Food Issues Redux

I come from a line of good cooks. My great-grandmother, Mimi, made a Tomato-Beef Soup that I swear once made my father weep. (This is despite having to use, in her words, “Goyishe bones.”) My grandmother has a recipe for an amazing Apricot Chicken that I like to think her ancestors carried with them as they fled some shtetl in the Ukraine on their way to begin a new life glazing poultry in America, but, in actuality, is one she found on the back of a box of Lipton soup. She is a magician. My own mother, when properly motivated, makes a lasagna that would make an Italian chef weep. (“Of course I know Italian food,” she once said. “I’m Jewish.”) Obviously, the bar has been set pretty high.

I seem to be the Muggle in the family, because my success in the culinary arts…well, let’s just say that although the bar is high, I managed to find a very tall stool and I’m at the end of it having a gin and tonic.

I have tried. Lo, have I tried. My problem seems to be that I have no desire to find a small repertoire of dishes that I do well and stick to them. I am always experimenting with new things, techniques, gadgets and ingredients, and have been left wanting. (I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do with a chafing dish.) And while I’m not good in the kitchen, I do love kitchen gadgets. I have a thing that turns zucchini into something resembling angel hair pasta. I have a food processor with attachments I still don’t understand, and they confuse and frighten me. I have two different kinds of egg poachers and a thing that’s supposed to slice avocado, but since it is lacking a release button it just turns the slices into blobs. So it’s not for lack of enthusiasm.

For example, I once made an eggplant casserole that turned greenish-orange. Need more? One – no matter how thoroughly I think I drain pasta, I invariably wind up with a pool of red water at the bottom of my plate. Two – I tend not to sauté anything, because half of it will wind up on the floor. (I guess I get a little overexcited.) I cannot, for the life of me, mince anything. I think it means to cut things really, really small. But I tend to get bored so the pieces of what ever I’m mincing tend to get bigger and bigger and by the time I’m done it’s like a small amount of tiny pieces and three big honking pieces. (Oooh! I can go get another kitchen gadget to mince things, which I will never use and lose all the pieces for! Fun!)

If I concentrate very hard, though, I manage to find some sort of offbeat equilibrium in the kitchen. I find if I stick to a minimum number of ingredients and no fancy strategy, I can create something edible. Take, for example, fish. On the Food Network, Rachael Ray might suggest a grilled filet of cod with roasted spring vegetables, and a nice dill sauce. Paula Deen would probably be a proponent of wrapping a stick of butter on it. (Sidenote: I take no issue with this.) On the TV show in my head, however, I have a much simpler technique, and one that I think would be more helpful to folks like me:

“Fish à la Jen”

  1. Take fish out of freezer. Make sure it is indeed fish, and not, for example, a blue-ice pack. Give it time to defrost in the refrigerator. Try not to do this five minutes before you start making dinner.
  2. Put fish in a baking dish. No, not that one.
  3. Sprinkle with lemon juice. LEMON juice. Put the apple juice down.
  4. Use any spice that you wouldn’t use in baking. No, not that one. The other one. No, the one that says…oh never mind. Just grab the Mrs. Dash.
  5. Clean the Mrs. Dash off the floor. (Sigh)
  6. Cover the dish with foil…oops, out of foil. Put fish in fridge while you run to the market.
  7. Come back from the market with three things other than the foil, look at the fish, say, “The hell with it,” and put a Lean Cuisine in the microwave.

Pairs well with an already-open bottle of Chardonnay. Eat standing over the sink.

Bon Appétit!

I’ve looked around, and it seems that a lot of other people don’t know what the hell they’re doing, either. I’ve been to too many un-catered Christmas parties, backyard BBQs, and office potlucks to know that there are damn few culinary competents out there. Once, when I still worked in an office, we had something called “Dip Day.” Basically, it’s organized snacking, as anyone who wanted to participate was to bring in a dip and something with which to dip into the aforementioned…dip. (I’m sensing a theme.) I didn’t usually participate, but I was feeling wild and crazy that day so I brought in a very nice Fiesta Dip from Trader Joe’s, and some guacamole-flavored chips. (See? Store-bought. Know your limitations.)

One of the women on my team, defying the rules inherent in the title “Dip Day,” brought in something called “Monkey Bread.” I had to have a piece, because who can resist the lure of something with the word “monkey” in it?

Oddly enough, it had no bananas in it. (Or monkeys, thank goodness.) It was an absolutely horrifying concoction of cut-up pieces of biscuit coated in sugar, cinnamon and melted butter, and then baked. (Actually it was slightly under-baked, so it was also a bit mushy.)

Of course, I didn’t know this when I went to try it.

I had one of those “What the hell???” moments when something doesn’t taste the way you expected. I was expecting something banana-ish; I got a sugar and cinnamon-coated oily lump. (It was one of those things where it wasn’t immediately bad; I kept thinking, “Is this good or is this icky?”)

The funny thing is, when she brought it in, she kept apologizing to everyone, saying how it didn’t turn out like it usually does, she used a different brand of whatever, blah blah blah. We all told her, don’t apologize, we’re sure it’s fine; if you hadn’t said anything we wouldn’t have noticed. (We noticed.)

It reminded me of the “Lemon Bars of Death” incident earlier that year.

The woman who baked them didn’t call them that, of course. I think she referred to them as her “famous” Lemon Bars. I’m generally not into Lemon Bars, but she was so enthusiastic about them I had to see what the fuss was about.

Let’s just say that my only thought after biting into one was, “This must be what evil tastes like.”

I think it was supposed to be powdered sugar that was sprinkled over the top, but I suspect that it might have been cornstarch, because I swear to God that one bite sucked all the moisture out of my mouth. She chose that moment, of course, to ask me if I liked it. It was hard to answer, as it seemed that the Lemon Bar of Death got bigger and bigger the more I chewed it. So I gave her my biggest “Bite ‘Em and Smile” face, made a yummy noise, and silently cursed myself for not having the guts to spit it out in her paper clip holder.

Anytime someone adds the word “famous” to his or her dish, you know you’re in trouble.

My Mom’s friend Pam used to go on and on about her “Famous Porcupine Balls.” (It’s not what you’re thinking. Stop it.) Finally, she invited us over for dinner so we could try them. I looked at my plate, and saw what looked like…meatballs. They tasted like meatballs. There was nothing inherently wrong with them, but I just couldn’t figure out where the “Porcupine” part of the recipe figured in. Could you throw them at porcupines, theoretically, if cornered? Do porcupines particularly enjoy this combination of meat and spices? Are they made of porcupine? It remained a mystery until half way through the meal, when Pam suddenly exclaimed, “Oh! I forgot to put the rice in the meatballs!”

They were supposed to look like porcupines. I never would have guessed that in a million years.

Potlucks can be a minefield, in general. There does seem to be a glut on processed meat products wrapped in bread, various things sprinkled on cream cheese and wrapped in tortillas, and of course, the ubiquitous three-bean salad. (Run fast, run far.) I no longer participate, as I would always wind up next to the chef du crock-pot and have to listen to her singing the praises of her stewed meat in sauce. I never want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I also don’t want to go into a song and dance about how I really, really, really don’t want to try it. Some people are over-sensitive about their food, though, and when you say, “No, thanks” they get really intense and practically growl, “Try iiiiiitttt…” So you put a little on your plate, stand there half-heartedly and enthuse, “Oh, yeah, yeah, great, great.” It is oddly stressful. I know they probably stayed up until one in the morning putting this stuff together but that means there’s some negatives vibes happening with that Pigs-in-a-Blanket simmered in cranberry-caramel sauce and I have enough food guilt running through my head 24/7 so I don’t need any of YOUR ISSUES, DONNA.

And why do so many potluck dishes contain the words, “Easy,” “Bundles,” or “Mold?” (The shape, not the fungal status.) It’s as if there are only about seven or eight basic recipes that were invented in a church basement somewhere in the Midwest in the 1930s, and we’ve all been working on variations since then. Perhaps there is a secret team of scientists somewhere who have devoted their lives to figuring out how many different ways cream cheese can be utilized, and deciphering the algebraic formulas needed to determine exactly how to get the fruit cocktail suspended perfectly in the Jell-O, and not float to the top like mine always does. And I will never eat anything that has mayonnaise in it at a potluck, because I always imagine the scene from The Office where Michael Scott goes to a cocktail party and brings potato salad that has been sitting in the trunk of his car for several hours. So basically, I wind up eating carrot sticks and the aforementioned gelatin dessert. Next time I’m roped into one of these things, I may have to bring a secret flask, because if I’m faced with one more Seven-Layer Salad (with peas) I’m going to need a stiff drink.

Food at any party can be a bit dodgy. You never know what to expect. When my grandparents threw parties, for example, the food was plentiful and very good. There was only a small bar for drinks, but no one cared because they had waiters going around with silver plates of tiny quiche and shrimp the size of your thumb (which is totally kosher if you eat it standing up). On the flip side, I went to a party at a co-worker’s house once, and my mother warned me to eat first, on the premise that WASPs don’t know from food. She was right. There were four separate bars, including a daiquiri station, but everyone was eating gherkins on a stick. What is wrong with you people? I silently screamed, as I searched for a spare lime wedge to suck on.

I just discovered Instagram (welcome to 2011, Jenny. Why thank you!) and I find that I’m following two kinds of people: those who post pictures of their pets (hello, Golden Doodles!) and those who post recipes and pictures of their food. Maybe it’s a bit twee to get excited over an over-decorated cupcake with a unicorn horn, but I’m totally in. I follow a couple of people from “The Great British Baking Show” and I squeal with glee over a frosted gingersnap. And I know someone who posts pictures of his adventures on the Dim Sum circuit in San Francisco and it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. If I can’t cook I can at least watch people who can.

IS THAT OK WITH YOU, DONNA?

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The Old Grey Mare

Every so often, I become very resentful of the fact that I am no longer twenty-two years old. When you’re young, your body generally works like it’s supposed to. Nothing pops, creaks, aches or leaks. You recover from exertion pretty quickly. And you sure as hell don’t make an “Oy…urumph” sound when you get up from a chair. As I get older, I find that every little thing that goes wrong is cause for alarm. Every headache is a tumor, and a patch of dry skin on my arm causes me to fear that my elbow is going to fall off at any time. It’s exhausting.

When you’re young, you can get away with a great deal of injustices to your body. Then, I could get by on three hours of sleep, shake it off, eat a granola bar, and get on with my day. Now, I’ve become so concerned with preserving the health I have left that I will read any magazine article with a headline that contains the words “anti-aging,” “youth enhancing,” or “saggy ass.” I try to wade through the plethora of information designed to enhance health. Every so often, for example, I try to quit drinking coffee. Coffee dehydrates the skin, they say. Exhausts the adrenal glands. Quit or die! In vulnerable moments, I fall prey to those über-health nuts who insist coffee is evil. I don’t know why I listen. I love my coffee. It is a happy, rainbow/unicorn/fuzzy ducky thing that has me in its claw-covered talons. The last time I quit, I lasted three days. It was a valiant effort, but three days of grumpiness, generalized weepiness, and feeling like I couldn’t even lift my hands over my head was enough. Sure, good health was my motivation, but the lack of caffeine made me feel so awful that I usually wound up sitting on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night eating saltines. Or toast. Or leftover…whatever.  So I’m still drinking coffee. It’s really a non-negotiable. Even the terrible coffee that is present in every office in which I’ve ever worked – I’ll choke it down.

Speaking of which, there should be a tiny little place in hell for the person who takes the last cup of coffee from the pot and walks away without making more. I once seriously considered going to Human Resources and suggesting surveillance cameras for the coffee maker. That way we could identify the culprit(s), and while I knew there was really no way to enforce this miscarriage of justice, if we knew who they were we could have walked by their desks during the course of the day and FROWNED at them. Apparently I get more passive-aggressive when I’m mildly dehydrated and adrenally depleted.

That better not be the last cup, friend-o.

For a few months in the early 1990s, I was a vegan. It didn’t go well. Now, I believe that a vegan diet can be incredibly healthy and that we all, collectively, could do with a little less animal products being shoved into our craws, but I was a Bad Vegan. I basically lived on large quantities of brown rice, butter beans, soy burgers and celery. I was tired, cranky, and due to the fact I apparently have an intolerance to soy, not a hell of a lot of fun to be around. But I thought I was being “healthy,” and, godammit, I was willing to suffer. I sat at restaurants, sipping my herbal tea in the most sanctimonious manner possible, all the while digging my nails into my hands to keep myself from diving face first into the basket of warm bread and butter the waitress just brought. I also bought into the ultra-low-fat diet for a while. Fat free dressing, fat free cheese, no oil, no butter, no joy. I was super-cranky, my skin got really, really dry and I swear I creaked when I walked. It got to the point where a friend offered me $50 to “just eat a fucking avocado already.”

I’m long-since done with the strict regimes. It’s tough on anyone to be so rigid, but especially tough when you’re a compulsive/emotional eater. You try to be “good,” but the moment someone looks at you sideways you run home and shove the first thing you can find into your mouth to push down whatever feelings have started to bubble up. Health doesn’t even enter the picture when you’re inhaling stale Cheezy-Do’s. Wouldn’t it be nice if we craved “healthy” food when we’re upset? I wish I reached for broccoli when I’m stressed, or Swiss chard when I’m upset, or quinoa when I’m lonely. Nope, it’s got to be mashed potatoes or baked ziti, and preferably in large quantities. I do have a fair amount of self-awareness when I’m food-medicating, and often I have starch-induced visions of Richard Simmons in his sparkly shorts, grapevining his way over to me and wagging his finger in disapproval to the tune of “On Broadway.” Once in a while it’s the mental picture of Gwyneth Paltrow writing a blog about how a shot of organic wheatgrass grown at the foot of a mossy hill in a small village in Switzerland and costs $120 an ounce is guaranteed to kill the urge to eat the leftover boiled garlic potatoes. Emotional issues aside, I seem to have been born without an “off” switch that says, “Put down the food shovel, please.” I’m convinced that the only reason I don’t weigh 600 pounds is that I don’t eat fast food, and that it’s a good thing I don’t live in a big house, because there are some days I feel like one of those fish that will grow to the size of their environment if you keep feeding them. However, I’ve started working on the mindset that the emotional issues that go along with compulsive eating are just as toxic as the mustard pretzel logs, so I know I need to find a different way to cope. It’s a process.

I have a growing obsession with what goes on my face as well as in my face. I’m a beauty products junkie, scouring women’s magazines for the Next Big Thing. The cosmetics section of the drug store is like my personal Field of Dreams, each bottle and tube with its own set of promises, large and small.

“This will make me younger!”

“This will make me taller!”

“This will make me blond and gentile!”

They rarely come through. I would soak in a tub of marinara sauce if I thought it would give me back the skin I had when I was eighteen. Even I, however, have my limits. I recently read about – get this – a bird poop facial. That’s right, somewhere in the world, women are willing to subject their faces to a mask of nightingale doody. It is, of course, wildly expensive. Look, I’m not against trying weird things in the name of beauty. I once gave myself an egg white facial. I put mayonnaise in my hair when I was thirteen, because I read it was a “natural conditioner.” I want to look youthful, but I draw the line at putting something on my face that makes me go, “Awww, man, gross!” when I see it on the windshield of my car.

Why are there so many pictures with women putting fruit on their eye?

I realize that aging is a natural process. We all deal with it. My ninety-nine-year-old grandmother once said, “I don’t mind getting older. Consider the alternative.” She has two master’s degrees and a PhD; I should probably listen to her. But I’m still in the phase where I’m trying to fight the good fight. I stopped getting carded about eight years ago. The first time it happened, I tried to force my I.D. on the cashier; he kept resisting, as if to say, “I believe you, lady!” Plus, the sign now says, “You need to have been born before this date in 1991 to buy alcohol.” In 1991, I was already old enough to buy alcohol. Reading this sign makes me feel like I need to buy alcohol. On the other hand, alcohol dehydrates the skin, making you look older. This in turn makes me feel depressed, prompting the need to buy some wine. It’s kind of a boozy vicious circle.

That’s gotta sting.

I’m also beginning to succumb to the theory that the fountain of youth can be found in a BHA-free water bottle at the gym. I’m resisting with every fiber of my being, but I’m being drowned out by the sound of weights clanging and the mental image of Madonna’s braided rope arms. I once voluntarily walked up and down seven flights of stairs without stopping, to get one of those ubiquitous office exercise breaks. It was not a well thought out plan. I survived, but when I got back to the seventh floor I was pretty sure my lungs were going to pop out of my chest and wave “Hi” to me from the floor. I knew the only way it was going to get easier was if I did it every day, but I was not able to convince my body of this fact. But I’m working on getting some more exercise; in fact, I think it’s becoming a true necessity. I need it, basically, because my body parts are no longer stationed exactly where they used to be. I mean, they’re all still in the same general ZIP Code, but they don’t seem to be as eager to be there. I was shopping at Ikea the other day, and I got the distinct feeling that someone was directly behind me. I even heard a slight, “flap, flap” sound. I kept glancing behind me until I realized that no one was following me – it was MY OWN ASS.

Fine, fine. I’ll get back on the elliptical. But those endorphins better kick in or next time I’ll be on the treadmill with a glass of chardonnay.

I heard someone once say, “Age is all relative.” That’s true, unless you’re really old. The relativity comes into play when you’re around those who are much younger and obviously don’t deserve it. Recently, I was in line at Starbucks, standing behind some girls who really tested this theory. One of them was pulling the, “Oh, I can’t believe I’m so old!” crap. Apparently she had just had a birthday, and was having a bit of an existential crisis.

“I can’t BELIEVE I’m twenty four!” she exclaimed. “Wow! That seems so old! Boy, I’m really getting up there!”

Yes, you are aging quite rapidly.

She has no idea how close she came to being smacked in the face with my purse. I could have gotten away with it, too – she was wearing those stupid high heel flip-flops, and even at my age I could have outrun her. I haven’t quite settled into a groove yet, though, and I’m still ever so slightly resentful of those twenty four-year-olds, with their stupid shoes and chocolate croissants. I don’t even want the croissants, but something about them just makes me want to…oh, I don’t know…SMACK THOSE BITCHES DOWN! Oh, I’m sorry, was that me? I have some repressed anger. I’m working on it. Hand me the non-fat latté, please.

But it’s really a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Despite their enviable abs and lack of cellulite, I’m not sure I’d want to go back to my early twenties. On one hand, I feel like I know a hell of a lot more now than I did then; I’m able to have a wider perspective on things and I am much less willing to suffer fools gladly (and even less willing to date them). I would like to believe that I’m like a fine wine (or whine), improving with age. But still, there are days when all it takes is one chicky tottering around on her mega-platform heels (which totally look like hooves, by the way), with her fake tan, short skirt and tight neck to bring me right back to feeling like Miss Daisy without the cute hats and wise chauffeur. But I take solace in the fact that all of those young twenty-somethings who have around zero body fat, smoke, go to tanning salons, and drink a lot will soon be in for a big surprise. In my forties, I’ll have decent skin. In their forties, they’ll look like leather handbags.

You know, sometimes it’s the little, petty things that make life worth living.

In order to get organized and plan my needed youth-retaining regime, I have recently subscribed to a health magazine. I figure this way I’ll have all the things that I should be doing in one publication, for easy reference. Apparently, I need to do yoga, exfoliate, moisturize, eat fruit, but not too much fruit, find the right sports bra, massage my scalp, have regular, awesome sex, meditate, cook whole grains, grow my own vegetables, volunteer, make facial masks from yogurt and honey, sleep eight hours, work my quads, detox, use just the right amount of olive oil, strengthen my core, drink six barrels of water, and get the perfect eyebrow arch. Sounds simple enough. I’ll start tomorrow. And then I’ll be too tired to worry about my wrinkly knees. Or get anything else done, really, but at least I’ll look fabulous.

Just kidding.

In all honestly, I’m trying. I am. But I will say I have stopped forcing myself to drink buckets and buckets of water. They say that it helps kill the appetite. Uh, they LIE. All that happens is that I always have to pee and I make a sloshing sound when I walk. I don’t want to build my liver an above-ground swimming pool, thank you very much. And running to the restroom does not count as aerobic conditioning. I checked.

Getting older doesn’t just happen on the outside. It happens on the inside, too. I asked my Dad what he found to be the toughest thing about getting older.

“Change,” he said.

I didn’t understand. Of course we’re all changing.

“No,” he replied. “Routines. You become more conservative with your behavior. As you get older, the idea of change becomes a little scary.”

All of a sudden, I totally understood.

When you’re younger, you can take risks, because you’re immortal and have all the time in the world to recover. As you get older, the stakes get higher and you know it will take longer to bounce back. Your life is more stable, and there’s a sense of security in that. You know what you know, and the idea of anything changing your current reality is scary. I get it. I’m seeing it in my own life, too. I think twice before making plans. I don’t buy the impractical shoes. I don’t stay out late very often. Major life decisions are becoming fewer and fewer because they might change the status quo. But isn’t that when we really get old? Forget the crow’s feet, forget the grey hair – it’s when we refuse to change that we’re really in trouble. We must resist becoming overwhelmed by inertia. Change and grow, change and grow. One might feel that it’s too much; that we get to a certain age and think, “Well, that’s it. I’m done. I am who I am and this is my life.” That has a certain sly seductiveness, in a way, because it lets us off the hook, as if our journey is done. But it never really is, is it? As long as we’re here, we’re changing and growing. How we live our life determines how much we grow, and whether we can measure it in inches or miles. If youth is our goal, maybe that’s how we can hold on to it longer – by being willing to keep on risking, moving, and changing. Living. There’s an element to that which is also kind of scary, but as my Grandma said, consider the alternative. We can grasp at all the anti-aging creams and injectables we want, but the real fountain of youth is the ability to keep going. Shake things up. Stare into the abyss. And while I’m doing all that, maybe I’ll slap on some eye cream and do some lunges. Couldn’t hurt.

I’m also going to work on some sort of coffee-wine hybrid. I could make a fortune. I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

Party On

I’ve never been what you might call “The life of the party.” I’m not the worst person to invite – I don’t stand in corners shooting eye daggers at people or espousing the dangers of chewing gum – but I’m definitely not the pivot around which any social gathering rotates, and I can’t be talked into wearing a paper party hat. And party games? Yeah, I’m making a bee-line for the door.

Please don’t make me wear a paper hat.

But there are some positives. Crab cakes, for example. Always a nice touch. “Crab cakes,” I might think. “The host isn’t a tight-ass with the money. Oooh, baby quiche…” The trick here is to make friends with the cater waiters so you get them while they’re hot (the crab cakes, that is). If it’s buffet-style, you need to hover – unobtrusively – so that you can get the crab cakes fresh from the oven as the hostess puts them out, but not so closely that folks think you’re plotting to poison the artichoke dip. If the food has a toothpick in it, I take a pass. There is always concern with food on sticks. There are never any trashcans out, so I never know what to do with the toothpick. Put it in my purse? In the potted plant? Throw decorum to the wind and start picking the Gruyere out of my molars? (Once, I was at a party that was so boring, I seriously considered going around the room collecting the toothpicks so that I might build a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood cabin on the credenza.) Now, if you have both a drink and a small plate of food in your hands, unless you can score a chair you’re pretty much stuck posing in the corner. Waiting for a seat at a party is much like an airplane circling around the airport waiting for clearance to land. By the time you do, you’re cranky, tired, and ready to lick the inside of your mini-bag of pretzels. If you sit, though, you have to watch your drink, especially if you have a hyper-vigilant hostess who insists on cleaning up every fifteen seconds. Then you’ll have to get up for another drink, which, of course, means you will lose your seat and the whole process begins again. It’s Boozy Musical Chairs.

So “yay” for the drinks and tiny food. But there is one barrier to having a good time, as far as I’m concerned – small talk. Don’t get me wrong; I excel at the small talk. I can feign interest in a total stranger’s life, nod sincerely in the right places, and ask appropriate yet reasonably impersonal questions that allow the talker to think that I find him or her fascinating. For about three minutes. After that, little mental bells go off, like the ding-ding-ding signaling the end of a round in a boxing match, and I need to either excuse myself politely or fight the urge punch him/her in the head. (So far it hasn’t come to blows. SO FAR.)

How hard I want to punch him/her in the head will usually be based on what kind of party guest they are. Sometimes they’re the type that I call “The Best Buddy,” which means they’ll tell you their entire life story in the first thirty seconds of meeting. This is dicey, because while you don’t want to get stuck playing therapist, you also don’t want to be the person who, after the talker has tearfully described how their biology professor battled mightily but eventually succumbed to a fatal case of dishpan hands and died in their arms, just smiles brightly and says, “How sad. Oh, look! Crab cakes!”

The Best Buddy is rivaled by The Clam, who won’t give it up no matter how hard you try.

“Oh, you work in barnacle removal? How fascinating. Did you study that in college?”

“No.”

“OK…how do you know Jane?”

“Work.”

“Have you worked together a long time?”

“Yes.”

“Do you enjoy your work?”

“Eh.”

And so on. But these two types don’t hold a candle to that most notorious of party guests – “The Boring Person Who Thinks They’re God’s Gift.” These people will seek out the weak members of the herd, isolate them, and lull them into a semi-trance with their narcissistic drone:

“So of course I chose the blue one oh do you like Lil’Wayne I had front row tickets a gift from a client so I took this really hot guy/girl from accounting and we had a super dinner first I had the flounder and told the most HI-larious joke and he/she said it was just hilarious I should do stand up comedy how does it go two cows walk into a bar no wait it’s a couple of goats love your dress/slacks I wonder if I can get them in my size it’s so hard to find things that fit me because I’m in such great shape hey do you like polka music I know this place it’s off the beaten path we could check it out oh look crab cakes…”

And they always find me. Every time.

A good skill to develop is the “Nod and Pass.” As soon as you can, smile, nod approvingly, find another sucker in the room and pass the Buddy/Clam/God’s Gift off to them. You have to act like you’re doing both of them a favor so the transition goes smoothly and you can get the hell out of there. Much like Bridget Jones tried to do, introduce people with interesting tidbits to get the conversation going:

“Oh, here’s someone you just have to meet…Nigel Tappernose, meet Hilary Boomschlaken. Nigel, Hilary is a horse-loving, Twilight-reading stick in the mud with a propensity for random cursing and overindulging in peach schnapps. Hilary, Nigel is a gum-snapping, nutjob mama’s boy with abandonment issues and breath that could knock over a cow. “

Or something like that.

The problem is that I’m just not interested in most people. (I don’t consider it conceit on my part; I assume that people, in general, have no particular interest in me, either.) I try, but I have no interest whatsoever in hearing about trips to The Wisconsin Dells, grandchildren, recent surgeries, or home repairs. And I also don’t want to hear about how everything will kill you these days; I just want to enjoy a diet cola without worrying that it will cause me to break out in purple scales, thank you very much. And for the love of all that is holy, I don’t want to be lectured to about how I need to find someone quickly because I’m no spring chicken. Yes, I’m fine being single; no, I’m not gay; no, I haven’t joined that dating site; and yes, you should just mind your own business even though you’re “just trying to be helpful.”

Yeah, Marge. Where’s the bar?

Considering my general dislike for attending parties, one might think that when it came to hosting parties, my attitude would take a 180° turn and I’d turn into a Martha Stewart disciple. One might think that, but one would be very, very wrong. Martha Stewart makes me feel highly inadequate. I really think that her magazine is the equivalent of 1950s housewife porn. Homemade centerpieces made from shoelaces! Antique curtains repurposed into wrapping paper! Bronzing baby shoes in your kitchen and turning them into charming wall sconces! It’s all very exhausting. And Real Simple magazine makes me feel incredibly inadequate. (“But it’s supposed to be Real Simple! I can’t do it! What the fuck is wrong with me?”) On one of the very rare occasions that I actually threw a party, I found myself lying on my kitchen floor about twenty minutes before people were supposed to arrive, frantically scrubbing the underside of the refrigerator door with an old toothbrush. My friend Sophie stood over me with a glass of wine and a dour look on her face.

“What on earth are you doing? No one is going to look there!”

“Someone could look there!” I exclaimed. “Martha says no detail should be overlooked!”

“I think she was talking about silverware.” Sophie said, handing me a glass of water.

Taking the drink, I looked up at her from my position under the door. “Do you have a straw?”

Sophie turned to walk away. “I’m finding you a Xanax.”

I also tend to get a bit over-involved about the food. (Some might use the word, “crazed,” but to each his own.) At this party, I wanted to do a nice vegetable tray, with the vegetables cut in unique and interesting shapes, perhaps reminiscent of Monet’s “Water Lilies.” (You know, as you do.) After a stare-down with the food processor and the realization that I had no idea how to turn a stack of celery sticks into a lily pad, I decided to just arrange them according to carbohydrate count. (P.S. Nobody noticed.) To add to the drama, when someone asked me later where I bought the dip that I spent fifteen minutes carefully blending and seasoning, it almost ended in tears.

Clutching Martha Stewart’s latest issue under one arm, I did a final mental inventory to make sure nothing had been overlooked.

“What’s left?” I said. “I’ve got drinks, dips, hot apps, cold apps, veggie tray, crackers…I know I’ve forgotten something! I just know it!”

“Did you put out plates?” Sophie asked.

“Oh, good Lord – plates! How could I forget plates? This whole thing is going to suck.”

“I think you need to calm down,” Sophie said, pulling Martha from under my arm.

“I’m sorry,” I replied, placing my hands on my forehead. “It must be the stress of entertaining.”

DING! The oven timer announced itself.

“Cocktail!” I yelled, and headed for the bar.

“What’s that ‘ding’ for?”

“I have no idea!”

And a good time was had by all.

Now, I don’t throw parties anymore, as one might imagine, but I’ve recently discovered the freezer section of Costco where they have all different kinds of pre-made appetizers in really big bags, so I may have to lift my self-imposed party embargo and have some folks over. Otherwise, that’s a lot of mini Spanikopita to handle all on my own. (I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it might take a while.)

I just know the party invites are going start ROLLING in after this.

Food, And How Not To Do It

First of all, what in the everloving fuck is this?

Pea and mayo pizza?

I’m all for pushing the culinary envelope but there are just some things you don’t mess with. Even people who like pineapple on pizza (you know who you are; don’t identify yourselves) look at this and think we must join forces to stop it. I don’t think it’s evil, per se, but Peter H. Corn this is bordering on sandwich territory, and a crap one at that, and as far as I’m concerned it should not be taking the name of Pizza in vain.

So, don’t do this.

People are weird about their food. And not just food –  food placement. Some people will not eat unless their plate looks perfect, their food arranged like a clock, with protein at 6:00, starch at 2:00, and vegetables at 10:00. OK, I kind of get it, but they’ve made no arrangements for condiments. Where do they go? 4:37? 9:22? And does Daylight Savings Time factor into this at all? I envision this person moving everything on their plate exactly once inch to the left every autumn. And what if, God forbid, the gravy on the 6:00 chicken seeps over to the 10:00 asparagus tips? Do you hit the snooze button? Eating with this person would make me very tense, as they frantically scraped the sauce back to 7:30.  Can you imagine being at a dinner party with someone like that? While the Clock Guy is wondering what to do with an extra starchy vegetable (2:00? 10:00? WHERE THE HELL DOES IT GO?), you could have another person arranging everything on the plate alphabetically.

By the way, can you imagine Clock Guy teaching his kid to drive? “Hands at Vegetables and Starch, Johnny.”

How about this dream meal?  I don’t know what’s going on here, but it looks like the Mom and Dad mushroom brought the little mushrooms to see what happens when you don’t look both ways before crossing the street.

Even worse, though, is the person who plays a little fast and loose with their food hang-ups, as certain food might touch other food, but ONLY under certain circumstances. The meat loaf may touch the mashed potatoes, but the peas or carrots cannot be touching the meatloaf. Peas and carrots may touch the mashed potatoes, however, but only if the mashed potatoes don’t have gravy. This particular quirk involves a set of variables that would trip up Archimedes, and would definitely bring the dinner conversation to a halt if she has to whip out a protractor just to get through dessert.

This is a charmer. Because if you’re going to have shashlik, you really want it to be caucasian.

 

 

Despite my snarkiness, I’m pretty open to trying new things. However, years ago I worked with a woman whose food repertoire was pretty much established by age nine. If she hadn’t eaten it before that age, she wasn’t having any of it. Once, our team went out to lunch at a Thai restaurant, just to see if we could get her to push her boundaries. While the rest of us enjoyed our curry noodles and chicken satay, the poor girl tried to order a hamburger. The waitress looked at her like she was nuts, and we tried to placate her with a bowl of chicken broth with vegetables. I’m sure she went home that night and wept over a fluffernutter sandwich.

Ok, what is this? Dessert? Mayonnaise Jell-o mold? I’m just going to name it “Scary Clown Eyeball.”  I won’t eat anything that creeps me out.

And it is watching you.

Look, we all have our food issues. I’ll eat smoked oysters right out of the can, standing over a sink with a copy of Us Weekly on the counter. I’m not proud. We, collectively, and perhaps me, specifically, are overly obsessed with what is on our plate these days. Discussions, articles, and news pieces abound, often delivered with a level of salaciousness normally reserved for stories of sexual perversity. Oh, my God, carbs! Oh, for Heaven’s sake, sodium! Oh, my stars, trans fat! Even the government is getting into the act, with New York’s ban on sodas larger than sixteen ounces. (If you want thirty-two ounces, though, you just have to buy two sixteen-ounce containers. This means that they really don’t give a flying fig about how much sugar you ingest; they’re just going to make you work for it.) I’m currently trying to give up sugar. It’sgoingfinethankyouit’sokohmygodIhateeveryoneright now.

This just makes no sense. It’s not a dessert, and who in the hell would serve this as an entree? I don’t even understand the thought process here.

“You know what these bananas need? HAM.”

“Oh, GOD, yes. And put a Goddamn cream sauce on it. I hate food!”

And it comes with a side of grapes. If I was served this I’d probably just start throwing the grapes at people until I was asked to leave. Fucking banana ham.

One food thing I struggle with is the idea of finishing everything on my plate. I have no idea where this came from. My mother never forced me to finish everything, so it’s not some sort of latent guilt trip. My grandmother was big on the Clean Plate Club, and once, years ago, pulled the “starving children in China” routine on me. My mother wasn’t having any of it.

“Finish your meal,” Grandma implored me. “You’re so lucky, living here in America with all that we have. Think of the starving children who would love to have your dinner.”

Mom wasn’t moved. “Mail it to them,” she replied.

I have a theory about guilt. Put two Jewish mothers in a room, and they kind of cancel each other out.

Here’s another vintage recipe picture I found. It’s a put-your-meal-in-gelatin, all-in-one deal. Is that fish with the skin on for the bottom layer? And again with peas? I’m going to assume the top layer is some sort of carrot schmear.

I don’t know what the yellow stuff is. Maybe it’s the antidote.

Everyone and their orthodontist has a cookbook. Gwyneth Paltrow has one, too, and it includes something called “Duck Ragu.” DUCK RAGU. Not only does this recipe call for roasting an entire duck, it also calls for four slices of duck bacon. What the hell is duck bacon? I kind of get the feeling that Gwyneth is messing with us. Even if you manage to procure such a thing, what on earth would you do with the rest of it?

“Hey kids, come downstairs! It’s time for scrambled eggs and duck bacon!”

“Would you like some duck bacon bits on your salad?”

“How about a duck bacon cheeseburger?”

I don’t think it would catch on.

It looks like Mother Bread has come to identify the bodies.

 

 

I don’t cook much, either. I tend to get a bit over-involved. I had a brief foray into vegan cooking in the mid 90s, which led to The Great Bean Ball Disaster of 1994. (Not to be confused with the Neil Balle Incident of 1996.) I had some people over once, and I wanted to do a nice vegetable tray, with the vegetables cut in unique and interesting shapes, perhaps reminiscent of Monet’s “Water Lilies.” (You know, as you do.) After a stare-down with the food processor and the realization that I had no idea how to turn a stack of celery sticks into a lily pad, I decided to just arrange them according to carbohydrate count. (P.S. Nobody noticed.) To add to the drama, when someone asked me later where I bought the dip that I spent fifteen minutes carefully blending and seasoning, it almost ended in tears. Costco, people. Just buy a damn tray.

I don’t know what the fuck is going on here.

 

It just looks like sadness.

I think I will stick to a Crock Pot. Dump it, forget about it. Then…soup! And I can eat the soup while watching people who actually know what they’re doing create flambes and souffles and fricassees and any other meals ending the “es” sound. And create homemade BBQ sauce for their Tex-Mex Asian Fusion Haggis Tacos. And something for dessert that includes ganache. I just like saying “ganache.”

Say it with me. Ganache. Ganache. Ganache.

It’s gone a bit weird now, hasn’t it? Ganache.

As I enter this next phase of my life, I think I’m going to set some kitchen goals for myself. More vegetables. Simpler recipes. Basically, creating meals that don’t put a look of fear on my Dad’s face when I announce, “I found a new recipe!”

That means I am never looking at another Martha Stewart magazine again. I can’t deal with the feelings of inadequacy that come from not being able to fold my napkins into interesting shapes, have cute hanging paper decorations that look like chrysanthemums and are made out of recycled Christmas wrap, make a quick (and easy) fondue, or MacGyver a chocolate fountain out of an umbrella and leftover M&Ms. (P.S. I never have leftover M&Ms.) And I’m never, ever, ever making Gwyneth Paltrow’s Duck Ragu recipe. It’s just beyond me. And this is coming from someone who once tried to make tofu nut loaf.

Yes, tofu nut loaf…let’s just say that it did not end well. I’ve mentally repressed the specifics; I do know that the meal ended with antacids, which may be why I shudder slightly whenever I see a TUMS commercial.

That being said, I’m thinking about doing something with kale. You’ve been warned.

Ganache.

It’s a Little Chilly Here

It’s a bit nippy outside here in the Chicago area. As in, “Go outside for more than a minute and the cold will nip your nose clear off of your face.” I’m not going to make any great observations on the weather; it’s f**king cold. There’s really nowhere else to go with that. Except that during Saturday errands, as the snow really started coming down, I saw a lady walk out of the grocery store with one item. It’s like she thought, “Oh goodness, we’re going to have the coldest temperatures in 17 years – I need PITA CHIPS!”

Also, I’m wearing one of those blanket-with-sleeves things. Because sexy. And I do think they’re the most ridiculous, cheesy things in the world, and I want one in the leopard print.

I’m supposed to be working on my new book, but I’m having a bit of a focus issue. My mind keeps binging around, less like  a pinball game and more  like the first level of a game of “Pong,” admittedly. Still, I’ve had some random bits to chew on:

  • I’ve noticed that with microwave popcorn, there’s about 1.5 seconds that separates “gee, that smells good” and “ew, f**k!” I’m like a safecracker, trying to listen for just the right pattern of pops, before declaring, “Got it!” and totally impressing the hell out of George Clooney’s charming con man/thief movie character. Usually, though, I get momentarily distracted, miss the window, and wind up with the F**k Smell. I think that’s why popcorn comes three to a box.
  • Note to the makers of Stouffer’s frozen foods: Take it down a notch. You don’t need capital letters to write “REVOLUTIONARY GRILLING TRAY” in the cooking directions. You didn’t win the war of independence against the British, you figured out how to brown the crust of my microwave sandwich. Thank you.
  • One of my sixth-grade computer tech students thinks that the “www” in a web address stands for “welcome welcome welcome.” And two of his friends do too, because they copied off his paper. I have just recently removed my palm from my forehead.

Ok, enough for now. I am going to make myself a cup of tea and attempt to write some fiction. Although my cat has her doubts:

"I think it's time you got off Facebook, please."

“I think it’s time you got off Facebook, please.”