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Category: power of cooking

the magic of mexican fried steak

it’s not happened often, but every once in a while, a boy runs out of gas. tank drained. big empty. not one ounce left.

and so, you tuck the boy in bed. even when he’s longer than the old twin bed. even when his past-noon* feets dangle over the edge.

you tuck him in and let him sleep and sleep and sleep.

you worry about his weary self. you check on him, from time to time, just as when he was a dimpled little boy. you touch his brow. and when you’re sure he’s in a deep, deep sleep, you kiss him on the stubbled cheek.

while he dreams the morn away, you wend your way to the butcher shop. you browse the steaks, the marbled slabs of muscle. you pluck one that’s on a bone.

you decide that in the hierarchy of mother’s magic potions, you are well beyond the need for oatmeal, you’ve climbed the charts to up where red meat looms. only cure that’s surer is one involving hypodermic needles. and needles make you queazy, so you stick to steak and its soul-restoring powers.

this is wise, because when you dare to rouse the sleeping man-boy, you have arsenal in your defense. you have new york strip to dangle.

why, you’ve seen the circus trainers do the same: dangle steak in front of cats, big cats, cats with killer teeth, to turn them into docile kittens.

not that any boy i know would growl or snarl or bite my head off. but when awaking worn-out, on-empty man-boy, i find a steak is handy.

and so on the edge of bed i sat, whispered words of red meat. i saw the smile spread across his lovely face. i saw the eyelids flutter open.

“if it’s too much,” i said, “we can go with oatmeal.”

ah, no, he answered rather sprightly. “au contraire. quite the opposite.” a steak, he said, was in his dreams.

but not just any steak: a mexican fried steak, was what he had in mind. so, with the click of that magic phone that coughs up all the answers, he typed in spanish words, came up with the abuela’s path to steak perfection, or in this case milanesas empanizada. that is, mexican fried steak.

with one swift leap, he was out of bed and down the stairs. he was talking bread crumbs, garlic, egg bath. red meat. meat so red i swear it moo’d.

we put our little heads together, he and i: grabbed a loaf of challah. swiped off the shelf the dusty mini-processor, a chopping-blending whiz my adopted jewish grandma gave me once upon a time.

we splitzed in bread. we added cloves of garlic. we inhaled. we sighed aloud.

we cooked our way to cure. we shook in cumin, poured in salt, cracked pepper. for good measure we added a little packet of something called “milwaukee avenue steak seasoning,” a smoky rub named for a windy-city thoroughfare where you can’t help but stumble over steaks of every stripe and cut.

“it’ll be chicago mexican fried steak,” declared the sous chef, smiling down on me.

and so, through that alchemy that is the holy work of kitchens, with a little splitzing, the cracking of two eggs, and the bathing of that steak, first in yolky goop and then in silken challah-garlic-cumin-milwaukee crumbs (that sous chef dabbed on quite a blanket there of crumbs), we turned the noontime into one of pure true joy.

we were cooking side-by-side. we were laughing, leaping out of sizzling oil’s way. for that deeply adorned steak, what with its eggy under-garments, and its crumby top-dressing, it was dropped in pool of hot corn oil, and it was turning into resurrection breakfast, served at 12:15 on what would have been a schoolday, restoring life to the once-nearly lifeless.

i never cease to marvel at the powers that rise from stove or oven. how what goes on there truly fills our pores, our weary bones. and most of all the tickers deep inside.

by lunchtime’s end, as the man-boy rubbed the last red drop of beefy juice right off his plate, as he sipped the last of his orange juice, he was joyful once again. he was ready, one more time, to take a lap on the track called life.

i rinsed the plate. i put away the fixings.

and i whispered a thank-you prayer to the abuela who’d led us to the restoration grotto, where miracles come to those who wield the fry pan.

* “past-noon” referring to the size of a foot is a favorite family expression, coined by a state-street shoe salesman who once measured my husband’s size 13s and declared, “oh, you’re past noon,” meaning higher than 12s. we have loved that phrasing ever since. and now two of three boys around here are past noons. and one is approaching as swiftly as he can…

what foods in your arsenal hold the holy cure? for the days when those you love can barely make it from the bed? and why do you think the kitchen is one room that holds such mystic powers??

oh, because we’d never keep a cure from you, here’s abuela’s milanesas de res empanizadas, as translated from the original.

ingredients:
1 / 2 Kilo of beef for breading Steak (that’s just about a pound, people)


2 eggs 
Bread for breading (we used three-day-old challah)


Ground Pepper 
Salt 
Oil
(we added a dash of cumin, two cloves garlic, and a few shakes of milwaukee avenue steak seasoning, a heavenly smoky rub from the spice house in evanston, ill.)

preparation:
for perfection, you want to toss bread, garlic, and seasonings into mini food processor. splitz, or blend, in pulses till the aroma makes your knees wobble, and you consider stuffing fistfuls straight to your mouth, skipping the steak altogether.

Season the steak with salt and pepper. 

(you’ll want two bowls: one for eggs, one for bread crumbs; this is a two-bowl process, although abuela won’t tell you so.)

The eggs are stirred well with a fork, and the steaks are passed in the egg, then go through the bread crumbs and fry very well on both sides. 

Served and garnished with lettuce, tomato slices, onion slices.

you feel better already, now don’t you?

sometimes…

sometimes, when you’re a mama, you wish you could fix it all with an apple cut into crescent moons, and an oozy grilled cheese, and a wee ghost mug filled with chocolate-stirred milk.

sometimes, when you’re a mama, it’s nowhere so easy.

sometimes, say the night your firstborn promised the college essays would be done–signed, sealed, delivered–you find yourself checking the status, oh, every half hour. and it’s not too long till you realize this night could unravel right before your eyes.

and soon enough, you feel the weight of the world that bears down on the shoulders of the babe you once birthed to the world.

and as you sit there listening, sopping up heartache–his and, quickly, your own–you see in your mind’s eye the whole picture show of his life.

frame after frame spilling by.

and stunningly, awesomely, you grasp the enormity of the fact that you’ve been there for a front-row seat all the way along. and you cannot think of one other someone you have known so utterly wholly–every night fever and rash, every scuffle and pitfall. the girl who said no to the dance. and the one who this summer said yes.

and, by now slid down against the chair where he is curled, your shoulder against the sides of his thick rower’s legs, you think back to the hours and months before he was born.

you remember when your belly got to the brink of a room, any room, before the rest of you did. and how you loved that belly. how you tried on the clothes that would show it off well before you needed to wear them. because, after waiting a lifetime, you could wait not one minute longer.

you wanted this more than anything ever–before or since.

and you remember, back then, how you promised yourself, promised the unborn babe, promised the universe, and God too, that you would love that sweet not-yet-met someone so wholly and so completely, surround that sweet someone in such an un-pierce-able bubble of love, that babe would never be knocked back by the high waves of doubt and despair that, too often, threatened to topple you over–and did, more than just once.

and you really thought, back then, that committing to love was all it would take.

and so you set out to make it come true.

why, you’d practically wear that babe on your chest, barely put him down, sleep curled right beside him. you’d hardly go out, rarely bring in a sitter. you’d work from home, give up the downtown office–just to be minutes away, always.

you would do everything under the sun, for years and years and years, to keep that child from knowing the heartache that you could not bear to imagine.

the heartache that now seeped into the room, filling it like a hose with a spigot, as you sit there on a cold autumn night, watching him struggle to type in a chair with a screen that resists being filled with his thoughts, with his words, with his sketchpad for college.

you hear a depth of heartache that rips your own right out from your chest. and so, when the talking is done, you cannot walk back to your bed. you cannot leave his room, you realize.

you can’t type the words, can’t pull the thoughts from the utterly drained mind that is his–he’s been at it for days now.

but you can’t sleep down the hall. so you do what mamas do, sometimes. you stay where you feel the pull.

you curl up on the floor. lay your head on the emptied-out backpack, make like it’s the pillow.

and you close your eyes while the typing starts up again. the pads of his fingers tapping their way toward college.

and you feel the tears roll down your cheeks from under your closed eyelids. you taste the salt of the runaway one that rolls over your lips. you wipe it away before it’s noticed.

once upon a time you thought you could love your child free from all this. safe from all of this.

and at every turn along the way, you did what you thought would stoke him with strength, with joy, with lightness of heart.

but then on a dark night at the end of october, when all the colleges begged their assignments, you realized that, sometimes, in the end, all you can do is lie there and pray.

and wait for the dawn, finally, to come.

i write this for all of us, the mothers, the fathers, who keep vigil through these final days and nights, as high school seniors around the country, type out their thoughts and their big ideas for colleges who will or won’t let them in through the gates at the head of the line, the early decision line. and i write this for all those who love children at whatever stage, whenever and wherever and however they stumble and struggle. i know, because i have friends, that ours wasn’t the only house that felt dark last night as all the desklamps burned.

on a much lighter note, i promised a word on breakfast with ina, the barefoot contessa. she is, in a short string of words, everything you would hope she is. and so much more. she oozes goodness. engages in deep conversation. sparks up at a question. wraps it all up with a genuine hug. you get up from the table feeling as if you’ve just made a friend. one you’ve known for a long long time. which in so many ways, i did.

what dark nights have found you keeping vigil, curled up beside the someone you so thoroughly love?

stirring sweetness

the beautiful thing about leaping into a religion that’s not your own, is there is no rule book.

well, there might be a tome or two on the shelves, but when you’re inventing, you often concoct as you go.

oh, sure you ask zillions of questions, you turn to the texts, pore over pages, searching for answers. but plenty of times, you go with the zeitgeist and, frankly, you wing it.

and so it was i bounded out of bed yesterday morn, on the dawn of the new year, rosh hashanah, and set out to make rosh hashanah bread pudding.

now, nowhere in the cookery books will you find such a sweet and pudding-y dish. there is no step-by-step guide to a sweeter morning than the usual cornflakes and cow’s milk.

ah, but like many a someone embracing something that’s new, that’s just a touch foreign, exotic, i can’t get enough.

give me a rosh hashanah prayer about morning stars and particles of dust floating on the wind, and i am swooning in my pew, thinking to myself, by jove, they’re talking to me, those ancient hebrew poets, the ones who thousands of years ago carved out these words to speak to my heart, here in the waistband of america, where leaves are just starting to rumble with thoughts of shedding their greens, too early just yet to unfurl great bolts of color.

truth is i tingle, through and through, here in these days of downright awe.

i am not a jew. but i love a jew. married him. bore our children. am raising those children in a house that is bathed in the best of two great and rather old faiths: we are catholic and jewish.

and this time of year, in these sacred golden-dripping days of awe, i cannot get enough of a whole-body immersion.

i am cooking it. praying it. setting the table with it. poring over the verses with it. inhaling every last drop of it.

everywhere i turn, there is awe. and it is sweet.

let’s start with the light: have you noticed the great kaleidoscope that is the turning of season has cranked it just to the north a notch, and now the sunbeams that hit us are amber molasses, tinged with spoonfuls of honey?

why yes, they drip on my bed pillows, my pages, my old creaky floorboards.

and then there’s that charge in the air, the one that has us un-sashing the windows, pulling back shutters, clearing the way so that cool night breezes might billow in, that air that seems at last purer and crisper, more certain to clear out our lungs from all the sticky still jungle air that took hold in the long hot summer.

but mostly, there are the prayers and the knowing now what i’ve always known: this is sacred time, new time, time that deeply matters. the days when our steps are counted, our deeds recorded, our fates inscribed in the holiest book.

God is paying attention, rapt attention, and so too must we.

thus, as if to upholster the year, to tilt it toward sweetness the whole way through, we stir it in in great dollops. a handful of raisins here. a bee-bumped macintosh chopped and grated over there.

we are watching as honey drools from a spoon. and wiping smudges, sticky, off from the table.

tonight this old house will be filled. the table as crowded as it knows how to be. if we could have layers of table, we would. i would invite everyone i have ever loved, and then some.

and just as the sun slips over the ledge and sacred twilight comes, having stirred the stews all night, and having set out my grandma’s silver, and the glasses of cobalt blue, i will strike a match and kindle the lights.

i will call on the legions of saints and angels who march behind me wherever i go. i will call on rachel and leah and rebekah.

i will look over (not down anymore, for the top of my head no longer makes it even to the cusp of his shoulders) at my firstborn, and gulp back the tear that comes with knowing he’ll not be home next year, or for years to come for that matter, on these sweetest of days upon days.

i will be humbled and filled all at once. will marvel that i, a deep quiet catholic, was somehow swept into the river that bathes me so richly, so wholly, so anciently. calling me back to where i must have once begun.

i count myself among the blessed, the ones who are stirred by the ancient hebrew poets, a people who marked time by the stirrings on the bough and in the field. who kept time by the heavens, the night star and moon. i read these rosh hashanah prayers through dual lenses, and in them i find such powerful majesty, such knee-buckling knowing of the intricacies of the human heart. today this meander is merely an unspooling, no deep lesson or question, other than this: what is it of this time of year that heightens in you a deep sense of awe, no matter your religion?

p.s. that rosh hashanah bread pudding? nothing more to it than torn-up bits of the night before’s raisin-studded challah, with a fat granny smith grated into it, along with a handful of even more raisins and cranberries (why stop when studding your pudding?) i had promised rosh hashanah bread pudding to my little one who loves a good reason to leap out of bed. and thus, once stirred from my dreams, i had little choice but to come up with a version that lived up to the promise.

love at the grocery store

there were tears at the breakfast counter this morning. oh, not because the flakes got soggy. not because of bad news on the sports page.

no.

it was the news that the big brother, the one who’s far away this week, won’t be home in time for tomorrow’s all-star game.

the little one, you see, is on the team. got voted there by the ones he slugs beside. the lineup of little stars who watch him leap and stretch and tumble, all in the name of making a TV-ready play.

the little one lives for games with balls. has far less patience when it comes to words and numbers. even less if there’s a pencil on the scene.

but give the boy a ball and he takes to it like he was born to make those muscles stretch, the synapses connect, the catching hand signaling the running leg at DSL speed.

i tell you, the kid is wired in ways that baffle me, his mother who could barely walk across a room without finding something there to trip on.

and the kid is utterly deflated that his all-star hero, his big towering eight-years-older brother, can’t be there in the bleachers.

he’d had hopes, he said, sniffling through his almost-tears, that his brother would be the one to call out his name, into the plug-in microphone, over the scratchy loudspeakers, as he approached the plate.

at the little ball park where the game is played, they go for schmaltz like that. good schmaltz, the best schmaltz; they play it up in pure old-fashioned ways.

glancing toward the breakfast bowl, once i saw the scrunched-up face, knew the tears were on the way, i did what any mama would: i dropped the spoon i’d just picked up, wrapped my arms around his shaky little shoulders, buried his soggy face into my fresh white t-shirt, gave no thought to the strawberry bits i would now be sporting in the bull’s eye of my belly.

i held him tight, and wished like anything i could rent a helicopter to get his brother home.

i tried talking so-called common sense, explained that no one knew, so long ago, that he’d be on the team, back when his brother made the summer plans, back when we penciled in the one short week away.

he blew his nose, the little one. slapped on sunscreen, shuffled off to camp. but as i drove him there i heard the sigh, asked, “what’s wrong?” he answered in two short syllables: his brother’s name.

i knew what that meant. i caught his face in the rear-view mirror. the boy was deeply sad, in one of those ways he’ll not soon forget. i can hear it now, 30 years away, the little one will rib his brother, remind him, how, when it mattered, he wasn’t there.

egad. dial ET, for emotional triage.

once i dropped him off at camp, i headed straight to the nearest first-aid station: the grocery store.

it’s often, at our house, the place to turn for makeshift reparations. end-of-a-long-week. half-birthday. any holiday from halloween to little easter. like a madwoman, i comb the shelves, find all sorts of bells and whistles to mark whatever is the moment. you’d be amazed what you find stocked at the all-purpose store. it’s where i spend my paycheck, with nary a second thought. long as it fits in a brown paper grocery bag, it’s hardly an indulgence. just a mama’s fix-it for whatever is the urgent need. and, besides, it’s open all night long, a convenience that’s downright essential when you’re someone who cooks up schemes at all hours of the night. and often on the fly.

i roamed the aisles, searched for all the balm and anti-sting cream that i could find. i started in the cereal aisle. found a limited-issue summer crunch, one with bats and balls to pour into your bowl. stumbled over to the streamer aisle, grabbed red and white and blue.

we’ll do it up, this all-star theme.

called the bread shop once back home (because i forgot to steer the car there), ordered up a loaf of cinnamon swirl, his breakfast favorite.

if i can’t bring on the brother, i can at least supply the band-aids.

it’s all we’re left with, sometimes.

too often.

and in the million other times a week when we flub it up, fall short, run out of steam, chase the little bugger back to bed (with nary a note of tenderness), well, we try and try again. most especially, when we think it counts.

we fill our grocery cart. we tuck away the treats. we scheme and hope.

we picture the little all-star, waking up to festooned room. sitting down to all-star slugger cereal, and swirls of cinnamon and sugar.

we’ll take pictures. tell stories. cheer our lungs out and our throats till they’re scratchy.

we’ll try to fill the stands with all the love we can muster.

and, yep, the seat beside me will be empty.

because sometimes all the wishing in the world won’t bring back the one you long to have there.

anyone else patch together a broken heart this week? what were the balms that worked for you?

scrambled eggs and a prayer

in the end, after all of the worry, and all of the nights of stumbling from bed, retracing my steps to the sliver of light that seeped from the crack in the door of the room that never seemed to go dark…

in the end, after all of the fears that somehow it wouldn’t get done, that papers would never find words, and psyches would crack under pressure…

in the end, after 40 weeks of this school year that everyone labels “insane,” where parents in lines at the start-of-school book sale lean in and whisper of kids pushed to the brink of emotional breakdown…

in the end, it all came down to three eggs, cracked on the rim of a bowl, shells the color of cafe au lait cast in the sink, so many empty-hulled shards.

it’s all i could do here at the end, at the start of the final exams, as the boy who i love inhaled a few last lines of latin declensions, read back over ovid, gathered his pencils and sighed.

all i could do was stand there stirring, and praying. watching the yolks turn creamy and hard, pile high into egg drifts.

i imagined the protein, the strands in the eggs, bolstering all the cells in his brain. i stirred and constructed the scaffold, the brace that would hold up his thought, streamline the answers, hurdle him straight to the finish.

it’s all a mama can do sometimes. stand there and stir, and spiral her prayers.

“channel grandpa geno,” i told him, as i sprinkled cheese in the eggs. “he was a wizard in latin.

“and, remember, this is your national language,” i added, a feeble attempt to lighten the moment, to wedge in a sunbeam of humor, one that drew on his old catholic roots.

and then for a moment, i clung to that thought of my papa, saw him again in my head, vivid and clear and in color: his irish face round, decidedly rosy, his eyes atwinkle as always. i imagined him, an apparition of comfort and joy, see-through and floating, just over the desk of my young latin scholar.

i’d grown up with stories of how my papa, time after time, saved my uncle’s behind and his grade point average, besides. how, under the strict gaze of the jesuits, he’d managed to lift the edge of his test, so from the seat just behind and across, my uncle could peer at the answers.

i imagined my papa doing the same for my firstborn, the grandson he never knew, though over the years i’ve offered him up, made him a part of the canon of story. made sure through the power of word that one knew the other. my firstborn, in fact, can reel off tales of his grandpa. and i can picture my papa beaming, bellowing, at the antics and charms of my firstborn, the one with the mind so much like his grandpa’s.

it’s all a mama can do at the dawn of the year’s final passage: beckon the spirits, call on the clan. all the while stirring the eggs.

it’s time now to let loose of the worries. time now to lean into faith, and the soft chest of my papa.

it’s time to believe in the power of mind and of prayer.

it’s time now to rinse our hands of this year. to bid it goodbye and good riddance.

all we can do here at the end is serve up the eggs and the vespers.

as i scraped out the pan, buttered the toast, i realized this was the last. next year, there will be no end-of-the-year finals. and the year after that, when he’s somewhere at college, i won’t be there to stir–at least not the yolks of the eggs.

but wherever he is, wherever i stir, the prayers will always continue. and as long as i breathe, i’ll channel his grandpa.

for just such a classical challenge and triumph.

believe me, i hear the idiocy of such pressure run amok. i swore back in that book line, that i’d not succumb to the madness. despite my deepest intentions, though, this year crept up on us, got under our skin, jangled our nerves. forgive me for writing about it time and again these past few weeks. but typing is healing. and in the construction of word and sentence, i found wisps of solace. enough some days to carry me through till bedtime, when i got down on my knees and prayed. for holy strength to get to this day. and now, hallelujah, here we are. two tests next week, and i’ve got a senior in high school. holy lord……

when chill, er, arctic winds blow…

with all its might that mercury is push-push-pushing, trying with every ounce of january muscle to get up to where the one meets the zero, calls itself a brisk ten above.

even the rhododendron leaves, just outside my window, are curled tight into a rod, curled as if their life depends upon it, which in fact it does.

the feathered traffic at the feeder is slow to none, and, mostly, sparrow shiver in the pines. i think they’d like to call for carry-in, or better yet delivery. but the lines, i fear, are iced.

the morning when the world is frozen is a morning when you’d prefer, perhaps, to catch the nearest plane to tahiti. but, dang, that would entail walking to the curb–at least–to catch the taxicab.

so instead, why not do what i love best, and make yourself a list. a list is a beautiful thing. a romantic thing. you sketch your hopes and dreams. tick them off in little snippets. barely even have to finish your thought. you know what you mean. it’s you, for cryin’ out loud, making that there list.

so, then, with no ado–it’s too cold for adoing–here is the way i’d like to spend a ch-ch-chilly day at the end of a long, long, long, long week:

*crank the brand-new tunes my manchild made for me, the soundtrack, perhaps, from “once,” the movie a dear old friend told me months ago would inspire me. he was right. and now i can’t stop mumbling with all the words, my own odd version of pretending i too can sing along. which i can’t. just ask my boys. even the cat took to under the bed.

*fill the troughs, pour hot water into bowls for all the critters. there is nothing so satisfying–for this faux farmer girl–as making sure that all God’s creatures are duly fed and watered. i’d distribute little blankets if i could, but instead i put out extra christmas trees so they could harbor in the branches. more real estate, the better for those birds, way i figure it.

*grab the mcdonald’s coupon books, and drive to where it’s dark and even colder. pass out books to every hungry hand that reaches your direction. give the folks on lower wacker drive a place, and means, for getting in and out from this coldest cold. God bless my mama who gave me those books for just this purpose. God bless the soul who inspired her, whose story we found out only when he died, how he spent his winters doling out hundreds of dollars in vouchers for a hamburger and fries, and a hot, hot coffee that bought a seat where heat was all but guaranteed.

*once back home, grind the beans and get your own hot coffee going. stoke the steel-cut oats, while you’re at it, too. i’ve got the grandest formula these days: scottish steel-cut oats, 1/4 cup; water, 1 cup; sprinkle of salt (don’t ask me why, all i know is it works); flaxseed, 2 tsps.; sprinkling organic raisins, cranberries, apricot, chopped; 1 walnut, 1 almond, chopped; dry milk, 1/3 cup; cinnamon, a good stiff shake or three. now, get the water and the salt a bubblin’, stir and dump the oats, then all the rest. let it simmer half an hour. dump it in your favorite bowl (mine is red with fat white stripe), grab a porridge spoon (mine is wooden, and it sailed in from old vermont). take a seat at the kitchen table, staring out at birds, who might be staring back at you. invite them in, for heaven’s sake. they might love the porridge.

*whisper benediction for the oats, the birds, and all the souls far colder than you have ever been. pray to God that warmth blows in, deep and boldly to their souls. don’t let them die, God, frozen to the city’s underbelly.

*and, besides all that, the best idea for how i’d like to spend an arctic day is invite a house full of folks i love. cook all day the day before, and fill the vases with blooms galore. stack the logs to make a fire. putter here and there, making it a house that shines, and shouts: warmth dwells here. come in, come in. leave your cares outside, where chill winds won’t stop blowing.

peace i wish you at the end of this long week. and warm toes besides.

do you like lists as much as i do? what would you do on a chilly arctic day when the poor old mercury makes it up to 10, then dwindles back to less than zero?

casserole for a faraway friend

she is, sadly, only the latest. only the latest in a circle that keeps growing, a circle for whom casseroles are tossed together, tucked in the oven, delivered.

delivered in hopes that what you stirred into it might lift the burden, find the cure, deliver them from whatever evil ails them.

this time the casserole is for a faraway friend. in case you pray, she is sliding into that ether-stoked sleep at 1 o’clock today, on a hard cold surgical slab in baltimore, actually. the skilled hands that will wield power over her are hands that will be excising cancer, taking it out from her breast, dammit, that place that keeps harboring cancer in women we love.

my friend is young. has children far too young. beautiful little children. a girl with such curls you want to sit her down with a set of oils and paint her, and frame her. a sweet big-eyed boy too little to be worrying about his mama. today or any day.

my friend, who writes roadmaps through kitchens, but really through life, for a living, for a newspaper, sent an email the other afternoon. short and to the point. let a whole string of us know with the click of a button that she was having surgery today, breast cancer surgery. she apologized for the abruptness of the news and its arrival via email. but she explained, as if she needed to, “i haven’t been much in the mood to talk.” vintage for my friend, telescoping so much in so few words.

she asked for whatever sorts of prayer anyone might happen to pray. then she mentioned, in a short string that sums up a mother’s worries, that casseroles, spring play-dates and dog dates would be more than welcome.

casseroles, it seems, are the latter-day pulling in of the wagons. when the distress call is put out, like so much gray smoke rising from the chimney of the house where the hubbub is happening, the women all through the village start lining up at the door with their casseroles, their bundt pans, and their tins filled with brownies.

here in the town where i live, the labyrinth of home-cooked, personally-delivered meals is astounding. i’ve seen it go on for months and months, strategically organized, right down to the plastic cooler on the front porch where meals could be dropped without ever disturbing the family inside nursing a young daughter through death, it turned out.

the meals come so fast and so furious, the need for air traffic controller is immediate. without asking, it seems, someone steps up and takes over that slot, too.

there is, when you’re the one being fed, nothing to do but sit back on your pillows and take in the great parade of great food, and unshakable friendship. some come quick, simply. some are elaborate works of caring. i still remember the kindergarten teacher who sent food for my little one and thought to make it into a smiley, silly face of cut-up fruits and squiggly pastas. my little one, who often doesn’t, gobbled it.

the point when making a casserole is that it is, often, the only darn thing you can do. we all know what a slippery slope we dwell on, we all know that to suddenly be whisked from your role there at the command center, in the kitchen, at the phone, in front of the computer, is to surrender all semblance of order in your life and the lives of those who you love.

in the case of, say, my faraway friend, she is, God willing, going to be all about the business of healing. even if she hadn’t asked, the impulse would be there: to bake something, make something, take something, do something, dammit, to ease her equation. even if something boils down to nothing so much as a few chicken breasts, rice, broth, a sprinkle of herbs, salt and pepper.

in the casserole for my friend, which was only one made in her name (the distance is daunting, a serious impediment to personal delivery), one made as my way of harnessing forces, sending deep casserole vibes out into the far-flung universe, i took that casserole up a notch or three.

you see, she is all about cooking. she writes, droolingly, about cooking. i have called her for years my latter-day laurie colwin, that magnificent writer of food (“home cooking,” “more home cooking,” both still in print), but really of life, who died way too young, at 48.

i realized yesterday i stop my comparison of my friend to laurie at the point where her words make you hungry and fill you all at the same time. nothing more. no further comparison.

so inspired by my friend, i took my stand-by, family favorite, chicken rice grammy, dug it out of the old wooden box that i hold together with a red ribbon these days. and i spun it up a notch, made it chicken rice for my faraway friend.

added red peppers, wanted a splash of intensity for my friend, even if it meant my one boy who would eat it would curl up his nose, shove red bits off to the rim. added artichoke hearts. this was my friend, for crying out loud. sophisticated, elegant, always-producing-the-unexpected, my faraway friend, this was.

slid it into the 350 oven, filled the house with its savory perfume. these were vespers for my friend, lifting and rising. an hour later, i took it out of the oven, slid spoon into thick creamy middle. this is comfort as comforting as it gets.

nearly three springs ago, my friend wrote about bringing ready-to-eat meals to a friend of hers who’d been up all night having a baby. “if she can deliver life,” my friend wrote, “you can deliver dinner.”

she went on to tick through the essentials: it need be “something sturdy enough to endure the car trip. resilient enough to shrug off freezing or reheating or neglect. and yet, nothing so grab-n-go as to be mistaken for K rations.”
she finished with this, most essential: “a dish that suggests hope.”

she went with risotto, risotto with shelled english peas. i went with rice and artichoke hearts. the intent is the same: my faraway friend, wherever you are, however knotted your tummy, there is a casserole baked and waiting for you. now all i have to do is figure out how in the world to mail rice, broth and perishable chicken.

i am certain as i could possibly be that i am preaching to a choir of practiced casserole bakers, a whole phalanx of hot meal deliverers, whether you have a casserole story, a recipe, or a tip for taking that delivery up quite a notch, won’t you please pull in your chair and spill here at the table?
and, oh, by the way, here’s my chicken rice for faraway friend….

meatballs en masse

first you multiply. then you forage. then you start rolling.

it’s meatballs en masse, the roadmap:

ten pounds of steer. quarter acre tomatoes, chopped, pureed. bag of onions. eggs by the half dozen. breadcrumbs, a handful or two. dried crinkled leaves, ones wearing the nametag sweet basil. garlic, don’t forget the garlic. we decidedly did not.

the garlic, the onions, bathing in oil of olives, that was the point. we didn’t want just to feed our friends at the shelter with a mere plate of food. we wanted to feed them all afternoon with the sounds and the smells of somebody cooking. somebody cooking for them.

we wanted them in on each act of the production, as they stood in the alley, huddled on the stairs, waiting for the man with the key to please let them in from the cold. very cold.

we made meatballs for forty. started hours ahead. we wanted to slow cook. with two hours to go we had a flotilla of balls, all adrift in an ocean of thick, red, tomatoey sauce.

there is an alchemy to cooking on slow that does not happen when you wham-bam the dinner. an alchemy especially rare at a soup kitchen.

but we carved out a whole afternoon for this slow dance, me and my 13-year-old. we chopped, and we poured. we stirred and we seasoned. we wanted a feast for our friends.

and they are our friends. t-bird and papi. robert and eddy. the elegant man in the soup kitchen line with his navy blue blazer and shiny brass buttons. the lady who religiously wraps her plate in cellophane before she puts on the food.

they are, some of them, full of hope. papi, for instance, has a dream that he and his sweet potato pies will some day shove mrs. smith and her apples off the grocery store shelf. and just last night t-bird mentioned how he wanted my friend sherry’s chicken wings-and-sausage-and-meatball recipe, cuz it was going to be the first thing he cooked when he got his apartment. some times they tell you month after month, sometimes for more than a year, that their apartment is coming, any day now.

so every third sunday of the month, we feed them. feed the hungry. feed their tummies, yes. but even more, feed their soul. slow cook for them. put tulips on each table. offer brown bags and a basket brimming with brownies and oranges, strawberries in the deep core of winter. take leftovers and turn it into lunch for the next day.

as my friend elizabeth mentioned last night, it had been a very long day squatting at a sandwich shop from 7 in the morning, an hour after they’re kicked out of the shelter, ‘til 7 at night, when they are allowed back in. “i thought i would lose my mind. i had nowhere to go,” she told me, piling her plate with spaghetti, forgoing all but one of the meatballs. she came back for brownies and pound cake and raspberries three times.

for a very long time i have cared about feeding the hungry. i once criss-crossed america, trying to find out why so many, in so many places, were so hungry. from potato farmers in maine, to salmon fishermen tucked into pacific coast towns in northern california, to old wizened folk in chinatown in the city by the bay. from iowa farmers to out-of-work steelworkers in the sooty hills of west pennsylvania. from the rio grande valley to the high plains of the navajo reservation. from the bare-bottomed children of cottonwood, mississippi, to the big-eyed ones right here in chicago. children going to bed at night with a pain in their bellies. mamas and papas going to the same bed, with the same pain, worried sick. not knowing where in the world they’d find food for tomorrow.

and so, one measly sunday a month, me and my boys we slow cook. the little one, now old enough to scoop, always begs to dish out dessert. then he fills a plate, wanders into the dining room, takes a seat, strikes up a conversation.
there is nothing like watching your children learn what it means to slow cook, to deep feed the hungry.

feed vt. 1. to give food to 2. to provide something necessary for the growth, operation, etc. of 3. to gratify.

some of us spend much of our lives feeding. to consider the act of feeding, the gestalt of it, not merely the chopping and stirring and spooning of x, y and z onto a plate, is to have something to ponder. please, pull up a chair. pour out your thoughts on the transitive verb, to feed, in all of its unspoken definitions…

after-school cookie therapy

the little one had his hand deep in the cookie bag when i walked in.

“hey sweetie,” i said, launching into the kitchen. “hold on. let me make something healthy.”

that’s when he started to cry. words followed tears. tears followed words. “but i had a hard day,” said the boy who is 5.

that’s when i kicked the after-school snack into super high gear. “oh, boy, let me make something special,” i said as i grabbed for the bag and the boy and a red splatterware plate. while i gathered my wares—orange, dried strawberries, banana, and, yes, even reclaimed bag of pepperidge farm brussels–i turned up my ears, cranked open my heart.

“tell me what happened,” i said, slicing orange into juicy-spoked wheels.

something about dominoes, it turned out, was the source of the tears. something about dominoes not being shared.
by now i was sprinkling dried strawberries like rain on orange puddles.

that’s when his big brother walked in. “you need a hug, little buddy? looks like you need a hug.”

as they squeezed, the big brother therapist added this: “the best way to fix a bad day, little bud, is to talk. talking fixes bad days.”

while they wrapped up the squeeze, slid onto chairs at the old kitchen table, i reached into cookie bag, pulled out buttery-crisps that the little one had already determined would sop up the hurt.

laid crisps on the plate, tucked in between orange wheels. making it pretty. some quirk in my brain thinking that pretty sops up hurt better. maybe because really it soars to a place beyond words, says someone cares, cares enough to make the plate pretty. and, sometimes, you’ll do anything—words, pretty, pepperidge farm–to sop up the hurt.

sopping up hurt.

some days that’s what after-school snack is all about. i am an ardent believer in after-school snack, depend heavily on its medicinal powers. i still remember, more clearly i think than any other food of my childhood day, the apples in wedges, the pretzels in twists and stirring the chocolatey powder into deep earthen ooze at the bottom of my green glass of milk. i don’t remember the talking. but i do remember the after-school rite.

and i distinctly remember a smart lawyerly friend, a mother of two in that smartland known around here as hyde park (home to the university of chicago and iq’s off the chart, for you who dwell outside the land of 606-something). i distinctly remember her telling me she worked part-time hours just so she could be there for after-school snack. mind you, this was one tough cookie making time for, well, milk and cookie.

some things stick with you forever. that one sticks with me.

all these years later it defines the minutes from 3:30 on, ’til the talking is done. no matter the stacks on my desk, no matter the deadline, i practically always lift my head long enough for snacks and the news of the school day.

little people have hearts, they have hurts, they have sorrows. some days they have triumphs. or just a good knock-knock that makes them laugh silly.

today it took oranges in wheels, sprinkled with strawberries. then the boy who loves cheerios thought a handful of o’s might make it more better. so we nibbled, we talked, we indeed made it all better. more better, even.

they pushed in their chairs, i rinsed off the plate. we are back to our days now. our tummies are filled, and so are our hearts.

you needn’t be a parent, nor have little birds still in your nest, to partake in the patching together of a broken heart at the end of a long day. this was our story, our story from yesterday. tell us your story of a heart being patched all together again….if you care to, of course. only if you care to…

national oatmeal season

the fine folks who tell us these things, tell us that this is national oatmeal month. they are wrong.

at our house, the oatmeal barrel gets hauled out once the leaves start crisping and swirling to the ground. doesn’t get put away ’til the easter grass is pushing through the softening earth. oatmeal is a way of life. it is, by all accounts over here, a good life.

we are fully aware that in some corners of the planet, perhaps just down the block, the word oatmeal is met with hands crossed over mouth, and heads ducking for cover. apparently, it is an old porridge. an ancient porridge. goes all the way back to the ancient chinese in 7000 b.c.e. not too long after, relatively speaking, the greeks were gobbling it for gruel. they were the first, the history books tell us, to do so.

oats came to america, the story goes, when a sea captain planted a crop on one of the islands off massachusetts, somewhere around 1602.

then, along about 1877, true modernity practically, the man we know and love, the quaker oat man, showed his shining face. that man, a pottery rendition thereof, now sits on the shelf, looking down on my stove. he is pretty much my kitchen buddha. i don’t leave him offerings, but i do bow down before him. and i always say, if we had a fire, my oat man i’d grab. see, my papa, once an ad man, gave me the oat man. and every time i’ve moved, the oat man gets layers and layers of tissue and newsprint, lest he lose a nose or a tip of his tri-cornered cap in the transfer.

but back to the bowl that will soon be set before those who i love.

if this is national oatmeal month, there is a reason beyond the pure promotionality. oatmeal in your belly fuels you right through ’til pb&j-time.

but for me, it’s all in the making. i stand there at my cookstove, pouring my oats and my milk. then i start doctoring. i would no sooner spoon up plain oats and milk than i would pour orange juice on cheerios.

no, i add things. as if i am tossing in jewels. i have a whole row of dried fruits in glass jars, fruits the color of amethyst, ruby, garnet and onyx. every day it’s a new rendition: chunks of dried apricot, a sprinkle of cranberry. if it’s not for the boy who hates nuts, almonds land in the mix. i’m not afraid of wheat germ, consider its power, so that too gets stirred in the brew.

it is as if i am arming my boys for the dragons they’ll slay. the more i toss in the mix, the more certain they’ll conquer the day.

it is a mother’s amulet, almost. oatmeal as shield for the dangers that lurk.

that is rather a lot, the power i put in the oats, steamed, rolled and cut. but as i stand there concocting i’m some sort of sorceress. me and my oats and my shriveled-up fruits.

brown sugar on top, a small moat of milk. they sink spoon into mound. once the bowl reappears, specks of oatmeal no more, they are set, they can soar.

as they bound out the door, i toss a glance to my ol’ quaker friend. he is winking, i swear. we’ve done it again.