Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Guest Editor

Essay for Cooking II, Johnson County Community College, 11/06/06
by Lyn Foister

Kitchen staffs invariably work in small quarters against hot stoves and ovens.  They are under constant pressure to prepare meals quickly, while ensuring quality is maintained and safety and sanitation guidelines are observed.  -- U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2006

Don't be a fuddy-duddy with your hollandaise; be bold, dunk your pretzels in it!  -- Miss Piggy

By training, and by natural inclination, I am an editor.  I have edited everything from stories about county sewer board meetings to profiles of the spouses of potential presidential candidates.  I've worked with writers and reporters who struggled to put two facts together in a comprehensible sentence to those who could (and later did) win awards for their work.

Although an editor finds true joy in working with accomplished writers, the joy is no less when working with writers who can barely find their way to the next split infinitive.  For an editor, tightening the story, refining and putting the words and facts in a logical and concise order toward a product that brings "the reader into the story screaming" is an almost tactile experience.

Cooking, whether described by Julia Child or by the 18-year-old standing next to you in cooking class, has the same feel.

Cooking is the most tactile of professions.  You wash, you chop, you dice.  You combine all those preparations in a way that brings forth enticing smells and golden colors and flavors you could only have imagined.  Even as you learn fundamentals, you learn to refine, to tweak, to master that special technique that at first seemed beyond your reach.  Oh, the joy when you find that caramelizing onions is almost second nature, or when you can form a mental picture of mise en place simply by scanning a recipe.

In the kitchen, you can see the raw materials form a whole.  You can see the parts of the puzzle fit together.  You can go from an onion, a little asparagus, some rice and cheese to a meltingly delicious risotto.  Unlike the puzzle, though, there is room to move, there is room to take a chance.  Would some tiny mushrooms make a nice companion to those thin stalks of spring asparagus?  What about another kind of cheese?  With practice you learn what the answers might be.

It is true that most of this creation takes place over hot stoves in crowded real estate.  It's hot, it's noisy, you can't sit down, there's not enough time, who moved my eggs, is a bit of yolk in the whites...did the recipe say oregano, or was it mint?  Gosh.  Where could you have more fun?

Don't get me wrong.  The cooking principles, and the students who study them, are serious.  But I believe it is the wow factor that keeps most of us in the kitchen.  Wow, I did it.  Wow, that looks good. Wow, that tastes good.  Wow, they liked it!

It is like a good story.  At first, you can only write a simple sentence, subject and verb.  Then you can add an adjective or two, then a little phrase that describes the scene, then some dialogue that gives your reader a clue about an unusual character.  And, finally, if you're lucky and you work hard, you have Hemingway's true sentence.  Or to translate to culinary terms, good food, well prepared.

And like a good story, a cook sees a definite flow.  There's the beginning -- how could these spices and this meat and this cooking method go together to make a good dish?  It has a middle -- perhaps it needs a bit more salt or cooked a little longer.  And, of course, an end -- once again, good food, well prepared.

Take Miss Piggy's hollandaise.  It's just a few egg yolks and butter, after all, with a few special touches here and there.

Of course, if you described to any sane person how hollandaise is made -- whip the egg yolks over water till they're thick (how thick? how long did you say this takes?) add lemon juice (lemon juice? oh yes, stops the eggs from cooking), did you really say to drizzle in melted, clarified butter and stir and hold the bowl (stainless steel, please) over a pan, all at the same time (what? I need a towel, too?), how's that again? drizzle and stir and hold the bowl? -- they would wonder why all the bother.

Julia Child once described it this way: "Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet."

So step back and take a look at the hollandaise.  A sauce the color of fresh butter.  Frothy and light.  Then take a taste.  Who could ask for anything better?  And who would want to be anything but the cook who could prepare such a hollandaise?  Good food, well prepared.

Good enough to dunk your pretzel in it.

Monday, June 30, 2014

I Could Have Been an Axe Murderer

One time during my time in London, I went out to the English countryside and visited the Queen’s personal residence at Sandringham.  After I finished the tour, I hopped on an afternoon train back to London and as the doors were closing, I heard a voice call out, “Is this train going to London?”  I turned around, nodded reassuringly and said yes.  The two women, Darlene and Susan, were around my mother’s age, looked relieved and sat down across the aisle from me.

I started up a conversation with them – because let’s be honest, I’ll talk to a wall.  But also because, even in an English speaking nation, it was nice to talk to someone from America.  They told me that they were visiting Darlene’s daughter who was studying abroad in London and making a girl’s trip out of it.  They asked me what I was doing in London, and I said quite frankly, that I didn’t know.  We started talking about our families, and it became clear my parents were no longer living and then I said, “I’m in London because I just needed some time and some space.” 

As we got off the train, Darlene invited me to dinner with them that evening – to meet her daughter who was studying abroad and the other woman with whom they were traveling, Mary Alice.

I went to dinner with them that evening and met Mary Alice and a couple of days later, visited Windsor Castle with them.  As we parted ways, we talked about me visiting them in Philadelphia after I got back from London.  Darlene offered for me to stay in her house.  I have to admit, it is not in my personality to take someone up on that kind of offer if I don’t know them incredibly well.  But something in me said to just do it. 

A couple months later in January, I visited them in Philadelphia.  Susan and Darlene picked me up at the airport.  They had made dinner for me when we got back to Darlene’s house – a rustic and delicious cauliflower soup. The next day, Mary Alice and Susan came over to Darlene’s house and we set off exploring museums and historic houses during the day.  That evening we had a charming dinner at a restaurant on Rittenhouse Square.

On the way back from dinner, we all joked about how I didn’t know Darlene terribly well before this trip and yet I was staying at her house and for all she knew I could have been an axe murderer.   Darlene laughed and said, “I knew it would be fine.”

When Darlene and I got back to her house, we sat at her kitchen table and started looking at pictures from her family’s travels over the years.  I came across some photos of when Darlene looked to be about my age.  In the picture, she was in Greece sitting next to her now husband.  I asked Darlene about the trip and she began to tell me how she had a somewhat similar situation as me when she was my age – with parents being sick and needing to get away.  And so she too took a trip around the world.

A few months after that, I received an email from Darlene that she was coming to Kansas City for a work conference and could we get together.  Of course I said yes and we had a wonderful dinner catching up at Westside Local.

I still marvel at Darlene’s invitation on the train.   That generosity of spirit.  Of knowing me for only a couple of hours and saying come meet us for dinner tonight.  Come meet my daughter.  Come to a West End show with us tomorrow night.  Come to Windsor Castle with us the next day.  Well, it’s a generosity of spirit I hope to carry with me forever.

*Check out Darlene, Susan and Mary Alice’s Etsy shop: Eva, Elsie and Ella 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Mary's Buffet

When I was growing up with my parents’ illnesses, after awhile I didn’t realize how much those illnesses occupied my life.  And when each of them died, I had some space from the illnesses and began to forget about them. 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been preparing to sell my parents’ house and then hold an estate sale of their belongings.   I’ve been knee deep in cleaning out and organizing.  Going through item after item – every decision about whether to keep or discard something felt like a decision to keep or discard my parents.  And then I came across six solid filing cabinets full of my parents’ medical records.  And I couldn’t ignore how much the illnesses had consumed me.

For almost two years, I went back and forth about the amount of my parents’ furniture I was going to keep.  At one point, I planned on taking almost half of it.  The furniture is beautiful.  It is.  Well-crafted, dark wood and formal designs.  Purchased for when my parents entertained with fancy affairs.  Purchased for a different life than mine. 

So instead, I took five items of furniture.  One piece was “Mary’s Buffet. “ When I was a small child, I thought that  “Mary’s Buffet” was the formal name of this piece of furniture – like a breakfront or a secretary desk.  But it’s just what my mom called it, because it was her college roommate, Mary’s, buffet.  It is not fancy or unique or even that pretty.  But it stayed with my mom for over forty years from Denver to Kansas City to Washington, D.C. and then back to Kansas City again.

After the estate sale company had set everything up in my parents’ home for the actual estate sale, I drove over to the house late at night and wandered around.  Each room was set up like a little boutique. 

I flipped through boardgames on a table and hoped that some other child would find them endlessly fun as I had.  I traced my fingers along the edges of my mother’s beautiful Portmerion dishes and hoped that some other mother would fall in love with these dishes the way my mom had.  I sat down on a couch in the living room and surveyed the room, and I hoped some other family would find many happy memories on this sofa.  Or maybe, happier memories.

*A special thanks to all the people who helped make this new chapter possible: Max Jones at Remax Revolution, Sue Shores at Changeit Redesign, Absolute Estates Sales, and Tucker Painting.