Kraft Macaroni and Cheese

OR WHY I DON’T COOK, PART 2

NOT ME.

Even after the shrimp scampi disaster, Jerry was still not convinced that taking turns cooking was a bad idea.  Looking back, I’m not quite sure who this guy was.  Certainly not the same person who 10 years later would have an all-out panic attack and need to phone Yale University Urgent Care twice when he realized he had eaten a farm-fresh green bean that might have touched another green bean that might have had a tiny bit of white mold on it before it was washed.  How could this same person not be a little concerned about being fed shrimp or clams by the likes of me?

I NEVER SERVED ANYTHING THAT LOOKED LIKED THIS.

So, the next weekend, Jerry came over to my apartment on Worcester Square for my standard fare.  Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  I was very skilled.  I had been cooking Kraft Macaroni and Cheese since the days you could buy five boxes for a dollar at the supermarket.  During my college years, my gourmet touch was to add a cut-up boiled hot dog.  I then graduated to Bacos, those mostly chemical bacon-flavored bits.  Before long, I was proudly preparing my bacon bits “from scratch.”  No more fake bits for me.  I fried up bacon in a pan until it was crispy, placed it on a paper towel to soak up the remaining grease, and I then folded over the paper towel and crushed, by hand, the bacon into bits — which I then had to carefully pick out of the paper towel fibers.  I will never be mistaken for Julia Child.

FRESH BACON.  FOR THAT GOURMET TOUCH.

Something I didn’t mention when I told you about my vast experience cooking and eating Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was that I always cooked one entire box for myself, even though the box read “serves four.”  Also, I never bothered serving it up on a plate or bowl.  I stirred the packet of powdered imitation cheese, the stick of butter, and the quarter-cup of milk right into the 4-quart saucepan I had used to cook the pasta.  I then stood over the stove with a large spoon and ate it while it was hot — directly from the 4-quart saucepan.

Jerry had told me to just do what I always did.  But I realized there were limits.  I cooked up two boxes at once in that same 4-quart saucepan.  I stirred in my gourmet bacon bits.  And I then split the contents of the pot onto two dinner plates.  In hindsight, a sprig of parsley might have been a nice touch.

The macaroni and cheese was no longer steaming hot, which disappointed me, by the time I carried the plates to the table.  We sat down and placed our paper napkins (Jerry owned cloth ones) on our laps.  Jerry slipped his fork into the large yellow mound on his plate intending to come back with a forkful of macaroni and cheese.  Instead, the entire mound moved as one unit.  The macaroni and cheese had cooled and hardened into a plastic-like mountain.

“I usually eat it right from the pot,” I explained.

We grabbed the car keys and headed over to Boylston Street for a decent dinner at By George.  Now, Jerry cooks and I clean up.

THE FIRST THING  I WOULD BUY WHEN
JERRY WOULD TRAVEL ON BUSINESS.

Shrimp Scampi, Broccoli, and Baked Stuffed Clams

OR WHY I DON’T COOK, PART 1

“We should take turns cooking.  One weekend, you cook for us at your apartment and the next weekend, I’ll cook for us at mine.”

Jerry and I had been dating for perhaps a month when he had what he insisted was a brilliant idea.  I tried to explain to him that I did not cook.  I tried to make him understand that my idea of a gourmet meal was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with freshly crumbled bacon (none of those bacon bits from a jar in MY kitchen).  But, he wouldn’t listen.  I think he just couldn’t believe that anyone could be that disinterested, or unskilled, in the culinary arts. 
COPLEY SQUARE, BOSTON.
So, it was Friday and it was my turn. Jerry was picking me up after work and we were going grocery shopping.  I had no idea what I was cooking.  I figured Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was not an option since Jerry had cooked some highbrow chicken (in a homemade sauce and everything) the week before.
My best friend, Brian, was the bar manager at a local Boston restaurant called Ken’s By George (known as “By George” to differentiate it from Ken’s deli upstairs).  It was right across the street from Copley Square.  I drank most of my lunches there and quite often stopped off for a drink — or three — after work.
I figured I’d get suggestions from Brian.  But, he wasn’t any better in the kitchen than I was.  He had once tried to bake cupcakes.  He bought a cupcake pan and the paper cupcake cups, but he didn’t use the cups because he was afraid they would catch fire in the oven.
CUPCAKES A LA BRIAN.  WHAT WAS I THINKING?
Another regular at By George, Barbara, was at the bar and she told me she loved to cook.
“Shrimp scampi,” she proclaimed.
“Barbara, I need something easy,” I groaned.
SHRIMP SCAMPI.  IT COULDN’T BE EASIER.

“It couldn’t be easier! All you need are some really nice jumbo shrimps, garlic, and butter.  Melt some butter in the pan, add a clove of garlic, and drop in the shrimp.  They don’t even take two minutes to cook.  If you cook them too long, they’ll get rubbery.  If you want to really impress him, butterfly the shrimp.  They’ll look beautiful.  Serve it with some broccoli on the side.  A couple of wedges of lemon.  I’m telling you.  It’s so easy and he won’t know what hit him.”
So, shrimp scampi it would be.  Jerry picked me up after work and we drove over to Safeway on Boylston Street.  I bought a pound of jumbo shrimp for $10.95.  Big money in 1981.  Jerry was very impressed.  I picked out some fresh broccoli and a package of frozen, baked stuffed clams.  I had cooked broccoli in the past and the baked stuffed clams came with instructions.  Just pop them in the oven.
WORCESTER SQUARE.  WITH SOME OF BOSTON’S FINEST KITCHENS.

We headed to my apartment on Worcester Square.  Jerry took his briefcase into the living room to do some work and I headed to the kitchen to work some magic.

I lined up all the ingredients on my kitchen counter.  I preheated the oven to 300 degrees and put the baked stuffed clams on a cookie sheet, carefully sliding them into the oven.  I put some water up for a boil and dumped in the broccoli.
GARLIC IN WHOLE & IN PARTS.

I then went to work on the garlic.  Now, I already knew at the time the difference between a head and a clove of garlic.  I wasn’t a complete novice.  I pulled away a clove and began to peel.  I peeled away one layer after another until there was no garlic remaining in my hand.  This was an indication to me that I had gone too far.  I went to work on another clove of garlic, this time stopping my peeling after the first paper-like layer came away.  I chopped up what remained and threw it in the pan with some butter.  Maybe a little too much butter.

I washed the shrimp.  They were beautiful.  I decided I would go all out and butterfly the shrimp.  I was determined to impress.  So, I dropped the first jumbo shrimp on the kitchen counter, hefted my knife, and realized I had no clue how to butterfly a shrimp.  Barbara was so matter-of-fact about it that I didn’t think to ask.
But, I’m an artist.  A visual person.  I could figure this out.  I flipped the shrimp back and forth a couple of times and determined the obvious way to slice a shrimp to make it look like a butterfly.  I placed the blade of the knife into the shrimp and pressed.  Nothing.  My knife was not sharp enough to cut into the meaty jumbo shrimp.  I would have tried another knife — I had three others — but they were identical to the one in my hand.  I had purchased the set one Saturday a couple of years earlier at the Aqueduct Park flea market.  They were a great deal.  The set of four wood-handled steak knives cost me only $1.  I now knew why.
Meanwhile, the broccoli was boiling away on the stove.  I turned down the heat.
IT’S AMAZING WHAT A SHARP KNIFE CAN DO.

The baked stuffed clams were beginning to smoke, so I frantically dragged them from the oven, grabbed a hot pad, and ran into the living room.  I tossed the hot pad and the cookie sheet of baked stuffed clams onto the coffee table in front of Jerry and ran out of the room.

“Wait.  Wait,” called Jerry.  “Sit down and have some with me.”

 “No time!” I hollered back.

He followed me into the kitchen with the cookie sheet and told me to just place the clams back in the oven on warm until I was ready to join him.

Fine.
The garlic and butter sizzled in the pan and I went back to work on my first butterfly.
I could get the knife to cut into the shrimp if I sawed quickly back and forth.  I hacked into the shrimp as much as I could and then tore it apart with my fingers to produce a rough-edged butterfly.  I did the same with the remaining shrimp and then threw them all in the pan.

I cooked them the two minutes Barbara had instructed and was about to remove them from the pan onto our two plates when I became concerned.  What if I undercooked them?  Couldn’t you die from undercooked seafood?  I left them in the pan a couple of minutes longer just in case.

I then dished up the shrimp and the broccoli.  The broccoli was gray-green.  It was too mushy to spear with the fork, so I had to scoop it out of the pan and onto our plates.
I then remembered the baked stuffed clams that had been warming in the oven.  I pulled out the cookie sheet, grabbed the hot pad, and carried them back out to Jerry.  This time, I placed them in the center of the dining room table as a side dish for our shrimp scampi.
I brought out the two plates of shrimp and broccoli and we sat down — Jerry excitedly — to dine.
We each took a baked stuffed clam and used our forks to scoop out the extremely dry and crusty filling.  It had definitely baked and then warmed way too long.
“This is fine,” said Jerry as he reached for his water glass.
Next, the broccoli.  It was slimy.  And mostly gray.
“I cooked it too long,” I commented.
“No, it’s good.  This is how my mother always made it.”
And then the shrimp.
I hacked off a bite-size piece with my 25-cent steak knife.  I pressed into my plate to make sure the shrimp was securely on my fork.
It bounced.
I had overcooked the shrimp.  And, just as Barbara warned, it was rubbery.  Not just rubbery.  I had cooked up a batch of Superballs at $10.95 a pound.
“This is good,” mumbled Jerry as he gnawed away at his butterfly scampi Superball.
“No, this is not good,” I said.  “I told you I don’t cook.  Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  That’s what I make.”
I was grateful to now be off the hook.
“So, next time, that’s what we’ll have,” he said as he smiled.  “I love Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.”



Still to come:  “Kraft Macaroni and Cheese — or — Why I Don’t Cook, Part 2”

Connecting The Dots My Own Way

I am retired.  I don’t know if the Wall Street Journal would agree.  They might say I’m unemployed or that I’ve closed a business due to difficult economic times.  (I myself have been saying that for months now.)  But, Jerry has convinced me.  He’s retired and I’m retired.

THE CAKE.  THE LIBRARY HOSTED A GREAT PARTY FOR JERRY (& HONORED ME, TOO)

I had no doubts that Jerry had retired.  Pension, social security, and everything else.  Even the Wall Street Journal would have no doubts about the fact that Jerry had retired.  Anyway, I always made it clear that when Jerry retired I would retire. I wanted him to retire a long time ago, so I could retire before the age of 40.  He didn’t listen.

CONNECTING THE DOTS … SPAIN

Just to be clear.  I love the idea of retirement.  I just also love the idea of retirement income.  And I always felt the two should go together.  Thankfully, Jerry has the retirement income for us both… and is old enough to collect it.  So, I’ll say it again… with feeling: I’M RETIRED.  (Because Jerry was ready to bean me yesterday when I said yet again that HE was retired and I was simply out of business.)

BUT I’M STILL WORKING
ToldemArt GENUINE ALLIGATOR TIE.
FOR THOSE WHO STILL WORK.

I submitted a story to a writing contest yesterday.  Publication … and a nice cash prize are the rewards.  I added more products to my zazzle.com/toldemart store.  Creating the designs is pure fun for me and I continue to enjoy domestic and international sales — good for my ego (although they don’t cover a utility bill).  So, I guess I’m still qualifying my retirement with the idea that I perhaps can earn a bit here and there.  But, that’s really all simply for fun…

… Until my best-seller gets published and I begin my book tour.  I can’t wait for it to be translated into Spanish so I won’t have to spend as much time on the road. 

Because I am retired.

One Ringy Dingy and Onward to Our Next Adventure

ONE RINGY DINGY AND A GRACIOUS GOOD AFTERNOON.

Let’s not believe in omens.  If we did, then I’d have to say that after nearly 30 years there’s a chink in our marriage!  Well, as far as the USA is concerned… oops… as far as the State of Iowa is concerned, we’ve really been “married” less than 4 months.  (As far as the USA is concerned, we as a couple do not exist… although the times they are a changin’.)  Anyway, remember those indestructible tungsten steel wedding bands we purchased?  The ring I could wear and not dent if I slammed my finger in a car door?  Well, maybe the ring won’t dent.  But, apparently, it will break into pieces.

THIS USED TO BE A SOLID BAND OF TUNGSTEN STEEL

On our way home from Spain, after we had gone through security at Sevilla’s airport, Jerry was putting his ring back on his finger when he dropped it.  It fell a distance of approximately 3 feet from his hand to the marble floor.  As promised, it did not dent.  But it did break.  When Jerry retrieved the ring from the floor, he noticed that a quarter inch sliver had set itself free and shifted up about an eighth inch.  I forgot to take a picture before we went back to the jeweler.  And, when I remembered and pulled out my iPhone for a quick shot, the jeweler apologized.  He had dropped the ring on the counter and a huge piece had popped out.

WORSE AFTER THE JEWELER ACCIDENTALLY DROPPED IT TODAY

Nathan Alan Jewelers in South Coast Plaza could not have been nicer when we took the ring back.  They were as surprised as we were and immediately took down the info to replace the ring.  Not a moment of hesitation.  Great service.  So, let’s hope the next ring lives up to its reputation.  Thing is, though, since people in Spain wear their wedding rings on the right hand, I was thinking maybe we should replace them both with a larger size that fits on the other hand (we did the American left-handed thing).  Well, never mind.

FBI’S LEAST WANTED

We learned that we had some [more] misinformation.  We couldn’t get our FBI letters (the ones that confirmed our lack of criminal records) apostiled in Los Angeles.  So, we overnighted them to Washington, D.C. yesterday and will have them back within 15 days.  Then we’ll overnight them to the translator.  We’ll have them back two days later.  And, then, they’ll be ready for our visa application package.

FIRST NATIONAL BANK
RETIREMENT AND SOCIAL SECURITY

Jerry’s first official day as a retired person was yesterday, March 1.  We drove over to the Mission Viejo Social Security Office to confirm that the letter we need for our visa application will contain the correct information for the consulate.  Success.  We’ll overnight the letter to the translator along with the apostiled FBI letters.  This was our second time at this Social Security office.  They are amazing.  The security guard also acts as the receptionist.  He knows his business; is warm, helpful, and charming; and takes seriously the safety, security, and comfort of staff and clients.  A slightly scary family (I’m being kind… they were loud, course, smelly, and aggressive) was there for about a half hour and he didn’t hesitate to keep them in line.  Aside from the freaky family, it was another great experience.  Huge praise for Mission Viejo’s Social Security Administration office.

AN EXOTIC LUNCH IN IRVINE

To celebrate our successes, we went to lunch today at Red Robin in Irvine/Tustin Marketplace.  We like the food, but we especially love “our” server, Michelle (aka “Nice Michelle”).  She’s not just nice, she’s smart and funny… and more.  We know, no matter our moods when we walk in that door, if we spend our lunch with Michelle, we’ll leave happy.  And we did.  She is filled with joy and loves to share it.  She’s got a birthday coming up this month and we decided we’re going to go to a casino to celebrate.  I’m a bit concerned, however.  It’s obvious she and Jerry have similar gambling styles.  Borderline out of control.  OK, I exaggerate.  But Jerry’s gambling style does give me indigestion.  And given what Michelle said today, I think I’ll take the large bottle of TUMS Ultra when we go on our little spree.

IT’S HEALTHY; NOTE THE BUILT-IN SALAD… AND I DIDN’T EAT THE BUN.

If you’re interested, I had the Royal Red Robin burger.  It’s my favorite.  Burger, fried egg, bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo.  I did without the bun today… because I’m eating healthy.  Unfortunately, I didn’t do without the bottomless basket of fries (and ranch dressing).

Wealthy Viola, a Hotel in Palm Springs, and No Regrets

WEALTHY VIOLA FURBISH LOWELL

I wrote briefly in an earlier post about our short-lived hotel in Palm Springs, one of several adventures we’ve had over the years.  We called our place Viola’s Resort in honor of Jerry’s great-great-grandmother.  Her real name was Wealthy Viola Furbish Lowell, but we decided to stick with Viola (which is what she went by).  Besides, “Wealthy’s Resort” would have been a bit presumptuous for first-time hoteliers and, as it turned out in our case, it also would have been ludicrous.

HOW IT BEGAN

One afternoon in early 2000, standing in the Berkeley BART station, while heading home from our jobs at UC Berkeley — Jerry as university librarian and I as director of University Communications — I said, “I just can’t do this anymore.”

I was completely burnt out.  My job was destroying any mental stability I might have had.  Jerry wasn’t much happier.  His mother had died unexpectedly just a few month’s earlier.  He was tremendously frustrated with Berkeley’s bureaucracy, and he was taking more and more time off.  The cook at our favorite eatery, Tyger’s, in our neighborhood of Glen Park, saw Jerry there so often that he finally walked out of the kitchen and asked him, “Do you actually work for a living?”  Obviously, Jerry’s heart wasn’t in his work.  I didn’t think I could survive mine.

In response to my whine, Jerry, the reorganization expert, suggested we list our options.

THE OPTIONS:
1)  Mitchell finds a corporate job in San Francisco;
2)  Mitchell and Jerry both find corporate jobs in San Francisco;
3)  Mitchell and Jerry quit their jobs, sell the house in San Francisco, move to Palm Springs, and get jobs at Burger King;
4)  Mitchell and Jerry quit their jobs, sell the house in San Francisco, and open a hotel (a fantasy we’d had for years); and
5)  Mitchell and Jerry win the lottery.

I had been tentatively exploring corporate opportunities, but that didn’t excite me and I was so desperate to get out of my current situation that I had pretty much blown an opportunity a few months earlier — and, in my desperation, I couldn’t trust that I wouldn’t just jump into anything that came along (out of the frying pan into the fire); actually, the opportunity I had blown would have been awful, but I couldn’t see that at the time.  Jerry had gone the corporate route early in his career and wasn’t enamored with it.  Winning the lottery was clearly the best outcome, but we couldn’t do much planning for that.  Burger King didn’t sound ideal, but had moved up in the rankings. We were pretty sure option #4, the hotel, was where we were headed.  So Jerry then suggested we list out parameters to determine what was required and what didn’t matter to us (i.e., what could make any decision the right decision or the wrong decision).

UNDER RENOVATION.  PLENTY OF SEATING.  OUT WITH THE OLD.

We decided that if we wanted financial security, we could just keep things the way they were.  We also (fortuitously) decided that if things didn’t work out with a hotel, the worst-case scenario was that we’d go broke and have to start over — and we agreed that was something we could deal with.

THE FRONT GATE AT CHRISTMAS.

Without much discussion, we agreed that Palm Springs, California, was definitely where our hotel should be.  We loved it there.  We loved the desert.  Property was affordable.  And it was a very popular destination.  The fact that it was a popular destination for gay people, as well, had a lot to do with our choice.  We did, however, agree that we did not what to open a place for gay men exclusively.  Our friendships are diverse and, although we loved staying at men’s resorts in Palm Springs and not feeling like a minority for once (the gay part, not the men part), we were very disappointed one Thanksgiving when we decided to go to Palm Springs with two friends (women) and discovered they were not allowed to stay at (or even come on the premises of) the place we loved.  For that trip, we finally found a gay-owned place that grudgingly welcomed women, but the entire process was disappointing to say the least.

READY FOR CHRISTMAS 2001.

So, for our own place, we decided we would open a hotel for gays and lesbians, their families, and their friends.  An LGBT-friendly, children-friendly, family friendly, diversity friendly, bed & breakfast–style hotel.  We did our research and learned we would be the first in the country.  The market was not huge, but the trend in “non-traditional family” business was encouraging.  And, most importantly, it would make us feel good.

OUR CONTINENTAL BREAKFAST: SAFE TO EAT.  I DIDN’T COOK ANYTHING.

We found a two-story ’50s-era motel/apartment complex, and were landlords for a few months before moving everyone out and renovating the property.  The property was right on Palm Canyon Drive, which we thought was a good thing for a family inn — the kids could make all the noise they wanted, restaurants were all around, and we would be easy to find.  We planted only child-friendly gardens (i.e., no cactus with spines, no toxic plants), with the most unusual plants we could find, including chocolate daisies (berlandiera lyrata).  These flowers look like scraggly daisies and smell like chocolate.

CHOCOLATE DAISIES.  FOR THE CHOCOHOLIC WHO HAS EVERYTHING.

We opened with a bang.  We were fully booked the first couple of weekends, first with a family pride board’s annual event, then with lots of individual families.  One such family comprised two women and their brand-new baby daughter (one month old) along with the 92-year-old grandmother of one of the women. We were featured in the premiere issue of “And Baby,” a magazine said to be “redefining modern parenting.” Sadly, “And Baby” didn’t survive the recession any better than Viola’s Resort.

A PAGE FROM THE PREMIERE ISSUE OF “AND BABY” MAGAZINE.

We took pride in what we had accomplished.  But we then quickly discovered that the market for our type of hotel was even smaller than we had anticipated.  No surprise were the single gay people who really didn’t want to be surrounded by a bunch of kids.  We did, however, have many return guests.  Couples and singles without children who loved to be around families; some wanted families of their own someday.  Men with children who loved the idea of being in such an accepting and inclusive environment.  Women with children who felt the same.

MORE POTS AND MORE PLANTINGS WERE ADDED OVER THE NEXT YEAR.

We had our share of “aha” moments.  We discovered that we really weren’t cut out for the B&B business.  We enjoy our free time way too much and when you own a B&B, you don’t get any free time.  It’s a 24/7 career.  Also, we were reminded again that male chauvinism is not just a straight male trait.  For example, we were sad to find that a lot of men with children would only visit if they knew other men with children would be there; some didn’t even want to be there with two-mom families.  Some other unkind things were said at times, but we reassured ourselves that, in addition to a loyal two-mom family clientele, we also had plenty of unbelievably wonderful two-dad families to make up for those less enlightened.  But, timing is a big part of success.  And our timing was dismal.  Seven months after we opened was 9/11/01.  Tourism in Palm Springs dropped 43 percent.  We had only a very tiny percentage of that number to begin with; we were already lagging behind our projections.  With the huge drop in business all over town and all over the country, we just couldn’t carry things.  We converted to a gay men’s hotel to bring in just a little extra cash while we tried to sell (which turned out to be an impossibility in those difficult financial times).  We still hosted some family weekends, but it wasn’t the same.  Even during those trying times, we had some wonderful — and enlightened — male guests.  But having a resort that excluded others just wasn’t our style.

THE SUBARU OUT FRONT WAS A LEMON.  SO, WE PLANTED ORANGES AROUND BACK.

During the brief life of Viola’s Resort, we met some exceptional people. We also had some high-maintenance visitors — like the billionaire’s daughter who actually snapped her fingers when she wanted something.  She traveled with her two children and her personal assistant (and her personal assistant’s young daughter). Given her behavior, I was immediately surprised when I saw that she didn’t find it beneath her to change her own children’s diapers until I discovered that she left the soiled ones wherever she happened to be when she removed them — in the middle of the floor in her bedroom or living room, on the patio, on the stairs.  By her third visit, I had gotten to know her well enough to realize she was probably well-meaning but just completely oblivious.

IF YOU HAVE TO GO BROKE, THIS IS THE WAY TO DO IT.

There was one little girl, around 2-1/2, who was insistent on petting the koi fish.  Her father finally walked over and said, “Honey, if you pet the fish, he’ll throw up.”  She immediately pulled her hand out of the water and walked away.  He saw my puzzled expression and said, “She hates the idea of throwing up and right now it’s the only thing I have to keep her in check.”  He then added, “Yeah, I’m going to be paying for years of therapy.”

“IF YOU PET THE FISH, HE’LL THROW UP.”

So, we lost our shirts.  We added significantly to our stress levels.  But we discovered we could live in only three rooms, work together 24 hours a day, go broke together, and love each other even more after all was all said and done.

Besides, as the saying goes: 

Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.