Life, without instructions.

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.


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.



  1. Oh, for the evening we had a dinner party at our house and a last minute babysitter cancellation. We found a friend’s neighbors, a high school boy and his middle school sister, to watch our then 1, 2, 2 and 4 year old children. The next morning? Three out of four diapers were on backwards or had come entirely off. And I’d written directions… But not for that. A lovely post.


  2. Does it make me sound like a stalker to ask: Did we have the exact same younger life? I, too, was a babysitting queen. And was always amazed that people would leave me (with beer and cigarettes and boyfriends and all other ’70s accoutrements only slightly hidden from view) with their tiny children. Even then, I was amazed by the people who would call and say: “I’ve called EVERYONE else. You HAVE to help me!” But you’re right. Everybody mostly turned out ok. Judgment reserved as to how the overly protected ones of recent years will.

    Wait … do you have figs at your farmers’ market? I’m really jealous. We never find them here.


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