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Category: cooking for company

pausing for hello

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it’s as old-fashioned a gathering as any i know. the one where — instead of just waving while hauling out the trash, or yelping a how-d’-do as you dash three-bluestones-per-leap up the walk — you let out a holler, a hospitable one, up and down the block, and invite the whole flock to your kitchen, warm mugs palmed in your hands, stories brewing.

i’ve not hauled out my vat of a coffee percolator in a very long time.

but it’s time. we’re long overdue. that’s what we all said, as each and every reply trickled in.

on the block where i live, we used to find ourselves in each others’ kitchens, oh, at least every few months. there was summer theatre in the alley, where the kids, the whole lot of them, sang and danced and sewed, learned their lines, built their stage sets, even rigged up contraptions for flying. there were new year’s day parades, with the tykes all bundled and barely able to shuffle, what with the layers and layers that padded their limbs. there were the occasional no-real-reason gatherings, and the annual swedish extravaganza for santa lucia’s feast day (complete with candlelit caroling and bottomless kettles of svedish meatballs and lutefisk).

we all knew each other as deeply as neighbors might. we thought nothing of calling in the middle of the night if need be, and yes, there were nights when the needs wouldn’t wait for the dawn. all our kids grew up rubbing elbows and shoulders and wits. growing into each other’s hand-me-down pants, and more than one blazer that had barely ever been worn. more than one kid might have had a wee crush on another, learning love over the backyard fence.

but then, one by one, houses changed inhabitants. kids grew up, moved away. every once in a while a kid hit a rough patch, and we all prayed mightily. and then, without a word, we would give the mama room and time to untangle the knots, and drop off dinner once or twice with no need for a thanks.

and not too long ago, the house next door to mine, it welcomed new folks for the first time in 47 years. so, this time, i’m the one plugging in the industrial-sized caffeine machine. and cranking the oven. and slicing the pumpkin-cranberry loaf.

they’re all making their way to my kitchen. only for a short spell of time — a mere couple hours — on a friday morning, as the week draws to a close. but i want my new next-door neighbor to know the good souls who surround her. i want to make sure this circle of mostly old friends takes time to pause, to not only learn her name, but some of her story as well. i want her days to be stitched with the small wonder of a neighbor who drops a sack of just-picked tomatoes onto your doorknob. with the joy that comes when the lady down on her knees in the mud of her garden shouts out something so hysterically funny you find yourself chuckling for the next three hours — or days. want her to know who she can call in the middle of the night should, God forbid, she ever need to.

we’ve tumbled into each other’s lives through accident of geography. because we all found a particular house, a place where we’ve nestled our dreams and fluffed a few pillows besides, on the very same block in the very same village, in the very same era of time.

life does that: throws you together. makes you bump up against each other in the comings and goings of your humdrum day. and, soon enough, once you’ve caught the gleam in someone’s eye, once you’ve licked a spoon of the apple butter they leave at your backdoor, once they’ve cried with you over the death of your cat — or your very best friend, or your mama or papa — or shown up at the hospital just to see if you need anything, you find yourself falling in love. with this one patch of earth that seems to ooze old-fashioned kindness and goodness of heart. and the very good people who grow there.

i’m hoping that by the time my new neighbor strolls home, after a mug or two of high-octane coffee, after a spear of pineapple, and maybe a clementine, chased with a steamy mound of hot-from-the-oven cheesy strata, she’ll know a bit more deeply just how priceless was her real estate find.

so while i dash to the kitchen to chop the pineapple, pile high the clementines, and slice a few loaves of autumnal breads, i’ll leave you with a taste of what i’m pulling from the oven: the recipe for the spinach-cheese strata i’m serving all the mamas of maple avenue, the ones i’ve known for a very long time, and the ones who are new to the brood.

Spinach-Cheese Strata
from Gourmet magazine
Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings
Active Time: 30 min
Total Time: 10 hr
Ingredients
• 1 (10-oz) package frozen spinach, thawed
• 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion (1 large)
• 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 8 cups cubed (1 inch) French or Italian bread (1/2 lb)
• 6 oz coarsely grated Gruyère (2 cups)
• 2 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup)
• 2 3/4 cups milk
• 9 large eggs
• 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Preparation
Squeeze handfuls of spinach to remove as much liquid as possible, then finely chop.
Cook onion in butter in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and nutmeg and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in spinach, then remove from heat.
Spread one third of bread cubes in a buttered 3-quart gratin dish or other shallow ceramic baking dish and top evenly with one third of spinach mixture. Sprinkle with one third of each cheese. Repeat layering twice (ending with cheeses).
Whisk together milk, eggs, mustard, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl and pour evenly over strata. Chill strata, covered with plastic wrap, at least 8 hours (for bread to absorb custard).
Preheat oven to 350°F. Let strata stand at room temperature 30 minutes.
Bake strata, uncovered, in middle of oven until puffed, golden brown, and cooked through, 45 to 55 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Cooks’ note:
• Strata can be chilled up to 1 day. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before baking.

have you paused to make a new friend lately? and, what’s your favorite welcome-to-the-‘hood recipe?

 

rx for the end-of-winter blues

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i’d not realized as i ambled through the grocery aisles that i was stumbling on a cure for the end-of-winter blues.

or at least a hearty inoculation against its jagged edge, the one that leaves you nearly flopped over, drained of all vims and vigors.

i filled my cart merrily, madly, picking up speed as i tossed in accoutrements i don’t normally pluck from shelves with such abandon. there were crunchy things in a thousand shapes. there were bottles to be quaffed. there were the makings of icing-slathered cinnamon rolls (those makings, truth be told, came in a tube that is merely slapped against the counter’s edge, disemboweled, tucked in a 9-inch-round, and baked till the morning kitchen fills with heaven-scent of butter, cinnamon, vanilla, the holy trinity of essential deliciousness. and who really minds if those smells emerge from cardboard tube; is not the point simply that somehow they emerge?).

a crew was descending on this old house, a crew of men six-feet-tall and taller, and they are hungry men, young men, twenty-somethings who flew in from three east-coast cities to poke around the middle of the country they’ve, until now, ignored.

they are the best pals of my recent college graduate. and they chose this snowy, cold march weekend to make a slumber party of our house. there were limbs strewn everywhere when i awoke this morning. and not long after, morning groans, the noises young men make when they are hoisting selves from sleep.

i’ve now fed them, quenched their thirsts, and sent them all southbound on the early-morning train. it’s quiet now, but in their wake i realize they’ve all shot me through with just the things i needed: noisy distraction. unbridled merriment. disruption of the old routine.

there is nothing quite as curative as a house that’s filled, a house in which the shower runs for the better part of an hour, as one hops in and one hops out. a house in which the sink is swiftly piled. and even better, all the pillows from the couch are madly strewn.

i once longed for a flock of kids to call my own, but i’ve realized over the years that The One Who Pulls Those Strings must know me better than i do, for truth be told i might collapse under the weight of more than two. so i get my fill in occasional blasts of multiples.

over the years: the gaggle of sleepy-eyed second graders who emerged from sleeping bags to squeeze around the kitchen table, hands flying, syrup spilling, as they pulled their portion from the flapjack stack i’d plopped before their hungry eyes. the nights the basement hit capacity, with every bean bag occupied, and i was tapped from slumber to be the designated driver for the winding roads to half a dozen homes. or the lunchtimes when the backdoor flung open and kid after hungry kid piled in, testing my capacities in the griddle-flinging challenge.

it heals me every time. i get lost in the reverie. of their secret codes. the jokes i only half hear. the kicks under the table i seem to never miss.

i love the mad swirl of company. i love a room where the rafters ring with human hum. i even love a kitchen that seems to have been overtaken by a team of poltergeists. and messy ones at that.

while i might more naturally be a girl who loves her whispered tete-a-tetes, knees huddled under cozy blankets, i can spring to full-throttle animation when the ones i love are surrounded, buoyed, pole-vaulted by the ones they call their nearest and dearest.

the next 60 hours in this old house will rise and fall with the ebb and flow of cacophonous company. i’ll breathe deep, inhale the whole of it. i know, too soon, it will be but a memory, a long tucked-away soundtrack from that one glorious weekend when this old house opened wide its rooms, and invited in a slew of dreams come true.

***

and in other news, dear beloved chairs, i must pass along this bit of blessing: i signed this week a contract, a long-awaited contract, for another book, one that comes from the deepest place in my heart. its title, for now anyway, is motherprayer: lessons in loving, and it’ll be out a year from now. it’s coming from the same publisher as slowing time, although i’ve a new editor for this one, and she is a dreamy dream if ever there was. more details as they emerge. having done this once, it might be even scarier the second time round, but i steady myself with the dear and deep souls who ring this table. it’s all been keeping me tap-tap-tapping away for months now, and it promises to keep me at it.

as the world beyond our tables feels more and more inhospitable, tell me who taught you the fine art of hospitality, and what’s your dream equation for great good company, and the ways you make each and every someone feel deeply much at home?  

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make-believe b & b

company coffee

if you put your ear to the floorboards around this old house, you might pick up a hum. a particular hum. a hum that’s more like a purr. (it would be found amidst the gnarling and churning that comes with waiting for news, editor news.)

that hum, i’ve come to determine, is the purr of an innkeeper in the making. a girl who makes believe she’s running the best sort of b & b. not one for money, but one for pure love. in recent weeks, we’ve had a long and sumptuous string of company. company of the very best kind: overnight, nestling deep into the morning. sometimes, day upon day.

overnight company affords moments that in-and-out company does not. overnight company affords these things: curling under a blanket, on the couch, as the stars turn on, burn deep into the night; ferrying trays of coffee and cream and wee little vases of wee little blossoms up to the bedroom door; settling in for long conversation that courses through the homework hour, as you practice the fine art of juggling your math tutoring skills along with your conversational curiosities. overnight company makes a wednesday night prestidigitate into the feel of the night before christmas.

overnight company is being wrapped in angora threads, throwing the blanket of friendship across both of your backs — yours and that of your overnight friend — and each of you pulling tight on your end of the threads.

overnight company allows for slow unspooling inspection of every last inch of the heart and the soul. or at least a good hearty guffaw deep in the hours of darkness. and, sometimes, a revelation or three.

because home is the wellspring of my heart, welcoming people i love into these chambers is the highest art in the art known as hospitality, a word with 14th-century roots, one that wends its way through old french and on into latin, where it’s derived from hospes, “guest,” and has come to mean “friendliness to guests,” (or if you mis-read as i first did, friendliness to ghosts. egad).

it’s the french knots and tiny twists embroidered into the course of the stay — be it a mere 18 hours, or as long as five days or even (gasp) two weeks. it’s filling the fridge and the pantry with the very deliciousness a particular friend savors, a secret you know because you’ve spent the years of your friendship paying attention. it’s stacking fluffy towels on the broad-lapped armchair, and punctuating the stack with a dark-chocolate sweet, and a french herbal soap. it’s tucking a water bottle and a vase of bright blooms at the bedside, because you’re aiming for beauty and full-throttle comfort, and stumbling in the dark for a drink in the night is hard on the toes and no fun, besides. it’s planning a dinner that’s at once unassuming and deeply satisfying, one that’s best if slow-cooked and accomplice to the trick of filling the house with wafting clouds of garden-clipped herbs and spices and fruits of the season.

it’s waiting at the train station. or driving into the city to fetch your overnight visitor. it’s clearing the deck for as much or as little conversation as the friend has hours or inclination.

it’s the blessing of hearing the footsteps from overhead as you’re down in the pre-dawn kitchen, slicing pumpkin-y bread, and popping the garnet-jeweled seeds out of the pomegranate’s oozing belly. it’s knowing the next face you see coming round the bend is one you’ll never get enough of. and there, over early morning swirl of caffeine, you begin the day, emboldened by this rare gift of starting the hours together.

over the years i’ve learned that i’m far more inclined toward one-on-one conversation. will take a tete-a-tete over a horde any old day. give me deep. never mind a room that’s buzzing with noise.

i savor a conversation that doesn’t drown out the tick or the tock of a clock in the next room over, a conversation that allows the pauses to speak as robustly, as tellingly, as the pop and the sizzle of the words. i am drawn to burrowing, deep in the heart, as well as under the deep stack of afghans tucked by the fire. and i find it best done in ones and twos.

it’s all the romance — and, really, the architecture — of friendship. of considering each and every sensory vessel a channel into the heart, into the endosperm of why we’re here in the first place: to find our shared thoughts, to hold our visions up to the light, to march in each other’s company, to hear the sound of our footsteps in tandem. to discover we’re not all alone. not always, anyway.

much of it comes, i’m certain, from my years curled up with fairy tales and picture-book pages. i was a dreamer early on, and always will be. maybe it comes from wanting so deeply to be tucked under the covers at night. or maybe it’s simply because the sound of a china teacup tinkling against a saucer or spoon, is a song that sings to my delicate heart. maybe it comes from knowing how enchanted it felt to be ushered into a wise woman’s greenhouse, one tucked at the back of a great gothic castle long long ago, and the crisp-edged memory of being served from a pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice and offered a plate of pepperidge farm buttery cookies, all dappled in afternoon sunlight. all whispering into my ear how very welcomed i was — how much i mattered — in that magical envelope of time and place.

or maybe it’s simply that i feel bound, sometimes, by the walls of my heart, and i turn to whole-body expression to tell the ones that i love just how deeply i love them: i cook for them, clean for them, tuck treats onto pillows or trays and carry it all to their door. i can’t always find all the words, so i wrap them in the swirl of all that i love.

it’s a bold hope that they won’t leave this old house without this knowing tucked in their heart: they are loved without bounds, forever and ever. amen.

how did you learn the art of hospitality? who were your shining lights and teachers? and what are the little remembrances — the french knots and tiniest stitches of hospitality — that melted your heart and made you know you were so very welcome in the life of someone you love? 

welcome mat. even when it’s borrowed…

welcome mat

dispatch from 02139 (in which dear old friend rolls beneath the transom, but before she does we whistle while we work, loving the art of red-carpeting for a friend…)

the coq au vin bubbled away. the flannel sheets, unfurled and tucked tightly onto bottom bunk (with nursing-school-acquired hospital corners as far as i could reach). even the bathroom mirror got spritzed with shiny polish.

i hummed the whole day long, from the moment i awoke (at 4 when the cat let out a yowl). till the last stalk of hyacinth was plucked into a vase, an olfactory and faux springtime attempt at masking the inconvenient truth that the kitty-litter bin has nowhere else to hide but alongside the claw-foot tub in the already itty-bitty bathroom, the one just inches away from the living-dining-conviving rooms.

a dear friend was flying into beantown, a friend from long ago and far away (we’ve been close as close since the day she wandered into the tribune newsroom back in 1985, and through the years we’ve weathered many of the bumps that life can bring).

all day long i savored the pure oxygen that is the art of putting out the welcome mat. even when it’s borrowed.

puttering for this particular friend is all the more delicious because a.) i ADORE her, but b.) she too loves the art of red-carpeting for a friend, or making like the keeper of a dreamy b & b, one who wholly grasps the concept that it’s the little details — a fresh pitcher of water by the bed, complete with lemony life rafts floating in the drink; a paperwhite bulb bundled in see-through wrap tied up with string and plunked atop a stack of fluffy towels, a token to take home; the red-wine clouds wafting from the oven — that whisper, “i love you, my friend, and i’ve taken every care to wrap you in the luxuries of deep, long friendship.”

if you’ve ever been taken care of in this particular way — and i hope and pray you have — you know the magic powers of this potion.

perhaps you too have been lulled into dreamy state as someone paved your way with the beautiful. as someone thought two steps ahead, and laid out a fluffy robe, filled a canister with bath salts and rubs. stocked the fridge with icy drinks, or left out a tub of cocoa, fat marshmallows and king leo peppermint sticks.

all in all, made you feel like the cherished guest they’d waited a lifetime to behold.

i’d long been an under-the-radar admirer of these domestic arts. didn’t want to let on (not too loudly, anyway) that i might secretly pine for martha stewart — her actual self, not merely her glossy pages — to be stationed at the back of my pantry. nor that i spent time dilly-dallying over fresh-picked bouquets or tucking lavender sachets between my linens.

but then, some years back, it was this particular friend — one of my most brilliant, certainly among the most widely and deeply read, harvard-educated and bayou-steeped, a newspaper scribe-turned-public radio news hound — who once confided that she was hankering to write a book on, not the influence of castro on miami’s cuban ex-pats and not the cajun roots of zydeco (which i might have guessed), but rather on hospitality, pure and, yes, holy.

it is, of the many nesty arts, one of the most exuberantly selfless.

it is about wrapping the ones you love in the comforts you might only dream about. maybe some of us tend to overthink it because we so deeply wish we were so wrapped. or, to be even more honest, because we wish we had the knack for being kinder and gentler to our very own selves. and so in doing for others we inhale, absorb, deep-breathe whatever afterglow seeps out.

i’ll not ever forget the long-ago weekend i spent tucked inside my radio friend’s coconut grove, florida, tile-roofed house. i can still hear the tumble of the tomato chunks as she poured that evening’s gazpacho from a chilled pitcher into wide-waisted goblets. can still feel the egyptian-thread pillowcases against my cheeks. still hear the jazzy soundtrack that played softly as we curled on the couch, catching up on whatever stories hadn’t fit in all the long-distance phone calls.

and so, two whole decades later, i still indulge in returning the indulgence whenever she comes to visit. and, even after all these years spent on far ends of the continent, she makes a point of doing so at least once every year, even re-routing her itinerary this week from LA (where she lives now) to DC’s inauguration with a stop in cambridge, so we could — together, on a chilly misty day — walk her old stomping ground.

and this time round, with my college-girl budget (meaning the few dollar bills that happened to be in my wallet), i got a bonus round of seeing what i could do without grabbing for the credit card. which somehow made it all the more delightful. the nice man at the flower stall in harvard square let me buy a single hyacinth stem, then threw in — for good measure — a clutch of laurel branches. i scrounged in the stairwell for the leftover bottle of bordeaux someone gave me for my birthday, and that — with a plop of chicken, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms — became my bubbling brew of coq au vin. clean sheets don’t cost a dime, nor do fluffy towels. nor bowls of oatmeal stirred and studded with cranberries and raisins. the fresh snow falling out the window came free too. and the long long hours of unbroken conversation. even the sumptuous global gala at the ambassador’s house, one filled with women peacebuilders from the world’s most war-torn countries (all in town for a one-week women’s peacekeeping colloquium, and with which a few scribes — including me — helped out), it all made for 36 hours of sacred time.

and 36 hours that will forever be tucked in our shared treasury of time magnificently spent.

although i’ll add to those heavenly hours the 12 that came in pre-amble, as i whistled while i worked. and, at every turn, thanked the angels for the gift of this most delicious company, a once-in-a-lifetime friend you forever love through and through and through….

what are some of the welcome tricks you tuck up your sleeve, for i happen to know there are a few masters at the art of hospitality who so benevolently pull up chairs? do tell. a girl can never ever have too many tricks in this divine department….

hunger game: how to feed 1,000-plus pounds of manly flesh

dispatch from the land of 02139 (in which chief cook and mama of big strapping man-boy stands at the cupboard of her cambridge flat, scratching her head, trying to determine just how to feed the hungry hordes due to descend any hour….)

tisn’t a nursery rhyme, and though my last name isn’t hubbard, i do feel a bit like that old mama who stood before her cupboard and found it, if not bare, at least begging.

here’s the backstory: for 48 years now, the great rolling river just at the bottom of our hill (the charles is its name, so given by colonialists who offered a nod to their faraway king) has been the site, every third saturday and sunday in october, of what’s billed as “the world’s largest two-day rowing event,” drawing some 9,000 rowers from all over the world, who will put boats and oars into the water, and row, baby, row.

it’s called the head of the charles regatta, HOCR for short or those in the know.

and this is that weekend, which the lovely organizers refer to not merely as the “third weekend in october,” (how pedestrian) but rather as “the penultimate” (that’s second to last, you’ll recall; oft-confused, wrongly, as best of the best) full weekend in october. (this is cambridge, people, where words are pulled from the highest of shelves, never down low where mere commoners forage).

it’s a 3.2-mile paddle down a sinuous river that threads under six bridges and takes not one but two rather sharp turns, and apparently makes for some fierce banging and clanging of boats, oars and expletives, as boats that don’t make the turn smash into the flanks or the rears of those that do. sounds like a blood sport on water.

and how nifty could it be that after five seasons of rowing, and lord only knows how many miles of wishing, our very own rower, that strapping 6-foot-almost-3 lad, is for the very first time dipping his toe and his oar into the head of the charles, and paddling like heck, from the start at the dewolfe boat house, near the charles river basin, way, way down to the finish, just past what’s called the eliot bridge.

with his very own mama and papa and wee little brother screeching their lungs out, from high atop a footbridge that’s just down the lane from where they happen to be dwelling for this one sumptuous year.

there is a God, and she must be a rower.

ah, but the olympic feat for me, the one that has me up nights making my list and checking it twice, has nothing to do with oars or turns in the charles, nothing to do with coxswains and shells (the $75,000 fiberglass rowboats), and everything to do with hunger.

the entire varsity boat (minus the shell, thank goodness) is crashpadding with us.

that’s 1,000-plus pounds of manly flesh and bone. and that’s five bottomless tummies.

heck, we’re just up the riverbank. we’ve a roof and heat. and who cares if there aren’t nearly enough beds?

apparently, collegiate rowers do not.

all they care about is the cupboards, and what flips from the cookstove.

that’s where i come in.

early on, the plan was that i’d be feeding them the eve-of feast (the carbo-load, thank the heavenly hosts, was last night in the college cafeteria, as it needs to be 48 hours pre-paddle). but, turns out, (and with college kids there are always U-turns and roundabouts) i get the post-race nosh, saturday night, and the morning-after gorge, come sunday.

be still my hungry heart.

i’ve stored up mounds and mounds of bread (the freezer looks like a tundra of challah and sliced-up baguettes). i plan on clearing the shelves at the grocery today of all cheeses and plump links of sausage. henhouses are on high alert, as i need, oh, five dozen eggs. for starters.

and juice. oh, lord, juice. i might just dial a tanker, and have it lurch to the curb out front, unspool a hose, thread it up through the windows, and have the boys stand there and guzzle.

don’t even whisper the R word — “red meat,” if you must — for i’ll be taking out loans to leverage that big whopper of a bill.

and once we conquer the feeding, we shall inch our brains to that other obstacle of the weekend: the toilette.

hmm. four big boys and a lithe little coxswain (pronounced coks-en, she (for often it’s a she amid he’s) is the one who sits down low at the bow of the boat, screamin’ and hollerin’ and calling out which way to turn). one porcelain bowl with seat, lid and flusher.

hold that pretty thought in your head.

i have. (remember folks, this is a two-bed apartment with a one-toilet bathroom, that is shared, now that i’m letting you in on all of the secrets, with our sweet little kitty’s very own rendition of a powder room, aka the litter box.)

maybe, while i’m dialing up the OJ tanker, i ought to scroll around for the port-a-potty people, and add one or three to the weekend tab.

let it be declared, high and low, that there is not so much as a droplet, not even a micro-driplet, of complaint here. (and, yes, i know you know that already, those of you who know that i live and breathe to flutter about like a mama hen, feeding my hordes, cooing and clucking.)

it’s just that, well, it’s going to be a page in my scrapbook that i’ll never ever forget.

mostly all i can picture is the morning after, when all those tired-out muscles, those floppy hard limbs, will be splayed this way and that on the floor of this pad, and i’ll tiptoe over and through the mounds, trying to get to my skillets and oven.

then, while they dream of the bends and the bridges of the great river charles, the ones they’ll have coursed — please, God — without collision, i’ll be steeped in my weekend’s challenge: cookin’ up vittles (slang spelling for victuals), to sate the hungers of my very own rower and his bottomless crew.

recipes, please?

dear chair people, and so another week passes. this one certainly held highlights: the visit from grammy (who now knows what it is to sit in a harvard lecture hall, surrounded by laptopping freshmen); dinner at the over-the-top over-baroque home of an ambassador named swanee (yes, as in the river) hunt, in which for the first time outside a church i sipped from a sterling goblet at a table set thusly for 24 hungry nieman fellows; a visit with the former greek prime minister, george papandreaou; and to round it all out, a fireside chat with the CEO of NPR, who in a previous life was head honcho at sesame street, and thus might be the rockstaringest dude in the media pantheon. 

i realize i’ve been amiss in playing word-of-the-week, so to make up for missed opportunities, i’ve a slew to toss your way, all culled from virginia woolf’s sublime “mrs. dalloway.” here goes:

lollop: to move in an ungainly way, clumsy paces or bounds; or to bob

concord: agreement, treaty

obsequious: trying too hard to please someone; excessively obedient or respectful

pother: a commotion or fuss

pertinacious: persistent or determined

breasting (as in breasting the stream): to face and move forward against or through

vagulous: wayward, vague and wavering, a Virginia Woolf-ism

and because it’s all so sumptuous, how bout  few fine lines, to boot (again, all from “mrs. dalloway”:

“…she was like a bird sheltering under the thin hollow of a leaf, who blinks at the sun when the leaf moves; starts at the crack of a dry twig.”

on sewing: “…her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt.”

describing grand houses of London: “….halls laid in black and white lozenges…”

“turning one’s nerves to fiddle strings….”

“long streamers of sunlight…”

on “the compensation of growing old”: “the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, turning it round, slowly, in the light.”

so that’s it for this fine friday.i’ve a class to dash off to. and one pulsing question: how would you feed my hungriest hordes?

cooking for company

i’ll be humming today. most of the day. for i have one main mission: i’m cooking for company.

oh, no one’s ringing the bell till tomorrow night. and when the bell rings it will be old, dear friends. friends we grew up with, all of us with jewish-catholic kids, all of us finding our way. among the crowd will be the woman who took my breath away long, long ago, when we sat down to a table at the very first meeting of our little interfaith school, and she looked up and down both sides of that table and announced: “we’re here, because one or both of you (among the pairs learning their way in the raising of jewish and catholic children) is passionate about your religion.” a finer reason to be at a table, i’d not encountered, not lately.

that particular woman, and her particular husband, rose to hero status in my mind, when one rosh hashanah we sat down at their table, a whole ring of good souls seated there, and the doorbell rang. and a disheveled but beautiful woman stepped into the room. her name was “lovie,” and she was homeless. but she knew, because she’d been ushered in so many times, that if she climbed the steps of the front stoop on berwyn avenue, she would always find a place at the table, and endless plates of food. but more than that, she would find the richest, most curious company.

no wonder i call this crowd my lights along the way.

our children are grown now, the ones who together reached for the crayons and drew pictures of God, the ones who traced the histories of judaism and catholicism. who read the stories of clashes and wars and injustice, sometimes, heartbreakingly sadly, under the banner of God.

each one of the couples who will come to my table tomorrow, we’ve all just deposited a child — or in one case, three children — far away at a college — or colleges, in the case of the triplets. where the growing goes on, far far away from all of us.

and because i love each and every one of these someones, i am cooking my heart out.

for a minute or two, i considered ordering in. calling up the middle eastern place with the fabulous kifta and shawarma and baba ganoush, reeling off my plea for oversized aluminum pans filled to the brim with deliciousness.

but i changed my mind.

these are great good souls i want to cook for. i want to chop and stir and saute. i want to hear the red wine glugging into the pot. want to hear the chicken sizzle when it hits the olive oil, the garlic.

i want the house to fill with the savory song of coq au vin cooking.

i want to put a bit of my heart in that pot. i want to have labored.

because, call me crazy, i think you can taste it.

i think when you cook for company, when you cook for people you love, it always comes out in the broth, in the essence. could that be the reason we sometimes lick plates?

it’s the same with setting a table. it’s as if you wedge open a space in your heart. you lay down forks and butter knives and old chipped china with a mix of charm and occasion. you lay down layers of story: those plates found in the cupboard when you moved into the house you bought from the two guys who took the time to find out you loved blue, and figured you were a wiser option than the resale store, where those old willow plates would have been headed had you not fallen in love, with the house, yes, but, too, with the guys who were selling it.

it’s why i’ll be out in the chilly cold garden today, clippers in hand, bringing in heads of hydrangea and rosehips to tuck in a vase, to make it all beautiful. layers of beauty, i’ve found, gild conversation. make words sparkle. stories tumble and spill, like jewels from a bag.

it’s all part of the alchemy, the gift and the joy of inviting in company. of taking the time to clear out a date, to anticipate, to imagine the words and the faces crowded there in the kitchen.

there is nothing i love quite so much as a crowd in my kitchen. i love the snippets of words, of one someone’s story mixed with another’s. sometimes, i step off to the side. i soak it all in. i memorize the moment.

and then, when everyone’s deeply absorbed, i might lift the lid on my old red dutch oven. the hint of the wine and the garlic will rise.

deep down, someone might notice, might realize, might get it: she cooked for the whole of us. she didn’t take short cuts.

in a world of instant and virtual, she did the real thing. she cooked from her heart. she pulled out a table of beautiful somethings.

she set the stage. and company came.

xoxo from my house to yours. what’s your go-to company recipe? and what fuss do you make in setting the stage? i am utterly taken by the fine art of hospitality, of those good-hearted, generous souls who understand the magic of gathering company and making it last long after the last of the sparkling cleaned dishes is tucked back on the shelf. spill your dinner party secrets and stories, if you please….

no empty chairs

this is what it looks like at my house at the breakfast table, on the mornings when the chairs are filled. and the bench, too, lined up with little bottoms, squeezed in, squirming in the ways that little boys do.

this is what it looks like when the early-morning whispers wake me, when a bedroom’s filled with little boys, sleepy-eyed boys, boys who can’t help but look little in their waking-up moments, boys who by day are practicing being big. one of them even sports a cell phone. they all use it, communal cell.

they are little boys and they have come to inhabit not only my house, but my heart.

ever since the big one moved on to college, the little one seems to have decided that this is a sharing house, a house where more is better, more is most.

and so, come friday nights, or saturdays, little boys with sleeping bags and pillows (and the occasional cell phone) come stumbling in the door, tumble up the stairs. they play and run and giggle. much giggling.

they are shy, some of them. and polite, all of them. heart-piercingly so. they’ve not read the journals mourning the demise of innocence. they still blush, some of them, when i call them, “sweetie.”

but it’s okay. i’ve not been scolded, not yet anyway, for calling those little boys all sorts of oozy names.

those boys, in ones or twos or threes — and once, so help me God, a four — they animate this house, they lull me off to sleep with their whispers past the midnight hour, and they stir me in the morn when i hear the pillows rumble way before i expect to hear a sound.

a bedroom filled with little boys is a beautiful thing. is a thing i thought i’d never see.

when you’re the mother of two boys who span as many years as mine, you’ve not grown accustomed to the rolling, sprawling, tumbling of double-decker boys. you mostly watch them spin in passing orbits.

so this little one, this little one who springs to life when with his buddies, he seems to have ordered up the very prescription for all our hollowed-out hearts.

he skipped no beats in dialing up that first slumber fest, the first week beyond the college drop-off. nearly every weekend since, this house has doubled or tripled its population of boys.

and i could not purr more contentedly. i could not cluck more cluckily.

best of all is when the morning comes. and i get to mother henning, all right. i crack eggs. pour milk. add dashes of vanilla and cinnamon. i slide bacon in the oven (for we learned that roasted turkey bacon, sprinkled with a dash of brown sugar, maybe rosemary, vulcan salt when the college kid comes back, is not only splatter-free but perfect to the tooth).

i set that table with a vengeance. just like in the old days, before the college boy was gone. i slap down forks, knives, spoons. in multiples. i line up glasses. set out jugs of juice.

and then the footsteps come. less a pitter-patter than a galump down the stairs. and there they are, the sleepy-eyed, pink-cheeked little boys, lined up by the cookstove. taking what i offer. always saying thank you.

sweet boys, these boys.

that’s when the old maple table springs to life. it is crowded, along each edge. arms are grabbing, passing, oops, sometimes spilling. but no worries here.

i know, through and through, that a house where food is good, is plentiful, is a house to which the gaggle will return.
and i want those boys to grow up here. i want to be a seamless part of their unfolding before my very eyes.

i want them to think of me as that nice lady who looks them in the eye, who can’t help but love them. who knows their favorite cookie. who knows who drinks milk and who does not.

i believe with all my heart that mothering extends far beyond the womb, far beyond any particular connection to any particular womb.

mothering is just another name for a certain brand of love. in my book, the most resilient love. the deepest, purest, most unbreakable love there ever was.

mothers don’t give up on their young. they wring their hands, they wrack their brains. but they get up the next morning and they ply it all again.

over the years i’ve heard tales of grown-up folk who found the mothering they needed at someone else’s house. of the certain pair of ears who listened in a way that no one did at home. who loved without sting. who set another place at the table, no matter how late the hour, how empty the fridge.

i know, because i’ve watched one crew grow up, head off to college, that once in a while even the greatest, finest, smartest kids can stumble into tight places and not quite know the way out.

i’ve been the mama who at 2 a.m. drove a car full of kids where they needed to be, to get there safely, no questions asked. no scolding, thank you.

i’ve lived to hear that that middle-of-the-night ride was the single thing that made one kid realize you can grow up without the need to hide the truth, tell lies. and ever since, he’s been a new kind of kid. a kid who still pulls up a stool at my kitchen counter, who still tells me stories he might not tell at home.

and now, with this little gaggle underfoot, still not big enough to cross a busy street without a grownup worrying, still not savvy enough to call a girl and not spit out laughing, i’ve got another chance, another round of kids to love as if my own.

i might not have birthed the 13 or six or even three i longed to mother, but my little one has fixed all that.

he fills my kitchen table most weekend mornings. and i have every intention of being mama to them all. i start now with french toast, and loads of maple syrup.

soon enough, i hope, i pray, i’ll be the house they run to, when there’s no one else to listen.

in my book, there oughta be a nobel prize for mothering. and we’d all win. all of us, and i know throngs, who have discovered deep inside that the one pure hope for civilization, for humankind, is to raise our young–the ones we birth, the ones we don’t–with every reason to believe there will be kindness, and honesty, and undying love just around the corner. the one where some big-hearted mama is just waiting to make it all all right.

who was the big mama in your life? the one who loved you unconditionally, who loved you through and through. (and always threw an extra cookie on your cookie plate…)

the dinner party

it started with a phone call one cold sunday afternoon, not so long ago. are you free next saturday night, was the plain-and-simple question.

yes, came the answer, after the requisite checking of calendar, double-checking with spouse, most likely checking in with kiddies to make sure they too could pencil it in. or tap it in, or however it is cyber-tots lock in a date these days.

once secured in the affirmative, another phone call was made. same question posed, left there on the recordable secretary.

and so began the cobbling of souls, the making of lists that for me is, well, about the hummingest hum i know.

i am, it seems, never so quick in the pulse as when i am deep in constructing a dinner party.

if given one more day of my life i think, yes, i do, i would call up everyone i love, and plenty of folks i don’t even know but would love to. i’d order up as many leaves for the table as i possibly could, break down the living room wall if i had to, to make room for all of the chairs. and then i would cook, cook, and cook some more.

oh, did i mention i’d borrow plenty of knives? for, darn it, i only have nine. although, somehow, in the spoon and the fork departments, i am swimming. i think when we were married, when slim little boxes came in many-a-day’s mail, there must have been some sort of 2-for-1 sale on all the parts of the place setting, except for the parts that do cutting. which means you might come for soup, and maybe some ice cream, if you come with more than eight of your friends. and surely, hopefully, some day you’ll come.

for, surely, positively, this is the truth: i would if i could spend the rest of my days dreaming up, doing, yes, even drying the dishes from dinner party piled on dinner party here at my drafty old house.

in fact, so nutty am i for le diner that i looked up from my vacuuming the other afternoon to tell my sweet mate the very something i was thinking at that very moment. then i stopped myself. said, “oh no, that’s too irish.”

to which he urged, “no, tell me.”

i hemmed. hawed. then spilled it: “when i die, skip the wake; just do a dinner party.”

to which, of course, he moaned.

and i went right on vacuuming fur balls.

so it was, all day saturday i found myself humming. humming, you should know, is me at my, well, purring-est.

i was, all at once, cooking, setting the table, imagining the conversations. i was deciding who would sit where for maximum conversational flow. oh, and i was putting out proud tall candles, and snipping the stems of tulips. red ones in february.

to lay out a table for a dinner party is to be bold. is to be alive, really. to be filled to brimming with all sorts of possibility.

it is, i realized, as i lifted the lid on the steeping, steaming coq au vin–my idea of the perfect february dinner party dinner–the most sacramental moment, perhaps, in this holy place we call home.

it is gathering friends, and sometimes near strangers. it is paying no mind to color or age, or political side of the table. it is inviting muslim to sit down with jew. it is asking the atheist to join hands as you stop and offer a few words of grace before picking up fork and, well, keep from jabbing.

it is detente over dinner. it is catching a gleam in the eye as you pass down the butter. it is laughing so hard over salad, you wipe the tears from your eye–and not at all from the shallot.

try not feeling fondly toward the one who pours a splash more merlot in your glass.

it is, wholly, the breaking of bread, and all that that means going back to the dawn of civilization.

it is eucharist, small “e,” defined: bread and wine, yes, but really, “the giving of thanks, offering graciously.” leave it to the greeks and the romans to give it a name, to launch it. the french to refine it. you and me to make it our own.

it is unfurling ideas and stories there at the old family table. it is drawing out thoughts from those you’ve asked to pull up a chair. it is listening. it is returning the thought with a question. and maybe another, and another.

it is, before you even get to the table, making the house come alive, igniting its reason for being. kindling lights. cranking the stove. making a fire. putting on mozart. or muddy waters. it is opening the door, with a gust of warm, wine-sodden air that can’t help but sweep in those shivering there on the stoop.

and for the one doing the inviting, it begins long before the bell rings.

it begins, for me, as i pluck from thin air the someones i’m dying to know, or simply to gather again at the edge of my table. the ones who i think will make for fine conversation. whose stories we might not yet know. whose ideas might rub off on my children.

a dinner party with children, i’ll have you know, is the height of my dinner-party definition. oh, i love a gathering of grownups. but i believe in bringing the children, more than once in a very scant while.

it is there, where the art of the napkin is figured out, that life’s lastingest curriculum is spread.

i am not, never have been, one to segregate the little people. i don’t believe in banishing the squirmers off in the kitchen. oh no. let them squirm right here among us. let them learn how to listen. let them learn the art of unspooling the story. let them follow words to a simmer, then rise to almost a boil, but right then, before the lid blows, let them absorb the knack for cooling it down to a slow gentle bubbling again.

and so it was, last saturday night, that i laid out a table for 12. spent the whole day, and part of the one before, toiling away. picking out cremini mushrooms. uncorking bordeaux. mismatching old plates. scribbling names onto red folded cards.

not a minute felt like a chore, or anything close. it was joy, only joy, pure, simple, undiluted.

there is something, i swear, to making a table that sparkles. to filling bowls and baskets and platters to spilling. to stoking the evening to come.

there is dinner. and then there is feasting.

saturday night at my house, we feasted. till our bellies–and hearts–were stuffed near to bursting.

when it was over, the last napkin tossed down the chute, the last bit of cake tucked away, i only had room for a very full sigh.

ever since, i’ve been licking my lips on all that’s leftover. and i don’t mean what’s in the fridge.

do you too love a dinner party? are you daunted sometimes by the notion? or have you mastered the grace of making it seem effortless? like something you do at the drop of any old reason? what are your secret ingredients to a dinner that lingers long after the lights are turned out? do you have a tried-and-true menu that works every time? or do you indulge in experimenting on company? is there a dinner you’ll never forget, and why?

breakfast for michael

i wish you could hear the sounds here. yes, yes, the bacon is sizzling, and so’s the french toast. but the sound that truly makes my heart sing is the sound of sweet tedd in rapturous love with his uncle.

uncle michael.

reason for joy.

michael, you see, is one of the four. four uncles, each so beloved. there’s uncle airplane, uncle piano, uncle computer and uncle everything. and now all four are spread all over the country; maine, california, the mountains of north arizona, and, soon, toledo.

when an uncle comes home, there is reason for joy.

michael happens to be emphatically so.

michael is the brother just younger than me; we came every odd year, the first four of our brood. then, years later, an even one, mind you, came the caboose, came the sweet angel bri.

ever since we were little, michael and i have been particularly close. we used to lay on the extra twin bed in each other’s room, and talk the bedtime away. in the way back of the wood-paneled ford station wagon, we swapped stories and secrets, looked out the window, spun tales of all that we saw.

two christmases ago, michael was nursing his wife through her final excruciating days. she died before january ended, leaving my kid brother, at 45, broken-hearted and widowed.

last christmas, to change things, he came to see us the day after christmas, once his church job was finished, the songs put away.

after spending hours of each day on the phone all that long year, nursing him through his unbearable grief, finally having him here in the kitchen was the embrace i’d been waiting for, aching for, each time we hung up.

you see, michael is brilliantly funny, brilliantly quick. and brilliantly shining with love. to know him is, i’m not kidding, to utterly love him, and love him we do. he has been sunshine as long as i’ve known him, and i’ve known him as long as he’s been. one minute he’s playing the charlie brown theme song, the next he’s juggling oranges. he makes a game of dunking chips into salsa. and tedd, at his side, laughs and laughs ’til it hurts.

so this morning, once again, beats christmas in my book. it’s breakfast for michael, and michael for breakfast. if cooking for someone you love is a giant embrace, then the feast i just made was a boa constrictor.

it’s one thing to love someone on a long-distance phone call. it’s a whole other thing to fry up the bacon, slice the cranberry-studded, almond-paste-swirled holiday bread. heck, we poured cream in the mix of the eggs and the milk, the dunking sweet soup that turns bread to french toast.

the coffee was spiked with dashes of cinnamon. the pomegranate seeded and sprinkled on clementines.

and then we all sat, we held hands and we prayed.

it gets no more delicious than michael for breakfast.

extending the table

the leaves of the table, perhaps, are the heart of the table. they’re meant for extending. for adding guests. for making room. this is about extending the table.

if you’ve poked about this place we are building, this place called pull up a chair, you might have wandered over to the corner of it called the bottomless cup. i mention there a book i was dying to dash out and get, a book called “extending the table: a world community cookbook.” well, i dashed all right, and i got it. and it is every bit as delicious, as chewy, as i had hoped it would be. there’s a link on the bottomless cup, right where i mention the book, that will hook you right over to the ten thousand villages website, where you could order up a copy all your own. (or you could look for it elsewhere, it’s compiled by joetta handrich schlabach, it’s $20 and it comes from herald press.)

i am reading the book with yellow highlighter in hand. when’s the last time you read a cookbook with a highlighter?

the reason i am highlighting madly is because the book shares a deep underlying theme with pull up a chair. it is about welcoming. taking time. it is about making room at your table. making room in your day.

as my wise wonderful friend susie, the one who told me about “extending the table” in the first place, was musing, she talked about how when she was growing up, if you came to her mother’s house, you got a cup of coffee set down before you. no one even bothered to ask. you just got a coffee. it was assumed you were staying long enough to get to the bottom of the cup. now, says susie, you’re lucky if someone offers you a glass of water from the front of the fridge; no one really has time. no time to make the coffee, no time really for you to stay. a quick swallow of pre-chilled water, you’re back out the door.

not so around the world. not so in places where cold water does not come spitting out the front of the fridge.

“in turkey,” one passage of “extending the table” begins, “it is a great virtue to be known as someone who loves company and has a lot of it.”

the book goes on to tell that when a guest arrives at the door, shoes are removed, a pair of slippers are offered. the guest is ushered into the great room; the host kisses both cheeks, and sprinkles lemon cologne on their hands. coffee is offered, the host asks if they like it with or without sugar. once coffee is finished, the host prepares tea, which must be simmered 17 minutes, and always is made fresh for a guest (family might drink warmed-up tea). tea comes with sweet and salty pastries; the cup is refilled until the guest insists she or he cannot swallow another drop. when the guest insists she must leave, the host hurries to the kitchen, returning with plates of fresh fruit for everyone. when the fruit is finished, and the guest again insists she must leave, the host brings damp washcloths, and arranges shoes with toes pointed toward the door. they part with kisses, handshakes, and an exchange of invitations for future visits.

oh my. nearly makes you squirm. imagine packing that in your blackberry-buzzed day.

makes you think, though. makes me stop and think.

when was the last time you made coffee for someone who came to your door? when was the last time someone came to your door, dropping in for the sole purpose of pulling up a chair to your table?

maybe, one cup at a time, we can begin to change that…