THE ULTIMATE COOK OF THE EIGHTIES
I've just heard another glowing account of that Ultimate Cook of the Eighties -- that successful career woman who depends on Lean Cuisine when her schedule demands, but who loves good food and can prepare a gourmet meal in less than an hour without even tying on an apron. Old-fashioned, from-scratch cookery seems to be losing its appeal. I struggle to adapt with my new freezer, Cuisinart and microwave. My hi-tech meals seem quite satisfactory until summer approaches and memory nags. Then I begin to recall midsummer Sunday dinners on an Iowa farm, circa 1930, with fresh ingredients promptly prepared. That, after all, is what a gourmet meal is all about. At that point my admiration for Ms. Ultimate Cook begins to falter.
The season's first fried chicken was the centerpiece. Can that ever be explained to a generation nurtured on wall-to-wall fried chicken? Probably not, but I'll try. Those "free range" birds, normally reached two-pound size by late June. Before freezers and confinement feeding, that was a culinary milestone. Beheaded and bled, the birds were feathered, drawn and disjointed, then left to cool overnight. Next morning the floured pieces, carefully browned, were set to cook in a securely covered skillet on the wood-burning range.
Creamed new potatoes and peas would accompany the succulent fowl. The vegetables were fresh, as in running to the potato patch and scratching to find the first tiny ones, then stopping to pick the last of the garden peas, enroute back to the kitchen. Scrubbed and shelled, the two were boiled in salted water, drained and tossed with a bit of flour. Whole milk was added, and they were returned to the stove, soon ready for serving, topped with a dollop of golden butter. Meanwhile, the lid had been removed from the skillet long enough for the chicken to reach its peak of crisp perfection.
The first head of cabbage, magically timed, was ready then as well. Green, firm, fresh, it was sliced paper-thin. Dressed with a combination of sugar, thick cream and careful droplets of cider vinegar, it provided the perfect salad.
Strawberry shortcake topped the feast. Wedges of delicate sweetened layer cake were split into generous bowls. Small, exquisitely sweet berries, picked, washed and lavished with sugar, were left to draw their own juices--these to be spooned between and atop the layers and carried to the table along with a tall cool pitcher of cream.
As I document that incredible eating experience, my admiration begins to crumble. With all due respect to the modern woman who combines culinary skills and a successful career with such ease, I must truly watch myself. At any moment I could very easily toss out my modern wonders--the Cuisinart and the microwave, along with Birdseye and Stouffers, and succumb totally to plain old maudlin, totally inconvenient nostalgia.