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Nature Girl

I have never in my adult life been what I think of as a Nature Girl. I hate camping, and anything that involves jumping across slimy stones in the middle of moving water while other people wait with increasing impatience. My role models, during my formative years, tended to be snarky urbanites like Woody Allen, Fran Lebowitz and Dorothy Parker. For a long time, it suited me to affect a kind of Urban Sophisticate persona so that the whole outdoors thing was simply out of the question. I liked unfiltered Camels, black clothing, oysters and indie films. I was not a person one would invite to spend a few days rappelling, spelunking, kayaking, or portaging. I had no desire to use a compass to find my way out of anything, ever. Until recently, I was even terrified of dealing with my own small, rapidly decompensating yard.

Then, for many reasons, I began to change. There was, inside me, the little girl who had had a shelf of books about seashells, reptiles and amphibians, stars, and flowers. That little girl made fairy houses in the woods, knew a cicada from a katydid, and made daisy chains. She climbed trees, tried to reconstruct ruined anthills, and brought garden snakes, toads and frogs into the house in an attempt to make them pets. She swam like a fish, collected rocks, shells, acorns, birch bark and feathers, and lay at the end of a dock in Maine watching the Perseid Meteor Shower put on a show in the hot, night sky. She read “Rascal” 800 times, and wanted a pet raccoon. She went to Camp Discovery at a nearby nature preserve and wept, inconsolably, when she learned that the day’s project was not just to catch butterflies but to kill them in a chemical-filled jar and pin their wings to a board.

Like a princess under an enchantment, I woke up to find myself in a sanitized, glamorized, chemical-filled world where there was no place for the cry of a mourning dove or the miraculous appearance of a sand dollar tossed from the depths of the ocean. I remembered, but it would take some work to reconnect with that wild child running through the woods with sticks and wilting flowers stuck into her frizzy brown hair.

 First it was about food – how could it not be better to eat produce that was uncontaminated by chemicals, dairy free from hormones, and fish caught in the wild? How interesting would it be to be a forager, urban or otherwise, learning to identify the mushrooms and plants that would make a satisfying dinner without killing anyone? I thought about hunting animals, and the balance of things, and how I would not choose to hunt, but hunting spared local deer a slow, agonizing death. And how did things get that way? Was it a natural evolution of predator and prey, or had we built so many strip malls and subdivisions that the deer were placed at an entirely unnatural disadvantage?

Then there were things celestial. I remembered childhood nights in the backyard with my father as he showed me the constellations, telling me the story of Orion, and the Pleiades. Night after night we went out, noting that we saw the stars and planets in different places as the earth moved, discussing the phases of the moon, shooting stars, and meteor showers. I knew, then, and I never forgot that there would be a meteor shower in the middle of August. If we were in Maine, where the sky was free from competing light, we watched the show over the treeless lake, and it was magic. If we were home in Michigan it was less clear, but we could still take blankets into the yard, lie on our backs and watch. It was thrilling to be outside so late, grass smells all around, swatting mosquitos and willing my eyes to scan the sky with only brief blinking so that I wouldn’t miss the streaks of bright light.

Later, other things came back. My parents were bird watchers, and I grew up knowing my common chickadees from my Cedar Waxwings. When there was a truly exciting visitor, like a Flicker, it was reason to run to the kitchen window and watch as the bird, unaware of his celebrity status, blithely consumed sunflower seeds. I put up a bird feeder last winter, and felt the old thrill every time I looked out the window to see that a Blue jay or a Cardinal had come to my yard to dine on seed. I wanted to see a hummingbird again, and maybe, if I was really lucky, a Flicker.

How could I have forgotten this, that I lived in a world of tiny toads that hopped around manically in the days after they grew legs and left their watery lives as tadpoles, spider webs glistening with dew, and bulbs storing energy beneath the hard, cold ground until the first tickle of sunlight penetrated their hiding places? I began to read about herbs, to cook with them, to grow them, and to study their traditional, medicinal uses. I walked bravely through my own, small yard wondering how so many oak leaves and acorns littered the ground when all the trees I could see were maples. I thought about making a place for myself in that overgrown yard, raking up the dead leaves and adding them to my compost bin, filling a Radio Flyer wagon with pots of herbs and a tomato or two that I could move to sunny spots during the summer. I imagined lying on my back in my own yard, looking into the August sky, watching the Perseus put on their show.

Yesterday, as I gathered sticks from the ground, I contemplated making a couple of raised beds in the front yard. A butterfly, not a Monarch, but a creature of impossibly bright red and black, fluttered around me and seemed to follow me as the cat and I traversed the yard. Telepathically, I promise it some flowers if it would check back in a few weeks, once the danger of frost had fully passed. I thought of bees, the helpful, maligned fleets of them that did us so much good while we bombed them with pesticides and sent them reeling back to their hives. I saw, in my head, an entire Peaceable Kingdom on the small piece of land where I was privileged to coexist with nature. Worms turning earth, bees collecting pollen, and birds pecking for tasty insects in the trees.

This morning, a single mallard duck appeared in our front yard. I think he was an omen. He didn’t stay long, stopping only to look at us and give an obliging “quack” before waddling purposefully down the street. I think he heard there was going to be some nature going on around here.

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Let Them Eat Tofu

It is the consummate, diet-related cliché: “you can stop drinking, or smoking, but you can’t just stop eating.” You can, of course, stop eating; Ghandi used that strategy to magnificent effect. As a method of reaching a healthy weight, however, it’s frowned upon. What you have to do to lose weight is not to stop eating, but to stop eating the way you used to eat. I’m doing it, and it’s working, but it complicates the hell out of my life as a cook.

I’ve struggled with weight all my life, losing and re-gaining the same 30+ pounds several times. I established a pathetic pattern worthy of a medieval tapestry: the large woman stops eating (anything, carbs, second helpings and fast food), exercises (incorrectly, so intensely that she gets shin splints, until she abhors the sight of her Nikes) and becomes smaller. She buys tinier clothes, and basks in the admiration of all of the people who want to know her “secret.” She gets busy, stressed, cocky and inattentive and starts to eat like she used to, she becomes larger again, and in the final tableau she is folding her smaller clothes and putting them in bags to donate to Goodwill, and then pulling the larger versions from the back of the closet where she saved them for the inevitable.

This time, I used health and moderation as my guides. With the help of my beloved iPhone I make sure I eat the recommended daily servings from all groups (the artist formerly known as the Food Pyramid is now The Plate) and that my grains are whole, my dairy is low in fat, and at least half of my daily protein comes from a non-animal source. Using another “app,” I enter everything I eat, and it gives me not only a kind of profile of where I’m on and off the nutritional mark, but also a grade. Being the competitive person that I am, I am willing to do almost anything to make the disembodied Calorie Count God give me an “A.” If I enter butter and my grade drops to a “B,” I put olive oil on my bread instead, and receive an “A” and a star on my chart. Finally, there is a pedometer app that makes me want to park farther and take the stairs just to see the gratifying jump in steps taken. My phone and I have lost a lot of weight in just over 30 days without shin splints or a diet so restricted that I can’t eat among normal folk. This is good.

The sticky thing is work, where I am paid to cook fairly standard, American fare for a diverse group. Although I read vegetarian cookbooks in bed at night, and my husband and I are planning a hydroponic vegetable garden so that fresh produce is available in the dead of a Michigan winter, I am not running a health food restaurant. My impulse is to share, to reform, to turn all white flour to wheat and all heavy recipes lighter. I’m not interested in the weight of anyone I feed; I simply burn with the passion of the zealous convert. At home I can easily balance my own eating habits with those of my husband and son – they eat burgers, I eat a Boca Burger. I make white wheat bread, I add butter and cheese to their noodles after taking my serving, and all of their various snacks are still in the house. To their credit, my boys are both good about trying the Lentil-Cheddar loaf, or the kale chips (once) and I see smal and gratifying changes in their preferences and consciousness.

At work, I wrestle with the increasing disconnect between my own strong convictions about healthy eating, and my actual job. I believe that “all foods fit,” and that  life without the occasional French fry, Alfredo or bacon would not be worth the living. I am still, after all, a devoted foodie. Mostly, though, I think we run better on healthy stuff. I thought about it last week in my work kitchen as I whipped bowl after bowl of heavy cream for an ice box cake. I had just eaten a modest dinner of grilled chicken, quinoa, salad and melon, and I was making artery-clogging death in a hotel pan for my “customers.” The dinner I served at work the next night was grilled brats, coleslaw and icebox cake. It was well-received and apparently delicious, but I ate none of it. A single sausage lowered my daily grade to a “B,” and one can only imagine the effect of adding coleslaw dressing and a mound of real whipped cream. I felt odd, sitting down at one of the long tables of diners to eat my leftover salmon, red peppers and sunflower seeds, but I wasn’t ready to give up the degree of control that has gotten me to this good place.

It’s been my bitter experience that it’s those “I can just have a little bit” moments that reverse the positive trajectory and send me plummeting into a morass of Oreos and self-loathing. But I can’t cook things without tasting them. I had to make sure the whipped cream had just enough powdered sugar, and that the slaw dressing was not too vinegar-sour. I will have to try biscuits for flakiness, cookies for dryness, mashed potatoes for butteriness and sauces for balance. Good cooks taste and adjust, taste and adjust. I am relatively safe for the rest of the summer since most of what I serve is grilled meat and fresh produce, but I am shaky about the fall and winter when the grill is retired, and I plan menus to please everyone from small children to octogenarians on cold, Midwestern nights. Will I tweak the menus, skewing then towards “Cooking Light” versions of classics and two kinds of veggies? Will people complain? Am I good enough to make the changes so smoothly that they can’t even tell? If I make their old favorites, how will I taste as I cook? Will I have to keep a “bite log” and enter every spoon full of soup, and every square inch of pie in my Calorie Count app? Even if I burn it all off in a brisk walk, how can I justify the addition of full-fat dairy and white flour to my pristine rotation of Greek yogurt and spinach?

If I had an unlimited budget I could plan meals for work around a lean protein deliciously napped with a chimichurri, or a balsamic reduction. Instead, I have a budget that calls for an abundance of cheap, filling pasta, rice or potatoes with small amounts of meat. It is also difficult for a lone cook to serve anything of the “fast, easy, fresh” variety to 100 diners at one time. There can be no stir-fries or sautés; whatever is for dinner has to be prepared in quantity, all at once. It will also become increasingly difficult (and expensive) to source really good, fresh vegetables as we move into fall and winter. At home I might slice a Hubbard squash, embrace it with a little sesame oil and grill it like steak; during my grill-less winter at work that is not an option. I know how to make soup from root vegetables, mashed parsnips, and carrot soufflé, but I am imagining the disappointed faces of small children and the disapprobation of my favorite geriatric gentlemen when they hear that they are having vegetable soup and wheat rolls instead of my beloved (heavy) Cream of Tomato soup and sweet, white yeast rolls. It is my job to feed them, to show them hospitality and love that fills a plate or a bowl. It may be my personal conviction that it is more loving to reduce their fat and sodium intake, but working at a church does not make me God.

I will make it work. I look with hope at the many slender celebrity chefs in the world, and tell myself that they can prepare highly caloric feasts seven nights a week, taste as needed, and remain camera-ready. I will probably look for lighter versions of the macaroni and cheese, the cream of tomato soup and the chicken and dumplings, and make sure that there are always two “clean” vegetables on the side. I may take the dramatic step of offering a bowl of fresh fruit alongside the chocolate peanut butter cupcakes and pineapple upside down cake. I love my job, and I love wearing pants that are a size smaller.  I will make it work.

Why Do We Feed Garbage to Our Children?

Sometimes, the universe throws something in my path with such impatient persistence that I have to stop and take a good look. It may be a “something” about my life, some integration of previously disparate elements, or a wakeup call that something is wrong in the universe outside my insular thoughts and experiences. This morning I am so galvanized about the issue of making healthy food familiar to children and affordable to families that I am going to be late to work (where, ironically, I will be making 10 chocolate cream pies).

First, I read yesterday about the fact that my state will be one of two to participate in a pilot program allowing public schools to buy fresh food from local farms. This seems like a no-brainer, but in the district where my son attends school we have been banging our heads against this particular wall for years. We live in an area surrounded by farms growing and raising the freshest and best of everything, but continue to serve our children canned vegetables, Tater Tots and Chick’n Nuggets. (There was also a lame-ass attempt to make the meals healthier, which resulted largely in making the food inedible, a passionless, punitive assortment of badly conceived “healthy” food). It is not the fault of the people preparing the food, or probably even those making purchasing decisions. The schools in Michigan are broke, struggling, and looking to save any possible penny. It is my fervent prayer that this program will “fly,” and that we can, as a state and eventually a nation, support local farms, keep our dollars here, and stop feeding our kids processed garbage at school that makes healthy fare seem unattractive at home.

Next, I read with interest the weekly menu of a woman whose stock-in-trade is finding deals on various things, and feeding her family of 5 for $100.00 a week. She is no fool, this woman, and I admire her zeal and ability to ferret out bargains. On the other hand, the menu includes a meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken (she had a coupon), a pizza dinner and a hot dog dinner. I am no food Nazi, and my own kid would be in ecstasy if that was our menu for the week; there are, in fact, hot dogs in my house at this very minute, as well as Coco Puffs and American Cheese. On the other hand, the kid who eats those things is also likely to eat a bowl of sugar snap peas or a pint of raspberries, or to whip up a smoothie with frozen banana and organic skim milk. Our family meals are almost always balanced and healthy, and the processed crapola is a treat, a small part of a pretty healthy whole.

What I understood, reading this woman’s sample menu, was that even for the best educated, most sophisticated parents, the easiest way to feed a family really economically is to buy what’s cheap, which is very often highly processed. If someone in the house is a good cook, with enough time to make good food from scratch, it is possible to make appealing meals using the broccoli, skinless chicken breasts and melon that are deeply discounted, but that’s a big “if.” That requires knowing how to put together something that is not only inexpensive and healthy, but tastes good enough to please the palate of kids jaded by Mickey D’s, cheese curls and Twinkies. It can absolutely be done, but it takes work, time, and mental energy.

This brings me to the last thing that pushed me to the computer, a news story about whether extremely obese children should be taken from their parents and put in foster care. It would be easy to judge, but my heart hurt reading the words of one mother who worked two jobs so that she and her son “wouldn’t have to live in the ghetto.”  She had fed him fast food because it was what she had time to provide, and could afford. I elaborated on my own – if they were that tight on money, it was possible that they lived in a place where it was not safe for him to run around outside burning calories, and if she was working two jobs and caring for a child, it would have been really hard for her to find time to go to the market, buy healthy food and then turn it into something her son would eat. Imagine having barely enough money to make ends meet, exhaustion from two jobs, the demands of a growing child, and the prospect of whipping up some chicken sautéed in olive oil, microwaved carrots with a little orange juice and butter, and whole grain pilaf for dinner. Call it a failure of energy, imagination, resources or will, but it is legion in this country. It seems odd that we can’t make it easier for people to feed their children well rather than allowing things to fall apart and taking children from their parents to save their lives.

Somewhere between the organically-obsessed parents who make their own baby food and refuse to allow a bite of birthday cake, and those who mindlessly feed their children fast food and candy, there must be a happy medium. Unfortunately, I think that “medium” is impractical, and would infringe upon the civil liberties of food manufacturers, advertisers, school districts, and a disproportionate number of families living below the poverty line. The ACLU would be fighting for the rights of poor families to choose their own food, free from the patronizing hand of Big Brother, and the defenders of intervention programs would argue that raising children so heavy that they cannot breathe easily is as dangerous as beating them or leaving them alone for days.

I have no answers, but I will say this pathetically hopeful thing. It’s possible to make healthy food taste good, and it’s not even really that hard. At work this summer, I have cooked “fresh and local” for a pretty good cross section of people. They have eaten up every shred of marinated, grilled asparagus and zucchini, and bowls full of marinated vegetable salad. They have said things like “I usually hate squash, but” and “I only took that salad because my mom made me, but I really liked it.” The produce they are eating is in season, dirt cheap, and takes maybe 5 minutes to prep and 10 to cook. It can be done. Now, how do we do it in our public schools and our own homes so that our children are healthy, thriving people who can appreciate a fresh, earthy carrot as well as a cone of frozen custard? How do we do it without going broke? How do we encourage families to make healthy changes without patronizing them, threatening them or holding ourselves out as superior pushers of quinoa and cabbage? If I could figure this out I would put on my green cape and go. Right now, I’m just stumped.

Food Schizophrenia

It is always my sense that other people have a firm set of beliefs, preferences and habits while I wander alone in the bleak wasteland of flakiness. I am influenced easily, attracted to trend and fashion, susceptible to admiring and emulating the worlds of movies, books and interesting friends. I return from trips filled with plans to eat tropical fruit, drink chicory coffee, paint all my furniture bright colors, or do Tai Chi in a public park every morning. Since childhood, I have been Jo March, Heidi of the Alps, The Little Princess, one of the disaffected “Outsiders,” and an entire cast of Trollope characters. Nowhere is this wayward, unstable, malleability more evident than in my relationship with food.

I cook for a living, and by choice I read food magazines and cookbooks. I get excited about the idea of a spatchcocked chicken pressed beneath a brick, cooking to crisp perfection in a cast iron pan. I feel a surge of adrenaline at the possibility that I could actually make croissants, Chinese soup dumplings, sourdough bread or perfect gazpacho. On a recent trip to Zingerman’s famous deli in Ann Arbor, I was nearly immobilized with delight at a room filled with Spanish ham, fennel pollen, smoky pimenton, Marcona almonds, and at least six kinds of blue cheese standing in creamy state on a high shelf. I felt worldly, chef-ly, a woman who could easily arise to a slice of toasted brioche spread with Andalusian plum preserves, a cup of Japanese coffee cold-brewed through ice cubes, and a plate of perfect figs.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I am getting older, my cholesterol is higher than it should be, the family hypertension has kicked in, and a winter of sedentary living and comfort food left me too snug around the waistband. Two weeks ago I made a change; I am taking advantage of summer’s bounty to make sure that I really eat five servings of vegetables and four servings of fruit every day, sticking to actual serving-sized servings of whole grains, and eating very little meat. It isn’t mercenary; it excites me. At night I read “Vegetarian Times” and Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Cookbook and fantasize about miso soup with tofu, mushrooms and a perfect shiver of diagonally sliced scallions. By the time I get to the Farmers Market on a Saturday morning I hunt kale, chard, beets and French radishes with the same passion I felt towards the fatty meats and rich cheese at Zingerman’s. Waistbands loosen, I feel more alert, and I have allowed a box of leftover pizza to sit in my refrigerator for two days without so much as opening the bag to inhale the riches within.

This is all well and good, you may be saying; she can describe a variety of food, she’s trying to lose some weight, and she’s big on adjectives. Is there, in the midst of all of this, a point?

There is. The point is that eating healthy can’t be a fad, a summer romance that sizzles while the produce is fresh and it’s too hot to eat anything smothered in cheese sauce. It has to be reconciled, balanced, and institutionalized. I have to consider how I will serve my “customers” the heavy, buttery, starchy meals they love when I am not so much “Lunch Lady” as “Green Goddess” in my head. As is always the case when I am obsessed with a new thing, I feel the urge to share, evangelize, and shake things up. This very night at work, although I am serving grilled burgers with cheese, I have also spent hours chopping broccoli, multi-colored peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and scallions to create a beautiful marinated vegetable salad. I am trying for balance – they get a standard American food in all its cheesy, fatty, white-bunned glory, but they also get a rainbow of crisp, cold vegetables in place of potato chips and macaroni salad. Will they hate it? Will they eat it? Is it right to impose my own personal tofu-loving, kale-scarfing taste on folks who have relied on me for over a year to make goulash, macaroni and cheese, Shepard’s Pie, and Chicken & Dumplings?

I know that I will never be serving tofu, miso, kale, tempeh, or whole-wheat pastry at work. Despite my most florid fantasies, I am not living in San Franciso in 1969 and cooking at the neighborhood vegetarian joint. I am cooking for stolid Midwestern folk, many of whom are old enough or young enough that they vastly prefer the creamy, the familiar, and the comforting. My personal odyssey in no way requires that any of them change their own preferences, and I am not in a position to force them into a collective “no thank you bite” because I have a wild hair. What happens, though, to me,when the air grows cold, the available produce is aged after a trip from points South, and it starts to seem reasonable again that there is never enough butter in a dish? I have to eat, I have to cook, and it is always possible that something will capture my fancy and make it seem wonderful to be Betty Crocker or Mrs. Butterworth instead of Alice Waters.  I fear, deeply and seriously, that easy descent after a summer of fresh, green, whole things.

The obvious answer is that discipline will take care of my own food consumption, and moderation may allow me to keep serving up steam table classics alongside some healthier, fresher options. This real life thing is far more complicated and less amusing than living my life as Heidi of the Alps, or Jamie Oliver; I may succumb to the cheesy potatoes at work, and I may find that the folks who love me for my blueberry crisp really hate me for my marinated vegetable salad. I am stuck being myself, this time, eating at home like a 1960s Buddhist-hippie hybrid, cooking at work like an indulgent 1950s mother in an apron, and gawking at gourmet food websites like a 2011 foodie. Maybe, someday soon, I will start a Green Revolution (which would be fun because I could totally get into being Che Guevara). Until then, I’m stuck with my shape-shifting, fickle and irresolute self.

Going Meatless

About ten days ago I stopped eating meat. There were no green-bordered, engraved cards made from heavy stock telling the world that “Mrs. Nichols announces with pleasure her decision to forego all animal protein until further notice.” There wasn’t really a reason, either, aside from a niggling thing in the back of my mind about the hypocrisy of refusing to eat lamb and veal while eating other (older, less adorable) birds and animals. That, coupled with the fact that I mostly just don’t love meat that much made it pretty easy. I already ate Garden Burgers when my husband and son grilled regular burgers, and I always ordered my Chinese, Thai and Korean food with tofu instead of meat.

Well there was kind of a reason. I read a lot about factory farming, how animals are treated, and the environmental costs of raising, slaughtering and distributing meat. I am also troubled by farmers subsidized to grow food for livestock rather than for people. I would feel infinitely better eating organic, grass-fed, free-range everything, but we really can’t afford it. I buy organic milk and vegetables, but our budget doesn’t extend to ground beef that costs three times more than “regular.” For me, it’s easier to stop eating it.

It’s also true that vegetarianism has always been a romantic, aspirational thing for me – I’m an earthy, hippie type born ten years too late, and I have been reading Diet for a Small Planet, Laurel’s Kitchen and the Moosewood cookbooks since I was in high school. Throw The Tassajara Bread Book, a little patchouli and alfalfa sprouts growing on the windowsill and you have the stuff of my dreams.

It helps that I know how to cook, so that I can make “convertible” meals to provide meat to the carnivores I live with while preparing a vegetarian alternative for myself. It also helps that I am neither zealot nor purist. Last night I made Penang Nu, a beef curry, and cooked some tofu for myself. At serving time, I picked out all of the meat from my portion and divvied it up between my husband and my son, stirring the cooked tofu into my own portion. A real vegetarian would probably have been horrified, but it worked for us. A purist might point out the hypocrisy (that damned word again) of talking the talk about factory farming while continuing to buy meat for my household. Thing is, though, neither of them has any desire to be a vegetarian, and I am not on a crusade to change the world. My husband grew up on a farm and is far less sentimental than I am about the whole “eating things with faces” dealio, and my son is a rail of a kid who needs all the nutrients he can possibly get while he’s growing. This is my thing.

Outside my own house, finding something to eat is a crapshoot. Some of what I find reminds me of the Veggie Dining Hall of my senior year in college. I ate there not because I was really a vegetarian, but because I was chasing a boy who ate there. The offerings were not only meatless but flavorless, and generally repulsive; there seemed to be a belief that people gave up any interest in texture, seasoning or complexity along with animal protein. My personal favorite was a slab of shivering, naked tofu, un-flavored in any way, baked served on a plate with a lemon wedge on top. I have, in recent days, ordered the “veggie” version of something in a restaurant and had a similar experience to the Tastectomy Tofu.

Other restaurants do better, although I was perplexed by the Chinese place that offered “Vegetarian General Tso Beef” and “Vegetarian General Tso Chicken.” As it turns out, seitan comes shaped like pieces of beef or pieces of chicken. It was pretty good, my “vegetarian beef,” but in general I’m not enraptured by the idea of “fake meat.” I would rather have an honest slab of tofu than a tofurkey and I prefer decent falafel to most “veggie burgers.” It seems strange to forswear meat and then create fake versions as if the rejected substance was the de facto holy grail of foodstuffs. Why not eat an honest seitan stir-fry or lentil-cheddar loaf instead of making faux meat?  I will admit, though, that it’s tricky to grill falafel.

I still cook meat at work, and I’m okay with that. I try to make sure there are tasty vegetarian options, but it is not my charter to impose my personal choices on the public.  I’m still pretty sure that if someone offered me a taste of grilled, marinated flank steak, or the world’s best fried chicken, I’d eat it. If I went to dinner at someone’s house and they had made their famous Chicken a la Neige, I’d probably eat it to be polite. I will not be thatvegetarian, the one who makes everyone around her feel guilty and backwards because they have made the perfectly valid and healthy choice to eat meat.

But who knows? I may never eat meat again. I may start eating meat again tomorrow. I may, in the final analysis, be an ovo-pisco-vego- flexitarian.  (Or a Rastafarian). All I know is that right now, I don’t eat meat and it feels just right.

The Egg Came First.

Both of my parents worked, and both of my parents cooked. My mother cooked our nightly dinner, cooked elaborately for dinner parties, and cooked traditionally for holidays; my father had a small selection of specialties which he prepared brilliantly, but from which it was unwise for him to stray. Just as he could play “Waltzing Matilda”on the piano with great panache (but nothing else, because he didn’t read music and had never had a piano lesson in his life) he prepared omelets, souffles and quiches that were enviable in their perfection and deliciousness. He also had a way with bread pudding and rice pudding. Outside this egg-y arena he cooked with rather less flair, tending to make meatloaf stuffed with random and vaguely repellant leftovers, lunches featuring Devilled Ham sandwiches with mayonnaise, and his 1970s specialty of pork chops with Risotto a la Milanese. This last item he made quite nicely, but so often that my brother and I dreaded our mother’s departure for a conference, knowing that we would, at least twice, be served the ubiquitous pork and risotto duo when we really craved macaroni and cheese or fried chicken.

It’s strange, given the fact that my mother was the main cook in the family, that my first memorable cooking lesson occurred not under her direction, but under my father’s. Maybe it was because cooking was less novel and entertaining for her, or because I was always more willing to receive instruction from my father, tending to ruffle and become stone-faced at the suggestion that I might learn anything from a woman who seemed to do everything well, cheerfully,  and with enviable ease while I fumbled through life eccentric and misunderstood. If I could not emulate her (and I could not) I could reject her natural ebullience and social success as too cheap for the likes of me; I preferred to think that my artistic temperament and delicate nature were better handled by the parent who also tended to be shy, self-effacing and hyper-sensitive.

I was probably nine or ten when my father taught me how to make an omelette, and it is the first thing I remember cooking by myself after the lesson was over. He taught me to beat three eggs and a splash of milk, using a fork, never an egg beater (although we had both), to have the cheese shredded before I began cooking, and to melt a pat of butter in an omelette pan, maneuvering the handle so that the thin veil of foaming liquid coated the entire bottom and sides of the pan. The eggs were then poured gently in, and a thin and flexible spatula was used to go around the quickly setting disc of egg, raising the edge and tipping the pan slightly so that the uncooked portion could slide underneath towards the heat. When only a faint hint of raw egg remained in the center, the cheese was sprinkled evenly across a precise half-moon of egg, allowed to begin melting and then concealed by the Big Flip, the trickiest part of the process. My father started me off with the two-spatula method which ensured that there would not be a tragic break in the puffy, golden top; after an assortment of successes and failure in the flipping department (all edible, just not always pretty) I graduated to swift, one-spatula glory.

The gift of omelette instruction has served me well for nearly forty years. When I was a poor law student I could get four dinners out of a carton of eggs, a stick of butter and a hunk of cheese (I could sometimes even have toast with it). When I was dating, it was an easy and impressive breakfast with which to dazzle a sleep-over guest. When I am home alone now,  it is my default solo meal. I can, and do make fancy omelets for other people, utilitarian omelets filled with leftovers, and experimental omelets filled with everything from spaghetti to cottage cheese. I make “blank” omelets with no filling, but perhaps a drizzling of truffle oil or a sprinkling of really good, crunchy salt. I never even get through cracking the eggs without hearing my father’s voice in my head, no matter what fresh hell is erupting among the dogs, cats, children and telephone; even if I am plugged in to a podcast or a little mood music I can hear him, and my hands demonstrate perfect muscle memory as I crack, splash, whip, melt, pour, cook and flip.

He gave me a lot more than a thrifty and versatile meal option, or a set of good, basic egg-cooking skills, my dad; he gave me an example of patience, craftsmanship, gentleness and the importance doing one’s best, even at the humblest of tasks.  Those lessons will be with me every time I make another omelette, even when he’s no longer just across town, quite possibly whisking his own eggs as a pat of butter melts in the pan.

Martha v Rachael

It has come to my attention that Martha Stewart has thrown down the (hand-crafted, freshly-cleaned) gauntlet as the first strike against competitor Rachael Ray. In her first interview since concluding her prison term for insider trading in 2005, Stewart ” told ABC News’ Cynthia McFadden that Ray’s approach to cooking – and cookbook writing – is ‘not good enough for me.'” Stewart criticized Ray’s self-admitted inability to bake, her release of a “new” cookbook that is made up of re-edits of previously published recipes, and stated that “she’s – more of an entertainer… with her bubbly personality, than she is a teacher, like me. That’s not what she’s professing to be.”

Being a smart (if not home-baked) cookie, Ray responded in the best possible way to defuse the situation. “Why would it make me mad?” Ray told ABC. “Her skill set is far beyond mine. That’s simply the reality of it. That doesn’t mean what I do isn’t important, too … I don’t consider it needling. I really just think she’s being honest.” In a flourish worthy of Machiavelli, she added: “I’d rather eat Martha’s than mine, too.”

It will no doubt come as a shock to you that I have an opinion about all of this. I have no dog in this fight; I find both women equally loathsome in their own, special way. I do, however, see this episode as emblematic of an epic battle between two opposite poles: Hard and Perfect or Easy and Sloppy.

I have spent time in both camps, over the years. I have read Martha’s magazine, watched her television show and used her recipes.  The magazine is lovely to behold, the recipes are solid and reproducible, and I find her somewhat dry and reserved television persona to be refreshing. Although I have sometimes had to block out the list in the front of the magazine detailing daily tasks to be done by the A+ homeowner (mulching, weeding, filter-cleaning, sweater-darning and trim-washing) lest I should be sucked into a downward spiral of Inadequacy Psychosis, there is arguably a place for a thorough and painstaking breakdown of the jobs that should be done regularly in order to insure optimal living. I also believe that I would enjoy Martha’s company; she has a dry wit and a classy reticence that appeals to me, and I can easily imagine drinking a martini with her (not a fruity one, but a real one with only a whisper of vermouth) and talking paint colors.

I have also watched Rachael’s 27 television shows, read her magazine, and owned one of her cookbooks. Her goal of creating recipes that can be cooked by novices and still offer a variety of flavor and influence is commendable. I have found, however, that many of her recipes don’t work, and that some are reproducible but not in anything like 30 minutes unless one has a prep staff hidden off-camera to slice, dice and saute. Because I can cook, and have fairly high standards for authenticity and execution, I have historically been unable to watch “Thirty Minute Meals’ with its heavy emphasis on shortcuts, and heavy use of “grilling spice” in everything from curry to paprikash. I do not hate her, and I have neither the time nor the energy to frequent sites like “I Hate Rachael Ray” (there’s another whole post there, somewhere) but I privately imagine that I would not want to have a drink with Rachael. She is cute and cool and loves Foo Fighters, but she would undoubtedly order something vile like a Chocolate Martini and giggle ceaselessly. She would probably also say “yum-o” at some point, and make faces approximating orgasmic delight after sampling the bar nuts.

The truth, people, is that they are both representing extremes, neither of which is necessarily ideal. If you have the time to trace maple leaves onto fabric in autumnal colors, cut out the shapes, dip them into a starch solution, air-dry them and shape them into realistic shapes, have at it. If you are bedeviled by the demands of your job, your budding adolescent, your teething baby or your depressed spouse, you might more profitably buy plastic leaves from the craft store and tend to your real life. Martha Stewart’s world is largely aspirational for most of us, and while I do sometimes use one of her recipes, or adapt one of her craft ideas, she represents for me a kind of repressive and judgmental regime that could be toxic if ingested whole. I do, personally, prefer to cook from scratch, and I enjoy decorating, but those are recreational activities for me. No one should ever feel diminished because they are doing their very best, and still failing to make homemade buttercream frosting or lay their sweaters to rest for the warmer months in satin bags with lavender sachets.
On the other hand, there is nothing glorious about the shortcut. There is nothing wrong with cooking like Rachael Ray if you are pressed for time, or if you are a new and unsteady cooker of food. There is also nothing wrong with working at a higher level in the kitchen if you are willing and able. It has become acceptable to tease the parent who brings in the perfectly decorated cupcakes for the bake sale, or the friend who grinds their own spices to cook Indian food. It is okay to say things like “I could do that, if I had the time…” implying rather strongly that the precise and dedicated approach to cooking is outdated and ridiculous.
Speaking as a person who grinds her own spices and threw away 4 failed “Buches de Noel” before rolling one successfully into a log, there is no shame in aiming high. Many of the best things to eat cannot possibly be cooked in 30 minutes, and Rachael’s World of Quickies would lead an unsophisticated viewer to believe that we should live in a world without braises, roasts, slow-simmering sauces or…baked goods. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in that world. Martha is also entirely correct in stating that she is a teacher, and that Rachael is not. I have turned to detailed, and so far infallible instructions from Martha on brining meat, creating a spun-sugar “cage” for a cake, and prepping artichokes, among other things. There is nothing offered by Rachael that is instructional if one is able to read well enough to follow a recipe and tell when something has turned from pink to brown, or from rigid to al dente.
Clearly, post-prison Martha is striking out at Rachael because she is still scrambling to recoup the damage to her brand caused by, uhm, being in prison. Just as Martha is an easy target for everything from “Saturday Night Live” writers to greeting cards, Rachael is an easy target for Martha, and I am a little surprised that someone representing all things gracious would take such cheap and public shots. I guess I hope Martha gets her stock up (and her manners back), because she is damned good at what she does, and I wish for Rachael to continue to take the high road and skillfully deflect all fire from Camp Stewart, while amassing a huge fortune based on Variations on a Theme of Speedy Stovetop Schlock. As for me and my house, I will go my own way, neither subjugating myself to the demands of icy perfectionism nor throwing up my hands and buying a Garbage Bowl.