Do Not Attempt to Eat this Dinner

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Preheat oven to 350º. With a paper towel, thoroughly grease the bottom and sides of an 8 x 12 baking pan. Spoon in and smooth down the contents of one can of Grandma Brown’s baked beans. Cover with slices of bacon or Spam. Dust thoroughly with brown sugar. Bake 10-15 minutes. Consume. Wash and regrease pan with residual Crisco or lard left on paper towel. Save towel for lighting pot burner in cold weather.

Do not attempt to make and eat this supper – once my favorite and usual – unless you are burning several thousand calories a day. Also, don’t trust that 350º figure. That was just the one that worked best for me on the ancient three-burner gas stove I bought from Ralph Ducharme for $35. The oven door was sprung, so to hold it shut tight I braced it with a piece of lath against the opposite wall.

Ah, them was the days! Always on the run.

Cold cereal in the morning if I had milk (I didn’t have a refrigerator yet, and milk wouldn’t keep in the summer), bacon and eggs if I had time. Peanut butter and maple syrup-mix sandwiches for lunch. Henry Thoreau would have been proud of the simplicity of everything, which included the flathead six under the hood of my old Plymouth out front.

Then I got married, arguably the best thing I ever did, and my cooking days were over. My bride and I had almost no money to work with, but she prided herself on what she could produce with very little. This continued, even after the financial restrictions eased, for 57 years, while I remained a culinary illiterate.

In the past four years since my wife’s death, however, I’ve perforce been learning some of the rudiments of meal preparation. It’s been nearly all trial and error, but there’s been a little progress. A little.

My big meal of the day is breakfast. I am justifiably proud of my omelets, which is to say that at least I like ’em, anyway. Cheese, spinach, onion, and mushrooms with one jumbo egg, one link of sausage, and half a slice of sourdough toast with preserves. Orange juice and black coffee. Very, very pleasant.

Lunch is generally a salad. I get ’em pre-made at the deli. Less fuss and no waste; I hate salad makings going bad in the fridge. One salad lasts me four days. It feels like enough, and I’m already down 18 pounds.

Supper’s pretty puny, too: a breaded baked chicken thigh that goes for two nights, a few potato buds or garlic mashed potatoes baked along with the chicken, and about half a cup of sautéed anti-oxidant vegetable like broccoli or spinach. After supper, one cookie shared with Kiki. The virtue’s coming out my ears. I can’t forget that in the early morning I have to face Fairbanks. He’s my bathroom scale.

I’ve been thinking recently of branching out a bit. By which I mean just that: a bit. I’m blessed with a magnificently equipped kitchen; my wife was a kitchen designer and maven. This place is not only beautifully laid out, but it’s got pots, pans, casseroles, and stuff whose function I can’t imagine, and never use. So when, a couple of months ago, I was invited down to Massachusetts for Thanksgiving, I saw my chance.

“Let me bring something,” I volunteered brightly. “How about the sweet potatoes?” Did I detect a hint of ambivalence in the response? No matter; it was decided. I didn’t let on that this was going to be for me terra oncognita, the Ultima Thule of my culinary career so far. How difficult could it be?

It turns out it’s not very difficult. Peel (I asked, and everybody said definitely), cut up with a large knife (they’re harder than potatoes), boil till soft (they soften faster than potatoes), and mash with whatever you choose to add. That’s the rub: Add what? My mother was a Pennsylvania farm girl and my wife a lifelong cuisinière; no way I could even approach either’s perfection, though I’d skip my mom’s marshmallows.

I peeled and boiled three sweet potatoes and mashed them with a little milk, about a quarter-cup of maple syrup, and what back in the Adirondacks they call a big junk of butter. I scooped out a heaping tablespoon and tried it. Meh. Blah. Nothing. Kind of like vegetably Cream of Wheat. Yech! I’d have to sit there at that festive holiday table watching people’s faces as they tried my masterpiece. Rather like when a mediocre artist asks you how you like their latest production. “Mm, interesting,” you say.

I asked the hostess whether anybody there would object to brown sugar. She didn’t think so. I didn’t have any. My wife left behind a canister of it that over the years had solidified to about eight on the Mohs Scale of hardness; it disappeared long ago.

So back to the grocery store and home with what I hoped was the missing ingredient. I added a couple of teaspoonfuls of it to my test batch. Not bad. Two more. Bingo!

So tomorrow morning after coffee, I’ll peel the rest of the sweet potatoes and mash ’em up with no milk, a quarter-cup of maple syrup, a bigger junk of butter, and lots of brown sugar. Wednesday morning I’ll load for the trip: my masterpiece (still got to find a casserole with a cover) on the bottom of the bag, two pies (bakery-boughten), two pounds of maple-flavored smoked sausage, and a box of fresh cinnamon rolls.

But for all my anxiety over something others would consider simple, I have to remember that it’s not the feast that makes the banquet. That’s important, all right; but the ingredient that really makes the event extraordinary is the people around the table. For them and their company I’m truly thankful.