Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Hairballs in the kitchen

Ah, Wednesday. If you are from the Midwest and of a certain age, Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day. It's hump day. It's the Addams family's daughter's name.

It's the New York Times' Dining and Wine day. Of the many reasons to look forward to Wednesday, this certainly ranks highly. Especially when there are articles like this one.

I am an admitted food snob. I love cooking. I love eating. But I also try to avoid the behaviors that make people hate food snobs. After all, food snobbery is a luxury. Many people don't have enough to eat. It behooves all of us to remember this.

So what should we do when faced with friends the like the sausage makers? How do you handle people who treat pickled ramps with the reverence once reserved for BMW convertibles? People who invite you to their homes and serve foods you might otherwise expect from Chez Magnifique? People who might be your friends (sort of), meaning you must invite them back?

Surely these are questions for some modern-day Emily Post. Barring that, bloggers rush into the void.

Hockeyman and I know a woman who acquired both a house and a do-it-yourselfer husband in short order. They turned their aging home into a showcase, right down to the Ralph-Lauren-painted walls and the wine charms. Their large yard, perfect for entertaining, boasts a goldfish pond, a barbecue, and lovely outdoor seating. At their summer parties, one is served mushrooms in puff pastry, which the husband has made himself. Skewers of marinated steak, chicken, and shrimp await their turns on the grill. Jewel-like mezze are arrayed on a long trestle table, along with a variety of chic Napa wines.

I am not making this up.

I fear all pastry. I forgot to buy a place with yard. How can I possibly turn round and volley back a wonderful meal from my tiny kitchen? With nary a wine charm in sight?

We know another couple who, like us, inhabit an apartment. Unlike us, they have a gas stove and a large kitchen, which they use to turn out an amazing spreads of Indian food. At least a dozen elaborate dishes regularly grace their table. No wine charms here, but they own more than seven dinner plates.

Then there's Hockeyman's colleague, an avid cook. We invited him to dinner with his partner. He looked up from the simple bowl of pasta I served him and said with genuine amazement "This is really good."

He expected merely an edible meal, but no more. He expected food that would be merely decent, food he could pass judgement on, only to be surprised by a good, plain meal. "This is good!"

Well, yeah. I'm a good cook. But let's stop a moment and parse that. How did I become a good cook? Why?

I never did much cooking until I moved in with Hockeyman. I was twenty-six, and could sort of navigate a kitchen. I took it up without a thought. Hockeyman was always hungry in those days. He was also extremely skinny. So I cooked.

And I liked it. I could come home at the end of a frustrating day and chop things into nice, organized piles. It was creative. It smelled nice. Hockeyman gratefully consumed my efforts, even the lesser ones.

I began reading cooking magazines and acquiring cookbooks. I branched out. My skills increased. Then we began grad school. I became adept at pasta: cheap, nutritious, and filling.

We graduated, moved the Bay Area, got real jobs, and began earning real money just as the organic food movement was taking off. My nascent snobbery, fed by availabilty and increased income, mushroomed into full-blown CSA/organic/how-far-did-that-lamb-travel to-reach-my-table lunacy.

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I am not much of an entertainer. We have people over occasionally. This most often involves watching hockey, by definition an informal activity. Nobody cares about pickled ramps when Ottawa has blown Canada's chance at a Cup. They just want more beer.

[Beer? Make mine hemlock. - HM]

Most of the time, though, I avoid dinner guests. If people are judging me based on whether or not I made the tortillas, they need other friends. Take Alex Birsh:

"'As soon as something becomes overpopularized, I don’t want to serve it anymore,' Mr. Birsh said. 'I wouldn’t want anyone to be able to identify something I made as being from a book or a restaurant. I don’t want anyone to be able to say, oh, I see where he got this idea to put microgreens on top of his fish fillets.'"

Jesus wept.

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So what's a sane person to do? Four options:

1. Arrange to meet your friends in a restaurant.

2. Try to compete, making yourself crazy in the process.

3. Prepare extremely simple foods for guests. A plain roast chicken. Rice (not risotto). Pasta with something easy--basil and cheese, fresh spinach, olive oil (which need not be artisanal) and garlic. Green salad with olive oil and red wine vinegar. Buy the bread and the dessert.

4. Opt of the entire business altogether.

Why cook, after all? If you and the people you eat with are engaged in some unspoken version of Iron Chef, well, more power to you, but is that what you call friendship? Are your buddies the ice-cream makers, so critical of your bottled catsup, the people you're gonna call when the chips are down? Or are you going to telephone your friend who sat drinking Pilsner Urquell and weeping with you while Mickey Mouse skated the Cup?

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Food writers talk about nourishment, love, the love that goes into the food. I see none of that in the competitive cookery amongst our acquaintances or the folks chronicled in the NYT.

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Last Friday was our eleventh wedding anniverary. I had the day off, and had come across a Madeleine Kamman recipe for duck au pistou. The pistou, a heart-stopping basil-butter infusion, called for duck giblets, broth, wine, a bouquet garni, garlic, and butter. Then there was the basil to contend with, not to mention the duck itself. There were numerous steps involving browning, reduction, chopping, creaming, and roasting. I used every dish in the house. Bits of basil migrated far and wide.

I would never make this dish for company. It's too complicated. Then there's eating it. Unless you are picking daintily, there is nothing neat about duck with a stick of butter. And those flecks of basil were no less unruly for being incorpporated in the sauce. We won't even discuss the need for dental floss, or the way kitty inserted himself in the proceedings, loudly demanding his share of the bird.

The recipe required four hours of sustained cooking. The resulting dish was one of the best I've ever made. We opened a white Bordeaux, purchased specially for the occasion, and had a wonderful meal. H-man, worried he'd get pistou on his work shirt, stripped to his undershirt. I wore a stained, sleeveless tank top from Target. We were decidedly inelegant.

Neither of us missed the pickled ramps.

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