Featurettes

Words and Images by Betsy DiJulio

Lessons from a French Kitchen by Richard Goodman

Limits by Dinah Lenney

Slaughterhouse by Marissa Landrigan

Home is Where the Beer Is by Adam Blake Wright

Navel Gazing by Samuel Stinson

The Sacred Canon by Betsy DiJulio

Game Over by PES

A Return to M.F.K. Fisher by Leo Racicot

Two Poems by L.A. Ashby

Dame Factor Inc. by Melanie Abramov

With Mangoes by Grace Pauley

Table 7 by Marko Slavnic

Monster Roll by Dan Blank

Revenge by Lernert and Sander

Poor Girl Gourmet by Amy McCoy

The First Taste by Saatchi & Saatchi and Heckler

Samba Salad by Sandra Kaas

flatten by Kay van Vree and Hugo de Kok

Ways of Cheddar Chex Mix by Megan Kimble

Menupoems 2014

Chocolate Bunny by Lernert and Sander

The Traveller Eggs by Nora Silva

Interview by Peggy Wolff

Fermentophone by Joshua Pablo Rosenstock

Lycopersicum by Uli Westphal

Cupcake Canon by Johnny Cupcakes and Kamp Grizzly

Street View Supermarket by Liat Berdugo

Modern Art Desserts by Caitlin Freeman

Travel Around the Hob by Nora Silva

Marzipan in Toledo by Kristen Hemlsdoefer

10,000 Items or Less by Blair Neal

Menupoems 2013

How to Explain It to My Parents by Lernert & Sander

The Burger Foundation by Michelle Ellsworth

Bebe Coca-Cola by Décio Pignatari

Tournedo Gorge by Kathi Inman Berens

Food Remix by Michelle Ellsworth

Interview with Darra Goldstein

Eating on Berry Street by Emily Nemens

In the Most Unlikely Places by Jason Bell

The Birthplace of the Tomato by David Wanczyk

Pot Luck by Cindy McCain

Secret Foods

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Limits

by Dinah Lenney

This month we're delighted to present a talk about turning life into art and an essay that turns life into art by the wonderful Dinah Lenney.

October 2015    

This morning I broke a plate. I’d like to blame the counter, Mexican tile, yellow, blue, and green (pretty, but not functionaI); didn’t put it in and I’d take it out in a minute for a slab of granite or even some old-fashioned Formica—something smooth, something easy to scrub. But the accident wasn’t the fault of the tile, bumpy as it is. I’d placed the plate on the edge of the sink, balanced it there between the tiles and the rim. Why? I can’t remember why. I guess the sink must have been full, and nothing on the plate but a mound of Aunt Jemima’s Buttermilk Complete Pancake Mix (and that’s to the point, the fact that I don’t whip up pancakes from scratch.) I was in a hurry. The actual pancakes were waiting—a lovely, fluffy batch of them, not a bit greasy (Aunt Jemima’s is fool proof)—when my son asked for confectioner’s sugar instead of maple syrup. I went to the cupboard, pulled out a plastic container with a purple top, scooped some onto a nine-inch circle of Buffalo China, and from there, sprinkled a teaspoon of what I thought was the sweet stuff over his stack. Turned out to be more pancake mix. “Tastes funny, Mom,” Jake said, spitting into his napkin. Deftly, not in the least bit flustered, I transferred his breakfast onto another plate and went back to the cupboard for the real thing, also in Tupperware—whiter, finer, silkier (had I been paying attention the first time, I’d have known the difference, of course)—and that’s when I must have put the first plate, clean but for that little mound of mix, in that precarious spot: half tile, half stainless steel.

After the kids left for school, with the beds half-made and the dishwasher half-emptied, pressed for time as I was, I got it into my head that a bouquet on the coffee table needed water. I crossed the floor like a dancer, swift, graceful, never mind my bathrobe and my large, flat feet. Pas de chat back to the sink with the vase in my hands, where I pulled a long stem of Pussy Willow from the arrangement, and that’s when it happened, the plate did a cartwheel: it was as if someone had thrown a fistful of flour high in the air, drifting, drifting, and, in an instant—did I have time to close my eyes?—shards of blue and white china all over the floor. I didn’t so much as swear. I cleaned up the mess and moved on, which equanimity and good humor I attributed—odd, perhaps, under the circumstances—to personal enlightenment and self-acceptance, having to do with history and experience—this is the sort of thing that happens to me when I over-reach. I had exceeded my limits.

*

About domestic failure (mine): There are reasons. As evidenced by the list of chores in different stages of completion before the plate shattered, I am easily distracted. And distracted as I am, I’m always in a rush. But am I actually and truly distracted? Or just incapable of finishing what I start? Either way, I spend far too much time not in the moment, but in anticipation of the narrative arc. Stands to reason (having to do with my liking for narrative), that back in the day I had my nose in a book when I ought to have been absorbing the finer points of keeping house and garden. A shame, I know, but Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t inspire me to want to churn butter or make myself a dress—I only wanted to read more of those books. My admiration for housekeeping and animal husbandry, as demonstrated by the Ingalls—also the Marches, Heidi’s grandpa, and especially Mary Poppins (who could talk to birds, and tidy up with a snap of her fingers)—didn’t extend to real or sustained interest in milking or herding, canning or preserving, knitting, needle-point, forcing bulbs, or basic carpentry either (not like the brothers and sister who came after me), and nobody forced the issue. So I’m undereducated, I admit—also nearsighted (that loathesome fine print)—and consequently a fool with directions most of the time.

*

If you can read, you can cook, said a woman I know, as if she’d come up with the idea all by herself. Was she gloating? Wagging a finger? Cheering me on? She’s one of those people, nothing she can’t do. An extraordinary gardener—she grows eggplants, cabbages, and corn in heart of the metropolis; and she made her own curtains—better than curtains, she made drapes—heavy brocade and velvet, with lace liners peeking out from the vertical edge, and her drapes draped, they really did. And get this: once, when I admired a rather large lamp in her living room, she told me she’d wired it herself. Not only that—she tiled the table on which it sat from broken pottery she’d saved over the years.

Well, I know what would make a good lamp — I have an eye for shapely vases and bottles —but when my children wonder about the miracle of electricity, I direct them to David Macauley’s big bestseller, The Way Things Work.

As for sewing—I can’t. I never could. I went through a stage when I faux-embroidered the collars and cuffs of work shirts and blue jean jackets in vines and flowers; but the undersides of my creations were disastrously tangled. In ninth grade I got a C in home-ec (this was the 70s) because I put a zipper in a skirt upside down and backwards. Even today, I can just barely deal with a loose button or a falling hem, and I’m a terror with the iron, too, it’s true.

Tiling a table, I hear, is not so very hard. So now I, too, have a shopping bag full of bits and pieces somewhere in the back of one of the closets: the remains of more buffalo china (I’ve gone through half a set), a Portugese platter (a wedding gift from an old friend), and some badly chipped pottery, very pale pink, that my daughter found on a long-ago archeological dig in a corner of our own backyard. Truth is, I should throw it all away. I’m much more enamored of the tables tiled in Fiesta colors in the junk shops east of Alvarado Street; much prouder of a find and a bargain—something old, scratched ,and scarred—than I’d ever be of any homemade version of same.

It’s not that I’m a princess, mind you. My nails are not polished and my hair is wash’n’wear. I can vacuum and scrub toilets and dig holes and lay bricks; I can paint a flat surface, scrub pots, wash the dog, the windows, the car with the best of them. Okay, I admit I’ve never changed a flat—but I’ve always pumped my own gas. I don’t shy away from physical exertion, but it’s that hurry, hurry thing—no time, no vocabulary for the finer points—and dubious follow-through: Is it fear of failure, I wonder? (Does it speak to the arc of my whole career?) Some sort of attention deficit disorder? Or am I just lazy, is that what it is.

 

Back to food, though—if you’ve been consistently well-fed, well then, no matter how energetic you are (or are not), it is not enough to be able to read, no, I don’t believe it. Taste factors in: taste, which—albeit mysterious and subjective—is something to be cultivated (like talent), to the point where you know if the recipe is worth reading in the first place. Which is to say, my acquaintance (paragon that she is) is wrong: cooking is not the same as painting by numbers. More like art, cooking requires a palate as well as a palette (whisks, wooden spoons, and the like), and thanks to my mother, having nothing to do with any effort on my part, I’ve got both. Moreover, I make use of her gifts and sensibility with confidence; as if they were really and truly my own.

Take, for instance, my relationship with osso bucco a la Milanaise. I made it the first time as if I’d always known how: apparently I did know how—it felt like I did—to make it and say it and serve it; over risotto, which I simmered with real stock from the back of my freezer. I was—I am willing to chop and chop and chop, carrots and onion and celery; to slowly braise chunks of veal, coated in flour; to let them stew with wine and tomatoes (and the vegetables), a whole bay leaf, fresh ground pepper, and coarse Kosher salt. In this case—where osso bucco is involved—I wouldn’t dream of taking a short-cut, which is how I can predict that my guests will swoon with pleasure when I open the door; that the meat will cut like butter; that the marrow will be the best thing any of us ever spread over a hunk of bread. Menial labor, you bet, laid out in a recipe: even so, the results make me feel that I’m infinitely talented and well-brought-up, and I’ve got a whole lot of people besides me fooled. It’s not for nothing that I was recruited forty years ago to assemble the salad, to pass the hors d’oeuvres, to fill the sterling baby cups with long white-filtered cigarettes (Kents—remember Kents?), then empty the ashtrays and plump the pillows after the grown ups sat down to dinner. Now, in my own house, I arrange flowers and place settings (with good silver, yes, and cloth napkins, poorly ironed, alas), salad plates to the left, wine and water glasses to the right, and I imagine I’m the real article, really outstanding, to have created such a beautiful table.

*

My point: helpless as I am in most do-it-yourself arenas, quick to admit (and anticipate) my failings, I don’t just insist that cooking isn’t easy: I want you to believe that I’m good at it, besides. The truth? I clip recipe after recipe as if I will try them, then use the same ones—from Beard, and my mother, and Bittman, and my mother, and Hazan, and my mother—over and over and over again. I’m not nearly as versatile or adventurous in the kitchen as any of my siblings—and not one of us will ever be as good as our mother, who is a foodie, a four-star chef, a real gourmet. Still, I perpetuate the myth that I know what I’m doing (like-mother-like-daughter, I pretend) in spite of my limited repertoire. And here’s what I have going for me: One—my husband grew up on hamburger helper and Stouffers macaroni and beef. Two—as hinted at above, my mother has equipped me various tools including a Cuisinart, and a set of really good knives. Three, she’s a phone call away in a culinary crisis.

Our first Thanksgiving on the other side of the country I called her 18 times about the turkey. It would have been cheaper, the husband muttered sometime in the middle of that day (me, with my head perilously wound in telephone cord, and almost in the oven), to fly her out and let her make it herself.

And once I made a wonderful dish, short ribs in a rich tomato sauce, fragrant with cinnamon and clove, but the meat was supposed to fall off the bone and into the sauce like ground beef in a ragout, and at 6:00 with ten people due for dinner at 7:30, I was beside myself. “This,” said my mother, all the way from New York, “is a flaw in the recipe. We must write the author and tell him so. Now: cut and discard the membrane around each rib and the meat will do exactly as it should.” Bingo. Saved. I gave her all the credit, too (when everybody came back for seconds and thirds) which pedigree, I’m certain, only bolstered my credibility.

But if she’s a guru, my mother, she’s also a snob. Not so very long ago she came for dinner and I served her catfish in stewed tomatoes with olives and capers. In the end, she pronounced the meal delicious but I knew she was only being polite. She’d blinked hard, twice, when she discovered the tomatoes were recipe-ready out of the can. And as soon as I saw her expression, I knew she was right: she’d tasted the metal on the back of her tongue, and in that moment so did I. No question the dish would have been better had I simmered those tomatoes down by myself. I know better, I do—I know it’s worth getting it right.

All else can be going wrong, as it is today: The plumber can be upstairs resealing the tub (which he thinks might be the reason for the drop of water that hangs suspended from the recessed light in the bedroom below), the car can need a brake job, the cactus can be moldy, the printer nonfunctional—I can have broken a pretty blue and white plate, and scattered pancake mix all over the floor—but if I hark back to just before sunrise when I squeezed a few oranges into juice glasses, as was done for me when I was a kid, I’m able to pat myself on the back and carry on.

*

A few weeks ago we entertained a large group of people for dinner and I called my mother the next day, of course, to talk about the food: salmon steamed in pernod with fennel and watercress, forbidden rice, nutty and black, and a salad with endive and raddichio and feta and figs.

“And what about dessert?” my mother asked.

“I ran out of time,” I told her. “Bought a tart at Maison Richard—”

“I remember that place,” she said. “It’s a beautiful bakery.”

“You think so?”

“It’s in the best tradition in the best families,” said my mother, “to finish a meal with store-bought patisserie.”

“It is?” I crowed, delighted to be receiving high marks.

But maybe I sounded a little too pleased with myself for having been so intelligent.

"Anyway, sweetie,” said my mother. “We all need to know our limits.”



  Dinah Lenney wrote The Object Parade and Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir, and, with Judith Kitchen, edited, Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (W. W. Norton, 2015). The co-author of Acting for Young Actors, Dinah, herself, most recently played Frannie, the building inspector, on Showtime's Shameless. She serves as core faculty in the Bennington Writing Seminars and the Rainier Writing Workshop, and as the nonfiction editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. www.dinahlenney.com


 

Photo used under Creative Commons.