My daughter, Grace, just had her first child.
Although Grace has a master’s degree from Brandeis in something cerebral called Public Policy, after delivery she promptly joined a gang.
A gang of mothers. They are no less dangerous than your traditional biker gang. They just smell better.
The entire gang is made up of mothers. When they get together, they sit around talking about their children. When they are not together, they are online leaving messages for each other about how to raise children without pesticides, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, caffeine, sugar, sodium nitrates, etc.
One day my phone rings.
“Papa? I need to make chicken stock for the baby. All the moms are doing it so I am going to make a vat of the stuff and feed it to the baby.”
“Oh. OK. Why would you want to do such a thing?”
New mothers are not the type of creature you confront straight on. You can’t, say, tell them that nobody actually makes chicken stock. They buy it by the quart on the soup aisle at the grocery store. You have to come at these new mothers from the side. Find a blind spot so that you can jump out of the way when they coil and strike should you say the wrong thing.
“The other moms say that it is all about collagen and gelatin.”
“Were you thinking of flavoring this stock with anything? Onions? Garlic? Bay leaves? Salt?”
“Nope. Just stock.”
I said, “You know stocks and broths are great fundamentals for the greatest sauces on earth; Veloute, Espagnole, Béchamel! In fact, they are called the “Mother Sauces”. I am delighted that you are interested in cooking. We will start with stocks and broths and then go into the mother sauces and end up with Béarnaise and Hollandaise…”
“No. Just the stock,” she said. “How do I make it? I want mine to taste better than all those other bitches combined.”
I launched into a long explanation of how you purchase a whole chicken that had been gently raised, to the Pullet stage, before having Yanni’s music played in the free range chicken coop until the young chicken killed itself, thus leaving the chicken farmer and everyone else down the distribution, marketing and consumption chain free from guilt.
I told my little girl all about getting a really big pot and boiling that chicken down until all the meat fell off the bones. I told her the collagen and gelatin would sit up and say, “Eat me!”
My grandmother was from New Orleans and she could cook up a blue streak. My father, who could not boil water, was overly fond of good food and he loved to travel. When we traveled together, he was my foodie companion and co-conspirator. In France, where the best food can be found, Vinnie would do the translating. Even if Dad and I could speak French, we would not have been understood through all the drool.
When the trips to New Orleans and abroad were essentially over, there was the business of raising two girls and getting them to eat what was cooked. The temptation was to do what all the other parents did and that was to give the kids pedestrian cuisine. This sort of kid food usually meant white foods such as rice, pasta, potatoes, boiled chicken, apples, etc. Vinnie and I were very big on a family evening meal, but with two law practices we had to have something we could put together quickly after work and that a toddler would actually eat. Unless you wanted to make several meals at the same time such that everybody got what they wanted, it was easier to just eat what the kids ate.
Pasta with a Bolognese sauce.
Mac and cheese.
White rice with chicken and canned mushroom soup sauce.
As time went on, the children migrated, gastronomically, to a more varied diet. They began to eat green veggies such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Protein choices expanded from boiled chicken to chicken salad… with celery! Ham and pork roast, thank God, were added to the menu. Although Grace never got on the spice train, Madeleine loved the pork roast with a spicy grilling dust.
Anyway, during my time in the culinary desert, I found ways to cheat in the kitchen.
I felt bad about it.
In those days, there was no such thing as a Blog. Al Gore had not invented the Internet. Anyone interested in cooking read a cookbook. There was an attitude about buying and eating things pre-made, frozen or from cans or pouches. There was nothing but creepy silence about frozen piecrusts. They were out there, but they were a full-blown heresy not to be mentioned in polite company. We mocked the way our mothers cooked in the 1960’s when everything cold started with Jell-O and anything hot began with opening a specific can of Campbell’s soup.
In the 1970’s, in Goldsboro, N.C., Vinnie’s mother, Laura, drove to the next county to buy one of the basic staples in life.
While she was in the liquor store, ignoring the other women from her church, she bought wine, Scotch, and “cooking sherry.” An unbelievable Southern cook, in those days, well into the 1980’s, she was still making her own piecrusts. Whereas she never made the leap to frozen pie shells, she did admit during the mid 1990’s that the refrigerator case two to a box pie dough made making your own a crust a waste of time.
And so it was that if you wanted Béarnaise, or Hollandaise sauce to mask the taste of your broccoli, you needed to make it from scratch. In a double boiler. Which sucked.
I was over age 25 when I learned that real chocolate pudding was not actually made from a powder.
Quiche? You made the pie crust and then you cracked two eggs into a bowl, added a cup of milk and a handful of ham, cheese and fresh basil and you were done. Only took an hour. I did this exactly once.
Pasta. I once bought a package of very expensive “fresh pasta” from a boutique pasta shop. While I was buying, I thought “Eggs. Flour. Water. What’s not to dry and/or freeze?”
I learned to cheat out of necessity. I had mouths to feed but I still wanted to eat well.
I bought store brand piecrusts for quiche, Key lime pie and pot pies.
I bought powdered Béarnaise and Hollandaise, to which I added half a stick of real God damned butter and a cup of whole milk. No one suspected. Nobody knew. For years, I hid the packaging. Sad? Oh yes.
I bought frozen puff pastry. Sheets and cups. I used the sheets to wrap the Beef Wellington and the puff pastry cups for desserts made from canned sweetened condensed milk, a couple of aging egg yolks and whatever fruit was near death at the time it was needed.
To my credit, I never bought a jar of “spaghetti” sauce, Spam nor instant coffee. We never ate canned nor frozen vegetables. I made my own spaghetti sauce using fresh celery, onion and mushrooms. I used fresh ground beef and Italian sausage but I always threw in canned tomato sauce and paste. I would not know how to make the damn stuff without canned tomatoes, yet I told myself that I was making scratch sauce.
I accept that there was little distance between powdered Hollandaise and waking up next to an empty Popeye’s box that says “8 Piece Family” between the very sensible holes placed in the box to keep the chicken crunchy.
Yes, my friends, their chicken is crunchy and no, my friends, I do not fry chicken.
Fried chicken is the greatest food since Gumbo or the Napoleon, but why in the Hell would anybody fry their own chicken? I am Southern down to my toenail clippings and my address, and, where I live, all the grocery stores except for the snooty one have wonderful fried chicken. Even if the grocery runs out of fried chicken, God forbid, I never, ever, think about frying my own chicken. It is just too much bother. Too much mess. Same goes for fried fish. Not going to happen.
Some dishes lend themselves to encouraging the gourmand to search the bowels of the freezer cases or the dusty, dark back parts of the canned food aisle for things that will do just fine when you do not have five or six hours to make Gumbo. Recently I discovered a can of Gumbo base hiding just across from the fish man at my usual grocery store. Delicious. Not enough to get me to throw out my recipe, and it needs a pinch of this or that, but good enough for a Tuesday night when you got nothing but a few frozen shrimp from Sam’s Club and a can of that Gumbo.
I am snooty about food right up until I am hungry and I have done nothing about planning or executing a meal. In my view, there is no reason to have your mean little filet without Béarnaise or to go without quiche because you have an attitude about frozen pastry.
“You realize that unless someone has a gun to your head, nobody makes their own chicken stock. They sell the stuff in the grocery store. Cheap. Chicken. Beef. Vegetable. Seafood. All yummy,” I told my daughter.
“That is what Heather said. I want to make it.”
We exchanged one or two more calls during the day concerning the stench of boiling a chicken in your house and the logistics of skimming scum off the stock, but, otherwise nothing much more was said about homemade stock.
A few weeks later I asked Grace if she was still making her own stock. She said “No. I found a carton of stock at a health food store. Ellis seems to like it. It says on the label it is free of preservatives. Only people with electric cars and perfect skin shop there. The store has a taster at the check-out counter who opens the carton of stock and tastes it right in front of you. It is the store’s policy that if the taster drops dead or even doubles over with cramps, before you get to your car, they refund you your money!”