Last year I gained a baby, and lost myself. Thirty weeks of prenatal nausea, choking down crackers and bananas, spiraled into post-partum chaos and severe depression. A lifelong non-crier and non-panicker, I was a stressball of tears and anxiety, trudging an endless treadmill of pumping six times a day, waking to his primal scream every 20 minutes around the clock. I wanted someone to chart out exactly when I would be able to recognize myself – a countdown to reading, cooking, traveling again. Food, my greatest joy, became just a vehicle for calories. Slabs of supermarket turkey meatloaf sustained us while my forlorn cookbooks gawped at me from the kitchen shelves, like so many volumes of a dusty to-do list. “Play with us,” they groaned, as I scurried past and avoided eye contact. “Remember how much fun we used to have?”
Did we ever. In grad school, I started a meal for my two shy roommates, which morphed into an Indian feast for 24, mountains of Chicken Tikka marinating in a (clean) black trash liner. A pasta dinner ended with us climbing a billboard in downtown Detroit, balancing a jug of Carlo Rossi six stories above Corktown. In my empty post-grad apartment, guests sat on the ground and ate a Massaman curry with their hands that dissolved their plates into papier mache and stained the crappy carpet orange. We covered it up with a crappier rug. My food was just this side of passable, but I was curious, I welcomed challenges, I loved to entertain. I trusted that if the company was good enough, the food just had to be edible.
Our son is now 18 months old, and because clichés are cliché for a reason, he’s my universe. It’s a universe I’ve slowly replenished with reading and travel, but the era when I cooked anything other than his quick meals—turkey quesadillas, steamed broccoli—is foggy in my memory. A part of me rejected cooking because I’m a working mom and I won’t be tied to a stove as well as a toddler, dammit, but I know I always loved cooking – nobody made me cook. I still buy piles of cookbooks, out of some hope that I will recreate the photo essays within, only to shelve and avoid them until a day when I have “more energy.” When I do roast meat or blend a soup here or there, I feel a twitch of my old culinary longing.
Lately, ads for the new Lucky Peach cookbook have been chasing me around the internet, turning that twitch into a spasm. I’m dying to buy it, but first I need to attend to the neglected books already filling my shelves. After ignoring them for a year, lazily flipping through one or two before foaming at the mouth and ordering Thai, I want to see and taste what’s inside them again. Like reclaiming a dormant passion for distance running, or flamenco, cooking like I did pre-baby will also take diligent training. I have 13 uncracked books, which means planning 13 dinner parties. In pursuit of growth, I’m picking 3-course meals outside my comfort zone. No two-step soups. No one-step chicken. No Bittman. I have strong-armed Facebook friends into being my lab rats on this journey, and below are the results of the first in this experimental cooker’s dozen. The last dinner is scheduled for just before the holidays, for which I’m gifting myself that hot little Lucky Peach number.
I’m most impatient to try David Tanis’s beautiful One Good Dish (Friday, December 4), and uneasy about Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating (November 20), but will move through the shelves in order, from top left to bottom right. My husband, Rodney, insists I skip the Weight Watchers collection, but joke’s on him, because he’s definitely licked every crumb off many a low-point plate. I resisted adding a dessert course, because it’s too hard. Dessert demands a terrifying level of precision, and I’ve never been a precise cook – more of a let’s marinade meat in a garbage bag cook. Women who bake well intimidate me. They’re so polished; organizing their books by color, blending signature scents, “creaming” butter, whatever that is (and, gross).
If I loved sweets I might be more willing to make them, but my dream meal ends in nine pounds of cheese draped across a bag of jalapeno kettle chips. It’s almost impossible for me to pay close attention to anything I don’t care about. See also card games, the Kardashians, organic chemistry (lecture, not lab). However, if the point of this exercise is to regain my joie de cuisine, and to make the people I love happy, with food and company, then I must feed them sugar. I can suck it up 13 times, right?
First up was Food52’s Genius Recipes Cookbook. It’s a Cliffs Notes of fancy cookery in that it’s a compilation of the “easiest” best recipes from beloved chefs like Dan Barber, Marcella Hazan, and Nobu Matsuhisa. I’ve been slobbering over the cover since April. The kickoff menu I chose was simple; a Caesar Salad, Mushroom Bourguignon over Polenta, and two-ingredient chocolate mousse they claim is foolproof. My guests were my old friends, and your comedy idols, Jessica Chaffin and Laura Krafft.
Laura’s mother immigrated from Norway in the 1930s, and Laura inherited her old-timey Norwegian cadence, making her sound like a fast-talking Scandinavian gun moll. She’s one of six kids, and her habit of referring to 20-odd nieces and nephews by number (niece number three, nephew number six) is both efficient and adorable. She also plays the flute and piano, and used to teach music. The overall effect is as if Prince and Pippi Longstocking had a baby who grew up to write on the Colbert Report. Laura will murder me for this analogy, because Pippi is Swedish, but even Google can’t find me the pep in Ibsen’s catalog.
In addition to being our nation’s preeminent improv comedian (I’ve seen her live show Ronna and Beverly more than 30 times), “Gina’s Boobs” in The Heat, and also one of six children, Jess knows Every. Single. Thing. Need your shoes stretched in Boston, a locksmith in London, dim sum in Budapest, RIGHT NOW? Jessica knows, always. These two women held my hands through my move to LA and my first pilot season, and the idea of feeding them for one evening felt like I was returning one tenth of the favor.
First Course: Frankies Spuntino Hearts of Romaine Caesar Salad
This crowd-pleaser took about four seconds and was practically perfect. I would maybe start with half a clove of garlic next time, and add more to taste. I’ve made it since with Vegenaise instead of Hellman’s, and purists can scoff, but the difference is negligible. I also chopped the romaine instead of leaving it whole, because what kind of maniac eats a salad with a knife.
Weight Watchers says I’m a “volume eater,” so I appreciate a gigantic bowl of umami-drenched vegetables. Technically this was delicious, like a rich bowl of homemade gravy, but lacked appeal the next day. I couldn’t figure out why, until Rodney said it “tasted like 80s food,” so maybe I’m too ethnic for its one note. Laura discreetly picked out all of her mushrooms to get to the sauce and polenta; I’m happy I could help her realize she hates mushrooms. Jess was the biggest fan, but admitted that given her Eastern European heritage, she “might have been blinded by the sour cream.”
The original recipe is over egg noodles, but for extra credit I made polenta from scratch, which was a revelation. I measured it into the rice cooker with a 1:4 ratio, and it came out perfectly, hundreds of times better than that gross pre-made polenta molded into girthy corn sausage.
Dessert: Chocolate Mousse from Herve This
Herve This invented molecular gastronomy, and will probably end world hunger, according to the New York Times. Yet this was an unqualified disaster, and I should have been skeptical when I saw it was only two ingredients: chocolate and water. I bought 70% bittersweet chocolate, measured obsessively (chem lab skillz), whisked, chilled and topped it with whipped cream, eliciting an oooh from the ladies.
It tasted like hacking into a can of unsweetened cocoa powder with a rusty spoon. Etiquette ninja Jessica demurred after a spoonful because of its “richness,” and even Laura reacted with a grim “not good.” Rodney fully ate two before also declaring them terrible.The teacher’s pet in me can’t detach from this misstep, and I obsessively scoured the comments online for pitfalls. Should I have used the Trader Joe’s Pound for Pound? Should I try it again? Why don’t I care more? Is there something wrong with me? Who doesn’t like dessert???
Perhaps I will analyze these questions at a later date, but now, instead of cowering under the gaze of my unopened books, I again feel the urge to roll around in their pages. I’m excited to chase after specialty items, scowl at the butcher and haggle at the farmer’s market, trying out counterintuitive flavor combinations in brand-new dishes, even if it means bungling 12 more meals. I trust that my friends are as forgiving. The company is good enough, I hope that the food is all edible, but just in case, I plan on hedging that bet with cocktails.
Next Up: Alex, Jess, and The Silver Spoon