Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you apple and plum

The other night in Brunswick, late in the evening, after we’d all drunk a lot of wine and the conversation had turned free-form and far-ranging, my friend Genevieve posited that the movie “Terminator 2” is to blame for the female hard-body phenomenon of the 1990s, which persists to this day.

“If you watch ‘Seinfeld’ through the years,” she said, “you can see it happen. Pre-‘Terminator 2,’ Jerry’s girlfriends all look like normal women, like us. Post ‘Terminator 2,’ after 1991, when Linda Hamilton got all buff, they’re suddenly all ripped. It’s James Cameron’s fault.”

We had just eaten a decadent and lavish feast; I was not feeling particularly muscular, to put it mildly, even though I have been to exactly two Pilates classes this year. Our hostess, Mary, had made cod and shrimp poached in olive oil, with piperade, a slow-cooking stew of peppers, tomatoes, and onions, over polenta, and chard steamed in garlic. While dinner cooked, we guests all crowded into the kitchen with wineglasses and chatter and offers to help. It was a crowd of ten writers and painters, equal numbers of men and women.

As I poured myself more wine and jumped into a conversation about the deliciousness and seasonal ephemerality of fried shad roe, I was thinking about what makes a successful dinner party: this obviously was one, from its first moment, when we parked and got out of our car, and Mary’s son, who was outside playing with Brock and Lane’s son, told us we could go straight through the barn into the kitchen.

We wandered through the barn and found a door. When we came into a comfy big kitchen with a sunroom though an arch, Mary handed us cocktails of Campari, grapefruit juice, and lime. (I had forgotten all about Campari; now I remembered how much I’ve always liked its herbaceous bitterness.) After eating some cheese, crackers, and dates while kibitzing a bit in the sunroom, I wandered into the kitchen and was handed a small cutting board, a head of garlic, and a knife. I started crushing and peeling garlic cloves while Brock washed chard and Mark did something else. Mary was monitoring an inch of so of olive oil with garlic and herbs in a shallow wide pot. I looked at the table where other ingredients awaited their fate and espied a cookbook. Peering at the recipe, I blurted out without thinking, “Wow, you use cookbooks!”

“You really don’t?” said Mary, surprised, and I had to admit that I really don’t, not usually, except for the cardamom chicken with rice and caramelized onions from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem and a couple of other standby favorites. Although I poke around the Internet when I want to learn new dishes and methods, I am singularly and habitually unadventurous when it comes to trying actual recipes from actual books.

After I handed off the minced garlic and before I began chopping chard stems, I pawed through this one, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, which was beautiful and expertly laid out and looked like it might be a lot of fun to cook with. The piperade, I noticed, began with a soffrito of diced onion and grated tomato flesh, which is apparently meant to cook slowly for up to five hours…

“Five hours,” I said admiringly. “You’ve been cooking all day.”

“Not really,” said Mary.

When the food was ready, we all moved into the candlelit dining room and took our places around the long table, which exactly seated the ten of us. After Mary finished lighting all the candles and sat down, we lifted our wineglasses and toasted her and toasted her again, and then we began eating. The food was superb: the shrimp and cod were tenderly poached, the piperade was dense and savory-sweet, and the polenta was luscious.

I vowed to start using cookbooks more often, right then and there, because being a monkey, I am imitative, not unlike all the hordes of female moviegoers in 1991 who copied Linda Hamilton and started lifting weights and possibly taking steroids, although that’s just idle speculation. I imitate other people constantly, unconsciously, simply because it’s human nature to do so. During dinner, I admired everyone, especially all the other women, their diction, ideas, and gestures, their hair, their expressions. In groups, when I’m feeling happy and relaxed, I often find myself melding with everyone else, a willful deviation to a better norm. It’s a pleasant feeling, a kind of melting of boundaries, the sharp edges of identity blurred.

By the end of the night, many hours after the party had begun, the wine was gone and the individual ramekins of caramelized butterscotch pudding with crème fraiche had been scraped clean. Moving a little slowly, we cleared the table and put the food away and washed enough dishes so we wouldn’t have to worry that Mary would spend the entire next day at the sink, and then we dispersed cheerfully into the night, heading home in our various cars.

The next morning, I woke up still laughing at many of the things that had been said the night before, still tasting the cod, still determined to cook more with actual cookbooks.

And then, yesterday, serendipitously, a gorgeous and lavish new cookbook arrived in the mail out of the blue from Ben, a magazine editor I’ve worked with frequently over the years. It’s called Yucatan. I’ve traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico more times than I can count; it’s one of my favorite places, and I am mad about the food there, but I’ve never learned how to make any of it.

I opened it at random to a recipe, which coincidentally involves poached seafood and a Mexican sofrito, and which I am going to make tomorrow night, unless hell or high water prevents me. It’s called Langosta con Leche de Coco, or Lobster Tails Poached in Sweet Coconut Milk; you can use frozen lobster tails, and its sofrito includes shallots, garlic, and chiles and only takes three minutes as opposed to five hours. But the photo alongside the recipe looks amazing. Tomorrow, I’m going to buy all the ingredients and lay in some Campari. I’ll shake a couple of ounces over ice with a dash each of grapefruit and lime juice and start chopping.

Put on the skillet, slip on the lid, Mama’s gonna make a little short’nin’ bread

The other night, I was talking on the phone, an occurrence much rarer than a blue moon, to a brand-new friend named Melissa who lives in Montreal. It started out as an interview, which is how she got me on the phone at all, but quickly devolved into, or rather progressed to, a fun exchange of banter and stories, in the course of which we exchanged information about what we were eating right then. She, being in a big French-influenced city, had amassed an enviable spread. This included champagne, shrimp cocktail, and two kinds of fresh oysters, shucked by her husband, who is 11 years younger than she is; “my child bride,” she called him, whereupon I told her about Brendan’s and my idea of a cooking show called “Cougar Kitchen.” This led to an interesting side discussion of our respective happy marriages.

Then we got back to food. I, despite being in the middle of something like nowhere, had a couple of good cheeses, some mixed spicy olives, and a bottle of excellent $12 Rioja on hand, thanks to Brendan, who had gone shopping earlier that day. I had requested phone-friendly, non-crunchy, savory snacks, and he’d found the best Hannaford had to offer.

“So what are you going to cook for dinner after we hang up?” Melissa asked.

Swallowing a chunk of Wisconsin white cheddar, I told her: a pound of boneless, skinless fresh chicken thighs, marinated in a winning combination of harissa spices with jerk spices, baked in peanut oil. The jerk spices were sent to me by a former Iowa student, Nana, a Cameroonian-American who got them on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, and who immediately became my favorite person in the world when they arrived.  She had made amazing, addictive jerk chicken for our final workshop; I’d asked her for the recipe, and she had not forgotten.

“I read in your blog that you like packages in the mail,” Melissa said then, in a tone I took to be promising, whereupon I immediately gave her my address, spelling the street name carefully so that anything that might happen to come in the mail from Montreal wouldn’t go astray.

Alongside the spicy thighs, I went on, I’d cut Japanese yams into wedges and toss them with garlic powder, cumin, smoked paprika, and basil, then roast them on a cookie sheet in more peanut oil. “Japanese yams are so much better for cottage fries than the other kinds,” I said excitedly, swilling some wine. “They’re firm and starchy and just sweet enough. The other kinds are too sweet, and they fall apart.”

I was planning to serve the chicken and yams with White Trash Fancy Sauce, a highly sophisticated recipe I hit upon a while back and have never altered: a mixture of equal parts ketchup and mayonnaise I find perniciously addictive and not entirely unlike McDonalds Special Sauce. And for the veg, two bunches of red chard, chopped up and sautéed in chicken broth, chopped garlic, and olive oil, which, I bragged, had come from Brendan’s family’s olive trees in Tuscany.

“You should brag about that,” she said.

“I do,” I said. “And now that I think of it, this meal is a blue plate special.”

“This brings me to an actual official question. What is a blue plate special, exactly? An old American diner term?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s a cheap diner meal, some meat, a starch, and a veg or two.”

“Did they use actual blue plates?”

I considered this question. Did I really not know the answer? I really didn’t, although I had named a whole book after the thing.

“Something of an oversight, I think,” said Melissa.

“You could say that,” I said. “You know, it always felt like my family’s made-up term, something our mother made us in memory of the years when she was a poor student, living in New York, eating fried farina she made on a hot plate in her tiny rented room. A blue plate special was a big treat, and I think she would eat her friends’ leavings on their plates…”

I tried to picture the scene. Were the plates in question literally blue?

“What’s fried farina?”

“Also a good question,” I said. “It sounds disgusting. I should get the recipe from her.”

“You should!” she said.

We hung up after almost two hours of comparing the many parallels in our lives, shooting the breeze about food, and occasionally clinking our wineglasses against the mouthpieces of our phones. Then I made dinner, exactly as described, and Brendan and I set upon it like ravenous wolverines while Dingo and his visiting best friend, Brendan’s aunt’s dog, Bandito, watched from a polite but easy-access distance on the floor nearby, their eyes never leaving our forks.

While we ate, I went to Wikipedia and looked up “blue plate special” and found the following: “It refers to a specially low-priced meal, usually changing daily. It typically consists of a ‘meat and three’ (three vegetables), presented on a single plate, often a divided plate rather than on separate dishes. The term was very common from the 1920s through the 1950s. As of 2007, there are still a few restaurants and diners that offer blue-plate specials under that name, sometimes on blue plates, but it is a vanishing tradition. The phrase itself, however, is still a common American colloquial expression. A web collection of 1930s prose gives this definition: ‘A Blue Plate Special is a low-priced daily diner special: a main course with all the fixins, a daily combo, a square for two bits.’”

As for the “blue” part of the equation, no one is exactly sure, but it probably comes from those blue, segmented plates as well as Spode or Wedgewood blue willow patterned plates, both of which were popular in restaurants back then.

The entry goes on, “In contemporary use, a ‘blue-plate special’ can be any inexpensive full meal, any daily selection, or merely a whimsical phrasing.”

That’s the expression as I know it, and as my mother used it: a blue plate special is a plain, cozy, square meal, filling and cheap, nourishing and satisfying, the kind she used to serve us, our favorite kind of meal.

We swiped the last yam wedges through the Fancy Sauce and pushed our plates away, glutted, slaked, and stuffed.

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