It popped up in my news feed one day not long ago, courtesy of Saveur magazine. Titled “Turtleback Cookies: Alabama’s Almost Lost Recipe”, I was immediately intrigued. I’d never heard of a turtleback cookie and the addition of “almost lost recipe” set the stage. There it was. I was drawn in, like a moth to a flame. I needed to learn more. That my friends, is what they call a successful lede.

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I left the photoshoot with bags of leftover groceries. Cheese, milk, nuts, cottage cheese, flowers and fruit. Oh god, the fruit. When you’re professionally shooting a product for advertising, everything needs to look good. Damn near perfect actually so you buy pounds of apples to find that one pretty, quintessential apple or multiple types of pumpkin seeds (raw, roasted, salted, large, small) because you just don’t know which one will look best until you see it. God forbid an imperfection of some sort, say a bruise or an off-color, draws the eye away from the product you’re trying to highlight. While the resulting photos are beautiful, there’s always a lot of food leftover at the end of a shoot. This is how I ended up with 3 packs of strawberries, 2 of raspberries, 2 of blackberries, 2 whole pineapples, 4 peaches, 2 dozen apples, a bag of lemons and limes and 4 mangos. And that was just the fruit.

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One of the things that bugs me the most about food blogs is every recipe has to have a long narrative, a story about how the thing was made, what it means to the author, what emotions it invokes in random eaters, praise from spouses and coworkers. Hey, I get it. I do it too but only when the story is actually there. The fact is there’s not always a great story worth telling so why force it? Most of the time I make things for no particular reason. It might be because I have extra ingredients laying around that need to be used and – surprise! – that thing is pretty good and worth sharing. The story isn’t very interesting when it’s just something I threw together or something I’ve been making for so long I don’t remember it’s origin. I try to write funny, entertaining posts but sometimes it just is what it is.

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I had two pressing matters last week. First, I needed to make some space in my freezer, which was packed to the gills. Second, I needed a coffeecake. The situation I was facing was not an unusual one in my world; I was helping two friends, one a butcher and one a photographer, with a photoshoot. They had procured a big, beautiful pig and over the course of two busy days were going to break down (i.e. butcher into various cuts) and photograph the beast. Hence my needs: I knew I’d be coming home with a lot of beautiful pork and nowhere to put it and I knew with no budget, there would be no lush breakfast funded by a paying client. As happens with weekend shoots, we’d be tired and hungry, necessitating a continuous flow of coffee and sugar. I perused the contents of my freezer and pulled out a bag of fat blueberries I’d frozen last summer. A coffeecake was in the works. Something nice to start two very busy, intense days.

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At one point, maybe a few years after I arrived in Chicago, I picked up a second job out of necessity. My boyfriend had just started law school and my regular M-F office job just wasn’t making the ends meet. We needed some extra cash so I sacrificed my weekends. The gig was behind the counter at a fancy Italian deli/grocer where I primarily worked the register and bakery case. It wasn’t an overly difficult job and despite the tired, zombie-like haze I was in most of the time, I enjoyed it. I learned a lot about prosciutto and balsamic vinegar those winter months. I learned about porcini and olive oil and fancy jams imported from far away places. I learned that you comp the neighborhood cops their morning coffee so they will kindly take care of that illegally parked Jaguar out front within minutes. Most importantly, I learned that working in a deli means free leftover food at the end of the night, a very important thing to young struggling professionals who have high tastes and a low budget.
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I have a lot of favorite foods and would be hard pressed to pick just one. If challenged, and it really depends on the day you catch me, I might say fried shrimp. I’ve often said, usually while polishing off an order, if there was a professional eating contest for fried shrimp I could easily take the grand prize. Easily. Breaded, wrapped, battered; I love them all. But my love has a very rigid disclaimer: no crap fried shrimp and certainly none of that frozen garbage and most definitely not those fried in bad oil. That right there should be a prosecutable crime. My latest crush is from a Vietnamese restaurant that wraps the shrimp in a paper thin wrapper and fries them until nice and crispy. Oh my! A quick dunk in a sweet and spicy sauce and I start thinking about ordering another. And another. They go by many names, depending on the restaurant: shrimp spring rolls, fried shrimp wraps or maybe firecracker shrimp. I call them all delicious.

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Why does coconut signify springtime? Is it all the lamb cakes that pop up at Easter time, thickly frosted and covered in a coat of shredded coconut? Do coconuts represent warm tropical climates just when our brains crave some sign, no matter how little, of sun and warmth and a new season? I’m not really sure but I woke up the other day with a craving for coconut pound cake. Go figure.

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