(not so) easy as pie

pumpkin praline pie

Ambivalent. That’s my primary emotion about Thanksgiving.

By most accounts, I should *love* Thanksgiving. After all, it is our one feasting holiday, this country’s only day devoted solely to food.

But it can be hard to get past the cultural politics, the complicated family dynamics, and the compulsory menu that has the culinary breadth of a bowling alley. Sure, you can have some fun with Marsala in the gravy, and maybe you’ll switch to wild rice dressing this year, or go a little crazy with the cranberry sauce. But in the end, you line up and chuck that ball at the same ten pins, year after year. When you consider the days of work that typically go into one afternoon’s meal, does it really pay off?

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piece of cake

getting ready to frost the cake

Your friend Katie is turning 50. You volunteer to make her favorite, a yellow cake with chocolate frosting, for her and 50 friends.

1. Go to eggbeater
2. Click on ‘recipes’
3. Click on Yellow Cake {with chocolate frosting}
4. Muster faith
5. Follow recipe with quirky mindful exactitude
6. Accept emulsification into your heart
7. Thank the cake god Shuna Fish

yellow cake with chocolate frosting getting ready to frost the cake yellow cake with chocolate frosting yellow cake with chocolate frosting

insalata, insalatón

roasted squash and pomegranate salad

Here’s the sort of salad I imagined we’d be eating as we rode our bikes through the hills of Tuscany: plates of field greens piled with herbs, fruit, roasted vegetables, cured meats, mozarella di bufala – everything local and in season. Peppery vinaigrettes. New olive oil. Verrry old balsamic.

The reality looked more like this: a glass bowl of green leaf lettuce, wedges of anemic tomato, and perhaps a few rounds of carrot or cucumber. Sometimes, an arugula salad, composed just of arugula. Accompanying the salad was not a vinaigrette – remember, vinaigrette is a french word – or, even ‘italian dressing’ (this may be an american invention), but the same four things that arrive with any contorno: olive oil, ordinary vinegar, salt, and pepper.

If you hail from the U.S., where the number of words a server uses to describe your entree seems directly proportional to the ‘fineness’ of the restaurant, the food of Tuscany requires a mental shift. Tuscan food is defined by a simplicity that verges on ascetic: antipasto is a plate of thinly shaved prosciutto, the primo piatto, a plate of hand-rolled pasta with olive oil, pecorino and black pepper, the secondo piatto, a perfectly grilled pork chop.

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the smart sister

The first time I had tarte Tatin, Kathy and I were on the coast of France, in a heartbreakingly beautiful fishing village just a scooter ride from Nice. Unlike Nice, whose imported sand beaches are plastered with sun-bathing tourists, we loved Villefranche-sur-Mer because it was beachless, and real.

It was a place where you could jump off a black boulder jetty into the sparkling harbor, and gaze up at the kaleidoscope of houses that are the town’s steep ascent from sea.

You could find a simple hotel room for thirty francs, and fling open its tall shutters to air and sun. And from that window, gaze down at a verdant garden, and follow its lush rows of fat tomatoes and peppers rambling toward a house, to discover it belonged to a neighborhood bistro, La Trinquette. It would have been closed earlier, when you checked in to the friendly hotel, eking out the transaction in painstaking French.

Setting out for dinner, you would walk past its chalkboard announcing grilled sardines, toward the restaurants with a sea view, candles blinking prettily atop tables set in straight rows. Tuxedoed waiters worked in tight formation, attending to a rising tide of diners.

On instinct you would turn away from your guide book and back toward the neighborhood restaurant that does not have a view of the sea. The owners have been cooking there since one of them was thin and both of them were young. Their clientele knew them when they were this way, and will tell you of jolly stories of the old times.

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waste not want not

pumpkin bread with caramel icing

Other than my grandmother, my friend Kiley is the only person I know who 1) feels as strongly as I do about not wasting ANYTHING and 2) does not believe in expiration dates on canned food.

While my parents shed the contents of their pantry once every six months, I can hardly find room to put the groceries away. Our shelves sag with ginseng-echinacea tea, quinoa flour, and asofoetida, plus my parents’ cast-offs, like ‘lite’ soy sauce, which I will probably never use, and sesame oil, which I can’t use as fast as they shed it. I accept these bags of cans and bottles like baskets of kittens deposited on my doorstep, keeping every one for which I can’t find a good home.

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pie and the gay gene

A few years back, I did a brief stint in the lesbo-kitchen of Jennifer James. I’d been entertaining the idea of cooking school for a long time, and making desserts for Jennifer sounded like my dream job. I didn’t have the experience to merit the position, but Jen and I agreed on three basic principles – simplicity, quality, NO CHEESECAKE – and she handed me the reins to the dessert menu. Even better, she gave me the freedom to change it every two weeks.

I served Gale Gand’s chocolate terrine with almond brittle, lemon ice cream sandwiches with candied zest pressed into their sides, caramel pots de creme, fat wedges of David Lebovitz’s fresh ginger cake with butterscotch and sautéed pears, roasted pineapple shortcakes, Julia Child’s boca negra, indian pudding with honeyed whipped cream, and red chile ice cream studded with pralines. I made tarte tatin, fresh lemon tart, clementine sorbet, pear galette with almond cream, and countless other things.

Jen’s sous chef, Cheyenne, was exceedingly patient with my bumbling around her kitchen. I took up too much room on the stove, let huge vats of cream boil over, forgot to bake the chocolate terrine in a bain marie, left lethally sharp objects underwater in the dish sink, and generally made more of a mess than a professional pastry chef ever would. And I was slow, often finishing my work just before service began.

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soup rut

In my early days as an earnest young lesbo, I did not consider myself to be good at making soup. The three we cooked when I was growing up were two pages out of my grandmother’s book, and one out of my mother’s.

Chicken and noodles was just as it sounds. I’d get home from school to a boiled chicken, cooling in its broth. It was for me to pick the meat off the bones, and then return it to the pot  with a bag of wide egg noodles. Just three ingredients: water, chicken, noodles. And heavy use of the salt shaker at the table. My sister does not remember it now, but she hated that soup.

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