Sister Golden Hair Surprise

This post is for Phoebe who, after all, gives”Wonderwall.” its best cover to date.

Once, when my older daughter was a toddler, “my little fruit bat,” as I called her, was eating bing cherries and I could see the pits collecting in her generous cheeks. “Spit them out,” I cautioned. She focused her gaze a few inches above my head and made an effortful, audible gulp, disposing handily of a cache of about fifteen pits. She affected an expression of insouciance; just below the surface was the glee she took in flouting my good counsel. Huh, I thought, I’m in for it.

And then the thought came: good for her.

On her sixth birthday, I asked her what she wished for and she said, “Just to be a great girl.” She’s now on her way to being 17, and wishing made it so; she is a great girl. I get complimented on her and in return, I tell the truth, “I just gave her room to grow.” She was going to do what she was going to do. From the first moment in the hospital when she looked at me like, “Try to keep up,” I’ve been trying, but it’s not easy.

In elementary school she told the principal that he should support a series of “Lunchtime Entertainments.” She kicked this off with an a capella version of “Sister Golden Hair Surprise” in front of a noisy, smelly cafeteria packed with kids. That’s not an easy song to sing. And she wasn’t a showy kid with a big personality. She was introverted, and prone to some nervous spells when called on to perform. How an eleven year could send her sweet, untrained voice out across a mob of Go-GURT chugging kids at a school where she wasn’t even particularly happy, I don’t know.

Watching my daughter grow into young womanhood so focused, imaginative and bold, has made me wonder how my life would have been different if I had taken, Dare Greatly, as my motto, or Live Out Loud? Or just Be a Great Girl? But you know, it feels late to change. I am so caught up in observing the unfolding wonder of my daughters’ lives, (and in driving them all over creation) that it’s exhausting to imagine doing much with mine except laundry, or making vague threats about dressing down the boys who come around.

Ah the boys…they have been polite and genuine so far. I can’t complain save this: why do they wear so much cologne? When I first realized how lovely and electric she was going to be, I assumed I would have to patrol the perimeter of my property with a gun, muttering into a walkie talkie. But I forgot that her self-assurance and ebullience would – so far – scare away jerks. All her male friends are kind and funny and sadly, not scared of me. So if I am not her defender, what am I?

She’s two years away from college, busy with school and theater and the ferocious pace of socializing. For me, it’s all bittersweet. I sometimes wish we were embroidering together side by side while listening to a podcast. But I don’t embroider. She does of course; she taught herself one free Saturday. But then I also think, “Yes. Go live it.”

Her high school years have been tough ones for me. I often feel like I am swimming upstream; maybe she feels that way too. And we’re in two different rivers, so it’s impossible to help each other. It has taken me by disappointed surprise that the person I taught to talk can sometimes be so hard to talk with.

We don’t share too many interests, (she started baking and now she’s better than me but I tell myself, through my tears, that it’s better if our offspring surpass us) but we both like a hike. In early July we climbed Mt Ellinor and were met by the same adorable, woolly herd of goats that thwarted our climb last year. I gave her my standard advice when faced with wild animals, or just anything unpredictable, really, “Look down.” I could tell she thought my advice was weird and uninspired. Maybe, but neither of us got gored by a horn.

Cookie Roasting – simple pleasures!

But then a dog barked, sparking a mini stampede of bewildered goats. As the shaggy creatures galloped by, I shoved her behind me because she’s supposed to be here when I’m gone. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, and I am supposed to do everything in my power to ensure it. And that power is so limited, so feeble compared to everything and everyone who could hurt her. But I knew once she was born that I would now be walking through the world without skin, and everyday with her would be sparkling joy and looming catastrophe. And so…much…laundry.

But I did give her room to grow, and I gave her sage advice about cherry pits that she ignored. Hey, I didn’t take my mother’s advice either: “Learn to cook meat. Men love meat.” She was right, but I had to chart my own course.

The other day we hiked again, swam in our favorite lake, visited the High Steel Bridge together for the first and last terrifying time, ate ice cream. and then landed at our other favorite lake. We agreed it was a perfect day – the best day. We even had watermelon. I have decided to always remember it. And I will also always remember the look on her face when she swallowed those pits. It hurt a little, I think, but no one said being your own woman wouldn’t come at a price. It’s not always easy to be her mom, and it hurts a little too, but it’s humbling and inspiring, and great.

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Palm Springs Eternal

Many years ago, I read a Sunset article about date shakesThe farm stands purveying this happy marriage of fruit and cream are dotted along I-10, the highway that runs through the date growing capital of the world. And can we pause here to say that dates are a fruit, (healthy!) yet they taste, and sort of look, like caramel? We can pause, and while we do, I will eat some dates.

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Hotel room picnic

After reading the article, I was inspired to make a shake. It was delicious, though I didn’t know how to keep the sticky dates from caking into the bottom of my blender. So I made one of my famous “I will eat it!” food vows, that someday I would have a shake made by the experts in Coachella Valley.

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At last

When I found out my husband had a convention to attend in Palm Springs, I saw my chance. Not long after we touched down, I began scoping out the shake situation. I honed in on Great Shakes, but hesitated, so close to consummation, because I was afraid that it would be too sweet.

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Desert blooms

Well, it was quite sweet, but it was also the creamy culmination of this date-lover’s most cherished hopes. And please, note the wee cake encircling the straw. That’s right: a cake garnish! That idea definitely has more legs than parsley and a twisted orange wedge.

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Hanging up in Great Shakes

Not only was my shake yummy, but the service at Great Shakes was attentive and warm. The shake maker (shaker?) informed me that date shakes used to be served at the local sanitariums. I don’t know if they ever cured anyone’s tuberculosis, but given their silky-sweet spirit-elevating properties, I bet they didn’t hurt. If I ever return, I plan to rent a car to tour the Hadley and Shields date farms.

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Made some friends at the pool

I love the sunshine, and the mountainous backdrop, but the town felt a little eerie to me. Partly I am never sure if we are supposed to live in the desert. Is it really for us? Marylin Monroe lived here, (don’t ask me how she kept her skin so dewy) and I sense a collective mourning for all she represents, shellacked over in vibrant, nostalgic furnishings. I too, felt wistful for a bygone era (while simultaneously reminding myself that said era was before women’s/gay/civil rights).

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It’s hard to describe the vibe, but people are definitely here to party. The bulk of eateries seem geared toward a city-wide, perpetual hangover. I walked by Oscar’s Bar, where the Sunday night dance party was revving up, complete with DJ. For a full five seconds I considered going, before I remembered I am crowd averse, noisephobic, and generally skeptical of public merriment.

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As I turned away in relief from my brief mental foray into extroversion, I was nearly toppled by a gaggle of human females on bicycles, clad in “Team Bride” shirts. Holy Matrimony! I fled to my hotel room before Team Bride devolved into Gorgeous (Drunk) Ladies of Wrestling, complete with teary rivulets of mascara.

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Tahquitz Canyon Falls

The hike to Tahquitz Canyon Falls was more in keeping with my passions, especially since a dunk in the falls pool was on my list, next to the date shake. I also recommend the hike into Murray Canyon, where I discovered my own private swimming hole.

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Murray Creek
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Evening

I lounged by the pool *of course, but any poolside sloth took place in the shade, since I am the fairest of them all. A dermatologist once looked me over, sighed, and shrugged, “Wear sunscreen, and just try to enjoy your life.” I think he knew that for me, that would be a challenge (both the laborious slathering, and the enjoying). But oddly, it gets easier with every decade. The loss of collagen tends to concentrate the mind. And though my mind often concentrates on chasing down catastrophic scenarios, I do eventually perform a screeching, dusty, U-turn back toward a place of appreciation. Now I mostly enjoy my life, and mostly wear sunscreen.

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On a hot and hilly hike up the North Lykken trail, I observed this plaque. I treasure these sorts of trail surprises, and preferred this over the group of 92 (I confirmed the number) seventh graders, and a rattlesnake I met in Murray Canyon (though the snake and I parted as friends).

Did Carl Rose, who is so simply and evocatively memorialized here, love that rock? The trail? The mountain? The city? Or the whole shebang, this whole place? I just know that I want someone to think that about me: that I loved this place, enjoyed this life (and wore sunscreen).

To Carl Rose, and those who miss him in this strange, (but brightly hued) desolate (but effervescent) place, thank you for the reminder.

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*The pool made me itchy and on our last day it was closed due to a “public health hazard”- probably a coincidence.

International Women’s Day and…

…the day I have waited 48 years for: National Tartar Sauce Day. I didn’t think I would see it in my lifetime, but it was absolutely worth the wait.

Go ahead, weep tears of joy.

This day is a movable feast, to be observed the first Friday after the beginning of Lent. On Wednesday I had ashes placed on my forehead, as I contemplated the dust from whence I sprung, and to which I will eventually return. It’s inevitable, but not too close at hand, I hope. Until then, there is tartar sauce to comfort me as I traverse this vale of tears.

When I was a wee girl, I looked forward to the night that came about once a month. when my mother was tired of cooking. My “everything from scratch” mom would scatter (ready-made! store bought! frozen!) fries, and Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks on two baking trays. Then, I would hold vigil at their seemingly endless sojourn in the oven, sustaining myself with fantasies of tartar sauce.

I like to think of it as a salad of sorts. It’s a creamy salad for sure, but the best tartar sauces have chopped up tart little pickles, capers, lemon juice, maybe even scallions and chives! This is all salad stuff, Eaters!

I am not making fried fish from scratch tonight – I bought it breaded and frozen – but I do have potatoes for oven fries, which makes me miss my paternal grandmother’s special French fry cutter. I recall watching her, a frail woman who had endured a hard life, press the potato through the cutter with determination. There is a version of this mechanism available at Dick’s Sporting Goods, which seems fitting to me, as it’s a sweaty, muscular endeavor to get an unwieldy Russet to submit. It could be a competitive sport. Besides the French fry cutter, my grandparents had a Fry Daddy; so a hot summer night of fish and chips was truly a splendid event for my 8 year old self.

My husband will eat my mother’s sublime apple pie, or just whatever substandard pie is lying around. He applies the same philosophy to pizza. I was a kid who loved my grandparents’ outdoor fry-ups with fresh fish, Mrs. Paul’s industrially-breaded fish sticks, and even the lowly (but lovely) McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish I got to eat as a reward for getting vaccinations. What would these meals be without tartar sauce?

Ladies, it’s your day! And believe me, they are only giving us one; so don’t hesitate to celebrate, by getting sauced.

International Women’s Day Tartar Sauce

1 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon horse radish (more if you like)
1/2 cup chopped cornichons or other tart pickle
1/4 cup chopped capers
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon diced scallions (optional)
a dash of pickle juice to taste
pinch salt

Mix all the ingredients. Enjoy your moment.

marycake

 

 

Cabin Feverish

I was in a long line at the grocery store, feeling mild contempt for my fellow store-goers – and if I am being honest, the contempt extended to myself. I had done what I swore I would not do (again with the doing and the swearing) and popped out for a last minute trip as the snow was setting in. This was my second last minute trip after my second to the last, last minute trip.

I wandered around the store, glassy-eyed, on the first go-round, and left with the following emergency preparedness items: wine and butter. Criticize all you like, but two of my girlfriends (one who even keeps stashed vitamin C in case a catastrophe leaves her subsisting on frozen pine cones) texted me this: “You have wine don’t you?!?!?” Yes, and butter!

When I emerged after my second trip, (this time I had mandarins and a savoy cabbage, lest you think I don’t know what I am doing) the storm had built up a good head of steam. People were driving in mad defiance of the parking lot arrows, already casting aside all social convention in a post-Armageddon-we-feed-on-corpses-now-because-we-have-no-choice fashion. In short, everyone skipped straight to panic, no build-up. Evidently, no one in the south sound area has ever seen snow, or coping skills. The town owns one snowplow, and it’s missing a tire.

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I fetched my children, who were released early from school. After I located the matches and flashlights in case we lost power, I texted my husband to come home so we could get a jump on being cooped up and sick of each other. He was at the gym getting in a workout before it closed early. Ok, that’s practical. If the end was nigh, he might as well be toned, in case he’s in charge of repopulating, or chopping wood, or something.

The next morning we were greeted by a gorgeous blanket of snow, and my youngest daughter’s flu virus. She ran a temperature intermittently for four days, missing all the winter fun, but watching copious episodes of The Vicar of Dibley. Like her mother, the flu doesn’t do much to dampen her appetite for food, or BBC.

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The first morning, I baked banana-coffee muffins and my favorite cookies, just in case we were going to lose electricity. Later, I roasted sweet potatoes, made black beans in the slow cooker, and grated up an Asian slaw. My husband made excellent tacos with all that – plus some avocado and lime – and the sweet potatoes made it into sweet potato biscuits a few days later.

The next day I baked a chicken pot pie and my older daughter made thumbprint jam cookies (good thing I had that butter). On what felt like day 44, I made steel-cut oats and green smoothies. If school was cancelled, and we were trapped with my daughter’s death rattle cough, I thought we should have something to look forward to.

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As time wore on, the meals actually got healthier, culminating in this tofu, sesame and orange salad I made for just myself. The bowl is 12 inches across. If I was going to catch the flu, I just wanted to live large while I could (which, for me, means eating salad from a very large bowl).

It’s funny, you would think the seclusion and lack of outside commitments would result in a forced, but welcome, period of productivity. Why shouldn’t I emerge, after the thaw, fluent in Spanish, with knife-edged folded laundry, dust balls running scared, and abs of steel? But storm or no storm, I once again found myself to be…just me, with all my sloth and excuses intact. I did organize my pantry, but only after watching an entire season of Damages while pretending I was busy backing up my hard drive.

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The snow turned to rain and it’s still slushy out there; it’s still winter, and I am still my same scattered, last-minute-trips-to-the-store, unproductive self. Is that why we were all wandering around Fred Meyer, weeping and driving like idiots? Because we were afraid of being trapped indoors with our shortcomings? Well, I suggest we bundle up Eaters, and settle into our flawed selves. Until that one-wheeled snow plow comes to dig us out, we are stuck with us. In the meantime, learn a little Spanish for me, and eat something with butter.

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Costume Comfort

I scooped my youngest up from middle school on a cold, damp, little day. She was chilled, and on top of that, her band was having creative differences. “I need comfort,” she said, “I need…popcorn.”

Later that evening – and only because I wouldn’t allow any costume drama viewing on a school night – she turned to what she describes as her “comfort book.” Pies and Prejudice, by Heather Vogel Frederick, (any book, come to think of it) is best enjoyed over a well-seasoned bowl of popcorn. Got curry powder? Nutritional hippie yeast? Dried basil? Sesame seeds? Toss it all in with abandon, and don’t skimp on the olive oil, please.

See the source image

I only saw one movie in the theater when I was expecting my youngest, the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. starring please-stop-trying-so-hard Keira Knightly, and an oddly expressionless, if strangely compelling Matthew MacFadyen. And what did I (we, actually) munch on while viewing? Homemade popcorn I smuggled in, of course. There was no way I was trusting my pregnant popcorn needs to the whim of the movie theater popcorn machine with its dubious, tacky, plexiglass walls, smeared with trans-fat. Flash forward twelve years and my girl and I both find our comfort zone eating popcorn companionably, as we watch our favorite empire-wasted heroines.

Thanks to Amazon’s algorithm, I was recently matched with The Comfort Food Diaries. Here Emily Nunn, who wrote for the New Yorker and the Chicago Tribune, chronicles her journey around the country to visit, and eat with, family and friends. After heartbreaks that left her facing her own grief and addiction, she sought to immerse herself in the ways of culinary comfort. Life had broken her, but meals crafted with care helped her begin the tenuous process of knitting up her frayed self.

Our relationships with food can be tricky. We are not all granted the body chemistry and life experience that allows a healthy, straightforward way to interact with food. Eating is necessary, yes, but it’s also, obviously, a source of pleasure that comes to symbolize so much: comfort, home, time with someone we love, a way to take care of ourselves after heartaches (or on days when our fellow band members are dullards, ignorant of our creative vision). And for some, life’s deprivations don’t allow enough food; a relationship to food then is just a lack – a longing and emptiness.

I understand that in writing about food, I write as one who takes for granted that I will eat again tomorrow, and probably later today. I am deeply fortunate to have always enough, and more, to offer comfort to those I love.

marycake

 

 

Into the Cave

Last night I wrestled insulators onto our outdoor faucets with my stiff fingers and thought about winter. I struggle at this time of year. I never seem to click over to the scourge known as daylight savings time; I nod off early in the evening – even for me – then awaken in foul temper, a couple hours before the sun can be bothered to appear. Though, with the recent cold, there have been clear days – a sweet reprieve from our usual long, sodden darkness.

Besides the shivers, I have also had writer’s block, but thankfully, not Eater’s block. The season has provided opportunities to feast in fashions both lavish and restrained. Yes, you can feast with restraint; as I edge ever-nearer to the half century mark, enjoying a meal while keeping my corset laced yields more positive results.

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Vanilla cake with ganache and my sister’s lavender cake

The late fall began with a party at my sister’s – a send-off for a beloved housemate and friend. I was charged with bringing cake. You won’t be surprised to hear that I am similarly charged, with some regularity. I made an old favorite: chocolate ganache drenched vanilla cake filled with marzipan and apricot jam. I sound like I am showing off, but I hardly ever make this, and after all the labor, the results were underwhelming.

Topped with candied lemons

This cake has been an opiate of the masses in the past, but on this occasion, it was dense and gluey. This let-down inspired me to research a new white cake recipe. I was happy with the resulting amalgam of two Mark Bittman recipes, and decked it with roasted rhubarb frosting,* creating a pink sensation for my dad’s birthday get-together with his siblings. You may notice the frosting is not completely emulsified, and I am open to advice about this. I am MaryCake, but my icings can be decidedly un-merry (still delicious though).

The Big Day

And then Thanksgiving came and I slaved, and shlepped, and…actually I did no such thing. I gave up on holiday martyrdom years ago. I did make fresh cranberry-pineapple salad, which remains as thrillingly zesty as when my mom first made her rendition, thirty years ago. I was in charge of stuffing, (it’s theoretical stuffing, since we don’t stuff our turkey) and I was working on the curd for our now traditional key lime pie, when my oldest took over and finished it. We used crushed meyer lemon cookies for the crust this time. My husband assumed responsibility for the turkey years ago and he does a perfect job. My oldest also made pumpkin biscuits, adorable pecan tarts, and mashed potatoes. Next year I will spend the holiday alone in Barbados – they don’t need me!

At the risk of sounding like the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving, (Don’t we all have some grudging admiration for that guy? Talk about a heist!) I don’t actually like pumpkin pie anymore. Pie crusts are meant to contain berries and custards, not tubers and gourds – for me anyway. But our guests are always horrified at this, and will bring a pumpkin pie, rather than suffer through the meal without one waiting at the end with its confusing texture and odd color. We are now a BYOPP house. Unless you love baking pumpkin pie, try threatening your guests and family with its absence. Someone will rise to the occasion.

I don’t want to miss the season; I want to be alive to every frosty sparkle, grateful for every ice-coated leaf. But then, as I told my husband, I also want to take part in a scientific study of human hibernation. I picture myself in a cave, snoring away in an ursine heap, looking like an enormous muppet in my green, fuzzy robe. Everyone would be terrified to disturb me for fear of my ensuing rotten mood and bared teeth.

Shhhhh. Nudge me when it’s Spring.

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*The frosting recipe comes from Yottam Ottelenghi and Helen Yoh’s Sweet.

 

Queer Eye for the Straight Salad

Do any of you watch Queer Eye? I find this show occasionally eases the pain of life, mostly because it’s a relief to watch people be nice to each other. And of course, I enjoy makeovers. Part of me questions their lasting impact on the made-over person; part of me just doesn’t care. That part of me that’s dying to be soothed and entertained says YES! Yes to the haircut, the wardrobe rejuvenation, and the complete revamping of rooms. Also: yes to green-tinted concealer and a bonfire of old bedspreads! Yes to all of it. Hey guys! Make ME over!

The Fab Five are just that, and the scenic Antoni Porowski in particular, gets a great deal of attention. And, because God sometimes gives with both hands, Lil’ Tony can cook.

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Porowski is opening a fast-casual restaurant in Manhattan. Bon Appetit featured an alluring photo (besides the one above) of one of his salads, but without a recipe! I pounced. My looks, marital status, lack of celebrity, advanced age, and gender, might make Antoni unattainable, (hey, I’ve played with worse odds) but his salad was well within my greedy grasp.

photo by Emma Fishman, bonappetit.com

I could surmise from the photo that it contained avocado, fennel, oranges, limes, grapefruits, pomegranate, pistachios, and…some kind of herb. I thought mint, but my food-savant friend Kai suggested basil, and it ended up being just the thing. It clearly has chili powder on it, and must have salt and (I decided) honey and olive oil. And I think I made up the lime part, but I am insisting. It’s tart, spicy and juicy. That’s the ingredient list, so make it however you want. I didn’t get a recipe either!

I took it to a Halloween party and the remains rejuvenated me as I made my way back to my car, parked miles away. In my haste to get the last of it, I tipped the tray into my mouth as I dodged a group of…perhaps zombie librarians (?). As I rounded the corner to my vehicle and hopped in, narrowly dodging what I hoped were Spice Girls, I decided I would make it again the next night. Really, it’s hard to get too much of Antoni, or his salad. Though I am actually partial to Jonathan…

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