We are in the thick of June now, aren't we? Seems so sudden but the neighbor kid across the street bounces his basketball at all hours of the day instead of just after school, and we've had a few real sundress afternoons in Seattle. I remember when summer used to be this broad expanse of what seemed like endless time. There were trips to the local library with my mom, outdoor sprinklers, mid-day naps and sleepovers that included spoonfuls of raw cookie dough with my best friend, Kristin. It obviously looks different now. There is a noticeable lack of mid-day naps and raw cookie dough, that's for sure. There are deadlines and work obligations, but at least they're often punctuated with sunny mornings, outdoor cocktails at our funky little picnic table, occasional gardening and quick camping trips.
A few months ago I went to a food writing conference in San Francisco and attended a session on managing to make good money as a cookbook author or freelance writer. It was a late night session and I hadn't had a chance to grab dinner (or lunch, for that matter), so my friend Sarah and I slurped down a quick bowl of tortilla soup at the lobby bar and jetted over to grab our seats. In addition to questions about payment and negotiation, the organizers asked us to confidentially rate our level of happiness in our field of work. During the session, I soon realized I was the only one who rated my happiness below an 8. My reason -- which I happily shared that night: it's lonely work. There are days when I don't see anyone besides Sam and the woman at the grocery check-out line. You'd think a nice antidote to this would be the work I do with Marge where I'm on my feet in a very physical production kitchen -- and it is. But I'm still the main baker and, until quite recently, I was alone in the kitchen. So I generally go from writing at home in my office to baking alone in a commercial kitchen. For a person who generally likes people and enjoys talking and sharing ideas and inspiration, I'm out of luck on both counts. But slowly, over the past few weeks, I've started to realize things are changing. For the better -- and for good, I think.
I wake up in the morning and consult the Google calendar. Lately I'm not sure how I could make much of anything happen without it. Tasks are driven largely by to-do lists with breaks for an occasional lunch. And lots of granola baking in between. My yoga teacher hasn't seen a whole lot of me, and Sam and I finally went grocery shopping for real last night (it's been awhile). This time of year seems populated by things that other people need done: from the farmers market organizers to new Marge vendors and book-related emails -- there's a lot to tend to. That is, until the craving to bake cookies strikes on Sunday night and it seems that, actually, everyone can wait.
I have an office in the upstairs of our house, but I'm often found camped-out at the kitchen table or nudged into our small breakfast nook -- coffee cup, computer, and messy notes scattered about. We live in an old craftsman that boasts only one heating vent on the second floor, so in the winter it's freezing and in the summer it can get pretty stuffy and uncomfortable. Spring, on the other hand, is the season I claim it all back. Working upstairs with the morning birds, the one curious roof-top squirrel, and the changing afternoon light -- it feels like my world alone. It's not shared with household bills, neighbor kids walking by, or the UPS man ringing the bell. It's just me, and I have to say: I notice a change in my writing, in the cadence of my day and in my mood. Everything feels a bit calmer and less harried. There's a tiny, noticeable transformation. Hello from up here.
Spring has stumbled upon our doorstep. I know this for a fact because rhubarb has been popping up at the farmer's market two weeks in a row, and each time I visit I ask the vendors anxiously how long it'll be there. Four more weeks? Maybe five? Last year I bought so much that we ended up freezing quite a bit to use in pies, muffins and scones. I don't often have this stock-up mentality, but when it comes to rhubarb I find that it's fleeting and always disappears before I've had a chance to truly enjoy it. Fully.
In the airport bathroom, it seemed as though all the women were changing into sequined sandals and little knit shirts with white capris. I hadn't quite thought through the outfit change scenario -- the fact that the temperature when I left Seattle at 11 p.m. might be different than it is in St. Barths at 3 p.m. Driving to the villa, the roads were narrow and cars slapped against palm leaves and bougainvillea as they rounded tight corners. 70-year old women walked topless on the beaches and iced tea cost eight dollars. Dinners were always eaten out, and it was balmy enough to leave with a sundress on and nothing more. Meals consisted of polenta fries, citrusy shaved artichoke salad, Sea Bream with butter and lemon, tuna tartare with avocado cream and thinly sliced radishes, lobster fritters cloaked in spicy aioli, and warm chocolate cake. And wine. Lots of wine. And then, with morning: a reset button.
A few weeks ago my Grandpa friended me on Facebook. I immediately texted my two sisters to verify that this was, in fact, Grandpa. They confirmed. And so, confused, I accepted his friend request and popped over to admire his page. It was, as you can imagine, quite bare. He'd accidentally noted that he was born in 1986 and his page boasted a small handful of friends, all quite elderly. I didn't think much of it at that time until early last week when my mom called to let me know that now Grandpa, apparently, knew everything we were up to. I imagined him incorporating this new bit of technology into his morning routine of checking stocks, doing calisthenics and having breakfast with my Gram at their little table on the porch in Florida. And then a funny thing happened: Gramp started posting on my wall. The first time was on Valentine's Day when he wished me a very happy day and hoped I was doing something fun for myself. I decided to write back on his wall, wishing him a nice afternoon and letting him know that I'd been pretty busy baking that week. Since then, we occasionally report on the weather and what we're up to. Many of the cousins do the same thing, so Gramp's wall is now peppered with cheerful family updates from near and far. There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical -- even scornful--of social media and the ways technology can sneak into our daily lives. We could all make a pretty lengthy list, I'm sure. But getting messages from your Grandpa that read, "I sit 85 and sunny here today" just isn't one of them.
This past Sunday morning found Sam in the living room reading the paper and listening to records and me taking mad scientist notes in the kitchen, working on this humble beauty. I'd stumbled across a recipe for a honey cake that I wanted to make but as I was converting the grams into standard cup measurements for you all, I began tinkering. And tinkering. And downright altering the recipe until it really was no longer the honey cake recipe I'd become enamored with. I just couldn't help but think it should have cornmeal in it, and that spelt flour would make for a really delicate crumb while whole-wheat flour would hold down the fort, so to speak. Sam was reading the Book Review; I was crossing my fingers, staring in at the cake and wondering what I'd done.
I always thought I'd be a teacher when I grew up. Like the dutiful first child that I tend to be, I went to school to be a teacher. I continued on to graduate school. I taught college freshman in Boston and moved on to teach high school freshman back in California. My mom was a teacher and I'd grown up spending time in her classroom (ahh, the hours of Oregon Trail!), hearing tales of her students, and witnessing her late-night grading sessions. It seemed so seamlessly that, all of a sudden, I had a classroom and tales of my own. Until I didn't. The teaching climate in California was (and still is) a tough one and finding solid work became impossible. People often ask if I miss teaching. I miss my students a great deal and I miss the act of teaching -- the challenge of thinking through how to present a piece of information or a structured lesson so that a classroom full of different kinds of learners could really "get it." I realized last week that, while I've been out of the academic classroom for a few years now, in many ways, I'm still doing the very same thing. Food writing and recipe development has, at its core, the act of learning and teaching. There are new kitchen skills to master and dishes to try; there are ways we take what we learn and make it our own based on tastes, ability level or preference; there are then ways we pass them on to others. Saturday night that process came to be in the form of a very fine roast chicken and a grapefruit chess pie.
Last week I didn't write a blog post because we were in one of two places, both without Internet. First, it's likely we were on an Amtrak train headed to Essex, Montana. Second, it's even more likely that we were actually tucked away in the lodge of the mountain inn where we were staying. As you likely already know if you've been around here for some time, Sam loves trains. I mean really, really loves trains. He goes on a 2-week trip each year to explore different parts of the country -- to actually see and get a sense of the bigness of the miles going by. If flying desensitizes us to distance, Sam keeps that sensitivity warm with his preference for trains (and cars, and ships, and walking. Really. He's an evangelist on this point). So last week, we not only took a train to a rather remote Montana Inn, but stayed in a restored 1895 caboose-turned-cabin while there. Sam was in heaven, as you can imagine. I was too, thanks to the miles and miles of snowshoe trails and complete and utter lack of technology. And witnessing Sam in heaven. That does it for me, too.
I moved to Seattle last February so this January business is all new to me. I remember pulling into the city in the U-Haul we lovingly named Hugh on a sunny February afternoon. We were eager with anticipation and hope, schlepping everything into the house in tee-shirts with a few strong helpers and occasional mild cursing. Seattle really made a showing that day. I'm gathering that wasn't exactly typical, although I really do appreciate the gesture. This year the winter mornings have not been warm enough to encourage tee-shirts. They've been quiet, extremely cold but -- lately -- startlingly sunny. That bright light, despite the layer of ice on my car, has helped get me to yoga when I'd much rather stay inside nursing a cup of coffee. It's been enough to inspire me to send letters to old friends, organize all of my tax documents, make some pretty great oatmeal and take long winter walks with Sam. I'm not letting myself have the space or the moment or the luxury to miss those warm summer days that now seem like a distant memory. I know they'll come back (they will, right?). For now, there's just putting one foot in front of the other, getting my work done, and sneaking out in that light whenever it decides to make a showing.
Harold is someone I've written about many times before, but not here. I wrote about Harold for my college entrance essay, for a graduate school speech, and even mentioned him in my book proposal last year. He's unassuming in appearance, but not in character -- you likely wouldn't look twice as you walked by him on the street. He's generous with his time and always up for helping when the cards are down. He has good taste in clothes, enjoys a great meal, and is always full of ideas for how to fill out a day just right. Before I boarded a plane for Ghana the summer of my junior year in college, I thought about Harold. When I got the jitters about leaving my friends and family to move to Seattle, I thought about Harold. The funny thing is, Harold isn't real (bear with me here. Really). He's a character from Harold and the Purple Crayon, a children's book my mom read to me as a little girl. About ten years ago, she gave me a copy for Christmas, and it sits on the bookshelf in my office today. If you're not familiar with the story, Harold's a young boy armed with a purple crayon and he thinks through what he'd like to surround himself with -- what he'd like his world to look like--and then simply draws it and it comes to be. Want a full moon tonight and a long evening walk? Harold breaks out the crayon. Care for a long slide to slide down on a sunny afternoon? Harold draws it. The idea behind the book and the charming character of Harold is that we can all create the day we wish to have, the month we really need, or the year we hope for if we use our purple crayons carefully and deliberately -- if we simply imagine how we'd like for it to look and set out to begin making it happen. So on New Years Day, I thought about Harold again. I thought about how I'd like this year to look for myself, for Sam and I, and for my business.
The Saturday before my manuscript was due, Sam and I went out to get our first Christmas tree together. I was exhausted, it was raining, and I wasn't feeling supremely festive but it was the day that fit in with both of our schedules. Once I got to the lot, things changed. There were all kinds of choices - Douglas Firs, Silver Tips, Scotch Pines. We discovered that we have the same taste in trees (full and maybe a touch squatty), bought some garland, had one of the Boy Scouts snap our photo, and stopped for chowder at Ivar's on the way home. It was about 4:30 p.m. and we were the youngest ones at the restaurant by a good forty years. Amidst the electric train chugging around by the check-out counter, flashing holiday lights, and repetitive music, we shared greasy french fries and chowder and declared that we should do the same the following year. A few days later, we found ourselves at The Sorrento Hotel sipping spiked cider and hot buttered rum while writing holiday cards. There were families dressed up in holiday garb, live music and a roaring fire, and I told Sam we should come back next year. He smiled and nodded, apparently thinking the same thing.
Hello from the other side! I realize we haven't been back here for a few weeks, and I'm sorry for dropping into a little black hole. My cookbook deadline was Monday, so I've been a writing and editing machine, stepping away from the computer to occasionally clean the house like a crazy person or throw together a most random lunch or dinner. But somehow it all came together although there was something strangely anti-climactic about sending it off: In the days when you'd print out your manuscript and have to walk to the post office and seal it up carefully to send to the publisher, I imagine it would feel much more ceremonial and important --you could stroll out of the building and do a cartwheel. Or high-five a fellow customer on your way out. Instead, I was sitting in our dining room on an incredibly rainy, dark Monday afternoon unable to hit "send." My sister Zoe told me to just close my eyes and do it. Sam gave me the thumbs up. So around 3 p.m. that's what I did. With the click of a button, just like that: it was finished.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
Spice Cookies from the new cookbook, Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
I'm writing this on a train around 6 p.m. about an hour North of New York City. To my right is the Hudson River and to my left, one Sam catching up on a few emails. The sun is making its way down ever so slowly and my black ballet flats are more than ready to trade in carpeted train hallways for city streets and firm ground. This is our fourth day on the train. We left Seattle clutching a week's worth of clothes, enough work to keep us busy on the train, a few novels, a bottle of wine, a cocktail in a flask (thank you, Brandon), rye in another flask (thank you, Sam), a few cameras, and these crackers. Final destination: Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey. With a quick stop-over to visit my sister Zoe and her boyfriend Stefan in the West Village, eat meatballs, and check out a few bookstores.
This time of year always comes quietly. I call these weeks "bridge weeks": it's warm during the day and tomatoes and corn are still at the markets, but the light is a touch more golden and it's chilly enough in the mornings and evenings to grab your closest sweater. While fall is my favorite season, I find myself going inward a bit in September, wanting to experience the change of seasons without the Internet or TV forcing it upon me, or Starbucks announcing what seasonal drink I'd likely crave at any given time. We're fickle people, aren't we? One week eating stone fruits and discussing the dog days of summer and the next diving head-on into pumpkin breads and cookies. This is why I don't read many food blogs at the very beginning of fall because I'm not quite ready to jump right into pumpkin breads and cookies. Here at our house, there are still tomatoes to slice, warm walks to take, and backyard picnic table with my name on it.
Time moves differently in the summer. I swear this to be true. It was one of the crueler jokes bestowed upon me when I began teaching: you put all of your energy and every dream of a chunk of freedom into this magical thing, summer vacation, and it'd be over before you could blink. I'm feeling a little of that as I sit here now with just a few days of July left, writing to you on a foggy Friday afternoon with a messy kitchen, a broken washing machine, and an empty refrigerator. Don't get me wrong: it's been a good day. We shared a messy biscuit sandwich for lunch from a new spot downtown and lingered over coffee longer than usual before starting the work day. A good week, really. But time has been moving quickly and I'm sure you notice that, too.
We left for vacation on the day after I went grocery shopping in a wool sweater. June was definitively not summer here. According to everyone I talk to, it never is. And truthfully we were both just trucking along throughout the whole month, we had little time to complain or wish for something more. We had planned a mini camping trip all the way into ... our backyard, but had to cancel due to chilly rain. But the second we returned to Seattle, you could sense something changed. People in the airport were tee-shirted, Brandon drove us home with the windows slightly cracked, and the next morning big, bright sun shone through the curtains in our bedroom. Summer in Seattle has arrived--and we have fruit pies, galettes, a booming garden, iced tea, and salads for dinner to show for it.
I'm writing this post to you today on the porch of my mom's lakefront cabin in upstate, New York. In the past few years, this spot has come to mean summer to me. Sure, I've made many wonderful summer memories that dated far before my mom started coming here, but these days I feel like summer really starts on the porch here. Time slows. The daily itinerary involves morning coffee, porch-reading, dock-reading, and discussion of what to do for dinner. That's basically it. Sometimes this is punctuated by a swim or a run or a soft-serve ice cream cone. Or a long walk down the road. A most welcome change of pace from what our daily itinerary has looked like in Seattle recently (work, work, work, eat, work). Now we've arrived happily to the land of lingering.
There are moments when I'm truly happy we don't have cable. This week, a time that finds us amidst the Facebook fiasco, is one of them. Even without TV, I feel like I can't escape news of the IPO, stock prices, shareholder reactions, and future projections. But in last Sunday's paper I read something that caught my attention. Mark Zuckerberg's now wife, Priscilla Chan, made a request of him before moving in together: 100 minutes of alone time each week. And a vacation each year. My first reaction was one of mild shock: only 100 minutes?! I turned to Sam and told him about these agreements that are becoming more and more popular amongst couples -- the drive to tell each other what you need from the relationship. The New York Times compared it to kind of an emotional prenup. It all sounded a bit formal and calculated to me. Wasn't this depressing, I asked Sam? He glanced at me with a look that said that it really wasn't at all. In fact, at that very moment, we were having our version of 100 minutes.
It's all I can do not to just drop everything and turn this into a gardening blog. Maybe a gardening blog with cookies, and cocktails? I jest. But in all seriousness, thank you all so much for your generous comments and advice about planting and gardening. I wish I had you in my back pocket at all times, but you've given me a lot to work with and much inspiration. In fact, today's recipe is made with fresh herbs from the backyard! It's been unusually warm in Seattle this week, so everything's growing like crazy and quite thirsty. I learned a valuable lesson: if you take off on the ferry to Vashon Island on a very sunny day to visit a most lovely couple in their new home, eat the best quinoa you may have ever tasted, and forget to water your plants, you will come home to sad basil. This is, apparently, a fact. I'm learning slowly. Also a fact: playing hookie on an island is sometimes just what the doctor ordered. I've been thinking a lot about creativity lately and how to make more space for it in the constant to-do lists of my (I assume our) daily lives. I often feel guilty if I take moments to focus on a non-work related project, but I read something recently that led me to believe taking time out of our day to chop some herbs, knead some dough, and wait for it to rise might just be what we all need more of.
I had some big plans for this past weekend. It was in the 70's in Seattle and everyone was out on the lake, gardening, running, biking, and lounging on patios. Our house, on the other hand, came down with the plague. Sam's been struggling with his allergies all week and I caught a rogue flu, so instead of beach picnics and planting herbs, I finally finished An Everlasting Meal, drank honeyed licorice tea, and took many naps. We did, also, drag ourselves to the U-District farmers market and picked up some rhubarb, sorrel, broccolini, and farm eggs. The fridge had become quite bare and it felt really good to have some color around.
Something funny happens when you live with someone instead of dating them from afar. You learn little nuances about each other's behavior, see the bottom-of-the-barrel sweaters, take out the trash, and buy underwear and shampoo together. Sam calls my beloved furry slippers old lady slippers and, to be fair, they kind of are. And I've become well acquainted with his holey "sick sweater," his eagerness to retrieve the mail in the early afternoon, and his uncanny ability to drink more tea than anyone I've ever known. Also, I'm learning things about myself. Like the fact that, apparently, most people don't eat a whole grapefruit when they sit down for breakfast. According to Sam, they stop at a half.
I've learned something about myself this week: I'm a neurotic packer. I don't think this is a new trait, I think I've just now come to realize it. I've been putting off the huge task of packing up this apartment but the time has come to get down to business. I started by packing things that I wouldn't really notice were gone: ski stuff, summer clothes, cookbooks I know I won't use over the next two weeks. Then I take those boxes and put them in the back of the closet so I don't have to look at them--this way, everything continues to look in perfect order. Just so.
In our family, Christmas cookies come about in one of two ways: we either make them or folks drop them by the house. I'm sure something similar happens with you, too. And there are the tins of cookies that you're thrilled to receive and look forward to for weeks and others that you stow away until the day comes when you don't feel all that guilty throwing them out. Growing up, a woman my dad used to work with would send her eponymous Denise's Pieces each year. They're a pretty standard chocolate-covered toffee but they're soft and buttery and hide-from-your-sisters good. Two years ago, Denise offered to drive over from Sacramento to give us a tutorial and teach us how to make the toffee on our own. Yes! Best day ever! At the end of the day, Rachael, Zoe and I learned we were pretty awful at making toffee. We also learned Denise's caveat: once she shows you how to make the toffee, "you're set free." Free, we asked? That's right: you no longer get a tin of toffee in the mail. No! Worst day ever!
I went to hear Gabrielle Hamilton speak in downtown San Francisco Friday night. Now there's a lot one can say about her book Blood, Bones and Butter -- about what's in the book and about what's so clearly not in the book. About her difficult personal life, family dynamics, and road to becoming a chef. But what I'm always intrigued with when it comes to Hamilton are her thoughts on work and accepting, in a fierce and even deliberate manner, what it is you want to do. Regardless of what critics may have said, this is why I kind of dig her.
It's undeniably September, but I'm going to refrain from writing that kind of a post. On evening runs, it's getting darker just a touch earlier and, like clock-work, summer is kicking into swing full-force in the Bay Area. We're good for Indian summers and we're also known for forgetting they happen each and every year. We all walk around shocked that it's hot in September when it's always hot in September. So while I'm excited for all that fall brings, let's look back at summer for just a second and then talk about cake, shall we?
There are some things you don't question or plan for. They're the things that just happen, that unfold throughout the day or week or month. The things we don't always document or discuss because they don't really seem important enough, but that -- all the same -- so often bring us together in one way or another. Patterns or obsessions or phases. Late-night online shoe shopping. Permission to nap at odd hours. Spontaneous cell-phone photo exchanges. Maybe you can relate. Maybe lately you've been doing something similar. As you do. As we do.