Bruuuuuuuuce!

springsteen still

I’m sharing a piece I just published revisiting the America Dream through the lens of a Bruce Springsteen concert and presidential politics.

http://crosscut.com/2016/03/in-seattle-bruce-springsteen-resurrects-an-old-american-dream/

Here’s a snipped from the show, which was packed with happy mid-lifers. It was four hours of unadulterated joy.

 

 

 

 

 

Standing out from the Crowd

 

Jon Stewart meme

My father-in-law and I like to read the personal ads in the New York Review of Books. Actually, I like to read them aloud. He humors me by listening. I don’t, as a rule, read personal ads anywhere else and I have never participated in online dating, so I don’t know if these ads are typical. I suspect they are singular in their unabashed frankness.

Picture the smart, intellectual, urbane women who are represented by most of these ads; gutsy women who don’t apologize for their accomplishments or their education. They’ve  worked at staying attractive and fit and aren’t shy about saying so. These “women of a certain age” know what they want (a guy to travel and go to the opera with) and are willing to give a little too (most profess a willingness to learn golf). They inject a touch of self-deprication in their ads (they’re not very good at golf) but their bottom line is: Be yourself and go after what will make you happy.

sylvia personal ad

In contrast, the men who advertise in the New York Review of Books are far less specific than their female counterparts. Unless they are artists, they don’t advertise their professions. Some are unapologetic about the fact that they are married. They don’t feel the need to say where they like to travel or what kind of music they enjoy. My favorite ad is from a Los Angeles man, now 71 (he was 69 when I first noticed him), who simply proclaims that he is “ready to share his life.”

Lately, I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on how we present ourselves to the world and, in an algorithm-driven society, what we have to do to stand out. Daughter #1, age 17, is looking for a college. I, on the other side of 50, am looking for a job. Neither one of us relishes the shameless self-promotion required to get noticed, though with a few more years and experience under my belt, it comes more naturally to me. We both hate the demoralizing feeling of being one of a million seekers, though sometimes the depersonalization can be comical.

D#1 receives oodles of snail mail and email every day from colleges and college prep programs hoping to catch her eye. They try all sorts of interesting gamuts to make her feel special, but sometimes they fall amusingly far from the mark. She’s currently suffering through Chemistry. One particularly miserable day, this illustrious certificate in her name, which now hangs proudly on our refrigerator, provided comic relief.

science 2

Last month, daughters #1 and #2 and I went on a Southern California college road trip, where the schools worked hard to distinguish themselves in our eyes. It felt good to have the illusion of control, however fleeting,  in the college application process.

Los Angeles is one of the great food towns and I was looking forward to sampling some of the local standouts.  Day 1, we hit the ground running with a visit to Santa Monica bakery Huckleberry. I’ve got the Huckleberry cookbook on my Kindle and, in particular, have enjoyed making these rich and yummy vanilla pancakes. The book also features a great recipe for multi-grain pancakes. The hint of shredded cheddar cheese in the recipe elevates them from merely healthy to sublime.

Huckleberry

The line was long, made even longer by the ravenous runners from the just-completed Los Angeles marathon. We limited ourselves to one pastry to be shared among the three of us. At 2:00 p.m. we finally sat down to breakfast, in my case, Green Eggs and Ham.

Green eggs

In L.A. we were lucky enough to be staying with extended family  — foodies of the highest caliber. The family’s intrepid son was more than happy to accompany me to Mapo Galbi, where, before your eyes, this:

Mapo Gali pre

is transformed into this:

Mapo Galbi

and if that isn’t enough, you get a nice pile of rice to scrape up the leftover bits.

mapo rice

Though Cafe Gratitude’s vegan food was creative and tasty, my attempt to order “Vivacious,” and have it misconstrued as “Dynamic,” made me feel like a fish out of water.

Woody Allen source screen shot

“I’ll have the alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast.”

All in all, we ate well in Southern California and several items made an impression.

There were bananas,

balboa

and burgers,

 

and Zankou chicken. And then there was “that cake.”

In the annals of family recipes, “that cake” is legendary— a standout from the pile of hundreds and thousands of recipes that I’ve come across over the past decade.

I didn’t actually eat that cake in Los Angeles. Long buried, it came to the forefront of my mind as a suggested dessert for a dinner party our aunt was planning. Everyone remembered it fondly.

The cake we  all appreciate comes from Amanda Hesser’s (of Food 52 fame) book, Cooking for Mr. Latte. It’s rich with almond paste and sour cream but doesn’t feel overwhelming. When I got home I made it for a party, and worried that it wouldn’t live up to my memories. It did not disappoint.

A week or so after we returned from Los Angeles, I made an unexpected trip to Michigan to hang out with my father-in-law, while his wife was on an overseas trip. “Make sure you bring recipes,” warned Jeff, who’d pulled the shift just before mine and had done a similar stint last year. Lovable, yet precise in his food desires, I had long ago nicknamed my father-in-law after the exacting coffee bean taster from the television commercials of my youth.

 

Savarin

The biggest compliment after he tastes something? “El Exigente approves.”

Jeff, who only makes around ten different dishes, all of them spectacular, was riding on a wave of good will. He’d fed El Exigente well from his small recipe reserve. I’ve made around 10,000 dishes, and maybe 100 of them have been designated “keepers.” Which ones would rise to the top, as worthy of El Exigente?

I brought options. The first night, after my long journey and a meal of leftover Hainanese Chicken Rice made by Jeff, my father-in-law and I got down to business and chose the menus for the week.(There are a million recipes for Chicken Rice. I think ours comes from the Washington Post or the New York Times from 10 or 15 years ago. Whichever recipe you choose, make sure the sauce feature copious amounts of ginger.)

top-chef__140130164225

In what I came to think of as a friendly family competition, each night I waited to see how El Exigente (who I should stress, was very grateful for every meal) would react to my concoctions and I shared the results with Jeff.

Night One: A calculated risk. I persuaded El Exigente, a midwestern meat eater, to try pasta made with Marcella Hazen’s famous tomato sauce with butter and onion, our family’s favorite comfort meal. In a nod to his preference for meat, I paired it with Food 52’s Absurdly Addictive Asparagus, which features pancetta. In his eyes it was a good, though not a great meal. I told Jeff the crown remained squarely on his head. The next day, I happily ate the leftover asparagus for lunch.

Night Two: I opted for a surprise move. Though my penchant for European chicken has been well documented in this blog, I’ve made my reputation as an ethnic cook. Lacking a tried and true recipe among the thousands for Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic, I used this one from Saveur, and made it my own. El Exigente described my Chicken with 38 Cloves of Garlic as “thorough,” meaning the chicken was permeated with flavor. This was high praise indeed. I told Jeff I’d earned points for versatility.

Night Three: Back to my comfort zone. El Exigente didn’t just have seconds of my Lion’s Head meatballs, he had thirds. And from the very first bite, he proclaimed (in English because he doesn’t speak Spanish), “I like this.”

The first time I made Lion’s Head meatballs, I used this recipe from Food 52. For my father-in-law, I used this recipe from Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian recipes. (Ever since they introduced me to the Mapo Galbi I had in L.A., I’ve had a foodie crush on Lucky Peach. Check out their  website and their book, in which you’ll also find recipes for Chicken Rice, many delicious noodles, and more).

Miss America

The crown was mine. Until my brother-in-law arrived to take my place.

I’m back home now, where the college and job hunts have resumed and good meals keep our spirits up, as we study for the SAT and write cover letters, hoping to be noticed.

The thing about recipes, just like the thing about people, is that there’s so much more to them than what you see on paper. You never know which ones will stand out, given the opportunity.

air book

Today I was the beneficiary of a random act of kindness, courtesy of a Good Samaritan (I suspect my friend Peggy) who left this wonderful book in the locker room of our gym. If you haven’t heard about Drs. Paul and Lucy Kalanithi and the diagnosis that led to this book,  I encourage you to read this book. From everything I’ve heard, and the few pages I’ve read so far, it’s a bittersweet counterpoint to our algorithm-driven world.

 

 

 

 

I Can’t Wait to Read This Book!

Greetings, Slice of Mid-Life friends,

I have another blog installment almost ready to publish, but in the meantime I couldn’t resist telling you about my latest discovery.

In yet another instance of art imitating life, today, the last in my current job, I read this article by former NPR journalist Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

Turns out, she’s about to release on new book on midlife called Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife. 

In the immortal words of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, something tells me I’m into something good.

If you read the book, please let me know what you think. It comes out on March 15.

 

Foam Rollers, Feminists, and Feeling the Burn

Whatever else you may feel about the current Presidential race, one of the more interesting aspects is where feminism fits in.

Many (but not all) diehard feminists (many, but not all of them older) support Hillary, pointing to her longstanding commitment to equity — not just for women, but for children, the poor, and the uninsured. Many (but not all) feminists (many, but not all of them younger) are uneasy with the once-idealistic Hillary’s questionable ethics and say they refuse to “vote with their vaginas.” They support Bernie Sanders, an unwavering idealist, one whose contemplative delivery reminds Daughter #1 of her grandfather.

larry and kate

It’s nice to have a reason to watch SNL again and even nicer to DVR it, so I don’t have to stay up late.

Last week, feminist elders Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright added fuel to the anti-Hillary fire, while Beyonce dominated the Super Bowl halftime show with her “take no prisoners” form of self-expression. The contrast in these feminist displays points to the generational differences in the way women experience feminism— fidelity to a movement vs. fidelity to oneself.

As a woman of a certain age, who fought my own feminist battles  (I’m a veteran of the days when women, but not men, had to take typing tests, no matter what job they applied for; was the first woman in my Foreign Service training class to wear pants; I suffered at the hands of unsupportive female bosses, whose attitude about balancing work and family was, “no one made it easy for me…;” and I have lived through the “Mommy Wars,” pitting working women against stay-at-home moms), this battle for feminist “street cred” bewilders me.

I now live in a household with an emerging  feminist and I’ve had interesting conversations with my daughters about the feminist issues that concern them: rape culture, dress codes, freedom of expression, to name a few. When they ask what feminism means to me, I say “equal opportunity and equal pay for equal work,” and then remind them that women still earn 75 cents to a man’s dollar, and we still don’t have paid family leave, subsidized childcare, and other reasonable practices that enable women to support themselves and raise families.

The continuum from idealism to pragmatism and the accommodations we make over a lifetime is something I had a chance to contemplate when an unusual package arrived in the mail:

cassettes

It contained cassette tapes I had made in 1978, as a 17-year-old exchange student at a French high school in Evian-les-Bains, France. Sent to me by my high school buddy, CC, whom I’ve only seen two or three times since high school, listening to them made for some entertaining rides in the minivan with my daughters, especially D #1, who just turned 17.

That’s right. My 17-year-old daughter got to hear from her 17-year-old mother. Back when I was a kid, that would have been fodder for an ABC after-school special.

message to my daughter

Once we got past all the boring stuff (and the girls got done making fun of my hybrid New Jersey/Valley Girl accent), the meat of the tape had to do with my excitement and trepidation over traveling alone in Europe. I recount some “test runs” I took —weekend trips to Lausanne and Geneva, during which I fought off the unwanted advances of North African men, who had the impression that American women were “easy;” learned how to enjoy eating in a restaurant alone; and gained confidence navigating unfamiliar terrain in places where I did not fluently speak the local language. I drop hints about a longer solo trip I hoped to take, hitchhiking around Scandinavia.

My girls know the rest of the story:  I took that trip, which led to more trips, and an international relations degree, which led to me wearing pants at the Foreign Service Institute, where one seasoned female diplomat who spent her career in the Middle East, told us that in that region, she was treated like a third gender: “woman in pants.”

My preoccupations as a 17-year-old budding feminist who wanted to safely explore the world were different from my preoccupations as a 37-year-old new mother, who gave up a career to stay home with her babies.

Now, as a 50-something career woman, who has seen ten 50-something friends (male and female) lose their jobs over the past year, and who worries how we will be able to afford to send D#1 to college and still have money left for retirement, my preoccupations have changed again. Greedy developers are razing the houses in my neighborhood and replacing them with expensive condos, yet we can’t afford to move anywhere else in the city I’ve called home for 20 years. My city is in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom, but we don’t have the infrastructure to support it, and longtime residents are being pushed out.

development.JPG

In the cacophony of commentary about the Presidential candidates, two recent pieces have stuck with me. One was Rachel Maddow’s reflections on what it feels like to be a liberal voter when no candidate has your back.  The other is a piece by David Brooks reflecting on Obama’s qualities of integrity, leadership, and humanity.

Maybe it’s because we’re the same age, but with Obama I never felt I had to make the difficult choice that many Democrat voters, myself included, are now grappling with. He had my back with his blend of idealism, optimism, and pragmatism. The fact that many are disappointed that he did not live up to his initial promise speaks volumes about our broken system of government and the costs of pragmatism.

After I discovered that my injured knee was actually the result of an IT band problem, some young women at work told me about foam rollers, cylindric torture devices that loosen tight muscles, which everyone below the age of 40 seems to know about. (Madeline Albright’s “special place in Hell” probably is well stocked with foam rollers). After a barre class (my new favorite exercise, which has a throwback feel to it), I gave one a spin.

foam.JPG

Call it a stretch (no pun intended), but where would we be if Jane Fonda hadn’t popularized exercise, making working out and feeling the burn a part of many people’s daily routines?  Trailblazers deserve respect, as do the people and things that come after them.

leg warmers

Leg warmers are back!

I only listened to snippets of last night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, because I was in my minivan on my way to volunteer at a school event. But what I heard was encouraging: a real discussion of the issues and the best way to deliver on promises.

I hope we can stop pitting women against each other and move away from making the contest between Hillary and Bernie a battle over feminism, because it should be so much more than that.

In laying out their plans for achieving economic equity and stability, and international peace and security, may the best candidate win.

I don’t have a recipe for you, but Daughters #1 & #2 and I are heading to Los Angeles, where I hope to participate in a food crawl, in between looking at colleges. Thanks to Lucky Peach, I’m itching to try Mapo Galbi. I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miles to Go Before I Sleep

still life icepack

Still life with icepack

Welcome, 2016, from my perch on the love seat in my sun room, where I lay, knee elevated and iced, following an ill-considered evening body circuit class at my neighborhood gym.

This isn’t a case of overzealous New Year’s resolution implementation. In fact, my resolutions, such that they are, are to 1) make peace with and enjoy the aging process; 2) try to eat whole foods and exercise every day; 3) not make a big deal about it if I don’t.

My current injury is the result of mixing things up a bit. Formerly a dedicated early morning exerciser, I’ve been having trouble bouncing out of bed at 5:30, as I did last year, to attend chilly and dark outdoor boot camp, or 6:00, as I’ve been doing this year, to swim at our grimy neighborhood pool. Frustrated at not “catching the worm” these first few days back at school and work, I decided to sleep in and give evening exercise a try.

Sleep has been eluding me. At the risk of oversharing, but in keeping with the truthful spirit and subject of this blog, I’ll confess that night sweats are keeping me awake. In a funny sort of role reversal, my “chill” husband and I remain temperature incompatible, only these nights he’s the one snuggled up under blankets and I’m the one who has thrown them off, as if sleeping in a tropical paradise.

Phyllis 2

When insomnia strikes, I know some say you should get out of bed and be productive, but the looming 6:00 a.m. alarm is a deterrent. Instead, I prefer reading. And in deference to the aforementioned chill husband, I read on my Kindle so I don’t wake him up.

This fall I happily read my way through the four books that comprise Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Stories. Once I had finished them, I was at a loss for what to read next. Though the Kindle was full of tantalizing possibilities, I just couldn’t commit to any one of them. Instead, I indulged in my favorite dorky night time habit — trolling the Kindle daily deals for a $1.99 book that would catch my fancy. I found it in former New York Times food writer Mimi Sheraton’s massive compendium, 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.

1,000 foods

Want to cure your insomnia? Try reading about baked calves’ brains with seasoned bread crumbs, apparently an Italian delicacy, or Ezra Tull’s gizzard soup (inspired by Hungarian bechinalt). Did you know the Swiss have cookies named for ladies’ thighs (one wonders how this was received by the wife of the chef who created them) or that schmaltz  (rendered poultry fat) used to be highly desirable? As desirable as wild pistachio tree sap, as a matter of fact.

The 1,000 page tome is arranged geographically, starting with Europe (broken down by language groups). Next comes  a transition section called “Jewish.” I read that section in early December and was inspired to bake my own bialys (Mimi Sheraton, who has a taste for interesting book projects, is also the author of The Bialy Eaters, and you can find her recipe for bialys at saveur.com).

bialys

Each sleepless night I bounced between disgust, boredom, fascination, and inspiration, as I made my way through the world of food. It won’t surprise you to know that the Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern section is one of my favorites in the book. It was there I discovered Ash-e-Anar, Persian Pomegranate soup. How had I overlooked that recipe in my copy of Louisa Shafia’s The New Persian Kitchen? Two nights before Christmas, as the wind and rain howled and hammered outside, four soothing, tangy bowls of this unctuous delight graced our dinner table.

pomegranate soup

I can’t say for sure, but I imagine  I slept like a baby that night.

Last night I was awakened at 3 am, not by night sweats, but by the pain in my knee. I knew I should ice and elevate it and take some more Ibuprofen, but my cat had just settled on top of me and I feared I would not be able to get down or back up our stairs.

So I turned to that guy with whom I made vows 20 years ago and whispered his name. He was snuggled up under the covers in a deep, untroubled sleep, but he instantly awoke and uncomplainingly went downstairs. He returned with Ibuprofen, water, an ice pack,  a towel, and pillows, then got back into bed and instantly fell back asleep. Must be nice.

As for me, I’m up to the Caribbean now. While I waited for the drugs to kick in, I read about callaloo, a spicy dish of stewed greens that apparently has the power to induce any man who eats it to propose to the woman who prepared it.

i-married-marge17

Pay careful attention to the vows

I believe in the power of food. I lured my man with mangoes. And tonight, I’ll soothe my throbbing knee and tired soul with Persian Pomegranate Soup. Later, if I can’t sleep, I have conch fritters and pina coladas to look forward to.

At the start of the new year, the Kindle Daily Deals were particularly good.  I scored Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, two books I’ve been longing to read. I took a break from my nighttime culinary roaming to read Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful, poignant memoir of marriage, friendship, and loss. The Light of the World features a few recipes from Ficre Ghebreyeus, Alexander’s Eritrean husband, who passed away unexpectedly at the age of 50. Realizing that she and her children must leave the home they’d shared with Ficre, Alexander turns to a recipe for comfort. Though Ficre is no longer there, she can make his spicy red lentil and tomato curry and retain a part of him, wherever she goes.

Ash-E-Anar (Pomegranate Soup) from The New Persian Kitchen by Louisa Shafia

serves 6-8

Soup:

3 T grapeseed oil ( I often use olive oil)

1/2 yellow onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 c split peas

1 t ground turmeric

2 t ground cumin

8 cups vegetable stock or water (I’ve used chicken stock)

1/2 c pomegranate molasses

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

seeds of 1 pomegranate

1 c thick Greek yogurt

Meatballs:

1/2 yellow onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 lb lean ground lamb (I’ve used ground turkey and ground pork)

2 T minced flat-leaf parsley

2T cilantro

2 T minced mint

2 t sea salt

To make soup, heat oil in a large pot and cook onion for 10 minutes, until it starts to brown. Add garlic, split peas, turmeric, cumin and stock and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, partially covered, for 1 1/2 hours, until legumes are tender and soup is slightly thick.

To make meatballs, combine all ingredients in a large bowl, then form into walnut-sized balls.

When split peas are tender, add pomegranate molasses to the pot, then drop in meatballs and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes, till they are cooked through.

Season soup with salt and pepper. Serve in bowls garnished with pomegranate seeds and yogurt.

Vegetarian option:

Follow recipe, omitting meatballs. Along with split peas, add 1/2 c lentils, 1/2 dried mung beans, 1/2 c pearled barley, and 1 large bee, peeled and diced. Use 12 cups stock or water. When beans and barley are tender, add pomegranate molasses and 1 bunch chopped cilantro.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laundry, Labneh and Lablabi

laundryThough it may be more satisfying when life imitates art, a person can derive a certain amount of pleasure when the equation goes the other way.

Art imitated life in a big way last month the night I returned home from a day that began at 4:30 a.m. and culminated in me having my gallbladder removed. There was the surgery prep, the surgery itself, of which I blissfully remember nothing, and the day spent in the hospital doing my utmost to pee out the copious fluids retained by my body so that I could go home.

Herman

They say hospitals are the great equalizer and it’s true that once you shed your clothes, don your scrubs and present your arm to have blood drawn, you could be anybody. Looking around the waiting room in the pre-dawn hours, I detected no racial, age or socio- economic divides. Those of us slated to go under the knife sat nervously surrounded by our loved ones, who looked even more nervous than we did. When the nurse called the name of the African-American mother sitting nearby in the waiting room, whose husband had chosen that minute to run back down to the parking garage, we shared a knowing look. What was she supposed to do with her son, old enough to sit by himself for a few minutes, but perhaps nervous that his mom was having surgery?

Later, I heard that woman cracking jokes in the anesthesia corral, a jolly circular set-up where we pre-opees sat behind curtains meeting our surgeons and anesthesiologists, donning our lunch lady-like surgical caps and getting our IV portals installed, amidst the cheerful banter between staff and patients.

anesthesiologist

I’d been told that surgeons are not known for their bedside manner, and in fact, what you really want is someone with nerves of steel, not a good personality. But, having never had surgery before,  I wanted a surgeon with a stellar reputation who I’d also be comfortable with. Selecting Mr. Right gave me a taste of what online dating must be like, but with much higher stakes. I  wanted my surgeon to be interested in more than just my body; I wanted him to think of me as a person. (I’ve since been advised that it’s better for surgeons to have laser focus on the job at hand, rather than getting distracted thinking about the person they are cutting open).

Must love dogs

Must love dogs

My post-surgery hospital roommate was a well-bred woman of a certain age in the midst of what she called a “clusterfuck.” A planned procedure, for which she had fasted, had been postponed and now she was trapped hungrily alone in the hospital with no idea when her test would be conducted. “They overbooked the operating rooms,” she complained to a friend on the phone, adding, “with gallbladder surgeries.” Had the woman been younger, this would have been the perfect opportunity for her to use the “vocal fry,” the new female speech phenomenon that’s currently getting lots of attention.

“I’m dying for an iced latte,” we heard her lament to her friend, “but they won’t let me leave my room to go get one.” Despite her gallbladder-inspired resentment, we decided to be the bigger people. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing,” Jeff said gallantly, pulling away the curtain that divided us. “I’d be happy to buy you a latte.”

As the day wore on and her latte kicked in, she was cheering me on every time I attempted to pee. When finally, I’d produced enough liquid to earn my release and was triumphantly getting dressed, she spied my trusty old black Dansko sandals, which I’ve learned over the years inspire cult-like loyalty, “I have those sandals! I love them!

danskos

Women’s shoes, another great equalizer

Exhausted after a long day and loopy on medication, I returned home to test-drive my gallbladder-free digestive system with blueberry pancakes, while watching Orange is the New Black, which does a great job of illustrating prison as a great equalizer. And that, my friends, is when I laughed so hard my incisions ached, my abdominal muscles ached, everything ached but I kept on laughing anyway.

SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T YET FINISHED SEASON 3: What are the odds that the night you return home from gallbladder surgery, you’ll watch an episode featuring a back story about the illegal trading of bear gallbladders on the Chinese black market? What are the odds that the concluding scene of the show would feature a scene in which henchmen, having beaten someone to a bloody pulp, would turn to their mistress and ask, ” What else should we do to him?”

chang gallbladder

Needless to say, I appreciated my deft and gentle surgeon, who really does have a nice personality, though when I told him about this funny coincidence at my post-op visit, he said “I’m not familiar with that show.” Barring any complications, he told me we would not be seeing each other again.

rose

In the weeks before the surgery, I’d delighted in cooking Lebanese dishes from Maureen Abood’s book Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, my pre-surgery present to myself. Can a person ever have too many Za’atar Roasted Tomatoes or too much Butter Lettuce with Walnut Vinaigrette?  I think not.

Home recuperating in a post-op haze during the first of Seattle’s summer heat waves, I wanted to take the opportunity to cook. Dork that I am, I’ve long been looking forward to a block of unfettered time so that I could make labneh, which is basically just Greek yogurt strained so that the whey is removed, yielding what some refer to as cheese and others call dip. It really doesn’t take much attention, just time.

IMG_0719

Maureen Abood has a recipe in her book, which goes into some detail about the different methods of straining yogurt, yielding different consistencies and products. David Lebovitz has one too and so does Food 52. I made a hybrid of the three, though omitted the lemon juice suggested by Food 52. The whey accumulating in the bottom of the bowl as the yogurt strained made a good conversation piece.

Jeff and I had recently been to a Seattle restaurant with great outdoor seating (a rarity here). When he ordered a whiskey sour, he was told somewhat pretentiously we thought, that instead of the usual egg whites you find in deluxe whiskey sours (that’s not the way our indomitable Auntie Julia taught us to make them), the restaurant made theirs with whey leftover from their homemade yogurt. He decided to have a beer instead. When it arrived, I pointed to the substantial head of foam floating on top and suggested it was revenge whey. 

IMG_0720

IMG_0721

While I had time on my hands, I also decided to make Lablabi, from a Wall Street Journal article I’ve been saving for the past four years. It was nurturing and good, but made me contemplate the road not taken. Recipe horder that I am, why hadn’t I been smart enough to come up with the idea of writing a weekly food blog featuring recipes I’d clipped from newspapers and magazines, like that smart and now famous Wednesday Chef?

The rest of the time I did laundry, my favorite chore, in a fruitless attempt to help Daughter #2 deal with her “floordrobe” and lay in the hammock reading.

I knew my recuperation was over the night I had to jump into the intrepid, indestructible old minivan to rescue Jeff, whose newer, fancier ride had conked out.  And just like that, life returned to normal.

In the wake of the broken foot and the gallbladder liberation, I’m feeling kind of like that minivan these days. My foot hurts, my side tweaks and… (you Jimmy Buffett fans can fill in the blank).  But as I get back into the swing of things and try to figure out what kind of exercise I can do, I’m fully confident I’ll be roaring again soon.

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. 

Of Kimchi and Colonoscopies

50 Between-Friends Among my New Year’s resolutions were to get my physical health in order and publish this blog once a month. Mammogram – check. Annual (or, in my case biennial or triennial, but I am turning over a new leaf) physical exam  – check. Colonoscopy – ummm…. Blog – ummm…

It’s January 31, so I am getting this blog in just under the wire.

As for the colonoscopy… Should you be inclined to use the search term colonoscopy on Google, or better yet, colonoscopy humor, all roads will eventually lead to a piece written by Dave Barry in 2008. If you search Google images, you’ll find Dave Barry’s colonoscopy certificate. Dave Barry cert There’s also a Dave Barry colonoscopy hit on You Tube, but I felt had taken my research far enough and didn’t need to peek any further into Mr. Barry’s particulars. Nor did I search for Katie Couric’s groundbreaking televised colonoscopy on the Today show.  But I revisited my favorite piece about colonoscopies, written by HuffPo’s Ann Brenoff, Me, Bruce, And a Colonoscopy. I admire and envy anybody who can have a colonoscopy in the morning and go to a Springsteen concert that night.

I remember how shocked I was when Bruce appeared on the cover of AARP magazine.

I remember how shocked I was when Bruce appeared on the cover of AARP magazine. Farewell, my youth.

Come to think of it, Born to Run isn’t a bad title for a blog about colonoscopies.

My friend Peggy, who writes a weekly column for our neighborhood newspaper, wrote an amusing account of her colonoscopy. Peggy, being Peggy, made friends with everyone involved in the process and then went out for a nice big breakfast afterwards. During my mammogram, at the most uncomfortable moment of breast compression, the tech started chatting about Peggy. I have a feeling her name will come up during my upcoming rectal moment of truth.

Everybody loves Peggy.

Everybody loves Peggy.

Dave Barry ‘s point about being a grownup made me reflect that it takes a few years to get the hang of being in one’s fifties. First there’s the initial shock, and then maybe some element of denial. You look and feel pretty much the same, everybody thinks you’re still in your forties, so it’s as if the decade shift never happened.

Without getting into personal details, women have a harder time sustaining this level of denial than men. But still, if we exercise regularly and figure out how to straddle the fashion line, dressing stylishly in a not-too-young, not-too-old way, we can chug along looking, acting and feeling exactly the same as we have for years.

The fact that I’ve spent so much time grappling over colonoscopies is a sign, I think, that I’ve begun a mental shift towards a different stage of adulthood.

In addition to a growing acceptance that you can’t defy aging, so you might as well make peace with it, there are two reasons for this:

1) Daughters #1 and #2 recently turned 16 and 14. These are my prime dispensing-of-parental-wisdom years. As I’ve been writing this on my laptop, D#1 has been sitting beside me on her laptop, filling out her first job application. Somehow, it comes in handy to be a fifty-something mom, a bit further removed from my youth, explaining the ways of the world. Our daughters think Jeff and I are impossibly square, even though they know bits and pieces of our checkered youth. “What do you think I was like as a teenager,” I asked D #1 last night, after she finished disparaging her dad for his innocent hippie youth. “I don’t know,” she said. “I know you wore flannel shirts and marijuana t-shirts, which is hard to believe since you’re so strict about what I wear.”

It seems so innocent now.

It seems so innocent now.

I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Starbucks for explicitly stating on their application that employees are forbidden from having blue, pink or green hair, visible tattoos and unusual piercings. As D #1 would say, “Snap!”

The writer Elizabeth Gilbert, still a kid at 45, recently posted a great piece on Facebook, which has been making the rounds among my mom friends. In Defense of Teenagers is just the kind of old-soul wisdom you can dispense once you’ve made the mental shift towards remembering your youth, but no longer living it.

Over New Year’s D#1 and I sat side-by-side in front of a fireplace, taking turns reading chapters from Pam Houston’s Cowboys are My Weakness, one of the many books that saved me during periods of young woman despair. As I considered that book through my daughter’s eyes, I loved having the distance from, yet retaining the memory of, my confused younger self.

2) I work in an office where the employees range in age from mid-20s to early 70s. It reminds me of those number lines, when my kids were learning whole numbers, negative numbers and decimals. As someone currently smack dab in the center of the number line, I’m constantly enlightened and amused by my colleagues up and down the continuum.

The other fifty-something women in the office cackled at me when they heard that I have not yet gone through menopause (I felt like I was the only one who hadn’t yet gotten a drivers license), while our late-20s female colleague looked on in shock and amusement.

Twice in two days, when reviewing our website with younger colleagues and learning that they wanted less text and more visuals, I channeled Amy Poehler in Mean Girls. Amy Poehler I learned a lot about colonoscopies from a colleague nearly a decade younger than I am, who has been having regular screenings because of a family history of colorectal cancer. I love talking about Calvin Trillin and Art Buchwald and the optimism of the Great Society with the avuncular founder of the center where I work, and talking about where I was the day Elvis Presley died to colleagues who weren’t yet born.

Kimchi may be the generational glue that ties us together.

Here in Seattle, it’s become an artisan food item. I got interested in kimchi because I’d read that fermented foods help prevent belly bloat and contribute to optimal health. Some Korean kimchi was too strong for me. I decided to see what hipster kimchee was all about. FullSizeRender This set me off on a full-fledged, contagious kimchi kick. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff, eating it for breakfast over rice or oatmeal with splashes of soy sauce and sesame oil and a poached egg on top. My family laughed at me and then they got into the act. These days, when Daughter #2 rejects what we’re having for dinner, or is looking for comfort food, she turns to kimchi. Kimchi, eggs and rice has replaced pizza as a Friday night dinner staple.

At the suggestion of one of my colleagues (I work with several kimchi aficionados), I tried Britt’s Black Market Kimchi, making it a stocking stuffer for Jeff at Christmas (this required me to hide it in the refrigerator, sneak downstairs on Christmas morning to put it in his stocking and then make sure we didn’t forget to refrigerate it once holiday frenzy got underway.) The jar was finished by Boxing Day eve.

The crotchety old lady in me sometime rolls my eyes because, though I appreciate its quality and variety, kimchi, like almost everything else these days, is now a “thing.” And that’s where I turn to the wisdom of my elder Calvin Trillin.

Before a recent trip to Memphis, I read a piece Trillin wrote in 1985  for the New Yorker about Memphis barbecue. Would barbecue, he worried, “cross the chili line” and go from being a regional speciality to a commercialized caricature of its authentic self? I fear for the future of kimchi. But I’m happy to say that the barbecue I ate earlier this month in Memphis was authentic and down-to-earth and delicious. The music was great. And timeless. BealeOne last thing about the joys of cavorting with folks at various points on the age continuum. The other night, Jeff and I had dinner with two fifty-something friends, one of whom Jeff has known since high school. We dined at the Walrus and the Carpenter, our neighborhood oyster bar, which has received national acclaim and can be hard to get in to, unless it’s early on a rainy, weekday winter evening.

Last to arrive, I had rushed over from work and was pleased to find a huge platter of oysters already on the table and a glass of Muscadet awaiting me. As I settled into relaxation mode, I became aware of the music that was playing —an eclectic mix of 60s and 70s tunes straight from my youth. There were the obvious ones, e.g. Whiter Shade of Pale, and some not-so-obvious one-hit wonders (remember Brandi and Dream Weaver?). Who, I wondered, had put this playlist together?  I asked to see the man behind the music, expecting someone around my age.

He wasn’t a kid, but he was a good fifteen years younger than my table mates and me. “How did you come up with this mix,” I asked him. “I’m just really interested in music; all genres, all eras.” He invited me to follow him on Spotify, which I did and I subscribed to several of his playlists, not just the “Walrus Classic” that was representative of my youth.

This is the year I’ll finally get my colonoscopy. I’m making the phone call on Monday, though maybe I’ll check first to see whether Bruce has any upcoming tour dates before I schedule it and if Peggy is free for breakfast. And maybe I’ll make a colonoscopy playlist, featuring 50 years of music.

P.S. D#2 just told me she’s having kimchi and peanuts for dinner.

Plenty More

kitchen wall

For years Jeff and I remarked, not unhappily, that we were in a rut. We had the work/kid/life thing figured out, with occasional grumbling from me about being bored and occasional grumbling from Jeff about his long commute. Life had a humdrum predictable pattern, though we were lucky to take a few spectacular trips along the way, whose effects lingered for several months afterwards. On the walls of our kitchen hang photographs, often askew, of food scenes from Turkey. One of these days the Spain photos will make it up there too.

I remembered Jeff’s sister, some years ago, calling their dad and stepmother one evening in Michigan. No one answered the phone. My sister-in-law was shocked. “Where could they be?” she worried. “They are always home.”

Jeff and I were becoming similarly predictable.

Grant_Wood_-_American_Gothic_-_Google_Art_Project

I didn’t realize at the time that the acquisition of our dog 2 1/2 years ago signaled the beginning of the end of the rut, or that the transformation of our lives would pick up speed like a snowball heading downhill.

In early October, the girls and I accompanied Jeff to the Adams River in the interior of British Columbia to witness the “Salute to the Sockeye,” the festival that celebrates the salmon run that is dominant there every four years. We’d been there four years earlier and had seen an impressive array of red, misshapen spawning salmon, along with the carcasses of salmon once their procreation was complete.

Adams 2010

To be honest, we female members of the family didn’t want to make the trip. I was about to start a new job and was concerned about not having a break between my old job, the contract project I was currently working on and my new gig, which would start the day after we returned from fish gazing.  The girls had a “been there, done that” attitude about this salmon phenomenon, something most people in the world never get to see and which is near and dear to their father’s, (a former salmon fisherman) heart.

But Jeff put the importance of this foray into compelling perspective. “This is the last time we’ll all be together to make this trip,” he reminded me. “Four years from now, Daughter #1 will be away at college.”

Can it be possible I’ve been writing this blog for four years? I mentioned our 2010 Adams River trip in a post I wrote about my fleeting obsession with fish oil and the constant role salmon has played in my married life.

Naturally we compared our 2010 trip with what we experienced in 2014. I packed many of the same clothes, (though their fit was admittedly more snug) and we visited all the same haunts. Though, coincidentally, we made both trips the same weekend in early October, in 2010 the river was swollen and red with fish. This year, it was too early in the season. We could tell that the fish were on their way, but had to content ourselves with viewing the leaders of the pack.

Adams 2014

In 2010, D #1 had just started middle school and our evenings were dominated by math homework.

teenager posts math

We’d mentioned to her math teacher that we were making the Adams River trip. “I grew up around there,” he told us nostalgically. “My grandfather had land overlooking the river.” It didn’t stop him from piling on the homework.

This year, things were different, yet the same. This time it was Daughter #2 who was plagued by homework, working each evening to interpret the themes of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. 

On the second day of the trip we hiked up a steep path to enjoy a view of a broad expanse of the river. There were people at the top of the hill and I was somewhat surprised that when Jeff and I reached them, they greeted us in more than just a cursory fashion. There was D #1’s 6th grade math teacher and his girlfriend, her 8th grade math teacher. I chuckled to myself as we made small talk, wondering what D#1’s reaction would be when she reached the top of the hill and saw them.

“I’ve been wanting to make this trip ever since you told me about it four years ago,” said the 6th grade teacher. He gestured toward the land we were headed towards, overlooking the river. “That was my grandfather’s land.”

I couldn’t resist pointing out that our 2010 experience had been marred by the sheer volume and difficulty of the weekend math homework he’d assigned, but he didn’t take the bait. And I’m happy to report that D#1, who has grown up a lot in these past four years, was practically poised when she encountered these two banes of her middle school experience.

We returned home, I started my new job and the dishwasher broke, just as the refrigerator had broken when I’d started my previous job the year before.

How do appliances know the most inconvenient times to break?

How do appliances know the most inconvenient times to break?

We dealt with it, a little more collaboratively than we had handled the refrigerator fiasco, I’m happy to report.

Some days I managed to work all day and easily get dinner on the table, including this surprisingly easy, satisfying healthy one bowl meal. Other days were catch-as-catch can. I brought out the Crockpot and the pressure cooker and bought a new fancy rice cooker that is the same size as our dog.

rice cooker

 

 

Harbinger of change.

The construction in our neighborhood continued, double-time. Three houses that were there when I left for work one morning were gone by the time I returned home in the evening.

One bittersweet weekend, my next-door neighbor Steve and I looked at the muddy pit, where our neighbor Bill’s house and the neighborhood tree house used to be. Tim down the street, just a few years older than us, had died, Steve told me. A few days ago, the large birch tree on Steve’s property was taken down, in preparation for Steve’s departure and eventual construction of a new, ugly, expensive multi-unit building. My neighborhood is changing and for now, we will be one single-family house surrounded by condos.

Bill's house

My friend Peggy wrote a beautiful elegy for our changing neighborhood and my street. Paseo, our favorite neighborhood Cuban sandwich shop abruptly closed down and it dominated the media and conversation for days. “Let the healing begin,” says the Seattle Times, which has just published this recipe, so Paseo devotees can try and recreate the magic at home.

One particularly fraught day, when work ran long and dinner didn’t get made, the mail didn’t arrive until 9:30 at night (postal service cuts). And there was the copy of Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Plenty More, which I had pre-ordered months before. Though I don’t have nearly as much time to revel in cooking as I have for the past 15 years, I took that book to bed with me and read it cover to cover. Yotam Ottolenghi talks about the way his cooking style and philosophy have changed in the years since he published Plenty.

The possibilities are endless.

The possibilities are endless.

We’re in the midst of some more changes now, which are causing a shake-up in our perspective and the fear and excitement that come with uncertainty. Jeff and I are gaining a greater appreciation for the lives we’ve lived individually, within this life we’ve built together. We are no longer in a rut, or at least not the same rut.

I’m revisiting my philosophy about change. For years, I could rely on the Foreign Service to create change for me, every two or so years, with a new assignment, a new country to live in, a new job, a new house, new friends. Jeff, who grew up as a vagabond and was a vagabond when I met him, sometimes marvels that we’ve lived in the same house for nearly 20 years and held the same jobs for nearly 15.

“You can never step in the same river twice,” wrote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who believed that change is central to the universe. I used that line once, in a speech  I wrote for then-Vice President Al Gore, who was traveling to the Nile River. I was young then and I’m not sure I fully understood its meaning, but I thought it added a certain panache to the speech.

Rivers are always flowing. People and circumstances are always changing.

Four years from now, even if I can still fit into the same clothes and one or both of our daughters is still overburdened with homework, the Adams River won’t be the same river and the four of us will have changed too.

Tonight, at least, the possibilities are endless. Will I try out the Paseo recipe? Or will I make Yotam Ottolenghi’s Iranian Vegetable Stew with Dried Lime? Eggplant Kuku and Crushed Puy Lentils with Tahini and Cumin are calling my name.

Even if I don’t get to them soon, it’s nice to know that whatever’s going on in life, there’s plenty more to look forward to.

 

 

 

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?

lucy-ricardo

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.

hammock

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

Homer-Simpson-wingnuts-doh

Today is my birthday.

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

Self-indulgent?

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.

plums

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.