Dec 11, 2009

Sandwiches, Part Two: Jewish Deli Love

When I read Jill's comment below, that I'd hate Jewish deli sandwiches, I realized I had to respond. What I don't like is a WAD of meat. The correct way to make a sandwich, and they do this in a proper Jewish deli, is to slice the meat very thinly and carelessly throw it in the sandwich partly crumpled, which creates a very important ingredient: air.

So, yes, I love Jewish deli sandwiches. In particular, I love Koch's Deli. Years ago, I lived in University City and had to walk six blocks to wash my clothes. One frigid day as I dragged my cart along the icy sidewalks with my tri-weekly laundry load, wondering if I was ever going to finish my dissertation, find true love, get a job, or convince my landlady to let me use her washer, I realized I was hungry. After dropping off my laundry, I wandered next door, where I had seen a deli sign. I opened the door and a blast of home-cured pastrami aroma almost knocked me over. A huge line of happy expectant people--black, white, Asian, young and old--waited for sandwiches from two guys telling jokes while they passed around plates of fresh-cut meats and cheeses. This is it, I thought, this is the happy place. Koch's Deli has been sucking in all the local warmth, good will and optimism. So whenever I did my laundry I would get some artery-clogging sandwich with pastrami, cole slaw, and rye bread. That's also where I learned to crave black and white cookies.

Please click on that link up there, it's just like I remember. Must. Return. To Koch's.

Dec 10, 2009

Sandwich City, and I Don't Mean New York: Argan and Arbol Cafe

You know what Liz Lemon says about Americans, that we are all the same, all of us searching for a great sandwich. She would like Philly, and not just for its cheese steaks. If she ever finds herself walking along 17th St. at lunchtime, she would discover, just a couple of doors south of Bonte with it's insanely delicious sugar waffles, Argan. I got a very fresh,delicious veggie sandwich there last week. The bread had semolina flour and reminded me a little of cornbread. You order your own custom sandwich, and mine had an eggplant spread, roasted green peppers, onions, white beans, and lettuce.

Then two days ago I was walking through Northern Liberties and spotted Arbol Cafe, where I got a Paraguayan sandwich or "lomito" with a fried egg, one slice of ham, one of beef, one of cheese, lettuce, mayo, and tomato on brioche. Juicy and fabulous. I don't like sandwiches with a big old wad of meat. The proportion of meat should be modest. Arbol is run by a married couple, and the husband/sandwichmaker is from Paraguay. It has a corner garden with a grill ("parilla") and it would be a lovely place to linger on a summer evening with a bottle of Chilean wine, watching the neighborhood action. It's on Poplar, very close to North Bowl and Standard Tap.

I don't usually spend my days wandering about the city in search of international sandwiches, but it does seem like it, doesn't it? I'm working on a new writing project that has nothing to do with food, and for inspiration I went to hear Amy Goodman at the Free Library. That was the Moroccan Sandwich Day. Then I interviewed someone about my next project. That was Paraguayan Sandwich Day. Today is the day I realize I should get a job to support the sandwich habit, let alone the writing habit and the April AWP Conference in Denver. Maybe one of today's batch of five query letters will result in a jackpot. Then again, perhaps Liz is hiring a sandwich lady?

Dec 2, 2009

Chocolate and Zucchini (not the blog but the actual foodstuffs)

Pant, pant, pant. Just came in from an hour-long walk in the woods with Zane. That's him panting, not me.

I'm trying to work off some Thanksgiving pounds, due my own rich cooking, for which I abandoned all my principles. I made mashed potatoes with a stick of butter--according to Will, "the best mashed potatoes ever." And stuffing with another stick of butter and chicken livers in addition to the cornbread, sage, and celery. Then I had leftover chicken livers so of course I had to go and make some chicken liver pate. And what do you know, there was a LOT of everything left over since we had only five people for Thanksgiving. I repurposed the pate using a dainty little sorbet scoop and a few sprightly sprigs of Italian parsley for another dinner we had for some friends. There was still quite a bit left. Lordy. Oh and the pumpkin pie, well that had cream and maple syrup and please tell me why I am going on and on?

So anyway for Will's birthday, which always falls on a day, Nov. 30, when one is bursting at the seams and feeling quite penitent, wanted brownies for the in-school treat. Naturally, I had to sample two of the inside brownies when they were still warm and any miscellaneous "crumbs." Then I made him a Chocolate Zucchini Cake for his birthday dinner that I had made in the summer for the town potluck. I never got to actually have any of my own cake that day because it was demolished by all the people who decided to put dessert on their plates before they'd eaten the main course. You know who you are. This time, I didn't make the glaze, just couldn't bring myself to do it. One must draw the line somewhere. The cake recipe is from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. This cake has only whole wheat flour and Will loves it as much as he loved the brownies, with their white flour and ungodly amounts of butter and sugar. You just never know. These kids. His other request for his birthday was mac and cheese. I used Amish smoked cheddar. Insanely delicious.

Gotta go. Lots to do. As you can tell from my syntax. This blog is sporadic. I know. Deal.

Nov 18, 2009

Book Review: 200 Fast and Easy Artisan Breads: No-Knead, One Bowl

I asked for a cookbook to review, received it in the mail the next day, and then I had to review the thing! That means shopping, cooking and then writing. Hence the mysterious gap in my blog posts.

I chose 200 Fast and Easy Artisan Breads, by Judith Fertig. Remember when Mark Bittman published a no-knead bread recipe in the New York Times? It created a sensation, and since then everyone has been falling all over themselves to produce and publish recipes for such a bread, including Jim Lahey, the baker Bittman wrote about.I made his bread, but I gave it to a family who had just had a baby, and never heard how they liked it. Plus I burned my hand because I baked the bread in a Dutch oven and grabbed the handle right after I took it out. Which I totally knew I would do. Anyway, Judith Fertig doesn't have you using a Dutch oven. She has you use a hot pizza stone, onto which you slide the dough via a peel or a cookie sheet.

The basic principle of no-knead bread is that it uses more water in the dough, and needs a longer time to rise. "Fast and easy" is a bit of a misnomer here. Just because you don't have to knead this bread doesn't mean it's particularly easy, but it is fairly simple, and the best part is you can make a dough and bake it later, in two separate batches, even. You just need room in your refrigerator for a big old 16-cup bowl of dough. Get ready to clear most of one shelf.

The part that I find a little nerve-wracking is the moment when the dough goes in the oven. Because the pizza stone is preheated in the oven, you need to transfer the dough quickly. A half cup of cornmeal acts like little ball-bearings, as she says, for this very wet dough. You sort of jerk it onto the pizza stone and it skootches right over onto it. I'm sure you can imagine this confident gesture. I can, too. I just haven't actually summoned up the nerve to do it because, in my pessimism, I imagine it flopping onto the rack and sagging down to the bottom of the stove. O me of little faith! For me, this is the culinary equivalent of skydiving, but it isn't Judith Fertig's fault. Nevertheless, my timidly pushing the blob onto the stone worked fine. And the bread was great. Nice air pockets and blistered crisp crust.

I made the most basic recipe as well as the extra slow version using a "biga." I think she needs about a half cup more water in the biga and a half cup less in the rest of the dough, as I couldn't possibly mix the biga with the amount of water she gave..

She has many more versions, mainly variations on a few simple master recipes. Her recipe format is very consistent and easy to follow. Please don't skip the initial explanations in the beginning of the book. I wish there were pictures of a biga that's ready to use, as her verbal description left a lot to the imagination, and mine deflated and I had to throw out my first one. Fast and easy? Hmmm. After some trial and error. I don't mind, really. That happens when you learn something new, right? It's that objectionable title. And fast? Hmmph. Given that "slow" is a word with some cachet now in the food world, she could just as well have said "Slow, Easy Breads." I'm sure Orwell would be laughing, if he ever bothered with such important domestic topics instead of fretting about little old totalitarianism.

I'm happy to have this resource and will explore the other variations later. I don't object horribly to kneading, either, and will do that when the mood strikes me. It's always helpful to have another trick up one's sleeve, though. This offers a completely different time frame and that's what's helpful. Remember, it's slow. Not fast. Dang these tricky words.

Disclaimer: My payment for this review was the copy of the book.

Nov 2, 2009

The Life and Death of a Seattle House: 700 West Kinnear Place

A woman, a man, and a teenage girl are eating homemade vegan burgers, sitting on floor pillows. The man and the girl,who are guests, pretend to like the burgers. He forces one down, but she hides hers in a napkin, asks to be excused, and flushes it down the toilet. The girl is enraptured by the house; she had murmured "sweet," as she and the man had climbed the steps to the porch, where they could see the Space Needle, most of Seattle's downtown, and even Mt. Rainier. The woman had loved the man in a previous life, and the man is feeling sad about several things. The girl has been recently traumatized by violence and betrayal. The subtext of the scene is rich.

But it's all artifice: The three people are the actors Lili Taylor, Peter Krause, and Lauren Ambrose. And those are the first and possibly last vegan burgers to ever be served in that house, 700 West Kinnear Place. My Uncle Fred was the real homeowner, and his idea of dinner was a steak with pat of butter melted on top.

Uncle Fred had told me back in 2000 that the house had been filmed for an episode of Six Feet Under. Finally, last year I started sporadically watching the series. Because it's the best TV drama I have ever seen, I had almost forgotten about 700 West Kinnear's role. But there it was, turrets looming into Season 2, "Driving Mr. Mossback", its fading yellow paint and brown-trimmed windows a tribute to the last of Queen Anne Hill's shabby gentility, the already lavish Seattle view pumped up needlessly with a telephoto lens.

This was no passing shot of a house in order to establish a sense of place, it was the place itself. It was the house that Nate, Peter Krause's character, had lived in before his father died and he had to help with the family funeral home in Los Angeles. Lili Taylor plays an old flame, Lisa, who remains deeply in love with him. She still keeps his shirt in the closet.

My grandmother's family moved to this house in 1906 from Syracuse, months before Uncle Fred's birth in the only bedroom without a view. The family attended Plymouth Congregational Church, often walking all the way down the hill and back every week. My great grandfather was a banker, full of Protestant rectitude, back in the days when thrift and modesty were virtues. The house was big, but with four children, three of them boys, and maiden Aunt Laura and my great grandmother's mother also living there, it was full. The children walked every day to Queen Anne "grammar school" and then Queen Anne High School, and all of them attended either Oregon Agricultural College or University of Washington, or some combination thereof. Fred grew up to become a lawyer. A stint in the Army during World War II was the only time in his life he did not live at 700 W. Kinnear Place.

The house served as a refuge for my grandmother after she divorced during the Depression and was taking care of my mother, born in 1929. I have many old faded pictures of my mother as a baby in a wicker baby carriage on that airy porch, as a toddler playing with a dog, as a gawky young girl under the apple trees. I visited with my mother and grandmother when I was in high school, then on my own in the mid 1980s, with a friend in 1990, and with my husband in 1998, when we were newly married.

To me, 700 W. Kinnear held the past together, and served as proof of my family's rootedness despite two later generations of military life. The house still ran on the knob and tube electricity rigged up by Uncle Fred and his brothers in the 1920s. Fred didn't drink much or clean out his liquor cabinet often; I found a bottle of some kind of hard liquor that dated from 1918. Quilts my great grandmother made, old radios that had names of Pacific Northwest radio stations on the dial, books owned by three generations shelved companionably together in barrister bookcases; whenever I visited, I inhabited the place, breathed its memories, and made it mine.

In 1998 my husband and I made a special dinner for Fred. It was more gourmet than his buttered steak, involving fresh pasta and gorgonzola. We bought everything, including the wine, at Pike Place Market. At some point during this dinner we offered to renovate the third floor and live there. We would help Fred maintain the place--he was 93 by then and still fixing the roof himself--and John would get a tech job easily in Seattle. I told Fred how much we loved the house and what it meant to me. He wrote me a sweet letter later, saying he thought not. He lived in the house until 2001, when he sold it and moved to a retirement community. The last time I saw Uncle Fred was that year, when he flew East to attend my grandmother's 101st birthday party. At the party he said to me, "I should have agreed to get that house historically certified. Because I sure do hate what this guy is doing to it."

My grandmother died in the spring of 2002, and then Uncle Fred on July 4 of that year. He was an all-American, self-effacing, pragmatic guy, dispensing painfully firm handshakes and bear hugs into his nineties. He was a trial lawyer and a gentleman, a dying breed. When my friend Karen and I were browsing his bookshelves we found a book turned backwards with the spine inside. It was The Joy of Sex. He had been long widowed by that point.

My brother Dan and I flew out for his memorial service, but I stayed longer to get a sense of Seattle as a place that had meant home to me. I wandered up Queen Anne hill to see the house. The windows were boarded up, and a huge semi was parked in Fred's rose garden, which had been unkempt for a year. This was not a house. It was a corpse. I walked under the old apple trees, and saw that his blackberries were ripening on the vine. A clawing grief took hold of me. I pulled myself together and rang the doorbell of a neighbor, who gave me old pictures of the house that she had saved. She said the next owner was moving the house several feet so he could subdivide the part of the yard with the apple trees. She gave me tea and we commiserated together, and celebrated Fred's life.

The house is for sale again, a house made so luxurious that no one can afford it, a house made so huge that no one can fill it. After moving the house, renovating down to the studs and finishing all the raw spaces, then adding a gluttonous new porch and a kitchen no one will cook in, the owner is moving on, perhaps going broke. The attic, with its dusty books and old family things, is now a vast beige space covered in carpet. The once-utilitarian basement, with all Fred's ancient tools, is also covered in this viral beige carpet and "finished." I don't recognize the house any more, its soul surgically removed. Its austerity and restraint are gone, which is what made the view so full of grace.

No one living here will tinker with tools in the basement, fix their own roof, or mow their own lawn. No film companies will impute Bohemianism to this new place. But one thing makes me take heart. Nobody can stop blackberries from growing like weeds in Seattle.

Oct 20, 2009

In Which the Whole Family goes to Distrito in Order to Save on Babysitting

Distrito has been on our list for a while. The "cheapest" (really?) of superstar Jose Garces' restaurants, and the only one with a pink VW convertible you can eat in. So when it looked like yet another birthday was staring me down, we, and by that I mean I, made a reservation for all four of us.

For our birthdays in the past, Mr. Dream Kitchen and I would get a sitter. This time we thought, maybe the boys are ready to appreciate some decent food, and maybe we'll save some bucks? I don't think we did the latter, but the boys loved it, and we all tried a lot of different dishes. My new discovery was pork belly in green mole, the unctuousness of the belly undercut by the sharp green sauce. We ordered a lot of small plates, and our table was also small, so something was bound to end up on the floor. Fortunately it was only a basket of tortillas wrapped in a cloth napkin, and not my perfect grapefruit margarita.

There was a huge TV screen above the landing on the stairs to the second floor, and the boys kept running up to check the Phillies' progress against the Dodgers, which was not so good that one game. We were in our own little area close to the restrooms, which I never like, but it was basically the kids' table, so our isolation was no doubt warranted. The restrooms are disconcerting in that everyone shares the same troughlike sink in the corridor. So no primping with just the gals at Distrito. It seems a shame. Don't women deserve their sanctuary?

We had great soft tacos with marinated skirt steak, and tamales with pulled pork, and flatbreads with forest mushrooms. Everything was wonderful, except I thought the mushroom flatbread had too fungal a taste in about ten percent of the bites I took. The guacamole and the regular fresh salsa were amazing--so complex and warmly spiced. Next time: no pink car and maybe the tasting menu.

Oct 12, 2009

Popcorn, The One True Mennonite Way

Mr. Dream Kitchen's family of origin is Swiss-German Mennonite, going way way back, on both sides. You know those three-way mirrors they have in dressing rooms, and how if you angle the sides close in, and stand a few inches from the center, you can see yourself multiplied an almost infinite number of times? It's like that. There were some Amish too, way back when, and maybe some Amish Mennonite just to add yet more diversity. Thank goodness Mr. Dream Kitchen married Ms. Dream Kitchen to invigorate the gene pool by adding Irish, Scotch-Irish, English, and French. Maybe the next generation will mingle with Italians and Greeks! That would just be crazy.

Anyway, Mr. Dream Kitchen grew up eating popcorn and playing games every Sunday night, as a nice counterpoint to the church ritual in the morning. Occasionally they would watch Disney on TV instead of playing games. I believe that his family is genetically predisposed to not be hungry enough for real food on Sunday nights. And probably that pot roast or ham with scalloped potatoes served after church, along with Jell-O salad and pie, kind of helped as well.

We have carried on this popcorn tradition, without the big Sunday meal earlier in the day. We have waffles, from scratch (of course), sausage, and fruit every Sunday after church. In the evening we augment the popcorn with a big bowl of apple slices. This is the only time we eat in the living room, which is where we watch our Sunday night family movie. So it's a continuation of the (insert 14-letter Swiss-German name here) tradition but revamped.

Now. About the popcorn itself; let's get down to it. It is from Yoder Popcorn in Topeka, Indiana. We either go there ourselves because my inlaws live near there, or we order it. (For the woefully ignorant I must explain that the Yoders are Mennonite. Almost anyone named Yoder has some Mennonite back there in the three-way mirror.) Anyway, Mr. Dream Kitchen prefers Tiny Tender, but the boys like Yoder Yellow. I could go either way. We use Yoder's flavored coconut oil, too. Gasp. Yes, it's fat fat fat, but coconut oil is actually good for you, in small quantities. So you ingest a tablespoon a week, no big deal. And it tastes fabulous. We cook it in a Stir-Crazy, but when it busts, and it will, we're going to return to the old hand-cranked on the stove.

Careful that you don't let the fabulousness of this popcorn tradition blind you to the spiritual message I have for you, my wayward brothers and sisters! Mennonites choose the narrow way when it comes to popcorn, and everyone else should follow and do likewise. When the end times arrive, you don't want to found to be in any of the following compromising positions regarding popcorn:

-Microwaving it (Yes, Yoder sells microwave popcorn, but only to the damned)
-Microwaving it at the office and stinking up the entire floor. It is a noxious stench.
-Using that soulless invention, the air popper. What is the point?
-Buying your popcorn already popped. Please. I'm praying for you.

Oct 9, 2009

Biba on Fire: A Pizza Story

Friday is pizza day at the Dream Kitchen.

Ever since Biba Caggiano's Trattoria Cooking came out in 1992, I have been making my own pizza crust from her recipe. My book got scorched on the gas stove the day I first made pizza for my husband, who was then a nervous date pretending to like zucchini, and I was a nervous hostess setting my cookbook on fire. I think the book got soaked one other time, but maybe that was just Chris Schlesinger's Thrill of the Grill. Strangely, that one hasn't been scorched. And now, apparently, my Trattoria Cooking has been misplaced. I rarely look for these things--it will show up someday and I'll be so happy.

The reason I got this book is I went to "study" aesthetics in Rome for four weeks with the Temple University Rome Program in 1991. I remember sleepily reading Kant on a train for ten minutes, and attending lectures on Bernini while daydreaming about, you guessed it, the next trattoria.

The best pizza I ever had in Italy was on a hasty stop at a respected pizza mecca in Naples, on our way to Capri. We had a train to catch and were bordering on frantic. We got off the train from Rome with our overnight bags, dashed over to this pizza place that started with an M, sat down and ordered. Of course they only had two kinds, margherita and marinara, and the only beverage was a bottle of Coca-Cola. We sat at long tables with lots of loud men, some with gorgeous clothes and others with workers' uniforms.

The walls were blank, except for two things, a recessed shrine to Mary, and a soft-porn picture of some starlet. The pizza margherita was light, crisp, ethereal, with the purest, freshest tomato sauce adorned with basil. Even the cheese was levitating. The Coca-Cola, I'll not call it "Coke," in its wondrous bottle, was bracingly cold and sweet. Then we split for the station, practically running. We made our train.

Now back to my homemade pizza, a completely different genus than the Neopolitan because it's thick and I use a rolling pin and put a whole bunch of stuff on it and five other reasons. Because that was there and then, and this is here and now.

Biba Caggiano's Basic Pizza Dough Recipe (Doubled), Filtered Through Memory Because I Can't Find the Book

I usually put the following ingredients in the bread machine, but you could always knead the dough for about six minutes until the it's soft and pliant. It will take about the same amount of time to rise. But you should proof the yeast in the water for four or five minutes if you're kneading by hand.

3 cups flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
heaping teaspoon salt
1 2/3 tablespoons yeast (actually it would be 2 tablespoons but seems like too much)
1 1/4 cups lukewarm water (I nuke for 30 seconds)

After I push the start button, I set a timer for 7 minutes so I can check it later and make sure it's forming a ball. I often need to add more flour and scrape the sides with a spatula.

When it's ready (about 1 hour and 40 mins. later), I punch it down and take it out. I flatten it by hand at first and then use an oiled French rolling pin. That's the kind that's thick in the middle and narrow on the ends. Then I crush 2 cloves of garlic and put it in my mortar and pestle with a little olive oil and fresh ground pepper. Love to crush stuff in my mortar and pestle. Have no idea whether this is the right thing to do, don't care. It's immensely satisfying. Then I schmear that over the crust with my hands.

Oh, I've preheated my oven to 450 by now. I look in the fridge for provolone, or even cheddar or pepper jack . . . work with me, here, because pizza night is also use-up-the-fresh-veggies and cheese night. Tonight there's quite a bit of sliced provolone in the lunch supplies, also some broccoli rabe from the CSA. I like to caramelize a couple onions ahead of time. Today it will probably be the broccoli rabe, lightly steamed and wrung dry (no soggy pizza!), a finely chopped jalapeno, raw onion in thin rings, and I guess some pepperoni to appease the guys.

I bake it for 14 or 15 minutes.

It's kind of a thick pizza but I need this much to feed us all, and I'm too lazy to make two thinner pizzas. So it's kinda Chicago. I don't preheat the stone, either. Again with the laziness, along with an unwillingness to deal with a peal, or sear my flesh. Plus, it's just great as it is.

Oct 8, 2009

From James Beard's American Cookery: Macaroni and Cheese

"There is absolutely no substitute for the best. Good food cannot be made of inferior ingredients masked with high flavor. It is true thrift to use the best ingredients available and to waste nothing."--James Beard,The Fireside Cookbook, 1949


Oddly enough, my mother never made macaroni and cheese. Once, when I was about twelve, I was over at the Gallaghers' house, another Army family near where we lived, in Worms, Germany. Mrs. Gallagher was cubing orange cheddar to make mac and cheese and I felt the sharpest longing for it. Perhaps, like beer, it was deemed too lowbrow by my mother. So I guess it makes sense that when I salvaged James Beard's American Cookery from her library, I made the macaroni and cheese right away.

This cookbook, published in 1972 by Little, Brown, was bought by my mother when we returned from our three years in Germany. Beard loved food, period, but especially American. He traveled the country in search of its regional foodways. So this book, written before the food renaissance, is a treasure. "American" doesn't mean non-ethnic; he champions Italian-American and other melting-pot "cookery" as well. One quirky thing about the book is that he spells "pasta" with an "e" at the end: "paste." In the "Grains and Pastes" chapter, on page 588, is the quintessential macaroni and cheese. It's the baked kind, with a white sauce. I used this recipe back when I was first pregnant, when I craved cheese in all forms, and I've never looked back. I soon memorized it, which makes cooking it so much easier.

Soon I made it my default go-to recipe for families with new babies. And we have it about once a month, with extra sharp white cheese from the local warehouse store. I always, always double the recipe. I may have even quadrupled it once! It's rich and creamy in the inside, crusty and golden on top. There is no other macaroni and cheese.

Here is the recipe, doubled, with my annotations:

American Cookery's Macaroni and Cheese

1 lb. macaroni (cavatappi is fun here, too, but not classic)
6 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup flour
3 cups milk
2 teaspoons salt (you may not need this much)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
Dash Tabasco (I don't do this, I forgot this was here! Guess I didn't memorize all.)
2 to 3 cups grated Cheddar cheese (don't buy pre-grated, the sharper the better)
Buttered crumbs (I rarely bother)

Boil the macaroni in salted water until just tender. Drain well. Prepare a white sauce--melt the butter in a heavy saucepan, blend with the flour, and cook several minutes over medium heat. (Two minutes maybe; don't let it get past golden) Heat the milk to the boiling point, stir in the flour-butter mixture, and continue stirring till it thickens. add the seasonings and simmer 4 to 5 minutes. Butter a baking dish or casserole (13 x 9). In it arrange alternate layers of macaroni, sauce, and cheese, ending with cheese. Cover the top with buttered crumbs. bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and the sauce is bubbly. Serve at once.

Now that I'm reading the actual recipe, I see that what I memorized is really my own adapted version, which is: Blend the grated cheese in with the thickened white sauce, off the heat (instead of layering). Cover until the macaroni is ready. Drain the macaroni well, return to pot, and add cheese sauce. Mix well and pour into baking dish.

Oct 6, 2009

In Search of the Perfect Cannelloni: A Tribute to Gourmet Magazine

My mother was always a good cook. As for any harried mother of her era, the pressure of having to present dinner every night meant the occasional Spam, canned franks and beans, even TV dinners. (We loved our Swanson's TV dinners and their foil compartments.) Her inner gourmand was latent, ready to spring into action, as she meticulously copied recipes from Gourmet for dishes like Osso Bucco, complex time-consuming labors of love. She had lived in Rome soon after college in the early 1950s, working for a cooking show at a TV station. My mother and the rest of the production staff ate the food after the show was done. After six months she got sick and had to come home, but even the food in the Rome hospital, served by kindly nuns, was a revelation to her.

So my mother, as an Army wife trundling about here and there with her recipe boxes and issues of Gourmet, sought to call forth la dolce vita with her Italian recipes. In restaurants she would often order cannelloni. After a few bites, she would mourn the gap between her memory of feather-light, delicate cannelloni in Italy, and their leaden, soggy American counterparts, which were inevitably drowning in a sea of thick sauce. Not to be daunted, my mother spread her wings beyond Italian to French, inspired by Julia like everyone else. When she became an empty nester, she ventured on to Spanish and Portuguese dishes. She and my father began traveling to both countries, and they would order adventurously off the menu at some small family restaurant or inn wherever they happened to be.

Throughout all of it was Gourmet, its thoughtful, intelligent writing a constant source of inspiration and instruction, its photography celebrating the sensuousness of food and capturing the atmospherics of its rituals. When I was in my twenties, living in Philadelphia with a tiny bit of disposable income ($12,000 to $15,000 before taxes), I borrowed my mother's old issues and copied recipes from them. By hand, of course. Finally my mother gave me a subscription in 1989. I was a graduate student in English at Temple, with even less money than before, but a houseful of roommates and a taste for dinner parties on the cheap. At the time Gourmet ran a feature called Gastronomie sans Argent, French for "cooking without money." That was where I learned about the quiet glory and dignity of beans. Gourmet discontinued the feature, perhaps implying that almost all readers want to hold back on the caviar and truffles.

Every year at Christmas, my mother renewed my subscription. We would compare notes and point out recipes to each other. In 1996, my husband asked me to marry him. (I said "OK" instead of "Yes" and I'll never live that down.) The September issue had a recipe for Dark Chocolate Wedding Cake with Chocolate Orange Ganache and Orange Buttercream, which we found irresistible, and we had our caterer's pastry chef make it. Naturally, the groom and I forgot to eat the cake until it was only a devastated mess of crumbs and icing. And delicious crumbs they were. Someday I will make it myself.

By that time, Epicurious was up, which helped me find and collect even more Gourmet recipes. I started recycling my old "hard" copies, because I could save the recipes in my virtual recipe box. I'm not sentimental about the actual paper, except the September 1996 issue. Gourmet has been there for me no matter whether I needed an eggplant fix, an unusual vegetarian lasagna, or a wildly popular apple cake.

For my mother and me, Gourmet opened up a space for us to celebrate the bounty of this world and to share that with others. Beyond the recipes and travel stories, amazing writers like the late Laurie Colwin and the late David Foster Wallace, and the living Jhumpa Lahiri, to just think of three. And of course the indefatigable Ruth Reichl. She embraces food as memory, but also charts new directions. Under her watch, Gourmet has become political in the best way, covering plant genetics, fair food, and the locavore movement.

More than anything, Gourmet showed us how to live la dolce vita, whether we are rich or poor. With the advent of celebrity chefs, interactive websites and food blogs (ahem), food porn TV, and the professionalization of cooking, real food writing recedes to the background, unable to compete with its flashy new stepsisters.

My mother died suddenly at the age of sixty-nine, a week after learning she had her first grandchild on the way. My father has faithfully renewed my Gourmet subscription for the past ten years. Although my mother never found that perfect cannelloni, she certainly relished the search. May we seek la dolce vita the best we can, with wine and food, laughter and friends, and generosity of spirit. Here's to Gourmet, and life beyond.

Oct 5, 2009

One Day, One Cook, and a Bake Sale

I agreed several weeks ago to bake a few things for my church's Fall Fair, a huge endeavor that attracts hundreds of people and also takes a hundred people to set it up and make it happen. I had never baked for a whole day. Would it be exhausting? Would it be energizing? I had no idea. An intense one-day project seemed appealing. Usually I flit between one and the other activity, trying to keep everyone happy and lots of plates in the air. Except I usually end up keeping everyone up in the air and getting lots of plates dirty.

Here is the list of what I made:
Spiced Sweet Potato Cake with Brown Sugar Icing, cut into quarters. This is one of my favorite autumnal cakes. Sometimes I add toasted pecans but I held off this time, for the sake of nut allergies. I thought it would sell more quickly than a whole cake, especially since sweet potato cake wouldn't seem familiar to many people. Two of my friends bought two of the quarters, having asked me what I made, but I wonder how the other two liked theirs.

One-A-Day Baguette, twice the recipe but made into four loaves. This is an old warhorse of a recipe, very reliable and delicious. They call it a baguette but it's a more chewy texture than that; it also has a longer shelf life. You mustn't stint on the salt. I've been baking this for years and it has never failed. I plan to make a lot more next year, since there was no other bread.

Fresh Gingerbread with Lemon Icing, from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. I made this for a Labor Day party and it was a big hit, deeply flavorful gingerbread contrasting with the bright lemon. My grandmother always made a hot lemon sauce for her gingerbread, not possible for a bake sale. Please note Lawson's words of wisdom on bake sales: Brown things don't sell, unless they're chocolate. That's reason #2 for the lemon icing.

Fudgies, which I called "Peanut Butter Fudgies." These are very sweet no-bake cookies, easy to make. Kids love them. I used to have a recipe for bars with a layer of oats and butter on the bottom, and the chocolate-peanut butter layer on top, but I lost it. So I just looked for anything with oats, peanut butter, and chocolate.

Possibly,I thought I'd make Maine Maple Sugar Pie from Richard Sax's Classic Home Desserts, but no. I needed my remaining energy to clean the kitchen, with its counters covered in flour and towers of dirty dishes.

I felt very accomplished at the end, quite satisfied as I wrapped everything in plastic and put it in the car to deliver in the morning. Until I saw, the next day, one baker's tarts, cakes and cookies presented in adorable patterned cartons, tied with ribbons. Until I saw the dozen pies baked by an 81-year-old lady. Until I spied the three dozen small carrot cakes and cranberry orange cupcakes made by a pastry chef with an out-of-commission left arm. Ahem. Humility crept in. As Hillary Clinton used to say in the early nineties, "It takes a village to make a bake sale." Well, something like that. The village came through, with the baking and the buying, and that's a good thing.

Sep 29, 2009

Mushrooms and Cream, The Musical

Ever since the early 1980s I have relished every moment spent in Kitchen Kapers, on 17th St. in Philly. Yesterday I was in the city to catch dinner and a show with my friend Liz (pseudonym), and so I wandered in there before our 5:30 dinner at Branzino. (Dream Kitchen has been prancing about the city a lot lately!) I like coffee paraphernalia, and they have everything imaginable. I admired some beautiful retro/funky aprons (my birthday's coming up, ahem!), bamboo cutting boards, and glorious displays of Creuset in every size and color.

Just as I was getting into the stride of my lascivious 15-minute intensive browsing expedition, a store employee asked me if I needed help, where I was from, and whether I missed living in the city. Then he proceeded to opine about the state of the Philadelphia schools, and moved on to the problems with the teachers' union in New Jersey and then PANIC set in, as I realized I had not looked at any baking equipment or cookbooks and my time was running out. I hate to be mean or even standoffish to anyone in that mecca. It's like mouthing off to a minister--can't do it. Finally I said, "Well, I need to meet my friend at Branzino, got to go!" Clever of me, wasn't it? In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't have told the man I was "killing time."

Then, on to Branzino. Dramatic pause. . . .Hello, everyone. I have discovered a quiet restaurant. That serves classic but not tired Italian food. I'm going to take my Dad here someday because he will actually be able to hear me. And I will get to hear his hearing aid hearing me, oh well. If he remembers to wear it. It's not one of the new minimal-chic places. It has ornate frescoes on the walls, but very tasteful, exquisite in fact. We had real waiters wearing those adorable waiter costumes, too. They were very attentive without being obtrusive. The guy clearing dishes was even a real Italian, from Italy, not South Philly.

We sat down and sipped our water and Liz Pseudonym showed me her engagement ring. Wait. WHAT? Her fiance is is in his late fifties and has never been married! She's been married but her husband turned magically into a jerk in his early forties! They're both in for a ride! So we hugged, I teared up, and all that girl stuff. I'm still not convinced they're actually going to do this, but . . . nice ring.

Here's what we ordered, splitting everything. I have copied and pasted this from the menu, leaving their charmingly idiosyncratic capitalization intact.

Carpaccio di Filetto

Thinly sliced raw Filet Mignon topped with capers, Sun Dried Tomatoes,Red Onions, Lemon,Arugula and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano

I love each of these things by themselves and together it was a party in my mouth. Footnote: I borrowed that expression from Ruth Reichl. I think.

Insalata Rraci

Belgian Endive salad with Apples,Toasted Walnuts & crumbled Gorgonzola cheese in a Honey and Red Wine Vinaigrette

Pale, but tasty. The bitter endive was a great foil for the sweet apples and rich gorgonzola. We had actually ordered a different salad, but were too apathetic/easy to please/caught up in the complicated subject of middle-aged love to send it back.

Gnocchi al Funghi

Potato dumplings sauteed with Porcini Mushrooms, fresh Peas in a light Mushroom and cream sauce

Oh my word! Rich and full of flavor. I forgot how amazing porcini and cream can be. And the gnocchi--so light and pillowy.

Since it was a BYO, and we hadn't BYOd, we only had water, so our meal was under fifty bucks total, slightly over including tip. Not bad. Branzino. Take an old person there today. Remember, it's not hip or minimal. It's plush and hushed and classic, but without being stale or fussy. For some reason--I don't know how--we managed to pass on the fig gelato. Next time.

Then we went to see Menopause, The Musical. It was funny, not exactly a work of genius, but funny. Not that witty, either, but funny. Lots of physical humor. Much funnier than menopause itself, which I believe was the point. Now someone has come up with Assisted Living: The Musical. Next? Suicide: The Musical? I'm sorry but I don't think those work so well. The first word needs to start with "M." We in the word biz call that "alliteration." Murder, The Musical. There you go.

Sep 28, 2009

Village Whiskey on a Rainy Evening

It had been months since Mr. Dream Kitchen and I had ventured into Center City, just the two of us. He goes there every weekday for work and so the pull is less for him than for me. Plus we have been cutting corners, and paying babysitters is one of the corners. But the boys really miss their babysitter, and I was needing my city fix, so we went on Saturday night.

We visited Village Whiskey, an American bar owned by the prolific (is that the adjective?) Jose Garces (Amada, Tinto, Distrito,Chifa, Mercat a la Planxa). It's next door to Tinto. VW is just a small bar with expertly crafted cocktails and well-made, fresh bar food.

We had to wait a while to get in. We wandered along the 2000 block of Sansom St., one of my favorite blocks in the city. The Rosin Box, a tiny shop selling ballet paraphernalia, has been there for decades, as has Home Sweet Homebrew, with its brewing supplies. And of course there's the Roxy Screening Room, a small independent movie theater that has been showing indie films way before the term indie came about. The feisty little shops on this block, selling their one thing that they believe in, always make me feel optimistic about Philadelphia. But it was also delightful to discover new places like Noble, an eat-local shrine with simple, clean aesthetics. Or the Adrienne Theater, home of Interact Theatre Company. As we walked past the theater, a young hipster (I hate the word "hipster;" I can't believe I used it) remarked to his young hipster (dang!) friends, "You know what I could really go for right now? Nutmeg. About a teaspoonful." I'm still trying to figure that one out.

Next door to Tinto is a shop of crafts and jewelry made from recycled and salvaged goods. My favorite item was a silvery mannequin with a four-bulb light fixture sprouting athletically out of her head. We started to get really hungry and it began to rain lightly so we returned to Village Whiskey and sat at the bar. The bar of the bar, that is, until they found us a little table by the side window.

John had cask-conditioned Victory Hop Devil and I chose an "Aviation"-- which had gin, crème de violette, maraschino, and lemon. Yes, creme de violette. It was a little like drinking perfume and was even slightly lavender in hue, but I knew I had to try it. How can a girl resist purple liqueur? It was a lovely drink although I may never order it again. Just think, if I had ordered an Old Fashioned, with a plate of Cheese Puffs, it would be like a cocktail party at my Nana's house! (And I mention those cocktail parties, along with recipes, in the amazingly funny, poignant memoir I just wrote!! There's my marketing for the day. Know any agents?) The Maraschino cherry at the bottom of my glass was like no other I've ever had. It was dark red not neon red, and tasted divine. I wonder if it was an actual marasca cherry, but then maybe I was in a swoon at that point. All oddness aside, it was a dreamy drink.

I decided to cut a deal with myself: I would get a veggie burger if I could have gelato afterwards at Capogiro. John ordered the hamburger with smoked blue cheese and Oh! My! Was it ever good! I had several bites of it. I generously offered my veggie burger to him but he was less appreciative. What an ingrate. My veggie burger was great, topped with guacamole and pickled cabbage, but I'm a terrible vegetarian if I'm anywhere near a decent hamburger.

We also shared an order of duck fat fries, very decadent. We also ordered a magnificent little bar snack, pickled cipollino onions with white anchovies, along with a little side cup of olive spread. Thin slices of sourdough accompanied this. Such a bright contrast with the burgers, cool and refreshing, even the anchovies. White anchovies are bigger, more like small herring, and they weren't that salty. Really a great complement to the onions.

Mr. Dream Kitchen and I were very cozy in our little corner, especially as it started to rain harder outside. We decided not to look at the dessert menu, since we had planned to hit Capogiro all along, but now we regret that. It's not on the website so now we have no idea what they have. We ambled across the street to Capogiro, where we split a dish with four scoops of gelato:

Bitter Salted Almond
Mexican Coffee
Dulce de Leche

The Bitter Salted Almond was our favorite. We had a while before the train, so we sat there while several groups of teenage girls came and went. (Do they appreciate gelato adequately? I hope so. I ate at Friendly's when I was that age.) I regaled Mr. Dream Kitchen with plots of the short stories in Olive Kitteridge until he begged for mercy. Which you may be doing now, dear reader. Plus, I need to reheat some meatloaf for dinner. Back to reality. Thud.

Sep 22, 2009

Complex is Good

I finished Lorrie Moore's new novel, The Gate at the Stairs. All of yesterday I spent basking in post-novel bliss. No calories! It is a tragicomic work that will take you to a territory you won't regret visiting. It includes an expose of the hollowest sort of political correctness, a admiring sendup of haute cuisine, a poignant view of young love and the disillusionment that follows, a complicated portrait of motherhood, a celebration of female friendship, and an anatomy of grief.

Somehow, like a really good chili that asks you to use chipotles, cocoa, and beer, along with a dozen other ingredients, these disparate elements create something complex, mysterious, and wonderful.


Sep 18, 2009

On Our Table Next Week Fresh from Lancaster County

Every week we get a "shopping list" from our CSA, Lancaster Farm Fresh. Here is what we'll be eating next week, with my comments.

1 bag red beets – certified organic - Farmdale Organics – 3 lb.
OK, this time I'm making Oonie's grated beet salad. She's told me about this before, but I keep forgetting. The recipe is Mark Bittman's. I'm sure I have it somewhere.

1 bunch lacinato kale – certified organic – Farmdale Organics.
This cooks down a lot and is good on pizza with sausage.

1 head napa cabbage – certified organic – Bellview Organics.
Hmmm. Stir fry?

1 bunch white beets – certified organic – Windy Hollow Organics.
MORE beets? Sheesh. All food is a gift. Gift. Gift. Must remember that.

1 red bell pepper – certified organic – Meadow Valley Organics.
Easiest thing to use. Salad, pizza, anything. Wish it was four and not one.

1 bunch tatsoi – certified organic – Hillside Organics.
An Asian green that I used this past week with rice, red peppers, sausage (beef, grass-fed). What can I say, I counteract bitter greens with sausage. It's a political compromise and a great combo.

2 heads red romaine – certified organic – Life Enhancing Acres.
The tips of the leaves are dark red. Pleasantly assertive. Salad, best used right away, although romaine lasts longer than other lettuces.

1 winter squash (mixed variety) – certified organic – Green Acres Organics.
Risotto with sage and parmesan. That's one of my favorite risottos. Or baked with a little maple syrup? Squash bread? This can sit awhile in my onion/potato/squash basket while I cogitate upon its highest purpose.

1 head green broccoli – certified organic – Pleasant Valley Organics.
Finally! Everyone knows what to do with this. I like to steam it in big stalks for the boys and then call it "trees." They boys are getting so they don't need these games anymore, though. But maybe I do.

2 bunches baby bok choy – certified organic – Scarecrow Hill Organics.
Tatsoi and bok choy? These Asian greens do like to stick together. All greens cook down fast and they're all great with a little garlic and tamari. I'm supposed to write an article about Scarecrow Hill, bok choy folks, for the Summer issue of Edible Chesapeake.

1 bag sweet potatoes – certified organic – Busy Bee Acres – 3 lb.
I love sweet potatoes, while others in this household do not share the sentiment. If I want to go decadent, there's an amazing Spiced Sweet Potato Cake with Brown Sugar Icing that is a rich crowd-pleasing way to celebrate the harvest. No one turns that down. I confess I even add a cup of toasted pecans.

1 bag onions – transitional* – Taste of Nature Farm – 2 lb.
Onions are under-appreciated, the Cinderella of the vegetable world. But you can caramelize them, bake them, roast, or grill them. They can be dressed up and taken out, and make you proud.

Fruit Share

12 gala apples – organically grown – Eden Valley Orchard.
We go through four apples a day, so these won't last long.

And tonight? I'm making Cold Sesame Egg Noodles, with with un-CSA scallions and cilantro, just because we're going to a potluck and Sesame Noodles are a fabulously popular, easy dish.

*"Transitional" means the farm is in the process of going organic, but hasn't met the official standards yet.

Sep 16, 2009

Beaten Up Bread

I made Beet Nut Bread, really. But Will thought I said "Beaten Up Bread." I used sunflower seeds instead of nuts because he doesn't appreciate nuts quite yet. (Next I'm going to try grinding them, but he'll probably still notice.) A very good recipe, and the red beet color makes the batter pink, but not the bread once it is baked. Like those glorious purple beans that end up normal green once you cook them. Only not like purple potatoes, which stay purple.

Beets, beets, beets. What are we to do with beets? They are so stubbornly beet-y and if you need to disguise them, the best way indeed is to "beat them up," to bake them into cakes and breads. I've made a very tasty chocolate beet cake called "Secret Chocolate Cake" in Simply in Season. Disguise is simply the best recourse in our family, as the inherent personality of a beet is not appreciated, even by me, I confess. It took decades for me to admit that they repel me in a mild but persistent way, sort of like the color mauve. I've roasted them and all sorts of things, but they're still beets.

Sep 10, 2009

Chocolate Chips and Lorrie Moore

Some people like to throw chocolate chips into everything. Pumpkin bread? Sure. Banana bread? Well, yeah. Pancakes? Shudder. My boys were at a sleepover this past weekend where the dad made pancakes with chocolate chips in the pattern of a smiley face. At a certain point one thinks that one should put the chips away.

And so it is with the fiction of Lorrie Moore, not with chocolate chips, but with jokes and puns. Many of her female characters make puns and crack jokes, really clever ones. I find it a bit tiresome, although I usually like these neurotic women. I've read Self Help, Birds of America, and People Like That Are the Only People Here. (The title story is amazing.) She has a comic genius, rare for a critically acclaimed woman writer.

But her work isn't comic through and through, just studded with bits of it, so you can be lulled into not expecting the darkness that is coming. One day eight years ago, I was lounging about on my easy chair, seven or eight months pregnant, with my toddler playing at my feet, as I read the short story collection Birds of America. The main character in one of the short stories is at an outdoor party, and she picks up a baby to cuddle. She trips over something and the baby lands on a stone wall and dies. I slammed the book shut, sentenced it to rot next to my old college copy of Joseph Fielding, and didn't look at it again for five years.

Now I've started her new book, A Gate at the Stairs, with more than a little intrepidation. I'm less hormonal--well, no, just differently hormonal. But what intrigues me is that she goes really easy on the chocolate chips and engages life more directly, or at least her characters do. The comic edge is definitely still there, but more deeply embedded in the narrator's sensibility. However, according to reviews in Slate and Harper's, something really bad goes down, in the last third of the book. To a small child.

Meanwhile, I have a bag of chocolate chips in the freezer, ready and waiting.

Sep 8, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Zucchini

The weirdest thing happened. For Labor Day festivities, I made Steve Raichlin's Grilled Zucchini Salad from The Barbecue! Bible. (Yes, the exclamation mark is in the title.) I doubled the recipe, which meant it was supposed to serve eight. Yet, after I had cut up the slabs of zucchini which I had grilled so patiently in two batches, it made a measly little heap in my red serving bowl. You know that nesting Pyrex bowl set from the 1950s that goes blue red green yellow? Yellow being the biggest? The Grilled Zucchini Salad filled up about two thirds of that small red bowl. Not only does it shrink with cooking, but then again with chopping the long slices into quarter-inch strips.

At least the salad was zesty, with lemon juice, cumin, paprika, garlic, and mint that Will picked from the garden. A tiny, spunky salad, like Rhea Perlman, only not funny.

Good thing I had another dish to make,the opposite of small and green. Fresh Gingerbread with Lemon Icing, from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess, is luscious and large. I was too lazy to grate fresh ginger, having just slaved away grilling a mountain of zucchini that had so sadly shrunken to a little molehill, so I used two tablespoons of ground ginger and no harm done. Her icing amount is way off, though. I had to make another batch just to cover the gingerbread, let alone give it the nice blanket of icing in the picture. Fie on those food stylists and their manipulations!

I was beginning to feel like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, what with everything shrinking. Fortunately I am not growing mysteriously huger myself, like Alice did. Wait, that's not true. My fallen arches have just in the last couple of months caused my feet to "grow" a bit past what I consider to be an acceptable woman's shoe size. Would that I still wore a dainty size 9. I laugh to think of when I was in high school and coveted a size 6. Now I'm into the dreaded two digits, which is just weird.

You know what else is weird? Even though the zucchini salad was so small, I still have half of it left over. And even though the gingerbread was so big, it's all gone.

Sep 4, 2009

Black Olives, Anchovies, Tomatoes and Wine

The other day I was browsing through chicken recipes in Epicurious, when I realized with a start that I had every ingredient for William Sertl's Chicken Provencal. Brine-cured black olives? Yes. Anchovies? Yes, and not an unopened can but recent leftover ones from a sauce I had made the other day for pork--yes!! What a rim shot this recipe was.

I doubled the recipe, which led to a lot of sauce, but I rummaged around in my cupboard and found some Israeli couscous, which I have a bit of a thing for. So I browned it in a little olive oil and cooked it in water, and voila, there it was in all its glorious chewy-eyeball texture. Everyone liked it. We had leftovers for lunch yesterday, and I boiled up some orzo because the Israeli couscous was gone (because, ahem, I had eaten it). "Hey, this isn't Israeli couscous!" exclaimed Sherlock.

Speaking of Provence, which I was, because Provencal means "of Provence," did you know I spent spring vacations there in eighth and ninth grades? My father was stationed in Germany and we traveled whenever we could. I don't remember olives, anchovies, tomatoes, or wine but I remember sweets, because that's the wavelength I was on at the time. Fragrant, grainy lavender honey and marrons glaces, and creme de marrons. Marrons is French for chestnuts. I never knew, before that vacation, anything about eating chestnuts, except for that Christmas song about roasting them over an open fire. Ever since the American Chestnut blight in late 19th and early twentieth centuries, we don't really have any chestnut trees to speak of. Not a good time for American Chestnuts or Indians.

About the Israeli couscous, it's not that hard to find. It takes longer to cook than the more usual couscous (Gentile couscous?) because there's that browning step and then a twelve-minute cooking time. But worth it.

The boys and I will make the most of this last gasp of summer by taking the train to the city (That would be Philadelphia.) We'll go to the Reading Terminal Market to eat at the Down Home Diner, and make our ritual pilgrimage to Franklin Square for miniature golf among small replicas of Philadelphia landmarks. And the highlight of the day for Jack and Will? A visit to Daddy's cubicle. We think someone has been reading too much Dilbert.

Sep 3, 2009

On Selling Space and Finding It

Hyperbole Alert Status If You Live in Swarthmore: ORANGE. If You Live Elsewhere: YELLOW

It started out innocently enough. My friend asked me to help her publish the elementary school's student directory. I like my friend, in fact that's why she's my friend, and I said, "OK." We agreed that I would sell advertising space, because I don't mind calling strangers and asking them for things. It's a skill I developed long ago in my college summers, when I did telephone surveys about toothpaste, soap, and the Yellow Pages. The Yellow Pages survey was on the computer, ooooh. We all loved that one. Except when I asked someone if they had used the Yellow Pages to find a funeral home in the past 30 days, and she started crying.

So I pictured myself knocking on the doors of the businesses in my little town for a couple of days. Everyone would be so glad of the opportunity to support the community that they would whip out their checkbooks with a smile. Even the little shop that sells stale nuts and coffee, the one that gets like one customer a day. Gee, maybe they should advertise locally! She would love me for presenting such a great idea. I assumed that the local business folk would know what kind of ad they wanted and be perfectly capable of emailing me a PDF, which I would forward to the printer with no problems. My boys would love perambulating about the town with me and would be ever so cute, proof that the local elementary school is stellar, producing fine young civic-minded children! I even thought that people would return my phone calls. But--not necessarily, forget it, occasionally, sometimes, and not so much.

So. I wanted to find a place where I could take out some frustration. And the best place I could think of was Dream Kitchen, a musty old place where no one ever goes any more. Here I am standing in a dark dusty corner of it, and I'm going to scream right here, where no one can hear or see me. Right now. "AAAAAAAAUUUUUGGGGGHHHHH!"

That felt good. Really good. Hmmm, now that I think about it, the advertising job actually isn't that bad after all. It's kind of fun. The realtors are really nice and take out full page ads. One is not afraid to gossip a little! Love them! And the guys who run that solar energy place are cute as hell. Go suck an egg, little nut shop!

Well, thank you Dream Kitchen, this has been great. I'll have to come back. Don't change the locks.