Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Somewhere between Playboy Magazine...

...and what all the dog did today" are the words that came to mind tonight as I contemplated the events of the past week and mulled over that favorite source of inspiration, the overheard airplane conversation.
Some folks in sandals and t shirts had the seats behind us; we noticed their casual dress, their good humor and their completely inappropriate attire for the subzero wind chills expected in Kansas City. They worked their crossword; they talked airport delays. I wasn't surprised when one of the travelers told her compatriot about some magical fruity elixir she drank at night that both "got her head together" and relaxed her to sleep. I was brought up short though with her declaration that the freshest food was to be found at WalMart. After all, all the turnover led to faster restocking, in her opinion. This got my attention; eavesdropping thus far had predisposed me to believe these passengers never passed through the doors of the giant retailer.
A bunch of us WalMart types learned all the finer points of skin care, practiced our runway walk, and discovered all we needed to be a trophy was enough bling on our wrists. We weren't fooling the dude from Project Runway; the model scout in the big black hat lost her enthusiasm after one good spirited group skipped and strutted. Doesn't matter how many forks there are on the side of the plate: meat and two sides just takes one.
I'm pretty tired of pretentiousness being the main feature of the menu. The idea that we all have the food equivalent of Robert Parker's palate is absurd. My mama simmered round steak, carrots, potatoes, an onion and a can of tomatoes for hours on the gas range; she added no more than salt, pepper and a bay leaf. Nothin' fancy, but it was my favorite dish. Nothing "fresh" either, but then, we didn't eat 'fresh' food out of season in past generations, even the one just past like mine. Was our table unhealthy somehow because it was simmered, stewed, baked and sauteed? We had canned pears, frozen strawberries in Jello, applesauce, all bourgeois food bought at the local Jewel store. I'm sure there were delis aplenty on the streets of Chicago, but they weren't sanctified food emporiums back then. No, local food meant walking the aisles of the IGA or A&P nearest you.
And "slow" food? I can't think of anything more time consuming than home made fried chicken. First, you cut up the chicken...and in my case, you discarded the back. How many people even realize chickens have backs? Multiple wings, legs and cutlets, but not backs. I could never see taking up space in the skillet for a piece with no meat. Besides, there were always telltale signs of guts attached to the back and I didn't like those either! The cook has some discretion. Copious plumes of flour, salt and pepper accompanied the breading of the chicken, even when shaken in a plastic bag, a method neither my mother nor my grandmothers used. Both my grandmothers fried a mean chicken; somehow they kept a deep and hearty crust on each piece. Home made fried chicken in no way resembles the Colonel's; the skillet imparts a definite top and bottom to the chicken and the crust is more like the crumbled top of a strudel than the even terrain of a donut. When the first piece of chicken lands in the skillet, a geyser of steam and oil coats everything in a two foot radius. There is an art in deciding how many pieces fit in the skillet in order to cook the thick pieces thoroughly, yet not turn the small pieces into unrecognizable brown sticks. At the same time, putting a second round of chicken into the same oil runs the risk of the last few pieces tasting charred and the kitchen becoming uninhabitable. I don't know how many years of frying chicken it takes for a wife to become the equal of either her mother or mother in law, but it doesn't matter anymore. The men in our family now fry the chicken, in deep oil fryers out of doors. Fried food is only for "special occasions"; such are the demands of current wisdom and fashion. So much for "slow, home cooked" food; a quick saute is much less hands on than the hours we used to spend on entrees back before the term entree was common usage.
Would that platter of fried chicken, a bowl of potatoes riced by hand and puddling with butter and sides of sweet corn, bagged last summer from our own field, and green beans from the rows next to the soybeans, qualify as slow food? No doubt. The hands on treatment by gardeners and cooks epitomize the connection valued by proponents of that method. Would this same menu draw ire from other slices of the food pie? Oil and butter prevail. Nothing fresh on the whole menu. Healthy? Well, for growing kids and folks working outdoors, you betcha. But not for calorie counters. What to do?
Like the farm wives on the trophy wife tour, or the WalMart shopper drinking concoctions from her blender, there has to be some solid ground in this quicksand. Like Cal Smith in the old country song, "Somewhere between Playboy Magazine, and next Tuesday night's PTA, Somewhere between a honky tonk queen, and what all the dog did today......", there is room for WalMart, canned beans, mashed potatoes, and fried chicken in the local food fight. We can find some tasty meals in our mother's and grandmother's recipe boxes and not feel guilty about it at all. There should still be "us, somewhere between lust (for the perfect provender) and sitting home watching TV" ( and eating frozen pizza bites).

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