My brother James is the “smart one” in the family (I’ll let you guess which “one” I am). This is something that all the members of our little clan--the clan McLeod!--have been acutely aware of since he was six years old, when James was sitting on a stool in a general store/ local bar for cattlemen in Neiderwald, Texas. This was the town next door to my grandparents’ ranch where we visited a couple of times a month. Serious cattle country this was and close to Lockhart where there is quite possibly the best BBQ on the planet at Black’s (this is a food blog so I’m going to try to make this somewhat relevant) and full of hard working, serious cowboys like my grandfather.
Anyway, a friend of my grandfather’s, a craggy old rancher, had asked my brother to play a game of checkers with him, thinking he would quickly kick the ass of the poor little six year old toe-headed city-kid with coke-bottle thick glasses and thereby teachin' him some hard scrabble ranch life lessons. But things didn’t pan out quite like the wrinkly old guy thought and my brother beat the bastard at quite a clip. I mean really quickly, like as in four turns or something equally embarrassing to a rough and tumble old man. Exasperated, and with the attention of everyone else in the honkey-tonk squarely on his shoulders, the old guy looked down at the board and then at my smiling, adorably lisping brother and he said, “Well, son, if yer so smart whattaya gunna be when ya grow up?”
I think he thought James would say something like “Astronaut!” or “Fireman!” or “Ballerina!” (you know those glasses were a tad emasculating, even for a six year old), but my awesome little jerk of a brother just blinked his artificially magnified eyes, looked up solidly to the old dude and said clearly, enunciating every syllable, “I am going to be a nuclear phythithitht.” (that’s a “nuclear physicist” in non-lisp). Period. And he shut down the conversation right there. And the hoots and laughter of everyone in the bar delighted and surprised James so much that even he, himself, knew right then and there that he was a powerfully smart human being. Or at least one with really good comedic timing. Which he doesn’t actually possess. Ask me about the inappropriate pedophilia joke he told at the Christmas dinner table sometime. It never fails to impress. I’m kind of convinced it’s why my mom and stepfather divorced, but I digress...
I’m not sure if I truly remember the story-- I’m pretty sure I’ve just created a memory around the folklore I’ve been told my whole life-- but my parents swear it happened exactly this way, and I believe it too.
So, anyway, we’ll fast forward to James getting runner-up in the elementary school spelling bee without even studying once, four or five years later. He was in Fourth Grade and I was in Second, and he had started to grow out of that Jerry Maguire “did-you-know-that-bees-and-dogs-can-smell-fear” cute kid and into a whip smart, kind of angry about our parents’ impending divorce and “let’s eat our feelings and don’t call me Jamie because it’s the name of the Bionic Woman” pre-pre-teen. And that made him always vulnerable to ridicule, which he deflected by being even smarter than everyone else without even trying, which totally pissed me off. He was up on stage, in front of the whole school, and winning ribbons and I thought to myself that I was not only going to win the Whitcomb Elementary School Spelling Bee when it was my turn in Fourth or Fifth Grade, but I was also going to prove that I was just as smart as my smarty pants bespectacled older brother.
This was problematic since James and I had wholly separate ideas, totally different philosophies, actually, about just how one wins. Only one of us was actually smart about it and I’ll let you guess which one that was. He believed that strategy was important, that in order to beat your opponent at something like, Connect Four or Battleship, you had to be able to anticipate what their moves would be in the future or in response to your moves. I believed that divine inspiration would guide me to victory due to my speacialness, that I should allow the fates to determine what I should do and be moved by a feeling. This idea, incidentally, was the precursor to a corollary I made about how I was going to pass Physics my freshman year of college: if you ignore the problem long enough, it goes away by itself. This was quickly disproven when I got my first (and only) C in college and after I burned a hole in my stomach drinking 15 cups of coffee in order to stay awake cramming for the final.
Needless to say, I have NEVER WON A SINGLE GAME AGAINST MY BROTHER IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. And when we were both IQ tested as small children the only notable thing written by the test taker about me was “As soon as she gets to a question that she can’t answer, she stalls and asks if her brother knew the answer.” I’m a treasure, truly.
When it came my time to kill at the Spelling Bee, I felt the heat of the lights on that stage in the cafeteria, remembered how it had felt earlier in the year to dance with my class to “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” in the pageant we had put on about the month of February, and I was prepared to take my rightful place as the smart one.
And I did OK at the beginning. I spelled some old favorites like “festival” and I even got through “vacuum”, having thankfully practiced it when I was studying from the card they handed out in homeroom from the bottom to the top. I thought that everyone would study starting at the “A”s and then peter out, so why not start at the end, with the words I was more likely to beat the others with.
Surely the employment of such a strategy would help me reach the same glorious Spelling Bee heights that James had. And I would do it wearing my Gunny Sax dress so that the pictures of me with my ribbon would be framable.
And then my next word.
Or, as I spelled it, I-N-E-R-S-H-A.
And my moment in the bright lights ended, and my dreams of proving to my family that I was as smart as my much smarter older brother dashed.
I have been dogged by that fucking word ever since.
Which brings me to back to this little soupapolooza! thing. When I was doing this weekly, it kind of grew like how I imagine a kid does-- I lost sleep at first, but the baby was manageable because it was just in a crib and I could contain it with the skills I had. Sure I made mistakes. Plenty of them! But it took a while for the kid to crawl and then to walk, and I was honing my advancing skills all the while. So while the party grew weekly and the menus became more involved, I was building on everything I had learned while it was just me and Bangs Batlin. After a year of the weekly soupapolooza! I would balk when people would incredulously ask how I could prepare four courses for roughly thirty people every week. I hadn’t ever given it a thought. I had just stayed in motion. It was pure inertia.
Now that I’m a body in rest, as it were, I am exhausted and I can’t believe I kept up the pace of last year. I’m still cooking, just not with the same ferocity, and I can’t find the will to finish the blog posts I start almost daily, and that just sucks. Because I have grown to love having this blog baby, which is silly I know, but I do. I love that it makes me feel connected to people I love, admire and respect, connected to memories of my past, connected to an idea about what my own future family will be. Grandiose, non? Mais oui!
And in honor of the birthday cupcakes we used to pass out at Whitcomb, I am offering up an AMAZING recipe for s’mores cupcakes, ones that I made for the Superbowl this year.
(Society Bakery, Dallas)
makes 12 cupcakes
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 15 whole crackers ground in processor)
1/2 cup all purpose flour (*I used cake flour, which made the cakes a little lighter)
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup whole milk
8 oz bittersweet chocolate (do not exceed 61% cacao), chopped
1/2 cup (scant) heavy whipping cream
3/4 cup plus one 7-ounce jar marshmallow creme
12 1-inch pieces broken graham crackers (for garnish)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 12 standard muffin cups with paper liners.
Whisk graham crumbs, flour, baking powder and pinch of salt in a medium bowl. Beat butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating to blend between additions. Beat in vanilla. Add graham cracker mixture in three additions, alternately with milk in two additions, beginning and ending with graham cracker mixture. Divide batter among muffin cups.
Bake cupcakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 22 minutes. Transfer cupcakes to rack; cool completely.
Place chocolate in medium bowl. Bring cream just to boil in small saucepan; pour over chocolate. Let stand one minute; stir until smooth. Cool ganache to lukewarm.
Push apple corer about one inch into top of each cupcake; remove cake, forming hole. Spoon 3/4 cup of marshmallow cream into resealable plastic bag, pushing into one bottom corner. Cut 1/2 inch off corner. Pipe into holes in cupcakes. Spread 2 teaspoons ganache over each cupcake (can be made eight hours ahead). Let stand at room temperature.
Preheat broiler. Coat rimmed baking sheet with non-stick spray. Spoon dollops of marshmallow creme on sheet. Broil until slightly charred, 1 to 2 minutes. Spoon dollop of charred creme over each cupcake; garnish with piece of graham cracker.
Hopefully this body will back in motion in short order. I guess this post is a good start, in any event. And I’m trying to visualize success-- what does it look like, exactly? I think it’s probably a good strategy for the future, since I’m never going to be smarter than my much smarter older brother. I guess I’ll stick with cooking and leave the spelling to him.