In the same week that Starbucks baited all of mankind with the Unicorn Frappuccino – something undeniably photogenic with its hues of pink, purple and blue but also undeniably questionable in taste – I experienced something truly magical: my first non-stick frying pan. Yes, I’d owned pans in the past which claimed to be non-stick but for the first time in my adult life, I own one that actually fulfills that promise. In the way the sugar-filled Unicorn-in-a-cup claimed to change lives, my new pan truly did change mine.
I’d been using my previous pots and pans for far longer than warranted. Most of the set had been tossed out because the metal was exposed or chipping away and the ones that remained were just sad looking. I didn’t want to infuse my sauce or my eggs with chips of metal, so in an impulsive huff, I ordered a new set. Per an email which outlined a generic Saturday delivery window, I stayed in all day to be available.
There are worse things one can do with a Saturday than stay inside and watch a marathon of Sex and the City. Late in the afternoon, I got an email from FedEx, a company I had no beef with whatsoever, that informed me that my cookware had been delivered. Exciting, except there’d been no knock at my door. I walked downstairs to see that the delivery person, someone I instinctively decided was an ogre but was probably just lazy, left my giant box of new cookware in a puddle of water near the mailboxes. The other reason for staying inside with Carrie Bradshaw and Co. was that it rained most of the afternoon. I love the simple joys of sitting on my couch watching TV, the scent of my favorite candle from Spice in Waco emanating from across the room while a cool rain falls outside my open window. Still, my Zen-like afternoon didn’t prevent some of that rainwater from pooling in our mailroom. It’s Harlem, so water pools in unlikely places; there will never be an explanation for this, but it will always be so. As such, my box was soaked through and disintegrating, leaving me no choice but to manhandle the mushy cardboard while carrying it upstairs. I was irrationally upset so I set the box in the corner of the kitchen floor, punishing it with a time out.
As dinnertime approached, I had to forgive, de-box and unpack my new pans in order to use them and in doing so, I lost my irrational frustration when them. They looked so beautiful; black on the outside, handles with a nice grip and white coated insides. They’d look more at home in a full-sized kitchen or on a cooking show rather than in my tiny corner of Harlem which I call home, but they were mine and they were lovely.
Since Saturday was such a lazy day and Miranda and Steve were really going through it on Sex and the City, I knew it was a Nacho Night. To be fair, Nacho Night tends to be a bi-monthly holiday in my apartment. Sure, I could go to any number of restaurants in Manhattan, many of which claim to have the best nachos in New York, but the truth is that the best nachos in New York happen in my Harlem apartment twice a month. That’s not misplaced arrogance, it’s just a fact. I have a list of references if you require them. The ingredients in said nachos change from time-to-time, but after thirty-plus-years of being a connoisseur, I’ve got nachos down to an art. I have seasoning from Texas that my parent’s benevolently have delivered to my Yankee state and with that in my holster, it doesn’t matter what meat I select, it will always be a perfect shot of Tex Mex flavor.
This particular Nacho Night, I chose ground turkey as my protein of choice – which I’ll admit is a little unconventional for a Texan – but it’s a nice switch up. Usually, I would go with fajita chicken or steak, the staples of a true, honorable plate of nachos, but since I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve earned the right to change things up.
Changing things up is not without its risks. During a trip to Fresno, I dined at a pizza restaurant that harbored a dark secret: hidden on their menu was something called Spaghetti Pizza. From the outset, I had questions. Why do I need both dishes on one pan? Couldn’t those two things be ordered separately and eaten simultaneously, achieving the same flavor profile? Also, that’s a lot of bread. When it was set down in the center of our table, I came face-to-face with a pepperoni pie, thick with pepperonis and cheese, topped by a layer of spaghetti, meatballs and sauce. Then there was another layer of cheese to really seal the deal. Since I was on vacation, I had a very “try anything once” sort of attitude about life, but it’s something I’ve since tried to retain. Why? Spaghetti Pizza. It was divine in a way food hadn’t been before and while the ingredients appeared simple, the combination was other-worldly. It was so delightful that in the years thereafter, it became my go-to dish to make for my friends in college. It’s been a fan favorite, proving that changing things up can truly pay off.
Of course not all change-ups are slam dunks. When I was 18, my friend Rachael and I decided we should make my parents dinner. Neither of us were particularly skilled in the kitchen, but we knew we could make personal pizzas without too much fuss. It was the summer of Moulin Rouge, a season where both of our lives revolved around the new musical movie that had left us speechless and inspired. As such, we willfully spread the gospel of Moulin Rouge to whoever would listen, including my parents. We were so enamored with the film that we offered to take them to see it, something they’ll tell you they still regret agreeing to. Fifteen years later, it’s still referred to as “The Moulin Rouge Incident,” aka the evening when we subjected my parents to a film they both hated entirely. It was one of my first forays into the importance of “knowing your audience.”
After a week of being teased relentlessly about having subjected them to a movie we should have known wouldn’t be their cup of tea, we offered to make them dinner as atonement. We bought the pizza ingredients, let each diner decide what they wanted on their pie and slid them in the oven, thrilled with ourselves and our culinary prowess. Yet, the dough-in-a-can we used to create our crust rose and plumped to such a degree that it enveloped the toppings. Rather than flat pizza crusts, it created bulbous balls of dough with pizza fillings sunken and stuffed into the inside. In any other situation, this would be a happy accident, the sort of thing Buzzfeed would tout as a food tutorial and people would share on social media. But on that night, we were less than happy.
Preparing the meat for Nacho Night, I was astonished at how well it cooked in the pan. It didn’t stick to the sides or the bottom and the perfectly white coating on the pan made it so easy to watch it brown. This may be a matter-of-fact to people who’ve always had a pan that functions in the way pans are meant to, but as a non-stick newbie, this was a big deal.
I’d ordered this particular pan set because it was on sale and I had a gift card. I’m a middle class boy from Texas so sales and gift cards and coupons still dictate most of my spending habits. I’ll never be able to be one of those New York types who spends exorbitant amounts of money on the newest trendiest thing – unless I have a coupon. I am my mother’s son and alongside with teaching us the Bible, she taught us coupons. These perfect (discounted) pans were a happy accident, and I was on the receiving end of their non-stick blessings.
My mother actually had an experience with a happy accident a few years after our non-happy pizza debacle. She, knowing my penchant for chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, offered to make me a cake version of the ice cream for my birthday. It would have a chocolate chip cookie crust on the bottom and a vanilla cake with chocolate icing on top. When it came out of the oven, she waited for it to cool and then iced it. Yet after dinner, when she began cutting it into pieces, she quickly realized that while the cake was done, the cookie dough crust hadn’t baked all the way and was basically a slightly-firmer version of dough.
She went on and on about how she’d messed up, how disappointed she was and that she was sorry for messing up my birthday cake. Yet as she went on and on, my siblings, Rach and I ate and ate, eating piece-after-piece of the cake that deserves to be cited as a modern marvel in the pastry pantheon. We were practically shoveling cake into our mouths as if we were mid-contest at Nathan’s. Picture it: Firm cake with actual gooey cookie dough affixed to the bottom. It’s the dream, the grail, the apex. My mother still doesn’t understand why this happy accident made us so damn happy, but to this day, it is the best cake I’ve ever eaten.
Saturday’s Nacho Night was a rousing success and I give the credit to my amazing new pan, Pam. She was so great, she deserved a name. Pam is unlike any pan I’d ever owned. That first set of pots and pans was purchased from a drugstore with a gift card my aunt gave me to help me get situated. (Again, the gospel of the gift card cannot be blasphemed) I may not be the best chef in the world, nor is that a title I aspire to, but I’d rather prepare my own meals than go out to eat. Those pots and pans were the perfect starter set and they made my tiny barren apartment feel more colonized with the aroma of home cooking.
When I first moved to New York, I had precious little to my name and finding my footing was not an easy process. I didn’t have a trust fund to lean on or a robust credit card under my parents’ name to pay for my expenses. Sure, I had help along the way, but there was no grand stash of money available for me to put the pieces of my new life together. Frankly, I was starting below zero. I’d been swindled in the process of landing my first apartment and lost thousands of dollars. The rough-and-tumble side of New York reared its head before I’d even gotten off the plane. Panicked, I stayed with a friend in deep Brooklyn for the first two weeks of living and working in the city. Not only did it snow the entire two weeks, but I had to march through said snow in order to look at apartments each evening.
Two days after arriving, after a long day of work at my new job, I took the train up to Harlem to meet a broker and look at apartments that were in my menial price range. My anxiety was palpable. Traipsing through a part of the city I wasn’t familiar with is one thing, but to do so in the snow and in the darkness of the winter night made it all the more cumbersome. On the train uptown, I tried to force my determination to override my anxiety. This is New York, the best city in the known world, and you’re living here with a job that pays both your bills and leaves you enough money to enter the Broadway show lotteries. Pull it together.
Stepping off the train in this foreign neighborhood, I checked and rechecked the information in my phone to ensure I was in the right place. As I walked through the turnstile of the subway, I spotted a familiar face among the crowds existing at this stop. It was as if the clouds parted and for a moment, the summer sun shone through the winter clouds, illuminating my friend of many years walking a few feet in front of me. Pablo had been on the same train as me but in a different car. I grabbed his arm and asked him if he would go look at these apartments with me since he apparently knew this area. He did indeed know the area; he’d grown up there and happened to live three blocks from where I was apartment hunting.
Some might call this a happy accident, some may say it’s a coincidence, but I believe in divine appointments in the same way I believe in coupons and Converse. The fact that my closest friend in the city got off the same train as I did, at the same time as I did, and lived three blocks from the apartment I could afford was to me, in no way, a coincidence. Pablo and I went from apartment to apartment, him showing me the restaurants in the area I should know about as we walked. When I picked the apartment and told the realtor “I’ll take it!” like I was in a TGIF-era sitcom, he told me I made the right decision.
Six years later, I’m still in that tiny Harlem apartment he and I visited on that evening in the snow. It’s been a place where my friends and family have stayed while they were in the city – some of which have even celebrated Nacho Nights with me. It’s been my shield during hurricanes, my private quarters to write in peace, and this morning, it’s where I made perfect bacon and eggs on Pam. It’s small, but it’s mine.