The Closet Gourmet
Getting suspended from graduate school is good and bad. I guess if you grew up believing education is everything, it can cause a huge identity crisis. On the other hand, I noticed something the other day that really blew my mind.
Food had a flavor to me for the first time. I’ve collected cookbooks over the years, which now sit in two or three dusty piles. There were times I experimented with different whole grains, frying them in a pan to see what they tasted like, eating them with fish. Soaking lentils and barley for soup. I’m not a big fan of over-seasoning food. I would eat plain rice cakes by the bag just to feel the texture and loved the way boiled quinoa squeaked between my teeth. When I was a kid I made Irish Soda Bread without the raisins and ate most of the dough before it went into the oven. As a snack I would eat uncooked regular oatmeal, lightly salted, right out of the single serving bag. Ultimately alone in or between marriages, I overcooked whatever I made or simply let produce rot in the refrigerator while I grabbed fast food on the way someplace else. English muffins, apples and oranges don’t taste as good to me as they did when I was a teenager stealing them from the refrigerator after my wicked stepmother beat me until her arms were tired and staggered off to bed. The men in my life come to understand that their chore is to keep me alive by feeding me. Having a boyfriend who cooks for me now, I still get to watch sundry vegetables rot if they’re not something he’s interested in eating. I’ve mourned the numerous artichokes I was forced to throw away before I browbeat him into learning how to steam them and prepare garlic butter. Now they’re his favorite dish.
Two things he can count on me to gripe about are, 1.) “why does everything have to be cooked?” and, more commonly, 2.) “why do we have to eat meat EVERY NIGHT?” (He can also count on me to leave my bread and potatoes on the plate.)
About a week ago, my daughter Mandy came to me and said, “Mommy, I want to make buttersong blossom soup.” She was going to use broccoli, honey and salt. Just those three ingredients. Not butter. I think she planned to put water in it or maybe milk. My boyfriend mocked the idea: “She doesn’t know how to cook.” I retorted, “Of course she doesn’t, you dimwit. She’s only nine years old.” To me it sounded delicious, but without the broccoli. It didn’t occur to me that she might have been remembering my Imperial Cream of Broccoli soup that I used to bring to church back when we used to go. My own recipe was sinfully popular, made with tons of butter, heavy cream and other things that are neither vegan nor kosher for at least 2 reasons, and I let people know this up front. I never added garlic or salt. I always went home with an empty pot.
OK, so the more I think about it, the more I have to admit I’m probably a closet gourmet. But my mouth watered when I thought of Buttersong Blossom Soup as the concept rolled off my daughter’s tongue and I thought about the honey and the salt, and decided to approach it from an academic angle. Remember the movie about the rat who stole a cookbook and rode it through a drainage ditch into the sewers of Paris? A couple of years ago, I had an animation teacher showing us how the eyes moved and gestures of the characters so we could imitate them. “Anyone can cook!” said the fat jolly famous chef in the movie. Apparently, “anyone” can’t learn 3D animation, according to the R.I.T. faculty, unless you live in the dorms and can get classmates to help you cheat. But I digress. That rat continues to be an inspiration to me.
“Mandy, the most famous chefs in the world all share a secret,” I told her. “Substitution. What if you took a trip to Mars and you really had a craving for broccoli, but you couldn’t get any?” We discussed how long it would take someone to fly to Mars and how difficult it probably is to ship in fresh produce. “So the chefs on Mars have to take something that isn’t broccoli and cook it in such a way that they can fool you into thinking it is,” I explained.
“Most of what you think of as flavor comes from your sense of smell. Did you know your tongue can only taste 4 flavors? Sweet, salty, sour and bitter,” I told her. She was surprised, but I think she had heard that before. It’s pretty common knowledge, an easy scientific fact. “And your ability to taste bitterness was an evolutionary trick to keep cavemen from being poisoned! So that’s three tastes you can taste with your tongue, so if you think about it, it’s pretty easy to fool someone into thinking they’re eating something else by changing something obvious, like the smell or the texture of food.” I reminded her how much she enjoys a crispy cracker or chewy chewing gum. Mandy’s a pretty quick study.
“So we’re not going to use broccoli or honey or salt to make your special soup, but I’m going to find something that imitates the flavor and texture of what I think you want to make. You taste it and tell me if I’m getting close, OK?” Mandy agreed to humor me. I even explained to her that adding salt to food is not really a good idea, but I even had a substitute for that: Bell’s All Natural Salt Free Seasoning.
Wednesday, I went to the international aisle of the local grocery store and picked up a jar of Pineapple Coconut Milk. Since I like some pretty wacky flavors too, I already had 3 boxes of Gram Flour and Yoghurt Curry with Dumplings that I bought a week or two earlier from the Indian grocery across the street. That’s generally pretty spicy fare for us cheeseburger eaters, so I emptied close to half the container of Pineapple Coconut Milk I got and threw in some flattened rice to thicken it up a little more. Mandy loved it! “This tastes just like my Buttersong Blossom Soup!” she crowed and held out her bowl for seconds.
“But wait, there’s more!” I said. We had gotten a huge head of cauliflower and I had a container of butternut squash soup. Last night, I had her help me section up the cauliflower and after I had lightly steamed it, I added it to the soup. My boyfriend got into the act, throwing in his special spices he adds to just about all our food, plus a few scallions and carrots. I toasted up some bread for croutons, we added mozzarella cheese sprinkles, and I even gave Mandy a pinch of the No Salt seasoning to throw in her soup!
What we made was so naturally sweet and delicious, Mandy had it without the croutons, which surprised me. She exclaimed, “this really IS my Buttersong Blossom soup!” Even my boyfriend was shocked, that after he finished a bowl of it he was full for the night, without eating meat. I guess a crotchety old dude can still learn something about food, even in his fifties. He better get ready for barley and lentils, because that’s what we’ll be having either today or tomorrow.
Maybe I’ll think up a third way to make Mandy’s Buttersong Blossom soup next week.