Saltastrophe: The Saltening

Here’s what it’s like when I make dinner.

Day 1. Plan that shit in advance.

I have a lot of butternut squash. I like tacos. What if I put those things together? Look! Someone already has. I can work with this. I mean, obviously we’re going to change a few things (ahem, refried beans, ahem).

Read the recipe and make a grocery list; basically, plan the hell out of it.

Day 2. Go to the grocery store.

I attempt to buy 20 medium shallots, because pickled shallots. Mariano’s has three in a baggie for three dollars. I do some quick math and refuse to pay $20 for shallots, but buy everything else on the list.

Day 3. Try another store.

The produce market has a small bag of the largest shallots you’ve ever seen. That one there? I suspect it of independent thought. There are only seven or eight shallots in this mesh bag, but there is nothing medium about them.

The Shallot that took down Tokyo.

The shallot that took down Tokyo.

This brings up a lot of tough questions:

  • What is medium?
  • How many medium shallots could fit in one of these Mac Daddy shallots?
  • What’s size, anyway, but an arbitrary concept?
  • Are we all not a medium shallot?
  • Why are we even here?

I reason that one of these giant shallots is at least two medium shallots. Really, seven or eight of these should be plenty, but I buy two bags. To be safe.

Now I have all the ingredients to make dinner, but I don’t make it home until 7:30 and I’m already starving. Pizza naan for dinner.

Day 4. Make the fucking dinner or give up on life.

Step 1. Pickle up some shallots.

Of course, the recipe doesn’t acknowledge this as a separate step. It’s all, Oh hey, you know those pickled shallots that you keep around the place, because who wouldn’t? No? Wow. Okay…you could start making them now. That’s cool, I guess.

Step 1a. Slice all the shallots.

The recipe doesn’t tell me to do this, but who are they kidding? I’m not going to put one of these bad boys all whole onto one of my tacos.

All I can smell is shallots. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t crying over a stinking pile of veg. The world has shrunk to me: the cutting board, my Japanese knife, and these shallots. I’m a shallot-slicing factory. Slice, snip, peel peel, slice slice slice slice slice. Rinse, repeat.

shallots

All I have and all I am are these shallots.

I’ve made it through one bag of shallots and that’s quite enough. There’s no way I’m eating all of these, anyway.

Step 1b. Prep the pickling solution (ie, dump shit into a pot and boil.)

I still haven’t technically begun with the first step in the recipe.

Behold, the glory.

Behold, the glory.

Looks like I’ll need a teaspoon of salt. Wait a damn minute! I have a new device just for this. In fact, I have it calibrated to dispense exactly one teaspoon of kosher salt, specifically because it’s such a common measurement.

Ruh-roh. Some of the salt is stuck. The container just needs a shake to loosen it up.

The lid wasn’t so secure, after all. It’s like a volcano of salt erupting over my stove.

Mount St. Sodium.

Salt. Is. Everywhere. It’s covering my stove top, the counter, the floor. It’s stuck to the fossilized grease on the front of the range, in the crook of the handle to the oven door.

I scratch my head. There’s salt in my hair.

I grab a paper towel and attempt to swipe salt off the range; it just embeds further under the burner grates. I wipe down the counter and salt finds the fissure between the stove and the cabinet. Whatever tiny kingdom lives at the bottom of this canyon will never grow anything again.

Looks like it’s a good thing I still haven’t returned my friends’ baby vacuum.

The dog comes in to investigate. I fire up the vacuum, and she breaks a speedy retreat in reverse.

There. I’ve made the salt my bitch. I leave the vacuum on the kitchen floor because, really, I have important things to finish. Bitches gotta bounce.

I still need to add salt.

See? Timesaver.

See? Time-saver.

shallots picklingThe mixture boils. I add the shallots.

They can simmer while I work out the tacos. Speaking of…

Step 2. I’m an hour in at this point, and just reached what the recipe considers Step 1. Fuck  you, Food Network!

Time to reclaim my kitchen cool.

I don’t spend my time peeling a butternut squash and dicing it. I pull out some pre-peeled, pre-cubed squash from my freezer.

Suck on that, squash.

I roll the black beans in the skillet with the browned squash and aromatic spices.

I add the Serrano peppers to mellow the flavor and add a hint of smokiness.

squashnbeans

Yep. That’s cast iron. Come at me.

Time to assemble the tacos!

Like a good girl, I’ve mise en place’d the fuck out of this shit. Cilantro plucked from its stems, washed and drained? Check. Chihuahua cheese instead of cream? Check.

Pickled shallots?

friends

Tortillas hot from a dry skillet? Check.

I layer the ingredients in tacos like a boss.

butternut squash tacos

See that blinding light emanating from flour tortillas under the light of my flash? This is how my skin looks in the sun.

I am a genius. And it only took an hour and a half, plus a vacuum.

Nahm nahm, motherfuckers.

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Call Her Margaret

This is not going to be one of those stories. You know, where I explain my love of cooking with misty memories of my mom and grandma in the kitchen. That’s not my family. I didn’t learn food in the kitchens of my childhood; I learned guilt and shame, like a good Catholic.

I.  At seven, in my mother’s kitchen, I learned not to call my mom’s mother Grandma.

I was returning from backyard exile, flushed and sweaty from the July heat. I gave the woman a warm (and sweaty) hug. “Hi Grandma!”

She sucked air in through her teeth—a hiss like a snake, or the shocked sibilant of a vampire doused in holy water. “Grandma is for someone…” She paused. …warm? …inviting? …loving? She failed to finish her sentence, starting a new one instead. “You call me Grand Mother or nothing at all, you understand?”

I looked at my mom, wondering if it was too soon to retire to my bedroom with a book. Come to think of it, Mom looked like she could use a dose of Beverly Cleary, herself.

II. Every Thanksgiving I learned that, no matter what someone makes for you, you have to eat it.

Grand Mother’s signature dish—Jello salad—graced Mom’s table every year. It was neither Jello nor salad, but shredded carrots suspended in a sea of orange gelatinous goo. I retain only a whisper of memory when I was taught to suck it up and deal with how awful this food abomination was. I do recall, with startling detail, dutifully scooping orange jiggly carrots onto my plate and eating every bite.

III. At six or seven, I learned that you can do the wrong thing without even knowing it was wrong.

I was sitting at Grand Mother’s kitchen table, eating the sandwich she made me. She was standing several feet away when she bent over and looked under my chair to make sure that my Mary Janes did not touch the wooden spindles of her chair legs. Mary Janes have buckles, and buckles spell disaster for wooden chairs.

IV. At nine or ten, I learned that cheese makes you fat.

I stayed the night at Grand Mother’s house—an occasion that my mom forced on us both. Saturday morning, I sat in my pajamas at the kitchen table, slathering my bagel with cream cheese. Grand Mother watched me shrewdly. “You really like cream cheese, don’t you?” She drew out the word really until it was almost a song.

Later that morning, I dressed in my pale pink skirt set for the wedding we were attending. I emerged from the spare bedroom, nervous without knowing why. Grand Mother beckoned me over, turned me around. “You can certainly see where all the cream cheese is going, can’t you?”

V. At twelve, I learned to call things by their proper name.

It was Easter dinner at Grand Mother’s house. I had already learned the importance of being polite at the table; Grand Mother’s family had a lot of rules, like which direction to pass food and which fork to use to eat your salad. Of course there was a ritual for asking someone to pass you a dish.

Accordingly, I waited for an opening in the conversation before politely asking my cousin, “Laura, can you please pass the butter?”

“There’s no butter at this table,” snapped Grand Mother.

Terrified and confused, I looked to my mother. She smiled tenderly, sadly. “She means margarine,” Mom said, to me or to Grand Mother, I’m not sure.

“Well,” Grand Mother huffed. “Margarine and butter are not the same.”

I certainly knew the difference between the two, but in our house, you treated yourself to butter on a fucking holiday. Everyone understood my polite request, anyway, since the margarine was already en route when Grand Mother brought the snark.

If using the wrong fork or asking for the wrong spreadable fat was such bad form, how was it appropriate to make a twelve-year-old feel like shit at the dining table? Such was etiquette, in our family at least: a set of complicated rules wielded as power. Somehow, for Grand Mother, etiquette never extended to the good treatment of others. It only encompassed an invisible, ever-shifting set of rules she used to make everyone else feel inferior.

VI. At seventeen, I learned about rebellion and smarts.

I returned home, carrying the soda my brothers requested. Everyone was in the kitchen, setting the table. My quest had taken me to the grocery store in town; I hadn’t thought to check the newly constructed Walgreens on the corner.

Grand Mother, of course, had something to say. “Anyone with smarts would have checked Walgreens first.”

The woman passed out her insults with passive aggressive panache. It certainly wouldn’t bother her to call me stupid, but she never would do so in front of my family. Even if she did, probably nobody would do anything. It isn’t good etiquette to form a mob and hunt down your Grand Mother. With pitchforks. And shovels.

Good etiquette would have me tuck my tail apologetically and live a long, timid life without striving for greatness, in or out of the kitchen. But that’s not what I did.

I stood tall and looked her in the eyes. “What are you saying, Grand Mother, that I’m stupid?” Everyone in the room knew the complete opposite; she and I both knew she couldn’t say those direct words here.

For the first time, I had silenced my Grand Mother.

VII. Almost twenty years later, Thanksgivings in my home are full of friends and love.

Every dish is a tiny rebellion—brined turkey, gorgeous roasted vegetables, rolls made from scratch, and pies that make you give thanks.

We don’t serve judgment or Jello salad.

There is butter, made from goat’s milk. You just don’t have to ask for it by name.