Lately I’ve been doing more of the cooking at our place. I rely mostly on not-too-challenging recipes from the New York Times and the occasional old favorite. The effort has gotten me thinking.
For me – I think I speak for most eaters – it’s much easier to say, “That’s delicious!” if the item in question suggests a happy memory or two. This is true even if what is called up from the past is by current standards really disgusting. I’ll mention three of my favorites.
In our lives before veganism, Ann showed me how to make macaroni and cheese with real cheese. It was good. Since then, I’ve made it with nondairy cheese – mostly cashews, brewers yeast, and spices worked over in a blender. It’s good, too. In either case, the dish calls up happy memories of Kraft Dinner with its cheese-flavored powder additive that’s made of things not found in nature. Kraft Dinner speaks of Mother’s love; she would always make sure I had some in my knapsack on Scout camping trips to supplement the can of beans that was the only other thing I could cook. It was easy to make. Just pour the mac into boiling water and after a few minutes stir in the powder. Served with beans heated in the can, it was part of sitting around a campfire with some other boys knowing that we were well on our way to being able to take on anything the world put in our way. That experience is the standard by which any current version of mac and cheese, gourmet or vegan, is measured. Happily, most variations are close enough to pass.
Here’s another revolting dish that I enjoyed in my youth as well as to this day when I visit Austin: soda crackers with squeeze Parkay. That’s what down-market TexMex restaurants in Austin offer as appetizers. They’re on the table before you sit down, like salt (with rice in the shaker to absorb moisture) and pepper and sugar (with bits of Ritz crackers in the tall container with the pour spout – also a desiccant). You sit in a vinyl-covered booth that often as not leaks stuffing and is sticky from spills, and you are surrounded by velvet paintings of subjects, such as President Kennedy or the Last Supper. If you’re a student with a student’s appetite and a student’s budget and you’ve got a cold Lone Star beer in hand, soda crackers covered with a generous squirt of Parkay go down real easy. And now, when dining in a New York City high-end Mexican restaurant, thin tortilla chips and a house-made hot sauce are enjoyable in direct proportion to how well they call up El Azteca out on East Seventh.
Now and then, the Times carries a recipe for some sort of elaborate sandwich. Recently, it featured one built on tofu marinated in pickle juice, dipped in batter, and deep fried till crispy. It’s served on a bun with various additions, such as shredded cabbage. (This one makes my point, even though I don’t make it; Ann does.) De trop as it sounds, it’s delicious. It makes me think of the best sandwich I’ve ever known. I could easily make one now, but Ann wouldn’t eat it, and I don’t think my old-man body would hold up well under the strain.
You start with Wonder Bread (white, of course) on which you slather as much Miracle Whip as it will hold. In between slices, you put baloney, processed cheese, pickles, and a leaf of iceberg lettuce. Real mayonnaise would ruin it. So would real cheese, non-processed meat, and more nutritious lettuce. If possible, you take it with you when you go fishing. You let it sit in the sun until the lettuce goes limp, the bread gets soggy, and the Miracle Whip approaches health-hazard level. This creates a stew-like concoction, the lip-smacking delight of which has not been lessened by time. If something like a sandwich of deep-fried tofu marinated in pickle juice rings my chimes, it’s because it’s accompanied in my mind by baloney and Miracle Whip on its way to putrefaction.
It’s likely my notion of happy memories as the necessary ingredient of a successful culinary offering explains why the mess served in hospitals is inedible. All it calls up is something you’d prefer to forget. The same goes for airplane food. It’s probably the reason airplanes don’t serve meals anymore. When they did, too many people left the trays mostly untouched, so why bother.
Meanwhile, in a small effort to be useful, I’ll continue cooking now and then. Anyway, I enjoy doing it, and it’s a harmless way to indulge the geezer tendency to live in the past.