Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Food is love

At the 2004 Eastern Virginia Writing Project, Emily Pease gave us a simple assignment:  write about forgiveness.  This is what I wrote then ... five years later, it still rings true.


When all else fails, bake cookies.

That was my mom's mantra when I was growing up. It was a useful strategy in a house with two children and no television ... my father's edict based on his belief that broadcast media were intrinsically evil, in spite of his employment on Madison Avenue. Or perhaps because of it.

On rainy days when my brother and I had exhausted the amusement potential of blocks and records and board games, we resorted to bickering.

"Did so."

"Did not."

"Did so."

"Did not."


Sometimes she punted by sending us to the neighbors, who had televisions and more relaxed standards for child-rearing. Sometimes she stayed home, no doubt savoring the silence. Sometimes she went with us, to sit over coffee and cigarettes with the other moms, until the combined forces of too many children in too-small a space resulted in the inevitable and we were all back at square one.


Sometimes she baked cookies. Opening a bottle of vanilla extract is all it takes to trigger the memory of the school bus yellow bag of Nestle's Semi-Sweet Morsels. Preheating the oven ("Why Mom?"). Kneeling on wooden chairs at the red and white oilcloth of the kitchen table. Plopping bars of Imperial margarine into the green Pyrex mixing bowl (hearing the trumpet voluntary as an imaginary crown appears on my head).

Greasing the cookie sheets by rubbing traces of margarine from the inside of the golden foil wrapper. Carefully measuring tablespoon after tablespoon of brown sugar and white sugar, six of each. Sniffing the vanilla bottle, never daring to taste it. Cracking egg shells on the edge of the bowl, wrinkling my nose at the slimy cold wetness of the egg whites. Sifting flour and baking soda and salt together ("Why Mom?"). Sneaking chocolate chips out of the bag. Spooning lumps of dough onto the cookie sheets. Licking the beaters.

Bliss. What better way to divert attention, ensure peace and quiet? Buttery warm crumbs of sweetness and liquid chocolate. Icy cold milk. It never failed.

So why reinvent the wheel? When my own two daughters exhausted the amusement potential of Barbie dolls and cassette tapes and board games and television, they inevitably resorted to bickering and I to cookies. I must confess that I skipped a step or two. Too impatient to measure out sugar in tablespoons I quickly converted quantities into cup measure, the sooner to get to the end product. For product, not process, was what I was about. And the eggs? All that salmonella lurking in wait, prohibiting the licking of beaters? No fear. I used Second Nature Better'n Eggs, duly pasteurized and patently safe for raw consumption. For what was the point if not to lick the bowl? And indeed, why even bother with all the fuss of greasing pans and preheating ovens, scooping dough and juggling hot pans? Let 'em eat cookie dough! It never failed.

It was a point of pride with me, being the mom who let everyone eat cookie dough. I was a hero in my own hometown, a legend in my own time. I never counted the cost, the calories, the cholesterol. Who cared? The kids were happy, I was happy. Bliss.

And now they've grown up, become teenagers. No wait, one is 21 now. How did that happen? Angst reigns. Like all parents, I goof, make mistakes, screw up royally. And then owning up to my mistakes, apologize when it is called for, which is more often than I care to admit.

"Why can't you get it right the first time, Mom?"

Why not indeed? We, as parents, never actually set out to infuriate our children, though they believe otherwise. Recently I read Robert Farrar Capon's book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment in which he said, "When I crippled my children emotionally (or when my parents crippled me) it was not done out of meanness or spite, it was done out of love: genuine, deeply felt, endlessly pondered human love -- flawed, alas, by a self-regard so profound that none of us ever noticed it." And I could relate.

Which is why my mantra is: When all else fails, make cookie dough.  Because the inevitable inevitably happens.  So when all is not well in the small world called home, cookie dough is the signal to one and all that forgiveness is humbly sought. And my daughters know that to accept the cookie dough is to offer a gift:  to forgive yet again.

They haven't turned me down yet. 

Chocolate Chip Cookies, the DJ Montague version
(makes 6-8 dozen)

2 8-ounce tubs Land O Lakes butter with canola oil
1 pound box Domino light brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup Better'n Eggs, scant
4-5 cups unbleached white flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp kosher salt
24 ounces Nestle semisweet chocolate morsels (none other)

Cream butter, sugars and vanilla, then beat in eggs
Mix in baking soda, salt, and 2 cups flour
Fold in, 2 more cups of flour, then slowly add enough
flour to keep the dough from being sticky
Fold in chocolate chips and scoop onto a greased cookie sheet

Bake at 350 for 7-8 minutes in a convection oven or
10-11 minutes at 360 in a regular oven, until edges are brown
Leave on sheet for 5 minutes, then put on a cooling rack
Perfect for tea parties or with a glass of ice cold milk

- Eastern Virginia Writing Project 2007: Poetry and peaches

For Peaches

On a Carolina highway,
air rippling with early summer heat,
my thumb
seeks the reassurance
of soft flesh
ripened to perfection.

Rose and gold and palest jade
rim the edge of heaven,
nexus of sand and sea and sky;
the sunrise a recapitulation
of summer sun imprinted
on fragrant orbs.

Silver blade in hand
I cleave flesh
into wedges drenched with juice,
sweetened with sugar,
freckled with cinnamon.

Then open the oven
to air rippling with heat
that will meld
flour and butter
sugar and cream
into a cobbled bed;
a perfect end
for peaches.

Peach Cobbler

1/4 cup melted butter
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup Bisquick
Splash of heavy cream

Combine and press crust into an 8x8 pan, then top with
3-4 cups sliced peaches mixed with
2 Tbs sugar with a pinch of cinnamon
1/2 tsp cornstarch or instant tapioca

Bake at 400 until peaches are bubbling and crust is lightly browned
N.B. This recipe has never been followed exactly, rather it is an approximation to be modified as you will

- Priming the Pump: Shrimp Pasta

Since I want to bulk up this blog with some content, I'm going to dig out some writing from our Williamsburg days. This recipe is for a must-have-dish when the Ackert clan heads to the Outer Banks each June.  It was discovered during a business trip with some fellow librarians to Kohler, Wisconsin, home of the “Toilet Wall of Fame" (aka the Kohler Design Center).

After learning more about bathrooms than we ever needed to know, we tried to find a simple place to eat for dinner and happened on an Italian restaurant in a strip mall. The menu was agreeably low-priced with entrees around eight dollars (this was 20 years ago). We made reservations and returned several hours later dressed in jeans only to find that we were in a high-end bistro with incredible food; everyone else was dressed to the nines. Who knew that Wisconsin restaurants charged one-third as much as Williamsburg restaurants did?

The Shrimp Pasta I ate that night was made with linguine, asparagus, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and prosciutto, along with an abundance of shrimp, cream and parmesan. The recipe that I cobbled together once I returned to Williamsburg has gone through many, many permutations over the years, so whatever ingredients you do or don’t put in, it’s really not possible to mess it up … unless, of course, you use bait shrimp.*

Shrimp Pasta

1 lb. pasta (linguine, rigatoni, fusilli ... your choice)
2 lb. Carolina shrimp (10-25 count, no farm shrimp allowed)
2-3 cups of fresh tomatoes, cut bite-sized (beefsteak, grape, plum ... as red and juicy as you can find)
1 to 2 cups of heavy cream
1 to 2 cups of half-and-half (regular or fat-free)
1 cup or more of fresh grated parmesan (parmigiano reggiano if possible)

  • Prosciutto, shredded
  • Scallions, thin sliced
  • Kalamata olives, chopped
  • Garlic butter
  • Fresh white corn, boiled and sliced from the cob
  • Asparagus, cooked al dente and cut into 1" pieces
  • Sun dried tomatoes, cut in small pieces and softened in the heavy cream
Cook the pasta al dente in salted water
Peel and steam the shrimp, cut into bite-sized chunks
Simmer and reduce the heavy cream until thick and fragrant
Add half-and-half as needed to keep the cream from over-thickening
Prep additions as desired
Mix everything together in a very large bowl ... it doesn't hurt to let it sit and meld for awhile

Serve with red wine (Malbec is my current favorite), cold beer (Bass Ale anyone?), or a Mexican Martini (the Texans' answer to Margaritas ... just add olive juice).

* What's with the bait shrimp? 
Well, that's another story.  On many of our Outer Banks vacations, Meg was "odd man out" since she was at least three years older than most of the other kids who came bundled with our former college friends and erstwhile co-vacationers.  So Meg would bring along a friend of her own to keep her company.  One year, not sure she wanted to join us for a meal of steamers (soft shelled clams), Meg's friend Jessica opted for some steamed shrimp instead. Not knowing that someone had stashed bait shrimp in the fridge, we didn't give any credence to the kids' table comments about the "really little shrimp" that Jessica was diligently trying to peel.  It was only after dinner that we discovered the regular shrimp still sitting in the fridge and the bait shrimp nowhere to be found.  Jessica survived to tell the tale, and is now happily married and a proud parent in her own right.