Sugar chronicles

How to (not) eat your feelings

I am still reading Mary Frances (aka MFK) Fisher’s How to Cook A Wolf— a collection on cooking and eating during wartime. She monologues between recipes, marrying them together and exposing the crude rift evident in today’s food writing (the essay + recipe format). It is a balm to read her prose, which W.H. Auden proclaimed as the best. I can find nothing else like it, a blend of teacherly intonations and eloquent urgency. Sometime it even seems a little too eloquent—almost an affectation, that silky movement— though I’m sure her voice is partially emblematic of the times, back when everyone sounded so alluring, so refined. But her writing is uniquely and brashly hers. She writes, “One way to horrify at least eight out of ten Anglo-Saxons is to suggest their eating anything but the actual red fibrous meat of a beast.” She cooked using terracotta flower pots, like others in her time, and continued dining on oysters into and old and fragile age. There are few writers better to reassure me never to be ashamed of the pursuit of a life lived through delicious eating. 

Since we must eat to live, we might as well do it with both grace and gusto.

Living in a densely populated city means never having to cook things, least of all the type of nourishment readily gotten in seconds. Pizza.* Bagels. Almond croissants. A $4 cookie. A price I willingly pay to shield my virgin patissier’s eyes from witnessing the impossible quantities of added sugar, intrinsic to the thing I so want. But why waste all of that time? 

Restaurants are still delivering, but few pastry shops, coffee shops have survived long enough to fill the donut-sized gaping in my appetite. Bereft of sweetness and any necessary supplies, I lifted my moratorium on baking (sweets) when I saw a recipe for this made-in-the-pan chocolate cake.

Pronounced wacky cake by a cookbook in the 1940s, and duly pointed out by the commenters, the dessert comprises about as many ingredients as a cocktail. That is a bad ambiguous analogy as cocktails (at least of one school of mixology) are prone to 10+ ingredients. But this cake is simple, I promise! It demands flour, salt, and baking soda, the trifecta of oil, water, and vinegar, and can be improved upon with whatever you have on hand, precisely what you want to hear when the grocery store is not an option. I supplemented mine with some candied yuzu peel, aged for months, but not in the good way. Everything is mixed right in one bowl.

Absent from my kitchen: granulated sugar, I had to use brown, but in full supply, somehow is cocoa powder, impulsively purchased on the single brisk evening this past winter. The cocoa is Hershey’s Special Dark, shockingly lacking in sweetness, bitterness, and chocolateyness — perhaps the reasons the resulting cake felt dense, not at all airy like everyone else described. I also substituted olive oil (is it heavier?) for canola and trashed the vanilla (I can’t indulge too much).

But in the spirit of MFK, I made the best with what I had and frosted it with plain yogurt for digestion and honey for sweetness. Don’t let my stumbles (was it perhaps the aerated, months old baking soda?) hinder your wacky possibilities. 

*I did two weeks ago make a pizza for the second time in my life. It was a less time-consuming than the first try, but a more anxiety-riddled one. The smoke alarm wailed for what felt like hours, while the pizza puffed up minimally, then it intermittently squawked throughout the evening, mocking us for our misdeeds deep into the night.

(Here is Christina Tosi on cooking in quarantine.)

We have a low cylindrical bowl that rotates between the “bar cart” and the dining table. The wrong shape for citrus, too precious for keys, it is probably best as a fancy bowl for medium-sized dog or an oversized one for nuts. It’s this last one that made me start using it to house random snacks to eventually be consumed with a strong drink. The collection now resembles something you find in a hotel room or a concession stand at an independent cinema.

I started picking away at it last week with mild shame. The sea salt dark chocolate went first, while fruit-forward candy canes still remain, snubbed since Christmas. My first time eating Sixlets was a fearsome experience. Not only do the perfect spheres threaten to lodge in your throat, but they boast a peculiar and extravagant artificiality. (Is it the food coloring, which I swear has a taste? If you haven’t learned by now, I cannot grasp the science of baking…yet.) As atonement, I immediately started in on a sleeve of Crispy M&Ms. I’ve never gravitated toward the rice-crisp strain of chocolates, but the crunch offered a semblance of real food.

What else remains: Japanese treats. Two sleeves of DIY monakas sent by my mom and seven yuzu caramels that I will try to ration over the next few weeks. I have also acquired 40 bags of flaming hot cheetos popcorn, much like everyone else.

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When I caved and ordered twice my favorite pie shop: a baker’s choice of four slices, one eaten each morning with black coffee. As close to a breakfast ritual as I have ever had. The second order: a dozen madeleines that plunge me back only to someone else’s memories and six tahini chocolate chip cookies, griddled crisp. The trace nuttiness made me want to spread peanutbutter on them, sandwich it. I sheltered them home to my parents’ house instead.

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My father’s 60th birthday arrives this week, shadowed by the passing of his father. I will try to bake an all-occasion yellow cake, hopefully with frosting if we have enough milk. We’ll drink fizzy wine and decorate the house, not with roses but early spring buds and branches picked safely from the side of the road. 

Death and vulgarity are the only two facts in the nineteenth century that one cannot explain away.

— Oscar Wilde, 1891

The significance of movies has deteriorated, even while they’re a source of comfort. At least this week. I could tie all of this together by finally watching The Cakemaker, which depicts grieving through floured hands, but watching on-screen mourning can have cathartic limitations.

Film recs will resume soon (here is Jon Caramanica on the role of a critic during a crisis). In the meantime, I have these old numbers I wrote for a foodzine that embarass me, but it feels right to share them with you here.

Be kind. And send me cake.

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HOW TO EAT YOUR FEELINGS

HAROLD AND MAUDE

Hal Ashby, 1971

Richboy Harold, with his marshmallow white face and black formal wear, is a recovering high school goth’s wet dream. His macabre sense of humor really shines through when he fakes his own death. Soon he finds a soulmate in Maude— almost 80, partial to daisies, and lusting for life in a way he never quite has. She serves him ginger pie and oat straw tea—a supposed libido enhancer—which I can only suspect like all healthful things, is sawdust in disguise. 

I would like to champion, instead, a ginger-turmeric concoction, both mood and flavor enhancing. I always have a nub of one or the other on hand, to shave or thinly slice and boil in water as a tonic, a makeshift version of this Korean tea. Add a generous dollop of honey, and squeeze a lemon if you have one. Some days it ends up a full-fledged tea, other times a murky ginger backwash. Sometimes I top it off with whiskey, also ever present in my cabinet. I think the convention-flouting Maude would approve.

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY

Rob Reiner, 1989

The standard-bearer. To discover this rom-com—directed by Rob Reiner but marked entirely by Nora Ephron’s wit—is to feel like you’ve unlocked Very Important Knowledge, a key to romantic adulthood. Love in this movie begins as extreme dislike: Planted seed of irritation roused between two strangers on a road trip to New York culminates in marriage a decade later.

Likewise, some foods take a while to enjoy. There are always a few foodstuffs on which a mutual consensus on deliciousness may never be reached between taste buds and brain, but others are reevaluated in adulthood. Pickles and their vinegar-bathed ilk once caused me to pucker, but now I latch onto anything mildly fermented. In the right context, it’s the only appropriate flavor complement to a fat piece of brisket, or a fried chicken sandwich. It also helps when the pickled thing has some crunch.

I’ve become partial to making my own— carrots sliced in uneven spears, paired with coriander and rosemary. Can them in equal parts boiled water and vinegar (rice wine’s my preference, but apple cider or white/wine work, too), and a stir of sugar and salt.

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE

Wong Kar Wai, 2000

Proof that unrequited love is the most torturously romantic. A sumptuous feast of visuals: curls of cigarette smoke, plumes of steam from a noodle canister, elegant people in elegant dress. A man and a woman, next door neighbors in a cramped boarding house, realize their respective spouses are having an affair. They skim past each other in the hallway, drawn intimately together close by the pouring rain and restaurant booths in 1960s Hong Kong while Nat King Cole plays on the radio. Their relationship occupies that space between the lines in an ongoing conversation—one that starts out innocuous, but slinks into something sultry, something secret that could’ve been. This is a shy person’s love story.

MFK Fisher (here she is again!!) writes: “Almost every person has something secret he likes to eat. He is downright furtive about it usually, or mentions it only in a kind of conscious self-amusement.” MFK’s are sections of tangerines left to dry and plump on the radiator. My brother has popcorn with syrup; my boyfriend favors raw onion and mayo sandwiches. (Also cottage cheese and butter on pasta, which I try very to forget I ever learned.) When I wrote this I could not think of any strange snacks or habits I have beyond drinking olive oil by the spoon—hardly weird— or sprinkling Shin Ramen noodles with the accompanying instant spice-powder—only weird if you’re not Asian—  or cream cheese, bacon, and tomato on a cinnamon bagel— probably not weird to Cynthia Nixon.

Please tell me your weird snack. I promise not to make fun of you the way I did Zach.