Tuesday, July 10, 2018

America's Test Kitchen Is My New Happy Place

(These posts about our week in Boston are in no particular order--kind of like my life right now.)

When I was in labor with our first Boy, Husband was my labor coach. At one point, in an effort to help me relax and save the fingers on his right hand (which I was in the process of crushing) he urged me to think of a happy place. "Vermont!" he told me. "Think of Vermont!" And the thought of the  cow-dotted New England landscape did help, although not as much as the epidural that came a bit later.

Anyway, after 32 years I have a new happy place: America's Test Kitchen.

Since this is my true confession medium, I admit that I am not one of those who have watched every episode of this public television show since it started in 2001. I didn't discover ATK (as we groupies call it) until Boy#3 found the Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe, and even then I skirted around the edges of devotion. But then I discovered Cook's Illustrated magazine (one of ATK's publications), which may be the most beautifully practical magazine ever, and...well, I haven't been such a fan-girl of anything since Here Come the Brides

With the exception of my dinner rolls and chocolate sheetcake I have always been been a mediocre-at-best cook and sadly, one does not live on bread and cake alone. America's Test Kitchen made me not only feel like I could be a good cook, they made me feel like I wanted to cook.

So when I knew we were going to Boston, and knew ATK would be so close that I could practically wake up and smell the (scientifically engineered, perfectly brewed) coffee, I really, really, really wanted to tour that facility. Sadly, they do not give public tours. But I'd had occasion to be in contact with the lovely Kelsey, one of the moderators of the the ATK Facebook group, so I messaged her to ask if there was any chance we could come peek through the windows.

"Sure!" she wrote back "I have some time Thursday afternoon. Would that work?"

Commence fan-girl squealing.

The rest of this post is going to have a lot of pictures, so if you don't have the time to look at everything I found fascinating, this is the bottom line: America's Test Kitchen lived up to every hope and expectation I had. Kelsey and her sidekick, Sarah, were the perfect ambassadors for ATK, and along with every person we met there made me want to go live in that building on the seaward side of Boston.

I mean, check out today's beauty shot. That is Kelsey (in the pink) and Sarah beside the Take-Home Fridge. After recipes are tested and rated, leftovers are put in this refrigerator and anyone who works there can TAKE THAT WONDERFUL FOOD HOME. I used to take the stub end of notebooks home for scrap paper when there were no longer enough pages for story notetaking--imagine if those notebooks had been crab cakes, or brownies, or Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies. Aaaaaah.

Or there's this:

The recipe development area is a huge room with the kinds of equipment you'd expect to find in a test kitchen--walls lined with refrigerators, individual work stations--except this huge room had something not found in other test kitchens. Lan Lam.

Yes. This cooking star was RIGHT THERE developing a recipe for a better French toast! And as she saw our little group coming around the corner, she stopped and told us about her process. It involves finding five or so "old" recipes, trying them out to see what she likes and doesn't like about those recipes, modifying, cooking, comparing to previous versions, modifying some more, cooking again, comparing, repeat, repeat, repeat. The newest iteration was almost there--she liked its texture and taste, but she wasn't satisfied.

"Want to try some?" she asked. Uh, yes, we believe we would!

Those are my teeth-marks in the toast.
For the record, Lan's going in the right direction. Husband, Boy#2, Lovely Girl, and I agreed that the improved version is fluffier and richer-tasting, even though Lan didn't think it was perfect yet. When she gets done, she'll not only know the new recipe is better, she'll know why. Test kitchens, folks. It's science.

But all of our drooling at ATK was not over the lovely food. If you're a foodie yourself, take a look at this:

An entire rack of Le Creuset Dutch ovens. This piece of equipment won its category in the ATK equipment review, but is pricier than my occasional use would justify. I was delighted to see a more familiar friend:
Cuisinart 14-cup food processor. 
Just last week Amazon had delivered my new food processor, which replaced one I'd had for decades and finally pushed too far into a broken chopping blade. The one I ordered had been the top one in the ATK equipment review, and was far from the most expensive.

"We use the same equipment here that we recommend to home cooks," Kelsey told us. "We want them to be able to duplicate what we do and they can't do that if all we're using are commercial products."

As this rack of burned bread indicates, toasters are in the current test cycle. And what happens to the test equipment after the ratings are done? It goes into the Christmas party raffle, and whether you're a star or a dishwasher you could take home a high-end mixer or espresso machine. Ho, ho, ho!

Personally, I'd rather take home the staff. Three full-time dishwashers are responsible for keeping the pots and pans and other cooking accoutrements clean and organized. Also, full-time shoppers make sure all ingredients are purchased, bagged, and sorted for distribution to each tester.

Is this heaven?
"You can sometimes tell what they're working on by what's in the baskets," Kelsey told us.

And of course, the recipe and equipment testing is only background material for the real product--information distributed in three magazines (America's Test Kitchen, Cook's Illustrated, Cooks's Country), on television and YouTube, and in dozens of cookbooks.

We were practically still licking our chops from the delicious French toast when Lan was already preparing for a live question-and-answer session for online subscribers.

There were rooms filled with equipment and photo props, much the same equipment and photo props I have at home albeit not in the same multiples.

There were homey-looking studios and pristine pantries.

Better than the facilities or the food, though was the pride everyone we met seemed to take in their work. Kelsey will be transitioning to a different part of the company soon (she'll be working with a new initiative for kids) but it was obvious that she delighted in this work, including going out of her way to give these Kansas tourists a Boston highlight. Soon ATK hopes to make public tours a regular event, she said.

And when we left, she congratulated Two and Lovely Girl on their upcoming wedding--and handed them something for their new life together.

A week later Husband and I are still marveling at the people, the kindness, the calm, the beauty, the food of America's Test Kitchen.

It's my new happy place.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Where in the World Are MomQueenBee and Husband?

You'll never guess where Husband and I were last week.

Let me give you a hint: It's somewhere you can take a duck tour, so there's water. It's famous for its beans, so it automatically rates an A+ in my gastronomic rating system. (See also: MomQueenBee's Favorite Foods, a post I have yet to write but one that will focus strongly on beans.) It rather puffed-upped-ly calls itself The Hub, short for The Hub of the Universe, and also Titletown, so we know that it is far, far from Kansas and the Sunflower State's mealy-mouthed, cringing self-effacing self-image. (Seriously! They call themselves that!)

Give up? Need one more hint?

Boston! We were in Boston!

I may have mentioned once or twice or forty-eleven times that Boy#2 and his Lovely Girl are getting married this fall. Because the Parents of the Bride are energetic, generous, and well-organized, the planning of the Wedding of the Century Redux is mostly complete, but some final decisions were still to be made, including nailing down the menu for the wedding dinner. Tax season was over and my middle school accompanying gig is on summer break, so Two asked if we would please come to Boston for the tasting.

(All of you dear reader(s) of my general age group are now humming along with Dave Loggins. I'm not sorry, because this song was practically the anthem of my teenage years and I still love it.)

Anyway, a trip to America's Walking City would also be a chance to meet Lovely Girl's father. We had already met the Mother of the Bride, who is as lovely and energetic and gracious as you could wish the future mother-in-law of your son to be. And we could check out the matrimonial venues, and help with a move to a new apartment.

So off we went. I prepared as if we were getting ready to join a wagon train rather than boarding Southwest Airlines. Don't believe me? I have photographic proof:

Yes. That was what I carried onto the flight, which was scheduled to be five hours from Kansas check-in to pick-up at the airport in The Athens of America. I may have died from measles, snakebite, dysentery, cholera, or exhaustion, but I would never have been the one who starved to death on the Oregon Trail.

We were in The City on a Hill for eight days, and rather than try to cram everything into one post, I'm going to stretch this out interminably. Sit back and enjoy the ride. Also, have a pretzel, or a Rice Krispy treat, or a Fiber One bar, or a Wheat Thin, or a piece of fruit.

We've had plenty.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Happy Birthday, Trailblazer

I came across this picture the other day as I was cleaning out a drawer. I remembered the moment it was snapped, on a non-phone camera that was loaded with film, and had thought of it often. In the intervening 14 years, though, I had lost track of the print, and seeing it again brought back a flood of memories.

This was the moment before we drove off and left our first son at college, and I was a hot mess.

It was taken at the end of a long day of orientation, a day at which I had Held It Together with sheer force of will, keeping busy by arranging the first dorm room, fiercely chomping on a piece of gum so that I wouldn't weep during farewell chapel, waving wildly as I watched Boy#1 take his place in the freshman class march around the Quad.

This was the moment when I gave him a last hug before we went our separate ways, and there was no more Holding It Together. Husband snapped this shot and was laughing at my full-out sobs, with me knowing I looked ridiculous but also knowing how much I would miss this smart, funny, tender, nerdy kid.

One was laughing, too, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

He may have been laughing because he realized he had met his future wife just a few hours earlier, even though they wouldn't have their first date for several more years. He may have been laughing because my tear-stained face had just left a big damp print on his shoulder. Or he may have been laughing at sheer relief that this day had come and mostly gone and now he could get on with his life. Whatever the reason, I see that laughter again and it makes me laugh at both of us.

How could I not have known he was more than ready for that day? He had always been the trailblazer, the one who went off to kindergarten first, rode his bike first, jumped off the high board first, got the first driver's license. He was the cow-catcher on the train of boys, opening new paths and adventures for the brothers who followed. He continually reminded us that this (whatever "this" was) was not nearly as big a deal as I thought it would be.

He could handle it, is what I'm saying. Whether it was the first research paper or the semester abroad in Hong Kong, he could take a deep breath and dive in. (Although, frankly, the thought of his hard sleeper train trip through China still makes me shudder with ALL THE WHAT IF'S.)

Today this trailblazer is the first one to turn 32 years old. I remember the moment he was born, a tiny (4 lb. 14 oz.), purple (seriously--purple) morsel who instantly transformed us from a couple to a family.

Maybe that's why he's laughing in this picture: He had survived those inexperienced, often inept parents, and was ready to take on the world.

Today he's a grown-up and a professional, married to his Lovely Girl and possessor of his own retirement plan. He's often the one who picks up the role as the logistical (and emotional) organizer of his siblings. And when his mom is discombobulated and overemotional, he's still often the one who offers a t-shirt-clad shoulder for mopping up tears.

Happy birthday, Boy#1. You could not have been a better trailblazer, and I'm laughing in your honor.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

After Club

Last night was my turn to have club at our house.

That's what my mother always called it, whether it was her women's study club, the educational philanthropic club, or the music club. And when she said she was having club at our house, hooo-boy! My siblings and I needed to be ready to work hard without talking back.

We vacuumed and dusted and washed windows and hid everything that made the house look like actual people lived there, while Mom whipped up cream puffs and petit fours and all manner of delectable desserts. The dessert plates (with the special indentation for a coffee cup with a uselessly tiny handle) were pulled down from storage and washed.

Then we either disappeared upstairs when the ladies arrived, or (when we were old enough) we served desserts and refilled those ridiculous coffee cups.

These days hosting club is much less formal. When groups meet at the House on the Corner, I try to beat back some of the dust but there's no deep cleaning or window washing involved. Most of the time my friends get their dessert on a paper plate, and likely as not the dessert is purchased from the local coffee shop.

Last night, though, I tried a new recipe (justification for buying a springform pan) and served it on antique plates. I started collecting this pattern shortly after we got married, but my habit of buying a piece here and a piece there when I had an extra $15 for a goblet meant I had never accumulated enough to actually use them. Then a couple of weeks ago Husband and I were roaming around an antique store when I stumbled on a cabinet full of plates, tumblers, dozens of pieces I didn't even know existed. I carried a couple to the front counter.

"You know, there's no call at all these days for that pattern," the store owner said genially. "I'll give you as much as you want for a dollar a piece."*

At that price, even knowing that in the not-too-distant future an auctioneer will be yelling "SOLD" to a bid of pennies per piece, we came home with two boxes of the special dishware. It felt like a moment of elegance to serve club dessert to my friends on these plates, even though the coffee was served in regular mugs because we may be elegant but we are not idiots.

This morning I'm feeling a bit like the alstroemeria on the dessert table that suddenly and inexplicably folded halfway through the meeting. Tired, but still blooming in the lingering echo of laughter from a house full of delightful women.

My mom would know just what I mean.

*To my delightful women who were here last night: Yes, I know I told you they were a quarter a piece. In my self-congratulatory memory of the purchase they were, but when Husband asked me (in a slightly horrified tone) if I had admitted they were only a dollar a piece, my memory almost audibly corrected itself. And I informed him that women are much more impressed by a bargain than by the actual purchase. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Remembering Them All

My father and I sat together in early church yesterday morning. This is the service that mostly attracts older folks, their quavery voices singing hymns they choose out of the hymnal before the preacher delivers his message from a podium he moves right down in front of these faithful.

Because it was memorial Sunday, candles were ceremonially lit for those from this fellowship who have died during the past year. After each flame flared a skinny teenager swung a heavy handbell, its deep toll marking the passing of souls aged two to nearly a hundred years:

Remember. Remember. Remember.

I hugged the woman sitting next to me, with whom our family camped by the lake six decades ago. Sitting next to her was the son my sister and I babysat when he was a preschooler. Her husband was the one who patiently drove the boat that circled back and picked me up dozens of times in my (futile) efforts to learn to water ski. I can still hear him shouting "Keep low until you get your balance," then gunning the engine.

His candle was lit third.


After this service Husband, Dad, and I drove 20 miles to a small town where all of the community's churches had gathered for a special Memorial Day service.

My father is 91 years old now and in the past decade he has gotten older. In his case this means he's losing his height and his hearing, but he still swims in Senior Olympics and lifeguards at the community pool, and a couple of times a month he preaches at churches too small to have full-time pastors. For this service he was the featured speaker.

Dad had seemed especially quiet as we went through the memorial service in his home congregation. At his age, many of those candles had been in honor of his friends, the saints who were the village that raised me and my siblings. I knew he was remembering Bob, and Fritz, and dear cousin Doralee. He was remembering my mother, who died eight years ago.

As we participated in the first steps of the community service he seemed concerned. He rarely complains about his hearing loss, even though conversations that are not face-to-face are nearly impossible, and on this morning when the entire town was gathered, he didn't want to miss a cue.

"You'll let me know when it's time to go up?" he stage-whispered. "You'll help me turn on the microphone?"

I squeezed his hand and smiled, but I was worried. What if he tripped going up the stairs to the pulpit? What if he lost his place in his notes?

And then it was time, and he was being introduced. I reached around to turn on his microphone and Dad slid out of the pew. I saw him take a deep breath, square his shoulders, and suddenly two decades dropped away. He marched up the stairs, told a joke, and in an instant the crowd was in the palm of his hand.

"He's a total gamer," I whispered to Husband, tears spilling before I could wipe them away.

It would have been easy for Dad's message to be patriotic. No one loves his country more than he does (he was 17 when he joined the Navy in 1944), but he chose Galatians 5:14 as his text: "The entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" For 15 minutes he reminded us that our testimony is more than words, and that discipleship is based in action.

When he was done, he sat back next to me, exhaled in relief, and stage-whispered again. "Was it okay?"

It was more than okay, Dad. I will remember it forever.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Of Course I'll Be Watching

I've wondered for some time why I'm fascinated by the current generation of British royals.

Maybe it's because I was a college kid when Prince Charles was being pressured to find a princess and as a person of the female persuasion in the heady early days of women's lib, I was just the right age to secretly find that search romance-y and magical. Or maybe it's because the two boys who were the product of that doomed search apparently have turned out to be excellent human beings (albeit with a few twisty turns along the way that proved even royals have young males whose judgment skills are completely lacking from time to time).

But when I saw the close-up of Boy#2 in his graduation regalia last week I finally knew the reason for this fascination.

"Oh, my gosh!" I shrieked to Two's Lovely Girl, who had snapped the shot. "It's Prince William!"

She was unsurprised.

"Yes," she said, "I've had several friends tell me they thought he looks like William."

I should have seen it before, but this is the first time I've seen the resemblance and now there are signs everywhere. The princes have only brothers, no sisters. The women they have brought into the royal family are smart and beautiful and kind.

They have appropriate senses of decorum but also appropriate senses of irreverence.

Brothers. Sheesh.
And, of course, their mother is the queen.

You can bet your sparkly tiara I'll be watching tomorrow, and I'll be waving a royal wave.

Image result for royal wave gif

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

It Was Important

You all know that last July Boy#2 officially became the kind of doctor who is not all that useful if you're trying to avoid a co-pay. He cannot tell you what that funny pain in your knee is, and whether you should block out a month this summer for a replacement or just slap a bag of frozen peas on it. No, he's the kind of doctor whose dissertation was filled with complicated mathematical formulas and diagrams of electrical...stuff that I don't even know what it was.

When Two successfully defended that dissertation in the final step of his doctoral studies Husband and I could not have been prouder. Two had come up against roadblock after roadblock and had persevered, and frankly, by the time he was finished he was not filled with patriotic pride toward the school where he'd spent six years. (Duke. It was Duke.)

So when he asked if it mattered to us if he went through the official pomp and circumstance that accompanies earning a Ph.D., we told him it was up to him. If he decided he wanted the official moment when the doctoral hood settled on his shoulders he could be sure we'd be there to witness it and shriek with joy, but since he'd already settled into his new job in Boston, and with the Wedding of the Century Part Deux* coming up in October, it made a lot of sense to save the money and vacation days for that event. We assumed he'd tell us he was giving the ceremony a hard pass.

But then, his Lovely Girl (who actually is the kind of doctor who can tell you what that knee pain is and had received her own hood a year earlier) reminded Two that he has one shot at this. If he decided to forego the ceremony, there would be no do-over.

So on Saturday, our second-born went through the university's graduation ceremonies, while his Lovely Girl, Boy#1, Husband, and I applauded until our hands hurt.

When it was over he was not one bit more qualified or educated or smart than he had been 10 minutes earlier, in the moments before his adviser climbed onto the step-stool to put the ceremonial sash over our 6'4" son's head. Something, though, had changed with the visual, audible, tactile marking of this moment.

Maybe these ceremonies are important to me because I'm from a generation during which ceremonies were, well, important. We did not graduate from kindergarten in tiny mortarboards and gowns, we rode the bus home on the last day and began our summers. There were no organized children's athletic teams before junior high, so no soccer participation trophies for everyone. An invitation to prom was a hallway "Want to go to prom with me?" instead of an elaborately choreographed production. Today, though, with all of these (plus gender reveals), ceremonies have become devalued.

By contrast, this ceremony that recognized persistence and pushing through as much as it recognized brilliance, was important and exclusive and I thought about that as I was trying to perfect my surreptitious tear-blotting moves. We had waited for for this imprimatur for decades, and it did not disappoint.

Later I asked Lovely Girl if Two was glad he had gone through the ceremony. She only hesitated for a moment to formulate her answer.

"He's glad because he thinks you're happy," she told me.

He was absolutely right.

*No, not the one that's Saturday. The real one, that's not until October.