Homemade Caramel Sauce, Or: Icarus in the Kitchen

So that you may compare this short narrative against its stated aims, let me start it by sharing first those aims. One: explain how the “elemental deliciousness” of caramel sauce is one poor judgment call away from being burnt goat milk. Two: explore the feasibility of blaming young children for this unfortunate discovery.

Right then, off we go. Tomorrow is my daughter’s fourth birthday and I plan to put in front of her at some point some French toast. So far, so simple. Any old dolt can dip sliced bread (brioche, naturally) into lightly beaten egg, then fry this eggy bread in butter. It was my slightly more lofty goal to also pour over this French toast some homemade cajeta, which, as my Rick Bayless Mexican cookbook reliably informs me, is more widely known by the name it has in other Latin American countries: dulce de leche.

What, I figured, could possibly go wrong. The recipe has only four ingredients and a mere one extraordinary feature — the length of its cooking time. Milk. Sugar. Cinnamon. Baking soda (half a teaspoon dissolved in one tablespoon of water). You stir these four things together, then simmer, uncovered in a slow cooker, for a day. No really: an actual day — such that the milk slowly (coquettishly) reveals the “natural sweetness” of its sugars. Adds chef Bayless: “After 18 hours or so… begin keeping an eye on it.” (At the risk of doing something injurious to the space-time continuum, hindsight now compels me to call this foreshadowing.)

herbert-james-draper-the-lament-for-icarus-copy

Providence gives with one hand and takes with the other. It turns out, I was to experience these two fates in order. Reading between the lines of my Bayless recipe, it was clear that he placed the “or” between “goat’s milk” and “cow’s milk” strategically, to separate life’s winners and losers. Sure you can settle for the quotidian cow… But why do so drab a thing if, instead, you can locate “the naturally more complex and tangy” goat?

Whole Foods came through for me and I purchased exactly half of its available goat milk: one carton for $7.49. (The other carton was Low Fat, which I presumed to be both less elemental and, therefore, less delicious.)

Back at home, the prep work was minimal. I combined my four ingredients (five, if you prefer to give that tablespoon of water its due), and turned the slow cooker on. Quickly, though, I discovered that the demands of making cajeta are more mental than physical. At least as far as culinary matters are concerned, the urge to do something rather than nothing is strong — even as a young boy, I refused to simply watch my mother cook; instead, I would stir whatever she was cooking, or put the lid on, or turn the heat down just a touch like it was the crucial intervention between so-so and divine. Cajeta has no use for such frivolous fussing. It demands only that you wait, go to bed, and then wait some more in the morning. Thus did my wooden spoon begin a resolute vigil, unmoved, and thus did I also stay mostly out the kitchen.

Roughly five hours into this endeavor, at bedtime, my wife’s muted fear that I might cause a fire overnight still seemed incongruous. The sight of cajeta at this stage is distinctly underwhelming: white, warm milk with a cinnamon stick floating on top — and scarcely a simmering bubble to pierce the placid surface. I went upstairs to sleep.

If I dreamed of cajeta, unfortunately I don’t recall the details. In any case, my younger daughter Isla was evidently keen to replace my morning reveries with her breakfast, waking us all up at 5.30 to press her case. With experience you learn not to fight these losing battles, so downstairs we went.

Enthusiasm is not a sensation I’ve ever experienced before 6 a.m., but, nonetheless, I was pleased to see in my slow cooker a liquid that was, unmistakably, a light shade of brown. It may have been just a fraction thicker, too, and — yes — bubbling a bit.

Already, the following five hours are hazy, as if a much more distant memory. Though the finer points elude me, however, I’m certain that: both my children asked me a great many questions (mostly involving the status of their next snack); both my children became incrementally more restless; and both my children expressed this gathering restlessness in a fashion liable to cause a headache. I remember, too, the cursory last look I took at my cajeta – before, at around 11, we all left for a long drive and a long lunch.

It was, in hindsight, very much cooked. Pleasingly thick. Pleasingly brown. And, no doubt, elementally delicious. The perfect moment, in other words, for me to cast myself as the tragic hero in a tragic tale of my own making. Enter hubris. “There’s no chance,” I said out loud, “that it will burn to the point of becoming inedible.”

Should you ever wonder, I can report that there are approximately 12 Donald Trump yard signs on the road between Princeton and Manville, NJ — a journey that takes about 40 minutes. And, perhaps to the consternation of these assorted Trump supporters, the Lone Star Tacos at Grub Hut, in Manville, are equal parts Tex and Mex, and all the better for it.

You’ll surely have noticed, though, that sharing these observations gives me little pleasure. All the while, back at home, my cajeta burned slowly — to the point of becoming inedible. Black instead of brown: waxy wings scorched by the heat of an indifferent sun.

Kids, eh?

*****

Today’s post soundtracked by:

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Baker, Wilder, Wogan: Cheer Up, It Might Never Happen

I remember watching an interview with the Pollyanna broadcaster Danny Baker in which he relayed a conversation he once had with his wife in an airport bookstore. Frustrated at seeing such an abundance of ‘misery memoirs’ and other similarly unappealing tomes, she turned to him and said: “You know, if they had a book called ‘Nice People Having a Lovely Time,’ I’d buy it.” Danny, true to form, agreed.

Me too, I think. So much of 2016 feels like having a bad headache on a rainy day. Keep the curtains closed, I’ll sit this one out. Outside is grey skies and noise; inside at least I can lie still, close my eyes, and hope to wake up refreshed some time tomorrow.

Click-bait… Cable news… Celebrities… Trump… Terror! Yeah, no thanks. We may be living in a digital age, but it’s an old, analog injunction we’ve spent far too long ignoring: change the record.

Or if nothing else, please let’s change the way it sounds. Must we really be so decisively FOR or AGAINST everything? Must we really be so continuously caffeinated? And quick to offend, and quicker still to take offense? Can we really no longer admit, every once in a while, “I don’t know,” without it seeming lily-livered, incurious, or bland?

Fans Burn Colin Kaepernick Jerseys

For as much as it can be useful and even nourishing, social media can be awful mean and cynical. What we call “the news” would more accurately be described as “bad news.” And, more generally, it feels as though we are daily assailed by reasons to not be cheerful. What gives? Vibes aren’t meant for harshing, yet these days a slew of curmudgeon alternatives are waiting impatiently in line to take their place: complaints, anger, paranoia, bitterness, and, that great unlovely catch-all, persecution of the other.

All of which thinking out loud gets me finally to this, a short clip of Terry Wogan interviewing Gene Wilder:

 

Gentle. Unhurried. Understated. Enigmatic and softly self-depreciating. If more of TV was like this, I’d watch it. And if the world was more like this, well, wouldn’t it be more enjoyable and better.

*****

Today’s post soundtracked by:

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The President and the Prince

What do you think about quantitative easing? Alright, scratch that. What’s your take on reparations for the descendants of enslaved people? Yeah, ok. Let’s move this in a less contentious direction: a penny, please, for your thoughts on Islam.

Or, hey, how about we kick around a theory or two about climate change? Or talk, instead, about LEFT-WING MEDIA BIAS (all caps seems about right)? No? Then maybe pondering the Fermi paradox is more your jam?

I put it to you, dear reader, that never before in the course of human history has it been easier to flatter ourselves into believing just how terribly smart we are. There is so much complexity in the world: who can even remember how un-evolved we used to be?!

And, sure, it’s really not so hard to think generous thoughts about the human race. Some people, some of the time, do extraordinary and brilliant things. And – probably – most people, most of the time, are kind-of-heart, generous, and likable.

But do you ever catch yourself, in more pensive moments, struggling to reconcile all of this with a very different, nagging thought: maybe, in fact, we’re still incredibly dumb? I do.

Especially troubling for me are the following two photos. First, a couple months’ ago, this:

The prince and the president

And then, in today’s Guardian, this:

Nuclear football

In the first of these photos, President Obama is in a palace greeting a royal toddler. In the second, a uniformed military aide is carrying one of America’s three ‘nuclear footballs,’ which enable travelling presidents to launch nuclear strikes if circumstances compel him or her to do so.

The institution of monarchy and the destructive force of nuclear weapons… Imagine humanity starting from scratch, identifying these two things as a desirable goal, then ‘working backwards’ toward realizing them. Surely, that would be absolutely fucking nuts.

Here we all are, though, in 2016, just somehow accepting the concept of hereditary monarchs – even if that must also mean putting on a pedestal one random cute kid in a dressing gown and slippers. And just somehow accepting that all our major population centers can, in a flash, be reduced to ash and rubble if one of several nuclear ‘superpowers’ ever seeks to demonstrate how super is their power – which, after all, didn’t come cheap.

And through it all, of course, we say: my country is better than your country. And my god is better than your god… In a way, it’s almost funny. Until, you know, it isn’t.

Syrian boy

It’s never been easier to know a little bit about something. But what good is that?

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Peas, Potatoes, and the Strange, Unknowable Physics of Parenthood

There’s a moment in The Theory of Everything, the mainstream film about Stephen Hawkins, in which a game attempt is made to explain the “twin pillars of physics… quantum theory and general relativity.” For the benefit of a dinner guest (and us, the audience) Hawkins’ wife holds up a single pea on the end of a fork, to illustrate the former.  Here, she explains, are “the laws that govern the very small particles, electrons, and such.” Then, to demonstrate the latter, she hoists up a potato on the end of a knife. Here are “the laws that govern the very large planets and such.”

Just the one snag, she continues. Quantum theory and general relatively “don’t remotely play by the same rules.”

The Theory of Everything

Back from a long weekend in Washington D.C., where I went with my family for a friend’s wedding, I find myself similarly perplexed by parenthood. How, I wonder, can its daily triumphs and disasters possibly play by the same rules? And how can the best thing to ever happen to me so often feel like the worst?

One unexpected outcome of having children is a sudden increase in empathy for wheelchair users. Pushing around a stroller (or, indeed, two), you soon realize that many places are mighty hard to access and navigate. Steps, heavy doors, and narrow passages become either testing or impossible. Ramps, elevators, and open spaces, likewise are a blessing.

Coco & Isla 5

Our friends’ wedding started at six, and we began our preparations for it at noon. By getting our two young daughters to nap, we reasoned, we’d avoid making an unwanted contribution later in the evening: namely, two cranky souls expressing their crankiness out loud. Apart from a fearsome headache each for mum and dad, all pretty much went to plan  – including the one extra provision my wife insisted upon: arriving early.

Just the one snag, though. Between us and the ceremony was one flight of stairs. No big deal for my two-year-old, Colette, but a premature goodbye to the comforts of a stroller for my one-year-old, Isla. Late in the day, we figured, she’d be ready for sleep – and, in her stroller, we’d ease her gently back-and-forth along the way.

Coco & Isla 2

Cut forward half-an-hour. Isla is neither asleep nor happy, and Colette is neither settled nor quiet. There’s, maybe, two-hundred of us in a relatively small space, and standing-room-only at the back. Increasingly – and intuitively – it feels like there’s trouble ahead, no matter how sweet our girls look in their pretty little dresses. Sure enough…

In the universal, time-honored way of doing so – by going shush – a man in the middle of the room gets everyone’s attention. Very effectively: as the wedding party enter between two rows of seats, an excited hush replaces the loud chatter of moments before. Except, it seems, for my two. Colette took great delight in joining in the shushing, but, in a way that rapidly became incongruous, didn’t ever stop. And, for her part, Isla picked a fine time to amplify her fidgeting with crying. The entrance of bride and groom.

Our exit followed fairly swiftly. I’m not sure there’s much credit to be had in leaving a wedding before it really starts… but, well, I didn’t want to be that guy with those kids.

Coco & Isla 1

Moments later the ceremony began. Me and my two daughters: downstairs in a large empty room where the reception would follow. Everyone else: upstairs, enjoying what I was unmistakably missing. Oh, and soundtracking my growing feeling of failure and despair with laughter and applause.

Colette and Isla, meanwhile, treated their new surroundings with indifference (to the point of falling fast asleep in Isla’s case). We three circled round the empty room until it was socially acceptable to leave, and then, a four again, we left.

Coco & Isla 4

Defeated, once again, by the strange, unknowable physics of parenthood; adrift in space, sad, and still, somehow, happy.


* A whole year went by between starting this post and finishing it. Which probably says just as much about parenthood. Or I how manage it, at least.

*****

Today’s post soundtracked by:

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I hate that bitch

Forty-four people have been America’s President – a group that includes exactly zero women.

So of all the things Hillary Clinton must overcome between now and the next presidential election, must misogyny really be one of them? I mean, seriously.

Unfortunately, I’m asking not so much because of the predictable braying of the right – but instead after seeing, with dispiriting regularity, Hillary denigrated from the left. Even allowing for the regular roughness of political discourse on Facebook, it’s surely shameful how often Hillary is referred to as “a bitch.” Or “that bitch.” And it flat-out floors me that such a designation should ever come from a liberal – specifically, in my experience, several who consider Hillary to be insufficiently left of center, or not left at all.

Bernie Sanders

Well, my friends, there is nothing liberal about calling any woman a bitch. This vitriolic election season, especially, if you find yourself on the brink of doing so… how about, instead, you follow that old reassuring line that teaches children how best to cross a road: stop, look, and listen.

Think a few more thoughts before adding yet more noise and unpleasantness to what is, unmistakably, an already loud and unpleasant political climate. So you object on various fronts to Hillary becoming our next president? Ok. But at what point does the strength of your objection twist and turn from useful to useless?

Two answers come to mind. One: when liberals help to prop up misogyny. Two: when Donald Trump becomes America’s 45th president.

Donald Trump

So you’re fed up with the two-party system, and want a revolution? Ok. But why pave the way with so many blunt instruments: self-righteousness, certainty, and invective. (Or as the conservative journalist David Brooks puts it, “moral preening, an uncompromising absolutism and a paranoid unwillingness to play by the rules of civic life.”) After all, if the thing you’re critiquing is a too-rigid status quo – maybe your critique shouldn’t also be so rigid.

Putting aside “bitch” for a moment, is Hillary Clinton really the “lesser of two evils” in her opposition to Trump? Rather than objectively and quantifiably a better bet for America and the world. And are Hillary’s shortcomings really thrown into such dreadful relief by Bernie Sanders, who, by some reductive logic, is held to be such a paragon of virtue? Or is she, simply, flawed – like all politicians are, Bernie included. Like everybody.

Sure, when it comes to holding our elected officials – our presidential candidates – to a higher standard: count me in! For a change, though, let’s also hold America to a higher standard.

On both sides of the political aisle, a dogged belief in American exceptionalism is so ubiquitous it starts to pass by almost unnoticed. America is either the greatest country on earth already (anywhere else Joe Biden’s DNC speech would seem ridiculous; here it’s par for the course) – or, God willing, it’s about to be “Great Again” (the Trump claim currently adorning many heads, thanks, infamously, to baseball caps made in China). How corrosive is this belief? More to the point, how greatly does it impede the reaching of more sober conclusions?

By any reasonable standards, America’s forming of “a more perfect union” has a long way to go. On the debit side of things I would pick: the zealous intolerance of the Christian right; gun crime; the still-bleeding and not-yet-fully-reckoned-with original sin of slavery; macho, might-is-right militarism that is recklessly close to imperialism; and the sad disconnect between giant, avaricious corporations and millions of Americans living in poverty. You’ll no doubt have other or similar picks, as well.

Hillary Clinton

Forget the jingoistic flag-waving, slogans, and empty rhetoric, America is a real place with real problems. In the long pursuit of fixing these, why should it get to play by a different set of rules? You can respond to the ills of America with cynicism or anger – but these alone won’t fuel the hard-work of doing better. Just the same, though, idealism on its own can only accomplish so much.

Let’s not overstate the capacity of any one person – or office, or generation – to bolster, or restore, America’s mythical ‘greatness.’ And let’s not disproportionately blame any one person – or office, or generation – for everything currently, or historically, impeding this greatness.

Instead, let’s size up America as it really is – now – and reach a more sober conclusion. If Hillary Clinton is not the next president of America, then Donald Trump will be. That’s a choice between bending the arc of progress towards justice – or not. Between helping to establish a more progressive Supreme Court – or not. Between presenting America more favorably to the world – or not.

Even if you’d prefer to pick between different choices, it’s way past time to stop calling Hillary a bitch.

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Nigel Farage: Bringing Shit All Back Home

Today: some Bob Dylan lyrics, interspersed with some Nigel Farage photos.

Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is pilin’ up, we struggle and we scrape
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape

Nigel Farage Pallid Deadbeat

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

Idiot wind blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe
//
Now everything’s a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped
What’s good is bad what’s bad is good you’ll find out when you reach the top
You’re on the bottom.

Nigel Farage Wretched Cretin

I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you.

Nigel Farage Crashing Dullard

You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who’s never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me babe

Nigel Farage Malignant Cur

The line it is drawn the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a’ changin’

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You Still Don’t Get It.

Just a few feet in front of me: something remarkable and transfixing. But what exactly? After all, I was only watching a TV show on Netflix.

*****

I think sometimes about the strange circumstances of my life now, relative to my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. I’m from the South London suburbs: white, heterosexual, male, middle-class, and English.

Now – though all these things about me are still true – I live and work in America. And my job, in particular, positions me a long way from what used to be my home, and compels me, incrementally, to question, not amplify, the assumptions and assertions of my past.

The giant past of England and its former empire, and the many things people like me inherit from this past – consciously or otherwise.

UKIP Tories

My employer provides supportive housing, job training, and other support services to people with histories of mental illness, institutionalization, incarceration, and homelessness. And my work, in a fundraising capacity, involves meeting many of these people and helping to share their stories.

These stories may be few, but their details are often exceptional and vivid. Depression struck one man, one day, “like a pin” – deflating him and leaving him in this state for the next 10 months. A woman saw the corpse of her father after he committed suicide, by setting himself alight with lighter fluid. “Anything in the bathroom that was plastic,” she said, “melted on to his body.” This same woman later served in Iraq, for the US Army, suffering panic attacks and despairing daily that war and death are inexorably twinned. “What are we doing here,” she asked. “Young recruits, fresh out of high school – and Iraqi kids, you know, dying.”

Another woman lost her home one Thanksgiving to a fire – “Everything was burned out, even down to my can opener” – and wound up homeless for the next 11 years. Another told me she was raped by two police officers and, later, sexually abused in prison. And another man inherited from his father a long, lonely fight against addiction. He was on his way to an AA meeting in the West Village “when 9/11 happened,” this terrible event anchoring in time the start of his recovery.

Many times I wonder, why are you sharing so much, so candidly? Maybe not knowing me makes it somehow easier? Maybe sharing a story lightens the load of it a little? Either way, though, I think: perhaps my wondering is a kind of conceit. When you pass oppression, injustice, and pain through the filters of being white, heterosexual, male, middle-class, and English… well, they are too easily abstracted.

What good is this abstraction? What is being illuminated, exactly, and for whom? With increasingly clarity, my answers to these questions are: not much; a small part of the whole; and – me, most of all, giving myself far too inflated a role. Why share so much, so candidly? Because everyone has their reasons.

Especially in these uncertain times, what, if anything, can guide us more surely forward? How can we be more empathetic, more often – more hopeful, and more humble? Whoever you are, look around and wonder: how can I begin to oppose the forces of oppression? Of injustice. Of xenophobia. Of misogyny.

Nigel Farage Breaking Point Poster

Speaking only for myself, these questions have never felt more urgent. As a parent, hoping against hope that the world has better things in store for my two young daughters. And – oh my – as a white, heterosexual, male, middle-class Englishman living in America, grappling with the hard facts of Orlando, Donald Trump, and Brexit.

I don’t know what the answers are. But something about this gathering gloom steels us for the search. I’m tired of the feeling that liberals wage an unwinnable war – and that great advances can’t happen now. Fuck that. Let’s redouble our efforts.

If the slogans and rhetoric of a demagogue look and sound hollow and hateful, well, they probably are – whether or not their appeal originates in people and places left behind and hurt.

If old white people keep on saying, “I don’t recognize this country any more,” tell them: let’s make it better then, for everyone.

If someone says, “I don’t believe in gay marriage,” answer: it’s none of your goddamn business.

If a woman’s reproductive rights are taken away from her, join her fight to get them back.

For my daughters and their precious generation, most of all, let’s sing another song already.

And if you still don’t get it: catch up.

*****

Anthony Bourdain, the white American host of a CNN travel show, is visiting an Iranian family in their home, enjoying greatly their hospitality and food. Within this so-called “axis of evil,” we watch him be a gracious guest, sit still, and listen.

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