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pie

Solidarity Brothers and Sisters

Honor the Space

Tonite there is a space. A deep breath before the holidays burst to life, the visitors arrive, the food is served, and the festivities begin. There is a space. A quiet part of us that misses someone. Or, a lot of someones. And whether this space is new this year or it’s something you’ve grown to understand & have learned how to do, that space is still sacred. And quiet. So tonite, in the stillness before the season, I honor that space in you. And I honor that space in me. I pray that our hearts keep healing & that someone puts their arms around you & tells you that you are loved. Because you are.      — T. M.

My wise and altogether wonderful friend, Terri Mervenne, shared these words today and it was like a blanket for my soul. I suppose, too, that I read her note at an opportune time. Every surface of the kitchen was coated in flour. The living room looked like a stuffed animal breeding ground. There was an unfathomable amount of toothpaste on the bathroom floor. The only thing prepped for tomorrow’s feast was pie crust. Next to the refrigerator, there was a To Do list that had not been adhered to, and a 3-Day Master Schedule that had been woefully ignored. I felt, as I often do at the start of the holidays, on the verge of a meltdown.

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We all have this idea of how seasonal gatherings are supposed to be. And every year, between late November and early January, we are faced with the reality of how our holidays actually are. Sometimes that disconnect is encouraging. Perhaps we grew up in a quarrelsome family, but we marry into a clan more placid and accepting. But a lot of the time, the disparity between what we desire during the holidays and what we actually experience can be quite painful. And it is hard to know what to do with all that, what to do with the empty space.

My father is one of ten children. As adults, they fanned out around the country from Hawaii to Maine. Whenever they gathered for holiday photographs, they honored the missing siblings, and would assign inanimate objects to stand in. “Gina is the lamp,” they’d say before the flash. “Tommy is the dining room chair.” For years afterwards, that everyday item became the placeholder for the missing sister or brother 2000 miles away from the turkey dinner.

During the holidays, many of us do that same thing. We make grandma’s turnips or a great-aunt’s secret apple pie in an effort to hold a space for folks who have come before us, for loved ones who began our traditions long ago. But those marshmallow-covered yams and those green beans drowned in cream are such a far cry from the whole and wonderful person who once shared our table.  Often, the very things meant to honor the empty space end up exacerbating it.

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I have lived away from family for most of my adult life, and I have grown accustomed to the empty spaces around my table where siblings, parents, and cousins ought to be. But it wasn’t always easy.  I remember one Christmas Eve, years ago, before the kids were born. Ken was in the Navy, deployed somewhere in the Pacific. And I sat alone on my front porch with a Christmas tree lodged in the doorway. I was pruning its branches with a letter opener when Tom, a neighbor I hardly knew, walked by and asked whether I needed any help. I told him I was fine and turned to shove the bedraggled tree towards a stand in the living room.  When the broken-branched pine fell over for the third time, I looped twine around its trunk and tied it to curtain rods and the fireplace grate. I gazed upon my own personal tannenbaum with simultaneous triumph and defeat.

I had not been “fine” and Tom was kind enough to notice that. He and his wife invited me over that same night, and to this day, I am ever-so-grateful that they did. They saw a space in me and honored it, not by trying to assist my attempts to recreate Christmas past, but by welcoming me to their table.

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Since that night, I have cobbled together my fair share of hobo holidays — thrown-together affairs with lasagnas and Yorkshire puddings, rooms full of expats or enlisted kids too broke to fly home. One Thanksgiving, our tiny party abandoned the turkey to its half-thawed fate, and dined entirely on apple pie instead. As much as I cherish the Rockwellian memories of my childhood, I know they are rose-colored reflections. There were spaces at those tables, too. Over the years, I have grown to love the custom of opening our home and welcoming the stranger. I honor the space in my heart best when I am honoring someone else’s. In this way, the emptiness connects us.

Space is funny like that. It can either keep us distant or help draw us close

Whether you spend tomorrow at a soup kitchen, in your own kitchen, or at your great-aunt Hildebrand’s eating soup, whether you share your dinner with 27 people or 2, I pray that you will, as my friend Terri so lovingly put it, “honor that space” in everyone you meet.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Eat Your Veggies

Macaroni and Sadness

We took the kids for dim sum last weekend. Lizzie said the restaurant reminded her of Mulan’s house. Katie practiced reading Chinese. Henry drummed on the table with chopsticks, and cried when there were no hot dogs.

My husband and I like to believe that we have become better parents over time. We are more patient and better listeners. We no longer get swept up in arguments about combing hair or whether wearing a princess dress to church is a sin. And neither of us has locked anyone in any room in a really long time. And yet, our son Henry subsists almost entirely on a diet of processed meat, mac and cheese, French Toast, and cucumbers.

Our oldest daughter has the palate of a 42-year-old. She eats bleu cheese, oysters, mussels, wasabi, Sriracha, and okra. She pickles her own root vegetables and blends her own curry paste. Her latest obsession is homemade lemon curd, which she likes to pair with a braided rosemary loaf. When we dine out, she frequently orders the bouillabaisse.

Our middle kiddo, while slightly less eclectic in her gastronomic enthusiasms, still enjoys a wide variety of foods. Some of her favorites include king crab, salmon sashimi, kale chips, chicken korma, raw spinach, and any variety of homemade pie. During dessert last week at the Pie Hole, she horked down a slice of pumpkin in under two minutes flat. She also polished off Katie’s apple, my chocolate, and Ken’s earl grey pie, and made a bit of a stink when I said we could not order any more.

Henry did not eat pie that day. He wanted a hot dog.

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In his book, The Man Who Ate Everything, food critic Jeffrey Steingarten studied his own food aversions and concluded that most food “phobias” are simply learned behaviors. You catch a flu bug after eating noodles, and thereafter, lo mein is banished from your menu. The texture of tofu is initially off-putting, so you add it to your iffy list. However, Steingarten found that he was able to cleanse his taste buds. He conquered nearly all of his food fears, from kimchi to clams, simply through repeated exposure. The more often he made himself sample dreaded dishes, the more likely he was to tolerate, even enjoy them. He claimed the same was true for young people. “Most babies,” he wrote, “will accept nearly anything after eight or ten tries.

Which means that we only have to pile pork buns and radish cakes in front of Henry nine more times before we might actually get him to stomach them. Of course, multiply that across the three hundred other foods that he routinely eschews, and it looks like we will be resetting his taste buds — not to mention making embarrassing scenes in restaurants — for the rest of his childhood.

It is not just that I would like to see my son eat his vegetables. I want him to grow up and experience the world more fully. I want him to savor sushi in Tokyo. I want his first trip to Paris to include both pain au chocolat and escargot. And I fear that closed-mindedness towards food might cause him to overlook life’s other pleasures – wine, the opera, off beat travel, or even visionary ideas. Might not a love affair with hot dogs predestine an existence devoid of intellectual subtlety and nuance?

The only thing that gives me hope is that I was also a crummy eater. Peanut butter sandwiches nourished my childhood. I would never have consumed pie. Or cheese. Or mushrooms. Or cured meats. Or any of dozens of other foods that, as an adult, I now enjoy. Even as a teenager, I remember being afraid of typical teen fare: Cherry Coke, sweet and sour chicken, nachos. But after repeated exposure, even I evolved to enjoy those (admittedly terrible) foods.

So for now, we will keep plopping it all in front of him – the eggplant, the soybeans, the soup — in hopes that the scent, the memory, even just the essence of these flavors will be stored somewhere in his sausage-loving brain. And one day, maybe Henry will stop drumming his chopsticks long enough to be mildly intrigued by a dumpling or a rice ball, and take a big bite out of life.

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Birthday-mania

Happy Banana to You

As is her custom, Lizzie-mouse asked for a pie for her birthday. Homemade. Preferably pumpkin. This was not an unusual request. Or even particularly taxing. The kids and I bake pretty frequently. We had a crust in the freezer and a can of pumpkin on the pantry shelf.

Except it has been a bit of a week.

We are moving house. Just across town, not cross-country like the last time around.  But somehow the close proximity of our new home to our old flummoxed me utterly. When the gentlemen arrived with the second truck — after the first one rather cartoonishly rolled away — we had only packed three-and-a-half boxes. We’ve been busy summering — pool dates, beach trips, ice cream. I guess I figured that when the time came for the actual move, we would just “throw everything in laundry baskets.” Except I have only four laundry baskets. Five if you count the suitcase in the corner not yet unpacked from our trip to Cleveland five weeks ago. And as it turned out, I was not able to fit the entirety of our household possessions in these five containers. Thus, what followed was the most slip-shod, haphazard relocation project I have ever participated in. It topped the great dorm room debacle of ’94, when my roommate Meg was left to contend with the crusty macaroni and cheese dishes, the myriad holes in the walls, and the rotten pumpkin on the balcony. It topped the Ohio move when my friend Debbie, upon seeing the extent of my packing fiasco, voluntarily loaded her minivan with my trash bags and recycling. And it surpassed the chaotic 2002 move from Washington State when the cleaning crew we hired never showed up, and my best friend Jen, who just came to say good-bye and drop off some sandwiches, ended up washing our dog-slobber encrusted walls and windows with my husband’s old t-shirt and a bar of soap.

Last week’s move was like all of those moves combined.  Except without the assistance of all of those friends.  Without pals, packing paper, and you know, planning, we ended up rolling glassware in sweatpants and interspersing muffin tins with socks. I used the kids’ underwear to cushion coffee mugs. Trashcans were moved with the trash still inside. We had four days to finish this godforsaken move – eons in moving time. But the first day was the killer truck incident and the last day was Lizzie’s birthday, and all that happened in-between was a blur.

So long story short: I forgot to make the pie. I thawed the crust. Unearthed the pie pan in a laundry basket full of sweaters. But then never gave it another thought. It was as though I subconsciously believed those two preparatory actions would finish the job on their own.

At 9:30 on the night of her birthday, Lizzie said, “Mom, aren’t we going to sing to me?” Candles will not stand up in tomato soup (her birthday dinner), and they look sad in an empty pan, so I scurried around the kitchen looking for something else to light. That’s when I saw the banana. I crossed my fingers, stuck in the candles, and turned off the lights. We sang. Lizzie made her wish. And she blew out her banana.

For a few moments, I felt like a jerk. Who fails to make a kid her special dessert on her birthday? It’s like the only day a parent is required to produce a baked good. But when I looked at Lizzie’s face, as she laughed at her candles and peeled her banana ‘cake,’ I knew that this kid was okay. In fact, she was more than okay. She was delighted.

Kids are more resilient than we think. They fool us into believing they want comfort – the same chicken nuggets when we go to a restaurant, that particular stuffed animal when we tuck them good night. And to some extent, my kids are reassured by such routines. But they also love to be silly. And I think they love it even more when Mom and Dad are the source of the zaniness. When I brought out her flaming banana, I feared Lizzie might cry or pout because it was not, in fact, anything even resembling a pie. Instead, she smiled and laughed. She blew out her candles and even asked to make an extra wish.

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If the wish was for pie, it worked.  We ate one for breakfast the following morning.

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And another one the next day just to be safe.

Happy Birthday, Lizzie.  May the bananas always be with you.

 

Holidaze

Hasty Buns

We made homemade pie crusts today. And baked homemade rolls. We tossed together some homemade chicken stock; its aroma is filling the house with anticipatory joy. My nine-year-old wanted dumplings, so we whipped up homemade pot stickers, too. And dipping sauce. We couldn’t forget that.

But I fear I may be running out of juice. Thanksgiving’s not for another two days, and we basically just made from scratch all the things I usually buy. To balance this, for Thursday, I might just have to buy all the things I usually make. Either that, or serve chicken soup, pie crust, wantons, and rolls.

Also popcorn. I love popcorn.

In the end, of course, I know it doesn’t matter.  Whether we eat turkey and turnips, or popcorn and pot stickers, the food is actually the least important part.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.  May yours be a day of fullness and gratitude.

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