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Do the Math

My local newspaper won’t run the Archie comic strips that include Kevin Keller, a gay character who’s been hanging out in Riverdale with Veronica and Jughead since 2010. Since this same paper serves a community fully one-third obese and thus the 10th fattest metropolitan area in the nation, I was surprised to find the following Non Sequitur sequence in my daily Section D.

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Thanks, Wiley Miller!

It’s not that hard

Thank goodness for Mark Bittman and his large media platform. He can reach multitudes with his sensible, Yes-You-Can messages about eating well in a crazy world. Bittman recently offered up a two-step guide embedded in an essay about food policy, reprinted in full below because it seems we can’t hear it often enough. Because people still get bent out of shape when they learn you follow a plant-based diet. Suddenly everyone is a nutritionist, qualified (and entitled) to scold you about not getting enough protein, calcium, calories, whatever. They get skittish about inviting you to dinner at their house, as if you were contagious or an alien much too difficult to please. Thus, I am grateful to those with the power to normalize — and make easily accessible — what seems to me a perfectly normal way to eat. Michael Pollan, of course, has honed it to koan-like elegance. Yes you can.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

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contibutors-bittman-thumbLarge-v2SAN FRANCISCO — To a large extent, you can fix the food system in your world today. Three entities are involved in creating our food choices: business (everything from farmers to PepsiCo), government (elected and appointed officials and their respective organizations) and the one with the greatest leverage, the one that you control: you.

We shouldn’t discount small farms and businesses, nor should we ignore relatively minor officials like the mayor of El Monte, Calif., who tried (and failed) to establish a soda tax to benefit public health. We do not always know where real change will come from, and certainly smaller operations may be more innovative and show us the way.

But for the most part we know where real change doesn’t come from: Big Food, the corporations that supply most of the food and stuff masquerading as food that’s sold in supermarkets, as fast food and in casual dining chains; and government, especially the federal government, which is beholden to and entranced by big business. Nothing new here.

imgresThere often seem to be more happy exceptions in industry than in government. If you look at the relatively new companies that have blazed a path for the food industry, you see, among others, Whole Foods and Chipotle. One demonstrated that supermarkets could sell better ingredients; the other opened the door to non-junkie fast food.

Neither is above criticism, and it’s possible both will be surpassed within a few years by newcomers with fresher and better ways of doing things. Still, it’s comforting to know that at least somewhere in the corners of this food system, market competition is giving opportunities to clever and even well-intentioned people to figure out how to make real money by actually providing the public with better food.

imgres-1I’m especially impressed with the way Whole Foods is innovating in the arena of labeling, gradually extending its own internal labeling system from fish to meats and now to fruits and vegetables. (As I said, though, they’re hardly above criticism.) Marketing is of course part of it, but shoppers who want to talk back to the supply chain by knowing where their food comes from don’t otherwise have a way to do that. If Whole Foods gives them what they want, then despite the “Whole Paycheck” nickname (and there’s some evidence that Whole Foods is starting to compete on price as well), those who can get there and afford it will favor it. This is progress, doing well by doing at least some good, and that can’t be said about most corporations involved in food. See, for example, the too-little-too-late attempt at transparency by McDonald’s.

We can’t rely on even well-intentioned souls in industry, but given the ball-dropping entity that is supposed to be vigilant regarding our health and welfare — the federal government — we have little choice. The legislative branch isn’t worth discussing, and leadership from the executive branch has been disappointing. Two issues could have been improved definitively in the last six years — the marketing of junk to kids and the existence of antibiotics in our food supply — and President Obama has accomplished little in either case. However stymied he may have been, we are looking at a landscape that hasn’t changed much, the exception being the improved but still hotly contested school food programs supported by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.usda-organic-scary

Even worse are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, the last of which refuses to ban the routine use of antibiotics in animal production despite knowing that a ban is possible and desirable. It’s also dawdling on mandating an improved nutrition label on packaged food, probably because of industry taking “interest.”

We shouldn’t need to rely on Whole Foods for good labeling. Yet every day I’m asked, “How do I know that what I’m buying is O.K.?” It seems the better educated and more concerned people are about this, the more confused they are. Drill deep enough and the list to worry about becomes overwhelming: organics, genetically modified organisms, carbon footprint, packaging, fair trade, waste, labor, animal welfare and for all I know the quality of the water that’s being used to wash your organic greens.

I get this. I’m a worrier, too, though I tend to expend my neurotic energy on different topics. The overall environment means that you’re pretty much on your own if you try to eat healthfully in spite of the system, and you must take up that battle through a dozen or more decisions each day. But there are two big decisions that can put you on the right path and help you largely steer clear of antibiotics, excess sugar, unwanted chemicals, animal cruelty, and more.

Here then, is your two-step guide for an unassailably powerful personal food policy.

1. Stop eating junk and hyperprocessed food. This eliminates probably 80 percent of the stuff that is being sold as “food.”

2. Eat more plants than you did yesterday, or last year.

If you add “Cook your own food” to this list, it’s even more powerful, but these two steps alone allow you to reduce the amount of antibiotics you’re consuming; pretty much eliminate GMOs from your diet, lighten your carbon footprint; reduce your chances of becoming ill as a result of your diet; save money; cut way back on sugar, other junk and unnecessary and potentially harmful nonfood additives; and so on.

All without relying on corporate benevolence or the government getting things right. The power lies with you.

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Can’t help myself. Michele channels Lil Jon while reminding us to eat our veggies and vote.

 

Winter is Icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm.
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.

— Ezra Pound

Winter is icumen in and so is our all but universal desire for carbohydrates. Thanks be to the New York Times’ Melissa Clark for offering up a simple formula for great grain bowls: one or more grains, preferably whole grains; greens; pickles (think kim chee); protein (plant-based eaters will go for tofu, hummus, nuts or nut butter, and will know not to worry); textural surprises such as avocado, nori, seeds; and a sauce to wrap it up with a bow. Her post, Grain Bowls: How to Make Your Own, is printed in full below; click to watch the video. Ezra Pound added for funsies.

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The rice bowl has come a long way. Once relegated to health food restaurants and natural food shops, it was a humble, healthful, often vegetarian one-dish meal reminiscent of Japanese donburi and Korean bibimbap, rice bowls topped with meat or fish, vegetables and pickles.

Now, you’re just as likely to run into a grain bowl, made with the likes of quinoa, farro or freekeh, at the trendiest restaurants as you are at the cafe adjacent to your yoga studio.

Black rice topped with kale, eggplant and salmon at Dimes in Chinatown.

Black rice topped with kale, eggplant and salmon at Dimes in Chinatown.

Case in point: At Dimes, a new restaurant in Chinatown, you will find a barley bowl topped with pickled salmon and cabbage slaw. At Sqirl in Los Angeles, heirloom brown rice is mixed with cumin and Swiss chard and topped with crisp chorizo. At El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette on the Lower East Side, grits cooked in cashew milk is topped with slow-roasted pork and pickled onions.

For evidence that the bowl has gone mainstream, look no further than Chipotle, whose burrito bowl is the biggest selling item on the menu.

A Swiss chard rice bowl at Sqirl in Los Angeles.

A Swiss chard rice bowl at Sqirl in Los Angeles.

Bowls are excellent vehicles for leftovers, no matter how motley. They can accommodate the ever-widening variety of available whole grains (quinoa, kamut, farro, freekeh, wheat berries, barley and grits) that we are all supposed to be working into our diet. And they are ideal for picky eaters in the house, who can build it to suit their own tastes while ensuring that none of the toppings touch.

Gerardo Gonzalez, the chef at El Rey, calls a bowl the perfect dish, one in constant movement.

Grits cooked in cashew milk and topped with slow-roasted pork and pickled onions at El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette on the Lower East Side.

Grits cooked in cashew milk and topped with slow-roasted pork and pickled onions at El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette on the Lower East Side.

“Eating your way around a bowl is a little like tai chi,” he said. “The perfect bite doesn’t mean you have all the components together on the spoon, it’s about getting the balance of acid, sweet, salty. Every bite is a surprise, a little different from the one before it.”

When assembling a grain bowl at home, Jessica Koslow, the chef and owner of Sqirl, advises embracing variety.

“We change our bowls seasonally, varying the recipes to reflect different ingredients at their prime,” she said.

While the type of grain matters, the real artistry of the bowl is in the combination of toppings. You could spoon almost anything over your grains and call the result a bowl (and some do). But the best bowls have a balanced combination of flavors and textures, and of vegetables, proteins, sauces and garnishes. Ideally, choose a grain that complements the other elements, pairing delicate ingredients (simple steamed vegetables or fish, for example) with milder grains (white rice, grits, barley). But pretty much any grain will work with nearly anything you pile onto it.

As for vegetables, anything goes, but greenery is iconic, be it raw, steamed, roasted or sautéed. At Scratchbread in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, my bowl (served in a paper cup) had grits on the bottom, with raw kale, chunks of crisp bacon, a soft-cooked egg and jalapeño sauce layered on top. I especially like the purity and softness of steamed greens — kale, mustard, chard, collards — against the nubby grains. Feel free to use leftover vegetables on top: Those florets of sautéed cauliflower, cubes of baked beets or silky slivers of roasted red peppers can have no better home.

Now you need a protein. Think of small amounts of braised or roasted meats or fish, whether left over or freshly cooked. Vegetarians can go for tofu, tempeh, seitan or beans. And anyone can add a soft-cooked egg, preferably one with a runny yolk to coat the other ingredients like an instant sauce.

You should also have a sauce on the side for everyone to mix in to taste. Use ingredients that mesh with the flavors of the bowl. Combine soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and rice vinegar or lime juice for Asian-inspired combinations. Pesto goes nicely with roasted red peppers, eggplant or anything else vaguely Mediterranean. Bottled hot sauce provides spice to the fire-toothed. And a basic vinaigrette will get along with practically anything else.

Once you have the bowl assembled — grains, vegetables, protein and sauce — it’s time to think about garnishes, which add character and depth. Something pickled or pungent (kimchi, preserved lemon, pickled peppers, a dash of fish sauce) keeps things interesting, and something crunchy (sesame seeds, nuts, toasted seaweed) diversifies the textures. Or combine these if you like: crunchy pickled carrots or radish, for example.

Mix and match. Then mix and match again. If you do it right, you need never serve the same bowl twice — not unless you want to, that is.

burrito-bowlP.S. I’m a big fan of Chipotle; they’re one of the few places who have successfully bridged my transition to a plant-based diet. OneGreenPlanet does a “100 percent clean version” of Chipotle’s veggie burrito bowl.

Blood Meal

As bedbugs feed, their abdomen extends to accommodate the blood meal.

When we talk about food, we’re usually talking about what we eat, but a recent, uh, experience has me thinking about what eats us. Yep, I’m talking bedbugs.

Used to be, or so the myth went, they favored low-income, multifamily buildings in big cities. Or so those who lived elsewhere liked to think, distancing themselves from the poor who suffered in unpublicized silence and could not afford the thousands of dollars in treatment and relocation costs. Could this be why shame piles on top of horror, because deep in our unreconstructed amygdala is the notion that bedbugs only show up in the dirty, cluttered homes of people not like us?

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Exempt? I don’t think so. www.bedbugregistry.com

But suddenly, around 2010, they were everywhere, regardless of the price per square foot.

The 2011 Bugs Without Borders Survey conducted by the National Pest ManagementAssociation (NPMA)  and the University of Kentucky found that bedbug infestations have increased and are now found just about everywhere.

The New York metro area has the worst infestation in the United States, with more than 4490 bed bug reports.

The New York metro area has the worst infestation in the U.S., with more than 4490 bed bug reports.

Everywhere indeed, even at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York, where rooms cost anywhere from $695 to $4,500 a night, and libraries all over the country. Most famously of late, they’ve been found in the New York City subway system, and the problem appears to be spreading.

But still, not at my house.

Certain signs of trouble appeared almost a year ago, in October 2013, shortly after I returned from a conference in Washington D.C., where I had stayed at the 4-star Hyatt Grand Regency Capitol Hill. An itchy bump here and there, and hard to think it was a mosquito that late in the year. It didn’t feel like a mosquito bite, either.

I called a local exterminator. He dismantled my bed down to the wooden slats, peering into crevasses and seams with a magnifying glass, and then declared — with a conviction, he said, born of a Masters degree in entomology and 25 years in the business — that we absolutely did not have bedbugs. “It’s an allergy, I’ll bet my career.”

What a relief! All I had to do was pick out the one culpable variable in my rather steady life. Not much changes around here in the way of product, but I had introduced a new laundry booster, so it went out with the trash. A brief period of relief ensued.

When they returned — just for me, mind — we did not speak of the red itchy bumps as “bites.” Why give it that negative energy? Just visit the allergist, who will administer a few expensive tests (net result = zero) and hypothesize that a viral infection had provoked my immune system to go into histaminic overdrive. Daily doses of antihistamines rendered me stupid for most of my waking hours but did not, alas, slow down the nighttime events.

First, around 2 a.m., a dim awareness of something annoying; I’m still asleep, but my hands travel to the site — my throat, my ankle, the inside of my knee. Then the awful dawning, as the sensation of itching swells to a 9-on-the-pain-scale intensity —  searing, commanding, impossible to ignore. Fully awake now, I stagger to the bathroom with my phone to record the evidence, as much for me as for others in the family who are unaffected and perhaps might think me imagining things. I see white, irregular welts, often in a cluster that will morph in the two or three or seven days to follow into larger, redder, rounder welts that look worse but mercifully itch a little less. I went to see a dermatologist.

You have bedbugs,” he said without a moment’s hesitation.

“No I don’t,” I countered. “The pest guy said so.”

“Nevertheless, you do,” he said, pointing to a row on my shoulder — “breakfast, lunch, and dinner!”

By now, seven months had passed, along with many tubes of cortisone and countless hours of unpleasant wakefulness. You might think me slow on the uptake, but no one wants to think they have bedbugs, especially when a professional has sworn up and down that they don’t. I called another pest guy, the affable, experienced yet blessedly humble Jesse, who took the bed apart just like before — and found them, an entire loathsome swarm, under the box spring.

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Bedbugs are attracted to body heat and to the carbon dioxide we exhale during sleep. They feed through the night, particularly between 2-5 a.m. when the host is deepest in sleep and least resistant, using a piercing, sucking proboscis to penetrate the skin, and injecting an anticoagulant to ease the flow of blood and an anesthetic to numb the host. Adult bedbugs can go for more than a year without feeding.

So many feelings.

Horror was paramount. Horror that blood-sucking parasites had infested the very heart of my home AND WERE SUCKING ON MY BLOOD. The disgusting sight (which I can never un-see) of bugs in my bed, and the implications of Jesse, in surgical gloves, gingerly placing my contaminated sheets into a sealed plastic bag. But that was just the beginning.

Jessica Goldstein found them partying in her mattress and managed to laugh about it, later.

Jessica Goldstein found them partying in her mattress and managed to laugh about it, later.

Then came an awareness of raw vulnerability, the sense — no, the knowledge — that my joy-sustaining illusion of security was forever blown. No defense, no safety, never again to drift off to sleep without wondering whom, or rather, what, I was sleeping with. No home, for it felt like I had nowhere to go. My situation was nothing like that of the many millions in this world who have truly lost their homes to war, bankruptcy, weather, or corruption; their emdr1suffering is beyond compare. But for a few days — especially when the treatment protocol involved the washing, drying, bagging, and removal of every last stitch of clothing in the bedroom and the poisoning of all that remained — I was shattered. It took a good strong dose of EMDR therapy to bring back the light in my eyes.

I considered feeling shame, but ruled it out; this was not my fault. But there is a social awkwardness that sets in, paired with responsibility. One must come clean to visiting friends and those one wishes to visit, and they, quite reasonably, might decline your company for the duration of your personal plague. I will be forever grateful to the friend who said “I just draw the line at Ebola.”

But humility? Yes, this is a humbling experience: it helps you know your limits. Bedbugs don’t look at your investment portfolio to check your worth as a food source. They don’t care if you live in a tenement or a mansion, or whether you’re an indifferent or obsessive housekeeper. I dearly hope you get through life without being fed upon by cimex lectularius, but if it does, heaven help you. You will need:

  • Money for professional pest control (my bill is already over a thousand dollars), not just once but three or four times, plus ongoing prophylaxis.
  • Heavy duty mattress covers.
  • A robust clothes dryer that can heat up to at least 120 degrees, and the time to put ALL of your clothes through a 40-minute cycle. Then you seal them up and wear the same thing for six months.
  • A good vacuum cleaner and about a thousand bags, because every time you vacuum — and you have to vacuum often — you should seal up the bag and get it out of the house.
  • The patience of Job, because this is going to take a while. It is wearying to body and soul.
  • Humor if you can possibly manage it. Some might enjoy Bedbugs!!!, the musical, though I prefer The OnionCracked.com, and my favorite, the Science Friday episode wherein producer Flora Lichtman offers up a side-splitting psychological reappraisal of bedbugs.
  • The support of your friends and family, especially those who can get you the hell out of the house, take you to dinner and a movie, hug you without flinching, and remind you that someday, this will be over.
  • Gratitude: when you get rid of the bedbugs (and you can, yes you can!), you might still have 99 problems but bedbugs won’t be among them. You don’t have Ebola. You are alive.
Bedbugs!!!, coming soon to off-Broadway, is an "audacious rock-’n’-roll concoction about mutant bedbugs that terrorize New York City."

Bedbugs!!!, coming soon to off-Broadway, “an audacious rock-’n’-roll concoction about mutant bedbugs that terrorize New York City.” Cue diabolical laughter.

October 2, 2014.

Tom Siani says "we have our friends in the city to thank for bringing in bedbugs and crime."

Tom Siani says “we have our friends in the city to thank for bringing in bedbugs and crime.”

Update, with gloves off, because another sleepless night and another dickwad exterminator. The guy who swore we didn’t have bedbugs, and thereby put me off the trail for months, was from Ehrlich Pest Control. Jesse from Siani Pest Control is OK, but his boss is not. I called this morning to inquire about the dozen crates of books we had packed up for treatment (yeah, they’re in libraries), and what I got was a rude tirade about how frustrated they were with me because they had done everything they possibly could and “you can’t treat something that’s not there” and “why would you care about inanimate objects [books] anyway?”

Menu Speak, by Jen Doll

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Yep, this is something different. I’ve been thinking about how to step up the frequency of my posts and my interactions with you, dear reader, perhaps by folding in news and/or commentary that interests me. This post, printed verbatim from The Atlantic, is such an experiment.

3d_hc_savethedate_mergedI have known and admired Jen Doll for many years, starting back in the aughts when we were members of writing group known as the Jane Street Workshop, led by the phenomenal Alexandra Shelley. (Among our illustrious alumni is Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, and I can attest that both she and Jen are as smart and kind and important as you would imagine.) imagesJen writes for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, and other with-in pubs, and in May 2014, published her first book, the hilarious and moving, Save The Date, The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest.

The following piece caught my eye in a recent issue of The Atlantic, which of course I now read cover to cover. Because my daughter. It reminded me of the fatigue that overcomes me in a pretentious restaurant or grocery store like, say, Whole Foods — and of the glorious meals my husband and I ate at a teeny tiny restaurant called Fuji, on a narrow back street in East Osaka, Japan, where  all it took to get the seven-course meal of the day (for approximately $4.50) was to nod with the politeness of a foreigner with limited language skills, hold up two fingers, and say, “futatsu kudasai,” which means, “two, please.” Thank you, Jen!

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In 1919 the Hotel Pennsylvania, in New York, opened its first restaurant, with offerings notable for their descriptive simplicity: “lamb,” “potatoes: boiled,” and so on. Nearly 100 years later, the Statler Grill, one of the hotel’s current restaurants, offers updated takes, from a “lollipop Colorado lamb chop” to “buttered mashed potatoes (Idaho potatoes with butter & a touch of cream, whipped to perfection).”

You needn’t be a linguist to note changes in the language of menus, but Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky has written a book doing just that. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Jurafsky describes how he and some colleagues analyzed a database of 6,500 restaurant menus describing 650,000 dishes from across the U.S. Among their findings: fancy restaurants, not surprisingly, use fancier—and longer—words than cheaper restaurants do (think accompaniments and decaffeinated coffee, not sides and decaf). Jurafsky writes that “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish.” Compared with inexpensive restaurants, the expensive ones are “three times less likely to talk about the diner’s choice” (your way, etc.) and “seven times more likely to talk about the chef’s choice.”

Lower-priced restaurants, meanwhile, rely on “linguistic fillers”: subjective words like delicious,  flaky, and fluffy. These are the empty calories of menus, less indicative of flavor than of low prices. Cheaper establishments also use terms like ripe and fresh, which Jurafsky calls “status anxiety” words. Thomas Keller’s Per Se, after all, would never use fresh—that much is taken for granted—but Subway would. Per Se does, however, engage in the trendy habit of adding provenance to descriptions of ingredients (Island Creek oysters, Frog Hollow’s peaches). According to Jurafsky, very expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.

Not that the signature elements of a fancy menu are likely to stay exclusive. Food terms—like food trends—have a way of traveling full circle, from rarefied to mainstream to passé and back again. Take the word macaroni, which rich Americans originally borrowed from Italy. In 1900, Jurafsky explains, it was found mainly on high-end menus but “slowly became more and more common,” ending up the purview of all-night diners. Until, that is, top chefs began reclaiming mac and cheese, mixing in delicacies like truffles, or, in the case of Keller’s deconstructed version, lobster.

Already, provenance-oriented menu language is spreading outward from the finer restaurants to the Subways and Applebee’s of the world. The first franchise to take provenance seriously was Chipotle, says the food developer Barb Stuckey. (“They’ve always menued Niman Ranch pork.”) Now some McDonald’s burgers are served not on “buns” but on “artisan rolls,” and TGI Fridays boasts of “vine-ripened tomatoes.”

In turn, high-end food purveyors may head in a different direction. “As this stuff trickles down, the rich need a way to be different again,” says Jurafsky, who notes the burgeoning menu trend of extreme minimalism, seen at the Michelin-starred San Francisco spot Saison, where the set price starts at $248 and the menu comes after the meal, as a souvenir. In some ways, this is “a return to 200 years ago, when you’d say, ‘Give me dinner,’ and they’d just give you what they’d cooked,” Jurafsky says.

Imagine what this could do for the speed of the drive-through lane.

Amen to All That

photoThe Curmudgeon speaks:

I do not unequivocally love summer. Of course I enjoy the pleasure of soft, lightweight clothing, and the ability to move around without fear of slipping on a treacherous patch of ice and breaking my neck. I appreciate the pretty sandals, the birds and rhythmic chirping things, the warm, complex scent of the garden in the moonlight. And swimming, above all, in a clear photolake or better yet, the ocean, ferocious and tranquil, hot and cold at once, like a hot-fudge sundae.

But a day at the beach, no thank you. Because I’m a white lady of a certain age with the English-Irish skin that goes pink in minutes and (if you’re an idiotic twenty-something at the shore in the baby oil-and-iodine era) blisters well into the second degree before you can say “pass the G&T.” Now I have what the TV calls those horrid age spots and don’t walk out the door without sunblock, a wide-brimmed hat, and long, Victorian sleeves. Also, I wilt in the heat, and not in a nice, rose-like way.photo 5

Summer food, on the other hand.

Can I get an Amen for gazpacho with basil hummus? For salads, morning, noon, and night: baby soft lettuces, bedazzled with herbs and flowers, tossed with upstart asparagus, Easter egg potatoes, a friend’s overflow tomatoes, radishes, shaved corn, grilled garlic scapes. photo 1


photo 8Only summer can deliver unto us the juicy globes of tomatoes, peaches, and melon. The watermelons of childhood memory, the sticky chins, the fruit-dyed fingers, ankles itchy from picking berries in a hay-mulched field.

My husband says that God put seeds in raspberries to mitigate their perfection; otherwise they would be so sublime that we would die of pleasure. And elderberries? Now we’re talking seeds, but after a bit of thrashing about with the food mill the other day, I was pleased to render a cup of elderberry syrup, which I strew on a coconut panna cotta.photo 1 (1)

Amen also to the squash blossom, neither sweet nor juicy, a by-product of the zucchini crop, for sale only by the rarest of vendors one suspects of fetching them after midnight. It was the squash blossom that gave me the idea for this post because in their evanescence they most perfectly represent the summer table.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI harvest mine, with permission, from my next-door neighbors’ backyard vegetable patch. There were fewer this year, for they learned the hard way that squash plants go a long way, but enough for two or three meals. (Certain trolls inside my computer have hidden all my blossom pix, so I’m borrowing this from the darling Darling Farm.) First, I check for bees. They like to loiter inside the yellow folds and do not take kindly to disturbances in their field. Forgoing the ricotta filling, I dip those lovely blossoms into a tempura batter, as light as can be, sauté them in a flash, and serve to those who are worthy.

IMG_6019The vegan police will have noticed the inclusion of soft-boiled eggs in the nicoise above. I apologize for nothing. I continue to practice a plant-based diet because I like it and so does my body, but I do not let it get in the way of living. When I found myself rather hysterically hungry at a Detroit Tigers’ game in July, there was nothing for it but a Polish sausage with the works. And if the ice cream truck were to drive by, playing it’s little ding-dong jingle, I’d be there.

IMG_5766I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me. Having trotted out my sad story at the weekend block party, I know better. I’ll just sit here by myself with my Albeeats-inspired beet-banana-molasses mousse, weeping into my fair-trade organic coffee, mourning the loss of my kitchen comrade, my fellow menu-planner and grocery shopper, my inspiration.

coverBut first, congratulations: my daughter Alexandra got a terrific job in New York at The Atlantic. Fantastic! Millennial kid leaves the nest, lands on feet in the big city. Woo hoo!! This is what my husband and I have worked toward all these years, assiduously raising and educating our children to take flight under their own power, to enter the so-called adult world with courage, integrity, ambition, humor, and enough skills to get in the front door. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Of course I’m proud. She’s earned this. She is a smart, beautiful and creative young woman, working in her chosen city for an organization she can respect with colleagues she can learn from. This is how her story begins. This is also the good news I can impart to friends and neighbors who want to catch up on the kids.photo7M4HQR5I

Mazeltov,” they say, “you must be so happy!”

Of course I’m happy. I’m happy for her, for her new roommates, for the lucky folk who get to work with her, and for me and my husband who can enjoy a bit more elbow room on the home front. (I also won’t mind her new employer picking up the tab for health insurance or delivering the paycheck with which she can buy her own groceries.)

But is it too much to ask that a mother’s feelings be recognized as slightly more complex? I’m going to miss her like crazy. Her yearlong stay after college graduation was a rare and unexpected gift, for she took pains to be the world’s best roommate — happy to accompany me on my suburban rounds, happy to fetch the odd bunch of cilantro forgotten at the market, happy to teach me (and write down the instructions) how to use Netflix on the TV. She led the household on a bold adventure into plant-based eating that has transformed my relationship to food, sharing with us the imaginative recipes and gorgeous plating she has parlayed into Instagram fame. Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 2.53.15 PM
She has been less successful in convincing my husband that every leftover, however small or unshapely, should be decanted from its serving bowl into an appropriately sized Tupperware — he would prefer to slap a piece of plastic wrap over the bowl and call it a day — but she has his undying gratitude for setting up the DVR to capture every single Perry Mason episode ever aired. She enhanced our lives and never once made us feel like a pair of early-to-bed old farts. You bet I’m going to miss her.

photo 2photo 1Every Sunday, we used to plan the week’s menu, hunkering down with cookbooks and foodgawker, pulling up new recipes to try, weaving in the bounty of the season and our mid-week CSA delivery, and accommodating Bill’s lingering fondness for meat and dairy. We were thrown for a bit of a loop by the week-long visit of my Australian cousin who dines exclusively on beef, butter and beer, but that’s another story. All this planning was new to me, and I confess I did not take to it without a certain amount of griping about loss of spontaneity, but the result was a significant reduction in daily stress (e.g., fewer futile skirmishes with the family, hoping for ideas and ending up back at square one: “What would you like for dinner?” “Oh, anything you make is fine.”), fewer trips to the grocery store, and lower food costs. Here’s the Asian veg & peanut noodle salad we had on May 21, from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg, page 71.

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Of course I’m going to miss her, but the loss is of more than my daughter. With her magnificent emergence into adulthood, I lose the illusion of still being in the juicy middle of my life. I see the circle of life wheeling around — the little kids sugaring up on block party cupcakes, the pre-teens off-site on a neighbor’s trampoline, the grown-up graduates and earnest new families, the vigorous seniors who are such reliable volunteers, and the wispy-haired elders — and have to acknowledge that I’m moving along the downward slope. I don’t mean moribund; I know I’m wise and vital, with a good long stretch ahead of me, god willing. But it is a transition, the ramifications of which aren’t quite covered by a congratulatory slap on the back.Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 4.16.50 PM

What to do? The best approach is not, I suspect, what I took the other night at a graduation party for Alexandra’s BFF Caroline Reese. I found myself speaking with one of Caroline’s friends from Princeton, an entrepreneurial senior who is marketing a line of “party proof” clothing and wanted to deliver a sample skirt to my daughter. I could try on the skirt myself, suggested the darling girl. “Maybe not,” I said. “I’m finding that certain things aren’t appropriate any more.” Fair enough, but I barreled on, blurting “Growing older is the weirdest fucking thing that’s ever happened to me” and very likely traumatizing this young woman whose only crime was being young.

photoBetter to put on my cowboy boots and get that pizza I built into this week’s menu underway. Yesterday’s tacos were pretty swell. I put chicken, cheese, and Greek yogurt out for Bill and Jadah, and everyone was happy. Including me.

Here’s to you, my beloved girl, my muse, my Alexandra Jane.

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