1992: The Year Target Saved My Life
So, now that I am not shopping at Target I am wondering, how did I become such a Target shopper in the first place? I mean, I have understood for years what the Big Box has done to Mom and Pop local economies, and I have avoided Wal-mart deliberately and successfully forever without even trying. How then, have I fallen so hard for so long for Target?
Rewind twenty years. Back then I was an art student and a fish out of water, a northeastern Goth chick negotiating dorm life in beautiful, plastic Sarasota FL. My school was on the Tamiami Trail, which is not a hiking trail or even remotely suitable for pedestrian use. It is six lanes of traffic wide, the length of the Gulf coast, and lined on each side by indistinguishable strip malls.
In those days, I had some really bad food issues. I barely ate and couldn’t yet cook. It was really hard for me to eat in front of other people, either socially or alone in a public setting. As a dorm student, my only option for sustenance was usually the college cafeteria. Unable to determine the caloric and fat content of the prepared foods in the steam tables and unable to enjoy dining with my peers, I developed a strategy of choosing raw foods from the salad bar and taking them back to my room on a stolen plate.
Cooking was prohibited in the dorms, and I didn’t know how to cook. But my friend Aimee had an electric pot in her room which heated quickly when plugged into the bathroom outlet, and which she used primarily to give herself steam facials. I asked her where she had gotten it and she said: The Target Store.
South Florida had a lot of national chains I’d somehow remained blissfully ignorant of before I moved there for school. I had no idea that the Olive Garden in Sarasota wasn’t the only one in the world, I couldn’t tell a Walgreens from a Wal-mart, and I had never heard of The Target Store. But I was able to get a ride there and procure the electric cooking pot that would keep me alive until I left Florida. I have a hazy but specific memory of the squint-inducing lighting, the floor-to-ceiling merchandise, and the eerie lack of Muzak. I was somehow able to locate the item I came there for without taking in much else, buy it without compromising my lean budget, and return to campus without being run over on the Trail.
Thereafter I was able to steam my pores and my cafeteria broccoli, and I occasionally used the pasta insert that came with the plug-in pot to prepare fettucini for guests, which I would serve with canned black olives and a jug of Sangiovese. Go figure. At least I didn’t have to schlep everyone out to the Olive Garden.
In the Spring semester I came across a tofu-based chili recipe in Spin Magazine, which was credited to k. d. lang. It called for canned beans and packaged seasonings. It could be made in just one pot and I made it, over and over again, adding what I could from the cafeteria salad bar. It was the first thing I ever learned to cook, and apparently it provided me with enough nutritional value to cross an important hurdle into healthy adulthood. I’ve made versions of that dorm-room chili ever since, and I’ve always been able to rely on a big batch of it to get me through the financial uncertainties of changing jobs or cities or boyfriends. It’s the same chili that our Cafe has become known for. It’s the food I send to my friends who are living with new babies or challenging grandmas. It’s on the table for football games, birthday parties, and Sunday brunches. It’s been my standby, my comfort food, and my calling card. It was the first recipe I cared about, and it changed my creative trajectory, my food philosophy, and my whole life. Without it, I would have starved in many ways. With it, I’ve become who I am today. So I feel I was saved in a way by my Target purchase in 1992. It’s hard to say if or how or when I would have discovered myself as a cook and as an eater without that little electric cooking pot.
Right now, in the dead of winter in Western Pennsylvania, chili appeals. It’s hearty and warm and doesn’t take long to long to eat, order, or even prepare. Without dealing out significant trade secrets, I will tell you two things that I think are essential to good chili… Surprise! Neither one is meat.
Keep it Sweet! Balance is key when it comes to chili, so if you’re including hot or spicy ingredients, showcase them by including such sweet complements as corn, carrots, or brown sugar.
Fresh is Best! Choose plants over powders whenever you can. Instead of garlic powder, chop garlic. Instead of coriander, garnish with fresh cilantro. Instead of using a prepared chili powder, discover your own preferred balance of paprika, cumin, and oregano.