Monthly Archives: November 2013

A Thanksgiving Paradox

Two ways to enjoy this light Thanksgiving dish, which aired yesterday on WAMC’s The Roundtable: read it below or  listen to it here.

♦ ♦ ♦

 photo (1)It’s the week before Thanksgiving, and I am in heaven. More specifically I am in the Food Lion in Harrisonburg, Virginia, examining a truly pathetic produce aisle. Seriously, you call these brussels sprouts? I shake my head at my mother and tell her—sorry, Mom—we have to go to Kroger after all.

But I am so, so happy. Not only am I in my mother’s easy company, but my whole job this week, as the chief cook for Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, is to talk and think about food. Even better: this week everyone else in this grocery, this town, this whole country is talking and thinking about food too.

This is why I love Thanksgiving. No religion and no presents is a good start, and gratitude is an excellent theme. But I really love Thanksgiving because for once the whole country is focused on what I focus on every other moment of every single day: food.

Leading up to the holiday, there are supplemental recipe inserts in the newspapers. Grocery stores extend their hours. And the baking aisle—usually peaceful and lonely—jostles with people buying the only bag of flour they will use all year. Everyone spends an inordinate amount of time planning a single meal—cocktails through leftovers—just the way I do at least once a week.

It must be how football fans feel on Superbowl Sunday: finally the world is set right.

So I was surprised to read what Thomas Keller said in this month’s Bon Appetit. In case your brain is composed of something other than cultured butter and dried porcini mushrooms, I will explain: Thomas Keller is one of the most revered chefs in America. And Bon Appetit is a food magazine, which, like every other food magazine in the country, devotes an annual issue to our one genuine food holiday. About which  holiday, Chef Keller is quoted as saying,

“Sometimes the white meat is a little overcooked. But that’s Thanksgiving! It’s not necessarily about the food, is it?”

What?!? Of course it is!

Isn’t it?

My mom and I and assorted contributors spend days planning, shopping, and cooking. We feed one or two dozen people a main course with at least five side dishes, two kinds of bread, and two sauces; we follow it with three to five desserts. We maintain a carefully curated file of Thanksgiving recipes.

Truth be told, though, some of those recipes are less inspired than . . . dutiful. Familiar foods demanded by tradition. When I plan a dinner party, I think about the balance of textures and flavors; I make sure there is something crunchy and sharp near something creamy and rich; there is sweet to go with spicy. At Thanksgiving you balance mashed potatoes with sweet potatoes, creamed spinach with green bean casserole. Meaty gravy with meaty stuffing.

And if, god forbid, you should try to spike the mashed potatoes with horseradish or the sweet potatoes with chipotle peppers, someone is bound to complain.

Don’t even get me started on turkey, which practically no one can cook properly (as Keller points out) because no one cooks it the rest of the year because . . . no . . . one . . . actually . . . likes . . . it . . .?

This must be how football fans feel on Superbowl Sunday: the glitz! The ads! The halftime show! The people in your living room pretending to watch a game but not really caring about anything but chicken wings! Where the hell is the football?

For a foodie or a chef, Thanksgiving can be a culinary letdown. For an experienced home cook, it’s not even a challenge. Dishes I’ve cooked a dozen times? Mom chopping onions? My sister setting the table? What’s there even left to do?

I am forced to sit back and take it all in. Hang out for hours with my lovely mother. Enjoy my father’s annual effort to reinvent apple pie, as well as his sublime ability to mix a martini. Start a totally unfair potato peeling contest pitting wives against husbands. Watch cousins and uncles play touch football in the back yard, and, when they invite me to join in, claim that I am tied to the kitchen.

Which isn’t actually true until our one genuine food holiday arrives: Superbowl Sunday.

Five Things I Learned When I Started to Take Piano Lessons at Age 40

Grand PianoIt’s OK to Be Bad at Something.

I stink at playing the piano. I can give you reasons: I’m new to it; I’m too old to be new; I have these tiny useless pinkies that . . . Whatever. The reasons don’t change the fact that I stink, and I don’t like to stink. I like to be the best, and I typically avoid doing things I’m not so good at (math). But I am not the best at playing the piano. I am not the best in my house, where my two sons play music—dazzling, exciting, heart-breaking music—while I struggle to play notes. I am not the best in my class, even though everybody else in my class is an old beginner too. And yet . . . My friends still seem to like me. My teacher acts as if she’s pleased to see me every week. When I’m at the piano, my sons speak gently to me, as if to a frightened child, but away from the piano, they still assume I can help them with their homework (not math).

Music Is Magic Anyone Can Make.

Before I started to learn the piano, I knew that Beethoven’s 9th was powerful. And “Hey Jude.” I knew the theme of Chariots of Fire makes you feel like the Olympics are within your grasp, and that those mawkish ballads you remember from prom still somehow slay you. But learning to play the piano has shown me that the power of music is so great, so tremblingly alive inside a silent piano or a charging iPod, that even a barely coordinated beginner can tap it. I had an inkling from watching my kids: at ages 5 and 7 they played a sloppy duet of “All You Need Is Love,” squabbling before and after, and they still came off as pint-sized geniuses because they more-or-less recreated something actual geniuses had written. But it wasn’t until I started to learn myself that I realized  . . . all you have to do is gently press down middle C with your thumb and then, a solid second later, hit high C with your pinky, and “Over the Rainbow” materializes in your mind. That’s all it takes: two notes an octave apart and a song (and a mood, and a movie, and a memory of your mom) fills your head. A succession of tones organized in time is like a magic spell, and I—even I—can cast it.

Practice Does Not Make Perfect, But It Helps.

I still find it miraculous that simply by doing something over and over you get better at it. Of course that’s obvious, but I’d forgotten. Most of the complicated physical tasks I perform—rolling out pie dough, say, or typing—I’ve performed for so many years I forget what it’s like to acquire a motor skill. It’s frustrating, but it’s a joy. From one practice session to the next, measure 7 of Amazing Grace gets smoother and smoother and less conscious and less like an exercise and more like a hymn.

I Am Getting Old.

It takes me forever to learn to play a song. My brain is slow and my fingers are slower. I literally tell them what to do in sentences (“OK, when this thumb goes up, that one goes down. Ready . . .”). I’m putting off learning to use the pedal because I can’t imagine adding another limb to the confusion. But what really makes me feel old is recognizing that I don’t have enough time left in my life to get really good. It’s just too late to put in my 10,000 hours (the amount of time Malcolm Gladwell tells us it takes to acquire expertise). At half an hour a day, it will be 55 years (math!) before I become a great pianist. Come to my 95th birthday party and I’ll play something for you.

Getting Old Might Not Be So Bad.

I’m sitting at the piano trying to get a few bars right. I’m going over them and over them, correcting a little each time, getting close to right, then falling back, then getting closer. Then playing them once perfectly. “Ha!” I say, triumphant, and I start again—eager to repeat the pleasure of that perfect sound—and then I really mess up. And then I start again. I am concentrating so hard everything else has fallen away: all that I am supposed to do today, all I haven’t managed to do yet this year. All that I wish I had done in my life, including starting lessons four decades ago. It could be 10 minutes into my practice or 45. I could be 45 years old or 25. Maybe I’m 80. I don’t know. But I do know where I am: I’m in these notes, I’m in this chord, in the middle of this song. What time is it? 3/4.

An Ode to Creamed Spinach

Creamed Spinach

The words “creamed spinach” do not, I have been informed, elicit the same emotions in every reader. No words do, I suppose, but “warm chocolate cake” probably come pretty close. The Adkins adherent may feel fear and the diabetic a pang of melancholy, but these barely register compared to the collective mouth-water of desire that “warm chocolate cake” conjures in the rest of us.

“Creamed spinach” to me means silken luxury, rich and salty, offering just enough resistance to make a forkful pause in your mouth and fill it with garlic, parmesan, onion, a bare hint of nutmeg, and the earthy sweet taste of spinach merged with cream. (Deb Perelman over at Smitten Kitchen can show you how to make it.)

But there are those who read “creamed spinach” with a shiver of repulsion. What happened to these people? Stringy, under-seasoned spinach? Spinach overcooked to mud-flavor and color, in a pasty white sauce? A salt bomb posing as a side dish? Something to do with condensed cream-of-mushroom soup?

I am reluctant to speculate on the tragedies that befall the average American eater. In an ideal world, “creamed spinach” should represent for us all not just exquisite pleasure for the palate, but a certain intellectual pleasure as well, the gentle joke of linking the word that stands for the height of indulgence—the cream in your coffee, crème de la crème, cream on top!—with the word that connotes nutritional rectitude: Eat your spinach!

 “Creamed spinach” also happens to be shorthand for my culinary philosophy, which holds that raw materials can be rendered luscious with the simple application of effort, skill, and fat.

This is why I’m suspicious of fruit. (Well it’s not the only reason: fruit can be deeply disappointing: the mealy apple, the bland melon, the sour kiwi, the pulpy orange, the overripe pineapple that smells faintly of vomit.) Vegetables make a cook feel needed; fruit makes a cook feel redundant. A great piece of fruit needs only to be washed and handed over—there’s really nothing I can do to improve it. That’s hell on my self-esteem. I need something I can work with. Eggplant, for instance. Gorgeous to look at, but you wouldn’t just take a bite, would you? No, you need me to fix it first, don’t you?

Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll slice it, salt it, rinse it, bread it (flour, egg, breadcrumbs), and bake it, on a slick of olive oil preheated in a really hot oven, turning each slice when its bottom is browned. You’re welcome.

Oh, are those collard greens a little tough right out of the garden? I’ll wash them, wilt them, squeeze them dry, sauté them in bacon fat, and braise them till tender with onion and a little white wine. That should do it.

As for broccoli, sure, you could eat it raw, I guess. But wouldn’t you like to enjoy it? Because I would be happy to toss it with lemon, mustard, olive oil, and salt, and roast it in a very hot oven for twenty minutes until the edges are brown and crispy. Really happy.

Mmm: roasted broccoli.