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My Number One Son

What did you serve?

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Nineteen!!

Between us, my son and I never acknowledge that there is, in fact, only one son. The boy formerly known as Eighteen, now Nineteen, goes by many terms of endearment. He was certainly my Number One Son when we planned that he and some college friends would come to the house for dinner to celebrate on his birthday.

 

Although most of the time I pretend he’s five or six hours away from home, it’s incredibly convenient that his college is just sixty-three miles door-to-door. The hungry hoards would arrive in three cars before six. Anticipating the crowd, Fifteen and I prepped the dining room ahead. It took my table on a slant across the room, both of the extension leaves, and two six-foot folding tables to get enough chairs—dining and folding—arrayed around for all of the guests to have a place. We decorated with BB-8 paraphernalia from the party store—hats, blowers, and cutouts. The Lego BB-8 Nineteen received and built on Christmas Day was the centerpiece. In the brass goblets my mother purchased in Mexico fifty years ago, goblets that have been making party memories ever since, we placed “light saber” party favors—Quasr bars from Trader Joe’s.IMG_9948

 

Decorating wasn’t nearly as challenging as menu planning. What do you make for fourteen? Consider that among the guests there was one nut allergy, one lactose intolerant, two vegetarians who eat fish, one meat lover who doesn’t think much of vegetables, and one young man who believes potatoes are not just a food group of their own, but food sent from the gods above. Midweek before the party, I got a call. The vegan friend could come too. Toss into the mix that I was working out of town the two days before, so the shopping had to be done in advance, with last-minute items added on Sunday, cutting down on cooking time. For inspiration, I borrowed heavily from Thanksgiving.

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Snacks:
Deviled Eggs
Olives, Pickles, Cheese Cubes, and Cherry Tomatoes with toothpicks

 

 

 

Dinner:
Salmon Stuffed with (nut-free) Spinach Pesto and Roasted Red Peppers
Quinoa and Black Bean Salad
Roasted Chickens (from Costco)
Scalloped Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Gratin with Fresh Herbs
(A recipe that was a “let’s try it this year” Thanksgiving addition years ago and immediately earned a permanent spot: https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/scalloped-yukon-gold-and-sweet-potato-gratin-with-fresh-herbs)
Roasted Carrots, Green Beans, and Asparagus
Fruit Salad
Bread and Butter and “Butter”

IMG_9914Dessert:
Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies (a Cook’s Illustrated recipe)
Cheesecake with Fruit (made in a crowd-accommodating tart pan)
An Assortment of Frozen Vegan Treats from Trader Joe’s

Beverages:
Water infused with Lemon, Cucumber and Blackberries
Sparkling Berry Lemonade and Sparkling Limeade

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BB-8 is Nineteen’s Spirit Droid

When they arrived, I rather wished I’d thought of a piñata or created a pin-the-tail type game as they aren’t yet a cocktails before dinner crowd. But when invited, they stopped standing awkwardly around in the kitchen and lined my sectional, making pre-dinner chatter. Their spring semester is rapidly drawing to a close, their summer plans and finals anxiety making up a large part of the conversation.

These young women and men are undoubtedly heading toward remarkable lives. They’re talented, articulate, attractive, opinionated, loving, grateful, and sparkly brilliant. They hail from parts far and near—my son’s roommate comes from Russia, but in every other way is his brother from another mother. All together, they made this mother’s heart happy by eating nearly every last bite, enjoying all of the details, and wearing their hats all the way through dinner.

The full moon shone on the carloads as they drove back east to their ivy-covered oasis. I’m told the dinner is a capital T topic of conversation. I couldn’t have pulled it off alone and am grateful to Fifteen and her father for all of their help.

In honor of Star Wars Day, May the Fourth be with you! Much love, RxoIMG_9927

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On the Road Again

On the Road Again

How was your spring break?

Fifteen and I packed our bags, scratched the kitties’ ears, and headed out on the open road for a Spring Break trip. As I said to someone recently, “I’m the kind of poor that means I can pay for a new dishwasher or go traveling with my daughter, and I’ll pick the latter option every time. It’s easy enough to wash the dishes.” It was sweet and easy to leave dish duty behind, too.

The first stop was Grinnell, Iowa, where the recently opened Hotel Grinnell welcomed us to their boutique accommodations fashioned out of an old junior high. Attention to school-oriented details make the hotel whimsical—an apple on the desk, the black metal furnishings reminiscent of lockers, the paper on the pad lined like lettering pages from elementary school. We enjoyed dinner with Eighteen and while Fifteen took her first official college visit of her brother’s school, I spent downtime in the hotel.

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The Hotel Grinnell

Downtime isn’t exactly in my vocabulary. It’s a novel experience. Aside from flooding the single-serve coffee maker trying to heat water for tea, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with myself. I was reminded that easing out of one’s daily routine and relentless to-do lists and detaching from responsibilities aren’t easy tasks. But they’re important, and I left home looking for the right blend of adventure and relaxation.

Some of our hotels were more mainstream than others. In Chesterfield, Missouri, The Courtyard Marriott was on one of those streets that looks like anywhere USA. The next day, when the admissions officer at Washington University suggested that homesick students go to the mall, I thought about why we like and build these streets of plenty—familiarity. Comfort when we’re outside of our comfort zones. But the true delight of the recently renovated Marriott was the chance to spend the evening with an old friend.

The woman I’ll call “Mimi” and I met in graduate school. She was one of two graduate advisors to my teaching preparation group, and later she and I were on a committee together. After graduate school she would be in a position to hire me for a summer gig at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival; we hadn’t seen each other since. At dinner Friday night I was able to remember for her something she said that I have carried with me ever since about her happiness. It was a lovely reunion.

Saturday started with a perspective look at Washington University, St. Louis, where I was ready to enroll by the time we left the admissions talk and headed out on tour. Fifteen was less enchanted, but we agreed the campus was pretty and the school is appealing. We next enjoyed the orchids at the Missouri Botanical Center and walking the grounds on a warmish day. Then it was time for tea.

The London Teahouse had just one table available at 3pm. Pots of tea and a three-tiered tray of delights in the lovely flower-filled Hyde Park room were just right. We left with full tummies and six ounces of “Naughty Vicar” to brew at home. That evening found us in the Tudor-style Seven Gables Inn, a 1926 Irish Inn with framed art on the walls and dark wooden floors in the rooms. Two steep flights of stairs up, we found a delightful room with a view of the courtyard. The Inn had oodles of charm and is in a lovely, walkable neighborhood in St. Louis. We enjoyed ramen for dinner around the corner and snuggled in for the night.

We opted to make the Arch a drive-by as it was starting to snow. We were headed for Memphis, home of the famous Peabody Hotel, where ducks swim in the lobby fountain from 11am to 5pm, and were in time to witness their march to the elevator that carries them to their penthouse suite. The Peabody is not only whimsical, it’s elegant and stylish and the service is without compare. The concierge spent an hour helping us print and submit scholarship application forms for Fifteen’s summer exploration, even making a trip into the dining room to find us with the confirmation email she received.

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Always four females and a drake–the ducks spend three months thrilling the crowds at the Peabody and then return to the farm. There is no duck on the menu at the Peabody. 

Memphis was a wonderful surprise—a city that is easy to navigate and brimming with energy. We toured Rhodes College, famous for a number of aspects of the education they offer and frequently atop the list of prettiest campuses in America. It lives up to its reputation. The Memphis Zoo is right across the street, so we headed there after the college to marvel at the animals. Our feet tired, it was a treat to return to our hotel where, in perhaps the swiftest scholarship decision in history, Fifteen found an email rewarding our work the day before with a substantial investment in her summer plans. We celebrated with dessert from the hotel bakery—oh were they good!

The next morning we were off to Graceland. One former Memphis resident told me, before we left, “Well, you can skip Graceland.” Another said, “Of course, you’ve got to go to Graceland.” I’ve been in the latter camp ever since Paul Simon released his album of the same name; if Paul Simon wanted to see Graceland, so did I. Fifteen and I had listened to a wonderful collection of Elvis songs between St. Louis and Memphis. She observed that the songs were short and catchy and nice to listen to. We were ready to learn all about Elvis.

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“For reasons I cannot explain/some part of me wants to see Graceland”

And we were truly panicked, for about fifteen minutes, when it seemed we were stuck in the hotel parking garage. And then we were unbearably happy throughout the tour where Fifteen’s favorite room was the jungle room, complete with shag carpet on the ceiling. Looking up at the mirrors on the staircase ceiling, she said, “If Eighteen is an eighties teen-film star, then I’m a seventies girl through and through.”

“Really?” I asked, “Why is that?”

“You raised me on Abba!” Did I mention that we both loved Elvis’ sparkle-studded jumpsuits and his flashy cars?

We left Graceland with sparkling pen key chains and a sense that we were definitely on an adventure. Even as the impetus of our trip was glancing forward, beginning the conversation around Fifteen’s college journey, more than one stop was a glance back. Lambert’s Café (the home of the throwed rolls, where we caught a roll but did not stay for lunch), was a feature from a family car trip when I was six. Hot Springs, Arkansas, has stayed in my mind ever since I saw billboards for it on a graduate school trip to visit a college friend in Little Rock. Every day was just the right combination of travel, hotel, exploration, and, yes, downtime.

Some of our adventures were decidedly less planned. We didn’t plan, for example, to go to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, but we found that it fit nicely into our itinerary and offered a fascinating look at the history that I lived and came just before Fifteen’s arrival on this planet (the story of how we all met William Jefferson Clinton in our pajamas is family lore). We didn’t plan, until we walked out of our tour of the Clinton library, to find the perfect place for cappuccino and ice cream, but we found that, too. Nor did we plan, between Memphis and Arkansas, to set foot in Mississippi, bringing the total states I have yet to visit in my lifetime down to eight. But after Graceland, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to drive ten minutes south and dine at a surprisingly good rapidly expanding fresh-food chain called Newk’s.

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Hard to photograph but wonderful to explore!

Some of the sweetest moments of travel are those unplanned surprises. Sometimes the surprises are significantly less sweet as when we were headed north from our Mississippi lunch, just slowing to merge onto one highway from another, and suddenly saw a mattress launch from the back of a trailer and flip high into the air heading for our lane. It was one of those moments when everything slows down, and I could categorize the responses in my brain. I watched the mattress lift up and flip, considered its possible landing trajectories, and was able to swerve just enough so that it landed inches to my left and I didn’t collide with the car on my right. The people towing the trailer had reacted swiftly, too, pulling right off the road to retrieve their bed. The people to my right gave way, slowed, and navigated the emergency such that no one was hurt (although I suspect the mattress suffered some road rash). My daughter heard me hurl the F-bomb for the first time in her life, and we shook and nervously chattered for the next ten miles. After that, it became an excellent story—that time we nearly got killed by a mattress—and something of a nightmare as I have rehashed the event and the what-ifs more than once both waking and sleeping.

It was an unplanned event of our trip and life in general that my phone rang one evening with the distressing news that a very good friend’s purse had been stolen. I was distraught that she had been so violated and dismayed to think of the hassles she would have in securing her identity and attempting to replace the contents, both valuable and invaluable. She was distraught because she was on cat duty during our absence and her means of access to our house were in her purse. Oh, yes, that’s a problem.

I wonder now if thieves have any regard for the ripple effect of stealing one woman’s purse? In this (as, I would suspect most) case, police are involved in the crime report, insurance agents in the property claim, the business outside of which the burglary took place in securing their premises for their patrons, the banker officers and credit managers in safeguarding her identity, and on and on. For just my piece of the experience, as we traveled, I had to ask my back-up cat care friend to step in. When it turned out there was no key in my lockbox, I reached out to the neighbor with a house key, but she texted back from her spring break in France. Finally I sent a key overnight via FedEx, all to be certain that my four-footeds would be fed. Again, once the anxiety settled, we ended up with a good story from the road.

As Fifteen read and I drove along, watching for signs of spring, I mused about perspective—maybe it’s an obvious truth that all over the world there are people going about what they do, earnestly, some with bold ambitions and the best of intentions, some with selfish inclinations and the most harmful of results. Travel brings us face-to-face with all of it—the big and the small, the luxurious and the necessary, the markers of the past, the fulfilled intentions and goals, the way our actions reverberate in the world, and the surprises and how we handle them.

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Just the car for our next road trip!

If you’ve read all the way to the end, thank you—we made it home without further incident, with another happy reunion with a dear friend, and without, yet, a college of choice. The laundry done and folded, the cats soothed, Fifteen was ready to pack the car and head out again. The next great family college-search road trip will likely be summer 2018. I, for one, can’t wait! Happy Spring Equinox, with all my love, Rxo

The Tao of Dishes

What are you going to do about your dishwasher?

One night not too long ago, we tidied up after dinner and I set the dishwasher running. I was tired and meaning to go to bed, but something on my computer monitor lead me down a rabbit hole, and I ended up perched on a kitchen stool in one of those “I’m on my way to something else” poses that ends up causing unidentifiable aches the next day. I wish I could say I was drawn into an intricate plot point in the novel I’m writing or sending words of comfort to any one of the people I know who are dealing with big life pains right now. But I was—as I often am—mouth agape at the newest, weirdest, still-might-be-outdone moment of news coverage of the current American administration. So I know I sat there quite a while, through most of the dishwasher’s cycle, when I finally stretched and groaned and decided that going to bed was the logical thing to do.

In the morning, Eighteen hustled through unloading the dishes and packing them back on their shelves. He does this at considerable speed, twirling and not infrequently launching the plastic storage containers onto their shelf. It was not until a more staid moment a bit later in the morning when I was starting to put a breakfast plate into the dishwasher and I realized it had no lights on the control panel. My heart sunk a little. Pick any day recently and I can pretty much guarantee it was cold and snowy, but in spite of the cold I padded in my slippers out into the garage to check the circuit breaker. It was fine. My heart sunk a little more. I went back inside and pushed every button on the control panel. Nothing.

Looking more closely I could see that the bottom held about two inches of water that should have drained.

When you tell people that your dishwasher has expired, their reaction is gratifying—that’s awful. What will you do? Oh no! Didn’t you just have it repaired? These are also words and expressions of concern by which you can measure your own response. Mine has been calm—if something had to go wrong, a broken dishwasher isn’t such a big deal. There’s another dishwasher out there—a really inexpensive one if I need one immediately; a mid-line like the one I bought, this one that’s been repaired at least three times and no longer seems worth it to me; the state-of-the-art showpiece I can fantasize about. In the meantime? In the meantime we’re washing the dishes.

Fifteen, in particular, has discovered an affinity for washing up. She likes the way the soapy sponge plays on the nonstick surface of the egg pan, the way the dishes steam a little in the drying rack, the satisfaction of hanging a wet dishtowel to dry when the last dish is wiped and stowed. After family dinners, all three of us congregate—I wash and Fifteen and Eighteen dry, jostling around each other cracking jokes and making observations. With just a few days between the time the dishwasher expired and Eighteen’s departure, I cherished even washing the dishes because I was with them.

A week or so after the dishwasher’s demise, I realized I had better siphon out the standing water so that it wouldn’t get smelly. My actions were arrested by the bird and squirrel show outside the kitchen window. IMG_9319On a day when the temps weren’t expected to climb above zero, I had made a tray of pantry items we hadn’t eaten and set them where I could see who might come to dine. First was a cautious crow, who warily hopped about the tray, flew up to perch and consider the situation, called for backup, and finally flew down, selected a parsnip chip (low salt, all natural—how bad could it be for the crow?) and flew away. His family, five in all, made similar forays, attracting the attention of a squirrel whose approach was a casual sneak, making a run for the food the second all of the birds had flown away.IMG_9326

Our attention thus focused out of the window, as we stand at the sink, over the past few days we’ve seen the crows and squirrels, a brave bunny racing the length of the fence, and—most recently—a gorgeous red fox with a fluffy tail in no apparent hurry whatsoever.

Outside my mother’s window that looks into the courtyard of her assisted living apartment, there’s also just recently been a lively show—a knot of twenty or twenty-five sparrows that have picked up stragglers including a pair of chickadees, a pair of cardinals, a pair of juncos, a dove, a redwing blackbird, and a starling. These last three look especially out of place, larger than the other birds and given to roosting higher. But when the sparrows take flight, the others go too. And when they settle in to eat around the feeder, all of the birds take turns.IMG_9331

Inside we are warm, fed, and have clean dishes. The whole thing is, for me, the message of winter: watch and wait, feed and assist where I can, and seek safety and comfort in the numbers of my fellow travelers, regardless of which feathers they wear.

Happy New Moon–fluff your beautiful feathers and stay warm, xoR

Stirring the Pot

What’s for dinner?

Thanksgiving is just a few days away. Tweaking the menu from last year in anticipation of a crowd, I’ve printed out recipes, made multiple shopping lists, and started to stock pantry items. The swirl of definite maybe guests is sifting into a group of college students arriving Wednesday night with Eighteen, repeat guests from last year who know how to make a party, and relatives flying in on the day itself. I will shop for two days, cook for the two more, iron the linens and fret over the table settings, and I will love every minute of it. Thanksgiving, a holiday about gathering together, making and enjoying great food, and expressing gratitude, is among my very favorites.

Preparing an elaborate holiday meal is the kind of cooking I relish. From my early days, though, I’ve always been drawn to cooking. When I was little and I noticed my mother starting to pull out equipment in the kitchen, I would stop whatever I was doing, find a chair, and drag it to stand next to her, ready to help. I learned early to follow a recipe, readily ate a wide variety of foods, and found a love for the science of baking as soon as I was old enough to manage the oven on my own. By fifteen I made noodles and bread from scratch, mastered buttery chicken Kiev, plated a lovely salade niçoise, and annually crafted the family holiday favorite, bûsch de noël.

Flash forward twenty-some years and I found myself a very different kind of cook. Both of my children were specific eaters, but of specifically very different tastes. The daily grind of producing supper felt like a complicated dance of trying to please everyone that generally resulted in settling on a lowest common denominator, boring for both diners and cook. To complicate matters, while my peeps were still new on their gastronomic journeys, their mother shifted into vegetarianism (technically lacto-ovo-pescatarianism). To this day I honor my omnivores and try to address their tastes. The daily grind of putting healthy, balanced meals on the table and in their lunchboxes often feels relentless.

When Eighteen was still in elementary school, the honors program held a “Night of the Notables” event. Students learned about and then portrayed a variety of important historical and living people—dressing in costume and talking about the people whose lives and work they admired. Eighteen chose author Michael Pollan.

In those days, journalist, lecturer, and academic Pollan had hit one out of the park with publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, not, perhaps, standard reading for an elementary student. Having inhaled the young reader’s edition, my son co-opted my full version and read it cover-to-cover more than once. My memory falters a bit, but I think we made stuffed mushrooms to serve at his station—like his choice of Pollan, they were unusual and met with surprise by more than one in attendance.

Pollan’s star has continued to rise with good reason. He writes with vigor and conviction about the plates we put in front of ourselves and our families. Given the fandom in our household, I keep an eye on his work with affection. Recently I read an interview designed to generate publicity for a Netflix series tied into his most recent publication, Cooking. Pollan said: Aside from the many health benefits, cooking is also “one of the most interesting things humans know how to do and have done for a very long time…. There is something fascinating about it. But it’s even more fascinating when you do it yourself.”

Huh, I thought, captivated. He’s right. Other animals prepare their food, present it to one another, and have rituals around it, but no other animal cooks what it eats. Thus, whether creating a meal for one or a feast for a crowd, the act of cooking is truly a human one, something unique to the species. I’ve been so nourished by Pollan’s words that even simple weeknight dinners have become more absorbing for me.

A week before Thanksgiving, on Thursday afternoon, I chopped celery, carrot, garlic, and yellow pepper, turning them in pre-heated avocado oil in my soup pot. When they were tender, I added one of my favorite ingredients, a no-chicken chicken stock that somehow satisfies the rich warmth of chicken broth, the only thing I missed when I stopped eating poultry. That pan was on the stove waiting for the burner underneath it to click, click, click to a flame. When I returned home in the evening, I heated the broth gently and set to boil water in the pan on the next burner over, adding rice-ramen noodles that were be done in a matter of minutes. While the noodles drained, I reused the noodle pan to braise some escarole, my hands-down favorite green. Into warm broth went trimmed snow peas and then the cooked noodles. Fifteen enjoyed her weeknight ramen without greens; I piled them into mine.

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Leftover ramen, delicious on night two!

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Prep for one of Fifteen’s favorite weeknight meals: Eggies with asparagus and cheese. 

 

Fifteen and I are nearly always dashing in to a dark kitchen after dance, but with a little forethought and some pre-assigned leftovers, I’ve been setting our places with healthy, warm plates and no sense of drudgery. Incrementally Fifteen’s palate is expanding—and our dinner table conversations can’t be beat.

Under the energy of the new moon, may I wish you and yours the most wondrous Thanksgiving. I’m ever so grateful to each and every one of you who stops by to read these words. With all my love, Rxo

Baklava Ballet

What nationality is that, French?

This morning I watched my leggy daughter, just a couple of weeks shy of her fifteenth birthday, climb on the school bus, her jam-packed backpack tugging at her shoulders, a rolled poster for geometry under her arm, and a Rubbermaid cake box balanced between her hands. Her hair, the natural tawny growing out from under henna red, tumbles down her back. Blue eyes and pale skin that burns even in the late afternoon sun divulge her Irish heritage. Today she is wearing her lucky shirt. “Why is it lucky?” I asked her last night when she announced her wardrobe choice for today. “Well, not so much lucky,” she relents. “But good things happen to me when I am wearing this shirt. Ollivander picked me in the wand shop.”

Waiting for the bus this morning, she recounts the wand shop incident—we were one of first groups ushered into Ollivander’s wand experience at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, where one young person is selected by Ollivander himself to be fitted for a wand. Fourteen was that wizard and she gamely waved one wand and then another, as Ollivander sorted and muttered, the spells she cast wrecking havoc on the shop. Flowers wilted, lights flashed, and the chandelier threatened to fall on the watching crowd. When at last a wand cast the desired spell, Ollivander declared: “The wand has chosen the wizard!” We were ushered into the next room where the wizard’s father plunked down significant cash for the wand. The wizard twirled with glee.

She was just remembering the magic of being chosen when the bus screeched to her stop and she climbed out of my car. “Keep the baklava upright,” I reminded her. She tried to bump the car door closed with her foot and I waved to let her know I’d get it. It’s a good thing, I thought, watching her juggle the box to show the driver her pass, that her viola was already at school.

The baklava will net Fourteen extra credit points in Global Understanding. I wanted to kiss her this morning when she expressed compassion for students who might not have access to the extra credit because they wouldn’t be able to make food from a region of the world the class has studied this year. I was far more skeptical a week ago when she told me she’d like to make baklava together. She had even looked up recipes and talked it over with her teacher. “I didn’t realize you’d been studying the Middle East,” I stalled.

“Oh yes,” she enthused. “Plus, it’s my heritage. I’d really like to try. Can we? Please?”

I had a dim memory of making baklava years ago, of it being a lot of work and of winding up with a drippy sticky overcooked mess. The flaky nutty pastry—the very mention of which used to send my father’s visage into spasms of imagined delight—is a culinary treat I had relegated to something someone else makes, like choux pastry, sushi, and fondant. “Send me the link to the recipe you found. I’ll have a look.”

I end up countering with a different recipe and scheduling “make baklava” on the family calendar.

Dinner finished, dishes done (we are, after all, living in the Pinterest House—see “Following Instructions”), Fourteen and I set to work assembling ingredients. We first created the syrup, and while I watched the needle on the candy thermometer work its way line-by-line to 225°, Fourteen did barre routines, her otherwise intense ballet schedule on a brief hiatus between sessions. “How’s the chemistry going?” she asked between pliés.

“Almost there.”

“Great, great grandmother Turkman wouldn’t have had a candy thermometer.”

I realize I don’t actually know if Fourteen’s great, great grandmother was even a cook, let alone a baking whiz. But it doesn’t matter—she was with us in spirit as we tried to tap into what I believe to be a family legacy. “She probably made her own filo, too.”

“Ugh,” Fourteen had already retrieved the filo out of the freezer and seen that even pre-made, it’s tricky to work with. “That would be really hard.”

Syrup made and cooled, filling nuts ground with sugar (in the food processor, another huge convenience I know I didn’t have the last time I tried), butter melted, filo at just the right temperature, Fourteen was at my side and we were ready to begin our assembly project. I made a last minute pan switch and she diligently brushed each filo sheet with butter before I layered on the next. Eight sheets with butter between, half of the filling, eight more sheets buttered, the second half of the nuts and sugar, eight more sheets. The only place the recipe let us down was in the cutting directions—I soon wished I was working in squares instead of diamonds, but as directed I gently sliced through the top layer of filo, we sprinkled the baklava with water, and into the oven it went.

“It’s so interesting that so many cultures claim baklava,” Fourteen remarked.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “But I feel intensely that it’s ours, and we’re making your great, great grandmother and your grandfather very proud.”

The flaky, gently browned pastry that came out of the oven 35 minutes later took on a generous amount of the syrup. Eighteen joined us in the kitchen looking disappointed that the recipe now specified, “cool for four hours.” We didn’t wait, but tasted the edge pieces and scooped up the filling in spoons. Flaky, crispy, sweet, and nutty, our baklava is beyond delicious. “Your great, great grandmother Turkman could be nothing but very proud,” I said of the woman I never met, but whose surname I proudly have kept as my own all these years.IMG_8304

“She really would be, wouldn’t she?” Fourteen was elated.

My first slightly panicked thought upon waking this morning was how on earth would we transport honey-soaked baklava to school. I hadn’t even opened my eyes when something about cupcake papers swam into focus and I had a plan. Cut through on the pan last night, the baklava was even easier to divide in the morning, and I successfully transferred many pieces into the container for school. I also set aside baklava for my Greek friend, whom I would see shortly at the coffee shop for our writing time, for my Egyptian friend with whom I planned to connect later in the day, for my mother, who isn’t the least bit Lebanese but took on the food heritage of her married name with enthusiasm, and for Eighteen, who, like his sister, is just one-eighth Lebanese. And me? I enjoyed baklava and strawberries for breakfast, before heading out the door.

If you’ve ever thought Bourjaily is French, you’re not alone. But it’s Lebanese, as I’ve told the many people who’ve inquired over the years. Sometime when we’re having a drink together, or enjoying tea and baklava, I’ll tell you the story of how great, great grandmother Turkman came to America, as told by my father. Meanwhile, with the intention of getting back on the IMG_8182posting track, here’s a picture from teaching Yoga under the Stars at the Science Center earlier this spring in celebration of yesterday’s new moon. As ever & with so much love, Rxo

Following Instructions

Following Instructions

What are we writing today?

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it. – Mary Oliver

It’s a rainy Friday in May, cool outside the coffee shop. The line for the drive-through wraps around the building and winds through the parking lot. Most of the tables are full. My writing partner and I are nestled in our customary spot, the twin chairs in front of the picture windows just beyond which the cars edge forward, their drivers anticipating coffee for their morning commute. “Perseverance,” my writing partner counsels wisely, “we just need to sit in the chair.”

My tea tastes more like the cream I impulsively added to it than black tea. I’m shifting and fidgeting in my chair, balancing my laptop on my knees, wondering if I can get into the creative flow that I came here looking for. For some time Mary Oliver’s quote has been on my desktop, at times mocking me, at times simply calling to me. I want to explain to her that I’ve been paying attention and plenty astonished by the last two months. I’ve been failing at telling about it.

In the big picture the pieces have shifted and shifted again, like one of those puzzles where you keep sliding the tiles around to make a pattern or organize the numbers. Seventeen is now Eighteen and finishing his first year of college in a blaze of excellent grades, new friendships, wonderful memories, and age-appropriate frustrations in pointing his car toward home where he understandably feels his life goes on hold for the summer. IMG_8170Fourteen will be Fifteen shortly—the past four months together have been a wonderful exploration of our mother-daughter duo—and she is excitedly headed toward summer through the end-of-the-year obstacle course of finals, projects, recitals and concerts.IMG_8173 Ninety-Two has come back stronger than before from a health crisis in April, astounding us all. My house is on the market, creating a combination of uncertainty about where we’ll live next and requiring the constant upkeep of living in a “Pinterest house.” Each of these is a story unto itself, full of little and big astonishments; spring, though, is about mushrooms and rainbows. So it is these I shall tell about:

Mushroom Soup

Ninety-Two’s health crumbled in early April. Another hospitalization landed her back in skilled nursing, where a team of physical and occupational therapists helped her get back on her feet. The fabric of support from friends and family for both of us was truly astonishing. From meals delivered to rides for Fourteen to flowers on my doorstep to kind words via email, phone, and text, we felt the love from near, far and wide. One email arrived with this welcome news: Morels … Found a bunch and I’d like to share them with you. Might make your mom happy.

My mother and I delighted in morel season on our farm, going out into the woods to look together, squealing when we found a mushroom. They are undeniably delicious, but also a herald of the spring with summer to follow, seasons of ease and abundance, of heat and leisure, of a shift away from the arduous slog that was winter life in the country. Disappearing as quickly as they appear, morel mushrooms are earth-magic, little wonders like four-leaf clovers and rainbows that you will only see if you pay attention.

Our morel benefactress zoomed up to the yoga studio in her black car and handed me a paper bag through the window. I hopped from one bare foot to the other on cool pavement in my bare feet, telling her I had devised an entire plan since her email the evening before. At home with the morels, I started diced onions in oil, the beginning to any good recipe and one that used to bring my mother out of her room when the scent of sizzling onions wafted around the corner. To these I added garlic and chopped crimini, then mushroom broth, simmering the flavors together. IMG_8153With the immersion blender on its last legs, the motor whining as much as it smooths, I puréed the soup in the pot and added thick cream from a local dairy.

Leaving the soup on low, I turned my attention to the paper bag bearing the most perfect morels. Lifting them one-by-one, I carefully sliced them the long way into quarters while my pan heated on the stove. Cooking them the French way meant tossing them into the hot pan without oil or butter, turning them rapidly and waiting for their liquor to release. When they were just right—cooked through with their edges and flavors intensified by heat—I tossed them into a thermos and trapped their heat with the lid. The soup went into a second thermos, and both went into a bag with a bowl, a cream-soup spoon from our farm days, and a kitchen towel. Defying the Pinterest house, I left a mess in the kitchen and went to deliver spring to Ninety-Two.

Whatever the results, there is something life affirming about knowing the impact of our actions. I’ve gotten things completely wrong plenty; sitting with the feelings of regret or dismay or despair is the surest way to forge through and rebound, but it isn’t the least bit pleasant. On occasion, I’ve gotten things completely right. Delivering morel mushroom soup to my convalescing mother was one of those occasions, worth everything I put aside to make the soup while the mushrooms were fresh, worth every dish I zoomed home to scrub in my otherwise barely used for-sale kitchen. I watched her exclaim and spoon up every bite, adding more broth so that each spoonful was a silky mixture of soup and mushroom. Later, while Fourteen and I were enjoying morels with eggs and asparagus, Ninety-Two’s email arrived, celebrating the soup and, in hindsight, heralding the turn toward her remarkable recovery.IMG_8154

Which leaves just rainbows to tell about—if you live in the Midwest you’ve seen some amazing ones recently. One morning I woke up in the yellow glow of morning and realized I had woken up inside of one (pictured below with May hail and the rainbow that followed). If mushrooms are earth-magic, then rainbows are the generous gifts of sky and wind and rain and sun, heralds of changing skies and astonishing times to come. But we won’t even notice them if we don’t pay attention and we won’t receive their gifts if we aren’t willing to be astonished. With intense gratitude for your presence on my journey and for letting me tell you about it, Rxo

Timed Travel

Why Spain?

My daughter, Eleven, makes and sells Garnet Granola. Packaged in brown craft paper bags with labels listing the contents, the granola sells well at the yoga studio. It’s like an on-going bake sale, an entrepreneurial enterprise I encourage because eleven-year-olds can’t find much work and she wants to earn money. The granola, adapted from a recipe I first encountered pregnant with her and staying in an inn in Eason, Pennsylvania, is studded with nuts and dried cherry and cranberry garnets. It’s delicious. Her client base has been encouraging and a few have asked, “What’s she raising money for?”

The newest batch of Garnet Granola and the granola company's CEO.

The newest batch of Garnet Granola and the granola company’s CEO.

“We’re saving for a trip to Spain.”

Mostly this elicits stories from well-traveled yogis who have trotted many regions of the globe, but last week someone asked, “Why Spain?” There isn’t really a short answer, I want to tell her; it’s this:

The first apartment in Barcelona was a deep green cave, rooms end-to-end with next to no natural light. We only stayed there a few weeks, and then we moved to a sunny place where I had a little room all my own. I wore a tartan skirt to school and stood on the corner of the street every morning playing cat’s cradle with my mother until the van marked Uniroyal in red letters pulled up and drove me to school. I feel like we sat on tires loose in the back, but as I fashion the snapshots of memory into something like a narrative, I don’t really know if the tire part is the story as it was or the story as I want to tell it.

I was eight years old, in third grade in an English-speaking private school in Spain. My father was on sabbatical, working on a novel and getting in touch with his inner Hemingway. The rest of us went along for the adventure. My brother adjusted the best, opting to stay through the end of high school, coming home summers and long holiday breaks. For me Spain was not a good fit—I missed my cat, my friends, my Iowa life. Maybe as a result of never settling in, I have very few solid memories of the time in Spain, a time that was meant to be a whole school year but ending early for my mother and me—we returned to the Iowa farm in January.

What I do remember intrigues me and I like to take the memories out and examine them. I can remember the markets and shopping to make paella. I can remember the vendors who sold tiny figurines for Christmas crèches. I can remember some of the extraordinary Gaudi architecture, sandcastles in bright colors dotting the city. I have an image of the beach in Sitges, a memory of wearing an orange wool poncho and clogs, and I can still taste the charred artichokes that came out of a huge fireplace grill in the restaurant high on a hill where we dined several times. As I remember one item, one smell, one flash, I am gratified when another follows. And even though I know I did not want to be living in that foreign world, the memories are not unhappy ones.

Although my earliest exposure to a foreign language was this immersion, I can manage basics in both French and Italian but speak next to no Spanish. Living there, I got practiced enough at saying, “No hablo español” that Spanish speakers didn’t always believe me and would jabber rapid-fire in my direction. As an adult, I’m disappointed I don’t know Spanish. So I am delighted that Eleven and Fourteen have each been studying Spanish since they were six. This summer they’re off to Spanish language camp, where they can immerse in language and learning. But next summer we’re heading to Spain, or at least I really, really hope we are.

I’ll turn fifty in August 2015, and two years ago when my junior high friends were visiting for a few days, we talked about how we should celebrate fifty together. One woman lives with her family in Marseilles, another in Washington, DC. The fourth comrade is in Hong Kong—Spain seemed like a natural choice. We put a pin in the conversation—let’s try, we said.

Then Fourteen came home last year talking about a school trip that would take him to Spain and France this June. He pondered it, the expense, the realities of being far, far from home. When Fourteen was born, I started setting aside a dollar a day for him. After a couple of months, I put him in his stroller and off we wheeled to the bank where I opened a savings account in his name. Every month I made a deposit and I started to do the same when Eleven arrived. Eventually those savings accounts were turned into CDs with the idea that the money would fund that school trip or similar big-ticket luxury item. So here was the opportunity.

When he realized the Spain trip overlapped with the very much closer Simpson Jazz Camp in Indianola, IA, he hesitated: “I don’t want to miss Jazz camp. I got so much out of it.” I was a little puzzled—six days of trumpet versus seventeen in Europe, but I simply said, “You know, I’d really like it if your first European experience was with me.”

“I want to go to Europe first with you too,” the words tumbled.

“You, Eleven, me. Let’s all three go to Spain together when I turn fifty.”

And just like that the dream trip to Spain became a real goal. We wish to spend a week or so traveling and a week sitting still, ideally in a house somewhere, a grand rendezvous with my friends and their families. I look forward to making new memories with my peeps and wonder if anything I see, hear, smell, eat or experience will refresh my memories of the country where I once lived.

I’m dropping change in jars and we’re saving the profits from Eleven’s growing granola business, any extra bit tucked away. Given the choice between a night out and cooking one more family meal, I’m trying to take the less expensive route so that this dream trip with my darlings can really happen. Thanks, as always, for tuning in! Namaste & much love & happy new March (spring soon!) moon, Rxo

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