Sunday, August 26, 2012

What You Need: A Recliner, Chocolate Cake, and Perspective

When I moved out to LA for graduate school, after living my entire life in NJ, I piled all of my worldly possessions in my little blue-green Ford Escort: my books, my CDs, some clothes, my bedding.  I figured that we could get anything else I needed when I got there.

My mother drove across the country with me, helping me with the move and the transition to a life 3000 miles away.   I'd secured a place in a one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, large enough for a futon in the bedroom, a beanbag chair and a smaller futon for the living room, some upside down crates that I used as tables, and a piece of plywood laid across two crates that I used as a desk.  At Kmart, I splurged on a tiny cheap wooden dinette set with a white table and farmhouse chairs, and I think I found a used swivel chair curbside somewhere off of Melrose Place.  I was living in the lap of luxury.

Sometime in the fall, my father came to stay with me for a visit.

For all of his risk-taking and adventuring, my father was also a creature of habit, the kind of guy that fell asleep in front of the television every night, head tilted back, mouth open slightly in a light snore.  Like Archie Bunker, whom he vaguely idolized, he had his chair, a recliner that no one else sat in (mostly because when we were at home, he occupied it).  I remember talking with my mother about the upcoming visit, laughing nervously, wondering where my father would sit.  She told me he'd make do.  I was dubious.

When we climbed the stairs and opened the door to my apartment, I held my breath.  What would he say about this, my first place of my own?

I entered the room, a few steps ahead of him, and turned, stepping aside with an arm flourish a la Vanna White.  "So?  What do you think?"

He was gaping.

Uh-oh, I thought.  I braced myself for the firestorm of disapproval.   Wondering what he was seeing.

"But Tinita," he said to me in all seriousness, in his slight Spanish accent, "where do you sit?  Where is your recliner?"

I almost peed myself laughing, though I knew I couldn't possibly laugh out loud.  Having refused any financial support from my parents, determined that I was going to do this doctoral degree thing alone, I was living close to poverty level.  Rice and beans and tortillas were my staples.  The improvised desk, the crates for bookcases and tables, the cheap pots and pans that leaned backwards from the weight of the handle when I put them on the stove, all of this carefully selected with a graduate student budget in mind ... and he wanted to know where my recliner was?

He insisted that we go, straight away, to a furniture store to procure said recliner. 

"But Dad," I said, as gently as I could manage, "they won't deliver it today."   You will, I thought, still laughing to myself, have to plant your ass on my cheap carpet.

My father was a stubborn man, though, and would hear none of my logic.  I was able to delay the trip to Levitz for a day (because heaven forbid we go somewhere sensible like IKEA), but eventually, he won out.

I dimly remember the visit to the furniture showroom, feeling like I was having an out-of-body experience.  We sat on recliner after recliner, my father and I, opening and closing them with great gusto.  Looking at fabric samples.  A strange father-daughter bonding.  "This one has a HANDLE!" he would exclaim, legs flying out with a thunk as I sank down into a green model further down the row, bouncing a bit to test its resilience.

We finally settled on one, a wide seat with low armrests, a deep forest green fabric with barely visible multicolored stripes, and it arrived on the day my father was to leave.  He sat in it for a good long while before we left for the airport, and when I returned home, it still smelled like him, a combination of hard work and aftershave.

I still have that recliner, 17 years later.  It's worn, like any piece of furniture that has lived in a graduate student apartment and made its way across the country.  But I can't bear to get rid of it.  Right now, it lives in our bedroom, where sometimes I sit in it, looking out the window, or curl up in it and cat nap.  Sometimes our kids rock in it for a minute or two while I'm folding laundry.  It reminds me of my dad, sitting in his recliner on a weekday night, falling asleep in front of the news, completely at peace.

I didn't need a recliner.

But sometimes, the things you didn't need turn out to be exactly what you needed after all.

Have you ever been surprised to "need" something that arrived at just the right time?

Six Minute Chocolate Cake
Adapted from the original Moosewood Cookbook.  My husband informed us tonight, as we were playing in the kitchen after dinner, that some chocolate cake would be exactly right.  You never need chocolate cake.  But this one comes together quickly, is vegan, and you don't have to feel too guilty about eating it.  A five year old can (and in fact did) make it mostly on his own.  It's not drop-dead fabulous cake, or rich gooey cake.  It's good, un-fancy cake for when cake is really, deep down, what you need.

1 1/2 c. flour 
1/3 c. cocoa powder 
1 t. baking soda 
1/2 t. salt 
1 c. sugar (coconut palm if you like)
1/2 c. oil (melted coconut oil would be great here)
1 c. cold brewed coffee (or water if you don't like coffee)
2 t. vanilla (or 1 1/2 t. vanilla and 1/2 t. almond extract)
2 T. apple cider vinegar 
chocolate chips (optional)
Glaze (optional; I rarely do this)
1/2 lb bittersweet chocolate 
3/4 c. hot water or 3/4 cup milk 
1/2 t. vanilla extract 
Preheat the oven to 375F.  Whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt and sugar into an ungreased 8 inch square or 9 inch round baking tin.

In a 2 cup measuring cup, measure and mix the oil, water or coffee and vanilla. Pour the liquid ingredients into the baking tin and mix the batter with a fork or small whisk.

When the batter is smooth, add the vinegar and stir quickly. Pale swirls will occur where the vinegar and baking soda react (this is actually really entertaining for a five year old). Stir just until the vinegar is even distributed throughout the batter.   If you're feeling crazy, toss some good chocolate chips on top.

Bake for 25-30 minutes. Set aside the cake to cool.

If you are making the glaze, reset the oven to 300F. Melt the chocolate in small ovenproof bowl or heavy skillet in the oven for about 15 minutes. Stir the hot liquid and vanilla into the chocolate until smooth. Spoon the glaze over the cooled cake. Refrigerate the glazed cake for a minimum of 30 minutes before serving.
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  1. I need some chocolate cake. RIGHT NOW.

    Seriously though, I never thought we needed the bread machine. Until we got it. And now Chris thinks of his beloved grandmother every time we use her bread maker and every time he gets a slice of hot bread. And that makes me smile.

  2. Another beautiful post - I love that you still have that chair. Sometimes you do need chocolate cake. My husband has a big moment coming up and I've just stocked up on all the ingredients to make his favorite chocolate cake with his mother's icing. Whether it ends up being eaten to celebrate or commiserate - it will be needed.

  3. Absolutely beautiful is amazing how much our parents affect us even more now later in life. I look at all of their items which have been passed down more and more...

  4. BEAUTIFUL writing and metaphors! I love how you weave together perspective and the joy of food - a woman after my own heart.

    I especially loved your honey-lavendar post - I have and do have so many of those energy sucking feelings...

    Chocolate cake sounds dreamy. So funny you picked chocolate cake for something you needed. To answer your question in a tangental way - New Years Eve - four years ago this year - I was hit w/ bad news about trying to get pregnant. I had a break down and all I wanted was some comfort and some relief. We promptly cancelled our NYE plans, stayed home in sweats, had a glass of champagne (or 2 or 3 I'm sure) and I made the most beautiful (lopsided) from scratch, chocolate layer cake. I displayed it in our glass cake dome we get from our wedding ... it was the cake that saved me that night.

    Now, I am going to make chocolate cake this week. Thank you for the inspiration - I love your words!

  5. To answer your question, yes, and I love it when it happens. Also, vegan cake?! Finally something yummy I CAN eat!

  6. There is the cake, but sometimes you just need a really good story. And this, my friend, is a REALLY good story. The telling of it, the actual events, the fact that you still have the chair in your room -- all of it.

  7. I love this post and I love how you still have it. I love it when things just show up and you didn't know you needed them till they did. Whether they be people or items, they can really make a big impact. I think the CD is something I needed.

  8. My roommates were giving me a hard time one week when I was in Dublin and I came home because I couldn't wander around town and avoid them any more. There was a slip under my door saying I had a box I had to come pick up at the main office. Dad had sent me a box of all my favorite spices from Penzeys. One of them was new and made from powdered Peccorino cheese, which would have cost me an arm and a leg to buy in Ireland and made me feel so homesick. My roommates thought I was crazy when I unwrapped each jar and put them lovingly in my cabinet.

  9. Oh, that is just a great post.

    I too have furniture leftover from my grad school days--a coffee table my kids have both broken and a chair that's been mauled by 3 cats--but those pieces don't have quite the same emotional resonance as this chair.

    You know, we've got to talk grad school sometime!

  10. So glad I found you, not only for your gorgeous story-telling but for the cake recipe. We are a dairy free house and I can't wait to try this one.

  11. Love this post! Parents are a amazing and I benefit every time they visit. But that is such a comforting reminder of your dad.


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