Hamilton (left) and Hirsheimer (right). Photo: Andre BaranowskiBy Lynn Andriani
You know this feeling: you charge into the grocery store, crinkled list in hand, full steam ahead with the cart. Paper towels, laundry detergent--you're on a tear. "Chicken" is on the list, and you know that means chicken thighs, because thighs are what you always buy. "Pasta"--that means your usuals, linguine or penne. And so on: potatoes (always Idahos), rice (always Carolina), cheese (always Jarlsberg), down the list. There's nothing wrong with food shopping this way; we all do it. But Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, friends for 20-something years and co-writers of the seasonal cooking journal Canal House Cooking, have found a way to break out of this habit and make shopping for dinner much more fun.
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About three years ago, they began food shopping for each other. It started as a favor, but now it's a game. They don't do it all the time, just every so often, and when they do, those normal conventions of what they always buy go flying out the window. No boneless, skinless anythings. Why buy chicken thighs when you can get the whole bird? Pasta: how about something different, like pappardelle? Into the cart go breasts of veal, ruffly savoy cabbage, ground lamb. "Doing the grocery shopping can be kind of dreary," Hamilton says, "especially if you're in a store that's not particularly inspiring." But shopping for a friend gets you excited about grabbing things.
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When Hirsheimer is shopping for Hamilton, all of a sudden she's thinking, "Oh! I'm going to buy her a duck!" The goodie bag doesn't come with any instructions, but because Hirsheimer and Hamilton know each other so well, there are unspoken suggestions. So when Hirsheimer picks up the duck, she's thinking, "Melissa can make that Spanish duck with the turnips and rice, and I go get her some turnips. While I'm there, I throw in some duck and turnips for myself. And it turns out when Melissa gets the duck and the turnips, she makes a paella with the duck, or she cooks it with apples or potatoes, and then she steams the turnips with a little brown butter." The friends have discovered some wonderful new dishes this way.
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Receiving a bag full of groceries is a little bit like picking up your weekly CSA share--but instead of just produce, there are the makings of an entire meal. There's also the added benefit of not getting any rutabegas, since your friend (unlike your CSA) knows you hate rutabegas.
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Aside from the time Hirsheimer bought Hamilton a box of whiskey sour mix that's still sitting somewhere in Hamilton's pantry, the women always use whatever gifts they buy each other. They might pique one another's curiosity with interesting ingredients, but their experiments are nothing like those reality cooking shows where contestants are forced to make dessert out of ingredients like peanut butter, puff pastry and hamburger meat. "We're not competitive at all about this," says Hamilton. "We're trying to make life easier for the person. There are enough challenges in other aspects of life."
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Buying groceries for a friend has one more benefit: the giver gets the bigger gift. As Hamilton explains, "I've got to honor the gift and make something delicious and report back. Doing this for each other has a ripple effect, adding deliciousness and fun to our lives."
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