Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Nostalgia of Food

For me, food is in large part nostalgic. A taste of a juicy quarter pound hamburger instantly transports me to summers outside, dad on the grill, playing with my sisters while waiting for dinner. Ice cream reminds me of summer softball games and home runs. And steamy chili evokes memories of chilly winter afternoons snuggled up in front of the television with my family, watching game after game. With each dish comes a new memory; with each meal I try harder to re-live the past.

The true irony is that I am nostalgic for a past that didn’t exist. Yes, we ate chili, ice cream, and hamburgers. Yes, we grilled, played softball, and watched t.v. together. But those memories are laced with an air of togetherness that we never had when I was a child. My family was a confederation of independent states – not a cohesive nation. When we ate together (usually in front of the television) it was some of the only time we spent together as a group, but our isolation never ebbed. I spent so much of my life yearning for togetherness and fighting for independence. Meals were a truce, a time when everyone put down their arms and came together to eat because we needed sustenance to keep the battle going. Eventually, after mom left, meals became hollow and empty – a time for ‘catch-up’ and were the only time we communicated for days on end.

For a long time I looked back on my life and was proud of our confederation, I honored the isolation. Now, however, I can see the loneliness that was in my heart all along. I feel it every time I make tacos, cookies, or bologna soup. I feel it in the fabricated memories and the false sense of togetherness. I feel it in the realization that what I remember didn’t really happen, and that what happened wasn’t really worth remembering. And I feel it in the empty longing that I still have to connect with others despite my stubborn pretense of independence. Now, I know the truth – and it haunts me.

But it also propels me forward. Years later, my family and I still bond over food. It is impossible for us to spend more than two hours together without consuming food of some sort and most of our get-togethers revolve around a shared meal. We have moved forward with our lives and are now in a place where we can share joy, love, pain, and dinner with each other. Each meal is an opportunity to create a new experience, a new memory – and damn it all if we don’t strive for just that! I do not mourn my childhood, I celebrate my awareness of how precious each moment - every morsel, every crumb, and every sip really is in helping me to make new associations and renew my love of food.

Nostalgia is a combination of the way things were and the way we wanted things to be. It’s a fondness for the past that can never quite meet the expectations of today’s experience. Although I will never be able to disconnect my consumption from my memories of the past, I hope that with each preparation those associations loosen and become less binding. That gradually, instead of acting as a portrait of what the eating experience should be, the memories season my food and become a flavor like any other that merely colors my meal and sets the stage for my epicurean encounter.

To honoring the past, shaping a better future, and embracing every opportunity to make new memories today.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008

So Full of Want - Taco Edition

Sometimes I browse sites online and I become overwhelmed with what I call "want" - the irresitable desire to own something that I have no practical use for and probably no place to store, but need to have all the same.

This shirt, for example, is absolutely adorable.

Or this plastic serrated chef's knife (safe for all non-stick surfaces) that would be stylish and functional!


Thursday, April 17, 2008

"Gimme a Piece of that Cheesecake"

Once while on vacation in Chicago over Fourth of July Weekend, my sisters and I attended the annual “Taste of Chicago” celebration. While there, we saw that Eli’s a famous bakery in Chicago was offering free pieces of a giant cheesecake they had baked in honor of their anniversary (100 maybe? I’m not sure). Eager to share in the festivities and taste the legacy that was Eli’s; we waited in line for almost two hours to receive our free cheesecake. The line was incredibly long and it was a very hot day, but the worst part of the wait was the music playing over the speakers in the park – “Gimme a piece of that, Gimme a piece of that, Gimme a piece of that cheesecake” over and over and over. By the end of the two hours (and for days later) that song was permanently embedded in our brain. In the end, the cheesecake was a six-foot tall, ten-foot round, fifteen-layered disappointment. The crust was awkwardly crunchy and the filling was almost bitter. Apparently, adjusting a recipe times a thousand isn’t as easy as it sounds. My sister and I lay in the grass afterward, feeling less than euphoric (translation= gassy).


Flash forward to present day. Based on the empirical evidence provided by a glossy photo in a cooking magazine, I had decided that cheesecake was my new best friend and I; ever the cheesecake evader would now claim this territory as my own and embrace the silky deliciousness that is our diary dessert. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but I think you can see where I’m going here. Five hours, a nap, and a large dinner later, I had lost all enthusiasm for “operation cheesecake” however I had already bought all the ingredients and my helpers were geared to go, so we forged ahead – enthusiasm be dammed!


The first step in a cheesecake is to make the crust. In the recipe I chose, this meant go to the store, buy a bag of Oreos, and smash them up…or something along those lines – I get blurry on the details. Essentially:

Amanda's_first_cheesecake_003 + Amanda's_first_cheesecake_006 = Amanda's_first_cheesecake_015

The next step was to prepare the inside of the cheesecake. The instructions told me to melt the chocolate in the microwave (in a microwave safe bowl) which I was skeptical about, but actually worked really well.


The directions did not, however, indicate how I was supposed to soften the cream cheese, and for the novice cheesecake maker that I was – that would have been a really handy set of instructions. I left the cheese out on the oven for twenty minutes or so but then I got impatient and decided to start the filling with slightly hard cream cheese against the better judgment of the recipe (and my helpers). I put the cream cheese into my bowl and tried to beat it until it was soft. Note to self: this is not an expedient way to soften cheese, in fact, it might have been faster if I simply leaned down and cupped my hands against the cheese and let out short gusts of hot air from my diaphragm “huh, huh”. Not only did softening the cheese with my hand mixer take forever, it also didn’t work really effectively and resulted in lots of tiny cheese curds in my filling. Then the recipe instructed me to add one egg at a time. I am unsure if it really matters whether I add one egg at a time or all eggs simultaneously, but the raging success of my earlier recipe modification, I decided to just do what they told me to. After adding each egg, my batter was…well…unappetizing.


But I wasn’t worried – I forged ahead, added my melted chocolate to the batter (note the white filling along the sides of the bowl – I probably should have tried harder to scrape the sides)


and poured the filling into the pan – how beautiful is that (minus the cheese curds)?


I baked the cake for 45 minutes, checked the top and saw that it needed more time, and baked it for an additional 15 minutes (for all of the non math majors that’s an hour total). Then the recipe said that I should turn off the oven and let the cheesecake stand for another 30 minutes in the cooling oven. Now, at this point it was like 2:30 a.m. everything was all good earlier when I was watching the ‘Made for TV Movie’ on lifetime, but now it was over and I was so ready for bed. I let the cake sit for like 20 minutes and then I grew impatient and pulled it out (hmmm….is that becoming a theme?). Don’t worry too much though, because the cake was gorgeous!


I chilled the cake over night and then brought it with me to my Dad’s the next day for lunch. When I got there, I had to make the ganache topping. On a somewhat unrelated side note, we determined that there is no pleasant sounding way to say ganache with a Midwestern accent, it just sounds like “gan-ass-che”; the appropriate way to pronounce the term is with a snooty French accent (preferably with your nose in the air) and say “ghan-aw-sh” which was much more attractive in our opinions. Speaking of attractive, take a load of this stunning beauty


Now usually when I shout “who wants a piece of this?” it is followed with an uncomfortable silence and clearing of throats. In this case, however, everyone was excited to sample my cheesecake masterpiece


How was it? It was magical, amazing, earth shattering – it was really damn good! I was won over into the cult of cheesecake consumption and ready to give my soul for another piece. As I finished my chocolaty slice of heaven a single thought entered my mind that really summarized my feelings on this entire cheesecake escapade. Now THAT is a cheesecake worth waiting in line for!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Why Cook?

After a weekend of definite culinary failures (and a success or two) I started to question my love of cooking. Why bother cooking for oneself when it is so often disappointing and not worth the effort? Not to mention the massive pile of dishes waiting for you afterwards. What is the point of putting yourself through all that pain when at the end you will achieve, at best, mediocrity? The reason is that once in a while, you can make a dish that is, for lack of a better word, transcendental. A dish that takes you out of your secular world of “to-do’s”, telecommutes, and T.V. dinners and lifts you into the sacred world of culinary bliss.

Sometimes great food is intentional; it is a planned and precise process with careful steps and exact measurements. In my experience, however, the best food is stumbled upon by accident. Perhaps it’s the omission of an ingredient either in error or out of necessity, or perhaps it’s the modification of instructions to fit my own tools, kitchen, or lifestyle, or maybe it’s just sheer luck under which I stumble upon some of my greatest culinary successes. Either way I can resolutely declare that for me, it is not intentional. But when it happens….oh when it happens it’s as though the culinary gods have poked their heads down through the clouds of mashed potatoes and whipped cream with their hot chocolate mustaches and smiled down at me for just one second.

Of course, reality always follows these moments of fancy (whipped cream would make terrible clouds!) and I realize that it is a combination of success and failure that help us to become great cooks. Without failure, I would never learn that when a recipe says “sit over night” it damn well means it! Without success, however, I would’ve given up after my hundredth broken yolk and never learned how to properly fry an egg. As with all pastimes, cooking must be rewarding or it will never become a passion and it must be daunting or it will never push you to succeed.

Why cook? I could say that it is because I love the challenge, because everyone needs to eat, or because I am a glutton for punishment. The truth is, however, that yearn for those moments of transcendental consumption, the moments that resolve existential crisis and connect me to the universe, the moments that tell me who I am, where I belong, and whether or not my dish needs more salt.

(photo not taken by me)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Monday is Always Quesadilla Day!

That was the saying that was posted on my message board for almost three years. At first it was there so that I could actually remember that Quesadillas were on sale at a local restaurant on Mondays. Eventually, it became representative of me – a conversation starter and an easy way to let others know where I stood on the “food” issue. The message discreetly told all who entered that "the people in house worship at the altar of food and would not hesitate to sell your organs for tacos".

Okay, perhaps it doesn’t say all of that, but it does communicate a certain priority set that not all who consume food adopt. For me, food is first priority. From the time I get up in the morning until the time I go to bed at night I’m thinking about food, I’m imagining food that I could make or eat, and I’m looking up food on the internet (while I should be working). If I spent even half the time invested in my career as I do in what I eat for dinner, I would probably be a CEO at a Fortune 500 company by now – or at least I’d still be a size ten.

Size doesn't matter, though, because I’m dedicated to my craft and pursue it with the single-mindedness that only a true addict can have. In my lifetime, I have consumed well over ten thousand tacos, but the satisfying crunch of the shell between my teeth and the savory taste of melted cheese on my tongue is a habit I just can't seem to kick. It's so bad that I sometimes catch myself equating the value of things in tacos. "Sure, I could buy that video game, but that's like forty tacos!" Surely this train of thought is a sign that I have a deep-seated addiction and need serious psychological intervention, but I can't bring myself to care enough to change. The fact is, my relationship with food is as complicated as any relationship I could have with a boyfriend and (I suspect) infinitely more gratifying.

(Photo not taken by me)