The Best Recipes Are Our Own [Eventually]

I don’t follow recipes well when cooking.

My method usually goes as such:


1.
 Look up several different recipes, compare and contrast.
2. List common ingredients and steps.
3. Ask: what can I do to make it my own?
4. Give it a go.
5. Take note of the missing flavors and textures; tweak it for next time.

This is the closest thing to a scientific experiment you’ll ever find me doing. Except that it’s definitely not scientific, nor is it proven fact. It’s just me and my independent streak. Today I made beef stew from scratch, plus no-yeast biscuits from scratch. (Note: the no-yeast part is important. I try to avoid finicky ingredients at all costs.)

To make the stew I looked at nearly a dozen different recipes. Most of them were very similar, so I wrote down the basics and then gave it a shot. With the biscuits I only found one recipe that had only the ingredients I already knew I had in possession. (Flour, milk, shortening, salt, baking powder.) When I began to knead the dough I realized it was too dry and added one egg white – the perfect glue!

As I worked on my dinner, which I planned to serve not just to myself and my husband, but to our friends who were coming over (eek!), I began to get nervous. What if it doesn’t turn out? What if the stew tastes bland and brothy? Did I put too many onions in it? What if the biscuits come out hard as rocks? Did I make enough food for everyone?… Why is it that I always decide to get gutsy and experimental when company is coming for dinner? You’d think I would stick with the easy and familiar instead of risking my culinary reputation over a desire to master the art of a beef stew on my first try.

Why didn’t I just make something I already know how to make? Good question. There are plenty of soup and stew recipes from my mom, aunts, grandmas, cousins and in-laws that I could have used instead of hodge-podging my own recipe. Why am I so damn independent?!

And yet. It’s not that I don’t love or trust their recipes. They’re like old friends, and a little like the people that handed them down to me : comforting, familiar, faithful, reliable, full of family quirks and personality. But the recipes aren’t my own. If you know me, then you’re probably nodding your head (Mom, Grammy, Aunt Bev?) “Recipes, schmecipes” – that’s me. As it turns out, my instincts were not off base.

My biscuits turned out soft and crumbly, very nearly like the correct texture and the flavor was light and buttery. For next time: use buttermilk instead of 2% and a few tablespoons less flour.

The stew turned out to be a soup, but the flavor was good. For next time: make sure the base of the soup is thicker. After browning the meat, add a tablespoon of butter and two tablespoons of flour to the meat drippings in the skillet. Heat and stir until thick and golden brown. Add a cup of beef broth to the mixture and stir thoroughly until it thickens. THEN add to the rest of the broth, plus the meat, veggies and herbs in the slow cooker.

And my life?

Instincts : good.

Foundation : solid.

Flavor : delicious.

Recipe : it’s a work in progress, but it’s my own.

The best part : I’m learning.

Christmas Vacation. Inspiration. Time. ACCOUNTABILITY!

Holy smokes, folks! With two whole weeks of vacation beginning next week through January 2nd, my mind cannot stop producing creative ideas to keep me busy. I have one big long list of topics I want to post about. Every few minutes I think of something else I’ve been wanting to write about.

I may have just unlocked my creative block I’ve been experiencing over the last few months. Time: I need more of it. The anticipation of whole days in my pajamas with nothing but a hot cup of coffee and my ideas has me itching to write. Be prepared! A whirlwind of words to come.

By the way, if the whirlwind never comes, will one of you please hunt me down and hurt me? Not really. But really, I’m going to be embarrassed if I have nothing to show for myself in two weeks, which is why I’m posting this now.

Death to the Black Box.

My husband and I moved into our new apartment in July and since then we haven’t had TV. We own two TVs, but we don’t have cable. Not even basic channels. Not even NBC or ABC or the local channel that’s usually a super old power-point slideshow with odd instrumental music on loop.
I know, I know. How have we survived?! It’s downright unamerican.
We’re not hippies. We’re not ultra-conservative fundamentalists who have denounced pop culture.
We’re just poor. Every paycheck gets dolled out to rent, utilities, car insurance and school loans and with whatever is left, we think to ourselves : we could get a digital converter box this month…. but we’d rather buy a few extra groceries or go on a date. At first I felt like our apartment was much too quiet. I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls on DVD.
And then I started reading books I haven’t read in awhile. And then I started writing in my journal. And sketching and making decorations for our apartment. And painting. And organizing all my shoes and art supplies.
My husband and I still rent movies at least once a week and watch them together.
But when I’m home alone now, I don’t get the feeling anymore that the big black box is going to swallow me unless I turn it on. My brain isn’t rotting away in front of the propaganda machine anymore. I don’t come to consciousness several hours later, sprawled on the couch, asking myself, Wait – What did I do today? Oh yeah … nothing. … except eat 3 bowls of cereal and day old pizza.
I’ve tested this theory, and I’m pretty sure I’m right. If there is a TV in the room with a cable connection, it is inevitably on. Having the TV off in my living room growing up was pure torture. I would try to concentrate on my book or drawing, but I was distracted by the almost audible voice telling me,

“Look at me. I’m empty and sad. You’re empty and sad, too. Turn me on. Let’s be friends.”

On goes the TV, and my productivity – no, my brain activity – plummets.

Without cable to tempt me, the TV isn’t this ominous black void to fill. Yes, it’s quiet. I turn on music sometimes or NPR. Yes, sometimes I give in and watch a movie. But a movie is an investment. I have to be willing to sit and watch the movie for at least an hour and a half, and if I’m not, then what should I be doing? It’s a good test: Watch a movie I’ve seen before OR make myself useful.

We trick ourselves into believing that TV is just a filler, just something to bide our time until we have an appointment or plans to hang out with a friend. False. It’s a productivity killer. Imagine what we could do with all the time we’ve spent watching prime time TV. I could learn a new recipe, write more than one blog post, read that novel I bought but doubt I’ll finish, or organize something. That’s not busy work. That’s actively participating in my life.

The only time I’ll ever miss TV is probably on Christmas day when TNT does the 24 hours of A Christmas Story. Yes, I love it that much. But! It’s a movie so maybe it’s time to actually purchase it? That way, we’ll only watch it once and spend more time talking with the family we traveled 250 miles to see on the best day of the year.

Bottom line is: I’ve found other things to do with my time. So is it okay that I don’t ever want to get cable?

What about you? Could you survive without TV or are you afraid you’ll be bored out of your mind?

Poem: Oranges Aren’t Just for Eating

I peeled back its thick skin to feel the sticky, sweet juice and dusty white pith glaze my fingers. 

Its sweet and tangy scent filled the room as I bit into its smooth flesh. 
Oranges aren’t just for eating. 

They nourish and sustain us. 

They delight us with a delicious scent and taste and color.

We are meant to enjoy life in every sense.

That’s why we can taste, touch, smell, see and hear.

We are meant to serve more than one purpose and more than just ourselves.

That’s why we can taste, touch, smell, see and hear each other.

If we just open up.

Stranger Than Fiction.

I’ve decided to stop fighting it.
What exactly? I was driving home yesterday contemplating, once again, my writing woes. My ever-encouraging twitter friend, Friederike, tweeted a word to me the other day:
“Very often, our characters tell us what they are up to. We must take our time and wait a little to find out what they want.”
And then, in response to my whiny, “But what to do while I wait for them to speak to me?” Friederike said, “Have a coffee and watch your soul while you are waiting for your characters to do the work.”
Again, an all too wise response to my needlessly worrisome writing self. At that point, I was asking myself what characters are speaking to me. Do I even have any? I was never planning on being a fiction writer. But is that what she meant, and does fiction versus nonfiction make any difference here?
In the midst of my brain working through this idea, my ears were half-listening to my car radio, which was faithfully playing NPR’s All Things Considered. The host was interviewing a writer that just published a new novel. What was his inspiration and theme behind the book, she asked? I was suddenly all ears.
The writer explained that his work centered around the belief that home is not always where we are most welcome or a place that we can take refuge from a misunderstanding world. What happens to people who live with that discord?
For reasons I cannot explain, his description of pulling together his ideas into a novel pulled together my own disjointed ideas about what it means to write.
I’ve been fighting for a long time the idea that I should write fiction. It seems to me that any attempt I’ve made is not literary, but a deep-seeded and irresistible need to reconcile misunderstandings in my life – people, experiences, memories, social, political and religious issues. Every version of my fiction has been some attempt to tie those things together so that I can make sense of them, or remove them from myself. Like Dumbledore’s Penseive, my writing extracts those things that will not rest within myself until they’ve poured out of me onto the page in black and white, where I can examine every detail. (Kudos to J.K. Rowling for that concept. I wonder if she ever thought about that in terms of her own writing experience?)
This isn’t right, I tell myself. Great writers don’t turn their lives into fiction for a good story. There’s always that speculation that something within their works – a character or a scene or a setting is a fictionalized, dramatized version of something real to the author. But many authors would, and have, denied those theories outright. And then the critics and readers idolize them: “He’s just that genius that the work is entirely fictional!”
Underneath the guise of literary genius, every good piece of writing has soul, and what is soul but personality, your collection of beliefs, experiences, passions, and talents that are not quite like anyone else’s?
This is what I’m not going to fight anymore: you, dear readers, friends, loves of my life (and people I might not necessarily get along with) are the interesting characters that fill my thoughts and speak to me. Experiences and memories, you are a part of who I am. I am passionate about you. I am inspired by you. I know you and you know me. You drive me to words. Black, white, gray, and every color and shade in between. You speak to my soul, and I’m listening, truly listening now.
After all, life is stranger than fiction, right? So don’t be surprised if some version of you lies within my words. I won’t be surprised, anymore. I may not pen the great American novel any time soon, or ever, but this is what I know.
I won’t go against the grain anymore, for you are ingrained in me.