Over the last few years my favorite meal has slowly changed. It used to be, with absolute certainty, chicken fettuccine Alfredo, garlic bread my Grandma Forbes’s no-bake, cheesecake topped with raspberry sauce, even at Death’s door. The dessert part of this last supper hasn’t changed. I don’t think it ever will.
The best part about Thanksgiving on the old Forbes farm was Bessie Forbes’s cheesecake. It’s a simple thing to make. It starts with a cookie crust. She used Honey Maid graham crackers. I use a mixture of graham and Biscoff crumbs when I make it, but there’s something about the memory of her crust that mine will probably never top. Next is an eight-ounce brick of Philadelphia cream cheese, a can of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk, and 1/3 cup of lemon juice. Here again I tend to deviate from her recipe and I use a mix of lime and lemon juice. To me this is what cooking is all about, embracing old memories and techniques while crafting new ones at the same time.
After you get your non-custard, but custardy base together, you can either pour it into your prepared crust, or add in a cup or so of whipped cream. My mom prefers no extra fluff and Grandma Forbes used Dream Whip. I stick to whipped cream, I even have plans to make this easy cheesecake when I appear on Chopped or some other cooking show in the future.
The cheesecake needs to spend some time in the refrigerator. This is where the no-bake part happens. There’s chemistry at work is essentially curdling. The absence of so much water in the sweetened condensed milk means that the casein proteins in the milk react with the acid to thicken without eggs or heat.
The above paragraph is also one of those little gems I love to learn about when I research food history and chemistry. I love learning why foods do what they do because of human desire and interaction, or just because of the process of nature. This is the magic I have come to know, and it has taken many years of study.
I truly believe in Stephen King’s aphorism that one must “read a lot and write a lot” in order to become a better writer. There is no way to avoid this. Even the greats read and wrote many words that never saw the light. Many of those words were also excised with the editing pen (many superfluous words were excised from this blog post as well). These are the magic wands and words. “Get busy reading or get busy writing,” as I’ve begun to tell my self.
The same holds true with cooking, and overcoming extreme picky eating.
Yes, I am a picky eater. It used to be really bad. I can remember refusing to eat baked potatoes as a kid. Nowadays however, when cooked perfectly, there is nothing like piercing the papery brown skin of a russet with just a fork and fighting with the emerging steam to reveal the fluffy starch inside. I even just like them with a pat of butter, salt, pepper, and a dollop of sour cream (yet another foodstuff I used to shun because I didn’t like the tanginess). But you have to remember to close the open potato again so that the butter and sour cream melt into the flesh before too much heat escapes.
Next, and this may sound strange coming from a “red blooded American,” but I used to not be such a big fan of steak. That is until I discovered the two magic words: “medium rare.” The juice is the best part of a piece of meat and until I first asked for my steak to be cooked a less than the family standard of above medium, I was quite unaware of this fact. Now a thick ribeye, with plenty of marbling, is the third component of my favorite meal.
One of my favorite ways to season a steak is to get some Montreal Steak Seasoning and add ancho chili powder in a 4:1 ratio. I call this my “stupid easy steak seasoning.” Another favorite seasoning, for lesser cuts like sirloin or flatiron, I use a wet marinade made of soy sauce, brown sugar, and crushed garlic. Also, if you’re cooking your meat at home, be sure to take it out about an hour before introducing your beef to some heat. This helps to keep the meat tender because refrigerator cold meeting extreme heat tends to cause steaks or burgers to seize.
The final miracle is this: sometime around the age of five I developed an aversion to about 90% of foodstuffs that come from the ground. According to my parents practically overnight I stopped eating things like beans, carrots, celery, and all forms of lettuces. Until recently I would gag anytime I tried to eat a salad. I still tried over the years, especially post high school, to keep trying salad, but I could never make it past a bite or two. Then on a trip to West Wendover, Nevada with my grandmother, her sister, her two daughters, and a cousin we decided to eat at the nice Italian restaurant called Romanza.
For dinner I ordered my standby of chicken alfredo and a cocktail called an Italian Wedding Cake (amaretto is just lovely, isn’t it?). Everyone but me at the table asked for the Caesar salad. I had probably initially asked for the soup, but for some reason I decided to tell the waitress that I wanted give the Caesar a try. Why not? I was pretty sure I had never tried Caesar dressing before. About this time I was about five years into my culinary self-education and I had seen or read that Caesar dressing was made up of one of the “eww-ist” of ingredients—anchovies. But I was feeling daring in the wake of the gambling atmosphere of the town.
The waitress brought out the big wooden bowl started to assemble our salad tableside. I watched closely as the pale yellow dressing met the emerald and jade green leaves. She sprinkled the grated Parmesan cheese over the bowl as though it were snow. I mean snow cheese, what could be better? Then croutons, previously the only salad ingredient I liked aside from black olives. And then the tempo of this the symphony sped up as she tossed the ingredients together into a crescendo of edible music. I could swear I was literally enchanted by all of these ingredients coming together for the first time in my memory. This is the closest I have ever come to having a synesthetic moment. Synesthesia is a condition some people have there they see music or hear color. Upon reflection I swear I could not only hear and taste and see the salad, but I was sure that many of these senses had been transposed and exchanged. Magic, evolution, experience, whatever you want to call it, after that meal I started experimenting more with salads. And now I can’t imagine my favorite meal without a Caesar.
There is something refreshing when one enjoys a crunchy and crisp salad with a tangy dressing, right before the richness of a medium rare steak and a creamy butter baked potato. Followed by a slice of no-bake cheesecake with raspberry sauce, made up of it’s own science and magic, is a meal made up of the evolution of my palate.
When the raw is transformed it reignites memory, and this is why I study food in fiction. Human memory can be found in any text, and the deepest memories any of us have are usually of food. Food can be sustenance and the building blocks of civilization, but it is also a symbol of love and our connection to both the Earth and one another. A meal is just another magical form of communication.
Featured image taken by Ginger Lee Thomason in 2017 on iPhone 6. Salad, steak, and baked potato images are stock and the cheesecake martini glasses were taken by Ginger Lee Thomason on iPhone 4.
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