brace yourself, baby…

by bam

waking up to a wind chill of -6, gliding into my fleece-lined yoga pants (yes, they make them!), my chilly thoughts turn to someone i’ve come to love dearly who is, for the first time in her california-girl life, waking up to this subzero shock to the ol’ ticker. she moved to these parts just as the october winds were picking up, and she thought that was cold! best i can think is: at least it’s not an earthquake. but i figured i owe her a welcome-to-deep-freeze, the chicago version of winter.

dear california girl,

um, welcome to february. bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing as a polar vortex. well, glide open your sliding porch door (if you can dislodge the ice and the snow jamming its tracks), stick out any limb you’re willing to sacrifice, and voila, that’s what the vortex feels like, that’s how cold it can make your blood run.

so, given that this is your first round of the deep freeze we call chicago, the goosebump capital of the midwest, i figured i might pass along the few things that i’ve learned over the years here on the tundra.

first, forget sleek silhouettes. we’re going for bulk here. we like to dress like we’re walking, talking bed pillows. the more layers and fluff we can stuff round our parts, the happier we hum (see “dress union suit” above). extra credit if you can see someone’s eyes. we are big believers in total occlusion of all open face parts. just cover ’em up with whatever might stretch over your head. big socks work in a pinch. but around here, we stock up on headgear with nothing but peep holes. think golf club covers, maybe minus the super-size tassel. COVID masks have nothing on us. we’ve been in the face-blocking business since, well, far back as i can remember. (note: that reminds me, sometimes the cold numbs your brain. just go with it. your gears will warm up again come the fourth of july.)

on the subject of sleeping, we look to the bears and their habits of hibernations. we find it’s important to stock up on lots and lots of berries before gliding into the caves. but instead of berries, plucked off the tangles of bushes, we cruise the grocery-store aisles, foraging wildly for sugars in their un-natural forms. cookies, crackers, whole tubs of häagen-dazs; these all do the trick. we recommend hauling a cardboard box to your bedside; fill to the brim. this way, once you slide under the layers (more on that in a minute) you’ll not have much of a reach should your very cold tummy start to growl like a grizzly.

now, about the bedclothes (see note no. 1: “we’re going for bulk here”). we find it helpful to mound the blankets as if it’s a snow fort, only it’s mohair or wool or your old girl scout sleeping bag. we recommend staying under the covers as long as you can. there’s really no need to expose yourself to the harsh assaults of a cold trip to the bathroom when winds are howling like sirens just out the windows that shake. (note we did not use the Q word — “quake” — because that is a word that belongs to shakier parts of the continent, specifically the state that was yours. again, we pride ourselves on our relative stability here in the land of no nonsense.)

things to do in the arctic: here, we narrow the lens. fact is, there’s a lot you won’t want to do. you will not want to step out the door. so that lobs off a long chunk of the list. you might try turning pages, as long as you’re wearing mittens with lids, a novel invention that allows you to flip back the mitten tops and wiggle your pinkies whenever you must. i’ve heard tell that jigsaw puzzles are fine for a long winter’s nap, but it’s noticeably nettlesome to doze when a runaway piece is lodged under your bum, or stuck down by your toes under the bedsheets. perhaps that’s why some choose to set up their puzzles on a card table shoved next to the bed. daydreaming, i find, tends not to tax. all it involves is pointing your eyes on some wayward spot on the wall, out the window, or up on the ceiling, and then engage in a thought and see where it travels.

should all this well-padded exertion begin to make you hungry for things not stashed in your cave, you might try the polar vortex diet. this involves high-carb fare, mostly smothered in cheese. why do you think the swiss of the alps invented fondue? and look north to wisconsin, where it’s taken as fact that you make it through winter with barrels of cheddar. if you glance over toward iowa (that’s the square of a state just to the west) you’ll discover that they deep-fry whole sticks of butter. again, this makes chicago’s deep-dish pizza (protests late night’s jon stewart, “it’s not pizza, it’s a casserole!”) look svelte and quite chic.

my short list is drawing to a close. fact is, the vortex won’t last forever. and i’ve shared all the basics: wardrobe, fuel, and diversion. mostly, just tough it out. it’s where we here in the middle lands get all our muscle. we’re a somewhat lesser species than those of the arctic circle, and we’d collapse in the tremor of earthquake, but when it comes to facing into the wind howling off the great vast lake, we’re sturdy as they come.

and no richter scale needed.

love, the bundled one

let me know what i’ve missed of the must-know and must-haves in the vortex survival guide. your input, always essential.

just decided to drop a little mac-and-cheese recipe, though the trouble to make it might make you wanna wait till the vortex is lifted. this, from the pages of Stillness of Winter, the beribboned little book i birthed this fall…

Cure-All Mac and Cheese (aka Vortex Survival Fare)

When the bee stings, or the homesick blues need quelling, this oozy spoonful of deliciousness belongs in a mama’s tin of kitchen cure-alls. It’s the ubiquitous remedy at our house for any ailment in the book. (And one or two make-believe ones, besides.) And it’s just what the doctor orders for frosty-cheeked rascals fresh in from the cold.

Provenance: Gourmet magazine, May 1995 

Yield: Serves 8 children

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1⁄2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1⁄2 teaspoon paprika
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound pasta, tubes or wagon wheels or whatever shape suits your fancy (a tube—penne or rigatoni, among the many—fills with the cheesy sauce and makes a fine, pillowy bite)
10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded coarse (about 2 3/4 cups)
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, coarse
1⁄4 cup (or more) Parmesan shavings 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish (the broader the crust, the better). 

In a 6-quart pot, bring 5 quarts salted water to a boil for cooking pasta. 

In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over moderately low heat, and stir in flour and paprika. Cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes; then whisk in milk and salt. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking, and simmer, whisking occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat. 

Stir pasta into pot of boiling water and boil, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain pasta in a colander, and in a large bowl stir together pasta, sauce, and 2 cups cheddar cheese. Transfer mixture to prepared dish. Macaroni and cheese may be prepared up to this point 1 day ahead and chilled, covered tightly (an indispensable trick when confronting a serious to-do list for a day of, say, birthday or holiday jollity). 

In a small bowl, toss remaining 3⁄4 cup cheddar with bread crumbs and sprinkle over pasta mixture, topping it all with a downpour of Parmesan shavings (a heavy hand with the cheese is never a bad thing, certainly not at my house where my boys insist I do so, preferring their cheese to supersede bread crumbs). 

Bake macaroni and cheese in middle of oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. At last: dig in.