The fish, the pond; they’re relative.

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Before I launch into this week’s story, a couple of postscripts to my last two posts (ante-post postscripts?):

First, thanks to the WordPress team for my third Freshly Pressed nod (given for Idiometry), and welcome new followers! So glad to have you here. Second, thanks to all who have commented – here, on Facebook and to me directly, about my post on the still-unratified Equal Rights Amendment. I especially appreciated the information about the current legislative bills that would eliminate the ratification deadline. Time for us all to get busy.

And now for a little reflection (followed, of course, by this week’s dinner suggestions).

camp swim test

One night in late August 1989, my mother and I celebrated my return to Memphis with dinner at El Chico followed by a movie, sex, lies & videotape, at the Malco Quartet. I had seen the movie once already, right after it was released, when I was still in Dedham, MA, 20 minutes from Boston and light years from knowing what I would do next. A fluke call had led to a job, one that required a temporary move to Memphis. Temporary. Six months, tops. That was the promise, and the promise was key because when I left for college in the fall of 1983 the only thing that was completely clear in my head was that I was never, ever going to live in Memphis again, ever.

I didn’t really have a plan, however. A month before I graduated college an acquaintance had called about a job, an internship teaching photography at Noble & Greenough School. Since I had no plan I took the train to Boston, met with the school folks, was offered the position and took it. The job was a two year stint. The first year I would intern and co-teach; the second year I would fill in for the department head while he and his wife took sabbatical to New Zealand.

Scheduled to move to Dedham in August, I had the summer to fill and needed money. So I used my mad typing skills to get a job as a temporary secretary, thinking it would be easy cash with no commitment and as good a way as any to pass a summer in Memphis.

The temp agency placed me in a telecommunications company working for the son of the CEO. The son, who had grown up in Virginia, attended a prestigious boarding school, and earned a master’s from Columbia, had been working at a hot shot ad agency in New York when his father called him into service, prompting a move to Memphis, a city he hated at first sight.

When I reported for work the first day, the other women in the secretarial pool (it was 1987) looked at me with pity and wished me luck. I quickly figured out why. My temporary boss was hot tempered and feisty. He barked orders and used expletives and smoked in his office (again, it was 1987).

Toward the end of my second week, he mentioned he was traveling to New York. I don’t remember exactly what he said, what place he referenced, but it was one familiar to me. So I said something to the effect of “I like that place,” and he said something to the effect of “you’ve been to New York?” and two minutes later, having compared our credentials, the dynamic had shifted. After that my assignments included research and writing, not merely transcribing, and the rest of the summer flew by.

Then I moved to Boston. When my two years of teaching came to an end, I was once again planless and started interviewing for jobs. One job looked pretty good, but as a matter of course I would need references for the interview. The only reference I could think of was back in Memphis.

“You don’t want that job,” my former temporary boss said. “Boston’s too expensive, and you’ll get tired of the winters. You don’t want that job, you want to come back and work for me. I’m starting a new company, and we’re moving to McLean (Virginia). Six months, tops, is all you’ll have to spend in Memphis.”

So there I was, in the lobby of the Malco Quartet movie theater, the Saturday before starting a new job in the city I thought I’d left, feeling some vague camaraderie with the handful of Memphians sophisticated enough to appreciate Steven Soderbergh’s odd humor.

As we filed toward the door we ran into some old friends, a mother and daughter we’d known my whole life. The daughter was a few years my senior, a girl I’d always admired and looked up to. She had some big, important job, this fellow girl from Memphis, a job at Westinghouse or GE, I can’t remember which. She traveled extensively and was working on her MBA.  She told us about some big, interesting project she was leading, all of which sounded a bit overwhelming to me.

“So what are you up to; are you just here for a visit?” she asked, and I told her an abbreviated version of how I landed back in Memphis, starting a new job.

“Well,” she responded, her disapproval clear, “I guess if you want to be a big fish in a little pond, you can. But I don’t know why anyone would, especially you.”

I’ve thought about that encounter many times over the last 25 years, particularly when I got the news that this friend, this girl who became a big fish in a big corporate pond, died unexpectedly a couple of years ago, the high pressure environment having taken its high toll.

I think about her still, my late great big-girl friend. I think about her choices and her advice, her hopes and dreams. And when I think of her, what I think is this:

The fish, the pond; they’re relative.

Happy week.

********

farmers market october 2014So sometimes the farmers market is a bust, usually when we’re in between growing seasons. And just when I’m about to give up, the fall harvest comes in and I come home with an overflowing bag of fresh goodness. Of course, maybe it’s just that I like the things that are in season in the fall: sweet potatoes, butternut squash, cabbage, lettuce and basil. Since those are the goodies that came home with me, those are the goodies we’ll eat this week.

To make things easy on me, I stuck to one source for recipe inspiration, Epicurious. I love the Epicurious database, mostly because it has such an exhaustive listing of recipes from my favorite food magazine of all time, Gourmet (RIP, Gourmet).

butternut squash and sweet potatoes 2014Sweet potato & Coconut Soup | Green Salad

So, no, I do not think my people will go crazy for this dinner, sweet potato and coconut soup with a simple green salad. I’ll probably be making a few peanut butter sandwiches., but maybe I’ll be surprised. In any event, I’ll enjoy.

Butternut Squash | Pork Tenderloin

If you’ve been here before, then you know how much I like butternut squash and that I’m committed to getting my family to like it, too. I found two new recipes, and might actually try both. This recipe for Parmesan-roasted squash is simple and probably hard to screw up. This on for roasted butternut squash salad (with arugula, pancetta and hazelnuts) is a bit more complicated but looks worth the effort. I’ll serve with a pork tenderloin using my mother’s recipe that is similar to this one.

red cabbageFlank Steak with Chimichurri | Braised Red Cabbage

Flank steak with chimichurri is one of our favorite dinners. Although my children don’t like the chimichurri, I hope one day it will grow on them (and until then, ketchup it is). Braised red cabbage with vinegar ought to be a good companion dish, only because we’re vinegar people. If you want something a bit milder to offset the chimichurri, try these velvety mashed potatoes (not from Epicurious, but always delicious).

Spaghetti with Meatballs | Caesar Salad

When I’m trying to get my people to be more adventuresome in their eating, I also respect that sometimes we all just want simple, predictable comfort food. In our house, spaghetti and meatballs usually does the trick. If you don’t have time to make meatballs, you can substitute frozen. (I know, the heresy. And I so don’t care.) Ditto using prepared Caesar dressing for the salad. Make it or buy it, it’s entirely up to you. Choices and options are good things.basil 2014

Basil Tabbouleh | Roast Chicken

If you like tabbouleh in general, then this recipe for basil tabbouleh should be a nice variation. Serve with a simple roast chicken, either from the grocery or using this super-easy recipe.

Unprotected sex.

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schoolgirl

As girl children of the 1970s my sister and I were raised to believe that nothing was beyond our reach. We were told, more than shown, that we could be doctors, lawyers, astronauts, CEOs or publishers, that we could do any of those jobs just as well as any man could.

But our mother, the woman with multiple careers, a Master’s degree and a high IQ, was most decidedly not a feminist. She despised the National Organization for Women generally and Gloria Steinem in particular. Feminists, in my mother’s opinion, were women who sought victory at the expense of men. They were brash, boastful, ill-mannered women whose win-lose approach was certain to cause only future strife. Equality was fair and appropriate; feminism was neither.

When the Equal Rights Amendment passed in 1972 I was six going on seven, a child whose view of the world came largely through the eyes of her mother, the walking contradiction. Mama’s sewing group, the group that gathered in our living room to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and smock dresses while I sprawled on the floor with my dolls, talked about the E.R.A. only occasionally, if at all, and never with much enthusiasm.

There was one friend I remember, Alice Swanson, a woman my father described as “the liberated sort,” who was always egging my mother on and trying to get her to become more involved. It was inconceivable to Alice that my mother wouldn’t join the women’s movement; it was inconceivable to my mother that any woman would.

And then the whole thing sort of dissolved, at least in our house. The amendment passed; the box was checked; we moved on. We talked about what opportunities lay ahead, what things we girls could achieve. My sister and I went to college; we got jobs; we became modern women. We did not become feminists; why would we?

We are still modern women, my sister and I. We’re well-educated career women juggling work and family life, the sort of women who try to stay reasonably up to date on both current affairs and pop culture. My sister, the doctor, is in charge of reading JAMA. I, the marketer, am responsible for reading the Sunday New York Times and listening to NPR. Margaret sends me technical articles about exercise and sunscreen; I send her human interest stories and reviews of novels I know she’ll never have time to read. We both recognize Janet Yellen when we see her picture (yep, we’re in that 24%), but to be honest, given a free 30 minutes in the evening (rarity that it is) we’d rather watch Modern Family than read The Wall Street Journal.

Knowing what you now know about my background, you either will or will not understand my surprise (I was dumbstruck, actually) reading this recent Huff Post piece about the Notorious R.B.G. (Ruth Bader Ginsberg) and learning that the Equal Rights Amendment, that thing I’ve taken for my entire adult life, is not law.

Yes, you read that correctly: the E.R.A. passed by Congressional vote but was not ratified by the required number of states (38) for it to stand as a Constitutional amendment. Here’s what Justice Ginsberg had to say about it to New Republic’s Jeffrey Rosen:

One thing that concerns me is that today’s young women don’t seem to care that we have a fundamental instrument of government that makes no express statement about the equal citizenship stature of men and women.

In the age of #YesAllWomen and #BringBackOurGirls one tiny detail seems to have escaped ongoing headline discussion: women in the U.S. do not enjoy constitutionally protected equality because only 35 of 50 states could agree that such an amendment was reasonable, and 38 state ratifications were/are required.

I read and re-read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” I shared it with friends and discussed it in depth. I’ve followed college friend Lisa Belkin’s writing for years, from The Opt Out Revolution to The Gender Gap. I’ve talked with other women about issues facing women. Even though I was raised not to be a feminist per se, I’ve marched right up to the edge of F word territory on a relatively frequent basis. How did I not know that the Equal Rights Amendment has been hanging out in legal never-never-land? Am I the only ignorant one?

No, as it turns out; I’m not alone, at least not among my local peers. I took a short and very unscientific poll of my women friends, all well-educated women with jobs like teacher, doctor, scientist, etc. “Did you know that the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified, that it’s not law?” I asked.

“Are you sure?” one friend responded. “Are you sure that’s right?”

Yes, I’m sure. Ask your lawyer husband. We fell three states short, way back in the 70s, a fact known to only two of my friends, a lawyer and a journalist.

This is all meaningless hogwash, you say, certain that there are laws aplenty to protect women against employment discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic violence and more.

Yes, there are numerous statutes protecting women, and at this juncture the Equal Rights Amendment might be largely symbolic. Now go tell the National Rifle Association that Amendment 2 might similarly be largely symbolic, and let me know how that works out.

How is this possible? How could all those pioneering 1970s women neglect to tell their footstep followers, “Oops – Our bad!”

Actually its our bad, the would-be followers’ fault. For four decades a dwindling group of activists has been running a relay, ready to hand the baton to the next generation. But we of the next generation, so many of us anyway, have been busy running a parallel race, enjoying the easy benefits but actively shirking the more complicated responsibilities and unattractive adjectives. We’ve relished our ability to bring home the bacon and then write blogs about cooking it, but the women’s rights movement, well that’s old news, ancient history.

Except that it isn’t. It is very much today’s issue for today’s girls and women. We’ve come a long way, baby; but we staked our claim on a slippery slope.

What to do? Well, according to the ERA website, if you live in on the of nine states where ratification seems not impossible (Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, or Virginia) then it’s time to get busy and figure out what’s happening in your state, particularly if you live in Illinois or Virginia where the flame seems still to be most alive. The current plan, as I understand it (even though I’m not a lawyer) is still to get three more states in the hopper. Apparently the 27th (“Madison”) Amendment was ratified more than 203 years after its passage, so the whole seven year deadline thing might not hold up. Again, not a lawyer; but the concept makes sense to me. (And, in case you’re curious, the six states not listed and apparently written off as impossible are Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Utah.)

Live in one of the 35 states that already voted YES (Tennessee! Hurrah!)? Great; now tell your friends about the issue. Ask them if they are aware that in the United States in 2014 gun ownership has the virtually unbreakable protection of the U.S. Constitution, but women’s equality does not.

With apologies to my late mother, that should be enough to bring out the feminist in us all.

Happy week.

********

Food | Week of October 13, 2014

baby yukon goldsblack pearl riceorecchiette

So,yeah, I too think it’s a wee bit funny that I’m sticking to my routine and tagging a weekly family cooking plan onto the end of this particular post. It’s especially funny in light of the best article I read last week, Virginia Heffernan’s “What if You Just Hate Making Dinner?

I’m the designated cook in our family because 1) I actually enjoy it and 2) I’m usually pretty good at it. Yes, I truly, honestly enjoy cooking. It is a great creative distraction for me, something I can do to take my mind off of other things. I have always enjoyed cooking. And I have enjoyed these almost two years of ending my weekly posts with a weekly menu because planning for dinner helps me juggle that whole work/life thing that is particularly hard for women these days.

But some days I just don’t feel like it. And when I don’t feel like cooking, I don’t cook. It’s that simple. We eat leftovers, we eat cereal, we eat scrambled eggs. Sometimes- EGAD! we even eat takeout or fast food. Choices and options: these are good things.

The weekly dinner plan keeps choices and options from being overwhelming. It’s a framework, a reference guide. Having a plan keeps our weeknight evenings from unraveling into stressful chaos. This week our plan includes fish, chicken, sausage and two vegetarian meals. And, since I’m always forgetting to add this, if you try one and like it, drop a line and let me know.

Flageolets | Cornbread | Bibb Lettuce with Buttermilk Dressing

Yep, I’m making another push for Rancho Gordo heirloom beans, this time advocating the flageolets, which are mild and flavorful. There are cooking suggestions on the Rancho Gordo site, or you can try this Ina Garten recipe, an easy recipe to adapt if you want to make truly vegetarian – just skip the bacon and use vegetable broth. Serve with cornbread (here’s Bittman’s recipe, or you can just use Jiffy). Round it out with a Bibb lettuce salad like this, our favorite, also from Ina Garten.

Black Rice | Steamed Cod | Sauteed Sugar Snap Peas

This dinner sounds harder than it really is, mostly because the ingredients sound difficult to find. I found Lundberg’s black pearl rice at Kroger; it’s also available at Fresh Market and Whole Foods. Cook the rice according to package directions; it’s that easy. For the fish, which you can buy flash-frozen if fresh isn’t available, this Martha Stewart recipe is simple and quick. Round it out with some sauteed sugar snap peas.

Pan-Fried Weisswurst | Potato Salad with Dill & Apple

I know; you’re wondering: What the hell is weisswurst? Literally, it’s white sausage – NBD. Here’s the context: Bernard likes Boar’s Head bratwurst; no other brand will suffice. “Get the white bratwurst,” he’ll say. So I did a bit of research and learned that there are numerous varieties of bratwurst, one of which is weisswurst, a mild white sausage typically with flecks of parsley visible through the casing. The Boar’s Head bratwurst isn’t technically that, but it’s the closest match I could find, and maybe it explains why a selected this recipe pairing from Martha Stewart for pan fried weisswurst. It is simple and tasty, and the link to the accompanying potato salad is embedded in the sausage recipe.

Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Goat Cheese

This recipe from Saveur is relies on the flavor of broccoli rabe (rapini), a bitter green, balanced by mild and acidic goat cheese. It’s very simple and easy to prepare; in my experience, it does not keep well; so make only enough for the night.

Baked Parmesan Chicken | Caesar Salad

Ina Garten’s Parmesan chicken recipe is simple and reliable; I’m also fond of my friend Marjorie’s version which calls for marinating the chicken in Italian dressing for a bit before cooking and using that same dressing instead of an egg wash before coating with a mix of bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. I use store-bought Caesar dressing, but here’s a recipe if you’re feeling domestic.

 

Idiometry.

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boy on a paddle board september 2014

Idiometry: n. the branch of language arts dealing with angles of conversation between parents and middle school children doing homework together, particularly if the homework is from 1100 Words You Need to Know.

******

Lesson 1: A Pig in a Poke.

“Ok, say you’re a duck hunter, and -“

“But dad won’t let me hunt because he doesn’t like guns.”

“Um, yeah. Well just pretend, ok? Pretend you’re a duck hunter, and you need a really well-trained dog – one who’ll respond to voice commands and always behave, like the Appersons’ dog. And you meet a man who says he has just the dog for you. And you pay him in advance, and then the dog he delivers to you is Charlie. That’s a pig in a poke.”

“Mom!!! I thought you loved Charlie!!!!”

“No, honey, I do love Charlie. But Charlie isn’t exactly … well, he’s Charlie. He’s definitely not a hunting dog, even though he’s a Lab. I mean -“

“Harsh, Mom. Harsh. Totally uncool. C’mon, Charlie, let’s go upstairs and finish homework on my bed. I think you’re a good dog, Charlie. I love you. Good boy, Charlie, good doggie.”

*****

Lesson 2: Furtive

“So does furtive mean, like, telling secrets?”

“Not exactly. Furtive means sly and sneaky. Like, remember when you were in 5th grade and you were supposed to be paying attention to the math teacher but you kept sneaking glances at that girl you thought was cute, but you didn’t want the teacher or the girl to notice?”

“Mom, oh my gosh! Are you EVER going to stop with that story?! It was 5th grade, Mom. FIFTH. Get over it.”

*****

Lesson 3: Octogenarian

“Hey, Mom, I know you’re still at work, but Dad said you could probably help me write a sentence with this word because you’re closer to it than he is.”

“Sure, honey. What’s the word?”

*****

Lesson 4: A Flash in the Pan

“So ‘a flash in the pan’ is like the one year when we had a perfect football season but then the next year we didn’t?”

“Well, not exactly. ‘A flash in the pan’ is like… well, it’s something that’s really, really popular for a short time and then just disappears.”

“So The Beatles were a flash in the pan? Because they were like really, really popular back in the olden days and now you never hear about them.”

“Um, no. The Beatles were definitely not a flash in the pan.”

“Are you saying that because you like The Beatles? Because I gotta tell you, Mom, The Beatles… man, there’s not other way to say this, The Beatles suck. That Yellow Submarine song, man that’s like What Does the Fox Say? It’s one of those stupid songs that just sticks in your ear and bugs you all day.”

“Ok, let’s try again. A ‘flash in the pan’ is sort of like Miley Cyrus. You know? She was really popular, and everyone thought she was awesome, but now not so much.”

“So Miley Cyrus was a flash in the pan, or Hannah Montana was a flash in the pan? And wasn’t Wrecking Ball sort of popular even after kids stopped following her? Wasn’t her dad more of a flash in the pan than she was?”

“Um, let’s start over.”

Lesson 5: Solace

“Oh, ‘solace’ is one of my favorite words. It’s one of those words that feels good to say, and the way the word sounds is kind of like what it means. It’s a soothing word. Solace is a special kind of comfort. People usually talk about places or circumstances that provide solace in times of trouble. Some people find solace in quiet places like the woods; others find solace in the company of other people. I often find solace working in the kitchen. In fact, the working title of the book I’ve been writing is The Solace of a Southern Kitchen. That’s how much that word means to me; it’s really a good one. I’m so glad it was on your list. Does that help?

“Hello?

“Honey?

“Are you still there?”

*****

Happy week.

********

Food | Week of October 6, 2014

KaleMy family wants you to know that last week’s sour cream chicken did not pass the acid test (an idiom I’ll get to explain in mid-February, if they stay on schedule). It’s possible that there was a tiny problem with execution on the chicken because Bernard was helping me in the kitchen and my “some lemon juice” and his “some lemon juice” apparently are not the same thing. There’s also the matter of the “sprinkling of crumbs” which translated into full breading. Anyway, this week instead of going out on a limb (that will be week 28) with new recipes, we’ll stick to old favorites with fall cooking, warm and savory, in mind.

Since this week is fall break, I’ll be home with the kids and catching up on some reading. One of the books on my list is Mark Bittman’s new How to Cook Everything Fast, which comes out on Tuesday. Bittman’s interview with Rachel Martin on NPR this past week was great. When Martin said she had trouble getting the chicken Parmesan ready in 30 minutes, Bittman was quick to ask if she had followed the directions and equally quick to call her on the carpet (week 16) when she responded, “Not exactly.” If you want the meals prepared in exactly 30 minutes, then apparently you must follow the directions precisely- to the letter. Not exactly my cup of tea (that one isn’t even IN 1100 Words – Bonus!), but I’ll give it a go and share my review in a few weeks.

Beef Bourguignongarlic on the menu board

If you’ve been following here for a while, then you know this recipe is a frequent flier. Even though the cooking time is long, the preparation is easy. I find cooking in the slow cooker works fine; just prep everything right up to the point of putting the Dutch oven in the oven and instead put everything in a slow cooker.

Roast Chicken | Pearl Couscous | Broccoli

If you are not on school holiday this week, then give yourself a break and buy a roasted chicken from the grocery (you can go conventional at Kroger, high end at Fresh Market or organic/free range at Whole Foods – your choice). A simple meal like this is more restorative than anything, particularly if your household is busy. If you are at home and have the time, then roast a bird or two yourself using this top-rated recipe from Epicurious. It’s easy and predictable, and your house will smell great. Serve with simple sides like pearl couscous (my family’s favorite), steamed broccoli (yes, that like that, too) or a simple green salad.

Refried Beans | Basmati Rice | Cilantro Sauce

I bought several varieties of Rancho Gordo heirloom beans recently, after reading all the rave reviews, and then last week a neighbor gave me a few more. If you’re not familiar with these beans, they’re worth the effort to find and try them. Any, trying to put it delicately, the Rancho Gordo beans do not have unpleasant side effects. This week I’ll be cooking pinquitos, which are similar to red beans that you’ll find in any grocery store but taste entirely different. The last time I made these, I soaked them overnight and then cooked them in the slow cooker for an entire day. I let them cool, then I used Mark Bittman’s recipe (it’s his week, I know) for refried beans (How to Cook Everything Vegetarian). I served with plain basmati rice (cooked in chicken stock) and a cilantro sauce that was basically chopped cilantro, salt and lime juice.

tomato harvestWeeknight Bolognese

Yep, I’m making it again. It’s easy, and we love it. The end. But I will be using fresh tomatoes instead of canned, since this was the last week for tomatoes at the farmers market.

Celery Soup | French Bread

Yep, it’s time to hit this one again, too: Jane Grigson’s Genius Celery Soup, the only recipe I’ve saved from my Food 52 browsing days. I want to see if it’s as good as I remember, and if my people will still like it.

 

Make food that tastes good.

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Bake sale, July 2013

“Your blog reminds me of Julia Reed’s books,” a friend said to me a year or so ago. “Really?” I answered, pretending I knew what she was talking about. “Yes,” she said, “The one I really think about is Ham Biscuits and Hostess Gowns, but all of her books are great. They’re about the new way of being Southern, kind of like what you write about.”

I did not know this was what anyone thought I was writing about, so I bought a secondhand copy of Ham Biscuits as well as a copy of The House on First Street, and I started reading. As I read I was very flattered that my friend would have thought of me in this same general context. And when I started reading I was completely, totally, absolutely unaware that the Julia Reed who wrote these books was the same Julia Reed whose columns in Vogue I had once admired (back when I had time to read Vogue), because the Vogue columnist was a cosmopolitan jet-setting New Yorker, not a Southerner. When I finally did make the connection, I was surprised in the way one might be surprised to know a cousin, third-removed, married into royalty.

There is a part of me, sometimes tiny, sometimes large, that wishes I had used my Ivy League credentials and connections to catapult out of an ordinary Southern orbit and into something grander. Usually when I have regrets along these lines, I’ll reconnect with someone who does live in New York and who does live the Big Life, and I’ll realize how deeply thankful I am not to have the obligations and burdens that accompany that lifestyle. Choices have consequences, even at the high end of the choice spectrum.

And then there’s Julia Reed, green pepper jelly bookends on a Prada suit: Southerner-New York sophisticate-Southerner.

Saturday morning, instead of editing, revising, and finishing one of my many drafts and meeting my self-imposed 10:30 Saturday morning jenny’s lark deadline, I went to the Mid-South Book Fest to hear Reed talk about Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties. I stayed for the signing so she could autograph my copy of the book, a copy acquired through alibris thanks to the Fresno County Library’s stamping it OBSOLETE and putting it up for resale. Those poor deprived Californians do not know what they are missing.

Julia Reed book signing

I did not have time to go to this event because the weekend is my only catch-up time, and I am overwhelmed with chores and obligations. My pantry and refrigerator are almost empty (seriously). And we’re out of dog food. And my half-finished book, the one I have no idea what to do with next, is collecting dust on my work table. And the cat has vomited hairballs on my daughter’s bed once a week for the last three weeks, and all three weeks’ worth of linens are in a pile at the top of the stairs because I don’t feel like going to the laundromat to use the big industrial washer. And I need to work on my Sunday school room, the room that really isn’t my room but to which I am now assigned. And I really, really need to get a grip on the school wrapping paper sale that starts Friday and that I volunteered to run again for one last time since this is my daughter’s last year at our beloved elementary school. And raising a 7th grade boy is, and really there is no other way to put this, kicking my ass. And the world is an absolute heart-breaking mess; clearly, there’s that.

So, logically, I abandoned all of these worries and went to the book signing.

This was my impression: like most writers and artists I know, Julia Reed would probably rather be part of a roundtable discussion or dinner party (Southern, of course) or even working kitchen crew than speaking to an audience in an auditorium. Addressing the (unfortunately tiny) group of faithful readers, Reed was as charming, gracious and funny as I expected her to be. But I don’t see a Ted Talk in her future, at least not (I’m guessing here) by her choice.

What I did hear clearly, though, was the honest reflection of a Southerner who reconnected with her Southern roots thanks to food and her mother’s wisdom. As she writes and as she affirms in her talk, while preparing for a party in New York Reed consulted her mother, a consummate Southern hostess, for menu advice. Reed’s mother’s food mantra, identical to my own mother’s, was this:

“Serve food that tastes good.”

Good food is the love connection that brings us closer to other people, to our roots, and to ourselves. Even in the big life of New York City.

Happy week.

******

Food | Week of September 29, 2014

Some Southern comfort food seems in order this week. If you’re nervous about the cholesterol, eat oatmeal with walnuts for breakfast and go for a walk during your lunch break. Actually, do those things anyway; they’ll make you feel better.Fall greens

Fried Chicken | Parslied Potatoes

My mother did not often make fried chicken, but when she did she had one consistent rule: Crisco. Do not break this rule. I do not know why. For the batter my mother used a buttermilk/paprika/cayenne/salt concoction that she never actually wrote down, but that’s awfully similar to this recipe from Alton Brown. For the potatoes, boil some small new potatoes (smallest you can find – or halve larger ones) until they are just tender. Drain and pat dry. Melt a copious amount of butter in a skillet or sauté pan; when the butter is hot but not browning, add the potatoes and sauté until they begin to brown. Toss with finely chopped fresh parsley and kosher salt.

Macaroni & Cheese | Braised Field Greens

Mama’s macaroni & cheese, likewise never transcribed in detail, was a stovetop affair: cook and drain the pasta; stir in butter, cream cheese, milk, grated cheese, a dash of Worcestershire, a dash of cayenne and salt to taste. If you feel like spreading all that in a casserole, smothering it in buttered Ritz cracker crumbs and baking for a bit, then that will work, too. If you are in the South and have access to greens (turnip, mustard, collard), then triple wash those greens, cut out the stems, and braise the greens in chicken broth, onion, ham hock (or salt pork) and a pinch of sugar for at least 90 minutes, adding more liquid as needed. Season with pepper vinegar at serving. If you are not in the South, or if you don’t feel like making from scratch, look for the Glory Foods brand turnip greens in your grocer’s canned foods section.

Sour Cream Chicken | Green Rice (Adapted from Party Potpourri)

For the chicken: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large shallow bowl, mix together and let come to room temperature: sour cream (1 16 oz. container), paprika, celery salt, lemon juice, salt, Worcestershire and 1-2 cloves garlic, pressed. In a separate bowl crush 1 sleeve of Ritz crackers (or you could use saltines or matzo). Pound 6 chicken breast halves until they are 1/2 inch thick; cut into strips, if desired. Coat the chicken thickly with the sour cream mix, then coat with cracker crumbs on each side. Place on a baking sheet lined with foil and bake for about 50-60 minutes, until cooked through. For the rice: Cook 2 c. jasmine rice (or other rice) while you’re preparing the chicken to go in the oven; when rice is cooked, and while it is hot, stir in 1/2 stick butter; add 1 package thawed frozen chopped spinach (drained), 1 c. chicken stock, 1 c. grated cheese (sharp cheddar is good), a dash or two of onion powder (don’t judge), and some finely chopped fresh parsley (up to 1/2 c.). Salt to taste. Beat 3 eggs in a separate bowl, then stir into the rice mixture. Spread in a buttered casserole dish and place in the oven with the chicken for about 30-40 minutes.

Green BeansCorn Soufflé | Steamed Green Beans| Rolls

My mother made corn soufflé mostly the way she made cheese soufflé – in fact, her corn soufflé was basically her cheese soufflé (2 c. white sauce, 1 c. grated cheese, dash of cayenne, dash of Worcestershire, 4 egg yolks, 4 egg whites beaten until stiff and folded in) with the addition of frozen corn kernels (thawed and drained, added with the egg yolks) and maybe some minced chives, baked in a rectangular Pyrex instead of a soufflé dish. I do not expect anyone of French origin to understand this. If you need more direction and structure, this recipe from Food & Wine is pretty good, if not remotely Southern. Serve with steamed green beans (or broccoli), tossed with butter and kosher salt, and some warm Sister Schubert rolls.

Cheese Grits | Maple Sausage Links | Biscuits

Let grits cook in a mix of chicken broth and milk. I use coarse grind grits (Delta Grind brand) and use 3 parts liquid to 1 part grits. Toss in butter and cheese at the end and stir to mix until the cheese is melted. Serve with maple-flavored sausage links and Marshall’s biscuits. If you want to make biscuits, then this recipe from Gourmandistan is excellent (as are their other recipes).

Summer: the book report.

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end of summer 2014

Ah, summer reading, the special torture devised by teachers to deprive children of a carefree break from school.

I hated summer reading. I’m a slow reader, for one thing, and, for another thing, I have always had a penchant for reading junk fiction. My teachers didn’t care. They never, not once, assigned a Ken Follet novel even though Eye of the Needle was way better than The Mill on the Floss.

Lucky for me it’s been a long time since I had a required reading list, one sure to be enforced by pop quizzes. So I can’t really explain why Refinery 29’s summer reading list, a Feminist Guide to Fiction, caught my attention. Yep, an F word primer, not usually my thing, to be perfectly honest, but there it is.

Maybe it’s because the list was published around the time that Jill Abramson was fired and the Nigerian girls disappeared. Maybe it was just because I’m now old enough to appreciate perspective I dismissed in my youth. In any event, while my children plowed (with much discontent) through Tom Sawyer, Warriors Don’t Cry and Frindle, I plowed through the R29 list. I did not make it through all 17 books, and I skipped most of the ones I’d already read, except for The Color Purple, which I just felt like re-reading (and it was like reading something entirely new) and The Handmaid’s Tale, one of my favorite books, which was at least as good on second reading, all these years later.

In case you’re not up for clicking to the R29 slideshow, here’s the list, with my notes:

  1. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; Judy Blume. Read it, if you didn’t when you were in 4th grade, and then give a copy to every 4th grade girl you know, especially if your daughter is one of them. No, I don’t care that you’ve already watched the Moon Party video with her; it’s not the same thing. Not at all.
  2. Little Women; Louisa May Alcott. Take this book to a mother daughter book club. If you don’t have a mother daughter book club, then start one and read this book first. And you will cry when Beth dies, even though you know Beth dies. Even if you’ve read Little Women before.
  3. Lysistrata; Aristophanes. Women stop war by withholding sex. Brilliant! If nothing else, your friends will think you’re super smart if you read this play (a comedy), and it’s pretty easy to read and not very long. And you might even like it.
  4. Sense & Sensibility; Jane Austen. I just love this book. Love, love, love. Better than Price & Prejudice. Love. But instead of re-reading it I re-watched the 1995 Ang Lee movie, which I also love, love, love, for 100 reasons, all 100 of which include Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon.
  5. The Color Purple; Alice Walker. If you read The Color Purple when it was first published, then read it again. The world has changed (some), and you’ve changed (probably more than some), and it will be like reading an entirely new book – a pretty magnificent one, even it it’s really tough and brutal.
  6. The Handmaid’s Tale; Margaret Atwood. Read the book, don’t cheat and watch the movie. It’s a really, really good book and very timely today, in 2014, almost 30 years after it was published.
  7. She’s Come Undone; Wally Lamb. If you read no other books on the list, read this one. That’s how good it is. I can’t believe I had never read this book.
  8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Maya Angelou. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I can’t believe I’d never read this one, either.
  9. The Optimist’s Daughter; Eudora Welty. It’s short and it’s good and it’s quintessentially Southern and I loved it. You might, too.
  10. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; Betty Smith. How had I never read ATGIB? Yeah, I don’t know either. If you missed it, too, then it’s time to catch up – and time to share it with the young adult readers in your life.
  11. The Mists of Avalon; Marian Zimmer Bradley. If you enjoy the intrigue on Game of Thrones but struggle with the violence, then here’s the book for you. It’s long but worth it (much more worth it than Goldfinch, IMHO).

(I haven’t made it through these next ones yet; Mists of Avalon was long….)

  1. The Awakening; Kate Chopin.
  2. Their Eyes Were Watching God; Zora Neale Hurston.
  3. The Hero in the Crown; Robin McKinley.
  4. Weetzie Bat; Francesco Lia Block.
  5. Orlando; Virginia Woolf.
  6. Code Name Verity; Elizabeth Wren.

So how about you; what was your summer reading list? Hope it was as enjoyable and inspiring as mine and that summer treated you well.

Happy Labor Day weekend, and happy week.

********

Food | Week of September 1, 2014

Labor Day farmers marketSauteed Spinach | Roasted Fingerling Potatoes | Cheese Grits

Two starches in one dinner? Well, sure, why not? For the potatoes, just halve or quarter, toss in olive oil, salt and a pinch of herbs (Herbes de Provence, or just some plain rosemary) and roast at 380 degrees until they’re brown and crisp on the edges, about 25 minutes. While they’re roasting, let the grits cook in a mix of chicken broth and milk. I use coarse grind grits (Delta Grind brand) and use 3 parts liquid to 1 part grits. Toss in cheese at the end and stir to mix. For the spinach, these days I’ve been first sauteeing some very thinly sliced fresh onions in a mix of butter and olive oil, just until they soften. Then I put about a pound of fresh spinach, along with a good sprinkling of kosher salt, over the top of the onions and put a lid on the pot to let the spinach steam. I leave the spinach leaves whole, but you can slice into ribbons. In a couple of minutes, stir the wilted spinach and onion mixture and turn off the heat.

Planked Salmon with Coconut Rice | Bibb Lettuce

The only trick to this simple recipe from Epicurious is soaking the cedar plank in advance – do it before you leave for work if you can’t come home for lunch. Other than that, it’s an easy weeknight dinner and quite tasty. A buttery lettuce salad on the side, with lemon juice and olive oil for dressing – well seasoned with salt and pepper, is the perfect complement for the meal.

Sweet Potato Risotto | Simple Saladtomatoes august 2014

I love risotto made with butternut squash, but butternuts aren’t quite ready yet. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, are. So I’ll try this recipe from Real Simple, which is very similar to the butternut squash version. No, I have no idea whether or not my people will eat it. I’ll serve with a simple salad, again dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, seasoned with salt, of course.

Green Chile Chicken Stew

No, my little people probably won’t eat this, either. But we’ll keep trying, because Bernard and I are green chile people through and through. This recipe is a pretty basic one; we use Hatch chile and can’t really recommend any good alternative.

Flank Steak with Chimichurri Sauce | Wild Rice | Green Salad

Flank steak (or skirt steak, if you can’t find flank) is not an expensive cut of meat, and it’s easy to prepare. Pat it dry, rub with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and let rest at room temp for about 30 minutes before you grill it. While the steak is doing its thing, put a bunch of parsley, some fresh oregano (I actually prefer parsley/cilantro/mint to parsley/oregano, but parsley/oregano is traditional), garlic cloves, vinegar, olive oil and salt in a food processor or blender and mash them all together. If you need more specific directions, there are literally hundreds of chimichurri recipes online (here’s one to start). Once you make it a few times you’ll know what mix and ratio of ingredients suit you, and you’ll probably keep a jar of chimichurri on hand in the refrigerator for everything. I’ll make wild rice and a salad just to round out the plate, but the steak and the chimichurri are all I really want from this meal.

For the love of bitter humans.

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The Goldfinch

Life, I think, is like a champagne cocktail: best enjoyed while still fizzy, sublime in its bitter sweetness.

******

In my next life, if my karmic inheritance takes me to the next level of transcendence, I will return as a Quaker, serenely imparting peace among people.

If you’re wondering why I don’t just study up and become a Quaker right here in this good life (on the theory there may not be a next), understand that I am fully committed to completing this life as a lioness. Mess with one of my cubs and you’ll see just how un-Quaker I am. In fact, mess with one of my cubs and you’ll meet some fist-raising, foul-mouthed, redneck woman who somehow has my name on her driver’s license. Do not mess with my cubs.

Anyway, next go-round I’m hoping for Quaker. Not the made-up wanna-be Quaker, but real, genuine-in-my heart Quaker. And when I come back as a Quaker I’m hoping I’ll still be a writer, and I hope I’ll write articles like the one I read once about how we all should just say no to watching bad, violent, hateful things. If I could find the article, I’d just repost it; but I can’t, so here’s the gist:

Seeing the image of a bad thing happening leaves a scar on your soul. Once that image is seen, you can’t un-see it, and it leaves a terrible mark.

A friend, a Quaker, brought this article to me after we had a conversation about watching Law & Order. My friend is a lawyer, a former public defender, and on a regular basis I would ask her questions like “was the unspeakable thing that happened on Law & Order SVU really like that unspeakable thing that happened right here in Memphis, Tennessee last year?” And she would shrug and be non-committal, and then the next week I’d ask a similar question about a different unspeakable thing. There’s always something unspeakable happening, here, there, everywhere, so it was easy to spew an endless stream of ick.

Then one day she, my friend, brought a copy of her Friends newsletter, opened to the page with the article about how horrible things scar our psyches, and after I read it I didn’t ask her about Law & Order any more. In fact, I didn’t watch Law & Order any more because, once I thought about it, I didn’t want any of that mess in my head either.

Once you, too, give it a minute’s thought, you may also decide to give up Law & Order, or whatever other similar thing you watch. And if you’re a fine person who doesn’t watch TV and who instead just reads news articles and journals in print and online, then maybe you’ll think about scarred psyches and decide never again, for example, to read the comments that follow every Huffington Post article because all those comments do is give you nightmares of trolls, whether or not you believe in fairy tales. In fact, you’ll probably give up Huff Post entirely.

And once you give up Law & Order and Huff Post and you stop following any local news station or neighborhood security group (dear God, is there any end to the horror?), then just exactly where are you going to go when you want to look beyond your navel and see what’s happening in the world without scarring your psyche?

I’ll tell you. You’re going to The Bitter Southerner and Humans of New York.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably already at least stumbled across Brandon Stanton’s incredible brain child, Humans of New York. It’s pretty darned close to my favorite thing in the world, outside of my family, dark chocolate, and champagne.

If you’re familiar with Brandon’s work but haven’t checked in lately, then go visit, right now. His UN series (he’s currently in Iraq) is heart-stoppingly beautiful. Each post is its own tiny champagne cocktail, fizzy, sweet and bitter in every marvelous sip.

Buy his books, follow his blog, and, for the love of everything holy, read the comments because that wise and clever Brandon, after realizing that it was pretty easy to tell the difference between people who were being constructive and people who were being dicks (his words), decided he was going to publish only the good stuff that could make us all believe in humanity again.

The Bitter SouthernerWhen you’re finished being amazed by all those wonderfully imperfect humans, take a slow stroll over to The Bitter Southerner, my favorite new publication, and let your love grow a little more.

“Bitter Southerner?” you sneer. Yeah, we’ll that’s sort of the point. You see, a few ingenious folks from Atlanta got their hackles up that people were always dissing the South, so they decided to do something constructive about it. And what they decided to do was tell stories, more specifically one great story every Tuesday, that could open the heart of the South, its threads of bitter and sweet, for all to love.

Not sure where to start in this unfamiliar terrain? Try this quintessentially Southern short story, Abba Dabba Dab. Or, and surely you’d know I’d include this, read The Republic of Swine, a tribute to the Memphis in May World Championship BBQ Contest. Or if you just want the gestalt, read first BS post, We Are Bitter, and you’ll get it, even if you’re not from the South. And you won’t feel one tiny bit scarred or bitter. In fact, you’ll feel better, wherever you live. And then you’ll want a cocktail, but in a good way, enjoyed with friends and laughter and a touch of Quaker-style peace.

Happy week, y’all.

*******

Sunflowers May 2014

FOOD | Week of August 11, 2014

So, not that you need to send me presents or anything, but it’s my birthday week (month), and we’re celebrating. I pledge to drink champagne and eat dark chocolate every day, mostly likely when I’m helping my children with their math homework and struggling against the denial that school has started. In this week’s food line-up you’ll see that every dinner leads with a champagne cocktail, paired with appropriate food. Why we would ever do that pairing in reverse, I just don’t know.

French 75 | Sausage, Grits & Greens

A French 75 might be my favorite cocktail, preferably made with Hendrick’s gin instead of cognac, but really I’m an equal opportunity drinker when it comes to French 75s. The easiest way to make one light enough to drink on a weeknight is this: 1 T. gin, 1 T. fresh lemon juice, 1 T. simple syrup, and champagne to the top of the glass. Vary those ingredients to suit your taste, or swap the gin for cognac if you want to feel warm and frisky. The gin version is a light, refreshing drink that can handle some sturdy food like basic grits and braised greens, with or without some grilled sausage.

Arucana Lulu

Mimosa | Poached Eggs, Sourdough Toast & Canadian Bacon

Breakfast for dinner is a popular concept in our house, and since it’s birthday breakfast for dinner, a traditional mimosa seems appropriate: just OJ and champagne, maybe with a fresh raspberry or two. Bernard is the master egg poacher in this house; I just stand back and watch. If you’ve never poached eggs, here are Jamie Oliver’s instructions, which are a good place to start. Serve with buttered sourdough toast and some grilled Canadian bacon.

Champagne Mojito | Pulled Pork Tacos

The food part of this meal is a cheater’s dinner: I’ll buy pulled pork from The BBQ Shop instead of cooking at home (birthday – hello!). I’ll then serve it family style at the table with corn tortillas, chopped onions, cilantro, tomato, sour cream, lime and some salsas. It’s as popular a meal as breakfast for dinner at our house. The cocktail is a new one, with a recipe from John Besh for champagne mojitos (how could that be anything other than tasty?).

True Vine celery

Kir Royale | Smoked Trout Lettuce Wraps

For a lighter turn, how about some smoked fish and a classic Kir Royale? This recipe for lettuce wraps with smoked trout is a twist on the traditional pork preparation that somehow seems more festive and summery. Smoked salmon would work in the place of the trout, if that’s easier to find.

Champagne | Linguini with Caviar

If you want an elegant and festive dinner that feels extravagant but really isn’t, this pasta dish is it. I’ve had a similar recipe from Gourmet in my cooking journal since 1989, and every time I make it I wonder why I don’t make it more often. The bonus for this week is that one of my favorite farmers at the market had beautiful fresh parsley that he’s nursed along all summer, truly a gift of our unseasonably mild summer.

 

On being a Jennifer.

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summer camp 2014

My mother wanted to name me Guinevere, but my father would not have it.

Mama was convinced that her family was descended from a line of Celtic royalty, that something had gone terribly amiss, and that it was her destiny to research and reclaim their heritage. I am exaggerating only very slightly. And I exaggerate not all her desire to give me the proper name of the famous Celtic queen. This quirky obsession was part of my mother’s charm, and her knowledge of Arthurian legend and Celtic history generally were considerable.

But Guinevere was a no-go, so they compromised on Jennifer, the modern adaptation of Guinevere and a name my mother hoped would not become too common.

In 1966, the year after I was born, the name Jennifer jumped into the top 10 most popular names for girls in the U.S. Since I was still a baby, my mother suggested to my father that perhaps my middle name, Scott, would be more useful for me in case I ever wanted to write a book or get a job or buy a house or do anything for which a woman’s name on the application might be a disadvantage. But I was already my father’s little J-bird, so Jennifer it was.

Then, BAM, in 1970 came Love Story, and all Jennifer hell broke loose. “At least they’ll all be younger than you,” my mother sighed, the memory of being surrounded by fellow kindergarten Bettys still fresh in her mind.

For 15 years, 1970 through 1984, Jennifer was the most popular name for girls born in the U.S., a reign second only to Mary’s in the 20th century. Since I was born five years ahead of the crowning, there was only one other Jennifer in my first grade class, a few in the grades ahead of us, and a good number that came up behind our advance through elementary school. In my grade there was also Jenny, whose real name was (is) Martha; but that’s a different matter entirely.

Through high school, college and my early 20s I was always on the lookout for fellow Jennifers, expecting to find one on every street corner but never meeting the wave my mother predicted. And even through that 15 year run, our name atop every name list, you could feel Emily and Madison and Jessica coming up fast right behind us.

In 1992 the name Jennifer dropped out of the top 10, and in 2009 it dropped from the top 100. Like the Bettys of my mother’s generation, it appears we’ve had our run.

Maybe I’m reading into it things that aren’t there, maybe it’s my iteration of my mother’s Celtic quest, but I feel a bit of magic solidarity whenever I encounter a sister Jennifer, or Jen or Jenny. I watch young Jennifer Lawrence take the media to task and think, “Yeah, that’s a Jennifer. Do not mess with us.” I read Jen Groeber’s great mama art blog and cherish that new, but strangely familiar branch on the Jennifer family tree. We were a blip, we Jennifers, but maybe one that will leave a good mark.

Happy week.

*******

Food | Week of September 22, 2014

Green cabbageIn celebration of Jennifers everywhere, this week’s dinners will all come from Jenny Rosenstrach’s Dinner: a Love Story, which a friend first shared with me a few weeks after I started posting weekly menus in January 2013. “Do you read DALS?” my friend sent by text. “What’s DALS?” I responded, and we went from there (proving, perhaps, that Jennifers really do all swim along a common current). Anyway, DALS often has recipes with ingredients we just don’t eat (kale), and sometimes the difference between a New York kitchen and a Southern kitchen are glaringly apparent to me. But I enjoy reading Jenny’s posts, and I am confident that the recipes are both a) her own, and b) well-tested. So here’s a sampling, taken from her What to Cook Tonight page; if you don’t like the five I’ve selected, I promise there are plenty more.Candlelight on the Farm

Chicken Chili with Corn and Black Beans

Steak Tacos with Pickled Onions and Cilantro Pesto

Braised Pork in Adobo

Chile-Rubbed Chicken with Shredded Spinach

Waffle Iron Grilled Cheese (come on, you know you want to, no matter how old you are)

 

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