I like food. I like smelling things. This holiday I got some of both and it wasn’t always pleasant.
The 2009 Holiday Stinkathon begins with one of my favorite things: cheese. Actually it is my wife’s favorite thing, and for me only ranks third after bread and chocolate. For Christmas my sister bought some Mt. Tam cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. I’ve had their cheeses before and they punch normal cheese right in the face, then kick it again for good measure. The masters at Cowgirl Creamery know how to make good cheese, so I was Supa-Excited to try out the Mt. Tam.
“Huh.” As family crowded around the cheese, that was the first reaction when it was opened. We cut through the delicate white wheel, spread it on crackers, and tasted again.
“Ooof.” To say that the rind smelled of old diapers is really unfair. To diapers. This smelled like a full diaper pail that’s been left in the sun for a couple months, stuffed with carrion and buried, then exhumed and served fresh. We all looked at each other and again at the cheese. How could this be? The taste was half delicious creaminess, half stale vomit, but we kept eating. Finally someone tried digging the cheese out of the middle. Bam! The taste was gentle earthy warmth and decadent creaminess. This is the magic of good cheese—the rind puts off the delicate hand-wringing nancies and rewards intrepid tasters who come back again.
My second holiday smell-sperience started, of course, with good intentions. I decided it was time to make a hearty split pea soup, and the geniuses at Cooks Illustrated decided it was best to make your own pork stock as a base. Their recommendation: find a smoked, bone-in picnic ham between 2 and 2.5 pounds. Well, there are such hams, but they run about thirty bucks and are more like ten pounds. The recipe made passing reference to both ham hocks and smoked pork neck. The second store I visited had pork neck for a few pennies*. Bingo! I dropped them in the pot and let them simmer while we out for a family hike. Two hours later we came back inside and the house smelled like a mortuary from the sixteenth century. How do I know what this smells like? Bear with me, friends. I thought the soup might get better once I added the other ingredients**, so I spent another hour chopping and sautéing vegetables. Additional salt and pepper, the savior angels of bad cooking, didn’t seem to help. My wife and I sat down to dinner, I took one spoonful***, and declared that I wouldn’t eat “dirt soup”. My wife was kinder and said she didn’t mind it so much, but I think that’s because she’s European and they eat all kinds of weird things over there. My guess is that because there was no meat on the neck bones, the 2-hour simmer got the full brunt of marrow and [shiver] spinal cord material without any of the meaty porkiness that we wanted. It tasted like dirt and bones and death, which is exactly what a sixteenth century mortuary would smell like. See? I told you you’d understand.
But I couldn’t possibly end with that story, so here’s the final verse. Last year I bought some glug, a sugar and spices concoction that you mix with wine to make a very dangerous warm holiday drink. I bought another this year and was determined to finally make some, so it went with us to Northern California for the Christmas holiday. One night we opened up a bottle of a family-made wine. After an hour of sitting and getting oxygenated it still smelled like vinegar and public toilets. To be fair, other bottles of this wine have been fantastic, so I figured it was an off bottle. It was the ideal mate for the glug: sour and stinky, meet sweet and spicy. Just like me and my wife. Anyhoo, I poured both bottles in a stock pot, switched on the burner, and let the two lovebirds mingle. Maybe it was the festive atmosphere, or some alchemical mystery, but we finished off that entire pot in about twenty minutes, and it was a complex and tasty fusion of earthy spice, fruity sweetness, and the velvet-fist-in-an-iron-glove punch of warmed alcohol. It was our own Christmas miracle. Or maybe the miracle was that I didn’t fall down the stairs that night.
Is there a moral to this tale? If it’s cheese or wine, ignore the smell, it might still be good. But trust your nose with simmered pork. There. Have some useless advice to start your year!
*Mistake One: There’s a reason it’s so cheap.
**Mistake Two: Don’t throw good food after bad.
***Mistake Three: Know when to call for pizza.