Archive for the ‘Celebration’ Category

I am depressed about Soylent. Maybe it’s the future, in which case I’d like to check out right now. I know it’s not a joke because the New Yorker just gave it 6,000 words, about ten times more than the average parody, and because to my kids, with their ears ever tuned to the media, it’s old news. It is old news, another meal-in-a-bottle, another miracle powder offering a shortcut to longevity, but this time with traction.

In case you haven’t heard, Soylent is a powdered blend purported to contain all the nutrients needed to sustain human life, and it tastes, when mixed with water, like a cross between Cream of Wheat and Metamucil. To quote the website Soylent.me (“Free Your Body”):140512_r25001_p233

Soylent is a food product (classified as a food, not a supplement, by the FDA) designed for use as a staple meal by all adults. Each serving of Soylent provides maximum nutrition with minimum effort.

People are buying and drinking the stuff as we speak. The New Yorker calls it The End of Food, and that’s what really has me in a tailspin. In the beginning, writes Lizzie Widdicombe, three young men were living in a small San Francisco apartment, working on a technology startup that wasn’t going well.

They had been living mostly on ramen, corn dogs, and Costco frozen quesadillas — supplemented by Vitamin C tablets, to stave off scurvy — but the grocery bills were still adding up. Rob Rhinehart, one of the entrepreneurs, began to resent the fact that he had to eat at all. “Food was such a large burden.” 

imgresRight off the bat, I’m deep in cognitive dissonance. I understand anxiety about the cost of food, and the tiredness at the end of the day that leaves no room for meal prep. Not everyone enjoys tearing cilantro leaves off the stem one at a time, but resentment that one has to eat at all speaks of an alienation from all I hold sacred.

I also understand that feeding the world’s population is a whopping big problem we’re far from solving. One in six Americans are “food insecure” — millions of hard-working people, children and seniors who can’t always make ends meet and have to choose to go without food. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, upwards of 850 million people worldwide are suffering from chronic hunger. But let’s face it — 850 million people are not going to pony up $70/month for 21 pouches of unpronounceable ingredients.

Meanwhile, the methods we use to produce food on a large scale are ruinous. We spray pesticides on our fruits and vegetables like there’s no tomorrow, and now, according to a new study published in the journal Nature, rising carbon dioxide emissions are making staple food crops less nutritious. As for meat, “the present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable,” understates Robert Martin, Director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, “and presents an unprecedented level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise as food.”

Big, big problems, but Soylent?Soylent_green

The product is not, the company hastens to explain, ha ha, made of ground up humans as in the dystopian 1973 film. Scanning for additional word associations, I come up with soy, the tarnished workhorse of vegetable proteins, soil, about which enough said in an eating context, and lent — when Christians give things up. None of this is compelling.

Everybody suggested changing the name, Rhinehart told Widdicome. “Investors, media people, my mom.” But he liked the self-deprecating nature of the name, and the way it poked fun at foodie sensibilities:

“The general ethos of natural, fresh, organic, bright—this is the opposite.”

I’m not the only one in distress. Return of Kings blogger Pill Scout thinks that Rob Rhinehart is An Idiot — “a beta nerd and software developer with a clear bent for transhumanism and science fantasy. Nobody should be eating what he calls food.” Here, precisely, is what he calls food:




Soylent, argues Rhinehart, is quick, cheap, nutritious, environmentally friendly (huh?) and “easier than food.” Because, as VICE blogger Monica Heisey explains,

0d778175af2eb31dadaff639b02cab84_vice_670You know what’s a complete waste of time, money, and effort? Eating. I mean, wouldn’t you rather just ingest a tasteless form of sustenance for the rest of your life and never have to go through that tedious rigmarole of opening and eating a premade sandwich or feasting on a pile of fried delicacies ever again?


Seriously. I mean, we could probably fit a couple of 27-inch iMacs in the space currently occupied by the dining room table, not to mention the kitchen. We could rent that sucker out. Sex is free, but, good grief, what a lot of time gets wasted getting down to business! Rhinehart tips his hand on that score.

Soylent is definitely a permanent part of my diet. Right now I only eat one or two conventional meals a week, but if I had any money or a girlfriend, I would probably eat out more often. 

In other words, if he had a life. Can you imagine Thanksgiving with no feast? Birthdays with no cake? Celebrations with no clinking of glasses filled with tasty spirits? What about give us this day our daily bread, even if it is gluten free? What about joy? Delight? Satisfaction?

No, I say. No to Soylent, yes to life.

We are most likely not, those of us within range of this post, suffering from chronic hunger. Due to the accident of our birth, we are among the luckiest people on the planet insofar as we have a roof over our head and enough to eat, so please — because we can — give us this day our crunchy toast, slathered with thick fig jam. Give us our basil, snipped from the potted plant on the windowsill, and the weird-ass durian we hacked open in the driveway for fear of the stench. Give us the harissa-spiced chickpeas with olives and raisins we prepared for the graduation party and the sweet, fresh pear whose juices still drip down our chin in a memory of childhood in Detroit.

Please? And thank you.IMG_5537

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The preliminary title of this post was Seudat Mitzvah, but Sharon’s shoes, as you will soon see, were too fabulous not to have top billing. First, the food. This from The Jewish Chronicle:

The priority Jews place on food in our communal celebrations … comes from a central religious tenet called the seudat mitzvah, a commanded meal, which is required after celebrations and life cycle events. Meals served after weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and even funerals are all considered to be occasions requiring a seudat mitzvah. The priority of food after an important occasion in Judaism is not about feeding people per se; it is about sharing an event in your life with the whole community. Mourners should not grieve alone and celebrants should not celebrate alone; the commandment is on the entire community to be with the people undergoing a significant moment whether it is significant to just one family or to the entire community.  Meals are seen as the natural post-experience gathering place in Judaism and the role of the seudat mitzvah is a central one in Jewish communal life.

I like it, despite the slightly jarring implications of obligatory feast. And even more than the concept, I liked the seudat mitzvah–aka brunch–that my family and I enjoyed at Rob and Sharon’s wedding. Rob, you may remember, is gifted and generous cook, so it came as no surprise that the wedding was not just celebrated by food but wrapped in it. Food is life, and it’s right that all our special occasions be marked by the sharing of food with a community of friends. Bill and I were married in our backyard, 25 years ago, and the food still shines in memory.

We gathered last Sunday at 11am in a private dining room at the Wayne Hotel, mingling with the other guests and snagging proffered mimosas and champagne from the circulating wait staff (I was grateful to be served Pellegrino in a wine glass, not the usual clunky tumbler) and eyeing beautifully plated appetizers on a counter. In-laws fretted briefly about certain teenagers getting ahead of themselves by noshing on the apps, but lo–we were invited to partake, even before the ceremony! Caprese bites, smoked salmon, pastries, yogurt parfait with raspberry preserves, duck balls, ricotta cheese bread pudding, pineapple and melon, each one as distinctively pretty as high-end sushi.

Thus satisfied, we were then invited to gather around for the wedding ceremony itself. Sharon in sparkling lace and Rob in a smart gray J. Crew suit stood together beneath a soft cotton chuppah with the rabbi, who explained everything. “The chuppah symbolizes the home Rob and Sharon will have together.” Looking up, she said, “this one looks like it might be from the kitchen.”

“It’s Indian,” said the mother of the bride.

Prayers and blessings ensued, sung in Hebrew and translated, wine was sipped, vows were exchanged, and rings placed on fingers, though the bride’s knuckle, recently sprained at the gym, proved a challenge. We guests stood beaming, aquiver with happiness for these two friends, while they took the leap of faith we call marriage. Then Rob stomped on a wineglass, a ritual variously interpreted as a reminder that even in times of great joy that there is sadness; that although the couple came together as a single union, the world as a whole is broken and needs mending; and that just as the glass is forever changed, so is the couple. At which point we all shouted “Mazeltov!”

A pearly paper scroll lay at each of our places with the words Congratulations Sharon and Rob! running along the edge. Were this a different kind of wedding, one might have expected this scroll to be some kind of souvenir, perhaps a reprint of the wedding vows. But no, it was a menu, and a fine one at that. My Scottish salmon was deliciously strewn with slivers of green grapes, almonds and teeny tiny florets of toasted cauliflower. Bill got the Eggs Benedict, with the poached eggs perfectly jiggly. If you look very closely, you will see that Bill is wearing his wedding tie.

All this time, a flower-bedecked white cake had been perched on the sideboard, so smooth and flawless that, abandoning all I know about Rob and Sharon, I entertained no hope for its taste. I was so wrong. This was a fake cake in what turns out to be a fairly common wedding practice, that of substituting a fondant clad, styrofoam prophylaxis for the real deal and thus, as they say, having one’s cake and eating it too. For the ritual cutting of the cake, the bride and groom sliced into the one real corner of the stand-in, shared a [real] piece, and had their picture taken. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the staff was cutting pieces of a delicious, honest-to-goodness cake with chocolate mousse filling and hazelnut buttercream. The coffee was first rate too. What a great day!

The official photos haven’t come through yet, but here’s an incomplete portrait of the extended family. Not for the first time, Rob is wondering where Sharon’s mother has got to.

Are you ready for Sharon’s fabulous shoes? Like Rob’s new suit (“You are not getting married in pleated pants!”), the shoes were mandated by Rob’s daughter Hadley, she of the blue dress and cocked eyebrow in the top row. Ta na na, ta na na na. She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes.

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Three friends have died within the last six weeks, I think. It could be more. I say this with uncertainty because I’ve only just now stumbled into the news about two of them on Facebook, of all the godforsaken ways to find out, and there’s no way of knowing what else I have missed. The shock of their deaths is compounded by the shock of not having known, and by not having said goodbye.

Willy-nilly, through the tears and regret, I’ve been thinking about the food I shared with these friends–and  how food mirrors life itself. Both are glorious, challenging and diverse beyond measure. Both are ephemeral; here today, gone before you can say itadakimasu.

Carole was mild in manner and coloration, a soft-spoken woman of whom it was wise to assume had the heart of a tiger. I didn’t know her well, or long enough–we met in the crucible that was the Obama campaign of 2008, powering through thousands of phone calls on the strength of a doughnut and a few stale bottles of water–but well enough to recognize in her a radiant being. Her husband had been sick; he was the one we were worried about. The last time I saw her was on a Thursday at Tung Chen Grocery, where she was stocking up on tofu delivered fresh that day along with bahn mi and bánh tro to those who knew it was there. We smiled at our little secret.

Domingo was my landlord for five days in 2008, when he gave us his 9th Street storefront for use as a Get Out The Vote office. There were more than a few degrees of separation between the Dominican businessman and this white lady volunteer from the suburbs, but in that 5-day lifetime we became what I can only call soulmates. It didn’t matter that I never knew much about him, nor he of me; we had trust and a tremendous fondness for each other, and that was enough.

He came running into the office on the Sunday before the election, waving his arms and insisting that I come right that minute to the church down the street. Outside the big red doors of St. Paul’s, a woman was telling the exiting parishioners they would be bad Catholics if they voted Democratic. The priest rolled his eyes discreetly heavenward, and Domingo and I handed out Obama stickers to the grateful crowd. On Election Day, while I was busy wrangling hundreds of volunteers, he caused several dozen pork and turkey sandwiches to appear at the office.

Domingo was a deacon at St. Paul’s, and in the years that followed, he introduced me to the tamale stand that pops up between masses and to the fundraising dinners at the parish hall where for $5 you can load up a plate with pulled pork and beans and corn and tostones and flan and coconut cake. I would make a pie or a batch of cookies and drive over to 9th Street, knowing I would find him there at one of his businesses. The last time I saw him I was canvassing near his house, and he invited me and my friend Jess inside to meet his wife. Jess spoke with her in Spanish, I waved, and Domingo showed us around his gorgeous three-story brownstone that in Manhattan would cost $6 million. There were signs of a recent child’s birthday party–crepe paper, deflating balloons. He sent us off with a slab of cake apiece. He had cancer.

And then there was my friend Doc, a brilliant, audacious man who in August lost his struggle with depression. Doc was guy you could connect with on a lot of dimensions–baseball, Unitarian Universalism, Bruce Springsteen, kids. With me and Doc, it was the Red Sox—not that I know anything about baseball, but I am from Boston and my husband is a fan and that was way more than enough for Doc. He showed up at my door one day with a Red Sox jacket he’d found at Goodwill.

We also shared an interest in John Updike, and thanks to Doc’s initiative we spent an evening in Harrisburg, in the august seats of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, listening to Updike explain why James Buchanan was not the worst president of all time. 

But most of all, with me and Doc, it was food. He wasn’t fussy. As with everything else, if it was fun and with friends, he loved it. Doc learned that I had a knack for sushi, and the next thing I knew he had acquired a sushi-making kit and was clamoring for a shopping list and a guest appearance at his house. This was Doc as I knew him—an enthusiast, grabbing hold of an idea, wrapping his arms tight around it, and charging ahead with a fervent devotion that captivated everyone in his path.

I should have worn a kimono; he would have thought that was fabulous, and launched into a narrative Q&A designed to teach the kids something about Japanese fashion of the Heian period. As it was, there was plenty of discussion about just what constitutes sushi (it’s the vinegared rice, not the raw fish); the architecture of it—either rolled on a membrane of dried seaweed, or shaped in the palm to form quail’s egg-sized balls of rice draped with little quilts of fish; the aesthetics, though we made a pretty big mess of the kitchen; and of course, the eating of it, which was also messy.

I didn’t know then that for me and Doc, that was the last supper. I didn’t know I wouldn’t see Carole again after that Thursday at the market, or Domingo after he wrapped up the birthday cake. One doesn’t, usually. Which is why—as I’m learning so very slowly that I have to admit to resistance—every moment we have together is important. 

I am in many ways a bad friend. I get busy and then neglectful. I take it for granted that there will always be another chance to pick up the phone, but there isn’t, always. I am trying to make up for lost time by renewing some of the relationships I’ve let slide–by making amends, by writing to cousins and college friends, by telling my kids more often than usual that I love them more than I can ever say, and by remembering to give thanks for everyone and everything involved in the process of bringing food to my table. Thank you to the cooks and the farmers, the shoppers, clerks and truck drivers, the rain and the sun, the chickens and the broccoli. And thank you to those with whom I have shared a meal. Itadakimasu, yo.

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Exhibit A: Harpo Marx, Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Ludwig van Beethoven, William Blake, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Woody Allen, Dame Judi Dench, Jay-Z, Bruce Lee, Christopher Plummer and Bette Midler.

Sagittarians are truth-seekers [says astrology.com], and the best way for them to do this is to hit the road, talk to others and get some answers. Knowledge is key to these folks, since it fuels their broad-minded approach to life. The Sagittarian-born are keenly interested in philosophy and religion, and they find that these disciplines aid their internal quest. At the end of the day, what Sagittarius wants most is to know the meaning of life, and to accomplish this while feeling free and easy.

Also, they do not care for the phrase “at the end of the day,” especially when paired with “it is what it is.” They (or at least I, for I am among that blessed cohort) do like their food, much like our astrological ruler Jupiter, King of the Gods. Which is enough of a segue for me to post about some of my dearest, most fervent meaningoflife-seeking friends who also happen to have been born between November 22nd and December 21st.

My friend Rocki, aka Roxanne St. Claire, is the New York Times bestselling author of (this from a literary snob) truly fabulous romantic suspense novels and coming soon–halleluia!–a whole lot more. Rocki and I worked together at Hill and Knowlton (truth: she was my boss) back in the day when there existed such clients as Digital and Quotron. Never has going to work been so much fun. Dressed in our suits, silk blouses and pumps, we’d rope in the clients with our charm and PR genius, and on days when we were both crazed with PMS, we’d stand in front of the candy machine, always in the suits, contemplating our choices (“Twix are good”) as if the fate of a $10 million contract depended on it.

Rocki grew up in family rich in confidence, hilarity and ambition, along with a few, shall we say, food issues. The refrigerator door was packed with bite-sized chocolates whose purpose seemed to be willpower training, since no one, certainly not Rocki, was supposed to eat them. Instead, less caloric items were framed as treats. Imagine the scene–

[parent enters with hands cupped] “Guess what I have for you?!”

[child, excited] “Ooohh, what is it?”

[parent reveals contents of cupped hands] “Parsley!”

Fortunately, she married an Italian who cooks–and looks, I might add–like an angel. Read her books. Any and all of them.

Harriet Goldman is my partner in literary fiction, which is to say we take ourselves rather seriously, shun happy endings and usually don’t get paid. (There are exceptions to that last point, notably our fellow alumna of the Jane Street Workshop, the inimitable Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, who generously gives us all credit in the acknowledgements.) Unlike me, Harriet actually does the work, sitting at her desk, day in and day out, developing characters in idiosyncratic detail, crafting the story lines and giving voice to experience, and as a result she has a novel and an astonishing collection of stories to show for it.

It was not Harriet so much as Harriet’s body that developed a challenging relationship with food. Mysterious rashes appeared. Inexplicable aches. The doctors looked at her askance. Alas, like my gluten-free daughter, she had inadvertently joined the ranks of people who can’t eat certain things, only in Harriet’s case there was no certainty about what those certain things were. It can be tiresome to dine with someone who makes a centerpiece of what they can’t eat, but lovely Harriet maintains a cheerful, adaptive attitude, gracefully threading her way through cocktail parties and dinners out, and finding amusement rather than a badge of gloom in a magazine called Living Without. I can hear her laughing now.

Lucky me, I got to have lunch today with my friend Julie Myers, who is just back from  eight months in Kazakhstan with the Peace Corps. We met two decades ago at a children’s museum on the strength of my purple Converse hightops, her luminous smile and our mutual certainty that the person across the crowded room was somebody we wanted to know. That’s her in the turquoise head scarf on the left, telling about the noodles:

This picture is my favorite; Babushka, Ellie and Mukarem, our 14 year-old sister, and me making spaghetti for lagman, a specialty of the Uighur cuisine.  The noodles are served with a spicy sauce and topped with an assortment of stewed vegetables- peppers, onions, potatoes, sometimes a handful of kidney beans, shredded carrots and lots of garlic.  Served on the side, there’s a delicious ragout of eggplant, peppers and more garlic, which can be added to the mixture.  It’s divine!  I felt honored to be allowed to help make the noodles. Richard would have liked to also, but it was subtly and clearly communicated to him that this was a girl thing.  He stayed for a bit and took pictures, even a video of Babushka’s deft and beautiful hands rolling, stretching, and winding the noodles with amazing grace and dexterity that comes of having repeated an action over and over for many years.

We got together for a Birthday Lunch at a place called Gramma’s in Pottsville, splitting the distance between us with complete disregard for the food. I had an egg and bacon sandwich on toasted white, not that it mattered next to Julie.

My indescribable friend Etsuko Funo is a permanent fixture of this blog, filling the second paragraph of the About page, and a constant, vivid presence in my life despite the barriers of language and 9,800 miles. She lives and works in East Osaka, Japan, rising at 3am every day but Monday to make sandwiches and bake bread and rolls for her shop, Bakery Tombo (it means dragonfly), laughing and joking and working until close at 7pm. At which time she makes dinner for her family. Twenty years ago, we lived in the same apartment building, randomly and overpromisingly called GL Mansion, and Etsuko made me crazy for about a month until I realized I couldn’t live without her. 

She wrote me little notes, half in Japanese, half in English, explaining how long eggs and milk and tofu could be kept in the refrigerator. I wanted to scream, “We have eggs in the United States!” but she only escalated her assault on my helplessness. (My husband and I lost weight at the beginning of our stay in Japan because I had NO CLUE how to put food on the table.) Etsuko started bringing me bags of groceries, an embarrassment of riches. Then she brought full meals–warm, delicious, multi-course–followed by a recipe and the ingredients necessary for me to do it myself. Reciprocity is a guiding principle in Japanese etiquette, and although as Americans we were never going to get it right, it was awkward to be the recipient of so much generosity we couldn’t possibly return. My protests, I soon realized, were in vain. Etsuko was not to be deflected and besides, we needed the eggs.

This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that Etsuko transformed my relationship to food. (She transformed my relationship to Japan itself, but that’s for another day.) She opened the secret door to how Japanese working people eat at home and how the flavors of mirin and fish stock and egg and pork and green onion can be woven together in a million ways to produce comforting and beautiful food. She taught me to make baby food for my kids out of soft rice, seaweed and teeny, tiny fish, and fed them their first chowanmushi and green tea. Those Mondays she had off? She took care of my children and fixed us dinner so I could rest. My son Sam is now 22 (he was 2 1/2 when we left Japan) and he still melts in the presence of good Japanese food–the links between aroma and comfort forged by Etsuko–as if he were coming home.

And then (I can hardly bear the loss, still) there’s the one and only Anne Zevin, the ultimate Sagittarian, though she scoffed at the notion. Avadon took this picture during one of her many lives. Anne drove a lot of people, especially her daughters, completely around the bend, but for me, perhaps because I had the luxury of not being her daughter, she was a treasure and an inspiration. She was a traveler, a collector and a changeling, ravenously curious and interested in learning, with fancies that took her all over the world–to the west coast of Ireland to write a book about St. Patrick; to a Buddhist monastery in Vietnam; to Paris in the winter, because it was cheap and she could afford to stay a month. She was taking a class at Harvard on the Peloponnesian War when she died, and making plans to go to Brittany.

Anne wasn’t a great cook, at least during the thirty years I knew her, but great cooking took place around her. She had the house on Cape Cod where we gathered, and later in Woods Hole, where Harry and I would whip up pies and pastas while Bill and Anne and Leslie and Janie and Howard and Dale and Guillermo and whomever else was around would drink wine and carry on, old jazz on the player or Anne at the piano, belting out Broadway tunes. For Easter, she would make a lamb cake with coconut icing and decorate the table with flowered linens and daffodils in McCoy vases. In the summer, we made castle cakes festooned with shells plucked from the beach, and life was very, very good. I have some of her plates now, and the black and silver pin you can just barely see in this picture taken at her 70th birthday.

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It’s that time of year, when the wisdom spectrum–from deep spiritual practices to greeting-card platitudes–turns in unison to the subject of gratitude. Google it and within 0.19 seconds you will be served up 56 million entries, including several thousand versions of Why Living a Life of Gratitude Can Make You Happy.

I’m not denying the virtue of gratitude. Au contraire: I practice it, recommend it to depressed friends and relatives, even speak about it from the pulpit of my rather lenient church. Gratitude is such an all-round good thing it ought to be a sacrament.

But what about the dark side, when it’s not about something you do, but something you want done to yourself?

Like when, after working all day long, and dashing out to the store to buy shrimp and dark leafy greens and a $4 pint of ice cream, and spending 45 minutes in front of the stove turning it into something tasty and nutritious, and serving it up to your family on pretty plates—and then seven minutes later its gone and so are they and you’re still in the kitchen thinking, “Wait, where’s the gratitude?”

This is why people slam kitchen cabinets.

At my house, the sharing of tasks is still an issue, but I solved the gratitude problem with a jokey little gambit. At the end of the meal, as people are leaving, I point to my cheek to cue the gratitude. And like clockwork, son, daughter, and husband—they each give me a kiss and say, “Thank you for that delicious meal.” Corny, I know, but it works for me.

Sometimes you just can’t come out and ask for it, though. You’re in a public situation, say, and you’ve done something that in your humble opinion calls for a word of thanks. You certainly would offer one if the roles were reversed.

And standing there, you’re actually writing the words in your mind—finishing the other person’s sentence in such a way that it reflects nicely back on you. Silently willing them to say, “Why thank you, Jane. Thank you for being such a wonderful person! Let me clean your house for year as a gesture of appreciation.”

This I have found less successful than cheek pointing.

In fact, it can be unattractive. Not that we would be like this ourselves, but we all know people whose longing for appreciation is palpable. People who listen to others as if they were playing jump rope, listening just long enough to find the point of entry, where they can jump in and turn the conversation around to themselves. People whose stories invariably set them up as the hero.

This is a tiresome quality. We can recognize a hungry heart in the relentless demand for affirmation, but it’s tiresome nonetheless and manipulative. I’m not proud of this, but I have found myself at times resisting these demands. I get tired of it, and stubborn. And also—full disclosure–I’m resisting in part because I’m thinking, well excuse me, but don’t I deserve a little gratitude as well?

Such is life in the land of ingratitude, where everyone is starving for a word of praise and there’s none going around. Here it doesn’t matter what blessings are in your life, because you’re not capable of receiving them.

If by chance you find yourself there, it’s best to recognize the triggers—for me, there’s heartache and a metallic taste in my mouth—and turn your attention to something more productive.

My daughter and I like to use the word pivot. It’s a running joke derived from a Friends episode when the gang is having some difficulty moving a couch up the stairs and Ross is yelling, “PIVOT.”

Most of us, most of the time, are terrific gratitude practitioners, right? But if in the rare instance we find ourselves in that pinched little place—pissed off that nobody appreciates us, grasping for praise like a heat-seeking missile—we should do what Ross says and pivot toward gratitude.

Then we can see the holiness in things we take for granted—like having a couch, and friends to help move it, or a family with whom to eat dinner.

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Koreans do celebrate independence from the Japanese–the holiday is called Gwangbokjeol, meaning “restoration of light”–but we are here in Wyomissing PA and we’re going to talk about Lorna’s multicultural, multi-course, multi-fabulous celebration of American independence.

But first, the Wyomissing Parade, which I rendered like this in a short story:

The parade pulsed along like a loud, cheerful river. There were kids on bicycles decorated with playing cards and silver streamers, motorized and non-motorized floats, wagons with Beanie Babies, antique cars, veterans in uniform and the Portuguese Water Dog contingent, announced to the crowd by a large round sign bearing a Presidential-looking seal: First Dog of the United States. Blue-eyed children sat on the curb with little flags on gold-tipped sticks while their plump parents, holding infants aloft, grinned from matching lawn chairs. Trios of elderly women in welders’ sunglasses clapped their skeletal hands in delight. Husbands in belted shorts stumbled over coolers in the effort to get it all on video while farther along, in a wheelchair, sat a large, beaming Marine.

The Wyomissing Parade is a throwback to what people like to imagine was a shinier, more innocent age when heroes were simply brave and fun wholesome. On this I tend to side with Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris when he says to Adriana, played by the sublime Marion Cotillard, “No, I do not want to go back to La Belle Epoche. They didn’t have antiobiotics.” I don’t want to be a spoil sport–I love the parade–but let’s just remember that in certain matters such as civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights we’re in better shape now than we were in the 1950s. And we have access to better food.

We certainly did at Lorna’s. She is my dear friend and partner in food, the neighbor who alerts me to local Asian treasures such as the  Tung Cheng Grocery and pools her resources with mine for frequent refrigerator feasts. A typical text exchange:

Dinner 2morrow night?
Whatcha got?
Chick breasts & caramel ice cream
Yummm ill bring big salad w/apple
B has lotsa red
Well bring white & Pelly. Time?

And therefrom springs a fabulous and fun meal for four or five or seven, depending on the whereabouts of the children. But the Independence Day dinner was a special occasion, and for it Lorna had done some serious shopping at Assi Plaza, the Korean superstore in North Wales, Pennsylvania. She was doing some serious grilling when we arrived, with shish-kebobs of zucchini, jalapeno, garlic, and crimini mushrooms, slathering the veggies with a sweet/salty bulgogi sauce. Check out the all-garlic sticks! Grilled meat came next–thin sliced beef short ribs and baby back pork rib morsels. Look how delectable this looks with the charred corners and juicy reds and golden browns! Lorna knows how to pack a grill to capacity.

While Lorna was toiling at the grill, the rest of us were leisurely sipping iced mint and jasmine tea, with and without booze. We might have been better served working out at the gym, for what followed was a tummy stretcher, but who cares when it’s so delicious and beautiful. Isn’t it marvelous that that this can be put together in Wyomissing PA in 2011? God Bless America.

Here’s the spread, starting with a medley of Korean sides–kim chee, pickled radish, peppered fresh radish, vinegared cucumber, sliced Asian pear, sesame-laced sprouts, and sauces representing the full hotness spectrum. As an antidote, a cooling bowl of soba noodles, flecked with cilantro and scallions, which Lorna remembers from her early days in Korea–and I from Japan–swimming with ice cubes.

The challenge, as you might imagine, was to wrangle all this onto a plate and then into our eager mouths. Let me just say this: Yes we can. See the beginning of this post for a BEFORE view of my plate and here for the AFTER:

By this time, I was as prone as one can be at a dinner party, which is to say stretched out on a big fat chair. But there was more, and it was my own damn fault–a cherry pie, in honor of G. Washington. This too we managed to enjoy; it’s the least we could do for our country. 

PS. The pie-eating contest, a highlight of the Wyomissing Independence Day celebration, was won by Nate Keller in the 10-to-12-year-old category; Melanie Witman won in the 13-and-older group.

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Our second and third Presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died on July 4, 1826, and 157 years later, so did my Dad, may they all rest in peace. But for the most part, in this neck of the woods at least, Independence Day is a cause for celebration–for the twin birthdays of our nation and my friend Sharon. The weekend was thus a double-header: a grillfest at Rob’s on the 3rd in honor of Sharon, and a grillfest at Lorna’s on Independence Day itself, which is what I prefer to call this holiday, “The Fourth” being way too telegraphic for such a big deal. I made cherry pies for each occasion in honor of George Washington, although I’ve heard that cherry tree story is a myth. Bill put together a riotous bouquet of red, white and blue (and purple and yellow) flowers he planted just so they would bloom this weekend. That’s my guy.

The fires were going strong at Rob’s despite the 90-degree heat. He had brisket in the smoker (above), chicken on the grill, cornbread in the oven and later, a fire pit where we roasted those new mega-marshmallows that are too big for their own good.

My big contribution was to blitz the chickpeas and spices into a smoky picante hummus that paired nicely with Rob’s roasted red pepper tapenade in the dip department.

Carbohydrates? We had a few. There was corn on the cob–picked a few hours before eating–and Rob’s buttery, creamy, bacon-tinged cornbread made in a Paul Bunyan-sized iron skillet. Claudia’s delectable baked beans concealed a hock bone that exuded its fatty goodness from within. Speaking of stealth flavor, I can usually give cole slaw a pass, but Rob snuck sour cream and blue cheese in this one. No, he doesn’t weigh 500 pounds; he works up a pretty good sweat chopping wood and and speeding down the byways on his recumbent bike.

Here you can see the table in all its colorful and savory splendor. Sharon’s watermelon salad is next to the vase (my mouth is watering just thinking about it) with feta, red onion and balsamic to splash it up. Also Larry and Samuel’s deviled eggs, which were yummy despite having four times the recommended mayonnaise.How lucky we are! Almost one billion people are hungry on this earth, and though we may complain about the price of whatever, how fortunate we are to enjoy such abundance–and in the peaceful company of good friends with birthdays. Indeed, there’s so much abundance going on here that I’ll save Lorna’s for a separate post. We’ll pace ourselves.

Isn’t this magical? That’s Sharon, the Goddess of Marshmallows.

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