pull up a chair

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Category: hospitality

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…

extending the table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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