So much for being back

We’ve been back home in Atlanta going on six months now and I still can’t seem to find the time to write. I seem to have lost my voice for the moment. A nasty comment on my last post may have affected me more than I want to admit. In any case, my writing self has lain dormant for a while.

The good news: the cats. They couldn’t care less. They have catnip . . .

 … and food.

Never mind that their humans live in a part of the city hell bent on recreating past episodes of the Jerry Springer show for the entertainment of the neighbors. In the six months we’ve lived here, we’ve seen furniture thrown off the porch during a particularly dramatic spat, had to call the cops on a domestic dispute, dealt with teenagers who seem to have mistaken our front yard for their own personal football field, and headed to the back of the house when we heard gunshots.

And I love being here, in Atlanta, my home. I’m cooking again. I’m writing again. I will be back. Thanks for being patient.

Dear New York Times "Recipe Redux"

My short love affair with the “Recipe Redux” column in the New York Times Magazine came to an end on Sunday. Fascinated as I am with old recipes, I was thrilled to find a column that dug up ancient treasures like Chocolate Caramels (1881) and this 1904 bouillabaisse swimming in olive oil. The old recipe is followed by a modern update created by a chef, with only one rule, according to Amanda Hesser, the column’s author: “the chefs can improvise with flavors and techniques as much as they want, as long as they can later explain how they got from A to B.” Thus Chocolate Caramels have been transformed into Black-Sugar-Glazed Medjool Dates with Pecorino and Walnuts, while the bouillabaise becomes Olive-Oil Poached Cod with Saffron-Blood Orange Nage.

It’s not the painful inventory of each esoteric ingredient, or the exacting specifications that demonstrate you’re in the know (“dates” aren’t good enough anymore; only Medjool dates will do!), that pushed me over the edge. I’ve grown accustomed to that, since you can’t go to a bar without being forced to order not merely roast lamb but Happy Meadow Farms Lamb with Organic Creek Merlot Reduction and House-Grown Rosemary. And reading ingredients is fascinating to me.

What I can’t abide is “updating” that turns a perfect, simple recipe into a complicated production.

Things started to go downhill with June 6’s Rhubarb-Strawberry Mousse (1989). I’ll let the description of the modern version speak for itself:

As with many old desserts, the beauty of the dish is its simplicity. Yet without fail, whenever I’ve sent chefs a dessert recipe from the paper’s 159-year archive, they’ve found this very simplicity troubling. Modern desserts seem to require acid playing against sweetness, crunch jarring the suppleness, bitter challenging creaminess — a flood of contrasting elements that manage to divert our 140-character-length attention span, even if just for a fleeting moment.

So it was no surprise that after making this six-ingredient mousse, Melissa Perello, the chef and owner of Frances in San Francisco, returned with a modern, layered delight: a 12-ingredient, three-part dessert, made up of a ricotta mousse, a strawberry-rhubarb broth, garnish and cookies

Why? Why? Why take a dish whose beauty is in its simplicity and turn it into a “12-ingredient, three-part” monstrosity? It’s one thing if you’re a chef trying to woo customers. It’s an entirely different matter if you’re a home cook trying to put a meal on the table or host a dinner party after work.

Last week’s Saratoga Potatoes (1904) were the end. Saratoga Potatoes are potato chips. (Who knew that’s where they came from?) For the basic recipe, you slice potatoes as thinly as possible, fry in olive oil, and salt. That’s it.

We are told that the updated version, Crackery Potato Bugnes, are “so easy to make and . . . turn out so professionally that you’ll soon be whipping them up for every dinner party.” My version of “easy,” however, does not involve two bowls, chilling dough “for at least one hour and as long as overnight” and . . . well, this:

Using a ruler and a pastry wheel (one with a zigzag edge is nice for this job) or pizza cutter, cut long strips 1 to 1½ inches wide, then cut the strips at 2-inch intervals. (Again, size isn’t really important and the shape is flexible — you can make long strips, triangles or squares.) Using the tip of a paring knife, cut a lengthwise slit about ¾ inch long in the center of each piece. Lift the pieces onto the baking sheet. When you’ve filled the sheet, just cover the dough with another piece of wax paper and keep going. Roll and cut the other half of the dough and place these pieces on the baking sheet as well, separating the layers with wax paper. You should have about 60 bugnes. Chill for at least 1 hour or for as long as overnight.

I won’t be spending two hours chilling and God only knows how many agonizing minutes cutting up 60 slices of dough into cute little shapes for my next dinner party unless a fairy brings me a maid with far more patience and time than I possess.

Ms. Hesser needs to send those recipes to me. As God is my witness she will get an updated version for those potato chips: Britt Farms Yukon Golds Fried in Real North Carolina Pork Fat with Roasted Garden Jalapenos and Garlic.

Hmmm–I need to work on that . . .

Sandwiched between Stanley Hauerwas and Barbara Kingsolver

Yesterday I went back to Bullock’s Barbecue on the 21st anniversary of my graduation from Duke. Today, I went to . . . . graduation at Duke. And ate a sandwich. Both acts offer strange and possibly unrelated commentaries on my past. You be the judge.

I. Graduation

I went to Duke’s graduation primarily because Barbara Kingsolver was delivering the address. But given that this entire year has dragged me unexpectedly through the zigzagging corridors of youthful emotion that were my college days, it also seemed fitting to revisit the last scene.

This is how I came to be standing in the basement of the football team headquarters at 9:15 with Stanley Hauerwas, the only other Divinity School representative in sight, talking about his son’s impending graduation from business school. Eventually we were joined by three others. I’m wearing my academic robes, standing around with a bunch of old people in those funny velvet berets. What the hell has happened to me? We stream out of the tunnel normally reserved for football players, a team of academic athletes, running onto the field for the last game of the season.

My graduation on May 10, 1987 was a sunny day full of promise. I had hidden a bottle of champagne in my dress, which my friends and I shared. Though the champagne was split 7 ways, the warm sun, the lack of food, and the bubbles all combined to make me ever so slightly tipsy–a necessity when you are dealing with nine family members, including three and a half parents. (My dad’s girlfriend never quite made it to parental status.)

There was no danger of a warm, tipsy morning today. It would be hard to conjure up more miserable weather–mid-fifties and raining, steadily enough to require an umbrella and make everything soggy, but not so much that the exercises could be legitimately canceled. (With no viable indoor venue, Duke always holds its graduation outside).

I sat sandwiched between Stanley and my boss Wes, one chair between us to give room for our umbrellas. I had decided not to wear socks because they didn’t go with my shoes, a decision I was to regret deeply as the morning dragged on.

My only view was of water dripping on to the robe of the professor in front of me. The ceremony was interminable. They conferred about a zillion honorary degrees. The student speakers spoke. They spoke well, but I was reminded, once again, that you’re never as clever as you think you are when you’re 21. (Or maybe at 42, for that matter.)

As my feet turned into frozen lumps encased in their shoes too stylish for socks, I kept thinking, “At least I’ll get to hear Barbara Kingsolver.”

If I’d read the speech, I would have loved it. She started off funny and warm and lighthearted, full of hope just like the graduates. But then middle age hit. The speech turned into a litany on the dangers of global warming, the energy shortage, and the general destruction of the planet that would ensue in about 10 years if the Class of 2008 didn’t forgo nice houses and cars and do something–because her generation had not. “Sorry, kids, we screwed up your planet. You’ll have to fix it now. No big house for you. Have a nice life.” To make matters worse, she had fallen in love with too much of the writing, to the point that she failed to realize that her listeners were sitting in a miserable downpour, with her words the sole barrier between them, their diplomas, and a hot cup of tea on the couch.

Walking out, I overheard the following conversation between an undergraduate and her parents:

Student (now alum): “The speech–that was the worst.”
Mom: “That’s what I heard.”
Student/Alum: “She used a metaphor in every sentence!”

“Maybe because she’s a writer?” I thought. The young woman sounded like the prince in the film Amadeus, who said of Mozart’s music, “Too many notes!” But then again, 21 years ago, that would have been me.

II. The Sandwich

After this, I trudged back home to comfort myself in the only way I knew how: a hot bath and a sandwich.

You have to understand that when I was a child I was initially deprived of sandwiches–at least the kind I wanted. My mother insisted on giving us wholesome, whole grain bread–it was around the same time as her wheat germ phase. And so I longed for the white bread, sometimes sans crust, that other kids got. And so my ideal sandwich is this: bread, mayonnaise, yellow mustard, and bologna. No vegetables. No fancy mustard. No asiago or sun-dried tomato or onion in the bread. Just the soft, tender bread, the salty meat, and wonderfully vinegary mustard, and creamy mayonnaise–enough that occasionally a small blob will fall onto your plate.

And so, warm and satisfied from my bath, I ate and pondered the lesson my meal could offer to Barbara Kingsolver: Remember the joys of being young, and for the love of God, don’t pile too much crap on your sandwich.

Cake

“Cake” may well be my favorite word. Go ahead and say it out loud. Can you feel the richness of the icing in the “c,” as your mouth opens to accept the sweet lusciouss goodness with the “a,” and you close in with the “k”?

I’m at a writer’s workshop this week and so have been thinking a lot about words. Here is what I wrote yesterday about cake:

“When I’m icing a cake, my first step is to try to correct the lopsidedness that inevitably sets in the second I place one layer on top of the other. This always fails. I then take up the icing with my favorite red spatula, shaped like a large, square shallow spoon, and pile two or three globs on the top. I spread the icing over the top and sides in a thin layer with my green-handled spreader. The crumbs that break off at this stage are the cake’s dirty little secrets, entombed by the final layer, which I spread over the top and sides with the rare satisfaction that comes from having every flaw disappear beneath a silky smooth covering of cream.”

Perhaps I will bake one when I get home.

Why Is Durham SO EXPENSIVE?

Fred and I sorely miss many things about Atlanta, but aside from friends and family, what inspires the greatest sadness and deepest sense of loss is the Dekalb Farmers Market. I mentioned it briefly in a post last year on this blog, but then I did not fully appreciate its splendor. We failed to understand that finding whole bean Ethiopian Yrgicheff (how DO you spell that?), Columbian, Sumatran, and Kenyan coffee at under $6 a pound was not something you found every day. We balked at Hawaiian Kona coffee that cost $13 a pound. We took it for granted that we could buy fresh wild caught Alaskan king salmon, Chilean sea bass, halibut, and sashimi grade tuna for under $15 a pound. And cheese. And grass-fed beef, and quail, and free-range chicken, and goat, and many vegetables I’d never seen in my life.

Now I stand, heart palpitating, at the few places where we can find these things here in Durham, wondering how a 30% salary increase could disappear so quickly. Instead of standing next to immigrants from Ethiopia, Mexico, India, and Russia, poring over inexpensive “speciality” items together, I’m now pointy-toe-to-Birkenstocked-toe with Volvo-driving, self-righteous Chapel Hill liberals who are gushing over $22 a pound Hawaiian Kona and free-range local chickens that cost $23 each. I am not joking–TWENTY-THREE DOLLARS FOR A FOUR POUND CHICKEN. I don’t think there’s a font size, or exclamation points, that will adequately convey my shock and horror.

(Side note: I still won’t vote for a Republican.)

The Table

I don’t write much about my faith on this blog. But as our event this weekend has got us talking about Jesus pretty much non-stop, I feel compelled to say something about a few inevitable connections between food and faith. These connections are by no means limited to Christianity–it seems that every major world religion has practices that emphasize the importance of food in our lives. (Think of the Brahman cows or the seder meal.)

Back in October I heard a sermon by Carolyn Bechtel for a communion service, in which she said, “The table is the central image for the survival of creation.” What she was getting at was not that we have to eat to live. That’s obvious.

What she was getting at were some of these things:

During the service of Christian communion, the best moment to my mind is when the people approach the table to receive the bread and the cup. Coming together over this shared symbolic meal, they suddenly cease to become victims of fashion mistakes, or whiny complainers who grate on my last nerve, or self-righteous, pompous boobs. Instead I’m reminded that they may just have lost the will to care about themselves, or maybe they care about more important things, or maybe they complain because they hope someone will listen to them, and maybe they’re pompous are because . . . okay, they may be just pompous, but even pomposity can have its charms. They’re part of my community and my family.

That’s why the table, and not the individual act of communion, is the critical image. Eating together helps creation survive because we have to feed each other and sustain each other even if we don’t like each other. Producing a meal, especially in a global economy, calls on the skills and energy of many more people than the cook or the person who eats it. And the way we’re producing our meals now calls on the energy of an awful lot of people so a few can eat.

We need to bring more people to the table. We can’t focus just on feeding ourselves. We need to make sure that we create and support a system of production that allows everyone to sit down and enjoy something to eat.

I’ll return to cooking school soon, but will be thinking, if not always writing, about these ideas as I go.

Mayday

Today it came to me, in a blazing revelation, that I have no self-discipline whatsoever and that I don’t want any. Somehow I seem to have gained back every ounce of the 15 pounds I lost a couple of years ago, although I suspect that about five pounds of that comes from various secrections that are bloating up my allergy-ridden body–wait, I mean, the body bloated up from the cold that FRED GAVE ME.

Fat people, take heart: I now realize that thin people are like recovering alcoholics, struggling one day at a time not to wolf down an entire package of Girl Scout Tagalongs along with a quart of milk–or my personal favorite, a giant bag of barbecue potato chips with a pint of French onion dip.

Life is starting to look like a perpetual Weight Watchers pep session, complete with smiling women in jogging suits laughing at some insipid witticism and biting into waxed apples.

I’m going to go eat some lard.