This essay was written by David Tamarkin and was published in a slightly different form in Middlewest No. 2.
You didn’t want to be there, and neither did I. But we had a tradition: Three Jews, one Coptic; four people who had nothing to celebrate on Christmas Eve. We always spent it eating prime rib.
This year, we were eating it at Lawry’s. You and Zach had never been to Lawry’s. That was sort of the point. I wanted you to see it, to experience the oddities of a restaurant that forces women to wear tall bonnets on their head.
You arrived in bright red lipstick. (But then, you often wore bright red lipstick.) You joined Mark and I at our table in the lounge, and Zach went to fetch you a drink. When Mark left the table to join him, it was just you and me.
Things had not been good between us.
“We saw Silver Linings Playbook today,” I said. Big smile.
“I saw that, too” you said. Big smile. “Twice actually.”
There was the threat of a lull, but you filled it. “It’s kind of a sexist movie,” you said.
I hadn’t thought of this. “Totally,” I said.
More big smiles. We looked at our hands.
We were trying.
+ + + + +
When people asked what it was like to work with you, I told them you were like a sister. I’d say that I was so lucky, that the magazine was so lucky, to have you. I was vocal about my anxieties that you would one day leave. And when I found out that some punk from a competing magazine tried to steal you, I was irate.
I did not talk about our bad days. If we had spent the day giving each other the cold shoulder, or if you had been crying at your desk, I would again invoke the sister line: “I love her. But we drive each other crazy.”
I never talked about the guilt I felt, never admitted to feeling defensive or jealous. But as our bad days became more frequent, and eventually collated to form weeks, then months, I changed my stock answer. “It’s intense,” I’d say. “Some days are better than others.”
+ + + + +
Mark and I had tried to prepare you for what you’d see at Lawry’s. But nothing can really prepare you for that unique blend of casual sexism and glorified classism. In this regal room with the grand staircase, customers are treated like royalty, complete with servants. This is underscored by the costumes the service staff are forced to wear. The women in cinched maidwear (they prepare the tableside spinning salads), the men in high toques (they hover solemnly next to meat stations and prepare the steaks). And you thought Silver Linings was sexist.
That night there was another element in the room: A team of carolers that floated from table to table. They were costumed in lace and frills and top hats as if this was 1843–not exactly the same year the servers were in, but who’s taking notes, right? They approached each table and asked for requests. The request was usually Jingle Bells.
You couldn’t hear me, but I was humming along to every note. I had sung these songs over and over again–in department stores, at school concerts–as a member of my high school choir. It all came back to me in full (the baritone part, anyway); it was almost involuntary. And when the carolers approached our table and asked if we had any requests, my answer, I swear, was involuntary as well. “Do you do Holy Night?” I asked.
+ + + + +
They started out softly – o holy night / the stars are brightly shining - and for a minute I thought I had picked the wrong song. I remembered a song that was big and brawny, a song full of Jesus. In our choir, it was the most divisive song we sang. One girl–a much more religious Jew than I–begged our choir director to drop the number every year. But when it came to a vote, none of us, not even the other Jews, stood by her. We kept the song, and when we sang it the girl crossed her arms and kept her mouth shut.
Was this really the song that caused that drama?
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
It sounded so small and silly.
+ + + + +
But no, it was the right song. I recognized it now as it gained momentum and started to swell. The carolers, I realized, were pros: They were opera singers or something, slumming it at Lawry’s for the tips. They seem relieved to have a song they could open their lungs for.
Fall on your knees
O hear the angel’s voices
I watched you watch them. I was worried. Worried about what you were thinking about this very-not-Jewish choice I’d made. Worried that it would make you want to stand up and leave. I was worried that we had crossed some sort of border, that we had reached a place that we couldn’t get back from. I was worried that I had been too angry, too petty, too uncommunicative. This dinner, this holiday that none of us celebrated–I had been worrying about it for weeks.
+ + + + +
The carolers had reached the end of the song, the religious climax, the last time they would sing the word holy. It is drawn out and reaches further than any other note in the song, to an unexpected high E.
The carolers dug in their heels and let out aching, pulsing sounds. Harmonies that I felt on my skin. Orchestral sounds, symphonic sounds, such that I wondered who else as singing, where all the music was coming from. But of course it was just the four of them, singing a capella.
And then they were quiet, because the song was over. There was a half-second where we and the carolers looked at each other without talking. Mark was crying. You were also crying. Then we thanked the carolers, and you looked at me and said thank you, thank you for picking that song. And I said sure, but I muttered it, because I could barely talk, I felt out of breath. The carolers were already at the next table.
+ + + + +
You and I had a running joke about a dessert called the chocolate bag. The chocolate is the shape and size of a brown paper bag and filled with white chocolate mousse. We were infatuated and a little confused by the persistent existence of this dessert. Neither of us had any idea that they offered it at Lawry’s. We ordered it, and also a hot fudge sundae.
We sat for a while and ignored the desserts while we finished the wine. Then I picked up my spoon and rapped it lightly against the chocolate bag’s middle.
Nothing. It was frozen.
I tried again. A small fissure.
You picked up your spoon and started to help me. The way I remember it, we brought our arms as far back as they would go and swung them in with maximum force.
I doubt it really went like that. But I do remember that after some violence, the thing finally collapsed.
We are so excited to say this: Middlewest No. 2 is here.
Well, almost. MW No. 2 won’t actually start shipping until early November. But it’s available for pre-order right now. So we’re ready to share details.
Middlewest No. 2 | Jason Vincent Cooks for Fall and Winter is a collection of exciting and uncommon recipes by the titular Jason Vincent, the chef at Nightwood. Jason has long been a favorite chef of Chicagoans, and lately the rest of the country has been catching on as well. This year he was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2013. And last year, he toppled some stiff competition to be Cochon 555‘s King of Porc.
We told Jason he could do whatever he wanted in this issue, so long as he included at least one cocktail and one dessert. We encouraged–but did not demand–that he also include something akin to a holiday meal. We could not be more thrilled with what he came up with:
Warm Pear and Brussels Sprout Salad
Whey and Ricotta
Goose Fat Schmear
Apple Pie with Rosemary Ice Cream
And that’s not all. Jason also gives a lesson on how to make flawless gnocchi, and shares his recipe for a perfect, classic ragu.
We’ll be sharing more about the issue in the coming days here and on our Facebook page. In the meantime, if you want to order a copy, just head to our store. We hear that if you use code MW10 before Halloween, you might get a little discount…
Readers of our first issue may have deduced something about the cocktail preferences at Middlewest: We like them simple. When we were developing The Breakfast Club (the lone cocktail recipe in Middlewest No. 1), we specifically made it with three ingredients, and that number–give or take a few–continues to feel right.
The One + Only is a little more complicated than The Breakfast Club–it requires making a flavored simple syrup–but it clocks in at four components, each of which can be varied to suit whatever’s on hand. These components are: 1. An herb syrup. 2. Fruit. 3. Lime juice. 4. Booze. It is, we think, the only cocktail recipe you need for summer. Which is why we called it the One + Only.
Here’s how it works:
1. Make the herb syrup. In a medium saucepan, combine 2 cups water with 1 cup sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. When the syrup starts to bubble, turn off the heat and throw in a big handful of any herb, rinsed. Cover, remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Transfer the syrup to the fridge and chill until you’re ready to use it.
2. Make the cocktail base. Strain the herb syrup and discard the herbs. In a blender–or with an immersion blender–puree 1 cup herb syrup with 1 cup ripe, chopped fruit (blueberries can be left whole; stone fruits like peaches and plums should be peeled and pitted). Transfer the puree to a pitcher and stir in 3/4 cup lime juice.
3. Shake your cocktail (or not). You can finish this drink in countless ways. For a non-alcoholic drink, put 1/3 cup of the base in a glass and top with sparkling water. For a Champagnelike cocktail, do the same with sparkling wine. For a gin, vodka or tequila drink, add one cup of your chosen spirit to the pitcher and stir (this will yield about seven 4-ounce drinks and ten 3-ounce drinks). Pour over ice in lowball glasses, or shake them with ice in a shaker and use cocktail glasses. Either way, garnish with more of the herb.
A few of the many possible variations: strawberry-rosemary-gin (pictured); strawberry-rosemary-tequila; blueberry-mint-vodka; peach-thyme-tequila; raspberry-lavender-Champagne.
Middlewest No. 1, 10 Recipes For Spring, gets shipped next week. In other words, the thing is finally finished.
As the title suggests, our premiere issue features 10 full-color, double-sided recipe cards, each one treated with a protective coating that resists things like olive oil and tomato sauce. Also included is a copy of our literary supplement, which is where we publish essays, articles and photographs. All of this comes in a sturdy resealable envelope. Here’s a photo:
Photos by: Erica Gannett
Some of the recipes included in the first issue:
Carrot-cumin soup with parsley oil
Lamb hand pies
Spaghetti with asparagus-pistachio pesto
Strawberry-basil icebox cake
The authors we are proud to publish in our literary supplement:
Middlewest No. 1 is available right here, in our store.
Photo by: Erica Gannett
Why did I buy a small bag of bebere? I can’t tell you, exactly. One afternoon I saw a jar of the spice blend at Colonel De and impulsively bought a few ounces. Then it was in my kitchen, and I had to use it.
I started with the obvious: Ethiopian food. Lentils. The kind of thing this spice blend was made for.
But a few days later the bebere was still on my mind. I found myself staring at a loaf of brioche and thinking of something Sally Schneider once wrote about savory French toast. So I tried it. My process looked more or less like this:
Put two thick slices of brioche on a cooling rack and let them dry out overnight. In the morning, preheat the oven to 350. Whisk together two eggs, a cup of milk, some salt, some black pepper and a heaping tablespoon of bebere. Pour the custard over the bread in a baking dish and let it soak until you basically can’t stand it anymore–you want most of the custard to have disappeared into the bread. In a cast iron skillet, fry the slices in butter over medium-high heat until one side is very golden. Flip the slices (carefully–the bread will still be quite soggy) and transfer the pan to the oven until it puffs up (10-15 minutes).
The first time I cooked this I took the skillet out of the oven a little before the French toast was done. I cut an X into the top of each slice and dropped an egg into each one, then returned it to the oven until the eggs were cooked. I’m not sure I’d recommend this–you have to get the timing just right to get a runny yolk. Frying an egg separately could be easier.
Also, I finished the dish with a sprinkle of more bebere. Like I said, I had to use it.
Photo by: Erica Gannett
On Sunday, April 7th, Middlewest will participate in a four-day exploration of food and design curated by Fête Chicago. The event features Middlewest’s creators, who will talk about the current aesthetics of food media, and how Middlewest fits in–or rather, how it doesn’t. If you like Powerpoint presentations, you’ll like this event. If you like coffee and coffee cake, you’ll like it even more.
The talk takes place at Rational Park, who will provide coffee. Middlewest’s poppy-seed coffee cake–the signature recipe from issue No. 1–will also be served. If you want to join us, navigate here and buy a ticket. We look forward to hanging out with you.