Corner Store Cuisine

SEAGULLS ARE small-brained birds. I'm convinced they're only capable of two thoughts. You can see it in their eyes. All they're thinking, over and over, is, "What is it?" and "Can I eat it?" When I walk into a corner store I have the mind of a seagull. I stomp about, picking things up and putting them down. I'm seduced by shiny packaging. I try to eat things that are not particularly edible. In short, I have such a good time that foraging for my meals in the corner store has become a way of life. I'm not the only one. I see people in line ahead of me, and they're not buying snack items or cigarettes. Nor are they part of the malt-liquor-and- schnapps set. No, they've got pork 'n' beans, sour cream, a cucumber. I can't help but wonder what they're planning. Some exotic Middle Eastern salad? A new type of facial? A kinky sex scene with extra roughage? Constraint stimulates artistry. Just as a painter daubs on a canvas, just as a masseuse relies on fingers and toes, the corner store gourmet creates satisfying dishes from a short list of available ingredients. Any hungry hipster can stop in for chips and a soda. It takes a real artist (who thinks outside the box, yet refuses to walk more than a block) to create a true concoction. I still remember the first time I added mustard to my ramen. The rapture of it! I pass this secret on only because I know what pleasure it can bring. Use any kind of mustard: yellow or brown, seedy or smooth. Put the ramen, the flavor packet, and two or three good dollops of mustard into a largish bowl. Add boiling water. Let it steep, covered. Then savor the hearty soup. The first rule of corner store cuisine is: Don't skimp on the condiments. At its best the corner store is an essentially urban cornucopia. At its worst it's arugula-free dining with a hefty markup. The second rule: Don't eat too much pasta. Try to get a variety of the four corner store food groups: canned, frozen, bottled, and of course, pasta. Pasta's ease of preparation causes the dreaded Ragu burnout in many a corner store novice. If you must noodle, try topping the dish with heated canned chili and cheddar cheese for a change. The third rule of corner store cuisine is: Don't count the fat grams. You don't want to know. If you persist in that behavior, you'll become one of those boring types who reads labels in the pet-food aisle of the supermarket. Corner store wares may be nutritionally challenged, but where else can you find grocery items arranged according to their true natures, not forced into the cold corridors of supermarket logic? For example, my corner store keeps condoms on the same shelf as those little airplane-size bottles of booze, just above the frozen fish sticks. Marshmallows and graham crackers are across from chocolate bars and Duraflame logs. In the magazine rack Torso, Inches, and Leg Show are arranged, top to bottom, in anatomical order. The corner store is an orderly little world where the seasons are marked by the changing colors of Hostess Sno Balls -- green for spring, pink for summer, orange for fall, and pink again for winter. Likewise, the posters of bikini-clad women shilling for beer feature Santa hats, shamrocks, volleyballs, or snow skis, depending on the time of year. Rule number four: Kitsch can be nourishing. (Why do you think they call it a kitchen?) The aesthetic pleasures of the corner store have inspired the great writers and artists of our day. Experimental fiction writer Donald Barthelme celebrated corner store cuisine in his brilliant piece "Three Great Meals." For breakfast he suggests a chicken-and-dumplingsesque combination of shredded leftover Popeye's fried chicken and biscuits. A packet of powdered gravy doctored with onions, broth, and cheap white wine completes the effect. Lunch is a casserole of canned tamales, canned tomatillo salsa, chopped onion, and cheese, baked in a "small, oven-going vessel." Barthelme's "dinner for 60" is a fictional stew of five cooked hams, 30 pounds of miniature sausages, buckets of canned black-eyed peas and canned tomatoes, and finally, a roux that requires 10 pounds of flour and five frozen ducklings for flavor balancing. It cooks in large pots on four six-burner stoves. In the true spirit of corner store cuisine, performance artist Laurie Anderson advises traveling cooks to make "hotel-room hot dogs." First unplug the electrical cord of your hotel room's lamp and sever it, leaving about a foot of cord to plug back in. Use your wire strippers to remove the protective plastic from half the length of the cord. Thread the exposed wires into two hot dogs and plug in for about half a second, or to desired doneness. Try to avoid cooking yourself in the process. The Futurists, although they railed against pasta as the enemy of progress, would have agreed with the corner store aesthetic. The Futurist Cookbook urges dinner guests to rub their fingers over sandpaper while sampling an odd variety of foods. Likewise, the main appeal of corner store cuisine is not always its flavor. People who work at home (freelance writers, 'zine editors, growers of small shrubs) know the importance of a meal that can be prepared (and sometimes even shopped for) during a commercial break. The corner store is our lifeline. There's nothing worse than missing the scene in which Erica gets paralyzed during her big fashion show on All My Children because you were out buying groceries. It's very unprofessional. Here are a few of the wonderful dishes made possible by corner stores. You'll be amazed to learn how you can plan and prepare an entire dinner menu without leaving your own city block! For starters, I enjoy an old standby that some palates find a bit challenging: Combine liver-flavor potted meat product with sour cream. Mold, chill, and serve, just like pat. Polish burritos, corner style: Slice a polish sausage lengthwise, but don't think about it too much. Wrap the sausage with some mozzarella in flour tortillas and microwave or broil until gooey. Paella del corner store: Cook Minute Rice, substituting a jar of salsa for the water. Add canned shrimp and black olives. Corner store curried vegetables: Steam a block of frozen mixed vegetables or frozen peas in a pan till defrosted. Add three or four tablespoons of curry paste (I know curry paste isn't exactly available in corner stores, but it's worth a special trip to the supermarket. You can keep it in that large, food- rotting device that clutters up the kitchen) and simmer until the veggies are just cooked. Remove from heat and stir a small container of cottage cheese into the vegetables. Clam sauce della corner store: Buy canned clams. Drain and reserve the clam juice. Saute the clams in olive oil for a minute or two, then add a couple of tablespoons of tomato sauce, salt, pepper, oregano, garlic powder, and a sprinkling of the clam juice. Serve over pasta. And what would a meal be without dessert? Here are a couple of inventive sweets to finish off any repast. Mousse au chocolat et mocha du coin: Make instant chocolate pudding with half-and-half instead of milk. Add some leftover espresso from your morning fix. Don't mix too thoroughly -- if you're like me, you like it chunky. Corner store trifle: You'll need a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milanos (any flavor), instant custard, strawberry jam, whipped cream, and one of those nifty little half-pints of rum that they only sell in corner stores. Make the custard. In a big bowl, layer the ingredients lasagna-style in the order presented, dousing them with rum as you go. Let it sit awhile. Be sure not to operate heavy machinery after enjoying this dessert. The last rule of corner store cuisine is: Always remember that satisfaction (and that pleasantly full feeling) are just around the corner. author

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