On lentil soup and economizing.

city flower

We've been on a lentil soup kick lately. Red lentils, french lentils, any old lentil we can find for cheap in the bulk section of our grocery store, we've been buying it. There's not a recipe that we've been using so much as a series of habits: sauté some amount of savory onion or shallot or leek in butter or oil, add lentils and other scattered nubs of carrots or leafy greens, add sea salt and water and heat until a soup develops that's nourishing and warming and everything that wintertime food ought to be. Last week I made one such batch of soup and served it to friends. I won't say I wasn't a bit shy at the prospect. Somewhere along the way, I've gotten the impression that food served to company should be better-than-usual fare. Even if you're on a tight budget, heating up a packet of ramen noodles and inviting friends for dinner doesn't seem like quite the right thing to do. Serving bowls of lentil soup seemed like the slightly more healthful equivalent. 

When you're still relatively young and childless in this city---or maybe at any time---going out with friends can be almost astonishingly expensive. Cocktails at one bar run you a day's food allowance and before the end of the night you can easily spend as much as you've allotted for the entire week's groceries and then some. Inviting friends to your home for a pot of lentil soup seems terribly boring in the face of artisan cocktails and mustachioed waiters and oozing cheese platters. 

But when my husband and I realized that our plan to live frugally in 2013 had meant that we'd allowed January to slip by without spending substantial time with any our friends, we resolved to reassess. Our conclusion is utterly predictable: invite your friends over for lentil soup. The truth is that no matter how humble the ingredients, lentil soup is delicious and having friends to your apartment for any kind of meal is better than never having them over at all.

There are some lessons I'm not sure why I've taken so very long to learn.

Making Mistakes

I spent the last week in Florida, holed up in conference rooms by day and attending boozy events by night. It was my company's annual sales conference, a huge event that brings sales professionals together from across the country. I don't write much---or anything really---about my day job here. I work for a large legal research and technology company, selling both to law firms. When I made the transition from practicing law to sales, my mom was convinced that I would be successful, because in her words, I'm “smart and cute."  What a gift to have had a full-time cheerleader; a gift that I will never take for granted again. I have a boss, one who is at least three pegs up the ladder from me, who speaks to each and every person she meets with familiarity and respect. She's the kind of boss who asks you to do more with less, and is the kind of boss who receives a resounding YES from her troops with no questions asked. We all want to make her proud. She spoke throughout the last few days, providing us with inspirational thoughts for the year ahead and reflecting on the past one. One thing she said stuck with me. She urged us to make mistakes this year---big ones, in fact---because you're bound to make mistakes when you embrace change. I paused at this, immediately thinking about the big ones I made over the last year.

This past year, I spent too many hours thinking about the people who disappointed me, rather than the ones who showed up again and again. I appreciated the latter without question, but still thought about the cards I didn't receive and the times my phone didn't ring. I couldn't help but notice the people who were around at first, but who faded from sight as time passed. This group is small though, so much smaller than the mob that has circled around me tirelessly and endlessly. My mom would tell me to get over it, in that way only she could.

This past year, I focused too much on my own needs in honoring my mom's memory, instead of my family's needs. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, my sister Meg asked me to continue the Black Friday tradition we started with our mom in recent years: in other words, to go shopping with her at an ungodly hour once again. I turned her down, thinking only of how sad it would be without my mom, instead of Meg's wish to keep these traditions alive. Most recently, I balked in response to my sisters' suggestion to serve chicken parm at an upcoming family dinner, to celebrate my mom's birthday. They wanted to honor my mom with her favorite dish; all I could think about was the bother of frying chicken cutlets for 15 people. Thankfully, my sisters took a page out of my mom's book and ignored my nonsense, and thankfully, I came to my senses before too long.

This past year, I lost my temper with my dad on more occasions than I'd like to admit. It's difficult, helping him navigate life without my mom and watching him struggle with everyday tasks that she handled with such ease. The house is messier than it used to be, and all I see under the piles of mail and empty soda cans is my childhood home slipping away. I haven't acknowledged my dad's struggles quite clearly enough, or the strides he has made in becoming independent. My phone doesn't ring every night like it used to, with questions about my day. But then, the first birthday card I opened this year was from my dad. It was signed simply, but he picked out the card and mailed it, with time to spare. A small milestone, but he's learning---and quicker than I give him credit for at times.

We all know that change is the only constant in life. And so this year, I commit to embracing the change that is bound to come my way. I commit to making even more mistakes. And I commit to learning from my past mistakes. A tall order, so I'll start small. . .

I was wrong about the chicken parm. It will be the best I've ever tasted---of this I'm sure.

 

Hungry Hungry Humans

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, Is it me, or does everyone and their uncle have a food allergy/aversion/snobbish avoidance these days? I've found it increasingly difficult to share meals and prepare food for others without objections from gluten-free, only-eat-local-everything, on-a-cleanse, vegan, paleo-diet friends and family members.  I used to crave the communal intimacy of a shared meal, but now it seems "what I'm not eating" dominates the conversation (and makes my allergy-free, trying-to-stay-sane self question if I really should be eating that dairy/gluten/egg-rich muffin). Am I being insensitive?

Signed,

Eating the Damn Muffin Already

Dear Eating The Damn Muffin Already,

I wish you were my dinner guest.

Recently, we had a couple we were getting to know over for dinner.  I had baked a delicious dessert, since they were bringing the food.  The meal was saucy take out, rich in butter and spices.  When I brought out the salted caramel cake I had made from scratch, I was shocked that neither one of my guests were willing to try it.  They demurred, saying that "Sugar is poison, you know", and that they are cutting it out of their diet completely.

Stunned, I set my cake back on the stove, and, due to the calls of my toddler, who had been promised a special treat in honor of our guests and had even helped to bake it, I cut the members of my family slices and passed them out, leaving our guests to watch us consume a whole bunch of homemade poison.

Their choice to eat greasy take out and then refuse cake baffled me, but everyone deserves to do whatever they want with their body.  Really what bugged me were their terrible manners.

We live in a time of shifting ethics about food.  There used to be a cuisine that was considered "American", that everyone was expected to eat.  In an age of growing education about where our food comes from, who benefits from our consumption of it, and how to best feed our bodies, people are making more informed decisions about food than ever.

This is a really positive thing.  I would like nothing better than to use only local ingredients, from companies that respect the land and pay their workers a living wage.  I want to serve my family healthy food that will help our bodies grow strong.  However, I am not willing to give up the common decencies of community to do so.  My motto is "People are more important than things."  And that includes my current food philosophy.

So, what to do, if you have been invited over for dinner, and you know your hosts do not eat the same way as you?  First of all, ask what's on the menu, and what you can bring.  If you are a strict vegetarian, tell them so ahead of time.  If you have no food allergies, but would like to eat a certain way, offer to bring a salad or special gluten-free bread, and make that the focal point of your meal, eating sparingly what your hosts have provided for you.

Sharing food is such an important part of community building.  Another vital aspect of community is truth telling.  So, if you're on a diet, say you're on a damn diet.  Don't couch it in New Age terms, and definitely don't judge other people's food choices, especially not in their home.

So, to answer your question, are you being insensitive by not loving all the new diets people are trying?  Well, unless you are placing a pig on a spit in front of your vegan friend or inviting your gluten-free buddy over for Bread Fest 2013, nope.

If you find yourself irked by Macrobiotic Mary on your friend list, why not do something with her that is not centered around food?  I'm sure you can agree on an indulgent movie to watch together, to make up for the decadence missing in her diet.  Just make sure you order exactly what you want at the concession stand, and stand by your choice.  But get the small popcorn---she’s not going to share.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Like Water

walnuts

By Judith NewtonHer book, Tasting Home, is available for pre-order on Amazon.

“How do you peel a walnut?” my daughter asked as she looked, not too happily, at the mound of nuts on the kitchen table.  We’d spent three days in the kitchen laboring over the twelve dishes we’d planned for a large buffet, and chiles en nogada, or chiles in walnut sauce, were the final stage of our cooking marathon.  That very evening some forty faculty and students from all over campus would be arriving to celebrate our new multicultural graduate program, and if any dish could instill a sense of community it would be chiles en nogada.

Making simple recipes like tacos de crema, macaroni with serrano chiles, and refried beans had been easy and even pleasurable, but the chiles in walnut sauce were posing a challenge. I’d combined Frida Kahlo’s recipe with one I’d taken from the Internet, and the latter called on us to peel the walnuts before pulverizing them for the sauce. “Mom,” said Hannah, rubbing at one of the walnuts, “this brown stuff isn’t coming off.” “This is a window into the lives of generations of women,” I said, ineffectually scrubbing another walnut with my fingers. “Can you imagine how much time they spent working in kitchens?” “I love cooking with you like this,” Hannah had said when we first began. “I love it too,” I’d said. Our years of cooking together and of struggling through difficult recipes had created a strong sense of solidarity.

We decided not to peel the walnuts, since Frida’s recipe didn’t call for it, but we did roast the two dozen poblano chiles and then pulled off their skins. Then we chopped a picadillo out of shredded meat, fruits, nuts and cinnamon, and, cradling the chiles in our hands, began to stuff them with the sweet and savory mix. We were treating those chiles as if they’d just been born, but, despite our labor, they were developing some ugly splits. We decided not to flour them, coat them in egg mix, and then fry them in hot oil as Frida’s recipe required.

“It’s too risky,” I said, entertaining grim visions of the chiles bursting their sides and spilling their colorful innards into a smoky pool of oil. Did Frida fry her own chiles, I wondered. Then came the sauce---easy, sweet, and cool. Four cups of (unpeeled) walnuts pureed with cream cheese, Mexican crema, cinnamon, and a fragrant half cup of sherry. Finally, seeds from six pomegranates and sprigs of parsley to go on top.  Red, white, and green---the colors of the Mexican flag.

I had been thinking about a Mexican novel for the entire three days, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. I’d been imagining Hannah and me as Tita and Chenca, two characters who spend much of their lives in the kitchen. A takeoff on nineteenth-century Mexican romance, Like Water is a novel about love and also a novel about politics, the latter being represented by the Mexican Revolution and the ongoing struggle of Tita and her sister Gertrude against patriarchal culture.

Each chapter of the novel is organized around a recipe, and the process involved in making the chapter’s dish---the grinding, the toasting, the chopping, the boiling, the frying, the cracking of eggs–is so thoroughly woven throughout the pages that cooking, an often invisible form of labor, becomes as central to the story as romance and revolution. Cooking, indeed, becomes an emblem of the domestic work that makes romance and revolution possible. It is the force that keeps women and men alive not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually, and politically as well.

Cooking is like that, always there, and if it is as it should be, it not only nourishes our bodies but gives us the comfort of feeling loved, cared for, and secure. Eating what is cooked and served in a caring way evokes one of our first experiences of feeling at home in the world, the experience of being fed by another being. That is one reason that cooking and eating with others can heal the adult self, one reason that it can so easily make us feel connected to another person, a family, a culture, a political community.

Like Tita and Chenca, Hannah and I were laboring in the service of politics and love. The new graduate program was meant to be revolutionary---cross racial, multi-cultural, and oriented toward political activism not just inside, but outside the classroom as well. And I had done enough organizing by then to know how cooking for others, not just from duty, but with generosity and lightness of heart, can develop and sustain those ties of feeling that are, at bottom, what make political community possible.

In Like Water for Chocolate, food is given magical force.  Quail in Rose Petal Sauce invites Tita and Pedro to enter each other’s bodies both spiritually and sensuously as they sit at the dining table. It prompts Gertrude to run away with a revolutionary, sitting behind him, naked on his horse. The Chiles in Walnut Sauce provoke the guests at Tita and Pedro’s wedding to make passionate love. Magical realism like this suggests the power of emotion, of the unconscious, and of cooking as emotion work in the day-to-day activities of our lives.

Like life, the novel is full of mothers, those who nourish and those who do not. The bad mother, Elena, controls Tita, insists that Tita serve her until she dies, and forbids Tita to marry Pedro, the man she loves. Cruel, repressing, she is the mother who denies. Even after death, she reappears, forbidding Tita to be happy. Like a force of nature, she returns again and again, suggesting the lasting influence of how we are mothered.

But Tita finds good mothers to take Elena’s place---Chenca, the cook who tends to Tita in the kitchen, and Dr. John and his Indian mother, Morning Light, who feed Tita healing foods after Elena brutally entombs her daughter in the Dove Cot. Tita herself becomes a nurturing mother to Esperanza, her sister’s daughter. Like Tita I, too, had found alternative mothers---in Dick, my gay ex-husband, in my women friends, in colleagues I had come to love. But most of all I had found mothering in being motherly---to Hannah and to my political community. Cooking for, and eating with, others had all but eclipsed those days in my mother’s house---the shame, the lost identity, the spilled water on the floor. Like Chenca, I wanted to pass on, to Hannah and to others, the recipes, the utopian practices, the ways of being and of labor that make history more than a tale of struggle; that make it also a love story, a story of caring for others.

* * *

CHILES EN NOGADA (Adapted with permission of Marilyn Tausend from adaptation by StarChefs.com from Cocina de la Familia: More Than 200 Authentic Recipes from Mexican-American Home Kitchens by Marilyn Tausend with Miguel Ravago. Fireside, Simon & Schuster, Inc: New York, 1999.)

Marilyn Tausend kindly informs me that the secret to peeling the walnuts is to use fresh walnuts, right from the tree if possible. Meat: 2 lb beef brisket or 1 lb beef and 1 lb pork 1 small white onion cut into quarters 2 cloves garlic 1 T sea salt Picadillo: 4 T. safflower or canola oil 1/3 c. chopped white onion ½ tsp cinnamon ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper 1/8 tsp ground cloves 3 heaping T. raisins 2 T chopped walnuts 2 T. candied pineapple 1 fresh pear, peeled and chopped 1 apple, peeled and chopped 3 large, ripe tomatoes, roasted, peeled and chopped Kosher salt to taste Chiles: 6 fresh poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, and seeded with stem intact Walnut Sauce: 1 c. fresh walnuts 6 oz cream cheese (not fat free) at room temperature 1 ½ c Mexican Crema ½ tsp sea salt 1 T sugar 1/8 tsp cinnamon ¼ c. dry sherry Garnish: 1 T. chopped flat-leaf parsley ½ c. pomegranate seeds 1.      Cut meat into large chunks; remove excess fat. Place meat in large Dutch oven with onion, garlic and salt. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil.  Skim off foam if it collects on the surface. Lower heat and simmer for 45 minutes until the meat is just tender. 2.      Remove from heat and allow meat to cool in the broth. Then remove meat and finely shred it. 3.       Warm the oil in a heavy skillet and sauté the onion and garlic over medium heat until pale gold.  Stir in shredded meat and cook for 5 minutes. Add cinnamon, pepper, cloves.  Stir in raisins, 2 T walnuts, and candied pineapple.  Add chopped pear and apple and mix well. Add tomatoes and salt to taste.  Continue cooking over medium high heat until most of the moisture has evaporated.  Stir now and then.  Let cool, cover, and set aside.  The picadillo may be made one day ahead. 4.      Slit the chilies down the side just long enough to remove seeds and veins, keeping the stem end intact. Drain chilies on absorbent paper until completely dry. Set aside. Chiles may be made a day in advance 5.      At least 3 hours in advance, place 1 c walnuts in small pan of boiling water.  Remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Drain the nuts and, when cool, rub off as much of the dark skin as possible.  Chop into small pieces. 6.      Place nuts, cream cheese, crema, and salt in a blender and puree thoroughly.  Stir in the sugar, cinnamon and sherry.  Chill for several hours. 7.      Preheat oven to 350 F.  When ready to serve reheat the meat filling and stuff the chilies. Place chilies, covered in warm oven.  After they are heated, place chilies on serving platter, cover with chilled walnut sauce and sprinkle with parsley and pomegranate seeds.

Republished with permission from Tasting Home

All we need to know about dinner and divinity

Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is one of those favorite books of mine that I haven’t finished yet. I’d like to make it to the end one day, but I’m certainly not in a hurry. I’m savoring it bit by bit, with full confidence that the author herself would approve of my slow read. It’s a book I know I’ll keep returning to even after I’ve finished it, much like the simple, beautiful thought at the heart of the book itself---that the end of every meal is the beginning of another. It’s a book that deserves, in my opinion, a genre of its own. I’ve never read anything like it. It’s not a cookbook or an instruction manual or a food memoir. I’d say it’s a sort of philosophy of food.

A browse through the table of contents is enough to make you cry: “How to Catch Your Tail,” “How to Paint Without Brushes,” “How to Light a Room,” “How to Make Peace,” “How to Build a Ship,” “How to Be Tender,” “How to Weather a Storm,” “How to End.”

You’d think it’s a book about food, and it is, but it is also a book about everything. Adler will start you off with an egg, then catapult you into the heavens, and finally bring you back down decidedly onto the earth. For example: “A gently but sincerely cooked egg tells us all we need to know about divinity. It hinges not on the question of how the egg began, but how the egg will end. A good egg, cooked deliberately, gives us a glimpse of the greater forces at play.”

I have a tendency to favor beginnings over middles and endings, but the opposite is true when it comes to food. I love the eating and drinking and savoring and lingering. I love a kitchen in action, with peels and cores strewn about the counters and several pots simmering on the stove. In the case of food, it is the beginning that catches me off guard. Why is it that dinner so often feels like a challenge to reinvent the wheel?

Some very wise friends sent us off with this book as an engagement gift, as we set out to establish a life---and a kitchen---together. From the very first pages, it has cut right through any anxieties I may have had about how we would feed ourselves. It’s the idea that eating well has nothing to do with extravagance, that cooking well has nothing to do with fancy tools, and that dinner has everything to do with where you left off in the last meal, or in all the meals that have come before.

I’ve never been much of a planner when it comes to meals, and as far as I can tell, thank goodness, An Everlasting Meal lets me off the hook. In practice, this means that the first inkling of dinner begins with the simple practice of getting a pot of water on the stove to boil and an onion in a skillet to soften. Then, and only then, is it time to start rummaging around considering what’s for dinner.

What comforts me most about this approach is that it begins with doing, rather than thinking. It’s one of those rituals buried in the everyday that, once you’ve realized it’s there, offers both a steady anchor and a comfortable stretch of rope for creative drifting.

More or Less Like Family, Part III

the gambian

By Molly Bradley Read parts I and II

“Mama! Mama? Mamaaaa!”

Already Khady’s wake-up call felt routine. She’d done the same the first morning, calling urgently through my door. I’d thought something was wrong until I saw it was just that she wanted me awake. If she wasn’t sleeping there was no reason her tubaab should be. With my braids, now, I was pretty much just another Khady.

I rose and stuffed my grimy contacts in as fast as I could and came out to assuage my anxious alarm. We had breakfast, and only got a half hour or so of the morning soaps before my father came in. He stood and watched with us for five minutes or so, impassive to a disconcerting degree. There were more physical shenanigans happening on a show this morning, ones I could understand. There was dancing and falling and laughing and more dancing.

Finally I looked to Khady. “Are we going?” I asked her, glancing at Dad.

She looked up from where she sat by his ankles, tugged his pant leg, and said something swift in Wolof. He bowed his head and muttered something in reply.

“Yes, he’s waiting for you,” Khady said.

“I’ve been ready,” I said in my defense. As soon as I stood he led the way out of the room and out of our sandy yard.

We took a path out of town that I’d never noticed before---not that I’d spent a lot of time outside the house. Still sand, sand, sand---then suddenly sand with growth on either side of the road. Somehow growing out of the sand. First just dry, unhappy grass, and then shrubs, bushes, trees. Growing.

Somehow we managed a little conversation while we walked. We’d never really spoken before, only nodded our hellos in passing. He was rarely around the house.

He spoke slowly enough, and I had just enough Wolof, to answer some basic questions: Was I alright? Did I need anything? Was Khady being good? Was I hungry? Had I brought water? (No---I should have, but I was, for no reason, playing stoic. Maybe I thought I needed to challenge myself some way or another, if I wasn’t doing anything else.)

The road seemed endless. Finally at one point we cut through the bushes to the right, up a gentle rise to an area sparsely studded with trees and, as it turned out, other homes. I wasn’t sure if these belonged to Mouit. Were the people who lived here part of the community? Did they commute, so to speak, to town to get things they needed? Or did they just survive out here on their own?

I wished I had more words to ask my father.

Despite the nothing substantial that we said, the walk was companionable. My father greeted the few people we saw as we passed. He seemed to know everyone.

Finally we came through a more densely wooded area into. . . green. Bright green. Rows upon rows and fields upon fields and hills upon hills of green. I had no idea this was out here, in the middle of this sandy, desert-like land. I had no idea how it could exist out here at all. Even when I’d gone with my sisters to gather wood the previous day, the “woods” had turned out to be very, very short shrubs with sturdy branches. Nothing like this. It was idyllic enough that I almost didn’t believe it: almost too green, too perfect. Endless bursts of green all in neat rows. The Jolly Green Giant was growing children in the ground, and all you could see were the tops of their curly green heads of hair.

We walked awhile through the fields. My father greeted every man working there---there was at least one person tilling every field. I trailed behind, so lulled by the color I almost forgot why we were there.

Finally we found Mamadou. I’d spotted him before we got there. He was wearing only a pair of loose linen pants and a hefty bandana on his head, to soak up the sweat. It was beyond hot.

Mamadou raised a hand in greeting and I raised mine back. My father gestured for me to sit on the ground at the edge of the field. He walked slowly toward Mamadou, keeping between the rows of onions, placing one foot carefully before the other, watching them as he walked.

He and Mamadou talked for a long time. There was a good deal of gesturing back and forth between the two halves of the field. Once my father left, Mamadou told me why.

“He thinks I am not taking good care of this side as that side,” he said. He sat beside me and got out the bowl he’d brought his lunch in. “You see that side is more green. This side, not so green.” He was working on this side today.

“Can I help?” I asked.

“You can take the weeds.”

I scrambled to my feet. There were weeds everywhere. I started by bending over each row, but quickly I got down on my knees and got efficient about it, crawling down the rows. Mamadou laughed.

“You really want to do a lot,” he said.

“I just want to help.” I was hardly doing anything. There were so many weeds. And there was Mamadou, doing the real work (that he explained to me as he did a first round): pumping the water up from the well, filling two buckets, running with them back to the row he was working on, and dousing the soil. The running kept things quick and efficient, because he had to cover the whole field four times, really drowning the onions at each pass. The running was also necessary because one of the buckets had a leak. The more water he lost, the less there was to cover the onions, and if it didn’t do the trick he’d have to do the same patch twice in a row. If he had to do that every time, that would make eight times watering the field in its entirety.

He kept at it and barely paused. It was hot, and the prickles on the weeds started to sting my fingers, but all I had to do was glance at him to feel embarrassed and start tugging again, reinvigorated.

The water started to sound really good coming up from that well. I wished I were working on the same row as Mamadou, at the same time, so I might catch some drops from the leaky bucket on my hands or feet or head. The four remaining water bottles on the floor of my bedroom back in the village kept materializing before my eyes.

Finally he finished his round on the less-green half.

“We go back now,” he said. “You can’t be in the sun for so long.”

My indignation was smothered by relief before it had really even arisen.

 ***

At the house that afternoon, Binta found me helping Khady wash clothes. Really Khady was washing them. I was trying to imitate her motions: soggy cloth grasped in both fists, enveloping the knuckles, and the knuckles of one hand scrubbed vigorously over those of the other. When she did it somehow the cloth, or probably her hands and the water, made a sharp and satisfying squelching sound like a brazen bird.

I couldn’t do it. Khady laughed at first but then became impatient.

“Just let me,” she said finally, and I resigned myself to brushing the suds around the rim of the plastic tub of water.

Binta sauntered over with a lilt in her step that could fit only her.

“Viens,” she said. Come.

I ought to have curbed it long before, but my immediate reaction to commands like this was to ask, “Why?”

Whether she took it as the curiosity it was or the insolence I didn’t intend, Binta didn’t let on.

“Viens boire attaaya.” Come drink attaaya.

Attaaya was a strong, sweet black tea boiled so many times over it almost caramelized. It smelled like it, anyway; the little cobalt blue or easy green teapot on the stove would start to shiver, and warm amber bubbles would begin to peek over the surface. Then whoever was tending it would come turn the fire off, take the teapot by its hot handle with a rag, and pour some into the stubby fluted glasses on the tea tray. The method was then to pour the steaming liquid back and forth from glass to glass, keeping one firm on the tray and lifting the other as high as possible, sending the liquid down in a perfect graceful arc. The height gave the surface of the tea a thick foam of those caramel-colored bubbles that tasted as good and sweet as it looked.

I’d never tried the technique myself. I wanted to learn but knew the first time would be a catastrophe of hot liquid streaming across the floor. This rural village with its limited stock of tea would not be the place to learn.

Binta led me to the bedroom she’d moved into with a sibling, or maybe Hangout Girl, or maybe a sibling and Hangout Girl. I was still pretty sure Hangout Girl didn’t belong to this family and did, in fact, have a home of her own, but I believed this on blind faith. She hadn’t missed a family gathering here yet, be it mealtime or TV time or watching-the-tubaab-struggle-to-cut-the-fins-off-the-fish time.

In the room were my oldest brother, the baby Mama, and, naturally, Hangout Girl. The room wasn’t tiny, but small enough that once I was inside, Binta could take me by the shoulders and sit me down on the bed in only a few steps. She sat down beside me, plucked the baby up from where she was rolling on the bedspread, and put her in my lap.

Hangout Girl was sitting in a chair next to my brother. She started snickering. “Mama mak ak Mama bundaw.” Big Mama and Little Mama. She pointed first to the baby and then to me as she said it. Fair enough. The other Mama was here first.

My brother was brewing the attaaya on a makeshift portable stovetop, something like a Bunsen burner. He took the teapot off the flame. The tray with the glasses was on the ground. He lifted the teapot to the level of his eyes and began to pour. Once the head of the stream made it safely into a glass he lifted it high above his head, meeting my eye and grinning as he did so. Sort of showing off, sort of showing me.

“I’m sorry, I never learned your name,” I said in French.

“Malik.” He finished pouring from the teapot and began to pour the liquid back and forth between the glasses. I smiled. Two brothers named Malik. This Malik was older, but he asked the same questions my Malik at home had asked me when I’d first arrived in Dakar, when I’d first become part of the family.

We ran through the topics and drank our tea. With four of us---not including Mama---we each only got two rounds of about half a glass, rather than three ample servings.

Different families do it differently, but typically attaaya is served three times a day, with three rounds each time. Guests tend to complicate the system and leave everyone with a little less tea.

I didn’t mind so much---but then, it was a bonus for me, an extra cultural treat in my day whenever I was offered attaaya. For them, it was the norm. They had to give up a little of their lives to give me this brand new one with all its experiences.

I’d gotten used to thinking of these temporary homes as home, and these fleeting people as family. There were so many of them there to take care of me there was nothing else to call them. What was I to them?

When they had no more questions for me we sat in silence. Companionably enough, but it still seemed strange. Then I realized why. I’d thought I was slipping into their world as it was, simply a new addition to what existed. Really they were simulating it for me.

Starting Over

try something different

By Rebecca D. Martin When we moved into our last house, the first piece of furniture we bought was a sofa, big, comfy, and at the top of our price range. We promised each other that, if we let ourselves buy it, we’d commit to filling it with friends. We would open our home. We would give the sofa back, in a way. Share it with others. My husband and I are introverts with big ideas and true intentions.

A year and a half later, we bought a used dining table, full of chipped-up charm. By then, our illusions had shrunk to a manageable reality, and we made no promises about numbers or chairs or dinner guests. The reality was that I had moved four times in five years. I was worn down by building new relationships in each new city. So for long, long stretches, both sofa and table held only the two---and then the three---of us, resting weary together after long weeks of working, mothering, and missing friends in other towns.

Did we fail? Did we fall clean over our good intentions of being hospitable? It probably depends on who you ask, but if you ask me, the question itself is the wrong one. Hospitality is, after all, about people. It isn’t about meeting a year-end friend quota. It isn’t about succeeding or failing. It’s about sharing life. And life can be downright messy, complex at the best of times, convoluted or worse at the most difficult. In this life, we put down roots where we can, but who knows which way they’ll grow? We intend to stretch out arms of wide welcome, but we end up reaching for help and support or comfort and calm, instead.

And now here we are again: another move, another home. The sofa settles comfortably into the new living room, and I pop out the dining table leaves to give them a good wipe-down. We think with hope about the people we will meet in this new city and what friends might fill these seats. Our intentions are true. But our expectations are open. We’ve learned that relationships will grow in their own way. Community will develop where it’s able, when it’s needed.

In the meantime, our job as a family is to put down roots and grow strong together. We sit down around the weathered dining table, join our tired grownup hands with soft, sweet, chubby ones, and offer thanks for what we have right at this moment. Just the three of us: it is a good place to start.

Non-negotiables

We watched a couple of documentaries last weekend that are still tugging away at me as the week floats by. The first was Happy, and the second was Bill Cunningham New York. In the first, intimate portraits of happy people in surprising situations—from a rickshaw driver in India to an American woman who has recovered from a severe accident—were interspersed with researchers discussing what they had found to be the building blocks of happiness: novelty, close relationships, and acts of kindness.

In the second, shots of the revered street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham biking all over Manhattan with his camera contrasted with glimpses of his tiny apartment, where he sleeps on a board among file cabinets. For him, sleeping and eating seem to be afterthoughts. And the idea of a work/life balance? Well, he’d probably just laugh and say that work is life.

In a surprising moment, he responds to the invisible interviewer that, yes, of course, he goes to church on Sunday. It seemed that while everything else came second to his work behind the camera, church was a given. The otherwise opinionated and articulate subject paused for a long stretch and struggled to explain why.

More than anything else, these two films challenged my assumptions about non-negotiables. Each of us is constantly making tiny choices, arranging and rearranging priorities, which eventually add up to the more public aspects of our lives. Sometimes it’s impossible to really explain the whys and hows of our own lives and the lives of others. We can only grasp at threads among the complex bundle of will, experience, nature, and circumstances. I suppose all of this is obvious, but perhaps I needed a reminder.

More or Less Like Family, Part I

the gambian

By Molly Bradley The village Mouit was like living on a beach without the water: just a vast expanse of shore with buildings spattered here and there on the sand, with no logic to it.

We were there for a brief stay to explore another part of Senegal. The group of students I was traveling with would reunite in the nearby town of Saint Louis at the end of the week, but for now, we were scattered in separate families in the village of Mouit. We’d left our host families in Dakar to be hosted yet again: a home away from home away from home. Instead of feeling further removed, it all started to feel pretty much the same. Family became a very relative term.

Aside from my parents, I grew up with just one sibling (and, only later, a dog). My family is by no means quiet, but it’s not large. Four people can only be so rambunctious.

Unexpectedly, the family that adopted me in Dakar was even slimmer. I called my homestay parents Aunt and Uncle, Tata et Tonton, because my ‘sibling’---twelve-year-old Malik---was their nephew. It felt more or less like family.

So it was alarming when approximately nine and a half flailing sets of limbs accosted me as soon as I walked in the gate of my Mouit homestay family. Nine of them were chattering children, spanning roughly seven through twelve years old. The half-set of limbs only constituted half a set because it belonged to a baby carried by one of the girls, and the baby didn’t quite have control of all her components. Her eyes stuck to me that whole first night.

They dragged me to meet my homestay parents. Neither spoke French, but both were all easy smiles and steady nods. The village was Wolof, but my language still wasn’t up to native speed. I tried to gesture a Hello, Thank you for having me, I’m very grateful, but fell upon no convenient mimes for those words, save a wave for the Hello. We stood smiling a few moments, motionless. Then my father left the fenced complex. As chief of the village, he presumably had better things to do. My mother smiled, shrugged and shuffled off.

Good to be home.

The complex was made up of a few small rooms, each a separate low boxy building. My siblings indicated my room, where I could put down my bags.

“This is Binta’s room,” said one of the girls, in French. Only the girls had accompanied me into the room. They were all watching me.

“Her room,” another girl said, pointing.

Another person had materialized. This girl was older: it was in her height; the way she held her face; her body. This fifteen-year-old (I asked her age later) was more womanly than I would probably ever be, judging by my own body at twenty years of age.

Binta watched me with a slightly curved mouth. Either that was her neutral face or she was smiling just a little, watching the adopted tubaab try to clumsily inhabit her bedroom. Binta commanded the space. I felt flustered by it.

“Thank you,” I said to her. “C’est vraiment gentil.” That’s really nice of you.

She just curved her lips and walked out.

 ***

I spent the evening with more siblings than I could count in what functioned as the family room. It was where the kids spent all of their time when they weren’t in school or doing chores. This was because it had a TV. Mouit was a unique village in that regard: it was typical of rural Senegalese villages in most ways except for the fact that it had electricity. Like most places in the world, the TV sapped not only electrical but human energy. It had most of us hooked most of the time. There was no end to the soccer and the Senegalese soap operas.

I finagled some conversation out of a few people. For the most part, any questions I asked were met by a rush of eager voices that I didn’t have time to distinguish before they fell abruptly silent again.

There were a few older teenagers, mostly boys, already in the room when I came in with the younger kids. They occupied the mats to the right of the television, backs against the wall, alternately watching the screen and flipping open their cell phones. Every now and then, when they got their phones out, a few of the younger ones would look over with obvious envy.

Toward nine in the evening, a man walked in. He looked relatively young. He stood in the doorway awhile, watching the screen. No one glanced his way. I was at the very edge and toward the back of the mat where all the kids crowded. Eventually he sat between the door and me, his back against the wall, on the concrete floor.

Given how close his face was to mine in the dark, it seemed odd not to acknowledge it. I turned to him and said hello in French and asked his name.

His mouth moved, and he let his breath play in and out of his lips before he said, “I’m Mamadou. I don’t speak French.”

Was that English? It was definitely English.

“I’m from the Gambia,” he added.

“Oh,” I said. “I’m from---well, I’m American. But my family lives in France. I grew up there.”

“America, France,” he repeated. “It must be beautiful.”

He asked me my name.

“Mama,” I said with a wry smile. “They named me after the other Mama.”

“Oh, yes, the baby,” he said. Host families commonly named their tubaabs---white people, or foreigners---after an existing family member. Ordinarily this family member was one older than the tubaab, which made chronological sense---you name someone new after someone who’s been around longer, right? I, however, had been named after the baby, who was still staring at me in the dark.

“But, no,” Mamadou said, “I mean your American name.”

That was a first. We’d become accustomed to giving out our “Obama names” whenever anyone cared enough to ask. Obama delighted people here. It was the most recent great thing about America today, amid all the other great things, thought most Senegalese. Obama was now synonymous with America.

“I’m Molly.”

“Molly,” he repeated. “Molly.”

He was silent awhile, but in the glow of the TV I could see his lips still moving, playing with the name. Even though English is the official language of the Gambia, the names are mostly the same as those in Senegal. After all, it’s just a little crumb trapped in Senegal’s big gullet. It sits there small and quiet, almost blending in.

 ***

He was from the Gambia and he was making his way upward, traveling steadily toward the top of Africa. He’d left his family three, four years ago, he said; what was left of his family, anyway. It sounded sinister when he first said it, but he clarified that several of his brothers had already left to do what he was doing now: working to make a little money to send back to their family, and a little money to get themselves somewhere else.

Mamadou wanted to go to Europe. Or America.

“England. I think England is nice,” he said. “Maybe I will go there, then America. Or maybe France, but I don’t think I will like France so much as England, or America.”

“Why?”

“I was told it’s very like Senegal,” he said.

He kept saying that he just had to get to Europe, and then he’d list the places he would go: Germany, maybe; England; America. . .

I began to suspect he may have thought they were all next door. I had neither the opportunity nor the heart to correct him. A few times I said, “Well, America’s really far from England, so. . .” He only paused, said “I see, alright,” nodded a little, and went on.

I noticed that a few of my siblings were glancing over at us from time to time. Not really when Mamadou spoke, since a lot of the time he spoke it was to no one, commenting on a character in the soap, or to wish---somewhat rhetorically, since he said it so softly and was paid no heed---that the television were tuned to a different channel. But when I replied, a few bright eyes in the dark flitted our way, then briefly about the room as though to see if anyone else had heard, then back to the TV. No one but the two of us, though, said a word.

We talked intermittently through the few hours we sat there in the family room. My host family was hosting him, too, for four months while he worked in the onion fields owned by my host father. There were a lot of fields, he said. My father, the chief, owned several. Mamadou worked and watered them from five in the morning until about five in the evening. Then he came home for dinner and a night’s good rest. I went to bed around the same time he did---nine-thirty, ten---while the rest of the family sat up later. It was a little embarrassing that, at the end of a day during which I had not exerted myself at all, I had no more stamina than a man who’d worked twelve hours carrying heavy buckets of water in the hot sun. I decided it was mental fatigue, the Wolof and all. Yeah. I had to believe I was doing some pretty challenging stuff in Senegal.

Looking Forward: Solitude.

looking forward

I landed on the North Island of New Zealand in November 2008. I was alone, except for a mammoth North Face backpack, stuffed to capacity with Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap and two dozen chocolate-chip Clif Bars. I planned to spend the next four weeks by myself, farm-hopping, if you will, as a participant in an organization called WWOOF (“Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms”).

For seven nights, I slept in a trailer on the lawn of a couple in their sixties, who sold produce at local farmers’ markets and ate only raw food. Bedtime came early at this particular household, and I spent hours each night reading by flashlight in my bunk, a hot water bottle nestled at my feet. I felt fragile---emotionally, because the quiet made me nervous, and physically, because I was too unsettled in my new surroundings to stomach the mountains of raw vegetables that were served for dinner each evening.

The next ten days were spent on a small family farm so implausibly lush, I was certain I’d found Tolkien’s Shire. There, I met Jo, a single mother who---on a daily basis---baked bread, practiced yoga, milked goats, trimmed roses, tended an unwieldy flock of chickens, and kept a vegetable garden. She taught me to make pavlova and strawberry jam, clean chicken coops, care for the animals. And at the end of each day, I retired to a cozy cabin in the backyard. I was alone, but exhausted. My body ached in a way that felt satisfying, even pleasurable. I slept soundly.

I ended my trip on Great Barrier Island, where I washed dishes at a local fishing lodge in exchange for a bed and free meals, many of which happened to include lobster. The people there were patient, generous, relaxed. The fishermen---who wore rain slickers and thick white beards, just as I expected fishermen would---took me to sea and taught me to properly cast a line, never batting an eye when I ultimately chose to eat gingersnaps on the boat’s deck rather than participate in the unsavory task of gutting the day’s catch.

One morning before I left, the lodge owners allowed me to take their station wagon to the beach (a terrifying experience, as I’d had no prior experience driving on the left-hand side of the road). When I finally arrived, nauseous and a little shaky, I found the sands deserted, with not a single other beachgoer in sight. And so I spent that afternoon alone, with a book and a sandwich and a sweater to guard against the wind.

I might, at one time, have found this solitude frightening. But on that day I felt adventurous. Like a daring traveler. A wanderer. A pioneer.

Today, as a writer, I spend an inordinate amount of time alone. Depending on my mood and the rhythm of the day, I find this both liberating and lonesome---there are times when I can’t stand the quiet; there are others when it’s nothing short of sublime.

Solitude, I’ve found, is its own kind of wilderness. Becoming familiar with the terrain requires a certain amount of exploration, and a bravery I can’t always find.

But what a pleasure it can be to surrender sometimes---to wander, to get lost, to accept the challenge.

Lucky Peas

uniquely southern

Happy 2013!  It's officially that time of the year when people flock to their favorite social media sites to proclaim their resolutions to the world. Realized or not, most goals are to lose and gain at the same time.  Lose weight, gain confidence; lose a bad habit, gain a healthier lifestyle; lose the bad attitude, gain a positive outlook.  My resolution for this year is to improve myself on a daily, not yearly, basis.  Every morning should be viewed as a fresh start, a clean slate, and a day that we can all choose to be a better person.  Whatever the goal might be, there is also another important component to this day---the food.  There is a variety of dishes deemed as lucky and many would argue are a necessity on any true new year menu.  A plate full of cooked greens and black-eyed peas symbolize monetary growth and good fortune, pork represents abundance and progress, and fish is thought to promote a long life.  Being a vegetarian means I usually go for double helpings of the greens and beans then hope for the best.  My favorite way to ring in the beginning of a year is to indulge in an overflowing plate of the classic southern dish known as Hoppin' John.  There is a variety of ways to make this dish, but I always take the simple, meatless route.

Hoppin' John
2 cans black-eyed peas (washed and drained)
1 cup vegetable broth
1/3 cup chopped red onion
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 minced garlic clove
1 teaspoon dry thyme
lemon juice and zest
cilantro
fresh spinach
rice
In a pan, saute the chopped onion and garlic in olive oil until the aroma makes your mouth water with excitement.  Add peas, broth, thyme and bring to a boil.  Once the stew is bubbling, turn the heat down and simmer on low for 45 minutes to an hour.  Serve over a bed of spinach and a heaping mound of rice.  Spritz with lemon juice and garnish with lemon zest and a few twigs of cilantro.   Hoppin' John may not be the most eye popping dish, but it's definitely a recipe for good luck and a full belly.

The F Words: Miriam Blocker

the f words

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Miriam. You might have noticed that Miriam and I share a last name; she's married, you see, to my little brother, and is a seriously amazing lady. She studied at the University of Edinburgh, where she managed a theater over the summers (where, it happens, she met said little brother), then moved here to the States to join my wacky family. Her parents, both Anglican priests, still live in Manchester, but are Dutch (mom) and American (dad) by birth. That said, Miriam still managed to develop a very English taste for Christmas pudding, something she got me to try exactly once. The apple cake she shares below is a bit more my speed---though I it's likely I just didn't pour enough brandy sauce on that pudding . . . Tell us a bit about your day job. I develop and manage marketing campaigns for new luxury residential developments in New York.

How did you learn to cook? I learned a lot from my mum---she cooked almost every day when we were growing up, and she’s good at it, too.  My dad has a few things he likes to cook---including his 1-bottle-of-wine-for-the-pot-2-for-the-table fondue---that I’ve picked up along the way.  I learned to bake with family friends, making particularly English recipes like Christmas pudding and Victoria sponges.  When I got to university, I started to cook with my friends and I learned a lot from them, particularly as many of them were much more confident and would throw elaborate (Ten course! Themed! Costumed!) dinner parties or combine ingredients I’d never have thought of (sometimes heard of).  And I am definitely still learning---since I moved to the US I’ve been working on perfecting cornbread, chili, apple pies, picking up tips from family and friends and Ina Garten (among others).

Do you prefer to cook alone, or with friends and family? I really like the idea of cooking with friends and family, and with a few select people it can work out, but I think I am best suited to cooking alone.  I often like things done a particular way, and our tiny Manhattan kitchen can make it all a little too cozy unless you are really comfortable with your cooking partner.  But when it does work it’s wonderful.  And I always like someone to check the seasoning.

What's your favorite thing to make? I love making pizza.  And ice cream.  They are easy once you’ve got down a good basic recipe (dough, custard) and then you can tinker around endlessly with the toppings and flavours.  And some delicious combinations have happened by chance because of ingredients I happened to have in the house, like whiskey and stem ginger ice cream.

I also love making curry.  It’s such a different set of ingredients than I usually use, and it is incredibly comforting to have a pot stewing on the stove.  It reminds me of home---my mum cooks great lentil curries, and Manchester’s famous Curry Mile is down the road from where I grew up---and of traveling in India with my best friend. We spent a day in Udaipur learning to cook, making real chai tea with whole cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods, vegetable curry with the Chunky Chat masala the local's swore by, and chapatis.

If you had to choose one cuisine to eat for the rest of your life, which would it be? Probably Italian---you just can’t beat a big bowl of pasta and cheese.  And pizza, of course.  And gelato.

What recipe, cuisine or technique scares the crap out of you? I was vegetarian from the age of 10 until just after I left university, so my formative years as a cook were meatless ones and I never really learned how to cook meat or fish.  I am still intimidated by recipes that require elaborate (frankly, often even embarrassingly basic) techniques.  And I am not really much help when it comes to preparing my husband’s annual clambake birthday dinner (another quintessentially American meal)---sure, I can peel potatoes and shuck corn, but I am helpless in the face of 10 live lobsters that need a sharp knife to the head.  I just tend to shout words of encouragement from the other side of the room (specifically, "Go, Meg, you can do it!").

How do you think your relationships with your family have affected your relationship to food and cooking? My immediate family ate together nearly every day growing up, so food was an integral part of those family relationships.  It just seems such a normal, and important, part of family life, and so natural to want to cook for and share food with people you care about.

Even today, home cooking is strongly associated with women’s traditional place in the family and society. How do you reconcile your own love of the kitchen with your outlook on gender roles? For me at least, cooking is a choice and not something that is expected (or required) of me by others because I’m a woman.  And being a proficient cook is no longer tied in the same way to a woman’s identity as a woman, to whether you are an ‘ideal’ woman or ‘good’ wife, so I can enjoy cooking without that pressure.  Which doesn’t mean that burden to cook now falls equally between men and women, but there are a lot of couples I know where the man does more the cooking than the woman.  Also, the kitchen at home when I was growing up was well-stocked with tea towels proclaiming "A Woman's Place is in the House. Of Bishops" as my mum was campaigning for the ordination of women in the Church of England, which was a good reminder not to get too caught up in traditional gender roles.

Tell us a bit about the recipe you’re sharing. When did you first make it, and why? What do you love about it? This is my mum’s Dutch Apple Cake recipe.  This is the one exception she acknowledges to her assertion that she can’t bake (which I don’t think is true anyway).  I’ve been helping her make this for as long as I can remember, and I requested it for dessert on my birthday almost every year.  Though my mum is Dutch, this isn’t a longstanding family recipe (I think it comes from the Katie Stewart cookbook) but it is now committed to memory, and hopefully will be a family recipe going forward.  It’s light, not too sweet, and it goes really well with ice cream, homemade or otherwise.

Miriam's Mum's Dutch Apple Cake This is a European recipe, so measurements are by weight, not volume. (You need a kitchen scale if you don't have one, anyway!)

For the cake 6 oz. self rising flour 1 level tsp. baking powder Pinch of salt 3 oz. caster (superfine) sugar 1 egg 6 tbs. milk 2 tbs. neutral oil (sunflower if possible)

For the topping 1 lb. cooking apples (Braeburns or Granny Smiths work well) 1 oz. melted unsalted butter 2 oz. caster (superfine) sugar 1/2 level tsp. ground cinnamon

Heat the oven to 400F. Grease a 9” inch tin (or 12” and reduce the cooking time slightly).

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl and stir in the sugar.  Blend the egg with the milk and oil in a separate bowl then pour into the flour mixture. Mix together with a wooden spoon, then beat well for one minute until batter is smooth. Spoon mixture into the prepared tin and spread level.

Peel, core, quarter and thinly slice the apples. Spread the melted butter over the cake batter using a pastry brush.  Arrange the apple slices over the surface of the cake, inserting them on their side (curved side up) into the batter in a circle, pointing out from the centre to the edge (like spokes on a bike, only packed tightly).

Mix the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle this over the apples.  Place in the center of the pre-heated oven and bake for 35 minutes.  Allow to cool in the tin for two minutes.

Serve hot or cold, as-is or with cream or ice cream.

Grab bag.

grab bag

I don't know if you'd heard, but it's the holiday season. Things are festive and lit up and draped in tinsel everywhere you look. For the next two weeks, the world, my friends, is your disco ball. And while I love the holidays---being a fan of everything sparkly, gifts, and brown liquor, how could I not?---I can't help but spy feminist pitfalls everywhere I turn. The world suddenly seems littered with holly-draped, mistletoe-encrusted problematic situations. In celebration of the season, therefore, I humbly submit to you a grab bag of my feminist holiday dilemmas. Some of these I've come to terms with, some I'm still battling---where all are concerned, I'd love to hear what our lovely readers think, and what they do to cope, especially in these seven weeks of heightened sensitivity and exposure to less-than-perfect relatives. (Or whomever.)

His and Hers gift guides I know, I know. This doesn't seem like a real problem. And I guess it's pretty far down the hierarchy as far as problems go---let's call it, instead, a manifestation of a real problem. It's sometime in November when these types of guides start popping up in magazines and on blogs, and they drive me nuts. Invariably, the His side has something having to do with cocktails, whiskey, and wood, while Hers often features nail polish, cookware, and purses. (Stationery, to be fair, can usually be found in both the His and Hers columns, thank you notes being a universal post-holiday activity.)

The real issue here, of course, is that these routinely gendered guides represent and reinforce ridiculous standards. At the risk of stating the obvious: men like to cook. Women like whiskey and things that come in a burled finish. And sometimes, kids, the binary breaks down even further. Men wear clothes made for women, and women dare to buy tools and use them to fix things up around the house. I know---what will come next? The nationwide right to same-sex marriage? (We can only hope.) While I heartedly admit that most men and most women have different tastes, I'd argue that almost all of that difference comes from stuff like this---overt and insinuated guides to what we should want.

That said, I still totally want those pink J. Crew snowboots. Got it, Mom? (I told you I was still battling these things, right?)

The lyrics to Baby, It's Cold Outside I love Christmas music. I love carols, I love secular Christmas songs, I love the classical masses and oratorios. I. Love. It. All. One of my long-time favorites? Baby, It's Cold Outside, written by Frank Loesser back in 1944 and debuted, adorably, in duet with his wife at a housewarming party. It was sometime in college or just after when my friend Miles ruined my fun by pointing out that the song is, it must be said, a little rapey.

If you're not familiar, check out the song, then come back on over. Back? Okay then. Now you should go check out The Atlantic's recent discussion of how the song's problematic lyrics (most notably "Say, what's in this drink?" and "The answer is no!") might be addressed, and then you should pour yourself a cocktail (A Manhattan is really best for this.) and listen to the song again, appreciating how awesome it is despite the creeptastic undertones. As a matter of fact, those undertones (that tension) might be one of the reasons it's just so good.

Men who don't help with post-dinner cleanup This one is both the one that annoys me most, and the one we can actually do something about. Even with the advent of men to the holiday kitchen when it comes to meal prep, I've noticed something: they typically don't stick around afterward to clean up. After dinner on Thanksgiving or Christmas, it's still the women who are far more likely to be found performing the far less glamorous cleanup work while the men relax with a Scotch. Since we've already established that women like whiskey, too, I hope we can all agree to do one thing for our sisterhood this holiday season: confront the lazy men in our lives and make them clean up. Even if they cooked. Because they have quite a backlog to work off, as far as I'm concerned.

I hope you've enjoyed this tour of the little things that torture me during the holidays. I'll leave you now to go ogle some sparkly lights, drape myself in baubles, and order cookbooks for all the women I know. Because, let's face it: I, too, am a product of the patriarchy, and I can't fight it 24 hours a day. Especially when it's so pretty!

Doing it Yourself

city flower

This past weekend I infused honey in my tiny Brooklyn apartment. Before you get the wrong idea: infusing honey is no great feat of urban homesteading. The process itself is not much more difficult than than steeping a bag of tea. Avoiding a sticky mess is the real challenge but barring any honey disasters, it’s a simple task: add spices to honey, heat honey, strain honey, pour honey into sterilized jars and seal them up. Before the holidays I’ll wrap my amber jars of cinnamon and cardamom-infused honey in a piece of burlap and tie them up with ribbon. They’ll serve as tiny gifts to family members who we’ve traveled far to see: a little treat from my kitchen to theirs.

I like this kind of gift-giving. It’s simple and the act of making the gifts serves as a quiet moment in what can be a hectic season. To be totally honest, it’s more about the joy that it brings me than anything else. Instead of the anxiety of spending hours looking for an affordable gift in crowded stores, making the honey was peaceful, even soothing. For the hour or two that I spent gathering my supplies and preparing my gifts, I had nothing to do but remember to stir the honey and make sure that I didn’t spill anything. There was no whiny Christmas music, no pushy shoppers, just me and my glass jars in a comically small kitchen.

As I strained honey into cup-sized jars I thought about the different ways that our hosts might use their gift. One will stir hers into into cups of tea, another will drizzle it over buttered toast, still one more will pass it along to an unsuspecting neighbor, never to be seen again. There’s no perfect solution when it comes to giving holiday gifts, but in my view, making a little something in your own kitchen comes pretty close. Even if the finished product languishes in someone's cupboard, you've gained yourself a few quiet moments of holiday cheer. For me, that's reason enough to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

 

Food Crush

The Park Slope Food Co-op has more than 16,000 members and not a lot of square footage. The state of the co-op depended on the crowd, which depended on the day of the week and the time of the day. Some days it was busy. Some days it was chaotic. Some days it was like the pulsing mosh pit of a rock concert. My work schedule allowed me to grocery shop on the off hours, though, so  I could avoid the crush of after work or weekend shopping crowds and visit at 2 pm, joined only by neighborhood moms and their croissant-nibbling toddlers. On one particular day I remember how flush with food the whole place seemed and how empty of other people. Maybe there was a free concert in the park (with a real mosh pit?) or maybe everyone was at the beach? Whatever it was, the place was so unusually empty that it felt like an altar or a tomb. It felt untouched, quiet, ripe. This feeling is hard to find in New York City, where after a long day of work and a long commute on the subway most everything feels touched and loud and stale. At least that’s how it felt to me after a busy shift at the coffee shop or after eight hours selling jewelry at my retail job. Visiting the co-op was my way of relaxing. It was soothing because I could actually afford the nice cheese, the olives, the beer.  I would carry home big bags of food and nibble my own croissant as I moseyed along the streets of Park Slope, Prospect Heights, then into Crown Heights.

I remembered that quiet trip to the co-op really clearly this week for some reason, perhaps because it was so different from this time of year, and perhaps because changing seasons seem to stir up fond food memories and nostalgia.  It was late summer and there were stone fruits piled into little jewel colored mountains, spared from rainbowed avalances by the walls of bulging cardboard boxes. There were mushrooms and sprouts, flats of wheatgrass, various greens, beets, carrots, celery, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, waxy, alien-looking tropical fruits. Entire walls of varied color and texture.

What I most clearly remember from that day was the basil. It was ever present in the co-op, stored inside a banker box sized bin that was sometimes full, sometimes empty. Sometimes when I lifted the lid and fished around inside for a bundle all that I recovered was some sand and a few limp leaves. This particular day I found myself lifting the squeaky lid of the bin and inhaling a cloud of strong sweet basil. The fistful I pulled out was huge. I could feel the life in the leaves and the grit of the sand.

As I stood in the empty aisle, fragrant basil in hand, I suddenly felt like I was holding a ribbon wrapped  bunch of flowers. Sure, the flowers were basil and the ribbon was a rubber band, but in my minds eye - in this murky, shifting place of the mind that is memory---this is where I fell for food. Where, I guess you could say, I caught the bouquet.

 

Live to Eat

My mom used to say that there are two types of people, with a very important distinction to be made between them. There are those who eat to live and those who live to eat. We, as a family, have always fallen into the latter category. Growing up, dinnertime was serious business. We gathered night after night, with a properly set table, a square meal, and post-dinner coffee (for the adults, of course). Friends who joined us were always amazed that we didn’t just eat and run, but seemingly enjoyed the process. At the top of her game, my mom was a great cook. We have the photographic evidence from birthdays past to suggest she was capable of extraordinary baking feats (homemade Big Bird cakes, for instance) and family members talk about the elegant dinner parties my mom threw when my parents were first married, but really, her specialty ran closer to the classics---the dishes that don’t require a recipe. Our cousin summed this up perfectly, joking that, “A recipe calls for an egg and Janice uses a marshmallow.” Pot roast, linguini and clam sauce, a perfect spiral ham, roasted chicken, escarole and beans, Sunday sauce: this was my mom’s food. Unfussy, with no pretenses---the kind of food that invited you to stay awhile.  She went to the public market in Rochester, not because it was trendy to eat seasonal and local, but because it was cheaper. “Everything’s a dollar!” she would exclaim, arms full of tomatoes, cucumbers, and romaine lettuce in the summer. As we grew up, and inevitably thought we knew everything, my sisters and I rolled our eyes at the predictability of her cooking. If she hosted a brunch, you were guaranteed an egg strata, ham, and a make-ahead French toast casserole. For summer barbeques by the pool, you could count on potato salad, macaroni salad with tuna, and a huge bowl of melon.

Scan_Pic0011

My mom was the only person I knew who could pull together a meal for 15 with no advance notice. She kept a bag or two of chips in the pantry, and veggies, dips and cheese in the fridge, ready to be pulled out on a moment’s notice if friends or family swung by unannounced. One Christmas not too long ago, our group doubled hours before the beef tenderloin, double baked potatoes, and salad were to hit the table, and I can tell you definitively that we still had leftovers. To this day, if you ask a family member or friend about my mom’s cooking, they will most certainly tell you about their favorite dish, but more importantly, about the memories that the food conjures. Sara will tell you about coming over on Thanksgiving or Christmas and digging the remaining spinach dip out of the bread bowl that my mom saved just for her. She’ll tell you how even with a house full of people, my mom would stop and really talk to her. My friend Meg will tell you about the taco turkey chili my mom had waiting for us on several occasions, when we sought refuge in Rochester after a particularly long week of college. She’ll tell you how my mom always made her feel at home, even in the handful of times she was there. Nikki will most definitely tell you about my mom’s clam sauce, and how she didn’t even need to ask for it when she came to Rochester. It was waiting, along with a pot of coffee after dinner, to give us all an excuse to sit and chat even longer. For me, it’s zucchini sautéed in tomatoes (with a heaping scoop of parmesan) and sausage and potatoes; the food that reminds me of sitting at the table on a Tuesday night---in other words, the ordinary food. It's my mom's salad, generously dressed with oil, red wine vinegar and Marie's blue cheese dressing, begging to be eaten directly out of the bowl. It's the recipes that also remind me so much of my grandma: the pizzelles made at Christmas time and the Easter bread---laced with anise and lightly frosted---that my mom hand delivered to eagerly waiting friends and family each year.

As the years passed, my mom’s enthusiasm for cooking waned. On more than one occasion in recent years, my mom and dad were known to have toast for dinner. “You can’t eat toast for dinner!” my sisters and I argued, but my mom didn’t care. She told us that after forty years of marriage, she was done cooking---except for Sunday dinners and holidays, of course. My sister and brother-in-law took over Thanksgiving hosting duties in the past few years, but as we realized this year, my mom was still the heart and soul of the operation. This was the first year my mom didn’t buy the turkey and bring it over on Wednesday night, completely dressed, with explicit directions about timing and temperatures. This was the first year she didn’t make her mashed potatoes---made ahead of time and frozen (controversial until you actually taste said potatoes)---her stuffing or her butternut squash. This was the first year she didn’t save the wishbone from the turkey, to make a wish on. And so this year we did the only thing we knew how to do without her: we made her food. My sisters and cousins spent the weekend before Thanksgiving mashing forty pounds of potatoes and wrangling with a number of unyielding squash.  Weeks before Thanksgiving, we panicked, not remembering the recipe for my mom’s stuffing. Katie, in Australia, came to the rescue. My mom’s stuffing has been a mainstay in her Australian Thanksgiving for years; her friends actually refer to it as Mrs. Brady’s stuffing. We sat down for Thanksgiving dinner, surrounded by my mom’s food and the family and friends who have sustained us over the last year. A close family friend said grace and lit a candle for my mom. Danielle lost both her parents in the last decade, and told us it was my mom who allowed her to appreciate Thanksgiving again.

My mom’s legacy is everywhere, but perhaps nowhere as clearly as at the dinner table. Whether it’s on fine china at Thanksgiving or pizza on paper plates, we continue to break bread together, sharing our food and our stories as we always have. It’s not just food, after all, it’s family.

For the rest of us

blurred christmas

So, here we are again.  The Holiday Season is upon us.  Depending upon who are you are, this either means a great deal or almost nothing at all.  Whatever your traditions or affiliations (cultural, religious or otherwise), there is no escaping the Holiday Industrial Complex in this country.  Every year I struggle with the very mixed emotions that accompany my identity as a secular, Jewish but nostalgic and kind of sappy person.  I yearn for rituals and moments in which to touch base with family, consider particular stories/lessons about humanity, make special foods.  This year, as the matriarch in a new family, I am confronted with decisions about how to integrate “Holiday” traditions into our lives, for our daughter’s sake. Although in 2012, we say “Holiday” in reference to things that might take place in December (to include Chanukah, Kwanzaa), what we really mean is Christmas.  All jokes referring to paranoid conservatives spouting off about the "War on Christmas" or the "War on Jesus" aside . . . the popularization of Chanukah and Kwanzaa have always been simply a response to Christmas (and a pretty woeful one, at that).  Let’s face facts: Christmas will never not be a really huge deal and one that takes the cake.  Christmas is so embedded in our culture, our calendar, our winter and so beloved, there is no extricating it.  Beyond the gifts, music, food and décor, Christmas is also a Holiday onto which everyone’s personal psychodrama is superimposed.  The way in which families gather or don’t, the traditions people had as children or didn’t . . . the powerful dynamics at play during this time of year call up some of the deepest feelings of joy or longing for many Americans.  Oh and also, reverent people consider it holy and significant.

I grew up in a home that was very culturally Jewish, but didn’t really give much credence to Holidays, per se.  We typically belonged to a Synagogue, but mostly only went on the High Holidays, which, incidentally do not include Chanukah.  For Jews, the major deals are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (New Year and Memorial Day-ish).  Tragically, our High Holidays don’t involve gifts.  And let's be honest---they aren't really all that fun.  Rosh Hashanah tries hard with apples and honey and talk of renewal, but is sort of a downer what with the stern warnings about being inscribed in the Book of Life.  Even the dressed up version of Chanukah has un-sing-able songs in minor keys and potato pancakes (?!).

Chanukah was a bit of an afterthought in my house and my parents often grumbled about how it is actually is a very minor Holiday, bastardized in this country to compete with Christmas.  As far as I know, we are the only culture in which Chanukah is celebrated with gifts.  The Americanized version of Chanukah can often look like a “Jewish Christmas,” with crass commercialism at the core.  Despite my profound yearnings as a child, my parents weren’t buying it or buying it, although some years they managed to go beyond the candle lighting and chocolate coins to bestow socks, pajamas or books.

While, as an adult, I can totally respect their philosophical stand on this front, as a child, I desperately wanted what I saw most other kids having---not just an embarrassment of gifts, but a whole season devoted to them.  I would spend time at friends' houses during December and watch as the tree was trimmed and all the rooms filled up with sparkling trinkets, bright parcels and the fragrance of cinnamon sticks.  The promise of this sacred time when everything got so cozy and everyone gathered together from far and wide (particularly salient for me, as my siblings were much older and lived all over the world) felt impossible to resist.

I also knew people growing up who were Jewish, but just threw in the towel and celebrated Christmas.  This was always sort of sad to me.  It spoke to two unfortunate realities---that Jews in this country feel so overwhelmed by the power of Christmas that they feel compelled to participate in another religion's Holiday and/or they feel their children can't tolerate December without the Bacchanalia.  Meanwhile, I totally get this.  I won't mince words, Christmas wins.  It is friggin’ awesome for kids.  And let’s not even consider families in which there is only one Jewish parent and they “celebrate both.”  I SAY AGAIN, CHRISTMAS WINS.

So how to make sense of it all now?  The fact is that my parents were consistently generous throughout the year with their love, their time and many of the material things we desired.  Just because I didn't score a payload at Christmas, doesn't mean I didn't have a wealth of toys and games.  I had way more than I needed, as so many of us did.  And despite my desire to be like the other kids, I never had to watch my parents grow anxious or irritable about shopping for a bounty of gifts or spending money they didn't have.  They also made it clear that it was highly inappropriate to develop a sense of entitlement about gifts, especially as a child.  These lessons were swallowed hard, but remain valuable.

I think this is what want for Isadora, ultimately.  I hope she feels loved beyond belief and that she lives with a sense of joy throughout the year.  I hope that she relishes how our family is different and feels confident and comfortable with who we are.  I hope we celebrate important milestones with good cheer and delicious foods in each season and take great pains to be together with extended family as often as possible.  I also plan to spoil her with frivolous gift items and possibly spend more money than is reasonable on things like a long sleeve t-shirt with a bulldog silkscreen.  And certainly most important, I intend to teach her about giving to others and being of service because we have so much relative to most.

(Images: Marco Ghitti via Flickr)

Lessons from Miami...

lessons for clara

Dear Clara,

Sometimes we all need just a touch of sunshine, right? We got our fill last weekend in Miami.  Apart from quick runs through the airport, I haven’t been to Miami in several years and I was surprised at how much has changed.  Well, at least it has downtown.  When I was there last, for a long work event, there was hardly anything to do downtown, you had to go substantially further away.  But now the whole skyline is full of shiny glass buildings.  I’m sure they give their residents ocean views just as far as the eye can see.

I don’t know Miami that well, but I’ve always appreciated a visit.  There is just something about the atmosphere that seems fun; I think it has something to do with all that sunshine.  I’ve also learned the following during my brief visits:

  • When in doubt go with color…:Hot pink, neon green, turquoise blue, light up purple…those all seem to be fair game in Miami, and I’ve always admired the city’s tendency to just go for it.  Once winter sets in here, we’re all black nearly all the time and those pops of bright are like little multi-colored sunshines all by themselves.
  • …But temper it with white: Part of what makes those colors pop is that they’re still on a neutral background.  It’s just not black.  White is clean…and airy…and bright, and it makes me want to see all those colorful details more.
  • What’s old can be new again: Miami has such history and just because something fell out of favor for a bit doesn’t mean it’s done in Miami.  You could look at South Beach---or even the downtown area.  I think there is a tremendous capacity to restore and make new areas and architecture that aren’t found so readily in other parts of the country.
  • Lime goes with chicken soup: Once, when passing through Miami, I came back from a trip rather ill, and a good friend picked me up at the airport.  Her husband picked up chicken soup and in the Latin tradition, taught me to squeeze lime into it.  It has changed chicken noodle soup for me forever.
  • Children belong: I think people don’t often realize that while Miami certainly has its fun for adults, children have a prominent place there too.  It’s such a wonderful feeling to feel welcome as a family.  Traveling with children is not always the easiest, so be sure to extend that same welcome to others who arrive with children, regardless of whether you expected them.
  • Appreciate what’s around you, especially if it’s the beach:  I actually find the beach around Miami to be beautiful.  Maybe not right downtown, but in the area and I’m surprised when people who live right there, tell me that the beach isn’t that wonderful.  Or that it’s too cold.  I know that when you live right next to things, it’s tempting to take them for granted, but try to appreciate it.  For someone else, it might be the attraction of a lifetime.

All my love,

Mom

Roast Beef Sandwiches, Torpedo IPA, and Bioluminescence

IMG_3737

By Hilary Halpern It's funny how special experiences can shape our tastes. Roast beef with horseradish on sourdough has never been a sandwich I order at the deli, but after eating this particular sandwich sailing downwind on a light, breezy day on the Monterey Bay, it has become my favorite sandwich. And I've always liked Sierra Nevada's Torpedo Extra IPA, but drinking one now makes me nostalgic for Wednesday night races on Rocinante - it was the skipper's favorite beer.

Whenever I am able to catch a glimpse of the coast at night, I gaze out on the horizon and imagine all the activity happening beneath the surface. I imagine the plankton glittering in the water like fireflies as their environment is ever so peacefully disturbed by the natural wake of a living creature; a whale, or a sailboat. I like to think of sailboats as alive. The moody breeze whirls past the sails, manipulated by the lines, which are held by the sailor, who is steering the boat to get to perfect synchronicity with the wind, the sails, the hull, and the water all working in unison. Then it is alive, a sea creature gliding silently through the water amongst the other sea creatures.

It was a cloudy August morning. When I arrived at the harbor I had butterflies in my stomach that were so debilitating, they dulled my senses. We were rafted up next to another Santa Cruz 27' and were passing our personal cargo for the race from the dockside to their boat to our boat. Even though I have rigged these boats dozens of times in my sailing classes, I was blanking on how to run any of the lines. The butterflies were making me light - my sea legs had escaped me and I awkwardly moved about bow.

In a blur, we had cast off from the other boat somehow and were on our way out the harbor mouth. We sailed to and fro until the countdown and set ourselves up for a perfect start. As the gun went off, my butterflies were scared away - the anticipation was over. It was not a particularly windy day, which, being a novice sailor, I was secretly relieved about. My first race on this same boat was short and sweet with winds blowing over 25 knots and a near catastrophe that could have brought our rigging down, but that is another story for another time. This would be only my second real race aside from the Wednesday night beer-can regattas, and the longest race I have ever participated in. We would sail back at night! My feeble duty at this point was to keep my weight evenly distributed about the boat to maintain speed and keep her from heeling too much. I would have liked to work the lines, the pit, or the foredeck, but I had to prove myself as rail-meat first. I was just grateful to be on the water.

The advantage to being rail meat is the observation time. Going upwind I loved dangling my feet off the railing and feeling my weight flatten this roughly 4000 pound vessel. I would watch the coastline get farther away and listen to the water lapping up against the hull. I loved feeling the wind sting my face. I would listen to the skipper talk strategy. He would give everyone full access to his thought process and game plan as he spoke his mind, his focused stream of consciousness. When we would tack over I would do my best to time switching sides just right as to keep the boat balanced. If it was really windy and the boat was heeling heavily, it could never be guaranteed whether I could make it to windward or not; I've come pretty close to slipping through the railing of the lee side and into the cold water. I would grip the mast for dear life and struggle across the bow as swiftly as possible and ideally, without any help. A good rail-meater doesn't need a hand and is completely self-sufficient; a complete gift of weight distribution, allowing other crew members to focus on their own duties. On this mellow race day I didn't have to worry about any of that — the breeze was light and we were leisurely sailing along.

After we rounded the Natural Bridges mark, most of the course was downwind. We lunched on our roast beef sandwiches courtesy of our skipper and he even popped open a Torpedo. It was going to be slow-going. It was an oddly chilly summer day and we all had on our foulies, anticipating the cold, but as the afternoon rolled around the breeze grew warmer and the high fog was bright white with the sun shining just above it. The conversation would ebb and flow like the current; we would talk sailing or just share stories. At one point I laid on the bow and gazed up at where the spinnaker met the mast and savored every sight, sound, and scent of being on the water. It was one of those moments I drank up so much that if I close my eyes right now I swear I could teleport back.

Things started to get exciting as we neared the other side of the bay. We were almost to our final mark - the Elkhorn Yacht Club. I think as much as we love to be on the water, most sailors have an innate sense of relief as the comforts of land approach and are ever more certain. We were tied up just in time for dinner and festivities at the yacht club were well underway . . . this is when the whirlwind of the night began. As we walked into the warm twinkle-lit flag adorned yacht club, everyone was rosy-cheeked and wind-blown from the elements and the booze. There was live music for the race celebration and everyone shared stories of the day and spoke tales of the past and plans for the future. As the night wore on, people got warmer and fuzzier off their buzzes and declarations of respect and loyalty were made amongst sailors and dancing ensued.

Midnight approached and it was time for us to go. Some were getting a 45 minute taxi-ride back to Santa Cruz and some were camping in their boats to sleep off the booze and sail back in the morning - we were the only bunch that wanted to undertake the five-hour journey on the water that night. We received warning after warning and reason after reason not to go, but our skipper was determined. I had been looking forward to my first sail at night ever since I knew I would be on this race, but I began to build up some fear as everybody gave me their phone number and pleaded that I call them if anything were to go wrong (as if I could make a phone-call as we sink into the deep). However, I trusted my skipper completely and respected whatever decision he made — and this time it was to rig the boat for take off. I had a little buzz going all night but as soon as we started inching out of the harbor, I was sobered with task at hand - making it back home in one piece.

The breeze was still light and the fog was high. We couldn't see any stars but I was grateful we could see the dim lights of the coastline. We wanted to keep these lights in sight for the entirety of our voyage, even if it wasn't the most direct line. We started out motoring on low RPM's; the feeble puffs of wind could barely blow the wisps of hair off my face. The water was eerily serene. The sails were collapsed. We were all silent. It was very dark and I couldn't see anyone's faces. When I looked at my skipper all I could see was the red glow of his cigarette. I started to relax. I was chilled from the damp air and glad I had on my foulies. Every once in a while I would go down below and check on my snoozing crew-mate while also huddling next to him for a shot at warmth. I could never stay below for long because the setting above was too special to miss. It was worth battling the elements.

We started to get stronger puffs and I asked the skipper if we could turn off the outboard engine. We set the sails. Now I could hear the sounds of the sea at night. The mile buoy was whining in the distance with the subtle swell. The water was softly lapping against the hull of the boat. There was a splash here and there and I assumed it was the fishing sea-birds, but I couldn't be certain it wasn't a dolphin or whale breaking the surface for air, a curious shark, or perhaps a mermaid. Who knew what reality was happening below us — I loved imagining it all. As for the crew, we were mostly silent. It was incredibly peaceful. The skipper only broke the silence to tell me to look over the railing and dip my hand in the water. When I first stared at the passing sea-water, I could barely make out something glowing just beneath the surface. I looked back at our wake and saw that we were leaving a phosphorescent path. I dipped my hand in and to my delight glowing plankton jumped up my arm, glittering just for a second before disappearing back into the water. The disturbance of my hand was also leading a glowing path. It felt like I was creating magic. It was the moment that I became one with the sea. I was in love. I felt magical. I felt connected. I felt at peace with myself and the universe. I felt incredibly alive and unafraid of death. I will never forget that rare, beautiful moment.

We made it back to the harbor at 5am. This was the last time I sailed on Rocinante before I moved away and it was the perfect way to say goodbye. Until I get to experience the magic of sailing at night again, all I can do now is gaze at the horizon, eat a roast beef sandwich and raise my Torpedo IPA to Rocinante, my skipper and the crew, the sea, and that beautiful glittering plankton.

Republished with permission from What's It About?

Looking Forward: What I Need.

looking forward

I ate Thanksgiving dinner this year perched on an ottoman, the kind that’s hollow on the inside and meant to be filled with throw blankets and extra cushion covers. This one, much to my glee, contained my roommate’s collection of high school CDs – The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Strokes, and, best of all, a blink-182 cassette tape---the glory of which was revealed after I toppled off the ottoman’s lopsided lid while attempting to pass a tray of bread across the table. I wasn’t the only one who occupied improvised seating. Five-foot-tall Linda, who I met my first day of college, balanced on a disproportionately tall barstool; Lily and Megan, who dressed up as rats with me this Halloween, shared a wooden bench. My roommate Natalie’s brother, Andrew, and his friend, Dave---who I’d met for the first time that day---found seats on folding chairs borrowed from my brother; and Charlie, one of my oldest family friends, sat on a restaurant-style leather chair that Natalie had lugged home from her mother’s apartment in Bensonhurst.

To accommodate our many guests, we placed an old desk---which normally holds turntables and a hodgepodge of vinyl records---at the end of our dining table (mismatched tablecloths covered the dings and scratches). A lack of proper silverware forced us to get creative, using spatulas as serving spoons, ladles as ice cream scoops. And the food. There were two stuffings. Six pies. Enough cranberry sauce to feed a football team. This is what happens, I learned, when a group of fourteen collaborates on dinner.

It was the first Thanksgiving I’ve ever hosted (or co-hosted, as it were), and the first I’ve spent away from family. With our ever-fluctuating guest list, disorganized menu, and relative lack of space, I wondered beforehand whether the night would end up feeling like a real Thanksgiving.

But, as you probably can guess, it did.

My dad mentioned to me today that he can’t think of a past Thanksgiving or Christmas or birthday that wasn’t anything other than wonderful. Getting in the spirit of celebration---with family and friends and food---always makes those days special.

All of these things were there last week, of course.

And there was more. A candlelit apartment in a city I love. Great music. New friends, and ones I know I’ll keep for the rest of my life. I’ve realized this year, more than ever, that they’ve become family to me.

After dinner, we pushed the tables aside and arranged our chairs in the living room. “Everyone say what they’re thankful for,” someone suggested. Most everyone named family and friends, but there were more inventive contributions, too: 24-hour bodegas, neighborhood juice bars, bike rides through Brooklyn. (For the record, blog friends, one of the things I named was you.)

But Warren, another college friend in attendance, kept it simple and said it best: “I’m thankful to have what I need.”

I am, too. And I'm thankful to know that what I need isn't complicated, isn't out-of-reach. It's here.