The Toll Booths on Memory Lane

Four years ago this blog was born on a crisp October night when my husband was on a business trip in Asia, my kids were already becoming well versed in ignoring me and I was thinking about chicken and France. There’s something about autumn that makes a person (well me, anyway) tap into her inner, not-fat French woman and think about preparing exquisite chicken and apple dishes eaten en famille, with everyone savoring the meal and the kids displaying good manners and open-minded palates. This was before we had books to taunt us that not only don’t French women get fat, but their kids are better behaved than ours too.

japanese book

And thus, a cottage industry was born.

My first post detailed a plan (which I remained somewhat faithful to for several seasons) for us to eat European chicken once a week. A post about my favorite apple desserts followed shortly thereafter.

Since then, I’ve written about teenagers and puppies and hamsters and perimenopause and work-life balance and gallbladders and colonoscopies and perfume and Tony Soprano, with lots of recipes and bewilderment about aging thrown into the mix. Where does the time go? I’d planned to write this post in August, on the heels of a trip we made to the East Coast to attend the wedding of the son of college friends of mine and to visit New England colleges for Daughter #1, who was still in middle school when I started this blog. Now it’s almost Halloween, that trip has nearly faded into memory along with my tan and Daughter #2 has started high school. Luckily there is a European chicken in the oven.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It’s no accident that wedding bands choose music the elders can dance to. I never thought I’d hear, much less dance to Meat Loaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light ever again. But it was a highlight of the party. “We can dance to your music,” explained the groom, who doesn’t have a patronizing bone in his body. “You have more trouble dancing to ours.” For the record, Daughters #1 and #2 were mortified that we danced at all.

old dancing couple

We spent a week tooling around New England on what is apparently a pretty traditional college road trip. When you’re from the West, like we are, you feel a frisson of excitement every time you cross a state line, which in New England seems to happen every five minutes or so. The girls indulged me each time we crossed a frontier and sang my grandmother’s made-up song which bids farewell to the old state and welcomes the new one.

national lampoon vacation

Visit colleges with your kid and you’re bound to relive your memories. In my case, I was bound and determined to leave the East Coast for the West Coast, which I did via France (where I met the parents of the groom). Now, nearly 40 years later, my West Coast daughter has admitted she has a taste for the exotic East.

My kids make fun of me for being from New Jersey but they also are a little bit in awe of  the classic Jersey “in your face” attributes — the polar opposite of Seattle nice (aka passive/aggressive behavior). So when we arrived at the rental car kiosk at Logan airport and an altercation occurred in line (or “on line,” as we say in New Jersey), my kids, who were fascinated, thought I was in my element and would jump right into the fray.

taxi driver

When I held back and even politely let someone cut in front of me (others had jumped to my defense, which was the reason for the altercation), they were disappointed. “You’ve lost your East Coast skills,” they said and I knew that my feet were becoming cemented in clay.

I worked hard to redeem myself.  I took them for cannoli in Boston’s North End.


I explained the expression “old money.” The Howells

My kids experienced a lot of things they’d never seen before like

men in pink pants;


flash thunderstorms bringing down sheets of rain in such volume that we Seattlites, used to a more passive/aggressive kind of rain, were unprepared and got drenched;


and tollbooths.


Though they’d been East before, this trip felt different. My daughters assessed everything with the eyes and attitudes of people who would soon choose where they wanted to live and found everything to their liking, even though I didn’t manage to find them any decent pizza. A particularly sumptuous post-wedding brunch sealed the deal. “I’m going to school on the East Coast too,” announced Daughter #2, whom I’d pegged an L.A. girl.

For me, mixed in with the delight of the once familiar were reminders of all the reasons I’d left. I kept most of these to myself, remembering that a trip to California in1968 had kindled my dream to go West and stay there and my mother never dissuaded me. Who was I to rain on their parade?

We returned home and in the last days of summer I made eggplant parmigiana, a nod to my East Coast heritage. School started and we began the roller coaster ride of college fairs and PSATs. There are more college road trips in our future, including at least one to California. Next year will be Daughter #1’s last with us. Daughter #2, who has begun studying French just like I did, hopes to spend part of next school year in France, just like I did when I was in high school. Those soccer Saturdays and all the driving I do will be over in the blink of an eye. Our house will be much cleaner and I will always be able to find a phone charger when I want one.

But not yet. Until then there are rituals like European Chicken Night to hold us together, even if they happen infrequently now.

Tonight we ate Poularde Farcie en Chaponnade Comme en Correzeor Roast Chicken Stuffed with Garlic Croutons in the Style of the Correze, from Paula Wolfert’s lovely book, The Cooking of Southwest France. Come to think of it, I cooked it in the roasting pan my mother bought me when I was in college.

Here's to new horizons

Here’s to new horizons

A Series of Unfortunate Events

It just goes to show you, it's always something.

It just goes to show you, it’s always something.

I remember the exact moment our luck changed. We were sitting in a Michigan airport getting ready to return home to Seattle when I learned that Paseo, the Cuban sandwich place located across the street from the beach near our house, was closing. Paseo signified everything that was right about Ballard, the neighborhood we’ve lived in for 20 years. I’ve written and ranted about the changes underway in Ballard and, more recently, about the changes brewing in our lives. When you have things that anchor you, like a pink shack with garlicky aioli-slathered pork sandwiches or a trustworthy drug store to buy lice supplies, school supplies, shampoo, chocolate and even wine (sadly, now knocked down to make way for a “mixed use” retail/condo behemoth), you can feel enveloped in a bubble of invulnerability. The destruction of those icons made my invulnerability bubble-wrap begin to pop, bubble by bubble.

The minor fender bender that occurred on the way to school/work left me grateful it was no big deal, but still a little shaky because I don’t, as a rule of thumb, have car accidents. Ditto the news that I had suffered a stress fracture in my foot, because I have never broken a bone.

So much for early morning boot camp.

So much for early morning boot camp.

But I rolled with everything, stylishly rocking the one shoe/one boot look for over a month and adapting each time a curve ball came my way. When Zayn Malik left One Direction,  I dealt with it better than some.

On a business trip to Chicago, I learned to tolerate lap swimming, thanks to the hotel’s 1929-era pool. Once home, I reveled in the fact that, instead of rising at 5:30 for boot camp, I could sleep in till 6:15 and hit my local (less fancy) pool at the end of the morning rush.

pool I made Yotam Ottolenghi’s carrot, apple and pecan muffins and I waited for a sign that this run of bad luck was coming to an end. muffinsThe first hopeful sign came in the form of  a package from my Chicago hotel. As proof that my stars were definitely out of alignment, I had discovered on my flight home that I’d left a drawer full of clean underwear and workout stuff in my hotel room. I do not, as a rule of thumb, usually leave anything behind when I travel (except for a black sweater coat left in a Grenada taxi. I blame my daughters for that). This was a fixable problem, and I jumped into action to get my items returned to me, convinced that when the package arrived, our luck would change. underwear Then, a setback. Daughter #1’s iPhone was stolen at a concert, to her perhaps the worst of all the mishaps that had befallen us. Heretofore, concerts were the ultimate bonding experience. Her faith in humanity was shaken. Worse, she couldn’t listen to music. headphones But a week later, we got great, life-changing news and we started celebrating. But then, unexpected, unwelcome life-changing (though to a far lesser extent) news came calling. So much for my attempts at pattern recognition. The latest news is that I’ve been advised to have my gallbladder removed because of a small growth that had been detected during the series of tests that followed my colonoscopy.

Among the random things I remember learning in school, such as that Taiwan used to be called Formosa and that guano is bat dung, I have a strong memory of learning about the four cardinal humors. The ancient Greeks believed that temperament was derived from the presence of bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. An imbalance of any of these could influence a person’s personality and their health. temperaments Blood was associated with a sanguine personality. Phlegm could make a person apathetic or phlegmatic. Black bile was associated with melancholy and yellow bile was associated with anger, aggression and gall. If you’re like me up until a few days ago, you probably don’t even know what the gallbladder does. Like the spleen, the gallbladder is one of those under-the-radar organs that rarely gets mentioned. Its main function is to store bile, a substance that helps the body absorb fat.

The words gall and bile don’t carry positive connotations, as they are associated with boldness (in a pushy, nervy sort of way) and bitterness. Personally, I prefer the Chinese interpretation of the gallbladder and its functions. The Chinese associate the gall bladder with courage, bravery and heroism. According to one ancient Chinese theory of medicine, not only does the gallbladder play a role in digestion, but also in decision-making.

Beyond my fears of the surgery itself, I worried. Would removing my gallbladder upset my four cardinal humors? Would it make it difficult for me to digest fat and other foods? gall bladder meme I’ve learned that cholecystectomy, or removal of the gall bladder, is the most common surgery. And, in a twist on the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, in which something you just learned about seems to suddenly crop up everywhere, in the past few days, it seems that everyone I talk to is either missing a gallbladder or knows someone who is. Chances are, if you are a woman reading this, and a mid-life woman to boot, you don’t have a gallbladder either.

Or, as Jeff’s cousin Deb, a research scientist whom I greatly admire and who cuts right to the chase said, “Some of my favorite people have no gall bladders.”

no gall bladder club

Apparently, penguins have enormous gall bladders, but lots of animals don’t have them at all.

The night after I got my gallbladder news, I went out for dinner with friends, one of whom, I learned, is gallbladder-free. It didn’t seem to stop her from enjoying a divine meal of Muscadet, oysters, crispy sardines, cucumber salad and asparagus. I noticed she didn’t touch the pate, but that apparently had nothing to do with her lack of a gallbladder. Good sign.

Daughter #2, whose heart is in the right place, has decided we need to have a fatty foods party before my surgery. I suggested we should make an emergency trip to Paris for a cheese tasting. She’s in.

Last night,  I wanted to cook, something I haven’t done much of lately, but which always returns my four cardinal humors to their correct balance.

Jan Brady meme I ignored my usual impulse to cook something Mediterranean and decided to make khao soi, a rich, Northern Thai curry that reminded me of my early days with Jeff (we met in Asia). Our cooking and eating lives together began with Asian food, before we migrated to Mexican flavors and later, I veered off into Mediterranean, Turkish and Spanish territory.

Jeff’s been with me through thick and thin. He’s famous for giving the kind of unromantic presents that endure (though his sister was furious when he gave me a toothbrush holder. Turns out, I needed one). It’s true, I appreciate my Soda Stream fizzy water maker more than the iPad that I wanted for Christmas that year. And I love my mortar and pestle.

I hadn’t gone on a treasure hunt for ingredients for a long time and that was fun. And it felt cathartic to grind the spices, shrimp paste, chiles, shallots and garlic to make the paste for the khao soi. pestle Shit happens and the writer in me realizes it’s all in the interpretation. This one six-month series of unfortunate events is just that, and is far eclipsed by the many six-month great runs we’ve had together. However, I did find it galling that at a particularly low point, Facebook chose to show me a picture of what we were during last year around this time — making merry in Seville. Maybe next year, when I have no gallbladder, that kind of thing won’t bother me.

Jeff is a physicist at heart and he might scoff at my attempts to find meaning through pattern recognition or chaos theory. But, I bet that if I asked him, Stephen Hawking might give me hope that when Paseo, or something like it, returns to Ballard (I’ve seen hopeful signs at the pink shack), I’ll be able to eat rich pork sandwiches slathered in garlic aioli with no problem.

Stephen Hawking gives reassuring news

I used the khao soi recipe in the Pok Pok cookbook. Pok Pok is the wonderful Thai restaurant in Portland, Oregon (and now, I think also New York) that is an essential stop if you visit that city (make sure to order the chicken wings). The cookbook is a commitment, with several recipes advising you to begin preparation weeks in advance. I chose khao soi because it was relatively quick, but we still didn’t eat till 9 p.m., which taxed everyone’s gall bladders. Here’s a somewhat simpler recipe to try. 

Pan Bagnat

Pan Bagnat

Recently, I took one of those BuzzFeed-type quizzes to find out what type of sandwich I am.

I usually work from home, so most days it’s just me, my dog and two cats. I spend a lot of time at the Facebook water cooler. Those quizzes can be hard to resist.

Despite the fact that my friend Sam has warned me that the quizzes put my data out there for Facebook and God knows who else to mine, I feel more self-aware now that I know which city I am supposed to live in (LA), what stereotype I was in high school (the renegade— totally not true. I just had lunch with a guy I went to high school with and discovered that even the nerds were wilder than I was) and what my hippie name would be (Flower).

When the results of my sandwich quiz came in, I was pleased with the outcome.

I am a Pan Bagnat, that Nicoise specialty, which is basically a Salade Nicoise between two slices of really good bread. You wrap it and weigh it down with something heavy for several hours so that olive oil and juices from the sandwich ingredients soak into the bread. It’s heavenly.

The first time I made a Pan Bagnat was during those early years of motherhood, when I would console myself over the lack of travel and lack of a job by making global concoctions. Early one morning I assembled the Pan Bagnat and set in the fridge to saturate until lunch time.

Daughter #1 was at kindergarten. Daughter #2 was having an afternoon playdate. Once her friend came over, I planned to leave the girls to their Polly Pockets and pretend I was in the South of France.

French Barbie

By the time my kids were 4, most of us parents were comfortable with the whole playdate thing, so we dispensed with the ritual of hanging around to make sure our kids were settled and high-tailed it away to enjoy a few kid-free hours. I was banking on D #2’s friend’s mother doing this and was anticipating enjoying my Pan Bagnat in peace before kid snack time.

She came, dropped off her daughter and … stayed.

I made the kind of small talk that is so boring you can’t wait to get away.

I encouraged her to go enjoy herself.

I told her the girls would be fine.

When it became clear that she was in no rush to leave, I grappled with what to do, especially since this was a woman I barely knew. Offering her half of my Pan Bagnat seemed like it would require an explanation. What was this messy sandwich? Why was it so special? Why was I planning to eat it furtively?


I offered her a drink and silently willed her to leave. I not-so-jokingly reminded her the two-hour playdate would soon be over.

Eventually, she got the hint or maybe she just got bored.

You can guess that I was no more than two bites into my Pan Bagnat when the girls came into the kitchen to tell me they were bored and hungry. Not long after that, the other girl’s mother returned, followed by D#1. Yes, I got to eat my sandwich, but I didn’t get to savor it.

Pan Bagnat has held a mystique for me ever since.

After I received my quiz results, I decided it had been far too long since I’d made a Pan Bagnat. My kids are older and gone for most of the day, so there was nothing to stand in my way. I made the Pan Bagnat and I savored it, while reading this great essay in the New York Times.

lunch and paper

A week or so later I made it again, taking the bold step of serving it for dinner on a hot summer night. To my shock, everyone enjoyed it (shhh, don’t tell them they ate anchovies).

So much of family life and life with other people involves delayed gratification.

Picture the recent summer afternoon when I, who rarely sit still, settled on the hammock with Sandra Tsing Loh’s, The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones.


Enter my handsome husband, who announced that in ten minutes we were converging in the sweltering attic for a family cleaning session.


Today is my birthday.

“I hope you are doing something self-indulgent,” a co-worker said.


Today was my turn to drive the morning carpool and then I had to give a presentation to the Parent Association at our school. Tonight is the 8th grade potluck. We are assigned dessert, so I am baking this terrific flip-over plum cake, which I told you about almost exactly two years ago.

I sat outside in the sunshine, flanked by my sun-loving pets and I sliced Italian plums that I had been given from a friend’s tree.


And while I baked the cake, I wrote this blog.

I make my living as a writer and am lucky that I get to interview people, study issues in depth and share what I’ve learned with the world. This summer was a particularly busy and stressful one for me, fraught with deadlines and not a lot of down time. I’m proud of what I’ve written, particularly this story about kids and gender identify, but in the rush of reporting, this blog, which is a form of self-expression, has suffered. So has my cooking.

So I am happy to report that my birthday was self-indulgent, in the best possible way.

Thanks for sharing it with me.

And if I hurry, I can get in a run or a bike ride before the kids come home from school.

Here’s the recipe I use for Pan Bagnat, courtesy of French food maven, Patricia Wells.

Bon appétit. 













Tinto de Verano

restaurant I suppose it was inevitable that the vacation glow would wear off, but I was surprised by how quickly it happened. The first day back from our trip, the first sunny day of a week that would reach vacation-like temperatures in the ’80s, I got into an argument about my dog with our mail carrier. Of course the argument, and my reaction to it, wasn’t really about the dog or the mail carrier at all.

It was about Change. construction If you know me or you’ve followed this blog, you know my neighborhood is changing. As the old-timers die off, developers are buying their land and razing their houses, building three and four-unit expensive condominiums in their place. “Chicken coops,” my taciturn neighbor, one of the remaining elderly men on the block, calls them. “Filing cabinets” is the term preferred by one of my colleagues.

My street is a constant construction zone. It’s loud and busy and my dog and I can’t stand it. He barks, which is what upset the mail carrier. I sometimes bark too, but mostly I am full of suppressed and not-so-suppressed rage.

On that first sunny morning, when my dog and I went for a walk, I learned that the neighbors on the corner, who had built the treehouse that everybody’s kids played in, had sold their property and were getting a divorce. My next-door neighbor, a good-natured handyman, who is always kind enough to feed our cats when we are away, told me he was leaving too. And then he offered to come back to the neighborhood anytime we needed him to feed the cats.

So when Jeff told me to let go of the argument with the mail carrier, he was really trying to tell me to stop fighting the inevitable.

Change. musicians Makes a person want to turn around and head right back to Spain. (I had to laugh when I read the snarky comments in response to the article I wrote about the mail carrier/dog brouhaha and destruction of my neighborhood. One of the more vicious trolls, who obviously saw me as an entitled enemy of honest working people, snarkily accused me of vacationing in Spain.)

Yup, I was in Spain alright. Andalusia to be exact.

Carefully constructed around Christmas time, when we were all sick with the flu, this trip was meant to have something for everyone.

A pitstop in London, for British-obsessed Daughter #1 (with a long-anticipated trip to Ottolenghi for me). Ottolenghi Windsuring in Tarifa, for windsurfing-obsessed Jeff (with a side-trip to Tangier, Morocco for me). tarifa   Morocco stairs Warm weather, for Daughter #2. Morocco foodMorocco doorwayGibraltar, just because. And Moorish history and great food for me.

When you travel internationally somewhat infrequently with your kids, it’s hard to know what will make the greatest impression. You never know what’s going to stick.

The morning of the trip, as I was frantically trying to make sure we had everything together, we realized that Daughter #2 did not have a purse. I know from experience with D#1 that teenage girls are very particular about their purses.

All other options rejected, my eyes fell on a black faux-leather Marc Jacobs shoulder bag that my stylish friend C. gave me when she moved away. “You can use this,” I offered, sure that D #2 would reject it as falling within the fashion domain of a 50-something woman clinging to the last vestiges of style. But D #2 surprised me. “Really?” she asked, her eyes gleaming. “Is that a designer bag?”

“Our boots” flashed before my eyes.

Surprise #1 of the trip was the way in which D#2 and I bonded. We’d been having some tussles and she, far more enigmatic than her sister, rarely let me in on her secrets. Lending (yes, lending) her that purse opened a window. I discovered just how sophisticated her interest in fashion has grown. She discovered that I had a past, one that apparently included more designer swag than she’d realized.

At the airport I told her that in my young, single, traveling days, when leaving a country, I used to take my remaining currency to the duty-free shop and spend it on perfume.

So on this trip, together, we spent all of our airport waiting time in duty-free shops, searching for what she hoped would be her “signature scent.” I spoke with familiarity about Chanel and Dior, Guerlain and Lancome, and she regarded me with a respect for experience that sometimes gets lost in our day-to-day lives.

When, in the last few minutes at the last duty-free shop, despairing of ever finding just the right essence (despite my using my own olfactory history as proof that your signature scent changes, as you change), a kindly British saleswoman (who was clearly one of those “sweet-smelling women,” like those who guided me) took D#2 in hand and helped her navigate the shelves.

No matter that I misread and miscalculated the price of the Gucci perfume we ended up purchasing, only realizing after we returned home just how much we’d spent. provactive perfume

“Our perfume,” I call it. And though she may not realize it, we share it in more ways than one.

Back at home, D#2 and I went on a feminist movie-watching jag, watching the original Stepford Wives, which Jeff rented for us, under the suspicious eyes of the somewhat militant women at the video store, who refused to let him rent the Nicole Kidman remake. (A guy renting a movie like that is the equivalent of a guy buying tampons, which Jeff has also done. Welcome to the domain of women.) and Rosemary’s Baby.

My little girl is growing up.

D #1 looked utterly at home navigating the Tube in London, drinking tea and eating Maltesers. Maltesers-Wrapper-Small

She wants to study there and I realized that she probably will.

I dug even further back, before my perfume-purchasing days, to the two years that I was an exchange student in Europe, years of glorious poverty.

One of the most interesting things about being a parent as your kids get older, is that suddenly you can remember and relate. The distance between your respective experiences seems to shrink. My Eurail Pass self and my designer perfume self are just under the surface. My girls’ equivalents of those selves are just under the surface too, about to emerge. Ronda

But what about Spain?  Did they appreciate the Alhambra and the cathedral in Seville and the tomb of Christopher Columbus and the all-you-can-eat paella on the beach?


Yeah, they did. Granada

But more than anything they appreciated eating five times a day, dressing up, wandering around on their own, late night tapas crawls and sips of the drink that defined the trip for me: Tinto de Verano.

Enjoyed more by Spaniards than Sangria (which is apparently for tourists), Tinto de Verano, or summer red wine, is equal parts red wine and lemon/lime or orange soda. It is divine.


In Spain I was probably drinking a mixture of cheap wine and lemon-lime Fanta. At home, I tried to replicate it by mixing wine with Dry brand blood orange soda and a splash of agave and it wasn’t the same. I’m still tinkering. This uncomplicated recipe, from Saveur, is a good place to start.

The wonderful book that accompanied me on this trip was Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room: A Tale of Passion, Revenge and the World’s Finest Cheese.

Among other things, it’s about change, or rather the push-pull we humans feel as we struggle to preserve history, heritage and our way of doing things, with the inevitable changes that time brings. Cadiz

Fully back at home now ensconced in real life, with my Spanish sojourn and the sting of having three packs of jamon Iberico confiscated at the airport fading into memory, I can see change on the horizon.

But summer is coming.

As much as possible, I will spend mine trying to replicate our favorite tapa — grilled goat cheese drizzled with honey—cooking from my old favorite Spanish cookbooks, The New Spanish Table, The Spanish Table cookbook (from the wonderful Seattle store of the same name) and my new favorite, Moro, the cookbook, which I learned about one melancholy rainy day from this recipe for spinach and garbanzo beans (courtesy of The Smitten Kitchen), which transported me right back to Andalusia.

When the construction workers have left for the day and quiet returns to the neighborhood, I will lie on my backyard hammock with a good book, a glass of Tinto de Verano nearby.

I’ll try not to worry this summer, as Daughter #1 learns how to drive, reminding myself that change is inevitable.

How sweet it is.

How sweet it is.

Foodie Fan Fest


The Alhambra at night, as seen from the deck of our Granada apartment.

The Alhambra at night, as seen from the deck of our Granada apartment.

I’m just back from a glorious trip to the Andalucia region of Spain. The trip included a brief stint in London, where I got to enjoy a jet-lagged, yet wonderful meal at the Islington branch of Ottolenghi.

The next installment of Slice of Mid-Life will be all about that trip and the wonderful food we ate. I’m still marveling at the fact that Spaniards eat five times a day and late into the night, but don’t seem to get fat.

Until then, I wanted to share this brief interview I did with Molly Wizenberg, author of the wonderful food blog Orangette, who has a new book out this month. She’s at a very different stage of life than I am and it’s fun to see how she manages the interplay of food, art and motherhood. I admire her very much.

I hope you’ll think of this brief article as a tapa, in anticipation of the feast to come. Here’s the link:

Someone You Should Know: Molly Wizenberg

All-you-can-eat paella on the beach at Nerja.

All-you-can-eat paella on the beach at Nerja.



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.


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.



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.


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.”







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.


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.





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.



And I got an ornament of 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.

Refrigerator Wars: Work-Family Balance in the Crisper


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.


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Ottolenghi and Alison (or Cooking My Way Through Menopause)


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.



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.


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.

Every Day is Mother’s Day

To celebrate Mother’s Day, this weekend my book, Ruminations from the Minivan:  musings from a world grown large, then small, is available as a free Kindle download.  Here’s the link.  I hope you’ll give it a try and tell your friends and loved ones too.  And if you like the book, please consider posting a review.  Thanks!

My grandmother, a wise, warm woman who made French toast out of hot dog buns and called it Belgian toast, used to say “Every day is Children’s Day.”

She was a wonderful woman but, with the exception of latkes, not much of a cook.

She was a wonderful, inspirational person but, with the exception of latkes, not much of a cook.

In fact, the 1960s were not nearly as child-centric as today. The sometimes controversial writer Caitlin Flanagan summarized it aptly:  “When we were children, we followed our parents around.  Now we follow our children around.”

It will be 80 degrees and sunny today in Seattle.  What will I be doing?  Schlepping kids to school, a track meet, a volunteer appreciation party, a dance and possibly the mall. I find it amusing, and admittedly sometimes annoying, that the teenagers in my life plan all sorts of group excursions that involve driving hither and yon, but they often forget to consult the drivers.

It's probably time to put this on my reading list.

It’s probably time to put this on my reading list.

Because they text instead of talking on the phone, the logistics can drive even the coolest of parents crazy. Example:  Daughter #1- Can you take my friends and me to the mall? We want to go to the Alderwood Mall (15 miles away from Seattle). It has better stores.  Me:  (attempting to dry my hair)  Sure, but I have to stop at Northgate Mall (5 miles away) first to return something.  D #1:  My friend E. will meet us at Alderwood. What time should her mother bring her there? Me:  I’ll pick her up. It’s on our way. Daughter #2:  I want to go to the mall too and invite a friend.  D #1:  I just texted E. and told her to meet us at Alderwood Mall. Me, getting frustrated:  I told you I would pick her up. (This exchange actually went on for several additional rounds and involved several hair dryer interruptions).

Surprisingly, the phone rings and it’s not a telemarketer:  It’s H., friend of D #1:  I texted E. and asked her to ask her mother to drive her down to my house so we can go to the mall.  Me:  I said I would pick her up on the way to the mall so her mother doesn’t have to drive her anywhere.  D#1:  Calm down, mom. Me: Text E. and tell her I will pick her up. D#1:  Stop yelling, you’re ruining everything. Maybe I just shouldn’t go to the mall.

Me: WHY IS THIS SO HARD AND WHY CAN’T I DRY MY HAIR?  Pick up the phone and CALL E. and confirm that I will pick her up.

In the car, much to D #1’s mortification, I lectured everyone on effective communication, minimizing our carbon footprint by not driving unnecessarily and not inconveniencing parents, who may actually have things they want/need to do.

When we got to the Northgate Mall we learned that D#2 had neglected to tell her friend B. that our final destination was the Alderwood Mall. B. had neglected to mention that she had a volleyball game in an hour.

We waited for B.’s father to come to Northgate Mall and pick her up.

If there were a logo to describe me as a mother these days it would be a sponge.


Not because I clean, but because as the first line of defense of the family, I absorb everyone else’s emotions.  I also step in to resolve messes, sometimes (such as prior to having my morning coffee or during the aforementioned mall logistics) I can be abrasive and I adapt to a variety of tasks.

But lately I’ve been wondering whether if I knew then what I know now, I would have chosen to quit my career to become a full-time mother.  In my book and on this and other blogs, I’ve chronicled the intellectual frustrations I felt, which clashed with the stronger pull to be there for my daughters.  Now, almost fifteen years later, I am dealing with the economic ramifications of my decision.

Originally this post was entitled the Mommy Track and Freekah-nomics (you’ll see why in a few minutes).

am slaughter

Now that I’m ready to “lean in” and go back to work full time, I’m discovering that the years I spent freelancing, volunteering and doing a little of this and a little of that, were years not spent developing expertise in a particular field.  I’ve got a pretty interesting resume, which shows that I am smart and as adaptable as that sponge I mentioned. But, though I’ve reinvented myself professionally several times,  it lacks fifteen years of targeted experience with increased responsibility.  This, I realize, will hurt me in a tight job market.

Jeff and I have an artist friend named T. who has spent her entire adult life cobbling together different jobs to support herself.  She’s also managed to squirrel away enough money to take several international trips.  Currently, she and her husband (who’s had a similar work life) are at the end of a year-long, round-the-world trip, which they have been documenting on Tumblr.

Though not lucrative and often uncertain, freelancing makes for a pretty nice “stop and smell the roses” kind of life.

Every Tuesday Kobe and I used to visit our neighborhood barber, who gave Kobe a "pupperoni" treat.  He passed away last week.  We will miss him.

Every Tuesday Kobe and I used to visit our neighborhood barber, who welcomed canine visitors and gave them  “pupperoni” treats. He passed away last week. Our neighborhood misses him.

So, I’ve chosen to be inspired by the flexibility and serendipity of T.’s unorthodox career. I’m cobbling together several different freelance jobs to help support us and squirrel away enough money to take a trip next spring (Belize, anyone?).

Though I’m devoting far more time to seeking and executing remunerative work and far less time to cooking, occasionally I still make time for culinary exploration, focusing on less time-consuming recipes.

Here’s a recent find from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s Jerusalem: Poached Chicken with Sweet Spiced Freekah.

I hope you enjoy it.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some driving to do.

Happy Mother’s Day.