A Door Unopened

A Door Unopened
Knock, knock...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Remembering Mom’s Cooking—A Holiday Reverie

I'd just been sifting through the New Yorker—the Thanksgiving food issue had been adorning our kitchen counter for a while. Finished with E.L Doctrow's fiction "Assimilation", I read some of the food stories Thanksgiving morning. First, I consumed Allegra Goodman’s story about trying to reproduce her mother's “elegiac” Linzer torte. Next, I digested Jane Kramer’s homage to root vegetables. And lastly, I partook of David Bezmozgis’ sentimental how-to piece on pickled cabbage featuring his deceased grandfather. The pieces were poignant and evoked a sense of "Gosh, that’s interesting.” and "Gee, I can really relate to that." and “I may need a tissue."

Since then I’ve been thinking about my own culinary upbringing and what I would write should I ever evolve the talent to join the ranks of esteemed contributors to The New Yorker. I’m sorry to say “elegiac” is not a word that sprang to mind as I accessed the memory banks of my childhood food experiences. Aside from my sister, Beth, I doubt there are very many folks out there who can relate. And while I’m quite certain no tissues will be required unless a cold has grabbed hold, I thought I’d give it a go anyway.

Mom was all about teaching her daughters to cook. Partially, her motive was normal mothering instinct, but I’m pretty sure her prime objective was to get her two daughters cook-capable in order to pick up some of the work load. She worked full time and as a result, for our ages, we were charged with some fairly hefty responsibilities. By the time I was in 5th grade, and my sister in 7th, we were each cooking dinner two nights a week. Beth, a natural-born homemaker, was much more game for the idea than I. She would spend time, follow recipes, take pride, and put something together that could generally qualify as cuisine. Her chicken and rice casserole was everybody’s favorite. I, on the other hand, had no designs on mastering the domestic arts, and tended to fall back on box meals, mac and cheese and tuna casserole. I viewed cooking as just one more chore on the list. Scrub toilet—check. Vacuum carpet—done. Make dinner—well, if I must. Ho hum—the drudgery!

As a thrift measure, we’d buy half a side of beef at a time and when the huge freezer truck pulled up in front of the house, my sister, mom and I would form a sort of bucket brigade with meat so the butcher-paper parcels could be loaded quickly into the garage freezer. The white wrapped packages would sit dutifully on the shelves, like nutritive soldiers, awaiting their fate in the oven or fry pan. The steaks and more interesting cuts would always be consumed first. By the time we’d get to the last of the packages—ranks of ground beef—many months or perhaps a year later, the remaining militia would have succumbed to some fairly serious freezer burn. We’d amputate the frost-bitten appendages and put the aged recruits out of their misery in the form of spaghetti sauce, meat loaf or if I was cooking, ‘70s-innovation-run-amok, Hamburger Helper. To my childish palate, Hamburger Helper tasted just dandy, but in my adulthood, I’d never touch the stuff. In fact, as a direct result of eating so much ground beef, I've developed a lifetime aversion to hamburger. Time will tell what such meaty consumption has done to my veins and arteries.

Vegetables were tricky. Salad was a rare treat and fresh vegetables were not done for the most part. This would have involved too much reliance on timely shopping. Frozen was the vegetable method of choice. Little wonder that my sister despised vegetables for the most part. Beth had a very short list of acceptable veggies that didn’t result in tears when Mom insisted we eat everything on our plates. Born in the 1933 depression years, Mom would turn harpy if your plate wasn’t clean. For me, as long as it wasn’t Brussels sprouts or lima beans, I’d eat it. I may not have liked it but I’d do just about anything to avoid a set to.

Mom’s method to get the frozen bricks thawed and cooked as quickly as possible was to put the burner on high, dump the ice-blocked vegetables in the pan, add a little water and walk away to do something else. Usually this included refreshing her 16 ounce screwdriver with a shockingly high ratio of vodka to OJ—the seed of another story all together. A good percentage of the time this would result not only in burned vegetables, but a saucepan that required SOS soap pads, overnight soaking, and plenty of elbow grease to remove the charring. We had blackened pan scouring down to a science. If Mom was cooking, you had an 80-20 chance of being required to expunge the cremated remains of some unsuspecting food item off the cookware.

Indeed, high heat and carbonized food was a recurring theme. Steaks at our house were regularly cooked flambé. I believe this was unintentional but I could be wrong. Mom would set the oven rack so close to the broiler coil the grease would catch fire. It apparently never occurred to her that lowering the rack might avoid this issue. Steak night almost always erupted into a flaming circus act with fire licking the upper cupboard and flour flying in order smother the flames. I was never sure if it was better to be in the kitchen nervously watching the pyrotechnics or hiding in my room and waiting to hear “Hey, the meat’s on fire!” from down the hall. It’s true we never had to call the fire department, but when I was younger, I found these burnt offerings more than a little disturbing. I silently vowed never to cook steaks in my own house when I grew up—far too dangerous. It wasn’t until I got out more that I realized ours was the only family to cook their prime cuts by immolation.

For company and holidays Mom’s traditional, East Coast, Welsh/German sensibilities would momentarily prevail and we’d dispense with combustible comestibles—except by design. A roast of some sort—beef, lamb, pork or turkey—was always in the offing and, amazingly enough, was always cooked to perfection. On these special occasions, salad and fresh, unscorched vegetables would grace the table having been purchased with the fest in mind. Mashed potatoes and gravy prepared in a conventional manner were welcome additions to the main course which was served with pomp and circumstance on china, accompanied by silver and proper linens in the dining room.

Dessert for these formals affairs was usually a Mrs. Smith’s pie of some sort. You could almost pretend you made it yourself since it had to be baked in the oven. (An aside: My sister managed to master pies in her late teens, whereas I am still in awe and want of pie-making skills. I trust Whole Foods or Costco for pie unless it’s pecan. Pecan, I can manage with the aid of a store-prepped shell. Pastry seriously intimidates me.) In the event of Christmas, persimmon pudding was our traditional dessert and because old habits die hard, the brown mound was treated to a dousing of flaming brandy. The display was always impressive but nerve-wracking. I’d hold my breath and try to decide if water or napkins might be best in case I had to spring into fire-fighting mode. Looking back, it’s surprising I hadn’t become somewhat inured to the idea of blazing food. To Mom’s credit, the pudding always burned itself out without emergency intervention and the delicious, raisiny cake was devoured with hard sauce. Right-o. The alcohol was never forgotten.

Aside from formal meals, Mom’s other culinary forte was weekend breakfast. During the week cold cereal was de rigueur. But on weekends Mom would sometimes pull out the stops and make French toast or pancakes and bacon. Reliably, these would be mornings when Beth or I would have had friends sleep over. I think it was mom’s way of waking us up and getting us going on the weekend so there weren’t two or three teenage girls sprawled over the living room fold-out until 11 or noon. She’d also take the opportunity to hang out and get whatever info she could from our friends about her daughters' for the most part unexciting “private lives”.

These special mornings, much to our annoyance, Mom would start making a ruckus in the kitchen around 9. As soon as the bacon aroma teased our olfactory bulbs, we’d give up our futile attempts at sleep and stumble into the kitchen. It’s true, sometimes the pancakes were a bit darker and oil-smoked than ideal but we weren’t picky. I never told my friends this was not typical weekend treatment. I think they thought every weekend was one, long morning pancake party. Good thing they didn't stick around for steak night.

The antithesis to formal meals and morning pancakes was Mom's most creative and least delectable contribution to our nutritional history—homemade TV dinners. You remember TV dinners—right? When you’re a kid, they actually seem exotic or exciting in spite of what they actually are—an entire meal frozen in a sectioned-off aluminum tray. Mom would save the trays and when we had leftovers, we’d segregate the food—meat in the middle, veggies on the sides—wrap the tray in foil and freeze it. Weeks or months later the food would be resurrected in the oven.

Not surprisingly, these were not appetizing meals. My sister was fairly certain we’d die young because of them. The food didn’t survive the storage well and upon the great foil unveiling you’d find desiccated meat and overcooked veggies. Reconstituted freezer burn reigned supreme. To avoid the dryness we tried adding a bit of water to the sections before heating which only succeeded making a runny mess of everything that nothing could possibly help anyway—unless it was the miraculous appearance of Meals on Wheels.

Maybe it was mom’s way of assuring us these were “real” TV dinners, because more often than not we’d eat them in front of the TV when usually we ate at the kitchen table. My sister, older and wiser, had the good sense to merely pretend to eat—choking down a few bites and pushing the vitiated vittles around with her fork. Younger and hungrier, I ate the ersatz TV dinners despite their unappetizing essence. I don’t think it ever resulted in actual illness, but the thought of this desecration to leftovers does arouse a certain, vague nausea to this day.

In spite of the burnt offerings, TV dinners gone wrong, and over indulgence in beef, Beth and I grew up healthy. I have not retained many of Mom’s lessons in haute cuisine although it’s widely agreed that my mac and cheese—a noodle or two short of being elegiac—is the bomb. I’ve modified the recipe significantly since my girlhood and my half-Italian husband informs me it’s more akin to baked ziti. Beth has cleaved to her homemaker roots and continues to carry on and improve many of Mom’s food traditions. She is the only person I know who makes Yorkshire pudding for the holidays, a carryover from Mom’s Welsh side of the family.

Mom passed nearly six years ago. We never really spoke of it, but I assume she was happy in the knowledge that her oldest daughter was and is doing much improved and less flammable versions of many of her recipes. And her youngest daughter, never big on domesticity, has not set anything in the kitchen on fire for at least a decade, and has become a respectable cook herself. Even her discriminating, foodie husband agrees.

Mom, I applaud you on  job well done. I do hope at some point you gave yourself a pat on the back. It's a shame I never did. Now I wish I had. On second thought, maybe I’ll need that tissue after all.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Frisee: Salad's most obnoxious ingredient

Lettuce gone haywire.
You know what frisee is, right? That ridiculous excuse for lettuce that has some sort of bizarre, genetic afro? The leafy green that got its fronds stuck in an electric socket? The salad component most likely to tickle your nostrils, and embarrass you by behaving badly in a fine dining establishment?  The tumbleweed of the tossed? The beasty boy of the bowl? Yeah. Come on. You know the buggary bush I'm talking about.

Show of hands. How many of you out there like frisee? And when I say "like," I mean you really think it brings something to the salad bowl that would otherwise be missing, i.e., the salad would not be a "real" salad without frisee. Any hands? Any at all? Yeah. I didn't think so.

So why do they put it in salad mix as if it's something that really needs to be there? Would we miss it if they left it out? No. And when did this weed become proper salad form? Growing up, I don't remember receiving regular assaults from frisee.  These days, for whatever reason, it's a regular component of the melee. And to iceberg lettuce, R.I.P., I can only say as boring and hum-drum as it is, at least it takes its job seriously and doesn't try to fight you on the way down. Frisee could take a lesson or two from iceberg or butter or romaine or mesclun or mache or arugula for that matter.

I used to think it was just me. But I brought it up at dinner one night and my son emphatically agreed.
"I hate frisee. What good is this stuff? It's completely obnoxious."
While Theo munched his frisee as a cow would a cud, he concurred.
"Yeah. It's no good. Who needs it? They should take it out."
My husband, however, acted as if we'd both gone loopy.

Some months passed and a work friend, Natasha, brought it up during lunch.
With a faintly concealed look of disgust she asked,
"What do you think about frisee?"
"I hate the stuff. It's annoying as hell."
"Me too. What's the point?"
"Hey! I totally agree with you and so does Theo. But, Tim thinks we're crazy."

A few months went by and Tim and I were preparing salad. The frisee subject once again reared its ugly, frizzy head. Only this time, the conversation was more specific.
Tim:  "I just don't like that it's so springy. It's hard to get into your mouth."
Me:  "Right. I agree. That's exactly the problem!"
Tim:  "Oh. I thought you were saying you didn't like the flavor."
Me:  "It's not the flavor, it's the obnoxiousness I don't like."
Tim:  "Oh. Well in that case, yes I agree. It's a pain."
Ah. Someone please call NATO. We have detent.

Here is what having frisee in your salad accomplishes: In addition to fighting you on the way in and down you get dressing splattered--
  1. over your face.
  2. onto your shirt.
  3. across the table.
  4. into your eye.
  5. into someone else's eye,
In order to avoid the splattering issue, one must hack the SOB (salad of belligerence) into submission. My approach of late has been to remove the springy pieces from the salad mix, place them gently on the cutting board and slash them into submission with a sharp knife. This, I've decided, is the only way the two of us can get along. Oh, yes, you kinky kook of salad infamy. You WILL be assimilated.

What it boils down to is that frisee, leaf of hostility, is high maintenance. In order to properly choke it down it must be cleaved, mutilated and properly subjugated by blade. Unless your name is Attila, who wants to have such acts of violence as part of their salad making ritual? Certainly not I.

OK. Show of hands. How many out there would like it if they took frisee out of the line-up of usual salad suspects? Thank you. Just as I thought. It's unanimous.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Less White Christmas--Integrating the Nutcracker Corps

Leopold holds down the fort on the floor while his shorter brethren keep things in order on the mantle.

We have what could easily be called nutcracker obsession at our house. I take the blame for its inception, but having two male household members has certainly resulted in a bolstering of the militia. What started as a sentimental legacy of one wooden, nut cracking soldier has blossomed into a growing army of Christmas cadets seizing the mantles and guarding our two fireplaces. Our seasonal deer décor and one token Santa icon have all taken a back seat to the many bellicose figures derived from Hoffman's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King."  Nutcrackers dominate our domicile during the holidaysa childhood affection gone grown-up and passed on to both my men.

When I was a little, my Grandma Val would put out a nutcracker—the Nutcracker—during the holidays. I was beyond smitten with him. He stood tall and proud with soft, white, rabbit fur hair and beard, safeguarding a bowl of nuts in a corner of her dining room. After securing the proper permission, I'd spend at least an hour or two with my ligneous beau, petting his hair, cracking nuts (yes, he was useful that way), and either eating them myself or passing them off to other guests so I could operate his jaw over and over, allowing him to disgorge more and more nut meats. He was mesmerizing. He was stoic. He was weirdly, woodenly romantic in a way that still makes sense to me today but is hard to explain. I never named him but as I write this, I believe his name is Yuri—the Dr. Zhivago of nutcrackers.

Yuri presides over a bowl of ornaments, his nutcracking days long gone, as Vladimir looks on.
For many years Yuri was my one and only nutcracker, always a lone soldier, perhaps his job to remind us that even though it’s Christmas there’s a war going on somewhere. Then I had a son. Selfishly, I suppose, I wouldn’t let Theo crack nuts with Yuri. Too many years had passed and I worried Yuri’s overused jaw couldn’t stand the strain of another childish onslaught of abuse. Theo loved Yuri even though he couldn’t enjoy his full talents. When Theo was about two and a half, he saw a large display of nutcrackers at Macy’s and went gaga. That next year he got his own nutcracker and we advanced the troops to a duet. In a couple more years our situation changed. When I divorced, Yuri and his underling were two of the very few Christmas decorations I took with me.

A few years after that, Tim entered the scene. In the beginning he was all blustery bah-humbug about Christmas. Years later he still has some remnants of that but for my sake he manages to keep the volume down on his inner, ever-shrinking Grinch. The things he likes best about our holiday decorations are the nutcrackers.

His fetish began on a small scale. From a post-Christmas sale he brought home a set of four short, fat nutcracker ornaments. For the next season I got him another set of six miniature men with movable mandibles to hang on the tree.

The mania heightened after we married. A few years ago a shop downtown closed its doors and offered steals on holiday décor. We bought a three-foot nutcracker with a tall black fur hat and cape and named him Leopold. Another after-Christmas sale a year or two later produced Vladimir—as large as Leo but with auburn curls, a crown and a scepter—nutcracker nobility, apparently. This year Tim came home with a mouth-moving, timbered trooper of the drum-playing variety. “We didn’t have one that was playing a drum.” he told me. Now we do.

I hadn't noticed what a biased sampling of the population is represented by nutcrackers. I guess generally they’re supposed to be from Teutonic or Slavic stock. Being your average variety, U.S.-born, European mutt , it never struck me as odd that all the nutcrackers you usually see are white—until yesterday. Yesterday I found a dark-skinned nutcracker. He has what appears to be sun-bleached hair and rides a trusty white rocking horse. Without hesitation I scooped him into my cart, whisked him through the checkout line, brought him home and presented him to the troops.

My new dusky hero now flanks the living room mantle with Vladimir and Santa while Yuri keeps his prime location on the coffee table. I’m still working on a name for the dark prince. I haven’t heard any mumbling from the rest of the corps about the difference of his skin color which leads me to believe that either nutcrackers are colorblind or they just don’t care. Isn’t that refreshing?

Yuri, Vladimir, Santa and the newest corps member.

Now I’m keeping my eye out for more ethnically diverse nutcrackers because I think it’s well past time to integrate the battalion. And if ever I see a female nutcracker, she’s coming home too. Oh, I know, and I agree—there are plenty of female nutcrackers out there (perhaps you’ve even dated one or God forbid, married one) but those are all walking, talking human beings.

So in the face of this change I can’t help but wonder: What do nutcrackers think about “Don’t ask, don’t tell”? What will the brigade say should I ever bring home a nutcracker dressed in a pink tutu? Because believe me, I’m looking. I’m looking.

Any suggestions for a name?