“Uncertain Tall Stack” (2008), by Eric Yahnker
Slim Jims and Monster
By Chris Offutt
The subtext of our conversation was typical of married people—in our case, ten years now. She cooked more than I did, far more in fact, and was undergoing one of those moments of minor resentment. She’s a much better cook than I am, but more importantly, she cares deeply about food. She studies cookbooks like a scholar and can talk quite capably with chefs about the intricacies of what happens unseen in a heated pot. (My layman’s understanding is that food cooks in there.) Until meeting her, I ate a lot of breakfast and sandwiches. My sole foray into making tacos ended up burning the windowsill so badly that it ripped a layer of paint away. I tried spaghetti once that wound up mostly on the ceiling, stuck so tightly that I just painted over it a few years later.
My wife reminded me of two culinary successes, or at least meals that my sons enjoyed. One was called “Monster,” and consisted of a giant pancake filled with peanut butter and chocolate chips. Another was a special dessert I prepared the night before leaving town for a prolonged stay in Hollywood. It has never received a name but involved the breading and deep-frying of Slim Jims with powdered sugar and chocolate sauce. I resisted writing about these remarkable recipes because there’s not much more to be said beyond the preceding descriptions. Both turned out great, though my wife demurred when it came to taking a second bite of either.
As a young man I lived in Salem, Massachusetts, with two roommates. David was a painter and cartoonist from Kansas. Jim was a local boy who worked for a machinist and wanted to be a physicist. I washed dishes at a lunch restaurant fifteen hours a week and spent the rest of the time reading and writing. At a certain point the three of us decided to save money by eating at home. One night per week, each of us would cook a meal. The extra cash would go to beer. Jim’s specialty was tuna-mac with cheese, an amazing creation for mortaring a stone wall, but less so for eating. It was impossible to remove the leftover food adhering to the plates and the pot. Instead of washing them, Jim tucked them under his bed and hoped no one would notice. In fact, we didn’t, and eventually ran out of plates.
David made a variation of tortilla Espanola, which means Spanish omelet. It was allegedly invented by Tomas Zumalakarregi Imatz, a Basque general known for consistent victory in the Carlist War by using guerrilla tactics. My roommate tended to cook with a similar guerrilla mentality: slicing potatoes of various widths, dicing onions so old they were sprouting, and shredding moldy cheese. He beat all this together with a dozen eggs then dumped it in a pan and baked it. Since we lacked a pie plate, he used a skillet. The hard plastic handle softened under heat, and Dave used a hand towel instead of an oven mitt. (He eventually threw out the fused skillet and towel.) The ensuing “meal” stuck to the pan because he didn’t coat it with oil. Lacking plates, we ate it off a pile of discarded copies of the Salem Evening News.
I managed to put off my turn in the rotation by bringing food home from the restaurant where I worked. The next time my turn arrived, I took them to a nearby tavern that put out a big happy-hour spread for free, and told them to eat all they wanted. Despite the chips, dip, cheese, crackers, and summer sausage, they objected. I pointed out that I had “provided” a meal, which was the same as cooking, and the conversation moved toward a debate on semantics. That suited me, since the focus was now shifted away from their deluded perception that I had shirked my culinary responsibilities. My technique of providing worked well for several months until we got thrown out of the Knights of Columbus hall for reasons unrelated to lack of Italian lineage. It was over thirty years ago, but I seem to recall a problematic blend of beer, a microphone, and a hat with rabbit ears.
I’m not sure if my old friends still cook, but I am proud of how they turned out. David is an infographical artist for the Boston Globe. Jim is a physicist who once worked at the Sandia National Laboratories and now raises champion orchids. They are quite dismayed that I have a quarterly food column. In a Facebook message Dave suggested that it be retitled “Not-Cooking with Chris, Bless His Heart.” David always did think he was a funny fellow.
Many years later I found myself in a similar situation regarding the division of household chores with my wife. Most couples have conversations along these lines. As a man who has had the dubious fortune of cohabiting with four women in my life, I have learned various methods of negotiation. First, I open with the offer to do all the outside work—mowing, raking leaves, picking up sticks, cleaning the gutters, and shoveling snow. As a bonus I always pledge to take out the garbage. That usually gets affairs off to a good start since the women in my life are not particularly enticed by outside labor.
The laundry is another matter altogether. I’m not opposed to doing the laundry. In fact, I enjoy transforming dirty clothes to clean, plus there is nothing better after a shower in winter than a towel fresh from the dryer. However, all the women I have ever known, including my mother and sisters, go through clothes like Sherman through Georgia. More perplexing is that they also enjoy the habit of leaving their clothes scattered about various rooms on furniture and the floor. More than once I have sustained vitriolic admonishment for committing the sin of mixing delicates with non-delicates.
Recently, my wife and I came to a detente after I ruined a flimsy blouse with enough doo-dads hanging from it to outfit a rockabilly star in the 1950s. That, combined with my inability to fold certain clothes, created a great marital drama. It should be noted that my wife removes all her clothing inside-out, and apparently there are some workout tops that have a sewn-in flap that serves as a brassiere. I could not make heads or tails of it when it came to folding. Finally I concluded it was some sort of trendy skirt. I dutifully clipped it to a hanger and hung it in the closet among her dresses. There it remained for months while she sought it, and I denied any knowing where it was.
The upshot was that we divvied the laundry chore equally—she’d wash hers and I’d wash mine. Naturally she pointed out the dire injustice of our arrangement. She changes clothes at least twice a day, sometimes three times if there’s an evening event, producing an inordinate amount of laundry. My habits are simple—each week I wind up with two dirty shirts and three dirty pairs of socks. Pants I typically wear for two weeks at a time. I gave up underwear twenty years ago for economic reasons.
My wife’s agenda for our next official House Meeting prioritized cleaning the indoors. Since moving to Mississippi, I no longer needed to chip ice or shovel snow, and my wife suggested I do a little extra indoors. I heartily concurred. Our agreement was this: she’d wash all the dishes every day and I’d vacuum twice a week. We have a built-in automatic dishwasher, and a part of me suspected that I got the short end of the stick in terms of time and effort. However, my wife had consistently criticized my style of loading the dishwasher, which apparently complains if the items lack the correct proximity to each other. It’s possible the machine communicates with my wife when I’m asleep.
Complicating matters, my wife is one of those people who believes that every dish, utensil, and glass must be washed before going into the dishwasher. I pointed out the obvious fallacy to this. She countered with the fact that certain pieces of food actually harden on a plate in a dishwasher. My point that it would be sanitary fell on deaf ears.
To correct the obvious imbalance of domestic duties, I purchased a robot vacuum cleaner and quickly became a fan of the Roomba. It wanders around the house picking up dog hair and dirt with an admirable diligence. Best of all, when the battery runs out, it returns to the charger on its own! I came to cherish our intimate evenings while my wife washed the dishes, the Roomba carried out its chores, and I played video games.
My wife commented on the unevenness of our chores due to the Roomba, and I suggested a compromise. If she rinsed the dishes and filled the dishwasher, I’d run it. She frowned, saying all I had to do was press a button. I nodded. She was right, of course. In a sudden fit of madness I said I’d cook a meal a week. She shook her head emphatically, refusing on the grounds that I might begin “providing” meals, as I had for my roommates long ago, and she had no desire to eat stale peanuts fingered by dozens of customers at a bar. I promised her that would never happen. With a great deal of unwarranted reluctance she agreed to my offer, pointedly staring at me while using steel wool to scrape a miniscule piece of hardened food from a plate.
I activated the Roomba and embarked upon the next leg of a multi-tier quest in World of Warcraft. The reward was a special recipe for Sleeper Sushi that would increase my mastery wielding a sword. First I needed to level up my in-game cooking skill. I decided against informing my wife of this vital chore. Keeping certain things to oneself contributes to a happy marriage just as much as telling lies. She has never once suggested I bathe with regularity or put in less time playing WoW. For my part, I can rise from a deep REM sleep and compliment her shoes. They’re cute!
The following day while my wife was conveniently gone from the house (she leaves every day; where does she go?) I applied myself to the dual tasks of cleaning and cooking. The dishwasher gets very hot, so it seemed reasonable that I could steam some items, even bake, or perhaps boil them. I experimented with eggs in a seal-tight canning jar, the kind with a built-in rubber gasket and locking lid. In one jar went an egg, intact in its shell. I cracked another egg and dumped its contents into a second jar. Next came the crucial decision of placement—top rack or bottom. I initially reasoned that since heat rises, the top would be better for cooking, until recalling my wife’s insistence that Tupperware never goes on the bottom because it will melt. Therefore, I concluded, the heating element must be at the bottom. I carefully placed my egg jars on the lower rack and turned the machine on. Then I set the Roomba going. With two machines working on my behalf, I had time to run a few quests in World of Warcraft.
Later I cleaned the Roomba hopper, marveling at the amount of dog and human hair, and checked my egg jars. The one inside the shell was semi-softboiled, which I considered less than a success. However the egg white-and-yolk in the second jar turned out pretty good. Next I tried a few baby potatoes in a separate jar. They didn’t cook through and I started fresh by quartering the potatoes. At the last minute I decided to use the dishwasher to thaw out some frozen fish which was in a vacuum-packed bag. I placed several jars of potatoes and eggs in the machine and pressed the button, thinking that if my experiments failed, we’d at least have some pristinely cleaned dishware!
That gave me an hour and a half of video game time, which I confess did not go as well as I’d hoped. My avatar, Thorken the Paladin, “died” several times, which cost a lot of virtual gold in armor repairs. I didn’t mind the expense, and my pride wasn’t damaged by his repeated “deaths.” What irritated me was the long run as a ghost from the graveyard to the corpse for resurrection. Worse, as soon as I returned to life, the same mob attacked me again. In my weakened state I died once more. After the third time I wondered if actually vacuuming or cooking might be more satisfying, but I quickly blocked that thought as immature. Instead I resolved to be a better corpse.
My wife tends to stack up errands when she goes out—taking on more and more, then later being exhausted, and often resentful of me for refusing to leave the house. Thorken had received gold and magical items for completing several quests, and I decided to grant my wife a similar reward for her errands, which could be regarded as a quest for dog food and household goods. I prepared a surprise meal: poached salmon, poached eggs, boiled potatoes, and extremely limp green beans. My wife was impressed, grateful, and complimentary. She didn’t complain about the relative humidity of the house due to the dishwasher’s steam and ate every morsel.
Afterwards she spent an inordinate amount of time scraping a piece off her plate, hardened to stone by five trips through the dishwasher. I considered making a joke about the plate being stoneware but knew such humor might fall flat. Instead I distracted her by mentioning dessert. I had an idea for baking a pie under the hood of my truck with the engine running.
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