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Category: cooking

at heart, it’s survival

pickled lime soup.

survival soup: pickled lime, lemon grass, knobs of ginger root, garlic, chili pepper (photo by kalyanee mam)

in this moment of pandemic, amid news reports that make us sometimes want to plug our ears, amid barren calendar pages turned week after week, our everyday tasks are shifted. gone is the dashing here and there (and that’s a very fine thing). gone are the awful tugs and pulls, the guilt strings that tell us we should be doing X,Y, or Z. 

instead, it’s distilled to more of the essence: the few things that really do matter, the ones that matter all the more because all the distraction’s been whittled away. we’re left with essential. and essential is this: exercise your heart, your voluminous, many-chambered heart. use it for its highest purest purpose. use it to love. use it to survive. use it for survival, plain and not so simple. 

or, as my online-college kid put it last night, as he pounded out one of his pile of end-of-semester papers: “corona mom, keep your boys safe. and sane.” (the emphasis on that second sentence, the way he emphatically tacked it onto the first, made it clear that that’s every bit of my job these red-ringed-dodging days. and i couldn’t take it more certainly to heart.)

i’d been thinking a bit about how–in between hours of proofing and re-proofing pages for a new book–my corona days have boiled down to a whole lot of caretaking. how hunting and gathering inform my weekly rhythms (primarily in the form of my hazmat-outfitted grocery-store runs). how feeding is hardly an afterthought. how each night i’m taking time to plot out some serious semblance of dinner, even if, like last night, tearing open bags from the freezer is part of the equation, and it’s hardly all scratch cooking. (though there are days when simmering pots on the stove are as close to incantation as a kitchen might be.) how spritzing pillow cases with lavender water, how scrubbing out the bathtub and sink, how all of it feels essential, verging on straight-up survival. yes, even the scrubbing.

and then, of course, there are the interludes when i’m plopped on the side of someone’s bed, rubbing little circles on someone’s weary forehead. or putting aside those pages of proofs when someone asks, “can you help me with this grilled cheese?”

it is all a part of essential. especially, emphatically, now.

and then i read an essay from a brilliant filmmaker (and lawyer), kalyanee mam, once a cambodian refugee, born during the god-awful khmer rouge regime, one of seven children whose early years were spent in a work camp, before her family escaped through jungle and landmines to a refugee camp on the thai-cambodian border. during the years of the khmer rouge, mam writes that her mother sustained her brood with umami soups, chicken rice, and fried noodles. and that template of nourish-to-survive is the one to which mam has turned in these corona times. she writes:

During these past weeks, I’ve thrown myself into the role of caregiver, as my mother once did. As I soak and sprout beans and rice, chop onions, carrots, and celery, mince and sauté garlic, knead dough, and bake bread, I am finding certainty, meaning, and purpose in preparing and sharing food and conversation with family, friends, and neighbors. In taking care of my loved ones and making sure they are fed, nourished, healthy, and well, I am also being fed. Time has stopped and nothing feels more important.

nothing feels more important.

it’s not every day that we realize that tending to the domesticities of our lives matters at all. most of the time, in the days before corona, that was the almost-disregarded part of what some of us did. those were the chores. the necessities. but maybe, somewhere along the way, we’d come to misunderstand necessity, confused it for meaningless. when, in fact, it’s everything but.

or, as kalyanee mam put it:

care and love are not luxuries: they are necessities, the essence of all life and our survival. in the worst of times and in the face of adversity, care thrives….when our basic human needs are threatened, including our need for certainty, meaning, and purpose, caring emerges to inform us that we are not alone. 

it’s this instinct to care, to take care, to make care, that might make all the difference. that might be the essence of why we’re here at all.

in pondering caring, and what it means to take care, mam writes of the anthropologist margaret mead and her idea of the first sign of civilization. it’s an insight mead long ago revealed in a lecture, and it was retold in a book by the eminent surgeon dr. paul brand, titled, the gift of pain. the revelation, and brand’s take on its meaning, unfolded like this:

“What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?” Mead asked, naming a few options. A clay pot? Tools made of iron? The first domesticated plants? “These are all early signs,” she continued, “but here is what I believe to be evidence of the earliest true civilization.”

High above her head she held a human femur, the largest bone in the leg, and pointed to a grossly thickened area where the bone had fractured and solidly healed.

“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice.”

With Margaret Mead, I believe that this quality of shared pain is central to what it means to be a human being.… And the presence of a caring person can have an actual, measurable effect on pain and on healing.

“civilization,” mam concludes, “begins with care.”

and so, we are, all of us, called to care, to share the pain of those we love. to exercise that glorious vessel, the heart. the one anointed and appointed to love and love lavishly. to love as we would be loved. to love as if there’s not a tomorrow. to love with all the urgency of now. as if it might keep us alive. because, truly, it might.

and with that, may your mothering day — a day for all who mother, who care, who love tenderly and fiercely and without end — may it be blessed.

your thoughts on taking care, on the exercise of the heart, and the necessity of love and survival? in any time, but especially now?

rice pudding trials

rice pudding trials

it must trace back to the breast. yes, the original suckling breast. (forgive me for shocking so early in the morning, but, yes, this is where we begin.) imagine the soft fullness of the mother’s breast, engorged with milk, tubes and ducts surging with all a little one needs. imagine the heartbeat just beyond the milk. imagine the baby’s cheek pressed against flesh; pillowed, you might say. imagine the countenances, eyes locked in a channel of concentration, mother to babe and back again. imagine the wee little curls of finger, grabbing hold and not letting go; flesh entwined with flesh.

that must be the original comfort food: sustenance. warmth. insistent and unceasing rhythm of heart, the original lullaby, non?

and so, we humans are hard-wired to seek it.

it should not surprise, then, that in a moment of global paralysis, when you can’t get out of the house where you grew up (and your mother and father have nothing more to do than indulge you in their too-lavish attentions), when your college campus is far beyond reach, when the springtime you imagined has gone up in red-ringed vapors, there might come urgency in the department of cooking.

comfort cooking might be the call of the day. comfort cooking might teeter on the sharp edge of survival. comfort cooking might be the handiest cure for the stuck-at-home blues.

which brings us, oddly, circuitously but certainly, to the subject of rice pudding.

what began as almost an afterthought at the grocery store, a last-minute swipe for some plastic-tubbed goo on the shelf, a goo labeled “rice pudding,” took on a bit of a life of its own. it started with an off-handed, “i wonder if you can make that” (for one of us grew up in a house in the space-age food revolution days when true kitchen liberation was found in the form of boxed mixes for everything, and scratch-cooking was so yesteryear; in the house where i grew up, brownies came from betty crocker’s red-spooned box, and not once did i witness rice stirred into pudding).

because one of us is in the business of gobbling down whatever is put before him, and another of us is especially in the business these days of reaching beyond the ho-hum, trying valiantly to infuse a touch of indulgence into the day, it became something of a quest in this old house to stir our way to rice pudding perfection. or, at least, a pudding sans gelatinous lumps, a pudding with just the right kiss of sweetness, a pudding so lick-your-lips-able that it might have you sneaking into the fridge in the wee, wee hours. a pudding with raisins, of course.

despite my protest and preferences, brown rice was immediately ruled out. forbidden, more like it. if this pudding was going to provide one ounce of comfort it was going to be washed out and white through and through. in a pinch, mark bittman (our go-to guy so very often, for he lures with his promise of “how to cook everything“) provided the road map: water; rice; salt; milk; sugar; cinnamon.

what resulted was soft, sweet, and passable. but that only taunted. we somehow locked onto the notion that what was needed was something spectacular. something so comforting it just might fill up every null and void, just might make us forget for one flash of a moment (as long as it takes to swallow a mouthful of pillowy softness) how hungry we were to get on with our once-ago lives….

and so the pudding trials commenced.

we sought out a coterie of experts: nigella lawson (she indulges with double cream, arborio rice, and muscat wine). the pioneer lady (she soaks her raisins in whiskey, for heaven’s sake, adds a splash of cream and — because she’s the pioneer lady — dollops a fat pat of butter). ina garten, aka the barefoot contessa (she takes it over the top with dark rum, basmati rice and — get this — 5 cups of half-and-half). we had ourselves a holy trinity of comfort makers, each with her own derivation.

and then, along came an heirloom from a friend, an unsuspecting formula for rice pudding confection. we knew it might be a winner as soon as we saw that the provenance was simply, “mother.” as in a nursery recipe passed from mother to daughter, one of the kitchen bequests that brings back whole moments in time, conjures up storybook scenes of kitchen comfort. that after-school moment when a pudding is spooned in a bowl, and along with fat grains of rice, afloat in a creamy perfection, there is a mother’s voice, soothing. perhaps even a hand rubbing the back, kneading the knots out of the shoulders clenched from a long day of worry or heartache.

that’s what an heirloom recipe does. that’s what comfort cooking is all about. it’s alchemy in its very best form: the power to heal, to chase away the blues, to restore your faith in the long days ahead.

here is my friend’s unadorned, utterly simple roadmap to rice pudding perfection:

Raisin Rice Custard
(Mother)

3 eggs
2 1/2-3 cups milk
2-3 T. sugar for each cup of milk (make as sweet as you like!)
1 t. vanilla
generous pinch of salt
nutmeg
1 cup or so cooked white rice (day old is best)
1 cup or so raisins

Scald the milk (heat slowly until little bubbles around edge of pan). Beat eggs lightly, add sugar and salt. Slowly add the scalded milk, stirring. Add vanilla and about 1/4 t. nutmeg.

Pour this mixture over the rice and raisins in a buttered 2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Bake custard in a pan of hot water at 350 for 50-60 min. or until knife comes out clean.

and here is nigella’s (note: it’s written for cooking in merry old england; translation necessary):

Nigella Lawson’s Muscat Rice Pudding
“I am not suggesting that the basic, plain version of rice pudding is in any way deficient,” says Nigella, “but this muskily ambrosial version is mellow heaven. Perfect dinner-party comfort food.”
Ingredients
500ml whole milk
500ml double cream
50g unsalted butter
150g pudding or arborio rice

250ml muscat wine
50g caster sugar

Pinch of salt
Fresh nutmeg to grate

Method
Preheat the oven to 150°C/gas mark 2.

Combine the milk and cream. In a 1.5-litre, hob-proof casserole dish, melt the butter over a medium-low heat, add the rice and stir well to coat, then add the muscat. Stir well and let the syrupy liquid bubble away for a couple of minutes. Then pour in the milk and cream and add the sugar and salt, stirring as you do so. Bring it back to a gentle bubble, stir well again and grate over some fresh nutmeg.

Put in the oven and cook for 2 hours, stirring after the first 30 minutes. Check the dish after 11⁄2 hours – the depth of the dish and the nature of your oven may make a significant difference. The rice should have absorbed the liquid, but still be voluptuously creamy. Remove and cool for at least half an hour before eating.

what’s your roadmap to comfort on those days when you’re ground to the bone?

in the dregs of winter, follow along…

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it was, to put it somewhat crudely, the armpit of the week, in the armpit of the winter. it was a wednesday night and one of us had broken out in spots. it was february and the snow could not decide to come or go. and the hoary shade of gray out the window was unrelenting.

so i turned to that source of so much solace (and heartache) over the years: the pages of the news. specifically, to the squat square pages the new york times had generously tucked into sunday’s paper. ONE pot|pan|skillet: 24 brilliant recipes for everyone who hates doing the dishes. while i am not among the doing-dishes haters, i am hot on the trail of hauling only one vessel from the depths of where i stash those things. i flipped pages till i came to this: IMG_1327

perhaps it was the orange and red mosaic that reached out and grabbed me. perhaps it was the whisper of my lovely doctor, nudging me to eat more fish, to interrupt the endless nights of skinless, boneless chicken breasts. perhaps it was that nip of spatula en route to plopping a mound of mouth-watering hake onto my dinner plate.

mostly, i think it was the february doldrums, the pitiful sight of the man i love covered in spots we thought were shingles (turns out, they were not), and the simple hope that i could cook myself out of the late-winter rut.

i set out with shopping list, promptly scooped up peppers red and orange and yellow. zipped past the vinegar shelf and got myself a jug of sherry-tinged such stuff. stopped by the olive bar and scooped up a quarter pound from the briny vat in which they swam. oh, and i waited in line for the fishmonger to pluck from his case a hefty chunk of midwest hake (aka plain old cod).

i’m not usually a follower of recipes, but this day — in need of being pulled deep into something other than the news squawking from the box, and the spots at home — i sunk right in. i played along. step 1 to 2, all the way to 5.

IMG_1319i chopped myself my own peppery mosaic, in shades matisse or van gogh would have applauded. i skimmed the itty-bitty leaves of thyme right off their stems. and then i chopped (chopping in the end of winter is highly therapeutic; i recommend).

at last, as the chilly afternoon turned to chilly twilight, i cranked the oven. there began the shifts of submission, as heat turned peppers into succulence, and then raw fish — and olives and olive oil and scattered bits of thyme — became magnificence, as if lifted from aegean seas, and the kouzina of someone’s expert greek grandma.

what wound up on dinner plates was nothing short of wait-who-made-this?! had he not been busy scooping up every last bit with knife and fork, the gent across the table might well have lurched to his feet, and pressed palms in rapid-fire rat-a-tat (aka applause). instead, we both took certain note of what a difference a bit of concentration in the kitchen, the mere act of following instruction, submitting to excursion in the land beyond routine, could do to an otherwise humdrum wednesday.

it’s those nearly invisible moments, the ones we lift out of the ordinary, make sacramental through the sheer gift of our attention and our intent to lift them up, to hoist them from the ho-hum, that in the end makes each day count. and turns out swell eats, besides.

should you care to play along, here’s a very fine place to begin:

Sheet-Pan Roasted Fish With Sweet Peppers By Melissa Clark

YIELD 3 to 4 servings (i made for two, cutting quantity of fish in half, but keeping all the peppers)

TIME 40 minutes

Quick to make and very pretty to behold, this easy weeknight dish has more verve than most. The roasted bell peppers turn sweet and golden, while olives add a salty note that goes nicely with the mild, flaky fish and a garlicky parsley dressing. If you can’t find hake, cod or flounder make fine substitutes, though you may have to adjust the roasting time. The thicker the fillets, the longer they will take to cook. (i cooked cod at 475-degrees for 8 minutes.)

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INGREDIENTS

1 small bunch lemon thyme or regular thyme

1 1⁄2 pounds hake fillets (for two, i used 3/4 pounds cod)

Fine sea salt and black pepper

3 large bell peppers, preferably 1 red, 1 orange and 1 yellow, thinly sliced

4 1⁄2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1⁄4 cup pitted, sliced black or green olives, or a combination

1 teaspoon sherry vinegar, plus more to taste

1 garlic clove, grated

1 cup loosely packed Italian parsley leaves, chopped

 

PREPARATION

Step 1 Heat oven to 400 degrees. Pull 1 tablespoon thyme leaves off the bunch and finely chop.

Step 2 Season fish all over with a large pinch or two of salt and pepper and rub with chopped thyme leaves. Let rest at room temperature while you prepare peppers.

Step 3 Spread peppers on a rimmed sheet pan, and toss with 1 1/2 tablespoons oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the black pepper to taste. Top peppers with the remaining thyme sprigs. Roast, tossing occasionally, until peppers are softened and golden at the edges, 15 to 20 minutes.

Step 4 Increase oven temperature to 500 degrees. Push peppers to the edges of the pan, clearing a space in the center. Lay fish out on that empty space and drizzle with oil. Scatter olives over the top of fish and peppers. Roast until fish turns opaque and is just cooked through, 6 to 10 minutes.

Step 5 Meanwhile, make a vinaigrette by combining vinegar, garlic and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Whisk in remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, then whisk in parsley. Taste and add more salt or vinegar, or both, if needed. Serve fish and peppers drizzled with vinaigrette.

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i intend to cook my way through at least a dozen of the double dozen choices the times has laid down before me. we’ll be almost at the cusp of the vernal equinox by the time i’m there, and that, i’m certain, will all but save me.

what’s your sure cure for late-winter doldrums? have you heard the shift (and acceleration) in birdsong? that’s hope on a limb, if you ask me…..startles me with joy each and every morning…..

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eddies of joy

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for months and months, and especially as august drew near, and september tumbled upon us, as this old house turned quiet and oftentimes hollow, it was a question i fielded over and over and over again: what will you do now that you’re an empty nester? or, the variation: how will you handle this empty nest?  

one friend came to the door with a jumbo-sized carton of kleenex. it was an apt gesture.

the truth about our lives is that, more often than not, it’s a current that’s rushing and there’s little, quite frankly, we can do to alter its course, to slow it or stop it from running down rapids, to re-route the channel it’s gnawed through the earth.

but the thing about rivers is this, a thing that i learned long long ago in the woods where i played on the banks of a creek, tracing the course of the flow with a long pointed stick, or by tossing a log or a leaf or a twig and watching it go, making the invisible visible: sometimes rivers — or even a rain-swollen creek — run fast, and run wild; sometimes, the river runs lazy, its waters scuttled off to the side, caught in a pile of leaves, or tangle of sticks, idling or whirling in some extra-deep groove spooned from the oozy bottom.

in river talk, that’s an eddy.

ed·dy /ˈedē/ noun: a circular movement of water, counter to a main current, causing a small whirlpool.

in life talk, it’s the wholly unexpected moment that seems to come out of the blue, the ones we hadn’t seen coming. in this particular case, at this turn in the bend of my particular river, it’s a dollop of joy. the sudden awareness that, without a whole heckuva lot of planning nor thinking too hard, you find yourself idling in a nook or a cranny you’d not wholly imagined, in a newfound pool of something that soothes you.

turns out that in these vast stretches of days where it’s mostly just dinner for two, where my most frequent companion for hours on end is unbroken silence, the dinner party is my newfound eddy of joy. aside from the fact that our overdue list is long enough to leave me penniless if life was charging fines, i’ve unwittingly found myself delighting in the joy of dinner table equations: mixing and matching various combinations of conversationalists — the deep and quiet listeners, the ones who say not a lot but whose words when they do choose to speak are the ones that rumble for days in your head, the laugh-out-loud storytellers, the ones who lean in and soak up each word, the ones who always know something you’ve never heard of.

i consider the ones to seat around the table, and then i consider just what to concoct for a multi-course feast intent on striking a particular note: autumnal warmth. winter cozy. and i never stop at the food. that’s just a part of the stage set. to me, all of it matters: the crackling logs in the fireplace, the fireworks-worthy explosion of blooms soon as you walk in the door. the candles flickering on the table, yes, but all along the window sills, too. what i’m after is a whole-body immersion, a wrap-it-around-your-shoulders sense that you’re in a house that wholly and emphatically welcomes you. we want you here. we want to hear what stirs you and strikes you. we want you lavished in welcome.

the dinner party — unlike my other most favorite gathering, just the two of us, leaning in over hot mugs of tea, pouring our hearts out — is all about the alchemy of a particular cast of characters. it’s less certain than the tete-a-tete. there’s a sense of adventure, of risk, of putting yourself more on the line (especially if you’re the one practicing prestidigitation at the stove).

and, as i am wiping dry the very last glass or the fork at the wee end of the night, when i awake the very next morning to the afterglow of a leftover-stocked fridge and the lingering echoes of laughter, i am reminded that sometimes the river of life — even when you’ve been nervously cowering on the side of the bank — will carry you into nooks and eddies you’ve been seeking forever and ever.

so here’s a recipe that practically made me jig with joy. a friend who’s a vegetarian was coming for dinner, and this one tickled my fancy. it’s a variation of nigella lawson’s roast stuffed pumpkin. whether you make it for one or two or eight, it’ll carry you to an eddy of joy. that’s a promise.

roasted stuffed pumpkin, ala nigella + me

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 6 1/2- to 7-pound sugar pumpkin, or other pumpkin suitable for eating
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, 2 minced, 1 halved
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup toasted walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon 
  • 10 mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 large handful spinach leaves
  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • Salt

PREPARATION

  1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Fill a kettle with water, and bring to a boil. About an inch below the top of the pumpkin’s ”shoulders,” about where it would be cut to carve a jack-o’-lantern, slice a lid from top of pumpkin, and set it aside. Remove seeds and fibrous flesh from inside.
  2. In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, toast the walnuts for a minute or two, moving constantly. Remove from heat, and set aside.
  3. Using the same saucepan, heat the oil, and sauté the onion until it is softened. Add 2 minced garlic cloves, and sauté for 30 seconds. Then add mushrooms, and cook for one minute. Stir in the cranberries, and spices. Add the rice, and stir until it is glossy. Pour in stock, and bring to a boil. Cover, and reduce heat as low as possible. Cook for 15 minutes. Meanwhile rub the inside of pumpkin with cut garlic clove, and rub with some salt to taste.
  4. When rice has cooked for 15 minutes, it will be damp and not very fluffy. Adjust seasoning to taste, and spoon into pumpkin cavity. Press lid firmly on top. It may sit above stuffing a bit like a jaunty cork. Wrap bottom two to three inches of pumpkin in a double layer of foil to protect it from contact with water during baking. Place in a roasting pan, and add about 1 inch of boiling water to pan.
  5. Bake the pumpkin until it is tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 1/2 hours. (If there is resistance when pumpkin is pierced, allow more baking time.) To serve, remove pumpkin from pan, and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes. Discard foil, and place pumpkin on a serving platter. Slice into segments like a cake. Place a wedge of pumpkin on each serving plate, and mound with rice stuffing.

what are your eddies of joy? what are the ones you never saw coming?

 

stockpiling

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it felt almost like instinct. as the weeks narrowed to days narrowed to hours, i couldn’t keep from stockpiling. soon as the boy — now sleeping just overhead, in the bed by the bend in the stairs — soon as the boy told me he’d found a ride after all, was coming home for a three-day break — fall break, officially — my fill-the-larder instincts kicked in.

lavish him in all the tastes and smells and textures and offerings he could possibly wish for. that seemed to be the propelling mission.

so i stockpiled. stockpiled pumpkin pie from the farmer’s market, grabbed a loaf of banana bread while i was at it. stockpiled cider and raspberry rugelah. ordered up a chicken pot pie from a mama who makes it delicious.

the sheets on his bed hadn’t been touched since the day after he left the room empty as empty could be, the day i scrubbed every last inch of that room, as if preserving something ineffable. the room, more relic than place to hang out these days, barely needed a flick of my wrist. but i vacuumed anyway.

the prodigal papa back in the bible, he wasn’t the only one who knows of the fatted calf. i too might have tossed a beast onto a pyre if chicken pot pie hadn’t been to his liking, the kid who rode six swift hours in the back of a minivan, the kid who all but tumbled onto the street once the four wheels pulled to a stop there at the curb.

we squeezed so tight it’s a miracle all my ribs are still in one piece. i wiped away tears (of course) and then we loped in the house, past the welcome home sign that only made him laugh, because it’s a truth in this house that you can hardly take a trip to the grocery store without finding a welcome home sign upon your return.

inside, once he kicked off his shoes, he too seemed to kick into some instinctual and ancient reflex: he walked room to room to room to see if anything had changed, to make sure all was as he’d left it. then, and only then, did he settle into his most native rite of settling in (be he gone for merely an hour or long weeks on end) as he began to circle the kitchen island in the way he (and his brother; it must be genetic) forever have done, ambulation propelling cognition it seems. story spilling upon story, each one told to the beat of his footfall.

he punctuated his stories with poking around the pantry, inspecting the fridge, and, after all the wind-up, picking a plain old box of make-your-own mac-n-cheese, the kind he’s loved since he was three. and so his first feast at home after seven and a half weeks wasn’t the hoosier mama chicken pot pie, wasn’t the homemade cranberry-studded applesauce, wasn’t the farmer-baked banana bread or the kosher-deli raspberry rugelah. it was the starchy pile of pasta shells swirled with powdery cheese turned into goop. he nearly licked the pot, my boy who’s grown three-quarters of an inch since last he was home (we pulled out the tape measure and measured).

all that spooning into his mouth must have left him exhausted, for the next stop on the homecoming tour was a flop backward onto his bed, and a sigh of pure joy like nothing i’ve heard in a very long while. he mumbled something about how glorious it was to sleep on a mattress that cared for a spine and all its spiky little vertebrae. but then he was off in dreamland, not to be heard from for hours and hours.

it didn’t take me long to realize there’s something (very much something) of the human heart involved in all the stockpiling. it’s almost as if in shopping and shlepping and stocking the shelves (and the fridge and the countertop and the blue willow plate under the cookie dome) we’re giving the blood-pumping muscle a boost. almost as if all the comestibles are edible poetry, are the extensions of our vocabulary. as if they pick up where words cannot go. as if they’ll reach deep into nooks and crannies, as if they’ll saturate every last cell that just might need to be bathed in the notion that someone loves you through and through and through. as if we can’t go the distance all on our own.

it’s almost as if the stockpiling is squeezing every last drop of that thing we call love out of the tired old muscle — the magnificent vessel — that is the human heart. that storehouse deep inside our ribs where all the love is churned, is harbored, is pumped into the ether. almost like it’s a little bitty factory, a production line of loving, that never ever dies. not even when we do, i’m utterly certain.

it all made me wonder if this might be the rhythm from here on in, in these days when the boys i love most dearly are far far from home, and their visits grow less and less frequent: will i learn to stockpile, to fill the larder with all the love i used to lavish day upon day, hour after hour, the barely-noticeable ministrations of the heart — the kiss on the forehead while they’re sleeping, the whiff of their hair while setting a plate at their place at the old maple table, even the occasional deep inhale and sigh when tossing piles of muddy sweaty clothes into the wash? will i store it all up, every last drop of it, and save it for when they come home, when it will all but ooze out of me, when i all but plant myself at the door of his sleeping room, just to watch the rise and fall of his breathing? will i ever not miss the days when i used to wear them, literally strapped into bundles across my chest? the days when their itty-bitty plump-dimpled hands were always reaching up for a lift or a hug or a squeeze round the neck? all our life long, the gestures of love shift and evolve. and while the deep caverns of the mind grow more and more nuanced and brilliant, sometimes it’s the old ways, the skin-to-skin entanglements of mother and child that i miss, that can’t be replaced, can’t be once again, all over again. IMG_0365

so we stockpile. we store it all up, and we ooze it all out for those short few hours and days when they’re close enough that we can hear their breathing, bury our nose in their necks. one deep inhale, one that’s going to need to last for weeks or months on end.

***

it’s been a busy week around here: my first book review for Orion Magazine is online. twas of a beautiful, beautiful memoir, The Salt Path, about an epic journey propelled by unlikely homelessness and a dire diagnosis, one that leads to epiphany, and you can find the review here.

but the bigger news of the week is that the book i’ve been working on for months (years, actually) is officially published and stocked on the amazon bookshelves. it’s my friend mary ellen’s book, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude,” a collection of her beautiful breathtaking essays. here’s what i wrote when i posted something of a birthing announcement on facebook yesterday:

When Mary Ellen started her blog, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” on March 2, 2012, she harbored a flickering hope that someday it might lead to a book. She never dreamed she would die just four years and 11 days after “Hummingbird” first took flight. Yet her dream of a book never died. And so, after a few years of culling and sorting and weaving her essays into a whole (a labor of love that became mine when I found out a month after her death that in her will she’d appointed me “custodian of her creative work”), it is with pure joy that Mary Ellen’s family and I announce the birth of her book, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude.” It’s a distillation of Mary Ellen’s profound wisdom, her unending gratitude, and her unrelenting search for and discovery of joys even amid the shadow of grief and fear as she traversed the uncharted landscape she’d never imagined. It’s slim and it’s elegant and it shimmers with a beauty that was hers alone. Her words, her urgent pleadings, are sure to etch deeply into your heart. It’s available in paperback and e-book, and you’ll find it on Amazon.

two versions of covers, one for the e-book, left, and one for the paperback, right. i was constrained by the strictures of the platform, but tried to make the whole of the book as beautiful as mary ellen’s indelible words…..

how do you stockpile — and lavish — the love in your life?

summer’s saturation point

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there comes a moment, maybe it’s late afternoon when the whir of the cicada rises to jackhammer loud, maybe it’s standing by the bins of tomatoes at the farmer’s market cradling just the right red orb in your palm, maybe it’s sinking your toes in the sand as it cools by the minute at nightfall, but sure as can be, there comes a moment when you know — up, down, and sideways — that you’re in the thick of surround-sound super-saturated summer.

and this is the moment to make the most of it, seize it, lick the juice of it off your chin, bury your toes a little bit deeper, turn the page and keep right on reading: dinner can wait.

this is summer. summer is this.

especially the summer when every ounce of you is counting down. when you wake up knowing how many days there are. how many weeks till you pack up the wagon, and whisper the holy-garden-angel prayer*. (* the prayer that was born when little ears in the back seat behind you were certain the one to whom you were reciting allegiance, the one to whom you petitioned, was none other than “holy garden angel, protect us.”)

especially in august.

so here we are: time for your summer’s checklist.

have you sliced a perfectly ripe, perfectly juicy giant green-striped tomato? a caution-yellow one? one with a fanciful name (cherokee purple, green zebra, Mr. Stripey, montserrat?) and even more fanciful pings to your tastebuds?

have you unfurled a beach towel in your own backyard, flung yourself onto your back, and counted the stars?

have you plucked the sand from in between your toes?

have you lost an afternoon deep in the pages of a hot-burning summer’s read?

have you carried home so many bulging bags from the farmer’s market that the welts in your arm lasted till noon?

have you wished even once that this day — or this hour, or moment — would never ever come to an end?

have you fallen asleep to the nightsounds rushing in through the screens? along with the breeze that tickles your toes?

have you plunked yourself in your favorite perch — maybe a tree house, maybe a cushioned ledge by an upstairs window — and done nothing more arduous than watching the world go by?

have you grabbed a fistful of mint from the garden, rinsed it under the faucet and watched it float in a pitcher of ice, water, and sliced wheels of lemon?

have you stayed up late, and gotten up early, just because you can’t get enough of these summery hours?

have you whispered a prayer of undiluted glory-be for this moment, the blessing of being alive for one more summer?

maybe now is the time….

and here, just because, is the summeriest recipe i’ve stumbled upon in the last string of summery days….(p.s. it’s the dressing that launches this over the moon…..the summery moon, but of course…)

Arugula, Watermelon and Feta Salad 

Yield: 4 servings 

Ingredients: 

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice 

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)
1/4 cup minced shallots (1 large)

1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 

6 cups baby arugula, washed and spun dry
1/8th seedless watermelon, rind removed, and cut in 1-inch cubes
12 ounces good feta cheese, 1/2-inch diced
1 cup (4 ounces) whole fresh mint leaves, julienned 

Directions: 

1 Whisk together the orange juice, lemon juice, shallots, honey, salt, and pepper. Slowly pour in the olive oil, whisking constantly, to form an emulsion. If not using within an hour, store the vinaigrette covered in the refrigerator. 

2 Place the arugula, watermelon, feta, and mint in a large bowl. Drizzle with enough vinaigrette to coat the greens lightly and toss well. Taste for seasonings and serve immediately. 

what’s on your summer’s checklist?

an ode to indolence…

i’ve long called this the indolent season, the season for never mind, que sera, oh well, and  it’ll do. the season for open windows, bowls of zaftig summer fruits, and what’s-ever-easy for so-called supper.

but indolent is just a fancy-pants way of saying lazy. indolent merely hides the truth behind an extra lobbed-on syllable. truth is, lazy is the straight route to what we’re after here; indolent is a bit more round-about.

my friends the etymologists* put it like this:

lazy (adj.)

1540s, laysy, of persons, “averse to labor, action, or effort,” a word of unknown origin. In 19c. thought to be from lay (v.) as tipsy from tip. Skeat is responsible for the prevailing modern view that it probably comes from Low German, from a source such as Middle Low Germanlaisch “weak, feeble, tired,” modern Low Germanläösig, early modern Dutch leuzig, all of which may go back to the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)leg- “slack.” According to Weekley, the -z- sound disqualifies a connection with French lassé“tired” or German lassig “lazy, weary, tired.” A supposed dialectal meaning “naught, bad,” if it is the original sense, may tie the word to Old Norse lasenn “dilapidated,” lasmøyrr “decrepit, fragile,” root of Icelandic las-furða “ailing,” las-leiki “ailment.”

and so, the ode to indolence is, in fact and without an ounce of folderol, the ode to lazy, the season that this is:

lazy is what i am right now, decked out in hand-me-down khaki shorts closed by safety pin instead of zipper.

lazy is dumping berries in a bowl, and deeming them “dessert.” (or at the other end of the day, “breakfast.”)

lazy is screen doors that slam behind your bum.

lazy is open windows all night long; never minding when the ping-ping-ping of rain arrives. lazy is rolling over, merely tugging at the summer-cotton sheet.

lazy is making do with the curious assemblage on the refrigerator shelf; ditching one more trip to the grocery store.

lazy is marking one long afternoon in nothing more arduous than the turning of pages. and no one says you need to hurry through a single one. you might, perhaps, spend half an hour — or more — pondering a single sumptuous string of words. or maybe even just one shining gem of syllable.

lazy is plopping onto an old wicker chair (one long overdue for paint job), and staying there till the underside of your thighs are pocked in wee little divots, wicker-induced every last one, the inverse of a case of hives.

lazy is looking up into the night sky, connecting dots of stars, and calling it “a picture show of celestial proportion.”

lazy is hauling the hose from its garden wheel, cranking the spigot to semi-throttle and watering your toes. why haul off to the beach — the need for towel! for sunscreen! for jug of ice cold water! — when a slow trickle from the rubber-mouthed serpent gets you the very cool you were after in the first place?

lazy is emphatically embracing a life of lolligagging through the days and nights, stringing out the summer holiday for all the indolence it offers.

so call me decrepit, dilapidated, or just plain lazy. i’m conserving kilowatts for trudging-through-the-snow-drift season. and i’m too indolent to unearth a juicier excuse.

from the pages of slowing time, here’s an indolent dessert: 

cobbler

From the Summertime Recipe Box…

No-cook summer, the aim. Pluck tomato from the vine. Shake with salt. Consume. Repeat with the sweet pea, the runner bean, the cuke. And who ever met a berry that demanded more than a rinse — if that? Thus, the blueberry slump. A no-frills invention, concocted — lazily, one summer’s afternoon — in the produce aisle. Even its verbs invoke indolence: dump, splash, dash…spoon and lick. With lick, though, comes a sudden surge of gusto.

Blueberry Slump

(As instructed by a friend bumped into by the berry bins; though long forgotten just whom that was, the recipe charms on, vivid as ever…)

Yield: 1 slump

2 pints blueberries dumped in a soufflé dish (fear not, that’s as close as we come to any sort of highfalutin’ cuisine Française around here….)

Splash with 2 to 3 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice

Cinnamon, a dash

In another bowl, mix:

1 cup flour

1 cup sugar

1 stick butter, cut into pea-sized bits

{Baker’s Note: Add a shake of cinnamon, and make it vanilla sugar, if you’re so inspired…(I usually am. All you need do to make your sugar redolent of vanilla bean is to tuck one bean into your sugar canister and forget about it. Whenever you scoop, you’ll be dizzied by high-grade vanilla notes.)}

* Spoon, dump, pour flour-sugar-butter mix atop the berries.

* Bake at 350-degrees Fahrenheit, half an hour.

(Oh, goodness, it bubbles up, the deepest berry midnight blue. Looks like you took a week to think it through and execute. Ha! Summer in a soufflé dish. Sans soufflé….)

* Serve with vanilla ice cream. But of course….

Tiptoe out to where you can watch the stars, I was tempted to add. But then I quickly realized you might choose to gobble this up for breakfast, lunch or a late summer afternoon’s delight. In which case a dappled patch of shade will do….

fat and sassy blueberries

how do you define lazy? and what might be a verse in your own ode to indolence?

*credit to my friends at etymonline.com, the online etymology dictionary

waffling

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waffling, as in waffles (and bacon and hash browns and berries, etc., etc.) by the dozens and dozens…

i’m doing my arithmetic. multiplying quarter cups and teaspoons by multiples. i’m firing up the waffle iron. dumping hash browns in a vat. i’m making first-friday, end-of-high-school brunch for however many high school boys decide to swoop through the front door any hour now.

mostly, i’m squeezing every last drop of joy out of this bumper crop of boys i love. boys i’ve known, some of them, since they were wee tots. i’ve watched first days of kindergarten, first school-bus ride, first loose tooth, first sleepover, first at bat and strike out, too. i’ve watched this crop from almost the beginning, the whole lot of them. i’ve been nothing more than a bit player at the margins of their childhoods, but i’ve been keeping close watch, and i’ve been listening. i’ve known of dark shadows haunting some of them, and scary monsters that would not go away.

across the years, i’ve grown to love this brood. i’ve watched as they’ve reached out to weave a tapestry of love, a band of brothers, if ever there was. i’ve watched them surround the boy i love the night he got cut from soccer. i’ve watched them pile out of a van, bearing ice-cream cake and cookies, the night the kid i love got sidelined in the middle of tryouts, after getting kicked in the head in a scramble at the goal, and the trainer could not let a would-be concussion back onto the field. i’ve listened as i drove them mile after mile. remember back to second grade, when one tried to teach the others the intricacies of quadratic equations. heard them race to read 100 books one summer. watched them run around the neighborhood giggling, chasing make-believe superheroes on their phones. and, in the latest interlude, i’ve listened closely as each one reached for college dreams, listened closely as heartaches came and they leapt in to console each other, to bear the hurt together, share the load, shake it off, and laugh the night away after all. they are each other’s front-line rescue squad of heart and soul. theirs is a deep-grained bond, a glorious brand of friendship i wish could be bottled, sold on supermarket shelves. we’d all do well to learn a thing or two from their thick-or-thin inseparability, their faith in each other’s goodness, their forgiveness at ordinary bloopers.

it’s a blessed thing to love not just your own, but a whole flock of little rascals. to blink your eyes and see them not as little rascals shyly coming to the door, but grown men (with shoes twice the size of mine) now looking me in the eye, engaging in nuanced conversation about the politics or the heartache of the day.

i’m going to miss the lot of them — their cacophony rising from the basement where they gather with nothing more risqué than pretzel twists and gatorade, where they drape themselves amoeba-like on arms of chair, on beanbags, on the treadmill track (unplugged and motionless, at least most of the time). i’m going to miss the way they swarm the kitchen, locusts sucking up whatever crumb of carb or sugar they can find. i’m even going to miss the rides to school, where conversation keeps time with NPR, and we engage in everything from venezuela to william barr or the latest bit of drama from the high school halls (i only catch the latter if i’m listening really really closely).

they’re a bunch of boys so good, so unblemished, it gives me hope — a bumper crop of hope — for the world.

missing the whole lot of them might make it a bit more tolerable to imagine missing only one. the one and only who’s been haunting these halls all by his lonesome for the last eight years. ever since the steamy august day we dropped his big brother off at college, and motored down the highway, wiping away the tears that would not end.

we take our goodbyes in sips and bits. makes it far more bearable than one big final gulp. we animate those leave-takings with the wrappings of joy. with one more excuse to fire up the waffle iron, crank the oven, haul out the maple syrup by the gallon.

long ago, when i too was a high school senior and my mom and dad were out of town, i somehow invited every single girl in my class (that would be a few hundred) for may day breakfast before the school bell ring. i somehow thought of that the other day, and thus the invitation for the flock of high school senior boys. thank goodness it’s not the entire class. i’d be neck-deep in waffles, if it were.

i’m getting off easy here this morning. waffles for 20 oughta be a breeze.

what are the rites and rituals of goodbyes that have animated your years? and while we’re at it, anyone have a simple plot for keeping waffles, bacon, sausage and hash browns hot and to the table?

my ancestral irish blessing, slathered with butter.

shannon soda bread

he came to me, as all sprites always do, when i wasn’t looking. just popped up one day inside the gremlin-filled flat-box that is my 21st-century laptop. it’s as good a place to find an enchanted character as ever there was.

he’s my sprite of an irish cousin — third cousin, in fact (i let him do the math) — and he came to me out of the ether, and filled me ever since with doggerels and ballads and pictures and stories, all thick with a brogue. he’s filled in — as much as he possibly can — the wide and deep vacuum of history on my papa’s side of the family. the straight-from-ireland side. the side i knew least about, but wondered most about, because it’s the side i see when i peek in the mirror, and it’s the side that belonged to my pa. and, well, it’s mythic to me.

it’s a tale filled with ocean crossings, and childbirth deaths, and heartbreak hard upon heartbreak. one uncle was struck by lightning, when he ran to hide in his kentucky tobacco barn from a midsummer storm of biblical proportion. (the uncle who found him — his kid brother — might have drowned his sorrows, dying of liver disease years later.) another was slashed in his tent in a midnight attack on the japanese island of iwo jima. before he shipped off to war, that uncle — danny was his name, my dad’s oldest half-brother — ran the legendary calumet (horse) farm, just outside lexington, kentucky. and the triple-crown champion, whirlaway, was one of his stable.

in my cousin paddy’s telling, there is plenty, too, to make your chest swell. and your eyes grow misty. and some that just plain raises your eyebrows. among the latter: there’s the uncle who served as a jailer in a wee kentucky town, and while trying to lock up one of the infamous hatfields or mcCoys found himself bit in the head by the rascal. (no fool, that uncle up and hightailed it to the california coast, far as he could get from hillbilly feuds).

a few months back, dear paddy sent along a treasure in the form of a slip from the ancestral recipe tin: the very irish soda bread served at the family homestead hard by the bridge in kildimo south, in the county of clare, in the west of the great verdant isle.

if you’ve poked around here for more than a minute or two, you know that i consider the kitchen a mystical magical place, a room where you can bring old souls into your midst through the simple stirring or sifting of flour and soda and sugar.

so it was that i found myself the other afternoon with fists deep in the pillowy mound of flour, soda, salt, and buttermilk that is the beginning and end of the true irish soda bread. no sugar! no raisins! paddy exclaimed, shaking his fist at the kitchen profanity.

as i brushed the mound with the last dabs of buttermilk, and, not an hour later, pulled the golden loaf from my sputtering oven, i good as felt my grandma mae peeking over my shoulder, her breath on the back of my neck. close as i’ve ever felt to the one whose genes are mine (in a rare moment of heart-baring, my pa once told me how much of her he saw in me — she’d died years before i was born; and i sensed over all the years that he said very, very little because it hurt too, too much).

because paddy himself is inimitable — and purely lovable in his unfiltered tongue — i’m unfurling the recipe just as he wrote it, swear words and all. his vernacular spice takes it up more than a notch in my book; a soda bread with swears is the way it should — and ever will — be.

be sure to slather with good irish butter.

Paddy’s Irish Soda Bread

(West Clare Recipe)

There are only (4) four ingredients in Traditional Irish Soda Bread, Flour, Baking Soda, Salt, and Buttermilk. No More No less. I don’t give a tinkers hoot in hell what you’ve read, eaten, or heard! You put anything else in it you are not making Irish Soda Bread. I first had this bread served by Great Aunt Katherine Ni Shannon Marrinan at the Anna Bridge House in Kildimo South, Clare in 1970. She baked it over the turf fire. Yep had the Irish Butter and the Orange Marmalade for the first time as well with strong cups of Irish Tae. Kitty Ni Shannon Downes also made it for me at the Half Door in Miltown Malbay and it was just as grand. It’s especially good after a night of drinkin’ the porter…….settles the stomach before ya go to bed.

Ingredients

(Use a Dry Cup Measure for the flour – Not a Liquid Measure)

4 cups(16oz) of Gold Medal Bread flour

1 Tablespoon Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Salt
14 Oz of Buttermilk

  1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt and baking soda. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk. Using a spatula or your hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl. The dough should be soft but not wet and sticky.
  2. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface. Wash and dry your hands. Knead the dough lightly for a few seconds, then pat the dough into a round, about 1 1⁄2 inches thick. Place it on a baking sheet and using a sharp knife, cut a deep cross in the center of the dough reaching out all the way to the sides. Then brush over the loaf with a bit more of the buttermilk.

3. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees, and continue to bake until the top is golden brown and the bottom of the bread sounds hollow when tapped, about 30 minutes longer. Serve warm. Cut in semi-thick wedges.

4. Now then get yourself a couple slabs of Kerry Gold Irish Butter. Yes it really does make the difference when eatin’ Irish Soda Bread. And I don’t want to hear from any Mick blatherskite goin’ on about it being too “Dear”. Shut the hell up Paddy and cough up the shillings.

5. Orange Marmalade. King Kelly was the best. Came out of California. I used it for over 30 years. However, Smuckers bought them out then discontinued the King Kelly Brand and Recipe. My friend from the County Mayo likes the “Dundee” brand but what the hell does a bitter ole Mayo Man know about anyting? If ya like the bitter side of tings then get it. I suppose I’m stuck with Smuckers until I can find something even vaguely close to King Kelly….Jayzus…..Dundee Indeed…..

6. Now go buy some Irish Tae. Barry’s Irish Breakfast Tea or Plain Barry’s Irish Tea. I like Barry’s Irish Breakfast but sometimes it’s just not available. I’ve been known to drink Tetley’s Englash Breakfast Tea but keep your gob shut about it. I may be a Traitorous gobshite but you’d be an Informer!

Bonny Petute Paddy Shannon

may your days be filled with the swirls of long-ago tales, and homespun heroes. and this:

May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

what’s your family heirloom, of the kitchen variety? 

this one’s for paddy, who has unfurled his heart and filled mine. much love from your ol’ cousin babs…

taking up the challah challenge

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years and years ago, when my kitchen confidence was far wobblier than it is now, i tried my hand at friday challah baking. i wound up with paddles of braided bread that appeared amphibian and reptilian. there were a couple weeks of challah masquerading as crocodile. challah as lobster, with vengeful claws reaching across the table. my challahs looked anything but edible. my challahs begged for names. and cages.

so i surrendered, bought my weekly challah at the grocery store. but, because it comes only in sizes fit for half a synagogue, we almost always have leftover loaves hardening in the corner. i have a slew of ways to use it: i’ve frozen so many picked-over loaves a peek in our freezer might make you think we eat one and only one foodstuff — challah in varying stages of ice age; i’ve mastered bread pudding and french toast (can do both with my eyes closed); we’ve sliced it for a million saturday PB&Js; and of course our squirrels get a steady diet (i wouldn’t be surprised if our squirrels know the hamotzi, the challah blessing, by now).

and every friday night i’ve sat across the table from that oversized soul-less loaf, and dared myself to take up the challah challenge: “take a deep breath, and a humble packet of baker’s yeast, and see if you can once again find it in yourself to pull two golden braids from the oven, adorn your friday night shabbat table with bread you’ve kneaded and blessed with silent incantations all on your own, start to finish.”

yesterday, in full trial mode, i dove in. i am here to tell you that instant yeast is nothing to be afraid of. (this declaration is nothing short of revolutionary for a girl who grew up in a house where yeast was spoken of in hushed tones, as if a living-breathing creature that might wreak uncharted havoc if not treated kindly and gently enough. and, yes, my mother baked bread often in those radical suburban ’70s, so the misappropriation of fear and loathing is all my own. she is hereby declared innocent of that particular quirk of mine. now pie crust, that’s another story….)

i turned once again to the step-by-step instructions of my challah-baking friend and long-ago ally, henry, who with his family had escaped nazi germany, and who regaled me with tales of his mama’s friday baking and her magnificent golden braided loaves back in the old country, before all was shattered. though the pages now have yellowed, i found henry’s instruction clear and encouraging as ever, as i pulled his three stapled sheets from my cookery file, and followed along, triumphant at each and every stage. because i was baking challah on a thursday, there was something of an experimental air to the whole shebang. didn’t matter if i flubbed it. didn’t matter if it never rose (though i would have felt my heart deflate right along with the lack of yeasty rise).

and i was all but jubilant when, at quarter to three, i pulled from my wobbly old oven (it gets as hot or warm as it’s inclined on any given day, paying no mind to the faded numbers on the oven dial), two sturdy loaves. two loaves studded with sesame and poppy, onion bits and garlic, too (i had bagel topping in the pantry and figured it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle with abandon — i was later informed to ditch the bagel topping, “this isn’t a bagel, mom,” and go the purist route: sesame or poppy, not both, not ever again).

i’m hardly exaggerating to declare my two loaves adorable. (see photo above!) after admiring abundantly, the taste-testers dove in. besides the plea to ditch the bagel-y topping, there came a request to please make it “eggier.” i’ve already consulted “the bread baker’s apprentice,” written by the master of bread, peter reinhart, aka brother juniper. he’s got a roadmap riddled with eggs — two whole + two yolks, and a host of other instructions besides.

so next week it’s challah 2.0, and i’ll keep at it till i’ve mastered these doughy batons. not long ago i met a woman who bakes like a fiend and, come friday afternoons, she piles her back seat with challahs galore, and drives and delivers to a circle of loved ones numbering into the 20s. i’d like that. imagine myself, pewter hair flapping out the driver’s side window, as i steer my station wagon — aka the challah mobile — hither and yon, flinging loaves as i go.

it’s all part of a scheme to infuse more intentionality into my days. to conquer those wee quirky fears, the ones that stand in the way of the bigger more daunting ones. slay a little dragon, and perhaps you muster the muscle to take on the giants. and in the meantime it quiets my fridays, ushers in the holiness of shabbat in the hours when i’m alone. i know enough of the meditative calm that comes with kneading and waiting, waiting and punching down dough, waiting some more. to bring to the table a loaf, blessedly braided, a loaf into which i’ve infused my prayers, a loaf just the right size for the two of us who, henceforth, will be the two main players at our shabbat table, once the youngin shoves off for college. it’s holy, all right. and triumphant besides.

and it sates a hunger of the most soulful kind.

 

a few fun challah facts from my friend brother juniper: garnishing the loaves with seeds, either sesame or poppy, symbolizes the falling of manna from heaven, and the covering of the challah with a cloth as it’s served on shabbat represents the heavenly dew that protects the manna. how lovely is that? so lovely.

what little dragon might you already have slain, or determined to slay, in this blessed new year, a chance to rise again?