Original flame photo by Timothy Rose

A few years ago, I had to take a class that was supposed to be about graphic design, but instead focused on the moral superiority of mindful of food preparation.

Ah. Art school.

Fifteen minutes into the first six-hour class, I had heard more yammering about the meditative benefit of chopping each herb leaf thoughtfully than any parent of two should be required to endure.

Almost reflexively, I heard myself joining the conversation, “That sounds lovely, but if my microwave broke, I would cry.”


Everyone stared as I shifted uncomfortably in my folding chair.

I wasn’t kidding, though. That was the year of chicken nuggets–the only protein my pre-school kids would consume at the time. Who has time to thaw and bake those suckers for 30 minutes when the kids are already melting down? If I could stop the crying in four minutes flat, I was going to do so. Much as I love food, sometimes life dictates that meals be reduced to emergency fuel injections.

Art school + childrearing = nugget photographs.
Art school + childrearing = nugget photographs. Note: Despite evidence to the contrary, the nugget of choice was Trader Joe’s drummette-shaped breaded chicken patties.

I can guarantee that the people who coined the phrase “slow food movement,” never stopped by my house in the late afternoon. It’s not only my kids who melt down, either. Just ask the college friend who traveled with me for seven weeks one summer. After a few days with me, she started shoveling snacks my way every 40 minutes–no doubt for her own self-preservation. Let’s face it, at 5:30 pm, the only coherent thought I’m capable of forming is: GOOD GOD, LET’S GET SOME FOOD ON THE TABLE, PEOPLE.

Somehow, all of my antagonistic feelings about hippy-dippy, artisanal, homegrown, hand-ground, infinitesimally slow food items have been channeled toward Mollie Katzen and her cavalcade of Moosewood cookbooks.

I blame this on the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, a recipe I tackled once fifteen years ago. Imagine a vegetarian version of Midwestern hot dish with broccoli stems poked in like trees. Bland. Floppy. Nothing forest-y about that hot mess, and no tater tots or Durkee fried onions to offset the disappointment.

I suppose there are many reasons why I should love the Moosewood cookbook, I just can’t think of any at the moment. I do know what I don’t like, however:

There is an ungodly amount of cheese in there. All kinds. Especially cottage cheese, which is foul.

There are no photos, and I know why. Hippie food is ugly.

Stupid, stupid 63 ingredients in every dish. I blame Mollie for the jar of asafetida that sits in my spice cupboard. Does everything need to be so darn complicated? Each recipe takes a million years. Maybe y’all plan your meals a year in advance. Not me. News flash: at 5:30, I will not be soaking anything overnight, nor will I be driving from co-op to co-op looking for dried mint and a half an ounce of tree ears.

What the *()$%! is Noodle Kugel, besides grounds for divorce? Who puts noodles in dessert?

And what about Scheherazade Casserole? Is the cook slain after serving it, or is she saved by reading aloud the long-winded recipes?

Which reminds me, it is exceedingly wordy.

For example, here's how to make fruit salad.
For example, here’s how to make fruit salad.

We played a little game the other night. Whoever was “it” would choose a particularly odd recipe, and everyone else would try to guess the ingredients. FYI: when all else fails, try “cheese” or “seeds” or “more cheese” or “raw bulgur.”

Here’s the main problem, though. It looks like a cookbook for nice people.

Little swirly things nestled between sections, sketchy drawings of seraphim and urns and trellises and lots of leaves that prefer to be carefully, thoughtfully, individually chopped.

And there is that cloying, lovingly handmade font. Given the date of publication, maybe the whole thing was hand-lettered, and I should probably be impressed. But to me, it is the visual equivalent of bad potpourri. A culinary bed and breakfast with stiff, frilly pillowcases…plus an annoying hausfrau who will not stop nattering on.

I’m sure there is lots of useful information and some tasty recipes buried in there somewhere. When my kids go off to college, I’ll take that thing down and read it cover to cover. In the meantime, though…I hear there is a website entitled: WTF should I make for dinner? Now that might fit better with our current lifestyle.

p.s. Sorry, mom. I will admit the shepherd’s pie was fairly tasty.


I know it’s not Pearl Harbor Day, but I’m thinking about my mom anyway

I stole this photo. As far as I know, no photograph exists to accompany this story.
I stole this photo from http://www.plasticsoldiers.webs.com/.  They didn’t even put up a fight.

I try to be a nice person. I certainly want to be one. Unfortunately, I’m starting to believe I might not be genetically wired for punctuality and thoughtfulness. If I have missed your birthday, it’s not because I don’t care about you; I just plain forgot. Like my brothers, whose birthdays are lost somewhere in the sad, endy bits of summer, the problem is that your birthday doesn’t automatically appear on my calendar. Apologies to all of you.

Fortunately, my father’s birthday falls during the Thanksgiving season, and my sister’s is on or around the first day of spring, so even if I don’t write them down, there is always something on the calendar to magically remind me.

Easiest of all to remember is my mother’s.

My mother turned ten the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

That must have been a memorable birthday, with everyone huddled around the radio, speechless and shaken. Probably not the best one, mind you, but remarkable, nonetheless.

Over the years, my mother has championed everyone else’s special days, but on hers she lays low, no doubt hoping someone might step up and do a little something for her for a change.  We have tried.

We learned early on that Dad was good for a Hallmark card and a nice little gifty item, but he was not to be entrusted with the cake. In his defense, he did attempt to make one from a box once, but was so flummoxed by the words “ten-inch tube pan,” that he gave up and drove to Piggly Wiggly.

It’s worth mentioning that in our house, store-bought baked goods were a sign of approaching moral turpitude.

After that mini debacle, we siblings started juggling responsibility for the cake amongst ourselves, usually ironing out the details the morning of December 7.

One year, though, my medium brother decided to make an Angel Food Cake. He even started the project the DAY BEFORE. Impressive. We were all reasonably decent cooks, but we had some respect for his ambition. If you’ve made an angel food cake, you know what I mean.

Out came the ancient Betty Crocker cookbook, heavily thumbed and coated with a light dusting of flour from decades of use.

My brother looked so serious, meticulously pouring over Betty’s good book. We thought everything was under control, and gave him a little space to work his magic.

It’s uncertain exactly what went wrong. The reigning theory is that he must have combined elements from a couple of different tricky recipes arranged on the same page.

All I know is that it looked beautiful when he pulled it out of the oven. Betty said to cool the cake by flipping the whole pan upside down and sliding it onto the neck of a wine bottle. That way, the cake would cool but still stay light and airy. Trust me, if you’ve whipped 12 room temperature egg whites into a heavenly cloud, if you’ve sifted the cake flour four or five times, and spun the superfine sugar, you want that cake to be FLUFFY.

Medium brother flipped the pan, only to have a half-baked cake carcass collapse onto the counter.


After a minute or two of reverential silence, he scooped the remains right back into the pan and tossed it into the oven for another thirty minutes or so.

Then, the cake and my brother mysteriously disappeared for several hours.

Nothing more was said about the cake that day. We like to sweep things like this under the rug. I figured he had made the shameful Piggly Wiggly run, and was off somewhere, nursing his culinary wounds.

The next day was a Sunday. Everything proceeded normally: fried eggs for breakfast, followed by church, then dinner in the dining room. Sunday was the one day a week that the mail was cleared off the table. My father presented the card, the gift. It was time to sing.

Medium brother thumped down to the basement and emerged with the most astonishing sweet mess I’ve ever seen.

The cake mass had been roughly sculpted into some sort of landform and half-sunk battle ship. These were situated on a homemade wooden platform, which was covered with Reynold’s wrap and an ungodly amount of blue icing. There were American flags, tiny plastic boats and planes, and little soldiers everywhere.

It was, hands-down, the most impressive birthday cake I’ve ever seen, and to top it off, surprisingly tasty. Not like an angel food cake, perhaps–more like an epic Pearl Harbor Day cake reenactment would taste. But not too shabby.