Market Day

Rumbling thunder and sheets of rain clear the Red Stick Farmer’s Market as Karen makes a bumbling, halfhearted entrance. Sodden patrons dart from tent to tent, determined to scoop the freshest gourds and goat cheese. Vendors entrench themselves into Walmart folding chairs.

Frances Chauvin slowly counts her pies – blueberry, Granny Smith, pumpkin, coconut, cushaw – each sealed in store-brand bags. The 81-year-old turns to restock her dwindling display of shoe soles, crispy cinnamon and sugar-dusted pastries. Business was brisk before the rain.

Chauvin perks up as a woman emerges from the deluge. Without hesitation, she asks for pecan.

It is a wise choice.

It is a wise choice.

“It’s for my momma and daddy,” the woman says as Chauvin bends down for a plastic bag. The customer describes how she makes every meal for her 86 and 87-year-old parents.

“I just like to surprise them every once in a while,” she says. “They were so good to me, and my momma really misses cooking.”

Her eyes seem moist. It could be the rain.

Drops of water from the tent ceiling distract Chauvin. Her pies are in danger.

A neighbor uses a bamboo pole to push the pockets of water over the edge of the tent, creating temporary waterfalls. Before Chauvin can ask for help, he walks over.

She gives him a thank you shoe sole.

The rain slacks as a middle-aged man toting a toddler walks up to Chauvin. She smiles and hands him a pre-bagged pie.

“He comes every weekend, pushing his father in a wheelchair,” Chauvin says quietly. “He lets his father pick out a pie and I hold it for them while they eat breakfast. His father has Alzheimer’s and would eat it right away otherwise.”

The pair walks off into the rain, the little boy stopping to step in each puddle.

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Mixing It Up

It’s an away-game weekend. I’m home and have time to kill (read: procrastinating).

It's going to be a fun night.

It’s going to be a fun night.

I rip open the bag and pour the mixture of flour, oats and chocolate chips into the bowl. One egg follows a stick of slightly chilled butter.

Cool butter creates a chewier cookie – a tip from pre-pariah Paula Deen.

The oven dings as I hurry to mix my ingredients. I flirt with salmonella and eat enough dough to make three cookies before lining the sheet with asymmetrical balls.

There really should be more on the sheet.

There really should be more on the sheet.

Within 20 minutes my warm, buttery confections are ready for a glass of milk.

I have a helper in the kitchen.

I have a helper in the kitchen.

The simplicity and speed of cookie mixes make them bake sale fodder and sleepover staples. But when did it become normal to use pre-made mixes and bags instead of flour and elbow grease to make one of America’s most traditional treats?

Traditional? Wrong.

Despite cookies’ seventh century origins, mixing in chocolate chips only became popular in the 1940s. Massachusetts-baker Ruth Wakefield believed adding semi-sweet morsels would melt throughout the cookie. Instead, the chocolate retained its shape, and Toll House cookies were born. (Toll House Inn was where Wakefield made her chocolate masterpieces.)

Newspapers helped the cookie spread like wildfire, promoting the recipe as a classic New England dessert. Considering the recipe was less than a decade old, I’m assuming editors were exercising poetic license.

Meanwhile, companies like General Mills experimented with dry baking mixes. Problems with packaging and spoilage kept the mixes off the shelves until 1947, where the fictitious Betty Crocker debuted a ginger cake recipe.

Throughout the decades, Betty dominated the piping-hot cake and cookie-mix market. And while I am perfectly happy to let Betty do the heavy lifting, some prefer making the dessert from scratch.

For those wild souls, here is the original Wakefield recipe, courtesy of Serious Eats.

MRS. WAKEFIELD’S CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES

Ingredients
• 2 ¼ cups (12.375 ounces) flour
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
• ¾ cup (150 grams) brown sugar
• ¾ cup (150 grams) white sugar
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1 teaspoon soda
• 1 teaspoon hot water
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 3 cups (18 ounces) semi sweet chocolate chips

Procedures
1. Sift flour together with salt and set aside.
2. Cream together butter and sugars. Add the eggs mixing until combined. Dissolve baking soda in hot water and add alternately with flour mixture. Add vanilla and mix until thoroughly combined. Stir in chocolate chips. Cover and refrigerate for 36 to 48 hours.
3. Preheat oven to 375°F. Scoop out rounded tablespoonfuls refrigerated dough and roll between hands into a ball. Place onto a parchment lined baking sheet and press ball down to flatten. Bake for 7 to 9 minutes or until golden brown. Cool cookies on the pan for 2 minutes then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

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Impressions

By all accounts it should have been a good evening.

The margaritas were strong and the salsa, spicy. The birthday girl’s quesadilla oozed Oaxaca, while fajitas sizzled and popped on the iron skillet.

And we couldn’t wait to leave.

Nothing compares to the taste of poor service.

The comedy of errors began as soon as we walked through the door, where the hostess explained that our party of nine would have to wait between 20 to 30 minutes. Fair enough. We parked at the bar and inhaled chips and tequila.

Twenty minutes passed – then 30. We bobbed our heads to the ‘90s cover band and looked longingly at two empty tables that could seat our small army. They were reserved.

Forty minutes into our wait, Birthday Girl called a vote: eat outside or prolong our fasts. We shuffled into the wake of a Louisiana typhoon and pushed two wet tables together.

Our server approached with peace offerings of chips and salsa. As she turned to leave, one member of our party asked for salt.

“Salt? I think we’re out,” the server said in thick Eastern European accent that dared us to question her again.

She returned with a salt refiller.

“It’s all we have,” she growled before taking our orders.

We would have to make do.

We would have to make do.

Assaulted by mosquitos and a blanket of humidity, we perked up as our plates emerged from the kitchen. But instead of the usual warnings accompanied by sizzling entrees, the server pushed hot plates into our hands.

Startled and slightly singed, silence took over the table as we satiated our hunger.

Two members of the party, however, could only watch everyone enjoy the food. The server delivered the wrong order of tortillas.

A request to the manager brought the server back with the correct tortillas and a visibly stormy attitude. We all cringed in our seats when she joked(?) that we should finish soon.

Taking the hint, we asked for the checks. The server collected our credit cards, and we waited. And waited. We joked about waiting and then waited some more.

Slightly concerned that the server had returned to the homeland with our cards, I flagged down one of her coworkers. After explaining our dilemma and giving a brief physical description, recognition lit our savior’s eyes.

“Oh, her,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’ll handle it.”

Uh oh. Within minutes she blustered out of the kitchen and threw the receipts at Salt Requestor, not even making an effort connect cards to owners.

We were eager to skip formalities, too.

Collecting our things, we ran out the door. The party was over.

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Last Meal

We’ve just met and have already discussed the pleasantries of hometowns, mutual friends (or lack thereof) and  ridiculously oppressive heat. The beginning of an awkward silence hangs over the conversation like a buzzard.

I have to keep it at bay.

“If you were on death row, what would your last meal be?”

Sometimes the question surprises people, and they awkwardly answer predictable lobster. Others go whole hog. They envision Almas caviar, Kobe beef and the ice cream sundae they once saw on a Travel Channel food show.

I’m not really looking for a particular answer. Like all good questions, it’s meant to open a door and change dialogue.

It’s a trick I learned from my dad, a true conversation artist. As a teenager, I rolled my eyes and apologetically shrugged as Dad posed this question to each of my allegedly criminal friends. I thought learning someone’s last meal was pointless and awkward.

Today, I know better.

Some people use last meals to try something new or unattainable. They think, “If I don’t have it now, I’ll never try it.” These individuals are the go-getters, the experimentals. Their conversations travel to faraway countries and obscure dishes.

Others, like me, plan meals closer to home: Grandma’s rice and gravy or Dad’s gumbo. Their last meal embodies memories and relationships. These discussions move backward to family stories and favorite vacations.

We may not think of it often, but a person’s last meal connects us through universal experience of food. It dives into the meat of the conversation and gives deeper insight into memories and dreams. Ultimately, it leaves us feeling full or hungry for more.

Photo source: James Reynolds

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