June 21, 2016 - No comment
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.
This little piece of the internet turned seven today. Kids, man, they grow up so fast!
It’s so humbling for me to think about all of the things that have resulted from this blog, which I started at the urging of friends and family who thought it would be a great outlet for me as a writer; I was two years out of my MFA program and two years into teaching middle school English and I hadn’t been writing much beyond lesson plans. That break was necessary in some ways, I think—it was also a period of mourning for my dad, who died in the middle of my two years of graduate school—but I don’t do very well when I’m not writing. I don’t feel like myself.
This blog became a way for me to return to writing on my own terms, to puzzle out my voice and audience, and to wed myself to a regular writing commitment. Little did I know that, through this outlet, I would also meet people who would become close friends in real life, connect with a whole community of amazing online readers, finish my first book, and start working on another.
Though this space has evolved over the last seven years in tone, approach, and even content, the core of it remains the same—an extension of me. It’s changed as I’ve changed, and I feel so lucky that those of you out there reading have been willing to go along for the ride.
To celebrate, I’ve got a drink for you…I mean, have I got a drink for you. My friend Greg introduced me to this one, a riff on a drink they serve at Lucy’s Fried Chicken in Austin. The original calls for rum and Domaine de Canton; Greg used bourbon and homemade ginger liqueur instead—the results are ridiculously drinkable and so, so gingery. I served these to Jill & our dear friend Courtney, who’s visiting us right now, and they both quickly asked for seconds. As you can see, I subbed in whisky from South Carolina for the bourbon, since Courtney had just gifted us a bottle and this seemed like the perfect reason to open it! Therefore, Courtney is also responsible for coming up with a name for this cocktail, stolen from what she claims “just might be the best Willie Nelson song ever.”
THE RED HEADED STRANGER
Originally, I wasn’t planning to make my own homemade ginger liqueur, because that just sounds like something a crazy person does—sorry, Greg—but it turns out that the whole process only takes a few days, unlike other infusions, saves you a fair amount of money (as opposed to buying Canton outright), and yields an incredibly delicious end product that I plan to use in all kinds of drinks all summer. In short, I recommend doing it, unless you already have a fancy bottle of Domaine de Canton on hand.
2 parts bourbon
2 parts ginger liqueur
1 part simple syrup*
1 part lime juice
ginger ale or ginger beer (we used the latter and it added extra ginger spiciness)
lime wheels, to garnish
Combine the above ingredients in a shaker over ice and shake vigorously, to cool everything down. Pour into a pint glass or tall water glass (strain if you’re feeling fancy) and top with ginger ale/beer. Garnish with a lime wheel and enjoy!
*I used the leftover orange syrup from this dessert, which really complemented the flavors of the ginger liqueur.
I forgot to remember from last year, what it feels like when my seniors are about to leave. Probably I forgot on purpose, the kind of amnesia that allows you to do something hard all over again a second time, and then sign up to do it a third. As Michael Pollan discusses in The Botany of Desire, which I just finished this weekend and highly recommend, pain is difficult for us humans to remember. We hold on to vague generalities, but dispense with specific, excruciating sensations, yielding a system that “help[s] us endure (and selectively forget) the routine slings and arrows of life.”
Some forgetting is necessary—that’s clear. Were we to keep impeccable records about every painful experience from the past, we might opt out of human life altogether and disappear never to be heard from again. (And we probably all know at least one person who’s done the metaphorical equivalent, keeping themselves at an emotional arm’s length so as not to have to relive a painful past.) But there is something to be said for selective remembering, or maybe reminding; in a very different but also highly recommended book, Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about the quarterly events her church—the House For All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado—holds for new members of their community:
I am always the last to speak at these events. I tell them that…I have learned something by belonging to two polar-opposite communities…and I wanted them to hear me: This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.
Let’s add third voice to this conversation: the Buddha’s. I’ve been teaching about Buddhism the past two weeks, super-conveniently I might add (fellow teachers, isn’t it amazing how often we end up teaching exactly what we ourselves need to hear?). At the core of the Buddha’s teachings is the assertion that it is not in the nature of impermanent things (which we are naturally surrounded by—humans, animals, relationships, objects, feelings are all impermanent) to cause permanent happiness. This is logical; we know this. We know that things will change, that nothing lasts forever, that our bodies will age and die, that we’ll lose stuff, that we’ll break stuff, that we’ll hurt other people and other people will hurt us. But, as the Buddha points out, we often expect impermanent things to lead us to permanent happiness. And that’s just not how it works.
I’m as guilty as anyone—I forget. For the first two weeks of April I was SO READY to say goodbye to the senior class, and believe me, they seemed plenty ready to leave! Then I looked at the shrinking number of days on the calendar and realized that these creatures, who shape I know so well, who tolerate my earnestness and bad jokes, who trust me with their authentic selves and bring me smoothies and babysit for my child, were actually leaving. It knocked the wind out of me.
These are the terms of engagement, right? It’s only when we let others impact us, when we offer up our vulnerable, authentic selves, that they can impact us in such a way that it hurts when they go. You don’t get the joy of connection without the pain of separation. You don’t get to have awesome coworkers who teach and mentor you and improve your quality of life without it being really hard to see them move or leave or retire. Fall in love with someone? There’s a good chance they’ll hurt you someday. The real question, as Bolz-Weber so deftly points out, is—will you stay when they do?
We have a choice—disengage, minimize risk, and turtle ourselves in cautious isolation OR put our pads on and jump in the game, knowing that we’re opening ourselves up to tremendous pleasure and also real heartache. Though I have been tempted at certain times in my life to choose the former, I really don’t know how to live other than to do the latter. It’s messy, it’s complicated, but I wouldn’t trade it. Everything and everyone that I love best has been a risk, has pushed me to learn painful things about myself, has frustrated me, has taught me tough lessons. But they’ve also taught me everything I know about beauty and about love, about what a holy thing it is to live in such a way that we let the people in our lives mark us so—that we carry the history of our time with them, that it becomes part of who we are.
BAKING WITH SHIV:
The kid and I have been tackling one baking project per weekend, and it’s pretty damn fun. I highly recommend this post from Molly Wizenberg about cooking with kids; while I already shared her ethos, she offers some great, specific suggestions that I found really helpful and inspiring. Case in point: Shiv now knows how to crack an egg all by himself, a thing that I totally wouldn’t have thought he could do without making a big, giant mess. But I was wrong! And I’m so glad! Because competence is one of our core values for raising this human, and he feels like a badass every time he acquires a new skill. Another reminder that I should never underestimate this nugget.
[matching aprons courtesy Aunt Megan; yes, Shiv is wearing an Elsa wig, and please know that it was I who imitated his pose, and not the other way around.]
Here are yummy things we’ve made that we recommend:
Alice Medrich’s Tiger Cake [Food 52] — far & away everyone’s favorite, this one is a bit time-consuming but not at all difficult. Bonus: it calls for olive oil so you don’t have to remember to soften any butter! Note: we skipped the white pepper.
Oatmeal Cacao Nib Cookies [600 Acres] — these were quite good as well, and kept nicely in an airtight container on the counter for several days. If you don’t have cacao nibs, I’d substitute toasted walnuts or pecans.
Cardamom Apple Bread [Gluten-Free Girl] — as-written, this recipe is gluten-free, but we played around using the flours we had (a smidge of AP, white rice, spelt, & barley) and the texture of the bread still turned out wonderfully. It wasn’t quite sweet enough for Shiv’s taste, but once I swiped it with some apple butter, he was down. To me, it paired perfectly with tea!