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.

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.

Beet Jam. Beet Marmalade. Beet Condiment. I don’t know what the hell this is.

A couple of weeks ago I was trying to come up with ideas for things to serve at an event scheduled to happen in late November and so I pulled out a stack of cookbooks and sat down on the couch and began turning pages.
One of the books I pulled out was Marion Cunningham’s Lost Recipes, which is a book I’ve read probably fifteen times. You’d think I would have noticed this recipe for Beet Marmalade before, since I love beets — but no. It had entirely escaped my attention. This time, though, I snapped to and said, “AHA.” This was clearly the Special Thing that could transform so many things we already like to eat, the thing that could make a boring meal seem special. And it could, possibly, be used to tremendous effect at an event happening in late November 2018.

This assumes of course that most of us like beets. I know it is a dicey thing, serving people beets. My daughter won’t go near them, which has always really bummed me out. So let me rephrase: this could be the Special Thing that brings light and joy to an otherwise humdrum meal, for the sort of person who likes beets.

Otherwise, of course, it’s a total fucking nightmare. But, you know, whatevs.


Cunningham’s recipe goes like this (allowing for my paraphrasing):

Take four medium-large beets. Boil the crap out of them, peel, chop, throw into food processor and mash up. Transfer lurid glop into saucepan and add 1 1/2 cups sugar. Take one large lemon and 2 tablespoons chopped, peeled fresh ginger, throw into food processor until finely chopped. Add lemon/ginger mixture to pot on stove, and stir, cooking over medium-low heat, until glop has thickened, which takes only a couple of minutes.

Now I am not into lemon and I’ve got a limited interest in ginger. However, it was clear that the basic concept was something in which I could have a deep, abiding interest, and that it would be easy peasy not-lemon squeezy to adapt the recipe to my tastes, desires, and available ingredients.

As it happened, this weekend we were expecting dinner guests, an old college friend traveling from out of town, and his wife, a total stranger to me. They were traveling to town so the wife could attend a conference in town here — not travel for fun at all. They would be ending their visit by stopping by our house. I felt strongly that this called for a certain kind of evening: An evening meal that was homey and simple but good was mandatory. I didn’t have to fret about elaborate presentations, but I didn’t want the meal to be boring, either. I defaulted to making a roast chicken and potatoes, and then began to think about what I could do to give people an option to jazz that up: it was clear to me that beet marmalade would be the answer. The vegetable on the side, requested by my daughter, would be broccoli cooked with a large quantity of garlic. It seemed to me that this plan would make for a pleasantly colorful, but comforting, meal — familiar, but not stodgy, with a little bit of zip and zing.

Now, I had planned ahead, at some 101-level. I had in the house a bunch of really big beets, and I had a six-pound chicken to roast. So I felt like I was in reasonable shape, when I woke up on Saturday morning.

At eight I took the four massive beets from my fridge, put the oven to 400°, and wrapped the beets in foil after giving them a scrub. I let them roast for a ludicrously long time because to be honest big beets take forever to cook through — I think I had them in the oven for close to two hours. In those two hours I established how I would cook the potatoes (fuck it: bake ’em) and went out to the store to buy some fresh broccoli.

Around two in the afternoon I unwrapped the beets, peeled them, and threw three of them into the food processor. (The last beet, I’m saving for another project.) Once I had a beet puree, I dumped all the glop into a small pot and went to the fridge to look for my bottle of ginger juice, which is very handy. Ginger juice totally makes up for the fact that I almost never have fresh ginger around.

Turns out, I’m out of ginger juice.

Without missing a beat I thought, “Well, to hell with it,” and turned to the sweet drawer, where I had a jar of candied ginger. It’s probably been sitting there for four years. I took out about five big pieces and threw them into the food processor with about half a cup of white sugar and half a cup of brown sugar and the juice of the borderline-sad half-lime I had in the fridge and the half a red onion I had sitting next to the lime. I whizzed all of that together in the processor and added it to the beets in the pot. I turned on the flame and cooked this down, stirring often, over about ten minutes, and then I left it to cool.

When I tasted it I said, aloud, “Damn this is good.”

I set a little dish of it out on the dining table at dinnertime, before I carved the chicken. I said, “Ok, this is beet jam, or beet marmalade, or something. You can put it on a slice of bread or you can have it with your chicken or you could put it on your potatoes or whatever.” Many spoonfuls of this stuff were added to plates — it turned out all of us were people who like beets (except my daughter, who curled her lip at the dish, but that’s her problem). I found it was excellent on bread with some cheddar cheese and also with goat cheese. It was a lovely counterpoint to the roast chicken. There was really nothing wrong with it. “This will be added to the Thanksgiving table, I think,” my husband said.

I am already thinking about variant forms of this beet condiment. I am imagining a wholly-sweet version that could be used to glaze a chocolate beet cake, a suggestion made by a beet-loving friend with whom I discussed this condiment. I am imagining an more savory version, made with less sugar and lots and lots of chopped onion. I’m predicting many towels will be beet-stained in the months to come. I’m predicting, too, a dire uptick in my use of Fels-Naptha. It may be worthwhile to invest in a magenta-colored tablecloth.

The Day is Fucked but the Bread is Good

By seven in the morning I knew the day wasn’t going to go right. I won’t go into details; let’s just say, I knew. “The way you know a good melon,” as the lady says in “When Harry Met Sally,” which I swear to God isn’t a movie I quote all the time. In this case, it was true. By seven, several little things had gone haywire and everyone in the house was pissy and I thought, “It’ll be okay. I just have to get my daughter off to school, and we’ll all shake it off.”

There was a two-hour school delay today thanks to a snow-ish weather event, but even so I had my daughter get cleaned up and dressed by 8 a.m. like it was a regular morning. She spent a long while playing with some blocks and some marbles and then started punching the pillows on my bed. I tolerated this for about two minutes, at which point I’d had quite enough and said, “You want to punch something, go roll up your sleeves, wash your hands, and knock down the Japanese milk bread dough that we started yesterday.”

She didn’t think that sounded fun, because she was too antsy to think anything sounded fun, but I made her do it and she knocked the dough around and managed to get some of her energy out. We set up the dough yesterday, after school let out early, and I’d let it rise overnight. The dough this morning was cold from the fridge, but nice and smooth. “Like a baby’s tush,” my daughter told me, having given in to enjoying the experience of kneading such good, soft dough.

Japanese milk bread is like an inch away from being pain de mie. Since I make pain de mie all the freaking time, when I first heard about Japanese milk bread I thought, “I could totally do that,” and made a mental note to do it, but of course I lost the mental note. However, I was reminded of the bread’s existence over the weekend, and decided that this would be the week I made it. For readers who don’t know: Japanese milk bread is a sweet white bread that is made with something called a tangzhong, which is a roux made of water and flour (no fat) and I guess sometimes milk. You whisk this sauce up on the stove before you do anything else. Once it’s cooled to about 110°, you can add your flour, yeast, salt, some sugar, and some butter. You knead the dough for ten minutes — you really don’t want to skimp on the kneading, from what I understand — and then you let it rise. In my case, I used about 1/3 tsp. yeast, maybe four or five cups of flour (bread flour, too — fancy — because every recipe I saw really did insist on bread flour, not all-purpose), half a cup of sugar, and a teaspoon of salt. The recipe called for four tablespoons of butter but I think I wound up using three. The recipe also called for an egg, but I didn’t use it; I wanted to see what it would be like eggless, and I wanted to have a really white loaf of bread — and I knew that if I added an egg, the color would be ever-so-slightly creamy. So. I pared down, and moved onward.

The dough didn’t look like anything particularly special when I began to shape it this morning. It did roll out nicely, though. The deal with this bread is, you divide it up into balls and you roll out each ball so it is a long oval. Then you fold up the oval much the way you’d fold dough for making croissants — into thirds, like a letter going into an envelope — and then (unlike with croissants) you roll the “letter” from one side to another, right to left, or left to right, I guess, I don’t see how it matters, to form a fat little log.

You line the fat little logs up in your buttered bread pan and you let the bread rise a final time and then you bake at 350° for about 40 minutes.

My daughter and I kneaded and rolled and shaped the dough and I had it in the pan to rise by ten in the morning; I then focused my attention on getting her ready to go to school. “Ok, you need to go put on your shoes,” I was saying, when suddenly she howled.

It took me a longish moment to realize that something was actually wrong; my daughter was sitting on the couch and staring red-eyed at her foot. I gleaned that she had a splinter, and I said, “Ok, it’s just a splinter, we’ll take it out.” But even I was impressed when I sat down on the couch and looked at the bottom of my daughter’s foot. She had a mother of a splinter that had slid horizontally into her foot in a most painful place. She begged me to remove it; I said I’d get tweezers, which is a phrase that I don’t think any child likes hearing.

The morning I had planned — such as I’d been able to retain a mental plan — was over.

Fortunately, bread dough is forgiving stuff. I spent the rest of the day tending my daughter’s sad foot, with occasional breaks for bread-related activity. The results, by the end of the day, are that the bastard of a splinter has finally come out, and I’ve baked my first loaf of Japanese milk bread. We sampled the bread, my daughter and I, early in the afternoon, while she was soaking her foot in Epsom salts for the fourth time. I figured that even though she’d hardly had a rigorous day (foot-soaking isn’t stressful, after all, and she was seated quite comfortably with a pillow at her back and a stack of Calvin and Hobbes books), she might feel peckish. “Try some bread,” I said, handing her a slice.

“This is good,” she said, “It’s just like your pain de mie, but it’s softer.”

Nailed it, kid. I am now thinking that if I want to make a kind of superstar pain de mie, the trick to it would be making a small batch of tangzhong to mix in at the beginning. I see a summer in front of me, a summer of sandwiches built on endless loaves of tangzhong pain de mie. I’m having guests for dinner on Saturday night; I have no idea what I’ll be serving — most likely some kind of roast chicken — but something tells me I’m going to make a loaf of Japanese milk bread rolls (or maybe a braided version? hm) to serve with the meal. My plan (which may go awry, who the hell knows) is, I’m going to eat a lot of Japanese milk bread in the next week, while I can. Soon it’ll be Passover, and I’ll want lovely memories of delicious bread to sustain me as I get through eight days of peanut butter and matzo sandwiches. Which reminds me: I need to go buy matzo.


Some of You Will Never Speak to Me Again: On Using Your Dishwasher Correctly

As everyone knows, there is a right way, in addition to numerous wrong ways, to load a dishwasher. This is much discussed in households across this great land of ours, as well as overseas. Where there is a dishwasher, there is a fight.

What is less often discussed is the fact — to me, indisputable — that there is also a right and a wrong way to unload a dishwasher. We will discuss, here, how to handle this thorny problem, and you, Grasshopper, will be enlightened, and then do one of two things: either smite your forehead and go “how did I never understand this before?” or say “God, this woman is a bitch.”

First, we will have a short discussion of how to load the dishwasher: I am sorry about this but it needs doing.
Let us presume that you have a dishwasher of the type where you pull down the door, which is hinged at the bottom of the machine, and that inside the machine there are two sliding racks, placed one on top of the other, for holding things that need washing. The bottom rack has been carefully designed by someone such that it will hold things that are large or large-ish, and probably fairly heavy. Think here: plates; flatware; the occasional Pyrex baking pan, glass mixing bowl, or stainless steel pot. Things you have not put on this lower rack include: any plastic item designed as food storage, any cast iron anything, lids to the plastic items for storing food. There are reasons why you don’t put these things in the bottom rack. Good reasons. All plastic items should be on the top rack, in hopes that the object will not melt in the heat of the dishwasher; and cast iron (including enameled cast iron) objects simply have no business in a dishwasher. If you want to throw your money away, that’s your business. If you want a rusted mess, a ruined $300 Le Creuset pot, I reiterate: that’s your business. But a sensible person will not put these things in the dishwasher.

Moving forward: the top rack of the dishwasher is, again, carefully designed, much like the bottom rack, but for holding different sorts of things. There are spaces designed for glasses and coffee mugs, spaces designed for smaller glasses (like juice glasses), and many prongs that are capable of handling different types of objects. Some people put small bowls on the top rack. The top rack is where you put your Tupperware and Rubbermaid and Ikea food storage pieces, and their lids; you must make sure that these things are face down, which is to say, their open sides face down into the dishwasher, not up, because otherwise these objects will not be clean. The same is true of all drinking vessels. They must have their open sides facing down. Otherwise what happens is, during the dishwashing cycle, they just fill up with water and sit there like little tiny birdbaths in your dishwasher, and this is totally pointless.

If you’re one of those people whose dishwasher has a rack at the top for loading in flatware, bully for you! No, I mean it; I bet that’s really cool. Pro-tip: don’t throw things in there such that the schmutz on your forks and spoons can’t get washed away. Spoons should not be bowl-up, but on their sides or bowl-down. Make sure that spoons don’t accidentally nestle into each other, because they will not get clean that way, and you’ll be annoyed. Ok, maybe you won’t be annoyed. But I will be annoyed. Even if you live two thousand miles away from me and I’ve never met you or seen your dishwasher, I will know about it and I will be annoyed.

No object in the dishwasher should have its dirty surfaces blocked from soapy water by another object.

This means that plates and bowls can nestle near each other, but should not be placed in such a way that, say, the cereal dried onto a breakfast bowl won’t get blasted clean during the wash cycle because it’s placed so close to a plate that the plate serves as a lid on the upright bowl.

You load the dishwasher correctly; you run the dishwasher. It beeps; the machine is telling you the stuff inside is clean. So you open the dishwasher. How do you unload the dishwasher?

If you are the sort of person who uses some special Product to assure that your dishes and plastic tubs and glassware will all come out of the dishwasher 100% dry, good on you. Presumably you can do whatever the fuck you want. We, however, do not use this stuff, because I view it as a relatively pointless frill, and expensive. So the matter of how to unload the dishwasher is Significant.

The crux of the problem is this: If you open the dishwasher and draw out the top rack first, leaving the bottom rack in the machine, you are going to have water fall from the top rack onto the stuff on the bottom rack. There’s always a teaspoon of water collected in the punt of your glasses or mugs (I mean the indentation at the bottom of your cup. On a wine bottle, it’s called the punt; I have no idea if the word applies equally to beer steins and coffee mugs but it ought to, if it doesn’t.) These little pools of water are inevitable, in my experience. And annoying. Because you don’t want to hand-dry everything in the damned machine, do you?

You do not. And so anyone with a modicum of sense will do as follows:

You will open the dishwasher and you will pull out the bottom rack first. Yes, the top rack is closer to you, but do the fucking bottom rack first, ok? This will allow you to get the heavy stuff out of the way, for one thing, and, for another thing, assure that everything from there gets out of there and put away while still dry from whatever heat blasters your dishwasher has built into it. Nothing from the top rack will have been jostled and, hence, they will not have had a chance to rain on your nice clean, dry dishes and flatware.

Get the dishes stacked, get the bowls stacked. Put them in their homes, wherever that might be. If you can reach those cabinets while standing at the dishwasher, cool. If not: make stacks and tote them over, pile by pile, to the cabinet where they need to go. Put them away. My own method, which relies on my being a healthy person with reasonable upper-body strength, is to stack the dinner dishes, then stack the pasta bowls on the dishes, and then big cereal bowls in the pasta bowls and then the small cereal/ice cream bowls. I cannot reach the dish shelves while standing at the dishwasher, but I can make it so that stacking everything means I only make one quick movement to bring everything to the correct cabinet, and then spend 15 seconds putting the stacks away.

Then I pull out the removable rack where the flatware’s standing, and bring it three steps over to the silverware drawer, and put the flatware away. The rack goes back into the dishwasher.

It will probably take about 90 seconds to empty the bottom rack of the dishwasher. Less if half of it’s been taken up with a casserole pan or something like that.

The top rack is to be pulled out only after the bottom rack is empty. Leave the bottom rack out, though: if your dishwasher is like one I’m acquainted with where the top rack’s a little hinky and occasionally comes off its runners and wants to fall, the empty bottom rack will likely help catch the top rack, but since it’s empty you don’t run the risk of shattering anything in it.

Not that I have personal experience with this or anything.

You want to have either a drying rack available on the kitchen counter, or  have at hand a nice clean kitchen towel, because, as we’ve acknowledged, stuff on the top rack tends to have water left on it or in it. We have a set of beer steins that have very deep punts and there’s inevitably a tablespoon of water puddled in in the underside of those steins every time we run them in the dishwasher. You can turn them right side up and let them air-dry in the rack (or lay them down sideways, either way works), or you can dab the dishtowel on them and take care of it in two seconds. Regardless, you want things to be really dry before you put them away.

Things can be stacked in the dish rack to finish air-drying with a clear conscience so long as you place them in a manner that actually allows them to dry. Just as with loading the dishwasher, if things are too close together, or not in the right position, they will not dry. Plastic food storage tub lids are particularly evil in this way: water stays in these tiny crevices if you don’t angle the lids so that the water can drain off.

I beg of you, at this point: Do not regard the drain rack as an excuse for not having to put things away. You do, eventually, have to put things away. For reasons. Really. The best one being, Come the time of the day when you want to eat or drink something, you shouldn’t have to sift through seventy-five plastic cups, coffee mugs, random spoons, and miscellaneous food storage container lids to find the bowl, plate, or cup you want. It should be right there on the shelf. Clean, dry.

The second best reason for just putting your shit away is that if you don’t put your shit away, what happens is, the next time you have dishes to dry, you throw them on top of the stuff in the rack that’s already dried, and you make them wet again. This is basically disrespectful to your stuff, and it makes your household more chaotic than it should be. We are all intimate with households where no one can ever find anything because basically every kitchen utensil is always in the dish rack, and nothing’s ever dry. So when you need a plate to put your toasted cheese sandwich on, ok, sure, there’s a plate nearby, but it’s kinda…. wet. Do you really want to put your toasted cheese sandwich down on a wet plate?

I know people who will say “why should I put anything away when it’s easy to get the thing from the dish rack right here?” and I get it except that the thought of a damp toasted cheese sandwich makes me want to hurl. Plus it means you’re always looking at this massive pile of crap, which is not pleasant for anyone. I love looking at my kitchen stuff, I do, but it only looks pretty if it’s neatly placed on a shelf or lined up on the counter or whatever it’s supposed to be. Jumbled up in a rack, it all looks like miscellaneous crap.

There’s another issue at stake, too, which is the maintenance of your stuff. Having acquired (I’m not saying necessarily ‘purchased’) your kitchen stuff, you want it to last. You want it to work well. This means, for example, you don’t want rust forming on your pots or knives.

I know you’re going, “What are you talking about, rust on your knives? What kind of bullshit is that?” I guess no one has knives like that anymore. Except, here’s the thing, I have one. It came to me from my parents’ kitchen and could only have been purchased by my father, because God knows my mother would never buy a knife that required attention of any type. I don’t know where or when he got it, but I do know that when I took it to Harper Keehn, Amazing Knife Sharpener Guy, he picked it up and said, impressed, “You do not see knives like these anymore, this is great!” It’s a great little knife, it really is, but it must be dried by hand immediately after washing, otherwise this weird crud develops on the blade, and that weird crud furthermore will discolor anything I cut into. In other words, if I don’t take proper care of the knife, things get gross pretty quickly. You do not want to cut into a big white onion and see these little wisps of grey schmutz on the onion.

Our other knives — whatever they’re made of, stainless steel, who knows — are not nearly as finicky. Any fool can wash them by hand and set them in the drain rack and let them drip dry and it’s totally cool.

But that one knife: if anyone uses it and leaves it to drip dry in the rack, I get angry. Because I want that knife to last forever, and I want it to not stain my food weird colors, and that means we have to handle it with proper respect. We recently had a small problem when someone who shall remain nameless used this knife and washed it and then left it to dry in the drain rack, where an astonishing substance that looked exactly and horrifically like blood encrusted the blade. When I noticed this knife, about four hours after it had been used, I gasped and said, “no, no, no, no, no,” and immediately set to work on rescuing it. We have now declared a moratorium on nameless people using said knife. Because I don’t want to use a knife that looks like I used it to kill our cats.

The last point in this vein — so to speak — is that if you leave everything piled precariously in the dish rack, you are much more likely to accidentally break a handle off your favorite coffee mug, shatter your drinking glass, nick a chip into your plate (which will then turn into a crack, which will mean you have to throw out the plate, sooner or later, depending on the severity of the crack and how much you worry about things like awful chemicals leaching into your food from the things you eat off of; I worry about this stuff less than you would imagine, but I do think about it). Let me reiterate: put the damned dishes away.

Le Corbusier (Google him if you don’t know who he is) famously said that a house is a machine for living. There is one room in the house that most obviously proves this statement true, and that is the kitchen. If a kitchen is not well-designed, and the machines in that kitchen also well-designedthe users of the machine will be unhappy. I mean, they may not really be conscious of their unhappiness, or the cause of it, but it will absolutely affect their lives. Usually in a bad way.
Something I don’t think Le Corbusier talked about much was using the actual machines, whatever they were, correctly. But it’s important. The machines in the kitchen have to be used correctly by the users; to use them incorrectly will result in nothing good, and possibly, worst-case scenario, astronomical home-appliance repair or replacement bills.

A really badly designed dishwasher won’t let you put things in it well, and it might not work well; but then again I remember reading a review of dishwashers at Consumer Reports, many years ago, that pointed out that even a crappy design will probably get your dishes clean so long you use it correctly (because let’s face it, it’s just a dishwasher, it’s just a box where hot soapy water sloshes around your dishes and then gets rinsed off). What they meant was, Load it correctly and use it in timely fashion, and you’ll be fine. You can’t load the dishes, let them sit there for a month while you’re off gallivanting around Europe, and then come home and run the machine and expect calcified oatmeal and barbecue sauce to come off the dishes. Fortunately, most of us grasp this and I don’t think it’s a serious problem for most people. But just as loading the machine correctly is a crucial element of the process, unloading the dishwasher correctly is also important. It’s not as controversial a subject, but it is the final step of the “use your machine correctly” process.  The onus is on the user to do the right thing. The dishwasher isn’t going to wag a finger at you and go “anh, anh, anh, bottom rack first!” The dishwasher has done its job as best it can. It is up to you, dishwasher-owner, to get the job done, and done right. You have to rely on your own good sense and your sense of process. As is the case with so many things in life: to have the best possible result, involving the least possible amount of backtracking, you have to figure out the right step A before going to step B.

And since I’ve laid it all out for you, it should be a goddamned snap. So go put your dishes away. Now. (Unless you’re my mother, in which case, I give up.)




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