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flag nor fail

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All through the ’70s and ’80s, on the first Saturday or Sunday (I forget which) of August, I did the same thing every year: Before my family would get in the car in the morning with all of our beach stuff, I’d walk down to the driveway’s apron and look north, a block and a half to the ball field, to see the flags posted. It was the official signal that volunteers were setting up our small town’s annual picnic. All kids love rituals—I defy you to show me one that doesn’t—but this kid is nutty about them. Another picnic!

(A note: Have you ever heard someone use the expression ‘small town,’ and then you find out it has 7500 people? Yeah, a recent census clocked in Interlaken, NJ at 820 residents. Small. Town.)

My best friend at the time lived a few streets away, and he called this event Interlaken Day. We just called it the picnic. It was neighbors, people who tiptoed over icy streets to my family’s annual Eggnog Party on New Year’s Day, who plowed out our driveway without asking when it snowed. We waved and called each other over from porches all summer. And it was extended family, many of whom who lived in town with us. The picnic was kind of like a reunion between people you never really said goodbye to in the first place.

During the day there were games and races, but not being especially sporty types, we kids never missed them. We’d walk over after the beach, around dinnertime. My parents would head under the trees, where all of the grownups would be parked in lawn chairs. Many of my relatives weren’t big beach people, so they made of day of it: three aunts (sisters), uncles, and lots of older cousins—the first- and second-removed type. They’d ask us how the beach was, and if we’d eaten yet. Italians, you understand.

One of my removed-type cousins was a plumber who had a glossy black toupee and a jolly demeanor—an admirable combination. He manned the beer stand and introduced the band, which was made up of local people. When he got old enough, my third cousin John ran the corn table and then the hot dog table; the latter were courtesy of lifelong residents, the Haydus, who lived a block away and had a hot dog company.

When we were little there were pony rides led by my babysitter, another resident. No Moonwalks or anything like that. They weren’t invented yet; and besides, people would have figured if you were at a ball field outfitted with ponies, a jungle gym, basketball and tennis courts, and a bunch of grass to run around on, anything extra was silly. Which it is.

One year we brought my dog to the picnic, a perpetually hungry Lhasa Apso, and while my parents were chatting with neighbors he ate a carton of sauerkraut that someone had spilled beer into. When we went home that night he drank a full bowl of water in one go.

I live right next to my hometown. Last Friday I saw signs posted around advertising that the the picnic was to take place the following day. We used to get notices in the mail on pale blue paper in the beginning of the summer. Maybe they still do that, too.

In the morning I went out to see if the flags were up. They were.

In the late afternoon I took to my bike and rode by. I saw people sitting under the trees, and food booths with little awnings, which was new. Still no Moonwalk, mercifully. Instead of a band they piped in music: it was Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

I remembered a year I rode my bike to the picnic. It must have been 1986 because that was when the Monkees went on their 25th anniversary tour, MTV had a marathon of their ’60s TV show to promote the tour, and I became a rabid fan. I remember coasting through the streets humming, ‘The Girl That I Knew Somewhere’ (which is a fantastic song, and because you’re just dying to know, it was featured in the episode that guest-starred Julie Newmar.) I remembered the late-afternoon sun through the trees, riding with no hands, and a hot dog in the forecast.

Most of my family is long passed. The rest have moved away. I didn’t have anyone to visit under the trees when I went by yesterday. But the picnic was pretty much the same.

I think the biggest surprise you get when you become an adult is not that you have to work and pay taxes and take on responsibilities. You knew that was coming.

It’s how suddenly things change. Sometimes the changes are subtle, and other times they clobber you upside the head and blindside you. You climb a mountain and say to yourself, Okay, good, I’ve worked hard, I’ve got my footing, I’m getting the hang of this mountain, I can do this, and then you find out it’s not really a mountain, it’s actually really a river, and now you have to learn to swim, and you didn’t bring enough sunblock.

But people still sit under the trees at a picnic in a tiny town at the Jersey Shore. As I write this I’m walking in my memory, crunching over the first fallen acorns, telling my relatives the beach today was good; and starving, as all 12-year-olds, and Lhasa Apsos, are.

And they still set the flags first thing in the morning. They’ve been doing that for half a century or more. It’s not my family and my neighbors now. But it’s cool enough.

La la la la life goes on.

harriet’s delight

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In Louise Fitzhugh’s brilliant, mouthy Harriet the Spy (1964), the heroine insists on a tomato sandwich every day for lunch. In her case, she likes it plain. In my case, I like thick-cut, sweet Vidalia onion, salty cheese (Cotija or feta), extra virgin olive oil, a leaf or two of fresh basil if you can get it (I couldn’t), and an heirloom tomato. If none, or only a portion, of an heirloom is to be had, a tomato from a local garden is a worthy pinch hitter. The above sandwich was supplemented by my friend Charlie, who left an upended crate of tomatoes for me on a bench by his back door.

Tomato season lasts from mid-July through September—a painfully short duration for the addicted.

For the past few days this sandwich has been lunch, or dinner, or lunch and dinner on the same day. If you’ve never tasted a local, ripe, sun-warm heirloom tomato, this admission will come across as lunatic. If you have tasted one, it will come across as utterly sound…and in fact, you’ll wonder what keeps it off my breakfast table. I’m beginning to wonder myself.

three stories

Stringing together a few words of sense is an ambitious goal for me this week, as the cumulative stress of work, packing during a heat wave, moving, unpacking, and closing two shows is muscling out whatever part of the brain manages coherency (and being awake). You’ll notice there are no photos this week. But I wanted to share some small, but great, moments.

  1. When the teeny girl who played Scout for us in To Kill a Mockingbird came to me before a performance and opened her teeny hand and said, ‘I have not one, not two, but three peanuts for you,’ those hand-warmed peanuts tasted fantastic.
  2. The actor who promised me homemade sweet-potato pie a few weeks ago totally delivered, bringing in two pies—for me. I opted to share at the cast party, though Lord knows I could have packed away both. I’d never had this particular pie before because I have this stubborn streak that makes me avoid traditional foods until I feel I can trust the source. The recipe was this gentleman’s grandmother’s, and the pie was a best-seller in his baking business, done out of his church’s basement. You’ll admit this is quite a resume, and I was right to wait for it: It was smooth and earthy and not too sweet.
  3. My stage-tech friend of 25 years is facilities manager at a theatre here in New Jersey. He’s very handy and calls me his third daughter, so when I move, he wants to be a part of it. Last week he offered to help me move stuff I didn’t want the movers to touch, so I took him up on it. And today he wanted to come by to tighten, loosen, fix, and attach random stuff around the place. Once we were done he made a list of stuff he’s going to find at Home Depot and install next time he’s by. Then he took me out to lunch. A turkey sub you can get anywhere, of course. Devotion, not so much. It was delicious.

sweets for the sweet

When I moved into my former apartment in 2013 I became acquainted with the kids in the building within a day or so. I’m also Italian, so per my contract, I feed people. For example, on Halloween I’m always crewing a show. But every year before I left for the night, I’d put out candy for the kids. When I got home, I’d be met with thank-you doodles attached with snippets of duct tape. Our young generation is resourceful.

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The pair of siblings across the hall, a little girl about 8 and her brother, about 6, had particularly warmed to me, and I returned the favor. She would tilt her head to the side and say a very shy and almost lyrical ‘hiiiii.’ Her little brother loved to shoot baskets and could play for hours. But when I came home and was headed to the front door, he would let the basketball drop and run to open the door for me and grin.

Obviously this warrants liberal sharing of what I bake. Most recently it’s been cookies. One of the moms upstairs had an in-patient operation a few weeks ago, and since I didn’t know which apartment was theirs, I asked my little neighbors if they knew. Of course they did. I said, ‘Stay right there,’ then ran and got some cookies I’d been saving in the freezer. I told them to take a few out for themselves and bring the rest up to Alice and her sister. They must have been distracted by the first part of the statement and missed the second part, because a few minutes later I heard a knock on the door. There they were, asking for clarification with their faces full of frozen chocolate-chip cookies.

Last week I was baking again, with my kitchen windows open. I heard the kids scampering back and forth on the gravel driveway, helping their uncle wash his beautiful Mustang*. I looked out and saw the kids carrying a big bucket to the car. A batch of cookies had just come out of the oven, so I raised the window screen and asked if they wanted some. ‘Yes, thank you!’ I wrapped up three cookies and went back to the window. The little boy raised the bucket, Oliver Twist-style, and I about laughed my butt off. Told you they were resourceful.

Chucked in the three cookies, which made all of us happy.

On Monday I moved. No one was around that day. I took my cookie jar, very well worn and well used, and tucked a goodbye note to the kids under the lid. Then I left it next to their door.

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*Car, not equine.

 

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Dear Bakers,

First, mad props to you. Honest. Life is hard; you make us treats. Without you*, how could we forget about the workaday world of Cadillac SUV drivers who don’t signal, about 16-page apartment leases, about presidential candidates who strut and fret their hour upon the stage? A cinnamon croissant roll takes five minutes to eat, but what a blissful five minutes. How unburdened an experience. You are gods and archangels.

Thank you for the variety on your menu, thank you for offering both plain and fancified, thank you for blueberries in high summer and spiced pumpkin in the fall. Thank you for little saucers of broken-up scones to try while we wait for service. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I pop one to soothe a hungry stomach and then go. But you know I spend liberally the rest of the week. We’re cool.)

Thank you, so many of you, for making pie crusts with lard, or butter, or a combo of the two. Thank you, others of you, for eschewing shortening entirely for the glory of butter. You know your cookies will be flatter, but firmly avow that flavor must never fall to the ax of showboating.

But I must take exception to those of you who bake with excessive amounts of sugar. Of course America has a sweet tooth. We just don’t need as much sugar as you’re adding. Many of your cakes and cupcakes are too darn sweet, and lots of bakers don’t stop there: even a corn muffin these days can make a girl’s mouth pucker. My argument:

  1. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the product is dull.
  2. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the rest of the ingredients don’t get their say.
  3. Ibid., the structure will be gritty.

I love chocolate brownies, for example. But when did we make sugar more important than the quality of the chocolate, the richness of the butter, and the fudginess or cakiness of the square itself? I ate a brownie on Sunday that was gorgeous to look at. But it was so packed with sugar that I crunched my way through it.** The chocolate, fat, and texture were very much an afterthought.

Last point:

4. If one ingredient isn’t allowed to be a diva, we can appreciate the subtlety and balance of the other ingredients.

Like seals being tossed fish time and again, pushing sugar into the spotlight of baked goods narrows our thinking, dulls our senses, and deprives us of a fuller experience. Let us taste the almond extract in your cherry scones; we’ll be excited to learn they’re such a winning pair (cousins, almonds and cherries, you know). Let us search for a hint of orange peel, or come to adore exotic cardamom on first taste. We love to learn. Let us get excited by the nuances of your work.

The brownie above, now. Good example. Much less sugar, in the European tradition. More excellent-quality chocolate, cream, and butter. It was dense, sticky—a deep and powerful experience. I’ll drive a half an hour north for this thing, and I cannot imagine I’m alone.

Being active observers of flavors and textures is a positive; looking for them with eagerness and learning from them is a blessing. Conscious, discerning eating can’t help but inform conscious, discerning thinking outside the bakery, and goodness knows we can all use a little more of that.

Two thumbs up, and best regards,

~M (and my dentist)

*And maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
**Of course I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t a good brownie, but it was a brownie.

concessions

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The above is what happens when you’re hungry, you’re about to crew an enormously demanding show (The Who’s ‘Tommy’), and you need energy to make it through to 6pm (or later if we’re striking, or breaking down, the show. We were).

I have been wanting to try this newish place nearby, called Broad Street Dough Co., but held off until I had an excuse to consume such calories. This was one. That, and I tend to cast a skeptical eye on this treat-everything-like-a-sundae food trend that’s been going on for some time. Cupcakes, muffins, doughnuts, even coffee drinks have become bases for piling on heaps of candy and icing. It seems mildly hysterical, and is often a cheap way to disguise a poorly-made product beneath.

But I am always elated to support the exceptions, and yesterday’s doughnut was one. It’s essentially a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich (with black raspberry jelly), on a doughnut that’s been sliced in half standing in for bread. The doughnut was hot, tender, and right out of the fryer; it softened the creamy peanut butter and jelly and made them gooshy. A bit heavy on the fillings, but delicious. I ate it in maybe four bites.

A place with integrity will be proud to offer their product in the simplest manner, as an ice-cream shop that makes their own ice cream will be as proud of their vanilla as of their Rocky Road. The shortest distance between you and determining the quality of a place that cooks from scratch is to try that vanilla (or the simplest version of whatever they make) first. It’s a rule I made that has never failed me. I’m going back to Broad Street for a maple-walnut doughnut, which looked lovely, and I’m going to try out what they call old-school doughnuts—plain, sugar, and cinnamon—per my rule.

Crewing shows and doughnuts. I can live with this.

recovery

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Feeding people gives comfort to the feeder as well as to the fed.

—Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet Magazine, oft-lamented-on-this-site publication

So the world’s been a bit of a hullabaloo lately. Not in a good way, either. But Ruth’s quote above (written in the face of 9/11, when magazine staffers were too stunned to do anything but cook chili and lasagna for relief workers), is as true as ever. After the shock—multi-shocks—of 2016’s most recent events, I got into the kitchen as soon as possible.

Comfort food is in order when people are wounded. Physically, spiritually, doesn’t matter. I think it’s safe to say none of us are in the mood for anything tartare, or made with carob. I was heading to rehearsal for ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ so I made Elvis’s favorite pound cake. I still giggle at the breathtaking self-indulgence of any cake that calls for seven eggs, three cups of sugar, two sticks of butter, and a cup of heavy cream*. But darned if it doesn’t do the trick.

I brought it in and fed it to actors, who are not generally a picky bunch. But they really loved it, in particular, the actor who plays the reverend. He told me it was outstanding, and that he’s spent his life in the food business, so the statement wasn’t coming out of left field.

When a portly, older African-American gentleman who used to run a business making cakes and sweet-potato pies out of his church basement tells you your cake is outstanding, it’s probably the best compliment on that cake you’ll ever get.

That recipe is a pretty good one. We all felt a little better; good food does this. It warms and unites. And I was cheered further upon his promise that he’d bring in a sweet-potato pie for me to try.

*As a matter of fact, that’s almost the entire recipe.

 

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