Chinese fire drill

Between the last version and the current version of several beloved kitchen and other gadgets I own, I can read the history of the manufacturing shift from the US to China, and it’s a story that is a real letdown.

    • Say your company makes blenders and has a great product. But to produce the blender in the US would cost $40. Sell it to the department and discount stores for $60 and they have to sell it for $120. Since you aren’t Waring, and you don’t want to spend the money on a retro-modern design to justify the price, you can’t charge that much. People


     they want Made in America products, but they vote with their wallets.

So you put out feelers to China, where you can manufacture it for $15. Your problem seems solved. You outline rigorous specifications, make factory visits and arrange for someone to be on hand occasionally for the manufacturing. The first samples look great. Maybe the housing seems a little thin or brittle, but by this time, the schedule is running out of days, so you green light it.

    The blender shipment floats on the slow boat from China to Long Beach for 80 days. During that time, the lab discovers that the blender’s seal doesn’t really seal properly, because even though the right rubber/polymer was used, the tensile strength of the seals made in China doesn’t quite meet what’s needed. So liquid leaks when the unit is set on “low.” But by the time someone discovers this, it’s too late.

I just made up the scenario, but consider it a myth — not true itself, but generally speaking, truthy.  I’ve seen it in my kitchen and in the bath, where a set of hot rollers identical to the previous, 10-year-old set, failed within months. Oh, they still get hot, but the velvet layer covering the searing hot metal wore off within a couple of months. I kept the old rollers, still velvety after 10 years, and threw out the new ones. I couldn’t even find a consumer number for the hot rollers, and I can understand why. You only need to visit Amazon and read page after page of product reviewsto see that the China problem affects all kinds of products.

    I’ve seen the same thing in book printing, so much of which has shifted to China. Besides price, there are attractive reasons to print in China: hand work is cheaper, meaning die-cut books shaped like frying pans or t-shirts are affordable. Sewn-in bookmark ribbons are cheaper. China hasn’t outlawed dioxin or inks with heavy metals, so the paper is blinding white and the colors are rich and saturated. You can see the seductive logic.

But what if the lavender tablecloth in the cover photo that’s perfectly coordinated with the flower arrangement sitting on it actually prints closer to lilac? If you think the Junior League president won’t notice, then you haven’t met many Junior League presidents in the throes of a book project.


  • What if the end sheets are technically the right paper, but it’s got a more open molecular structure than paper used by US printers, and absorbs all the ink so the color doesn’t match the chip, and isn’t even close? Hold it up next to a Rainbow endsheet, and it looks like school children tinted unbleached paper towels with food coloring.
  • What if the colored sidebars are varying shades of the PMS color, rather than all identical?
  • And if you get a sample that’s unacceptable, well, it was sent via FedEx three days ago, and by the time you call, it will be day after tomorrow, so if you want to hold on to your scheduled print slot, you’re under pressure not to make non-critical changes.
        The Oster toaster in the photo above actually does a good job of toasting, but the LED indicator light for “toast” burned out after 1 year of occasional use, and now you have to push the button twice so you can be sure you’re not accidentally setting the toaster for a frozen bagel. Again and again in testing equipment for Fine Cooking, I encounter  major brand-name products whose shoddy workmanship must cause eye twitching and insomnia among the executives who approved the prototype.
  • I can only lay it at your feet, consumers. Quit cheaping out on appliances and buy well-made things. Everyone will be happier in the end.


Leading Index

I’m very particular about cookbook indexes. It’s not something most people think about, and you could say it’s a little strange to beobsessesd with indexes. But at a cookbook company, it’s not.  I want to find “barley pilaf” under “B,” even if it’s called Burlington Barley Pilaf or Joe’s Aunt Cindy’s Barley Pilaf. I wanted it to be listed as “Barley Pilaf, Aunt Cindy’s.”

    For years, I’ve tried to hone my vision of a perfect index into a few sentences, such as “pity the poor reader” or “help a cook find things no matter how her thought process works.” I’ve also spent a lot of time explaining and justifying it to someone who thinks every dish should be under a heading by shape (casserole, burger, salad, pie), function (starters, side dishes, brunch) or flavor  profile (lemon, parsley, cheese), and that headings should be very general rather than very specific. Unfortunately this person controls the means of index production so the indexes appear with barley pilaf listed under “grains” or “side dishes.”

Some recipes should be listed by their full name, like “Passover Spice Cake,” in the “P” section or “Larb Gai” in the “l” section, in addition to a listing under “Cake” or “Salad,” for reasons that seem logical. Passover cakes need to stand out, Larb Gai is what it’s called on menus. The other indexing professional insists that if some recipe are to be listed by their titles as a single entry, then all recipes should be listed that way. Consistency is the hobgoblin — you can look up the rest of the quote, and it’s no less true, even if it was uttered by the lightweight Algernon Swinburne. You can sense that I’m treading carefully here.

    • This book,

Jewish Cooking in America

    , has my favorite index. Dishes are listed under their full name, whether it’s Brooklyn Egg Cream, Grandma Lina’s Roast Goose, or Tschav, so if you happen to know the full name or the original ethnic name, you can find it there. But they’re also listed under “egg cream” and “sorrel.” Rather than a category called “Soup” that lists the soups, the category says “Soups, pages 305-310. And see individual listings.”

Here’s my cookbook withthe worst index.

    One rule of indexing that is pretty indisputable is that if an ingredient is in the title, the recipe is indexed under that ingredient. Even a computer program can do that. Somehow, Spicy Tofu Omelet is indexed under “spicy” and “eggs” but not tofu. Since “eggs” isn’t in the title, it’s clear a human hand indexed this book. How could it have missed Tofu? Or did someone decide that tofu wasn’t a valid heading? Or did they run out of space?

Space is always a problem in an index, and when it is, the first thing to go is the entries by recipe title. Yet here, every recipe is listed by its title, no matter how unhelpful. Two dozen recipe titles begin with the word “Spicy,” so they’re listed that way. The word tells you something about the dish but doesn’t help identify it in the same way that adjectives like “Passover” or “Singaporan” help.

    Recipes with “Name” titles like “Violet Oon’s Chile Sauce” or “Thai Cucumber Sauce” are listed under the name, and under “sauces” but not under chile sauce or cucumber sauce, as some other chile sauces and cucumber sauces are.

 If you feel queasy about people writing in books turn away, because the way I solved the index problem in the Southeast Asia Cookbook is to mark up the index myself. It looks like hell but I can find things.

I know it isn’t just me — you have a favorite or least favorite index, or at least you know what you like. I know you do.

Bread: It’s All in The Hooks

For everyday miracles, nothing can match homemade bread. A little flour, water, salt and yeast transform into a a loaf of springy, warm, edible food. A miracle every time. It’s like watching a great movie: you know how it ends, but you enjoy it so much anyway.

    • For about 15 years, my favorite book has been

Great Whole Grain Breads by Beatrice Ojakangas

    . Of the 200-odd recipes, I’ve prepared maybe half of them. For ten ears until 2007, I baked a loaf almost every week.

And that’s partly because of dough hooks. I wouldn’t have done it without dough hooks. The directions “Knead for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic”? Might as well be in Norwegian for all I follow them. I just put it in the bowl and let the dough hooks do the rest.

    This oat and wheat loaf has been my workhorse because it has all the qualities you could ask for in a loaf of homemade bread. It’s easy to mix, hard to mess up, and the recipe doubles perfectly. The bread is multigrain and also tastes great, the loaves keep well, freeze well and when it goes slightly stale, it makes great toast.

Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread

2/3 cup rolled oats

2 cups boiling water

1/2 cup nonfat dry milk

1/4 to 1/2 cup packed brown sugar (more if you’re a sweet tooth, less if you’re not)

1/4 cup butter or vegetable oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 package (2 teaspoons) yeast

1/4 cup warm water

1 teaspoon sugar

6 cups flour, white or a combination of white and whole wheat

Combine the oats and water in a large bowl. Add the milk, sugar, butter and salt and cool for about 20 minutes until you can hold your finger in the mixture for a count of 20.

Combine the water and yeast and let stand until foamy. Add to the oat mixture, then stir in 5 to 5  1/2 cups of the flour to make a stiff dough. Knead or use dough hooks, adding remainingflour as needed to make a soft but not sticky dough. Knead 5 minutes with dough hooks until bread is smooth and satiny.

Shape the dough into aball and place in a greased bowl. Spray the top with cooking spray. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set aside to let rise until nearly doubled, about 1 hour. Punch down the dough, divide into two and shape into loaves or rounds. Put into two greased loaf pans. Cover and let rise until puffy, a bout 45 minutes. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from pans immediately and cool completely. Makes 2 loaves.

Acey Juicey

If you loved the Pla-Doh Fun Factory as a child, then you’re a great candidate for a juicer. Feed something in and it comes out as something else. It makes work feel like play.

    • Days of meticulous work squeezed into one long evening late in the summer when some beloved old friends gathered to

test juicers

    •  for

Fine Cooking magazine

     (the issue is currently on the newsstand). We put a mountain of fruits and vegetables into the maws and hoppers of more than a dozen of these contraptions. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. Seriously, it’s like a Fun Factory that turns out the healthiest imaginable beverage.

Here was the oddest looking juicer, dubbed Marvin, the paranoid android in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

With the weather so hot, and so much juice on hand, what else could we do but make refreshing bellinis, watermelon daiquiris and cherry popsicles? Kale juice and beet juice, though — we had to draw the line. Beets are very dirtlike in flavor , so we crossed them off the happy hour menu, and kale juice is just the very taste of extreme personal self-discipline.  Nothing wrong with that, but that’s what January is for.

The competition came down to factors like ease of cleaning, size of footprint and perceived sturdiness. Because every one of those juicers made floods of juice in seconds, which is basically what you want in a juicer.

In which a computer is compared to a fish, and our Name the Egg Dish winners announced

Our computer has been gutted and hosed out like a fish, flushed out like a spa client, and gotten a new brain like Frankenstein.  It’s never felt or behaved better, so thank you for your patience while the ole Mac had an E-enema.

Tupperware Avalanche’s “Name the Dish” game has a three-way tie! Cyclops on Toast by 1050 lb come one down! You’ve won a grill wok! One-Eyed Egyptian by Nicole, come on down and get your grill wok! And a laurel, and hearty handshake to Claudia for Moon Over Miami.

Thanks to everyone for your entries. Send me your contacts and I’ll get your grill wok to you. We will soon resume our normal programming schedule.

My Husband’s Mise

A friend gave us venison back strap — a generous gift, as you already know if you’re a hunter. I settled on a vinegar-soy-sesame oil marinade, then a wrap of bacon and a drizzle of blueberry pomegranate syrup and a turn under the flames.

    Big Fella saw me deeply involved with the vegetable side dishes and asked what he could do. He doesn’t cook, per se,  except for the odd skillet-browned bratwurst and soysage scramble, because he doesn’t have to.

Also, he’s a perfectionist who finds the most difficult possible way to do everything. It always turns out a superior result, but it’s maddeningly slow. Example: when it’s his turn to top the pizza, he chops each topping into microscopically small bits, thenspreads them with precision over the pizza. It takes ages.

        But honestly, dinner needed attention. “You could wrap the venison pieces in bacon,” I offered. “But here’s the thing: the bacon will melt, and the fat will spread over the meat naturally, so don’t spend a lot of time trying to cover every millimeter of the meat with bacon.” Because wthout directions, he’d spend 30 minutes and  use a whole pound of the

better-than-usual bacon

    •  we bought.

When I cook Chinese, I use a mise en place system because you’d be crazy not to, and end up with cruddy results.

For other cuisines, my aprons and dishtowels tell the story. I stop often to wipe my hands clean so I can prep the next step, because I didn’t set it out before I started.

    When I checked in on Big Fella’s progress, I just had to shoot a photo. This perfect mise was the handiwork of my husband, whose car is a rolling trash can and whose office has corners piled so high with crap that we’ll have to hire a professional. I can’t explain it, so I had to document it.