they like model trains or train toys. The store has new and used model train cars, track, and accessories of all kinds and in various scales, a room devoted to Thomas the Tank Engine toys, Playmobil, Chuggington Station — I’d never heard of that — Lego sets, plastic model kits, and a lot more.

The store has a Maplewood Dr. address, but it’s visible from Irving Park Road. I’d driven by it countless times over the years, occasionally thinking, I should take a look. But I never did until Saturday. Lilly, Ann, and I had gone to a music store in Itasca to get some sheet music that Lilly needed, but the store didn’t have it. That was annoying, so I decided to make the best of it by visiting America’s Best Train, Toy & Hobby Shop, which happened to be across the street.

I like model trains — I had an HO scale model at one time, a fairly simple layout — but I was more taken with the shop’s stacks and stacks of plastic model kits. I built some of those as a lad, mostly airplanes, but also a Saturn V. (We also had a kit for the Mayflower than was entirely beyond my talents.) I didn’t spend a lot of time looking at America’s Best Train, Toy & Hobby Shop’s model kits, but my impression is that most were airplanes of one kind or another. I didn’t see an Apollo or Gemini or Mercury or even a Space Shuttle.

There were a few fictional spaceships, such as an original series Enterprise. No surprise there. A original series or remake Galactica would have been cool, but I didn’t see those. I did see an Eagle. As in the Space: 1999 spaceships. The kit looked like it dated from the 1970s and had never been opened, and the price was high. Can there be a collectors’ market for unbuilt models? That would be strange if so.

I asked the fellow behind the counter, who probably knows everything about model trains, whether the shop had any railroad postcards. He looked puzzled. For a moment, I might as well have said, “It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.” Guess no one had ever asked about that. Thinking on it, he then directed me to one of the aisles and said there might be some cards somewhere around there. One box tucked away on the aisle had a collection of unmarked black-and-white photos of trains — mid-20th century from the looks of them — and several more boxes contained old model RR hobbyist magazines.

But no postcards that I could find. I can’t fault the store for that; it’s too tangential. Even so, it was popular subject for postcards.

Formerly Known as Marshall Field’s Christmas Windows

Chicago’s seen a lot of street protests lately, but on Saturday we didn’t see any protesters, even though we passed by City Hall and parts of Michigan Ave., which have been hubs of protest. Except for this guy.

Marshall Field's protester 2015He stood on State St. near its intersection with Washington St., just outside of the Store Formerly Known as Marshall Field’s, as you’d expect. Is the sign advocating that the British retailer Selfridge’s buy the famed old store in Chicago and return it to its original name? Maybe. I didn’t ask him. But after all, Harry Selfridge was an early part owner of Marshall Field’s, and essentially took its techniques to the UK to establish his store.

The streets might not have been thronging with protesters, but they were thronging all the same, probably boosted by the fact that it was a Saturday before Christmas, along with the warm temps. Extra helpings of people were in front of the former Marshall Field’s on State St. to see the seasonal windows.
State Street at Macy's Dec 2015Eventually we got a look at the seasonal windows. As usually, they were elaborately creative. Or creatively elaborate, with a Christmas theme. This year it was about a space-flight-enthusiast young boy hitching a ride with Santa to various fantastic versions of the planets (except Pluto), including a return to Earth that seemed to feature a bizarro hybrid of New York and Chicago. Guess that counted as a fantastic version of Earth.

The madding crowd made it hard to look at the windows for very long, or take many pictures, but I did get one of the window I especially liked.
Macy'sChicago Christmas Windows 2015It’s a snowball fight between giant ice creatures inhabiting Uranus and Neptune. Methane snowballs, probably.

La Coquette, 1957

I’m able to pinpoint this image taken by my father with some certainty, because it’s the La Coquette balloon. That’s the balloon featured in the 1950s film adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days, as this site explains in considerable detail. Apparently the balloon did no actual flying in the movie. It was a set, essentially. But it could and did fly for various events.

La CoquetteSo I’m fairly certain this is La Coquette at the grand opening of the Meyerland Plaza mall in Houston on October 31, 1957. The balloon was there, and my family, who lived in Houston at the time, made it to the event as well. I can’t imagine my father would have gone by himself, anyway.

According to the web site of the mall: “Meyerland Plaza Shopping Center opened in October of 1957 with a celebration of ‘Around the Shopping World in 80 Acres.’ There was a hot air balloon that took riders to the Shamrock Hotel.” Meyerland, since redeveloped, is still around and traded hands as recently as 2013, when the Houston Chronicle did an article about the deal that featured the balloon as a bit of background detail. The balloon also did a stint at Disneyland in the early 1960s, it seems.