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February 24, 2022. Dear Kids– Did you ever wonder what inspired me to start cooking? The short answer is Granny, but the longer and perhaps more interesting answer is Granny and the voice of a disembodied French chef who appeared on the scene long before the likes of Auguste Gusteau.
I was what they called “husky” as a preteen, which I never quite understood since I don’t recall eating a particularly large amount of food during that time of my life. I do, however, remember eating massive quantities of food throughout my teens, as I started my many “growth spurts”, yet still ironically working my way out of the husky classification- go figure? As for now, I am back to husky, or as they now say- “relaxed fit”.
Back then though, at least for a time, Granny was very happy to set me up with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and pretty much any other time with any in-between meal snacks we had on hand- often making me PB&Js, fried Spam slabs or bologna sandwiches, grilled cheese or “cooking” up a bowl of goodness from the holy trinity of the canned delights we kept on hand in the cupboard, Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs, Campbell Soup’s SpaghettiOs with Meatballs and/or Hormel’s Dinty Moore Stew. I should also mention, it didn’t hurt that we also had an amazing supply of various “scratch and dent” Keebler Cookies from a friend of Gramps who drove a truck for Keebler and who was kind enough to share massive amounts of damaged product with us.
My very favorite in-between meal snack memory goes back to one particular wintery afternoon after I came home from school with my usual claims of devastating hunger and pleas for something warm to eat. There was very little time to conjure up a homemade snack before Granny’s “Show”- General Hospital- would start, but this day Granny surprised me by taking a little extra time and missing the first five minutes of her Show, to let me in on and share a little “secret” with me from her childhood- the fried egg sandwich!
“A what!”, I exclaimed- I had only seen a fried egg at breakfast with toast- the only egg sandwich I knew was egg salad and we didn’t even have Egg McMuffins back then, so I was intrigued to say the least. I eagerly followed Granny into the kitchen, watched her fry up two eggs, and slide them between cheap white bread with copious amounts of ketchup- one bite and cue the Hallelujah music! A symphony of humble flavors- rich, creamy egg yolk and tender, buttery egg whites intertwined with sweet and a touch sour ketchup; the gentle eruption of crimson tinged yolk soaking into cheap, sponge-like white bread- with generous amounts of overflow dripping down my hand and pooling onto my plate as a gift from above to soak up with the last morsels of the sandwich. It would have taken just a matter of minutes for my sandwich to disintegrate into a pile of yolky mush, but it would never last that long.
I was so entranced with the experience, I actually followed Granny into what she called the “parlor” (aka “living room”) and that started a tradition of watching General Hospital with Granny almost every day until I went off to college. This was long before the Luke and Laura situation made it all the rage. Frankly, I never did get the whole Luke and Laura thing and hardly watched the show once they got together after I was off to college- in spite of the fact that their wedding was the most watched soap opera episode in the history of TV. As I recall, Luke raped Laura in a disco before it all started and, if that wasn’t bad enough, which it most certainly was (I can’t even believe it was a plot line!), Luke had a receding hairline and bad perm to boot.
But, as usual, I digress- getting back to my culinary journey, it started when Granny, partially tired by my repeated requests for food, but mostly because she realized I had to start fending for myself at a certain age (I mean I didn’t even do my own laundry or make my bed at that point), told me it was time for me to start cooking if I wanted to eat more than three times a day.
I started simple, with multiple PB&Js before moving on to experiment with additional flavors by mixing the aforesaid Keebler cookies, smashed into small bits (many times the damaged cookies were already in crumbs so it worked out well), into the peanut butter. I believe my first hot meal was a scorched bowl of SpaghettiOs, with Parmesan in a tall Green Can, a pile of buttered bread and a sleeve of Keebler graham crackers. Once I got familiar with the stove, it was onto grilled cheese- the egg sandwich seemed out of my reach at this point- eggs too fragile and too easy to over cook. After my fair share of burnt grilled cheese, I settled into a groove, turning out perfectly golden brown and crispy squares of cheesy goodness for months and then onto the egg sandwich- mostly scrambled egg sandwiches at first, but eventually a nice stretch of mostly yolky fried egg sandwiches after that. It was a good run, but then it happened- I started to grow tired of my now mundane in-between meal creations, but what was I to do?
Then, one happy afternoon, my relationship with cooking changed forever. For some reason, after watching General Hospital with Granny, I strayed from my usual diet of after school TV, mostly comedy reruns featuring a variety of my crushes- including Gilligan’s Island (Ginger and Mary Ann- why choose), The Brady Bunch (Marcia, Marcia, Marcia), Batman (all the Catwomen, especially Julie Newmar), Big Valley (Audra Barkley- the only daughter of Thomas and Victoria- who had backbone and bite). I came across an oddly alluring show on PBS- “The “The Great Chefs of Europe”– or maybe it was New Orleans or some other far away destination, but wherever it was, there was a French chef on this particular episode. Keep in mind, this was almost 15 years before the Food Network and cooking shows were anything but commonplace on TV. I was also wondering, influenced by the binary stereotypes of the day, whether a boy should even be watching a cooking show like this. In spite of it all, I persisted.
Drawn in by the catchy violin ditty, followed by a montage of exotic food, places and activities, that started the show and captivated by the woman with the provocative and satiny voice who narrated the show, with the help of well timed sound bites from the great chefs themselves, I couldn’t look away. Three recipes were demoed with noticeable, especially by today’s standards of non stop talking on cooking shows, gaps of dead air during the narration- you could actually hear the food cook. Then, during one of the demos, I heard it- the disembodied voice of some French chef who exclaimed, with great disdain (no surprises there- after all he was French) as he cooked- “Water ez ze enemmi of flavóur!”. Such a dramatic and exciting way to look at cooking- imagining actual enemies in your kitchen trying to foil your attempts to make good food. Well, that was enough to inspire me to get started down the road to more exciting and interesting cooking, keeping all the enemies of flavor at bay as best I could, and advice I’d never forget and often repeat, with an exaggerated French accent, to this day.
The After School Special: A Very Special Fried Egg Sandwich Event
Prep Time: 2 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
GET YOUR STUFF OUT
- 4 pieces of bread- cheap bread encouraged!
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon butter, optional
- kosher salt
- fresh cracked pepper
- ketchup to taste
- Keebler cookie of choice
COOK AND PLAY
Play “Rise” by Herb Alpert, so you never forget what Luke did to Laura or, if you’re in denial, play their wedding song, “Think of Laura” by Christopher Cross, while you fry up your eggs.
1. The Yolks On Me. Preheat a nonstick pan over medium low heat, with the butter for flavor if you wish, and crack eggs into pan or, if you worry about your cracking skills, into a small bowl so you can pick out shell pieces if necessary. Once the outer egg starts to cook to white, season with salt and pepper and cover with a lid you’ve spritz with water. Turn heat to low and check on your yolk status every minute or so until it’s cooked to your liking- the cover helps cook the slimy, mucous-like part of the egg (see first picture) to a nice white that’s “as tight as a drum” to quote Felix Unger (see last picture).
2. Time To Ketchup Over TV Slide an egg on a slice of bread, squirt it as generously as you wish with ketchup, cover with the remaining bread and go watch a guilty pleasure TV show with a friend or loved one and don’t forget some Keebler cookies for dessert!
My 1st Hot In-Between Meal Snack Recreated!. As far as I can recall, I believe my the first in-between snack I “cooked” on my own went something like this.
I rarely served you kids anything out of a can for lunch, certainly not anything from my Holy Trinity of Canned Cupboard Delights. I hadn’t eaten Spaghetti-Os in decades- probably not since my early teens, but when I took my first bite of Spaghetti-Os after I shot this photo, it took me back to my childhood. It was like Anton Ego after he took a bite of Remy’s ratatouille, if Anton Ego had grown up in a lower middle class suburban of the US and not in the countryside of France. In fact, it jolted my memory so, I instantly remembered my first upgrade to the meal and a treat I had completely forgotten about until that instant- the Spaghetti-O sandwich. It had so many similar delicious qualities of the Fried Egg Sandwich- no wonder!
I could have easily polished off all three of my Holy Trinity of Canned Cupboard Delights with a carton of cookies and a quart of milk for a snack in my youth during one of my “growth spurts”, but it will take me some time to get through these in my current state of age and metabolism.
Always Dessert! It was fitting that one of Gramps’ good friends set us up with Keebler cookies since there was no bigger fan of dessert than Gramps. If you recall, dessert was one of Gramps’ conditions of marriage with Granny- a dessert every night with dinner or he was not walking down that aisle.
Gramps’ also had a unique perspective on making sure he didn’t feel guilty about eating too many desserts, which I only found out about later in life after I watched him down a slice of blueberry pie, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and three chocolate chip cookies after dinner. “Wow, five desserts, you sure that’s not too much?”, I inquired. “Five!”-he exclaimed- “I only had one- the pie and ice cream were on the same plate, so that counts as one, and cookies, candy and brownies don’t count!”. He didn’t have any brownies or candies- guess he was keeping those open as options for future desserts.
Water Simply Has No Flavóur! “Water ez ze enemmi of flavòur” because water has no flavor and it dilutes whatever flavor resides in your food. Of course you need water in your food, but most of your food already comes with plenty in it- I mean, vegetables are more water than vegetable (mushrooms 93% water, cauliflower 92% water for example). So, if you do need to add moisture to your food or add liquid to cook your food- use a flavorful liquid like broth, juice, wine, stock, etc, not a flavorless one like water.
Also, if your food has a lot of water, like the previously mentioned vegetables, it will be massively more flavorful if you get some of that water out and concentrate the flavors of the actual food- think steamed cauliflower vs, roasted cauliflower. High heat cooking concentrates flavors by getting rid of water. Salting your vegetables draws out flavorless water, concentrating the flavors. Dry aging or salt curing meat draws flavorless water out, concentrating its flavors. I’m thinking there are other ways to draw flavorless water out of your food, but none come to mind at the moment.
High heat cooking also does something else. It produces one of the tastiest and most famous food related chemical reactions when the heat is applied to the food, known by another French “phrase”- “The Maillard Reaction” (discover by Louis Camille Maillard, a French physician and chemist for you trivia buffs out there). This reaction occurs when the proteins and sugars in food are transformed by the heat of a ripping hot pan or oven to produce new craveworthy flavors (umami), aromas (savory), and colors (browning or caramelization). “What’s water have to do with this?”, you ask. I’ll tell you- if you don’t wipe the surface water from your food or if you crowd your pan with too much food before you apply the high heat, the water present or produced will inhibit the reaction and the flavor of your food will suffer.
One last note on water and cooking- water is also the enemy of safety when frying- never, ever add water or wet food to hot oil as the oil will erupt in all directions which leads to many kitchen fires each year. Also, smart to have a working fire extinguisher in the kitchen, just in case, because you never throw water on a grease fire.
Water As The “Frenemmi of Flavòur”. As a footnote, and just between you and me, I occasionally add water to recipes, like a bean spread or something else made with mild or delicately flavored ingredients, mostly for textural purposes- to make a bean dip more spreadable, for example. Why you ask? It’s because the addition of water improves the texture of the recipe with the absence of any flavor that could overwhelm any such delicate flavors-letting the delicate flavors shine through as the water stand by acting all flavorless.
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