Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Very Special Sandwich

A Very Special Sandwich

Okay so it’s all coming together.

Mark Bittman writes an article about peanut butter, and then I have a nice visit with my grandmother (who will turn 97 in December) and we talk about family recipes, and then someone posts a comment about peanut butter and bacon sandwiches. It’s the collective unconscious!

It’s time for the post I’ve been thinking about since writing blog posts was but a gleam in my eye.

It’s time for the post about … the Special.

The weekend before I started my project, I worked at a trade show for The Scrap Exchange in Greenville, South Carolina. On the drive down, I was discussing my project with my co-worker Rowan. Rowan had an idea for something I could eat on the project, something really good and really cheap, something that no one had probably ever heard of or would even think of eating.

Rowan went to prep school in Vermont at the Putney School. She told me that once in a blue moon they would have a very special meal — so special that it was called the Putney Special. She said it was an old recipe, from the Depression or World War II, when everyone was poor and life was hard. She said that it sounds weird, but it’s really good: toast with peanut butter and stewed tomatoes. (And sure enough, someone has actually written about it and put up a picture, so we know she wasn’t making it up just to get me to eat something gross.)

I said that’s so funny, because my family has a special meal too, an old recipe from the Depression or World War II, when everyone was poor and life was hard and it’s called … a Special sandwich, or just a Special. (As in, “Mom, would you make me a Special for lunch?”)

My housemates from college, some of whom will probably read this post, may actually remember me talking about this — though I can’t remember if I made it or not. All I remember is that I talked about it and everyone thought it was the most disgusting thing they’d ever heard of, so disgusting that no one would even consider trying it. I think I pretty much stopped talking about it after that, the same way I stopped calling soft drinks “pop” after about three days at school, during which I was mercilessly abused every time I said the word. Enough already, I’ll call it soda.

But emboldened by the appearance of of bacon in everything, and Mark Bittman’s article, and Rowan’s Putney Special, and my commenter talking about peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, I decided … it’s time.

This recipe is from my grandmother, who got it from her friend Florence Field, who was one of the first friends she and my grandfather made when they moved to Seattle in the late 1930s. She said she doesn’t remember when she got the recipe and doesn’t know where Florence got it originally, but it was something they would eat when they would get together for bridge. She and my grandfather liked the sandwich so much they started fixing it for themselves and passed the recipe down through the family. My father said he remembers eating it his whole life, he doesn’t remember the first time he had it, it was just something they always had. And then my mom started making it too.

The original recipe called for chili sauce, but when my brother and I were little, we didn’t like chili sauce so my mom would make it for us using ketchup. I don’t eat this often, but when I do make it, I mix ketchup and with Asian Chili Paste with Garlic to make my own chili sauce.

Like the peanut butter ritz cracker cookies, it isn’t much of a recipe, it’s mostly just putting things together.

Special Sandwich

Take one or two slices of white bread and put them under the broiler to toast one side. (You could lightly toast them instead, but it’s not good when the bread gets too crispy, so it’s better to do just one side so it’s partly crispy and partly soft.)

Take one or two pieces of uncooked bacon and cut it up into very small pieces. (You need it to be small so it cooks quickly, before the edges of the sandwich burn. How much bacon you need depends on how big your pieces of bread are, how thick your bacon is, and how much bacon you want on. This is a very flexible recipe.)

Spread peanut butter on the untoasted side of the bread, then spread chili sauce or ketchup over the peanut butter.

Place as many pieces of bacon as you want (and/or can fit) on the bread and then put it under the broiler and broil until the bacon is cooked. (Keep an eye on it while it cooks, so the peanut butter doesn’t burn.)

Cut each piece of bread into quarters.


It is the bomb.

I haven’t tried the Putney Special but Rowan says it’s good, and I’m inclined to take her word for it.

And if anyone finds anything like this on the internet anywhere, let me know. I looked a while ago and all I could find were recipes for peanut butter and bacon sandwiches (peanut butter with fried bacon) and links about Elvis and fried peanut butter sandwiches. Nothing with peanut butter and ketchup or chili sauce.

Paging Doctor Bombay

Sunday, October 18, 2009

We have an Artists’ Marketplace at The Scrap Exchange, where we sell things made by local artists who are using reused/reclaimed/repurposed materials in their work. During the holidays, we expand that into the Green Gallery with Craftland, a juried show curated by Scrap board member Megan Risley and some of her friends on the NC Triangle Street Team.

The Craftland opening was this past Friday night, and Megan and her people did an amazing job this year—we have some really great stuff, and I totally fell in love with this sculpture.

My New Friend

My New Friend

The artist is a guy named Brian Mergenthaler and I talked to him a little on Friday about his work. He said he takes apart old typewriters and broken sewing machines and whatever old machines he can get his hands on. He said he basically just takes the machines apart, then sorts out all the metal pieces—separate buckets for things that look like heads, faces, legs, etc.—then welds the various pieces together to make a sculpture.

He said he had been mostly making bigger pieces but decided to do some smaller things that people might actually be able to afford, so in this year’s Craftland he has a bunch of totally cool little things that are quite reasonably priced. They’re all great!

I bought the Witch Doctor, mostly because I love it, but also because one of my friends was joking with me about how I’m a witch doctor because I know how to solve all kinds of weird random problems—answering tax questions and fixing computers and getting rid of moldy smells in closets. Basically whenever my friends have a question about something, they call me first to see if I have suggestions. (After Ann told me she thinks of me as a witch doctor, I told her that I’m actually a witch, and she said she was going to say that but thought I might be offended.)

So anyway, I wanted to show off my little sculpture, and say that any of you readers in the Durham vicinity should come to The Scrap Exchange between now and the end of the year and check out Craftland. It’s worth the trip.

Peanut Butter Cookies, Part I

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Mystical Cookie

The Mystical Cookie

My parents lived outside of Kansas City for a few years when I was in college, and my mom wasn’t so excited about moving there, but while she was there she learned how to make baskets (which she’s been doing for 20+ years now), and she learned how to make the best cookies in the history of the world. So it all turned out okay in the end.

The first time I flew out there to visit, we were driving home from the airport and my dad said, “Your mother has the best new cookie recipe … two Ritz crackers with peanut butter, covered in chocolate.” I thought they sounded okay, but not earth shaking.

Boy was I wrong.

These are the best cookies you have ever had. (If you like peanut butter and chocolate, that is–my brother doesn’t care much for chocolate, and my friend Ann doesn’t like peanut butter in cookies, so both of them are more or less indifferent to these. I know, those of you who’ve had them are shocked, but it’s true. Some people don’t love these cookies.)

There are people who have had these cookies once and, I am convinced, have remained friends with me for years simply in the hopes that they will one day get another one.

My mom would send them to me in college, and we started calling them the Mystical Cookies, because they’re so much better than you’d think they’d be if you just heard what’s in them. She sent them to me at the office when I worked in Princeton, and then I think she might have sent some to my boss after I left, because everyone was so sad they’d never get them again. I went back for a visit maybe five years after I’d left and was talking to someone I’d worked with and someone who had started working a year or two after I was gone. Trudy said, “How’s your mom? Does she still make those cookies?” And Sabrina said, “Oh! You’re the one whose mom makes the cookies!”

It’s nice to be famous for something.

I was visiting my folks last week and brought a few home with me, though I don’t think I managed to do justice to them in the picture. (I wanted to show the inside, so you can see how much peanut butter is in one, but none of the shots worked all that well.)

They’re not hard to make, but you need to get candy-coating chocolate. My mom uses Merckens chocolate wafers, which she gets in the bulk bins at Wegmans. There are light and dark versions, but I like a combination of the two (I think the light is too sweet, and the dark is not sweet enough). In Kansas, she used almond bark for the coating, but I don’t know if that’s available everywhere. I think you could also make chocolate coating out of chocolate chips (or possibly any chocolate?) by melting and adding vegetable oil or shortening. There’s also a recipe for chocolate candy coating in an old version of Joy of Cooking that calls for chocolate plus butter and paraffin (!). Haven’t tried that one. I think whatever chocolate you can get that will melt without separating and harden when cool would work.

For such a simple recipe, it feels sort of complicated to explain. On graduation weekend at college, my friend Debbie was talking to my mom. She said, “Oh! I have to get the recipe for those cookies! What kind of chocolate do you use?”

My mom goes into this very long explanation of almond bark and Kansas and Merckens wafers and Wegmans and candy coating and chocolate chips and vegetable oil. When she’s done, Debbie says, “So… if I want these cookies, I should just call and say, ‘Mrs. Currie, please send cookies.'”

And my mom says, “Well, yes, that would probably work best.”

So that’s what I usually do. Sadly, you’re all on your own, so here’s a recipe (such as it is).

[And please note, these are not healthy at all. At all. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.]

Peanut Butter-Ritz Cracker Cookies
(a.k.a. The Mystical Cookies)

  • Ritz or Hi-Ho crackers
  • Jif peanut butter (I haven’t tried healthy peanut butter; I suspect it wouldn’t be nearly as good)
  • Chocolate candy coating

Make the cracker and peanut butter sandwiches, using more peanut butter than you think you need. (I don’t think I’ve ever had one with too much peanut butter, but I’ve definitely made them with not enough.) Place on a sheet of waxed paper or plastic wrap on the counter or table.

Melt the chocolate. You can do it in a double boiler, but it works much better to use the microwave, because the chocolate gets hotter, stays hotter, and melts better. I don’t have a microwave, so when I make these, I usually go to someone else’s house.

Drop the sandwiches, one at a time, into the bowl of melted chocolate and, using a fork, stir around to coat thickly.

Remove the sandwich from the bowl of chocolate and place on the plastic wrap/waxed paper to cool.

When the coating is set, you can put in a tin or plastic bag. I think they taste best frozen, so I just keep the bag in the freezer and eat from there.

And I actually intended to write a completely different post about another peanut butter cookie recipe, but this is the post that came out, and now I need to go get some work done, so I’ll put the other recipe up later in the week.

On the Bus

Saturday, October 3, 2009

This is not about food or saving money, but I saw a great talk last night and wanted to write about it.

On Wednesday, I saw an announcement in the N&O that 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai was speaking on Thursday at Meredith College in Raleigh, for free. I called a friend to see if she was interested in a road trip (we joke about how Raleigh is like another planet to us, we’re so Durham-centric), and she was, and she invited another friend who also was up for it, even though neither of them knew who Wangari Maathai was

Wangari Maathai, for those of you who are like my friends and haven’t heard of her, is an environmental activist and proponent of sustainable development. She started the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, a reforestation program in which rural women are paid a small amount to plant and nurture seedlings in an effort to restore indigenous forests and promote sustainable development.

She served in the Kenyan parliament and has been involved in many global development activities through the United Nations and other international nongovernmental organizations. She studied in the United States (something I just learned today, she was brought to the U.S. in the same “student airlift” program that brought over Barack Obama’s father), and was the first woman from East and Central African to earn a Ph.D.

Her winning the Nobel Peace Prize was somewhat controversial — she was the first environmentalist to do so — but she started her talk last night with idea that lack of resources generates conflict, and thus there is a direct connection between peace and environmental degradation.

When Wangari Maathai was growing up (she was born in 1940 — and I have to say that’s hard to believe when you see her, she looks incredible), the area where she lived in central Kenya was lush and fertile, her family and neighbors were able to grow healthy food, they always had enough to eat, there were springs and streams with plenty of fresh water.

When she went back years later, the stream where she had fetched water as a girl — where she played with frog eggs and then saw hundreds of tadpoles that hadn’t been there the day before and thought, “Where did these come from?” — had dried up. There were no eggs, no tadpoles, no frogs. And no water to drink. Crops weren’t growing, people didn’t have enough food.

How did this happen?

She saw the connections between the trees being cut down and the water drying up. She started working to fix it. She’s been working on it ever since.

She is amazing.

Her whole talk was great, and I’m looking forward to reading her memoir Unbowed.

The thing I want to talk about here is the great metaphor she had about how things go wrong.

When I was in college, I read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. My friends and I would joke about that, we used that phrase all the time.

Dr. Maathai also has a great bus metaphor.

She talks about “wrong bus syndrome” — you find yourself in a situation where things have gone wrong. Your crops didn’t grow, you have no food to feed your family. How did this happen?

She said that Kenyans take a lot of buses, it’s something everyone is familiar with, so in the agriculture workshops they would hold, they started explaining these problems in terms of having taken the wrong bus.

She told a little story. She said, “I was in Cleveland yesterday. What would have happened if, instead of coming to Raleigh, I had taken a bus to New York?”

“What would have happened?

Well, no one would have been there to meet me. I wouldn’t have seen the nice people I saw today when I got to Raleigh, who picked me up and drove me to a nice hotel. I wouldn’t be here in this beautiful setting talking to all of you nice people who came out to hear me.

I would be in New York.

I wouldn’t know anyone. I wouldn’t have any money. No one would know who I was or why I was there. Probably the police would stop me and ask what I was doing out on the street. All kinds of bad things would happen.

It would be terrible. And all of that would be because I was in the wrong place — because I had taken the wrong bus.”

She then talked about why people end up on the wrong bus. What are the reasons?

She said you might be at the bus station and you might not know which bus to take. So ignorance was one reason. There are no signs, or you can’t read the signs, so you don’t know which bus is yours. You just get on the first bus that comes and take it wherever it goes.

Another problem is misinformation — someone tells you this is your bus, but it isn’t.

(And I loved her example of misinformation. She talked about how before the missionaries arrived, people in Kenya believed that God lived on Mount Kenya. Sometimes he would walk around, take trips, but mostly he lived up there, in the distance, on the snowy peak.

The missionaries came and told the people that God didn’t live on Mount Kenya, he lived in Heaven.

She said, “Now, I went to Catholic school and there I learned that God is omnipresent. God is everywhere. He lives in the Alps and in the Andes and in the Himalayas, and even on Mount Kenya. So the missionaries were wrong. God does live on Mount Kenya.”)

Often you get on the right bus, and things start out just fine but after a little while you realize that the person driving the bus doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s taking the bus in the wrong direction.

So another reason you can end up in the wrong place is that you have a bad driver.

What are the things that keep people from stopping the bus when it goes in the wrong direction, from getting off and getting on another bus?

One problem is uncertainty and fear — people aren’t sure, they’re afraid of being wrong, so they stay quiet even though it seems like the bus is not going in the right direction.

Another problem, which she said is a problem in Kenya right now, is violence and intimidation. People know they’re on the wrong bus, they know the bus is going in the wrong direction, but the men driving the bus have guns and will not turn the bus around, will not let them off the bus.

She said that is a problem that’s hard to solve, that everyone on the bus needs to work together to turn things around and to get the bus going in the right direction.

Here’s an article she wrote that talks about her work and gives the bus metaphor and some other examples, for those of you who are interested.

All of her talk was great, and if you ever get a chance to see her (especially in an outdoor amphitheater, on a clear night, with a very bright moon) you should.

I especially love this idea of the bus because, like all great metaphors, it’s simple yet powerful, and it applies to so many different situations.

How did I get here? Is this where I want to be? Am I going in the right direction?

Am I on the right bus?

If you look at your life, and it isn’t what you want, if things don’t look like you thought they would, perhaps you are not on the right bus. And when you realize you’re not on the right bus, that the bus you’re on is not going in the right direction, you need to do something about it.

Don’t stay on the wrong bus, don’t stay on a bus with a bad driver. Stop the bus and get on another one, or get the driver to turn the bus around.

This is something we all would do well to remember.

And on a completely unrelated note, if I had thought of it, I would have tried to participate in the Q&A and asked what I can do to be able to sit and stand as ramrod straight as she does — even now, much less when I’m 69 years old. She looked like a statue sitting there before her talk started, listening intently to the introduction, head high, looking straight ahead.

Maybe that’s what you look like when you grow up carrying firewood and water, and planting food and playing with tadpoles, instead of sitting at a desk or hunched over a keyboard all day.

And that may be as important of a lesson as the bus.