Thursday, March 30, 2017

remembering cooking days with Jane

26 March 2017; Kilworth Memorial Chapel

Julia & Seth, chopping.
Today I’ll be reading a blog post that Jane wrote in December of 2014, just a few days before we shared a truly epic Christmas dinner at my house. What I recall about that day is that we fired up the laptop to watch Julia Child’s very first TV show, in the kitchen, while Jane and the boys cooked. But I confess I don’t remember what we ate. But Jane could tell you, in detail, the entire menu.

In the piece I’ll read, Jane describes our cooking days, which began about five or six years ago. That was the year my family’s homeschooling adventures were coming to an end—my son and I were both sort of… finished… with each other, but he wasn’t old enough to enter Running Start. Honestly. We needed intervention.

Enter Jane and her mad cooking skills.

Seth & Becca, summer 2015
When the cooking days began, my older son, Eli, had already left for college, but during his breaks he was able to join in, and then Becca, too, once she came here as a student. Over time, Eli and Jane bonded over politics and beer. And when I say beer, I don’t mean only drinking it. They had long conversations on a group message about the whole history and politics and agriculture and everything about beer. Eli was in the Peace Corps in Southeast Asia when Jane had her stroke and was suffering from insomnia. Which meant that because of the time difference, Eli was available to chat in the middle of our nights. The rest of us in that group message, Becca and Seth and I, would wake up to eleventy million new messages. Generally, all beer-related.

What Jane does not describe in her piece is her sheer delight in having created an absolute monster. According to Seth, my younger son and Jane’s sous chef, there are only two ways to do anything in the kitchen: Jane’s way… and the wrong way. The conversation will generally go like this:
“Mother. What are you doing?”
“I’m chopping this onion!”
Long pause, and a low, grumbling, “No.”
“Everybody’s different! Jane learned it one way, I learned it this way!”
At this point, he’ll sigh and usually say something along the lines of, “This is so disturbing. I can’t watch. Just go. Go read your book. Out.”
If you’re a parent, you see the dilemma.

On the one hand: Rude.

On the other: [**whispering**] Don’t have to make dinner!

mise-en-place & matching red shirts
The piece I will read is called, simply, Food. Myself… I have never been all that into the whole food and eating thing. I mean, you have to do it every. single. day, all. day. long…. Although, when other people prepare a meal, of course! I do appreciate a variety of textures and colors and flavors and all that. The “other people” here being the operative terms. So on these cooking days that I’ll be reading about, my job has always been “atmosphere,” setting a beautiful table and making the space welcoming and lovely.

Neither Becca or Eli had had the in-depth cooking instruction that Seth did, so they were typically also relegated to atmosphere duties. Last Christmas, they polished the silver—a job they weren’t too thrilled about at first. Eventually they warmed up to the task, and at one point, Becca said, “This is really nice stuff! And Eli replied, “Yeah! Now we can pretend we’re the Obamas!” Which is what we do now at every family dinner.

So as you listen, imagine this homey scene, the silly jokes, the laughter, the gorgeous gold-rimmed vintage china, the best ever Goodwill score, and shiny silver cutlery and candles. Oh. And one truly excellent chef’s knife called, mysteriously, Betsy.

Finally, last note before I read Jane’s own words. At one point in this piece she calls our little gatherings community. That surprised me a bit when I read it again yesterday, because it’s been so very long since we’ve started to say, simply, “family dinner night.”

August, 2013: Eli had the red curry going on the stove, and Jane & Seth were about to start assembling the spring rolls. Despite Eli's protests that he just has to accept that nothing will taste as good as it did in Thailand, the kitchen smelled fantastic!
21 December 2014

Food, by Jane Brazell

I've been bingeing on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. Oh, the thoughts that course through me. Allow me to set up a couple of things first.

I have been making my own bread since April of 2014. In May I made my own sourdough starter. It now produces bread that brings joy to those who eat it.

For close to two years I've been teaching a young man to cook.We started by creating dishes traditional to the regions he was studying in geography, along with teaching basic cooking techniques.

Cooking Day consists of our prepping, talking about international news, cooking, talking about movies, tv, and books, then eating while talking about our lives. We've made mistakes and burned a thing or two. We've created fusions not seen in restaurants -- and they're good. The laughter has been rich and full. We've created a community while we cook and eat. That brings me to Anthony Bourdain.

I'm a food/cooking show nerd. I'll watch it all. Somehow, I had put off No Reservations, nor had I read any of Bourdain's books. I'd seen him as a judge on cooking competitions and found him brash. I had seen one episode of No Reservations—where he goes to South Korea. He didn't eat dok boki. I had no need for him. Now, it's the holidays and I have time to binge watch something, and Netflix suggests No Reservations.

I jumped in and gave myself permission to jump back out if I needed. It took one episode, and I was hooked. Bourdain disdains the use of the term foodie. He finds "foodies" pretentious. I have long harbored the same thoughts. I don't need all the expensive items to make food that feeds soul and body. I need fresh, affordable ingredients. Bourdain eats at street stalls, local "hole-in-the-walls," and in homes. Homes where feeding the family is a daily toil. Homes that don't know that some would never eat the fish from their river because a Michelin star chef has not used it.

Bourdain sits in homes and eats the food of the people. My heart jumped. This is what I wanted to teach my young sous chef. Eat what the people eat. Find the commonality in all. We've found many one pot, warm, chicken based dishes. Doro Wat, Moroccan Chicken Stew, Coq Au Vin. All rich, warm, delicious, and a way to connect to those who live in different places and in different ways.

I love food. I love preparing it and eating it. I love finding the foods that connect people to their home. I love sharing food with people. I've shared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches which were the best thing I'd eaten up to that point in my life - because it was shared with someone I loved. Once a friend invited me to dinner at her home on a local island. We foraged for our dinner: dug enough clams for each of us; harvested dandelion greens for salad and nettles for braising; and plucked young fiddle-head ferns for sauteing. This still ranks as the best meal I've enjoyed. It was connection to the person who shared the meal.

My bread has become this to me. I can make something that will sustain friends and family. I think of those people as I prep my starter and then work the dough. I want to pass on sustenance and love. I hope it happens every time.

So, I plan another Cooking Day. They'll be ending soon, as Chef leaves for university in the Fall. He will leave with great kitchen skills, the ability to feed himself, and most importantly, the ability to build community. He will not be alone. I am excited for him; his world will be too big to hold, and it will have to be shared.

(While proofreading I've been listening to an episode of No Reservations. Bourdain is near Venice. He's sitting down in the middle of a family garden eating fresh tomatoes, basil, and some olive oil. He looks at owner and says, "Do you take this for granted?" [I had to look at the screen at that point.] The man looks at Bourdain, tears in his eyes and says, "No." This my readers, this is what it's about.)

Friday, February 24, 2017

meeting Roz Chast, SAME

Last week cartoonist Roz Chast delivered a lecture and slideshow in my little concert hall. When she arrived for the sound and tech check, I was ready with the most recent New Yorker, arrived just that day. I didn't even know if any of her cartoons were in it, and apologized, because a usually check the cartoons first. But I passed the mail carrier on my way out the door and hadn't had time to look through.

"There are two kinds of people in the world," she said. "the people who look through the cartoons first, and liars."

She was very gracious about signing my copies, and when she looked around for a surface and didn't find one, just plopped down on the floor. 

As we were wrapping up the sound and tech check, she was explaining that there was some something wrong with the connection with the power cable, and sometimes it seems like it's plugged in but it's not actually charging. 

That reminded me of Eli's troubles, so I said, "My son had an incident where some something was wrong with his laptop, a few years ago, when he was studying abroad in Thailand. One day he fired up the power and a whole swarm of ants came pouring out of the machine! They'd made a nest inside it!"

"No," Roz said. "No. That was a movie? That couldn't be REAL LIFE?!"

"Yes! Real life!"

"Oh. My. God. Oh, God. What a horror!"

"I know!"

"That reminds me," she said. "I saw one of those click bait articles about a woman who had a cockroach IN HER SKULL." Then she did a full body shudder.

"Oh!" I said, "I think I saw that one, but I didn't click."

"I clicked! I clicked! And I wish I hadn't!"

"Didn't it crawl up her nose?! Wouldn't you feel that? Was she asleep?!"

Ms. Chast shuddered again, and said, "I blocked all the rest out. I can't remember. Let's talk about something else."

Me, giant, with tiny Liz, Roz Chast SAME, and Serni
I've lived in the Pacific Northwest for more than half my life now, but lived in Connecticut as a child. Roz Chast has all the vocal and expressive quirks of a Jewish woman from New York, which was surprisingly wonderful and comforting to see and hear. I have just one friend who is from NYC, and she talks in just the same way, and had similarly eccentric parents who'd also escaped from Europe prior to WWII, just like Roz Chast's. I hadn't fully realized that my friend is part of a tribe, the same one that Ms. Chast described with endearing but brutal honesty. 

And that got me to wondering about transplants and tribes and homes we didn't know we were missing.

Often I scoot out of the concert hall to head home as soon as I know we're rolling and all is well. But I stayed for the whole talk, and was glad I did. Highlight of the year so far.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

crossword addiction

They aren't messing around with their headlines.
We used to get the local paper when the boys were small, and one day, on a whim, I decided to try the crossword puzzle. It was... mysteriously exhilarating. For a week or two, I became obsessed with solving that puzzle. Obsessed. Ross would come home from work and the children would be starving and neglected and the house a mess, and I would be unable to tear myself away. "I have to finish this!" I realized fairly quickly that I would have to go cold turkey.

Twenty years later....

Immediately following the election I subscribed to the Guardian Weekly. I would glance at the "quick" crossword puzzle but didn't give it a go because they seemed impossible. "Cambrian Lake?! How the hell should I know the name of a Cambrian Lake?!"

Then this past week I saw that I knew one word, and picked up a pencil. Twenty years later, we have internet! I only had to do minimal cheating.

"Eli, what do you call watered down rum? Four letters."

"I don't know."

"You read all those Hornblower books! How can you not know!"


"It's grog!"

"Mom, this is giving me flashbacks to when I was little and you used to ignore us."

Addiction isn't pretty.

And there are a lotta troubles these days, overwhelming troubles, that seem unsolvable. So, darn straight, it's a comfort to solve a puzzle, tidy, complete.

Also, here's a fun article:

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

fifteen dollars—for a good cause

1979 print, Carl Larsson
Today on my walk I stopped in that little cancer society consignment shop in the Proctor District, always filled with sweet little old lady shoppers and volunteer workers. I had seen a watercolor print the last time I was in, and had passed it up, because ~gasp!~ it was fifteen whole dollars! But I wanted it still, so I thought I'd see if it was still there.

An exquisitely beautiful older woman was in the painting and knick-knack
section, muttering over a suitcase, "Twenty dollars? Is this a joke? You have to be kidding me!" She was wearing a stylish black fur cap and a brilliant pink coat. Her skin was smooth and chocolatey dark, and her hair was absolutely white, peeking out from under her hat.

"I always tell myself that it's for a good cause," I said.

She sort of reluctantly agreed. "I see what they're doing. But so expensive!"

I snatched up the painting and paid for it while she finished her shopping. All the old ladies approved of my purchase—which was brought to the attention of the entire store when the gal ringing me up made an error and asked for eighty-two dollars, then heard herself and shouted, "EIGHTY-TWO DOLLARS. GOOD NIGHT! THAT'S NOT RIGHT AT ALL!"

We finally sorted out my purchase while the woman in the pink coat was considering whether to buy a shirt and sweater for her son. They were laid out on the counter, the volunteer smoothing out the garments to fold. "I don't know. He's gotten a little conservative lately."

"Conservative! You can't get much more conservative than this beige button-down! I mean, I could see plaid being a problem, or stripes or polkadots...!" And she gestured widely and dramatically over the utterly bland shirt.

And then they all started talking about how they pick out clothes for their children, clothes that seem perfectly marvelous, and the children pooh-pooh them.

I said the same happened with my boys, and then I realized. These old ladies' children are probably my age. Which means I'll get to annoy my children with inappropriate clothing gifts and then delight in feeling unappreciated—FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE, AMEN.

Friday, December 2, 2016

book buying hiatus: day one

Recently a friend of mine shared a meme that said something along the lines of “I have twenty unread books but I really, really need to buy this one.”


That’s so cute.

Periodically I hear about friends who decide to torture themselves save money for a period of time with a book buying hiatus. And my reaction is always the same: “Oh, I could totally do that. I mean, why would I want to?! But, yeah, I totally could stop buying books.”

So yesterday I decided to give it a whirl.

 A 1961 New York Times collection, and a darling cookbook in Italian and English.

Then, at work, on a break, I took a stroll over to the student union building with my pal Melissa. And, lo, the bookstore was having a sale, and I accidentally bought two cookbooks. For less than a latte.

When I got home, I found that a book had arrived in the mail for me. I accidentally ordered the same one twice, for a penny plus shipping. (If anyone wants a copy of Why the Right Went Wrong, hit me.)
"Look! Look, Mom! All our liberal elite reading materials
came in the mail today!"

See? No problemo.

I think I’m going to like this project.

Monday, November 21, 2016

mulling queer

Last August I wrote a piece for Book Riot about football. Well, football books. Not being a sporty person, this was a bit of a stretch for me. But I’d happened across a photograph of myself as a toddler, holding the 1960’s bestseller Paper Lion, by George Plimpton, and that got me to thinking about a possible essay. And I had an excellent folksy anecdote to introduce the topic:

I managed to avoid everything to do with sportsing generally, and football particularly, until 2013, when the hometown team, the Seahawks, won the Super Bowl.

On the day of the big game, we had a matinee concert scheduled in the little venue I manage. This gig had been on the calendar ages before the football season even began. Ten minutes before the recital, there was not one person in the audience. Thankfully, at the last minute, a couple dozen brave souls show up.

After the show—solo cello, delightful and delightfully brief—my son and I bicycled over to a friend’s house for my first ever Super Bowl party. It was a dark, overcast day, and the streets were utterly abandoned. Riding along, I remembered that eerie scene in On the Beach where whatshisname returns to his hometown after the nuclear holocaust, and everything is still and silent. Every few minutes we would hear shouts and cheers or loud moans erupting from nearby houses. In unison.

It was so unsettling. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps sports, not religion, might be the opiate of the masses.

But that last bit was edited—the original post read, “It was so queer and unsettling that the thought crossed my mind that perhaps sports, not religion, is the opiate of the masses.”
A reader responded, “I don't love the use of 'queer' in this article, especially from a site that typically tries so hard to be diverse and welcoming.”
The editor apologized and changed the wording.
I was initially upset because the idea that I might have inadvertently hurt someone is, well, just upsetting. I’m not a monster.
I was also befuddled. When I was a child, whenever any of us would say, “Well, that’s funny,” my grandmother’s stock response was, “Funny queer, or funny ha-ha?” (She died before The Giver came out, but she would have chuckled over the “precision of language” imperative.)
So, despite having a sibling who identifies as queer, and several friends as well, my first understanding of the word is the original sense, as in strange, odd, peculiar.
Naturally I wondered if we had completely lost that association, if the word, in common parlance, exclusively meant “not straight.” Several mainstream dictionaries still list it as an “offensive” or “disparaging” term for homosexual.
I immediately consulted my friend who is a trans man and also crazy brilliant with the languages to see if I had been utterly misguided in my use of the word. He replied, “So they're apologizing for a reader's inability to parse English? Geez.” Another professor friend responded with “What a stupid, stupid clutching-of-pearls, the ‘queer’ business.”
You know you’ve picked your friends well when they skip right past your etymology questions and leap to your defence. Both friends were reminded of the niggardly imbroglio a while back.
Funnily enough, (as it were), the whole incident caused me to wonder whether I had any business writing for Book Riot at all. I’m much older than most of the other contributors. Perhaps this is just not the venue for me, and I should be hangin’ with the old farts.

That’s what we call at this house, “dying in advance.” I’ve taken a hiatus, but eventually I'll get back to it.

I won’t be striking “queer” from my vocabulary, although, I will be more careful about where I use it. Context matters. Sensitivity and kindness, too, perhaps now more than ever.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

on neighbors & neighborhood

As I pulled into the alley behind my house last night I saw a shadowy figure approaching in the dark. For a split second I thought about various escape options—although my first thought was to protect my new bicycle, which I had been about to leave unattended to open the garage door. But then the figure called out hello. It was my neighbor, Al, coming from the house on the opposite corner.
“Woody died today.”
He’ll be buried on the twenty-third, the day his wife Fern died, one year ago.
We talked a few minutes. Al hasn’t always been very approachable or kind, but I know he was close to Woody and Fern, and to Audrey and Bud, who used to live across the street. They all moved into the neighborhood when it was built, in the 1950s. Al is a little younger than the rest, but he’s “on the top rung now, too,” and “next in line to go.”
I grew up in neighborhoods where no one talked to each other, big houses you entered through the garage door that opened for you automatically. And I never lived in any one of those places longer than a few years. When we bought this little cracker box half my life ago, I was very young, had a tiny fat baby, and felt shy and alone. Ross was better at meeting the neighbors, and they all seemed to like them.
Once, at a block party, Al introduced Ross to some other folks as if he were a celebrity. “Ross works at the university!” I worked there, too, but that signified nothing. Blank faces. Woody and Al seemed to live in a man’s world, and the womenfolk were separate.
About ten years ago I covered my front lawn in cardboard to kill the grass and make way for more garden space. One day Woody walked by when I was on my hands and knees. He put his hand up over his face and said, “I can’t look. I don’t even want to know what you’ve go going on there, Nicole.” He didn’t generally seem a hostile man, but there wasn’t much humor in his joke.
I remember Fern’s voice particularly, quavery. She was curled by severe arthritis, which must have been painful, but she was always kind.
I wonder what will happen with Woody and Fern’s quirky house now that they’re gone. The young couple who bought Audrey and Bud’s place seem sweet, and they have a gorgeous chunk baby. Although, I don’t see them very often. They leave every morning in separate cars at 7:50 on the dot and don’t return until late. I wonder what the house thinks of that that lifestyle, if it’s lonely without them.