Don’t Ask ‘What’s Cooking?’

I have written before about being impatient in the kitchen. I want to be one of those breezy hostesses with hundreds of dishes in my repertoire, feasts that I can conjure at an hour’s notice for twelve people. Never mind that most dinner parties I’ve co-hosted have been more party than dinner–I have tremendous expectations for the entertaining I will do in the future.

I have it all planned: You arrive at my small albeit cozy and candle-lit home, greeted by a whoosh of  warm air and a plate full of appetizers. We will tumble into the tiny kitchen that miraculously holds every guest and you’ll settle down at a little table full of fresh bread with spiced oils and fruit and trade animated stories with our friends, laughter tinkling quite merrily, probably. I will float from the pantry to the stove to the fridge, pouring wine with one hand and whisking salad dressing for a bowl of sparkling greens in the other while I pull some impressive beast with roast vegetables from the oven only to turn around and present a lattice-top pie from…where? My bosom? You have no idea, because you’re dazed by my culinary mystique. Dish after fragrant dish materializes in front of us, and once we’ve finally eaten and drunk ourselves into a comfortable haze, we rise from the table to find that someone has already loaded the dishwasher.

Basically, I want my kitchen to look like that scene with the dancing cutlery in Beauty and the Beast. It’s not gonna happen.

Aside from my somewhat flawed expectation that every meal should be a feast (I blame Brian Jacques), I have considerably little experience with kitchen basics. I can chop vegetables, but I don’t really know how. I eat meat, but I don’t prepare it for myself because I don’t trust myself to cook it well. I love the idea of making my own culinary staples, but there are so many that I don’t know where to start. There are plenty of unusual food facts tucked into my brain, but I still have yet to make a decent fried egg. Cooking is neither easy nor pleasant right now; it’s actually sort of infuriating. It’s time to start learning.

This month I’ve endeavored to get better acquainted with the kitchen and the foods I like so that every cooking experience won’t feel like a chore or worse, a disaster. Some of this education has been informal–I made a steak! All by myself! I didn’t think I liked steak!–but for the more serious business I’m turning to the professionals. By the end of October, I’ll know how to wield a knife, bake bread, and brew my own beer. And what more do you need, really?

September’s Foodie Penpals recap

Have you ever read those charming newspaper interviews with especially elderly citizens? Maybe it’s a small town thing. I find them fascinating, but as soon as I get to the paragraph where the sprightly 105-year-old attributes her longevity to “never snacking between meals,” I can’t help but roll my eyes. I am a devoted snacker, and if I live to be 100 you can bet I’ll chalk it up to the goods that kept me from completely losing my mind out of hanger.

That’s why I was so pleased to get a box full of new snacks in the mail last month. In August I signed up for Foodie Penpals, a terrific program that lets you exchange edible gifts with participants all around the country. I packed up local spices, honey, and various snacks and sent them off to one of my partners, and within a few weeks I received my own box from my other partner, Bethany.

I realized after our first email exchange that I’d given Bethany very little information about myself, other than, “I don’t like fennel.” Helpful. But she must have sensed my need for snack food, because she sent me a wonderful assortment of sweets and savories.

First glimpse…

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Lobster for All

I went to Maine and all I can talk about are hot dogs and chicken and dumplings. What’s wrong with this picture?

Lobster, Lindsay. You forgot the lobster.

I didn’t forget the lobster. This is lobster’s year–a warm, early spring caused quite the lobsterpalooza on the Maine coast this summer. The glut was great for tourists and seafood shacks but less so for the lobstermen trying to make a living off the lowest prices in decades. We did the best we could to help; a shack’s sign along the highway announced that their lobsters were “cheaper’n hot dogs!” and we took full advantage.

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Baby Steps

“Just take it like a shot, you can do it. One, two, three.”

I still cannot believe that Erik had to coach me through a small dose of NyQuil in a session that took the better part of an hour. At 18 years old I had the same fervent hatred for liquid medicines as I’d had at age 6, and the lurid, anise-scented syrup wasn’t making a strong case for itself.

The standard adult dose of NyQuil is two tablespoons, and it comes in its own plastic cup. In ounces, that corresponds roughly to an average-sized shot glass but I’m skeptical that the manufacturers of our favorite dolphin-emblazoned glasses were particularly committed to precision. Regardless, a two-tablespoon-sized cup of anything looks pretty piddling, but I couldn’t bring this one near my mouth without tears springing to my eyes and my gag reflex threatening mutiny.

I had my first college flu and my (older, wiser) friends had taken it upon themselves to look after me after listening to a few hours of piteous whining. Erik presented me with a bottle of deep green decongestant goo for what I’m sure he thought was going to be a one-gulp fix, and instead I presented him with my usual sickbed hysteria.

“What does it taste like? Will it linger? Does it work right away? Do I have to take it? Can I do it in little sips? Oh please take it away–wait, I need it. Really, just…one swallow? That’s all? Will it really help me sleep? How soon do I have to go to sleep? I won’t like it. I don’t like it. Do I have to?”

I cowered in my roommate’s chair trying to drum up enough courage for a single swallow while Erik and Jordan tried to increase its appeal.

“You know it’s really not that bad. It smells so much worse than it tastes; I actually kind of like it!”

“Yeah, dude, it will help you sleep sooo much better. You’ll get used to it.”

“It’s not going to magically cure you, you know that right? But you’ll sleep and then you’ll feel so much better, and that’s what you want isn’t it? We all want that–please!

I got brave. I took the cup. I studied it, took a few deep breaths–and handed it back.

“I can’t.”

To the boys’ credit, they maintained astonishing calm while we repeated this process. I came close to downing the cup, so very desperate to get it over with and finally sleep, but so repulsed by the smell and viscosity that I pushed it away every time. At last Erik threatened to pinch my nose shut for me while I sipped, which was enough to make me yelp, “That won’t be necessary!” and finish the dose in one go.

As soon as I was through sniffling and wincing, Jordan leaned over with a mischievous grin. “So. I wasn’t going to tell you this before, but I puked everywhere the first time I took NyQuil. See? You did fine!”

With that they sent me to bed and checked in the next morning, when I had to admit that yes, I had slept very well and my headache was gone and I could breathe and probably some of that had to do with the NyQuil, a bit.

I have since discovered that NyQuil comes in simple, odor-free pills, which mercifully takes all the drama out of a head cold. But I think of that incident often since it tends to repeat itself whenever I have a big decision ahead of me. The need to make post-graduate plans has gotten stronger in the few months that I’ve been out of college, yet I wind myself up in a monstrous web of pros and cons and lose my focus. I imagine many possibilities, some excellent and some outrageous, but if I overthink them I am likely to fall into NyQuil Mode and reject something promising and useful. When I feel myself veering too close to the planning anxiety (“I should do this, but I can’t do that, and this is too scary, and that is too far, but oh god, I should DO this!”), I have to remind myself that an independent move should be like medicine. However unpleasant at the time, it ought to be ultimately restorative so that I can continue forging forward. Sometimes I need a little push.

Here For A Hot Dog: Maine part 2

I have been rising early enough to be able to tell that fall is beginning to wheedle its way in. Our chilly mornings have some bite to them, and I think hopefully, maybe today I can wear my sweater. Today? But I shed the sweater by 11 am and switch to a tank top by 2.

Napa Valley’s summers are persistent, and at times I love the dusty depth of the early fall heat. There’s no chance I’ll get confused, though. I know my summer is over because I’ve had my Brunswick hot dog.

Empty Cottage. Photo: Luke Myers

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It has crossed my mind that I may be too selfish to write about the Maine coast in August. I don’t want to reveal my secret hideaway.

Sunset. Photo: Luke Myers

I could warn you that the mosquitos are fierce this year, high-pitched specks of pure evil, and that the humidity is akin to being licked by an enormous, overheated St. Bernard. There are deer flies and sharp barnacles, and they say that somewhere out there a lost shark is roaming around the harbors looking for lunch. Continue reading