Tuesday, November 23, 2010

In Praise of the Family Meal

This time of year, I fall in love with my kitchen. It's a basic kitchen with none of the fancy appliances so many have taken for granted. But despite the fact that my oven runs too hot or too cold and the electric coils have to be forced back in with the end of a stainless steel spoon every time I turn them on, somehow I manage to cook up some pretty yummy dishes.

The weather has turned cold, the leaves are off the trees and the chill makes me want to bake, cook, saute and stew. Banana chocolate chip muffins, care of Cat Can Cook, have barely made their way into the girls' lunchboxes after being gobbled right out of the oven. I hope that Cat Can Cook won't mind, but I've just substituted pumpkin for the banana in honor of this time of year when opening a can of pumpkin can send me into a suspended state of ecstasy.

But I recently made a dish for dinner that summoned up all my childhood dinners. It had been a long week in which we were dragging ourselves towards the Thanksgiving break. I'd opened and closed the refrigerator at least a dozen times without any idea of what to make.

I went back to my desk to finish up some the day's projects. After working out of the house for the last few years, I'm now happily operating my PR consulting business out of our home. As I closed up my computer dinner inspiration hit me. Tuna patties. Why tuna patties? Well, I was in the mood for something shaped like a burger, but since turkey burgers had recently democratically voted off our menu and we've cut down on our meat intake, I was seeking something tasty and economical. I ran to the pantry. Bingo - four cans of fresh Crown Prince Natural Tongol Tuna.

Every Monday for countless Mondays, my mother made Salmon Patties. In my freewheeling, anti-establishment twenties and thirties, I used to make fun of my mom for the weekday menu she adhered to, but now, as a parent, I completely bow to her culinary organization and strive to do the same. As a child, I relied on that menu for a way of framing my week and my memory has enshrined this menu in the following way:
  • Monday: Salmon Patties
  • Tuesday: Meat Loaf with a hard boiled egg in the middle
  • Wednesday: Chicken and Rice with cream of mushroom soup
  • Thursday: Baked Halibut
  • Friday: Roasted Chicken
I loved all these meals, with the exception of the Baked Halibut. Thursdays I would beg my friends to rescue me from the inedible Baked Halibut cooked in tomato soup with canned green beans. But the rest of the week, I looked forward to them the predetermined meals and gobbled them up. The food was hearty and heart-felt and every night of the week (except for the nights I was able to escape the Baked Halibut), our family ate together. My father would arrive home by 6:30 p.m. and after he'd changed out of his work clothes and washed his hands, we'd sit down together and share our day.

But back to the Tuna Patties. One of my recent goals has been to limit the number of unneccessary trips to the market, a carryover from years in New York City and spontaneous meals. I go to the market once a week and try to make our meals out of that week's shopping, which requires meal planning (back to Mom's weekly meal menu) and limiting the whim-based eating habits of my single days. Sometimes we'll give in to something we really want to have, but I was so damn tired that I couldn't bear the idea of going to the market and besides, I liked the challenge of creating from what I already have. I looked around the kitchen to see what else I had and spotted an acorn squash, rice and garden mix salad greens.

Having never made Tuna Patties, I was a bit lost as to how to begin, so I looked online for Salmon Patties. All the recipes I read online called for fresh salmon and that wasn't going to happen. They also were so busy being something other than the simple fish patties of my youth that I closed my computer and opened up our much used copy of the "Joy of Cooking," page 267. The recipe was refreshingly simple in ingredients and steps. Wanting to keep the simplicity of JofC's salmon cakes, I added a few items to it to account for the substitution of tuna, which tends to be milder in taste. I also needed to make it gluten free, since that is my dietary necessity. Below is my version of Tuna Patties, which will probably change again as my mood and pantry changes:

  • Four cans of low sodium Tongol Tuna, drained and flaked
  • 1/2 - 2/3 cup crushed cornflakes
  • 2 slightly beaten eggs
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • Juice of one lemon
  • Dash of wheat-free soy sauce
  • 1/8 tsp paprika
  • Dash of dill
  • 1/4 tsp curry
  • 1/4 tsp cumin
I drained the tuna, reserving the juice for our three cats, who scurried into the kitchen at the sound of the opening cans. With the juice being lapped up by them, I flaked the tuna and added the crushed corn flakes, eggs, salt, paprika, pepper. I added fresh lemon juice, a dash of wheat-free soy sauce, dill and a touch of curry powder and cumin. It took a little bit more of this and that before the mixture was the right consistency to be formed into patties that would hold. On the electric griddle, I placed the patties and let them brown gently on each side and then popped them into the oven to stay warm.

The acorn squash, cooking away in butter, maple syrup and cinnamon, welcomed the tuna patties into the oven, which today seemed to be cooking a bit on the low side. I tossed the salad with some tomatoes, red onion, avocado, olive oil and balsamic vinegar and made a light tartar sauce. I poured myself and Jack a glass of red wine.

The kids finished their homework and help set the table.

We sat down and before I knew it, all eight patties were gone. Happy customers, as we used to say in the restaurant business.
Don't get me wrong. I don't mean to present our dinner time as some paradise of calm, or of philosophical conversations on the meaning of life. Most of the time, our family meals are loud, silly, full of not so great table manners, eaten too quickly and with too many requests for dessert. But on this particular night, the dinner stars aligned for a simple meal that all of us enjoyed together. And there was much peace in that simple fact.

Perhaps because I'm doing more writing (and editing) these days, I tend to see the day in terms of punctuation. I look at breakfast as a colon, opening up to the demands of school, work, music lessons, and homework. Lunch is the day's semi-colon; a pause in the action, hopefully done at the table and not at my desk. Dinner? Sometimes dinner is a question mark and the accompanying anxiety that occurs at not having an answer.

But this particular night, with four cans of tuna, dinner became a period, a time to take a full stop. This particular night, a simple tuna patty was our period, allowing us to stop and join together for a little while before the day was done. Before we finish our last chores of the day and collapse together in our separate sleeps. One more chance to connect through sustenance. I cherish our family meals and will insist on them as long as I can.

The family meal doesn't need to be an exclamation point, although once in a while that is a terrific thing to do. The family meal just needs to be a period, that's all.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Talking about the Laundry on Sears Blog!

Happy to post a link to my pithy washer and dryer love tale - How Bikram Yoga gives our washer and dryer a workout! Enjoy! And while you're at it, if you live in Longmont and always wanted to try Bikram, come and enjoy a free day of classes at Bikram Colorado/Longmont!


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ode to Chipped Bowls and other Stoneware

Ode to A (chipped) Blue Bowl
I know this might seem really silly, in these days of economic uncertainty, political fighting and out of control stress. But today, in the midst of all this, I'm spending a lot of brain space on my stoneware, or more specifically on my chipped stoneware. Am I alone in having a really difficult time in letting go of a chipped cup, plate or bowl? I do.

The bowl in the above picture has been sitting on our kitchen counter for two weeks, ever since I noticed that the chip was now growing into a crack. The chip has been there for quite some time and despite what my domestic goddess-wannabee side tells me, I just haven't been able to part with it. I love this bowl, which has held countless delicious meals, such as my beloved partner's killer Putanesca sauce long adapted from a friend, or a steaming bowl of chicken soup. It's the kind of bowl you hold in your hand because it stays warm, with a perfect shape and concavity. It's the kind of bowl to display because the color is the deepest shade of blue I've ever dreamt of swimming in.

The bowl is a simple one, with no brand stamped on the underside. In fact, I don't even remember buying it. The bowl probably belongs to a friend from a long ago dinner party from when we used to have dinner parties that lasted until early morning. It might have held a fig and olive tampenade, since it is not big enough to hold a full meal.

I've let go of my favorite coffee mugs, which my family will tell you I'm very particular about. They must be large, wide mouth and able to go into the microwave without burning my hand. I let go of the black, blue and white geometric cup that was part of a stunning set of dishes bought for a Valentine's Day when money was low. I still get to enjoy the pattern with the plates, so the letting go was easier with that one. I've lost track of how many chipped cups that now sit in the garage, neither of us able to part with them. How many of them soothed sleepless nights with teething babies? How many of them represented warmth and home on early winter mornings when I pull myself out of bed while the rest of the house stays asleep?

Much is made these days of the food we eat. Local, organic, seasonal, artisan. Yes, it is all important, but until today, I've thought little on the role our stoneware plays in bringing it all together to represent home, family, warmth and love.

I love this bowl and while I know it can't hold food any longer, I just can't part with it. The wishful craftsperson says to me, smash it and use it for that much thought about mosaic backsplash! But I'm not ready to shatter the perfect circle-ness of it, not just yet.

So to honor this perfect blue bowl, I'd like to offer up that Puttanesca sauce recipe that filled it (and my stomach) to the brim so many lovely nights. Pair it with a good glass of red wine and simple salad of arugula, tomatoes, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Jack's Putanesca Sauce (which he is WAY overdue to make)
Adapted from our dear friend, Joseph Calderone

Anchovies, lots of them, chopped
One sweet yellow onion
Three cloves of garlic, mashed
One cup pitted Kalamita olives
Two large cans of chopped tomatoes (we love Muir Glens Organic Fire Roasted)
Fresh oregano and one bay leaf
Dash of whatever red wine you'll be drinking while making this sauce
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the anchovies with chopped olives, mashed garlic and sweet onions in plenty of olive oil. Rest your forearm on the overhead stove because you'll be stirring this a long time. Let the anchovies, olives and onions cook until they all turn a nice purply brown, but make sure you don't brown them. The consistency should be silky. Add two large cans of chopped tomatoes, fresh oregano, bay leaf, dash of red wine, salt and pepper. Stir until all the flavors are married and turn the heat down to simmer, cover 3/4 of the way and cook for as long as possible. When you're ready to serve, boil up some linguine - we use gluten free - and serve in your favorite bowl, topped with fresh parmesan reggiano. Enjoy!

I do have plans this winter break to finally make that backsplash, with my beloved blue blue holding the center and which will made up of all the chipped cups and dishes, bowls and plates we haven't been able to part with.

Until then, the blue bowl will stay intact, atop our kitchen counter, as a daily reminder of our daily comforts and that which give us sustenance. Buon appetito!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Beautiful (Non-Mathematical) Mind

I volunteer in all three of my kids classes and am thrilled that my work schedule is flexible enough for me to spend this precious time with them in their world. For some unknown reason and despite the fact that I've told all their teachers that math is definitely not my thing, much of my time has been spent doing math. After a few months in the classroom, my multiplication skills are better than they've ever been, which is a good thing because when the multiplication mania took over my house this year with the twins zooming through 'rocket math' and I was getting glazey eyed at the numbers, my kids were beginning to look at me like I was...stupid.

Last week I sat in awe as Maedee's third grade teachers explained 'across and up, up and across' for double digit multiplication. WOW, my brain was literally exploding. No one had ever explained it like that to me before. Later that day, I introduced this concept to Julea who had been flying through packs of flash cards and who I wanted to get beyond recognition and memorization to actually knowing how to multiply any combination of numbers. After a bit of resistance, she took to it so well, she proudly brought in her home worksheet and showed it to her teacher. Before I knew it I was in front of six of her classmates teaching them 'up and across, across and up.'

You have no idea what a huge deal this is. I left that classroom feeling like I had conquered my Sisysphus, my personal math demon, the math monkey that has been riding on my back for the past 30 years.

But then I went to Mila's class and the coordinates arrived and bam, back in the land of the...stupid. It started innocently enough. I'd finished my Thursday folder duties and was heading over to the copy bin, but Mila's teacher asked me to take a group of kids to work on coordinates. I froze. Coordinates. I looked around at the room to see if I could ask Mila what they were, but I knew she would be humiliated, so I listened as her teacher ran through the directions, called the students I was to work with and we were off.

We settled into the conference room and I passed out the papers. I stared at the paper and tried to suppress a hot flash that was stirring, hoping that sweat would not start dripping on the graph paper. I was screwed. One girl took a leadership role and began orchestrating a well intended, but what would eventually turn out to be a complete math disaster. None of us had a clue as to what was going on. I remembered hearing their teacher talk about the benefits of good noise, group sharing and tried to take some small comfort that maybe some of that was happening. But coordinates? No way.

After about 10 minutes of this, I said, "We've done some great collaboration, but I have no idea how to help you with this. We need a professional and we should go back to class." The four faces stared at me with disbelief. How could Mila's mom NOT be a math whiz, considering that she was off the charts with anything related to numbers?

I wiped my glistening upper lip and stood up. I led them back to the classroom and wrote the following on the packet of papers:

"Dear Mrs. G: I have failed miserably to teach the students anything about coordinates. Ask Mila, I suffer from serious math trauma. I'm sorry."

Mila looked at me when I got back to the classroom and knew something was up. 

"Mrs. G gave me coordinates."

A guffaw would have been gentle. A snort would have been kind. But we're talking about a ten year old girl, here. 

"She gave you coordinates? Mrs. G, you gave my mom coordinates? My mom is HOPELESS at math."

Thankfully, the bell rang and my time in coordinate hell was over.

It wasn't always that way. I was an above average math student in elementary school, and loved Algebra and made solid Bs through junior high, aka middle school. But then I hit 10th grade entered Mr. Sternovsky's geometry class. 

Mr. Sternovsky, Sterno, was legendary. He was ornery, volatile, had had a series of heart attacks and in case that wasn't scary enough, my second oldest brother had not only aced his class, but was simultaneously taking calculus classes at U.C.L.A. He;d graduated at the top of his class and gone to Yale.

Nice pressure build up for the younger sister.  

I tried hard. In fact, I tried harder at geometry than anything I had done before or since. And  no matter how hard I tried, how many tutors my parents got me, how many hours after school I stayed and stared at those bloody proofs, I just couldn't get it.

Sterno was lovely about it and appreciated just how hard I was trying. He also knew I wanted to pursue a life in the theater and I think he had some unsatisfied theatrical leanings himself. He listed me in the class roster as Sarah Bernhardt and I normally signed my papers with some silent stars name. He wrote kind words on my C and D papers such as, "Ah but what does geometry mean to the theatre?" He told me my proofs were the most creative he'd ever seen, even if they didn't make one bit of mathematical sense. He was kind and funny and was the only person to ever tell me, when so many were trying to dissuade me from following my dream, that I didn't have to get into an Ivy League school and that being an actress was absolutely fine. I will never forget his 'seeing' me and I hope I properly thanked him for his kindness and guidance. At the end of the year, I think I passed with a B- and never took another math class again.

But the funny thing about being a parent is that it makes us want to be smart at all things, at least I do. And today, as I walked into my oldest daughter's class today at 2pm, right on schedule for my weekly volunteering, right there on the smart cart projector, was my 10th grade nemisis. Geometry. I settled into the back while Mrs. G. discussed variables and measuring the interior space of a obtuse rhomboid and my menopausal flop sweat started to form, like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. When she finished, I headed over to the Thursday folder bin. Empty. She said something about my taking a group of kids out to work on the math, but must have caught the look that flew back and forth between Mila and I. Mila's was a look of disbelieving disgust, a look I'm beginning to get very used to. Mine must have been sheer panic because Mrs. G. kindly directed me to the overflowing copy bin which I scooped up in my arms and scurried off to the copy room.

There was a line. I did everything I could to not have to go back and face my geometric demons, so I finagled my way into getting a few of my big load done. I relished the copying, the collating, the sorting and stapling. I took comfort in the ease at which a machine knew which corner to staple, or punch holes. The whole thing was like a John Cage composition, until my packets started jamming the machines and the other mother volunteers waiting silently let me know that my time in the copy room was done. I took my pile of copies and slowly made my way back to the classroom.

The damn proof was still on the smart board. I stacked the papers three or four times and prayed that Mrs. G. wouldn't ask me to work with anyone. I grabbed another pile of papers to copy and headed back to the copy room, hoping the line was gone and I could escape back into my rhythmical world of paper and machine.

I finished up my copy duties. It was two minutes to 3pm. I sauntered back to class, slid the papers onto Mrs. G's desk. Mila came over to me and gave me a big, end of the day, I'm tired and do you have a snack in the car hug. We gathered her things and went to meet her two sisters. When we got to Julea, she came bounding out her class and exclaimed, "I passed W plus! I'm going on to division!"

After 30 years, I still carry the unfinished business of my creative, yet mathematically-challenged proofs with me. I will never get the Nobel Prize in mathematics and may never get the world's version of 'geometry.' But that's okay. I kind of like that I created my own personal geometry and chances are, that kind of creative thinking has gotten me through a number of life challenges.

As for division? I'm all over it. Except if there's a zero involved.

But that's another story.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

One Week after Halloween

Two years and a few days ago, my dear Dad passed away.  I sat down a dozen times to write about this 24 month landmark, but the words just didn't sit right. That same week also two birthdays - October 21, which  would have been my dear mother-in-law, Lila Greene's, 78th birthday, and October 22, the day my father would have turned 99 years old. An intense week, to say the least.

And before I knew it, Halloween week was looming. Maedee had chosen a very lovely Cleopatra ensemble. Mila had changed her mind from a renaissance princess to Pippi Longstocking (including spraying her hair red) and had finally settled on a black flapper dress. Two down, one to go, and that one was not going to be easy, by a long shot.

Julea is a very specific child. She had a detailed idea of her costume in her mind and her much desired Halloween costume? Mary Poppins. Seems simple enough, right? If she had decided on the familiar Mary Poppins' outfit of blue dress, overcoat, hat and umbrella, we were at the finish line. Nope. She had in mind the dress from the "Jolly Holiday" scene, aka "Supercalifragiliciousexpialidocious." Exhaustive searches only came up with costumes that cost much more than our limited budget could afford. I tried to get her to switch gears, but despite searching through countless websites, she was determined to have her "Jolly Holiday" dress.

During this same time, I was finishing up a two week beginning sewing class. At my ripe age, I decided I finally needed to learn some basic skills and came home showing off a machine sewed pumpkin pot holder and scissors pouch, like a proud kindergartner. My kids decided that after two weeks of sewing class, I was able to sew anything, including Julea's "Jolly Holiday" dress. I have to admit, I believed  I could do it too.

We found a simple white dress online and ordered it. Red satin, thread, ruffles and red ribbons picked up and ready to put my new sewing skills into action. I picked up the dress a few days later and was off to the getting ready for Halloween races. I cut the red satin, measured it around Julea's waist and turned my den into a regular sweatshop. I sewed my fingers to the bones for two days and two nights. Even if I did prick them, I wouldn't have felt it anyway. Thanks to a local dinner theater, I scored a white hat and umbrella that they were willing to part with for five bucks. Halloween was still five days to go, but the school's Halloween parade was just a mere 48 hours away, which was almost a bigger deal than Halloween since the kids got to see all of each other's costumes and show them to the parents and teachers.

I was tired and my fingers hurt. But I kept on sewing through the night and turned the den into a lower east side sweatshop. I sewed blinking lights onto Mila's black flapper dress so she could shine and be seen in the night. I also secured Maedee's Cleopatra's neckpiece and sewed flannel into the arm pieces to soften the itchy fabric. The needle pricks into my fingertips didn't mean a thing.

Friday morning came and Julea tried on her dress. I tied the sash and watched as she put on the hat and lifted the umbrella. We gasped in unison. By George, we'd done it. She hurried into her school clothes and I promised them I'd be there in time to change for the parade.

I arrived at school and headed straight to her class. We gathered the girls and ushered them to the bathroom, where they changed amidst giggles and shyness. Julea beamed as her classmates' jaws dropped. Questions about where she got it were answered proudly with, "We got the dress, but my mama made the costume." I kissed her on the forehead and rushed off to Maedee's class to help her into her costume, thankfully much simpler to put on. Then to Mila's group, where she had already gotten into her flapper mode and stood eye to eye with me wearing a pair of my heels. Her teacher secured the lighting box with duct tape and Mila turned on the blinking lights. Adorable and very 5th grade.

I took a seat in the back row of the gym. The kindergartners stumbled in wearing dogs, cats, princesses and super heroes. First graders were a mish-mash of vampires, sports figures, more princesses and even an Iron Chef. Second graders became more ghoulish. Finally the third graders. First Maedee's class came in and I pushed to the front to take the first of many out of focus shots on my phone. She smiled right at me and looked wonderful. Julea's class came in next and she strolled across the gym floor with her umbrella jaunty against her shoulder. I don't think I've ever see her smile that big. My heart burst wide open.

Mila's class sauntered in as only 5th graders can do and she tried hard to look comfortable in my heels.

They all went off to their pre-Halloween parties, handing me their dresses after returning to their more comfortable school clothes. Halloween night came and they put them on again, this time with less flair and flash, but we managed to make it to three neighborhoods in 2.5 hours, with a caramel apple finish.

Halloween was over. October was over and the anniversary of my dad's passing had, well, passed without my writing a thing. But that seemed to be all right because I'd honored him with Halloween. For my dad, celebrating Halloween was proof that he was an American and he loved it. He carved pumpkins, took us trick or treating and when I was stuck for a costume in 5th grade, it was his idea to transform a round lamp box into a 7up can. He spray painted it and put on the shoulder straps and carved out the diamond-shaped cut out for me to hold my pillow case filled with candy.

As I sat up that week, cutting and sewing, cutting and sewing, I kept thinking about my dad and Halloween. When I just wanted to veg out on the couch, the memory of my Halloween's growing up got me up out my seat and carving three pumpkins. When my fingers felt like they were going to fall off my hands, I remembered my dad spray painting my 7up can in the garage after a full day at the store and I finished Julea's dress.

Remembering, like grief, surprises us. It happens in unlikely times and places, in line at the grocery store, or driving down a particular street at a certain time of day. Or it happens threading a needle with red thread and making an eight year old girl's Halloween wish come true. This year, grief's memory was transformed into acts of parental giving and joy. And into a great Halloween.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Guest Post on Chiseled in Rock

A recent conversation on handling rejection as a writer got me thinking back to my days of being a performer and how my many years of handling rejection prepared me for life as a writer. Here's my guest post for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' terrific blog, Chiseled in Rock, entitled "Rejection Wears Plaid" - Enjoy!