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.”


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a vanilla pound cake.

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

Holy shit, that caramel sauce.

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

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

My family will not mind one iota.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we all know what that means.

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.


3. Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: An Examination

This is the title of the third chapter of Home Cooking and it is, for many Colwin fans, a sacred text. There is even a collection of food essays that uses this as its title. I myself, having gone firmly on record as someone who’s not a big fan of cooking with eggplant, always read this essay with pleasure, but not much in the way of, let’s say, personal identification, when it comes to the actual eggplants.

However, the real point of the essay is not eggplant cookery, but rather, cooking for one. Solo cookery. The Food of the Unattached. Single Girl (or Guy, or Gender Fluid Person) Cookery. And this is a subject near and dear to my heart.

Colwin writes a lovely description of the apartment she lived in as a young woman and there’s much discussion of the awkwardness of her kitchen facilities, since there basically weren’t any. She had a hotplate with two burners. From what I can gather, that was pretty much it. As you can imagine, I, the resident of an awkward little apartment myself at the time I first read this book, found this situation very easy to identify with. Colwin wrote with great love and affection for this little apartment and I too often think of my little apartment across the street from Mamoun’s with love and affection. I even remember the cockroach situation as not so bad (though it was pretty fucking bad, I mean, like, cockroaches crawling in your hair while you sleep bad) (ok, that only happened once, so far as I can recall) (thank god).
As far as not having a real oven/stove goes, I was definitely in better shape than Colwin was; I took to my little oven and got pretty good at making basic pizzas, which I liked because one pizza could equal one dinner and two lunches to take to work in the following days. Colwin’s lack of oven meant that she turned to making soup, a form of food I want only very occasionally. The other thing I cooked for myself all the time, as a single girl, was spaghetti, with some vegetable mess mixed in as a sauce. This is something Colwin could theoretically have done, with only two burners, but as she explains, she was limited not only by the stove/oven situation but by the fact that she lacked a kitchen sink, and all water-related enterprises involved her bathtub. “Spaghetti is a snap to cook, but it is a lot snappier if you have a kitchen. I of course did not. It is very simple to drain the spaghetti into a colander in your kitchen sink, dump it into a hot dish and sauce it at once. Since I had no kitchen sink, I had to put the colander in my bathtub; my bathroom sink was too small to accommodate it.”

You kind of hope she scrubbed out the bathtub before she drained the spaghetti — which, in this anecdote, she was about to serve to her boss and his snooty-sounding wife — but let’s let sleeping dogs lie.

Colwin posits that the eggplant is the stovetop cook’s strongest ally — that is a direct quote — and I suppose it might be but I remain unconvinced. To me, there are so many things that can go wrong with eggplant that despite its being inexpensive and nutritious and culinarily flexible and so many good things, I’d rather skip it. But that’s okay! For Colwin, eggplant was her fallback, and she clearly did a good job of it, and writes descriptions of eggplant dishes that make me think, “well, that probably is good, but still….” I think the truth is that everyone develops their own “alone in a kitchen with a ____” repertoire, if they live alone and cook for themselves.

In my own case, I defaulted to onions, garlic, and zucchini. I made a thousand pots of pasta and on this pasta I would dump sautéed onions, garlic, and zucchini, sometimes with red pepper flakes and sometimes not, always served with grated Parmesan on it. I would assemble this using one stock pot, one sauté pan, and then eat it out of one of my mixing bowls. As with pizzas, any leftovers were stowed away to carry to work to eat at lunchtime. On nights when I could not bear to dirty the sauté pan because it would mean there were two pots to wash, I would mix up eggs with a little oil and dump that on cooked pasta; the eggs, once tossed into the pasta, sauced the noodles. This was very comforting food, cost very little, and the cleanup was no problem. Sometimes if I felt I needed to pretend I was eating healthy, I would boil some peas with the pasta. This was always served with lots of grated cheese on top, and it was my real bottom of the barrel meal — the thing I made when I just could not deal.

When I moved in with the person I eventually married, I learned that these sorts of pasta dishes were not really what he felt were proper food. Furthermore we had to come to terms with an even bigger problem for me: he was not someone who would eat pasta every single night (which I definitely was). I had to learn how to cook other things like, say, rice. Potatoes. I had to learn how to make two different dishes at the same time, because otherwise there would be domestic unhappiness (and it sounds like sexist nonsense that I was the one who had to learn to cook this way, but at the time, I worked a lot fewer hours than he did so it only made sense). Sometimes I could serve my pasta things as a side dish — if there was a nice roast chicken, or a meatloaf, also on the table — but the idea of spaghetti as dinner fell away. I relished nights when my other half had plans in the evenings, because it meant I could return to my old habits and have what I called Long Spaghetti Night. On Long Spaghetti Night, I could be as energetic or lazy as I felt like being, and I could make a box of spaghetti and put whatever I damned wanted on it, without anyone furrowing their brows at me.

Years later, my daughter came along. Eventually, when she began to eat real food with a fork, I shared my Long Spaghetti Nights with her. My daughter loved noodles and cheese and eggs and peas, it turned out — she asks for it still. If she does this within earshot of her father, he might attempt to hide his disgusted eye-roll.  Another dish I used to make for myself all the time, which is borne out of a later essay in Home Cooking, is her idea of perfect comfort food. (We’ll talk about it later, ok?) I molded her “alone in the kitchen with an ____” mindset after my own, which may come to bite my on the ass some day, but we’re not there yet. For which I am grateful.

The real point of Colwin’s piece, and, it follows, this that you’re reading now, is: When we cook for ourselves, our true idiosyncrasies float to the surface like algae on a pond.

Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they’re alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, their confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam. 

I’ve long believed, by the way, that Colwin must have been a friend of Mary Rodgers, or at least been a fan of the book Freaky Friday, because in that book, there’s a character named Ape Face who likes putting grape jelly on spaghetti. These are the only two times I’ve ever heard anyone talk about doing such a thing. There must be a connection.

I think Colwin’s right, and that if there are people who dine alone on some virtuous prim little salad, they must be very very sad people indeed. My husband would say, “Who are you to judge if someone wants to eat a salad for dinner?” I’m the Hausfrau, is my response, and I’m here to judge. If someone’s idea of a salad for dinner is a huge Greek salad with a lot of oil and vinegar and feta, I can sort of understand it. Once a year or so, in very hot weather, even I think a massive, soggy Greek salad is an excellent idea. But you know that when someone says, smugly, “A salad,” they mean some spare thing created with health in mind. Or at least that’s what they want you to think. Never mind if they’re actually eating, like, an entire head of iceberg lettuce (world’s most underrated lettuce, by the way) with a bottle of Wishbone Blue Cheese Dressing poured over it. They want you to think they’re being reasonable, responsible people, eating healthy. And if they actually are, well: How is it that even when they’re alone, they cannot bear to actually enjoy what they’re eating? Don’t tell me “But I like salad!” No one likes salad that much — no one I’d want to hang out with anyhow.

I mean, if you can’t revel in what you really like when literally no one else is watching, what hope is there for you to enjoy anything?

It’s just so fucking sad. If what you want is spaghetti with butter and grape jelly, for god’s sake, once in a while, eat the spaghetti with butter and grape jelly. No one is suggesting you live on that. But once in a while, seriously, it won’t kill you.

MFK Fisher and, by now, countless other food writers have extolled the joys and virtues of dining alone. It’s not something to be blue about. (I mean, if you are sad about it because you’re lonely, that’s one thing, and an entirely different topic; I just mean to say, there’s nothing intrinsically awful or shameful about dining alone.) It’s really, if you ask me, quite the opposite. Dining alone means you can pound down, with abandon, the food you really like. It means you can put together the flavors you adore that no one else you know think even remotely palatable. And, if you’re like the Hausfrau before she was the Hausfrau, and  the young Laurie Colwin, you can do it in relative comfort, feeling cozy about it, sitting in your rocking chair in front of the TV with your feet up on the coffee table that’s actually your old camp trunk covered with a blanket, with no one to criticize you, no one to make fun of you, no one to say, “That is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen anyone eat.” It means that you can that that carton of okra from the Indian takeout place, slather it with duck sauce from the Chinese Takeout Packet Drawer, and snarf it down with rice, if that’s what you want. (I’ve never actually done this but on having made it up, it sounds good to me.) Never mind that you’ve never met a living soul in real life who likes okra. If it makes you happy, it makes you happy. Now put up your feet and, if you want, eat your dinner with a goddamned spoon.

1. Cookbooks and Matchmaking

Romantic matchmaking between actual humans is not my forte but when it comes to books and people, I am a pretty good matchmaker; I was, after all, a bookseller for a long time. Pairing up a person with the right book is, broadly speaking, my wheelhouse.

When you’ve found the right book, you just know it: you start reading and you go, “Oh, yeah, this is gonna be good.”

That is how I felt when I started reading Home Cooking for the first time. The introduction seemed to have been written, seriously, for me. I realize this is trite but it is in fact true.

I was someone who went to work and went home and really didn’t go out very much, partly because I couldn’t afford it and partly out of exhaustion, and partly, I suppose, out of pure apathy. As for exciting world travel — something most of my friends loved, and talked about constantly: No. (This is still the case, and I still feel the same about travel.)
So you can imagine how I felt when I opened this book and read:

Unlike some people, who love to go out, I love to stay home. This may be caused by laziness, anxiety, or xenophobia, and in the days when my friends were happily traveling to Bolivia and Nepal, I was ashamed to admit that what I liked best was hanging around the house.

At the time I was first cracking  this book, I was working at a job that paid me, well, not very well, but it did leave me with a certain amount of time. I had two days off every week (one of them a weekday) and this meant I could spend a day prowling grocery stores in different parts of town. I could hunt down good deals on things, if I were so moved, and I was so moved. I remember one such day when — this seems very unlikely now but it did happen — my mother and I were in the local hippie grocery store together and at the checkout counter there was a magazine for sale with a recipe for what they said was the Best Macaroni and Cheese. She bought it for me as a kind of treat (it was an expensive magazine, I think it cost $4 or $5), and I took it home and kept it next to Home Cooking. I was, slowly, starting to figure out how to cook for myself, with these primary texts — the works of Saint Colwin and Cook’s Illustrated. They were very different sources of cooking information, but complemented each other well, I now realize. Where CI was full of itself and very demanding, Colwin was humble, laid back, and reassuring. Very importantly, she never ever presumed you were willing or able to spend serious money on your food and she never assumed that you were going to spend a long time in the kitchen. Of course, CI always assumed that money was basically no object and that you had all the time in the world. But as obnoxious as CI could be about this stuff, they were very, very good at laying out technique — Colwin is not very precise in her descriptions of how to do things. So between these two sources, I wasn’t in bad shape.

Starting Out in the Kitchen

The first proper chapter of Home Cooking, “Starting Out in the Kitchen,” admits that the best way to learn how to cook is to grow up in a household where someone’s cooking a lot.

I did not have this experience. I had a childhood in which someone did prepare food, but not with a lot of interest in doing so, and though I do have memories of things like chicken baked with a bottle of Italian dressing poured over it, I really don’t have any cooking skills acquired from either of my parents. I have lots of cooking equipment that I filched from their kitchen over the years, but lots of it they had never used, to the best of my knowledge (see: Juice-o-Matic). I had to figure out on my own what to do with these things. Fortunately, in most cases, it’s pretty self-explanatory (I mean, a mixing bowl is a mixing bowl). And the Juice-O-Matic is very easy and satisfying to use.

Making up for not learning to cook at my mother’s knee, I have many fond memories of the grand and crappy processed food items that were so abundantly available to we children of the 1970s. Snack Packs, Archway Cookies, Entenmann’s and Freihofer’s baked goods, Stouffer’s amazing French bread pizza and spinach soufflé and vegetable lasagna: these I remember as fondly as some people remember whatever it is they remember their mothers and grandmothers making. More power to them. The fact is, I would eat Stouffer’s vegetable lasagna twice a week, if I could. That shit is delicious.

My experience with cooking and watching other people cook, through my teen years and into my twenties had been led me to believe that as someone who grew up in a basically non-cooking household, I was doomed. One beau in particular, on watching me try to help him out by mincing garlic, told me that I would obviously never be able to put together a decent meal. My feeling at the time was, “I only offered to help you to be nice; you’re the cook in this scenario, if you don’t like how I’m mincing the garlic, fuck off and do it yourself.” St. Colwin’s position on this is clear: “For those who come to cooking late in life — by this I mean after the age of eighteen — many are the pitfalls in store.”

So that would be me: the person awaiting pitfalls. I was 23 when I first read this book, and I knew how to do almost nothing useful in the kitchen. I was a walking, talking pitfall. Word on the street was, I was not fit to mince garlic. But the fact that St. Colwin had written this book meant that there was hope for me, no matter what my schmuck of an ex-boyfriend thought. (In this regard, as with my life as a cook, there’s a happy ending: As St. Colwin writes in Happy All the Time, when it comes to matters of the heart, “one is always foolish until one is correct.” I dumped that guy who didn’t like my knife work and eventually found someone better to spend time with, someone who didn’t insult my garlic-mincing technique.)

Toward the end of the first chapter in Home Cooking, Colwin advises people to take it easy, not get too ambitious, and — seriously — calm the fuck down. Colwin offers us a very simple recipe for beef stew, and I can’t prove it but I think this might have been the first thing involving red meat that I ever cooked. (Surely there are letters I’ve written to someone talking about this; in this phase of my life I was a big letter-writer, and I wrote endlessly about my attempts at cooking.) The recipe is very clear, very easy, and very adaptable. It taught me something important that I’ve used as a mantra ever since, which is, If you make something that requires long and slow cooking, the odds are very good you won’t fuck it up, because you will have time on your side. It’s the stuff that has to be done quickly and precisely that you fuck up. Things that take a long time to cook — like braises — are flexible. What’s more, beef stew is the kind of thing you can add to as you personally see fit. I know for a fact that when I made this beef stew I added way more carrot than the recipe called for and didn’t worry so much about the potato, because I didn’t mind peeling carrots but I very much mind peeling potatoes (my peeler sucked, and it’s just easier to peel a carrot than to peel a potato).

The chapter ends with a description of an evening when Colwin decided to serve tortellini to some friends of her husband’s, people she’d never before met. She wanted to make a favorable impression, and bought a bag of dried tortellini, which would have been a fairly exotic thing to serve back in the day. She had also never prepared them before, and on serving the tortellini — which were the dry kind, she writes, that are meant for soup, “or ought to be” — discovered that the pasta first went “crunch” and then stuck to everyones’ teeth. Not good. “His friends, it was clear, had smoked a considerable amount of marijuana before coming to us, but even they noticed something was funny.” Indeed. The friends suggested they put the food in the trash and then all go out to dinner. The chapter ends:

So that is what we did. If all else fails, eat out, and while you are smiling through your tears, remember that novices usually make the same terrible mistake only once.

Which is true. (Except for the fact that I seem to have a tendency to forget to add the eggs to cake batters, because I carefully set the eggs out in a little bowl to come to room temperature and in the process of assembling the batter neglect to notice the little dish of eggs waiting patiently on the back edge of the counter, possibly hidden behind the bag of brown sugar or the big bin of flour.) In essence, she’s right: we’re not likely to make the same really big, really stupid mistake twice in the kitchen, because we’ll be paranoid as hell the next time around.

Reading this introduction, I knew I’d landed on just the right book. And so it was in the fall of 1993 I began to think that I might be able to learn how to cook some day, but even if I didn’t, I’d still really love reading about it. When the day came, in 1995, that I really faced the fact that I had to learn how to cook, with this book, I was (more or less, kinda, sorta) equipped and ready.


99 Bottles of Salad Dressing in the Door of the Fridge…

Ok, I have nowhere near that many bottles of salad dressing in the door, but you all know exactly what I mean. Salad dressing is the kind of thing that seems to engage in spontaneous generation while the fridge is closed and the interior is dark and no one can see what’s going on.

We haven’t bought salad dressing in I-don’t-know-how-long, because having bottled salad dressing in the fridge drives me insane. The bottles take up so much room. And what happens is, you start to run low on something, and then you stop using it, because you’re all like, “Well, I’m about to run out of that one, I better save it for the right salad!” and then what you have is a bottle of dressing with, like, an ounce of dressing in it that takes up room in the fridge for two years, because no one is willing to just use the shit up. What began as a humble range of options — say, a vinaigrette, a creamy Caesar, and a balsamic-onion dressing — suddenly becomes 99 bottles of salad dressing in the door of the fridge, and you don’t have room for the things you actually want to have in the fridge, like the jar of capers, the bottle of Sriracha, and the pickled okra. All of which, by the way, are things you can use to make awesome salad dressings.

I am personally acquainted with a refrigerator where there are no bottles of salad dressing in the door, specifically, but the number of bottles is so vast that an entire shelf of the fridge is taken up with bottles of salad dressing. It amazes me because I frankly can’t imagine consuming salad enough to warrant owning that much salad dressing; it would make me ill to eat that much salad in an entire calendar year. I would be sent to a doctor, who would say, “Cut it out with the salad, okay?”

What’s more, that shelf in the fridge, that is prime refrigerator real estate, and it’s being wasted on salad dressing. It could be holding things that are important, like milk, or the leftover roast chicken, but no: the milk lives in the door of the fridge, where it’s bound to go bad faster, and the chicken carcass sits on the bottom shelf, where it gets forgotten until it begins to stink and then… into the trash. Some day, we will talk about The Refrigerator as Real Estate, and whip some sense into all of you.

To my original point: By and large, no one needs bottled salad dressing. Here’s what you need: oil and vinegar and salt and pepper. And condiments. Which are multi-purpose. If you want something a little jazzier on your salad, you add some horseradish or some mustard and whisk it in with your oil and vinegar and salt and pepper. Or add some mayonnaise. I’m all for having a jar of mayonnaise in the fridge! I’m all for condiments!

I know someone will read this and go, “jeez, what’s YOUR problem? Live and let live.” But I can’t do that. I have to be bitchy about this. Because at some level, the person who has 99 bottles of salad dressing is the person who’s thinking that they’re being all virtuous and healthy by eating salad but who in fact is just kidding themselves. Salad dressings are a frill, and an expensive-as-all-get-out frill at that. And bottled salad dressings have so many weird things added to them that God did not intend for you to have in your salad dressings; I just cannot accept the idea that Wish-Bone Creamy Caesar Salad Dressing is a healthful food item. I can accept the idea than an actual, honest-to-God, Caesar dressing is nutritious, but that bottled junk, no way*. I cannot accept that anything with that list of ingredients is, like, healthful.

I say this as someone who recently helped to organize a feeding frenzy for about 125 people. The event was a pig roast, and the sauces to be served with the pig were all to be homemade according to the very specific recipes supplied by the man roasting the pig. Bottled sauces from the store would not do. One of the other items on the menu was salad. The organizing committee spent some time discussing salad dressings. “I can pick up bottles of salad dressing,” someone offered helpfully. I said, “Nuh-uh: this is a meal where we can’t have bottled barbecue sauces, and I know the man roasting the pig and I am positive that showing up with bottled salad dressings would be a bad idea.” Everyone looked at me blankly. I took a deep breath and said, “I’ll make salad dressing.” Thinking, “Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, salad dressing for 125 people, am I out of my mind?”

But I went home and thought about it for about 36 hours, during which I read a lot of Southern cookbooks and websites about Southern cooking, and I thought about novelty food items and things that were once standard on American tables but have fallen out of fashion even though they maybe shouldn’t have, and it dawned on me that what we needed to have at the pig roast, to serve with the salad, was one basic vinaigrette, for the nervous-eater types, and then one humdinger of a dressing to really knock people on their asses. Something rich. Something a little bit trashy and a little bit elegant at the same time. Something  that no one would be expecting but that people would fall on with excitement. Preferably something with buttermilk. Maybe a Ranch dressing.

I pondered it for a while, stewing, thinking, “buttermilk dressing, buttermilk dressing.”

And I talked it over with a friend for about ten seconds and we realized the answer was Green Goddess salad dressing. Which I promptly mixed up in the food processor in batches. Two versions: one vegetarian and one not-vegetarian (it had anchovy in it, as God intended). I poured them into the biggest clamp-lid jars I own, labeled them, and packed them up with long-handled spoons to for serving. I set them out at the table near the salad bowls, and thought, “Well, here goes nothing.”
Three hours later, we were cleaning up. I noticed that there wasn’t much dressing leftover at all — most of the vinaigrette was gone, and almost all of the anchovied–Green Goddess. There were only about three cups of the vegetarian Green Goddess left. One of the women helping with clean-up asked me rather timidly, “Would it be ok with you if I poured some of that salad dressing into a bottle to take home?” I said, “Of course it’s ok! Take as much as you want!” In the end, I took home only about two cups of the vegetarian Green Goddess, which, considering how many quarts of dressing I’d made, really wasn’t much. (Under normal circumstances, I’d view two cups of salad dressing as an immense quantity, but when you’ve started out with dressing for 125, the scale of operations changes.)

Now I need to restock my mayonnaise supply, and also my olive oil supply, and we need more red wine vinegar. But, by my calculations, for about $20 worth of ingredients and in the space of maybe 30 minutes, I made all that salad dressing, and it would have cost more like…. I don’t even know how much, but for sure more than $20 to buy that much bottled salad dressing. Assuming I could even find bottled Green Goddess dressing anywhere.

Tonight we’ll be having macaroni and cheese for dinner, with salad on the side. Green Goddess dressing. I’m thinking I might whizz some anchovies in, because while it was very good without the anchovies, anyone with sense knows it’d be even better with the anchovies. I predict someone will wind up drinking it from a shot glass.

P.S.: Here’s how you make Green Goddess dressing, The Sloppy Hausfrau Way:

Get out your food processor. Wash an entire bunch of parsley (flat or curly-leaf, it does not matter one iota). Wash a bunch of scallions. Trim the ends off the parsley stems; trim the roots and any scungy bits off the scallions. Throw them in the food processor with a fat clove of garlic and maybe a tablespoon of dried tarragon and a tablespoon of salt. Whizz together, adding probably one and a half cups of mayonnaise and buttermilk until you have achieved desired consistency — some people want this very, very thick, some people want a pourable dressing. Taste as you go along.  Throw in some capers if you like capers, some anchovies if you like anchovies. Maybe you’ll want more salt, especially if you didn’t use anchovies. Whizz and whizz and whizz until you have a pale green flecked thick liquid/sauce. This is your salad dressing. Enjoy.


Yay, corn syrup. Just what I want in my Caesar salad. FFS.

One Picnic: An Example

Because it is summer and because my life involves a lot of summertime picnics, and because I recently wrote a long piece about how to assemble a decent picnic without becoming suicidal, I wanted to share with my readers how I pulled off an excellent picnic yesterday. It was going to be a hot day and my daughter and I had decided that the agenda for the day would revolve around going swimming. We packed up our swim stuff into one tote bag, and into a smaller insulated bag, I told her, we would put our picnic lunch.

I opened the fridge. From the fridge, I pulled:

One tub of leftover spaghetti sauced with tuna, white beans, parsley, and garlic; one tinfoiled package with three leftover stuffed clams in it; one plastic tub of sliced pineapple.

I cut the pineapple into smaller chunks, transferred them into an insulated travel mug, put ice cubes on top of the pineapple, and closed the mug.

Into a Ziploc bag I put two forks, two napkins, and a little package of toothpicks.

I put an ice pack into the insulated bag, the pasta and the clams on top of the ice pak, the ziplock bag with the forks and napkins and toothpicks on top of that. Closed the insulated bag. The coffee cup of pineapple I just slid into the tote bag.

I grabbed our books, my phone, and my keys, and off we went. We got to the pool and headed first to the picnic area, where my daughter immediately spread out the tablecloth. Within three minutes we were sitting there eating and chatting happily. When we were thirsty, we drank from the cup of pineapple chunks. The ice lasted until long after we got home — we ate the pineapple, drank the juice, and refilled the cup with water several times over the course of the afternoon. Always had something cold to drink. Packing up took us about ninety seconds.

We got home and unpacking took about 90 seconds.

And then it was time to start making dinner.

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