Let me be unequivocal here: I hate my clay pot.
I bring this up because of the front page article in the LA Times Food section on October 28, 2009 entitled “Clay Pot Alchemy” in which Paula Wolfert, the cookbook author, seen smiling broadly in front of her multitudinous collection, announces she’s ‘never met a clay pot she didn’t like.’
Allow me to introduce her to mine. Such is my disdain for this thing that it lives in the very back of the very top shelf of our utility closet, reachable only by standing on the top rung of the step ladder, moving 8 bags of Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta, a dozen 28 oz. cans of San Marzano tomatoes, 4 giant bottles of Dijon and several extra large boxes of Q Tips which we bought at Costco more than 3 years ago and I am not even slightly exaggerating when I say we could have Q Tips for life. Only then will you find my clay pot, wedged in the corner like some dunce who was sent there for getting the answer entirely wrong.
Because entirely wrong is what Clay Pot cooking is to me. The roast chicken from the little recipe booklet included with purchase was not “moist and browned” as promised but wet and wan. And the red peppers? The Zucchini? Those tomatoes? Limp. Limper. Limpest. I would have donated my clay pot to the National Jewish Women’s Council Thrift Shop where once a year I haul outsized, green lawn and leaf bags full of unworn clothes, or left it out in our alley where, no matter what you leave on top of those garbage bins magically disappears by the next morning, were it not for that one time.
My mother had a way of inventing traditions. “It’s Lizzie’s birthday!” she’d proclaim periodically and everyone in the family would don a party hat and sing happy birthday to one of our English Springer Spaniels. The announcement of the dog’s birth and subsequent celebration of it could occur at any time – on April 5, say, or December 12. It could happen twice a year or once every few years. But however haphazard, it became a tradition.
Every so often, we’d gather in the living room; my father on the bongo drums someone had given him for a birthday present, my sister on her recorder, me banging the big copper-bottomed soup pot with a wooden spoon, and my mother on piano, playing from our “American Folk Songs For Piano” songbook. “Love oh love oh careless love,” she’d sing, entirely off-key, “Love oh love oh careless love, love oh love oh careless love, see what love has done to me.”
And every fall, sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving, before it was dubbed a ‘super food,” before anyone knew it was a powerful antioxidant, before antioxidant became the ubiquitous, go-to word, on our kitchen counter would appear a perfectly round, soft-ball sized, crimson pomegranate. “I got a ‘love apple’ today,” my mother would announce. And the ritual would begin.
The first thing I ever stole was a piece of Bazooka Bubble Gum. I lifted the small, red, white and blue rectangle out of the glass canister on the counter, wrapped my fist around it and shoved it in my pocket. My heart pounded against my chest with fear and excitement as I glanced around the store making sure no one had seen me. It was a rush. Taking it. Not getting caught. Pulling something off. Putting something over.
The person I put it over on was Grandpa Sam and it was his store, adjacent to the white Victorian house he and Grandma Sarah lived in in Greenwich, in which the robbery took place. Grandpa Sam was not our real Grandfather. That was Grandpa J.J. my father’s father, who died tragically and too young, shortly before my parents were married. I don’t remember much about Grandpa Sam except that he was laconic, not particularly huggy, and was often the reason that followed many of the no’s in our lives as in "No, you may not have a Christmas tree. It would offend Grandpa Sam."
The day after Governor Clinton announced his candidacy for President outside The Old State House in Little Rock, Arkansas, Mickey Kantor, a friend of my then-boyfriend, called and asked if I would advance the Governor at 7:00 the next morning. The Clintons, Bruce Lindsay, and a friend of theirs from Colorado, who pretty much made up the entire campaign, were coming to Los Angeles where Governor Clinton was to be a guest on Michael Jackson’s radio show. All I knew about him was that he could not stop talking when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention in 1988 and I wasn’t at all sure that he would be my candidate. I said no. No. No. No. Absolutely not.
At 6:30 the following morning, I found myself driving down La Cienega to KABC Talk Radio. In what would become the norm, The Governor arrived forty minutes late. I rushed him into Michael Jackson’s studio, hustled the others to the green room, got a Styrofoam cup of tea out of a machine (elegantly appointed KABC was not,) and set it down in front of the Governor.
I closed the door behind me and listened to the call–ins. Every one of the Governor’s responses was clear, empathic, and incredibly smart.
I began writing openers for him almost immediately and in September 1991, I was sent to Little Rock to work out of Clinton Campaign Headquarters. I was excited. I was a Northern girl who’d dreamed of the South ever since I saw “Gone With the Wind.”
This recipe, which originally appeared in the NY Times in 1973 in an article by Jean Hewitt, was featured by Amanda Hessler in her ‘Recipe Redux’ piece in the November 4, 2007 Times Magazine. It looked scrumptious and easy so I tore it out, as I do with many NY Times recipes, and put it aside. “Aside” is also where I put the card the secretary in my Dentist’s office handed me to remind me of my next appointment. It’s where the little yellow rectangular stub the shoemaker gave me without which I can’t get my shoes back went. And it is also where the Gelson’s receipt, on the back of which I had illegibly scrawled the title of a song I heard on the car radio that would be perfection playing over a scene in the screenplay I was working on before we went on strike, was moved. You can pretty much take it to the bank that whatever is put there will never see the light of day again. Aside, as it turns out, is my own personal Bermuda Triangle.
But, as luck would have it, a week or two after this recipe ran, I came across a Letter To The Editor in the NY Times Magazine from a woman whose name I can’t remember. (I can almost promise you I put it aside.) In it, she says she’s been making Teddie’s Apple Cake consistently since her sorority days (apparently some time ago, she indicated) but with certain changes. To cut the sweetness, she replaced some of the white sugar with brown, she added more vanilla, more and different kinds of raisins and 2 times the amount of apples.
The thing I remember most about baking oatmeal cookies when I was 8 years old was that the bottoms always burned. Even if you faithfully followed the recipe on the back of the Quaker Oats box to a tee, which I absolutely did, when you pulled the sheet out of the oven, slid your spatula under that first lightly browned mound and peered hopefully at its underside, all you got was burned.
Over the years, I tried greasing the pan and not greasing the pan. I used the milk, I didn’t use the milk, I sifted and then I didn’t. I lowered the oven temperature, baked them on the bottom rack, the upper rack, a shorter time, a longer time. But no matter what I did or didn’t do, the outcome was the same: rear ends black as coal. There was just no justice. And you know what they say: No justice, no oatmeal cookie.
So I moved on: to sublime Viennese Butter Crescents, (butter, finely chopped walnuts, more butter, a relatively small amount of sugar, and flour, mixed together with your fingers very gently til the dough forms tiny, pea-sized balls which you shape into crescents, bake in a slow oven and roll, still warm, in powdered sugar in which you had previously soaked a pulverized vanilla bean); to perfecting my calling-card Chocolate Chip Cookies; to tender, flaky Rugalach, and to learning the secret of making the greatest Brownies ever (remove pan from oven and immediately place into an ice bath til absolutely cool). I was happy. Life was sweet. You couldn’t pay me to bake an oatmeal cookie.
“Ouch,” my husband groaned miserably as something metal jabbed him in the side. “It’s like sleeping on a motorcycle.” It is 1:30 in the morning and we are still wide awake.
You have to admit the intention was admirable: Joan, my father’s girlfriend, had insisted they buy this pull-out couch specifically for us, specifically for visits like this one.
The week before, my father had been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. When I got the call, a chill snaked through my bones, so powerful that for a moment I couldn’t breathe. “It could go slow,” I was told, “it could go fast, or it could stay the same for the rest of his life. No one knows.” I was not comforted.
“You know I’m losing my memory,” my father said over dinner the December night we arrived in Palm Beach.
I nodded. It was hard to know what to say. “How old are you now?” I asked him, “89 1/2?”
“No. I’ll be 89 1/2 in February,” he responded, clear as a bell and sublimely accurate.
“89 1/2 in February,” I repeated. “And in all those years, the only thing that’s ever been wrong with you is that occasionally your back goes out?”
“That would be about right,” said my father.
“I’m sorry you’re losing your memory, Dad. But we would all kill to be you.”
He beamed. He nodded. He knew he’d been damn lucky.