Monday, December 30, 2013

Featured at BlogHer today!

My post, "Why I Will Never Invite Cinderella to My Daughter's Birthday Party," is being featured over at BlogHer today!  Please go join the conversation there; it's bound to be interesting.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Cleaning Out Closets, and Zaletti

Every once in a while, I get on a cleaning jag. Like the one that led me to throw out my books, only a little less drastic.

I think, in some respects, it's reactionary behavior: I am actively resisting becoming my mother.

You see, my mother has lived in the same house since she was two years old. Her two brothers moved out, got married, and eventually sold the place to her and to my father. It was easy. And my mother tends to travel by the path of least resistance.

While the house has undergone renovations over the years, parts of it still live in the 1950s, or 60s, or 70s. Though my mother is not exactly a hoarder, she comes close: things have accumulated in the attic, and since my father's death almost 11 years ago, they've also accumulated in every room of the three bedroom house. You can barely walk into the room where I slept for the first 17 years of my life; piles of clothes form an obstacle course to the furniture. In the back room over the garage, a thin film of dust covers almost everything. I fear that some day it will become my responsibility to clean out this house, and in the meantime, I try to keep my own accumulation at bay.

I was hoping to get up to her attic during the break to throw away old dresses I discovered at Thanksgiving (things I wore before I hit double digits) while I was looking for old books, but the timing hasn't seemed to work out. And I need the space to do this on my terms, without my mother looking on and fretting about it. I know that throwing things away is difficult for her, in this house where she has spent her entire life.

The problem with a house full of this stuff that one has gathered through the decades is that at some point, you begin to store things in a haphazard way that makes it virtually impossible to access both the things you want to use and the things you want to get rid of. The only way to clean out is to make things even more chaotic, to empty everything out of the space and look at it, and start over, storing things in ways that make sense.  It's a daunting task, even if the rewards involve finding the gems we'd forgotten we had.  You have to be fully prepared for this kind of deep cleaning.  It's not something to be undertaken lightly.

My yoga teacher says that we are like mini-versions of this problem.  We hold on to so much baggage--not all of it excess--but when it all becomes jumbled together, we become cluttered, too.  Which is the point of a meditative yoga practice.  To take out all the clutter, put it all under a microscope, and without judging ourselves, get rid of what we don't need. But also to know that in the process, things will get messy.  You don't reach bliss without slogging through a little mud.

If you've read this blog for at least a year, you know that I don't make New Year's resolutions, because I think it's too arbitrary; I think that if we really want to make change, we need to be ready, and a new calendar doesn't necessarily mean we're ready for large-scale renovation.  But even if I don't decide to do anything drastic, I do find myself cleaning out a little at this time of year.  Maybe it's my way of trying to start with a cleaner slate.

Are you ready to clean out a closet or two?  Or do you need some time to prepare for the clutter and chaos that cleaning will entail?

These were an experiment this year, a sort of clean-out-your-closet cookie. I'm not sure they'll become one of my staples, but I'm grateful for the impetus to make space.

1 c. currants
1/4 c. dark rum
1 c. + 2 T. stone ground cornmeal
1 1/4 c. flour
1/2 t. salt1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
4 egg yolks
1/2 c. sugar
6 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
zest of 2 lemon
1/2 c. confectioner's sugar
1 t. - 1 T. lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Soak the currants in the rum for at least 15 minutes, until plump.

Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking soda, salt and baking powder in medium bowl and set aside.

Using a stand mixer, beat the egg yolks and sugar together until the mixture becomes pale yellow.  Add the butter and lemon zest, beating until smooth.  Gradually add the dry ingredients and mix until well combined.  The dough should be firm; if it's too dry, add some of the rum from the currants, and if it's too wet, add a little flour.

Drain the currants and stir them into the dough, reserving the rum for another use.

Divide the dough into two balls. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into two 2" square logs about 10 inches long.  Cut each log into 1/2" thick slices, and gently press each cookie into a diamond shape.

Place the cookies on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes.  Remove the cookies and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Sire together confectioners' sugar and lemon juice (1 t. at a time) until you have a thin (but not runny) glaze.  Drizzle glaze over the cooled cookies and allow it to solidify before storing.
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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Adventures at ShopRite, Mattering, and Vegetarian Pot Pie

I'm a Friday night grocery shopper.  After the dinner has been eaten, the dishes are washed, the kids are clean and in bed, I head out into the darkness to scavenge what's left at the store.  I like Friday nights for two reasons: first, I buy supplies to cook during the weekend so we have leftovers to eat during the week, and second, it's really a much saner time to shop than, say, Saturday morning.  And because it's a little less crowded, I tend to see--and occasionally even talk with--the same staff each week, who are stocking shelves and bins with bananas and onions and juice.

Except that last week, it was the day before a snowstorm.  I'd prepared myself for a crowd, but never had I seen anything like this.  You'd think we were preparing for the nuclear holocaust, the way the lines to check out snaked through the aisles, to the back of the store.  Over the PA system, Sue, one of the managers, periodically apologized for the wait, and reassured people that all cashiers were working, and that they'd try to get us all out as soon as possible.

Knowing that it was fruitless to speed my way to the checkout, I loitered a little longer than usual, talking with Steve in produce about his solution to prevent squirrels from eating bird food (Tabasco sauce.  "Do you know how much the good stuff costs?" he demanded, indignant), making small talk with people in the deli section who were needlessly criticizing the speed of the guys behind the counter, and looked over my list, adding a few things I'd forgotten.

One of the things on my list was sidra, Spanish hard cider that my father used to get for Christmas from a bodega in Union City, along with assorted bricks of turrón.  I'd found it in ShopRite for two years running, much to my surprise, since New Jersey grocery stores don't sell liquor.  This year, it was nowhere to be found in the imported foods section, or at least, not that I could tell, among the cans of Goya beans and Maria cookies and guava paste.  I wrinkled my nose and pursed my lips.  Maybe someone had gotten wise to the alcohol content?

A bit farther down the aisle, someone was unloading a cart with new things from the back.  I figured I'd take a chance and ask, feeling a little badly, given that they were clearly swamped.

"Say it for me again?" he asked, kindly, when I told him what I was looking for.  I repeated the word, and explained: "It's basically like sparkling cider.  My father used to get it every year around this time; it's ... " (I feel somehow silly saying this) "... it's part of my heritage."

"Let me find out," he said.  "You go on and shop; I'll find you."

You'll find me? I thought, dubious.  It was bedlam; I decided I'd never see him again. 

A few minutes later, he did actually find me, shaking his head as he made his way around the other shopping carts.  "I don't think we have what you're looking for," he said.  "Did you check the ciders?"

"Yes," I assured him.  "But this is ... well ... ever so slightly alcoholic."

"Huh," he sniffed.  "And you got it here?"  I nodded.  "Someone wasn't doing their job."

"You're probably right," I agreed.  "Hey, thanks for looking."

I finished my shopping, and headed to the checkout, where the lines were now only halfway to the back of the store.

I didn't think much more about it, until I went back to the store this week, enjoying the relative quiet, reclaiming my shopping night.  He appeared out of nowhere, and it took me a minute to place him.  He, however, knew exactly who I was.

"Did you ever find your cider?" he asked.

I was flabbergasted.  "No, I didn't," I confessed.

He nodded.  "I found out that ours is imported from Spain.  Not exactly the same, but for a buck ninety-nine, worth a try, maybe?"

I laughed.  "Yes, worth a try.  Hey ..."  I faltered.  "Thanks for remembering."

"No problem," he said, grinning.  "Happy Holidays."

"You too," I said, putting the bottle in my cart, waving as I scooted away.

There was so much to unpack in that conversation.  The astonishment I felt at being remembered, especially from a busy night when the store was full of faces and requests.  The kindness of a stranger going out of his way to learn something about a small thing that was important to me, and seeking me out to tell me later.

I was talking with an old friend this weekend, who commented that coming from the place she went to college, mediocrity was considered akin to failure.  If you weren't winning Nobel Prizes, or writing the next Great American Novel, or curing cancer, or steering a Fortune 500 company, your life might as well be over; anything less than exceptional was unacceptable.  She's since come to realize otherwise, and said that she wished she figured it out much earlier, so she could have saved herself from a complete breakdown.

I used to think that way about success, too, at least, as it applied to me, even though I didn't go to school at one of those fancy brand-name places.  And yet, when it comes down to it, our lives are made up of many more ShopRite moments than they are the moments that find us creating the kinds of earthquakes that measure 8.5 on the Richter scale.  The same goes for blogging.  Sure, we get a post that goes viral.  Maybe we get hundreds of comments (not that this has ever happened to me).  But this is how I want to be remembered: not necessarily having published books that hundreds or even thousands of people read, or even building a program that has a legacy for my institution or my field, but mattering to individual human beings, one at a time, like one does in ShopRite.

How do you make people, even the ones you've never met, feel like they matter?

Vegetarian Pot Pie
adapted from Vegetarian Times
This could be a good alternative main dish for the vegetarians at your holiday table.  It's not terribly fancy, but it's hearty, and savory, and just the right kind of warm.  It would pair very well with Spanish sidra.

4 c. vegetable broth
4 c. water
1 small butternut squash, peeled, chopped 
1 lb thin-skinned potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large bunch spinach, well washed and coarsely chopped, or 3/4 c. frozen spinach
1 t. salt
1 1/2 c. frozen corn
1 1/2 c. cooked chickpeas
1/4 c. olive oil
1 onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1/3 c. flour
1/2 t. dried rubbed sage
1/2 t. dried thyme
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. milk
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed

Bring the broth, water, squash, potatoes, and salt to a boil in a large pot. Cover, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the spinach and corn. Cook for three minutes more. Drain the vegetables, reserving the broth. Stir in the chickpeas.

Heat oil in the same pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and saute for about 7 minutes, or until beginning to brown. Add the flour, herbs, and garlic, and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Slowly pour 4 cups of the reserved broth into the pot. Cook until the roux thickens, 5-7 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in the milk. Return the vegetables to the pot and mix; season to taste with salt and black pepper. Allow to cool slightly.

Preheat oven to 375.  Pour the filling into a 9x13-inch baking pan.  Gently roll out the puff pastry to the size of the baking dish and place over the filling, pressing around the edges to seal. Score four diagonal lines into the puff pastry, and bake for 45-60 minutes, or until the top of the crust is golden brown. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.
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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Bookshelf, and a Bittersweet Chocolate Tart

When I was younger, my dreams were filled with libraries.  I'd always been a reader, bending over my literary contraband until the light was too dim to read, knowing that I couldn't be caught with a flashlight; but it was libraries and bookstores that really captured my imagination: places where walls of stories and ideas literally surrounded you.  It wasn't until high school, though, that I started to realize I could live in my own library.  After shuttling shopping bags full of reading material back and forth from their house for me, my English teachers had invited me for an overnight visit so that I could come browse for myself.  I remember my astonishment when I realized that an entire room in their home was dedicated to mysteries, another to literary fiction, a nook to children's literature, a corner to miscellany like radios and camping.

As a misfit adolescent, I found solace in their private library; I imagined my own home, the place where I'd settle one day, a place where shelves of books dominated the walls.  In my teachers' house, I learned to read bookshelves as a window into the intellectual and spiritual lives of book owners.  Later, in graduate school, I would scan the titles on shelves in new places, head cocked sideways, looking for clues, finding myself in their intellectual wanderings, but also finding welcome novelty and difference.  People who lived in houses lined with well-loved books were the people I most wanted to be, the people I wanted to befriend.  The shelves were, in some profound way, metonyms for their owners.

I worked diligently at building my own library.  Over the years, I accumulated books like some people accumulate jewelry: high school literature surveys, college reading assignments, the literary theory of my first graduate school career, the sociology and philosophy and historical texts of my second.  When I returned to New Jersey from Los Angeles, my books took up most of the space in the moving truck.  Some of them were my trophies, but more of them--even the ones that collected dust--were my most reliable friends, the one constant thing in a life of flux.  Like the shelves I read in the homes I visited, my books represented me.

And like me, eventually, they learned to share space.  For a while, my books coexisted uneventfully with my husband's (engineering, science fiction, outdoors, mountain guides) in marriage.  They occupied unequally divided real estate on the shelves, but neither of us seemed to mind.

Then we had children.

It started with a concern for the books: we moved things up out of reach, gave things away, wanting to put our children's toys within their grasp, wanting to avoid telling them not to touch.  Though our bookshelves were still largely bookshelves, with adult books, as my children's toys and books started taking up a little more space, I began to winnow out the things I no longer read, telling myself that they could find kinder  homes elsewhere.  I worried a little bit more about making sure that I didn't hog the available shelf space from my husband, like a thoughtful partner might worry about hogging the marital bed.  Each year, some of my books would find their way to the Friends of the Library Book Sale; I wondered who bought them, where they ended up.  Still, I didn't feel that I'd sacrificed my house of books for my offspring.

When I left my job in June 2011, I brought home the books I'd accumulated in my office.  They'd been the hardest thing to pack; somehow, removing my books from those shelves represented the finality of my decision.  I no longer belonged there.  At home, after I unloaded my mini-library, our quarters felt cramped.  For a while, the books lay stacked on the floor, a representation of something abandoned.  Finally, reluctantly, I found spaces for most of them among the others, stacking them horizontally, in precarious places, as if they never really quite belonged.

Last year, in December and January, after two years of job hunting with no promising leads, I decided that I'd no longer need any of these books: my career was dead, and I was not the intellectual or professional I pretended to be.  I no longer cared about ideas, or words, or language, or anything.  In my sweatpants and fraying sweaters, I ravaged the fortress of paperbacks and hardcovers that had defined me and protected me, purging relentlessly.  Boxes of books made their way to my town library for sale, or for recycling.  On one trip downtown, the head librarian peered into the box and gasped audibly.  "But ... your Nortons," he said.  "Are you sure?"

My Norton Anthologies.  Yes, I was sure.  I was trying, desperately, but carefully, perhaps not even entirely consciously, to erase myself.  The books I kept on our shelves at home were thoughtfully chosen, things that I imagined perhaps my children could use some day, or the stories I loved too much to give away.  At one point, after dropping off the last boxes, I found myself in tears.

Mostly, I stopped reading.

Thankfully, I applied for one more job.

This summer, I started doing fellowship advising in an international programs unit.  My trailer office had a single flimsy metal bookcase, which remained mostly empty, but I brought a few travel books from home, and tentatively shelved them there.  Maybe they would inspire my students to explore the great unknown.  Maybe they would inspire me.

Two months later, through an astounding series of fortunate events, I started another job.  In an office with a large leaded glass window, and wooden overhead built-in bookshelf.

The secretary asked me if I needed help moving from my trailer.  My books, she said.  I shook my head.  I had nothing to move.  I joked about it over the next few weeks as I gradually transitioned to my new light-filled space, but the truth is that I felt a great longing for the books I'd thrown away.  One wall of my boss' office is filled with books, floor to ceiling, and an entire store room in the basement of one of the buildings at our college is filled with boxes of his personal library.  In the faculty master's office, books from across the disciplines dominate the walls, and cover every surface.  In his house across the street, there are three--no, four--entire walls of books.  I mourned for my own lost library, the artefacts of my past lives.  Proof that I existed, intellectually, in another time and space.  But I was relieved, too, to miss that part of myself, when in the darkest months of the past two years, I thought for sure it was dead.


Two weeks ago, I turned 40.  And I posted this request to Facebook: for this milestone birthday, send me the name of your favorite book.  To rebuild my library with friends, and friends of friends.  The names, and in some cases, the books themselves, came tumbling in, with stories about their discovery: the best, most treasured kinds of gifts.

I love my new office, and my new job.  My bookshelf remains mostly empty, but I know that this will change, over time; the ideas and stories will come again, accumulating gradually, as good libraries do, both enlarging and revealing the intellectual and spiritual lives of their owners.  And though the losing and the finding has been bittersweet, though I still have space to fill, in the end, I feel like I'm home.

What's your favorite book?  And what's your story about discovering it?  What does your library say about you?

Bittersweet Chocolate Tart

9 (5- by 2 1/4-inch) chocolate graham crackers
5 T. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 c. sugar

For filling:
1 1/4 c. heavy cream
9 oz. bittersweet chocolate (less than 65% cacao), chopped
2 large eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1/4 t. salt

For glaze:
2 T. heavy cream
1 3/4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 t. light corn syrup
1 T. warm water

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a food processor or blender, process the graham crackers and sugar until the crackers are finely ground.  Add melted butter and process until thoroughly combined.  Press the crust mixture evenly into a 9" tart pan, taking care to create a 3/4" rim.  Bake crust until firm, about 10 minutes. Cool 15 to 20 minutes.

Place the chocolate in a medium sized heatproof bowl.  Bring 1 1/4 c. cream to a boil, then pour over 9 oz. chocolate and let stand 5 minutes. Gently stir until smooth.  In a separate small bowl, whisk together eggs, vanilla, and salt, then stir into melted chocolate.  Pour filling into cooled crust.

Bake until the filling is set around the edges but center is still wobbly, 20 to 25 minutes. (The center will continue to set as the tart cools.) Cool completely in pan on rack, about 1 hour.

To make the glaze, bring 2 T. cream to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in 1 3/4 oz. chocolate until smooth. Stir in corn syrup, then warm water.  It will be fairly runny; don't let this trouble you, since it, too, will harden as it cools.

Pour the glaze over the tart (which should be at room temperature), then tilt and rotate the pan to coat the top of tart evenly. Let stand until glaze is set, about 1 hour.

Garnish with fresh raspberries and freshly made lightly sweetened whipped cream.
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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why I Will Never Invite Cinderella to My Daughter's Birthday Party

(cross-posted at

My daughter is not a feminist.  She is an almost-three-year-old tornado whose favorite color is blue, but who enjoys dressing in pink and purple tuille and dancing around, proclaiming, "I'm a PRINcess!"

To which I respond, invariably: "You are always a princess, because you're smart, and beautiful, and kind."  (Or some drek-y thing along those lines.)

Because, really, what else can you say that is uncomplicated enough for a well-indoctrinated three year old girl to understand?

We don't have TV in my house.  She doesn't watch many movies, and most of the ones she's seen involve Dora or Kai-Lan.  We've dressed her in hand-me-downs since birth, sifting through the piles to find the items of clothing that are most innocuous (no leopard print spandex. thanks).  Still, she has more shoes than Emelda Marcos (well, at least more shoes than I do), a closet full of clothing (of which only three or four outfits are acceptable), and a fondness for Disney.  She has to function on a preschool playground, and princess knowledge is playground currency.  My daughter is savvy; it's not surprising that she picked up and now uses the currency she needs.

Understandably, she was interested to learn that her friend would be having a birthday party at which Cinderella was going to make an appearance.

We arrived at the party, she dressed in a frilly purple number from her dress-up box.  Her friend, dressed in a blue Cinderella ball gown, hugged her fondly and ushered her into the basement.  And for a while, it was a standard happy pre-K party, with a small bouncy house in the basement, and a minature trampoline, and kids running amok.

via flickr Creative Commons
from user BalloonLady
Until Cinderella arrived.

N's friend, who had previously been animated and talkative, stood dumbstruck, her little eyes wide, her mouth hanging open.  Cinderella proceeded to make much of her, then invited the kids to come forward for "makeup" (face painting), informing them that "princesses need makeup."  I restrained myself, thankful that my daughter didn't want any, despite everyone's encouragement.  "It's ok," I reassured her. "You don't have to if you don't want to."

Then, there were lessons in waving in curtseying, and twirling around to "show off your dress" for the girls (yes, seriously), while there were lessons in bowing, showing off your muscles, and a primal yell of "charge!" for the boys.  For the whole group, there was a story about Cinderella going to visit a girls' boarding school, where she was going to choose one lucky girl to be a princess for a day.  And finally, a coronation ceremony, with sequined tiaras for the girls, and full crowns for the boys.

To say that I was grateful to see Cinderella go would be an understatement.  After we paraded upstairs to eat pizza (which my daughter would not eat, because she thinks pizza is "yuck"), and cake (which she also would not eat, because she doesn't like cake, which makes me wonder sometimes if we're really related), and strawberries (which she devoured), we took our leave, too.  And when I asked my daughter what she liked most about the party later, she told me, matter-of-factly, to my relief: "the strawberries."

I will not be inviting Cinderella to my daughter's birthday party.  I'm not anti-Disney; I think that princess play can be fun.  I played my share of "princess" in my youth; usually there were three of us, and the unlucky one with the short straw got to be the wicked witch who lived in the woods, and who was vanquished through our magical powers.

But that's just it.  We weren't playing a princess game in which makeup and dresses and waving and curtseying were important.  We played at a game that involved establishing, and tapping, our own powers, not relying on a fairy godmother and a dress to get us into a ball where we can show up the ugly (and admittedly, unkind) stepsisters.    So when I see things like yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education article on how women's leadership in academe remains largely unchanged, and yesterday's article in Nature about gender disparities in science, and Monday's NPR commentary on how women's representation on corporate boards remains unchanged, I start to wonder where, as a nation, we are going wrong.


As princesses in the woods of my neighbor's back yard, we were not playing in a male-dominated world.  We were playing in our world, by our rules.  And now, we're not playing there any more.  As adults, we continue to create a world that is not equal.  The same people who are encouraging Cinderella to be our daughters' first idol may not realize that they are perpetuating a culture that places the U.S. 23rd in the Global Gender Gap rankings.  It may surprise those people to learn that the U.S. ranks 60th–below India, China, and Uganda–in terms of political empowerment, and that U.S. women also still struggle with a significant wage gap, making an average of 77 cents to every dollar that men make, that African-American women make an average of 64 cents to a man’s dollar, and that Latina women make 55 cents.

I continue to be frustrated by what I read.  I know one thing for sure, which I've written here before: leaning in isn't enough.  We can and should raise daughters (and sons) who can speak up for themselves, who are willing to make choices, who have high aspirations.  We can't send them mixed messages about what we value, and we have to believe what we tell them, modeling it for them ourselves.  But we also need to change the adult world we're preparing them for, because we can't expect them to change it for us.

What will your first step be?
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Monday, December 2, 2013

On Believing, and Thoughts On Being Santa

Santa Fly-In has become a yearly tradition in my house, I guess, if going four times or so makes it traditional.  While pictures with Santa aren't a priority for us, as Santa visits go, it's not so bad: it's a free event at a local airport, where Santa arrives in a Cessna, and there's still a long line to get a personal audience with him, but while you're waiting, you can walk inside a hot air balloon, or jump in the bouncy house, or sit inside a police helicopter and a small airplane, marveling at the dials and gauges.  And towards dusk, if the weather cooperates, anywhere between five and ten hot air balloons take off from the south field.  So even if the Santa visit itself is a disaster, the event isn't a complete wash.

After we'd watched the helicopters take off this year, and my bouncy-house-loving daughter decided that she would not set foot in the bouncy house today (for reasons she did not care to share with us), we joined the line of Santa-seekers. Especially given her mood, I suspected that my daughter wouldn't want to sit on Santa's lap, and I was right; she said hello to him this year, which was a huge step forward from last year's screaming fit, but couldn't be persuaded to pose for the picture.  We didn't push too hard.  It is, after all, sort of a weird thing to ask, given what we tell our children about safety: "don't talk with strangers, but here, go sit on this man's lap."  I'd rather she not learn that, actually.

My son, on the other hand, was perfectly happy to cozy up to Santa and tell him that he wanted a computer (news to me).  It's been hard to tell what he's thinking about the whole Santa jig this year.  I suspect that he doesn't really believe, but he also doesn't want to not believe.

Recapping the visit as we walked to Michael's later in the weekend to pick up some blank cards, he informed me that the Santas one sees in public aren't "the real Santa."

"They're not?" I asked, curious how he'd play this out.

"No," he said.  And paused.  Then: "But it's still fun."

"What's fun?"  I probed.  "What part of it?"

"You know.  Going to see Santa.  Having him out there.  It's like ..."  He thought for a moment, clearly chewing on his words, "It's hard to explain.  It's like the community is doing some thing nice.  Like, here's Santa, and you can tell him whatever you want, and maybe he'll give it to you."

"I think I understand," I said.  Whether it's the local business improvement district, or the airport, and whatever: creating an opportunity to visit with Santa is like encouraging us to dream.  Even if not everything we want arrives on Christmas morning, the possibility that it could, well ... that's the part that makes us feel good.

I really do get what my son means.  Because last year, unemployed for the second Christmas, losing hope, and longing for someone to help, unreasonable as it might have been to do so, I whispered in Santa's ear, and asked him for a job.

Santa didn't bring me a job for Christmas, but there were other people who played Santa for me in the months to come.  Some of them know who they are, and most likely, some of them don't.  Maybe I helped myself, too, but asking out loud, well ... that was probably the first time I acknowledged I couldn't do it alone.

As I stood waiting for our audience with Santa at the airport this weekend, edging forward in the line, I watched Santa's face, and thought about what it must be like to be Santa, however temporarily.  Sure, there are probably plenty of Santas that take the job grudgingly, and hate the more annoying parents, and the brattier children, but donning that red suit is a powerful thing.  Where actors enjoy the audience's belief for an hour or two, you-as-Santa live on for years.  Not like Tim Allen does in The Santa Clause, but in a way that is more profound and meaningful.  People set aside their disbelief, and in their brief visit with you-as-Santa, grant you magical powers, immortalize you in their memories and in family photo albums.  You become selfless, taking on the identity of something much greater than you could ever hope to be.

As much as I hate Black Friday and the shopping season and the mall during December, I love the kind of believing, and the kind of generosity, that December seems to make possible.  And whether you believe in Santa or not, that kind of hope, and that kind of love, is worth cultivating for at least one month out of the year.  Here's wishing you a December full of light, and possibility.
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Monday, November 25, 2013

Why Are We Studying Zombies? and Brains ... er ... Cauliflower Soup

The other day, during a meeting in which we reviewed the course offerings for the spring term (yes, really, all of them), it became obvious that the university was offering no fewer than three courses on zombies this semester, along with two one witches/mystics.  I never really got caught up in zombie-mania (that whole not-having-a-TV thing means that I never got addicted to The Walking Dead), but I have to admit, the fact that a student could practically minor in zombies at my place of employment shifted my perspective a little bit.

What is it about zombies, anyway?

I asked an old friend this question over tea the other morning; she works at a university press and was, herself, just about to go write copy for a book on this very same topic.  Her theory, which she'd borrowed from a co-worker, was that zombie-mania comes in waves, altering with vampires: that when the economy is tanking, we find fascination in vampires (a metaphor for our own guilty consumption), and when things are looking up, we like zombies: exuberantly consuming everything. Someone actually tracked this, and while the correlation is imperfect, it's not implausible.  But it doesn't get us anywhere.

There's another theory: that zombies allow us to express our fear of ourselves.  Of the unknown, the unpredictable in human nature.  The erratic infection that reanimates some humans, the frightening evil that lies embedded within us.  The thing that makes us heartless, soul-less, and nearly impossible to kill.  Because of all of the scary things in the world, zombies are just like us.  They are us.  And they're out to get us, too. 

I sort of prefer the second theory, probably because I'm a humanist and not an economist.  I'm interested in (among many other things, of course) the things within us that destroy us.  What makes people evil?  What makes us self-sabotage, and be willing to eat others alive?  What makes us lose our souls?  How do people prepare for the zombie apocalypse, and what does this mean about our own defenses against the dark arts?  This is, to me, the more interesting question for the college classroom.  It makes minoring in zombies seem like a worthy pursuit.

I'm not sure we'll ever get a satisfactory answer to that question; that's not what the humanities are about.  Studying patterns of zombie behavior isn't likely to protect us against them any better (though the writers of copious zombie survival guides would argue differently, I'm sure; they would encourage me, barn-owner that I am, to get the app.).  Then again, maybe it's like going to therapy: if you figure out the patterns of behavior, and can recognize them early enough, maybe there are some souls--even your own--that you can save?

Are you a zombie-lover?  What do you think about the fascination with zombies?  Are you prepared for the zombie apocalypse, just in case?

Cauliflower Soup
The cauliflower just looks like brains, right?  Once you blend it up, only your inner zombie has to know.

1 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
8 leeks, trimmed and finely chopped, white part only
2 onions, finely chopped
1 cauliflower head, finely chopped
2 small potatoes, peeled and diced
4 bay leaves
4 c. chicken broth
2 2/3 c. milk
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter and oil in a large stock pot or dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the leeks and onions, and saute until just beginning to caramelize.  Add cauliflower, potato, bay leaves, and broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook, covered, until the cauliflower breaks apart easily with a fork, about 15 minutes. Discard the bay leaves.

Add the milk, salt, and pepper, and puree until smooth, either in a blender or with an immersion blender.

Top with shredded cheese, toasted almonds, creme fraiche, or snipped chives.
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Saturday, November 23, 2013

I'm Not A Food Blogger, and Chicken Chili

Over the years, I've struggled to define my blogging genre.  I guess it's particularly hard to do so when you don't write often enough to attract a large following, but the fellow bloggers whose opinions about this I respect most call me a "general diarist."

The term would probably confuse most people who glance quickly at my blog, which is punctuated by large, more-and-less-well composed pictures of what's on my table.

The thing is: I'm not a food blogger.  I cook, and I photograph my food, but for me, food is a metaphor.  As it is, I guess, for most food writers.  Food is about relationships: with each other, with our communities, with the earth, with our bodies.  Food is history: the history of cooking and eating chronicles everything from gender norms to social movements.  Food describes things like comfort, balance, and health in ways that are more concrete than we can sometimes articulate.  When people die, when babies are born, when people are sick, we bring food.  Offerings of nourishment that mean more than words.

When I came home tonight, my son's most recent composition from school was lying on my computer, waiting to be read.  It describes the Thanksgiving he's going to have (which is actually somewhat inaccurate, because we might not have told him about our slight change in location this year,), complete with the meal he's going to eat (an interesting, and also inaccurate, variation on our usual meal, complete with pumpkin pie and corn on the cob).  Though I don't generally very much like Thanksgiving because I don't actually like the meal that most other people like, it got me thinking about how this is one time during the year in which people think just a little bit about the metaphor, about the stories that are buried in the meal: both the stories we are taught are buried in the meal, and then the stories of our own meals and their metaphors, that have nothing to do with Pilgrims or Native Americans or even turkeys, really.  They have to do with family, and tradition, and comfort, and our roles and places in the world, and what we believe is important.

We've started to hunker down again lately.  Like we do every year.  Get ready for the winter, for the cold months.  The slow cooker has come out of hibernation.  There are soups and stews and chilis.  There might be Christmas cookies.  And there will be all kinds of things that I never say, in so many words.

What are the stories on your table?

White Chicken Chili

2 lbs. skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 c. finely chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 1/2 t. cumin
1/2 t. dried oregano
1 t. ground coriander
2 4.5 oz cans chopped green chiles, undrained
1 c. light beer
2 15 oz. cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 14 oz. can fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
2- 3 T. cornmeal
shredded Monterey Jack cheese
chopped fresh cilantro
chopped green onions

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add chicken to pan; cook 10 minutes or until browned, stirring frequently.

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add onion to pan; sauté 6 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently. Add garlic; sauté 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in cumin, dried oregano, and coriander; sauté 1 minute. Stir in chiles; reduce heat to low, and cook 10 minutes, partially covered. Add the chicken, water, cannellini beans, cornmeal, and broth; bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Stir in hot sauce. Ladle 1 cup of chili into each of 8 bowls; sprinkle each serving with 2 tablespoons cheese, 1 tablespoon cilantro, and 1 tablespoon green onions.
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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Being Prepared, and Powdermilk Biscuits

There are, I suspect, a few moments in everyone's life when you feel completely unprepared to be you.

Like, for example, the first time you walk out of a hospital with a baby in an infant car seat.

"They're just letting us leave," I'd said to my husband, amazed, as the double doors swung open and we stepped into the hallway, baby bucket in hand.  "Don't they know we don't know what we're doing?"

"My father tells me that by the second day, you're an expert," my husband reassured me, with less than complete confidence in his voice.

It turns out, of course, that you're not an expert by day two.  Or by year seven.  Or, from what I can tell, by year forty.  But you muddle through somehow, and some days you feel like you have conquered the windmill, and other days you use every atom in your body to combat feeling like a failure.  And behind it all, maybe you sit with amused disbelief that you're really the one in charge; maybe, like me, you marvel at how this could possibly have happened.

Last night, as I walked from the dark parking lot towards my son's school for second grade parent-teacher conference, I felt that amused disbelief again.  Here we were, a handful of shadowy figures, older that we believed ourselves to be, marching towards responsibility, for which we were, at best, laughably prepared.  My mother was the one who went to parent-teacher conferences.  But me?  The thought is still weird.

My son's teacher is a very sweet, energetic, and enthusiastic twenty-something who says "like" a lot and probably sees me as "one of those older parents who wants to linger too long."  Like my mother would have been.  She tells me how well my son is doing, what a delight he is, walks me to the door, and I feel a little like I'm being herded.  Maybe I fit this role better than I think I do.

photo credit: S. Levine
Powdermilk Biscuits
My husband made biscuits the other night, because he's much more like an adult some days than I am, because we had leftover powered milk, and because they "give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done. Heavens, they're tasty and expeditious."

2 - 2 1/4 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
3 t. baking powder
3-5 T. softened butter
1/4 c. powdered milk & 3/4 c. water (or just 3/4 c. milk--but powdered is better in this recipe)
1 T. sugar

Preheat oven to 450F.

Combine all dry ingredients and cut butter in with a pastry blender until you have small crumbs.
Add wet ingredients; if you need more flour to get the dough into rollable form, feel free to add a bit.  It should still be somewhat sticky.

Roll out dough onto a floured surface, and use a round object of your choice to cut out biscuits.

Bake 10-12 minutes or until tops are lightly browned.
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Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Quick-Change, and Pumpkin Pie Smoothie

I have a long-standing history of overcommitment.

Though my early childhood schedule of piano, flute and dance lessons doesn't hold a candle to the insane co-curricular schedule of some of my children's peers, I was definitely always busy.  And as I grew older, I held on to those commitments by choice, adding new ones that fit my interests.

It didn't pose a problem until things came to a head in the eighth grade, when my choral concert directly conflicted with my dance school's dress rehearsal for its biennial recital.  You'd probably think that given this kind of conflict, one would simply skip the dress rehearsal for the show, but generalizations don't account for my dance teacher, who was certain the world revolved around her recital (and to be honest, in my town, she was right).

I had a solo in the choral concert.  Not just a piece with choral backup, but my own piece.  Which probably made skipping that concert potentially easier, but also harder at the same time.  Sure, they could take my name out of the program.  But voluntarily giving up the spotlight I'd worked so hard to earn?  Not so much.

So I plotted, with the support of my parents, to attempt attendance at both.  Dance the first number at the dress rehearsal, hop in the car, drive to the concert and sing, get back in the car, return to the dress rehearsal for the remainder of the evening.

This plan was made more challenging by the fact that my school was about twenty minutes away from where I lived.  And I had to change from a tutu and tights to civvies and back to a skimpy little jazz number.  While the car was in motion.  No small feat for a self-conscious pre-adolescent.

I remember, clearly, sitting in the back seat, all limbs and tuille, trying to angle myself into the next costume with my seat belt on, while my eight year old brother looked on in amusement.  I'd done "quick changes" before--that was a standard in dance school once you got old enough to be in several numbers per show--but doing it in motion was something entirely different, something more than a little nausea-inducing.  Mastering the art of the quick-change, my dance teacher would tell us, meant understanding that we could do it all.

Body memory goes deep; every time since then when I've found myself racing from one overlapping commitment to another, I've been right back there in the back seat of our ancient tank-like Mercedes, my father gunning the engine through the dense neighborhoods of suburban New Jersey, my mother gripping the door handle and worrying out loud.  Occasionally, when I've re-experienced this feeling, the stakes felt high: when my son was born, for example, leaving work on time meant that I only just barely got home in time to feed him, and being stuck behind a slow-moving truck meant a meltdown at home in my absence, and a thirty-minute pumping session at home at the end of a long day, before I could sit down for dinner, if there was time to eat at all.  Other times, the stakes were less high, when I double-booked myself at meetings of community organizations, or made promises to two different groups of people, knowing that I could technically get it all done.  Still, sometimes, the quick-change works less well than others.

I'm much less overcommitted these days; working full time with a commute makes it impossible to promise my time to much of anything else after hours back home, if I still want to see my family.  I've had to come to terms with that, and it's been at the front and center of some of my conversations after the election, since one of the things I gave up to work full time was my position on the school board.  I gave up my committee chair position at our fellowship.  (I tried to give up the Friends of the Library Board, too, but they refused to take my name off of their executive board roster, so I've decided to take my son to meetings in the future, which would work well for everyone.)  There have been less-satisfying sacrifices, like my favorite yoga class.  But the most important thing is that I no longer pretend to have it all.  The quick-change approach to life is fairly unsatisfying; you're always thinking about the next place you need to be; and, as I learned that one spring, it just isn't practical to put on a leotard in a moving vehicle.

It's been over a year now since Anne-Marie Slaughter's article on "Why Women Can't Have It All" went viral, and it doesn't feel like very much has changed out there.  I still get the feeling people wonder why I'm not doing everything I used to do.  And it's astounding to me that we'd never most likely never ask that question of a man.

I hope not to overschedule my kids, not just because they "deserve to be kids for as long as possible," but because they need to learn that it's OK to make choices.  That adults shouldn't be overscheduled, either.  That's it's not a healthy way of life.  Sure, we are in a rush to get out the door in the mornings; I'm not sure how else to do it, short of getting everyone up at 4:30 a.m.  But there are also days with Legos, and books, and stickers, and a long walk through downtown, with no destination in mind.

Do you do your own quick-change?

Pumpkin Pie Smoothie
One way we try to buy a few extra minutes in the morning before my kids do their own not-so-quick change from PJs to clothes is by throwing breakfast in the blender.  Usually, there's some version of mango or strawberry-banana smoothies; this weekend, I figured I'd try a pumpkin pie smoothie on them for a change.  My son turned up his nose, and my picky daughter licked the glass clean.  This could also work as a dessert.

1 banana, peeled and frozen (they are sweeter that way)
3/4 c. pumpkin puree
1 container Greek yogurt (honey, vanilla, or plain)
2/3 c. milk
splash orange juice
1/2 t. cinnamon (or to taste)
1/2 t. ginger (or to taste; I added more as I went)
1/4 t. nutmeg

Toss everything in the blender and whirl until smooth.  Pour into a fancy glass, preferably with a fancy umbrella, which will make your breakfast feel leisurely even if you really don't have time to dally, and serve.
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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bye, Bye Miss American Pie: Moosewood Apple Krisp

People can be particular about pie.  I should know.

I'm one of them.

According to my pie Rule Book, apple pies have apples in them.  In fact, when you cut an apple pie, you should have to use a knife.  None of this spoon nonsense.  If it's so full of goop that you need a spoon, you might as well be eating custard.

The problem with having pie standards like these, of course, is that they're impossible to meet on short notice.  You can't drive to the diner (blessed as we are in New Jersey with said establishments) for a slice of apple pie ... and expect pie.  That three dollar pie from the supermarket?  No dice.  Basically you have to make it yourself.  Which happens sometimes around here after 9 p.m., but not often.

Both S. and I have been craving pie, though.  And when I told him I was going to the supermarket for condensed milk to make Diwali sweets, he said, "if you're going out, pie would be good."

Of course pie would be good, we agreed.  But where would I get pie?  There's no pie around here.  Or at least, nothing worthy of the title.

I rummaged in the refrigerator, preparing lunches and snacks for tomorrow for the kids, informing my son, who had been in the shower for about half an hour so far, that he would have to eat around the bruise on his apple.  I don't think he heard me.

"I don't want to be here when you tell him again," commented my husband.  And then, thoughtfully: "Maybe it's a good night for crisp."

There's an idea, I thought.  Cook the damn apple, and my son will be none the wiser.  "Shall I start it?" I asked.  Of course I should.  I sprang to action.  An hour later, with marginal work: crisp.  Which is almost like pie.  Or at least, more like pie than pie pretends to be around these parts.

Moosewood Apple Krisp
I love the Moosewood version of apple crisp, because you don't need to feel too guilty about it, and because it comes together quickly.

8 - 10 medium apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 c. butter
1/3 c. honey
2 c. raw oats
3/4 c. flour
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. allspice
1/2 t. salt
1/4 c. pumpkin seeds
1/4 c. chopped walnuts
1/2 juice

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Toss the apples with lemon juice and a little cinnamon.  Spread half of them into a large baking pan.

Melt the butter and honey together.; add oats, flour, nuts, seeds, salt and spices. Crumble half of the oat mixture over the apples in pan. Cover with the remaining apples and the rest of the topping. Drizzle orange juice over the top.

Bake 40 - 45 minutes (25 minutes covered, 20 minutes uncovered).  Serve warm with ice cream.
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Monday, November 4, 2013

Light in the Darkness, and Doodh Peda (Indian Sweets)

"Your first night driving home in the dark," my boss commented, nodding towards the window as I gathered my things to leave work.

I said something dismissive about having driven home in the dark before, because I've spent a few late evenings at events on campus, but as I crested the mountain in the middle of my drive, in the pitch black, tensely hunched over the wheel as I scanned the road ahead for deer, I realized he was right, in a way; this darkness felt different than it had just three weeks ago.  More permanent.  Or at the very least, more sustained.  I could sense winter coming.  There would be snow in these mountains.

Diwali, the five day Hindu festival popularly known as the "festival of lights" and the first in a two month series of  light-filled holidays from various traditions, began on Sunday this year.  The festival celebrates the victory of light over dark, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance, honoring of the return of Hindu god Rama and his wife Sita to their kingdom after years of exile.  During Diwali, celebrants clean the house and light small clay lamps filled with oil to make the goddess Lakshmi (of prosperity) and Ganesh (remover of obstacles) feel welcome, and there are lots of sweets shared with friends.

More importantly, perhaps, the holiday celebrates awareness of the inner light, the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance, the awakening that brings compassion, awareness of the oneness of all things, and eventually, ananda (which my yoga teacher translates as "bliss").

While of course the parallels between the celebrations and the daylight hours depend on the hemisphere in which you live, there's something to be said for looking inward when the light outside wanes.  I've written here before about the practice of pratyahara, withdrawing from the senses, in order to better focus our inner awareness; though I haven't been to my beloved yoga teacher's studio in a while to practice there, I suspect that's what they're preparing to do this month and next.

So as I headed into the valley, I turned off the radio, slowed down, lowered my high beams, and listened.

The silence was wonder-ful.

Happy Diwali; wishing you all the light of andanda.  Enjoy the darkness.

Doodh Pedas
I love Indian sweets because they're so different from our cloying candy.   These are pretty easy to make, and the "dough" is fun to play with, whether you have kids or not.  Next time I might even add a drop or two of rosewater, just for the heady sent .

1¾ c. powdered milk
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 T. butter
6 green cardamom pods, peeled and seeds crushed to fine powder
small pinch of saffron, dissolved in 2 T. warm water or milk
small pinch of salt
nuts (cashews, almonds, pistachios etc)

Microwave the butter in a deep bowl for 20-30 seconds until just melted. Add the milk powder and condensed milk and stir well until you no longer see any lumps.

Microwave the mixture again for 1 minute. Mix well again, and microwave once more for 1 minute.

Add the cardamom, salt, and saffron, and mix well. Microwave for one more minute.

Allow the mixture to cool a bit, and dump it onto a piece of waxed paper or parchment. Cover with another sheet of waxed paper or parchment, and roll the dough into a 1/2" thick round. Cut with a cookie cutter or into whatever shape you like, and press nuts into the center. (The dough, as it cools, becomes lots of fun for children to play with.) Cool completely.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

The In Between: Kale with Chard, and Day of the Dead

Our last CSA pickup for the season was last Friday, and so this week was the first in many months that I had to plan a menu that didn't involve kale, chard, or tomatoes.  I don't tend to can or freeze our share, so there was something wistful about eating the last local-farm-sourced meal of the season, as much as it's freeing to have the entire supermarket open to me again.  Watching the fields turn brown and white is like watching a loved one die, and yet, after eating so much green for so many months, I start to crave things that are brown and white, the root vegetables of winter.

I've always loved this time of year, though, this in-between when it feels like the door to another world is open, when death and life collide.  We more or less suck at dealing with death in this country, in my experience; death is something we don't like to talk about, something we distance from our own lives, something to be feared.  These silences make grieving more difficult, not to mention significantly limiting our experience of being human.  Other cultures cope with death and dying much more effectively by making it part of life, particularly during this season of the year: the Celtic holiday of Samhain both celebrates the end of the harvest season and welcomes the souls of the dead, who were beckoned to attend feasts where a place was set at the table for them. The three-day long celebration of El Día de los Muertos, likewise, sets aside a specific day at the end of the traditional harvest period to remember lost friends and loved ones.  The only thing we have that comes even close to honoring this liminality is Halloween, and we're too busy gorging ourselves on candy to really appreciate it.

My daughter asked me what I was going to be for Halloween this year, and--not wanting to do one of the usual ghost/zombie/vampire affairs--after giving it a lot of thought (not to mention spending a lot of time admiring the creative costume ideas at Take Back Halloween), I decided that if I needed to dress up, I would be Frida Kahlo, the feminist Mexican artist famous for her self-portraits.

Kahlo lived on the boundaries.  A victim of childhood polio that left her with legs two different lengths, and a bus accident during her teenage years that resulted in life long pain, multiple operations on an injured pelvis, and multiple miscarriages, she also pushed the limits of traditional gender norms, smoking, drinking, and having bisexual extramarital affairs. After several years living in what she referred to as "Gringoland" with her husband Diego Rivera, with whom her relationship was complicated at best, she painted a self-portrait in which she stands between Mexico and the United States, herself a physical boundary (or bridge) between indigenous culture and technology, natural resources and industrialization.

While I don't identify with Kahlo as I did once long ago with Jane Eyre, I appreciate her embrace of the space between, her strength and resilience, her joie d'vivre, even given her difficult life.  A few days before her death, she wrote in her diary: "I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return — Frida".   Kahlo accept and embraced her fragility, and still did her best to live a life and produce art that suggested her power and serenity as a woman in the world, living courageously into a future that is unknown. And perhaps, at this time of year, that's the most we can hope for.

Do you celebrate a holiday that remembers lost loved ones?  What's your experience of this particular kind of in-between-ness?

Spiced Squash and Chard with Walnuts
This was I did with the last of our CSA produce of the year.  Not quite salad, 

not quite side dish, not quite root vegetable or leafy green, it lives somewhere in the in-between, too.

1 medium acorn squash
1 bunch of swiss chard, ribs removed and chopped, leaves chopped separately
2 T. olive oil
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
2 t. cardamom
3/4 c. chopped toasted walnuts

2 T. orange juice (preferably fresh squeezed)
3 T. local honey
2 T. apple cider vinegar
1/4 c. oil grapeseed oil
1/2 t. apple pie spice
1/8 t. ginger
1/4 t. salt

Preheat oven to 450 degrees

Slice, peel, and cube the acorn squash. Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and cardamom. Roast in a single layer for 30-35 minutes, flipping once half-way through.

While your squash is roasting, shake together the orange juice, vinegar, oil, apple pie spice, ginger, honey, and salt in a jar.

When the squash is done, move to a skillet  over medium heat and add the the chard, continuing to stir until wilted. Chop and toast the walnuts; you can toss them into the same roasting pan you've just emptied, and put them back in the oven for just a few minutes (check every two minutes or so to make sure they're not burning).

Add your walnuts after 3-4 minutes.

Toss the warm chardwith 1/4 c. of the vinaigrette. Enjoy immediately or at room temperature.
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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Jane Eyre, Feminism, the Gothic, and Cardamom Scones

I was eleven.  My aunt and uncle, in a moment of uncharacteristic attentiveness to my interests, had bought me a copy of Jane Eyre for my birthday; the 500-and-some-page Illustrated Junior Library edition, it boasted a full color hard cover and plastic dust jacket.  Though I remember my mother saying something about the fact that I was probably a bit too young for Jane Eyre, there was something special about that book from the beginning, about the thickness of the pages, the tantalizing illustration on the cover, its sheer weightiness.  My first real literature, perhaps.  And though I struggled a bit with the tangled language and the length of the sentences, I soon fell in love with its heroine, just as I'd fallen in love with Louisa May Alcott, Girl of Old Boston, even before I read Little Women, and Anne of Green Gables after that.  Jane Eyre is one of the few non-children's books I've read multiple times in my life, some assigned, and some not.

A few weeks ago, on the anniversary of the book's 1847 publication, the Huffington Post featured what amounted to "lessons we can learn from Jane Eyre."  I found the piece a little Pollyannish : one of the author's takeaways is "Be Positive!" as if Victorian heroines had any choice but contentment with their lot, or at least the forced moral fortitude to embrace it as a "lesson."  After all, Helen Burns tells Jane that "it is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear."  Still, it brought back fond memories of reading the book and identifying with Jane, as I identified with Alcott's Jo March: a plain, outspoken young woman who lived both completely in the world and completely apart from it.   To this day, there's something about the name I find powerful; it was on my short list of names for our daughter.

There's the proto-feminism, of course; as she leaves Thornfield, knowing that a relationship with Rochester would mean the loss of her self-respect, Jane (and, by extension, Brontë) offers some thoughts about independence which I think are relevant even now: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”  While I think that oversimplifies things (do we respect ourselves for being "unsustained"? or is there something respectable about knowing how to lean on others, too? what lessons do we teach our children about finding balance between independence and interdependence?), I confess, it's a principle by which I've lived most of my life. 

And then there's the fact that Brontë gets Romanticism right for me: though I wouldn't consider myself a sucker for Romantic novels of the Victorian period, I wept through the death of Jane's friend Helen from consumption, wondering whether one got consumption now, and whether I should be wary of catching it. I remember, too, wishing for a champion like Miss Temple, and resolving to have tea in my chambers for students, should I ever end up teaching in a boarding school--a resolve which was later re-kindled by my crush on Professor Keating of Dead Poet's Society.

I was also drawn to the Gothic aspects of the novel, especially the powerful shadow-figure of Bertha Mason, and feeling sorry for her, even long before I read Wide Sargasso Sea, which attributes Rochester's rejection and her subsequent descent into madness to her (literal) "dark" Creole heritage.  Jane defends her without knowing, in her first weeks at Thornfield, musing that women "suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation"; they are, quite literally, trapped.  Bram Stoker was born the month after Jane Eyre was published, and dressing my son as Dracula this year for Halloween, I found myself thinking about the madwomen in the attic, about how Halloween enables us to plumb our own darker sides, to play with the shadows within us.  As he moved from house to house, I watched my son begin to walk differently, cape billowing behind him, fangs brilliant against the ghostly face I'd painted; he was absolutely getting into the character, in a way he hadn't done in Halloweens past.

What are the books you've read again and again?  Which literary characters have spoken to you over the years?  Did you channel your inner madwoman for Halloween?  What are your thoughts on the balance between independence and interdependence?

Cardamom Scones with Cranberries
Miss Temple offered Jane and Helen seed cake during their first visit to her chambers.  While these aren't exactly cake, I suspect that they're more like what Miss Temple had in her room, given the conditions at Lowood school, and the cardamom pods count as seeds in my book.  Enjoy them warm out of the oven on a dark night or cloudy morning,with a cup of tea.

3 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
3/4 t. cardamom pods (or, if you must, 1/2 t. ground cardamom)
1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 c. plain Greek yogurt
1/2 c. sugar (I used evaporated cane)
2 eggs
additional sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment.

Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Peel the cardamom pods and grind the seeds with a mortar and pestle (or use a very small knife and carefully chop until you have powder).  Stir the cardamom into the flour mixture.

Cut the butter in with a pastry blender or two knives until small crumbs form.  Add yogurt, sugar, and one egg, and mix (you can use your fingers).  At this point you can also add anything else you want (candied ginger, cranberries, raisins, chocolate chips).

Divide the dough into 12 equal parts (you can also use an ice cream scoop to get rough 1/3 c. balls); place the dough on the parchment.

Whisk the other egg and brush over the dough.  Sprinkle with additional sugar.

Bake 25 minutes, or until pleasantly golden brown.  Serve warm.
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Friday, November 1, 2013

I'm Not Katie: A Case of Mistaken Identity

In my freshman year of college, I joined one of the university's two all-female singing groups.  Though we were there for the music, in some respects, it was also sort of like a sorority for girls who wouldn't ever pledge a sorority: we were each assigned a "big sister"; we would gather in small groups around campus; and many of us (not me) would semi-regularly get drunk together.

As a non-sorority sorority, we also had a "brother" organization: the all-male Glee Club.  They functioned like any fraternity would, providing built-in dates for the members of our group (some pairings actually resulted in marriage), serving as an organization to co-sponsor co-ed events, rounding out the sound when we needed to sing something for mixed voices, and occasionally getting drunk with us (not me).

In my second week with the group, we new recruits found ourselves being inducted into the ritualistic post-rehearsal gathering at a semi-seedy pizza restaurant and bar just off campus.  I was trying, shyly, to make small talk, and be as invisible as possible, when I realized that someone was trying to get my attention.  Only they weren't calling my name.

"Katie," they were saying.  "Katie?"

Katie was another new member of the group, a slight girl with a powerful, fabulous voice who had already found her pairing in the Glee Club: an equally small and talented male.  She was on the fast track.  The only similarity between us was our shoulder-length wavy brown hair, which, if you were looking even just a little bit closely, wasn't that similar at all.

Still, the call was insistent.  "Katie.  Katie!"

Now, others had joined in.  They were all clearly shouting at me, trying to get me to turn around.  Finally, I did.  And spluttered, at the top of my lungs:  "I'm NOT KATIE!"

The bar erupted into gales of laughter, and after a minute of feeling awkward and annoyed all at once, I had to laugh, too.  To this day, one of the friends I met in those Glee Club days still calls me Katie (or "not-Katie"), and I occasionally sign my emails to him, simply, "k."


I've been thinking about this case of mistaken identity a lot lately, at my new place of employment.  Where, it's pretty obvious, people worshiped at the feet of my predecessor.  Or, at the very least, were very chummy.  Sometimes it feels a little like they're measuring me, sizing me up.  And then, they decide, frowning ever so slightly, perhaps: not Katie.

It's true, I think.  I'm not Katie.  I'm sorry that you're pining away for your lost lover, but she's gone.  She made her choice.  And you can't use the same yardstick for me.

I imagine (because this has never happened to me) it's sort of like being in bed with someone who suddenly calls out the wrong name in a passionate moment.  Of course the speaker is embarrassed, but no one feels worse than the newly beloved, who can't help but wonder where she stands.  Is the speaker still smitten with an old flame?


These things take time.  People grieve love lost in their own ways, and I didn't expect to step too quickly into my predecessor's shoes, which are, admittedly, quite large. Still, I can't help but feel some days like I'm orbiting a well-established solar system, and I wonder when gravity will start to kick in.

Until then, maybe it's best to respond to whatever I'm called.

Have you ever been mistaken for someone else?
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Monday, October 28, 2013

(Skeletons) in my Closet, and Roasted Kale, Sweet Potato, and Toasted Farro Salad with Maple Dressing

When I started my first full-time job fifteen years ago, I wore a tailored pantsuit to work every day.  I was the youngest in my department, young in my field nationally, and after a very brief time away, I'd returned to the university where I'd been an undergraduate; I knew I was going to fight an uphill battle to be taken seriously, and clothing was part of my arsenal.  Though no one else in my office really wore suits at the time, doing so made me feel a little more grown up, and helped me--or so I thought--to convince other people that I wasn't a student any more, despite the fact that I probably still looked like one; in hindsight, I suspect I was trying to convince myself, too.  I was frugal, choosing conservative colors and styles, investing in a few high-quality pieces from respectable brands, rather than picking up a new wardrobe every season.  Black, brown: I was the university administrator equivalent of the corporate executive.  (And don't think that the fact that these were pantsuits is lost on me; I'm sure there are issues of gender and body image to unpack here, which I will leave for another day.)  I remember once gaping at a friend's walk-in closet overflowing with multicolored fabric and leather, like a visitor from a third world country who had just stumbled into Whole Foods. 

The same went for footwear.  I owned three, maybe four pairs of shoes: sandals, sneakers, heels from Payless, and a pair of mid-calf black boots--different ones as the previous year's specimens wore thin--that I referred to fondly as my "ass-kicking boots."  I never wore the heels, because the boots, like my suits, made me feel powerful.  They offered up a solid thunk, thunk, thunk as I strode across campus, pounded out determination and purpose.  I was a woman not to be crossed.  (Never mind that I wore said black boots with suits that demanded brown.  That was irrelevant.)

Under the boots, though, were the socks.  My true colors.  Wacky, bright, daring, colorful, and unmatched to everything else I was wearing.  They were the "if only you knew" part of my wardrobe, the secret that turned the corners of my mouth upwards in the more boring meetings.  The warm and interesting and creative part of me that made me a good fit for my work in the first place.

Sometime in the late spring, before I was hired at my new job, thinking that my professional future wasn't looking terribly promising, I purged my closet.  Some of the suits--the ones that no longer fit quite right, or that hadn't been worn in a while, or that went out of style years ago, even with my generous "style" window--went out with many of the books from my graduate school years, finding new homes in other people's closets or in the windows of local consignment stores.  Mostly, I kept the socks.

When I got a job in July, I took a deep breath and bought two new conservative suits, and few other things at an upscale local consignment store under the approving eye of a good friend, and figured I was done.

Except then I noticed that people weren't all wearing suits to work every day.  And that I wanted more variation in my wardrobe than the cloak of my former ambitions allowed.  Suddenly, what was in my closet was no longer enough.  Moreover, it was fall, and I realized that summer clothes really weren't appropriate for colder weather.  I didn't want to spend a small fortune dry cleaning my wardrobe every week.  And my old suits--the ones I hadn't purged--really were pretty old.

I bought a deep purple long sleeved dress with a daring v neck.  Some uber-comfortable flowy black Wearever machine-washable pants from J.Jill.  An olive-colored soft tee, which I haven't been brave enough to de-tag yet, feeling like it was a little too much.  A scarf, which I taught myself how to tie in a few different ways.  And today, knee-high brown boots--the first ones I've ever owned.  My side of the (non-walk-in) closet is back to full--even if it does have two season's worth in one place--with less consistency than ever among the styles and fabrics on the hangers.  Unlike in those early years of my professional life, someone looking at it wouldn't be able to identify my personal style at all.  Though it's not clear that in those years, the style was mine to begin with.

Still, I find myself--a little guiltily--browsing in the consignment store, trolling for a new skirt or two.  An interesting jacket.  It's like playing with costumes to find a skin I'm comfortable in.  And what I'm comfortable in isn't the same every day.  There's a little of everything, sort of like there was in the salad I made this weekend: warm and cool, "crunchy" and tailored, sweet and tart, fruity and nutty.  It's a different kind of powerful entirely than in those first days of my first job.

How does your wardrobe express you?  Your ambitions or your contentment with where you are?  Do you feel like you have a style?

Roasted Kale Sweet Potato Salad with Toasted Farro and Maple Dressing
I came up with this lightly dressed salad by playing with a few different recipes after the final installment of CSA kale and sweet potatoes this week, looking for something different to do with color and texture.  It tasted like fall.

2-3 medium sweet potatoes, cubed
2 teaspoons grape seed oil
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
salt to taste (and pepper if you like)
1 large head kale, center ribs removed, chopped
1-2 apples, peeled and cubed (you can roast these for a bit too if you like; I prefer them cold and crunchy, to contrast with the kale and potato)
1 c. cooked farro
pumpkin seeds, toasted

Garlic Maple Dressing
3 T. apple cider raw vinegar
1 1/2 T. maple syrup
2 T. olive oil
1 t. Dijon mustard
1 cloves garlic, minced

Toast the pumpkin seeds until golden (I use a toaster, but you could also do this in the oven or in a hot pan).

Preheat oven to 400F and set aside a baking sheet.  Spray lightly with cooking spray.

Add sweet potato, oil, cinnamon, salt on baking sheet and toss with your hands until everything is well-coated.

Roast for 30-35 minutes (stirring and rotating halfway through) or until the sweet potatoes begin to caramelize (this is important to deepen the flavor of the salad, so be patient).  When the sweet potatoes are about 5 minutes away from completion, remove from the oven, place the chopped kale on top. Return to the oven.

Meanwhile, combine vinegar, maple syrup, garlic, and mustard in a small bowl. Pour in the olive oil, whisking as you go, and set aside.

In a skillet, heat 2 t. vegetable oil. Add the farro in an even layer and cook over high heat, stirring once, until toasted, about 5 minutes.  

When kale and potatoes are done, transfer to a bowl; add apples, farro, and toasted squash seeds, and dress lightly. Serve warm.
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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Weight of Being Interesting, and Pumpkin Spice Cookies

I work at one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the world.

The students, while they do come from all over the map, both geographically and academically, are, by and large, freakishly amazing people.  They bring a wealth of experience and leadership to the table; they have collected more AP scores than anyone ought to collect; they ask intelligent, probing questions; they throw themselves into work weeks whose intensity level is far beyond what I experienced until I started studying for my quals in graduate school.

And yet, they worry about not being (interesting, smart, talented, whatever) enough.  The other day, I sat at another awards dinner, this one for juniors who had been awarded a fellowship to spend the summer after sophomore year doing something that contributed to their personal growth and exploration: one followed Che Guevara's Motorcyle Diaries travels; another apprenticed to a jewelry designer in India; another studied traditional fiddle music; another traveled in the footsteps of her grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor, and plans to collaborate on an intergenerational book; another interviewed siblings of special needs children and adults; another--a countertenor--studied Baroque music both domestically and abroad.  (And while the projects and students were not quite as polished as those at my previous dinner this month, they did make me wonder what I would do with carte blanche and $4000.) 

When all of the students had delivered their versions of "what I did with my summer vacation," the two graduate recipients of a parallel award, who spent a year on a project, stood up to give their speeches.  The first worked on women's health and health education in India, addressing everything from breastfeeding education to cancer screenings and shifting the cultural view of sick women as burdensome.  The second stood up to introduce his novel, and after some tripping over his words (affected or not, we weren't sure), and making some self-denigrating comments, said: "I forgot what being at [X] is like.  It's like ..." he gestured around the room " ... like this."

It's not the first time I've heard something along these lines.  All summer long, as I talked with students applying for fellowships, I heard from them: I'm not good enough.  So-and-so is brilliant.  I'm not really sure if my project is compelling.  I don't have grades like my roommate does.  Etc., etc., etc.

The awkward thing about being at a place where everyone is freakishly amazing is that it's hard to take a risk to do something as a mediocre novice, even--ironically enough--in the context of a fellowship that rewards your exploration of something as a mediocre novice.  And I get it: when I walk through the Common Room of our college, there is often someone at the grand piano, playing the equivalent of Rachmaninoff; it's no wonder that no one wants to venture a few bars of "Heart and Soul," and even when the room is empty, I resist the urge to sit down and work on my rusty rendition of Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu (I would never confess to these people that I played in Carnegie Hall, for fear that they might expect me to produce something impressive).

It can, if we let it, work the same way in blogging and writing.  If you read enough freakishly amazing writers, you start to think that there's nothing much you can contribute to the conversation.  Best to leave the work of writing and thinking to those who are more talented than you, you think, those who have something important and compelling to say, and who say it in innovative and impressive ways.  Perhaps you stop writing entirely, and become a passive consumer of language, pining away, somewhere deep within you, for your lost voice.

It can even work this way in the kitchen: if you read enough recipes, you can start to wonder why you should bother coming up with something new, since it's bound not to be much good the first time around anyway, and there are probably already fifteen better versions of what you're making already out there, under contract for a cookbook.

On the other hand, you could look at it this way: if you're surrounded by enough interesting people, or if you are friends with enough fabulously talented bloggers, or if you immerse yourself in enough cookbooks, you can't help but swim in those waters eventually yourself.  While my Chopin still isn't very good, it's better than it was at the beginning of the summer, when I didn't practice it, because I wasn't inspired to do so by the freakishly amazing Rachmaninoff-players.

The pressure to be interesting can feel like a two ton boa.  But it could also be liberating, given a safe and judgment-free place to take risks.  Part of me keeps thinking I should create a "Mediocrity Hour" at my place of employment, during which everyone can try or practice at something they're not very good at.  Because we are our harshest critics, and naming a forgiving space would take some of the pressure off, allowing for the "interesting" to happen organically.  Sort of like it did in my kitchen the other night, when I was desperately craving pumpkin spice cookies, but didn't feel like starting to play with butter at 10 p.m, and didn't want to commit to anything more elaborate equipment than a bowl and a whisk.  Sure, there about a billion versions of pumpkin spice cookies out there.  But these were mine.  And I won't tell you how many of them I've eaten since they came out of the oven.

Pumpkin Spice Cookies

2 eggs (or flax egg to make it vegan)
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. canola or corn oil
1 c. canned pumpkin
1 t. vanilla
3 T. natural apple butter (no sugar added)
2 c. flour (any kind will do)
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/8 t. cloves
chopped toasted walnuts, optional, or anything else you think they might need

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a large bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients (from eggs through apple butter).  Sift in the dry ingredients into a small bowl and then gently fold them into the wet ingredients.  Or if you're feeling extremely lazy like I was, dump the spices into your wet ingredients, stir to mix completely dump in the flour, baking powder and soda, and salt, and mix to stir again.  Add in some nuts if you're feeling like you might want some.  Or something else: white chocolate chips, toffee bits, raisins.  Decide if you want more spice, and add it.  No one will think less of you if they are not perfect, and you can always play with the rest of the batter if the first batch isn't exactly right.

Drop by generously rounded tablespoonfuls onto parchment covered baking sheets, leaving about two inches between cookies.  Bake for 15-17 minutes, or until puffy and dry.  Cool, and store in an airtight container for just a few days, if they last that long.
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