Why I Cling to Paper Recipes

My folder of ancient recipes, most of them never made.

My folder of ancient recipes, most of them never made.

Nearly any recipe you can cook can be found online. Epicurious, Allrecipes, the Food Network, the New York Times food section…all offer instant gratification and full-color photos and videos for the impatient or impetuous cook. Even obscure recipes from my childhood – such as a recipe for German apple cake made with bread crumbs — can be retrieved with a few well-chosen keywords.

Yet I cling to a long row of recipe books, at least half of them never used. I also have a 30-year-old accordion file filled with yellowing, aging scraps of paper, scribbled with cooking instructions for dishes I’ve never made from people I haven’t seen or heard from in decades. The alphabetized file (do they even sell them any more?) is covered with remnants of wallpaper from the kitchen of my first townhouse, back when ridiculous geese, gray/blue florals and “welcome friends” signs were all the rage.

With few exceptions the books are pristine. Some were gifts from friends. I made appreciative murmurs when they were bestowed and looked through them with good intentions, promising, “I’ll definitely use this a LOT!” Then I put them on the kitchen bookshelf and forgot about them. Their unblemished and uncracked spines stare back at me from the shelf, like the “40-year-old virgin’s” collection of never-played-with action figures. They make me worry that I’m too inhibited a chef. They make me feel lazy because for the past decade I’ve shunned any recipe that ends with the words “serve immediately.” But I keep the books because my friends gave them to me and I feel ungrateful parting with them.

My library of cookbooks, some of them still virgins.

My library of cookbooks, some of them still virgins.

Other cookbooks on the shelf have been used time and time again, but only for a handful of recipes. With apologies to Julie of “Julie and Julia,” I find the challenge of trying every recipe pointless and daunting. Unlike a more organized friend who cooks, I’ve resisted the urge to keep the most-frequently-used recipes in one binder, with each recipe entombed behind protective plastic. That would mean the rest of the cherry-picked books would indeed be useless, strengthening the case for getting rid of them.

“Joy of Cooking” (the 19th printing, from 1980) is a good reference for technique, but it’s like visiting a time capsule from the first half of the 20th century, with recipes like chicken a la king. “Cooking Essentials for the New Professional Chef,” a book son Ryan gave me from a class he took in college, will tell you all you need to know about mis en place, boning a rabbit, or making eight professional-quality apple pies at a time.   The thick tome by Jacques Pepin, heavy enough to flatten a chicken, was from a class at Sur La Table entitled “Cooking with Jacques Pepin,” which I took with son Jesse. I’ve used exactly two recipes from that book, but looking at it reminds me of how we laughed at the fine print that accompanied the promo for that class: “Jacques Pepin will not be in attendance.”

If cookbooks are the kitchen’s reference library, my old recipe folder is the rare documents room in the museum of my personal history. Inside it can be found recipes in my dad’s handwriting or from his old Okidata dot-matrix printer, on perforated paper that once included holes along the edges. While he’s been gone for 17 years, seeing those old recipes in his handwriting brings him back to me. I can almost smell the steam from the pizzelli iron, as I talked with Dad and timed each pizzelli with a Hail Mary.

Other filed recipes recall old coworkers from 30 years ago, including the recipes on large post cards that were part of a bridal shower they gave me for my first marriage. One, for chicken and rice casserole, has been used many dozens of times, and when I see the handwriting of the woman who gave it to me – a fragile, lonely person who had affairs with two married men at the office – I hope that she has become stronger over time. Filed under “C,” the ripped-out pages from a 1989 Good Housekeeping Christmas issue hold my most treasured cookie recipe. That recipe only takes up one page but for some reason I’ve saved the entire article, including the recipe for “Barbara Bush’s Ginger Cookies.” I was a young mother of 35 back then, busier but still driven to make lots of Christmas cookies – unlike today.

So for me recipes on paper are not only instructions, but tangible relics of the past – the friends I’ve lost touch with, my aunts’ cheerful kitchens, the occasions when the recipes were first tasted, the girl or woman I was back then. The most beloved ones are also the most stained and careworn, like a soft old sweatshirt with frayed sleeves. Epicurious will always have its place, but an iPad screen is no substitute for a book that can be perused on a rainy day, opened up on a countertop or stained by an errant splash of gravy; or a handwritten recipe that still bears the DNA of a loved one who is long gone.

Excuse Me While I Wine a Bit

I gave up wine more than a month ago, just before all those great studies that announced how great it is for you and how you should have at least a glass a day for optimum health. Red wine is just part of the alchemy – along with fruits, veggies, olive oil and fish – that is part of the Mediterranean diet. A glass each day promises to make you as sturdy, robust and long-lived as a Greek goatherd.

So why would I give it up? The reason is simple: it doesn’t do for me what it is supposed to. For starters, once a bottle is open it is very difficult to stick to just one glass like the Mediterranean diet recommends. The liquid left in the bottle beckons. My Italian grandfathers could drink anyone under the table and heartily indulged in heavily fortified homemade wine from unmarked bottles. The Velazquez painting here shows what I feel like after more than one glass.
Wine also toys cruelly with my sleeping patterns, making me sleepy enough to zonk out on the couch during Law and Order-SVU, then waking me at 2 a.m. It toys with my judgment…after a glass or two I feel invincible enough to attack the junk food cabinet, convinced that nothing I consume will matter and that my body will take pity on me since I am too buzzed to be responsible for myself. After a few weeks of daily wine drinking I feel like these gals.
Peter-Paul-Rubens-xx-The Three Graces-xx-Prado

Finally, wine toys with my moods, making me feel as sunny as the Sardinian coast, then stupid as a tottering mountain goat, and finally – after a few days – like this:
Van der Weyden_high
For all of the above reasons – plus the fact that my husband decided to go on a diet six weeks ago – I gave up my daily ritual of pouring a glass of wine (or more) just before dinner. Now I brew tea. It’s not the same. For Twilight fans, it’s the equivalent of the Cullen family preying on animals instead of humans. Or for carnivores, giving up animals for vegetables.

Tea is pinched and disciplined; wine is florid and impulsive. Tea is Downton Abbey’s dowager countess; wine is a young Sophia Loren in a peasant dress. The ritual of setting on the kettle and listening for the whistle is pleasant and relaxing, but can’t compare to uncorking a bottle of Viognier or Brunello. The Zen of Celestial Seasonings will never replace memories of wild nights spent with Robert Mondavi. Going without wine – especially when it’s one of the few vices that has been touted as so good for you – feels like missing the bus that took all your friends somewhere fun. Yet my moods are better and I think more clearly if it’s just an occasional treat rather than a lifestyle, and my husband feels the same.

So now I save wine for special occasions. Those include restaurant meals, dinner at a friend’s or relative’s house, dinners when friends and relatives come to our house, holidays like Christmas and Easter — and what the hell — the ramp-up days before and denouements after, Groundhog Day, Arbor Day, Martin Van Buren’s birthday, etc., etc.

Have any of you had to give up wine? How did it make you feel?

A Bad Case of Tomato Envy

These are not my tomatoes. They are from a more diligent gardener friend.

My friends’ Facebook pages are filling up with proud photos of their tomato crops. They are wondering how they will make use of this embarrassment of riches, the crown jewels from their gardens. I’m sure that many of them are in full canning mode.

But, having just picked my third tomato of the season, and with my two tomato plants filled with smallish green orbs nowhere near ripening, I have a severe case of tomato envy. This was supposed to be the year when I moved from lightweight herb-grower to full-blown earth mother. In late May my son and I planted seedling tomato plants, four green bean plants that we had been given for free, a pepper plant, lettuce and herbs. I envisioned hot summer nights filled with fragrant tomato and basil salads; homegrown lettuce dressed with olive oil and lemon, and the satisfaction of being a true locavore.

Moreover, planting a garden was a way to honor my roots. It continued a tradition begun by my

These are not my tomatoes either.

grandfather, father and uncles. My grandfather’s garden, heavy on tomatoes, took up most of his small suburban backyard. His stone basement included a “cantina,” a cool closet where he and my grandmother stored canned tomatoes and sauces. Uncle John’s garden was truly self-sustaining, filled with tomatoes he grew from the seeds of last year’s tomatoes. His crop kept him and Aunt Betty supplied with tomato sauce through the long Pennsylvania winters.

My dad, once he retired, took up the family tradition and began cultivating part of our back yard. He studied different types of tomatoes and experimented to find out which ones grew sturdily and tasted the best. He could go on for hours discussing the growing habits, seed cavities and tastes of Big Boy, Big Girl, Better Boy, Early Girl and other Burpee varieties. Standing at his garden with his Miracle Gro feeder was a Zen-like experience for Dad. Often, when I came home from work, I could tell my dad had visited when I’d see a basket of beautiful tomatoes on the kitchen counter.

So this year’s planting effort was in part a way to honor my roots, as well as do our part for the planet by creating food that needed little more than foot power to bring it to our plates. We selected two kinds of tomato plants at the local garden center so we could compare how they matured and tasted, and nurtured them with fertile compost. We watched with pride as our lettuce seedlings sprouted (we sowed Burpee’s “salad bowl mix”), and John thinned out the seedlings so they would have a chance to grow. We watched our green bean plants climb up the trellis. We celebrated each new flower on the tomato plants like first-time parents viewing an ultrasound image.

Then one morning, to our horror, we went outside with the watering can and found only pathetic nubs where the lettuce seedlings used to be. Nearby, our firstborn tomato had vanished, carried off in the night by God knows what.

My friend Jane had warned me that this might happen. She had a woodchuck that had terrorized her garden for years, eluding even the craftiest of traps. It could be that the same varmint crossed the street to do takeout at our place.

Then came the July heat wave, when even daily watering was fruitless. Literally. The blossoms on our tomato plants withered away and never turned into orbs. Except for one cluster that included the tomato that the woodchuck or one of his fellow terrorists carried away.

And, to be honest, as the summer wore on and I got busy, I did not fuss over my garden like I did in the beginning. This is an ongoing problem; too many times I start something all gung-ho and then get forgetful, discouraged and/or  bored. I’ll try to remind myself of this when the Burpee Seed catalog arrives next January, filled with impossibly perfect specimens that can never be replicated without a food stylist.

Here is one of my plants. I just picked the red one. The green ones seem to be in a holding pattern.

So now while more diligent gardener friends are enjoying their bounty, I am picking one tomato at a time, and hoping all the green ones turn red before the frost. But each tomato has been worth the wait, sweet and earthy at the same time, and we are still closer to being locavores than we once were.

Farewell to the Bagel Man

Great bagels are a transcendent experience.

Murray Lender, who brought bagels to the masses and made Lender’s Bagels into a national brand, died this week. What better time to reflect upon all the great Bagels We Have Known?

Murray Lender once presided over a ceremony featuring the World's Biggest Bagel. He would turn bagels into a food juggernaut by introducing it beyond the Jewish community.

Without Lender, we’d still be eating toast every morning. It was Lender who turned bagels from a strictly Jewish food enjoyed with lox into a breakfast staple — enjoyed by many millions of people of all ethnicities. He did this by freezing many of the bagels sold fresh at his dad’s New Haven bagel bakery and selling them at supermarkets. Lenders Bagels would eventually go national and introduce the treat to Gentiles everywhere. Without Lender there would be no Brueggers, Einstein’s Bagels, Manhattan Bagels, Finagle a Bagel and other national chains.

Those of us in midlife can surely remember those primitive years before the Great Bagel Awakening, when bagels were a rare specialty. When I was growing up in the 1960s, my mom would travel about 25 minutes from our home to the only bagel place we knew, Original Bagel, along City Line Avenue near Philadelphia. Fortunately, another bagel store opened in the 70s at the Bazaar of All Nations, a rundown department store about five minutes from us. A bag of piping hot bagels became the ultimate way to start to the morning.

In college at Penn State, a large bunch of us at the student newspaper staff enjoyed a bagel party one night after somebody brought back a hoard after a visit to a big city. Back then, in the days before digital photography, we had a photo dryer in the darkroom, which was perfect for toasting the bagels en masse. The newspaper staff’s late-night bagel feast, washed down by copious amounts of beer, inspired me to write a poem on the spot. Fortunately for you I can’t remember all of that beer-emboldened “Ode To A Bagel,” but it began this way: “O donut-shaped morsel, so tasty and chewy…without thee, what have we to see the night through-y?”

As a working girl in downtown Philadelphia, one of my favorite haunts was Bagel Nosh, located on Chestnut Street. That was the first time I had a bagel sandwich…my favorite was chicken salad and muenster cheese on a half-and-half bagel. Still, that was in the late 70s and bagels were by no means everywhere.

But as more people discovered bagels, the bagel chains would ultimately help spread what Lender began. Even after the food took off, Lender remained a cheerful evangelist for bagels for decades. He cashed out of his business in 1984 with a $90 million sale of Lenders Bagels to Kraft, but never stopped beating the drum for his products.

“I never met anyone who didn’t like bagels,” he said once.

I wonder what Lender thought of all the ways his signature product has been interpreted recently. Until bagels became a widespread commodity, one could buy them in only a few flavors: plain, poppy or sesame seed, onion, and sometimes cinnamon raisin.

Today it seems that the bagel has become any food that’s donut-shaped but not a donut. Even MacDonald’s sells them, although they are little more than Wonder Bread with a hole. Over time, Lenders’ many imitators would introduce abominations such as blueberry bagels, asiago cheese bagels and green bagels (for St. Patty’s Day). Perhaps these fusion bagels are an attempt to appeal to other ethnicities (Brueggers makes a wonderful rosemary and olive oil bagel, but is it really a bagel?) One can also buy salt bagels. Why not just twist the dough a few more times and call it a pretzel?

Brueggers even makes a square bagel. And our relatives on Long Island introduced us to “flagels,” which are flattened bagels. They are delicious but look like something that the Beverly Hillbillies would pick up from the road with a pitchfork.

Of course, bagels have joined the pantheon of bad foods for people who are eschewing carbs. My in-laws in California love going to a nearby bagel place, called I Love Bagels, and buying a hollowed-out bagel stuffed with chicken salad or another topping. I’ve tried it and liked it, but can’t help wondering: What’s the point?

A real traditional bagel, enjoyed in its full splendor, is a glorious experience…just the right resistance on its crust and the right density inside. Not soft like Wonder Bread, or hard like the “Jewish jawbreakers” that critics once called the early versions of bagels. A veteran bagelmaker once told the New York Times that “a real bagel fights with you.”

So in honor of Murray Lender, this weekend we are going down to our local family-run bagel joint, which owes Murray a debt because he made the bagel beloved everywhere. We will buy a bag of bagels, find some that are still warm from the oven, and eat them in the car.

Please comment about the bagels in your own lives!

Mugs Full of Memories

Our favorite mugs. My go-to mug is the second from the left.

The inside of my favorite mug is not pretty and it's probably leaching lead into my brain.

One of my oldest and dearest friends is still pretty on the outside but dangerously cracked inside.  I’m wondering whether I should end the relationship but keep putting the thought out of my mind.

I’ve had this flowered coffee mug for at least two decades now.   I look inside it and see a spidery network of tiny cracks, resembling a parched riverbed after several seasons of drought.   No doubt the mug is leaching lead into my morning brew every day, and caffeine is pumping it efficiently into my brain.  But the cascade of coffee quickly hides the cracks and then I forget about the dangers.

Can’t remember who gave it to me.  It was not part of a set, but something passed on to me, once used by someone else. The mug and I bonded instantly.  I reached for it day after day and packaged it carefully when I moved to New England 14 years ago. Sometimes, even when bleary-eyed at 5:45 a.m.,  I bypass other clean mugs and wash this one because somehow the coffee tastes better in it.  This thick stoneware vessel is the perfect shape for holding coffee – with its wide and stable bottom, tapering top and sturdy handle.

Moreover, it has the name “Julia” inscribed in the bottom.  It’s probably the name of a series of dishes from Stonecrest, the company that made it.  Maybe it was the name of the dishware designer’s wife or daughter.  But Julia is also the name of my beloved sister, who lives five hours away.  So this mug is the next best thing to having her with me each morning for sharing secrets and gossip, skewering politicians and waxing poetic over food.

While sister Julia still looks gorgeous at midlife, Julia the mug is starting to show its age.  The handle has a hairline crack and another, wedge-shaped crack.   It is only one fall away from being shattered and useless.

Fortunately we have other mugs that we love.  Only a few of our mugs match and we like it that way.  Along with savoring our coffee we can savor the memories that each mug evokes.  Our mugs are a ragtag and faded lineup but we proudly use them when serving guests.  I  never understood matching sets of mugs.

My husband’s Penn State mug, which I gave him several years ago, is his favorite.  It’s big and blue and manly, and drinking from it feels like having Franco Harris deliver your coffee.  I never drink from it when Bob is home, but sometimes if he’s away on business I use that mug and it helps me feel like he is across the table from me.  Another mug, which is now 15 years old, has the peeling image of the Maryland Science Center on its face.  It’s a souvenir from a very special time at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with son Ryan, who is nearly 24 now.  The James Madison University mug was a gift from daughter Rachel eight years ago when she was a freshman there; the mug from California’s Diederich Coffee was a gift from Ben, 25; a newer mug features artwork from John, 13.   A much bigger mug – a gift from Bob and John for Mother’s Day – is exclusively for tea.

But Julia, my favorite…I can’t even remember how she came to me!  I vaguely remember another mug from the same manufacturer, perhaps a cousin, that looked somewhat like Julia but with straight sides.  The cousin broke a few years after I acquired it but it was never a real favorite anyway.  As long as she lasts, I’ll enjoy coffee every morning with Julia – the friend who asks for nothing but is always there for me.  When she shatters – and I know it will happen some day – I will mourn.

What’s your favorite mug? What makes it so special?  Please share your thoughts, and pix!

For Presidents Day, a Jubilee of Cherries

I cannot tell a lie...this is the best pie ever, for President's Day or any time.

For decades, my Aunt Rita gave my dad a totally-made-from-scratch cherry pie every Washington’s birthday/Presidents Day.

Her pies had that classic, homemade character, without that machine-made look you get even in a decent bakery pie.  The lattice was pleasing but not precise; the thick crust around the rim bore her knuckle’s imprint; a crescent of cooked, dark red filling usually oozed over part of the edge and congealed.  We always hated to disturb the pie’s homespun beauty by cutting into it, but that fleeting thought usually lasted just a few seconds.

A culinary Olympian, Aunt Rita used only canned sour cherries, sugar, cornstarch and almond extract in her filling. The filling was sweet but not overly so. This commitment to making the filling from scratch never wavered, even when the supermarkets began offering jars of ready-made fillings — those cloyingly sweet, impossibly red mixtures with a few dozen cherries floating around like shipwreck victims awaiting rescue.

Rita’s crust was also homemade, and she always nailed that finicky balance of flour and shortening.  The crust was latticed on top, flaky but with a small core of chewiness under the thick rim.  That soft part under the thick circumference was my favorite part, especially when some pie filling stuck to it. I’d dip that thick crust in whatever filling remained, like using Italian bread to mop up those last drops of sauce.

While Aunt Rita was a purist in the old days, over the years she became more practical.  Partly in response to the jaw-dropping price for a can of sour cherries, she has tweaked her traditional recipe.  Now her filling is a happy mix of two cans of sour cherries — cooked with sugar, cornstarch and almond extract — and a jar or can of the pre-made cherry pie filling.  Can’t say it takes any less time, and making one of these will still set you back at least $12, but it is chock-full of cherries, sweet but not too sweet, and beats those store-bought pies anytime.  And while you can substitute your favorite homemade pie crust for this, I am happy to report that even Aunt Rita, who is now 90, has given that up for a good ready-made crust.   But after making my own (see photo here) with a Pillsbury ready-made crust, I suggest going for the full Monty and making your own…it does taste better.

So this President’s Day, bake up this pie for your first family, or for a cabinet of your dearest friends.

Cherry Pie

2 cans tart cherries, drained (save the juice)

1 jar (21-23 oz.) prepared cherry pie filling

1 cup cherry juice (from the canned cherries)

1 cup sugar

¼ cup corn starch

6 drops red food coloring

4 drops almond extract

2 prepared unbaked pie crusts (your own recipe or ready made)

1 T butter, unsalted

Milk, for brushing the crust (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Mix sugar and cornstarch.  Put in saucepan along with 1 cup cherry juice; and stir well and cook over medium heat until thick and clear.  Add red food coloring and almond extract and stir.  Let cool, then combine with tart cherries and prepared cherry pie filling.  Line a 9-inch glass pie pan with one of the prepared unbaked pie crusts, and pour in cherry mixture.  Dot with butter and make a lattice from the second crust (Weave the lattice on a piece of wax paper, then invert onto top of pie and peel away the paper.)  Crimp edges with your knuckles.  Brush top crust with milk if desired.  Bake 50 minutes to an hour, checking frequently, until golden brown.  Cover the perimeter with a strip of foil if the crust begins to brown too much.

Makes 8 servings.

Confessions of a turkey underachiever

Why does this ideal elude me?

Next Thursday, four of us will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at a local country inn. I can’t tell you how relieved I am.

Despite a general confidence in the kitchen, roasted turkey has been my stumbling block, year after overcooked year. I’ve tried everything: buying $70 organic turkeys, pickling it beforehand in brine, slathering it in butter and cheesecloth, draping it in tinfoil, cooking it at high temperatures a la Alton Brown, cooking it low and slow, cooking it upside down, cooking it sideways, asphyxiating it in a plastic bag, praying over it.

The result is the same: dry breast meat and rubbery, red-tinged thigh meat.

Is it my oven? Is it the fact that I only roast a turkey once a year and never get the chance to really hone my skills – like some people have to re-learn to ski every year because they go only once? Or is it because deep down inside I can take or leave turkey and have no desire to become accomplished at cooking it?

I’ve stopped torturing myself and just faced the truth: I’m bad at turkeys. And it’s very freeing to punt when called upon to produce one.

As I did a few weeks ago, when we had a wonderful, traditional Thanksgiving dinner for Bob’s folks, our kids and their guests, Bob’s brother Tom, cousin Joe and nephew Harper. It was a great family feast, complete with stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted squash, two cranberry dishes, green beans amandine, sautéed greens, fresh apple crisp…and a juicy turkey that somebody else made.

About 10 minutes from our house, in Holliston, Mass., is a wonderful turkey farm called Out Post. For a very handsome fee they’ll slaughter one of their turkeys and stuff and roast it for you just in time for your event. Bob, Joe and I picked up the bird, still steaming hot, beautifully golden and fully stuffed, about 45 minutes before dinner. Best money we ever spent. Unfortunately the only day they won’t cook your turkey is Thanksgiving. So in the days beforehand people wait in line at Out Post, freezing their butts off as they wait to pick up their pre-ordered fresh turkeys to cook at home.

The Boston Globe did a great story last year in which they asked local chefs – who cook for the restaurant crowds on Thanksgiving – for their secrets of getting a moist, flavorful bird. Their answer was pretty grisly. Forget that Norman Rockwell ideal of a big honkin’ whole turkey in the middle of a table full of beaming relatives. Instead, hack up the turkey’s torso and limbs, sauté in a huge pan, then put them in the roasting pan with some wine and aromatics and cook gently til fork tender. Keep some broth handy to pour over the slices if they dry out.

Does anybody else have a hard time with this? Don’t we need that iconic whole turkey as the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving table? This seems almost sacrilegious, almost as bad as not having stuffing.

I asked my mom, who is visiting us, about whether she’d mind going out instead of doing the traditional thing. She was thrilled…and she confessed that she might order fish or prime rib instead of the turkey.

The good cook’s curse

I admit first of all that I come from a family of culinary Olympians. My earliest memories entered my temporal lobes via the nose: my mom’s fragrant Sunday gravy cooking over the stove for hours; the fragrance of garlic sautéing in olive oil on meatless Fridays; the anise-scented biscotti that my Aunt Rita made, Aunt Chickie’s stuffed cabbages; Aunt Anna’s ricotta cheesecakes; Aunt Theresa’s pizza. All were crafted from scratch, sometimes requiring a day of effort, often with the help of a cheerful coterie of aproned aunts.

Thanksgiving dinner at my grandmom’s house was like an Olympic opening ceremony, with wave after wave of outstanding specimens. The salad, pasta with meatballs, the turkey itself with all the trimmings, the desserts that my aunts brought in. Even the simplest food was prepared with great brio and great love, and served in lavish amounts, one gold medal winner after another.

Bad cooking — involving something that came out of dented Ragu cans, an envelope of Spatini or a box with that awful Kraft logo — was something that non-Italians did. We Italians did things the right way, the way we learned from our mothers, with no shortcuts. Any event where the food was stingy or halfhearted was a flop, something to be whispered about afterwards. We avoided most dinners at Protestant churches for this reason.

As I grew older, and learned the basics of mixing meatballs and cooking pizzelli from my mom, I learned that cooking well is not only a way to show love; it also attracts admiration and attention, and puts people in your debt: neighbors, coworkers, boyfriends. This sounds very screwed up but it’s the truth. Anyone who is the least bit insecure can relate.

Yet, while I crave the attention that comes from the results, cooking for me has always been a solitary sport. While the meal is the performance, the actual process of cooking is both grueling and all-consuming, like practicing for hours at the barre before a ballet. I can be in the kitchen for most of the day and lose total track of the time. It is a way for me to lose myself, to tune out the world by disappearing into something all-consuming. That’s why I never answer yes when an anxious guest asks if I need any help, even though we’d probably all enjoy one another more if the meal were a group effort.

So even during my busiest times as a working woman, I always considered skillful cooking as a duty and a pleasure that could not be sacrificed. For my daughter Rachel’s third birthday, when I was heavily pregnant with son Ryan, we spent the day in Philadelphia visiting the old Please Touch Museum, but I still found time to make her a homemade cake in the shape of a train, replete with Oreo wheels, pretzel logs for the flatcar’s cargo, and a boxcar filled with M & Ms. When I coordinated one office Christmas party, I had it catered but still cooked for eight hours. When anybody visits us, whether it’s family or strangers, I feel like it’s a command performance in the kitchen. The command doesn’t come from my family and friends – who probably wish I would just relax — but internally.

But lately I have found myself envying people who’ve let it all go; who can spend the morning before a dinner party cross-country skiing, hiking with their families or reading a good book, or can just transfer some salad from a bag to a bowl and hand their spouse the hamburgers to barbecue for guests. Who can share the same kitchen with a box that has “Kraft” on it. Or who can – as one acquaintance, a well-heeled mother of eight – tell a hungry child at dinner to “just microwave a baked potato.”

Good cooking can be both pleasure and compulsion. It’s a hobby that borders on extreme sport. It’s so absorbing that I not only forget myself, but I also tune out everybody else.

A beautifully cooked meal from scratch is a gift, but nowadays it’s an impractical one. Many times Bob has suggested that we “just have a salad” for dinner but I never act on it. My in-laws, when they visit, beg me “not to fuss too much” but I can’t.

Lately, as I move through middle age and with only Bob and John and I left at home, I am trying to be more relaxed in the kitchen. I’ve given myself permission to top Price Chopper pasta with a jar of Barilla vodka sauce (with some fresh basil sprinkled over it all.) We’ve been making Kraft macaroni and cheese more often; Stouffers if people under 13 from outside the family are dining with us. We’ve discovered the wonders of frozen corn dogs and meals from a Trader Joe’s sack tossed into a hot skillet. Sometimes we even have sandwiches for dinner.

Somewhere in heaven my grandmother is thinking about staging an intervention.

Verbal toupees for “older” people

Can anyone suggest some good euphemisms for “elderly” or “older” that don’t sound like euphemisms?

A verbal toupee to cover up our embarrassment with becoming old, or describing someone who’s old? So many adjectives have been designated only for use with older people. If they were products, you’d most likely find them in the back pages of AARP Magazine, next to the stair lifts and vacuum pumps for erectile dysfunction.

Is the word “vigorous” ever been used to describe a baby? Is “youthful” ever used next to anybody else other than an older woman or an indiscretion? Will a “cougar” ever be a spotted animal again?

I especially hate “spry.” It’s never used to describe a younger adult; only somebody who’s old. When I read the word “spry,” it infers “they are in surprisingly good shape when everybody expects them to be decrepid” or “they can get around without a walker…isn’t that amazing?” You never hear that word “spry” used to describe a 20-year-old track star.

Until a few years ago Spry was a solid vegetable shortening…a competitor to Crisco. If I remember that, then I guess I am old enough to be spry!!!!

Please feel free to share your own favorite (or most dreadful) euphemisms for those of us in midlife and beyond.

The most glamorous mother-in-law

Lois, my mother-in-law, turns 79 today and I Don’t Know How She Does It.

She still walks five miles a day; has thick and gorgeous auburn hair and wears a size four. She is almost Nancy Reaganesque in her petite glamour — only far more liberal, earthier and Jewish.

On the occasion of her birthday I looked through some old photos of Lois and she always looked younger than her age. A 30-year-old photo of her with my stepdaughter – her first grandchild — shows a radiantly smiling blonde whose skin even looked dewy. She was pushing 50 then and still looked like she was in her late 20s.

“Who’s your plastic surgeon?” asked one of her friends not too long ago.

No plastic surgeon here; just lots of discipline, great genes and most importantly, a determination to celebrate every day.

When she learned she was diabetic a few years ago, Lois gave up white bread and desserts and shaved even more weight off her already-petite frame. Now she weighs about what she did when she was a harried young mom with four rambunctious boys.

She’s a great walking partner (when I can keep up with her) who shares gossip and stories nonstop as we briskly clock the miles, turning a workout into a girls’ night out at a Nancy Meyers movie. She talks about people I’ll never meet but somehow I’m enthralled.

She also has boundless energy and is one of those people who constantly has to be doing something. Even when she is watching television her knitting needles are clicking furiously, creating the latest of dozens of afghans she has made for people she loves. Sometimes when I watch her I feel so tired that I have to lie down. Maybe I’m eating too many carbs.

When she took my 29-year-old stepson to Europe a few years ago, some of his friends assumed he was accompanying his doddering grandma on the trip.

“I’ll be lucky if I can keep up with her,” was Jesse’s response. And he was right. She matched him step by step around the Swiss Alps and Barcelona.

She loves so much to organize and re-organize things, in her own home and wherever she visits. Even her refrigerator shelves look like a display in a Michael Kors boutique, while mine look and smell like a crypt.

I’ve learned to relax and enjoy her efforts to organize me. In fact, I have now outsourced this job completely to her.

“Lois, I’m saving some closets just for you!” I tell her before she visits, and I can sense her gleeful anticipation over the phone.

Lois’s own closets are bursting with élan. I have never seen her wear sweats, except for our walks. Soon after we’ve arrived home, sweaty and dusty, she is showered and tastefully coifed and made up, wearing a pair of curvy jeans and turquoise jewelry.

And I guess what’s most inspiring about Lois is her loyalty and protectiveness of the people she loves. She can be headstrong and opinionated, and isn’t afraid to go to bat against anybody, whether it’s her husband’s oncologists or the host at the El Torito restaurant, who wouldn’t give us the table we wanted by the window. My father-in-law, who battled cancer more than a decade ago, is alive because she was a pit bull with the doctors. She knew his charts even better than they did, and never hesitated to point out things they might have overlooked.

So happy birthday to a woman who’s a great role model in how to age gracefully!