In which I discover that coleslaw is not so simple

How hard could the recipe be, right? Five ingredients, the most obvious of which is cabbage.

Karen Norris/Staff

When I was a kid, there were a lot of foods I didn’t want to eat. In fact, this is the primary distinction between my younger self and the current edition.

Coleslaw was one of those foods. It must have been something I tried at a potluck. Looking back, I suspect it was the vinegar that did me in. Mom was of Norwegian stock. We didn’t do vinegar. Or, really, flavor of any kind, unless “flour” is a flavor. The first nonfamily food item I remember really lighting up for, at a friend’s house, was a baloney and mayonnaise sandwich on Wonder Bread. It was a revelation: not only deliciously bland, but squishy! Mom always made our bread and it was not so pliable.

Somewhere along the line, though, I ate a dab of coleslaw and discovered it wasn’t so bad after all. I’d never made coleslaw, but I decided to try. I’m not a seasoned cook, as it were, but there’s not a lot to it. You chop this, shred that, whip up some goo, and jam it all together. So I was amazed, at my very first attempt, how very much there was to learn about how not to make coleslaw.

If you don’t read much past buying a head of cabbage, for instance, you might not notice that the recipe calls for only a quarter wedge of it, and the rest of it is supposed to go back in your fridge like a sad, damp Pac-Man and get thrown out in a few weeks. Instead, you put in the whole cabbage, and then you add your three carrots and notice the bowl is not appreciably orange. So you go back to the recipe and realize you’ve way overshot the cabbage and now you’d better add another 30 or 40 carrots to make it come out OK, which also means you have to dump in the entire contents of a mayonnaise jar and a tub of sour cream and a bottle of vinegar. And maybe a grated salt lick.

Meanwhile, you rummage through your drawer of antique spices and discover that, to your amazement, it does not contain celery seeds, although apparently you have never passed up an opportunity to buy dried dill. But, hey! Celery seeds are very small. It’s one of only five ingredients and all the recipes mention it, but how important could it be?

You think you’re pretty clever getting the food processor all hooked up right for once, and it works great on the carrots. But the cabbage no longer resembles cabbage as much as it resembles moist dandruff. Nothing for it, though, than to heave it into a bowl that would hold an ox head and pour as much goo over it as you think is plausible. But it’s still a little dry, so then you start flinging in more dollops of sour cream and mayo, ad libitum, because you don’t want the first jar of mayonnaise to have been sacrificed in vain. And now it’s not real tangy, so you upend another vinegar bottle over the whole bowl, grab a shovel, and stir.

That’s what you do. And you taste it. You consider adding mustard, or maybe ice cream, but eventually you put a lid on it, as though you’re drawing a sheet over a body, and put it in the refrigerator. It’s not very good. But at least it’s going to be not very good for a very, very, very long time.

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