Meatloaf


I missed the memo about how to make a kick ass meatloaf.

I mentioned previously that meatloaf was a mainstay of my diet as a youngster,  and I coincidentally married a man who gets unnaturally excited when meatloaf is on the menu.  Needless to say, it’s sort of a religion to me.  My meatloaf recipe is a closely guarded family secret  involving  Colby Jack cheese and green olives…and I’ll either hand it down to my daughter if I ever have one, or I will take it to my grave. 

Growing up, my mom made meatloaf in a loaf pan and it never occurred to me to do it any differently.  Then, I met Alton, and   meatloaf-wise, he literally turned my world upside down:

And with all due respect to my dear mother, cooking meatloaf upside down and out of the pan is a vastly superior technique.  You get more of that crusty goodness on the outside, especially when you coat the whole thing in a mixture of Heinz ketchup and French’s mustard (oh crap…I’ve said too much…)  Comfort food at its yummiest.

I had lived most of my life as a slave to meatloaf convention, but now I can think outside the loaf pan.  In addition to enjoying better meatloaf, I can also say that this revelation clues me in about a couple of things:

First, “traditional”  does not equal perfect and traditions can be improved upon.  No offense, Mom, but my meatloaf kicks your meatloaf’s ass.  

Second, sometimes it makes sense to turn something upside down.  Or  backwards.  Or inside out.  Ever accidentally put a shirt on backward and figure out that you like it better that way?  There’s no one perfect way of doing anything and sometimes rejecting the conventional way turns out to be what’s perfect for you. 

So meatloaf as metaphor for non-conformity?  Why not!   Memo received.

© 2011 Jamie Walker Ball

Fresh Pepper


I  missed the memo about fresh pepper.

I grew up on a steady diet of tuna casserole and meatloaf and loved it.  But, as I’ve gotten older and moved around the country, it’s occurred to me that I’ve missed a lot of memos when it comes to food.  And the memo about fresh pepper was one of them.

When The Food Porn Channel The Food Network was added to our cable line up, I was instantly riveted.  I noted that so many of the TV chefs made a point to use freshly ground pepper.  I wasn’t in the habit of adding pepper to my food at the table so I wondered what all the fuss could be about.  I mean, who cares if the pepper came from a shaker or grinder?

Turns out, I care.  The extra bit of effort it takes to acquire and use freshly ground pepper makes a huge difference in the flavor.  I could finally understand how fresh pepper could inspire this kind of  passion.

Fresh pepper makes just about everything tastier.   Once discovering the yumminess of fresh pepper, I felt like the protagonist at the end of “Green Eggs and Ham” (does he have a name??) 

 I will grind it on my rice, I like it, like it, yes, it’s nice!  I will grind it on my eggs, and on corn, and chicken legs!  I do so like this fresh ground pepper!

 And I’ve extracted a few lessons from my fresh pepper conversion. First, stretching beyond my humble culinary beginnings has been good for me.  While I still love the simple comfort foods of my childhood, I’m not afraid to branch out a bit.  Second, fresh is almost invariable better than not so fresh.  Third, it’s not that much more effort to seek out a pepper grinder; they’re now in just about every grocery store.   Fourth, when somebody as knowledgable and as adorable as Tyler Florence tells you to use fresh pepper, for heaven’s sake, listen to him.  Memo received.

Your Face or Your Ass


I didn’t get the memo about having to choose between your face and your ass. 

Catherine Deneuve has famously said:  “At a certain age, you have to choose between your face and your ass.”  Like most pretentious people, I am a Francophile and if I could trade faces with anyone in the world, it just might be Catherine Deneuve, so in my estimation, she knows a thing or two about beauty.

It’s a cruel reality that a person with a fuller face seems a bit less wrinkly, but with that full, youthful face may come a jiggly ass. Conversely, a skinny chick might have an ass you could bounce a quarter off of, but without some fat to plump up the wrinkles, her face might seem haggard.

What’s a girl to do? In this day and age, there are all manner of interventions available for both your face and your ass.  And of course there’s healthy living, which goes a long way towards  keeping you youthful from your eyebrows to your ankles.  But if you had to choose between a youthful face and a youthful ass, which would you choose? How do you make the choice?

I think I may be approaching that “certain age” that Ms. Deneuve was talking about.  While it hasn’t been a conscious choice, I suppose I’m choosing my face. Or maybe I just really like peanut M&Ms.  Either way, I’m not terribly stressed out about it…yet.

I think a little vanity is a good thing, but there’s no point in crying over spilled cellulite cream.  I’m thinking that with enough glucosamine and some good lighting, I can probably delude myself into thinking that I’m 25 for a good long time.  Yeah, that’s my anti-aging strategy.  Denial.  Memo received.

Nice Guys


I missed the memo about nice guys. 

 

I’m pretty unoriginal in that I spent a great deal of my youth “wasting the pretty” on jerks.  What I thought was passion turned out to be the anxiety that came along with waiting by the phone, being taken advantage of, and being lied to.   When it comes to love, drama is Fool’s Gold. 

The rest of this might get a little mushy, but just go with it, you cold-hearted, cynical bastards.  It’s almost Valentine’s Day, for Pete’s sake. 

This is my husband, Ryan:

I love this picture of my husband.  To me, it illustrates one of his most awesome characteristics…a sort of light-hearted stoicism.  Yeah, he has road rash on a quarter of his face, but he’s smiling.  This is the essence of Ryan.

I met Ryan in 1995 and it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.  He was cute, but he was just so….nice.  He wooed me in the weirdest ways…impersonating my boss on my answering machine, breaking into my apartment and doing strange things with cookie dough, meeting for our first real date wearing an Elvis wig.  In addition to being nice, Ryan was also hilarious.  Try as I might, I could not resist his silliness and it gradually dawned on me that I loved him.  But where was the “passion”?  I mean, if I didn’t feel like I was going to throw up all the time, how could I possibly be in love? 

And then Jagged Little Pill came out.  Like most angry young women, I adopted “You Oughta Know” as a sort of battle cry.  But then I got the CD and listened to the whole thing and heard “Head Over Feet”.   And proceeded to cry my eyes out. 

 “You treat me like I’m a princess, I’m not used to liking that yet …” Holy moment of clarity, Batman.  Ryan didn’t and doesn’t treat me like a princess, and I wouldn’t want him to.  But he does treat me with respect.  He treats me like an equal.  He cracks me up.  He works his ass off to help ensure that we have a good life. He is the most awesome dad any little kid could hope to have.  And, he loves me. 

So now it’s 2011 and we’ve been happily married for a long time.  We have a wonderful little family.  Who knew the memo about nice guys would be delivered by a feisty little Canadian woman who used to be on “You Can’t Do That On Television”?    Memo received.

© 2011 Jamie Walker Ball

The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns


I didn’t get the memo of about the law of diminishing marginal returns.

 

Actually, I did get this memo, and it came in the form of a hefty economics text-book in college.   But this is one of those life lessons that I have to keep teaching myself, because I keep forgetting it.

For the uninitiated, here’s a definition:  “The law of diminishing returns is a classic economic concept that states that as more investment in an area is made, overall return on that investment increases at a declining rate, assuming that all variables remain fixed. To continue to make an investment after a certain point is to receive a decreasing return on that input.”  (There are lots of variations on this definition, and even some very fancy formulas, but this is the one I like best.)

As a principle of productivity, perhaps this all makes sense.  But applying this one’s personal choices is where this gets tricky.  If you like something, more of that thing is better, right?  Well, no.  Think of your favorite food.  For me, it’s any form of pasta with any form of tomato-based sauce.  The first forkful?  Sublime.   The second?  Just as good.  The first helping?  Yep.  Still good.  OK…round two, still delicious, but not the rapture on a plate that the first helping was.  Getting full really starts to distract from all of the fun things that are happening on my taste buds.  And heaven help me if I were to get a third helping…this would not be any fun at all.  The cruelty of the waistband completely cancels out all the pleasure of tasting even the most delicious foods. 

There are many memos in “Cool Hand Luke” and the egg eating scene is a fairly perfect illustration of how the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in: 

(And even though this scene is kinda gross, Paul Newman in 1967…hubba hubba.)

We’ve all gone overboard at Thanksgiving, so it’s easy to predict that a second or third piece of pie probably isn’t a fantastic idea.  But how about money?  Does the law of diminishing marginal returns apply to money?  Well, according to this recent study, it kinda does.  There’s a point at which having more money is not going to make you any happier, and could perhaps make you less happy, at least, that’s the wisdom of the dearly departed Notorious B.I.G.

 

It is possible to have too much of a good thing and more is not always better.  The lesson gets more meaningful when I contemplate what I give up in order to have more of whatever that good thing is.  Do I want to give up my health and my girlish figure just so I can have more pasta, when I rationally know that “more pasta” is not as good as “just enough pasta.”  Do I want to sacrifice family time to work more so I can make more money?  What would the marginal returns be on those extra dollars?  Moderation…memo received.

© 2011 Jamie Walker Ball

Dysfunctional Modesty


I missed the memo about dysfunctional modesty.

I’m using the term”dysfunctional modesty” to describe the experience making yourself smaller because it’s actually a lot scarier to acknowledge  how awesome you are. 

Like a lot of people, I got a wonky memo about Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inaugural address.  This wonky memo attributed to Mr. Mandela a quote that actually has its origins with Marianne Williamson.  It’s the “our deepest  fear” speech.   It’s delivered to great effect in this scene in “Akeelah and the Bee“:

No matter who first said the words, when  I first heard them, I felt like Roberta Flack. Seriously, I was killed softly.  My whole life I was told:  “Don’t be a show off” and ” Nobody likes a smarty pants. ”  When I first heard the “our greatest fear” speech, it was like someone had looked straight into me and seen through all my shrinking violet bullshit. It was almost embarrassing. 

On the path to success and happiness, there are often lots of very real obstacles. But for me, the biggest obstacle has always been just copping to my own awesomeness.  It is so much easier to pretend to be less than what you are.   To paraphrase Maria Bamford, living up to your potential really cuts into your sitting around time. 

And it’s not always negative self talk or inertia that brings you down.  There are mean people who say mean things, but I’m guessing some of  these folks haven’t figured out that they too have permission to be fabulous, so they just get really frustrated. Or something.  But you don’t need a bra made out of sparklers to figure out that you can’t let other people get you down. (But isn’t Katy Perry just adorable?  I don’t want to like her, but resistance has been futile.)

So, this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.  And not hide it under a bushel. Memo received.

© 2011 Jamie Walker Ball

Dinosaurs


I didn’t get the memo about all these freakin’ dinosaurs.

When I was a kid, there was the T-Rex, the triceratops, the brontosaurus, and for extra credit, the stegosaurus.  Come to find out, the brontosaurus didn’t really actually exist, and my two year old will very pointedly tell you that the proper nomenclature is now “apatosaurus”.   Before I could recover from my shock and confusion about the whole brontosaurus/apatosaurus debacle, I had to hit the ground running to learn a litany of new dinosaurs that I never knew existed.  Thanks to Steven Spielberg and “Jurassic Park”, I was partially clued in about Velociraptors, but it wasn’t until stumbling upon “Dinosaur Train” on PBS Kids that my dinosaur education truly began. 

I’m resigned and comfortable with the fact that my son will always know the names of gazillions of dinosaurs, and I will always know the names of about four of them.  It’s like the dinosaur part of my brain closed up shop somewhere around the 3rd grade, and when I was in 3rd grade, there were about four known dinosaurs.  It’s not just a case of not being able to teach an old dog a new trick, it feels like teaching a cat to scuba dive.  It’s not impossible, but it just feels weird. 

 

I suppose this a part of getting older.  The state of knowledge changes and you just have to try to keep up.  And sometimes it’s not even knowledge, it’s culture.  The other night my husband and I were watching a History Channel program and the narrator made a reference to “BCE”.  My dear husband asked, “What the hell is ‘BCE’?” I said, “Before the Common Era.”  He said, “What happened to ‘Before Christ’?”  This launched the whole discussion about how evolving sensibilities about religious diversity and tolerance have probably led to more people using the more neutral term.  But when we were growing up, it was all BC, all the time.  

When I was a kid, Pluto was a planet, these days, not so much.  If I pay close enough attention, maybe there’s a chance I’ll catch on and comprehend when I’m asked to unlearn and relearn the next big thing.  Memo received.

© 2011 Jamie Walker Ball

Mise En Place


I missed the memo on mise en place.

Mise en place sounds fancy, but it’s a simple idea.  It’s a French phrase which refers to the practice of reading through a recipe, measuring and prepping ingredients, and ensuring you have the necessary equipment at the ready before you actually begin cooking.  

When I was in 6th grade, I had a particularly sadistic teacher who taught us a lesson about reading and following instructions by giving the class a trick test which featured a long list of instructions, the last of which was to just put your name on the paper and ignore rest of the test items.  For me, cooking was sometimes  like taking one of those trick tests; I’d get to the end of recipe and realize that I was missing an ingredient, or that I hadn’t timed things properly.  Cooking FAIL.

I have been cooking since I was about 10 years old and I think I first stumbled across the idea of mise en place while watching a Food Network show some 20+ years later.  So that’s  a couple decades worth of culinary chaos.   When I finally clued in about the practice of mise en place, it was a revelation.   I can’t say that I employ the practice every time I cook, but when I make effort, the effort is richly rewarded. 

As I’ve mulled over the impact of mise en place on my cooking, it’s occurred to me how universal a principle it is.  Almost every complicated task is made easier if I take a second at the outset to understand the steps I’ll need to take to get from the starting point to the ending point.  This feels like such a big “duh” kind of thing, but I often find myself fighting the urge to dive into new projects without really thinking them through. 

I’m not what Steven Covey would call “a highly effective person,” but it sometimes makes sense to  “begin with the end in mind.”   A little bit of planning goes a long way in most aspects of life.  Sometimes magic happens when you just start throwing stuff in a pot, no recipe, no rules. But sometimes, it helps to have a plan. Memo received.

© 2011 Jamie Walker Ball