Awhile back there was an essay in the Times that has stuck in my craw ever since. (I actually don’t know what a craw is, but I like the sound of it.) The author was bemoaning the results of the extensive nips, tucks, and injections sought by women to stave off the signs of aging—the inability to move the muscles required to convey emotion, the loss of characteristics that made them them etc. All concerns I can understand. No one looks good wearing a mask of her own face. But the piece also raised the question of how someone should respond if one’s friend has crossed the line from the use of subtle fillers and changes to “the danger zone.” “How do you warn her without offense? And if her friends don’t, who will?” Although the author’s only suggestion was to remind the youth-seeker of her inherent, natural fabulousness, my issue was really, why is it anyone’s business to tell someone else what she should do with her appearance? Ostensibly, if the woman is taking these measures, she is doing so because she wants to. As for anyone else’s opinion, I’d like to say, “Who asked you?”
In an age when anonymous on-line comments allow bullies to trash-talk whomever they want without taking any sort of responsibility, it isn’t surprising that people think expressing their opinions, no matter how inappropriate, is warranted. At the same time, with so many of us putting our lives out there for all to see, in a sense I can understand the argument that if you’re opening your mouth on-line you’re asking for feedback. Even if all you really want is to express yourself and hope everyone else agrees with you and if they don’t, please be quiet. That’s how I feel about life in general. I know there are those who get a charge from lively debate and being challenged. I hate it.
But appearance is a whole other thing. I had a friend who once got a drastic haircut I didn’t like. This was not one of those cases where you get a desperate phone call from a pal crying on a street corner after a horrible salon experience. She liked her hair. And who was I to disagree? I kept my mouth shut for the many years during which she maintained what I thought was an unflattering style. She was a grown woman. It wasn’t up to me to remind her of her fabulousness in the hopes that she would grow out her mane. Back to the idea that everything you need in life you learn in kindergarten, I think we all need to remind ourselves, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Like everything else, there is an exception to this rule; that would be when someone solicits your opinion. Then all bets are off, but the gloves should stay on. For example, if your friend asks, “Do you like my new skirt?” and you think it is way too short you might suggest, “Yes, but I think pairing it with dark tights would be the best way to go.” Not, “You look like a cheap hooker and I can see your cellulite.” Save those kind of remarks for when you are commenting anonymously on a photo you’ve studied of a celebrity who shouldn’t be wearing a bikini on TMZ. And just in case you’ve forgotten, I want to make sure everyone knows that there is one question that should never be answered honestly if the answer in your mind is “Yes.” Whenever you are asked by your partner, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” just say, “No.” Any other answer can’t lead to anything good and the fact is no one is blind and the person asking already knows the answer to that question. No need to rub salt into the flab.
And speaking of salt, the same exception also applies to the food someone has lovingly prepared for you. When you are presented with a dish the only thing to say is, “Yum.” If by chance it is truly inedible the chef will be aware of this and will whisk away the offending meal. But if you are asked, “What do you think?” remember you are not sitting at the Top Chef Judges’ Table. Your job is not to deliver a verdict, it is to graciously compliment or, barring the ability to lie if the food is not to your liking, say, “This must have taken you all day. Thank you so much!”
I speak to this point from experience. Many years ago I was dating a guy who was scheduled to undergo a laparoscopic procedure the day I was to leave for a long planned family vacation. (I should add that we were teetering on the mutual break-up brink so it wasn’t odd that I was going to be out of town during his time of need.) Knowing I would be away I enlisted a friend to deliver a batch of blondies I had made to the hospital. This was before I had any remote understanding of what purpose specific ingredients served in a baked good. Although I had baked these blondies many times before, that day I decided to cut back on the sugar, thinking it seemed like a lot. Because I wanted my friend to be able to deliver an intact foil pan of the chewy bars I didn’t cut them, or taste them, before handing them off to her. When I called him the day after the operation to see how he was feeling I made the mistake of asking if he’d received the sweet delivery. “Uh-huh,” he groggily mumbled through his Vicodin haze, “They were a little dry.” Can you believe? He couldn’t just say “Thank you”? The fact is I am sure they were dry. Part of brown sugar’s job is to keep things moist and omitting some without making up for it in another way is sure to result in a compromised texture.
I hadn’t made these blondies in years and I’m not sure why. Maybe I was wounded more deeply by that experience than I’d like to admit? Who knows. But they are great. Yes, they do contain a lot of brown sugar. But, the coffee cuts through the sweetness as does using good dark chocolate chips. I’ve broken the no-nut rule here because the pecans really do add so much. They too distract from the sweetness and their crunch complements the chewiness perfectly. So make them for someone you love and if anyone dares to take issue with them (they won’t—I promise), remember to say, “Who asked you?” I wish I had.
Who Asked You? Coffee Blond Brownies
Adapted from The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins, 1984
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1 lb dark brown sugar
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons espresso powder
1 Tablespoon hot water
2 Tablespoons vanilla
2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup chocolate chips (I used Ghiradelli 60% Cacao Chips)
Heat the brown sugar and butter in a medium-size saucepan over medium-low heat until the butter melts. Dissolve the coffee in the hot water and stir into the butter mixture. Pour into a medium bowl and let cool to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 350. Butter an 13x9-inch baking pan.
When the butter mixture is cool, beat in the eggs and vanilla with a hand-held mixer.
Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together and stir into the butter mixture with a wooden spoon.
Stir in the pecans and chocolate.
Spread the mixture evenly in the prepared pan with a rubber spatula. Bake until lightly browned, 20-25 minutes. Do not over-bake.
Cool completely and cut into 2-inch squares.
Yield: 28-35 brownies