Algorithms, Measurable Outcomes and the Value of a Reliable Recipe


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I’ve been spending a lot of time of late trying to quantify things, such as which marketing actions translate into actual books sales; which high school curriculum will enable Daughter #1 to have an interesting and challenging education, get into college, graduate and be self-supporting before she’s 40; and how much value our two bathroom renovations will add to our house and to our lives.

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(I almost entitled this post Bonfire of the Vanities.  You can’t underestimate the value of providing bathroom space for two girls to straighten their hair at the same time).  When not searching online for a 42 inch vanity with an offset sink, I’ve been writing articles about the benefits and detriments of standardized tests in our public schools and other education-related conundrums.

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All this examination of data, marketing campaign statistics, shower stalls, tile samples, paint chips, vanity tops (we decided to have one custom made) cost-benefit analyses and discussion of measurable outcomes has my mind reeling. I’m overloaded with information yet, when the decision-making rubber meets the road, like Whitney Houston, I find myself wondering “how will I know?”

Whitney

Luckily, a few shining lights have guided me.

Though it had been an exceptionally busy week and I was on the verge of coming down with the nasty cold/flu that knocked me flat by Sunday, I’m glad I made the effort to attend a meeting of Book Publishers Northwest, where the featured speaker was Laura Pepper Wu, self-described entreprenette and book marketing guru, whose website 30 Day Books offers a wealth of valuable information for independent authors.  I haven’t yet purchased her pdf book Fire Up Amazon (at $4.99 it’s a deal), but I plan to.

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I followed a few of the tips she offered for optimizing your book’s Amazon page (turns out, it’s all about the algorithms, baby) and lo and behold I had some, dare I say, measurable outcomes.

There were more measurable outcomes to come.

I love my husband, I really do.  But we don’t usually follow the same path when it comes to house projects, which is why our kitchen wallpaper was half torn down for a number of years.  Up until now, our philosophy has been, to quote Bob Dylan, “most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine.” If one of us is invested in a project, we run with it (shelves and anything to do with the garage – him, turquoise kitchen walls and any other cool painting project – me.

However, it was Jeff who lugged 56 of these tiles home from Turkey.

However, it was Jeff who lugged 56 of these tiles home from Turkey.

When we have to work together…. well…

Here's what happened when Jeff hung a temporary mirror in our bathroom.

Here’s what happened when Jeff hung a temporary mirror in our bathroom.

But these bathrooms.  Maybe it’s the chance of escape from the vicissitudes in mood of our teen and tween that had us companionably scraping wallpaper from the master bathroom for hours one Sunday (because you know the t(w)eens aren’t going to offer to help) and trolling for tiles on a Saturday afternoon.

I know that’s what drove us to the custom vanity place not once, but twice this past weekend and then off to a lighting fixture store after that.  Imagine my surprise when we managed to agree, not only on floor and shower tiles, but also on style of vanity, counter top (that was big), faucet style and finish and drawer pulls, but also on unexpected new bedroom lighting.  I’ve been worrying about us as empty nesters. Now I see our bright future.  We’ll become renovators.

(Anyone who knows me is snorting right about now and perhaps uttering that evocative British phrase “Not bloody likely.”)

Exhibit A.  Note the lack of doorknob.

Exhibit A, still-unpainted.  Note the lack of doorknob.

The promise of a new vanity that would soon need to be picked up led me to get my act together and finally repair the broken trunk lock of the Famous Minivan. I have yet to deliver the bags that have been sitting in said trunk to Goodwill or to remove Daughter #2′s end of first term project — it’s term four now– but I’m on a roll, so watch out, world.

The nasty cold/ flu bug had knocked me flat just as the high school deliberations started intensifying and, deprived of my usual moxie, I was looking for a sure thing. I found it in a recipe.

If you like to cook with recipes, you know that there are certain people you can rely on to never steer you wrong (Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazen, Paula Wolfert, Patricia Wells, David Lebovitz and, my current gastronomic crush, Yotam Ottolenghi) and other Julia-come-latelys who have to earn your trust.

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If you like to cook at all, you know that there are certain ingredients that are magic together and techniques that are nearly impossible to screw up.  Like stew.  I’m a big fan of stews, tagines and any sort of one pot mash-up.

So when I saw that the ingredient list included chickpeas, preserved lemons, dates, saffron, plus lamb and that nice exotic lamb sausage, merguez, I put down my tissue box and perked up.  I hadn’t felt like eating much over the past few days (but had managed to produce chicken adobo and a Mexican tomato soup with fideos.  I may not be timely with household projects, but, as my friend Donn likes to say “Damn, the bitch can cook).

It came from The Garum Factory, one of my favorite foodie blogs, which perks up my inbox each Friday morning with its clever combination of history, culture, technique and interesting food.

On the way back from picking up the now-repaired Famous Minivan, I zipped over to store, bought the ingredients, slapped them in the pressure cooker and in less than an hour was tucking into a divine tasting and beautiful looking lamb stew.

Sometimes it’s nice to forget about algorithms.

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And sometimes it’s a relief to have a recipe for success.

Thin Mints

My Three Sons

” I have mountains to look at, stars at night to gaze at and it’s so dark that you can see every star in the sky. Also, the people here… everyone wants to help each other.”

“When I arrived here, nobody knew me. Nobody looked at me and associated anything besides the connotations of being American. It’s like someone just hit the ‘reset’ button on my life, and I get to build a name for myself from scratch again. It’s a great feeling to know that anything people think of me before they get to know me comes from questionable stereotypes and nothing else.” 

“Best of all, we got to experience life under a philosophy that’s different from today’s norm. Rather than “keeping up with the Kardashians” and constantly working more in order to buy more, our hosts worked comfortably with what they had. As a result they’ve ended up with a beautiful home, two grounded and fun-loving sons, and best of all, the time to appreciate it. “

Three young men that I have known since birth are on extended forays in Afghanistan, France and New Zealand.  These sojourners — a soldier, a “sheap traveler” and a student — are sharing their impressions of the world, and their place in it, via Facebook and blogs.

(To be fair, the insights about appreciating what you have were written by the sheap traveler’s girlfriend and travel companion.  He’s lucky to be sharing his life and this adventure with such a grounded, healthy “shiny” young woman).

More than thirty years ago, I launched myself into the world.  There was no Internet back then, and therefore no Facebook and blogs, and the only way to share one’s impressions was via tissue paper- thin aerogrammes. It usually took two weeks for them to reach their destination and two additional weeks to receive a reply.

By the time the response arrived, you might have forgotten what had inspired you to write in the first place, having moved on to new experiences and corresponding new emotions.

I like this real time communication.  Yesterday I chatted on Facebook with my sweet, strong nephew A, who is serving in the Air Force in Afghanistan.  He regularly Skypes with his wife, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and I imagine it is a great comfort to them to know that he feels safe and happy under the stars and that the previous night he shared a delicious meal with his Italian friends.  Rather than feel isolated, A can participate in home life and share the sweet mix of pumpkin patches, soccer games, doggy love and memories of good food with the people he loves.

I had to laugh when I read K’s accounts of student life in France.  Not much has changed since I attended a lycee in 1978.  His blog reminds me of the highs and lows I felt each day, as I, too, struggled with stereotypes and the reserve of the French students at my school.

I spent a second year attending college in France in the company of E’s parents.   Reading his stories of living and working in New Zealand on the cheap brings back memories of sleeping in parks and youth hostels, drinking inexpensive red wine and taking endless train trips throughout Europe.

E did a stint living and working in New York, so he’s experienced one version of “grown-up” life.  Now he’s seeing contrasting views of what a satisfying life can be. I can’t wait to find out what he decides for himself.

A few weeks ago, when the Canadians were here, Jeff pulled out his journals from his 1990 Everest trek.

That’s where he met S, aka “Cheesehead” (we’re not talking about Wisconsin here.  Jeff says this is the term used in Bellingham, Washington in the 1970s to describe Canadians who crossed the border in search of dairy products).

More than twenty years later, we laughed as Jeff read us his impressions of S and tales of their adventures together in Nepal.  Twenty years and two very different life paths, yet we marveled after the Canadians left, that Jeff and S still feel a sense of connection and of shared values, as well as a mutual acknowledgement that their international experiences  shaped the way they chose to live their lives.

I’ve been reliving my own first tentative steps into the world as I put the finishing touches on the cover and interior design of my book Ruminations from the Minivan, musings from a world grown large, then small, which should be out by the end of next month (stay tuned for details).

I know of what I speak when I tell these young men that their lives will be forever changed by their international forays.

“Kids, today,” one generation is fond of sighing about the next.

Judging from the tales from abroad I’ve been reading, I’d say, the kids are alright.  They are scaling mountains.  They are making informed choices about their values.  They are not sheep.

If my two daughters  explore the world and show as much insight, sensitivity and open-mindedness  as my three spiritual sons, I will have fulfilled my most important goal as a parent.  Their parents should be very proud of them.  I know I am.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of cooking going in in our house because we are still adjusting to a busier schedule.  One night, tired of quesadillas and pasta, I vowed to make the Garum Factory’s Roast Chicken with Muhammara, but was thwarted by a Justin Bieber-related incident that it took most of the night to resolve (this time it’s personal, Bieber!).  A few nights later I did make that blissful chicken and the night after that, I used the stock I’d made from the chicken carcass to make one of my favorite standby soups, Ezogelin Corbasi, Turkish Red Lentil, Bulgur and Mint Soup.  Recipes for this soup abound. I used the recipe from Turquoise, Greg and Lucy Malouf’s beautiful book about their culinary travels in Turkey.  Here’s a link to the recipe.

You can find some additional fabulous Greg Malouf recipes here.  

Lentils are one of those ancient foods that provide sustenance all around the world.  May these young men continue to find sustenance and broadened perspectives  through the people they meet and the meals they share.

Shall I Compare Me to a Summer’s Fig?

If I were a real food blogger, I’d be writing about late summer Italian plums, figs and tomatoes, the last blackberry cobbler of the season, about eggplants and the fact that by late August my apple tree was already brimming with fruit as red as a seductress’ lips.

I’d be telling you that for the first summer in thirteen years, I made no jam from berries I had picked myself, but luckily was able to use Susan Herrmann Loomis’ recipe for apricot jam from her lovely book On Rue Tatin (a nice read when you are suffering from the doldrums) with the remnants of the ten-pound box of apricots I bought in Eastern Washington on the way home from a camping trip in Idaho.

I had big plans for these apricots, but a certain teenager ate most of them on the road from Quincy to Seattle.

I might mention all the terrific Mexican food we ate at the Columbia River Gorge and the fact that I got to eat at three restaurants I’d always wanted to try:  the fantastic Pok Pok in Portland, Aziza, the San Francisco restaurant owned by Mourad Lahlou, author of Mourad’s New Moroccan, one of my favorite new cookbooks this year, and the iconic Zuni Cafe, where the famed roast chicken did not disappoint. Two weeks in a row, after dining at Aziza, I made Mourad’s piquillo almond spread, a real crowd-pleaser.

I might sneak in a mention of some of the books I finally got around to reading on vacation (The Night Circus, The Tiger’s Wife and, at the behest of Daughter #1, The Hunger Games trilogy).

I could tell you that it is bittersweet to realize that with the passage of years comes the realization that I will never have enough time in a season to make all of the favorite dishes we have compiled,

especially since I can’t resist adding new favorites, such as the Garum Factory’s Avocado Salad with Pikliz.

Finally, I might point out that if you have an abundance of Italian plums or figs, you could do worse than to turn to Dorie Greenspan‘s Baking from my home to yours  for inspiration (check out her Fig Cake for Fall and Flip-Over Plum Cake) and that if you are having a big gathering of friends on Lummi Island for Labor Day, people will be impressed if you whip up a big paella (even if you think you could have done a better job seasoning it).

But I’m just a broken down hybrid mid-life blogger taking advantage of a few free minutes on this, my 51st birthday, to muse about the differences between turning 50 and 51, opportunities found and lost this summer, our family’s newfound preoccupation with hair and the fact that as I progress further and further into that undefined hormonal state known as perimenopause (and perhaps because of all my fine summer dining), I am beginning to resemble a fig and am longing for the vitality I had when I turned 50.

Today was the first day of school, so if ever there was a birthday that was not all about me, this was it.  You should see our downstairs bathroom.  It’s a mess of hair straighteners, hair product, curling irons, nail polish remover and metallic blue nail polish, some of which has spilled onto the top of the toilet bowl, where it will probably remain for eternity.

I wanted this, my friends remind me.  I wanted Daughter #1 to feel comfortable with her femininity and to embrace her beauty instead of hiding it. I love the new nightly ritual of Daughter #2, our resident fashionista, patiently straightening her sister’s hair, of watching the two of them in the bathroom at 6:30 a.m., determining how much mascara is too much, of seeing how much fun they both have with clothes.

I also want to be able to leave the house without having to factor in 45 minutes of primping every time.

Instead of a day of self-indulgence and an unbroken train of thought, my birthday (it is now the next day) ended up being about making time for other people:  a 6:30 a.m. call from my nephew, who will soon be deployed to Afghanistan and a call that interrupted my much-anticipated chance to exercise from my brother, who told me about the Bruce Springsteen concert he had just attended (he was seated next to Chris Christie).

You can take the girl out of Jersey but…

There was the farewell conversation with our elderly neighbor, who has been a part of our lives for seventeen years and is leaving her home for a retirement community, and there was teen roulette.

As anyone who has more than one child knows, a good day is one in which all of your kids are content. More often than not, if one has a good day, the other doesn’t but, like a game of roulette, no matter how you bet, there is no proven strategy for beating the odds.

I held my breath to see how the first day of school would turn out.  I didn’t have to hold it for very long, because Daughter #1 started school at 11:30 and Daughter #2 finished at 1:00.  We went out for a Starbucks refresher, which is as magical to my daughters as my breast milk used to be, and Daughter #2′s impressions of her first day of middle school at a new school came spilling out.  When we went to pick up Daughter #1 at her friend’s house, I quickly scanned her face for signs of how the day had gone.  Then off to the swimming pool for her swim team tryout, which had been a disaster the day before, and this time was a smashing success.

It was only as we sat down for sushi and Daughter #1, now a seasoned veteran of middle school, regaled us with funny stories,

that I let the psychic energy of the day dissipate and I relaxed and remembered it was my birthday.

We came home to presents, lemon tart and dog poop on the stairs.  And then, as the hair straightener came out and my daughters took up their respective positions of straightener and straightenee, we listened to Michelle Obama’s speech about hard work and personal responsibility and contributing to the well being of society.

We’re gearing up for a new school year, a new array of seasonal foods to inspire us, a new   soccer season and new books to read (including my birthday bounty:  Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson and Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi, author of Plenty, one of my favorite cookbooks this year).

All in all, it was a pretty good summer, a pretty good first day of school and a pretty good birthday.

All’s well that ends well.

The Roads (Not) Taken

We are driving along Interstate 69 on a Thursday night listening to Delilah, the syndicated radio DJ who offers a sympathetic ear to listeners calling to ask for advice and plays songs (usually love songs) to fit their dilemmas or fulfill their dedication requests.

I’d read about Delilah and her immense popularity years before, but had forgotten all about her until we pressed the “seek” button on the rental car radio in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the country. We’re just in time to hear a sad, sweet-voiced caller explain her dilemma and ask Delilah to show her the way.

Our trip is one of looking forward and backwards. It began in Chicago, where we met up with Jeff’s Boston-based cousin Deb, her husband Tommy and 13-year-old daughter Nell. They are favorite travel companions of ours, mostly because of their boundless intellectual curiosity, but also because Deb and Tommy always wake up first and make the coffee.  If you have a question about anything, Deb is right there with her iPad looking up the answer, suggesting books on the topic and, if you’re not careful, she will order you those books and have them shipped to your house with her Amazon Prime membership, before you have time to blink.

Scheduled on the fringes of a trip to visit family in Michigan, I relished our Chicago foray as a chance to expose our daughters to art and architecture and show them a college campus or two.  Daughter #1 will soon be in high school and Daughter #2 will be attending a new school next year. In preparation for the changes they’ll experience, I have been trying to plant the seeds of the future.  A future that belongs to them alone and may have nothing to do with the paths their friends choose.  We have had several conversations about the road less traveled.  We have also talked about the differences in people’s values and in their perspectives.

Aside from a quick detour off the freeway to taste deep dish pizza on a cross-country road trip in 1982, this is my first trip to Chicago too.   New places always energize me.  I’m fascinated to get my first look at a Great Lake (Deb whips out her iPad and cites the lake’s surface area and length and width) and can’t stop raving about the juxtaposition of old and new architecture.  My fragile neck doesn’t ache too much, though I am constantly looking up.

The egg and I.

We go to the Art Institute, where I am excited to show the girls the masterpieces that are part of the museum’s permanent collection.  I ask Deb if she remembers the now out-of-print 1970 board game Masterpiece, which was my first introduction to Degas’ bathers, Van Gogh’s sunflowers and so much more.  You can count on Deb to remember a thing like that.

To get into the spirit of things, I am reading Loving Frank, Nancy Horan’s fictionalized story of the adulterous love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney. What compels a person to defy convention?  What inspires a person to create a new art form?  How do people find the courage to do so when they don’t know how things will turn out?

Jeff was born in Chicago and he and Deb played together on the shores of Lake Michigan when they were toddlers.  But he moved away shortly thereafter and he hasn’t been back since.  Deb attended the University of Chicago Lab School, but this is her first time back in 30 years. Our trip to Hyde Park is a trip down memory lane for her.

At the Lab School, Deb is pleased to encounter one of her favorite professors and the kids are excited when he tells them he is a psychic who can see the future.  They are curious and finally he agrees to reveal one thing to each of them.  “Will I get a dog?” asks Daughter #2.  “Yes,” he reassures her.  “A Lab?” she presses. “No, a smaller, black, fuzzy dog,” he says.  (I silently thank him).  “Will I be happier in eighth grade?” Daughter #1 asks shyly.  “You won’t be happier until you get to high school.  You’ll have a much better sense of who you are then and your entire outlook will change.”

While we enjoy deep dish pizza at Medici,

Deb produces a copy of that fateful poem, which she surreptitiously bought at nearby Powell’s Books.  “Not the road less traveled again,” eye-rolls Daughter #1, but I think she’s secretly glad we have these conversations.  Or at least I not-so-secretly hope she is.  We deconstruct the poem.  I say that if Robert Frost were to present it in a writing class today, he would be critiqued for back-pedaling in the second stanza:

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

Was one road traveled more than the other or wasn’t it?

“I think the point isn’t that he took the road less traveled,” says Deb.  “It’s that you can’t possibly know, when you embark on a path, where it will lead you.  How could I know that Chicago would lead me to Boston, which would lead me to Tommy, which would lead me to Nell?” (Which would lead Jeff and me to great morning coffee and our daughters to a cousin-friend to share confidences, clothes, make-up, brownies and frappes with).

The girls’ bedroom is a jumble of shared clothes, books and jewelry.  Nell shows them the Hunger Games costume designs she has developed on the iPad.  Daughter #1 teaches them Japanese.  Daughter #2 demonstrates make-up techniques.  They are all so different.  They are just beginning to recognize who they are.  I wonder who they will become.

Later, in Michigan, the girls’ Abuela (a turkey-maker and a sweet-smelling woman) arranges tours for them of the university veterinary facility, where Daughter #1 learns you can have a career as a veterinary social worker, and the university basketball facility, where Daughter #2, an enthusiastic point guard, gets the hard sell for recruitment, though she is only 11.

That night, I order Masterpiece on eBay and text Deb to tell her what I have done.  She tells me she has already ordered the game for me (I’m not surprised) but later manages to intercept it and have it shipped to herself. “We’ll all play it together via Skype,” she tells me.

It is only later, when I am researching Robert Frost’s poem to write this blog entry that I understand the differences in my interpretation of the poem and Deb’s,  Like many people,  I assumed it was called The Road Less Traveled and the primary lesson it imparts to me is to follow your own chosen path, no matter what everyone else is doing.

But the poem is actually called The Road Not Taken.  My father-in-law told me it is about Frost’s decision to abandon farming in favor of the literary life.  Life is full of crossroads.

But hopefully not full of regrets.

On the radio, the sad, sweet-voiced caller waits for Delilah’s advice.

“I can’t tell you what to do,” says Delilah.  “You have to follow your heart.”

“But I can play you a song.”

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Bundle of Nerves

“You’ve got some nerve,” the radiologist said to me, when it became clear that the three deep injections of painkillers were not enough to keep the nerve impacted by my bulging cervical disc from reacting to the latest onslaught of steroids.

Nerves have been on my mind this week and last, not just because of my most recent bout of nerve warfare, but also because chutzpah and cajones have been in the air and in the news.

Ira Glass thinks Mike Daisey had some nerve fabricating material for a story he performed about harsh conditions at Apple factories in China, which aired on This American Life.  In an on-air retraction, Glass expressed disappointment that Daisey lacked the nerve to fully admit he had lied.

I admit, Naomi Wolf‘s story in The Guardian, in which she accused private school elites of taking down America, touched a nerve because we are contemplating sending one of our daughters to private school and, after years of being an active public school supporter, I feel guilty about abandoning the cause and worry about being stereotyped and judged. But her sensationalism and breezy, “I’m in Ecuador, so I can’t fully respond to your comments” tone, as well as the lack of disclosure about where her kids go to school, got on my nerves.

People have told me they would have been unnerved at the prospect of telling a story on a stage in front of a group of people, as several fellow writers and I did last week, or serving as auction MC for our beloved public elementary school, as I did for the sixth and final time, last Saturday night. Our beleaguered School Board president attended the auction. I thanked him for having the nerve to fight for public education, in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Daughter #2 has admitted she is nervous about attending a new school next year, where she won’t know a soul. But she and six of her classmates exhibited nerves of steel when they competed in the city-wide finals of the Seattle Public Library’s Global Reading Challenge and emerged victorious.  Why is funding for our public schools and our public libraries so often in jeopardy?

It takes some nerve, commented a reader of an article I saw posted on Facebook by an organization promoting the “rational middle” in the debate over education reform, to insinuate that people like him are extremist because they don’t agree.

The nerve of those two mommy writers, who exploited their kids by sharing stories about them, people said this week. I read one of the stories, a tongue-in-cheek account in which the mother admitted to being more upset than her daughter over the daughter’s breakup with a boyfriend.  It’s the kind of story I might have written (though you can bet I’d check with my daughter first), and I thought it was funny and sort of sweet. But a lot of people apparently thought that mother crossed the line.

I won’t apologize for the other mother, who wrote a much maligned piece in Vogue, which I haven’t read, about putting her seven-year-old daughter on a diet.  In addition to the criticism, she got a book deal.

Even French Women Who Don’t Get Fat might exclaim,  “Quel culot!”

Amanda Hesser told her audience at Seattle Arts and Lectures that the cookbook is dead. (Funny, tonight I’m making Broccoli Rabe, Potato and Rosemary pizza from her Food 52 cookbook).

Finally, we are contemplating getting a dog.  I don’t need to tell you how this might make our two beloved cats feel.

The nerve in my neck is on edge this week and I’m slowly becoming resigned to the fact that this is a chronic problem that I will just have to manage.

I can’t speak for other people whose nerves need calming, but I feel fortunate that a good roast chicken has charms that soothe the savage breast and neck.

Though Paula Wolfert, one of my favorite cookbook authors, thinks it’s nervy of Mourad Lahlou to tamper with traditional renditions of Moroccan recipes, she might change her mind after tasting his marriage of roast chicken and chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives from his cookbook, Mourad New Moroccan.

Here’s the recipe, which was posted on Martha Stewart’s website and includes a video of Mourad and Martha cooking together.  (Did you know there is no twine in Morocco?  Watch how Mourad trusses a chicken.  I will never improvise again).

I hope it thrills you all the way to your nerve endings.

Roast Chicken, Preserved Lemons, Root Vegetables

One note:  I compared the recipe Martha posted with the one in the book. They appear to be the same, with one notable exception.  Mourad recommends adding 12 Spiced Prunes to the pan for the final 15-20 minutes of roasting.  The link will take you back to Martha’s site, where she posted Mourad’s Spiced Prune recipe separately from the chicken recipe.  A warning: she omits the 1 cup of water, which should be added when you boil the prunes and flavorings.

When Life Gives You Lemons…

One of my “day jobs” is education reporter, a role I fell into by accident.  As the mother of two school-age kids, I spend a lot of time thinking, talking and yes, complaining about public education (Jeff can attest to this.  In addition to boring people at parties with talk of fish oil, don’t get me started on the middle school math curriculum).  Because it matters so much to me, I’ve decided that in addition to volunteering in the schools, the best way for me to be part of the solution, instead of merely bitching about the problems, is to write objectively about efforts to improve our imperiled public education system and the people who are working hard to make a difference.

Some have called this the civil rights struggle of our time.

When my mother was dying and I was fighting to make sense of her convoluted Medicare coverage, I became an impassioned advocate for Medicare reform and especially for people of my generation — the sandwich generation — to educate ourselves about the harsh realities of elder care.

If all politics is local, maybe all activism is first and foremost located in our hearts.

Two years ago, I sat in a Starbucks at the Plantation Towne Square shopping mall in Florida with my childhood acquaintance and neighbor Beth.  I hadn’t seen Beth since high school, nearly thirty years before, and had only heard snippets about her life from my mother, who was the human embodiment of a social networking site long before Mark Zuckerberg’s birth, able to provide a status update on pretty much anybody from our hometown.

My mother came to visit me after the birth of my second child bearing Table Toppers, the disposable stick-on placemats that she told me Beth, a lawyer and now mother of three, had invented so that mothers trying to feed their toddlers in public places didn’t have to fret about germs.

To be honest, though I’d always liked Beth, I wasn’t interested in hearing about her innovation and applauding her entrepreneurial spirit.  I was in the full throes of an identity crisis that had stemmed from leaving my prestigious international career to be a stay-at-home mother.  Unlike Beth, I hadn’t crafted a creative new identity that merged my professional skills with my new role as parent. I didn’t want to be reminded that there were other women who, after giving birth, had managed to find fulfilling ways to blend career and family.

I came to Florida to care for my mother, who was scheduled for some outpatient surgery. But when I got there, her condition was much worse than I expected.  Our relationship, which had been strained over the years, was awkward, and so to make her feel better and to pass the time, I let her tell me about people we knew in common, including Beth, who lived nearby.  There had been a tragedy, my mother said.  Beth’s oldest son had contracted leukemia at age 11 and hadn’t survived.

I think it was more than cabin fever that led me to break free of my mother and arrange to meet Beth for coffee.

We sat across from each other and commented on how much we both resembled our mothers.  Beth’s chipper high school class president demeanor now had a careworn veneer, but I noticed she also had her mother’s softness and warm, quiet eyes — qualities I had always admired.

We caught each other up on our lives and the people we knew in common, and then we talked, mother-to-mother, about the unspeakable loss she had suffered.  It wasn’t the cancer that had killed Ian, Beth explained, it was the treatment.  Ian had been diagnosed with T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) , a form of cancer that can have a 75-80% recovery rate. But his immune system had been so compromised by the toxic cancer treatment, that, though cancer-free at the time, he was unable to survive the meningitis he had contracted while the “cure” was underway.

Along with frustration over the futility of Ian’s death, Beth and her husband Brad were haunted by Ian’s own feelings about his treatment, which had been painful, isolating and humiliating.  Ian often asked why the “cure” had to hurt so much.

“After Ian died, I felt like I was going through the motions as a parent,” Beth admitted.  “Before his death I had thrown myself into parenting, yet I hadn’t been able to prevent something terrible from happening or been able to shield Ian from pain.  Afterwards, it was hard to get excited about birthday parties and school events for my other two sons.”

But Beth is a more than a turkey-maker, she’s a lemonade-maker. She and her family threw themselves into another innovative, entrepreneurial project — the creation of the I Care I Cure Childhood Cancer Foundation, which raises awareness and money to fund gentler treatments for childhood cancer. To date, the foundation and its partners have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for cutting-edge, targeted therapies for pediatric cancer.

In addition to its ongoing fundraising, the Florida-based foundation hosts a 5K run and family fun day, so that activism can be a family affair. The fifth annual event will be held on February 12.  There is also a network of I Care I Cure Service Clubs for kids across the country, to share Ian’s commitment to community service with his peers, and new efforts to develop teen service learning projects.  You can learn more about these opportunities on the foundation’s website and/or “like” it on Facebook.

Three months after Beth and I met for coffee, my mother died and a year after that, Beth lost her mother. We live on opposite sides of the country and probably won’t ever see each other again.  Since I don’t have my mother to keep me up-to-date, I’ll have to rely on Facebook to follow Beth’s activities.

There’s a saying that books broaden your perspective because they enable you to lead a thousand lives different than your own. The same can be true of your encounters with other people.  I’m grateful for what I learned from my mid-life reacquaintance with Beth, just as I’m grateful every time I get to interview someone for an article and learn what motivates them.  We can’t always and don’t always want to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.  But we can listen to them share their experiences.

I’ve had a recent bump in readership and subscribers and I want to thank you all. Through this blog I have reconnected with old friends and have made new ones too.  One such person is Ken Rivard, who with his wife Jody Adams, writes the wonderful food blog The Garum Factory.  During my musings about the feasibility of mid-life activism, Ken, who I think of as a wise older brother, commented, “I think the hardest thing, the older you get, is to shake yourself out of the habitual rut of your own life, your own perceptions, etc. and remember when the world was wide open.”         .    

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.  When the situation is not so drastic, say on a gray weekend morning when you are waiting for snow, do yourself a favor and make these Lemon-Bay Scones with Currants, courtesy of the Garum Factory.  When you look at the recipe, you might initially be daunted by the effort involved in making and freezing bay leaf and Meyer Lemon-infused brown butter.  Don’t be.  It sounds harder and more time-consuming than it actually is.  And, like activism, once you set your mind to it, you’ll be glad you did.