by John Ryan
a Millennium-Sized Hangover
The New Year has finally arrived and I'm exhausted. Not so much physically worn out as I am tired of hearing about Y2K. And if I hear the word millennium again I think I'll be sick. Sure this year is a big round number, but really, what's the big deal? It's another year. And in all the fuss nobody's bothered to figure out what we're going to call it. The year, that is. You'd think that if we can bring the federal government up to date Y2K-wise (and we've yet to see about that), we'd have figured out what we're going to call the year two thousand. Is it going to be twenty aught, twenty zip, 2K, or twenty oh-oh?
I'm sure a solution will congeal, but right now it's January. The party's over and January is a big collective cultural morning after. I've got a feeling that all of twenty aught could be a morning after, though for all I know, this turn-of-the-century hangover could last an entire decade.
But even with the novel turn of our calendar's odometer, January always feels like this. Christmas presents are put away, it's freezing outside and boxes of cold remedies line up like hatch marks in my medicine cabinet.
As with any "morning after" I know that the mood to self improve—to expand my culinary horizons—will come sooner or later. But it's still early, so I'll put that off until I feel better. In the meantime I've got to eat. I'm not interested in vanilla sauce with venison. I'm only interested in the familiar. The two recipes this month are comfort food pure and simple. They don't pretend to be authentic anything. They're just good. And they are nostalgic, like old record albums.
Over the last twenty years I must have moved at least a dozen times. And I've lugged the same box of records with me to each new place. I admit that I don't play records very much, but I still have a record player. I mostly find myself playing old records during the winter when I'm cleaning up or making a pot of soup. Then the rest of year encroaches and I get too busy to turn a record every 20 minutes. Each time I move I consider throwing my records out, but as I quickly rifle through the box I'm reminded of tunes I haven't thought about in months. I'll put a record on for one last listen, for something to keep me company while I pack. Then it all comes back. The scratches are as nostalgic as the songs. I even know which songs are going to skip. The tunes take me back to the house I grew up in, that great apartment in Nashville, the friends I used to have in New Haven...and when the needle starts its rhythmic kshhht-kshhht-kshhht at the end of a side, I know the records are coming with me.
I feel the same way about the recipes that follow. The chili recipe is one any self-respecting chili head would scoff at. But for a kid coming home on a snowy Colorado afternoon the aroma of this chili was mom, home, and a dry flannel shirt ladled into a bowl. Likewise for the gumbo. When I lived in Nashville, a good friend threw a party every year and made a huge pot of this gumbo. I mean HUGE. She invited literally everyone she knew to stop by. It took months to scrub off the threads of gumbo that stuck to the stovetop with every ladleful that went from pot to bowl. Now the spicy aroma of gumbo is the smell of taking time off the usual weekend routine to pass the time of day with friends.
I don't know how long it's going to take to recover from the millennium, but I'm in no hurry. And I'm taking these recipes with me.
Cooking Resolution #1
After covering a pot to simmer, check it after about 5 minutes.
No matter how evenly it was simmering when you covered it, it'll almost always be simmering too hard when you check on it. Or, you might overcompensate and find the stew not simmering at all. Don't try to second guess the pot, just check it after 5 minutes or so, adjust the heat and forget about it for the duration.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created January 2000