Monday, March 25, 2013

Great Dinners


He knew about the affair as soon as she began serving him steak. There could be no other explanation. She’d always been a Mac ‘n Cheese kind of girl, Hamburger Helper if you were lucky. She wasn’t any kind of cook. He knew that when he married her. He married her because she was pregnant. He knew his life was a cliché. He’d accepted that.

That was 15 years ago and Sammy Jo was in high school now, giving him a heart attack every time she left the house. He said everything he’d been supposed to say, made jokes about curfews and guns, laughed nervously despite himself. Truth was, he’d never really learned to shoot a gun. Truth was he couldn’t remember where he’d hidden the box of ammunition. It had been years. He feared ever having to use a gun. He thinks he probably hid it somewhere he’d forget on purpose.

She’d put a big fat steak on the table. He couldn’t believe it. There was no way to make sense of a steak like that. It was enormous, bloody, seething with fat around the edges. It bled onto the plate. Parts of it were charred from the pan. What’s the occasion? he’d said, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say. Nothin’, she’d replied. It was going cheap.

He knew that couldn’t possibly be true. This was a woman whose dedication to cheap carbohydrates meant that there were always more buns than hotdogs because “you can always eat ‘em with ketchup.” She was the kind of woman who ate hot dog buns with ketchup. Not the kind who’d cook a steak. He felt a bit ill and sat down.

The next week she did it again. Sammy Jo had gone out on a date and he’d come home to the smell of meaty grease. She’d showered, he could smell the shampoo. There was a bottle of red wine on the table. He had no idea what to make of that. He can’t remember the last time he drank wine. Possibly never. For a few uncomfortable minutes he felt himself sweat wondering how you got into a bottle of wine. All he had was a bottle opener on his key ring, like any other man. Then he realized it was a screw top. Pour yourself a glass, she called from the kitchen.

Afterwards, he asked her why again, and she used her kitten voice to tell him it was because he deserved it. He wondered what, exactly, he deserved. A nice steak, she said. Men like steak. He wasn’t so sure. In fact, he had become convinced that men did not like steak; that it was some kind of conspiracy on the part of women who couldn’t cook to hide something. Like ammunition. As far as he could recall, he’d never particularly expressed a desire for steak, knowing, as he did, that it wasn’t cheap and that she couldn’t cook. Suddenly, he hated steak. He entertained the thought of becoming a vegetarian.

She’d tried to go down on him. That was when he was sure about the other man. He’d let her, kept his eyes closed, and couldn’t come. She’d rolled over, and he’d said it’s not your fault.

That night, he sat up listening for Sammy Jo to come home. Eleven, twelve, one, one-thirty. One thirty-four. Tires crunching. Another 15 minutes at the door. He wanted to surprise her with the gun, but it occurred to him that her boyfriend might be bigger than him, and have a bigger gun. A loaded one. He meant to get up and let her know he’d been waiting up, give her a piece of his mind about the curfew, but when she slipped in and stepped silently up the stairs, he held his breath.

He was a man sitting alone in the dark with blue balls and a cheating wife who couldn’t cook, a daughter who smelled like cigarettes, an empty gun in his lap and a belly full of steak. When he finally breathed, it sounded like a cry escaping around the lump big as a bottle in his throat. He swallowed it back down.

He remembered where he’d put the ammunition. He suddenly remembered, clear as broken glass. 

Great Dinners from LIFE, Eleanor Graves, 1969

Also from this book: Fish Fly

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Canasta Special

Because electronic entertainments have become so ubiquitous today, it’s often hard to recall what people did with their leisure time before television, gaming and the internet.

What they did was play cards. Canasta was one of the most popular card games of the 1950s. It’s a rummy-derivative, and a glance of one of the many variations on the rules is enough to give you the cold sweats.

One of the ways card playing could be made more sociable was to serve food and drinks. This recipe from a homemade booklet from one of the more genteel neighborhoods of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania also indicates that those snacks were pretty healthy. This is good because looking at the cut of women’s clothing from the 1950s also gives you the cold sweats.

If you’ve ever wondered who on earth ate all those molded salads you see in cookbooks from this era, then here’s your answer. It was that or starve while playing cards.

Of note is the curious case of the last instruction in the recipe: “Chill.” back then, it meant to place the molded salad in the refrigerator so that it could set — but now it also means to relax, calm down. After making the Canasta Special and some cocktails, a hostess could, indeed, chill.

When the novelty of playing cards wore off and the prospect of gossiping over a Jell-O salad no longer seemed appealing, many women took “chill pills” instead.

What’s Cooking In Fox Chapel

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ingenious Disingenuousness

Ingenuousness is a virtue meaning “noble” which found its name in the late 1500s. It comes from the Latin for begetting, gen-. There is an understanding of honor attached to it, suggesting the bearer is honest, candid, upright.

When first there is a positive thing, it is quickly followed by its evil twin, the negative; thus we have disingenuous, which dates from the 1600s, meaning the exact opposite.

The cover of this book is disingenuous. If you read the subtitle, it claims to be a book promoting health and “low-calorie desserts.” Yet the picture is of a Baked Alaska, which cannot possibly be either healthy or low-cal. It also dandies up a rather plain and uninspiring ingredient — yogurt, which might be hard to sell otherwise. It says that you can maintain your diet by indulging in elaborate sweets, which is a lie.

If disingenuousness is your thing, you can get a big helping of it every day at the supermarket checkout, where the magazine tunnel bombards your brain with the paradoxical message that you can eat your way slim. How do they sell this absurdity? By appealing to their target audience’s two biggest weaknesses: their addiction to junk food and the shame they feel about their weight. 

Any given cover subscribes to a formula which provides both: a lead story about losing weight paired with tempting photos of brightly colored and often seasonally decorated food. It’s guilt porn.  Does anyone really ever make these elaborate cakes? Probably not — all they are is a slick visual designed to tweak that addiction and sell ad space. These magazines have no investment in actually making their readership diet successfully, or they won’t stay in business.

The disingenuity comes not only in the premise emblazoned across the covers, but in their very nature.

Yogurt Cookery, Sophie Kay, 1978

Also from this book: Yogo-Cheese

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


As many of you canny readers will already be aware, the end-times are coming, and folks have to prepare or perish. We all know the scenario: a strange meteor will signal higher taxes; plagues of locusts will eat all of our crops; the government will confiscate our guns, women and liquor; rivers will run red; and the Ruskies will nuke us to oblivion in a pinko-commie plot to take over the world.

If you’re going to survive the apocalypse, you need to stock your bunker with hand-crank radios, cans of Spam, toilet paper, and plenty of Sudokus. What you’ll miss is good old-fashioned home cooking, because you’ll be eating out of cans and drinking your own urine for a very long time.

So why not learn some kitchen skills you can use to serve your family a proper meal and stave off the boredom that experts warn could result in a bloodbath? If a nice helping of Yogo-cheese won’t cut the tension in your concrete shelter, nothing will.

It’s easy: all you’ll need is fresh yogurt and a working refrigerator, some Ritz crackers and a sense of whimsy. And salt. You don’t have to call it “Yogo-Cheese” if you don’t want to be too literal. You can call it anything you want. We just called it that to get your attention because we know that your friends and neighbors — the ones who will be eaten, evaporated or shot when disaster strikes — will overlook it.

Be warned: these are the same people who will be pounding on the metal doors trying to get in to save themselves once the going gets tough on the outside, but don’t give in. Did they help you stockpile that case of Ketchup in the corner? No.

Case closed. 

Yogurt Cookery, Sophie Kay, 1978

Also from this book: Burned At The Stake

Also from this book: Ingenious Disingenousness

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Burned At The Stake

While the astute observer of this photograph might be temporarily startled by the drama provided by the inexplicable flambé — kebabs not normally associated with being set aflame intentionally — and then astonished by the elaborate ram’s head skewer which, when used to serve lamb kebabs is a tad macabre, the more practical-minded reader will notice both the eponymous use of parsley as a garnish, and the extraordinary feat of making the skewer stand upright on a shallow metal dish.

Into what is this speared? What lies beneath the innocent rice — or has the rice been glued into some concoction solid enough to support it? Has a hole been made in the plate, so that the pointed end pokes right through?

Either way, it ought to be called “Burned at the Stake,” or else whoever’s behind this bit of absurdist food styling theater is wasting a glorious opportunity.

Yogurt Cookery, Sophie Kay, 1978

Also from this book: Yogo-Cheese

Saturday, March 2, 2013


A Formal Dinner Party At The Boss’s House

To use this or that fork: that is the question.
Whether ‘tis better for the guest to suffer
The tines and blades of an outrageous table setting,
Or take up a glass of wine against a host of troubles,
And by not choosing, end them? To dine — to sip
No more; and by “sip” I mean to end
The embarrassment and the thousand faux-pas
With which a formal service trips you, ‘tis a tipple
Devoutly to be wish’d. To dine, to sip;
To sip, perchance to get drunk: ay, there’s the trouble;
For in that sip of drink what bliss may come
When we have shuffled off this suit and tie,
Must give me pause. There’s the politesse
That makes calamity of so long a dinner;
For who would bear the whipped corn and thyme,
The hostess’s frown, the host’s raised brow,
The pangs of an empty stomach, the dessert’s delay,
The workplace chatter, and the queasiness
Wrought from an ignorance of silverware,
When I might my hunger assuage
With a Big Mac? Who would salad forks bear,
To poke and prod about the lettuce,
But that the dread of something hidden underneath,
The undiscover’d condiment from whose taste
No tongue recovers, hurts the brain
And makes us rather eat leftovers at home
Than partake of fine dining among strangers?
Thus do manners makes idiots of us all;
And thus the resolve to have a good time nonetheless
Is shadowed over with the cold sweat of failure,
And all your plans to wow the boss
With your social graces reveal a buffoon,
And lose you that promotion. — Good Lord!
Whose stockinged foot is that?
Now I’m done for.  

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

Also from this book: Zen and the Art of Washing Dishes
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