On regrets

I could have ridden a watusi today.

I don’t know what stopped me. Maybe it was the massive horns. Maybe the way the watusi looked at my shyly, almost sweetly, and I just couldn’t imagine putting her out that way.

Actually — no, I know exactly what it was. It was my mom-ness, my holding-things-together-ness. It was my needing-to-know-what’s-next-ness. My awkward-ness.

It was fearful-ness.

Fearful of what? you might rightly wonder.

I have no idea. is my unacceptable answer.

All of this bucket-list-mucking (confession: I don’t really have a bucket list to muck — perhaps this will spawn an all-out intervention?) happened at a place called Bison World, north of Indianapolis. You can read all the details of my visit in next week’s NUVO — but in short, it’s a farm that raises grass-fed bison (and other “pets,” such as the ride-worthy watusi — not the one pictured above), and sells the meat locally, or anywhere else in the world. The farm was beautiful, the bison majestic, in that dusty, fly-covered sort of way.

We grilled bison burgers tonight, and their praises were sung far and wide. Much more tender, much less gamey than I expected. There’s a future for ground bison in our deep freezer, even if my golden opportunity for watusi-riding is now firmly in the past.

There’s a life lesson in here somewhere.

Oh, right: grab the bull by the horns.



Thoughts on 40


Earlier this week I had a conversation with a friend of ours 15 years my junior. He was talking about struggling, looking at his life — he always thought it would look different at 25.

My response? Without an ounce of bitterness (really!) — in softer words than these, I basically told him to get used to it. I’ve yet to hit an age milestone that didn’t leave me with an overwhelming chuckle, a metaphorical shaking of the head.

In a separate conversation this week, I told other young-ish friends that the day you turn 39, you start thinking about your 40th birthday. It’s like you spend the whole year preparing — or if you’re like me, fantasizing about what that day will look like. I usually daydream these things while exercising, because the soundtrack du jour piped in from headphones is requisite. So, on various treadmills and trails this year, the big 40 has looked like any of the following:

  • I take a cruise with my high school besties. This fantasy was actually born from a suggestion by one of them at our 20th reunion. Our collective milestone was still 15 months in the future, enough time for it to be an easy thing to say, to agree to do. In truth? I will always love those friends, but we haven’t done a good job keeping in touch. As an added deterrent, I’ve never once desired to go on a cruise. The thought of it makes me feel claustrophobic and seasick. Scratch Fantasy #1.
  • I host a gigantic dance party. The soundtrack contains every song I’ve loved since 1988, which means it would have to be extracted from my brain via Harry Potter’s pensieve-dipping wand. The party is located in a well-decorated warehouse-like space somewhere downtown, and all my favorite people from the past 20 years are in attendance. This is delusional on so many levels it’s ridiculous. Scratch Fantasy #2.
  • I host a more intimate party, but with all of my favorite people from across the country in attendance. Since it’s a fantasy, I am somehow able to afford to fly everyone here and put them up. Cross-reference the delusion of Fantasy #2, and scratch the 3rd.

Today I turn 40. Yesterday afternoon I tried my darnedest to make a proper cake (albeit grain-free, dairy-free, sugar-free). I had a vision of what this cake would look like: it would be a square mini cake, with airy vanilla layers, a coconut cream filling, and chocolate cream icing. I knew the texture would be different from a traditional yellow cake — knew the chocolate frosting might not be as sweet or chocolatey. As I pieced together recipes, taking an experimental approach to all aspects, wanting to tweak things out of desire or need, I was having the best time baking I’ve had in many months. I am at my heart a problem-solver, and thrive on challenges. I had the vision as my prize, was thinking of ways to style the shot as I measured out ingredients.

I’ll spare the minutia and take you to the last page of the book: the cake was a total flop. Partially edible, but not at all what it was supposed to be. I served up small pieces to my kids for dessert last night — and as I watched all three eat with enthusiasm and give their thumb votes (they ranged from 2 thumbs up to a thumb and a half), I thought about the fact that in a few hours I would actually, unequivocally turn forty. I would be a forty-year old. All of those fantasies replayed through my brain in an instant, and I couldn’t help but chuckle. Literally.

I told Tim a few weeks ago that, cliché as it may be, I felt a tinge of midlife crisis. Four decades, and no measurable worldly accomplishments to show for it. My design work never made it into Print magazine, I’ve never been interviewed by Terry Gross, I’ve not yet published that memoir (sneak-peak: southern redneck girl teaches self to cook, this is metaphor for life in general, blah, blah, blah, somehow manages to be funny as hell); I’ve never been properly fitted for a bra at Nordstrom, still share a bathroom with all of my children, drive at least one muffler-less car, have dirty baseboards. I’m not sure where exactly I thought I’d be at this point, but I have a feeling this list of un-accomplishments would not have been penned by my 25-year old hand.

But then I serve these pieces of shoddy, spongy cake to my three children. And as they chew, with thumbs in various stages of up, down, or sideways (that’s a neutral vote), I realize that I also never imagined them, or this life — this journey with my husband and three children. I couldn’t imagine them, because my mind is too limited — bound by dreams of movie reels and magazine ads, award-envy and wanderlust. My fantasies could have never included these three utterly delightful small people, with me as their undeserving mother and Tim as their father, because it would have been too wondrous a dream to risk.

I have no recipe today, because who wants a recipe for a birthday cake fail? But I chose to record this failure, to share it on my own day of milestone naval-gazing, because it’s all just too perfect. Today I won’t eat a beautiful cake, won’t embark on a cruise, am not preparing for that rockin’ warehouse bash or miracle intimate mixing-of-worlds. Instead I’m heading to Louisville, KY with Tim, meeting up with my brother-and-sister-in-law, for an overnight restaurant-hop. I kissed my little ones goodbye this morning before school, confident they’d be in good hands with Grandma in my absence. I’ll face this mark without a beautiful cake to show you, but also without bitterness, for at least a moment comfortable with the fact that life at forty is not what I thought it would be.

It’s better.


Today’s photo, in all its ridiculousness, is in honor of Dr Seuss, as today is his birthday as well.
In case you’re wondering: yes, I ate it. For breakfast.


It’s holiday time. What’s your emergency plan?

Note: this is a sponsored post: Pepperidge Farm asked me to try their Stone Baked Artisan Rolls, and challenged me to find ways that a home cook can be rescued during this oft-harried season. You might rightly wonder how a semi-locavore like me goes about taking coupons and compensation for trying supermarket rolls? Well, it all goes back to realism — I am frequently asked by friends what I do when I just don’t have time to bake bread — what are the options at the market? I usually share my personal list of best-option supermarket breads, and when those aren’t available I tell people what ingredients to avoid. When Pepperidge Farm contacted me, I responded with a request for the ingredient list. While enriched flour is not ideal, it was thankfully unbleached, and the rolls contained nothing I couldn’t pronounce, no HFCS — i.e., a best supermarket scenario.* Seemed like something worth trying, especially for holiday emergencies.

And while I’m not beyond faking illness for some coupons (did someone say Extreme Couponing?) or radically adjusting my lifestyle for free food opportunities, the story below really and truly happened. Ask my kids the next time you see them, they might be permanently traumatized by the scenes they witnessed in the dark of that night.


And by emergency plan, I don’t mean anything that concerns stockpiling dry-goods (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or making sure you have a generator in the basement (does anyone actually have those?). I mean what you do when, during this season of generosity and giving, of sharing meals and visiting, your dinner plan serving 4-6 unexpectedly turns into serving 6-8, and you want it to still feel like a festive holiday.

Or, like the scenario that played out at our house just this week: someone (ahem… the cook) in your house falls prey to one of the countless bugs and viruses going around during this time of “sharing.”

Each Wednesday, we host a group of people from our church for dinner — usually, it’s a crowd of 15 (including us and 6 combined offspring). Yesterday afternoon, I had just gotten a giant stockpot of our beloved Tuscan White Bean stew into the oven to slow-simmer for a couple hours when I noticed I had that feeling. You know, when you kind of think your lunch didn’t quite settle right, and wow, that feeling is lingering, and I hope it doesn’t go down that road. Tim came home at 5pm, and I told him I needed to go lie down for a bit, before the crowd showed at 6.

Fast-forward that hour: on a downward spiral, I’m in bed, wearing my puffy winter coat, still shivering under two down comforters. Tim checks in, and asks what still needs to be done for dinner: he needs to make mac-n-cheese for the kids, and we needed bread to go with the soup.

If you know little else about me, you know I am a bread-baker. I make our sandwich bread about 75% of the time, and go through phases of making our dinner breads as well. There are many ways to make bread ahead: you can freeze whole loaves, to be thawed and crisped later in the oven, or you can freeze par-baked rolls, pizza crusts, and flatbreads, to be thawed and fully baked at a later date. While I often have something par-baked in our freezer, either homemade or from a local bakery, last night I had nothing, save for the fact that I’d fortuitously found the Pepperidge Farm rolls at the grocery store earlier in the day (those blissful hours when I still felt normal, part of the living).

Tim is great in the kitchen, but most often tackles breakfast. This was one of those rare times when it was so nice to be able to say, “Get the rolls out of the freezer, and follow the directions on the package.” He did as told, and by the time our guests arrived the kitchen smelled of fresh-baked bread and Tuscan herbs. Not that our friends would’ve turned and walked out the door if the meal had not been complete — but I felt better (upstairs, in that tossing/turning/freezing/burning sort of way) knowing that their bellies would be full and their bowls sopped clean.

So, tell me: what are your secrets for keeping your kitchen ready for what hits it during the holiday season? How do you make sure your guests feel warm, fuzzy, and well-fed, even when the unexpected happens? I’ll be posting next week, a few of my own ideas, and would love to add yours to the list.


* Ingredients for the rolls: Unbromated unbleached enriched wheat flour (flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate [vitamin B1], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid), water, contains 2% or less of: salt, white rice flour, malt syrup, yeast and sesame seed meal.


Apropos of nothing


Honesty is good, right?

Truth be told, I’m in a bit of a pickle. For over four years now, I’ve had a finely-tuned, complex regimen in place in order to write content for this space: cook something, and write about it. Variations on that theme might include eat out and write about it, or perhaps read something, get mad, and write about it. But the gist, by far, was writing about the goings on in my own kitchen.

So with this whole new wacky diet thing, that’s going to be hard for a while. Unless you guys are salivating to hear more about the “bread” I eat in the form of an unsweetened almond-egg pancake.

I was procrastinating writing a post, doing a good job forgetting that I ever decided to start a blog at all, when I was running errands this morning, listening to Terry Gross (I know, her voice, but she does interview really interesting people). She was interviewing Tom Waits (but, his voice, and how weirdly cool it is), and he was (I think) talking about (I turned on the radio halfway through the interview) times in his life when he just wasn’t writing music. How you can’t just make that happen. He said that he used to take an old trash can, one on wheels, and put a tape recorder in the bottom of it. He’d go roll it around outside, all around different places, and then play back the recordings to see if he could find interesting rhythms for inspiration.

My point being, of course, that I would like to put this entire diet thing, along with every almond in the world, into a trash can, roll it around outside, and see if it all turns into something I want to eat.

I mean, no, of course not. I simply related to a need to rethink & relearn, to hear something new.

As of now, my plan is to stick with the GAPS diet as much as possible for the foreseeable future. This means I have a lot of cooking to do — cooking that isn’t really fun, or satisfying (though some of it is, a new post on stock-making is forthcoming!). Until I wrap my head around thinking grain-free, I might not run across much that is inspiring enough to share.

This doesn’t mean I’m going away. It just means I’m struggling, and trying to figure out how much of that should be bestowed upon innocents. I don’t want to bore, don’t want to write a special diet blog. But I also don’t want to lie, or stop writing altogether.

Apropos of nothing?

The photograph was of my daughter’s birthday cake — she turned 8 last week. I kind of wanted to assure everyone (ahem… grandparents) that I’m not forcing my children down this path with me. We made a yellow cake with chocolate icing — I even used cake flour (unbleached, but still, I bought cake flour). I would’ve blogged it — it was a recipe from Smitten Kitchen — but it wasn’t a huge hit. The cake was delicious, but all of us took issue with the chocolate sour-cream frosting — something was off-putting about it (though, really, if you want a yellow cake, this is your recipe).

Oh, and Happy Halloween! While we will be trick-or-treating tonight, I’ve put a 10-piece candy limit on my children (commence with the eye-rolling, grandparents). They each get to choose 10 pieces each to keep, and then the rest we are boxing up to send to U.S. troops overseas (because what better way to support our troops than send them loads of sugar and chocolate provided by child slavery?). Last year they got to eat a piece a day until it was gone (it was never gone — that’s how much candy they got), which I’m convinced led to the infamous Collective Carter Immune System Meltdown of January, February, and March of 2011. This year, I’m going Nazi, and hoping for a better spring.

Long story short: bear with me?


I’ll just be here, eating something made from almonds.


Everybody does weird diets sometimes, right?

I’ve chronicled past fascinations with them, and most of the time, if it’s totally out-there, un-sustainable (i.e., you live off avocados & chia seeds until the day you die, hopefully soon), it’s easy for me to turn away.

But over the past six or so months, I’ve become more and more convinced that there is a connection between what I’m eating and how I’m feeling. Which is overall, fine, as in, if I went to a doctor and had a physical she would likely tell me I am “the picture of health” or something equally encouraging. And if I complained to her about the little things that bother me (brain fog, minor anxiety, minor aches & pains) she would likely tell me that I’m just a mother to three young children, or that I’m nearing 40, or that she can write me a script that will make it all go away.

For a few years now, following various “real-food” blogs, I had heard about people doing the GAPS (Gut & Psychology Syndrome) diet. I connected it mainly with parents using it to alleviate symptoms of autism in their children, and it seemed extreme, so I saw no reason to investigate further. But a couple months ago my naturopath convinced me to read the book. And when I did, it was so logical in its description of how the health of your gut is directly related to everything from depression to chronic pain — I decided it was worth giving a try.

But aren’t those decisions always so much easier said than done?

I didn’t really mean to start it last week. I meant to have a plan. The diet is designed to be temporary (2 months to 2 or more years), but during that time you eat no grains whatsoever. Also, no starchy fruits and vegetables (i.e., potatoes, yams, etc.). No refined sugar. In some cases (ahem… mine), no dairy.

Lots of eggs, bone broths, soups, ferments, and fats from coconuts and animals. And nuts. As long as they are soaked overnight, you can eat just about any nut or seed.

So last week, I had all this bone broth in my freezer. I had gotten to a point where I wasn’t eating much grain anyway, it just didn’t taste good to me. Dairy was also something I had been avoiding. I figured, why not go ahead and do this?

It began innocently enough, by having a hot cup of chicken broth one morning for breakfast. At lunch, a plate of leafy greens with leftover chicken. For dinner, coconut lamb curry. By bedtime, the diet was on.

But then the next day, mid-morning, after my brothy breakfast, I was hungry. And couldn’t find a single thing to eat. I wanted cheese & crackers, but those are both off-limits. I scrounged through my GAPS cookbook and found a recipe for grain-free “flatbreads:” eggs, almond flour, almond milk, salt. I cooked them up, and gnawed unsatisfactorily — a spongy, eggy pancake topped with almond butter wasn’t what my brain had in mind.

So I washed it all down with more bone broth.

Really, now. Don’t all of you jump on this bandwagon with me at once, it might get tippy.

The thing is, it’s not bad to have to re-think what I eat, how I snack, what I rely on that might not be the best thing for my body. And it is usually interesting to me, having to cook with ingredient restrictions (i.e., gluten or grain-free, dairy-free, vegan, etc.) But right now my options feel suffocatingly limited. It’s been less than a week, but if I never saw another nut-based food item again I’d die a happy woman.

I had a dream the other night, that I was sitting in the kitchen of one of my favorite real-food bloggers, surrounded by all these other like-minded bloggers, and I was asking them, over and over: But did any of you see any improvement in your health after being on the GAPS diet? Over and over I asked, all night long, and never got an answer (darned sub-conscious, with its inability to work through problems to which I don’t already have a solution).

As of this morning I’m still on it, trying to find new ways to make snack foods, easy dinner modifications, and the like. But I’ll be honest — right about now, January is seeming like a much better time to start a wacky diet. What else will there be to do? Everyone else will be doing there detoxes and cleanses, I could at least have some company in the land of the deprived.

Stick with it? Postpone until the New Year? You’ll know the answer in coming weeks, as you notice whether all my posts become variations of things containing almonds.

* This is not my photo, stunning as it may be. When I went to shoot something this morning, I found I was ironically out of almonds.


This post is linked up to Simple Lives Thursday, via GNOWFGLINS.


Red tomato blues


It was all going so well, wasn’t it? June was an absolute delight — nary a day when the temps rose above 90º, with soothing rains that brought cool breezes. Humidity was low, mosquitos were non-existent. It was like the summer of my dreams, one that provoked a declaration to friends that I think I’ve been converted into a lover-of-summer, and then their response of a disbelieving raised eyebrow, since they know me so well.

And then, just like that, overnight even, I was transported back to the summer of my youth. The one that sits thick outside the back door my kids never remember to shut (welcoming the fly that is currently, this very moment, buzzing around my head). The summer that sucks your breath like one of those Death-Eaters in Harry Potter. The drought-infused heat that stunts growth and ripening in our garden, causing all the green tomatoes on our vines to just sit, stubbornly, refusing to blush. And I can’t say I blame them — I’m finding new ways to reserve unnecessary energy too.

I want summer recipes, but haven’t wanted to buy tomatoes — I mean, that’s why we planted so many, right? Though after walking by a community garden this morning, and holding onto the chain-link fence as I stared longingly at some juicy red specimens (guess they got theirs in the ground before we did?), I might break down, swallow my self-sufficient pride, and bring some home from the farmer’s market this Saturday.

We were at dinner the other night at Room Four (which, by the way, was most excellent — and I would write a stellar review except that now I’m afraid I’ll curse the place, having written a recent stellar review of another new restaurant in town only to hear of a friend having a lousy experience there the next week). Chef Greg Hardesty was able to chat a bit, as the other half of the restaurant, Recess, was closed for the night. I was asking him about my failed attempts to recreate the amazing chicken liver mousse we had at Recess last winter, and he went to fetch the cookbook that lent inspiration for the dish. As I read the recipe, he offered to just let me take the book home for a few days, adding as an afterthought that he “wouldn’t buy any more produce from my husband’s farm” (i.e., the Butler Campus Farm) until we brought it back.

The cookbook is big, and stunning, and way over my head (obscure ingredients, required mandolines and the like). But I sat last night, salivating over each and every tomato recipe. A yellow tomato tart, tomato trifle, tomato tartare, fresh tomato soup. All of the photos showcasing the brightest red of red specimens, and it’s all I can do not to start scraping at the page with my nails, my brain tricked by the mirage.

I find myself constantly craving acid. Not the hallucinogenic kind, but anything edible and tart, in that sharp, pungent way. I eat pickled things, but in the end they aren’t quite sweet enough. Aren’t fresh enough. Aren’t tomato enough.

Come on, summer, don’t be stingy. Give us tomatoes, they are currently your one saving grace.




Me and the buffet

While I love to use my tendency toward compulsion as a self-deprecating attempt to make light of situational anxieties that plague me in not-so-funny ways, I am not a germ-o-phobe. My compulsive traits do not involve excessive hand-washing, cans of Lysol stuffed into trendy hobo bags, or containers of hand sanitizer stashed in every drawer of my house. When it comes to exposure paranoia, I am much more likely to be afraid of chemical toxins than germs — for example, I love to swim but think chlorine is toxic. I therefore only swim laps once every two weeks (for the love of natural germ-killers, could someone in Indianapolis install a salt-water lap pool? Trust me, they are all the rage, so very Portland).

Some of my idiosyncrasies have developed in the past decade — it’s like I grew up, had kids, and realized that a behavior I once complied with naively was finally seen as the death trap it always was. Rides at the State Fair, for instance. I might let my kids ride the carousel, but you will not see me willingly climb aboard a car that is merely a shoddily temporarily-bolted experiment in airborne centrifugal force. As thrilling as that was in 1987.

One of my late-blooming fear-factors is the buffet. It’s not the fact that the food just sits out, exposed to every wandering hand or spray of untamed sneeze — though that’s undoubtedly part of it, from an ick standpoint — it’s more the quality of the food. I just can’t believe that food being sold out of a large bin, made in massive quantity and replaced as-needed, is of good quality. Add to this the fact that they are often priced per-pound, and it all adds up to one big exercise in controlled anxiety.

Call me a snob, an elitist, a paranoid freak. Make me a t-shirt, I’ll wear it.

Last weekend I was in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with three of my BFFs. One evening, freshly-pedicured (because that’s what you do at Girls’ Weekends, right?), we found ourselves hungry, driving in downtown Chattanooga during a rainstorm and River Fest, an outdoor festival that left hundreds of people wet and searching for cover. We had a 6-month old baby along for the trip, and none of us had raincoats or umbrellas. We needed to find an inexpensive place to eat that was easy to access. Cassia suggested a Mongolian grill — a place where you “get to pick a protein and vegetables and spices and they stir-fry everything for you.” It seemed inexpensive and quick, but a step up from fast food.

But then we walked in, and they handed me a stainless bowl, and guided me to a buffet. And in the buffet were giant vats of raw meat. Chicken, beef, just sitting their, in all of their bacteria-growing glory. And a few steps down, I was to pick out various chopped veggies and top it all of with a spoon of my spice blend of choice, then hand it to the guy with the giant grill and hope all that bacteria got cooked off and that I blindly seasoned it enough (but not too much!) to taste decent.

I stood and looked, and observed my friends, and hemmed and hawed, and found myself on the verge of minor hyperventilation. As much as I talked myself down from the ledge, I just couldn’t do it — couldn’t stick a serving spoon into the Bucket O’ Uncooked Poultry and start filling my bowl. I won’t say I’m proud of the fact, but in essence, continued hunger won out over vats of raw buffet meat. And the longer I stood, the more I wondered how this concept of restaurant ever made it past the VC stage. I envisioned the presentation payoff:

And so, the concept is that people who want to eat out really want to prepare their own meal. We know they really want to make all their own decisions, only not at their house, at a place they must get into their car and drive to. So we give them all the ingredients, and let them exercise their right of choice by choosing things to put into their bowl. And then — this is where the brilliance is blinding — we cook it for them, so they don’t have to put it in a pan in their own house. We cook it, while they sit at a formica table with a number on it. And then we deliver a bowl to them — tell them it’s what they came up with, and THEY WILL LOVE IT. Because they didn’t have to put it into their OWN pan.

And after that, I just obsessed over the state of America. While we sat at our table and watched the rest of the restaurant fill with people. People who wanted to put their own food into a bowl, but not cook it.

My three girlfriends love me, and graciously put up with my horror, albeit laughingly. And when their bowls came, I tasted them all — and truth be told, they weren’t bad. Maybe needed a touch more salt here or there (my fault entirely, as I was the one who seasoned the tofu bowl — but how was I to know, just dumping in spoonfuls of spice?), but edible. And no one died.

But they did choke a bit, when the “server” brought the bill. At this Mongolian grill, it costs about $13 to fill a small bowl with raw ingredients and let someone else cook it.

Only in America. Or, as they would have us believe, Mongolia.




Worst Food Moment

Can a moment be 25 years?

I’ve been trying to nail down a singular food moment that deserves the modifier “worst,” and am coming up empty. I’ll conveniently blame the hyperbolic state of food entertainment — having caught one too many episodes of Last Cake Standing (my husband despises that show, and really, so do I — how much drama can you possibly cook up in a cake-baking competition? [obviously enough to keep me watching to see if the cake! Really! Falls!] It’s like a soap opera of monstrous confectionery proportions). So when attempting to visualize a Worst Food Moment, I keep picturing this giant cake falling to the floor. The main problem being, of course, that my giant cake has never fallen, because I’ve never made one.

I’ve also never had food poisoning. Nor have I (to my knowledge) sickened anyone else with my cooking (though there was that one slightly-undercooked Thanksgiving turkey, which suspiciously affected only one family member). Those would be moments worthy of a one-upping storytelling contest at a party.

But I’ve got nothing. Except I keep coming back to the first 25 years of my life.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad. There was the occasional pot roast or buttered farmer’s market squash cooked by my Mom; there were pivotal restaurant meals, like the time my Dad took me to a quaint Italian dive for my 12th birthday, and I first discovered eggplant parmesan; there were the late 70’s super-8 memory clips of shelling beans and picking blueberries at my grandmother’s bungalow in south Mississippi.

But those moments were exceptions. The rules were Velveeta Shells & Cheese, Chef Boy-R-Dee pizza, and swimming pools of milk. I seriously drank nothing else.

It’s interesting, I think, that the vacuum of real food for most of my life is what defines a worst moment. Because — when you think about it — eating boxes of pasta and powdered cheese is a pretty safe way to live. Not healthy, but safe. You’re not likely to be food poisoned, and you know exactly what you’re getting every time you open the box. But like the woman afraid to leave her house for fear of dying in a car accident or being struck by lightening, all of that perceived safety comes with a price.

I don’t like to get too political in this space. Primarily because I’m not a very political person — I have my opinions, but don’t tend to share them publicly or try to win others to a cause (laziness and apathy help). But I can look back at my life, growing up in a suburban 1970s-80s America, and see it as a microcosm of our society (the food part, not the big hair and Units knockoffs, though one could make a case). Our generation has tended to grow up expecting food to be safe. Not only literally — we sterilize most foods we consume — but also sensuously. We like to know what we’re getting, and when we find something we like, we are repeat customers.

I can one-hundred-percent completely identify with finding comfort in routine. I am a woman who will not go to sleep without a glass of water by my bed, and this is just one of several nighttime compulsions habits. But there is something miraculous about food that allows my proclivity toward predictability to fall wayside. And it makes me sad, to think about all of those years that I didn’t like so many foods — simply because I didn’t try them or had never had them cooked fresh and not served from a can. I lived in a food desert of my own making, but didn’t realize it, because for a variety of reason — some self-inflicted, some circumstantial — I never ventured close enough to the horizon to realize there was a world beyond.

In the food movement as it currently stands, people of all ages are attempting a pilgrimage toward a closer, more adventurous relationship to our food. Part of this voyage involves turning away from previous habits of eating the same foods day after day, week after week, with no regard to season or consideration of what foods might be locally available rather than trucked in from across the country. A mistake I often fear is made by local food activists is setting the bar so high that people in transition — people like me who grew up in an environment antithetical to locavore eating — throw up their hands in frustration, unable to keep up with all the new (to them) rules. The way I see it, any small step toward better understanding the source of our food is a step in the right direction, and should be duly encouraged.

But, somewhat ironically, those steps often result in failure. We buy fresh beans, and steam them for a potluck, only to realize as no one can chew them that we bought shelling beans rather than an edible pod variety (me, in North Carolina, circa 2002). Or we join a CSA, and get a box-full of unidentifiable greens, and overwhelmed, let them go bad in our refrigerator (also me, in Georgia, circa 2006). We try to make yogurt and it’s lumpy, bake bread and it’s a brick, sprout grains and they mold, plant a garden and late frost kills every plant. All of those times, at the moment, seeming quite worthy of the modifier “worst.” We might curse, wring our hands in frustration, and wonder what’s the point.

Except there’s that tiny little part about learning something. Because those little mini-disasters turn into knowledge that we can’t gain from reading a cookbook — and with that disappointment under our belt we are all the more ecstatic when the next time (or the next) we succeed. The thrill of dirty-nail success, of being able to hand someone a thing of my own making and watch them enjoy it, of tasting something entirely new and wondering how I’ve existed without it my whole life — those are the joys I was missing for a quarter century. That’s the part that is most deserving of the superlative negative adjective. My Worst Food Moment, circa 1972-1997.


I wrote this post at the challenge of The Peche, as part of a fun little Pity Party on Twitter — never one to shy away from competition, especially when there are loads of other things to do. #Procrastination #WantingTheCookbooks

27 things I learned at my first food-blogging conference.

  1. If you realize the day before you pack for the conference that you only have two suitcase sizes — a smallish duffle and a suitcase normally used for packing your entire family for a week — make a TJMaxx-run to get a cheap mid-sized carry-on. “All the swag” can fit into your computer bag. And if it can’t, it’s not worth bringing home.
  2. When you read tweets that talk about saving room in your bag for “all the swag,” keep in mind that “room” and “all” are relative terms.
  3. Be prepared for the fact that being dropped off at the airport alone, for the first time in years, can be a bizarre, panic-inducing experience. Have a list of mantras ready to repeat to yourself, things like “stop looking for your children,” and “no, the guy at curbside check-in will most likely not intentionally lose your bag because you forgot to tip him.”
  4. Remember to never again use curbside check-in.
  5. Be thankful that your husband is amused, not annoyed, when you call him “just to talk” 10 minutes after he drops you off at the airport.
  6. Contain your disappointment when the food served at the food blogging conference is less than stellar.
  7. When mid-morning hits on the first day, and you are crashing from your breakfast of a soggy croissant and over-salted bacon, already over-stimulated by all the extroversion, realize it’s probably best to take a breather and find some protein before handling a sharp knife in front of a video camera.
  8. When being prepped to film your video of “How to Cut a Mango,” observe that the knives on set are much sharper than your neglected knives at home.
  9. Try not to utterly die of embarrassment when you cut yourself on set of the Mango Video. Be reassured when they tell you about “the magic of editing.”
  10. Be prepared for a moment when you offer your business card to someone and they don’t reach out to take it.
  11. Even still, keep offering your card to people. The vast majority will accept it with a handshake and a smile.
  12. Don’t be afraid to skip the late-night dinner run with all those fun people and hit the sack at 11pm.
  13. Be thankful for Tylenol PM.
  14. Next morning, be thankful for caffeine.
  15. Keep in mind that the madness only lasts 48 hours.
  16. Don’t be surprised when you actually learn things in your sessions.
  17. Avoid coveting every iPad you see.
  18. When you are no longer able to control yourself, and finally walk up to David Lebovitz and say, “I’m a really big fan,” don’t be surprised when he awkwardly looks down at his shoes as if to say, “Really? That’s the best you could come up with?”
  19. Try not to focus on the absurdity of a scene where you are standing next to David Lebovitz at the Bay’s English Muffins booth feeling conspicuously gluttonous as you wait for your feta-and-jam-topped muffin while David requests “only butter” to let “the flavor of the muffin” shine through.
  20. Remember that no one cares what you eat on your english muffin.
  21. Take and enjoy every opportunity to have a conversation with a new person.
  22. Buy the hotdog from the street food vendor at the Sweet Auburn Market, even though you’re not hungry. One bite will be worth the price.
  23. Submit to hugging people that you’ve only previously known online.
  24. Go to the party on the last night of the conference.
  25. When you see David Leite, of Leite’s Culinaria, dancing to Blondie like a man moved by external forces, put down your plate of food and join in. The opportunity will not likely present itself again.
  26. Listen.
  27. Don’t take it too seriously. At the end of the day, we all just write about food.

The one that was supposed to be about cultured cream cheese.

Last week was just one of those weeks, you know?

I was supposed to write about making yogurt cheese. I even took pictures of the process, in preparation for the post — but it just would never come out, it just felt tired and a bit meaningless.

Last week was hard in pragmatic ways. Tim left town for the week in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, and before his plane landed in Seattle I had taken my Little Man to the ER for stitches in his cute, pudgy ring finger, a toy box lid having closed like a door onto its tip, sheering off much of the fleshy pad. When it happened, my friend Emily had stopped by — just for a few minutes — to help me choose a paint color for our kitchen. Instead, within 10 minutes of being here, she found herself helping me try to stop the bleeding of a finger that my son would let no one touch, and watched me fade into a fog of disillusion over the realization that a bandaid was not going to fix it.

So she scooped up her two kids and my 2-year old, threw them all into her 8-seater, and coaxed me and the injured to the backseat. She then drove us (all the while, my son screaming) to the ER, dropped us off, took the rest of the kids to kill time at Trader Joe’s and a thrift store (appropriate, if you know Emily), and then came by to pick us up again after the lidocaine and stitches had been painfully administered (one friend asked if they had to velcro him to the bed, and I replied that no, I was the velcro — fun times).

That afternoon, without going into the comical (in a comedy of errors sense) details: in an effort to pick up two tickets to the Arcade Fire show I’d won in a twitter contest the night before, I managed to also pick up a $75 parking ticket in downtown Indy. That’s the kind of monetary scenario that keeps me up at night, replaying a movie screen of decisions and choices, of blame and cynicism, until all joy from the initial slate of victory is wiped clean.

All this, in just 7 hours. So Emily said, hey, come to my house tonight. We can grill burgers for the kids, and we’ll pour you wine, grill you a steak, and put some sauteed morels on top. At first, out of sheer exhaustion, I said I’d have to think about it, as all I wanted to do was put everyone in my house to bed and fall into a forgetful sleep. But then I asked myself what could be difficult about someone else cooking for my family while drinking wine and complaining to sympathetic adult ears about my horrendous day?

(And, of course, there were the morels. Something I’d never had before, but will most definitely have again, even if I never find out where Emily foraged for them and have to pay the going rate of $35 a pound. Morels, they are the subject of another post. They are, in a word, magical.)

The rest of the week held highs and lows (a high being the Arcade Fire show, which I attended with my existing purchased ticket, and also sold my two prize tickets for exactly $75 in a moment of nervous [perhaps-illegal?] deal-making that is also the subject of another post; a low being Little Man’s diagnosis with both strep throat and a double-ear infection on Thursday). But the thing that effectively sealed the lid on my ability to write about yogurt cheese was a single day of horrendously bad weather that slammed into the south late Wednesday.

It seems that everyone has a distant disaster with which they might especially resonate. While I feel for the victims of earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires, I have very little personal experience with them, so they feel other-worldly. With tornadoes, I know a thing or two. I grew up in tornado alley, where multiple times each spring and fall we found ourselves listening to sirens from the central hallway of our house, a mattress pulled over our bodies. When I was very small, we even had a full-blown tornado shelter embedded in our backyard, and when the threat was especially high we were carried through rain by our parents into the wet steel bunker.

In all those years under mattresses, I never once saw a tornado. One might hit the next town over, or hover in our area but never touch down. And it became tiresome, all that hiding from storms. But after spending a few days looking at images from Smithville, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, I now realize that hiding in a bathtub really does save people’s lives; but also that sometimes no matter where you hide, the tornado wins.

I look at those images, wondering what it must be like to be hunkered down in a closet, to hear a deafening roar for less than a minute, and then look up to find your house torn from around you. In mere seconds, an entire town is left in ruins.

It’s a bit mind-blowing. Simultaneously putting things in perspective (my week? I was losing sleep over a parking ticket?) and wondering how these people will manage to put lives back together. Of all our friends and family in the South, no one I know was hurt — but we know the places, and in a sense we do know the people there. They were the people that grew up all around me, they are the lives of small towns and college campuses.

I was reading this morning, about people going to Tuscaloosa, the town that suffered the most devastating death toll and damages, to offer help. One group went to a hard-hit area, and brought pancakes. Homemade pancakes, to offer to those who were cleaning up the remains of their lives. The reason being that they thought the folks could use some comfort food.

Pancakes. We might initially think that these people don’t need pancakes, they need clothes and shelter and bulldozers to scoop up what’s left of their entire lives — and that is true. But, in a moment that brought me full-circle back to the steak and morels offered to me after a difficult Tuesday, it seems to me an entirely appropriate thing to give. We can’t snap a finger and undo what was done; we can’t in one fell swoop repair so many devastated lives. But the offering of food, of something warm and made with caring hands, brought to a place where there isn’t much left of comfort, is much more than the calories or nourishment or fullness it provides. It is a recognition that we are all helpless, at times, that our humanity gives us that feeling to share. It’s about giving time to the preparation of a meal, and offering it to someone who can’t spare the effort. It’s about bearing one another’s burdens, even when the burden feels big enough to crush a community.

Now living in Indiana, I can’t be like my sister Angie, and collect a truckload of clothes and supplies at a local club and then drive it 45 minutes over to Smithville. But I can be like Emily, and offer a meal and glass of wine to a friend who’s had a (relatively) horrendous day.

Perhaps also, after making all these connections and getting my priorities and inconveniences back into some sort of adequate chart of relativity, get back to making yogurt cheese. Because thankfully, graciously, activities that mundane are the ones that most days are made of.