Adventures in Cooking: The I Hate to Cook Book

I collect cookbooks — the weirder the better.  If it’s from the mid 20th century, with photos of extravagant fish jell-o molds or pineapples made out of liverwurst, I’m all over it.  I especially like photos of foodstuff that are supposed to be elegant but looks like it would taste worse than dog food and psychotic looking children crafting whimsical weenie dishes.  Some of them are so earnest they break my heart, which makes them even more wonderful to me.  I have stacks and shelves of books and pamphlets, and most of them have only been ogled over and never actually used to make anything.

I’m not a great cook — in fact, I’ve really just started cooking and baking regularly just recently — but I’ve decided to put these wacky wonders to better use than just sitting in the kitchen.  My friend and I put on event a couple times a year called The Mid-Century Potluck (see the latest one here) and that is fabulous, but I’ve been wanting to actually re-create these recipes on a far more regular basis because it’s so much fun.

So tonight I dug out a cookbook my mom gave me when I moved into my first apartment: Peg Bracken’s The I Hate to Cook Book from 1960.

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I love this book, though as much I love the Hilary Knight illustrations (Eloise!  Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle!  Where’s Wallace!) and the absolutely hilarious text, I’ve never actually cooked from it.  But tonight I decided to make “Skid Road Stroganoff.”  (I’m not sure why it’s Skid ROAD and not Row…)

The recipe made me laugh out loud:

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I love that she says to light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.  I think the character Betty Draper was created from that line alone.  And then she goes on and on about how important parsley is as a garnish, because: “The reason for these little garnishes is that even though you hate to cook, you don’t always want this fact to show, as it so often does with a plateful of nude food.”  Oh, she is my hero.

So I followed the recipe (though substituting beef with turkey and cutting the salt in half — this IS 2015 and 1960, after all.  And voila:

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Isn’t that fancy?  Parsley!  And I swear, it was actually REALLY good.  Jon even had seconds, though it was so rich I couldn’t.  We even watched Mad Men while we ate — it was just so perfect.

I highly recommend this book, which is still in print, all these years later!  Sure, get it for the recipes, but really buy it and read it for the writing and wit.  (“Stayabed Stew: This is for those days when you’re en negligee en bed, with a murder story and a box of bon bons, or possibly a good case of the flu.”)  She is so funny, and my God, what a relief this book must have been for so many women in 1960 who were stuck cooking and despised it.  Get a load of the introduction:

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It’s so witty and so funny, and I’m so glad my mom gave it to me, all those years ago.  When I talked to her tonight and I told her, she laughed and said, “Oh, that was one of my favorites!”  I think my mom really was one of those women who hated to cook, and was only to happy to open a can of something and be thrilled at the convenience.  As a child of The Depression, the new, mid-century progress with food — cans and frozen vegetables and microwaves — was always such a thrill and convenience for her.  But if company was coming, she could whip up something gourmet and chic — so she was a little Julia Child and a lot Peg Bracken.  I, for one, am so glad about that.

So this will be a regular post — a dish I make from this or one of my other crazy cookbooks.  I’m not going to make any aspic stuff — I’m going to go for the edible.  But I REALLY want to try “Hellzapoppin Cheese Rice”…

Bon appetit!

Hero Worship

They say that you shouldn’t meet your heroes, and to a certain extent I agree.  I met Davy Jones once, and he was terrible.  He was super rude, and my eight-year-old heart was broken.  I also met David Cassidy who was also not at all nice, but since I liked his brother Shaun better, I wasn’t as upset. But sometimes you do get to meet your heroes, and they can be fantastic — I met Judy Blume and she made me cry because I was so happy, and same with Patty Duke.  I also met Little Richard at Ben Frank’s (THAT’S another story for another time), and he was super great and paid for my lunch.  So I’ve been lucky, too.

But tonight was the luckiest night of them all — I met JOHN WATERS.  Oh my GOD.

The first time I ever saw Pink Flamingos I was a junior in high school, and decided that I wanted John Waters to be my prom date.  (Obviously that didn’t happen.) But oh, I worshiped him.  He and his crazy gang were just insane, and my friend Matt and I were completely obsessed with him, Divine, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, and Edith Massey.  They were weird outcasts, too, though granted they were way crazier than we were, and far more creative.  I got his first book, Shock Value, my freshman year in college, and Crackpot soon after that.  (I thought I was so cool having read it before Hairspray came out, and recognized the characters. Pfffft.)  I loved his books even more than his movies — he was hysterical and nuts and I wished so much that we were friends.  His writing was brilliant and made me laugh out loud, and to the point of tears.  To this day I still think of “Puff Piece: 101 Things I Love” and “Hatchet Piece: 101 Things I Hate” — when I see joggers I say, in his voice, “IT’S NOT WORKING!” and about how those honky Beatles ruined everything, and how he loves to stomp around in his Kleenex box bunny slippers.  (I’m laughing now just thinking about it.)  I was so grateful to have found him, and back then, if you found other people who were also John Waters fans, you had found kindred spirits with whom you could quote Polyester.  That still holds true to this day.

A couple of months ago, I saw on FB that my friend TaggyLee was going to see him reading from his latest book, Carsick, at a local bookstore, and I invited myself to go with her.  John Waters in Oakland?  Um, YES.  OH MY GOD. We called and got our books, which was also our admission and as it turned out, our assigned seating.  TaggyLee bought book #6, and I bought book #7.

Which meant we were front row center.

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We were RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIM.  We were so close I could see his furry slippers!

He read a chapter from his book, which was hilarious, and then he opened it up to questions.  He was so friendly and funny and told more great stories…  I envy all those people who picked him up while he was hitchhiking! I even asked a question — well, I said, “I hear you like public transportation” and I know I was blushing so hard, but he got all excited and told us a great story about how he watched a woman pick her girlfriend’s pimples on Muni (only he calls it MOONIE) for about half an hour and everyone was laughing. He looked right at me, too!  I was in heaven.

And then we got to get our books signed, and I was all flustered and he asked my name and I said Karen Finlay so we laughed about that, and he asked me how old I was when I discovered the “other Karen Finley,” and right as this photo was taken, he was saying YAMS.

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I was GIDDY.  It was pretty much one of the best moments of my WHOLE LIFE.

So I’m so glad I got to meet my hero tonight — he was smart, hysterical, and charming, and everything I dreamed he would be.  (Somehow I knew he would be.)  But of course NOW I thought of the best questions: Does he still have his Kleenex Box bunny slippers? And does he still agree with my cardinal rule that white shoes should not be worn after Labor Day?  Oh well.  Maybe next time.

Buy his book here!  (It may even be signed!)

Mad Men

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So tonight is the final episode of Mad Men, and we aren’t watching.  Unlike pretty much everyone I know.

We’re not watching because we fell behind, and now we’re just starting Season 7 so we need to catch up.  Which means that we still have some time with that fabulously stylish yet dysfunctional group of people, simultaneously loving and hating Don Draper and rooting for Peggy and wishing Megan weren’t so awkward while envying her wardrobe.  Sigh.

When the show first started, people would say, “Oh, you must be a Mad Men fan!”  I hadn’t even seen it yet, and people just assumed that because of the way I dressed, it was because of that.  Granted the show has been so brilliant and beautiful it was a compliment (I guess), but still.  I wasn’t exactly influenced by it, just loved it, and loved the aesthetics long before it was on TV.  They did a fantastic job. The one thing that really bothered me, though, is that Sally has brown eyes.  Don and Betty have blue eyes, so it is physically impossible for her to be their child.  I was always hoping that it would come out that Betty had an affair rather than a mistake in casting, but oh well.  (That is one of my biggest pet peeves about TV shows — ignoring the only thing I remember from junior high science about eye color and genetics — but it happens ALL THE TIME in Hollywood.  The Wonder Years drove me nuts for the same reason, and I loved that show, too.)

I will miss it, but at least we still have some time left.  And I am looking forward to “Mad Men” to stop being a party theme or an eBay search — maybe the prices of the things I love will go back down!

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But I LOVE this artwork, which you can buy here!

Thanks for all the good times, Sterling Cooper et al.  It’s been so much fun, and thanks for making television a better place.

Class of 2004

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Looking on Facebook today, I saw that it was the graduation day of my grad school alma mater.  I’m thrilled for all these cap and gowners, embarking on their new lives filled with exciting opportunities and possibilities… And fat student loan debt.  Well, the reality of that will sink in around December — it’s all bliss today.  As it should be.

I graduated 12 years ago tomorrow — only it seems like twelve minutes ago.  I was sure I was going to be a published author, and my student loans paid off with royalty checks by now…  Yeah, not so much.  But I’m actually okay with it for the most part.  Sure I’d like to be writing more, and published, and all that — but I have to say, life is pretty good, and my education really is what got me here.

When I decided to go back to school, I was in a pretty unhappy place.  My dad was dying, and my job, though fun at times, wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and I was getting terrified that it was going to be.  I worked in a vintage store which was sort of dreamy, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do — I had an undergraduate degree in English, and I knew, deep down, that getting first crack at a pair of 1960s deadstock go-go boots wasn’t really that good of a trade for me.  (Fabulous, yes.  Career-wise, no.)  I wanted to be writing, and I wanted to make a little more money, and I wanted to be on the right path for myself.  I was going nowhere and getting depressed, and when my dad got sick I realized I only had a short amount of time to make him proud of me.  I started taking writing classes at the local senior center, where I was the youngest by several decades. That little class, and those lovely seniors with their far more fascinating stories than mine, set me on the path back to myself.

At that time, my friend was in grad school and invited me to go to classes with her. When I left the campus that day, I swooned, I cried, and I realized that it was exactly what I wanted to do.  I could not believe there was a place that you could write and discuss Beverly Cleary (I sat in on a YA creative writing class) and then go discuss Margaret Atwood in another class and then work on crafting essays.  It was like heaven!  So the next time I saw my dad and took him to dialysis, I told him that I was finally getting myself and my life together, and though he was concerned about the money, he was pleased.  One of the last days I ever spent with him, I mailed off my application and writing samples.  Unfortunately he passed away before I got accepted, but I do like to think that maybe, just maybe, he had a little something to do with that.

Those two years were amazing.  It was really hard but good work, and emotionally there were ups and downs, not the least of which was that 9/11 happened about two weeks into our first semester, and an instructor died in a plane crash shortly before graduation.  I was still working at the store, taking care of my mom, dealing with the aftermath of losing my dad, and a bad breakup, but every single day I was writing and reading, and had an extraordinary network of supportive friends.  Despite all the craziness of all that, I was still elected to be the graduate speaker at the convocation/150 year anniversary celebration, earned a tuition scholarship my second year, and was awarded writing prizes.  So yeah…  It was pretty great.  I loved buying fresh notebooks and pens, and tapping out my stories on my new blueberry iMac.  (Awwww.)  I loved doing my independent studies, staying up all night writing papers, my mind going a million miles an hour with ideas.  I loved assistant teaching freshman (err, freshperson) English and writing classes for teenage girls. Most of all, I loved being in classes and reading other people’s work and even when I was getting skewered, I loved the feedback and encouragement I got, and the wee bit of confidence I had for that short period of time.  It was like a two-year mind spa with intelligent, creative, and inspiring people, many of whom are still my friends and inspiration to this day.

My graduation day was one of the greatest days of my life.  It was gorgeous and warm, and I got to walk with my friend Sarah — we both started on the same day, so it was kismet we walked together on our last.  (We had known each other already from the vintage store, so it was so good to see a familiar face on that frightening orientation day!) My mom and sister came, my best friend since second grade flew up, my beloved and gorgeous Lit Listers were resplendent in hats, my ex boyfriend’s parents drove up from San Diego, and all my favorite professors were there, cheering me on.  The day felt perfect, until a fateful moment.

I climbed the stage in my fancy new heels, and got my diploma and a handshake, feeling like a million bucks.  I could hear claps and whoo!s after my name was called, and I thought, “This is it.  This is the beginning of my life, and I am totally ready for it.”  And as I was thinking these jubilant, motivational thoughts, I completely missed the stairs and fell off the stage.

Yes, I was THAT person.  The total doofus.  HORRIFYING.

I went down super hard and messed up my knee and broke my new shoes, but I jumped up and held my diploma in the air like I was victorious, but some people in the front row ran up to me and tried to help me and I was utterly mortified and assured them I was okay.  I was so super excited about the day that all I could do was laugh hysterically.  “Are you okay?” my sister asked after the ceremony.  “One second you there there and then you disappeared!”  UGH.  But I was a trooper and got lots of hugs.

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My favorite professor and my thesis reader, Dr. Ruth Saxton

Afterwards the group of us went to lunch at Trader Vic’s, because a fancy lunch was definitely in order.  I STILL regret not inviting my ex and his parents.  It’s the one thing about that day that makes me feel bad — I was such a turd.  A turd that falls off stages and has terrible manners.  But despite that, it was so much fun, and hello, Trader Vic’s!

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What a glamorous and wonderful gang of friends and family.

And as if that wasn’t enough, that night I threw a party at The Ivy Room, with my favorite band and tons of friends and it was so packed there was a line out the door.  Even though I was pretty sure I was going to need a new knee by the end of the night, I was feeling no pain and danced like a fool onstage and lost my hood thing or whatever you call it.

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Oh man, that was fun.  Next to our wedding and last December’s Supper Club Potluck, it was pretty much the greatest night of my whole life.  I even got the most phenomenal bouquet of all time from my friend Carrie:

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So…  Yeah.  I’m not published, will be in debt for the rest of my life, and my knee is permanently screwed up, but I don’t regret any of it for a second.  Going back to grad school was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, and the smartest thing.  It made me a better person, a better reader, a better writer, and taught me how to be grateful and that maybe I was a little talented after all.  I needed that so badly, and it happened.  I made it happen, and it’s my best accomplishment.  If I could, I would do it again tomorrow.  (If it were free.  I’m kinda strapped for the next ten years with this loan.)

Congratulations to all the graduates of the class of 2015!  I wish you all the best of luck in your bright, shiny futures.

Patience & Fortitude

My friend Leslie got me this magnet from The New York Public Library:

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And it’s been particularly fitting this week.  I’ve been so tired I couldn’t write anything worth reading, and I haven’t done all that much worth writing about.

But I am planning on a nice, quiet weekend and getting some writing done.  this Project ain’t over yet — and I hope it will never be!

Table For One.

I travel a lot of for work — not as much as some people (like my dad did), but often enough.  usually I like it — I like the quiet time in my head, the time to read, getting to see other places and far-flung friends in other cities, taking in as much as I can.

But there are downsides, too.  It’s hard on you — different time zones, jet-lag, travels aches and woes, discombobulation, adrenalin from meetings and presentations that dissolves into exhaustion, and especially loneliness.  I always miss my husband when I’m gone, wishing he were with me and can see these places.  It’s an odd feeling knowing some of these spots so well because I’m here so often, yet my husband has never seen them and some things are so banal that I wouldn’t even think to tell him — like the golden building on Briley Parkway in Nashville or the old Birmingham Apothecary across the street from my hotel in Alabama.  He’s never seen them, yet they are wholly familiar to me.  It’s strange.

And one of my biggest challenges on these trips is dinner — rather, going to dinner alone.  I have no problem with lunch, but dinner somehow seems tougher.  It’s not so much that I mind eating alone — I enjoy sitting with a book, and cell phones do keep you distracted now.  And I don’t really have qualms about anyone thinking I’m a loser — I don’t care about sitting alone.  (I’m hardly the “lonely lady at the bar” type.)  I do admit that when I eat alone I feel a little self-conscious — there’s no conversational padding, and time goes by much more slowly.  It’s a little conspicuous, a middle-aged lady eating by herself, but one of the joys of middle-age is being able to say, “F** that.”

But that’s not the problem — the problem is talking myself into getting out of my hotel room and finding somewhere to eat.  It’s the motivation of getting out and going somewhere alone for dinner is tough.  I procrastinate a bit, and have to figure out where to go and how to get there — it’s not perfectly natural like it is at home.  (Even then it can be tough.)  I don’t ever choose anything overly hip or  expensive or fancy — I like just going somewhere plain, where a solo diner can blend in. And then I have to make myself get up and get out.  Which is the hardest part of all, because I psych myself out AND I’m lazy.

Yet nearly every time I do (which is pretty much every trip — I gotta eat, after all), I wind up having a great time and a lovely experience.  Waiters and waitresses are so much kinder when you’re alone, and you wind up drinking in so much more of your surroundings when you’re not talking to a dinner companion.  People watching is great, and it may be rude, but I’ve been reading and eating since I was little, and it is truly one of my great pleasures in life.

Tonight was no exception.  I was hungry, but wasn’t in the mood to go anywhere.  Normally in Nashville I see friends, but this time I didn’t make any plans, content to burrow a bit with some books after the recent stressful month or so, and the faster pace of New York.  But 6 o’clock rolled around and I was hungry and tired and as much as Room Service sounded good in theory, it NEVER is.  And I couldn’t help but want to get out a bit — I’d regret not doing anything later — and why deprive myself of one of my favorite restaurants, The Loveless Cafe?  So I decided to just go all by myself.

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I’ve been there many times now (thanks to my friend Heather who met me there years ago, and I’m forever grateful), with friends and having breakfast alone.  I wasn’t so sure about dinner — it can get crowded — but by the time I got there I was so pleased with myself for making myself go that I didn’t care if I had to wait.  And I didn’t — they gave me a nice table right away, and the waiter was super sweet and friendly and gave me extra biscuits and a lemon for my water because we agreed that I should be “fancy.”

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And I ate a fried chicken salad and hash brown casserole (which I could every single day, ohmigawd) and read my book (and even cried in one part) and texted my friend (with whom I ate there last) and checked in on Facebook and had an absolutely wonderful time. Biscuits, book and bliss. Sigh. I even got a picture of the sign at night!

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And then driving back on Natchez Trace the radio station was playing a live concert of Jeff Beck playing rockabilly, which when they announced it I thought it would be terrible, but it was actually terrific and fun and perfect for that drive.

So after having a crappy day yesterday, just getting up and getting out made all the difference.  I’m glad I did…  And I hope I remember this for next time, and I won’t have to psych myself out so much!

Also, if you’re ever in Nashville, do NOT miss The Loveless Cafe.  It is a treasure! Check it out here.

A Book I Like. No, LOVE.

I have had a monumentally crappy day — the kind of day where everything that could possibly go wrong did.  Well, to be fair it was all little things, but they just piled up and it made me feel like the universe was conspiring against me.  But now I’m tired and calm and I see that everything is okay, except my computer smells like cat pee.  (I told you things went wrong in the most craptastic kind of ways.)

However, there was a wonderful bright spot in all this — I fell head over heels in love.  With a book.  I swear, I haven’t been this thrilled with a book in a long, long time, and want to shout from the rooftops. I am about halfway through, and don’t want it to end, yet I keep turning the pages, eager to go forward.

I’ll let Goodreads give you the blurb, but the blurb is somewhat boring.  Just trust me.  Get to your local independent bookseller (please, don’t buy from Amazon — support your local brick and mortar store!) and buy it.  Put on something cozy, get something delicious to eat or drink (that you can just nibble or sip without tearing your eyes from the page) and hunker down.  You will be so glad you did.

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