Tuesday, August 7, 2012

In Which It All Pays Off

In December of 2007, my husband got a text from his boss, desperate for his help on a busy, short-staffed pre-Christmas day. In the restaurant business, during busy season, this is nothing unusual.

But on that snowy afternoon, we were on our first date in three months, a musical theater show that had been a much-anticipated anniversary gift. Chef Matt checked his phone at intermission, gave me a very anxious look, and we left without finishing the show. He went to work, and I cried on the couch after he left.

In the eight years we have been together, anxiety and frustration from moments just like this have never gotten the better of us, but I would be lying if I said it did not occasionally make me wish he was a banker. As uncharitable as it sounds, I found myself screaming in my head: "Please go find a cubicle!"

But in a kitchen-marriage, you have to be in it together on every level, or the restaurant world will eat you alive. And to me that has meant learning to love the new cuisine at whatever new restaurant he was at (I have come to love short ribs and flatbread, cilantro and plantains, fancy foams, game burgers, and Julia Child), finding a lot of last-minute daycare, and most difficult, embracing the unpredictability in a (usually) gracious manner.

Throughout it all, we have whispered about the freedom that would come when he was, one day, in charge at a restaurant. We were under no illusions about a cushy job as executive chef, working fewer and shorter hours, but with Matt at the helm, it would give us greater control of our destiny.

An executive chef title would not erase the long hours or the crazy schedule. But it would be his food, his vision, his management and his pride, and somehow, that might make all the rest a little bit easier.

So for eight years, through six restaurants, hundreds of cookbooks read, and a few heartbreaks, he has slowly inched forward. Yesterday, the door finally swung open and the light of Executive Chef poured in. And I cried again, but this time in relief and pride and joy.

I cannot say that we will never again have to leave a date halfway through, or that we will not power through weeks where we are awake in the same room for a total of four hours, but at least it will be on his terms, and when he comes home late, he will be bearing to-go boxes of his own vision.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Hello, My Name is Mommy

A teacher acquaintance was telling me recently about the Vietnam veterans who speak to her classes, and the vets say that when a soldier was wounded, no matter his age or rank, he would call for his mother.

So many of us, soldiers or not, are drawn to our mothers when we are sick, of body or of heart. From the very beginning, they are our everything; as we get older, we still know that our mothers will be there with a hug and a band-aid, and all will be well. No other person on Earth knows our histories like our mothers do, and that makes them, from the first moment to the last, our most effective, fierce, and comforting line of defense in a difficult world.

The mother mission statement is not so very complex, but the job description is miles long. It all boils down to one essential requirement, though: "Make sure that my child feels loved and secure." They know we will be there to kiss boo-boos, chase monsters, cool fevers, and tuck them back into bed, and we are their favorite person because of it.

Motherhood is a completeness that I did not understand until I joined the ranks. All that assurance of love and safety changes who you are, for in that instant when you go from being a woman to being a mother, you become, to that little person, forever and ever, no matter what, in every moment, without pause: Mommy. To them, there is no other identity.

And I will not lie, being someone's everything can be exhausting. But it is also triumphant. When your newborn baby cannot be comforted by others, and is beside himself with sadness, you can swoop in and lay his head on your chest, and it is like a spell has been adeptly cast over his red-faced, teary, hiccupping little self. You are Mommy, and you can fix anything.

The singular identity lives on far past babyhood. In ninth grade, my mother destroyed her favorite accessory so I could use it in a school project. I was touched, but I did not understand until recently the depth of that gesture. Mothers sacrifice every day, in small and enormous ways, without hesitation or need for payback, because they want us to feel loved and secure. My mother's little sacrifice told me that nothing, no material thing, was more important to her than me.

Remind your mother that she is your everything, even if you are grown-up and independent. We may not need her to chase away monsters anymore, but at one point, we needed her and she was there. And if you are a mother, look at your babies and remind yourself that when they lay down their little heads, they sleep well because they know that you are there. Your Mommy-completeness is their security blanket, and will be for long after the last time you ever tuck them into bed.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

And the Award Goes To... Probably Not One of Us

Next week, the James Beard Foundation will crown as the top chefs in America those who have inspired with their culinary prowess and set a national standard for excellence. To our chagrin, Chef Matt was overlooked once again.

The Beard Award is a Pulitzer. It is prestigious and exclusive and practically a guarantee that your reservations will fill up for the next year. Minnesota has three winners of the Best Chef: Midwest award, and all three of them are incredibly gifted chefs. But to 99.9% of the chef population, all those other creative, tireless, obsessively dedicated cooks, the Beard is eternally elusive.

Not that I am an advocate of every little soccer player getting a trophy. Illustrious awards are illustrious for a reason, and the Beard winners have all done their time. But the shadows of the most influential American chefs are long and deep. Many of the "unsung heroes" of the profession will spend their careers firmly planted in those shadows.

The world of professional cooking is a serf-and-lord hierarchy, where the critics are brutal, the lifestyle is unforgiving, and the chances for advancement and overwhelming success are remote. Reality TV has made chef celebrity seem attainable, raising the hopes of poor, naive foodies everywhere.

People like my husband are part of an army of chefs who do precisely what they are meant to do: cook amazing food that wins no awards but makes people happy. As any musician knows, you cannot just string any old notes together and hope it makes a song. The same principle applies with food, and there are thousands of chefs across the country whose knowledge and talent produces nightly works of art, eliciting that dreamy look of pleasure from their patrons.

Although a Beard medal and the publicity that comes with it would certainly be a game-changer, I honestly think most chefs just like to cook and make people happy. I could be wrong. They could all be laboring in sweltering kitchens twelve hours a day, battling food cost and finicky guests, on the slimmest of slim chances that they will be nominated for the highest culinary honor. Somehow I think that the majority of them just love food, but ask me again when Matt gets his nomination letter.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Farewell to a First House

Dear House,

You have probably noticed that we are leaving soon. I know that, in your 128 years, you have probably seen many families come and go, so we may be just another brief chapter in your long history. You have seen two world wars, the birth of automobiles and a man on the moon; our brief stay in your four walls is perhaps not as monumental, but I can promise you that it has been so important to us.

Moving in, May 2007. Five years and three kids to follow.
We arrived six months into a new marriage, expecting a baby, and looking with so much hope toward our future as a family. Three times we have walked out the front door and returned two days later with a baby. You have surrounded us as we learned to be parents, remembered how to be parents again, and juggled children who suddenly outnumbered us.

You have sheltered us from two feet of snow and 100-degree heat. You looked so lovely in Christmas lights, and probably laughed when our very first Christmas tree toppled over in the middle of the night. You sighed with contentment as we watched the neighborhood from the front porch swing.

We gave you a face lift, one project at a time over five years. As we pack up this last week, it makes us so proud to see your refinished floors, your gleaming kitchen, and your beautiful little yard, and know that we did our very best to make you into the home we always wanted.

And then, of course, were all the meals we ate within your walls. Three baptismal brunches, Sunday night football frozen pizzas, cook-outs with our friends, a handful of elegant suppers on our wedding china, and thousands of meals with our sweet kids, most of which ended up on the floor and in their hair. I learned to make pies in your kitchen, and ate leftovers upstairs while hiding from a mouse I saw downstairs.

If time is actually measured by memories and not days, we have lived a lifetime in these rooms. My heart aches when I think about our daughter's first steps in the kitchen, our son crawling in the new grass out back, and our baby's first "mama" yelled from his crib. We will be moving on to bigger rooms (with, no offense, more closet space), but those rooms will never be able to claim those milestones.

Please do not forget us. This last week will likely be a whirlwind of packing, kid-wrangling, and address-changing, and throughout it we will be both sad and hopeful. Remember that wherever we end up in life, you will always be our first home. We came in as two and are leaving as six, for in five years, you became one of the family.

Thank you, Little House. You are very dear to us.

Love, Your Family

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Nobody Can Eat Fifty Egg(rolls). But We Try.

I am a little disgusted by marathon eaters, as I think many people are. It takes all the joy out of eating a hot dog when you eat 50, with water-logged buns no less, and then throw up afterward.

But I guess that makes me a bit of a hypocrite when you consider that the other night, I plowed through seven egg rolls as my husband and my father battled over who would break the all-time record of ten. My own personal record is nine, which is something that I am embarrassed to be a little proud of.

Because these are not garden-variety egg rolls. They are not Chinese take-out picked up on the way home, or hastily pulled from the freezer. These egg rolls, stuff of family legend, are homemade, hand-rolled, individually fried cocoons of wonderment that practically beg to be eaten by the dozen.

My aunt and uncle encountered the recipe for these egg rolls while they were living in the Southwest and introduced them to us many years ago, when they first moved to Minnesota. Since then, egg-roll night has become a most anticipated eating event, one that moves us to clear our calendars and starve ourselves the rest of the day.

They are in the kitchen for upwards of five hours, cooking pork and chopping water chestnuts, and then rolling and frying dozens (and I do actually mean dozens) of tart, crispy egg rolls that need to be lined up on giant cookie sheets because there are simply so many.

Then we are silent for 20 minutes: eating, refilling, eating. My brother-in-law stood near the food, both for easy access to the rolls and because, he said, you can fit more in when standing up. My father kept meticulous tallies of how many everyone was eating, determined to be the one to make it to eleven. My husband, who was earlier boastful that he would tackle twelve, stopped at ten and could barely move the rest of the night.

Is it worth the indigestion and slight feeling of shame? No question. We enjoy egg-roll night as much for the food itself as we do for the people who come with the egg rolls. There is a great sense of empathy that accompanies several family members who willingly attempt a Cool-Hand-Luke stunt and then lie around in misery afterward. I doubt the hot-dog-eaters enjoy the same type of camraderie with their fellow competitors.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Devil is in the Dip

Hey, Taco Dip. Can you come over here, please? I have something to say to you.

I have a bone to pick with you. You ruin every party where we are both in attendance, and frankly, I have had enough. You sit there, with your layers of guacamole and sour cream and refried beans and salsa, next to a dish of tortilla chips, and project an air of harmless deliciousness.

"I am just a dip," you seem to say. "Dips are innocent. We are just something to casually snack on before the meal. And look, I have tomatoes. Healthy."

Except you are not innocent, and you are certainly not the casual snack you advertise. When you are there, I ignore my children, my diet and my common sense, and stand guard over you with a fistful of Scoops, snarling at anyone else who dares come your way. I do not dip delicately; I must get a bit of every layer, and to do that, I have to dig to the bottom and come out with a chip that suddenly weighs a half a pound.

Just yesterday, I was seduced by Super Bowl Taco Dip, sprinkled with black olives and cheese. By the time I emerged, half the plate of dip was gone, and there was no dog that I could blame. It was all me. I consumed approximately 2,000 calories in 10 minutes, led on by that colorful, savory, evil parfait of taco fixings, neatly layered for my dipping convenience.

So here's what I have to say to you, Taco Dip. You stay away from me, you and your friends Artichoke Dip and Buffalo Chicken Dip and Crab Dip. If you are a dippy appetizer that I could potentially sit and eat with a spoon, no chip or cracker needed, then you stay at your high school graduation parties and do not come anywhere near any of my festivities.

I am too vulnerable, and I just end up hating myself in the morning. The last thing I need is one more Taco Dip hangover; the shame is more than I can bear. Not to mention the looks of disgust from my family members as I plow through more dip than any human being should eat, and then have to go lay rudely on the couch because I am too full to eat an actual meal.

That is all there is. Get out of my life and do not come back. Now please excuse me while I push aside the toothpicks and consume this whole crock pot of meatballs with my bare hands.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Little Pride Goes a Long Way

As a parent, I am forever expressing pride in my children: to them, to my parents, to my coworkers, to anyone who stands still long enough to hear stories of their unmatched brilliance. What I do not do often, and should, is express pride in my husband.

The marital relationship does not necessarily lend itself to the constant stream of glowing acknowledgements that are omnipresent in the child-parent conversation. I praise my kids for assembling puzzles, clearing dinner dishes, and holding a bottle independently, and I feel a surge of pride every time they do these things. I think it would border on patronizing if I praised Chef Matt every time he used his fork at the dinner table.

But even though I do not feel a burst of pride for his every minor accomplishment, I think it is important that he knows I am proud of him, too. All of us need to know that our lives and work are appreciated, and that we give someone cause to boast a little to someone else.

This week, Matt cooked a spread of appetizers for an event at my work. It was small, perhaps 30 people, and held in a museum classroom with little pomp or circumstance. But as he always does when food is involved, he delivered, with care and class and creativity.

He arranged brie and manchego alongside blueberries and golden raisins. He seared and chilled strips of filet, and sandwiched them between crostinis and horseradish cream. He spread spicy cream cheese over homemade crackers, and topped them with roasted peppers and thinly sliced apples.

It was a beautiful spread. He worked with such precision, and projected such professionalism in his chef's whites.

And I was very proud. I could see my colleagues and their guests enjoying and exclaiming and going back for more, and I wanted to walk around to everyone, tap them on the shoulders, and say, "Isn't that delicious? My husband made it."

I am gushing a little here, but honestly, when was the last time someone told you that they were really proud of you? We do not hear it as often as we might have as children, when we were formulating skills and self-esteem. I argue that we need it just as much as adults, that it validates our hard work, which often goes unnoticed, and gives our self-worth a boost.

I charge you all, then, to express pride more often to the people you love who are not your kids. It will make their day. I will start it off: Honey, I am proud of you. You make awesome food.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I'll Give You a Million Dollars if You Eat that Broccoli

Before I became a parent, I had lofty expectations for myself as a mother. Many of said expectations did not simply go out the window; rather, they were tossed hastily at a closed window because I did not have time to open it.

“My children will not watch TV until they are at least two.”  Except that Dora the Explorer is the greatest house-cleaning-time babysitter. “My children will never sleep in bed with us.” Except that at 2:00 a.m., after the baby has been up at 11:00, 12:00 and 1:00, this is the best idea ever. “My children will not be bribed or threatened at the table.” Except that actually happens every single day.

Trying to get my kids to eat is a marathon wrapped in an ulcer. Between the preschooler, who takes 45 minutes to eat two bites of chicken, and the toddler, who shovels with one hand and smears in his hair with the other, I am amazed that they get anything in their bellies at all.

Paranoid visions of sickly children with low iron because they never consumed any green vegetables have driven me to desperate behaviors. If there are any treats in the house, I bribe. “Look, honey, a cookie! Only three more bites of asparagus!” Suddenly, eating those greens is a mission conducted by unrecognizably motivated kids. Cookie is consumed, but then, so are the greens.

Threats I like even less. But (here comes the justification) my sanity is at stake. I threaten bedtime, loss of toys and privileges, calling of Santa Claus, and the one the preschooler hates most: the kitchen timer. Most of the time, they eat, but when I have to follow through with the threats, I think I can confidently say that I am up for Meanest Mommy Ever Award.

I am a different mother than I thought I would be. I did not know how wonderful and challenging it would be. I certainly did not know how something as simple and relaxing as dinnertime could put me so quickly on the road to Crazytown, where I can be rescued only by the un-lofty dangling of cookies and kitchen timers.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Long Live the Dinner Table

A teacher friend of mine told me recently that almost universally, her most well-adjusted students have two things in common: they talk about current events at home, and they eat regular meals around the dinner table.

I can see the logic of both of those, but especially the dinner table. Growing up, we ate dinner at the table just about every night, with conversation and no TV. It was non-negotiable, and I was under the impression that all families ate that way.

This is not to say that those who ate on TV trays in the family room are any less well-adjusted, or that simply shoveling food while in the same proximity as your family members makes you a better human being.

What it does do is open up an opportunity to talk to your loved ones, and in this time of snatched moments between sleep and shower, or quick recaps just before bed, I think we could all use a little more time to converse. If you think about it, when we want to catch up with our friends, what do we generally do? We eat. Sometimes at restaurants, sometimes in our homes, but whatever the setting, we circle up, grab a plate of food, and talk.

The same theory applies at home. Certainly we can still talk while sitting together on the couch, but there is something comfortable about looking across the table at someone, asking about their day between forkfuls. Right now, of course, there is nothing of the idyllic dining room scene that I envision. At our current table, dinner is a forty-five-minute affair with a toddler who likes to watch food swim in his milk and a preschooler who does not actually eat, but rather, chews her cud.

But someday, when Chef Matt is home for dinner more often, and the kids are a little bigger, I hope that we will gather around our worn dining room table and catch up over a hot dish. Even when they are teenagers and do not want to look at me, much less talk to me, at least I can look around that table and see all my favorite people, assuring them that this will make them well-adjusted and someday they will thank me for it.

And since it is likely long overdue ... thanks, Mom and Dad.