The Joy of Eating Whatever You Want

IMG_20181025_075416678[1]Ferrari-Adler, Jenni. Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant is the title of the book I just finished reading. It’s a collection of essays about eating alone. The writers describe the meals they eat at home by themselves when no one’s looking, as well as their experiences dining alone in restaurants. Many of them are excellent cooks, but when they’re on their own, they may not bother to cook at all. Picture writer Ann Patchett standing in her kitchen eating saltine crackers or Nora Ephron in bed with a bowl of mashed potatoes. On the other hand, Holly Hughes daydreams about salmon dinners eaten without her husband and three kids interrupting with complaints that they would rather have macaroni and cheese. Then there’s Laurie Colwin, who thrived on eggplant, fried or stewed, hot or cold. MFK Fisher, known for her food writing, found that her friends were reluctant to feed her because they couldn’t meet her standards, so she’d wind up at home eating a can of soup. It’s a delicious book, beautifully written, often funny in that way of bittersweet truth. It also includes recipes.

Since I lost my husband, I have thought a lot about eating alone. (See my essay “Learning to Feed Myself,” published in Voicecatcher.) To be honest, I love cooking for myself. It has its challenges. Produce sometimes rots before I can eat it all, and every time I buy salsa, it grows fur in the jar. How do I buy enough but not too much?

I usually end up eating the same entree for three or four days because it’s difficult to cook just one portion. For some people, this is a bad thing. My father, for example, doesn’t do leftovers. He will actually throw away food if his caregivers make too much. Not me. I like what I cook, and having leftovers means less work the next day. I often announce out loud to the dog and the air, “This restaurant serves great grub.”

I believe in eating three good meals a day. I would never be happy with a few crackers eaten on the run. Nor am I likely to be skinny as long as I stay healthy. My tastes run to ordinary comfort food, although I experiment occasionally. When I got divorced ages ago and moved into my own apartment, I couldn’t wait to make myself a tuna noodle casserole. Somehow over the years, the men in my life have never loved this conglomeration of canned tuna, mushroom soup, noodles, peas, Swiss cheese, and slivered almonds, but I could eat a bucket of it by myself. Add a salad, and there’s dinner.

I avoid packaged foods. I eat a lot of chicken, pork and fish. I’ll make myself a meatloaf and eat meatloaf sandwiches all week. Last night, I tried a recipe I saw on Facebook for Sausage and Apple Stuffed Acorn Squash (thanks, Wiley). I didn’t even know acorn squash was edible, but I tried it. If I failed, there was no one around to complain. But it was wonderful. I’ll be eating it for days. I served it with leftover broccoli into which I had thrown some leftover boiled potatoes, which sounds weird, but it tastes fine.

I like throwing things together. On nights when I’m out of meat, dinner might be just a big bowl of rice cooked with leftover vegetables, a handful of mixed nuts, and some cheese. I might wrap it all in a tortilla for fun. Or I might mix everything together in a salad. I can do whatever I want because I have no one else to please.

I bake for myself. Breakfast today was half a grapefruit and a big oatmeal-blackberry muffin. I have homemade peanut butter chocolate chip cookies in the cookie jar. Who does that? I do. I like my own cooking, I prefer to have control over the ingredients, and I don’t need to deprive myself just because there are no other humans on the premises.

I serve my meals on my blue and white Currier and Ives dishes at my dining room table, complete with a tablecloth and a cloth napkin. This week, I bought myself a dozen roses at the grocery store to decorate the table. Why not?

Some people hate to eat alone, but eating alone can be a treat. You can eat anything you want, however and whenever you want.

How about you? How often do you eat alone? What do you feed yourself? I’d love to read about it in the comments. And do check out this book. It’s delicious.

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Just Give Me a Plate of Hash and Eggs

20750606 - a frying pan with corned beef hash and eggsI seem to be a food peasant. A plebeian. Totally lacking in culture, even if do have a master’s degree.

I splurged on a slightly expensive hotel on my way to California two weeks ago. It was about a thousand degrees out, and I was exhausted from planning, packing and driving all day. I dreaded what lay ahead in San Jose, and hell, I deserved it. Too beat to leave the building, I ate dinner in the adjoining restaurant. Mostly I just wanted cold air and a cold drink.

A hostess dressed in a silky black dress and wearing far too much makeup for off-stage led me to a small table against the far wall, one of those places they put people who dare to come in alone wearing faded jeans and a T-shirt promoting a literary magazine.

A waiter dressed in black and packing a snooty attitude handed me the menu. Holy smokes. All the entrees cost at least $20, nothing included. And there was nothing ordinary. All chipotle this and cream sauce that. As I pondered, a different black-suited waiter brought me a basket of cold French bread, a tiny bowl of ground nuts, and a plate on which he poured olive oil and a swirl of balsamic vinegar. How are you supposed to apply them to the bread? Where’s the butter? Yes, I’m a peasant. The oil made my lips feel greasy.

A couple specials were written on a blackboard in chalk. I couldn’t read them. Glare, plus half the words were in French.

When a third black-suited waiter arrived to take my order, I asked him to tell me about the specials, and I chose the steak and linguine after asking, “How much?” $22. Fine. It came with steak slices carefully arranged in a half circle, the odd-tasting sauce decorated with peppercorns, bits of red bell pepper and flakes of aioli cheese. Laid across the plate was the big spoon in which I was supposed to swirl my noodles, something I never do at home.

Folks at the next table were all dressed up and raving about the food. I savored the memory of the hamburger I had eaten for lunch at the Apple Peddler in Sutherlin, Oregon.

I hate to admit it, but on the road I usually seek out the familiar chain restaurants: Denny’s, Apple Peddler, IHOP, Black Bear Diner, Elmer’s. I already know what they have and know I can read, write or stare into space and not feel out of place. Plus when you order pasta, you get a salad, too, even off the senior menu. Sometimes you even get dessert.

Maybe it’s how I was raised. Mom was not an adventurous cook. Slab of meat, potatoes, canned veggies, white bread. We went out to eat at the Burger Pit or got takeout raviolis from Pianto’s. I never tasted any kind of Asian food until I was in high school. A lot of foods—Swiss chard comes to mind—I never saw until I got married. Heck, I had never used a salad bowl. Kabobs? Tofu? Quinoa? Are you kidding? Homemade bread? Why? And booze? At our house, it was canned beer, screw-top wine or highballs, and only for special occasions.

As an adult, I like to create with food. I make some weird salads and Boboli pizzas and freely adapt recipes. But apparently, I’m not as sophisticated as I thought.

At the fancy restaurant in Redding—Redding, off I-5, where the locals still wear cowboy hats—you can watch the flames as a chef deglazes a pan with his favorite liqueur. You can order almond-encrusted halibut with apricot horseradish, pan finished pork tenderloin—free range, of course—with creamed pan jus, apple burrata crème fraiche and fresh sage, or pulled chicken with smoked gouda, carmelized bacon and onion jam on artisan bread. They’ve got peach bourbon bread pudding for dessert.

Can I just get a turkey sandwich on whole wheat with lots of mayonnaise and a scoop of vanilla ice cream?

Sigh. I have such a plebeian palate. On the way back to Oregon, I stopped at my usual place in Yreka, a little cheaper, best bed ever, and across the street from Poor George’s. The lone aproned waitress, limping with a broken toe, served me hash and eggs and biscuits and gravy–$11—and told me the saga of her pit bull who ran away and just came home. She even showed me the dog’s picture on her phone. That’s my kind of restaurant.

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For those following the Dad saga, I helped my father move home from the nursing home and hired a homecare agency to help him with meals, cleaning, errands and such. So far, he’s not getting along very well with his caregiver, but he’s happy to be back in his own house, walking very carefully with his walker.

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Text copyright Sue Fagalde Lick 2017

Photo Copyright: markstout / 123RF Stock Photo

What taste captures your childhood?

ravioli picture free

Occasionally I use writing exercises to get me started. Today’s prompt sparked this trip through memory’s kitchen.

When I think of my childhood back in San Jose, I taste tomato sauce, specially on raviolis. Oh God, those stuffed pasta squares from La Villa’s delicatessen in Willow Glen. The smells of that place. Tomatoes, oregano, cheese. Wine bottles encased in straw baskets. Loaves of French bread. Salamis hanging from hooks on the wall.

Raviolis were a treat for all of us, especially Mom, who didn’t have to cook. While we set the table, Dad would go fetch them, along with little cardboard boxes of macaroni and potato salads. We might have bread, too. White bread stacked on a plate, to butter heavily and use to soak up the leftover sauce. Nobody complained about the all-carb meal in those days. It was just hot and cold, red and white.

We sprinkled on grated Parmesan cheese from a green cardboard container. I never tasted fresh ground Parmesan until well into adulthood.

When the deli in Willow Glen felt like too far to drive, we were stuck with Pianto’s, located nearby and owned by our neighbors. The sauce was more like the stuff Mom bought in cans at the store, and the raviolis were not as fat or as firm. Years after Mr. Pianto died, the family got tired of the business and sold it to another family which moved the business to Saratoga. It closed in 2009. The original location became a pizza place. Pizza has tomato sauce, too, but my parents never ate pizza. My father still doesn’t consider it food.

Other places filled the ravioli gap: By th’ Bucket, Frankie, Johnnie and Luigi’s, and a now-defunct place called Ravioli. All good. By the time I was in my teens, you could also buy frozen raviolis and tubs of frozen sauce at the grocery store, but those were for emergencies only.

There had to be raviolis, something for those nights when Mom wasn’t up to cooking or company dropped in unexpectedly, which they did quite a lot. My parents wouldn’t touch Chinese or any other Asian food. And you couldn’t serve hamburgers for dinner. So, they bought raviolis.

It’s no wonder I became a ravioli head. It’s what I always wanted to eat on my birthdays and what I usually got. I would stuff myself until I wasn’t sure it would stay in my stomach, but it always did, and I always found room for chocolate cake with Cool Whip frosting.

Tomato sauce showed up in other dishes, of course, especially spaghetti. My grandmother had the best sauce. I can still smell it as I hovered near the stove in her kitchen, where the walls and wooden trim were all white and the ceiling was painted bright red. I wanted to immerse myself in it. I think it was oregano mixed with cumin that gave it its distinctive aroma. The only sauce that ever came close was the sauce they served at Cypress School on spaghetti day.

My mother’s sauce most likely came out of a can, but we ate a lot of it on spaghetti or the no-name noodle-hamburger-tomato sauce casserole that showed up on the table all too often. I ate it. I ate it all. Firsts, seconds and thirds.

When I grew up, I wanted to make good sauce, like Grandma’s. I developed a variation of Betty Crocker’s recipe that came close. Then I married Fred, who had his own recipe, and it was better. It included onions, mushrooms, peppers, sausage, stewed tomatoes, cheese and a good dose of wine. Leaning over the pot, I got drunk on the steam. It was heaven.

When we combined that sauce with long flat noodles, Italian sausage and three kind of cheese for lasagna, oh my God. Heaven on a plate.

Tomato sauce was not just for pasta. Mom made a wonderful casserole of zucchini, onions, American cheese and tomato sauce. She also put it on green beans, which almost masked the taste.

If we’re talking tomatoes, we can’t forget ketchup. If we had meat, there was ketchup on the table. Purists might disdain eating steak or prime rib with the red stuff, but for me, it was required. Still is. Hamburgers, pork chops, French fries, onion rings–got to have the ketchup. Mom even put ketchup in our tuna sandwiches and made salad dressing with ketchup, mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce. Don’t knock it till you try it.

Yes, the taste of tomatoes captures my childhood. I might be Portuguese, German, French and Spanish, but my stomach is Italian. As an adult living alone in Oregon, I buy a few fresh tomatoes at the store. Mostly I slice them for BLTs, aware that my doctor doesn’t want me to eat any “T.” My troubled stomach has had its fill of tomato sauce and screams no more acid. I dress my frozen raviolis in pesto or alfredo sauce. I sauté my zucchini with olive oil. But sometimes a girl just has to have a little tomato, especially when it’s quite possible the red cells in her blood are full of tomato sauce. It’s almost my birthday. If I close my eyes, I can still taste those raviolis in the big yellow Pyrex bowl on top of the yellow Formica table. It’s almost my birthday. Do I dare? I must.

What taste captures your childhood? Don’t think too hard.What comes to mind first when you think about those days when your legs were so short your feet didn’t quite touch the floor. Please share in the comments.

Our Food is Worth Paying Attention To

I rarely think about all that goes into my food. I am usually reading a book as I eat, but today as I stop to say thank you for my breakfast of half a ruby grapefruit, homemade bread and herbal tea, I consider the complex origins of this simple meal.

This fat juicy grapefruit grew on a tree from seed to green fruit to ripe, heavy fruit that someone picked off the tree in Florida, put into a box and shipped all the way to Oregon, where it came to the Thriftway Market in a truck to be placed in the bin by the man with the green apron for me to squeeze and find worthy to go into my shopping cart. ThisDSCN3943 morning, I removed it from my refrigerator, cut it in half, placed half in a container to save for tomorrow, half in a small white bowl, cut around the edges with a sharp knife, then sat at my table to savor the fat juicy bites that wake my tongue and call saliva from the back of my mouth. What if this grapefruit had fallen to the ground, to be bruised and eaten by bugs? What if the sun wasn’t warm enough or it rained too much? It would not be here on my table now.

As I finish eating my grapefruit, the tea kettle squeals. I pour boiling water over a Red Zinger tea bag, watching the water turn red. This tea is a blend of rose hips, licorice, chamomile and other herbs grown in sun and rain, harvested, dried and blended in a factory in Colorado, put into filmy paper bags and a box that ends up at the market for me to buy, brew and drink at my table. Afterward I will throw the bag away, its contents squeezed until they run white. What a miracle that I have this tea every morning to drink.

My bread took four hours to make a few days ago. With blues playing on the radio, I mixed yeast, flour, sugar, oil, water and salt into a big lump which I kneaded with my hands, let rise, shaped into braids, let rise again, and baked. Each ingredient was grown and processed by someone, sold to the grocery store and sold to me to be combined into this mouth-pleasing substance that I warm one slice at a time in the toaster oven and spread with a butter substitute made from yogurt, oil and other ingredients, each harvested, cooked, shaped and packaged far away. Each bite is soft in the middle, crunchy on the outside, slippery on top, satisfying to my body and soul.

So much effort, so much life, has gone into this food that I eat at dawn, the smallest and least complex of my meals. Although too many people have nothing to eat, I never question that my food will be there every morning, that when I run low I can go get more. How dare I not pay attention when I should be thankful and awestruck with every bite?