Archive for category Kichen Bitchin’
Happy belated new year! After taking a bit of time off, I’m feeling rather renewed and refreshed. I’m not big on resolutions, but I do like setting goals for the new year. I feel like goals are so much more measurable than resolutions. I can resolve to do a lot of things. But where’s the accountability? (I’ve spent enough time in corporate America to know that if you can’t throw it in a graph or on a PowerPoint, it’s not really worth it, is it?)
To that end, I’ve set some goals for this blog in 2013. In order to make myself more accountable, I’m publishing them so that come December 1, 2013, I can have a small panic attack when I realize that I haven’t met any of them. So, here they are:
- A more structured blog with (hopefully) more posts. What do I mean by this? Well, next week I’m starting a feature for Monday posts entitled (not so cleverly) Meatless Mondays where I’ll bring you a weekly vegetarian recipe. I’ll also post restaurant reviews on Fridays to give Chicago area denizens a leg up on weekend planning.
- Read and review at least four food-related books. (I already know I’m going to fail miserably at this one… but I’ll give it my best shot.)
- An inventory of my cookbooks cross-referenced with past blog posts
- Post about old cooking implements once a month
- More guest bloggers
- Write about my other culinary excursions. (Intrigued? So am I as I haven’t decided what these excursions will entail… but I promise they’ll be good.)
I’ve deemed this coming year one of careful consideration—not only in what I write, but in my life in general. Last year, I found myself running in circles, never getting where I wanted to go and stressing out while trying. My solution? Make a very short list each day. The list will contain three items for the day:
- One thing that has to get done (clean the bathroom, laundry, or some other loathsome task)
- One thing that I want to do for just me (write, read a book)
- One thing that will make my life easier in the long-run (organize a closet, switch internet providers [you’re on notice, AT&T])
That’s it. I do the three things on the list. I’m not making a 50 item list to feel like crap when I fail to complete most of it. And, if it’s not on the list, I don’t HAVE to do it. So, if snaking the bathroom drain isn’t on the list, but it gets done… then rock on, me. But, I’m not sweating it.
Oh, and the list doesn’t carry over. If I don’t get something done on Monday, I’m not putting that same thing on Tuesday’s list. Of course, eventually, the laundry will have to find a way back onto the daily list. But maybe that’s why people take their laundry to a wash and fold. I work from home so I never really have to look like a human being. I can just wear my PJs all week (and, yes, maybe I’ve done that once or five times… feel free to start the new year by judging me… I am here for your amusement). What I’m saying is there are options!
So, welcome to the new year. I hope this one is a dandy, a doozy, or somewhere in between.
Back in the day, I went to Greece and fell in love… madly, deeply in love… with a salad. The original Greek salad. Greek salad made by Greeks was a revelation to me. The simplicity befuddled me. See, growing up in suburban Detroit, Greek salads from the Coney Island were loaded with the dreaded pickled beet. Ick, ugh, poo!
But, Greek salads are really just a handful of ingredients (no lettuce!) with a perfectly tart and tangy dressing. And, I’ve talked about Greek salads here before.
Why delve into them again? Some people (who shall remain nameless) believe a salad needs to have lettuce. Seriously? Lettuce. I found a Greek salad with lettuce in Cook’s Encyclopedia of 30-Minute Cooking. Those of you up on your Greek history will find it hysterical that it’s called Turkish Salad (can’t these guys just get along already? Don’t even get me started on the differences between Greek and Turkish coffees. Whoa, Nelly.)
- 1 romaine lettuce heart
- 1 green bell pepper
- 1 red bell pepper
- ½ cucumber
- 4 tomatoes
- 1 red onion
- 8 oz feta cheese, crumbled
- Black olives, to garnish
For the dressing:
- 3 T olive oil
- 3 T lemon juice
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1 T chopped fresh parsley
- 1 T chopped fresh mint
- Salt and ground black pepper
Chop the lettuce into bite-size pieces. Seed the peppers, remove the cores, and cut the flesh into thin strips. Chop the cucumber and slice and chop the tomatoes. (Besides the addition of lettuce, this is a main difference between the Greek and Turkish versions. Greek salads have tomato wedges and cucumber discs.) Cut the onion in half, then slice finely.
Place the chopped lettuce, peppers, cucumber, tomatoes, and onion in a large bowl. Sprinkle with feta over the top and toss lightly.
Make the dressing: Whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic in a small bowl. Stir in the chopped fresh parsley and mint and season with salt and ground black pepper to taste.
Pour the dressing over the salad, toss lightly and serve at once, garnished with a handful of black olives.
Tastes remarkably like the Greek salad but with more leafy bits. Obviously, this recipe needs to be made with the really good vegetables. But, because they are chopped, if your tomatoes are a bit mealy, then this recipe is a touch more forgiving.
And, I suppose I could get used to eating a Greek salad with lettuce. I just need to draw the line at beets.
As a lactose-intolerant person, butter is probably the best thing that comes from a cow. OK, maybe not… maybe it’s steak. But, I’ve been thinking a lot about compound butters lately and I had this hysterical picture of a cow. So, that’s the tie-in.
Anyway, I know I don’t have much of a life if I’m spending my brain power working out compound butter recipes. But alas, world peace will have to wait! I need to indulge in the glories of butter.
Quite simply, compound butter is butter with some other stuff in it. What other stuff is really up to you. Hence, the joy one can gain from delving into the butter creation realm. You can make any number of varieties of compound butter. Although it helps to have an electric mixer, you can use just a wooden spoon or whisk.
This most recent jag of mine started on Easter when I made maple butter for the cornbread muffins. While staring into the mixing bowl, I thought, “I haven’t made compound butter since culinary school. What a shame.” Then, the recipes started in my head.
Here is the basic formula:
- Take a stick of butter and let it come to room temperature. Follow this step exactly. That means use REAL butter (if you’re going through the trouble, why skimp and use margarine?) and let it fully come to room temperature (don’t get impatient). It should be soft (not liquid) so that step 2 is easier.
- Put butter in bowl and whip it. Whip it good. This is where the electric mixer and Devo come in handy. This is also why room temperature is ideal. Refrigerated Devo is so not fun. Seriously, you need the butter soft enough that whipping doesn’t become a tennis elbow inducing chore.
- Mix in your chosen stuff. (More on that in a bit.)
- Take a rubber spatula and put the butter in a mold. Don’t have a butter mold? Plop the butter on a piece of plastic wrap and roll into a tube.
- Pop in the fridge or freezer for later use.
That’s it. One of the easier things you can do in the kitchen. The key is proportions. Don’t use too much liquid. I would say, if you have 1 cup of butter (two sticks), you shouldn’t use more than ¼ cup of liquid. That’s an awful lot of butter so if you start with one stick make sure you use less liquid. You’ll see what makes a good consistency after one batch.
Finally, make sure to chop, dice, or mince any non-liquid stuff you add. You just don’t want big bits in your butter.
So, what is the stuff in step 3? Well, it depends… do you want a sweet or a savory butter? Here are some ideas to get your started:
- Maple syrup
- Citrus: Lemon, lime, or orange (zest or juice)
- Alcohol: Rum, tequila, bourbon, or Scotch
- Sugars: Granulated, brown, or powdered
- Coffee (liquid, not powdered) or tea (green tea powder or brewed liquid)
- Chocolate (powder, melted, or chopped)
- Fresh berries (or lacking that the jam version): Raspberry, strawberry or blackberry
- Dried fruits: Cranberry, prune, cherry, or raisin (I’d soak them in water or rum before chopping.)
- Spices: Cinnamon, nutmeg, pumpkin or apple pie spice, poppy seed, or cardamom (be careful, it can taste soapy if you use too much)
- Crystallized ginger
- Fresh herbs: Basil, parsley, cilantro, chives, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, sage, or dill
- Onions, scallions, or shallots (you can caramelize the onions to make them a bit sweeter) and then mix them with an herb
- Capers, pickles, or other vinegared items
- Spices: Mustard (either in liquid or powder form), paprika, curry powder, or toasted sesame seeds
- Salted items such as anchovies or prosciutto
- Sauces: BBQ, Worcestershire, soy, or Tabasco
- Salt and pepper
- Toasted nuts: Pine nuts, walnuts, pecans, or pistachios
- Roasted peppers: Bell, jalapeño, or otherwise
- Bacon, ham, or pork belly
You get the idea why this starts to become a fun project. Decide if you want a sweet or a savory butter and then just pick one, two, or three items from the list (or more… what do I care?… go nuts… the above list is just a sample of what can be done).
Or, get crazy and pick an item from each: Lime and jalapeno butter could be great on fish tacos. Bourbon and ham butter would rock sweet potatoes.
Which brings me to the question: What do you do with compound butter? Just about anything you want. I like sweet butters for breakfast pastries, muffins, bagels, and toast. But, you can also make a compound butter and put it on a cake. (The recipe for buttercream frosting is pretty much butter and powdered sugar with a touch of vanilla.)
Savory butters make great sauces when melted. I like to cook fish in a compound butter of herbs and shallots. You can also put it on top of steaks and/or potatoes. Let’s not forget savory butters for your toast when you have omelets.
The whole idea is to experiment because this is definitely a “recipe” you can do without an actual recipe. What’s the worst that can happen? At the end of the day, you still have butter. So, be bold and compound your butter!
At one time or another, I think we’ve all imagined our lives upgraded–even for a minute or two. Whether it’s that moment at the make-up counter when you pretend like you buy that ridiculously expensive lipstick every month (instead of once a year) or if you pretend that your bathroom always looks as sparkly as it does the minute after you’ve thoroughly cleaned the grout with your husband’s toothbrush. (I’ve never done it, but I’ve heard tell that an angry wife and a slightly used toothbrush really gets rid of hard water stains.)
This blog is my way of pretending to have a better culinary life than I actually do. Yes, I really cook the recipes that appear on this blog. The photographs (like you couldn’t tell) are the final products sitting on my dishes in my kitchen. But I’ve gotten a few questions lately about what I do in between forcing Paul to eat creamed peas from the 1950s and spending ludicrous buck at trendy restaurants.
Well, I’d like to keep the mystery alive. But I’m tired of being jealous of other people’s supposedly posh lifestyles so I certainly don’t want you to be jealous of my dietary habits. In all honesty, I’m not coming home from work on a Monday night and whipping up five course meals. I have a mostly exhausting job and a sometimes exhausting child. I live in fairly messy and disorganized home with my fairly messy and disorganized husband. We have an older dog who has very recently started making my entire house smell like the bottom of my child’s diaper pail. I’m living the dream in the biggest way possible, can’t you tell?
I have the same kind of life you do: Mostly day-to-day grinds with amazing moments of bliss thrown in so we don’t go completely nutters. So, back to the original question: When I’m not eating what you read on this blog, what am I eating?
Well, last week when Paul was at his evening class, I finished my son’s box of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies for dinner. Oh, and I had a stalk of celery. That was pretty much it. There are nights when I have been known to make and eat an entire box of strawberry Jello. When Paul is here, he gets pretty cranky when he doesn’t eat an actual meal. Of course, there are nights when we need to go grocery shopping and can’t bear to order in again. That’s when we get creative with the cupboard.
Most of our concoctions come out looking like something you ate that year after you graduated from college. You know, one step above ramen noodles. Like broccoli and salsa mixed into macaroni and cheese. Or, my new favorite: Orzo with heat and serve madras lentils on top.
I went to culinary school, so I had to garnish with a bit of blue cheese. Very fancy, wouldn’t you say?
But, yeah, don’t feel jealous that you’re not whipping up crazy culinary delights every night of the week. I ate that (and just that) for dinner once. I’m not ashamed to say I will probably eat it again sometime in the near future. Well, maybe a little ashamed… but I want to make you feel good… so, I’m throwing my disturbing dietary habits out there. Judge me. Find my real culinary life lacking… I usually do.
If you’re still flummoxed over what to get for the cooking enthusiast on your list, I’m coming to your rescue. Please note that this isn’t a post where I tell you the latest cool product that someone has paid me to sell to you. (I’m not even going to name brands or stores.) This is just a list of kitchen and foodie things you might not have considered—broken down by type of person and budget. Hope it helps with the holiday shopping!
The very nature of the stocking stuffer is that the item is small (and preferably light… don’t want random stockings falling on the dog’s head). If you’re shipping across the country, they’ll also save you on postage. These items should be affordable on any budget:
Miniature spatulas and whisks: You can pick these up just about anywhere for a few dollars. Are they really worth it? Yes, when you have a tight space that needs scooping or an egg that needs beating, they’re handy to have around.
Replacement utensils or additional serving ware: Take a look in the silverware drawer. Is your loved one always running out of teaspoons? Did you crunch a fork in the garbage disposal? Do they need an extra serving spoon EVERY time they have you over for dinner? There are many sites online that sell replacement silverware (either new or used) so you can get it to match a pre-existing set.
Gift cards: Some people think that a gift card is a cop-out. “Hey, you didn’t put any thought into this gift. You just ran out and got a gift card!” Slow down. Here’s how you make it a bit more thoughtful: Actually think about it.
- Write the amount of the gift card on the card or envelope. That way the recipient knows what they’re getting into before they start shopping.
- For stores, write a note with the card that says something along the lines of “Thought you might enjoy shopping at Wonderful Kitchen Store X.” Or, “Use this for Product You’re Missing or anything else you might need!”
- If you give the gift of a restaurant experience, make the amount is at least enough to cover a significant portion of the bill. It’s irritating to get a gift card for $10 to a place where the cost of an entree is $45.
- Think outside the box with gift cards to grocery stores, wine shops, specialty stores, or cooking classes. (Just be careful with the grocery store thing. Some people might take it as a sign of charity rather than a gift.)
New to the Kitchen: Give Them the Basics
This gift recipient is either setting up a kitchen for the first time (think newly moved out and on his/her own) or re-establishing a kitchen (think newly divorced or separated). Whatever the reason, they need the basics.
On a Budget: Cookbooks are always a decent, inexpensive gift. I’ve written about several good starter cookbooks, but there are thousands of cookbooks out there. Imagine an ethnicity and there are cookbooks. Have a dietary restriction? Vegetarian, gluten-free, lactose-free, meat only… the list goes on. You could also focus on a meal. Give the gift of a soup cookbook and a ladle.
- Chef’s knife (usually 8 to 10”) or a paring knife (the short wee knife) are first-stop basics and are often sold together. They’re a perfect choice for someone who has no knives.
- Unless you’re buying a bread or tomato knife, get an edge that is V-shape (rather than serrated). The cook will be able to sharpen a V-shaped edge—not so much with a serrated blade.
- Full tang: This means that the metal from the knife blade runs the entire length of the handle. Not only will the handle not fall off, but the balance of the knife is better.
- Forged not stamped: A forged knife is when the metal is beaten into shape and then honed. A stamped knife is when the metal is cut like a cookie cutter out of a larger piece of metal and then honed. Forged knives are typically stronger, but that’s not to say a stamped knife won’t work. They’ll cut, but forged tend to last longer.
- Test out the knife: You should be able to take it out of the display and actually feel the knife. Now, what feels good to you, might not feel that great to someone else. But, you should at least compare various knives. Once you hold a decent knife and a not so decent knife, you’ll be able to tell the difference.
Break the Bank: If you’ve got a lot of money to spare, and you know they need them, buy your friend or loved one a decent pot or pan (or if you’re overly generous an entire set). The workhorses of my kitchen are the 4 qt sauce pan with lid (boil just about anything in it), the 4 qt sauté pan (sear just about anything in it), and my brasserie (looks like a frying pan, but has two loop handles on each side rather than a long stick handle so it can go from stove to table without looking weird). Here’s what you want from a decent pot or pan:
- Think about the recipient and the weight: There are a lot of heavy pans out there and if you’re giving your 90-year-old Granny the gift of a stock pot that weighs 10 pounds WITHOUT anything in it she’s not going to invite you over for dinner.
- Composition: Cookware needs to be made of a metal that conducts heat well (aluminum or cooper) but doesn’t react with food (stainless steel). Most manufacturers have gotten around this by layering the metals—stainless steel on the inside of the pan with aluminum or cooper on the outside. Some cookware will have a third layer of stainless steel on exterior as well. Make sure that whatever pots you purchase have the heat conducting metal up the sides as well. This will ensure that the entire pot heats evenly rather than just the bottom. Avoid cookware with heavy bottoms and flimsy sides—just a sign of a cheaply made pot or pan.
- Oven safe materials: The most versatile pans will be made of material that is also oven safe. This includes the handles and the knob on the lid. If the handles are plastic, chances are it’s not going in the oven. Still usable on the stove but not as all-kitchen friendly.
- Lids: Make sure the larger pots come with lids.
- Nonstick or not?: The eternal kitchen question. For new-to-cooking, I’d say one nonstick is OK. Anyone who likes to cook will shun the nonstick. Plus, the chemicals and the weirdness in the news… why risk it?
Been Cooking for a Bit
This gift recipient has a ton of the basics and probably a few other exciting things going on in his/her kitchen. These gifts will take a bit of thought and research to make sure it will be useful or wanted.
On a Budget: Magazine subscriptions are pretty cheap now (and you could kill two birds with one stone by giving the subscription through a local charity magazine drive). There are several dozen food and cooking related magazines out there. If you want to be tree-friendly and your recipient has an e-reader, give it to them in digital format.
Got Some Green: “Of the month clubs” are the gift that keeps giving. They don’t necessarily have to break the bank as many of them offer three-, six-, nine-month subscriptions in addition to the yearlong variety. Do an online search and you’ll find just about any item can be delivered to a person’s home on a monthly basis: coffees, teas, wines, beers, fruit, vegetables, nuts, oils, pies, ice creams… hell, I even found a bacon of the month club (sorry Paul, not this year).
Breaking the Bank: Hire a personal chef to come to their home and cook THEM dinner for a change. It can be a nice treat on a cold evening to have dinner cooked in.
Almost a Professional Chef
They pretty much have everything that the good Lord ever made or intended for a kitchen. For this recipient, you’re going to have to think more in the way of ingredients and experience.
On a Budget: Go to your local gourmet food store (or online or even some upscale grocery stores) and buy a few fun ingredients. Go for flavored olive oils (you can also make these at home), sea salts, exotic fruit preserves, or anything imported. Tie a ribbon around it and call it a day.
Got Some Green: A one-day class doesn’t have to be super expensive. And, the best part is that they usually get to eat what they make. But, you live in an area where there are no culinary schools? Many other institutions offer classes, including:
- Community colleges (I found a one-day Polish food course for my dad at a community college in his area)
- Grocery stores and gourmet food stores
- Some smaller restaurants
- Stores that sell cookware, including department stores and specialty shops
- Individuals in their homes (Although rare, they are out there. Google is your friend on this one!)
Before buying make sure that the recipient is either available for the class or that they can exchange the class for another date or time.
Breaking the Bank: Buy the gift of local produce with a share in a community supported agriculture co-op (CSA). It’s simple, you pay a fee at the beginning of the growing season (usually in March or so) and then you get vegetables from that farm on a regular basis. The frequency and amount of goods depends on the CSA. Where I live, we have several options, including buying egg and meat shares, all delivered to a close pick-up location in the city.
What Not to Get
When shopping for the cooking enthusiast, there are definitely things to stay away from:
Multi-use small appliances: Unless they have specifically requested a breadmaker that also froths milk for cappuccino while frying bacon, stay away. The more functions something has, the higher the likelihood that it won’t make it past New Year’s.
Upgrades: Again, unless it has been specifically requested, do not randomly upgrade a chef’s kitchen gear. The recipient will make sounds like this: “My blender is pretty fried. I could really use a new one.” NOT “That blender looks nice.” That’s just a comment about a pretty blender, not a request for a new one.
Anything in outrageous colors: They make a lot of stuff in a lot of fun colors. But, unless you are sure that Aunt Bertha would LOVE a bright orange stand mixer for Christmas, avoid it. Which reminds me, include gift receipts just in case it breaks, is ugly, or the recipient just doesn’t have the space.
Re-gifts (unless you tell them it is a re-gift): If you don’t want it, what makes you think someone you like will?
Items that will rot before they can be used: Although many of my suggestions are gifts of edible ingredients, don’t get astronomical sizes. No home chef is going to use 100 gallons of yogurt before it goes bad.
So, I hope that helps with a few holiday gift ideas for the home chef. If you have any other thoughts, please share. I’m more than happy to steal ideas.
And, by crack, I mean culinary crack. And, by culinary crack, I mean epicurious.com. I realized the other day that I have seriously gone overboard with making recipes from the E lately. It’s because I’m antsy-pantsy and rather impatient.
I don’t like doing the same recipe over and over again. But, I also don’t want to spend 200 hours in the kitchen trying to get that perfect sauce (or at the very least trying not to overcook some meat bits). I’d rather go to my crack source, get a recipe that sounds tasty, and then read all of the user comments. Then, I steal from them and voila! presto change-o! people think I’m a good cook.
But, I need to stop relying on others to do my dirty work. I also need to stop relying on the computer to help me cook. What if the power went out? (And the way my lights are flickering these days, it’s a wonder we haven’t blown a fuse… have I mentioned that I can no longer run my microwave while the washer is on a spin cycle? Good times at the old ranch. Good times.)
Back to my rustic cooking: What would happen if the power went out and I couldn’t get something from epi-crack.com? Well, I wouldn’t be able to cook because my gas stove has an electric start and the microwave is already toasted from the above power outage so I guess this is a moot point.
NO! No, points that can’t speak. The real point is that I need more cookbooks. (See how nicely I turned my laziness into my buying-ness?) That’s why this turkey day weekend, I’m off to King Books in the D to get my hands on some dusty cookbooks for more ancient crockery fun. In the meantime, this is the last recipe from that crutch of a cooking web site. (Original epicurious.com recipe here.)
Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Goodies
(well actually goat cheese and basil)
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
- ½ C fresh goat cheese (about 4 oz) (If you don’t have goat cheese, cream cheese would do in a pinch, but then it makes it less fancy because you have to tell your guests that their chicken boobs are stuffed with cream cheese instead of saying, “This chicken boob is stuffed with cheese from a French speaking goat.” Your choice. I’m just saying….)
- 2 green onions, thinly sliced
- 3 basil leaves, shredded
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 egg, beaten to blend
- ½ C cup dry breadcrumbs
- 2 T (¼ stick) unsalted butter melted
- ¼ C (½ stick) unsalted butter
- ½ lb mushrooms, sliced
- ¼ C dry white wine
- ⅔ C chicken stock
- 4 T chilled unsalted butter (½ stick), cut into 4 pieces
- Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Before we get to the actual recipe, I’m going to say this: If your chicken breast is very thick, you’re going to want to slice down the middle. (Not the long way or the short way, but the hard way where you put your hand on top of the chicken and slice the entire thing so it opens like a book.) If you don’t do this, pounding your chicken is just going to turn it into chicken shreds. Such a mess chicken breast number one… such a mess.
Pound chicken between sheets of waxed paper to thickness of ¼-inch using meat mallet. (Yeah, I don’t use the wax paper. This might be part of my problem.) Pat chicken dry.
Combine cheese, green onions, and basil in small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Spread cheese mixture lengthwise over half of each chicken piece. Tuck short ends in. Roll chicken up, starting at one long side, into tight cylinders. Secure the heck out of the roll with toothpicks. Dip chicken in egg, allowing excess to drip into bowl. Roll in breadcrumbs, shaking off excess. (Can be prepared 4 hours ahead if you slap it in the refrigerator.)
Place chicken in 8-inch square baking dish. Pour 2 T melted butter over. Bake until cooked through, about 20 minutes. (Right. I needed a bit more… more like 45 minutes… but my chicken boobs were extra big.)
Meanwhile, melt ¼ C butter in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes (I did it way longer—like maybe 15-20 minutes). Add wine and boil 3 minutes (Again a bit longer, like 5 minutes total). Add stock and boil until liquid is reduced by half, about 6 minutes (Took longer than 6 minutes… but you get the idea).
Remove from heat and swirl in 4 T cold butter one piece at a time. Season sauce with salt and freshly ground pepper. Remove toothpicks from chicken. Cut rolls crosswise into ½-inch-thick rounds. Fan on plates. Serve immediately, passing sauce separately.
Fabulous! (No pictures as they were all garbage.) The chicken is moist (icky, hateful word), but the butter sauce really makes it. I guess the cheese also doesn’t hurt. Putting cheese inside anything is a tasty pastime of which all Americans should be proud.
Seriously, this is an easy (weekday? maybe) recipe. And, the mushroom wine sauce is a staple for other dishes as well. It’s particularly nice on potatoes. You should give that a whirl.
Growing up, I listened to a number of stories told by my elders around the proverbial kitchen table. I think the same is true of most families. And, during story-telling, there would occasionally be a “what were you doing when” moment. A time in history that everyone remembered exactly where they stood and what they were doing when they heard the news. A cultural touch point, if you will. For my parents, it was always the assassination of Kennedy.
For years, I wondered about my generation’s cultural touch point. What story would I tell my children? At first, it seemed to be the Challenger explosion (like many other school-aged children, watching on a TV wheeled into our classroom), or when the first President Bush declared war against Iraq (listening to NPR in the Big Boy parking lot), or perhaps Princess Diana’s death (reading English lit homework in my bedroom).
Of course, all of those moments are wiped away.
Ten years ago, on September 10, I took a late flight from Chicago to Detroit. The plan was simple: I had the tasting for my wedding on September 11 and would fly home that same evening. In and out with the menu for my big day checked off the old to do list.
I woke up that morning to the sound of the phone ringing. My mother was calling from work, telling me to turn on the TV. Like many Americans, I sat transfixed by the unfolding events, the early confusion and speculation, the endless words streaming at the bottom of my screen. (The news crawl, as it is now known, came out of 9/11 coverage.)
And, then I called my wedding venue. Yes, of course your tasting is still on. In fact, we have a wine event as well. My mother and I dutifully went. They set up our table on the second floor of an atrium—the wine tasting below us. Five people showed up for that event. There was complete silence from below. Occasionally, we could hear the clink of a glass, but there were no murmurs, no sound of the staff talking. The only noise from our floor was the intermittent crying of our server each time she brought out a dish. She would then apologize, and my mom and I would look up, attempt to choke down the food, and weakly smile. We tried to talk about the dishes and the wedding, but it just seemed awkward.
Because all flights were cancelled, my parents drove me to Kalamazoo (the roughly halfway point between Detroit and Chicago). After dinner at the Steak ‘n’ Shake on Westnedge, Paul and I drove back to Chicago.
This is the story I will tell my son when he asks where I was on 9/11. Depending on how old he is, I might add the feeling of being a nation in mourning. The daze that everyone seemed to be in just after the attacks. How we couldn’t come up with words to describe what had happened. And, how it was only later that we started using the now clichéd terms—national tragedy and unspeakable horror.
I might talk about the empty hollowness in my chest that mimicked the emptiness of a sky without planes. Or the complete sadness and random crying of strangers on the street. I might speak to him about my own grandmother telling me that she wished she had died before she had to witness this act of madness.
This is what he will hear when our family starts telling him stories around the kitchen table. For him, 9/11 is history. He will only ever know a world where you need a valid ID and a complete physical inspection in order to board a plane. He will only ever know a world where people are suspicious and guarded before they are open and accepting. But, then again, I have only ever known a world where a man on a grassy knoll was able to shoot a president. And, my parents and I have only ever known a world where it was possible for the majority of the planet to be at war with each other.
So, I begin to wonder about my son’s cultural touch point. Can there be something more appalling or gruesome? I’m sure my grandparents had similar thoughts at the close of World War II. Or could his moment in history be something amazing? Will he be able to tell his children about where he was when he heard that we had cured cancer? Or what he was doing when we declared the end of poverty? If they ask about war, could my son possibly say, “You’ll have to ask your grandparents. I don’t really remember what war was like.”
Am I naïve enough to think that these things will happen in his lifetime? No. In fact, I don’t even think it’s likely that they will happen in my grandchildren’s lifetime. But, I am jaded and cynical. I spent a sunny Tuesday morning watching lunatics fly jumbo jets into skyscrapers. That is bound to change your worldview.
On the other hand, I have only ever known a world where transatlantic flights are routine. And, where we put men on the moon. I have only ever remembered a world where I wouldn’t get smallpox and it is incredibly unlikely that I will contract polio. So, as I look at my son—eyes wide in wonder at the smallest thing—I can’t help but have a small bit of hope that there are better days ahead. That his “what were you doing when” moment will be one of joy instead of profound sorrow.