Friday, February 19, 2010

Conversations with Micah: On Food

"Hello squishy belly."  Micah wraps his arms around my hips, buries his face in my tummy.  "I love you, squishy belly."

"What if I started running all the time and got really skinny Micah?   What would you think about that?"

He looks up at me, very serious.  His cheek is still resting on my belly as he ponders this.

Then, with all the passion of Micah:  "Eat! Eat! Eat!"

* * *

It's Ash Wednesday, and we've just returned home from services.  The quiche and the bread were not done in time -- everything always takes longer than it should -- so we had a snack and the kids are eating their meal now, late.  Julia Child's quiche, so much better than Molly Katzen's.  Heavy cream and butter are quickly climbing to the top of my list of life's greatest pleasures.  Also, white flour.  I've made a loaf and two baguettes, all white flour.  All of this, I know, goes against every bit of sound nutritional wisdom, but oh my.... I just can't stop.  I'm thinking of giving up risk-aversion for Lent.

I'm tidying the kitchen, wiping counters, loading the dish washer.  The kids are at the table in the dining room.

"Trixie?" says Micah.  "What's your favorite thing about this family?"

She has a fork-full of of cheddar-sausage quiche in one hand, a hunk of baguette in the other.  "The food," she says, between bites.

"Yeah, me too."

* * *
Dinner the next night.  Gratin with potatoes, cheese and pork sausage.  For some reason we have two dozen eggs in the fridge, and Julie is coming home with at least another dozen in the winter farm share tonight.  So I'm using up eggs like crazy.

Micah doesn't like the gratin, because he doesn't like potatoes, so he's eating another piece of quiche.

"Nial and Zach and I are the only ones in my class who eat healthy food," he says.

"Is that so?"  This is an interesting development.  Until very recently, he's been mostly horrified by his homemade lunches.  "The kids will laugh at me," he would moan, "if I bring that to school."  But when I relent, and buy him some awful yogurt in a squeeze tube or something, he doesn't actually eat it.  It's just about street cred.

When Trixie was Micah's age, she began a boycott of MacDonalds after I told her about industrial beef production.  It was an ethical boycott, though she didn't really like the food much either.  A couple of times on our road trip last summer we stopped at MacDonalds in desperation, and because Micah begged, but eventually even Micah declared he wouldn't eat there anymore.  "I just like the toys in the Happy Meals.  But that's not real food."

Apparently he has embraced being the kid with the healthy lunch.  "I'm teaching my friend Nassir to eat more healthy though."

"That's great Micah.  Has your teacher been talking to your class about eating healthy?"

"No, I just decided to teach Nassir."

"What did you tell him about eating healthy?"

"Like, he should eat his sandwich before his chips and snacks.  And his fruit, he should eat fruit.  Like that."

"That's great advice, Micah," I say.  "Maybe you should take your own advice, though."

He looks at me.

"You didn't eat your sandwich today.  And only part of your fruit."

He looks away, shrugs, the sly smile.  He is his own boy.  He will be a good man.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Welfare of the City: Scenes from a Neighorhood

The second in an occasional series; the first:  Sister Margaret (or: the first time I walked away from poverty)


The snow has been relentless.  I missed the first wave, having been forced – entirely against my will, I’ll have you know -- to stay another day on my writing retreat in Manhattan because there were no trains home.  The kids and Julie had off Monday, which was a gift, and they went to school Tuesday, which was also a gift.  But they are off the rest of the week, which is, well, a mixed blessing.  If I could have one more day to get on top of the mess in the house, to get my head back in the game, that would be a good thing.  Instead I’m trying to catch some quiet moments alone where I can.  Which is why I’m going to be late to the neighborhood snow day potluck at Kate and Pete’s house.  The Brussels sprouts are my excuse – my, but they take a long time to roast, with just some olive oil and kosher salt.

When I arrive, the house is teeming.  I’m laden with the Brussels sprouts (roasted to perfection, if I do say so myself) and half the sticky buns I baked this morning with Micah and his pals Ada, age five, and Zady, age four.  Micah likes to measure and mix and roll things, but hates sticky fingers.  Ada and Zady, on the other hand, are girls after my own heart.  When it came to smearing soft butter on the rolled-out dough with their bare hands, they couldn’t get enough of it. 

“Ooohhh! It feels so good!” They giggled, pinching off more butter and finger-painting it on the rectangle of soft, sweet dough.  Micah sprinkled the cinnamon, I rolled it up, and everyone helped pinch the seam.  I cut thick slabs and arranged the pin-wheels in the slurry of sugar and butter the kids had just spread with a spatula all over the bottom of the baking pans.  The warm, sticky cinnamon swirl buns are… well, words fail.  Possibly too much.  I’m taking half of them to the potluck.

I take my food to Kate and Pete’s kitchen and put it on the counter.  My Ada Ruby, their oldest, greets me with a hug.  Jen and Tim arrive with a bottle of wine.  Julie has put good beer in the fridge, Long Trail I think.  Folks keep arriving, with salads, corn bread, chocolate cake.  There are brownies in the oven, and the whole house smells sweet and chocolaty.  The main course is sheer perfection:  tortilla soup with lime and cilantro, avocado and red onions to sprinkle on top.  There’s also black bean soup, but I can’t eat any, I’m already so full.  I can’t find a plate to put Brussels sprouts on, so I just pinch a few with my fingers, then lick the salt off.  Zady’s dad Zach sees me and smiles.  He leans in and whispers, “I did the same thing.”

“Marta, those are so good,” says Pete as I squeeze out of the kitchen.  “Brussel sprouts are much maligned and I just don’t understand why.  I love them.”

“Me too!”  There’s not much food I don’t love though.  Licorice is the only flavor I really can’t abide.  Everything else is about texture: oatmeal, tapioca, rice pudding – I can’t do it.  It’s a shame too, because I love the idea of all those foods.  I mean really, is there anything more cozy and comforting than a bowl of oatmeal with cream and brown sugar and raisins?  Too bad it makes me gag.

“Hey Aaliyah, can I have that baby?” Aaliyah is one of Trixie’s best friends and our next-door neighbor.  Trixie has known Aaliyah and her sister Qudsiyyah since they were all two and three year olds.  For several years I took care of them before and after school, and had baby Ada during the day.  “Marta’s daycare and taxi service,” the kids used to call it. 

Aaliyah smiles and hands me baby Levi, Kate and Pete’s third child.  Josiah, their two-year old middle son is showing us a few dance moves, much to everyone’s delight.

I settle on the couch and bounce the baby on my knee.  Jen is beside me, hugely pregnant and looking uncomfortable.  “How you doin’ babe?” I ask, and lay my hand on her belly.  Jen is not only one of my dearest friends, but also my yoga and pilates instructor, with a studio in her home that is directly across the street from us.  I take private sessions with her, and we’re bartering for childcare.  It’s only recently starting to feel real that this isn’t just a plan, but a relationship.  A new baby in my life!  Suddenly I am so eager to have this baby on the outside.  Not as eager as Jen is, though.

“I’m okay.  I’m kind of sad, actually, but it feels pretty hormonal, not existential, you know?”  I stroke her knee absently, assure her I do indeed know exactly what she means. 

“I don’t think I’m going to stay for the movie,” she says. 

I shake my head and whisper, “Me either.”  I look round at this house full of people I love, every one of them a neighbor on my little block of rowhouses, most of whom I’ve known for years and years.  Jen (the other Jen, Zady’s mom) and Q & A’s mom Kelley are hanging a sheet on the wall; Emilia has just arrived with an LCD projector.  Movie night on the Terrace.  This is a good life.  My gratitude is deep.  Still, I know my limits.  “I’m going to leave when the movie starts, enjoy a little solitude before I put the kids to bed.”

I turn to listen to Michelle, on the other side of me on the couch.  She’s talking about food.  “We had a lunch meeting at work, and I’ve been trying to recreate this green been dish ever since.  With cranberries and pearl onions.  Oh my, it was so good.  I can’t quite get it right though – I think I’m putting in too much olive oil.”

“Shelley, how many years have I known you? Seventeen? And I didn’t know you like to cook.”

“Has it been that long? Really?  You know, you mentioned recently about knowing my father, and I didn’t realize you’d been on the block that long until you said that.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember your father.  We moved here in 1992.  I was just trying to remember how old your Erich was then?  Maybe eight or nine?”

“Yeah, that’s about right.  He’s grown now.”  She sighs.  “But food, yeah, I love food.  I love everything about food.  You know, some people say they like to eat, but don’t really like all the preparation – all that chopping and cooking, you know?  But I just love it all.”

I smile, nodding.  I remember last summer, when there was a huge block party to celebrate because Shelley had completed her degree.  I do remember now eating some amazing barbeque pork on her stoop that day.  That was when we talked about her father.  How he went to Tuskegee.  How proud he was – never bought anything on credit.  Walked to the car dealership on the Avenue, paid cash, drove home with a new car, no note.  Her parents were good people.  Shelley is too.  And I don’t doubt she can cook, because that barbeque was amazing.  It’s all coming back to me.

“I was talking about this once with a girlfriend at work,” says Shelley, nodding her head in a sort of circular motion. “I said, ‘I love everything about food.  I love the way it looks, I love the way it tastes, I love the way it feels and smells….’  And my girlfriend, she looked at me and she said, ‘Shelley? Are you talkin about food or are you talkin about sex?!’”

I touch her arm, laughing.  “Shelley, good food and good sex?  Just two sides of the same coin, if you ask me.”

“You got that right!” She’s still chuckling and nodding her head.  “You sure do got that right.”

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book Review: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)[*****] I've never before read any fiction by Virginia Woolf, though I read and loved A Room of One's Own as a teenager, and I read about VW many years ago in Nigel Nicholson's biography Portrait of a Marriage about his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, in which Virginia Woolf plays a role as one of Vita's many lovers (I loved that book too).  But I'd always been a little afraid of actually reading Virginia Woolf, cliche as that may be.  Recently a friend spoke highly of The Hours by Michael Cunningham, but I thought I should read Mrs. Dalloway first.  I'm so glad I did.  I just loved this book so much.  Mrs. Dalloway takes place in one day, throughout which Big Ben marks the passing hours while Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a party.  The narrative is stream-of-consciousness, tracking the interior lives of not just Clarissa, but also of all the people with whom she comes in contact throughout the day.  The point of view is constantly changing, like a baton that gets passed from character to character.  So Mrs. Dalloway is walking through the park, and we are hearing the thoughts in her head about her marriage and her former lover who has just returned from India; she passes a young couple sitting on the park bench, and suddenly we are in their heads. Sometimes it took me half a paragraph to realize that the point-of-view had shifted.  Everything is very interior -- the thoughts, memories, revelations of the various characters, major and minor.  One of the reasons I loved Mrs. Dalloway is that its stream-of-consciousness interiority mirrored very much what it feels like to be inside my head sometimes.  All of the stories woven throughout the day converge at Clarissa's party that evening, a remarkably choreographed scene that is both biting and humorous in its social commentary.  Mrs. Dalloway is about many things -- love, marriage, war, mental illness, social class -- but I think I loved it especially because it is so much about youth and middle age and especially what it means to look back on youth -- ones own and ones children's -- from the vantage point of middle age.  Clarissa; her former lover, the adventurous philanderer Peter Walsh; and her former passionate friend, Sally Seton, are brought together for the first time in years, and are all confronted with the memories of what they imagined their lives would be, and with the choices that have brought them to their lives as they actually are.  I could identify so much with  the sense of confusion they all feel at finding themselves and each with such different lives than they had imagined, but also with the sense of passion and possibility they still feel in their middle age.  I think it is just as well that I am only now finding Virginia Woolf's fiction, because all of that would have been lost on me a couple of decades ago.  Now I am intrigued not only to read more of her fiction, but her letters and diaries as well.  She seems to have lived quite a remarkable life.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Guest Post: Julie's Director of Music Report for the Annual Meeting at Church (in its entirety)

Reflections on a Benign Dictatorship:
A Music Director’s Sonnet of Thanksgiving

I’ve been music dictator 13 years—
How lucky am I to have all of you?
To sing and play and do those things you do
So well and to God’s glory, festive cheers!
In thanking you, I might be in arrears.
Allow a shout out, first and foremost, to
The choir, week in and out, rehearsing, who
Up front, (LOOK UP!), sing as our Christ comes near.
Hey band!  You rock the sanctuary space,
True testament to multi-age: Believe!
When soloists enrich our worship’s verve
And pianists say “yes,” it seems like grace.
For Tim’s dual keyboard skills (please, never leave):
This congregation’s thanks you all deserve.

Respectfully submitted way past the deadline,
Julie Steiner
February 7, 2010

Sunday, February 7, 2010

writing retreat, the haiku version (with apologies to vw)

what's this passion for?
always: buzz, hum, soar, roar, dive
then buried in snow