About Alison Krupnick

I'm a former world-traveling diplomat, turned minivan-driving mom and writer, now living in Seattle with my husband and two daughters.

I’m Just Like Gwyneth. Except When I’m Not.

Let’s start by stating the obvious. Gwyneth Paltrow would never let more than two months elapse without updating her blog.

gwyneth-paltrow-sticks-to-her-diet-while-family-eats-pizza-and-pasta__oPt

Bad for the brand.

I’ve been thinking about personal branding lately and, of course, about Gwyneth, because how could you not? For the lonely writer, social media is our water cooler. Gwyneth’s announcement of her split from husband Chris Martin has dominated social media over the past few days, but even better are the writers who have posted insightful and funny retorts to Gwyneth’s comments about “conscious uncoupling” and difficulties of life on a movie set in Wisconsin.

Others have responded so much better than I could, but I will just say, as someone with two jobs, kids doing three sports and and a husband who thinks I have all the time in the world to get his international drivers permit, life on a movie set in Wisconsin with 14 hours of uninterrupted focus on one goal sounds pretty good right now.

wisconsin cheese

Actually, I’ve been on something of a Gwyneth kick lately, exercising regularly, sticking to 1500 calories a day, snacking on cauliflower with bagna cauda and generally trying to maximize my potential.

But years of attempts at personal growth and personal stomach shrinkage have yielded an important realization: I’m good for about three weeks.

Three weeks is the maximum stretch I can regularly run, do yoga and Tabata, limit myself to one glass of wine with dinner, accomplish my professional and personal tasks with aplomb, volunteer at school, take the dog out regularly for long walks, drive carpool, manage the carpool Google calendar, make healthy dinners that everyone actually likes, drive to and from soccer practice and get enough sleep.

Gwyneth-Paltrow-Real-Beauty

Before

Three weeks. Then, something’s got to give.

I just listened to a piece on NPR about male coming-of-age rituals in Kenya. Boys are circumcised at age 13, in an elaborate ritual that involves pulling the penis through the foreskin and then tying the foreskin into a bow. Though I don’t have male equipment, my knee-jerk reaction is ouch. Prior to the ceremony, the boy’s face is caked with mud, which dries into a hardened mask. During the ceremony he is supposed to remain perfectly still. If he flinches or reacts in any way, the mud will crack and he will be branded a “sissy” for life.

 

Three weeks later

Three weeks later

That’s how Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand of “aspirational” (my new, most-hated word) lifesyle strikes me. I admire the effort to be perfect, but aspire to the more realistic, trickle-down effects of trying to do your best and settling for achieving your personal best, whatever that is, at any given time, with whatever you’ve got going on in your life.

Eventually, the mud will crack

Eventually, the mud will crack

In the months that I’ve contemplated what I wanted to write about next, two pieces served as inspiration. One was a much reviled piece by New York Times writer David Brooks called The Thought Leader, in which he paints a grim picture of the life cycle of a certain type of self-satisfied intellectual.

The other, which ran a few months later in The Atlantic, is called The Narcissistic Injury of Middle Age. As we age, the writer argues, we may find it hard to accept that not just our looks, but also our ideas, are discounted in favor of the young. Wisdom and experience are no longer at a premium, especially in an age of self-absorption.

I found the happy medium in a New Yorker essay by Roger Angell. This Old Man is an account of Life in the Nineties. If you are short on time, stop reading this blog immediately and read that instead.

Wisdom is not dead.

Yes, feminists, I realize I have just cited three works by men. This past week there has been a trove of good stuff written in commemoration of Gloria Steinem’s 80th birthday. I am well aware that wisdom and reflection are not solely the domains of those who have endured penis-centric coming-of-age rituals.

Quote-by-Gloria-Steinem

In the past week, I had two contrasting experiences which provided food for thought. The first was the day I spent interviewing third-generation longshoremen on the docks of a busy container shipping terminal. I learned about the values that had shaped them and how they pass these on to the younger generation. The second was lunch in a beautiful penthouse apartment listening to academics and followers of the Dalai Lama talk about ways to bring “secular ethics” into schools.

Both groups were equally aspirational and I guess you could call them both “thought leaders.” And both, though they used different terminology, were essentially trying to accomplish the same thing.

The getting and passing down of wisdom is an important aspect of the human condition and a key tenant of some religions. Blogs and brands and Twitter accounts notwithstanding, it’s generally assumed that wisdom is something that makes an appearance on the heels of experiences, which are accumulated throughout the course of one’s life. There’s no right way to do it and no one time when you’ve got it all figured out.

It’s a solitary and individual experience.

Because we are treading into heavy, preachy Gwyneth-like territory here, please take a moment to watch this video.

I’ve jumped back on my Gwyneth regimen today (because I have three weeks before departing for Spain, where I will happily get off the virtue wagon). And here’s how my day has shaped up so far:

Up at 6:30 to rouse a tired teen who had been at a dance the night before and take her in the pouring rain to meet the bus for her track meet. We stopped at a coffee shop on the way. Didn’t I feel virtuous eating a Morning Glory muffin to take the edge off, so I could attend an 8:30 a.m. power yoga class.

Here’s the thing about that yoga class. I used to do yoga at a trendy studio with lots of young, attractive people in great looking yoga threads, who liked to do handstands and Bird of Paradise and Side Crow and probably use the word aspirational a lot.

gwyneth yoga

Now I do yoga at our friendly, affordable neighborhood gym with a bunch of regular looking people of all ages, shapes and sizes and a teacher who plays great music. I’m not much for the woo-woo aspects of yoga, but every now and then, something the teacher says sticks. Today he reminded us not to worry about how we looked. “Nobody’s looking at you,” he reminded us. “They’re all too busy focusing on themselves.”

Confession: I look at other people all the time in yoga and sometimes, like when my shirt is riding up over my belly, I worry that they are looking at me too. I don’t judge, but I aspire to look like those beautiful older women who look like they’ve stepped out of an Eileen Fisher catalogue.

between friends yoga

I’ll finish this blog post and then, because I’m not on a movie set in Wisconsin,  I’ll go out again in the rain and drive for 40 minutes to pick up Daughter #1 from her track meet. She’s likely to be self-critical about how she did and how she looked and, on the long drive home, I will dispense the wisdom that I, and so many others struggle to remember in this increasingly connected, always on-display world.

Last night, as I drove D#1 to a high school dance, (about as aspirational a venue as you’ll ever find),carrie

the streets of downtown Seattle were filled with people in costume heading into Comicon. We joked about how high school dances are a lot like fan conventions, with people dressing in character and finding their group. “But fandoms aren’t judgy,” (a word I have come to love) she reminded me. “Everyone dresses and acts the way they want to, and nobody gives them a hard time.”

comicon

 

 

 

 

 

In thinking about aspiration and wisdom and perfection and Real Life, I got to thinking about Roseanne Barr. Have you seen her lately? She looks pretty good. She’s got the relaxed look of someone who has been on her version of the Gwyneth-Go-Round and has figured out that perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Maybe Roseanne should be the next Thought Leader of something I’m calling the “Lighten Up” movement. She’ll remind us all to relax, eat pasta and Girl Scout cookies and wear inexpensive drawstring pants if we need to.

If our mud cracks, it should be from laughter, not pain or self-sacrifice.

rosanne_barr_new_comedy

Not that I’ve been doing much cooking because of all those sports practices, but my absolute favorite new recipe is this aspirational, yet indulgent, Turkish Poached Eggs in Yogurt, courtesy of Saveur magazine.

This is not a perfect picture, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

eggs

 

 

 

Insights into the Teenage Mind, Courtesy of “Frozen”

I wanted to share this piece I wrote about the movie Frozen and Cinderella’s (aka Daughter #1) first ball.

Disney, I guess we’re not done with you yet.

Why Teens Love “Frozen”

Serrano ham will solve everything

Hello, new year, which snuck up on me the same way Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas did.

“it kind of feels like the holidays didn’t happen this year,” remarked Daughter #1.

I know what she means. All our little rituals —the advent calendar (which admittedly, I’ve never managed to have together by December 1), lighting the menorah (which admittedly, we’ve never managed to remember to light all eight nights. This year, because of Thanksgivukkah, we hit an all-time low), creating a photo calendar and trimming our Christmas tree were done haphazardly, late and without the enthusiasm of years past.

What took you so long?

What took you so long?

Finding a time when everyone was available to go get a tree was tough. Finding the time for our family ritual of eating gingerbread and going through our ornaments one by one, sharing the associated memories, was challenging.

For us, that luxurious block of time known as winter break was taken up by a week’s worth of flu. When we weren’t sleeping or sneezing or writing cards or working we were dragging ourselves around town shopping for presents, baking cookies (even during the “barfing Christmases” of yore, I always baked cookies) and trying to get into the Christmas spirit. We’d come home and take to our beds or the nearest couch to recover from the exertion.

Each year, we buy a few new ornaments to commemorate the year’s highlights. It’s sweet and increasingly bittersweet to look at the ballerinas and Disney princess ornaments, the owls, mushrooms and pet-related trinkets (the most heartbreaking is the ornament to commemorate our departed hamster Zen, the only rodent I have ever loved).

Christmas tree

This year, Daughter #1 got a Tardis ornament.ed9f_doctor_who_christmas_ornaments

Daughter #2 got a hairdryer ornament.

Hair-Dryer-BR12019

 

And I got an ornament of Seville.

seville

Because Spain is what will get me out of the doldrums and jumpstart my year. We are going to Spain, Andalusia to be exact, later this year. We’ll stop in London for a few days for the benefit of Sherlock and Dr. Who-obsessed Daughter #1.

While there, we’ll eat in one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s restaurants.

For me, this is the adult equivalent of going to a One Direction concert. I am giddy.

Everyone in the family had a different vacation wish list and London/Andalusia fits the bill. Daughter #2 wanted to go somewhere warm. Jeff wanted to windsurf. And I, who am fascinated by Muslim culture, am interested in seeing Moorish Spain. And am looking forward to taking a day trip to Tangiers.

On New Year’s Eve, we started feeling better and arranged to have a small tapas and paella party at home. I started sipping Fino sherry at around 6:00.

We indulged in an array tapas, including gambas al ajillo, mejillones a la marinera and queso manchego con membrillo.These recipes came from Tapas, the little dishes of Spain, by the late Penelope Casas, a book I scored one year at our biannual library sale (sadly, a  scavenger hunt tradition I have let fall by the wayside).

We supped on my friend Diane’s paella and her brother-in-law Ian’s sugar plums (not authentically Spanish, but oh, so good).

At midnight I had a few sips of Cava leftover from last January’s book launch party, and tried to get over the fact that, thanks to the developer who bought the property across the street and is now building a monstrosity, we no longer have a New Year’s Eve view of the fireworks over the Space Needle or our clear-day treat of a glimpse of Mount Rainier.

kenny's house

The new year arrived and with it, woes. These days, at any given moment, I am worried about people who are close to me, sometimes everybody all at once, and even the dog.

I appeared on TV and learned the life lesson that wearing polka dots on TV is a bad idea.

So I decided to think about Spain. I read this article about a jamon master. I sought out recipes featuring jamon serrano and jamon iberico, arranged to buy replacement parts for my Spanish-manufactured Fagor pressure cooker and anticipated the Spanish pressure cooker recipes I could experiment with. Daughter #1 and I watched Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

My friend P, who was widowed when both she and her kids were young, was waxing poetic on Facebook about holiday traditions, remembering the Christmas Eve screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life and staying up late stuffing stockings after the preschoolers had gone to bed, anticipating the early morning Christmas magic to come.

These days, my girls like to sleep in, so I was the only one up early on Christmas. The good news is magic is magic at 6 a.m. or at 10 a.m. And as long as there’s coffee, either is fine.

In a post entitled “Time to Enjoy the Gifts That Matter,” Catherine Buday, who blogs as The Sandwich Lady, describes letting go of traditions  —no writing Christmas cards or baking multiple batches of cookies— instead, simply enjoying the return of the prodigal kids and having the whole family together on one couch.

My friend P. summarized it best: “Like all things, we–and our traditions–change. I think that’s a good thing.”

One of my all-time favorite cookbooks is Anya von Bremzen’s The New Spanish Table. Every recipe in the book is outstanding. One of my favorites is Garlicky Braised Green Beans with Jamon.

You know how I feel about Yotam Ottolenghi. This recipe for Saffron Cauliflower is a winner.

Time will pass and people will change. But one tradition I will never give up is exploring the world from my kitchen.

Act Your Age

between friends french fries

I can’t tell you how many times I have thought about this blog and all the things I have wanted to write. I send myself emails with ideas, usually figured out when I am running. I have become, like the self-proclaimed “serial memoirist,” Beverly Donofrio, a miner of material. But then I get busy with work and carpools or become overwhelmed by fatigue.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about cooking, and the meals I wish I had time to make.

And the books I wish I had time to read.

I think you get where I am going with this. This installment of Slice of Mid-Life has been a long time coming.

The material I’m mining these days is all about shifting into a new life stage. Daughter #1 is in high school. Dances and football games and associated accoutrements have entered the mix.

Daughter #2, a sophisticated seventh-grader, is as tall as me and we wear the same shoe size. Their dramas are different now, their minds are often like sieves. Our interactions are fleeting, though we spend a lot of time together in the car, driving to and from their many activities. That’s where I learn what’s going on.

The experts say kids this age feel more comfortable confiding in you when there’s no eye contact. Counterintuitive, but worth a try.

boots

During a back-to-school shopping trip with D#2, I spied a pair of black Steve Madden boots on sale that I encouraged her to buy. But D#2 is careful about money and wasn’t sure she should make the expenditure. “We can share them,” I told her. So we bought the boots.

“Our” boots, we called them.

D#2 wasn’t sure she would wear them much. Jeff wasn’t sure why a 52-year-old woman would want to wear the same boots as her 12-year-old daughter.

Touche!

Touche!

The boots made their debut on D#2′s feet during the first week of school and were an instant hit, especially with two of her friends who said they had the same pair, but in brown.

A few days later, I asked D#2 where our boots were. “You mean ‘my’ boots?” she corrected me, without any trace of irony.

I had been considering wearing them for a TV appearance, in which I had been billed as an “expert.” I decided that wearing the boots of a twelve year old might compromise my already weak credibility.

Schulz Lucy Doctor Is In

Yes, the days of raising children are long, but the years are short. We’ve become one of those proverbial families who rarely sit down together for dinner. So before our nest is permanently empty, Jeff and I need to start reclaiming our lives and rekindling our coupledom.

We tried to do so a few weekends ago, when D#2 was at away at a friend’s cabin and D#1 was at a cross country meet in Portland. It was a stormy, blustery Saturday and Jeff decided to go windsurfing. I set off for the grocery store to buy food for a party I was having the next day.

I was happily filling my grocery cart with beets, butternut squash, and chanterelles, which had just come into season and which I planned to serve in a cream sauce with pasta, salad and good wine, for that night’s dinner for two.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the produce section I ran into a woman I work with, fifteen years younger than me, with two young daughters. She had the crazed look today’s parents do on weekends and told me about her day: two soccer games, two ballet classes, one Nutcracker rehearsal (already?), hair arranged into buns multiple times. She was hosting a multi-girl sleepover that night. I glanced into grocery cart. It contained nothing but popcorn. She told me she planned to organize crafts.

Did I feel a little bit smug and “been there, done that,” as I wheeled away with my chanterelles and beets, with all the time in the world to consider my purchases, my romantic evening with my husband and the next day’s grownup party?

Not a cheese stick in sight.

Not a cheese stick in sight.

I did, for five minutes.

That’s how long before I got the call from Jeff. While loading up his car after windsurfing, he had inadvertently locked his key in it. Could I come and get him?

Why did I suddenly feel like I was talking to one of my daughters?

I looked in my cart, which contained not quite everything I needed. I looked outside, where it was now pelting with rain.

Jeff was wearing a wetsuit, I reasoned. One of us would have to be inconvenienced; either him, waiting till I finished my shopping or me, abandoning my groceries and having to make a second trip to the store in the pouring rain.

Me or him, him or me?

wetsuit_ultra32_both_dt

Worn down by countless months of teen/tween-induced inconveniences, I decided that this time it wouldn’t be me. I wasn’t the one who had been forgetful. Why should I suffer the consequences of someone else’s lack of responsibility?

I worked my way down the rest of the aisles and loaded my items onto the check-out conveyer belt, regaling the cashier with the tale of my husband’s forgetfulness.

When it was time to pay, I reached for my wallet.

It wasn’t there.

What passes for vanity these days is me matching my purses to my outfits. Apparently during the last switch, I had neglected to transfer my wallet.

instant karma

So, groceries abandoned, off into the rain I went to rescue Jeff, go home and get my wallet and return to the grocery store to complete my purchase.

An hour later, we sat down to our meal. As the first bite of the first chanterelles graced our lips, we got the text from D#1: “We got home early from Portland. Please come and pick me up.”

A few weeks later, I heard that Italian cooking legend Marcella Hazan had died and that another cooking elder and idol of mine, Paula Wolfert, had Alzheimer’s. On the day I learned that my cousin, three weeks younger than me and the one who will be the first family member of my generation to leave us, had gone into hospice care, I spent the afternoon slowly and sadly cooking Marcella Hazan’s Pork Loin Braised in Milk from the Essentials of Italian Cooking.

The following weekend Jeff and I went to San Francisco for a friend’s wedding, our first trip away together since having kids, nearly 15 years ago.

I packed about an hour before we were scheduled to leave for the airport and fretted about my wedding outfit, which needed to be suitable for an outdoor wedding with limited seating at Stern Grove, in San Francisco’s Sunset District. The ground would be uneven, warned the bride-to-be, so wear comfortables shoes.

The October weather could be cold, warned my friend Nina. Bring a shawl.

Too old to pull off the hippie look, and too poor to own any chic, neo-hippie expensive fiber clothes, I could not come up with a flattering, yet grove-friendly wedding outfit.

“You’re 72-years-old,” said Jeff. “Who cares what you wear?”

Oh, my man, I love him so.

At the wedding, I spied Nina, the portrait of understated Eileen Fisher elegance.

dresses_hp

We chatted about the recent New Yorker profile of Eileen Fisher, which revealed that her life and the management of her company are not as effortless as her clothes suggest.

It was chilly. Nina lent me a black Pashmina shawl to wear on top of the shawl I was already wearing.

“I look like an old woman, who is either going to curse the couple or hand down the family recipe for spaghetti sauce,” I lamented.

old hag

“Plus, I no longer have a waist, I have a thorax!”

During a hike at Mount Tamalpais, the day before, I had taken a tumble. My bandaged knee completed my look.

knee

It was a beautiful, heartfelt wedding with the best wedding speeches I have ever heard. The couple had found each other after difficult first marriages and had lived together for thirteen years before tying the knot.

Jeff was right, as he often is. Who cared what I looked like?

Back at home, life marched on in all its hecticness. I wore the Steve Madden boots occasionally and received compliments every time.

Daughter #1 told me she had recently discovered the pleasures of potato leek soup. Could I make it?

Long before elegant women wore expensive fibered clothing, there was the little black dress and Julia Child. I pulled out my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and was pleased to discover that, as if anticipating my future needs, Julia offered a pressure cooker adaptation of her classic recipe.

An hour later it was on the table, classic and modern at the same time.

Yesterday, on my way home from my second of two round trips across town, I received a text from Daughter #2, who was at a friend’s prior to attending a party that evening. Any chance I could deliver the boots to her?

The funny thing is, I almost wore those boots, but was having one of those days where nothing I tried on seemed to look just right. Edgy wasn’t working, so I went for a more classic look instead and wore a pair of grown-up boots with a heel.

If I had been wearing “our” boots, would I have driven over to D#2′s friend’s house, taken them off, given them to her and driven home in my stocking feet?

I guess we’ll never know.

Recently I had the good luck to be interviewed about my book by Deborah Kalb, who interviews authors on her delightful blog, Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb.

She got me thinking about how life and time march on. Here’s our interview.

Finally, a friend posted a TEDex talk by Gina Barreca. How is it possible that I had never heard of her?

Ostensibly it’s about the future of women in comedy, but really, it’s about so much more than that.

We are serial memoirists, we are story-tellers, we carry our lives in our purses and our cars. When the boot fits, we wear it.

Refrigerator Wars: Work-Family Balance in the Crisper

Fortune-Cookie-Fortune

When the refrigerator shelf shattered, I didn’t see it as a metaphor, merely an inconvenience.

Daughter #2 had been on a summer fruit smoothie kick.  She put a blender jar of leftover smoothie on the top shelf of the refrigerator.  A few moments later we heard a crash.  The top shelf was intact, but three levels down, the glass shelf that sits atop the vegetable crisper had shattered into a zillion pieces.  I looked into the crisper and saw shards of glass adhered to leaves of cilantro.  In the door of the refrigerator, glass was stuck to condiment jars.

I closed the refrigerator door and walked away.

homer_the_scream

Continue reading

Opt-Out, Opt-in, Lean Back, Lean In

If you watched the CBS morning news this morning or if you read this Sunday’s New York Times magazine, you will become aware of a new trend: professional women who quit their jobs to stay home with their kids, then opt back in to the work force.

Having been a DINK, a SAHM and a soccer mom, I’m intrigued to be part of a new demographic which, as far as I know, does not yet have its own acronym.

Here’s the story I wrote about my experiences opting out and opting in for Parent Map magazine.  It includes a link to the New York Times article.

Hopping Off, and On, the Mommy Track

Hopping off the Mommy Track

Donald Reilly, The New Yorker collection, 12/03/1990

Donald Reilly, The New Yorker collection, 12/03/1990

Life is full of surprises.

Just a few blog posts ago, I was whining about my dismal chances at employment  because I’ve been out of the traditional job market for 15 years.

Then, out of the blue, somebody offered me a job. A right-up-my-alley job, working for a magazine with smart people in a flexible, family-friendly environment.  A job that came my way because someone was familiar with my freelance journalism and thought I would be a good member of the team.

A job. A real, honest-to-goodness, too good of an opportunity to pass up, job.

I was and remain flattered.

The job offer coincided with a number of great opportunities for me: some unexpected, meaty freelance work, a meeting with the journalists who founded the Solutions Journalism Network, a TV appearance to analyze our local school board race, an interview for someone else’s book and two book promotion events of my own.

It must be the weather.

According to weather watchers, Seattle is close to setting a record.  We’re closing in our first rain-free July in 50 years.

seattle-weather-forecast1

All this sunshine can be a bit overwhelming for us, despite the fact that Seattle apparently sells more sunglasses per capita than any other U.S. city.  We count on gray, rainy days to get things done.  There is an unstated rule that sunny days are for having fun, but that usually doesn’t mean going 30 days without working or paying bills.

Rain or shine, I’ve been busy and I’m going to get busier.

This has resulted in some flakiness, like buying conditioner instead of shampoo for both me and my dog and wondering why he and I weren’t sudsier.

From redbookmag.com - How to get a dog clean

From redbookmag.com – How to give a dog a bath.

I’ve spent a lot of evenings eating take-out food or thrown together meals from refrigerator scraps, which is not my preferred style.

But, true to my promise and time permitting, I am making a dent in my Yotam Ottolenghi canon of recipes.

The Grape Leaf, Herb and Yogurt Pie from Plenty was to die for.  I couldn’t find Camargue red rice, so substituted Himalayan red rice instead for the Mango and Coconut Rice Salad. It kept me going for much of the week, “Let them eat steak,” said I (who am allergic to beef), happy to eat this hearty salad as a substitute.

Though the kids proclaimed it “slimy,” Jeff and I were blown away by the Roasted Aubergine with Fried Onion and Chopped Lemon from Jerusalem. Not too many self-respecting American kids admit to liking eggplant. I wonder if it would be a different story if we used the more melodious word aubergine. We served our aubergine with Turkey and Courgette Burgers with Spring Onion and Cumin, barbecued instead of fried, and garnished with a creamy sour cream and sumac sauce.  Can you tell that I have the British edition of Jerusalem?   Courgette sounds much more exotic than zucchini. Actually, it sounds like it could be the name of a character in “Les Miserables,” but I digress.

Goodness, will you look at the time. It’s after midnight and I need to go to bed because, well, I have to get up for work in the morning, which is why I won’t be typing out the recipe for Turkey and Courgette Burgers (I couldn’t find an acceptable link). Time management and preserving my cooking integrity will be among my new challenges. Which is good, because I was getting bored with my old challenges.

It’s nice to know that eggplants have the potential to be aubergines.  They can be main courses, side dishes, delicious dips, or even serve as metaphors, as the circumstances require. Each permutation can be delicious (or slimy) in its own way. It all depends on your perspective.

English: eggplant Français : aubergine

How Tony Soprano Helped Shape My Identity

I’ve been a big believer in reinvention in my life, so it’s come as a surprise to me that in recent years I have embraced my New Jersey upbringing.

I hold Tony Soprano accountable.

Fucking Tony.

Fucking Tony.

I fled the Garden State in 1979 and haven’t looked back. I made a brief return for a family wedding in 1993, but had to turn around and leave almost immediately because the President of Sri Lanka was assassinated.  I was the State Department’s Sri Lanka country officer at the time. Sri Lanka did not normally occupy the world stage, so when it did, I wanted to put to use my accumulated expertise about the country and be there for the briefings and press inquiries and late night work sessions, all commonplace for those responsible for sexier countries, but a novel experience for me.

Some in my family suggested that I was a little too happy to leave the state of my birth that fateful weekend.

Exit 7A, if you must know.

Exit 7A, if you must know.

I lived in Europe, California, Washington, D.C. and Asia, before settling in Seattle.  Along the way I shed the most obvious trappings of my New Jersey heritage (though I would like to state emphatically for the record that I never had Big Hair).

Seattle is perhaps the polar opposite of New Jersey, and my Scandinavian neighborhood Ballard, especially so.  Most Caucasian inhabitants of the city can trace their roots to Northern Europe and have the characteristic calm and reserve of those cultures.

People don’t yell in Seattle.  People don’t argue in Seattle. If they must disagree, they do so carefully and politely. They don’t “lay out” to get a deep tan, they prefer polar fleece to “wife-beater” tank tops and they retreat indoors if the weather gets too hot.

The Seattle Weekly's "Uptight Seattleite"

The Seattle Weekly’s “Uptight Seattleite”

People in Seattle don’t say fuck. Though, like decent bagels and good pizza, the f-word can occasionally be found in Seattle, the 250 or so different intonations of the word have not found their way into common parlance here.

The Sopranos debuted in January 1999, the month and year my first child was born.   I don’t remember when Jeff and I first started watching it. We weren’t big TV watchers and didn’t have HBO.  I think it was my brother, who lives in Hawaii, but retains much of his Jersey demeanor, who got us hooked, by sending me videotaped episodes of Season 1.

He couldn’t keep up with our demands for more, so I turned to an unexpected source: my Scandinavian-American neighbor B., who videotaped episodes for her Norwegian fisherman husband to keep him occupied during his months at sea.

Seafaring life is “salty.” I am only now considering the impact “The Sopranos” could have had on the inhabitants of that boat.

Gives new meaning to the "deadliest catch."

Gives new meaning to the term “deadliest catch.”

By now, my daughter was in pre-school. Word must have somehow gotten out that I had access to “The Sopranos,” because I was approached by unlikely fans: a blonde, mellow California woman and her equally chill husband, who asked if I could pass the videotapes on to them when I was finished watching.

All worked well for a while. B. recorded the episodes, sent them out to sea and passed them on to me once they returned. I, in turn, I passed them on to the Mellow Couple during preschool drop-off.

Once, there was a glitch in the supply chain and B. was delayed in getting the next installment to me. The Mellow Couple appeared at my house asking where their tape was.

angry hippy ale

For a moment, I thought I was about to get whacked.

Eventually, we began renting “The Sopranos” on DVD from our neighborhood video store.

The kids got older and I sometimes regretted that I was so far away from home and family.  They had so little contact with my heritage and very little sense of who I had been.

So I cooked. Years of watching Carmella Soprano bring Baked Ziti to the table for Sunday dinner had made my mouth water and so I made some too. I explained to my family that, though we were New Jersey Jews, the closest thing we had to traditional family recipes was Italian food.  My mother’s Veal Parmiagiana, her stuffed shells and mancotti (which she pronounced like a true New Jersey Italian, dropping the final “i”), stuffed peppers, and more.

family_dinner

Our extended family regularly congregated at Sibilio’s Golden Grill, a classic “red sauce” place with delicious spumoni.

Jeff, who is pretty mellow and spent much of his youth in California, indulged my fascination with the Sopranos, even as it got more and more violent.

“There he is,” I would sometime say, when he walked in the door after work.

The series ended and I never found anything to fill the New Jersey hole inside of me. Yes, I dressed up as Snooki one year for Halloween, but though I grew up there, I could never be a fan of “Jersey Shore” or the”Real Housewives of New Jersey.”

Logo's 3rd Annual 2010 "NewNowNext Awards" - Arrivals

“The Sopranos” wasn’t parody. It was Shakespeare with red sauce.

A few years ago, I was asked to perform at a live storytelling event.  The piece I performed was entitled “The Battle Cry of the Jersey Mother,” in which I explained why judicious use of the word fuck could be an effective parenting tool.

My kids loved it.

They listened to me whoop and holler as I watched the 12/12/12 concert to raise relief funds for the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. Check out this moving editorial.

Now (when they aren’t rolling their eyes at me) they love my Jersey persona. If I’m upset at some injustice they’ll say, with admiration, “Don’t go all Jersey, mom,” not-so-secretly hoping that I will.

Recently Daughter #1 told me that she and some middle school classmates were discussing their parents’ taste in music and she told them how much I loved Bruce Springsteen.

“Your mom is from New Jersey?” a girl asked in awe.  “That’s so cool.  Does she curse a lot?”

James Gandofini was 51 when he died; the same age as me. Like me, he was celebrating his eldest child’s graduation from middle school.

Much has been said about his gifts as an actor and the way he and others associated with “The Sopranos” revolutionized television.

I’ll always have fond memories of snuggling up with my husband after the kids were tucked in bed, watching bodies get put in the trunks of cars or dumped in the river.

But the true legacy James Gandolfini and “The Sopranos” left me was a way to embrace my roots and share them with my kids.

The only appropriate thing to say about his untimely death is:

Fuck!

I’m currently on vacation, so don’t have access to my trove of cookbooks to give you a recipe. I don’t actually have “the recipe” for Baked Ziti, that tastes as wonderful as it did when I was young.  Since it’s summertime, I suggest you get yourself a slice of thin-crust pizza with no yuppie ingredients on it (this is the one time I will advise you to stay away from merguez, despite the fact that it’s surprisingly good on pizza), raise it to your lips and show some respect.

So long, big guy.

So long, big guy.

Ottolenghi and Alison (or Cooking My Way Through Menopause)

blogmenopausal

I still remember the moment I decided to ignore the information that hormone replacement therapy during menopause could lead to increased risks for breast cancer and heart disease.

I was forty, or slightly older, with a baby and toddler, and having a hard time keeping things together.  A friend had told me about a video that was going viral on the Internet (pre-YouTube) showing a frazzled mother who had lost her keys. I’m not overstating when I say she “overreacted.”

“You might want to watch it,” hinted my friend, who is childless.

That’s when I learned about perimenopause, that undefined state that can last a decade or more, in which a woman’s hormones start going kerflooey and her emotions can get exaggerated. Superimpose that onto new motherhood. It wasn’t always pretty.

So when I saw the article about hormones and menopause, even though I knew it was important, I made the conscious decision to ignore it. “I can’t deal with menopause when I am trying to deal with perimenopause,” I decided, using the “one day at a time” strategy that experts advised for women in an enhanced hormonal state. I made the same decision about college, ignoring articles in the New York Times education supplement about student resume building and Top Ten Colleges to Watch. Views on hormone replacement therapy and college would change by the time they affected me, I reasoned, and pretty much cruised through the next ten years managing my life and my monthly symptoms just fine, with the help of some excellent dark chocolate.

theo chocolate

Lo and behold, there’s no longer any denying that in the next four years I will have to deal with both menopause and college.

Daughter #1 and I attended a presentation at her middle school entitled “High School and Beyond, Taking Charge of Your Destiny.” We learned that grades count from Day One in high school.  We learned the recommended GPAs to get into all of the colleges in Washington State, as well as some University of California schools, Stanford and MIT.  UCLA likes leaders, we were told. We left with a pocket-sized card listing the recommended college preparation steps a student should take in grades 9-12.

Around this time, my “Aunt from Redbank” (as the monthly visitor was known when my mother was growing up in New Jersey) started showing up more frequently and overstaying her welcome. Just as D#1 couldn’t escape the inevitable, neither, apparently, could I.

I turned once again to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book The Wisdom of Menopause, which is chock full of interesting and useful medical information, but which, as I’ve mentioned before, does seem to have a not-so-hidden agenda about jettisoning husbands. I learned estrogen dominance could be the root cause of my excess bleeding and maybe even my excess belly fat (a girl can dream).

Meanwhile, Dr. Northrup advised me to contemplate who was draining my life blood from me.

J'accuse!

J’accuse!

Though I’ve mentioned I suffer from latrophobia, I actually made an appointment to see my Ob/Gyn.

The week I had to wait to see him was tough.  It’s June, a time that any mother can tell you, is crazy with end-of-year this and summer planning-that.

It’s another graduation year for our family and, though I won’t be weepy at the ceremony as I was last year and two years before that, there’s no denying that we are moving into a new phase of life and time is marching on.

To calm myself, I turned to the thing that helped me through new motherhood and perimenopause: cooking.

Unusually alone on Sunday morning and feeling under the weather, I comforted myself with a batch of shakshuka, using my standby recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s wonderful vegetarian book Plenty.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Come Monday, the beginning of the last week in the end-of-school marathon, the week of my doctor’s appointment, graduation and a week that Jeff would be partly out of town, I found myself unable to focus on work.

So instead I focused on cooking:  My weekly batch of Early Bird granola, Lahlou Mourad’s fantastic piquillo almond dip for Daughter #2′s Global Issues celebration (I unwittingly violated the school’s “no nuts” policy, but people loved it anyway) and the “Very Full Tart” from Plenty.

tart

This soothed me in a way that no hormones or dark chocolate ever have and it got me thinking:  If Julie Powell could cook and blog her way through the “crisis” of turning 30, why couldn’t I cook and blog my way through menopause?

Maybe I’d get a book deal.

I wonder who would play me in the film?

A girl can dream.

So, just as I used to incorporate European Chicken Night into my (almost) weekly repertoire, I am hereby introducing Mostly Mediterranean Menopause Night (though I will probably keep the name to myself) featuring mostly the recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s three cookbooks, with some recipes from Lahlou Mourad, my Turkish friend Sureyya, Greg Malouf (author of Turquoise) and other luminaries thrown in.

Here’s the recipe for the Very Full tart, which made me feel very virtuous when I made it. I am not the only person inspired by eggplant. (To the horror of D #s 1 and 2, I sing this song and dance around the kitchen pretty much every time I make it).

It tasted great cold the next day.

Recently some friends and I took another cooking class with Sureyya. The following week, a group of us, who first met when our high school-bound kids were in kindergarten, gathered at Sureyya’s wonderful Cafe Turko, to support a friend whose husband suffered a brain injury.  Sureyya joined our group of women and laughed and talked with us.  Later, she joined me in donating food to my friend and her family.  

May peace return to Turkey.

Here is Sureyya’s recipe for Turkish Mountain Salad with Pomegranate Molasses, Red Pepper Paste and Olives:

Serves 6

1/2 onion, finely chopped

2 T green olives, chopped

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 T red pepper paste

1/2 t salt

2 T chopped mint leaves

1/2 c chopped green pepper

2 T crumbled feta cheese

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 t cumin

2 Roma tomatoes diced

1/4 cup olive oil

1 T pomegranate molasses

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl.  Marinate for 15 minutes. Serve with warm bread.

Hormone replacement therapy.

Hormone replacement therapy.