hail, caesar!

i have never been known as much of a cook. i spent most of my 20s and 30s building a publishing career, which meant that i spent a lot of time eating out with friends (this usually consisted of a glug or two of red wine with some apps, like spicy meatballs or an artisinal ($$) cheese plate. or in times of deep stress, a plate of french fries with a lot of salt & pepper).

this is not to say that i didn’t have food in the fridge at home. there was usually some tabouleh, lays potato chips and progresso soup on hand. and i always had a foolproof chocolate chip cookie recipe and could whip up a mean duncan hines devil’s food cake for any number of holidays. but as far as real cooking went, i used to think it just didn’t inspire me. truthfully, i think i was a little scared. once i had my parents over for dinner. nothing was ready at the same time, and when i actually served the meal, i quickly realized that i had managed to either undercook or overcook every dish on the table. it was like a small mystery! “my god, you cook like a bride,” my mother said with a shake of her head. this, from the woman who served baked chicken marinated in wishbone salad dressing EVERY NIGHT OF MY CHILDHOOD. the pan she used had carcinogenic lumps on it that we could never scrub off – not that my brother and i didn’t try. wiggles can vouch that this is true.

then i married a man who could cook. he always says to me, “I’m a cook, not a chef.” in either case, he’s good. for the first time, there were real meals coming out of the kitchen! tasty tilapia with mango sauce, sinful mashed potatoes, flavor-packed flank steak. slowly, i got inspired. my first foray involved chicken breasts. i don’t want to say it went badly, but 30 minutes into it, the smoke alarm went off and neighbors started banging on the door. muggins had to reassure them that the apartment was not, in fact, on fire, and then unscrew the alarm before we both went deaf.

losing my job meant i no longer had to slave long hours editing articles on hormone replacement therapy or john travolta’s secret love life. that’s when i began experimenting. and little by little, i have been becoming a bit of a cook. it used to be that when we had friends or family over for dinner, they would reflexively say, “muggins, that is a delicious brisket/pork roast/lasagna.”  but not so much anymore! My most recent accomplishment is that after many years of wanting to make a good caesar salad, i located a recipe i wanted to try, courtesy of a biography that wiggles sent me about clementine paddleford. yeah, i didn’t know who she was, either. it seems she was a food writer and editor of major prominence in the 1940s and 50s. she more or less invented the concept of documenting and sharing american regional cooking. and her caesar recipe is damn good. i now know how to make croutons from scratch and emulsify soft-boiled eggs into a dressing. the salad is spectacular, if i say so myself. muggins agrees. he’s so confident, in fact, that he recently re-installed the smoke alarm.

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