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.

marycake

 

 

 

 

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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.

marycake

*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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The Terriblest Place

My mother pointed out that my last two posts haven’t been very entertaining. Tell me about it. It’s much more fun to write about food than its avoidance.

Just to review: I (a notorious Eater) spent three weeks on a diet that forbade the consumption of…most things. During that time I consumed nuts by the wheelbarrow load. I broke out in hives, and it seems I am allergic to nuts.

No?!

Yes!!

But which ones? The savory cashew (how I love it!)? The buttery macadamia? The adorable filbert? Not sure.

A week ago, (after I was told to stop eating nuts) I was munching mechanically on some dark chocolate almonds, making my way through the package with bovine determination when I paused, mid-chew. I was eating nuts. Be they ever so enrobed in a silky chocolate shell, these were nuts. And apparently, I was nuts. I know it seems obvious that they were nuts, but I got excited/distracted by the word “chocolate,” and I am new to food avoidance.

My husband reminded me that no matter how a nut comports itself, whether in oil and salt or lurking in toffee, it’s still a nut. This harks back to my initial tense conversation with the naturopath, when I told her that I am unused to not getting everything I want. It also puts me in mind of when my oldest was a tiny two-year-old and – in the throws of a particularly unsatisfactory day – she wailed, “This is the TERRIBLEST place EVER…EST!” “Why?” asked my reasonable husband, “Because you can’t get everything you want whenever you want it?” “YES!!!” she wailed. Sister, you said it! It’s the terriblest place.

Here’s a link to a nicer, nuttier time. These bars were delicious:

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Is There Ever Really a Good Day to Diet?

I mentioned, at the end of my previous installment, that my husband was out of town on urgent business, coinciding with my participation in an elimination diet (he assured me it was coincidental). My friend Keith asked, with some comical concern on his face, if my husband ever came back to town. Yes he did come back, and he tries to show concern for my pitiful plight, while avoiding me. There must be a back staircase on this house that I didn’t know about because he disappears into – I swear it – thin air. I am left to wander alone, munching my rice cakes with a dour expression; as my youngest said, “Mom, your diet makes me sad.”

But have you noticed that no matter how miserable your petty, first-world problems are, someone always has it worse? I was telling a friend about the elimination diet and she said, “Wow, you get to eat fruit huh? That’s nice. And only for a few weeks? Huh…” She trailed off, but the implication was clear. Her diet had been three months and strictly meat and vegetables. Yes well, I had to concede she had it worse. Then my neighbor told me she was once on a diet of rice and turkey for three weeks. Okay! She’s the winner! I am not even very good at being sufficiently pitiable. My friend Jesse had to swallow some gravel-sand mixture on one of her regimens. Maybe it was ground-up mirrors? I can’t recall.

I have to admit, despite my extreme, vocal skepticism about the diet, I did think I might experience some increased energy, mental clarity, perhaps a youthful spring in my step once my entire body wasn’t beset by poisons. Here I am on day 22 and…still waiting…cakeless.

I really want to write about the chocolate mousse I made for my friend Kirstin for her birthday. She assures me it was top-notch. I couldn’t try it, but I could tell, just by looking, that it was perfect. I have already planned to make it for myself on my next birthday. It’s out there in the near future, spurring me on.

marycakeless (for now)

P.S. I don’t like these all-text blog entries. I want pictures! Here are some from the archives to cheer us, Eaters.

 

P.P.S. Looks like we have our “before” pictures all set for the wall of fame at the orthodontist’s office.

A Good Day to Diet

I don’t talk about diets here, mostly because I have been lucky enough to avoid them. I have a list of bodily insecurities a mile long, (Why are my eyes freakishly close together? A nasty boy in first grade always called me “Cyclops,” which seemed excessive) but I haven’t experienced much of a weight struggle. Following my two pregnancies, I decided I wasn’t going to go down without a fight, but that I also wouldn’t fight very hard. I settled for facing the fact that I would never be my pre-pregnancy weight, but it would be a cold day in hell before I wore mom jeans. So I suppose I settled for pretending, and that has worked pretty well.

I don’t think I have to treat my body like a temple. It’s more like a well-kept municipal park that occasionally gets overtaken by skateboarders. But my naturopath disagrees, (they always do) and has insisted, for years, that the whole place is a toxic waste dump. Ok, I’m offended, yes, but also curious. I am beset by foggy fatigue and allergies – could my brain and body be mired down in dairy, eggs, soy, corn, peanuts, gluten, grains of every stripe, plus tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers? Also citrus fruits? Oh, and refined sugar and alcohol? So, mired down in fun and joy then.

I like to think of myself as open to new ideas, (not really) so I decided to go on this month long hell-ride of an elimination diet (the name alone…).

After Dr. Meanypants got through the list of foods I couldn’t eat (this took way longer than telling me what I could eat) I said, “I am just not used to…um…how can I say this? Not used to…” “Not getting what you want all the time?” she finished my thought. “Yes!” I snapped my fingers. “That’s it! Ya, I don’t like that.” She made her “get used to disappointment, Princess” face. It’s built into the cost.

I have quoted George Bernard Shaw here before: “There is no love more sincere than the love of food.” To that I would add: and the love of drink. I realized that popcorn, treats, beer and wine were like special friends to me. But they are all gone now, to the houses of other people they like better.

My daughters agreed to release me from my morning baking duties since I am not inclined to churn out cream scones that I can’t eat. They are doing fine on Dave’s bagels so far, but it’s only been a week – poor things. They are sweetly sympathetic to my plight.

I assured them that the diet is not for weight loss, because it’s important to me to raise girls in an environment that doesn’t assume everything is wrong with the way our bodies look and that they are in constant need of tweaking and deprivation. “Oh Mom! We know!” I was pleased that they found the very idea of a weight loss program absurd, (this seems the best way to feel, at their ages) but I sensed something else in their tone. It was this: “We certainly hope it’s not for weight loss, because we all know that is never going to happen.”

Okay, fair enough. It’s no secret that I can murder a cauldron of popcorn. But not today. Today I am doing this. I am going against everyone’s (especially my own) conception of me as a person devoid of willpower. Oh, I am doing this. Stay tuned. Send flowers – I can eat those.

marycakeless

P.S. Today’s wacky meal combo consisted of: brown rice, garbanzos, watermelon, olive oil, butter lettuce, nutritional yeast, pumpkin seeds and kiwi berries.

P.P.S. My husband just left on urgent out-of-town business. Go figure.