In Defense of Defensive Eating

Parker House Rolls

Parker House Rolls

If you were to ask me, “What’s the worst meal you ever had?” my quickest answer would be that I can’t think of one that was all that bad. That’s saying a lot, considering (how can I delicately put this?) the passage of time since I started eating solid food.

But as I think about it, one or two meals come to mind that were doozies. One was in an exotically ethnic restaurant, to which I was dragged with a group of work associates. Dinner consisted of a series of mushy items presented in a series of bowls set in the middle of the table. To eat the items in the bowls you ripped a piece of seemingly sodden bread from a large sheet, and used that to scoop some food from the bowls, all the while praying that your table-mates were healthy. (Eagle eyed diners may have identified this cuisine by now.) I remember hoping that dessert would be a large flat brownie sheet that I could rip into pieces to scoop some ice cream and hot fudge, but, alas, it was not.

I mean no disrespect to any ethnic group, and, truthfully, I have no way of knowing whether or not that meal was a good or bad example of that cuisine. I do know that immediately following the meal I was desperate for something crunchy.

My sodden bread scoop dinner is tied with a meal I had as a kid at camp. The camp’s cook served something that was either fried Tuna Fish Salad or very wet Tuna Quenelles. Color? Gray. Taste? Meow.

Fortunately I had many allies in my distaste of that meal–including our counselor who grabbed the platter of Tuna a la Voldemort, returned it to the kitchen, and returned with a happy platter of sliced bread, peanut butter, and jelly. Unfortunately he did this after I had already taken a bite of the tuna, scarring my taste buds’ memories for life. I think of this meal every time I watch the movie “The Odd Couple” and see Walter Matthau throw a plate of spaghetti against a wall, yelling, “It was spaghetti. Now it’s gawbage.”

This is not to say that there haven’t been a great many mediocre meals through the years, some self-inflicted in the name of vanity (a/k/a, dieting.) But take note of the two stories above. My camp counselor was able to save the day with a loaf of bread, but the un-named ethnic meal was unsalvageable because even the bread was unsatisfying. My lesson? It comes in the form of an affirmation. If a meal is mediocre (or less), I reach for the bread basket, for I am saved by the bread — carbs be damned.

I may have hinted recently that the Corned Beef and Cabbage meal that is a tradition on St. Patrick’s Day is, for me, strictly a hit or miss proposition; it has to be really good for me to enjoy it. If not, I pray to St. Patrick that while he was driving the snakes out of Ireland he was also able to leave me some good bread in the basket.

When I eat out I have the questionable habit of judging a place by the bread basket. Am I wrong? You hear, “Never judge a book by its cover” ad nauseum; you never hear “Never judge a joint by the rolls” because they actually can be a darn good barometer of what’s to follow.

There was a long-ago time when every big city had its grand hotels. In those days it was the grand hotel that hosted the city’s finest dining room, the kitchen of which was likely helmed by an Escoffier trained or inspired chef. Indeed, if old M-G-M movies are to be believed, these gentlemen were invariably named Pierre, and were quite high strung.

I have previously written about Boston’s venerable Parker House Hotel as the birthplace of the Boston Cream Pie. The hotel also has the distinction of having an eponymous roll –which, yes, sounds like something that can be conquered with a few sets of sit ups. In reality, the Parker House roll is a lovely, buttery bread (which, yes, will sooner or later need to be conquered with a few sets of sit ups.)

Boston is my home town, so perhaps I can be forgiven for the undeniable (but perhaps outdated) claim that it is a very Irish town. Right or wrong, that explains why I consider the Parker House roll the remedy for a bad St. Patty’s Day dinner—or for that matter, the remedy for a bad Easter dinner (or any other big occasion.)

The Parker House roll is the brioche’s plainer, American cousin. Almost everything you love about brioche is there, except a bit softer, fluffier, with less egg, and more butter. (I may have just described the difference between the Americans and the French. You be the judge, I’ve stuck my neck out far enough already.)

While brioche can be somewhat labor intense and require a special fluted brioche pan, Parker House Rolls only require a rolling pin and biscuit cutter, equipment that can do many other jobs. I used an adaptation of the hotel’s recipe that is published on the Food Network website, cutting the recipe in half. This still resulted in about eighteen rolls, with a couple of more from scraps, although I prefer to call them “baker’s prerogatives.” Eighteen rolls is a good yield for dinner for four to five folks, or two if one of the folks is me.

In addition, I have annotated the recipe so that you can easily bake them exactly the way I did, using my Kitchen Aid mixer. Don’t feel limited by holiday meals; these are perfect breakfast rolls too.

It’s no secret that the moment I open the oven door to retrieve anything I have made from a yeast dough is always a thrill.

Not a thrill on the level of finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but still a thrill.

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Click here for the recipe for Parker House Rolls.

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