those who can cook, should perhaps teach

Yesterday I got a call from a friend and instructor D. at our local community college.  She wanted me to come give a brief talk to her class on the subject of cooking healthfully for kids.  Her class, entitled “”Making Better Food Choices” is a workshop of sorts, taken as a requirement by some fifteen students who all receive TANF benefits for themselves and their families.  D. felt that the students might appreciate some perspective from someone who “walked the walk” in terms of cooking for children.  “If even one of them leaves that workshop and feels inspired to eat healthy/low impact, I’ll feel accomplished”, she wrote me later.

I asked her a few questions about the students and their reception of the material.  What had she covered in class?  How had they reacted to the information so far?  Getting off the phone I knew three things: 1. I was going to enjoy getting to know these students and their specific situations (inasmuch as I could in the time permitted), 2. I wasn’t going to give a calorie-counting, tsk-tsk- junk food, any sort of “good food” vs. “bad food” lecture, and 3. I was going to love talking about food and my own family.

Despite having a passion for the subject and decent communication skills, I am rather nervous at public speaking – especially when I feel I’m giving information that may not be particularly wanted or asked for.  But in this case it was simple to find something that might go a fair way as a teaching aid: homecooked food, a commodity I notice many people deeply appreciate.  I got up early this morning and made ten loaves of pan cubano and a pot of frijoles refritos.  Good, cheap, delicious food – and I do mean delicious.  At 10:40 I pulled Nels out of bed, threw some clothes on him and attempted to brush through his blonde tangles, then put the hot, fragrant bread in a large basket, wrapped the pot of beans in a towel, and pocketed the little jump drive with my modest one-page outline.

Loosened up by the potluck nature of the event, the time seemed to go very well.  My son and husband attended and twice Nels raised his hand politely and, over his plate of fresh fruit, instructed the class on a few important family institutions: brushing one’s teeth every night, for instance.  I was proud of Nels, who as much as any of the four of us is involved and instrumental to the way we grow, shop for, and prepare our food.  I was also pleased he was more or less well-behaved. As I told D., it could really go either way at any moment.

I had a few questions to ask the students.  What were their favorite grocery stores? Did they use the food bank?  What did they think of the food provided there?  How many kids did each of them feed and support?  What kind of food stamp benefits did they receive – how much money, say, for a family of four?  Who was using WIC?  How long did the WIC benefits run for children? (Answer: until age five – a change since the days our family availed themselves of the class.)  Who was happy with how their children ate?  Who would describe their kids as “picky eaters”?  The conversation felt good to me; I tried not to spend too much time on my handout.  I shared my own family experiences, always speaking in first person.  I also shared our grocery budget in dollars and cents.  And maybe most significantly, to me at least, I made sure to firmly articulate the respect and props any family cook should afford themselves for what is a true labor of love: one sometimes thankless, exhausting, and uninspiring – but more important than our social culture often acknowledges.

Nels and I left just before 1 PM, my basket raided of bread and just a few scoops of beans left.  It should surprise exactly no one who knows me that I found myself thinking about this class a lot – and thinking how much I’d love to teach it.  “I’m no nutritionist,” I had said to the students today, but as I said it I realized that ultimately I believe nutritionist-based food discussions are of limited usefulness.  I have no beef (so to speak) with the field itself; but food, and cooking at home, goes so far beyond the nuts and bolts of this-many-servings-of-grain what-have-you (especially given the large scale of dispute on basically any tenant of so-called nutritional wisdom).  Food is about who you are – your hopes and fears, your values (whether you could articulate them or not), your habits, your spiritual and familial center.

Some of the best moments of the class were the compliments on the food I’d spent the morning on.  As one woman, mother to three, left the room she once again thanked me and said, “I’m going to go home – I’m inspired to cook beans!”

Music to my ears.

choosing to breed, Surprise # 437

I am learning to cook some modest amount of French cuisine (and loving it, I might add).  Today for breakfast, on a lark: oeuf en cocotte; eggs baked in ramekins – with cream and butter and a wee bit of fresh parmesan.  At 10:30 my son thundered down the stairs, “What smells so good?!” he shouted.  The kids set the table, scrambled up.  Their faith in and love of my cooking is truly an inspiration and quite heartening for me.

It took longer to get the food on the table than I’d expect; I need my egg whites at a medium finish.  Peeking in and out of the oven, edgy and bored, and the kids’ rowdiness in our small kitchen grated on my last nerve.  As I finally brought the hot morsels to the table some clumsy or abrupt movement of a child climbing around set me off.  “Stop it. STOP IT!” (they are literally unable to hear me when they are all revved-up.  “This isn’t playtime, this is fucking food!” I fumed as I whacked down a ramekin.

The kids were silent; Sophie slid her plate away from me.  I turned to the oven, brought the rest over.  Moved back to the table with the salt and pepper, contrite: “Would you like some orange juice?” I asked.   My children softened.  They are more or less used to my temper, or more specifically, they know that it doesn’t last.  I mixed up the juice in their pitcher, sat down, and deliberately apologized for my outburst.  We enjoyed a surprisingly delicious breakfast; I felt giddy at yet another delicious dish learned.

I think one of the pleasures of life is serving a meal to your loved ones and watching them tear into it, pausing only to repeatedly praise the repast.

Later, after groceries and errands, I fiddled about in the kitchen cooking beouf bourgingnon while the kids entertained themselves, including drafting up a garage sale, cracking a child’s schoolbook on study habits (purchased last Friday at a church rummage sale for ten cents), and drawing then cutting out ferocious kitten masks decorated brightly and ferociously like luchadores.  Both their spelling and worksmanship impressed me; my son’s writing is improving enough that I can’t always tell it from his older sister’s.

Although I am fiddling with the temptation to place my children in a private school next year (with a generous scholarship this is just financially feasable for us), it sometimes seems obvious that our current track of unschooling is what works best for our family.

I have a few problems with this.  First, I sometimes feel I am only just able to handle having my kids around me near 24/7.  I feel the fault is my own; I am simply not a groovy-enough Mama to accept without protest or miniature breakdown the infringements on my daily freedom.  To be fair, I know that if I worked all day and came home to the wee ones I’d have about the same amount of miniature breakdowns. I guess I am just a colossal ass.  I am not sure what to do with this aspect of my persona, something that has given me a lot of personal emotonal pain.

Secondly, the same part of me that longs for freedom knows on some level she would not allow much more of it to herself.  The prospect of school for my children gives me the illusion I’d have more time for myself, and that I’d actually spend that time – on myself.  Sometimes I fantasize about having more time to do yoga or work on the home-sewn lovelies I so love to create; yet God Knows what I tend to prioritize is cooking and housecleaning and doing things with the kids when I have a choice of where to put my efforts.  I know from Sophie’s first and only year in public school that I would likely find myself to and fro the schoolhouse anyway, volunteering my time and staying up making flyers or binding little project books.

I might think I long for more time for myself and my exploits, more space (what does that mean?), but my genuine joy and interest in my kids’ day-to-day life – and a personal ambition, as well as some sense of obligation I can’t quite put my finger on – keep me away from these such that at present I might be getting the most of this “me time” I’d allow myself in any case.  At the end of the day the laundry is done and the counter wiped clean and maybe I haven’t gotten quite as far on the silk shirt as I’d hoped; yet most days I’ve acheived at least an hour of sewing.

I call this a victory, for now.

cooking, a manifesto

I wanted to write a bit about my cooking but I wasn’t sure how to approach it without sounding arrogant or navelgazing, because the simple truth is:

I am a good cook.

I’ve been told occasionally I’m an “excellent cook”, but I do not claim this label for my own. No – I’m a good cook.

Yes, I realize “good” is subjective. Let me be clear about the type of cook I am not. I am not a home chef who has a bunch of erudite knowledge, or someone who puts together lavish spreads centering around a perfectly-prepared expensive and tender cut of meat. In fact, I can barely cook meat and I certainly don’t know my way around it (my husband’s preferences run to vegetarianism and that suits me just fine). I am terrible at providing cocktails (or even beverages); my guests drink out of bottles or mason jars. I don’t know wines – I mean at all. I am inept at the little fiddlesome details that create perfectly identical enchiladas. I can’t plate nor garnish a meal in a way that takes my guests’ breath away – and I really should learn competency in some of these things, and maybe someday will.

Yet despite my above-listed failings – and likely many more – I know I am a good cook. How do I know this?

Besides the compliments – and I get many – I know I’m a good cook from what I experience while preparing the meal. I enjoy cooking. I am always excited to learn a new dish and I usually succeed in the effort (if my guests’ reactions are to be taken at face value). I love every part of the process, from picturing how the meal will come together, to finding the ingredients in the shop or in my garden, to washing and cutting them, putting on some music, wiping down the table, beginning to bring last night’s soaked beans to a gentle boil, starting my bread by stirring yeast and sugar into warm water to watch and smell it as it proofs (breadmaking is one of the best olfactory experiences I know of). I literally enjoy cooking more than I enjoy eating.

I am a good cook because I can be quick, and I can be flexible. I appreciate both the skill that comes with practice and the on-the-fly abilities that create the lunchtime dish for my children. I can take shortcuts with the right storebought pizza sauce or spend days brewing a sourdough starter to serve a friend for their birthday.

And speaking of this, I am a good cook because I can bake bread, and I’m only getting better. Naan so fragrant and belly-filling that a friend who visited over a year ago still rhapsodies about it. Bagels that never deflate, waiting to be stuffed and devoured. A pita recipe that makes its rounds in my social circle, a legend of modest proportions. Tonight, eight loaves of Cuban bread delectably sour, spongey, dense and soft.

I am a good cook because I honestly care what my company, guests, and family enjoy and prefer. I am only too happy to cook for those with allergies or preferences or even someone who says, “Man, I’d love a strawberry rhubarb pie”. Done and done.

I am a good cook because my ego does not suffer if I turn out a failure. Nor do I feel the need to apologize much when this happens. In tonight’s fare (Cuban sandwiches, black bean refritos, aromatic Cuban white bean & butternut squash soup, homemade cheese, cucumber and tomato salad, chips and salsa, crema superior, oven-roasted tomatoes, chocolate fudge pudding with whipped cream, and yellow cake topped with fennel candy) I screwed up – of all things – on the pudding (made from a box no less). Minor embarassment; top with whipped cream, serve, and let’s move on.

I am further blessed in that I am not too likely to stress about preparing or entertaining. Cooking for many – in my small kitchen with my one frying pan! – yes, sometimes I find myself running about the kitchen feeling a bit frantic. When I feel this I can straighten up, pull my hair off my forehead, and say to myself, “Let it go.” I’ve done my best; I’ve prepared as well as I can. Shite, the sandwiches are going to come to the table five minutes later than the rest. Oops! And that’s all.

I am a good cook because I like using quality ingredients – and love the search and culmination of acquiring them – but I also understand I am not entitled to them. I am glad that at no point in my career as cook and hostess has someone labeled me a “foodie”. I abhor food elitism in all forms. I will not feel smug at my friend’s ill-salted green bean casserole or talk smack about the tuna wraps that represent another person’s best efforts. I feel only deep gratitude for food – all food, especially that given from the heart or grown by my neighbor. At home I like to cook well, if I can; in another’s house my eyes fill with tears that she has made this meal just for me – no matter what it tastes like.

I am a good cook because I always want to learn more, and to please my family and friends with my cooking.

I’m not an amazing cook, or a fussy cook, or someone who needs to be praised for my efforts. I will say “You’re welcome” when complimented, but I do not require ass-kissing, because I did it because I enjoy it. I am not a martyered cook, or an egocentric one:

I am a good cook.

i <3 home-cooked fare

There are many types of cooking I enjoy: making bread in the afternoon while the kids rest, a big batch of canning, the Thanksgiving gauntlet with family – my brother peeling potatoes, the kids checking on pies in the oven – the pleasure of purchasing something special (and / or expensive!), the thrill of trying something entirely new.

But one of my favorite types of cooking is what I did tonight: simple vegetarian fare for us all to enjoy around the table. Cooking up a chile relleno topped with wafer-thin tomato slices and jack cheese; soaking and cooking simple refried beans, a simple coleslaw, Mexican rice, steamed flour tortillas, then just before we sit down slicing and tossing zucchini in garlic powder and nutritional yeast then sauteeing gently in butter, everything made from scratch (except the tortillas!). Delicious, inexpensive, and filling.

Nels piles fragarant rice in the tortilla, adds some beans, and says, “Mom, this is a nice dinner.”

theme: spooky

Today my mom told me that since knowing me as an adult, I have changed the way she cooks. This surprised me at first because, although I consider myself far more accomplished in the kitchen than I was ten years ago, I don’t think of my cuisine as being too inspiring. She told me she prepares far more vegetables and relies on them for the main part of the meal. I thought her comments over later and realized, what a great compliment!

At the time she and I were driving up to Olympia with my oldest child to buy fabric for the latter’s Halloween costume. We stopped for tea, visited the rest area (which Sophie loves for some reason), and enjoyed a nice day away from our households. We talked about parenting (a lot), about family stuff (a bit), and about sewing (of course). We talked about my dad, a little – but what is there to say? We miss him terribly, and we speak the same language about him when.

The city affords niceties our smaller urban environs do not. The friendly anonymity of strangers taking walks through Capitol Lake Park – a man who’d set up a tightrope between trees and, after giving us a demonstration, gave a tutorial to Sophie. Dogs; lots of dogs. Great food (we ate at a funny Japanese grill restaurant where they throw knives and cook at your table). Some detriments: traffic, parking headaches, and bad bathrooms.

At home the evening the weekend comes to a close amidst a gorgeous fall day. We go on a “spooky walk”; actually, a bike ride up through our cemetery, peaceful in the gloaming and yes a bit spooky, owing to the fact there are many old and creaky trees. Upon getting home Ralph and the kids carve a pumpkin while I prepare dinner. Inspired by friends I have discovered a new repetoire in my cooking: simplicity. Not every night needs to have a bona-fide dinner. Tonight I cook while listening to Ralph and the kids chatter, serving cinnamon toast, grilled figs with goat cheese, sprouted almonds, a quesadilla with sharp cheddar, chamomile tea.

Ralph runs the bath and Sophie and I finish some homework; move the couch into position to watch a “spooky” movie of Sophie’s choosing.

an imaginary journey to FRAMPS

I’m standing at the kitchen sink and have been for some time washing, cleaning, cutting, blanching, boiling, freezing. Right now I’m tenderly slicing the tops off strawberries. Some are for our dessert this evening: strawberries so tender and red-ripe all the way through such that no honey or sugar or accoutrement is needed. I just chopped and froze a mix of spinach and arugula (for use in lasagna, or calzones, or casseroles). For dinner tonight: frittata with garlic scapes, arugula, sundried tomatos diced and softened, spinach, and fresh eggs; focaccia with mozzarella and red sauce to dip.

Most of the food bounty is from our CSA share. Because we traveled to a local farm, because it is fresher and superior to the produce one generally buys, every single bit is tenderly pored over, nothing wasted (the strawberry tops go in our compost pile). Tomorrow I’m making a meatball and escarole soup, substituting our head of lettuce for the escarole. After a Monday grocery trip for staples at the Marketpace – 25 lbs. bread flour, olive oil, garbanzo beans, vanilla – it feels nice to have a full larder.

For some reason, despite a day of doctors and cross-town errands, and the repetitive nature of doing dishes again and laying out strawberries on a baking sheet to freeze and having a messy house (I scrubbed the bathroom and washed the table and windows and vaccuumed but it’s the paperwork piles that frustrate me the most!) I feel oddly content at the sink. I’m in a work trance; tired but soldiering on. My son flits by, singing to himself about Framps – significance: birthplace of eclairs* and croissants, the latter of which we finished today – and baby peas. Earlier today he found the first pea to go from flower to peapod and has asked each family member to come see, including my mother when she visited. So as he comes by this time I ask if he’ll show me and it’s a request that makes his day.

We walk out and the pea vines are frighteningly large, jumbled. I can’t tell where the pod might be as it looks so much like the leaves. Nels finds it though. I smile and look to him and he’s watching my face, beaming. I pick him up and we wordlessly hold one another as I carry him back inside. I feel oddly light-headed, slightly drunk on the cool summer night and The Boy and our bounty, only bathtime and bed ahead of us before kisses and legs kicking at blankets and soft, solid bodies and nighttime.

* Nels pronounces them “Maclair”, we joke like a Scottish clan.

"if you see a possum, kill it… it’s not a pet."

Yesterday evening I biked about 8 miles total – hauling both kids, two huge coffee carafes, cream and coffee cups for two dozen people, my Secretary’s binder – and a chicken barley casserole – to my son’s preschool for our Open House. Now as one of the school hostesses I’d like to see myself this way: hair impeccably coiffed, one foot extended in a classy patent leather pump, sweater seat or classy dressy frock, and I’m smiling and saying gracious stuff (something like her). Instead it’s me loudly cackling and probably saying the word “cock” to my friend Shannon (who also biked with me, and is also loud) and I’m sporting really filthy hippie pigtails, sweat rings*, red face, and leaking barley juice that was at least fragrant (the casserole turned out beautifully) while my children tumble into the school breakneck speed and I’m pretty sure Nels was, as usual, fully cross-dressed.

At the end of the event – four Board members, so much coffee, so much effort and organization – we’d managed to entertain and enjoy the one family that did attend. I looked at Shannon (our President for next year) and said, “We nailed it!” and we cackled some more. In all fairness I do think the family that came to the Open House will be enrolling both their small children. And my family and I had a great time and a great bike ride.

Today Ralph and I met with a school administrator to discuss next year’s plan to homeschool Sophie. It was a great meeting and we were assured that the school supports our involvement in any school programs Sophie would like to attend. But I was left with that distinct feeling of – for lack of a better word – company-speak. I found myself wanting to know more from this administrator; more about how someone privy to the school system felt about our WASL, about homeschooling; perhaps some candid talk about the troubles and triumphs of the system. As it is I am still dumb as a post to any political or backroom knowledge. Still, it was nice to meet and discuss; and it was very nice to know the door is completely open to us.

I felt so silly the rest of my day. I’ve been busy lately but not too busy to avoid a general contentment in my life. Is it true all I want to do is cook**, visit with friends, garden, hang out with my kids, bike, and clean my house? And if it’s true that’s “all I want to do” – isn’t that just a form of living, and a pretty good one? How did I luck into having my life this way (for now)? Why do I feel so odd being – again, for lack of a better word – fulfilled, by such mundane stuff?

* I couldn’t find anything on Google image search sweaty and gross enough, sorry.

** Today I made Cypress Easter Bread, sourdough rye from my own starter (pwnage!), and Rustic Baked Beef Stew.

"the king of the table"

I’d like to think I’ve had a handful of accomplishments in my life and hold a few talents as well. But the thing I can do that gives me the most pleasure lately is my breadmaking. Today I find myself tempted to feel pride in my bagels – a history with not a single one collapsing during boiling, all of them turning out taste- if not picture-perfect. Then I quickly spin around three times and spit on the floor, not wanting to upset the capricious devil-gods of bagel cookery, so quick to jealously smite my next efforts in retaliation for baker’s hubris.

I view my breadmaking not as a talent – because really, I’m a beginner – but an accomplishment. First of all, it’s a frugal way* to add heart to a meal otherwise made from soaking dried beans and pulling tomato sauce out of the freezer and carefully frying a portion of squash. A platter of soft, fragrant pita completely, and I do mean completely, makes up for the fact I’m not serving red meat, chicken, or a rich lasagna (cost: five thousand dollars, with the cheeses needed). This is me: if I’m forced to be frugal on Ralph’s cash grocery allowance I will find a way it satisfies me.

I also like breadmaking because it’s the closest I get to meditating, praying, or relaxing. Most breads you have to knead (sometimes for many minutes), shape, and wait while the bread takes form. It’s something that checks me back into my kitchen and my home. It fits into a busy schedule at the same time – a bread that needs to rise can be slowed in the refrigerator or sped up (within reason) by a pan of steaming water. There’s plenty of time to run to get a kid at school or do the dishes and wipe the table and sit for a cup of fragrant tea in a sunny kitchen.

I like making bread because my children are learning not only how (something I missed out on as a child) but are also quite good at and help me with all parts of the process. They see their food created, not under plastic in the harsh lights of the supermarket. There is no better fragerance in a home than the yeasty warmth of fresh bread – unless it’s sauteed onions or garlic.

And finally, I take pleasure in the fact that so many people love homemade bread, or at least the breads I make. Last night’s dinner company, and my own family as wel, sung praises over the simple homemade pizza (with my own sauce and dough recipes) which was easy to make, economical, and nourishing. Last Thursday with basket on arm I parsed out slices of a chocolate rye coffee cake to those stuck in cubicles and offices and indoors. I’d like to make bread every day. Thomas Fuller said “Eaten bread is forgotten” but I think instead it builds a legacy of care, of frugality and lushness, of a joie de vivre.

* I buy my flour at 1/2 the price found at the supermarket and my yeast at 1/10th the price of the bulk jars at the same; this reduces my bread cost to a fraction of a storebought loaf.

rainy Easter exploits

My husband has been lying in bed sick, or under some general malaise, since early this afternoon; it was left to me to prepare Easter dinner (BLTs with homemade white bread, deviled eggs, carrot sticks, olives, fancy pretzels, hot tea), pick up tomato starts, entertain the children, do the preschool’s laundry, tidy the house, and make these:

Happy Onion Day!
Please excuse the crappy Photo Booth shot; these turned out as beautiful as the tutorial indicates.

Happy Easter, all!

like settlers heading into "town"

I tasted my first fresh Krispy Kreme today (what can I say, I’m the OG Country Mouse). It was a struggle, but I got it down eventually (actually, the remainder I picked up are calling to me now). More surprising than the donut hype around the legendary junk food was the coffee – hot, fresh and tasty – and the fact the retro 50s squeaky-kleen donut factory ambience actually worked on me. I felt pleased and comforted and totally forgot I was sitting in the middle of a square mile of strip-mall concrete in Puyallup.

My fabric trip with my mom (and Nels) was bookended by watching my parents fight about their severely damaged roof, a post-storm saga that does not seem to be winding down to a close (yesterday they had another contractor quit on them). The fighting was kind of surprising because growing up my parents “rarely” fought and somehow the legacy was they “didn’t” fight. Today there was yelling and cussing and later a cell-phone apology (delivered by my mother who, distracted and sad she’d yelled at my dad, pulled over on our way out of Aberdeen in order to call) and then when we got back, a wind-up, more yelling, tears, and stomping. “It’s not my fault,” my father reminds my mother as he angrily saddles up to drive to the roofer’s offices. She doesn’t quite apologize again, still angry about the stream of contractors she’s alienated, anxious to stop the deterioration of her home (the tarping fix fell apart and water damage has started to hurt the insides of the house), and mad that my father isn’t taking care of it in the way she feels he should.

My son and I witness these words. I feel badly for my parents. I am sad they are struggling and fighting over these things while my dad is so sick. I am sad that my parents, who used to enjoy household projects together in their mutual interest and good health, now have a total pain-in-the-ass problem that’s costing money, taking time, and making my mom crazy which results in her picking on my dad. My dad is so thin he has those crazy old man legs they can cross at the upper thigh. Yet despite this, despite a near-skeletal frame (he’s lost an inch to his height, did I tell you that?) and his tests and poisons he still remains my father, the same. I am not all that sorry for him in the sense I think he can still handle life’s complexities. But I am sorry that my mom has this household burden at the same time she’s facing the poor health of her mate. Oddly, or perhaps you understand, it’s exactly experiences like today that make me glad I moved here to be witness, to help if I can, and to participate in their lives through good or ill.

The fabric store itself was great. Mom and I stuck to our small lists (I did not select an underlining for my brother’s coat yet; the addition of my four year old to the shopping experience caused us to cut things a bit short) and found things in short order. I felt joy at the fabrics I saw, more types that I could have pictured, and I did not find myself longing for fabrics I can’t have. This is a good thing. I saw dual-colored zippers and plush fake fur and lovely wools and found four color combinations of the rare-ish bonded sherpa / minkee fleece I’d sought for my baby slipper project. I also was cheered to discover their minimum yardage cut is 1″. It just seemed so sweet and accommodating on their part.

It’s funny to visit “the city” and suddenly realize I could find socks for Sophie, or face wash, or exactly the restaurant food I crave, or the perfect color of sheets, or a tiny teapot from an Asian grocer or whatever. I get so used to being in a small town where your spontaneous creativity is hampered by what you can lay hands on (which does make the occasional inspired find all the more exciting). In cases like today, a list is the way to go. Otherwise I just feel an envious sense of overwhelm.

And now, I have a bootleg copy of Sweeney Todd to finish. I think I’m going to get on that.