Jim Hiller’s Blog


“What is that thing she asks” ?” “It’s a Kumquat says I”… “What does it taste like” ?”
“Well…” says I, “it’s sweet, bitter, puckery, zesty, citrusy but never demure.”
“May I taste one ?”
“Of course,” says I. “Let me wash it first….”
“How do I eat it?”
“You eat it like a grape,” says I. “Just pop it in your mouth.”
A leap of faith followed by a puckered face and a grimace. “Wow it’s bitter but sort of sweet…”
“Yup says I.”
“I’m not sure I like it,” says she. A moment passes along with a migration of the flavor from the tip of the tongue to the sides and even the taste buds at the rear. “I’ll take the lot says she…”

Kumquats-with-vertical-slices-cut-into-themThe foregoing fictionalized drama is a common occurrence in real life when I stand in the produce aisle and hawk kumquats like a common street peddler.

I love the things and have as long as I can recall.

Kumquats originated in the East, likely Japan or the Philippines. They were first brought to England in 1846 and have been cultivated in California for nearly a century. The most common variety in the US is the Nagami variety. A near perfect oval and as pretty as a California orange but all comparisons stop there. Often candied and used as garnish the kumquat has the fortitude to stand on its own as a citrus snack. The cognoscenti gobble them up skin and all. The more timid skin them and eat only the sweet flesh.

I say skinning kumquats before eating them is like taking a bath with your socks on. Pop the entire thing in your mouth and enjoy the widest array of flavor and taste nature can provide.


A Fine Holiday Stink

lutefisk-imageO Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma,
O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, you put me in a coma.
You smell so strong, you look like glue,
You taste just like an overshoe,
But lutefisk, come Saturday,
I tink I eat you anyvay

Cloistered among the oddest of holiday traditions is the Scandinavians’ consumption of Lutefisk.

It seems only natural that the descendants of the Vikings, perhaps history’s greatest tough guys, would celebrate a food prepared with a caustic and highly dangerous substance. Lute –(cod) fisk preserved in lye (lut)—is both a delicacy and a tradition among Scandinavian-Americans, who serve the chemical-soaked, gelatinous fish with a warm and friendly smile. Lutefisk, or lutfisk in Swedish, is a traditional dish in Norway, Sweden, and parts of Finland.

These days the consumption of Lutefisk is mainly limited to the Northern tier of American states where those same descendants of Vikings now reside and consider it a connection to their ancestral home.

A Lutefisk starts as cod, traditionally caught in the cold waters off Norway. It’s then dried to the point that it attains the feel of leather and the firmness of corrugated cardboard. Water alone can’t reconstitute the fish, so it’s soaked in lye. Yes, lye, the industrial chemical used to unclog drains and dispose of murder victims, the one that explodes when it comes in contact with aluminum. Incidentally, it’s the same chemical that gives pretzels that deep, shiny brown, cures fresh olives for eating, and what makes bagels gleam; these foods just don’t advertise this fact like lutefisk does. The fish is then repeatedly rinsed before being shipped off for cooking and eating. But it’s still so close to toxic that the state of Wisconsin specifically exempts lutefisk from classification as a toxic substance in Section 101.58 (2)(j)(f) of its laws regulating workplace safety.

Traditional lutefisk preparation is simple. Merely place it in a pan, (do not use an aluminum pan as the lye in the fish will discolor the pan)salt it, seal the lid tightly, and let it steam-cook at very low heat for 20–25 minutes.

You can also make traditional Minnesota lutefisk recipes in your oven. Place the fish in an ovenproof dish, cover with aluminum foil, and bake at 225 °C (435 °F) for 40–50 minutes.

Toppings vary from bacon or pork drippings, white sauce, mustard sauce, or melted butter still the most traditional way to top the lutefisk.

Boiled and steamed potatoes, stewed whole, and green peas are a traditional “must” as vegetable accompaniments or side dishes. The one other “necessary” addition is lefse a type of flatbread

It’s on my personal holiday menu this year.

The Rite of Spring

Spencer-HillerThe 3rd Friday of March is a singularly important day to a singularly important part of the future health and wellbeing of these United States.

It is none other than National Residency Match Day and for the graduates of medical schools every year it determines where they will train in their respective specialties’ on the road to becoming practicing physicians anywhere from 3 to 12 years thereafter.

I have been fortunate to be immersed in the ritual fire dance that finding a desirable residency match entails twice in my life. Most currently with my son Spencer who graduates in May 2014 from University of Michigan Medical School.

Securing a spot in a choice residency program is no easy thing. Spencer chose a career in Urology which is a particularly tough to get specialty and much hard work is involved on the student’s part he or she is to succeed. In Spence’s case, he spent a month working in a Urology program in California at Keck School of Medicine at USC, at University of Michigan Hospital Department of Urology and at Beaumont Hospital Department of Urology. During each of those rotations every day was a two-way audition with each seeking to demonstrate worthiness of the others’ desire. Naturally the prospective resident needs to work the harder of the two in order to demonstrate their worth; especially when seeking a career in a specialty like Urology where only about 60% of applicants find a matching program.

In a perfect situation every residency program would have hundreds of medical students to choose among and every program would want every student but that is far from the case. Obtaining a spot in a storied and top quality residency program is highly competitive and there is a paucity of available openings.

Following this period of rotating through numerous programs by the students, both the medical students and the residency programs rank each other in order of desirability.

Finally… through the facilitation of a third party corporation the lists of both the medical students and the residency programs are spun through a wash and dry cycle and for many or most medical students and residency programs a match occurs.

On Friday March 21, 2014 I sat in a room at University of Michigan Medical School as the drama of the residency match came to its conclusion. At precisely 12:00 noon envelopes were distributed to each medical student containing a letter advising them where they would be spending the next phase of their training.

For many there were tears of joy. At U of M Medical School most students get their first or second choice. For a few there were tears of sadness that they did not and for one or two there was no match at all so other paths to the future have to be explored.

In case you’re wondering. Spencer Charles Hiller, University of Michigan medical class of 2014 will be a Urology Resident at Beaumont Hospital.

The Queen is Dead….Long live the Queen

On April 30, 2012 my beloved Scottish Deerhound Lilly died. She had languished for six months with pancreatitis and kidney failure. Dutifully I gave her bags of subcutaneous fluids every day and fed her from my fingers in an unsuccessful effort extend her life.

In the end she was euthanized in my arms and I watched as her soul left her body and she fell limp like an empty shell at the seashore. I felt empty without her. No creature under the stars of heaven had ever been so perfect as my beloved Lilly. I was heartbroken and felt that I had a hole in me that could never be filled.

Eleven months later I received a call from a couple in Vermont who breed and raise Scottish Deerhounds. Lee and Lois Resseguie had learned of my loss and as serendipity would have it they called to say they had a puppy that needed a home. I was unsure. Could my emptiness be repaired by a replacement or would a new deerhound merely be a soulless copy of my beloved Lilly.

As I write this today, Daisy my brand new deerhound is gnawing at my elbow because I’ve ignored her entreaties for almost 5 minutes. She growls and bounces when she wants my attention and she nuzzles and coos when she has it. Best of all my house is once again alive with the sound of galloping Deerhound feet and my life has once again been filled with an odd looking creature who needs me as much as I need her. I often describe her as a greyhound with my hair.

Lilly has not returned to me and she will have a permanent inscription in my heart, but even an old fox like me can still learn new lessons of life and one that I’ve added to my personal storehouse is that a puppy can heal a broken heart.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

– Alexander Pope

She Did it Her Way

Recently I had the privilege of speaking at the funeral of a dear friend. Her name was Lee Better and I had been her friend, lawyer and confidant since 1987.

Lee came to Hiller’s in her 75th year in need of a job and still raw from the shuttering of her resale shop New to You. She needed work and with the resoluteness that typified her she was willing to do damn near anything. I put her in charge of Hiller’s demo program and she took to it like a duck to water. Soon, customers flocked to see her and listen to her as she held court.  One of her biggest fans was Sonny Eliot the widely acclaimed local newscaster and weatherman, who spent hours exchanging stories and jokes with her. Lee had a smile a mile wide and the precocious humor of Dame Edna. Once a customer asked her if a Sara Lee product was kosher and without a blink Lee responded with a wink and said; “ Sara’s a Jewish name so it must be.” She knew it wasn’t; so did the customer but both had a good laugh.

Life was not easy for Lee. She married Sam when she was in her late thirties and while they were fortunate to have two daughters, Gayle and Liz, Sam died unexpectedly and young. Lee had worked part-time during the marriage but suddenly she became the sole support of the family. Without a complaint, Lee rose to the task. She opened a resale shop called New To You and with the help of her many girlfriends, beautiful well-labeled ladies clothes filled the shelves and her store became a gathering place for sharp women who knew a bargain. And so it went for 10 years or more while Lee watched over her girls and her elderly mother with a perpetual smile on her face and never a single complaint at the hand life had dealt her.

Finally the store ran out of steam and Lee came to me needing a job. I was honored to oblige. After all… I’d been her lawyer during the good times so how could I walk away during the lean? Without a complaint Lee started work as Hiller’s Food Demonstration Specialist. At a time of life when most of us are contemplating our navels on a couch, she was on time and bright eyed every day and she charmed the pants off everyone, me included. Because no matter how tough things were or how much pain she felt Lee’s mien never varied.

Sadly one late afternoon 7 years ago for reasons unknown, while driving home after work, Lee drifted across the road and into a head-on collision with another vehicle. She was taken to the hospital by ambulance and given a grave prognosis. “”She won’t survive the night” said the trauma surgeon. Eight months later she left the hospital, bent, broken and bruised but with her spirit intact and until June 13th 2013 Lee endured. We all knew she was on borrowed time. She didn’t give a damn… she laughed and continued to charm the pants off everyone she met.
Those of us who knew Lee were fortunate to have a woman of such strength and uncommon virtue in our life.

At her funeral I said, “ if ever there was a soul who deserved to be swept to heaven on the wings of angels it was Lee”. Every head in the audience nodded in agreement.

I will eternally miss Lee’s smile, wit and charm.