There is a wild feeling. Do you know the one I mean? Sometimes it’s contained, and sometimes it springs forward - mostly when you’re having an adventure. It’s so important, so pure - it’s surging forward, riding a wave of momentum, an exploratory fizziness that you recognize as your truest self - the thing you’re always trying to do, the way you always want to feel.
This is how it is when I’m on the road, in pursuit of ingredients, eats, stories, histories - when I’m on the hunt.
This glimmering pastiche of fear, excitement, elation and reconnected freedom powers me through the holidays - the winding turns of West Virginia, the flat salt grounds of Michigan, the blustery winds of Chicago, and onto the Turnpike headed to Touhy Ave, where mom and I are road tripping to a god forsaken destination called Jerry’s Fruit and Garden.
I’ve got two cookbooks balanced on my lap, her iPhone and mine screaming out directions “rerouting in .2 miles”, and a stack of sticky notes and a blunt pencil with which I’m trying desperately to star menu items for our dinner party tonight.
“Let’s stay vegetarian, right?” I’m talking to myself, flipping through mushroom, cabbage hand pies and some citrus-y vinegary salads. “Well yeah, but then what is in the middle of the plate? Your father needs an entree.” Mom says this hitting the gas, and I can’t help but correlate the road rage to some latent anger around menu planning - but we soldier on.
This is our second trip down Touhy in recent memory - the first to Fresh Farms where we befriended a Chinese and Polish woman (respectively) at the frozen fish aisle, interrogating them about their traditional holiday seafood menus before waving down the butcher - who is in a Bulls hat but has zero charm and a machete fit for a serial killer. We get four mackerel - deboned, si vous plait, and end up making some pretty delicious lemony fish and stewed wax beans before setting a few dish towels on fire. Is it Sunday dinner if you don’t violate a fire code? But back to the topic at hand, and the current fiesta.
We land at Jerry’s Fruit and Garden, otherwise known as Grandparents-Gone-Wild. There is a rolling line to get into the place, where we are stomped on, rolled over, and almost bitten before we even reach the first carrot. Having said that, this place is produce mecca. The fruit and veggie selection is otherworldly, with multi-culti offerings you’ll rarely see within one destination: king trumpet mushrooms from Japan (which have an almost soapy aroma?), jungli jalebi from India with black seeds, extra long long beans, and rambutan.
Mom and I are soaking it up, while also maintaining a semi Olympian pace - if you hesitate for 1 minute in this joint, you are donezo. I make the mistake of stopping to snap some pics (sue me) and get mauled by about three old women in house slippers.
This market is out of control - with faux orange trees, and packaged delicacies from around the world - Amish butter (which actually turned out to be a bit sweet for my taste), sardines from Morocco and tall jars of raw honey from Israel, beans from Mexico, goat’s milk cheese from Russia.
We hit our grocery list and zoom out of the parking lot, making a hasty u-turn into a strip mall when mom spots a bakery she loves which actually ends up having the dopest pistachio dipping cookies I’ve ever had (and is conveniently located next to an Indian wedding garb, depot, because sometimes you need a cookie pre errand).
Back at home, we’re all biz -- wax beans are thrown into dad’s simmering red sauce (we co-opted, without his permission but his red sauce is divine, and we aren’t into restraining ourselves), I make a fennel citrus salad to chill in the fridge, and we begin on the most technically draining part of the fiesta - flaky pastry dough for mushroom, cabbage hand pies. A word here on baking.
Baking is fucking hard.
I know you know this - but it bears repeating. Mom and I aren’t bakers but we want to work on it, seeing the romance of flour casually strewn onto marble slabs, imagining ourselves as the downtrodden peasants of Downton Alley with hell to pay and sourdough loaves to leaven. Wellll we are making this dough by hand, working the pearls of butter into flour and salt, spritzing the mixture with ice water (“now does it need to be actual ice water or just really cold?”) and tapping our toes to George Michael as we go, because I’ve got a thing for “Father Figure” and I’m too lazy to uncover another record in between pounding the dough.
It’s amateur hour here but we’re doing it in style - with a wine bottle (who needs a rolling pin) covered in flour and a cookie tray covered in parchment paper.
The dough is its own bastard child, but there’s another issue - the filling. This particular filling requires heaps of mushrooms, cabbage and leeks, parmesan and fresh lemon, worcheshire sauce, dijon, and hot sauce. What we end up with is a tangy, almost cornmeal-y, cabbage-y compote to get shoveled into our baby hand pies.
By the time our dough has cooled and is ready to be rolled, we realize that we’ve botched the timing. Our buttermilk and salt roast chickens need to go into the oven stat, and have to be cooked at a different temp from our hand pies. Shit. And so we do what any cooks do: we pivot. We’ll save the hand pies for tomorrow, and tend to the chickys. We can make the pastries in the am and if they’re good, I’ll bring em for my road buddies for NYE in Michigan, to eat in the car like the peasants we are.
The good news: our dinner is delicious, the chickens are a knockout in particular, the meat is moist and the skin crispy, curls of smoke steaming off the plate - and around the moderately priced pinot noir we’ve grabbed at Vin.
The bad news: we make the hand pies the next morning - New Year’s Eve - and our dough just won’t hold. We’ve pulled our slab into 8 discs and rolled each separately, on the floured tabletop, before lovingly scooping little mounds of filling into each. Then it’s a little titch of ice water around the edges, pulling the top half the disc down to meet the bottom, pinching the edges, scoring with a fork and placing ever-so-gently onto the cookie sheet.
We pop em in the oven and make another batch of coffee - how will they turn out?
Well - either our oven isn’t calibrated exactly right or we’ve miscalculated on the dough - the mushrooms are browning but the dough isn’t. It’s cooking but unevenly - so our edges are looking lovely and flakey while the top of the mound looks relatively un-done.
Alas alas alas - we have fcked up the hand pies like the handmaidens we are, but we aren’t deterred. If we ever had a preoccupation with perfection, we’re over that now.
I’m swirling my coffee, dreaming of the dinner I had with Molly at King — where where flirted with our gay waiter over some perfectly beautiful hand baked crostini w. rosemary and olive oil, sea bass, and striaccatella, where I confided that I wanted to seriously change my life, and decided to actually do it — one of the many dinners in 2018 that began to chip away and change the course of my life.
As we move into 2019, I’d like to give a toast to 2018 and the things I cooked, discovered, and cherished. I think I did some of my biggest learning and self-actualizing, and enjoyed some of the most delicious and most moody meals of my life.
And in 2019 I look forward to reaching bigger, staying positive, not being embarrassed to own my shit. Here’s to the best one yet, whatever your dreams may be. Don’t deprive yourself and love yourself - from the comfort of an intimate dinner with your friends (or wherever things feel most natural and free).
Thanks for reading, it means the world.