Potatoes

Scott and I spent a week and a half in Ireland last month. We toured historic sites, drove narrow roads on the left side, and ate a huge number of potatoes. In one memorable meal, I ordered a potato-topped seafood pie and was served both mashed and roasted potatoes alongside the dish containing the pie.

Despite the fact that I love them dearly, potatoes are not one of the vegetables I often cook at home. Scott is often eating a low carb diet, which means that potatoes are outlawed. When he is eating a more extensive array of foods, I realize that I associate potatoes with an unhealthy diet and so eliminate them from my shopping trips.

However, they are delicious. And filling. And versatile. And they don’t necessarily have to keep company with sour cream, butter, and cheese (though god knows, that makes them infinitely more appealing).

I was in college when I had the best baked potato of my life. My parents were in town for the weekend visiting me and we drove from Walla Walla to a little town maybe 45 minutes north (the name currently escapes me). After wandering through the town, we ended up in a local bar for lunch. My mom was skeptical, but the only other restaurant was full and we were hungry.

In the end, it was one of the better meals of my life. All the food was homemade, and then there was that magical baked potato. It had a crisp exterior, but was entirely tender on the inside. It was topped with sautéed onions, peppers, mushrooms, spinach, garlic, and shredded cheddar cheese.

I’ve made versions of it many times in the years since, but it’s never quite as good as it was that autumn day with my parents.

The Monday Before Thanksgiving

2007-turkey

It’s afternoon on the Monday before Thanksgiving. We’re hosting a small dinner for the first time in years. The last time I cooked the full meal was in 2008, when Scott’s mom came up to Philly and we told her we were getting married. I ordered a heritage turkey that year, and in attempt to please all parties, made at least seven sides.

In the years between then and now, our Thanksgivings have been focused on Joan and doing our best to make it festive for her. Three or four times, we went to Scott’s aunt and uncle’s house in Virginia, where I’d bring all the baked goods redo dishes for hours after we’d finished eating, in an attempt to prove my worth to the family I was still trying to join.

There were a couple trips up north to Long Island, as well as the years when we ordered complete meals from Whole Foods and brought them to Joan’s suburban Virginia apartment. Every one of those meals was an exercise in surrender for me, as I had no control over the food or the flow.

I was supposed to cook last year, but that was when Joan got so sick. Instead of spending the day blissfully engaged in culinary activity, Scott and I drove to New York. We took a couple hours away from sitting with her in the hospital to eat Thanksgiving dinner at a diner on Long Island with Scott’s brother and girlfriend.

This Thursday, Sean, Liz, and her mom are driving down from New York to spend the holiday with us. I’ll cook turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and gingery squash (a creation of my cousin Jeremy). I’ve made lists, I’ve shopped, and I’ve cleaned the kitchen. Though I’m cooking and feeding people on my turf, I’m still actively reminding myself to curtail my expectations and my ever-present desire to control how things are unfolding.

PS – I am continually grateful for the fact that nearly every year, I get to have two Thanksgivings. We have traditionally spent Thursday with Scott’s family, while my family celebrates on Saturday. This meal is served potluck style and I traditionally bring a slow cooker full of mashed potatoes and enough gravy to satisfy a legion of hungry eaters. This is a gathering at which I feel no need to prove myself and my need for control somehow takes care of itself.

Crazy Times

I feel like the world is going crazy these days. Now, I know that crazy times are nothing new, but there’s something frighteningly different happening at the moment that I don’t know how to work with.

Not half an hour ago, a woman in the elevator smugly announced to the rest of the passengers in the car that she didn’t believe that climate change was real. She insisted that the scientists said it wasn’t happening. When one of the other riders gently pressed her on this point, she had no detail. It was simply what she believed and the idea we would challenge her was rude and outrageous.

The events unfolding at the Republican National Convention are a larger, more troubling example of this societal insanity. Patent untruths are being told from the stage while people cheer unstintingly for an egotistical narcissist whose organization openly admits that he’s not actually interested in the work of being president.

I am worried. As a woman (and the member of a family who was touched by an illegal abortion). As a Jew. As a person who counts many members of the Islamic faith among her community. As someone who respects science and the pursuit of knowledge. As a friend and family member to immigrants, people of color, and those who identify as part of the LGBTQ world.

Even if Trump doesn’t win (and goodness, I hope that he does not), the ideological divide in our country that his popularity demonstrates is troubling. How will we ever heal these rifts?

My Working Self

I sometimes wonder what I was thinking, choosing this life as a food writer. I spend my days trotting a path between kitchen and desk, doing battle with piles of produce, always trying to imagine them into new combinations and applications. The dishes are endless and the words necessary to tell the tales never come as easily as I wished.

I think about my previous life, working in an office, going to meetings, dashing downstairs to grab a salad before returning to my desk, and I am filled with perverse longing. I was desperately unhappy there, but at least the physical work of it wasn’t so unrelenting. The kitchen sink stayed clean for days at a time. I was occasionally praised for my ideas. There were other people with whom I got to share the work.

However, as I reflect more, I realize that I’m exactly where I should be. The idea of turning myself over to whims of an employer again feels dangerous and despairing. All I have to do is brush my imagination over the possibility, and I know that it would break me to try that again.

I was never able to be my full self at work. It was as if I had to put a piece of me aside in order to walk into the office building. I always envied my co-workers, who seemed to be able to occupy the entirety of the personalities while sitting in front of their company-issued machines. It was impossible for me. Every evening, as I left for the day, I would gulp the outside air and try to shake off the feeling of constriction.

The dishes, my poky old stove, and the struggles with words that I face every day don’t feel so dire in comparison to that putting aside of self that I did each day.

Summer in the City and Time Travel

During my early childhood years, my sister, mom, and I spent a portion of every summer in Philadelphia. The three of us would take up residence in my grandparents’ den, sleeping on an array of foam mats and pull-out couches that were made up at night and put away again come morning. Some years, our visit would be no more than a week or two, other years we’d be there for a month or more.

The years when we stayed for many weeks, my grandmother would enroll us in various day camps, so that we’d have structure and entertainment. She and my mom would shop, have lunch, visit relatives, and take walks around the city. In the evenings, we’d either have simple meals made at home by my mom and Grandpa Sid (Tutu did not cook much), or we’d walk to Little Pete’s or Mandarin Palace so that no one had to bother with the dishes later.

Though my sister and I would be reminded to be on our best behavior every time we visited, the apartment was like a second home and we treated it as such. We helped ourselves to the after dinners mints stashed in the bar when no one was looking, and we dug through Tutu’s closet, looking for shoes and hats to use for dress-up. When we had energy to burn, we’d slip out into the hallway and run up and down it’s block-long length until we were panting for air.

For the last 14 years, I have lived in the very same apartment where I spent those happy summers. The den where we once slept is now my husband’s domain (though the same couch still stands sentinel) and though much of the art on the walls remains the same as in their day, the traces of Sid and Tutu diminish with every passing year. However, both building and the neighborhood at large still harbor wisps of the past strong enough to regularly stop me cold.

My most recent bout of time travel happened yesterday. After a very long, cool spring, the heat and humidity of summer is here, draping itself down around the city like a sheer, damp scarf. I had walked to Trader Joe’s to pick up milk, fruit, and a trio of romaine hearts, and was on my way home with reusable bags balanced on both shoulders. Bangs damp and frizzy, and tee-shirt sticking to my back, I was singularly focused on getting through the back door and into the blessed relief of the air conditioning.

As I crossed the threshold of the building, I was hit with heady, memory-laden cocktail of scents. There was the slightly metallic tang of the cooled air as it met the steaminess of outside. A hint of griddled onions from the food truck half a block away. A whisper of garbage from a nearby dumpster. The ineffable medley of cleaning products and 50-year-old building.

The collection of those city scents made my head tumble and pull, as if the gravitational center of the universe had shifted slightly. I felt as if I was being thrust out of my life in 2016 and backwards 30 years into my seven-year-old self. Just for a moment, I slipped back three decades. I stopped walking, wanting to stretch the feeling and hold on to the possibility that behind me walked my mom, the same age as I am now, and my grandmother, still living, breathing, and offering fashion advice.

I stood there, feet frozen to the sloping ramp, alive and well in two different eras.

Soon enough, the doors slid open again to admit a neighbor and the spell was broken. My feet carried me forward into the lobby and back into the last day of May, in 2016.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

For the last year, Scott and I have been looking to buy a house in West Philadelphia. It’s more my plan than his, though he is now a willing participant in my campaign for larger, slightly less urban digs. And while the move to a home with doors that open directly onto the outside and a kitchen large enough to hold more than two people is what I want, I confess that I will miss living in a place that holds so much of my family’s history. And it will be these unprompted tumbles back in time that I’ll mourn the most.

Cat Naps on the Floor

I have always been able to nap when tired or just overwhelmed. In high school, I used to escape to my car or tuck myself into the sound equipment closet for a quick 15 minutes. In college, I’d dash back to my room or stretch out on an obliging couch for a little between-class snooze. During my years as a nanny, I could always manage a little siesta while my charges watched TV next to me.

At my very first real job, we had an unused office that held ancient files and I’d often tuck myself halfway underneath the desk during my lunch hour in order to rest my brain and catch 20 minutes of shut-eye. Once, my supervisor walked in during a nap, saw me laying there, and offered a string of babbling apologies while backing out. We never spoke of it.

These days, I work from home and have any number of cozy places to take uninterrupted cat naps. However, when I feel the need to take a rest, I prefer to stretch myself out on the floor behind my desk, set an alarm for 18 or 20 minutes, and close my eyes.

Now, as floors go, ours is quite comfortable. Though the carpeting is getting on in years, it was the top of the line when my grandparents installed it in 1986 (good lord, my carpet is about to turn 30), so it’s not as if I’m settling down on hard wood or linoleum.

But the thing that’s so nice about opting for the floor rather than the bed or couch is simply what it communicates to my body and mind. It says that this is just a short term rest. Don’t dive too deeply, just let go for a moment. Relax quickly so as to maximize your sleeping time. And When it’s time to get up, there’s no cozy comforter encouraging me to flip over and sleep some more.

Figs

california shrubbery
Sitting in front of my computer, eating a messy late lunch out of a serving bowl, the thought occurs: I didn’t eat enough figs this summer. Thinking back, there is only one that is memorable, which seems a shame. I am grateful that that fig was an exceptionally good one.

It was plucked off a heavily laden tree while on a meandering walk with my cousin Serena and her baby Lamar. I was in California for a weekend of professional happenings and booked myself a little extra time to see these particular members of my family.

Serena spotted the tree first, it’s branches reaching out from a fenced backyard. I pulled a sticky fig off the tree and offered to share it with her, but she had found her own. We stood there in wordless companionship, eating these ripe, impossibly sweet figs, and feeling appreciation for the wonders of Oakland.

*The picture above was taken on that walk, but is not of the fig tree. I was too engrossed in the eating of the fig to take a picture.

Mid-July 2015

For the last month and a half, I’ve had a note on my to-do list that reads, “Apt. 2024 post.” Each time I rewrite the list, I carry it over to the fresh page and work away at all the tasks around it. Still, I keep it there as a reminder that this blog is here, waiting for me.

When I do eventually make it to this space, I am grateful and feel such relief in allowing myself to tumble onto this virtual page.

The last few months have been intensely full (substitute the word years for months and that statement would still be true). I turned in the first draft of my next cookbooks in early May and have now made it through two rounds of edits and the photo shoot. I have one last bit of editing to do and then I won’t see it again until galleys.

There is a part of me that still can’t quite believe that I’ve now written three books. The person I was when I started this website would be amazed at the future that lay in store for her.

Scott and I are still living in the apartment, but have been looking for a house to buy in West Philly. The market is tight and inventory is low, so I keep my eyes peeled for possibilities and hope that they don’t go under contract before we can see them.

I feel like I function on two levels these days. On one plane, I am focused on all the things I hope for – a bigger space, the chance to grow a human, the opportunity to write more books without quite so much hustle in the selling. But on the more mundane level, I let all of those hopes go in order to be satisfied with where I am and what I have. It’s a tricky balance to maintain, but works nonetheless.

 

50 years

Our apartment building is turning 50 years old this year, and to celebrate, the board is throwing a party. Invitations have gone out and nearly every time I ride the elevator, someone turns to me and asks, “Are you attending the anniversary gala?”

Each time, I smile, nod and say, “Yes! My husband and I are both looking forward to it!”

The questioner is always satisfied by this answer and then goes back to sorting their mail or digging their keys out of a pocket or handbag.

However, each time I’m asked, there’s always a longer answer that wells up inside of me. It’s too much information for an elevator ride and truly, these people don’t want the long answer because they’re really just making conversation. But this is what I want to say.

This building is inextricably linked to my family history. Five generations of my family members have walked through the lobby (from my great-great Aunt Sue to my nephew Emmett). There has never not been a moment in the life of this building when I did not have a relative (or two) living here.

My grandmother lived here for more than 1/3 of her life (from 1966 to 2002) and now I’ve done the same (2002 to 2015 and still counting). My mother lived here when she was in college and you can still see traces of the orange paint she slapped on the bathroom walls during a period of mono-induced psychosis. My Uncle Wallace, who at that time was called Robbie, lived in the den when he was going to law school.

Throughout a big chunk of my childhood, my mom brought my sister and me to Philly each summer for a week or two (and once for seven). We slept in the den, road bikes down the hallway, and went to summer camp at 4th and Pine. You can still see the spot on the carpet where I spilled cantaloupe soup in the hallway.

I realize I’m just one cog in the larger machine of the building, but it has been instrumental in shaping me into the person I am. Of course I’m going to the party.

The Great De-Fuzzing

the defuzzer

There is currently a seasonal capsule wardrobe movement afoot. All across the internet, bloggers are editing their clothes down to just 25 or 30 pieces and then sharing all the different outfits they can create with the pared down selection. It’s an exercise designed to create freedom through limitations and remind one that more isn’t always better.

I applaud those who are able to winnow down to two or three dozen items. In all honesty, I probably don’t wear much more than that on a regular basis, but there’s something about creating restrictions where none are necessary that makes me chafe. And so, this blog post isn’t about my decision to pare down. It is, however, about one small thing that I gleaned from all this capsule wardrobe reading I’ve been doing.

In a nutshell, one thing people are discussing is that an inevitable result of narrowing your available items of clothing is that more pressure is put on the garments that remain in rotation. The pieces you are wearing will need extra care. But that’s okay, because in the end you’ve still got less to tend for. That means there’s time for things like hand washing, overnight airing, and fuzz removal.

March 6

Now, like I said before, I’m not trying to do a capsule wardrobe. But the idea of spending just a little bit more time taking care of the things I have struck me. And so, I’ve been making a point of hand washing some sweaters that were long overdue. I’ve done a bit of mending (a pair of socks with a year old hole took three minutes to repair). And I’ve mercilessly tackled all the pills and fuzzies that dot my knits and woolens.

To that end, I bought myself a brand new fuzz shaver. I had a travel sized one years ago, but it was of limited utility. This new one is like a race car in comparison (though the fuzz collection space could be bigger). I’ve been shaving fuzz from everything within reach.

I groomed a beloved sweater I’ve had since college and it looks much revived. A new thrift store find got the treatment and now looks like it’s straight off the rack. And this morning, I didn’t let Scott leave for work until I ran my little fuzz shaver over the pills dotting the cotton zip-up he was wearing (it’s surprisingly effective on occupied items).

It’s the little things that please me most.