Thursday, August 24, 2017

Barefoot again

Everyone is back in school, and I'm well shod at all times. Still, I miss those barefoot days some times. A blog post repost.

Give Me Your Shoes

“I have to be there [quick look at clock] five minutes ago. Take them off, now.” When your 17-year-old warrior-to-be is pointing at your flip-flops with this level of intensity, there’s only one thing to do. Take off the shoes. She slips them on and runs out the door. (Oh, no need to close it, honey, I think it’s much better to blast air conditioning into the backyard; it keeps the squirrels calm.) She squeals out the driveway. As the car vanishes, it's time to ask, as it often is with Emma:  what just happened? 
As best as I can piece it together from the soon-to-be-issued Coroner’s Report, Summer Happened. Here in the dog days of the official When Does School Start? season, I have found myself living with a couple of teenagers for whom the term “of the moment” seems a little too well-thought-out. Planning ahead? Devoting a brain cell or two to the concept of what might be needed for the journey that lies ahead? That’s not the way we roll. It’s so much more fun to race back to the house after a dashing departure, panting, flapping and screaming out a litany of lost objects in tones of rising pitch:  Phone! iPod! Money! Shoes!Cranium!
Gosh, it’s all so … hmmm, I think “impromptu” might be a good way to put it, don’t you think?  At least, that’s what I’ll call it after I pop another Xanax and have a moment to lie down.
It wasn’t always like this around here, I’ll have you know. I used to start the dinnertime drill every night promptly at 6 p.m., thus allowing for two hours of full-bore mommying and four more hours of Fielding Complaints, before defeat was declared and sleep won out. This household was a haven of order and ritual and a big old boatload of beginning-with-the-end-in-mind, none of which seems to have made the slightest impression on either of them.
Exhibit A is the Car Meal, a recent trend that gives me the whim-wams, but who’s asking what I think. The Car Meal is a result of the inability to count backward in any credible way. Let’s say, for example, that you are a peppy little ingénue who is currently in rehearsal each night from 6 – 10 p.m.  Your ride usually arrives at 5:30 p.m. When, then, should you enter the kitchen, with a plan toward preparing an evening repast that will sustain you until you return home at 11 p.m.?  If you said “4:30” or “5:00,” take a look in the mirror right now. You Are Old. NotGood for your Age or Well-Preserved, just Old. Here’s why -- the correct time to start thinking about dinner, when you have a 5:30 p.m. ride coming, is 5:25 p.m., and not a minute sooner. 
Here’s the procedure. Swan into the kitchen and look around, beseechingly, at all the appliances, as if a fully cooked meal might be popping out of one of them at any moment. Sigh and say, “I guess I ought to have some dinner,” pausing for a long, sad look at mom. Watch her spring into action. Think to yourself that there’s a little pep in the old girl yet.

Four minutes later, leave the house with your Car Meal in tow, and make sure it’s a good one. Fiala girls do not go for foldover bologna sandwiches or spotty bananas. Insist on nothing less than a freshly baked ciabatta with thin-sliced turkey, or perhaps a perfectly warm bowl of pasta with homemade pesto.  What about a hot-off-the-griddle batch of potstickers, along with a container of dumpling sauce?
I watch more cutlery and pottery head out my door each day than a Steak ‘n Shake car hop.  It’s only a matter of time before they begin demanding white tablecloth service, all delivered on a little lap tray. “And mom?  Those votive candles were getting a little dim last time, so try to use fresh ones tonight.”
I’m not quite sure how this happened, how I ended up with children so behind-schedule and lacking in vitality that the thought of running upstairs to get one’s own shoes is purely unthinkable. But here I am, barefoot, just counting the days until the first day of school.

Friday, March 17, 2017

How to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, according to Katherine Clifford Kendrick

Thinking today of my mom, she of the Clifford and Dalton clans. Here are my thoughts from a few years back on this St. Patrick's Day.


And the Rest of the Day to You

It wasn’t until twenty minutes into Zumba that I realized today was St. Patrick’s Day.  I noticed how many green shirts there were in class and had to cogitate on that for a few moments (to be fair, I was doing a tricky salsa step at the same time) before the light dawned.

I asked my mother, wherever she is, to forgive me.

It was not a holiday to be taken lightly in my house. I can still remember my mother giving me a shamrock-covered handkerchief, one of her best, to take with me to school on St. Patrick’s Day. “You can always tell a lady by her handkerchief,” she would say. She had a whole drawerful of handkerchiefs, all beautifully pressed and smelling of Chanel No. 5 and the sweet, pre-smoked tobacco of her Chesterfields. I don’t think I ever saw her blow her nose in anything but a Kleenex, but that was beside the point. To her, the epitome of ladylike behavior was the holiday hanky, the one that showed you were not only Irish, but classy.

I can also remember her teaching me little bits of Irish lore that she thought I could share at school. She had a misinformed idea of what happened at Buder Elementary, but I appreciated the effort. The hayseeds and crackers with whom I spent my grade school years were more interested in pinching people who weren’t wearing green than in hearing a rendition of “Harrigan” that my mother had taught me that morning,  “H-A-double R-I, G-A-N you see, it’s a name that no shame ever has been connected with, Harrigan, that’s me.”

Of even less usefulness was her insistence that I learn the proper way to greet someone on St. Patrick’s Day:  I should say “Top o’ the mornin’ to you,” and the person was to reply, “And the rest o’ the day to you.” She suggested that I try this ethnic charm on my teacher, who year-to-year, was a harried and sour child-hater just slightly above the cracker class herself, one who gave wide berth and the occasional fish-eye to a neurotic little twerp like me.

I never did of the things that my mother suggested.

Instead, I came home in the afternoon, hanky still pressed, song unsung, greeting undelivered. I suppose we ate corned beef and cabbage, yuck, but I don’t really remember that. My Aunt Fran was said to serve only green food on St. Patrick’s Day, including mashed potatoes. My mother thought this was disgusting, as bad as a cake with blue frosting. She trotted out the yellow food coloring to mix in her watery, Miracle Whip-y potato salad, but there was no need to get carried away. I thought green food sounded wonderful and exotic, but I never got to see it for myself.

The most enthusiastic Irish celebrant I ever knew was my godmother, Thelma Kelley (“k-e-l-l-E-y!” she would spell, showing what sort of Kelley she was, and separating her from the déclassé "y-only" crowd). There were two St. Patrick’s Day Parades in St. Louis, the product of a feud between the “true Irish” Hibernian society, whose parade was always on March 17, and the sellouts from the suburbs, who held a big parade on whatever Saturday fell before the holiday. There was a great deal of finger pointing between the two groups, and dark mutterings about IRA connections, but Thelma rose above the fray. She attended both parades, arriving early with a lawn chair, and, in later years, her walker.

As for me, I’m not fond of crowds, so I usually pass on the parade action. I think beer tastes like liquid Wonder Bread, and I’d be happy to drink whiskey instead, but I’d need to do it five feet from a place where I could lie down quietly as soon as I did. So the holiday has waned in importance to me, especially since the values I love most in the Irish – garrulousness, eccentricity, the ability to laugh at oneself, and a willingness to look people in the eye – are all in somewhat short supply where I'm living now.
Still, I thought about Thelma today, and my mother, and the song. I sent out a silent “Top o’ the mornin’ to you” to both of them. And I swear, just under the salsa music, I could hear them wishing the rest of the day to me, too.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Food, romance, and some truly creepy vintage valentines

Seems like a good time for a repost of this particular essay. Imagining the byzantine world of the food-related valentine fad is a pleasant escape for these byzantine times. Enjoy the yam, the herring, and the whole crazy gang.


Strangest Valentines Ever: The Yam, the Herring and the Abused Cow

Mary Katherine’s junior high class decided to exchange Valentines this year. “Ironically, of course,” she informed me, but I didn’t care. I’ve always been a big fan of Kid Valentine’s Day.  Couple Valentine’s always seemed highly smarmy to me, all that dining out and acting happy, but I Love Love Love the children's version, including cutting out red paper hearts and finding the doilies buried under  the sprinkles, the cookie cutters and other seldom-used cooking supplies. When I was small, people were not jumbo-sized as they are now, and all we exchanged were paper valentines. Now, every card comes with candy attached, and that’s why none of us can squeeze into our desks anymore.

But I digress.

I implored Mary Katherine to let me research vintage valentines online, so she could be even more ironic than the average Scooby-Doo-Valentine-buying tween. She relented, I think just to please me, and we found some doozies: a blonde mermaid insisting that there was “nothing fishy” about her love; sledding kids declaring there was “snow doubt” that they wanted the recipient to be their valentine; a ponytailed teen, lying prone, telephone in hand, somehow rhyming “yak” and “it’s a fact” that she wants U to be her valentine. I was in heaven.

Then I found the strange valentines, the ones that were clearly made the day the office staff went out for lunch and had too many cocktails, or perhaps when one of them just snapped at all the stupid rhymes. Perhaps the artist was simply a victim of his own success. One day, feeling hungry, he came up with giant, romantic fruits, declaring they’d be “a peach of a pair.” He followed that up with a bowl of salty snacks and the line, “I’ll pop a corny question and ask you to be my valentine.”

Perhaps they were huge hits. The public loved them. The boss demanded more food-related valentines. The artist was stuck. Then, in a fit of desperation, he created this:
 An orange-fleshed tuber in a valentine?  Hey, it worked with the bowl of popcorn. For the record, I have to tell you that this yam frightened Mary Katherine, and she insisted that his cane was menacing. I retorted that it was a walking stick, not a cane, and that the yam was probably best buds with Mr. Peanut.  When he wasn’t sweet-talking lady yams, he and Mr. P. probably took long strolls down the boulevard, stunted arm in stunted arm.  I imagined the yam had been saving up for a monocle.

But back to our desperate artist. The boss accepted the yam-entine, grudgingly, so now where should he turn? Why, to oily fish, of course:
 Our love can be pickled, our love can be smoked, but it will last forever, said this genius card.

By this point, I imagine that the boss was getting angry. No one wants a valentine like this, he shouted.  Go back, literally, to the drawing board.

And then, our artist created it:  a valentine that combines cruelty, red meat and love in a perfect trifecta of Valentine’s devotion:
Did the boss fall for it?  I like to think that the artist was carried around the office on the shoulders of his adulatory co-workers, and that he eventually married the boss’ daughter, took over the company, and sold it to the Japanese in 1965 for one million dollars.

Or something like that. Happy Valentine's Day, by the way.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Impermanent permanence, and other thoughts on food

I write about food. I also write, at least lately, about family farms, Oriental rug merchants, and a Somali refugee who became a college professor. Writing about a bunch of different things is the lot of a freelance writer, after all. But I always come back to food: what’s trendy, what’s delicious, what’s better for you, what’s deceptively easy to make but impressive-looking enough for the potluck, what’s the next formerly exotic global cuisine that’s about to take all your refrigerator shelves. Just about every week, I interview a food trend expert or a hot new chef or someone who just opened up a storefront to sell sriracha-vodka-infused doughnuts, or something equally off-the-wall.

Because I write so much about food, and talk to so many chefs about their work, people assume that I must love, love, love to eat in restaurants. I recently interviewed a celebrated food reporter over lunch at a local spot. She tossed out name after name of popular eatery, wondering if I’d liked the toast stacks at Bachelor Farmer before they stopped using the toast racks, if I preferred Nashville Hot to traditional fried chicken at Revival or if I had, like her, simply swooned over the Vidalia onion tortellini at Spoon and Stable. I am often stupidly honest, so I found myself saying, “Sorry, haven’t been there” to each of her increasingly frustrated queries. Finally I confessed: I don’t eat out, not really. She looked at me as if I’d just confessed I was one of those “Twilight” vampires who doesn’t eat at all.

“What do you DO?” she asked. “I eat at home, I eat stuff I cook, you know … I just eat. I pretty much prepare everything I consume, usually from scratch, and a lot of stuff I’ve grown in my garden, things I’ve fermented or brewed …” I trailed off. She looked taken aback, as if I’d just confessed that I shot a bear every October and ate off it until it started to rot in spring. I shrugged.

It’s not that I don’t like food, because, take a look at me, it’s clear that I do. But all the fuss and bother and theater of eating out is wasted on me. I don’t particularly like being waited on. If I’m eating a meal in a restaurant, I’m usually wondering what’s going on in the kitchen, which always seems like the more fun place to be. And I can never really get myself away from thinking that I’m spending quite a bit of money for something I’d probably enjoy more if I made it myself, and for something that – let’s be honest here – I’m going to digest and excrete in not too short a time.

My interviewee’s frustration got me thinking. Most people eat out quite a bit, or eat food that’s been prepared for them, and that’s their “food experience.”. For me, it’s something different, and it often has very little to do with the ingredients themselves or the way they’ve been prepared, but with the intention behind them.

Here’s an example: a couple years ago, one of my children fell upon some hard times. A guy, a rift, a stumble … suddenly the world got very dark for her, and she ended up back at home, healing. In the early days of this crisis, I had dropped by a friend’s house on a quick logistical errand – returning a pot, picking up a book, something mundane. Standing at the front door for the thirty-minute chat that could never occur on the sofa because I was “in a hurry,” I told her about the very rough patch currently being navigated at our house. She responded with kind words, a hug and a promise of prayers. I left, momentarily buoyed. Then she got out her soup pot and went to work.

The next day, I had encouraged and prodded and cajoled my girl enough to extract a promise to “talk to someone,” who had blessedly fit us into her schedule. She opened the front door for an appointment that was filling both of us with dread. She stopped short and turned around. “There’s something here,” she said in that flat, toneless voice. We looked. It was a basket worthy of Red Riding Hood. Inside was a tureen of chicken noodle soup, fresh bread, a box of calm-inducing tea. There was an encouraging note from my friend. My girl looked at me in wonder. “She hardly knows me. She cooked me food.”

I blinked away tears and tried to explain. “She’s a good person. She’s a mom. Also, she was 19 years old once, too. She remembers what that can be like.” We brought the basket in the house. We went to the appointment. My girl felt better, having been listened to by someone wise. We came home. We ate the soup. Sitting together, my girl kept peering into her bowl. “She chopped these vegetables for me. She cooked these noodles.” Her amazement was complete – that someone had thought she was worth the effort, that someone had sent love to her in such a practical and nourishing way. Yes, she was digesting it already, and it would move through her body and be gone, but the love would stay. Impermanent food, made with care and delivered at the right time, had taken up a permanent place in her broken and battered soul. She will never forget her wonder when she discovered that basket on the front porch, and she will always feel the warmth of that broth filled with goodness.

That’s what food can do. And that’s why I write about it.