The moon is like China.

the moon is like china

Either because our mother was a writer or, more likely, because we were born this way, my sister and I have always been comfortable with abstraction. More than comfortable, actually. Abstract is our preference; when things get too literal, we start to feel itchy. As a result we’re both pretty good at offering interpretive solutions and completely inept at keeping yard maintenance routines. We’re the kind of people who can read recipes, envision how they’ll taste and decide to use them for dinner; but we’ll likely neglect to confirm we have all the required ingredients and equipment before we start cooking. You get the idea.

One day, many years ago, we were riding in the car and my sister, staring out the window, said, “the moon is like China,” and as I pondered what that might mean she turned to me and explained, “I never want to visit either place.” And we laughed, because I understood perfectly, and from then on “the moon is like China” became a code phrase that we would use for all sorts of situations, usually when we found ourselves surrounded by extreme literal thinkers who made us feel itchy. That phrase was just one in our large (and still growing) book of secret language, my sister’s and mine, developed through a bond that is unique to oddballs like us.

We were never, either of us, like the rest of the kids we grew up with. Our parents were older than the other parents, and they, our mother in particular, were always a bit unconventional, never fitting in completely with their peers. They were oddball parents, and we were their 1970s oddball children, and at the risk of making too much of things that might seem silly and superficial, we oddball children might have felt entirely disconnected from the world around us if not for one another, and for Kermit and Mork.

Our mother was a writer and a musician and an intellectual, but she nevertheless allowed us to watch plenty of TV. We didn’t have cable, so the offerings were limited to things like Little House on the Prairie and Happy Days and, in the afternoons, re-runs of I Love Lucy and The Beverly Hillbillies.

Given the five years between us and the fact that we had only one small television, Margaret and I had to compromise on the afternoon viewing because she wanted to watch The Electric Company and I wanted to watch Hogan’s Heroes. This is why she is now a medical doctor and I am a spin doctor.

We alternated shows in a way that I don’t remember fighting about, although I suspect we were then very much like my own children are now and that we fought mightily.

The Muppet Show was Margaret’s show, which she watched from a position very close to the TV, sitting Indian style (this is what we called it in the 70s) on the floor while I sat in our father’s turquoise vinyl recliner and pretended to do my homework. She would marvel over the Muppets, and I would tell her, from my armchair position, that I knew all about those Muppets because I remembered the very first Sesame Street episode ever. I was a pain-in-the-ass older sister whom Margaret often referred to as Miss Piggy.

It was hard not to love those goofy displaced Muppets, the ultimate cast of oddballs, Kermit in particular. And it was equally hard, a couple of years later, not to love Mork when he landed from outer space as Laverne’s blind date and made such an impression that he got his own show.

For children too young to digest The Catcher in the Rye, The Muppet Show and Mork & Mindy provided a kind of affirming assurance for kids who didn’t fit the norm. “You think you’re weird? Watch this!” they offered. So we watched, and we laughed, and in the subtlest way we felt a little more at ease, a little less alien, even if we didn’t fully realize it at the time.

I remember the day Jim Henson died. I was driving home from work, speeding along Sam Cooper Boulevard, and listening the All Things Considered, and weeping like a baby as they played “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” and knowing that voice, the real Kermit, was gone. Sure someone else could imitate the cadence and keep the character alive, but that voice, the wisdom of the knowing outsider, was gone. I felt much the same way when I learned Robin Williams had died.

Events over the past few weeks, in the U.S. and abroad, have provided ample opportunity for reflection about what it means to fit in, to belong, to be accepted. In many parts of the world today, if you don’t fit in then you might be subject to ethnic cleansing or persecution by drug lords, which might lead to untimely death. In other parts, the parts we call the civilized and democratized, if you don’t fit in then you might find yourself subject to racial profiling or isolation due to mental illness, either of which might lead to untimely death.

The lovers the dreamers and me, well we’d like to know exactly where that Rainbow Connection might be in these situations. Exactly where is that connection that might allow people – people who feel different and who are different – to accept one another, even maintaining our differences? Wait, I know: we’re it.

I can’t fix Ferguson or Iraq or the Urkraine or Ecuador or depression, and neither can you. But, at the risk of making too little out of something overwhelminingly large, I can reach, hand by hand, to people who feel disconnected by differences. I can teach my children that being together doesn’t mean being the same. I can listen for someone to tell me the moon is like China, and try to understand.

Happy week.


Food | Week of August 25, 2014

Swiss chard 2014

So, speaking of the 1970s, let’s talk about Stouffer’s spinach soufflé.

My mother, as many of you know, was a very good cook. She was the kind of cook who could whip up dinner of pork tenderloin with orange sauce and pilaf followed by chocolate soufflé for dessert that would leave everyone raving about her meal. One of her favorite things to make for cocktail parties was stuffed mushrooms, and she made them – I swear on my life – with Stouffer’s spinach soufflé. She, my mother the cook, tried mightily to replicate that green marvel, all to no avail. I took up her quest when she died, and my most recent attempt is based on David Tanis’s spinach cake recipe from A Dinner of Figs. Tanis’s recipe, adapted, also appears on David Lebovitz’s blog, and that’s the one I’m sharing this week. (And yes, I know that’s Swiss chard and not spinach in the picture; I couldn’t find local spinach, but I did find other greens, including chard, that are volunteering a second crop on local farms around here. And yes, you can use any green instead of spinach for the cake.)

And since I’m thinking about outsiders generally and David Lebovitz (American in Paris) specifically, I thought I might share several other of his recipes and encourage you, if you’re in the market for a new cookbook, to try My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories (link is to Amazon so you can see the book, but please buy from your local bookseller if you can). And if you follow DL’s blog and are interested about his book writing adventure versus blogging, here is a great interview with Dianne Jacob about that very thing.

Purple tomatoes August 2014Spinach Cake | Watermelon Salad

I followed this spinach cake recipe almost to the letter; the exception was that I put the leek/spinach mixture in the blender without the eggs/milk (leaving the top vented, of course), so I could taste it. I almost stopped at that point because the puree was so good I wanted to eat the entire batch. But I continued, and the result was delicious. I did bake mine in a rectangular Pyrex instead of a round deep-dish pie plate, which probably helped in the similarity to Souffer’s. Tanis recommends serving with an herb salad. I think some sauteed mushrooms and a watermelon salad fit the season better.

Tandoori Chicken | Chopped Vegetable Salad

Even my children like Tandoori Chicken, although they prefer that I de-bone the chicken first. Removing the bone does remove some flavor, but not enough that my children notice. Serve with a simple chopped vegetable salad – which should be crunchy, always, not mushy.

Salmon Spread | Baguette | Tomato Salad

I’ll confess outright to purchasing salmon spread at The Fresh Market, but it is easy to make and better if prepared at home. Here’s DL’s recipe for salmon spread (including ideas for adapting). Serve with some fresh crusty bread and a tomato salad (or leftover chopped salad).

Eggs and arugula August 2014Shakshuka | Arugula Salad

In my aged cooking journal, which I started in 1988, I have a recipe called Eggs in Purgatory, which I’ve made several times but not recently. This one for shakshuka from David Lebovitz is very similar and gives the option of canned or fresh tomatoes. At the market here there are plenty of tomatoes that look better for cooking than for eating in salad, so I’m going that route. The second crop of arugula is coming in, too, so we’ll have that as the side.

Josey Baker’s Adventure Bread | Farm-fresh Cheese | Green Beans

For you seriously gluten-free celiac people (yes, there is at least one bona fide celiac sufferer who reads here religiously, and oh how I love her), here’s a recipe for gluten-free bread that’s hearty enough for a summer meal, especially when served with some good cheese (I like Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam, myself) and perhaps some steamed green beans with a bit of mustard (or ranch, for my children) for dipping.


all words and pictures here belong to jennifer balink – if you’d like to use some, please ask.


  1. How do you cook so creatively?! Really. Your food looks so gorgeous, like a memory of a wonderful evening with friends on a terrace in Italy… And I’ve never even had one of those.
    And the lovers, the dreamers and me. Oh, that pulled at my heart strings. Being an outsider growing up… The first time I said, “I’m just so… blech. I can feel my toenails growing,” and the young woman understood what I meant. And now, almost 25 years later we are now middle-aged women sharing a rustic lobster dinner on the deck with the kids spread out on bed sheets at our feet eating hotdogs. It was almost as good as my imagined Italy. We must keep those fellow outsiders we find close to our hearts.
    Beautiful post.


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