Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 21, 2020

Not haute cuisine, but it still hits the spot!

OK, something weird has been happening lately - and I like it!

Both husband Art and I enjoy cooking. I'm not referring to microwaving the remains of last night's pizza or creating a five-course meal either. It is true that Art's Thanksgiving spreads consume almost every inch of space on the table and the entire workspace in the kitchen as well, but that says more about his cooking style than the complexity of the meal.

We have been together for more than 30 years, and most of them were filled with fast-food lunches. When our girls were at home, our evening meals frequently catered more to their likes, so there were unlimited instances of macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, spaghetti and pizza.

Yet every now and then, one of us would get the urge to create something a little out of the ordinary, although none of these meals would have qualified for a television food show. Cola chicken was something everyone enjoyed and I got a kick out of making it. Chicken paprikash was another such dish. Art made pork and sauerkraut or his version of stir-fry.

But once the girls left, lunch became our main meal, and supper was more of a functional meal - something to push back a twinge of hunger.

There's a saying that it is truly an ill wind that blows no man good. For us, the pandemic has not been entirely bad, for it has changed our eating experience for the better. Now, rather than going to the grocery store whenever we happen to need groceries, we have been planning ahead. Art's loose goal is to limit trips to once every two weeks. So when he goes, it is with an extensive list that contains a combination of things we need and things we think will make inviting meals. In most cases, he is the only one who shops. While he deletes items from the list as he fills the basket, he always has an eye open for things that might be in season or that he wants to make. So we've had sweet corn somewhere between five and 10 times this summer, and have loved it every time.

We recently returned from a month at our cottage in Wisconsin, where we had previously found a great barbeque place, another that serves the best steaks, a couple of passable Chinese restaurants as well as Culvers - our all-time fast-food favorite. But this recent time to the North Woods - with its 50-degree evenings and 70-degree days - did not include a single visit to any restaurant.

In fact, the last time we were in a restaurant of any kind anywhere was in March. And we have barely noticed!

We have waxed poetic over Art's steamed cauliflower with shredded cheese and butter over potatoes. Skewers of sweet peppers, chicken and onion slices were also well received by both of us. Grilled bratwurst hit the spot several days as did our own take on Culver's Butter Burgers. And we thought our barbecued chicken with our own version of blooming onions was to die for.

Art's mom would sometimes produce strawberry-shortcake suppers. Hot six-inch diameter homemade biscuits were cut in half, butter melted on the top and bottom, and then filled with berries and ice cream. My version substituted the wild blackberries and raspberries that abound in the national forest near our Wisconsin place.

But the weird part is we seem to be enjoying these meals far more than we have in the past, yet most aren't anything new to our repertoire or are anything special.

So why are we enjoying them so much? Sure, many of the ingredients are fresh. But I think there is another reason. We have been appreciating them as events, rather than just something that fills in the spaces in the day while we move from one project to another. Sitting across the table and watching the other person enjoy the food also seems to add something. And since we have been together so much, the table chatter tends to be about the food rather than about other topics.

I've written several columns commenting that maybe the French know something we haven't been paying attention to. While they are famous for their cuisine, many places in France are closed from noon-2 p.m., allowing two hours for lunch. Most French restaurants open at 7 p.m., but if you go then, they are usually empty, except for tourists. The locals don't arrive until 8 p.m. and it is common for the same people to occupy a table for the entire evening right up to closing time.

Of course, they too have their share of McDonald's, Burger Kings and KFCs. And people on motorcycles will deliver take-out to your door. But what might be called the "French style" is still common in France. As our friend Francis reminded us, the French don't eat to live - they live to eat. So perhaps we have been enjoying our meals as if they were "haute cuisine" because we have been thinking about the food and eating together while really being together.

As we neared the end of our recent journey home, Art suddenly announced, "When we get home, I'm going to turn on the oven and make some french fries!"

I laughed.

"OK, where did that come from?"

"I don�t know, but I've been thinking about it for several days," he answered.

Nearing the end of an 820-mile journey that featured one stop to refill the car and drain its occupants, my focus was pretty much on getting home. French fries were not on my mind.

But once home, we dropped the luggage on the living room floor - and made french fries and some companion frozen fish patties - and we loved them.

I rest my case!

Left: the components of a bacon-tomato-lettuce sandwich are ready to be assembled. Even the use of artificial bacon bits does not dull the enjoyment of the end product. The two white circles with red dots are the tops of salt and pepper shakers shaped as fishing bobbers. Right: a loaf of fresh cranberry bread ready for a spread of genuine butter. It is a great complement to an icy-cold glass of milk.

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