August 4, 2016 - No comment
It’s the last few days before school starts back up—in-service, at least—which means my brain is ceding territory that has, up to this point, been reserved for the book project I’ve been lucky enough to spend the summer working on. In creeps thoughts of the classes I’ll be teaching this year, how I want to structure and improve them, new approaches I want to try, goals for myself and my students. Because I am someone who thinks in academic calendar years (2016-2017), this is a season of scheduling, making sure all of the dates are written down and cross-posted, birthdays and play dates and travel dates accounted for.
This is preparatory time, and that extends to food, too; things are about to get really busy around here, and I know myself well enough to know that it makes a huge difference in my sanity and overall health to have easy, appealing options in the fridge, ready to go. (And conversely, *not* to have certain other things around that I am not-so-great at resisting, particularly when I am in a rush or stressed.)
Hence this humble little lentil salad. My mom served it to me a few weeks ago, and I immediately asked for the recipe—it couldn’t be simpler, but is definitely more than the sum of its parts and keeps beautifully in the fridge. I love pairing it with muhammara dip, another current fridge staple, some cheese and crudités for a light lunch. There’s a recipe for muhammara on this blog, but these days I’ve been using Heidi Swanson’s recipe over at 101 Cookbooks, with a few tweaks. First, I add an onion in along with the red peppers—I love the sweetness it brings. Second, instead of roasting the peppers, as Heidi suggests, or leaving them raw, as my old recipe calls for, I cut them (and the onion) up into chunks, drizzle them with olive oil, and place them under a low broiler until they become blackened in places. This way you get char and softness without having to spend a lot of time prepping or heating up your oven. If you have a gas stove, you could certainly char the veggies over one of your burners instead.
Another thing I’ve been doing, inspired by Heidi, is making fresh turmeric-infused honey to keep on hand for sweetening teas, both cold and iced. I grate fresh turmeric with a microplane into a mortar filled with local honey, add a few cracks of black pepper and a generous pinch of cardamom, then bash it all together. It’s a really delicious, different flavor profile, and since turmeric has been touted forever by my people as a treatment for inflammation, I figure it can’t hurt.
Other recipes I wanted to share—and I realize we are getting into “hodgepodge post” territory now—were a few of the things I made for Shiv’s birthday party in July that were super well-received:
-Boozy Arnold Palmers, which I made using this Serious Eats recipe. Seriously worth what may seem like extra-fussy steps, and actually very easy to do for a party because you prep it all ahead of time. I doubled the recipe as written here, then added 2 cups of bourbon. Yeehaw! I could have easily made more than I did, because it disappeared *fast*. It bears mentioning here that I trust Serious Eats recipes to be well-tested and reliably delicious, which is why I went for this one. We also have this pepperoni pizza currently on heavy rotation. Even with store-bought sauce, it tastes like the roller-skating rink pizza of my nostalgic childhood dreams.
-Watermelon aguas frescas, for the kiddos (and also non-imbibing grownups). I did this last year, and it couldn’t be easier: you process big chunks of watermelon in the blender, adding some lime juice and simple syrup to taste. Strain to remove any seeds, DONE. You can make this ahead of time, too, just know you’ll need to shake/stir the liquid before serving.
–Lemon-glazed madeleines! Shiv has long favored this cookie, and is also fond of the children’s book character of similar name (“To the tiger in the zoo, Madeline just said ‘Pooh-pooh.’”) If you read too many madeleine recipes on the internet, you’ll scare yourself into thinking you can’t pull them off, but thanks to the encouragement of Stella Parks, who is probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered on Twitter and a fountain of pastry chef knowledge, I talked myself into tackling them. Shiv helped—cracking the eggs and learning to fold gently, gently—and, even with the chaos of party day, our madeleines came out just fine. Now that I know that they aren’t the bogey-man everyone says, I plan on trying other versions, like maybe a pistachio and also a chocolate? Just know that you need a little lead time to freeze your molds and chill your batter so that your cookies will puff prettily. They’re best eaten the same day, and that wasn’t a problem for us—ours disappeared so quickly that there wasn’t a single one leftover.
SUMMER LENTIL SALAD
2 quarts water, chicken stock, or vegetable broth
2 cups green lentils
1/2 cup finely diced celery
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
1/3 cup Balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup white vinegar (or substitute red wine vinegar)
1/4 cup olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste
Combine lentils and liquid; bring to a boil. Cook until the lentils are tender; drain. While the lentils are cooking, combine the onions, celery, & wet ingredients in a large (non-metal) bowl. Add the lentils and toss to combine. Taste & add salt + pepper as desired.
Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving; the salad will become more flavorful over time.
Thursday morning. Jill left the house early for a few days of work and work-related travel; Shiv, who seems to be in some sort of extended toddler/teenager growth spurt, was sleeping in—past 8:00 am, even. Normally, this would be a boon to me, time to get writing done in a quiet house, except: the news. The heart-rending, live-videoed, goddamn-not-again news.
It’s the most fucked up sense of deja vu, to feel like we’ve done this all before. There’s even a procedure: I obsessively follow Twitter, sign out of Facebook before I say something I’ll regret, follow links and re-tweet and weep because I let myself forget again; I let myself settle comfortably back into a life that doesn’t have to confront the world’s brokenness every day.
On my 32nd birthday, Jill & I came home from dinner to discover that a grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown. About a week after that, a grand jury in New York decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner. On my 33rd birthday, Chicago PD released the dash-cam video of seventeen year-old Laquan McDonald being shot sixteen times. On December 28th of this past year, the first day of Winter Break that I had set aside to work on my book proposal, a grand jury in Ohio decided not to indict the officer who killed twelve year-old Tamir Rice, round-faced and big for his age, like my son, whose growth percentiles are currently listed at “ > 99%.”
I like to think that, were I not Shiv’s parent, I would still be outraged, paying attention, learning, reading, altering my perceptions and perspective, listening to people who know much better than I do about what it’s like—what it’s been like and continues to be like—to be Black in America. I like to think that, but I can’t guarantee it.
It’s a futile thought experiment, in any case; not only is it impossible to separate who I am now with the fact of my son’s existence, and his Blackness, it would only be an attempt to redeem my hypothetical self, which serves nothing but my own ego. I am not going to be useful to him if I’m busy trying to look good. There is way too much at stake.
He doesn’t know yet. I am writing this at what I feel fairly certain is the end of his unawareness of the Truth About Things; he turns four in nine days and it’s coming. He will see something, or hear something, or experience something, and he will ask. He’s done it already with death and how babies get made, and it seemed right to follow his lead on those particular topics. This, this feels like something else altogether—because it isn’t some necessary “fact of life,” but rather a fact of life as we know it. As we have made it.
There’s been no colorblindness about his upbringing; we have no patience for that bullshit. Not to mention, kids figure it out on their own, regardless of whatever pasty Kumbaya diet you feed them. As soon as he could talk, Shiv began noting the different shades of members of his family, characters in books, strangers out in the world, often gravitating toward people who looked like him. Jill had a tennis match on a few weeks ago (she’s a rabid Serena fan, or worshipper, I should say) and it was Shiv’s first time watching the game. It’s not a simple game to explain to an almost four year-old, but when it came down to it, he really just wanted to know one thing: “Did the Black one win?” But oh no, kids definitely don’t see color!
Race is one thing. I’m not at all sure how to talk to a four-year-old about racism. But I know that I’ll have to. Neither Jill nor I believe in sugar-coating the truth; we don’t use euphemisms for body parts, and we won’t allow our own dread to dictate the terms of our conversations with him. To do so would not serve or honor him. We will do what we do what we try to do in all aspects of our parenting; we will tell him the truth, in whatever way we can figure out how to say it aloud, to his face. He has to hear it from us, and that fucking breaks my heart.
My heart breaks not only for my boy, but for all of the boys, and girls, for the parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and siblings who have to talk them through the truth that many of us are able to spend our lives avoiding. For the terror that people are living through. For the children who’ve lost parents. For the parents who’ve lost children. For all of us; those of us who believe this is not about us, and those of us who do.
For some time now, I have turned to listing “What I Know For Certain” as a source of comfort and healing. It was a tactic I first used after my father died, back when grief felt personal and specific, but it still works. Only now, the list is a lot shorter than it used to be. And basically everything on it is restating one thing: love. Love is all I know for certain.
I love all of the people I know (and some people I only know via the screen) who send messages of powerful solidarity, who use their privilege for good, who are asking all of the right questions, who read, who are smart, who want to be better, who make me better. I love my mom, who is as tough as she is generous, who isn’t on any social media but uses the internet to great effect and is proof that you can be almost seventy, always learning, and willing to break your worldview wide open. I love my friends Lisa & Christian, who invited me and Shiv out to the farm on Thursday, in case we wanted to “pet goats and be with people.” Why yes, yes we did.
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old, for hope must not depend on feeling good and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight. You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality of the future, which surely will surprise us, and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction any more than by wishing. But stop dithering. The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them? Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded, the streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope then to belong to your place by your own knowledge of what it is that no other place is, and by your caring for it as you care for no other place, this place that you belong to though it is not yours, for it was from the beginning and will be to the end.
Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor, who comes like a heron to fish in the creek, and the fish in the creek, and the heron who manlike fishes for the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing in the trees in the silence of the fisherman and the heron, and the trees that keep the land they stand upon as we too must keep it, or die.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land and your work. Answer with knowledge of the others who are here and how to be here with them. By this knowledge make the sense you need to make. By it stand in the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.
Speak to your fellow humans as your place has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you. Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it before they had heard a radio. Speak publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.
Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up from the pages of books and from your own heart. Be still and listen to the voices that belong to the streambanks and the trees and the open fields. There are songs and sayings that belong to this place, by which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet. Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls freely upon it after the darkness of the nights and the darkness of our ignorance and madness. Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you, which is the light of imagination. By it you see the likeness of people in other places to yourself in your place. It lights invariably the need for care toward other people, other creatures, in other places as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
No place at last is better than the world. The world is no better than its places. Its places at last are no better than their people while their people continue in them. When the people make dark the light within them, the world darkens.
-Wendell Berry, “2007, VI”
This season is not everyone’s favorite, I know—for many parents, it is a logistical and financial nightmare; for some students, it is a desert of uncertainty between the reliable if not necessarily beloved schedule of school. And for many of you, I know, it is just like any other time of year, only hotter.
Of course, I can’t pretend that, for me, the summer isn’t a very distinct time of year; I’m a teacher. Summer, while not so structurally helpful for the continuity of learning, is personally restorative for both faculty and students. It’s also a time period so mythologized in our culture—summer camp, summer vacation, summer road trips, summer romance—that it’s accompanied by the sheen of great expectations.
For me, this summer feels like an especially big one. There are no major vacations planned, no summer bucket list, no house projects, not even very many plans to leave the house. I’m being a little bit of a hermit this summer, but that’s because there is a new book to write.
Though my priority is to remain focused on the task at hand and take full advantage of the glorious, spoiling time I’ve been given this summer, I am trying to weave a few things into the hours that bookend work time. Sitting in the backyard with Jill, watching the purple martins fly in the darkening sky. Dance parties in the kitchen with Shiv before bedtime. Dinner with just-graduated students who have seamlessly transitioned to the friends I knew they’d be all along. Reading, reading, reading. And spending time with my mom in her kitchen, watching and taking notes. Shiv’s learning from her, too.
VEENA’S GARDEN TOMATO CHUTNEY
My mom got Jill into growing flowers, and Jill got my mom into growing vegetables. They are both instinctive, obsessive gardeners; whenever they talk about plants, it’s like observing a conversation in a foreign language. I just sit and marvel.
All of which means that mom grew the tomatoes and the curry leaves that she used to make this chutney. Jill & I liked the first batch so much (and consumed it so fast) that I asked mom to let me watch her make the second batch. For my benefit and the benefit of this blog, she kinda-sorta measured things, but as she would say, just go with it. You can’t screw this up.
Soak 1 T washed chana dal & 1 tsp. washed urad dal in a little bit of water for approximately 1 hour.
Make your vagar: heat 1 T canola oil over medium/medium high heat until it’s just beginning to shimmer. Add a pinch of asafetida & 1/2 tsp. mustard seeds—you want to hear the seeds pop; that’s how you know you got the oil hot enough. (If not, throw it all out and start again.)
Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the strained daals, along with a small, fresh chile pepper of your choice (my mom grows Thai bird chilies in her backyard, so that’s what she used). Cook the water off for just about one minute before adding: 1 T peeled & rough-chopped ginger, about 12-15 small curry leaves, approximately 2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, & half of a large carrot, peeled and cut into chunks.
Stir everything together, add a bit of water to help soften the vegetables, then cover the pot. Cook for 10-15 minutes or until the carrot pieces are soft and the tomatoes have opened. Add 1 tsp. tamarind paste plus 1/2 tsp. each ground coriander and cumin, and process everything in the blender until it’s reached your desired consistency, adding water if needed. Salt to taste.
Will keep in a jar in the fridge for weeks, although at my house it doesn’t usually last longer than one or two!
You were right about the peanut butter, Court. Now that I’ve made my own, I’m never going back.
Now we can add “homemade peanut butter” to a list of ways you’ve made my life better for the fifteen-plus years since we became friends as the two least-naturally-mathematically-gifted students in Mrs. Stemmler’s AP Calculus class. Though we’d gone to school together since middle school, it wasn’t until senior year that we saw the inside of each other’s houses for the first time, conducting epic study sessions fueled by plenty of Diet Coke. We worked our asses off that year and got to know each other better in the process; then we made 4s on the AP, and you’ve been one of the most important people in my life ever since.
I wish everyone could see you the way that I do, which is I guess why I’m writing this. What everyone surely sees, because it is impossible to miss, is how stunningly beautiful you are, a beauty enhanced by your humility and deep inner goodness. But what I have been privileged to see and come to know about you is how rigorously you carry yourself, the richness of your inner life, your faith, your desire to learn continually and grow your heart. Your passion for teaching and desire for justice, your willingness to be uncomfortable and listen to views that contradict yours—you cultivate these traits with such deliberateness and carry them with such grace.
Would that everyone be as lucky as I am to have someone like you, who listens to me without judgment and so consistently offers me your love, compassion, honesty, and respect. You have cheered me through every victory of the past fifteen years of my life, prayed with me through every worry, soothed my panic with on-the-fly parenting advice, and inspired me regularly by your example. You also once made me go to two spin classes in the same day and can run a faster mile when you’re five months pregnant than I can on my best day. That all might be annoying except that you manage to stay super down-to-earth, the kind of woman who brings a six-pack to dinner and plops onto the grass in ripped jeans.
We don’t have a lot of occasions, culturally, to celebrate our friendships the way we do our other relationships, and that’s a shame, because if we’re lucky, our friends serve as our witnesses and our teachers, collectors of past memories and cheerleaders for what’s to come. Having known us for so long, they can appreciate who we’ve become in a way that we sometimes ourselves miss. And it’s worth honoring, I think, the work that we do to maintain these friendships – letters and emails and text messages and plane flights and the rare opportunity to get drinks together, sans children, scheduled-ridiculously-far-in-advance.
Court, there’s a reason that The Eagles’ song “The Long Run” always makes me think of you. Because all the debutantes in Houston—or anywhere else, for that matter—really couldn’t hold a candle to you. I love you & I’m so grateful for your presence in my life. And also for peanut butter.
HOMEMADE PEANUT BUTTER
If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s so stupid-easy that I almost couldn’t believe it. This post from Green Kitchen Stories breaks it all down for you, but the shorthand of it is that I used my food processor, roasted peanuts from the bulk bin, and a little bit of salt. It took me about ten minutes, and the resultant PB has stayed creamy for over a week in the fridge—no separation, no hard-as-a-rock texture. Basically a revelation. I recommend it.
While I’m making recommendations, allow me to point your attention to this strawberry ginger punch from a few years back; made it recently with gin, and it was very well received. Perfect for your Memorial Day Weekend, perhaps? And while you’re buying basil for the punch, go ahead and make some of these lemon-lime basil shortbread cookies, too. You’re welcome.