My mother and grandmother weren’t the types to use “recipes” very often, and, once they were both dead, and I was visiting my aunt, I was surprised when she pulled out a giant box of cards, notebooks, and loose sheets of lined paper covered in both of their distinctive scrawls.
This wasn’t my mother’s mother, but her mother-in-law. My own mother’s mom wasn’t really a cook, but my mother found a food buddy in my grandma Elly. They cooked the same way: by gut, never fussy, always talking the whole time. They could put together meals while doing other things, while managing children or talking on the phone.
At the time I took this box full of never-organized scraps home with me, I’d been cooking in earnest for maybe a decade. But I hadn’t inherited these women’s casual, throw-whatever-together-it-will-definitely-work approach. In order to do that, to become that type of cook, I assume, you have to spend a lot of time in the kitchen actually doing the method, watching another do it. But I’d been away from my mother since I was a teenager, and so, I learned to cook the only way I knew how: from a book.
Earlier this summer, Jeremy Stanley, the Vice President of Data Science at Instacart, made the data on three million Instacart orders available for anyone to look at. Stanley wrote in a Medium post that he hoped people would use the data “to test models for predicting products that a user will buy again, try for the first time or add to cart next during a session.” Stanley should have known though that the data would ultimately be used to find out when shoppers purchase condoms rather than to develop some breakthrough recommendation algorithm.
The data includes the names of products and the aisles those products are found in at the grocery store. For example, 797 different items from the spice aisle have been purchased at least once on Instacart.
Above is a chart that looks at how many times the most common spices have been ordered (the inorganic and organic versions combined) versus the proportion of those orders that are for the organic version*. By looking at the chart we can see that that the most ordered spice on Instacart is garlic powder with 9,549 orders and of those orders 34 percent are for the organic version. Compare that to garam masala, which has far fewer total orders (870), but a much higher organic order rate (84 percent).
A few years ago (fine, it was almost eight years ago, because time really is a flat circle and I am a jabillion years old), the New York Times ran a very widely read story about a very polarizing herb. Lo, the Grey Lady came bearing excellent news for the outspoken loathers of a certain bright green that makes Latin American and Asian dishes jump off the plate: “Cilantro haters,” She intoned, “it’s not your fault.” Apparently, some people (not me) are genetically hard-wired to associate the smell of cilantro with bedbugs or soap.
These people are predominantly ethnic Europeans such as myself (clearly, I was spared). And among those are Germans, to whom Many Americans in the mid-20th Century referred as Krauts, after sauerkraut, the ubiquitous side dish made of fermented cabbage that is, so far as I can discern, the only thing that makes it possible for any German to shit.
Kraut (KROWT!) means cabbage, yes—but it also means “herb” in general. The plural is Kräuter (KROY-tur), and in traditional German cuisine, it usually refers to one or more of the following: thyme (Thymian, TOOM-ee-un), marjoram (which I can’t even pronounce in English), parsley (Petersilie, PEH-tur-ZEE-LEE-uh, which we will talk about more in a second, oh don’t you worry), bay leaves (Lorbeerblätter, LORE-beah-BLEEEEHT-uh), caraway (Kümmel, KOOOM-l), and so, so, so, so fucking much dill (der Dill, ha ha).
For as long as I can remember, my parents have eaten cottage cheese with paprika on it. This is… weird? No one else I know does this, at the very least. It’s a traditional Hungarian way of eating it, but we are not a Hungarian family. For this piece, I did two big things: first, I interviewed my parents to figure out why the heck this tradition exists in my family and second, I tried paprika on cottage cheese (my review? It’s fine).
Me: How ya doing?
Dad: I. Am. Good.
Mom: I don’t know what he’s doing. We’re good.
Dad: She’s. Transcribing.
Me: I’m using a recorder, so you can talk normally.
Mom: Oh boy
Me: So I’ll just preface this and say this is an interview with my parents, okay?
Mom: [laughing in the background]
Me: The Awl is doing a series of pieces on spices, and the best I could come up with, because we’re not an aggressively spice-heavy family, is that you both do a thing where you eat cottage cheese with paprika on it. I wanna know why the heck that is.
The “ouzo effect,” or “louche effect,” takes place when you pour water into one of the aniseed boozes. These are raki, pastis, ouzo, absinthe, arak, and sambuca. The liqueur begins clear or slightly colored (green, in absinthe’s case) but upon contact with water it turns a milky white as if transmogrified into the semen of the devil. This phenomenon occurs because the essential oil trans-anethole, also known as the flavoring compound anise camphor, is strongly hydrophobic: the oil has been dissolved in alcohol but when water is introduced it freaks out, turning the liquid opaque.
The association between aniseed and opacity feels spiritually right, because the merest whisper of aniseed on the air turns my world into a black void composed entirely of disgust. It is a total phobia. Trans-anethole is essentially what we know as anise, but it also gives that characteristic flavor to fennel, licorice, camphor, magnolia blossoms, and star anise. Fennel in a salad? No. The German candy Pfeffernusse? Fuck you. Licorice mixed in with normal candy? Cut my throat, rather.
My favorite thing to eat in the entire world, aside from Ferrero Rocher bon-bons and flan, is a Szechuan dish called ma po tofu. Cubes of silken tofu and ground pork are cooked together in a spicy red sauce, thick with fermented black beans, chili oil, ginger and tiny, metallic, tangy Sichuan peppercorns. It is best served over rice and decidedly at its worst when served with peas—something I have only encountered once in the wild at a Chinese restaurant in Williamsburg that was featured heavily in an episode in the final season of “Girls,” when Hannah’s mother eats too many edibles and finds inner peace eating soup dumplings at a table, solo.
Eating the dish will eradicate your palate such that if you wanted to enjoy anything other than the taste of metal in your mouth, you’d be at a loss. Sichuan peppercorns are a divisive spice. You either hate them and will assiduously pick them out of any dish where they might be present, or you love them unabashedly, crunching the little fuckers between your teeth and releasing the their tingling essence. A sichuan peppercorn is the epitome of ma-la, roughly translating to “numb-hot,” because that is the sensation that occurs when you eat one. Sweat breaks out on your upper lip, but it’s not the searing-white heat of a ghost pepper or the tangy acid of a Scotch Bonnet. There are never tears, just an overall feeling of heat, of numbness—absent the nose-tickling anticipatory hell of black pepper or the floral and slightly dusty mouthfeel of white.
Thanksgiving is two days away, but in Now Hours it might as well be next month. Can you believe it was only a year ago that Mike Pence went to see Hamilton? We’ve lived and died a million lives since then and we’ll live and die a thousand more before the first fight on Thursday. Anyway, here’s music, enjoy.
★★★★ The wind made ripping and bashing noises through the night, but all the sounds of storminess led to a dry morning. Sun came through gaps in the silver-gray clouds in bursts of light like the gusts of wind. Two separate sun images both bounced their beams off the mirrored tower and into the living room on different trajectories. The people outside had the excitement of being harried and bustled without the pain of being cold. “If I run fast enough and the wind is strong enough, I’ll fly,” the six-year-old said, giving it his best try. The light was as bright as a polished steel chain curtain.
I need to tell you something, which is that ketchup is, unfortunately for you, a pickle.
Not a moral pickle, but a culinary pickle.
Is relish a pickle? Yes—since pickles can be whole or sliced cucumbers, the physical integrity of the vegetable is immaterial to the pickle status of the vegetable in question. Therefore relish is also a pickle.
I know this is a sad day for people who obsess over artisanal pickles and order the pickle plate at every bougie restaurant in Williamsburg. These pickles may have notes of coriander or nutmeg, or exotic vinegars. Fancy pickles are nice. They’re not that hard to make, but I appreciate the effort and the attention paid to elevate what was previously a sad, limp sidekick to a sandwich. A good pickle cuts through fatty, creamy, decadent dishes, and a good fatty, creamy, decadent dish accentuates the freshness and crispness of a good pickle. Pickles are great. This is not an attack on pickles.
Within the first few years of my move to New York City, I was invited by a fairly new friend to spend a weekend at her parents’ summer home in Vermont. While initially surprised by the invitation, what I came to learn about the East Coast is that the adult children of people with summer homes in Vermont-—or upstate, or the cape, or anywhere else a day’s drive away from Manhattan—have been told again and again by their parents something resembling, “We paid for it, so you may as well use it,” thus making the barrier to entry considerably lower than I expected. Low enough, for example, for me to be allowed in. So I, the newest and youngest and least northeastern friend, joined the others and drove seven long hours in a rented sedan to the southern edge of the Green Mountain state.
The house, which sneaks up on its visitors on a winding, canopied, one-lane road just north of the Massachusetts border, was modest in size and furnishings, but its surrounding autumnal beauty and mere designation as a “summer home” was enough to make it feel utterly palatial. Having grown up in a hot state where second homes were uncommon and, if they existed, filled with guns for hunting deer and almost always known as, simply, “the place,” the whole experience—being in a perfect little place created for the sole purpose of making its rotating assortment of guests feel comfortable—was new and wonderful to me. For those three lovely days, the group of us did a lot of sitting quietly with our books, taking solo hikes through the soggy, transitioning forest, playing a board game called Incan Gold, and getting to know each other a little better over the snacks our host had brought from the nearest Stew Leonard’s.