A few months ago, I spoke here about the meals I was planning to make before the baby arrived. I made beef carnitas and pulled pork, and cooked and froze lots of whole grains. I prepared a few different soups and froze a handful of brownies and blondies. Ziplock bags were neatly labeled and freezer shelves were organized by type of food. Clearly, I wasn’t messing around. About that time, a friend emailed me and suggested we do a meal train and even offered to organize it. My initial thought was that we really didn’t need it and could take care of feeding ourselves on our own (apparently, I’m not big on asking for help). The freezer was stocked and we had family visiting who would surely cook … but the more I thought about it, I knew our friends would want to swing by and having a little structure would probably make them feel more comfortable.
Taking the uncertainty out of it (What time should I bring food? Is now a good time? Should I text or call? What if I wake the baby?) turned out to be a good thing for everyone and before we knew it, we were getting little email notifications from friends who had signed up to bring us meals. Some indicated what they’d bring (quiche! lentils! “something delicious”!) and others left it as a surprise; some stayed for a cup of tea and others dropped a bag at the door. Regardless of the meal, the gesture felt overwhelming and I realized that we needed that almost as much as the roast chicken, soups, homemade pasta sauce, and pints of gelato. In the midst of the insular, exhausting and all-encompassing weeks of caring for a brand new baby and trying to care for ourselves, we needed to see our friends, some who had had kids and understood what we were going through and others who could relate to just generally feeling overwhelmed and not quite yourself. I was so glad we’d said yes to it all.
Those that know me very well know that I can be a little controlling when it comes to food. Maybe I haven’t spoken much about that here — while in my teen years and my early twenties that manifested as more of an eating disorder, now it looks much more like a general concern that most meals be well-rounded. Or at least that the day as a whole looks this way. If we have a heaping stack of pancakes for breakfast, I’ll try to make a big salad for lunch. If Sam makes pasta for dinner, I try to sneak in something green to go with it. Maybe even some protein. It’s all quite mundane to talk about, really. I even bore myself in thinking too hard about it let alone writing about it here, but after I had Oliver I realized how deeply ingrained this had become in my day to day life. All of a sudden I wasn’t able to control what we’d eat or even when we’d eat. The meals were definitely not always well balanced. Breakfast often consisted of a few leftover holiday cookies or half of a burrito from the night before. It was more survival mode than leisurely meal planning.
I remember breaking down sobbing one night as I sat eating while Sam rocked the baby across from me, his plate of food sitting on the coffee table getting cold. I worried it’d be months (years?!) before we got to sit down at the table and actually eat dinner together. He assured me it was just temporary. That we were eating together, just not taking bites at the same time. Things were different. Things are still different and will be for a very long time. Mostly in good ways, of course, but also in ways that have taken some getting used to. Oliver is two months old today and has graced us with big toothless smiles and occasional six hour stretches of sleep (!!!). Lately he’s also graced us with good chunks of time where he’ll lounge on his funny elephant pillow on the kitchen floor and just hang out listening to A Boy Named Charlie Brown while Sam and I sit and eat dinner together. It feels like a coup.
I recently wrote about Alana Chernila’s newest book, The Homemade Kitchen and in it she has a chapter on feeding people in your life when they’re sick or there’s a death in the family or a new baby. Of this she says, “It can be easy to talk yourself out of bringing dinner. Particularly when there’s a birth, death, or illness, walking into someone else’s experience can feel awkward. We want to give space … But on the whole, we usually think people want more space than they actually do. You don’t have to visit, or to fill the house with conversation. You only have to bring dinner. The presence of that little box, the pot, the food into which you put care — it will remind them they should eat, and it will make them feel taken care of when they need it most …When we bring dinner, we say: I’m your community. I’m here for you. Eat.”
When I think back to why the meal train felt so significant, it really came down to this: feeling cared for by our community. On days when we wouldn’t leave the house and would be lucky to shower, it made us feel less alone. And it also allowed me to completely focus on the task at hand — Oliver — and relinquish all cares and thoughts about the smaller, more mundane parts of the day … like whether or not we’d have a green vegetable for dinner. I didn’t know what dinner would be until it arrived on our stoop. Or even when it would arrive. But all of a sudden, it really didn’t matter.
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As with most things related to pregnancy and babies, there is a wealth of advice online about what foods to bring to families after they have a baby. Some of the advice is good, some not as much. I really like this Kitchn post because it touches on other elements of a meal or parts of a day beyond casseroles and soups. There were a few friends who would throw in a little something extra for a snack, and others who sent a favorite breakfast treat. When our families weren’t in town, getting to the grocery store was a challenge so fresh snacks and fruit were really nice, too. And cookies. It was certainly the season of cookies and they never seemed to get old.
And as it happens, these cookies from Samantha Seneviratne’s book The New Sugar and Spice are the first thing I’ve baked for us “just because.” After flipping through the book for a few minutes, I was immediately intrigued with her focus: in short, she discusses how so many American sweets really rely on sugar for flavor, resulting in overly sweet cookies, cakes, breads. Samantha has long been really interested in the way spices amplify flavor in baked goods, so she set out to create a baking book that experimented with bold spices and less sugar. Of these cookies, she notes “They are unique enough to be strikingly delicious and familiar enough to please the staunchest traditionalist.” And while we really loved them, I decided to bring a plate to my book club earlier this week to share. It was cold and rainy and the first time I’ve left Oliver to do something social on my own. I showered and actually put on jeans. And as the night ticked on, I looked around at our growing group of ladies, all sharing cheese and wine and lentils and cinnamon rolls and cookies and all manner of conversation not related to the book we were supposed to have read, and found myself thinking again about my community here. It really, truly feels like a coup.
I was intrigued by these cookies when I noticed that they call for coconut oil instead of butter. This makes them a little lighter than a traditional chocolate chip cookie. I made a few tweaks, using half spelt flour and turbinado sugar instead of granulated sugar. Certainly use all-purpose flour and granulated sugar if you’d prefer. But I think these cookies are pretty forgiving and a good chance to experiment with a whole grain flour if you’d like. If you don’t have pistachios, any nut would be great here. I’m aiming to make these again with walnuts or pecans and an additional handful of coconut.
Slightly adapted from The New Sugar and Spice
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together both flours, baking soda, and salt. In a large bowl, using a wooden spoon, combine the coconut oil, brown sugar and turbinado sugar together until creamy. Stir in the vanilla extract and the egg. Add the flour mixture to the coconut oil mixture and stir to combine. Fold in the chocolate, pistachios and coconut.
Scoop the dough in 2-tablespoon scoops and place on the prepared baking sheets, at least 2 inches apart. Sprinkle each cookie with a bit of flaky salt. Bake until golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through. Let the cookies cool on the sheets on racks for about 5 minutes. While these cookies are best eaten the day they’re made, they can be stored covered at room temperature for up to 2 days.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
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.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.