Family Recipes

Mac and cheese, a new kitchen invention, what we're learning and loving...

Before heading out of NYC last week, Ann and I swung by our favorite Chinese restaurant Hwa Yuan so we’d have great takeout when we arrived back in Providence. Its crispy orange beef and sesame noodles are the best.

Hallelujah! Ann and I qualified and got our second jab in NYC last week. Just had to say that straight away and hope everyone reading this has gotten or will soon get theirs. But we’re still wearing our masks and will be for some time. Covid cases remain on the rise in many states.

Mac and Cheese…

One of my wife’s favorite comfort meals is Mac and Cheese. But not just any google-it recipe. Her dad’s recipe. On a faded piece of lined notebook paper titled, “Baked Macaroni a la Poops.”

Ann began calling her dad Poopsie when she was little and she continued to do so throughout his life. She made it so often and the recipe was so difficult to read I wanted to put it on my site. I thought it would be good to have a printable recipe. But really I wanted to record it, because it’s so important to Ann. (The digital recipe is here).

She, though, would never refer to a digital version. She pulls out her fat book of collected recipes and removes this specific one. It’s old and faded and so acknowledges the passage of time. It’s written in her mother Gogo’s inimitable hand and so recalls both her mom and her dad and a time long ago when her parents were alive. I know that the hand-written recipe, as an object, gives her pleasure. As it does me, too.

The recipe calls for American cheese. Ann’s niece Melissa added cheddar when she made it for a Thanksgiving dinner when we could have big gatherings. When Ann told me this, she wrinkled her nose and shook her head. White American Cheese only (more on this below).

That’s the thing about family recipes. You can’t change them. To change them somehow rubs out the past. Changing the recipe would be, somehow, to fail the memory of her father, named Lloyd, but referred to by everyone other than Ann, even his wife, Hood. (Ann and Poops were as close as dad and daughter could be; Ann wrote a memoir about trying to save him from the lung cancer that killed him more than twenty years ago at 67 called Do Not Go Gentle: My Search For Miracles In a Cynical Time.)

There's something about family recipes that makes them untouchable. My mom used to make a particular chicken dish in 1970s suburban Cleveland when she and Dad had dinner parties. It was called on the recipe card my dad typed up "Party Chicken." Chicken breasts on shredded chipped beef, a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, as I recall, and a can's worth of what was labeled cooking sherry, then baked to death.

My inclination, of course, would be to upgrade it: use boneless thighs instead of breasts which get hard as rubber. I’d make a proper bechamel-based mushroom sauce with a variety of mushrooms. And I’d use a drinkable dried white wine rather than “cooking sherry.” I would leave that peculiar charcuterie item, chipped beef—dried, smoked, pressed, slices of beef—which add a distinctive tang to the dish (or maybe they just compensated for the dried out chicken).

All those improvements (how far we’ve come in fifty years, foodwise!) would make this dish immeasurably better … to someone who didn’t grow up in suburban Cleveland, a place I loved and dearly miss. I want my Mom’s party chicken. As it happens I’m traveling to see here and I’ve requested Party Chicken. She’s having guests, a party, after all—fellow Clevelander’s K.K. and Joe Sullivan, their son, my dear pal from high school, J.D., an his son Danny). I want my youth back, of course. I can’t have that, but I can have that 1970s party chicken, in all its retro glory.

Now, about that American cheese…

I’m an unabashed fan. As was my late friend Tony Bourdain. As is the redoubtable Kenji Lopez-Alt, who covers it with customary super-nerd exhaustion on Serious Eats. And the primary reason for its excellence is its sublime meltability and the fact that it won’t break when it’s melted.

This is what makes it so perfect for Mac and Cheese. And it’s why I can slip a slice into a dish of instant ramen (with an egg) for the perfect midday repast or 2 a.m. jet-lagged nourishment.

The meltability is why it took off in 1916 when James Kraft perfected and patented the method. I wrote about it in my book Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America. America loved how smooth and creamy it became when melted.

This is due to sodium citrate, an emulsifying salt, Kenji explains in the above link and his excellent book The Food Lab. It’s in all kinds of foods you likely eat. As Kenji notes:

Outside of cheese, you've enjoyed its emulsifying power in bratwurst or Italian sausages. You've liked its mildly acidic and saline flavor in club soda. You've probably tasted it in ice cream, jams, jellies, powdered drinks, and even wine!

Don’t let the foodie police make you hide your affection for this excellent “prepared cheese product.”

What we’re watching…

By far the most exciting things we’ve watched during the past two weeks was the filmed final Broadway production of Rent, available for rent on Amazon Prime. I live with true theater nerds and this was a show I’d never seen and it is excellent. It was the closest we’ve felt to being at an actual performance since Bway shut down on March 12th, 2020.

And Anthony Hopkins’s performance in The Father is fantastic, a harrowing look at, and visceral portrayal, of dementia (trailer here). He’s also not bad on Instagram!

And we’re late to the game, but we’re two-thirds through the first season of How To Get Away with Murder on Netflix. Two episodes a night has become a compulsion.

What we’re reading…

Ann says The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward is one of the best books of the year for her. Stephen King felt the same, hadn’t read anything so exciting since Gone Girl. Ann said:

If you told me I would fall in love with a novel in which one of the POVs is a cat, I wouldn’t believe you. But so I have fallen! This book is, simply, brilliant. When I’m not reading it, I think about it. Every page is a surprise and a delight

Ann had to order her copy from the UK. It won’t be available here till September.

Because Ann is also redoubtable, I picked up Little Fires Everywhere, by fellow Clevelander Celeste Ng, a story that takes place in my own Shaker Heights, Ohio, concerning a well-to-do family and the mystery of who burned their house to the ground and why. Superb so far. I haven’t finished, so no spoilers please!

And I have to mention the book we’ve been reading aloud on long drives to Manhattan: Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, one of the great love stories by one of the great novelists of the 20th century.

And … Philip Roth: The Biography

At long last, my pal’s long awaited bio of one of America’s greatest novelists. Blake and I shared an apartment on East 39th Street in NYC. And we all but defined the term good-fer-nuthin. Though we were primarily dissolute during those years, we wrote, we always wrote, and continued to write and fail and fail again. Blake is now considered one of the preeminent literary biographers in the country and I couldn’t be more proud of his achievement, eight years in the making.

The book, among the most anticipated of the season, has been widely and wildly praised, but the most important, and compelling commentary on the book comes from New Yorker editor David Remnick. Esquire published an excerpt, about Roth’s disastrous first marriage, a harrowing story. A must read among the literati, but I hope its reach goes far beyond. Pre-order it here; it publishes on Tuesday. Here’s a review from The Atlantic. Cynthia Ozick, calls it a “masterwork” in the NYTBR.

What we’re drinking…

A fabulous, nuanced cocktail called The Brooklyn!

In honor of where we got our shots! And also, of course, a Manhattan for the beloved, in beloved NYC.

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Coolest new kitchen invention…

The KitchenStickin. In 2010 I posted about how valuable painters tape in the kitchen was for handy labeling because it peels off permanent containers. This until a few days ago was my system:

But a couple weeks ago I got an email from Emmanuel Martirez, saying he’d started using painters tape as a result of my writing about it and loved it. But there was a problem. He wrote in his email:

I [got] sick and tired of having to constantly dig through my crowded junk drawer for the tape and a working Sharpie. My kids would always walk off with one or the other or both. The Sharpie I would be able to find would always be dry. I got sick of it!

So what did Emmanuel, who describes himself as “just a regular family guy in St. Louis,” do? He invented a wall-mounted tape dispenser, so that pen and tape are always and easily at hand. Brilliant.

Quote of the week…

From Louis Adamic, the Slovene-American author and translator, who said, "My grandfather always said that living is like licking honey off a thorn." (Thank you Garrison Keillor and your daily Writer’s Almanac, which I listen to every morning as my egg poaches.)

Links we’re liking …

Steve Raichlin discusses how to make ham in the NYTimes. I took special note of his comments on the oft-vilified pink curing salt, sodium nitrite:

Over the years, sodium nitrite has been embraced and vilified. (The vilification was on the basis of a questionable scientific study done more than 30 years ago.) Numerous studies deeming sodium nitrite safe when used at appropriate levels have since exonerated it. And it turns out that sodium nitrite is also found in many plants, such as arugula and celery. It doesn’t deserve its bad rap.

Also from The times, this on how our gut biome changes over time.

Ann is currently teaching (remotely) two NYU undergraduate classes in fiction. One assignment was to write a flash fiction story. When she’d finished her class a couple Thursdays ago, she said, “Oh my god, I have to read you this story from my class, it had us in tears.” It is the interaction between a young woman and a lobster she finds on her porch. It got to me too. Ann told Gabby Capone, a sophomore, to submit it to Cleaver, an online magazine devoted to publishing emerging voices. They’ve just published Gabby’s story, The Lobster. It’s absolutely lovely. (If you read, remember one student’s comment at the end: “We’re all lobsters.”)

And who knew Iceland was so mad for hotdogs? Theirs are made with pork, beef, and lamb, served with a remoulade!

Honey making in Yemen, a dangerous game. Honey-making in New Mexico, call 911!

Fascinating story on the socio-politics of knitting, the birth of the pussy hat, and the controversial knitting site Ravelry, from The New Yorker (via my knitting wife).

And what is this walrus doing in Wales?!

And I just learned that Ken Burns has made a new six-hour documentary on Hemingway, which we intend to watch, starting Monday on PBS. So I’ll leave you with a glimpse of what Paris looked like when Poppa was young and poor and happy (this via David Lebovitz’s newsletter).

Stay safe everyone, we’re almost out of this thing.

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