1) So, I won an award yesterday. Many thanks to the Houston Press & Houston Web Awards for naming Blue Jean Gourmet the Best Food Blog in town; there’s a large, talented roster to choose from, and I am truly honored!
2) My mom’s birthday is tomorrow, and she’ll be here in Houston so we can celebrate it with her. She’s one of the most independent, opinionated, and determined people I know, and I love her so freaking much.
3) NPR’S Kitchen Window featured a wonderful piece about the diversity of foods being grilled across the nation this week—from Korean kalbi to Indian tandoori salmon—and the way that culinary diversity reflects the very greatness and strength of America, which the Fourth of July is designed to celebrate.
My memories of backyard Fourth of July cookouts growing up seem “all-American” on the surface—beer, grill, family time outdoors with bug spray—but when you look closer, there’s Hindi music blasting through the speakers and chili-pepper-butter on the corn on the cob. For many of us, I suspect it was, or is becoming this way, and I think that is a very good thing, indeed.
4) Below I have culled some recipes from past posts–foods that I think would be right at home among the cookouts and potlucks of the upcoming long weekend, featuring some of the summer’s best produce.
Whatever you’re up to this Fourth of July, please be safe, enjoy yourselves, & eat well as we Americans celebrate our great country!
*designates no-cook items (i.e., you don’t have to turn on the stove, oven, or grill!)
Things I like to do at Christmastime: read “The Gift of the Magi,” enthusiastically sing Christmas songs, carols, & hymns, bake things I think Jill’s daddy would like (this year, pecan pie with a butter/lard crust and a sorghum/bourbon filling), and sort through the past year’s letters and journal entries reminding myself of what’s transpired, the milestones, blessings, changes, subtractions, sadnesses, and additions.
In my world, 2010 has yielded two weddings, one funeral, some incredible concerts (Robert Plant! Patty Griffin! Local Natives! The National! Iron & Wine!), play time in New York and Chicago, and Lord knows how many hours in the kitchen.
Jill and I signed fancy paperwork (nothing says “Let’s Stay Together” like Durable Powers of Attorney), took a long-overdue vacation to Mexico, adopted a sweet kitten, and welcomed some incredible new people into our lives.
And always, one constant, this virtual place and you very real people out there, reading. Thank you for your presence, it truly is a gift.
This was Blue Jean Gourmet’s first full calendar year of existence, so it was fun to comb back through and choose a favorite post for each month. Some I chose for the recipe itself, others for the slice of life the blog post reveals. All show off Sonya Cuellar’s mad photography skills.
I hope you’ll enjoy combing back through these twelve, and back through your own memories of this year. Merry Christmas, all!
JANUARY—CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS
APRIL—RADISHES, TWO WAYS
JUNE—PEACHES, THREE WAYS
JULY—MY LIFE IN OKRA [guest post by Jill]
AUGUST—TOMATO CORN PIE
OCTOBER—CARAMELIZED ONION TART
DECEMBER—MEYER LEMON THUMBPRINTS
That I don’t have to plan everything down to the last detail. That no one actually cares if my kitchen floor is immaculate (it’s not, in case you were wondering). That it’s okay to skip the gym on Friday and eat fried shrimp instead. That hanging with your eighth grade students during the last “study” hall of the year, eating jelly beans and making velociraptor noises and playing hangman will cure any existential woes you may be experiencing; in fact, it will disappear them altogether.
Maybe I’m not so much learning as remembering, or being reminded. The holiday cards are rolling in and we’ve begun our tradition of decorating the mantle with them, pictures and notes from the people we love, who love us, who live near and far, who are figuring out how to do life the best way, with the most of what matters and the least of what doesn’t.
I don’t have it all figured out, but I’ve kind of given up on that anyway. Nothing to figure, really. Today to enjoy. That’s what I got. Well, that and cookies.
adapted from Epicurious.com
2 ¼ cups flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
6 T unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. whole anise seed
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ tsp. almond extract
1 cup toasted almonds, chopped
optional: 6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, for dipping the finished biscotti
pan: baking sheets lined with parchment
Beat the butter and sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat in eggs one at a time, then mix in the extracts and anise. Stir together the dry ingredients, then add to the wet mixture and blend until a dough just comes together. Stir in the almonds.
Flour your counter or a cutting board generously. Carefully gather the dough—it will be sticky!—and divide it in half, shaping each half into a log about a foot long and 1 ½ inches wide. Basically, the logs of dough should be as wide as you want the length of your biscotti to be.
Transfer the logs onto one baking sheet, leaving a little room between them. Bake until firm to the touch but still pale, 25-30 minutes. Cool for about ten minutes, leaving the oven on.
Using a sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, cut logs into thick slices. Place the slices, cut side down, on baking sheets and bake until firm and golden, flipping halfway through the baking (20 minutes total, or 10 on each side).
Once the biscotti have cooled, melt the chocolate in the microwave (carefully, in 30 second increments, stirring between each) or in a double boiler on the stove. Dip each cookie into the chocolate and return to the parchment-lined baking sheet. Chill the cookies in the fridge for 20-30 minutes, or until the chocolate sets.
Store the biscotti in an airtight container for up to a week.
from Cook’s Illustrated
1 cup pecans, toasted & coarsely chopped
1 ½ sticks butter, melted
1 ½ cups flour
1 ½ cups brown sugar
1 cup white chocolate chips or chunks*
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. salt
pan: square baking pan (8 or 9 inches)
Line the baking pan with foil, leaving plenty of overhang on both sides. Grease the foil with cooking spray or butter.
Whisk the melted butter and brown sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla and mix well. Using a spatula, fold in the dry ingredients but don’t over-mix. Fold in the chocolate and nuts, then pour the batter into the prepared baking pan.
Bake blondies until the top is shiny and cracked and the center remains firm when you give the pan a good shake. Depending on your oven, this should take somewhere between 20-30 minutes.
Cool the pan completely (don’t cheat, they’ll be too liquid inside!) on a rack before lifting the blondies out by their foil overhang and cutting into generous squares. The blondies will be gooey; don’t fret, that’s part of their charm.
*You can also use a mixture of white chocolate & semisweet chocolate
Last night I dreamed that bars around the country were offering discounts to patrons who were bringing in classic books and reading at the bar. I walked into a lovely spot, some figment of my mind’s imagination, replete with soft light, reclaimed wood counters, and a suspender-sporting bartender who made me a wonderful Manhattan and inquired as to my progress with As I Lay Dying.
On Friday, I walked into class to discover a group of eighth graders honest-to-goodness excited about the reading they had done the night before. “The book got really good, Ms. Mehra!” “I couldn’t stop reading!” (As an English teacher, life really doesn’t get much better than that).
“The book” they were talking about, To Kill a Mockingbird, is the first true piece of classic literature most of them have ever encountered, and it is one of my absolute favorite books of all time, one that keeps constant on my “Desert Island” list, one that I never tire of reading, never stop learning from, never cease being moved by (see: Dill carrying Atticus’ chair, the balcony standing for Atticus after the trial, & “Thank you for my children” at the very end).
I could go on and on and on about the wonder and glory and magic books; it is, after all, my job. But since some friends asked me to, I’ll talk instead about specific books, classics that have shaped my aesthetics, books I think are worth re-visiting, or visiting for the first time. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a short smattering of my personal favorites. I’m also slipping in a short list of more recent books that I loved in 2010. Please do leave your recommendations, whether classic or current, in the comments. Happy reading!
CLASSIC AUTHORS WORTH RE-VISITING (OR READING FOR THE FIRST TIME):
Fyodor Dostoevksy: The softest of spots in my heart for this author, whom I read for the first time my senior year of high school, and whose name I then adopted as the last name for my first car. Both of the below books were required reading that year, and they both blew me away. Brothers is much more of a commitment that C&P, and with both it helps to use a character list “cheat sheet” to keep up with the crazy Russian names, and to read only the best translation (the husband-and-wife pair of Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky do very fine work).
Crime & Punishment (inside the mind of one man; ethics; redemption)
The Brothers Karamazov (three brothers’ family saga; belief; truth)
George Eliot: Mary Ann Evans, author behind the pen name, is one of the finest observers of human nature that I’ve ever read. Her unique position of being a woman, posing as a male author, writing about female characters, makes for some fascinating reader-author-narrator dynamics.
The Mill on the Floss (brother & sister dynamics; duty; disappointment)
Middlemarch (large cast of characters; purpose of marriage; place of women)
Arthur Miller: One of the great American dramatists; I think our historical time is ripe for revisiting these plays now that half-a-century-plus has passed. These are also often taught in high schools and colleges, but as with all classics, I think there is a real richness that comes when we revisit such literature as adults, with the layered perspectives of lived experience.
Death of a Salesman (father & sons; dreams & disappointment; the American way of life)
The Crucible (mob mentality; scapegoats; fear of the other)
Tennessee Williams: I spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school reading everything that Tennessee Williams had ever written. Guess I should have known then that I would end up an English teacher, eh? It’s a bit difficult for me to choose just two of his plays, but here we have one classic and one obscure (the latter is my favorite Williams).
The Glass Menagerie (mothers; loss; broken promises)
Summer & Smoke (love v. lust; fate; transformation)
CLASSIC BOOKS WORTH RE-VISITING (OR READING FOR THE FIRST TIME):
Labryinths/stories & other writings (J.L. Borges)
Another piece of literature that never budges from my penultimate list, this collection of writings contain some of the most inventive and brilliant short-short stories I’ve ever read. The way this man’s mind works is dazzling; the world he sees in his mind’s eye is a pleasure to visit.
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Widely considered one of the “Great American Novels,” this one is particularly interesting to re-read in the midst of a recession, as its set in climate of economic excess. Fitzgerald is, too, a master of language, and his descriptions are a joy, even when what he’s describing is not.
The Razor’s Edge (Somerset Maugham)
When it’s good, literature addresses our deepest questions and concerns: who are we? what’s our purpose? what is the proper way to live? This book travels the world as its protagonists seeks to answer these questions for himself.
The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison)
Young Pecola Breedlove is one of those characters you never forget; a young black girl whose white society teaches her that she’s ugly. Some of the turns of Toni Morrison’s very fine language have stuck in my mind since I first read the book, and they are always a pleasure to return to.
Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackery)
Subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero,” I learned to love the craft and scope of this book as a graduate student, thanks to one Professor Epstein. Though there might not be any characters to straight-out admire, there are plenty of strands of human behavior in which we can all (for better or worse) see ourselves.
Our Town (Thorton Wilder)
I love the theatre, can you tell? The meaning of this measured drama completely transformed for me after my father died; the experience of loss brought me newly to the play, allowing me to see things in it I couldn’t have as a high school student. Literature stays the same, but we are always fluctuating, that’s the beauty of it.
by Roald Dahl:
Charlie & the Chocolate Factory
The classic on which the films are based tells the story of a poor young boy drawn into a magical world full of chocolate, candy, and the power of imagination.
Young orphan Sophie (after whom one of our cats is named, thanks to the Montessori kids I was teaching when we adopted her) is befriended/kidnapped by a Big Friendly Giant.
by Alexandre Dumas:
The Count of Monte Cristo
Revenge! Mystery! Intrigue! Swordfights! My students always balk at the length of this novel but get sucked in anyway.
The Three Musketeers
Then, a lot of them read this one next. It also has mystery! intrigue! and swordfighting! Plus brotherhood! and loyalty!
by Katherine Paterson:
Bridge to Terabithia
A young boy who doesn’t fit in his family + a young girl who doesn’t fit in with the other kids at school + a teacher who takes an interest + the power of imagination = one of the best coming-of-age stories I know.
Jacob Have I Loved
I don’t have a sibling, but this book made me feel like I understood the experience of competing with one, and gave me hope that even the oddest of ducks would eventually find his/her place.
Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier)
A murder mystery that still leaves me guessing when I re-read it, plus lush writing and emotion. A true classic.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
With a spunky, opinionated narrator and arguably the best trial scenes in all of literature, this novel captures the joys of childhood summers, the love between parent and child, and the difficult truth of the ugliness of human nature—and its potential redemption.
Where the Red Fern Grows (Wilson Rawls)
This book came up the other night at a table full of grownups and we all began screaming simultaneously “I CANNOT THINK ABOUT THAT BOOK WITHOUT CRYING!” The love between a boy and his dogs has never been better captured; read with Kleenex.
Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
I read this book aloud at my father’s bedside in the hours before he died. It is a frank, beautiful, and powerful tale of love and friendship.
BOOKS I READ & ABSOLUTELY LOVED IN 2010
*each book is linked to its Amazon listing
The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery)
March (Geraldine Brooks)
The Ticking is the Bomb (Nick Flynn)
Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)
Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski)
And now, for some food (the kind we eat).
Gingerbread is its own classic-worth-revisiting. As a kid, they were the cookies I passed over in favor of flashier, more sugary stuff. But my slightly grown-up palate is now all too pleased with these little spiced cookies.
Though the cookies featured here were dusted with powdered sugar (I have learned that the use of a sieve or flour sifter will help create that pretty, even, powdery coverage), the second batch I made, and ate almost singlehandedly, I decorated with squiggles of a simple citrus glaze: a squeeze of lemon juice + enough powdered sugar to yield desired consistency.
The cookies, both glazed and sugared versions, kept in an airtight container for a week after baking, and they were delicious.
3 ¾ cups flour
3 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
3 tsp. ground cloves
2 ½ tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. baking soda
11 T unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup golden syrup*
½ cup heavy cream
Whisk together the dry ingredients and set aside. In the bowl of a mixer, beat the butter, brown sugar, & golden syrup until fluffy, 2 minutes. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the heavy cream, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Mix until the dough just comes together.
Divide the dough in half and cover each piece with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least one hour. (I kept one half of the dough overnight, and the resulting cookies tasted just as good).
When ready to bake, line baking sheets with parchment & preheat the oven to 350˚. On a well-floured surface, roll out the dough to desired thickness; thinner if you want crisp cookies, thicker if you want chewiness. Go crazy with the cookie cutters!
Refrigerate the cut-out cookies on their baking sheets for 15-20 minutes before baking. Then, bake for 12-15 minutes, watching carefully so that the bottoms don’t brown. Cool cookies completely before dusting with powdered sugar or glazing.
* Saveur claims you can substitute dark corn syrup, but I think it messes with the texture.
Moment of truth: I’m all burnt out on holiday baking.
A giant cookie-and-other-treat-extravaganza has been part of my regular December schedule since I was a girl. Once school let out for Christmas break, my mom would take off of work and we’d dedicate two full days to baking.
That time of kitchen apprenticeship is really, I think, what started this whole train a-runnin’. Not only did I learn from my mother (about timing, planning, coordination of baking sheets and oven space, how to fill muffin tins just so, how to substitute one sugar for another, how to gently work a cream cheese dough), but I also became committed to the spirit of that baking, done as a way of sharing with and contributing to the ones we loved, used as an excuse for my mom and me to be together in the kitchen for two whole days.
I’m still committed to that spirit, of course; I thoroughly appreciate the ritual and legacy that those days, and my subsequent continuation of them through graduate school and into my home life with Jill, have created. But, you know what? I’m kinda tired. And I realized that I was dreading, instead of joyfully looking forward to, my annual holiday baking project. So this year, I’m not doing it.
What’s hilarious is that, a few weekends ago, I did a “blog day” full of cookies in anticipation of sharing with all of you some favorite recipes for baking and sharing this time of year. I’m still going to share them, of course, over the next two weeks, and I’ve listed below the already myriad cookie recipes contained elsewhere on this blog. And please don’t think that my “opt-out” is a judgment on those who will bake this year—far from it.
In fact, I hope you WILL bake this year, in your tiny cramped apartment, in your beautiful, house-of-my-dreams kitchen, with your children, with your best friend, with your parent, or all alone. I hope it makes your house smell fantastic and your heart feel full.
As for me, this is my year to sit back and watch. Somehow I let a ritual become an obligation in my mind, something I felt I was compelled to do, that I felt others would expect me to do, that I felt I needed to do in order to please others or because it’s what I’ve always done. Instead I’m taking a leap of faith (seems appropriate for the season, doesn’t it?) and trusting that the people in my life are in it for more than just the baked goods.
MEYER LEMON THUMBPRINT COOKIES
Winter is a glorious time for citrus down here in South Texas; I found some local Meyer lemons at the Farmers’ Market a few weeks ago and couldn’t resist their perfume. For the filling, I made a quick blackberry jam, but you could easily use store bought and/or swap in another flavor.
for the dough:
2 ¼ cups flour
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
zest of 1 Meyer lemon
pinch of salt
Line two baking sheets with parchment.
In the stand bowl of a mixer, cream the butter, sugar, and zest together. Add the eggs one at a time, then the vanilla. Fold in the flour & salt until the mixture forms a soft dough. Shape into a disk, cover in plastic, and refrigerate for thirty minutes.
Remove the dough from the fridge and roll into 1-inch balls. Place each one on a cookie sheet, leaving room for the cookies to flatten a bit. Using your thumb, press gently into the center of each dough ball, then spoon some jam into the indentations.
Bake the cookies for 15-20 minutes or until the centers seem set and the surrounding dough solid. Cool on racks before serving or storing in an airtight container.
for the jam:
1 pint blackberries, rinsed
¾-1 cup sugar, depending on your taste
juice of one lemon
In a nonstick saucepot, stir the ingredients together and bring the mixture to a bubble. Cook for about fifteen minutes, or until the mixture starts to thicken and pull together (it will continue to thicken as it cools, so you still want it to be somewhat loose & stir-able).
Transfer to a glass jar or other heatproof container & allow the jam to come to room temperature before using it in this or another recipe. Store any leftovers in the fridge.
BAKE AWAY, MY FRIENDS:
You know what’s so excellent? The fact that Thanksgiving is two weeks from today.
In my world, Thanksgiving means: conjuring strange foods we eat only once a year, leaving the house to buy the one item I forgot despite multiple grocery store visits, unbuttoning my pants ’cause I ate too much, then sitting comatose on the couch watching football, spending the day with my mama and Jill, carving and brining and folding and napping and catching up and drinking wine and really blissful sleep. A holiday left blessedly uncommercialized, all about food and family. What’s not to love?
If you have some flexibility with your holiday menu, and/or you’re still holding auditions for possible new items, allow me to urge you to consider these sweet potatoes. A far cry from the traditional teeth-achingly candied treatment sweet potatoes normally get, this side dish pairs them with brown butter and sage, leading to a sophisticated flavor that I think would work perfectly on a Thanksgiving table (especially if you use sage in your stuffing.)
Here are a few other blog favorites that might fit well on your Thanksgiving table:
Mmmm sweet Turkey Day, come quickly. I am ready for you.
STIR-FRIED SWEET POTATOES WITH SAGE
barely adapted from Mark Bittman
4 T olive oil
2-3 lb sweet potatoes, peeled and grated, about 4-6 cups
5 T butter
4 cloves garlic, crushed with the back of a heavy knife
generous handful of fresh sage leaves
Salt and pepper
Heat olive oil in a very large skillet over medium heat. When shimmery, add sweet potatoes and season with a bit of salt & pepper. Cook, stirring rarely, until the sweet potatoes begin to brown. Stir more frequently until the potatoes are tender but not mushy. Be patient! This will take a while (15-20 minutes)
In the meantime, heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and sage; shake pan occasionally. When the butter browns, turn off heat.
Carefully remove the sage & garlic from the butter, saving the former and discarding the latter. Once the potatoes are ready, drizzle them with the butter and garnish with sage leaves.
Last year, I was asked to be in charge of desserts for a renegade Seder. Such is the path by which I discovered Matzo Toffee, which is what baby matzo hopes it will grow up to be someday and what you, once you make it, will be unable to stop eating. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the combination of all good flavors—the richness of bittersweet chocolate, the butteriness of toffee, the earthy snap of almonds, the crunch of matzo, & the edge and texture of quality sea salt—but if you are Jewish and observing Passover next week*, it might be exciting to discover that matzo can actually be delicious.
What is a renegade Seder, you might ask? Well, consider that our hostess was a Jewess whose Twitter bio claims she is a “kosher pork authority.” Her sweetheart is a Muslim and for Halloween, they dressed up as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (she taped settlements to his shirt as the night wore on). For the reading of the Haggadah, we had gift bags full of “plagues” represented by various craft-store-acquisitions, including red foam cut-out boils. There were Red Sea cocktails with drowned Egyptian ninja figurines. (Please note: we love Egyptians. We do not wish them any violence. We were just going along with the Bible story).
And I, the Hindu, was unable to eat the desserts I had made for the Seder because I had given up desserts for Lent. Heh. But the toffee went over so well with the rest of the evening’s guests that they convinced me to save a bag for Easter Sunday, upon which occasion I promptly devoured what was left.
Before we dash off on vacation, I’ll be making up a batch of this good stuff in solidarity with my Jewish friends and students. Now that I’m back from the 8th grade Washington, D.C. trip—a whirlwind, exhausting and unbelievably fun four days—I’m relishing the spring break life but already kinda miss my students. Just don’t tell them that!
*To make this recipe kosher-for-Passover, ensure that all the ingredients are certified kosher-for-Passover and that the kitchen you’re cooking in and utensils you’re cooking with are as well. Since this recipe contains a large amount of butter, serve it with a meatless meal or make it with kosher margarine. You may need to omit the vanilla.
Adapted slightly from David Lebovitz
You can also make this recipe with Saltines or another plain cracker, omitting the sea salt. You might want to double the recipe, while you’re at it—it’s incredibly simple to make and very, very satisfying.
6 sheets unsalted matzo
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup packed light brown sugar 1
½ cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped or in chips
½ tsp. vanilla extract
a pinch of salt
1 cup almonds or another nut, toasted & chopped
a few generous sprinklings of coarse sea salt
pan: Baking sheet(s) lined very well with foil, then top the foil with parchment paper. Yes, this is necessary. Toffee is messy business, you know. Delicious, but messy.
Place the matzo along the bottom of the baking pan, breaking it up to cover the whole bottom.
In a big, thick saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar together over medium heat. Bring up to a boil, stirring regularly, for about three minutes, as the mixture thickens. Remove from heat and stir in the salt & vanilla. Pour over the matzo, distributing the caramel mixture evenly and quickly.
Move the baking sheet(s) to the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, watching to make sure that the caramel doesn’t burn. (If it begins to get too dark, remove from the oven & turn down the heat to 325˚.) Once everything is nice and golden brown, remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle the matzo with the chocolate. Wait a few minutes, then smooth out the now-melted chocolate with a spatula. See how you just made the recipe work for you? Love that.
As the chocolate is cooling, sprinkle with the toppings of your choice—in my case, some almonds & good sea salt. Let the matzo toffee cool completely before breaking into pieces and devouring it. If there’s any leftover, it will keep in an airtight container for up to a week.
Welcome, 2010, I think I love you.
Symbolic and completely arbitrary as it may be, I am grateful for a New Year. Myself, I like ritual. I am a fan of tradition, keeping old ones and making up new ones. I enjoy lists and assessments, taking stock and measuring up. I appreciate the chance to simultaneously look back and look forward, with only my imagination and the truest version of myself.
Passage of time can give us pause, incline us toward regret or doubt, cause us to question choices or rethink past decisions. Sometimes we need to get our proverbial asses kicked.
Good as our lives may be, I suspect we’re often holding back. Something we want to try, to create, to imagine or reinvent. Someone we want to kiss. A baby we’d like to have. A degree, a business, a goodbye long overdue. Forgiveness, for ourselves or another. An ambition we’ve charted out in our minds but never out loud. (I’m speaking to myself here, in case you couldn’t tell.)
Look, I don’t know if you’re scared, but I know I am. I can talk myself out of so many things, distracting myself with dishes that “need” to be washed, telling myself it will all happen “later,” cramming too many things into my schedule as a very clever way of assuring none of it will get done.
But I’m getting to the point where I think, either I do this thing already or I need to shut up about it. And all of the plans I’ve made up to this point CLEARLY HAVEN’T WORKED, so I’m guessing some new strategies are in order. It may get a little radical around here, and radical totally makes me nervous.
(Sharpen your knives, folks. We’re in for a big year.)
My manuscript has been “in progress” for the better part of the last three years. I’ve devoted a part of two summers to the work of it and grabbed small snatches of time here and there during the school years that intercepted. It’s been “nearly finished” for much too long now.
I started this blog in May 2009, having little to no idea what I was doing and unsure if anyone but my mom would read it. Not only have I had a blast, I have made friends, gained readers, and surprised myself by managing to post twice a week, every week. So there’s really no reason I can’t get this damn book written, except that I’m pretty sure I’m standing in my own way.
This blog will be a year old on May 5. And what I can promise 2010 is, by that date, my book will also be finished. So, Happy New Year’s, ya’ll. If you’re interested in declaring something before God & internet, too, feel free to go for it in the comments. The more butts in gear, the merrier.
As for food, I recommend you whip up a batch of Bloody Marys and be sure to eat some black-eyed peas for luck. Some traditions are worth hanging onto, no doubt. But the rest of it, I think we have to make up as we go, even if we’re terrified the entire time.
par·a·dox (noun) etymology: Latin paradoxum, from Greek paradoxon, from neuter of paradoxos contrary to expectation, from para– + dokein to think, seem
As a literary term: paradox, a statement that initially appears to be contradictory but then, on closer inspection, turns out to make sense.
Life does not do us the courtesy of avoiding Christmas where sickness, death, & other unhappinesses are concerned. I’d need more than one hand to count the friends who are dealing with some really shitty business as I type this. Families are unkind to each other. Parents die, slowly, painfully. Even losses decades-old pinch and scrape like new.
And there are points of light: the sound of neighborhood kids testing out their new tricycles and bicycles with abandon, the smell of the Christmas tree, the stories your father-in-law tells, the feel of yeast dough between your fingers and the satisfaction of it rising in a buttered bowl, just as it’s supposed to.
Surrounded by people but feeling utterly alone. Happy to be on vacation but befuddled by the free time. Knowing the holidays aren’t really about “stuff” but coveting it nonetheless. Accustomed to indulging every whim & desire, but relenting when the family’s movie choices do not match your own. Feeling down in the holiday dumps, then feeling like an obnoxious spoiled brat because, you know, your life is REALLY GOOD.
We humans are complex beings, full of paradoxes which make themselves especially apparent as the year winds down to a close. I find myself tangled up in thought—desire, confusion, nostalgia, regret. I could easily paralyze myself with the attempt to figure it all out, but instead I think I shall paint my fingernails red, sneak some leftover ham out of the fridge, make myself a cup of really good hot chocolate. Then sit in a chair and read a book. Call my mama and tell her that I love her. Think of my father and cry.
We’re not going to get it all figured out today, or probably ever. Let’s do our best to be good to each other (and ourselves) in the meantime. Merry Christmas, ya’ll.
For today’s post (and I hope you won’t mind), instead of writing something new, I’ve reprinted an excerpt from an essay called “Playing the Goddess” that I published a few years ago. At this time of year, my memory and nostalgia work overtime and I find myself longingly and gratefully thinking of my school’s Christmas pageant and the year I got to be Brown Mary. (St. Mary’s girls, if you’re out there, know that I’m thinking of you & sending much love this holiday.)
My parents sent me to St. Mary’s Episcopal School because it was the best girls’ education money could buy in Memphis, Tennessee. Unlike some immigrant parents, they were unconcerned by the school’s religious affiliation; my mother herself was educated by Roman Catholic nuns, and taught at a parochial school before she was married. And both my parents appreciated the incredibly diverse and tolerant religious landscape of India. Their friends, festivals, school holidays, symbols, and rituals ran the gamut from Hindu to Buddhist to Sikh to Christian; the lines of observance between these faiths were blurry. As my parents had discovered, so they passed on to me: Hinduism is a big umbrella; there’s a lot of room underneath.
So I was free to delve into the cool, quiet landscape of Anglican Christianity. Ever the eager student, I paid close attention in Mrs. Williams’ third-grade Bible class, sitting right in the front and peering up at her through my thick glasses. She would sit in the “teacher’s chair,” with us on the floor, and place her soft, framed felt board up against the chalkboard. Felt figures of Moses or Jesus appeared, with baskets of fish or the burning bush. Naturally, I had more questions than anyone else. Each story was new to me, and I was hooked. An avid reader, I discovered that the Bible was full of wild, fascinating stories that seemed more grownup than anything else I was allowed to read. The heartbreak and suffering of Jesus held me tight. In my mind’s eye, I saw him as a kindly, loving, sad man. And I began to notice that all the girls around me wore crosses around their necks, connected to him in a way that I wasn’t. While I sat behind, they walked up to the altar to receive communion. These were the limits of my belonging.
At the same time, I relished being different. Christianity was my exotic, but I was exotic to everyone else. My friends and classmates started asking me questions about what I believed, how my religion was different. I stopped taking for granted the Sanskrit prayers my family and I said and started asking about their meaning. My parents found books in English that re-told the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabarata, Hinduism’s great epics, full of murder, intrigue, sex, and miracles to rival the most fantastic parts of the Old Testament. As my connection to my own religion grew, so did my fondness for high-church worship, the pomp and circumstance, traditional liturgy, and booming organ. The sensory onslaught of an Episcopalian church service is somewhat tamed-down in comparison to that of my birth religion, but both know how to put on a good show.
At times, I struggled with just how far to join in, whether it was alright to say “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” when I didn’t actually believe in him. No doubt, many of my fellow classmates were also skeptical or uncertain in their beliefs, but they had the luxury of habit and belonging. If their internal landscape didn’t match the external, no one was the wiser. But from the outset, I looked like a non-believer and I weighed my participation very carefully. As a Hindu, I was frustrated by the way my culture and religious traditions were often appropriated and mishandled by outsiders. It was important to me not to commit the same crime against Christianity.
Of course, I felt like an outsider in Hinduism too. Connected through my parents and centuries worth of traditions, my own personal stake in Hinduism was never as grounded as I thought it should be. Church was more interesting than temple; at least I could understand what everyone was saying and singing. The guilt I felt over my half-hearted engagement was tempered by a desire to protect and uphold my heritage, a duty which was important to me. Some first-generation kids push as far away from the “home country” as possible; I didn’t want to be one of them. Still, I knew that my main tie to Hinduism was nostalgic, not immediate. And as was the case with Christianity, my personal affiliation had everything to do with the group in which I wanted to belong. In both religions, I felt equally at home—that is to say, halfway like an intruder in both cases.
Over time, the splitting of theological hairs became less important to me, and the power of community, worship, and tradition took over. Whether I believed in the stories or not, they were good stories, powerful ones which had lasted for thousands of years. The cost of separating myself out from either group seemed too big a price to pay. So I bowed my head and heard myself repeating the same words as a church-full of people, the Apostles’ Creed, which I learned by heart. After I was asked to speak in chapel during Religious Diversity Week, I became known as the “Indian Oprah” for the way I had weaved my way through the pews with a cordless mike, answering students’ questions about my religion. At home, I enacted and absorbed what my parents placed before me—no eating meat on Tuesdays, wearing new clothes on Diwali—trusting that it was all somehow important for continuity’s sake. I felt to myself like a believer, if a loosely defined one. And there were always two creeds which I never had a problem saying, or meaning: the first from the Bhagavad Gita, modern Hinduism’s most sacred text, the second from St. Mary’s daily chapel service. In the first, Lord Krishna is instructing one of his faithful, Arjuna, about the proper way to live one’s life. Any man who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way, my friend. The second ended each chapel service at St. Mary’s, Monday through Friday, from my fifth grade to my twelfth grade year. Our chaplain said, Go in peace, to love and serve to Lord. And we responded, Thanks be to God.
St. Mary’s has many long-standing traditions (they’ve been educating young women since 1847), but my favorite has always been the Christmas pageant. This event has two sets of participants: little girls and big girls. The little girls are the second-and-third graders, who dress in red cassocks and white cottas and stand on risers to sing the evening’s program of Christmas hymns. The big girls are the seniors, who are grouped to form living tableaux, displayed while the little girls sing their songs. Each tableau is modeled after a painting of the Annunciation, Nativity, or Adoration done by one of the French or Italian masters. A shadowbox, about the size of a walk-in closet, was built long ago for this purpose, and is placed at the top of the red velvet stairs which lead up to the altar of the church. Christmas trees, left plain, are brought in to block the rest of the altar from view, so that big girls can hide behind, getting ready for their turn.
For seniors at St. Mary’s, the Christmas Pageant is second in importance only to graduation. To be part of the tableaux, seniors have to have been at St. Mary’s since at least the first grade. That makes eleven or more years during which the little girls have grown into big ones, watching the Pageant every year, sitting in the dark of the church, watching the beautiful seniors sit very still against the bright lights of the shadowbox. Each year, the senior class and high school faculty elect six girls to play the part of Mary. It is an honor which carries weight. The girls playing Mary should be worthy of their role, should have demonstrated love and compassion and sacrifice during their time at St. Mary’s. The school motto, “light and life,” should be exemplified in them. I feel lucky to be able to say my class took that vote very seriously, beyond a popularity contest. Even though we were big girls, there was still something about the idea of Mary, full of grace. She who gave birth to the Savior of Men. She who raised the Son of God.
With this in mind, we voted, and I became the first non-Caucasian, non Judeo-Christian Mary in school history. “Brown Mary,” my friends and classmates called me, lovingly. It felt like a victory, one in which we all shared, injecting new life into an old tradition, scandalizing the church ladies a little bit. “Your skin color is probably more historically accurate than anyone else’s,” my high school history teacher said, and we arranged for my fellow Hindu, Amrita to be my Joseph. Behold the holy family, dark-skinned and authentic. Me, the mother, vehicle, and proud.
I got very sick the night before the pageant, amidst the swirl of exams and college applications which came with Christmas that year. It was bronchitis, and the doctor at the minor medical clinic warned me that it could get worse. “You need to rest, young lady,” he told me. “I know you won’t mind if I make you stay home from school tomorrow,” winking, thinking he was doing me a favor. “You don’t understand,” I protested. “I have to go.” We went back and forth like this for a while; I think he thought I was crazy. It isn’t easy to explain in five minutes what twelve years has built inside you. “Okay,” he relented. “I’ll give you a strong antibiotic and a painkiller. You’re going to have to try to break your fever—otherwise, you’re still contagious, so no go.”
I slept that night, exhausted and upset. The next morning, I hovered around 100 degrees, but was adamant that the fever would break. I had to be at school by noon—that much leeway my principal would give—the pageant started at two-thirty. My mother wrapped me in blankets, brought me warm liquids, lemon and honey for my aching throat. She chanted for me in Sanskrit from the prayer room down the hall and took my temperature every half-hour. “I know better than to argue,” she sighed. But we were both surprised at how hard I was trying. This ritual, this honor I had earned, this seeming contradiction, I wasn’t about to let go. Goddess, mother, Mary, someone. Please. Make me the vessel, give me your strength. I want to do this.
At eleven-fifteen my fever broke.
My mom walked me into the church where twenty-nine other girls were rehearsing their scenes and posing for photographs. The handful of girls standing in the shadowbox at the time caught collective sight of me and called out. “Nishta!” The room turned and I was flooded, overwhelmed with gladness, their gladness; that I was okay, that I was there. “You are supposed to be here,” they said. “You have to be our Brown Mary.”
Immediately, girls went to work on my transformation. It’s all a bit of a medicated blur—I felt woozy and weepy and wholly grateful. I sat on a hard pew in the bright and sunny side-chapel while they took care of me. Sarah, da Vinci’s Mary, dashed out in her silver Volvo to buy me chicken noodle, tomato, and cream of mushroom soups, because she wasn’t sure which one I would like. Kemper, da Vinci’s angel Gabriel, took charge of my makeup. “Now close your eyes, sweetie,” she said in her sweet, round, Southern voice. I felt the cool, black pencil against the edge of my warm eyelid, heard the second- and third-graders rehearsing in the background.
When it was time for my tableaux, I scrambled into place along with Amrita and our three friends, playing shepherds. We had a few moments in the dark before the next song began, and I remember being afraid that I was going to accidentally move; blink my eyes too much, scratch my nose, or, worst of all, pass out. I still didn’t feel very well, and I was afraid it might show. But then I felt Amrita’s hand on my shoulder from behind, where she stood as my Joseph. And that blue velvet curtain opened, and the lights came on, from either side of box, incredibly bright and incredibly hot. The whole thing felt a little bit ridiculous, sitting in a pine box, dressed up like an unwed Jewish mother from two thousand years ago.
I tried to quiet my mind and focus on the rows of hushed and darkened heads that watched me in the distance. Out of the corner of my eye, the little girls, standing oh-so-politely on metal risers, their stocking feet tucked into pair after pair of black Mary Janes. I heard their baby gasps for breath as they tried to make it all the way through the “Gloo-ooo-oooo-oooria” and into “excelsis Deo.” In that moment, I realized that thin line between the ridiculous and the magical is governed by belief. An opera is only successful if its audience is willing to suspend its cynicism for a little while and dive in. Ritual works the same way.
After my turn, I joined my friends, huddled down in the darkness, hidden behind the strategically placed Christmas greenery. The cool, plush carpet was a relief; the girls had even sneaked a ginger ale onto the altar for me. Eyes sparkled all around as we, with muted voices, began to sing along with the little ones, who, in a handful of years, would take our place.
The holly bears a berry as red as any blood;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.
O the rising of the sun,
The running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir,
Sweet singing in the choir.
for the crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
½ cup sugar
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
for the filling:
4 apples (I used McIntosh), peeled*, cored, & thinly sliced
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
for the glaze (optional):
½ cup apricot jam
juice of half a lemon
pan: 9- or 10-inch tart pan (preferably with a removable bottom) OR pie pan
Butter the pan thoroughly & set aside. To make the dough, cream the butter & sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer at high speed. Reduce speed to medium and add the egg. In a separate bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, & salt together—then gently add to the mixer bowl.
Press the dough (which will be soft) evenly into the tart pan, being sure to go all the way up the sides. Arrange the apples on top of the crust in any pattern that pleases you. Combine the cinnamon & sugar, then sprinkle generously over the apples. Dot the apples with a few extra tablespoons of butter.
I find it’s easiest to place the tart pan on a baking sheet and to place the whole thing in the oven. Bake the tart for 45-55 minutes. Look for a lightly browned crust and set filling. Cool slightly on a wire rack.
A glaze is certainly not necessary but is easy to do and adds another level of flavor. To make the glaze, simply combine the jam & lemon juice in a small saucepan over low heat. Use a spoon or spatula to break up any clumps, bringing the glaze up to a boil. Remove from heat and brush or dribble over the tart.
Listen, this tart needs NOTHING (no. thing.) to be delicious, but it certainly won’t hurt the tart’s feelings (or mine) if you decide throw a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Myself? I like to top with homemade, lightly-sweetened whipped cream that’s also been spiked with Amaretto. Hey, it’s the holidays!
*As you can see, I did not choose to peel the apples this time around, just to see what would happen. No one complained–in fact, it was promptly devoured-but it’s more traditional to peel the apples, so do whatever feels best to you. Note that the peel will add texture.