The Summer Solstice–The Beginning (of the End)
It’s over before it begins. Like youth, love, fireflies, and shooting stars summer is fragile, ephemeral and eternal. The summer Solstice begins the high holy days that culminate in the strangely warlike Fourth of July. On the streets throughout Beyonder, as I call this region of Vermont, high school bands, Little League champs, old soldiers, and beloved politicians toot, wave, salute, and pose.
We rediscover our animal selves. We strip down as close to naked as possible and cook our food over open flames. Nothing is more liberating than flashlight tag in the tall grass where you can lay down and disappear.
Our minds go blank as we stare off the end of the dock into the mesmerizing lake, but not for long as great thoughts emerge from the ripples.
By Bennington Battle Day, a remembrance of when the great Colonel Bennington single-handedly withstood an alien invasion back in ought three, summer is showing its age. There’s gold in them lawns and the green hillsides now show the odd flash of premature red. Too soon the school busses appear, too soon. There’s silence in the north. The songbirds have reared their broods and now head south, leaving a territorial silence behind. The joyous shouts of children squirting each other with a hose are no more.
Only the Red Sox slog on, pretending that summer still reigns as the king of Vermont.
The Dumpster Cooks
This was intended as the first of a series of columns that will eventually be compiled into a James Beard Award-winning book and will form the foundation of a wildly popular show on the Food Network.
I was a very good little boy. When my Mommy told me to clean my plate, I did. Occasionally, she served something that I just couldn’t stomach, and she’d use the “one little bite” gambit, saying “How do you know you don’t like it, unless you try it?” I would agree to the “one little bite” only to have her respond with a heaping shovelful.
But, for the most part, I was glad to leave the plate clean.
Life ensued. There were fewer and fewer food items that I refused to eat. I even started liking pea soup and squash. These days I always clean my plate … always, even without my Mother around to admonish or praise. It’s my thing. I eat what I’m served.
This was not a problem until I began living with a woman who was raised by nuns. (Not literally, I’m invoking what is called “artistic license,” meaning I can lie in print). Nuns, like Moms, tell you to clean your plate. And like me, my partner likes to please, so she always leaves her plate clean. Unlike me, to her the end (a clean plate) justifies the means (scraping her unwanted food onto my plate). After she finishes scraping, she grinds her heel into my stomach by growling:
2. Always use full packages. Leftovers=good. Half-filled pasta boxes on the shelf=bad.
The utterance is enough to dissolve her into mirthful tittles. I, meanwhile, stare helplessly into a small mountain of barely warm, greasy Chinese food that can no longer be recognized for its component parts. It’s now moo-goo-chow-glop. Dutifully, like a WW I soldier at the trenches, I slog onward until it’s gone.
But here’s an unexpected turn of fate. Not only does the Dumpster eat, the Dumpster cooks, and in his own twisted way, he cooks good. I have developed a set of rules, practices, techniques, and philosophies known collectively as The Dumpster Method. Master these nine inviolable principles and you will be able to cook and eat just like the Dumpster:
1. Use it or lose it. The only sin greater than throwing away edible food is forgetting to return the video to the video store, thereby incurring the dreaded late fee. The trick is to transform the food into something yummy before it grows that technicolor mold.
3. Measure with your mouth. Only wussies on the Food Channel measure ingredients with calibrated spoons or cups.
4. When in doubt, put it on the grill.
5. The only unforgivable mistake is overcooking.
6. Eat your other mistakes, and loudly proclaim how good they taste. You will be surprised how many people will believe you.
7. Never use more than a single pot.
8. Garlic is good, more garlic is better.
9. Anything edible can go into a burrito.
Any questions? Now, (a little pause here, as I am about to utter the trademark Dumpster phrase that the studio audience loves to say along) WHAT’S IN THE REFRIGERATOR?
You open up the refrigerator, and you see … nothing. At least you think you see nothing. That’s the difference between you and The Dumpster who sees an impending feast. What’s this? A small jar of capers. What’s this? An onion and a few dried carrots. What’s this? Say no more; time to start cooking.
Boil water for pasta. Le Methode Dumpster (pronounced “Doom-stair”) requires that the properly stocked kitchen always have pasta, burrito skins, black peppercorns, olive oil, garlic, and Parmesan cheese. Everything else is optional.
Add a full box of pasta (remember rule #2) to the pot and stir with a wooden spoon. While the pasta cooks, chop the onion and grate the carrots. When you think the pasta has about a minute left to cook add the onion and carrot. Drain everything into a colander.
Return the pot to the stove (now set to low) and add some olive oil. For those who want a more precise definition of “some” it means “not too little and not too much.” I always start with a little and add a little more. It’s much easier that trying to wipe excess oil off individual pieces of penne.
When the oil is hot add some chopped garlic (in this case “some” means twice as much as any sane person would use.) The garlic is cooked when it turns translucent and the kitchen smells like the back alleys of Naples. Add the contents of the colander to the pot and stir until everything is evenly coated. Quick, rinse the colander with hot water so that you don’t have to wash it.
Add the capers. If you really want to be creative, use up the last of those raisins in the glass jar. And what the heck, throw in a few chopped walnuts. Give the dish an exotic sounding name (Penne Palermo), and serve with Parmesan and ground pepper.
Total cost, next to nothing, only one pot to clean, and people will actually think you know what you are doing. Next, if enthusiasm warrants (meaning, if my editor actually lets me do another cooking column), join The Dumpster as he prepares Mexican Hot Dogs on the grill. Just remember, it all begins with WHAT’S IN THE REFRIGERATOR?
This article appeared originally in the Vermont Sunday Magazine and was also included in the anthology Tales (and More Tails) of Beyonder.