Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Dining Out

I just realized that today is the day after my one year blogging anniversary. How about that.

Over the years, I’ve found it can be very difficult to find companionable dining out partners. I don’t mean dates necessarily, I mean other people with whom you just enjoy eating out. The trickiest setting is usually the office, where your choices are (obviously) limited to your coworkers. Outside-of-work friends who turn out to be dud dining partners can be steered away from full meals to drinks or something, but coworkers you’re sort of stuck with until they go find another job (or you do).

“Bad” dining companions come in all stripes. Some of them just have plain old bad manners. Others just don’t have the same “eating out” philosophy you do. They may like types of food you don’t, or they may want to eat fast food all the time, when you don’t. The things that make them unsuitable run the gamut, but the ultimate outcome is the same: you never want to eat with them again.

In my first job, there were two people who stand out as challenging dining companions. Both were very nice people, but not the sort of people you really wanted to eat out with. One woman you pretty much didn’t want to eat with at all, ever, in or out. She wore the brightest pink lipstick, reapplied endlessly throughout the day, and not wiped off prior to eating. Thus, we’d go out for sandwiches, and after her first bite (and her second and her third), there would be a big ring of hot pink lipstick on the bread where she’d taken a bite out of it. Very not appetizing.

The other woman exercised more control in her make up application, but she was the world’s slowest eater. I think she could have won some kind of prize. We’d go out for lunch, and everyone else would be folding up their napkins and finishing up the last of their chips, and she’d have taken four or five dainty bites from the first half of her sandwich. We were late getting back to the office countless times because of her. You’d think that maybe the rest of us were gobbling our food. I might agree (I’ve been known to eat too fast), but it didn’t matter how many people were in attendance—she was always the last one done, and always by a pretty wide margin.

I used to occasionally travel with a sales rep who was a pretty decent sales person, but had the most atrocious table manners…ever. The guy could not sit down to a meal without getting at least a third of it on his clothing. It was a little like eating with a wolf pack that was devouring a bison, except this guy made a bigger mess. He took bites that were so big they didn’t even fit on the fork. I might be alone in this, but I find it pretty tiresome to consume meal after meal with someone who can’t figure out that the reason he stands up from the table with a significant portion of what he ordered on his suit jacket is because he’s eating like a slovenly pig. A blind slovenly pig.

Of course, dates can be challenging too. I used to date a guy who was a horrible dining companion. If he didn’t pick the restaurant, It Sucked. We went to an Italian restaurant in Old Town Alexandria one time, and he made a point of letting me know that his Diet Coke tasted like it was made with water from the Potomac River, that his entrée was cold, and that he thought the décor looked like something out of an old lady’s bedroom. Shockingly, that restaurant is still there and thriving fifteen years later. I might be a little thin-skinned about this, but when I pick a restaurant and someone repeatedly bashes it, I get a little testy. Really, if you can’t think of something nice to say, just don’t say anything. Suffice to say, that relationship didn’t last very long.

At one point I was part of a playgroup, and the mothers decided to go out to dinner every month or two. It’s almost inevitable that the more people you get eating together, the more chance there is for some kind of clash. At one particular dinner, the problem arose from a situation that I avoid whenever I can—“let’s share.” Two women decided to split one entrée. There was a lengthy debate about what that entrée should be. When the waiter arrived to take our orders, everyone else ordered, and it was down to the “sharers.” They were still debating their two choices, but it had deteriorated into a Chip and Dale routine from a Disney cartoon.

“Well, the butter chicken is fine with me.”
“But only if you’re sure,”
“No really, it’s fine, if it’s OK with you,”
“it’s OK with me, but you mentioned the chicken tikka, and I’m fine with that too,”
“It’s up to you—I’ll eat either,”

And so on, with the waiter growing visibly annoyed and the two women continuing on like this for upwards of five minutes. I’d bet money he spit in their food.

Needless to say, the same sort of debate ensued when the leftovers were to be divided. Who was going to take the leftovers? Did they need a second container so they could split? I won’t even relate the exchange because it was so tedious. I don’t even remember the outcome.

In any dining out situation, one of these two women could be counted on to suggest that we all “order something and share it.” I personally find this idea to be abhorrent. In almost any kind of restaurant, I have something I like and get repeatedly—Indian: Chicken Tikka Masala, Thai: Pad See Ew, Chinese: Beef with Broccoli—and maybe because I never actually went to a proper kindergarten, I don’t like to share. If I have leftovers, they are tomorrow’s lunch. As a result, I often tried to recommend cuisines that are not conducive to sharing: Mexican, Italian, American.

But I think the worst dining-out-with-others experience I ever had wasn’t actually the result of a picky or otherwise challenging coworker, but because of his wife.

I spent a week in Dublin on business many years ago, and my coworker was going to be there for two weeks. The day before I left, his wife flew in so she could spend the second week with him and get a reduced-price vacation. Her first night there, we went out to dinner in a part of town called Temple Bar, which is wall to wall restaurants and bars. Many of the restaurants had their menus posted outside, which was how we concluded we’d pick a place. We wandered along, trying to make a decision on where to eat. The wife assured both of us that she wasn’t picky, and that she’d eat just anything—whatever we wanted was fine with her.

We approached one restaurant and perused the menu. My coworker turned to me and said “What do you think?” I said it looked fine to me. He turned to his wife. She wrinkled her nose and said, “There’s really nothing there that appeals to me.”

So we walked on. As we were leaving the doorway the wife announced, “But I’m not picky—I’ll eat anything. Whatever you guys want is fine with me.”

We came to another place. The coworker and I shrugged at each other to indicate, this looks fine. His wife stepped up to the menu. “I don’t know, “ she said, “Mexican food in Dublin? I’d rather not risk it.” So we moved on, with her again repeating the refrain, “I’m not particular—anything is fine with me.”

After this same series of events occurring three more times, she finally asked a hostess at another restaurant for a recommendation for a good fish place. At last!, I thought, we’ll be able to eat. We had to take a cab to get there, but I felt it was well worth it.

We all ordered, and the meals came out. My coworker asked both me and his wife how our entrees were. I said mine was fine. She made a face and said, “It’s OK, but I kind of prefer a cream sauce to this citrus sauce that’s on it…”

I feel I exercised remarkable self-control. I did not reach across the table and slap her in the face while shouting, “Then why did you not read the menu, since the description of your entrée specifically said it came with a citrus sauce?!?” I wanted to. Oh, I wanted to. But I didn’t.

Thank goodness that was my last night on that trip. I’m not sure she’d have survived if I’d been there one more night.

So you’re probably thinking by now that it’s a wonder I can find anyone I want to eat out with (or perhaps conversely, that I can find anyone who is willing to eat out with me). However, I would like to point out that I’ve just talked about only six people I’ve known over the years. I left out the hundreds of others who are perfectly reasonable people to share a meal with. These are the outliers in this category. As in almost any aspect of life, it’s the exceptions to the rule that usually prove to be the most memorable, either for good reasons or bad. Most of the time I don’t have any issues at all with my dining partners. After all, I’m not picky.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Line

I think I’ve crossed a weird line here. As I type this, my mixer is going full blast in my kitchen, whipping cream into butter. No, I can’t say why.

When you mention that you ground your own turkey tenderloins to make meatballs for your kids, you get a look. When you explain that the “pre-ground” turkey included an ingredient called “seasonings” and that you felt you could add your own salt, if that was what you wanted, they actually nod understandingly. They agree that there’s so much salt in food already that it’s not necessary to buy food with added salt. Yes, you’re Normal after all.

You tell people you make your own bread, and they may ask when you find the time, but in general, they don’t say much. Making bread from scratch (especially for those who have a bread maker—not that I do) is actually fairly common these days. And I live in a part of the country where people don’t think it’s even slightly odd that you make your own bread.

Telling people you like homemade yogurt better than what you can buy in the store elicits a sort of shrug, as if to say “If that’s the way you want to do it.” A few people ask just how it is that you make yogurt, and then shrug again after you’ve explained the process. You’re peculiar, no doubt, but not beyond the pale.

When you say you make English muffins from scratch, you get a slightly more puzzled look. People just don’t know enough about how English muffins are made to understand that it’s not that different from bread baking. They may look at you askance, and dismiss you as some kind of oddity, but they don’t label you outright.

When people find out you make your own mayonnaise, and mayonnaise-based things (such as blue cheese dressing), you get a more peculiar look. Some people even ask “Why do you bother?” and go on to point out that store-bought mayonnaise is readily available (they neglect to recognize that store bought mayonnaise is really disgusting).

But tell people you make your own butter, and that’s the end.

So OK, I’m a freak.

[Note: the butter is now done.]

I read an article in the New York Times about making one’s own butter. It’s really easy—you just overwhip cream. Probably what the Times reporter made was better than mine, because the recipe they gave called for organic heavy cream, and I just used regular heavy cream from the grocery store. It’s been my experience that some organic things—chickens and beef, primarily—really do taste better. Still, mine seems like it’s pretty good (I haven’t yet eaten it on anything—just tasted a tiny bit off the spatula; I can’t bring myself to just eat butter).

This isn’t the first time I’ve been involved in butter-making, but in the past it’s been at Thanksgiving. Every year my family gets together for Thanksgiving, and the kids make butter. They put heavy cream into a plastic jug of some kind and shake it until it becomes butter. The butter is then served on the rolls with dinner. I think someone devised this idea years ago as a way of occupying the kids until the meal was ready. It actually works pretty well (by which I mean both as a butter-making technique, and as a diversionary tactic to keep the kids from driving all of the adults stark raving insane before dinner is served).

Today I happened to notice a quart of whipping cream in my refrigerator. And something possessed me and I decided to make butter.

The article suggested using a stand mixer. I have one, so I used it. They also said to be sure to create a sort of splatter guard out of plastic wrap to prevent…well, splattering. So I did that too. I poured two cups of cream into my mixer, hit the on switch and away we went.

At first, of course, what I wound up with was whipped cream. Then I wound up with cream that had been overwhipped, but still looked like nothing more than kind of flat whipped cream. And the plastic wrap shield seemed largely unnecessary. I stood there with my forehead resting on the motor housing, watching what happened. About five minutes later, all the fats came out of solution, the stuff that wasn’t fat was thrown up against the plastic wrap, and what I had was a very watery bowl of something that looked like faintly yellow cottage cheese. Bingo.

As instructed, I poured it into a colander over a bowl. I reserved the buttermilk (I’m betting that stuff makes the best pancakes you ever had), and rinsed the butter under running water, pressing it into a mass. I continued rinsing (feeling like a character in a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel) for a couple of minutes, then turned it into a bowl for salting. The “recipe” said that sea salt could be added if salted butter was desired. Since I have some really nice French sea salt I bought my husband as a stocking stuffer one year, and I like my butter salted, I decided to use that. I smushed the butter around to mix in the salt, stretched out a piece of plastic wrap on the counter, wrapped up the butter and tucked it into the refrigerator.

In case you’re wondering, two cups of heavy cream (one pint) makes, by my guesstimate, about a quarter of a pound of butter. I have no idea if it’s cheaper to make butter than to buy it. I suspect probably not, especially if you’re planning to make it with any kind of super-fresh organic type of milk. There is a place in my neighborhood that advertises that they sell raw milk. I’m not sure I’m brave enough for that (I have this fear of weird cow diseases that are found in unpasteurized milk), but I might see if they have any really high-quality organic heavy cream and see what kind of results that yields. I might even do a taste test of the butter made with the organic versus the grocery store cream.

Let me hasten to say that it’s not necessarily a done deal that I will be making my own butter from scratch from here on out. Unlike store-bought mayonnaise, store bought butter is just fine for most things. Perhaps for eating plain on bread I might occasionally whip up a batch (no pun intended), or if I was making something like Hollandaise sauce, in which the butter really was a superstar, then I might consider it. For day to day baking and eating, however, I’m not sure homemade butter is going to offer the same payoff as homemade mayonnaise. I don’t want to promise anything, but at this point in time, I don’t foresee butter-making as one of my regular chores around the house.

But now what’s next for freakish me? What, you say, will you make next? Will your next posting be about the chickens you’ve bought, or the wheat you’re growing in window boxes? Well, no. in the first place, I have no place to keep chickens (and in the second place, the farm supply store near me only sells chicks the Spring anyway, so there). I suspect my next foray into the realm of “Making Stuff Everyone Else Just Buys at the Store” will involve ricotta cheese. I understand that homemade ricotta is a cinch to make, and tastes about ten times better than anything you can get at the store, so perhaps that’s my next effort. I’ve also always wanted to try making my own pork sausage. Either way, I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In Praise of Mayonnaise

I made some mayonnaise the other day. Yay me. I haven’t used store-bought mayonnaise in a couple of years now because I think the homemade just tastes so much better. I use mayonnaise fairly infrequently anyway, so when I do use it, I want it to be good. Also, the store-bought kind is so often made with soybean oil, and loaded with sugar. I make mine with canola oil, and no sugar, of course. People who’ve only had purchased mayonnaise find the real thing to be dramatically different, almost to the point where some people don’t like it because they don’t really understand what mayonnaise is supposed to be.

Since I’ve been perfecting my mayonnaise making technique for about three years now, I kind of feel like I’ve got the formula down, so it always interests me to read other people’s descriptions of how to make it. I’ve discovered what I like, and I know what I don’t, so when I read how other people make it, I know immediately if I’d like their version or not, based on the ingredients they recommend. I just saw another blurb in praise of homemade versus store-bought the other day in a book I have, so I thought I would walk through their recommendations/recipe (it’s a pretty typical formulation).

Well, first of all, I always use pasteurized eggs. I’m funny that way. Salmonella just bothers me, I can’t quite put my finger on why. However, the authors did say that their mayonnaise making days were back in the 1970s, before the Salmonella problems became national news.

Beyond that, there’s always a sort of quiet debate between using a whole egg versus using an egg yolk only. No one ever comes out and says that using one or the other is better, but they specify “I use an egg” or “I use the yolk of one egg.” Personally I always use a whole egg because I don’t notice any difference between the taste of that made with a whole egg as compared with that using only a yolk, and I don’t want to throw away the egg white, but neither do I want to do something like freeze them.

Interestingly mustard is one of the primary ingredients in mayonnaise. A condiment made with a condiment, if you will. Most recipes call for dry mustard. I find dry mustard to be too strong and too bitter for my taste. What I have found that I like is Dijon mustard, and preferably Grey Poupon. I’ve tried other brands, and there was something lacking in them. Grey Poupon has just the right amount of vinegar and garlic, which adds an interesting subtle undertone to the finished mayonnaise. I use between two teaspoons and a tablespoon. I’m not very specific, so sometimes my mayonnaise is a little more mustardy, and sometimes a little less so.

Acidic Component
Most recipes call for white vinegar in mayonnaise. A few call for lemon juice, and lots specify either/or. I feel that vinegar is too harsh in general. If I use enough to add real flavor to the end product, there’s too much bite too it. Through trial and error I discovered that I really just prefer lemon juice straight. I also now like lemon juice as an acid in every instance—in a vinaigrette for example. The juice of one lemon is about the right amount for a single batch, although if it’s a very large lemon, the juice of one half would probably suffice.

Salt & Pepper
I like quite a bit of salt in my mayonnaise, but the nice thing about making it from scratch is that if you don’t like it salty, you don’t have to make it salty. I use white pepper, and just a dash of it, but again, since I’m making it myself, it’s flexible.

This is usually the biggest debate. What kind of oil do you use? Most recipes I read call for olive oil, which I think is interesting because olive oil is just too strong for mayonnaise. The olive flavor overpowers the eggy flavor and the subtleties that the mustard adds. A few recipes I’ve read do call for some kind of neutral oil—peanut, corn, canola. I myself use canola oil for several reasons. First it's sufficiently flavorless, and lets the other ingredients shine through. Second, it’s not terribly expensive (peanut oil is quite pricey). And lastly, canola is supposed to be the best (after olive oil) for one’s health. Mayonnaise in general isn’t really all that great for you, since it’s pretty much categorized as a “fat,” but using a better quality of oil makes it at least a healthy fat.

Some people prefer to beat everything by hand. Some prefer to use a food processor, or blender. I’ve also read of people using a stick blender, or a stand or hand mixer. I read an interesting theory that using something like a stick blender or food processor makes olive oil taste bitter. I’ve never experienced that, but then as I say, I don’t use olive oil anyway. I myself prefer the blender method. In my experience, it's the least likely to break. I have made it by hand with a whisk and a bowl, but I haven't been able to get it thick enough to suit me without using about twice as much oil as the recipe calls for. The blender gets it to almost the perfect consistency, which is finalized when it’s chilled.

Of course everyone insists that the oil be added in the tiniest drizzle until the mixture is emulsified. If you don’t, they warn, the mixture will break and it’ll take a rather pesky set of steps to rectify the situation. On more than one instance, I've had the mixture break toward the end of the addition of the oil, rather than toward the beginning. I suppose it’s possible that I’ve set the stage for said breakage early on in the process, and I just don’t actually see the results until the end. At any rate, I tend to be very careful all the way through, and never assume I’m out of the woods until I actually turn off the motor of the blender.

I also once read the suggestion to add one quarter of the oil to the egg-lemon juice-mustard mixture at the beginning of the recipe, blend it for a couple of seconds, and then drizzle in the remaining oil. I've always had good luck doing this, so I do it.

Once it’s done I scoop it into a plastic container and let it cool for a few hours and then it’s ready to use. Some recipes (including the one I was just reading), say to add the lemon juice or vinegar at the end, but I’ve always added it at the beginning to make sure it was really well mixed in, and also to avoid thinning down the finished product.

I use it on sandwiches (on the rare occasions on which I make sandwiches), or in cole slaw dressing. Lately I’ve been using it to make the most fantastic blue cheese dressing ever. It calls for mayonnaise, buttermilk, blue cheese, and chives (plus some other things like salt, pepper and a little white vinegar). It was intended as a dip for buffalo chicken strips, but we’ve started using it as a regular salad dressing because it’s outstanding. It came out of one of Sara Foster’s cookbooks, and it’s really a hit. I’ve never been much of a fan of blue cheese dressing, but this one is really quite good.

So there you have my thoughts on mayonnaise. For those who like mayonnaise, I highly recommend making a batch to see what the real thing tastes like. I myself was quite surprised when I realized how good and how easy it was, and just how bad the store bought product is. It takes a little while, and if I’m making something like cole slaw or chicken salad, it makes the recipe take even longer, but I find it’s time well spent. The finished recipe tastes fresher, and more homemade with real mayonnaise in it.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

More Yucky Food

I was reminded of some more gross foods I’ve come in contact with over the years. They range from mildly disgusting to I-almost-threw-up. I thought I would record them for posterity.

Jello Pretzel Salad
When I was working my first job, my department had a pot luck lunch. The woman who was my manager at the time brought in something that may have had another name, but which I and a friend who worked in the same department have referred to over the years as “Jello Pretzel Salad.” I’ve since learned that this is not as uncommon a recipe as one might think (or hope) after reading it.

Mr. Salty Pretzel Sticks are crushed to a crumb consistency, then mixed with melted butter and sugar, and pressed into a 9” x 13” casserole. Poured over this is strawberry (I guess) Jello that has had a couple of cups of sliced strawberries stirred into it. The whole nasty mess is allowed to gel, then Cool Whip is spread over the top of it, for a final insult to the taste buds.

The woman who brought this couldn’t figure out why no one wanted to eat it.

Actually, only one person did eat it, and to this day my friend and I maintain the guy was just sucking up, because he also worked for her. He ranted on about how wonderful it was, and ate two or three helpings. No one else would touch it.

All the Food at My Husband’s Cousin’s Wedding
In August of 1997, my husband and I drove to Hickory, NC for the wedding of one of his cousins. This wedding was catered (I use the term loosely) but was also a pot luck of sorts. I don’t know what kind of lax standards the Catawba County Department of Health has, but they must be nearly nonexistent, or not well enforced, if this particular caterer was allowed to stay in business.

In the first place, most of the food came from Costco and was just kind of assembled. Mercifully, I don’t remember everything that was served, but the abomination that stands out most prominently is a pan of L’il Smokies that were in some kind of commercially made barbeque sauce. What I do recall about the food was that I refused to eat much of anything because every single thing was swarming with flies. Big fat black flies. Nothing was under any kind of cover, and it was all kept minimally warm at best with a couple of halfhearted cans of Sterno.

On the potluck side, someone had felt the need to contribute wedding symbol-shaped chocolates. Thus it was that there were chocolate bells, doves, and garters or something like that. My sister-in-law and I both passed these by on the buffet table as being nothing we had any interest in. The flies, as I recall, weren’t terribly interested in these either. However, half way through the “meal” our mother-in-law came up to us and declared us to be “neglectful daughters-in-law.” Puzzled, we asked what she was talking about. From behind her back she produced a paper plate with half a dozen of these chocolates on it.

“Because there was chocolate, and you girls didn’t tell me!” she declared.

There was, we knew, no way around it. We were going to have to eat one of these things. We knew just what they were going to be like, and they were.

There is available at stores like Michael’s and Total Crafts a product that is intended for candy making. They sell bags of little “chocolate” disks in varying colors that are then melted down and poured into molds and allowed to harden. However, next to these bags are jars of various extracts that are intended to be used to give these disks their flavor. Somehow people who make candy always overlook the bottles of extracts. This was not my first experience with these melted, re-formed bits of plastic nothing. For reasons that escape me completely, people who make this sort of candy cannot be convinced that the little disks have no flavor on their own, and require the addition of an extract of one kind or another. If you tactfully point out to them that their “candy” tastes like melted plastic, they will insist that you have no taste buds, and that anyone with half a tongue can tell that the brown ones taste like chocolate, the pink ones like strawberry (or peppermint, depending on the individual to whom you are speaking), and so on. They simply cannot be swayed on this point. I have tried.

So my sister-in-law and I each unwillingly ate a tasteless piece of brown resin. To this day we laugh about the experience.

And to heap insult on injury, it was a BYOB wedding. Actually, I stand corrected. They provided a keg of Icehouse beer. Wow, thanks.

P.S. the cousin and the woman he married got divorced two years later.

Canned White Potatoes
In about the same era as the Jello Pretzel Salad Pot Luck Lunch, I was invited along with my then-boyfriend (whom I did not marry), to dinner at a coworker’s house. She and her husband lived in what was actually a very cute row house on Capitol Hill. The dinner, while more edible than most of the gross food I’ve described, included some kind of meat (I no longer recall what), asparagus (which I put in my mouth and chewed up just to be polite, but did not enjoy), and canned white potatoes.

I found this both disgusting and curious. For one thing, I would never serve canned anything to a guest. For another thing, they went and bought the asparagus fresh, so why could they not have found some fresh potatoes to go along with the meal? I have never been able to figure this out, but I have always considered those canned white potatoes to be among the most disgusting foods I’ve ever eaten.

Almost All the Food Ever Served at Parties Thrown by College Friends
Really this pertains to the period of time right after we got out of college. Many of those friends are now fairly accomplished cooks and can provide pretty decent food, when called on. On the other hand, some are not.

In the early 90s, they were often found serving such delicacies as frozen meatballs cooked in grape jelly and chili sauce. Or appetizers that they bought at Costco and defrosted. Or cheese platters from Giant Food. Or sausage balls made with Bisquick (OK, I admit it—I actually love these).

In fact, the only party food that stands out as memorable and good is what was served every year by a friend who threw an annual Chinese New Year party. She actually made real Chinese food, like dumplings and noodles, and had everyone over for an authentic Chinese New Year meal, complete with fortune cookies (which she bought). The year she finally stopped having these parties, we were all extremely sad. However, I understand why she stopped—she spent days, possibly even weeks, prior to that party making all the food from scratch. It was hard work, and she did a fantastic job. But I can’t blame her for stopping.

The Very Worst Thing I Have Ever “Eaten”
I put eaten in quotes here, because I didn’t actually get this into my stomach. Many years ago I was forced to spend the night in the hospital for observation. (I’m fine now, thanks for asking.) It also happened that this was the Sunday to Monday of Memorial Day weekend. Hospitals are not known for their quality food under the best of circumstances. The food gets even worse on the weekends, when the regular staff is off. It deteriorates even further on the third day of a holiday weekend (or so I’m told). I can only believe this, based on my experience.

I was served for breakfast that Monday morning a product known as a French Toast Stick. I believe at one time Burger King sold these. But, as I recall, the ones at Burger King were edible. I hesitated, but being hungry, I went ahead and tried to eat one of these things. I think I might have chewed it five times before insisting that my husband (who had thankfully arrived a few minutes earlier) hand me the wastebasket, because I was going to be very sick. Well, I wasn’t actually sick, but I certainly didn’t let that French toast stick linger in my mouth for any length of time.

Since then I have eaten hospital food that was edible, but I have never eaten French toast, and I don’t believe I ever will be able to again.

I’m sure there are other gross things I’ve eaten over the years, and doubtless there will be more. The parade of gross food never ends, although mercifully, it seems to have slowed somewhat.

Red Flag

The 4th of July is over, and I didn’t get anywhere near a sheet cake decorated with strawberries and blueberries. Not in real life, at least. I have, however, seen two emails, one magazine article, and countless magazine ads that feature the atrocious and much-despised “Flag Cake” that rears its ugly head this time each year. All of them, of course, present this idea as new and clever. Some of them have even taken the red, white, and blue dessert concept a step further. Hooray!

Why must we have a flag-shaped dessert at Fourth of July? I don’t see anyone making pilgrim- or turkey-shaped cakes at Thanksgiving. You get a basic, round pumpkin or pecan pie. Why can’t we just have a simple round pie or cake for Fourth of July, too? Why, for that matter, do we have to have a red, white and blue dessert to show our patriotism? Why does this cake now seem to embody everything that America stands for?

I’m sure the first time I saw this idea, maybe a hundred and ten years ago, it was cute. A sheet cake decorated with white frosting (or Cool Whip, which as a product is a total abomination and should be banned, but that’s another story), cut strawberries for stripes and a blueberry “star field.” My husband had some college friends who always threw a 4th of July cookout, and inevitably at least two of these little charmers would show up. This was at least 10 years ago.

I feel now that, as a nation, we should be “over” the flag cake, but every year someone at Jello or Kraft Foods or Better Homes & Gardens magazine trots out this stale idea and offers it up as an adorable and patriotic addition to your holiday meal (which, if they would have it, would be a cookout. NOOOOO!!!!!!!!!). Martha Stewart always feels the need to provide something red, white, and blue, but her folks have moved upscale to panna cotta and red currants. I even saw a recommendation from Ina Garten for a Memorial Day menu that included one of these cakes. Hers was a little more elaborate than Cool Whip smeared on a box yellow cake with cut strawberries and some blueberries decoratively arranged on top, but it was still a sheet cake decorated like a flag.

A friend sent me a link to a newspaper food section article in which the author confessed that those flag cakes always “tempted” her, but that she wasn’t “the decorating type.” I can’t say that I would really describe slathering a cake with frosting or whipped cream and pushing a few berries down into it in lines as “decorating” exactly. Even “garnishing” is a bit too elaborate a concept for that. This woman’s solution was to make a cake which, if the picture is any indication, looks not unlike a bundt cake covered with cream gravy. Now there’s a delightful change.

And now, as I mentioned, the various food manufacturers have made advances in the red, white, and blue dessert arena. Feeling that we might as an audience be tired of the flag cake after 15 years or so, they’ve added to their repertoire by creating other red, white, and blue desserts. Gee, thanks! The one I noticed involved blue Jello, blueberries, red Jello, and (no doubt) Cool Whip.

On the 4th of July (or really, on every holiday) I want something that reminds me of the Norman Rockwell world we don’t live in. Something that makes us think of the childhood we never had. Oh I know nostalgia for something that never existed is sappy and Hallmark, but really, don’t we all want to feel like we grew up in Mayberry with parents like Jane Wyatt and Robert Young? Well, OK, maybe everybody doesn’t, but I do. And I’d kind of like my kids to. I grew up in the city as an only child. I longed for the kind of life that the Brady Bunch had, or Beaver Cleaver. I admit I’m hopelessly sentimental and even goopy, and food contributes to that for me. I can’t think of anything more truly American than a good cherry pie with a scoop of ice cream on it. I know that even though I live in a surprisingly close community (for a place with 20,000 people, my town feels fairly small), my kids will never have the freedom of Mayfield. But I like the idea of giving my friends and family things to eat that make them say “You made it? I haven’t had that made from scratch since I was a kid!”

Maybe part of this comes from my own upbringing, in which nothing was ever made from scratch, including my birthday cakes. They always came from a bakery. A very nice bakery, to be sure, but a bakery. Dinners were packaged this or canned that. When Lipton first introduced Noodles & Sauce, my father went nuts; dinner every night for weeks was some flavor of Lipton Noodles & Sauce with some kind of “meat”—chicken, tuna, ground beef. I want my children to know what a homemade birthday cake tastes like. I want them to understand that “sauce” is not made from flavored powder with milk and butter added. I want them to think that dessert on the 4th of July means something made out of fruit that’s only available in the summertime, possibly with a scoop of cool ice cream on top of it. Most of all I want them never to know what a flag cake is.