Tuesday, June 9, 2015


I recently met a woman who works for the UN. She's lived around the world since she was 23, mostly in Third World countries.  When she moved into her hotel room in Madagascar, the walls were riddled with bullet holes and there were scorpions all over the floor.  She lived without much of anything, very few creature comforts, and missed out on the whole technology age.  Her idea of GPS was when she needed to contact the closest US Army base to request an escort to a remote village.  She loved every minute of it.

Now she’s back in the US and is learning all about smartphones, wi-fi, anything we’ve taken for granted during the past ten years with regards to technology.  When she moved into her apartment, she asked her very surprised leasing agent to remove the microwave and dishwasher since she wouldn’t be using them and could use the extra space they were taking up (they did remove the microwave, and she said she’s slowly learning to use her dishwasher).  But her biggest shock of all was going grocery shopping.

“I had PTSD”, she said. “I walked into the grocery store and was completely overwhelmed by the abundance. So many things, too many things, products I’d never heard of, and just the sheer amount of everything anyone could ever need and never need. And the waste!  I got such an anxiety attack that I had to leave immediately”.

I thought about that for a while after we talked. We do take things for granted, don’t we? That our grocery stores will have every variety of potato, lettuce, and packaged cereal - and if they don’t, we’ll surely complain to management then head to the store down the street, since they will certainly have what we’re looking for.  Everything is so convenient. Too convenient.  We want for nothing. We have fast food joints littered along every city block.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the convenience myself. I thoroughly enjoy grocery shopping: checking out all the cuts of meat and varieties of cheese; taking my time going through the produce aisle as recipe ideas pop into my head. I love that shit. But seriously, do we need this?:

wall 'o k-cups
I tend to skip the middle aisles of the grocery store and mainly shop the perimeter aisles, because most of what is offered in the middle is junk. The exception is when I need to get something like crackers, or Dunkin' Donuts ground coffee (the coffee of choice in This House). Or wine. Because, priorities.  But in the past year, my local Kroger re-arranged their store layout, except for the perimeter displays; so in order to get to what I want in the middle, I must surf my way up and down countless aisles of garbage as I have yet to remember where my beloved wine items now live.

middle aisle junk: what in the hell is this? and it's USDA approved AND organic? yikes.
The thing is, i'm not immune to the K-Cup things myself.  At my teaching job, we sell those violently expensive Nespresso machines in all their many mutations (and price range), and they do make a fine cup of coffee. {Off topic for a second, when I was last in France I noticed that George Clooney was hustling Nespresso machines in TV ads that i've never seen make it over here (yet). They're quite silly. See for yourself}. I was so excited to learn how to use one of the more complicated machines, one that I originally thought i'd need a degree in Physics in order to figure out how to operate. I loved it so much that on one of my first days there, I drank three double espressos with foam... and was awake until 4 am. So i'm limiting my intake from now on.  

But honestly. Do we need it? and the answer is: No. We don't. We like convenience, that is all. And to be honest, the best cup of coffee i've had is one made with my Vietnamese coffee press or my no-frills French press. Yeah, it takes time.... like maybe five whole minutes. It's not instantaneous. But somehow, I'll manage to live.

Monday, June 1, 2015

perfecto imperfecto

I taught a couple few classes over the weekend, one of them a group of 14 people how to make empanadas.  The group was a bit hesitant at first, but I’ve found that getting them all involved in an activity such as rolling out dough and making the filling is very interactive and gets them all talking to each other (none of them knew any of the others apart from who they came with).   Pretty soon I had a chatty crowd going.  They all brought wine, so that helped too. Lubrication of the mandibles is always good for conversation.

One of the women, who was having the best time scooping filling into dough circles, announced to me that though she was loving this process, it would be too time consuming to make them for a dinner party. To which I replied, “Why not have an empanada-making party?”. Her face lit up. “That’s a great idea!”, she said.  She then invited the couple she was paired up with to come to this future party.  Success all around. *

It reminded me of an Editor’s Note I once read in Gourmet Magazine, I want to say at least 12 or 13 years ago (I’m a bit fuzzy on dates, but I had a subscription for about a year during that timeframe).  Ruth Reichl wrote that the best dinner party she’d ever been to was one when, upon arrival, the hostess blurted out that nothing was ready and that she needed everyone’s help to get dinner on the table.  I remember reading this article and being absolutely horrified.  At that time (way back in my culinary youth), I was disgustingly into the whole Martha-Stewart-Everything-Must-Be-Perfect mode, and I couldn’t think of anything worse than not being ready when your guests arrived.  I had a very '50s housewife sort of attitude, and attributed dinner party unpreparedness to massive failure.  I always ensured my guests were as least inconvenienced as possible, regardless of how I’d worked myself to a tired frenzy and was of absolutely no good conversation-wise later on. Fast forward a decade + a few years, I find that antiquated ideal extremely tiresome and pretty boring. 

If I remember correctly (and surprisingly I sometimes I do), I threw the magazine across the room. I had a habit of doing that with articles or books I didn’t agree with. That may have been the reason why I canceled my subscription; who knows. I’m not afraid to say I was a naïve culinarian.

In more recent years, I’m prone to putting people to work as soon as we get together in a kitchen, whether it’s mine or one of my friends’.  This is especially useful if one or more people don’t know each other; what better way to get acquainted and break the ice than to bond over setting a table or getting water boiling for pasta? It’s a whole lot better than sitting quietly in a living room trying to come up with Polite and Interesting Things to Say to Strangers while the hostess is busily tiring herself to hair-pulling frustration in the other room.

Perfection is bullshit. As I’m always telling my classes, recipes are a guideline; if you feel like changing things up, you should follow your gut (except for baking, that’s more of a science. But even then I’m prone to carefree wantonness in that department).  Most of the people who take the cooking classes are really great. They’re there to learn, or network with others, or both.  But every once in a while I get someone in there who is so focused on perfection and trying to follow a recipe exactly, then getting frustrated that their final product took too long and doesn’t appear how they imagined it to be.  I try to spend as much time with these kinds of folks as possible to get them to unwind a bit, let their inner cook come out and play.  Most of the time it works, but sometimes it doesn’t.  I feel badly; I see my old self in them and want to take them by the shoulders and shake them into this century.

Then sometimes I get someone who really doesn’t want to be in class at all, like a couple of weeks ago when a woman in her mid-30s was dragged in by her mom, aunt, and cousins.  Her mom wanted her there so her daughter could, as she confided in me, “land herself a husband” (talk about '50s housewife mentality. I tried to alleviate the mood by saying that a man who cooks is sexy, but that didn't appease the mother very much). The daughter looked bored and made it known, out loud, that she’d rather be shopping at the Michael Kors store nearby than be caught dead in a kitchen. At one point, she grabbed a chair out of the corner of the room and sat for most of the rest of the class.  Her mom hauled her up to help with chopping up some garlic, but after a few minutes, the daughter gingerly picked up her cutting board and chef knife, handed them to me; the look on her face showing complete disgust. “Can you get me a new one?”, she said. “This one touched food”.

* I’ve been big on impromptu networking lately; see my previous post about Stupid High Tech Toilets