Friday, May 21, 2010

The Big Kahuna

Have you ever been invited to the perfect dinner party?

Imagine: your dinner companions are delightful company, the setting is beautiful –a grassy green park shaded by graceful trees, the repast is delicious and varied, the wine is generous, and your hosts are so pleased to enjoy your presence that toasts are offered up to you and your visiting troop. And it is the perfect time of day, that lovely hour or so before dusk when the temperature moderates and the air is softer.

But wait! That’s not all! Just when you think you are impressed enough, you approach the table of the main entrée and see…

But let’s back up a little bit.

One of my hobbies is Civil War reenacting. One year ago this month, I volunteered for the temporary-soon-to-be-permanent job of Camp Cook. Our unit is the 3rd US Artillery, a mounted artillery unit which participates in Civil War reenactments and Living History demonstrations up and down the state of California. In many of the military units, the soldiers cook for themselves or create small “messes” to share the job of meal preparation. But because so many of our members are busy caring for and tacking up the horses during an event, the 3rd US is one of the units to provide a provisioner, or cook, for the benefit of our group.

After I had agreed to cook for the upcoming reenactment at Gibson Ranch Civil War Days 2009 in Sacramento, I discovered that our captain had invited the James River Squadron from the Confederate camp to dine with us. So instead of 25, I was to prepare for 50. Eeek! I knew our Captain was counting on me to make him proud of us, so I took extra care in considering the menu and the details. Everything went very well. (For an example of a cooking weekend for me, see Cooking for the Third.) At that time the James River reciprocated and invited us to dine with them at Gibson Ranch 2010.

Our captain was very happy with the success of our “dinner party.” He and I both wondered, what will the James River cook up for us? Will it be like ours? I wondered if it would be more elegant, more elaborate. I was already considering 2011, when I would likely be planning their return engagement to the Union Camp. What new delicacies could I call up when it was my turn?

Saturday evening rolled around, and we all gussied up for the long trek to Confederate camp. We combed our hair, straightened our caps and pulled on our navy blue shell jackets. As a group, heel plates clicking on the paved road, we marched (ok, so the artillery doesn’t really “march” well; remember most of us prefer to let the horse march while carrying the soldier), let’s say we strode into Confederateville, finding protection from the slurs and barbs of the lounging Rebels by the very size of our troop.

Our captain greets one of our lovely hostesses.

The James River Squadron greeted us with genuine friendship and affection. The ladies were dressed in their hoop-skirted finery and the men in their naval uniforms. ( I would use the word “charming” to describe the uniforms, but dare not.) Cloth table linen, candles, bottles of wine decorating the table, dutch ovens that held warm peach cobbler, refreshing salads, women standing ready to wash our dishes –all were bracketed with white canvas tents and green lawn. The setting sun sent beams of light on the pastoral party.

And then, remember I promised you more. And there it was. The Big Kahuna, the Top Dog, the Coup d’état, the Big Pig.

It was absolutely Glorious. It was big, very big. And golden and crispy. Steaming and tender cuts were carved from the Beast and laid on our plates. The server cut a nice piece of crackling skin with it to keep the meat company.

We ate until we groaned. The dessert was served; cobbler with whipped cream and cookies. We ate some more. And then a jug of homemade applejack was passed up and down the table. We found common ground and shared geography with our tablemates and chatted through the evening. Their commander stood on a chair and offered a toast to the friendship between our units. Hear! Hear! Our captain stood and offered a toast back.

I was one of the last to take my leave. As the captain and I left, shaking hands and reiterating our pleasure at being able to host the James River next year, their man looked at me and said sincerely, “Keep it simple.”

I had been thinking, “What can I possibly do to match this? A whole pig, for goodness sakes!” Pondering the evening on the walk back to camp, I came to this conclusion. As stunning as the Pig was, as delectable as the cobbler was, as well-laid as the table was, it was not the food that made the evening so delightful. It was the welcome, the hospitality and the friendship that made the evening special. This is no competition between cooks, this is the pleasure of hosting friends and breaking bread together.

So I’m not planning my dinner next year yet. I’ll wait and see what comes to me. And I hope it is good. But I’m not stressing over it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bullwinkle and Waffles

Who taught you to cook? Was it your mom or dad, or some other family member? Did you read a lot of cookbooks or maybe figure it out from trial and error? Or were you in school when there were lots of homemaking classes available to teach you? Maybe you were lucky like me and learned from all three.

My mom is a great cook. I was fascinated to watch how she made cornbread. Scoop in some flour and yellow cornmeal with a pinch of salt, a pinch of baking soda. An egg, some oil or grease or something. Tip in some buttermilk. Stir it up, dump it in a pan. When it looks done, it is. How could someone just “know” how much of everything to put in, what temperature, and how long to cook it?

Being a novice, I plugged away with cookbooks and directions. After awhile, I started to realize that years of measuring ingredients would give me the magical touch of proportions and estimations of ingredients and eventually I would be able to cook like my mom.

Title 9. I didn’t understand its significance much at the time. I wasn’t interested in high school woodshop class or boy’s sports. But with this new law, now girls were no longer excluded from classes or sports just because of their gender, and boys could make a claim to classes that historically belonged to girls. In my sophomore year, the biggest impact I felt was the first day of homemaking class when four boys showed up in the middle of a room full of girls. No soft milquetoast fellows could have pulled it off. These were jocks. Popular guys who played football AND basketball. They stuck together, probably for protection, and the four got their own “kitchen” to themselves.

In general, it was hugely entertaining. They flirted, we flirted. They cracked jokes and made funny mistakes; we felt smug at times. But we couldn’t feel too superior because most of their stuff turned out fine. And they never burned out the disposal by leaving it running all night, or set a dishtowel on fire like one of the girls did. It was rumored during the “brownies” lesson that they had put pot leaves in theirs, but I never did find out if it was true.

My husband never took homemaking classes. When I married him, he knew how to fry eggs, sort of. But that was fine, because I was prepared and experienced enough for the both of us. And eventually, I was full-time cook to the six of us. But somewhere around kid #4, I could feel the reserves draining away. It was tough to cook dinner seven nights a week, and it was even tougher to THINK of what to cook seven nights a week.

Even though my husband couldn’t cook, he was very agreeable. When baby #4 was born, I felt like I just couldn’t manage the dishes all the time anymore. (just to keep from maligning him, my husband was studying engineering full time at UC Davis and supporting us with 3 different part time jobs) So I made him the offer: He and my 8 year old could now take responsibility for the dinner dishes, or… he could buy me a dishwasher. The next day we were at the appliance store with a credit card.

So I repeated the process.

“I am not going to cook on Sunday nights anymore. From now on, you are responsible for what we have on that night.”

He got the deer-in-the-headlights look.

Taking pity, I told him, “However you want to do it; order something, have the kids make something, cook something…Only, I don’t want to have to think it up myself.”

He started getting a better expression on his face, but it wasn’t because he could foist it off on someone else. No, it was because he apparently started to feel his creative ability surge up within him.

The first Sunday night started off optimistically. “We’re having waffles,” he announced. I left the kitchen to enjoy my new freedom and so that I wouldn’t be tempted to jump up and interfere. The kids went in to keep him company. “The directions are on the box,” I called out. But men are apparently more likely to discover and follow directions if they are encrypted by a secret society and buried in a vault at the Vatican than if they are printed on the box under the title “Directions.”

He used the whole box.

“Well, I stirred up some batter, but it didn’t look stiff enough, so I put some more mix in, but it didn’t look like it would make enough, so I added some more milk and an egg but then it seemed thin, so I added more mix, and it’s a little doughy, but it makes the waffles nice and thick?” He had all three of my waffle irons going at once, trying to get them all cooked in time for dinner. At least no one went hungry.

The next Sunday rolled around. Obviously, he was most comfortable with “breakfast food.”

“I’m going to start with hash browns and then add some stuff.” As before, I ducked out. This one took a little longer. He shredded the potatoes, lots of them, and fried/steamed/ browned them in the cast iron skillet. Then he took out one of my pint jars of home canned beef and stirred it in to cook with it. There was some reaction to his ingredients that made everything have a sort of blackish cast to it. It didn’t taste that bad, but it LOOKED terrible. The kids managed, mostly, to get past the appearance and eat some. We asked him, “What is it, what do you call it?”

He said, with an unsmiling face, “ I call it “Bullwinkle.” We let it rest.

After that, we discovered Papa Murphy’s You Bake pizza and became one of their steady customers. Nowadays, my husband has become pretty serviceable with spaghetti. I sit at the counter with a glass of wine and watch him make it. Except for his heavy hand with the garlic, I can’t complain. It’s hugely entertaining. He flirts, I flirt. Sometimes I feel smug. And I try not to feel superior because most of his stuff turns out quite well. But mostly I am very grateful and appreciative of his good humor and willingness to do this very nice thing for me.