Food

No resolutions, no year-end-wrapups, same blog same self-absorbed blog posts. But, like seemingly everyone else in the world, I am obssessing about food. Not so much how to make myself eat less of it, since thoughts like that are so prevalent I’ve recalibrated the instruments to treat them as ground-level noise. No, rather than fixating on how much I eat, I’m absolutely fascinated by what there is to eat, even though I myself am too chickenshit to try a lot of it for reasons I’ll delve into further down. It’s true, I am actually afraid to taste new things if they aren’t obviously going to taste good. Which means they taste like a combination or a variation on someting I already like. Food fear. Culinary cowardice. Call it what you like.

I also have a problem with food literature. I can’t get enough of it! Weird huh? I have “Yang Can Cook”, and only ever tried to make the sticky rice. I burned the bottom. I have “How To Cook Everything.” I have “The Joy of Cooking.” I have three Ruth Reichl memoirs. I have Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” memoir. I have this book where this guy quit his job to slave in a kitchen to learn how to be a professional cook. That one isn’t so good actually, but it’s sitting there waiting for me to read it anyway. I have all of these food memoirs, cookbooks, and whatnot. And with the books I’m also all geared up, or want to be. I buy pots and pans I don’t need, like a 12-quart stockpot, and dream of spending $200 for an AllClad dutch oven that I’ll probably never use. I paid $300 extra to have a combination convection-oven/microwave in my kitchen.

This food-literature problem is in no way an indication of how much I love food. As a result of my foodfear I can usually take or leave it. I’ll ooh and ahhh when something’s especially good, just like the next guy. But to me it’s such a hit-or-miss prospect that the occasional orgasm isn’t compelling enough to warrant all the bad sex I have to go through to get a money shot.

So-to-speak. Maybe that’s a poor analogy, since I’ll take all the bad sex I can get, orgasm or not. I mean, come on. It’s sex.

Still and all, I can’t seem to read enough books about food. The descriptions tantalize me, no matter how gross or disturbing the item being consumed. When Ruth Reichl writes about weird sushi she had in a tiny place in New York, I’m rapt. It’s like Gremlins, and Ruth has gone into the old Chinese man’s store to buy herself the most unique Christmas present ever.

Barnes and Noble is an enabler for my food-lit problem. You know how you’re not supposed to grocery shop when you’re hungry? I should never enter a Barnes and Noble with anything less than a full-on turkey dinner stuffing (heh) the crevices of my torso, because instead of a delicious lemon Entenmann’s danish, I’ll inevitably waste $20 on “How to Break an Egg.” Or worse, some jumbo-sized “classic” you can’t walk out with for less than half a c-note.

I just can’t help myself! There’s always something new in food writing. Something I’ve never heard of, or some story, some adventure. Colorful characters, lots of middle-class white guys suffering to learn their craft so they can open a restaurant staffed by romanticized Ecuadoran journeyman cooks.

And they swear a lot. I like that. Ok, maybe they don’t swear a lot in general in food memoirs, but there’s always that element of… earthiness is a terrible word, but I’m going with it. I’m a sucker for anything that feels like “yeah this is just how people are, let’s all just stop pretending we’re not.” And part of it’s the old country-bumpkins-are-smarter-than-you-think appeal, except transferred to haute cuisine in the city. Rough-and-tumble guys and gals with hands that can reaching into boiling water and pluck a noodle out to test for doneness, hands full of scars from their carefully chosen knives which they wield deftly winding up with cuts regardless because everything needs to be done at once and no matter how early they start it’s always just barely done on time. Which is required, because you can’t let food sit when it’s done, right? At least you’re not supposed to… I don’t remember the words “heat lamp” appearing anywhere in Kitchen Confidential.

Then there’s the science. Things TURN INTO OTHER THINGS, just because they get hot. And then you mix stuff with other stuff and it turns into YET ANOTHER THING. It’s frikkin’ AMAZING. While amazing, it also unfortunately reminds me of a standup routine that was never funny, where the comic went on for about five minutes about how the airlines’ safety spiel always has your seat cushion becoming a floatation device. Magically transforming itself from an item of delicious luxury into a lifesaving artifact of buoyancy. What’s the deal with that? That might have actually been a Seinfeld routine, now that I think about it.

I find the science of it all fascinating, intellectually, and I ache to experience it emotionally. But it’s not quite there. I have trouble with the transformative wonder of cooking. It conflicts with the guiding aesthetic of my life, which is simplicity. Now, this isn’t to say that my house is bare, that I ride a bike to work, or anything like that. I don’t have the discipline for that sort of thing. But I do like the pure item, the unadorned-but-well-executed whatever. I grew up on noodles and butter. Pizza. Coke with ice. Chicken and rice, made from Uncle Ben’s and Campbell’s cream of mushroom. Experimental edibles were never dinner at our house; it was pretty fast and facile growing up, with whatever Mom or Dad threw together.

Amazingly, we never made a habit of TV dinners. I can’t explain it. With all the Ragu I ate between the ages of five and 18, you’d think Swanson would have made an appearance. But that lumberjack never seemed to take up residence in our freezer. Maybe he would have gotten in the way of the half-gallons of ice cream. Oh man, I love ice cream.

Any kind of dessert, pretty much, except rice pudding. What the hell is up with rice pudding? Ick. It’s like on Iron Chef when somebody makes squid ice cream and the judges are all “um, ok, well, let’s see here.” And don’t talk to me about how I’ve never had really good rice pudding and if I had I’d change my tune. How much bad rice pudding must one suffer before one is allowed to try the “good stuff?” Do I need to trot out the orgasm analogy again? No thanks, pass the tapioca.

Perhaps it’s not some highfalutin’ “simplicity” that’s the mark of my culinary preference but rather safety, comfort. I will admit to loving comfort food– everything my mother ever made, except Spanish rice. My Mom makes the worst Spanish rice ever. I asked my Dad once why he ate it, and he shrugged and was all “it’s there.” That was typical of the attitude at my house, although Dad does like a good steak, and his mother was all Pennsylvania dutchy with her soups and such.

My aunt inherited that skill; it was always lovely to go to her house during the holidays, ’cause she always had a vast amount of homemade chicken corn chowder simmering on the stove and a half-gallon plastic jar for me to take a bunch home. As we left, she would press the container into my hands with a couple of bullion cubes and instructions not to let it sit too long or it would go “sour.” Chemistry again.

I guess I was being a little silly up there, after all, since obviously food is important to me in a way. Food serves to bring back memories, of family and familiarity and comfort. But not adventure. I’ve never felt compelled to try new things, where food is concerned. And let me just explain briefly what I mean by “new.” I’m probably about to shock you.

I don’t like tomatoes. I like tomato products, like ketchup, and even salsa. And heck, some pico de gallo on my taco is no big deal. But big chunks, or whole tomatoes, or even the sun-drief tomatoes you get in some cream sauces with fettucine? Nuh uh.

Mushrooms, ha. I’ve tried a mushroom or two, and it didn’t make me gag, but I have some reservations about their very nature. I mean, come on. It’s a mushroom.

But even though they’re, you know, mushrooms, I want to like them because there are so many kinds and I’m an Iron Chef fan and they use them all the time on Iron Chef and the cute little Japanese actresses who will eat just anything up to and including the beating heart of a sacrificed Mayan peasant all go absolutely crazy for “shiitake.” I want to like something that much. I do share their fondness for rice, however mushrooms would make me less fat. Exercise would too, but I like that only a little more than mushrooms.

Squash. It’s dead to me. I have no squash. For unlike the occasional tasteless rubbery mushroom, the tiniest medalion of summer squash will make me gag. For a while when I was growing up, my mother tried this experiment where she’d dole out a “no thank you” helping of whatever mushy crap she’d cooked up that I didn’t like the looks of. I vividly remember the “no thank you” portion of squash that gave me the almost-heaves right at the dinner table. I don’t like squash, no sir. Its poor cousin zucchini I can take or leave– I find it basically tasteless, but in a kind of slimy way.

Sauces. Am I the only one who remembers that saturday-morning PSA cartoon where the dancing… creature… begs the viewing audience “don’t drown your food”? It was the same series as “exercise your choppers” and the one I can’t seem to find on YouTube that did some spiel about healthy snacking and then the old “can you make me a banana/ok you’re a banana” joke at the end. That wasn’t even funny when i was ten. Those PSAs were torture.

Asparagus and I have nothing to say to each other either, because it tastes like crunchy nothing and makes my pee smell. I don’t like tofu unless it’s floating innocently in miso soup, which I do like, can you believe that? It’s hard for me to believe. I like miso soup. I like miso soup. It just seems so… un-me… to like miso soup. That green stuff is seaweed.

Foodstuffs should be fully-blended. This obsession with chunkiness that’s going around leaves me cold. Blend it, I say. Even iPods. Especially iPods. Yes I eat iPods. Wouldn’t that be a great name for a breakfast cereal right now? “Crunchy Rainbow iPods with MP3 Marshmallows!” But I digress.

I don’t want to have to try to identify chunks, and one of those chunks is invariably a mushroom or a tomato and then I have to pick shit out of the mess in the bowl or on my plate and then I have to figure out what to do with the picked-out bits and I wind up with a little graveyard of tomato chunks around my place-setting, which is just a mess and childish. Don’t make me regress, set the blender on puree won’t you please?

But really, if it’s all the same to you I’d rather you didn’t have to mix anything in the first place. I like my steak without crap on top. I don’t want pineapple salsa on my salmon. I’ve recently managed to learn to eat pineapple, but it’s still Just Not Right in the context of fish. Any kind of fruit that’s not in one of the accepted forms or suspensions for that matter. Which is essentially in fruit salad, arranged in a pleasant arc on a catered plate, scarfed whole right after I get it home from the store, or if it’s a strawberry, ice cream.

I do like fruit though, and fully intend to someday try a kiwi.

Oh man, this post is already longer than my arm and I’ve barely touched the subject I started out to write about. Books. Books on food. And this specific one I’m reading right now, written by a girl I’m sure in an alternate universe would have been my soul mate. Alas, I’m left bereft in this sad pocket with nowt but a thin tome to console me. It’s a good tome though. It’s called “Julie and Julia” and it’s by the girl who had this blog called The Julie/Julia Project where she challenged herself to make every single recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” over the course of a year.

It’s not a compendium of blog posts, actually, which is really cool. It’s a true memoir of the period in which she kept her blog and made all the recipes. So not only is there the book to read, but all these blog posts to go through if I want to. Which I probably don’t. As much as I like books about food, I can’t bring myself to care about blogs about food. They leave me cold. And not in a good ice cream kind of way, but more like day-old eggs in aspic.

But the book man, it kicks all kinds of ass. Her writing is kind of like how I wish mine was. Straightforward. Funny. I’ve laughed out loud at least four times, and I’m not halfway through. She’s great at description, using words like “mooshed.” The passage I was reading when I was compelled to leave the bathtub and start this blog post involved mooshing some sugar cubes to make a Belgian cream for her brother. I like words like mooshing. She had to moosh the sugar cubes with a fork, and they were giving her a little trouble.

Plus she swears a lot. Which I like.

And she’s left handed. Which is kind of cool, since I’m left handed. I’ve never cared one way or the other whether people were left or right handed, probably because growing up I was swamped with books about all the famous left handed people like Ben Franklin. I’m not sure why I was given these books. To make me feel special? To make me not feel freakish? I never felt freakish. I never cared. Being left handed was aight, except that it meant I couldn’t play any god damned position in baseball except pitcher, outfield, or first base. Fucking left handed. Ok, maybe I’m a little bitter about that. I would have been a great second baseman.

Anyway, this girl Julie is left handed too, and in a bunch of other ways just kind of all-around great. She’s funny and not too serious and a little flaky and, as self-deprecating self-described in her memoir, my kind of girl. Before she started her project, she says, Julia Child meant as much to her as Dan Aykroyd. Ha.

See, that’s funny. I’ve deliberately unfunnied it here though, so you’ll feel compelled to pick up the book. I’d let you borrow my copy, but it’s got stains on it from the chicken-in-KC-Masterpiece I had for dinner with some steamed green beans covered in butter and salt. Followed by a batch of delicate heart-shaped sugar cookies that I made from scratch… from a recipe I found on the Internet. Oh the irony of it all!

But I used an egg and flour and everything! Made the dough, then let it sit in the fridge for an hour. An HOUR. For me that’s the equivalent of the ten-ingredient grits Bobby Flay made last night on Iron Chef America. So I waited an hour, during which I cooked my chicken and green beans while I watched the aforementioned episode of Iron Chef. It was “Duck Battle.”

Flay lost to Ming Tsai. Then I retrieved the dough from the fridge, rolled it out, stamped out the cookies. I need to get a crucifix cookie cutter, like Swoosie Kurtz had in “Bubble Boy.” Cooked the cookies. Ate the cookies. Unadorned. No icing– royal, cream cheese, or beef-marrow. The cute Japanese actresses would have been unimpressed, their overdubbed critiques disappointed as they politely covered tiny yawns with perfectly-manicured fingertips.

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4 comments

  1. Personally, I don’t think of anything with Campbell’s soup in it as simple food. Those soups usually have tons of distinct ingredients in them. They’re easy to make, but that’s not the same thing as noodles with butter.

    (Hey, exchange the butter for olive oil, throw in some chopped garlic, and you’ve got a damn good dinner. I’m assuming that I don’t have to mention the cheese.)

    I was going to write more, but now you’ve paginated your post, making it hard to go back and re-read the bits I was going to comment on. I know that you did that as a response to someone saying that long posts are hard to read when they’re not paginated. So I thought I’d be the annoying guy who complains about paginated posts. Give me the option to see it all as one long page.

    I had a lot to say, too. I love food, have read Kitchen Confidential, and I’m pretty adventurous on the dining table. (Hell, compared to you, I’m Columbus, Magellan, and Armstrong all rolled into one.)

    Anyway, I’m glad you found someone who could have been your soul mate. At least you know there are people out there like that. Though, to be honest, if you ended up not eating 89% of her cooking, she might have taken it personally.

    Also, how do you know if something’s food porn? Do they actually show penetration of the orifice?

  2. Yeah, I was going to mention that it’s just nice to know that there are women out there like this writer. But I didn’t want to go on about it, ’cause it was getting a bit stalkery already, and I’m sure someday she’ll google “Julie Powell” and this post will come up. I’ve just guaranteed it. Heh.

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