Microwave Popcorn: Feh. Who needs it.

I’m going to just come out and admit this: I have never once made microwave popcorn.

However, I’m married to someone who has, and the experience has left him with very strong feelings on the matter of popcorn and how it is properly made. You know how some people are persnickety about tea-making? You must boil the water and then let it rest to just this temperature and then you pour the just-under-boiling water tea over the leaves — NO TEA BAGS JUST LOOSE LEAVES — just so and so on and so on? Well, according to my other half, making popcorn is less complicated than making proper tea (at least, as I understand him) but there are, regardless, right and wrong ways to go about it. And under no circumstance does a microwave fall under the right category.

First you have to pull out a large stock pot. We use the big Revereware stock pot: it is tall and has a good lid and is not very heavy. You coat the bottom of the pot with vegetable oil and put in popcorn. My instinct is always to use one cup of raw kernels but I’m told this is ludicrously too much. I say there’s never too much. Anyhow, you heat the oil, you put in the popcorn kernels, and then, with the lid on, idiot, you hold the handles of the pot and sort of agitate the kernels gently. You must have the pot close to the stove, on the stove, while you agitate the kernels: you’re looking for a horizontal “swish/swish/swish” kind of thing here, not an up-and-down motion. It takes a few minutes for the oil to heat to the point where the kernels will feel sufficiently pressurized to explode; you may get bored and think, “I’m just gonna lift the lid and see what’s going on in there.” Don’t do that! Just don’t! Leave it be! Keep swirling the popcorn around. After a little while you’ll hear a little ping and then another ping and then another and pretty soon it’s just POP POP POP POP POP and all hell’s breaking loose in there and you have to keep the pan moving otherwise that shit’s gonna burn and you just let it do its thing while you move the pot around.

And then things begin to die down. The popcorn’s mostly popped. You’ll hear a few little lingering popping sounds as some old maids come through at the last moment. But after a couple more minutes, it’s all over.

Now, you may have already melted some butter to pour on your popcorn. Me, I don’t need it. What I like to do is shake on some of the cheese powder you can order from King Arthur Flour . We all love it. It’s like making your own Smartfood, almost. I don’t use enough of it, ever, to really rise to Smartfood-levels of heavenly cheese popcorn, but a couple tablespoons does the trick. This stuff isn’t cheap, so it’s definitely a hard-core treat for us, but once in a while it’s just the thing.

People will talk to you about all these clever things you can sprinkle on your popcorn. They’ll talk to you about cumin and nutritional yeast, a thing I’ve yet to purchase, ever. They’ll give you this jazz about chili powder and lime and all this and I’m like, “you know, I’m sure that’s great, but that’s not what I want.” When I want popcorn I want it either plain or with cheese. That’s it. Mostly, I want it in large quantity.

Crappy snowy afternoons, when the kid and I are going to just curl up and watch a movie because we’re too tuckered out to read, even, and we just want to zone out on the couch — that’s when I make popcorn. I will make a vast quantity of popcorn. And I will get out the two large white ceramic bowls that only she and I ever eat out of — they are the bowls we use when my husband isn’t home for dinner and it’s just the two of us having Long Spaghetti Night, too — and we will watch a dumb movie and eat popcorn. Pirate Radio, or School of Rock, and cheese popcorn. That is a fine winter afternoon. Sure, cleaning out the popcorn pot is a nuisance, but for superior popcorn, it’s worth it. No good food comes from a microwave, people. Accept this, absorb this, and go buy a bag of popcorn kernels the next time a snowstorm’s coming in. Your panic shopping list will now read: Milk, bread, beer, popcorn.

How I Invented Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza, Like a Total Idiot

Last week I made a very large quantity of meatballs of the type you’d serve with spaghetti. Some of them were earmarked to go to a friend, some of them earmarked for domestic consumption here. They were an experiment in gluten-free cookery, by the friend’s request. Now I am someone who mocks gluten-free labeling but on the other hand, if someone really needs gluten-free food I will totally try to be helpful. My instinct, which was confirmed by cursory internet research, was that I could reasonably substitute dried potato flakes for bread crumbs and things would turn out okay. This turned out to be not exactly the case — the meatballs were edible, sure, and we’ve all eaten worse things, but they utterly lacked the fluffiness that my gluten-loving family has come to expect in a meatball.

The meatballs I normally make are beloved by my husband and child. My husband has been shown more than once how I make meatballs and yet somehow whenever he tries to make them, they don’t come out the way he thinks they should; they are not like mine. I have no idea what causes this difference, but it is absolutely true: his meatballs are not as good as mine.

Still, these gluten-free meatballs were a challenge; they were simply not as satisfying as my regular meatballs, and so they didn’t get snarfed down with the speed they usually do. The result is that I’ve had leftover meatballs around the house longer than usual, and it’s fallen to me to think of nice ways to put them into other things, to use them up and not see them go to waste.

It was on a frantically busy day midweek, a day when I wasn’t going to be at home at dinnertime, when I realized that one thing I could do with the meatballs was chop them up and mix them with a lot of shredded mozzarella and some tomato sauce, and put that on Italian bread. I spread the sliced loaf with pimiento cheese, to give a base layer of something extra-savory, and then I spread the meatball/cheese mixture on top of that. I left this on a tray in the oven, left the house, and my husband baked the stuff when he came home from work. This was an excellent plan, I said to myself in congratulations: I could attend my PTA meeting, which started at 6 p.m., and get home at 8.30, and everything would be fine. No one would go hungry.

So: this is what happened. My daughter and I went to the PTA meeting — where she was fed pizza while I slogged through the meeting — and when we got home at 8.30, my husband was sitting on the couch looking pretty darn happy. “That was great, the meatballs and cheese on the bread,” he said. I thought, “huh, interesting.” This was the kind of dead simple easy dinner trick people had been performing for decades, I was sure, but it was only occurring to me now and I felt stupid. What had taken me so long to realize that I could do this, and go to my evening meetings and still feel I’d fed everyone properly? Normally I make pizzas with dough I’ve made myself, and they’re really good, but they really require that I am in the kitchen to assemble and bake. This was a pizza that I could fake ahead of time. Fucking genius, right?

Two nights later I made a “nice” dinner for my family and they were politely underwhelmed. I’d made a fluffy cheese-dosed polenta and ratatouille, and it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t particularly thrilling, either. Halfway through the meal I was already thinking, “what am I going to do to use up this ratatouille?” And it wasn’t even that much I’d made — just one eggplant, one yellow squash…. somehow, though, it didn’t speak to anyone.

Saturday was busy, and all of us were kind of sick of each other, it seemed to me, by four in the afternoon — I was exhausted, my daughter antsy, my husband preoccupied with work matters: it was decided we would go to the video store, rent some movies (yes, we do this, it’s so retro, isn’t it?), and have a calm evening at home. “I need to pick up a loaf of Italian bread,” I said to my husband, “and some mozzarella.” “Okay,” he said, “you going to make another one of those Stouffer’s French Bread Pizzas?”

I laughed. “Yeah, but with Italian bread,” I admitted. “You said you liked it, the other night?”

“It was great,” he said.

So I went and bought a big loaf of bread — actually, they didn’t have a loaf of the stuff I’d originally had in mind so I bought something classier, a ciabatta loaf from an artisinal bakery, but from the day-old bin — and I got the mozz and once home I assembled dinner.

This was so easy, let me tell you, it’s basically an embarrassment; I can’t call this cooking. But I will tell you what I did, so it should inspire you in the future when you’re staring into the fridge going “shit shit shit what can I make? I have meatballs but if I serve spaghetti again someone’s gonna throw spaghetti against the wall.”

I took the loaf of bread, split it lengthwise, and, again, spread a fairly thick layer of pimiento cheese on it. This was pimiento cheese I’d made with Monterey Jack, Cheddar, and a hefty dose of horseradish in addition to the peppers and mayo, so it had a good solid kick to it. This step, you could skip, or adapt to work with whatever stuff you have around your house. Maybe even just spreading some mayo on the bread would be a  good idea. This is obviously a super-flexible process.
Then I grated about 4 ounces of cheap mozzarella and again mixed it with some chopped up meatballs and tomato sauce. And — this was the masterstroke, for me, Saturday night — I took the ratatouille and spread a few tablespoons of it across one of the half-loaves. (I knew my daughter wouldn’t want any, and assumed my husband wouldn’t want it either, so I limited myself to the section I would be eating.) Then I layered on the meatball/sauce/cheese mess. This went into a 350° oven for about 15 minutes? and when it was nice and bubbly looking I took it out and sliced it up. We put on an appallingly stupid movie our daughter had selected (Bill Murray and Janeane Garofalo’s Larger Than Life) and sat down to eat.

“This is good,” my daughter admitted.

“It’s really good,” my husband said.

I said, totally truthfully, “Mine with the ratatouille is totally awesome.”

At this, my husband looked miffed. “Only yours has ratatouille?”

“I thought no one else would want it,” I said in surprise, “so I only put it on the chunk I was gonna eat.”

“Oh,” my husband said sadly.

But I made a mental note. It is clear clear clear that if I’m willing to spend, you know, two bucks on a loaf of Italian bread, and maybe a few dollars more on some mozzarella (assuming I don’t have any on hand, which I normally do, to be honest), I can take my leftovers out of the fridge and turn them into what’s really just a homemade Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza. Sure, it’s not elegant, but also, it takes no skill whatsoever, very little time is involved in terms of prep work, and it’s something we’ll all eat happily. That, my friends, is something I think all of us — here at home, and over there at your home — can agree is a good thing. (Insert winky emoticon thingy here.)

Always buy milk.

If you have a family or are a person who doesn’t drink milk, I don’t want to have you read this and give me a lecture about how you don’t drink milk or how your child is allergic or how cow farming is killing the environment. Just let me write in peace, because I am here to talk about a major domestic shift that has been nine years in the making.

For the last nine years — since my little daughter began to drink cow’s milk — I have had a basic rule of thumb which is “every time you’re in the store, buy a carton of milk.” We are very devoted to a particular company’s milk and it isn’t always easy to find; what’s more, if you get lucky you can find it in big jugs, not just waxed cardboard cartons, and this is more cost-effective for us. (I know, plastic, I know I know. I can only be so perfect, okay?) A gallon of milk is for sure a lot of milk to keep in a household of only three people. But once my daughter began to drink milk instead of formula, she plowed through that stuff like nobody’s business; furthermore, I drink milk, I put it in my coffee, and we all use it on cold cereal. And my husband uses milk in his morning oatmeal. And at night, if there’s cake or cookies for dessert, well, that means at least three glasses of milk get downed, fast. In other words, even without things like making macaroni and cheese or a bechamel sauce to put on some cauliflower or using two cups to make a couple loaves of pain de mie, it’s easy to see how a family of three can actually use up a carton of milk in about two days.

So the rule of thumb, I reiterate, is always buy milk. Like, even if you bought a half gallon yesterday. You should probably pick up some milk.

I have never gotten my husband to grasp this. He will occasionally ask me if I need him to pick up groceries on his way home — this seldom happens, I admit, these days, but it was very common when the baby was a baby and then a toddler — and once in a while he takes it upon himself to buy groceries. Last night was such a time. The two of us had planned a nice dinner but late in the afternoon he decided that he had to have a steak as a side dish, so he said, “Back soon!” and headed out the door. I didn’t even have a chance to say “boo!” — he was gone.

Hunting for red meat.

About 35 minutes later he came home bearing bags from the hippie supermarket downtown, despite the fact that he’d said he was going to Nica’s, one of the three Italian markets near our apartment. I was not surprised, because I knew (and had advised him) that Nica’s was already closed for the day (they close early on Sundays). “They’re open!” he insisted. “They don’t close early on Sundays. They’ve been not closing early on Sundays as long as the Metro-North trains have been not running on this schedule you have in your head, the one where the trains run every hour on the hour.” (He’s never understood what I meant by this. He’s been making fun of my attitude toward the Metro-North trains for about twenty years now. This is mean and uncalled for, because my position on the trains is this: there’s always another train coming a few minutes after the hour so you shouldn’t agonize over missing the train if you’ve missed one, unless of course in which case you have to be at Grand Central at a specific time, in which case you should be an hour early to the station because you never know, and that way you might actually catch one of the ones that’s gonna get you there ahead of time, which gives you time to browse the shops at GCT, so what’s the problem?) (Let it be said that my mental clock is not even close to being synchronized with my husband’s mental clock, and, furthermore, it’s easy to see I think why we don’t travel a lot.)

Anyhow. Nica’s closes early on Sundays, and this is no lie. Yet my husband didn’t believe me. Predictably, he got there to find it closed but was undeterred because the Elm City Market downtown is open till 8 or 9 or something even on Sundays. (Whoop! It’s open till TEN O”CLOCK EVERY NIGHT. Good to know; thanks, Internet.) So even though his internal clock was utterly useless, he did come home with two little bags from the Elm City Market containing a couple little hunks of red meat and a bar of lavender soap (a suddenly popular item around here, for daily ablutions, not for eating) and something else I can’t remember. I thought “milk?” because Elm City Market is one of the few stores around that does, reliably, always have Farmer’s Cow whole milk, and even sells the big jugs, but nope, no milk. I said nothing but thought, “If I’d gone with him, we’d’ve bought milk.”

This morning my husband assembled our daughter’s bowl of cold cereal and held the milk carton over the bowl. I was pouring my coffee at the time. “Gee, I guess I should have got milk yesterday,” he said worriedly. “Are we about to run out?” I asked. “Well, I mean, there’s some,” he assured me, “but there’s not a lot.” I poured some milk into my coffee and could feel by the weight of the carton that there was maybe a third of a half-gallon there. Definitely time to buy milk.

“I guess if I’m in the store I should always buy milk,” my husband said.

I did not stop to dance or throw my hands to the air crying “HUZZAH!” but I sure wanted to. “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” I think I said calmly. My rule of thumb of nine years just occurred to my husband, like, organically, independently of my having said anything. I could have been nagging him about this all this time and it would not have served me well at all to do so; I just waited it out. And he figured it out on his own. It is a great moment. Even if he still doesn’t get why my system of riding Metro-North is really perfectly reasonable.

The End of the Summer, the Summer of Duke’s Mayonnaise (with an Oven Door Update)

Let me assure you, I have been cooking and cleaning as much as I ever do, but in the homestretch of summer I’ve also been forced to put a lot more effort into what they call parenting, and this has cut into my ability to focus on writing and being the Hausfrau. I think the word for this is “ironic” but so it goes. I guess the nice way of thinking about it would be, “I’ve been busy doing primary research for this long-range, ongoing project.” Being, my life.

I have good news though, which is that my husband and I seem to have fixed our oven door. We affixed the door’s front glass panel to the metal oven door and we used C-clamps and stacks of books to press the pieces together while the silicone adhesive cured, which took 24 hours. I admit that we were slightly, slightly leery of actually using the oven the first time after that 24 hour period; I did a test which involved baking something (can’t even recall what) at 325°, which seemed a nice, cautious temperature. But since then I have made pizza at full blast, and the oven door looks fine. My take on the matter is, Yes, it was something of a pain in the ass, but we have fixed our oven without paying GE untold hundreds of dollars to do it, and we are better people for it. And by the time this glass panel has to be re-glued, either a) I will know how to do it immediately, and just take care of it, or b) we will no longer be living here, and it’ll be someone else’s problem.

On to brighter subjects, namely, the awesomely kind gift a woman I barely know gave me.
Some months back, I wrote a Facebook post about Duke’s Mayonnaise, which is a product I’ve heard about for years but never knowingly tasted. Where I live, the mayonnaise that serves as the gold standard is Hellmann’s. But I have long been aware that down South, the gold standard is Duke’s. There are, if you poke around online, long and heated discussions on the matter. And discussions of pimiento cheese — a subject near and dear to my heart — often revolve around the Duke’s/Hellmann’s debate. But I never really took a position; at least, I’ve never said anything more intense than, “I dunno, Hellmann’s seems fine to me.”

I would have been happy to explore the world of Duke’s, mind you. I am all for trying out regional condiment specialties. But you really can’t just waltz into a Stop and Shop and buy a bottle of Duke’s. You can order it online, but the shipping costs are ludicrous, especially when you remember that you’re just trying to buy a three dollar jar of mayonnaise. I’ve had several Facebook associates offer to ship me a jar, but I’ve always said no, because I couldn’t bear the idea that someone I knew would spend close to ten dollars to ship me a stupid jar of mayonnaise.

But hey: sometimes oddball things happen. And so it was that a few weekends ago I was at a party celebrating the wedding of two friends, and one of the guests, who is also a dedicated home cook, showed up with a bag for me. “Here,” she said, handing it over. I said, “What?” and she said, “Just — enjoy.”

I took the bag out into the backyard with me — that’s where all the drinks were, and where my daughter was about to decorate the driveway with elaborate chalk drawings — and peered into the bag. The bright yellow Duke’s label smiled up at me. “I’ll be damned!” I said. My husband looked at me in confusion. “Why did she give you a jar of…. mayonnaise?”

“Because it’s Duke’s!” I said.

Now, this woman lives in Connecticut, but not in my neck of the woods, so to speak, and apparently there is a shop near her house that regularly stocks Duke’s. Being a kind soul, she’d bought this jar to bring to the party knowing that I’d be there. How thoughtful is that? And, yeah, that’s some memory she has, that she would remember some random online conversation about mayonnaise from, you know, six months ago. (I just went and checked: this discussion of where to get Duke’s happened almost exactly six months ago.)

“Well,” I told her, when I crossed paths with her again a few minutes later, drink in hand, “Now I have to make pimiento cheese.”
“Well, yes,” she said: it was obvious to her, too, that pimiento cheese would have to be the first recipe tackled.

So the next day, anticipating a long day at the ol’ swimmin’ hole, I began to plot a picnic lunch. I had a loaf of bread; I had potato chips and a very large bag of Bugles. I had plums that felt so juicy I knew they’d be a total freaking mess to eat, and so I packed into the cooler a roll of paper towels. My game plan was to make pimiento cheese, and egg salad, to spread on bread or scoop up on potato chips or in Bugles. “This is gonna be great,” I said to myself as I took out my knife and cutting board. I dove into making pimiento cheese and egg salad with much enthusiasm and excitement.

Duke’s and Hellmann’s, scooped up with a spoon, look more or less the same. I mean, they’re both vaguely yellowish unguents. But on closer examination, they do have unique characteristics. One thing I learned: it turns out they do have distinctly different flavors. A look at the list of ingredients makes it clear why. Duke’s is heavier on the eggs (by a significant amount, it seems); Hellmann’s has sugar; the vinegar contents of each vary (and probably also significantly). Basically what you have to arrive at is that these are similar products, but, yes, different things. Comparing them to each other is not unlike comparing Hellmann’s to homemade mayonnaise. Sure: both things are mayonnaise. But they are not the same thing.

I know  this not merely from reading one of the thousands of articles online that discuss this; no, I have personal experience. I took a dab of each on a spoon, and ate them straight.

There was no doubt in my mind, these were different things.

And the Duke’s was yummy, absolutely. It was sharper than the Hellmann’s, and tangier (the vinegar!); Hellmann’s was milder, but also seemed quite salty.

“This is gonna be great,” I said. Pimiento cheese assembled, egg salad assembled, everything packed neatly into little plastic tubs to carry safely on ice packs, I felt very smug and accomplished as I washed all the prep dishes. The cooler was packed full and I had the day licked. I put the jar of Duke’s in the fridge feeling triumphant.

I laid out our picnic lunch with all the skill I’ve honed in this area. Tablecloth, plates, spreaders for all the things. And my husband and child went swimming and then after an hour or so they announced they were famished and I said, “So, go eat!” They hunkered right down. “Mmmm, Bugles and pimiento cheese,” was said more than once. Sandwiches were made. And conversation was non-existent. But after a few minutes, my husband spoke.

“The thing is,” he began tentatively, “I actually don’t see any difference with the Duke’s.”
“No,” I admitted. “Me neither.” My daughter shrugged, indifferent.

On their own, if you’re just taking the mayos on spoons and tasting, yes, there is a huge difference between Duke’s and Hellmann’s. But my family has concluded that once you’ve mixed these things up with other ingredients — particularly strong-flavored other things, like cheeses or tuna — there’s really not an appreciable difference.

I’m sorry. This was as grave a disappointment to me as I’m sure it is to my readers. But I have to call it as I see it. Given the effort required for us to acquire Duke’s, here in Southern Connecticut, I have to say, I don’t know that I’ll go out of my way to get it again. There is definitely a novelty in having the two jars sitting next to each other in the fridge. I’m glad to have the Duke’s, and I would totally buy it if I noticed it in a shop. But is it the end-all-be-all of mayonnaises? No, it is not.

However, there is something very pleasant about opening the fridge here and seeing, sitting in a neat little row, a jar of Hellmann’s, a jar of Duke’s, and a bottle of Kewpie (the Japanese mayonnaise that really is different from Hellmann’s and Duke’s). My husband remarked upon this last night, in fact, when we were eating bowls of sushi rice salad, which had been liberally decorated with squiggles of Sriracha and Kewpie. “We have three different kinds of mayonnaise in this house right now,” he said in wonder.

“I know,” I said placidly. “We are blessed.”


James Villas, of course, already knew.

(Brief aside: I am posting this in August 2018, after having this piece neglected in draft form since September 2017. I am rushing it into publication in honor of Mr. Villas, who I should have paid tribute to a long fucking time ago.)

Around a year ago, if I can use my Facebook activity log as a reputable source for such information, I got the idea in my head to make vanilla biscuits. My husband pooh-poohed me, but was quickly won over once the little vanilla poofs came from the oven and were glazed. “These are awesome” was the basic consensus, and I’ve made them several times since, using them as snacks, as the bases for clever little desserts, and as something I could make fast to serve to children who needed a bit of a treat on a wintry afternoon. Poking around online I did find a couple of websites that were aimed toward the kind of thing I wanted to make, but if you Google “vanilla biscuits,” overwhelmingly what you find is recipes for what I’d call vanilla cookies.

Those British types. Always calling cookies “biscuits.” They’re so whimsical.

So yesterday I found myself at a kind of country fete sort of thing, held in New Haven’s gorgeous Edgerton Park. There are games and rides for children, and vast quantities of flowers and plants and locally grown fruits and vegetables for sale, and there’s a White Elephant sale which is always a lot of fun. People bring their dogs, toddlers ride on dads’ shoulders, there are pony rides. That kind of thing. It’s good wholesome fun and we have been going every year for close to a decade now. This year, my daughter was old enough that I could say to her, “Ok, here’s money to buy tickets, you go do your thing for an hour and I”m going to the book sale, which is behind the greenhouse. Come find me in an hour.” So off she went, and off I went.

The first section I want to hit, in any book sale situation, is the cookbook section. Then humor, then children’s books, then fiction, and then I loop back to see what other random crap might catch my eye. I did my first skim of the titles in cookbooks and felt a little disappointed — nothing amazing jumped out at me on the first go — but my second time, reading spines more slowly, I found a James Villas book on biscuits. I grabbed it and brought it home with much excitement, basically coasting through the rest of the fete, despite my family’s having so much fun, because what I really wanted to do was go home and read James Villas’s Biscuit Bliss: 101 Foolproof Recipes for Fresh and Fluffy Biscuits in Just Minutes.

We got home and my husband went to take a nap, as I recall, and my daughter went to bathe, and I stretched out on the couch and read Biscuit Bliss from cover to cover. And what I discovered almost immediately was that James Villas had a recipe for true vanilla biscuits. Had I read this book when it was published, I wouldn’t have been floundering around making shit up with my vanilla biscuits — not that anyone was even remotely harmed by this process. I would have just looked it up and made it.

James Villas’s cookbooks are not spoken of in my set. I don’t have any friends who display his books proudly on their shelves next to Julia Child or Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver or anyone else. But I keep my copy of My Mother’s Southern Kitchen on my kitchen shelf, with the JoC and Nigella and my Colwin. That is the book I read at a formative age, the book that got me interested in Southern cooking, the book that made me think, “You know, I can avoid pork and have good Southern food, if I want to.” Nothing in that book was too intimidating to me, even in the mid-1990s, when I bought my remaindered copy and I was, believe me, no cook at all. It is because of James Villas I make pimiento cheese. It is because of him that I make biscuits. It is because of James Villas that I make about a thousand things, I expect, that I don’t even think about when I make them, anymore, because they’ve just imprinted themselves in my head, and I default to these things when I’m pressed for ideas for what to cook. Because the stuff I make out of James Villas is stuff that doesn’t require a lot of special effort. It’s good, homey, solid food that tastes delicious and isn’t overly ambitious. It’s a kind of pantry cooking I can get behind. Like the vanilla biscuits. They’re just biscuits, right? But there’s this little pantry item that you slip in there like a magic trick, and then, suddenly, you’ve got this entirely different, really special little thing that no one was expecting.

If you’d asked me, I’d’ve said, “Of course, by now James Villas must be an old man.” And he was. He has died, age 80, in East Hampton, New York, nowhere near the deep South. It is a shame, and I wish I’d brought this essay to the blog last year, if only to relieve my sense of guilt that I didn’t publish this tribute in timely manner. Maybe he’d’ve seen it, maybe someone would have read it to him or something, who knows.

But better now than never. Rest in peace, Mr. Villas. You may not have been in fashion at the time you went, but if you ask me, the diehards will always love you. I am not giving up any of your books anytime soon. In fact, this week, I will pull out the biscuit book and make a recipe from it. And some more pimiento cheese, too, even though I just made some the other night and it’s still in the fridge. You’d’ve liked it, I think…. I added some duck bacon fat. Just for the hell of it. And some horseradish. I know it’s not your mother’s recipe; forgive me. Think of it as Tante Eva’s Pimiento Cheese, I bet you’d’ve liked it, and asked for the recipe.


A serious problem. First world, yet serious.

For the last several weeks — probably close to two months, to be honest — I noticed something was hinky with the glass panel on the front of our oven. It wasn’t sitting quite right, and I said, “Is it just me or is something weird about the oven door?”
Then one evening I noticed that the glass panel was slipping at one side, definitely something was wrong with it, and I thought, “crap.”

My husband denied seeing anything wrong until one day when there was, seriously, like a 30-degree-angle gap at the top right corner of the glass panel, when he finally said, “yeah, I guess something’s wrong. Piece of shit oven, huh? Why don’t you start shopping for a new one.” I said, “No, it’s actually a fairly good oven, but clearly this part of it was not installed in a good way.” Unlike my husband, I was aware that replacing this oven with a comparable appliance would cost more than a thousand dollars. I am extremely, extremely reluctant, to just say “piece of shit oven!” and order a new machine.

So I began to use duct tape to keep the glass panel in place, or at least keep it from slipping out entirely and shattering on the floor. This was not ideal, because every time I used the oven, the heat from the oven’s interior would basically melt the adhesive on the duct tape, and I’d have to start over. I officially began to keep a roll of white duct tape over the ruler I keep in one of my utensil jars to the side of the stovetop. You could find me sitting on the floor a couple times a day, putting fresh duct tape on the oven door.

I did endless Googling. I watched YouTube videos. I read complaints to GE Customer Service posted to Facebook. I gleaned that this slipping-glass-panel thing was a problem for others with ranges from this manufacturer (GE). Pretty shitty of you, GE, to make ovens this way, but I’ll try to let that go. Basically, instead of having the glass panel be screwed in place, with maybe some little easily replaced rubber washers to allow for the glass to expand and contract as the appliance gets used, GE cheaped out unbelievably, and put a long adhesive strip at the bottom of the glass panel and just shoved onto the front of the oven door. There’s this little bitty L-shaped ridge at the bottom of the door that ostensibly catches the panel, but because there’s no upward-tilted lip at the end of the L-shape, the fact is, once the adhesive dies, there’s really not much holding the panel in place. The adhesive, as long as it holds, bonds the glass to the actual interior metal oven door, and the ridge keeps the panel squared, and I suppose in theory this is fine, except, as any idiot knows, such adhesives don’t last forever, and without a lip to hold the glass panel, it’s obvious the thing’s gonna slip, eventually. If I can think this through, someone at GE is capable of it too.

In the case of our particular oven, I think the adhesive lasted seven or eight years. We didn’t buy this oven; it came with our apartment. But we’ve been living here for seven years and I think the oven was new when we moved in — at least, it sure looked unused — so, let’s call it seven years. Could be eight.  It really doesn’t matter.

My point is, for quite some time, the adhesive was fine — but here’s the thing: when the shit gives out, what happens (according to everything I read online) is that the glass just fucking drops to the floor and shatters and people, like, get hurt. Not cool, GE.

But, the good news, according to many Online Commenters, is that it’s possible to re-install the glass panel. If you get special heat resistant double-sided tape, or heat-resistant silicone, you can re-install the glass panel, and, no, it’s not by any means a permanent fix, but on the other hand, this isn’t a machine intended to have a permanent fix. I mean, by design, it’s obvious. Many commenters wrote about their experiences calling GE technicians, and these were not heartwarming stories. Apparently if you call a GE technician, what they do is they come out to your house, for unspecified large sums of money, and apply some of this heat-resistant silicone, and then… there you are.

“FUCK THIS SHIT,” I said to myself, “I am not paying $450 to have some guy come out and smear silicone on this glass. I can smear my own damned silicone.”

So I started trying to figure out what to buy. I swear to God, I was spending probably 40 minutes a day Googling and reading reviews and trying to figure out what the hell to buy. I didn’t want to spend a dime on something that wasn’t the absolute right stuff. What I learned is that I couldn’t obtain the double-sided tape some people mentioned, because it’s only available in the UK (maybe this wasn’t the case at the time these things were posted, though). I fumed over this and in the meantime I basically stopped using the oven. I mean, I used it while I had three little girls here doing cooking camp, with lots and lots of duct tape liberally applied — but once the camp was over, I stopped baking.

My husband asked my why I didn’t try calling Page’s Hardware, out in Guilford. Because Page’s sells appliances, in addition to being a very fine hardware store, he reasoned, they would probably have a clue. “This is very true,” I said, “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.” So I called them. I spent about thirty minutes on the phone with a few people at Page’s, including one guy who used to work as an appliance repairman. None of them could help. The former repairman said, “You know what, you got me thinking about this now… I suspect the issue is that what you need is, like, a proprietary adhesive you can only get from GE, but let me call you back — let me look around and see what I can come up with that might work.” He phoned me back an hour later and said, “I tell you: we have adhesives that will bond the glass to the metal, but none of them are heat resistant to 500°, which you really need, what with all those pizzas you make–” (I’d explained to him that I use the oven frequently and really blast it, too, so the heat resistant aspect of things mattered) “– and none of them say “food safe.” I mean, I could sell ’em to you, but I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t be comfortable with it since I know what you’re gonna be using this on.” “I hear you,” I said. “I think you gotta call an appliance repair company, or GE,” the man said regretfully. He gave me the names of a couple of local companies and wished me luck.

I called Goody’s, another excellent hardware store in the area. They were less chatty than the folks at Page’s, and couldn’t help me at all.

I called three different local appliance repair companies, none of whom were willing to come work on the oven, all of whom said they didn’t have the glue GE requires for affixing glass panels to metal doors. What’s this glue made of, plutonium?

Finally I broke down and phoned GE, which was a shitstorm. GE’s customer service people would not, for love or money, tell me what kind of adhesive was needed to fix the oven door — I don’t think the people I spoke to even knew — and when I finally thought, “fuck it, I will have a technician come out,” I learned that they charge $100 to have a guy come in the door, and then charge additional for parts and labor, with no stated rates. “I get that you don’t know in advance what parts cost,” I said reasonably, “though in this case we’re almost certainly talking about a $7 tube of glue, but you really can’t tell me what the rate is for labor?” “No, ma’am, I cannot,” said the lady at the 800 Number. “I have an opening on Friday from 8 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon.”

“Are you serious?” I said. “I’m a housewife and I have a very flexible schedule, but no, even I can’t work with that.”
“How about next Monday, I have 8 in the morning until five in the afternoon.” “Uh, no,” I said. “Is there really no way to make a smaller window of time to make this appointment?” “No, ma’am, there is not.”

“Then never mind,” I said. “Thank you for your time.” And I hung up.

It was as I sat on the couch, fuming, my daughter at my side looking at me with worry, that I had a small epiphany. The heat resistant silicone I’d seen references to, over and over again, was, I suddenly realized, always sold at Ace Hardware affiliated websites. Or, I mean, Amazon, but I was trying to avoid Amazon. “I wonder if there’s an Ace Hardware store around here,” I said to my daughter. I did more Googling. It turned out that there was — in Cheshire. A wonderful hardware store, R.W. Hine, is an Ace affiliate. (Page’s and Goody’s, it turns out, are True Value hardware stores. I have since learned that these details mostly don’t matter, except sometimes, as when you’re looking for heat resistant silicone, they matter hugely.)

So I called Hine’s. I explained my challenge. Oven door, glass panel, heat resistant silicone.
“Yup, we got that stuff,” said the guy on the phone. “You gotta let it cure for a few hours before you use the oven.”

Saturday morning, we went on an adventure, driving out to Cheshire, which is a town I know better than I should. My family lived there for a few years, in the mid-1970s up through the mid-1980s. Cheshire is a mindblowingly dull place but I am able to dredge up fond memories of specific places, like the movie theater… which got torn down about two decades ago. Driving through Cheshire now is a surprisingly empty experience. Some things are completely unchanged from what they were in 1986, and other things are radically different. “You lived out here?” my daughter asked doubtfully. “I didn’t like it much,” I said grimly.
“But the hardware store is great,” I said cheerfully, as we pulled into the parking lot. “You’ll see.”

And lo: R.W. Hine really is a great hardware store. Even my daughter immediately grasped that it was worth the trip.

A kid came right up to me and asked if I needed help. I said, “I phoned yesterday, I’m looking for this, um, this heat-resistant silicone, it comes in a tube….” The kid walked me over to a shelf in the back of the store and there was a shelf of heat-resistant silicone tubes, some big, some little, some heat-resistant to two thousand fucking degrees. “I think that’s a little more than I need to worry about,” I said. The kid said, “You know, let’s take this stuff over to Jeff over here, I wanna be sure this is really what you need.” So we go to Jeff, who’s standing behind a counter, and we explain the situation. GE oven, glass panel, things are fucked, but the glass is 100% intact, need to bond glass to metal, safe to 500 degrees.

“This is what you want,” Jeff said confidently. “And it’s food safe, you could use it on a grill, say, if you had to fix a broken grill.”

“All right then!” I said, pleased as punch. “The best thing is, this stuff only costs seven dollars, so even if it’s a disaster, I’ve not invested that much money in it.” “No, you should be good,” Jeff said.

Over the weekend, I set to cleaning off the old adhesive. This wasn’t hard, but it was rather time-consuming. It’s a situation where “good enough” is actually not at all good enough. If any of the old adhesive is present on the glass or the metal, the new adhesive will not take properly. The glass and the metal need to be absolutely clean and 100% grease-free. My husband doubted my ability to do this, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to get shit clean. I scraped off what I could using a scraper-thingy that hardware people probably have a proper name for, and then the remains of the old adhesive, I rubbed off using a scrubby sponge dredged up from underneath the kitchen sink (where I keep an emergency supply for really ugly cleaning jobs) and an ample supply of rubbing alcohol. My husband helped with the metal ridge part of the project, scraping off most of the adhesive there. “It’s probably fine,” he said, though stripes of grey adhesive were still visible. “It is not fine,” I said. He wandered off; I sat down on the kitchen floor and got to work. Twenty minutes later, the metal ridge was absolutely white; you’d never have known that an hour before it had worn a big thick stripe of black glue. “Huh!” said my husband, impressed. “Baking soda?” “Rubbing alcohol,” I scoffed.

One problem neither of us was able to solve: though hypothetically one can slide the metal oven door off its hinges, to make it possible to work on the door with it lying down on a table, say, neither of us has been able to achieve this. The door remains firmly attached to the oven itself.

“This will make attaching the glass panel kind of a pain, in a way it wouldn’t be otherwise,” I mused. “We’re gonna have to clamp the pieces together, since we can’t just press them together by stacking books on it or something.” “You can use some of my c-clamps,” my husband said kindly. We discussed how to best achieve this, and felt strongly that while it’d be kind of a nuisance, it really wouldn’t be that bad.

The truth is, we don’t actually know how bad it will be, because my husband pointed out to me on Monday morning — as I was saying, brightly, that I planned to finish fixing the oven door during the day — that this kind of job would probably best be done with a second pair of hands assisting. “I think I could do it myself,” I said a little huffily. “I think you could do it yourself,” my husband agreed, “but I think it’d be easier and better if you waited for me to help.”

So our game plan is that this weekend, we will have some down time and we will get down to brass tacks (so to speak) and fix the oven door and leave the adhesive to cure and all will be well, at least until the adhesive fails again.

Last night, as I was prepping dinner (a cold dinner, no oven required, involving a loaf of French bread purchased at a grocery store, and a large salad, and a tub of Liptauer cheese I made on the fly at 5.30 p.m.), I was telling my husband how one of our former tenants had been asking me how to make pizza. “You told him you have to really blast the oven, right?” he said to me. I said, “We haven’t even got to that part yet, we’re just talking about how to make the dough,” I said.

There was a long pause and then my husband said, “You should warn him that frequent pizza making might kill the oven.”

I said, “What do you mean! Our oven works fine!” He looked at me skeptically, and then I saw what he meant. “Oh,” I said. “You mean, you think the fact that I run the oven to 500° once or twice a week is what killed the adhesive on the oven door?”

“I do,” he said. “At least, I find it very likely.”

There followed a discussion of evil people with MBAs making calculations about how strong an adhesive would have to be, in designing and building an oven. There was speculation that the MBA types said, “No one runs their oven to 500°, just use the cheap shit, it’ll be fine,” not taking at all into account the fact that some people do run their ovens that hot rather frequently.

I’m going to have to look into this. I know some engineering types who might have things to say on the subject, and advise as to whether or not my husband is subscribing to Oven Design Conspiracy Theories, or if there’s something to it. In the meantime, though, I’ve been ovenless for several weeks. I can’t bake bread, brownies, cookies, or a frittata. I can’t bake a cake, I can’t make garlic bread, I can’t roast a chicken. Our oven is so useless that last night I used it to stow a full salad bowl in, to keep the cats from jumping into it to get the bits of hardcooked egg I’d added to the salad. (Things are so dire, yes, I’m serving salads for dinner.) “Where’s the salad you made?” my husband called out, when he went to get himself a second helping. “In the oven!” I said, as if this was, like, a normal thing.

We really need to fix our oven door. When you come to see the oven as so useless that you are willing to store things you need to keep cold in it, then you’ve got a problem.

How to Teach a Child to Cook

Step one: be totally daunted by the idea but figure “oh, what the hell, I can do this.”

To be brutally honest, I have absolutely no idea how to teach a child to cook; I barely know how I taught myself how to cook. It was, as I recall, a matter of trial and error and many years of effort.

However, at the end of June, an offer I made to a friend casually, without thinking very hard about it, is about to become a reality in our household. It is this: the friend, who has two daughters (one a year older and one a year younger than my daughter; they’re all good pals), was, one day last year, feeling a little desperate for childcare. I can’t recall the details; it was probably a school holiday that wasn’t a federal holiday, and she and her husband both had to work. Since I was at home with my kid, I proposed that her girls come spend the day with us. “If the weather’s nice we can go hang out at the park or something,” I said, “and if the weather sucks we’ll stay in and cook.” I was just making shit up trying to be helpful but it turned out that the two little girls thought the idea of coming to my house and cooking all day was totally freaking awesome.

In the end, the childcare disaster was averted through some other means and no one spent the day in the kitchen with me, but as months went on there were many conversations about how we should do this some time. We discussed how I could plot out projects to cook with three little girls and I could thus keep three little girls entertained, maybe teach them a thing or two while their parents were at work; and at the end of the day we’d wind up with good things to eat.

Well, this month, it’s happening. In the last week of June I’m going to be hosting these two girls, plus my daughter, and we’re going to work on a number of cooking projects. I now have to come up with, like, an agenda. Maybe I should call it a syllabus, I’m not sure.

My daughter’s wondering if we can make a Swedish sandwich cake. (Yes.) We’re also thinking about making piles and piles of sushi (no raw fish, I don’t want to bark up that tree, especially with kids — but there’s tons of things we could make with cooked or vegetable ingredients). I’ll need to buy more of the bamboo rolling mats, since I only have one. There was discussion this morning as to whether or not we could make marshmallows. One of the girls in this enterprise eats no meat — eats very little, actually, as far as I can tell, aside from French fries — and I’m not sure how flexible she will be in the kitchen; I have faith, however, that I can somehow make this work. I can see us making piles of tea sandwiches, pitchers of iced tea, and fruit salad, and packing a picnic to take to the park. Part of me is thinking about doing a field trip to the C-Town on the other side of town, where they have an amazing range of produce you don’t see in the suburban Stop and Shops.

I’m thinking it’d be cool to make mayonnaise with the girls — by hand, so they can really feel how it happens. Then we could use it to make different fillings for deviled eggs. (Peeling the eggs will be a great project in and of itself, since it takes for-fucking-ever to peel eggs.)

I was thinking about making sugar glass, just for the hell of it; it would be pretty, and sugar is cheap.

We could make fast things like biscuits and we can make slow things like the pain de mie I like to make, which takes two days to make. We could try to make croissants maybe, or challah.

There are a few things I know for sure, before this project starts. I am going to need to lay in new supplies. Dozens of eggs. Another large sack of flour, and maybe ten pounds of sugar. I have six pounds of butter in the freezer, but have a feeling that won’t see me through. Also, the long span of countertop that I usually don’t mind if it gets cluttered up?

Yeah. I better go start working on clearing that space. It’s gonna take me a week to get it to where I’ll need it to be.

This is going to be fun. I may want to cry at the end of the week from sheer exhaustion, but I actually think it’ll be fun.

Oh Beautiful For Pilgrim Feet in Bright Blue Stripey Socks: or, A Spate of Sockloss Dilemma

Our household is much like yours I’m sure. Someone does the laundry and someone folds it and someone puts it away and in the process, from time to time, a sock or two goes AWOL. It happens. Since in our specific housefhold, I’m the person who does the laundry, folds it, and puts it away, I try to not let chronic Sockloss bring me down. I take a philosophical approach to the Sockloss dilemma, which is, Sooner all later, all socks show up.

Now it came to pass recently that my daughter’s feet up and decided that the old socks were not sufficient (e.g. my daughter’s feet seemed, suddenly, to not fit into her old socks anymore). This led to a major sock-acquisition process, which was not easy because of numerous reasons too boring to discuss (though there was a tremendous, tremendous Facebook post on the subject which garnered 110 comments from friends and associates, even an offer of hand-knit socks from a woman in New York City). (By the way: it’s not that I really find the problems too boring to discuss, it’s that I’m too tired to get into it here, besides which, the issues are all serious First World Problems and really we could have sucked it up and bought whatever, it’s just I wanted to do better than that if I could.)

After several hours of cruising websites and one remarkable trip to an actual store (which ended with our leaving the store shockingly empty-handed), we acquired socks. These socks are striped in many many colors. They are like this. I bought two packs of them, so our daughter is now very happily set up with a whole lot of socks, which I predict will last roughly one year. My child, like my husband, is hard on socks.

One of the nice things about these particular socks is that even if you don’t match them together into neat pairs, they still look kind of awesome.

I did laundry on Thursday, when I unexpectedly had an appointment cancelled so had some free time. It wasn’t a serious issue, exactly, when one of the blue stripey ones went missing, as I discovered when I went to bring all my daughter’s clean, folded laundry to her room and realized there was only one blue stripey sock. It wasn’t like we had major plans requiring the presence of a complete pair of these blue stripey socks; an outfit was not ruined by this aesthetic flaw. No one’s life was affected in any way, shape, or form. But the fact was, we’d only had these socks for about a month, and it pissed me off that I’d somehow managed to lose one sock so quickly. Had I lost two socks, I’d’ve also been annoyed, but at least the total sock count would still be an even number.

I grumbled about the missing sock that evening and no one cared and life went on.

My husband came home from work on Friday and changed out of his work clothes and into jeans, as frequently happens. Saturday, we all dressed casually: my child wore a pair of shorts, I wore a pair of jeans, my husband wore the same jeans he’d worn Friday evening. We had a pleasant day: my brother was visiting from out of town and we all had lunch together. We all walked from our apartment to Modern Apizza, a mandatory pilgrimage. We carried the leftover pizza back to our apartment. Then we walked downtown to go to Ashley’s Ice Cream. We got our ice cream, sat down to eat it near the steps of Ezra Stiles College, and then walked home. It was about 90 degrees outside and we were all quite miserable by the time we got home. Many cans of seltzer, and the last of the bottles of Pellegrino stash (acquired for Passover seder consumption) were pulled from the basement and guzzled. I sank onto the couch with my daughter. My husband sat at the dining table and mapped all of our walking on his phone. It turned out that my casual estimation that we had walked about five miles was incorrect; we had walked a total of six miles on Saturday. This was not exactly welcome news. My husband drove my brother to the train station early in the evening, came back to the house, took off his shoes, and the three of us spent the evening sprawled on the couch and the living room rug, complaining about how our feet hurt, finally going to bed around 9 o’clock.

We were all very tired.

Sunday, we decided to relax. We were all in agreement there would be minimal walking involved. There was a lot of lazing about, reading the papers and so on, but we did realize at some point that we had to buy some groceries, since there was not enough leftover pizza to feed us indefinitely. The three of us put on our shoes and we walked a couple blocks away to pick up a few basics at the nearest Italian grocery. No big deal. Some rolls for sandwiches, some tomatoes, some cheese. We were checking out when my husband suddenly asked the woman ringing us up, “Do you sell cases of Pellegrino?” I turned to look at him in surprise. “Your brother drank the last of the Pellegrino we had in the basement,” he explained. Now, I am not someone who feels a need for bottled water, in general, and Pellegrino is definitely not high on my mental list of anything, but it has some kind of significance to my husband, and I guess he felt strongly enough about it that he wanted to buy a whole case of the stuff. The woman said, “We’ve got cases in the back, go grab one, if you want you can use one of our handcarts to help carry it home.”

“No,” my husband said, “I’ll just carry it.”

I locked eyes with the woman behind the counter — she knows us — and we both laughed.

So there we were carrying our things home — I with my tote bag of food, he with the Pellegrino — when suddenly my husband just stopped walking and got this weird, spazzy look on his face. “Are you all right?” I asked.

“There’s something crawling up my leg,” he said, trying to look down at his left leg over the box of Pellegrino.

I looked at his leg and saw denim. “I bet it’s sweat dripping down your leg,” I joked. But then I saw something sticking out of his pant leg, caught ever so slightly at the hell of his shoe. I crouched down and pulled out…. a blue stripey sock.

“I’ve been wearing these pants for three days,” my husband howled.

“We walked six miles yesterday,” I gasped. “How did it not get lost yesterday? How did you not notice it in all this time?” “I don’t know!” he said. It was a mystery right up there with Shirley Jackson and her blankets. It’s an American tradition, really. The Sockloss Dilemma. We had it licked this time, but only through grace and luck.

But at least we have the sock. Which I threw into the laundry basket as soon as we got home.

5. Social Life and Anti-Social Life: On a Cruise You Really Can Have It All!

As I have expounded on at length already: It was clear to me and my husband, within a couple hours of boarding this ship, that the apparent majority of the guests were Red Sox fans from Massachusetts. We didn’t have to interview anyone to figure this out; we did not ask the cruise director, “Can you give us a demographic breakdown of who’s traveling with you this week?” Simply walking around, we heard the nearly inimitable squawk of Massachusetts everywhere we went; and the Red Sox t-shirts, caps, and conversations were all around us. One evening I stepped into an elevator and there were a few people standing in there silently; the man against the back wall looked at me and said, “15-2 Sox!” (I think that’s what he said. Frankly, it went in one ear and out the other.) I said as politely as I could, “Yes? I don’t really follow the Red Sox.” A woman on the wall opposite me said, laughingly, “A Yankees fan!” I grinned and said, “No, no. I’m from Connecticut and to be completely honest, I just don’t give a crap about baseball.” A woman standing to my right let out a whoop and held her hand up for me to high-five. “I did go to Fenway Park once,” I admitted, “when my husband dragged me. But I read a book through the whole game.” The man at the back wall looked chagrined and mystified, and everyone else in the elevator laughed.

It wasn’t that there was no one on the cruise who my family could “match” with socially — but we were definitely outliers of some kind in this artificial community. As such, we did not socialize with others in any kind of organized way — there was no “hey, you all wanna go to Family Karaoke tonight?” or “How about we meet you at the outdoor chessboard on Deck 7 tomorrow afternoon?” No: we kept ourselves to ourselves, for the most part.

The Red Sox fan of our household is the least socially outgoing person of the three of us; the more outgoing adult member of the household (that would be me) doesn’t give a crap about sports and uses sportsball games mostly as punchlines to comments either insulting to sports fans or marginally self-deprecating. This combination put us at a disadvantage on this particular ship. Nonetheless, my husband I enjoyed walking around people-watching. There was, for example, the time we were strolling through the atrium and saw a guy who was dressed, head to toe, including tips of hair, exactly like Rod Stewart ca. 1982. We smiled and walked on, waiting until we were a discreet distance away before we began to giggle and discuss “how weird do you have to be to be a guy in his late 60s walking around outfitted to look exactly like Rod Stewart?” We figured, “Benign loon”; agreed that he definitely added to the ambience of the place; and moved on.

The more time we spent hanging around the big public spaces, like the dining rooms and the pool areas, it became clear that most of the people in our age group were traveling in large packs — family reunion type situations, or the kind of thing where two or three families had banded together to do a huge group vacation. It was obvious to me and my husband that we would be spending a lot of time just the two of us, or just the three of us, with our daughter folded in, since we didn’t have automatic friends on board. This was fine, but I did think it’d be nice to have someone else to talk to once in a while.

This did happen a few times. One fine morning when most people were on port excursions, my husband and I went to sit in one of the hot tubs and we spent a few minutes talking with a woman in her 60s from Massachusetts, who joined us after we’d been in the tub about five minutes. She told us that she was part of a very large group of travelers who were on the cruise to see a show being put on by a group of pop singer impersonators. “They’ve got a huge fan base where we live,” she told us. “They’re doing a show Friday night, you should go!” Apparently somewhere in central Massachusetts there’s this crew of guys who get up regularly at various clubs and they do Rod Stewart concerts, Elvis Presley concerts, and one of them is, we were told, an excellent Mick Jagger. “That explains the Rod Stewart lookalike we walked past the other day,” I said to my husband. “It also explains the Elvis I saw last night,” he remarked. I said, hurt, “You didn’t tell me you saw Elvis last night!” He said, “I guess it slipped my mind.”

I met one woman, from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, who was traveling with one of her girlfriends. “Usually there’s four or six of us who travel together,” she told me. “We been doing this twice a year for years. This time it’s just me and my one friend, and she’s not coming out of our room — she’s been in bed every day so far.” “Is she sick?” I asked politely. “Nah, she’s not sick, she’s just got some problem, I dunno.” The lady was having a terrible week because she’d thought she’d have company on the trip but in essence she was traveling solo. Talking to me was probably the most fun she’d had since she’d left Woonsocket, and that’s really not saying much. I felt bad for her. That night I saw her from afar in the dining room and she was seated all alone at a two-top, eating and looking out the window very sadly. It was obvious that for some people, like the lady from Woonsocket, this was a vacation that was just a huge flop. There wasn’t anything I could do to fix it but I did cross paths with her a couple more times, as the week went on, and I always stopped to chat with her. When I ran into her on Friday afternoon, I told her to go see the Legends show, happening that night, which it turned out she didn’t know about. She seemed genuinely happy to have something to look forward to — besides getting back to Woonsocket, I mean.

The matter of “who you dine with” is apparently a big deal on most cruises. I’ve read Tina Fey’s essay about going on a cruise many times, and she had a lot to say (pretty much all negative) about how it sucks to be on a cruise where you have to eat all your meals at an assigned table with assigned tablemates. David Foster Wallace’s classic cruise essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” also talks about this phenomenon. One aspect the three of us really liked about the cruise we went on was that we didn’t ever once have to sit at a table with anyone else. Call us anti-social snobs if you must; but we really wanted to just eat by ourselves. Our meals were the times when we re-grouped as a tight family unit: it was basically just like eating dinner at home, except, duh, I didn’t have to cook and no one had to clean up afterward (except those getting paid to do so) and we didn’t have cats yowling up at us trying to stick their filthy little paws into our chicken cutlets. (We did all miss our cats, to be honest, and spent a lot of time speculating as to what our cats might do if set loose in the dining room.) I think that for more extroverted people, the assigned-seats style of cruise dining might be a pleasant thing, novel and exciting. For us, it would have been utter fucking hell. In this very important sense, it is very clear to me (in retrospect; I hadn’t really thought about it before we actually booked the trip, astonishing but true) that the “freestyle” cruise mode is the only way we can go, if we’re going to travel this way. Otherwise, to be blunt, I think my husband will have a nervous breakdown. If he has to be charming to strangers for more than about three hours in a row, he gets too tired; to have to engage in that kind of thing, three meals a day, for 7 days, might kill him. I get it.

Our household motto might be something like “You don’t annoy me too much, I won’t annoy you.”

There were a few mottoes, spoken or unspoken, of the majority of the guests on this ship. These mottoes were not second nature to us, since we are boring quiet people who don’t wear shirts with obscenities printed on them. These mottoes were, roughly, in no particular order, “Party All the Time,” “Speak Loudly and Carry a Big Drink,” and “Don’t Worry About How You Look.” As a general rule, people traveling without children were either buzzed or downright drunk, regardless of the time of day, and this same population seemed to have little care for what we might call personal dignity. It astonished me to see the manners of dress (or lack thereof) people didn’t mind putting out there. My qualms aren’t based on prudishness but are obviously based on something we could attribute to, I suppose, class snobbishness or my own general sense that there is a way to present oneself and a way to never present oneself. The men on this ship were so sloppily attired, it left me at a loss. Married, as I am, to a man who basically cannot bring himself to wear shorts in public, on the grounds that it’s undignified, if not downright slatternly, I’ve gotten used to a certain look on men to whom I stand in close proximity.

That look was hard to come by that week; proximity, easy. I saw a lot of men walking around in ill-fitting t-shirts, ill-fitting tank tops, both often printed with slogans and images not printable in a family paper. (My husband told me about some that he’d seen, horrified, and asked me, “Who wears these things in public? Who?” All I could say was, “Well, those guys do, I guess?”) You can just imagine the sorts of shorts I saw all over the place. It was Thursday, I believe — the cruise was almost over — before I saw a man other than my husband strolling about the ship wearing pants and a button-down shirt. (He looked good.)

Where I live, there’s definitely a lot of sloppy clothing, and God knows there are a lot of people who are not interested in being fashionable or stylish. Even so: it’s clear that even without taking these things into consideration, there is a kind of decorum assumed, across this city, across ethnic, class, and other demographic lines, that just did not exist on this ship. I spend time in posh neighborhoods here, I spend time in seriously not-posh neighborhoods. I’m all over the damned place. I’m on foot, walking around all the time, I’m on buses, headed crosstown. I see every kind of person there is to see in this little city, and I’m telling you, the attire that was normal on this ship would be garnering some clucks of disapproval here in New Haven, regardless of neighborhood, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity. Now maybe, maybe it’s true that if we took New Haven and said, “pack for a week-long cruise to the Bahamas” we’d wind up with some people who dressed the way these people on this cruise did. But in all seriousness: I don’t think there would be nearly so many t-shirts with boob jokes on them. A few, maybe. But not this many.

Some of you may be wondering, “What did the Hausfrau wear on her vacation?” and the answer is, I wore pretty much exactly what I wear when I’m going about my business at home in the summertime. I wore a black cotton blend pencil skirt, black or grey t-shirts, and comfortable shoes (on this trip, mostly leopard print clogs). When it got chilly I put on a denim jacket. There was nothing at all shocking about what I wore, nor did I look sloppy or slatternly, thank you very much.

Much as my wardrobe did not change while I was on the ship, my basic behavior did not turn toward the particularly hedonistic, though I was politely urged to let my hair down many times. I had two drinks, on two separate occasions; this is the equivalent, on a cruise, of being teetotal. My husband had a few gin and tonics over the course of the week, a couple of beers. The majority of guests, however, were — and I really don’t think I’m exaggerating — always walking around with some big tall drink in their hands, and I’m not talking about a Dunkin’ iced coffee. When I noticed people swaying as they walked, I had to think about whether this was a question of sea legs or sobriety. It was, if I stopped to think about it too hard, a bit of a bummer. Men seemed to party harder than women, and have less sense of propriety overall, perhaps because they were partying so much harder. And I write all this, mind you, as someone who didn’t spend time hanging out in the casino at night, or at any of the dance clubs or karaoke bars or anything like that. This was just me, a matronly type, skulking about the boat looking for places to read my book between the hours of, say, 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

There was one time when my husband and daughter asked me to meet them for dinner at a restaurant and I wound up getting horribly lost on the ship and had absolutely no clue how to get to my desired location. There are maps and guides all over the place but the fact remains, fore and aft don’t come naturally to me and given the multiple elevator banks on any given deck, it’s easy to get confused and disoriented very quickly. Thus it was that at 7 p.m. I found myself weaving back and forth on the ship — stone cold sober, mind you — trying to figure out how the hell to get to this one restaurant that I thought I knew how to get to.

I mean, here’s the thing about being on a cruise: your options are deeply finite. You can only go so many places on a ship, and it has a definite beginning, middle, and end. It’s not like being on a lonely road someplace where you think, “Well, I’m in Springfield, if I keep riding I’ll wind up in Northfield, that’s not so bad, right?” No. You’re on a ship. Eventually you will hit a wall or a railing and on the other sides of those walls and railings are ocean. So you will turn around and start over again.

Honestly, I think I spent twenty minutes circling around, walking through the casino (iccchh) and then thinking, “Aha, I’ve found it,” heading confidently toward the right only to realize I had landed myself in a very dimly lit bar where people were gearing up to sing Aerosmith and Taylor Swift to the best of their abilities. I walked up half-staircases and down half-staircases and I went hither and thither and yon and I only found my family by the grace of good luck when they found me, actually, coming through the Photo Gift Shop, or whatever they call the place where you’re supposed to drop wads of money on pictures of you and your family and friends having such an awesome time on your cruise.

“Where’ve you been?” my husband asked me.
“I have no fucking idea,” I said truthfully.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that we were not willing to pay whatever astronomical charges would be asked if we wanted to use our cell phones on the ship. Roaming charges, wifi fees, whatever: we were too stingy to rack up these charges. As a result, we could not communicate with each other in the manner to which everyone’s accustomed nowadays. I couldn’t text my husband saying “Jesus, I just got lost in a karaoke bar, how do I get to you?” and have him reply, “You moron, you go LEFT at the karaoke bar, then left again, and we are here.” Not that my husband would ever text me telling me I’m a moron, that’d be deeply out of character.

No: for us to keep in touch with each other, we got in the habit of leaving handwritten notes — written on paper — on the bed in our cabin. “Gone to read and look at water,” a note might read, “meet you at cabin at 12.” “Meet you for dinner in Garden Cafe at 6.” “Gone to return library book, back soon, 4 p.m.” It was, to be honest, all very quaint.

It might be, I suppose, that everyone else is drinking so much because they can’t find the people they’re traveling with and they don’t know what else to do with themselves, so they figure, “What the hell, I’ll just go have a drink, Bob is sure to walk by eventually….”

Life on a cruise is, in a lot of ways, a throwback-to-the-year-1995 experience. For example, I met someone and became friends with them purely on the basis of chance. How often does that happen these days?

This was one of the Port Days, when most people scurried off the ship to go do wholesome things with their kids or to go get snockered on an actual beach somewhere. On this morning, my daughter went off to hang with whatever small number of kids signed up for the cruise kids’ program that day, my husband went off to go read his book, and I went to get a pedicure at the cruise ship’s spa. This would turn out to be an enlightening experience — I learned, a la the heroine in Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, that I am not taking care of myself the way real women do*. I was seated in the waiting area filling out paperwork when a woman with greying-blonde wavy hair sat down across from me with her own little clipboard of paperwork. “Taking advantage of the massage special today?” she asked me conversationally. “Oh, no,” I said, “I’m just getting a pedicure. That’s more than enough excitement for me.”

The woman chuckled and as we finished our paperwork we chatted. It turned out that she was from New York City, and had worked in publishing for many years. I said where I was from, in Connecticut, and that I’d been a bookseller for a long time, and she told me that her in-laws lived in my small city, too. It turned out we had quite a few overlapping life-elements — little interests, common tastes — and she said, “We should get together and have coffee sometime! Like we would if we’d met in real life.” I agreed wholeheartedly, and we exchanged first names just as my name was called: it was time for me to enter the spa and become a new woman. Or get some newly painted toenails, anyhow.

I followed the petite salon staffer, a woman with perfect hair and nails, natch, into a room where there were a few of those big puffy vinyl-covered salon chairs lined up facing a bank of windows; I had a remarkable view of the Atlantic. I picked out my nail polish color and as I sat in the chair the beautician turned on the massage panel and the chair began to beat up my back. There must be people who like that sort of thing, but I really don’t; however, I would have felt bad saying anything about it, so I let my back get mauled by the chair while the lady soaked my feet and clipped my nails and began to try to draw me out. It was clear to me immediately that this young woman was mystified by me: at the time I sat down in her salon, I did not already have polish on my feet. “How long has it been since you had a pedicure?” she asked suspiciously. “Maybe three years? Four years? It’s been a while,” I said. She examined my feet. “You have a lot of calluses,” she scolded me. I tried to explain that I walk everywhere and as such my feet have calluses, but she would have none of it. She soaked my feet and worked on my nails and eventually took up a cheese grater to scrub at my feet. “That’s a Microplane grater!” I said with amusement. “How do you know that?” she asked, looking at the device in her hand. I explained that I own several Microplane graters and that I use them in my kitchen. She seemed skeptical that a Microplane would ever be used for something other than removing calluses. “For grating cheese, or ginger, or chocolate,” I explained. “They’re very well-made.” “Well,” she said, scrubbing at my feet, “they are. And they are very easy to clean,” she added pointedly. I watched as my dead skin piled up on the paper toweling at the foot of the puffy chair. It was vile, but also fascinating. She worked so hard,  with religious zeal: she was obviously shocked and horrified by me, and mystified as to how an adult woman could not care about her feet this much.

Mind you, I feel like I take fairly good care of myself. And I do care about my feet; it’s just that foot beauty isn’t one of my highest priorities. I clip my nails and stuff like that! Other aspects of personal aesthetics rank more highly. My hair, I can assure you, is in great shape. Since far more people see my hair than ever see my feet, I really think I’ve got my priorities straight.

The beautician, having painted my nails, then tried to get me to purchase a number of expensive skin-and-nail-care products, none of which I considered for even a moment. I walked out of the salon with my new feet and as I walked past the waiting room I remembered the lady, let’s call her Beverly, who I’d met an hour before.  I paused, and then went up to the reception desk. “Hi,” I said. “There was a blonde lady who was about to get a massage this morning, is she still around?” I explained that if she was, I’d like to leave a message for her. The staff established that she was, in fact, still on-site, and kindly gave me a piece of paper and a pen so I could write her a note. I scrawled, “It was nice to meet you — if you’d like to get in touch to have coffee sometime, here is my room number.” I left the spa feeling cheerful. Even if our paths didn’t cross again, I’d made a good-faith effort to make a new friend, and there’d be no hard feelings if she didn’t get in touch (after all, time is limited, on a cruise); it seemed like a mitzvah, really, to even make the gesture. Also excellent: as it was only 10.30 in the morning, I had the rest of the day to loll about on lounge chairs reading. 

I was ambling across Deck 12, thinking I would head back to the cabin to meet my husband and then we’d find our daughter and go have lunch, when I ran into Beverly, the blonde from the salon. Translated into my local vernacular, this would be like running into a new friend on Orange Street, the morning after meeting at a cocktail party at which you’d discovered that you’ve both been living in the neighborhood for six years, two blocks away from each other. In other words, it should have been inevitable, yet somehow it wasn’t.

“I got your note!” she said happily. We compared notes on our mornings (unanimous positions: pleasant; though I imagine she enjoyed her massage more than I enjoyed having a cheese grater applied to the soles of my feet) and I said I was looking forward to having my family make fun of my toenails. “Speaking of which, I need to find my family,” Beverly said. She had a vague idea of where her husband was, but her son and parents had gone off together and she was unable to locate them. “They’ve gotta be around here somewhere,” I said. “The library? The games room?” “That’s what I’m hoping,” she said. She said she’d phone me after she conferred with her family about their plans for the next day or two, I said Fabulous, and off we went.

Late in the afternoon when my family convened in our cabin for the pre-dinner changing of clothes and so on (adding a sweater, changing shoes, going from bathing suit into shirt and pants), the phone rang. Everyone in the room froze. “Who could be calling us?” my daughter asked, real alarm in her voice. She had been led to understand, thanks to us, that phones were useless on the ship.

“I bet it’s my new friend!” I said. Everyone looked at me with surprise: I’d made a friend? Who would phone me?

Sure enough, it was Beverly. “Hi!” she said. It was like a totally normal phone call from someone I knew, except it was happening on a ship, in the middle of the ocean, with a total stranger. My husband and child listened, bemused, as I made plans for an actual social occasion. “It’s great that you made a friend,” my daughter said when I got off the phone. “I made a new friend at my program today too.”

My daughter, by far the most gregarious of the three of us, had made so many new friends by the end of her week on the ship that she could fill an autograph book with notes from them all. My husband — surprise, surprise — made no new friends, though, true to form, I’m not sure he cared or even noticed. I am now Facebook friends with Beverly, and we’ve had some amusing little exchanges online, and discovered that her husband knows a guy who used to live down the street from me, whose ex-wife is still a day-to-day friend of mine. I expect that if Beverly ever comes to town to visit her in-laws, she’ll send me a Facebook message when she needs a break from family, asking, “You wanna meet for coffee while I’m in town?” and I’ll say, “sure, there’s a place about three blocks from your in-laws….”

We will, of course, exchange phone numbers, then, in case we need to text each other, and we will bring our acquaintanceship up to 2018 standards. But it will always have begun in an old-fashioned way. It’s just a shame, really, that when we met for our breakfasts (bagel and lox for me, a croque madame for her) we couldn’t really dress for the occasion the way it deserved — and we were, unfortunately, still surrounded by people wearing dopey baseball caps and t-shirts with crass slogans. We needed hats worthy of Rosalind Russell and Myrna Loy; we needed car coats and dress gloves.

Beverly, when you come to New Haven, we’ll go shopping. I know just the place

*there’s a scene in this novel when Our Heroine goes to a salon and is told by the facialist that she’s RUINING HER FACE by not using special skin care products and that using soap on one’s face is a moral failing on a scale you cannot begin to fathom because it’s so awful. 

4. All the Dining Options in the World, except Tuna Salad

Everyone talks about how great the food is on cruises. Even so, I boarded the ship with careful optimism on the matter. I figured that some food would be great and some food would be mediocre and that if we were lucky no one would get food poisoning and that it was basically unfair to expect much more than that.

The fact that everyone you talk to raves about cruise food is also the kind of thing where my innate snobbery gets in my way. Let’s face it, people in general are assholes and idiots and their idea of good food seldom overlaps with mine; and what’s more, it seemed impossible to me, on almost scientific principles, that there could be genuinely good food both in the specialty restaurants and at the buffet. I just believed that it was the kind of trick that just couldn’t be pulled off. I will be brutal here: I was wrong. I ate my words (or thoughts) while on this cruise, happily and greedily, and in one notable case I ate so much I basically disgraced myself. For meal after meal, there were wonderful things to eat, the overwhelming majority of dishes very well executed to boot. There were a few missteps, sure; but overall, and considering the scale of operations, these chefs and kitchen workers pulled off incredible, incredible feats, three times daily.

The menus at the big cafeteria-style dining hall (where we wound up taking most of our meals) fascinated me. Having had no preconceived notions of what might be on offer, I was surprised by the range of items that you could always get. It was obvious that the chefs were working very hard to cater to several basic demographics all the time — you could break it down to “picky eaters and non-picky eaters.” But their work showed much greater cultural and, really, psychological subtlety and cleverness. The result was that picky and non-picky eaters from many cultural backgrounds were, I thought, nicely accommodated by the cruise.

For example: in some ways, breakfasts are the trickiest meals to serve to large groups of people, because it’s the meal where people show the least flexibility in their selections. Ask almost anyone, “What do you have for breakfast?” and they’ll say, “Every morning I have ______.” Could be eggs, could be a bacon and cheese sandwich, could be Maypo, could be pancakes. These are typical American breakfasts anyhow. All right, maybe not the Maypo, but you take my point. However, around the world, breakfast works very differently, right? A lot of Asian countries, people have congee, which is rice cooked into a mush and served with little bits of savory stuff (often leftover from the previous night’s meal) sprinkled on top. It’s awesome. But most Americans would find it really fucking weird. The Asians, for their part, would, I imagine, look at a bowl of Frosted Flakes and go, “Are you fucking kidding me?” 

In the UK there’re people who hang onto this very classic notion of a proper fry-up — bacon, egg, sausages — and the cruise had everything laid out for those who wanted that fry-up, right there. Baked beans, toast, fried potatoes, every variant I could think of, was just waiting for us on a platter. You could get a delicious muesli, with or without fresh fruit mixed into it already; you could get several types of hot cereals (grits, oatmeal, Cream of Wheat being the ones I now remember — no, no Maypo, but you have to given them major points for the Cream of Wheat). You could get bagels and cream cheese; there were, as a compromise on serving bagels and lox, little cups of salmon mousse with capers, always available. You could get eggs poached and served on English muffins with spinach or Canadian bacon or smoked salmon, liberally dosed with Hollandaise sauce; you could get biscuits and white gravy; you could have someone make you an omelette, filled with God knows how many different cheeses and vegetables and meats. This all, by the way, doesn’t even begin to take into account the quantities of fresh fruit available to everyone. My daughter, who mocks me for my reluctance to buy fresh fruit, was in heaven. She got plate after plate of cantaloupe, of honeydew; slabs of fresh pineapple; bowls of blackberries. Furthermore, thrilling to behold were the piles of strips of bacon — platter after platter of bacon — I’d never seen so much bacon in one place. My husband was quite pleased.

If you, Ugly American that you might be, just wanted a bowl of Frosted Flakes, there was an ample supply. Also Rice Krispies, Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Froot Loops, and a few other basic, familiar American cold cereals, all in those adorable Variety Pak boxes that I always wanted to get when I was a kid. My daughter was thrilled to be allowed to eat Cinnamon Toast Crunch, something I refuse to purchase for home consumption on school days. We’re a Grape Nuts/Raisin Bran household, by and large, and truly no one complains, but I totally get how once in a while Junk Cereal is called for. Over the summer I allow a couple boxes of Junk Cereal into the house, and it’s always cause for celebration. This was Cinnamon Toast Crunch was, for my daughter, Summer Vacation in April.

Lunches in the cafeteria were even more impressive than the breakfasts; the dinners were often astounding. The crew would place little table cards around the dining room to announce “Caribbean Night!” or “Italian Night!” or “Grill Night!” and I’d think, “well, okay, let’s see what this is.”

It was always fucking awesome, is what it was. Ok: the Asian fried rices could have used some more zip, and the meatloaf that they served on American night was far too salty for me. But these complaints are minor, I tell you, so minor that I feel bad even writing them down. Also, after we got off the ship, my husband told me, “I think the reason you thought the meatloaf was too salty was that it had bacon in it.” “There was bacon in the meatloaf?” I gasped. I don’t eat bacon. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I really think there was. I didn’t want to tell you at the time.”

I mulled this over for a bit. I really hadn’t sensed “bacon” in it; I just tasted “salt.” But he would know, he would. My husband is an ace bacon-eater. “It’ll be ok,” I said. “Yom Kippur is coming up in a few months.” My daughter looked at me, worried. “Are you mad, Mama?” “No, no.” I wasn’t thrilled, it’s true, but as issues go, this is a small one. And to be honest, I prefer to dwell on how good everything else was. There were these dumplings, for one thing, that were really just, you know, flour and water, but it was Caribbean night and I think they’d been fried in coconut oil and they were just….. really, really good. I had two, my daughter had two, I think my husband had three.

The fact was: whether they were doing “down home American” or “seafood night” or “Italian night” or whatever the hell they were doing, there were invariably at least 20 delightful entrees to choose from, and just as many side dishes. At lunchtime, if you wanted to have a sandwich you could have a very good panini (vegetarian, vegan, and meat options available) or you could make yourself a cold-cut sandwich. Basically, at all times, you had so many choices that it was genuinely hard for me to imagine the kind of person who just couldn’t find food to make them happy on the ship. My husband and child agreed with me wholeheartedly. And we paid attention to how other people were eating, too. There was one family we sat next to one lunchtime, a woman and her son who seemed to be about eight or nine years old. He appeared to be, like my daughter, the kind of kid who wanted to try lots of different things and was pretty enthusiastic about all of it but then in the end what he really wanted to eat was two ice cream cones. Watching him plow through his food was just hilarious; his mother and my husband and I chatted about how on this trip, we didn’t feel bad about letting the kids eat all the ice cream they wanted. Though the build-your-own-hamburger station was very impressive, no one in my family got hamburgers, not even once. That’s how solid the offerings were. 

But there were definitely some people who never ate anything except hamburgers and french fries. I’m not sure if this is because that’s all they eat in general, or if they were afraid of everything else, or if these were forbidden foods at home, so they were living it up on the cruise; but there were definitely people who for lunch and dinner got a hamburger with a huge pile of french fries, period. It struck me as kind of sad, personally, and I think the lady travelling with her little boy felt the same way. Some people are more flexible than others, food-wise, and some people think it’s fun to even stretch a little, in culinary terms. For that last group, the food on this cruise was a form of entertainment in and of itself. 

There was one aspect of the food that could have been improved on, but I feel bad even mentioning it, since it’s obvious the kitchen staff is working like dogs and they’re skilled and smart and good at what they do. However, I have to be honest.

The desserts had a more up-and-down run. When they were good, they were quite good indeed, but more often they were either not of interest to me (I’m not a big fruit dessert person) or on the weak side. It just isn’t easy to make chocolate cakes for 2400 people. I totally get that. I think also that in my own family’s case, we’re so accustomed to eating homemade cake that something has to be pretty damned exquisite-tasting before we will pay attention. Beauty is not what we’re after in our cakes; we’re after taste and texture. The cruise was a little disappointing on these counts, with the cakes… though I did not have a chance to taste the opera cake, which my husband said was very good indeed…. but there were two notable exceptions.

One was a chocolate cake that did not have any special billing I can recall. It was on offer the same evening that a “five-spice chocolate cake” was available and I remember that I looked at the five-spice one and thought, “no way.” I opted for the simpler cake — a dark, fine-crumbed cake with a smooth layer of dark chocolate ganache between the layers and poured on top — and my husband and I compared notes when we sat down.

My husband took the five-spice chocolate cake, but then regretted it. “The flavor of this is weird,” my husband said, “though… it’s not bad…. the texture, I don’t like the texture, though.” He looked sort of wistfully at my very plain cake.

“This one’s pretty good,” I said, taking a second bite of my chocolate cake. My daughter, plowing through a bowl of ice cream, asked if she could try some of my cake. Taking a bite, she made the expression she makes at table that means, “I am thinking about this really hard, and I am declaring this good enough that I would eat two more pieces of it if you let me.”

The best dessert, however, by miles and miles (nautical miles or otherwise), was one of the least fancy of the items on offer during the week. You could tell the chefs didn’t think too much of it, even, because they put it out at lunchtime. Oh my god. Fools. Fools. They should have saved it for some grand extravaganza dinner event.

It was a vanilla pound cake.

I know, you’re like, “So the fuck what?” Who cares about vanilla pound cake? But oh: this was not just any stupid vanilla pound cake. It was absolutely wonderful. It had a more coarse crumb than the pound cakes I usually make, but dear god, the flavor. It had this very smooth and true vanilla smell and taste. We put slices of it into bowls so that we could pour caramel sauce over it. The caramel had been intended to go with something like, I don’t know, rhubarb cobbler, some fruit thing that I would just never, ever eat — but they don’t stop you from pouring caramel over whatever you want. I mean, if they were serving Maryland fried chicken and you wanted to add some caramel sauce to your chicken and maybe some of the French fries you’d grabbed from the Hamburger Grill section, no one would bat an eye.

Holy shit, that caramel sauce.

My husband said, “I don’t think this came from a jar.”

I said, authoritatively, “There is absolutely no way this came from a jar.” I recognized in the sauce the element of burnt sugar that no store-bought caramel sauce ever seems to have. This was a sauce that had been brought just to the edge of what some would call “disaster,” cooled immediately, and thickened, had a little cream added to it. (Well, ok, they must have made this in vast pots, so “a little” could mean, like, six gallons, but you know what I mean.) This was not an insipid, weak caramel sauce; nor was it just a thick, oily, gelatinous mixture: it was dark, opaque, pourable-in-ribbons. Oh, it was wonderful. I had two servings because I knew I’d never eat it again, and then went back for a third piece of the cake. I will spend the rest of my life trying to recreate that cake and sauce.

My family will not mind one iota.

Many, many families clearly wanted simpler, easier desserts. The idea of thinking about dessert is not their idea of fun. They want something direct, sweet, enjoyable, easy. So: The ice cream cabinet, which was staffed and at which you had to wait in line, was always fun. They’d have eight flavors of hard ice cream for you to choose from — nothing too exotic, but good, and served soft enough that small children wouldn’t have a hard time eating ice cream cones if that’s what they chose. There was your basic chocolate, vanilla; one day there was rum raisin. There was always a sherbet, which I tried (lime) and enjoyed very much. My daughter liked the kiwi sherbet, which looked just like the lime but tasted quite different indeed.

The first time I got in line for the ice cream, at my husband and child’s urging — they were already installed at our table with large bowls of the stuff — I stood next to a massive man in a tank top that read “HARLEY-DAVIDSON.” He was heavily decorated with old ink and was not someone I’d’ve been inclined to mess with. A couple of small children, however, had no fear of him, and stepped right in front of him as he was about to step up to the counter to peruse the signage and plot his order. It’s possible he would have been annoyed but at that precise moment, another massive biker dude paused to my right and said to him, “Hey, I’ll be at our table, over there —” gesticulating by tilting his head in some direction or other. The biker to my left said, “I”ll get you some butter pecan, that sound good?” The second biker said, “Yeah!” and disappeared into the stream of people carrying plates of fries and burgers and god knows what all. The second biker was one of the guys who just wanted a burger and a shitton of fries, but I found it touching and amusing that his buddy knew he had a weakness for, of all things, butter pecan ice cream. The second biker dude was clearly worried that the little kids would eat all the ice cream and there’d be none left for him, and you had to be sympathetic; at least a dozen children under the age of six were swarming around us all, often unaccompanied by parents. It was a little Lord of the Flies, to be honest.

By this point — several little kids had been served, no harm done, and I had moved up in the line a little — I could see the signs announcing the flavors. “There’s no butter pecan,” I said to the biker. “They have pistachio, but that’s not the same thing at all.”

“Oh, no, really?” he said, with genuine dismay on his face, “I could have sworn they had butter pecan! “I hope your friend won’t be mad,” I said. He sighed and stepped up to place his order. “What do I do, just get one chocolate and one vanilla?” He asked me, as if I’d know what to do, like I was the biker’s girl and I’d know what the Plan B should be. “I guess so?” I said. “I mean, he’s bound to think one of them’s ok as a substitute, right?” “Yeah,” he said, decisively. “I’m ok with either one, so he can pick whichever he likes better.” Within a minute he was walking off to his table with two bowls of ice cream.

It wasn’t until Thursday that the ice cream stand had butter pecan on offer. I hope that biker got at least two bowlsful.

For all of my being so impressed with the kitchen on this cruise: There was one time when my husband and I watched a woman totally lose her shit over the kitchen’s inadequacy, as she perceived it. She was standing at the cold-sandwich-assembly station, one day at lunchtime, and was loudly berating the meek man behind the counter. He had one job, which was to carve slices of roast beef and ham and turkey for people to put on sandwiches. “I just don’t understand what the problem is,” she said. I paused, staring very carefully at the trays of cubed cheese and cornichons: I didn’t want to have this lady’s vitriol land in my direction, but I wanted to find out what her issue was. It turned out that she was enraged — and very unfairly taking her rage out on the perfectly nice roast-beef-carving-station-guy — because the cruise had not supplied her with tuna salad for sandwiches. “How hard is it to make tuna salad?” she demanded. I debated the question with myself for a moment: it isn’t at all difficult to make tuna salad, but one does have to have tuna available for the purpose. Was it possible that the kitchen didn’t have any tuna for making tuna salad? Sure it was. It was possible that they had tuna for this purpose but that they had planned to provide tuna salad during meals yet to come on the cruise. Clearly it mattered not to this woman: her issue was that tuna salad was not available on a daily basis. “I spoke to one of the chefs in the kitchen,” she said angrily to the man behind the counter, “and they told me they could give me a turkey sandwich — but I don’t want a turkey sandwich, I want a tuna salad sandwich! Is that so much to ask?”

Lady: it’s too much to ask. We’re in a situation, after all, where it’s not like someone can say, in a desperate attempt to accommodate you, “No problem, I’ll send my guy out to Stop and Shop, we’ll get some Bumble Bee and everything will be fine.” We’re out on the ocean for god’s sake. The food available is what it is, it’s finite, but — here’s what killed me about this — there was so many good food options available to everyone, 24/7: could this lady really, seriously, not find something that would be ok for her to eat?

It’s true I am someone who takes a very dim view of children who’re picky eaters, though I try to be accommodating and understanding about it, because I’m not a total asshole (believe it or not). I’m, like, a part-time asshole, okay? But this lady! She was a grownup! She was in her 40s, and she was just losing her shit over lack of access to tuna salad. It didn’t speak well for her in a larger sense, and I found myself thinking, “Probably 98% of the people on this cruise are pretty nice people who would never pull this kind of shit on the staff here, but then there’s that wild card 2%. And god help the staff in dealing with that two percent.”

When I got to our table, my husband and child were already seated and plowing through their own lunch selections. Sotto voce, I said to my husband, “I saw this woman just completely losing her shit over how there’s no tuna salad.” “I heard her too,” he said, shaking his head. Our daughter said, also in low tones, “I don’t understand how someone could be mad about no tuna salad, not with food like this.” She paused. “And I really, really like tuna salad.”

I have to say: I am proud of the fact that I have a ten year old who never, once, in all of her years, has thrown the kind of shitfit over a meal that that woman threw over a tuna salad sandwich. Maybe the issue wasn’t really the tuna salad. Maybe it was something else. Maybe her subconscious was really upset over a death in the family or her daughter’s just flunked out of school or who knows what. But in the moment, she was making a mountain out of a molehill (or, of tuna salad), and I have to say, if that woman were my child, I would have grabbed her firmly by the arm, right above the elbow, and guided her out of the dining room silently.

And we all know what that means.

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