Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Year with the Kitchen Widow

Once upon a time, there was a romance, a marriage, a mortgage, and three pregnancies. There were changes in jobs, changes in finances, and changes in the world. Yet there was also a constant, through all the moments of joy and moments of difficulty, and the lives in this relationship were defined by that constant: the kitchen.

I started this blog a year ago this month to address that constant, on my own terms. Kitchens and food have become my roots, whereas before they were, perhaps, like a bed of autumn leaves: visible and noticeable, but not part of any foundation.

The adjustment to a world of food has been a path I have loved and despised. It has brought out the very best in me, and illuminated the very worst. It has brought me closer to my husband emotionally, although it generally keeps us apart physically. It has carried us to the absolute pinnacle of cuisine, in our evening at the French Laundry, and has kept us humble in our financial attachment to pasta with red sauce.

The best food writers will tell you, through their masterful command of the language and the cuisine, that food is profound in its ability to unite, impress, satisfy, nourish and inspire. If these same writers have knowledge of the business, they will likely say the same about being in kitchens, while in the same breath they bemoan the business' tendency to frustrate, demoralize, antagonize and destroy. Both are true. It is finding a balance that tips toward the inspirational that keeps chefs coming back for more.

I have not sought here to be a great food writer; my knowledge of food -- the ingredients, trends and history -- is passable, at best. What I have sought to do is make sense of the world of kitchens that is our gravity, and perhaps stretch my writing muscle while I am at it. I enjoy this outlet and the fact that Chef Matt does not mind that I parade our exploits with food and his job around the digital universe.

We are not the sort of kitchen royalty that makes it into books and television shows; our story is not uncommon enough. But as long as Matt continues to be a chef, and as long as I try to be a writer, I will use this medium to tease out the elements of unity, frustration, satisfaction and destruction that characterize our lives in kitchens. It is who we are, even if it is not fodder for a Lifetime original movie.

Whoever you are out there, thank you for reading. As long as you remain, I will press on.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Third-Trimester Love Letter

Dear Baby,

Very soon, I will have to share you with the rest of the world. For almost nine months, you have been my constant companion, growing in a private little world that only you and I were privy to.

While I will miss your kicks and somersaults within, and the feeling that I am never alone, I cannot wait to see your face. I cannot wait to call you by your name and see the look on your daddy's face and watch the sure-to-be-interesting reactions from your sister and brother.

As selfish as it is, I am also anxious for your arrival simply for the normalcy that will return. Soon, I will not obsess about the next time I will have access to a pickle, or five or six. Soon, I will be able to eat more than the somewhat more "ladylike" portions that I've been consuming lately. And soon, very soon, I will be able to sit on my back porch in the summer sun and eat a hot dog straight off the grill and wash it down with a cold Stella Artois.

These last weeks are the longest, as I struggle to sleep and you struggle to find space, and as we both prepare for your life in the outside world. For me, life will resume a more familiar rhythm, with the added blessings that a newborn brings, but for you, life will transform. You will see things like sunlight and colors and faces, and I wonder what will spiral through your little mind as you process all the newness.

Throughout all these changes, I will be a constant for you. I will look and feel different, and you will adjust to a new way of eating, just as I am adjusting back to an old way, but I promise you will know me, even in this brighter, colder world.

So finish up in there, and when you are ready, come out to meet us. Your family is waiting.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Love, and a Jar of Pickles

Not that anyone will ever ask me for this sort of advice, but if someone were to inquire about my thoughts on the secret to a successful marriage, I would say that the answer lies in a giant jar of pickles.

My last trimester has been an endless battle of wills between me and pickles. I crave them all day and in at least one instance, definitely ate half a jar in one sitting. I am fully aware that the sodium is not good for me or Baby, and I have tried to beat back the desire to eat three or four with every meal. But something enticing about the crunch and the delightfully salty taste has me wearing a path to the fridge several times a day.

As Mother's Day approached, I instructed Chef Matt to forgo flowers or any of the other "usuals" of the holiday. All I wanted was a nice meal out with him and our kids; I did not necessarily need a gift to stress his appreciation of my motherhood. In response, he presented me with a several-gallon jar of enormous pickles a few days before. I laughed and could feel the cravings surge.

When Mother's Day actually arrived, it was a day of epic Kitchen Widowhood for both of us. Matt worked a 12-hour day, and just the right 12 hours to prevent a family meal that was not noodles and red sauce thrown together at the last minute.

As I sat with the kids, eating cold leftovers, I felt selfish and irrational -- what was the benefit for us of my husband missing major holidays with his family, working unexpectedly extended hours, and leaving us minimal hours to nuture our marriage? When he got home, he was equally downtrodden at the pattern of loss of time with his wife and kids. We stared at each other, trying to make sense of the difficulties that sprout from the business that he loves and sometimes bury us in undergrowth.

And then I thought about the jar of pickles and realized that despite the frustrations that come with this business, our marriage is significantly nurtured. The pickles were a gift with far greater value than jewelry or flowers; they demonstrate that despite our limited time together, he makes time to listen and understand. He knows that what I needed or wanted was not an expensive gift but something to ease the last few weeks of a long, exhausting pregnancy.

Last year, I surprised him with a trip to the French Laundry. This year, he surprised me with a giant jar of pickles. I would argue that his gift is more demonstrative of the health of our marriage. A trip to wine country is flashy and extravagant, but the industrial jar of dill pickles is like a homemade greeting card: original, heartfelt, and the product of intimate understanding of what makes someone happy.

Ultimately, Mother's Day is just a day. Long hours are a fact of many people's lives. It is the concerted effort of spouses to make it work, despite roadblocks, that reflect a good marriage, not a meal out on a holiday. Everyone has their own jar of pickles; it is just a matter of recognizing the significance of such a gift when it appears.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Advent of Breakfast Saturdays

Last week, I was sufficiently entranced by the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton to get up at 3:30 a.m. and spend the pre-dawn hours at a British pub, eating an English breakfast buffet and sighing over the amazing millinery in Westminster Abbey.

If it hadn't been for the allure of the buffet, I still would have been up early, but I would have been watching from the comfort of my couch. One of my great weaknesses in the culinary world is breakfast food, and breakfast food in bulk. Not for me the "light breakfast" of juice and coffee, or a solitary English muffin with a smudge of butter. Give me eggs and bacon and potatoes and toast, and maybe a pastry and fruit, and I will show you a meal composed of splendidly matched pieces, delivered in an unpretentious manner, eaten with the promise of a full day ahead.

Breakfast food can be fancy, to be sure. But most of the time, when you venture out for breakfast food, it is served all crowded together on a single plate, scrambled eggs overlapping hashbrowns hiding beneath pancakes. The plates are quick coming out of the kitchen, often accompanied by any manner of simple condiments and a bottomless cup of coffee. Breakfast food is dependably the same, with slight variations depending on preference or region: sweet and savory and plentiful.

But I think what I like best about breakfast food, whether I am having an omelette day or a French toast day, is that it is the most leisurely meal to eat at a restaurant. When do we go out for breakfast? After church on a lazy Sunday. To celebrate Mother's Day or Easter. To enjoy conversation with a friend. I find that I never rush when eating breakfast out; it is a deliberate appointment to start my day with a large plate of comforting food.

It comes as no surprise to me, then, that as Chef Matt and I discussed opportunities for me to have a little time to myself, outside of work and mommy-ing, I chose to start Breakfast Saturdays. One Saturday a month, I go out by myself or with a friend and indulge in a huge plate of foods that I love to slather with jam or ketchup or syrup.

It is a comfort to me that on my mornings "off," I know I can predict what will be on the menu and know that I will love it. Satisfying my hunger with breakfast food is the easy part; for peace of mind and soul, breakfast has taken on a new meaning as the most important meal of the day as I leave the chaos for an hour of quiet with a pair of over-easy eggs and a cinnamon roll.