Author: Daniel, Bert

J.D. Passes the Test

“For a good many years,” says Mack, “I’ve thought that if I ever had extravagant money I’d rent a two-room cabin somewhere, hire a Chinaman to cook, and sit in my stocking feet and read Buckle’s History of Civilization.”

“That sounds self-indulgent and gratifying without vulgar ostentation,” says I; “and I don’t see how money could be better invested. Give me a cuckoo clock and a Sep Winner’s Self Instructor for the Banjo, and I’ll join you.” (From “The Ransom of Mack” by O’Henry).

Well, there you have it. Most of us dream about the good life, and when we do it usually involves food, companionship, intellectual expansion and music. Only the order of these basics varies by individual. In the above vignette, I think it’s significant that Mack selects a Chinaman to do the cooking. Maybe he thinks he’ll get a good deal with respect to price. Chinese immigrants to the great American west in the late 19th century were tolerated despite prejudice, because everyone knew they could work their tails off for very little money.

I think Mack had another reason for preferring a Chinese cook. The Chinese were the most skilled food artists in the world and they still are. You think the French are big on food with all their souffles and sauces? Think again. I know. My wife is Chinese. When her parents visited for the first time, I couldn’t believe the food. Have you ever heard of a Wasp who never wanted his mother-in-law to leave? Well, let me tell you, that was me. And my father-in-law cooked just as well! I’m not lying, my in-laws could have opened up a successful restaurant anywhere. They didn’t have to because they were both well educated chemists who could do science even better. And these guys were cooking all day! I’d wake up in the morning and smell garlic! Take my word for it if you don’t know already. When it come to cooking, Chinese cuisine is tops, period.

Well, for every blessing there’s probably a downside. For me the downside is this. My wife and I both have careers. I work three days a week and she works two, so we share the cooking duties for our family. It would be great if Joyce loved cooking, she’s a good cook. But she doesn’t. She’s just like me. She hates it. After a hard day’s work who wouldn’t want to just come home and have a feast such as Joyce’s parents put out every time?

So of course I do my fair share of the cooking. But the problem is that Joyce is Chinese, so she really knows what good cooking is! My efforts are met with groans and complaints almost all of the time, and I can’t argue because she’s right! I must say I have gotten better, even though some of the most trustworthy, tasty recipes from my bachelor days have been abandoned or toned down because they are too unhealthy. My cooking challenge now is magnified by the fact that my eleven year-old daughter has become a strict vegetarian and dragged the rest of us along to at least semi-vegitarianism. Meals are complicated around the Daniel household, to say the least.

Faced with constant complaints from the peanut gallery about my lame cooking, I’m desperate for answers. Most of the time I stick with stuff I like that’s easy and that they haven’t complained too much about recently. Sometimes I get more creative and try a new recipe out of the newspaper or a food magazine. Most of these efforts are a total bust. I’ll taste the new dish before I serve it and even though it tastes like crap, I’ll try to talk it up just so my efforts are appreciated. But it’s no fooling this crowd, let me tell you. They are a really tough audience.
(OK, loyal CBA readers, if you’ve persevered this far, you’re almost to the part where some semblance of Bluegrass content now follows)

Most of you who read this column know that J.D Rhynes writes a food column for the Bluegrass Breakdown. I’ve often looked at his recipes and wondered what they would taste like. To me the Bluegrass culture is as fun as it gets. The food must be great too, right? Well when I read over the recipes, my mouth waters, but I realize I’m not like everybody. I grew up in the south and “down home cooking, with the good stuff” (translation BAD stuff), is right up my alley. Give me a big plate of yellow grits with red-eye gravy and don’t short me of the bacon grease! I’m happy if it tastes good. But the rest of my family is different. They don’t want to consult a cardiologist after every meal.

Reading through J.D.’s great recipes seemed like a waste of time to me at first. Bluegrass cooking wasn’t going to help me with my real life cooking challenges. It was just a pleasant diversion. Eventually, I realized that most of J.D.’s recipes were actually pretty healthy. Some of them were even vegetarian. But I’d have to be really brave to try to pass one of these recipes off on the wife. Not only is Joyce a harsher food critic than the New York Times food editor, she thinks Bluegrass “culture” is the lowest form of human endeavor. Seriously, she is a big time ANTI-fan of our great music. (I don’t think it has anything to do with my playing mandolin almost every night after dinner, really I don’t play that badly). How could I ever explain to Joyce that the recipe she just hated (like all the others) came out of a Bluegrass magazine! Forget divorce, she’d kill me first. I can hear it now: “Bert, couldn’t you have SOMEHOW GUEESED THAT I WOULDN’T LIKE THIS ???”

But a desperate and unappreciated cook will try anything. My only moment of past glory as a cook had been when our friend Amy came by our house. She got the aroma of my seafood casserole cooking and said it smelled really good. Amy had credibility as a food expert, having trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa County. She worked as a dessert chef at high class restaurants. So ever since that day, whenever Joyce complained about having to force down another seafood casserole, I’d mention “Yeah, but that casserole has been praised by the Culinary Institute of America!” That riposte never got very far once Joyce pointed out that: 1) Amy didn’t represent the CIA, she only studied there, 2) Amy never actually tasted the casserole, she only smelled it, and 3) Amy was starving because she hadn’t had dinner yet and she was pregnant.

As I say a desperate (and underappreciated) cook will try anything. So one day I decided that the time had come for a recipe by J.D. What did I have to lose? I decided to try a vegetarian dish, Chile Relleno. Chile Relleno has always been one of my favorite dishes. J.D.’s recipe had the advantage of being extremely simple. He fixes it like a casserole and you just dump everything in together, mix it up and put it in the oven and take it out. My kind of cooking. A nice touch is that one of the ingredients is baking soda so it comes out nice and fluffy.

I very wisely waited for the proper moment to try my new recipe. Joyce seems to be less critical of my cooking on days when she’s famished from a long bike ride. So, the first time I cooked J.D.’s Chile Relleno casserole she said it had potential and after a few minor modifications (suggested by my favorite food critic of course) by the third offering my Chile Relleno was “GREAT”.

I didn’t ask Joyce if she thought that the Culinary Institute of America would praise my cooking this time. I’ll quit while I’m ahead. I’m just happy to have another easy recipe I can put out there when my turn comes around. Thanks J.D. Someday maybe I can even successfully introduce other aspects of Bluegrass culture to my unsuspecting spouse. Or is that asking too much?
Posted:  5/17/2009

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