Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The Alchemist

The other night, nobody in our house felt like going shopping. It was dark and rainy, we were all dog-tired, and what with the speedometer of our car taking a holiday -- quite apart from the weird clunking noise the car has started to make -- no one felt like hiking twenty minutes down the hill, then back, just to do some shopping for dinner.

In the refrigerator we had some old mashed potatoes, five slices of stale lunch meat, leftover spaghetti, a jar of pesto with about a tablespoon of contents left, and maybe one third of a pint of sour milk. In the cupboards were a few withered onions, a green pepper that could never have been eaten raw given its state, and some cooking apples. My husband took one look at this and threw up his hands. My kids took one look at this and almost threw up. And me? I can't say I felt inspired, but I remembered a night some years back when I still lived in Northern Japan.

It was February, and it had been snowing heavily. Two friends were over, Wendy from Canada and Li from China, and we were sitting at the kotatsu, a low table with a heating element underneath, covered with a blanket. There is nothing cozier than a kotatsu, and though all of us were hungry, none of us felt like going out in the snow to shop for dinner. Plus, it was late.

"I'll cook," said Li, getting up.

Wendy and I, knowing what was in -- or not in -- my cupboards, couldn't help laughing. Li, a nuclear engineering student, was a fabulous cook, but in my refrigerator were three utterly disgusting spring onions, a little milk, and nothing else. In my cupboards were cooking oil, salt, sesame oil, and flour. Even an alchemist has to start with something; you might be able to conjure gold from lead, but who could make it from dust?

Actually, Li probably could. He went into my kitchen and started nosing around. "You've got flour!" he cried happily. Wendy and I looked at each other. So I had flour? So what?

"And salt!" he called over his shoulder. We shrugged and went back to our conversation.

"And onions, and a couple of cloves of garlic!"

I was amazed: I'd forgotten all about that garlic. I'm not sure if I hadn't actually thrown it away.

We heard Li lighting my two-burner stove, heard him chopping something -- oh God, no, not the onions! -- followed by the sounds of something being whisked. And then, a few minutes later, we could smell something that made our stomachs rumble.

"Have you got tea?" Li called out.

"Yes -- Jasmine and Assam. Top cupboard on the left, behind the jar of ten-yen coins."

"Got it."

Wendy and I, being of little faith, had resigned ourselves to no dinner, when Li came back bearing a steaming plate of thin, light golden pancakes and a pot of jasmine tea. Each pancake was as light and airy as puff pastry, and deliciously savory. Some were onion flavored, some were garlic, and the rest were glazed with sesame oil. I've eaten some good meals in my time, but I still remember those pancakes with awe and longing. I lost track of Li after I left Sendai, but I have never forgotten him -- or whoever he eventually married. Lucky, lucky, lucky Mrs Li: my kitchen was cleaner when he was finished with it than it had been to begin with.

So the other night, I did a Li. I sauteed the onion and pepper, mixed it into the leftover spaghetti, and tossed the whole thing together with chopped up lunch meat. The sour milk and mashed potatoes got made into savory pancakes with the pesto, so we even had an appetizer. The cooking apples got baked with cinnamon, so we would have had dessert, but my kids refused to eat them because they weren't sweet enough. Still I didn't throw them away: they went into applesauce the next day.

But that's another story.


debra said...

Great story, Mary. These can be the best kinds of meals. Kind of a stone soup thing.

The Quoibler said...

This post is so inspirational! I love experimenting in the kitchen, especially with ingredients that don't appear to "work" together at first glance.

Christy said...

Yum. My Chinese friend makes thousand layer bread that sounds a lot like those pancakes. It's oniony and heavenly.

Kim Ayres said...

Do you ever watch "Ready, Steady, Cook"?

I did enjoy your soup the other week, I must admit.

Church Lady said...

I love this story. It is amazing what you can make with just a few ingredients.

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- I was going to entitle this 'Stone Soup,' but when I mentioned this story to friends recently, none of them knew what I was talking about! You would have gotten it: you and I have obviously read the same book of fairy tales.

Quoibler -- Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention, trite phrase that that is. And in our household, necessity usually gives rise to invention in the kitchen.

Christy -- I'll bet that is what Li made. He really was one of the most inventive and talented cooks I've ever met, and he didn't consider himself one, either. And his sister was just as good as he was, too.

Kim -- I've heard of that show, but never watched it as we don't have our t.v. connected. But the soup I made the other day was entirely made from normal, unrecycled ingredients -- scouts' honor.

CL -- Thank you. I think our forefathers were able to make great things from very little, and we have lost the art nowadays. Li had this ability in spades, and I now strive to emulate him.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

This is great. You're right. I reckon we've let a lot of the old skills fall away in the lands of plenty. Well done on your make-do spirit. It's inspiring.

Gorilla Bananas said...

This resourcefulness in the kitchen reminds me of my friend Ray Mears, who has a similar philosophy to the great outdoors. If the kitchen really is empty, you can always venture into the garden for wild herbs, berries, tubers and insects. Yum!

Phil said...

Crikey, leaving comments here isn't easy Mary! What a performance.

Anyway. As ever, enjoyed the read. I'll have to visit a little more regularly to get a regular Witzl dose. Do you post every day?

Take care.

Phil (GW)

The Anti-Wife said...

It really is amazing how resourceful we can be when we have to. Great post.

A Paperback Writer said...

Oh bravo! Very impressive.
When I lived in Edinburgh, I joined the local historical reinactment society because it had delightfully fun people in it. (since most were Scots, they called it Perfidious Albion. I was amused.)
Round about Bonfire Night, they had a huge banquet, renting a hall at a local church. I, being of very low rank in the society, volunteered to be a kitchen wench. Only one other cook showed up, and only a few people brought the Renaissance dishes they had been assigned to bring.
The other girl and I readied what food there was, but it was apparent there would not be enough. there was plenty of flour, cooking wine, cinnamon, lots of butter, and a few eggs (left over from an eggs with mustard sauce that I'd brought). PLUS, we were under strick instructions that, although we could use modern cooking methods and cleanliness standards, we were only to serve period-appropriate foods.
Fine. Well, I created a half-pudding/half-puffed pancake thing with the ingredients that I had, frying it in butter until it puffed delicately brown. It was served as the final course, straight from the pan. People loved it and asked wherever I had found such a recipe.
It was nowhere near as varied and clever as your adventure, but it fed and satisfied hungry and picky guests without embarrassing the host for the evening.

A Paperback Writer said...

Uh, typo.
"Strict" -- sorry.

Carole said...

I always think food made out of imagination and a bare cupboard adds to the flavor. I always try to keep extra flour, sugar, and salt on hand for just such occasions. And onions. Onions help everything.

Paul said...

Hi Mary. Thank you for your comment on my blog - very kind.

I read your story of alchemy and then read Kanani's blog about Writer X and Writer Y, and I couldn't help thinking that those two writers would do well to stop squabbling and start working on some Stone Soup of their own!

Mary Witzl said...

Sam -- Hokey though it sounds, I really do believe a little adversity wouldn't hurt those of us who grow up with a surfeit of luxuries, spoiled for choices. I'll never forget the shock I got when I came back to the States after a few weeks in Mexico and Guatemala. The one thing we were desperately lacking was lack itself.

GB -- If the kitchen REALLY were empty, we'd all be fighting each other for snails and earthworms, no doubt about it. Dibs on the blueberries, wild garlic and crabapples.

Phil -- I try to post every three to five days, given the state of my writer's block and usually after a night of insomnia. I'm writing another novel, and the blog offers me a wonderful distraction -- and the gratifying idea that at least someone is reading what I write. I keep hoping that more of my favorite GW people will start blogs (Sue has one now!) and I can meet you all there. Pass along the idea, if you will -- a schoolteacher's blog would be fantastic, and you could let off some steam that way, too!

Anti-wife -- I agree. Though anyone who has lived through serious deprivation would leave me in the dust in terms of resourcefulness.

APW -- I like the fact that your society tried to match the food with the period. I remember seeing a group of Japanese reenacting some battle from the Tokugawa period; they were snacking on MacDonald's hamburgers, and it just ruined the whole effect.

And isn't it funny that people don't realize how a few simple ingredients can make a very nice dish? I had a housemate once who thought I was Julia Child because I knew how to steam fish, and the kids who come to our house on Halloween can't get over the fact that I pop my own corn. It's like being admired for being able to tie your own shoes, or something. Though come to think of it, tying your own shoes is becoming more and more of a rare skill.

Carole -- Onions really help make things special! I try and fry a few onions when people get hungry; it makes them think that dinner's on its way and get off my back.

Paul -- Welcome back to the blog world! I was sorry to hear about your father, but cheered to read about his life and how much he got from his art. Living a life well and joyfully is so much more important than becoming famous or amassing great fortunes. Not that it wouldn't be great if we couldn't do a lot of the former and maybe a very little of the latter too.

Kanani said...

Great job, Mary! Yes, we make do with what we have.

In our house, the minute I get paid,I spend most of it on food. Or as I tell my daughter when we go to the bank, "housepayment, food, utilities... anything else is extra." At the end of the month, the pickings can get scant.

Right now we're getting down to the odds and ends in the freezer. Once a month, I go to the butcher and buy all the meats. I fill in all month with the dry staples from my pantry. If I see something on sale, I buy it.

Those pancakes sound wonderful. I'm up early. I think I'll get cooking breakfast.

K8 the Gr8 said...

Wow! Fair play :)

Isn't it great how resoursefulness increases with laziness?

Problem Child Bride sent me over here for some frugality tips, I'm glad she did... your blog is excellent!

Katie Alender said...

I always seem to get motivated to try that kind of thing, and then always discover that we should have just ordered take out before I made a huge inedible mess in the kitchen!

Danette Haworth said...

Oh, Mary! I want some of that sesame glazed pancake Li made.

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- I remember reading something about a character in a book who had been poor; after he got rich, the one thing he missed the most was the small economies he'd had to resort to -- and the excitement of finding a $5 bill he'd forgotten about in his pocket. This is how I feel. Not having enough money is a bummer, but I'm sure that having too much would be more soul destroying. And that's what I'm going to keep telling myself.

Potato and pesto pancakes are great with a little creme fraiche and smoked salmon, garnished with a basil leaf -- next time payday comes I'm going to make some myself!

Kate -- I just read your post, and it made me smile. There is nothing as nice as someone reinforcing what you've just written. And no wonder I'm so resourceful. One thing I've always got more than enough of is laziness.

Katie -- Ooh, you ought to see some of the God-awful things I've conjured up! My husband is notorious too; when he tries to use leftovers creatively, the result is usually scary. The other day he amazed me, though, by recycling leftovers into a delicious meal. He was pretty hazy about what was in it, too, which means he's really caught on.

Danette -- Me too! Unfortunately, though, all I've got here is applesauce... I'm still kicking myself for not watching Li make those pancakes. He taught Wendy and me to make gyoza once, and I can still do it.

Carolie said...

This really is a "Stone Soup" story! I love that story, and incorporate it in my storytelling quite often.

My wedding was a "Stone Soup" event as well, as my caterer bowed out (or passed out -- I believe he made an unplanned visit to rehab) at the last minute, and everyone I knew pitched in to make soups for the reception. (Yes, Mary, I will save that story for a blog post! Ha ha!)

I loved this post, and adore that sort of creativity. I actually think it's more fun to try and figure out how to create a satisfying meal out of just a few odds and ends than it is to stare at a fully stocked pantry and make a decision. I think the limits inspire more creative thinking! Besides, with my luck, when I think I have "everything" and begin to cook, invariably I find that I'm missing one vital ingredient, such as baking powder or capers or something. In that case, the finished dish is nowhere near as good as something I might have concocted using nothing but a can of coconut milk, a sprouting potato, a packet of turkey pepperoni, some very hot Korean chili paste and a few martini olives!

Ok, perhaps I won't use those particular ingredients all in one dish, but since I just arrived home after a month's absence and all I've got in the house at the moment are the ingredients mentioned above plus rice (of course), a few more condiments and a few cans of this and that, I believe I have some creative thinking to do! Thanks for the inspiration, Mary!

Carolie said...

Oh..I loved your comment to Carole about frying onions for the kitchen smells when people are hungry!

I have a friend who often serves her husband pre-packaged, already-cooked foods, including that pre-made pot roast and pre-grilled chicken one can now buy in the grocery stores (ick). He thinks she's a fantastic cook and that she makes everything from scratch, because she'll often take a single onion, stud it with a few cloves, toss it in a saucepan to brown a bit, then put in some water and let it boil. When the husband comes home, the air is filled with the scent of onions and cloves, and he thinks she's slaved away all day! (She throws the onion and cloves away once they've done their job...such waste!)

He must not have much of a palate though, as that pre-packaged pot roast doesn't exactly taste of onions and cloves!

Kara said...

i was afraid that story would be all set up and i'd never know what you had for dinner. i can't take suspense like that. thank yahweh you delivered.

how do you create suspense in a story about dinner anyway? unnatural is what you are. but, like, in a good way.

The Quoibler said...

Mary: FYI -- this wonderful post has inspired my first contest at Recess for Writers! Thank you! :)

divatobe said...

as I am in grad school--both time and $$ are limited, so I am learning to cook in this manner and it's surprisingly fun!

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- I told my kids your great story about your wedding, and they actually cheered at the part about your bridesmaid and the fact that you skipped your manicure, rolled up your sleeves, and got down to making some SOUP. If you don't write a blog post with just that story, what a waste! Really: my kids were thrilled with it, and impressing teenagers takes some doing.

I am torn between admiration for your friend and her wily ways and dismay that anyone buys that awful supermarket fodder and actually gets away with it. And her husband sounds like my father: he'd shovel in just about anything and be filled with nothing but praise for the cook.

But as for all those ingredients you described, what a great dish that sounds like: coconut milk, sprouting potato (well, we know it hasn't been radiated if it's got sprouts coming out of it!), turkey pepperoni, and spicy Korean paste -- ooh, I think I'll try that sometime!

Kara -- Don't worry: I would never leave you in that kind of suspense. I hate it when people start interesting stories, then abandon them midway just as it gets really juicy, leaving me hanging.

Quoibler -- I am in danger of getting a swollen head, being the inspiration for a contest. What an honor! I've been over to your site and seen it, and I'm determined to give it a go.

Diva -- Yes, cooking like this IS fun, though admittedly not if you have to do it all the time. Before our kids came along, my husband and I had good jobs and never had to scrimp. Cooking just wasn't as much fun then: no challenge at all.

Friends of mine were in the music department at Princeton, by the way, and I wondered if you might know them -- or is this as dumb asking if you know Jose Hernandez from Los Angeles...? (I tried to get onto your blog to ask you about that, but couldn't...)

divatobe said...

oh, if you send me your email to, I'll add you to my blog permissions.

I'm at Westminster, so I don't know people at Princeton--yet. We have a concert there tonight, so I may begin to make musical connections there.

Ello said...

My mom is a cook like that. Unfortunately, that is an ability that did not get passed down with her genes, curse her! But don't people like that just make you so envious?

Mary Witzl said...

Diva -- Thanks! I will do that.

Ello -- Too bad you didn't inherit this, because I think it MUST be heridary sometimes: Li's sister, who was studying literature at Tohoku University where Li was studying engineering, was an incredible cook too. She lived in a tiny room, with a two-burner gas cooker like mine. One day she invited a few of us over for a meal. It was a proper banquet -- seven or eight different absolutely fantastic dishes -- all prepared in that tiny room on that two-burner stove.

Carolie said...

Ooo I have to know who your musical friends at Princeton were, as I've got musical friends from Princeton! (They're now GrooveLily...