Saturday, April 02, 2016

Your Neighborhood Librarian Cooks a Meal

My son needs to bake a pie for his 8th grade class's Pie Auction. 

Why this strikes me as like the last and final blow, the pinnacle, the ultimate "we've got to have WHAT by Monday?!" in ten years of "Students must have X by Monday" - paint smocks, comfortably a dozen batches of cookies and cupcakes, multiple tri-fold presentation boards, a clipboard, camping equipment, and costumes representing John Wilkes Booth, Ravi Shankar, a tropical fish, and British composer Henry Purcell - I can't really say.

But it irritates the shit out of me. Maybe it's because I can't bake a piecrust myself.

Anyway, the Pie Auction is described as a hallowed tradition of this private school that the boys have been attending for middle school, middle school representing for me the three years in a young person's life that most closely resemble hell, and so we paid good cash money to put them somewhere with 275 years of experience keeping kids basically on the rails. (*ignoring ignoring ignoring my friends who went there themselves and their fond memories of skipping class to smoke cigarettes at the Dunkin Donuts or pot down at the creek*) (*that was high school anyway, they assure me*)

And the flyer for the Pie Auction allows for "savory pies." Which is good, because my 8th grader is a savory guy. Ha. Ugh. Anyway, he's better with meat than with desserts. Hm. That's also kind of ugh. Here's a story:

We're sitting at dinner one night maybe 6 or 7 years ago, Ez was about 6 and Milo maybe 8. The subject of pie comes up, who knows how. Ezra asks, "What actually IS a pie? How do you make it?"

I start to answer. "You roll out dough flat and put it in a round pan..."

And then Milo chimes in. He's like me - he likes to have the answer to things, and is generally unconcerned with the limits of his own knowledge or authority on the subject at hand. "And then you put in the filling - the meat or jelly - and then more dough on top."

Bob and I looked at him. "Meat and jelly?" Bob asked.

I turned to Ezra. "Please keep in mind that your brother has never made a pie."

"He may have never eaten one," added Bob. "Or seen one on TV," I said.

So this is going to go well.

"I can make a pie," he says. "They showed us at school."
"You can make a piecrust." I said, skeptical.
"Yeah, they showed us."
"Can you drive?" I asked. "You've watched me do it."
"Probably," he said.
Fair enough. He could probably drive. "Well, I can't make a piecrust," I told him, "and I've been cooking for a long time. There's a lot of finesse involved. And measurement."
"Oh," he says. 
Boy knows his limitations, I'll give him that.

Milo and I are both pretty good cooks. We get proportion and complementary flavor, we can throw things together and they'll come out ok. But measuring we don't really do. I think it interferes with our instincts. When I have to calculate measurements, I'll lose sight of what I intuitively understand to be right, and whatever I'm making will come out all fucked up.

So this is what recipes look like once I'm done with them:

These are from my recipe notebook. I started it when I lived in Brooklyn in 1995. It's full of ambitious experiments and holiday side dishes and 'jesus why can't you remember how to cook rice?' instructions to myself. There are about a hundred recipes for bread pudding, including one from Pascal's Manale in New Orleans which calls for 3 loaves of french bread, half a gallon of milk, and three pounds of sugar. 

That was a great meal. I was in New Orleans with my boss for the American Association of Critical Care Nurses convention. Our booth - I worked for a medical publishing company - was immediately across the aisle from a company that sold internal prosthetics. Fake boobs, fake testicles. They had a couple of them out on display, I mean, that's the point, you need to be able to fondle them to be sure they possess the right consistency and heft.

And this is why even on my worst days I'm never really dissatisfied with my life. Memories. Of palpating fake nuts.

There are recipes from off the side of boxes - because you never know when Baker's is going to stop printing their one-bowl brownie recipe on the box and then you're screwed because those really are the best brownies (as long as you dust them with kosher salt and chili powder just before putting them in the oven - see?? I just can't leave well enough alone). There's an episode of Friends about that. Courtney Cox slaves for a week trying to duplicate Phoebe's grandmother's chocolate chip cookie recipe when it turns out to be the one on the chocolate chip bag.

There are pressed flowers and photos of lobsters. Recipes I've never made (homemade mustard) and recipes for things I make so often I'm surprised to find they have a written origin (Chicken Cacciatore). There are rare instances of me drawing. I can really not draw, except sometimes. That's a passable sweet potato.

The evolution of my chili recipe is tracked. Multiple batches of hot sauce. There are pictures of parties and guest appearances by friends and family. A pork dish Bob's sister Patsy made for my birthday, and a New Mother Chicken Soup my sister-in-law Jane made for me just after Milo was born, even though she's a vegetarian.

Here's our Jaime, showing off the (baked) goods at a tree-trimming party in our first Brooklyn apartment. Jaime brought an eyeshadow suspended on a string. "What do I know from Christmas ornaments?" she shrugged. "I'm a Jew!" Goes on the tree every year though - sparkly is as sparkly does.

I kept it up for about 8 years and then the recipes peter out. Kids, right? You know I love 'em! Detailed, illustrated recipes give way to "Meatloaf a la April 4th" and "here's how you sear a steak, dodo."

Bob and Paula, The Middle Years: The Wineglass and the Sippy Cup

Which isn't to say I stopped cooking. The evidence is stuffed into the front and back of that notebook, used as bookmarks in our other cookbooks, magnetted to the fridge. Today I finally went through all those loose Epicurious printouts, pages ripped from the New York Times Magazine, lists of ingredients scribbled on wrinkled-up scraps of paper.

Some people scrapbook - I cookbook

And looking at all the stuff we've made for holiday dinners and for our annual Pig Roast and the stuff I made because I was bored, I guess I get why my kids will order unfamiliar things off menus, and why Milo can make a marinade without even thinking about it. Ezra leafs through a baking cookbook and decides he'd like to make a four-layer, two-color birthday cake with two kinds of icing for his brother's birthday. 

Because sure, in addition to "Super Easy Salmon" and "This is the last-minute Brussels sprouts thing" there's also the Bo Ssam from Momofuku and Pecan Bread Pudding with Butterscotch Sauce (served that one to my friends PG and TK the night author Adam Gidwitz came to supper). 

Looks like I wrote down the recipe for the homemade miso soup with udon I used to make them for lunch twice a week when they were preschoolers. I can still make dashi broth half-asleep and talking on the phone.

That's our neighbor B, who I think maybe actually is driving now.

And lord there are so many drinks recipes among these stained and folded printouts. My Bad Mom friends will be relieved to know that I printed out and kept the instructions for making red white and blue frozen rum slushies. Some of those scraps of paper record fried chicken experiments, as well as documentation of how my friend Mona does it (dredged in flour with salt and pep, fried in lard, in a 24" skillet she calls Vera) (god Mona is such a boss).

We brought home a plastic bottle of the sugar-citric acid-chili powder that you find on the table at restaurants in Mexico (it's awesome, it's like an Atomic Warhead ground up with chili powder and will make a hard-boiled egg taste dynamite), thinking it would be like the seasoning I made for the fried chicken one time which the kids started calling Magic Dust because it tastes good on EVERYTHING, but it's not. 

I lost that recipe as soon as I found it, and have since bought two cookbooks (Ride or Fry and Fried and True, both good) in search of it - but it turned out to be from Brooklyn Bowl, printed in the NYT Mag, and I had it among my scraps.

Above all, there are a million recipes for Hoppin' John. There's the recipe from the Goya bag, and one from Emeril, and at least two in my own handwriting, and one from when my friend Leslie, who used to be a professional chef, made it at Sarah's half-finished house in Pittsburgh one New Year's Day. Lacking any of the usual measuring hardware, he expressed all measurements in terms of coffee mugs - specifically, the coffee mug that was the favor distributed by Sean and Heidi at their wedding. This was brilliant - everyone who woke up in that house that day had been to that wedding. We would always be able to make Les's hoppin' john. The handle on mine finally broke, but we still use it to hold pens.

It's a little weird that I should have felt compelled to document how to make hoppin' john. It's just beans and rice, really - one of those things I can make while I'm doing ten other things, like making a mopping sauce for a 110-lb pig. 

I guess it's because you make it on New Year's Day. It's special, and when it's really good it's just terrific. And it's lucky! Like me!

And you. To quote my friend Cole, who is a phenomenal cook - Your Neighborhood Librarian loves you, and your butt looks great in those pants.


PS - So anyway, here's the pie Milo's going to make - the whole reason I dragged my cookbook out in the first place was to find this recipe for Shepherd's Pie, by our friend John Forrest, a legit British person, written down by Jaime while it was being made. And illustrated with a picture of Milo and his brother Ezra laying down the beat on Tupperware in our kitchen before we got rid of those cabinets and that floor.