Useful Weekend Fluff: Your Fucking Recipes

I hate to distract anyone from the serious business of talking about how FUCKING AWESOME we all are, but it’s come to my attention that many Shapelings are spectacular cooks, some with dazzling signature recipes, and I would like to know more about these things. Tell us, please, about those recipes. Plus any helpful tips you have for those of us who are rather unspectacular cooks.

Speaking of which, one commenter (and I’m sorry I don’t remember who and couldn’t find the comment again when I skimmed back) said something in that thread about feeling like her accomplishments were too mundane to merit unabashed horn-tooting (though happily, she got over it), and the funny thing to me was, one of the first things she listed was being able to sing. Shapelings, I can do a lot of things well, but hoo boy, singing is not one of them. That is no boring, pedestrian talent/achievement to my mind. I have been told a million times that anyone can sing with training, but I would seriously need to put in years of work to be able to do karaoke without causing the audience physical and emotional pain. (I have learned to shut up people who insist, “Oh, come on, it’s karaoke! No one will judge!” by saying, “No, you don’t understand. The problem is not that I’m worried about embarrassing myself. The problem is that you will be embarrassed for me.” That usually makes people drop it. And if you think I’m exaggerating, ask Sweet Machine about playing Rock Band with me.) Xander in the Buffy musical episode? Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia? Finn on Glee? All way, way, WAY better singers than I am. WAY better. (And I have seen what people with training and/or talent and/or better ears than mine say about all of them, so don’t even try to tell me there is hope for a way, way, WAY worse singer than those.) Basically, anyone who can successfully hit the note they were trying for more than about one out of a hundred times is a way better singer than I am. I suppose it’s possible that with extensive training, I could become a passable, or at least somewhat less cringeworthy singer. But I could probably never be good, I could definitely never be great, and since voice training is not a big priority for me, I will most likely remain mind-blowingly bad at it for the rest of my days.

And that’s perfectly OK. I’m Kate fucking Harding either way. But I bring up that particular shortcoming to remind you all that things you might think are too ordinary and unexciting to count as Things That Make You Awesome can, in fact, seem like superpowers to the rest of us. Those of you who can sing, cook, sew, do math, program, make small children like you, keep yourself (let alone other people) organized, play team sports without frustrating the rest of the team to death, function with chronic pain, stretch a dollar, keep from swearing constantly, make a point succinctly or function without half a pot of coffee first thing in the morning all amaze me to varying degrees. Whatever talent, skill or even coping mechanism you take for granted would probably amaze someone. Don’t forget that when assessing your own awesomeness.

OK, now amaze me with your recipes.

Quote of the Day

We’ve gotten ourselves to the point where we’re behaviorally and neurochemically dependent upon food.

-MeMe Roth, during Nightline’s big fat debate

That’s right, you lazy gluttons! This is what your lack of respect for your bodies, the healthcare system, your fellow taxpayers and MeMe’s certificate from a degree mill have wrought.

We are now dependent on food.

It has gotten that bad, people.

I haven’t watched much of the debate, but kudos to The Rotund for getting in there! I don’t think I could have listened to MeMe say that (or anything else) in person without my eyes actually popping out of my head.

Notes toward an elegy: In praise of food

First rule of nutrition: eat or die.

Second rule of nutrition: there are no other rules.

My mother died two weeks ago. She had been deeply ill — dying for so long, so slowly. What we knew would one day happen did: she lost the ability to eat. She had a stroke that made it difficult for her to swallow, to make all those muscles in the mouth and throat cooperate; eating made her so tired — it took so much work — that she would fall asleep after half a cup of yogurt or ice cream. Her body would then work so hard to digest that tiny amount of food that she’d run a fever, every resource she had working at doing what we all try to do every day: eat enough to live. She had food available; she had trained medical help; it was just that her body faced that rule, eat or die, and made a different choice than it had before.

What food she could eat, for those few moments of wakefulness, clearly gave her pleasure. Her diet in her last weeks was ice cream, yogurt, pie filling, milkshakes — anything smooth enough to swallow easily and sugary enough to make it fun. She liked the sweet tastes on her tongue. The food she ate wasn’t to stay alive but rather to provide bodily pleasure as she slipped away. Food, like the liquid morphine she took several times a day, gave her relief from the work of dying. Eat, or die.

My mom was one of the few people in my life who never made me feel ashamed to like food. She taught me and my brothers how to bake cookies and always let us lick the bowl and wooden spoon afterwards. When I was 12 and had my tonsils out, she put me on the aforementioned ice-cream-and-milkshake regimen and read Nancy Drew books to me when I was too tired to read them myself. She knew that food was something that made us live and gave us joy: we eat, and we die, so eat well.

She was a good mother; she loved me — she loved the actual, living world — unconditionally. There are no other rules.

Holiday Meal Planning, Kate-Style

Shapelings, this is the first year since Al and I met that we will be spending Christmas at home instead of in Vegas. Since our families are spread all over two countries and we found out that some friends — specifically, Sweet Machine, Ottermatic, their respective partners and Ottermatic’s bestie (hereafter, OTMBFF) — would be kicking around Chicagoland with no other plans, we decided to host Christmas dinner here.

I’ve had friends over for holiday meals a few times before, and whenever I do, I am beset by an uncharacteristic urge to go full-tilt Martha — which, because I’m me and not Martha, inevitably ends in frustration, tears, and inedible gravy (see below).  I know I can handle turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, which are all I actually want to eat on Thanksgiving or Christmas, but at some point the socially ingrained Lady Neurosis kicks in, and I decide I need to produce exquisite canapes involving lots of phyllo and a standing rib roast and eleven different vegetables requiring trips to three different ethnic markets and some dessert that demands the purchase of edible flowers, a proper pastry bag and a better oven. Usually, I obsess about building the perfect menu for three or four weeks in advance, then compromise on turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and a few new side dish and dessert recipes, only one of which will turn out to be worth the bother.

This year, in part because I’m older and wiser, and in part because we only decided a week ago that we definitely weren’t going to Vegas, I made a conscious decision to knock that shit off and keep it simple. I achieved this by asking myself the following questions before choosing any menu item: 1) Will the taste payoff be greater than the effort expended? 2) Is there any chance at all that my homemade version of this will be better than store-bought? 3) Is the likelihood of my fucking up the recipe greater than the likelihood that we will all be momentarily transported to food heaven?

Shapelings, I can’t tell you how much that simplified my ability to answer the questions that plague me every time I do this. For example:

  • Should I brine the turkey? No. (1, 3)
  • Should I try covering the turkey with a butter-soaked cheesecloth instead of aluminum foil? Sure, why not. (1)
  • Should I make my own pies? No. (1, 2, 3)
  • Should I look for exquisite canape recipes or just put out cheese, crackers and fruit? Cheese, crackers and fruit. (1, 3)
  • Should I dry, chop and season some whole-grain artisanal bread for stuffing or use a bag of Pepperidge Farm cubes? Pepperidge Farm. (1, 2)
  • Should I attempt any recipe for the first time on Christmas and pray that the cooking gods reward my adventurous spirit? Nooooo. (3)
  • What can my guests do if they think any of the above shortcuts mean I’m a failure as a hostess and/or woman? Suck it. (1, 2, 3)

It’s a pretty terrific system, but even that doesn’t mean I’m completely free of guilt and fear of judgment. I now present to you — mostly because it’s amusing but also because it reveals the depths of my issues around food, hostessing and other people’s opinions — an e-mail exchange I have had over the last two days with Ottermatic, the other guests and Al. (The only background info you need, apart from the above, is that Al’s contribution to the Christmas meal is a huge bottle of the cheapest possible vodka, filtered with a Brita to [theoretically] make it more like expensive vodka. He and Mr. Machine recently had a conversation about someone somewhere on the internet who tried that and swore it worked, so he decided to give it a whirl.)

OTM: What shall we bring? Wine or other alcohol and what else?

Me (just to her): What I told Sweet Machine when she asked the same thing last night is below:

I went for the simplest possible menu, so it’s pretty well taken care of.

Things I could still use help with, though:

  • If one or both of you have any talent for making gravy, awesome. I have never pulled it off, so I bought a thing of turkey gravy mix just in case, but if one of you is confident that you can make real pan gravy at game time, the job is yours.
  • I can practically guarantee I’ll need someone to run to 7-11 for shit I forgot, so that is another volunteer opportunity.
  • Solly will need extra snuggles to keep him out from under my feet.

Other than that, I can’t think of anything.

OTM: I will certainly take turns snuggling Solly, but I can also make gravy! Do you have chicken broth, flour, and butter?

Me: I do have all those things! HOORAY FOR GRAVY!

I have no idea why I am incapable of getting the ratio of flour to fat right, but history has shown that I am. The first time I did a holiday meal for friends, I fucked up the gravy so bad I was on the verge of tears until a friend came along and rescued it — but A) I’d already done so much damage that the rescue effort demanded extreme measures, and B) it was a Swedish friend, so the gravy ultimately involved red wine and cranberries and I dunno, Aquavit and mid-century furniture or something, so it was far from the old reliable midwestern taste I’d envisioned when I decided that cooking a bunch of shit I’d never tried to make before for 12 people was a REALLY GOOD IDEA. So from that I learned to A) make sure I had a jar of gravy or packet of gravy mix on hand and B) ask in advance if anyone else would like to take on gravy-making from start to finish.

FYI, I just investigated the flour situation, and I do have a mostly full container of Wondra “sauces and gravies” flour (which I bought ages ago thinking perhaps all-purpose flour was my gravy downfall, but I’ve never actually used it for anything except breading chicken breasts, like, twice). It expires in about two weeks, and I just realized the top was slightly open, so air’s been getting at it for however long, but it does not appear to be buggy. That is ALL YOURS if you want it — I honestly don’t know if the air thing is a real problem. If it is, you might want to bring flour.

OTM: I don’t think that exposing flour to air is bad, as long as it’s not exposed to bugs. I find ingredients in the back of our one, small kitchen cupboard that are expired and use them anyway all the time because the alternative is to buy a new package and then let that expire. I don’t know. I’m pretty cavalier about food safety. Which isn’t to say I’m going to put raw chicken in the gravy or anything, just that I am not afraid of your flour.

Me: I am similarly cavalier about food safety (there will, in fact, be raw chicken in the mashed potatoes, which will be served in a dented can), but I never want to admit that to other people, for fear they will judge me and never accept an invitation to dine in my home again.

This is sort of similar to the conversation I had with OTMBFF, in which he asked what was missing from the menu that he might bring, and I went, “Green vegetable?” and he was like, “Uh, do people really EAT green vegetables, other than green bean casserole, at holiday meals?” At which point I had to admit that no, they do not in my family (and I was never a huge fan of green bean casserole), but I am always afraid of being judged for just serving turkey and 7 kinds of carbs held together by fat instead of ensuring that my guests get as many phytonutrients as possible. Even though there’s a reason why carbs and fat with a side of protein is the traditional holiday meal, which is that it fucking TASTES GOOD, and it’s supposed to be a FEAST of things that TASTE GOOD, and I should probably reread that book by Marianne Kirby and what’s-her-name.

OTM: You should read it! It’s very good.

Me (to group):  OTM has volunteered to make gravy. Sweet Machine, you are now in charge of Solly snuggling.

Mr. Machine: I’ll take care of the cycling of oxygen into CO2.

Al: Also, bring barf bags, because we have a lot of really cheap vodka to taste test. I’m afraid, not even sure if I can go through with it. Mr. Machine, we bought a virgin smaller bottle of Skol for comparison’s sake.

We have a whole bunch of wine and other stuff, vodka, gin, whiskey, not sure what else, so if you’re not fussy, I’m sure we are covered on the beverages.

Me: Oh, we also have rum and eggnog, because it’s one of those things I think I should have, even though people rarely end up drinking it.

Al: Let’s invent a drink that uses eggnog, rum, Skol vodka, and 3 kinds of gin. Served with an olive float.

Me: We’ll call it a “Divorcetini.”

OTM: I’ll bring two barf bags.


So, to recap: Despite all my long-term efforts to stop moralizing about food and my determination to make this particular meal as stress-free as possible, I remain neurotic about 1) my gravy-making abilities, 2) the possibility that I will realize I forgot something at the last minute, even though we’ll still have enough food and booze for 25 people, 3) a meal I borked 10 years ago, 4) the quality of my flour, 5) being judged for my willingness to use questionable flour, 6) being judged for not providing a more balanced holiday feast, and 7) disappointing a hypothetical guest who really wanted rum and eggnog on Christmas, even if there are 95 other things to drink. And sadly, this is progress.

With that, I am going to go make everything I can possibly make in advance, then sit down with a glass of wine and remind myself that the point of all this is hanging out with good friends, not getting an A+ in Traditional Feminine Duties. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, Merry Day Off to those who don’t, and Happy Day After Festivus to all — please feel free to air your grievances in comments.

Friday fluff: Take back the (diet) food

Shapeling BlueRain points out that in my last post I was unfair to okara, the main ingredient in the Magical Diet Cookies. She notes:

Okara (as well as Shirataki mentioned in someone’s comment upthread) is a traditional food item in Japanese cuisine, and having it appropriated as “low-fat/low-cal miracle diet food” is offensive enough, but having it mocked here somehow makes it worse. Yes, there are cookies/crackers/biscuits made of okara, and they are quite yummy. They are NOT sold as diet cookies, but just plain snack-food.

I apologize for my ignorance and my assumption that okara was not yummy in sweets. Now I am really curious to try an okara-based treat (one that’s not advertising its own magical weight-loss-and-water-absorption powers, that is). More to the point, it made me wonder what other perfectly wonderful foods have been hijacked by diet industry hype (and how that relates to cultural appropriation: the “French,” the “Mediterranean,” the “Okinawa” lifestyles…). Let’s do an exercise in food positivity: what supposedly “diet” foods out there do you actually enjoy even — especially — when you’re not on a diet? What foods have we been taught are “good” as in moral are actually just “good” as in “I like it put this in my mouth”?

Monstrous cookies for cookie monsters

From the NYT comes this story about the Cookie Diet, a diet plan in which you survive on “six prepackaged cookies a day, plus one ‘real’ meal — say, skinless chicken and steamed vegetables.” The idea here seems to be that you will be so entranced by the idea of eating the sinful “cookies” that you will forget that you are, you know, starving yourself, and that these aren’t exactly your grandma’s snickerdoodles. (Ahem: “The main ingredient in the Soypal cookie is okara, or soy pulp, which absorbs any liquids you drink with the cookies.” Delicious!)

Surprisingly, the NYT actually acknowledges the cultural clusterfuck that the Cookie Diet symbolizes:

The popularity of cookie diets is hardly surprising in this culture of quick fixes. Who wouldn’t want to exert the minimal effort to get long-lasting results? Who wouldn’t want to lose weight by consuming something verboten on most diets?

“The Cookie Diet is very appealing, because it legalizes a food — the cookie — that is banned from most weight-loss programs,” said Jenni Schaefer, author of “Goodbye Ed, Hello Me: Recover From Your Eating Disorder and Fall in Love with Life” (McGraw-Hill, 2009).

“The diet gives people a false sense of control, simplifying balanced nutrition into one food: the cookie,” she added.

The same cultural forces that tell you you must always be on a diet, Fatty McFatterpants, tells you that some foods are “good” and some are “bad.” Cookies, along with cake, pie, baby donuts, and other sweet things usually made with oil and butter, are the sine qua non of bad food. They are the snack of the robot devil himself. The Cookie Diet brilliantly exploits the false morality of fat: you diet by doing what would count as “cheating” on any other diet. You can’t just eat cookies without a plan, after all. And heaven forbid that you make your own cookies rather than spend $56 a week for someone’s soy pulp with secret spices.

Look, here’s the thing: you’re allowed to eat cookies. This is true if you’re fat or not fat. You’re allowed to eat six cookies a day if you feel like it. You’re also allowed to eat a cookie today and a salad tomorrow, or a cookie for dessert and a smoothie for breakfast. You’re allowed to eat whatever you want.

Cookies are not evil. Some things are evil. Cookies are just cookies.

Quote of the day: On fullness

I’m currently reading Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog),” the bloggiest book of the 19th century. Since it concerns the adventures of three 19th-century bachelors and a dog rowing a small skiff down the Thames and camping along the way, there is unsurprisingly a lot of emphasis on the procurement, enjoyment, storage and preparation of food. This isn’t by any means the funniest bit in the book, but I found it resonant:

How good one feels when one is full — how satisfied with ourselves and with the world! People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained. One feels so forgiving and generous after a substantial and well-digested meal — so noble-minded, so kindly-hearted.

It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon, it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep!” … After hot muffins, it says, “Be dull and soulless, like a beast of the field — a brainless animal, with listless eye, unlit by any ray of fancy, or of hope, or fear, or love, or life.” And after brandy, taken in sufficient quantity, it says, “Now come, fool, grin and tumble, that your fellow-men may laugh — driven in folly, and splutter in senseless sounds, and show what a helpless ninny is poor man whose wit and will are drowned, like kittens, side by side, in half an inch of alcohol.”

We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach. Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach, and diet it with care and judgment. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart, unsought by any effort of your own; and you will be a good citizen, a loving husband, and a tender father — a noble, pious man.

Now, as it happens I do not react to either muffins or steak in quite the way Jerome describes, nor do I have any wish to be a tender father. But of course those specifics aren’t the point. The point is that this sort of normal, attentive, joyful, purposeful eating is a real and tragic casualty of our cultural quest for thinness. It’s terrible the way mini-mania erodes the self-esteem of all sizes of women, but it’s also terrible that it makes us unable to enjoy food qua food.The idea that food of different kinds can feed your body and mind in different and necessary ways, that you can’t be functional or kind without it (Jerome goes on to describe his normally cantankerous compatriots’ changed countenances after a good meal), that eating “with care” can mean eating as well and as mindfully as possible instead of as little as possible — these concepts seem as archaic as a boating holiday on the Thames.

We — all of us, but especially women — attach moral value to hunger in modern society. It’s virtuous to go without; it’s sinful or decadent to indulge. What if we turned this idea on its head? What if the compassion and goodwill and contentment that come from a full stomach were more morally valuable than privation? What if we recognized that allowing food to be a valuable — but not paramount — part of our lives made us kinder to others and to ourselves?

One to chew on, if you’ll excuse me. Meanwhile, I think I’ll have that whiskey now.