Crab Cakes, Eggplant, and Unexpected Surprises

So what do you say when you don’t cook much anymore? When you find yourself falling back on the now tired recipes that you’ve lovingly developed over the years, that ones that reflect your style and how you want your food to taste, but that now seem as boring as the roads you’ve driven on for the last 30 years?

When cookbooks all seem like product and the magic of discovery in magazine recipes just looks like the business of content and successful pitches?

When all of the local restaurants serve standard variations on the same common ingredients and if you get a side of broccoli one more time, you’re going to scream? When the places you eat at out of town serve pale reflections of the latest trends?

When none of your ideas seem to generate much passion and your agent’s only comment is that she can’t sell 30,000 copies and try again?

When you are in love with words and the thought of not writing something of value is as unthinkable as is the thought of having no words to polish.

I suppose you write about what’s in front of you. The crab cakes you cooked the other night, using jumbo lump crabmeat and a recipe from the Annapolis Junior League, that came out crisp and filled with pieces of crab with no taste of breading, sided with a remoulade/cocktail sauce combination. They were the kind of crab cakes that you always want to get when the server tells you the kitchen makes the best crabcakes she’s ever had and you know that you know better, but hope springs eternal and no matter how filled with shreds of crab they are, they arrive tasting only of breading.

You think about the shrimp that you shallow poached in a thick soup of Old Bay and lemon juice, omitting the hot peppers in the faint hope that small children might be tempted to try them, that came out cooked a point and tasting equally strongly of Old Bay and shrimp. You slide by the less successful, the albodigas that had too much coriander for your taste and give another wry smile at the crudites you served with a roasted onion dip from Whole Foods that was an organic version of French Onion soup dip.

Or, you think about the scallop appetizer that you ate in at The Evening Star a couple of nights ago. One bite of the smooth, confident, gently-pickled eggplant that the scallop was sitting on and suddenly you were tasting shulutah again, the eggplant, carrot, celery, and garlic pickle that your Romanian grandmother simmered in half white vinegar and half water, keeping a quart mayonnaise jar in her refrigerator at all times. Talking with the service manager at the restaurant, she said the chef had based it on a version of chow chow that had originally come from France (chou chou?) and from Eastern Europe before that. It’s not that I have become someone who rails about the present and wants only what he used to have—it was just that it was so good, so familiar and so unexpected. And so tasty.

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