Thursday, May 26, 2011

And a Pinch of Reckless Abandon

When I announced that I would be writing a memoir, I tried to encourage my friends and family to use my upcoming birthday as an opportunity to suck up, and some of them totally took the hint.  One friend (who, from this point on, shall be referred to as my “exceedingly beautiful, never-embarrassingly-drunk friend") came up with the perfect gift idea: a one-time cooking class at the Whole Foods Culinary Center.

For the past year or so, I’ve been teaching myself to cook and have been forced to rely on vague recipe instructions, gut instinct, and a whole lot of trial and error.  I make it a point to approach every new culinary challenge with enthusiasm, confidence, and a pinch of reckless abandon.  “Hmm, I’ve never cut into a mango before ... What the hell, I’ll just slice through the center and see what happens.”  “Wait, how many chilies am I supposed to use?  They don’t look that hot.  Maybe if I touch one and then rub my eye....”  Prior to the age of twenty-eight, I had only ever used a microwave and a can opener, so if you think about it, my progress has been staggering.  Still, a little formal training couldn’t hurt.

When my exceedingly beautiful, never-embarrassingly-drunk friend told me that she was signing me up for a cooking class, I was expecting something along the lines of “Cooking for Dummies” or “Name That Kitchen Utensil!”  So you can imagine my surprise when she sent me the link to “Advanced Vegetarian Cooking: How to Prepare a Seven-Course Meal Made Entirely of Tofu.”  (In addition to being exceedingly beautiful, she also has a habit of grossly overestimating my talents.)  I read the course description and tried to imagine myself whipping up a tofu mousse in a semi-competitive setting with strangers eyeballing my technique.  Yeah, um, ... no.  Better to start with the basics: Knife Skills 101.

My husband can’t stand to watch me wielding a knife.  Even though it takes me a full forty-five minutes to dice an onion, I still manage to appear hasty and reckless – just one slip away from losing a finger.  It would be a real shame if I did cut my finger off, because my hands are one of my best features.  Thick, sturdy frames run in my family.  You’ll never hear the words “graceful” or “delicate” being used to describe me.  Suited for manual labor?  Yes.  Graceful and delicate?  No.  Yet, somehow, I ended up with these remarkably long, thin, dainty fingers – ideal for playing the piano and picking olives out of glass jars. They’re the hands of an elegant lady, and they serve as a lovely distraction from my slouched shoulders and big, clumsy feet.  It’s imperative that I keep them intact.

You’ll be happy to know that after taking Knife Skills 101, I am now an expert knife handler.  I can break down an entire pineapple before you can say “pineapple.”  I can dice an onion into pieces that are so small, they’re practically invisible to the naked eye.  I can julienne a carrot into matchstick strips, with no two strips the same size (I told the instructor that I preferred my carrots that way because “same is boring”). But the most important thing I learned was to always have super sharp knives.  I had to ask how exactly one might go about sharpening their knives, and when the chef gave me the address of a place that would do it for me, I made it my top priority.

When I arrived at the knife-sharpening place, I noticed that it was guarded by a stone bulldog wearing chainmail armour.  That was my first clue that this was no Williams-Sonoma.  Inside, the walls were covered with machetes and swords and bowie knives and ninja-training targets.  I handed my knife set over to a burly, tattooed man, and while he was busy sharpening my knives, I was left to peruse the display cases filled with daggers and brass knuckles (and rubber knuckles “for practice”).  On one wall, there was a poster of a terrified woman leaning against a target with knives surrounding her, and next to the poster was a sign that read, “We Offer Knife and Tomahawk-Throwing Classes.”

And so goes the life of a dilettante: I go to get my kitchen knives sharpened so that I can become an acclaimed vegan chef, and five minutes later, I am ready to dedicate myself fully to tomahawk-throwing.  I don’t like violence per se, but in movies and on TV, being able to throw a deadly weapon with stunning accuracy usually ends the fight before it even begins.  Since there weren’t any other customers, I thought about asking the guy if he would teach me to throw a tomahawk right then and there ... but I chickened out. Last summer, I learned how to shoot a gun and almost hit a target six feet away, but this place was way more intimidating than the gun range.  I guess I’ll have to stick to dicing onions until I can muster the courage to go back.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Screw the Vegetables! Save the Meat!"

You may have noticed that my blog posts have been rather sporadic as of late.  I do apologize.  I’ve been very busy with important things, like pretending to work on my memoir, taking fun weekend trips, and watching the new TLC series Extreme Couponing!

I get all nostalgic when I see those crazed women clipping coupons for things they don’t need.  It reminds me of my mother with her blue plastic file box full of coupons, organized by category and then sorted by expiration date.  She once left it behind in a store and immediately started to panic.  To her, it was like leaving $1,000 cash lying around in plain sight.  She was convinced that someone would take it.  As we raced back to the store, I reassured her as only a teenage daughter can: “Oh my God, Mom, no one wants your stupid coupons!  Normal people look at that box and see a stack of meaningless paper.”  And I was right – her coupon box was right where she left it.

The thing I’ve always hated about coupons is that they require you to buy in bulk.  That’s fine for large families, but I'm an only child, so purchasing a product by the truckload meant that I would be stuck consuming that product until the end of time.  My father and I knew better than to tell my mother that we liked anything.  I once made the mistake of saying that I “thoroughly enjoyed” my Healthy Choice Pepperoni Pizza, and I came home a few days later and found forty boxes all lined up in the basement freezer  (Of course we had two freezers!  What family of three doesn’t need a second freezer?).

I guess having a massive stockpile of frozen goods made my mother feel more secure ... until the power went out.  I remember once, when the power was out for an unusually long time, our precious stockpile began to rot.  Luckily, my mother worked at a nearby elementary school that was unaffected by the blackout, and she had access to the cafeteria's massive industrial freezers.  All we had to do was move 500 pounds of food.  And so, my parents and I headed to the basement to form a bucket brigade.  I stood at the basement freezer and handed armfuls of Lean Cuisines to my mother, who then passed them up the stairs to my father.  When I started passing bags of frozen peas, I heard my father yell, "Screw the vegetables!  Save the meat!"  I can still picture my mother running to the steps with a whole chicken under each arm and one balanced on the top of her head.  That's one memory that I'll cherish forever.  It was a true family bonding experience.  And, of course, the power came back on just as we were loading the last of our stockpile into the school freezer.  

Now, as an adult, I’m the most fickle consumer you’ll ever meet.  Not having a stockpile makes me feel liberated.  I’m free to be swayed by marketing gimmicks and “new and improved” labels.  I have absolutely no brand loyalty.  I buy one item at a time, and I get excited whenever I've almost used it up because it means I get to try something new.  I crave variety.  And freshness.  After years of drinking decade-old Capri Sun pouches, I prefer to consume my products when the expiration dates are still far into the future.

Still, when I see those women on TV getting $2,000 worth of groceries for only $3.46 while onlookers applaud and the cashier hands them a mile-long receipt, I can’t help but be fascinated.  I do like to save money.  Just ask my friends and family, several of whom have called me “cheap” to my face.  I always treat it like a compliment: “That’s right!  I’ve worked the night shift at a gas station!  I’ve sold shoes at Payless!  I know the value of a dollar!”  I sound like a ninety-year-old man.

Yesterday, inspired by extreme savings, I printed out a few coupons before going to the grocery store.  I managed to save a whole dollar on 3 boxes of Special K for my husband, and I must admit, it was pretty satisfying.  In the end, I got $118 worth of groceries for only $115.90!  I got so excited looking at my receipt that I spilled an entire bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper into one of my shopping bags, ruining $5.50 worth of Kleenex.  Factoring in the cost of the soda, that means I got $111 worth of groceries for only $115.90!

I have since decided that I am done with coupons.  Clearly, God wants me to pay retail.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Oh God, Why Me?

A few weeks ago, I saw Kevin Nealon’s stand-up comedy show, during which he shared his reaction to last year’s devastating wildfires in Southern California that destroyed dozens of homes.  He recalled how, when walking out of his multi-million dollar beach home, he discovered a thin layer of ash coating his brand new BMW and sank to his knees in despair, tears streaming down his face, clenched fists raised to the sky, screaming “Why me?”

Never has a joke so perfectly epitomized the way I live my life.  If I’m not taking things for granted or blowing problems out of proportion, I just don’t feel like myself.  I thrive on negativity.  Mine is a life defined by imaginary hardship.  But every once in a while, something legitimately bad will happen, and with it comes a moment of clarity: hey, my life is actually pretty great – or at least it was until about five minutes ago.

I had one of these trauma-induced epiphanies last month.  I haven't mentioned it until now because I was waiting until my husband and I had both sufficiently recovered from the ordeal.  It all started with a bottle of pink champagne.  That might not sound like the makings of a terrible tragedy, but champagne bottles are in fact extremely hazardous.  Exploding champagne corks can fly at a speed of 50 miles per hour and are one of the leading causes of traumatic eye injuries.  If the cork is defective, it might explode before you’ve even removed the wire cage, as my husband learned the hard way.

When it comes to remaining calm in a crisis, it turns out that my husband is much better than I am, but I think that’s because he didn’t have to look at his own eye.  Every time I glanced over at him and saw a giant pool of blood where his pupil and iris should’ve been, I had to stop what I was doing and breathe into a brown paper bag, while he just rolled his eye at me.

As I was driving him to the Emergency Room, I couldn’t help but think, “Why wasn’t I happier ten minutes ago?  Life was freakin' awesome ten minutes ago!  I should’ve been overjoyed!  I should’ve been celebrating!” ... Oh, wait, that’s exactly what we were doing.

Upon arriving at the hospital, a normal person would probably feel relieved, but I am not a normal person as far as hospitals are concerned, having once been a victim of medical malpractice.  When I was fifteen, I broke my leg playing softball, and a simpleminded ER doctor slapped a cast on me without ever bothering to examine my ankle, which had been shattered and was subsequently left untreated for months.  Now, when I hear the words “Emergency Room,” I don’t think of a safe haven where miracles are performed and lives are saved; I think of a chaotic, nightmarish place where exhausted, overworked, poorly trained non-specialists “practice” medicine on unsuspecting patients.

Thanks to my traumatic past, I am now the worst kind of patient.  When dealing with doctors, I have to perform rigorous background checks, I repeatedly question their intelligence, I demand second opinions, and I always have a list of 50-100 questions that need answering.  The doctor who was attempting to treat my husband’s eye looked to be about ten years old, and I questioned everything from his faulty instruments to his choice of painkillers.  (I was right about the painkillers.)

I’ll spare you the grotesque details of his treatment, but I can assure you that eye injuries are the absolute worst.  Imagine having to sleep sitting up for weeks, waking up every hour to take eye-drops, and having to keep your head completely still – which means no walking around, no bending over, no sneezing, and some nice person has to wait on you hand and foot and act as your chauffeur.  It also means that you’ll have to wear an eyepatch so that you don’t frighten young children.

Luckily, we already owned an eyepatch.  A genuine pirate’s eyepatch!  Embellished with the traditional skull and crossbones.  I thought it made him look very handsome.  And, he was suddenly able to command the attention of any room.  No one forgets the guy with the weird eyepatch!  When we would go to our local coffee shop, the barista would take one look at us and say, “Iced soy latte and an orange juice, right?”

There were a few other good things that came out of the experience.  On April Fool’s Day, we got to tell our friends and family that my husband had been severely injured by a bottle of girly champagne the night before.  That was fun!  And, of course, I now have a new phobia to obsess over.  I was at a bridal shower a few weeks after the incident, and when the host started popping champagne bottles, I reacted the way one might if a deranged lunatic had started waving a gun around.  I’m strongly considering wearing protective eye goggles 24/7 for the rest of my life.  With the right hair and make-up, I think I can pull it off.

Anyway, now that my husband is mostly recovered, I’m back to taking things for granted and getting upset over frivolous things.  And, God, does it ever feel good.