The Longest Shortest Month

I’m not from here. It always comes up in February, when I’m mystified by the hardy native New Englanders who are skating on the pond (isn’t that dangerous?!) and throwing themselves down the sides of mountains (ditto?!) all giddy and rosy-cheeked, while I am cursing the impossible curbside piles of filthy snow that send me face-planting into parking meters when I am just trying to put quarters into them. I’m from Ohio, so I did grow up with real winters, but we’re in another category ovah heah.

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This springtime farmshare haul seems like a pipe dream.

Ah, February, home of some of the most disgusting, outright unfriendly weather the year has to offer! Those of us who don’t get to flee to the tropics during school vacation week get to juggle playdates with cabin-fevered kiddos and nurse our conspiracy theories about February vacation week being some sort of winnowing plot to make the non-natives lose their already-sweaty grip on the cliff-edge of sanity. Or maybe it’s a conspiracy to sell lots of wine—a fellow parent made the convincing argument this week that we should be allowed to hook up to an IV drip of Rioja until at least March 1.

IMG_5009All of which is to say that it’s totally bonkers that it’s Lent right now. PSA: it’s February. Don’t Give Up Anything. You need it all. And also to say, on the Pollyanna side of things, that soon the sugar shacks will open, their steamy barns overflowing with pancakes and flannel shirts, and the bulb show will open, redolent with hyacinths and weirdly sexy tulips. Not yet, but soon. Until then, I bring you: bacon, butter, and cheese.

 


 

Roasted Vegetables with Polenta and Poached Eggs. And Bacon.

Adapted from this recipe at The Kitchn, with amazing Crack Broccoli from Catherine Newman.

2 medium heads broccoli
1 lb cremini or baby bella mushrooms, halved
3.5 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup polenta
2 cups water
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup grated parmesan or romano cheese
8 eggs
1 lb sliced bacon

Cook bacon:
Heat oven to 375. Place a metal cooling rack atop a rimmed baking sheet and lay your strips of bacon out on the cooling rack. (Yes, really! This works better than a broiling pan.) Bake about 12 minutes, depending on how thick your bacon is and how crispy you like it. You don’t need to turn the bacon, really! Hands-free bacon. Set it aside to cool.

Roast vegetables:
Turn the oven up to 475 and place a rimmed baking sheet in to heat.

Cut broccoli: The stems are fabulous here, so I like to do it this way: Peel the broccoli stem with a vegetable peeler. Trim off the woody end. Cut the stem in half, and trim the top into long-stemmed florets. Cut the remaining stem into french-fry-sized pieces. In a large bowl, toss the broccoli with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. (Don’t leave out the sugar, it really helps with caramelization.)

Slice mushrooms in halves or quarters so they’re about evenly sized, and toss them with another 2 teaspoons olive oil in a separate small bowl.

When the oven is up to temp, carefully pull out the hot baking sheet and dump the broccoli onto it. Use tongs to quickly spread them out, maximizing stem-to-pan contact where you can. Stick it back in the oven for 6 minutes. Toss the broccoli with tongs, then add the mushrooms and return to the oven for 3-4 more minutes.

Make polenta:
In a medium saucepan, bring 2 cups water to a boil with 1 teaspoon salt. Pour polenta into the simmering water, whisking all the while, add milk, and turn to low. Let the polenta slowly blubber and plop on the back burner with a lid half on it for about 15 minutes, whisking occasionally. Add 3 tablespoons of butter and the cheese. Stir until melted.

Make eggs:
Fry or poach eggs to your preferred doneness.

Serve:
Scoop out some polenta and roasted vegetables on each plate. Add bacon. I like to plop my eggs on top of my polenta. Maybe let the kids have some juice, even if it means they’ll bounce off the walls like ping pong balls. Serves 4.

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O What a Lovely Morning

At last we’ve got the coating of snow I’m used to here in New England, and it hasn’t yet turned all gray and impossible. In fact, fresh powder is magnifying today’s sun nearly to full sparkle mode. Even yesterday’s snow day was easy, since I already have Stella anyway on Mondays. The addition of Sophia meant they had each other to play with, and they happily traipsed upstairs and down, taking turns selling lollipops, mothering many dolls, teaching school, and being puppies. I could scarcely believe my good fortune. Minimal squabbling! We broke out the boo-boo buddy zero times! I mended a hole in a stuffed sheep’s armpit, drank coffee, folded laundry, mixed pizza dough, and roasted garlic. Later we baked cookies, read books, and had a singalong at the piano, like something out of Little Women. The whole time I’m thinking, What the hell? 

Getting a break from the constant uphill climb feels amazing, and scary, like the other shoe’s about to drop. But let’s not let the paranoiac win! Let’s just soak it up, bemused and wide-eyed and grateful. And let’s try to keep the ball rolling by starting tomorrow off with a good breakfast.


Pear and Almond Oatmeal

Serves 4 generously

2 cups rolled oats
4 cups water
1 large pinch salt
3 large ripe pears, peeled and diced
4 tablespoons sliced or slivered almonds
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons almond butter
1 tsp cinnamon sugar or cardamom sugar

Combine oats, water, and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer about five minutes, adding the pears in the last minute or two. Meanwhile, toast the almonds in a dry skillet, stirring frequently, until you can just start to smell them. Stir the syrup and almond butter into the oatmeal and divide among four bowls. Sprinkle cinnamon/cardamom sugar and toasted almonds atop each and serve.

Clean and Cozy

Ah, the late-January reckoning with New Year’s resolutions. After a couple weeks of eating right and exercising and going to bed on time and organizing the craft cupboard (again), I wash up on the potato-chip covered shoals of chocolate island. I give up trying to do everything right and just try to find something binge-worthy on Netflix. Well, maybe not give up, exactly. But the idealism of early January shuffles humbly into the realism of February.

I’ll still contend that our resolutions are good for us. One leaf of kale has, like, 100% more vitamins in it than zero leaves of kale. Right? Though thank goodness for a little parmesan to soften the blow. Of just about anything, really . . .

Like many others, I wrote “Konmari the whole house” on my list, and have so far done five and a half things on my checklist of over 120 categories (thank you, Pinterest). IMG_5370But hey, the girls saw my dresser drawers and wanted theirs the same way, and they love it. It also means they can find their favorites without totally destroying the drawers, so it’s definitely a win. I’m not going to be thanking my purse anytime soon (though I do sometimes feel a little bad for the poor thing), but I am finding plenty to aspire to in Marie Kondo’s blockbuster home organizing book. I don’t follow the folding technique she details, but I discovered that for me, the important part is being able to see everything at once in my drawer, and if I just put an extra fold or two in shirts and pants, they’ll cooperate. It’s been a reminder that you don’t always have to follow things to the letter, and sometimes incremental improvement is just marvelous.

I also embarked on this Clean Eating Challenge, accomplishing almost a week of produce-and-prep-intensive menus before crying “Uncle!” and putting off Week 2 til further notice. I do want to get back to it, though. The menus are delicious and the portions plentiful! And the kids liked our rule that as long as they tried everything on their plates, they could ask for a grilled cheese instead. But man, that long grocery list was expensive! The Week 1 grocery list, multiplied to serve 3, ran us $350.

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Produce ahoy!

Zoiks! On the plus side, I’ve resolved to create my own Clean Eating challenge for a family of 4 that’s much less expensive but still nutritious, yummy, and kid-friendly. I’ll let you know when that’s ready.

This Clean Eating challenge was so expensive partly because of our truly messed up food marketing and distribution system, but let’s save that for another day. The other reason was that it’s geared for spring, so I was buying out of season produce that I normally get from my farmshare. Doh! We were eating nicoise salads for lunch on frigid days, which made them harder to fully appreciate. Clean eating for winter should be cozier, and this recipe fills the bill—and your belly.


 

Dal with Cauliflower and Peas

Adapted from this recipe at Better Homes and Gardens

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 tsp fresh ginger, grated
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon or garam masala
7 cups water (or use half vegetable stock and reduce salt to 1 tsp)
1 large head cauliflower, chopped in small florets (chop and include the white stem, too)
2 to 2 1/2 cups yellow lentils (sometimes called yellow split peas in the store)
3 cups frozen peas
6 to 12-ounce can coconut milk

In a large skillet or saute pan, fry the onion and tomato paste in the oil over medium heat until the onions are soft and the paste starts to stick a bit in places. Stir in curry powder, ginger, garlic, salt, and cinnamon. Add 1 cup water and scrape up the brown bits with a wooden spoon.

Pour all this into a slow cooker—or if you prefer to use your oven, make the whole shebang in a heavy dutch oven. Add the remaining 6 cups of water and the lentils. Stir and cook in your slow cooker on low for 7 hours or high for 4 hours, or in a 300 degree oven for 3 hours. The lentils will fall apart into a smooth soup when you stir. It’s self-pureeing!

Add the cauliflower, peas, and coconut milk and cook on low heat (whether slow cooker or oven) for another 20 to 30 minutes. This batch serves 6 generously and will probably give you some leftovers for weekday lunches too.

Serving ideas: This is great as a thick, hearty soup on its own, but can also be served over rice, with chapatis or nan, or alongside grilled chicken if you’re feasting. I’d love to serve this with grilled yogurt-marinated chicken, chapatis, and cucumber raita.

Kindness Soup

With so much bad news out there, sometimes the holidays felt like an exercise in cognitive dissonance to me. Gun violence, climate change deniers, the ever-present din of misogyny and racism (Jesus, the Tamir Rice grand jury), the unbelievable waste we generate as American consumers, infuriating corporate recklessness (fracking and DuPont are contributors to the landscape we revisited), and yes, the scapegoating of refugees and immigrants—all these broke through my attempts at Holly Jollyness and made it seem . . . not hollow. Just dissonant instead of harmonic. Disconnected instead of joined. Did this happen to you, too?

I still had plenty of moments where that menacing soundtrack receded and the joy shone through, and I’m extra grateful for those. Watching Sophia lay her head in her grandmother’s lap as they chatted on the sofa. Overhearing cackles from the kids table. Cousins giving rollerskatinIMG_5247g lessons in my parents’ basement. Stella’s giggles of delight with the dog. Chatting and laughing with J and my folks by candlelight after the power went out and turned off the TV for us. Those were all worth driving many miles for, and we’re so glad we did. I still somehow ended the holidays needing an injection of hope, something more to cling to than my resolutions to organize my pantry and drink more smoothies.

Many miles later, still stuffed with Christmas cookies and breakfast sausage, tired and laden with gifts, we pulled into a driveway covered with two inches of ice that even our neighbors couldn’t tackle for us. The next morning I set out with the girls to fill the empty fridge and chip away at the driveway, while poor J took to bed, the latest victim of the stomach bug that always seems to find us on this trip. In the midst of this harsh re-entry, our smiling neighbor Cinzia showed up. Her little boy was pulling a red wagon, delivering lentil soup. IMG_5330.JPGThey just figured we had come home to an empty fridge and could use some.

How beautiful and perfectly unexpected! This, to me, is the truest expression of kindness: filling a need that you had to look carefully to even find. The soup was amazing, so I pressed her for the recipe, then promptly made and delivered a batch for a family dealing with an illness. (We made oatcakes, too, of course.) I’m presenting it to you here with this instruction: find someone who needs it and share it with them.

It’s so small, this gesture. I’m not saying it’s enough, and I’m not saying it’s all we have, but I am saying it’s a step worth taking in a long and perpetual journey to healing the world. If you’re looking for hope, it’s possible to manufacture some in your own kitchen, in your own heart.

The kids, of course, are hope machines. They overflow with hope and joy and possibility, and they’re the reason for not giving up on any of it, and they’re the hope for fixing what’s gotten so twisted and inhumane.IMG_5254 I found a much-needed dose of January hopefulness when I brought Sophia and her friend Sophie to their Local Chorus rehearsal. I choked back tears listening to 40 little kids singing “this little light of mine/ I’m gonna let it shine” and “when I find myself in times of trouble/ Mother Mary comes to me” and then laugh with joy at they way they belt out: “It’s the hammer of justice! It’s the bell of freeeeee-edom! It’s a song about love! between! my brothers and my sisters! Aaaallll over this LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAND!”

You know, the word Amen can be translated as “let it be” or “so be it.” Well, Amen to all that.

People of January, let’s find some kids to listen to. And let’s make some soup for people. Keep your spark alive in this gray time, and look, look, look for ways to fan the flame.


Kindness Soup

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miracle of mirepoix

You have your marching orders. Make and share. Cinzia’s a marvelous, intuitive cook, so she gave me this recipe as just a list of ingredients; I’ve adapted the quantities and such, but it’s a very flexible recipe and could handle plenty of variations. As written, it serves at least 8.

1/3 cup olive oil (I probably should’ve gone for the 1/2 cup, since Cinzia wrote “lots of olive oil” and she is Italian)

2 cups chopped onion

2 cups chopped carrots

1.5 cups chopped celery

6 cloves garlic, crushed or minced

3 cups lentils (I used french green lentils, but brown work too)

15-ounce can diced tomatoes (Cinzia used chopped cherry tomatoes, which I think would be sweeter and fresher!)

2 tsp sea salt

2 quarts water (or 1 quart vegetable broth and 1 quart water)

5 sprigs of fresh thyme tied with string (optional)

Saute the onion, carrot, and celery in the olive oil until your house smells heavenly, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 3 more minutes or so. Add the lentils, tomatoes, salt, water/broth, and thyme. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, partially covered, for an hour (or if you are using a dutch oven with a nice heavy lid, you can put that lid on and transfer your pot to a 350 degree oven). Share.

 

 

Reentry

On Thanksgiving I found my cup overflowing, both figuratively and literally (not to mention the SIX pies on offer at our hosts’ potluck table). I’m going to say it, though: reentry is a bitch. I’m impatient with my kids, driven to the edge by clutter and chores, and the holiday to-do list? Totally over it.

Today I took the dog for her vaccinations, and we were almost home when she puked . . . directly into my bag.  I mean, nevermind that on any given day the bag has held:

  • a partially eaten apple
  • crumpled post-its betraying my senility (“post office”)
  • a plastic baggie containing a pair of size 4 Frozen underpants with poop in them
  • chewy Sprees I am hiding from the kids

It’s still really fucking disconcerting to have a full cup of warm, foamy dog vomit poured over the other things in there. Not my phone, at least. But every single card in my wallet had to be wiped down with disinfectant.

I tried to laugh it off to a friend. Time to make my Christmas gift wishlist: Bag, wallet, notebook, car detailing! But man, I just kinda want to sit around and feel sorry for myself. Drink an extra glass of wine and sift through today’s horrifying news feed. But that sucks too, doesn’t it? Wallowing is not actually any fun.

This morning I pulled our old, well-loved Ergo baby carrier out of the closet so I could give it to a refugee family. Sophia, ever tenderhearted, was torn. She loved the memories it represented, of baby Sophia and baby Stella cuddled up against mama, of picking cherry tomatoes at the farm, or pulling the shade up over the head of a finally-lulled-to-sleep baby on a long walk with the dog. Being close, being small, being loved. 4729_1135379354043_2929367_nI said that I understood, and that’s why I hadn’t been able to let go of it before, when so many other baby things had been passed along. But when I saw the need, I knew it was time. It wasn’t right for me to tuck it away in a closet when it could help someone else so much, bring so much comfort to a parent and child who had very little. Soph and I had talked about refugees in the car on the way to school one morning. “I know, Mom,” she said, her passion for helping awakened. “I’ll write a poem to put in the pocket for them.” This is what she wrote:

Come to America, you’re welcome here.
Come to America, we’ll keep you safe. 

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that most of the refugees are not coming to America. Or that in recent weeks, refugees have definitely not felt welcomed by America. Or that in America, land of mass shootings, purchased politicians, and decades-long overseas wars, we have maybe not felt so safe lately. I want it to be true, and I want the refugees to have that welcome and that safety. And I want Sophia, and all of us, to have the power to share it with them.

Even though she was fired up with noble purpose, she still cried when we left the Ergo. It still cost her something to share that comfort with someone else. And I regret that I was not as patient with her as I should have been. I was all about moving on, and getting to school on time, and getting the dog to the vet. That was wrong of me. It does cost something, and it is hard to find ways to make a difference or even a dent, and the constant stream of bad news can wear you down.

But I promise you, and Sophia, and the next baby who’ll fall asleep in that Ergo: I’ll keep trying.

On Your Marks

Break out the box of wine and the leftover Halloween candy, people. We’re celebrating!

Remember how I’ve been working toward running a 5K since . . . gulp . . . February? Today I got so, so close—I took only one two-minute walk break in the middle. I’ve been worried about being really ready for the Hot Chocolate Run in just a few weeks, and was madly googling my problems with breathlessness and frequent walk breaks. Turns out, this borderline anemic girl does much better with iron supplements and green smoothies. Breathlessness, begone! Now my legs are just sore. Ouch. Because they’re actually running A LOT MORE. Also, I read something that said to run at a pace where you feel like you could just go forever. And I nearly snarfed. Doesn’t exist, I thought. But it does—it’s just WAY slower. Like, don’t you dare look at anyone else’s running speed. They have longer legs than you anyway. That slow. But then I really, really can just go without having to stop. And it’s excellent. Truly.

I am well aware that people do marathons and triathlons and unicycle rides from Vermont to D.C. and stuff like that. But for me, Hell Yes This is a Big Deal! I’m still dragging around 20 pounds of extra weight, and I’m squeezing in a few runs a week between building my freelance business (going great, thanks for asking!), raising two beautiful crazy people, and occasionally making eye contact with my husband.

So c’mon and break out the Almond Joys you’ve been saving, and spring for thAlicia Winee new episode of The Good Wife on Amazon. (It should be illegal to watch that show without a glass of red wine at least as big as Alicia’s.) No better way to celebrate the Almost-5K than a marathon of couch-potatoing!

Actually, there’s one better way. You can donate to Safe Passage, the incredible organization behind the Hot Chocolate Run, creating safe havens and real change for survivors of domestic abuse. You can donate through my Hot Chocolate Run fundraising page. 5K is about 3.107 miles. May I suggest $31.07? or $5? Any amount is awesome, but I have to confess, I really want the hat. It’s going to be wicked cold, and if we raise $125, I get the snazzy hat and really look like I know what I’m about, doing hamstring stretches in the crowd at the starting line. I totally promise to post a picture of me wearing the snazzy hat if we get it.

Hot Choc HatTomorrow I’m going to be creaking around, popping Advil and swearing, but tonight I’m proud. Let’s go with that, shall we?

P.S. Hot Chocolate Run trivia – how do you make 500 gallons of hot chocolate for 6,000 people??? 

Why the Personal Matters

As someone who writes poems and essays that mine and share personal experiences, keeps a personal blog, and is still revising that essay for Modern Love about the worst thing that ever happened to me, I found Laura Bennett’s Slate piece (about the popularity of women’s personal essays online) mortifying. I briefly wanted to lay my head down on my desk. And then I got that kind of queasy feeling I used to get as a child when grown-ups would say to me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Years ago, my friend worked at an inpatient psychiatric ward for women recovering from severe trauma. (“Did it have yellow wallpaper?” I wanted to ask.) One morning she was walking down the hall and one of the patients held up a newspaper and pointed to a headline. “Hey!” the patient called out, “Who wants to see something really triggering?” My friend was amazed to see a horde of women flock around the newspaper. These women were all in the most difficult stages of processing their trauma, so fragile they needed hospitalization. Yet they wanted to see something described to them as triggering.

Why do we do that? It’s not as simple as this, but I can imagine a Stone Age ancestor looking at a body at the bottom of a ravine; we see the rockslide, the twisted limb; we realize what happened and program ourselves to avoid the same fate. And then we tell the story to the rest of our tribe.

What if you’re the one who slid down into the ravine, but you made it out? That’s a story that needs telling too. We need to know that it is possible to make it out of the ravine—and how. That we’re not alone, that it’s survivable. Why do we write our stories of trauma? Sometimes the worst thing that ever happened to you is the best thing that ever happened to you—not because you can monetize it, but because you survived it. You kept going.

We’re not in the Stone Age anymore, but we still need stories. Our families and tribes are atomized in a way they’ve never been. We look to the internet as a medium for connection, and often find shaming instead. In a world full of snark, should we be surprised that sincerity is currency?

I don’t think we need to make excuses for the personal essay. I have great hopes that they can break down stereotypes (and, yes, taboos) and create empathy and connection. One story at a time is the best way to do this. When we see one Syrian toddler washed ashore, or one teenager dragged out of her school desk by a police officer, we can no longer ignore their humanity and the fact we are all in this together. Now, finally, it’s personal. Our humanity pushes past prejudices and fears to do the hard work of forging real community. Homophobia, xenophobia, racism are all fed by our separation from each other, our silence (this is why coming out was important and Harvey Milk knew it). Desegregation movements receive such violent pushback partly because segregation allows us to demonize one another.

And one more thing—I’m tired of everything I write about being dismissed asmommy blogs and women’s lit and food porn. People have been coming together and feasting around tables for thousands of years, but we’re going to dismiss the power of a shared meal? Let’s stop pretending that’s some kind of social critique and see it for what it is—an attempt to belittle and silence the domestic sphere, still largely animated by women.

You know what I say to my kids? (And I got this from a blogger, actually, Glennon Melton of Momastery.) I tell them: We can do hard things. Because I want them not to be afraid to tackle things that seem difficult. Reader, we can do hard things. We can tell stories that are hard to tell, that have a cost and a benefit. We can empathize with people in situations very much unlike our own. We can survive, find our voices, and use them to make change.

>We can do hard things, like changing the world our kids will grow up in to be a more tolerant and civil place, a more empathetic place, a place where it’s safe to be ourselves. The personal essay is one small but important part of a larger social justice project. It’s a Truth and Reconciliation commission, a reckoning for rape culture and racism and misogyny and transphobia and fat-shaming. We are taking our confessions outside the lockbox of the confessional because we don’t need the priest’s power to forgive us. But we do need each other.


Great reads this week:

Poet Deborah Landau talks about Authoring one’s life “line by line,” beautifully articulating the need to stay present, without simplifying the hard parts.

Anne-Marie Slaughter asks, Why do we devalue someone the minute they care for others?

The Tyranny of Dinner

How (and why) to plan meals for the week

It’s 5:30 pm. You’ve just gotten home and dropped everyone’s backpacks on the floor. The kids are pawing you for snacks, and you’re staring into the fridge thinking, I could make a frittata. Oh wait, just two eggs. Well, what about chicken? Not defrosted. What’s in here? I think that used to be a cucumber.

This is the biggest reason I plan meals—to avoid the soul- and belly-knawing dinner crisis as much as possible. As a mom and a person who genuinely likes to cook, it seems extra crushing to my self-esteem when I can’t feed my family well. It punches me right in the raison d’etre. I can give myself plenty of feminist pep talks and frozen meals to lean on, but the best cure I have found for the tyranny of dinner is meal planning.

I used to do all the no-nos: shop for groceries when hungry or tired, shop without a list, buy whatever you bought last week and whatever else looks tempting. Which also meant cleaning out the mushy produce I’d bought the week before in order to make room for the soon-to-be mushy produce I’d bought for the aspirational meals I thought I might make that week. Then I got into cooking, so I added to the shopping list all 16 ingredients for an elaborate recipe from Epicurious. (I did draw the line at Martha Stewart, though; my mom got me a book of her appetizer recipes. The first instruction for the first recipe called for you to place a bundle of herbs in a bottle of Riesling and keep it in the fridge for a month. A recipe with a one-month lead time? I was never going to do that, so I closed the book. The End.)

When my kids came along, so did more awareness of local and organic food, and we bought a CSA share (what I call a farmshare), providing us with tons of local produce each week. The rotting produce guilt grew to a roar just as my time to cook shrank to an all-time low. It was also high time to rein in the food budget. That’s when—and why I started planning meals.

Six years later, it’s made a huge difference:

Why plan?

  • We waste less food.
  • We eat the seasonal local produce from our farmshare.
  • I always know what I’m going to make for dinner and the ingredients are there waiting for me.
  • I’ve learned to simplify my cooking and become a more intuitive cook, more flexible with recipes.
  • I spend less time shopping.
  • Our family eats better food and eats out less frequently.
  • We save money.

Also, it’s just not that frickin’ hard, really. Probably because I’m used to it, a lot of the mental processes involved kind of happen automatically. It is definitely more time-consuming when you first start out, and it’s an evolving discipline. I love hearing how other people do it, since I’ve never met two people (or read two articles) with the same process.

Here’s how my current thinking goes:

Create a routine. I always shop on Monday, so that means meal planning for the week happens Sunday night, if not before. I only plan dinners, and I try to give myself at least 2 quickie meals, 2 long-prep/cook for the future meals, 1 day of “I give up, let’s eat out,” and 1 day of eating something from the freezer.

I recommend only shopping once a week; every time I enter a grocery store I know I’m going to wind up with something that was not on the list, so just minimizing those trips saves me money.

Your first time, make three columns on a piece of paper: FRIDGE. FREEZER. PANTRY. Ransack these places and write down everything you already have in its corresponding column.

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mysterious enshrouded produce

Look at the list, especially FRIDGE. What can you make this week that will use what you already have? Sometimes I will search two particularly stubborn perishables to see if I can find an interesting recipe including both. This is how I discovered a cauliflower and tomato casserole we liked. See what supplemental elements you can include from the freezer and pantry. Challenge: what can you make with the fewest additional ingredients?

Jot down your meal ideas. Think about the “how” of the meals to fit with your schedule. When’s a good day to cook a double batch of something in a crock pot and freeze the other half? When’s a good day to whip something together in 15 minutes because of swimming lessons? If there’s a new recipe I really want to try, I throw that in there. Write the days of the week next to the meals you think fit best. Extra points for using up your most perishable items earlier in the week. Put this list on your fridge in a prominent place. It is the ultimate panacea for what’s-for-dinner panic attacks.

Now list the additional ingredients you’ll need to make those meals. Put them in the order you’ll run into them in the grocery store. This is the start of your shopping list. If you are cleaning out an overstuffed pantry, it might be pretty short. If you have a weird competitive/frugal streak like me, you might delight in how short you can make it.

Add breakfast and lunch items to your list. I don’t really plan these too explicitly since they are fairly routine. I buy lots of fruit for mornings and packing lunches, eggs, peanut butter, cheese, yogurt, and cereal. And since the cheapest way I’ve found to be a person who eats granola is to make the granola, I list the ingredients I need from the bulk bins at the co-op to make that happen. Add snacks or desserts as modestly or wildly as you wish. What else are you out of? It’s really helpful to keep a list on the fridge and add to it as you run out of pantry items. And ask your partner to write things on it too, since you’re not a mind-reader. Ahem.

Shop judiciously. For me, this means two stops on shopping day. One of my stops is always the big giant supermarket, but the other varies. It might be Costco, Trader Joe’s, or my local food co-op (where the bulk foods and organic produce can’t be beat). I keep running lists for the “other” stores since I’m only going to get to them about once a month.

Prep the night before when you need to. I work from home, so it’s really easy for me to pop down to the kitchen, warm up some leftovers for my lunch, and start defrosting or chopping something for dinner. But when I’m going to be out all day, I usually need to look at my meals list the evening before, do some prep, maybe drag the crock pot out onto the counter.

Cook! I sometimes dream of becoming that person who washes her lettuce and roasts her beets as soon as she gets home from the farmers market and bakes no-knead bread every Sunday. I’m so not there, and: Meh. There’s only so much time that even I want to spend on food. I also sometimes steal from one of the easy nights and find myself with a long-prep dinner on a short-prep day. Boxed mac and cheese to the rescue! This still happens sometimes. Just not as often. Most of the time, I know what the dinner plan is before I walk back in the door trailing kids, empty snack containers, and smelly gym bags. And that makes a stressful time of day less so.

Remembering Jim Tate

James Tate’s extraordinary poetry and person were life-altering forces for many people, myself included.

I came to UMass in 2000 to study with Jim (and with Dara Wier and Peter Gizzi) in the MFA program, a nervous, hopeful 20-something. Jim was a serious, devoted, wholly unflashy teacher, and later he became a friend, and we worked together on proofs for his books, testing the mettle of his copyeditors while surrounded by books and beautiful Amish quilts in his living room.

When my children were born, I slowed down and then stopped writing poems for awhile. Good thing poets don’t have the expiration dates of rock stars, I told myself and anyone who asked; I could start writing again at 40 and still have a 40-year career. That sounded pretty good for awhile, and at least succeeded in soothing my self-loathing about not making new work. This June, my 40th birthday arrived, and in July, Jim died. When J and I heard he was very ill and visited his wife Dara at his bedside, it still seemed somehow unfathomable that he would be gone soon. Jim had given a terrific reading at the Juniper festival only two weeks before. Just before he went into the hospital, a single advance copy of his new book of poems—his 17th!—arrived in the mail. His constancy, his primacy seemed unassailable to us, his students, friends, family, and readers, even though his health had been fragile for so long.

In the immediate aftermath, fellow poets flooded social media with favorite poems, anecdotes, recordings. Two friends got matching tattoos of the line “then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs,” which, repeated 23 times, constitutes Jim’s poem “Lewis and Clark Overheard in Conversation.” I think they’re looking for 21 more collaborators for this living art elegy. In a box of his late father’s things, J dug out the copy of Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee which Jim had signed to his dad. The inscription reads:

To Roger – congratulations on your new truck. Jim

We sat up drinking wine and thinking of them both, and reading some of our favorite Tate poems aloud. I thought about starting to write again, more freely than before. As Jim said in a 2010 interview, a real writer writes “because they absolutely must,” not for success or approval or acceptance. To me this also means that writers need writing not just to understand or decipher their world, but also to misunderstand and encipher it. Jim was a grandmaster of slippage, bringing his reader into a situation she thinks she understands, then whipping the rug out from underneath her, letting her fall into something entirely new, startling, disconcerting, hilarious—and always true.

A Sound Like Distant Thunder

I had fallen asleep on the couch with the
TV on. Every now and then I would open an eye
and see someone get stabbed or eaten by a monster.
Once, a beautiful woman was taking off her blouse.
And then the phone rang. I couldn’t tell if it
was a TV phone or my own. I sat up, half-asleep,
and reached for the phone. “Howie,” a woman’s
voice said, “Is that you? You sound like you were
asleep.” “I was,” I said. I wasn’t Howie, but
I was in the mood to talk to this woman. “Howie,
I miss you. I wish I were in bed with you right
now,” she said. “I miss you, too. I wish you
were here with me right now,” I said. I hated
not knowing her name, and I didn’t know if I could
call her “honey” or “sweetie” or any other endear-
ment. “Why don’t you come over right now,” I
said. “Oh you know I’m in Australia. And my
work here won’t be done for another month. It’s
just hell being away from you this long,” she said.
“I love you,” I said, and I think I meant it.
“You mean the world to me, Howie. I couldn’t get
through this without knowing you love me. I think
of you all the time. I look at your picture
every chance I get. It’s what gives me strength,
that and our brief phone calls. Now go back to
sleep and dream of me, dream of me kissing you
and holding you. I have to go now. I love you,
Howie,” she said and hung up. And though my state
may be described as a gladdened stupor, I felt
like a Howie, I really did, and I believed in my
heart that the nameless, faceless one indentured
in Australia really loved me, and that my great
love for her gave her strength. I cozied up on
the couch and fell into a sweet sleep. But then
I heard a lion roar, and I feared for both of our lives.
“Howie!” she cried. “Save me!” But I
couldn’t. I was busy elsewhere, tying my shoe.

James Tate, from Return to the City of White Donkeys

One aspect of Jim’s particular genius was to get people laughing, and then they were ready to follow him anywhere, often straight into strange or dark places. The central premise of many of his later poems seems to me that our pat routines are one flicker of possibility away from a plunge into the unknown. Not the the unknown need be abysmal or frightening—often it is populated with goats, sexcapades, and sudden joy. But that it was waiting right there, on the other side of the next word, to be discovered. A room where Jim was about to read his next poem was a room that crackled with anticipation, his audience still grinning from their last ambush and hungry for the next one. Roars of laughter would occasionally make him start to giggle too, and I can remember more than one of his readings leaving me with tears of laughter and aching cheeks.

To do this, each unlikely move in his poems had to be entirely believable. This is the chief lesson I remember from his workshops. I remember bringing in a poem and having him zero in on one simile. The only thing he said was, “I don’t trust this simile.” I sweated over this for a long time (Jim didn’t usually say a lot about a poem, so one tended to interpret the runes later, preferably with a beer and a friend.), but I think I finally got it—if you don’t trust the simile, it all falls apart. Start over. Jim taught me that you can go absolutely anywhere in a poem if you take your reader with you. That’s the delicate balancing act: generosity toward the reader on the one hand, and uncompromising fidelity to imagination, possibility, discovery on the the other. The reason to write a poem was always to find out something you didn’t know before, to think something you hadn’t thought already, to create a new possible world. But always, always to have company there in that new space.

Jim was a voracious and ecumenical reader, and he loved poems that “worked” in many different ways. He read more contemporary poetry than almost any of us, and had little patience for students who didn’t read enough. A list of “recommended titles” showed up without explanation in one’s MFA mailbox early in the first year of the program, with over 200 titles on it, from Catullus to Whitman and Dickinson to Barbara Guest, Lisa Jarnot, and Terrance Hayes. Though there was no formal requirement set out, everyone knew that Jim’s specialty was grilling MFA candidates during their oral defense, and we had figured out that every title on the list was up for grabs. Many of us crammed and quizzed one another with trepidation: “Well, what should a person say about Elizabeth Bishop?” Those who had been through it before recommended expressing appreciation for Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens in particular. I never heard of someone failing their defense because of their performance on Jim’s quiz, but it did serve to underscore the importance of knowing one’s poetry family tree.

In class, and in any discussion about poetry, Jim was a bulwark against bullshit. One sidelong withering glance from him and you knew you’d said something stupid. His impatience with categorical statements came from his tremendous integrity, and his belief in poetry’s integrity as an art form. Well, if you write “because you absolutely must,” and freedom to discover is one of poetry’s enduring promises, you don’t mess around with people who want to put limits on where you can go. Retreat into a school or system and you take away the existential tightrope walk that makes it all a thrill.

An essential openness and vulnerability defined his understanding of Keats’ negative capability. To “dwell in mysteries,” was only possible if one was open to it, and that meant not “reaching after fact and reason.” Jim’s generosity as a poet makes a space for his reader to set reason aside, and “dwell in possibility,” as Dickinson wrote. A big part of his legacy is in teaching us to see the world that way, and not only poetry. Hundreds of his students have gone on to publish many dozens of volumes, teach legions of students (and in many cases they sent the most promising ones straight back to Amherst to study with Jim). But even Jim would say that those successes are not the reason we write.

Those of us who may not have many published titles under our belts are still nourished and challenged by our time with Jim, by the way that poetry reached us, touched us, and taught us to see the world as place of possibility. I learned from Jim that the world, like his poems, is full of trap doors, ready to ambush us with joy or pain at any moment, and that when we share this knowledge, when we are brave enough to walk forward into it, we can be truly alive. And that being truly alive is like being in one of his poems—it’s a fantastic place to be. I’m so thankful to have known him and read him, and so grateful that his poems will continue to enliven generations of readers to come. We will press the poems into the hands of new readers, knowing their power.


Read or listen to some of James Tate’s poems here:

The Poetry Foundation

Academy of American Poets

Penn Sound

Charles Simic conducted a wonderful interview with Jim for the Paris Review

A marvelous tribute to his work appeared in Electric Literature

Noodles and Eggs

Well, you guys, it’s taken me all week to get this post finished. It was one of those weeks—the kids passed a fever back and forth which has now landed squarely on me (waaah), and all plans, best-laid or otherwise, toppled like dominoes.

Oddly enough though, I already knew I was going to write about things gone awry. Mostly we get derailed and frustrated by small things, and I find myself thinking, “as soon as X crisis is over and we get Y under control, I can really start to Z.” It’s taken me years to realize that the variables X and Y are just that, variables with an infinite number of possible substitutions, and that if we are waiting for the black hole of quietude to emerge from the chaos, we are not only never going to get to Z, we’re going to miss the whole beautiful chaotic universe. If we focus only on the fact that the kid is drawing on the wall, we miss that this is the first time she’s ever drawn a face. And that said drawing comes complete with a scribble she points to and says, “that’s his throw-up!” You know—this is the good stuff.

That said, I am all about finding comfort, soothing our rumpled egos when our plans get trampled yet again.

One of my favorite meals as a kid was Noodles and Eggs. This is not, as Google might suggest to you, a pasta frittata with some parmesan, or stir-fried ramen with eggs and soy sauce (though those sound pretty good), but rather cooked egg noodles tossed into a buttered skillet, a few eggs hastily cracked in, sprinkled with garlic salt, and plunked in front of happy kids, usually with a jar of applesauce on the side. There’s a passing resemblance to lazy pierogi, but only if you could call it “extra lazy extra simple lazy pierogi.” I clearly remember happy shouts going up the times my sisters and I asked about dinner and were told it was Noodles and Eggs.

Flash forward to my thirties, when I got interested in making things like red wine mushroom sauce or balsamic strawberries (ah, the late ’90s!), and I asked my mom how to make Noodles and Eggs. She burst out laughing. “What do you want to make Noodles and Eggs for?” She explained that Noodles and Eggs was “Depression food,” what you made when there was no time or energy for anything else, or you were eking out another day or so before the next paycheck and grocery run.

“Really?” I asked, and explained to her how much I loved Noodles and Eggs, that it was a comfort food to me, and I’d never seen anyone else make it. I haven’t thought of them for a long time since then.

Then Monday happened. Poor Stella was nearly impossible to extract from her nap so we could drive across town and pick up second grader Sophia. I carried her downstairs, still shoeless and sleepy, and strapped her protesting frame into the car seat, already running behind. While trying to parallel park at our (beautiful old) downtown school building with no parking lot, I promptly got blasted by road rage. The driver behind me yelled, revved her engine, and promptly pulled left around me, up over the sidewalk, roaring across the grass over to the street corner, causing another mom to yank her kids out of the way. Shaken, I reported the incident to the police, in disbelief that adults could behave that way in a schoolyard.

Finally, ten minutes after the bell, I put Stella’s shoes on and pulled her across the playground to find Sophia. There she was, running toward us, crying. Oh no, I thought. She was worried because we were so late. “I have the chills!” she sobbed. It was her turn to have the fever. We all limped back home, feeling bruised.

And I thought of Noodles and Eggs, which I’d forgotten how to make. They just popped into my mind again, and I understood them from the other side for the first time, the perspective of the exhausted parent. Pulling dinner together while monitoring the supply of children’s Tylenol and brokering deals between the kids about who picks the PBS Kids show they get to watch. Straining noodles in a colander over a sink still full of dishes from breakfast.

The thought went up then, like a prayer, that maybe, if I was lucky, my kids would remember the warmth and comfort, the lavender headache pillow and just-in-case-of-barfing tupperware and the extra blanket, securely tucked. Maybe they could taste Noodles and Eggs as I did when I was a kid—the taste of comfort and security, of home, untainted by worry. Maybe what looked like refuge to me, a port in a storm, could be plain, simple comfort to my kids.

Let’s hope so.

IMG_5031
I interviewed my mom to give you the lowdown on Noodles and Eggs. Apparently they come from my grandmother Martha Shine, her mother-in-law. “I think she just told it to me,” Mom says. “I’ve heard other people make it where you let the noodles get really hard and crunchy, and then flip it like a pancake. But I like our way better.” Sometimes you do get some crunchy noodles in there, from their time in the hot butter.

“Unless I’m in a really big hurry, I rinse the noodles in cold water,” she added. Because you want them soft, but not falling apart. “Warm them in the butter, salt tIMG_5027hem with the garlic salt, taste them, and then the eggs on top and more garlic salt and pepper, and then mix the eggs in.” Also, “make sure you taste for garlic salt because that makes it.”

Oh, and these were always the side dish with boiled kielbasa. I’d forgotten that part, probably because I wasn’t a big kielbasa fan as a kid. (I would totally endorse this idea now!) Mom remembers the kielbasa, I remember the applesauce.

I really like my mom’s advice here too, which I would wholeheartedly apply to my kitchen and my week: “You slip that butter in there and a little bit of garlic salt and you can just about improve anything.”

Hear, hear.


Noodles and Eggs

1 pound medium or wide egg noodlesIMG_5015 (check out the package: Classic American Comfort—are we there yet?)

4 to 6 T butter

garlic salt

pepper

3 to 5 eggs

Boil noodles according to package directions. You want to get past al dente, but not all the way to soup. Drain and rinse under cold water.

Melt butter in a large skillet. (Next time I am going to save a pot and just melt the butter in the dutch oven where I cooked the noodles.) Add the noodles and stir over medium heat, warming them and sprinkling them with garlic salt.

IMG_5019Crack eggs atop the noodles in the pan. Sprinkle the eggs with more garlic salt and a generous amount of pepper, then mix them in with the noodles, stirring occasionally until the eggs are just set. (My pictures are off here because I whisked the eggs separately in a bowl before adding them to the noodles. They should look patchier, white and yellow still in places. My mom set me straight about the right way, so I am giving you the goods here.)

Serve immediately with applesauce on the side, and boiled kielbasa if you have it.

Serves 4.