Tag Archives: Improvisation

The Problem with Thanksgiving

Her mom was roasting a brined turkey, Nana had baked pumpkin and apple pies, and we had traveled with a carful of side dishes: a New York cheesecake, potatoes, asparagus, and construction kits for Waldorf salad and the cornbread dressing I’d make that she assured everyone they’d love.  Drinks were served upon arrival, and while everybody chatted happily we set to work unpacking the cooler and assembling our bits and pieces.

“Does this look right to you?” she asked. I had to admit, the salad dressing looked watery and grey; it tasted like dill and vinegar and not much else. She wanted to try this version for my benefit, since I’m no fan of gloppy salads. She headed for the sink. “I’m going to start over.” I suggested instead that she whisk in a little mayonnaise.  She did; the dressing wasn’t quite where she wanted it, but it was closer.  A little more mayo, and a sprinkling of sugar, and the dressing held together nicely and tasted great.

Dinner was served and enjoyed. Family stories were told and political conversations defused. Many hands made the clean-up light, and the afternoon was a success. There were plenty of leftovers–particularly the cornbread dressing, which had sadly not lived up to its reputation.  “The stuffing wasn’t as good as last year’s,” she said softly to me. Leaving aside that it was dressing, not stuffing, since it had been cooked alongside the turkey rather than in it, I had to agree, but neither of us was sure why. Her mom had baked the cornbread, so we weren’t sure what was in it; I’d used pork sausage, which always seems like a good idea; the spices, such that I recalled, were the same, but the result was different.  Not terrible, but not as we’d remembered.

The problem with improvising is that, unless you have an extremely accurate memory or are meticulous about documentation, it’s nearly impossible to recreate what you’ve done.  Whether creating a piece of music or a Thanksgiving side dish, the pleasure of success is ephemeral.

The problem with following recipes, on the other hand, is that, unless you have a trusted source, it’s nearly impossible to guarantee that what you’ll end up with is what you intend.  Whether cooking or knitting, when the result is different than you expect, the temptation may be to chuck it in the waste bin and start over.

The problem with Thanksgiving–or any big holiday dinner, for that matter–is that a lot of pressure can be put on every component.  Far more than needs to be.   If the salad had been a total bust, there still would have been plenty of food.  If no one had touched the cornbread dressing, there would still have been laughter and joy.  If I had put the cheesecake in the cooler along with the sealed bags of chopped vegetables and it turned out they weren’t as well-sealed as I thought and the cheesecake tasted a little of onion, no one would mention it.

Her parents have accepted an offer to sell their house before beginning a grand retirement adventure, so this will be the last Thanksgiving in the house she grew up in. She was a little melancholy, but it was as joyful a celebration as I could want. I don’t know where we’ll be next November, but wherever it is, if the dressing is perfect or if we burn the turkey and end up with grilled cheese sandwiches, there will be plenty to be thankful for.

I did, by the way, put the cheesecake in the cooler, and it did taste funky. Nobody teased me about it more than I did. But I’ve never enjoyed a Waldorf salad so much. There was a pleasantly chilly late evening walk, and the first holiday lights of the season. And, seriously, Nana’s pies are better than any store-bought cheesecake.

Over the river and through the woods...

Over the river and through the woods…

Accidental Soup

When we merged kitchens, there were abundances of pantry staples, and far too many duplicate containers. Half a box of salt from one kitchen and three quarters of one from the other found a home together in a labeled glass jar. Baking soda, rice, flour–all into airtight containers, leaving us far less clutter, and a very pretty pantry. Not everything was identical, though, so some things stayed in their original containers; some went into small glass jars. Occasionally, a label didn’t stick, but every system has a couple of kinks to work out.

One night I emptied a cup of hearty looking oats into a dry saucepan to toast them, added three cups of boiling water, lidded the pan, and walked away. Morning came. Coffee and tea were brewed.  Lunches were packed.  She came into the kitchen as I was turning to breakfast. “You made oatmeal!” she said with delight.

I lifted the lid and was puzzled. “I thought I made oatmeal.”

She looked over my shoulder.

“You made barley.”

What I toasted had  looked different than I was used to seeing, but the jar wasn’t labeled, and it was in the oats-jar’s place.  I thought they were the last of a container of ritzy, organic, free-range oats that she’d kept separate from the everyday suburban oats.

I made barley. Dummy!

“It’s okay. I’ll pick up a bagel, and we’ll make soup.”

Saturday night, I chopped and she sweated onion, celery, and carrots in a little oil; beef stock, diced tomatoes, and some water were added, along with leftover pot roast, salt, pepper, bay leaf, oregano, and, yes, barley. In the half hour while everything simmered and the kitchen became warm and fragrant, we did a few chores: mopping up plaster dust that settled after the painter left, preparing cabinet doors to be re-hung.  Just before dinner time, I steamed some chopped kale.  She ladled the soup we hadn’t expected to cook and sprinkled on some parmesan cheese. We dug in.

A friend once told me the story of her young sister, who, while mixing batter, confused vinegar for vanilla.  My friend turned it into a reading lesson and helped her start over.  Another young woman I know mistook one canister for another and baked cookies with salt instead of sugar.  Her boyfriend gobbled them up. They didn’t stay together, but it wasn’t because of the cookies.

Mistakes are made.  What matters is how you correct them. How you recover.  What you learn.  We had accidental soup, and it was wonderful.

Accidental Soup

Not everyone likes kale in her soup, even accidentally.

Yes, And

“Are you making beef with broccoli?” she asked, sounding equal parts amazed and teasing.

I like vegetables.  Broccoli probably comes in third in my list of favorites, behind brussels sprouts, which are coming into season and filling me with delight and anticipation, and green beans, for which I think the USDA’s recommended serving size ought to be, “Well, how many have you got?”

The thing is, I wasn’t making beef with broccoli. I wasn’t sure what I was making, though.

We’d both worked late, and she was feeling in the mood for something bland, so she was heating a bowl of mashed potatoes to have with butter, salt, and pepper. I was foraging. I’d found a little piece of rare beef and some rice; the latter, topped with a damp paper towel, would go into the microwave when her potatoes were done.  The rice wouldn’t be as good as it had been when freshly cooked, but far from terrible. I figured I’d thinly slice the steak and sauté it quickly in a little olive oil, slice a few grape tomatoes and toss those into the pan, too, and then pour it all over the reheated rice.  Maybe add a little salsa.  Maybe grate some cheese over the top.  It could be vaguely Tex-Mex. It was sort of a plan, but not quite.

There wasn’t anything green, though, and I think dinner should almost always include something green.  But I didn’t feel like assembling a salad. There were some broccoli florets, though. They got a quick steaming along with the rice, then went into the hot pan to brown on their tips, along with a generous splash of teriyaki sauce and a dab of minced garlic. Everything topped the rice, and the lot was garnished with a sprinkle of sesame seeds.

Meanwhile, she discovered to her horror that we were out of butter. “You can check in the freezer,” I said, “but I’m afraid there’s none there.” She opened the door and proved me right. But there was a little bag in the top compartment of the door containing small blocks of frozen cream. (She’d needed a very small amount for a recipe last winter. Not wanting to waste, we froze the rest in an ice cube tray and have been using it, a little at a time, ever since.) “Defrost one of these,” I suggested; “It’ll add some creaminess.” Instead, she pulled an empty pint-sized jar from the cupboard. “No!” she said.  “I’ll make butter!”

She thawed the cream and put it in the tightly-lidded jar, then danced about the kitchen, singing and shaking her jar of cream like a maraca. After a couple of minutes, she stopped, disappointed that her jar wasn’t really well-suited for churning butter or adding percussion to a vocal arrangement.  She poured the only-barely-clotted milk into the bowl of her Kitchen Aid mixer, and sent it to whisk. 8 minutes or so later, she had a ramekin of soft, lovely butter. I don’t think we’ll give up buying it in sticks from the grocery, but it’s nice to know that it’s an option.

The first rule of improvisational theatre is “Never say no.” If you’re playing a doctor in a scene and another character enters saying her car won’t start, you can’t object that you’re not a mechanic. You accept the given information and go forward.  “Yes, and I’ll bring my stethoscope to listen to its carburetor,” you might say. If you’re “enjoying” the sunshine and your scene partner says it’s raining, it’s not “No,” it’s “Yes, and now I get to use my new umbrella.” If you’re rocking your “new baby” and a new character compliments your rhinoceros, “Yes, and she has her mother’s horn.”

Yes, and…

“Are you making beef with broccoli?”

Yes, and would you pass me the soy sauce?

“Oh, no, we’re out of butter!”

Yes, and we have cream and a powerful mixer, and we can give ourselves a science lesson.

“We have to clear the guest room for the painter, and there’s nowhere to put the extra bed!”

Yes, and we can stack one mattress on top of another, and put a pea under the bottom one to see if we can feel it!

You can call it improvisation, and the result is sometimes funny, but really, it’s just two people being as creative and generous and kind as they know how. And a little bit more.

I’m going to be a contestant on a game show tonight–a live theatre presentation, not the TV kind.  The object for me and my partner–my partner whom I’ve never met, of course–will be to write a song on a randomly assigned topic, in a randomly selected musical style. For a musical. In twenty minutes.

You might think, “Well, they did that in real time on TV,” but the music on Whose Line is it Anyway? was pre-determined. Also, those comedians weren’t writing for musical theatre characters, or being judged by writers and directors. I’m a little nervous about this event–about not finishing on time, or that the style won’t be one I’m comfortable with, or that our song won’t be as funny as the other team’s. (Though “funny” isn’t one of the prerequisites, it’s probably better in a game like this to be funny than heartfelt). I don’t mind losing, but I want to do well.

Fortunately, I have lots of improvisational experience on which to draw. And, win or lose, she’ll be in the audience, and we’ll have dinner after the show, and then go home to a very tall bed. Victory could not not be sweeter than knowing that.

Or home-churned butter.

Butter

One More Time

We’re both big fans of repurposing.  

She can turn an glass jar into a beautiful vase in no time flat. An ordinary little table here is suddenly a perfect nightstand there. She is kind of masterful at re-combining wardrobe items into new outfits. (I tell you, the girl can dress.) 

My repurposing is done mostly in the kitchen. If the recipe calls for tomato sauce and we’re out, how about V8 juice, tomato paste, and some oregano?  Almost-stale donuts? Bread pudding. Random vegetables and a little protein?  Fried rice. I filled omelets for breakfast with bits and pieces from the previous night’s post-Christmas party, and her mom approved in a pretty serious way.

But you don’t always need to repurpose.  Repetition isn’t always a bad thing. (Her favorite thing to do with Thanksgiving leftovers is have Thanksgiving dinner again.)

And thus, on Friday night, there was fried chicken, corn on the cob, and sliced tomatoes.  And, okay, a few steamed green beans that were so good I thought about making more. She savored the last bites of corn, and sighed. “If this is the last of the summer’s corn, I want to make sure I enjoyed it.”

It’s not; there’s another ear in the crisper. At least there was when I left this morning.