Monday, November 29, 2010

Piano Chicken and other Tales of Cooking Gone Wrong

Just in time for holiday feasting, I've decided to eat lean. This was a guilt-inspired decision brought on by invading my son's Halloween bag, which I managed to find no matter how hard I tried to hide it.
Eating lean means lettuce, lettuce, and more lettuce for lunch, as I explore the wonders of salad instead of making my usual Dagwood sandwiches. It also means that I'm having to stress my culinary skills, which are admittedly just one step above feral.
For instance, since all of the so-called experts on Web MD (who I suspect are just college students paid hourly to churn out recycled holier-than-thou advice from women's magazines), insist that you need to balance protein and healthy carbs while grazing on greenery, I decided to make a big girl salad yesterday that actually included sliced hard-boiled egg. Talk about excitement! I was nearly panting with pride as I heated a pot of water and gently set two pristinely white eggs in to boil.
My virtuous frame of mind led me to my desk, where I actually paid bills on line (more cause for self praise!) and caught up on emails. I might have made a phone call or two also.
At any rate, it wasn't until the dog started barking in the kitchen that I realized my eggs were, in fact, not only boiling, but exploding. The water was long gone, the lid had flown off the pan, and my eggs had exploded onto the floor, the stove, and even up into the vent hood. Holy Mount Merapi! There is nothing like the stink of sulfur to put you off your feed – a diet tip that the WebMD minions are certainly welcome to borrow.
“You must have been cooking by remote control again,” my husband Dan said with a sigh, when I mentioned the disaster in the kitchen that night.
“At least I tried,” I said.
“Do me a favor,” he said. “Stay out of the kitchen.”
This is, really, the mantra of our marriage: I stay out of the kitchen until it's time for me to do the dishes after Dan cooks. I didn't know this is how it would be when I met him, of course. In fact, our first real date consisted of me whipping up an impressive (for me) lasagna out of jarred sauce and no-boil noodles, which Dan gallantly suffered through with nary a complaint.
It wasn't until Dan cooked dinner for me about a week later – handmade spring rolls, chicken satay, jasmine rice – that I understood what I was dealing with. My husband started cooking for himself at age 12. By his teen years, he was avidly reading Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Mother of God, what a weird kid, is what I would have thought if we'd met in high school. Luckily, I married Dan in my thirties, when I was old enough to know what kind of prize he really is.
There are people like me – lots of us, I'm sure – who would just as soon eat out of cans if we didn't have children to make us feel guilty for not serving something other than tuna on crackers. My friend Phoebe, for instance, describes her husband Michael trying to cook chicken; he went downstairs to play the piano and got so distracted that smoke filled the house. When Michael presented the blackened bird to their family, “He told us that he'd made a special dish called Piano Chicken,” she says with a laugh.
My friend Peach once tried to roast chestnuts. She didn't bother reading a recipe; she figured she could just bake them at 400 degrees “for a while.” She made the mistake of opening the oven to check on them and had to hit the floor as the chestnuts shot out like bullets. Another friend of mine, Chris, had no idea that you should pierce the skin of a potato before baking it, and was forced to spend an hour cleaning mashed potato off her oven walls before she could use it again.
Then there are people like Dan. Dan thinks nothing of throwing together Spanish tapas for twelve, and he made our Thanksgiving perfect, from the turkey he somehow set on fire with brandy to three different kinds of pies baked with his own special lard & butter crust. (You should have seen my daughter's face when he told her that he used 14 sticks of butter to make our holiday meal.)
Dan is the one my friend Deborah turns to when she wants to ask a question about braising beef or seasoning roasted vegetables, and he and our friend Mary can carry on a conversation about different types of Mexican peppers for hours. Dan and I once went to a dinner party where one of the women had just returned from a tour of different olive oil producers in Italy; I have never seen a happier man. Meanwhile, that woman's husband and I talked about our dogs.
What makes the difference between a cook like Dan and somebody like me, whose efforts often result in meals like volcanic eggs, or those shortbread cookies I made where I forgot to put in the flour, even though that was one of just four ingredients? Is it genetics? Interest? Experience? Or just the ability to pay attention in the kitchen for more than 12 minutes?
I have no idea. I only know that, when Dan cooks, there's no place like home.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Murder and Mayhem in a Parked Car

When the man knocked on my window, I jumped and shrieked. It was dark and rain was pelting against my car windshield. I opened my window just a crack. “Yes?”
The man was old and bearded beneath his yellow rain slicker, with flat black eyes that seemed to absorb the darkness all around us. “Lady, you okay in there?” he asked.
I blinked at him. “I'm fine. Why?”
He shook his head. “I've been trying to get your attention. You're all done here.”
“Oh. Thanks.” I fumbled for my wallet and handed him my credit card. Damn. My gas tank was full. I'd been reading while the attendant pumped gas; now I had to start driving again.
The story of my life is that I often leave my life. There are long moments, even hours, where I have no idea what's going on in the world, or even in my own house, beyond the pages of the book I'm holding in my hands. Even as a child, I was so absorbed by my books that every family video shows a pair of adult hands reaching over to take away my book, and then me looking up and squinting like a startled hen.
The book I was reading at the gas station was Erin Hart's terrific debut mystery, Haunted Ground, and the reason I shrieked when the gas station attendant knocked on the window is because I was in a drafty manor house, just like the main character, American pathologist Nora Gavin. I had just found something dreadfully dead in my bed not long after digging up a girl's severed head in the bog. Just the head! No body!
This is my favorite kind of book: Any mystery set somewhere other than here, preferably written by a British author who knows how to weave history, forensics, and a love story together with a good dash of tension, just enough gore, some heart-pounding terror, and lots of eccentric characters. The other great new mystery author I've discovered recently is Elly Griffiths, whose first book, Crossing Places, I read in a single sitting, and whose second book, The Janus Stone, looks even more promising. Her main character is an eccentric archeologist and, in her first book at least, Griffiths crafts scenes of heart-stopping fright. God, I love her.
Other British mystery writers who always give me a thrill: Dorothy Sayers and her gentle but quick-witted sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey; Elizabeth George, who lives in England half-time and passes for a Brit even though she's American; and of course P.D. James, the creator of a poet who doesn't faint at the sight of blood.
What is it about mystery novels? Why do I keep reading about murder and mayhem not only in parked cars, but at the breakfast table, during my son's gymnastics practice, waiting at the airport, and late at night after the house is asleep and I'm the only one with a light burning?
I'm not a violent person. The last time I shouted was at our cat for daring to jump on the dining room table. I've never hit, kicked, stabbed, or shot anyone. I want to weep when I hear news stories of real beatings or murders. Yet I can't fit enough killings into my waking hours.
My grandfather was the same way, and he lived with us, so I guess I can blame him. Grandfather worked in the menswear department of Sears and was always decked out in suspenders and a felt fedora pinched just so over his bald head. He got mystery novels out of the library, and every night, he'd park himself in his favorite chair and slowly smoke bowls of lush cherry tobacco in his pipe as he went through them. He had two stacks of mysteries: the one on his right side was the stack he hadn't read yet, and the one on the left side were books he'd already devoured. As far as I know, he never murdered anybody, either, but we did have a really creepy basement.
Mom and I used to read Grandfather's mysteries after he did, sliding them off the left tower of books beside his chair. From about the age of 14 I was reading about rapes and brutal beatings, serial killers and child abusers, people shot or knifed or run over by cars, even people set on fire or carved into little bits. Corpses turned up in fields and bogs, stone churches and manor houses, inside walls and basements, or just flung willy-nilly by the roadside. It's a wonder I ever left the house.
The natural conclusion of wallowing in all of this mayhem is that I, too, have begun writing a mystery novel. It isn't a classic mystery – more of a thriller, really – and it's not set in England. Instead, this book is set in a house that my husband and I once looked at, thinking we might buy it; we were so terrified once we were inside this house that we couldn't get out fast enough. There was something evil lurking there. And now that evil is in my computer, and on the pages that I'm printing out as I write this.
My novel opens with a woman being tossed off the side of a cruise ship, and there are two more murders besides. There's a voodoo priestess, and unspeakable creatures from the underworld crawling along the stone walls at the edge of the property.
As I was writing a certain chilling scene yesterday, a scene set in atmospherically dusky woods with trees that look like sculptures, my son came up behind me just as my heroine spots something – or someone – standing in front of her.
“Mom?” my son said, and I screamed.
I've never had more fun in my life. The only thing better than reading mysteries is writing one.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Kids + Computers = The Perfect Match

A few days ago, a friend stopped by while I was working at home. My 13 year-old son was home, too. As we passed the living room, my friend said, “How long will you let your son stay on the computer?”
I shrugged. “I don't know. Until it's time to do something else.”
“What? That's criminal!” My friend made a face. You know the face: the I'm-a-better-Mom-than-you-are face. “I let my boys have an hour a day on the computer. Tops. Then I kick 'em outside.”
“Well,” I said, and then stopped. What else was there to say? “You're a better parent than I am?” “Your kids probably have bigger muscles?”
I've been a mother for 22 years now. With three boys and two girls in our household, I've been doing battle with screens for almost that long. I still get exhausted remembering how hard I fought to keep our two oldest sons off the computer. Every time I made a rule, they'd find a loophole. Like the time I told them they couldn't have screen time between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekends, and discovered – weeks later – that they were setting their alarms for 5 a.m. to ensure that they'd get their four hours of World of Warcraft in before breakfast.
Recently, one of my sons confessed, “You know, I was playing computer games until, like, 2 a.m. in high school. I just waited until you went to bed.” That was around the time that he was hooked on Everquest, an online role-playing game that drew in so many viewers that it was widely known as “Evercrack”
And where is that son now? He graduated from a great college, and found a job three days after graduation in an advertising firm in Boston. A company that specializes, by the way, in supporting web sites for their clients.
Our oldest son, meanwhile, graduated from a great college as well, and has made his way to Los Angeles, where he's working as a production assistant in the film industry. He was just named second assistant director for a Web TV pilot.
My youngest son, the last one at home, takes bass guitar lessons, does gymnastics, loves to rock climb and hike. But he's also on the computer every spare minute. Once in a while, it's homework related – his school gave him a great geography game to play online, and he can now name more countries on a map than I can. He also does math and science online rather than bring home textbooks. Usually, though, his time on the computer is spent pursuing his own interests.
He built a hovercraft after seeing someone do it online, out of a shower curtain, a piece of plywood, and a leaf blower. It actually worked. He learned all about microwaving potato chip bags and building Lego guns through Youtube. He plays his bass along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Queen online. (“Did you dress like that in the 80's, Mom?” he asked recently. “God, I hope not.”) He learned how to do flips on the trampoline by watching kids demonstrate on Youtube. And, lately, he has been learning the algorithms for solving the Rubik's Cube from Dan Brown online
Does he read books, this boy of mine? Only if I make him. Which I do. I am, after all, a writer and a book collector, and sometimes I fantasize about having one of those dreamy kids who stays up all night reading books like I did. But, let's face it: kids seem well-equipped to learn online. This particular son of mine knew all about how BP was going to clean up its spill before I did; he also followed the recent elections online. He can tell me where the most shark attacks occur in the world and he's currently looking up the value of individual Magic cards – his new obsession. If this kid wants to know something, he Googles it.
“It's an age of instant gratification,” my sniffy mom friend declared, when I pointed out how much my son learns on the computer. “These kids don't know how to work hard. The computer is making kids stupider.”
Her declaration echoed that popular article, “Does Google Make Us Stupid?” originally published by Nicholas Carr a couple of years ago in The Atlantic Monthly. Carr's piece led to fiery debates about how human intelligence is changing. Read a great summary of that debate put together by the Pew Research Center here:
Maybe it's true that access to technology, and to such rapid fire information, is making our children seem like they have shorter attention spans. My son recently declared that when he's reading, “I feel like I'm not doing anything.” On the computer, on the other hand, his hands are engaged, and the visuals on the screen are more entertaining than those black-and-white ants marching across the pages of his books. Books are slow, he complains.
Let me repeat: I still try to make him read half an hour a day, if nothing more. Yet, I'm also well aware that I, too, would have learned on the computer if I'd had one growing up. I don't buy my friend's argument that my boys have had their learning stunted by the computer. Whether children absorb information by reading or online, learning new things makes them want to learn more. Children are inherently curious, active learners. Aren't the skills of building cities and fighting battles online – especially done in teams – worthy? And isn't the ability to discover, sift through, and analyze new information essential to survival in the digital age?
There is an infinite amount of knowledge. Why not soak it up as fast as you can, in a community of online learners, game players, and musicians who come not just from your own neighborhood, but from around the world? For kids with computers, learning has no boundaries.