From the Books: “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter” (a repost)

From the archives:

I don’t own this book yet. But I’ve had it checked out of the library a majority of the weeks it’s been in the collection, which means that it’s well past time for me to get off my ass and buy a copy, innit? Anyway, Jennifer Reese‘s Make the Bread, Buy the Butter (subtitled What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook From Scratch) is a terrific cookbook. Not just a collection of recipes, it’s a chronicle of one woman’s quest to take more of a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach to her family’s food preparation, and the discoveries she made along the way that there are some things that you certainly should make for yourself (either because it’s easier, or cheaper, or just plain better, or all three), and that there are other things that you’re just fine buying for yourself at the store.

I haven’t done a whole lot of cooking out of the book yet (one new wrinkle is The Wife’s adoption of a gluten-free diet, which has us going in other food directions currently), but there are a lot of good insights here on food and making it yourself and the fact that sometimes it’s just fine to not do things from scratch. The book is full of frank observations, like this:

If bay leaf didn’t exist, would anyone miss it? I’ve never tasted anything and thought, This stew is just crying out for bay leaf. But I keep buying and using it nonetheless.

And Reese’s explorations are hard-core. This isn’t just about making your own breads or spice mixes or your own peanut butter. She writes about keeping — and killing — her own chickens, and keeping goats. She writes about making her own hot dogs (her conclusion? Just buy ’em.). And she writes thusly about a dish that’s wonderful when made at home, but may or may not be worth all the effort: fried chicken.

One rainy Sunday a few years ago, Isabel, Owen, and I decided to pass the afternoon by watching a DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring, that movie about hobbits and elves and Orcs that we’d been hearing about. One hundred and seventy-eight minutes later, during which we neither moved nor spoke, we looked at each other, eyes glazed. We walked straight to the car, drove to the video store, and rented The Two Towers and The Return of the King. It was getting on dusk when I pulled into the Kentucky Fried Chicken down the hill and bought dinner.

My kids were shocked. Happy, but shocked. What was going on with Mom? KFC? I wondered that myself. But we were hungry and the chicken was hot and we had five more hours of Viggo Mortensen to watch. Fifteen minutes after I pulled into the KFC, we were back on the sofa with the bucket on the coffee table, eating mediocre chicken and mashed potatoes and biscuits and watching The Two Towers. It was one of the happiest nights of my adult life and my children still get dreamy and nostalgic talking about it.

Not long ago, I cooked a grand fried chicken dinner out of Ad Hoc At Home by Thomas Keller. I bought the book based on rave reviews of Keller’s chicken, which is brined and air-dried before it is dipped in multiple coatings and fried. The effort paid off; the recipe did not disappoint. TO go with that incredible chicken — because you can’t serve fried chicken without fixins — I mashed potatoes and baked biscuits. There was a salad in there somewhere, too. Frying chicken is messy and nerve-racking because oil spatters and spits and stings your forearms and you have to do it at the last minute, which is also when you’re mashing potatoes and pulling biscuits out of the oven and pouring glasses of water and calling to everyone that dinner is ready. Leave it in the pan too long, and the chicken is ruined; take it out too soon and it’s a health hazard. You really have to be up for the logistical challenge.

And fried chicken comes with baggage: You expect fried chicken to be so good that people lick their fingers. Literally. You expect people to linger at the table and loosen their belts, lean back in their chairs, tell stories, pull out a bottle of corn likker. You expect people to somehow recognize that this isn’t a meal like all other meals.

Sometimes all of that will happen.

Sometimes it will not.

By the time we sat down, I was bleak with exhaustion, everyone was ravenous, and we put away that chicken in about ten minutes flat. The coating formed a crispy sheath around meat that, thanks to brining, was juicy and flavorful through to the bone. The potatoes were a celestial cloud of starch and butter; the biscuits, perfection. But I don’t remember a thing anyone said; I don’t remember anyone lingering at the table or thanking me or recognizing that the meal was special or iconic or hanging around afterward to drink corn likker. One of these days I will forget the evening ever happened. I suspect Mark and the children already have. But that night we ate KFC on the sofa and watched The Two Towers? That, we will never forget.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that the symbols of wholesome domestic happiness — hot biscuits, a platter of home-fried free-range chicken, a family sitting around a table — are not domestic happiness. The family sitting in front of the TV with the bucket may be experiencing more joy and grace and love. Or, of course, they may not be.

Should you make your own fried chicken or buy KFC? Reese says there’s no easy answer to that, and I tend to agree. I’ve made my own fried chicken, and had a good time doing it. And you can probably tell by my self-photos that I’ve had my share of KFC.

I need to buy this book…and even after I do, I’ll probably keep checking it out periodically, just to keep its circulation numbers up.

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