Thursday, August 14, 2014

I had a vision

I’ve now been an adult longer than I was a kid, and in the time I’ve been on my own, some of the friends I’ve made along the way have come and gone, and some have become a part of my family such that I can hardly remember not knowing them. Our friends Henry and April fall in the latter camp.

Henry and April’s annual pig roast always feels like a summer version of Thanksgiving, and this year’s was no exception. Henry is Cuban; it’s in his blood. He generally starts a fire around five the morning of the party and tends it all day long, slowly roasting the meat to succulent perfection. When we stepped out of our car, the scandalously pungent, sizzling, sensuous smell overwhelmed us. Stomachs rumbling, we watched Henry and his oldest son work together. I had a vision of attending a pig roast hosted by his son in my old age. The rest of the afternoon, I couldn’t stop watching the boy-turned-teenager whom I first met as a week-old babe fifteen years ago. He alternated between helping his parents with the food, acting as a host, playing his guitar under a shady tree while some of us sang along, and, occasionally, allowing Abbott to persuade him to play tag and hide-and-seek.

Cubans know how to throw a party. We drank wine and ate ceviche in tostone cups in the afternoon heat. As the sun began to lower on the horizon we feasted on the abundant quantities of pork, black beans and rice, roasted vegetables, and green salad. At dusk, the meal concluded with vibrantly colorful blueberries and peaches topped with dollops of whipped cream with just a whisper of sweetness.

I met Henry when I was 28, three months after Alexi and I started dating; a few days after I was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive type of breast cancer. I was assigned to be his patient weeks after he finished his training as an oncologist.

During chemotherapy, I exhaled a gust of anxieties every time I had an appointment with him. I obsessed over every leg, back, and stomachache I experienced (leg/back/stomach cancer!). Whenever I coughed, I knew the disease had spread to my lungs. I became convinced my heart was beating erratically. Over time, Henry became a trusted older brother. He even began calling me by a childhood nickname without knowing it was, without asking permission; one that even Alexi doesn’t know.

We worked at the same hospital, and I developed a habit of running up the few floors between my department and his office to ask a question or express a concern, or with an excuse to say “hi.” As if, by being around him, I was warding off any cancer cells that might be thinking of developing. He listened to me.

When my hair fell out after I started chemotherapy, Alexi shaved his head, and kept it that way until my hair grew back close to a year later. A couple of years later we married. Henry came to our wedding.

As I watched our boys run around together, I thought about how lucky they are to have the dads they do: the full force of their characters, their kindness and vigilance, their good sense and equanimity. I can only assume the boys are, and will continue to be, better people because of the example set for them.

As we ate and talked, talked and ate through the afternoon of the party and into the evening, I noticed laugh lines around Henry’s eyes. There is an aching beauty to becoming middle-aged, and sharing the experience with those you love.

As we said our goodbyes, Abbott measured himself against Henry, who first held him when he was days old, twelve years ago. Someday soon, perhaps – maybe when we trick-or-treat at their house; maybe at next summer’s pig roast – Abbott will be the taller one.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

high summer

Every weekday morning, the boys swim for an hour. Cal is assigned to a lane near the row of white plastic lounge chairs where I like to sit, and as I read, the arc of his arm glinting in the rising sun catches my eye, again and again, as do his rhythmic breaths. His movements are distinctively his.

The poolside is festively social. Women clad in bias-cut skirts and sandals, racerback tanktops and shorts and bright, pretty sundresses watch their children; younger siblings play. This morning I overheard a man telling another about a cake his wife made over the weekend, with almond paste. A toddler belonging to one of them, poised, ballerina-like, flitted around my field of vision, a dainty cloud of white-blond French braids in a smocked pink swimsuit.

Our tomato plants are as tall as me; love the run of dry, hot weeks we’ve had. The heavy sweetness of butterfly bush continually fills and overwhelms the hot, stagnant air, intermingling with the jammy aroma of blackberries and the sun-baked mint.

Cal hasn’t been able to sleep until the heat abates with the last of the light. The past couple of nights, he dragged a sleeping bag onto the deck off our bedroom, where there is always a slight breeze from the water. In silence, interrupted by the occasional call of Canadian geese, I read electronically in my Adirondack chair; he read comic books by flashlight. The crescent moon set as his breathing slowed and deepened in his plunge to sleep. The sound was as familiar as my own breath.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

synonymous with comfort

There is nothing more soothingly sweet, more synonymous with comfort, than leftover dessert for breakfast. We began our Monday with nectarine cobbler. We’ve been on a nectarine jag, and happened to have four extra pounds of them that needed using up over the weekend. Though peach cobbler is my first love – I still fantasize about the ones my grandmother made with the luscious fruit from her trees – I am lazy. Removing skins from peaches is too much work. You get to leave the skins on when you bake with nectarines.

The evening before this famous breakfast, a neighbor completely unraveled before our eyes. Alexi greeted him from the deck off our bedroom, and in response, he began shouting at us. We stared, open-mouthed; looked at each other wide-eyed. We’ve lived in this house seven years and have always had a cordial relationship with him and his family. I’ve never before been cursed at.

Earlier that afternoon, I'd texted him. “I’m concerned about (your daughter’s) v fast driving speed; worried someone is going to get hurt. (Another neighbor) expressed the same thing to me. When Abbott and Cal are her age I’m hoping you’ll pass on the same sorts of things to me!” The gist of the yelling seemed to be that my message had really upset his daughter.

Over breakfast, Abbott remarked that shouting had disrupted his bedtime reading the night before. It scared him, and so he'd closed his window.

During our meals and walks the past couple of days, we’ve had discussions about self-control, the importance of giving feedback despite a poor response, and how best to give and take. We’ve talked about the pros and cons of asynchronous communication (texting, email) and synchronous communication (phone conversations, in person communication). We’ve had conversations about neighbor relations, the tumbledown of stress, and mental illness. The world is a complex place, and Alexi and I only have a few more years to prepare our boys to navigate on their own.

After the neighbor stormed back inside I settled back in to read, appreciating the faint breeze that stirred, cooling the sweat running down my back. The latticework shadows began to fade as I continued re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, getting so many things from it I didn’t the last time I read it, or the time before that. I paused at Atticus’ admonition to try to climb into another’s skin and walk around in it.

Nectarine Cobbler
Adapted from Bon Appetit, July 1995

This is the best cobbler I’ve ever had, anytime, anywhere, aside from my grandmother’s similar version with peaches. The roasting of the nectarines, first, makes all the difference.


4 pounds nectarines, cut into wedges
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup unbleached all purpose flour
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice


2 ¼ cups unbleached all purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking power
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ cup (½ stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
¼ cup chilled solid vegetable shortening, cut into pieces
1 large egg, beaten to blend
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons chilled buttermilk

For the filling:
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400°F. Mix all of the filling ingredients in a 13x9x2-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the topping:

Mix the flour, baking powder, salt, and 4 tablespoons of the sugar in a large bowl. Using your fingertips, rub in the butter and shortening until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the egg and buttermilk, and stir until batter forms.
Remove the fruit from the oven. Spoon the batter over the hot filling in 12 mounds, spacing evenly. Sprinkle with the 2 tablespoons of remaining sugar. Bake until the juices thicken and the topping is golden, about 30 minutes. Cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes.
Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Yield: 8 servings

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

salad days

Parenting becomes more transparent these summer months, constant in its immediacy, variety, complexity, and beauty.

I wake from the nights of heavy heat with prickly skin, hair matted to my scalp. Conversations waft down to the kitchen as I make breakfast.

“Guess what we’re having for breakfast? It starts with a ‘P.’ And the ‘P’ is silent.”


“The P being silent was a decoy! We’re having pancakes.”

One of them heads off with a friend to play mini-golf, the other to a pool party. I drop one off for the night; bring another here. They pull away from me like the outgoing tide, and I am left standing alone on the beach.

We subsist on salads. The night after inhaling rich, caramelized carrots balanced with peppery arugula, I dreamed about meeting Melissa Clark, author of the cookbook from whence it came.

We end our days with something along the lines of Capture the Flag and rhubarb crisp, and then everyone generally gets to bed without fuss. As I make my nightly rounds, I'm surprised at how much older Abbott has started to look when he sleeps.

Honey-Roasted Carrot Salad
adapted slightly from Cook this Now by Melissa Clark

For the Salad:
1 pound carrots (about 5 medium), trimmed, peeled, and sliced into ½-inch rounds

1 ½ tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon plus 1 large pinch kosher salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons honey

¼ cup sliced almonds
2 bunches arugula (about 8 cups)

For the vinaigrette:
1 ½ teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400F. Toss the carrots with the 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper, and then distribute them evenly on a baking sheet. Roast for about 25 minutes, or until the carrots are carmelized and tender, stirring occasionally.

While the carrots are roasting, whisk together the honey, remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon water, and a large pinch of kosher salt. Toss the almonds with 1 ½ teaspoons of the honey mixture and spread them on a small baking sheet.

Transfer the almonds to the oven, and then pour the remaining honey mixture over the carrots. Roast until the nuts are dark golden, about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely.

To make the vinaigrette, whisk together the lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and then whisk in the oil until incorporated.

Place the arugula in a large bowl with the carrots and almonds. Drizzle with the vinaigrette, toss, and serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Monday, July 7, 2014

forever and ever

We spent last week on Lopez Island, something that has become a summer tradition for us, thanks to our friends Henry and April. The boys and I took the first ferry of the morning a few days before everyone else arrived. As the ferry began to dock, we strained to see our first glimpse of the bucolic landscape. We watched for the farmstand on the drive to the house. The boys have reached the (milestone!) age and size such that they unloaded the groceries and bags from the car while I unpacked, Aleck Bay sparkling in the background. Then they inspected the house and surrounding woods, verifying that everything was just as they remembered it.

When I was a kid, we had our summer rituals, too, as everyone does; we fished, ate gooseberries and rhubarb from the yard, went to camp for a week. We'd go to Texas to visit my grandparents, and it always felt unchanged, even into my adulthood when I visited on my own and with my children, until the last few years of their lives when others helped care for them. They lived in dwindling, dry, windblown towns in the Texas panhandle and just across the border in Oklahoma. At my grandmother Louise’s house, first thing, I would look for my favorite of her salt and pepper shakers from her collection – a miniature toaster with a slice of white bread for salt, brown bread for pepper – and something about it would remind me of the little tabletop sombrero in my mother’s room, full of rattlers my granddad cut off snakes, so I’d check for that, and then I’d desperately need to spin a few times around in the midcentury chair in my grandparents’ bedroom.

We would catch horny toads in the flowerbeds and run through the sprinkler in the blistering heat; we'd swim in the river that ran through my granddad’s Oklahoma farm where the soil was red. I almost always saw a tarantula on the trip, fodder for nightmares until the next summer.

Our first morning on Lopez, as I stirred oatmeal, I watched a doe with her two spotted fawns step out of the woods and walk around the house, eventually disappearing from view.

Involuntarily, I slept like the dead whenever there was a pause in our activity at any time of day; I simply could not keep my eyes open. The boys’ energy was indomitable. They wrestled like puppies; dueled and built with driftwood. We dug for clams, and found five of the seven kinds native to the area. Sand infiltrated everything. We all went to bed and woke up gritty, despite our efforts to leave it out of doors. A couple of evenings, I hosed the boys down before allowing them inside.

Our last night, we sat on the beach in the gloaming for a long, long time, and in the placidity of that cove and the ending of that summer's day I felt a pure, undiluted joy. I struggle to find words to describe it; to convey the emotion it produced.

Summer is forever and ever.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

my summer salvation

At quarter to five or thereabouts, weekdays, I give in to the rising sun and its chirping chorus and take part in the new day. I throw a sweatshirt over the tank top and pyjama pants I slept in, and head out the door. Nelly and I walk the length of our isolated, winding, rural-in-the-city road. I carry her leash in one hand, coffee in the other, waving at the occasional neighbor passing us on their way to work or the gym or wherever. This alone time is my summer salvation.

Alexi always leaves something for the boys to discover when they wake up. The morning after we watched Captain Phillips, he left our globe on the table with a note: “Can you find Somalia?” Over our eggs and toast we talked about Somalian social and economic conditions in relation to piracy; the untenable disjunction between there and here.

The last time I was at the grocery store, the cashier laughed as she looked from my boys and the extra one with us to the popsicles and gin side-by-side in my cart; she asked if I was buying sleepover supplies. I grinned sheepishly.

Our days consist of working together in the yard and around the house, playing cards, taking long walks with Nelly. Cal found a feather with a blue edge the other day. We spend extra time with friends, miss those who are away, and look forward to our own upcoming travels.

Each evening, Alexi and I sit outside until its dark.

I'm glad for it all.

I almost always cook breakfast, and the rest of the day, these days, we mostly eat raw foods. Alexi grills everything else.

I love this breakfast just as much, with a salad, for dinner.

Portugese Baked Eggs
Adapted from Bon Appetit

¼ cup olive oil
3 bell peppers, any color, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, cut into wedges
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ cup fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
1 ½ teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup ricotta
6 large eggs
1 cup grated sharp cheddar (about 4 oz.)
¼ cup grated Parmesan (about 1 oz.)
Toast, for serving

Heat the oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add the bell peppers and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and just beginning to brown, 10–12 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, garlic, basil, oregano, chili powder, and paprika to the pot. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very soft and the liquid is thickened, 20–30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 400F°. Transfer the bell pepper mixture to a 13x9” baking dish. Using the back of a spoon, make 6 evenly spaced divots in the mixture. Spoon a dollop of ricotta into each divot, then crack 1 egg into each. Top with the cheddar and Parmesan; season with salt and pepper. Bake, rotating halfway through, until the Parmesan is melted and the egg whites are set but the yolks are still runny, 15–18 minutes.

Serve with toast. The yolks will continue to cook as the dish sits, so serve right away if you prefer your eggs soft.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Bell pepper mixture can be cooked 1 day ahead. Let cool; cover and chill.