Looking back on some of the things I’ve done in my life, in the quest to try new things, makes me laugh and feel good that stupid is not a character trait. Most of it involves culinary gaffes. I come by it honestly; I think the gene mutation started with my mom. This particular mutation compels a girl to start living off the collard green grid.
Once, my mom decided to cook an exotic dish. She ripped out the recipe from a glossy magazine, which promised mouth-watering Thai inspired, “Peanut Chicken.” She worked on that dish for several hours one Saturday. Imagine dry chicken breasts dipped in crunchy peanut butter; that was the flavor. You can bet she didn’t follow the recipe. My mom was an original Jazzercize queen in purple warm-ups. She was always looking for ways to make something low-calorie. In the kitchen, she committed mostly heresy and this isn’t back-biting because she would be the first to fess up. She is reformed now, so there is a silver lining. Her kitchen ran in sharp contrast to her chicken-fried, Georgia, mama-in-law, and her own Southern Living-inspired, North Carolina mother, who loves to cook fancy cheese grits with gruyere. Both my grandmothers moved to Florida to marry. The only thing I don’t remember my mom toning down was our vegetables – they were always cooked in fat-back.
That Saturday we tried to eat the, so-called, “Thai chicken,” but my sister’s gag reflux kicked in and I think my mom ordered us out of the kitchen at spatula-point. The only ingredient that could have made it possible to swallow her dish would have been a gallon of cold milk. My mom’s best friend came over and ate the chicken, instead. Looking back I know what a good friend she had; if you can find someone to eat your nasty experiments and smile, you have a true soul mate. The same goes for a husband or wife.
I’ve done some very stupid things in the kitchen. Later, I gained a dear friend from Marrakesh, who gave me many self-less cooking lessons; until then, I was at the mercy of English-language, Moroccan cookbooks. I wanted desperately to bring the flavors of my husband’s hometown to our dinner table. My very Arab husband endured many Moroccan-inspired dishes before I ever figured out how to make it taste down home. I hope all the food he digested, with a grin, counts for something on the Day of Judgment. He was a good sport. I wish back then that I would have had a resource like this – check out Christine Benlafquih’s recipes on about.com. I’ve followed many of them, verbatim, and they are delicious (and stupid-proof).
The thing about a lot of Moroccan cookbooks is that they are fusion-inspired, which is not at all helpful when you want to keep it real. It’s like a Japanese girl married to a boy from Alabama, trying to cook collard greens, by sauteing them in extra virgin olive oil, as per the cookbooks instructions. It might be a healthy choice, but that’s about all. Her husband will digest those greens like a foreign object and say, “thank you,” if he’s smart. Poor girl, she’ll know, and then she’ll be back out there, again, hustling to find the resources to capture that down-home flavor.
While I’m on the subject, even though I’m no relationship expert (just ask my very Arab husband), one secret of success for a bi-cultural marriage is acquiring a taste, or at least a fondness, for the flavors of your spouse’s hometown. That sounds easy, but it’s a work-in-progress that will consume at least the first five years of your matrimony. Once you start to share common taste buds, and you’ve toiled thick-skinned, through the jungle to accomplish that, then you will both transcend any remaining, pesky communication barriers. Shared dishes never fail to convey the most subtle affections. It is more than food; you are serving up a steaming plate of nostalgia, from which you will both become nourished. Maybe the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. My husband can testify that the same is true for a woman’s heart. He can make finger-lickin’ barbecue (beef) ribs rival any southern picnic spread. If you make those strides, together, you will combine with a quality of love and companionship that can endure life’s tidal waves, where you might have otherwise been tossed to far-apart islands, to live in the bewilderment of what might have been. I think that’s along the lines of what Robert Frost meant by, ‘The Road Less Traveled.’
Anyway, back to my culinary gaffes. Needing to rely strictly on recipes tended to bring out the stupid in me. I was reminded of this last Monday when my daughter’s co-op homeschool science teacher – (here is her informative and fun blog) -sent home an assignment to make rock candy using a styrofoam cup, colored sugar-water, and a wooden stick. Her instructions stated to put the liquid in a warm, dry place to form the crystals. The first time I ever tried a recipe, which instructed me to keep the contents in a warm place, it turned out very badly.
Before I took care of young’uns all day, I had a lot of time on my hands to do stupid stuff. Yes, thank God stupid is not a character trait! My inspiration was my North Carolina grandmother’s lament ringing in my ears. In my last year of high school she’d always say to me at breakfast: “What are you going to do when you get married one day? How are you going to survive? I hope you know you are gonna have to marry a chef if ya’ll want to survive,” and then she’d hand me my toast, maybe even bacon, and scrambled eggs. My husband worked in a kitchen when I met him, cooking food. I had to prove to myself that I was capable.
Well, one day I set out to defy all odds by making fresh bread from scratch, armed with a festive-looking cookbook from the library. Listen, folks, if you want to become a home-cook, start with something like a milk-shake. Don’t graduate yourself to making fresh bread. Read on and you’ll see why.
I went to a local mom n’ pop grocer to buy all of the necessary ingredients. It was a southern college town, and this store was a local hot spot for all sorts. There were patchouli-scented hippies in dreadlocks and long arm-pit hair, buying herbs, and carrying happy, wide-eyed babies, nestled inside homemade slings. Next, there were old ladies in Sag Harbor sweaters and blue hair, flirting with the babies, while picking up batches of fresh collard greens and fat back. Last, there was me, sporting a matronly polyester-blend head scarf- that I probably picked up at an Islamic conference somewhere from a kind brother, wearing a shalwar kameez and henna-dyed beard, heartily congratulating me on my new-found faith while throwing in a free prayer-book.
I remember wandering around those hippies and blue-haired ladies, on a mission to find this ingredient called “yeast.” Apparently, yeast was required to make fresh bread, a commodity that I had only eaten fresh as buttermilk biscuits and I’d never made them on my own; though, my dearly beloved, North Carolina, grandmother told me at least a dozen times how she’d won the County Fair’s prize for “Best Buttermilk Biscuits.” I was determined to make fresh bread the Moroccan way; they prepare it from various types of flour, then shape it into a round disc, like mountain bread. They eat it with every meal, except cous-cous. If you want to become a Moroccan cook, at some point, you are going to have to tackle bread-making.
I found myself in the last aisle; on the left were all types of flours separated into plastic bins. The customer scooped out however much they required, weighed, and then labeled it before paying at the cash register. I came upon a bin labeled, “nutritional yeast.” Oh great!, I said to myself, yeast is even nutritional. I scooped up a whole bunch of it with visions of making fresh bread every day and probably skipped to the closest cashier; I was tickled with myself at finding real live yeast.
So, I got home and thumped that cookbook on the table, then opened the page, dog-eared, for fresh bread. It said to start with preparing your yeast by mixing it with some warm milk, sugar, and water, and then wait for it to rise. I waited…and waited. I’d read almost every other recipe in the book but the yeast would not bubble up like the book said it must. Thus, began my love-hate relationship with dough that endured for seven long years. I said to myself, oh heck- forget it!, and just threw the concoction into the flour mixture I had already measured out. Next, I added the required amount of water to begin kneading. I was sweating all over at the end. Making bread is a workout. Instead of Jazzercize, my mother could have been making bread for us all those years. It did not feel at all like the book said it should feel to the touch – which is elastic, shiny and springs back easily when you poke it with your finger. No matter, I shaped it into a pseudo-circle and laid it on a square pan to rise.
An hour went by and my dough was sad-looking, and not at all like the cookbook photo, which was making me feel very jealous. I traced my finger back over the recipe and returned to the part where it said to rise the bread in a warm place. There’s the trouble, I re-assured myself, this home is too cold, though it was the middle of summer. Why don’t I turn on the shower to the hottest setting? That’ll make it real steamy. My bread just needs a warm, spa treatment, and then surely she’ll rise and I’ll cook her. Clearly, I had no concern for the cost of heating. Not long after, my husband came home to find me all dressed, yet steam is rising in a continuous flow through the bottom crack of the bathroom door.
“What are you doing?,” he asked.
“I’m making bread, duh!”
The only thing worse than doing something stupid is being caught red-handed doing something stupid. I don’t remember whether he laughed, or hung his head, or checked my head for a fever. I was too disappointed at the un-realized dream of fresh bread to notice his reaction. I also don’t remember what we ate for dinner that night. In those days my husband cooked a lot of good grub for us, and I prepared whatever simple dishes my grandma could tutor me to cook over the phone.
After that day, I found out that yeast, to make bread, is not called nutritional yeast which is thin and flaky. It is sold as brownish granules. I’m glad I did not let stupid get in the way of my aspirations. Now, we eat fresh bread every week and I can prepare a lot more than just round, stinkin’ loaves. I could feed an army with a carton of yeast and flour, if duty called. In fact, I make so much bread, I buy flour in industrial quantities. The only tragedy is that its shape is always on the funky side – not quite Moroccan, so it’s a good thing I have my collard green roots to pull me up.
I was going to say something else on the subject of bread-making, but its 10:40 p.m. and my four-year-old daughter just got out of bed to see if I’m still breathing. I told her to go back, that “I’m off the clock,” but she won’t listen. I’ll probably only have time tomorrow during my hectic day to give this one fast proof-read over. I’ve got plenty more culinary adventures to share. I hope you will stay tuned and that my kids laugh about this one day. I want them to know that, baby, I really have come a long, very long way.