Monday, November 9, 2009
Lunch at Ikea
Professional basketball player Coleman Collins has written many tremendous TrueHoop posts about Steve Nash's charity soccer game, Paris, a fashion show, Germany, Iran, and more. Today, he writes about applying culinary lessons honed in Georgia to a life unfolding in Germany, where he plays for Ulm in the Bundesliga.
I have very particular tastes. If I am trying to find something to eat, and I'm the one doing the cooking, my favorite things to eat are baked chicken wings and Ramen noodles. They have to be chicken-flavored Maruchan Ramen noodles. This is very important to remember. Some people think you can just eat Ramen noodles as a full meal, in a bowl and drowned in water like some common soup, but I've found that they work best as an accompaniment to something else. So chicken wings are served with chicken-flavored Ramen, roast beef with roast beef Ramen, and so on. There's an art to it. The most important thing is to strain the noodles in a colander, and then add the seasoning when they have dried somewhat. In this way the flavoring adheres better to the noodle, and only then can the full power of the Ramen noodle be experienced. Try it at home.
You don't believe me. Trust me, I've heard all the naysayers. "Ramen noodles have absolutely no nutritional value." "How can you eat something that can be buried for ten years and not go bad?" "I thought those were for poor college kids." These sentiments are all somewhat true, but they are irrelevant. Who cares that they're high in sodium and have no vitamins? Ramen noodles are tasty and delightfully inexpensive - for 12 cents a pack you can eat like a king. It's your own personal recession special. I challenge you to find a better food value in this day and age.
This isn't a story about Ramen noodles, though, because I don't have any here with me. Strangely, the Germans do not share my love of Ramen, and I have had trouble finding them at my local store. This is a small tragedy, but I adapt. I am a very good cook. One of the best dishes I cook other than baked chicken wings and Ramen is spaghetti. I learned from the best. When I was about seven or eight years old and both of my parents were working, my father decided it was high time I learned to cook something so I could feed myself for a change. One day, we stood in the kitchen, huddled over the stove.
"Now listen up," he said, "and pay attention. I don't want to have to repeat this." I straightened up, all ears. I had conquered the microwave, except for that one time when I microwaved a spoon in a bowl of Spaghetti-O's, but no one had found out and the microwave still worked. Now it was time to move on to bigger and better things. He cleared his throat and began the lesson. "Any idiot can make spaghetti. You put water in a pot. Put a little salt in the pot, maybe a little olive oil. Then you put it on the stove. You make sure the stove is on," he said, gesturing to the knobs in front of us. I nodded and made a mental note. Make sure stove is turned on. This was clearly a step I would do well to remember. "You wait till the water is boiling. Then you put the spaghetti in. When the spaghetti's done, you strain it. That's it."
"What do you mean, 'boiling'?" Boiling. It was a nice, round word and I rolled it around and repeated it for a bit. Boy-yull-ing. It was news to me and sounded strange and important. I decided right then and there to bring it up casually at school. "Did you watch that new episode of "Doug" last night?" my classmates would ask. "Oh no," I'd say, "didn't have any time. I got carried away boy-yull-ing some water, and, well, you know how it is." Boiling water was clearly something that grown-ups did, and once I learned how to do it I'd be well on my way.
As I mouthed the word, giggling at its strangeness, he narrowed his eyes at me, probably second-guessing the decision to leave me alone near an open flame. "Pay attention. Boiling is simple. There will be bubbles coming from the water. Big bubbles. They'll be rising and popping really fast. You'll be able to tell. I hope."
"Ok." Bubbles were familiar territory. Show me a little kid that doesn't like bubbles, and I'll show you a future mortician. "But, wait - how do I know it's done cooking?"
He laughed and put his arm around my shoulder. "Ah-ha. That's the best part. But let's just keep it between you and me, alright son?" I nodded vigorously. At that point you could trust me with anything. I was a vault.
He glanced over his shoulder as if to be sure no one was listening, whispered in my ear. "You get it out a piece at a time - use a fork so you don't burn yourself or anything - and then you throw it at the wall. If it sticks, it's ready to eat."
"Spaghetti can stick to a wall, without glue or anything?"
"It most certainly can. And if it doesn't stick, you just wait and keep throwing strands of spaghetti every so often until one does. That's how you know. Only don't tell your mother I told you. It'll be our little secret."
I was beside myself. Who knew cooking was so fun? Boiling water with bubbles floating all over the kitchen and popping overhead? Spaghetti that magically stuck to any surface? It was almost more than I could bear. I composed myself, tried not to let on how excited I was. "What about the ceiling? Would that work too?"
"Sure, why not? I don't see why the ceiling'd be any different. If it's done, really done, it'll stick to anything. Got it?"
I nodded again.
"Ok, good. I'm gonna go upstairs and watch the game. Why don't you try it out?"
He chuckled to himself and walked away, leaving me beaming, standing in a kitchen full of magic and possibilities. That was the day I made my first pot of spaghetti.
My mother came home about an hour later. "I made dinner!" I said brightly, clutching a colander half-full with overcooked pasta. She smiled weakly and took a piece, chewing and glancing around the kitchen at the other half-pot of spaghetti, the half that covered the ceiling and walls and the raw pieces that littered the floor. I'd thrown a piece about every fifteen seconds from the moment I'd first dropped them in.
"Mmmmm," she said, "that tastes really good. How'd you learn to do a thing like that?"
"Dad taught me," I said. Then I thought about our secret. "Well, he showed me a couple things, but I came up with a few ideas myself."
"Ah," she said. "I see. Good job. How about you put that spaghetti down for a second, and sweep this floor up? Where's your father right now?"
She sighed. "I think I'll go up and tell him how well your spaghetti turned out."
Over the years I have perfected my spaghetti technique, but I have not forgotten those first lessons in my family's kitchen. They have served me quite well. I make phenomenal spaghetti. I often receive compliments about the tenderness of the pasta, and I nod and accept them with a knowing smile. Because I am so good at making spaghetti, I will often find myself eating it three or four times a week. 'But what of the other days of the week?' you might ask. This problem is easily solved. On Tuesdays, most of the KFCs in Germany have a wing special -- six wings for two euros. Tuesday nights I get a big bucket of chicken wings and fantasize about having Ramen noodles to eat with them. On nights that are not Tuesdays I might order delivery from the selection of pizza and Chinese places. If I am hungry for a high-class meal with vegetables I will visit an actual restaurant.
Lunch time is simple. Connoisseur that I am, regardless of where I am living I will always be well apprised of the various buffets in the area. There is a Chinese buffet downtown, all-you-can-eat for 6.90. There is another buffet that is also all-you-can-eat, which charges 6.70. These two restaurants are directly across the street from each other. I imagine the owners, peering out their respective windows and plotting against their competitor. In my mind they are brothers who have had a falling out over their father's will. The older brother coerced a deathbed rewrite and stole the recipe for their father's secret sauce, and after years of court challenges they've retreated to their respective bunkers, silently hating each other from a few yards away. I have begun to subtly sow seeds for a price war. "How much was that again?" I ask. "Six euros even, right? No? Oh, I'm sorry, I don't eat here often. I usually go to that other, cheaper place across the street, but today it was so packed I just couldn't get a table."
When I am tired of eating Asian buffets or making lunch from cold cuts, I dine at IKEA. Most people think that IKEA is only for bland furniture and rock-bottom prices, but for those blessed with houses already full of furniture and discerning palates, it can also be a wonderful place for lunch. The food is vaguely Swedish with a German twist. I like to think of it as European fusion. Someday it will catch on elsewhere, but for now IKEA is the only outlet for the European fusion enthusiast. The only problem is that the menu never changes; IKEA's restaurant was (sadly) not designed for repeat customers. People only go to IKEA at most once a month, and even still, they won't stop to eat each time they walk in. As a result IKEA is able to keep its menu static with the average consumer none the wiser. But I am, as I have told you before, a culinary connoisseur, and I cannot help but notice. For this sad reason, the joy of eating IKEA's food is gradually lessened with each visit. I have begun changing up my order when I go there, but am secretly hoping that 2010 has a new IKEA menu in store for me. But if you haven't been yet, you should go. The meatballs are excellent this time of year.
On extremely rare occasions, I might even experiment with something other than spaghetti, but normally the sole reason I haven't cooked spaghetti is that there are no clean dishes. My apartment here doesn't have a dishwasher. This is the primary source of stress in my life. I hate washing dishes by hand. To me it's like washing a load of clothes in a river or using flint to start a fire: sure, it's noble, but there are machines that do that better than I ever will, so why bother? Paradoxically, I absolutely can't stand a dirty kitchen, so after cooking on consecutive days I tend to spend most of my time in the living room. When the living room got too dirty to bear, I found an older German woman to clean things up. For 10 euros an hour she will come in and clean your apartment from top to bottom. Her husband dropped her off, and there she was standing at my door, mop in hand and ready for battle. "Don't forget to do the dishes," I told her. "I'm planning on making something special tonight." I left her there, went to practice and came back a few hours later. The place was absolutely spotless, save for the cleaning lady collapsed on the couch, glistening with sweat from the labor. I paid her the money I owed (with a little extra out of embarrassment for how dirty the apartment was) and we said our goodbyes. Then she ambled down the stairs, out the door and into the arms of her waiting husband, who had to have been shocked at how long it took her to finish. I can only imagine their conversation on the way home. "Now, wait - just wait one minute," he says, scratching his head. "The floor I can understand. That part makes sense. But how on earth would he have gotten that stuck to the ceiling?"