Thursday, June 30, 2005


I have done only minimal cooking this week. V. normally handles dinners when we're both home because I go to work every day and he doesn't. (Having a retired partner is quite the mixed blessing. He does all this stuff that I would otherwise have to do at least half of, but I'm totally envious of all his free time.) And I made another huge pot of lentil soup (note to self: substituting the fine cracked wheat for the coarse bulgar is something we don't want to do again) that is covering all my lunches. Plus, we ate out last night.

A member of my online knowledge base was in town for a conference for the better part of a week, and last night, she, V., another local OKBer, and I met up for dinner at Andale, a "contemporary Mexican" (those are not scare quotes; that is what the restaurant calls itself) restaurant across the street from the Washington Shakespeare Theater. (It's at 7th and D Streets, NW. I have no idea what that area is called; I am a poor excuse for a Washingtonian. It's near the convention center, though.)

I find that when I meet someone in real life that I've known for any length of time online, it's invariably a little bit weird and a great deal of fun. I suspect that for people who do it more often than I do, it stops being weird, and it's not a bad weirdness, regardless. It's just unusual to be having standard face-to-face communication with someone whom you're used to communicating with in an entirely different manner. It starts with names. Most, though not all, of us have online names that are different from the names on our birth certificates and/or the names that people who are not online call us. I, for example, go by "anapestic," though all of the members of the OKB call me "pesty," except for one especially impertinent (but otherwise charming) fellow who calls me something else, which need not concern us here.

Real people are also different from their online personae, though they are almost always nicer in real life (unless it's someone with whom you're meeting with romantic and/or sexual expectations; those can go either way) just because they are. (The difference has to do with the limitations of online communication and the inherent lack of accountability. I reckon that you have experienced it yourself if you've spent any significant amount of time online.) Using myself as an example yet again (me, me, me!), I am significantly more pedantic and strident online than I would dare or want to be in real life, where I am best described as mostly harmless.

Anyway, before I sink any deeper into the Slough of Internal Dialogue, let me say that the food at Andale is pretty good, though not spectacular. We ordered the appetizer sampler for the table. It was clearly designed for three: three flour tortillas, three taquitos, one miniature seafood chimichanga, some melted queso, and a pile of guacamole. Fortunately, we are all good at math, including division. The appetizers were all fresh and pretty good, but none of them was particularly inventive, and my guacamole is a lot better. We each had a beer; I had something that the waiter (semi-cute, attentive, not overly skilled; I attribute any shortcomings to his inability to cope with the loss of his big pepper grinder; Andale very sensibly has a pepper grinder on every table, which of course pleases me no end, but which left our poor waiter without a ready means with which to assert his manhood) referred to as "hoppy," but the name of which I could not remember to save my life. One of my tablemates also ordered it and had had it before and was able to tell me that it was indeed pretty hoppy -- even hoppier than a couple of hoppy beers that I had never tasted, but not nearly so hoppy as a couple of overly hoppy beers that I had also never tasted. It was fine. It tasted like beer.

I flirted with the idea of ordering the chicken in mole poblano, but I ended up ordering a pork chop in a red mole. It was garnished with shredded jicama, and served with mashed sweet potatoes, fried bananas, and grilled pineapple. The pork chop was cooked just right, and the sauce was very tasty, and of low-to-moderate heat, which was also just right. I am not a big fan of the sweet potato in savory dishes, and the fried bananas failed to register, but the grilled pineapple was very good. I had coffee to finish. It tasted like coffee.

Andale, apparently, used to be The Mark but changed over to its current format when its executive chef, while hiking in the Sierra Nevadas, was hit in the head by a dried ancho dropped by a passing eagle who had consumed one tequila too many. Its chef having seen the light of contemporary Mexican, the management then transformed the restaurant by putting up a couple of vaguely Aztecish wall sconces and hanging strings of Day of the Dead paper placemats from the ceiling. Seriously, it looks like they spent as much as two hundred bucks on revamping the place, leaving us to wonder whether the owners are perhaps afraid that after the chef's upcoming European vacation, they might have to hang some paper shamrocks to show that the restaurant is now an Irish pub. (That $200 includes some very expensive-looking napkin rings, which the waiter removed from our table as soon as he was able. V., in fact, had not taken his napkin out of his ring, so the waiter did that for him and then took the ring away. I'm guessing that they only have about eight of those napkin rings, so they needed them for another table. But maybe they were worried about us walking off with them; no doubt we were a shifty looking lot, and I'm almost certain that the maitre d' warned the waiter about us, though I guess there is a tiny chance that "take care of these nice people" is not code for "watch them like a hawk; we can't afford to lose any more napkin rings before the Chef goes to Europe.")

The bill came to about forty bucks a person, and I guess that's entirely reasonable for spending three hours and having a pretty good meal at a very busy restaurant. If it occurs to me that I could have had a more interesting meal for the same amount a block away at Jaleo (or just as much fun for less than half as much at a pho restaurant), then I'm probably just being petty, especially since the evening was about friends, and the food was just a backdrop. And, really, we can all afford it without stretching.

(Tangentially, at several points last night, I was tempted to play
the Parsley Game, but I never had the guts and a diversion at the same moment. My companions would only have been amused, but I can be quite the coward when given the chance. Another opportunity for improvement, as we say in the office at evaluation time.)

I will likely not be cooking again this week, even though I've had a real hankering to make some red pepper hummus and to experiment with some whole wheat flatbread. I'll be working somewhat late tonight, and V. will doubtless make dinner, and this weekend I'm off to Rehoboth, against my better judgment. In less than two weeks, V. is off to Addis Ababa for a two-week consulting gig (it was originally one week, but when some muckety muck in the Treasury department saw how much the plane ticket was going to cost, they said they couldn't justify spending that much for a week of work, so they're paying him to go for two weeks to do the same job: your tax dollars at work), so tomorrow night, we're going to eat at an Ethiopian restaurant. I think this strategy is roughly akin to preparing for a trip to Beijing by buying a bag of fortune cookies, but I'm game. After all, during one of the thundershowers last night, we had the following conversation:

OKBer: Wow, it's really coming down.
Me (to V.): Yeah. Boy, you're going to get drenched when you go get the car to pick me up.
V (to me): You're the boy toy; you go get the car.

Which I take to mean that he's paying for dinner tomorrow night. I'm sure that he only let me pay my own way last night to save me embarrassment, right?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

If I Ruled the World

As it happens, the first day of spring is often not wonderful where I live, so I think that I'd have to go in a different direction. (I feel compelled to note, tangentially, that while Dickens is one of the two or three best writers of novels in English, I find the idea of turning his work into musical comedy to be fundamentally misguided and kind of embarrassing; I imagine him cringing in the great beyond.) Anyway, I lived in Boston for eleven years, and if you take away kvetching about the weather, what are those people going to talk about? (And don't say the Patriots or the Red Sox. Having lived in Boston at the end of the last Celtics dynasty, the whole idea that Boston has a championship team in either baseball or football, let alone both, completely upends my worldview.)

Anyway, when the Powers That Be finally have the sense to put me in charge of everything, my first acts (after putting a stop to hunger, war, and Exodus International) will be to improve the quality of life through better food. Let me be specific.

A pepper grinder on every table. Pre-ground black pepper is an abomination, and pepper shakers are meant to be seen and not used. It is approximately twenty-four years and ten months since I first had freshly ground pepper, and the scales fell away from my taste buds. Along with not overcooking the meat, there is perhaps no single other practice that will do more for your enjoyment of food than freshly grinding your own pepper, and there is absolutely no legitimate excuse for any restaurant with its own seating not to put a pepper grinder on your table. For as long as I can remember, if you were eating in the sort of restaurant that had cute, reasonably well-dressed waiters, you were at the mercy of your waiter for your pepper. He would swagger over, carrying his massive piece of wood, and offer, smirkingly, to grind some pepper for you. Oh, please. You just know that same guy drives a red car. Let me grind my own pepper, and let the waiter find another way to augment his testicularity.

No ketchup on hot dogs! Ever! (You can still use wire hangers, but only to roast marshmallows, and then you have to throw the marshmallows away.)

A six-hour work day. Is there anything as tedious as listening to American business types telling the Europeans that they need to make their workers work longer hours and take fewer vacations? I don't know anyone who spends eight to ten hours working at his desk who couldn't get more done in six hours if he or she were better rested and fed. The work day should begin at 10 (am, with apologies to Dorothy Parker), after a leisurely breakfast. After three hours of work, everyone should have three hours for lunch and a nap. You come back to work at 4, refreshed, and at 7, you're done for the day. I'm also considering implementing a two-hour, four-course minimum on dinners (eating faster than that promotes indigestion; if you can't make dinner conversation for two hours, we'll re-educate you), but my cabinet is still working out the details.

Free pho! Honestly, what sort of world is it where we pay subsidies to the sugar producers but not to purveyors of Vietnamese noodle soup? And you fiscal conservatives can stop your whinging. The free pho will be means tested, and we'll pay for it via a tax on faux cheeses. If the extra five cents per pound for Velveeta stops some people from eating it, I don't reckon it'll keep me up nights.

New holidays. I know that you think I was already being generous with the six-hour workday, but I'm not done yet. It is a great national disgrace that Americans currently get a day off to honor Columbus but there is no Julia Child Day. (I will retain Veterans' Day, and insist that on that day veterans receive free meals at two-star restaurants. It's the least we can do to make up for creamed chipped beef on toast.) We also need at least a week off for feasting at harvest time and another week for whichever winter solstice holiday you choose to celebrate. I'm stopping short of mandatory fruitcake, at least until I've had more time to prepare the populace for its introduction. Also, employers will be required to give up to an additional twelve hours off per year for each employee who wants to gather strawberries from a pick-your-own field. Provided that said employee puts by at least one half-pint of jam for every two hours off, of course; I don't want anyone to think that I'm giving labor a free ride.

Better food labeling. I'm mostly thinking of warning labels on foods like CoolWhip. Something in the vein of "The Chef General has determined that consuming this food may result in the death of your soul. Go get some heavy whipping cream and a clue."

Monday, June 27, 2005

Cooking for Two

So you've invited a date over to your place for dinner, and you don't know what to cook. What were you thinking? You were probably thinking that you wanted to get inside his pants, but you didn't have the guts to say "Come on over for some horizontal quality time, and then we'll grab a pizza." Or you were thinking that you like this guy enough to want more than just a quickie. Or you were thinking that you'd like to cook, but if you were thinking that, then you don't need my advice, do you?

Regardless, you've landed yourself in this predicament, and you need my help to get you out of it. I could, of course, just tell you what to cook, but that would be giving you a fish, and I want to teach you how to fish. Sooner or later, you're going to have to cook a second dinner for the same guy, and if you make the exact same meal twice, your romantic prospects will fade to black faster than you can say "I burned the pfeffernussen." So there are some principles to bear in mind. (I regret to inform my hetero readers that these same principles may not apply to opposite-sex dating. If you have invited your potential boyfriend over to dinner, I suggest that you order a pizza and give him lots of beer. I hear that works.)

1. If a guy accepts your dinner invitation, he intends to have sex with you. And on the same night. It might be before dinner, it might be after dinner, it might be between the soup and the entree. It might be all three (though, sadly, two of the three is generally the most you should hope for). The point is that you have to be prepared and choose an appropriate menu.

2. Choose foods that don't require split-second timing. If you have steaks under the broiler and your date hoists you over his shoulder and carries you into the bedroom, by the time you come back, you'll have charcoal. (This has, in fact, happened to me, though I was the one doing the hoisting and not the one doing the cooking; I would have known better.)

3. Have everything ready before he arrives. You may want to dazzle men with your culinary mojo, but that's what you have friends for. Your date does not want to know that you can flip an omelet; he wants you to feed him with your fork. Besides, all that last minute stove work can make you sweat, and that just isn't attractive. You will, of course, have to do some minimal kitchen work to get dinner on the table and to demonstrate that you didn't just buy and repackage take out, but you want his attention on your eyes, not on your ability to fold egg whites without deflating the mousse.

4. Don't start dinner too quickly. This rule may seem antithetical to rule 3, but while you want everything ready to go before he gets there, you don't want him to know that everything's ready to go. Why? Because if you're enjoying your first glass of wine on the sofa and you get frisky, you don't want to have to put off the HQT because the first course has to be eaten RIGHT NOW. Food is better after you've worked up an appetite, right?

5. The right wine is important. Not only did you not have the balls to ask this guy over explicitly for HQT, he didn't have the balls to suggest it himself, so a little bit of liquid assistance with eroding inhibitions is a good thing. Ideally, you'll have a light, dry red wine so that you can give him a glass as soon as he arrives and can continue to use the same wine throughout dinner, or at least until dessert. Sangria is an acceptable alternative, but don't make it too sweet, please.

6. Dessert should be portable. If you have gotten through soup and the entree without any breaks for play, then you obviously need to change the mood, so tell him that dessert will be in the living room. Ask him to have a seat on the sofa. This will give each of you the opportunity to gather the courage that you so obviously lack. If you didn't make it as far as dessert before achieving the horizontal, then you should have dessert in bed. I will leave it up to you whether you want to feed it to him or let him eat it off of you. Chacun a son gout, I reckon.

7. Mood matters. You don't have to go out and buy Lenox, but set a reasonably nice table. You don't need to go overboard (unless you're a bottom, in which case, go ahead and pull out all the stops, I guess), but light a couple of candles and use cloth napkins. Select music that's familiar but not too loud, not too slow, and not too serious.

Armed with these principles, it should be (relatively) easy to come up with an appropriate menu and plan of attack. Soup is always a good starter. If the weather is warm, serve something cold, such as gazpacho. (You could also serve cold vichyssoise, but it's so much better hot that it's a shame to do so. Just turn up the air conditioning.) If the weather's cold, then most soups will do just fine for extended periods over very low heat. Just don't pick anything too thick: heavy soups scorch more easily, and they dull the appetites too quickly. And don't serve too much. Six to eight ounces is plenty.

The entree is always going to be the trickiest part of the meal to pull off in a dating situation. There are plenty of entrees that can be made in a crockpot and can be held for hours, but most of these are too heavy. You don't want all of your date's blood up in his stomach, digesting his food. A not-too-heavy version of coq au vin (cut the breast pieces in half) or a nice ratatouille will work. Poached fish, especially salmon, also works. If you're serving a cold meat or fish, make sure that the starch is hot. The microwave is your best friend here. You can make a wild rice pilaf (one cup wild rice cooked in four cups of chicken broth, then combined with half a cup of currants, and a quarter cup of toasted pine nuts) the day before and reheat it in about one minute in the microwave. Make sure that the bowl you're reheating in is tightly covered with plastic wrap so that the pilaf reheats evenly. Your green vegetable can be cold. Consider a cucumber salad or some asparagus which you will have broiled with a bit of olive oil and then marinated in vinaigrette. You can leave the table, heat the pilaf, plate the entire main course, and rejoin your companion in less time than it takes Astrid Gilberto to sing "The Girl from Ipanema."

Keeping in mind that dessert should be portable and fun to eat (slightly messy doesn't hurt, either, but not too messy; you don't want the syrup from your poached pears running all over everywhere or everyone), I suggest you serve chocolate mousse or profiteroles. Either can be made well in advance and can be held in the refrigerator or freezer, respectively. If you serve profiteroles, you are legally obligated to serve a warm chocolate sauce with them, and the only sauce you should consider in this situation is ganache. Fortunately, ganache is among the most easily constructed of all sauces. Get out your four-cup measuring cup or a microwave-safe bowl of a similar size. Take one cup of heavy cream and heat on high in the microwave for ninety seconds. Then stir in twelve ounces of bittersweet chocolate (you can use a bag of chocolate chips here; I won't tell) until smooth. A tablespoon of either raspberry, orange, or hazelnut liqueur is a wonderful addition, but you can do without it if you're in a hurry to get back to the bedroom. Stick your finger in the sauce to make sure that it's warm but not so hot that it might burn whatever you happen to be pouring it on. The ganache will be thick enough so that if it starts to run, you will have plenty of time to catch it with your tongue before it can cause a laundry crisis.

(If you're serving the chocolate mousse, you're legally and morally obligated to serve whipped cream with it. I suggest one of these. Otherwise, your options are to keep your bowl and beaters in the freezer and whip your cream at the last minute, losing valuable time that could be spent doing things that none of us want to admit that we want to know the details of, or to use a can of Redi-whip or whatever they're calling that stuff these days. Neither of these options works, though I can only attest to the clumsiness of the former, never having resorted to the latter, which reminds me far too much of a story from one of my online friends who joined a new acquaintance in bed only to find that his playmate had brought along a can of aerosol processed cheese product. Really, if you want to surprise a new friend with the application of a cheese-based food, shouldn't you at least go to the effort of making fondue?)

Finally, remember that while you don't want to serve too much of anything at once, you should have plenty in reserve for seconds in the event that later in the evening when you ask your date "Would you like some more?" he thinks that you mean food. You can correct him after he's eaten.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

I Have Been to the Mountain Top

I spent the past week on vacation with my daughters at my parents' summer residence, in the mountains of Southwestern Pennsylvania, a mere mile north of the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. It is a setting of unsurpassed pastoral beauty, and I am not immune to the charms of such a setting. On one walk, A. and I saw a red-winged blackbird, a goldfinch, and a woodpecker, all within a space of five minutes. My parents' place is almost on top of the mountain, and the view from the porch swing on the front porch is something that you would think you couldn't buy, though they did, in fact, acquire it, along with the house, for under $30,000 less than ten years ago. They subsequently put a lot more money into it to bring it to a place where my mother considers it habitable, but the final result is very pleasant, indeed.

Situated, as it is, in a suburb of Middle-of-Nowhere, there is not a lot to do when one tires of absorbing the view or taking long walks (and, it must be acknowledged, that when one starts at the top of the mountain, the only way to go is down, and the only way to get home is back up, steeply) that does not involve a drive of at least forty-five minutes, each way.

Nor is it, sadly, a place for good food. This last fact is somewhat surprising in that there are so many fruit trees and kitchen gardens and farms in the area, but when one looks at the produce in the markets one finds little to inspire either the imagination or the appetite, and when one looks at the local restaurants, one finds mainly a surfeit of buffets. The food there is also rather unfortunate, though it certainly is plentiful. (There are exceptions; I would be remiss not to note that one can find very good maple syrup and apple butter in the area, but these are accents rather than staples.)

This sort of food suits my parents just fine, thank you, and it suits me reasonably well for a thirty-six hours or so, but the overarching feeling during the week was that I was eating from a plan designed specifically for me by Dean Ornish's evil identical twin, Skippy. Yes, brothers and sisters, I have partaken of the fatty meats and the equally fatty potatoes.

My parents are not in especially good health these days, a fact that I attribute less to their diet (which has, after all, gotten them well into their seventies) than to my father's prostate cancer and heart problems and my mother's inner ear problems, all compounded by their insistence to reach Pennsylvania by a certain date, and their decision to meet that goal by driving from Florida to Pennsylvania in a single day that began at 3 am and ended after 9 pm. All this within two weeks of my father having a second pacemaker operation.

It is, of course, distressing to see my parents go into what seems likely to be a long, slow (or perhaps not so slow), and final decline, but never let it be said that I am unable to find the silver lining. There were at least two occasions during the week when their having overtaxed themselves led directly to my making dinner, and I took the opportunity to make food that, if not exactly brimming with health, was at least significantly less bad for us.

Having visited a local ski resort for a buffet on Sunday and having eaten large steaks (at least that part of the meal was well done [or in the case of my steak, medium rare] since I was put in charge of the grill; sadly, no one thought to put me in charge of the side dishes) on Monday, when Tuesday dinner came around, I decided to make lentil soup. This decision turned out to be a wise one, as I was then able to have leftover soup (I made lots; you may want to go for a smaller batch) for breakfast for the rest of the week

Lentil soup is hard to mess up, and this week's version seemed about par for the course to me, but the kids and my parents all loved it, which I had not really expected. I suppose my strategy of not offering them any alternatives turned out to be unnecessary. Everyone already knows how to make lentil soup, and if you don't, there's generally a perfectly serviceable recipe on the lentil bag, but I'm going to tell you how I made mine, anyway. Note that the ingredients were somewhat dictated by what I could find, but I was entirely happy with the result all the same.

Lentil Soup

2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons celery seed
2 Tablespoons ground cumin
3 cups brown lentils (you can use a trendier color if you like; I like brown)
3 quarts water
2 envelopes chicken bouillon (or two cubes, if that's what you've got)
1 pound baby carrots, chopped (to whatever thickness you like, but not left whole; you could also use regular carrots and just slice them)
1 package Healthy Choice Kielbasa (really, I wanted to use a hamhock, but the hamhocks at the store looked like the sort of meat that you wouldn't trust a secret with)
1 cup coarse bulgar (yeah, I can get coarse bulgar at the corner market, but just try to get decent broccoli)

Heat the olive oil on medium in a large soup pot. Add the onions, cover and sweat until softened.
Stir in the garlic, then the celery seed and cumin, heat until you can smell the cumin everywhere, or about three minutes; don't brown the garlic.
Add the lentils and give a good stir, then add the water. You may very well need more water later. If the mixture gets too thick, add some. Otherwise, you might scorch the bottom of the soup.
Stir in the bouillon, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to the simmer and cook for an hour.
Stir in the carrots, kielbasa, and bulgar. Add more water if necessary.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

You will be happier if you add some hot sauce to the soup, but you can do that at the table. I add a couple of dashes, which does not make it spicy, but does improve the flavor. If the kids catch me adding anything spicy to the soup while I'm making it, they won't try it on general principle.

I made cheese biscuits to accompany the soup, thereby eliminating most of the health benefits. I was unable to measure because there were no suitable measuring implements for the flour, but I know the approximate proportions.

Cheese Biscuits

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon baking powder (it is, no doubt, incorrect to capitalize "Tablespoon" while consigning the poor teaspoon to a life of lower-case obscurity, but I find that I am unable to help myself; I make this mistake because the abbreviation for tablespoon is "T" while that for teaspoon is "t"; I do not, however, expect the careful reader to forgive this practice merely because he or she knows its origin)
4 Tablespoons shortening
4 oz. sharp cheddar, coarsely grated
Milk (1/2 to 2/3 cup, but it varies)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Combine the flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl. Cut in the shortening. Mix in the grated cheddar with a fork. Add milk, mixing with a fork, until you have dough that can be worked. Knead it lightly, and roll it out on a floured board, in a shape as close to a square as you can manage. Cut it into rectangles about 1 inch wide by three inches long. Place on a cookie sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until done.

I used a similar biscuit recipe for the dessert for Friday night's dinner. My father's uncle had stopped by earlier in the day and left two quarts of fresh strawberries (which my parents had subsequently capped and sliced) and a pound of fresh asparagus from the farm. I tossed about two cups of sliced strawberries with a quarter cup of sugar and a tablespoon of blackberry brandy (it was what they had around) and left the mixture to macerate in a bowl.

The strawberries were destined for strawberry shortcake, a dish that some people can probably mess up, but which I never have. The main difference between any two strawberry shortcake recipes comes in the shortcake since all strawberry shortcakes consist of some sort of cakey thing layered with strawberries and topped with whipped cream. I think that the best shortcake is a sweet biscuit recipe.


2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon baking powder
pinch of salt
pinch of nutmeg
6 Tablespoons shortening
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk + additional milk as needed

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the first five ingredients in a bowl. Cut in the shortening. Mix the vanilla extract with the half cup of milk and mix the liquids into the dry ingredients. Add more milk until the dough is soft and somewhat sticky but still (barely) workable. Turn the dough out onto a floured board and roll out to a thickness of about half an inch, adding more flour as necessary. Cut into rounds. The traditional cutter to use here is a baking powder can that has had both ends removed, but if you want to use a plain old cookie cutter, I won't tell. Put the rounds onto an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for fifteen to twenty minutes until done. You don't want these to be too brown. Let the biscuits cool. When you've finished dinner, split one biscuit per person in half. Put the bottom half of the biscuit in a bowl, spoon over some strawberries and juice, top with the top half of the biscuit, spoon over some more strawberries and juice, and top with whipped cream.

My parents both insisted that it was the best strawberry shortcake that they had ever tasted, and it would have been impolite to argue with them. I tend to think that the best strawberry shortcake that you've ever eaten is whichever one you're eating at the moment (provided that you've used at least reasonably good strawberries), but certainly the one I made Friday was superb. If you decide to make it, however, you should understand in advance that the amount of strawberries I had was just the right amount for five servings, but I ended up with enough sweet biscuits for about three times as many servings, so either triple the strawberry mixture and serve more people (or more servings per person), or find some other use for the sweet biscuits. They are not unlike cookies, however, so you can always eat them plain. They would be better, however, split in half and filled with some warm peach jam or orange marmalade. If you have kids around, you can also spread some peanut butter on one half and some jam or jelly on the other half and make a terrific pb&j. This would also be good with the addition of some sliced banana or any of the other pb&j accompaniments that one hears about through the rumor mill, but I must officially disclaim any knowledge of such a concoction as I am far too much of an adult to have indulged in anything so juvenile with my extra biscuits. In a similar vein, I am unable to tell you that the biscuits make excellent substitutes for graham crackers if one is toasting marshmallows over the gas stove and layering said marshmallows with chocolate in the pursuit of smores.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

All I Ever Wanted


I'm about to set off for eight days of vacation with the kids, visiting the folks in southwestern Pennsylvania, just over the border from Grantsville, Maryland, ancestral home of my father's clan. "Clan" is to be taken figuratively here; so far as I know, there are no Mennonite tartans, which is just as well, since a lot of my relatives wear far too much plaid as it is.

In any case, I won't have access to the Internet while I'm away, so I won't be posting updates. Yes, yes, I know. My imagined readership is notionally crushed. But if that's the worst thing that happens to you in this quarter-hour, I reckon you're way ahead of the game.

Anyway, I'm leaving you this somewhat long (and decidedly rambling, but what else would you expect from me?) post to sustain you while I'm gone. So don't eat it all at once! You don't want to be like the Ricardos and the Mertzes, stuck in the Alps (this was during the I Love Lucy European Vacation days) with only a block of cheese between the four of you. Ricky, Fred, and Ethel ate their cheese right away, but Lucy wisely decided to save hers. As a result, while she was sleeping, the others ate three-quarters of her piece. I'm not sure how this analogy plays out in the blog context, but by the time you've worked out a reasonable explanation, I'll likely have returned from vacation.

The part of Pennsylvania that we're going to is in Somerset county, in the mountains, not far from the Maryland border. It's Amish country, and on Sunday mornings you hear the clop clop clop of horses going by as wagons carry the large Amish families to church. I'm not entirely sure what the impression of Amish cuisine is in the larger culture, but I reckon that it's influenced a lot by what you see at various Amish farm markets, which are a sort of Amish food outlet where the Amish sell their food to the general public two or three days a week. Some of these are quite distant from where the Amish live. There is (or was, anyway, and not long ago; it may still be there) one of these markets in Burtonsville, Maryland, which is only a few miles from the town in Maryland where I grew up, and where there is no Amish community to speak of, as far as I know. It is amusing to go to such a place and see so many people with my last name, but I am not entirely a fan of the food, though some of the meat products are very good in a very bad-for-you sort of way.

From reading and from personal experience, I know that Amish cooking, as prepared by the Amish for the Amish, is even less impressive than what one finds in the farm market, where, after all, they have to play to the tastes and expectations of their customers. The Amish are, of course, very devout and very conservative Christians, and every part of their lives are suffused with their faith, including their cooking. For someone to be recognized for her cooking is considered a form of vanity and therefore ungodly. Consequently, Amish cooking tends to go for a sort of lowest common denominator that all Amish cooks can meet. Because of this, if you go, for example, to the fundraising supper given by some of the cooks in Springs, Pennsylvania, you will get (ample portions of) smoked sausage, creamed corn made from dried corn, mildly seasoned applesauce, and some sort of potatoes (they always get the potatoes right, at least), along with some variety of overcooked greens, and a fairly nondescript dessert. It is ungrateful to complain about the meal, since you will only have paid two bucks for it, and you will have been able to fill up on the potatoes alone, but if you have the chance to eat an authentic Amish meal, it is not an opportunity that you especially need to leap at.

If, however, you happen to be in Springs on a Saturday morning, you can stop at the Springs Corner Market (there is really only one corner in Springs) and pick up some excellent baked goods. The breads (go for the whole wheat), cookies, and pies are all good, but the star of the show is the freshly fried donuts. The donuts go early, and if you can't get there before 8 am, you're going to miss out on them, but if you do manage to snag a couple or a dozen, then you're in for one of the best bad-for-you treats available. These donuts are huge, and they're fried to a dark brown, then covered with a sugar glaze which is going to get all over your hands. You really don't want to eat too many of these, but that's not a huge problem since only the most dedicated eaters can eat more than two at a sitting. These are potent donuts.


As much as I love to cook, I am equally a big fan of restaurant eating. With some provisos. I prefer to eat things out that I couldn't or wouldn't make as well or better at home, and I prefer to avoid restaurants that are pricy and/or stuffy. I am happy to pick up the $40 tab for a few hours of pool (obviously, I don't live in NYC), but I would usually only spend more than that for dinner to make someone else happy. There are exceptions, of course. I'll happily exceed that limit to eat at B.Smith's in Union Station. The first time I ever had fried green tomatoes (What's with that? My mother's family is from the south and subjected to me to the agony of chitterlings and the ecstasy of cheese grits; they couldn't have fried a green tomato for me?) was at B.Smith's, and every other restaurant has fallen short of their standard. The sweet potato pecan pie is similarly a category killer.

If memory serves, the first time I ever ate at B.Smith's was with Rick (not his real name; I can't remember his real name; proper nouns are sometimes problematic for me), my friend Jim, and Jim's then-boyfriend Steve2. (Steve1 having been Jim's first boyfriend. This is still how he refers to them years later. We are all still waiting for Steve3 to arrive on the scene, but we are not holding our breath.) Steve2 was an import from Kentucky that Jim picked up off the Internet. No, really. He chatted with the guy online, and then a week later he flew out to visit him and a week after that Steve2 flew here to visit Jim, and four weeks after that Steve2 moved in with Jim. Jim was 40 at the time, and he had not yet come out to his parents, who were fairly intimately involved in his life. His mother, Marie, came over to his house while he was at work a couple of times a week to do his laundry and make sure that the cleaning person wasn't running off with the silverware. Given all this, it seemed likely to me that Marie would notice a new member of the household, and I repeatedly suggested to Jim that perhaps it would be better for all concerned if he told his parents before his new boyfriend arrived on the scene, but Jim felt that it would be easier for him if she just found out organically. (Yes, the fan was soiled.) Anyway, the relationship got off to a somewhat rocky start, but by the time Bob? (nope, not Bob either; I'll remember that name sooner or later) arrived on the scene, they at least had the appearance of being a happy couple.

George? (no) was a fifty-year-old financial advisor from a suburb of Harrisburg, PA. I don't remember the exact town, but I think it was either Hicksville or Boondocktown. He was, for the most part, a pretty nice guy, and he was not unattractive, but it might be safe to say that he had not had much exposure to the urban life (he wore short-sleeve dress shirts and polyester pants to his office, and to Dupont Circle, as it happened), and he craved it. The first few times we dated, I'd made the trek from my apartment in Gaithersburg to his duplex in the middle of nowhere. It took me about seventy-five minutes; I drove very swiftly. But he quickly wanted to come visit me and see the city, by which he really meant the clubs. So he had come down Friday evening, late, and we'd stayed in with the plan of meeting up with Jim and Steve2 for Saturday evening.

After B. Smith's, we went somewhere else in DC to catch a movie that was part of the annual Reel Affirmations GLBT film festival. I had explained to Fred? (uh-uh) that after the movie, I would want to come home because it would be late and I was singing with the choir the next morning and had to be at church by 8:20, which meant getting up no later than 7 (or 6 if there was to be any early morning HQT [horizontal quality time, for future reference]), so I was not going to be up to going to a club after the movie. But before dinner he kept trying to get me to agree to go to a club, during dinner he kept it up, on the way to the movie he didn't let up, and after the movie he was still thinking that I was just playing hard-to-get or something.

So when I finally got it through his thick (but otherwise not bad looking) skull that no meant no, he was somewhat disappointed. Jim and Steve2 dropped us off back at Tim's (still no luck) car, and we started to drive back to Gaithersburg. Once we were on the road, he started to tell me how bitterly disappointed he was by my behavior. Then he explained to me that dancing was very special to him because when he'd been courting his wife (he actually used that phrase, though she'd been his ex-wife for some time by then), they'd always gone dancing. I let slide the concept that perhaps some guy you're dating doesn't want to relive your breeder courtship days and just reminded him that I'd told him from the outset that I didn't want to go to a club. Then he repeated how terribly disappointed he was. Then he started to cry.

I am not a person unacquainted with guilt. One might, in fact, say that guilt and I have been on intimate terms since I was five years old and given to understand by the Southern Baptists that I was full of sin and that God was watching me. I got over the whole notion that God was watching me (thank the powers that be for firewalls!), but getting over a lifetime of guilt is a slow process, and it is easy for me to feel awful about disappointing someone. But when a grown man starts to cry because you won't go dancing with him the way his wife did, guilt gets off the bus to make room for utter disbelief.

When we got back to my apartment, Dick? (well, kind of, but no) informed me that since I wouldn't accommodate him, he was not going to stay the night. I reminded him that it was already after 1 am and that he had a ninety minute drive ahead of him, but he seemed not to care, and by that point, I was only too happy to sleep alone.

That was the last I ever saw of Victor? (I fear this is a lost cause. I'll have to ask Jim whether he remembers.) We talked on the phone a few times after that and exchanged some emails and made plans to get together a couple of weeks later, which was, as it happened, the weekend before my divorce trial was scheduled (though it was subsequently postponed, more than once). But then a twenty-five year old Mexican guy from California, with whom he'd been chatting online for months ("But we've never even discussed sex!") persuaded him to come visit him on the same weekend. Victor informed me that it was more important for him to see this person than to provide moral support to me because, after all, no one had been there for him during his divorce, and he'd survived. He also said that he still wanted to date me, and that the trip to San Francisco was just the only time his young friend and he could finally meet, but by that point I'd had way more than enough, and I told him that I was no longer interested. Which, incredibly, made him angry.

I heard from him even a couple of times after that, but only because he wanted to gloat. He spent four days in San Francisco with Carlos (also a fictitious name, but I never met him, so who can blame me?), and they had "clicked" immediately. Before he returned from SF, he was already talking with Carlos about the possibility of a commitment ceremony, and he soon brought him back to Boonieville to meet his four kids (but without telling the kids that he was gay or that Carlos was his boyfriend, naturally). Carlos apparently had other plans, though, because he left whatshisname for someone his own age that he hooked up with when he was back home in Mexico City over the holidays. Chuck? (nyet) was crushed, but by that time I was too bored with the whole thing to even be happy that his heart had been broken.

Still, the whole thing did introduce me to fried green tomatoes, so I got the better end of that little tussle with fate. Too often when you have fried green tomatoes, they're all soft and vinegar-y. The ones at B.Smith's are firm, with a fully crisp coating that contains cumin. They serve them with some sort of sauce that is based on red peppers.


The sweet potato pecan pie at B. Smith's is a two-layer affair, with sweet potato on the bottom and pecan on the top. The combination is amazing, and it is as wonderful as my pecan pie, and that's high praise. Mine is the best pecan pie in the world, or at least one of the best. I suppose that other people who use the same recipe probably get similarly good results, though I am not sure they appreciate it as much as I do since they did not suffer through as many sickeningly sweet pecan pies as I did when I was a youth. Most southerners' idea of a pecan pie (and as the pecan is a southern nut, so too is the pecan pie essentially a southern food) is to toss a bunch of pecans into a pie shell and then to make sure they're good and dead by drowning them in corn syrup. My recipe is a great deal less sweet but has some extra butter, allowing the pecans to take center stage and sing their little hearts out. There are also a good many more pecans in my recipe than one might find in a pecan pie in a diner in Norfolk, and that can only be good.

I shelled a lot of pecans when I was a child. My sainted Grandma (Mom's Mama) lived in Chesapeake, Virginia, and in her back yard were two tall pecan trees that bore bushels of nuts every other year. Some were shelled at her house, and many others were brought home and shelled in the evenings and set aside in the freezer for use in pecan pie or fruitcake or my mother's Seven-Up Salad. Pecans are a lot easier to crack than, say, walnuts, and the preferred method of shelling a pecan is to squeeze two of them together until the shell of one cracks. Then you remove the shell and put the nutmeat into your bowl. If you're very skilled, you can get the nut out whole, but it is faster to get out halves, and halves are the most useful form in any case. If you break the halves into something smaller, then you get to eat the very sweet meat, so it's a win-win situation.

Grandma may not have been canonized, but I never met anyone who knew her and didn't love her. She was born in the Edenton, North Carolina area in 1908, the second of seven children, though only five of the children survived. When Grandma was eight, her twin baby brothers died, followed shortly afterwards by her mother. The official cause of death was scarlet fever, but as my aunt will tell you, "They died of neglect." They lay in unmarked graves for seventy years, when Grandma had headstones made for them.

The family was dirt poor, and from the time her mother died (and perhaps before), my grandmother took on a heavy portion of the housework, and in 1916, people really knew what drudgery was. It took two days just to do the laundry. Her father would be gone for long periods of time working or fishing, and the family survived on cornbread, eggs, and salted fish. When she was a few years older, her father brought home a new wife, the only person about whom I have heard my grandmother say an unkind word (and then only after the wicked stepmother was long dead). When Grandma was sixteen, she left home to work in the mill, and not long thereafter, she met my grandfather. On their first date, the went to a cemetary.

My grandmother said that she learned to cook from her mother-in-law, who appears to have been the first adult relative to have shown her any real kindness since the death of her mother. She and my grandfather lived with her in-laws for the first few years of their marriage, and she always spoke of that period as an idyllic one.

Grandma had and raised six children. My mother was her third child and oldest daughter. My grandfather died shortly after my mother got married, and I never knew him. Grandma's youngest child was five at the time.

Having to earn enough to keep her family going, Grandma got a job at High's, a dairy store that still exists, though in a somewhat altered form and largely different locations. It was about a mile from her house, and she walked to and from the store every day until she retired at sixty-five. She never learned to drive, and so far as I know, she never missed it, though of course by the time I was old enough to notice such things, she already had six grown children and a heap of grandchildren, any of whom would take her anywhere.

When I was young, my parents would sometimes leave me at Grandma's house for a week at a time, a treat that I would beg long and hard for. Sometimes I would walk to High's in the middle of the day to see her and get a popsicle, but mostly I would play in her back yard and with the kids in her neighborhood. When she came home for the evening, she would always bring a pint of High's ice cream, which she would cut in half, crosswise, with her biggest knife, and we would each eat our half, right out of the carton.

However she learned to cook, she learned well, and the food was always good and plentiful when we visited her. Breakfast was always the same. Eggs, sunny side up; grits with butter and salt; fried ham; and white toast. Coffee for the grown-ups, orange juice for the young'uns. I would invariably pour a large spoonful of grits on top of my egg, then cut through both so that the yolk ran through the grits, which would then be yellow and flocked with cut up bits of cooked egg whites.

I don't remember her ever making anything that wasn't good, but what everyone loved best, and what everyone always wanted her to make, even when she was much older and had long since turned over family dinners to my mother and my aunt, were her dinner rolls. Many people have tried to replicate them, but it was impossible to get a recipe out of my grandmother, since she didn't use one. The most detail you could get from her was that she started with two sifters full of flour. The other ingredients were by sight or by feel. The rolls were everything that white bread wants to be but seldom is. I suppose that the excellent flavor came from multiple, protracted risings, as well as from a lot of experience.

My mother actually makes very good rolls in my grandmother's style, but she never serves them without saying "They're good, but they're not as good as Mama's," and she's right about that, I reckon. I could probably learn to make them myself, but even if I made them better than Grandma's, they would not be as good. And no one else is going to come as close as I can: when she died, the thing of hers that I wanted most was her sifter, and I got it.

I suppose that I'm thinking about all this now because tomorrow I'm headed out to take my daughters to see their grandparents, who are now in their seventies. My mother called me today to ask me to pick a few things up. The only foodstuffs were a bottle of good olive oil, something I'm pretty sure my grandmother never experienced, and a pack of steaks, something she could rarely if ever afford. But as one so often hears, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and come Sunday morning, we will all be sitting down together to a large platter of eggs, and a giant bowl of grits. I will likely be the only one who mixes his egg yolk into his grits, but I will not be the largest consumer. No matter how large a bowl my mother makes, there are never any left when A. is done with them. A. was only nine when her great grandmother died, and I'm not sure how much of Grandma she remembers, but this apple did not fall far from the tree.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Shall I Compare Thee to an M&M

That would be wrong, for who could measure up?

Now don't be getting all chocolate snobby on me. I love the 5-kilo blocks of Callebaut bittersweet as much as (and probably a lot more than) the next guy, but you can enjoy an expensive Bordeau and still have a place in your palate for Merlot. (V. loves Merlot; he got all snippy when he saw Sideways; I'm not a big wine expert, but the scenery sure was pretty.) My flirtation (to the extent that buying the two-pound bag from Costco can be called a flirtation) with the little dots of bliss goes back farther than I can remember. I suppose that my mother must have given them to me when I was still in my high chair. (That last sentence is likely a slander, but it's not like she's going to be able to correct me, the way she corrects my sister whenever my sister introduces herself as my parents' favorite daughter: "she's our ONLY daughter!")

Of course, when I was in a high chair would have been right around the time of the JFK assassination, so I would have been dealing with a limited palette: brown, red, green, and yellow. And that would have been fine with me. Does anyone really care about orange m&ms? (I apologize in advance to the orange m&m fetishists among my once and future readers, and also take this opportunity to say, "Ew!") And don't even get me started on blue. What marketing genius thought that up? Probably some guy who sat around stoned in college for three hours trying to think of a blue food. I used to know people who would go around and tell you that there were no blue foods because blueberries are, in fact, violet (God only knows what color blue corn is; indigo, perhaps), but there have always been edible blue flowers, at the very least.

One can only presume that the buffeting winds of puberty had my psyche otherwise occupied in 1976 when the idiots at m&m/Mars decided to remove red from the lineup. There is no other explanation for my failure to take my place at the side of my comrades-in-arms at the great chocolate rebellions. If they tried to pull the same crap today, I'd have to immolate myself in protest. Or perhaps write my Senator. (I can't see Barb Mikulski taking the removal of red m&ms lying down. I'm not sure about Sarbanes.) As you doubtless know, during the early 70s, the FDA (I think) pulled a number of red food dyes from the market when they were found to be carcinogens. None of the suspect dyes was used in red m&ms, but the makers pulled them anyway so as to avoid confusing the public. (I'm not making this up [except maybe for the chocolate rebellions]; you can go to their website and see that nonsense about not confusing the public.)

In any case, our long national nightmare came to an end in 1987 (oddly enough, right near the end of the Reagan administration; as a rule, I don't discuss politics on this site, but I'm a gay Unitarian Universalist: you do the math) with the reintroduction of red. Our lesser national nightmare started up again in 1995 with the introduction of blue, but I've almost learned to live with that.

As an aside (I generally don't bother acknowledge that I'm going off on a tangent because I'm nothing but tangents, but what the hell), I would like to reminisce for a moment about a girl I knew in college. She was actually my boss' sister when I worked at the Student Employment Office. With a blindfold on, she could tell, by taste, what color m&m you had placed in her mouth. She must have been very popular at frat parties.

As another aside (there he goes again!), one of the truly great marketing slogans of all time has got to be "melts in your mouth, not in your hands." Show me a guy who's never said that with a lewd smile to another guy, and I'll show you a breeder.

Peanut m&ms are, of course, an abomination, but that doesn't stop me from eating them when there are none of the plain variety to be had. Almond m&ms are brilliant, but they are not really m&ms. On philosophical grounds, I object to both the Valentine's Day red and white and the Easter pastel color palettes. It's a tough call, though, because with the Valentine's m&ms, you get half red, and that's a good thing.

You didn't hear this from me, but if you have m&ms, a little sugar, and some heavy whipping cream on hand, you can make a quick mousse: Whip 1 cup of cream until it is halfway between cream and whipped cream, then sprinkle in a quarter cup of sugar, and continue to beat until the cream is fully stiff. Fold in a half cup of m&ms. Serve. Unless your friends are on acid, you may want to consider using only one color of m&ms, or colors that won't look weird when they mix (red, orange, yellow, perhaps) because the dye from the shell gets into the whipped cream. Actually, this is the sort of thing that no sane person would serve to guests, anyway. No sane person would admit ever having eaten such a thing, but I hear from a very reliable source that it's just the ticket when you've been stood up or, heaven forefend, dumped.

I assume that you can make it even more easily with just a small bag of m&ms and an aerosol can of whipped cream, but I don't even have a reliable source to verify that. Of course, if you've had the sort of romantic trauma that would make you want to eat aerosol whipped cream, then I suggest just popping a handful of m&ms into your mouth and following it with a squirt of whipped cream. Then chew. And remember: anyone who made you feel bad enough to do that is someone you're better off without.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005



My partner has a lot to answer for. Not only did he take a three-week consulting assignment in Sarajevo, but he took it at such a time as to end just before I take the girls on vacation to my parent's summer home in Pennsylvania, where my partner is persona non grata (according to the Wikipedia, I am using the term incorrectly if I use it in a non-diplomatic context, but the fact is that where my parents are concerned, my partner does not, in fact, exist), so by the time we are in the same place at the same time, I will have gone four weeks without seeing him. I suppose that if you're a military spouse, that's a walk in the park, but I miss him lots.

My beef (moo! A. calls beef "cow" while she's eating it; unapologetic carnivore, that one) however is not primarily with his protracted absence. While he's been gone, I've been in charge of yard work, and while mowing the back yard, I noticed a few things. There are, for example, two pear trees that appear to be fairly well full of fruit. And there are a few blueberry bushes, each standing about a yard high, and two of them are completely loaded. The fruit, alas, will likely ripen a few days after the tart cherries (not in our yard); in other words, when I'm still out of town. I presume that he will save me some blueberries, if only because I'll leave him an explicit description of what will happen if he fails to do so. But what I really want to know is why I didn't get any last year.

I moved in with V. last October, obviously well past blueberry season, but we have been seeing each other for two years now, and we had decided on coupledom as of January 1 of last year (thus making it practically impossible to forget our anniversary). So during the blueberry season of '04, we were seeing a lot of each other, but I wasn't seeing any blueberries.

Nor so much as a single pear. Now pear trees are not, as you doubtless know, universal producers of fruit that is sweet and plump and juicy. Some of them produce only fruit that retains the size and firmness of a walnut. But even at their current size (which one hopes is not their final size), they would be fine for making into relish, which is the tasty and appropriate destination for pears that do not soften.

When V. returns, I will, of course, endeavor to tell him that I missed him before I demand blueberries and explanations, but it won't be easy. In the interim, surely the most likely explanation is that my presence in the house has brought a new fertility to the yard, so that once barren trees and bushes are now gratefully showering us with fruit. Which means that I've been channeling Kokopelli again. Minus the hump and the cavorting with maidens, of course.

Personal History, with Victuals

As near as I can figure, without looking something up, it was five and one-half years ago that I told my parents that a) I was getting divorced and b) because I'm gay. (In accounting, we have something called the big bath phenomenon. If you have several unpleasant losses to report, you do them all at once and get it over with in the hopes of returning to profitability in the next quarter.)

It was either New Year's Eve or a couple of days later, and I had been home alone for nearly a week. The ex and I had already decided to divorce, but her father (who did not know we were splitting) had offered us a few thousand dollars if we would show up in Seattle on Christmas Day, and she convinced me that we really needed the money (as it turned out, we needed it, and much more, to pay her lawyer, but I'm sure she just forgot that detail). I was not comfortable with the notion of staying in Seattle any longer than absolutely necessary, so we all flew there on Christmas Eve, and I flew back the day after Christmas, leaving the ex and the girls to stay another week or so. The trip was not a total loss because I had made the ex promise not to tell her family about the divorce or the reason for the divorce until I'd left and because her sister-in-law (at whose house we were staying) is a great cook and makes a mean cheesecake. (Also, she drew me in the family Christmas exchange, and I would up with a superb copper double boiler; I still have it.) I helped with Christmas dinner, too, so I ate well, doubly.

Anyway, I was back in Maryland, and my parents invited me over for dinner on the evening that I was to pick up the ex and the girls from the airport. I knew that things were going to get rolling with the divorce pretty soon and that I'd have to tell my parents about the situation, so I decided to do it at their place, on New Year's Eve, after dessert. I decided on that time because I could time dinner so that if things were going badly, I could say that I had to go to the airport within five minutes of having told them.

It is, I think, difficult for gays who are younger than me (as well as for many my age or a bit older) to comprehend my experience. It is difficult for anyone who has grown up in the last twenty or thirty years to imagine an environment where homosexuality was not so much deplored as unknown. Certainly my parents never mentioned homosexuality or gays, and I doubt very much that they were aware of their existence when I was a child, even though I graduated high school in 1979, and we were Southern Baptists, and they must, at least, have been aware of Anita Bryant. In any case, for many years, I was insufficiently brave and/or self-aware to admit to myself that I was gay, and it was extremely harmful to me in a number of ways. When you are spending all of your energy not admitting to yourself that that really cute guy you see on the street is, in fact, really cute, you don't have a lot of energy for a lot of other things, including your children and your friends and your job. (This is a trivial example, but, really, do you want to hear about how I rationalized that my fantasies were all about men because I was only having sex with my wife and what's the point of fantasizing about what you already know? No, of course you don't.)

I mention this to explain why it was important to me to tell my parents that I'm gay. Having confessed to myself, I no longer wanted to lie to other people. Lying to others is less exhausting, but still draining. (My sister, by the way, has no trouble with my orientation -- though she didn't believe me when I first told her -- but she thinks that telling my parents was a bad idea.)

Anyway, there I sat, watching the clock, waiting for the very minute when I had decided that I would break the news, and eating my dessert. My mother is not a particularly inventive cook, but she was well trained by her mother in the ways of Southern cooking, so you know that when you're at her house, you're going to get ample quantities of good food (you don't always know that she will have followed safe food handling guidelines and that you won't get food poisoning, but nobody's perfect), and she's very good with dessert. On this occasion, she had made a sort of apple betty, with a nice topping constructed primarily of rolled oats and brown sugar. It was still warm, and she served it with vanilla ice cream, which complemented it perfectly. You may imagine, correctly, that I was nervous when I was eating it and watching the clock, but if you're dreading something, it is better to be dreading it with good food than with bad.

Department of Amplification

A quick tour through my main cookbookcase yesterday evening revealed that my poached pear recipe (Poires au Vin Rouge) does, indeed, come from The Cuisine of the Sun, which I spent an hour partially rereading last night. There is also a recipe in there for Ratafia d'Oranges, among other fascinating boissons de ménage, but I did not discover that until I had already put up a jar of clementine ratafia, which was fun, if somewhat messy, to make. I don't know why I take such pleasure in slicing citrus peels, but I reckon it's among my more virtuous pleasures. If you'd like the recipe, go to Google and write "clementine ratafia" in the appropriate place and follow the link for the first result. I used only four tablespoons of sugar, which is likely not enough, but I was still thinking of the cherry cough syrup cordial from last year.

Also last night, I dug the cordial out of the closet, and mixed it with some lime juice and carbonated water, and the result was indeed tasty. About a quarter cup of cordial with the juice of half a lime in a tall glass filled with fizzy water and ice was about right. I would have continued experimenting to find the ideal proportions, but I'm not much of a drinker, and the cordial is mostly Bourbon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


A couple of posts ago, I wrote that while candying my orange peel, I made some extra syrup and used it to candy some whole spices. I had somehow, and mistakenly, gotten it into my head that "sweetmeats" originally referred to candied spices, which were a medieval delicacy (where "medieval" means sometime after the Jurassic period and before Jane Austen; I am not a historian). Subsequently, I was online discussing this concept with someone from my online knowledge base (hereafter, "OKB"), and she told me that the word I was thinking of was more likely "confits." As she is both smarter and more knowledgeable about food and (especially) language than I am, I assumed that she was correct, and a bit of further research reinforced this assumption.

"Confit" is a very interesting word, and if you look it up using Google (see! I did not use "Google" as a verb! I am better than you! No, no, don't look at earlier entries where I did use it as a verb; you are just imagining them!) you will find primarily French pages among the first hits. In French, "confit" means, more or less, sugared. "Confitures" is the French word for jam, for instance, and fruits confits is a Provencal delicacy wherein whole fruits are subjected to a series of syrups of higher and higher concentrations of sugar. This process is nearly entirely the province of Provencal professional confectioners, as it involves a great deal of patience and some special equipment, but if you are curious about how it is made, you may borrow my copy of The Cuisine of the Sun, which is a splendid cookbook even if you aren't crazy enough to candy your own fruits. The recipe for poached pears is especially heavenly, and entirely fat free, until you eat the leftovers with vanilla ice cream. (This last sentence assumes, perhaps erroneously, that I have not confused the book with another book, Cooking the Nouvelle Cuisine in America, which I also own and which is similarly excellent, but which I would rather you not borrow because I am the only person I know who's ever served the pecan-encrusted chicken breast from that book, and I want it to continue to be a show stopper for me.) In any case, reading about making fruits confits is probably even better than actually making them because it will give you an excuse to go to Provence. I have still not been, but when I can afford to go, I've got a reason.

Anyway, a properly made medieval confit appears to be a single piece of whole spice (pepper, cubeb, coriander, anise seed, bit of cinnamon bark, etc.) that is dipped into sugar nearing the candy stage a number of times so that it builds up a thick candy shell. Think Jordan almonds, but with less almond and more Jordan.

I made nothing like that. I had already spent a number of hours making some very good candied orange peel, and the last thing I wanted to do was to babysit some individual fennel seeds. Instead, I took what was left of the (very heavy) sugar syrup in which I had cooked the orange peel for many hours, and which had probably shrunk down to half or two-thirds of a cup. I put the syrup in a tiny sauce pan, turned the heat to medium, and added half a cup each of whole coriander and whole fennel seed. I stirred that around for a while until the whole thing was bubbling nicely, and then I turned the mass out into a small pie plate, which I stuck in a 300 degree oven. I came back forty-five minutes later, and saw that the whole deal was pretty brown around the edges and very thick throughout, so I removed it from the oven and set it on the counter to cool.

That was the big mistake.

(I apologize for the preceding paragraph. Long-winded folk such as myself often try to create some drama in their writing by using several long paragraphs followed by a paragraph that is nothing more than a single sentence. It is a rhetorical device that I can never pull off, and if I were a better person, I would no doubt go back and edit it out. But I'm not. Note that a lot of people use the device very effectively. Faulkner used similar rhythms to great effect, but he was brilliant, and I'm just lazy. I am not comparing myself to Faulkner. He probably didn't even like to cook.)

When the mass was still fairly hot, it would have been a simple matter to take a spoon (or when it was a bit cooler, my fingers) and remove small bits of semi-caramelized seeds to some wax paper, which would have given me little confit drops. Or something. Instead, I let the whole mass get cool, and the best I could do was break off little bits at a time. I tried, the next day, putting the pie plate inside a skillet of simmering water, which loosened the whole mass up again, but when I put it inside a big piece of wax paper and tried to roll it out into a thinner cylinder from which I could cut small slices, I just got a big mess and some torn wax paper. So, I broke off a few bits, and put the remainder inside a ziplock bag, where I imagine that it will last indefinitely.

Except that I probably will eat it all. Getting a piece off is somewhat labor intensive, but it tastes good. And like nothing I've ever had before. There is, naturally, a fairly strong anise flavor from the fennel seed. The coriander flavor is more subtle, especially since it's mixed in with the fennel seed, but the whole thing is very good, not too strong, and not too sweet.

I don't know whether I'll make it again, just because I'm not sure what to use it for (besides snacking, and a half teaspoon of it is all you want at one time) or who else I know who'd eat it. The kids will have nothing of something that weird, and V. would likely eschew it on dental grounds, the same way he won't eat popcorn at movies. Oh well. More for me!

Wherein Your Intrepid Correspondent Faces an Unfortunate Situation

I am sure, dear reader, that you have experienced the anxiety of thinking that you have missed a deadline followed by the immense relief of discovering that the deadline has not, in fact, passed.

I speak, of course, of the tart cherry season, an occurrence so ephemeral as to be over nearly before it starts. Really, those clever little cherries seem to ripen all at once, as if directed by a stern ballet mistress, and the vultures (referred to by people with less clear vision than mine as "fellow cherry pickers") descend upon them so quickly that if the season starts on Friday evening, by Saturday evening, you are nearly out of luck, though being tall and/or willing to climb ladders extends your season slightly.

I was sitting at my desk this morning, eating a clementine, which, naturally, brought into mind the clementine ratafia (props to Toast for the idea) that I hope to make from the remnants of the box of South African clementines that I picked up at Costco this weekend. And that, in turn, put me in mind of the tart cherry cordial that I made very early last summer with a portion of my tart cherry haul. Which in turn made me fear that I might have missed the season. This, reader, is a disaster too horrific to be imagined. Imagine moving into summer without making a cherry pie. Then imagine moving into summer without eating one. I regret the nightmares I have doubtless caused you, but comfort yourself with the knowledge that the season has not yet arrived.

I checked the web site of my usual source for tart cherries, and they advise that I should check back on June 20th for the exact picking date. They further advise that they have a good crop coming. Yay!

Alas, I have vacation scheduled all next week, and we are set to head off to Southwestern Pennsylvania, in the mountains, on the 18th and to return no earlier than the 25th, by which point the cherries are likely to be no more than a distant memory, and not even that for me since I will have missed the entire season. I presume, however, that if they are ripe on the 20th or 22nd in central Maryland, that I can find some a week later in the general vicinity of Gettysburg, so I continue to have great hope that multiple cherry pies are within my grasp.

Probably no more cherry cordial, though. A friend of mine from church gave me his recipe for what he said was a really good recipe. For each pound of tart cherries, add a fifth of good Bourbon and a pound of rock candy (i.e., crystallized sugar), and steep for several months. I did not find a good source of rock candy, and I didn't want to make it last year, so I substituted an equal weight of granulated sugar and made about a triple batch of the cherry stuff. And I regret to report that I have a great deal of cough syrup, still sitting and steeping in a closet at home.

All is not lost, however. I will mix the overly sweet cherry cordial with a quantity of lime juice and add some seltzer water, and I'm pretty sure I'll have something yummy. I think that the same thing would be very good with Coke instead of seltzer, but I have long since stopped being able to drink Coke, even with lime, because of the sweetness, and while I'm thoroughly addicted to various Diet Cokes (regular, caffeine-free, and with lime; in some combination or other, I drink at least one two-liter bottle at work every day; I am, no doubt, an evil person, but I love it so; and don't give me that judgmental look, either; I know you eat Doritos out of the bag when no one's looking), they seem like the absolutely wrong thing to mix with syrupy cherry liqueur.

In the past, I have had excellent luck with preserving tart cherries (among other things) in rum, with a smaller amount of sugar (I could repeat here the old saw that you can always add more, but you can't take it out, but that would be wrong). Tart cherries really live up to their name, however, so it is probably wise to use at least half as much sugar, by weight, as you have cherries. You can use a darker rum for flavor, or a lighter rum to have a prettier color. You may also add some appropriate spices, but I find them unnecessary. The cherries themselves will fade in color somewhat, but they will still be presentable. My preferred method of serving them is to place two of them in a tiny liqueur glass along with a tablespoon or so of the rum they have been sitting in. This presentation makes a splendid final course to a fancy dinner. Coffee is a nice accompaniment.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Faux Pho*

I am sure that bad chicken soup happens, but it has never happened to me. Really, it is an awfully easy thing to get right. I am not often an easy-to-please critic of my own cooking. I will sit and fret about the vegetables not being done to the exact right degree of tenderness or regret that I did not add another clove or forty of garlic. I will not voice these insecurities aloud, as that would be inconsiderate of my guests, but I am, nonetheless, a seething cauldron of self-doubt almost any time I serve a meal.

But when I make chicken soup, none of that seems to matter. A good chicken soup will suffuse the eater with such a feeling of well-being that such things as overcooked noodles, a surfeit of dill, or even, heaven forefend, a cloudy broth (this last will, no doubt, put you in mind of a scene in Tampopo, almost certainly the best movie about food ever made, where the exhausted heroine has fallen asleep at her stock pot, allowing it to boil and, according to her mentors, ruining the soup; screw that, I'd have eaten it anyway) are not nearly enough to overcome the general feeling of happy, happy, joy, joy.

I enjoy chicken soups of all sorts, and my standard variety involves simmering a whole chicken with onion, celery, carrots, and pepper; removing the chicken and vegetables and putting the entire pot of broth in the refrigerator; removing the solidified fat and the whole peppercorns; bringing the stock back to the boil; removing the cooked chicken from the bones and chopping it roughly; chopping uncooked vegetables and adding them to the pot along with whatever carbs I'm using and the diced chicken; and adding salt** and chopped dill until the soup is to my liking.

Everyone, including me, loves my chicken soup, and there is really no need to change the recipe. But I am a big fan of Pho Ga (Vietnamese chicken noodle soup), and I have been wanting to try it for some time. So I set out to make a pot this weekend, but it soon became clear that I wasn't going to get all the way there. For starters, the girls were over this weekend, and they're not going to put up with chiles or basil or lime or bean sprouts in their soup, so I didn't even try. In any case, what I like best about pho is the broth, and from tasting and reading, it was clear to me that what's different about the broth is the palette of seasonings that one uses. So I left out the carrots and the dill, and went with other flavors. An approximate recipe follows.

Wash and dry a whole chicken. Using your kitchen shears, cut it in half through the breast bone and around the back bone. Put the chicken into a pot and cover it with cold water.

Add an onion and two ribs of celery, all cut in half.
Slice about a two-inch piece of ginger thinly, and add.
Add five cloves, half a teaspoon of peppercorns, and two star anise. (Without the Vietnamese, I would certainly have never thought of putting anise in chicken soup, but it is a revelation. It is even more of a revelation if you don't remove it from the soup and the leftover soup sits in the refrigerator for a day or two, patiently waiting for you to get to it.) If you are feeling ambitious, bruise the spices lightly before you add them.

Bring the water to a boil, then turn it down to a simmer, and let it cook, covered, for a couple of hours. Yes, yes, I know. Serious chicken soup cooks will tell you to only partially cover the pot and don't want you to cook the chicken for that long. I think you need to cook it a long time to get all the flavor out. People (maybe the same people who said to cover the pot, but maybe not) will also tell you that cooking the chicken for too long toughens it. I don't believe it. My chicken is always tender.

Remove the chicken and vegetables from the broth. You can fish out the spices if you like, but I don't mind eating around them. For that matter, I don't mind biting into them, but I'm perhaps a bit weird, so take them out if it makes you feel better.

Remove as much of the fat as possible from the broth, by whichever method you prefer. If you have time, the easiest way is to refrigerate the broth so that the fat solidifies and can be removed with no trouble at all.

When the chicken has cooled, remove and discard the skin, and pull the meat from the bones. Chop the meat and return it to the pot. Bring the pot back to the boil, and add salt** until it tastes right. When the soup is at or near the boil, add your noodles. Rice noodles make sense here. If you want to add the traditional pho accoutrements, then by all means do so. I will endeavor not to be jealous.

I will also try (but fail) not to envy you if you serve the soup in some large, beautiful white and blue bowls with pictures of swimming carp on the bottom of the inside. I have no such bowls, and when I made the soup this weekend, I had little chance of getting the kids to the table, so I served the soup in heavy, oversized coffee mugs, the sort which one gets from one's child for Christmas if one asks, and which one otherwise procures from Trader Joe's for two bucks apiece.

*I am, of course, aware that "faux" and "pho" have entirely different pronunciations.

**For heaven's sake, don't be afraid of salting your soup. The single most important step in making any soup is adding the salt. If you don't believe me, ask the Hungry Tiger. Soup without enough salt is flat and lifeless. The large pot of soup I made took about two-and-one-half tablespoons of salt to fully bring out the flavor of the chicken and the anise.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Lebkuchen (I)

I should say right off the bat that I have little patience for the people who whinge about Christmas starting earlier and earlier every year. I have always adored the Christmas season, and while I have great sympathy for the people who get depressed during the holidays, I am not among them. Even five or six years ago, during the deepest, darkest days of the divorce (and, trust me, it was an especially grueling divorce, by anyone's standards), I took great solace in family, music, and food, the three mainstays of the various holidays that celebrate the winter solstice.

There is, as it happens, a long history of tension between the forces that wish to extend the season and those that wish to shorten it, and for the most part, the people who wanted to shorten it were the man. In the American South, for example, slaves spent a considerable amount of effort on choosing and preparing the Yule log that would burn for the longest because while it was still burning, they were still on holiday. In agrarian societies generally, the winter is the time when there's the least to do and when people relax, at least relatively speaking, and the people who did all the work wanted to have the longest possible break from their back-breaking lives.

(If you object to the mission creep of Christmas because of the commercialism, I am with you, but you may choose not to center your holiday on spending, and in any case, if the retail-industrial complex wasn't running Christmas ads, it'd be running equivalent ads just because that's what it knows how to do.)

In any case, good Christmas cooks start early. One presumes that the underlying reason for starting early is that many foods served in winter necessarily rely on preserved ingredients, and preservation is done in the harvest season. In any case, it is a fact that any good fruitcake is prepared before Thanksgiving, and some before Halloween. (Oh and for heaven's sake, don't let me hear you groaning about fruitcake and making jokes about bricks and about door stoppers and passing the same family fruitcake, that no doubt came over on the Mayflower, back and forth year after year. Are you really so limited in your imagination as to imagine that what gets sold for $3.99 in the supermarket under the moniker of fruitcake is a reasonable representation of fruitcake? If you were traumatized in your youth by a concoction of sawdust studded with red and green day-glo cherries candied in large quantities of sugar and BHT, then you just don't know fruitcake. Come have a slice of my white fruitcake [or someone else's Jamaican black cake] sometime before you let the actions of a misguided few keep you from enjoying one of the true delights of winter.)

Fruitcake starts early in part because it has flavors that improve with time, and in part because you need a month or more to get all of that great alcohol into it. Other holiday goodies only have the former reason, and some of them start even earlier. Lebkuchen, for example.

I shot the opening salvo in the long annual lebkuchen battle (some metaphors are just too bad to forgo) this past week when I candied some orange peel, most of which will eventually find its way into lebkuchen. Lebkuchen is, you will not be shocked to learn, a German cookie, traditionally served during the Christmas season. Actually, it is more of a family of German cookies, as there are a great many varieties, and some German bakeries sell as many as twenty different kinds of lebkuchen. They are all, at heart, honey cookies or molasses and honey cookies, and the differences between different varieties have to do mainly with the nature of spices and the amount of added nuts and candied fruit.

My father's mother made a version of lebkuchen when I was young. She was from a Mennonite and Amish background, and the Mennonites and Amish (or at least the ones who I'm related to) mainly came to the U.S. from the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, mostly in the nineteenth century. Granny's lebkuchen (she called it "leb cookies" if someone asked her, but to us they were just her Christmas cookies) were largely of the more austere variety, containing relatively few spices and not much in the way of ground nuts, and, I think, no candied fruit. They also weren't really all that good (they weren't bad, either), except for the ones that she put m&ms into before baking. I only ever had them around Christmas, which was usually about three months after she made them, when they'd had time to age and soften properly. They must have been bricks when they had first come out of the oven and cooled. I don't seek to emulate her lebkuchen, but I use a similar recipe when I'm making cookies for a gingerbread house. The recipe is very low in fat and works splendidly for construction.

In fact, most lebkuchen are relatively low in fat, having only a bit of egg yolk and perhaps some ground nuts combined with honey, molasses, spices, and a lot of flour. The proportion of ground nuts and fruit varies widely, however, and in Germany, the best and priciest lebkuchen has on the label what percentage of fruit and nuts has been put into the batter. It can get to around 30%. Lebkuchen are generally rolled cookies, but when they have that much additional material in them, the batter can get fairly sticky, and they are then usually formed on small rounds of edible paper called oblaten.

My preference is to work as much ground almonds (hazelnuts would be even better, but hazelnuts have a tendency to go rancid relatively quickly, so you really can't count on them still tasting good by the time they've softened) and candied orange, lemon, and/or citron peel into the dough as possible while still maintaining rollability.

Cooks who have not yet achieved the state of batshit insanity buy their candied citrus peel from their local grocer or off the Internet. The stuff that you see in the supermarket always seems to me to be too much like the candied red and green cherries that it's sold alongside. (Don't even get me started about the stuff labeled "fruit cake mix.") I am sure that there are reliable online sources of better candied peel and perhaps I could even find it somewhere locally (I have, for example, no trouble finding top notch candied ginger), but because of the whole batshit insane thing, I much prefer to make it myself.

And that's what I've been doing this week. I will not get around to the actual making, rolling, baking, and storing of lebkuchen for a couple of months, but I at least have started on my candied peel. In fact, I finished the candied orange peel yesterday. The lemon peel is still firmly attached to the lemons I bought, but I hope to rectify that situation next week.

In almost all cases, when you use citrus peel, you are after only the zest, or the outermost, colored layer. That is because the pith is almost hopelessly bitter. But when you candy peel, you candy the entire peel, pith and all. So you generally want a thicker peel. I use navel oranges from the grocery store. I reckon that some people prefer to use organic oranges, but the peel goes through a lengthy processing that I reckon removes anything that's overly objectionable. To peel my oranges (I have some pictures of the process, and perhaps if I find the necessary cables and knowledge, I will include some later), I take a sharp paring knife and make two shallow cuts through the peel all the way around the orange. You want your knife to go only as deep as the peel, and you make the two circular cuts perpendicular to each other so that when you're done, you have divided the peel into quadrants.

It is easiest to remove the peel if you start at the end opposite the navel. I don't usually find this part to be especially difficult. Keep in mind that you will eventually be slicing the peel smaller, even if you don't grind it up to use in cookies, and don't be too concerned if some of the peel quarters break. You will end up with a pile of peel quarters and a pile of naked oranges. What you do with the naked oranges is between you and your conscience. I usually just eat them myself, but if I can get away with it, I'll slide a few into the kids' lunches.

I started with about a dozen oranges, which makes a lot of candied peel. In my experience, though, it keeps more or less forever, and you probably won't want to make it more than once a year, so go for a big enough batch to carry you through the lebkuchen and fruitcake season. (If you don't want to make either of those treats, you can dip the finished peel in melted chocolate to make a very nice candy.)

You begin to deal with the pith's bitterness by boiling the orange peel. Put it all into a pot and cover with plenty of water. Bring the water to a boil and boil for five minutes or so. Then drain, rinse, and repeat. You should boil it three times in all. That was as far as I got in the process on the first day, so I put it all in a bowl and left it in the refrigerator.

A couple of days later, I had a few spare minutes in the morning, so I took out the quarters and cut them crosswise into strips about a third of an inch wide. Then I put them back in the refrigerator.

The actual candying of the prepared peel takes a while, so you may want to begin it in the morning. I suspect that the final product will be none the worse if you start on one day and put the whole mess in the refrigerator again to finish another day. I followed neither of those approaches, and my orange peel spent the night in a slow oven, but it tastes great all the same.

You're going to need to make a heavy syrup. I tend to make extra because if you don't have enough you can end up scorching your oranges, and that is a very unpleasant occurrence when you've spent days getting them to the candying stage. Also, you can probably find another use for extra orange flavored syrup. (I used the excess to candy some fennel and coriander seed; I will write about that in my next entry, I think.)

For my peels from a dozen or so oranges, I took four cups of sugar and added two cups of water. I stirred the mess a bit by swirling the saucepan, then I put it over medium heat with the lid on and waited for the sugar to all dissolve. When it had dissolved and was just reaching a boil, I put in the seeds from about six pods of cardamom. I don't know why I did that, since I never had before, but it seemed like a good idea. If I try this recipe again, though, I will put the cardamom in sooner and cook it longer before adding the orange peel because the final product didn't have a noticeable flavor of cardamom, though I did get to chew on some candied cardamom, and that was a good thing.

When the syrup is boiling, slide in the orange peel and cook for a while over medium-low heat. Then turn the heat down to low and cook for a lot longer. Over time, the peel will absorb more and more of the syrup, and the whole mass will become significantly thicker. My orange peel had been cooking for about two hours when I wanted to go to bed, and it seemed like it needed a while longer, so I turned the oven on to about 225 and poured everything out of the saucepan into a glass baking dish and put it in the oven. When I got up the next day, I still thought not enough syrup had been absorbed, so I turned the oven up to 300, and after another hour, it seemed just right to me. I drained the peel in a colander, reserving the syrup, and after another hour, I turned the whole mass out onto a piece of wax paper to dry. When it was completely cool, I put it into plastic bags.

It tastes pretty good, but not so good that it won't taste better ground up in lebkuchen. I will report more on my lebkuchen recipe (different every year, not necessarily by design) and which spices I've decided to use for the '05 vintage when I make the dough. V. is going to Ethiopia in July, so that may turn out to be a good time to make a big mess in the kitchen.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Hot and Sour Soup

I don't think of this site as a food blog per se. Food is my favorite thing to write about, but I certainly don't view my life as nothing more than the quest for the perfect bowl of pho ga. (Which is really just as well since I found it a few years ago in Silver Spring. I still visit it from time to time.) I have a job and other interests and a partner and children.

I was sitting with my older daughter, A, at her favorite Chinese restaurant earlier this week. I had had a long day at the office and did not want to cook, so I had asked her where she wanted to eat, and she said what she always said. So we were sitting there, having just been served our soup, and we had the following conversation.

Child: It looks like I'm getting Bs in chemistry and algebra.

Parent: Ok. I assume you're getting As in Spanish and French?

Daughter: Of course. Also in PE and health. Health is easy to get an A in. All you have to do is say that you won't have sex.

Anapestic: Uh. Good, I guess.

Spawn of Anapestic: They're so stupid though. They're all "oral sex is still sex because it's penetration, and any penetration is sex," and I'm all "so when I put a tampon in, that's sex? Because that's penetration." They didn't have an answer to that. Morons.

Me: Heh.

She: They just kept saying "penetration is sex," and I'm all "Oh, penetrate your mother's ass."

I: I hope you didn't use those exact words.

A is a pretty savvy teenager, especially when I compare her level of knowledge and self-assuredness to what I had at her age. I attribute much of the difference to my having been raised Southern Baptist and her having been raised Unitarian Universalist. Of course, she doesn't know everything. Witness the following conversation from earlier in the same evening.

"Dad, I've decided that I'm going to be a sex therapist."


"I mean, everyone already asks me for advice about it, so I figure I should do that for a living."

"I think that sex therapy is more of a hands-on sort of job."

"Oh. That's not what I had in mind."

"Maybe you're thinking of a clinical psychologist or a clinical social worker."

"Right. Wow. Good thing I didn't tell many people that."

It is, generally, a very good thing to have a daughter who's comfortable saying anything at all to you. I suppose that some teenagers would use the "penetrate your mother's ass" line to shock their parents, but that's clearly not the case with A. (Ok, I was shocked, but I didn't show it.) We have always had a particularly strong relationship, and while she's frequently butted heads with her mother (and who can blame her?), she and I almost always get along splendidly. That, of course, has its downside.

Such as last night, when I was sitting in the living room watching TV and she came running in from the computer room.



"One of my gay friends needs some porn."


"He says he can't get off without it."


"Anyway, he wants me to ask you if he can have some of yours. You must have some, right?"

Running screaming from the room seemed like the most appropriate course of action, so that's what I did. It didn't bother A, though, who just followed me, asking, "So, is that a 'no'?" The next morning, while driving her to school, I explained to her the many reasons why the whole thing was a bad idea, but she had already moved on.