This fall I found myself in a little Sunday night advice ritual. I would leave something half-finished in the kitchen, and then go sit down on the living room couch with my laptop and go to Facebook.
October 7, 6:17pm: “It's Sunday, so that means a cooking question for facebook. I have cashew chicken going in the crock pot – what's the best/easiest way to cook broccoli to go with/under it?”
I cook on Sunday evenings because this is the way I can manage to have meals for the week, leftovers for as many lunches as I can manage. It's a strategy I probably learned from the internet several years ago. I've learned a lot from the internet, simple life skills I probably could've just called my mom to consult on but for whatever reason didn't, like how to live on $35 of groceries a week, how to caramelize onions, or how to roast a chicken.
(I roasted a chicken with a recipe from Mark Bittman's iPhone app once. He said to roast it with butter at 450 F. Butter burns at, like, 12 F, or, really, 350, but I followed the recipe anyway, and the chicken filled my oven with smoke and burning splatterings. My chicken recipe now is something I learned from a friend's husband. In person, actually—he cooked it for us one night I came over for dinner. But that makes it the exception to the rule of how I learned to cook.)
If you cook from a recipe, you don't really need advice, unless the advice is, “Wait a second. Think about what you know about butter. How easily does it smoke and burn?” If you're working from a recipe on the internet, read the comments, but unless it's Mark Bittman trying to burn down your kitchen, if you using a reliable source, the recipe is what tells you what to do. You just have to do it.
But that isn't the only way to cook. It is pretty much the only way to bake, unless you are really, really fancy. Cooking—stovetop, crockpot, savory things roasted or baked—leaves room for your experiments and attempts. I bake for the end result; I cook for the act of cooking. And the way I cook, I end up with questions.
I've made my fair share of calls to my mom from supermarket aisles—what can I do with X, what do I need for Y—but given that she goes to bed at 9 p.m. and I'm bad at scheduling my time, I find myself with many quandaries that come up too late for a phone call. Also, I suppose, the crowdsource is preferable because it still lets me make a choice. (Crowdsource. That's an ugly word. Webinar. Mobisode.) It's rare that I get a unanimous answer. I can wait for a consensus, or I can decide whose advice feels right for the night.
Friend-of-a-friend whom I went on one maybe-date with: It would rip a hole in the fabric of the universe.
Me: Is there a trick to browning other than batches? What pan? What heat? I have never done it without great pain and strife.
Same dude: Just don't move it around at all. If it moves, it won't brown.
Friend from college: It'll be fine. Only 6% less delicious. Throw in some umami-heavy ingredients—tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce—and it'll almost make up for it.
I started the slow-cooker chili the next morning. I decided to brown the beef anyway—without too much perfectionism, given college friend's permission to skip the step entirely—mostly because I'd never gotten it right before. Finally, this time, I did.
I don't always take the proffered answers, but they push me into my own decisions. Alone my instincts are wishy-washy, but advice forces them to resolve, gives me a gut “yes!” or “no!” Suggestions give me something to weigh my own gut instincts against.
Sometimes I go looking for reassurance, or just to have someone to talk to about cooking, this thing that takes up sometimes several hours of my last weekend day. It can be lonely, the cooking, just me and a podcast and maybe a cat sprawled on the kitchen floor.
This turned into a back and forth with a grad school professor who is a surprising genius at Facebook. She's a late-middle-aged biographer of presidents, short-silver-haired denizen of the archives, wearer of blazers and turtlenecks. She is a twinkly-eyed woman, though, and she carries this into Facebook, somehow. She asked, “Is this another one of your science experiments?” because I've been writing about science lately. Me: “Hypothesis: I bought too much beef.” And it devolved from there into a back-and-forth parsing of what the hypothesis would be, the proper test for the experiment. (The stew never bubbled over, so the hypothesis was disproven. That doesn't mean, though, that the experiment wasn't a success. I still got my answer. And my mediocre stew.)
October 28, 9:15pm: “What can I do for a basic stew that's just kinda blah?”
Lots of answers, but I didn't follow any of them. I added a little sriracha and then gave up and drowned the thing in ketchup.
It's still the right time of year for the best recipe I came up with this fall through Facebook advising. It was even a little too early the first time around. Too ambitiously autumnal.
20 comments on that one. I heard from college acquaintances, a food blogger, a former fancy-shmancy chef, another guy I went on an awkward semi-date with—why are they all over my Facebook?!!?—and a girl I did theatre with in high school, now so vocally Republican that I think I keep her on my newsfeed just in case I really feel like getting into shit one day. Everyone comes out of the woodwork for this stuff. Their advice was all over the map; my favorite came from the ex-chef, because it included the phrase “a la minute,” and although I did not end up preparing each ingredient separately and then combining them at the last second, “a la minute,” I liked the chance to snoot around with some French.
I roasted the squash, halved, pretty much just like a playwright I used to work with advised. A marine biologist advised me to cook the sausage and add it, sliced, to the pureed soup at the end, and I did that. It was delicious. The chef had advised me against pureed butternut bisque with chunks of sausage, but that's what I ended up with, and I liked it. (I added some kale, too, because I am determined to get a full meal in one bowl.)
A kid from a high school playwriting group I helped run a few years ago liked the post, which I found curious—what was he liking or supporting in there?—but the comments came in. A friend of friends from college said, “At least a few days, probably up to a week.” A young doctor who lives in my neighborhood, whom I met once a few years ago, called it “salmonella roulette.”
And then my mother came on and chimed in. “2 DAYS would be my limit.” She would've all-capsed the digit if she could. “You could cook it thoroughly and then it will keep for a bit longer.” A waitress friend named Hope said, “1-3 days. Make sure you cook the shit out of it after.” And my mom added, “Listen to Hope!”
I never got around to cooking the chicken. A week later I tossed it in the trash. But I loved my mom telling me to listen to Hope, someone she's never met, and the double-meaning that came with my friend's name. I felt like I could hear my mom's voice. It's weird, I could've just called her. But I like that she showed up here, unbeckoned, nonetheless.
Previously in series: I Broke Up With Writing (And It Feels OK)
Also by this author: Embrace Your Prairie Looks And Make Some Applesauce
Jaime Green sometimes overfills her slow cooker because she likes to live on the edge. Thumbnail photo by Cheryl.