Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving's Ultimate Kitchen Queen: Is it Me, Ina, Martha or Miss Paula Deen?

It's like my grandmother used to say: "Be a lady in the parlor, a harlot in the bedroom, and a Food Network Diva in the kitchen."

OK, my grandmother
never said that. (Not even close.)

But it is almost Thanksgiving -- you can tell because Christmas music is playing everywhere, and there are no turkey, pilgrim or pumpkin-themed decorations to be found in any store -- and I am preparing for the holiday.

Making lists, mostly.
Making pilgrimages to Giant, and Costco, and Harris Teeter. Trying to find just the right Santa hat for the dog to wear in the Christmas card photo I'll attempt to take when the kids are all home for the holiday. Trying to get everybody's needs met -- asparagus! turkey-cake! homemade biscuits! -- in the pretty much free-for-all menu we get to enjoy this year since we're not expecting out-of-town visitors. (Although if you guys want to come we would love to have you. You know that.)

The turkey is Will's job: he barbecues it and thus gets to spend a lot of Thanksgiving on the deck, in the hot tub, with a cigar, watching the rotisserie spin. (As a naturalized citizen he's got his own take on being thankful.)

I get to focus on the rest of the meal, and my plan is to refer all special requests to the Holy Trinity of holiday chefery: Ina Garten, Martha Stewart, and Paula Deen.

You can't have a truly balanced meal without something from
each of them.

Icy perfectionista Martha has a recipe for buttermilk biscuits that just might be complicated enough to send me to the martini shaker before the Macy's parade finishes up. Lus
h libertine Ina's got a deep dish apple pie recipe that's as tender and flaky as the great lady herself. And Paula Deen, y'all? Well I do declare I'mma maker her peanut butter pah. And yes, ma'am, I reckon I'll talk jest like that while I'm fixin' it.

(Not to worry, it only takes five minutes.)

My three go-to kitchen witches are so different, so versatile -- so expressive of how I want to come across as a chef.

I mean, I want to be cool and classic, like Martha: imperious as I set golden brown biscuits and perfectly glazed carrots on the table. I want to be zany-sophisticated like Ina, slurping through the top contenders for Thanksgiving Signature Drink and making jokes about Squanto while deglazing my way to perfec
t turkey gravy. And of course I want to two-step my way through the kitchen like Paula, all butter and batted eyelashes.

In the end I'm just me -- who else can I be? -- wearing my Rosemary's Baby apron, watching John O'Hurley host the National Dog Show ("do take a gander at the coat on th
at setter -- it is simply subliiiiiiiime...") and trying to ensure that everything's ready at the same time, my mother-in-law's golden rule for success in the kitchen which has served me well over the decades.

I'll be channeling Martha and Paula and Ina -- or trying to, anyway -- but I'll also be cooking things I know by heart. Making stuffing and mashed potatoes and macaroni-and-cheese just like my dad taught me to growing up. Using equal parts butter and love, and keeping distant friends and relatives in my heart. Being truly thankful for every bit of it: the freedom, the abundance, the blessings of love and family.

The truth about my grandmother is that she was a lady who loved to laugh, who was down to earth but enjoyed the finer things, who valued family and friends above everything else. I don't recall her cooking much, but she did love a party.

I do, too. Don't you?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Kim Kardashian, Louie Zamperini, and Me

I don't watch a lot of TV.

I know people say that, but I don't. I like reality shows, Bravo, HGTV, stuff like that -- and mostly while folding laundry. But I rarely watch scripted television, and as far as the unscripted goes, I have never intentionally watched a frame of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. A national obsession and an international sensation it may well be, but I don't understand the appeal.

Like everyone else, though, I see Kim Kardashian everywhere: newspapers, magazines, advertisements, talk shows. Like most people I have a hard time understanding just why she's famous.

Let's see, there's the legacy of a father who defended a murderer to an unfair acquittal, a sex tape, a possibly-faked 72-day wedding (her second) and millions of dollars raked in because she has big boobs and an impossibly upthrust derriere.

This is what passes for a hero in 21st century America.

Fortunately she's not the only hero getting press lately, not the only American Idol with a big smile and a melodic last name. If you follow the New York Times Bestseller List you'll know all about Louis Silvie Zamperini, the man who was the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's amazing biography, Unbroken.

But while I've heard more than I care to about Kim Kardashian and her lovers and her suitors and her family members and their opulent lifestyles, I never heard the name Louis Zamperini before this year. And that is something that, when you think about it, doesn't make sense.

See, Louie Zamperini is a hero.

He is the child of immigrants, a child of the Depression, a guy who worked hard and played hard and had his bad boy moments as a kid and who, when he discovered a talent for running, nurtured that talent and pressed himself to be the best.

He put himself through college, and he won a spot in the Olympics, and he marveled at competitive-runner perks like free food and free travel -- and he was deeply grateful for them. He was a teenager at Hitler's 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and he dreamed of coming back stronger, tougher, more mature in 1940. He was ready to take on the world.

Which is what he actually ended up doing.

There was no Olympics in 1940, just war. Zamperini enlisted in the USAF in 1941, and survived 47 days at sea (more than half the duration of Kim Kardashian's latest marriage) and then years in Japanese POW camps, tortured and beaten and starved almost to death. He did this for freedom's sake, like all our US servicemen and women do, so we can have our religion and our newspapers and our privacy and our fun.

So we can pay attention to nonsense if we want to. Nonsense like Kim Kardashian.

I am not putting the hate on Kim Kardashian -- she's free to do her thing like I am to do mine and you are to do yours. I just wonder why anybody cares anymore, especially when there are so many more compelling stories out there.

I mean, back in the day Louie Zamperini was a bit of a rock star: he was young and handsome and an Olympian, like Kim Kardashian's stepfather Bruce Jenner. But there were no Wheaties ads for Louie, no endorsements or celebrity hookups. The war came, and he was needed, and off he went without a whimper. He had a shot at fame and fortune, but he had priorities, too. That he stepped away from all of that to serve his country blows me away, but that's not even the half of it. Not even the third of it!

Even after he survived the war and overcame absolutely unimaginable obstacles, there were still plenty of tricks in Louie Zamperini's bag. He became a Christian, and as such proceeded to actually follow the teachings of Jesus. I know -- can you believe it? Went back to Japan and forgave his captors, literally threw his arms around the men who had beaten and starved and tortured him. He did that.

As for the Olympics, Louie Zamperini did get to run again. In 1998 he carried the torch for the Nagano Winter Olympics -- in Japan. In a gesture of peace, and of reconciliation, this man carried the torch.

Look at that smile, lit as much by love and forgiveness as it is by the Olympic flame. Look at that face, and how truly beautiful it is -- without makeup or injectables or plastic surgery. Louie Zamperini would not want you to think he's perfect, or saintly, just that he overcame things; that he had faith, that he had sense, that he had courage. And that is enough for anybody.

You can keep up with all the Kardashians you want, I guess, but in the end you need to understand what a hero looks like. I'm a little late to the party, but I've learned about Louie and his legacy. And I can challenge myself, now, to try and keep up with him.