Confession: I didn’t own a Crock Pot before I had the sudden, urgent craving for homemade yogurt, and so I went out and bought one. I could just as easily have purchased a yogurt-maker and saved myself the DIY hassle, but then: what if I want to make pot roast someday? What if I have a hankering to put a chicken in a warm, cozy place to cook for the better part of a day? Mind you, these are things I’ve never done before, but I’m of the Why Buy Two Appliances When You Can Buy One persuasion, and so I bought the Crock Pot.
It is terribly thrilling to take a brand new appliance out of the box and proceed to cut. it. up.If you've never done it before, you simply must. My dad had instructed me to slice into the large-pronged side of the cord; my X-Acto blade neatly split the cord in two, and then – whack! – sliced straight through the larger half. Whee! Look at me! I'm cutting things! I struggled with the wire stripper for a few moments before tossing it aside in favor of the X-Acto blade (why use two tools when you can use one?). A few quick strokes, and I had a half-inch of exposed wire on each side, making it a cinch to install the dimmer switch.
I placed another call to Portland: “You said to bind the wires with electrical tape, but is it okay to use those little plastic thingies that screw on top?”
“You know? Those things that look like tiny hard hats? Kind of?”
Him: “Oh, those. Right. Yes. But tape it anyway, just to be sure you don’t have any exposed wire.”
In a matter of moments, my Crock Pot went from a bland white lump hulking on the countertop to a jiggered-up science-project-ish Piece of Work. I have to tell you: I was quite proud of the transformation.
As my goal was to reproduce the yogurt my dad had made years ago, I began with raw milk, as he used to do. I heated the milk just shy of the boiling point, then removed it from the heat to let it cool.
It might seem to defeat the purpose of using raw milk to heat it up,
but since the milk is going to sit in a lukewarm bath for several
hours, you do want to kill any bacteria that might grow alongside the
Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Lactobacillus acidophilus and other yogurt
cultures, as random bacteria might contribute sour or funky flavors
that would create an “off” taste.
Children seem to have a primal need to prove that their father is better than anyone else’s father. Most of us can recall intense scenes enacted during grade school, playing rounds of that age-old game of Whose Dad is The Best.
My dad could beat up your dad.My dad has a bigger truck than your dad. My dad is smarter than your dad.
My Proof of Betterness was impossible to argue: my dad is taller than your dad. Said triumphantly, with shining eyes, and I had the good luck to always be right. I will never forget the day he came to pick me up early from class, and had to duck to get in the door. My young heart nearly burst with pride.
What I might have said, which would have been less impressive to the kindergarten set, but no less true, was this: my dad will eat anything.
My dad was a microbiologist back in the day, testing food samples for a large food processor. He regularly spoke of E. coli and Campylobacter at the dinner table. Whenever my mother opened up a can of beans or corn, she passed it to him for the sniff test; he could detect errant bacteria in a single whiff.
When he gave up his career in the microbial sciences and moved us out to the farm, he continued to tinker with bacteria. He made yogurt. He made cheese. He made pickles.
It seemed to us, his children, that there was nothing he wouldn’t eat. To mess with our heads, he ate spoonfuls of mayonnaise directly from the jar. “Gross!” we would scream, and then he would do it again. To this day, several of my siblings can’t abide the sight or taste of mayonnaise. I consider it no small stroke of fortune that I inherited my father’s palate. There are only two things I won’t eat: eggplant and bananas. The rest of the food universe is fair game.
It happened about 7:30 pm, in the cozy upstairs room of The Cheese School of San Francisco. I was sitting next to Tana Butler, both of us giddy as schoolgirls over the beautiful cheeses arranged on the plates in front of us.
We were sipping wines chosen by Alex Fox and listening as Will Edwards regaled us with tales about his eight years with Harley Goat Farms Dairy, the farmstead cheesemakers in Pescadero. We laughed as he recalled the Dumb Questions People Ask.
Like: How do you milk the male goats? And: Do you have to kill the goats for their milk? Guffaw.
Mid-thought, Will paused. “Did anyone here grow up on a farm?”
I hesitated. Then, ever so slowly, I raised my hand.
There. I’m out.
For some absurd reason, I’ve always had a hard time ‘fessing up to it, but yes: I grew up with chickens scurrying about my ankles. I’ve milked a goat (or two). I know the difference between alfalfa and vetch, and I can strip the sweet, juicy kernels off of a ripe oat stalk in three seconds flat. I’ve had my hands in more animal orifices than I can count, not that I would want to.
When I was ten years old, my family moved into a ramshackle house on 13 acres in rural Oregon. Ours was not a working farm, in the sense that it was not a business, but we put every single one of those acres to use for one purpose: to feed the family.
I should have known then that I would be a fussy eater ever afterwards. How, when you’ve grown up harvesting your dinner from the enormous garden just beyond the kitchen, can you find satisfaction in salad greens from a plastic bag? How, when you regularly plucked tomatoes fresh off the vine, can a tomato from Safeway ever measure up? How, when you drank milk from a cow milked the same morning, cold as ice with a layer of cream on top, can Clover ever be good enough?
This month finds me hunkered behind my computer screen as the leaves drift past my window, finishing up a manuscript for my second cookbook with Andrea Froncillo. Last time, we were mostly working from a set script; our goal was simply to translate the dishes from The Stinking Rose menu into recipes that people could easily make at home.
The current cookbook-in-progress has a few similar elements; the theme is crab, and some of the recipes are being taken from Andrea’s two crab restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf, the Crab House on Pier 39 and the Franciscan Crab Restaurant at Pier 43 1/2. But this isn’t a restaurant cookbook, and so we’re also inventing as we go. It’s a good thing that I love seafood as much as I do, as I’ve been tasting quite a bit of crab, and I can honestly say that I’m not tired of it yet. It helps that the crab I’m using in my test recipes is premium grade jumbo crabmeat (and big, meaty crab legs) that I get from the restaurants; in the spirit of research, I’ve been buying crab from random places (Trader Joe’s, the Safeway seafood counter, Whole Foods) to see what kind of product is out there, and I am amazed at the difference. No wonder many people only eat crab in restaurants – it’s often far better quality.
But beyond these crabby musings, I’ve been giving more thought to the art of recipe writing lately. As I’ve pondered the question of why modern recipes are written the way they are, I’ve gotten a bit of insight from The Recipe Writer’s Handbook, which reports that “… consumers lack confidence in their ability to cook.” Hence, most of our “modern” recipes contain lists of precise measurements, and terse, exacting instructions that turn recipes into somewhat scientific formulas.
Not that there is anything wrong with this; clear, precise instructions ensure that a recipe is reproducible and comes out the same way virtually every time. And that’s a very good thing.
Once upon a time, during her early to mid-teens, my youngest sister called me on a regular basis to discuss Very Important Things. She was often breathless with indignation on the other end of the phone.
“Do you have anyidea how cows are raised? Do you realize that they’re all crammed together in pens, getting injections so that they get bigger, faster? It is positively barbaric! I am never eating another hamburger, ever.”
“I hope you aren’t buying stuff from the GAP. They use child labor. Children are going blind so that we can wear striped t-shirts! Where is the justice?”
“Racing greyhounds is a crime! Do you know what happens to them when they aren’t fast enough any more? You have to adopt one immediately!”
I fondly called her the Little Activist. She was deeply passionate
about each and every new injustice she discovered… until she discovered
another. She was a vegan for a week, and then, wracked with guilt
several weeks later, became a vegan for another month. It was really
She’s now nineteen, and no longer quite the Little Activist. She still dons her scruffy high-top Converse from time to time (pictured above), and wears belts with metal studs, but she is far more consumed with text-messaging her friends than worrying over what might be happening in the Sudan.
That’s okay, because in some way I have her to thank for my newly adopted daughter. My newly adopted greyhound daughter.
It took me a few years to follow my sister’s urgent imperative, but several weeks ago, I drove to the East Bay home where a 3-year-old female greyhound was waiting, fresh off of a plane from a racetrack in Colorado. She was nervous; I was nervous. Neither of us knew what lay ahead.