Tag Archives: cooking

Bacon, Eggs, and Salt

Once upon a time, bacon, eggs, and salt were thought to be bad for a person’s health. Now they’re all the rage in cooking. They come in all sizes and shapes and colors, and they go with everything from hash to steak to pizza.

Bacon, I think we all agree, is bad for us, but we love it anyway, and any way. And there are so many kinds of bacon to love, in addition to the regular kind that Mom used to make for breakfast. There is thick-cut bacon, slab bacon, turkey bacon, and varieties that sound like bacon but aren’t (Canadian bacon, which is really ham, and pork belly, which is bacon on steroids). Then there are the foreign kinds like pancetta and guanciale, which may not technically be bacon as they come from different parts of the pig, but serve much the same purpose in many recipes.

So, what do you do with your bacon? Make a sandwich of it (with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, please, on whole-wheat toast). Put it on a different sandwich such as a hamburger. Put it on pizza. Make it into jam. Candy it (or if you have Canadian bacon, pour maple syrup on it). Put it on a salad. Put it in an omelet. Drape an egg lovingly atop the crispy (not flabby, please) strips. Or go full Elvis and serve your bacon with peanut butter and bananas, on fried white bread.

There’s been some debate about eggs. For a long time, everyone ate as many as they wanted. Then suddenly they were bad for you. Then, no they weren’t. You didn’t have to avoid eggs anymore. What happened? Did the egg change? Did the human body change? No, apparently some dietary health commission somewhere changed.

Now the debate is how to use the egg, and the answer is as a sauce. No, not in a sauce, as the sauce. This is why you now see hamburgers and all manner of other sandwiches served with a fried egg – mostly sunny side up, but occasionally over easy – resting just under the top bun.

But, wait! (I hear you cry.) The minute you bite the sandwich, the egg will explode and run everywhere! Well, yes, that’s the idea. The egg yolk is the new ketchup or mayo for a burger. Voilà! It has become the sauce. Now you can use words like “unctuous” to describe it, if you want to be taken for a foodie.

Perfectly poached eggs (meaning runny) are used in this way too, or to top steaks, hash, stew, shakshuka, etc. Apparently, if they are sufficiently runny, they improve anything they touch. There is some debate on sunny-side-up eggs. Should they be served au naturel? Or cut out with little round cutters so that they fit more attractively on a biscuit (or whatever)? Personally, I don’t have an opinion, as long as the egg is cooked long enough that the white doesn’t look like snot. That’s ick, not unctuous.

“Farm-fresh” eggs are preferred if you want to get culinary. There are also quail eggs, if you want to get dainty, and emu eggs, which are dark teal and look like they’re going to hatch a dinosaur. “Scotch eggs” are soft-boiled eggs with sausage wrapped all around them and deep-fried. There’s some sort of trick to keeping the yolk unctuous and the sausage crisp, but I don’t know what it is.

And salt? I think we all know by now that salt intake is related to high blood pressure, which is a Bad Thing. But the problem with salt generally only comes up when you eat already-prepared foods like potato chips or cans of soup. Those are loaded with salt. Some ingredients, like cheese, also contain salt, but I think we can all agree that every food should come with too much cheese on it. If you avoid processed foods that contain salt, there is really no need to fear. No one adds enough salt to unprocessed food to be dangerous. Or at least we hope not.

There are, perhaps surprisingly, a number of different kinds of salt to experiment with. In addition to good ol’ table salt, there are salt substitutes (which taste metallic because guess what? There’s potassium in it); kosher salt, sea salt, finishing salt, flake salt, THC salt (in CA anyway), and even Himalayan pink salt. (I own a lamp made of a giant pink Himalayan salt nodule with a light inside. No, I don’t lick it. I will, however, lick salted caramel, enthusiastically. But I digress.)

If you watch as much foodie TV as I do, you quickly learn that when someone says, “Needs seasoning,” they mean, “Needs salt.” Seems everyone puts in enough pepper. And they never mean rosemary or chervil or cumin or garlic, which are also seasonings. No, they mean salt.

My husband used to be of the “Never put salt on anything” school of thought. Every night when he cooked dinner and asked how I liked it, I would invariably reply, “Needs salt.” He at last grudgingly admitted that some things, like mashed potatoes, really do need salt to taste the way they should. But usually, he uses Mrs. Dash as he tries to wean me off salt. It doesn’t always work. Some dishes just need seasoning.

What Do You Do With Your Winnings?

You suddenly receive a chunk of money. What will you do with it? That’s a question that I have heard often. Not directed to me. I have no prospects of landing more than pocket change, unless my mystery gets published, hits the bestseller lists, and gets picked up for a television series.

But I watch a fair number of competition shows on TV, primarily on Food Network or The History Channel. I enter giveaways occasionally, when HGTV is offering a fabulous house in Rhode Island as a prize. But I never even buy lottery tickets, to which I have a philosophical objection. (I believe that they are a tool used by the upper classes to make money by fooling people into believing that they can magically join the upper classes. But I digress.)

The prizes offered in the shows I watch are seldom life-changing, usually starting at $10,000, which seems nice, but I have seen them go up to $100,000, which actually could be life-changing, if not a key into the leisure class.

What the contestant would spend the money on if he or she won is a question that invariably gets asked. I have noticed a pattern in the responses. There are a few major categories.

Travel. Contestants’ dreams of travel seem pretty realistic to me. It’s what I would spend my winnings on.

The usual fantasy trips are to take the family on a great vacation, to have a honeymoon that somehow never happened, or to visit a part of the world from which ancestors came. In the food competitions, there is also a tendency to wish for funds to travel the world (or at least part of it) sampling and learning how to cook different kinds of cuisine.

(Since we were on the subject of honeymoons (or at least I was), I also hear contestants who want to spend their prize on an engagement ring or a wedding. I know the price of diamonds and of weddings have not gone down in recent years, but $10,000 or $25,000 seems a bit high for regular folks, the ones who never appear on “Say Yes to the Dress.” An engagement ring for $25,000? I mean, come on!)

Home. I’ve heard a number of contestants say they would like to put a down payment on a new home. This time the figure seems a bit too low. But what do I know? Maybe the couple has already saved toward a house and this would put them over the roof, so to speak.

Other winners say they would renovate their kitchen (on the food shows) or their workshop (on craft- or building-type shows). This I can understand. Remodeling a kitchen or a workshop could easily eat up that kind of money, especially if new appliances or tools are required.

Business. Again, as with houses, the prizes offered don’t really seem magnanimous enough to start a business, but again, most of these lucky winners may have a fair amount put aside already. Or their dreams are more modest – to get a storefront instead of an internet bakery (a concept I’m not altogether clear on), or a food truck (I’m assuming this would also be a down payment, given that a food truck would have to cost more than a car, which you can hardly get for $10,000 anymore anyway) or the ability to turn a part-time hobby into a full-time business, which seems to me like a pipe dream, but I suppose there are people who could make it work.

Charity. Some of the potential winners have loftier goals. I’ve heard chefs say that they would start a variety of cooking programs for troubled youth. I’ve heard winners say that they would give part, or even all, their winnings, to a charity that provides funds for researching a disease or condition that a family member suffers from. Others want to donate to a church or other religious cause. Once I even saw a kid (on “Kids’ Baking Championship”) who wanted to help out a teacher who had fallen on hard times.

Me, I’d be off like a flash to Ireland with my husband. (I’ve been twice, but he’s never been). If there’s some left over, we’ll just have to arm wrestle for it. Maybe Benson, Arizona, where we once enjoyed one of our best vacations ever. Or, more likely, only as far as the IRS office.

 

 

Thanksgiving Memories

It all started with my sister. Once she and my mother and I were driving around and talking about Thanksgiving. She was waxing rhapsodic about how it would be wonderful to give our cats little bites of turkey.

“Actually,” I said, “we’re having lasagna.”

The gasp from the back seat was audible.

“It’s going to have ground turkey in it. Does that count?”

Apparently, it didn’t.

Since that time, we have avoided turkey every year (except the one time Dan’s work was handing them out), just to piss off my sister, the uber-traditionalist.

Fortunately, we now have our own traditions.

Entertainment

This is really the heart and soul of our Thanksgiving. Every year we watch the “Turkeys Away” episode of WKRP in Cincinnati  (thank goodness for the internet!) and listen to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” singing – or rather reciting – along. One year we also had a DVD of a cozy fire in a fireplace. It was so realistic that, in the middle of it, someone from offstage came in and put another log on the fire.

Skype

One year Dan and his mother were particularly lonely, as they lived in different states. We taught her how to Skype – no easy task from hundreds of miles away – then set up our feast on a utility table in my study. At least we were able to have conversation and watch each other eat. (I think that was the turkey year, or at least the turkey breast year.) For an approximation of the Skype problem, go here to listen to my friend Tom Smith’s song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5XfjUPqj9M).

Food

The lasagna we had has not been our only departure from traditional holiday fare. One year we had spaghetti; another, salmon poached in orange juice. Our most memorable non-turkey meal, though, was the year we had ratatouille. It has been immortalized on my blog in an older post (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-2z), but here’s the gist of it.

Dan was visiting his mother that year, so Thanksgiving luncheon would be only me, my mother, and Dan’s best friend John. Doing a whole turkey for three people seemed excessive, and I wanted to make another nontraditional dish, so I settled on ratatouille, with the addition of some sausage for John, a carnivore.

Imagine our surprise when, after taking just one bite, John choked and couldn’t breathe. The rest of the afternoon was a flurry of Heimlichs, emergency equipment, the emergency room, several doctors, and an x-ray. Turns out John had swallowed the bay leaf, which I had neglected to remove, and it had lodged on top of his vocal cords. The highly technical medical procedure required to remove it was a very hard cough. We then went back to my mother’s house for ice cream.

Read the whole thing, if you have time.

Pandemic Thanksgiving

This year, the year of the pandemic, we didn’t have anyone over for Thanksgiving. Not only did we think it was safer, but both my mother and John have passed on. And not from any encounters with rogue bay leaves. I learned my lesson and now use a bouquet garni.

What we did this year combined the traditional and the nontraditional. We didn’t try to teach Mom Reily to Zoom this year. It would take longer to do that than to roast a full-sized turkey.

No, Dan and I continued our nontraditional tradition and at the same time supported a local small business by patronizing them. This year, we had a jolly feast of take-out sushi and Kirin beer. Arlo and Les Nessman were invited, of course. We have to keep up some traditions.

 

 

The “I Never Use a Recipe” Recipes

Once my friend Robbin and I resolved to write a cookbook called the “I Never Use a Cookbook” Cookbook. Alas, this never happened, so I thought the least I could do would be to turn it into a blog post. The basic idea was that, except for baking, neither one of us uses actual recipes when cooking. They’re more like theories than recipes, really.

(Baking is different. Baking is a science. You have to have just the right ingredients in just the right proportions to make everything turn out yummy. Why? Physics, I think, plus chemistry. Ask Alton Brown. But anyway, I digress.)

Most recipes contain the words “to taste.” Add salt and pepper “to taste.” Season with red pepper flake “to taste.” Taken to its logical (or illogical) extreme, all cooking is “to taste” and everyone’s taste is different. That means that if a recipe isn’t right for anyone else at the dinner table, it may still be right for you! That’s a win, in my book.

Of course, there are pitfalls in the “to taste” strategy. Once Robbin and I were making rum balls for a party. She was doing the mixing and I was doing the tasting. Every time she gave me a sample, I said only, “Needs more rum.” It went on like that for a while. By the end, we had true rum balls, with only enough chocolate to hold them together. But, boy, were they a hit at the party!

Rummaging in the pantry is another strategy for avoiding recipes. (Never try the ones on the labels of boxes and cans – fair warning!) One of Robbin’s creations that has entered her regular repertoire is “Tomato Tuna Rice Soup.” (I’ll let you guess what the ingredients are.) She knows it’s done when a spoon stands straight up in the bowl. It’s a hearty one-pot meal for a cold winter’s night and contains all the main food groups.

Pasta is another go-to foundation for a non-recipe meal. My husband likes to create pasta dishes with shredded chicken or ground beef, mushrooms, and whatever’s in the freezer. (Green peppers? Throw them in! Diced onions? In they go! Broccoli? Why not?) Top with any kind of cheese you happen to have. (Parmesan? Great! Co-jack? Sure! Cheddar? Go for it!) Spaghetti? Ziti? Rotini? Elbow macaroni? Doesn’t matter!

Casseroles are yet another occasion for which recipes merely get in the way. Here’s the theory: some kind of meat, some kind of noodles, some kind of vegetables, some kind of sauce. For us, the ultimate expression of this is mac-n-cheese-n-tuna-n-peas, but endless combinations are possible. (I had to convince my husband that some kind of sauce or gravy was necessary, but once he had the hang of that, he was good to go.) Sometimes he even skips the noodles, puts mashed potatoes on top and voilà – some kind of shepherd’s pie!

Using up leftovers is a wellspring of creativity, and one of the most creative ways to do that is to make a frittata. Again, the ingredients are virtually irrelevant, once you’ve got the egg and milk. Diced ham and cheddar cheese. Bacon and mushroom. Peppers and sausage. Some combination of the above, or whatever’s left in the fridge. Call it “Week in Review.” Add garlic, pepper, onion, paprika, chili pepper, or Mrs. Dash “to taste.” Serve with toast. Or bagels. Or English muffins. Or scones. With butter. Or cream cheese. Or jam. Or applesauce. You get the idea.

It’s true that not all your non-recipes may turn out to be hits in their first iteration. But since you’re not using a recipe, that means that every dish is a work in progress. In addition to never using a recipe, my husband and I rarely make a dish exactly the same twice in a row. It’s experimental cooking at its finest.

 

 

Eating Around the World

My mother, my husband, and I (in different combinations) have had some amazing travel experiences. England. Brazil. Croatia. And, like good tourists, we largely ate and drank our way through the various countries. 

There was the trip that my mother and I took to Brazil. When we arrived at our Rio hotel, we were greeted by our guide, who offered us a complimentary local drink – a caipirinha. This is the national cocktail of Brazil, made from lime, sugar, and cachaca (a local spirit reminiscent of, but different from, rum). It’s a pretty potent combination. My mother, who would have the occasional Tom Collins or glass of Mogen David, did not care for it, so she gave it to me. I downed both hers and mine.

Then the other little old ladies who were on the tour (there were a fair number of them) had the same idea and all gave me their caipirinhas rather than let them go to waste. It’s a good thing we had arrived in the evening and had no other events planned for that night, as I sat in the hotel lobby and got thoroughly sozzled.

Mom was not with us when my husband and I went to England (though Dan’s mother was). We lunched at pubs and tried authentic fish and chips, but passed up an Australian restaurant because I insisted we weren’t in Australia. 

But the most interesting culinary attraction there was when I noticed “spotted dick” on the menu at the restaurant we had chosen. (Insert your favorite “spotted dick” joke here.) I had heard of spotted dick before, but never knew what it was, really. Apparently, it’s a dessert, because it was listed under “Puddings” on the menu. (As those of you who’ve seen Harry Potter know, “pudding” is generic British for “dessert.” It doesn’t mean actual pudding.)

Naturally, I couldn’t resist ordering it. I tried to muffle my chuckles, but no doubt the waiter was used to this sort of behavior from tourists. When he brought out the dessert, it was rather disappointingly a sort of spice cake with raisins in it, topped with a thin custard. (I think it might have been crême anglaise, but I didn’t know enough at the time to call it that.) Evidently, the raisins were the spots, though I don’t like to think what parted represented the dick. Especially with that custard sauce.

The best treat of all, though, was one my husband and I had when we were on a tour that featured Venice, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. There was interesting food and drink everywhere. In Slovenia, I ate Brussels sprouts just because they were served with the main dish, and discovered they were wonderful. (Unfortunately, I have not had them prepared the same way since. And I didn’t know how to ask for the recipe in Slovenian. I speak a little Russian, enough to order cabbage or buy books, but I didn’t think that would go over so well.  But I digress.)

In Istria (a peninsula that’s part of Croatia), a few of us from the tour stopped at a local tavern to get a hot buttered rum to ward off the chilly rain that was plaguing us that day. Dan and I, feeling a mite peckish, ordered a fish plate. We thought it might be something like a cheese plate, a small assortment of different kinds of samples.

But no. We were presented with an enormous platter featuring every kind of seafood you can imagine in vast quantities, including a huge, whole fish. Again, this was before Food Network, so I had to try to disassemble the fish without completely shredding it or leaving any treacherous bones. (I remember that I did it rather successfully, though that may just have been the rum punch talking.) Our tour-mates had to dig in to help us make a sizeable dent in all the fish, shellfish, and other marine life (think octopus), so as not to seem ungrateful.

But our best food encounter was on that same trip. In Croatia, there is a city named Split. (I was once trounced by a crossword puzzle that had the clue “Split country.” I thought of Korea or Vietnam, but neither one fit.) Near the end of the tour, Dan and I stopped in at a small restaurant to have a little something-something – not a full meal, just a nibble or a nosh.

There on the menu we saw it – a prosaic, all-American banana split! How could we possibly resist? We had to order one just so we could say, “We split a banana split in Split before we split Split. But we didn’t do the splits. We might have split our pants.” Opportunities like that don’t come along just every day.

My Husband’s Bananas

Now, I’m not saying my husband’s an ape, but he sure seems to have a thing for bananas. At least recipes containing them.

When I married into his family, I didn’t realize I was also acquiring a sacred banana cake recipe, handed down from Dan’s Grammy. It always seemed like banana bread to me, but Dan calls it banana cake, and I’m not sure what the difference would be, anyway.

I love bananas, but only when they’re close to green. It’s a texture thing. I don’t even like the dark, mushy spots on bruised bananas. But I can’t eat a whole bunch of bananas by myself, so Dan gets the leftovers to leave until they’re the proper mushiness for cooking.

Dan insists on making his banana cake in a bundt cake pan, therefore, I guess, reinforcing the cake-ness of it. He claims that the cake cooks properly only in a bundt pan so the inner part gets as brown as the outside. Once, when we made mini-cakes for Christmas gifts, he acquiesced to the use of mini-loaf pans, but I could tell he wasn’t happy about it. (We also made my signature spice cake, which is notable for having to boil the raisins first, making them plump and juicy. But I digress.)

Dan’s other tasty banana creation is a non-patented, no-bake, sugar-free banana cream pie. The concept is fairly simple: graham cracker crust, slices of too-ripe-for-me bananas lining it, sugar-free banana pudding, more banana slices, then sugar-free whipped topping. Low-fat milk for the pudding, of course.

The pie is good, but we’ve improved it over the years. One time we were low on milk, so we substituted part of it for chocolate milk. It worked moderately well, but there wasn’t a lot of chocolate flavor to the finished pie.

So we began to experiment. This pie was open to variation, unlike the sacred banana cake. We tried different combinations of pudding, different amounts of plain and chocolate milk, and other variations.

In the end, what we came up with was a pie with the same graham cracker crust – no way to improve on that, at least not easily. Then we mix two boxes of banana pudding with two boxes of chocolate pudding, but use only half the milk called for on the boxes. This makes the pie much firmer and easier to slice, though I must confess that sometimes we just grab forks and eat it right out of the aluminum pan. Sliced bananas and whipped topping as before.

My family had their banana idiosyncracies, too, I guess. My mother used to eat bananas with peanut butter, long before Elvis invented or at least popularized the fried banana-and-peanut-butter sandwich. She’d just smear a dollop of peanut butter on top of the banana, bite off the end, and repeat.

Maybe I should suggest to Dan that he try to invent a banana-and-peanut-butter pie. I don’t think peanut butter pudding exists. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong.) So I think it would be a matter of mixing the peanut butter into the banana pudding and tinkering with the milk ratio until the consistency is right.

We’re going to have a house-warming party this spring when our house is rebuilt. Maybe I should consider having a desserts-only buffet and serving all three kinds of pie and the banana cake as well. Of course, anyone allergic to bananas, chocolate, or peanut butter would be out of luck. We’ll have to have some plain old pound cake for them.

Or spice cake. Is anyone allergic to raisins?

 

Our Favorite Meal Kit Has Been Decided

A while back, I wrote a blog post (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-KI) about our experiences with various meal delivery services, the kind where you find a box of food left on your doorstep like an orphaned child. Then you bring it in, cook it, and eat it. (This is apparently turning into a Grimm’s fairy tale.)

Since then, we have had a couple more experiences with meal kits, so I thought I would update the post.

One of the meal services that we hadn’t tried was Freshly. Freshly differs from the other meal delivery kits in that, instead of sending you a bunch of ingredients, they send you already prepared meals for you to microwave. At first this seemed like something that would go with our low-maintenance cooking lifestyle, but then I realized that what we were getting was basically classier TV dinners.

Not that the meals involved Salisbury steak, mixed veg, and a blob of mashed potatoes, with possibly a square of apple un-crisp if you got the fancy kind. We had chicken tikka masala, mahi, and cod cakes as our week’s choices, and they all came out of the ‘wave hot and appealing-looking. They weren’t bad.

The only thing was, they were hard to modify (well, and the portion size was a bit small, too). The tikka masala, for example, we both thought could have used more spice. Of course, we could have sprinkled red pepper flakes on top (if we had any left over from the previous day’s delivery pizza). Or we could have doused it with any of the weird spice blends my husband is in the habit of bringing home from the store. What we couldn’t do, however, was add an ingredient into the sauce and let it mingle with all the other flavors until they decided to play nicely together.

In other words, the Freshly kits took away the cooking, but they also took away the cooking, if you see what I mean.

Then EveryPlate, one of the meal services I had tried before, lured me back with a special offer I couldn’t resist. Our first three meals were chicken fajitas with lime crema, pasta with sausage and squash ribbons, and pork schnitzel with cucumber/potato salad. This week we received honey-glazed pork chops with roasted broccoli, Cajun chicken sausage penne, and lemon-thyme chicken linguine. Next week we’re getting hoisin-glazed meatloaves with wasabi mashed potatoes, sausage-stuffed peppers with couscous, and harissa-roasted chickpea bowls with avocado dressing. (The three-week offer was one thing that made it so appealing.)

These are meals that we can adapt if we want to. For example, I may want to cut back on the amount of wasabi in the mashed potatoes because of my feelings about wasabi and because, since they’ll send it as a separate ingredient, I can. Likewise, we can use less salt than the (included) recipe recommends, as my husband is (supposed to be) on a heart-healthy diet and cutting down on salt is an easy change to make. (So are sensible portion sizes, which the delivery meals provide.)

The meals do require a bit of prep – chopping, peeling, dicing, stirring, creating squash ribbons (not a thing I do regularly). But oddly enough, that has proved to be one of the things that I like best about them. Since I’m no longer allowed to use sharp objects, my husband prepares the mise-en-place (as they say in cooking shows). I take care of tasks such as putting the potatoes or linguine on to boil or heating the oil to fry the schnitzel.

This has taken us back to a time in our lives when we used to cook together, which I often forget was an entertaining and joyful thing (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-kb). And the choices, while limited to eight per week, provide more variety than the old staples that we have fallen into making, like spaghetti, frittata, and cowboy beans (an invention of our own, from our early married days).

(Since I’ve taken EveryPlate up on their offer, they have let me send a free box of food to several friends. I’m curious to see if their reactions are similar to mine.)

All in all, this experience has moved EveryPlate into first place with me in what is thankfully not called The Great Meal Kit Race (not that I want to give Food Network any ideas). It’s also one of the least expensive services, so I might actually be able to afford it once this trial period ends. I’m hoping that the kits will actually save us money in the long run, since we won’t have to buy an entire jar of wasabi or six tomatoes when one is called for.

I had my doubts when I first heard about these meal kit delivery services, but I’m slowly becoming a convert.

Who’s Useless?

I saw a meme the other day that defined the laundry cycle as wash, 45 min.; dry, 60 minutes; fold and put away, 7-10 business days. That would be optimistic for me and my husband. We are useless people.

We started calling ourselves that when we were so exhausted at the end of the day that we were physically and emotionally unable to cook. So we turned to what we called “Useless People Meals” – ones that come in a box or bag or tray and only need to be microwaved. We eat them in the trays they come in or share them out of a single bowl since we are also too useless to wash many dishes. Paper towels are our napkins, and I’m sorry to report that we have been known on occasion to use paper plates and plastic cutlery. At least the plates are biodegradable.

We took another step towards uselessness when we found the perfect furniture for us – a coffee table that magically rises upward to become a dining table and an end table that swings out over the sofa to make a tray. With these in place, we can happily watch TV while we eat. (We still have meaningful conversations, mostly over who will be the next chef to be Chopped. But I digress.)

As noted above, laundry is another place to practice uselessness. All our clothing is wash-and-wear. We don’t even own an iron (or if we do, I have no idea where it’s gotten itself off to). If we ever do find the iron and would actually need to iron something, we’d have to lay it on the coffee table, which would also magically transform into an ironing board. Much easier just to toss a garment in the dryer with a dryer sheet or a damp washcloth.

I admit we’re useless. We want to skate through life doing as little physical labor as possible. And there are a lot of products designed to make life easier for people like us. The meal kits that are so popular nowadays are not for completely useless people. Some of them require actual chopping and cooking. The most recent one we tried, though, had ready-prepped meals that were microwaveable. And since we didn’t know what any of the delivery meals would taste like when we ordered them, there was something to be said for not spending much time preparing them.

But there are those who mock and deride what they see as completely useless practices, gizmos, and packaging.

They are wrong. My husband and I may be slackers, but some inventions actually make life easier for people with disabilities, who are not useless but merely incapacitated in some way. Imagine a person with rheumatoid arthritis trying to shell an egg or peel an orange and suddenly those egg-cooking gizmos and individually wrapped, already-peeled oranges in vending machines make sense. It is ableist privilege that makes people view such innovations as useless.

Even some of what my husband and I think of as for the useless would actually be great for people who are handicapped. Our “useless people coffee table” makes perfect sense if you think of someone who uses a wheelchair. And our “useless people” heat-and-eat meals are dandy for people who do not have the physical stamina to stand at a counter or a stove, chopping, mixing, stirring, straining, and all the other steps that are needed for a simple plate of spaghetti.

So we’re right to call ourselves useless people, but wrong to call our time- and step-saving practices and devices useless. The tools themselves are immensely useful and many people who use them, unlike us, are not useless at all. More and more, as the Baby Boomers age and we face illness and mobility issues, we will need to use those sock-puller-uppers and canes that stand by themselves and grippers to reach the stuff on the high shelves or on the ground. Whatever the need, it seems some clever soul has come up with a fix or a work-around.

I guess what I mean is that my husband and I are useless because we take advantage of these helpful tools just because we don’t want to do the work. There are those who use them because they need to and we will likely join them someday. At least we’ll have the tools already in place.

Magic in the Kitchen

It’s amazing what you can find in a kitchen. I admire people who have matching containers for flour, sugar, and mixing spoons. They usually also have kitchen gadgets that I can’t even name, let alone operate. Then there’s the ubiquitous kitchen junk drawer, which as a friend of mine noted, contains “rabies vaccination tags for cats that ran away” and “a dozen mangled twistie ties from last year’s Wonder Bread.” (He also called it “The Mother of All Clutter” and “Perfection’s Perfect Safety Valve.”)

But the most amazing thing you can find in the kitchen is a new life. A new start. A new purpose. Redemption.

I first realized this when my husband and I were watching the TV show Chopped. We couldn’t remember the names of the contestants, so we gave them nicknames: Who’s getting chopped this round? Red-beard guy! No, kerchief lady! Pickles everything dude! (We do the same with Forged in Fire. Santa Claus guy! Teenage upstart! Tattoo-neck! But I digress.)

One night there was a man on Chopped we took to calling “The Old Drunk,” because he was, well, old-looking and called himself a drunk when the judges asked him to tell a little bit about himself. He told how he had spent years as a hopeless alcoholic and how, after he got sober, cooking had saved him. I don’t remember whether he won Chopped, but now, I understand, he has cooking videos on YouTube and has appeared on other Food Network shows like Beat Bobby Flay. He seems to have done pretty well for himself on his journey up from rock bottom.

Then I started noticing other contestants with equally compelling stories. There have been more than a few who have credited cooking with saving their lives or giving them a way out of alcoholism or other addictions. Men have said that their lives started in gangs or ended in jail until they discovered cooking. One woman said it helped her escape from domestic abuse. Any number have said that cooking helped them feel pride in themselves when their families disapproved of their lifestyle or career choices. And quite a few competitors have said they used cooking to help overcome challenges such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other physical and mental difficulties.

This is not something that occurs only on TV, either. My husband used to work in community-based corrections. (And no, that’s not where we met.) As he counseled prisoners (inmates? clients?), he routinely heard that there were two professions that they wanted to explore when they were back on the streets: hairdressing and cooking.

(I don’t think there are any competitive hairdressing TV shows, but as soon as I say that, someone is bound to prove me wrong.)

What makes cooking such a redemptive pursuit? I think there are several answers. Cooking takes time, attention, and creativity when it’s done well. Even non-professional (or non-competitive) cooks can take pride in the idea that they are nourishing someone else – or even themselves.

I’m not saying that cooking will solve all a person’s problems or replace AA. But I do think that cooking, whether it’s at the level of professional or amateur, art or craft, hobby or necessity, speaks to something vital inside us. Food is necessary for life, after all, and making that into something expressive and loving and creative is transformative, of both the food and the self. It feeds not just bodies, but sometimes the soul.

I’m not sure about Forged in Fire. I don’t know whether bladesmithing is a redemptive act, too, though I imagine if done with sufficient commitment, pride, and artistry it could be. The same is likely true of many of the other competition-type shows. (Except Cupcake Wars. I may be wrong, but I can’t imagine anyone redeemed by cupcakes.)

One of the best-selling cookbooks of all time is The Joy of Cooking. I think it’s the joy as well as the struggle, the stumbles and disappointments, the cuts and burns, the standing rib roasts and the fallen soufflés, that give cooking its power to feed us all, and especially those who practice it with passion.

And those people I really admire, whether they’ve got their canisters in a row or not.

 

 

Living Large in a Hotel

You know all those movies from the 30s where people live in hotels and call for strawberries and champagne and poof! they appear at their door? Well, life in a hotel is not exactly like that, but it does have its moments.

We’re living in a hotel now not because we’re wealthy socialites or retirees looking for an alternative to a nursing home, but because our house was destroyed in a tornado and this is what the insurance company has set up for us. So, first of all, living in a hotel beats the hell of living in a Red Cross shelter, though we were very glad that there was one available the day the tornado hit. They provided hot meals (our current hotel provides hot breakfasts) and purchased us new underwear (which our current hotel has yet to offer).

When we left the accommodations at the First Baptist Church of Kettering, welcome as they were, we set up at a motel right across the street from a McDonalds. We were assigned a suite and later moved to a nicer suite. Both offered a fridge/freezer, microwave, cable TV, and USB ports in the electrical outlets, an amenity which we did not expect but greatly appreciated, what with all the telephone calls we would be making and receiving once we retrieved our cell phones.

Unfortunately, this microscopic motel did not allow pets, so our two cats were put up in a different facility, our vets’ boarding kennel. There they received three squares a day, a cozy room each, and all the loving they could con out of the attendants, plus shots and treatments for the various indignities they had suffered. In some ways, particularly the pets and scritchies, they were better off than we were.

Later, the insurance company moved us to a pet-friendly inn for residence, where we remain to this day (two weeks after the tornado struck). This is a semi-proper hotel. Not that the other was an improper hotel, the kind we spent our wedding night in. But this one features full breakfasts rather than Continental, plus mixers with appetizers three nights per week.

No strawberries and champagne, alas. There is no room service unless you count the local pizza parlors that service the establishment. No cocktail lounge either. But the kitchenette is improved by a full-sized refrigerator/freezer, a cooktop, and a dishwasher in addition to the microwave.

When I traveled with my mother to Rio back in the day, she was delighted by the wee room service amenities such as tiny pots of jam and decanters of cocoa, which she had never encountered before. This hotel equips the guests with not merely soap and shampoo, but small packets of salt and pepper, dishwashing liquid (to go with the plates, glasses, pots and pans, and other kitchen paraphernalia), paper towels, can opener, corkscrew – nearly everything a patron could wish. (The front desk sells laundry soap and there is a coin laundry on the third floor.)

Then there is the housekeeping service. I actually have no problems with this service – they even start the dishwasher if there are enough dirty dishes (though I’m not sure what quantity that is). The problem I have is with my husband. We could never have a maid at our home because (aside from the cost), the house would never be clean enough for a maid to come in and clean. He has a similar problem with the housekeeping staff, which means that we are piling up used paper towels, kitty litter (and barf), and such detritus until such time that enough of these items disappear that the housekeeping staff would not be appalled to vacuum our floors and change the sheets.

All in all, I can’t complain about living in a hotel, though when we move to a rental house (perhaps next week), we will have to make numerous trips to transfer all the clothes, food, and other accouterments that we have acquired during our stay. The bag of potatoes, for example, not to mention the laundry, both done and undone, could easily comprise a single load.

It’s been worth not having champagne and strawberries at our beck and call to have a safe and comfortable place for us and our kitties to recover and feel at least a little more normal. It will be a relief, though, to have a place, even if not our own, to spread out a bit more and resume our habits of daily living and not have to worry about the maids’ opinion of them.