I feel bad about what I’m about to say, but the first time I watched When Harry Met Sally I didn’t like it. I was in college and trying to like Woody Allen and be “cultured” and I claimed it was a rip off of Annie Hall. I think it was because of the montage sequence showing Harry and Sally ordering in a restaurant, dropping mail at the corner mailbox, and lugging a Christmas tree home through the streets of New York. Something in there – along with Sally’s high-waisted baggy pants and the brimmed hat she wears walking through the park being reminiscent of Diane Keaton – reminded me of Annie Hall. I can remember claiming to think Annie Hall was a much better film, probably because I had just seen it and back then people only used sophisticated revered tones when talking about Woody Allen.

But this is not about him. It’s about Nora Ephron, and so I have to come clean about that embarrassing and off-base first impression/pose I adopted in my misguided youth.

I don’t know how long it was until I gave When Harry Met Sally another try but from then on I have done nothing but love it more and more. I guess that’s appropriate, given their description of the evolution of their own relationship:

Harry: “The first time we met we hated each other.”

Sally: “No, you didn’t hate me, I hated you. The second time we met, you didn’t even remember me.”

Harry: “I did too, I remembered you. The third time we met, we became friends.”

Sally: “We were friends for a long time.”

Harry: “And then we weren’t.”

Sally: “And then we fell in love.”

Sometimes you do not just know – at least not at first – the way you do about a good melon.

Drop me down in this movie and I can find my way out. Just start me on a line of dialogue and I’ll keep going, like being plopped down in a familiar liturgy or hymn, one you weren’t sure you had memorized until it bubbled up from within. I once bet a lawyer friend who loves When Harry Met Sally as much as I do (and who shall remain nameless in case this is searchable in court documents somewhere) that he couldn’t find a way to slip an actual line of dialogue into his oral argument. Granted, he didn’t go for a laudable degree of difficulty with something like the “stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table” but he did manage to say to the other lawyer, a la Harry on the airport moving sidewalk, “I’ll just let you go ahead.”

But this isn’t really about When Harry Met Sally, either. It’s about Nora Ephron.

I have a deep vein of kinship with Nora though we were generations apart, geographically mismatched, and the only religion she ever wanted to claim was her adherence to the principle that you can never have enough butter. She was a funny feminist, a sensible artist, a die-hard New Yorker, an astute cultural commenter, and a damn fine writer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Nora recently, after watching Everything is Copy, the documentary her son, Jacob Bernstein, made about her. In the film, several of Nora’s friends confirmed my belief that her great and final film, Julie & Julia, is her love letter to love and partnership and marriage, especially her own to Nick Pileggi. I stayed up late to watch the documentary and felt like I’d visited with an old friend when it was over. In the way of devotees, I spent a few days afterwards reading articles about her online, re-reading her essays, and buying books I didn’t already have.

In my internet oblations, I came across this NPR interview I’d never heard, part of a series in which they asked writers to name a scene they wished they had written themselves. Nora chose a scene from another of my all-time favorite movies, Tootsie. Strangely, my relationship to Tootsie, as with When Harry Met Sally, also began with my own stupidity and stubbornness. I was in high school when it came out and I irrationally and snobbily decided that since all of America was raving about this movie, there was no way I would be interested. So I wasted about four years until I saw it in college and then promptly loved it and began a long term relationship with it, too. The point being, of course Nora loved Tootsie.

I don’t know if I have an inner New Yorker, but if I do, she’s named “Nora.” And she probably exists at all because of Nora. I grew up watching and re-watching I Love Lucy with my mom but whenever Lucy picked up the phone to order a side of beef delivered to the apartment, I zoned out when she gave the address, “623 East 68th Street.” It didn’t sound like addresses where I lived (and yes, I know now that it’s a real street but not a real address, unless they lived at the bottom of the East River). There were too many numbers. It didn’t mean anything at all so I simply heard “numbers, numbers, address.”

This was the case until my early 40s when we stayed at my in-laws’ apartment on the Upper East Side and walked everywhere. That weekend I was reading Nora’s I Feel Bad About My Neck for the first time. In the chapter called “The Lost Strudel or Le Strudel Perdu,” Nora shares her quest for a savory cabbage strudel she once had in Manhattan but which had since disappeared. She tried for years to find a bakery that made them until one day a friend gave her a tip about a Hungarian bakery “on Second and Eighty-fifth Street.” I looked up from the book and out the window, thinking about the cross streets and how many long blocks we were from Second. I hollered out to my husband in the other room, got my shoes on, and we set out to find cabbage strudel, returning within the hour with our prize. It was the single most New York moment of my life, thanks to Nora.

If Nora herself had been in the bakery that day, I probably would have been too shy or too play-it-cool-with-celebrities to speak to her, even though I am intensely jealous of Lena Dunham and would love to have been taken under Nora’s wise wings. Even so, I’ve known Nora and her work for a long time and, thankfully, this is the sort of relationship that continues past death. I’ll be re-reading her essays and watching When Harry Met Sally and Julie & Julia until my own end. I’ll keep wishing I’d written any single one of the many oft-quoted lines she penned.

I’ll also continue to feel a little bit bad about my first impressions, but I think Nora would understand.


photo credit: “Katz’s Deli=When Harry Met Sally,” © 2006 by Aaron_M, CC BY 2.0

Friday Five: Spring Renewal

Our state flower, blooming right alongside the Monticello Trail, another great local hike.

Our state flower, blooming right alongside the Monticello Trail, another great local hike.



Every Friday the RevGals post a play-along Friday Five.  (Have I mentioned we wrote a book?)  This week’s is wide open:  “share with us five experiences of renewal that you have recently enjoyed, or would like to launch this Easter season.”

Happy May Day, everyone, and here are my five…


  1. Hiking.  We hiked Crabtree Falls with company in town a couple weeks ago, as the forest was just waking up again and trillium were blooming.  My calves were so tight afterwards I had to use a rolling pin on them to get them to relax – which means we should be doing this one again and often.
  2. Crêpe fest.  A few years ago for my husband’s May birthday I declared it “Crêpe fest” and we made both savory (gruyere and mushroom) and sweet (Nutella, honey and cinnamon, lemon and sugar) crêpes.  It’s time for the festival to return.
  3. Visit my grandparents’ house.  My dad owns it now but I will always think of it as theirs.  I’ve been working on a longer piece about home and being southern.  It centers on this little spot on the map in the flat red-clay tobacco country of Virginia and how I’m connected to family and traditions and people there.
  4. Enjoy a real, decadent brunch.  Atlanta is the brunchingest town I’ve ever lived in and I have missed this in every other place I’ve lived.  To find a good restaurant that does both Saturday and Sunday brunch is a treasure (and a necessity for those of us with Sunday obligations).  I love lingering over a third cup of coffee and the sprawling feeling of morning merging into afternoon, in both time and cuisine.
  5. Writing retreat.  I had one planned for the exact week we got ten inches of snow in February.  The kind proprietors of the cabin I booked allowed me to reschedule and it’s coming up soon.  I’m looking forward to being offline, out of touch, and deeply absorbed.

Dakota Cranberries

I come from Southern pie folk.  Pecan, chocolate meringue, lemon meringue, coconut.  Pumpkin.  Chess.  Apple.  Cherry.  When I see my family this week I will be making a chocolate meringue pie.   That was a specialty of my paternal grandmother, who always had one waiting when my dad visited – or she’d whip one up on the spot once he arrived.  I’m in charge of keeping my dad in chocolate meringue now.  handwritten recipe for cranberries

But he requests other things, too.  He likes the way I do mashed potatoes.  Skins on, lumps of butter, plenty of salt and pepper.  He’ll even have a generous helping of my vegetable-nut roast, my go-to vegetarian feast day main course.

And he asks for cranberries.  These cranberries were a late addition to our family feasts but they are as anticipated and expected now as the longstanding pies.

The cranberries came by way of South Dakota.  My maternal grandfather married a woman many years after my grandmother’s death, when I was a young teenager.  She came from Scandinavian Midwestern stock and she brought with her to our family’s Virginia tables Norwegian Krumkaka and the cranberries.  Before this, I thought canned gelatinous, ridges-still-imprinted cranberry “sauce” was normal.  I always loved cranberries, the tartness and the pucker.  I was entertained by the comic wiggle from the can onto the serving dish.  But I didn’t know what else cranberries could be.

The first time I had Sylvia’s cranberries, the world became wider.  When everyone else went back late in the day for an extra piece of pie, I would choose a bowl of her cranberries instead.  She used real cranberries, oranges, and walnuts, chopped but still recognizable and formed into a decorative mold.  For many years, I eagerly anticipated this new staple of our Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.  I’m sure I complimented the cranberries each and every time – probably each and every serving.

One year in early January following a Christmas visit, I received a note in the mail from Sylvia, offering me her cranberry recipe.  I don’t know why she decided to give it to me that year.  I don’t remember if I ever asked for it.  Our relationship with her always bore the markers of a tense politeness, as it seemed to us that though she loved my grandfather, she wasn’t ever really sure about the rest of us.

So it was a little surprising to receive the recipe.  And strange to think something so universally beloved and expected on our feast tables came from my step-grandmother.  But it’s our recipe now, too, given and received with her blessing, made (mostly) according to her instructions, which I still read in her handwriting on a worn and yellowed piece of stationary. 

Virginia pecan pie meets Dakotan cranberries.  Strangers become family.  The table is wide enough for us all.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Sylvia’s Cranberries

Sylvia called this “cranberry salad.”  One taste has convinced former cranberry-haters that they do, indeed, like them.  We make this at Thanksgiving and Christmas and look forward to it the rest of the year.  Enjoy!

2, 12 oz. packages of fresh cranberries, ground

2 oranges, ground

2 cups sugar (I sometimes use less – adjust to your desired sweetness or tartness.)

1 cup boiling water

1 cup walnuts, ground

Optional:  2 packages plain gelatin mixed with ¼ cup boiling water.  I used to substitute agar (a vegetarian alternative to gelatin) but realized a couple of years ago it doesn’t really need the gelling agent.  I usually pour this into a serving bowl to chill.  If you are using a decorative mold and will be flipping it out later onto a plate, you may want the gelling agent.

Rinse cranberries and discard any that are mushy or bad.  Chop them into a small-medium dice in the food processor.  Dump them into a pot. 

Remove orange rind, seeds, and thick pith then pulverize the oranges in the food processor.  Add them to the pot with the cranberries.

Add the sugar and the water and mix well.  Boil for 2 minutes then remove from heat.  When cool, add the ground walnuts.  Pour into either a greased mold or a serving bowl and refrigerate overnight or for at least 3-4 hours.

This is a breeze with a food processor but I have also made it several times, chopping it all by hand.  It’s worth it either way.

But Wait, There’s More: Butternut Squash Soup, Standby Recipe for Fall

fall leaves, fall color

I know I said we were finished with our Standby Recipes series, but when a couple of cool late August-early September days came along, I started to crave this soup.  Once you’ve had it you’ll know what I mean.  Simple and deeply satisfying (and vegan and gluten-free if you want it to be).

My friend Alison first made it for me when I landed in England, barely awake and hungry after a long night of travel.  It revived me and felt so much more nourishing than any of the easy-grab things I would have eaten, left to my own devices.  When I’m feeling lazy or tired and debating whether or not I want to get involved with a butternut squash, I remember how bone-deep-wonderful this tasted on that early English morning and how it only took her half an hour. 

Butternut Squash Soup

1 small-medium onion, diced

1 T butter or vegetable/olive oil

2-3 sprigs of fresh rosemary, chopped

1 small-medium butternut squash, peeled, seeds discarded, chopped into 1” pieces

1 quart vegetable stock

1 can white beans (like cannellini), rinsed and drained

Salt and pepper, to taste

Melt butter (or warm oil) in large pot or Dutch oven.  Add onion and sauté for several minutes until soft and translucent.  Add rosemary and continue sautéing for another minute or two.

Be careful peeling and chopping the squash.  (I use a good vegetable peeler (not a knife) to peel and then work on small sections at a time – it will be slippery.)  When you’ve tackled it, add it to the pot and pour in the vegetable stock.  Turn it up to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until squash is tender and easily pierced with a fork.

When the squash is getting close to done, add the beans and some fresh black pepper. 

Before I had a blender, I used a food processor for this next part and it’s perfectly yummy and acceptable to do so.  But if you have a blender, I recommend using it.  The soft, velvety purée you can achieve with the blender is perfection.  So, get whichever device you are going to use and, in small batches, purée the soup.  It is very easy to have it explode out of the blender when it’s hot and you put too much in, so be conservative.  I keep a bowl handy and pour out the blended soup into it, while continuing to blend the soup from the pot in batches.

When you have it all blended (a few stray beans left in the bottom of the pot is fine and adds a nice random texture to the final product, so don’t stress about those), pour the soup back into the pot.  Turn it down to warm and taste.  Adjust with salt and more pepper, if desired.

That’s it.  Homemade soup in half an hour.  Bliss.  Yum.  Go, make and enjoy!

Standby Recipes, The Final Edition: You want me to make pesto?

I started this Standby Recipes series to encourage folks who are swamped or inexperienced to prepare some real food, at least every once in a while.  I wanted you to just start somewhere and to feel confident messing around in the kitchen.  Well, I think you may be ready to fly, little birdies!  Moosewood Restaurant Ithaca New York

Before I end the series with this post, I’ll mention again that Smitten Kitchen is an excellent site for browsing and finding your own go-to standby recipes.  Another favorite for weeknight meals is a book called Simple Suppers: Fresh Ideas for the Weeknight Table by The Moosewood Collective.  If you read through the “Well-Stocked Pantry” appendix and take some of the tips to heart, you will always have enough of the right ingredients on hand to pull together a quick, tasty, healthy meal.

Here is one of the many recipes I use from Simple Suppers, for Fettuccine with Walnut Pesto.  I know, I know.  Pesto is something you buy in a plastic container at the store or order at restaurants.  It seems hard or too fancy or way too time-consuming.  Not so!  This is the recipe to prove you wrong and to demonstrate that you don’t have to wait for summer basil, either.

Fettuccine with Walnut Pesto

Cook 1 lb of fettuccine or other pasta according to the instructions on the box.  When it’s done, drain it but reserve about 1 cup of the pasta-cooking water.

While that is cooking, toast 1 c walnuts, keeping a close eye on them so they do not burn.  Set aside to cool.

Put all of these items into a food processor or blender and puree until smooth: 

  • 1 c chopped fresh or canned tomatoes (If it is any time but the height of summer tomato season, use diced, canned tomatoes.)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 T extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ t salt

Add walnuts to the blender/food processor and process until the mixture is well-mixed and the consistency is a lumpy paste.  (If you are using fresh tomatoes you may need to add 1-2 T water.)

Put the drained pasta into a large serving bowl and toss it with the walnut pesto, adding the reserved cooking water as necessary to make it saucy enough.  Top it with fresh chopped basil and grated parmesan cheese, if desired.

The whole thing might take you 20-30 minutes the first time, but I bet you can whittle that down to 10-15 with practice.  Bon appétit!


photo credit:  © 2007 Michael Sauers, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Brought to You by the Number 5

RevGalBlogPals web ring posts a group blog prompt each Friday.  Though I’ve been a member of the ring for a couple of months, this is my first time playing.  Here we go!

Whoosh! My calendar is packed. And June is almost gone! There’s the old saying, “Bad luck comes in threes” but I’ve decided that “Busy-ness comes in fives!” So this week we’ll take things five-at-a-time. Tell me:

1. Five flowers you’d like in a bouquet or in your garden:

Daisies.  Simple, homey, earthy, elegant.  There were a lot of daisies in my wedding bouquet.

Lavender.  It flowers so I’m counting it.  Fragrant and purple – what more do you need?

Peonies.  Old-fashioned and charmingly droopy.

Knock Out roses.  Plentiful, wafting scent, and apparently harder to mangle and kill than regular roses.  That holds promise for me.

Crape myrtle.  Again, I’m counting it because it flowers.  Leggy and pleasantly pruned.  Though I have to admit I always want to spell it “crepe.”

2. Five books you want to read (or re-read):

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (re-read)

Friends for the Journey by Luci Shaw and Madeleine L’Engle

The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner

And the Mountains Echoed by Haled Hosseini

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (re-read)

3. Five places you want to visit:

Kauai, Hawaii

Cinque Terre, Italy

Anywhere in Alaska


A remote campground I know in Montana, with my husband (I hope he comes on the other trips, too.)

4. Five people you’d invite for tea/coffee/beer and pizza:

Jeff Daniels

The Car Talk brothers (I’m counting them as one.)

Alice Munro

Wendell Berry

Sarah Polley

5. Five chores or tasks you’d gladly give to someone else:

Cleaning the bathroom

Cleaning the kitchen sink and strainers


Raking/dealing with fallen leaves

Washing out my clay-splattered pottery clothes after class so they are clean enough to put in the laundry!

BONUS: A five ingredient recipe! (This is harder than it sounds!)

Fail!  This is, indeed, hard.  My best contenders are the 6-ingredient recipe I posted earlier today or my veggie revision of this Giada recipe.  Making just the bean dip, you follow her instructions using these 5 ingredients:  olive oil, canned artichoke hearts, cannellini beans, cheese, lemon zest and juice.  (I often leave out the basil.)  But then you still have to add salt and pepper.  Alas.

Standby Recipes #4: Stepping It Up a Notch

empty brownie pan

What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s Friday and you need some brownies this weekend.  I can tell.  Sure, you could pick some up at the coffee shop or the bakery section in the grocery store on the way home.  But I’m pretty sure what you really need are these brownies, hands down the best homemade brownies I’ve had.

So far in the standby recipes series I’ve gone easy on you and I’ve focused on dinner.  But everyone needs a little sweetness in life and what’s a snow day without a warm concoction to delight and indulge in?  I hope you don’t wait until it’s snowing again to try these because they are worth heating up the oven in summer.

Smitten Kitchen is a beautiful and tasty site for finding new gems and fresh takes on old favorites.  You don’t have to be an accomplished cook to follow along and you can spend a surprising amount of time hitting the “Surprise Me!” random recipe generator link. 

Here is the link to her “My Favorite Brownies” recipe, which is now my favorite brownie recipe, too.  A few tips from me:

  • I make them exactly as she describes, though I had to go out to find “flaky sea salt” (Maldon salt – you should rub it together between your palms after measuring, to break it up a bit before adding it to the other ingredients).  It’s a fancy ingredient and you can certainly use kosher sea salt (I did this the first time or two I made them), but the Maldon salt is a nice touch – and then you have it around for sprinkling on other dishes.
  • Before using this recipe, I had never tried her method of spraying and parchment in the bottom of the pan.  Try it!  It is wonderfully efficient.
  • Please don’t fret if you have never tried melting chocolate and butter together in this double boiler method she describes.  It is easier than you might think.  You put about 1-2 inches of water in the bottom of a saucepan and put a bowl on top of that pan (a glass Pyrex bowl is perfect for this).  It just needs to rest on the pan without touching the water below.  You put the butter and chocolate in the bowl as she directs and stir while the water below simmers (once you’ve got it boiling, turn it down to a simmer or very low boil so it doesn’t get too hot and burn the chocolate).  It is really that simple and now you can impress people by throwing around terms like “double boiler.”
  • One more note on ingredients:  Other than the splurge for the fancy salt, the ingredients are common kitchen staples and there are only 6 of them.  This is so easy to whip up!  I use regular Baker’s unsweetened chocolate and I have even made these with gluten-free flour on occasion and they were still amazing.

Happy Friday snow day in summer!

Standby Recipes #3: A Study in Simplicity

frozen peas package

As I wrote recently, I’m posting a few of my standby recipes, and here’s the third one.  Since my aim is to share a few tried and true, go-to, standby meals, this is one of those simple but satisfying gems.  Because I want you to actually want to prepare a meal for yourself from genuine raw ingredients –at least every once in a while – this is about as low-prep and raw as it gets.

I present to you the humble baked potato.  Seriously.  Real food, the oven does most of the work, and you feel truly fed.  Comfort food at its simplest and best.

If you have no other choice, you can microwave your potato but you will thank me after you’ve tried it in the oven.  If you happen to have a gas oven, stand back and be prepared to swoon.

Here’s what you do (and just multiply this for however many people you are feeding, other than yourself):

Turn your oven to 400F.  Use any type of “white” potato you like (russet, Idaho, Yukon Gold).  Scrub it clean in water and trim off any eyes or bad spots with a paring knife.  Leave the rest of the skin intact.  Poke a few holes in it with your knife or a fork.  When the oven is up to temperature, put the potato directly on the oven rack in the center of the oven and set a timer for 1 hour.

Go off and enjoy a glass of something, read a chapter in your novel, or watch an episode of Frasier on Netflix.

When the timer buzzes, check the potato by sticking a fork or knife in it.  The skin should be somewhat crackly and the knife should go in easy and smooth.  If you meet resistance, let it cook another 15 minutes or so and check again. 

Even if you think you don’t like peas, get some frozen green peas and be prepared to change your mind (by all means, use fresh ones if it’s summer or you can find them).  While the potato is finishing its last few minutes of cooking time, put a generous ½ – 1 cup of peas in a small saucepan with about an inch of water.  Turn it to hi and let the peas cook in the boiling water for 1-2 minutes.  They barely need cooking and should still have some texture (not mushy) when they’re done.  Drain the water off.

When the potato is ready, use pot holders to take it out of the oven and plop it on your plate.  Immediately slice it open and insert copious amounts of butter, mashing it into the flesh so it all becomes one lovely substance.

Top your butter-infused potato with peas, salt, and pepper.  If you are in the mood, add grated cheese.  Allow yourself to moan as you enjoy it.

Standby Recipes #2: Beans – No soaking required

dial on a crock pot

As I wrote last week, I’m posting a few of my standby recipes, and here’s the second one.  You are going to need a crock pot for this one but it will be a purchase that’s worth it.  This is satisfying and filling year-round and doesn’t heat up the kitchen the way an oven does.  You can let it cook overnight or during the day while you’re at work and you’re ready to go at dinner time.

Put the following ingredients in a crock pot and turn it on hi (if you want to eat in 3-6 hours) or lo (if you want to eat in 6-12).  Give it a stir every once in a while and add more liquid if it seems too dry.

  • 16 oz package of dried kidney or black beans, rinsed under cold water.  Examine the beans and remove any small rocks that may be hiding out in the mix.  (You really don’t have to soak the beans before cooking in a crock pot.  Yes!)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes, fire-roasted if you can find it
  • Generous pinch or two of salt and some fresh black pepper
  • 1-2 tsps of chopped jalapeno peppers.  I use prepared ones from a jar, so we always have a few in the fridge.  Test for heat if you are using fresh and adjust the amount as needed.
  • Water or vegetable stock to cover the other ingredients by about an inch.  (I use store bought cartons of stock and just refrigerate any portion I don’t use.)

About 30-60 minutes before you want to eat, dice a medium yellow onion and sauté it in butter or vegetable oil until it is nicely browned or even blackened in a few places. 

Dump the onion and butter/oil into the crock pot and stir.  Let the flavors mingle while you make some rice and/or grate some cheddar cheese to sprinkle on top.  These beans are great ladled over rice or a baked potato, but they are fabulous all by themselves in a bowl, with or without a little cheese on top.

This should make about 6 full servings.  If you have leftovers, they make a tasty addition to homemade nachos.

I’m a Feminist and I Cook

kitchen in the midst of cooking, dishes everywhere

I grew up with a grandmother who made turkey and ham at Christmas, a chocolate meringue pie every time she knew my dad was visiting, and who once spent an entire week preparing food for a family reunion.  I grew up watching my mother wrestle apart a whole chicken in the afternoon before dinner and thinking of frozen TV dinners as treats because we only had them when my parents went out and we were with a babysitter.  For a long time I didn’t quite believe that anyone actually ate Kraft macaroni and cheese.  Though I saw the ubiquitous ads, I never once saw it on my plate or in our house, so it remained one of those bizarre things I both knew about and didn’t – until I got to college and found out that other people had different versions of cooking.

I’m not glorifying anything.  My grandmother was an excellent cook and my mom is, too.  Many meals were homemade, though both of them routinely used boxed mixes for cake and brownies.  I’m not trying to talk about purity here.  I’m simply describing what I grew up with as “normal.” 

It was also normal in our family for women to work.  I’m not adding “outside the home,” because for the first 37 years of her life, my grandmother worked on farms.  She was back and forth between the fields and the kitchen and they were long days.  After that, she worked in a Woolworth and I remember many Christmas Eves waiting for her shift to end so we could have dinner and open presents – yes, she cooked the dinner, too.  My mother earned her graduate degree part-time while we were very young and then worked full-time from the time I was 10 years old.  Among their many responsibilities, both women cooked for us.  (It was also normal in my family, at least sometimes, for men to cook.  In the hectic days of high school, my dad was the one to have breakfast ready for all of us each morning before we zoomed out the door in multiple directions.)

I’m contemplating family and cooking after reading Emily Matchar’s fascinating book Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity.  It’s a bigger book than this one issue, but this is the one sticking with me at the moment.    In the book she describes women who are hands-on about every moment of the food process, from growing and raising it, to canning and slaughtering, to preparing it for the plate.  She highlights people who grind their own flour, make their own baby food, and attempt to become self-sufficient producers of all the food their families eat.  Clearly, that’s one end of a continuum. The other end is the person who buys only prepared and fast food and uses the oven for storage. 

Matchar has written in other places about the new tyranny of cooking imposed by people like Michael Pollan.  She points out that not everyone likes to cook and that now it’s easier than ever to find healthy fast food and prepared food alternatives to the drudgery of cooking.

Anything can become drudgery.  I suppose there may be some folks for whom preparing food would always constitute drudgery.  Certainly, working 12 hours in the field and then coming back to the kitchen to prepare a full meal for the rest of the hungry field crew would wear on you.  I’m sure there were days when my grandmother didn’t feel like making dinner.  I suppose there may even be people who just aren’t that into food and honestly can’t taste the difference between homemade marinara and sauce from a jar.

What’s interesting in Matchar’s book is the prevalence of the phrase “from scratch cooking.”  In fact, she rarely talks about cooking without the word “scratch” in front of it.  Having grown up as I did, this is sort of like saying “cooking cooking.”  It highlights how little many people actually cook and it emphasizes a purity test for what counts as cooking (think, grinding your own flour vs. buying an already roasted chicken and making a few side dishes to go with it).

I’m a fan of utilitarian, go-to meals and I also like exploring new recipes, occasionally even those that should only be tried with a culinary degree.  I know the comfort of ordering take out after a long day, which I invariably think of as “someone else cooking for me.”  I also know the satisfaction of watching the raw ingredients turn into something amazing, just because I followed the steps.  Many, many days, I know the comfort of a good enough meal, pulled together and eaten at home without much fuss or time. 

Bottom line:  It doesn’t all have to be Julia Child and it doesn’t have to take hours to prepare.  You can even use some pre-made ingredients to help yourself out.  It is almost always less expensive and better-tasting when you cook/make it yourself.  There is nothing wrong with a tub of store-bought hummus but why not learn or collect a few easy, inexpensive, healthful, and delicious standbys?

In a week in which we had this throwback to 1950s advertising, it’s important to say it outright:  I’m a feminist and I cook.  One of the themes of Matchar’s book is the way in which the “new domesticity” young women assert that they are “reclaiming” cooking after “feminism told women that cooking was drudgery and shoved them out of the kitchen.”  This is not and never was feminism.  Feminism is about expecting all of the people who want to eat to help cook it.  Feminism is about expecting the world outside of the kitchen to treat men and women equally for the work they do there.

I cook because I need to eat and because it’s a creative and rewarding endeavor.  (I also work because I need to eat.)  And I work because I am called to it.  That’s the best of both worlds and I know it.  To truly love your work and to love the creativity and beauty of feeding and being fed are all blessings.

A few years ago we had a bread-baking retreat at the campus ministry where I work.  We spent the afternoon learning how to bake bread and, while it was rising, reflecting on the prayer we offer during Communion.  Men and women – none of them who’d ever made bread previously – created the loaves we carried into worship that evening.  This wasn’t drudgery or a waste of our time.  And that bread tasted better than our usual loaf.

Working with young folks and having read Matchar’s book, I realize that a lot of people just don’t know where to start.  If you didn’t grow up with pies and homemade macaroni and cheese, it isn’t too late!  To help anyone else out there who may be tired of your own standbys or who may want to learn a few, I’ll be posting 4 or 5 of my simplest and most satisfying recipes over the next few weeks.  So for all of you men and women who may want to include a few more meals at home, here’s the first of my standby recipes.  Bon appétit!

Standby Recipes #1:  Greek Salad

This one is especially refreshing and satisfying in the summer months.  Use any variety of the items below and feel free to change it up to fit your mood.

Put any or all of these ingredients into a large bowl or plate and drizzle with your favorite salad dressing:

  • 3-4 leaves of lettuce, torn by hand into bite sized pieces (red-leaf, green-leaf, romaine, or whatever you like)
  • Handful of canned garbanzo beans (Rinse them first. You’ll have leftovers for another salad later in the week.)
  • Chopped red onion
  •  Sliced or diced cucumbers
  • Diced fresh tomatoes (you can use cherry or grape tomatoes cut in half)
  • 4-6 halved, pitted kalamata olives (you can often find these on an olive or salad bar at the grocery store)
  • Generous sprinkling of Feta cheese, crumbled or diced
  • 2-4 pepperoncini peppers
  • Hardboiled egg, sliced in half or quarters (The only cooking required in this one!)
  • Black pepper, sprinkled on top