The last time I incubated of future generation of my family, my OB’s office — a place you cumulatively spend a spectacular amount of time over the course of 40 weeks — was diagonally across the street from the Upper West Side Shake Shack, and I only ate there once. I understand if this means we can no longer be friends; I am personally embarrassed to know this about me too. Where were my priorities? I have spent years mourning this missed opportunity to not only eat a weekly Shackburger but to have made better use of my last weeks of kid-free leisurely lunches for years to come. The reason is even less sympathetic: I didn’t like hamburgers, or so I thought. They were so thick, so dauntingly large and one-note, so soft and damp inside, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what made them popular.
I’m pretty sure I’m the last person in the cooking-obsessed world to get Sean Brock Fever, the chef behind McCrady’s, Husk, and Minero in Charleston. Worse, this is probably a good time to admit that I was sent his first cookbook, Heritage, when it came out and rejected it on sight alone. There was something about those sleeve tattoos cupping the sacred rainbow beans, an image I’ve seen variations on countless other farm-to-table cookbook covers and magazine spreads, that put me off. Skimming the recipes didn’t always help. Your red peas, cornmeal and gold rice should be from Anson Mills, and if not, at least the cornmeal should be fresh from a gristmill. Your tomatoes should be home-canned, or at the very least, San Marzano. Your pork should be from a heritage pig, your buttermilk and goat cheese should come from a local farm, as should your Red Bliss potatoes; this is your heritage after all.
I realize that if you’re scouring the internet this week looking for something romantic to cook for that little Hallmark holiday this weekend, the words “pot roast” probably didn’t cross your search threshold. It’s not sexy food; nobody is writing aphrodisiac cookbooks about bottom rounds and boneless chucks. But if you ask me, it’s something better, something cozy, warm, and classic, which neither steals the show nor keeps you from enjoying it. It’s for people who long ago stopped aspiring to entertain in multi-course and completely exhausting meals (for host and guest) and turned instead to comfort foods that surprise and delight on sleety winter nights. Sure, those individual gratins, galettes, microgreens and shooters of soup look elegant, but none of them have ever gotten the reaction that a massive batch of spaghetti and meatballs, from-scratch lasagne or great big short rib braise with a green salad did. No dessert, frosted, layered or crimped has ever had the delighted reception of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies (dough prepared days before, shh), still on their baking sheet. Why are we pretending we have a team of line cooks at our disposal, anyway?
I blame Katz’s for this. Two months ago, when we spent a day out playing tourist — i.e. breakfast bagels, Madeleine at the New York Historical Society followed by The Dinosaur Museum of Natural History (what my son calls it, please never correct him) — we decided to finish off our shivering afternoon with a visit to Katz’s Deli, a place I hadn’t been to in probably 10 years despite living fewer than 15 blocks from it, and the kid, never, shame on us. Alex ordered the chicken noodle soup and this hot mess arrived and it was peculiarly perfect: overloaded with noodles, colossal chunks of carrot and chicken and I… was jealous. My homemade chicken noodle soup never looked like this.
There are over 900 recipes in this site’s archives, [which is completely nuts, but also conveniently gives me an answer to the ever-present “what do you do all day?” question besides my usual, “mess around on Instagram?”] and while I’m overwhelmingly quite fond of all of them, there are ones that nag at me not necessarily because they don’t work but because they’re not, in hindsight, the “best in category” I once found them to be. Among these are the chicken pot pies I made from Ina Garten’s beloved recipe six years ago, and somewhere, my friend Ang is gasping because these are, to date, her favorite thing I’ve ever made for dinner. But I always thought they could have been better for several persnickety reasons.
On the very long list of things that I am convinced that other people do effortlessly while I typical flail and fail in the face of — dancing, running, walking from one room to another without forgetting what they were looking for — making dinner on a regular basis with a minimum of brow sweat and complaining is near the top.
Despite trying to provide ample evidence here, nobody believes me when I say that I get no special pleasure out of weeknight cooking — and guys, it’s like my chosen career, which doesn’t bode well for those of us who are no place near a kitchen all day. In an ideal world it would be relaxing, a way to unwind as we talked about our days while snapping ends off asparagus and rinsing rice before we cooked it. We’d make food that surprised and delighted us, food that exceeded our humble weeknight expectations every time and righted all of the day’s wrongs. And then the dishes would magically wash themselves. In reality, weeknight cooking is usually about practicality; hurried and hastily chopped, and all too often with a 4.5 year-old having a hangry meltdown at my feet because he didn’t want baked potatoes with broccoli for dinner, he wanted spaghetti and meatballs. Please send in the violins.