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.

Advertisements

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.

Anyhow.
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.

3. The Hausfrau is Not From Boston, and Officially Has No Comment. (However, she’s got a lot to say — off the record.)

An ongoing theme of our trip on this cruise was “How Bostonians Act While on Cruises,” a matter that can be summed up pretty succinctly: on the whole, they act like drunken boors. I suppose this is how Bostonians often act when they’re in Boston too, so I don’t know why I should have been jarred by this, but yet I was. It may be that ships dominated by New Yorkers, or even people from Minnesota or Indiana, also suffer this problem, but as I’ve not experienced such cruises, I cannot verify or deny this. I can only attest to what I saw in this Boston-dominated crowd.

In this case, by the way, Rhode Island counts as Boston.

I don’t have hard numbers but it definitely appeared — my husband remarked upon it daily — that at least 70% of the people on the ship were from Boston or the nearby environs. We sailed out of New York City but it was for sure a Red Sox Nation event, not a Yankees crowd at all. Occasionally people would ask me where I was from, and my response, “Connecticut,” definitely caused moments of confused need-to-ponder-that-for-a-moment; Red Sox Nation has a complicated relationship with Connecticut.

At one point, while I was waiting for an elevator, a man struck up a conversation with everyone else who was standing around waiting and asked me if I was a Red Sox or a Yankees fan. I said, “I’m from Connecticut, and I really don’t care,” I said; I was beginning to weary of this Red Sox bullshit. “No really,” he asked me. “Really,” I said. “I don’t care.” “Republican or Democrat?” he asked me. “No comment,” I said, and he hooted. “You really are from Connecticut!” he said appreciatively. “Smart lady.” I had passed, but it was a close call.

In general, by the way, people did not discuss politics in public spaces on the ship, which was a relief to me.

When I went to the ship’s library* (which is kept under lock and key 95% of the time, like a medieval collection, even though the stuff here is utterly worthless and could be replaced in toto for about $300) I noticed that there was one copy of Connecticut writer Randy Howe’s “Why I Hate the Republicans” and three copies of his “Why I Hate the Democrats.” (Both published in 2004, by the way.) I found myself grimly wondering, “might things get ugly on this ship? Do fights break out on cruise ships?” — but as I said, not once did I hear anyone discuss anything explicitly political in nature, let alone witness any social tension between guests based on race, ethnicity, or anything like that (and the population was more diverse than I’d’ve guessed it would be). I imagine that wives and girlfriends boat-wide had said to their husband, “Just shut up this week, okay? Talk about sports. Talk about Avengers movies. Anything except politics, just this once!” And the husbands heeded their wives.

It could also be that people were distracted from politics by virtue of being blotto for hours and hours on end. By four in the afternoon, the first day, I’d say 75% of the boat’s guests were absolutely snockered. Remember that we only boarded at 1.30. The ingestion of alcohol by most cruisers was clearly swift and efficient, like a novocain shot before dental surgery.

To be honest: throughout the week it often felt like the only sober guests on the boat were children, me, or my husband. Every person we saw seemed to be holding an alcoholic beverage.  All the time. Ten in the morning — “Bloody Marys!” For someone like me who doesn’t drink a lot under pretty much any circumstance, and who finds drunkenness deeply unamusing, it was a little depressing. Everyone was in very high spirits, and friendly enough, and there’s really nothing wrong with that, but there was also this sense of being in a place where — well, the last time I can remember feeling this way was when I was a student at the University of Connecticut, and it was Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night. The dominant theme was “everyone here is fucked up and loving it, except for you.” If you don’t want to be fucked up-drunk, being on a cruise can be a little awkward, socially speaking.

We learned how to avoid the worst locales for this sort of thing; we learned how to stake out comfy spaces for ourselves that buffeted us to some degree from the churning hordes. A cruise is a delicate dance for the introverted.

The first night we all wanted to test the road a little, so to speak, and we decided to try to go have a fancy sushi dinner at one of the specialty restaurants. Unfortunately, it took us a rather long time to establish that it wasn’t going to work out, and by the time we understood that we couldn’t be seated for sushi until 9.30 p.m., it was after seven p.m. By this point I was feeling overwhelmed and cross, and my daughter — who had dressed up prettily for the occasion — was feeling overwhelmed, cross, and a little seasick — and we fell back on going to the vast, complimentary, buffet for dinner. This felt like a massive failure, but in retrospect I don’t know why. I guess we had such high hopes, but the reality was that we didn’t know how to arrange things so as to make the hopes come true. There are all these protocols about making reservations and plans that we just didn’t understand until it was basically too late. We were all bummed out about this, but shouldn’t have bothered feeling this way, because going to the big huge buffet was really pretty damned great. My husband and I talked it over a couple of nights ago, standing in our kitchen. “The company really doesn’t give you a good guide to how the food situation works on the ship,” I said. “I think it’s one of those things where you do it once, you learn the ropes, and after that you have a grip on things and you know how to do it right.” “I guess so,” my husband said. “I mean,” I went on, “I only realized after we were home that one of the restaurants on the ship that I thought looked good — it wasn’t one of the extra-cost places, it was complimentary! Complimentary Thai food. We would have liked that!” My husband’s eyes widened. “Aw, man!” he said, genuinely wounded. “I know!” I said. “But it’s really on us at some level for not having figured it out.” “Well,” my husband said — and I knew what he was thinking, but wasn’t saying: “Next time we’ll get it right.”

The fact was, despite our cruise-incompetence, we ate quite well. I don’t know what we were expecting to find at the huge cafeteria-style restaurant, but what we found was, I want to say, infinitely better than I thought it would be. All of us cheered up, to be quite honest, when we realized that even the “free” food would involve lots of very, very decent options. This was not a place where we’d face sad microwaved meals and or things that looked like TV dinners. (Ok, actual in-the-foil-tray TV dinners would have been a novelty, I admit, but considering the money we’d shelled out, it would not have been amusing for more than about 20 minutes.) My daughter was particularly enchanted by the pasta station. That first night, after the Major Sushi Disappointment, I was hugely relieved to see her home in on the pasta (serious comfort food for a sad little girl), laser-like and practically slobbering when we watched a chef assemble a plate of spaghetti for a blue-haired teenager on line in front of us. “Excuse me,” I asked the girl, “but is that an Alfredo sauce he’s putting together for you?” “It is!” she said, turning and giving me a big smile. “Doesn’t it look good? And they have all these things you can add on, if you want, too.” She stepped to the side a little and gestured: there were pans with cooked spinach, chopped up bacon, green peas, chopped olives, grated Parmesan, all with little spoons, and you could put as much as you wanted on your plate of pasta. “I want that!” my daughter said, having totally forgotten the Sushi Fiasco. The blue-haired teenager smiled at her and said, “Alfredo’s my favorite.” “Mine too!” said my daughter. And I thought, “We’re gonna be okay here: God Bless You, blue-haired stranger.” The blue-haired kid was all right; my daughter would be all right; I would be all right.

I agonized over the lost sushi dinner over the next few days, by the way. Several times I tried to get us in; I never succeeded. We did attend a sushi-making demonstration, after which my girl snagged about three pieces of sushi, but it wasn’t the same thing, and I knew it. I made plans in my head to make this up to her in the next few weeks, once we were home, because I felt so terrible about it — having a sushi dinner on the ship was one of the three things she most wanted to do during this vacation. But every single time we tried to get to the sushi place, we couldn’t get a seat. I don’t really want to harp on this restaurant-incompetence thing (whether the problem was with us or the cruise line) but it was really frustrating. We just couldn’t get it right with the “specialty restaurants,” most of the time. The one time it worked out was a night when it was just me and my husband dining because my daughter had decided to do the kids’ program thing during the dinner hour (an additional $6 fee, totally worthwhile).

Several times we had this experience, wherein my daughter would dress up for dinner, we’d make a go of it, and fail miserably. She’d wind up at the big buffet, feeling weirdly overdressed because everyone else in the room was wearing shorts and t-shirts. She was a good sport about it because she is, truly, an exceptionally good-natured kid, but if we had a different sort of child, this kind of thing would have meant week-ruining disaster.

Our second evening, we did go to one of the fancier places, which also turned out to be one of the “complimentary” restaurants. Not that we understood this at the time we asked to be seated, mind you. But that was the night my daughter fell ill just as our meal was served to us, and in the end she never ate it. (She didn’t puke, thanks for asking, and I made sure we left the table before the horror of puking in public became a possibility. But she sure didn’t feel good, and seeing her sitting at the table with tears in her eyes, the food in front of her, made it clear to me that The Evening Was Over for me and for her.) My poor husband ate his dinner alone in a grand dining room at an elegantly set table. He brought me my meal on a takeout platter, for me to eat in the room. (Incidentally that meal was one of the two I consumed that I deemed not quite as good as it should have been — I had a lovely dish, a risotto, but as I ate it I came to realize it had been over-salted. As quibbles go, this is very minor, and no one should take it as a slam against the food on this cruise.

A number of people have asked me what it was like sleeping on the ship, and I’ve said that for the most part it was quite pleasant. That night of the failed Fancy Dinner, however, was also the night that the ship sailed through some very turbulent waters. None of us slept well. It was quite dismal. It was comparable to the bad sleep you get as the parent of a newborn. We would start to drift off to sleep, doze for half an hour, and awaken, feeling awful. As with our not knowing how to get into one of the special restaurants, we couldn’t tell if we felt awful and couldn’t sleep because we were loser naive newbies or if this was just objectively speaking bad sailing and everyone on the ship was having the same kind of trouble. It turned out it was very bad indeed — later in the week my husband and I chatted with a woman who had gone on multiple cruises, yearly, for more than thirty years, and she said that that night was by far the worst night she’d ever had on a ship. This made us feel a lot better: the problem was just that it had been a horrible night, not that we were unusually pantywaisted. Obviously it’s not that we were happy to’ve learned that everyone was so miserable, per se; but there’s a relief in knowing that the fault isn’t yours for being stupid or not planning well.

The day after that bad night, we were kind of dragging our asses around, but it was all right because, after all, we weren’t obligated to do anything. Anything. Our daughter, who awoke feeling groggy but strangely game, ate breakfast and went happily to the children’s program — she was in the Dolphin group and having a blast — and my husband and I took our books and read in various cozy nooks scattered around the ship. We met up for meals, but otherwise, we each did pretty much what we pleased.

The day we landed in Florida, at Cape Canaveral, the ship emptied out. It seemed that most people had decided to shell out what I felt were ludicrous amounts of money to go on various stupid excursions. You could go to Disneyworld or you could go to a beach someplace or you could go scuba diving or whatever the hell; I don’t even know what the options all were, but I’d glanced at the list and said, “I’m not paying $250 so we can go do that!” and declared that this was a day for us to just enjoy the ship. Unwind. I made an appointment to get a pedicure, something I hadn’t done in possibly three years (fuck, it might have been five years). Everyone got into lines on Deck Four or whatever it was to disembark to have Organized Fun, and we settled in for a happy day of, I don’t know, Disorganized Non-Fun, which is, of course, our idea of a nice time.

So we hung around. The weather was warm, the sky was sunny and blue, and much as New Haven in the summertime is lovely because the Yalies are gone, the ship was a much more pleasant place to be with so many people on land. The three of us met up for meals, taking most of them at the large buffet-style cafeteria that ran down the middle of the 12th deck, near the outside area where there were swimming pools and hot tubs. My husband and I tried out one of the hot tubs; it was okay. We sat in the surprisingly crowded library and watched a dancer try to help people sign out books. We walked through the duty-free shopping area and gawped at the things you could buy: booze, cigars, perfume, jewelry I would never wear personally, ongepotchket watches. Everything was, even if duty-free, priced to involve fairly serious money, and while I know enough about booze to know that there were some good deals to be found, on the whole, this wasn’t a place where I wanted to shop for fun. What’s more, I really don’t have any use for Life is Good t-shirts or beach towels. Basically, all the merchandise was there for people whose tastes were not like ours. We spent a solid 90 minutes trying to find something we’d want to splurge on, and left empty-handed. If we ever go on a cruise I’d like to see things like racks of, I don’t know, Chuck Taylors, or 100% cotton oxford cloth shirts in dignified colors and prints, or bowties. Other things I’d be happy to shop for: jewelry made out of old watch parts; aprons and tablecloths from the 1940s; table service from cruise lines of the 20th century. (That could be a goldmine, people. Think about it.)

*The ship’s library is maintained, as best I can tell, not by an actual librarian but by members of the ship’s Entertainment Crew. The young woman who watched as I checked out a book was a blonde dancer. I didn’t have to ask her if she was a dancer to know  that she was a dancer. She was obviously a dancer. My suspicions were confirmed some nights later when we saw her and her colleagues perform an incredibly energetic Tribute to the 70’s, one of the most glittery shows I’ve ever seen, and I’m no stranger to glittery shows.

2. The Hausfrau Packs It In, and All of It Weighs Less Than 50 Pounds

The literature from the travel agent and the cruise line advised me that each passenger on the ship is permitted to bring up to two suitcases, none weighing more than 50 lbs. It speaks volumes about how little I travel that I was completely fucking freaked out by this. How could I pack enough books to read if I could only bring 100 pounds of stuff? I wondered if it would finally be worth it for me to buy a Kindle and download a lot of books to it. I began to make LISTS.

Because we do not travel much, and when we do travel it’s usually by car, and always to places where we know we can buy things we need if we’ve left stuff at home by accident, we do not have the kind of rolly-suitcases everyone has these days. We don’t have suitcases, in fact. My husband likes to pack in a small canvas duffel bag I scored him at a nursery school tag sale when our daughter was four, and I like to pack in a largish black leather doctor’s bag I got in the 1990s. It has style and is quite spacious but there’s no question it’s not the most efficient thing one could pack in, and it’s awkward to carry. My husband used to use a twin to my doctor’s bag, which I found for him in the early 2000s when he admired my bag, but ever since he got his duffel bag, he prefers that and the second doctor’s bag is most often used by our daughter. I wondered grimly if we could fit everything we’d need into these three bags plus one small carryon for each of us (my husband would use his messenger bag, I would use my usual big black tote bag I schlep with me everywhere, my daughter would use her school backpack).

The weekend before we were to leave, I said to my daughter, “Let’s figure this out.” I took out the two leather bags (my husband would have to figure out his own shit) and my lists and we began to organize our stuff. Many pairs of underwear, many t-shirts. A couple nice outfits for my daughter; separates for me that could be dressed up or down depending on what was going on; one actual nice dress for me. Several pairs of shoes for each of us (Keens, cute flats, and Chuckies for my girl; ugly-but-comfortable clogs for me plus two pairs of cute flats; I do not do sandals except in the most unusual circumstances, and this did not qualify as unusual enough, and that gives you a sense of how I feel about sandals, though I do own a pair). Two bathing suits each. Several pairs of shorts for my daughter; a million ponytail holders; barrettes; six books for me; two for my daughter, who doesn’t read as fast as I do; a fresh blank notebook for my daughter and good drawing pencils in a sturdy box, because she draws the way I read. Toiletries; Dramamine (kid and adult dosages); computer; phone; cords; DVD player to plug into the computer (so that we could choose our own movies to watch, if we needed downtime — this turned out to be a very smart decision, bringing this stuff though it was heavy) and three DVDs chosen with the directive, “Pick out three things you’d want to watch if you were feeling like crap and wanted to watch something cozy to help you feel better.” (Discs chosen by my girl: “Best in Show,” a season of A Bit of Fry & Laurie; and “The Princess Diaries.”) We packed everything carefully into our two bags. I borrowed a bathroom scale from our neighbor Sarah (no, we don’t own a bathroom scale) and to my astonishment, our bags weighed exactly the same amount: 16 lbs., 4 oz.

“The weight limit is 50 pounds!” I said. The realization that we’d packed everything we absolutely needed, bare bones, and come in at not even thirty pounds was sobering. What on earth was everyone else planning to bring that they’d hit a 50 x 2 baggage limit? My mother had given us, as a bon voyage gift, these nylon packing cubes that are designed to help you pack as much stuff as you can into very finite spaces. I was skeptical about their utility, but had to admit that I was able to cram a phenomenal amount of stuff into the three cubes that came in our set: I had 7 t-shirts, two pairs of bicycle shorts, one pencil skirt, one dress, all my underwear (including bras and two pairs of socks), two bathing suits, one kimono (it’s what I use as a pool cover-up), two pairs of flats, a set of pajamas, and one summer-weight sweater crammed into two of those little cubes. They fit effortlessly into my suitcase. I was then able to put six books into the bag, along with toiletries. My daughter packed into her cube almost everything she planned to bring, period. Her bag had actual room to spare, and she took her favorite stuffed animal with her, too.

On arriving at the terminal we realized that we wouldn’t even have to check our bags, which was a big time-saver. We waltzed right down the paths through all the paperwork checking (passports? passports? passports?) and before we knew it we were boarding the ship. The whole process took maybe fifteen minutes. It was incredibly well-organized, on the cruise line’s part, but also our having almost nothing with us made everything very simple. I watched as families wrangled massive, complicated collections of baggage onto big carts and made sure the tags said whatever they were suposed to say. We didn’t even need luggage tags! I kept thinking, “What do these people know to bring that we didn’t bring?” I genuinely have no idea what they all brought that we didn’t. Probably more clothes, more pairs of shoes, bigger bottles of shampoo and jars and bottles of hair product we don’t use. I have no idea. All I know is, I was really glad we didn’t have that much shit to lug around. We felt very light and carefree as we bounded onto the boat. The only thing I didn’t have with me, that I really wished I had with me, was a copy of David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” his cranky essay from 1995 about going on a cruise.

****************

It turned out to be a very good thing we’d brought so little stuff on our trip because our cabin turned out to be so tiny that I don’t know what we would have done with any extra stuff anyhow; we’d’ve had to throw it out into the ocean and then been arrested for polluting international waters or something. Our cabin, which was, as requested, one of the itty-bitty windowless jobs, was a small rectangle that contained mostly a bed. There was a bunk bed on a hinge that when closed folded flat to the wall but when open hovered over about a third of the primary bed. The bathroom was equipped with slightly miniaturized versions of everything necessary — sink, toilet, shower — the shower was actually slightly bigger than I expected it to be, not merely a stall, which is smart because doubtless a lot of cruise guests need to bathe with their young children and this allows for enough space to do that (a regular stall would not). A retractable clothesline extended from one end of the shower to the other, also very smart. The “hallway” into the cabin was lined floor to ceiling with closet space, shelving, and drawers, all designed with curved edges so that there were no drawer handles to take up even a centimeter of clearance space in the very narrow hall. This was a situation where tidiness was mandatory; any sloppiness in the household would reduce our living conditions to total chaos. My husband was absolutely fucking thrilled. “I want our house to be just like this,” he said happily, over and over again.

Our daughter was initially alarmed by how tight the bed situation seemed to be — the big bed wasn’t the king-size bed she’s accustomed to sharing with us when we travel, but a queen. “Don’t worry,” my husband assured her, “Look!” He defied maritime law by not waiting for housekeeping to open the bunk bed and lowered it himself. Our girl was immediately charmed by her little loft/bunk bed and placed her stuffed animal against the pillows we tossed up to her there. “The two of you are gonna fight over who gets to sleep up there, aren’t you,” I mused as I began to unpack my things. “We can share,” my daughter said.

We unpacked our things, which took about fifteen minutes, and slid our bags under the large bed; having mastered the cabin (and learned that flushing the toilet would create a sound so echoing and booming that we vowed to flush it as infrequently as we could get away with) we decided to go for a walk and see what there was to see.

The ship we were on is not the largest or the fanciest of cruises, but it’s pretty nice. It certainly gets cleaned a lot. Everywhere you looked there were crew members cleaning things, making things just so; there are crew members standing in doorways holding spray bottles of Purell or similar, calling, “Washy-washy!” so that you’ll accept a spritz of hand sanitizer. It is clear that hygiene on the ship is a constant concern; no one wants to have an outbreak of norovirus or God knows what while traveling. All guests are constantly urged to wash their hands in the liberally-scattered-about bathrooms, and submit to Washy-washy, and as far as I can tell the guests pretty much submit.

It was around 2 p.m. when we boarded our ship, and the ship set sail at three. We were all notified that we had to learn what to do in the event of an emergency, and all 2300 of the guests assembled in a very large, grandly decorated dining area to get a lecture and demonstration of life jacket procedure. Then, we were told, we should go relax. “LET’S PARTY!” hollered some bonehead, already sounding drunk. I looked at my husband; he looked at me. “Red Sox fan,” he said. And we were off.

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.

 

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑