Saturday, December 15, 2012

Reflections on a Batch of Cookies

   Some days in our lives make us not want to wake up and face another round. Some days make us beam with incredible joy and graditude. Some days make us reflect on why we are who we are, and force us to acknowledge our own mortality, while simultaneously acknowledging our incredible good fortune.
   Yesterday was that day, when all three of these scenarios came to light.
I don't need to go into detail; by now we've all become aware of the horrible tragedy of December 14th. But what happened to me yesterday...well, I'm sure many people out there can share my story, today, as we sit back and pray, for loss, for thanks and for hope.
   Ahem. To begin...
Work was shitty. No bones about it, I had a bad day. It plain sucked. From the moment I stepped into the kitchen, my previously buyoant Christmas mood turned tail and headed for the South Pole, and despite my finest efforts (i.e. singing Xmas carols in my head, and making faces behind the backs of my coworkers), there was little to zero chance of recovering it. Yes, folks, my cheer had gone on a winter vacay to somewhere with palm trees and daiquiris, whilst I toiled away in freezing Philadephia for ungrateful customers.
    Now, please don't get me wrong - I do love what I do; making good food is my livelihood, my passion, and my creative outlet. There's just those days, when every mise is in the wrong spot, when your teammate has made double of everything in two different places, when every piece of lettuce is wilted the moment the bag opens. Once a domino falls, no recovery - bottom line.
   So, I plowed through, desperately, on the verge of tears, counting the minutes till I could run screaming out the back door and hurl myself into the nearest pint of beer. It was that day.
   Then, I was jolted home by others' phones buzzing from CNN, and all anyone could talk about was a massacre of children. A monster, let loose upon a school very nearly like the one I grew up in. A kindergarten class, kids the same age as my daughter. I grew morose, cried harder. I wanted to call her, but realized I had left my phone at home. At least my shift was done.

   Boarding the train eastbound, eating my cold noodles that really should have been hot, I stared out the window into a black icy wind beating upon a blighted part of town, and prayed. Hard. I thanked the universe for it not being my child, for it not hitting too close to home. I felt overwhelming guilt and selfishness then, for thinking of myself at such a time, but really, what is one to think? What is right or wrong here? Trying to imagine it being me, being her, was so distant and painful at the same time. I sent up some words for those parents, hoping that if there was a heavenly body, He'd understand I meant no ill will or mean nature; I was simply reacting as a mom.
   Slurped the remaining noodles. Tried to close my eyes, but some horrid woman was blabbing to anyone she could get on the phone about her deadbeat ex-husband who's not 'taking' the kids for Christmas. How now she'd have to change her plans because she 'has' to 'have' them. Thought, wow, that is incredibly more selfish than what I was pondering! Felt like a better parent. Stretched my toes.

   When I got home, dinner was hot, thanks to my other half, and he'd made grand plans to make Christmas cutout cookies with Colette. I however, was in no mood to decorate sugar cookies - didn't he know that something horrible happened??
   Incidentally, he did not. So we turned on the news, and sat in tranced disbelief while Brian Williams narrated. My darling child, too young to know what harm guns really do, brushed it off and demanded to make cookies. Husband obliged. I couldn't believe it - how could he just shut it off like that?? Why aren't we poring over this together, as a family???
   (Voiceover: SANTA in head:) "Because, you see Christine, there is more to do as a family. Like inspire joy, celebrate the life we do have, and move on. We cannot be sad forever. We must mourn, we may hurt for a long time, and feel empathy, but to move forward is to triumph."
   Thank you, Santa. I almost forgot.

   Colette ate a lot of raw dough; she called it "taste testing".

I rolled, and we cut and decorated together at the table. Every reindeer got marshmallow eyes and a Rudolph nose, although Colette claimed they all had different names. She made a 'Christmas ladybug' too, from a small rolled ball of dough that escaped her mouth. It was too cute to eat.

   I may make an ornament of it.

Even though it took only a couple hours' time, that cookie session gave me enough gumption to realize that life was too short to feel sorry for myself. Yes, I had a bad day. But you know, other people had it a hell of a lot worse than me. I may not drive a Benz (yet), or have my name above the front door (yet), or even be able to fly south whenever I need to reboot my spirits. But I do have a roof over my head that a hurricane spared, food in my pantry that I was able to buy with my own money, and a healthy child who will be in my arms before she falls to sleep at night.
  I'm pretty freakin' lucky, huh?
The cookies aren't half bad, either.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What do Apples and Bananas Have in Common? Family.

   All of a sudden, it happened last week - I woke up in my bedroom, windows open, and felt the chill. Cardinals chirping in the spruce outside, wind rustling newly crisped leaves that seem to caramelize on the trees, and the sun barely stretching it's rays, yawning with me as we drank coffee together. Yes, I realized it - fall had finally arrived.
   Autumn is my favorite of seasons for a number of reasons, including a myriad of birthdays and anniversaries, pumpkins, and leaf piles begging to be leapt into. And typically, I commemorate the first days around my daughter's birthday, two weeks before Halloween (joy!). Now I have a new start date, and it's made me feel a bit like that Christmas-in-July store display, the preemptive decor stealthily invading the back shelves of Target when we're JUST getting Back to School shopping understand what I mean...
   I bumped it back.
I began fall earlier, and probably will from now on, thanks to the fine folks of Hickman County, Tennessee, and a wee get-together they host on the first Saturday of October for the last three years called the National Banana Pudding Festival. It's an entire day of puddin' eatin', bouncy houses, and country/folk music, and I love every minute of it. This year, as a past grand prize winner, I was invited back to judge the, what a difficult task! I mean, isn't it simply AWFUL that I HAD to eat ten banana puddings before lunchtime?!? Simply torturous...
  ...regardless, I plowed forth, and the emerging winner presented a delicious rendition called Foster's Banana Pudding, laced with Appleton rum and banana, yum.
   I had never considered banana pudding a "holiday" dessert, but then, the people of Tennessee probaby never considered that a damn Yankee might win their competiton either (but I did! See Archives of 2010 blogs). Then the stories unfurled whilst cooking was going on....someone's grandfather ritually presented a pudding at the Thanksgiving table. Another fed it to her grandchildren around the fireplace on Christmas. One perched on the refrigerator as a child, watching awestruck as their family's cook browned a perfect meringue.The stories were as varied and remarkable as the recipes, and it dawned on me that this seemingly ordinary, down-home dessert casserole was the stuff of holiday memories, of years of tradition passed hand to spoon, mouth to ear, grandparent to grandchild. It wasn't about the food, but about the connections developed over a humble  pudding studded with Nilla wafers and sweet fruit, and all it represented - family, warmth, home, and love.

   Having grown up in the Northeast, bananas were decidedly not on our holiday radar, but our family has it's own banana puddings. In my home, with my husband and daughter, it's apple pie that shuffles in the season for me. We agreed early on that we needed to instill traditions of our own creation in Colette, beyond what we already have with extended family. And so every year, we trek out to Princeton and visit Terhune Orchards, a family-run apple farm that also has a small collection of farm animals, aging Golden retrievers lazing about the porch, apple cider donuts, and a fine selection of pumpkins. Every year, we grab way too many apples, mostly the ones I use for pie - Golden Delicious and Granny Smiths, but I usually sneak in Winesaps for apple butter as well. Every year, we stand Colette against the side of the sheep barn and measure her against the 'How Tall am I Now?" painted cornstalk, and marvel to one another how quickly our apple-driven infant has sprouted into a mouthy applesauce-obsessed preschooler. Every year, we hunt out the biggest, most personable pumpkins in the patch that we can carry, to carve into jack o'lanterns for Halloweeen. We gorge on unfiltered cider in the car on our way into town, noses red and runny from the brisk autumn air, and ooh and aaah at the old Victorian homes downtown. We prowl the university's campus population, half-pretending that we're students looking for a frat party (although it's diffiult toting a kid around - we look more like professors now). We cap our day by visiting Triumph Brewery, downing some microbrew pints, and feasting on fish and chips golden from the fryer.

 And after all of THAT, we go home and craft the best apple pie known to man or beast.
What, you think I'm giving away my secret recipe?? You're nuts! I will NOT.
   What I will divulge is that when the scent of apples and cinnamon waft into the living room, we are all floating on holiday air. The windows and doors are flung open, tea is made with cinnamon stick straws, and the sun dances merrily on the tines of the rake, as Sean tidies the lawn for the trick-or-treaters, while Colette and Abby impede his progress by smashing through leafpiles. Fall is in the air, Thanksgiving is around the corner, and the pot of applesauce on the stove begs for Mason jars and warm oatmeal. I heat my mug of cider, hit it with a shot of Meyer's, and sit on the patio, curled into my fleecy jacket, observing the blessings I have around me. And I marvel how a humble fruit, tenderly crafted into a humble dessert, can tie bonds beyond years, beyond words.
   I will pass this recipe to my daughter one day, and she to her offspring, and so on, and so forth, until apples exist only in natural history museums. What will live on, though, is the memories of our trips to the farm, snacking on pie dough, and pictures of smaller, more modest times, when children were measured by cornstalks and we ate apples off the tree, thick as thieves.
This is tradition. This is home.