I don’t know if it is the cruellest month, but this year, for me, April is the weirdest. Most discombobulating. Very difficult to classify. Kind of a blur.
According to my journal and my bank statement (with an assist here & there from my actual memory), these are things I did in April of 2011: held court in a hospital waiting room, participated in a very hilarious, student-masterminded April Fool’s day plot involving a fellow teacher, lots of raisins, & a stapler encapsulated in Jell-O, bought a bottle of bourbon for a friend who moved into his first solo apartment, ate a chocolate cupcake for Easter breakfast, received & sent an obscene number of text messages, jumped on a trampoline at a backyard happy hour, booked a ticket to Atlanta to attend the engagement party of the woman who’s basically my little sister, drove Jill home from the hospital, drove Jill back to the Emergency Center the very next day, laughed a lot, cried once, graded a metric ton of student papers, and spent a blissful hour by the neighborhood pool with my headphones and a book.
Yesterday would have been my dad’s 69th birthday. That’s crazy, right? Just one year away from 70, which feels like a formidable number. I think my father would have made a good seventy-year-old. He would be excited about the Grizzlies being in the playoffs. He would be dropping un-subtle hints about his desire to be a grandfather. He would, I think, be very proud of me.
But to hell with all the warm & fuzzy imaginative shit. I want to drink beer with my dad. I want to break down the news with him: Syria, the Presidential birth certificate, and on and on. I want to cook him dinner (duh) and hear him sing and see him smile.
You know what else I want? To be on my A game, all the time. To know what the next few months will (and won’t) bring. To be able to actually say what I feel. To fly like the purple martins in my backyard. And even though I know I will never, ever have these things, my desire for them does not cease.
Me and my desire asked some friends to come over last Saturday. I made a little spread of things my dad would have loved: buttermilk biscuits (some with lard, some without), crazy-expensive imported jamon (which the dog, it turns out, is also a fan of), sliced radishes & dill on good, buttered bread, cucumbers with Indian black salt, fruit salad, guacamole, freshly squeezed orange juice, and Bloody Marys (made with the first good heirloom tomatoes of the year). My friends brought along things their dads would like, which added deviled eggs, sausage kolaches, beer, chips & salsa, pickled garlic, & a Bakewell tart to the table. We ate, we sat around. It meant something to me.
Were it not for all this wanting, I might lead some other kind of life. If desire is a fuel (and I think it is), then I believe I shall let it move me, all the way into the month of May.
Oh hello there, fresh green vegetable! I HAVE MISSED YOU.
Hospitals are terrible places for people who love food—hospitals can also be terrible places, generally. At the same time, they are also miracle houses, temples of possibility, monuments to what the body and the brain can do.
If you’re feeling a little discouraged or frustrated in your life, I recommend you go spend some time in the surgery waiting area of a nearby hospital. Strike up a conversation with the people sitting nearby, share your Kleenex and your snacks. Watch as parents receive instructions about how to care for their infant daughter’s bandages, practicing on a doll the case manager has brought. Listen (because you can’t help but overhear) bad news being relayed over the phone. Marvel at the possible range of human experience.
If I say “I’ve learned things over the last few days” it’s really that “I am dead certain now of things I had suspected before.” Like—most things we spend our time worrying about don’t matter. Attempting to plan every detail of every day is overrated. I’m stronger than I give myself credit for. My friends are extraordinary. Jill is tough as freaking nails. And I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me that this is a marriage.
Jill’s got a big, bad scar running down her chest, a will of iron, and a long but hopefully smooth road to recovery ahead. We’ve received nothing but the most excellent care from every hospital employee, and more love and good wishes than I can really wrap my mind around.
We’ll celebrate our anniversary on Thursday, back home from the hospital, and full of gratitude. And hopefully with some green vegetables.
RAW ZUCCHINI SALAD
I can’t even really call this a recipe—hardly original, it’s just what there is to do with lovely little zucchini this time of year. Infinite variations are, of course, possible.
2-3 small zucchini
salt & pepper
fresh basil (optional)
¼ cup toasted nuts (I’ve used Marcona almonds here, but I think pistachios would be delicious)
Cut the ends off of the zucchini and shave it very thin with a mandoline (or slice carefully with a sharp knife!) Toss the zucchini with the zest of one lemon, the juice of both, olive oil, salt, & pepper. Shave Parmesan cheese on top of the salad, and garnish with basil and/or nuts, if using. Serve immediately.
Y’all. I’m so out of control. So far this weekend, I have: baked these scones, this brioche (which yielded two hella-good hamburger buns and one bundt pan’s worth of sweet bread fortified with Amaretto-soaked raisins) and my new favorite banana bread, made a fresh batch of yogurt and these really tasty oatmeal pancakes, assembled kickass homemade hamburgers, baked sweet potato fries, prepped a few things for this week’s lunch, and rendered lard and made tortillas for the first time.
Are there other things I could be (six months ago I would have said “should be”) doing? Of course. But I can’t remember the last time I had this much time in my kitchen, nor do I know when I will have this much again, and right now it feels really, really, really good.
Jill is having surgery on Friday; we are done with chemo (for right now and hopefully forever) which means it’s time to remove the tumor that chemotherapy did manage to shrink down a bit. Her procedure, which necessitates the opening of the chest and the cutting of the breast bone, is common in the broad sense, but of course completely uncommon, to us. And in moments completely terrifying.
Here’s the thing about terror—it’s real. It’s real, and it can mess you up. But it can also, I think, be useful. The thought of losing Jill, of living my life without her, of her no longer existing in the world? Probably the worst thing I can imagine. Actually, after my dad died, all I did was imagine it. Endlessly, as I sat talking to her over the phone, I would disappear it all in my mind: her voice, her being, our conversation, our togetherness. That terror kept me at arm’s length from her for some months.
But eventually you have to choose: arm’s length or terror. So while I swirl around in this kitchen, while we invite friends out for “We’re Going to Be Boring For a While So Come Do Fun Things With Us Now” dinners, while we eat and laugh and even manage to watch a Netflix DVD we’ve had since January, you’d better believe that terror is along for the ride. He’s not the focus of our conversation; every once in a while we acknowledge that he exists. And while he may not be the most glamorous houseguest, his presence can morph the most ordinary day into the most extraordinary one.
SPICY PORK NOODLES
adapted from Ruth Reichl
Because, let’s face it, noodles are wonderful.
As the original recipe states, the key to making this successfully is to have all of your ingredients assembled ahead of time. After that, things move quickly and you’ll have big portions of an intensely satisfying, tangled dinner ready to serve in about twenty minutes.
1 package thin rice noodles
1 lb. ground pork
1 bunch scallions
½ cup crushed peanuts
¼ cup each: sugar, fish sauce, white vinegar
2-3 cloves garlic
red chile flakes
peanut or canola oil
Cook the rice noodles, then drain and rinse with cool water. Set aside.
Dice the scallion whites, but mince the greens; keep the two separate. Mince the garlic. Combine the sugar, fish sauce, & vinegar. Mix in the juice of one lime.
Now, to start. Coat a large wok with a thin film of oil and heat until it shimmers. Add the pork, scallion whites, and garlic, stirring until the pork is cooked and no longer red. Toss in the cooked noodles, stir gently, then pour in the fish sauce mix and cook over high until the liquid has been absorbed (5-7 minutes).
Add the eggs one at a time, cracking them directly into the wok and stirring quickly until the egg is fully cooked.
Remove the wok from the heat, and top the noodles with the scallion greens, chile flakes, and crushed peanuts. Serve with wedges of lime & Sriracha.
Does this ever happen to you? A food you grew up eating, something you would call “ordinary,” something you like but never found exceptional because it was such a regular part of your diet—is introduced to others (who did not grow up this way) and suddenly pronounced “amazing!” “delicious!” “so good!” They are dazzled. They are wowed. They want seconds. And you’re like, “Umm, that? Really?”
Really. Like this daal, for example, made by my mama when she was in town a few weeks ago. (Side note: we actually shared a kitchen together and didn’t drive each other nuts! A first). No doubt the daal was delicious, but I grew up on this shit, so no big deal. NOT SO for my white people friends, who raved and raved and took containers home. And demanded that I blog the recipe immediately.
So apparently, things that are obvious to me aren’t always obvious to everyone else. Which means I’ve taken to making regular declarative statements on the chance they might be revelatory/welcome/surprising for someone else. Like—hey, I think you’re awesome or thank you for buying me dinner and making me laugh or I will miss you a ton when you move to Oregon, —etc. Occasionally I feel silly doing this, but mostly I’m getting pretty good at being That Girl Who Likes to State the Obvious, aka kind of a weirdo.
So this weirdo would like to do a little Blog Stating of the Obvious:
1) I haven’t really been on my blogging a-game this winter/spring. Which I hate.
2) But you people have kept reading anyway. That is crazy!
3) And by crazy, I mean amazing. Thank you.
4) Cancer totally sucks.
5) Jill is the prettiest bald person I’ve ever seen.
Anyone else want to make some declarations? It’s kinda liberating. Consider this an open invitation.
I love this daal because it comes together quickly (mung daal does not have to be soaked ahead, unlike many Indian lentils) and makes for a hearty meal, whether you serve it alone as a soup or atop some basmati rice. It’s traditional to serve a bowl of cool, plain yogurt on the side as well.
The daal-making process may seem intimidating the first time you do it, but once you have the ingredients on hand, I swear it’s straightforward. Part 1 = cook the lentils, Part Two = make the vagar, Part Three = combine and serve. That’s it! You can use this method for many kinds of lentils, just be sure to check cooking times and water: lentil ratios.
1 cup whole mung beans
½ cup “washed” mung (the inner part, rid of its dark green hull)
9 cups water
2 tsp. each, ground cumin, coriander, & salt
1 tsp. turmeric
Combine the above ingredients in a large pot, bring to a boil, and top with a lid, leaving it tilted to the side a bit so that steam can escape. Cook at a gentle boil until the whole mung has split open and the washed mung has “disappeared” into the mixture (meaning you can’t pick out their little yellow bodies anymore). This should take between 35-40 minutes.
While the daal is cooking, make the vagar (traditional sauté of spices & aromatics in butter and/or oil):
3 T each, butter & vegetable oil (you can also substitute ghee for one or both parts)
1 medium yellow onion, sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
¼ cup finely chopped ginger
½ tsp. Indian red chili powder (lal mirch)—adjust if you’re heat-shy or heat-crazy
pinch of asafetida
Heat the butter and oil over medium-high heat. Toss in the cumin seeds; they should hiss and crack open. Add the asafetida, then the onion and sauté for a few minutes. Turn the heat down to medium and add the garlic, ginger, & red chili. Cook until the aromatics are caramelized, 15-20 minutes.
When the daal has been cooked completely, add:
1 small can (8 oz.) of tomato sauce
the vagar (above)
Stir together and cook on low heat to combine, no more than 5 minutes. Check for salt and serve, topping with chopped cilantro if you like.