Monday, November 27, 2006

Christmas Cookies

This year we've decided not to make our usual number of Christmas cookies. We're going to make maybe three or four batches, and leave it at that. In years past we've made up to 150 dozen cookies to share with our friends, family and coworkers. Yes, we are insane. Between the day after Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas our breakfast used to consist of breakfast + a cookie or two. And we still had hundreds to give away.

The tradition was one my husband started years ago when he worked for a fairly small company. He didn't really like his coworkers that much, so he didn't care about attending the annual holiday party. But at the same time, he didn't want to look like the original bad elf. So he would say that he had something else he needed to do at that time (the party was always held right after work on a weekday) and leave a huge tray of cookies for everyone to enjoy.

The selection was pretty run of the mill--oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, chocolate chip. He'd also send a tin of these to his parents (his dad liked the oatmeal raisin, his mom liked the peanut butter and they'd serve the chocolate chip at holiday gatherings).

Then he married me, and things got really out of hand.

I joined in the annual cookie orgy, and with two of us cooking (and a larger kitchen and more storage space) we could make more varieties. We still stuck with the tried-and-trues as our “core” offering, but we added many, many others, choosing a couple of new recipes each year. There were the bar cookies my grandmother called "magic cookies" (no idea why). They're made with German chocolate cake mix, melted caramels, chocolate chips and walnuts. The recipe came out of a package of Kraft caramels, and Kraft refers to them as Favorite Caramel Chocolate Nut Bars (wonder how they thought of that name?). There were sugar cookies, lemon bars, Mexican wedding cakes and orange balls. The selection changed every year, and we'd spend hours choosing and then calculating how many pounds of this or packages of that we were going to need to make them all. On average we'd make at least four batches of each variety, and we'd each make at least four varieties.

One memorable year we had been to visit my family in the Pacific Northwest in the fall, and had bought a huge bag of unshelled hazelnuts. I found a recipe for raspberry bars with a hazelnut shortbread crust, and it seemed like a great idea. It was not. If there's anything more tedious, time consuming and downright dull than shelling 10 pounds of hazelnuts, I'm not sure what it is. The cookies were fantastic (they damned well better have been), but I swore never to make them again because of the work involved. And for those who suggest buying shelled hazelnuts instead, I would say that unless one comes into a significant inheritance, or wins the lottery, this is NOT an option.

One choice that proved to be very popular but sounded just downright weird when I decided to make it was a cookie made with ground up Werther's butterscotch candies. The cookies spread to an incredible degree, and they're not recommended for anyone with extensive dental work about which they actually care, but they're a nice addition to a holiday cookie platter. The candy melts into the cookie dough and makes a very crisp, melty, almost lacy cookie. Broken up it would probably make a fantastic ice cream topping (although if you undercook them they're too chewy to break up, so they'd have to be slightly overdone).

We dismissed such obvious choices as the peanut butter cookies with a Hershey's kiss jammed in the middle of it, or anything with broken up starlight mints. Anything that appeared in a holiday candy or butter ad was right out. They're the kind of thing that anyone can make. We go for the unusual or, in the case of "the usual," the particularly good version.

Truthfully, most of the recipes we use come from pretty mundane sources. But they're really good versions. The oatmeal raisin recipe comes from the canister of oats. The peanut butter recipe is from The Joy of Cooking. The bag of morsels supplies the chocolate chip recipe. We do have two or three cookbooks that have been a source of some good selections over the years. The Rombauers put out a "Joy of Christmas Cookies" that has some good ones in it, and Nancy Baggett's All-American Cookie Book has lots of interesting recipes, along with lots of background information on the history of different types of cookies.

Starting in mid-September we'd start buying non-perishable baking supplies when they were on sale. Flour, sugar (both brown and white), chocolate chips, caramels, peanut butter, raisins. Then starting after Halloween we'd start buying things like margarine and nuts on sale. We never used butter (see unshelled hazelnut comment above), and besides, margarine keeps almost indefinitely (probably because it's one molecule away from plastic--but it makes decent cookies). Then we'd start making dough and freezing it. Chocolate chip, oatmeal and peanut butter dough all freeze exceptionally well. Right after Thanksgiving we'd thaw the dough and start baking off cookies.

We were fortunate (in a strange way) to have a finished but unheated attic. The closed staircase got to a temperature that rivaled the refrigerator for keeping the cookies fresh for several weeks. We'd pack them in tins between layers of waxed paper and put them on the stairs. Every holiday season we'd acquire a few more tins, mostly from gifts sent to our offices. In the end we probably had 25 tins and every year they were all filled to capacity. We also used Ziplock bags for sturdy round cookies that could be packed in rows, like peanut butter.
About a week before Christmas, we'd load up enormous platters (the ones that most people use to hold their 22 pound turkeys) and take them into work. The cookies would stay for about two days, by which time they were almost always gone. There were even people who would email or call me because they weren't going to be in the office on "cookie platter day" and ask me to make them up separate small plates for when they got back. In fact, when I left my last job I got many very distressed emails because my last day was Halloween--no cookies. But, as I said, this year we've come to our senses and besides, we now have four children.

So this year we'll make a few batches for ourselves and our kids and whatever friends or family happen by during the holidays, but the cookie frenzy is over. And I think we'll enjoy our cookies even more without the pressure of having to make dozens and dozens against a deadline. Those cookies were part of what makes the holidays so hectic. Baking cookies should be fun, not mandatory. When things stop being fun, we should stop doing them. Making hundreds of cookies used to be fun, partly to share the pleasure with our friends, and in part to see the looks on people's faces when we walked into the office with those enormous platters, but the thrill is gone. Now we'll enjoy the looks on our children's faces when they taste those Favorite Caramel Chocolate Nut Bars for the first time. I'm sure it'll be just as much fun, and even more rewarding.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Stuff It

At our family Thanksgiving, the general consensus was that it was the stuffing that really makes the meal every year. There was a lone dissenting voice in favor of the sweet potatoes as being the vehicle that carried the essence of the meal and evoked the Thanksgiving feeling. But the stuffing won out by popular vote.

The stuffing my aunt made was pretty close to perfect. I might complain that the onion and celery weren’t chopped finely enough, and that it didn’t have any sausage in it, but it had good flavor, at least. And if I had been making stuffing enough for 15 people, I might have cut some corners in chopping the vegetables too. It was a little mushy and wet, but that had more to do with what part of the stuffing I got—I like to get mine from the casserole that’s cooked with the bird, as opposed to that which is cooked in the bird. That bit of browned crispness on top of it, softened with the gravy, is an experience I look forward to all year. This year I didn’t get it, but since my husband likes to make a separate bird for us as a family, I’ll get it in a few days.

My husband likes Thanksgiving leftovers and misses them when we have the meal at someone else’s house. So on the years when we’re invited out for dinner, he likes to buy a turkey and all the other ingredients and make a second Thanksgiving meal on the Saturday or Sunday of that weekend for us to have all to ourselves. Then we get the bird, stuffing, side dishes, rolls, and dessert exactly as we want them. Oh yes, and we get the leftovers.

I have heard of people eating cold stuffing for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving, and I can’t say I agree with this tendency. I do like stuffing for breakfast the next morning, but reheat mine, please. Oh, and don’t forget the gravy.

When it comes to stuffing recipes, everyone has their own ideas and naturally, I think mine are the right ones. Stuffing made with fresh bread generally disappoints me. Even day old bread doesn’t do it. It has to be dry as dust with every possible hydrogen-and-two-oxygen-molecule wrung from it, preferably by commercial equipment. Fresh bread (or day old fresh bread) is too moist for stuffing. It comes out like a damp sponge with herb seasoning. Corn bread isn’t the right stuff either. Although it’s naturally somewhat dry and crumbly, it doesn’t take well to the seasonings I like in my stuffing, and is therefore right out. I confess that I am perfectly content with Pepperidge Farm bagged stuffing. Add some seasoning and dampen it with some chicken broth and melted butter and holiday satisfaction is just a short turn in a 350 degree oven away.

As to what seasonings are used, I have very strong opinions and won’t budge. No weird stuff, say I. And by weird I mean nuts, dried (or worse, fresh) fruit, wild rice and/or things like oysters. Would you make stuffing out of fruitcake or Uncle Ben’s? Would you put tuna fish in stuffing? Then why would you put dried fruit, nuts, rice or oysters in bread stuffing? I have a friend who maintains that what everyone really wants is mushy bread drowned in gravy. Well, pretty much, yes. But if that was really all I wanted, I could go out and buy a loaf of Wonder bread and a jar of Heinz gravy and have “stuffing.” I want mushy bread with lots of seasoning and some sausage that has some crispy bits drowned in homemade gravy. That’s what I want.

If using the aforementioned Pepperidge Farm bagged stuffing (the blue bag, please), you actually don’t need to add herbs. There are herbs already in the mix and they’re perfect. However, if you want to make the stuffing from scratch (and have dried out your bread sufficiently), then this is one place that dried herbs are superior to fresh. Because the goal is to have the stuffing be as dry as possible before moistening it with the butter and broth, fresh herbs just don’t work texturally, and their flavor is too tentative unless you use whole cups of fresh sage, in which case you’re changing the texture of the stuffing and making it as much herb as bread. You really need the dusty, powerful dried ones (I’ll skip the rant on throwing out spices that are so old they’re turning yellow…we’ve all read it before). Since I always buy the Pepperidge Farm blue bag stuffing, I can’t really dictate what herbs go in there—thyme and sage for sure, but beyond that I can’t really say. I just stick with the bagged stuff and let the food snobs make the most of it.

Other than herbs, stuffing needs both onion and celery. These need to be chopped pretty finely. I’ve had many stuffings in which the onion and celery both were in pretty big chunks (such as that I had this year). Doing this means that the vegetables upstage the stuffing itself—not the idea of these ingredients. It’s hard when making for many people, but it’s really critical to the integrity of the stuffing that the pieces be smallish. I used to be convinced that my father thought that “diced” vegetables meant that the pieces were the size of actual dice.

Beyond butter or chicken broth (or a combination of the two) being used to moisten the stuffing until it just holds together, the other essential ingredient is a little cooked pork sausage. Not much—I used to use lots more, but sausage has an unpleasant effect on my husband, and I realized that it was pretty fatty stuff to be using too generously. But a little bit adds a wonderful savory flavor and a meaty component that works perfectly with the bready stuffing.

Once the ingredients are settled, preparation method is the other controversial topic. Some people insist that the stuffing has to be cooked in the bird. Others (mostly employees of the US Department of Agriculture, I’d imagine) cringe at the very idea, visions of Salmonella dancing in their heads. Although we’ve been being warned against stuffing turkeys for at least 10 years now, people are still doing it. It does add flavor to the stuffing in a way that a casserole in the oven never can, but it can also make the stuffing mushy and pasty. It’s not really possible to avoid it, but I think there needs to be some stuffing cooked in a casserole as well, so that there’s more crispy surface for those of us who want it. Otherwise the only crisp bits are those at the very back of the bird—hardly enough to go around.

We used to have a friend whose mother made something their family called stuffing balls. She’d take prepared stuffing and mold it into balls in her hands (not too firmly compressed—just enough to hold together) and then bake them in a 350 degree oven until hot and crisp. Thanksgiving was always at the mother’s house, and the stuffing balls were an annual tradition. Then came the year that our friend’s mom decided she was too tired to do the full family Thanksgiving at her house (this friend was the youngest of eight children, so his mother was both older and pretty tired by that time).

His sister-in-law offered to have the family to her house. This was nothing short of catastrophe to our friend and his wife—this sister-in-law was already pretty much a family pariah for a number of reasons (some food-related, some not), and had once served a pasta dish that included shrimp in whipped cream. Not shrimp in heavy cream sauce—shrimp in heavy cream that had been whipped (and, if memory serves, also sweetened). My friend and his wife (and all the other siblings and their respective spouses, with the possible exception of the hostess sister-in-law) begged the mother to make stuffing balls. I can’t recall if she did or not, but I remember thinking at the time that I understood perfectly their panic. Stuffing is what Thanksgiving is all about.

Turkey, after all, is pretty much turkey. Oh sure, you can baste it with various things—lemon juice, orange juice, chicken broth—or you can jam herbs under the skin or any of a number of other things, but basically it’s just turkey when you slice it up and serve it. And of course, most people have some version of sweet potatoes along with the meal, but so many people don’t like sweet potatoes that they become less controversial. Those who don’t eat them don’t care what recipe you use. Mini marshmallows? Brown sugar? Apple pie spice? If they’re not going to eat them in the first place, it’s all the same to them what you put in there.

Just about everyone likes stuffing, and just about everyone thinks their stuffing (or their mother’s stuffing, or the stuffing they’ve been eating every year since they were four) is the very best one. And for many people (me included) a Thanksgiving dinner without the “right” stuffing is a just a turkey dinner.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Thanksgiving has snuck up on me this year. In part I think that’s because I’ve been pretty preoccupied with a new baby and three other kids, and in part it’s because I’m not contributing anything to the Thanksgiving meal this year except a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread (which I’ve been instructed to purchase). My cousin, who is having Thanksgiving at her house this year, decreed that any family with a baby younger than one month old was not required to provide anything substantial. I had to beg to be allowed to bring bread.

However, now that I’m fully in the throes of Thanksgiving, I’ve been reading holiday magazines and looking at holiday recipes (it helps to pass the time between feedings). These days I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving, but I remember as a kid feeling that it was a wasted holiday. After all, there were no presents, no candy or costumes, no fireworks, you didn’t even get to stay up until midnight. Thanksgiving was a “talking” holiday.

Talking holidays were the ones where the grownups sat around talking for hours, and us kids were bored because we didn’t care about the conversation, and after awhile we didn’t even want to play with each other. We just wanted to go home and watch TV. Memorial Day and Labor Day were also talking holidays. The only holidays more pointless and less fun than talking holidays were the ones like Washington’s Birthday (as it was then—not President’s Day) and Veteran’s Day—they were only good for a day off from school.

Now that I’m a grown up myself, I find that Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Besides the talking, which I now enjoy, I’ve developed a greater interest in food and Thanksgiving, as we all know, is all about the food. Because of this, I read the aforementioned holiday cooking magazines and cookbooks quite avidly, and I’ve noticed some things that I find tedious or unappealing, or both.

I just read Mark Bittman’s column in the New York Times last week in which he gave a sort of formula for stuffing or dressing. He claimed (rightly) that it was dressing rather than stuffing because he liked it cooked alongside the turkey, rather than in it. He feels that cooking it inside the bird makes it soggy and overly mushy. That happens to be how I like my stuffing, but I also like some of what’s cooked in a casserole with the turkey, so I can get that crisp top and drown it with gravy.

In any event, his “formula” called for bread, fat (he recommended butter), nuts for crunch, and something interesting as an add-in, such as apple, chestnuts, or sausage. Let me say right now that I always use Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix, so I’m sure there are plenty of food professionals out there who would scorn my opinion as that of a philistine. However, I must protest a couple of Mr. Bittman’s suggestions. First, nuts do not belong in stuffing. I don’t care for nut breads, either. The contrast between the very firm crunch of the nut and the mush of the bread is just too much contrast for me. Second, while I heartily agree that sausage is excellent in stuffing, I can’t bear weird ingredients like apple, dried fruit, chestnuts, or oysters. Stuffing is supposed to be savory—keep the dried fruit out of it.

Also in my reading, I’ve come across several suggestions for stuffing not made with bread at all. Often recommended are things like wild rice, bulger, barley, and even quinoa. Any of these might be fine on any other day, but on Thanksgiving bread stuffing is the only way to go. If I were served one of those grain-based stuffings instead of bread stuffing, I’d feel like there was a huge hole in my Thanksgiving holiday.

Another suggestion I’ve read many times is for potatoes other than mashed. This is just wrong. Au gratin potatoes, twice baked potatoes, any of these preparations is, again, fine for a non-holiday meal. But Thanksgiving calls for mashed potatoes. After all, mashed potatoes and gravy is a classic. Who ever heard of au gratin potatoes and gravy? Ick.

And then I must protest the thousands of “new” ways to prepare turkey. I don’t mean the dozens of variations on herbs, rubs, and basting liquids. I mean all the ways they encourage cooking a turkey besides simply roasting it. What’s wrong with roasting it? We’ve been doing that for hundreds of years now, and it’s always worked fine for me.

But no, now we’re urged to deep fry it, or grill it, or smoke it. A friend of mine’s mother-in-law smoked their turkey one year, and my friend said it was the most disgusting thing she’d ever tasted. I can’t say if that’s because the mother-in-law is generally a pretty poor cook, or if smoked whole turkey is just a bad idea. I had deep fried turkey at a wedding one time (don’t ask—I’m not sure why), and it was fine, but boring. It tasted OK, but it was just turkey with deep fried coating on it. I really couldn’t see the point.

The other fad, which seems to show no signs of faltering or fading, is brining a turkey. That is, soaking it in a bath of salt water with some spice in it for a couple of days. Again, the appeal of this eludes me. The same chefs and food writers who scorn commercial turkeys (like Butterball) because they’re injected with salty water are perfectly OK soaking an organic free-range turkey in a similar salt water solution for a day or two before cooking. Seems to me it amounts to the same thing in the end.

I freely admit that I’m a Thanksgiving traditionalist and don’t want to deviate from the familiar. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, a vegetable or two, some rolls and butter, and a little dessert are all I ask for. I don’t require sweet potatoes. I can take them or leave them. And I prefer my turkey roasted, and wish all of those faddish ways of cooking turkey would go away. I guess some people get tired of the same meal year after year, but since it’s 364 days from one Thanksgiving to the next, I actually look forward to the same thing we had last year.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

That's Disgusting! (But I Love It)

Having had this baby, I’m now trying to make an effort to eat a little better. Early on in my pregnancy, I was so sick that the doctor told me that pretty much anything I could get in my stomach and keep there was fine. Then toward the end, I had a kind of a similar problem that turned out to be appendicitis (for which reason the baby was born a month early). Anyway, now that all those problems are behind me, I need to make a move in the right direction and try to start eating a little better.

Because of this (and because other people in our house need to eat), we were at the grocery store the other day. And as I wandered the aisles (as I am apt to do at the grocery store, going up and down and just browsing), I realized that there are lots of foods that I just adore, but that I wouldn’t admit to liking publicly on a bet. (Although isn’t that what I’m doing in this blog? Oh well, so much for winning that bet.)

I bought two boxes of chicken flavored rice-a-roni. I still remember the jingle they had when I was a kid and the stuff was pretty new—“Rice-a-roni: the San Francisco treat/Rice-a-roni: the flavor can’t be beat/One pan, no boiling, cooking ease/A flavor that is sure to please/Rice-a-roni: the San Francisco treat!” Of course you do bring the water in rice-a-roni to a boil, but really, who cares? I suppose in some way it violates the truth in advertising laws, but I’m not a lawyer. I remember making this stuff as a kid and thinking that it took the vermicelli hours to brown, so anxious was I to dig in to a plate of rice cooked in powdered chicken bouillon.

In fact, pretty much anything cooked with excessively fake chicken flavored anything is high on my list of favorites. Chicken flavored Stove Top stuffing comes to mind. Soggy bread with super salty chicken flavoring in it. Yum. Their big push when I was a kid was “Stove Top instead of potatoes.” Even when we started hearing that meat should be more of a flavoring or a condiment than the center of a meal, (and suggesting that meat be a condiment has to be about the most half-assed idea any nutritionist has ever come up with—stupider, even, than suggesting that we eat baby carrots instead of potato chips when we crave “something crunchy”) Stove Top was still plainly in favor of the meat/vegetable/starch meal configuration.

Sometimes the starchy thing is the whole meal. Kraft macaroni and cheese is a lunch. NOT that horrible thing with the packet of Velveeta. The even worse one with the packet of cheese powder that you mix with milk and margarine (don’t waste butter on it) and it makes a “cheese sauce.” I’ve come to realize that the world can be divided into two groups of people: Velveeta packet people, and powder people. Well, technically it can be divided into three groups, with the third group being headed by my aunt, who wouldn’t eat boxed macaroni and cheese if you offered her the contents of Fort Knox, a lifetime of perfect health, and eternal salvation too. But Kraft macaroni and cheese eaters can defend their packet vs. powder positions fairly vehemently, from what I’ve found.

Although I haven’t had it since I was about 12 years old, I’m pretty sure I’d still adore Oscar Mayer bologna on white bread with mayonnaise or mustard. It used to be a staple lunch of mine in elementary school. I think there’s a law that if you put lettuce on that sandwich, it must be iceberg, and you must serve the sandwich with Ruffles potato chips, and Oreos for dessert. Or possibly Chips Ahoy! which are the only chocolate chip cookie I think I’ve ever eaten where the bag tastes better than the contents. The thing about Oscar Mayer bologna is that you have to peel the plasticy ring off the outside before you make the sandwich. God knows what that plasticy ring is—plastic, most likely, since I highly doubt they go to the expense of making Oscar Mayer bologna in actual pork intestines and slicing it up.

Another great lunch is Chef-Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs. When I was a kid I’d also eat the ravioli, but now those don’t appeal, somehow. But the spaghetti and meatballs I can still eat. That supersweet tomato sauce. Those meatballs made of god knows what kind of meat. The noodles that have been in the can so long that they practically dissolve in your mouth. Clearly the people at Chef Boyardee are under the impression that "al dente" is the guy who runs the auto parts shop down the block. Bought two cans of that, too, I’m ashamed to admit.

As we moved around the grocery store, we stopped to get milk, and of course came up against the most tempting, yet embarrassing, display of all: Hostess cakes. It was all I could do to stop myself from grabbing a box of cupcakes AND a box of the new caramel HoHos. Plus now Hostess makes Zingers, which are pretty much just HoHos and cupcakes in a different shape, but which were made by Dolley Madison when I was a kid. They always sponsored the Charlie Brown specials on TV every fall and winter (unless Peter Paul beat them to it). And for years the packages of Zingers had Peanuts characters on them. They’re a little different now that Hostess makes them—something in the texture has changed, probably because what Hostess bought was the rights to the name, not the actual recipe for the cakes. Still, I’d eat a Zinger any day (chocolate or vanilla—I’ve never cared for the strawberry ones with flaked coconut on them).

There are other ghastly foods that come to mind, but many of them have vanished. I used to eat Pepperidge Farm frozen blueberry muffins, but they’ve disappeared. Microwaved for a few seconds, and spread with Fleischman’s margarine (again, no wasting butter on them), they were fantastic. Stouffer’s used to make both a frozen vegetarian lasagna (spinach and shredded carrots), and a broccoli with cheese sauce that came in a plastic bag that you thawed in boiling water. I think they still make the lasagna, but like everything these days, it’s had to be reformulated to go in the microwave, so it tastes different. The broccoli with cheese sauce just disappeared off the face of the earth. For awhile Green Giant made one (and may still, for all I know), but the broccoli was in little pieces—Stouffer’s were big spears—and the cheese sauce was American-y tasting, where Stouffer’s was more of a cheddar flavor.

Of course, all of these things are highly processed, loaded with sodium, fat, sugar and preservatives. And when you come down to it, they’re horrible in comparison to the “real” thing (a Hostess cupcake versus a homemade chocolate cake, or broccoli with homemade cheese sauce), but they’re what I grew up with, so they’re what I love. I like to think my kids won’t have an affinity for that kind of thing when they get older, but I’m sure they will. It’s the nature of American food society. Italians grow up longing for a nice plate of pasta with a fresh tomato sauce, and Americans grow up revering Chef Boyardee.

It’s a sad truth, but one we’re not going to escape any time soon. Until we as a society have a more refined palate, we’re going to have kids growing up thinking Hostess cakes are terrific. And that refined palate is only going to be developed if we have more time to cook and devote to food in general, which seems unlikely at this point. Part of our problem seems to be that as a society we want to appear to be familiar with good food, but we don’t want to take the time to make good food. We’ll spend $175 for two on a really good restaurant meal which we could have made at home for a quarter of the price, and served three more people into the bargain. And it’s not about buying organic this or free range that, it’s about just buying real food instead of cans and jars and things that are halfway made already. I’m as guilty as the next person of giving my kids frozen chicken nuggets, but I also feel guilty doing it.

It also doesn’t help that in this country, it is cheaper to buy a bag of frozen chicken nuggets at Costco than it is to buy frozen chicken tenders (or unfrozen chicken breasts), bread them and fry (or bake) them yourself. When you’re up against that kind of convenience plus the cost savings, it almost seems foolhardy to make chicken nuggets. And the ones from Costco are baked, not fried, and don’t have a whole lot of ingredients that look like nothing more than cancer-causing initials. This drives me crazy, but it’s difficult to justify making chicken nuggets when the alternative doesn’t seem too horrible, at least in the short term.

Clearly, I’m as much of a victim of agribusiness as the rest of the world, I just wish the rest of the world would realize their victimization. I think it’s OK to like the crap as long as you recognize it as crap, and try to reduce your crap intake, improve your palate, and step up to better things. I doubt there will ever be a day when I’ll truly turn up my nose at a Zinger, but I like to think there’ll be a day when I’ll eat the Zinger and know that it’ll be a long, long time before I ever eat another one, and that between Zingers I’ll be eating really good homemade chocolate cake.

Friday, November 03, 2006


First an apology for my long hiatus. I got a new job, and just had a baby, so I was a little preoccupied. But now that I’m on maternity leave for three months, and have very little to do while feeding a new baby but think about food, I’m back.

And today’s topic is the new Joy of Cooking that’s come out. I just read the New York Times review of it, and the reaction was lukewarm at best. Yeah, me too. But I’ve always felt this way about Joy of Cooking. They didn’t have to revise it to make me think differently about it.

Brief history of Joy for those who care: Irma Rombauer evidently put together the first edition in the 1930s as a way of coping with her husband’s suicide. Since then, it’s become a family affair, with her daughter, and grandson getting in on the “family business” as it was expanded and updated. I once read something that compared followers of JOC to wine connoisseurs, with various factions having their favorite “vintages.” Some are devoted to the edition published in the 1940s, others to the updated edition from the 1970s. It was reworked again in 1997, and is now being reissued for a 75th anniversary celebration (along with—ta da!—a line of cooking utensils…more caustic words on that topic another time).

In 1997, the overwhelming reaction from the cookbook world to the overhaul was “This stinks.” Too many things had been removed for the devoted masses (although I kind of wonder just how many of those devoted masses really used the sections on canning and freezing foods). The masses also felt that Mrs. Rombauer’s conversational tone was overwhelmed. The 1975 edition remains the favorite, according to the New York Times article.

That’s the one I believe we have. Correction: that my husband has. I refuse to admit ownership to JOC. It’s on our bookshelf, but if the topic comes up in conversation, I point out that it belongs to my husband, not to me. Better Homes & Gardens? Mine. James Beard anything? Mine. Mastering the Art of French Cooking (vols. I and II). Mine. Fannie Farmer? Mine. Joy? HIS.

Why this prejudice against something so basic? you may ask. Why this choleric attitude toward a mere cookbook? Simple answer: because I find it to be vastly user-unfriendly, and thus resent the iconic status it has in our society above other, more deserving works. It’s the same feeling that celebrity watchers have (I suppose) when an actor or actress who has, to their mind, minimal talent and appeal seems to be grabbing attention away from those more deserving. Maybe to me, Joy of Cooking is the Paris Hilton of cookbooks.

The format of recipes is my primary objection to JOC. Most cookbooks follow a format of listing ingredients at the top of the recipe. They’re generally listed in the order in which they’re used, and described by what needs to be done to them (e.g. 1 cup flour, sifted). Joy uses what I suppose could be perceived as a more conversational format, but I find it very difficult to use. Instead of listing ingredients out, the ingredients are part of the recipe instructions. Thus you get something that resembles this:


1 cup flour, sifted


1 tsp salt

Stir to combine. Then add

1 large egg, lightly beaten and
1 cup cold milk

Stir until mixture is barely combined. Then add

1 tsp finely chopped orange zest…”

I find this maddening. In order to recognize that I need to sift a cup of flour, measure out the salt and milk, have a lightly beaten egg ready to add to the mixture, and prep a teaspoon of orange zest, I have to read through the whole recipe and pick things out. It’s not a recipe, it’s a cookbook version of those word puzzle books you buy in drugstores that have you find words in a jumble of letters.

I’m all for the instruction of reading a recipe through and understanding what needs to be done prior to beginning, but to have to read through it and concentrate once on the ingredients, then read through it again and concentrate once on the order of ingredient combination and equipment, then read through it AGAIN to concentrate on technique seems to me a colossal waste of time.

When I go through a recipe the first time, I’m generally checking for sequence—when this gets added, what things might be combined separately and then added later. Then I run through it and make sure I understand what kinds of bowls, spoons, and cooking equipment I’ll need, and also what I’m doing to the various ingredients. OK so I know I’m separating eggs (two bowls), but are the whites then being beaten stiff and added to a mixture at a later time? Great, hand mixer is ready, etc. I prefer the ingredients all at the top of the recipe so when I see to add the dried sage, it’s not a surprise. Dried sage—yep, knew I needed it.

I really have no beef with Joy’s content. I’m sure it’s just as much a combination of useful basics and slightly out there “differentiator” recipes as any of the other “icon” cookbooks. My issue of Fannie Farmer will tell you how to make basic things like chicken stock or bread, but also offers preparations for pork chops and ground beef that pretend that anyone actually uses it to make dinner for their families. That’s the thing about the icon cookbooks—they would like to believe that people plan meals out of them, but they’re kidding themselves. You turn to them for recipes for white sauce and how long to roast a chicken. You don’t actually use their tuna noodle casserole recipe to make dinner. Evidently this new Joy has a section of “Joy Classics” from the older editions that include something called Shrimp Wiggle, which sounds like a real winner—shrimp in white sauce with peas served over toast. Welcome to 1952. Hurry up and wash your hands, Beaver; supper is ready and it’s Shrimp Wiggle. Gee, Mom.

But Joy’s recipe format is enough to drive me away from it for any use at all (that Shrimp Wiggle thing doesn’t exactly add to the appeal either, I must say). Every Christmas my husband makes peanut butter cookies out of Joy, and I can’t see how he manages it. It’s all choppy—you have to read each recipe 5 times to extract every morsel of information you need. It’s too labor-intensive for me.

So now we have a new version of Joy. I’ll probably flip through it at the bookstore, but you’ll still find the 1975 edition on my bookshelf, and I’ll continue to point out to anyone who might ask that it’s HIS. He brought it to the marriage, and if we should ever part (we won’t), it’ll go with him. Until then I’ll tolerate it on my bookshelf, but I don’t have to like it.