Thursday, August 25, 2011

Buy Me Some Peanuts and Crackerjack ... and Definitely a Hot Dog

Last night, with a light breeze lifting the warm summer air and the smell of dust and leather in the air, Chef Matt and I sat behind home plate at the new Target Field, taking in one of the greatest pleasures of summer: an outdoor baseball game.

I love baseball, partly for its history, partly for its beautiful simplicity, partly for the utter glee that sweeps across a stadium when a home team ball sails over the centerfield fence.

Mostly, I love how baseball appeals to all of our senses. If you're a baseball fan, the wonder of the experience lies in the crack of the bat, the smell of the grass, the feel of a glove that has been broken in just right, the sight of a deep outfield diving catch, and of course, the taste of baseball fare that has been a part of the sport since the great Babe Ruth became a legend.

Whether sitting on coarse wooden bleachers or almost-cushy stadium chairs, I never feel quite settled in to the game until I have a hot dog in hand, a stripe of ketchup on one side and mustard on the other.

There is something particularly wonderful about baseball hot dogs; when I bite into a fat juicy dog, I feel transported back to a time when all stadiums were open-air and Hank Aaron was home-running into history. I will always choose a hot dog over any of the dozens of new options at ballparks; a Cuban sandwich just does not exude "baseball" in the same way.

The other thing I cannot leave the ballpark without is a chocolate malt, served with the flat wooden spoon that threatens tiny slivers with every bite. The first game I can remember attending was the summer of 1984, Cubs vs. Expos at the incomparable Wrigley Field. The Cubs won, and I ate a chocolate malt. It was a fine moment for a little girl, to stare in awe at the wall of ivy and hand-operated scoreboard while digging in her own personal malt, that perplexing but perfect combination of chocolate and malt -- not quite ice cream, but better.

The delightful thing about traditional baseball food is that the basics have remained largely unchanged for decades, much as the game itself is remarkably the same as it was in the era of heroes. True, there are now bright lights for night games, and beer is eight dollars a glass, but if I want peanuts and crackerjack, those foods immortalized in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," I can get them.

The Twins lost last night, but I left the ballpark as giddy as always, excited by the bats, the grass, the gloves, the impossible plays made to look effortless, and by the stadium fare that gives me a thrill now as much as it did as a five-year-old girl. And that is the magic of baseball.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Mayonnaise

Yesterday, parenthood and I were not on good terms. A screaming baby amplifies any stressful situation, but when you add in two older kids flapping at each other in the back of a shopping cart, and walking in circles looking for help in an otherwise silent store while people stare at you, shaking their heads in irritation, it is enough to push a mommy to the edge.

The moment that pushed me over the edge, however, was when I was struggling to just get the hell out of the store. A kindly old lady asked me about my howling baby, and I smiled faintly and explained that he had just had some shots, and she said, with very sweet condescension, "Well, you should have just gone straight home, then."

Piling my hot, sticky, hungry, cranky kids in the car, while the old lady's scolding rolled around in my head, I could feel that parental hysteria starting to take over. For me, the only cure for such hysteria is a distraction. Since Chef Matt was at work, running around the block or reading a book in silence were out.

Instead, I made mayonnaise.

I did not set out to make mayonnaise, actually. I passed a little farmer's market after the store debacle and bought a bag of fresh peaches for a pie. The idea of rolling and pounding dough sounded like a perfect release, as did tossing my post-partum diet out the window ... again.

At home, I consulted Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to see if Julia Child had any other delicious uses for peaches, and I came across a recipe for a rice and beet salad. Conveniently enough, I had beets that needed roasting and rice on the docket for dinner, so I put the pie momentarily on hold. The salad recipe called for one and a half cups of mayonnaise, but somehow I think that Julia Child did not intend for me to use Miracle Whip. So I flipped to the beginning of the book, and made some mayonnaise.

If you have ever made mayonnaise, you will know that it is a race against time and the stamina of your whisking hand. A failure to continually whip tiny trickles of oil into egg yolks results in a broken, sad little sauce. A successful mixing of said ingredients, achieved by five minutes of uninterrupted whisking, results in a creamy, slightly lemony sauce that might even be too fine for a potato salad.

So I whisked for five minutes, while my toddler relieved our dining room cabinet of its contents and our preschooler pleaded, with increasing volume, to watch Dora the Explorer and our baby drifted in and out of fussy sleep. And when my mayonnaise was just like Julia said it should be, I felt instantly better.

The rest of the night, I whipped around the kitchen like the whisk itself. I finished the rice and beet salad, which sounded rather unappetizing the whole time I was assembling it, and in the end was delightful; I should always trust Julia. Then I made a peach pie with a lattice-top crust and a French silk pie with Oreo crumbles.

Everyone has their own form of "do" therapy, whether it is gardening or exercising or socializing, and honestly, cooking is not always my first choice. But I find that the wonderful formula of measure+mix+cook=tangible, edible product is sometimes the best way to be distracted and rediscover my center. I can think hard and fast about the task at hand, focus my attention, and emerge from the kitchen with balance reinstated and patience unearthed.

Not to mention that we also end up with pies and fantastic mayonnaise in the house, which would probably impress that old lady quite a bit more than my parenting skills.