Fantasy Food Picks

Wistful thinking won't make me anyone's dream dish preparer

This past week I came to the depressing realization that I am not anyone's fantasy cook. This was shortly after I talked to Nathalie Dupree, who lives in Charleston, S.C and has been a head chef in schmantzy restaurants in Spain, Georgia, and Virginia, written 11 cookbooks, and hosted more than 300 television shows on the Food Network, The Learning Channel, and PBS. Safe to say her food repertoire is deep and varied and contains the most sublime of foods.

Yet her fantasy cook is a woman named Kate Almand, who worked for Dupree "for years," first when she ran Rich's Cooking School and later on lots of those television shows. "Until she was 80, she made tiny little hand-rolled biscuits using a wooden bowl," Dupree told me. "I really loved those biscuits. Large families used to make smaller biscuits so that every one could eat some hot as a batch came out of the oven.

"If I could have anything I wanted, I would have Kate to come back and make me small biscuits."

Now that's what I call a fantasy food—one you can't have, or at least not right now, for reasons involving geography, the separation of the lands of the living and the dead, or the stubborn resistance of this world of ours to time travel. Nonetheless, you really, really want it.

It doesn't have to be something you couldn't make yourself. I know, because my fondest wish is that my younger daughter would come home right now and cook me a spinach feta pie. I know darn good and well I could steam the spinach and chop the onions and even make butter-based pastry if we weren't going with the crustless recipe, but that's not the point. I just want to see her and be pampered and eat this very specific dish that I can almost taste right now.

Being wonderful doesn't assure food fantasy status, though. I make really good stir-fry vegetables, for example, and perfectly blended meatball soup, but no one's going to get all pensive when it hits them that I'm not there to mince ginger root or roll tiny lumps of lean ground beef for them.

And the taste is sometimes beside the point. On lazy Sundays, I still get a yen for this mediocre coffee served in Wade's grandmother's Southwest Virginia home back in our dating days: instant, indeterminate brand, stirred and served by Beulah with scratchy radio gospel music playing in the kitchen.

Nah, nothing I make would inspire this food fantasy feeling. And I'm pretty sure I can't correct the situation. I can just hear myself calling the college-student friend who's in Michigan for the summer. "So, Katie, aren't you just craving some of those Scrabble Cheez-Its I put out when we play cards? Bet you can't get those in East Lansing, eh? Really? Well what about the giant frozen Stouffer's lasagna, hmm? Or that red Kool-Aid we make with granulated sugar?"

I'll never be the fantasy cook, any more than I'll be a trophy wife, an engineer, a cougar, or a Mary Kay sales rep. But I make up for it by having more fantasy foods than most anyone else. These include Wade's Aunt Dorothy's potato salad, slightly mashed and including dill relish, from 10 years ago; a Hot Holly sub from the New York Deli in Williamsburg, Va.; the shrimp-stuffed deep-fried avocado that I ate in a restaurant in Conway, Ark. just a couple of weeks ago; and the pre-packaged burnt hard pretzel pieces I used to buy at a little grocery/deli in Manhattan in, oh, 1993.

In fact, right now I am yearning for a cup of the shrimp gumbo made at this little shack under a bridge in Pensacola, Fla. And I'd like a couple of Kate Almand's small biscuits to go with it.