Saturday, February 28, 2015

Other Vacationers

Some of the other vacationers
We had been here just long enough that we’d grown restless from eating in the hotel for breakfast and dinner, and last night made plans to try the bigger resort next door. Our hotel is a small, quiet, boutique affair on a broad crescent of Caribbean beach, where all the neighboring properties seem larger and louder. Some are teeming with tourists, their stew of folks from all over seasoned with drawling, boisterous, hard-drinking Americans, like that one who tells the waiter, “It don’t matter,” and then makes him explain every item on the menu, because she, “don’t want nothing fishy.”

At the encouragement of several members of hotel staff and cab drivers, we walked down to the community Thursday fish fry, in the park. Nothing is especially cheap on this island, and when we bought two bottles of local beer, it came in big, milky plastic cups and was $10. There were many food vendors, so I guessed the best was the one with the longest line. Even the grilled corn was going to be $3 an ear. We lined up and drank our beer.

“Hey, it’s Missouri!” shouts the big pink fellow ahead of us in line for conch fritters.

He elbows his wife. She’s distractedly humping the air, dancing to the reggaeton blasting from the stage. Her eyes don’t focus on his face, but she peels her lips away from her teeth in a grimace of recognition. Is that a drunken smile? “You know,” she continues, speaking upward into the direction of the other couple in line with them, “Those Canadians are traveling with their kids.”

“Who wants to pay for all that!?” hoots her husband with a vote of support.

She jabs him back with an elbow of agreement, missing his belly and tipping not imperceptibly off balance.

Our hotel is full of people traveling with their kids. There was the tiny gent at dinner the other night in tiny navy topsiders without socks and tiny pressed khakis and a tiny white polo shirt and tiny suspenders. I was really looking forward to seeing him entertain himself with a parent’s pocket full of tiny cars, or a bunch of stickers and a new coloring book, but, no, his mom hauled out an iPad and set him up watching the glowing screen like a zombie, and the parents spoke in hushed tones in Russian without even glancing at him in his stupor. Do they even give out crayons in restaurants anymore?

Then there is what I call the Chas Tenenbaum family: with the nerdy dad in white tube socks and tightly belted, high-waisted khaki pants, the trim looker of a dark blond wife an obvious emblem of his financial success, and his matched set of curly-black-haired boys, the spitting images of dad, never out of arm’s reach, despite being on the verge of properly rambunctious Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sort of ready-for-adventure age.

Contrast these to the French Canadians we hear thundering in circles upstairs whose arrival in the restaurant is announced by their three squealing miniature ruffians. They appear to be five year old brother and sister twins, with a bonus 4 year old brother who can’t quite always keep up but will fling himself forward and over and around and through in every effort to. The father doesn’t stop talking, and the mother doesn’t even glance down to see them kick off and deposit their shoes under her chair at breakfast so they can run tight laps on the patio, tagging each other with wadded napkins clasped in their unsupervised and undisciplined fingers screaming in their own unintelligible blend of French and English. Their breakfast ended in tears as the youngest slipped the room key into a crack in the table and couldn’t get it out.

It’s not just families with small children here. There are a number of older couples, and I am as charmed by the careful escort of the frail wife to the water as I was the young mother with sleeping infant on her chest under a beach umbrella. There is a moment at the water’s edge, where the surf rolls in and out and the footing is rough and loose, where a couple of the unsteadier guests have needed an arm to hold and a word of encouragement.

The day before yesterday, Chas Tenenbaum and the boys took a football to the sand and stood not far enough apart in a triangle tossing it. None of them seemed to have ever tossed a football before, and the younger boy missed every catch. The mother puttered about the loungers and joined them, making a square. The figure formed by the bodies constantly reformed as the ball dropped, the only sound that carried to me was the mother’s apologies.

And then yesterday, at the beach, the Chas Tenenbaums commandeered a stand-up paddleboard as a family and were taking turns balancing on it, mom at the tail and dad at the nose. When the dad took his turn on the thing, the little one pressed on the board near his mother, at the nose, insisting, “I’ll stabilize it.”

“No,” the father shouted. “Get off.”

Soon enough, he lost his balance and fell in again. The parents dragged the board back to its spot on the sand and retreated to their lounge chairs, and the kids swam, bobbing in the swells. In the end, there was just the younger boy left, only his nose and forehead visible, floating purposelessly in the water. Finally, a moment of entertaining himself.

On our way to dinner, we saw the older couple with the fragile wife, trying to take selfies in the pastel light of a beach sunset. She was unhesitant in asking me to take a picture of them, with her iPhone. It’s still one of my favorite things to do: take pictures of strangers for them. We promised her a full report on the restaurant next door.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fucked Up Chocolate Cheesecake

One Thanksgiving, when I was just a kid, I heard the oven timer go off, and I turned off the oven. That’s what you did, I reasoned. You hear it ring, and turn it off. It was still early in the day. I’m not sure why I stepped in like that, and turned off the oven, but by and by my mother realized the oven timer hadn’t been ringing and she hadn’t been basting. She found the raw, pale turkey in a cold, cold oven, and she was pretty fucking pissed. I don’t think I told her I did it; I think I let her think she forgot to turn on the oven. Dinner was delayed, I guess. I don’t remember what else happened.

My favorite, all-time cooking fuck-up story was the chocolate cheesecake. My parents belonged to a dinner group that got together monthly or quarterly or something, with rotating hosts, and some discussion and planning amongst the wives about the menu each time. These were my dad’s rich friends from high school, now all grown up with wives and children. These friends drank and smoked cigars at dinner group parties. I got my first glimpse of caviar. C------ smoked a pipe! N----- walked into our screen door and took the skin off the end of her nose but was so drunk it didn’t hurt.

It was our turn to host. My mother made chocolate cheesecake but somehow before she got it in the oven to bake she threw the whole thing into the fridge, where it set up quite nicely.

When it came time to serve it, my mother cut a couple of pieces and I picked up two plates of that rich brown chocolate cheesecake and walked out of the kitchen backwards through the swinging door into the dining room and served the first two female guests, as I had been taught, and in the moment of the door swinging shut and me passing back into the kitchen for more, my mother let out a gasp: a big, “Oh, fuck!” kind of gasp.

But this was my mother, and she was clever and quick. The only thing to do was serve the unbaked chocolate cheesecake anyway.

The cream cheese needs to soften

Not Fucked Up Chocolate Cheesecake

Step one is, you have to let 3 8-oz. packages of cream cheese soften on the counter without any helpful people putting them in the fridge; I suggest a threatening sticky note.

Step two is, preheat the oven to 325F.

Step three is crushing chocolate cookies with a hammer or spoon or whatever until you have about 1 ½ cups of coarse crumbs. You can use what my mother used, the Famous Chocolate Wafers. Me? I had to buy the ingredients at a small NYC natural foods store, so I’m using chocolate animal graham crackers. I left them in the sealed bag and smashed them for a while. Or you can use about 18 Oreos, either with or without the white stuff scraped off. When you think your crumbs are fine enough, add 4 T melted butter and mix. Press this into the bottom of a 9” springform pan. Bake 10 minutes.
Don't burn the chocolate
While this bakes, melt 8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate; I used the microwave. Many recipes have warnings about not burning chocolate when you melt it. I know I did it once, and it was terrible, because it smells funny and separates and shit. Don’t burn your chocolate, people. Melt it, and allow it to cool.

Next, beat your 3 8 oz. packages of softened cream cheese, 1 c sugar and 1 t vanilla (unless you, like me, refuse to actually measure vanilla and just pour some in). Beat in 3 eggs, one at a time. If you have a mixer, do it on low and don’t over beat it. If you’re in a tiny NYC apartment and are doing it by hand, pretend it’s your arms day. Yesterday I couldn’t bear to go to the gym in the building and be around all the sweaty youngsters so I walked the stairs. High rise workout, bitches. Mix in the chocolate.

When your concoction is smooth, pour it over the cooled cookie crust bottom thing.
Use a sharp knife to cut it

Step whatever: bake 45 minutes or until the center is almost set. Even though my mother served it refrigerated and unbaked, that’s a lotta raw eggs, and you don’t wanna make people sick. Bake your damned cheesecake. Leave in pan and refrigerate at least 4 hours. Fuck topping it with strawberries.
My mother’s favorite part of the story was the part where M----- called the next day to ask for the recipe. She debated whether to say the part about baking it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Forgotten Cookies Remembered

I’m not sure why I was interested in cooking as a kid, since I was not especially interested in eating anything other than Cap’n Crunch and was in no way interested in growing up, especially if it meant doing boring adult things like writing checks. I watched my dad do it, writing checks, and there was a ledger with columns and a lot of scribbling including the writing of numbers as words, in cursive. Why would you?
Another Guy with a Sign

My mother would not buy fluffy-spongey white bread, but she would buy Pepperidge Farm Toasting White and Thomas English Muffins, and Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries. The way I ate it, three or four bowls at a sitting, in the middle of the day, with lots of 2% milk, was this: crunchberries first. I tolerated the slightly pink stain in the milk, and the tiny bits of floating crunchberry, despite hating all food that seemed to be a mixture of other foods, like pizza or lasagna or really any casseroles at all.  

Mostly, I guess I wanted to be able to make cookies, because my mother was in the basement making silk-screen prints for the art fair and didn’t do things like make cookies. So I figured out how to make cookies. There was a recipe ON THE BAG of chocolate chips. I even figured out how to walk to Schnucks, across Hanley Road, to buy chocolate chips, how to crack and separate eggs, and that vanilla is the most magical of substances in a tiny brown bottle.

Forgotten Cookies Recipe:

Just before bed, preheat oven to 375F. Beat two egg whites until stiff. Add a pinch of salt and ½ t. cream of tartar; beat in ¾ c. white sugar until glossy. Add a splash of vanilla extract and fold in 1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips.

Drop by small spoonfuls onto foil-lined cookie sheet. Place in oven, and turn it off. Cookies are ready in the morning.

Around 1975, I made forgotten cookies once a week to sell at the weekly junior high school bake sales; we were raising money for a spring break trip to France.  I still have not been back to France, but I did go and I ate two new things there: yogurt and croissants. I recall hearing my mother grumble about the cost of a bag of chocolate chips and the labor involved in making forgotten cookies and making a cash donation instead, but I enjoyed making them and carrying them to school in a wax-paper-lined shoebox.

If I made them as regularly now as I did then, I would use superfine granulated sugar, and I’d make mayonnaise by hand with the leftover yolks (unless I gave them to the dogs), and I’d use those tiny chocolate chips, and I’d experiment with finely chopped pecans.  Let me know if you have your own variations.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Truth and Barbecue Sauce

I am still of two minds about many things, like requiring vaccinations, or eating dogs, or the Westboro Baptist Church, but I’m not undecided about the Internet right now. Right now, I am still thinking the Internet is awesome. The Internet makes communities for people who would otherwise have none, and that’s great.

Of course, Facebook is on my shit list at this moment, but one thing I’m liking is Laura Olin’s Everything Changes newsletter. It appears in my email a couple of days a week. It is usually short. It is often different. The past two days she has asked simply what I’m thinking about. Not just me, of course, but me and everyone else who subscribes and responds. She will collect the data in a few more days, I think, and present it back to us, her readers.

The day before yesterday when I opened it I had just looked at a picture of a jar of homemade barbecue sauce and I was still thinking about barbecue sauce. So that was my reply, “barbecue sauce.”

Yesterday, I was closing Twitter, and glanced at a picture of that state senator who compared women to inferior cuts of meat, and someone had made a graphic with him and a rack of ribs smothered in barbecue sauce so when I glanced at my email again and was asked the same question, my honest reply was, again, “barbecue sauce.”

The thing is, I don’t even really like barbecue sauce very much. I mean it’s ok. It has its place. I certainly do use it when I eat ribs. But I don’t keep it around to put on fries or sandwiches or anything. If I have some in my fridge, it’s leftover from the last time I made ribs.

But now I’m dwelling on barbecue sauce, so my mind leaps to the staple of my teenage years: barbecued chicken.

My mother did not enjoy cooking. Really, my mother resented cooking. She had a book called the “I hate to cook cookbook.” She served Spaghettios for dinner without apology. We regularly had creamed chipped beef on toast. She cut the Carl Buddig processed meat with scissors to make it. We ate canned peas.

We had a gas grill, built in, next to the house, out near the patio. It was surrounded by ivy on the ground and climbing the walls of the house and a walkway to the side porch. Somewhere I have a picture of my mother holding the tongs and a bottle of barbecue sauce, standing next to the grill. I took this picture. She is tilting her head and giving me a cheesy grin. Someday I might find that picture again.

The grilling of the chicken was a regular event. It was the one thing she seemed to resent less than chicken piccata (hammered thin with fury and served over brown rice), or spaghetti (in a red sauce that had slices of carrots but no garlic), but I’m pretty sure flank steak was still easier. Nothing really justifies how much barbecue chicken she made. Maybe she was just trying to get outside.

One time, the cylindrical base of the gas grill rusted through suddenly, right at the bottom, while she was barbecuing. She opened the lid to turn the chicken and the weight of the lid sent the whole grill groaning backwards. My mother said that the chicken all fell into the soot-blackened lid, and burning gas flames shot twenty feet into the sky. I can see it all vividly: the blackened, half-cooked chicken breasts, Mom snatching them with tongs and putting them in a Pyrex dish. I can still summon the scorched ivy on the side of the house.

The truth is, I’m not sure I was there to see any of it. Why do we remember things that happened as if we were there?