It’s the beginning of summer. Things just… change. Pig meets smoke, drinks go taller, fruitier and icier. And new hats seek high ground somewhere between Sunburn and Big Pimpin.
This is my favorite time of year. It always has been. It’s as if a window creaks open, and for that fleeting moment in and around Memorial Day, life is malleable. There is a thick, pent-up energy to daily life, as everyone scrambles to redo their routines and make endless promises before the torpor of July envelops us. We extend invitations, buy extra glasses, make lists. It’s the one time of year where you can see a magazine article about building a hovercraft and literally sprint to the hardware store for a leaf blower. There is almost a dream-like quality to those couple of weeks, where it’s tough to avoid feeling intoxicated by possibility.
This year, I find myself ready.
There were ninety minutes to go before guests arrived, and everything was running smoothly. The bread was out of the oven, and my pimenton mayonnaise had held its fussy emulsion. Cream had been whipped, spiked with Grand Marnier, and prepped for deployment atop mugs full of warm boozy goodness. Chocolate-Chip cookie dough had been scooped onto parchment and was ready for baking. I had a gallon of cocoa on a low simmer. Ganache for the chocolate martinis was gently holding over a double-boiler. A Tom Waits-ey playlist was already murmuring in the background. I had cleaned the bejeezus out of my apartment, sourced a hat, and was ready to don a blazer. My long-held fantasy of a winter-themed cocktail party for my birthday was about to come into being.
I am not a bright ray of morning sunshine.
Even after eight hours of sleep unfettered by evening caffeine or smoke-alarm chirping, the first hour is not pretty. Obviously this is the perfect time to introduce knives, boiling water, splattery hot grease, or electric grinding appliances into the mix. It’s not pretty.
Other key fact: My routine demands I adhere to the following mantra: “Out the door at 8:04.” With keys, wallet emptied of all cash (vending machines), fully charged celly, Coffee Mug, ziploc bag full of tea, separate ziplo bac full of ice, fruit, and extra pair of socks. And, most obviously, lunch. I’m “Still Alive at 8:05,” but if I push it much farther… consequences can be profound.
So you’d think after four decades I might at least have the basics figured out. What pocket to keep my keys in, where the umbrella should go, having a consistent wake-up time or remembering not to touch my face after I slice hot peppers - stuff like that. For such a creature of routine as I am, it feels simultaneously hilarious and crippling that I can never ease my way into one. Instead, most of the time, I go through life feeling like my shirt is on inside out and backwards.
Oxford shirt, and, yes. I’ve done that.
Even in the kitchen, that one space in my world where the rules seem clear and I feel safe within a radius of my instincts – I go through weeks when I find myself feeling clumsy and error-prone. Not that I expect perfection from myself, but, again, I’m at the point where a stir-fry or a roast chicken or a loaf of bread shouldn’t present many technical difficulties.
It’s more like a feeling that certain things I prepare frequently really should taste a LOT better than I’m willing to candidly admit. And maybe it was time for a couple of tweaks. . And sometimes, luckily, I can even get things right.
Please allow this post to serve as an explanation of why I don’t harbor fantasies of working in a professional kitchen.
I could, with herculean effort, overcome the obvious: you know, better shape, willing to work nights and weekends for barely a living wage, more deference to authority, and, you know, the whole “punctual” thing. I could learn to endure the cuts and the bruises and the burn marks. I could even get used to the Hammer Pants.
This much should be obvious if you have been around a while: It’s all about the sloppy and the haphazard. In fact, It is often a small miracle that dinner even happens.
Caramel. The braising liquid was caramel. Fatty pork braised in CARMEL.
Nearly all of my get-togethers seem to stem out of an unconscious but important rule. If I am going to braise fatty pork in caramel, certain things need to be in place. My shirt needs to be tucked in And, you know, bed made, clothes off the floor, toilet paper IN the holder and not just sitting on top of it.
In other words, company. I feel like if I don’t have friends over, I’ll go Lord of The Flies and basically eat the entire pot with my hands on the kitchen floor with my face painted. Remember: I’m still trying to be a once-a-week vegetarian and things have been stressful and I haven’t made pork in a while and haven’t really slow cooked anything for even longer. I NEED least this thin veneer of civilization as a hedge against Dark Urges.
Please commit the following to memory: One cup of boiling water spiked with two tablespoons of sugar and a drizzle of vegetable oil. One cup of sifted all-purpose flour spiked with a pinch of salt. Pour the flour into the water, stirring vigorously for a moment until combined. Place the entire hot, gummy mass in a plastic bag and cut a half-inch hole in one of the corners. Squeeze the bag to extrude portions of dough roughly the size of an adult human finger. Fry these pieces of dough until browned on all sides, and then dip in a mixture containing two parts sugar and one part high-quality ground cinnamon. Serve with… (we’ll get to that)
Now that we have the formalities out of the way… Continue reading
So much of my life seems to represent a struggle against the inevitable.
If the narrative of the last ten years has been my yearning for a stable orbit, the arc of my last two has involved trying to not be engulfed by my life’s own gravity.
It’s past time that I confessed to a slight cookbook problem.
Promiscuous is not too strong a word. I’m entirely too cavalier about absorbing them to into my world. How I instantly fall in love with them – maintaining them ever so briefly in their place of honor atop my living room end table. How I try, in, vain, to live vicariously through their dishes and how I sometimes try to rudely step into their unattainable inner world, where chutney maintains its luscious color and every plate is impeccably garnished. How I eventually set them aside when something new comes along. I was even at the point where I made an agreement with myself not to buy any more for a while.
But there are few that stick around. The best ones are trusted friends I can count on for candid, straightforward counsel. One or two are a source of excitement and drama. Some I simply click with. There are Beautiful People who might someday invite me to their parties. And several were just in the right place at the right time.
And some just plain inspire me.
The dreamy and verdant possibilities of early summer have already melted into the haze and sluggishness of late June. Instead of charting out a novel, or planning a stargazing trip, my mental energy is focused on simply avoiding a sunburned noggin and counting the days until my neighborhood grocery store reopens. I’m already at the point where I’ll settle for a few cookouts and a bit of mild, age-appropriate mischief. At least I already know the most important thing: what I’m going to be drinking.