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.


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,


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.



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.)


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.





Good and Plenty

I’m not supposed to be writing this.  I’m supposed to be packing for that ski trip I told you about.

But I couldn’t resist telling you about a few good things that have come my way lately.

This is the granola I made this morning, inspired by the wonderful blog Orangette.  My horoscope for today recommended that I “make something with honey” (in 40-odd years of reading my horoscope in the morning paper, I have never been similarly advised) so maybe it was in the stars, but it took Molly Wizenberg extolling the virtues of homemade granola and providing me with a few great recipes to convert me.  The house smelled great.  Do yourself a favor — read Orangette.  And make your own granola (I haven’t yet tried the recipe you’ll find by clicking on the above link.  I used an earlier Orangette granola recipe, which Molly adapted from Nigella Lawson.  You can find it in the Orangette recipe index).

(I also made my own pancake mix, but we haven’t tasted it yet, so I’m not ready to share the recipe.  I snuck in flax seeds.  Shhhh.  Don’t tell Jeff and the girls).

While I was making the granola, I listened to a few stories from The Moth, the live storytelling project based in New York.  I learned about The Moth last week, when I was asked to participate in a Spoken Word performance on March 20, as part of the Ballard Writers Collective.  The stories I heard today were funny and touching.  I’m looking forward  hearing more from The Moth during our eight hour road trip.  (I’ll tell you more about the March 20 event later).

As you know, I’m interested in eldercare and in spreading the word anytime I hear of anything that makes life easier for the elderly and their caregivers.  This recent post from The New Old Age is just such a thing.  At a networking event this week, I met an eldercare advisor and was reminded of this growing business.  If you are caring for someone and feel overwhelmed, you can hire a consultant to help you navigate Medicare, find senior housing, etc.  Also, Jane Gross told me to tell you about her Facebook page, where she provides useful updates and information for fans of A Bittersweet Season:  Caring for Our Aging Parents and Ourselves.

Yesterday, at Costco, I found this fantastic Near East-inspired vegetarian cookbook.  I’ve read about Yotam Ottolenghi and Plenty in my cooking magazines and in The Guardian, and have even made some of his recipes, but I was unprepared for how blown away I have been by this book.   I want to cook and eat everything in it.  Tonight.  Instead of packing.

Finally, it’s no secret that there are a few places I would rather be going than skiing.  But, to paraphrase Adele in her beautiful cover of this Bob Dylan song (you can buy the live version on iTunes), I’d go to the ends of the earth for the ones I love (though eight hours in the car with a teen and pre-teen might be pushing it).

(Check out what Margaret Cho had to say in response to Karl Lagerfeld’s snipe about Adele after the Grammys. Thanks, Theo Nestor, for sharing it.)

That’s all, folks.  I’ll be diligently doing my physical therapy exercises and writing next week, and maybe even doing a little bit of skiiing too.

Happy President’s Day.