Monday, January 28, 2013

New Cabbage Slaw

Derek opened his eyes and let them rest in the dark of his cupped hands for a few moments after finishing the prayer. He usually prayed before dinner in the manner of his parents, resting his head in his hands, elbows on the table. He knew other families who offered a prayer before dinner by simply holding their palms together in front of themselves, or by holding hands in a circle, but they all closed their eyes. You had to close your eyes. If you didn’t, Derek knew, the prayer didn’t count. It was a sacred minute where he felt it was possible for God to enter the room and change things without you looking. Every day, before partaking of the evening meal, he thus played a game of hide-and-seek, and every time, like a child, he wanted to prolong the possibility that a miracle had in fact occurred, no matter how small. Lately it seemed that he kept his eyes closed longer and longer, as if giving the Almighty extra time to fix things — things, Derek knew, he would never be able to see.

It was a thought he pondered while driving to work, sitting on the freeway. It was, he figured, the essence of faith. His limitations as a mortal man would prevent him from ever knowing for sure if God had been at work in his life (or his dining room), or not. If the traffic was particularly bad, this line of reasoning led him invariably to the uncomfortable thought that he was trying, in his closed-eyed silence, to out-maneuver God, to catch Him in the act, and thus validate his beliefs. That made him feel like a cheat. By the time he reached the office, he couldn’t wait to get to work to take his mind off it.

The first thing Derek did once he sat at his desk was to place, very carefully, so as to make no noise, his bagged lunch in the garbage bin. He never looked inside the brown paper bag; he didn’t need to. He’d prefer not to know. After he did this, he uttered a quick prayer for forgiveness, and fired up his computer.

Derek had met his wife at church; they had been set up on a blind date by mutual friends — a married couple who not long after Derek and his wife married, fell apart spectacularly — in ways Derek often thought guiltily about. There had been wild alcoholic binges, pills, rumors of prostitutes. Derek’s new wife thought it best that they, like others in the church, stopped taking this couple’s calls. That was years ago now, and Derek sometimes wondered what became of them. He remembered them in his prayers, and at night, when he couldn’t sleep, often found himself re-living outings and dinner-dates, searching his memory for clues as to the cracks in this couple’s relationship. He came up empty. There was nothing to point to; they had seemed perfectly happy. Derek lay there staring at his ceiling, listening to his wife’s breathing, wondering if anyone else would think that of him. Probably, he thought. They probably would.

Every day, at the dinner table, Derek gave thanks for the food, and for the Lord’s bounty, using the same words he’d recited from childhood. His children said them too. Everyone was hungry.

Then, when he opened his eyes, he gazed at the coleslaw his wife had served in a carved-out cabbage, and knew that his prayers had not been answered. God had not intervened; he was being tested, yet again, by a force greater and with more tenacity than Derek could comprehend. He smiled and held out his plate, and even as the words “that looks lovely, Dear” escaped his lips, he blasphemed loudly in the depths of his heart. 

Salad Book, Better Homes and Gardens, 1958

Monday, January 21, 2013

Coup de Grâce

One would not ordinarily relish being asked to apply a coup de grâce, which is a blow of mercy to end suffering.

It is mystifying then, that someone who has nearly murdered a dish — such as this ham and lima bean concoction — would apply their own coup de grâce in the form of the grated cheese (or whatever that is) that makes it finally, and completely inedible.

Meat Cook Book, Better Homes and Gardens, 1965

Also from this book: Beware the Franks, Salami Bouquet

Friday, January 18, 2013

Beware The Franks

— What know we of the Frankish tribes?

— They are many, Sire.

— Whence do they roam?

— All over the place. Everywhere you look: a Frank.

— What about Tom, Dick and Harry?

— No Sire: just Franks.

— And what tongue speaketh the Franks?

— Gibberish, Sire.

— Have we any Gibberish speakers who may serve to communicate with them?

— Why, the whole Court, Sire. Most people speak a bit of Gibberish. Especially after a beer or two.

— Are the Franks armed?

— Yes Sire, they have arms. And legs.

— I mean, what know we of their weapons?

— Oh, armed. They carry fearsome axes, Sire, and wooden shields. But Sire: it is not what they carry into battle that slays their enemies, Sire.

— What is it then?

— Their cooking Sire. They have a method as cunning as it is effective.

— Pray tell, what is it?

— They do not come bearing arms, Sire. They send a messenger to invite you to a “barbecue.”

— Whatever is that?

— A meal, Sire. They serve ales and meats of dubious origin which have been mashed and extruded to form sausage-like shapes.

— Sounds pretty good to me.

— Oh Sire, it is not. They call them “Frankfurters,” and they have killed many a stout soldier merely wanting to fill his stomach. Sometimes they are served in a pot of blood.

— Surely not! They must be Barbarians!

— No, the Barbarians are someone else, Sire. Look: I have an image made by a spy: behold the horror!

— Why, truly these Franks are a people to be avoided lest their evil ways take over the world! We must not let their reign of terror spread!

Meat Cook Book, Better Homes and Gardens, 1965

Also from this book: Coup de Grace, Salami Bouquet

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Zen and the Art of Washing Dishes

It is entirely possible that there exist people today who have never washed dishes, but rather think of dishwashing as something that is done by a machine which sits under your kitchen counter. Loading and emptying are what’s done to everything used to prepare and serve food. I expect most people think of the dishwasher as a time-saver, a useful appliance which takes the drudgery out of a task, freeing us up to do other things — which according to most advertising means spending “quality time” with our families. 

But perhaps the dishwasher does the opposite; it does not improve the quality of life (of the person charged with the domestic chores) at all. Perhaps it takes something valuable away: some quiet time at the end of the evening.

It used to be that our homes were our gyms; the amount of calories spent simply doing chores — without modern conveniences — was easily spent, keeping us (or our great-grandmothers) slim. But the exercise that chores provided isn’t the only benefit. At the end of every evening, when I stand at my sink and go about the routine of washing my dishes, I get a chance to stand there and simply reflect on my day, unhindered (most of the time) by children or the internet. The repetitive action of a task so familiar as to be automatic is relaxing. When you do not own a dishwasher, you quickly develop a method for clearing the table and washing dishes that makes sense in the way that this 1901 instruction guide suggests.

The phrase “rhyme and reason” marries both logic with art. Dishwashing — by hand, old school style — is a lovely bit of both. It’s not drudgery; it’s what you make it.

The Settlement Cook Book, Simon and Schuster, 1901 (1965 edition)

Also from this book: Soliloquy

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Wash Your Mouth Out With Soap

Handmade small-batch soaps look pretty and smell delicious, especially when sold at farmer’s markets in blocks, which are sliced to order, wrapped in tissue and sealed with a little sticker. You often find that the soap has been studded with chunks of other soap for color or aroma. Perhaps an opaque base of shea butter soap is married with some clear gelatin-based concoction.

Here is a soap meant to impart a minty freshness to your daily bathing routine. Serve it with lettuce and . . . wait . . . this isn’t soap!

Salad Book, Better Homes and Gardens, 1969

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