Category Archives: Food

Put Some Butter On It

IMG_3998Three things before I offer you this little essay from my files. One, it’s old. It features Noah, now 15, as a toddler. Two,  the culinary climate it describes has shifted slightly since I wrote it. Fat has gotten almost trendy: upscale restaurants are now serving pork belly and chicharrones (in tiny, delicately garnished portions, but still). And three, it’s just a food essay, with no Larger Import. Another time I’ll write about the pleasures and the pitfalls of tradition. (Actually, I already have: find pleasures here and pitfalls over here.) Right now I just want to cook.

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My mother and I have a Thanksgiving ritual: just before dinner, when everyone else is setting the table, getting changed, watching football, she and I, alone in the kitchen with a resting roasted turkey, tear the salty, crispy skin from the neck cavity and share it in wordless, slick-lipped satisfaction.

We never invite anyone to join us, possibly because we’re greedy, and possibly because we’re a little self-conscious. Our Thanksgiving tradition might be characterized as private, or it might be less charitably described as furtive. No matter what Dr. Atkins has done for the sale of pork rinds, mainstream culture remains deeply suspicious of the pleasures of culinary fat. At best it’s considered a necessary evil—you can’t sauté without it—subject to strict, health-preserving limits.

My husband, for one, sometimes doesn’t even butter his toast. When he does, he spreads it like varnish, like polyurethane, as if he’s giving bread a thin layer of protection. I spread butter like spackle, like mortar, as if there were crevices to be sealed, bricks to be laid. I look at his toast sad, but unsurprised—this is a man who eats his salad without dressing, as if it were medicine. He looks at my toast disapproving, but resigned—this is a woman who eats the skin of other people’s grilled salmon left abstemiously on the plate.

Not that he doesn’t have vices. When it comes to dessert, my husband prefers his ice cream securely placed between a brownie and a blanket of hot fudge sauce. He has a sweet tooth; I have a fat tooth. Oh, wait, isn’t that an expression? Not in America. Here everybody loves sugar, and every other body craves it, declares herself unable to resist the candy in the bowl on the colleague’s desk. But to confess a love for the rich comforts of butter and oil is suspect in this country, where we sugar-coat our fat cravings as Krispy Kreme donuts and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, where those of us who love fried foods have to sleuth them out of menus where they have been rechristened “crusted” or “battered” or “golden.”

My palate is far happier in Europe, where you can easily get a nice salad with lard shavings, but you would never find sugar in a vinaigrette. Where Belgian frîtes are accompanied not by a sweet tomato sauce but by a creamy, lemony mayonnaise. Brits like to have it both ways, god bless them: they have a raging sweet tooth, but they also have clotted cream, fried bread for breakfast, and sausages containing just enough meat and filler to hold the grease in place.

Europe feels like home to those of us who would consistently choose brie over a brownie. And Europe is where some of my best fat memories reside. I’m sitting in the breakfast room of a London hotel. How old am I? Maybe 12. Most of the others diners have gone, my parents are back in their room gathering their maps for a day of nonstop sightseeing, and I have a blissful moment of peace. In front of me is a pot of tea, and a toast rack filled with white bread perfectly browned at the edges. And somewhere on the table there is butter—in little pats? On a dish? I can’t remember. All I can remember is sublime comfort, buttering slice after slice, pouring cup after cup of hot sweet creamy tea. The tea warms my throat, the bread pleasantly scratches my tongue, and the butter is cold and a tiny bit salty. It’s drizzly outside, and I don’t want to go out and trudge around the city negotiating an umbrella, and I don’t have to. Quite. Yet.

I’m eating a dish of broccoli in a trattoria on a side street in Florence. I’m 23. The broccoli is not lightly steamed and still crunchy; it is not overboiled and flavorless. It is lusciously simmered with garlic and oil until it was left melted and silky, with just enough texture to use a fork—for scooping, not spearing. One notch further and it would be a broccoli spread. That’s what I do: I spread it on my bread.

In America, it’s true, you can find unapologetic butter-love; you just have to head south. Go on . . . that’s it . . . keep going . . . There you are. Down in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, the local barbecue joint or fried chicken joint may proudly be named Fat Boy’s, biscuits are made with lard, and the point of collard greens is evidently the pork fat in which they simmer for hours. Maybe it’s through Atlanta, where my mother was born and raised, that she finds her way to that turkey skin every Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s through her that I find my way there too. Despite the influence of his sugar-loving culture, I cherish a small hope that my son will join us there one day as well. Once, as a two-year-old, he held out a piece of bacon to me while we were having brunch and said, “Mama, put some butter on it.” He knew enough already not to ask his daddy.

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Sourdough Resolution

IMG_7189Lena, having a snack at the counter after school, asked me what my favorite possession was. I mentally sifted through my stuff. I don’t really think of myself as a “thing” person. I rely on my computer. My noise-cancelling headphones are like a parachute: although I hardly ever use them, they offer me the reassurance that I can escape in an emergency. But favorite thing?

“I love the fountain pen my sister gave me,” I said, then noticed Adam and added, “and my wedding ring.” Not true: I love my husband and my marriage. The ring is more a symbol of things beloved than a beloved thing itself.

Later, at the same counter, the kids were eating what we call a “French picnic”: in our house that means a sourdough baguette, a cheese or three, salami or ham, and some kind of fruit. They eat that when Adam and I go out to dinner without them, or, as on this occasion, when I’ve just baked baguettes in order to use up some starter.

“That’s it!” I said, and they all stopped chewing for a second. “Lena asked me what my favorite possession is and it’s my starter!” My starter is older than they are, and still works beautifully. It makes silky, bouncy dough and then flavorful bread out of nothing—flour, salt, and water. It’s goop in a plastic container in my fridge; it’s magic.IMG_0209

That’s the thing you would save if the house was on fire?” asked Noah, skeptical.

“No,” I said, “because I would forget. But that’s the thing that I would later regret not saving.” I made a mental note to ask Maud if she still had some, in case my house burned down. That’s the other great thing about starter: you can give it away and still have it. Magic.

“Are you going to put it in your will?” asked Jesse.

“Well, by then I hope you’ll all have some, and be using it. You can compete to see who can keep it going the longest.”

“By then,” I went on, as I sometimes do, “you’ll all know how to make these,” and I picked up one of the knobby, golden brown baguettes still lined up on the cooling rack. I tend to leave my baked goods out for a while to make me feel productive during a day when the only thing I’ve written is a to-do list. “You’ll all know how to make them before you leave the house,” I declared, and then realized Noah was in ninth grade already and would be in college essentially by tomorrow afternoon.

That’s when I decided that 2015 would be the year of the baguette. By 2016, I vowed, all of my kids would be able to make them.

I am not as good a mom as I would like. Better habits, annually resolved—to read to my daughter every night, to hug my teenager every day—annually dissolve, corroded by inertia, distraction, laziness.

Finishing the Narnia series seems farfetched. We’ll be lucky to get through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But this transfer of skill . . . I think I can do. The kids are motivated and the task is fairly simple.

There are six stages, only two of which require any sort of skill. You feed the starter, make a biga (or levain or sponge—all words for a kind of pre-dough), make the dough, form the loaves, stretch the loaves into their pans, and bake the loaves.

This weekend I taught them to feed the starter, and then called them in to watch or try each subsequent step, although Lena missed a few (sleepover) and they all missed the baking part (football game). They did show up for the eating, though.

It’s a start.

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Canning Notes for Next Year

photo (2)Every year for at least ten (to judge by the date on one dusty jar that I can’t bring myself either to open or to throw away), I make and can salsa and sauce with tomatoes from our garden. Every year, I have to remember how all over again. Same goes for buying school supplies and baking birthday cakes and filling out tax forms—all the seasonal skills that my brain buries deep in long-term storage. I mean, I have the recipes. It’s the timing and the rhythm I lose.

Although this memory problem is not improving as the years pass, I am getting better about preparing to forget. Last fall, for example, after our annual big trip south for Thanksgiving, I sent myself an email alert for the following November with instructions like “make sure the kids do their homework BEFORE the ride home” and “bring Mom a bread basket” and “MORE DISH TOWELS.”

And so, as this year’s canning season winds down, I am preparing a little cheat sheet for 2015:

  1. Although their sheer quantity and inexorable ripening may appear aggressive—even hostile—your tomatoes are not your enemy. Remember the years when, due to blight, you had to buy tomatoes at Indian Ladder Farms, beg heirloom beauties from a kindly green-thumbed librarian, scrounge the culled crops at the Co-op. Remember the year you ran out of pasta sauce.
  2. Everything in your kitchen is about to get wet. Move the damn library books.
  3. Your children and your husband will continue to regard the kitchen as a place in which to locate snacks and meals. This is a perfectly normal misapprehension, which should be corrected gently, if possible.
  4. Even things that are taking forever to cook will eventually burn.
  5. Yes, you’ve done the math, and no, canning your own sauce and salsa does not make actual economical sense, especially if you factor in your billable hourly wage. Or the minimum wage.
  6. Speaking of which, it’s OK to send your husband to Subway, where they put pale pink sliced “tomato” on your children’s subs, so that you can stay home and wrestle with 100 pounds of true tomatoes. I’m not sure why, but it is.
  7. Swim goggles will keep your eyes from watering when you slice onions. For best results, however, you have to put them on. (Note: Aprons also work better when donned.)
  8. Jars of sauce should be left on the counter “to cool” until your backache subsides or until your next dinner guests notice them, whichever comes second.
  9. If you think you smell something burning, you’re right.
  10. MORE DISH TOWELS.

If you’d like to try canning your own salsa, you can find the recipe here. Feel free to call my red phone for advice, but do it soon: birthday cake season is fast approaching.