Sustenance

Food. Nourishment. Grub. Whatever you want to call that stuff you stuff into your mouth, its intended purpose is to support life.

I remember watching a TED Talk comparing the human brain to other animals. Our brains are more evolved because we cook our food. Could it really be that simple? It is, and here’s why: In order for the brain to grow and develop, it must be fed. The number of calories a human body burns in a day depends on its level of activity; but not your brain. It makes no difference if your brain is sleeping, designing rocket ships or trying to figure out common core math, it will burn 500 calories each and every day, no matter what.

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If you were a gorilla, and only ate raw twigs and leaves, you would have to spend most of your waking hours eating to consume enough calories just to stay alive. If a gorilla had the capacity to cook (or, at the very least, make a smoothie), it could reduce large volumes of food into smaller, more easily digestible meals. By doing so, it could consume many more calories in much less time, making it’s brain larger and, presumably, smarter.

“Hmm, I think this paleo diet is really working.”

So, it was the discovery of fire that essential transformed us into the species we are today. These are scientific facts, people, and I don’t dispute them. But here’s where I get tripped up: what was the turning point that changed our fuel from throwing the day’s kill onto the fire into dinner parties for eight, complete with wine pairings?

Who was the first Homo erectus Martha Stewart? Did she one day think, “Hmm, I wonder if this animal flesh would taste better combined with sprigs of vegetation and some roots?” Was it she that decided meals tastes better when shared with friends? “Hey, let’s invite the Uga-ugas over this Saturday night!”

Was this the advent of our complicated relationship with food?

It’s hard to picture an early ancestor sitting around the cave thinking, “I’m not really hungry, but I could go for a nosh.” I don’t think lower-food chain animals behave this way. Would a lion ever hunt down a gazelle because it’s feeling a tad peckish? Can you imagine a bear polishing off a salmon because there’s nothing good on TV? Or what if a chipmunk’s mate ran away? Would it scarf down all the nuts it was saving for winter because it had no access to raw cookie dough?

No, these disordered uses of food are strictly human. I hate to be a downer, but let’s face it: we sometimes take the very thing that’s meant to keep us alive and use it to slowly kill ourselves. They don’t call it “death by chocolate” for nothing.

And even if you have a very healthy diet, I doubt you view food as simply a way of transporting nutrients into your body. No, we modern-day humans have turned our food into so much more.

Food is a major component of our social lives. We use it to celebrate, to bring people together, to give pleasure, to comfort, to express love…all good things in moderation.

My personal relationship with food, and more specifically eating, is based on romance…and sometimes anger…but mostly romance. When I speak about a good meal, I create a narrative, a sensuous, seductive story detailing every nuance of every bite.

Once, while recommending a restaurant to a friend, my husband said, They have good ravioli.”

WHAT?

“Oh, no, no, no” I said. “They have delectable cheese-filled pasta pillows, that taste like they are lovingly assembled by the chubby hands of baby cherubs…so tender, I could have rested my head on them and slept.”

Now, that’s romantic. Want to know what’s not romantic? A date that does not involve a meal, that’s what.

Every Thursday night, my husband and I go on a date. Whether we’re seeing a show, or going to a concert, we always start by going out to dinner. One night, to mix things up a little, I suggested we have a quick bite at home and spend our date playing tennis. Great idea, right? Sure, if you think throwing a hissy fit on date night adds a nice spice to a marriage. I played so badly that the evening devolved into a lot of excuses, blaming, cursing, and pouting. Sexy, no? After that failed experiment, it was back to candlelit restaurants for us – back to savoring each seductive morsel with a good glass of wine and relaxing conversation.

And we judge others by what they eat.

I once threw a dinner party, not knowing one guest was in the middle of a cleanse. Why would someone on a cleanse come to a dinner party in the first place? You tell me. Anyway, he couldn’t eat anything I served, but as luck would have it, I made floral arrangements out of carnations, clementines, squash blossoms and Nasturtiums. So, he ate the centerpiece. True story! And, yes, we all judged him.

The bottom line is this: Food is complicated. We don’t really know why we eat the way we do, or why we like some things but loathe others. All we can really be sure of is that grub does more than just sustain our bodies. It nourishes our hearts, our imaginations, our relationships and feeds the soul.

Happy Thanksgiving from SNORK!

So, this Thanksgiving, I hope you find yourself sitting at a table with the people you love, feeling full of life’s blessings and enjoying all the flavors of this world’s abundance.

Ham and Eggs

Top to Bottom, L-R: Coral, Foghorn, Ham, Rocket & Big Bertha

Top to Bottom, L-R: Coral, Foghorn, Ham, Rocket & Big Bertha

As many of you know, I have a fondness for backyard chickens and I believe it’s important to have an awareness of our food’s origins.  Admittedly, I am far too glamorous (read: lazy) to create a fully sustainable homestead, however I do love and care for our family pets (hens Foghorn, Big Bertha, Rocket, Coral and Ham).  They are charming, playful, funny and earn their coop and board by the eggs they so generously provide for my family.

Our yard is a popular hangout for people to drop by and watch our beautiful feathered ladies.   We actually find it therapeutic to observe them while they preen, fluff their feathers, bask in the sun and get ready for “bed”.  They are such peaceful creatures.  Kids delight in feeding them treats while their moms and dads ask lots of enthusiastic questions about keeping hens. Best of all, “the girls” make it possible for us to give the gift of organic, just-laid eggs whenever we receive a last-minute invitation, as a “thank you” present or when we have to get something for “the person who has everything”!  It has upped our popularity by a hefty margin among our friends and relatives (or perhaps they’re just using us to get to those amazing eggs.  Hmm…).

For us, it’s been a labor of love.  I could go on and on about the keeping of backyard chickens.  Instead, however, I have a special treat for you today. With the help of the lovely folks at Made by Custommade.com, it is my pleasure to welcome guest blogger, Laura Grace Weldon, to tell you all about raising chickens (and ducks!).

Laura lives on Bit of Earth Farm (notable only for its lovestruck goose). She’s the author of a poetry collection titled Tending as well as Free Range Learning, a handbook of alternative education. She blogs about learning, creative living, and mindfulness. She’s also a senior content editor for GeekMom and regular contributor to such publications as Wired.com, Mothering.com, Culinate.com, and Shareable.net. She invites you to visit her author site, hang out with her on Twitter, and check out the Free Range Learning page on Facebook. So, without further ado, here’s Laura…

Raising Chickens and Ducks With Old-Style Ingenuity and DIY Hacks

Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon

We’ve only recently become separated from our food sources. Until a few generations ago millions of people lived on farms. Millions more grew vegetables and raised an animal or two in city lots. Those who didn’t were still connected to what they consumed. They had to be: There were few choices other than milk, eggs, meat, and produce Now we’re learning what our great-grandparents knew to be true: Growing food locally helps communities directly maintain autonomy, cultural integrity, and environmental stewardship. An important step is bringing back neighborhood livestock. There are logistical and legal issues to solve such as zoning restrictions, nuisance laws, and noise ordinances. But it’s time to re-envision our neighborhoods as including more than our human neighbors. Here are a few helpful tips and convincing reasons to raise the least complicated livestock: chicken and ducks.

Chickens vs. Ducks: Which Is Best for You?

Raising backyard chickens and ducks is increasingly common. More and more urban areas are making it legal to raise backyard poultry, including Chicago, Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Ft. Collins, and South Portland, Maine. It’s downright meditative to sit out back and watch chickens peck and cluck and amusing to watch the antics of ducks. These may be reason enough to add them to your life. But there’s nothing like harvesting fresh eggs. But before you take on a flock of your own, make sure to check city ordinances. Chickens vs. Ducks: Which Is Better For You? It's All In The Egg: Benefits of Backyard Eggs

Backyard Chicken and Duck Hacks

Coop Hacks

Use repurposed parts

There are two standard options for housing chickens. One is a stationary coop. The other is a moveable coop, commonly called a chicken tractor, which can be situated in different places around the yard. Both types have roosts (necessary for chickens, but not ducks) and nesting boxes, and most have a fenced-in pen attached. Stationary and moveable coops can be made from repurposed partssuch as old shedscable spools, and doghouses.

Set up a temporary pen

If your birds aren’t able to range freely in your yard you may want to set up a temporary pen as well. Such pens are great to move into garden areas before you plant and after you’ve harvested so your poultry can enjoy eating insects and plant waste while aerating the soil as they scratch. A temporary pen is also a good way to let them do the weeding for you in hard-to-weed areas. And giving them access to different parts of the yard keeps them from denuding your grass. One approach to temporary pens is to make poultry tunnels. To create the tunnels, loop chicken wire or hardware cloth into tunnels temporarily staked into the ground. There’s no limit to how cheaply you can make chicken and duck pens. You can use cable ties to surround an old plastic patio table with chicken wire for a lightweight, shaded, easily moveable grazing pen. An equally ingenious and much larger moveable pen can be made from a trampoline frame.

Use a plastic baby pool

Ducks can be raised without a pond but need a reasonably large container of water so they can dip their heads in to take a drink and rinse their eyes. They also need to splash water across their backs to activate an oil gland that waterproofs their feathers. They prefer a container with enough room to climb in and paddle around a bit. Fill a plastic baby pool or low washtub, and rinse regularly to keep it clean.

Feeding Hacks

Set up grazing frames

When you have limited space, another way to give chickens access to fresh forage is to set up grazing frames. (Ducks may enjoy them too.) These are basically boxed gardens for your poultry. You simply grow grass, lettuces, herbs, or other plants. Then cover the grazing frame with chicken wire, weighted or tied down at the sides so the chickens can eat the tops of the plants but can’t reach the soil to uproot them. (Read My Chicken Scratch shows how to build a simple covered frame.) Remember, you can use almost anything that can hold soil and be covered with wire or netting. You can even repurpose a child’s sandbox or wheel rims.

Make a DIY waterer

To cut down on starting costs, put together as much as you can without resorting to pricey accouterments. Instead of buying a waterer, consider making one. You can make a waterer from a glass canning jar and a glass dish, a nifty rail-mounted automatic waterer, or a mess free waterer from PVC pipe and a bucket that fills outside the fence. Keep in mind that most chicken waterers cannot be used with ducks because duck bills don’t fit into the small spaces chicken beaks can. For ducks, you can modify a five-gallon poultry waterer or set up a reservoir with a float valve to help keep the water clean.

Create a DIY chicken feeder

Instead of buying a feeder, build a feeder out of PVC pipingwood, or a 5-gallon pail. Remember, ducks need a wider opening to reach their food.

Feed on the cheap

There are all sorts of ways to feed your chickens and ducks frugally. Consider allowing them to scratch in the compost pile and keep a vermicomposter in order to add more high-protein worms to their diets. You can also sprout grains, which will turn one pound of barley seeds into 4.3 pounds of fodder in one week. Fresh Eggs Daily offers all sorts of ideas for a more varied poultry diet, plus a list of safe and unsafe foods. Ducks use their beaks as shovels to get at weeds and insects, but they don’t scratch at the ground as chickens do. That means they do less damage to grass and gardens. Ducks eagerly feast on slugs, snails, and other pests while leaving most garden plants alone (except for lettuces and berries), although their large feet can flatten plants. You can keep the cost of feed down by making sure your ducks have space to forage. They’ll happily dine on insects and weeds, thereby eating less of the commercially prepared duck layer or breeder feed you provide. To supply both chickens and ducks with extra bugs, whip up a DIY solar bug trap. You can also offer all sorts of kitchen and garden scraps to your ducks, although it’s best to avoid bread, crackers, popcorn, and similar foods. Backyard Chickens offers an extensive list of fruits, vegetables, seeds, and proteins that are good for ducks as well as a list of foods to avoid. While chickens can peck at foods of all sizes, keep in mind that ducks swallow their foods whole, so whatever you share with them should be in small pieces to prevent choking or blocking their digestive tracts.

Conclusion

As we begin to grow more food locally, we are reclaiming the best of old traditions while at the same time incorporating the newest ideas. If you have the time to commit to a backyard coop and flock, consider adding some chickens or ducks for fresh eggs, companionship, and a closer connection to one of your food sources. If this article has you thinking about raising chickens or ducks on your property, you may be interested in one of these outdoor gardeng gates. — http://www.custommade.com/gallery/custom-gates-fences-railings/

Good Grief

Our family vacation was only three weeks away when we got the bad news.  It would change everything.

About a month earlier, we decided that our health routine could probably use some tweaking…a lot of tweaking, actually.  None of us were really feeling our best, so we had full work-ups done at a wellness center in Manhattan.   Dr. Morrison examined us, took blood tests, saliva tests, and thoroughly interviewed each of us.

The tests had come in and we assembled in his office for our results.

He went over mine first: No remarkable food sensitivities or environmental allergies.  I will say (with a bit of bravado) that I look pretty good…on paper anyway.

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 Then he went over my husband’s and my daughter’s reports.  There it was in black and white: they were both highly sensitive to gluten.

Thus began the mourning period or as I called it “The Five Stages of Gluten-Free Grief.”

 

Let's the grieving begin

Let’s the grieving begin

Denial and Isolation

My husband’s grieving process was textbook.  He kind of shrugged and said, “Well, I guess I just won’t have anymore gluten then.”    Like it would be that simple.  He had no idea where gluten was hiding.  It was in his soy sauce, his favorite chips, in pizza, in beer!   He ignored the fact that he was surrounded by gluten and could be ambushed at any moment.  Talk about denial!

Our daughter was somewhat more animated about the situation, to the surprise of no one. (New Flash: teenagers aren’t famous for suppressing their feelings).  “Are you kidding me?! What am I suppose to eat now?  Water and lettuce?  No more bagels?  No more soup dumplings?  Like I’m really never gonna have another PopTart for the rest of my life?!”

I gave Dr. Morrison a look that suggested my daughter was hallucinating, then turned to her and said, “Oh goodness.  You know I don’t let you children eat PopTarts.”  Was I in denial myself? Or was I just flat-out lying?  I’ll never tell.

She grumbled and complained on our way back to the house.  When we got there, she grabbed an entire box of PopTarts, and stormed up to her room, slamming the door.

Isolation?  Check.

In fact my daughter is so efficient, she managed to sweep through Denial and Isolation in under an hour; sailing straight into Stage 2: Anger.  The problem was, she got there quickly, but stayed a bit longer than the rest of us were really loving.  That is, until she decided to stretch her negotiating muscles.   Which brings us to…

Stage 3: Bargaining

Since our family vacation was to take place in London, our daughter was already looking for leverage, “If I don’t eat any gluten between now and London, can I have afternoon tea when we’re there?”

If you’re unfamiliar with a proper English afternoon tea, it is a late day meal between 4 and 6 o’clock, consisting of tea with scones, tartlets, pastries, cookies, gluten, gluten and gluten.

So I did some bargaining of my own, “If I find a place that serves a gluten-free afternoon tea, would you settle for that?”

“OK, but if it’s awful, can I get a real afternoon tea?”

She drove a hard bargain, but it seemed fair.  After all, she might never get back to London, afternoon tea was something she had really been looking forward to, and was it really worth ruining the vacation over one meal?   “It’s a deal!” I said.  We shook on it.

We were staying at the Langham London, known for superior service, which I was about to test.  I called and arranged for gluten-free bread at every meal and a special gluten-free afternoon tea.  Their Executive Pastry Chef, the incredibly talented Cherish Finden, prepared an amazing array of delights that would have made your eyes pop out of their sockets.  It was as glorious to look at as it was to taste.  My daughter loved it.

Gluten-free heaven!

Gluten-free heaven!

If you’re thinking we were lucky enough to skip over Stage 4: Depression, think again.  There was no way we would get off that easily.  But the depression did not come from our daughter.  It came from our son, and who could blame him?  Here he was, a foodie with a cast iron stomach, and he had to listen to countless conversations about gluten on his last vacation before going off to college.

I should probably mention at this point that he and I would be gluten-free in front of daddy and daughter, but we guilt-ridden gluten-tolerators were sneaking pizza and sandwiches when nobody was looking.  There is no Gluten-Free Grief stage for that, but if there were, it would probably be called, “The Closet Eating” stage or the “You Ought To Be Ashamed Of Yourselves” stage.

Anyway, we were dining along the Thames at a place called Founders Arms.  There, on the menu, was a burger called the “Tower 42.” If you are a burger lover, which I am not, you would probably walk through fire to get one.  It’s described on the menu as a “double prime beef burger, cheese, bacon, young’s ale onions, lettuce, mayo, ketchup, gherkins, fries.”

Daughter wanted it.

“Sure,” I said, “You can have it without the bun.”

5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

It's not your friend, girl.

It’s not your friend, girl.

The ensuing argument took place in hushed tones (we were, after all, in a restaurant), but the venom was no less potent.  After about 10 minutes of hissing, begging, pleading and general carrying on, my son had had enough.

With his phone hidden under the table,  he started texting me:  “For the love of god, LET HER HAVE THE BURGER!  I can’t take anymore.  This gluten issue is ruining my vacation and I don’t even believe its a real thing!”

I texted back: “It IS real! It will make her sick and she’ll be miserable all day tomorrow.”

He responded: “I’m miserable now.”

“Get the burger,” I told her.  My husband looked at me as if I’d lost mind. We’d come so far.  Placing my hand on his knee, I slipped him my phone so he could see the texts. “But,” I continued to our daughter, “If you don’t feel good tomorrow, you’re just going to have to deal with it without taking the rest of us down with you.”

“I promise,” she said.

Am I a bad parent?  Well, which child would you have sacrificed?

Stage 5: Acceptance

The next morning, she was like a bear, poked in her den well before spring; grizzly, grumpy and short-tempered. Prior to devouring the impressive Tower 42, she’d been a total delight; laughing, fun, adventurous, sweet…we had been having a wonderful time. Now, the evidence was staring us straight in the eye.  There was no more denying it.  Gluten was not her friend.  I pointed out that, prior to that burger, she’d been a totally adorable lambkins on the trip.  That’s when the lightbulb went on for her, and for my son, and for me.

Acceptance.

That was about three years ago.  Since that time, both she and my husband have mostly been gluten-free superstars.  But on those occasions when they fall off the wagon, my son and I make a run for it…to the nearest pizzeria.

Matzo Ball Soup

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In the Spring of 1990, Easter and Passover landed on the same weekend. It just so happened, that was also the weekend I chose to bring my boyfriend home to meet my family. Since we are Catholic and he is Jewish, I thought why don’t I surprise him and make matzo ball soup with Easter dinner?!

I had never made it before and, truth be told, I’d never eaten it before either. But, I figured, it’s soup. How hard could it be?

Since I wanted to make a good impression, I called his mother and asked for her recipe.

“Manischewitz,” she said.

“Is that a cookbook?” I asked her

“No, no,” she said. “It’s a brand. It comes in a box. From the supermarket.”

“Oh,” I said. “But I kind of wanted to make your recipe. The one he grew up with.”

“Manischewitz,” she repeated. “Just throw some fresh chopped parsley in there. It makes it look more homemade.”

So, I went to the store to find the mix. The package claimed that one box made nine servings: a cup of broth and one matzo ball each.

This was perfect because 18 people were coming for dinner. I bought two boxes. Following the directions, I prepared the matzo meal, but when I rolled out the balls, they were as small as walnuts – miniscule.

I would be embarrassed to offer such a puny portion to my boyfriend. So, I went back to the store and bought two more boxes, then combined all the matzo meal and doubled the size of the balls. They still looked small to me, but it was actually better that way. I wouldn’t want everyone to fill up on soup, since my mother was cooking a huge ham. As you may have guessed, I hadn’t fully thought things through, menu-wise.

Once the balls were done, I carefully dropped them into the prepared broth. As per the package instructed, I covered it tightly.

While waiting for the soup to cook, I chopped the fresh parsley.

All this was going on at the same time that my family was getting to know my boyfriend. And by “getting to know” I mean “interrogating.”

After the soup was allowed to cook for the prescribed 20 minutes, I removed the lid.

It was like a David Copperfield trick. All of the broth, ever last drop, had disappeared. And each matzo ball had magically transformed into blobs the size of a grapefruit! But it was too late to start over. My mother had called everyone in to dinner and they were already seated. So I had to serve it.

Sinker!

To make matters worse, my mothers fancy china came with dainty little soup bowls. I could barely fit one ball in each.

My sister came into the kitchen to help me serve. She looked at one of the bowls, looked in the pot and asked, “What the hell are these?”

“Knock it off” I snapped. “They’re matzo balls, of course. What do they look like?”

“Grapefruits,” she replied.

“Never mind, just bring them out,” I said, as I hit each bowl with a few sprinkles of parsley. Oh, yeah. That parsley made all the difference. They looked homemade all right. Homemade by a shiksa who can’t follow directions from a box of soup mix.

My boyfriend looked at his bowl and I knew that he knew that I knew I’d screwed up. And then he said, “Sinkers! My favorite! These are just the way my mother made them.”

Now what do you do with a guy who’d tell such a sweet lie. You marry him of course. And that’s just what I did.

Give Them Love

For many, the holidays are a time of rejoicing, of abundance, and of feasting. But it can be the most difficult time of the year for many others. This SNORK is a public service announcement, dedicated to shining a light on a group of people who are often mocked, marginalized, and misunderstood. I am, of course, referring to vegans.

Oh, I can just hear you: “Who me? Why, some of my best friends are vegans!”

Please don’t try to defend yourself. I’ve seen it first-hand; the way people roll their eyes when someone announces their veganism. I’ve heard, “Well, I’d invite so-and-so to the dinner party, but have you ever tried cooking for a vegan? It’s a pain in the ass!”

I can tell you what it’s like from both perspectives because I, too, was once one of them.

It all happened very suddenly. I was working out at the gym one day, when my trainer handed me a copy Skinny Bitch. His message, while as subtle as a blood-curdling scream, was not lost on me. By the time I finished reading it, I was so repulsed by the thought of food, any food, that I ate nothing but organic strawberries for the next three days. I won’t go into details here, but if you’ve read it, you know what I mean.

So, just like that, without forethought, I made a drastic and life-changing decision. This was not a bright idea, by the way. It’s probably better to put a little planning into something that dramatic, but no – not me! I jumped right in. Hindsight might suggest that I was actually pushed into it by an over-enthusiastic 19-year-old trainer with less than 4% body fat, but I bear no ill will against him (and may he blow up like a balloon when he hits the age of 40). Anyway…

The first step toward my new lifestyle was to drive to Whole Foods and purchase about a trillion dollars worth of groceries marked “vegan.” Whole Foods makes it all so easy by clearly tagging vegan-friendly products. No pesky label reading for this girl. Thank you Whole Foods.

The next step was to eat the food identified as “vegan.” This was a little trickier than purchasing it. For example, there is a phenomenon known as “vegan cheese.” Now, if you have had a lifelong love affair with all things dairy, this rubbery impostor will make you cry real tears. I searched the web for the most recommended brands, bought them all, tested them in a variety of recipes and decided I’d rather go without than try to fool myself into believing this crap was cheese (or even food, for that matter).

After a few weeks, two things became obvious:

  1. The vegan foods from the supermarket are so highly processed, you may as well eat a Big Mac (no offense Mickey D), and
  2. Whenever mealtime rolled around, I wanted to curl into the fetal position. You see, preparing food was becoming a much bigger chore since my carnivorous days…so much so, in fact, that I hated eating.

Now this should alarm you. Here I was, a healthy American-Italian-Armenian (translation: unabashed food lover) and I did not want to eat. My meals became repetitive and uninspired. Breakfast: oatmeal with berries and almond milk. Lunch: peanut butter on apples or bananas. Dinner: sautéed vegetables with rice and beans, and a salad. Zzzzzzz…

I should mention that during this time, I did not force my family to get on board. Hubby and the kids were still enjoying omnivore cuisine. I would cook for them without ever feeling the least bit resentful as I listened to sunny-side-up eggs popping and squeaking in the frying pan. I did not once growl or grimace as I coated precious, tender lamb chops with my own concoction of mint, garlic, onions and lemon and then smelled their heavenly aroma as they sizzled upon the grill. Oh, no! I was more than happy to do it, while my rice was boiling on the stove.

You had me at ‘mallow.

I should also mention that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t so much fun to be around during my vegan adventure. As a result, my kids went from being normal teenagers to becoming food pushers: “Hey mom, you gotta try this provolone!” Or, “Tonight would be a great night for s’mores! Whaddya say?” They were desperate because I was becoming a real drag, a chronic cranky pants, to be exact. But I remained steadfast (against my own instincts). Oh, and are you surprised that vegans can’t have s’mores? Well, chocolate has milk in it and marshmallows (my kryptonite) are made with gelatin, which comes from pigs. So cross those off the list, along with every other delicious thing you can possibly think of.

Something else that I longed for was dining out. So hubby took me to a local Mexican restaurant and assured me there must be something on the menu that I could eat. Of course, I asked all the pertinent vegan questions to make sure there was not a hint of the verboten in my meal. After I sufficiently interrogated the waiter, I ordered a vegetable burrito (which was not on the menu, so I explained how to make one). When my dinner arrived, it was essentially under-cooked broccoli, with a few carrot slivers, wrapped in a tortilla. I just looked at it, sighed and drank my meat-free water. Misery.

And then, the moment I dreaded the most…we were invited to a Christmas party – a Christmas dinner party. I gave my husband strict instructions not to tell anyone I was a vegan. I did not want to be one of those preachy, demanding people with “dietary issues.” Surely I could navigate the meal by eating side dishes, after nonchalantly asking about their ingredients: “Wow, those Brussels sprouts look super tasty! What’s in them? Oh, bacon? Like real bacon or those soy bacon bits? Oh, real bacon. Ohhh.” Curse you, real bacon! And of course I could always fall back on the salad, and perhaps have some salad and maybe take a little salad. God help me if the hostess got creative by adding cheese to it.

That first party went off without a hitch. No one was the wiser. But the second soiree took a nasty turn. While performing my new skill of undercover food detective, I was able to ascertain which items on the table were OK and which were off-limits. But something must have had a hidden criminal element in it, such as chicken broth or perhaps butter. How do I know? Because when I got home, I was sicker than sick. It was the kind of sick that makes you fear you might die, and then fear that you might not. I had passed up the gorgeous beef Wellington, skipped the creamy mashed potatoes, and ignored the luscious cheesecake only to be taken down by the wild rice or some frigging yams! Unbeknownst to me, when you give up animal product for any length of time and then eat it again, your body holds a clearance sale: Everything Must Go!

Yet I still wasn’t willing to give up. Why? Truth be told, I never felt physically better in my life (with the exception of the aforementioned “incident”). Gone was the arthritis pain in my knee. No more belly bloat. No more general malaise. Psychologically, however, I was feeling pretty damn sorry for myself. But, life is full of trade-offs. Right? Certainly I would get used to this new way of eating. Right? People, I do not have what it takes to make a successful martyr. Sorry. No can do.

But here’s what finally tipped the scales and put me back on the meat wagon…my old pal, Whole Foods.

Each November, Whole Foods publishes a holiday menu full of catering fare. I always have at least 30 people for holiday dinners and, handy though I may be in the kitchen, I am not equipped to run a banquet hall. So I’ve always turned to Whole Foods for an assist. Basically I order the same things every year: one shrimp cocktail platter that serves 12 (if you show up late, you’re out of luck, my friend), an assorted crudité platter that serves 24, one Brie en croute that serves up to 10, and a double order of their turkey dinner for 8 (which consists of two turkeys and various sides). While flipping through the menu in search of additional dishes to round out the meal, I saw it. There it was, on page 10…the saddest thing you can imagine, especially during the holidays. Among the sumptuous offerings of “Rib Roast Dinner for 8” and “Roasted Pork Loin for 4” was “Vegan Dinner…for 1.”

One is the loneliest number.

One is the loneliest number.

In that moment, it all came into focus. I was alone. I was dinner for one. And, bloat be damned, I was hungry for cheese. Glorious, glorious cheese! And marshmallows. Real marshmallows made from Porky Pig! And wild salmon! And beef! I broke down is a puddle of my own wanton desire. It was not pretty, but it was bound to happen.

Therefore, when I say to you, “vegans need love,” I know what I’m talking about. So, the next time you meet one, or have to cook for one, or have to eat with one, keep an open mind. Do not judge. Do not mock. Instead, open your arms and give that skinny bitch a hug.

 

Three Little Words

In a recent burst of culinary enthusiasm, I decided to unleash my inner Latina by whipping up a Mexican fiesta, complete with fresh guacamole, salsa, fish tacos, refried beans and a sweet, slippery flan. (Ancestral Disclaimer: I possess not a drop of Hispanic blood, but I believe there is a sexy Chicana residing deep within my soul. Her name is Velvita Montecombo).

Compiling the selected recipes from Epicurious, I added all the ingredients to my weekly shopping list. There were some exotic components that I’d never heard of before so, while I’m familiar with almost everything in the produce department, I wouldn’t know a tomatillo from a Tommy Mattola.  It was clear I’d need some professional help on this expedition. With list in hand, I drove to the supermarket.

While perusing the peppers, I recognized bells, jalapeños, and pepperoncini…but beyond that, I was out of my depth. It was then that I sought out the produce manager.

“Excuse me,” I said, “Can you tell me where the habaneros and tomatillos are?”

He pointed, in a vague way, toward the bulk vegetable section. Now, right off the bat, I could tell we were going to have a rocky relationship. You see, unless I’m asking an Irish Setter where the ducks are, I expect words in response to my queries, not pointing.

“Over there?” I asked, giving him another opportunity to articulate.

He nodded his head in the affirmative, still remaining silent (although he may have grunted – I’m not sure).

Walking to where he gestured, I discovered a small cardboard box filled with a hodgepodge of peppers. There were round red ones, long green ones, short green ones, long red ones, round green ones…you get the picture.

 

Peter Piper Picked A Peck Of These

Peter Piper Picked A Peck Of These

“These?” I called to him. He ignored me, which got me (and Velvita) feeling caliente – and not in a good way. I sashayed up to him (Velvita sashays) and asked, “Can you come over here for a minute, please?”

He looked put out, but followed me nonetheless.

“Are any of these tomatillos?” I asked again.

“The green ones.” It speaks!

There were no fewer than three completely distinctive varieties of green vegetables in there.

“Which green ones?” I pressed. “They’re all different.”

“The green ones,” he repeated.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, our uncooperative produce manager was finding it impossible to utter those three little words: I. Don’t. Know.

Funny thing about the phrase I don’t know…it’s like a multi-purpose magic wand. Not only is it a free pass for getting out of answering questions (lawyers hate it, because where can you go from “I don’t know”?); but it’s also a valuable time-saver for the person on the receiving end (unless you enjoy a spirited wild goose chase now and again).

Rather than tango any further with Mr. Nohelpatall, I turned to my trusty iPhone and searched Google images for “habanero and tomatillo.” Voila! Not only did it immediately solve my problem, it taught me two things: 1) Habaneros are the same things as Scotch bonnets and 2) one day it will be necessary for computers to replace humans. Otherwise, salsa will become extinct.

I showed him my phone and said, “In case you’re interested, these are what they look like!” Velvita can be a little bitchy.

I bagged my peppers, shot him a derisive glare and huffed off.  He couldn’t have cared less.

Next stop, the aisle dedicated to garbage bags, plastic wrap, and cleaning supplies. I had recycling bags on my list, but couldn’t find any. Since I’m a glutton for punishment, but also an eternal optimist, I enlisted the help of another store employee.

“Excuse me, do you sell recycling bags? I don’t see them.”

“Yes,” he said. Words! I was hopeful. “They’re over there.” He pointed to an enclosed section at the front of the store. The sign above the door read, “Recycling Center.” It’s where people redeem their bottles and cans.  Hmm…

“Are you telling me that’s where you stock recycling bags for purchase?”

A blank stare on his part. A heavy sigh on mine. Here we go again, I thought.

“Um, yeah?” Haltingly answering my question with a question did not come across as certainty.

Even though I knew better, I went to the recycling center. Of course, there is nothing for purchase in the recycling center, ever.  Google couldn’t help me out with that one, so it was Amazon Prime to the rescue.

It’s so refreshing to know that I can go to Google, Epicurious or Amazon, with complete confidence. I’ve never searched for a brisket recipe and had Epicurious answer me with one for quiche. If Google doesn’t have what I’ve typed, it will help out by asking, “Do you mean gobbledygook?” And Amazon will help me narrow down my search by suggesting “gobbledygook in All Departments? In Music? In Books? Etc.” And if I ask for something they can’t find, they will tell me in no uncertain terms.

Why don’t (won’t) humans do that?

I don’t know.

Not A Clue

Not A Clue

 

A Perfect Pairing

Recently, my husband and I celebrated out 22nd wedding anniversary.  When people learn we’ve been married that long, they carry on with like we’ve just discovered the cure for psoriasis or something.  But to us, 22 years doesn’t seem like a big deal.  In fact, by our families’ standards, we are rookies.  Hubby’s paternal grandparents (who both lived into their 90’s)  celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary.  My own parents have been united (unified?  unionized?) for just over 60 years.

My parents on their wedding day.

That’s a long time.  Can you imagine owning the same pair of gloves for over 60 years?  Now imagine belonging to another human being for that length of a time.

Lower those hackles, people!  I know, you winced at my use of the words “owning” and “belonging,” but just what do you think marriage is anyway?  I’ll explain: it is a contract…a binding one.  Breaking that contract is usually very difficult and extremely expensive.  If it weren’t such a big deal, it would be as easy to extricate oneself from a marriage as, say, a gym membership.  Oh, wait a minute…

Ok, let me rephrase that:  Even though it is easier to “uncouple” from your spouse than it was for me to part company with Equinox Fitness (a maddening story for another time), you should consider yourself “locked in” like a long-term mortgage.  And I mean this in the best of ways!

To celebrate our 22 years together, Hubby and I invited our friends Jonas and Vanessa to join us for dinner at a restaurant called Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

What’s that you say?  You’ve never heard of it?  Those in the know simply refer to it as Stone Barns.  It’s one of those farm-to-table joints, and practically everything they serve comes from the fields, and the coops, or the pens.  There are no menus.  Instead, you’re given a little Field and Pasture booklet, which lists the things that are in season for every given month.  Then, you are offered two meal choices: “Grazing, Pecking and Rooting” which consists of many little plates (and I do mean many), or the “Farmer’s Feast,” which offers the same amount of food on fewer plates but with larger portions.   Both are designed around that day’s harvest.  Both selections can be ordered with food alone, or with wine pairings.

While mulling over our choices (the whole table must agree to have the same plan), Jonas and I ordered cocktails.  He wanted a cucumber martini, but was told cucumbers were out of season (they’re not faking it at Stone Barns).  I wished I had brought one with me.  Is that a cucumber in your evening bag, or are you just happy to order a martini?

After a brief confab, the four of us decided to be grazing peckers.  Since Jonas and I were already working on our cocktails, we two opted to graze with wine.  Then we nominated Hubby & Vanessa to be our designated drivers.  They agreed, and so our culinary adventure began.

While taking in the beautiful dining room, our first course arrived.  We were served, what looked like, four little maroon buttons.  Four.  Each one was about the size of a quarter.  They turned out to be beet jerky.  No, that is not a typo.  It was jerky made of beets, not beef. And it was delicious.  If you’re not a beet fan, well, too bad for you because beets are in season and we were served lots of them, in many different forms.  Jonas is not a great lover of beets (or he would have ordered a beet martini), but he still liked them…pretty much.  Vanessa is an accomplished cook.  In fact she has her own catering business.  So she could probably figure out how to make beet jerky, but I don’t think Jonas will be requesting it anytime soon.

While we were enjoying our “buttons,” the sommelier gave Jonas and I our first pairing.  Now, I’ve ordered wine pairings before and I know the drill: savor that pour, ‘cuz you ain’t gettin’ no more!  Not so at Stone Barns, my friends.  Jonas emptied his glass before the course was over and somebody was there lickity split to refill it.

Following the jerky, we munched on kale and cabbage chips, suspended in this weird contraption that looked like a tree.  Yum!

Kale & Cabbage Sitting In A Tree...

Kale & Cabbage Sitting In A Tree…

After that, the vino kept flowing and the plates kept coming. And everything was incredible.

At one point, our server came to our table and brightly suggested, “Let’s take a walk.”

I immediately assumed I had been talking loudly enough to warrant removal from the premises – like I said, they were not being stingy with the wine.  I stared blankly, first at the server and then at Vanessa, who just shrugged.  Hubby informed us that we were being relocated to dine in the kitchen for a course or two.  Sweet!  Why were we invited to go into the kitchen?  Who cares?!  I’ve learned never to question those little perks life occasionally throws your way.

The kitchen was buzzing like Grand Central Station.  It looked like something out of a stylized, swanky movie – shiny and bright, filled with young, good-looking people (and not just because I was sporting a pair of wine goggles).

There was so much food and it was all incredibly delectable, but I knew I’d never be able to remember it all.  So, I wrote some of it down.  We had:

 

Pig's Liver with Chocolate and Mini Beet Burgers

Pig’s Liver with Chocolate and Mini Beet Burgers

  • Pig’s liver with chocolate (Seriously!  And seriously awesome.)

 

  • Teeny tiny beet burgers (with the smallest sesame buns you’ve ever seen)

 

  • Schpeck fresh pea puree with lime (I don’t know what this means either, but it’s what I typed into my iPhone.)

 

  • Beet tartar with quail egg (I told there were lots of beets)

 

  • Smoked trout with crème fraiche and borscht (more beets anyone?)

 

  • A very special beer that only occurs in nature every 17,000 years!  Apparently the malt grains ferment in the fields because the humidity is only just so every 17,000.  Huh?  How would anyone know what happened 17,000 years ago? But again, mine was not to reason why.  Mine was but to drink that crazy, refreshing beer.

 

  • Kohlrabi tacos with carrot salt (FYI: carrot salt is a game changer)

 

  • Venison
We ate off of bark. I swear to God.

We ate off of bark. I swear to God.

Then, on top of all this, dessert was served.  There were merengue worms, white chocolate eggs filled with something sinfully rich, truffles, honey drizzled ice cream and much more!

Dessert Extravaganza

By the time the meal ended, over five hours later, we were stuffed and I was a wee bit tipsy (and by “tipsy” I mean “blotto”).

Jonas was none the worse for wear and proved it when the check arrived.  With the swift precision of a striking cobra WHOOSH he grabbed it before Hubby knew what happened.  We tried to argue, but our dear friends would not hear of it.  Now, let me tell you, this was far beyond generous.  A meal like that doesn’t come on the cheap.  In fact, to fairly reciprocate on their anniversary, Hubby and I will have to gift Jonas and Vanessa with a vacation home in the south of France.

I look forward to our next visit to Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  Oh yes!  We shall return, but next time, I will skip the cocktail and limit myself to two glasses of their fine wine.  And I will bring a cucumber in my evening bag, just in case they’re out of season.

My parents today. Still belonging to each other.

My parents today. Still belonging to each other.

 

 

Fibs, Lies and Chinese Turkey Rolls

The stuff of dreams.

New parents can be pretty amusing as they rattle off all the things they will never do with their children.  Some declarations are honorable: I’ll never serve fast food to my kids!  Some are sensible but unrealistic: I’ll never let them stay up past ten o’clock on a school night!  Some are control-freaky and horrible: Unless they get straight A’s in high school, I won’t help pay for college!  And then there’s my personal favorite, the sweet: I will never lie to my kids! 

Inside, I chuckle.  After all, how cute that they have such high ideals.  It’s like a four-year-old announcing she’ll invent a time machine when she grows up.  You wouldn’t tell her that time travel isn’t possible because why disabuse someone of a lofty goal?  Also, who knows?  If a kindergartener, back in 1960, told you that you’d be reading this on an all-purpose electronic device that also makes visual phone calls, sends mail, plays movies, and puts all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips, you might have dismissed him with, “That’s very nice, Stevie.  Now go clean your room.”  But he would have been right.

So, I just smile when I hear these assertions that they won’t lie to their kids, because I know that this is actually the very first lie of many, and these parents are telling it to themselves.  For example, somebody bought all those Elf On The Shelf toys last December.  What’s that you say?  You don’t consider that lying?  It’s just a playful fib?  Oh.  I see.

I’m not judging you.  Oh no, no, no!  I just want to give you a teensy little reality check.  And I don’t mean to be a spoilsport.  The truth is, I don’t see anything wrong with traditions that lead children to imaginative play, like believing in magical candy-bearing bunnies, or fairies bartering cash for teeth.  In fact, I love them.  And I concede that there’s certainly a distinction between a fib:  Keep making that face and it will freeze that way, a white lie: The supermarket was completely out of ice cream, and a downright whopper: Your real father is an exiled prince.  For his own safety, and ours, I can’t tell you who he is.

Then there are lies of convenience.  These are the lies we tell to save us time, aggravation, or to avoid an awkward conversation for which we are unprepared.  I knew a mother who, when asked the purpose of a certain feminine hygiene product, told her prepubescent daughter that they were shoe inserts used to prevent sore feet.  Then there was the father who gave such a cursory explanation about the birds and the bees, that his 8-year-old son asked, “Next time mommy lays an egg, can I see it?”

It was one of these convenience lies that sent me on a wild goose chase for nearly 25 years.  Here’s how my odyssey began:

Could you fib to this little face?

When I was a little girl, I wasn’t a terribly fussy eater as long as everything you served me was turkey.  Turkey was my favorite and the only “meat” I’d eat.  No matter where my parents took me, turkey was on the menu (or so they said.  I couldn’t read.).

Once, on a visit to New York City’s Chinatown, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch and my parents ordered for me.  When the food came, I was served a warm, bready, fluffy orb, flat on the bottom, and about the size of a softball.  It was golden brown in color with a delicate sheen to its crust.

“What’s this?” I asked my father.

“Turkey,” he said.

I bit into its soft, chewy exterior to discover the most delicious, sweet, moist turkey I had ever tasted.

Thus began my quest for the elusive Chinese Turkey Roll.

When I became old enough to read, I searched the menu of every Chinese restaurant for turkey rolls.  I never found them.  As an adult, I’d ask waiters, “Do you have those rolls?  You know the ones I mean – they’re soft and kind of shiny?  They have turkey in a sweet sauce inside?”

Waiter: “You mean pork bun.”

Me: “Um, no…not pork.  Turkey.”

Waiter:  “No.  No turkey.  Pork!”

This is how it went every time.  They didn’t have what I wanted, so they’d try to sell me on pork buns.  Even though I’d never had one, I knew pork buns weren’t what I craved.  Give me Chinese turkey rolls or nothing.

I once asked my father if these rolls were some sort of delicacy, or if the restaurant in Chinatown made them as a specialty, or if he remembered the name of the place.

“You want to ask me what we ate for lunch 15 years ago?  I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast today,” was his response.

Fast forward to 1986.  I was working as a research director on Wall Street and living on my own in Brooklyn.  My downstairs neighbor, Olivia, called me one night to invite me for dinner.  When I arrived, a deliciously pungent aroma welcomed me at the door.

Olivia greeted me with a hug, “You’re in for a treat!  I was in Chinatown today and picked up lots of goodies.”

After brewing a nice pot of oolong for us, she served our first course: scallion pancakes.  I’d never had them before, but my taste buds had come a long way since I was little. Now I tried new foods all the time (however, turkey was still my favorite).

The pancakes were crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and had a sweet oniony flavor.  We dipped them in a dark sauce that was salty like soy, but slightly sweet and tangy.  Yum!

Then Olivia brought a platter to the table.  It was piled high with, what looked like, smaller versions of my gastronomic Holy Grail.  But I’d been disappointed before, so I checked my excitement until that first bite.  Gently lifting one to my mouth, and hoping against hope, I took a tentative nibble.  And then I heard the voices of a cherubim’s chorus.

“Olivia!  You have to give me the name of the place where you bought these turkey rolls!”

She tilted her head and gave me a quizzical look, “Turkey rolls?  Those are pork buns.  You can get them anywhere.”

Anywhere?

My ecstasy was tempered by the knowledge that my father’s fiction had deprived me of over two decades’ worth of pork buns.  Add to that the embarrassment I felt replaying all the times I’d grilled restaurant employees about those non-existent rolls (sometimes I did this on dates!).  It’s like going into Home Depot and demanding a flying carpet because you just know they really exist.  And when the salesman tells you there are no such things, you think he’s stupid and he thinks you’re crazy.

So parents, next time you tell that little white lie, please don’t forget to straighten things out somewhere down the road.  Yes, my father fibbed about the turkey.  Was that the end of the world?  No.  Did he inadvertently spare me from years of eating something that, let’s face it, would not have made for the healthiest of diets?  Yes.  And in the grand scheme of things, there are worse outcomes born from parental subterfuge.  I could have been that bride walking down the aisle with panty liners stuffed into her shoes.

I danced all night. Thank you, Stayfree!

I danced all night. Thank you, Stayfree!

My New Lover

I’m going to do some things in today’s post that I’ve never done in this blog before.  For starters, I’m going to tell you what really gets my motor going.  I’m going to get specific.  And I’m going to name names.  Brace.

Women often have to think outside the box to spice things up at home.  Well, I’m no different.  There was something I’d been fantasizing about, craving, and wanting for some time…to bring a pro into our lives.  When I finally got up the nerve to tell my husband, he blanched a little, but ultimately climbed on board and agreed to satisfy my longing.  Of course, I’m referring to the Vitamix Professional Series 750, which I asked Hubby to give me for Christmas.  He balked because it’s a pricey piece of equipment, but you get what you pay for (and, trust me, I am getting my money’s worth).  If you’ve never seen one, well…it’s really sort of a blender, but to call it that diminishes its fabulousness, as far as I’m concerned.

For the record, I’m not hawking this thing or getting paid to mention it.  It’s just that I’m in the mood…to share.

Diamonds, exotic vacations, and fancy cars make some women swoon.  Me?  I go bonkers for scullery gadgets.  I like the aforementioned fine things, too, but gift me with something shiny that plugs into the kitchen, and I get that certain kind of feeling all over.  You would be hard-pressed to come up with a culinary accessory that I don’t own.  I have juicers, stand mixers, pasta machines, espresso makers…all of it.  Oh, and just in case you’re getting ideas, please be advised: I do not share, lend, or otherwise allow the touching of my wares.  So don’t even ask me.

Anywho, before I enter into any committed relationship, I do my research.  I had been lusting after a Vitamix for several years, but since it runs about $700, I really had to want it and want it bad.  What first attracted me was its ability to make things hot (like soup) and cold (like frozen desserts).  How is this even possible?  As part of my investigation, I visited Sur La Table and started poking around.  When approached by the store’s manager, I began pumping him about the Vitamix Pro 750.

“Rather than tell you,” he purred, “Why don’t I show you?”

Uh-oh!  He planned to tantalize me with a demonstration.  Before he even started, I knew I’d be powerless against his seduction.

He produced a stalk of celery, snapped it in half and put it in the container.  Then he whipped out the biggest carrot I’d ever seen in my life.  He cut it into three pieces (just three!!) and placed them with the celery, then added about half a cup of apple juice.  Flipping a switch, the contents were reduced to a liquid within seconds.  I actually, audibly gasped.  Then, just to drive the point home, he let it run a little longer.  The contents became hot and steamy.  He gave me a taste.  It was like a soup my husband loves – a soup that normally takes over an hour to make.  I began daydreaming of all the things I wanted to do with that machine.  My reverie was interrupted when I realized a crowd had formed.  Strangers were watching.  I felt my cheeks get hot and flushed.

Already fully enrapt, I nearly collapsed when he showed me how to clean it.  He filled it half-way with warm water and added two drops of dish soap.  Running the pre-programmed cleaning cycle, which takes just one minute, it was sparkling (needing only to have the suds rinsed out).  No dismantling.  No screwing and unscrewing.  Heaven help me, I was a goner.

Since receiving this magnificent piece of machinery, I have used it every single day.  My All-Clad 7-Qt. Deluxe Slow Cooker is starting to get jealous, but I don’t care.  I’m in love.

Now, I’m going to do the second thing I’ve never done in this blog:  I’m going to give you a recipe.  It’s for my Carrot-Orange Soup, based on a recipe from the original Silver Palate Cookbook.  The ingredients are basically the same, but the proportions and method are mine. Here goes…

Anita's Pro 750 Carrot-Orange Soup

Anita’s Pro 750 Carrot-Orange Soup

 1 tablespoon of butter

1 tablespoon of olive oil

1 large Vidalia onion, peeled and cut in half

4 gigantic carrots, peeled and cut into thirds

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (divided)

1 medium orange

1 cup orange juice

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Options:

 ½ cup toasted papitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)

fresh orange zest

2 teaspoons mild curry powder

1” chunk of fresh ginger (peeled)

Method:

In a large saucepan, heat the oil and butter over medium heat.  While waiting for the butter to melt, place half the stock, onion and carrots into the Vitamix  Pro 750 (if you’re using ginger, throw that in there, too).  Turn the dial to “1” and pulse about 5 times to pulverize the onions and carrots (some chunks might remain.  That’s OK).  Add the carrot/onion blend to the oil/butter mixture (if using curry, stir it in now).  Squeeze in the juice of the orange.  Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes.  Pour the whole kit and caboodle back into the Vitamix, add remaining stock, and run the pre-programmed “soup” function.  When the machine stops running, stir in the orange juice by hand and divide into serving bowls.  Garnish with the orange zest and papitas.  I like to serve it with Glutino gluten-free Cheddar crackers. Makes 4 servings.  If you don’t have a Vitamix Professional Series 750, you’ll just have to get one, ‘cuz you can’t borrow mine.

What the Dickens?!

Let is never be said that I am a Scrooge during the holidays.  But for some reason, this year, I just can’t seem to get my merriment on.

I first noticed it while picking out our Christmas tree.  Normally, I give the same attention to buying a tree as I do to buying a house.  Every year we wander the tree farm, circle back, and mark possible candidates before making that final cut.  This year, it took all of five minutes rather than the usual thirty.  Here’s how it went down:

Husband:  “How about this one?”

Me:  “Yeah, sure.”

We put the tree up as soon as we returned home and it stood naked in the living room for an entire week.  Finally, I strung lights on it.  Two days after that, I slapped some ornaments on with the same enthusiasm one normally reserves for dental work – I just wanted to get it over with.

At first, I chalked up my lack of interest to fatigue but, since I wasn’t busting my back with all the usual Christmas rigmarole, that was a lame excuse.  Perhaps I was depressed?  Since I’m not prone to the blues, that was unlikely.  Was I just being lazy?  Well, laziness is relative.  By my own standards, I did think I was being lazy, but that was only a symptom, not the cause.  I finally settled on my health as being the culprit.  I’d been fighting a cold for a few weeks.  Maybe it was getting the better of me.  So I decided to take a goodly swig of NyQuil, straight from the bottle, and go to bed.

In the middle of the night, I felt someone poking at me.  It was a young woman in her twenties.  She was wearing a shiny suit with big shoulder pads, chunky gold jewelry and enough Stiff Stuff in her perm to paralyze each and every follicle.

I jolted awake from my NyQuil stupor. “Who are you?”

“I am the ghost of Christmas past,” she explained.

Judging by her outfit, I’d say she was the ghost of Christmas 1983.

“Come with me,” she said.  “Touch my sleeve.”

The feel of her garment suggested a Qiana-rayon blend.  Now I was sure she was from the ‘80’s.

The next thing I knew, we were watching three women, sitting at a kitchen table, making ornaments from cornstarch and baking soda.  I quickly recognized them: my sister, my friend Laura, and me.  This was my first apartment, in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  Puffing away on cigarettes, we were having the best time shaping and baking and painting the ornaments, while watching It’s A Wonderful Life.  It was colorized that year, but we didn’t know it because our 12” TV was a black and white set.

“I remember that!  Oh, we had so much fun that day.”  I was delighted by the memory.

On the corner of the old kitchen table sat a stack of Christmas cards that I lovingly hand-addressed in calligraphy.  I remember pouring over boxes and boxes of cards, until I found just the right ones.  Drawn in black and white on the outer flap, was a picture of a brownstone.  The only touch of color was a green Christmas tree topped with a  gold foil star, visible from a second floor window.  Inside it read, “A tree glows in Brooklyn.”  I loved those cards and wished I’d saved one.

“There’s more to see,” said the spirit.

Next stop: Rego Park, Queens about 10 years later.  I was a newlywed.  This time my sister and I were in the kitchen baking Christmas cookies with my little niece.  Baking cookies with me had become a traditional holiday activity for my friends and relatives.

Rego Park Christmas

Rego Park Christmas with my sister and niece.

We only observed the scene for a moment before dashing forward to 1998 and the suburbs of New York.  There in the great room of our first house, with my 8-month-old daughter on my hip and a pastry bag in my hand, I was decorating gingerbread men, while my three-year-old son rolled out more dough, getting flour in his hair, his eyelashes, between the slats of the hardwood floors…  That year we had a holiday housewarming to celebrate becoming homeowners.  I baked about 300 cookies to serve and give as gifts.  Seeing it in this vision, I felt the same warmth and pride and excitement all over again.

Housewarming cookies

Housewarming cookies

In the corner of the room, outgoing Christmas cards were piled on the desk.  They were each addressed with an Avery inkjet mailing label and pre-printed return address stamps.

In the other corner stood our big, bushy Christmas tree, displaying many of those handmade ornaments from my Brooklyn days as well as new ones purchased from the store.

Turning around to see more, I found myself back in the bed of my current home.  My husband was out cold, and seemingly unaware of my recent time travels.

Now, I don’t know about you, but once I’m awake, I have trouble getting back to sleep.  So I went downstairs for a glass of water.

On my way to the kitchen, I walked past our Christmas tree.  Even though I still have some of those original cornstarch ornaments, none of them are hanging from its branches.  Nor are the dozens of others that I’ve collected throughout my adult life.  This year, I grabbed the first storage box of ornaments I saw and only those made it onto the tree.

We moved into our current home, a 19th century Victorian farmhouse, back in December of 2005.  That year, I went crazy with the decorating.  A neighbor said, “It looks like Santa threw up in here!”  And it did.  Not a single surface or nook was spared.  It was cheerful and festive for as far as the eye could see.

I’d scaled way, waaaaaay back on the decorating this year. The wreath on the front door was thrown together about three days ago with ribbon and some plastic holly I picked up at the drugstore.  But at least it fairs better than the giant wreath on the barn, which is completely bare.  Not even a bow to sass it up a little.

There are no cookies in the kitchen, no Christmas cards to be mailed.  The happy little snowman village, which I normally display on the kitchen mantel, is nowhere in sight.  No Christmas countdown calendar.  No jolly mural drawn on the kitchen blackboard.  Nope.  There is just a little bit here, and a little bit there.  If you pass by my house, you wouldn’t just wonder if we celebrate Christmas, you’d wonder if the house is currently vacant.

As I looked around, I had to admit something to myself: I completely half-assed our present Christmas.  But there is nothing I can do about it now.  Christmas is just days away.  It’s too late.  Heaving a heavy sigh, I decided to take some more cold syrup and go back to bed.

Just as I managed to drift off to sleep again, a little girl popped up from beside the bed, all excited and bubbly.  “C’mon!  C’mon!  Come see!”

I took her hand and she led me back downstairs.  As we passed the living room, the lights and tinsel were almost blinding.  Every branch was jam packed with glittery ornaments, both old and new.  There were so many packages piled under the tree, wrapped in shiny paper and bows, that they covered half of the floor.

In the kitchen stood an older version of myself.  I was baking cookies with three of the most adorable little children I’d ever seen.  They were calling me TaTa (my family nickname), and we were all laughing and carrying on.  I could tell they were my grandchildren and was overcome with the most intense feelings of love.  The kitchen mantel was alive with the bustling little snowman village and from the window, I could see the barn, lit up like a used car lot, giant decorated wreath and all.

This is my vision of Christmases yet to come.  I know I will eventually get my merriment back on, bake the cookies, send the cards, decorate the dog, and so on and so forth.  For now, less is more and I’m OK with that.  So I’m taking the pressure off myself, making a cup of tea and heading to the couch to watch Christmas in Connecticut for the umpteenth time.  But before I do, I’d like to wish that all of your holidays are filled with joy, wonder and spirit (whether they be induced by over-the-counter medication or just the pure love in your heart).

Merry Christmas from SNORK!

Merry Christmas from SNORK!