I became completely distracted at a recent performance of Jon Robin Baitz’s new play, Other Desert Cities. Set in the living room of a well-appointed Palm Springs house, the stage was all taupes, golds, beiges—calming non-colors that served as the perfect counterpoint to the explosive performances of Stockard Channing, Linda Lavin, Stacy Keach, Thomas Sadoski and the especially combustible Elizabeth Marvel. But even with a twisty plot and some seriously fantastic acting, my eyes kept drifting to the pop of color that disrupted the neutral palette, a glass carafe of orange juice.
With the o.j. still on my mind I flung open my refrigerator door as soon as I got home, ready to guzzle down a glass of thirst-quenching citrus. But somehow my cardboard carton of Tropicana wasn’t nearly as appealing as the pretty glass carafe on the stage and I made some mint tea and called it a night. All of this got me thinking about presentation and how much it affects how we feel about what we eat.
I grew up in a house that never put any cartons on the table. Even at breakfast cereal was dispensed from big glass jars and doused with milk poured from a yellow and white striped pitcher. Same thing at dinner: if we were having steak and baked potatoes the container of sour cream was never plopped onto the dining table. My brother (the table setter) had to ladle the Breakstone’s into a porcelain ramekin and then put it and a small serving spoon onto a china plate. The only exceptions were ketchup and steak sauce. We were allowed to bring them into the dining room but not allowed to put them directly down on the table; they always had to be placed on a little tray or plate. I guess the thinking was, much like toothpaste and the tube, you can’t get the Heinz or A-1 back in the bottle. Yes, the room always looked beautiful, but when you and your sister are the dishwashers and still facing four hours of homework, it was a pain in the neck.
At the time, our table-setting rules weren’t completely unheard of. I had a friend whose family had converted their dining room into a multi-purpose space. One side was the den where there was a leather sectional aimed directly at the giant TV in the wall unit. (Oh, and there were always M&M’s in a Lucite dish on the coffee table—an extra perk.) The other side was devoted to the sleek black laminate dining table and its angular high-backed cushiony chairs. Although the place screamed 1970’s they had a meticulously set table and maintained the same no-carton formality with one hilarious exception. Their housekeeper, who cooked and served dinner every night, would bring out a giant plastic bottle of Diet 7-Up throughout the meal offering endless refills of the family’s signature beverage as if it were a rare vintage. (I was just excited to have soda at dinner.)
Yet the effort to maintain all this propriety can come at a price: exhaustion. My mother, who is the queen of the tabletop with more sets of dishes than anyone should be allowed to own, tends to let things slide a bit when she has a night all to herself. Recently, when my father was out of town, I stopped by around 7pm to find her standing over the sink eating a small plate of sautéed chicken livers (disgusting) while flipping through Architectural Digest. I was horrified; didn’t she love herself enough to set a place at the table? Or at least sit down? Yes, but her idea of a treat was to free herself from the shackles of the dining room. For her it was a perfect liberating evening.
All in all there really is something to be said for making things look pretty before you get ready to gorge. There’s a great series of children’s books by Russell Hoban about Frances, a little badger. I loved her when I was a kid and my nieces feel the same way now. A Bargain for Frances taught me how to navigate mean-girls, A Baby Sister for Frances prepped me for the arrival of, well, my baby sister and Bread and Jam for Frances taught me the pleasure of a pretty place setting. In the story, Frances refuses to eat anything but bread and jam. After her mother feeds her nothing but those two items for days Frances sees the error of her ways and brings a feast to school. She places a doily on her desk and sets out a thermos of cream of tomato soup, a lobster salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread, celery, carrot sticks and black olives, a little cardboard shaker of salt, two plums, a tiny basket of cherries, a vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles and a spoon. I didn’t eat most of those foods as a five year old, but the illustration was one of my favorites, with everything in its place and looking so much more appetizing than they would have if she had eaten them out of a brown paper bag.
But Frances did have the right idea about jam. There are times I think I could live on bread, cheese, jam and chocolate. When I saw this recipe in the Times a few weeks ago I was so excited having just spotted Meyer lemons and blood oranges at Fairway. This marmalade is beyond easy to make, no fussing with pectin or boiling jars. The spicy warmth of the blood orange tones down any bitterness you’d expect from traditional orange marmalade. I love the sweetness of it set against a saltier baked-good like Irish soda bread. But really, it’s great with everything. And most of all, it’s so pretty! So, get out a place mat, toast some bread, make your tea, and enjoy. And keep that juice carton off the table.
Pretty As a Picture Meyer Lemon and Blood Orange Marmalade
Adapted from Melissa Clark, The New York Times, January 28, 2011
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3 medium Meyer lemons, ends trimmed
1 medium blood orange, ends trimmed
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups raw sugar (Demerara, Turbinado, Sugar in the Raw)
2 1/2 cups water
Wash the outside of the fruit.
Cut the lemons and orange in half lengthwise. Cut each half into 1/8-inch segments, lengthwise. Remove any exposed membrane and seeds. Place fruit in large measuring glass measuring cup. You should have 2 1/2 cups of fruit. For the next steps you want to use the same amount of water and sugar as fruit, hence amounts listed in ingredients. If you have less fruit reduce water and sugar to that amount.
Place fruit and water in a large, heavy bottomed pot (enamel or Le Creuset works really well) and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
Keep cooking until the peels are really soft and completely cooked, 20-30 minutes.
Add sugars to pot and stir to combine.
Turn the heat up to high and bring back to a boil. Then lower heat to medium and let the marmalade simmer until it reaches 222 on a candy thermometer. It should take about 20-25 minutes.
Let marmalade cool and ladle into jars or containers. Store in the fridge for up to one month.
YIELD: 2 cups