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”
- 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.
- Put fish in a baking dish. No, not that one.
- Sprinkle with lemon juice. LEMON juice. Put the apple juice down.
- 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.
- Clean the Mrs. Dash off the floor. (Sigh)
- Cover the dish with foil…oops, out of foil. Put fish in fridge while you run to the market.
- 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.
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?