#winning.

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winning

In the end I could blame Sue for posting the article or David Sedaris for writing it. And since Sue is my friend and David Sedaris is someone I’ll probably never meet, I choose him. Yes, in the end, the whole thing is David Sedaris’s fault.

****

We live across the street from my friend Melanie, who has been my friend for almost 25 years. Soon enough, 25 years will be half my life, so I have known Melanie for a long time. A mutual friend, a running and tennis coach, introduced us. I had started running a few months earlier and was enjoying how fast my 25 year old body went from running 10 minute miles to running 8 minute miles, and Paul thought running with Melanie and her group in Overton Park would be just the thing for me.

In the fall of 1999, a few months after we moved back to Memphis, Bernard and I met Mel and her husband at Zoo Rendezvous (fundraiser food & drink fest), and we re-established our friendship. A couple of years later, with Mel’s help, we found a house on her street which was on the market for a bargain price, and we bought it because A) I had never seen the movie The Money Pit, and B) another family was trying to outbid us.

Anyway, we live across the street from Melanie, with whom I’ve now shared almost 25 years of road races, hill repeats, tennis matches, dinner parties, drinks on the porch, holidays, and all manner of neighborhood gossip.

The week after Christmas I was walking one of the dogs around the block, and Mel called to me from her porch: “Jennifer, you have got to have one of these things!” She waved her arm, flashing her new black rubber wristband. “What is it?” I asked. She proceeded, excitedly, to tell me about her birthday present, a Fitbit. “Oh my God!” she added, “as competitive as you are – it is MADE for you!”

She was so kind to think of something I might enjoy. But I don’t know where she got the idea that I am competitive.

****

A few months ago we went to Rochester, MN to visit my sister (Auntie Doctor Margaret, to my children). It was snowing and too cold to do much other than incubate cabin fever the way only six children under one roof can breed cabin fever. After a day and a half, I grabbed Margaret, told our husbands they were in charge of the kids and headed out for a walk in the still cold but now sunny Minnesota spring.

We’d been out for about 45 minutes and were around the corner from her house when Margaret said we needed to go one more time around the block. “I need to get to 10,000 steps – it’s been DAYS since I hit it.”

“What?”

“10,000 steps,” she said, showing off her Fitbit bracelet. “Seriously, you don’t have one of these? As competitive and techno-geeky as you are?”

Techno-geek, yes. I don’t know why she thinks I am competitive.

******

In June my friend Sue, who’s usually looking chic hiking a panoramic view in the Hudson Valley and seldom wasting time on social media, posted the link to this article, “Living the Fitbit Life,” by David Sedaris. Her reason for posting the link had absolutely nothing to do with an affection for the Fitbit, but I read the whole thing because, really, what’s the point of picking through an article just to read the one part that’s personally relevant (Maja and the cow, dear God…).

“Ok, I surrender,” I said to my sister on the phone later that day. “Even David Sedaris has a Fitbit.”

Not that I need to keep up with David Sedaris.

******

My Fitbit arrived on a Tuesday. Wednesday morning I strapped on the bright orange band and set up my dashboard and downloaded the app on my phone and set off on my day.

Once I got to work, I reminded myself to take the stairs and took the long way to the ladies’ room because, really, how far could 10,000 steps be?

By 5:15 I had taken 3129.

“You’re taking the dog for a walk?” Bernard asked at 6:05.

“Yeah. It’s such a nice night out.”

6:18 – 4652 steps.

6:20 – “You’re taking the other dog? Why didn’t you just take them together?”

“I thought maybe they’d enjoy some time alone, and, really, it’s such a nice night.”

6:34 – 6178 steps.

6:35 – text to my sister: “Why the hell doesn’t this thing just come out and say ‘LAZY FAT-ASS‘ instead of mocking me with this silent step count?”

6:36 – text from my sister: “Yeah, reality is a bummer.”

********

By the end of the first week I figured out the only way to hit 10,000 steps was to go for a long walk, every day. This was completely unhelpful because if I had 45 minutes to walk every day I would already be doing it, with or without a damn Fitbit.

Not to worry, though, because my daughter, seeing my dilemma, helped me figure out that walking around the kitchen island four times and then up and down the staircases (front and back) twice, and around to the laundry room three times equals 846 steps, which is about what I lack by the end of the day now that I take the stairs at work and walk the dog around the block when I go home for lunch and pace annoyingly during meetings instead of sitting in a chair.

It’s so sweet that my daughter wants to help me, and I love that she has a feisty, competitive spirit. She must get that from Bernard.

********

Last week, after three weeks of Fitbit tracking, I had to go to Chicago for a work meeting, two days in a conference room discussing metrics and business analytics.

The Sunday before my trip, I hit 15,000 steps. Since I’d been reaching 10,000 on a regular basis and had those extra 5000, a couple of days sitting in a conference room wouldn’t really be so bad. And the whole 10,000 step thing wasn’t really important to the meeting, so it really didn’t matter that I’d miss a couple of days.

Of course, on the other hand, my flight was scheduled to land at 9:45, and we were meeting in the O’Hare Hilton. If I timed it right, I should have just enough time to walk through the tunnel, check in, get to the fitness center, work out, shower and change before the meeting started. Between the walk through the airports and the workout, I could be at 10,000 steps by 1:00, no problem. If that were important.

For extra efficiency, I wore my workout clothes on the plane. We landed on time, and I headed for the hotel with my small carry-on in hand. I checked in, dumped my bags behind door 7063, and booked it to the fitness center. 50 minutes later (9647 steps) I was back in my room with just enough time to clean up and get to my meeting where I would do nothing but sit in a chair for the rest of the day, which was just fine because I was almost at the finish line, victory in sight.

Yes, everything was going great, right up to the moment I realized that despite having packed everything I would need to hit 10,000 steps (including the Fitbit charger), I’d neglected to pack a bra.

As I stood in the bathroom frantically waving the tiny Conair blow dryer to dry my gray sports top (which looked super professional under my wide-necked dress), the Fitbit lit up and vibrated to indicate I’d reached 10,000 steps.

If the Fitbit could talk, it would definitely say #winning. 

Happy week.

************

Food | Week of July 28, 2014

Pepperpalooza July 2014

This week’s market harvest included eggs, fresh onions, basil, cabbage, peppers, tart apples, cucumbers and tomatoes (of course). There’s no better way to take advantage of all the fresh produce (or to keep dinner time ultra easy and simple) than to use Mark Bittman’s classic Recipes for 101 Simple Salads. Here are a few I think are particularly good (and, as all of these are, easily adaptable):

  • #26 – Broiled mushrooms and red onion over watercress
  • #28 – Mache shoots with slivered almonds and figs
  • #35 – Black beans with fresh cabbage
  • #50 – Puttanesca-style egg salad (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it)
  • #60 – Tuna salad (canned works fine) with apples and grapes
  • #64 – Smoked fish with thinly sliced cucumbers
  • #95 – Couscous over greens

One other idea that’s not on this list but that’s similar is to mix a can of chickpeas (drained and rinsed) with a pint of fresh pico de gallo from a local Mexican market. Serve with some grilled tortillas and avocado to round it out, or grilled chicken if you just can’t go meatless.

Super easy, super summer.

Delta Sol Zinnias July 2014

Life, without instructions.

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cooking lesson july 2014

From age 12 to age 19, I made a fortune babysitting. Terminally responsible and usually available, I was the go-to Saturday night supervisor of people only five or six years my junior, people who are now my good sources of parenting tips on Facebook. The handful of families on my A list kept me flush with cash, cash that I should have saved but instead spent freely on clothes, shoes, Sun-In, Twix bars and the occasional pack of Merits.

If I had taken the advice of one of my most frequent customers and opened a Swiss bank account back in 1978, I would probably be posting from a yacht on the French Riviera and not from a messy kitchen in midtown Memphis. (Yes, Harriet, I’ve kept my promise to write and not clean this summer, though I’m beginning to fear an anonymous report to the health department.) But I was a spendthrift then, as now, and the money is long, long gone.

The lessons, however, linger.

Every so often – maybe two or three times a year, one of my usual customers would call to see if I’d babysit for a friend, typically an out-of-town visitor.  I always said yes, working on the usually reliable assumption that cool people don’t have creepy friends.

On one such occasion I was hired to babysit for a newborn granddaughter so that grandmother and her older daughter (the mother) could attend younger daughter’s debut. For you non-Southerners that’s a fancy party with girls in white dresses and boys in tuxedos and lots and lots of champagne and liquor and a healthy amount of sex in cars, back in the days when the drinking age was 18 and no one had ever heard of AIDS.

So mother, sister and grandmother were busy dressing and doing their hair and spraying Fracas, which made me feel at home because it was also my mother’s favorite perfume, and I was to feed the baby. Only I was 13 years old and had never fed a baby; the youngest child I’d ever kept was a three year old toddler.

“She likes it warm but not too hot,” one of the women called from upstairs.

On the counter in the kitchen were a bottle and a can of liquid formula. No notes.

How does one heat a bottle formula? Set the bottle on the gas burner?

No, I decided, the bottle definitely did not need to go directly over the burner. How about maybe hold it 8 inches or so above the flame? Yes, that would definitely work. That’s the way to do it. And there I was, standing at the stove, holding the bottle of formula over a gas flame to heat it, when grandmother walked in.

“Lord, child, what are you doing?” she exclaimed. She proceeded to show me how to heat the bottle, in a pan of water, and how to test its temperature on my forearm.

And then she left. She grabbed a bottle of Moët (the first time I’d seen that label), called to her daughters and breezed out the door, leaving me with a newborn baby I’d just learned how to bottle feed. I think they said something vague about bedtime, and maybe about how the cable TV worked.

(The baby, in case you’re panicking, turned out fine. She’s a shoe designer in North Carolina or South Carolina or one of those East Coast beachy places, and looking at her, I promise you, you’d never guess that she was once left in the care of a completely unqualified babysitter.)

No part of this story would happen today – none of it. No stranger coming to babysit at all, much less for an infant. No absence of lists, no missing babysitter certification. No lack of knowledge when it came to bottle warming. None of it. We who grew up on a wing and a prayer wouldn’t allow it. Instead of neighborhood kids who might need a bit of coaching, we flock to Need-A-Sitter and expect them to arrive fully prepared, like a heat ‘n serve dinner, reluctant to let life get messy.

Sometimes I think we’ve forgotten, we children of the 70s, that a little personal guidance, a lot of practice, and the grace of forgiveness were necessary investments for our adult independence. Generations coming behind us – our children, our babysitters, our interns at work, need that investment, too. Written instructions, seminars and TV how-to guides just won’t do the trick. In the long run the payoff from a bit of messy is 100 times greater than the dividends from tidy and predictable.

Happy week.

*******

Food | Week of July 21, 2014

Last week at the market I ran into my daughter’s godmother, and we hatched a spur-of-the-moment plan to gather our families and dine on homemade pappardelle, grilled sausage and a crisp summer salad. Why I don’t make fresh pasta more often I do not know. It’s really easy, and so delicious. So I’ll make another round this week. And I’m re-posting the Saveur recipe for pissaladière if for no other reason than that the crust recipe is terrific; even if you turn up your nose at onion/anchovy pizza, make the dough and top it with whatever regular pizza toppings go over well in your house.

figs july 2014

Jamie Oliver’s “Sexiest Salad in the World”

I just can’t resist Jamie Oliver. While searching for his pappardelle with leeks recipe (not available online) for inspiration last week, I stumbled on this recipe for the sexiest salad in the world (who could resist that?). Figs, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and basil – what’s not to love here?

Creamy Pappardelle with Leeks and Bacon

So the basic pasta dough recipe is 1 cup flour (plain, semolina or a mix of the two) to 1 egg with a bit of water, if needed, to bind. About four of each, eggs and cups of flour, will yield a pound of pasta. My favorite pasta recipe is from Deborah Madison’s The Greens Cookbook, but sadly none of her recipes are available online. Here’s a good one from David Lebovitz, and another from Mario Batali. And although we took Jamie Oliver’s leeks and pappardelle recipe in our own unique direction, this recipe from Bon Appetit is definitely similar (and has the bonus of bacon).

Yukon Golds and green beans july 2014

Braised Short Ribs | Yukon Gold Mashed Potatoes

As a treat to ourselves a couple of neighbors and I went, without husbands, to Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen several weeks ago. Although the restaurant has been open for years, I rarely venture that far outside of Midtown (sad, but true), and I’d never been. But the chefs were part of  last fall’s Outstanding in the Field dinner, and their course (duck with ham over polenta) was my favorite of the meal. I can’t say enough good things about the meal at AMIK – expensive, and worth every penny. When I told Bernard about it, he got hung up on the fact that I had the short ribs. (“You hate ribs.” “Yeah, I know. But, dear God these were divine.”) So I bought their cookbook, Collards & Carbonara, which is wonderful for the stories and photographs alone. Sadly the short ribs recipe isn’t there, so I’ve had to go on a quest. This recipe from Food and Wine is next on my list to try – obviously not on a working weeknight. I’ll serve with mashed potatoes (Yukon Golds from Tubby Creek at this week’s market), since I don’t have the patience to make real polenta.

Tomato Variety July 2014

Cheese Grits | Tomato Salad

I don’t have the patience to make real polenta, so cheese grits will have to do. Here’s a slightly different approach, using chicken stock and only a bit of cream. (Note the accompanying recipe for barbecued shrimp, which looks pretty tasty). Tomatoes are still coming in, so I’ll serve the grits with this simple Greek-style salad.

Pissaladière

The only criticism I have for this recipe is that it doesn’t keep as well for leftovers as I had hoped – it’s really best right out of the oven. The real gem, however, is the dough recipe. It’s light, tasty and versatile. I cut it in half and topped one portion per directions with the onion/anchovy/olive mix for Bernard and me (even Bernard loved it); the other half I topped with marinara and grated cheese for my children. I was out of arugula, which I had planned to use, so I made a simple romaine salad with buttermilk dressing.

 

Tales of 4th grade everything.

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4th grade cookbook

Fourth grade was my favorite year of school either because Mrs. Rutherford, whom I adored, was my teacher or because Mrs. Rutherford read to us, among many other books, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, one of my favorite books of all time, ever.

Looking back, I should have loved 4th grade for its being the last year of a certain elementary innocence. 4th grade then, and mostly still now, was the final room in the house of childhood magic, where dollhouses weren’t yet fully shuttered and Santa Claus still visited most of the occupants. Romances were starting to look interesting in 4th grade, but in a faraway sense. Boys were still icky and gross, mostly. And we were still silly girls who signed each other’s yearbooks with notes like, “I hope your life is as long as toilet paper.”

The most significant rite of passage for me in 4th grade was receiving my first “F,” given for a music assignment on which I failed to use a ruler to draw the treble clef. I was crushed, inconsolable. My mother, after a quick conversation with Mrs. Rutherford, said something to the effect of life has some real nut-jobs, and you should do your best to ignore them.

One day in late spring, near the end of the year when 5th grade and health class became looming realities, an enterprising classmate scribbled the word fuck on a table in the back of Mrs. Rutherford’s room. I asked a friend the meaning of that word, a word I wouldn’t hear spoken aloud until college, and she drew me a picture that I wish I had kept. A 4th grade view of adulthood is most entertaining indeed.

yeast rolls

What I did keep, or rather what my mother kept that I would later inherit and also keep, was the cookbook my 4th grade classmates and I made for our mothers for Mother’s Day. We each submitted a favorite recipe, careful that there were no two entries for popular fare like tuna casserole (Lee Vining), meatloaf (Darcy Clarendon) and Tang Tea (Ginger Walton). Our resident gourmets, Tempe and Vance, contributed family secrets for preparing chocolate pots de crème and mayonnaise, respectively. I’d share those treasures with you here, but some things must remain sacred.

We diligently cut, sorted and assembled the fragrant mimeographed pages, finished with hand drawn illustrations, all under Mrs. Rutherford’s watchful eye. Even then Mother’s Day presents were largely dependent upon teachers. We wrapped the books carefully, in white tissue if I remember correctly, and waited excitedly until the day we could deliver our labors of love.

“Oh! Are you going to be a chef when you grow up?” my mother exclaimed, feigning surprise as she opened her gift to which she’d knowingly contributed.

“No, I’m going to be a movie star and live in Hollywood in a house with white carpets and white furniture and a swimming pool the color of the ocean. But you can live in the guest house and be my cook. That way we can still be together.”

Happy week.

This post was inspired by the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge: Leftovers. To learn more about blogging with WordPress and find tips for writing, visit wordpress.com.

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Food | Week of July 14, 2014

market harvest july 2014

In keeping with the leftovers theme, this week I’ll be using some leftovers from last week’s farmers market haul, namely the delicious onions. Tomatoes are at their peak for the spring/summer planting, so we’ll have two different pasta dishes, one of which (the one with fresh tomatoes) is also good cold.

Pissaladière

This recipe from Saveur calls for more onions than many other recipes do, which is why I like it. If you want to save time, you can use frozen puff pastry dough instead of making the dough. The trick is not to rush the onions when cooking, or they’ll end up bitter instead of sweet. An arugula salad is good on the side, if you can still find arugula. Add some figs, if those are available yet.

Fresh Corn Soufflé

We like corn just boiled and buttered, right from the cob. But it’s also good in baked dishes like this soufflé, which has the added yum of bacon. Steamed green beans with a mustard vinaigrette makes a good accompaniment for this rich dish.

Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes

Roasting tomatoes gives them a deeper flavor and enhances their sweetness. If I buy too many at the market, I’ll roast, bag and freeze so they don’t go to waste. This simple dish is easy to prepare and also easy to modify if you prefer a different herb (or combination of fresh herbs) instead of basil.

Fresh Tomato Pasta

You’re thinking: “two tomato/pasta dishes in one week? really?” Yes, really. This recipe from Williams-Sonoma tastes good cold, so you can eat leftovers for lunch the next day. I also like to substitute feta for the Parmesan, which gives it an entirely different flavor.

Grilled Sausage | Refrigerator Pickles

This dinner may have to wait until the following week, if you don’t have a stash of refrigerator pickles handy. We have been making a jar or two each week for the past several, and we vary the recipe from week to week. If you’re never made refrigerator pickles (so easy – not at all like traditional pickling and canning), then here’s a good place to start. Serve with some grilled sausage and sharp mustard.

 

 

If Laura and Hillary were pals.

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likeagirl

I’ve been thinking about the war among women and our deepening factions. We who question Jill Abramson’s firing. We who think women belong at home. We #YesAllWomen sign carriers. We who snap photos of other mothers’ bad parenting and send them to police hotlines. We who are pro life, and we pro choice. Anne Lamott and Ann Coutler fans alike.

Remember, if you’re old enough, how it felt to see the pictures of Reagan and Gorbachev together? Ok, so maybe you’re not as old as I am (and for you youngsters, here’s a link that will help). But if you are, then you’ll remember, I know you will.  Even if you, like me, weren’t exactly in sync with the Reagan regime, you’ll remember that little flutter of hope that sprang from seeing a picture of two old men, representing bitter enemies, now shaking hands and smiling. Human. If they could talk and laugh without spitting on each other, then maybe all was not lost.

And so I was thinking: what if Laura and Hillary were pals? Not BFF “let’s go for Mojitos” pals, just two women, from opposite sides of a chasm, sharing the public spotlight and making an effort to show genuine respect and admiration for one another despite, or maybe because of, their significant differences.

What if they, as women, recognized that they shared more challenges than not, even living in diametrically opposed camps, decorated with contrasting colors. What if they conceded, together and out in the open, that the dilemmas women face as women today are vast and complex and without easy answers. What if they just agreed on the situation, shook hands on the shared principle that women supporting women matters. Maybe they’d even record their own #likeagirl video, because Lord knows the two of them know how to run and kick and fight like Olympic champions.

If two women so unlike could claim just one piece of common ground and stand on it, publicly, together, then maybe that would give the rest of us hope that under all the nasty bickering and name calling we women are all still human, all doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

What if Laura and Hillary were pals?

On second thought, what if the rest of us just lay down our proverbial weapons, tamed our words and showed those two former First Ladies how to broker lasting peace on the ponytail-pulling battlefield. That power belongs to us alone. Using it would be the truest declaration of our collective strength.

Happy week.

******

Food | Week of July 7, 2014

summer eggplant

In a declaration of my own independence, at least in my house, I’ll be making eggplant caponata this week, a dish no one in my family will touch. And since they won’t touch it, no matter how I make it, I’ll be using the very strange but very delicious recipe from Todd English’s 1997 The Olives Table cookbook.  I’d forgotten about The Olives Table and its bad boy author – good cookbook, naughty chef. For this week’s line-up I would share some other recipes from that re-discovered treasure (chorizo mashed potatoes with scallion cream, tomato salad with feta cheese and cumin, and corn cakes with whipped goat cheese would all have made the list), but sadly the caponata seems to be the only recipe from that book that is available online. So I turned to the tables at the farmers market for ideas, and here’s what looked inspiring:

Eggplant Caponata | Grilled Bread | Green Salad

Since this caponata is much heavier than other recipes (because of the sausage), it’s easily a main dish on its own. And since it’s full of flavor, it really needs nothing special other than bread (I like to grill it, or at least toast lightly) and a green salad.

Shrimp and Sausage Stew

This recipe is an experiment for the week, inspired by three things at the market this week: shrimp, andouille,  and celery. And it lets me use the last remaining bag of lima beans from the freezer before this year’s harvest starts rolling in.

Green BeansTomato Variety July 2014Okra

Green Beans | Okra | Roasted New Potato Salad

Fresh green beans are good just about any way you prepare them, as long as they’re not overcooked. Here’s a recipe from Real Simple for green beans with an easy mustard dressing. Although many people don’t like the slime of boiled okra (that would be people who are missing out on good okra, in my opinion), here’s a recipe for roasting that eliminates that particular quality. For the potatoes, I cut them into bite-sized pieces, toss in olive oil and some seasoning (salt, pepper, Herbes de Provence)  and roast at 370 degrees for about 25-30 minutes – until they’re crisp on the edges and tender inside. I’ll let them cool, slightly, then toss with thinly sliced fresh onion rounds and dressing (usually olive oil, vinegar, brown mustard and a pinch of sugar). Pickles or celery pieces (or both) are also good.

Tomato Pie | Grilled Corn on the Cob

It isn’t summer until I’ve had a tomato sandwich and made a tomato pie. The tomato sandwiches have been lunch every day for a week, so now it’s time for a pie. Here’s a recipe for the classic Southern version (from Southern Living, of course). Serve with some fresh corn (here’s a link to Bobby Flay’s instruction for grilling) and maybe something green (or not). NOTE: homemade crust is only better than store-bought if you know how to make pie crust. Seriously. And while it’s really not hard to learn to make a proper crust, it does take practice and suffering through a few unpleasant, tough-tasting results. There are plenty of crusts available at the store, and they work just fine for tomato pie. It’s summer; don’t stress over this.

 

An embarrassment of parents.

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camp swim test

I dreaded the mornings when my father drove my third grade carpool. Daddy, whose one-time party boy reputation was unknown to me at the time, insisted on listening to WEZI, the easy listening station that played nothing more radical than instrumental Perry Como covers. He would hum along, occasionally opening the window to spit, the way men do. He would stand for no stronger language than “golly,” and he was quick to bark at any violator. Insult to injury, he often brought with him a cup of foul-smelling bouillon that he called breakfast.

Daddy was the designated morning driver because he was a morning person, he was headed to work anyway, and he drove an Oldsmobile Cutlass, a 4-door model that had, in 1974, room for a driver and five passengers, two in the front, three in the back.

My mother, who must have swapped her Mustang with him at some point during the day, drove the afternoon run. To her credit, she would switch the radio to a station playing popular music, but she liked to sing along. And she didn’t know how to tell funny jokes and stories like Mary’s mother did, so it was only a marginal improvement from the morning mortification.

When I moved on to 4th grade my mother, who began driving both morning and afternoon runs since my sister started kindergarten, traded her sports car for a vintage 1968 Lincoln Continental, green with a black top and the suicide doors that opened from the middle. “You’re driving me to school in THAT?!” I shrieked. The idea was horrifying, truly horrifying. I wanted to leave carpool, ride the back way to school, get dropped off on Ridgeway Road and walk the long path up to campus so no one would see me. But carpool continued, and the weekly spectacle of my mother’s “green monster” was a source of ongoing disgrace.

The carpool violations were just warning shots, indicators of what would come during middle school, teens and 20s. My father’s plaid pants and nylon shirts, in mis-matched color schemes. My mother’s arriving at school with loud flourish and a bouquet of flowers, but on the wrong day for awards. Inappropriate non-sequiturs. Public displays of emotion. Whistles during curtain calls.

I could chronicle all of the terribly uncool things my parents did, from how they dressed to the way they talked to my friends. But such a detailing would exceed the word count of War and Peace. Besides, you know them anyway – if not in the specifics of my personal experience, then likely in the reality of your own.

If there were a collective noun for the adults entrusted with child rearing, surely embarrassment would be it. A congregation of alligators. A drunkenship of cobblers. An embarrassment of parents. What word would better fit the group of people who, without any encouragement, will bust out Y-M-C-A moves in the middle of a school field trip or serenade sleepover guests with songs from Wicked. (Yes, I have done both of these things, in this calendar year alone, much to my daughter’s chagrin.)

I am, in spades, the embarrassment to my own children that my mother was to me. It’s a scourge they believe belongs to them alone, because they are too young to know that every active parent, no matter how attentive, popular or competent, is at some point an embarrassment to his or her child.

It’s a gift that comes with aging, this realization that all children see their parents as doofuses, the recognition that the cool kids’ cool parents were just as embarrassing to them as the uncool parents were to the uncool kids. No one was immune, nor will anyone ever be. With this realization comes the additional understanding that such tender feelings of self-consciousness can arise only from love, deep and unbreakable. It’s why Greg Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is so poignantly funny, laying bare the indignity of adolescence, the awkwardness of parental dis-composure, and the eternal truth of a uniquely challenging bond.

To every parent who has accidentally left home wearing clothes inside out, cat-called too loudly at a school assembly, walked up the movie theater aisle on the pretense of a restroom visit, or forced wearing of a dreaded UPF50 swim shirt: We, the Embarrassment, salute you. Long may our ranks prosper.

To every child, young or old, still sighing and eye-rolling and dreading the inevitable continuation of mild humiliation: may you see, before it’s too late, that one day you’ll look back upon the Embarrassment as the greatest richness you ever knew.

Happy week.

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Food | Week of June 30, 2014

market harvest june 2014

This week we’ll enjoy cabbage slaw with grilled chicken, tomato sandwiches, roasted potato salad, green salad with blackberries & peaches, and corn relish – simple summer fare while the season’s high.

Green Cabbage-Feta Slaw | Grilled Chicken

This is an easy slaw that I make often, and that I’ve posted before, I think. Top with sliced grilled chicken and maybe some grilled bread:

Green Cabbage Slaw

  • 1 head green cabbage, shredded
  • 1 bunch green scallions, shredded
  • 1 small white onion, sliced into thin half rounds
  • 1 package Feta cheese (solid or crumbled)
  • Vinegar
  • Vegetable oil
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Black pepper

In a large glass bowl combine cabbage, scallions, onion and Feta.  In a glass measuring cup mix vinegar (I use apple cider) and vegetable oil, about 1:2 (1/4 c. vinegar to 1/2 c. oil, for example).  Add sugar and salt (about 1 tsp. each), then black pepper to taste (I like a hefty dose of fresh, coarsely ground mixed peppercorns).  Since cabbage sizes can vary, the amount of dressing you’ll need will also vary; you’ll need enough to coat the greens, but not so much that they’re drowning.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes; it will improve with time, and the cabbage will soften after a day.

Tomato Sandwiches

A tomato sandwich is essence of summer to me. There’s no wrong way to make a tomato sandwich. You can go fancy, with basil mayonnaise or strips of bacon if you want. I like the base model, however: thick tomato slices with a bit of salt and pepper, layered between two slices of white bread (I like sourdough or potato bread), each coated with Duke’s mayonnaise. You can serve with chips or green salad. Or you can serve two sandwiches per person and call it good. (Yes, this is my preference. How did you know?)

Roasted Potato Salad | Grilled Sausage

Cut small red or fingerling potatoes into bite-sized chunks, toss with olive oil and salt, spread on a baking sheet and roast at 370-400 degrees until the edges are crisp (20-25 minutes). Let them cool, then toss in a bowl with onion (scallions or a small yellow onion, thinly sliced) and either vinaigrette (you know I like Brianna’s) or mayonnaise. Season with salt, pepper and herbs, to taste. Serve with some simple grilled sausages and hearty mustard.

blackberries june 2014

Greens with Fruit, Cheese & Nuts

It’s impossible to list all of the combinations for this type of salad – it’s truly a mix-what-you-like endeavor. If you need some suggestions for combinations, Mark Bittman’s are the easiest to follow. I let the fruit (either dried or fresh) macerate for an hour or so in the dressing before tossing everything together. Serve with a hearty, whole-grain country bread.

Lamb Sliders | Corn Relish

I make lamb burgers the way I make beef or turkey burgers, which is to say relatively un-embellished. I’ll mix the meat with salt, pepper and some dried oregano and cook in a cast iron skillet. For a different twist, this recipe from Giada, of whom I’m not usually a fan, is also good and basic. It’s a nice approach if you’re serving people who aren’t big fans of lamb. Note also that lamb from a local farmer usually tastes different (better, by far) than lamb from a conventional grocery. For corn relish, I’ll usually roast fresh kernels (again, in a bit of oil at 370 degrees) then toss with diced jalapeños, diced sweet red pepper, red wine vinegar, salt and a pinch of sugar. Chopped cilantro or parsley also works well in the relish, but it doesn’t keep as well with addition of either.

12 articles of faith for a Memphis believer.

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Life on the Mississippi, Memphis, April 2012

I am a converted believer in Memphis, my hometown, the place I vowed never to live after turning 18. It wasn’t some great epiphany. Like many conversions, it was subtle and happened while I wasn’t paying attention.

If, generally speaking, places have a way of growing on a person, then Memphis is the kudzu of places: wild, seamy, tangled and invading with relentless consumption. Go ahead, call us a weed. Resistance is futile, you’ll see.

Like kudzu, in a bad way, Memphis sprawled through annexation over the last 40 years. Done is done. But like kudzu, in a good way, the heart of Memphis has also grown thick with vine runners holding together what otherwise might have eroded.

Dial back time and tell 1999 Jennifer that’s she’ll write this post; she’ll call you nasty names. But while she was busy reading her New York Times, pining to return to life at higher altitude, those renegade tendrils wound their way around her, the unlikeliest of converts, and pulled her to the pews of the Memphis faithful. They turned her into me.

Now as I reflect on 15 years of living in Memphis (hard to believe I’ve written that), I can point to a handful of things that inspired my eventual conversion. Looking back, I see them as true articles of faith, proof of a place where unlikely magic can happen.

12 Articles of Faith for a Memphis Believer:Rocky the Redbird

  1. AutoZone Park (Memphis Redbirds). Like Annie Savoy in Bull Durham, I believe in the church of baseball. But that’s not what earned Baseball America‘s 2009 “Minor League Park of the Year” top spot on my list. AutoZone Park did, in 2000, what 20 years of downtown development couldn’t do in a sustainable way: bring families back to the city core. Honestly, I never, ever believed that would happen.
  2. Memphis Grizzlies. believe memphisMy late mother was devastated when my PR firm was hired for the NBA Now pursuit team and then to represent the public building authority that oversaw construction of FedExForum. “Sweaty boys in undershirts” was my prim mother’s description of basketball, a sport she hated her entire life. But, Mama, despite your disdain the Grizzlies have ignited a fierce and gap-bridging loyalty in Memphis. They’ve rallied the congregation by being (let’s keep it going here) the kudzu team of the NBA. Spurs can trim the vine, but they can’t keep it from growing back stronger. Plus the Grizzlies are the believe memphis progenitor. Can’t really ignore that.
  3. PistacheMemphis Farmers Market. Sometimes it takes an outsider to engender faith. A byproduct of bringing the Grizzlies to town (yes, really), the downtown Memphis Farmers Market put a fashionable storefront on local farming, summoning pride among dirt diggers who’d been pulling crops from Delta soil for years. Markets that pre-dated MFM have grown, and new markets have spawned in the MFM’s wake of cool. Some of those spinoffs are working to address food deserts in Memphis, a problem no one was paying attention to 10 years ago even though it was just as bad. I believe we might actually fix it, and show the world how in the process. (And, to you regular readers: yes, the Cooper Young Farmers Market is still, and always, my personal choice for farmers markets. But MFM revolutionized farmers markets in Memphis, and there’s just no denying it.)
  4. AC Wharton’s election. Although critics chastise his consensus-building approach, AC (as the people’s mayor is known to everyone locally) changed the tone of public conversation in Memphis. Acknowledging my bias (I worked for him when he was Shelby County Mayor), AC makes me believe that civil discourse is still possible, even in Memphis, even in the age of ridiculous partisan bickering. And despite continued pressure from business, community and political camps, he will not bend to anyone else’s mold, a quality I admire and respect.Kelly English sweet potato pots de creme
  5. Kelly English. Full disclosure, because some of you who know me know this already: If I could pick only one Memphis chef to prepare my last meal, it would be Erling Jensen (he stole my palate before you moved to town, Kelly; it can’t be helped). But Kelly English, a Food and Wine Best New Chef of 2009, is my pick for game-changing local chef. He’s the guy who can make anyone believe Memphis belongs on the national map of both hot and haute cuisine. To boot he’s also a one-man Hall of Justice, ready to tackle the Joker and Lex Luthor at the same time. (You have to live here to understand that one; sorry.) And the cocktails at Restaurant Iris are just as, um, formidable as the food. Really, I may have to rethink that Erling Jensen thing.
  6. Friends forFirst canoe race Our Riverfront. Embrace progress, but don’t mess with the natives: that’s how I would sum up Friends for Our Riverfront, the grassroots group working to preserve the Mississippi riverfront as a public greenspace, protected from overzealous development and unnaturally cultured place-making. Small but mighty, they make me believe that David can still take Goliath.
  7. Broad Avenue Arts District. Like Friends for Our Riverfront, the Broad Avenue Arts District is proof of the marvel of grassroots activism. When Sam Cooper Blvd. was moved, Broad was cut off like an oxbow lake. So residents, local businesses and general do-gooders took charge, played up its existing assets, painted their own bikes lanes, and made it into a cool, quirky, thriving arts district, sort of without help. Even Guy Fieri has been to visit.
  8. The new LeBonheur hospital. So, it’s great, really great, to have a world-class children’s hospital in your city. Greater still to have two of them (counting St. Jude). But LeBonheur Children’s Hospital makes my list not because having a children’s hospital is great, but because keeping children front and center makes everyone believe there’s a future. Drive west on Poplar Avenue, and the most prominent icon on the skyline is the bright red heart at the top of the LeBonheur tower. The heart of the city; I love that.
  9. Overton Park Conservancy. Yeah, I know. Shelby Farms (also in Memphis) is the largest urban park in the U.S. And the conservancy to protect Shelby Farms was also created in the last 15 years. But commitment to an enormous greenspace in the most affluent corridor of Shelby County just doesn’t inspire the believer in me the way the Overton Park Conservancy does. Overton Park 5 Mile ClassicOverton Park was the Shelby Farms of Memphis back in the city’s heyday. So important was the park to city residents that they fought, and won, a decades-long battle to prevent I-40 from taking the land as highway right-of-way. The conviction and commitment remain strong, now reinvigorated by the formation of the Conservancy. When I look at what’s happened in Detroit over the last 10 years, I see hope for Memphis because of a resilient corps remains unwilling to let the inner city fail. Believe that all is not lost, ever.
  10. Levitt Shell. Free concerts in a beautiful outdoor setting (Overton Park). Family friendly. Great entertainment line up (tonight it’s Rosanne Cash). Did I mention free? What’s not to like about the Levitt Shell? (Except maybe the parking, until the zoo gets its act together and builds a multi-story garage.) Sometimes it takes just a single person’s planting a seed to sow a full garden of believers. Really full. As in totally and completely overflowing, every night.
  11. Overton Square. Midtown Memphis was the entertainment epicenter in the 1970s, when downtown Memphis was all but abandoned. Then Overton Square, 70s party central, died its own (almost) death in the late 1990s. Hearing the bell toll a few years ago a discount grocer moved to replace the iconic 70s Overton Square retail facade with a surface parking lot, and a few die-hard Memphians got their hackles up. In a good way. One of them anted up, put a substantial investment in redevelopment, and made a silk purse from a sow’s ear. (Ok, it’s an abbreviated version, but that’s the net of it.) Believe in the power of resurrection.
  12. Tennessee Brewery Untapped. Tennessee Brewery April 2014“Hey,” a couple of guys said one day, “here’s an idea: how about we pull together a crazy, spontaneous, vibrant effort to save the historic Tennessee Brewery building by creating a six-week pop-up biergarten?” Hell, why not? When you believe, you believe: Tennessee Brewery Untapped.

If you’re a local, then you’ve probably got at least a dozen more articles of your own Memphis faith to add. There are scores of them, to be sure; so please post a comment and build the list. These 12 are the ones dearest to me, the vines that reached my heart and made me a believer.

If you’re not from Memphis, come see for yourself and take stock – it will be like a scavenger hunt and pilgrimage at the same time. After all, we gave birth to the place that puts ice cream in snow cones; how could you not love us? Just watch out for the kudzu, or you might wrapped up and start calling this home.

As my friend Dan Conaway would say, I’m a Memphian. And I believe.

Happy week.

********

Food | Week of June 16, 2014

It’s full on summer now, time to suspend the dinner schedule and shift to preparing foods that keep well and can be served whenever everyone feels like coming inside.

True Vine celeryCold Cucumber Soup

In a blender, puree 2 large fresh cucumbers (peeled and seeded) about 1/4 of a white onion, some fresh dill, celery flakes and 2-3 cups buttermilk; salt to taste. Chill several hours; will keep, wrapped and in a glass container, for several days in the refrigerator.

Creole Shrimp Salad (adapted from the Woman’s Exchange Cook Book, 1964)

Boil, peel, devein and coarsely chop about 3 lbs. fresh shrimp; place in a large glass bowl or container. Chop 2-3 stalks celery, some white onion or shallots, and a handful of green olives; stir together with shrimp. Mix 1/4 c. mayonnaise (or Greek style yogurt), 1/2 c. Creole mustard, 2-3 Tbsp. olive oil and a dash of white wine vinegar. Pour dressing over shrimp, stir and chill for several hours.

Pasta Salad

Boil a box of rotini according to package directions; drain and set aside. Coarsely chop 2-3 stalks celery, 1 bunch fresh scallions (or garlic scapes), a can of black olives and EITHER summer sausage OR cooked (or canned) tuna. Stir pasta, chopped vegetables and sausage (or tuna) with about 1/2 c. mayonnaise in a large glass bowl. Add some lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Keeps for several days. Warning: if your people are like my people (even my children) then they will snack on this salad all day long, and it will disappear quickly. Make lots.

tomato harvestSummer Grazing Platter

On a large platter, arrange lightly steamed green beans (I toss with butter and salt while they’re still warm; I’m Southern that way), fresh cherry/grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, sliced bell peppers, raw carrots and hummus that you either make yourself (here’s a good basic recipe) or that you buy (no judging; it’s summer). Sometimes I’ll put the platter, with some bread and/or crackers, on the counter and just let everyone snack.

Poached Chicken | Green Salad

Poach several pounds of chicken breasts (it’s easy; here’s a good primer if you need one), and you’ll have it for impromptu chicken salad, club sandwiches, or chopping up and tossing into some pasta. Make a batch of Ina Garten’s Buttermilk Ranch dressing, and you’ll be really set for the week, especially if you’ve got a head of fresh lettuce from the local market.

Today’s post was inspired mostly by Memphis but also in part by the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, Worlds Colliding. Find out more about blogging with WordPress at http://wordpress.com.

All words and images belong to me, Jennifer Balink. If you want to use a pic, please ask; I share with people who are nice.

Hey, dude, where’s my menu?

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Hey, dude, I’m on vacation! But not to fear, here’s a story I posted last summer complete with a menu that takes full advantage of what’s at the market right now, pick of the season.

happy week.

Blackberry Summer (originally published 7.20.13)

summer harvest july 2013

My mother’s parents were farmers, and their farm had everything from peanuts to peaches. They also had blackberry bushes, the harvest of which was my mother’s least favorite activity. My mother had fragile alabaster skin, and walking through the blackberry brush left her looking like she’d rolled in a barbed wire fence. At least that’s what she said. My mother wasn’t really cut out for farming.

I spent the summer between fourth and fifth grades with my grandparents, sleeping in the bed that my mother and her sister shared, nestled under a white chenille cover that had also been theirs. My grandparents’ house wasn’t air conditioned, and we kept schedule accordingly, rising at 5 for breakfast, heading out to pick green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, greens and corn before it got too hot. After dinner (lunch) it was reading and resting time, sitting by a fan to take the edge off the heat. We would go back out when the sun started to set.

My grandfather tried, unsuccessfully, to teach me how to recognize a tree from 100 yards away. “That’s a catalpa,” he would said, and I’d nod not having any idea what he was talking about. He told me the story of how he had grafted together yellow and white peach trees to make the sweetest and most wonderful peaches, hoping the nerd in me would be interested in the science. He showed me the blackberry patch that my mother hated, by then almost overtaken with kudzu. I wasn’t as tender skinned as my mother, having gotten my father’s tougher olive coating, but I quickly understood her hesitation.

My grandmother tried to teach me about canning and freezing, which were often the activities of the afternoon. There was far too much harvest to eat every day, and preserving it for the winter was a priority. They lived miles from the nearest grocery but wouldn’t have bought Birdseye or DelMonte anyway. They lived on what they grew, and they tried their best to teach me how.

tomatillas july 2013

I wasn’t cut out for farming either. I didn’t like getting dirty and sweaty or dealing with bugs and worms. I had no appreciation for the gift of that summer, eating food picked fresh that morning, being cared for by old country people who loved me more than words could ever have described. I wanted food that came in tidy packages, neatly served on handsome plates, but I tried to be polite. After the first few weeks my grandmother knew I would rather read than go in the fields with her, so she took to her chores alone and let me work my way through their entire collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed volumes, 10 shelves’ worth. They loved me anyway, farmer or not.

I think of my grandparents every Saturday morning at the farmers’ market. I think about what it takes to cultivate and harvest and bring to market a week’s yield. I see the smiling faces of the growers showing off to city shoppers armed with reusable shopping bags, and I am humbly grateful.

***

When school starts back, we’ll return to weekly menus. For now we’re still having a tapas summer, snacking and grazing and lazily content.

Happy week.

jennyslark food week of july 22

Food

Week of July 22| 2013

mint and blackberries Blackberry CrispWash 3-4 cups fresh blackberries and let them dry a bit on paper towels. Toss with about 1 Tbsp. flour and 2-3 Tbsp. white sugar. Place in a round or square Pyrex dish. Mix ½ c. flour and 6 Tbsp. brown sugar (I’ve used white by accident, and it turned out fine). Add a pinch of cinnamon if desired. Cut in ½ stick cold butter. Sprinkle crumble mix over blackberries. Bake at 375° for about 30 minutes. Serve with vanilla ice cream and fresh mint.

tomatoes

Tomato SaladCut 3-4 large tomatoes into wedges, or halve some cherry tomatoes (about a quart). Thinly slice a fist-size white onion. Cut a good sized cucumber into half moons (if you get a fresh, unwaxed cucumber you may not have to peel – taste it first). Cut 3-4 ounces sharp white cheddar into cubes (can also use feta). Combine all ingredients in large glass bowl. Whisk together ½ c olive oil and ¼ cup red wine vinegar; pour over tomato mix and let stand for about 30 minutes. Spoon onto platter or shallow, wide serving bowl; sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper to taste.
squash and zucchini Oven Roasted ZucchiniSlice zucchini vertically, about ¼ inch thick. Toss with good olive oil and kosher salt and place in single layer on a baking sheet. Preheat oven to 450°. Place zucchini in oven and immediately turn heat down to 375°. Roast for about 20 minutes, until it is slightly browned.

blanket flowers

Corn SaladCut corn off cob (4-6 ears). Toss in a hot cast iron skillet until slightly browned. Place in a large glass bowl. Dice 1-2 red bell peppers, a fist-sized red onion, and a cucumber (seeded and peeled, if peel is bitter). Wash and chop a bunch of cilantro (or mix of herbs in season). Whisk together juice from 1-2 limes and about ½ c. olive oil, stir in cilantro and toss vegetables to coat. Salt to taste. Can add black beans to salad and serve with green salad and bread as dinner meal. This is probably our one dinner table meal of the week, and we’ll celebrate by cutting some flowers and using a real table cloth.

eggplant

Eggplant CaponataStem, slice and salt 2-3 fresh eggplant. While eggplant are draining, slice 1-2 red onions into thin half rounds, dice 3-4 stalks celery, and dice 4-6 large tomatoes. Heat some olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan. Cook onions until wilted, add celery then a few minutes later add tomatoes. Stir in a handful golden raisins, a half a jar of capers, and coarsely chopped olives; let simmer while you dry and cube the eggplant. Cook eggplant separately in olive oil for about 10 minutes then stir into tomato mix. Add a couple of shakes of red wine vinegar, a good pinch of sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Let simmer until liquid is reduced. Let cool to room temp and serve with bread. No, my people won’t eat this. But I will. It’s yummy.
copyright 2013 jennifer balink

 

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