Heat Through & Serve: A Corn Chowder Meditation

Onion and celery

It’s 6 am on a vacation day and I’m in the kitchen, chopping onions. The house is silent; even the dogs are still asleep. Like I do every time I chop an onion, I’m thinking about my sister, who taught me proper onion-chopping technique. I chopped at least twenty years’ worth of onions before I learned this efficient method, freeloaded from my sister’s pricey culinary education. Come to think of it, I’m chopping with a knife that she gave me, too.

I’m pretty excited to make this corn chowder. It’s my go-to recipe when I need to bring a meal to someone, and it’s perfect for a January dinner at a beach house with girlfriends, which is where I’ll be headed as soon as the chowder is made. And after I bake the cookies, of course. It’s a five hour drive up the coast. Who goes on a road trip without oatmeal raisin cookies? Not me.

The smell of onions and celery sautéing in bacon fat makes me think of football and I realize that if I were cooking them in butter, I’d be thinking of Thanksgiving…but the bacon grease could be any old winter weekend from my childhood: the rich, cheery smells of some long-simmering meal combined with muffled cheering from televised crowds. I take a minute to appreciate the source of these sensory memories: I had a mother who cooked. I had a father who provided. I had a comfortable, stable childhood that left me with happy memories of home.

I also have this recipe binder, which is like my personal memoir in food, each recipe recalling the person who gave it to me or the time I first made it.

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It’s my mother’s corn chowder recipe that I’m using now. The card is written in my handwriting but I can tell that I copied it verbatim from hers, because I can hear her cautionary tone in the instructions: “Sauté til vegetables are soft but not brown…Boil til the potatoes are soft but not mushy.” I know this recipe by heart, but I always pull the card out anyway, to read those words and imagine her saying them.

Our house burned down in 1989, when I was a teenager. Everyone talks about the photos you lose in a fire, but no one ever talks about recipes. My mom is a recipe follower, and she lost some fantastic recipes in that fire, including her lasagna recipe and the only chicken and dumplings recipe that worked for her. I don’t believe she ever made chicken and dumplings again after the fire. The corn chowder recipe burned, too, but she was able to write it from memory, thank goodness.  It’s one of the most well-worn recipes in my binder.

While the potatoes simmer I thumb through the binder for Phoebe’s Fabulous Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, a recipe my sister copied for me from the Friends Cookbook.  I don’t have the original card in her handwriting anymore, but I can still picture it, with her notes: “Unsalted butter–I use salted then omit the salt” and “One Large Egg–You be the judge.”

I flip past my other sister’s recipe for Finnish Ribbon Cookies. Mine never turn out as pretty as hers, but I like to make them anyway because they are my brother’s favorite. Then there’s my favorite, Molasses Crackles, in the handwriting of an old friend who has since moved across the country. And here is the deadly Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars recipe from Mrs. Schroeder, a neighbor whose kids I babysat in the 80s when I was still a kid myself. I remember sitting on the rust-colored sofa in her safari-themed living room, painfully aware of the chocolate peanut butter bars in the fridge and struggling to keep myself from eating every last one of them before she got home. I really need to add those to the Christmas cookie roster.

Here’s my first peanut butter cookie recipe, which isn’t the greatest but I keep it because it has a little note from my ex-husband scrawled on it, in which he calls me the ridiculous pet name he used before we fell apart. Despite everything that’s happened since, or maybe because of everything that’s happened since, I still find it sweet to see that note. It doesn’t make me sad, though. I have a much better peanut butter cookie recipe now.

Here’s a recipe for Jamaican Chicken Stew that I once made for a dinner date whose name I can’t even recall. I don’t think I saw the guy again after that night, but I know the stew wasn’t the problem. That stew was top notch.

Here are the vegetable enchiladas with tomatillo salsa that I made for a friend who was going through a vegetarian phase at the time. I spent an entire day preparing that meal, but when I look at the recipe now I can’t imagine why it took me more than an hour.  Then I realize that was at least twenty years ago, when I was first learning to cook.

Here’s a cheesecake recipe from my Aunt Carol, written in my sister’s handwriting. Auntie Carol is like a smaller, sassier version of my mother.  She cooks for everyone, anyone, all the time. How long has it been since I’ve seen her? Eight years? Ten?

Here are the recipes from Melissa’s cookie exchange, the last time I saw her extraordinary mother before she died. Melissa’s mom made Chocolate Covered Cherry Cookies, now a staple on the Christmas cookie roster and my daughter’s all-time favorite cookie.

Now I’m whisking the roux into the boiling potatoes and wondering if I’ve taught my daughter how to make a roux yet. She’ll need to know that.

I can’t wait to share the chowder and the cookies with my friends. We’re each covering a meal this weekend and that’s one of the things I most look forward to. What a joy it is to cook for people you love, and share recipes, and taste the story of someone else’s life when they share their recipes with you.

Alone in my tiny kitchen, with a bubbling pot on the stove and a counter full of butter and sugar, I find my eyes spilling over with gratitude: for my mom, aunts, and sisters; my children and my friends; a family that loves to cook; a legacy of warmth and flavor and generosity. I’m surrounded by memories of loved ones at my table and of meals prepared for me by others. I’m realizing that kitchens are sacred, and that food is sacred indeed, and that this might be the first time in my life that I’ve truly understood the meaning of that word.

A Library of Memories

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Most of the time I’m pretty happy that I don’t have small kids anymore. My kids are 21 and 24, so I no longer have to make them snacks all the time or help them with school projects. They never throw tantrums in Target anymore. It’s great. Most of the time, I’m just fine with the kids being grown.

Until recently, that is, when I visited the children’s section of my local library, where I was seized with the urge to either have a kid or BE a kid again, just to soak up all the wonder and sheer awesomeness there. I haven’t been to the library in a couple of years—shame on me. And I haven’t been to the children’s section in well over a decade, I’m sure.

First of all, it smelled exactly the same. That sweet old book smell, combined with that clean, air-conditioned, industrial carpet smell, and some kind of paste—that’s how my library smells. It’s right up there with cut grass and summer pine on my list of favorite smells. You can’t stand around in the children’s section and huff the air because that might alarm the parents in the vicinity, but if it were socially acceptable, I might have hyperventilated trying to suck in more of that smell.

Second, there are still giant paper mache creatures there. When I was a kid, they had a stegosaurus that I took for life-size, although I didn’t actually know how big a stegosaurus is supposed to be and I still don’t, but I remember that thing was huge. Maybe it seemed that way because I was about three and half feet tall at the time, but still. Giant.  Now, they have all kinds of animal heads mounted on the wall like trophies, but instead of looking like tragic, taxidermied safari victims, they look like happy, playful animals who’ve only just poked their heads through the wall for a minute. And they appear to be quite large, even at my current size.

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There is still an events calendar with activities that are still exciting to me, although I am about 35 years too old to participate: mask making, a World Rhythm party, Pajama Story Time… activities that I would undoubtedly appreciate way more than your average elementary school kid. Pajama Story Time? Are you kidding me? How do I get in on that?

Anyway, I went into the kids’ section to check out a copy of The Secret Garden, which I’m re-reading in preparation for a writing project I’m working on. I needed a timeless children’s novel written prior to the 1930s, and The Secret Garden has always been one of my favorites. But as soon as I got to the library, I remembered: the whole library is my favorite.

I spent a lot of time in the library as a kid. I remember summer reading contests, with badges and coloring pages and lists of books you could check off as you read them. I remember craft workshops and musical productions and Easter egg hunts. I remember a Library Pet Show, where my box turtle, Emily, got a prize for “Most Unusual.” (I also remember burning with jealousy over a glossy, black rabbit that another girl brought to the pet show in a picnic basket, like Dorothy carrying Toto. If you asked what was in the basket, she’d dramatically lift the lid and let you peek in at the rabbit like she was revealing The Mysteries of the Universe. I loved my turtle but goddamnit, I wanted that rabbit in a picnic basket.)

I remember helping my little brother, eight years younger than me, choose books from that same library. And of course, when my kids were born, I took them, too. Oddly, those memories are the least clear; I think I was too exhausted and frazzled to retain sharp copies of those.

Now my kids are technically adults, and even though I’ve sternly warned them not to attempt procreation til they’re at least 30, I secretly can’t wait for them to have babies. I need an excuse to hang around the Children’s section without looking like a weirdo.

In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for my own Pajama Story Time. With wine. Me, in my sloppy gray night shirt, an amazing children’s book written in 1911, and a chardonnay bottled in 2013.

I’ll do this at home, of course.

 

The Sentimental Crockpot

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This is my crockpot, circa 1998. Most of my kitchen is stocked with items from 1994, the year I got married. This one is from the year I got divorced. It’s not the most modern slow cooker, and fellow party-goers make jokes about it, despite the exceptionally tasty meatballs I’m usually toting in it. I could get a newer one that would probably work better and be less “retro-chic,” but this one has sentimental value. My dad gave it to me. He’s been gone eleven and a half years now, and few things call him to mind as quickly as this old-school crockpot.

My dad and I didn’t have the warmest relationship. He wanted four kids; I am Kid #5. I have no idea how old I was when my mom told me that, or why she told me, but my revisionist memory makes it seem as if I have always known this.

What I remember most about my dad was him watching TV by himself in the family room. Sometimes he’d shout clear from one end of the house to summon me from my room on the other end, only to ask me to change the channel. He could be gruff, even taciturn. But when he was in a good mood, he was hilarious, telling us funny stories, sometimes pranking us or our mom. He teased a lot, and you couldn’t tell when he was joking. I was the sensitive one who’d get hurt feelings and run crying from the room, which would piss him off. No wonder our relationship was a little strained.

Most of my childhood memories are hazy at best, and few of my dad remain at all. This one, circa 1977ish, sticks: I was sick in bed, in my yellow bedroom where the daisies from the wallpaper marched straight across the curtains. I don’t remember feeling sick, so there’s a high likelihood that I was faking it and my mom put me to bed to call my bluff, but I can’t be certain.

My dad came home and appeared in my doorway. “You’re sick?” he asked. I nodded. He vanished for a few minutes, then returned with a bowl of peanut M&Ms. From the doorway, he flung his hefty frame onto the bed next to me, causing me to bounce on the mattress and the M&Ms to jump from the bowl onto my pillow. “Would some M&Ms make you feel better?”

My dad loved me, and I knew that. But like many fathers of his day, my dad’s chief role in the family was provider. The nurturing, daily kid management, and responsibility for creating happy memories was my mom’s arena, so she got most of the credit and most of the affection.

Take Christmas morning, for example. In our family of six kids, Christmas morning involved a spectacular pile of wrapped gifts under the tree. We’d open our clothes, books, art sets, toys…each receiving a haul of gifts that my mom had shopped for, selected and wrapped. And we’d say, “Thanks, Mom!”

She’d correct us, of course. “Thanks Mom and DAD,” she’d insist. Year after year, she’d have to remind us that the gifts were from both parents. She did the shopping, but his paycheck funded the bounty.

Having lived most of my adult life as a single parent, I now recognize the financial feat required to raise six kids in Southern California.  I remember money being a touchy topic, and I know sometimes my mom had to work miracles with the budget, but we always had what we needed and then some. I think now of all the years my dad went to work each day and came home to a house full of kids who needed shoes, orthodontic treatments, football uniforms, piano lessons, and of course, mountains of groceries. I know he didn’t get to enjoy much of his paychecks. I know how that sacrifice feels, and I appreciate him now in a way that I couldn’t when I was a kid.

I know that sacrifice was an expression of love from a father that didn’t easily express love. The crockpot was another one.

My marriage was rocky from the start. We were twenty-one-year-olds with a one-year-old son, trying to do the right thing by getting married. That struggle is a different story, but suffice it to say that of our four-year marriage, we spent two years in marriage counseling until, on the brink of a nervous breakdown, I finally gave up.

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He gave me away when I got married. Fortunately, he also took me back when I got divorced.

The second-hardest part was telling my parents. Seems like all the bad news I ever delivered to my parents was sitting on that same brown sofa, my dad in his Dad Chair facing the TV. I was crying before I could get the words out. “I’m getting divorced,” I said. “He’s moving out next week.”

“Why isn’t he already out?” he barked. Then, with his usual sensitivity, “Why are you crying?”

I stayed for dinner. My mom served pepper steak. As I piled my plate with steak and peppers and potatoes and salad, I said, “I wish I had time to cook like this.”

“You just put it in the crockpot,” said my Dad, who seldom cooked at all.

“I don’t have a crockpot.” I replied.

The next time I went to my parents’ house was for my birthday dinner. My dad was unusually excited to give me my birthday present: this very crockpot.

My mom told me that it was his idea to buy it for me. Other than the gifts he gave her, and even those he often had help shopping for, this is the only gift I can ever recall that he thought of himself, shopped for himself, and wrapped by himself. And he did that for ME. Kid #5.

I knew he was worried about me, and what my life would be like as a single mom. I knew he was trying to make things easier for me with that thoughtful gift.

My dad softened up as he got older. He and my mom went through some rocky times themselves, and in the process of healing his own marriage, my dad seemed to crack open. He learned to say, “I love you” to us, though it would choke him up to speak the words. He spent less time isolated in front of the TV and became more engaged with friends, church, all of us and his grandkids. I know that my kids remember this happier version of my dad, and I’m so grateful for that.

When he was in his early sixties, a stroke took his balance. Later, a second stroke took his mind and mobility. Two years after that, in 2006, we said goodbye to him, all six of us with my mom together in his hospital room. That memory has not faded at all, but so many others are slipping away.

It’s good to have so many siblings, because they keep different memories. Soon we’ll be old folks who tell the same stories over and over to help us remember. This crockpot story will be one of mine.

 

 

 

 

 

Philadelphia Flourishing

So, it’s been two weeks since I left my daughter in Philadelphia.  I’m doing alright. She’s doing alright. I miss her. It was harder than I thought, letting her go.

I listened to Pema Chodron talk once about getting through emotional difficulty. She advised that if you feel like you’re going to get swallowed up in grief, or loneliness, or fear—try to step back and imagine you’re watching a movie of your life. There are sad parts and happy parts, funny parts, romantic parts…all in the course of the movie.  You feel sad in the sad parts of a movie, but you don’t lose yourself; you don’t come undone with sadness.

This is a helpful tool for me. In the movie of my life, this is the part where Maddy and I are separate for a while. It’s the part where I resume my own life, now that the hands-on, daily parenting part is over.  I know there are more happy parts coming. I feel sad, but I won’t come undone.

The part in Philadelphia was really hard. I watched it like a movie. The harder it got, the more movie-like it became.

It was a movie starring me, Maddy and Benjamin Franklin. Really.

Before the movie, I imagined the part where I had to say goodbye to Maddy. I imagined all the wise, inspiring, helpful things I would say. When it came time, standing in her dorm room, I couldn’t say anything at all. I just stood there, crying in her hair, and finally managed to choke out, “Please be careful.”

Then I sat on a curb outside the building, waiting for the crying to stop long enough for me to call a cab. Only I didn’t have to call one, because this is a movie, remember? And in movies the cab just drives up and you wave at it and it stops. So that’s what happened.   “7th and Pine,” I mumbled to the cab driver, because my tourist map labeled that corner “Antique Row.” I had four hours to kill between leaving Maddy and catching my flight back to Orange County.

You may know me as a dramatic sort of person, and I admit that I’m all for exaggeration if it gets me a laugh or makes my point. But I say this with no trace of hyperbole: if you had asked me, that day as I wandered through the city, what it feels like to choke on your own heart, I could not have replied because of the lump in my throat. But I would have known the answer.

The antique shops weren’t open yet but the buildings were beautiful, and the windows were full of antiques so old they blew my West Coast mind.

I found a community garden, a cheerful pocket of green between the buildings, and snapped a picture of this plant because of its stunning purple pods.

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There is a character in an Ann Tyler book who wonders, as she prepares for the funeral of a loved one, whether it is possible to experience grief so severe that you stop observing yourself in it.  I reminded myself of that character, hurting but watching myself in my movie, walking alone with tears running down my face in such a picturesque place. I felt ridiculous and cliché. I laughed at myself, then realized that laughing must make me look even crazier.

I walked another block or two, taking in the lovely old architecture all around me, thinking how fortunate I was to have such an amazing setting to walk off my heartache.  I turned a corner and saw this building:

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It’s the Pennsylvania Hospital, the oldest hospital in America, founded by Ben Franklin in 1755.  It’s still a functioning hospital, though this original structure contains offices now. I wandered through the park-like grounds til I got close enough to the building to read this sign. Read the words; I love them:

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“Well Mr. Franklin,” I thought to myself, “I am certainly miserable. I could use some relief.”

There’s no way he could have known, when he wrote that inscription 258 years ago, that the city was going to crowd up around his amazing building, and a heartbroken mother was going to stumble through it and find herself in this restful place.

As I sat there, thinking about that inscription, thinking about the brilliance of Ben Franklin and his reach through the centuries, I found myself comforted by the phrase, “Philadelphia Flourishing.” It’s a beautiful phrase, just the sound of it. I’m a hoarder of words and phrases. All day long I’d been drowning  in weepy words like “bereft” and “alone” and “empty nest” but then here was this lifesaver: a definitive, triumphant, bold-stroke of a word–flourishing.

The phrase hung around all morning as I continued to explore. The city surrounded me with fascinating historic distractions: Independence Hall, The Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross’ house. History is like wilderness, the way it can make you feel small and your problems seem insignificant.

The people reached out to me, too. I ducked into a used book store where the clerk took one look at my face and said, “Can I help you? I mean really…you look like you need…something?”   Touched by her kindness, I burst into tears again, and choked out, “I’m just having a hard day.”

Then I stopped at Lore’s Chocolates where I met two sweet, senior ladies working there. “Oh, you’re from California? Did you enjoy your time in Philly?” they asked.

More tears. Yes, I said, but I left my youngest child this morning at Drexel…

”Oh honey,” one of them sympathized. “That’s going to hurt a while. I remember when I sent my son to school, and he wasn’t nearly so far away. I cried for a week.”   They gave me extra samples. Chocolate and sympathy is a good combination.

I visited Ben Franklin’s grave on my way back to the hotel. It was definitely underwhelming, which may be appropriate given Franklin’s earthy, democratic nature, or inappropriate, given his monumental genius and contribution to society.  (And his supernatural ability to speak to sad, modern-day moms.) Then I hoofed it back to my hotel at Penn’s Landing, where I had just enough time for a beer before catching the shuttle to the airport.

*       *        *

Woman waits alone in an airport terminal, holding a magazine but not reading it, looking back towards the city with tears in her eyes. Then she closes her eyes, shakes her head, and laughs at herself.

Roll closing credits.