Cooking My Way to Mr. Beard Entry #17: The Misery of Mayonnaise and a Farewell to Blogdom

An occasional blog by Nick Olcott

Well, life has certainly changed since we returned from Nova Scotia. I dove right back into teaching at the University of Maryland, where I’m now Interim Director of Opera. Three classes a week and administrative duties. Plus directing The Magic Flute with my students. Plus coaching the Young Artists at the Washington National Opera for their roles in the educational performances surrounding Anna Bolena and Don Giovanni. And then there was this little matter of rehearsing I Love to Eat. Not to mention getting those lines learned for real.

Sadly, cooking was the thing that had to go.

But with the arrival of Mr. Beard’s outdoor cooking books, a new routine entered our lives: Sunday as Grill Day. For the first two Sundays after we came back, I was able to fire up the Weber kettle and prepare lunches and dinners for the entire week. Since then, Tim has taken over the grill duty. It’s a great way to eat.

Grilled chicken, fish, and beef, with roast potatoes and vegetables. Packed in lunch-size Tupperwares on a Sunday lunch assembly line. I’ve been able to keep the healthy eating going even while maintaining this schedule. (Let me highly recommend the prepared brochettes that the Silver Spring Whole Foods has to offer. The Chevy Chase one doesn’t have them, but they do have Korean steak ready to go on the grill. Can’t report on the offerings in the District or Virginia.)

I’ve discovered that roasted new potatoes are the perfect finger food for the car. I sail right past Wendy’s nowadays.

So in this, my last blog entry, the only food item I have to share is the sad story of my relationship with mayonnaise.

You may remember that this whole journey began when I realized I would have to look competent making mayonnaise on stage. Mayonnaise became an obsession.

And not just any mayonnaise. Mayonnaise made per Mr. Beard’s instructions “in a large dinner plate with a fork.” No food processors here.

For my first attempt, I used the recipe provided in American Cookery (page 75). Let me definitively NOT recommend it. It calls for a teaspoon of salt for a single egg yolk. That produces some salty mayonnaise.

It also calls for a full cup of oil. It may have been my beating technique that was at fault, but I think a full cup is just too much oil. The recipe gives instructions on what to do if it gets too thick or if it curdles. Neither was a problem for me. What I had after what seemed like an hour of heavy beating (it was probably about fifteen minutes) was a salty, runny mess.

It actually worked fine for making devilled eggs, and it was nice on bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches, but it was not mayonnaise.

My second attempt’s failure I can only blame on myself: sloppy reading and a basic misunderstanding.

I had been troubled during my first attempt that the mayonnaise never got white. Having grown up on Hellman’s Mayonnaise (actually, on our side of the country it’s called Best Foods), I thought mayonnaise was supposed to be white. I didn’t know that homemade mayonnaise is always somewhat yellow. So when I turned to another recipe (in Delights and Prejudices, page 17) and saw it called for “eggs,” I thought, “Well, of course. You need the egg white to make the mayo white.” Well, no amount of beating made that thicken. Only when I read the prose above the recipe did I discover that I was supposed to use just the yolk.

My third attempt started with a problem:  I only had one egg in the house, so I had to make it work. But the mayo began to curdle. I didn’t have another yolk to mix in (as Mr. Beard recommends in the event of curdling). So I figured I could just whip the curdles out. Adding more lemon juice seemed to help. Yes, the curdles went away. And the mayonnaise began to thicken. The lemon juice, it turned out, also helped make it whiter. So, after what seemed again like hours of strenuous beating, I had something that looked like mayonnaise as I knew it.

Looked like. Didn’t taste like. What it tasted like was lemon-flavored caulking compound. I didn’t try it around the bathtub, but I think that’s where it would have been most useful. Instead, I buried it in the forest with the clam linguine.

Later I managed to make mayonnaise pretty successfully. The best recipe is the one given in the script. Add salt and pepper “to taste” only, and use just enough oil to get the consistency you want. The amounts Mr. Beard’s recipes recommend are way too much. The two-egg version in Delights and Prejudices calls for a single teaspoon of salt, so it’s half as salty as the American Cookery version, but that’s still too salty. And the two-egg version calls for two to three cups of oil. The mayonnaise will tell you when it’s had enough oil. Stop then.

Having achieved mayonnaise, however, I still had to figure out how to make it happen in the twenty-one seconds of speech the playwright provides. Twenty-one seconds? And that’s speaking slowly.

Clearly, I needed help here. Thank goodness, the stage manager on the project, Che Wernsman, is a real cook. With her kitchen skills, she was able to teach me many things (like how a real cook chops parsley and squeezes a lemon). But it took her knowledge of cooking and her experience in theatre combined to figure out how to make mayonnaise emerge on a plate in twenty-one seconds. I won’t give our secret away here. You’ll have to come to a post-show discussion to learn that one.

Rehearsals went by much too quickly. They were the most fun I’ve had in years.  Wearing my spiffy muslin pyjamas (a rehearsal mock-up of the real silk ones designed by Frank Labovitz that I wear for the show), I got to spend three to five hours a day being an actor and a cook. It’s been one of the happiest periods of my life.

I can’t say it was as relaxing as my time in Nova Scotia. Leisurely breakfasts by the sea gave way to an hour every morning on the exercise bicycle with the script, learning lines and building up my stamina and breath support at the same time. Teaching class took the place of trips to the market. Driving the Beltway replaced strolls on the beach.

But thanks to rehearsal, I got to spend a few hours every day in a kitchen, albeit a fake one. And I got to explore the fascinating life of James Beard as I worked day after day to become him.

I face the first paying audience tonight. I only hope that we’ve managed to cook up a treat that’s as much fun to taste as it was to make. Maybe I’ll just rely on Mr. Beard’s own maxim:  “If all else fails, simply be amusing. You can get away with anything if you’re amusing.”

See you at the theatre.

This was the final entry in Nick’s journey to “become James Beard.” We hope you’ve enjoyed this series. Our deep gratitude to Nick Olcott for sharing his adventures with us.

I Love to Eat, with Nick Olcott as James Beard, is onstage at Round House Bethesda thru November 4.

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