I am keenly aware of the fact that millions of people (and let’s be honest – most of them are women) face down dinner time with a mixture of dread, annoyance and resignation. Something has to be for dinner, and unless one in in possession of household staff, or willing to feed the family an endless stream of Chicken McNuggets and Stuffed Crust pizzas, dinner must be recreated in some form on an almost daily basis. Word: it is not a single, tiny bit easier if you cook for a living. In my case it just means that I have to please two sets of people every week, instead of one.
In the home kitchen, making dinner requires that there be food in the house, and that the available food be susceptible to transformation into something the family will eat. Setting aside legitimate food allergies to gluten, tree nuts, dairy and the leaves of wood-stemmed plants, there are matters of preference. My husband dislikes nothing much besides casseroles, water chestnuts and meat with red fruit. That’s pretty easy. My stepdaughter liked only processed foods and pork chops, which limited my repertoire for close to a decade, and my son currently dislikes pasta with red sauce (!), meatloaf, seafood, and most things that do not appear to have come directly from a paper bag and/or a cardboard sheath adorned by a clown, a king or the repulsively freckled Wendy. They do like spices, curries, and stir fries, but only if there are visible pieces of animal protein and no suspicious leaves or twigs. I like things many things, including lentils, tofu, brown rice, sprouts and yogurt, but t should be clear by now that I cannot serve this particular family a lentil-brown rice-cheddar loaf with a tangy yogurt sauce.
Enter the magazine recipe, with its glossy monthly promise to give me the goods on “Quick Meals Your Family Will Love!” They do not know my family, but I don’t ever seem fully to realize that before I try again. I believe that the editorial staffs of these magazines live in a world in which children crave nothing so much as arugula and salmon, and the men folk subsist on portions the size of a postage stamp and have a preoccupation with maintaining their 32-inch waists. Here in the Midwest, there are pockets of Pollan-following organic gardeners who delight in nothing so much as sitting down to a plate of barley risotto and butternut squash dumplings, but none of those people live in my house. The people in my house like meat and cheese and would subsist joyously on a diet of hot wings, burgers, pizza and the odd Panini. Flipping through a magazine’s week of menus and recipes rife with grilled Mahi Mahi and edamame puree, I frequently experience an acutely painful intermingling of hope and bitter, certain doom.
Last night, eternal sucker that I am, I made a recipe from “Cooking Light” for something called “Tex-Mex Confetti Pizza.” It seemed promising – it was a “pizza” involving pizza dough, and the ingredients were within prescribed limits: cherry tomatoes, corn, black beans and Queso Fresco, with a little hot, smoked paprika and olive oil. I thought it sounded wonderful. It was pretty, with the colorful ingredients scattered artistically over the crust, and I allowed myself a little fantasy: the three of us were sitting around the kitchen table discussing Sam’s recent visit to an art festival in a neighboring town, and as we debated the merits of post-modernism and Sam’s burgeoning preference for figural art, we would all savor our healthy, vegetarian dinner. In this dream, my ill-assorted dishes had transformed themselves into hand-thrown stoneware and the cat wasn’t on the table. It was a dreamy dream, and so real that I could feel the heft of the unique oatmeal-colored plates and hear the Stravinsky wafting from the living room.
What happened was that Sam was having the kind of gigantic sulk that inevitable follows a sleepover, and he was insisting that he needed a crutch because he had injured his foot. As he explained with increasing volume that it wasn’t worse because he had been skateboarding all day, that an Aleve wouldn’t make it better, and that we DIDN’T care what happened to him, I took the pizza out and called everyone to dinner. Sam being crippled, I took a piece to him, which he rejected with a dismissive shake of the head. “Not hungry” he informed me as he chewed on a Tootsie Roll. Rob took a large serving, ate some, and said nothing.
“What do you think?” I asked, as I always do.
“I don’t hate it,” he said pleasantly. I tried some and thought it was pretty good. “Is this mozzarella?” he inquired. I saw an opening.
“No, it’s Queso Fresco, you know, the kind of cheese they use on everything from the Taco truck. It’s really authentic, and I like it because it’s kind of sharp and it makes this taste really good without adding a lot of salt.”
“Oh.” He said. “I thought it needed salt.”
I love them both, I really do. Some day, though, I am going to make some ecstasy-inducing concoction of oysters, beef cheeks, fava beans, truffles, faro, broccoli rabe and dragon fruit, and someone will say “you have created a haunting symphony of flavors. I will never taste its equal.”
In the mean time, I will try to remember that the allure of the recipes on the glossy pages is a false Shangri La, and that the real meat and potatoes of making my family happy at dinner time is mostly…meat and potatoes.