Thursday, April 17, 2014

Soccer Mom

Way back when, when my husband and I were barely married, we went to visit friends in San Francisco for brunch.  Their house was full of toys and crayons and tow-headed toddlers, and we feasted on deliciously lumpy pancakes, strong coffee, and orange juice. Sunshine poured through a huge bay window into a living room full of comfy furniture and well-worn children's books.  I was utterly charmed by the whole situation.

Looking up at the clock, our hosts suddenly brought the cozy morning to a halt, and began scooping up  strollers and hurtling around closets rooting for socks.  The oldest child donned a shiny uniform and tiny cleats, and had the maple syrup unceremoniously wiped from his ruddy cheeks by his mom.

"It's picture day."

This meant nothing to us. But we piled down the steps and followed our friends. Outside it was bright and breezy, one of those rare, gorgeous, peaceful San Francisco mornings.  As we turned a corner, we were hit by a high-pitched roar of noise.  Then, slowly, we walked into an alien sea, a veritable ocean, of what seemed like thousands of five year olds and their parents, crammed into a fenced patch of grass covering most of a city block.  All of the children were randomly running and screaming.  Parents were chatting and laughing and yelling at the running children.  Everyone had coolers, cameras, umbrellas and folding chairs.  It was utter chaos, and it terrified me to the bone.

"We have to get out of here," I said to my husband. "Now."
Best form of birth control, ever.

It didn't last.
Soon enough, it was picture day on our own patch of grass.

Not only was I no longer petrified, I was somehow coaching the team.  I had zero experience, but if you signed up to coach, you got to pick your practice time.  As a working parent, schedule trumped competence in my book.

It was a trial and error process.  Once, I brought a white board and dry erase markers to practice, intending to diagram plays, or at least try to communicate the idea of whose goal was whose.

"Oh, yay! Coloring!!! Pass the purple!!"
Needless to say, it didn't go well*.

Finally, I developed a strategy of giving big hugs for each goal, and that seemed to work just fine.

My coaching days are long over, but a decade later, there I am on that patch of grass with my folding chair and camera, chatting and laughing.  Perfectly at home in that veritable sea, the warm, friendly, comfortable ocean of parents like me.

Cheering at the top of my lungs for my amazing daughter and her team.

Soccer Mom.
Best clichéd stereotype, ever.

Oh, and even after all these years?  Snack is still the best part of the game.

Chewy Fruit & Nut Granola Bars

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Going public

“I thought of you right away,” my friend said, calling on her way home from the launch of a charity cookbook. “I’m kicking myself for not bringing you. After all, food is such a big part of your life!”

She has no idea.

“Sharon, what’s the best place for a burger on the Westside?” 
“Can I have the recipe for those little pecan tarts?”  
“Will you teach a bread class for the fundraiser?*" 
"I have to take clients to dinner in Studio City.  Where should we go?" 
"Will you bring your pie to book group?" 
“Have you thought about opening a restaurant?” 

I’m that person. The food friend.

It is a mantle that I wear proudly in the world.

I’m a regular at a great sushi bar. If you ask me about the new place in Los Feliz, I’ll tell you whether the review in The Weekly was on point or not. I go out of my way for the fried egg sandwich at Huckleberry and the cheese pastries at Porto’s. I spend hours cross-referencing Chowhound and Yelp before booking dinner reservations in a new town. The language of menus is meaningful to me.

I subscribe to the magazines, and dog-ear the pages. I troll favorite blogs, pinning like mad. My cookbook collection has spilled out of the kitchen and into the den, with more being dropped at my doorstep each week. At times, I’ve used every single one of the mixing bowls stacked in my cupboard at once. I own a cherry pitter for a reason.

Food fills my conversations. We are eating one meal, dissecting the last, and planning the next. The combination of remembered enjoyment and anticipated pleasure somehow makes each bite in between that much more remarkable, particularly when the experience is shared.

“They ate well.”

My husband declared this would be set in stone on our graves one night. “That’s how we’ll be remembered,” he stated with rueful satisfaction. We’d just finished a tremendous steak dinner and most of an expensive bottle of wine. I lifted my own glass, echoed the idea back to him and meant it. “Yes. They ate well! “ I toasted back.

“To eating well!”

But of course, it's not that simple. There is a flip side to all this warm and fuzzy feel-good foodiness.

I graze the pantry at night, shoveling handfuls of kettle corn into my mouth almost without thinking. I reach past the fruit for the brick of cheese to slice hurriedly into wedges on my way out the door. The basket of warm rolls on the table is decimated before the waiter brings our salads. I have seconds on pizza, slather butter on toast, dip into the jar of pretzels on the counter several times in the course of an hour. I choose fries and not salad on the side. I shop hungry on purpose.

I have stashes of food in the car. Hell, I have stashes of food all over my body. On my hips. In my belly. Under my arms. In a butt that barely fits into the seat of an airplane now. An airplane, by the way, that I will board with a full picnic including dessert and a snack to be consumed with a tinge of guilt from my tray table while my fellow fliers look on enviously.

I am this person, too. The fat, undisciplined friend.

I do not blog about this. Or talk about it. Or toast to it with my husband over a bottle of wine. I live with it, privately.

A trained therapist, if I had one, would help me trace the roots of my pathological fear of starving back to my childhood. To memories that tie food to pure and vivid joy that I am trying desperately to relive. We’d discuss my mother, the source of this starvation phobia, who bred her own fear into me by example. My mother, who proceeded to starve herself to death in front of my eyes.

I quietly let myself off the hook. I cannot, after all that, be blamed for the doughnuts and the Doritos. I’m fucked up about food from way back.

From time to time, I exert myself to change. To slow down, eat less, skip dairy. I go to the gym, come out surprisingly refreshed and vow to go back. Intellectually, in the same way I know the proportions of a good vinaigrette, I know the formula for taking off the pounds that have been piling up:

  • Write down what you eat. 
  • Work out with weights one day, and run wind sprints the next. 
  • Don’t have dinner after 7 pm. 
  • Drink eight glasses of water a day. 
  • Chew each bite 20 times. 
  • Leave food on the plate. 
  • Live on kale and quinoa and squash and carrots, preferably all together in a cold-pressed bottle of juice
  • Give up cocktails. 
  • Take up raw nuts. 

I make a deal with myself to try these things, and it lasts a week. Sometimes a month. Sometimes not even the day. I am an unreliable counter-party, growing larger and more unstable all the time. It’s almost as though I am punishing myself with food privately for the pleasure eating brings me in the open aspects of my life. When I look in the mirror, I am close to despair.

I’m slowly losing this battle because I’ve been struggling alone. No more. As of now, I’m putting the whole sloppy, complicated, emotional mess of my relationship with eating out there. The feelings of discovery and accomplishment and validation that I soak up by pursuing this passion have to be tempered by accountability and moderation and measurable milestones in taking care of myself. I will say the words out loud* to make them real and true, and make sure someone hears me say them:

My life will be better if I am healthy.
Food is a big part of what makes life good, but my life is full of other joys, too.
I owe it to myself to finally do this right.

I’m taking the first step by going public.
Come with me**.

* Or do the blogging equivalent and posting them online.
** Follow the 50x50 Project here, or via the tab at the top of the blog.  Don't worry, I'll still be eating well.  Just cutting back on the midnight kettle corn.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Flaming Bananas

When we were growing up, my parents threw a lot of dinner parties.  My dad would spend hours making special mix tapes for the reel-to-reel player, usually with a lot of Al Green on them, and my mom would dress up in these fabulous form-fitting pantsuits*.  Our cupboards were full of artsy plates, hand-crafted ramekins, individual bread boards, mini paella pots, and tons of Marimekko placemats for setting the dining table.  Her speciality, though, was making the meal itself an event.

Her secret weapon?

The electric frying pan**.

The guests would be seated in their own polyester finery, and mom would emerge from the kitchen with a tray and the pan.  She'd plug it in, drop in a stick of butter, and the show would begin.

Smiling as she added the brown sugar, bouffant hair not moving an inch, all conversation among the group would grind to a halt.  The smell was intoxicating.

The perfectly sliced bananas tumbled in. Around went the wooden spoon, then she'd pick up the canister of fireplace matches.  Fireplace matches!!!

My sister and I peeked from the kitchen, shivering with repressed excitement, knowing what was coming.

The bottle of rum was opened with a flourish.  The lights dimmed.  Then came the unmistakable sound of a single long match being struck.  All eyes upon her.

Woosh!  The pan erupted in gorgeous blue and orange flames.  Mouths dropped.

She fearlessly stirred on, chatting amiably as though this was nothing special.  Just an ordinary night.

An ordinary night with my magical, marvelous mom.

She died three years ago today, so this will never be an ordinary time for me.
In her honor, dear guests, may I treat you to some flaming bananas?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sowing my wild Irish oats

As a middle aged suburban parent, my wild oat sowing days are (mostly) over*, so I am forced to live vicariously through the shenanigans** of others.

McCann's Steel Cut Irish Oats

Like, say, Olivia Pope on Thursday nights***.  


Mortifyingly hysterical.  And I'm still going to tune in this week.  Evil mom is back!

Here's a way to sow oats that is significantly less mockable, just as addictive, and much more nourishing.

Overnight Irish Oatmeal

It won't make you laugh so hard that you begin wheezing and snorting****, but it should put a big smile on the face of anyone who loves a bowl of creamy hot cereal for breakfast.

Especially when they find out it gets made overnight by magical leprechauns.*****

Friday, March 14, 2014

This should be a real post

But it's not. Instead, it's my contribution to That should be a word*

I did manage to push this recipe for Meyer Lemon Buttermilk Pie through at last. After all, nothing gets the system going again like a good pie recipe, right?**

Lemon Buttermilk Pie from Bon Appetit

Especially one where I don't have to say much.
Bon Appetit wrote about it first.***

Monday, March 3, 2014

Dusting Off the Nightstand

Books and more books!

That woebegone "On my nightstand" section of the sidebar over there has been completely pathetic for about a year now. Stale doesn't even begin to describe it.

Here are some possible explanations:

A)  I didn't cry at the end of The Fault in Our Stars*, and was afraid I might be shunned as a result.  Better to appear slow and possibly too emotionally wrecked to go on.
B)  I no longer have a nightstand.
C)  I read loads of fantastic books, then suddenly became very territorial about the whole thing.
D)  I thought people would prefer knowing how to make brownies and cheese dip, so I blew off the book reports.

The answer is, D), and a little bit of A)**.

But, on this very rainy afternoon, with the comforting drip drip drip of water leaking from flaking ceilings into various metal bowls on the floor, the slamming of the kids' doors as they hole up in their rooms with flickering laptop screens held seven inches from their faces, the odor of wet dog wafting around, and my husband stomping through the house grumbling about why everyone just leaves their shoes all over the place for him to trip on***,  it seems like the perfect time to bury myself in a good, catch up, book post.

Books I've Loved 
(all of these have been added to The Nightstand section of The Shop, with more specific "Why you might love it, too" notes)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane  - Neil Gaiman
Magical, lovely, and delightfully creepy. Gaiman at his best.

The History of Love - Nicole Krauss
I wanted to applaud at the end, and literally gasped at times as the threads came together.  One of the best "interwoven stories" novels I've read.

The Financial Lives of the Poets and Beautiful Ruins - both by Jess Walter
Very different books.  Financial Lives is a terrific black comedy, Beautiful Ruins an homage to the power of place and how art tells stories.  Loved them both.

Hands down the most endearing book I read all year.  You won't forget it.

The Light Between Oceans - M.L. Stedman
A baby washes up on the rocks of a lighthouse isle.  Can there be any harm in keeping her? Why, yes.

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey
A lonely couple in the wilderness of a century ago seems to will a child out of the storm.  Is she real?

The Dog Stars - Peter Heller
Like The Road, but with a dog and an airplane.  And bizarre neighbors.

Amazing on Audible

Heft - Liz Moore
One of the most unlikely protagonists ever, Arthur is housebound, obese, painfully shy, and in dire need of connection to the human race.  So of course, there's a teenager and a temp. Unforgettable. Perfectly written and read.  Listen to it now!

The Golem and the Jinni - Helene Wecker
A gorgeous, unexpected love story. I could not stop listening to this tale of the struggle of two mythical beings who both emigrate, unwillingly, to NYC.

What Alice Forgot - Liane Moriarty
By turns hilarious and deeply sad,  this is a story of a woman who wakes up to discover she can't remember the past 10 years of her life.  The bad news is, most people seem to really dislike her.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock - Matthew Quick
A gripping, moving and oddly charming tale of a teen bent on self-destructing before the day is over.  Great YA fiction that doesn't involve archery of any kind.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? - Maria Semple
Laugh out loud funny, skewering everything in its sight (and there's a LOT to skewer) as a daughter hunts for her AWOL mom through found emails, receipts and other scraps of her life.

The 5th Wave - Rick Yancy
Like The Passage, but with really evil Aliens instead of Vampire Zombies.  Thrilling indeed.

11/22/63 - Stephen King
Enthralling from the get-go, with the premise of traveling through time to stop Kennedy's assassination. Oddly, that's the least of what happens.

Me Before You - Jojo Moyes
All the tears I didn't shed for Hazel fell out of me with this one. Formulaic all the way, but I didn't care.

NOS4A2 - Joe Hill
When the devil is riding around with personalized plates,  kidnapping kids to steal their souls and trap them in Christmasland, you know bad things are bound to follow.  Highly entertaining, with great characters and plot twists.

Worth Picking Up, But Not Quite As Good as The Other Ones
(any why I dinged them a bit)
Life after Life (imaginative writing in a very creative form, but a little hard to follow)
The Goldfinch (great characters, but way too long, and not as "weighty" as it wants to be)
Claire of the Sea Life (truly lyrical, but a little thin in the end)
Someone (I liked The Golem and the Jinni much better, and the books reminded me of each other)
The Fault in Our Stars (I loved it at first, but was ambivalent mid-way through)
The Dinner (truly creepy, but cold)

Books Lots of Other People Liked But I Didn't
  (and why you can skip these, IMHO)
The Orphan Master's Son (an indulgent slog with a few moments of brilliance.  Mostly in the beginning.)
Magnificence (It's bad when the house full of taxidermy is the most exciting character)
Arcadia (The best part was the groovy cover)
Swamplandia! (Maybe I'm just not the abandoned alligator park type?)
Wild (enough with your toes, Cheryl!)
How I Live Now (Ends with mass slaughter in a barnyard, then a convenient flight back to NY. Right.)
Last Summer of the Camperdowns (One of those annoying books where nobody behaves logically, so of course things work out badly)
The Marriage Plot (Hated everyone in it)
Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Dreary)
The Interestings (Not)

What's On The Nightstand Now
The slate for the 2014 Tournament of Books has been announced, and I've loaded up on a few of the contenders.  I'm liking How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia at the moment, and can't wait to start these next few:

How about you?  Read any great books lately? Or, I should just stick with the brownies and do this again when it rains in LA next year...

* My daughter, on the other hand, wept buckets.
** I'm actually 100% sure people care more about the brownies and cheese dip.  And, for the record, I did get choked up during lots of these other books, so I'm not completely heartless.  Maybe I'll bawl when the movie comes out.
*** Guilty.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Baby, it's (Not) Cold Outside*

In fact, this is the forecast for today.

But, since one member of our family is considering relocating to a place where February looks like this**:

Evening snowfall

It seemed appropriate to turn on the oven and roast veggies for soup.

Cauliflower florets

Of course, even the snowiest days are always better with a little California sunshine thrown in.

Cauliflower florets ready for roasting

Roasted Cauliflower & Leek Soup w/Crispy Capers