I was grocery shopping with my teenager. We were at that store – you know the one – with the extra-friendly staff. You know, the almost too-friendly staff? I was frankly shocked that I’d gotten The Teen to come in with me, because I’ve been told – frequently – that it’s humiliating the way I talk to cashiers in stores – actually having conversations – and that seems like a given here.
Anyway, we had gotten everything on the list and were making our way up to the cash registers.
The Teen gave me a look, as if to say, “Don’t. You. Dare.”
I assumed the Universal Father Face, which says without words, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m too dumb to be doing anything wrong.”
We got in the shortest line and were quickly greeted by an older lady with a sing-song voice.
“♫ And how are you, today? ♬ ,”she chirped.
I said what my father usually says when asked this – “You know, one day chicken; the next day feathers…”
She found this very funny. She laughed and laughed – for at least three or four seconds.
“♫ That’s so funny! ♬ ,”she sang to me. “♪What does it mean? ♫”
“It’s just something my dad always says,” I told her. “I guess it means that some days you get delicious chicken, and some days you’re left with a handful of feathers.”
The Teen gave me a stern look. This was looking dangerously like a conversation.
My new friend laughed again, with a delighted look on her face. “♫ That’s so funny! ♬ ,”she said again, “♪because I HAVE two chickens! ♫”
“Oh?” I replied. “What are their names?” I could feel the heat of a teenage glare on the back of my neck.
“♫ Betty and Wilma! ♬
“Oh,” I told her, pulled into this conversation in spite of myself, “that’s so weird, because my father’s name is Fred.”
And my new friend laughed and laughed.
I looked behind me at my teenager, who was actively hoping the Earth would open up and swallow her.
I worked hard not to show any personality for the next four or five minutes while our groceries were rung up, but I have to confess that my resolve slipped a little bit as I took the receipt.
“Well, say hi to the Girls for me,” I told the cashier.
“🎶 Oh, I will! ♪,” she beamed.
It was at this point that I was overcome by the Spirit of Dad Jokes.
“You know,” I told her, leaning in conspiratorially, “you need to be careful with chickens. If they offer you a finger, you should never… PULLET!”
“♪PULLET!! ♬,” she shrieked with laughter.
The girl at the next register turned around with a huge smile on her face. “I love that joke!” she told me. “It has so many layers!”
I pointed to her. “Good one!” I said.
It took her a second, then both women were overcome with laughter again.
“’LAYERS’!!” they both shrieked, doubling over with merriment.
I turned around to The Teenager, only to find myself alone.
I looked through the window, to see her carrying the groceries and power-walking through the parking lot to our car.
“You know,” she told me as I got into the car, “I’m pretty sure that’s child abuse.”
I don’t completely concede my child’s point, but I will agree that I am somewhat burdened by a need to make checkout workers like me.
I spent over a year trying to get a smile out of the lady who works the 6 am shift at my local supermarket. I would buy flowers or coffee on my way to work a couple of times a week, and I could never get so much as a smile from her. I heard her talking and joking with some of the other regulars, so I guessed that the problem was probably on my end.
I told her jokes. I complimented her. I asked her about the weather.
One morning last February, I had to run into the store and pick up something. I was parked right next to the door, so I didn’t bother to put my coat on. This got her attention.
“Arncha’ cold?” she asked me.
I looked her in the eye and said as flatly as possible, “i’ve got my despair to keep me warm”.
I saw the tiniest hint of a smile in one corner of her mouth. Within two minutes, we were talking about old Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, and she’s smiled at me ever since.
The Teen and I stop at a particular convenience store most nights after our taekwondo lessons to get a soda. There was a cashier who worked there for a while who never smiled or seemed to enjoy my particular flavor of stupidity. I would always tell her a joke anyway.
She never laughed.
This concerned The Teen. “You know,” she told me, “that’s kind of like harassment.”
“I don’t think so,” I told her. “She’d miss it if I didn’t tell her a joke.”
“Do you know how that sounds?” she asked me.
She had a point.
So, the next time we went into the store, a couple of nights later, I just said “Good evening”, paid up, nodded and walked away.
I got as far as the door.
“What?” The cashier called out to me, “No joke?”
A few weeks later, we went into the same store, but we were waited on by a grumpy-looking new guy. I decided he needed a joke, so as he handed me my change, I asked him why the dolphin flunked out of ballet school.
“What?” the kid  asked.
“Why,” I repeated, “did the dolphin flunk out of ballet school?”
He just stared at me.
“Poor poise!” I told him gleefully.
His voice was completely expressionless – “I hate you. Please leave my store.”
My Teen clasped her hands, and looked up at him, adoringly. “You’re my new role model!” she gushed.
I bring these stories up because it’s been my experience that when the same sort of thing keeps happening over and over, I need to acknowledge it in some way. One of the ways I can pay respect to these Hints From the Universe is to dedicate cocktails to them.
So, this month, the cocktail theme is Checkout Cashiers.
I asked a number of cashiers at the stores where I shop what their favorite combinations of flavors were.
Two answers came up over and over – like 85%-of-the-time-over-and-over – chocolate and mint, and chocolate and caramel.
Who am I to ignore The Universe?
Drink #1 – Chocolate Mint Martini
2 oz. Chocolate-infused vodka (see below)
1 oz. Mint syrup (also below)
5 ice cubes
Combine everything in a mixing glass and stir it gently. This is one of those times when you don’t want to shake the cocktail. It will make a noticeable difference in the flavor and mouthfeel of the finished drink.
Yes, I know I’m calling this a martini, but you will probably want to pour this – ice and all – into a rocks glass. It’s surprisingly delicious.
The key here is the chocolate vodka. It’s one of those things that you could justifiably expect to be too sweet, but it isn’t. It brings richness and flavor, but leaves the sweetness to the mint syrup. The mint syrup, in its turn, might be two sweet, but using fresh mint brings an herbal quality that lifts the whole drink. That said, a gentle hand with the syrup is probably best.
750 ml/3 cups Vodka. Because the finished vodka will be overwhelmed by cocoa flavors, you probably don’t want to use the top-shelf stuff.
½ cup/2 oz./60 gr. Cocoa nibs. I like Guittard. Cocoa nibs are fragments of dried cocoa beans. Because they haven’t had any sugar added, they bring flavor to the vodka, without adding any sweetness.
Combine vodka and cocoa nibs in a large, air-tight jar. Store somewhere cool and dark for four days, shaking twice per day.
After four days, strain with a fine-meshed strainer, then filter again with a coffee filter.
This may become your new secret ingredient.
100 gr. Sugar
100 gr. Water
10 gr. Fresh mint.
Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, making a simple syrup. Let the syrup boil for ten or fifteen seconds, to ensure that the sugar is completely dissolved.
Remove from heat. Add mint. Cover and steep for 45 minutes.
Strain with a fine-mesh strainer, squeezing all the moisture from the mint with clean hands.
Bottle, label, and store in your refrigerator.
Drinks #2A and 2B – Caramel Mudslides
Okay, there is no way to keep caramel from being incredibly sweet; it is sugar. The way forward is to embrace the sweetness.
The first step is to make caramel, which is a process that strikes terror into the hearts of most home cooks. (Seriously, watch any season of The Great British Bake-Off.) There is an easy way around the heartache. It’s not like it’s a secret or anything, but if you leave a can of sweetened, condensed milk in a crockpot full of water overnight, the sugar caramelizes on its own and the condensed milk turns into dulce de leche – a Mexican caramel sauce. Leave it on the Low setting for eight to nine hours, and the hardest thing you will have to do is find a pair of tongs to lift it out of the water.
Because a lot of my
guinea pigs, victims, tasters at the moment are vegan, I wanted to see if I could find a non-dairy work-around for this, so I also put a can of Coco Lopez – that sickly sweet coconut cream that you normally associate with dorm-room piña coladas – in the crockpot as well. It turns out that it caramelizes extremely well, too. I would give it twelve hours in the bath, however.
Caramel Mudslide #1
5-6 Ice cubes
1 oz. Kahlua
2 oz. Chocolate vodka (see above)
1½ oz. Dulce de leche (see above)
3 oz. Whole milk
1 oz. ½ & ½
In a small blender – a Magic Bullet™ is great for this – combine all the ingredients, and blend for a full minute.
Pour into a Collins glass.
The reason you need to blend this for so long is to make sure that the caramel sauce mixes completely with the thinner liquids. Even so, there will almost certainly be some caramel stuck to the blades of your blender. 
This is everything you want a mudslide to be – sweet, boozy, cold, and decadent. The coffee background from the Kahlua is restrained in order to let the caramel assert itself. The vodka refuses to stay in the background and reminds you that, like brass knuckles on a girl scout, don’t be deceived by the sweetness.
Caramel Mudslide #2 – The Vegan Cage Match
2 oz. Chocolate vodka (see above)
6 Ice cubes
1½ oz. Coconut caramel (see above)
3 oz. Almond milk
1 oz. Coconut/almond creamer
Combine all ingredients into a cocktail shaker, and shake thoroughly.
Strain into a large martini glass.
To double down on the problematic metaphor from the last recipe, this is the girl scout who will wait until your back is turned then tag you in the back of the neck with a curare-coated dart from a blowgun. It is very easy to underestimate this particular drink.
The star of this one is the coconut caramel. Caramelization has turned the sickly-sweet character of the Coco Lopez into something more nuanced and thoughtful. The coconut background flavor goes extremely well with the almond milk, and even if it didn’t, the coconut/almond creamer is there to facilitate things.
Will this drink make a whiskey snob burst into flames and run screaming into the night? Yes.
Is it delicious? Inarguably.
Drink #3 (4?) – You Had to Go and Make Things Weird, Didn’t You?
To reiterate, the overwhelming favorite flavors in my informal poll of checkout cashiers involved chocolate.
But there was an outlier. It came from a less hostile kid working at my favorite convenience store.
Kid: “Okay, this is going to sound weird.”
Me: “At this point, I’m looking forward to weird. It doesn’t involve chocolate, does it?”
Kid: “No, actually – I like dipping gummi sharks in queso dip.”
Kid: “Well, you asked!”
So I tracked down some gummi sharks , and canned queso dip (which required a visit to two additional convenience stores) took them home and tried it.
Shockingly, I think I see his point.
I’m not saying I’d go out of my way to dunk gummi sharks  into nacho cheese, but the combination had some of the salty/sweet combination that can be really good. I see the appeal.
I spent a couple of days working on a gummi shark/nacho cheese cocktail, and I could go on at some length – Cooks’ Illustrated-style – describing the evolution of this recipe, but frankly, my spirit – while not quite broken by this experience – is weary. Let’s skip to the chase.
Gummi Shark Jell-O Shots
100 gr. Gummi sharks – the blue and white ones.
75 gr./ml Water
75 gr./ml Upmarket vodka. In this application, there is nowhere for the harshness of cheap vodka to hide. You will probably want to use some of the good stuff.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, mix the water and gummi sharks and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Let the mixture boil for ten-fifteen seconds to ensure that the sharks are completely dissolved. (How often do you hear that sentence?)
Remove the pan from the heat and continue stirring, until the temperature drops below 172° F/ 77º C. (Alcohol evaporates at 172º, so I’d take the mixture down to 165º or so.)
Stir in the vodka.
Pour into 2 oz. portions. Frat parties traditionally use small salad dressing-sized to-go containers, which can be ordered online. Small paper cups would also work.
You know what doesn’t work? Mini-muffin tins.
Chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours.
The gelatin in the gummi sharks will gel this mixture very well. The shots will taste like gummi sharks and vodka. There is a time and a place for Jell-O shots. If you find yourself in that time and place, you will Embrace the Shark.
So, that just about wraps up this month’s…
What’s that? “What about the queso dip?”
Let me just say that there are certain things a gentleman will not…
Well, um… you see…
Look! Over there! Is that an OCELOT!!?
[Sound of a slamming door and footsteps running away] 
 Okay, he was probably at least twenty five, but anyone under the age of forty seems like a kid to me at this point.
 If you want to avoid this, you could add two extra steps by heating it in the milk and cream, stirring it until it is completely dissolved, then chilling the caramel-dairy mixture before mixing everything in the blender.
 And had the “Baby Shark” song stuck in my head for the next two days. Now, so do you.
 Doo doo doo doo doo…
 Okay, to paraphrase a Craig Fergusson joke – my refrigerator is haunted. Horrible things happened there. There are certain acts too unspeakable to go into. Nacho cheese Jell-O shots are one of them.