It was the only type of cuisine that our mother, former Gossiping Gourmet columnist Elle Harrow, could not cook. We were about 7 and 14 years old, respectively, and every morning, she would ask us what we'd want for dinner that evening. "Corn dogs," we said.
Always game for a culinary challenge, she took on the task of making corn dogs from scratch with the same amount of relish that she devoted to her own "adult" meals, whether stir fries inspired by her visits to New York's Chinatown, green tomatillo enchiladas gleaned from trips south of the border, or dishes from Julia Child's French cookbooks.
But when dinner was served that night, the corn dogs were a bust. The brown batter did not conform to the shape of the wieners (as they did at Hot Dog on a Stick). They bulged here and there and, most disappointingly, crumbled away from the dogs as soon as we bit into them, falling onto our plates in a mess of fried dough.
We never let her forget this cooking mishap — not even after she opened A La Carte, the successful "takeaway gourmet" restaurant, with her writing partner, Terry Markowitz. She may have crafted hundreds of adventurous recipes and overseen thousands of culinary tours de force over the years until her recent death at the age of 73, but the corn dog affair was a perennial joke, and a reminder that even master chefs have a weakness.
When our mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it was the cruelest of ironies: Here was a woman who spent her life devoted to a harmonious mind and body. She did yoga, ran a marathon in her 40s, climbed Machu Picchu in her 60s, lifted weights into her 70s, and above all, ate healthy and organic food. And yet, she fell prey to a disease that started in her digestive system.
It may not be appetizing to discuss death and dinner in the same story, so let's turn to Elle's legacy, her food, and the recipes that friends, family and followers continue to circulate and cook in her memory.
Here are some of our favorites. And if you remember A La Carte, they're probably your favorites, too.
If cheese bread doesn't sound like a breakfast dish, you never tasted our mother's recipe, which we would eat morning, noon and night. It had a perfect cornmeal-crusted outside and a soft doughy inside, filled with melted cheddar cheese and a healthy dose of honey mustard.
Everyone's favorite lunch was the Cajun or Rajun Chicken Sandwich. An irresistible combination of sweet and spicy flavors with crunchy and soft textures, the Cajun has several secret ingredients, but the two tablespoons of jalapeno jelly gave it the extra kick. For bolder palettes, the Rajun added mozzarella cheese, onions and two sliced jalapenos.
Living in the house of a restaurateur had its advantages and disadvantages. It was wonderful to sample the food from A La Carte, but how many times could we eat Turkey Meatloaf, a scrumptious variety with spinach and pinches of nutmeg, ginger and cloves? Or Bastilla, another deliciously sweet and salty mixture of crispy layers of thin phyllo-like dough, slow-cooked chicken in cinnamon and saffron and a layer of toasted and ground almonds? Turns out, a lot.
For dessert, nothing beat A La Carte's cream cheese brownies, with their mix of semi-sweet chocolate and cream cheese, swirled together to marbleized perfection.
In the days after Elle died, friends and family were shaken. But every night, we would gather together and cook and eat. Neighbors brought their own dishes: trays of lasagna, roasted chicken and lots of cookies. We'd also make our mother's recipes. And we could still feel her presence in the kitchen, telling us not to overcook the chicken.