November 13, 2014 - No comment
Today is the day that a robot landed on a comet because a team of human beings did intense work calculating how to get it there, and then a million things went right, and then it did.
This is why I am not going to write a whole post about why I haven’t posted here in over a month. I got sick, I was busy, whatever—it’s not interesting and it profoundly does not matter in the scheme of things.
Here’s something that matters—last Friday, Jill and Shiv and I were dancing around in the back yard after dinner. It’s so dark so early these days, so Jill made a fire and the three of us were being loopy and goofy in that end-of-the-week sort of way. Somehow, we started to sing in faux opera style, which Shiv thought was great. He started interpretive dancing and asking for “more ooo-ooo music!” so we came inside and broke the Sabbath so that I could pull up a video of Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” with the New York Philharmonic circa 1980.
Our kid sat, enraptured, watching one of the greatest opera singers of all time sing one of the most beautiful arias of all time. When the video was over, without any prompting from us, he pushed the “play” button to watch it again. And again. And again. He sat in my lap, perfectly still (a rareity) and watched that video half-a-dozen times. I swear I could feel his soul grow.
It’s just so insane to me, the grace that brought this being into my life and that has entrusted me with his care. It’s crazy humbling and so much fun, watching him figure out who he is and what he wants from the world.
I am teaching Whitman right now, among other things, and I love him so much it makes me delirious. I’m sure my students think I am a madwoman, raving and pacing around the classroom about the brilliance of this old bearded dead dude. But he is one of the pole stars by which I have guided myself all these years, and to whom I hope my son will someday refer. His work is, for me, like a sacred text, words I can return to over and over again throughout my life, drawing more meaning with each reading.
“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
We read these lines now and they feel so conventional to us, so expected and cliché that it’s difficult to convey fully the truly radical nature of Whitman’s thought within his time. When Leaves of Grass was first published, reviewers called it “vile” and suggested that the author of such work ought to be flogged in the streets; that is how offensive his notions of equality, of egalitarianism, of the importance of the body in all of its functions, of the beauty of the ordinary day, moment, experience.
A new and unexpected friendship, a student who takes the poetry-writing assignment seriously when you totally thought he wouldn’t, the generosity and graciousness of strangers, a little boy who calls you “Mama” when it still sometimes catches your breath that anyone does.
No shortage of things to be thankful for here.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH CARBONARA
barely adapted from Bon Appetit
I made this a few weeks ago and only have the one iPhone picture to show for it, but man it was good. Much as I love pasta with tomato sauce, it’s nice to take a break from that and do something different. Shiv is pretty well obsessed with “noo noos” (noodles), so every other week or so, I try to give the people what they want.
There are a handful of steps here, but none of them are hard. I was able to pull this together on a weeknight whil Jill was teaching a class and it was just me & Shiv home, so that speaks well for its doability. Also, if you want to plan ahead, you can make the butternut squash puree ahead of time—it should keep in the fridge for a few days.
Because we had about a half a container of baby greens wilting in the fridge, I folded them in at the end of the cooking process (right after taking the picture above) and they added both a nice color contrast as well as a note of bitter to play against the sweetness of the squash. I’d do it again.
4 oz. pancetta, chopped
small handful fresh sage leaves, whole
3 cups peeled, seeded, & cubed butternut squash (half inch cubes or somewhere thereabouts)*
1 small onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 cups chicken broth
1 lb. pasta of your choice—I used pappardelle; original recipe calls for fettucine or linguine
salt & pepper
to serve: Pecorino or Parmesan or the hard, salty cheese of your choice
Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the pancetta until it is crisp, stirring occasionally. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a small bowl. Add more oil to the skillet if needed and quick-fry the sage leaves for just a minute or two until they are crisp, then transfer to the same bowl as the pancetta.
In the same skillet that you just cooked the pancetta & sage in (delicious flavor in there!), cook the squash, onion, and garlic over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the onion is translucent, then add the broth. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer until the squash is soft and the liquid has reduced considerably, about 15-20 minutes.
Allow the squash to cool a bit, then use an immersion blender to blend until smooth. (Alternately, you can transfer to a conventional blender, but if you do this, you will need to let the squash cool a bit longer first.) Taste and season the mixture with salt & pepper.
Cook your pasta until al dente—you will be cooking it a bit more in the next step, so don’t over-cook it now! Drain the pasta and reserve about a half cup of cooking liquid. In the same old big skillet, combine the pasta, squash puree, and ¼ cup of the cooking liquid and cook over medium heat, tossing everything around until the sauce coats the pasta. (Add more cooking liquid as needed to thin the sauce.) This step should only take a few minutes.
Remove from heat and crumbled the pancetta and sage over the skillet, plus a generous amount of cheese!
*I usually advocate saving money & prepping your own vegetables, but butternut squash is the exception; those things are a damn pain to peel & break down. I am a big fan of the Costco pack of prepped squash!
I swear I have been writing, y’all, just not around here.
Here are two new pieces, if you’re interested in checking them out:
My Non-Christian Best Friend [Christianity Today’s Her.Meneutics Page]
I have also been thinking about atonement: ‘tis the season. Because both Hinduism and Judaism use a modified lunar calendar, our holidays tend to align, which is how I found myself at school last week, fasting for my holiday (Navratri) on the same day that our school community prepared for the observance of Yom Kippur, also a fasting holiday.
If you didn’t grow up inside of a tradition that includes fasting, the practice may well seem strange, absurd, and out-dated. And I get that; it’s an odd thing, in this very comfortable, twenty-first century life full of glossy magazines and hyper-documented eating, to tell someone that you’re not eating, on purpose, for no other reason than that your ancient religious tradition tells you to.
Of course, that’s not actually the only reason. All of us, even the most devout among us, pick and choose our practice to some extent; I mean, I eat beef but I still call myself a Hindu. Why fast, then, when it is so inconvenient, so disruptive, so uncomfortable?
Because that’s exactly what I need: interruption, inconvenience, to spend a little time feeling uncomfortable. Not only is it a reminder of what a terrible luxury it is to be able to abstain from food out of choice (and not due to, say, lack of access or money), but also it is a reminder of my very human, human nature. I am greedy, vain, and proud; I spend most days walking around the world as a bundle of wants, fulfilling one desire after the next. All too often, I let my body lead, making choices that satisfy in the moment, but not long term. I forget to care for my other components: body, mind, heart. More importantly, and more damagingly, I fail to minister to those components in others.
That is why I fast—as a reminder. Of my own frailty, my own failings, not to wallow in guilt and regret but to renew my desire to do better, to stay focused, to live with intention. And, as always, to never take for granted the astounding grace that allows me to live this life, for whatever time I may have.
Last week, as I stood around inside a period of reflection and abstention, and my Jewish students and colleagues prepared to enter the same space, we joined together in the Avinu Malkeinu, the traditional Hebrew prayer of repentance. But instead of reciting the words, our Head of School invited us to stand, close our eyes, and sing out just the melody, a capella, as a congregation.
It was one of those moments that the description of which will never do justice—an accumulation of meaning and feeling , a palpable presence of the sacred—it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
That same day, before I broke my fast with my family, we sang our traditional hymns in Sanskrit, words that Shiv is beginning to try and mimic, the ones that I hope will help build his sense of the sacred. And when he is old enough—eleven or twelve, say—I hope that he will choose to fast along with me, to make time for the inconvenient and the uncomfortable, and the gifts that they bring.
I was ready for apples. After my annual voluptuous romp with summertime fruit, I find myself wanting a bit more restraint, a bit of regularity, some dependable but not overwhelming sweetness. Enter: apple season. Apples are delicious, relatively cheap, and travel well in the bottom of my purse, the latter of which is basically my #1 criteria for snackability. If among fall taste preferences, there’s an apple camp and a pumpkin camp, I am firmly in the apple camp. APPLES FOREVER.
Also turns out that I love making things with apples, too. Behold this whole host of recipes from the archives:
Plus, these bonus recipes from around the internet that I made & enjoyed but failed to photograph:
Teddie’s apple cake, as adapted by my friend Jess* [Sweet Amandine]
*I have made this several times, most recently for Rosh Hashanah a few weeks ago, and it takes well to a little futzing. This last time, I swapped the cinnamon for ground cardamom, stirred in some rum along with the vanilla, and played with the flours—a little buckwheat did something really nice to the already nutty flavor. The cake was equally good as dessert, with some whipped cream, as it was for breakfast, with a smear of cream cheese or apple butter.
Do you have a favorite, go-to apple recipe? Please share it! I plan to be baking apple things for many more months to come.
Several months ago, Saveur Magazine (to which I am a subscriber and of which I am generally a big fan) tweeted about vada pav, linking to a recipe and calling the sandwich “Mumbai’s answer to the hamburger.”
I took issue.
One culture’s dish is not necessarily an “answer to” another, and to imply so betrays bias—in this case, a Western one. To say that a vada pav is “like” a hamburger–or, more accurately, a veggie burger–would make sense as far as providing useful context for your audience. But the language “answer to” implies that Indians developed vada pav in imitation of the hamburger, which is ridiculous; we’re talking about a country with one of the richest food traditions of all time, built through the process of repeated foreign invasions and the influence of vastly diverse cultures, none of which give a shit about American hamburgers.
But it’s just wording, you might be saying. Why get so angry over semantics?
Because semantics matter. Because semantics are about more than just semantics. I’m certain that whomever at Saveur (a food publication that usually tends to be much more sensitive than some of its peers about positionality and exoticizing and assuming audience) tweeted that seemingly innocuous comparison, they were not thinking about any of the implications that later got hashed out on Twitter after I responded to the tweet and my response caught the attention of folks in the Houston food community and beyond. That’s my point, though; they didn’t think.
It’s easy not to think about these things when they don’t affect you. It’s easy to say, “Oh, it’s not that big a deal!” when the language in question is not reductive of you or your people. It’s easy to think that someone’s just making a fuss when you aren’t the one feeling dismissed or discounted.
I’m an English teacher and a writer, so of course I believe that our words matter; but I’m not the only one. Nearly every religious tradition the world has ever known invokes the power of language: in their creation myths (think of “In the beginning was the Word”), in their ritual (Hindus & Buddhists, among others, utilize mantras), and in their practices (many Jews will not write out God’s name, out of respect for the power that it wields).
Shiv, who turned two in July, has exploded with language in the last month or so. It’s been incredible to watch, a marvel really, how quickly his brain acquires and connects and makes meaning. I am reminded of the Old Testament scene from Genesis, where God gives Adam the authority to name the creatures; as my son walks and names what he sees, it is almost as if he grants things their very being. His world comes to life through his speaking, and he relates to that world in a completely different way now that he can speak about it.
They say that one reason for “baby amnesia,” the fact that most of us have little-to-no memory before the age of two or three, is also related to language; without language, the structure through which humans make meaning of their surroundings, we are unable to record our experiences.
Speech carries great weight—we’ve all experienced this in our own lives. Just a few words, the “right” ones or the “wrong” ones, can stick with us forever, can cause us to shut down or open up, to decide in an instant to change our life’s path or join our life with someone else’s.
So yeah, it matters to me when our culture casually perpetuates sloppy, harmful language, reinforcing dangerous forms of “normality” and turning a blind eye to stuff that really matters. Would we care about “domestic” violence more if we simply referred to it as violence? Why am I a “lesbian writer,” when all of my straight friends are just writers? How is it okay call Shiv my “adopted son,” but would be weird if I talked to a colleague about his “conceived-by-IVF daughter”?
The good news is, I’ve found, most folks—at least the ones I’m lucky to know—are willing to engage with another perspective, to look and see if something they’ve said might have a host of implications they hadn’t considered. We’re all guilty of it, myself included.
It’s easy not to think about these things. That’s why it’s so important that we do.
MY MOM’S PAV BHAJI
I’ve never been that big of a fan of vada pav, but pav bhaji–that’s a different story. More vegetarian sloppy joe than hamburger, pav bhaji is a delicious, delicious comfort food that works perfectly for colder weather months and is one of those meals you can make mostly ahead/eat throughout the week.
My most distinct memory of this meal is working at the kitchen table in my parents’ house growing up (the table where I sit right now, in fact, as we inherited it from my mom when she moved here) on weekend afternoons. During junior and senior year, when I was working my butt off on Calculus and college applications and my World History II term paper and Physics and Mock Trial, my mom would deliver chai and pav bhaji to the table; I could eat & drink with one hand, and keep working with the other.
Because my mom is basically the best (as is clearly demonstrated by the story above and about a zillion others), she took the time to measure out the ingredients and write down the method for her pav bhaji recipe, a thing so rare that we should consider it a great gift indeed. And just as delicious as I remember from high school.
one large red onion, diced
1 T finely minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
half a head of cauliflower, cut or broken into 1-inch pieces
4 large, ripe tomatoes, diced (substitute 14 oz. can of diced potatoes)
2 medium-sized Russet potatoes, peeled & diced
1 cup cubed fresh carrots
1 cup frozen peas
¼ cup butter
2 T canola oil
small pinch asafetida
generous pinch ground turmeric
2 T pav bhaji masala (mix is available for purchase at Indian grocery stores, or you can make your own)
salt, to taste
Place potato and cauliflower in a pot with enough water to cover. Add cubed carrots and bring the vegetables to a boil, cooking until potatoes are tender. Mash vegetables gently with a potato masher, not to a pulp but in order to create a “sloppy joe” kind of texture. Do not discard the leftover water.
In a separate, heavy-bottomed pan, add butter and oil and head over medium. Once hot, add asafetida and turmeric—they should sizzle. Immediately add onions, garlic, and ginger, and sauté until the onions have browned slightly. Next add the tomatoes and pav bhaji masala; cover the pot and allow the mixture to simmer for 3-5 minutes. Add the mashed vegetables and any accumulated liquid, along with frozen peas and salt to taste.
Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring regularly to make sure that the mixture does not stick to the bottom. Continue to cook until all water is evaporated and the mixture is thick. Stir in half the cilantro and garnish with the rest.
sliced sweet onion
bread of your choice—soft rolls or hamburger buns are traditional
pav bhaji masala
When ready to eat, melt a little butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add a pinch of the pav bhaji and swirl the pan, then toast your bread in the pan, flipping to season both sides. Repeat as needed.
Pile the pav bhaji mixture onto the bread to eat as sandwiches, or use the bread for dipping. Squeeze lime on top of everything and enjoy bites of onion in between bites of bhaji. Best enjoyed with a proper cup of chai.
I’ve got a cat in my lap, very insistently settled, as she has been on each of the nights since school started that I’ve been up late, working (there have been quite a few). She’s “helping” me.
I’ve got this Instagram picture of some oatmeal, which isn’t really up to regular blogging standards, but it’s been over a month since I’ve posted a recipe, and this one is a winner, humble though it may be to look at.
I’ve got a kid who, as of last week, sleeps in a big boy bed, speaks in three-word sentences, and remembers EVERYTHING in this way that is both freaky and totally endearing.
I’ve got a pack of new students—most of whom are not in fact “new,” but instead, kids I’ve taught before, some of them twice, and now I get to see what they look like as starter adults, and it’s a pretty amazing vantage point, I tell you what.
Living and working on a school calendar means that September always seems to be a “taking stock” month for me—I can’t help but plan out my personal bits and pieces while I’m planning out curriculum, too. I ask my students to write mission statements for themselves; I write one, too. Blank squares on calendar months become etched with pencil, then crossed off in pen.
These almost-fall days (at least that’s what we have down here; my friends in Canada posted the first snow pictures today!, which felt incomprehensible in my mosquito-ridden reality) are prone to over-filling. We do too much, we schedule too much, we take on too much, and everything becomes a blur and before you know it, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s.
So I did this radical-for-me thing a few weeks ago. I decided not to throw a Diwali party.
One of the most difficult things for me to accept about living a balanced, grown-up life is that it’s not the saying no to things you don’t really want to do that’s hard; once you disabuse yourself of the notion of needing to please others or trying to be someone that you’re not, saying no to that stuff gets easy. What’s much tougher for me to swallow is that I’m going to have to say “no” to things that I actually really want to do.
Those of you who’ve been around this blog and/or my life for the last several years know that Diwali is a big deal for me; it’s my thing, my family’s tradition. I started throwing the parties after my dad died in 2006, and I’ve relished the planning, the cooking, the fellowship between friends from disparate groups in our lives, and the sacrament of sharing my culture with others. I love it.
But I’m not going to do it this year. We have a full fall calendar of close friends’ weddings, and though I could fit in an event, I know it would max out my financial, emotional, and temporal resources—all areas where I’m really trying to stay focused. So I’m breaking with tradition and ignoring the “supposed to” voice in my head, and instead choosing what I know is healthiest for me. A CRAZY NOTION, I TELL YOU.
I felt relief immediately after I shared my decision with mom and Jill (who had both been pulling for the side of sanity all along). I keep waiting for the regret, but so far, all quiet on that front. Actually, I feel proud of myself—really proud and not a little bit surprised that I’ve actually managed to stick by my values and priorities, a task made easier by the incredible friends who support me in these kinds of conversations every day (I’m looking at you especially, my Courtneys) and remind me that my identity is bigger than the parties I throw or the things I write or the food I cook.
Sometimes, saying “no” is the most powerful affirmation there is.
GOLD STANDARD OATMEAL
slightly adapted from Megan Gordon by way of The Faux Martha
This recipe is crazy simple but totally a game-changer in terms of method; the oats retain their shape instead of devolving into mush. The texture is IDEAL for someone like me who still has issues with pudding, and toasting the oats before adding the liquid, and adding salt (don’t skip this!) means that your oatmeal actually tastes like something, not just what you dump on top of it.
Shiv and I both love ours with toasted nuts (sliced almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, you name it) & a dash of maple syrup, and I splash in some extra milk in his to cool the whole thing down. This oatmeal is also a great place to sprinkle hemp, flax, and/or chia seeds; you can use cinnamon or other spices, but I don’t find that the oatmeal needs it. Butter is the best flavor of all, y’all!
1 ½ T butter
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
generous pinch of sea salt
1 cup liquid (3 parts water to 1 part milk, i.e. ¾ cup water & ¼ cup milk)
In a wide, shallow skillet (make sure it’s one that has a lid!), melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the oats, the pinch of salt, and toss to coat in the melted butter. Stir regularly for at least 5 minutes while the oats toast, until you see a slight color change and smell a distinctly nutty aroma.
All at once, pour in the liquid; the mixture should immediately begin to boil. Remove the skillet from heat, cover with the lid, and leave it alone for 8-10 minutes.
When you’re ready, serve with the toppings of your choice.