Category Archives: Cooking

Little house of men

MY FATHER MADE it clear to me that I was mechanically inept. “Sometimes it skips a generation,” was the phrase, and we believe what we’re told by people we believe love us. He had it, I didn’t, and because it had skipped me, I never would.

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ALL THE QUOTES are from Pastime, a 1991 Spenser novel.

“Remember,” I said, “there were no women. Just my father, my uncles, and me. So all the chores were done by men. There was no woman’s work. There were no rules about what was woman’s work. In our house all work was man’s work. So I made beds and dusted and did laundry, and so did my father, and my uncles. And they took turns cooking.”

The first thing I bought to improve my kitchen was a serving spoon. I was working at Scholastic Books in Manhattan, and across from it was Dean and DeLuca, a very expensive gourmet shop where sometimes, to make myself feel better, I’d drop several dollars more on a treat than something only a scant degree less enjoyable would have cost at Cafe Duke.

They had utensils there, too, not just tony takeout. I thought about it and bought this big, pretty, satin-finish serving spoon.

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THEN, BECAUSE I was reading Consider the Fork, and she swore by tongs, a pair of those, also from Dean and DeLuca; and thanks to a minor casino windfall of my wife’s, a rice cooker from Mitsuwa Marketplace—the largest Japanese grocery store in the US, which I’d sometimes stop into after riding my bike into New Jersey, to pack my single pannier with sake for me and mochi or candy for my family. Then the Microplane Zester/Grater—I think that was also from Consider the Fork—and I don’t remember the order of acquisitions after that. A thing here, a thing there. All haphazard, probably, from the outside, but tightly integrated to the emerging pattern in here. A pretty serving spoon was only needed if I was going to take food seriously enough to want to present it; we already had black nylon cooking spoons, which we used for both stirring and serving. This would not be used for stirring. Tongs were only necessary if I wanted to risk, on the say-so of a book, money on a utensil I’d never felt the lack of, but which an expert called her most valuable. And a rice cooker is a long-term decision about nutrition, expense, and self-reliance…and I have this Kurusawa/Mifune thing. The ronin in The Seven Samurai—as determined, scarred, and self-reliant as any knight-errant gumshoe—accept rice as payment.

Separated by weeks and freelance checks came: a good garlic press, a balloon whisk despite already having a spiral one, a small mortar and pestle, two nice big white serving bowls from Sur La Table, nested, even though mixing bowls had been serving the same purpose just fine. Each item requiring a second or third thought, and usually a second or third visit, before the purchase.

 

“So all of you cooked?”

“Yeah, but no one was proprietary about it. It wasn’t anyone’s accomplishment, it was a way to get food in the proper condition to eat.”

 

MY MARRIAGE ENDED, after a quarter-century, in July, 2014. She moved first, to the county in Connecticut we’d agreed on so the boys could have good schools and I could have train access to Scholastic. By the time the moving started, Scholastic had given all my work to a much larger vendor that could offer bulk pricing. No time to react. Two weeks later, I landed in the same county, different town.

I got the old raw-wood Ikea utility table. On our first weekend together, I had the boys sand and stain it with me, and it moved into our new kitchen as our new prep table. It fit perfectly. We didn’t have anywhere to eat yet, or even a wastebasket, but I knew what kind of little family of men I wanted.

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THEY TURNED TEN soon after we moved. Now they’re eleven.

I called them to the top of the stairs to their room this evening, and said to the one who’s only intermittently interested in cooking, “There are two things I need done, and you can choose which. One, you can wash some dishes and set the table. Two, I need the chain taken off my folding bike, which is in the bike garage on the workstand, and put to soak in cleaner.”

“CHAIN!”

His brother’s dream is to be on MasterChef Junior; I’ve been working with him on cooking since we moved here. This boy’s equivalent started four days ago, when he began his career as a mechanic by replacing the rear dérailleur and shifter cable on a little secondhand mountain bike his mom bought to keep at her place. His career will probably not be as a mechanic; he wants to be a scientist. I will probably never be able to send him to college, but I was struck, long ago, by Richard Feynman’s stories of being “The Boy Who Fixes Radios By Thinking,” and I can at least give him a tactile understanding of basic physics. The classical simple machines are lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw. Bicycles are compound collections of four out of six, and the other two (wedge, inclined plane) are integral to fixing and riding them.

And not just of basic physics, but of applied physics; felt physics. Reading about springs and being able to repeat that they store energy is not the same as getting your finger pinched when a dérailleur snaps back on its hanger. The abstraction of reading says the physical world is readily understood and easily manipulated. The orneriness of reality teaches you that perseverance and endurance are the only things that really ever manipulate it.

The bike garage is the only room in the house where he’s allowed to swear.

I’ve struggled with dérailleur adjustment for two years, since I bought my first workstand and bike tool set during the same life epoch that pushed me to buy the serving spoon. Lightly guiding my budding mechanic through his own first repair blew away the last of the obstacles. I now get it. Last night after seeing my boys at a school concert and then leaving them and driving half an hour home by myself, I needed to make myself feel better, so I shouldered my randonneuring bike down the basement stairs and tuned up its winter-beaten drivetrain. I didn’t refer to any of my previous printouts from the web. It just makes sense.

It made sense to mechanical boy in a single day. Mostly I just tightened things his hands were too small for, made him stop when he jumped to the wrong conclusions, and told him not to hit himself in the face with the cable.

I also had him touch the cable near the shifter while turning the grip, to feel what’s going on up there, and then had him do it again while watching the dérailleur. His light bulbs went off so much faster than mine ever have. He’s got that thing I don’t.

 

“Your father sounds as if he were comfortable with his ego,” Susan said.

“He never felt the need to compete with me,” I said. “He was always very willing for me to grow up.”

 

SO I HAVE my fantasy house, my little family of men. I yell at them sometimes, which Spenser’s fictitious father and uncles never did, and feel unforgivably shitty and apologize. I’m trying to be an ideal, and that’s something nobody can maintain outside the hermetic chamber of a book. But even an unattainable ideal lies in a direction, and if we don’t aim for it, we don’t travel in that direction, and can’t get reshaped by the effort.

We’re still jerks sometimes, all three of us, including the one who’s not eleven, but I think we’re teaching each other how to be better men, one generation to the next.

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IT WAS A very simple dinner tonight because of work and being tired and not-recovered-yet broke, and as a pan heated, I went downstairs, plausibly to make sure the mechanic knew where the Chain Brite was before he got started, but really to see about fingers not being pinched, and he was already done. The chain and master link were soaking in the yellow Domino Sugar tub. So I agreed that yes, it is very fun and he should totally do more of this kind of thing, and went back up to the kitchen and his brother said, “Can I butterfly these sausages for you, Dad?”

I know how I got here. I don’t want to sound disingenuous. It was intentional.

This is just a night when I had that moment, and am amazed.

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Interlude: Morning, Kitchen, Willoughby

THERE ARE DIFFERENT kinds of morning light. Today’s is pale, but my kitchen has wood and copper in it, and a new bright orange stock pot, and daisies in a washed-out Bulleit rye bottle on the long prep table from the old apartment that the boys and I sanded and restained a weekend or two after we first moved in. You can do that kind of thing when you leave the city and have a small back lawn. The other finishing touch was a red clock, which is ticking above my head, softly. I think a boy may have just gotten up. It’s 8 a.m.

There’s rice waiting in the cooker and bowls warming in the oven. We’ll be watching anime and eating soon. I think I’m up to four kinds of soy sauce in the pantry, but the good stuff isn’t easy to find around here. I’ll get some at Sunrise Mart, one of the items on the notepaper on the fridge that says NYC at the top. I no longer have cats, including the one who loved to pull everything off the fridge. I’ve had cats my whole life. I don’t really miss them. That was unexpected. And I really don’t miss walking barefoot on cat litter in the morning.

No boy. I guess they’re still asleep.

When they’re at their mom’s, I turn the thermostat off and use a space heater. Then I turn the thermostat back on and can’t figure out why it won’t obey my temperature settings. I wrote to the manufacturer and got a manual for it, but my eyes glazed. I’ll try again when they’re not here and we don’t have better things to do on a Saturday, like try out the local comic book store or see what the “tree festival” is.

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I HAVE NEVER been a good housekeeper, and that has always been a nut of conflict. But this is my kitchen. My house. My daisies. My expensive Honeysuckle-scented all-surface cleaner. My sense of what to teach boys about manhood. Endurance, self-sufficience, beauty, efficiency, cast iron. The cast iron is from my mom, mailed cross-country. I remember using it when I was the boys’ age. The slow cooker is brand-new and I expect it to break next year. In the maelstrom of the separation and move, I wanted a slow cooker, and this is the one recommended by America’s Test Kitchen, whose cookbooks I really like. I didn’t read the Amazon reviews; I should have. I also got the front end of my new bike wrong; the stem is too low, so it puts me into a racing posture. I am not a racer. You can look at me and know that.

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I GOT 1) the slow cooker wrong, and 2) the bike wrong, and 3) I signed a car lease I shouldn’t have, and 4) the old landlord outclevered me and kept a few thousand in security deposit.

But:

  1. About a month into our new life, I handed the boys a cookbook and told them to pick dinner from the slow-cooker section. They came back in ten minutes: Korean Braised Short Ribs.
     
    I’m like—seriousl…uh, never mind, YOU’RE ON.
     
    It was excellent. It was less expensive than processed foods. When the accidentally wrong slow cooker breaks, I’ll get a cheaper one.
     
  2. The too-low stem on the bike means I spend a good deal of time out of the saddle, because I don’t like the position. That would be more of an issue if I were spending any time on the bike at all, which is related to it not being quite comfortable enough, and also related to life being an upheaval—but I got the bike built in time to have a finished one at the start of my new life, and I love it in all other ways. It’s not a particularly expensive bike, but it’s got exactly the tires I wanted, and just the front bag and the very fenders, all of which you’d think would be bolt-ons to any random bicycle, but most bikes don’t have the right spaces to accept them.
     
    I ride it around town on errands. When there’s a little more money, I’ll get a fitting and replace the accidentally wrong stem, and it will be the brevet whip I meant it to be.
     
  3. The car lease was a mistake. I can’t afford it. I really wanted to go completely car-free, but the boys ended up going to school twelve miles away. It’s the cheapest monthly rate I could possibly find, on the cheapest car around, but I should have bought a beater outright and paid less for insurance. And the mileage limit is too low and the term is way too long. But we have reliable transportation, and the accidentally wrong lease will—eventually—expire.
     
  4. As for my old NYC landlords:
     
    The ones before these ones were powerful criminals. (No kidding. I spoke briefly with the NY District Attorney a year or two before they finally broke them up and put them out of business. It was in the news. Too late for us.) These ones…benefit of the doubt. Maybe just dishonest slimeballs. So they get my money and I cut my losses and move on. You can’t pull a victory out of everything.

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NOW I HEAR the stairs creaking and crackling, so I’ll wrap it up. A new familiar sound in this new familiar life. And the light’s not as pretty in the kitchen. Rice and anime await, and noise and mess and bickering and comic books and piano and trombone and cello and cookie baking and fart jokes and farts. And, I’ll cop to it, the work I didn’t get done this week for, honestly, not any good-enough reason. The copper canisters and the orange stock pot are steadfastly cheery, and the red clock—it just ticks softly on, but soon I won’t hear it.

 

 

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The traditional Rosh Hashanah blog

A couple of times a year, any uncertainty about what is a Jew dissipates, and I become a true member of a singular tribe, the American Jews of the diaspora, when I perform, with sincere and profound humility, our only major tradition: Googling to see when the holiday begins, what we’re supposed to already have started cooking, and what the greeting is.

1. Tonight; 2. brisket and sweet stuff; 3. L’Shana tovah.

The brisket is in; the jumble of blocky tzimmes precursor is heating around it. The boys have been guided by paternal threat and prattle through the evening pouring of the cheap red wine over meat, the morning grocery shopping with their own carts, the splendor of beef turned purple by grapes so it looks like a giant tongue, with sound effects, and onion-chopping best practices with The Good Knife. They will be recalled from the Wii for kugel insertion and the basting ceremony. I don’t know that basting is necessary when observing loose tinfoil protocol, but also can’t see a down side to it. Teach your male children to baste.

Tonight’s challah is round instead of braided because so is the cycle of creation; this is, after all, a new year’s celebration. It’s sweetened because so may your year be sweet.

This has always bothered me as a metaphor, ever since I was a child, because it’s just too facile to be recognizable. Years aren’t sweet or bitter; life is sweet and bitter. Even horrible years have the stray golden raisin in there, and good years harbor the roots of bad ones to come—much as savory tzimmes contains root vegetables (see, it’s genetic; that took no effort).

What I wish for you, and for myself, is that what has taken root in the past, no matter what kind of manure or burnt field it first sprouted in, bears good fruit in the future. I also wish you an easing of droughts and destructions, so that orchards can once again be maintained by one standard orchard’s worth of toil.

May your troubles convert to gelatin in the heat of your efforts, as melts brisket collagen at temperatures over 180°F.

May you question and break free of the traps of your childhood, just as we all, at some point, ask, “Why am I drinking Manischewitz?” And may you pass your mistakes on to the next generation, just as in the same breath, we pour Manischewitz for our own children, so that they in turn may taste the fuller flavor of rejecting the overly sweet nonsense of their parents.

L’shana tovah. May you be signed in the…sealed in…crap, I don’t know. I googled it twice already. Here:

Eat up.

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A maturing relationship with Pyrex

WE HAVE THIS lousy Pyrex saucepan.

Purple Pyrex saucepan

It has three problems. The two most obvious are the bileous mulberry hue it casts on food and its passive-aggressiveness in pouring. But those are just physical things. If I loved it, I could get past them; no pan is perfect. But there’s something more subtle, which I find much harder to deal with:

It doesn’t show its emotions.

WE ALREADY KNOW how hard it is to know what’s going on inside other people. We have slogans for it: Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides; You never know what someone else is going through; Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. But it’s something we don’t always think of when we relate to cookware. For the most part I’m glad all that heat and conflict stays inside the pot—but I’ve been thinking how impossible it is for a Pyrex saucepan to understand that all anyone else can get a grip on is its handle.

Which, regardless of maelstrom or meltdown in the pan, remains at room temperature at all times.

So is the pot hot, or is it cold?

Hot, says the pot. You just don’t know.

Cold, says anybody who holds the pot. That’s right, I don’t.

ANOTHER THING ABOUT this saucepan is that—violently and with very little warning, as though it suppresses and suppresses and suppresses and saves up and saves up and just can’t anymore! and FOOM!—the seething stuff boils over, unexpectedly, while it’s over a LOW FLAME, if you can believe it, and then if you grab the burner and turn it down, or yank the pot off the stove, it just KEEPS GOING, eructations of oatmeal all over the stove and the floor, which it does not apologize for and does not volunteer to clean up.

See, says the pot? Hot. Passionate, even.

I HOVER WHEN my kids use it, waiting for the moment when it takes a shot at their confidence. You did everything right, I told one of my boys today after I grabbed it off the burner while he was whisking. It’s not you, sweetheart; it’s the lousy pot. You didn’t do anything wrong. This pot—you just shouldn’t trust it. It’s just a bad pot. You can’t tell what’s going on with it until it’s too late.

Yanking it off the burner doesn’t work. Giving it a little more care and attention doesn’t work. Lowering the heat doesn’t work. By the time it gets to the point where you can see what’s about to happen, it’s sucked up so much energy that a second later, it’s already erupting. You can’t stop it. You can’t soothe it. You just have to wait until it’s done spewing.

What did you expect? says the pot.

Well by now, I expect that.

LIFE GETS MUCH simpler when you accept your cookware for what it really is, and let go of what you wish it was. Especially when it keeps showing you. Especially when your kids are getting old enough that they’re starting to learn to judge temperature themselves, and you don’t want to confuse them.

Much simpler, that is, unless you’re the cookware.

In which case your life’s going to get harder as soon as the economy improves a little more.

Pretty pot

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