August 1993 Sketchbook

Copyright 1993 by Robert L. Gidley. All rights reserved.

The Vacation

Harry was slowly going crazy.

This was the 3,467th day in a row where he was due to begin his vacation. Every day he woke up, packed his bags, put on his Hawaiian shirt, which by this point was getting a little frayed-not unlike Harry-and stopped by work on his way to the airport.

And each day for the last nine years, six months, and 27 days, an "important last-minute detail that shouldn't take any time at all" emerged. And took the entire day to deal with.

Harry now had enough Frequent Flyer miles to fly free to the moon and back, although he had never been on a plane in his life. Harry was eternally trapped between working and going on vacation.

He couldn't start any projects at work because he was supposed to be starting his vacation. And each day, he thought, "Today is the day!" and, of course, it wasn't. Harry no longer remembered where he was going on his vacation, although he vaguely recalled that it was someplace warm and sunny, with beaches.

"With my luck, I'm headed for Beirut," thought Harry, so perhaps it was just as well.

Dogs & Doors

Our dog Stella does not understand doors. Somewhere, deep in the depths of her dog brain, right next to the information about squirrels ("chase") is a small section devoted to doors, which consists primarily of question marks ("????").

If a door is propped open, but the opening is just a little bit smaller than Stella, she will stop in front of the door and look at it. Then she'll study the opening. Then the door. She'll look through the door, but she cannot for the life of her figure out what to do about it. Even if there's a squirrel on the other side of the door, she'll sit and stare at the door. And wait for someone to open it for her.

She does understand that humans know about doors, so she'll go through a door with a human, provided that the door doesn't make any sudden moves. If the door starts to do something, like slowly close, she'll quick back away (always in the opposite direction to travel) and watch it close. As a result, Stella gets left outside (or inside) a lot, since doors tend to want to close.

Our cat, on the other hand, views a closed door as an opportunity. She'll paw at the base of the door, hoping that maybe it didn't latch. Then she'll try to turn the doorknob with her paws. She'll look around for any buttons to push, just in case it's an automatic door, and will finally break out her little set of lock-picks and have it open in less than a minute.

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One of the reasons that guys (or at least this guy) don't cook more often has to do with the lack of flexibility on the part of ingredients. I like to improvise. If I need to drive a nail, I look around for a hammer. If I don't find one, I certainly don't stop whatever I'm doing and run down to the hardware store and buy one.

I look around for a rock or a brick or a tire iron or (if it's a small nail) I'll use my pocket knife. The nail will get driven (although usually a little crooked) and I've saved all the time and expense of buying a new hammer just to drive a nail.

Unfortunately, this procedure is less effective when cooking, although this hasn't stopped me yet.

Suppose the recipe calls for half a cup of "dry white wine." The first thing I do is go to the pantry and look for a bottle of "dry white wine." Of course, none of the bottles are labeled as "Dry White Wine from California, suitable for using in recipes." They have all kinds of fancy names like "San Antonio Riesling Chardonnay Delectable."

I'm convinced that somebody could make a fortune marketing generic wines. You want a dry white white, you go to the store, find the bottle marked "Dry White Wine" and buy it. You could even have classes of wine, for those folks who know the difference. "Cheap Dry White Wine," "Expensive Dry White Wine," and "Dry White Wine to Serve In-Laws" (which would, of course, be the cheapest available).

Until this happens, however, I'm sitting in the pantry holding bottles of wine up to the light (to see if they are red, which I know would not fall in the Dry White Wine category). I finally narrow it down to something called an "Aperitif" (which is off-white colored) and Sake.

For a while I try to puzzle out what "Aperitif" would mean in English. Fortunately, my five years of French in high school has prepared me for this. I can say "Look! There's Mr. Thiebaut" and "Mr. Thiebaut is an Engineer" (although I'm not clear if he's an train engineer or an aerospace engineer). I'm pretty sure that Mr. Thiebaut had a daughter called Aperitif ("Aperitif est sa femme de Monsieur Thiebaut"). Or maybe it was his wife (Mr. Thiebaut never struck me as being a particularly savory character, so I wouldn't be surprised if he was married to a 13 year old girl.)

I finally discard the Aperitif in favor of the Sake. I know what Sake is. Sake is what Japanese businessmen drink, and they are on their way to owning most of the Western Hemisphere and turning it into a theme park, so Sake ought to fill in for Dry White Wine.

Okay, first ingredient taken care of. The next ingredient is "1 cup heavy cream." At this point, I briefly consider going to the store to purchase heavy cream. Then I remember the last time I tried this. You could go to a grocery store the size of an aircraft carrier that contained two of every conceivable product, and you would not find a product actually labeled "Heavy Cream."

I have no idea what heavy cream is. I know what heavy water is, but it doesn't seem likely that heavy cream is regular cream with all the little hydrogens replaced with deuterium. And I don't think it would be a good idea to drink it if it were.

Heavy cream could be regular cream that pigged out and gained weight, but I'm not sure what would make cream gain weight. I know that heavy cream is not whipped cream, because whipped cream is fairly light, which is why you never see whipped cream in plastic cans-it would float away.

For a while, I consider the "Broccolli standby" approach: if a recipe contains an ingredient that you don't like, ignore it and it will go away. I have made a dandy "Liver and Broccolli Casserole" that contained not a trace of liver or broccolli. I also like to make candied yams and leave out the yams.

But I don't think that will work in this case. The heavy cream seems to be pretty important to this particular recipe.

Rummaging through the kitchen, I finally light on the jar of coffee creamer. There's even a recipe on the back for how to make liquid coffee creamer from the powder. Since "coffee creamer" actually contains the word "cream," I figure that if I make it double strength, that I will produce a suitable substitute for heavy cream.

The next few ingredients I can deal with. Onions. Carrots (well, I'll use only half as many carrots as they say, because I'm not really wild about carrots-if you eat too many carrots, you turn orange and you have to lurk around in the dark all the time, so it's a good thing that carrots improve your night vision). Salt. Pepper. Garlic.

Uh oh. We don't seem to have any garlic. Hmm. Wait, here's some at the back of the fridge, but it looks pretty knarly, all green and dried out. From what I remember of garlic, it's not supposed to be green (although it always seems to be kinda dried out).

Rummaging through the cabinets, I stumble on some garlic salt. Well, that certainly contains garlic, and if I eliminate the regular salt in the recipe, I should be able to kill two ingredients with one spoonful.

This leads me to speculate on the possible advantages of combining other ingredients for ease and efficiency of cooking. For example, how about a "Heavy Cream With Dry White Wine"? I would certainly buy it whenever I made this recipe.

I'm returned to reality by the smoke coming out of the frying pan on the stove. Oops! Time to get on with the recipe.

The next step is to tenderize the meat. I try singing it some love songs, but that doesn't seem to make it any more tender, so I figure I need to beat on it for a while. This should be fun.

Unfortunately, I can't find the meat tenderizer. This is probably because my wife has organized the kitchen so well. Everything is filed according to its purpose. There's a drawer for things that cut (which is not a drawer you want to rummage around in, anyway). There's another drawer for things that measure, and things that stir have a drawer to themselves.

I spend a while looking around for the drawer that contains "Things That Tenderize Meat," but that drawer seems to be out in the garage, swapping stories with the axes and hammers. Finally, I run across a rolling pin, which seems as good an item as any to use (although, frankly, I'm tempted to just go get a good rock and get back to basics).

This is the part of cooking that I really like. Pounding things insensible (which is made easier, of course, by the fact that meat isn't very sensible to begin with). I'm having a great time whapping away at the meat, pounding it, and yelling at it ("Love me Tender! Ah ha ha ha ha"), when my wife walks in.

"What on Earth are you doing?" She looks about like what you would expect a wife to look like when she discovers her husband in the kitchen hitting a defenseless piece of meat with a rolling pin.

"Um, just fixing dinner." I quickly put the rolling pin away. "Yup, this is plenty tender, now." I grab some measuring cups and spoons and start measuring things and looking official. My wife leaves, taking the rolling pin with her.

Ah, now the recipe says to "simmer until sauce thickens." Hmm. How thick? How long is this going to take? What, exactly, do they mean by simmer? How come the stove doesn't have a setting called "Simmer"? Couldn't they at least tell me the specific gravity of the sauce when it's thick (then I could use the battery acid tester to verify it)?

This cooking stuff is getting boring, so I turn the heat up, figuring that this'll speed things along. I also remember that corn starch makes things thick, so I pour in some of that. I start reading the paper, and before you know it, everythings done!

Unfortunately, the sauce is a little too thick, resembling concrete more than the creamy, lucious sauce that the picture in the cookbook shows.

This is the first situation all evening that I've known exactly how to handle: "You know, Laura, it seems like forever since we've been out to a nice romantic dinner. Let's go to a nice secluded restaurant and have a candlelight dinner."

Hey, maybe this cooking thing isn't so hard after all. As long as somebody else does it.

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