Holly Hughes has lived in New York City since 1978, although there isn’t a day she doesn’t dream about moving. She is the founder and editor of 13 editions (and counting) of the annual Best Food Writing anthology. Her past also includes stints as the executive editor of Fodor’s Travel Publications, writer of 12 travel guides for Frommer’s (including 500 Places to See Before They Disappear and 500 Places to Take the Kids Before They Grow Up), and the author of 13 novels for adolescent girls. She and her husband Bob Ward have raised 3 children in NYC and the last of them is heading for college next fall. (Did anyone say “road trip”?) This essay originally appeared in Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant (Riverhead Books‚ 2008).
Eating alone? Ah‚ that would be luxury. Cooking alone? That’s an entirely different thing—that I do every night. Or to be more precise‚ every night I am the only person in my kitchen whose activities are directed toward producing a meal for group consumption. There are other people in the kitchen‚ all right‚ but they are busy doing homework‚ or playing with the cat‚ or watching tv‚ or sneaking snacks to spoil their appetites‚ or arguing with the cook (me). They never offer to help with the cooking. No‚ they are simply hanging around‚ bored‚ at loose ends‚ just waiting to be fed.
“What are you going to put on that chicken?”
“What would you like me to put on that chicken?”
“I hate it when you do the tomato sauce.”
“Then what would you like me to put on that chicken?”
“Remember the time you made it with sweet peppers and onions?”
“Want me to do that again?”
“I specially hated it with the peppers and onions.”
(SECOND VOICE FROM THE LIVING ROOM‚ OVER THE NOISE OR PIANO SCALES) “Oh yeah‚ do the peppers and onions again! That was awesome! Do we have red or yellow peppers?”
“I have green peppers.”
(SCALES STOP) “Yuck! Green peppers? Those make me wanna puke!”
Nobody asks—nobody is going to ask—what I would like on the chicken. But if they did . . . Mushrooms. Yes‚ definitely mushrooms. I am the only person in this family who likes mushrooms‚ and so I never get to eat them. And oh‚ God‚ I miss them. Lovely thin slices of Portobello mushrooms‚ delicately simmered in marsala‚ layered over the top of a perfectly sautéed boneless breast of chicken. Or no‚ wait‚ a boneless breast of chicken stuffed with mushrooms‚ water chestnuts‚ and oysters. Something not found in any recipe book‚ something I would make up myself‚ a culinary experiment‚ just puttering around the kitchen on a long leisurely afternoon. Something that would take hours to prepare‚ slicing and dicing and marinating and adjusting the spices. I wouldn’t even care if it tasted good‚ just so long as I could use the ingredients I wanted‚ every last exotic one of them. And sit down to eat it in peace.
If I didn’t know the people I was cooking for—if I were‚ for example‚ a chef in a restaurant—I wouldn’t have to take their tastes into account. But‚ oh‚ I know them‚ I know them very well. I know that Tom won’t eat any cheese except for grated Parmesan‚ which he must grate himself. The only fruits Grace will eat are bananas‚ raisins (but not the grapes they are made from), and apple juice (but not the apples it is made from.) Hugh is okay with fish—well, salmon‚ at least—but the others think it’s poison‚ so if I cook fish (meaning salmon)‚ I have to make another meal for the non–fish–eaters.
Fish. Oh‚ fish. Please‚ not salmon for once‚ but a lovely fillet of red snapper‚ lightly grilled‚ with a fine dusting of Cajun spices on top. Served on a bed of wild rice‚ and butternut squash on the side. On a real china plate‚ not a scarred melamine one with the Power–puff Girls ka–powing around the rim. I wouldn’t even need wine‚ not really; I’d be content with mineral water‚ chilled just enough to frost the sides of a crystal goblet. And maybe a little music in the background . . . some Coltrane would be nice.
And come to think of it‚ I don’t even want my husband home for this. No siree‚ he is not invited. This is a party for one. He’d want to talk about his day at work‚ and I do not want to talk. I want all the talk‚ all the chatter‚ all the YAMMERING‚ all the HOLLERING, to cease. I want to listen to Coltrane‚ and savor the food in silence—every chewy grain of rice‚ every velvety slurp of puree‚ every sip of the pure clean cold water‚ every moist flaked morsel of fish.
One summer night‚ at a cottage we were renting on Cape Cod‚ the woman who lived next door mentioned to me that she was going to be alone for a few days. Her husband and teenage son worked in Boston during the week. Eager to be the good neighbor‚ wanting to make sure she wasn’t lonely‚ I invited her over for dinner with my three small children and me. She gave me such a look.
“Why‚ uh‚ thanks . . . but you know‚ I think I’ll just stay in.”
“No‚ but really‚ I have this big ham I was going to cook–”
She grinned. “But I was looking forward to it‚ actually. Sometimes you just need to curl up with a plate of scrambled eggs all by yourself. I never get to do that. It’s like heaven. You know what I mean?”
Well‚ I didn’t until she said it. And there hasn’t been a day since then that I haven’t thought wistfully of that plate of solitary scrambled eggs.
“Mom‚ can I stay at Amanda’s through dinner? Her mom can drop me off at eight. We did our homework together, please‚ Mom!”
I do rapid calculations. My husband is working late again. One son won’t be home until seven thirty. The other one has two friends in his room‚ working on a team project; they ordered pizza an hour ago.
Still cradling the phone under my chin‚ I yank the chicken nuggets out of the oven so fast I burn my fingers on the pan. “I guess so honey,” nudge open the fridge with my burned fingers. What did I expect? No mushrooms in there‚ no fish. But there is‚ oh hallelujah‚ a carton of eggs. Luxury.
Eggs Florentine a la Mom
6 cups fresh spinach leaves
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3 large eggs
Salt and pepper‚ to taste
Wash and clean spinach leaves and place in a steamer. While the spinach is steaming‚ melt butter in skillet. Measure flour. Discover a colony of mealworms in the flour‚ escapees from the kids’ most recent science project. Try to pick mealworms out of the flour before stirring it into the butter. Remove cream from the fridge‚ smell the carton‚ toss into the trash. Decide to go with the steamed spinach instead of creamed spinach.
Prepare to poach eggs. Look for the egg poacher. Discover that it is now coated with purple acrylic paint from last Spring’s egg decorating project. Spend fifteen minutes trying to chip the paint off the poacher.
Snatch the steamer off the burner just in time to prevent major kitchen fire. Check inside pot. The same scouring pad you have been using on the poacher can also be used to remove the incinerated spinach from the steamer.
Rinse out the skillet and melt some more butter. Consider breaking eggs into a small mixing bowl.
Decide you have enough washing up to do already. Break eggs directly into the skillet‚ scrambling them with your spatula as they cook. Salt and pepper liberally.