Sunday, October 29, 2017

In Defense of Parsnips . . .

The first time I ate parsnips was over thirty years ago in a recipe I had to ask my supervisor & friend, Louise Talley Richman, to translate from French.

We were working for an offshore company owned by a parent company in France.  Created to move money out of France in reaction to the perceived threat of radical socialism.  

The parent company was involved in the North Sea, South America, eventually Russia.  The Gulf of Mexico & Texas looked promising for a profit & safe haven from a socialist takeover.

I got the job in ETPM’s accounting department through a woman named Faith a former co-worker of my then spouse.  Faith left the retail company where all three of us worked for ETPM, kept in touch with us, & provided a reference for my interview.

(Faith & I once shared a dream on the same night.  But that is another story.)

The job led me to finally, after five years, leaving a man who would never be the husband I once thought I needed & wanted.  It led to a lifetime of connections, to two trips to Paris, several amazing relationships & the birth of my Alpha Son Nicholas Jordan Ettinger-Ravel. 

And an appreciation of parsnips.

Each week, crew & management arrived to replace exiting ETPM crew & management & there was always an exchange of mail bags.  Included in the bags from Paris were magazines.  One of which always had recipe cards with beautiful photos.

When I left my husband, my friend & supervisor Louise gave me a lot advice – but the best thing she gave me was given to her by her mother when Louise & her first husband divorced.

At least one day a week, take out the china & crystal & cloth napkins.  Prepare a meal, a fine meal, for yourself.  Light candlesticks & put on music you love.  Indulge.

I followed a great deal of Louise’s advice – but a meal for myself once a week became a ritual.

One week, the recipe cards with beautiful photos included a recipe for a soup.  That required parsnips.

I had no idea what parsnips were.  In the days without Google or the Internet, I looked them up in the dictionary.

In those days without Google or the Internet, vegetables & fruits were strictly seasonal – not readily available year-round.  For parsnips, I had to go to a luxury grocery store located inside the Loop - Jamail’s.

In the days before Whole Foods or Central Market or Trader Joe’s, Jamail’s was THE Houston premier grocery store.

Founded in 1946 by Nageeb “Jim” Jamil, a native of Lebanon, Jamail’s served those who could afford its quality or dared to enter it until 1988.

Previous to my pursuit of parsnips & my weekly ritual to cook for myself, I had only been to Jamil’s to buy Science Diet cat food for my felines (no Petsmarts in those days) & Shiner beer (the only place I knew of to buy it except by the mug at the Hobbit Hole).

Wandering around Jamail’s gave me valuable information.  First, I was woefully ignorant of so many culinary wonders.  And second, it was really important to get to know the men behind the butcher counter.

I learned to take a number & wait patiently in line behind women & men who knew the behind the butcher counter guys.  And listen to their question & answer exchanges.

At Jamail’s, no one rushed anyone.  Eventually, I learned to recognize the butchers behind the counter & greet them by name.  I would come in with my translated recipes reduced to a recipe for two. 

During those years, when no one rushed a customer, I stood in line to ask for enough cuts of different meats for two.  I bought my first prosciutto & pancetta outside Italy at Jamail’s.  Eventually, I bought lamb & veal.

I once was invited to eat Beef Wellington with a friend & his fellow Rice graduate student house mates.  Prepared with truffles from Jamail’s. 

And then I bought parsnips.

The translated soup recipe called for more vegetables than parsnips.  Carrots, potatoes, leeks, turnips, tomatoes, green beans, ingredients I have forgotten except for chicken stock & cream  & white wine.  And the participation of a blender, which left a thick, rich soup best served with a simple salad & a baguette of bread.

Over subsequent decades, I lost that recipe card, but continued to use the basics of the recipe.  Always with parsnips.

I have served grilled & roasted root vegetable medleys at family meals.  No one ate around the parsnips.  Of course, I did not tell my guests that they were eating parsnips.

Just as I did not tell my sons that the lovely Lasagne Pasticciate they ate included a Ragú Bolognese involving liver.  Just as I waited tell my sons, nieces & nephews that the secret ingredient in the chocolate garden cake they devoured on Easter Sundays was grated zucchini.

In my defense, I learned this approach to introducing scary foods from my sweet, slightly devious, mother Jean.  I would not know the wonders of zucchini if she had not told me I was eating sautéed cucumbers.  I would not know how very fine venison tastes had she not told me I was just eating the stew she always made. 

(I broke a year of protest against consuming meat after my father killed a Bambi.  All for Jean’s stew . . . only to learn after devouring two bowls of stew that I ate Bambi).

So, imagine my dismay & horror when my sweet, kind, compassionate friend Juan Rangel posted about his treasured wife Denice’s lovingly prepared meal that included parsnips.

If somebody cooks you dinner & the dinner has parsnips make sure you have a barf bag next to you.

Apparently, from the lively discussion that ensued in response to Juan’s insistence that a root vegetable I really like be renamed barfsnips, my compassionate friend is not alone in his rejection of parsnips as a desired staple.

No matter.  I stand by the humble & maligned wonder called a parsnip.  Just as I stand by that lasagna with meat & cream sauces, just as I still think grating zucchini in chocolate cake & cupcakes & banana bread is cool & tasty.

Of course, I stand by liver & onions, but that is another story.

Today, I came to understand how Juan Rangel feels about parsnips.

Because, during my adventure today, traveling to my eye doctor’s office to pick up a refill on my contacts, I found two bizarre & inexplicable items.

Not at my favorite Indian grocery store, which is the same plaza along the Southwest Freeway that hosts my eye doctor’s practice.  I left later than I usually make this journey & the plaza, full of Indian restaurants & sari & jewelry shops, was a happening place on steroids.

Parking was limited – access to the Indian grocery store daunting.  I needed to finish my other Saturday morning errands & could not take time to explore the wonders of my favorite place to buy cinnamon sticks, cloves, turmeric & chutneys.

I found the two bizarre & inexplicable culinary items that ignited my understanding of barfships at a Dollar Tree & my local Randall’s grocery store.

I went to the nearest Dollar Tree to my home for a very specific item (an item not available at my current favorite Dollar Tree, which is on the way to the library).  I found the needed item & other treasures.  Including some really cool Christmas ribbon.

It was at the checkout counter that I spotted something I never envisioned or anticipated.

All I could think was, seriously?

When was candy corn not enough on its own?  When & why did Hershey’s create this abomination of a Hershey’s bar that does not involve chocolate?

I don’t even like Hershey’s bars that involve cookies & cream & white chocolate.  Except to use as windows or sidewalks on my annual gingerbread house.

Then, at my neighborhood grocery store, there was this:  Organic Pumpkin Pasta.

I love pumpkin.  I love pasta.

But I cannot imagine that I will ever love pumpkin pasta, organic or otherwise.  I cannot imagine a recipe that would require pasta made with pumpkin.

What kind of sauce does one serve on organic pumpkin pasta? 

Somehow the idea of pumpkin pasta with parsnip sauce & basil does not appeal even to Jaki Jean.

Alliteration, yes.  But even the noble & much maligned parsnip is not equal to the task of adorning pumpkin pasta.

So, my amazing friend Juan Rangel, a gift from Andres M. Dominguez, who is a gift from Rachel Halperin Plotkin, who is a gift I found in the breezeways of Coronado High School in El Paso, I write with humility & understanding.

You, Juan, tried & tasted the noble parsnips.  I cannot fathom tasting a candy corn Hershey’s bar or organic pumpkin pasta.  You are a good & brave man.

Sometimes parsnips, or candy corn Hershey bars, or organic pumpkin pasta, are not culinary marvels.  It is all about perspective.

As is everything.

PS:  I still think my friend Douglas the Purple Mouse, a gift from Sue Ann McLauchlan Faulkner, is responsible for this particular thread of friends. But that is a story I have shared before.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Jaki Jean on Scrambled Eggs & Scrambled Ideas

This morning, my second morning without access to the Internet (no hurricane, no disruption in electricity, just a failure by our provider to lay cable for Super Mega Amazing speed without disrupting existing service), a wave of memories assaulted me.

As I scrambled eggs (well, one actual egg with ¼ egg substitute serving as the second), I thought first of Martha Stewart & how I continually fail to follow her instructions on how to perfectly beat eggs.

I break all the rules.  The mixture I use for Jean does not go into a bowl, is not whisked carefully.  Jean’s cage free organic egg & an egg substitute (& most often salsa or herbs) are vigorously mixed with a fork, in a ¾ cup Pampered Chef glass measuring cup

The last of three Pampered Chef measuring cups I purloined when my sister brought Thanksgiving dinner to us during a stay with Jean in the hospital.

I poured the egg mixture into the pan of melted butter (having decided that at 82, a woman without high blood pressure & without high cholesterol was not threatened by butter with her eggs, or butter with anything), I let it sit for a while in the heat.

Then I picked up a wooden spoon & as I began the break it up & bring it back into the shape of scrambled eggs, I remembered a morning in El Paso, waking up after a sleep over in my the home of my friend, Glynnis.

Glynnis was a few years younger than I.  We went to the same school, the same church.  Her mother Nolene was friends with my mother Jean.   Our mothers had babies within a year of one another.

Nolene’s  maternity wardrobe was how I learned that Jean was pregnant at an age I found at the time, unfathomable & embarrassing.

Jean was 32.  (The irony of the fact that I had my first child at 29 & the second at 36 does not escape me.)

I came home one afternoon & found my mother trying on clothes.  Clothes I recognized.

When I asked her why she was trying on maternity clothes, she replied with the obvious.

Shocking my twelve year old sense & sensibilities.

Infusing into my brain a vivid realization that my suspicions about the meaning behind the closed door of my parents’ room after time for breakfast on Saturdays. 

I wondered how to explain to my friends that my all too young mother was having a baby at such an advanced age.

The morning of my sleepover at Glynnis’ house, my friend made breakfast for us.  And I was fascinated. 

In my then fifteen years on this planet, no peer had ever cooked for me.

At my house, Jean made breakfast.  Every day.  For every one in her care.  Even on camping trips & vacations.  When I spent sleep overs at other friend’s houses, the mom in residence made breakfast.

Except for when I spent the night at my friend Colleen’s home.  We woke up, wandered into the kitchen & found her father, the doctor who pierced my ears at thirteen, opening cans of Pillsbury biscuits to bake for his children & a sleep over guest.

It was apparently a tradition – Dr. Dad making biscuits on Saturday mornings.  Nothing in my vast life experience had prepared me for canned biscuits, much less a husband & father preparing food.  Serving food prepared by another, yes.  
But not preparing it.

Or for the sight of a father carefully placing candy sprinkles on the top of some of the uncooked biscuit dough.  My astonishment did not escape my friend Colleen’s notice.

He does that for me, because I have a bit of a sweet tooth.

That morning at my friend Glynnis’ house, as I marveled at the idea of a peer making breakfast, Glynnis asked me if scrambled eggs & toast sounded good.

After I assured her it was a very good idea, she brought out a carton of eggs & butter from the fridge.  I waited for her to find a bowl to break the eggs into, an implement for whisking or mixing them.

Instead, she heated up a few tabs of butter, & when the butter was melted, cracked the eggs on the edge of the frying pan directly into the bubbling butter.

I can’t remember if I voiced the question in my head:  Is she making fried eggs instead?

But I did ask her if she had ever made scrambled eggs before.  Her reply amazed me.

Of course.  I make them the way my Mom makes them.

Fifteen year old Jaki Jean was doubtful, certain that someone was terribly confused or that I was having one of those crazy, detailed, vivid dreams of my youth & would wake up to find my friend’s mother Nolene making a breakfast in ways I recognized.

I watched, confused, skeptical & fascinated, as Glynnis took a fork & mixed the cooking egg yolks & whites together.  And as she picked up a spoon, carefully folding the mixture into a shape I recognized as scrambled eggs.

That morning, I had a breakfast of strangely prepared, but scrambled eggs, toasted white bread slathered with strawberry jam & glasses of juice. 

We laughed, shared stories, & wondered if there would be more sleep overs before she & her family moved from El Paso to Houston.

There were none &  a few months later she was gone & a  year later,  my family made the same move.

Our families settled in different parts of the greater Houston area.  And eventually lost contact.  Glynnis dated & later married the cousin of a man I once firmly believed was meant for me, but that is another story.

Really, a quite lovely & another story.

This one is about scrambled eggs, different ways of making them & why that difference matters to me.

In the case of the morning after a teen aged sleep over, the initial discovery that there were different ways of approaching & creating scrambled eggs that led to results that were similar to my previous experiences remains in my memory.

But scrambling eggs & scrambling ideas & concepts is not as easy as a breakfast prepared by a teen aged peer.

During what my sixty three year old self understands is the most challenging time of my life, constantly trying to make sense of the world & norms crumbling around me, I think about scrambled eggs.

About taking the same basic experience, the same familiar ingredients, using a different method for a recipe & reaching very different results.

Different conclusions, different positions.  At times, opposite of one Other.
And often irreconcilable.

Exchanging ideas, respecting the Other’s difference & different opinion & different methods, should be as easy as scrambling eggs.  However you scramble them.

But it isn’t that easy or that simple.

Assembling the same information, processing it, drawing a conclusion & formulating a position is not like scrambling eggs.

While I found it so easy to accept & embrace the result of a different method of scrambling eggs, I cannot accept or embrace the results of an electorate that used an unfamiliar & unfathomable method of deciding to vote for an Apricot reality star to lead the nation & the free world.

If this is the Lord’s ultimate challenge for me, to reconcile the irreconcilable, I admit to the Lord of Song that I have so far failed Her.

I can accept & respect different methods & different results, but I cannot eat certain scrambled eggs.

Even with tossed salad.