Please enjoy the following bits of whimsy, memoir, miscellaneous reportage, opinion. I’m putting them here with no paywall, no obligation, no particular reason other than vanity, I suppose.

 

Chairman’s Letter

By Brian Alexander
© 2014, Brian Alexander

“‘Facts don’t spread. Emotions do spread,’ said Paul Adams, a brand experience manager at Facebook”
— The New York Times, January 30, 2012

My fellow Circle of Life Industries shareholders:

I am happy to report that under your company’s leadership team, Circle of Life Industries has proven itself to be a winner in both the fine dining and convenience foods spaces, returning your confidence with unprecedented growth curves. We’re planning exciting initiatives for the coming year, but before I tell you about them, I want to take the opportunity of our first annual report to revisit how we have come so far, so fast.

It was just two years ago that I journeyed to Glencraigie, Scotland to seek out Bruce McAllister. As most of you know, Bruce made his name by using birds of prey to kill some of the rabbits and other game he served at the Niblick, his small bistro.

Bruce was skeptical. After all, I was a social venture fund manager, not a food entrepreneur. And when I described how I wanted to extend his brand by sourcing only from the phlegm Gaia hacks up from her majestic body, free of any killing by humans, he shouted “Buncha fookin’ shite! Fookin’ deep shite!”

Yes, it’s true!

But that, my fellow investors, was the Eureka! moment when the name for our new movement — Deep Food — came to me.

Well, it took some doing (and a hefty compensation package), but I convinced Bruce, and, with a small staff of laborers, including a young carpenter from Slaty Fork, West Virginia named Jayden Grits, we transformed the shell of a former Bottega Veneta boutique into the flagship Circle of Life restaurant we all know today.

I was the first forager. Hard to believe, I know. I was never a Boy Scout; I went to Stanford. But I picked up fallen sassafras leaves along the Hudson River palisades. I wandered Morristown National Historic Park until I came across a long-dead possum and part of a rabbit. That evening Bruce made the first-ever Deep Food dish, seared possum liver and rabbit hindquarters with a sassafras reduction.

“‘At’s bloody fookin’ awful,” he said when he tasted his work. “Mingin piece ‘a shite.” And it was, my friends. But we were not deterred.

I hired young Jayden, hale and muscular, to head up a foraging crew. What a happy accident this decision proved to be! Jayden divided his crew into two parts, surf and turf, and soon they were wandering into Connecticut ponds to retrieve dead cattail hearts. They harvested burdock along the Major Deegan Expressway, collected pigeons in midtown. By following feral cats, urban coyotes, the occasional Queens pit bull, Jayden and his crews gathered some partially gnawed birds, a dozen mice, and half a Yorkshire terrier.

Animals die deeply all around us. You’d be surprised how many are keeling over right now with respiratory failure, bone cancer, heart attacks. They have accidents. Uncoordinated squirrels fall out of trees onto concrete sidewalks. Bream are dropped by gulls. Skates are washed ashore by tides. Whether it was part of a seal, possums, chipmunks, rats, voles, snakes, Jayden soon filled the larder.

And Bruce performed miracles. Those of you who have followed the Circle of Life story from the beginning will recall the opening night raves for his sizzling rabbit snout fajitas, seagull hash, and mole lung on cartilage foam. Let me remind you of Betsy-Lynn Bao’s first tweet:

COL is to post-industrial cuisine wht L’Escoffier was 2 Antne Careme: Honest. Responsible. rilly awesome. #deepfood #score

Such praise coming from the most feared restaurant critic in the city not only affirmed our creative vision, but sparked an immediate three-month reservations backlog.

The following day I phoned Betsy-Lynn, interrupting her seventh-grade social studies class at Brearley, to thank her.

“You are at the intersection of social media and branded event advertising,” she said. Naturally, I hired her (and her 752,132 Twitter followers) on the spot as our vice-president for social media and public relations. I think you’ll all agree that her salary, stock options, and the flexible work arrangements we’ve made to accommodate her field hockey practices and games have been more than justified.

Her leadership of social influencers and our advercontent program helped us weather skepticism from the legacy media. When Florence Fabricant called Bruce’s raccoon haggis “nothing more than trash,” did we let that bother us? No! We understood that facts don’t spread, emotions do spread. We appealed directly to the glamorous-adventurer demographic, the young, the techno-savvy.

Betsy-Lynn was masterful at creating a community of content with real-time activations across social media channels via influencer-curated native advercontent, like Corby Kummer, who wrote “Deep Food is true food, the slowest of all slow food, so very, very slow, its inventor, Bruce McAllister, waits patiently for death.”

She recruited the city’s hippest rebels to our side with tweets like

Jayden Grits butchers shit right there! Hawt-ee, too. How underground is that? FU, health dpt. #deepfood

Here’s one example of our strategy in action, as influencer “shiksagoddess” guides a conversation on UrbanBaby.

I don’t know what to think about it. My five-year-old suggested we buy a terrier and some French rabbits like he saw in Provence last year and let the dog kill the rabbits for us. He thought it would be “so awesome!” I do think it might provide a lesson on the dog-eat-rabbit world so he learns that food doesn’t only come from Zabars, but I worry about the side effects of the stress hormones the rabbit will produce once he knows he’s being killed. I’ve heard it could lower sperm counts in boys. Plus, I’m not sure how my son’s preschool teacher would react and we’re trying to get him into Buckley next year. – Anna234

Hey Anna…you’re right to be worried. Hormones are poison. We’re castrating our boys with them. – OrganicBex

Wouldn’t that be a good thing? – BushyBabe

Hubby and I are so totally into Deep Food! We hired the guy who makes lunches at BlackRock where hubby works to come over and cook a Deep Food menu for our last dinner party. He got a weasel from Greenwood Cemetery. Amaaa-zing! It tasted so…real! Hubby says we’re going to Argentina this fall to forage for capybara. Sooo excited! – shiksagoddess

Other restaurateurs couldn’t ignore the juggernaut. David Chang opened Fukyutu. Daniel Boulud started Decay. Of course, those Charlie Palmer UpChuck trucks cruising around Los Angeles owe their existence to your company.

We leaned into our success by opening a small beachside café in Montauk, Samsara. Making Jayden head chef was risky, yes, but the gamble paid off when his jellyfish quesadillas become the summer’s iconic snack.

Your company’s leadership team further extended the brand by placing Jayden in his own full-service fine dining Deep Food restaurant, Samsara West, in Malibu. True, Jayden was no Bruce in the kitchen. But, as Betsy-Lynn reassured the team, “a chef is not a chef, he’s a curated content container.”

Once Betsy-Lynn wrangled an Instagram of Kaley Cuoco noshing on crispy found Topanga rattlesnake skin during a lunch meeting with her agent, The Ivy was out, Samsara was in.

With proceeds from our IPO, we leveraged Jayden’s growing celebrity into the first five Jayden Grits Lickety-Split Samsara Cafés in Boston, Indianapolis, Columbus, Jacksonville, and O’Hare airport. As you can see in our revenue breakdown, same-store sales have risen each month over the most recent quarter.

The EPS growth curve on the following page did not come without setbacks. We were shaken by Bruce’s return to Scotland after that Nick Denton head-butting incident, and the brief scandal over the sourcing of woodchucks from the Midwest region, but we stuck to our content modality paradigm. As Betsy-Lynn reminded all of us, “transparency is the act of being human as a brand.”

Which brings me to the future. Your company’s leadership has exciting initiatives on board for the coming fiscal year.

We’ll continue our aggressive expansion of Jayden Grits Lickety-Split Samsara Cafés. We’ll introduce what we hope will become a diverse line of Deep Frozen® foods for the home chef, starting with recovered elk Salisbury steaks. And we’ll leverage our leadership position in Deep Food to execute several cross-channel brand-extension play strategies with a new division, Deep Living®.

Finally, we will vastly improve our already formidable brand curation social strategies with game-changing technology, our proprietary Circle of Life Industries Pepsia Transform®.

The Pepsia Transform® represents the ultimate advance in Big Data. Pepsia eats more information, and faster, than any algorithm of its type, then exudes actionable brand curation marketing targets.

True, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I was a liberal arts major.

But some quant guys we hired explained it to me and here’s what they said: Suppose a junior executive in Cedar Rapids tweets about lunch plans. Meanwhile, in Pasco, Washington, a couple sends an email to a contractor about their home remodel. And in Raleigh, North Carolina, a mom complains to her Facebook friends about her lousy night’s sleep. All these messages join millions of others in the big river of bits streaming around us. The Pepsia Transform® dips its digital ladle into this river, and, in seconds, transmits a tweet to the young man in Iowa suggesting a fast lunch of seared breast of pocket mouse on a bed of found fleabane at the new Cedar Rapids Jayden Grits Lickety-Split Samsara Café. The couple in Pasco, Washington receives an email suggesting they include a Deep Living® Exhibition Abattoir® in their new kitchen to butcher the Circle of Life Way® (great for entertaining!). That tired mom? She’ll see a message about the $28,000 Deep Sleep® horse hide-and-hair mattress.

As you can see, Circle of Life Industries is harnessing the power of social peristalsis to create the world’s leading lifestyle brand. The future is bright.

Thank you.

 

My Mother, the Legionnaire

By Brian Alexander
© 2014, Brian Alexander

On February 6, the government of France will award my mother a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. The award will recognize the small role she played in the liberation of France during World War II.

I say “small” because my mother says small, and in the context of the liberation of France it was small. My mother, now 92, was an army nurse assigned to a field hospital in Normandy. Two of her tent-mates, both still living, have also been given this honor, as have other U.S. veterans who participated. The award is not in recognition of some dramatic act or unique suffering.

She’d be the first to tell you this. She’d insist on telling you this.

Overpowered by the flickering heroics of scores of war movies and “Greatest Generation” documentaries, and gauzy images of “The Good War” we’ve all come to know, she’s right. Her little bit of the war, as she likes to call it, wasn’t a big deal, except to her.

She waged it on a few acres of pasture near the village of La-Haye-du-Puits on the Cotentin Peninsula near Cherbourg. She knew very little of what was happening outside that small domain. “I think I saw two copies of Stars and Stripes the whole time I was there,” she says in the oral history I took a couple of years ago.

Before she was Mrs. Robert Alexander, she was Agnes Stern, though everybody called her “Bobby.” Bobby was a kid, practically, who was known in her high school as the gabby, flirty, social butterfly and who happened to be in nursing school when Pearl Harbor was attacked. She joined the army out of a touch of patriotism, but also because lots of other nurses were joining the army and she thought it would be a fun adventure.

She was so naïve that, during a leave from Camp Lee, Virginia, when she came home to Jeannette, Pennsylvania to see her parents, and they worried she’d be sent overseas, she reassured them.

“I can remember saying ‘Don’t worry, I will never go overseas because you have to volunteer. Well, when I got back to Camp Lee that day, I had just walked into the barracks, and somebody said ‘You’re going overseas!'”

Her unit, the 164th hospital, had been ordered to Normandy.

A convoy of British and American ships dodged German submarines to deliver her off the French coast. She arrived in the middle of the night, a month or so, as she recalls it, after D-Day. She climbed down a ropey net hung over the side of the ship and onto a wooden raft. Her combat boot fell through a space in the boards of the raft leaving her foot soaked with cold Channel sea.

Once on the beach, she and the other nurses, all young and green, waited for a truck to take them to La-Haye-du-Puits. The plan called for a pre-dawn arrival. The driver got lost.

“At about dawn,” she recalls, “he drove into St. Lo.” The battle for the crossroads town was one of the fiercest engagements of the Normandy campaign. “That’s when we got our first glimpse of war. There was nothing there. It was all bombed out.”

The dawn light silhouetted smoke, fire, shells of buildings. “It was kind of scary. Here again, we were 21, 22 years old, and don’t forget, until Camp Lee, none of us had ever been more than 25 miles away from home and all the sudden here we were in the midst of a war in another country. We were cold, it was rainy, we were scared, some of us already homesick.”

The driver eventually found his way and the unit set itself up, living in pup tents, at first, with bigger tents for surgeries and a patient ward. They ate C-rations and K-rations, and bathed with water from their helmets.

Conditions eventually improved – looking a bit like M*A*S*H – and she settled more or less into routine. She gauged what was happening in the wider war according to the flow of casualties arriving from nearby battlefields. The boys – mostly boys – arrived by truck, were operated on or otherwise treated, and, after a period of recovery, either sent to England and home or back to the line.

As I grew up, almost the only war stories I heard from my mother and my father, who died in 1999, and who was a sergeant in the same unit, were about how much fun it all was.

Here’s an oft-told one: As an officer, a lieutenant, my mother had a liquor ration, four fifths per month, one each of bourbon, Scotch, gin and rum. She used this as currency, mainly. Sometimes she bribed the guards overseeing the nurses’ part of the camp – black men in the then-segregated army – to look the other way when the nurses wanted to meet with an enlisted man. It is thanks to such forbidden “fraternization,” and to her skill at petty corruption, that my two brothers and I exist today.

There’s a story about a scrawny chicken bartered from a local farmer, and one about the time she and her mates almost managed to burn down their tent trying to stay warm. They’re pretty funny.

The only time my mother mentioned anything dark was when one of her sons malingered in bed on cold school day mornings pleading some grave malady. She’d pull the “basket cases” trump card, telling us about young guys with limbs blown away. We figured she was exaggerating, but Bobby Alexander’s sons had some of the best attendance records in the history of Lancaster, Ohio Catholic schools.

It’s true that the closest my mother got to a German carrying a gun was the result of desperation. German soldiers once managed to sneak into the camp at night. They had come from the nearby Channel Islands where their garrison had been left by the Reich to fend for itself after D-Day. Seeking food, they took several nurses hostage. Some sort of negotiation ensued. My mother doesn’t know the details, but suspects a food-for-nurses trade was arranged. The episode ended happily.

The camp was never bombed, and, as far as she knows, never shot at. Many nurses, like those serving in the Philippines, some of whom were taken prisoner and suffered horribly, had a much tougher war than my mother. She’d want you to know that.

Don’t think, though, that this is all there is to her story.

She learned about her own country through contact with hundreds of broken young men, sometimes by writing letters for them. This was supposed to be the job of Red Cross nurses, but she took it on after a soldier told her that when he asked a Red Cross nurse to help, “‘I told her I was from Mississippi and could neither read nor write, and she told everybody on the ward.'” (Episodes like this instilled in my mother a life-long distrust of the Red Cross.) Lots of boys, she recalls, could not read or write. “So I wrote the letter and said ‘Who will read this? Can your parents read?’ And he said ‘No, the lady next door will read it to them.'”

Often, the men just wanted to talk. When screams from their own nightmares woke them in the night, she soothed them.

“Back then, we had something called elixir of terpin hydrate with codeine, a cough syrup, and when I was on night duty, every night about bedtime, they would all start coughing and say ‘I need cough medicine!'” She laughs, but they needed it, and not for coughing.

The boys liked her. “Every GI I ever knew fell in love with his nurse,” she says. Some drew flattering pictures. One cartoon she’s kept depicts her as a cute, buxom angel with wings flying toward a man’s bare quivering ass, a syringe with a long needle in her hand.

Every day, especially during the epically cold winter of 1944-45 when the camp was a primary recipient of casualties from the Battle of the Bulge, she watched such young men die, some of them on operating tables during surgeries she assisted, some in their cots.

“We got all kinds,” she says of the traffic through the hospital. “Even little French children who stepped on mines. We had lots of bullet holes, just about everything.”

And those basket cases? “Oh yes,” she says.

She pauses a second.

“I had a…I can almost see him. He lost an arm into his shoulder, and I’ll never forget, right before he went back to the states he said to me, ‘I would gladly give another arm to get out of that.’ We had one little guy who had one arm and one leg and he was going home, of course, but he hadn’t yet told his parents. I did my best. I said ‘You have got to write and tell them.’ He said ‘No, they’ll see me when they see me.’

“A guy I dated in high school, his brother….” She stops. She’s 92 years old but sees his face clear as yesterday.

“Before we were set up in the big tent, all of us were together and one girl came in and said ‘Bobby, there is a handsome major out there looking for you.’ I said ‘Who knows I’m here?’ So I went out and I never saw this guy before. He was huge! He told me who he was and I said, ‘Oh, I know your brother.’ And he said ‘Your dad knows my sister.’ His sister worked in the factory at McKee Glass [where her father worked] and she wondered if I might be anywhere near her brother.”

She stops again.

“His name was Dante DalleTezze, from Claridge. I went to high school with his brother, Elio. Dante was a good football player. [He started for the University of Pittsburgh in 1938.] Well, his sister wrote to him and told him my outfit number, so he had been watching, and they were bivouacked nearby, and he came, and we had a nice long chat. He said ‘We are going to be shipped out tonight or tomorrow, but I will come back and look you up. I said ‘OK.’ So they were shipped out and I never heard from him.

“Then came the Battle of the Bulge. We began to get patients from his outfit, and, of course, I would say do you know this major and it was always, ‘No,’ ‘No,’ ‘No.’ I finally found somebody who said ‘He was our major.’ I said, ‘I know him well. Do you know if he was hurt?’ ‘No.’ Then I found a kid and he said ‘How well do you know him?’ I told him, and he said ‘Well, he’s dead. He had his head shot off.'”

She pauses again. “There were lots of little things like that. Well, not so little.”

She doesn’t admit anything about herself but says that, yes, some were affected by all this “but nothing like Vietnam.” She sees Vietnam vets when she goes to her local VA hospital to pick up some prescriptions. They look haunted.

After Germany surrendered, the unit was told to prepare for the Pacific. She can still sing the song, “Please, Mr. Truman” imploring the president to send them home, instead. While the unit was in Marseille awaiting a ship, atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

She wrote a letter home: “I will either call or telegraph to tell you what time. It should not be too long. I want a bottle of Duquesne [beer] stuffed pork chops, an orange, and a piece of cake.”

When she arrived, she kissed and hugged her parents, and had a pork chop and cake and beer, and went upstairs to her old bedroom and tried to sleep in her bed and, failing, lay down on the floor and cried. She slept on the floor next to her bed for weeks. She cried often.

“I was welcomed in town like the prodigal son returned,” she says. Still in the army, “I had to wear my uniform at all times and everybody made a fuss.” Her parents did not ask her about her experiences. “They never did. Not even later. They never did. And I didn’t want to tell them about it.

Her town seemed strange, the people in it, the ones she’d grown up with, seemed different. But she was the one who was different. Not only did she miss the intimate camaraderie of her unit – “We were like family” – “it was an intense experience and then, all the sudden, you had everything you could want right there, and nothing to do and you’re expected to be a normal civilian.” Even the thought of marrying my father, who had gone to his home in Cleveland, didn’t excite her. She says she got over it, eventually, mostly.

“After awhile, my dad said the war made me hard.”

She shrugs.

“You know, you get over that.”

“Was it true, though? Did it make you hard?” I ask.

“It probably did. I think that’s true. I think that would be true of all of us. It still probably has some effect on me.”

She acts like receiving the Legion of Honor on February 6 won’t be that big a deal. She wants to make sure the ceremony is over in time for her to make her Thursday bridge game. Don’t you believe it.

 

Postscript: My mother received her honor, kisses on both cheeks by the French consul from Miami, and a bottle of French champagne. She was back in time for bridge. She won.