• ham and bean soup

    Every year we make a ham for Christmas, and then every year after Christmas I decide to make ham and bean soup with the scraps but, because I’ve never bothered to nail down a recipe, I end up frantically casting about for a recipe. What I cobble together is, more often than not, decidedly mediocre.

    But this year, the soup turned out dee-LISH-ous, and I was like, “That’s IT. I’m taking notes. This one’s going in my files.” BANG-BANG (the sound of me nailing down a recipe).

    My future self thanks me. 

    Ham and Bean Soup
    Adapted from the blog A Spicy Perspective.

    The original recipe called for navy beans but when I got home from the store I discovered I’d mispurchased Great Northern. Now, looking back, I think one of the reasons we may have liked this soup so much is because I used Great Northern beans — they’re bigger and creamier — and everyone (even the non-bean fans!) gobbled it right up.

    Our ham bone was picked pretty clean so I added two cups of chopped, leftover ham.

    In the above photo (on Day Two of the soup), the kale looks darker and the soup creamier — the beans have begun to break down — than it was on Day One, but it was equally delicious both days. 

    1 pound dried Great Northern (or navy) beans
    1 ham bone
    1 large onion, chopped
    1 tablespoon olive oil
    2 cups chopped ham
    6 cloves garlic, minced
    2 carrots, peeled and diced
    2 stalks celery, diced
    2 teaspoons cumin
    ½ teaspoon dried thyme (or 1 tablespoon fresh)
    ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
    10 cups chicken broth (or water)
    4-6 cups fresh kale, rough chopped

    Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Drain, cover with water again, and simmer over medium heat until almost completely tender. (I skipped the overnight soak and just simmered them longer.) As the ham may be quite salty, do not add any salt to the beans until the very end.

    In a large stockpot, saute the onion, carrot, celery, ham bone, and garlic in the olive oil over medium high heat for about 5-10 minutes. Add the dried thyme, pepper flakes, and cumin and cook another minute. Add four cups of chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Add the mostly-cooked beans along with their cooking water (about four cups, I’m guessing?), and simmer for 30-60 minutes, or until the beans are completely soft. 

    Add the chopped ham and kale and simmer for another 15 minutes, or until the kale is cooked through. Remove the ham bone — pick off any remaining bits of ham and add it to the soup — and season the soup with salt and black pepper.

    Serve with hot biscuits, cornbread, or buttered toast.

    This same time, years previous: salad dressing: a basic formula, lemon cream cake, the quotidian (1.19.15), chuck roast braised in red wine.

  • the quotidian (1.18.21)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace


    Working lunch: chorizo, egg, and warm tortillas.


    Crostata test: rhubarb and red raspberry.


    Sunday dinner door-drop from my mama: incredible chicken with dried prunes and olives.


    The steers have relocated.


    David Copperfield and dishes.


    Girl’s got flair!


    All the time: talking, arguing, and thinking, and in that order.


    In town with a friend, a walk-by sighting of my husband’s work.


    DON’T YOU DARE.


    Dogsitting: killing us with cuteness.


    That’s not how you wear a mask, son.


    Sunday geography lesson, and my new rug.


    This same time, years previous: pozole, no-knead sourdough bread, doing stupid safely, homemade grainy mustard, the quotidian (1.18.16), just do it, cream cheese dip, day one, polenta and greens, snapshots and captions, Julia’s chocolate almond cake.

  • this is who we are

    We were on the interstate, driving home from Massachusetts (more on this later), when the news of the insurrection broke. I was stunned and horrified, of course. But I was not surprised. The President had been rabble rousing for weeks, so I’d figured something was bound to happen.

    Listening to the reports, it didn’t take long for me to grow exasperated with the newscasters and their tiresome “How could this have happened?” refrain — as though this came out of nowhere — but when they started with the somber intonations of “This is not America” and “This is not who we are,” that’s when I exploded.

    “This is EXACTLY who we are,” I yelled at my husband, “and denying nearly half of our population — dismissing them out of hand as though they don’t even exist — is stupid. If we don’t see things for how they actually are — not as we wish them to be — then we will never change.

    A couple days later my mom forwarded a link to this video which succinctly encapsulates my thoughts. Watching it was cathartic. I’m not the only one.

    I have relatives who were in the crowd that day — they didn’t go into the capitol, they say, but they were at the base of the steps — and I have other relatives who, watching from afar, were exultant. 

    With my friends, I puzzle over the best approach. My ideas run the gamut: from mockery to serious debate, from lambasting rage to loving rebuke, from complete disengagement to silent watchfulness.

    Nothing I come up with feels right.  

    Awhile back, I heard a report on how best to engage with people who are ensnared in conspiracy theories. The solution is simple, the guy said: hours and hours of conversation in which each theory is painstakingly broken down into bite-sized chunks and overlaid with facts. It’s a tedious exercise in logic, reminiscent of the sort of conversation a parent might have with a teen (speaking from experience here), and there are two key requirements: lots of available time, and a close relationship important enough to warrant the time commitment. 

    Regarding my personal connections, I have the time but not the closeness — so, so much for that. Not that it really matters, though — the guy on the report said that it’s all but impossible to detangle someone who is committed to conspiracies. 

    Discouraging, no?

    So I try to take the long view. What can I do now that, five years from now, I will feel proud of? What about fifty years from now? I think of the future history books and try to imagine myself in them. I mean, not me as in Jennifer’s Going To Be In A History Book!, but my position in the pages. Where will I fall? 

    Better yet, where do I want to place myself?

    Thinking this way doesn’t really change anything — I’m still mystified and repulsed by these staggeringly bizarre theories — but it helps me stay open and hold my anger (of the retaliatory, unhelpful sort) in check.

    These conspiracy theories (and all the other accompanying dangerous and damaging ideologies) aren’t going away any time soon, so if you have any brilliant insights for how to cope and/or confront them, tell me. I need help figuring this out.

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (1.14.19), through the kitchen window, quick fruit cobbler, starting today.

  • the coronavirus diaries: week 45

    Up until now, Covid has felt dangerous and real, but also distant.

    Not anymore. 

    Yesterday, a healthy father of four — a man that my husband has worked with and whose family lives just a few miles from us — died from Covid. Just down the road, there is now a wife without a husband and four children without a father, and an entire community is stunned, reeling with heartbreak and rage. The collective grief hangs heavy. 

    Over the last year, it’s seemed that the people who got Covid were hush-hush about it. I figured their secretiveness had to do with confidentiality, but then a friend who tested positive posted an article about the stigma of Covid

    Apparently, there’s a shame component to getting the virus — people who get it are often viewed as having done something wrong and are therefore blamed for their illness. Which is ridiculous: some of the most careful, responsible people have contracted the virus while others who’ve blatantly disregarded every precaution have been just fine. 

    Bottom line: toss the shame and share the symptoms, says the article. Covid is real — and it’s random (five members of our friend’s family tested positive, and he was the only one who had a cough, and he didn’t develop a fever until after he was in the hospital) — and the more we talk about it, frankly and openly, the better we can care for ourselves and each other. 

    What with the sky-high numbers, cold weather, over-crowded hospitals, slow vaccine rollout, this new, highly-contagious strain of the virus, and now this devastating death in our community, it feels like we’re fast approaching a whole new level of the pandemic. Almost daily, I learn about another friend, or friend of a friend, who has tested positive. It’s sobering.

    No, scratch that. It’s terrifying

    Choices we’ve made that have, up until now, felt like reasonable risk may soon cross the line to dangerous. As a family, we’re beginning to talk about these next few months and the changes we may need to make to stay safe. 

    One small ray of hope: my older son — because he’s a volunteer for the rescue squad — qualified for the Covid vaccine. One down, one to go. I am so grateful. 


    photo credits: my younger daughter

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (1.13.20), full house, scandinavian sweet buns, homemade lard, the quotidian (1.11.16), cranberry bread, the quotidian (1.13.13), roll and twist, vanilla cream cheese braids, rum raisin shortbread, cranberry relish.

  • classic christmas fruitcake

    Remember when, a year or two ago, I did that post about breaking the fruitcake barrier? I failed, but ever since fruitcake’s been in the back of my mind. This fall I decided to try again. (I just went back to that post — it was a freakin’ six years ago. SIX YEARS AGO. I thought for sure it was no more than three. Did we tesser through time or something?)

    This fall, it was a post by Joe that got me back in the fruitcake game. He put out an alert — a rallying cry to start the fruitcake — and I was like, Oh right. Maybe this time?

    The recipe he suggested appeared to have a solid ingredient list — all real fruits and nuts, none of that neon red and green crap — and the method sounded pretty classic: soak fruits and nuts overnight in booze and orange juice. Make cake. Bake. Cure for a couple months, brushing with rum on the regular. So that’s what I did. And it worked!

    Or at least I think it did. I mean, it feels like the right thing, but is it? I wasn’t raised with fruitcake — I’m more fruitcake virgin than connoisseur — so how do I know this is actually a quality fruitcake? Are there better ones out there, or is this the end of the road? I know I like this one — a lot — but just because I think it’s good doesn’t make it so. 

    And then I realized that my uncertainty might not be all my fault. Fruitcake, by its very nature, is a study in contradictions. 

    Solid as a brick but not hard. 
    Chewy but not gummy. 
    Cakey but not light. 
    Rum-soaked but not alcoholic. 
    Expensive but not flashy. 

    See, it’s not just me. Fruitcake is confusing.  

    I gave away two loaves as Christmas gifts, which felt risky. Fruitcake’s a notoriously hard sell. Would anyone else appreciate it?

    In her thank-you email, my sister-in-law described it as “a super-dense, moist, deluxe gingerbread loaf.” And when I wrote back asking for her honest opinion, she said, “I liked it more than I expected to! After eating it several days in a row, though (it was a big loaf!), I realized that I’d enjoy it more in small quantities, farther apart. Maybe ’cause it’s pretty dense/intense?” 

    And in an email from my mother: “I just cut into the fruitcake. It is good! Wow–figs!”

    Not exactly a rave, but not bad either. 

    In my house, I’m pretty much the only one who eats it. (My husband likes it but never really thinks to eat it unless I serve it to him.) I often have a slice for breakfast with my coffee. What with all the nuts and fruits, it feels like a real food (and here’s yet another contradiction: it’s less fruitcake and more fruit bread), so I think of it not as a desert but as an honest-to-goodness meal.

    Making the fruitcake, I ran into a few hiccups:

    Storage space. The recipe calls for storing the cakes in a cool place, or in the fridge. I was afraid all my “cool” places were too warm — and I certainly didn’t want to risk ending up with a bunch of expensive loaves of mold — so I played it safe and used the fridge. Which was a giant space-suck but still doable.

    Rum brushing. I worried I was doing it wrong. Was it too much? Were the loaves turning soggy gooey? Would the rum be overpowering? I emailed Joe and he said to persevere. So I did. (Except, because it was such a chore, I grew lax and inconsistent. Eventually, I assigned the task to my older daughter’s to-do list and she became our resident rum brusher of fruitcakes.) 

    The wrap. Instructions said to wrap the loaves in cheesecloth and foil. I didn’t have cheesecloth so I used a cotton cloth which, because it was thicker, made me worry that I was rum-soaking the cloths instead of the bread. Also, the cloths turned an unappetizing shade of brown which made me think of wound bandages, mummies, and burial cloths. You’re welcome.

    I’m halfway through one loaf (now wrapped in clean plastic), and there’s one more loaf stashed in the back of the fridge still wrapped in its rum-soaked burial cloth.

    Since fruitcakes practically last forever, there’s no rush to eat them. I can nibble whenever I want, all winter long.

    It’s nice.

    Classic Christmas Fruitcake
    Adapted from Joe Pastry

    The original recipe says to halve the apricots. I bought my dried apricots already diced, so that saved time. The dates were to be left whole and the figs were to be halved, but I quartered all of them. You can use either brandy or rum (and maybe others?). I used rum.

    day one: the fruit and nut mixture
    2 cups golden raisins
    2 cups currants
    2 cups dried apricots, chopped
    2 cups dried figs, quartered
    2 cups pitted dates, quartered
    4 cups chopped walnuts
    2 cups chopped pecans
    ½ cup chopped candied ginger
    zest of 3 oranges
    zest of 3 lemons
    2 teaspoons cinnamon
    1 teaspoon ground allspice
    1 teaspoon mace
    ½ teaspoon cloves
    1 cup baking molasses (not blackstrap)
    2 cups rum (or brandy)
    ½ cup orange juice

    In a large bowl, combine everything down through the spices and toss to mix. Add the molasses, rum, and orange juice and still well. Cover with plastic and let sit at room temperature for 12 hours or so, or over night.

    day two: the cake 
    1 pound butter, at room temp
    3 cups brown sugar
    8 eggs
    1 tablespoon vanilla 
    4 cups flour
    1 tablespoon baking powder
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1½ teaspoons salt

    Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat well. Add the dry ingredients and mix until combined. Pour the cake batter over the fruit and nut mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. It will smell like heaven.

    Divide the batter between four large (9x5x3) loaf pans that have been buttered and then lined with parchment paper. The loaf pans will be quite full. (I used some of the cake batter for a mini loaf because I was worried they’d overflow, but the cakes didn’t rise much so I probably could’ve gotten all the batter into the four pans.)

    Bake the loaves at 275 degrees for two hours. They’ll be golden brown — and an inserted toothpick will come out clean — and your house will smell divine. Allow to cool for ten minutes before turning the loaves out of the pans onto a cooling rack. 

    Once completely cooled, brush the loaves all over with rum (or brandy): tops, sides, bottoms. Wrap each loaf in cheesecloth (or a clean, thin cotton cloth) and then in foil. Refrigerate. 

    Every three days or so, brush the loaves with rum. Sometimes I brushed the tops. Other times I brushed the bottoms (and then stored them upside down). Give the rum treatment regularly for the first couple weeks (I put “rum the fruitcakes” on my calendar so I wouldn’t forget), and then every 5-7 days for the next couple months.

    I’m no longer rumming my cakes, but depending on how long the last one lingers in the fridge, I may end up giving it another brushing or two. I like rum. 

    This same time, years previous: moving out, the quotidian (1.8.18), today, marching, our little dustbunnies, what it means, date nut bread, between two worlds, buckwheat apple pancakes, salted dulce de leche ice cream with candied peanuts, what I did.

  • how we homeschool: the Suburban Correspondent from Northern Virginia

    Meet Suburban Correspondent, a friend I met years ago via blogging. She and I became friends and eventually even had the chance to meet face-to-face on a couple occasions (so I can attest she’s a real, honest-to-goodness person, promise!). She’s been homeschooling since forever, and has the stories and dry wit to show for it. Enjoy!


    Hi! In the blogging world, I’m known as Suburban Correspondent. I live in northern Virginia, and I have 6 “kids” – 3 grown and flown, 2 college aged, and one high schooler. In theory, I should almost be an empty nester by now, but currently 4 of them are living here, because THANK YOU 2020. 

    Phys Ed, plus Nature Studies.

    Why did you decide to homeschool?
    I’ve been homeschooling since Hector was a pup (that’s an archaic phrase meaning “for a heck of a long time,” and I would love to know its origin), and my reasons for homeschooling have changed through the years and with my kids. Some were late readers, and I didn’t want the schools to make them hate reading by forcing them to learn before they were ready (they both learned at age 9). One had a severe dairy allergy which rendered the school cafeteria deadly. Another was already playing with two queen bees her age in the neighborhood several hours a week, and I feared that forcing her to socialize with them 35 hours a week at the local school would be a permanently traumatizing situation.

    Also, I’m lazy. I couldn’t imagine getting kids to and from school on time, especially when there were babies to nurse and toddlers who needed naps.

    But how did you even know to try homeschooling? Were your friends doing it?
    I think I stumbled on How Children Fail by John Holt when my two oldest were still young, and what he wrote really resonated with me. Also, I had taken some teacher certification courses while I was in the military (before kids), and I realized that a lot of classroom teaching was about crowd management and lesson plans and lesson objectives — just all really top-down sort of stuff that had very little to do with how my two young ones were going about the business of learning. So John Holt’s book seemed like a Get Out of Jail Free card to me.

    Animal husbandry, or how to spot a really good deal at ALDI and come home with a $5 flock.

    Logistically, how did you manage homeschooling six children? 
    For the longest time, there were little kids, as the spacing between oldest and youngest was 13.5 years. So, for the longest time, we had lessons in the morning, social time in the afternoon, regular mealtimes, regular snack times, etc. There was, if you can even imagine it, almost NO screen time (first because there was no internet, and later because we couldn’t afford all the screen-y things). 

    It all seems so far away now. And my two oldest, who suffered the longest under the strictly scheduled homeschooling regime, never fail to point out to their youngest sister how spoiled she is, as she wanders into the kitchen yawning, at 9:30, to look for breakfast and then sits on the couch and scrolls through Twitter on her phone.

    Life sciences: Murder hornet, yes or no?

    How did you keep from going crazy? What about your own interests and needs?
    Interests and needs? You mean, beyond survival? Let’s see…the thing is, when you have enough children and you live in a place where they can go out and play on their own, you can usually scrounge up an hour or two per day for your own pursuits. Especially if you lock the screen door after they go outside…

    But, OMG, make sure to exercise, even if you’re carrying a 25-pound toddler on your back while you do so! It’s no joke trying to get back into shape once you turn 50. I did it, but it sure wasn’t easy.

    Social needs were the easiest to look after, as homeschool moms tend to socialize at group activities for their kids. I think I had more friends and saw them more regularly than did my friends who were “regular school” moms.

    What’s been most challenging?
    When you start homeschooling, the most challenging thing can be the questions and doubts from others. It’s challenging, because at that point you’re not sure you are doing the right thing yourself! As we move on from that stage, though, I think most homeschool moms (except those of us who are now too tired to care much) waste a LOT of energy constantly second-guessing ourselves: Is he learning enough? Does she have enough friends? Did I miss something?

    Yes, you missed something. Don’t worry about it.

    What sorts of things would people say to you?
    They said I was overprotective, they said the kids needed to learn to play with other kids, they said I was too involved in their lives — all the standard stuff. In the meantime, we were living in a neighborhood where they played with other kids every single day, and I was spending less time helping my kids on their daily schoolwork than my neighbors were spending on their schooled kids’ homework. Go figure.

    Pioneer culinary arts: apple butter, but with an electric crockpot.

    What did homeschooling teach you about our culture’s view of education?
    Our culture has a warped view of education. First, it views education as a scarce resource to be fought over, rather than as a public commodity to be widely shared. Our county currently has a STEM magnet program (high school) that has for years experienced overwhelming demand and is therefore ridiculously competitive. The county has recently decided to make an effort to include more minorities/people of color in each class and this has provoked an uproar over which kids get to partake of this valuable educational experience. Yet, in all this noise, no one bothers to say, “Hey – all these kids who are applying are qualified to learn STEM. How about we set up a second program at another high school? And even a third one, if there is enough demand?”

    I mean, wouldn’t that make more sense?

    Second, our educational culture views education as something outside the child that needs to be placed inside the child, rather than as a process that happens within a child confronted with new information. Homeschoolers are fond of quoting, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” a quote we have (most likely mistakenly) attributed to Yeats. Teaching your own, if you stay alert to it, provides you many opportunities to witness this lighting of a fire; in turn, these instances encourage you to continue this nonconventional path to see where it might lead. Formal education, I fear, leaves neither the time for this sort of joyous exploration nor the inclination. It is, in short, exhausting.

    Essentially, homeschooling makes you realize that education does not have to be a slog and that it should be available to everyone.

    Where did you get your support?
    Hands down, support comes from your fellow homeschoolers. Find a group. Make friends. Support each other. Mine would have been a very different journey without all the socializing, carpools, and parties that we enjoyed over the years.

    Can’t find a group? Make one. Build it, and they will come.

    Citizenship lessons.
    (Specifically, make sure to bring water and maybe a folding chair when you go to vote.)

    How have your kids managed the transition from homeschool to college and/or adulthood?
    Our original plan was very nice and neat and somewhat economical: after graduation, each of our children would do two years of community college while working and saving money for two years of university (or else a trade school, whatever they wanted). It’s almost cute, how simple we thought it would be.

    But the reality has been much more complex, with each kid finding his/her own path. 

    The oldest decided to finish high school in three years (he was doing an online program) and then apply for a ROTC scholarship so he could go to university right away. He became a logistics officer in the Army for four years after college, then spent a year teaching English in a Bedouin community in Israel, and then came home and got a tech/logistics job with one of the many contracting companies in our area. We could have predicted none of this. NONE.

    The second-oldest spent a couple of years after high school waiting tables and bartending and living on her own with coworkers before she did the community college-to-university route. Once she graduated, she volunteered teaching English in Haifa, did an internship at a nonprofit in the same city, and then moved to Tunisia to work with a US nonprofit there.

    [Side note: DO NOT let any child who is a liberal arts major incur student loan debt. Unless they are going into the military, they are guaranteed to be working for almost nothing for up to two years.]

    The third did well enough on the PSAT to land a scholarship that covered tuition and room and board for four years at an out-of-state engineering school. [I swear, it was like winning the Willy Wonka golden ticket; we didn’t even know he was good at standardized tests because he was so homeschooled HE HAD NEVER TAKEN ONE.] He is now paid handsomely to test rocket engines in the middle of the Texas desert, which is essentially his dream job. His underpaid liberal arts sister tries not to hate him for it.

    The fourth learned that programs in his major (industrial design) tended not to take transfer students (I will spare you my rant about the moneymaking boondoggle that is higher education in the US). Luckily, he had his rocket scientist brother’s two years of tuition money, in addition to his own, so he went off to a state school his freshman year, paying for his own room and board with the money he saved from working retail during high school. He’s currently taking the year off due to the weirdness that is 2020 and is looking for an internship that will help pay room and board for the next two years.

    The fifth is staying home and working retail for a year to save up money for university (also, it’s just a weird year to start college). She is aiming to be a commissioned officer in the US Air Force, so she hopes to win a three-year ROTC scholarship to help her get through when her savings run out.

    The sixth one is the 15-year-old “baby.” Her only career goal is to make enough money to have her own apartment and buy fun food. She hates anything to do with school. We’re all just sitting back and watching to see how this will play out.

    The lessons here: You can’t predict what path will work for each kid. Don’t underestimate how badly they might want to leave home at age 18.

    Oh, and make sure they take the PSAT. You never know.

    Art class.

    Looking back, what are their opinions about your choice to homeschool them? 
    They make good-natured fun of the homeschooling lifestyle they experienced (okay, maybe there was too much Veggie Tales), but I think they are also glad they were spared the strange pressure-cooker sort of stress that their schooled friends experienced. Number 5 chose to go to public high school, and we noted — among other things — that her AP Psych class was WAY HARDER than the Psych 101 class her brother was taking at the same time at his university. It seemed that the high school made everything feel like really high stakes, while when you are homeschooling, the same courses are just…well…high school courses. Your entire future doesn’t depend on any of them.

    Of course, maybe they hated the whole homeschooling experience and are keeping mum because they don’t want to hurt my feelings. That’s always a possibility.

    Do you have a homeschool philosophy? 
    I’ve had SEVERAL homeschool philosophies. I’ve been a Waldorf-y homeschooler, a structured workbook homeschooler, and now – Lord help me – I’m an unschooler. Sometimes I’ve been all three at once.

    Prepare to be flexible, is what I’m saying.

    Knitwear modeling is a part of our curriculum.

    What advice do you have for parents who are considering homeschooling their children?
    Don’t do it for any vague, high-flown pedagogical ideals. Don’t do it for reasons concerning the breakdown of societal values or the end of civilization as we know it. All your ideas might be true, but that’s not what will get you through each and every day. Do it because you want to spend the day with your kids, letting them read and play and figure things out. Do it because you enjoy the rhythm of life at home with kids. Do it because you perceive that that is what your kids need: time to be home, time to create, time to play.

    Do it for the fun of it. The rest will work itself out.


    Many, many thanks, Suburban Correspondent! If you want more tales of adult children-turned-roommates, murder hornets, and knitting projects, you can read all about it on her blog The More, The Messier.

    This same time, years previous: just for sparkles, how to make a fireball, when cars dance, of an evening (and a morning), baguettes, sweet and spicy popcorn,

  • the quotidian (1.4.21)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace


    Decadence.


    When Christmas veers towards Halloween.


    A two mugger: because he didn’t want to have to get up for a refill.


    They picked each other’s clothes and then graced Magpie with their presence.


    Bakery love note.


    The day before Christmas.


    Christmas Day.


    Efficiency.



    Dreamer schemer.


    Ze artists.


    Snuggle bug.


    Thanks for the suggestions!


    It’s like she thinks she’s in Alaska or something.


    Frosted.
    photo credit: my younger daughter


    Happy New Year!


    This same time, years previous: my new kitchen: the computer corner, Lebanese dried lemon tea, high-stakes hiking, Christmas cheese, five-grain porridge with apples, constant motion, cranberry crumble bars, cranberry sauce, loose ends, sausage lentil soup.

  • 2020 book list

    I think I’m learning something about myself: I don’t actually enjoy reading.

    Just saying that amounts to sacrilige, I know, but truth is, the process of sitting down, holding a book in front of my face, and then raking my eyes back and forth across the page is not pleasurable. I like curling up in front of the fire with a hot drink. I like getting new ideas and information. I even like getting lost in a story. But most of the time — like, say, 80 percent of the time that I’m reading — I’m neither sipping a hot drink nor having an ah-ha moment nor am I lost in another world. I’m just… reading.

    When I told my husband my latest self-realization, he gaped, eyes wide. But you read so much!

    I make myself read, I corrected. I write it on my to-do list — read 30″ — so that I’ll do it.

    So why do I read, you ask?

    It’s a fair question, but I don’t know. Maybe because I’ve been trained to — it’s a lifestyle thing, of sorts. Also, because I think reading makes me a better person, because it’s a form of reflection, because it’s a valuable mental exercise, because I want to learn something, and because sometimes, in spite of everything I just said, it is fun.

    And tell me this: is there anything better than falling asleep while reading?

    Anyway. As I was typing up this list, I was dismayed to realize how many of these books, books that I’ve spent hours with, I had absolutely zero recollection of. I mean, I’ve read these books within the last year and even, according to my notes, claimed to really enjoy some of them, and yet now, a mere few months later, I’m drawing a complete blank. How is this even possible?

    he doesn’t even like beer

    The books I do recall, though, tend to be the true stories, or at least the stories that felt true to me. So maybe I’m just not a lover of fiction? Or obvious fiction anyway?

    Such mysteries!

    Anyway. Long story short, here’s what I read in 2020. Cheers!

    what I pulled from the library for Christmas break

    And to the kids: The Wee Free Men (never again), Great Expectations (tedious, but we made it), Little Women (ditto), Way Back in the Ozarks (a repeat, because my younger son begged me to), Fish in a Tree (why can’t all books be like this?), and now Look Both Ways (too soon to tell).

    Now it’s your turn. What should I read in 2021?

    This same time, years previous: a Christmas spectacle, right now, balsamic glazed roasted butternut squash and brussel sprouts, 2016 garden notes and stats, remembering Guatemala, cheese ball, hot buttered rolls, giant sausage and leek quiche, spaghetti carbonara.

  • chocolate bourbon pie

    I’m a wee bit pie weary (and right here is where I was going to insert a whole bunch of pie photos, but it’s Christmas Eve and I still have to go to work and bake more pies, plus I really hope I have time to bake a bunch of cookies when I get back home, as well as get a shower and wash my hair, so you’ll just have to use your imaginations), but on the off-chance you’re not, here’s a good one. 

    The recipe is quick and easy, and you probably already have all the ingredients banging around your kitchen. Also, it’s wondrously decadent — just the thing for a special occasion, like, say, Christmas! 

    This pie is great for riffing. The way I like it (printed below), the chocolate is spiked with bourbon and just a hint of peppermint — think mint juleps. But when the diner handed me a bunch of leftover candied oranges, I had to try a chocolate orange version: orange liquor and a bit of orange extract, and then each piece topped with whipped cream and a candied orange slice. It was also wonderful.

    I delivered a couple pieces to my mom for her birthday. 

    Another idea is to infuse the cream with coffee and then add a generous pour of Bailey’s. Or do something with raspberries! Or keep it simple, with just chocolate (add a teaspoon of vanilla).

    Really, you can’t go wrong.

    As for the crust, the original recipe said to use a regular parbaked pie pastry shell, but none of us thought that did much for the pie. A cookie crust, we agreed, was more fitting — we liked the crunch. Oreos made it a tad too sweet, I thought (though other people didn’t seem to mind), so maybe go for an unfilled chocolate wafer cookie or a shortbread crust? Of course, you could simply pour the chocolate into ramekins and nix the crust entirely.  

    The one thing that is a must, though, is the whipped cream. Don’t skip it. 

    Chocolate Bourbon Pie
    Adapted from The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book by Emily Elsen and Melissa Elsen.

    This recipe makes enough filling for a 9-inch pie. Baked in a tart pan —photographed here — at least a third of the filling is left over.

    1 cup heavy whipping cream
    1 cup milk
    12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
    ½ teaspoon salt
    2 eggs
    3 tablespoons bourbon
    ¼ teaspoon peppermint extract
    1 chocolate cookie crust (recipe of your choosing), parbaked at 325 degrees for 10 minutes

    Heat the cream and milk until it’s almost boiling. Remove from heat and add the chocolate. Let sit for a couple minutes and then whisk until smooth. 

    In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and then add a bit of the chocolate, a little at a time, whisking steadily. Once the eggs are tempered, add the rest of the chocolate, the salt, and whisk well. If the mixture is at all lumpy, pour it through a sieve. Stir in the peppermint extract and bourbon.

    Pour the filling into the chocolate cookie crust and bake at 325 degrees for 25-35 minutes. The edges should be set but the middle should still wobble a bit (without appearing runny). Cool to room temp and then refrigerate. 

    Immediately before serving, dust with powdered sugar, if desired (keep in mind that it will melt away after an hour or so), and top with whipped cream.

    This same time, years previous: sex for all creation, 2014 book list, the quotidian (12.23.13), flat, raw, turkey in a wash basket.

  • the coronavirus diaries: week forty-two

    Thus far, we’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to see family and friends in the relative safety of the great outdoors, but now with the cold creeping in and the dark evenings, our social engagements are becoming even more limited so I’m bracing myself. Emotionally hunkering down. Gearing up for going nowhere. 

    Looks like it’s just us, now. 

    I still try to go running. I have my job which gets me out of the house a couple days a week. I have a phone that I use to call up my mother and chat. I go on walks with my sister-in-law and girlfriends, and by myself.

    Still, I can feel myself beginning to slump. There’s a heaviness tugging at me.

    Maybe I should just go on antidepressants for the next year or so, I say to my husband. 

    Actually, what I say is “for the next ten years.” Might as well knock out the misery of the pandemic, menopause, and the switch to an empty nest all in one fell swoop.

    The other day in the car, I caught snatches of a report on the 1918 pandemic: people ages 20-40 were, surprisingly, the ones most likely to die . . . the economic hardships were enormous since there weren’t any social services in place . . . the flu took out lots of people who were already weakened by tuberculosis . . . afterward, a wave of depression swept the country. 

    The show’s guest said something else that stuck with me. In regards to a health crisis, we in the United States vacillate between panic and complacency. For years we’ve known what we need to do in order to prepare for a global health crisis, but we haven’t done it. Now we’re panicked, and once this is over, we’ll probably return to complacency because that’s what we do. 

    The guest sounded angry. And tired.

    Any good news? The host asked hopefully. There was a pause, and then: 

    Humans are survivors. Many of us have died, and many of us who are here now will not be here when this is over, but we are survivors. 

    The race will go on. 

    As 2020 ends, I find myself thinking back. 

    I think back to March when we were advised against wearing masks and am appalled.

    I think back to January when I first began hearing rumors of a new virus that was being discovered in China. Oh, it’s nothing, I’d said. They’ve had other viruses over there and they didn’t effect us any. The news industry just needs something to report. It’ll be fine. 

    It’s hard to believe that once upon a time that’s what I thought.  

    Out on a walk, I entertain myself by posing a question: If I’d get COVID, which lingering side effect would I rather have — loss of taste or ongoing respiratory problems? 

    One person I know is still struggling, nine months after first getting sick, with debilitating respiratory issues. Another person has lost her sense of taste. For her, food is important, so to lose her sense of taste (and then have it return only to disappear yet again) leaves her in a distressing state of uncertainty. 

    To no longer be able to move about energetically — to go for runs or pound up the stairs to my bedroom or steam through a grocery store — would be horrible. And to no longer taste — peanut butter! lemony broccoli! sourdough! spicy sausages! coffee, coffee! — is a loss I can’t even imagine. 

    After mulling the question over, I finally give up, still undecided. Both choices are terrible. 

    That I could die is something I don’t even consider. 

    Every time the weather gets even a hint of warm, I get squirrely. Gotta go for a walk. Gotta call friends. Gotta have someone over. Gotta go somewhere. If I don’t use the brief little window of opportunity to socialize and exercise, I feel guilty. 

    So a couple weeks ago when the entire weekend forecast was for sunshine and warm temps, I announced a family hike. And then I invited friends, because what better way to visit than while tromping for hours through the woods? 

    After an hour or so, we had to decide whether or not to do a small loop or a large. We’re already out here, I said, all vim and vigor. Might as well go all out. 

    And so we hiked. And hiked and hiked and hiked, through muddy trails and up rocky mountains (when choosing the eleven-mile loop, we neglected to consider the topography, oops) and over boulders and across streams. 

    That night, I feel asleep fast and slept hard. It was marvelous — the best kind of tired ever.  

    I love our traditional stay-at-home Christmases: stockings for the kids, cookies for breakfast, my husband’s ham, puzzles and games. 

    But that at-homeness is fun specifically because it is sandwiched between a whole lotta church, family gatherings, and parties. Now that it’s us all of the time, it feels like Christmas will be just more of the same. 

    We don’t really have good ideas to make it special — and, quite frankly, I’m not sure I even want “specialness substitutes” because anything we do will just accentuate what’s missing — but we’re trying. Here’s what we’ve come up with.

    Books: I did some research and then checked out a bunch of good read-alouds from the library. My goal is to read out loud about three times a day — we are gonna plow through the books. 

    No studies: I canceled the kids’ studies, though I am increasing their assigned readings, and there will still be history lessons with my husband, and maybe science and typing lessons with the grandparents. But no spelling and math!

    Documentaries: My husband suggested we watch documentaries, so now I need to do some research to find a bunch of good ones to add to my queue. 

    Relaxing: I want to set up a puzzle and drink more tea. Card games, maybe.

    Soup: I’m craving soups — the kinds that are brothy and loaded with leafy greens — so I’m gonna make us some.

    Outings: There may be a couple small day road trips, and perhaps another hike or two. 

    House projects: I’d like to find an area rug for the sitting area. We need to send off the Cutco knives to get sharpened. Little things like that.

    These are small pleasures, and even though the persistant piercing sadness sometimes makes it hard to appreciate them and keep my equilibrium, they’ll be enough. 

    They have to be. 

    These days, instead of reading the serious books and watching the hard movies — the things I routinely try to do to educate and better myself — I’m choosing easy material, the heartwarming and familiar and funny. So what am I reading? Juvenile fiction, I kid you not. (Also, The Warmth of Other Suns because I already started it.)

    The other night the girls and I finished Schitt’s Creek. I cried, of course. Reaching the end of an incredibly wonderful show is so bittersweet. But all is not lost! I’m on season four with my husband — he’s getting into it, whoop! — and so I get to watch it all again, with him. (By myself I’m watching The Crown. With the family, The Great British Baking Show. And recent family night movies include Prom and The Sound of Metal.)

    Two nights in a row last week, I fell asleep at eight o’clock, the warmth of the fire so deeply relaxing that I felt like my whole body had fused to the sofa. One day I stayed in my pajamas all day long. 

    Mornings it’s so windy and bitter cold that I simply can’t bear the thought of going running, I don’t. Because maybe what I need is a cozy, dark morning inside the house with slippers and coffee and candles, and that’s okay.

    To get through these long, dark, cold winter months, what I want — what I need — is lightness and laughter and comfort. Once the daylight and warmth return, then I’ll push myself again.

    For now, though, I go easy. 

    This same time, years previous: old-fashioned sour cream cake doughnuts, the quotidian (12.22.14), marshmallows.