Lately I can’t focus very well. I am constantly changing direction in my thoughts. My bouncing mind leaps from one thought to another and from one direction to another, barely taking any time to stop on any one topic. I … Continue reading
I just finished reading Ruth Reichl’s most recent book, My Kitchen Year. It is a cookbook and it is also a story of her first year after Gourmet magazine closed (she was the editor for 10 years). Each recipe is … Continue reading
From childhood summers in Roosevelt picking vegetables to my recent years of gathering the delights from our Cold Spring garden, harvesting is a simple joy. There is nothing quite like the feeling of bare hands working in soil, the pleasure … Continue reading
As I look out upon the snow covering that we are experiencing in the northeast this winter, I am reminded that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Or in this case, when weather brings snow, go skiing. I didn’t really understand this variant on the dictum until Andy and I lived in Ohio during our first cold-weather winter together in 1989. We were living in Oberlin where the world is very flat and fields and roads go on for miles. During the warm weather months we found that the terrain was well suited for taking long bicycle rides. During spring and summer we became very devoted to weekend bike outings. Once the snow arrived, we had to rethink our outside game plan. Enter skiing—cross-country skiing to be precise.
Andy had some experience cross-country skiing but I had never been on skis of any kind before. But given our athleticism at the time, we didn’t bother with lessons and found a local golf club that rented skis during winter. I’ll never forget when the guy at the ski-rental booth said something like, “you must be cyclers.” Apparently all those months of biking long-distances had made our thighs quite clearly built up and toned. And so began our life of cross-country skiing through snowy winters.
We didn’t stay in Ohio very long, so we only went skiing there a few times. Nonetheless those early years set us up nicely for many years of outdoor fun—now based out of New York. One of my favorite memories of cross-country skiing was not long after we moved to New York. We took a weekend trip to Ludlow Vermont, a town most known for its proximity to Okemo Mountain for downhill skiing. We had no experience with downhill and didn’t even consider it an option (later we did learn to downhill ski and enjoy it). Instead, we went to Ludlow because it was near the well-know cross-country ski area Viking Nordic Center in Londonderry, VT.
The weekend was planned as much for the eating as the skiing because we had read about a bed and breakfast known for gourmet meals. The Black River Inn is no longer open but at the time they not only provided yummy breakfasts, they also served formal gourmet dinners. The food was indeed divine and plentiful which was just what we needed because food is burned very quickly when you cross-country ski. The way I think of cross-country skiing is essentially “running on snow.” Except that usually when you go for a run it is only a half hour to an hour run. Whereas typically we would head out and ski for two to three hours at a time. I’ll never forget how exhausted we were on that trip when we got back to the B & B after a day of skiing. We’d barely make it to the shower but we were determined to get dressed and make it to dinner. The food almost evaporated in our stomachs as we chowed down. We had no problem putting everything away including the heavy and deadly but delish caramel cheesecake for dessert. Those were the days.
These days we still cross-country ski but we don’t stay out as long and we don’t eat as much afterwards. We are fortunate to live just a few miles from Fahnestock Winter Park where they have miles of groomed trails and ski rentals. We had our own skis for years but they recently died so we have been renting when we go. So given that it’s snowing again, I think it is time to embrace the weather and go skiing!
Our family lore goes something like this. I was just four years old when Mom and I began the holiday tradition of baking Christmas cookies. Apparently while baking cookies that first time with my mom, I saved her life. Well not exactly her life, but her hand. We were using the electric mixer when my mom got a spoon stuck in the beaters that pulled her hand into the mixer. Being the brilliant little girl I was—according to lore—I pulled the power cord out of the outlet in a flash.
My memory of the event is dim at this point but it must be true according to our family story. That first cookie baking experience—scary event with the mixer notwithstanding—set the stage for a lifelong love of baking in general and more specifically baking Christmas cookies with my mom. Each year while I lived at home, we baked Christmas cookies together. Starting in the 70s, we selected recipes from the December issue of various magazines such as Women’s Day, Family Circle and Ladies Home Journal. One of my favorite memories was going to the grocery store to pick up the December issues that always had special inserts of holiday cookie recipes. Many of the magazines still do today.
Since that fateful day, I have baked Christmas cookies with my mom every year while I lived at home. When I left home for college and beyond, the days of baking Christmas cookies together with my mom stopped. Not living near my mom, I continued the tradition of baking Christmas cookies on my own or with Andy. Each year we did at least get to eat the cookies together when my mom and dad visited at Christmastime.
Sometime over the years of baking the holiday cookies on my own, my mom sent me a Xerox copy of our favorite magazine cookie recipe pamphlet—Women’s Day Kitchen #203 December 1973—so that I could bake our favorites. Then sometime later, she sent me all the original pamphlets that I lovingly keep in my cookie recipe file. The usual suspect recipes include hazelnut studded fingerprint cookies, mocha pecan balls, crescents of some sort and Greek Christmas cookies. Of course I always bake chocolate chip cookies and often oatmeal scotchies and more. But alas, I had to bake the cookies without my mom.
This year was different. For the first time since I left home, my mom and I baked Christmas cookies together at her place—which happens to now be just 10 minutes away from my home. We arranged to spend a day together baking our old standards. I gathered all my recipes and bought a bunch of the ingredients. My mom bought a bunch of other ingredients and so began the day-of-baking-cookie-frenzy. It was a delight! When I arrived first thing in the morning, my mom was already in a pretty vintage apron and she had several aprons for me to choose from. The dining room table was chock-a-block with bowls and cookie sheets and cooling racks and ingredients. In the kitchen that is open to the dining room, the mixer (no, not that mixer—it is long gone) and measuring cups stood nearby ready to use.
We have always worked well together in the kitchen and this year was no exception. Mom acted as prep chef, nicely chopping nuts and measuring ingredients, while I operated the mixer. Being new to the apartment and the kitchen, my mom wasn’t sure whether her oven was true to temperature, but it turns out that it was perfect. We mixed and rolled and baked and talked to our hearts delight. After 7 hours, we had plenty of yummy cookies to be enjoyed together and also to be shared with others.
Before I left, I gave Mom back the Xerox copy of the Women’s Day Kitchen #203 booklet that she made for me so many years ago. I kept the original. So the tradition of baking Christmas cookies with my mom restarts. I am so lucky to have my beautiful and loving cookie-baking partner nearby!
For many girls (and some boys) in the 60s and 70s, their first experience baking was under a light bulb. For some it was the light bulb of an Easy Bake Oven or, in my case, the light bulb of a Suzie Homemaker Oven. I remember being a bit envious of my friend Nathalie who had the Easy Bake Oven because it seemed so modern at the time compared to my oven that looked just like—well—an oven. The Easy Bake oven you push the cake through as if it is on a conveyor belt. Push it in on one side unbaked and when it is done, push it out the other side beautifully baked. Yes, it is a manual operation but the concept seemed so cool to me.
Nonetheless, I loved my Suzie Homemaker Oven. It came with little cake pans and little boxes of cake mix. You mixed up the batter by adding water, and then poured the batter in the pan. Then you just slid it into the oven, turned it on and the light bulb did the rest—very slowly. I remember that I used up the boxes that came with the oven fairly quickly. But figuring out how to make the right amount of batter—not too much and not too little—on your own was too difficult so I reverted to baking in the big-girl oven, my mom’s gas oven (see also Ode to baking chocolate chip cookies). Yes, I still played with the Suzie Homemaker Oven but I baked in the real kitchen.
I was reminded of my early mini-baking experiences when the Toys R Us Christmas catalog arrived in the mail last week. It was so much fun to comb through the catalog and see what is “hot” this year for kids. What caught my eye—besides the ride-able for kids miniature electric powered Kia Soul in green—was the Easy Bake Oven. It is now shaped like a microwave oven though you still slide the pan through it. And the Easy Bake Oven is celebrating its 50th Anniversary. I wonder if it still uses a light bulb. There were no Suzie Homemaker Ovens in sight.
The other items in the toy catalog that I would have loved to have as a little girl—hey, I would even consider getting one at my current age—are the amazing kitchen playsets. Listen to this description: Deluxe Kitchen with Realistic Sounds, Granite-Style Countertop & 38-piece Accessory Set. It has an oven, a microwave, bread-baskets (with bread) and condiments☺. And the fridge even has a front water and ice dispenser. That’s better equipped than my current kitchen. They offer it in pink and also in “Neutral” as they describe it that is shown with a little boy and girl playing together. Those sets make me want to go in my kitchen and play. Hey, that’s what I do whenever I bake! Let the holiday baking begin. This time without a light bulb!
They said if we could manage to not hate each other after spending the entire summer in a car driving cross-country, we surely were bound for marriage. And so begins the tale of our road trip. While I was in grad school, I desperately needed a break from my studies and decided to take the summer off. Generally speaking that is unheard of while you are working on your PHD and my advisor wasn’t too happy about it. Nonetheless, I knew that it was important for me so I went ahead with big plans. Andy—my boyfriend at the time—and I decided to take a long road trip across the country.
I have gone back and forth about what I feel about road trips over the years. I hadn’t really been on many road trips before that summer. There was the time when my parents and my brother and I drove in our green monster—our pastel-green van—to visit Grandma Dora in Florida when I was very young. I recall enjoying that childhood trip though I am not sure if my parents would say I was a happy camper. But I was game for a long trip with Andy and it was a cost-effective method to see the sites of the country. My parents made it even more cost-effective by giving us their Sunoco gas credit card and paying for all the gas we needed.
Good thing my parents gave us that credit card because at one point it turned out we needed to use it for another purchase at Sunoco—a new car battery. Yes, we had quite a few amusing and some not so amusing ventures on that trip. The car-battery tale worked out fine in the end and I remain grateful to my parents that they bankrolled the gas and the car battery.
We began our trip from the west coast in Santa Cruz, California where I was in graduate studies. With maps from CAA (California Automobile Association) in hand and a pink highlighted route that we had marked before we left, we took off on the defining road trip of our lives. Because our plans were for a round-trip across the country, the route we selected was across the northern part of the US outbound and the southern states on our return. Along the way we intended to see important sites that we hadn’t visited before—like Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park—and cities that perhaps we might live in one day—like New York, Seattle and Chicago. Our destination when we left California was my parent’s place in New Jersey where we knew we could remain and regroup for some time before heading westward.
I could probably write a novel-length memoir of the trip, we accomplished so many firsts and we experienced so many highs (and some lows). Several things remain vivid in my mind all these 29 years later. We thought to bring a bunch of long and gripping novels to read on the never-ending stretches of interstate highways. What a great idea! While one of us was driving, the other read aloud to pass the time. Not only did it pass the time, but also I don’t think I have ever enjoyed reading a book more. We took our time and discussed the characters and the plot live while we read together. There was Travels with Charlie, Lust for Life, and The Fountainhead. (For years afterwards, Andy read books to me in bed but we gave up when I kept on falling asleep—his voice just lulled me into slumber.)
Each day we made plans for where we would stop and camp over night. CAA also supplied us with a book of camping locations of all varieties from private to park-operated. Remember, this was before anyone had mobile Internet access—actually this was before there was much in the way of the Internet in general, let alone mobile cellphones and Internet. When we arrived at the intended camping area, we’d give it a quick look to see if it seemed safe and then put up our teeny tiny backpacker’s tent for two that we purchased at Sierra Designs in Berkeley. We certainly could have used a larger tent since we had a car to lug it in but—no—we were somehow cooler for using the modest Flashlight II. Setting up a tent every night for weeks on end made us experts at getting that thing up in no time at all, even if it was dark out. Most of the places we stayed were good enough and not very memorable. But several spots stick out in my memory as simply amazing—and several as truly horrendous.
One of the most magical places we camped was in Big Sky country—Montana. We found a small National Forest campsite and pitched our tent as usual. Because it was so remote, there were plenty of signs posted that warned of bears. So we took the suggested precautions and made sure that food was secured in the trunk of our car (we didn’t need to stow the food up a tree as we would have if we were actually backpacking). Even with no food present we were visited by a bear that night and in that moment I really wished we had a larger tent—actually a larger tent made out of metal is more like it. We stayed absolutely still lying in our tent and fortunately the bear wandered off. That was excitement I hadn’t expected. What I also hadn’t expected was the beauty of the surroundings. Big Sky is such a great term for Montana—the sky is immense and breathtaking. And that campground wins as my best memory of a beautiful spot in the world.
Some of our other camping experiences weren’t so lovely. We encountered a stretch of rain, rain, rain and after pitching the already wet tent for several nights in a row during downpours, we hit the el cheapo motel—again on Mom and Dad’s dime. And then there were the campgrounds in the Texas area that scared the crap out of us so we kept on driving. Though I do have a fond memory of armadillos making a racket looking for food in the metal garbage cans somewhere in Texas. I think I managed to snap a cute photo of one of the critters. What strange beasts they are. But all in all I’d say we did pretty well with our campgrounds, with great thanks to our CAA campground booklet.
We are foodies, so one of the things that is kind of surprising but I guess not unexpected given our poor financial state was that we didn’t eat at many of the wonderful road food spots available in the hinterlands of the US. Most of the time we bought groceries and had such marvelous—well marvelous when you are hungry and on the road—and easy to transport items like bread and cheese. Although it is true that even bread was taken to new heights when we toasted our bagels over an open fire in Yellowstone while it was flurrying out in an unusual July storm. (That fluke cold front was also when our car battery went kaput.) When we did enjoy a meal out, breakfast was the choice. My fav memory is of the cheapest breakfast to be found in a little diner in East Madison, Wisconsin. Of course we did eat beignets at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans and couldn’t miss the shakes and fries at The Varsity drive-in in Atlanta so food was not entirely ignored.
Dining in local joints while traveling gets greater attention these days and has for some time. But of all the trips I have taken with Andy over the years, our cross-country road trip remains most vivid of my memories and serves as an inflection point for our relationship. Yes, of course they were right—I did marry Andy and as that ramblin’ summer trip with my man proved, we were well suited for each other then. And we remain well suited and as in love today—if not more—as when we were young lovers on the road.
I have always enjoyed food—and food is certainly a topic that fits into many of my memories of childhood. I indeed baked a lot as a little girl (see Ode to Baking Chocolate Chip Cookies) and I cooked many of our family’s meals. But I don’t think as a kid that I would have ever called myself a foodie (though the trendy term foodie probably didn’t exist then—maybe gourmand in that era?). Whatever you call it, I did not become one with food until I became an adult. Nonetheless, there are several events from my childhood that foretold that I would become a foodie. One in particular stands out as the moment my taste buds came alive.
The year was 1971 and I was 10 years old. This year was an important one for so many more reasons than my awakening to food. This was the year of many firsts: first learning some French, first reading and writing poems (see the photos of the index cards of my poems), first learning how to give back massages (I am still pretty good at that for a non-trained masseuse if I don’t say so myself), first really kissing a boy, and first riding a motorized mini-bike to name a few. This all transpired because it was the year that I went to a private “Free School” called Erehwon. Erehwon (nowhere spelled backwards) was located in a house in Princeton Junction, NJ where 50 or so children of all ages attended. The school was based on the famous Summerhill School in England, an alternative open school where much of the learning was (and still is) experiential rather than entirely textbook trained.
Although there was some learning of traditional materials, for me the year was a year of learning about relationships and social rules and broadening of my mind culturally. I would have remained at Erehwon for more than just one year but financially the school couldn’t make it. I wonder how I would have fared academically if I had been schooled that way until high school. When I went back to my grammar school after one year and having only missed the traditional 5th grade, it was as if I had never left and I continued to excel.
The day in 1971 that remains vivid to me after all these years is our trip to BAM—Brooklyn Academy of Music. Well, to be honest, it isn’t really about the show at BAM. I can’t even remember what we watched (though I think it was dance). What I remember is the drive there. We were spread across a couple of station wagons and I got to sit all the way in the back—those days many station wagons had a row of seats facing backwards. From my perch, I waved to my friends in the other car of our caravan and tried to get strangers to wave back at me as well. And most of all I remember our pre-theatre meal in lower Manhattan at an Indian restaurant. Yes, BAM is in Brooklyn, but we took a detour via the Staten Island Ferry into Manhattan for dinner before going over the Brooklyn Bridge to see the show.
I had never had Indian food before and I can almost conjure the experience of my first whiff of the aromatic surroundings in that restaurant. I remember the miraculous moment that I ate a piece of lamb in a creamy orange sauce (I am guessing now that I know Indian food that it was probably Lamb Korma). It was amazing! I didn’t know food could be so rich in depth in flavor and color and aroma. I was in a trance and that probably explains why the rest of the evening is barely observable in my memory. From that day on, I have been trying to recreate the experience of my taste buds dancing and singing and coming alive! I’ve had a lot of success finding divine eating moments in my life since then and I remember many of them. But none are as profound as the moment my taste buds came alive when I was just a sweet young girl coming alive to all the wonders of the world during 1971.