Monday, Monday

Blah, blah; blah blah blah blah

Blah, blah; blah blah blah blah

Last Monday was a dreary day and I just couldn’t kick it in gear.  Keepers of family tradition might know what I’m talking about.  No sooner are the Thanksgiving leftovers put away, then the December holiday season ramps up with a vengeance.  Suddenly it’s the beginning of Advent (which we take seriously in our household) and time to order the holiday photo cards and calendars while Snapfish still has them on sale. Far-flung family members (who have also probably been caught by surprise) request Christmas wish lists via early morning and late night texts and the holiday pressure mounts.

HolidayEatingFrenzy

I had spent the rainy Sunday evening before happily peeling and chopping a leftover Thanksgiving pumpkin for a Turkish pumpkin soup while listening to the audio version of Salman Rushdie‘s new book Joseph Anton. I know some critics have said that the book falls prey to excessive name-dropping and self-promotion, but I haven’t  gotten there yet.  I am reveling in Rushdie’s evocative portrait of the artist as a young man. I find this book riveting.

So I should have been soothed and intellectually sated come Monday, but I wasn’t.  All day I lacked inspiration.  I decided to turn things around by preparing Marcella Hazen’s Braised Artichokes and Potatoes.

Essentials-of-Classic-Italian-Cooking-Hazan-Marcella-9780394584041

To be fair, Marcella Hazen probably didn’t decide to cook this on a day when she had inadvertently double-booked herself to drive in two different carpools at the same time on opposite ends of the city at rush hour.

And I’m fairly certain that she didn’t have to pee while embarking  on the elaborate trimming protocol required to ensure that the artichokes are silky and tender and melt in your mouth.

I think of myself as possessing a reasonable amount of self-awareness, so, even though I was rushing to get the artichokes braising so they would be ready for D#2 to eat and digest before departing for basketball practice, I’m not sure why I didn’t take the time to pee before trimming. Years of traveling and living in the developing world, where the facilities have sometimes been of dubious hygienic quality, have made me a rapid peer of Olympic caliber. The bathroom at the Shalimar Gardens in Srinigar, circa 1987 remains etched in my memory, yet I traveled seemingly the whole of Cost Rica, circa 2006, in search of a dirty bathroom and couldn’t find one.

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But I digress.

The potatoes in the dish did indeed melt in our mouths, the artichokes, due to my hasty preparation, less so. But we enjoyed our dinner, which was accompanied by a pork tenderloin that I’d had the foresight to brine on that mellow Sunday night following the simple recipe from the Zuni Cafe cookbook.  If you remember nothing else, remember this:  Use Zuni’s wet brine, or something like it, whenever you plan to roast pork.  Use the Zuni Cafe dry brine recipe for roast turkey. You can screw up every other part of the meal and people will love you anyway if you follow these two meat preparations. Also, bring a sarong with you wherever you travel.  It can be helpful when you have to pee on the fly.

It was pouring on Tuesday and still lacking inspiration, I took our puppy Kobe for a very long walk.  A few blocks from home, C.S., a woman I hadn’t seen for a long time drove by and waved.  Then she pulled a U-turn and came back to tell me how much she had loved my blog post about the importance of pets. I hadn’t been aware she knew about, much less read my blog. “I’m so happy there are writers to help us make sense of our lives, ” she told me.

The week was looking up.

Buoyed by C.S., I decided to seek inspiration from other writers.  There was “I Want My Daughters Back,” a John Blumenthal essay on Huffington Post about the melancholy of the empty-nester, that made me temporarily appreciate the vicissitudes of life with Daughters #1 and #2.  There was the song “Same Love” by Seattle’s own Macklemore, a rousing rallying cry for supporters of same-sex marriage, which this week became officially legal in my home state of Washington. (If you have fifteen minutes to spare, watch the link to the NPR Tiny Desk concert with Macklemore, which I’ve posted at the end of this blog entry).

Image: Dow Constantine

There was this song by Shayna Cram, a young Foreign Service officer serving in Peshawar, Pakistan, who was inspired by  Malala Yousufzai, the teenage Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban after advocating education for girls.

And there was a long run on a surprisingly crisp and clear Saturday with Joseph Anton echoing in my ears. That night we dined on Joan Nathan’s potato latkes

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and played dreidel with our wooden dreidel that seems weighted so that everyone except Jeff always gets Nun.

Liked my braised artichokes, the night wasn’t perfect, but, it was a pretty good ending to the week.

On blah days and weeks, perhaps the writer who provides the best much-needed perspective is Judith Viorst, author of an impressive canon of work, including Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. 

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Sometimes you just have to roll with a bad day or a blah week, because, to paraphrase Alexander, some days/weeks are just like that.

Even in Australia.

Happy Monday to all and to all a good week.

Braised Artichokes and Potatoes

2 large globe artichokes

1/2 lemon

1 pound potatoes, peeled (though I didn’t) and chopped into 3/4 inch wedges

1/3 cup chopped onion

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

salt, fresh ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley

1/4 cup water

Follow artichokes preparation directions in the above link, but do yourself a favor and go to the bathroom first.

Heat oil in pan and saute onions on medium heat until translucent.  Add garlic and cook until gold.  Add potatoes, artichoke wedges and stems, salt, pepper and parsley and stir two or three times.

Add 1/4 cup water, adjust heat to simmer and cover saute pan tightly. Cook until tender (approximately 40 minutes), adding a few tablespoons of water, if necessary.  Taste and add salt, if necessary.

NPR Tiny Desk Concert with Macklemore

An Historic Day in Washington

Zen

Our dear hamster Zen passed away a few days prior to Thanksgiving. Her death was not unexpected; we’d been on hamster death watch since August, when the ravages of old age were beginning to show, and on high alert for most of November, as she slowed down and eventually became paralyzed.

Zen’s death was the first we’d experienced since the death of my mother, in February 2010.  Just as we had with my mother, we observed Zen eventually stop eating and had to coax her to drink.  In her final hours, just as we had with my mother, we took our iPod and played the songs she’d loved, while telling her how much we loved her and what she had meant to us.  My mother’s play list:  the Israel Kamakawiwo’ole version of “Hawaii Aloha,” Madama Butterfly, Camelot and “Stardust,” sung by Willie Nelson, because that’s the only version I could find on iTunes.  Zen’s playlist:  Sean Kingston’s “Dumb Love,”  Ed Sheeren’s “The A Team,”  and Bruno Mars’ “Count on Me.”

We went out in the pouring rain and buried Zen in the “kitty arbor,” where three cats and one bird rest beneath a pieris japonica plant and a statue of a sleeping cat.

There’s a wonderful David Sedaris essay (which I mentioned in a previous post about dogs) called Youth In Asia that, among other things, talks about how the pets in our lives mark the passage of time.

Zen was Daughter #1’s fifth grade graduation gift.  Now as D#1 prepares to go to high school, it feels as if the last vestiges of her little girlhood are fading away. As we tour prospective schools, she is feeling the pressure of PSATs, SATs, leaving some of the friends she’s gone to school with since kindergarten and contemplating college and beyond.  I used to say that our kids’ remaining time living with us was equivalent to the lifespan of a guinea pig.  Suddenly, for Daughter #1, it’s dwindled to the lifespan of a healthy hamster.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many of my friends from New Jersey posted updates on Facebook about the havoc wreaked by the storm, including how they had coped with power outages.  One of the most heartfelt updates came from my high school friend S., who included this picture:

This is her turtle Speedy, wearing the sweater S. made to ward her off from the cold while the power was out. S. says she also held Speedy over a steaming pot of boiling water, but reassured her that it was for warmth, not turtle soup.

Speedy has lived with S. for more than forty years.  When we were young and S and her family went on vacation, I used to feed Speedy cantaloupe and watch her slowly make her way around S.’s house.

Speedy has been a constant in S.’s life, and, I guess by extension, mine. Though S. and I haven’t seen each other since we were in college, the fact that she still has Speedy is a reminder that she is still the person I knew and loved.  Speedy brings back fond memories of S.’s and my mostly happy high school years.

I wanted to do something special for Daughter #1 to acknowledge the loss of her pet.  Quiet, gentle, bookish, artistic and dreamy, D#1’s feelings are sometimes overshadowed by the loud and harsh realities of everyday life.

I decided that after Zen’s funeral we would have lemon curd, something D#1, adores almost as much as she enjoys Britishisms. (In a recent report she did on British cuisine, D#1, who has an excellent sense of humor and a firm grasp of the inner workings of the middle school mind, decided to steer clear of mentioning “spotted dick.”).

Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s a steamed pudding with currants.

When she was little and couldn’t pronounce the letter L, D#1 would refer to the tangy marriage of lemons, butter and eggs as yemon curd.  Other little kids, who had trouble pronouncing her multi-syllabic name, sometimes referred to her as Lemony. For birthdays she enjoyed the Lemon Butter Cake with Fresh Strawberries and Butter Cream from our friend Leslie Mackie’s Macrina Bakery and Cafe Cookbook and my favorite White Chocolate Whisper Cake, featuring lemon curd and raspberry preserves.  You can find that recipe in Leslie’s new book More From Macrina.  I am the “fellow soccer mom” mentioned on page 169, who enjoyed the cake on my fortieth birthday.

So even though I was up to my ears in Thanksgiving preparations, I took a breather from pies, turkey stock and the cranberry- pomegranate sauce from Food and Wine magazine that will now be a staple in my Thanksgiving repertoire and I made lemon curd, using David Lebovitz’s recipe. We ate it with shortbread cookies while watching an episode of Modern Family to cheer us up.

I don’t know if we will get another hamster, though, if we do, we agreed a few years ago while vacationing in Turkey to name it Suleiman the Magnificant (there is some back-pedaling about that agreement now).

The advice about high school I would give Daughter #1 comes from the immortal words of Bob Marley:

Finally, in the immortal words of Jon Stewart, here it is, your moment of Zen (and Speedy’s brush with fame):

As the holiday roller coaster speeds up, we could all use a few moments of Zen.  I finally took some time to collect all the recipes on this site onto one page and also to provide some information about my forthcoming book. It was kind of relaxing. You’ll find both of these pages at the top of the site.  

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Mom

For seven years I have facilitated a mother-daughter book group, established when Daughter #1 was in second grade.  We started the group because the first signs of girl bullying were beginning to surface in the classroom, and so we gathered every girl in the class together on a Saturday to discuss the book The Hundred Dresses.

Over the years, the group has shifted from school-based to home-based and the membership has waxed and waned.  It’s now comprised of a core group of avid readers, young and not-so-young, who have discussed everything from race relations in the South during the early1960s to dystopian societies of the future; dysfunctional and functional families; the complexities of mother-daughter relationships; and girl power:  extraordinary and ordinary.

Our most recent book was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which was followed by a group outing to see the film.  The main character, who is a freshman in high school, deals with SPOILER ALERT suicide, depression, molestation, abortion, drugs and gay bashing, in addition to the typical emotional highs and lows of adolescence.

The girls, all but one of whom are in eighth grade, chose the book because they wanted to see the movie. Daughter #1, the first of her peers to read it, found it unexpectedly depressing.  “I can’t believe that the main character is one year older than me,” she said.  So I starting reading the book. I found it riveting because it captured many of my own high school experiences (especially the Rocky Horror Picture Show obsession).

Did you read Catcher in the Rye, Go Ask Alice, Girl, Interrupted or Ordinary People?  Depressing stories of depressed teenagers are nothing new (and Perks was actually written in 1991).  But there’s a moment in the book, and also in the film, in which the main character is riding in a truck with newfound friends and a song comes on, the perfect song.  He describes the way he feels as “infinite.”

A few days after I finished the book, there was knock on my door. A neighbor wanted me to know that the police had been called because one of the inhabitants of my house had broken into her house and set off the alarm. I looked at my charge, whom I still think of as young and innocent, and didn’t want to believe it could be true.

Hadn’t I spent years instilling good values?

He broke in through the cat door, stole some food and beat up my neighbor’s cat.

At the beginning of the school year, a group of ninth-graders in my neighborhood allegedly stole a parent’s car, sped down a neighborhood avenue and hit a parked car, which mercifully protected them from the telephone pole behind it. The owners of the smashed car left it there for weeks with a note on it and on the telephone pole, the gist of which was:  “Dear Kids, If you’ve come to see the results of your accident, know that we are glad you are okay.  Please take care of each other.”

I took Daughters #1 and #2 to see the smashed car and the note.  “I can’t believe the kids who did this are one year older than me,” said Daughter #1.

There were apparently marijuana-laced brownies at the middle school Halloween dance and whiffs of other pot rumors have been floating in the air. (Yes, I do live in Washington State, where we’ve just legalized recreational marijuana, but not for middle-schoolers).

My daughters and I watched a few episodes of My So-Called Life.  It was depressing to watch fifteen-year-old Angela Chase struggle with questions of identity, which involved sneaking out of the house and having confusing experiences, before returning home, usually miserable and defeated, yet sometimes grateful to be back in her mother’s orbit.

Late one Saturday night, my puppy, who is perfecting his watchdog skills, spied movement at the abandoned home of our recently deceased neighbor. As he barked, teenagers came spilling out of the house and scattered into the alley.  I wondered whether I should call the police.  There are so few abandoned houses anymore, as there were in my youth, and this one is likely to soon be replaced with a modern duplex. My guess is that the kids inside were feeling infinite.

The other mothers were as riveted by The Perks of Being a Wallflower as I was.  We discussed whether the book was too depressing for our daughters and C, who may sometimes be forgetful, but is always wise, said “Better for us to introduce these topics then for them to learn about them elsewhere.”

When our group came to discuss the book, we mothers told carefully chosen stories about ourselves in high school. The girls were fascinated.  “I can’t believe you’re telling us this,” said the daughter of the formerly raucous Catholic school girl, who became an emergency room nurse.  “We weren’t always the way you see us now,” we told them.  “We grew up.”

There is a scene at the end of the film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower in which one of the characters, who has been away at college, tells the high school protagonist what he has to look forward to:  “The world gets so much bigger,” she says.

Our daughters liked the film, but they were equally impressed with the art house theater where we saw it. It was the first time any of them had seen a film in a venue so funky and cool.

Their worlds will get so much bigger and I am glad they will have moments when they feel infinite.

I just hope they will take care of each other when they do.

For most of my high school years, I felt infinite at the Jersey Shore, specifically the boardwalk at Seaside Heights. My heart goes out to everyone who was affected by Hurricane Sandy, especially the inhabitants of my former home state.  Please continue to take care of each other.

I won’t pretend that I’m not apprehensive about the looming parenting challenges, but I have found one sure-fire method to bind the family together:  potatoes. Specifically, the Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook.  No matter how angry or uncommunicative or hormonal anyone gets, these potatoes bring them around, even me, a rice aficionado, who has never been a fan of making or eating mashed potatoes. These mashed potatoes are tangy and comforting without being too decadent.  Anyway, sometimes it’s important to ignore the glycemic index in the interest of family harmony.

Here’s the recipe:

Zuni Cafe Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes (serves four, but I always double it to serve four)

1 1/4 lbs. peeled potatoes (I use Yukon Gold), cut into chunks

Salt

2-3 T heavy cream (you can also use milk or half-and-half), warmed

2-3 T buttermilk at room temperature

3T melted unsalted butter

1. Boil the potatoes with salt until tender.

2. Drain and mash, while piping hot and then add hot cream, followed by buttermilk.  Finish by adding butter.

3. Mash vigorously and add salt to taste.

4. Enjoy your family.

Vanity: The Thyroid Chronicles, Part II

from sketchfu.com

By now you may have heard of “The Mom Stays in the Picture,” Allison Slater Tate’s manifesto that we mothers shouldn’t hide behind the camera because we are ashamed of our post-baby bodies and the ravages of aging.

“Our sons need to see how young and beautiful and human their mamas were. Our daughters need to see us vulnerable and open and just being ourselves — women, mamas, people living lives.

“When I look at pictures of my own mother, I don’t look at cellulite or hair debacles. I just see her — her kind eyes, her open-mouthed, joyful smile, her familiar clothes. That’s the mother I remember.” 

Juxtaposed with this, I read a piece on the Huffington Post on why feeling pretty after 50 is important.

What still confuses me, and what I want to explore in my thoughts, conversations and writing, is what aging gracefully means to me.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t dress a whole lot differently than I did at sixteen and, truth be told, I don’t look a whole lot different either.  So when I have to grapple with things like that roll of fat around the middle that just won’t go away

I’m not sure whether to fight it, accept it or make peace with it and figure out how to deal with it.

“It’s inevitable. You’re getting older,” sighed my Ob/Gyn.  “It may be the perfect storm of perimenopausal hormones and glycemic sensitivity,” said my new general practitioner, who spent a full hour talking with me and listening to my concerns. “Try shaving two or three hundred calories off your daily intake each day, change your exercise routine and give yourself six months to lose ten pounds.”

My first round of thyroid tests were normal and though I don’t yet have the results of my second round of blood work, I assume those tests will also be normal.

That’s a good thing.  Though I was anxious for a concrete answer to the changes in my body and rightfully vigilant of the impact of the steroid injections I’d received, I’m glad there’s nothing wrong with me and that I won’t have to be on medication for the rest of my life.

But because I’m not ready to throw in the towel when it comes to my tumultuous tummy, at the doctor’s suggestion, I became familiar with the glycemic index, which measures the impact on blood sugar levels in the body after eating certain foods. If you feel bloated after eating pasta and wonder whether the glycemic index could be the greatest thing since sliced bread, check out the glycemic index website put together by the University of Sydney, which among other things, maintains the international glycemic index database of a wide variety of foods.  Most experts agree that the number you want to pay attention to is the glycemic load, which combines both the quality and quantity of carbohydrate in one ‘number’. According to the University of Sydney, it’s the best way to predict blood glucose values of different types and amounts of food. (This blog is not meant to be the source of medical advice. If you are curious about the glycemic index or any other aspects of your health, please consult with a doctor, preferably one who will take the time to listen to your concerns).

I’m more concerned with the life index, which I define as how quickly a meal shared with others is converted to joy,  i.e. how I can have my cake and eat it too.

I knew the day we went to eat dim sum with two Chinese exchange students that lo mai gai, sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf with pork, would wreak havoc on my mid-section.  I could ill afford the Michelin look, because the next day I was scheduled for a photo shoot to obtain an author photo for my book Ruminations from the Minivan:  musings from a world grown large, then small, which is coming out soon.

We had a great time with the Chinese girls, I ate leftover lo mai gai for a mid-afternoon snack and was predictably puffy the next morning.  So I ate oatmeal for breakfast, worked out and instructed the photographer to take head shots only.

It was worth it.

Despite the warmth and easy demeanor of the photographer, I still found the photo shoot uncomfortable, especially when I looked at all the images she had taken on her digital camera and saw my many nuanced poses reflected back at me in Fifty Shades of Alison.

I hadn’t until realized until then that, unlike writing a book, promoting a book means getting into the picture instead of remaining comfortably behind the scenes, and that this is just the first of many times in the coming months that I will have to put myself out there — vanity be damned.

What saved me was a recent interview I’d had with B.J. Neblett, a fellow author who was writing a profile of me for our writers’ collective website.  The morning we met, I was unshowered and wearing an old sweatshirt of Jeff’s. B.J. didn’t care that I was scruffy. We had an enjoyable conversation, which was reflected in the flattering profile he wrote about me.

I’m not going to pretend to have given up vanity, not to be flattered when people compliment me on my youthful appearance and not to be shocked when I resemble my maternal forbears in their later years (spoiler alert – there is one poem in my new book entitled, “My Grandmother’s Thighs”). I will sporadically pay attention to the glycemic index but hopefully, as the years go by, I will scrupulously pay attention to the life index — dim sum bloating be damned.

Aging gracefully

 I had a great idea for a recipe to share with you that I thought would cleverly tie the themes in this post together.  I planned to call it “Vanity Fare.”  It comes from Dorie Greenspan‘s book Around My French Kitchen and involves slicing boneless skinless chicken breasts into strips, sauteeing them in butter and then adding a cup of creme fraiche with two LU Cinnamon Sugar cookies crumbled and mixed in.  I was going to say that when chicken breasts are sweet and creamy and comforting, nobody cares if they are pleasantly plump.

“What’s for dinner,” daughters #1 and #2 asked suspiciously (they are often suspicious when I am cooking). “Chicken with cookies!” I said, assuming they would be thrilled to have a dessert-like twist on dinner.  I was thrilled to produce such an effortless elegant meal so quickly because I had to rush off to a meeting before the meal was over. They took tentative bites and proclaimed it “too rich.”  The next day, I found some chicken wadded up in a napkin and (not very well) hidden in my office.  We had pasta that night for dinner.

 I hope when my kids look at pictures of me and I’m sporting a tummy, they’ll see the kind eyes and joyful open smile of a mother who ate carbohydrates to make them happy.

My Three Sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find some additional fabulous Greg Malouf recipes here.  

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

Upside down

I don’t know why March gets all the hype, when anyone with kids can tell you that in September madness abounds.  There’s the getting back into school rhythm, the ceremonial synching of the calendars, the myriad of forms to fill out, the continual washing of soccer clothes (and hunting for soccer socks) and lots and lots of driving.

We’re affiliated with a new school and a new swim club, which means new faces and names to remember and new “opportunities” to become a part of these new communities.

For every event on my September calendar, there were one or two competing or bookending events, making it hard to get into the natural flow of daily life.

A few weeks after school started, we hosted a Japanese exchange student and had the opportunity to show her how a normal American family lives.  I thought it would be a good idea to make homemade pizza for our first dinner together.

I should have learned the Japanese translation for this.

Later that evening, our intrepid friends the Canadians unexpectedly showed up. They were camping in their nifty house on wheels

Sigh. There’s something to be said for simplicity.

which they parked on the normally quiet street in front of our house.  All day I had noticed an unusual number of cars parked on our street, including one with a woman in the front seat engrossed in a book.  Two hours later, she was still there.  Four hours later, she was still there.  At 11:00 p.m. she was still there, still reading.  It reminded me of that famous scene from When Harry Met Sally.

“I’ll read what she’s reading.”

Flanked by Jeff and the Canadians, I knocked on her window to make sure she was okay and to get a look at the book that had held her attention for so long. She explained that unbeknownst to us, our neighbor across the street had died earlier in the week and there was to be an estate sale beginning the next morning.  “They provide entry to dealers based on a list.  I’m number one on the list, so I’m spending the night here in my car to protect my spot.”  She went on to explain that it’s not unheard of for people to sneak out at night and remove estate sale entry lists, which are posted outside the property.  “Actually,” she said indignantly “you are supposed to remain near the premises to hold your place on the list, but I’m the only one still here.  At 5:00 tomorrow morning, everyone else will show up.” I did ask her about her book, but neither it, nor the prospect of being the first person to get the chance to dig through an old man’s stuff, seemed worth spending the night in a car.

The Canadians wisely decided to move their vehicle to our driveway, rather than risk being awakened by treasure hunters.  At 6:00 a.m., when I took the dog for a walk, there they were and their numbers grew throughout the weekend.  I imaged trying to explain the reason for all these people to our visiting Japanese girl.  Was this how normal Americans lived and died?

I decided we should stick to sight seeing.

The new ferris wheel on the Seattle waterfront

The visitors left, the month wore on and I kept waiting for things to calm down.  Over dinner, I spoke authoritatively about putting “systems in place” and established menus and job charts to keep us all on track.  Whenever the opportunity to restore order presented itself I grabbed it, collecting the apples that had fallen from our tree to make applesauce (using a James Beard recipe which admonished that, because different varieties of apples vary in sweetness, it would be “folly” to add sugar until the apples were cooked.) and catching up on laundry in between the first and the second time the dryer broke.

One such night I wanted to cook, really cook and so I decided to make maqluba, a traditional Middle Eastern upside down dish of rice, eggplant, cauliflower and chicken, using the recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s new book Jerusalem. The timing may have been bad – just as I was frying up cauliflower, Daughter No. 2 needed help with her math homework. I know I’m not alone when I say that answering any questions about math requires me to sit down and breathe deeply before I dive in. But when I brought the steaming platter to the table and adorned it with garlic-infused yogurt, I could imagine that one day, life would feel normal again.

 As we moved into October I had two encounters that gave me pause.  One was with a former neighbor, who came by to tell me that a member of her family had died.  I was rushing to dry my hair, take the dog for a walk and zip to an appointment when she appeared and so could not fully express my condolences or share memories with her. The other was a telephone conversation I had with a woman I had interviewed for an article I’d written.  She’d lost her teenaged son unexpectedly last Christmas and recently her family met the man who had received her son’s donated heart. Our interview the day before had stirred up memories and now she wanted to tell me all about her son, not so that I could write about him, but so that I could know the person he had been.  I listened, wanting to help her keep his memory alive, but I was distracted. I had ten minutes to chop and brown pork and put it into the Crockpot so that we would have time to eat dinner after school and swimming and before soccer practice.

One evening last week, in the brief available interlude after dinner and homework and before bed, we watched snippets of the documentary Half the Sky, which aired on PBS.  Even my daughters, who were riveted by what they saw, realized that our challenges are First World problems of our own making.

Still, I know it would be folly to expect that September will ever be any different, at least as long as I still have kids at home.  Just as I once designated a night of the week as European Chicken night, I’m thinking of designating September as Topsy-Turvy month and cooking maqlaba and tarte tatin and other upside down dishes until life, and our priorities, right themselves again.

It’s been a year since I started Slice of Mid-Life and I want to thank all of you who have read it and commented.  Even though work and life and puppies sometimes interfere with my best-laid blogging plans and I have to find stolen moments to write (like tonight, when I typed in my car while waiting for our Cuban Roast pork sandwiches to be ready), I’m always glad that I did.                 

Shall I Compare Me to a Summer’s Fig?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can take the girl out of Jersey but…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All’s well that ends well.

What I Wore

There it was, featured in the Boden USA catalogue, the Riviera shirt dress.  Despite the fact that the model was five inches taller, twenty-five years younger and twenty-five pounds lighter than me, I was completely seduced by the suggestion that by donning that dress, I, too, could have a life inspired by the French Riviera, sipping Lillet cocktails in a sunflower-filled garden.

Still, I waited.

Whenever a new Boden catalogue comes out, I make note of the outfits that catch my fancy (as the British-based company would say) for future reference.  Future reference means clearance sale.  Boden has fantastic clearance sales and I am the happy owner of of three Boden dresses, one cardigan, a few shirts and several skirts — all colorful and striking — that I scored during clearance sales.

When the dress arrived, it became clear that on the shorter, squatter me, it was not quite as sleek, stylish and, well, French as it had looked on the model.  But embellished with a black patent leather belt and cute black sandals (someone once told me that accessories are what separate us from animals), I was able to pull together a look that would be eye-catching in Seattle, the fleece capital of the U.S.

I wore it for the first time on a gray, chilly summer morning for a work-related meeting.  As a writer who works from home, it’s rare that I have to dress up, and fifteen years removed from the daily tyranny of heels and pantyhose, I still get a shiver of excitement whenever I do. As many Boden dresses are, this one was extremely comfortable.  And as I waited for my morning latte, the barista said approvingly, “Hey, nice dress.”

We were going to a party later that evening, the kind of party suggested by the photo of the dress in the catalogue, sipping drinks on the deck of a house with a view of the sunset over Puget Sound.

I wanted to wear the dress to the party but feared it was too dressy.  Seattle party attire usually consists of fleece, cargo pants and Tevas, though lately I’ve seen a lot of high-end yoga wear.

Plus, there was the problem of the intervening seven hours between the end of my meeting and the party. Should I take the dress off and put it on again later?  Or should I revel in the “daytime to dusk” qualities of the dress and keep it on all day?

Have you ever read the Sunday New York Times Style Section feature What I Wore?

Here’s an excerpt from the May 17, 2012 profile of the painter Anh Duong:

May 9:  Still recovering from the Met Ball marathon, where I, in my beautiful Giambattista Valli dress the color of a cloud, climbed all night from the bottom of the Met stairs to the Top of the Standard hotel for the after-party.

But all I have left from the ball is a cold. I started with a new healthy smoothie recipe that I read on Goop. Rejuvenated, I slipped into my gray Stella McCartney exercise costume. I don’t know if I would have committed to my exercise regimen without her designing for Adidas. Whatever it takes.

Before heading uptown to see my shrink (I like to dress comfortably so I can relax on the couch and let my inner child free), I put on a beige Phillip Lim sleeveless wool dress with a black Uniqlo T-shirt and Christian Louboutin black biker boots. Added a DVF cashmere leopard-print scarf for my sick throat.

It’s very clear to me that the people profiled in What I Wore, all of whom change their outfits at least three times a day, don’t do their own laundry.

Were the New York Times to profile me in their What I Wore feature, it might go something like this:

July 30:  Donned a ripped T-shirt and black exercise pants from Target to walk the dog.  The worn patches in the hindquarters remind me of ominous gray storm clouds. 

Put on a striking blue and white Riviera shirt dress from Boden and went off to work.  Came home to find kids bickering and, feeling French, toyed with the idea of yelling “Ca suffit!”  The full skirt of the dress makes a statement when you flounce away in frustration. I drove to a neighborhood park and checked my email and discovered some good news I had been waiting for.

Still wearing the shirt dress, I took the kids and the dog to the doctor for check-ups and shots and then waited in the car while they bought donuts.  When we got home, as a post-shot treat, we curled up on the couch together and I  agreed to watch Pretty Little Liars, their favorite show, with them. Miraculously, though I repeatedly wrinkled my nose during the television program, the dress remained wrinkle-free.  

Did you know it’s easy to cook in the Riviera dress?  Feeling tres Nicoise, yet trying to avoid splattering oil, I whipped up a batch of socca to bring to a party and then loaded the dishwasher.

The lighthouse of Nice, on the Mediterranean c...

The lighthouse of Nice, on the Mediterranean coast (French Riviera). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 My husband and I strolled to the party, where we sipped drinks in the company of writers, while watching the sun set over Puget Sound.  I felt a few pangs of regret when I admitted that I’ve barely made time for any writing this summer because mostly all I’ve been doing is driving kids places and doing endless amounts of laundry and dishes.  Then I remembered that French women don’t have regrets.

“Hey, nice dress,” someone said.

Socca is the perfect snack to prepare for any occasion, but especially when you are feeling worn down from doing laundry and dishes and need a little of the French Riviera to bring romance back into your life.  I used Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe from Plenty but have also used Dorie Greenspan’s socca recipe from Around My French Table and have faith that David Lebovitz’s socca recipe is as great as all of his recipes are.  Thanks to Dorie Greenspan, I now keep a jar of homemade creme fraiche in my refrigerator, right next to the preserved lemons.

Finally, my go-to summer cocktail this year has been a Lillet spritzer, which is Lillet on the rocks with sparkling water and a squeeze of fresh lime.

It reminds me of my younger days, when I subsisted on white wine spritzers and air-popped popcorn and a pretty dress could lead to all sorts of possibilities.

Pink Pig

The inspiration for this post originally came from our recent Diecinueve de Mayo party.  Every year, on or around Cinco de Mayo, we throw a big party. The margaritas are the main attraction, but the potluck Mexican feast is also a pretty big draw. Some years, I’ve stayed up late into the night making tamales or charring chiles for complex moles.

Many of our friends exhibit a similar culinary dedication.  Leftovers are few and far between.

Our Cinco de Mayo party originated sixteen years ago as a “Ballard Ain’t So Bad” party.  We had recently bought a 1912-era house in Ballard, a Seattle neighborhood then mocked for its Scandinavian roots and bad drivers.  On “Almost Live,” a Seattle late night live comedy show, Ballard was routinely the butt of jokes because of its uncoolness.  Now, it seems like Ballard is featured in the Sunday New York Times Travel Section every couple of months. Among other charms, it has quite the restaurant scene.  When we first moved here, the only culinary attraction (apart from an incongruous Indian restaurant, which is still going strong) was the number of places you could buy lutefisk. Sadly, one by one they have all disappeared, though you can still get a good Kringle at Larsen’s Bakery.

I wanted to throw a party because I was new to Seattle.  I’ve told you before how challenging making friends here can be.  I figured a big party would be a great way to jumpstart my efforts and a theme would make for a great ice-breaker. People still remember the black-and-white party and the New Jersey party I threw in Bangkok and the Aretha Franklin party I hosted in stuffy Washington, DC.

So I invited everybody I knew, and made my very first trip to Costco, where I bought the largest bag of tortilla chips I have ever seen.

The party was “different,” people said, and then admitted in that low-key Seattle way that they had liked it. Seattlites, especially those whose roots run deep here, are not known for co-mingling friends or bringing new people into their inner circles. I considered the party a success.

Still, the real social ice-breaker was having kids.  We made friends with the parents at our kids’ pre-school and and they began coming to our annual party.  Because of Ballard’s growing popularity, the party needed a new theme.  We found inspiration while camping at the Columbia River Gorge one Memorial Day weekend.  We were awakened early by our toddlers and were surprised to see the childless couple in the site next to us awake as well, when they could have remained snuggled up in their sleeping bags.  They were zesting limes which would marinate in lime juice all day for the margaritas they planned to drink that night after an unfettered day of windsurfing.

When the kids graduated from pre-school and everyone scattered to different elementary schools, I worried that we would lose touch with our friends.  But the party became a way to maintain those friendships and bring new friends together with old ones. Very un-Seattle, but it worked.

Years passed and before I knew it, I was the one with the established social circle, unable to invite everyone I knew or wanted to get to know better to our Cinco de Mayo party, because my house wasn’t big enough. The party wasn’t an ice-breaker anymore.  It was just part of our life.

I took a relaxed approach to cooking this year and made Cochinita Pibil, a Yucatecan dish of pork shoulder marinated in a paste of achiote seed and sour Seville orange juice, wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked for hours. I used Diana Kennedy’s recipe from her classic book The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.

Cover of "The Essential Cuisines of Mexic...

Cover via Amazon

It was easy, it was succulent, it was comfort food.

May turned into June and, as I sorted pictures for Daughter #2’s fifth-grade yearbook, I marveled at how quickly the years had gone by, and got a bit weepy at the prospect of once again leaving a school we’ve been associated with for the past eight years and saying goodbye to so many good friends. To add salt to the wound, over a period of five weeks, each of our daughters seemed to age five years, which left Jeff and me scratching our heads in bittersweet bewilderment.

It’s a good thing we have Kobe.

He came home unexpectedly a week ago and it has been like turning back the clock.  A nine-week old puppy isn’t that much different from a nine-week old baby, except that this time I’m appreciating every moment, because I know it is fleeting.

That first night, Jeff and I found ourselves alone with him, while our girls were off at a carnival, and a sweet flood of memories washed over me.  Snuggled up inside of Jeff’s jacket pocket, Kobe looked as warm and contented as our babies had and later, when the two of us got on the floor shouting “Pink Pig!,” as we taught him to fetch a squeaky toy, I remembered how much I love Jeff as a father.

So for Father’s Day, though short on sleep, I decided to make Jeff a special meal to commemorate the slow, sweet development of our family life together and Cochinita Pibil seemed like just the thing.  We ate it in our backyard with a Paloma cocktail, as our puppy discovered the world around him and our girls prepared to go even further afield.

I was inspired to make Cochinita Pibil because during our recent trip to Chicago, we ate it at Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill restaurant.  At O’Hare airport, before boarding our return flight home, we were thrilled to find a Frontera Grill kiosk and purchased Cochinita Pibil sandwiches for the flight home.  They were delicious, and rather aromatic.  I hope our fellow travelers didn’t mind.  Here’s the Rick Bayless recipe.

Fruits and Nuts and Flakes and Seeds and Teenagers

I’ve realized for a few weeks that it is high time I wrote a post about food and I’d been planning one about the satisfactions of slow-cooked pork and slowly-developed friendships  (Be forewarned, I’m also planning a post about mid-life belly fat).

But ideas have a way of taking root, like seedlings, and, based on my consumption of late, and particularly this week, I feel compelled to tell you about the way I am eating now.  The comedian Gallagher once said:  “California is like a bowl of granola.  What ain’t fruits and nuts is flakes.” In addition to dried fruits, nuts and flakes (coconut flakes, that is) I’ve been eating lots of oats and seeds and therefore have been spending a lot of time in the bulk section of the grocery store.

So I think I’ll do what the smart bloggers do: write the post about slow-cooked pork and save it for a week when I’m busy or uninspired.  This week, because seeds are on my mind, in my cupboard and in my ever-expanding middle-aged belly, I’ll tell you about them instead.

In February I mentioned that I had started making granola, and not very originally linked to a recipe I found on Orangette, which was originally posted on Food 52 and which has also been mentioned by David Lebovitz.  Everyone loves Early Bird Foods granola. I make it every few weeks and it’s become Jeff’s and my favorite weekday breakfast.  I like the way making this granola makes me feel, the way it makes the house smell and the routine of it.  I like the illusion of control granola gives me, which is not how I felt about it when I ate it during the years I lived in Northern California, a flakier time in my life.

Early June in Seattle can sometimes be like November in Seattle and it was so this week.  I was seeking comfort food and remembered Shakshuka, an Israeli dish of poached eggs atop sauteed peppers, onions and tomatoes, which I had made on Easter morning.  I got the recipe from Yottam Ottolenghi’s book Plenty and shortly after that, saw a different recipe for Shakshuka from Gail Simmons in Food and Wine magazine.  Trolling around the Internet this week, I found several variations of Shakshuka, including one recipe a devotee said was head and shoulders above the rest because of the addition of Hawaj.  Though I consider myself pretty savvy about international cuisine and the ingredients of the world, I had never heard of Hawaj.  It turns out it is a Yemeni spice blend, favored by Yemeni Jews.  I had fun reading about it in Claudia Roden‘s The Book of Jewish Food and then I decided to make it so I could add it to my Shakshuka. It really did elevate the quality of the dish.  Here’s the recipe I used, though Hawaj, like most spice blends, lends itself to individual interpretation.

Jeff called, as he often does during his sloggy long commute home, to see what was going on.  There had been a fair amount of adolescent drama, which had worn me down, and I think he was surprised, after telling me about his day and traffic woes, to hear that in my head, I wasn’t in my Seattle kitchen making dinner, I was in Yemen making Hawaj (There is some precedence for this.  I survived the baby and toddler years through culinary expeditions.  You’ll be able to read about it when my book comes out). He arrived home to find me catatonically smashing coriander seeds with my mortar and pestle and wisely did not judge me for my choice of distraction.  I wish I could say that I had been as non-judgmental when I found him staring catatonically at a basketball game on TV several nights this week in response to the “energy” in our household.

Our adolescents are wearing us down.  It’s the end of the school year, daughter #2, just finishing up fifth grade, has a sentimental case of “senioritis.”  Suddenly she’s best friends with all of her classmates, who will soon scatter to different middle schools.  Even the boys are nice. There are skate parties and trampoline parties and luncheons and barbeques and the dreaded FLASH (Family Living and Sexual Health) class.

Daughter #1 has been taking end-of-year tests, sending endless texts and has recently discovered Skype.  Remember how your mother admonished you not to tie up the phone line when you were a teenager?   “You just saw your friends a half-hour ago, why do you have to call them?”  That’s how I sound when I complain about Skype and D#1’s dominance of the computer.  Apparently she, too, will be taking FLASH, the seventh grade version, and I feel for the poor teachers who have to present this material to her randy middle school peers.

Unlike Everyone Else, who seems to have migrated away from Facebook towards Pinterest, I haven’t yet succumbed, fearing yet another Internet time suck.  Instead, I keep food magazines and recipes that interest me in a pile on top of my microwave and once in a while I actually go through them.  For months this pile has included a recipe for Dukkah, an Egyptian nut and spice blend that I learned about from the wonderful food blog The Garum Factory.  If you haven’t already, you should check out the Garum Factory.  In addition to its intriguing recipes, Ken Rivard is a marvelous writer (I keep telling him he should write history books) and his wife, acclaimed chef Jody Adams, offers useful, down-to-earth techniques by sharing her own recipe trials and errors with honesty and humor.

By mid-week the intensity level in the house was really beginning to get to us (Jeff and I even resorted to using our friend D’s technique of taming the females in his household: “Everybody calm the f**k down!”  If you’ve heard of my Battle Hymn of the Jersey Mother, you’ll know that this approach particularly resonates with me).

“That’s it, I’m making Dukkah!” I vowed.

I’ve learned that asking a teenager to shell nuts or fava beans is an excellent way to, in the words of Van Morrison, get down to what is really real.  D #1 dutifully shelled pistachios for the Dukkah and we had a calm, pleasant, enlightening chat before she disappeared to Skype her friends.  Jeff came home and, once again, did not judge when he saw that I had been pretending to be in Egypt.   That night, instead of watching basketball, he and I caught up on Season 7 of Weeds.

The next morning, as I ate steel cut oats with Dukkah sprinkled on top, D #1 confronted us about the hypocrisy of us watching Weeds, especially since the night before, over Pan-Roasted Cauliflower with Dukkah, we had been probing for information about the drug scene at her school  (We were saved by the trademark family sense of humor.  D #1, knowing of my own struggles to fit in as a PTA mom, could see the humor in one secretly becoming a big-time drug dealer, yet still attending PTA meetings).

Middle school.  How will I survive having two kids in middle school next year?  Luckily, so many cultures have their own blends of spices and of nuts and seeds that I should be able to spend the next few years working through my frustrations.

Mother’s little helper

In fact, I like to amuse myself by imagining that Ras-el-hanout, Zaatar, Garum masala, Paanch phoran, Muesli and even Lowry’s seasoned salt were developed by weary mothers of adolescents, much as soccer, basketball, football and petanque were developed by men desperate to get out of the house.

There is growing number of Middle Eastern comedians, who delve into careful, but spot-on humor about their cultures.  I’m sure eventually one of them will follow Gallagher’s lead and remark that the region is like a spice blend.  Take the seeds of dissent, mixed with several dashes of courage and yes, a few nuts, and sweeten them with the taste of freedom.

Related links:

Pushing the Envelope Through Stand-Up Comedy

The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour

Yes, There are Comics in Qatar

I‘ve been on a technology tear lately, building a website and formatting an E-book.  On my to-do list is an overhaul of this blog, featuring a recipe page.  Stay tuned.