Sunday, October 30, 2011

On cooking and comfort

It has been a stressful few months,to say the least. I feel no particular need to belabor this point.  It is enough to say it has been all I can do most days to drag myself out of bed, make it to work, put out whatever fires the day may bring, and limp home. Making dinner most nights seems a monolithic task, and more than I can manage.

But here's the thing: I love to cook. I love everything about being in the kitchen. I love the rhythm of chopping onions and garlic. I love that the damn onions make me cry every time! I love the sound of oil heating in a pan, and that hiss when the onions hit the oil for the first time. I love the aroma that permeates the house as everything begins to come together.  I love to take  recipes and play with them to make them my own.  I love the idea of creating something that will bring joy, comfort, and nourishment to the people around me.

I watch Food Network the way my sweetheart watches sports.  I can watch it all day, and never realize that time has passed.  I actually had to take a sick day a couple of weeks ago, and I spent the entire day in bed with Food Network on the television.  I slept off and on throughout the day, but just having those shows on in the background soothed me.  They inspired me, too.

The chefs made me want to feel better so I could get out of bed and try new things in the kitchen.  They made me feel like eating again, but not just any food.  Good food.  Healthy, homemade food that was filled with energy, effort, and love.  They made me want to head to the grocery store for Belgian Endive to stuff with Swiss cheese and wrap in ham before covering in a silky, cheesy sauce and baking it in the oven.  They tempted me, for the first time, to try lamb, in the form of "lollipop" chops, as I prepared a Greek inspired meal.  My head was overflowing with ideas of new ingredients I could throw together in the kitchen, and I started to feel better.

When I cook, I always feel better.  Always.  So why do I dread it some days?  Is it perhaps that I have set my expectations to high?  I have done so much experimenting, using fresh ingredients, playing with spice combinations, making things from scratch, that now it feels like cheating on a night when I just want to open a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese.  I can't leave it alone.  I have to add spices, hot sauce, more cheese.  Who doesn't want more cheese, after all?  But I think that by falling in love with cooking, I have deemed dinner daunting.  what's a Betty to do?

I spent yesterday throwing together a bunch of old favorites for a Halloween party, and was so happy to see that they were a hit last night. As I type, I have a Paula Deen inspired dish bubbling away in the crock pot.  My house smells amazing.  The anticipation is building, and I can't wait to see if what I have done with her recipe has worked.  I had so much fun just putting it together that it really doesn't matter.  I realized that just the act of creating the dish soothed me and brought me comfort, so that is enough.

But it sure will be a bummer if it turns out to taste like dirt!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

On sisterhood, sucking, and sushi...

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to reunite with my Chi Omega sorority sisters back "home" at Rollins College in beautiful, sunny Winter Park, Florida.  A gaggle of seven of us who were as close as sisters could ever be, back in college, shared two rooms in the old hotel where everyone used to stay "back in the day", as they say.  Of our seven, some of us had not seen each other in nineteen years, since we graduated, so this reunion was a huge deal for us.  For months before the reunion we regularly bombarded a facebook message board with reminiscences, questions, updates, hopes, and hilarity.  It promised to be quite a weekend!

I will freely admit to being the world's worst traveler.  I am angst-ridden over what to pack.  Take a peek inside my head as I pack:  "Will I have the right shoes?  What if it is too hot for jeans?  Are these really the right jeans?  Which skirt is the right kind for this occasion?  How casual is too casual?  What did we decide we would be doing, again?  If we add to the agenda, will I have the right stuff?  Do I have medicine to treat any possible ailment?  Where is Mortimer, my teddy bear?  What about that extra pillow and the sleep mask?  You, know you have trouble sleeping; make sure you have everything you need to help you sleep!  Did you pack your toothbrush?  Ohmigod!  They said they wanted to lay out by the pool!  Do you even still own a bathing suit?  Wherethehell would that be?  Does it fit?  You burn when you even think about the sun, you know!  Pack sunscreen!  Wheretherehell is the sunscreen!  What am I forgetting?  Who am I sharing a bed with?  What if I snore and make everyone miserable?  I haven't seen them in nineteen years...This could all go horribly, horribly wrong...Oh, crap!  Is it really Two o'clock in the morning?  I have to be up at 5:30!!!  Must sleep soon!!!  Crap!  I need my toothbrush in the morning!  I need Mortimer and the sleep mask tonight to sleep!  What if I forget them in the morning?  Why did I agree to go to this?  I should just stay home!!!  I should never leave the house!...'monkey, monkey, underpants...'..."  You see what I mean?  To quote Lorelai Gilmore, "It's a big bag of crazy in there!"  So I end up packing half of everything I own.  I'm pretty sure I had seventeen pairs of panties for a five day trip!  Fortunately, Mortimer did make it.  I would have had to come back for him, if he hadn't.  He never misses a trip!  Luckily I was driving, so eventually Mortimer and I buckled up into a fully-loaded Sprite, put the top down, slathered on the sunscreen, and hit the road for Rollins!
Mortimer is ready to roll!

Sunburned and slap-happy from Orlando traffic, I arrived ready for a shower, a little down time to catch up, and a cocktail only to find that we had added a party to the agenda and we were already late!  Classic!  It was as if no time had passed at all, and I rushed to get ready. I was frantic, excited, and loving every minute of the madness! Through the giggling and gabbing I got ready and we headed out to the first of many reunion events that would mark that marvelous weekend. 

The campus of Rollins College has always been beautiful, but much has been done to upgrade and update it in the last nineteen years.  We were all a bit awestruck by that which we took for granted when we were living on campus every day.  The weather was perfect!  Cool enough to wear sleeves or jeans at night without being too warm, and warm enough to wear a sundress.  Who could ask for more?  The girls who flew in from the lands still snow-bound were in Heaven!  It gave great opportunities for facebook posting to all of their jealous friends back home.  One such post by a sister prompted a response from her colleague of, "Suck it, Sager!" She shared this with us as we lay out by the pool on Sunday afternoon (I was in the shade, thank you.) to our absolute delight!  This prompted us to immediately adopt the expression as our own!  People don't seem to get it when I use it here at home.  I guess it's because they don't know who Sager is, but I do, and that is all that matters.  Perhaps I need to say, "Suck it, Sister!"  That works, but loses something in translation.

The view from my chair poolside!
Grateful for the technology that allowed my to photograph almost every event and upload it to facebook as it was happening, I was quickly established as the dorky documentarian.  There were sisters who were unable to be with us, and I wanted them to feel like they were a part of things.  I also wanted us to have every hilarious moment preserved for posterity.  Among other places, we visited our favorite bars, the Saturday morning farmers market, our favorite restaurant (twice), a new favorite frozen yogurt store (more times than I can count), the college bookstore far too many times, and the sorority house.  We all lived in the sorority house in various combinations, so that visit was one of the most surreal.  The members hosted an open house, and we were able to see how beautifully it has been updated, see some of our old rooms, our composite photos still on the walls, and chill in the chapter room for a while.  It was hard to grasp the concept that other people were having similar experiences to ours because we had built this up so much for ourselves.  It was all about us after all.  The idea that other people were feeling the same way was strangely disconcerting.

We Seven Sisters outside the Chi Omega house.

We ate, we drank, we shopped, we tried on outfit after outfit, we looked at old photos, we laughed, we cried, we sang, we rediscovered each other and that which brought us together in the first place.  As the time came for each of us to leave, we felt holes in the group of sisters that was left.  One of my favorite moments was when the waitress brought us The Big Boat of sushi at Fuji Sushi, but one of our sisters had already gone home, and we were Six.  I was so excited to eat sushi.  My sweetheart is allergic to seafood, so we don't go out for sushi, and I forget how much I like it.  When I do go out for it with friends, I am always challenged to remember which kinds are my favorite.  I have never before been at a table that has had a boat of sushi!  I was stunned!  And then we ate every bite!  It was brilliant!  I was loving it, but we were missing our sister all at the same time. 

The Big Boat!

After dinner and another trip to the frozen yogurt store, two more sisters dropped off and then we were Four.  We consolidated to one room.  One lonely room.  Later that night Sister Number Four had to drive home for work the next morning, and then we were Three.  My bed was too big that night.  Our conversation was quieter, longer, more intense.  Wonderful, but we missed our sisters.  The next morning we woke to pouring rain in Winter Park.  It was as if Rollins was crying along with us as the band was breaking up.  The three of us spent a different kind of day than the others.  Lazier, more laid back, just talking and eating and reflecting.  That night we finally made it into the hotel's Red Fox Lounge to see the infamous Mark and Lorna lounge act that we had been talking about the entire time we were in town.  We kept sitting outside the lounge by the pool in the evenings, and never made it in until that night.  Oh, how we wished we had done it when we were all together.  It turned out that Lorna had the night off, and we took turns singing with Mark!  Then we all sang with him together!  I couldn't post the pictures for our absent sisters fast enough!  We were having such fun, but oh, how we wished they were there!  Eventually we realized it was time to call it a night.  The next morning I drove my last two sisters to the airport, and then there was One.

We each came to this reunion with a different experiences and expectations.  Of our seven, we have moms, educators, therapists, restaurateurs, and award-winners. We are single, married, divorced, and at many different places in our lives.  We have each experienced loss, pain, joy,, and we each wear it differently.  I was amazed to see that each of my sisters is more beautiful now than she was when we were in school.  As we either live or approach our forties, the grace, elegance, confidence, appreciation, charm, humor, humility, and love of life that has taken up residence in each of my sisters is beautiful.  We came together to have fun, fellowship, and to offer support to those who we believed were in need of it most right now.  What we found was that we were all in need of all of those things.  We found that we all needed to laugh, we all needed to share, we all needed validation, and we all needed the support of the sisters we loved so much.  It was absolutely humbling to discover that the bonds we formed twenty-ish years ago are still so strong today.  People often talk about those friends you don't see for a long time and then you get together and it is like no time has passed at all.  We discovered that we are absolutely those friends.  We also discovered that we don't want to be those friends anymore.  We want to make a concerted effort to reunite regularly.  It felt too good to be together, to recharge for our real lives, to wait another nineteen years.  We are already making plans to play again, and the facebook bulletin board is buzzing!

We Seven at our favorite restaurant, Dexter's.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On convertibles and car washes

Some things seem like a really good idea.  Things that are supposed to simplify our lives, give us more time in the day for what matters, can sound very appealing to us.  The emphasis in this case is on things that we think are a good idea, until we are fully immersed in them.

Take, for example, the drive through car wash.  What could be easier?  We stop at the gas station, fill up the car, and for a few dollars and only a few minutes more, we can have our car washed, waxed and dried before we are back on the road.  Now that is a real time saver, right?  It always has been for me.  Here's the thing: remember that convertible bug I so coveted and now lovingly drive with the top down each day?  I never asked about its tolerance for the automatic wash.  I did ask my sweetheart, after we looked at it for the first time, "What about car washes?  Can it go into a car wash?"  This question brought laughter because, of course, the top is waterproof.  The car can be out in a rainstorm, so why should a car wash be any different?  Right?  That's what I thought, too.

Right now in Florida we are knee-deep into allergy season.  Everything is dusted in pollen.  Sprite has been blanketed in a fine yellow dust for weeks, so the other day I had a few extra minutes when I stopped to get gas and decided to run Sprite through the car wash for her first bath.  Silly, silly girl!  I closed the roof, rolled up the windows, and pulled into the bay.  As soon as the water began to shoot at the car, it came pouring through the front corner of the driver's side window, showering me in aromatic, recycled car wash water!  It was also coming in the front of the passenger window, but I was passenger-free, so only the door was drenched.  As luck would have it, the only drying option I had with me was a left-over napkin from the bagel store.  Most days I travel with a giant Magic Cloth for just such emergencies, but not on this day.  I began frantically trying to sop up the water with the pathetic, disintegrating towel and tried to decided whether to drive out while the machine was still running or suck it up and let the wash run its course.  I also checked to make sure the windows were all the way up...Apparently they needed to be more tightly sealed.  That's called operator error.  D'oh!  I tightened the windows the best I could, continued to try to dam the deluge, and waited out the storm. 

As I finally exited through the high intensity blow dryer I decided that it would be best in the future to save my quarters and wash the car myself in one of the do-it-yourself washing bays.  That way only Sprite will get a shower.  It may have saved me a few minutes, but the blood pressure spike I experienced when the water started pouring in the window may have shaved a few weeks off my life!  Lesson learned: sometimes looking easy isn't enough. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

On the restorative power of cooking

Some days, some weeks, are harder than others.  Some days we all would rather stay snuggled under the covers and sleep the day away than get up, shower, dress, and behave like responsible adults.  I know I would.  The last couple of weeks have been like that for me. Work has been crazy.  Life has been crazy.  The hours have been long.  The deadlines have been short.  By the time I get home, I am ready for bed.  Fortunately, although it didn't seem that way at first, one day last week I didn't  have the option of going straight to bed.  One does require some sort of nourishment in order to prepare to do it all over again the next day, after all.  Enter my kitchen. 

I will admit to being frustrated at first that it fell to me to figure out what to do about dinner as soon as I walked in at 6:00 after working all damn day, but I felt like it did, so I started digging in the fridge and the cabinets.  The outlook appeared daunting, but I am nothing if not creative and able to improvise.  As I began to chop red onion and garlic, my shoulders started to relax.  I was inspired to toss sun-dried tomatoes with some of their oil, green olives, and pitted kalamata olives into the food processor to make a tapenade of sorts.  I used olive oil and the tapenade to saute' the onions and garlic in my new Dutch oven.  Then I tossed in sliced turkey Kielbasa and browned it up a bit with everything else.  My breathing began to slow.  To this beautiful mixture,  I added a carton of Roma tomatoes, Vodka, and some finely chopped Greek pepperocini with the juice from the jar.  The aroma was amazing and I was feeling better by the moment.  I added a bunch of spices - red pepper flakes, garlic pepper, black pepper, rosemary garlic...I have no idea what else...I just started tossing stuff in as the muse struck me.  Then I boiled some whole wheat penne until it was almost done, and tossed it into the Dutch oven to finish cooking and soak up some of the sauce.  By now my sweetheart had joined me in the kitchen and mixed up a Prosecco, Pomegranate, and ginger ale sangria for us.  I served the pasta creation in bowls with freshly grated Parmesan and Asiago cheese over the top - everything is better with cheese.  We toasted it with the sangria. 

I could no longer remember anything that had challenged me during the day.  I had cooked it away, and life was good once again.  After my sweetheart cleaned up the kitchen we adjourned to the living room whence I promptly fell asleep in my favorite chair.

Monday, February 21, 2011

On convertibles...

For most of my life I have dreamed of owning a convertible.  I am a girl who needs to feel the air moving on my face.  I need the ceiling fan on to sleep at night.  If I can have the windows open in the house, they are open.  Being trapped in a room with stale, stagnant air that never moves is my personal Hell.  That having been said, I am also a girl who is, well let's just say...cautious, shall we?  My grandfather, The Bossman, would not allow me to have a convertible because they were too dangerous.  He was certain that either I would flip it over and roll out the top, or someone would come right up to me at a stop light with a gun and shoot me dead for my shiny convertible.  All of this was reiterated to me over and over from a very young age, so it became part of my inner monologue on convertibles.  "Oh, they are so beautiful.  But does that girl know that she is just a sitting duck for that man at the stop light?  I bet he has a gun and is going to kill her any minute now and steal that car!  Bless her poor, naive, heart!"  Have I mentioned that it is loud in my head?

In 2004 I got closer to my dream car.  I bought a bright green VW Beetle with a sunroof, named it Sprout, and I was living right!  The top was open all the time, weather be damned!  Sprout and I had a blast together!  I loved my Little Sprout.  When, this Fall, it came time for Sprout to retire to The Farm (Just let me have this one, okay?) I felt like I was taking my dog to be put down.  It was traumatic.  I took pictures of our last drive to school together...seriously, I did.  I posted them on Facebook.  Then, I met Sprite! 

Sprite!  My convertible bright green VW bug!!!!! At forty years old I decided to Hell with the voices,  I was going to have my convertible.  If I get carjacked at a stop light, then The Bossman was right, but damn, I will have enjoyed the ride!

Now here is the thing about driving a convertible.  I consider it a moral imperative to have the top down unless it is raining.  I do live in Florida, after all.  The funniest things happen when you drive a car with the top down.  People on the street talk to you all the time!  In my seven minute drive to work one morning, two different people stopped to talk to me.  One of them rolled down his window at the light to tell me I was going to need an umbrella.  The other, a woman walking her dogs, said she wished she was me.  I replied, "Yeah, it is pretty great!"   One of my coworkers was following me, and she asked it that happened all the time.  I had to tell her it does.  People smile and wave every time they see me drive by with the top down.  It is hilarious.  Sometimes they smile and punch each other - remember it is a Punchbuggy.  That always makes me laugh.  Wherever I go, my car makes me smile.

There are a few challenges I have encountered.  Sprinklers...hard to avoid.  Recycled water sprinklers can just be gross.  I keep good smelling spray in the car to combat that.  Garbage trucks.  Following them in a convertible smells much worse than in a regular car, but it does give you the opportunity to smile and thank the guys who have to do that icky job, and they seem to appreciate that.  The latest challenge I have encountered was with music.  You may remember that I discovered the Cee Lo Green song, "F#*k You!" after the Grammys the other night.  I have now fallen in love with the song and only downloaded the "explicit" version, rather than "Forget You!" as performed on the Grammys.  Well, here's the thing: I'm thinking that song is best enjoyed at an ear-popping full volume.  I mean seriously, when you are in the mood, like I was the other day on my way home, to let that song fly, you are in the mood to blast it!  Right?  In a convertible, you can never be sure whom you are going to subject to that music.  I put it on as I was pulling out of the parking lot at school, so I had to turn it WAY DOWN, because that is just not the sort of thing a middle school teacher should be listening to on campus.  So then I turned it up a little.  Then I hit a residential neighborhood.  Dog walker - volume down.  Past him.  Back up.  Kid on bike.  WAY DOWN..."Ain't that some Sh...?"  And now I am humming "F#*k You and F#*K her, too," realizing that this really isn't cutting it because I really needed to blast it.  Everyone did smile and wave, though, and I continued to hum all through the night.
Perhaps it is time to download the sanitized version.  It is a beautiful day, and Sprite and I have a lot of driving to do!

Monday, February 14, 2011

You asked for it!

Okay, Betties, you asked for it!  You have been after me to blog for over a year now.  Well, here you go.  I am blogging!  Hang on, it's going to be a wild ride!
Being a champion procrastinator, I am creating this blog, finally, after procrastinating for so very long, instead of doing the real work on which I need to focus this Valentine's night, or paying the bills...really need to do that!  I am certain that is next on my list.  I am getting right on that.  Here I go...Any minute now...
Or, I could rant a little more.
So, in an effort to avoid working last night, I watched the Grammy Awards for the first time in at least ten years.  I must be getting old.  All I could think about as I watched Eminem giving his "brilliant" performance was,"For the love of Pete, pull your pants up in the back you fool!  You are wearing a belt!  Use it to hoist your jeans up over your behind!  Nobody needs to see that!  Who are you inviting in back there?"  Only some of that was I able to keep inside my head...I tried, really I did, but it just got too loud in there and I had to let it fly! 
On the flip side, I will say that I cracked right up to Cee-Lo Green, dressed like one of the Mardi Gras Chiefs from Treme', and Gwyneth Paltrow singing "Forget You" with the puppets.  That was the first time I had heard any version of that song, and I immediately went to iTunes and downloaded the explicit version which I have been singing in my head, and occasionally under my breath all day!  I even quoted the clean version today, explaining to one of my classes what the yearbook company would be telling us if we miss our deadline.  "Forget you!"  They laughed.  Kids are easy...sometimes.
At the end of the day, I love that I know that song!  I will be playing it my head constantly now.  I think it will make me smile more, and I smile a lot as it is. 
I have the best life of anyone I know.  I have a partner who loves me and who I love.  He challenges me, and I challenge him.  We grow together.  I have an amazing family who not only love, but actually like each other.  I have friends who I treasure above any measure.  I have a job, a home, relatively good health, and the ability to laugh every day.  My life is good, and I am so thankful to everyone in it to helping make it amazing.
It's good to be a Betty.
Okay, now I'll go do the stuff on my list.
Happy Valentine's Night!
Thanks for reading!