Tag Archives: friends

Proportions

Yesterday was The Boy’s birthday. He’s 14 now.

The length of his lifespan computes to approximately 29% of my own life. In this case, statistical calculations do not offer an appropriate representation of the value of those fourteen years. For fourteen years and eight months, The Boy’s existence has been central to my own. Since the moment I found out about him, he has been a cherished and essential element of my daily consciousness. My transformation from individual traveler in the Universe to  parenthood is one of the greatest and most humbling changes I have ever experienced. In my case, this identity shift occurred by choice and deliberate action, and was sanctioned by a religiously and federally-approved marriage with an equally committed co-parent. It is, however, precisely the same gift that my friends and neighbors have experienced through adoption, gamete donation, family blending, and devotion to the people with whom we have all formed homes.

Love makes a family.

If you are lucky, you are a member of a family formed by love. If you are loved, you are statistically more likely to succeed in life.

This statement begs the question: How do we define success?

If you have found this blog post, some portion of our society has already defined you as “successful.” Rest assured, I am not arrogant enough to think that reading my blog is a mark of success. Access to any site such as this one, however, is an indication of a certain type of cultural capital. You are literate. You have the means to use a computer and a link to the Internet. Depending on the time of day that you are reading this digital missive, you have probably eaten at least one healthy meal today. I hope that you slept in a warm bed last night, and that in the past 24 hours, someone has told you that you are loved. If you are loved, you are not alone. If you love, someone else is not alone.

I’m writing this post on a Sunday night. Over the weekend, we have spent time with The Husband and The Boy, with my very best friend and her daughter, with four of The Boy’s closest buddies, with one of our dearest friends, and with my parents. I spoke to my precious niece. All of these people are part of our family. It’s a family formed by love. It’s a family formed by choice. The Boy chose the people he wanted to be a part of his birthday weekend. He chose well.

My boy is 14. He loves, and is loved. He has a family, built through biology and choice. There is no percentage or numerical exercise to determine the value of the people in his lives. There is no greater gift.

Tertiary Emotions

One element of my professional persona is that of psychology professor. In the comfort of that identity, I usually teach about child development. My courses include lectures and activities about physical growth and change, language acquisition, cognitive development, and the emergence of social-emotional awareness. I mention this because I’m about to write a whole post about  feelings, and I guess I want to establish a bit of credibility from the outset.

Human emotions can be categorized into three levels, which begin at a general level and become more specific as we move from primary (anger, fear, surprise, love, joy, and sadness are often listed as the core emotions) to secondary (think of affection as an aspect of love) to tertiary (think of compassion as a “next step”  after affection–an emotional response that evokes both affection and empathy).

I have written about gratitude many times in this blog. It is one of my favorite emotions. In my fortunate life, gratitude usually combines joy and love. I am grateful to so many people who have demonstrated care and affection for me. I am grateful to circumstances that have made it possible for me to receive medical attention, academic and professional success, and opportunities to experience awe in the world. I believe deeply that being open to gratitude is a mindset that is worth cultivating. Gratitude for me is connected to optimism. To be an optimistic and grateful person is, in my opinion, to be a happy individual.

In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself affirming another tertiary emotion–humility. In the context of my recent experiences, I have found that humility is directly related to gratitude. Humility requires a level of maturity and a willingness to accept my own vulnerabilities. It requires an ability to relinquish the need to be in control, a great level of trust in other people, and faith in my own values. It requires a willingness to hear the truth about myself and to accept both praise and criticism with gratitude. It makes me realize how important it is to stay grounded in the world and to hold onto the people who matter the most.

 

Simple Gifts

Tomatoes

I’ve been thinking about tomatoes lately. Not just any tomatoes — I want to write about my grandfather’s tomato garden from my childhood. It’s a truism to say that many memories revolve around food, but it’s also the truth. Here’s some recent evidence to support my claim before I launch into the tomato reverie.

I had the opportunity to prepare an elaborate meal for a group of people last night. The dinner was a delight from start to finish, and the best result was the beginning of new friendships. I think it’s safe to say that it was a memorable evening. Food can do that.

Last week, we celebrated The Husband’s birthday with what has become an annual activity: a trip to one of our favorite beaches, followed by an outrageous meal of fried seafood. My parents joined us, and we ate ourselves silly. We sat in the same booth as last year. We ordered the same combination of clams, shrimp, scallops, and onion rings. Everything tasted exactly the same as it does every year, which was exactly the point, because traditions depend on familiarity. Food can do that, too.

And so, on to the tomatoes.

When I was little, my dad’s parents kept a vegetable garden in their backyard. I know they grew a variety of produce, but I only remember the tomatoes. We spent a couple of weeks every summer in my parents’ hometown, and our vacation (at least in my mind) always coincided with the height of tomato season. My grandfather grew big fruit; beefsteaks, I think. The plants were tied to tall wooden stakes arranged in rows that seemed endless to me. I loved to walk into the middle of the tomato patch and surround myself. The stakes were taller than I was, and the bright orbs extended from my ankles all the way up over my head. The aroma was intoxicating. The heat of the sun, the riot of colors, and the smell of the ripe fruit formed the most intense synesthesia that I have ever experienced. To this day, the smell of a ripe tomato is the purest essence of sunshine that I know.

How is it that my first-generation Irish-American grandfather grew vast quantities of a Mediterranean crop? Even more curious is what he did with his harvest. He made gallons of marinara sauce, slow-cooked over a low heat with peppers, onions, and herbs. We ate spaghetti and meatballs often at their house. We also ate plenty of standard Irish fare as well: corned beef and cabbage, potatoes in many forms, pot roast…but what I remember the most is the rich red sauce that came right out of my summer afternoons. My dad carried that recipe with him into our home. He cooked tomatoes down into a dense pulp in the pressure cooker. I was terrified of that pan, with its rattling bulb on top and the hiss of steam coming out of the valve. My dad would leave it on the stovetop all afternoon on a Sunday. By evening, the whole neighborhood would know what we were having for dinner, as the scent of herbs and tomatoes wafted out the windows. I never ate pasta sauce from a jar when I was growing up, and purchasing the ready-made stuff still feels like cheating to me today, even if it’s a gourmet product from a specialty store.

One of the dishes I served last night was a new invention–gazpacho sorbet. I wanted a sweet but bright-flavored palate cleanser between the appetizers and the entree, and since the menu was Spanish, this seemed like exactly the right choice. When we were reviewing the meal this morning, The Husband commented enthusiastically on the way the tomato flavor burst through. That was the intent. I wanted to distill a childhood memory into a spoonful of happiness. Food can do that.

Modifiers

I love words. Adjectives are among the best.

A single word came to mind the other day, and it planted the seed for the rest of this post. One of my friends uses the term “snappy” as a compliment for wardrobe choices that she particularly likes. She’s the only person I know who employs that word, and it’s perfect for her. “Those are snappy shoes,” she’ll say. I haven’t seen her in awhile. I miss her, and not just for her occasional reviews of my fashion sense.

I especially like words that are specific and descriptive. I might have mentioned before that abundant is one of my favorite words of all time. The New York Times, in its inimitable fashion, provides a brief weather description on the top of the front page every morning. Whenever the forecast is for “abundant sunshine,” I have a daily highlight before I even leave the house. To me, abundance is about joy. There’s an exercise that I include in a literacy course that involves building a web around a particular word. The purpose is to instill an appreciation for language in the classroom, and to encourage pre-service teachers to think of themselves as language models for their students. For the past several years, I’ve started the activity with the word “enough.” I talk to my students about the essential meaning of that word, and then we generate a set of categories, synonyms, connotations, and interpretations of the word. It’s an interesting challenge, especially when people are not accustomed to making finely tuned semantic distinctions. What’s the difference between “sufficient” and “plenty?” When does “abundance” turn into “excess?” How do you feel about the word “ample?” Personally, I’m not a fan.

I also like words that are novel or idiosyncratic. “Groovy” is a superb word. I have a friend who regularly coins new terms that make their way through the vernacular of a whole social network. “Butane” is his word for anything that is especially worthy of comment. The Husband and his best friend have a habit of shortening words to single syllables. Making plans to dine at a restaurant involves making a “rez.” Once you arrive for dinner, they are likely to order a favorite cocktail, the New Orleans classic Sazerac, known colloquially to my guys as a “Saz.” While you are eating, they will review the meal in their own jargon. An especially good condiment earns the highest praise, as in: “This sauce really hooks it up.” If you’ve spent any time around the people in this paragraph, you inevitably find yourself drawn into the lingo. You’ll probably also find yourself with a one-syllable, or even a one-letter, nickname. Because in the end, brevity is the soul of wit (and wisdom).

Color of the Day

Green.

Green Ingredients

Yesterday, the color of the day was most assuredly green.

We arrived home in the afternoon from a fabulous long weekend in Maine with some of our favorite people in the universe, and of course, the question on everyone’s mind was, “What’s for dinner?” The answer was swift and clear: something with salsa verde. What other choices are there, when the fridge is nearly filled with tomatillos? A quick inventory included other essentials: rice, black beans, chorizo, limes, cumin, garlic, tortilla chips…  I made a quick trip to the farm for scallions, a poblano pepper, a bunch of cilantro, and two jalapenos. We were all set. I tossed all the salsa ingredients onto the counter and peeled the tomatillos, then stood back just to admire the various shades of green. The poblano didn’t make it into the “before” photo, because it was already blackening on the range.

The tomatillos, jalapeno (seeded and chopped), the scallions (about half a dozen, rough-chopped), and the poblano (peeled, seeded, and rough-chopped), all got blended together in the Cuisinart. Chef’s Note: Be careful if you’re going to try this procedure at home–it makes a LOT of liquid. I strained the puree and added chopped cilantro and lime juice. Voila! Salsa verde.

The Boy, in the meantime, was at the stovetop, supervising a pot of rice while sauteeing garlic and crumbled chorizo. He added a large can of black beans, a generous pinch of cumin, and some lime juice to the savories and waited for the liquid to reduce. Dinner was basically ready at this point. We opened a bag of tortilla chips, shredded a bowl of cheese, and poured ourselves some refreshing beverages. Green is good.

“Whaddya Got?”

That’s the name of my hypothetical program on the Food Network. I’ve already posted about my fascination with cooking shows , and as many of the entries on this site testify, I am a serious, although completely amateur, home chef.

One of my favorite ways to cook is to survey the contents of the fridge, the cupboards, the freezer, the dry goods…and then think of a way of producing a dish, or even an entire meal, from the items available. This flexibility of thinking is an asset at the end of a vacation or late in the evening on a workday when we need something for dinner!!!! My friend Susan thinks it’s a special talent that I can combine random ingredients, but I just think it’s fun.

Anyway, Susan’s prodding and The Husband’s enthusiasm for my food tinkering have resulted in an ongoing joke/challenge/conversation about my Food Network show. The idea is that you (or some other person) would invite me to your house and leave me in your kitchen. When you come home a few hours later, dinner would be on the table, prepared only from what you have on hand. I think there would have to be some ground rules for a few basic staples to be available (and I think, arrogantly, that if I provided such a list at the bottom of this post, people would always be able to whip up a groovy something), and maybe I’d be allowed to bring some spices and knives, but you get the general concept.

I could have filmed two episodes today. We’re heading home tomorrow after 10 blissful days at our friends’ vacation house, and all week I have been efficiently making use of all the great stuff we got at the farmers’ market and the big farm supermarket. Now, I must admit, my typical challenge would not likely take place in a kitchen that looks like this:

Kitchen

and it wouldn’t usually include the ingredients I had at hand today. Nonetheless, The Husband was quite impressed at my ability to make great use of a bunch of leftovers to produce the lunch and dinner we enjoyed.

Lunch: homemade pizzas du jour:

Pizza du Jour

Pizza #1: Roasted duck with hoisin, goat cheese, and wine reduction sauce. The duck and sauce came from dinner on Thursday, when I made pan-seared duck breasts, mushroom-leek risotto, and the wine sauce. There was hoisin in the fridge, and we had bought a couple of fresh pizza doughs from the market when we went shopping on Monday.

Pizza #2: Ham with grilled pineapple, Manchego, and steak sauce. The ham slices were the last remnants from our deli counter purchase, the pineapple we had grilled several days ago for a Caribbean feast, the Manchego was just a small piece left from Tuesday’s stuffed piquillo peppers, and the steak sauce was on the door of the refrigerator. NEVER underestimate the usefulness of those condiments on the door of the fridge.

Dinner: Merguez ragu with artisanal pasta and warmed sourdough bread: The sausage was in the freezer, left over from the July 4 feast here. I defrosted it, removed the casing, and made mini-meatballs. Canned tomatoes, a parmesan rind, and dried herbs were predictably available to round out the sauce. There was an open bottle of red wine from Tuesday, so a cup of that got splashed in to balance the flavor. The pasta was an impulse buy at the market the other day, but who doesn’t have a box of dried noodles sitting around? The bread was the last half of a fresh sourdough from the farmer’s market. Wrapped in foil and heated up, it was rejuvenated into a perfect accompaniment for the earthy sauce.

Merguez Ragu

Dessert: Mint-Fudge brownies. I found a bar of dark bittersweet chocolate, melted it with some butter, then threw together a basic brownie batter: sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder, a bit of flour and a lot of eggs. Packaged brownie mix is so completely unnecessary–you barely need a recipe to make them. The Husband had bought some mini-mint patties at the candy store earlier in the week; I tossed those into the batter for a bit of extra flavor, and Voila! Gooey, chocolatey deliciousness.

Brownies!

So…Whaddya think? Would you invite me to your house to cook? Would you allow a film crew to document the process? Would you eat the results?

And here is my List of Things You Should Always Have in Your Kitchen (with obvious exceptions for vegetarians, gluten-free eaters, and those with celiac–I can cook for you, too and I can give you your own list):

  1. Good salt. Fine ground sea salt improves almost everything.
  2. Canned artichokes. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming.
  3. Decent soup stock–the organic kind that comes in boxes, or a good concentrated paste. It doesn’t matter if it’s chicken, vegetable, or whatever.
  4. A solid hunk of parmesan cheese. It keeps forever. Other cheese is also good.
  5. A variety of sausages in the freezer, unless you’re a vegetarian.
  6. Dried pasta.
  7. Rice. Plain old white is fine, but a variety of rice, which will last for months, is great. Some brown, some arborio, some wild rice…
  8. Canned tomatoes, in any form.
  9. Frozen peas. Shut up. Just keep a bag of peas in the freezer.
  10. Dairy essentials: Eggs, butter (real butter, unsalted), and milk (whatever fat percent you like).
  11. Lemons and limes. At least half a dozen of each, always. Extra citrus is even better.
  12. Basic baking ingredients: Flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder and baking soda.
  13. Lentils. Dried lentils can be the base of a lot of excellent dishes, and they take very little time to prepare, especially with some of the items listed above.
  14. Cooking oils–Olive oil, canola oil, and sesame oil.
  15. Onions and garlic.
  16. Potatoes.
  17. Some kind of fresh vegetables. Iceberg lettuce does NOT count. More than one color of vegetables earns you bonus points.
  18. Bacon. I only list this because The Boy and The Husband deem it an essential. And it turns out to be quite versatile.
  19. Dried herbs and spices: Oregano, basil, thyme, cumin, cayenne, cinnamon, rosemary–other stuff is great, too.
  20. Protein: tofu, beans, or meat (which can be kept frozen).

Most of these ingredients can keep for months, are quite inexpensive, and they barely take up any space. And with just this stuff, no matter what else you have in the house, you are so close to a great meal. 

A Sense of Place

I was in Atlanta for most of last week at a school leadership conference. The purpose of the conference is relevant to this post… Continue reading