Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Butcher's Kiss


I have a kitchen angel. He's been with me in every apartment I've ever had, watching over culinary endeavors from his spot on the wall, giving a blessing in the form of a kiss. The angel was once a living man, a butcher in a small grocery near the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street in New York City. His name was Frank, and he was captured through the lens of my mother's camera in the 1980s. In black and white, his portly frame leans toward the viewer, lips puckered and hand lifted in the moment of having blown a kiss. He's in his stained whites, paper hat on his head, an average workday. There's a story behind the photo, and I remember it this way: My mother was taking a photography class, and for an assignment she was focusing on service industry workers on their breaks, "taking five" from the demands of their jobs. I am pretty certain Frank was part of this series, along with a shoeshine man named Neal—his chair in front of the N/R subway entrance on 57th Street—and also a woman in a Chinese laundry, bent over her ironing board. The photos really capture the day's pauses, taken with leisure, humor, or only partial acquiescence to the idea of repose. Frank worked with some other guys at the butcher counter where my mother sometimes shopped. She asked him if she could take his picture, and without warning he blew his spontaneous kiss at the decisive moment. My mother returned to the store some time later (days or weeks, I don't know), and she took a print of the photograph with her. I don't recall if that was the time when Frank first was absent, or if he accepted the photo. Either way, it ended up hung on the wall behind the counter. And then one day, it was no longer there, nor was Frank. My mother found out from the other butchers that he had passed away, and that Frank's widow, who saw the photo and loved it, had requested to take it home, which was of course impossible to refuse. The guys asked my mother for another print to replace the one that used to hang in their workspace, and she obliged, happily but with sadness, too. Frank's kiss had been a good-bye kiss, unbeknownst to everyone except perhaps him. I don't really remember Frank, though I assume I met him. I will always remember this story, though, and how it touched my mom, gave us all a shiver and a bow to fate. All these years later, despite being hopeless with meat—I can't remember my cuts, don't own a proper butcher knife—I have Frank to watch over me, and my kitchen has always felt comforting for his presence.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Catskill Camping


Eight years ago today, my husband and I were watching stars in the night sky, listening to the sounds of a creek flowing through the Woodland Valley Campground in Phoenicia, NY. Woodland Valley is a beautiful site in the Catskills, at the foot of Slide Mountain, which is the range's highest peak. In our tent, we curled close together. We needed beauty, badly. Just four days earlier, our sense of normalcy was shattered, permanently, along with our sense of peace and protection, of safety and justice. A half-day previous, we'd met my father in Grand Central Station, and caught a train with him up to Connecticut. He'd been in the city for a meeting; we were heading out to borrow a car and escape to the mountains. It was the first time I'd seen either of my parents since the 9/11 attacks, and something in me cracked wide open when I saw my father's solid presence standing at the terminal's info booth, waiting. I hadn't realized how much I was feeling the shock and hurt; I thought I'd been doing a great job of holding it all together, and I guess I had—I even fooled myself—but I melted into tears when we hugged. He was the symbol of security to me (a heavy burden to assign a human), and a symbol also of continuity, of things-being-as-they-always-were. But as we stood there, embracing and then looking up at the boards to find our train's track, something else happened: a group of perhaps half a dozen firefighters came through the terminal, and every person in that great hall began to applaud them. We boarded our train, happy to be leaving the city. Once we saw my father home and borrowed a car from my parents, my husband and I drove on, in relative silence, heading across the Tappan Zee bridge where we could not tear our eyes from the smoky, gaping hole of the skyline seen down the Hudson. We arrived at Woodland Valley to find a nearly deserted campground. It was already late in the season. The time we spent there, a couple of nights only, was an escapist paradise. We hiked the Slide-Wittenberg trail to where the sun kissed the rocks and warmed the earth. We made love there—the desperate kind of act that tries to nullify death as it provides its corporeal comfort and release. We ate homemade quiche and peeled back the skin of oranges; we drank water, crossed a stream bed, picked our way across uneven ground. We've been back several times since, and it's always a beautiful visit. Our son has come to enjoy the place, also: the stars he doesn't get to see in the city, the ritual of a campfire, of s'mores and sleeping three to a tiny tent; he looks forward to completing the "Junior Naturalist" workbooks each year and earning patches as badges of honor. The place, for me, is always a reminder of the healing power of the natural world—for although we were not completely healed in that September visit, the healing process did begin in greenery there, in the Catskills, at the campground I will always think of as "ours."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Kiddie Crushes

My First Crush
In first grade, I had a huge crush on a boy with the initials N. B. He had brown hair, bowl-cut style, long lashes over dark eyes. He was nice, not loud like many of the other boys. I remember a little kiss, but not sure if I'm inventing that—some small, innocent kid connection happened below an overhang on the playground where I was hula hooping with some other girls. At home, I took a tiny notepad my mother gave me and wrote a story in it in pencil about how we would be married. I didn't think again about marriage until twenty more years went by. I don't know whatever happened to N. B., and I haven't tried to find him. If I did discover his adult self on social media, I wouldn't contact him; it would be too weird, there's nothing to say. I don't know if he liked me, too, or what "liking" a boy or girl would even mean to a first-grader in the 1970s, but still, I remember him as my very first crush. Fondly.

First Crush on My Son
Things happen younger with each generation, it seems. While reading was the first-grade curriculum in my Chicago school, now it's taught in kindergarten. While first grade was also the time of my first crush, girls now apparently develop mini crushes in pre-K. I remember and want to preserve the memory of the first time I knew a girl had a crush on my son. She was a sweet girl, quiet—this mostly because of language issues, though: she was from Japan and this one school year was her first (maybe only) one in the United States. I'll call her Y. She had a difficult year, cried often when her mother dropped her off, but I suspect she was all right during classroom hours, particularly given the competence of the teacher. For a reason known only to her, Y. became attached to my son. Maybe he'd made a gesture of welcoming her into the class. Around this time, he had been reading the book Yoko, which is also about a girl (well, a cat character who is depicted like a girl) who comes from Japan to attend a kindergarten where other kids make fun of her lunch selections. My son loved this book, and he talked often about the sushi in her bento box, so maybe he was primed to be kind to Y. I don't think she followed him, probably didn't even try to interact directly (or not much). But she did draw him pictures and put them in his "mailbox" right outside the classroom. This is how I knew she liked him. He liked her, too, but in typical boy fashion, had no concept of her "liking" having any special quality to it. Her drawings were some of the sweetest I've seen—and definitely the best among the turning-five set. She'd left stick figures behind, and she drew bodies wearing smart clothes. She drew herself with a ponytail at the side of her head, wearing a dress; she drew my son next to her, and he was always wearing a T-shirt with a number on the front of it. In fact, he did always wear a shirt like that—he loved "number shirts," because they made it easy for him to pretend he was a professional player on some sports team. I was amazed that she observed this about him and thought to put it in her pictures. There was no mistaking who the two drawn people were! And there, floating in the sky between them, a heart. They only had that one year of school together, and I don't know where the family is now: they may have moved back to Japan. I wonder if Y will remember—as my own crush stayed with me, thirty years later—what she felt for my son. She may or may not, but I will always remember her, also fondly, because she's the first one who saw in my son something worth expressing on paper from her own observant soul.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bushwhacking


So, my mention of Irish colcannon in yesterday's Portugal post (both countries have traditional recipes with potato and kale) now has me thinking of Ireland. Ireland brings many memories, some I've already posted on the blog, but one I have not yet mentioned: bushwhacking. In September of 1995, my parents and I visited the Emerald Isle. It was my second of three trips and their first and only. My father made all the arrangements—he is personal travel agent extraordinaire, as I may have mentioned elsewhere—and he decided to rent a car for our travels up and down the rocky western coast. For small group travel through Ireland, car rental is a great way to go, but it does entail some hazards. Actually, this is another thing that Ireland has in common with Portugal: for some years, the two countries have seemed to compete fiercely for the unhappy distinction of having the most traffic accidents in Western Europe. For locals used to the lay of the land, things like extremely narrow roads, hairpin turns, roundabouts, and sheep crossings pose no difficulty. For tourists, these are all potential sources of stress, and you've got to pay extra attention. Which is what my father did, certainly. In fact, he overcompensated. His greatest challenge was not the traffic circles or the narrow cliff-hugging passages (those rattle my mom: read this post for proof), rather, it was driving on the opposite side of the road; that is, on the left. Generally, when driving in a different environment, a person can expect the acclimation period to last about a day. My father, however, really never did get used to driving on the left side. He did it, mind you—we had no incidents—but he was so concerned, and so unused to it, that he routinely ended up with his driver's side-view mirror scraping along whatever shrubbery lined the shoulder. Like most similar travel quirks, this became humorous after a while. There he'd be, so far over to the left, allowing room for any oncoming cars (on roads so narrow, any sane person would consider them one-way); he'd put us in the bushes again, prune the greenery, and we started calling him the "bushwhacker." Our travels in Ireland that year were lovely, the Ring of Kerry stunning with its cliffs and verdant hills—but by the time we left, I have to say, there were a few less leaves on the Irish branches.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Smoothies in Portugal


Today, I purchased a fabulous cookbook: The New Portuguese Table, by David Leite. It has traditional recipes as well as updated recipes that bear the personal stamp of the author. The photographs are lovely, and I can't wait to try the recipes. But more than just whetting my appetite, this purchase brought back memories. In May of 1991, my parents and I had the good fortune to visit Portugal. This was following my college semester abroad in France, where I had stayed with an inhospitable host family and worked a job at La Defense. Study abroad is usually no holiday, despite how magnificent the surroundings and how eye-opening the experience; it's often quite difficult. I was in need of a vacation, and had a splendid one. My parents came to meet me in Paris, then we took a short hop to Lisbon and from there headed toward the resort town of Cascais. We stayed in a posh hotel by the the water—one that was at one time a private home, a royal summer retreat—the Hotel Albatroz. The hotel overlooked the harbor of Cascais and the Estoril Coast, and I remember the crisp, white-linen restaurant with its panoramic views of the water. I remember tasting a soup I loved, caldo verde, a peasant's soup made with potato and kale (a combination I love equally in the Irish dish, colcannon). I remember many sublime things about our time there, the beautiful black-and-white mosaic streets of Portugal, the church bell towers stretching into the blue sky . . . I also have an absurd family memory, one that my mom and I teased my dad about for years. My father does not talk much about his dreams; I can probably count on one hand the number of times he's told me of a dream he's had. One morning at Hotel Albatroz, we met downstairs in the restaurant for breakfast, and my father told us of the weird dream he'd had that night. He was sitting in a chair, and some man was asking him "How many smoothies do you want?" Although this was a reference to chilled fruit and yogurt drinks, in the dream my father understood that this was meant to be something sinister, as though a smoothie were some kind of bitch-slap and my dad was about to get worked over. Later that same year, around the time of the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins, we were visiting my dad's mother in Florida, and my father had another dream; this time he was apparently plagued by the Twins' player Chuck Knoblauch. The Portugal dream and this one ended up combined in family lore, so that we'd tease my father with spooky voices saying, "Knob-lauch, Knob-lauch . . . How many smoothies do you want?" It's all absurd, as I said, but so often our memories are just that: an odd mish-mash of time and place, strange associations that stick, such as the mixture of a refined Portuguese accommodation, a soup of potato and kale, sinister smoothies, and an all-star second baseman.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Memory . . . in Memory of


It couldn't have been a gloomier day in New York City today, weather-wise. Lashing rain, wind whistling, dull gray sky. Outside this morning, with my umbrella not only flipping inside out but crumpling into a jagged mess of misshapen wires, I was about to recite a litany of complaints (running late, getting wet, and so forth), when I saw a group from our local fire department—Engine 16, Ladder 7, on East 29th Street; the guys who routinely wave to my son and who welcomed his kindergarten class to the firehouse this past spring. They were in dress blues, one wearing a kilt and carrying a bagpipe, and my selfish bones to pick about the weather fell away. I was left with gratitude—not just toward the fire fighters but for the fact that I am alive to feel the rain and wind. September 11. This date sneaks up on me now, which shows the effect of eight years' time. I used to anticipate it as soon as the calendar page turned from August to September. It has become perhaps too indulgent or exploitative to review 9/11 memories at this point, but although I considered avoiding the topic, that too seemed false. Eight years ago, I was living with my husband (then fiancé) on West 57th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, with a direct line of sight to the Twin Towers from our 10th floor balcony. At the time, we were both keeping restaurant hours—I did so because I could, and if I didn't adapt to my husband's night-owl schedule, we'd never see each other. This is why we were still sleeping late into the eight o'clock hour on a Tuesday morning. Everyone knows now, how beautiful the day was, how the sun was shining in a bright blue sky. A perfect fall day in the city. The phone rang: it was my mother calling to tell me what she was hearing on the radio. I rolled out of bed, looked out the window. I could see black smoke streaming from the North Tower. Not long after, another column of smoke appeared; we were too far away to see anything more detailed. I turned on my own radio, got my husband up, and paced around the apartment. At some point, though, we decided to go about our day; most people in the city at this time were still assuming they could just continue with routine. No one realized yet—no one could fathom—what was happening. I began to get ready for a yoga class that started at 10:00. Since I was awake, I might as well go exercise. I put on workout clothes, still listening to the news. I remember the exact moment when I knew that something was very, very wrong and that whatever was happening was not accidental, despite having no idea what it was: I was stooping down in the coat closet, my eyes trained on the jumble of shoes covering the floor, picking out my sneakers, when I heard the report of the Pentagon strike. Somehow, that bit of information more than the sight of billowing smoke outside our own window impressed upon me the seriousness of the situation, and when I heard it, I sank down among the shoes. I'm not sure I had any solid idea why I started to cry, why I felt personally threatened and scared at that moment—we still had no idea what had truly happened, it was all confusion and speculation—there was nothing I could articulate, but dread washed over me. And the best thing I could think of to do was carry on, walk to the gym. Another thing I have been thankful for, is that I did just that, took myself away from the windows in this way. In the gym before class, a crowd stood around the lobby's television, and I saw more of the smoky scene unfolding downtown. Still, at a minute to ten, I was inside the yoga studio, feet now bare, (another row of shoes around the room's perimeter), my body stretching. I was spared a live view of the towers collapsing. The gym, however, did close down not long after the South Tower's destruction. Word was passed to the yoga teacher, who made the announcement and terminated class. We gathered our things, followed fire procedure, and left through some concrete stairwell I never knew was there; I was disoriented down on the street. We all were. I remember faces on my walk home: people's eyes, usually avoiding direct contact with others, were now seeking, questioning, searching for signs mirrored in the eyes of passersby. When I got back to the apartment, I went to the balcony and looked at a surreal patch of nothing where our small bit of recognizable New York skyline used to rise so solidly. My husband came home after me, everyone sent away from the restaurant where he had gone for his own distraction, for a semblance of normalcy. He had been at Windows on the World just the day before; the knowledge was a spectral finger caressing the spine. We held each other and stared into a hollowness that lingers still. And I am sorry for all the days since that I have neglected to fill to the brim with energy, love, precious life. I remember that day in 2001, of course. Always will. Tonight I post my 9/11 memory in memory of those who were not fortunate enough to be spared—including those from the firehouse around the corner. Their sacrifices remind me of what is truly important.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thermopylae


At one time or another, I think most kids are enthralled by some type of build-it-yourself model, be it an antique car, an airplane, train, or ship in a bottle. Ranking high on the list of parent-child "quality time" activities, model building seems almost cliché—makes me wonder how many models are built simply because it's something a parent is "supposed" to do with a child; one of those experiences like fishing or running a lemonade stand, that you are practically obligated to provide if you want your child's early years to be truly complete. And, especially if working on a historic model, it's a project with built-in nostalgia: even as you're only just beginning to work on it, you know you are making classic memories, constructing a keepsake treasure of time spent together, tweezers and glue in hand, brushes carefully caressing the miniature pieces. Something about the scene makes me think of a Norman Rockwell illustration. It's very Saturday Evening Post. Like many children, I have memories of such a project—but memories only; there's no finished product. I suppose that the model-abandoned-in-the-garage/basement/attic is not so uncommon. I don't know what happened to ours, but my father and I often joke about the clipper ship that never came to be. We joke about it largely because of the slogan that was written on the box: "Build a Legend in a Weekend!" Ha. The legend in question was the famous China tea-trade clipper, the Thermopylae. Launched in 1868, the Thermopylae gained notoriety on her maiden voyage, from Aberdeen to Melbourne via Shanghai, breaking records for speed all along the way. She was a fast, beautiful ship, with a green hull, gilded scroll work; her figurehead was a representation of the Greek King of Sparta, Leonidas. The Thermopylae got her name from the battle of Thermopylae, fought in 480 B.C. by allied Greeks against invading Persians, whose advance they blocked at the pass of Thermopylae (translated, according to some online sources, as "the hot gates." So mixed with the romance of the high seas, there was a nod to ancient Greek history. Here's what I remember about our model: hundreds of small, plastic pieces that needed to be separated, painted, glued . . . if we could only figure out where they went. It was a complicated undertaking. We had the box, the pieces, the instructions scattered over the dining room table. I remember my dad and I laying down newspaper, getting small jars of water, using the tiny brushes. I remember our two heads bent together over the work in progress. I don't remember if we focused only on the ship, or if we talked of other things, too, while we worked. I remember the time fondly, and yet—neither of us was motivated to push the project to completion. I don't know why really. We lost our patience, I suppose—though not with each other. Guilty, we'd put away the pieces, take them out again and add on a couple, put it away once more. Eventually, we put the model out of sight, and in time we got rid of it completely. The real Thermopylae also met with a sad end. Sold to the Portuguese Navy, the ship was sunk—some say by target practice—in the first decade of the twentieth century. Its remains were eventually discovered by divers off the coast near Lisbon. But ours was a failure we ultimately agreed to acknowledge in good spirit. We didn't need a model ship to force us together in hours of bonding, and these days, when something seems comically impossible, we will still look at each other and simultaneously say, "build a legend in a weekend," shake our heads and laugh. Family legends take a lifetime.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Girl at the A&P


Another Chicago memory, this one very fuzzy. I was perhaps six or seven. It was the mid-1970s, and my parents and I lived in the Lincoln Park area of the city. All three of us had gone out grocery shopping, so I assume it was a weekend morning or afternoon. Back then, the family had a car, too (thematic connection with the prior post unintended). I don't remember being inside the grocery store, although I remember distinctly that it was an A&P, and I remember the orange and red colors of the letters in the logo. My father was driving. The reason that this day of mundane domestic activity stands out, always has, is because of a little girl who was possibly my age, maybe a little older. I don't remember her name, though I'm sure I must have heard it. My mom must have asked. I don't remember anything about this girl's specific circumstances; I don't recall for certain how it came to be that our lives intersected for even the shortest time. The sequence of events is lost to me, and understanding was never fully mine to begin with. But I did know this: the girl was likely a victim of child abuse. We all knew it, talked about it later. How did we know? Another missing piece of the puzzle. Was she disheveled? I don't remember anything like bruises or cuts. She was definitely fearful, very withdrawn. I think she was alone, standing out in front of the store, which is why my parents got involved, thinking she was lost. Was she lost or left behind? Did my parents ask her where she lived? Did she say she didn't want to go back home? Am I only imagining that we drove her home, despite suspecting that she could be going back to an unhappy family life, if not a dangerous one? This is how I remember it, though maybe we just waited, car idling, looking around the parking lot or in the store for the adults in her life. Maybe everything transpired right at the market. I was drawn to this girl, fiercely. She was mysterious, sad, and I quickly imagined that she could come to live with us and be my sister. If her guardians were abusive, she didn't have to go back. But she did have to. We didn't know anything about her, about her life. Even if we all suspected . . . it couldn't have been more than a suspicion, ungrounded in fact. I know my parents: if they had proof, they would have reported it. I remember thinking it was nevertheless up to us to take the girl's side, to uncover the truth and protect her. I remember being angry with my parents for not bringing her home to stay with us, impossible though that was. It was a six-year-old's sense of what was right, fair, helpful. I don't know what happened to the girl. I don't know what my parents remember about this incident, if they remember it at all. I have very often thought of this girl, though, and wondered . . . thought of her as a shadow sister, a ghost, hoping that whatever her problems—clearly heavier on her slight shoulders than should have been allowed—she managed to overcome them, escape them. Even if she had to do it alone, and in any case without us.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Vanity Plates


I remember one evening in Chicago. This is when I was there as an adult, on my own. I was living in the Streeterville neighborhood, working at Edelman Public Relations. I still had my car, which was a liability downtown and not at all needed. I walked to work, but even if I hadn't, the public transit system is good enough to make owning your own wheels completely unnecessary. I would part with the car eventually, but for the moment, I was heading up Lake Shore Drive with a boyfriend in the passenger seat. He was visiting from out of town. We'd had an instant attraction at a friend's wedding, then started writing to each other, calling, and then he sent me cassettes (yes, they were still in use; that dates me!). He was a musician, a small-town guy, smart but hindered by an incomplete education and a general lack of exposure to anything beyond his backyard. His music didn't suffer for it—he wrote clever lyrics, composed catchy guitar riffs—but his emotional health did. It was one of those doomed attractions of unequal experience. The more he liked me, the more he wanted to impress, and the more he wanted to impress, the more insecure he felt. With insecurity came paranoia. I first realized this on the night in question. Driving along, and I don't remember how the topic came up—maybe we were talking about driving, about cars, or maybe I was explaining how I liked Chicago for its relative lack of pretension—but I made an observation about the general absence of vanity plates in the city. You know what a vanity plate is, right? Those custom license plates you can register for a fee at the DMV. There are a fair share here on the East Coast, but nothing like in L.A. This is something I remember as being rampant in Los Angeles, at least when we lived there in the 1980s. Maybe it was really an 80s thing, but with car culture being what it is in California, plus the Hollywood effect, well, the vanity plates make sense there. Anyway, I said something about all the vanity plates I used to see in L.A., and my boyfriend flipped out. He got seriously angry, offended, accused me of rubbing his nose in the fact that he'd never lived anywhere but in his one town. All I'd done was point out a statement of fact, based on an experience I had: L.A. has a lot of vanity plates. And it was like I'd hit him below the belt, on purpose. As I said, he got paranoid. Maybe it was the pot he smoked. Maybe it was just emotional retardation. I don't know. I do know that the next day in the office, I asked my coworkers for their take: had I been insensitive somehow? "Oh, my god," my supervisor said, "there are SO many vanity plates out there!" We went on about it, and then everyone gave the verdict on the boyfriend. Unanimous thumbs down. Not that I would dump a guy based on a survey of colleagues, but it was an accurate assessment. The relationship lasted some months, but it couldn't last. There was certainly no future in it until he got over his own bitterness and did something with his life besides stagnating. I am happy to say that although I wasn't there to witness it, he did do that—he moved several states farther away, took some chances finally. I don't know where he is now, or if he's happy, with someone, settled again or still moving around; he could be back in his hometown, for all I know. I do wish him well, despite how much of a jerk he was, sulking and miserable in the bucket seat of a car with standard-issue plates driving up L.S.D. It's easier to have compassion for someone with a buffer of time, when they're not accusing you of bad intent when you'd had none. Being falsely accused is one of the only valid excuses for anger I can think of . . . unless you count as justifiable the road rage that results when SIKBOY cuts off 2KOOL4U on the interstate.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Soft Batch Cookies


I don't remember what year it was—sometime in the mid-1980s, I believe; I know my parents still had an apartment in Miami at the time, so that gives some clue—but I do remember that the appearance of Keebler's Soft Batch cookies on grocery shelves revolutionized the concept of bagged baked goods. Until then, all supermarket cookies were crunchy. If you wanted chocolate-chip cookies from a bag, you were pretty much buying Chips Ahoy (maybe Famous Amos, a much better choice) until Keebler introduced the cookies "so soft they taste like they're right from the oven." Soft cookies in a bag? No way. And yet . . . no doubt about it; they were soft. Not long after the product launch, my mother and I decided to try them out one day while grocery shopping. Maybe we broke the cardinal rule of shopping: don't do it when hungry. Maybe we were just looking for an excuse to linger up and down every aisle, because there was air-conditioning, and this was Miami in the summer, and we didn't want to deal with the suffocating heat of the parking lot any sooner than necessary. Anyway, we saw the Keebler Soft Batch cookies in their bright red bag, that stupid elf beckoning . . . We picked up a bag and, although this was not something we ever did, opened it up right there in the aisle to have a taste. In fact, we did more than taste. The way I remember it is that we ate the whole bag before getting to the check-out lines. If it wasn't actually the whole bag, it was close. We definitely over-indulged in a really gross display of everything wrong with American eating habits. The cookies were, we thought, not bad for having come out of a bag. No, they weren't like the ones we took out of our own oven, but they were hard to stop eating anyway. We got up to the cashier and grinned in a cat-that-ate-the-chocolate-chip-canary way, proffering an empty or nearly empty bag for her to scan. We felt a little sick by then—if not physically, then just disgusted with our behavior. I don't think I've eaten a single Soft Batch (or any other store-bought chocolate chip cookie) since. However, the thing that got me thinking about it today? A nearly equal, uncontrollable binge in my kitchen. I stopped counting after about half a dozen cookies: chocolate chip, made yesterday, pilfered from the cookie jar on the sly while my son was busy in his room doing who knows what. A day old, but still soft—naturally, wonderfully soft. So soft they tasted like they were right from my oven. And they were. Take that, Keebler.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ferry Boats


Warning: the content of this post is not for the faint. On our way to and from a baseball game today (the New York–Penn Minor League), my son and I crossed New York Harbor on one of the cheerful orange boats that make up the Staten Island Ferry fleet. The ride was fabulous, passing Lady Liberty on calm waters, and the second round-trip we've made on the S.I. Ferry. I hope we'll do much more of this. The thing about the trip, though, was that it brought up a not-so-pleasant memory of another ferry ride, in June of 2006. My son was three years old then, and my parents were celebrating their ruby (fortieth) wedding anniversary. Despite how not romantic it might seem to celebrate a wedding anniversary with a daughter, son-in-law, and three-year-old grandchild in tow, this was how my parents wished to celebrate: with a family vacation to Block Island, Rhode Island. I had never been there, though I had heard wonderful things. The island lived up to its reputation—it was charming, laid back, a great place for a family getaway. The problem was getting back to the mainland after our holiday. The day we were heading back, there was a sea storm. There may have been a question as to whether the ferry would set out as scheduled—maybe there was a delay in departure, I don't recall those details—but sail it did, with us on it. And I, who have prided myself for years on a stomach of steel (honestly, the number of times I've experienced any kind of stomach illness I can count with just my two hands, and this includes pregnancy) . . . well, let's just say that I was reduced to a whimpering, quivering, Saltine-eating weakling on this trip. I remember the pitching and rolling, the way the windows steamed up with the chill of lashing water on the outside and too many people trapped on the hot-and-humid inside, unable to ventilate the space much. I remember we had a table, the five of us gathered around it. There was some food I couldn't look at. A roiling bout of nausea came on somewhat suddenly, and I tried to just focus on not vomiting on the spot. I could never have made it to a bathroom, that was clear. All it took for the bile to surge was for me to lift my clammy forehead from where I had it buried in my arms, pressed flat to the tabletop. Because I am basically never sick in this sense—the same is true with headaches; I very rarely get them—I was at a complete loss as to how to cope. I just groaned and kept my head down. The other thing I remember is this: I felt like the biggest failure as a mother in that moment, because as one could expect, my son was also feeling sick, and I could do absolutely nothing to help him; I simply couldn't move. I was too busy imagining immigrant steerage compartments and reminding myself pessimistically that in Greek legend, it's a ferryman, Charon, who traffics the dead to Hades. So, with me in such a state, my husband was the one who cared for my son during that boat ride—which meant he was the one to hold him while, eventually, my son threw up all over him. I don't need to describe to you, I'm sure, the acid stink that would in and of itself cause others to gag. The tan, stringy, chunky mess that covered my husband's black (I think) shirt. They changed in the car, found some kind of bag for the filthy garments, big and small. Eventually, the ferry pulled into its mainland slip. The moment passed, and I managed to keep some composure if not much efficacy—but the unpleasantness of this memory lingered. It was a long time before my son expressed any interest in getting on a boat again. For months he was afraid something would make him vomit, and then when I thought he'd forgotten about it, he'd bring up the memory again, defeating my own efforts to stuff it into some dark, unused recess of the mind. More than anything, I wanted to block out the shame I felt at being helpless, at being unavailable to one who needed me; my body was such a traitor to my good, maternal intentions. But I'm happy to report there have been no more incidents—nothing dramatic enough to remember. My overall constitution is back to something resembling heavy metal, and my son seems seldom bothered with any kind of physical complaints. This summer, we are both gung-ho about the Staten Island Ferry, and this is a good thing. Now, if the Staten Island Yankees could just clean up their fielding and give us a home-team win next time we make the trip . . .

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Manneken Pis...sed Off


We made the best of an unexpected stay in Brussels. Eight years ago, my fiancé (now husband) and I were on our way back to New York following a visit to his family in southwest France. We were flying Sabena, the national airline of Belgium that was in service from 1923 to 2001 (they declared bankruptcy not long after our trip). September 3, 2001. We were of course ignorant of what lurked just around the corner of history. If I'd known it would be the last time I'd fly with my safety taken for granted (as silly as perhaps that always was), I would have enjoyed the flight experience more, despite the hassles we encountered. The hassles themselves, in fact, would have seemed like nothing compared to the immigration nightmares to follow. The way our "layover" started was this: Despite having boarded our originating flight in Toulouse without a raised eyebrow, once in transit (in a different country, where we knew no one and could not call for someone to return to the airport to fetch us) my husband was stopped at the moment of boarding, disallowed on the plane because of some oversight on the part of his employer. My husband was working in the States on an HB-1 specialty worker's visa, and the visa had been transferred from one employer to another not long before, but something was amiss despite the validity of dates shown on the visa (I can't remember the details anymore, they got lost in the years of green card hell that came after). My husband was thrown for a loop, upset, and in this situation powerless. I tried my "this is a simple misunderstanding" approach, then righteous indignation, to no avail. No way was he getting on the plane. What I recall with the most emotional immediacy is that the blonde Sabena attendant, standing at the gate in her blue uniform a) suggested that there was nothing preventing me from boarding the plane, as if I was going to just leave my fiancé stranded in Brussels while I flew merrily home, and b) when I said neither of us would fly, requested that I identify our baggage to make it easier to offload. I looked at her blankly for a moment before the anger took over. I know it was petty, belligerent, and "ugly American" of me, but no way was I going to help her evict us from our flight—a flight that I knew we had every right to be on. My husband was legal, damnit. I flat-out refused to cooperate. I mean, if they wanted to prevent our boarding, fine—we could hardly force ourselves onto the plane—but no way was I going to make it easier. I was pissed off. Ultimately, though, I was "manneken pis-sed." Maybe you don't know about the statue/fountain of the little boy urinating in the heart of Brussels. I had never heard of him. He's called "le petit Julien" in French. Apparently, he is costumed at various times of year, and he's quite the tourist attraction. We ended up paying him a visit. I will say that Sabena was nice enough to rebook a flight for us for the following day, plus (once they hauled our luggage off the plane), they put us up in a hotel with a meal voucher as well. Now that I think of it, maybe this is one reason Sabena folded—too nice; no one nice ever made it in the airline industry. Ultimately, we turned our surprise stay to advantage: once the visit to the consulate and the post office (for requisite money order or what have you) were complete and my husband's visa properly stamped, we enjoyed the Manneken Pis, some ale-brewing attraction, and a copious serving of moules-frites before heading back to the airport with our fatigued bodies, our tired luggage. The rest of our trip passed without incident, and we had a peaceful week back home before other, more shattering episodes rocked our lives. Thinking of Brussels in retrospect, our fiasco has humor in it and fun, adventure and a sense of "two for the road" (before things went bad in the movie by the same name). Still, someday I'd like to go back when it's a planned trip. We'll say hello to the little bronze boy, drink more monastery ale, buy socks and clocks and who knows what other Tintin merchandise for our son . . . and we'll have no cause for getting pissed. Maybe.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Red Licorice


Animal crackers, now red licorice. Not sure why the return to sweet treats from childhood—must be some escapist compulsions (which I tend to get whenever I have to pay bills)—but sometimes it's better to not ask why and to just enjoy, even if only in a bout of nostalgia. In a prior post, I wrote about black licorice and its unlikely pairing with wasabi. Today, I remember a love of red licorice. It's nothing I'd eat now, because it generally tastes much more artificial to me, or else (depending on the brand) just sweeter—none of the spice I crave in my sweets today. But I used to eat it often. Frequently in the form of Twizzlers candy, and then most often at the movies with my parents. We'd get popcorn, of course, and sometimes Goobers or Raisinettes, but I often loved the licorice twists, the cherry taste of them, the texture of tough and chewy, and the way the outer spiral pattern would form what looked like a star pattern if you looked from the bitten-off end of the licorice stick. And, once bitten, there was that hole in the middle. Why? I have no idea why the hole necessarily resulted or why it might have been a design element . . . if not for the potential of the licorice to be made into a straw. It seemed an obvious thing to do, though I don't know if anyone else did it. Going to the movies was also one of the only times I was allowed to drink soda growing up, and I invariably ordered 7-Up or Sprite—whatever clear soda was on offer. I'd bite off each end of a Twizzler stick, and push it through the hole in the lid of the soda where a straw would go. I'd slurp up soda and bite down on my makeshift straw simultaneously, and I loved the way the gummy, usually warm licorice became tougher and very, very cold. I loved the way when I bit into it, there was more resistance; my teeth had to work harder and then it was I who made the candy soft again in my mouth, soda squirting from the part of the tube I'd bitten off. At some point, I stopped getting the licorice sticks, though. Then, I turned to cherry Nibs. They were slightly less plastic-like, not so glossy, and when you bit into these, they were solid and of a paler hue on the inside. They seemed more substantial somehow (though I'm sure they were really no less artificial), and a more sophisticated version of licorice candy. I had yet to find on the market anything resembling real, all-natural licorice, and sophisticated is indeed a relative term: I was in my early teens by then. My final red-licorice memory, though, is of red licorice laces. Quirky as I was in my later years of high school, I decided that I would use licorice laces to replace the proper shoelaces from a pair of black boots I owned and wore to death. (Even once the soles had fallen off, I just kept wearing them as they were—repairing them was not something I thought to do on my own up in boarding school.) I shouldn't have to tell you that they didn't hold up very well, but surprisingly I did manage to make them work for a while. The real hazard wasn't the wear and tear, of course, but rather the temptation to eat the laces, which I did; which my friends did, too. Now, if I buy licorice, it's black licorice almost exclusively. I will admit that my son is much more sophisticated in some tastes than I was at his age: he will happily swallow down a single stick or half a box of Panda black licorice, or the Kookaburra brand from Australia. Not yet with wasabi, of course—but really, the more I think of it, the less certain I am that I would eat that combination again myself. And the more I think of the flavor, the more I realize how far I've come from childhood: I tend to get my licorice taste in the form of fennel or anise seed (or ouzo!). But still, red or black—or brown, green, or clear—there's something about licorice in any form that's still appealing. Nostalgia aside, I wholly endorse it, with sincere apologies to my dentist.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Animal Crackers


I remember how much I looked forward to a box of animal crackers. It was one of the simplest, best pleasures of childhood. I didn't have them too frequently growing up, just often enough to think of them as special. I loved the colorful box made to look like a circus wagon, loved how it had the little string attached to the top so that you could dangle it from your wrist like a woman's beaded evening bag, but the animal cracker box was so much better. I imagined the boxes as part of a long caravan, and I was always the circus master, deciding on the next destination. I was kind to the animals, or tried to be—I hated biting off their heads. I'd start with the feet and work my way up. (Really, though, is that any better? Maybe I should've just put them out of their misery, decapitating them after all.) But before getting at the animals, I remember that there was something very intriguing to me about the inner lining of the box as well: the waxy brown paper pouch suggested something nostalgic to me, before I could properly define the word; before I had lived long enough to experience the sensation of nostalgia myself. Something about that parchment, tacked to the inside of the box with glue so that you could never remove it cleanly—something about the way it was crimped at the top, the crisp crinkly sound it made as you worked to tear it open neatly (I liked neatness, even then)—its drab color, not caring to impress you, made me think of a grandmother's modest kitchen. I always hated and loved the moment when that inner bag was ripped: hated the tearing, loved that it meant access to the buttery vanilla cookies. The other thing I remember is that I would pull out all the cookies and lay them on the table in front of me. I'd start grouping them together: how many lions, how many gorillas, how many zebras (I loved the zebras!). I'd start eating the "extras" so that every pile ended up with the same number of cookies, and then I'd start eating the cookies in rotation, taking down the species with even-handed care. If ever there was an OCD process involved in eating animal crackers, it was mine, and I wonder now how good a predictor it is of future personality, how a kid approaches a box of animal crackers. I also remember wondering why there was a striped background on some of the cookies—later I figured out it had to do with stability: the manufacturers smartly decided there'd be less broken limbs if the space between front and back legs was filled in; still not sure why the striped pattern, but I liked that, too. I wondered why something so clearly a cookie was called a cracker. That never made any sense to me. I haven't bought a box for my son in a long time. I make so many homemade cookies that store-bought doesn't happen often. We get all-natural varieties most often, too. Still, sometimes . . . nothing quite satisfies the kiddie-food craving like a single, all-to-yourself box of the traditional, original animal crackers. It's about time I bought some again. And now I'll have to watch my son carefully, see how he eats them. Watch a child's delight in something simple, remember that too, what it felt like. If I'm lucky, my son will even share with me—a zebra for old times' sake. I can hear the ringmaster now: Ladies and gentlemen . . . Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Recipe Box


I remember an olive green, plastic recipe box. Really just a filing box for index cards, I think, not necessarily designed in any special way for recipes. I remember it sitting on the kitchen counter of the condominium we lived in during our last year or so in the Windy City. I remember the window at the end of that galley-style kitchen; I think I remember a loose plaid wallpaper pattern left over from the family before us (excuse: it was the 1970s). I remember sitting on the counter, swinging my dangling legs, talking to Mom while she cooked or baked. I also remember that it was here I saw my first ever big-city cockroach, perched on top of the paper towel roll that was mounted under the sink, attached to the inside of a cabinet door. The roach was big, brown and glistening, and it sent Mom running to the store for boric acid. End of roach. End of roach memories, because really, it's not something you want to linger on—certainly not in a post about recipes. Like all memories, my own surrounding the recipe box may be way off, but this is what my mind yields: the drab color of the box, misleading because inside, as far as I was concerned, the recipes were like multicolored jewels. Or maybe—more accurate but still on the hidden-treasure theme—I should conjure the image of a yellowed map marked with an X for extra tasty; a map of deliciousness, scrawled in a code of sorts: big T and little t, abbreviated c. and fractions that, at my age then, meant absolutely nothing to me. Mom had an assortment of neatly printed (or typed) cards and newspaper clippings stashed inside. I could guess at a lot of the recipes contained in the box, but really only one stands out, and I think this is because it's been the subject of conversation on several occasions; unfortunately, it's gone down in family history as the lost recipe. Lost because, sadly, the whole recipe box went missing somewhere between Chicago and Los Angeles, seemingly fallen off the Bekins moving truck that hauled our lives out West in the summer of 1979. The recipe in question was for a chocolate chip cookie that had rice crisp cereal in it. I have since tried to convince my mom (unsuccessfully) that we can duplicate it with an average Toll House cookie recipe and just dump in a half cup or so of the rice cereal. She is certain there was more to it than that, and I have yet to do a test run in the kitchen to prover her wrong. Who knows what else was lost in that box. I know my mom mourned it, though. I think there was a braised veal dish or something similar, also irreplaceable. Other recipes she could find again: they were perhaps for my grandmother's pastitsio or my other grandmother's cornbread. At the time, they were both still living, so all that was required was a call or visit, pen and paper in hand. Mercifully, the loss of the recipe box didn't stall my mother's culinary efforts—if anything, it increased them. We have since amassed a new collection of family favorites: the fresh-tomato pasta sauce, chicken jambalaya, pumpkin muffins, decadent chocolate "brownie" cake . . . the list goes on . . . though no box (just cookbooks and a system I no longer understand of filing handwritten recipes between the books' covers, a specific book I guess). The important part, of course, is just that there was a box in the first place—the memory of kitchen comfort, the knowledge that when I was young, instead of take-out speed-dial on a mobile phone, my mother was the kind of woman who had a small, boring-looking recipe box that she kept with meticulous care and dipped into on a daily basis to feed us all. It's a good way to grow up, a good thing to remember. And my next project? Those cookies.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Back to School Shopping


Welcome to September—to the U.S. Open, to crisper air and lengthening shadows, to a return to routines, and above all . . . back to school. Although my own son is still enjoying the liberty of summer vacation (why is Labor Day so late this year?!), we've already done a bit of shopping to get ready for the upcoming term: some tan corduroys, two pairs of shoes, new pens and pencils and composition books and flash cards. It's a ritual I love, always have: unsharpened pencils and unsullied erasers equal a seductive, if fleeting, perfection. The new academic year holds so much potential, be it for high marks or team tryouts, or else a respite from whatever social tyranny dogged the previous year (because when the newness of the year wears off, the drama tends to set in—and I'm not talking about the school play!). Here is what I remember most about back-to-school shopping from my own childhood: First, new markers and glue; three-ring binders (that ubiquitous scratchy blue kind that looked like denim and that the kids all drew on with black Sharpies); filler paper, reinforcements; Hello Kitty pencil cases with matching erasers and sharpeners. Next, during early-grade years in Chicago, I remember the brown penny loafers I got each year and how the uppers were incredibly stiff and the soles dangerously slippery in their pristine, unscuffed state; they smelled like tanned and polished hide, and my mom always made sure to find the newest, shiniest copper to tuck into them for luck. Skirts and jumpers in studious fall colors and tweedy materials. Later, during middle school years in Los Angeles, the clothes shopping got more sophisticated. I recall how, in one trendy Brentwood store, my mother asked the salesperson if there were any clothes anymore that had the labels on the inside. I got my first lesson in marketing and free advertising on the ride home: why should we pay extra for a status label that everyone can see? They should pay us to be walking billboards for their companies, except forget it, we weren't buying. She was right, really. And I accepted this, agreed with it—not in small part because when it came to self-expression, my mom was easy. My mother encouraged me to experiment with fashion, and for an acceptable budget I got to test out fads and create my own looks, no matter how ridiculous. The fall season I will never forget? The year of the knickers. Not English knickers—which of course I now know are undergarments—but those button-below-the-knee, puffy ragamuffin half-pants that for some reason were the hot ticket for back-to-school that year. I had two pairs: woolly dark gray and (major confession here), lavender corduroy. God were they awful, but I wanted them, wore them . . . and somehow never managed to pull off the look the way the popular girls did. Oh well. By the time I was in high school, the back-to-school routine was different, more serious, involving laundry bags and lamps, bedding and a footlocker, along with the usual supplies. Because it was boarding school, back-to-school began to mean good-byes. At that age, a push-and-pull sensation of dizzying independence and anxious leave-taking overtook me toward the end of each summer. And then for many years— nothing. Entering the working world, I forgot about back-to-school; September no longer brought a Pavlovian trip to the stationery store. And I didn't realize that I missed it. Now, though, taking my son by the hand and watching him walk out of the shoe store, mesmerized by his own feet, I get this jolt of vicarious newness, too. I, too, feel a bounce in my step and a thrilling curiosity: what new path, what momentary triumph of perfection and promise, awaits us this year? The pencils are new, the notebooks unmarred by messy handwriting and spelling mistakes (though I've already put correction fluid into my 2009-2010 planner), and yet I know full well that if we are to learn and grow, nothing will stay that way. And really, that's okay, too. Let the school year begin!