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I Had to Destroy the Tomato to Serve It

by on August 20, 2014 6:15 AM

My birthday is still a week away and already I have received a Vermont Lake Monsters T-shirt, a mini-cheesecake from the Carnegie Deli in New York, a surprise visit from one of my oldest friends and a Veg-O-Matic Food Preparer.

The Veg-O-Matic, as aficionados of 20th-century late-night television well know, was the brainchild of Samuel J. Popeil.

Where your Thomas Edisons (light bulb), your James Wattses (steam engine) and your Alexander Graham Bells (telephone) dreamed up devices that changed the way we all live, Sam Popeil aspired only to make our lives a little easier.

If you've ever pricked yourself with a needle while sewing a button on a shirt, you would appreciate Popeil's Buttoneer.

If you've ever longed to carry a concealed fishing rod, you would covet his Pocket Fisherman.

And if you have ever wearied of chopping great heaps of vegetables for a stir-fry, you would wish you had his Veg-O-Matic.

I first encountered Popeil and his gizmos during my undergraduate days when, after an evening of scholarly toil, my roommate and I would treat ourselves to a mini-festival of classic television: "Burns and Allen," followed by "The Honeymooners," followed by "The Twilight Zone."

Punctuating these 90-plus minutes of rerun bliss were the commercials, the most memorable of which featured Sam Popeil's son Ron pitching his latest contraption. Thus did a grateful world receive the phrases "It slices! It dices!" and, "But wait, there's more!" Why, without these marketing blitzes there would have been no Dan Aykroyd hawking Bass-O-Matics on "Saturday Night Live" ("the tool that lets you use the whole bass, with no fish waste, without scaling, gutting or cutting").

So indelibly were the Veg-O-Matic ads etched in my memory that I recall reading Sam Popeil's obituary in The New York Times while traveling by train from Philadelphia to New York 30 years ago, in the middle of my 30th summer.

I was then moved to write a brief elegy inspired by W.H. Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats":

Earth, receive an honoured guest:

Sam Popeil is laid to rest.

Let the Jewish vessel lie

Emptied of its gadgetry.

Little did I know that I would one day be the proud owner of perhaps the highest expression of Popeil's gadgetry. At first I thought I would display it on a shelf, as befits its status as a museum piece (there's one on display in the Smithsonian Institution). But then curiosity got the better of me: Does the Veg-O-Matic work? I decided to make a salad and find out.

I began with a cucumber. The New York Times describes the Veg-O-Matic as "a sort of guillotine for vegetables, which are forced through a circular platform of adjustable steel blades by a cleated, wing-shaped manual plunger."

I placed the cuke on the bladed platform, slammed down the plunger and voila – a poker chip-perfect pile of cucumber slices.

I fared less well with my next salad ingredient.

"Mutilate a tomato? It's simple!" I intoned in my best pitchman's voice while gazing at the pulpy mess I had created.

It's possible the fault lay not with the Veg-O-Matic, but with my "inexpert push," as The Times put it, which "bursts a tomato like a water balloon." Apparently, you have to exert the same kind of force you would bring to bear on the shoulders of a suspect who tried to get up before the interrogation was over.

On the other hand, Ronco (Ron's Company) eventually came out with a Veg-O-Matic II, which might have been a concession that there was room for improvement in the Veg-O-Matic I's performance on more delicate foodstuffs.

In any event, I'm very keen on seeing how the original handles an onion. A successful dicing experience might indeed change the way I "think about fruits and vegetables," as Ronco promises it will.

Before I leave this important topic, I must inform you of one more fact concerning Sam Popeil. Sad as it is that he died at the age of 69, it could have been a lot worse. Ten years earlier, his estranged wife Eloise hired two hit men to bump him off.

The plan was to poison him with sleeping pills and make it look like a suicide, according to the Los Angeles Times. Or if that wasn't practicable, "to "blow his head off." Alas, the hit men ratted Eloise out.

The blue-eyed, blonde-haired socialite (as the Newport Beach Daily Pilot described her) spent 19 months in prison. Sam, not one to carry a grudge, married her again when she was released.

But wait, there's more: The name of one of the hit men was Robert Peeler. And no, there was no talk of slicing and dicing.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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