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Category: hospitality

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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of may bugs and the wonder of footsteps above

maybugs and wonder of welcome

he was gone by the time i started bumbling into may bugs. i found them crawling across the old pine hutch, the one i almost burned down one night long ago when a candle took a fancy to the century-old wooden knobs. i found the spotted-back bugs slithering across a chinese bowl in the living room. i found them parked and preening smack dab under the daffodils on the dining room table.

they were but the latest charmed import from the charming fellow who called this old house home for the last two weeks of chilly, drizzly april.

he’s gone now, our dear friend bernd, father to jan luca, the blond-haired lad who two years ago was here and stole my heart as, each day at dawn, he tiptoed down the stairs, splayed his stash of colored pencils and his writing papers across the maple table and sat beside me at the morning bench, crafting yet another page in the latest of his illustrated storybooks. (had i ordered this sweet child from bavarian central casting, i wondered? had he dropped into my heart from a puffy cloud of dreams, one that had wafted across the atlantic and settled down along my lake shore?)

and — in a role we’ll never forget — bernd was also the big-hearted papa who late into the lonely nights last summer sat beside our little world traveler, the one who’d trekked to germany and found himself topsy-turvy. even as the midnight hour came and went, bernd never left our little fellow’s side as he heaved his traveler’s tummy and wanted, more than anything, his faraway (and passport-less) mama to airlift him home sweet home. you don’t forget a man who soothes your child’s tangled heart. who, for days on end, pedals beside him on miles-long bike treks through munster’s leafy arbored tunnels. and buys him ices at the finish line.

it’s a multi-chaptered friendship now, what with all the criss-crossings of sea and sky. and the shared knowledge that we’ve loved each other’s children as if our own, for the few short weeks they’ve been in our care. and this time round, we got to be the ones to unfurl the welcome mat for bernd. to tuck spring beauties by the bedside, wrap the empty mattress in the softest flannel sheets, fill the fridge with meats and cheese and toothsome breads, because we’d been schooled on how to feed a touring deutsche mann.

the bed is empty once again, the footsteps now are stilled. bernd, one of the liveliest minds i’ve encountered in quite some time, has packed his bags and climbed aboard a train, leading his flock of westphalian schoolchildren down to where abe lincoln roamed.

but for the better part of these past two weeks, we shared our house, and felt our hearts wedge ever wider. it’s what comes when welcome lasts for days.

it’s that rarest of alchemies, the one that tiptoes into your very soul, and settles in at the comfiest nook. it’s mixed and poured in the shared pulse beat and the daily rhythms ticking through the hours: the soon-familiar rustle of bare feet on bare floor above. the flushing of the morning drain. the coming to know that the extra coffee mug now queued beside the pot is the one that takes a glug of what you now know to be vollmilch, whole milk.

(you actually manage to pick up a word or three, over the course of your 10-day german immersion, and you thank your lucky stars that your houseguest is the english teacher at the german school in telgte, north rhine-westphalia, and can converse with depth and nuance on any subject you introduce, from the strife in ukraine to acupuncture as a cure for allergy.)

it’s something sacred, i swear, this slow-unspooling tête-à-tête and cœur à cœur that comes only when circling in close proximity over the course of added-up days.

and, like all that matters most in life, it’s an arithmetic of the most elemental units, combining to intricate — and breath-taking — calculus.

when we inhabit the same four walls, when we come to know by heart the waking up and slumber, when we pass a bowl of lumpy potatoes across a table, swap sections of the news, when one conversation circles back and round again, when we are interlaced across the span of sunlight and moonlight, when we share the itty-bitty worries of the day (was any school child lost in the trudge across chicago’s loop?), and when one of us applies the ice to the other one’s purpled and twisted wrist (after a spectacular late-night fall that’s left me typing with one hand), we are more than simply friends.

we are bare-hearted humans who inch closer and closer to a shared vision of the world.

sympatico, “having a fellow feeling;” sym derived from syn (greek, meaning “together with, at the same time”) + pathos (again, greek, for “suffering, feeling,” or “a quality arousing pity;” related to penthos, “grief, sorrow”).

it is what happens, over hours and days, over the pirouette at the refrigerator door when one reaches for juice and the other for cheese, over the turning out of the kitchen light when at last it’s time for bed, over the considerate hauling out of the trash, and the remembering to keep the cat from the allergic guest’s pillow.

it is what’s bound to come — a sort of elmer’s heart glue — that’s applied in drips and dabs across the days. it’s our natural inclination to harbor the wholeness — the light and shadow, the fine-grained and the sweeping brushstroke — of those with whom we share dirty dishes in the sink, whose toilet paper rolls we make certain are plenty, whose soggy socks we whirl through the dryer.

it’s as if we’re erasing, hour by hour, the walls that keep any two humans apart. we realize — because we hear the gurglings of everyday life, we scour the sink of another morning’s whiskers, we laugh out loud at the same wacky lines on SNL — how very much we inhale and exhale the same few molecules.

and, thus, we get that rare peek at the truth: we are all but a bundle of quirks and soft spots, we all get goosebumps when it’s cold, and our tummies growl when they’re empty. and beneath the physiologic kinship, we unfurl the thoughts and ideas that animate our imaginations, we hold our native lands up to the light, and we discover that the globe is a very small orb, and our hearts are at their glorious best when we remember once again how deeply connected we all really, truly are.

to say nothing of the rich parade of chocolate bugs that melt across your tongue, and leave a lingering sweetness that won’t go away anytime soon.

maybugs kitchen counter

the chocolate lady bugs, it turns out, are a may day tradition in germany, when kinder (that’s children) wake up to find a trail of tucked away “may bugs,” all begging to be found. not unlike our easter egg hunt, and similar in spirit to our long-ago may-day tradition of secretly dropping a basket of spring beauties on some unsuspecting someone’s doorstep, it’s a hide-and-seek i’m now adding to my annual repertoire. and every time, my heart — like the milky chocolate — will melt, thinking of dear beloved brilliant bernd. who made our april not dreary at all. despite the temps in the 30s and 40s, and the rains that would not go away.

do you have tales to tell of long-term hospitality, the gift of opening your home and finding a new inhabitant at the tenderest spot of your heart?

 

beef stew matters

beef stew

a confession: all week i’ve been considering the fine points of stew. i’ve pondered the layering of flavorful notes. ruminated over anchovies. weighed root vegetables. detailed the pluses of rutabaga, countered with low points of turnip. i’ve dwelled on umami, that quixotic elixir we’re all after.

i’ve settled at last on a roadmap. any hour now, i’ll be cranking the flame, putting grass-fed beef chunks to the iron-hot scald of my three-thousand-pound cook pot. it’s what you do when you want a fine stew.

now this stew won’t be spooned to anyone’s mouth — not unless you count the teaspoons i’ll taste as i stir and i fiddle — till saturday’s eve. and that’s the whole point. i want the whole universe contained in my pot to cross-pollinate, to send ambassadorial missions from, say, the rings of the leek to the eye of anchovy (do those little squirmers have eyes? i’ll soon know the answer, once i peel back the lid and give them a look-see). i want a marriage — not a divorce — of fine flavor. i want the chunk of the beef to waltz with the dice of the carrot.

why, you might wonder, am i plopping my self into such a pressure-packed cooker? why in the world does this simple potage so very much matter?

take your pick:

a.) a wintry stew, served to a hungry tableau, is the raison d’être of this season of ice and blustery winds and bone-chilling temps that makes us ponder the wisdom of bears who pack it all up and go under cover from, say, the thanksgiving feast till the rising of easter.

b.) i quake in fear of that hushed moment when forks put to mouths lead to the audible verdict. i’ve sat there before when only after a pause does some polite — and half-hearted voice — pipe up with a “oh, this is good.” or, worse: not a word.

truth be told — and we’re truth-tellers here — it’s b more than anything that has me engaged. cooking for me is not just a dalliance, not a way to whittle away a few friday afternoon hours. no, cooking for me is self-taught survival.

i am still, after all these decades, battling away demons you’d maybe not notice. did you know, for instance, how much pride i felt when i typed out the sentence about tasting spoonfuls? i’ve promised myself — as i’ve made so many promises before — that i will taste as i stir. that doesn’t sound one bit scary to you, i imagine. but it does to me. and it’s why that moment of fork-to-mouth, that very first taste at a table of people i love or especially a table of folks i don’t know too well, has at times left me feeling as if the chair’s been pulled out from under me. all these years i’ve cooked by feel, cooked without tasting — a veritable braille at the cookstove — and i don’t know till everyone else does if i’ve over-walloped the salt, or short-changed the wine.

but that was then, and this is now. i am nudging myself into a new chapter. i am filling my table with people i love, and a few who i only scantily know. i am a living-breathing believer in the power of putting ideas to the world, and the best place that i know for birthing fine thought, for bridging frames of reference, is the dinner table.

it’s curious, perhaps, that i invest so much faith in the gathering of great good souls to my table. but the way i see it, the dinner table is merely the classroom, the seminar chamber, set with knives, forks and a battalion of glassware.

so, if you want to bring together great stews of ideas, of stories, of wisdom, of light, you need to stoke the flame with the richest, most sublime assemblage of feast and drink and, yes, a darn lovely haul from the old plate collection.

it’s why i’ve been turning to my panel of master teachers, all lined up on the shelves of my kitchen — and a few who walk and talk and dispense real-life secrets. it’s why i am hurling martha stewart across the room, but sidling up to david tanis, a generous-hearted cook (formerly of chez panisse and a regular in the new york times, for heaven’s sake) endowed with a down-to-earth soul who finds perfection in a simple soft-boiled egg and who writes that the peeling of carrots and onions for a simple stew “can be meditative.”

it’s not about wow-ing. it’s about allowing the feast to speak for the part of my heart and my soul that breathes beyond words.

the equation i’m after, the blueprint i seek, is one that’s infused with humility, yet banks on the notion that dolloping grace and deliciousness — both in measures sublime — onto my table is bound to spiral the talk a notch or two, and kindle the room with a shared sense of the sacred: this table matters, what unfolds here is sacramental; and as the one who’s done the gathering, i’ve infused it with the very best i could muster.

i’m finding my way. even at this late date in the game. and, any moment now, i’ll be feeling my way — and tasting my way — to a beef stew that matters. perhaps, more than it should. but not really, not when you know all that’s infused in its making.

here’s the roadmap i’m more or less following, a revamping from two solid sources: food52, that amazing online kitchen of amanda hesser and friends, and the pioneer woman, who has proven herself to stand on two solid legs when it comes to the cookstove.

My Secret Ingredient Pioneer Woman Saturday Night Beef Stew

Provenance: Food52 + Pioneer Woman. annotations by bam (and remember, this is a work in progress).

Ingredients

STEW:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

3 pounds Beef Stew Meat (chuck Roast Cut Into Chunks)

Salt And Pepper

1 whole Medium Onion, Diced

2 Leeks, sliced

7 cloves Garlic, Minced

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 package (8 oz.) Baby Bella Mushrooms

6 ounces, weight Tomato Paste

2 Anchovies

Dried Porcini Mushrooms (1/2 ounce; Melissa’s packet)

4 cups Low Sodium Beef Stock Or Broth, More If Needed For Thinning

1/2 cup Red Wine Vinegar

1 cup canned whole Tomatoes with Juice (or 1 can)

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

2 Bay leaves

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

2 whole Carrots, Peeled And Diced

1 whole Turnips, Peeled And Diced

1/2 Rutabaga

1 Parsnip

Pearl Onions, frozen; about a cup.

1/3 cup to 2 Tablespoons Minced Fresh Parsley

MASHED POTATOES:

5 pounds Russet Potatoes (peeled)

1 package (8 Ounce) Cream Cheese, Softened

1 stick Butter, Softened

1/2 cup Half-and-Half

Salt And Pepper, to taste

Preparation Instructions:

Pat dry, then salt and pepper stew meat. Heat olive oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. Brown 1/3 the stew meat until the outside gets nice and brown, about 2 minutes. (Turn it as it browns.) Remove the meat from the pot with a slotted spoon and put it on a plate. Add the rest of the meat, in thirds, to the pot and brown it, too. Remove it to the same plate. Set the meat aside.

Add the leeks, onion and garlic to the pot, stirring it to coat it in all the brown bits in the bottom of the pot. Cook for two minutes, then add the carrots and mushrooms and again, cook for a few minutes. Add tomato paste AND ANCHOVIES to the pot. Stir it into the alliums and vegetables and let it cook for two more minutes.

Meanwhile soak dried Porcini mushrooms in 1 cup warm water.

Add wine vinegar, tomatoes with juice.

Pour in the beef stock, stirring constantly. Add salt, bay leaf and thyme, bring to boil. Stir in porcini mushrooms; then add beef back to the pot, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer, covered, for 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours.

After 1 1/2 to 2 hours, add the diced turnips and carrots AND RUTABAGA AND PARSNIP to the pot. Stir to combine, put the lid back on the pot, and let it simmer for another 45 minutes to 1 hour. The sauce should be very thick, but if it seems overly so, splash in some beef broth until it thins it up enough. Feel free to add beef broth as needed!

When the ROOT VEGETABLES are tender, stir in minced parsley. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Cool to room temperature. Refrigerate.

When cool, skim off much of the fat from the top. Reheat over low heat, letting the stew simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour before serving.

Serve piping hot in a bowl with mashed potatoes, letting the juice run all over everything. Mix in half of the parsley and garnish with the rest. Sprinkle with extra minced parsley at the end.

MASHED POTATOES:

Cut the potatoes into quarters and cover with water in a large pot. Boil until potatoes are fork tender, about 25-30 minutes. Drain the potatoes, then put them back into the same pot. With the heat on low, mash the potatoes for 2 to 3 minutes to release as much steam as possible.

Turn off heat, then add cream cheese, butter, cream, seasoned salt, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Serve potatoes immediately or spread them into a buttered baking dish to be reheated later. To reheat, put them in a 375 degree oven, covered in foil, until hot.

happy tasting, sweet friends.

it’s a scary thing to write as open-heartedly and honestly as i just did. but sometimes when i’m sitting here at the old maple table, i consider the connection we’ve all forged over the years, and i reach for the bottle of truth serum and swallow a spoonful. i feel like i owe it to the chairs, to not just write some mamby-pamby distraction about how i’ve whiled away a week, but rather, if you’re going to take the time to put eyes to these words, you deserve a dose of courage. it’s especially scary to tiptoe into this realm when i know my mothers — my own mama and my mother-in-law whom i adore (along with my father-in-law) — are among the readers. but when you write from the heart, you’ve made a commitment to not pussyfoot around. you straight shoot even when it makes you tremble. if you believe in authenticity — and i do — there’s only one path up the mountain. and it sometimes gives me the shakes. but in the long run, i just might find my way. and look out from that long-awaited vista. 

a multiple choice of questions (take your pick): a.) what makes you quake? or b.) what’s your go-to winter recipe? 

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?

the grilled cheese that launched a kitchen

phone rang yesterday mornin’. it was jim, the man who built our kitchen, builds our dreams, i always say. he needed to stop by, pick up some hinges, make sure they fit the corner cabinet he’s building for my dishes, the ones stacked in moving boxes in the dark corner of the basement for four years now.

i am nearly certain plates and cups are broken. it would defy all of newton’s laws for that fine old china not to be broken, what with all that’s been dumped on its head.

but, like an ostrich, i’m not looking. and then, when i unearth a chunk of plate, a half a saucer, i will put on my best zen, and say i’m lucky for what’s left, for they all came to me the easy way, from folks cleaning closets pretty much, knowing i’d be trusted guardian to their treasures. gulp. (did you hear me swallowing my chagrin?)

ahem. back to jim, and his stopping by. last thing i said before we hung up was, “i’ll crank the griddle.” he laughed. he knows that the griddle is synonymous with grilled cheese, and grilled cheese around here is synonymous with jim, fueling jim, fueling him for years, in fact.

in the latest installment of jim’s-grilled-bread-with-cheese, during the 12 months that was supposed to have been three that it took to build our farmhouse kitchen, i musta slapped, slathered, sizzled some 1,000 grilled cheese. gone through 500 loaves of hearty wheat, nearly as many bright orange blocks of cheddar, enough butter to charm a cow.

every day, round lunchtime, even on the days when we were inhaling dust or ducking under dripping wires, i cranked the firehouse stove i call my own, and i sizzled up at least three if not more grilled cheese. then, on paper plates some days, jim & crew shoved aside just enough saw dust not to get more crunch with their cheese, and sat down to lunch. many a day, i sat down too.

and the grilled cheese always sealed the deal. always said the thing unspoken, though i’ve told it to his face plenty of times, and in print in the newspaper, too. the grilled cheese told jim & crew that they were not some hired workers, they were integral, essential, pretty much part of the family.

if they could build me my dream, hammer through headaches and near frostbite, for cryin out loud, jigsaw through knicked thumbs and delayed orders, powerdrill through the hassles of a stolen van and a lifetime’s lost tools, i could slap cheese on bread; butter; grill.

to be honest, not every day was a happy day on the long road to the farmhouse kitchen. at least one or two days jim wanted to kill me (like the day we discovered that the cabinet doors i’d described and the ones he ordered–and was starting to hang–were decidedly not the same).

but through it all the cheese was grilled, the apples were sliced, and in the end, the jim who walked in yesterday, pulled out a stool, sat down and bit off a corner of my grilled cheese, he’s one of the dearest hearts in my life. we endured, fueled, in good measure, on that oozy cheese.

it just seems right to me, and food for more thought for another day, perhaps, that the souls you invite into your home, to build your home, to wire your home, to get the toilet flushing, they are part and parcel of the woodwork, the wiring, the very innards of what makes your house not just a house but a very live theater with all sorts of characters who fill the stage with their charms, their quirks, their persistence and their considerable capabilities.

it is a bond not paid in dollars. it is far beyond obligation. it is, far as i can tell, a kind of love best served crunchy on the outside, oozing in the middle.

i’m curious, have you too forged bonds with folks who make your house keep ticking? or, if you’re a soul who does keep houses ticking, how’s it feel when you’re made to know, in no uncertain terms, that you are, simply, indispensable and far beyond just another worker hired for the job?

p.s. those are, obviously, jim’s hands up above, holding that grilled cheese. i love those hands, working hands. as i kept clicking, while he chewed, i was raving about the hands–knicks, calluses, rough spots, the whole shebang. he chuckled. said that was a first. said i oughta go watch seinfeld, some episode where someone–i should know who–becomes a hand model. oh well, in the comedy i call my life, jim’s hands will do. just fine.

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….

slippers for david

at our house today our hearts are skipping. if you hear a thump in my typing today it’s because my heart it is thumping.

david is coming home. david is coming to our house. david is, pretty much, christmas and new years and birthday and fourth of july, all rolled into one.

david is uncle everything.

he’s the big box under the tree, the confetti, the cake with the candles, the fireworks that light up the night.

he is, to my boys and to me, essential. if oxygen is 02, david is 01. david is the stuff that we breathe. david is life.

and he’s coming home. coming back from his new life in maine, where chairs are the thing that he builds. but a new life is the thing that he’s carving, he and his love, sweet rebecca.

this is the longest he’s been away, and for my boys it’s felt like a lifetime. since he’s been gone, one broke a neck and had a bar mitzvah. the other went off to kindergarten, and learned to pick up a pencil.

we keep in touch, close touch, through the incredible phalanx of options that define ’007.

but still the absence is aching. you can’t feel the rough of his fingers through an email. can’t watch the light dance in his eyes over the phone. can’t inhale how he fills up a room with his remarkable mix of genius and joy. not when you’re 1000-some miles away.

and so, we put out the slippers.

david asked for a day that is given form by the slippers. a day of no strictures, no schedules, no plans, no great expectations.

a day just to be. to be with the boys. to cook. and to eat. to pull up to the table. a day to lie on the floor and stare up at the ceiling. together. a day to tell stories. to laugh. to make silly noises. a day to look for the moon. to marvel at stars. a day to pull out the pillows, make a camp on the floor.

a day for just slippers.

so, of course, we put out our very best slippers. the ones you see up above, waiting just by the door. nothing but the best for our beloved sweet david.

for two weeks now, the little one has been counting as close to backwards as he is able. he asks, fifteen times a day, mama, how long ’til uncle david?

at long last the answer is zero. today is the day that david is coming.

and, boy oh boy, will we ever be ready.

soon as the little one rubs the sleep from his eyes, he’ll be right by the door. waiting. with the slippers.

you see, david was here from the get-go for that little guy. came to the hospital just hours after he was born, and he was born in the middle of night. but david came anyway. david held him. baptized him in a cascade of quiet tears. that little baby was not just a dream come true for me, but testament to many that you can, in the end, cradle your longest-held dream. and my little one came when david needed a dose of that truth. needed to press it close to his heart.

they’ve been joined at the heart ever since.

and my other one, the one i now call the man-child, well, david jumped in six months after delivery day. wasn’t in town ’til the midpoint of year no. 1 for boy no. 1. but when david jumps, stand back for the splashing.

from day numero uno of the days they locked eyes on each other, david gave the now-man-child the absolute whole of his heart.

the litany is long, the litany is rich. here are a few of the highlights: the night he stayed up ’til the dawn, making a life-size aquarium out of a refrigerator box, a work of art, of pastels and passion, if ever there was. the saturn cake he baked for his birthday, the ring of spun sugar, a forest of sparklers scaring the behoozies out of the 5-year-old boy. who loved it, after the sparklers went pfft. the day he showed up at the door with fare for the train, a compass, a map and a grease pencil. the two, uncle david, little man-child (then maybe 6 or 7), spent the day riding the rails, learning the city, but learning forever that you can get wherever you want in this world, and the path uncharted is the one that brings joy you never expected.

the curriculum according to david includes african drumming, purple heart wood, and sushi. victor wooten, the great jazz guitarist. riding a scooter six long blocks to the place that sells extra-choice hot dogs. stopping midway to lie on the grass, and look for shapes in the clouds. a larger-than-life papier-mache elephant head named omar, crafted by david and becca, inspired by a trip to the zoo.

and that’s just the beginning.

the list, i’m sure, will go on as long as there’s air in their lungs. the lessons more lasting the older they grow.

and that’s just the boys.

what he’s taught me is immense.

what he’s taught me the best is that a day rich in slippers is a day to be treasured for life.

may you all have a someone for whom the slippers are waiting. someone you love who fills your heart and your home. we are blessed and we know it. here’s to hearts who come home, and fill every inch of the slippers….

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…