I’ve learned a lot over the years. By my calculation, this is my 49th year of making Thanksgiving, not counting a few years when I was a guest at someone else’s table.
I remember when the torch passed and my parents no longer wanted the job. Suddenly, they were just as happy to eat my food. I knew at the time this was a significant change in our relationship, that something important had changed.
Since then — 40 years later — I’ve been making holidays. Although my son does the cooking, or most of it anyhow, he still doesn’t know how to make the holiday. How to set a table, figure out which dishes to use. Which flatware. Whether or not to put out the “good” glassware (but unlike me, he knows on which side the forks go versus the knives).
And despite them being among the easiest recipes in the world, no one but me can make the cranberry sauces.
Things I’ve learned after 49 years of family dinners:
- Don’t get a big centerpiece. It takes up too much room and will be in the way when people are trying to converse.
- Not only do place settings not have to match, making each setting different is a very cool “look” (though I didn’t do it this year).
- No matter how many people you have coming to dinner, there will be much more food than even the hungriest crowd can possibly consume.
- Don’t save the mashed potatoes. No one is going to eat them.
- The turkey will be fully cooked at least an hour before your calculations say it will.
- If you cook the turkey to an internal temperature of 180 degrees, it will taste like sawdust and no amount of gravy will make a difference.
- Buy a fresh turkey, not a frozen one. It’s worth it. Fresh turkey tastes so much better!
- Put a clear plastic cover over your good tablecloth. Your guests won’t mind and gravy does not come out completely, no matter what formula you use to treat the stains.
When I’m feeling ambitious, I get more creative with table settings. I have a lot of “fiesta ware,” bright, solid-color dishes that mix and match with other pottery. I’ve given away my 16-place-setting porcelain. Storing it took up more space than I was willing to devote to something I used maximum twice a year.
I don’t buy expensive stemware. It’s not that kind of crowd.
I don’t bother to point out no one is going to eat that much food. Don’t mention that nine pies for seven guests is a bit much. My daughter-in-law is Italian. I’m Jewish. My husband is Black. Excessive food is a cultural and genetic mandate. Please eat. Please overeat. If you don’t leave the table feeling slightly ill from over-consumption, I haven’t done my job.
The good news? I can put together a nice looking holiday table in under 20 minutes. Add on another half hour because I have to wash everything. I haven’t used it since last Christmas and dust will have its way. Still, that’s pretty good.
Gone are the big floral displays, the fragile serving dishes. The stemware broke and was never replaced. Ditto the serving dishes. A nice table is welcoming. A super fancy, overwhelmingly elegant table is less so and can be off-putting.
Less fuss means I don’t end the holiday exhausted and cranky. I might just survive through Christmas. Imagine that!
Pie – Food evokes all the senses: the scent of pastry baking, the sound of a fork clinking on a plate… I don’t think this is going to make anyone’s mouth water, but this is the way it happened. Another true story from the giant closet of memories I call life.
I do not have a hand for pastry. I have had it demonstrated step-by-step and followed along as my gifted friends made pastry. With the flick of a wrist, in no time flat, they had that sucker on a big floured board, rolled out and voilà. Light, perfectly flaky pie crust.
I was glad to discover that the secret ingredient of at least two women whose baking was out of this world was the pre-made crust they bought at the grocery store. It made me feel a little better. They made the filling, but not the crust.
I make great filling.
Yet, I was troubled by my inability to conquer pastry. I’d watched pie crust being made. It appeared easy enough. There seemed no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do it myself. I cook well. I make bread. Excellent bread and by hand, if you please. I also make cake and cookies from scratch. You should try my ginger snaps — they are fabulous (if I do say so myself).
My husband comes from a West Indian family. Spicy meat pies are near and dear to his heart and I had just gotten his mother’s secret recipe for filling. She bought pre-made crust and suggested I should too. She even told me what brand to buy.
I was going to make my own pie crust. No store-bought stuff for me!
I did it. On previous attempts, it had fallen apart when I tried to roll it out. By golly, I was not going to let that happen again. I put the flour in the bowl. I added the butter, and a pinch of salt. Mixed it with a fork. I did that multi-knife chopping thing that turns it into dough, but maybe I didn’t do such a great job. And it was too dry.
So, I added (per the recipe) a bit of ice water.
Which made it too wet. So I added a bit more flour. Then a bit more ice water. A bit more butter. Finally, I could roll it out. I couldn’t roll it thin, but I figured a little thicker wouldn’t matter. I was making meat pies … so a slightly heavier crust would be fine. Wouldn’t it?
I made two meat pies and they looked fabulous. When they came out of the oven, they smelled like heaven and the crust was gorgeous, a baked-to-perfection shade of golden brown.
I proudly presented one to Garry, who took a knife and fork and began to dig in. He could not cut the through crust. He couldn’t even scratch it. Finally, he took a knife and stabbed it with both hands. It would have killed a lesser pie.
NOTE: Garry was a Marine. He does 200 push-ups every morning and has for his entire adult life. He’s no sissy. This was more than 10 years ago, so he was even stronger back then.
The knife bounced off leaving the crust unscathed. Garry kept apologizing, as if it were his fault … trying, I suppose, to spare my feelings. It was hopeless.
I eventually pried the top off both pies and we ate the filling. The crust could have been used as a building material. The one thing it was not, was food.
Is anyone surprised to learn this was my last, absolutely final, attempt to make my own pie crust?
Share Your World – 2014 Week 38 If you could be a tree or plant, what would you be? I think I’d like to be something useful. Maybe aloe vera. Good for skin, burns, hair. A very useful plant and it smells good too. If you could have a servant come to your house every […]
Unlikely Pairing – Bacon and chocolate, caramel and cheddar… Is there an unorthodox food pairing you really enjoy? Share with us the weirdest combo you’re willing to admit that you like — and how you discovered it.
Unorthodox food pairing? What, pray tell, would orthodox be? Is there a dogmatic approach to food consumption of which I am unaware?
I don’t put sugar on my eggs, or eat bacon with my ice cream. I don’t eat bacon at all, really. It’s unhealthy, despite it having become terribly (and I said terribly with intentional punniness) trendy.
I’m a food conservative. If you need to put a classification on my relationship to cuisine. I’m in favor of not mixing it all up into a gloppy mess. If I’ve taken the trouble to cook three or four components to create a meal — perhaps chicken limone, garlic mashed potatoes, and fresh asparagus with a hint of butter sauce — I want to be able to taste each part of the meal separately. I want YOU to taste each of them separately, too. If you are one of those people who likes to mix everything into one yucky heap, I will sit across the table and glare malevolently at you until you finally ask me what’s wrong.
I will then tell you. In considerable detail, probably far more detail than you wanted to hear. If you argue, I will explain the intricacies of the preparation — not to mention the labor I put into producing these gourmet delights. And how by mixing them, you have nullified my efforts and personally offended me.
Telling me something like “But that’s the way I like it” will win you an invitation to go buy an everything pizza downtown. You are not worthy of my table. If you have, perchance, put ketchup on it, back away from the table and leave quietly before I kill you.
I guess the answer is that I don’t eat weird combinations of foods because I like every dish in its proper place on plate and palate.
Should I apologize for this? I don’t think so.
Back on the Chain Gang Last night I calculated I have been cooking dinners for me and a husband and/or children, other family and friends for just shy of 50 years. Half a century. I’m a good cook. I like food and since I can’t afford to order in or eat out very often, I have […]
This ultimate comfort food is probably called something different depending on where you live. Originally, the recipe was a way to use leftover potatoes, but it has become a staple of diner breakfasts all across America.
You can use leftover potatoes if you happen to have some. You could also, in theory, use canned boiled potatoes but I think they taste kind of tinny. I cut up whatever potatoes I have in the house … there are always some potatoes in the bin.
Tonight, I used the remainder of a big bag of Idahos. They were too old to bake. I had to pick out the eyes which were barely this side of becoming a plant. There were a few bad spots to remove, too. Nonetheless, I had more than enough to make home fries that would generously serve four adults.
So here’s the recipe. It’s a seat-of-your-pants recipe, so you need to have kitchen courage in place. Be bold.
- 4 – 5 large, washed unpeeled potatoes, cut into small pieces
- 1 or 2 large onions, chopped
- Optional: 1 – 2 banana peppers (mildly hot Hungarian peppers)
- Garlic (chopped or powder)
- Cumin or chili powder
- Oil for frying.
I prefer corn oil because it’s pretty heavy-duty as a lubricant and rarely burns. It tastes okay and won’t kill you with cholesterol. I do not use canola oil because it is made from rape seed which is used for making heavy-duty engine lubricant.
There is no such thing as a canola. Ponder that when you use canola oil or any “canola-based” substance.
You can use potatoes that are past their prime and you don’t have to peel them. I don’t peel potatoes. It’s against my principles. Wash the potatoes, remove eyes and bad spots, then cut them into pieces suitable for frying.
Boil the potatoes until they are fork tender. Don’t abandon them and wander off to the computer or television. If you over-cook them, they’ll be good for mashing, but not frying. The hardest part of this is getting the potatoes soft enough to eat, but not mushy. After 10 minutes, start checking until you think you’ve got it.
You’re going to need a deep-frying pan. I use black cast iron cookware. I have 4 sizes, from a flat griddle to a 5-quart dutch oven. I love them and the only thing wrong with them is they are very heavy, especially when full of food.
I have had to work out strategies to use them successfully since I’m not as strong as I used to be. Mine are all made by Lodge, bought through Amazon. It’s less than half the price of good stainless steel cookware. It’s better at controlling heat. Once properly seasoned, cast iron is more non-stick than Teflon and a great deal easier to maintain.
While the potatoes are boiling, fry the garlic, onions and peppers. When the potatoes are ready, drain them, rinse them with cold water and add them to the onion and pepper mix. Add spices. The paprika is for color. If you like things spicy (I do), you can use hot Hungarian paprika.
It’s done when you think it is, when it tastes the way you want it to taste … and the rest of the meal is ready. As long as you add oil as needed and keep the heat moderate … and don’t walk away and leave it to scorch — this is a dish that will wait for you. Keep moving it around with a spatula.
It’s delicious. If you have leftovers, you can reheat them for another meal or freeze them for one of your “I don’t feel like cooking” days. Great with eggs and bacon … or anything. And definitely comforting.
A bunch of us had gathered at Sandy’s house. She was a cook, aspiring to be a professional. When she invited us for a meal, it was good. Always a good feeding and delicious. We were her test subjects, never knowing what great idea she’d come up with. Whatever, we were happy to eat it.
On this day, Sandy was dressed — as always — in a floaty Indian blouse and long skirt. The blouse had angel-wing sleeves. Very pretty, if a bit inconvenient in the kitchen. All of us had been smoking a little hashish. We’d have been smoking pot, but it was hard to come by. Hashish was ubiquitous, available everywhere. All it really meant was we were building up a hearty appetite. It was our appetizer.
“Hey,” I said. “Sandy! You are on fire.” Sure enough, the wings of her blouse passed smoldering — I’d missed that — and were now in flames.
“Oh,” said Sandy, flustered.
All the friends stood there like stuffed dummies, staring at the pretty fire. Morons, I mumbled. Then, I put out the fire. Cotton doesn’t flame up quickly and if one is attentive, it’s easy to douse. Sandy thanked me profusely for a commonplace thing I’d have done for anyone. What was more interesting was how the rest of the gang just stood there with their mouths open, apparently at a loss to know what to do. Not good in a crisis, I surmised.
“No one else tried to put out the fire,” said Sandy.
“Not a big deal,” I said, and it wasn’t. I still don’t understand why I was the only one who realized that “Sandy is on fire” should be followed by putting out the fire.
Sandy stopped wearing loose clothing in the kitchen and stopped inviting those friends for dinner. Shortly thereafter, following a misunderstanding with the local constabulary vis-à-vis the growing of certain plants on her balcony, she moved to San Francisco and opened a chain of take-out restaurants. I visited her there. She’s doing fine and no longer feels obliged to grow her own on the balcony.
In any case, it would be legal.