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.

1. Hausfrau, Ahoy! Or, The Hausfrau Takes a Vacation.

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned the fact that my husband is building a boat in our apartment. Given the layout of our living quarters, this is less totally fucked up than it sounds, but it’s still pretty damned bonkers.

My husband has a long-standing thing for boats without actually being a sailor or even particularly knowledgable about boats in a meaningful way. He is naturally a fan of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, and reads books about life on the sea, but his own primary experiences on the ocean is limited to, say, a whale watch off the Massachusetts shore once a decade; maybe going out on a high school pal’s dad’s lobster boat (my husband grew up on Cape Cod). There was a time, around fifteen years ago, when he tried to convince me that we should sail to Europe, wicked cheap, by going on one of those miserable-looking cargo ships. Sure we wouldn’t have nice food or air or anything, but we’d be sailing to Europe.

Needless to say, I said something along the lines of “No fucking way,” and that was that.

When our daughter began to express interest in boats my husband encouraged this interest whole-heartedly. Last summer, at camp, she built a small wooden sailboat which we carried over to the river near our apartment building and sailed a bit; it’s a small boat but sturdy and well-designed. “We could build a real boat,” my husband said excitedly. Before I knew it I was getting emails from him alerting me that I should be ready to receive a package from this company or that company: these were plans and pieces of wood and large heavy bottles of God-knows-what which he would use to build his own dinghy. I was told our daughter would help, and she confirmed this. I asked dubiously if they’d be able to get said built sea-faring device out of our apartment, and was told, “It’s only going to be nine feet long, jeez.”

This is longer than our piano, which was a bear to get into the apartment, but okay. I have not put up any kind of stink about this boat-thing, at all. I’ve not been silent about it, mind you — I make fun of my husband as often as I can on the subject — but I’ve not complained.

However, one side-effect of all this boat stuff is that my husband and child began to talk more about big boats, e.g. cruise ships, and a long-standing hypothetical idea we’d had — to go on a cruise at Christmastime so as to have Christmas with the family without the strain of having to stage Christmas, per se — evolved very abruptly this past February into a plan wherein we would go on a cruise over our daughter’s spring break from school.

“Are you serious?” I asked. I wasn’t being flip; I genuinely couldn’t tell if this was something I was supposed to spring into action about — should I start researching cruise lines and travel dates and costs and things like that? Or was this just another topic of conversation that would get batted about every six months, playfully, the way it is when one of our cats notices a cat toy that he’s just noticed under the dining room breakfront. Sure, the toy’s been there for months just waiting to be played with, but only now, suddenly, is the toy of interest. It will be intensely interesting and the object of rage and the cause of much yowling for about twenty-four hours, and then the cat will lose it again under something and forget about it and I will carefully not vacuum it up for several months until the cat notices it again. So, cruise-chat now, but, ha ha ha, not really, don’t worry about it. We’re just kidding.

“Look into it,” my husband said. “I’ll figure out a budget,” he said.

Once the word “budget” is spoken then you know this shit is on, and it’s time for me to get to work.
I spent a morning poking around online and discerned that there were spring cruises that would sail out of New York the day after our daughter’s spring break started. “We could leave April 14 and come back the 21st; school starts again the 23rd,” I told my husband. “Find out precise costs for different rooms and options,” he said.

I quickly realized I had no fucking idea how to interpret the ship’s elaborate and yet utterly uninformative website. I could glean what explosive or sharp objects we could not bring on the hypothetical cruise but couldn’t for the life of me figure out what anything actually cost. My dear friend S., who used to work on cruise ships, recommended that I go to a particular website to book our trip at a tremendous discount. I went to the website dutifully, but still couldn’t make head or tail of anything.

I began to cavil, worrying about the possibility that the three of us would show up at the boat and they would say, “um, no, you only booked for two people. Sorry, kid!” and the opposite of hilarity would ensue.

“Call a travel agent,” advised my husband. Because there is a travel agent next door to the video store we still go to (we are loyalists, what can I say), I phoned them up. “Talk to me like I’m an idiot and explain to me how I can get us onto this cruise for a less than completely-horrific amount of money,” I said to the nice man on the phone, naming a dollar amount that made me feel seasick.

“We can do this,” I was assured by Dan the travel agent, and within half an hour I had an email from him with a list of various options and packages, all of which would get us onto the cruise to a warm island, leaving New York on the 14th and returning to New York on the 21st, all of which cost right around our budget cap (some a tiny bit less, some a tiny bit more). I forwarded the email to my husband and said, “Pick a plan and I’ll book it.”

I also consulted with our old pal S., who, as I’ve mentioned, worked on cruises for several years as a pastry chef, and who’s been urging us to go cruising for ages on the grounds that my husband would love the boatiness of the experience and that I’d love the food and ability to lie around doing nothing for a week. She gave her valued opinion, which I then emailed to my husband. Since S. and my husband turned out to be in agreement on the matter, the matter was settled; I wrote back to Dan the Travel Agent and said, “I guess we’re gonna do this.”

The next couple of months were spent fretting about how to pack for this trip and over who would take care of our two shithead cats and how we’d schlep all our stuff to the Manhattan Cruise Terminal. You know, the logistics of the thing. I had total faith that once we were on the boat, everything would be fine. (Oddly, I was not worried about us all drowning, or the ship going down in flames, or bedbugs, or even seasickness: this makes no sense at all, but really, it’s true.  I wasn’t at all worried about all the things that could go disastrously wrong. But I was worried to the point of nausea thinking about all the details of home, and the logistics of getting to the ship, that could go wrong.) I lined up a cat sitter. I realized that the Manhattan Cruise Terminal was ridiculously close to Grand Central Station, and determined that if we packed cautiously we could easily take the train to New York and walk or cab it over to W. 44th Street (cab would be more expensive but probably easier, what with our carrying heavy bags, I thought to myself). My husband spent time watching YouTube videos about cruising, our daughter curled up on the couch next to him. “That’s what our boat will look like,” he told her. There were clips of people lounging by pools, eating yummy food, eating ice cream. There were shots of cabins with balconies and remarkable views off those balconies. “We’re not getting a balcony,” I reminded my family.

“Aw,” said my daughter. I shot her a look. “We’re not paying for a balcony,” I said grimly. “We’re not even going to have a window,” my husband said, “but it really won’t matter since we’ll hardly ever be in our cabin. We’re gonna be out and about on this massive ship having a great time.”

“I won’t have to cook anything for a week,” I said dreamily, imagining a week of eating food that wasn’t great or interesting but which would have the primary virtue of not having been thought up or worked on by me, at all. “And I won’t have to do laundry, either.” “Nope! No cooking, no laundry,” my husband said. “You’ll do the laundry when we get home,” my daughter reminded me, ever the buzzkill. “That’s okay,” I told her. “It really won’t be so bad because we’re gonna pack really smart and it’ll be a piece of cake.”

“This is gonna be great,” my husband said happily, over and over again.


One thing nagged at my husband, which was the question of getting to the Manhattan Cruise Terminal. We had figured out that walking from Grand Central with our (not-yet-packed, but mentally in our hands) bags would be a pain in the ass. “With train fares and cab fares,” my Excel-spreadsheet-minded husband mused, “it might be worth it to hire a driver to take us right to the terminal.” I explored hiring a limo services; it was insanely expensive. I looked into having someone drive us in our own car to the terminal and then drive our car back to our apartment; it was do-able, but also not cheap and possibly more trouble than it was worth. “Maybe we should take an Uber,” my husband said thoughtfully. Now, I always thought he’d hated Uber, but apparently this was a situation so out of our normal range that anything was possible. At that moment I remembered a particular Uber car we’d seen around our neighborhood for the last couple years. This car was occasionally parked in our neighborhood and it was noteworthy because the car’s owner has been decking it out, slowly and painstakingly, with red, black, and white duct tape: it is a kind of hyper-elaborate Mondrian painting, done in duct tape, inside the car and outside the car. It’s a mobile work of art.

It was only last fall that we discovered that this car was actually an Uber-driver’s car; we learned this because there was an article about him in the local paper. My daughter and I had mentioned the article to my husband. “Remember we told you about that crazy car with the duct tape all over it?” we had told him. “Turns out the guy who owns it is an Uber driver!” “That’s really funny,” my husband had said. We all enjoyed thinking about the funny red, black, and white duct-taped car.

My husband turned to my daughter, then, one Saturday morning in late March, and said, “What if we got this guy with the duct tape car to drive us to the Terminal? Would you like that?” Our girl’s eyes got very round and she gasped: the answer was, basically, “I would totally fucking LOVE that.”

I said, “I’ll see if I can get in touch with him to see if he’d be available to do this.” Ten seconds of Facebooking later, I had established that the driver was friends with some 45 or so of my local pals, and I messaged one of them to ask, “You know this guy who drives the Uber? How would I get in touch with him? You think he’d want to drive us to New York?”

Two hours later I was texting with the Duct Tape Driver, a very sweet Polish guy named Adam who’s lived in our little city for about twenty years. I explained that I was friends with tons of his friends — no, I’m not a local musician but I run in those circles — and that I was trying to find an efficient way for me and my family to arrive at the Manhattan Cruise Terminal on April 14th to board a ship. It turned out that Adam used to drive for the limousine service that goes from Connecticut to the Manhattan Cruise Terminal, he knew the route well, and he was available and tickled by the request.

The cat sitter was lined up. I knew when I’d deliver the keys to her. The trip to Manhattan was settled. All I had to do was pack and get us out the door. This would involve a lot of freaking out, but it wasn’t more than I could handle.

I sent a message to two of my mama friends. “I can’t believe we’re going to do this,” I wrote, “but we’re going to do this.” “I can’t wait to read what the Hausfrau has to say about the experience,” one of them wrote back immediately.

“You know,” I said, “I hadn’t even stopped to think about writing about this. Isn’t that funny?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turns out, I’m out of ginger juice.

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

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

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

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

The Day is Fucked but the Bread is Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that I have personal experience with this or anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




4 and 5. Two American Classics: Fried Chicken and Potato Salad

The next chapter in Home Cooking is about fried chicken, a subject in which I have only a theoretical or academic interest, as I do not like to eat fried chicken.

Call me un-American; I don’t care.

This chapter is, to me, one of the best in the book not because it’s so useful but because it’s actually completely un-useful to me (as someone who has no interest in fried chicken) yet it is a complete pleasure to read. I think I might be able to recite this chapter from memory (though please don’t test me on this.) Definitely the first paragraph anyhow:

As everyone knows, there is only one way to fry chicken correctly. Unfortunately, most people think their method is best, but most people are wrong. Mine is the only right way, and on this subject I feel almost evangelical. 

If you are actually interested in making fried chicken at home, by all means, give this chapter more serious attention; the Colwin system may really be the best. I don’t know. (A reader has asked me, after reading this essay, What is so special about Colwin’s fried chicken? My answer is, I don’t really know. She believes that there is only one process that can result in superlative fried chicken, and spells it out in considerable detail. It is a time-consuming, messy process that I would never allow to happen in my kitchen, because the process and the clean-up would cause me to have a nervous breakdown. But it does not involve short-cuts like cutesy fried chicken machines, it does not involve egg, and it does not require deep-frying. According to her. Anyone who has issues with her technique should take it up with the estate of Laurie Colwin, not with me.)

By contrast, I have made potato salad, the subject of the chapter that follows Fried Chicken, about, you know, a million times, what with one thing and another. I never thought much about potato salad, despite liking it very much when served it, until my other half moved in with me, because he is someone who views potatoes more or less as a food group unto themselves. While I resent almost every moment spent cooking potatoes, once in a while it is worthwhile — even to me — to make a huge bowl of potato salad. When I embarked on my potato salad days, the book I turned to was Home Cooking.

Colwin advocates for dill in basic potato salads; I will never prepare anything that involves dill, which I view as hateful stuff.

However, I basically feel she’s got the right attitude, and that her take on potatoes is correct. (Basically, you could use almost any kind of potato you wanted to, except “salad potatoes,” but you need to account for the undeniable fact that waxy potatoes don’t absorb dressing the way mealy ones do. I like a mealy potato potato salad and think waxy potato potato salads tend to be potato salads that veer toward the silly and pretentious and ongepotchket.)

Over the course of a summer, circa 2001, we fell into the habit of making a potato salad that called for relatively few ingredients but was always snarfed down in large quantity. We served it at picnics and dinner parties and we served it to ourselves on hot summer nights. It went like this:

Boil whatever number of Russet potatoes you feel is called for under the circumstances; cool slightly and peel. Chop roughly and return to original cooking pot.

Add dressing mixture, which will include the following: Hellman’s mayonnaise; a slosh of vinegar; minced scallion; one or two roasted red peppers, minced; one or two hard-boiled eggs, chopped finely; salt; pepper; paprika. Optional but occasionally a nice change of pace: throw in a tablespoon or two or three of pickle relish. You mix this up in a small mixing bowl and then dump it all into the pot with the potatoes — which are ideally still warm — and mix mix mix.  Once the dish is mixed, it can be served or put in the fridge to chill until it’s time to eat.

Basically this gives you a kind of deviled egg/potato salad combo, which is very filling and very good. It’s not an adventurous potato salad but it’s got enough tricks up its sleeve to keep it from being just mushy and dull.

Colwin’s chapter on potato salad contains two recipes I’ve never made and have no plans to make — one calling for string beans, the other calling for cucumbers and creme fraiche — but I make no apologies. She concludes by telling us how to make her potato salad, and it’s easy and about as simple as potato salads get (potatoes, Hellman’s mayo thinned with lemon juice, black pepper, scallion, dill). Her point is valid. With potato salads, as with so many things, it doesn’t have to be ongepotchket to be good. When in doubt about that potato salad that you’re throwing together, higgledy-piggledy, think of Givenchy and the Little Black Dress and go for the simple, elegant, pared down look.

Maybe it’s ok if you add capers though. If I’m coming to dinner, for sure ditch the dill.




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.

2. The Low-Tech Person’s Batterie de Cuisine: possibly the single most important food-related text I ever read

At the time I was learning how to feed myself in respectable manner, I was living in a four hundred square foot — cozy — apartment that had a very, very tiny kitchen. The kitchen, which had no counters and one semi-functional, hinged at the left “drawer” suspended from underneath one of its three cabinets, was smaller than my parents’ dining table. Ok: maybe this is not true in a literal sense but it certainly felt true. The  three enamel-coated steel cabinets, hanging on the wall above the sink and small-scale gas stove were, very handsome. The kitchen was so small that the refrigerator did not really fit in the kitchen though I pretended it did. The kitchen was minuscule but between the enameled cabinets and the black and white linoleum floor I was content with it.

When I moved into this apartment the lack of storage space was not cause for alarm to me because, frankly, I wasn’t savvy enough to be alarmed. Also, I had very little kitchen equipment, but I did have a tall metal cabinet that could serve as kitchen storage (in the living room). I was young and I could Make Do. Shortly after moving into the apartment, I bought from the window display of a local florist’s shop a child-size Hoosier cabinet, which the shopkeeper had been using to display vases she had for sale. In this mini-Hoosier, and on it, I stashed the more attractive elements of the batterie de cuisine I did own. I remember that I bought a number of cloth napkins from the sale basket at a fancy kitchenwares shop, and folded them and stacked them nicely on the little Hoosier and felt very smart. These napkins — maybe a dozen of them — would serve as my napkins and dishtowels for the next several years. The Hoosier, which I painted a pale butter yellow color, was very cheery and made up for a lot of the kitchen’s storage issues.

Here is a description of what I had, in those days:
I had flatware (set of four settings; cheap crap purchased in 1987, navy blue plastic handles) and dishes (four settings; cheap crap made of sturdy stoneware, also purchased in 1987, beige with some vaguely tasteful flowers on them). I had one stockpot (very poor quality, Teflon-coated) and one sauté pan (a college graduation gift from my brother) and one small Revereware teakettle (also a gift, from my parents).

My mother gave me a small coffeemaker, which made it possible for me to make coffee for myself, something I had literally never done before. I thought coffee was something grownups made, and that for me, going to a cafe was quite sufficient. Making one’s own coffee, I quickly realized, was a far more economical move. I took to spending Sunday mornings drinking my own coffee with my newspaper spread out on the living room floor, instead of spending $6 on sitting at tiny cafe tables that never had enough room for the Sunday paper anyhow.

I did have two battered plastic cutting boards (second-hand, both of which still see daily use in my kitchen). I had a plastic measuring cup that was a total piece of crap, which I now use to put rock salt out on the sidewalk in wintertime. I did, thanks to my father and brother, have two excellent sets of mixing bowls, both of which are still complete and still in use. One set was cobalt blue glass — absolutely beautiful — and one set was clear glass, from a French glass company called Duralex. If my daughter ever breaks any of these bowls, she knows, I’m going to have to kill her.

Things I did not have: most things that food magazines and cookbooks assume you have. I did not have a blender. a food processor, a good set of colanders (I had one kind of wobbly blue plastic colander), any good knives, wineglasses, Microplane graters, frying pans, Dutch ovens, decent potholders, a truly functional vegetable peeler. I did not have any serving dishes.

I did not have a rolling pin.

Instead of a rolling pin, I had a wine bottle I had saved after some social occasion, because I thought it had a pretty label. On the very rare occasions when I needed a rolling pin, I used that wine bottle. I had a rusty-ish box grater that I hated, and avoided all recipes that called for shredding anything because I was so reluctant to use this awful device. I certainly did not have a microwave; I did not live with a microwave oven until the spring of 2008, when I had a baby and we bought one because all our friends told us we’d want a microwave to heat up milk and food for the baby. (They were wrong, and we could live perfectly well without a microwave, but whatever.)

I’m writing all this down so readers will understand: I had some stuff to put a in a kitchen, when I started out, but I didn’t have a lot, and what I had was to a large degree junk. If I’d bought it myself, it was crap. If my brother or parents had bought it for me, it was pretty good or very good. (Those Duralex bowls should, by all rights, by shattered into dust by now, but they really are strong as Pyrex.)

And while I had, at this stage, read many, many cookbooks, just for fun, and I had a kind of academic sense of how to cook, I was so depressed by the way cookbooks assumed you had so much stuff on hand, all the time, that I had little faith in my own ability to do anything in the kitchen.  I mean, not only did I not have a pantry, or a spice rack full of little jars of weird things, but almost every cake or cooky recipe I read advised, as step one, “Cream butter and sugar in mixer.” Leaving me going, “well, fuck it, guess I’m not making that.” That sentiment, “Fuck it: guess I’m not making that” followed me to the grocery store, and into the kitchen. I was supremely cowed by the whole enterprise.

When I saw the title of this chapter in Home Cooking, my kitchen-naive heart sang:

The Low-Tech Person’s Batterie de Cuisine

Colwin was talking about me.

“How depressing it is to open a cookbook whose first chapter is devoted to equipment. You look around your kitchen. No chinoise! No flan ring! No salamander! How are you ever going to get anything cooked? What sort of person is it who doesn’t own a food mill?”

St. Colwin then goes on to say, basically, “I am one of you.” And the Ramones fan-reader — that would be me, if not you — cries, “Gabba gabba hey! One of us! One of us!”

That opening gambit proved it: I knew that this was a book where, even if I didn’t want to cook anything she talked about, specifically, I would find guidance and inspiration and funny stuff. That last is hugely important, by the way. Laurie Colwin is funny. So I read eagerly.

Colwin explained in this essay that she owned neither a toaster or a juicer. She had a crappy grater, which she cut herself on all the time, and clearly resented (she would have loved a Microplane, though). She had a lot of mixing bowls, a lot of mixing spoons and spatulas, and a whisk. Colwin was, of course, a New York City apartment dweller, and in many cases that means hello, I have a tiny kitchen, so even if I invite you over for dinner it means we’ll probably be eating takeout because who are we kidding. I knew someone who lived in Manhattan whose kitchen was literally in what used to be the coat closet; another person I knew, who lived in lower Manhattan, had a kitchen that was this little wedge of wall kind of near the front door and the only reason there was a counter was that his father had hung a shallow slab of remnant formica, on a hinge, from the wall under a window. New York kitchens bring idiosyncratic to new heights — and my tiny kitchen in my new apartment was cut from that same cloth. The equipment was there, in a technical sense, but nothing about the kitchen was gonna make things easy on me. Well, except this: the rent included heat, hot water, and — excellent news for me — cooking gas. There were certain expenses I didn’t have to worry about, which meant I could try to direct my monies toward making the best of my sucky skills and gear in the kitchen.

In The Low-Tech Person’s Batterie de Cuisine, Colwin encouragingly breaks down a very clear list of the basic shit everyone should have in their kitchen. She admits that there are occasionally specific interests that require special equipment; people who bake, she acknowledges, will probably want particular baking pans. She claims that owning a chicken fryer is necessary if you want to fry chicken in a serious way — I wouldn’t know, since I have never fried chicken, but I’ll take her word for it. “I use it twice a year to fry chicken, and while it takes up space, it is the right tool for the job.” She also grants that there are a lot of specific-task kitchen items that one person will say is stupid and another person will view as essential, and that these things are basically a matter of taste. This is true: Most serious cooks pooh-pooh the garlic press, for example, but I love mine and use it all the time.

So at some level, outfitting your starter kitchen — which can remain “starter” long after you’ve gotten pretty competent at the stove — is a personal issue. But: there are no matter what some basics that everyone’s going to need, and I think Colwin gets this right. I found this list reassuring in 1993, and as I read it now, it still makes me nod in approval.

St. Colwin’s Low-Tech Batterie de Cuisine
You need: Two knives — one big, one small. St. Colwin claims they should be carbon steel, not stainless, but I take no strong stand on the matter*.
You need: Two wooden spoons, a long-handled one and a short-handled one. I would say three spoons might be a good idea — long, medium, short.
You need: Two rubber spatulas, one with a wide head, one with a narrow head. “These last only a couple of years and then the heads come off.” I like the silicone spatulas you can get these days; I don’t think they were so common in the 1980s. The heads should be removed from the wooden handles before washing, because mold and crud will grow on the end of the wood otherwise. Let the wooden dowel dry completely, and let the water drain out of the head, before you reassemble. Just take my word on this one, ok?

You need a “decent” pair of kitchen shears. This is important. A decent pair of kitchen shears is a pair of scissors that works well and that can be taken apart for washing. I have a nifty pair that has rubber over the handles and it is designed so that the two pieces, where they cross, also form a bottle opener. My father bought these scissors somewhere probably in 1978 and they are still in heavy use.

You need two frying pans, St. Colwin tells us: one large, one small. “The small is for cooking two eggs, a child’s lunch, a toasted cheese sandwich.” The big one is for bigger projects, like a pancake breakfast or chicken breasts for dinner. Now: I take Colwin’s point but the reality is I think most of us could get by with one 10″ pan.

That said, I do now own several frying pans, some bigger, some smaller, and I use them for pretty specific purposes. I have a very small shallow one, a Le Creuset pan I found in my grandmother’s apartment after she died, and I use it for melting butter for sauces and I use it to toast spices. I hardly ever cook food in it, but I use it when I need to use a tiny pan to do a tiny job where it’d be just stupid to use a 10″ pan.

You need: Two cutting boards, one large, one small. This should be obvious but just in case it isn’t: you need a big board for when you need to take a big steak and cut it into strips for a stir fry, for when you need to hack a winter squash in half, for when you need to dice long stalks of celery. You need the small cutting board when you’re going to mince some garlic by hand because you don’t have a garlic press, when you’re mincing some parsley or cilantro to sprinkle on top of your avocado salad, when you are slicing grapes to feed to your toddler. I have my aforementioned totally battered white plastic cutting boards that work just fine; I can disinfect them with bleach or rubbing alcohol. People have lots and lots of things to say about the materials of cutting boards; I’m fine with plastic.

You need, St. Colwin tells us, two roasting pans. This is debatable, but for her purposes it seems clear she’s right: “A big one for the turkey and a medium-sized one, preferably earthenware, which holds and distributes heat better for baking eggplant parmigiana, roasting a chicken. Such a pan can double as a gratin.” I have a small number of roasting pans, by now, and I suppose they’re all sort of interchangeable but it’s also true that we’ve learned by trial and error that some are just subtly better than others for certain jobs. There’s one pan I use for roasting chickens and also for tuna-noodle casseroles and lasagna; I feel it is useless for making brownies and I have other pans I use for brownies or other bar cookies. I know this seems arbitrary, but that’s life.

You need: Two soup kettles, one four-quart and one ten-quart. — I’m not exactly sure this is true but maybe it is. I have two 8 quart kettles, Revereware stockpots I got from relatives who no longer cook, and while it seems crazy to have two of the exact same thing, the fact is I’m grateful, all the time, to have them both. I cook pasta in them constantly, for one thing — and if you’re making a spaghetti dinner for more than four people, you need that extra pasta cooking space. Too much pasta in one cooking pot doesn’t end well. But I also use them to mix bread dough, and to hold the rising dough. This saves me money on Saran Wrap and it means I can confidently leave the house for hours on end and know the cats won’t get into the bread dough (I lock the lid to the pot using rubber bands swung around the knob on the lid and around the handles of the pot). I suppose you could say I basically agree with Colwin, but I’m quibbling about the sizes of the pots. We could just split the differences and call it even.

You need: a heavy-lidded casserole, enamel over cast iron or earthenware, for stews, daubes, chili.
I’ll be honest here: I’m not even sure what a daube really is**, but I agree that you need a heavy-lidded casserole for chili or stew or soup. The way I’d rephrase this is, You probably want an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. It does not have to be the biggest and fanciest Le Creuset item, but a reasonably large pot is more versatile than a really small cute one shaped like an apple or a pumpkin. The round pots are a better bet than the oval pots. We bought a couple of LC pots off the manufacturer’s seconds shelf at an outlet in 1999 and have never for a moment regretted the purchase. Many companies make ones that cost far less than LC. Some of them are kind of junky, friends tell me, but some are just fine, and you should get one that’s just fine and enjoy.

You need: a pair of cheap tongs. For a million reasons. Here’s an example of St. Colwin’s realistic worldview: “Tongs can easily be unbent to form one long arm with which to retrieve things that you have accidentally kicked under the stove, and then they can be bent into tongs again.” In fact, I have two sets of tongs, neither of which can be unbent and rebent like this, but the point is well taken. She is correct that you should have something in your kitchen you can use to root around under the stove to get the things you kicked under there; I use a yardstick.

You need: one all-purpose grater; one tiny grater (which you’ll use for grating cheese for pasta or things like that); mixing bowls; a sharp-pronged fork. Yes, yes, yes, yes. What I advocate for is not a box grater, but rather two Microplane graters, one fine and one coarse. They are easier to store, easier to use, and very easy to clean. In re: mixing bowls — one set is, in my experience, not enough, and ideally some can be used as serving pieces, so snag a set that makes you happy when you look at them. On this count I was all set, thanks to my brother and father. In recent years I have a received a set of red melamine bowls my dad off-loaded to me when he downsized apartments. They were the bowls he used when he made French toast for us a million ago. While the rubber rings on the bottom are cracking from drying out, and I can’t put them in the dishwasher anymore because of that, they are still very good bowls we use a lot. Unlike my blue glass bowls or the Duralex bowls, they have little pouring spouts, which is occasionally a useful feature.

The sharp-pronged fork is, I agree, a very useful implement. It can be used to achieve many small and large goals: you use it to snag the green bean you knocked under the pot (tongs can work for this too), you use it to carve and serve your roast chicken. The fork doesn’t have to be fancy looking. Just have one.

I can very clearly remember assessing my batterie de cuisine as I read this book going, “Ok, I’m not so far off, here.” While it was true I didn’t have a lidded casserole or Dutch oven, my sauté pan was very heavy and it did have a good lid. Furthermore, since it was all metal, I could use it on the stovetop and move it into the oven, just as I would a Dutch oven.

This is not the list you go by when you’re making your dream list of every kitchen thing you’ve ever wanted; this is not your wedding registry. This is your Basic List, this is the list you keep in mind when you’re on a walk on the weekend and it’s tag sale season. Tag sales, by the way, are another thing St. Colwin and I are in total agreement on: you can snag the best and most useful kitchen stuff at tag sales. I have a red and white enamelware cake carrier I got at a tag sale that has been wowing them at bake sales for more than a decade. I have extremely good pots and pans from tag sales and from “Free! To a Good Home!” boxes out on the sidewalk. You simply never know when you might have a change to grab for cheap or nothing an item your household needs, or has merely wanted, longed for, and always viewed as out of reach. One time my husband went to work and found a small LC pot, with its lid, in the lunch room: a co-worker was moving house, didn’t want to keep it, and now it’s ours, and it gets used probably three times a week. Our favorite coffee cups: 90% of them are cups found on the street, either at a tag sale, or just found, abandoned in a box.

All this is to say, Laurie Colwin was, as she should have been, as we all should be, pragmatic as hell when it came to kitchen equipment and how to use it. This is admirable, particularly in our time, when it seems like every food magazine and website is telling us constantly that we need this new amazing thing. You really probably don’t need that new amazing thing, and what’s more, that new amazing thing probably isn’t so amazing. She wasn’t interested in status items for status’ sake. She was interested in getting a job done well with a minimum of fuss. She was, in a way, a more actively domestic version of Peg Bracken, really; she knew that not everyone wanted to invest in cooking as an activity, or work that hard at it, but understood that most of us do, at some point or other, have to feed ourselves. Home Cooking asks, What would be the efficient, good, tasty, not back-or-wallet-breaking ways to achieve this? And What do you need to do it? It’s clear from this essay that Colwin knew how to be simultaneously cheap and lavish,  and like any good friend, she’d give you the skinny before you made a mistake.

When I got to the end of the essay, the last sentence left me with my jaw on the floor. Remember: I was too cheap to buy a rolling pin, I used the same two pots to cook every single thing I ate. I didn’t even know what a Dutch oven was, in those days. I was afraid of the Joy of Cooking. What was Laurie Colwin going to tell me that made me feel I could cook?

“In a pinch, you can always use a wine bottle as a rolling pin.”


* The truth is, I have one carbon steel knife, and I fucking love it. It’s an 8″ blade that my dad got God knows when and it wound up with me a few years ago. I took it to Harper Keehn to be professionally sharpened and goddamn that knife has been a pleasure to use ever since. I sharpen it myself every couple of months and I will never own another knife as awesome as that one. But it’s true the blade is not something to be fucked with; you have to maintain a carbon steel blade, and not be lazy about it. If you can’t deal with that, stick to stainless.

**it’s a fancy way of saying stew, it’s a French beef stew cooked in wine, apparently.

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.


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