November 2007

Melissa Lion

Culinaria Bookslut

In-N-Out Urge: Simple Food Explored by a Southern Californian

I love a good food memoir, and I’m struck that with the exception of Ruth Reichl’s excellent books, each published memoir begins with a recollection of a farmhouse, a country house, the ancestral family estate and a honey-tinted lost time when cow’s milk was squirted right into the author’s young mouth. Of the simple beauty of warm muffins/ biscuits/ pies cooling on a grandmother’s windowsill. In Tastes Like Cuba, Eduardo Machado regales the reader with tales of his grandmother’s café con leche, his grandfather’s Camarones Enchilados and legendary Arroz Con Pollo. The descriptions are succulent and as I read, I drift into a daydream about my own culinary memoir. The one the publishers of my dreams are in a bidding war over as I type this. I think that my own culinary journey as a girl growing up in San Diego in the '80s and '90s would begin in Santa Ana in my maternal grandmother’s one-bedroom apartment that overlooked a Luvs Ribs, and her removing French toast from the microwave. Oh, that previously frozen French toast was exquisite, soft and custardy inside and crispy outside. I long for French toast that perfect and that some food scientist came up with the right chemical compound to replicate ideal fresh French toast truly is a miracle of modern science. This same grandmother took four tablespoons of sugar in her milky coffee and smoked three packs of Marlboro Reds a day. She lived the high life, to be sure.  

I would devote one whole chapter to In-N-Out. An early childhood memory of In-N-Out Burger bumper stickers curiously cut to remove the B and R. A pre-teen memory of standing in the dim bathroom of the In-N-Out just south of Mission Viejo and fixing my Wet 'n Wild lipstick on my way to see Depeche Mode on the Violator tour at Dodger Stadium. And I would surely cover in careful detail, the opening of the first In-N-Out in San Diego when I was 16, and the pure, white-hot frustration that it was just two minutes too far to drive to during our high school’s open lunch period.

My reader would travel with me to Taco Bell and experience the inherent confusion and magic of the Mexican Pizza and I would explore what it meant to grow up in the birthplace of Jack in the Box. San Diego’s chaos and near implosion over the E. coli scandal. But it wouldn’t all be fast food nostalgia. There are Lean Cuisine Cheese Enchiladas to pine for, and there is one unfortunate week when my own good mother (a butter woman my whole life) mysteriously brought home Weight Watchers margarine. She was a single, working mother and I would apologize in print for placing my hands around my throat, crossing my eyes and fake gagging. Hell, I’ll do it here. I’m sorry, Mom, for being a pill.       

And as I look back at my culinary terrain, I feel a tiny bit empty that I have never known the simple pleasure of standing in a barn and opening my mouth for the warm, rich taste of milk. In fact, I have never known what it might be like to stand there at all and not put one hand on my hip and say, “You’re going to do what?” or “What’s that smell?” And so to fill that little void, I picked up Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution. Waters’s revolution is using fresh ingredients in simple recipes for satisfying meals. To describe what it takes to be a good cook, she writes, “You need only your own five senses. You need good ingredients, too, of course, but in order to choose and prepare them, you need to experience them fully.” I thought, hey, I have all my senses and I can experience things fully, but this past week, all I’ve been experiencing is a vague miffed-ness at every person I encounter. I thought I wasn’t ready to cook from Ms. Waters’s book. I thought I should wait until one of those moments when I felt more like Julie Andrews in the The Sound of Music, ready to swing my arms wide and embrace the beauty of the world, the air, the green hills around me. This moment came in a slightly different form in the fancy organic grocery store after I asked the produce guy for ripe bananas for banana bread and he pointed to a pile of perfectly buttery yellow bananas. I looked at him, and then back at the bananas, and then back at him. I then found myself with my hand on the back of his head and my knee in the small of his back pressing his face to the bananas and asking if he sees a single brown speckle.

“The bananas in the storeroom. The ones you’re getting rid of, twerp, “ I remember uttering. The rest was a bit of a blur, but I went home with some bruised bananas and after making banana bread that was, at best, undercooked, I decided that some simplicity might be in order. That perhaps I could create a culinary memory. I decided that my general frustration with food and my impatience with life called for me to use Waters’s recipe to make homemade noodles. Waters assured me in the introduction to the recipe, it would be simple. I had a pasta machine I’ve taken with me on every single move for thirteen years and I got it out for the first time. I made the dough of eggs and flour and rolled it through the machine over and over, thinning and kneading it. And Waters was right, it was simple. And actually relaxing. The gentle, repetitive movement, seeing flour and eggs change forms from a sticky yellow mess to actual noodles. Oddly sized noodles, but noodles. I used her oil and garlic sauté from the spaghettini with oil and garlic recipe to dress the noodles, sprinkled some freshly grated Parmesan over it, and the meal was life altering. The noodles were light and sticky, but were silken when bitten into and tasted buttery and reminded me of the pasta my imaginary Italian nana cooked for me as I spent a summer at her villa in the Tuscan hills. It was the best pasta I’ve ever had. And so simple. Not fast, but simple.

Waters had scored such a profound point, the next afternoon I made her biscotti. It was raining and I donned a pale blue scoop neck shirt and a twee little apron I had sewn with a quirky little quilt square and red pom-pom trim around the bottom. I played Jules et Jim on my computer and I felt so domestic, so cute, so '60s European housewife that I took a little picture of myself whisking the eggs and sugar and in the process spilled half the mixture on the floor. How cute am I? But I was feeling so gay, so simply lovely, that I wiped up the mess, chucked half the flour and kept going. The biscotti were divine. They were clean tasting without that bitter orgeat flavor so typical of café biscotti. And better, Waters tells me that they will keep in an airtight container for weeks!

I was giddy with Alice Waters. I felt myself speaking in a more girlish (instead of churlish) voice and cloche hats seemed like a reasonable fashion gesture for me. For dinner I decided to make her salsa verde and put it over some salmon. It was here that the Alice Waters crazy train ground to a halt. The salsa verde was sour and oily and left me feeling decidedly meh about the salmon. It was a miss, but I’m not ready to give up on Waters. This book is more than the salsa verde. It will remain on my shelf as a reminder of simple food yet to be made and culinary memories I have yet to have. The book is a tiny revolution for all cooks who have forgotten that cooking can be an enjoyable process and not something to be survived until eating, and it’s a gateway to our collective culinary past when flour and eggs and elbow grease created something delicious.