Lately, I have found myself jealous of certain food authors recounting their childhoods. A boy's summer spent on his grandfather's farm, ripping corn from its stalk and running in the direction of the nearest pot of boiling water is one example. My summers were spent digging holes in the front yard.
I have also caught myself revising my own history-- substituting myself for a bug-eyed little girl listening to her grandmother as she passed on the secrets of her kitchen, instead of getting kicked out of my own grandmother's space to go play croquet by myself on the lawn so she could watch the stock market reports in peace.
My childhood was, culinarily speaking, as flat and uninspiring as the suburban Orange County landscape it inhabited. No farmer's markets and not much in the way of ethnic food apart from the El Taco down the street.
I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not alone.
It is possible I had a childhood to be envied. Perhaps that little boy with the corn would have found my life fascinating, living in the shadow of Disneyland's Matterhorn as I did. Maybe that girl in the kitchen would have preferred to trade places with me and pretend sand creatures would eat her feet if she let them stray off her towel at cigarette-butt-and-beer-can-littered Huntington Beach. Doubtful, but possible.
When I cut through the film of jealousy that sometimes hazes my own memory, I can accept my own past, though it might be considered bland by some; nothing out of the ordinary at all. We must all make the best out of how and where we have lived, plucking up our own happy memories when and where we can find them. And that is just what I intend to do...
Suburbia is not devoid of culinary pleasure. The occasional trip to the Bob's Big Boy was one such joy for me. My regular meal consisted a hamburger patty on a bun, french fries and a chocolate shake. It never varied. It was as safe and familiar as I wanted my life to be. That's about as much power as a five-year-old can have over his own environment.
The burger was fine, once dressed with sufficient ketchup, but it merely served to satisfy hunger. It was the other two items I cared about. The chocolate shake would arrive in a tall powdered steel cup, the ice cream too thick to suck through a straw and so cold the condensation on the outside of the metal froze. I would clutch the cup with my fingertips, counting off the seconds until the coldness burned, bringing my fingers back to life with a warm french fry. I did not dip the potato into the shake , but dragged it across the top, smoothing the surface, like some starchy Zamboni. Though the crunch and salt and heat of those fries harmonized beautifully with the cold chocolate sweetness of that shake, I doubt I would have cared to articulate it. Entertaining myself with what was readily at hand was, in all likelihood, more important.
It is one of my earliest memories of giving thought not only to what I ate but how I ate it. I know it could not have lasted more than two or three minutes. Fries get cold. Chocolate shakes melt. Children lose interest. Besides, I had the business of stripping a comic book Big Boy of his masculinity with my sister's four-colored Bic pen to attend to.
At least it was a beginning.
As a lifetime lover of the french fry and the shake, I understand that they are easier to acquire elsewhere than to make at home. You could get in your car or walk down the street, wait in line, open your wallet and return home with the fries still marginally warm and the shake not completely melted before you've even finished soaking the homemade version's potatoes in cold water, but try it sometime. Just try making them for yourself, if only this once. Have a couple of friends over to enjoy them with you. Or, if you have no friends, stay in your pajamas all day and consume them in a semi-fetal position on your couch while watching a film whose characters relate to each other on both a romantic and socio-economic level you could never even hope achieve. If choosing the latter, I would suggest leaving the alcohol out of the shake recipe for your own good.
French Fried Potatoes at Home
This is a slightly altered version of a recipe found in The Best Recipe by the good people at Cooks Illustrated.
4 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4 x 1/4-inch-lengths
1 quart peanut oil
1 quart canola oil
4 tablespoons strained bacon grease. (The original authors state that this ingredient is optional. As a true lover of bacon, I am inclined to disagree.)
1. Rinse cut fries in a large bowl under cold running water until water turns from milky colored to clear. Cover with water and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (this can be refrigerated up to 3 days ahead).
2. In a 5-quart pot or Dutch oven fitted with a clip-on-the-pot candy thermometer (I highly recommend one of these if you plan on deep frying anything ever), heat oil over medium-low heat to 325 degrees. As oil heats, add bacon grease. The oil will bubble up when you add the fries, so be sure you have at least 3 inches of room at the top of the pot.
3. Pour off water, wrap potatoes in a clean towel and thoroughly pat dry. Increase heat to medium-high and add fries, a handful at a time, to the hot oil. Fry, stirring with a skimmer or large-holed slotted spoon, until potatoes are limp and start to turn from white to blond. (I found myself hung up on this step. Blond? French potatoes are identified as female in gender, so I would opt for blonde. But which shade?), 6 to 8 minutes. (Oil temperature will drop 50 to 60 degrees during this frying .) Use skimmer or slotted spoon to transfer fries to paper towels to drain; rest at least 10 minutes. These can stand at room temperature up to two hours.
4. When ready to serve the fries, reheat oil to 350 degrees. Place potatoes into hot oil. Fry potatoes, stirring constantly, until golden brown and puffed, about 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl lined with several layers of paper towels and drain. Season to taste with kosher salt (or whatever salt you feel is necessary, but I wouldn't waste the good stuff. These are french fries, you don't need to show off.)
Chocolate Bourbon Shake
This recipe is as fast and easy to make as the ice cream headache you'll get from drinking it too quickly. And before you ask, no, I never added bourbon to my shake at the Big Boy. I have simply updated the recipe to suit my more adult tastes.
2 cups vanilla ice cream
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup chocolate syrup
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces bourbon whisky. Not that I'm one to tell people what to do, but I would advise against putting any more than this into the mix or it will taste boozy. If your doctor says you need more alcohol in your diet, pour yourself a supplement on the side.
Shaved chocolate for garnish, if the mood strikes.
1. Place all ingredients in some sort of blending machine (My ex broke my blender three years ago and I've never bothered to replace it, so I used my Cuisinart). Combine until smooth.
2. Pour into drinking vessels of your choice and
a. Drink immediately or...
b. Place shakes in your freezer until ready to drink for a thicker consistency. This trick has the added advantage of giving the glasses a frosty look that says "you are not an after-thought" to your guests.
If you are of the mind to serve these two recipes together, I would suggest preparing the shakes ahead of time and placing them in freezer as mentioned above.
One of the most pleasant things about french fries, apart from their palatability, is that they most often show up on one's plate as if out of thin air. They are intended to play a supporting role. Like some crunchy, salted pile of Hattie MacDaniels, they offer a welcome break from the scene-chewing tactics of the burger or hangar steak they have been cast against to make look good.
When preparing fries at home, the air from which they appear is not thin, but thick with the scent of hot grease and, perhaps, your own tears. Making them will not provide you with any sort of instant gratification, unless the thrill of 350 degree oil leaping from the pot and onto your naked flesh is your sort of thing. It is a fairly laborious process, but not without it's rewards. I promise.
Whip up a batch for friends or family or someone you would like to sleep with. Nothing says "I love you" quite like frying up a fistful of starch in hot oil and bacon grease. Nothing I can think of, anyway.
Perhaps the next time you visit your neighborhood diner or burger joint, you might stop and think about those fries lying there on your plate. Go ahead, pick one up and dip it into your chocolate shake. Revel in the commonplace. Pull out your flask and pour in some bourbon, but as discretely as possible. If you get caught, I won't be held responsible.